Jim Aikin's Oblong Blob

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Culture, Creativity, and Copyright

Posted by midiguru on July 29, 2014

The law of copyright is a modern innovation. Copyright protection was developed for an important reason — to enable creative people to earn a living by doing creative work. Before the law assumed its present form, authors and composers routinely saw their popular works pirated. Unless an artist was fortunate enough to have a wealthy patron, the artist’s income was precarious.

As valuable as this legal framework has been to thousands of artists, there’s a downside. Works that captivate the public (and also, for that matter, works that remain little-known) remain exclusively owned and controlled for a number of years by the owner of the copyright. During the term of the copyright, nobody else can make use of the materials in a creative work.

Here’s a neat example of why this is a bad thing. In 1562, a long-forgotten author named Arthur Brooke published an English translation, in verse, of an Italian love story. He called it “The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet.” Only 30 years later, Shakespeare recast the story in a play, Romeo and Juliet. If modern copyright law had been in existence in England in the 16th century, we would not be able to enjoy that play today, because Shakespeare wouldn’t have written it. Just as likely, Brooke couldn’t have published his translation either, so Shakespeare would never have been inspired by it.

Technically, Shakespeare could have written the play — and then put it away in a drawer for 50 or 75 years, until Brooke’s copyright expired. But why would he have written it if he couldn’t publish it or have it performed?

Culture is not a private act. It’s a shared public experience, a shared human experience. Culture should not be kept locked away in tight little boxes that nobody is allowed to open unless they’ve checked out an authorized key from the Official Keeper of the Authorized Keys.

The law of copyright turns culture into a commodity. It turns the recipients and beneficiaries of culture (that is, all of us) into passive consumers. We’re allowed to enjoy the hallowed works of culture, but we’re not allowed to participate in them in any significant creative way.

Unless, of course, the copyright holder gives permission, either tacitly or overtly. The world of fanfic (fan fiction) is apparently quite healthy. People write their own Harry Potter stories, their own Star Wars and Star Trek stories. Some authors (such as J. K. Rowling) allow it. Others (such as George R. R. Martin) don’t. It’s up to the author — or, if the author has died or sold the rights, to the current owner of the copyright.

I’m sure most fanfic is dreadful, but that’s neither here nor there. The people who write fanfic are actively participating in their own culture, and that’s a wonderful thing.

Eventually, after the passage of years (and the law differs from one nation to another with respect to how many years have to pass) a copyrighted work passes into the public domain. When that happens, anybody can exercise their own creativity by freely adapting the material. Anybody can write Sherlock Holmes stories or Wizard of Oz stories, because those books are in the public domain.

To be more specific, the L. Frank Baum Oz books are in the public domain. Ruth Plumly Thompson’s Oz books aren’t, so you can use the Tin Woodman and the Cowardly Lion, but you can’t use any characters that Thompson created.

As that caveat suggests, you have to be careful. Want to write a sequel to The Maltese Falcon? It was published in 1930. The legal situation in the United States is murky, but many novels published since 1923 are still protected by copyright. You might have the makings of a terrific mystery starring Sam Spade rattling around in your head, but unless the copyright owner (whoever that happens to be) is feeling charitably disposed, you could be in for a world of hurt.

This is not how culture and creativity are supposed to work. I don’t have a solution to offer, but there is damn well a problem here.

Posted in music, politics, random musings, society & culture, writing | 4 Comments »

Reality Check

Posted by midiguru on July 16, 2014

The local public library has hundreds of books on religion, but only a handful on atheism. Yesterday I checked out The Atheist’s Guide to Reality, by Alex Rosenberg. At first glance, it seems sensible enough, but problems soon develop.

Rosenberg is absolutely right to insist that science provides the only usable source of information with which to address life’s important questions. He gives himself a quick pop quiz, and gets the answers right: Is there a God? No. What is the purpose of the universe? There is none. What is the meaning of life? Ditto. Does prayer work? Of course not. Is there free will? Not a chance!

He’s also correct, I think, in noting that a big part of the appeal of religion is that the human brain is hard-wired by evolution to relate to stories. Religion is a huge repository of stories — charming, inspiring, or scary. Science is hard for people to grasp because it isn’t a collection of stories.

Where he runs off the rails is in his discussion of science. He doesn’t get his facts straight. Instead, he starts telling stories. Okay, there are no people in the stories, but they’re fables nonetheless.

He accepts the hypothesis of a multiverse as fact, when in fact it’s no more than a vague guess, unsupported by a shred of evidence. He asserts that the entire physical universe is made up of fermions and bosons, even though physicists have no idea what sort(s) of particles dark matter (if it even exists) may be composed of. He dismisses the anthropic principle without troubling to explain that there is a weak anthropic principle (which is quite sensible) and a strong anthropic principle (which is silly).

Or consider this passage: “The physicist’s picture of the universe is the one on which all bets should be placed. The bets are not only that it’s correct as far as it goes, but that it will eventually go all the way and be completely correct. When finished, it will leave nothing out as unexplained from physical first principles (besides those principles themselves).” [Italics in original.] This reminds me of the apocryphal comment, made toward the end of the 19th century, that the Patent Office might as well be closed, because all of the devices that could be invented had already been invented.

As any reader of Scientific American knows, the frontiers of physics are very fuzzy indeed. The essential problem — and it’s not just a practical problem, though it is that; it’s essential — is that the things physicists would like to study are so very small or so very distant in space and time that we’re reaching the limits beyond which it will be impossible to gather raw observational data.

And while we’re on the subject, where exactly did those first principles in physics come from? This is not a trivial question. As Einstein once remarked (or so I’ve read), “The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible.” Why exactly should all electrons behave identically? And isn’t that question one that physics should be prepared to investigate?

No, Mr. Rosenberg, physics will never be complete.

His discussion of the Second Law of Thermodynamics is conventional, but flawed. (I’m sure this same flaw is found in physics textbooks. You don’t have to thank me.) Here is how Rosenberg puts it: “The second law tells us that in any region of space left to itself, differences in the amount of energy will very, very, very probably even out until the whole region is uniform in energy.” A few pages later, he says the second law “requires only the extremely probable increase in entropy from moment to moment in a closed system — the whole universe or some isolated part of it.”

There are two related problems with this formulation.

First, there is no such thing as a closed system. You can build an iron box if you like, and pack it full of gas molecules, and observe how they mix. That’s the sort of “closed” system theorists like to talk about. But every second, millions of neutrinos will be zipping straight through that box, as if the iron walls weren’t even there. The iron walls themselves, not having been cooled to absolute zero, will be radiating heat into the interior of the box while simultaneously absorbing heat from whatever is outside the box.

Yes, the Second Law will describe what’s going to happen in the box, unless some outside source of energy intervenes. If an improbable distribution of gas molecules shows up, you look for the outside source of energy. That’s very sensible, but let’s not talk about closed systems, shall we? There are always outside forces acting on a “closed” system.

Second, and more important, we don’t know that the universe as a whole is a closed system. It may be infinite in extent. The part we can observe appears to be finite, though extremely large — but there is an edge past which we can’t see. We don’t know what may be out there past the furthest objects we can observe. If the universe is infinite, then the Second Law becomes meaningless as applied to the universe as a whole, because somewhere out there, there will always be regions of improbably high energy density.

And that’s just the chapter on physics. Having barely started on the chapter about biology and evolution, I stumbled on this howler: “Darwin estimated that at least 300 million years had been required for natural selection to provide the level of adaptation we see around us. (He was off by three orders of magnitude….)” Sorry, Mr. Rosenberg. The difference between 300 million and 3 billion (the actual time span) is only one order of magnitude, not three.

With friends like this, atheism may not need enemies.

Posted in religion, writing | Leave a Comment »

Needed: Big Blue Box

Posted by midiguru on July 10, 2014

I really ought to go back to writing science fiction. In science fiction you get to make stuff up. The trouble with writing about the real world is, you pretty much have to get it right. Or at least, I feel compelled to do so.

I like reading mystery novels, so it would be natural to think about writing one. (I don’t actually like reading science fiction. With a few exceptions in the fantasy genre, SF annoys the shit out of me.) But modern police work is complex, not least for reasons of advanced technology. If I were to try writing a mystery set today, nailing down the details of law enforcement and digital surveillance would be a lot of work, and not very gratifying work. Besides which, crime itself has sort of fallen victim to technology. How can the murderer concoct an alibi when there are video cameras at every stop light and GPS tracking cell phones?

At first blush, then, writing historical mysteries seems like a terrific idea. No fingerprints to worry about, no DNA, no wiretapping. But while the research is a lot more fun than talking to modern cops would be, the need to get the details right is still driving me crazy.

This story, see — it starts in a town in Wisconsin in 1871. Possibly a town called Two Rivers. The truth is, any town in Wisconsin would do. I picked that one by throwing darts (metaphorical darts) at a map.

The difficulty is, I know zilch about Two Rivers, Wisconsin. The bulk of my story is set in Chicago, and finding good research material on Chicago in the post-Civil War period is not difficult. Research on Two Rivers, though? Good luck with that.

I figured, there had to be lumber mills in that area in those days, so let’s use a lumber mill as a dramatic setting. But tonight, while searching the Web in vain for information on the Wisconsin criminal court system in the 1870s, I learned that the lumber mills in Two Rivers went belly up in 1857, owing principally (according to this particular source) to the fact that the nearby forest had been logged out.

The big industry in Two Rivers in the 1870s was a factory that made chairs. It was apparently one of the biggest chair manufacturers in the world.

Chairs — not a gripping backdrop for the opening of a mystery novel.

History is an endless, echoing cavern. Try as I might, I’ll never know enough. What I need is a big blue box — a police call box, one that’s a lot bigger on the inside than on the outside. Short of being there and seeing what there is to see, how can you really think you know anything about history?

Posted in fiction, writing | Leave a Comment »

A Taste of History

Posted by midiguru on July 8, 2014

History is not as far away as we tend to think. Once in a while it rises up and gives you a little extra ripple of pleasure.

Right now I’m doing some research for a possible rewrite of a novel I wrote five years ago. The novel is set in Chicago, in 1885. I enjoy doing research, and I’m also somewhat obsessive about wanting to get the details right. If you want to know about the development of the bicycle or the telephone, let me know. Both were new in 1885. The phonograph existed too, but it wasn’t in common use.

The details of daily life are endless. What kind of paper money did people have and use in 1885? That’s a good question. Since my story involves a robbery, I need to know. I couldn’t find any good answers online, and my local public library was mostly a bust, so I availed myself of the inter-library loan system. This is a great system, as long as you’re careful not to lose books. (The fine is $100.)

Today I got an email notification that the books I requested had arrived, so I drove down to the library and picked up a copy of a book called United States Notes, which was sent down at my request from the University of Nevada. The paper is a bit yellowing, the language somewhat archaic, and as it turns out, there’s nothing in the book that’s very helpful. But here’s the fun part:

Flipping to the front, I found that the book was published by Charles Scribner’s Sons in 1884. This is not a Dover reprint — it’s the original damn book. It has been sitting on a library shelf in Nevada since a year before the events in my story.

My grandfather, Frank Aikin, was 20 years old in 1885. But that’s an abstract fact, and anyway, I never knew him. This book is concrete. It’s sitting right here on my end table. History.

Posted in fiction, writing | Leave a Comment »

What’s in a Name?

Posted by midiguru on July 7, 2014

Five years ago I wrote a historical mystery novel. My agent didn’t think it was marketable, and in retrospect he was right. There were problems.

Ever since, I’ve been mulling over ways to fix it. Last month I figured out what needs to be done, so now I’m ready to attempt a rewrite.

The difficulty I’m wrestling with today is what name to give my detective. All the good names are taken. I think of one that might work. I google it. There’s already an actor named that, or a historical figure from the same period, or a novelist.

In the original version, his name was John Gordon. I like the dark vowels. What I don’t like is “Gordon.” It’s customary to call an adult male character by his last name — and “Gordon” is ambiguous. It could be a first name. And not a very strong or dignified first name — a bit wimpy, in fact. Gordon this, Gordon that. Not good.

It occurred to me that his ancestors might have come from Wales. Morgan is a good Welsh name, but there’s already a John Morgan. There’s a John Corwin. There’s a John North. There’s a John Moore. There’s a John Flint.

Pfui.

Posted in fiction, writing | Leave a Comment »

Too Many Synthesizers

Posted by midiguru on June 6, 2014

I’m perpetually looking for opportunities to write about synthesizers and related technologies. Not just because I love playing with new toys (though that’s part of it). I also like letting other people know what’s worth checking out. Maybe along the way I can give a manufacturer or two a tiny nudge in a good direction, or improve a deserving company’s sales figures ever so slightly.

Trouble is, the outlets for product reviews are pretty jammed up. Today I was talking to a magazine editor (not the editor of Keyboard or Electronic Musician) about product reviews, and he made it clear that his publication has the same problems they do. The advertisers pretty much demand coverage for their latest offerings. Meanwhile, the page count has shrunk drastically over the past decade or two.

Just in the software realm, I’d guess there are at least five times as many new music programs today as there were 15 years ago. The magazines have maybe half as much page space as they had then.

Musicians are the losers in this equation. We’re forced to base our buying decisions on three-sentence “reviews” in the online retailers’ pages, reviews written by who knows who, with who knows what agenda or level of ignorance. Yes, a video tutorial on a product can help a lot … if you can find a good one. Even so, there’s a glut of product and a shortage of solid information about it all.

Tonight I’ve been looking at Oscilab, a very forward-looking iPad app from 2Beat. I don’t even feel like pitching a review to Keyboard or EM, because neither of them has responded to my last few pitches. Not because the editors are rude (though they’re certainly overworked). The core problem is that the magazine itself doesn’t have the bandwidth.

A few years ago, Nick Batsdorf started a magazine called Virtual Instruments. Great idea, but it folded after a couple of years. I’m guessing, not enough ad dollars were coming in. The magazine was clearly needed, but the economy wouldn’t support it.

Okay, I got that off my chest. Now I can go back to playing with Oscilab.

Posted in music, technology, writing | Leave a Comment »

Solipsist Sodality

Posted by midiguru on July 9, 2013

Writing is a solitary activity. When not writing, some writers are outgoing and sociable, but a lot of us aren’t. Making connections with your peers is a valuable thing no matter what field you’re in, but those who engage in solitary occupations face some special challenges.

Today I’ve been looking into writers’ organizations. I’ve got a couple of leads that may pan out, but on the whole it’s not a pretty picture.

The California Writers Club has a chapter headquartered not too many miles from me. The chapter has monthly activities. But when I look at the bio pages of about 20 members, I would have to say they’re not my peers. Not to disparage any of these charming people or their passion for writing, but I’ve been a pro for upwards of 30 years. It’s not the case that any two people who put the word “writer” in their bio are automatically peers, or that they can engage in mutually beneficial concourse.

I’ve tried a couple of online writers’ groups, but it’s pretty much the same picture — a horde of amateurs. Not people I can discuss nuts and bolts with. Plus, an online forum is a public place. What I’m seeking is more in the nature of a private, personal dialog with two or three people who have similar experiences and concerns.

Conventions are a big deal in science fiction and fantasy. Lots of writers fly off to conventions, both to promote their books to fans and to schmooze with one another. At the risk of indulging in a cliche, I would rather attend a convention than have bamboo shoots driven under my fingernails … but, well, how many bamboo shoots are we talking about? I’ll have to think about it and get back to you.

It’s not so much that I want to talk about what I’m writing, though that’s fun (and I’d be happy to hear about what you’re writing, if you’re one of my peers). I’m more interested in Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in fiction, writing | 6 Comments »

Get Your YA-YAs Out

Posted by midiguru on July 7, 2013

I start reading a lot of novels and don’t finish them. I can think of at least two ways to interpret this bad habit. One would be, fiction doesn’t really interest me. Another, opposite interpretation would be that my unconscious is getting disgusted and saying, “That’s not how I would do it.”

For reasons that I may talk about at some point, I’ve started reading Young Adult (YA) genre fantasy novels, and forcing myself to finish them. I’ve now made it through two — Mary Hoffman’s Stravaganza: City of Masks and Cinda Chima Williams’s The Demon King. Both of these are first volumes in multi-volume series, and at some point I may be moved to go on with either series. In the meantime, I have half a dozen more first volumes to explore.

Both books are decently written. What they have in common is that the plots are not structured in quite the way that a plot would be structured in a novel for the adult market. In both books, the hero and heroine (one of each, in each book) sort of drift along, carried forward by events in the adult world.

This wouldn’t work in a novel for adults. The idea in the latter, or so I’ve been taught, is that the hero or heroine Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in fiction, writing | Leave a Comment »

Quality Assurance

Posted by midiguru on July 6, 2013

Okay, I admit it. I’m a snob. I like excellence, and I have very little patience with shoddy workmanship.

Over on the Hatrack River writers’ forum, I stirred up a wee controversy this week by suggesting that how-to-write suggestions from unpublished authors ought not to be blindly trusted. I was responding to a statement by the moderator, who said this:

“After all, one of the reasons a workshop like this can be of any use to writers is the idea that a writer may be able to help others’ writing even if that writer has not succeeded in producing publishable work yet.”

One of the regular contributors to the forum echoed this sentiment, saying, “…the one strength we have to share is that there are no wrong answers. There is only what in any one individual’s opinion works or doesn’t work for that individual.”

My first response was this:

“I can certainly see that an unpublished writer can Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in fiction, writing | 4 Comments »

Scratching the Itch

Posted by midiguru on July 4, 2013

A few days ago I was talking with a woman who would like to be writing fiction. She has written a few stories and would like to sit down and edit them, but it’s hard for her to find time to write, because for one thing she has two small children.

I whipped out my standard advice for aspiring writers. What I told her was this:

As a writer, you’ll need to solve literally thousands of problems — what to name a character, whether to split a long sentence into two short sentences, where to start the action in a new scene, whether a character’s actions make sense or need to be changed, what kind of furniture is in the character’s bedroom, whether your story idea is fresh, hackneyed, or perhaps a copyright violation, and so on. It’s endless. And the very first problem that you have to solve is how to find a time and place to write. (Preferably every day.) That’s not the only problem you’ll face, it’s just the first of many. But until you solve that one, you won’t be in a position to tackle any of the others.

When I was about 19 years old, I went to a friend of my father’s to ask for advice. I think I had some vague idea of becoming a famous writer or musician — I know I didn’t have anything very definite in mind, and probably what I wanted was advice about how Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in fiction, writing | 1 Comment »

 
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