Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Throttling Culture

I used to work on weekends, opening up a small non-profit art gallery in a municipality called Burnaby that was no longer exactly a suburb, but only because it now had a large mall. I realized from this two strange truths: the number of creative people in this backwater was surprisingly large; the quality of their work was surprisingly good. I'm not saying that we had dozens of undiscovered Atilla Lukacs here, but the fact that he's a local boy who made good, and that Emily Carr and Bill Reid are also from the same province (population: six million) says something about how common talent is. I went to a few meetings of the Writers' Society there, too, and heard good works in progress. I have no way of estimating how common expertise in pottery, music, or swordsmithing were, but I'll accept that there is a self-sustaining sufficiency.

Attila Lukacs

Emily Carr

Bill Reid
  More works by Bill Reid

 From the creativity in that one place, I can estimate how much more is in Canada and the United States--just subtract Burnaby's population from the combined population of Canada and the U.S., then divide what's left by the population of Burnaby, the municipality I was working in, and the answer is 1,558 Burnabies of talent in those two countries. In potential, a world of seven billion people has 31,390 Burnabies.

A number that large, a pool of talent that unmanageable, causes problems for critics and resellers, producers and marketers. Their role is to manage a scarcity of creativity. If creativity is widespread and common (as it is) and distribution becomes widespread and cheap (as it has) then they lose their grip on culture. It becomes whatever people choose to make. Critics, now, can look at Lukacs' paintings and talk about their quality and their meaning, then publicize their conclusions and Lukacs retains or increases his celebrity. With ten, a hundred, a thousand, or (heaven forbid!) 31,390 Lukacs out there, celebrity becomes too attenuated to exist. The attention of critics will be too widely spread for profitable comparison and discussion on a case-by-case basis. The only comparisons will be statistical. The tools of the archaeologist, to show the evolution of styles through time and space, will replace those of the art critic, comparing individual work with individual work.

So what does that mean for copyright? If art becomes an ocean, can we still treat it as a narrow river? Getty Images continues to make a living by licensing eighty million pictures, but when Flickr has over six billion, many of them licensed for use at no cost, can it continue indefinitely? The only way to do so is to introduce artificial scarcity. Don't believe it won't be tried. Don't believe it isn't being.

We saw this happen with music, so that, for example, live performances in a bar of the band’s own original music or even traditional music with unknown authors require paying licensing fees. Here is an older essay by Richard Phillips (2003) on how difficult it is to avoid the licensing fees and the chilling effect they have on live music.

Here is the sad, sad story of the death of the first version of, sacrificed on the altar of artificial scarcity. It looked, for a while, as if the site could give original musicians direct access to a large potential audience. However, it did not have the money to contest an RIAA (music licensing group) court decision, so it was eventually sold to one of the largest music publishers, Viacom, which promptly wiped its entire music collection: 1.3 million tracks from a quarter million artists. The competition that they represented for the music industry was destroyed.

Making a documentary film has even greater problems, due to a carefully-laid minefield of copyright and licencing laws. For example, the excellent film Sita Sings the Blues, created written, animated, and directed by Nina Paley on her Mac over a five-year period, could not be released in theatres because a music licensing issue--though the songs she had used were released in the 1920's and were, under Federal Law, in the Public Domain. The extent of such problems under American law is described in Duke University's comic book Bound by Law.  Even more about the way that law can choke creativity is in this Larry Lessig talk from a TED Conference:

Commercial art and entertainment have an inverse relationship with their user-created peers. The more time you spend reading, the less you spend writing; the more time you spend listening to music, the less you spend making it. The more you watch TV, the less you participate in life. As a final comment on this relationship, I'll leave you with an episode from the TV series Dinosaurs, which ran from 1991 to 1994. In it, Sinclair discovers that TV shows such as "Happy Colors" and test patterns are popular, but has a crisis of conscience when they become too popular. He suggests shows that educate and stimulate, but these cause the viewers to do things rather than watch television. Just in time, brain-numbing shows are re-introduced and the status quo is maintained.

Update: It looks like the video I linked to has been taken down. Search for "Dinosaurs Network Genius" to find another copy on Youtube.

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Ron Perlman, Films and Poems, and the Favorite Poem Project

Ron Perlman is, I suppose, the ultimate character actor, meaning "one who predominantly plays unusual or eccentric characters." In fact, I was a fan of his from several movies without ever having seen what he looks like. He was a protohuman of some type (Neanderthal, perhaps?) in Quest for Fire (1981):

He was an odd, rat-eating hunchback named Salvatore in Name of the Rose (1986):

He was a noble Beast named Vincent, a golden-hearted sex symbol and romantic leading man, in the TV series Beauty and the Beast (1987):
And he was the easy-going, testosterone-loaded Prince of Hell in Hellboy (2004) and Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008):
This man of  a thousand faces does have a face of his own, though:
Now, the reason that I am introducing Perlman here is that he also recorded himself, in character as the Beast, reading classic poems, including Shakespeare's Sonnet XXIX.
When, in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possess'd,
Desiring this man's art and that man's scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven's gate;
For thy sweet love remember'd such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings. 
Here is the reading (starting about halfway through the video, after music).

I think it would be more effective with only his voice and no music, but tastes differ. Some other poems he reads are by Robert Frost, Rainer Maria Rilke, William Wordsworth, Percy Shelley, and Lord Byron. The CD is called Beauty and the Beast: Of Love and Hope and it is still available on

A very different recital of Sonnet XXIX, without soundtrack, is offered on the Favorite Poem Project website.  Look for Daniel McCall on the Videos page. I am impressed by the depth of meaning the words have for him. While on that page, you may also want to listen to "On a Quiet Night" by Li Po (Li Bai), read by Hui Xia, "The Sloth" by Theodore Roethke, read by a 5th Grade Student, and "My Papa's Waltz" by Theodore Roethke, read by William Van Fields, a Retired Corporate Executive from Stockton, CA.

It is unfortunate that the phrase "at Heaven's gate" in this poem gave names to both a suicidal UFO cult and a famously unsuccessful film.

Self-contradicting Words

Imagine that the word for "yes" is "yes," but the word for "no" is "yes." Communication would depend on context and tone. We'd have to say, "Well, that was a very negative-sounding yes" or "a very positive-sounding" one.

As it turns out, we do have a number of words that can take opposite meanings. Here is a small collection of them.
  1. quite: In England, this means "completely, exactly." In North America, it means "somewhat, approximately, not extremely."
    "Yes, you are quite [completely] correct"
    "The movie wasn't great, but was quite [moderately] good."
  2. sanction: By the dictionary, this means "to approve." In common use now in news stories, it means "to punish."
    "Henry II did not sanction [approve] the killing of Thomas Becket."
    "Henry II did not sanction [punish] the killers of Thomas Becket."
    (Both statements may be true).
  3. liege: It means, “Sovereign; independent; having authority or right to allegiance” or, in other words, a lord. It also means “serving an independent sovereign or master” or, in other words, a subordinate. (One can work around the ambiguity by calling the first the liege lord and the second the liege man).
  4. dinner: The second meal of the day. The third meal of the day. It depends, it seems, on which is the bigger of the two.
  5. fearful: It means "inspiring fear or awe" or "full of fear," either frightening or frightened, causing fear or feeling fear.
    "The fearful [frightening] noise frightened me."
    "The frightening noise made me fearful [full of fear]."
  6. hopefully: Originally, this meant only "filled with hope." Increasingly, it means "to be hoped" or "I hope." The new meaning has become established in dictionaries along with the original.
    "Do you have any cash?" I asked, hopefully [filled with hope].
    Hopefully [to be hoped], he has some cash. 
 If you know any others, please leave them in the comments.


Two more have occurred to me.

Whereas: normally means "but." (I like cats whereas you don't). If it starts a line in the preamble of a law or contract, however, it means "because" (Whereas violent crime is a serious concern...).

Awful: Usually, terrible, reprehensible. Kipling was unlikely to mean that in the poem "Recessional" when he writes, "God of our fathers, ... Beneath whose awful hand we hold/Dominion over palm and pine." There it means, simply, "awe-inspiring."


Update 17 October 2013

The word "sojourn" may belong in this list of self-contradicting words. It means, according to,
 To dwell for a time; to dwell or live in a place as a
     temporary resident or as a stranger, not considering the
     place as a permanent habitation; to delay; to tarry.
but, look at Wilfred Owen's poem "Parable of the Old Man and the Young" which begins

So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,

And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
It clearly means "journeyed" here. However, the poem is based on Genesis 22:1-18 which, in the King James Version, does not use the word "sojourn." I'm inclined to think that Owen just got it wrong. The word does appear in Genesis 12:30, which says that "Abram went down into Egypt to sojourn there." However, that clearly means that he sojourned there (stayed for a while) after he went there.

Despite the error, Owen's poem is a great one, one of my favourites.

By the way, there is a wikipedia article on the subject of self-contradicting words, entitled "Auto-Antonyms." Its list of examples is longer than mine. I take comfort, however, that this phenomenon which I noticed only received a name in the 1960's. I enjoyed the self-contradiction of "Make it fast" meaning "Make it move quickly" and "Prevent it from moving at all."

The subject reminds me of an old joke in which three men who, presumably, are educated but do not have English as their first language are discussing the inability of the wife of one of them to get pregnant.

The first says, "My wife cannot have a baby; she is inconceivable."

"No," says the next, "that is not the word. She is unbearable."

"Not at all," says the third, "she is impregnable."

Good on these three gentlemen for knowing the relations of the words "to conceive," "to bear," and "to impregnate" to propagation, but too bad that they were unaware of other meanings and customary use of their favoured terms. 

Monday, 28 May 2012

Carl Malamud, A Kind of a Copyright Hero

Law in the United States rather sensibly rules that documents created by the Federal Government have no copyright protection in the United States. The reason is that the American people paid for their creation, so the people own them. On the other hand, the American government does claim a copyright of normal duration outside the borders of the United States.

One can imagine the stacks of laws, court transcripts, weather data, declassified historical material, educational and propaganda films, music recordings, and so on that the richest country in the world has generated since it began in 1776. The fly in the ointment is that this material is not always easy to obtain. Consider this:
If you want to search federal court documents, it's not a problem. Just apply online for an account, and the government will issue you a user name and password.
Through the postal service.
And once you log in, the government's courthouse search engine known as Public Access to Court Electronic Records or PACER, will charge you 8 cents a page to read documents that are in the public domain — a fee that earned the federal judiciary $50 million in profits in 2006. 
(From "Online Rebel Publishes Millions of Dollars in U.S. Court Records for Free"
by Ryan Singe, Wired Magazine, 12/12/2008).

That is where a determined man can make a difference, and the man who stepped up is named Carl Malamud.  Before and after setting up his organization, Public Resource, he accomplished a number of near-miracles:
Malamud has set up the nonprofit, headquartered in Sebastopol, California, to work for the publication of public domain information from local, state, and federal government agencies. Among his achievements have been digitizing 588 government films for the Internet Archive and YouTube, publishing a 5 million page crawl of the Government Printing Office, and persuading the state of Oregon to not assert copyright over its legislative statutes. He has also been active in challenging the state of California's copyright claims on state laws by publishing copies of the criminal, building, and plumbing codes online.
(From the Wikipedia page on Carl Malamud).

The number of videos is now 6,005.

I have watched a few of the films that he made available on Public Resource's Youtube page and found a variety that includes German newsreels from World War II (like this), American ones (like this), a series of interviews on contemporary political science called "Conversations with History" (I enjoyed this one on Pakistan), an hour-long lesson from 2002 on using the Nikon D1 digital camera (here), and public health information (like these). If I were working on Social Studies projects, these would give background information and authentic footage that would give me a better mark. also has a wide variety of films, both short and long, that are out of copyright according to American rules. Malamud's collection, under the name "Fedflix," is here.

If you need photographs, rather than films, you can start your quest here, here, and here.

Saturday, 26 May 2012

"Apollo," a poem by Morris Bishop

Here's a poem about the Greek myth of Phaethon that parents of teenagers would enjoy!

Apollo through the heavens rode
In glinting gold attire;
His car was bright with chrysolite,
His horses snorted fire.
His darling son was Phaethon,
Who begged to have a try.

"The chargers are ambrosia-fed
They barely brook control;
On high beware the Crab, the Bear,
The Serpent 'round the Pole;
Against the Archer and the Bull
Thy form is all unsteeled!"
But Phaethon could lay it on;
Apollo had to yield.

Out of the purple doors of dawn
Phaethon drove the horses;
They felt his hand could not command.
They left their wonted courses.
And from the chariot Phaethon
Plunged like a falling star--
And so, my boy, no, no, my boy
You cannot take the car.
--Morris Bishop

Getting Accented Letters in Linux Programs

I enjoyed how easy it was to type the occasional French word or phrase when I had a Macintosh computer. Pressing option e then another e gave you an e with an acute accent; pressing option-c then another c gave you a c with a cedilla. Here is a list of the most common commands. I understand that Microsoft Office eventually installed similar key combinations, but the standard Windows method involved memorizing and typing number codes on the numeric keypad while holding down the Alt key. Rather than that, I would find an accented word on-line, copy the accented letter, and paste it in. Far too much work, anyway.

I now use neither an iMac (as it was stolen) nor Windows (as I have not regarded Microsoft as an ethical company since it faked court evidence in a 1998 trial), but a free operating system called Ubuntu Linux and a free office program called LibreOffice. So, when I had to type French vocabulary worksheets for my son, I needed to discover how to type accented letters in this new environment. I'm happy to say that there is a way, that it is much easier than memorizing number codes, and it lets me type a surprising number of different characters. Mostly, if I guess how to create a character, I will be right.

Under Settings/Keyboard Layouts, I’ve set the right “Alt” key as the“Compose” key. That means I press and release the right “Alt,” then press and release a key, then another key, and I get a symbol that combines the two keys.

For example, a right alt then a hyphen and a capital L gives a pound symbol (money, that is), a right alt then an o and a c gives the copyright symbol. I do not have to memorize these key combinations because a pound symbol looks like a capital L with a horizontal line through it and a copyright symbol looks like a c with an o around it. Other symbols are created with equal logic.
    • A vowel with an accent grave (à) is made with a ` and the vowel;
    • a vowel with an accent aigu (á) is made with a single quotation mark (‘) and the vowel;
    • a c with a cedilla (ç) is made with a c and a comma;
    • a vowel with a circumflex (ê) is made with ^ and the vowel;
    • a vowel with an umlaut (ä) is made with the vowel and the “ (a double quotation mark);
    • common fractions (½ , ¼, ¾, etc.) are made by the two numbers, typed in order;
    • superscripts are made by a ^ and the superscripted symbol;
    • The “micro” sign (µ, which is the Greek letter “mu”) is made by typing an m and a u to spell "mu";
    •  a dipthong (two vowels joined into one character) are made by typing the two vowels in order.
    Two symbols that will be useful for my other project, the Beowulf translation, are letters from the Anglo-Saxon alphabet. 
    • With a hyphen plus d, I get the Old English letter eth, which looks like a d with a cross on its stem (đ ).
    • With a t and an h I get the Old English letter thorn (þ), which is pronounced like "th."
    A list of compose key characters is at

    That problem is solved. I wonder, however, about an easy way to type the occasional Greek character or word. LibreOffice has a shortcut in its Math Module. I could type %alpha to print a lower-case alpha character or %ALPHA to get an upper-case one, and so on for the other letters. I could embed a formula in the text and do this, I suppose, but it is more labor than is worthwhile. Until the word processor itself recognizes the shortcut, I suppose I simply have to pull up LibreOffice's "Special Characters" palette and hunt and peck for the letters I need. (Back in the Old Days, on a Mac, I'd just type as normal but using a Greek font, then change my font back to a Roman-letter one, but this no longer works. Sometimes progress means making things harder).

    Why, Oh Why Another Blog?

    I already have a web log covering a long-term project of mine, to translate the poem Beowulf. If you think you may be interested, it's here. However, Old English poetry is far from the only thing I am interested in. I have a degree in anthropology and archaeology from years ago, so I try to keep an eye on important discoveries in those fields. (Neanderthal genes in modern humans, Denisovans, "hobbits" in Indonesia, and monumental architecture in Turkey that was put up by hunter-gatherers, unbelievably, 12,000 years ago). I am interested in a healthy public domain, and what movies, books, and music I can download legally because the copyright has expired. I enjoy using computer software that can be distributed and modified by anyone. I am enjoying the capabilities of a minority choice of tablet computer, the Blackberry Playbook. I might write about them. Today, the Dragon Space Capsule docked with the International Space Station. Its maker, SpaceX, has joined an exclusive club of entities that can do this: the U.S., Europe, Japan, and China. It's a wonderful precursor of an age when individuals and companies enter space for themselves. I may yet see images of people on Mars, though I will, most likely, be too old to join them. I have written a book on how to write and read poetry that I will most likely publish. I want to write a book (I have 77 pp. of notes) comparing Chinese Traditional Medicine to Greek, Roman, and Medieval Medicine. They are surprisingly similar. Let us just say that my education is far from over, and I think it is worthwhile to document it. Thus, this blog rejoices in the Title "My Continuing Education."