Citation, Appropriation, and Fair Use: News Genius Picks Up Again Where Failures Left Off

As an old man of the Internet, I've seen several waves of "scribble on top of other people's pages" plug-ins and web site. Anyone remember Third Voice? It was a browser plug-in that first appeared in 1999. that let you annotate other people's sites. It failed. When it shut down in 2001, Wired wrote this about it:

But the seemingly innocuous "sticky notes" gained enemies quicker than users. Launching a grassroots campaign called Say No to TV, some 400 independent Web hosts banded together to gag Third Voice, which they likened to "Web graffiti." Nearly two years later, it would appear that the group got what it wanted. On Monday, Third Voice posted a short message on its site, notifying users that the service had been discontinued.

Spinspotter started up around 2008. It was a toolbar plug-in that let users annotate news articles and press releases (or, really, any web page) to mark up spin. It was an attempt to crowdsource spin and remove it. (I was on its journalist advisory committee. I quite liked the founders.) By 2009, they pivoted to a new model, as GigaOm reported:

…the company switched strategies because [founder John Atcheson said] “we found it hard to get people to mark spin with the quality level necessary, and (b) we saw a much bigger opportunity elsewhere for the technology we’d developed.”

There are several other similar efforts that I don't believe reached even this level of attention between 1999 and present. The latest entrant is News Genius, part of the Genius network.

From the day’s biggest stories, to the latest travesties of the fashion world, there’s something for you to dive into. And if you don’t see a headline you like on this page, we invite you to start a conversation literally anywhere else on the web.

My translation from marketing speak is, "We want this to be the equivalent of what Talk Soup once was and Joan Rivers' red carpet commentary crossed with a show like Crossfire, but we're throwing spaghetti at the wall because we have no idea what will stick."

Site Cite

The genius of the original Genius (once called Rap Genius) is that it was planned around a corpus that people know: All the lyrics of every song ever written. It's an extension of handwritten and typewritten projects I used to see as a kid (some of which migrated online), where someone would take a song like "American Pie" and try to decipher the easter eggs, clues, and deeper meanings. Genius performs that task at scale, and sometimes gets rather Talmudic in how deep people go.

Some (many?) songwriters and musical artists embraced Genius, because it provides a platform for deeper analysis. A friend's father, an English professor, assembled and edited a collection of critical essays about a well-known British author a number of years ago. He sent her a copy of the book, and her reply to him, as best as I can remember it was, "An author's work is most likely to survive their lifetime when it is taken seriously enough to examine this deeply."

Because Genius expanded into literary works and other genres, its extension into news doesn't seem that peculiar. Except when you examine their marketing phrase carefully: literally anywhere else on the web. While they focus on high-level partnerships and the ability for sites to incorporate Genius Web Annotator into their site, that's not necessary. They generally promote this on their main about page, too: "you can annotate most pages without downloading or embedding anything."

Any web page can be annotated and viewed with that annotation at the News Genius site. In an era full of sites that allow grievers and trolls to flourish and plan coordinate attacks—sections of reddit, 4chan, and many lesser-known sites—why anyone would want to resuscitate this notion of arbitrary annotation, I don't know. Although it was just yesterday that Microsoft had to abandon its machine-learning Twitter bot after it turned into an anti-Semitic, misogynistic, hates-spewing account within 24 hours, having apparently not considered what happens when you put no thought whatsoever into how the unfettered Internet might behave. The best headline on the affair from the UK's Telegraph:

Microsoft deletes 'teen girl' AI after it became a Hitler-loving sex robot within 24 hours

There's a world of difference between specific corpuses—all lyrics, all books, all news articles—and overlaying annotation on the entire rest of the Internet. Those corpuses are typically all copyrighted (unless old enough to be out of copyright or dedicated to the public domain), and, more importantly, are defended typically by firms that have the resources to employ lawyers who can mediate and negotiate over the use of the source material. (For instance, the Hamilton web site links directly to the Genius annotations, and Lin-Manuel Miranda participates in the markup.)

With that in mind, there's also a huge difference between what I'd separate into citation and appropriation:

  • Citation is the reference to something else, whether it's lyrics, a blog post, someone's public tweet, or a published article online or only in print. Because the commentary in citation links to the original or, at most, reproduces a small part of it, there's a clarity of it having a freestanding purpose and nature.
  • Appropriation reforms someone else's work into a product on which you build. It typically involves either outright violation of copyright or invocation of the fair-use doctrine. Reproduction of the whole in much the same form as the original (or a translation, such as audio into words that are identical) forms the basis.

In American law, fair use provides some guidance on commentary. It's perfectly legal—though you may have to defend it in court—to reproduce 100% of an originally copyrighted item if the case for critique can be made well. 

The original Rap Genius involved appropriation: lyrics were reproduced literally in order to comment on them. However, Genius recognized that its fair-use basis might not be enough, and put a licensing arrangement in place just three years ago. It's not that it was indefensible, but rather that fair use is always tried in court, and it can take years and piles of money without any concrete assurance of winning. (The "Happy Birthday" lawsuit that was just concluded is a famous example, but there are many much quieter ones.)

The Genius Web Annotator is a hybrid of citation and appropriation that doesn't respect the source's owner nor have any mechanism to opt out or block it. The site retrieves the original page through a proxy server and then rewrites it with added JavaScript, which lets it overlay its commentary tool. I wrote the company earlier in the week through its general feedback form asking about how to opt my sites out. I've received no response so far.

This annotation is probably transformative under the definition of the fair-use doctrine, but it needs the inclusion of the whole to make sense. Genius offering "criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research," which is considering in fair use, and citation or clippings from the original coupled with commentary wouldn't have the same value to Genius. However, reproducing an entire work (such as a complete song, article, or blog entry) often doesn't play out well in court.

Web search engines long ago mostly agreed to honor an opt-out signal, robots.txt, and have used that as a way to knock down legal challenges and ethical ones. If you don't want to have your pages "spidered" (retrieved, indexed, and included in the corpus), the robots.txt file lets you mark pages or an entire site off-limits to every spider or to specific ones.

Genius offers no such tool, nor any opt-out mechanism I can see. They view their annotator as an extension of commentary. In a tweet yesterday, the company's account wrote: "But your blog is public! People can comment on Twitter, Fb etc; Genius is in its simplest form a more efficient tool for this."

Except all those cases that Genius cites are citations; in none of them is appropriation involved.

Sucker Punch Down

Into this environment, my friend Ella Dawson got suckerpunched by News Genius' approach and its editor. Ella is a social-media manager by day, and an advocate for the de-stigmatization of sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Shaming people, mostly women, for STIs is another tool of culture to put every consequence of sexual interaction on women, even when a man is involved in the act. Ella has herpes, isn't shy about it, and is my hero for using her voice to take the heat in the path to help others.

She writes today about how someone took offense to a post she wrote about journalists referring to people with STIs as "sufferers." (As a survivor of both cancer and a heart blockage, I agree with her. I was a person with cancer; suffering implies a host of not-necessarily-accurate associations, and can be used to condescend or remove the agency of the person inflicted with a disease. With a chronic condition that has few or no side effects with proper care, "sufferer" seems like a huge overstatement, too.)

After some back and forth, Ella blocked this person, who then took to News Genius to annotate the article, noting it may be "punching down a little bit here." The editor of News Genius joined in with snarky and hostile comments. Despite having blocked both individuals on Twitter, they linked to Ella's tweets, which is potentially a violation of Twitter's terms of service, but certainly indicates a violation of agency when, say, a political figure isn't involved or some other newsworthy person.

As with many Internet tools created without any forethought about abuse, opting out, and reporting and resolving issues, Genius seems malicious in absence rather than in intention. As Ella wrote:

You can hate-read my content all you want—I know that is a risk of being a person who says things on the Internet. But when you create a tool that pastes commentary directly on top of my work without letting me opt-in and without providing a way for people to turn off the annotation on their pages, you are being irresponsible. You are ignoring the potential your tool has to be abused, and you are not anticipating the real harm your tool can do.

Contrast this with Medium's approach to annotation on Medium's site. Essay authors can receive public or private notes, and choose which to make public and which to remain private or delete. Commentary on a post, called "responses," is presented at the end like comments, but each response is a full-fledged Medium post.  (Last year, Medium added the ability for everyone, instead of certain outlets or requiring email, to disable responses to appear linked; they can still be made, they just don't appear at the end of the referenced post.)

It's not a question of attempting to deny people all fora in which to critique her work. It's not a question of whether what she wrote is public or not. My friend Anil Dash linked me yesterday to a very smart essay he wrote in 2014, "What is Public?", in which he examines what that word means in the social-networking era:

Public is not simply defined. Public is not just what can be viewed by others, but a fragile set of social conventions about what behaviors are acceptable and appropriate. There are people determined to profit from expanding and redefining what’s public, working to treat nearly everything we say or do as a public work they can exploit. They may succeed before we even put up a fight.

This no opt-in, no opt-out appropriation by Genius is a taking. It attempts to put a beachhead on one's own words and create a new kind of public work that's beyond the reach of the creator to affect. This is distinctly different than social-media, blog, or other commentary. One would never argue reddit has no right to have comment threads that link to Ella or my or anyone's work. (Some companies have tried to make legal cases that every inbound link to a publicly available web page does require an explicit license, but let's ignore that illogic.)

Rather, there's a not fine distinction at all between citation and appropriation. 

How will this play out? Genius will likely continue to put out mealy-mouthed statements until something happens that's too egregious to ignore, or they're sued by an individual or organization that has the wherewithal and interest to pursue it for long enough and with enough money that it prompts Genius to change the parameters of what it does.

Like Third Voice, Spinspotter, and other failed efforts, I expect Genius' "annotate everything" effort to fail as an extension of its main focus, which is valuable and defensible.

See addenda at follow-up at this post.

Update! Genius is adding a way to report abuse and Hypothesis is adding nuance and thoughtfulness to redesigning aspects of being able to annotate everything without consent. We'll see how it plays out, but it's a relatively quick response to some aspects of the critique. 


Note: I originally said Genius was using a frame-based approach that let the user's browser load the content, and then Genius to overlay it. In fact, as Kevin Marks pointed out to me, it's using a proxy server and posting the contents from its servers, which is substantially more problematic.

Freelance Editor, For Hire

With the conclusion of a very lovely and worthwhile editorial contracting job, I'm back to full-time freelancing. While that freelancing includes weekly contributions to Macworld I still have a dance card with slots free for other one-time and recurring writing assignments.

Beyond writing, I'd also like to find project-based or article-based editing gigs both for publications and for authors looking for some help in punching up and tightening their prose.

I've been editing for most of my life it seems, and professionally for 25 years. I've worked with many publications and run my own, most recently spending over two years editing what added to up to nearly 300 non-fiction, long-form reported stories and essays for The Magazine, which I owned for most of its run.

In early 2016, I worked as a freelance editor for Mark Harris's Kickstarter-funded, editorially independent investigation of a successful crowdfunding campaign for a palm-sized drone that imploded with few working models delivered.

Mark is an award-winning freelance science and technology writer for the Economist, the Guardian, Scientific American, MIT Tech Review and others. Here's what he says about my work:

Glenn is one of the very best editors I have worked with. Not only does he scrub copy until it shines, catch errors both obvious and obscure, and ask the most useful awkward questions, he also adds genuine weight and substance to any project he is working on. He’s diplomatic, attentive, rigorous, and utterly focused on quality, even under tight deadlines.

I'm available on an hourly and project basis, and pride myself on being a colleague who is delightful, supportive, and constructive, but also won't let a writer off the hook on unanswered questions—whether the writer has hired me directly or I'm editing for a publication.

I asked some of the word artists who contributed to The Magazine for endorsements—now that I no longer have the power of assignments to sway their honesty—and compiled a set of their comments on my Editor for Hire page. My c.v. is available on request as well. (You can contact me at glenn@glennf.com.)

Happy Birthday Song Settlement

A 1922 book that contained the (unauthorized?) lyrics.

It took years of litigation, but the "Happy Birthday" copyright issues could finally be settled. The song's musical component long ago entered the public domain, but the "Happy Birthday To You" lyrics have remained ostensibly under copyright—until an intrepid filmmaker sued the group that claimed to own the rights.

I've written about the details several times, which included an 11th-hour addition to the suit by a foundation funded by the Hill sisters, one of whom was credited with the lyrics, as that foundation belatedly asserted that it inherited all the rights, not just a share of royalties. (See my August coverage of the suit, then a September update, and a November surprise update.)

The settlement, if approved by a judge who should weep tears of bitter joy to sign off on it, wipes away decades of copyright ownership. Any fees collected since 1949—up to $14 million minus millions in lawyer fees—could be refunded under the settlement by Warner-Chappell! All the parties, including the foundation, have agreed to the terms. (In the settlement agreement, attorneys suggest that from 1949 to 2009, relatively few parties will come forward to claim refunds, but the 2009-to-present group will be more likely.)

"Happy Birthday" was one of the three stickiest extended copyright situations. Another, relating to the "characteristics" of Sherlock Holmes in 10 stories that remain under copyright, was conclusively settled last November, after the Supreme Court denied an appeal.

Amazon discloses employee information in a spat over an article

I was appalled by Amazon digging through its employees' records to respond to a New York Times article, in an attempt to discredit months of reporting in part by alleging that one ex-employee quoted briefly in the opening of the piece had committed fraud while at the company, admitted it, and resigned. (That employee says no such thing occurred; he left because of disorganization.)

I wrote this examination (posted at Medium) of how reporting and verification works using Amazon and the Times back and forth over the matter.

Are We Obliged To Load and View Ads on Web Pages?

The Parable of the TV Store

Imagine a TV store that makes money in two ways: selling sets and showing programming. Their store is very comfortable, and they invite people in to watch unlimited shows. The only proviso is that those entering the store have to fill out a survey. There's a lengthy disclosure statement you can ask for, but it's not part of the form. Ads are shown during programming. Sometimes, people buy TV sets, but they're mostly there watching TV.

Also, there may be hidden cameras, which you may or may not be told about. These cameras may record your behavior. And you might be chipped as you leave the store without your knowledge (there's a tiny label on the chip if you find it and get a magnifying glass) that tracks your visits to many different stores with the same business model.

A clever person invents a workaround: it's an invisibility cloak. When worn, you can enter the store and watch all the programming. You never really plan to buy a set at the store, and you walk away during most or all of the ads shown during shows. The store can't count you in their ad sales, which reduces their primary revenue.

Eventually the store seems mostly empty, and it changes its model: if you want to watch TV, you have to become a paid member. Other stores try different plans, like marching everyone out of the TV viewing area into a special advertising room every half hour to watch a special sponsorship message. Still others stores have an invisibility cloak detector at the doorway, and bar those wearing them, but the cloaks keep improving as do the detectors.

Some similar operations that existed before the TV ad/sales shops note that their policy of handing those entering a slick, simple ad flyer every once in a while was less intrusive and resulted in more sales for the advertiser, too, but they admit not every store has the right kind of customers to move into the ad-flyer business.

Many stores go bankrupt. Programming options decrease. And people wearing invisibility cloaks say, "Booooooo."

Implicit Contracts

As someone who has made and continues to make part of his living from advertising, either paid directly to me or in the form of publications that earn money that way paying me fees, I have many feelings about the new content blockers in iOS 9. I've written several stories for Macworld about them: details of how they work, how to use them, and how to target and block popover nagging boxes.

At various times I've:

  • Edited and, for a large part of its run, owned a publication that was founded on the principle of subscriber-only support—no ads. (The Magazine, developed and founded by Marco Arment.) It didn't thrive, so I shut it down while it was still well ahead of expenses, because I found no way to retain and attract subscribers faster than I lost them.
  • Run a web site that benefited hugely from relatively simple banner ads (via what was then Federated Media), direct sponsorships, newsletter ads, and Google Adsense. That was Wi-Fi Networking News, which formed a nice part of my living from 2001 to 2007.
  • Been a writer since 1994 for publications that receive a combination of subscription revenue and advertisements in print and online editions.
  • Run podcasts, like The New Disruptors, that were funded mostly from sponsorships, but a little from patronage (through Patreon).
  • Run four Kickstarter campaigns, two successfully. The two that funded raised nearly $65,000 together.
  • Planning a new publication that doesn't rely on ads, but may have sponsorships.
  • Was a plaintiff in an EFF lawsuit in the early 2000s in which I and other consumers were fighting for an affirmative right for timeshifting (skipping through programs, including skipping ads with smart technology) and spaceshifting (recording and watching programming where we chose). That we fought for this seems absurd today.

You can see my position isn't clear. I benefit from, reject, and fight to reject ads!

I've taken at times a devil's advocate position on Twitter in discussing it this week. When people ask if they're justified blocking ads and other material from a site they visit, I say: No. Instead, you're justified in leaving the site, deleting your cookies, and never returning again.

That lacks nuance, but it's also true from the strictest position. If you don't want to use a site as it's intended, then simply don't use the site. However, that's not the deal as it's presented by most web sites.

When you first arrive at a site, the European Union requires for visitors in its territory at least that a cookie warning message appears if browser cookies are used to track or identify you. That's not a requirement in any other major jurisdiction, although you often see this message outside the EU.

But sites don't otherwise provide a clickthrough agreement. Without an explicit set of terms that guides what our use of their resources—their servers feed us pages, them letting us load copyright-licensed assets on some basis in our browsers—is supposed to be, the offer only implicit rules.

Visitors can establish all sorts of reasons in their heads about what those implicit rules are. Unless a site makes its version of those terms and conditions explicit and requires affirmative consent, it would be exceedingly difficult to make a case that the terms apply.

Logically, we could assume that a site that offers advertisements does so on the basis of earning revenue that allows it to operate. Ethically, once we are aware of that, we are obliged to make a moral decision: either to subvert the basis on which we can reasonably assume the implicit contract stands, or to accept it. If we cannot tolerate the ads and invisible tracking, we should then leave; if we can, we load everything. Any other course is potentially unethical, even if we can justify it to ourselves.

But that assumes further that we have been disclosed with perfect knowledge every bit of JavaScript code and every image tracker and every site database and third-party database used in relationship to us when we visit a site, along with what information about us is being recorded, how it will be retained, how to opt out initially, and how to get the information removed later.

Because all of those arrangements aren't disclosed on our arrival the first time (or ever), and require substantial hunting or the installation of a third-party desktop extension, like Ghostery, to assemble, can we be said to be bound by them? The implicit agreements there take way, way too much from us without informed and affirmative consent. It's an unequal relationship.

Further, sites using one or more third-party networks rarely know all the details of how information about their visitors will be used. Multiply that by dozens—I had 76 different remote items load on a recent visit to a major media site for which I write—and there's zero possibility the sites you visit truly comprehend the impact on your privacy and security.

Add one more element on top: networks that allow self-service advertising purchases, which is most of them, can leak malware onto visitors' computers. Given that there will also be exploits, the ability to push out scripts through ad networks always poses a threat unless it's reviewed ahead of time—and even then, it's impossible to know in many cases.

How Can You Comply If You Don't Know the Terms?

Let me revisit the headline, then: are we obliged to load and view ads?

  • We don't know precisely what a site expects from us when we visit.
  • We don't know how all of our information that is obtained merely by visiting a page will be used.
  • Very few sites could possibly know what the impact of the combination of what they're installing will be on visitors.
  • Ad networks have allowed malware on in the past.
  • Sites are almost never blocking visitors who block loading ads and other elements. (Some are starting to warn or block visitors.)

What I'd propose is that it's legitimate for a site to expect you accept what is visible (static ads with links with tracking embedded only for clicks) and disclosed on first arriving, but not feed out a bit of hidden code or retain anything about you until you are informed and accept the terms.

Related to the EFF lawsuit, Turner Broadcasting's CEO made a ridiculous statement to a trade publication: that "there was a certain amount of tolerance for going to the bathroom." That was a very legalistic way to say that, of course, people didn't need to be plastered to a TV. But his next statement had more insight and was lost: if you create a formal algorithm designed specifically to skip the advertising interval, you're "stealing" the programming.

However, just as with online ads, viewers never accepted those terms, nor did the broadcast and cable industry ever present an agreement of that sort to viewers. Because no one would sign it and it's unenforceable.

Given that web sites don't want to pause your experience by presenting you with a license to accept, they're in an ambiguous situation in asking you to accept tacitly everything they do.

John Bergmayer has a great rundown of the legality of ad blocking: your use of a site is a license, not a contract; a contract requires parties to agree on the exchange of value; and ad-blocking tools likely are perfectly legal because they have substantially non-infringing purposes.

Seems like an impasse, no?

This is all separate from the reality: Users are blocking in huge numbers on the desktop (about 50% of regular online newsreaders in America and 40% in the UK, according to a Reuters Institute survey [PDF]). The same will slowly phase in via mobile. All ads are being treated equally by most visitors, blocking static, non-code-based ones, as well as the most egregious.

Some sites will die. Others will adapt and thrive. But a great change is upon us, because the questions I pose above were never properly addressed over 20 years of commercial editorial web site business development. Even sites that have the highest standards for ads and the least amount of user tracking—or even none—will pass through the same cleansing fire on the way to the next business model.

Viruses of the Mind (1996)

A colleague wrote recently after trying to find a column I'd written long ago for Adobe Magazine called "Eternal September," about how AOL letting everyone into Usenet newsgroups created the same conditions as each August and September when students arrived at universities and gained access for the first time to the worldwide discussions then taking place. I dug around and found this gem from the June/July 1996 issue, introducing people to memes—and doxing!

Read More

The Value of an Editor

I wrote a round-up of reviews of Google's new OnHub Wi-Fi router today for TidBITS, as I (and TidBITS) didn't get a review unit, but I like to help people make informed decisions about purchasing new gear, especially Wi-Fi stuff. The reviews are mixed, but it's pretty clear the unit isn't fully baked. And Wi-Fi routers are tough to test fairly beyond some built-in features; testing coverage and performance (actual data throughput) requires lots of devices, moving equipment around, and having identical tests in the same circumstances with other base stations. Only a few of the reviewers were able to do that.

It was clear that reviewers who did more thorough testing were finding less to like because of inconsistent performance and behavior. In my original draft, I wrote:

The reviewers who apparently tested coverage and features the least had the best things to say about the router, as well as the converse.

My old friend and dear editor Adam Engst made a revision:

The reviewers who seemingly tested coverage and features the least had the best things to say about the OnHub; those who performed more complete tests were the least impressed.

Much sharper! It's the same sentiment and the same conclusion, but spelling out the converse makes the whole thing snap.

My friend, former boss, and coffee aficionado Marco Arment linked to the article, singling out that phrase:

I'm still cry-laughing over his reaction! It's high praise and I appreciate it tremendously! But I also thought it was a good thing to share the love with Adam, and demonstrate what a good editor brings to the table, even for what seems like a casual statement of fact.

Interview Advice for Those New to Reporting

My dear friend Swoozy has started out on her writing career, and was preparing to interview someone for a focused piece related to sex education. She asked for my advice, and I wound up writing up a fair amount for someone who wasn't trained in being a journalist, but has good instincts for representing someone else accurately.

I just kept adding to this and structuring it, and thought it was worth sharing, as I couldn't find anything that was quite as focused on how to interview people for a written article (print or online). Most of the advice is a basis for podcasting and in-person interviews, too. I've now published it at Medium, where you can chip in with comments or advice.

A New Economy Discovered in My Own House: Derrick Dollars

Derrick dollars in production.

As a business reporter, I’m always looking for unique economic angles in the new economy. Recently, while walking through my house, I encountered a new economy worker producing a form of scrip for an economy I was unaware of, denominated in Derrick dollars. Here’s the interview, published with the subject’s consent.

Glenn: Who makes Derrick dollars?

Rex (age 8): Any valid Derrick dollar worker. You need a membership card to create valid Derrick dollars.

G: What is Derrick’s role in Derrick dollars?

R: First in command. There are commands. The reason people make Derrick dollars for him is to get higher in command. By the time I finish all of these I am absolutely certain he will rank me second in command

G: What do you get for being higher in command?

R: It means if Derrick is not at school, if you are second in command, you are in charge. If you’re lower rank, you’re trying to be higher, because a lot of people have to be out of school for you to be in charge.

G: Is there any limit to the number of Derrick dollars that can be created?

R: No, you’re trying to create as many as possible to go up higher in rank.

G: That would cause inflation. Each dollar would seem to be worth less if you create more of them.

R: Not really.

G: What can you use Derrick dollars for?

R: To buy anything that’s being sold for Derrick dollars.

G: What is being sold for Derrick dollars?

R: Dudeize cards, paper crafts, chompies (they’re those things that can chomp on things).

G: What are Dudeize cards?

R: They’re cards that have Dudeize members names on them, and pictures on them.

G: Who are Dudeize members?

R: Members of the Dudeize soccer team. It is a soccer team at school.

G: So you can create as many Derrick dollars as you want?

R: That’s true, but there is a limit to how many Derrick dollars members can spend from the Derrick dollars members they make. They have to turn all their Derrick dollars in. They get a paycheck from Derrick.

G: Derrick is the central bank?

R: He’s the first in command.

G: Does he ever destroy Derrick dollars?

R: Sometimes he says they are too big or too small. But that doesn’t matter to me, because I just put them in his desk and afterwards he doesn’t notice.

G: People are making Derrick dollars, giving Derrick the Derrick dollars, Derrick chooses how much to pay his workers in Derrick dollars, and the only thing Derrick dollars buy are paper crafts?

R: True, people are making Derrick dollars and giving them to Derrick. But anything that is going to be sold for Derrick dollars — most commonly they are paper crafts — but anything that is being sold for Derrick dollars can be paid for with Derrick dollars.

G: Who is making things for purchase with Derrick dollars?

R: Robert, the Dudeize team, and a lot of other people.

G: So you make Derrick dollars for rank?

R: Second in command gets the highest paycheck. You get the paycheck each day depending on how many you turn it. If you turn in 10 and you’re fourth in command, you get one for your paycheck; if you make 10 and you’re second in command, you get five in your check.

G: Is this a stable system?

R: As I said before, you do need a Derrick dollars membership to produce valid Derrick dollars.

G: How do you get Derrick dollars membership?

R: You just have to sign up on the Derrick dollars sign up sheet.

G: Does he turn anybody down?

R: No, unless they’ve been known to be opposed to Derrick dollars.

G: Why would someone opposed to Derrick dollars sign up?

R: To spy on Derrick.

Space Gets Farther Away

New Horizons, bound for Pluto

New Horizons, bound for Pluto

This week's Economist features two articles by yours truly about SPACE — and humanity's shortened reach.

You see, in the 1990s, America's budgets were flush, and we funded a ton of projects to send probes and landers and orbiters and oh my all over the place. Those missions came to fulfillment through the 2000s, and even as budget tightened, the early funding helped carry through missions that might take 10 years to plan and then several years to reach their target.

So Cassini is currently still active around Saturn, New Horizons reaches Pluto next month, and Juno orbits satellite in 2016. But nearly all current NASA missions outside of Mars start winding down after that. And then nothing heads out very ambitiously until the early 2020s, when the European Space Agency (ESA) and NASA separately send missions to Jupiter, arriving by 2030, under current plans.

My first story, The worlds beyond, explains how this came to pass, what funding is needed, and what's to come. The second, NASA’s dark materials, is about an almost footnote: without an adequate supply of plutonium-238, a non-weapons-grade isotope, humanity's grasp is very very small. We need Pu-238 to power missions of all sorts—until it's routine to put nuclear reactors on spacecraft, which will happen at some unknown future date.

You can find these articles online, or in this week's print issue.