Thursday, July 25, 2002

After Sept. 11th, there was a lot of noise about "cyberterrorism", and the need to protect the nation's computers with stronger laws against unauthorized access; some of this made it into the PATRIOT act.

And Hollywood thinks that's fine. But they believe that just like al-Qaeda, song-swapping over peer-to-peer file sharing networks also poses an immense threat to the American way of life. And so they want the rules against messing with other peoples' computers to be loosened up just a little bit.

To that end, they've gotten Reps. Berman and Coble (the ranking Democrat and Republican on the House intellectual property subcommittee) to float a bill which would attempt to immunize them from all preexisting state of federal laws for any action they took to disrupt a "publicly accessible peer-to-peer file sharing network". People whose computers were damaged in any way by these activities (including, say, collateral damage from a virus released by the movie studios which went further than intended) would need permission from the United States Attorney General before being even allowed to sue.

How does, Rep. Berman respond to the observation that record sales rose in Napster's heyday, and fell when it was shut down?

P2P piracy does not promote legitimate sales, it replaces them. How do I know? I have some common sense, a grasp of fundamental economics, and a college-age daughter with lots of friends. Frankly, it is galling that creators must even respond to such laughable sophistry.

He knows the Truth --- don't bother him with the facts. And he also knows this:

Currently, copyright owners are unable to use some useful technological tools to deal with P2P piracy because they face potential, if unintended, liability under a variety of state and federal laws.

That's right --- under current law, the entertainment industry is legally liable for the consequences of its actions. Imagine.

Obviously, we need to do something...

(Update: And being men of action, they have indeed introduced the bill. The sections detailing how you have to get permission from the Attorney General to sue Hollywood for damages are particularly amusing. Via Slashdot)

Wednesday, July 24, 2002

More news from Boston: Cardinal Law is still on the job, responding to the challenges of the day.

One stark challenge, he seems to believe, comes from Voice of the Faithful, the activist group that formed in response to the sexual abuse scandals. When the group offered to serve as a vehicle for charitable donations, for Catholics who were no longer comfortable giving to the Cardinal's fund directly, Law proclaimed that Catholic charitable organizations would refuse all such donations, in the words of his spokeswoman, because the plan "does not recognize the role of the archbishop and his responsibility in providing for the various programs and activities of the church" --- or in other words, because it would detract from his own personal authority.

Which came as something of a surprise to Catholic Charities officials, who are in the papers today saying they're happy to accept donations from Voice of the Faithful.

Law, as I said, is still on the job. Despite personal appeals from concerned Catholics, and editorials in both major local newspapers saying he ought to resign, he will not give it up. But he seems determined, in lieu of that, to make it fade into irrelevance.

A Jeff Koons retrospective is opening at my friendly neighborhood Museum of Fine Arts. Koons' oeuvre --- celebrated pieces include replicas of inflatable toy bunny rabbits in precious metals, a life-size white porcelain sculpture of Michael Jackson and his pet chimp (one of three replicas recently went for $5.6 million), and hard core self portraits of the artist and his then-wife, a well known porn star, simultaneously engaged in both their respective professions (the "Made in Heaven" series) --- has been praised for its ability to engage the common man:

... writing in The Village Voice a couple of years ago, Jerry Saltz proclaimed ''Puppy'' - the giant West Highland terrier blanketed in begonias and other flora - ''a masterpiece. ... In some quintessentially Jeffersonian way, `Puppy' renders all who see it equal. It is the rare work of art that laymen can talk about with the same degree of confidence and authority that those in the art world bring to it.''

But the common man doesn't always get it:

Koons tells the MFA cleaning crew, who are reverently dusting Michael Jackson, about the time he found a staff member at another museum using one of his vacuum cleaners as a vacuum cleaner, at which point it ceased to be art. ''The piece is about purity,'' Koons says. ''Everything in it has to be unused.''

Tuesday, July 23, 2002

Some conservatives have attacked Steve Earle for writing a song narrated in the first person by John Walker Lindh, thereby endorsing his views.

Earle has a lot of defenders, not all from the left, but I think Earle's critics have a point. I just question their priorities. Shouldn't they first be going after Bruce Springsteen for his endorsement of the views of mass murderer Charlie Starkweather?

Monday, July 22, 2002

A final thought for the evening:

Dubya has been selling himself lately as an advocate of corporate responsibility, and severe penalties, including criminal prosecution, for improper behavior by executives.

I wonder if his new-found respect for legal checks on corporations has made him reconsider his position on tort reform?

As stock prices settle slowly towards historically normal P/E ratios, collapsing a bit like an overcooked soufflé, bemused observers have to wonder if there's another soufflé about to drop. (Those of us who can afford to be bemused, at any rate; I've been dragging my feet on getting my retirement funds into equities for years, to the deep frustration of my relatives who write books on investment, and a narrow consideration of my short-term results relative to market norms would certainly lead one to believe that sheer bloody-minded indolence has been severely underrated as an investment strategy. But regrettably, past performance is no guarantee of future results).

With that in mind, I've got to wonder what the heck is going on in real estate. Like equities, Boston housing prices have been soaring in recent years (as they have in a lot of other cities), and long-time residents of many neighborhoods who didn't have the foresight to buy some years ago are finding themselves chased out of their homes by rent increases. But lately, not only have rents stabilized, but the market as a whole has taken a peculiar turn.

Historically it's been the norm that (at least after considering the tax benefits), it's cheaper to own than to rent. In Boston nowadays, though, when I look at what's out there and do the math, that's no longer the case; last year, when I was last looking, they were roughly at parity (at least for the condos or apartments in the city that I was looking at), and since then, sale prices have continued to soar, while rents have stagnated or even dropped a little, depending on how you count. (Landlords are signing new leases with a month, or even two, of free rent, a discount which avoids the shame of actually cashing a smaller check, and the horror of renegotiation with current tenants).

So we have sale prices rocketing up, while rents, which can be taken as at least a crude index of underlying value, are going the other way. I've actually had the joy of asking a few real estate brokers about this, and had them roll their eyes and say they don't understand it either --- which means they're either unusually candid, or brushing off an unqualified sale. But one explanation could easily be that residential real estate prices (soaring in many cities around the country) have been another bubble.

Which could get very uncomfortable for families which have counted on their homes as an investment, particularly if they're already suffering the consequences of declines in the equity market...