24 December 2012

A Rankin-Bass retrospective, part II

The Little Drummer Boy (1968)

Plot: We open to the melodious but stern voice of Miss Greer Garson whose schoolmarmish reading of scripture lets us know it's time to sit up straight, as there will be a quiz following. It's the time of Caesar Augustus and there's a "cruel tax"—although what does she think, those roads just grow on trees?—that requires everyone to shuffle through the desert in bleak, single-file lines. Everyone, that is, except the n'er-do-well entertainer, Ben Haramed (Jose Ferrer), and his cross-eyed companion, Ali (Paul Frees), who seem to be strolling through the sand dunes without a destination or provisions. Perhaps the story that follows is merely a hallucination brought about by extreme dehydration.

Here comes the titular drummer boy, Aaron (Teddy Eccles)—who is drumming, because what else would he be doing? He's accompanied by his "old friends:" the donkey, Samson; the lamb, Ben Baabaa, and the camel, Joshua, all of whom are swaying about on their spindly hind legs as though they've stepped out of a particularly apocalyptic Bosch painting. The catty Aaron is unimpressed with the animals' footwork and spurs them on like a stage mother: "be lighter! Happier!" Ali notes that "it is said" that Aaron hates all people—at eight years of age, Aaron already has a rich body of folklore surrounding him.

Ben Haramed and Ali take Aaron and his friends captive as the title song plays, unhelpfully. Ben Haramed reveals his nefarious intent of putting on a variety show for the taxpayers through the song "When the Goose is Hanging High." The connection between poultry and show business is left unmade as Garson leads us a flashback explaining why Ali hates people: this involves the onscreen knifing of his father and the offscreen murder of his mother, as well as the destruction by fire of Aaron's home. Happy Holidays, everyone!

The horror continues within the bleak gray walls of Jerusalem where Aaron is compelled to perform for a leering crowd while wearing a painted smile that would make Heath Ledger cringe. "Why can't the Animals Smile?" he sings, as his furry companions stage a bacchanal in which they pretend to be other creatures, and we recall the words of Lovecraft, that the most merciful thing in the world really is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. All this proves too much for Aaron, who finally snaps and turns on the crowd before a passing of the keffiyeh can garner a single shekel.

As luck would have it, outside the city the troupe runs into a trio of wise kings (all Paul Frees), who are uninterested in percussive music but are happy to purchase Joshua, having killed their own camel by loading it with an industrial pallet of Frankincense and Myrrh from Sam's Club. Aaron is none to happy about this and runs after the kings' caravan to be reunited with Joshua. There hasn't been quite enough tragedy in this children's story, so Baabaa is abruptly run over by an irate Centurion in a chariot, late on his way to a filming of Ben Hur.  Aaron takes his dying lamb to the stable where the kings are, and finally notices this huge star in the sky thing that's been looming overhead the entire time. Fortunately, the Messiah is hip to Aaron's crazy beats and Baabaa is miraculously healed.

Notes: This show is based on the listless, monotonous,and inexplicably popular Christmas song, written by Davis, Onorati and Simonein 1958. It never ceases to amaze me that it took three people to write the thing. The gritty sets and misshapen china-doll character designs are straight from your nightmares—or perhaps a Cold War era animation studio somewhere in Czechoslovakia. Reflecting the emerging crafts movement that would dominate the early '70s, everything is gritty and dirty and the palette runs the gamut of browns from dirt to mud. While the actual hills surrounding Jerusalem are quite lush with vegetation, this story takes place in what looks like the Gobi Desert, because it's the Middle East, am I right? 

For a children's special, The Little Drummer Boy is pretty brutal: violent death, enslavement, and the Vienna Boys' Choir all feature prominently. But it's also earnest and honest in a way that, say, The Christmas Shoes isn't, like a big sloppy dog that just wants you to love it and to forgive it for what it did to your socks. The basic message, that we should give what we can as we are able, is both theologically and ethically sound. But did they really have to make the bad guys Arabs? 

23 December 2012

A Rankin-Bass retrospective, part I

Plot: The story opens in the manner of Citizen Kane: with spinning newspapers whose headlines announce a terrible storm, because there were no bigger news stories in the early ’60s. But fear not, our narrator, Sam the Snowman, assures us that Santa will still be coughing up the presents. In fact, the next scene reveals that the greatest threat to Santa is in fact the monstrous Mrs. Claus, who is intent upon producing arterial sclerosis in the jolly old elf.

Sam introduces us to Rudolph, a reindeer who was born with a 5-watt penlight instead of a nose. Fascist parents Donner and Mrs. Donner are deeply disappointed with their minute-old offspring, as is a grumpy Santa, who nonetheless launches into the stirring “I am old Kris Kringle”.  Meanwhile, Hermey the elf tries in vain to defy his phallicly-nosed boss by becoming a dentist.  “Why am I such a Misfit?” he asks no one in particular. “Such is the life of an elf,” observes Sam, philosophically. In another part of Christmas Town, Rudolph provides a melancholy echo to Hermey’s haunting song. Somewhere in between comes the musical number “We are Santa’s Elves,” but nobody ever remembers that one anyway.

At the Reindeer Games (which are no fun at all), Rudolph’s hides his shame, allowing him to make friends with the spunky Fireball and to put some moves on the coquettish Clarice. He  blows his cover just as Santa arrives. Spurned by the beloved saint, Rudolph is nonetheless encouraged by Clarice’s observation “There’s Always Tomorrow.” Several woodland creatures seem to agree, but just as the two are about to mate, Clarice’s dad intervenes. Hermey appears and the reindeer and elf set out together to seek “Fame and Fortune,” nearly plunging off a cliff to early deaths.

Suddenly, the Abominable Snowmonster of the North appears, snarling, over the mountain tops, in a scene designed to forever scar the collective psyches of a nation’s children. For no apparent reason he allows Hermey and Rudolph to pass unmolested. The duo meet up with the prospector, Yukon Cornelius, the only competent individual in this holiday special. Sam chides Yukon’s avarice—or does he celebrate it?—with the ambivalent ditty “Silver and Gold.” Enter the Snowmonster again, attracted to little red light bulbs. Yukon saves the day with his pickaxe, leading the three to the “Island of Misfit Toys,” a bleak, pale pink land whose denizins spend all day hiding in giftwrap. The loudest of the toys is the whiny Charley-in-the-box, who sends the newcomers to the castle of King Moonraiser, this world’s secular version of Aslan. Moonraiser grudgingly allows the trio to spend the night, but in a fit of altruism, Rudolph sets off on his own to be eaten.

After growing some horns, Rudolph returns to Christmas Town only to find that his mom, dad, and girlfriend have been taken by the Snowmonster to his cave. There the cross-eyed brute drools over them for several weeks, apparently waiting for Rudolph to show up before administering the coup de grace. Rudolph fails miserably in his attempt to rescue them, but Hermey and Yukon save the day by yanking the monster’s teeth out, another scene designed to further terrify. “I’ll light the way,” Rudolph offers as they leave the cave, but no one pays his cry for attention any mind. Yukon torments the defenseless Snowmonster and ends up falling over a cliff, and by now, the shell-shocked viewer has run screaming from the room.

Of course there’s a happy reunion at the end to the tune of “Have a Holly Jolly Christmas” and Yukon and the monster aren’t really dead and  Rudolph, by virtue of his nose, gets to lead Santa’s sleigh, although a pair of headlights seems the more obvious answer.  In the most heartbreaking scene of all, the Misfit Toys weep bitterly about their apparent abandonment. “I haven’t any dreams left to dream,” states the rag doll, who has absolutely nothing wrong with her. But down comes Santa and Rudolph, and off they fly to the tune of Sam’s rendition of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”

Notes: This was the first Christmas special to be produced by Arthur Rankin and Jules Bass, and the animation has both the freshness and the funkiness of a maiden effort. The simple felt-covered characters have a tendency to sway wildly and stare blankly ahead, and the sparse, blank sets sometimes make you think you’re watching a frozen Meshes of the Afternoon.

As networks have demanded more commercial time, Rudolph has often been shortened for broadcast. I once saw an airing which cut “I am Old Chris Kringle,” yet confusingly left in Santa’s lead line “You see, Rudolph, every year I polish up my jingle bells...” before jumping to the shot of the jolly man exiting the cave. Donner’s line to the Mrs. when he sets out to find Rudolph—“This is Man’s work”—is also often cut in these more enlightened times.

Santa and Mrs. Claus are nothing like their later Rankin-Bass incarnations, and both seem to be quarrelsome and unpleasant—the Italian mother Mrs. Claus, especially. Santa calls her “Mama,” which leads to some disturbing questions about their sex life.

22 December 2012

Someday soon we all will be together

One advantage of working at a Catholic university is they take their holidays seriously. Boston College closed down for its week-plus Christmas break yesterday, although to be honest, the campus has had the population of a war zone for days now, albeit a peculiarly friendly war zone. The few faculty and staff left shuffling off the last paperwork of 2012 have displayed an affectionate, almost maudlin mood, stopping in hallways for lingering chats, hugging each other or slapping shoulders. In the locker room of the university gym, balding middle-aged guys in towels proved to be the most effusive, talking long after their saunas should have ended, gripping hands, getting up to leave and remembering one last thing. And all the conversations I heard ended the same way: "see you next year."

Next year, when you and I are older. Next year, when things will be different. Next year, when we will start all over again.

It's odd, this taking leave of each other and the year. Really, it's only a few days, like any others. We know, of course, that calendars are made up and every day, every minute, starts a new year if you want it to. Perhaps the Mayans had it right, and we should reckon our years from the winter solstice, when days wax in length—that, at least, has some poetry to it, assuming you live north of the equator.

But however arbitrary our measures are, they carry a psychic punch. We feel it, this passing of the year, and what's more, we need it. This year, like all, was hard. Sometimes, the world has to end. The Mayans were right about that, too.

19 December 2012

Don't want no trouble here in my place

The West never happened. Cowboys in the 19th century were not, by and large, self-driven lonely men making their own lives on their own terms. They were extremely poor. They were employed by eastern meat-packing firms and were lucky if they owned their own kits. A large number—perhaps a half—were Mexican or freed African-Americans; in addition there were Native Peoples and Chinese on the range. But mythical cowboys loom large in the consciousness of the United States, as does the idea of fending for oneself and making your way by the seat of your pants and the sweat off your brow. This heroic vision of the cowboy as a master of survival, handy with a gun, and ready to fight for what's right grew out of the Wild West shows of Buffalo Bill and others and eventually reached its pure form in the Hollywood films of the 1950s.

Those films were a treasure trove of clichés that all of us know even if we've never seen High Noon. The lone deputy defending the town; the saloon with its rinky-tink piano and swinging doors; the crazy prospector who just struck it rich; the defenseless homesteader in need of saving. One particularly well-worn trope is a scene played over and over in many Westerns: a gunman strides into the bar; patrons look up from their drinks or cards nervously. The bartender spies the man's firearm and shouts "You have to leave your weapon at the door. Don't want no trouble here in my place."

It's telling that this scene is such a common chestnut in the midst of a genre that celebrates the ideal of gun ownership. The barkeep and the patrons recognize the introduction of danger. Perhaps the gunman is virtuous and poses no threat. Perhaps his intent is only to protect himself and others. But the presence of the gun itself invites all sorts of mischief. Someone else could get their hands on the gun. Someone else could feel threatened and respond with violence. Someone else could get shot when the gunman draws. Trouble here in my place.

I get it. The desire to protect yourself and to protect others is strong, even noble, and it's wrapped up with a lot of stuff we like to believe about masculinity, self-sufficiency, and competence. The world is full of real, actual threats and we want to take action against them. It's possible that you could own a gun and train carefully with that gun and keep it maintained and secure and that one day you will save the life of someone you love by shooting dead a very bad person. Here are some other, perhaps likelier outcomes: You could try to shoot the bad person and instead have the weapon turned against you. You could try to shoot the bad person and kill someone else, perhaps the person you were trying to defend. The bad person will see you have a gun and become much more dangerous.

Even more likely are the outcomes that don't involve self-defence: The weapon will remain unused, but you yourself will become more paranoid and hardened to the world. You could have a very bad day and reach for a convenient way out. You could have a very bad argument with someone you love and whom you would've forgiven if you'd only had the time. You could think that you were shooting a bad person and will instead kill a frightened teenager in a hoodie. You could be a responsible, safe, licensed owner and one day someone very close to you will kill you with your weapon and then kill many others, mostly children. 

This is why many of us are skeptical of the idea that we'd all be much safer if more of us were armed. We are all too aware of the possibilities. It's not even that we don't trust you—although really, we don't know you—it's that we can feel, instinctively, the way that the presence of one more weapon makes the situation that much more unstable. Trouble. Here in our place.

05 July 2012

Embrace the Void!

We all have favorite books that we re-read compulsively when we're sick; or favorite movies which we can't help but watch again while channel surfing, even though we own the five-disc collector's Blu-ray. There are songs that we want sung at our funerals even if the choice might only pile confusion onto the grief of the mourners (Radiohead's "Airbag" for me, please). And then there are works of art that aren't necessarily favorites, whose aesthetic merits we would be hard-pressed to defend, but which were somehow at the right place at the right time to burrow deep into our subconscious like psychic earwigs.

Back in the day, when comic books were still mainly sold in five and dimes, the practice was for unsold issues to have their covers torn off and sent back to the distributors. While technically these books were supposed to be written off, some did re-emerge at the very bottom of the retail food chain in plastic bags sold three for a dollar. I believe that it may have been through this dicey trafficking that a copy of Marvel Presents #7 (1976) made its way into my older brother's hands. All I know is that the ragged, torn, and smudged copy I re-read compulsively for the next several years of my young life never had a cover, which only added to the aura of mystery of the thing.

Also adding to the mystery: I had no idea who any of the characters were, or what the events leading up to this comic were, only HOLY HELL THIS MAKES NO SENSE. The story—titled "Embrace the Void!"—involved a group who called themselves "the Guardians of the Galaxy," only apparently the main characters in the story didn't consider themselves members. They are a ragtag group of aliens from various planets—Mercury, Jupiter, and Pluto are mentioned—and for some reason they are visiting the Convent of Living Fire, a nunnery run by a sisterhood of green webbed-handed zealots whose religion involves a process of psychic self-immolation resulting in oneness with the universe, as well as eventually collapsing into a pile of ashes. Nikki, the voluptuous, flame-headed Mercurian who may or may not be a member of the group is being encouraged by Starhawk, the omniscient and brooding instigator who is definitely not a member of the group, to undergo the ritual that will result in her combustion.  An explanation as to why she must do this is not forthcoming.

Neither is there an explanation of a sudden cutaway scene occurring in a spaceship orbiting the convent's planet. Only it's not a planet per se, it's an enormous man, the "Topographical Man," whose body spans light years and who holds twin stars in his grasp. Aboard this ship a final member of the Guardians, Vance Astro, is locked in a psychic battle with a creature who has assumed his appearance, a battle he apparently loses when he collapses to the floor. And then there's yet another jump-cut to a scene that chilled me to my eight-year-old core: a shattered biodome floating through space with a frozen horse suspended lifelessly within. This is apparently Starhawk's home, but the narrative doesn't dwell on this scene of distruction: we return to Nikki, who has willingly strapped herself to a ritualistic throne and burst into flame in a scene which can only be described as orgasmic, although that particular detail only became clear to me years later.

Adding to the mélange of crazed hedonism, Starhawk suddenly lurches forward in the grips of his own spasms, and beats a hasty retreat from the temple, pursued by the Plutonian member of the group, a figure composed of silicon who can apparently melt solid rock with his hands. When the crystal pursuer reaches his prey, Starbuck confuses the sexuality of children across the nation by transforming into a woman (his outfit also morphs into something much more revealing). Before you can say weirdest boner, the scene cuts once again to the orbiting spaceship, where—surprise!—instead of having been defeated, Vance Astro has merely switched minds with his foe. But before he can luxuriate in his own new body, he dissipates, his consciousness seeping out of the ship into space to become part of the Topographical Man (remember him?)

And just in time, too, because the now engulfed-in-flames Nikki has astrally projected herself into space as a translucent naked entity—to engage in congress with the celestial humanoid, whose mind is now at least partially Astro's. Yes, that's right: this has all been leading up to a ghost fucking a planet. Which causes the planet to explode. Which is…good, I guess? Apparently this Topographical Man has been absorbing other planets, which is bad, although the inhabitants of these worlds seem to have done all right for themselves starting strange religions and constructing huge convents and all. Somehow the Guardians all escape, leaving presumably billions of the Topographical Man's inhabitants to die, but they seem happy enough with what they've done to call it a victory. Nor do they seem all that surprised that their companion Starhawk is now a chick, but that will apparently be resolved in another issue.

Except for me there was no other issue. Until I became an adult, this coverless issue was my one and only glimpse into this crazy universe and to say it left me with questions would be an understatement. But in spite of my confusion, the comic book haunted me. Actually, the confusion only fanned the flames of my obsession. This was a window into something cosmic, bizarre, and intensely sexual in a way that broke my brain. It made me feel like I was reading something forbidden that was just on the verge of making sense. And the art! The gorgeous sinewy line work by Al Milgrom, given a Kirbiesque flair by inker Bob Wiacek, so much more visceral and connected to the id than any digitally produced comics today. The author of this story was none other than Steve Gerber, writer of Howard the Duck, which makes perfect sense.

In recent years I've tracked down copies of the other issues in this run of stories—copies with their covers intact—and while the plot lines are more or less explained, I can't say that knowledge has led to enlightenment. I can now place this comic in the context of the culture of the mid-70s, of waning psychedelia's last gasps and a counterculture being absorbed into the mainstream. I can also see the comic for the narrative and derivative mess it sometimes is. But that doesn't matter. The damage was done long ago, and for that I'm grateful.

31 May 2012

Dial M for museum

At the museum where I work we don't have a receptionist for the office. Callers to our main line are given a message with the current exhibition and hours of operation; for a menu with more information they're instructed to press 5, or to leave a message just wait for the tone.

Today I was checking the messages and I heard a faint clicking noise that I couldn't place at first. Then I realized it was a rotary dial. Then a pause, and then a frustrated elderly voice said "that was five."

18 May 2012

Come and get it

Back in the heady days of the first dot com boom, when I had my first grownup design job making state-of-the-art websites using HTML 2.0 and horrible table layouts, there was a lot of chatter about whether people "got" the Web or not. Project managers with copies of the Industry Standard tucked under their tribally-tattooed arms would wax poetic on how important it was to "get" the Web, by which they meant how important it was for clients to trustingly write checks to companies that hadn't existed the previous month and who still hadn't quite finalized their business model. The party line was that the Web would make all previous modes of communication and commerce obsolete in ways you couldn't imagine. What ways, you ask? Sounds like someone doesn't "get" the Web.

I was a cynic then, and I became more of a cynic after I eventually got laid off after the bubble burst in 2002, but even buzzwords can be true sometimes. By the mid 2000's I had left dot coms for dot edus and was working at my present job at the McMullen Museum of Art at Boston College. One initiative I introduced was to produce our own audio tours and distribute them on click wheel iPods, which were at the time cutting edge. The tours worked well with two issues: first, some visitors didn't have the tightest grasp on those slick little bricks and the hard drives inside were not so resistant to four-foot drops; and second, many of our elder visitors didn't "get" the iPod. They would ask for instructions and I would explain how to use the wheel to select a piece of audio and then to play it and then how to adjust the volume and then—

"Wait, didn't you say the wheel was for selecting a recording?"


"Now you say it's for making it louder."

"Yes, but—"

"Well, which is it, young man? It can't be both."

I must have explained those iPods hundreds of times over the years we used them (we're switching to mobile HTML5 apps as soon as I can figure those out) and over time I realized that the underlying issue older visitors had with the devices was the contextual nature of the controls. For those of us who had come of age using general purpose devices, the idea of one button, one feature would be absurd. But for these visitors, an audio tour meant punching a number into a phone-shaped player. One number, one recording, the way God intended. 

I was thinking of those frustrated visitors recently when it dawned on me exactly why I hate texting. Yes, I have become an old man myself and yes, I've discovered the first bit of new technology that I don't "get." What's puzzled me is why I've had such a negative response to texting, given my history: I was in the first generation to have home computers back when they called them home computers. I IRC'ed and Usenetted in the days before the Web and taught myself to code HTML by hand. Okay, so I started blogging ten years after blogs were a thing, but I've never been one to not at least give tech a chance. And texting? That's just sending words over a phone, why the hate?

The answer came to me when I was responding to a text from my daughter. We were at PAX East together and had split up so she could attend a session while I took my son to the expo floor. She sent me a text asking for navigational help and I started to respond when she sent me another text complaining about the quality of the map she was using. I was still responding to the first text when she texted again with another question and asked me to hurry up and why was I such a loser. Then I realized: I was trying to text asynchronously as though I were having an email conversation and she was using text as a form of synchronous chat. I was irritated because I wanted it to be one or the other but it's both, and that's why this generation of users likes it so much; you can initiate a conversation as either real-time or taking turns and then switch it up as you like.

But an old grump like me wants either-or. I like the epistolary nature of email and I like the ephemeral nature of chat and I like the idea of different ways to communicate. So now that I know what the issue is, I'm left with the question. Do I "get" texting and just not like it? Or if I really "got" it, wouldn't I embrace it? 

14 May 2012

Red pill blue pill

Friend and ex-coworker John Siracusa—the man who taught me to always validate my web markup—has a podcast, Hypercritical, ostensibly about Apple Computers but increasingly about whatever he wants to complain about. Last Friday's episode covered a variety of topics, but of interest to me was his discussion of patents, beginning at 1:16:30. Examining the mess that is the modern patent system, he talks about how as a programmer he has long been against software patents, but that as time has gone on he's become against process patents until he's arrived at the point that he sees all patents as a hindrance to innovation and commerce.

Siracusa isn't the first to advocate scrapping patents altogether (here's an annotated treatise if you're interested in delving deeper), and I'm not going to summarize his arguments, but there was one point he raised to which I wanted to respond. Siracusa mentioned that he thinks the strongest case for patents was pharmaceutical companies and their need for an incentive to foot the bill for the research, development, and clinical trials. The argument goes, why would anyone front so much money to bring a drug to market without the assurance that competitors wouldn't swoop in with their own versions of the product?

This case for patents carries emotional weight—when it comes to potential life-saving treatments, who wants to stand in the way? But if we can view the argument with a dispassionate eye we can see that drug patents fail in ways characteristic to the patent system in general. Patents incentivize treatments for the most lucrative medical problems and not the most pressing ones. One of the most devastating diseases in the world in terms of the number of people affected and the severity of suffering is malaria; however, it's a disease limited to the tropics, and unfortunately the populations most hit are not markets with deep pockets. On the other hand, we sure do have a lot of erectile disfunction meds available these days—because boner pills are by definition made for sale to rich old men.

The fact that business models are built around the pursuit of exclusive products also leads to avoiding incremental innovation, even when that might be the most expedient course. There may be alternative therapeutic uses for existing medicines, or there may be more effective formulations, or better production methods, or new modes of delivery—but when R&D is focused on what is patentable, obvious and fruitful research will be passed over. In the absence of intellectual monopolies, companies might turn to more focused improvements and diversification as a way to distinguish themselves, instead of looking for the next big payday.

08 May 2012

Surrender to the void

The final sequence of this Sunday's Mad Men features a puzzled Don Draper listening to the Beatles' song "Tomorrow Never Knows." He's doing this at the suggestion of his much younger wife who wants him to be more in tune with what's going on in 1966. It's an odd choice—even now, three dozen years later, it's like giving someone who wants to understand James Joyce a copy of Finnegan's Wake. In any case, it's all too much for Don, who pulls the needle.

My wife and I watch the show together and we discussed how rare it is to hear an actual Beatles recording (not a cover) as part of a soundtrack and she wondered how much the producers had to pay. Well, the answer came today in a New York Times article: $250K. Producer Matthew Weiner, interviewed in the piece, focuses on his goal of authenticity to the period: “In my heart, I operate in a realistic world because I’m producing a TV show. I never, ever think about that—‘Oh, let’s not have a song here so I can save some money.’” Of Apple Corps (the corporation that acts on behalf of the Beatles and their heirs) and their requirements, which in addition to the money included review of the story ahead of time, Weiner says:
Whatever people think, this is not about money. It never is. They are concerned about their legacy and their artistic impact.
Weiner is being charitable, and he may believe this, but I find the argument that the best way to ensure the artistic integrity of the Beatles' œuvre is to make it so only very rich people can use it specious. The song was used to great thematic effect in Mad Men, but perhaps there are any number of student filmmakers who might use it to even greater effect, not to mention dancers or mashup artists. And even if the song were used poorly—say to sell sneakers—let's say Nikes—how would that tarnish the original work unless it were cynically sold at a great price?

"Tomorrow Never Knows" is a particularly interesting song to examine from a rights perspective. It's credited to the songwriting team of Lennon and McCartney, but it was written by Lennon, or rather it was Lennon who came up with the ten or so repeated sonorous notes. The actual words were adapted from The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead, which was co-written by Timothy Leary (among others). But the passages used are from the Bardo Tholo, an 8th Century Buddhist funerary text attributed by tradition to Padmasambhava. So who ultimately wrote the lyrics? Musically, the importance of the song is not its (barely-present) melody or its droning harmonic structure, but its use of audio loops, a technique borrowed from Stockhausen. McCartney was interested in the avant-garde approach but it was George Martin and several EMI technicians that actually got it to work. So who ultimately made the song? And which amongst them will receive a portion of the $250K?

Defenders of copyright maximalism—those who seek ever-longer copyright terms and ever-broader interpretations for what is defined as use—like to characterize copyright reform as an effort to deprive artists of what is rightfully theirs. But for those of us who look at news of absurd fees for forty-six-year-old recordings with alarm rather than amusement, it's not about getting things for free. Because ultimately the losers here aren't the two unfathomably rich corporations exchanging money—it's all the rest of us who are prohibited from using a work that was created in the first place from the culture at large.

Through the dark, out of his clothes

Sendak's death has hit me hard, as I'm sure it has for anyone whose childhood was after 1960. Whenever a touchstone figure from our collective childhoods dies, the boundaries between public and private dissolve and our most intimate memories are revealed as shared experience. If you're old enough to remember watching the Muppet Show during its original run you know what I mean. So it is with Sendak: all of us remember being sent to our rooms without any supper, and the forest that grew and grew and grew until the ceiling hung with vines and the walls became the world all around.

And yet, memory is also specific, and Sendak's particular, peculiar role in my childhood was not only as a mirror to my own psychology but as my first bridge to times and places not my own. When I read (or more properly, when my mother read to me) In the Night Kitchen there was a rich strangeness that went far beyond the dream-logic of the plot. There was an odd cadence that I could not place: the strange clipped exclamations in the word balloons. Many years later (when I was ten) I discovered Little Nemo in Slumberland in a collection of old comic strips and my head exploded. Theme, plot, an style had been stolen from the 1905 cartoon, but they had also been transformed into something new.

Sendak's world was full of the stuff of his own life as the child of Polish Jewish immigrants in Brooklyn, but it was also full of Oliver Hardy and Mickey Mouse and Tin Pan Alley and all of that rattled around in his mind and spilled onto his pages. As child I puzzled over who these strange identical cooks were and why they were intent on baking Mickey and those second- and third-hand memories stuck with me until I was old enough to understand whence they came.

So to Mr. Sendak, my thanks for the following lessons: The world is a very big place and very old. The past is still with us and will always be. Nostalgia isn't only for your own memories.

12 April 2012

A penny and a half for your thoughts

So Canada has decided to stop minting pennies. It's a boldly unilateral move; for a country that complains about being seen as an appendage of the United States, they sure do love copying our coins—not only in denomination but in the same exact size, thus ruining countless laundry days for American apartment dwellers in what can only be seen as a vast passive-agressive conspiracy.

But my point is not numismatic plagiarism; my point is that in explaining why Canada will no longer be striking Elizabeth II's profile in copper, the Canadian Finance Minister, Jim Flaherty, gave the reason "It costs taxpayers a penny-and-a-half every time we make one," which is a textbook stupid argument that sounds smart. There are many reasons one could give to stop minting pennies—they represent a unit of value that is too small to be useful; they cost too much when compared with their utility; they all end up in a big heap on your dresser and when you try your best to quietly remove them from your pocket at night you end up spilling them everywhere and waking your long-suffering wife—but to complain that the cost of producing a coin is more than its face value is to misunderstand how money works in a spectacular way and makes me wonder if Mr. Flaherty also thinks that banks are huge money bins in which millionaires swim through gold coins.

If you sift through your own personal pile of pennies on your dresser, you are almost certain to find pennies from the 70's and 80's. You are not that unlikely to find ones from the 50's and 60's, and still-circulating coins from the 40's and earlier are out there. In a year's time a penny may be used in dozens of transactions; by the time it rolls behind the couch of history, a coin may well have been used in thousands. This is because money is not used up when it is used.

So I'm belaboring this point, or as my friends to the North would say, "belabouring." (Did you know those extra U's cost millions of dollars a year? But they're Canadian dollars, so it's not such a big deal.) But the Finance Minister's glib remark touches a nerve with me. Not for any love of pennies—they should all be melted for circuit boards—but because it perfectly encapsulates how a clever turn of phrase will always beat out a well-reasoned argument, particularly in the face of complexity. "It costs a penny and a half." "Corporations are people." "Nine, nine, nine." Sometimes you have to sweat the details. Otherwise, you're both penny and pound foolish.

24 February 2012

The Borrowers

There's an old joke that goes, "for Lent, I'm giving up abstinence." It's one of those throwaway clichés that hides a serious idea. The forgoing of luxuries on Lent is built on the idea that privation is good for the soul. The contemporary rationale for doing this is that giving up is a form of spiritual discipline, emphasizing the gifts of the spirit over earthly goods. It is, however, also rooted in an ancient and medieval distrust of the desires of the flesh. In Summa Theologica, for example, Aquinas discusses the Lenten fast as having been designed to cut down on sperm counts:
[…] fasting was instituted by the Church in order to bridle the concupiscences of the flesh, which regard pleasures of touch in connection with food and sex. […] Such [foods] are the flesh of animals that take their rest on the earth, and of those that breathe the air and their products, such as milk from those that walk on the earth, and eggs from birds. For, since such like animals are more like man in body, they afford greater pleasure as food, and greater nourishment to the human body, so that from their consumption there results a greater surplus available for seminal matter, which when abundant becomes a great incentive to lust.
I'm not singling out Catholicism here—Judaism and Islam have their days of fasting; asceticism is practiced in Yogic and Buddhist traditions. There are secular equivalents, too, in the practice of "detoxification" or athletes refraining from sex the day before the big match. We humans seem very distrustful of our bodies, and sometimes with good reasons. Left unchecked, desires can distract us from what is necessary or lead obsessively to our ruin. But—and admittedly I'm speaking here from a purely secular, non-religious standpoint—our desires are also who we are and determine what our possibilities might be. Ultimately, what we do for pleasure are the things that teach us our truest selves, the things that lift us, however briefly, out of mere existence. I've alluded to it before, but "(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (to Party)" is a very wise song masquerading as a very silly song.

In this spirit I'd like to offer up a new tradition, not an alternative to Lent, but in conversation with Lent. I suggest that this secular festival be called "Borrowing"—not an exact parallel tense-wise, but you get the idea. For this forty days I challenge you to take on a luxury of some sort. It could be a new food, a new activity, a new sexual position. It doesn't have to be a vice per se, but in honor of the election, you get extra points if your new habit would make Rick Santorum cry. The important thing is that you follow this taking-on where it leads you. Indulge yourself. Give your new thing a chance. Maybe it will turn out you don't like it, maybe it will change you deeply and permanently. Either way it will be a success.

Some suggestions: try not to make your Borrowing taking-on simply be more of something you already like. The spirit of Borrowing is the widening of possibilities and the re-imagining of one's self through one's passions. You might use this Borrowing time to try out something you always had meant to get around to: learning to dance salsa, writing a book. Or you might use this time to try out something you're sure you don't like but which brings pleasure to others: country music, say, or gin, or licorice. Maybe if you're inspired it will be a chance for you to do something you've always thought was wrong.

01 February 2012

Checkmate, I think

A box office flop in 1982, Ridley Scott's Blade Runner today enjoys a preeminent position in geek culture: the first (and best) movie adaptation of Philip K. Dick, whose dystopian vision set the art direction for hundreds of later films. But the best thing about the movie is the way it perfectly demonstrates two hilarious Hollywood clichés. The first is the "enlarge and enhance" scene, where Harrison Ford's character reviews a surveillance video and instructs the computer to not only zoom in on a hopelessly out-of-focus scene and fill in the detail, but also to look magically change the camera angle to look around a doorframe. The second is the "check...checkmate!" scene, where the crafty replicant, Roy Batty, instructs the genetic designer J. F. Sebastian on how to defeat the mastermind Dr. Eldon Tyrell at chess in the following bit of dialog, conducted over the building intercom:
Computer:New entry. A Mr. J. F. Sebastian. 1-6-4-1-7.
Tyrell:At this hour? What can I do for you Sebastian.
Sebastian:Queen to Bishop 6. Check.
Tyrell:Nonsense. Just a moment. Mmm. Queen to Bishop 6. Ridiculous. Queen to Bishop 6. Hmm... Knight takes Queen.—What's on your mind Sebastian? What are you thinking about?
Roy:(whispered) Bishop to King 7. Checkmate.
Sebastian:Bishop to King 7. Checkmate, I think.
Tyrell:Got a brainstorm, huh, Sebastian? Milk and cookies kept you awake? Let's discuss this. You better come up, Sebastian.
Anyone who has logged more than a few games knows that that is some wiggy chess right there. Barring obvious blunders, successful play is a matter of gaining slow advantages, developing your position, and calculated sacrifices. Winning is never sudden; instead it's a slow build towards an increasingly unavoidable conclusion. But in movies it's always "Wot ho, I do believe you'll find that is check." "Is that so, now. In that case...checkmate! Sorry, old bean."

This is the Romance of Genius: the mistaken belief that brainstorms are at the heart of problem-solving. It's the lightbulb-over-the-head concept of invention or the sing-to-me-O-Muse concept of creativity. I'm not saying that Aha! moments don't happen; it's just that they're very rare, and usually come as the result of slow, deliberate, and incremental work. (See Stephen Johnson's concept of the "slow hunch" in his talk Where do Good Ideas Come From.) The most important ingredient to being creative is to show up. The most productive period of my life for writing was when I was in a creative writing program that required its fellows to write two short stories every week. How did we come up with all the ideas? We didn't have a choice. Scheherazade probably didn't know she had all those stories in her before she had a sword at her throat.

One reason I'm obsessed with copyright and patent reform is I'm convinced that our laws are based on this faulty premise of how creativity happens. By fetishizing novelty we devalue work that is derivative, collaborative, or interpretive. But more often than not, innovation is an emergent quality that arises from combining what is already at hand rather than from creating something original. A good example of this is the iPad. When it was introduced, detractors branded it as nothing new—simply a collection of existing technologies. And even as that, it was missing some obvious features. But none of that mattered to the users who sat down with one for the first time and found its particular mixture of form and function at once humanistic and compelling. Similarly, Edison was not the inventor of the incandescent lamp, but it was his laboratory that found the right combination of filament and vacuum  that made the lightbulb a practical invention.

I don't want to discredit the role of intuition, of the flash of insight. But "sudden" inspiration is always the result of hard work, patterns of thought, and cultural context. It might not be as showy as an unexpected checkmate. That's because real chess is a conversation.

30 January 2012

Just the last (bite-sized) bill

The last of my suggested IP reform bills deal with patent law, the oldest form of intellectual property and in many ways the most counterproductive to its alleged goal of promoting innovation. Originally an incentive for discovery, these days patents tend to scare inventors and especially developers from R & D because of the very good odds that in doing so they will invite a lawsuit from the holder of an obscure and/or overly-broad patent.

Patent Bill #1

Inasmuch as patents are granted to promote innovation, patents which remain unused in production for five years are considered invalid.

The "Use it or Lose It Act." The word "patent" reflects the goal of the law: to make new discoveries openly known and available for use. In the absence of exclusive licensing rights, the argument goes, inventors would keep their discoveries secret and the public would not benefit. But with the ever-increasing number of patents given for ever more vague "innovations" we have seen the rise of patent trolls, who acquire patents not to license but to keep in secrecy, waiting for an opportunity to bring suit against eventual infringers. And with the right combination of poorly-defined patents, "infringement" is only a matter of time. One way to fix this mess is to make the test for a patent's uniqueness and un-obviousness more stringent, but that would require sweeping, complex changes to the approvals process. This bill represents a much simpler approach: make rights holders earn their exclusivity by demonstrating that they're acting in good faith.

Patent Bill #2

While recognizing that modifying an organism's genetics may be beneficial, an organism is ultimately the product of the natural world and as such, ineligible for patent.

The "It's Alive! Act." Mapping genomes and splicing genetic material to alter food organisms may or may not be a good thing for consumers, depending on the situation. But the practice of patenting crops is always bad for farmers. Horror stories abound of patent holders of seeds charging growers with violations because their corn had the bad manners to mingle with the airborne pollen from a licensed hybrid. Or farmers are forbidden from setting aside seed for next year's planting. Setting aside the fact that the genetic material existed prior to any modification, life really is a category apart.

So these are my counter-proposals to SOPA. And while I doubt that Chris Dodd would approve of them, I believe that careful correction of the overreach of intellectual property laws would ultimately benefit rights holders more than would increasingly strong-arm tactics. After all, artists, inventors, and other creators are victims of the chilling effects of IP as much as everyone else. Less expansive yet better defined rights are easier to defend—and more likely to enjoy goodwill. All it takes is some innovation.

26 January 2012

Just another (bite-size) bill

One of the remarkable things about the anti-SOPA blackout is that laypeople actually understood the issue. The hardest thing about intellectual property is getting people to care; for most the subject is hopelessly abstract. With that in mind, I've tried to make these bills as compact and pointed as possible: they're directed at specific injustices that I hope most people can understand.

Today's topic is trademark, often conflated with copyright, but whose purpose is entirely different. While Copyright exists to give artists the right to exclusively derive profit from copies of their work, Trademarks are meant to protect consumers from being sold counterfeit goods—but they have metastasized into a variety of strategies that have nothing to do with protecting the consumer and everything to do with muscling out competition by intimidation. 

Trademark Bill #1

Noting that the use of common words, sayings, phrases, folk characters, colors, and other aspects of shared culture is an effective means to produce goodwill for a product or service, these elements are ineligible for trademark, as their meanings exist prior to said product or service.

Also known as the "You Can't Trademark Brown Act." I used to work on a website about cars; there was a feature on the site called "Pickup Lines" which was about trucks. The site received a C&D letter from a man claiming to own a trademark on the term "pickup line." I think we eventually put in a hyphen or something, but the point here is this is insane. Trademarking "pickup line" makes as much sense as trademarking "Tuesday." If you want to use a common word or phrase, you should feel free, but you should not have exclusive rights to its use. (Witness the "Eat More Kale" fiasco.) While we're at it, you have every right to build an association with a color or set of colors and your product, but a color is not really something you invented.

Trademark Bill #2

Being resolved that while trademark exists to protect consumers from confusion over the origin of products or services, it is not trademark's responsibility to pre-emptively determine which product or service is connected with a proper name.

AKA the "My Name is McDonald, Too, Act." One would think that there would be nothing more natural than to use your own name in reference to yourself, but if your name is Sears, you're pretty much screwed, because of a peculiar aspect of trademark law known as trademark dilution. In the normal course of events, if I had a company called Acme that made pianos and you had a company called Acme that made anvils neither of us would violate the other's mark because we would not be in competition with each other (except, perhaps, for the coyote market share). But in the case of "famous" trademarks (and yes, that's the technical term), special protection is given because the mark is in theory so ingrained in consumers' heads that they will assume that any product with that name comes from the famous company.

The problems with this line of thought are: 1) it treats people like idiots and 2) it's a protection of the interests of the powerful against the interests of the weak, which would seem to be an inversion of the goals of trademark. In fact, this latter issue marks a lot of what's wrong with intellectual property in general, which is supposed to protect artists, inventors, and entrepreneurs from having their work taken from them, but too often becomes a cudgel for intrenched interests. A good example of the way this principle gets abused is the veronica.org domain squabble.

Tomorrow, I wrap things up and fix Patent law forever (you're welcome).

25 January 2012

Just a (bite-sized) bill

After the collapse (for now, at least) of SOPA and PIPA last week, there was a rash of opinion pieces like this one in Information Week Daily, basically saying, "okay all you naysayers, where's your alternative?" This bit of rhetoric fails in two basic ways. Firstly, it begs the question (in the "classical" or "right" use of the phrase) that there is a problem that needs solving. Secondly, it assumes that Viacom's problems are everyone's problems, and that by opposing a bad piece of legislation we are now obligated to support another bill, instead of doing the sensible thing and returning to our freewheeling and unrestrained downloading of copyrighted works, hastening the eventual collapse of civilization.

But in an effort to be more positive (it's a new year's resolution of mine) I have decided to take up the challenge and offer some alternative ideas for intellectual property bills to be brought before Congress in place of SOPA. Not having a lobbyist at hand or a medium-to-large fortune to donate to the reelection campaigns of my Representative, Stephen Lynch, or my Senators, Scott Brown and John Kerry, I'm doing the next best thing by offering these up on my blog, which on a good day gets at least two dozen views. SOPA and PIPA were targeted at protecting copyright, but in the next few days I'll go one step further and give two suggestions for reform of each of the three branches of intellectual property: copyright, trademark, and patent.

All joking aside, my goal with this exercise is to come up with bills that might actually stand some chance of passing, given a supporter in Congress. There are a lot of terribly wrong things about IP law, but the odds of sweeping reforms like rolling back the length of copyright terms or disallowing software patents are approximately none in infinity. So my suggestions will be limited to very simple bills that should be able to garner public support, while at the same time be difficult for rights holders to oppose without looking like dicks.

Copyright act #1

Being resolved that Fair Use entitles rightful owners of copyrighted materials free access to the works that they have purchased, circumvention measures employed by said owners to access arbitrarily any section of a work they have purchased are to be allowed.

Otherwise known as the "Skip Previews Act." Manufacturers of DVD and Bluray players are obligated to abide by license agreements which include not being able to avoid commercials and previews that are flagged as unskippable. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act makes all acts of "circumvention" illegal, preventing home users from modifying players to access any part of the disk that they bought. This effectively stifles Free Use, as anyone who has ever tried to show a segment of video in a classroom can attest. It is also super annoying, as anyone who wants to watch the damn film already can tell you.

Copyright act #2

Being resolved that the motivations for infringement of copyrights affects the culpability of the infringer, violations will be graded: 1st degree, 2nd degree, and unintentional.

Otherwise known as the "I only put my daughter's dance recital on YouTube Act." The (unskippable) FBI anti-piracy notice at the beginning of your DVDs lists some pretty severe penalties for unauthorized copying: up to five years in prison, up to a $250,000 fine. The severity of these punishments reflects an earlier time when mass copying was expensive and difficult enough that it was always an intentional act to defraud. But today digital copying has made infringement ubiquitous and practically unavoidable. At the same time, we recognize the difference instinctively between someone who sells unauthorized copies of an artist's work and someone who makes a home movie of their kids bopping along to "Whip My Hair." Shouldn't our penalties reflect this common-sense understanding? 

Continued tomorrow, when I offer my humble suggestions for bite-sized trademark reform.