Archive for March, 2009

Thoughts on Music

The in-depth and devoted study of music is perceived by many as either fluff or irrelevant to today’s education and world. It is neither. Archeological excavations have discovered various musical instruments that predate historical society, and every human culture, without exception, has some form of musical expression. Music, in particular classical music, is a discipline based entirely upon rigorously applied mathematics, requiring intellectual and physical abilities developed over a period of years. Music has been a key element in culture and politics for at least 50,000 years, and cultural musical achievements are inseparable from a culture’s political, economic, and even military power.

Yet, even today, some politicians and educators question the value of music as a subject of educational study, assigning higher priorities to everything from driver education and athletics. After all, with American Idol, the message is that anyone can sing. With such skepticism and ignorance about the disciplined study of music, one must ask the basic question: Is music important to a culture, and if so, why, and to what degree?

The music enjoyed, played, and composed by a culture defines the soul of that society, and how music is taught in that culture, and to whom, not only illustrates the strengths and weaknesses of its education system, but foreshadows the fate of that education system — and of the society itself.

Aristotle called music the keystone of education. In practical terms, more than any other single discipline, music improves intellectual functioning, emotional intelligence, and understanding of and ability to integrate multiple intellectual and physical activities. PET brain imaging studies show that sight-reading and performing engages more areas of the brain than any other activity.

As noted by a number of scholarly presentations over the past decade, music increases emotional intelligence, and as pointed out by the neurobiologist A.A. Anastasio [Decartes’ Error], intelligence devoid of emotional content is an impaired and reduced intelligence. It is not exactly happenstance that Thomas Jefferson and Albert Einstein were both violinists, or that a high percentage of physicians have musical talents and abilities.

Ensemble musical performances also require cooperation and coordination under time pressure. This is a useful skill in a society that exalts individual success at any cost, particularly since we live in a complex society that rests on cooperation. One has only to look a various third-world societies or Middle Eastern cultures — or even western situations such as Northern Ireland or Basque Spain — to see the devastating impact of societal divisiveness.

Although it is scarcely politically correct to declare so publicly, all music is not equal, either within a society, or in comparing music from different societies. Because almost every human being can do something that can be called music, all too many humans equate what they like with excellence. Such popular personal taste does not necessarily recognize or reward technical expertise and genius. As in many fields, understanding and appreciating excellence in music takes education and talent.

In terms of the larger implications for American society, all too often overlooked and obvious is the fact that for the past 600 years western European music has been the most advanced, most technologically diverse, and most multifaceted… and that western European culture dominates the world — politically and in terms of economic and military power — and has ever since its music developed in its present form. The only cultures that have been able to challenge western-European-derived ones economically, politically, and militarily are those that have adopted — if by adapting — western European music.

Music is indeed complex. Like all of the most worthwhile disciplines, it requires study, long hours of practice, and is expensive to teach. But… as in all matters, what is cheap and popular does not survive. In that sense, it is far too expensive for the future for universities, especially state universities, NOT to teach music. Americans live in a nation that is increasingly polarized by two opposing straight-line, single-value camps of thought. Americans also live in a nation whose popular music has been degenerating technically and compositionally as this polarization has increased. This is scarcely coincidence or mere happenstance correlation.

Likewise, music teaches its students how to handle multiply faceted values and inputs, a skill more and more valuable in a complex and multifaceted world. Because music does increase intellectual and practical abilities, eliminating and/or reducing the study of music at state schools is another critical factor in effectively limiting, if not destroying, the position of the United States as the principal dominant society of the world.

That is because music will only be taught at elite state and private universities, and, when taught at other schools, educators are increasingly pressured to simplify and dumb-down the curriculum, because true musical education on the collegiate level is anything but easy, and difficult courses are less popular and have lower enrollments. This combination of exclusivity and content degradation will only help to increase the division between the privileged and the rest of the population at a time when the economic gap between these groups is already increasing. In addition, it will contribute to other trends already reducing the proportion of the population with the range of skills necessary to analyze, manage, and innovate in a complex world society.

Our Cheating Credentialed Society

From all the articles and cases, there’s clearly a problem in U.S. schools with cheating, and another one with grade inflation. There’s also a problem with too many students not mastering skills. All three problems are linked to a single societal perceptual problem — the false equation of credentials with skills.

In music, for example, mastery of an instrument or the voice is not demonstrated by how fast a musician can get through the piece, nor how many works can be quickly learned, nor by a piece of paper that says the student has a B.M., M.M., or D.M.A. Mastery is singing or playing on key, in tempo, with flawless tone and/or diction, and precise emotional expression.

In recent years, time after time, various studies have trotted out statistics to show that people with degrees make more money than those without degrees. Seldom, if ever, has anyone addressed first, what the studies actually show, and second, their actual applicability to life. The initial studies reflected the difference in earnings between those with a college degree and those without one. And the key term remains “degree.” Once upon a time, a degree signified a mastery of a certain set of skills, and the degree was the certification of those skills. Today, a degree is viewed by students and society alike as either a passport to a better job or the credential to another degree which is a passport to an even better job. The emphasis is on the credential, not on the process of education, not on learning the skills necessary to do the job. Given this emphasis the symbols of success — the grades, the honors, the degrees — is it any wonder that students — and their parents — cheat?

Those teachers who try to emphasize the need to learn fundamentals well, to master skills, and who grade rigorously, are overwhelmed by a society that wants quick results and easy-to-verify credentials and that has lost its understanding of the true basics. The “answer” to a test is only a small part of the learning process. The idea behind learning is to gain the abilities and understanding necessary to find answers on one’s own, especially in new and different situations. This emphasis is being lost behind the demands for testing and accountability.

Students are far from stupid. They see that only the result matters in most cases. The answer obtained on-line or through cheating, if done successfully, counts as much as the one sweated out the hard way. The well-publicized Kansas case of several years ago was not an exception, but far more common than most politicians and school boards want to admit. Just talk to the teachers — well off the record.

This emphasis on the credential, rather than the skills, is everywhere. High school students want to get into the prestigious college so that they can get the good grades there in order to get into the prestigious graduate school in order to get the best job/highest compensation. More and more money and effort are being poured into testing students as to what they are learning. Here, again, we run the risk of focusing on “credentials” — the good test score. Tests like the SAT and the ACT, the GRE, the LSAT, the MEDCAT all purport to measure two things — a certain level of knowledge and the ability to recall that knowledge in a short period of time. Individuals who know their subject matter in great depth, but do not recall the material either swiftly or under time pressure will score less well than those with lesser knowledge but greater test-taking skills.

While there are certain occupations where time is of the essence, and one must act in seconds or minutes — most high-level occupations don’t — and shouldn’t — require such haste. Most occupations are those where a thoughtful complete mastery of the subject and skills is far more preferable to incomplete knowledge and speed. We don’t need an architect who can design a building quickly; we need one who designs it well and safely. We don’t need medical researchers who experiment quickly, but ones who do so thoughtfully and thoroughly. We don’t need financial analysts who can design new financial instruments that magnify credit and the money supply nearly instantly — and then crash and plunge us into financial and economic chaos, but analysts and “quants” who fully understand the ramifications of their work and who can also explain it clearly and concisely… and who will.

There is an old proverb that seems to have been forgotten in our desire for easy credentials, quick measurements, and instant gratification: Haste makes waste.

Never before was this more applicable than in education today. “Accountability” and all the other buzzwords being used are in danger of creating an even greater charade in education than the present sad situation. Universities tout the percentage of their faculty with a Ph.D. Can all those highly degreed professors actually teach? How many actually do? Which ones are effective? Is there any serious effort to evaluate whether candidate A with a masters degree is actually a better and more effective teacher than candidate B with a Ph.D. or candidate C with a mere bachelors degree, but with twenty years practical experience?

A number of studies and articles have also appeared recently suggesting that student evaluations of professors at universities have become both omnipresent and are focused more on the grades that the professors give than upon their teaching effectiveness. That is, in general, the more high grades a professor gives, the better the student evaluation. Once more, both the students and the administrations which rely on such evaluations are focusing on the “credential,” the grade given by students largely ignorant of the requirements of the discipline they are learning, rather than on the process of learning and the skills attained by the students. Yet when such elite schools as Harvard set the example by giving half the student body As in all courses, it becomes increasing difficult for others to go against the example. In the state of Utah, the governor and the legislature have been pressing the universities to graduate students more quickly so that they can get into the work force more quickly, and presumably pay taxes more quickly. Yet, even as the number of students swells, the resources available on a per student basis decrease, and the buzz-word “efficiency” gets bandied around wildly, as if the only important measure is how quickly students get a piece of paper in hand — a credential.

All of these examples have one factor in common — the failure to understand that education is a process, and that mastery of the skills involved is what leads to eventual long-term success for the student — not merely a credential that, without the skills mastery that it is supposed to represent, means little. Most Americans understand that a basketball or football coach cannot merely have a players attend three practices a week for nine months for four years, give them high grades without rigorous examinations, and then graduate them all to a professional sport, saying that they are all equivalent. Yet, in many ways this is exactly what the American public is asking of its undergraduate colleges and universities.

Unfortunately, the problem doesn’t end with graduation. It goes on. Credentials take the place of judgment in the business and academic hiring world. The recommendations of the highly credentialed analysts at the Wall Street brokerage houses were accepted unquestioningly in the cases of Enron, Tyco, Global Crossings, and all the other high-level corporate disasters. So were those of the accountants at Arthur Anderson, AIG, Lehman Brothers, and innumerable banks. Everyone focused on “credentials” — reported profits — rather than on the process of the businesses at hand. Instead, the financial world went on focusing on paper credentials, just as the education world seems prepared to do.

Credentials have become more and more divorced from the abilities and results they were once supposed to measure and have in fact become almost a substitute for ability and accomplishment, yet so long as this continues, we as a society will continue to pay the high price for that practice.

The Illusion of Permanence

A week or so ago, a number of Facebook users got extremely irritated when Facebook tried to change its terms of service to claim the rights of all content posted there in perpetuity. On the surface, that seems to be a bit extreme and might warrant an outcry.

Except… is anything electronic and on the web really permanent? Just look at how fast sites change. Exactly where is the record of what was there yesterday… or last week… let alone last month or last year?

I got to thinking about this for the latest time when I considered my Boeing Graph program. It was a wonderful graphing tool back when I was doing computer graphics for various businesses. It still might be, except that I never bothered to convert the 5 1/2 inch floppies into another format, and I haven’t had a computer with that capability for years, nor have I seen a version of it for sale in an updated format. In fact, I still use 3 inch disks, and I’ve been informed that they’re nearly obsolete. And I’m still using Word 7.0 to write books, because it will also access all the older WordPerfect files so that I don’t have to convert some twenty years of writing and notes. And besides, it doesn’t require as much use of the mouse, which is an advantage for someone who likes the keyboard. Yes, I know, I could program or learn all the alternative keystrokes for the current version of Word, at least until there’s another newer and improved version. But it’s not just me. There’s all sorts of NASA data that’s virtually lost because the electronic systems have changed and because no one thought to convert it — or perhaps they didn’t have the budget to do so.

That’s the thing about paper. We still have books that are hundreds of years old. They may be fragile, but just how much of all the electronic data we’re archiving right now is really going to be accessible in a decade or two, let alone a century? My wife has pointed out that all the old letters in her grandmother’s trunk were priceless. They showed how people thought and felt. Somehow, I don’t see my grandchildren being able to even find my emails. More than a few times, I’ve been able to go back and dig out data from my old consulting reports — those that I was smart enough to print out. I’d be surprised if much of that data exists anywhere else.

And, by the way, there are a few institutions and even one religion that keep revising their tenets. You can see this when you compare print versions, but such comparisons get harder and harder when everything’s electronic.

I haven’t mentioned the problem of servers and their impermanence, either. Or electronic worms and viruses. The old-fashioned book worms took months, if not years, to destroy a single book. The electronic variety can wipe out entire databases in instants. Something like ten years ago, a movie called The Net came out, and it showed exactly what could happen in a society with too great a reliance on electronic systems and too few safeguards. Certainly, there are greater safeguards today than people envisioned back then, but think about the President’s proposal to set up universal electronic medical records. Yes, those records can be accessed from anywhere, but that also means they can be altered or destroyed from anywhere. With paper records in each hospital, someone intent on destroying large amounts of records would have to visit every hospital. Not so once everything’s electronic.

The most obvious price for easier electronic access and convenience is potentially greater vulnerability. There’s also another price, and that’s mandatory standardization, because standardization also increases vulnerability.

It’s certainly a lot more convenient to manipulate electronic text, and it’s been a boon to all of those of us who write, but I would note that all my contracts with my publisher specify that I’m supposed to keep a “hard” copy of every book… just in case.

What will happen if we end up going to E-books, because paperbacks and hardcovers are too expensive?

We can still read Sumerian, Babylonian, Hittite, and Egyptian texts thousands of years old, especially those inscribed on clay. I have my doubts about the survival of much current and future “literature” disseminated as electrons on a screen, but then, given where entertainment is headed, that might just be a blessing.

Taxes and Taxes

Over the years, various commentators have made various tax comparisons between the United States and European countries on the amount of taxes that are paid, or the tax rates that are paid. Unfortunately, most of the comparisons are anything but “apples to apples” comparisons. For example, regardless of what the various tables say, U.S. tax rates on personally earned income range effectively from 0% to somewhere above 50%. A self-employed person who lives totally on cash, with an income below $20,000, who doesn’t report income can often get away with paying no taxes [yes, I know it’s illegal, but it still happens]. On the other hand, an individual who makes, say, $450,000 in salary and lives in New York City might easily pay more than 40% in taxes and have a marginal tax rate of close to 60% when one includes FICA, state and local income taxes. And those rates are actually higher than those in many European countries that Americans consider “high tax.”

How does this happen? First, because the United States is a federal representative republic, the states can levy income taxes, and in some states, such as New York and Maryland, so can local jurisdictions. That means as much as 8% – 10% on top of federal income taxes. Add to that FICA, which can amount to 17% on approximately the first $100,000 of income earned by self-employed individuals [which averages out to more than an additional 4% on $400,000 of income].

Then add property taxes and sales taxes on top of those.

Canada has provincial taxes, but from what I’ve been able to dig up, most European countries don’t have the equivalent of state taxes, but a number do have the equivalent of FICA/Medicare taxes. Some include that in the individual income tax rate. On the other hand, in places like France, they also have occupation taxes [paid whether you own or rent property] and “wealth taxes” based on net worth, which are also paid annually.

According to an Australian study, Australia has the highest rates for high earners, but the USA isn’t all that far behind if you factor in state taxes [unless you live in one of the few U.S. states that doesn’t have an income tax].

At the same time, the United States now has the highest tax rates in the world on corporate income, not that many corporations are likely to be paying much of it after deducting last year’s losses.

All told, there doesn’t seem to be that much difference between those so-called high foreign tax countries and the United States, not in terms of the tax rates. What the taxes are spent on, though, is another question, and one that would take far more space and time than I have at the moment.

The Name of the Game Is… Over-Reaction

For months all the major stock exchange indices have been plummeting… until the past few days. So have been employment numbers, and the unemployment rate is higher than it has been in 25 years. In the publishing field, not all that large to begin with, more than a 1,000 jobs have vanished in the last few months. So have at least half a dozen “name” imprints, as well as one of the major wholesale distributors. The second largest retail book chain — Borders — is teetering on the brink of financial and sales disaster. Some of the larger newspapers across the country have either closed — like Denver’s Rocky Mountain News — or are threatening to do so.

And everyone seems to be speculating on just how bad things will “really” get. Will the drop in stock prices rival the percentage decline of the Great Depression? Will oil prices get so low that oil companies will stop drilling? Will and should General Motors go bankrupt? What about Citicorp? Will publishers stop buying debut novels for the next year or so… or longer?

Yet, some two years ago, financial pundits were talking about the possibility of the Dow reaching 30,000 [instead of plummeting toward 6,000, as it was early last week], and seasoned homebuilders were hammering out new houses at a record rate. New publishing imprints seemed everywhere.

Now… while I was trained as an economist, and while I do follow the economic indicators and the economy very closely, I’m not about to predict how bad matters will get… or when. The one thing I did learn during my years of doing such things for a living was that the only thing you can be sure of is that the more economists agree on something, the less likely they are to be right. In fact, I actually wrote a short study on that subject at the behest of one employer.

What I am convinced of, however, is that, just as people followed trends “upward” far, far longer than made any rational sense, so too will they follow trends downward far, far longer than makes any rational sense. Already, thousands and thousands of investors are buying Treasury notes which yield almost nothing, because they feel T-bills are “safe.” In a sense, they are, because not much will be worth much of anything if the government collapses, but buying them at such rates guarantees an absolute loss. That’s because, if the interest rates go up, the value of the notes goes down, and when the yield is close to nothing, the only things that rates can do is stay stable or go up. So the best all those investors can do is end up with the same amount of money. That’s the best they can do. In the meantime, the short-sellers in the stock market are betting heavily that investors will overreact and continue to sell short on the downside, exacerbating the pressures for overreaction. The current “up” bounce may very well be another over-reaction, because the basic economic news hasn’t really changed.

The previous “up” and “down” trends, as well as the present short “up” trend, illustrate, to my mind, the fact that human beings in groups always over-react. Teen-aged girls in crowds at rock concerts over-react. Young men in gangs over-react. Bankers in groups over-react. So do groups of politicians linked by party symbols. Young and middle-aged male-investors linked together by the internet over-react.

And while I’ve observed this for years, I don’t have an answer… except to consider that to over-react is clearly human.

The Vampire…A Continuing Trope?

While there are a number of variations on the theme, the basic vampire plot is that an old and ageless vampire preys on young and beautiful woman or women, whose blood keeps him forever young. From that point on, the vampire can be indifferent, vicious, fall in love, etc. At the moment, vampire novels are, it’s fair to say, the very big thing in the publishing world, and some readers are under the impression that the theme is relatively new. More sophisticated readers know that’s not true, and that the first vampire book in English dates to Bram Stoker’s Dracula, first published in 1897, while legends of vampires date back at least some six hundred years to Vlad the Impaler, if not before that.

Interestingly enough the first “modern” vampire novel was not Dracula, but Carmilla, published in 1871, about a lesbian vampire who preys on young women, but Carmilla has generally been forgotten, largely, I suspect, because it does not play on the basic trope underlying the Dracula-style vampire myth, even though there are historical antecedents to a female vampire, as well with the reputed blood-bathing of the Countess Elizabeth Bathory of Hungary. Throughout western history runs a consistent theme, particularly prominent in patriarchal societies, that various forms of contact by an old man with young women improve health and re-create his youth. The vampire myth, thus, is merely a variation on that theme.

Even the Bible notes in the first book of Kings that the aging King David slept with a virgin, without intimate relations, in order for him to keep warm and hold to his health. Today in Africa, the superstition that a sex with a young virgin can cure a man of AIDS is not only a variation on this theme, but one deadly to millions of young women, just as a vampire might be.

Polygamy can be understood as another variation on this theme, particularly when one notes the age differential between the “husbands” and most multiple wives in the recent cases involving Utah, Arizona, and Texas polygamists. Another manifestation of this trope might well be the current trophy wives of older men of wealth and position, women who bolster the men’s self-esteem and create an illusion that such men are younger than they are. But, in a real way, aren’t such men in fact a form of vampire?

Also interesting is the fact that the underlying trope appears not only in strong patriarchal cultures but also at times when there is a struggle over gender roles and power, as was the case at the transition from the 19th to the 20th century. The most recent example of this might well be the “Twilight” books, written as they are by a woman educated in one of the last bastions of male supremacy in higher education and a member of a faith that has institutionalized and rationalized a “traditional” and subservient gender role for women.

And so the vampire trope lives on.

The Difference between Theoretical High Tech and Working Applications

A number of years ago, I found myself in an on-line discussion with a reader who insisted that there was absolutely no need for a manned military perimeter on a colony world to defend against invaders landed from space. As I recall the “discussion,” his point was that either the invader had the high ground of space and could use orbital bombardment to destroy the defense perimeter or that the defenders could do the same. A number of years before that, another author wrote about the idea of smart rocks as an effective military weapon and defense. Just recently, I saw another discussion on the idea, and all of it left me shaking my head.

Orbital bombardment is a wonderful way to destroy a planet or the culture on it. I’ve done just that in one or two of my books. But so far as I can figure, it’s a terrible and cost-ineffective way to conquer or defend anything. To begin with, even small planets are big, and inhabited planets have atmospheres, gravitational fields, and probably magnetic fields. From what we’ve so far determined, for carbon-based life they also need oceans and liquid water. Now that might not be necessary for an extraordinarily high-tech civilization, but any civilization with that level of technology likely wouldn’t be worth conquering. Destroying, perhaps, if it were viciously inimical, but not conquering. And all of these characteristics, plus a few others, make dropping anything from orbit, particularly to a small point, anything but easy or simple… or cheap.

So how does one put together a “targeted” orbital bombardment? First, you need mass, and if that mass is to survive atmospheric re-entry it needs to be compact and dense, and you need enough separate chunks of that mass to reduce the objective, again assuming you’re interesting in merely taking out military targets and not leveling and churning whole sections of the planet. In a planetary orbit, exactly where does one get such mass? If there’s a moon, the mass has to be mined and broken into the right sizes and shapes. If there’s no moon, such mass must be lifted off the surface [highly unlikely, because if invaders control the orbital area, the locals won’t get that far, and if the invaders need bombardment to control the planetary surface, they obviously can’t get to the surface to obtain the mass required for bombardment]. That leaves asteroid or other out-system mining, all of which require yet more equipment and transportation methods, adding time, cost, and yet more technology.

Second, the bombardment “projectiles” need to be of almost identical size and composition in order for there to be any chance of being dropped into a re-entry path that will get them anywhere near the target. There’s also the problem and the need to compute such paths, and against a series of objects, such as defense installations, that amounts to considerably different computations… and the equipment and software to do so. Even so, in all probability, given all the variables involved, even precisely engineered objects will spread or shift in re-entry and descent so that they’ll be unlikely to land within a kilometer of the target or targets, let alone within yards. An independent guidance system, with the equivalent of steering jets, is most likely required to assure impact near the target — but that’s effectively the definition of a missile, and would require rather large factories somewhere, plus miniature AIs and fuel, etc.

In short, orbital bombardment with “sharp stones” doesn’t look too likely as a candidate for precision ground targeting, either for practical or technical reasons. And if you want to destroy the planet or the culture, you only need one smallish asteroid or comet.

While I’ve oversimplified somewhat, the point is that a number of so-called high-tech solutions advocated to replace more “conventional” weapons really won’t work in practice. Some, of course, do, but that’s when the economics, the technology, and the battlefield environment go hand in hand. When a modern jet costs upwards of $50 million, and when it costs $5 million plus to train the pilot, you can afford to lose a great number of far smaller and less expensive RPVs for the most dangerous missions, but you still can’t afford to use them against individual soldiers or terrorists on a wide-spread basis.

Recent wars and conflicts, including the drug war in Mexico, continue to illustrate the same dichotomy as the orbital bombardment issue I outlined above. Focused military high-technology is extraordinarily good at annihilating discrete objects, often quite large objects, but it is expensive to develop and deploy and has considerable limitations in dealing with smaller targets, particularly those mixed in with objects and people you don’t want to destroy. Also, using expensive high tech indiscriminately against multiple and numerous low-tech targets has a tendency to bankrupt the high-tech user.

While times and technology change, they change equally over time for the attacker and the defender, and several thousand years of military history suggests that every technology runs into limits and that both conquest and resisting conquest require soldiers with weapons, and that many wonderful ideas like targeted orbital bombardment remain wonderful ideas… and little else.

The Not-So-Free World-Wide Web

There are several underlying assumptions that all too many internet users have. Actually, there are more than several, but I’m going to discuss one aspect that is both tacitly accepted… and erroneous.

That’s the belief that the content on the web largely is and should be “free.” None of it is truly free. It can’t be, by definition. Now some content is obviously and effectively “pay-to-view.” If you want to access certain services, certain libraries, and the like, someone has to pay. I can’t access the scholarly articles on JSTOR, not without subscribing, but my wife can, IF she accesses them from her university computer, because the university has paid for that service for its faculty and staff. Likewise, because I’ve written a number of stories for Jim Baen’s Universe magazine, I can access the stories there, but she can’t, not without my password and ID. Some library systems have also paid for access to otherwise “pay-restricted” content, and if you use their computers, you also can access that material.

But…doesn’t the rest of the web offer a wide range of “free” content?

Not on your life, it doesn’t. First, there are all the ads, pop-up or otherwise. Every time you access a site with such ads or banners, that site is being supported in part or whole by advertising, and you’re paying with either delays or in reading or watching, even if momentarily, that ad content. Even on this site, which has no overt ads, Tor is paying for the site and the technical maintenance, and I’m devoting probably entirely too much time in trying to intrigue and entertain you so that you will read and buy more of my books. Just how long do you think Tor would do that if no one bought my books? Most sites by professional writers, or writers trying to be professionals, are set up and maintained for the purpose of selling the writer and his or her works. They’re “free” only in the sense that the viewer doesn’t have to come up with payment on the spot.

When the Bush Administration asked for Big Brother powers, and Congress granted them under the Patriot Act, at least some Americans rose up and asked why. Some protested the erosion of long-held civil liberties. But it seems like many of those who did so now have surrendered to the commercialized versions of Big Brother. Yes, indeed, give this advertiser or web merchant your sales profile and your tastes. Provide your address here, and your birthday here. Post all your friends and preferences there…

It wasn’t the government that destroyed the American financial system; it was the banking and commercial interests, as well as the average American, all seeking something for nothing, or for far less than it was worth. Do we have to fear that it will be the government that destroys personal privacy and possibly civil liberties? Or will we do it to ourselves for the lure of “free” content, wanting to “join our friends or online communities,” or for apparent ease of communications and shopping?

Free? Think again.