Computer Chronicles: Internet

Who says online users are a bunch of anti-social geeks?

That’s the Icon Byte Bar in San Francisco, one of the first six or eight “electronic cafes” to open in the mid 1990s, according to And this is another episode of the PBS program Computer Chronicles, where today we’re talking about the Internet.

First off, John Markoff explains how “electronic mail” works, and lands some sweet brags in the process. Like, for example, here’s an email he just got from Steve Jobs. And oh yeah, when you’re in his position, you might need some fancy filtering tools, what with getting hundreds or even thousands of electronic mails a day.

Next we get a look at AnArchie, and a tool for browsing USENET. Also a discussion on security. “I’d be careful putting my password on the ‘Net, I’d pick a password that’s a safe password, and I wouldn’t put my credit card up until there’s security software that will protect the credit card.”

Next we talk to Severe Tire Damage, a group of weekend musicians with day jobs at Xerox, Apple, and Digital Equipment, who “upstaged the Rolling Stones by transmitting their own performance over the Internet” in November 1994.

“I think what we did was a kind of piracy, like in the early days of people flying airplanes, where you land in some farmer’s field ‘cos you had no place else to go, and it was okay because there weren’t very many airplanes around. There aren’t very many people now who can use the Internet in this way. And so anything goes for now, ‘cos we’re still explorers exploring brand new space and there’s very very few of us.”

Compuserve’s Charla Beaverson demos her company’s service, navigating through USENET and some selected popular FTP sites, like Book Stacks Unlimited. “We can go here and download entire copies of books!” Our host prods, “Assuming it’s public domain stuff—”

Ms. Beaverson assures him, “That’s correct.”

“Right now we’re looking at a copy of Air Mosaic.” We’re looking at the Pizza Hut homepage.

Next we get a tour of the Whole Earth Catalog’s business operations on the ‘Net. “We are as gods and might as well get good at it,” Stewart Brand reminds us. “To offer those electronic transactions, the Catalog’s web service provider had to supply a new level of security using data encryption.” The WELL’s Mark Graham explains: “What we’re seeing now is the integration of this encryption technology with the software people use to access the networks.”

Up next: activism online! Congressional scorecards for environmental policy. Wonder if we’ll ever hear from that Dodd fellow again.

But what if you want to make your own site? Good news: the San Francisco Digital Media Center offers classes for anybody who wants to tell their story online. “In our classes, we’re discussing what the aesthetics of interactivity are. … There is a very complex artistic question to be solved by the people working in this field, and all of it is so new.”

For those of you outside of San Francisco, this man will teach you how to use HoTMetaL.

“Alright, that’s our look at the Internet—in fact, just a glance at the tip of the cyberspace iceberg.” Thanks, Stewart Cheifet!

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Misogyny on Mars

Even though The Martian was only officially released last year, I felt like it sat in my to-read pile for way too long before I finally got to it this week. And while I really enjoyed the book, I was disappointed by the lonely protagonist’s occasional sexist comments, which were unnecessary, a little cheap, and (one hopes) out of place in an era where humans are making repeat visits to Mars.


Note: This post is mostly spoiler-free, unless you have no idea what the book is about at all and want to preserve that complete innocence. Basically, everything in here is the background you’d get in the one sentence synopsis: Mark Watney gets left for dead on Mars and he and NASA spend the book trying to figure out how to get him back.

What sorts of comments caught my attention? Among others: at one point he disparages a committee conducting an investigation by telling another NASA employee that “each and every one of their mothers is a prostitute.” He refers to his mission’s chief computer scientist as “a hot chick who went to Mars.” Perhaps worst, he uses the word “rape” to describe intrusive modifications he had to make to a spacecraft.

That sucks. It sucks because it’s a distraction from the gripping story, because it makes Watney seem like more of an insensitive oaf than a likable smart-ass, and because it suggests a cynicism about science work remaining uninviting.

But mostly, it sucks because The Martian is an engaging story of space exploration that could spark a desire in young people to pursue interests in STEM. Unfortunately, these offhand remarks also sends the message that half of those young readers will be less welcome if they do so.

And for a novel so widely praised for its ingenuity and attention to detail, it seems like a weird example of lazy character development. An interview response from author Andy Weir doesn’t do much to assuage that concern:

It was a really easy book to write; I just had him say what I would say.

When The Martian was self-published in 2011—and even when it was released by a publisher in early 2014—these concerns may have been off people’s radar. A lot of that changed in late 2014, when the excellent Rose Eveleth1 started a global conversation about women in STEM when she called out the inappropriate sexist shirt one scientist wore to celebrate landing a spacecraft on a comet.

Matt Taylor’s shirt wasn’t intended to send any larger message, just as Mark Watney’s comments are surely “just a joke.” And it’s true, that scientist’s shirt doesn’t define him any more than a few lines of dialogue define a character over the course of 370 pages. But in both cases, it projects an air of hostility and unwelcomeness to women in a field that has historically excluded them.

I hope this is an arena where we’re making progress. I hope the issues that Eveleth highlighted are getting better—and I hope they’re getting better fast enough that the real 17th person on Mars doesn’t think in sexist terms about his colleagues and crew. In that optimistic worldview, Watney’s comments feel weirdly anachronistic.

But there’s also a degree of self-fulfilling prophecy, and this kind of dialogue from a generally likable character doesn’t help the cause. With The Martian as a best-seller, and its movie adaptation coming out later this year, it is one of the most prominent public representations of space exploration out there right now. It’s disappointing that, despite placing women in powerful mission roles, it perpetuates stereotypes of misogyny and sexism in space.

  1. Did you read her article on futurism’s lack of women? Go do that, I’ll wait. []

Dropping docs on Jacob the painting police horse

Muckrock has written an article on Jacob, the painting police horse of St. Petersburg, Florida, based on documents I obtained through a public records request to the local police in April. There’s no scandal here, but it’s fun to read about a city so smitten with their talented equestrian officers.

Perhaps my favorite missive comes from Kevin King in the Mayor’s Office, who writes:


The painting police horse is rivaling Dali in terms of popularity in St. Pete right now.

Can your office work with Yolanda Fernandez in Police on harnessing this situation?

FYI – the most recent request came from Larry Biddle w Arts Xchange who would like the horse for a fundraiser (I believe)….

But they’re pretty much all like that. Many more clips over at Muckrock.

One small note: alongside the Jacob request, I filed one on info about the trademark applications on another celebrity police horse in St. Petersburg—Amos the Wonder Horse—and came up empty handed. That’s a bit strange, considering the trademark was filed in January—it was just published for review a month ago—but you’ve gotta pick your battles.

Misinformation works

Three years ago, in the wake of the SOPA blackouts, the RIAA chairman and CEO Cary Sherman penned a strange sour grapes op-ed in the New York Times. He claimed that the overwhelmingly popular position against the proposal was based on lies, that “neutral” sites like Google and Wikipedia were violating their integrity by taking a stance at all, and most tellingly, that “misinformation may be a dirty trick, but it works.”

He would know!

In any case, there’s now a single-serving site dedicated to preserving that message. Take it from the RIAA:


Taylor Swift and Garth Brooks each took on their generation’s music bogeyman

The music business tends to repeat itself. Conversations that seem completely intertwined with new technologies mirror those over earlier developments. Read Adrian John’s Piracy, for example, and see how closely the file-sharing debate followed the one about sheet music a century earlier.

Even with that background, the parallels between Taylor Swift’s widely discussed comments about Apple Music earlier this year and Garth Brooks’ outspoken stance on used CD sales are striking. It’s hard to argue with Swift—she is, after all, a shrewd businesswoman, and who knows what the future holds—but the fact that Brooks’ fears proved so unfounded take some of the winds out of her sails. We may be at the end of history, and today’s problems might be totally unlike the ones we faced before, but probably not.

Here’s an excerpt of what Swift said about Apple’s free trial:

I’m sure you are aware that Apple Music will be offering a free 3 month trial to anyone who signs up for the service. I’m not sure you know that Apple Music will not be paying writers, producers, or artists for those three months. I find it to be shocking, disappointing, and completely unlike this historically progressive and generous company.

This is not about me. Thankfully I am on my fifth album and can support myself, my band, crew, and entire management team by playing live shows. This is about the new artist or band that has just released their first single and will not be paid for its success. This is about the young songwriter who just got his or her first cut and thought that the royalties from that would get them out of debt. This is about the producer who works tirelessly to innovate and create, just like the innovators and creators at Apple are pioneering in their field…but will not get paid for a quarter of a year’s worth of plays on his or her songs.

And here’s a journalist from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer paraphrasing Brooks’ comments at his sold-out arena concert, a few months after announcing he would only be selling his new record at stores that did not carry used CDs.

Brooks said that because no royalties are paid on the sale of used CDs, writers, labels, publishers and artists were being cheated. He said he would only supply chains that sell used CDs with his cassettes, and hinted that he might be working on another “format” to thwart such sales.

Brooks said he does not need any money, but lesser-known artists could suffer if secondhand CD sales take off. If used CD sales were to go into massive retail, he said, it would severely affect people in the recording industry, creating a sales loop that would profit only stores but not the creators, publishers and artists.

CD retailers, meanwhile, have argued that the cost of new CDs is too high for young buyers, and that selling used CDs exposes an artist’s music to different audiences.

For both Swift and Brooks—each among the best-selling acts of their generation—an emerging marketplace that makes music more accessible—but less well-compensated—was worth speaking out about. They both note that it’s not about them, but about the principle, and that the unpaid exposure would hurt new musicians. Both point to the middleman’s profits as an obvious evil.

To my mind, both artists are mistaken about the value of exposure and discoverability. Tim O’Reilly’s observation that obscurity is a greater threat to the emerging artist than piracy remains true; it’s also true that obscurity is a greater threat than used record sales, free trials, and most everything else.

But on the other counts, too, Garth Brooks was wrong. Used CD sales didn’t undermine the music industry and they didn’t keep new artists from finding audiences.

We know this because his plan to sell only through certain CD stores failed, amidst anti-trust investigations into his record label.

Taylor Swift was, at least narrowly, right. Apple Music should’ve been paying royalties for its free trials all along. But elsewhere, her skepticism about streaming and business models that include “free” might not be well placed. Unfortunately, because music licensing in this space is fundamentally more of a permissions culture than selling plastic disks was, we may never find out.

Update: This post has been re-published on Techdirt. Thanks, Mike!