The Fox/Cablevision Retrans Mess And FCC Learned Helplessness — The Insanely Long Version

[This is a much longer, wonkier version of a post I did on the Public Knowledge blog, for those who can’t get enough explanation of Section 325.]

I feel a good deal of sympathy for FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski over the ongoing fight between Fox and Cablevision. My brother the educator likes to say that “responsibility without authority is trauma.” Or, in other words, if you are responsible for something, but don’t actually have the authority to do anything about it, then the only thing you can do is suffer when things go wrong. So it is for Genachowski and Fox/Cablevision — under the FCC’s current rules. But here’s the funny thing. The FCC actually has fairly strong statutory authority to take action. So while Genachowski is in a bind, he can actually fix the problem. He even has a vehicle all teed up and waiting in the form of Public Knowledge’s Petition to change the “retransmission consent” rules (I’ll explain what those are below).

So how on Earth did the FCC get reduced from the “cop on the beat” to pathetically tweeting the playoffs? The answer lies with over 15 years of deliberately learned helplessness and rulemaking that I can only charitably describe as auto-castration. Twice, in 1992 and 1999, Congress explicitly directed the FCC to make sure that broadcasters don’t abuse the retransmission consent negotiation process (or as we telecom policy wonks like to call it, “retrans”). Each time, the FCC went out of its way to develop rules that systemically divested itself of all capability to act. So although Congress gave the FCC the job of consumer protection cop, the FCC kept angling for the job of “palace eunuch” to the Media Barons. For 15 years, the FCC has loooooovvvved its job as Palace Eunuch for the Media Barons, wearing a very impressive Palace Eunuch uniform with those great big baggy pants and the cute little fez and toy sword it waves impressively when it tells members of the public to move along and stop trying to hold big media companies accountable for their public interest obligations.

Happily for Genachowski, he can trade in the silly, baggy Eunuch pants for bold, powerful “man pants” the Republican women keep talking about as the fashion accessory for the season. Or Genachowski could do nothing, which will give him time to go shopping for a nice pair of those little pointy shoes with the bells on the toes to go with the baggy Eunuch pants.

Wonky legal details below . . . .

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Turpentine, Popcorn and a Blue Handed Girl

Let me tell you about this:

Laird Drive straddled the border between districts. To the east were houses, and to the west were the square grey mountains of abandoned factories falling slowly to ruin. Laird had once been a major thoroughfare but became a byway back when town was subsumed by city, long before I was born.

In a middling-decrepit upstairs commercial space overlooking this demoted drive was the Dick Jones School of Art. I attended the institution twice weekly from pre-pubescence until university.

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Book designer and self-publishing guru Joel Friedlander talks with Wetmachine about the future of publishing

As part of our continuing series of interviews with movers & shakers in the rapidly changing world of publishing, Wetmachine today talks with Joel Friedlander, proprietor of Marin Bookworks and creator & curator of the fantastically helpful and interesting site The Book Designer. Joel’s a long-time self-publisher and consultant to other self-publishers. He knows a lot and he’s funny and helpful. See my questions and his answers below the fold.

Joel joins Jane Friedman, head honcho emeritus of Writer’s Digest, and Mark Coker, creator of epub publishing powerhouse in Wetmachine’s “Whither Publishing” interview series. Continue reading


I’ve been asserting for years how the right general magic technology enables some unbelievably broad applications. This week our group announced that Teleplace is building up a showcase of this with some of our heavyweight customers.

Tech heads and futurists might be particularly interested in one word buried in this news: “mobile”.

When working on Croquet at the University of Wisconsin, I was able to talk about my work as I was developing it, but commercial discussion has been quite a bit more retro. Sorry about going dark like that. Now that so many people have seen and even used this work, I’ll talk about what and how going forward. For now I’ll just show you the state it was in at the pepoikomai(*) moment a year ago (Novemeber 19, 2009), and let you try to work out what we’ve got.

(*) Whereas “Eureka” means simply that “I have found/discovered it,” I’m told that “Pepoikomai” meant “I have DONE it”, in the sense of “I have through my own exertions caused it to be accomplished.” Alas, I don’t happen to know what the first person plural is, which is what’s needed here. Sami Shaio (first CTO of Marimba) wrote the entire mobile side while I wrote the server side with huge, specific and direct support from Greg Nuyens, Andreas Raab, Brad Fowlow, Josh Gargus, Eliot Miranda, and Chis Croswhite.

Guest Post: Chris Kelly on Putting the “punk” into Steampunk

Recently Chris Kelly (@indiechris on twitter) interviewed me on his site Dun Scaith about so-called “biopunk” fiction. Today I’ve invited Chris to tell us a bit about one of the genres he writes in–Steampunk.  This is a genre that, it seems to me, erupted after the publication of The Difference Engine, by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling. It’s a kind of alternate history generally set in Victorian times, when steam engines were a dominant technology –before the widespread adoption of, for example, internal combustion engines, telephones, or electricity. It imagines what might have happened if technologies had evolved differently — say, if computers had developed without electricity. I don’t have too much familiarity with this genre, myself, but I do usually attend the Arisia SF convention each year, and I can tell you that as a subject area for discussion, and as an influence on fashion and so forth, Steampunk has a greater influence in some parts of SF fandom than does futurism or “outer space”. It really does get you to wondering, “what if?”.

Below the fold, Chris talks about a particular aspect of the steampunk aesthetic: what makes it “punk”. So without further ado, take it away, Chris!

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Genachowski Enters FCC In 12-Step Program To Stop Consumer Abuse

“The first step in recovery is admitting you have a problem.” So goes the self-help cliché. For regulatory agencies, the first step is admitting that industry has a problem and that the wonderful happy world of the unregulated market – no matter how wildly competitive it might or might not be – doesn’t always protect consumers and that in fact, sometimes, free market dogma to the contrary, you actually reach the best result for everyone by having government set basic rules of disclosure and enforcement (the classic paper on this being George Akerlof’s oft-cited “The Market For Lemons”). The recent experience with the meltdown of the financial services sector and its ongoing tribulations provide rather vivid proof that “trusting the market” and waiting for “proof of a problem.”

Which brings me to FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski’s latest app release for Genachowski 2.0 – the Relaunch. With network neutrality on the backburner until after the election, Genachowski has taken the opportunity to get the agency on track with its substantive agenda. In addition to moving forward for the second month in a row on significant National Broadband Plan Items (White Spaces last month, CableCARD and Mobility Fund this month), Genachowski has started taking the FCC in the welcome direction of consumer protection.
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DIY biotechnology

A recent news item in Nature‘s web site goes into a fairly long description of the biohackers, and the the title of the article tells it all: Garage biotech: Life hackers. So what is life hacking? Do it yourself molecular biology, viewing biological systems as equivalent to electronic or software systems. It looks to me right now that it’s at the DNA equivalent of phone hacking. That’s not an exact metaphor, but garage labs are created by those just as hacking-oriented as the early phone phreakers. Biopunk – more than John’s novels. Continue reading

An Artist-sans-Portfolio

An art gallery opening is not an event that includes the opening of an art gallery.*


* This is a purposeful trick to keep the uninitiated baffled. Using familiar English words against their meaning is a tool characteristic of both totalitarianism and artsy pretention alike.  Consider:

“I attended a gallery opening last night.”

“Oh?  Where’s the new gallery?”

“Tell me, darling: is this innocence of yours confined to the purely visual arts, or do you also clap between movements?”

Instead, an art gallery opening is the launch of a new exhibit within a previously established gallery.**


** I don’t know what they say when they actually do want to open a brand-new exhibition space for reals, but I would expect the term to be misleading.  In art, language is used to obfuscate rather than reveal.  Consider:

“What are these seemingly random brush strokes with bits of rubbish glued over them supposed to mean?”

“Let yourself deinculcate; Fluxus escapes the fixity of ‘meaning.”

“Who’s Fluxus?”


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Traveling Self-Publishing Geek Novelist Blues: the Defcon Variations

John standing in vendor room at Defcon

Me in my Defcon T-shirt glory

I write & publish fiction for hackers and geeks. I’ve written a novel and two novellas and I have another novel in the works. The baseline genre is cyberpunk/biopunk thriller, although I approach the subject matter in a kind of David Foster Wallace/Pynchonian way. So I’m actually kind of a postmodern metafictiony cyberpunky technothriller novelist. All my books concern hacking of both silicon-based and carbon-based systems.

As I discussed in Adventures in Self-Publishing, there’s no reasonable way for me to get my books into bookstores (all the tech bookstores that used to carry me have gone under). Therefor I have to use other ways to get my books in front of readers. So sometimes I go to places where hackers and geeks and congregate & there set up a table whereupon I put out copies of my books & glowing reviews from geekoid websites & start carnival barking like Billy Mays, selling my books for cash.

I’ve done this for more than ten years.

Does it make any sense to sell books this way? Am I a brilliant self-marketing original or just some crackpot who wrote some crackpot books?  I don’t know, but if you read this post I’ll think you’ll have enough info to form your own opinions. (Jane Friedman of Writers’ Digest thinks I’m doing something right, which is some consolation.)

Below, the story of my most recent such gig & biggest one ever, Defcon, Las Vegas, late July/early August 2010. This account includes a rambling disquisition on the whole “hand-selling books on the road” idea in general, with lessons learned from ten years of this idiocy.

(Since Defcon, by the way, I’ve sold the rights to my first novel, Acts of the Apostles. See here for the how and why I sold the rights.)
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