Tuesday, May 30, 2006

From My Latest Job...

Might as well be talking about Hollywood:
"Man, I came here for a lap dance - now I'm stuck in the recruiting center for the undead."
(Yes, it really is so hard to get work during the summer that I'm happy to be cutting a film about ghouls who disguise themselves as strippers in order to lure victims to their lair.)

Did You Know? #2

A loud sound can cause you not to notice a sound that came immediately before.

... unless you're paying attention.

Want to ruin radio for yourself? Start listening for lip smacks. They'll usually come right at the beginning of a sentence...

Annoying, aren't they?

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Ecology, not Economics

In one of Philip K. Dick's short stories ("The Preserving Machine," collected in book form 1969), someone invents a machine that turns musical works into animals and bugs. His intention is to give the musical works the ability to preserve themselves, thereby ensuring their survival should civilization end and all the sheet music and recordings perish. Of course, once the creatures are released, they begin change and evolve: some become feral and vicious, one kills and devours another, and so on - and when the inventor recaptures one of the animals and turns it back into music, he finds it has become all but unrecognizable - a new thing. The song, released into the real world, has become its own creature, unpredictable and beyond its creator's control.

Property, my Aunt Barbara. This is a metaphor I can get behind.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Math Question

So I'm driving to a friend's house, and traffic is flowing well, I'm making good time, and the other side of the freeway is jammed. And I suddenly remember something rather important that I've left at home. But even though it's only a couple of miles behind me, there's no way I'm going back for it, because it would take forever.

So here's my question: Why is it called the commutative property?

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Set My People (or whatever) Free!

Okay, copyright isn't like property. What is it like? Anybody?

Stewart Brand famously opined that information wants to be free; but this was only half of his insight. The other half is far-less-often-quoted, because far less appealing to the utopian DIY visions of technologically advanced anarchists, not to mention scofflaw DVD-rippers and impecunious college students with constant access to unlimited bandwidth:

On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it's so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other.

Which reminds me in turn of this old chestnut:

Man is born free but is everywhere in chains.

The debate over copyright bears more than a passing resemblance to debates over immigration. Think of the Public Domain as a place. Think of the RIAA as the Minutemen - strident, self-righteous, willing to go to absurd lengths to police a porous border. Think of the DMCA as a big fence that the industry-owned Congress decided to erect along that border. And Sony/BMG's catalogue? Is making a run for it, cause that's where the action is.

Is information property? Well, you can try to make it property by definition, but be aware that you are doing violence to your term. Stretch it too far, and it might not snap back when you need it to. The emphasis on the economics of IP is all about the creators and - mostly - the corporate "owners" of ideas. They want, reasonably enough, to get paid. But who speaks for the songs?

We should be thinking of ways to make those songs productive citizens, not plotting to re-forge their manacles. Yes, they have to pay their income taxes. Yes, if you put them to work, you are responsible for checking their identification; you are responsible for withholding and insurance and if you let them drive a company car, you're liable if they do something illegal. But - yes - they have lives of their own. They have families, relatives, hobbies. They're part of the culture, and they deserve respect, too.

Information is born free, but is everywhere in chains. The next frontier in civil rights?

Free culture!

The Awful Truth

There is no such thing as human nature.

Internet Artifact

Now this is weird. I'm not sure what it means, except by using the forbidden phrases "vacuum cleaner" and "bag" in close proximity... my blog entry got sucked up by a vacuum cleaner-like robot at cleaning-cleaners.com.

That can't possibly be useful to anybody.

Vacuum cleaner bag.
Vacuum cleaner bag.
Vacuum cleaner bag.
Vacuum cleaner bag.

Ladies and gentlemen, he does it without copying and pasting!

Property, Schmoperty

One can look at anything as anything else, and what does it get you but a headache?
(Fredric Brown)
There has been some discussion… well, no. There has been occasional mention of the possibility that some might hold the opinion that using the word "property" in this context might be a problem, in that it wrongly frames the issues, drives sloppy thinking, and encourages the misapplication of legal and economic principles drawn from the much older, broader, more respectable, and thoroughly unrelated field of real property law. From this characterization it should be clear what side I come down on. My own opinion can be expressed in a single word: duh. Of course it's a problem, when people routinely miscategorize something important. Bad nomenclature drives sloppy thinking. Sloppy thinking? Bad.

"Intellectual property," so-called, is not property. It is in fact almost entirely unlike property. If you take possession of someone else's song for your own use, are you depriving its rightful owner of that use? Well... no. If you download a song from Limewire, is there some poor listener who will not have an opportunity to hear it? Quite the opposite. If you build a house on your song... the whole notion makes no sense.

Calling protected creations "intellectual property" shifts the focus from the process - copyright - to the thing. But copyrightable works are not really "things," any more than ideas are "things." Copyrightable works are, in fact, ideas... to muddy the waters only slightly, they are ideas which have been "fixed in tangible form." The distinction between ideas and things is elementary, but using the phrase "intellectual property" erases that clear and obvious distinction.

To term electronic filesharing, however unethical or illegal it may be, "piracy," is to grossly misconstrue both copyright infringement and piracy. Pirates don't, on the one hand, work for free. Copyright infringement doesn't, on the other hand, involve theft in any meaningful sense. The MPAA's advertising campaign equating illegal downloading with carjacking and shoplifting is the logical extension of their way of framing the problem; unfortunately, in trying to raise public awareness, they succeed most notably in destroying their own credibility; casting their opponents as villains, they succeed only in encouraging villainy.

The currency of ideas, insofar as the reductive notions of the Dismal Science are applicable, is not Money; it is Credit. When a screenwriter claims that someone "stole his idea," it's not like someone stole his car. He still has his idea. He's just not being given credit for it. Yes, of course, the "credit" can, in many cases, be assigned a rough monetary value. (Anything can be assigned a monetary value. It can be assigned a color, too. Or a smell. That doesn't mean it means anything.) But an idea is not property, a right to copy is not ownership, and an infringement is not theft. The courts occasionally indicate that they understand this. The remedy for a case of "idea theft" is not to take the idea away and return it to its rightful owner; the remedy is, or should be, to force the acknowledgement of proper credit to the originator of the idea, and to make sure that the infringer does not profit unduly from the appropriation.

I know I'm not going to make anyone stop using the term. "Intellectual property" sounds a hell of a lot sexier than any of the alternatives, and I'd hate to think some poor patent attorney couldn't get a conversation going at a party, just because he had to honestly describe what he really did for a living. And in fact, I'm not going to stop using the term myself, any more than I'm going to start saying "randomly generated number" instead of "random number."

I'm just saying.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Free At Last!

So here's the 250 word essay that didn't get me into Yale.


The Recording Industry Association of America threatens a twelve-year-old girl with a multi-million dollar lawsuit for allegedly sharing music online.

The Motion Picture Association of America’s latest PR campaign equates downloading movies with stealing cars.

Sony BMG releases music CDs that secretly install virus-like software on customers’ computers. The software restricts file copying, but also leaves the computers wide open to attack by hackers. Attempting to remove it causes irreversible damage.

Bullies. Liars. Vandals.

Think of the public’s goodwill as a finite resource, like a well: renewable if properly managed, it can also be so thoroughly polluted as to become useless, even downright dangerous. Sony, the RIAA, the MPAA, are poisoning that well – a well from which they (and others) must still drink.

Of course, corporate arrogance, wrongdoing, and plain bad judgment are nothing new. What is new is that the balance of power has shifted. In this age of perfect reproduction and near-universal access, the outraged (and the merely annoyed) have strong weapons at their disposal.

In 1999, a Church of England pastor named John Papworth became briefly notorious by preaching that it was not necessarily wrong to steal from a supermarket, because “You can only have a relationship with a person, you don’t have a moral relationship with things. That is a power relationship.” Regardless of what one thinks of Papworth’s moral theology, it is seductive reasoning when corporations actually do begin to behave like people – people who believe they have rights, but no responsibilities.


I know, it's way too didactic, not an argument but an anecdote. And it didn't work, either.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Oh, Yeah, I Was Going to Law School...

And then there were the halcyon days (and nights, and weekends) of pilot season... and all thought of law school was driven from my mind.

So anyway, it's gonna be Boalt Hall for me. (Should I be trying for more anonymity? I guess not. I mean, how many former sound editors in their forties with two kids do I think are going to be attending a law school in the Bay Area?) It was going to be Boalt anyway - once I got in - for a number of reasons. My only regret - besides the enormous debt I'll be incurring - is that neither Harvard, Yale, nor Stanford admitted me. Cause I did so want to turn them down...

We still haven't found housing, which is a source of mild worry, which no doubt will soon be upgraded to a tropical worry and then to hurricane-level worry. Berkeley's married student housing is undergoing major construction: a few years ago we had a nightmarish summer living in the midst of construction, and we want no part of it. Unfortunately, the alternative may involve finding our own place to live, which we would really, really rather not have to undertake at this point. Once we're there, maybe.

And packing is fun, too. We went to Costco and got a bunch of those heavy-duty plastic bags, the ones with a nozzle so you can attach your vacuum cleaner to the bag and zoop - reduce your blankets, sweaters, quilts, socks, whatnot... to a hard, wrinkled hunk of plastic. (Why do we have so many sweaters? We live in Los Angeles, for God's sake. I may have worn a sweater twice in the past fifteen years.)

But today I'm supposed to be working at home. Can you tell?

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Drive Time Report

I've been listening all week to old - public-domain old - blues and country songs off of Internet Archive. Boy has learned most of the lyrics to Hallelujah! I'm a Bum; Girl has learned the tune, at least. She might have learned the lyrics, too, but I'm not smart enough to understand them in her language.

So the other night I went out and bought a copy of The Old, Weird America. Maybe I can finish it before I start school. Maybe - maybe! - I'll learn to like Bob Dylan. It could happen.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Did You Know?

Loud sounds can mask ambience changes. Sometimes in smoothing dialogue, an abrupt change to a different background sounds smoother than a more gradual change, because the ear is distracted by the louder sound and doesn't notice that the ambient sound has changed until... well, never. Ears are stupid that way.

It's like a magic trick. Only boring.

Friday, May 12, 2006

More on that Time-Killing Google Thingie

Murky Thoughts, you do keep me going some days.

In 2004... hmm. Interesting. I don't know how Google keeps track of its results and history, but maybe in 2004 they decided to broaden their vocabulary, or they revised some sort of master thesaurus, so that their search engine no longer automatically conflated "catsup" with "ketchup"?

Maybe Google can explain it. Know how to contact them directly?

There's a John Brunner novel called "Shockwave Rider," wherein one of the ways of predicting the future - social trends, weather, stock prices, pretty much anything - is by polling a huge number of anonymous respondents online. He called it a "Delphi Pool." Recall Admiral Poindexter's incredibly dumb "Policy Analysis Market" idea - basically an easily-gamed futures market for terrorist attacks - and the RAND Corporation apparently developed something called the Delphi Method at the beginning of the Cold War, which was undoubtedly interesting and geek-cool, but of dubious value. Much like the RAND Corporation itself. (Appearance of personal knowledge courtesy of Wikipedia.)

... overall the track record of the Delphi method is mixed. There have been many cases when the method produced poor results. Still, some authors attribute this to poor application of the method and not to the weaknesses of the method itself. It must also be realised that in areas such as science and technology forecasting the degree of uncertainty is so great that exact and always correct predictions are impossible, so a high degree of error is to be expected.

Another particular weakness of the Delphi method is that future developments are not always predicted correctly by iterative consensus of experts, but instead by unconventional thinking of amateur outsiders.

One of the initial problems of the method was its inability to make complex forecasts with multiple factors. Potential future outcomes were usually considered as if they had no effect on each other. Later on, several extensions to the Delphi method were developed to address this problem, such as cross impact analysis, that takes into consideration the possibility that the occurrence of one event may change probabilities of other events covered in the survey. Still the Delphi method can be used most successfully in forecasting single scalar indicators.

Despite these shortcomings, today the Delphi method is a widely accepted forecasting tool and has been used successfully for thousands of studies in areas varying from technology forecasting to drug abuse.

If I may interpret: the "Delphi method" - whatever that means - is largely bs, which arrives at results accurate or inaccurate by more or less by the same chance one would get if one studied a problem closely, and then made an informed guess. "...some authors attribute [the poor results] to poor application of the method and not to the weaknesses of the method itself"? Puh-lease. Mathematicians have a term of art for this sort of method: we call it a WAG - Wild-Assed Guess.

I remember the methodology Brunner described in his novel was vague, but nonetheless unconvincing; but anyway it was interesting and cool enough that it stuck in my mind. But my mind is a storehouse of useless trivia...

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Another Google Tchachke

Google Trends solves a problem I do not have. In fact, I'm not quite sure what it's good for. Nevertheless, it allows me to compare search frequencies for several key terms:

sound, fury

war, peace

up, down

he said, she said

law, order

attorney, sound editor

How significant is this? None, I think. None significant.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Happy, Happy, Joy, War

I don't pretend to have thought deeply about JoyWar - though I do, naturally, have my knee-jerk response to the facts as I understand them - but something Joy Garnett posted in a forum does resonate powerfully with my sense of what copyright means, in a world where distribution and copying are often the very same thing, where media is scrutable, infinitely manipulable, and user-friendly:
...once you put a work out there it becomes part of our common cultural experience, it belongs to some extent to all of us (otherwise why put it out there?); it is something that will be built upon regardless of the author’s wishes – it is something that we as artists have a responsibility to respond to and yes, create new contexts for.
(crediting Judge Kozinski, whoever he is, for the insight)

There seems to me something very true about that - something that corporate entertainment interests will have, inevitably, to face up to; because the truth is that they have already lost the control they claim as their legal and moral right. The RIAA's scattershot lawsuit/terror campaign looks to me like death throes, or an act of desperation - or, at best, a delaying tactic... though they don't seem to be making any progress toward solving their problem, so it's probably not a delaying tactic at all, is it?

I use the term "entertainment interests" because, once art becomes commercialized - as, for instance, by taking it out of your studio and trying to sell it - it becomes, de facto, entertainment. Once you pitch the project, offer the painting for sale, put the song on the radio, bring out the cake you decorated and start to hand out dessert forks - you've given up some control. Maybe a little, maybe a lot. Maybe all of it. Clearly the RIAA and Apple and Metallica's drummer would like to keep all the control... but they can't. They've already given it up, because - you know what? - they put their wares up for sale.

And let me turn it around: entertainment is de facto art. It's entertainment because nobody needs it - or anyway, any particular piece of it; it's art because if it weren't art, it wouldn't be entertaining. But that means the purveyors of entertainment have to face up, not only to the nightmare media reality they've been instrumental in creating, where any kid with a computer can copy anything and give it to everybody... but also their responsibilities as artists (or artists' representatives), in a community of artists. Does Danger Mouse want to remix JayZ's Black Album with samples of Beatles songs? Well, what the hell: he's an artist, the Beatles were artists, there's a social contract of a sort in simply being an artist. As Super Chicken said, "You knew the job was dangerous when you took it." It turned out to be more dangerous than you knew? Too bad, so sad.

I'm not saying Danger Mouse gets to re-package Beatles songs and turn around and sell them. I'm saying, come on, there's a middle ground here, and pretending that there is no middle ground, or mining it and turning it into a DMZ... that's not okay. It's also not gonna work. And whoever's being the hardass, refusing to compromise, insisting on absurdly strong copyright protection, threatening groundless lawsuits against people who can't afford lawyers? That party is going to be the bad guy. ("A" bad guy. God knows, there's room for more than one bad guy.)

To paint the issue as one of "artist's rights" versus "pirates" is absurd and disingenuous, and by attempting to frame it in such clear-cut, binary terms, the entertainment interests haven't defined their opponents; instead, they've defined themselves. They have put themselves firmly in the wrong, by refusing to accept their own responsibility as sellers. Let the buyer beware? The buyers respond, caveat vendor. And for the first time - look around you - the buyers have more power than the sellers. Lots more power.

If only we could get a handle on this global warming thing, the future would be looking very interesting.

Since Nobody Asked...

Somebody or other, somewhere, was looking for something to read. And I recommended to her "The Brand X Anthology of Poetry," edited by William Zaranka. And, finding myself with too much time on my hands, and National Poetry Month being (blessedly) over with, the following verse sprang somewhat laboriously forth from my exhausted brain:

Ode to the Brand X Anthology of Poetry

Much had I travell’d in the realms of gold
And never found a blessed thing to eat
For laurels, though they may smell very sweet
As nourishment – try one? – they leave you cold.
By not one teacher was I ever told
There was a land both lowly and obscene
And by Zaranka ruled as his demesne.
I got a copy from a girlfriend old
Bought from wherever such odd things were selling.
And now, two decades late, to write I’ve hasted:
For though I know that flowers are for smelling
I were a liar if I kept from telling
How many a precious hour and day I’ve wasted
Since first I of Zaranka’s garland tasted.

No kidding, though, if you like poetry at all, check it out. The parody of Poe's Raven is, all by itself, worth the price. Especially if you find it in the library.

And yes, "hasted" is, too, a word. Lucky for me.