September 13th, 2008


The Internets

Three stories that have hit my radar screen in the last few days about the rights and obligations of internet users.

1) bridge_troll got fired for blogging about his workplace, describing his employers as "mental" and "Jesus freaks" on his first day in the job. I'm afraid my sympathy is limited, and I am astonished that he is astonished that his ex-employers dared to google for mentions of their company in blogs. He behaved completely unprofessionally and has paid the price. Any employer, whatever their ideological orientation, would and should have done the same.

I've discussed three other cases of this before. La Petite Anglaise stayed scrupulously the right sight of professional behaviour, never identifying her employers or herself by name; and indeed, the worst thing she ever wrote about them was that they were a bit old-fashioned (which is perhaps what you actually want in an accountant). Not surprisingly she won her employment tribunal case and got thousands of euros. (And a book contract.)

Joe Gordon worked for Waterstone's and occasionally blogged his frustrations in the workplace. He shouldn't have done it in the terms he did, but as he was an established employee I think Waterstone's should have asked - or better, Joe Gordon should have offered - to amend or delete the relevant entries. However, he got sacked as well.

Jan Pronk, the UN Envoy to Sudan, got into trouble for publishing his political views on his website. Here I think the situation is a little murkier, but if (as he claims) Pronk was only saying in public on his site what he was telling everyone else in private, and as long as he didn't publish any privileged information, I think he was on the right side of the line. He too was sacked, but this was part of a wider picture of international chaos and ineptitude in the face of genocide.

2) The Torchwoodgate kerfuffle. Stephen James Walker has published (via Telos, which he co-owns) an unofficial guide to Series Two of Torchwood called Something in the Darkness. As part of his review of each episode he has copied large chunks of fannish Livejournal postings, without seeking permission from the writers. Walker has expressed bafflement that anyone could be upset by this.

My understanding of copyright is that your words are copyrighted to you the moment they leave your brain and are down on paper or electrons or whatever. Just because they are available for free on the internet doesn't reduce your rights in them. The copied material is apparently a good third of the episode guide portion of the book. Walker is clearly making money from other people's words which he has not paid for, and fans are right to be annoyed. What legal redress is available, I don't know.

I have to say I have been very unimpressed on occasion by Telos' discharge of its editorial responsibilities even to authors who don't own the company. (See in particular my review of George Mann's The Human Abstract.) They have published some good stuff as well, but there is an underlying current of a lack of professionalism.

3) Jonathan Fryer reports that a friend of his has been kicked off Facebook for acquiring too many friends too quickly. Well, I've managed to get up to 1016 Facebook friends by dint of careful management of my networks of professional contacts, sf fans and LJers, relatives and friends from school and college and elsewhere, since I joined it in February 2007. Occasionally I go through the list with the intention of deleting any who I don't really know and added by mistake, but there are actually fairly few of these.

One of my friends joined Facebook less than a month ago, and her friends list is already at 1066. She is the leader of the main opposition party in her country, which may account for it. Nick Clegg is at 3395. You expect that people in the public eye will develop substantial numbers of contacts, and I suspect that Facebook did not query either Radmila Šekerinska or Nick Clegg when their lists suddenly expanded.

I bet that Jonathan's friend, the publisher Gary Pulsifer, has like me a carefully managed contacts list, and is paying the price for using it on Facebook. The two crucial differences between him on the one hand and Šekerinska and Clegg on the other are 1) he is not as famous as they are and (related) 2) I imagine that he made most of the outward friend requests himself, whereas Šekerinska and Clegg are doubtless responding to friend requests from people who know them through their public activities.

Facebook are, I suspect, being unfair to Pulsifer. It is the recipient of the friend request who determines if it is valid, and has the option to block that user. It would be reasonable to restrict someone for sending "too many" friend requests, if they are spewing out invitations at random; but we are told that Pulsifer was "acquiring too many friends too quickly", which implies that the people he was contacting actually wanted to add him back. There may be more to this story than I am aware of, but Facebook don't do themselves any favours with this sort of behaviour.

Having said which, Facebook of course belongs not to its users but to Facebook, and they get to make the rules, and even change them arbitrarily without telling us if they want; that's just the way life is. I'm sorry that Pulsifer has been booted, but it's not going to stop me using the site.

One Day More

I just love this YouTube video featuring a (fictional) Obama campaign team singing "One Day More" from Les Miserables.

I'm a huge fan of both the book and the musical, but I picked this up from someone on my f-list who knew nothing of Les Miserables but still enjoyed it. The song is the closing number of the first act of the show, in which a) Valjean, the tragic hero of the story, decides to flee to England; b) Marius, the romantic hero of the story, decides to fight alongside the revolutionaries since he cannot stay with Valjean's [adopted] daughter Cosette, his love interest; c) Eponine, in love with Marius, decides to fight alongside the revolutionaries since he's there even though he doesn't love her; d) Enjolras, the revolutionary leader, decides to revolt; e) Javert, the secret policeman, decides to pass himself off as a revolutionary; f) Eponine's parents, the disreputable Thenardiers, decide to wait until everyone is dead and rob the corpses and g) everyone sings about it, summing up the first 80% of the novel in three and a half minutes. Les Miserables is full of good songs, but this is probably the best of them.

Les Miserables is much better known than the abortive 5 June 1832 revolution which it chronicles. Historians of mathematics may derive some satisfaction from the fact that, though it was the death of General Lamarque which caused the outbreak of revolt, tension had already been raised by the murky death of the revolutionary mathematician Évariste Galois a few days earlier.

Because it's a stage show which hasn't been filmed, it's surprisingly difficult to find YouTube videos which give the true feeling of watching it as it should be (and don't have the appalling Michael Ball). This is the quasi-canonical version from the Anniversary concert, but of course it's just people singing into microphones (even if appropriately costumed, and including the brilliant Lea Salonga as Eponine, though sadly also the said M Ball). The Lego version is surprisingly true to the spirit of the stage show. You might also want to check out two German versions here and here.

The vid linking the Obama campaign to the song is uplifting and hugely enjoyable, but I do wish they had picked a literary parallel where more of the characters avoid untimely deaths. As I recall, only Marius, Cosette and the Thenardiers survive to the end of stage the show (and in the book I think Madame Thenardier snuffs it too). Let us hope for a better survival ratio among the Obama campaign, whatever the result.