Two Copyrights Can Make a Wrong

Sham pulp culture buried in time
True pulp culture there to be plundered

I stopped by Pharyngula this morning, as I usually do on Sunday mornings, to see whether there were any questions for the radio show. There weren’t, which was fine. We got more questions during the show than we could fit in.

What was at Pharyngula was a link to a feature-length animated movie by Nina Paley.

“Aha,” I said to myself, “That’s what she’s been doing!”

I used to read Nina’s Adventures (here’s a fun one), and I missed their cheerful cynicism, so, discovering that she had a blog, I decided to play a little catch up.

I didn’t find quite what I’d expected. Instead, I found another lesson in why the current U.S. copyright law hurts artists:

Even with the $50,000, I still may not be able to clear all the songs. So far only Warner-Chappell and EMI have informally agreed to those terms, but they haven’t issued contracts yet, and they can still change their minds for any reason. The rest of the rightsholders are under no obligation to agree. Now that the cat’s out of the bag, will they work with me or against me?

What’s the big deal, right? Of course she has to clear copyright on the music in her movie. Well, yes, but the copyrights she’s clearing are for 1920s jazz songs. The singer is dead, the writers are dead, but the corporations that now own the rights live on. And on and on.

For three years, Paley’s been working to be able to distribute this film built around music older than anyone who’s going to read this post. And so, another artist I admire is supporting QuestionCopyright.org.

1920s.

We pay our artists next to nothing to feed our minds and our hearts. How much can we afford to charge them for the materials they need to do it?

Jane Yolen (whose views on copyright I don’t know), tells a story about a letter she received from an elementary student. This student had been assigned Jane’s book Wizard’s Hall and had noted several similarities between Wizard’s Hall and the Harry Potter books. Indignant, the child asked the teacher whether J. K. Rowling was going to sue Jane for ripping off Harry Potter.

The teacher suggested the student look at the respective publication dates.

Oh.

Now the student wanted to know whether Jane was going to sue J. K. Rowling.

Jane suggested, with the patient gentleness that is one of her charms, that if Rowling wanted to send her something for the idea, she wouldn’t turn it down. But no, she wasn’t going to sue.

She could, perhaps, have sued, but (back to my opinions) what would have been the point? Harry Potter wasn’t terribly original, but that wasn’t why kids loved it. In fact, kids adored some of the least original parts of the books: the magic wands, the lonely orphan, the staunch friendships, the classic British boarding school format, the rivalries, the rebellion. If Rowling had insisted that every part of her book had been untraceable in modern children’s literature, would anyone have read it? And what would have happened to all those kids inspired to read had Jane sued?

If Harry Potter doesn’t seal the argument against long copyrights for you, try reading Will Shetterly’s fable, “The People Who Owned the Bible.”

But when his Lulabelle ran off with a Bible salesman, Jimmy retired to one of his mansions and refused to let anyone print any more Bibles or use the Bible in any way that raised money.

The surviving churches sent delegates to Disney, begging them to get Congress to shorten the copyright period to put the KJV back in the public domain. But Disney had picked up the rights to a Restoration revenge tragedy that looked like a great vehicle for Britney Spears, so they made a counteroffer.

It’s funny as hell, but how far is it really from what would happen?

Nina Paley could use your help to get this movie fully free from its copyright issues. You can go see whether you think its worth the help. She needs donations to pay off the record companies. She needs server space and bandwidth for distribution. She may still even need a lawyer. There’s just one thing she’s asking you not do.

Many more formats will be online by March 7th, the day Sita Sings the Blues airs on WNET TV (part of Reel 13 on March 7 at 10:45 pm). These will be higher resolution and free to copy and share. If you want a copy, please wait for the higher quality formats instead of capturing the very compressed channel13.org streaming version. As the artist, I want the highest quality versions to circulate; it’d be sad if a super-compressed capture started torrenting first. Together, we can keep quality high!

So please don’t distribute the film yourself–not yet.

So check beneath your fingernails
In between your toes
Right between your earlobes, darling,
That’s where culture grows

Unsolicited Advice for Maintaining the Appearance of Ethics Online

Please note that this post is intended as a poke in the eye. Many of my posts are. As a blogger, a writer of any kind, it is not my job to make you comfortable. It is my job to shake you up, to unsettle you, to make you question yourself and the world, and to remind you what the damned point was in the first place.

I will also note that when I interact with you online, I do have more than your words to go on. I can see to whom you’re speaking. I can see who responds and how you, in turn, respond to them. I can see who your friends are. I can see the consistency of your words over time. Sometimes, I even get to see how you behave in real life. In short, I can see your broader behavior.

On to ethics. The following three recommended behaviors are not rules. They are simply things I note when I’m forming an opinion of someone’s online ethics.

Own Your Context
There are no vacuums online. Everything you’re doing happens in some context, perhaps more so when you belong to a blogging community. When you post something related to what is going on around you but don’t acknowledge doing so–when in fact, you use language meant to apply to all–it’s very easy for me to think you’re doing something underhanded. It’s easy for me to see you as trying to pretend you’re above the fray while simultaneously wallowing in it. When you do it repeatedly (context), it gets all that much easier.

And it isn’t just me seeing the coy relatedness. You can, of course, argue that you’re not trying to do that at all, but…well, that’s another discussion.

So how do you talk about these things in context? As I see it, you have three options:

  • State simply who you’re talking about. “Yes, this is about him, although I think we can all take a lesson.”
  • Point to the context by way of disclaimer. “I’ve been meaning to write about this. The timing is unfortunate, but this really is meant generally.”
  • Wait for a different context.

And the immediate context for this discussion:

Let me know if I missed anything. There’s less immediate context, too, but I think most of that is linked to further down.

One note, the last time Janet went context-free offering unsolicited advice to Greg, I responded in kind. It was fun, as a challenge, and I think I did it well. I’m tired of argument by elision, though, which is why this is here and in the form it is.

Own Your Bias
If The Daily Show has taught us nothing else, hopefully it has taught us that being professionally unbiased is nothing like the same thing as not having biases or even being able to successfully counteract those biases. We all have history online, friendly and unfriendly, with those around us. When you don’t acknowledge that history, it makes it very easy for me to think you’d prefer that people not know about it. It makes it easy to believe that those biases are more important to your making the argument than the subject of the argument itself.

Again, you can always attempt to defend yourself….

And again, my advice for dealing with this is the same as the first two points under owning your context. Put your biases out there for people to look at and make up their own minds about. Talk about how you see them relating to your topic–or not.

I tend to think my biases in this situation are fairly well known, but I might be wrong, so here goes.

  • I like Isis. I read her blog regularly and have every intention of getting together with her for a drink when one of us finally makes it to the other’s city. You’re never going to hear about it, though. I also think her tendency to write passionately sometimes illuminates and sometimes obscures her message.
  • I like Samia’s blog, though I’m always envious when she’s just done something fun with her hair color (damned job). I have no idea whether we’d get on in person, but I’m sorry I didn’t get the chance to find out at ScienceOnline.
  • I enjoyed meeting Zuska once I got over being shy and think her blog is a public service. We’ve certainly argued before, but I think it’s always been about interpretation rather than anything fundamental. I was tickled and a bit awed to get a Facebook friend request from her.
  • I’ve never gotten into an argument with PalMD (nonoverlapping spheres), so there’s nothing to balance the fangirl squee in that case. I’m going to stop talking before I look any sillier.
  • I think everyone knows that Greg and I are friends and co-conspirators, so I’m not sure what else to say about that. I like his wife and his daughter and his best friend and his sister, none of whom take prisoners. I’ve edited his work. See also what I said about Isis and writing passionately. The difference with Greg is that I’m much less diplomatic when I tell him he’s not helping, but I do it mostly behind the scenes.
  • I always take a deep breath before getting into it with Janet. She’s one of the few people with whom I’ve argued and never later found common cause. She’s also the person who amused me by snubbing me at ScienceOnline (which I found out later was visible from across the room). It’s pretty safe to say we’re not fond of each other.

Does my dislike of Janet color what I have to say here? Judge for yourself. I’ll add that the reasons I don’t like Janet are mainly twofold. I think that for an ethicist, she asks too many questions in such a way that the answers she wants are implied. I also think she doesn’t take responsibility for her own opinions. In other words, I think she tries to argue from an authority I’m not willing to grant her.

Own Your Evidence
Linking is not just an inherent good. It’s also a way of tying yourself to your argument such that you are forced to examine it one more time. Beyond that, it allows your readers to decide whether you know what you’re talking about. If you add quotes, it forces your readers to make those decisions. When you don’t provide links and quotes, it makes it very easy for me to think you are misinterpreting the evidence willfully. It’s very easy to think you haven’t bothered to look at it, having already made up your mind what it says.

As always, the best way to defend yourself from these impressions is to do both in the first place. That allows people to decide whether this:

Your conveying that your audience ought to invest the time and effort to work out the most sympathetic possible interpretation of your words, but that you should not have to invest much time and effort in actually choosing those words to make your intended point clearly. If you dismiss your audience’s claim to be hurt or offended by your words, you seem either to be claiming privileged access to that audience’s hearts and minds, or to be saying that their hurt and offense doesn’t really count.

matches this:

My comments about the Isis character (and the High School Girl bit) were probably over the top, for which I apologize, but clearly they were also not well stated and/or not well understood (and thus reacted to in a way that is probably over the top, but understandable) I’ll just go ahead and take responsibility for the not well stated part.

They can decide whether this:

You might think those who took offense at what you said are just wrong to do so – because a good guy like yourself doesn’t go around saying offensive things!

accurately describes this:

I do not expect Isis to NOT take offense at my comments. They were offered as critique and not everybody likes to hear critique.

They can decide whether this:

Indeed, in the unlikely event that we achieved perfect transmission and perfect reception in our attempts to communicate, we might still disagree about many of the things about which we were communicating.

is required as a response to this:

They were part of a larger critique that I’ve made pretty clear, and that some people seem to be getting and agreeing with, some getting and not agreeing with, and some not getting and not agreeing with. That is how things go on the internet.

Or this:

Communication is hard, but this is reason enough to share the labor involved. Intention and effect come apart even when we try our hardest to communicate clearly, but our attempts can become more successful if we pay attention to our past failures and treat as credible the reactions of the people with whom we were trying to communicate in our attempts.

as a response to this:

This is very good for me. Every time we go around like this (this is what, the third or fourth time over the last year and a half?) about how to be a good feminist or anti-racist, or about pseudonymity/anonymity, with part of the conversation coming from Teh Angreee (TM), I get more accustom to it. It makes it a little easier to see where people are coming from without the personal reaction.

In short, linking and quoting allow everyone to make up their own minds in full knowledge of the circumstances.

So that’s it for the advice from me. I don’t even really have anything to say in closing except: I hope you have fun putting together your carnival, Danielle. I’m looking forward to it.

Update: This post is not complete without this one.

A Quick Note

…to my fellow atheists.

You know how annoying it is when someone says, “Oh, you’re an atheist. You must believe X. You must believe the same things Stalin did”? You know how annoying that is? How unfounded?

Yeah.

Can we not do that to Catholics with respect to Benny the Rat?

Thanks.

How Not to Manage Your Image

Almost six years ago, the kings of all gamer geeks, Penny Arcade, posted this comic.

It poked fun at the idea that American McGee had, in two games (Alice and the never-completed Oz), gone from highly innovative game design to shtick. Here was a man who would turn all of the icons of innocent childhood into the stuff of nightmare if only given a chance. And how better to symbolize innocent childhood than to use Strawberry Shortcake?

American Greetings, which owns Strawberry Shortcake and all her friends (so much for innocent childhoods), didn’t get it. This is where the comic used to be, and this is what went up on the Penny Arcade news page:

If you have any questions about why, feel free to raise them with Rinda E. Vas, Corporate Counsel for the American Greetings Corporation.

We’re currently trying to figure out exactly how the concepts of Parody and Satire work to protect the sorts of things we do, to better arm ourselves against this kind of crap. Virtually everyone believes that what we did is protected, indeed, I believe that myself – but I’m not going to bet the farm on it until I have a bit more than Internet hearsay to back myself up with.

Pity, but it looks like a win for American Greetings.

Except that the image is freely and easily available in multiple places online. Some fan or another had saved a copy, because, really who wouldn’t? So the image moves around the web. Get an order to take it down somewhere; put it up somewhere else. It’s always available. (Feel free to save a copy–click for the larger version–since American Greetings may not read to the end of this post.)

In the meantime, American Greetings pissed off the fans of Penny Arcade. That would be the same Penny Arcade that runs PAX (Penny Arcade Expo), a convention of gamers that drew almost 60,000 attendees last year. The Penny Arcade that can get 38,000 readers to fill out a demographic survey. Also the Penny Arcade that organizes Child’s Play, a charity that pulled in $1.4 million in 2008.

These people are devoted, willing to mobilize, Wikipedia savvy and have money to spend. And they don’t like American Greetings. In case I still need to say it, I don’t like American Greetings, and I’m happy to tell anyone why. I don’t give them my money either. It takes a little longer to find a card sometimes, but it’s worth it.

This is, of course, only the most entertaining example I know of in which a company shot themselves in the foot by trying to control who can talk about them and how. There are plenty more, particularly in this day and age. The electronic landscape is such that even when someone complies with a cease-and-desist order immediately, the information is still out there. It’s cached on someone’s computer, or it’s been syndicated. It doesn’t go away.

What does go away is restraint. The internet isn’t known for being a great repository of the stuff, but what there is disappears very quickly when someone finds out that one of their favorite bloggers or artists has been threatened with lawyers. People, in fact, get downright defiant.

The latest example is at Bad Science. Ben Goldacre had posted the audio of an LBC Radio presenter making an ass of herself about MMR vaccinations. LBC sent a cease-and-desist letter or the equivalent, and now the audio is everywhere but Bad Science. Oh, and there’s a nice little write-up on Wikipedia too. It’s all exactly as one would expect.

Do you think they’ll ever learn?

Explanation Please

I recently overheard an exchange that boiled down to a woman telling a man who was obviously quite close to her, “Oh, the work you do is so important and wonderful, but it’s too complicated for me. I just couldn’t understand it if I tried.”

I wanted to cry. For him. Her I wanted to shake.

How lonely it must be to have someone dear to you tell you that putting your intelligence to good use raises a barrier between you. How lonely to have embraced a vocation they won’t work to understand. To know that if you talk about the ins and outs of what you do, the little things that make it fascinating, challenging work, you’ll be speaking to the air.

She, on the other hand, has no idea what she’s missing.

I wanted to invite him to come over and tell me about his job, and not just because the whole situation tugged at my heart (or because he was smart, articulate and kind of cute). My reaction to finding someone immersed in the esoterica of a field I know nothing about is somewhere between a friendly chat about their day and a job interview combined with taking a life history.

If I were to persuade him to talk, despite the inhibiting presence of his lovely whatever, we’d start with the basics. “Where do you work? What’s your job title? What kind of training/education is required for that?” Then we’d hit the big question: “What do you actually do day to day?”

If I were lucky, I’d get an answer that I didn’t understand. More likely, I’d have to prod a bit for details. I would try very hard not to glare at the whatever at this point, because I’d know the generica I was fighting to be a product of the incurious reactions he receives every day. (Just a note, the genders here are entirely situational. This also happens with them reversed.)

Eventually, though–assuming neither of them decided I was a stalker–he’d hit details that meant nothing to me. That’s when the fun would start.

“What is an XX?”

“How do you do YY?”

“Can you explain how ZZ works?”

You’ve seen the classic maze-solving screensaver, right? The one that draws the maze, sends out a line that randomly takes each turn until it hits a wall, then backs up to the last unchosen branching and picks a new turn over and over until it finds the exit? That’s what this conversation would look like if it were diagrammed. Of course, in this case, each branch would be a new concept or process I needed explained and instead of hitting the wall, I’d gather enough information to understand the next higher explanation.

The conversation would end only when he was dragged off by his whatever or when I had a pretty good picture of what he did do with his day. At no point would I ever say, much less think, that I couldn’t understand what I was being told. If I needed more explanation, I’d just ask.

I really have conversations like this–about people’s jobs, hobbies, PhD projects. As a result, I know a fair amount about things like brewing, systems architecture and administration, the politics of management in industry and academia, fundraising tactics, how to tease apart two very interesting proteins that are widely considered to be the same but may not be, church history, etc.

Am I an expert in any of these things? Oh, no. Not even close. I can’t do any of these things that have been described to me. Deep knowledge and practice are what make an expert, and I’ve acquired neither. All I can do is understand what I’m hearing and ask intelligent questions.

So what do I get out of it? I could say that I get material for writing, which would be partly true. A shallow knowledge of many things can lend richness and realism to a fictional world, as long as the writer understands her limits. I could say that I get the friendship of extremely bright people, which is much more of the story, but still not complete.

The other thing I get out of this is the chance to test myself against a new field, a new idea. I get something the person who says, “I can’t understand that,” will never have.

I get proof, over and over, that I can.

Too Pissed to Talk

Dixon said he was denied at least $16,000 in benefits before he fought the Pentagon and won a reversal of his noncombat-related designation.

“I was blown up twice in Iraq, and my injuries weren’t combat-related?” Dixon said. “It’s the most imbecile thing I’ve ever seen.”

Meshell, who is appealing her status, estimates she is losing at least $1,200 a month in benefits. Despite being injured in a combat zone during an enemy mortar attack, she said, her wounds would be considered combat-related only if she had been struck by shrapnel.

Injured veterans engaged in new combat, LA Times

Internet Annoyances

I’ve spent much of the last two days with patchy and unreliable internet access. This has recently been fixed by (a) restarting the router again, although that hadn’t done anything earlier, (b) my husband closing and restarting Firefox on his computer (uh, huh) or (c) something further up the line that we had no control over but that happened in conjunction with the other two.

In any case, the whole experience reminded me of other internet annoyances. Here are a few tips on how to not make truly annoying websites.

Know the basics of don’t: splash screens, Flash-based navigation, media that loads without warning, flashing text, mystery meat navigation and text/background color combinations that will trigger a migraine.

Do not accept any ads you can’t wall off from the rest of your layout. Last month, one of the very large internet ad companies was experiencing slow servers, and I don’t know how many pages I couldn’t see until the ad servers responded. Browsers just didn’t know how to draw the pages without the ad information.

Don’t design something that looks like navigation but isn’t. If that link is on what looks like a button, particularly if that button changes color when moused over, I had better be able to click on the whole button, not just the text. Yes, really, companies do this.

If you can, try not to cram a bunch of links up against the right side of the page; i.e., the scroll bar. Even a few pixels of clear space makes a difference.

Yes, I get that your website is complicated. However, if you’re providing information that is available from every publicly traded company, there is no excuse for burying it six to eight clicks deep. It should take me one (easily found) click to get to your corporate site, one to tell you what category of information I’m looking for. At that point, give me a page with a lot of links under different headings instead of making me guess which link I have to click to get to the next step.

Check your traffic logs every now and then. I know of one Fortune 500 company whose website–the main page–has generated errors every time I’ve tried to load it in the last six months. That doesn’t help either of us.

There, just a few tips to make my life more pleasant. If everybody follows them, I can stop being annoyed and get back to writing something interesting.

Why I Hate the Suburbs

From the local paper:

Although Anoka bills itself as the Halloween Capital of the World, city officials and some businesses are a bit spooked by a macabre-themed head shop that has opened a pumpkin’s toss from City Hall.

Redrum — which read backwards, spells murder — opened in late September with a skull and crossbones above the door and red-stained razor blades dangling in the window.

Okay, so far, so good. If this were downtown or in Uptown or Dinkytown or on Lake Street or University Avenue, no one would notice. They might not go in if the shop didn’t carry anything they were looking for, but at most, they’d snicker and move on.

“The kind of people it brings downtown we don’t need,” said Beth Lennartson, co-owner of A Girl Thing, a women’s boutique a few doors away.

You mean people who buy things? Is there any other kind of people a business should concern itself with?

“This doesn’t help our ladies that come down here,” added co-owner Donna Texley.

You might be surprised, honey. But even if it doesn’t, does your corner of the world exist only for your customers? Do you protest barbershops opening up? Those don’t help your ladies either.

“Yes, we are the Halloween capital, but that is taking it too far,” said Krista Rothmaler, who owns Krista Artista art gallery down the street. “My opposition to Redrum has to do with the fact that it is not very family-friendly.”

Unlike boutique clothing shops and art galleries. Those are always so open to sticky-fingered younglings.

What actually gets me about all this is not the totally expected reactions. After all, I grew up in the suburbs–right up until I had a choice about where to live. No, what gets me is that Anoka is the Halloween capital. According to this article, they can’t handle anything remotely morbid or weird and they don’t like the sorts of people who love Halloween. How does that work?

Don’t get me wrong. I think Anoka is a plenty scary place. I just don’t think it’s any scarier than any other closed-minded, repressive suburb.

Young Science

Psychology, sociology, linguistics, anthropology, archaeology, history, economics, political science.

Biological sciences, earth sciences.

Chemistry.

Physics.

Read one way, this is how sciences are commonly ranked on a Mohs scale of scientific snobbery. Real sciences, hard sciences, are at the bottom. Soft, squishy, fake sciences are at the top.

Read another way, this is both an inverted history of science and a ranking of the complexity of measurement.

A History of Complexity
Physics was one of the first sciences to be studied scientifically and the first science in which many of the fundamentals were discovered. Why? Because physics, at least the parts that most people learn, has the simplest subjects to test. Kinetics are visible. Pressure can be felt. Wave interaction is already present in our environments, ready to be observed.

Chemistry was harder. We can’t see or feel the building blocks of matter. We can’t see the bonds that create matter with its own discrete properties from two or more unrelated elements. We can’t directly assess molarity. Chemistry had to build the tools to do the very basics, even as it determined what those basics were. That put it far behind physics.

Biological and earth sciences are more difficult yet. Not only do scientists have to study all the parts of complex systems in order to understand the systems, but they are also constrained in two important regards. They have to observe the system without changing it enough to make their observations invalid, and they have to exercise ethics in how they manipulate the system. These things can be done, but they require additional tool development, including the development of complex systems math, which makes for slower progress.

Then we come to our “squishy” sciences, the social sciences. All the difficulties of biological and earth sciences apply, only more so. These are studies of complex systems made up of complex systems. Observation of social phenomena is social phenomena itself. The ethics of personal and political interference are extremely touchy. The sheer number of variables that the math needs to be able to accommodate is intimidating.

Does that mean that the social sciences can’t develop the tools they need? No, no more than the biological sciences can’t. What it does mean is that developing these tools should be expected to take time. How long? I don’t know. How long did it take physics to figure out how to observe the universe free of the interference of our atmosphere?

The Forgotten History
One thing that hard-science snobs like to point to as evidence that the social sciences aren’t real science is the current influence of politics on the various fields. For example, in the current economic situation, people cite the influence of libertarianism on economics. Others have pointed to single-culture-centric definitions of mental normalcy.

Both are valid critiques of the state of the field, but they have no bearing on whether economics or psychology are sciences. Politics affect every kind of research. They always have, however pure someone might think their brand of science is. Cosmology has historically had some killer debates (literally) about theory, based on politics. It got over them with time. Do we judge genetics by eugenics or physics by the atom bomb?

The social sciences are very young, they seek to understand phenomena at several interrelated levels, and they face the additional challenge of having to ask the balls for permission before dropping them off the tower. This means that current results are of dubious universal applicability. It does not mean these are not “real” sciences.

Nor does it mean the people theorizing and testing with the limited tools at their disposal are not real scientists. Some of the people clinging to theories against all evidence may not be scientists, but the evidence against most theories is slim or mixed at this early stage of the game. It will take more work and more data from the empiricists to drive the irrational theorists out, just as it always has for every other science.

They’ll probably do it faster if they’re allowed and expected to sit with the big kids at the “science table” instead of being pushed away. They’ve earned more credit than they’re usually given on that score, even if they do have plenty of work left to do. And it can only help to steep the kiddies in each field in a culture of rigor.