Saturday, July 26, 2008

I’m Getting an Early Start At My Chosen Profession

I am completely insane. I saw an article this morning in the Washington Post about the Lori Drew case. For those who aren’t familiar with that case, or have just forgotten, she is charged with conspiracy and three counts of accessing a computer without authorization. When Megan Meier committed suicide after large numbers of nasty messages from a fake MySpace account that was apparently set up by Lori Drew, a public outcry encouraged some attempt at punishing her for her actions.

The problem was fairly simple, as legal questions go: what crime had she committed? What statute had she violated? Unfortunately, when technology evolves faster than statutory law does, some acts that seem criminal, such as harassing a girl on a social networking site using a false account, can manage to not violate any existing laws. However, federal prosecutors in Los Angeles, where MySpace’s servers are located, elected to charge Mrs. Drew with the crimes that I listed above. The more observant will notice that Mrs. Drew is not charged with murder or even seemingly anything connected to the death that occurred.

My reference to my insanity is basically designed as a comment on how I reacted to the article I saw on Thursday morning. Most people would simply say what they thought, or write a letter to the editor. I, on the other hand, went straight to my computer and searched for the text of the statute where the crimes in question were defined, and I believe I’ve found the relevant statute. My next stop was MySpace itself, where I searched for the Terms of Service that define MySpace’s rules.

Did I mention that after I graduate from Brandeis University four years from now, I’m going to go to law school to become a lawyer? I spent the next half-hour reading the statute, reading the Terms of Service, and examining the legal issues for myself, as best I could without actually having the professional training. According to the Post article that aroused my attention, the defense lawyer for Lori Drew has formally requested that the charges be thrown out, because of how common her actions are.

After all, how many of us can say that we actually read in detail those EULAs and those Terms of Service agreements that always pop up before we can install any new program? Most of the time, I know I don’t. I try to read them more carefully for online activities, such as MMORPGs like EVE Online or websites like the one hosting this blog, to get a good idea of what is and is not prohibited by that service’s rules, but even then I almost never read every detail, and I never recheck those things like most say you’re supposed to do. And I know for sure that I have actually violated the EULA of at least one of my games: apparently you’re not supposed to share your password for an MMO account with anyone else.

The arguments for such a dismissal of charges, then, are obvious. Everyone would be guilty of accessing a computer without authorization, including law-abiding citizens like me, if breaking the Terms of Service or the EULA of a program or website qualifies as accessing a computer without authorization. Those agreements aren’t really designed to be understandable; they’re designed to ensure that the company in question is protected from any liability and has a justification for kicking people out if they commit actions that run counter to that company’s website. Since people won’t want to use MySpace if people on that site are posting pornography on it, MySpace bans links to adult websites. It’s common business sense, not law in and of itself.

And yet. My sense of justice rages at envisioning a person that I see as responsible for a young girl’s death walk away without sanction. Having gone over many of the documents that I thought would be relevant to this case, I think that there’s easily enough substance in the charges to justify hashing the details out in a trial. Not actually being a lawyer, I’m not even going to try to sort out all of the issues with these charges; that’s for the prosecutors, judges, and defense lawyers that are actually involved to sort out.

However. From what little understanding I have, I don’t think a guilty verdict in this case would be justification to strike down anyone who’s violated an EULA. I haven’t exactly covered the U.S. Code in great detail, but the terms of the statute that I’ve been looking at (Title 18, part I, chapter 47, §1030, from don’t appear to merely criminalize unauthorized access. All of its sections, from what I can see, also refer to some element of harm that is caused by access without authorization. I’m safe, then; not only do my “indiscretions” with the passwords of my best friend, my brother, and even my own (you’re not supposed to share your own or use anyone else’s) have failed to cause any of the harm detailed, but I was also acting with the express permission of those people.

And even if a guilty verdict in the Drew case opened up prosecutions of teenagers across the U.S. that had merely misrepresented their age on MySpace, then what of it? Maybe that should be punished. It would probably be a waste of time for the courts, for certain. But maybe we need to start cutting back on the anonymity of the Internet. The anonymity present on the Internet, since no one can determine who’s behind that user name on a forum or MMO, does not grant a right to misrepresent yourself, to lie, to other people.

And if people are going to take the ability to say whatever they like on the Internet, and use that to create a situation where a young girl kills herself, then there needs to be a change somewhere. People tend to think that there’s no harm involved, that no one is worse off if they call themselves 21 rather than 17 on the web, just as it’s easy to say and think that they were just kidding when they were making fun of someone else. But actions have consequences. That kidding around that seems like harmless fun on the outside is really miserable when you’re the target of the insulting jokes. And the little lie about one’s true age is still a lie.

In the end, the damage done is to society. I’m an idealist; I accept that fact about myself. I think we’d all be much better off if honor, decency, and moral values were more highly regarded in society. And we can’t build a society that values the truth by condoning lies of any kind. And if we don’t either punish Mrs. Drew for her actions or create new statutes directed at her actions (preferably both, in my opinion) then what’s to stop the next person from creating a false impression that causes the death of someone else?

Saturday, July 19, 2008

When Destiny Comes Calling...

Destiny is usually defined as the predetermined course of events or as the force that determines those events. Unsurprisingly, in fantasy worlds where deities are powerful, visible forces and divination magic is common, such a predetermined fate can often be known ahead of time; prophecy and fate are common enough tools for writers of any age, from ancient Greek drama (Oedipus the King) to the more contemporary Shaman King manga series.

However, destiny exists in the real world as well, although the extent of that would be hotly debated. Whether a force exists that is determining the events of the future often becomes a debate over religious beliefs in today’s world, and raises vast numbers of additional questions that are far too numerous to address here. That said, though, there hardly needs to be a divine force to create a predetermined future, and one does not need to be a mage to read the course of the future. The question then becomes, how does one react when in a situation where the future is already known?

Admittedly, when I say such things, I refer almost exclusively to the immediate future. As a mild example, I offer my experiences playing Halo with one of my friends this past Thursday. I’d like to believe that I’m reasonably skilled at most types of video games, and I have played Halo before and proven to be at least mildly proficient at it. But I don’t own an Xbox 360, and I can’t practice with Halo 3 as much as my friend can.

Predictably, then, he is several times better than I am and absolutely merciless. You can probably imagine how much I welcomed the one-on-one duels that he was setting up. Of course, my destiny (for the next few minutes, at least) was pretty much set then. I knew that there was no way that I would be winning the upcoming matches. Hardly the world-spanning divinations of powerful magicians, but it was a predetermined course of events that I was able to read.

What mattered then were the details. After all, it’s rare for divination, especially of the future, to reveal every single detail. Certainly, even knowing I was royally doomed didn’t tell me how that would happen, or what the final score would be. So, really, I had my own choice to make in the matter. The choice before me was the same that many others have faced: the wisdom or worth of fighting a battle that was already lost before the actual battle began.

How should we react when we can tell what course the future will take? What can we do when we believe that we know what will happen next? There are those who would argue that fighting a lost battle is a waste of effort and power that could be better used for more uncertain pursuits. I can see the wisdom in avoiding a fight that cannot be won, to be sure. Especially when the resources at stake are the lives of soldiers in an army as opposed to the numbers on a computer screen that I typically work with.

Wars, however, are not won by numbers. Victory in battle is not always measured by the units lost and units killed, and battles are not always those of war. In the Naruto manga, the titular character was confronted with one of his most difficult challenges yet during a promotional exam, a powerful enemy that repeatedly insisted on the inevitability of destiny. Among other things, he told Naruto, “…the moment I was selected as your opponent, your fate was sealed as well.” And certainly, it didn’t look like Naruto could win.

Had Naruto taken his words as truth and surrendered, though… As it turned out, his opponent’s reading of the future was incorrect. It is in challenging what appears to be impossible that we discover what truly is impossible and what is merely difficult, and by accepting the most likely outcome of a course of action, we can find the courage to try for a different one.

As I have expressed in previous articles, I’m a fairly mediocre runner. Better than many, yes, but also hardly the best of the athletes that I know. And due to the nature of my preferred sports, cross-country and track, I have never really been able to count myself as the best in any one event. There are far too many more skilled athletes on the course or the track for me to simply win.

But then, why is it that I keep running? Essentially, I’m doomed to at least a form of defeat every time I run, just as I’m doomed to defeat whenever I’m pitted against my friend in Halo 3. However, I learned long ago not to think of my destiny in such terms. The joy I take from challenging myself and all of the runners near me is reward enough to explain my preference for the sport, and the challenge I find in trying to even kill my friend is a major part of why I didn’t flinch from fighting him one-on-one.

What is the appropriate response when destiny comes calling? How should we react to a fate that may be inescapable? We cannot really read the future with any great accuracy, certainty, or detail; such a precognitive ability rarely appears even in fantasy. In the end, then, all that we can do is try. Even if there’s no realistic hope of me actually winning the race outright. Even if it’s impossible for me to best my friend in a direct contest of skill.

I know that I’ll learn and improve despite my predetermined fate, and maybe eventually I’ll learn enough to change that fate. Merely because I’m destined to lose the next race I run in doesn’t mean that that fate will always be so. In the end, intent and the will to carry it out change the future. If I work to improve, and challenge myself in every race I run, I may lose most of them, but there will be one where I don’t. That is a destiny that cannot be found by refusing to challenge fate.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Slight delay tomorrow

I may not be able to have something ready by 2000 tomorrow, but I should be able to have something up by the end of the day. I won't be within hailing distance of a computer for most of Saturday, so it'll be hard for me to post anything until later into the night, possibly into Sunday morning.

EDIT (Sunday, 9:21 AM): Well, I'm not going to try to deny it anymore. I've got nothing. I did mean it when I said that my creativity could be very hard to pin down, and today I couldn't find it at all. I'll try again over the week and hopefully have something this upcoming Saturday.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Who Wants to Be a Hero?

Spoilers from Mega Man Star Force 2, In the Starlight and Live Free or Die Hard.

Don’t we all. I can barely begin to count the times when my imagination has put me in the forefront of whatever story I read last. Or when I’ve just made up new stories with myself as the protagonist. If my imagination was reality, I would have found myself in every fantasy world I’ve ever known at least once.

Certainly, in video games, anime, comics, and movies, it’s common enough for apparently random people to end up being the hero that saves the world. In Mega Man Star Force, Geo Stelar meets an alien being and becomes the newest incarnation of Mega Man as a result. Of course, only the demands of the plot direct when and where that alien arrived, making the choice in the game world itself somewhat random. Magic Knight Rayearth is another good example, where the three people that were summoned from Tokyo could just as easily have been anyone else as far as the summoning spell cared.

The storyline of In the Starlight is another example. Eventually, the links that the protagonist has to the rest of the story are shown to be far more complicated, but before that point, said protagonist actually muses on many of the same things that I’m going to, about having a normal life as opposed to having strange things happening to her. Finally, in the fourth Die Hard movie, the computer hacker (who I will always remember as the guy from the Mac commercials) wonders how and why McClane does what he does.

Who doesn’t wonder what they would do if they were the ones forced into an unknown situation, and who doesn’t think that they’d do better than the protagonists of those events? And yet, I find myself wondering these days if that would really be as fun as I used to think it would be. Who can really tell how much fun that would be? I’ve never actually been in any kind of situation that resembles one from a game, never had to prove whether I could stay calm or react quickly to an immediate problem.

Geo, in Mega Man Star Force 2, gains a lot more publicity and recognition. Although, most of that is recognition for Mega Man, not Geo, he still doesn’t like it. That was a little hard to understand at first. I know that when I do something right or reach some kind of goal, I’d rather have people know about it. I was irritated when I learned that the principal would announce the valedictorian and salutatorian of my high school class at graduation practice because I knew that I was the salutatorian, and no one outside school staff and students would be at that practice.

For Geo, though, it wasn’t a matter of people recognizing his actions. He didn’t like being called a hero because of the expectations that came with that title. The few people that knew who Mega Man really was kept turning to him when a crisis broke out, and he was afraid that he would fail to live up to their expectations. I can fully understand that; after all, everyone saw me as a genius during high school. Which can be a good thing, but gets very annoying when I hear for the third time, “You got a C? You???” Yes. I’m a human being, is this some huge surprise?

Being a hero is a lot harder than it may seem. For a very long time, I fantasized about how I would react if I found myself in any number of the fantasy worlds I’ve seen, as I already mentioned. And in all of those imagined events, I adapted to the new circumstances rapidly and acted with all the intelligence and efficiency I could muster. You would think, though, that the heroines of Magic Knight Rayearth would be able to do the same. Fuu had played video games before, after all. Yet they had no small amount of difficulty adapting to their new circumstances.

The difference, I think, lies in the setting. All of my fantasies have been with worlds I’m well familiar with. From the time I imagined myself also getting thrown into Cephiro and meeting the aforementioned magic knights, to all of the times that I’ve intervened at a key part of some other story, I’ve already been well familiar with the world and the rules. For Hikaru, Umi, and Fuu, they found themselves in an unfamiliar setting, and a situation that they knew nothing about. Who can say if they’d be able to retain their poise when faced with a completely unknown situation?

I worry that there are people in this world who are absolutely certain that they would make a good hero. I have no doubt that there are people that yet dream of them protecting others from some danger, or intervening to save the world. But those kinds of dreams aren’t how one becomes a hero. I can tell myself that I would intervene if someone’s life was threatened, even at the risk of my own, but I can never be certain unless I am actually tested in that regard. And because of that, I hope that I never will be certain.

Heroes aren’t created by people going out and looking for trouble. Geo Stelar, despite the power that he had access to, didn’t wake up every morning wondering what problems he’d have to solve that day. He was reluctant to act even when a problem threatened him personally. Yet he always did something. McClane in the fourth Die Hard movie didn’t really want to be a hero. As he put it, “Believe me if there was somebody else to do it, I would let them do it. There's not, so [I'm] doing it. That's what makes you that guy.”

Running around bragging about what you would do if someone broke into your house doesn’t make you a hero, and it wouldn’t even if you did manage to repel an intruder. Humility is a trait that goes unrecognized far too often, and without it, it’s hard to gain respect as a hero. Hoping to prove yourself as heroic means that you probably don’t have the right mindset to be a hero; as I see it, some of the greatest heroes are the ones that hope they never have to act, but do so anyway when they must.