The blotter: Week ending 19 December 2010

Business

Both the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times have big stories on creativity and innovation this week. The Times magazine carried a three-part package that incredibly, somehow failed to mention Paul Torrence even once. Sadly, there’s no new information in either story — the cultivation of a quiet, observing mind capable of generating divergencies while suspending judgment, alone or in small groups, remains the key to creative thinking and problem solving — although it’s interesting that consultancies and training centers for creativity and innovation are starting to appear.

ESRD

Dialysis Patient Citizens is a dialysis provider industry lobbyist that purports to advocate on behalf of dialysis patients — but refuses to “address matters pertaining to individual patients, caregivers, or dialysis centers.” It has made available its assessment of the Medicare ESRD bundle under the guise of a “patients’ guide.”

Intellectual property

The US Immigration and Customs Enforcement unit of the Department of Homeland Security, acting as the enforcement arm of the entertainment cartel, seized website domains without due process over the Thanksgiving holiday. Popular music websites regularly publish spanking new releases without license — the material is usually leaked by artists, labels, and managers. Ben Sisario, writing for the New York Times, notes that while the industry itself symbiotically uses these websites as “marketing tools and publicity outlets,” the industry’s main lobbyist — the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) — strong arms Homeland Security to take them down. One manager told Sisario, “The industry and my artists don’t have any issues with most of these sites. When you’re trying to get something out, this is where the kids go.” A lawyer representing one of the seized domains said it “might be 30 to 60 days before he would be able to see a seizure order.”

Internet

US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Commissioner Mignon Clyburn has indicated that the FCC’s pending Order containing network neutrality rules may not go far enough. Matthew Lasar, writing for Ars Technica, reports that Clyburn told the Practicing Law Institute that she “still has many questions about the proposal. Clyburn apparently wants to see any network neutrality rules include wireless broadband, not just wired broadband as the proposal is currently framed. Lasar, in another Ars Technica article, cites a letter (.pdf; 47KB) Senator Al Franken (D-Minnesota) wrote to FCC Chair Julius Genachowski. “… I believe that we must keep the internet as it should be: Open and free,” writes Franken. “… I am very worried that the draft Order does not do enough to preserve that openness…. As it it currently written, the draft Order may do more harm than doing nothing at all.”

Jeff Jarvis continues to refine his Bill of Rights in Cyberspace, and he’s off to a really good start:

  • We have the right to connect
  • We have the right to speak freely
  • We have the right to assemble and act
  • Information should be public by default, secret by necessity
  • What is public is a public good
  • All bits are created equal
  • The internet shall be operated openly

And, as usual, Dave Winer has an interesting take on net neutrality, claiming it doesn’t exist, never did, and Amazon’s takedown of WikiLeaks proves it. He’s right, of course. Publishers are at the mercy of internet service and hosting providers terms of service and user agreements. “Most of them give the vendor the right to terminate service at will without any appeal possible,” writes Winer. “That’s not net neutral. Not even close.”

Media

Jay Rosen made five well-thought-out points at the Personal Democracy Forum (Pdf) symposium on WikiLeaks:

  • It takes “the world’s first stateless news organization” to show our news organizations how statist they are.
  • The sources are voting with their leaks. That they go to WikiLeaks rather than the newspapers says something about the papers.
  • The watchdog press died. More viable today is a distributed “eye on power” that includes the old press as one component part.
  • The state has a monopoly on the legal use of force. But it can have no monopoly on the legitimate use of digital “force.”
  • Everything a journalist learns that he cannot tell the public alienates him from that public. WikiLeaks tries to minimize this.

Politics

Listening to the right wing of the political and pundit classes bloviate their opposition over extending US unemployment benefits, one could be led to reasonably assume that unemployment benefits — not structural economic elements and rigged policy — actually cause unemployment. David Sirota, writing for Salon, provides a good analysis of why this myth resonates so closely with the American electorate (Sirota notes that one third of the US citizenry opposes extending unemployment benefits). Sirota thumbs three reasons: The widespread belief that the world is inherently fair, narcissism, and raw fear.

Privacy

The US Sixth District Court of Appeals has ruled (.pdf; 328KB) that the government must have a valid search warrant in order to secretly seize and search email. In other words, email — like other common communication — is protected by the Fourth Amendment. As Kevin Bankston, writing for the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) — who filed an amicus brief (.pdf; 98KB) in the case — notes, “the court found that email users have the same reasonable expectation of privacy in their stored email as they do in their phone calls and postal mail.”

Scott Thurm and Yukari Iwatani Kane, writing for the Wall Street Journal, surveyed 101 smartphone apps and discovered that 56 of the apps examined “transmitted the phone’s unique device ID to other companies without users’ awareness or consent. Forty-seven apps transmitted the phone’s location in some way. Five sent age, gender, and other personal details….” A phone’s device ID — which cannot be blocked, turned off, deleted, or changed — is being used as a sort of super-cookie to track and report on users. Thurm and Kane report that apps on Apple’s iPhone are more blatant offenders than on other platforms but that Google was the biggest data recipient. Apple claims part of its App Store review process is to make sure that apps obtain permission before using information like location, but it’s clear this process can be routed around and a user’s perceived anonymity is anything but. It’s not surprising why this is happening. As an app developer told Thurm and Kane, “… ads targeted by location bring in two to five times as much money as untargeted ads.” The solution is simple: Add a global “don’t track me” option to the device’s operating system’s settings.

Recognizing the self-regulation model has failed, even the US Department of Commerce has proposed an online privacy “Bill of Rights.” The Commerce green paper report (.pdf; 1.0MB) calls for strong national standards for handling customer information and a correction to the law allowing law enforcement agencies to obtain documents on individuals stored on corporate computers without a warrant. Commerce’s report comes hot on the heels of a much more customer-friendly draft privacy report (.pdf; 3.1MB) from the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) calling for a “do not track” option in all web browsers.

Publishing

The Awl, one of the better independent publications on the web since it began two years ago, has risen to prominence on the backs of the freelance writers it doesn’t pay. On 1 January 2011 that changes, as the online publication will begin to pay its writers (and will be hiring a managing editor). But, according to Joe Pompeo, writing for Yahoo!’s Cutline, the Awl won’t be offering it’s writers a traditional payment structure. Instead, writers will participate in a sort of profit-sharing arrangement. “Each month, we plan to lop off some portion of our income and share that money equally among the month’s writers,” Awl co-founder Choire Sicha told Pompeo. “Paying writers has been a top priority since Day One.” The upside, as Sicha tells Pompeo, is that the payment model “doesn’t reward pageview-hustling.” The downside is that the Awl is asking its writers to continue to subsidize the risk of the publication.

The 153-year-old Atlantic magazine is on pace to earn a US$1.8 million profit this year after a decade of losses. How did it happen? The magazine set out to cannibalize itself by rethinking just what business it was in. Here’s a hint: A magazine doesn’t necessarily involve printing presses, fulfillment houses, and the postal service. For the Atlantic, in particular, in meant tearing down the publication’s online paywall and eliminating separations between the print and online staffs on both the editorial and business sides of the business. Size also matters, according to Jeremy W. Peters, writing for the New York Times. With a circulation of 470,000 and 100 employees, the Atlantic is minuscule compared to enormous enterprises like Conde Nast. “A scale that small means that a few million dollars could push the company over the top — an amount that would barely register on the balance sheets of many other publishers,” writes Peters, with an almost discernable lip curl of disdain. Peters reports that about half of the Atlantic‘s US$32.2 million in revenue comes from advertising, and an eyeopening US$6.1 million of that — a whopping 40 percent — comes from online advertising.

Sustainability

Remember a couple of years ago when the bee population was severely threatened and entire colonies were decimated, without explanation? Well, the problem was never resolved and, not surprisingly, never went away. US beekeepers are recording record low honey production with many colonies not likely to make it through the winter. Clothianidin, a pesticide created by Bayer for use on corn could be responsible. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) knew the pesticide was toxic but allowed its release in 2003 anyway. Ariel Schwartz, writing for Fast Company, has been on top of the issue. “The bee-toxic pesticide problem can be traced back to 1994, when the first neonicotinoid pesticide (Imidacloprid) was released,” reports Schwartz. “Neonicotinoids like imidacloprid and clothianidin disrupt the central nervous system of pest insects, and are supposed to be relatively non-toxic to other animals. But there’s a problem: The neonicotinoids coat plant seeds, releasing insecticides permanently into the plant. The toxins are then released in pollen and nectar — where they may cause bees to become disoriented and die.”

Technology

Gary Chapman, who was Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility‘s (CPSR) executive director, died while on a Guatemalan kayaking trip.

User experience

Sara Wachter-Boettcher has a pretty good overview of a nuts-and-bolts approach to content strategy in the real world. It’s written from an agency point of view but the bulk of the article is applicable by practitioners as well. “Time. Technology. Budget. Commitment,” writes Wachter-Boettcher. “If you don’t have all four (and know exactly how much of each you have), your content strategy doesn’t stand a chance of actually being implemented.”

With at least 10 operating systems and at least 15 browsers how do you begin to make your websites mobile compatible? That’s the question Peter-Paul Koch tries to answer in “Smartphone Browser Landscape” for A List Apart. Koch advises focusing on smartphones, which he defines as “… a phone that runs a recognizable OS on which the user can install applications,” and ignoring feature phones. Koch goes on to warn against focusing solely on Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android.

Angela Colter, writing for A List Apart, explores usability testing for website content. Reminding us that 50 percent of the population have low literacy skills and that reading involves the simultaneous decoding and comprehension of text, Colter references the age-old readability formulas that have been productized into software and wisely advises against relying on them. Instead have users apply what they’ve read by conducting a moderated usability test, an unmoderated usability test, or a Cloze test.

Jeffrey Zeldman’s “Style verus design” is getting a lot of (much-deserved) attention. As a old, Zeldman calls out the youngs for mistaking style for design. “Design communicates on every level. It tells you where you are, cues you to what you can do, and facilitates the doing,” writes Zeldman. “Style is tautological; it communicates stylishness. In visual terms, style is an aspect of design; in commercial terms, style can communicate brand attributes.” Highest recommendation.

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