A perfect rainy day

>> Saturday, February 28, 2009

The view from my front downstairs window around five o'clock todayA rainy day today, bleak and bleary--perfect, in other words for a good long movie, or a long good movie, i.e. perfect for sitting down with a big plastic container full of popcorn, a tall pour of Diet Dr. Pepper (or other preferred fizzy poison of your choice) and The Good, The Bad And The Ugly.

Ahhhh. A pretty perfect day. Hope yours was as good, regardless of what your local weather looked like. Anyone do anything interesting?


Things I did not know

Well, this is a little embarrassing, to tell you the truth. I took an affirmation to uphold the State Constitution of North Carolina when I was licensed to practice law, and I'd thought I'd read the whole damn thing, but I guess I just focused on Article I because it's the section that comes up the most in criminal practice. But recently I learned something:

For years I've joked about how I could only get elected for office in North Carolina if I ran in Chapel Hill, and maybe not even there. Turns out I was dead wrong:

The following persons shall be disqualified for office:

First, any person who shall deny the being of Almighty God.


Here I was, outraged that about the fact that polls show nearly two-thirds of Americans wouldn't vote for an atheist for President, and it turns out I can't even run for a local office if I wanted to (I emphatically don't). Or I could run, I'd just be disqualified to hold it.

Okay, so that provision of the State Constitution is unconstitutional under the Federal Constitution (yet another example of the evil influence of activist judges and the pernicious invasion of an expansive central, national government into local affairs). Still: if I did ever decide to run for office, I imagine I'd have to face a court challenge once my wickedness came to light. Although probably the real reason I'd win is that I intuitively know that God is real and I say he doesn't exist because I hate Him and I want to make Jesus cry.


So there you are. In addition to all the other reasons I will never run for elected office--my liberalism, the fact that electoral politics are grungy and horrible, my antisocial tendencies, my occasional social awkwardness, my nerdiness, the fact that maybe you'd have to be crazy to put yourself through that meat grinder--I now have one more: I can't. I hate to say that it doesn't seem like that much of a personal loss, but somehow the thought of not being able to do something I'd really rather not do... enh.

As the man said, "Oh well, whatever, nevermind."


Best. Creationist. Ever.

>> Friday, February 27, 2009

I thought the pinnacle of intelligent design advocacy was achieved when, during the Kitzmiller trial, discovery revealed that early drafts of Of Pandas And People referred entirely to "creationism" instead of "intelligent design," as evidenced by an obvious search-and-replace that resulted in a draft full of references to "cdesign proponentsists" (i.e. an author or editor did a search-and-replace to replace incidents of "reationist" with "design proponents").

But that, after all, was a draft. It was caught before the book hit print. It wasn't anything like this:

I've been laughing at that since I read about it at Pharyngula and Science And Religion News. What you're looking at is a page from a creationist tome published by an Islamic creationist, Harun Yahya, titled Atlas Of Creation, a tome that attracted some attention last year in part because Mr. Yahya sent out a large number of free copies to various universities and such with encouragement to use the volume as a teaching tool. The Atlas depicts fossil animals and plants alongside modern animals and plants to show how they're identical--and therefore haven't evolved, therefore "disproving" the theory of evolution. (Yes, that betrays a huge misunderstanding of evolutionary science, but that's not the funny part.) The funny part is in the picture. Do you see it? Hint: look at the "modern" caddis fly's tail. See it? (As always, you can click on the image to see it at full size.)

Yes, it would seem that the caddis fly has evolved since the Oligocene Epoch--unlike its primitive ancestors, the modern caddis fly has a fishhook sticking out its ass.

Well... that, or it's a fishing lure.

Wait, wait, wait--it gets better. Mr. Yahya, in assembling his book, used (without permission) a number of photographs from the gallery of Mr. Graham Owen, who hand-makes a number of extremely realistic-looking fishing flies modeled after real arthropods. Except, of course, his have steel fishhooks embedded in them. Mr. Yahya has apparently been removing the images from the internet version and newer print runs of the Atlas, but meanwhile older versions continue to testify to Mr. Yahya's apparent belief that the world is full of weird cyborg-insects armed with prosthetic weapons.

I have to admit, if the air was full of insects with stainless steel barbed tails, I might turn to prayer, too.

In the meantime, however, go ahead and click on the above links, especially on the one to Mr. Owen's webpage ((1) his sense of amusement at the whole thing is palpable, (2) if you click on the links to his other galleries, you'll enjoy some damn fine craftsmanship) and the one for the Science And Faith article, in which blogger Salman Hameed explains a newly-discovered form of selection discovered in fundamentalist textbooks.

And I'm still laughing.


My name is Prawo Jazdy

An amusing story has surfaced concerning one Prawo Jazdy, the worst driver in Ireland.

Prawo Jazdy has been pulled over countless times, ticketed countless times. He has given dozens of addresses. A master of disguise, he (and probably sometimes she) has convinced police officers in Ireland that he was young, old, various heights and weights. All to evade justice for traffic offenses committed across the length and breadth of Ireland. And every time he has been caught, Jazdy has slipped into the mass of Poles, who it seems make up one of Ireland's largest immigrant groups.


Only it seems that one astute Irish officer finally noticed an interesting thing about Mr. Jazdy's name. It would seem that Mr. Jazdy's name, translated from his native Polish into English, means "driver's license."





Draw one card

>> Thursday, February 26, 2009

[South Carolina] State Attorney General Henry McMaster says his office has adopted a looser interpretation [of an 1802 South Carolina gambling law] that only considers games more reliant on chance than on a player's skill—including Texas Hold 'em, a popular type of poker—to be gambling and therefore illegal.

...uhm, guys....
Snakes and ladders, or Chutes and ladders, is a classic children's board game.... Its simplicity and the see-sawing nature of the contest make it popular with younger children, but the lack of any skill component in the game makes it less appealing for older players.

...y'know... about that definition of gambling...
There is no optimal strategy, or indeed any decision making, involved in Candy Land. The moves are wholly determined by the cards, which are drawn in order. The only random chance element comes from each shuffling of the deck. Every time the deck is shuffled, one of n + 1 outcomes is pre-determined, where n is the number of players: one of the players wins, or the deck will need to be shuffled again after it is used.

...yeah, uhm, I'd like to report several South Carolina preschools engaged in a continuing criminal enterprise... which ones...? Uhh... all of them?


Neverwednesday Nights

>> Wednesday, February 25, 2009

You wouldn't necessarily think Garbage would be a band who could bring it live, but I had the pleasure of seeing them back in '99 (the same year of tonight's concert footage), and hell yeah, it was brung. Brought. Whatever.

This is a pretty solid performance of "Hammering In My Head," live in Scotland. Shirley's voice sounds a little tired, but her stage presence is everything you'd hope for.

It wasn't long after this that things began to fall apart for them. (What is it about doing a Bond theme song that seems to be terminal for somebody's career?) Officially, the big G is back together again--and they've supposedly been working on a new album--but health issues and label issues have hampered things. Here's to the hope that when it happens we get another 2.0 and not a Beautiful.1

12005's Bleed Like Me was alright, but just alright.


My indie rock debut

>> Tuesday, February 24, 2009

I have mixed feelings about internet memes; i.e., they're really dumb, except for the totally cool ones.

This is one of the totally cool ones.

Via The Onion AV Club, which in turn is borrowing from Buzzfeed, we have the following awesomtacular meme:

New meme: here's a totally random way to make your new random band's new random album cover. Post one! Go to “Wikipedia.” Hit "random" and the first article you get is the name of your band. Then go to "Random Quotations" and the last four or five words of the very last quote of the page is the title of your first album. Then, go to Flickr and click on "Explore the Last Seven Days" and the third picture, no matter what it is, will be your album cover.

(Like the AV Club's Keith Phipps, I'm including the links to the relevant pages in the quote--so you have no excuse for not playing at home, even if you don't take the obvious step of actually making your mock up album cover in the image editor of your choice!)

And so, ladies and germs, behold the debut release of my new band, RegisterStartupScript, And Sorrows With One:

(Photo credit: "steadier footing" by "Sarah Is," ©2009 "Sarah Is"; I do hope she'll forgive this use of her image for the purposes of the meme, and please check out her photoset on Flickr--she does very nice work and I'm a little jealous.)

Anyway, that's my indie rock debut, due in stores Febnovtober 32nd someyear. Now go make your own!


Dated kerfuffle

>> Monday, February 23, 2009

I'm not on Facebook, and anyway Facebook has already reverted their terms of service, but I do feel obligated to chime in after reading yet another commentary that misses the point.

The problem with what Facebook attempted to do was not that Facebook was claiming ownership of user content. Nor was the problem that Facebook was breaching anyone's privacy (frankly, I've come to the conclusion over the last few months that Google has already made privacy a quaint notion anyway). The problem was that Facebook amended their terms of services in a way that gave them a permanent and irrevocable license to use other people's intellectual property for any purpose "in connection with the Facebook Service or the promotion thereof," including intellectual property not actually originating on Facebook, i.e. offsite content made available to Facebook users via widget or feed access (e.g. if Standing On The Shoulders Of Giant Midgets included a share button for Facebook users to link to articles, it appears that Facebook would claim I have unintentionally granted Facebook an exclusive license to use SOTSOGM for commercial purposes notwithstanding the fact I'm not myself a Facebook user and SOTSOGM is published under Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 license with remaining copyrights reserved to myself).

Here's the controversial clause:
You hereby grant Facebook an irrevocable, perpetual, non-exclusive, transferable, fully paid, worldwide license (with the right to sublicense) to (a) use, copy, publish, stream, store, retain, publicly perform or display, transmit, scan, reformat, modify, edit, frame, translate, excerpt, adapt, create derivative works and distribute (through multiple tiers), any User Content you (i) Post on or in connection with the Facebook Service or the promotion thereof subject only to your privacy settings or (ii) enable a user to Post, including by offering a Share Link on your website and (b) to use your name, likeness and image for any purpose, including commercial or advertising, each of (a) and (b) on or in connection with the Facebook Service or the promotion thereof.

No other major social networking site has ever attempted to lay such a broad claim to usage, and several specifically disavow such licenses. Flickr's license to use others' intellectual property terminates, for instance, when you take your content off of Flickr and Flickr apparently doesn't claim to be able to use submitted intellectual property for commercial purposes such as advertising.

Advertising is an obvious focus because it's logical, but "on or in connection with the Facebook Service" is a pretty damn vague clause. Suppose, and let's admit it's a far-fetched example but it serves a purpose, that Facebook decides to expand into book publishing with a series called "Facebook Presents." Facebook Presents The Year's Best Photography or Facebook Presents Facebook's Funniest Walls--normally such a side-venture would require a company to go and get licenses to reproduce copyrighted material (and your work, by the way, is automatically copyrighted to you; registration is merely for the purpose of making it easier to establish your rights if they're challenged), but the controversial Facebook terms of service would have eliminated that, and eliminated it forever, that is if you were ever on Facebook you would have expressly given up your licensing rights. And the licensing rights arrogated under the broad terms-of-service would have included derivative works: if Facebook wanted to turn wall messages into Facebook: The Motion Picture or Facebook Comix I'm not sure exactly what you'd be able to do about it.

Understand, Facebook still wouldn't own your wall messages or photos or whatever. The claim that Facebook said they own you or your data is utterly false. They just wouldn't have to pay you or ask you for your permission or even tell you what they were doing. See the technical distinction? A claim that Facebook owned content would necessarily deprive you of all rights not licensed back to you. Under the terms Facebook attempted to set forth, you'd still own your content and be able to license or sell it to a third party; meanwhile, Facebook could screw you at will as long as said screwing could be lumped under their vague, general "in connection with the Facebook Service or the promotion thereof."

Another contrast--here's what Google says about IP in the terms-of-service for Blogger:
Google claims no ownership or control over any Content submitted, posted or displayed by you on or through Google services. You or a third party licensor, as appropriate, retain all patent, trademark and copyright to any Content you submit, post or display on or through Google services and you are responsible for protecting those rights, as appropriate. By submitting, posting or displaying Content on or through Google services which are intended to be available to the members of the public, you grant Google a worldwide, non-exclusive, royalty-free license to reproduce, publish and distribute such Content on Google services for the purpose of displaying and distributing Google services. Google furthermore reserves the right to refuse to accept, post, display or transmit any Content in its sole discretion.Terms of those Services. [emph. in orig.]

See the difference? Google explicitly states IP rights are retained by the owner (and the owner is responsible for protecting them), and that Google's license to reproduce is limited to the sole purpose of distributing Google services, i.e. Google may reproduce your blog for the sole purpose of displaying your blog through Blogger. Google's 101 Awesomest Blog Entries will not be hitting shelves any time soon unless Google contacts the authors of one-hundred-and-one blog posts and obtains the necessary permissions (presumably by paying the authors).

The kerfuffle over the Facebook terms of service was justified, even if the reasons got mangled. Even if Facebook never intended for their clumsy grasp at an unlimited license to be a clumsy grasp for an unlimited license, what they might have intended to do isn't what they did. And I hope that Facebook users will pay attention to what Facebook attempted to do. The fruits of your intellectual property have some kind of inherent value, even if that IP mostly consists of blurry, red-eyed photos from Friday's drunken soirée.


Music of the night

>> Sunday, February 22, 2009

After the bleak and angry thoughts of the last few posts, I'm going to try to eschew politics and law. Let's start with cats and the proper way to deliver using the diaphragm and not the throat.

Paul Baaske's, Sebastian Falkner's and Johannes Figlhuber's "Furball" (2008):


Child abusers and war criminals

>> Saturday, February 21, 2009

I'm fucking angry right now, and I'm not sure how much I can write rationally at the moment. Perhaps I can't write rationally, and perhaps I shouldn't write rationally.

What's set me off is a piece by Dahlia Lithwick in Wednesday's Slate that I didn't see until Thursday, "Welcome Back Khadr?" in which Ms. Lithwick discusses the case of Omar Khadr, one of the youngest detainees at Guantánamo Bay and the only remaining westerner (I mention this because everyone does, not because I see how it matters). Mr. Khadr was fifteen years old when he allegedly killed an American soldier, Special Forces Sgt. 1st Class Christopher Speer. He is now twenty-two.

It is alleged that Mr. Khadr, in the service of a criminal, terrorist gang, murdered a father of two serving his country while deployed in Afghanistan, a war that seems as justifiable as such things ever can be; it is possible another man threw the grenade, and if Mr. Khadr ever sees a courtroom his defense is likely to present that case. Will Mr. Khadr ever be tried? His cases have been dismissed once, and were on the verge of being dismissed again when the Colonel serving as judge in Mr. Khadr's matters was removed from his duties in the matter, allegedly after ruling that the prosecutors needed to stop withholding evidence. I do want to be clear about this before I go on, however: there is a very high probability that the young Mr. Khadr threw a grenade and killed a man, a father, a soldier who was doing his duty; it is not my place nor my intention to absolve Mr. Khadr of either the moral consequences or appropriate legal consequences (if any) of what he probably has done.

It is also alleged that Mr. Khadr confessed under torture. Ms. Lithwick writes:

Then there's the fact that Khadr claims to have confessed under torture. Videos of him weeping during an interrogation surfaced last year and served only to remind the world that he was a teenager confined at Guantanamo among "the worst of the worst." Khadr was allegedly shackled in stress positions until he urinated on himself, then covered with pine solvent and used as a "human mop" to clean his own urine. He was beaten, nearly suffocated, beset by attack dogs, and threatened with rape. In May 2008, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in Canada v. Khadr that the detention of Khadr at Guantanamo Bay "constituted a clear violation of fundamental human rights protected by international law."

Ms. Lithwick then goes on to cite another treaty that the United States is a party to, the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Here's a portion of the Convention--and I apologize for the length, but these sections must be read in full to appreciate what we've allegedly done:

Article 37

States Parties shall ensure that:

(a) No child shall be subjected to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. Neither capital punishment nor life imprisonment without possibility of release shall be imposed for offences committed by persons below eighteen years of age;

(b) No child shall be deprived of his or her liberty unlawfully or arbitrarily. The arrest, detention or imprisonment of a child shall be in conformity with the law and shall be used only as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time;

(c) Every child deprived of liberty shall be treated with humanity and respect for the inherent dignity of the human person, and in a manner which takes into account the needs of persons of his or her age. In particular, every child deprived of liberty shall be separated from adults unless it is considered in the child's best interest not to do so and shall have the right to maintain contact with his or her family through correspondence and visits, save in exceptional circumstances;

(d) Every child deprived of his or her liberty shall have the right to prompt access to legal and other appropriate assistance, as well as the right to challenge the legality of the deprivation of his or her liberty before a court or other competent, independent and impartial authority, and to a prompt decision on any such action.

Article 38

1. States Parties undertake to respect and to ensure respect for rules of international humanitarian law applicable to them in armed conflicts which are relevant to the child.

2. States Parties shall take all feasible measures to ensure that persons who have not attained the age of fifteen years do not take a direct part in hostilities.

3. States Parties shall refrain from recruiting any person who has not attained the age of fifteen years into their armed forces. In recruiting among those persons who have attained the age of fifteen years but who have not attained the age of eighteen years, States Parties shall endeavour to give priority to those who are oldest.

4. In accordance with their obligations under international humanitarian law to protect the civilian population in armed conflicts, States Parties shall take all feasible measures to ensure protection and care of children who are affected by an armed conflict.

Article 39

States Parties shall take all appropriate measures to promote physical and psychological recovery and social reintegration of a child victim of: any form of neglect, exploitation, or abuse; torture or any other form of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment; or armed conflicts. Such recovery and reintegration shall take place in an environment which fosters the health, self-respect and dignity of the child.

Article 40

1. States Parties recognize the right of every child alleged as, accused of, or recognized as having infringed the penal law to be treated in a manner consistent with the promotion of the child's sense of dignity and worth, which reinforces the child's respect for the human rights and fundamental freedoms of others and which takes into account the child's age and the desirability of promoting the child's reintegration and the child's assuming a constructive role in society.

2. To this end, and having regard to the relevant provisions of international instruments, States Parties shall, in particular, ensure that:

(a) No child shall be alleged as, be accused of, or recognized as having infringed the penal law by reason of acts or omissions that were not prohibited by national or international law at the time they were committed;

(b) Every child alleged as or accused of having infringed the penal law has at least the following guarantees:

(i) To be presumed innocent until proven guilty according to law;

(ii) To be informed promptly and directly of the charges against him or her, and, if appropriate, through his or her parents or legal guardians, and to have legal or other appropriate assistance in the preparation and presentation of his or her defence;

(iii) To have the matter determined without delay by a competent, independent and impartial authority or judicial body in a fair hearing according to law, in the presence of legal or other appropriate assistance and, unless it is considered not to be in the best interest of the child, in particular, taking into account his or her age or situation, his or her parents or legal guardians;

(iv) Not to be compelled to give testimony or to confess guilt; to examine or have examined adverse witnesses and to obtain the participation and examination of witnesses on his or her behalf under conditions of equality;

(v) If considered to have infringed the penal law, to have this decision and any measures imposed in consequence thereof reviewed by a higher competent, independent and impartial authority or judicial body according to law;

(vi) To have the free assistance of an interpreter if the child cannot understand or speak the language used;

(vii) To have his or her privacy fully respected at all stages of the proceedings.

3. States Parties shall seek to promote the establishment of laws, procedures, authorities and institutions specifically applicable to children alleged as, accused of, or recognized as having infringed the penal law, and, in particular:

(a) The establishment of a minimum age below which children shall be presumed not to have the capacity to infringe the penal law;

(b) Whenever appropriate and desirable, measures for dealing with such children without resorting to judicial proceedings, providing that human rights and legal safeguards are fully respected.

4. A variety of dispositions, such as care, guidance and supervision orders; counselling; probation; foster care; education and vocational training programmes and other alternatives to institutional care shall be available to ensure that children are dealt with in a manner appropriate to their well-being and proportionate both to their circumstances and the offence.

I have been asked if I thought former President Bush and former Vice-President Dick Cheney should be tried for war crimes in the United States. I have been challenged with the probability that this would rip the country asunder--never mind that this nation survived the divisions of 1861-1865 and 1967-1975 and arguable emerged stronger, at least for awhile. I have hemmed and hawed, because yes, such a division would get in the way of so many things this nation already needs to do to repair itself. And now I stand corrected.

If a fifteen-year-old really was turned into a "human mop" and the President Of The United States knew about it and authorized it, and this nation is one that turns a blind eye or looks the other way because we're "too important" to follow the most basic fundamentals of human decency, much less the laws we've enacted and treaties we've ratified, then this nation does not deserve to exist. I don't care if the prosecution of Mr. Bush somehow triggers another civil war. I don't care if it causes further global collapse. And no, I'm not being fucking rational right now: I believe that a society is judged by how it treats the weak--if the allegations in the Khadr case are true....

I can't even think of an appropriate way to finish that sentence.

There needs to be a bipartisan, unlimited investigation, and if probable cause exists to believe crimes have been committed, there need to be indictments and the defendants given what the Bush Administration was quick to deny their victims: open trials. I am not saying this needs to happen tomorrow; but it needs to happen while these allegations are fresh and while this is still vital. We need to affirm to ourselves, and to the world, that we are not a rogue state and that we are a nation of laws, and that we are moral people, not the monsters we seem to have become--and if we cannot affirm this, we do not deserve to exist on this Earth.

That's all. I need to find something else to write about for the next few days. I knew we were holding kids in Gitmo--I guess, silly me, I somehow didn't think we tortured them, too.


Credit where credit's due

>> Friday, February 20, 2009

I'm not a big fan of Christopher Hitchens, who has spent waaaay too much time lately as an apologist for the neo-cons who got us into Iraq for him to have much credibility with me (even when he's espousing things I'm inclined to agree with, as he's occasionally done with regard to religion).

However, it appears that Mr. Hitchens (on his way to a bar, inevitably) was recently beaten up in Syria--by Nazis after he pissed them off by writing "No, no, Fuck You" on their shitty little recruitment poster. And apparently, to Hitchens' credit, he wrote on their ugly little hate flier after being warned that the Syrian Nazis don't mess around.

I don't know if this counts as ballsiness or stupidity or starting earlier than usual that morning, or some wacky combination thereof, but I approve and must give Mr. Hitchens credit. Good job, Hitch.

Now if you'd just 'fess up that you were almost completely wrong about Iraq, I think I could find my way around to liking you.


Why does he keep doing it again and again?

Believe it or not, I'm patient. Abundantly patient, no rush whatsoever. There are things I certainly would like President Obama to do--e.g. withdraw from Iraq, fix the economy--that I'm willing to wait for. Indeed, there are things I'd like Obama to do that I'm not sure he can do--e.g. withdraw from Iraq, fix the economy--that I won't be disappointed so long as he's given things an earnest try.

This is, after all, a President I want to admire: a lawyer, a bit of a nerd, something of a technology fetishist... there's actually somebody like me in the White House! That's never been a big selling point for me, actually--I've never understood why people want somebody just like them in the White House, as opposed to somebody better; and, indeed, I'd really like to think Obama is better than I am: smarter, nerdier, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound....

What I'm having a hard time abiding, however, is the active continuation of Bush policies that don't have to be "wound down" like Iraq or that don't really require time to dismantle. I've already written about my objections to the first instance of the Obama Administration abusing the "state secrets" doctrine; this week I find the Obama administration has invoked the doctrine again, this time in a case involving warrantless wiretapping, although it appears possible the doctrine was more properly used in this instance (and invocation of the doctrine denied by the trial judge). And it also appears that President Obama has issued Executive Orders allowing the CIA to continue with its renditions program, although it also appears that the entire program will be reviewed by some kind of "task force" (why renditions can't be suspended pending review remains puzzling to me).

Here is a rule of thumb: if an action was unconscionable and wrong when President George Walker Bush did it, it's just as wrong if President Barack Obama does the same exact thing. And it logically follows that if President Obama is justified in taking an identical course of action, then President Bush must have been justified to start with.

Attempts to finesse this--arguing, for instance, that Obama must continue to act in accordance with Bush's actions because it would be worse not to--strike me as nothing more than weaseling. It's also, frankly, the kind of rationale that served this country very poorly during the Vietnam era.

Furthermore, our system of government presumes that power corrupts and therefore should be divided and limited. As Glenn Greenwald writes:

We don't place faith in the Goodness and kindness of specific leaders--even Barack Obama--to secretly exercise powers for our own Good. We rely instead on transparency and on constant compulsory limits on those powers as imposed by the Constitution, by other branches, and by law. That's what it means to be a nation of laws and not men. When Obama embraces the same abusive and excessive powers that Bush embraced, it isn't better because it's Obama rather than Bush wielding that power. It's the same. And that's true even if one "trusts" Obama more than Bush.

It appears that Congress may step in and try to limit the powers that Obama should already be repudiating--I can only hope they're successful and able to reach a majority vote, though I have to admit I'm not optimistic. One of the troubling signs that President Obama might be a weak leader on governmental restraint in "security" matters occurred during the campaign, when then-Senator Obama reversed positions and voted in favor of extending retroactive telecom immunity to telecom companies that cooperated with the Bush Administration's wiretapping program. President Obama's previous change-of-heart makes recent developments unsurprising, albeit disappointing; the Senate's previous failure leaves me pessimistic about the chances of a check being placed on this and future Administrations.

That's one thing that needs to be clear, as well: even assuming that President Obama is the most virtuous leader of men to take leadership of the Republic since George Washington allegedly turned down an offer of kingship (and I do continue to cling to the hope that Mr. Obama is an honorable man who is being misled by seemingly-pragmatic considerations), arrogation of Presidential power tends to ratchet one way until something irreparably snaps (e.g. members of the President's re-election committee are caught burglarizing a hotel). Even if one trusts that President Obama would use renditions, wiretaps, and secrecy claims sparingly, one doesn't give President Obama powers he wouldn't want, say for instance, President Palin to have in eight or twelve or twenty years. Much as President Obama finds himself claiming powers created by President Bush, future Presidents will look to President Obama as a precedent; a shame, then, that it doesn't look like that Precedent will be one of voluntarily renouncing extra-constitutional prerogatives.

A sort of relevant aside: the other day, I joined others in mocking NRO's list of "The Best Conservative Movies." There are several perverse choices on the list, but (somewhat oddly) one in particular is relevant to today's discussion: at number 12 on the list, Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight. Andrew Klavin writes in part:

In his fight against the terrorist Joker, Batman has to devise new means of surveillance, push the limits of the law, and accept the hatred of the press and public. If that sounds reminiscent of a certain former president — whose stubborn integrity kept the nation safe and turned the tide of war — don’t mention it to the mainstream media. [emph. added]

What makes this relevant and especially perverse on the part of NRO is what happens to that "new means of surveillance" that pushes legal limits. In the film (and this may be a spoiler if you haven't seen the movie), Batman (Christian Bale) comes up with a way to turn all of Gotham's cell phones into sonar devices, allowing him to surveil the entire city. Needing to be out in the field, however, he turns the actual surveillance operation over to his gadgeteer, Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman)--leading to Fox's immediate resignation and his statement "As long as that thing's at Wayne Enterprises, I won't be." Batman's response? Apparently anticipating Fox's revulsion, he's installed a self-destruct into the system, to be triggered by Fox as soon as the Joker is caught (and if you haven't seen the movie, surely you would have seen that coming, no?).

Indeed, throughout The Dark Knight, the temporary nature of emergency powers is repeatedly emphasized and the dangers inherent in permanent arrogation or power repeated. Julius Caesar is referenced, and Bruce Wayne's desire to quit and settle down to a civilian life repeated again and again. The movie's position on the issue is quite clearly the opposite of the position staked out by former Vice-President Dick Cheney and President George Bush in their pronouncements about what the President of the United States may do: I am aware of no instance in which George Walker Bush acknowledged the powers he claimed for the Executive were vast, dangerous, and undesirable. Indeed, the nature of President Bush's "War On Terror" implicitly made those powers permanent, which is why many of us hoped that President Obama would pull a Lucius Fox and pull the plug on the whole damn thing (another thing Obama would have had in common with Fox: dismantling much of the apparatus would have been as simple as putting his own name on something).

No rational person will ask the new Administration to rush headlong into anything. We can accept that some things will take time to tear apart. Processing prisoners out of Guantánamo, withdrawing from Iraq, pulling us out of Bush's recession--all time-consuming tasks. And if the Bush Administration violated the law in authorizing what several officials have now said was torture and if the United States will honor its legal obligations by taking action against Bush officials (and Federal law requires some kind of action, presumably prosecution if the Administration tortured and if we're going to obey the law), this is not something I expect to see soon and would indeed rather see done thoroughly and properly if it's to be done at all (and yes, I believe we should keep our promises--or admit we're liars and withdraw from the treaties we're unwilling to keep). These things take time.

But asking the Obama Administration to stop doing the things the Bush Administration did that they don't have to do--that's not rushing headlong into anything. Basically, there's no good excuse to keep breaking the law, if you believe that the Bush Administration's position was extra-legal to start with.

I have high hopes for this Administration. It will be nice if it ends up deserving them.


It's called "strategy"

>> Thursday, February 19, 2009

Man has five mistresses.

Man decides he can't afford to have five mistresses.

But he can afford one.

So he has a "contest" to decide which one he'll keep.

Man boots one of the mistresses in the first round for like her looks.

Understandably, she isn't very happy about that.

But she offers to take everyone else on a road trip before she goes.

For some reason, they all say "yes."

And they let her drive.

Which she does.

Off a cliff.

I guess that's one way to win.

Sort of.

Since she's the only one who died, I guess you can't really say she "won."

But I wouldn't say she "lost," either.

Either way, nice try.

I have no idea whether this story is true, but there's no way I could have made it up.


I think Dick Cheney looks kinda like Michael Palin when he's wearing the mask...

It's been covered by Greenwald and others, but just in case you missed this wonderful bit of woeful cluelessness:

22. Brazil (1985): Vividly depicting the miserable results of elitist utopian schemes, Terry Gilliam’s Brazil portrays a darkly comic dystopia of malfunctioning high-tech equipment and the dreary living conditions common to all totalitarian regimes. Everything in the society is built to serve government plans rather than people. The film is visually arresting and inventive, with especially evocative use of shots that put the audience in a subservient position, just like the people in the film. Terrorist bombings, national-security scares, universal police surveillance, bureaucratic arrogance, a callous elite, perversion of science, and government use of torture evoke the worst aspects of the modern megastate.
-S. T. Karnick in "The Best Conservative Movies"
according to The New Republic

Koff, koff, hack, wheeeeze--ahem:

City Pages: You're often described as a fabulist, but isn't Tideland a political movie for the No More Mr. Nice Guy age?

Terry Gilliam: Have people forgotten I made Brazil? George W. [Bush], [Dick] Cheney, and company haven't. I'm thinking of suing them for the illegal and unauthorized remake of Brazil.
-Terry Gilliam, director of Brazil
in the Minneapolis/St. Paul City Pages

On second thought, maybe Karnick isn't clueless at all. He just knows what he likes... and what he likes is watching westerns through one of those magnifying glasses you put in front of the screen.

(Brazil, incidentally, is one of the all-time great movies. If you've never seen it, or if it's been awhile, it's time to rent it or buy it. Gilliam's masterpiece, hands-down.)


Neverwednesday Nights

>> Wednesday, February 18, 2009

No explanation is really necessary for this one. Sly And The Family Stone, "I Want To Take You Higher," 1984. Let there be funk:


A few thoughts on liberal dogma

>> Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Liberalism, like a large rambunctious family, is characterized more by its long-running arguments than by its shared beliefs. It is not so much a creed as a list of things worth fighting about. And as time goes on and history teaches us fresh lessons, new options arise and old ones are discarded.

-K. Anthony Appiah
"Seven Habits Of Truly Liberal People,"
Slate, Feb. 16, 2009

That's a pretty neat way to put it, actually.

In the circles I frequent--living in the South in real life, cruising the internet in... the other real life--it's not unusual to find people talking about "what liberals believe" as if it's some kind of dogmatic set of beliefs. We believe in taking people's guns away, taxing everybody, censoring language, animals having more rights than people, trees having more rights than animals, terrorists having more rights than trees... I don't know, all kinds of silliness that when I hear it I usually have to process it for several seconds to figure out whether Coulter or Limbaugh or O'Reilly or whomever is talking about me. And frequently they're not, which seems a bit silly because I self-identify openly and consciously as a liberal, that foulest of animals, lowest of species, worst something of category. You know the drill.

Thing is, I can't always argue with them. Because this is one of the things about liberalism, is you can always point to a liberal who believes whatever and laugh at him or her or it, and we liberals do it to ourselves, frankly. I mean you'll find plenty of us liberals pointing at a subset of our fellow liberals and saying, "Ha! What a buncha asstards!" only to wonder what happened when a group of conservatives snuck into the legislature behind our backs and started wrecking up the place again.

If, as conservatives like to say, the Democrats are liberals, maybe they're right and this natural fractiousness of our sect is the truth behind the truth of Will Rogers' great line, "I am not a member of any organized political party. I am a Democrat." (He also said, "Democrats never agree on anything, that's why they're Democrats. If they agreed with each other, they would be Republicans.") Maybe the Democrats are liberals (mostly) and that's why I don't think they're liberals....

Because, maybe as Appiah says, liberalism isn't a creed so much as it's a list of things worth fighting about.

One of my favorite things a liberal ever said about liberalism was the late Spalding Gray's statement in Swimming To Cambodia to the effect that the central tenet of liberalism was "Question ev-ry-thing." I think that's basically true; I suppose there are leftist dogmatists but I guess they're not really liberals even if they're associated with liberalism. Liberals tend to second-guess their presumptions, even their most dearly-held ones. This is maybe the main reason conservatives are able to attempt to paint us as amoral or vacuous: a conservative says "Thou shalt not blank" and then a liberal's instinct is to say, "Really? Says who? What if we blank on Tuesdays? What if people in China blank? I knew a guy who blanked on a dare one time, and he was mostly alright except he got kinda twitchy at loud noises...." And then the conservative says, "No, really, thou shalt not blank, it says so right here in this Font Of Wisdom we share" (it could be the Bible or it could be some hoary tome on economics or last week's episode of Rush), and then the liberal says, "Well who the hell is this Font Of Wisdom to tell people what blanking is? Huh?" And blank may really, well, and truly be an awful idea, but you know we liberals, we like (as Gray said) to question everything and telling us thou shalt not seems less like a commandment than it does for a starting point for a long and twisting march towards what we hope is Truth (not that we won't question that when we come to it).

I can see why conservatives get exasperated with us. I get exasperated with us. We're not merely trying to be contrarians, really, we're not. It's just that we don't like getting bossed around. By anyone. Or anything.

Of course, Ann Coulter would argue with that, she and Jonah Goldberg and some of the other talking pinheads like to say we're bullies and we get off on bossing others around, and we all have weird dogmas and whatnot. You'd think, then, that we'd be much more effective and coherent if that were the case. Three weeks in and some of us are already bitching about our oh-so-supposedly liberal President. (Okay, he's a liberal, or a moderate liberal, or center-left whatever that means. See? We can't even agree who our members are.) If we're so dogmatic, why do we fight amongst ourselves all the time?

Here's an example: Air America. Remember Air America? This was "our" response to right-wing talk radio. Purportedly. A bunch of liberals thought they'd get together and broadcast left-wing talking points aired by left-wing celebrities like Al Franken and Janeane Garofalo. Because, see, that's the problem we have with our message, is that we need this central switchboard or nexus or whatever.

Of course, Air America ended up declaring bankruptcy and who knows what's happening to it now. And why? Why did Air America do so poorly? Was it because it was too left for American tastes? I'm sure some idiot on the right has said something like that.

But no; no, the reason Air America went belly-up and bloating in the sun so quickly was that hardly anybody, not even liberals listened to it. I know one person, exactly one liberal, who ever listened to Air America. (If any lefty readers want to chime in, maybe I can bring that up to a number between five and ten.) Air America wasn't even on the air when a number of liberals began to say that it sounded like one of the most retarded ideas they'd ever heard of. "So... wait... why would I want to listen to this again?" "I don't know, I'll probably just keep listening to NPR." "Who thought of that?" "Sure, Janeane Garofalo is hot and I loved her on Ben Stiller, but when the hell did she become an expert on politics?"

Seriously, people on the right: anything you said about Air America was probably half as incredulous, a quarter as mean, and an eighth as funny as what we said about Air America. Also, we disagreed with whatever you said, partly on principle and mostly out of habit. Except when we didn't. (See?)

Here is the dogmas of liberalism: question all dogmas except this one--that some things are worth fighting about. "About" seems to be the best preposition--I thought of making that "for" or "over," but both of those are both true and false at the same time. No, some things are worth fighting about.

I don't want to make generalizations about conservatives. (I'd immediately have to question them, I'd start thinking of self-proclaimed conservatives I know who don't fit the bill, etc.--see? I'm doing it again.) But buried in the word itself is a reluctance to ask questions. Dictionary.com tells us conservative means:

...disposed to preserve existing conditions, institutions, etc., or to restore traditional ones, and to limit change.

Such a disposition, it seems to me, inevitably means being slow to challenge, slow to question, slow to fight over things. I mean, I suppose you can question everything and then decide it was all as it should have been to start with, but that seems much more like a liberal thing to do than a conservative thing, because inherent in the question is the possibility that change might be good (c.f. the definition of liberal, "favorable to progress or reform" or "open-minded or tolerant, esp. free of or not bound by traditional or conventional ideas, values, etc."). I imagine (second-guessing myself again) that there are conservatives who do question and challenge a great deal, but why do they bother if they're just going to end up where they started? Of course, I don't want to say it's bad to not challenge things all the time like liberals do....

In fact, where I was really going with that was: I can see why conservatives are quick to take the opinions of some of our louder sects and ascribe those beliefs to the whole, because a group of people who all call themselves "liberals" and then disagree about nearly everything must seem shockingly alien to them. We must be lying, or up to something. Surely the loudest among us must be the spokespeople for the whole movement. Why else would we tolerate them being so loud (and sometimes stupid) if we didn't agree with them? Seems logical enough, only it's completely wrong. We tolerate some members being loud (and sometimes stupid) because of a deep belief that people ought to be allowed to be as loud (and sometimes stupid) as they'd like, because (question everything!) maybe the loud (and sometimes stupid) are actually right.

Incidentally, this sometimes also leads to another one of our "problems": not only do we tolerate loud-and-stupid people, but sometimes we even stick up for them, and conservatives confuse this form of tolerance with endorsement. It goes back to the family metaphor in the Appiah quote: you might not get along with your brother or you might hate your Uncle Bob, and you might say all sorts of nasty things about those family members when you're talking to Aunt Sue or your sister, but somebody outside the family says an unkind word (however true) and it's on, motherfucker; it's permissible within the family to say just about anything, but outsiders don't have the same license. So we end up sticking up for our worst members every now and again because, dammit, they may be morons but they're our morons, and blood has to stick together. (I suppose conservatives must do the same thing, sometimes: hence the uneasy looks on the faces of fiscal conservatives when rubbing elbows with their fundamentalist "brethren" during Republican national conventions; now you know how some of us over here feel about PETA.)

We're a fractious group, it's in our nature. When we stop....

When we stop, we'll be conservatives.

That will be the day.


Intellectual property out of control again, or: why does the Authors Guild hate blind people?

>> Monday, February 16, 2009

So it seems Amazon's stupidly-named Kindle 2 will do something Adobe Reader has done since version 7--it can read to you. And it seems the Authors Guild is concerned this could threaten the rights of their writers to profits from derivative works. Because, you know, having a function on a piece of electronics that could make it useful for people with disabilities would totally eat into those audiobooks profits. Not to mention the inevitable abuse by the sighted--after all, there are plenty of visually unimpaired people who enjoy audiobooks, and if they're given a choice between having something read to them by Patrick Stewart and getting a two-for-one deal where the same text can be read to them by an annoying, clipped, monotone, digitized voice that struggles with homonyms and unusual words, we all know which one they'll pick. Who needs the mellifluous tones of a Shakespearean actor when you can have the precise ehn...unss..see...ay...shunnn of WOPR from WarGames?

Note to the Authors Guild: nothing says "douchebag" quite like messing with blind people, for fuck's sake.

The Guild notes, correctly of course, that technology will improve--no doubt the WOPR voice of Adobe Reader 71 will give way to the monotones of Robby The Robot before eventually evolving into Douglas Rain. But so what? That's really not a good excuse for protesting the existence of accessibility functions on a piece of consumer electronics. I would think the smart thing to do, instead of acting like a whiny douchebag who hates blind people, would be to add features to your audiobooks--Patrick Stewart, of course, being an obvious and already-mentioned example of added value. Or how about releasing audiobooks with optional commentary tracks similar to those found on DVDs? You'd have to structure it a little differently to avoid crosstalk, obviously, but that's hardly insurmountable. Or Easter eggs? Or why limit it to my imagination at all?

It may be enough, you know, simply to go with a good reading: I'm not into audiobooks, myself, but I know people who go into ecstatic paroxysms of joy when the subject of Jim Dale's renditions of the Harry Potter series come up.2 Dale, I'm told, does a marvellous job of giving every character in the series a distinctive and unique voice. I have a great deal of difficulty imagining that any piece of reading software is going to compete with that--so what the hell is the Authors Guild thinking?

The answer, of course, is that they're not. Not unlike the music industry and film industry preceding them, the Authors Guild is looking at 21st-century technology and trying to imagine how to apply late 19th-century legal doctrines and distribution channels to maintain their tenuous control over something--information--that has a natural impulse to be free. In other words, instead of trying to find ways to make commercial hay through value-added products--coming up with special features only available to paying customers--they're trying to go back to an old regime of noncooperation and litigation to back up rights they can no longer enforce. Normally, that merely means pissing off your audience and alienating the people who want to reward you for your artistic endeavors, but in this particular instance it means taking a firm stand against the disabled.

Nice, eh?

Second note to the Authors Guild: the Kindle's accessibility features are less of a threat to your writers than your own stupidity and short-sightedness might be.

Don't encourage writers to make their works unavailable to a broad swath of audience; work harder, rather, to help your members make the most of secondary opportunities to market their products and derivatives. The old models are dying, figure out how to game the new ones.

And for fuck's sake, stop picking on people who can't see. Makes you look like a bunch of tools.

POSTSCRIPT: After writing this, I ran across yet more evidence Neil Gaiman is a pretty awesome guy. Gaiman-in-a-nutshell: buying a book purchases the right to have somebody read it aloud to you, nobody will confuse Kindle's read-aloud function with an audiobook, and the money the Authors Guild spends on lawsuits would be better spent, you know, selling books.

Cool guy, that Neil Gaiman.

1I once let it read a game manual PDF to me for about five minutes--pretty funny listening to it grind out the rules to Cults Across America, at least for five minutes. Less than five minutes. Actually, it got pretty annoying pretty quickly.

2It seems that Dale does the books in North America, and Stephen Fry does them in Britain--Fry being one of the most prodigiously-talented actors and writers in the world and no small shakes himself, either.


Those who repeat History are doomed to fail to remember it

>> Sunday, February 15, 2009

It's been reported that one of Ohio's members of the U.S. House of Representatives expressed concern last Tuesday that the stimulus package that eventually passed this week could cause another Great Depression, just like the programs created by Franklin Roosevelt. Representative Steve Austria has an interesting grasp of causality--perhaps he's aging backwards like Merlin or that Benjamin Button dude. From the Columbus Dispatch's Darrel Rowland:

"When (President Franklin) Roosevelt did this, he put our country into a Great Depression," Austria said. "He tried to borrow and spend, he tried to use the Keynesian approach, and our country ended up in a Great Depression. That's just history."

Congressman Austria went on to explain at some length about how the First World War led to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand after the invention of the atom bomb had precipitated World War II. He also told the reporter that his favorite movie of all time is Memento and that he'd love to see a sequel to "that Revenge Of The Sith sometime."


Radio silence

>> Saturday, February 14, 2009

The primary way I discover new music is via internet radio. I listen to internet radio, I hear something I like, I add it to my Amazon wishlist, eventually I buy it. Sometimes I discover something awesome like The Damnwells or Iron And Wine or Jenny Lewis, and sometimes, frankly, I'm a little disappointed. But this is how I get my new acts, how my music-devouring shark stays in motion so it doesn't drown on things I've been listening to for twenty or thirty years. (Not that there's anything wrong with those old friends--it's just a matter of staying in motion and being aware, and not stagnating, y'know?)

What you may or may not know is that internet radio is in a helluva lot of trouble right now. SoundExchange, which represents most of the major labels, has asked the Copyright Royalties Board (which sets standard royalty rates; the CRB is part of the Library Of Congress, which registers copyrights in the United States among its other functions) to set an extremely high royalty rate for streaming audio online. The demands that SoundExchange have made really suggest, to myself at least, that the recording industry (specifically the RIAA, which SoundExchange represents) isn't interested in royalties or fairness, but in control.

The reality of internet streaming audio, after all, is that it tends to make major record labels superfluous. The way things used to work is that an artist who wanted to be heard in the major markets--America, Britain or Western Europe--or who wanted worldwide distribution had to sign with a larger label. The label would then handle not just production of the record, printing of the record, and distribution, but also promotion, publicity, and the other things that go into making or breaking a record. This gave the labels a vast amount of power--the labels didn't merely try to predict what the public might want (though that was an element of success in the industry), but also served as gatekeepers, filters and tastemakers; if the demand for an artist didn't already exist, a promotional campaign in record stores, on television, on radio, and in local appearances might certainly stir interest and create a demand. That power to create artists and reap the profits vanishes if literally billions of people online can click on a link in their browsers and listen to one of thousands or millions of audio sources streaming from and to assorted individual tastes: even if every single person who hears a streaming audio track goes out and buys the song the internet neutralizes the labels' most powerful and lucrative function because they are no longer in control of limited markets.

Let me put it another way: if my only choices in music are between an in-store CD by Fall Out Boy and Brittney Spears (and I'm not picking on them, I'm just pulling out two examples), then it's one or both of those records or nothing. And if that's all I've heard because that's all the two or five or ten local FM pop stations play, there's a good chance I'll buy one of those records if I like music because that's all I know and all I can get. But if I can pick from a thousand stations around the world and order something indie from CD Baby or some import of a Japanese band nobody's ever heard of through Amazon, I'm not longer relying on Universal Music Group (parent to Island Records, Fall Out Boy's label) or Sony Music Entertainment (parent to Jive, Ms. Spears' label) to tell me what I ought to like. It's not that I might be buying less music, it's that my musical purchases are going to be spread out and less-likely to benefit one of the gargantuan corporations that dominate the Recording Industry Association Of America and similar trade groups abroad.

See why they want to kill the music?

The common criticism is that this is short-sighted of the industry; it is and it isn't. The long-term truth, actually, is that they're probably doomed even if they throttle internet radio because their model of signing and saturating the market with a few choice acts is likely to fail; the market is never going to become less fractious thanks to the internet, and the most they might really accomplish (especially during a recession) is that people might purchase less music from everybody. If they're doomed anyway, and they know it, stifling internet radio and distribution channels at least prolongs their crummy existence and milks a few more bucks for their shareholders until, as they say, the revolution comes and their backs are against the wall. It is short-sighted, however, in that it should be fairly obvious that if they're doomed it might be smarter to diversify and find ways to exist with the emerging reality instead of alienating everybody except their shareholders by taking the position of moustache-twirling bad guys tying helpless webcasters to the tracks while snarling about the rent being due.

Much of this I've said before. The reason for saying it again is that Rusty Hodge, the general manager of SomaFM says in his blog that SoundExchange has made yet another unconscionable offer. What makes the latest offer even more onerous is that not only is SoundExchange offering financial terms that most webcasters couldn't begin to meet, but they're apparently upset about the appropriately shitty publicity they're getting over it, and so their offer includes a gag order: not only should webcasters pay up, but they should stop talking about the negotiations and give up their constitutional right to petition their lawmakers for redress of grievances (remember, the Copyright Royalties Board is a department of the Library Of Congress, which--if the name isn't clear enough by itself--is a department of Congress).

This is appalling, utterly and terribly so. If broadcast royalties are to be set by the government, then the public has an absolute right to know how those policies come about, and the parties have a right speak publicly about their involvement. (This is not, mind you, technically a First Amendment issue--private parties can certainly make it a condition of an agreement that they waive rights they might normally have to talk about the agreement; this is however, a public policy and transparency issue.) I would never suggest SoundExchange should abandon their right to present their side of the negotiations. But, of course, SoundExchange is perfectly aware that if the public hears their side and the broadcasters' side of it, one of those sides sounds like the side of greedy pre-technological assholes and the other side sounds like the side of reasonable people who want to make art more accessible to the world.

And one thing to be clear on: nobody reasonable is saying artists shouldn't receive broadcast royalties from streaming audio, or that SoundExchange doesn't have a right to negotiate royalties on behalf of their artists (as it happens, there's inevitably been some question of over-reaching by SoundExchange, since many artists who will be affected by the royalty negotiations aren't in fact represented by SoundExchange clients, much as the RIAA has been found suing for "violations" of copyrights not actually owned by RIAA members). The position of SomaFM and other responsible webcasters is that they are willing to pay reasonable royalties. The sticking point has been the question of what is reasonable.

Of course, as I've said, there's reason to believe SoundExchange is not interested in a reasonable accommodation instead of annihilation.

If you're concerned, I suggest you write your congressman. And in light of the recent attempt by SoundExchange to stifle open discussion, I'd also suggest you do what you can to publicize this latest attempt to preserve the big labels' oligopoly. There's more music in the world than the Big Four labels can ever provide for--which is why they don't want you to hear it.


Screwed again?

And in other bad news, Ticketmaster and Live Nation are attempting to merge. If successful, instead of two mammoth corporations exercising undisputed control over live concerts at larger venues (and many mid-sized ones, as well), there will be only one.

This one's a funny one because it's an instance of bad news that doesn't actually make things worse than they already are--I mean, obviously there's a major antitrust issue, and it would be great if the Department Of Justice took time off from sweeping possible war crimes under the carpet to step in and prevent a monopoly with a vertical and horizontal presence in the music industry, but the sad truth is that it really doesn't make that much practical difference as to whether you have one corporate behemoth charging $200 for tickets (before service fees, including the three-dollar fee for printing the damn things yourself) or two corporate behemoths charging $200 for tickets. They don't even have to engage in formal price-fixing at this point: "They're charging $200 for The Police? Well, shit, I guess we can charge $200 for The Eagles!" And so it goes.

And then they'll wonder why the industry is struggling.

Now, here's a sort of interesting question. You may or may not have noticed--I think it probably depends on where you get your news--that a number of President Obama's top DOJ picks are Recording Industry Association Of America attorneys and/or former copyright-extension advocates. Appointments have included Tom Perrelli and David Ogden as well as Donald Verrilli. Mr. Perrelli, who represented the RIAA on a number of cases involving alleged file sharers--cases in which he argued for expansive discovery procedures and a broad reading of the Digital Millenium Copyright Act while defending his client's failure to comply with DMCA notice provisions--will be in charge of the antitrust division. Anyway, the question is whether there's a conflict-of-interest if DOJ goes after the Ticketmaster/Live Nation merger when the RIAA--a former client of these guys--potentially has an enormous vested interest in the outcome? Although there's a subsidiary question, too, as to which way that interest runs: on the one hand, cutting a deal with a ticket-retail Borg could be lucrative for the RIAA, but (on the other hand) the conglomerate looks more like it would be a threat to RIAA labels.

One is reminded of the "Whoever wins, we lose," tagline from Aliens Vs. Predator, actually.

Although there's been a bit of hyperventilating on the net over the DOJ appointments--go scroll through recent entries in Slashdot and Boing Boing, I'm too lazy to chase down the posts and comment threads myself right now--I'm not really sure the RIAA lawyers going to DOJ is going to have much effect on policy. It's the legislature that's involved with extending copyright and defining piracy--the DOJ simply enforces those laws. And it's the Library Of Congress that sets royalty rates--if you're concerned (as you probably should be) with the fact that internet "radio" will probably be dead within the next few years, it's yet again the legislative branch that has something to say about it. Assuming that DOJ merely enforces the laws that are on the books, the fact that a significant number of upper-level DOJ lawyers are former music-industry insiders doesn't amount to much, really. (You didn't really think the DOJ was going to take up the question of whether the RIAA violates antitrust or racketeering statutes any time this century, did you?)

I'm very nearly tempted, in the end, to steal the wonderfamazing Ms. Janiece Murphy's recurring Who Cares? Magazine feature and slap a bigassed Who Cares? on all of the above--Ticketmaster and Live Nation conspiring to find a new way to screw the music-loving public, the DOJ being overrun by lawyers who formerly spent their time suing grandmothers and housewives and college students and twelve-year-olds on behalf of billionaire corporations so out-of-ideas that all that's left for them to do is to sue their customers. But, clearly, I do care, it's just that there's not a lot to be done for the situation. Well, that's not entirely true: you can write your congressperson about internet royalty rates or to complain about the next round of extensions to copyright (it's now author's life + Avogadro's number, right?) or latest proposal to castrate Fair Use doctrine; you can hope that your letter or petition somehow weighs more than the sack of money that the industry lobbyist brought to that expensive lunch last week contributed as a matter of civic duty to your public servant's re-election campaign (sorry, I think I was about to imply something about legislators' personal integrity--my bad).

But really what it's time to do is get ready to pay even more for your music habit if you've got one. In a time of recession, this may mean really looking around for your spare change: bend at the waist, extend your arms, and grab your ankles for stability. I'm sure there's a dropped penny down there somewhere. You just need to relax and focus your attention on the ground.

If you don't think about it too much, maybe you can even learn to enjoy it.


Authentically fake

>> Friday, February 13, 2009

The other week there was a little note up on Slashdot about Auto-Tune, with a poster there rhetorically raising the question:

As these [computer audio processing] techniques improve and become more popular, it makes me wonder what music produced twenty or fifty years from now will sound like, and how much authenticity will be left.

It's hard to read that familiar plaint with the right level of patience and tolerance; I understand what the writer means, after all. The problem, though, is that his concern is based on the basically false premise that an audio recording is "authentic" to start with, or that even much of what goes into a contemporary live performance is that authentic.

If you're going to see an entirely acoustic show in an extraordinarily small venue--well, say friends or family members playing guitar or piano in your living room, then yes, you have what might be described as an "authentic" experience if what you mean by "authentic" is that the performance is completely unprocessed, exactly what you hear directly emanating from the performer. But you go to anything larger than a coffee shop, say, and you're not getting authentic; you're getting the sounds as they've been processed (however sparingly) through electronic gear. Even an acoustic guitar played into a microphone so that the sound of the acoustic guitar can be electronically amplified and passed through loudspeakers so that people in the back of the room can hear it acquires distinctive characteristics from the microphone, the amplifier, and the speaker set-up; the people in the back aren't hearing an "authentic" guitar sound if one means "unadulterated," even if the signal isn't being passed through other equipment (e.g. chorus, compression, reverb) to improve the sound (indeed, making an acoustic guitar sound "right"--making it sound the way people expect an acoustic guitar to sound--often means tweaking and adding to the "pure" signal on its way to the amplifier).

If there weren't differences in how various gear affects the signal chain, there wouldn't be any differences in gear. That sounds like a tautology. What I mean, is that the reason if you go out to buy a microphone you might have nearly a thousand options, and then you have your selection of amplifiers and speaker cabs and whatnot, is that all of this gear sounds a little different and discerning ears will have preferences between (sticking to mics) condensers and dynamics, and so on. And some of these choices may be a matter of artistry as opposed to simply picking what your ears tell you is "natural" sounding--one might well pick a specific microphone because he likes the way it distorts or flattens his voice or for what it does to the sound coming out of an acoustic instrument.

And we've been talking about acoustic instruments the whole time--what about all the other instruments? Ever heard an unplugged electric guitar? I believe humorist Dave Barry once accurately compared the sound to playing a ping-pong table. And what's the "authentic" sound of an electronic organ (e.g. the legendary Hammond B3) or a synthesizer?

Take all of this into the studio, and you truly have an ersatz experience. Aside from what the recording gear does to the sound, recording one-take-live hasn't been routine for half-a-century. Les Paul invented multitracking in the 1940s and it didn't take long for others to get the idea and see the possibilities. It's now fairly common for musicians in a band to not even record their parts together, and the part that gets used in a song might well be not merely the best take but the best parts of the best takes stitched together; this used to be done by cautiously slicing pieces of recording tape apart with razor blades and cautiously taping them together, these days it's happily made easier by computers. The result is that even a fairly conventional performance of a single tune by a four-piece band might be composed from the pieces of a dozen or more separate studio performances even if there are no overdubs in the piece. That "authentic" guitar solo might consist of the first part of the fifth take and the second part of the third take and the third part of the fifth take again; that "authentic" vocal might consecutively consist of the singer's fourth, ninth, first, third, and fourth (again) stabs at singing the song.

Add in overdubs--which are a routine part of modern recording--and you have one singer singing three-part-harmony with himself and the guitar player playing two electric guitars and an acoustic "at the same time" and there's the keyboard player playing a piano and an organ and the drummer managing to play with eight arms (or, if we're talking about Def Leppard, two; what... too soon? c'mon, that joke is twenty-five years old).

And all of this is before we start getting into the really fake stuff--the cash registers on Pink Floyd's "Time" or the barnyard animals on The Beatles' "Good Morning," for instance. Or you don't even have to go that far-out into the sound effects and tape tricks: there's nothing "natural" in the sounds Brian Wilson or Phil Spector coaxed out of the studio before psychedelic musicians began to raid the BBC-Radio tape vaults for animal noises or taking portable recording gear out to collect audio odds and ends.

When you start looking at it that way, I think you have to look at Auto-Tune and the rest of the burgeoning software solutions as the same old thing in brand new drag, to borrow a line from David Bowie. You could pitch correct in analog--e.g. the vocals for the Pink Floyd song "Welcome To The Machine" (on 1975's Wish You Were Here) had a note David Gilmour just couldn't hit, so the band slowed the tape--it just took a little more work (and therefore was more expensive--studio time isn't free). You slowed or sped up the tape, and you might have to actually perform the take slower or faster if you wanted to keep the tempo consistent (especially if you weren't going to re-record other tracks already laid down before the problem vocal). And if you wanted to do that warbling effect that's made Auto-Tune infamous (c.f. that terrible Cher song, "Believe" from 1998, which was one of the first really conspicuous uses of digital pitch correction to create a deliberately artificial effect), well you could do that, too (flanging is actually a hoary old example of this kind of thing).

So, I'm afraid to say that there's a short answer to the oft-asked question about how much "authenticity" will be left in recorded music as it becomes easier to cheat: none, just like yesterday, or twenty years ago, or forty. Listening to recorded music is fundamentally an artificial experience, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. (I mean, do you really want to pay fifteen bucks for a CD to discover that it's seventy-two minutes of flubbed takes of the same song? A recording of an authentic series of occurrences, no doubt, but one that's only likely to interest the die-hard zealots who collect demos, outtakes and bootlegs by their favorite artist.)

If you ask me, the thing, really, is to appreciate the inauthenticity of what you're listening to for what it hopefully is: masterful use of the most technologically-advanced instruments in gear in the whole of musical history. And to be able to tell when inauthenticity really is a "cheat"--not because it's more fake than usual, but because the fakery is a cover for incompetence or inability. And if you want to get really clever: to be able to appreciate both at the same time when appropriate; that is, to be able to listen to a song and say, "Wow, you can tell blank really isn't much of a (singer/musician/band), but producer's name did a really good job of putting this track together and making the most of blank's limitations--that's a really good recording of a really mediocre performer/performance."

But you won't be finding authenticity anywhere outside your living room, with you and some friends and family jamming. Which also isn't a bad thing--I'm all for everybody in the family gathering 'round the piano or doing a sing-along in the car. But obviously if you're peeling the cellophane off a CD case you were looking for something else--something inauthentic. Appreciate it for what it is. Revel in it.


Happy birthday, Charles

>> Thursday, February 12, 2009

If you took more than a glance at this month's header for Standing On The Shoulders Of Giant Midgets, you noticed that this year marks the Darwin bicentennial: on this date, in 1809, Charles Robert Darwin entered into the world. As did Abraham Lincoln, as I'm sure many of you already know.

I like Lincoln a helluva lot, but you know, I love Darwin. Maybe it's the fact Darwin never had a chance to suspend habeas corpus. Maybe it's that part of me that never quit being a science nerd even after I realized I didn't like and really couldn't hack math well enough to be more than a science fanboy. Part of it, I have no doubt, is that Darwin represents a classical scientific ideal: while much of the popular imagination has Darwin looking at a finch and having a "Eureka!" moment, the truth is that Darwin spent decades mustering data, testing hypotheses, and considering alternatives before publishing The Origin Of Species (the conventional wisdom that Darwin was shy or afraid of fundamentalist backlash is only partially correct--Darwin also wanted to make sure he was right before he publicly committed himself). Another element of my admiration, too, I think, is that Darwin was (from all accounts) a gentle, shy man who adored his children and abandoned medicine because he couldn't stand the sight of suffering,1 a man who felt a deep and lifelong sense of empathy that made him a staunch abolitionist.2

This will seem like silly hero worship, but I will write it anyway: Darwin, in short, was a gentle, compassionate, logical, patient, thorough, diligent, philosophical man. He had faults, to be sure, but the list of his qualities are qualities I admire in any person and frequently wish I could emulate more often.3

All of this goes beyond the fact that Darwin was essentially right, though I have to admit it's hard to tell how far beyond. Would Darwin's essential goodness as a person (which is hardly unique, after all--there are many good people in the history of the world, believe it or not) be as significant if it weren't combined with his importance to science? He might have been an unusually kind Victorian father or on the right side of history in the matter of slavery or a decent, gentle man respected by his peers--but would anyone care if he'd been mundane in his professional achievements, if he hadn't set the world on its collective ear with natural selection? I don't know the answer to that, I suppose. History records those who impacted it, not merely those who were kind or noble in spirit. But I suppose you can also take it the other way, too: far too few of our heroes, when you peer in closely, can survive the scrutiny--Darwin, I think, does remarkably well under the magnifying glass.

I wonder if I should stop here or go on about the science; I think I will stop, because this month--two hundred years since Darwin was born--will see plenty of articles and essays and blog posts and books and television shows and whatever about the science, and most of it will be produced by people far smarter than I am who have spent far more time than I could ever hope to working on the intricate problems4 that remain in biology. So I'll leave the science to others, and on Darwin's two-hundredth birthday I'll speak to what I know of his character as it has been passed down to others, and hopefully add something to the collective worldwide celebration of not merely his accomplishments, but his life.

Happy Darwin Day.

1These things go together in my mind because one of my favorite anecdotes about Darwin is that his children were afraid to go to him when they cut themselves because how upset he'd get seeing them hurt. In his The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, Darwin's son Francis reproduced this letter from one of his sisters (which I started to excerpt, but it's worth reading in full; the mention of how he had trouble giving his kids sticking-plaster for their cuts is in the fourth paragraph):

My first remembrances of my father are of the delights of his playing with us. He was passionately attached to his own children, although he was not an indiscriminate child-lover. To all of us he was the most delightful play-fellow, and the most perfect sympathiser. Indeed it is impossible adequately to describe how delightful a relation his was to his family, whether as children or in their later life.

It is a proof of the terms on which we were, and also of how much he was valued as a play-fellow, that one of his sons when about four years old tried to bribe him with sixpence to come and play in working hours. We all knew the sacredness of working-time, but that any one should resist sixpence seemed an impossibility.

He must have been the most patient and delightful of nurses. I remember the haven of peace and comfort it seemed to me when I was unwell, to be tucked up on the study sofa, idly considering the old geological map hung on the wall. This must have been in his working hours, for I always picture him sitting in the horsehair arm-chair by the corner of the fire.

Another mark of his unbounded patience was the way in which we were suffered to make raids into the study when we had an absolute need of sticking-plaster, string, pins, scissors, stamps, foot-rule, or hammer. These and other such necessaries were always to be found in the study, and it was the only place where this was a certainty. We used to feel it wrong to go in during work-time; still, when the necessity was great we did so. I remember his patient look when he said once, "Don't you think you could not come in again, I have been interrupted very often." We used to dread going in for sticking-plaster, because he disliked to see that we had cut ourselves, both for our sakes and on account of his acute sensitiveness to the sight of blood. I well remember lurking about the passage till he was safe away, and then stealing in for the plaster.

Life seems to me, as I look back upon it, to have been very regular in those early days, and except relations (and a few intimate friends), I do not think any one came to the house. After lessons, we were always free to go where we would, and that was chiefly in the drawing-room and about the garden, so that we were very much with both my father and mother. We used to think it most delightful when he told us any stories about the "Beagle", or about early Shrewsbury days--little bits about school-life and his boyish tastes. Sometimes too he read aloud to his children such books as Scott's novels, and I remember a few little lectures on the steam-engine.

I was more or less ill during the five years between my thirteenth and eighteenth years, and for a long time (years it seems to me) he used to play a couple of games of backgammon with me every afternoon. He played them with the greatest spirit, and I remember we used at one time to keep account of the games, and as this record came out in favour of him, we kept a list of the doublets thrown by each, as I was convinced that he threw better than myself.

His patience and sympathy were boundless during this weary illness, and sometimes when most miserable I felt his sympathy to be almost too keen. When at my worst, we went to my aunt's house at Hartfield, in Sussex, and as soon as we had made the move safely he went on to Moor Park for a fortnight's water-cure. I can recall now how on his return I could hardly bear to have him in the room, the expression of tender sympathy and emotion in his face was too agitating, coming fresh upon me after his little absence.

He cared for all our pursuits and interests, and lived our lives with us in a way that very few fathers do. But I am certain that none of us felt that this intimacy interfered the least with our respect or obedience. Whatever he said was absolute truth and law to us. He always put his whole mind into answering any of our questions. One trifling instance makes me feel how he cared for what we cared for. He had no special taste for cats, though he admired the pretty ways of a kitten. But yet he knew and remembered the individualities of my many cats, and would talk about the habits and characters of the more remarkable ones years after they had died.

Another characteristic of his treatment of his children was his respect for their liberty, and for their personality. Even as quite a girl, I remember rejoicing in this sense of freedom. Our father and mother would not even wish to know what we were doing or thinking unless we wished to tell. He always made us feel that we were each of us creatures whose opinions and thoughts were valuable to him, so that whatever there was best in us came out in the sunshine of his presence.

I do not think his exaggerated sense of our good qualities, intellectual or moral, made us conceited, as might perhaps have been expected, but rather more humble and grateful to him. The reason being no doubt that the influence of his character, of his sincerity and greatness of nature, had a much deeper and more lasting effect than any small exaltation which his praises or admiration may have caused to our vanity.

The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, Volume I,
Francis Darwin, ed., 57-58 (1887).

2While I'm pleased to see Darwin's views on slavery given publicity--particularly given some of the recent grotesque attempts by creationists to characterize Darwin as a racist or to hold him somehow responsible for Nazism--Darwin's views on slavery and his shock at what he saw practiced in the New World while on the Beagle is hardly a new discovery and has to be well-known to anyone who's read even one decent biography of the man.

Nonetheless, if Messrs. Desmond and Moore can help repudiate some of the slanders that continue to be leveled against the great naturalist and it makes the newspapers, it's all to the good.

3I'm afraid that since I'm not as good a man as Darwin was, I also get a great deal of joy out of watching his bulldog bite.

4In science, if you don't already know, problems are a good thing. They're things to be worked on, things that make us wiser in the ways of the universe. There aren't any problems in astrology or alchemy--those are dead fields and there are no problems because there is nothing left to be solved, they are intellectual dead-ends unworthy of inquiry. The day there is nothing left to learn is the day the mind ceases to exist.


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