Blow Struck by WordPress.com Against Fraudulent DMCAs

Abuse of the American online copyright takedown system (DMCA) is rife. People frequently submit fraudulent notifications to online service providers in order to censor views that they disagree with, curbing legitimate freedom of expression. Examples include those trying to stifle negative reviews about their businesses or products, preventing political satire, and even inappropriately targetting the normative use of a trademark.

All too often, OSPs simply shrug their shoulders when confronted with these scenarios, and process the notices anyway in order to avoid losing their safe harbor protections. Even when alerted to what’s going on in specific circumstances, many choose a policy of non-intervention, rather than to defend their users.

The result of one of two cases which were filed by Automattic in response to fraudulent takedown notifications submitted concerning material posted by WordPress.com was released a few days ago, Westlaw citation: 2014 WL 7894441. The judgement concerned a notice sent by a group called ‘Straight Pride UK’, who objected to the publication of an e-mail interview which a journalist Oliver Hotham had conducted. Under §512(f) of the DMCA, Automattic were awarded a total of just over $25,000 in damages – $960 of which was for Hotham’s time.

The outcome was a ‘default judgement’, as the defendant’s (unsurprisingly) didn’t turn up to the hearing, despite being served properly through the standard international processes. It’s unlikely that either Automattic or Hotham will ever see any of the money, so it is largely a symbolic victory. However, it should not be dismissed too quickly, as the case highlights a number of important issues:

  • The DMCA is frequently abused, with few consequences for those who misrepresent their copyrights
  • Taking action against this abuse is expensive, and happens extremely infrequently
  • Enforcing damages against those from outside the US is difficult, and so there is a hole in the remedies available where those who abuse the system fall into this category
  • Even where organisations or individuals are resident in the US, major online service providers do nothing about the fraudulent notices they receive that could be actionable
  • In order for damages to be awarded, material must be removed as the result of a misrepresentation. There are no consequences for fraudulent notifications that are caught by diligent service providers first – at their own risk

The DMCA is a blunt tool that has an incredible power to silence dissenting voices without recourse. The only way in which this is going to change is if service providers begin to stand up against the abuses, using the considerable resources as their disposal – both to further the conversations in this area, and also to take legal action where possible.

Transparency: I am a Community Guardian for WordPress.com.

 

DMCA Rejection Retaliation

Every day WordPress.com receive a sizeable number of DMCA takedown notifications, and every day I personally reject a fair number of them for being incomplete, invalid, or fraudulent.

Many of those who find their takedown notifications being rejected are displeased with the decision, used to service providers choosing to automatically process them, shifting the burden of proof onto the user, rather than take on the risk of liability for themselves. Unsurprisingly, this displeasure is often most aggressively expressed by dedicated third party agents whose sole business model is based on scouring the web for potentially infringing acts, and who get paid per removal. Some people may say that with a results-driven financial incentive to have material taken offline, that there is more of a chance for the DMCA process to be used inappropriately – but that’s something you’ll need to make your minds up on independently.

Yesterday a colleague let me know about one such organisation that had evidently found some of their notifications rejected in the past, who had then chosen to take to Twitter to voice their displeasure about me doing my job.

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The image they linked to was of me, lying on the grass clutching a bottle of Buckfast – the weekend of the Queen’s Jubilee, if memory serves correctly.

The one they used wasn’t really very good quality though, so here’s a higher resolution one incase they want to try again:

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I’m not entirely sure what they were trying to achieve to be honest. It’s not as if pictures of me intoxicated are really all that hard to find, after all. My occasional penchant for Buckfast isn’t exactly a secret at Automattic either, given that I did my first annual ‘flash talk’ at the all-company Grand Meetup in Utah on the ol’ tonic wine.

Somebody (who shall remain nameless) suggested we reply to say:

Even smashed on Bucky, Clicky Steve knows more about the DMCA than RemoveYourMedia

Which is so beautiful it almost brought a tear to my eye.

That wasn’t the only tweet they aimed at me though.

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It’s pretty bizarre that they would choose to use that case about Napster to illustrate the potential liability for service providers guilty of contributory infringement, since there are far more recent, compelling, and relevant judgements they could have made their point with. Ah well, better luck next time, eh? As far as I’m aware they never actually sued after these bold statements on social media, but maybe they’re still preparing the paper work.

At the end of the day, whilst this has given me a hearty chuckle before I turn in for the night, there’s no getting away from the fact that it’s not only petty, but ridiculously unprofessional. Making ad hominem attacks on employees of a company for rejecting your legal demands is pretty sad. If I was a copyright holder, I wouldn’t be too impressed to find the agency I had employed to protect my intellectual property deploying tactics like this. Then again, it might be a bigger deal if they had more than 1200 followers…

In the world of the DMCA, there’s only one thing dumber than submitting bogus takedown notifications, and that’s having a tantrum on Twitter when your bogus takedowns are rejected.

Productivity Apps: PopClip

If you work online, there a whole load of tasks that can be a pain in the ass to have to do. Even if work itself is great, nobody likes having to do certain things… like copying and pasting different URLs into new browser tabs, or re-formatting garbled text.

One of the benefits of working at Automattic is being surrounded by friendly, smart geeks who have tried all sorts of different things to get the most out of their computers, and to tailor them to fit how they work. When you hit the sweet spot, your laptop really seems to sing; doing exactly what you want to straight away without having to footer about and get bogged down in the drudgery; it becomes almost like an extension of your fingers or brain. That sort of harmony can be a really great feeling, and let you enjoy working rather than it becoming a chore. I’ve written before about how great Alfred is for this.

One of the other tools that helps achieve this sort of inter-relationship for me was recommended by my friend and colleague Mark: PopClip for Mac.

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PopClip is a small helper application for Mac and iOS that pops up a control panel when you select text. You can then quickly access a whole variety of different options, from the standard Bold/Italic formatting options, to looking up the text in the dictionary, Google translate, or whatever else you might fancy.

This is what my PopClip bar looks like:

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Usefulness, and Integration with Alfred

At first, I wasn’t too convinced about this app. It seemed like one of those cool ideas that didn’t really play out properly in execution. The prospect of having the PopClip bar appear whenever I highlighted text seemed like it would become a real pain real quickly, and it did.

However, there were lots of cool features in there that I was sure would be useful at somepoint. I realised that rather than have the bar pop up every single time text was highlighted, Alfred could be used to control the behaviour through the use of Hotkeys.

As a result I created an Alfred workflow specifically for this purpose. You can download that here.

Once installed, you can toggle PopClip ‘On’ or ‘Off’ by using the keyword popclip from the Alfred launch bar. Alternatively, you can leave PopClip off, and trigger its menu when needed by the use of a hotkey – currently set to ⌘ + P. The latter is what I find myself using more often than not.

As soon as I realised that I could do this, PopClip seemed a lot more powerful than before.

Features

There are a whole bunch of things you can use PopClip for, so it’s just a matter of finding what is useful for your own particular workflow.

Here’s a glimpse at some of the extensions I have installed:

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The ones I use the most are:

Instant Translate

This is a great extension. Highlight a sentence, call up PopClip and hit Instant Translate to get a translation into the ‘Destination Language’ that you set in the preferences. Saves the time and hassle of going to the Google translate page, instead bringing up the translation in a bubble:

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That’s Greek, by the way.

Download Instant Translate here.

Google Translate

Of course, sometimes there’s just too much text to display in one little popup. The Google Translate extension grabs the selected text and passes it through to the full booner.

Shorten URL (bit.ly)

Pretty self explanatory. Grabs the selected URL and shortens it using the Bit.ly service. Download it here.

CopyURLs

This is one of my favourites. Often I need to deal with long e-mails that have various URLs in them. Going through these, copying and pasting the URLs out separately was always a real fiddly, and boring task. The CopyURLs extension did away with all of that in one quick swoop. Simply highlight any text, invoke the extension, and just the URLs from that text will be copied to the clipboard. Fantastic.

This beauty was authored by Brett, and is available to download as part of a bundle here. If you just want CopyURLs though, you can grab it here.

OpenURLs

Just like CopyURLs, but this time it takes the URLs in the selected text and opens each of them in a new browser tab. Pretty swish. Grab it here.

Abbreviation Lookup

Not sure what an abbreviation means? WTF TLDR? Highlight and invoke this extension to get taken straight to the meaning. I ended up writing my own extension for this purpose, as the existing one on the PopClip page wasn’t producting great results. Get it here.

Send to SimpleNote

I had been looking about for an extension that integrated with SimpleNote, but couldn’t find any. So, I wrote one. This will grab the select text and send it over to a new note in SimpleNote. Great for capturing quick thoughts you want to come back to later. Download it here.

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Image owned by Pilot Moon.

Custom Searches

Can’t find what you are looking for on the list of 100+ free extensions on the PopClip page? No sweat. You can easily set up your own. There’s a good tutorial here if you want to get down and dirty with AppleScript, but if you’re not ready for that yet, Brett again has created a fantastic wee tool to help you on your way. Simply plug in the site you want to search with the highlighted text, and this will spit out a PopClip ready extension for you to use.

Personally, I’ve created a whole bunch of quick extensions for things I need to search for at work regularly – like usernames, domain names, and e-mail addresses. Not dis-similar to Alfred’s Custom Searches function, using PopClip in this way makes the process even quicker for particular tasks, saving the need to copy the text, call up Alfred, paste it in then search. Instead, just highlight, call up PopClip, and hit the relevant search button. Easy!

Summary and Price

It can be hard at first to get into the habit of using PopClip, but there are real rewards to be reaped once you do. Certain tasks are made so much quicker than they would be otherwise, and it’s just a matter of finding out what will be of most use to you personally.

PopClip costs $4.99 from the App Store, but also has a free trial available on the Pilot Moon website. For all the hours it’s saved me copying URLs from lawyer’s emails, it’s been well worth it. Give it a bash and see what you think.

One Year at Automattic

Today marks one year on since I officially started working at Automattic, and it’s something of a tradition for Automatticians (or a12s as we affectionately refer to each other) to write up an anniversary post. I say ‘officially’, as technically it’s been well over a year. Each employee goes through a trial period as a contractor first, which was then extended further in my case by the relatively long notice period required in the UK. For the purposes of this commemorative post though, we’ll just go with it being a year.

Initially I wasn’t sure I would write anything at all. Why should anybody else care about my work anniversary? The more I thought about it though, the more I realised just how much had changed in the past 12 months, and how crazy it was that I even got the job in the first place. As more than one wise colleague told me back when I was hired: the first 6 months are a bit like ‘walking on air’, and it isn’t till you’ve been around for a bit longer that you settle into things properly. It makes sense to pause and take stock, rather than continue to let things hurtle by.

A lot has happened in the past year.

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The most visible thing (and annoying to everybody else who knows me probably) has been the amount of travel that I’ve been able to do. This is partly for work, and partly because of work; a result of the flexible schedules that we are incredibly lucky to enjoy.

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I’ve been to San Francisco: the spiritual home for a lot of the online platforms we use today. The trip was both to meet colleagues, and also to check out the unbelievably cool WordPress.com HQ in person. I hadn’t seen my fiancee Grace in over a year, and Ingrid suggested I fly via Denver so we could be reunited for a week or so beforehand. Where else would do something like that?

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I’ve also spent time in Hawaii with the forums squad…

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Drank rum and swam with turtles in Barbados

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Explored temples and had rooftop BBQs in Mexico

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Met up with friends in LA, drank whisky and headed to the beach during a 9 hour layover

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Was reunited with the city of Chicago for a tech conference

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Got the chance to live in Greece for a bit

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and visit my family in Amsterdam

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As well as that, I got to spend time showing Grace Scotland. This included discovering parts that even I hadn’t been to before… like Islay, the home of whisky.

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Fife…

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Edinburgh…

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Oban, Iona, and Staffa

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And we spent a lot of time south of the border in England as well… going away with friends to cottages in the Lake District to eat cheese and drink wine.

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or to take last minute trips to Liverpool to sort out the whole fankle that is the UK immigration process.

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I even had the chance to play host in my home city of Glasgow, combining work with pleasure (though the two seem hard to distinguish nowadays).

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Whilst the travel itself is amazing (and trust me, I know how lucky I am), it’s really the freedom that makes it possible in the first place that’s the most liberating part.

Without having to worry about budgeting my annual leave throughout the year, I can take time to go and visit friends or family – no matter where they are in the world. I can visit places that I would never have wanted to sacrifice my time off for before, because now I can always chuck my laptop in my bag and find a pub with WiFi to work from. This is especially true when it comes to discovering and re-discovering parts of my own country.

Then there’s personal life. I got engaged to a beautiful American girl almost two years ago, and it’s been a long and difficult process to finally get to be together. As you might imagine, moving away from her homeland to a strange place was difficult enough, but it would have been 100 times worse if we weren’t able to spend the amount of time together that we have, thanks to working remotely. We’ve been in the best possible position that we could have hoped for, thanks to getting a job with Automattic.

It’s not just the ‘where’ though, but the when as well.

Rather than meet the challenge of a small company spread out across the globe with more tightly controlled appointments, the opposite is true. There are no restrictions on the times I work at all, with the exception of a weekly team chat for an hour at a time… and even that’s up for negotiation.

My own schedule is… almost non-existent. Rather than squashing my time into a set frame five days a week, I spread out my hours and adapt to what feels right. Instead of forcing myself to sleep at 4am and having to get up three hours later to get ready to catch a bus, I wake when it feels natural. The removal of the pressure to be somewhere at a certain time (not to mention being presentable) has meant that for the first time in my life I actually sleep about 8 hours a night, rather than the 4 I always used to.

One of the consequences is that weekends are becoming less defined as time goes on. It’s common to not just forget what day it is, but also to lose connection with the feeling that that day should have. There’s no downer on a Monday, or excitement on a Friday, for example. Going back to work isn’t a chore, and Monday isn’t even really the start of a week any longer. Working when you are most productive means you might work 13 hours on a Thursday, 4 on a Friday, 5 on a Saturday, and 7 on a Sunday, so the whole structure of life begins to lose the meaning that it was previously infused with.

This doesn’t work for everybody, but it does for me.

For the past year, it’s felt like I’ve really lived, rather than just living to work.

Then there’s the actual work itself.

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Every day I work with software that both myself and a large chunk of the web rely on for our websites. My team in particular fight to defend freedom of speech; protecting our users from censorship, and highlighting when companies try and abuse their position on the web. It’s something I’m very proud to be a part of.

To top it all off, I can count some incredibly smart and hard-working people both as co-workers and friends.

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Something that has really hit home over the past year is that if you want to achieve something, you’re the one who has to make it happen. More than a platitude: you can’t sit around and expect things to drop into your lap, or put decisions off until you are 100% ready; you have to just go for it.

Here’s to many more years. If you’re like minded, there’s all sorts of cool open positions with Automattic here.

Sorry Ms. Jackson.

At WordPress.com part of my job is to push back against those who seek to abuse the law to censor blogs that they don’t like or agree with. Complainants commonly make claims using the process of trademark and copyright law to intimidate sites into doing what they want, even where they have no valid right to do so. Sadly, many people don’t have the knowledge or resources to fight against this sort of thing, and will remove content after being on the receiving end.

Recently we (the Terms of Service team) received correspondence from someone claiming to act on behalf of Janet Jackson. They had submitted a trademark complaint about the use of the phrase ‘Janet Jackson’ on a particular website. Effectively, they wanted the article removed for an alleged violation of their trademark, despite the fact that the page only mentioned Janet once. This is clearly not what trademark law is meant to be used for – something any law student would be able to tell, and so was clearly just a cynical ploy to have the content removed.

We refused to take action against the site, and notified the owner about what was going on. She has posted up a great response over on her blog. Here are some excerpts:

Allow me to convey my gratitude as both a fan and a corresponding legal target. I recently received the most flattering letter from your IP lawyers in which they allege that I committed a federal crime of TM infringement by mentioning your name in a blog post. That they would devote time and energy to catching my blog in their social media dragnet and do me the honor of writing a cease and desist letter is thrilling.

You see, humble as it may be, I take my writing very seriously (as, apparently do your lawyers). I have a Ph.D. in English, teach college writing and literature courses in Boston, and am working on my first novel manuscript. For anyone to allege lightly and insubstantially that my writing infringes on any kind of TM, IP, Copyright, is personally insulting and slanderous. WordPress’s lawyers have proven their worth by establishing promptly that your lawyer’s charges against me are entirely unfounded. I will not burden this article any further regarding the ins and outs of IP law and this case. WordPress understands the importance of protecting independent writers and free speech from corporate legal bullies.

Click through to read the full thing.

Why Barbados? The Importance of Remote Worker Meetups

One of the defining things about working at Automattic for a lot of people is the meetups. We fairly regularly meet up in different parts of the world to get to know colleagues, work on projects, etc. The location can be anywhere from Cardiff to Hawaii, and one of the latest trips I went on saw us travel to Barbados. This naturally has led to a whole host of questions, not least the staff of the hotel who bemusedly asked: “you came to work on the BEACH?”

Below I respond to the usual queries that people have, which will hopefully mean they make a bit more sense.

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Why do you need to meet up anyway? I thought you’re meant to work on the Internet

Working at ‘home’ (or on a train, at your friend’s house, a coffee shop, the pub, in a hotel, on a boat…), and the flexibility that it brings is amazing. The autonomy that we have allowing us to  work our own hours, wherever we want, means that we can set up your schedule to fit your life, rather than the other way around. I personally work better in a number of shorter periods of time spread out across the whole day, so that’s usually what I do.

Communicating online, and working remotely is something that a lot of us have gotten used to from a young age. For me, it was spending time on IRC and forums when I should have been out drinking in the park, or whatever else Glaswegian teenagers are meant to be up to. As a result, it feels natural to develop friendships online. However, even for hardcore Internet geeks, meeting in person is important. Some of my oldest friends are those that I originally met online. The key distinction between them and others who I eventually lost contact with is that we ended up hanging out in real life too. Digital bonds can be strong and effective, but to really understand someone you need to spend some time together in person.

No matter how adept you are at online communication, the quirks of text-based speak (as opposed to voice, rather than mobile shorthand) mean that you can often be at risk of taking certain things that are said the wrong way, or not quite getting the intended meaning. I think sometimes people who are so used to communicating via digital mediums end up forgetting to inject their words with semantic meaning, so it can wind up even more difficult to read into.

The bottom line is: it’s important to meet people in person, especially if you are working with them daily. You get to know individual traits and idiosyncrasies, so that you understand how they come across online better. It means you have a better connection for when they next need to ping you to ask for help with something on Skype, and it’s not just an avatar staring back at you. This gives a whole different, and positive frame of reference, which makes working together a whole lot better (and more productive). The coolest thing for me is that moment when I can hear a person’s voice in my head whilst reading what they’ve typed out – that’s when you know it’s working.

You’re just away on a jolly!

On meetups, we always have defined projects that we will spend time on – ones that are easier to co-ordinate in person. That said, the point is not just about completing tasks. Infact, arguably the most important thing is getting to spend time with colleagues that you never usually get the chance to see, as I’ve explained above. It’s the longer term benefits from this that have the bigger impact than the short term gains from project work. If it was at anywhere else, it would probably fall under the aims of the dreaded, mandatory ‘company retreat’, with words like ‘team building’ and ‘co-worker bonding’ getting banded about. That’s pretty much exactly what the point is, except this time it’s done right. We actually want to spend time together, because we never get the chance to.

On top of that, I always used to wonder why businesses would spend so much money flying their sales people out to places like Australia and Chicago, to require them to return after just a day or two. To me, surely it made more sense to make the most of the expenditure on those flights in terms of personal development. If people are exposed to the cultures and places they visit, and able to enjoy them more, then they arguably become more happy in their jobs, and their knowledge about how to work with them grows. To me, it makes perfect sense to spend time in different places – your workforce becomes smarter, and more culturally aware – something which is an invaluable asset when working with customers from all over the globe.

So why don’t you work together all the time then?

Firstly, working together all of the time simply isn’t possible for a distributed company like Automattic. Employees live all over the world, where they choose, and so to bring everybody to one (or even multiple) places in a permanent fashion doesn’t make practical or financial sense. This isn’t even to mention the fact that doing so would go firmly against the independent culture that is so deeply ingrained in everything that we do.

Secondly, whilst seeing each other is awesome at meetups, it’s a fallacy to assume that it would be better to do that all the time. I love meeting up with other people, but I work far better when I’m in my wee cupboard office at home (or in bed, to be fair). At the end of a meetup I’m usually knackered, as it’s a pretty intense period of time to spend being social constantly when you’re not necessarily a naturally extroverted person.

Working remotely and meeting up every so often gives the best of both worlds: the independence and freedom to work where, when, and how works best for you, but also at the same time getting the chance to develop deeper bonds with people. Spending short bursts in person actually helps groups become closer, rather than elongated periods where they have to be.

Why do you need to go to Barbados though?! Can’t you go somewhere less exotic?

This is probably the one that most perplexes people. The fact that we met up in Barbados might seem ridiculous on the face of it, because of the distance from where I am, the weather, rum cocktails… everything. However, it makes more sense than might appear on the surface, for some of the following reasons:

1. Distance. Anywhere we pick will be far away from somebody. On our Barbados meetup, the majority of people were from North and South America, which meant that Barbados was actually one of the most central locations we could have found. Ironically, I had less flight connections going here than I would have flying to many cities in the USA, and the travel time was about the same as that to Chicago. I know where I’d rather be going, given the option.

2. Red tape. Bringing together a bunch of people from different countries means you need to think about visas, and border clearance. Whilst I’ve had a hard time at the American border a couple of times, that’s nothing compared to the hassle that some of our crew would have had to endure. (ever seen a Sri Lankan passport?) Barbados meant that all of our passports were accepted without a visa being required, and getting through customs was a breeze.

3. Language and Currency. In Barbados, everybody speaks English, and the currency is legally tied to the US Dollar at a ratio of 2:1. That means that people could use their own currency or credit cards, and there was no hassles when we were trying to organise things with the hotels or restaurants (not due to a language barrier anyway). Whilst you might want to avoid precisely those things when going on holiday yourself, they make life a whole lot easier for a week long meetup.

4. Cost. The price for the hotel, food, and everything else can wind up being a whole lot cheaper than you’ll find in either the US or the UK. The only thing to contend with then is travel costs, but these actually worked out comparable as well, given the location of Barbados, and the frequency of the flights.

The question really is – why on earth not go to Barbados? The food is good, the weather is great, the people are friendly, the beach is right next to the hotel…

Unless, of course, you have to have a terrible time for it to be considered work.