Jim Aikin's Oblong Blob

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Archive for the ‘random musings’ Category

Smut Smiters

Posted by midiguru on June 11, 2015

I’m kind of burned out on the whole Caitlyn Jenner thing — trying to explain to people that a trans woman is not “a man in a dress.” But somewhere along the way, I was taking a quick, horrified glance at a couple of radical feminist web pages, and I was reminded that most radical feminists are vehemently opposed to pornography.

Whenever we find supposed leftists aligning themselves with fundamentalist Christians, we should probably be a little suspicious. But the Christians’ objections to pornography are really too silly to be worth discussing. The feminist objections, I think, can be dealt with in a rational manner.

If I understand it correctly (and please correct me if I’m missing something), the feminist objections to pornography are, first, that the pornography industry exploits women; and second, that pornography objectifies women by portraying them simply as bodies suitable for lusty purposes rather than as whole human beings.

Of course, gay male pornography complicates the picture. Really, we should be talking about “people” rather than “women.” But let’s avoid complicating the discussion.

I’m sure it’s true that the pornography industry exploits women. But then, so does the garment industry in Taiwan. I’m guessing that the type of exploitation that so upsets radical feminists is that the women who are employed as photographic models or film actresses in pornography are required to take their clothes off as part of their employment. And to engage in real or simulated sex acts.

However, artist models routinely pose naked. And are sometimes paid for doing so, I’m sure. For that matter, there are nudist colonies and clothing-optional beaches. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with either nakedness or being paid to get naked.

If some women feel that being in porn (or stripping) is the only way they can earn a decent living, then yes, that’s exploitation. The solution is not, however, to remove those job opportunities. The solution is to provide other well-paying job opportunities so that women don’t have to do porn unless they want to.

I’m pretty sure some of them do want to. And that fact is nobody’s business but their own. Neither the radical feminists nor the fundie Xtians get to say, “But she shouldn’t want to!” No, you don’t get to go there.

Is there something uniquely awful about being paid for sex, as opposed to, say, being paid for cleaning motel rooms or working as a cashier at Wal-Mart? No, I think we can dismiss that notion. Sex is a normal, healthy activity.

Prostitution ought to be legal, and plenty of feminists understand that. Laws against prostitution punish women. How is engaging in sex for pay on camera any different? It’s not.

In sum, the argument that pornography exploits the women who work in the porn industry pretty much falls apart when you look at it closely.

But doesn’t pornography objectify women? Doesn’t it demean all women, whether or not they’re on camera? Doesn’t it give men unrealistic fantasy ideas about women’s bodies? Doesn’t it damage men’s ability to relate to real women as whole human beings?

I think if you took a survey, you would find that most heterosexual men think healthy, well-formed 20-year-old women are sexier than healthy, well-formed 40-year-old women. I think you would find that most men are not sexually aroused by pimples, wrinkles, stretch marks, or surgical scars. (There are exceptions, of course.) Most men have, in other words, an ideal in their heads of what they would like a sex partner to look like. The ideal will differ from one man to another, but there will almost always be an ideal. A man who is equally aroused by all women, and who is not lying about it, would be extremely rare, and would probably be worth studying in a laboratory that’s equipped with brain scanning technology. We can safely say there must be something wrong with his wiring.

Men’s ideas of what they would ideally prefer in a sex partner are not created by the porn industry. The ideals are natively just there, in the men’s heads. The porn industry certainly targets those ideals, but it doesn’t create them. It can’t create them. It’s really difficult to get anyone sexually turned on by something that he or she doesn’t already want to get turned on by.

Most men understand that the sex partner they have is less than ideal — and they’re okay with that. Unless something a lot better comes along, of course. Infidelity and divorce are painful and unfortunate, but they’re not caused by the porn industry. They would exist, and probably at about the same frequency, even if pornography were prohibited. Indeed, a case could be made that pornography gives some men a sexual outlet that allows them to remain faithful to their wife. In the absence of pornography, they might feel a greater need to seek outside stimulation of a more direct and personal nature.

It’s important, too, to emphasize that when a man looks at a woman — perhaps a stranger — and is turned on by her in a specifically sexual way, without reference to her personality or her other fine qualities, that’s normal. There’s nothing wrong with that. I’m sure millions of happy marriages have begun in momentary lust. Men are not such primitive, loathsome creatures that they are unable to move outward from their lust into an appreciation of a woman’s intelligence, honesty, or other attributes.

One of the basic rules of progressive politics is this: Politics stops at the bedroom door. You don’t get to have a political opinion about what turns anybody on. You don’t get to say, “But that shouldn’t turn you on!” As long as the two (or more) people involved in the sexual encounter are consenting adults, anything they do is fine, and any feelings that they have are fine.

Attempting to demonize pornography is, at root, an attempt to tell men, “But you shouldn’t be turned on by that!” It’s bullshit. Men are turned on by whatever they’re turned on by, and as long as it involves consenting adults, you don’t get to have an opinion about it.

Sexual attractiveness is a commodity. The mating game is market economics in action. We all try to make the best deal we can, and we all try to market ourselves as well as possible — through personal grooming, buying a fast car, or whatever. That’s biology, as expressed through human instinct and human culture. I’m going to be unkind here. My suspicion is that quite often radical feminists object to the portrayal of women in porn because they, the radical feminists, feel ill equipped to compete with the women in porn.

But you know, I’m ill equipped to compete with Ben Affleck. That’s reality. Deal with it.

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The Quest for Knowledge

Posted by midiguru on May 21, 2015

Nibbled at by some persistent demon, it has occurred to me that I really would like to go back to college and get my B.A. Possibly a Master’s as well. At the tender age of 66.

I live less than 40 miles from UC Berkeley. Not only that, but I’m a former Berkeley student (for two quarters in 1969). If they can find my student ID number (not guaranteed — probably on microfilm in the basement), I qualify as a returning student. I can apply this week and start classes in the fall.

But there’s a fly in the ointment. More like a wart hog, actually. (Visual: wart hog in the ointment. Let’s not go there.) UC Berkeley is not a commuter school. There are something like 800 parking spaces to serve 20,000 students. On top of which, as a music student, I would often need to carry my cello. The nearest and most convenient parking garage (which might, on any given day, be full) is too far from the music department for a 66-year-old to carry a cello.

The music department has lockers. The most likely solution will be for me to rent a barely adequate cello ($70 per month for a couple of years, thereby adding a cool $1,500 or so to the cost of attending school) and leave it in the locker. But the parking situation is still dismal.

Riding BART in from Dublin is not an option. As a male over 65, I sometimes need quick access to a restroom (or at least to a place where I can pull off the highway for a minute). No, I’ll be driving.

Hey, how about parking on the street a mile from campus and riding the bus? Sounds like a swell idea. The 49 bus runs right up College Ave. to the campus. But most of Berkeley’s residential neighborhoods, including those that lie along the 49 line, are parking-controlled. Two-hour limit unless you have a resident sticker.

Contrast this with Cal State East Bay. It’s a commuter school. Plentiful student parking within 200 yards of your classroom. And the commute from Livermore is shorter. Trouble is, Cal State is not really a wonderful school. You can get a degree there, no problem, but if you want an actual education UC would be a far better choice.

Maybe I can charter a daily helicopter.

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Ruminations on Religion

Posted by midiguru on April 27, 2015

Today I got into a low-key wrangle with a woman on Facebook who feels that her moderate, enlightened version of Christianity is superior to the version espoused by the right-wing zealots who are currently spewing their toxic garbage across our national discourse. She said she simply follows the teachings of Jesus, which she finds not very ambiguous.

I asked her whether she opposes divorce; Jesus was quite specific about that, if the Bible is to be believed. Of course, the Bible is a farrago of fantasy, we all understand that — but if she’s trying to follow the teachings of Jesus, she has to use it.

She wouldn’t answer the question. But she got me curious, so I hauled out the King James Version and had a look at Matthew. The sayings of Jesus turn out to be more peculiar than I remembered — and a lot harder to use as teachings or moral precepts, I’d say. Here’s Matthew 8:21-22: “And another of his disciples said unto him, Lord, suffer me first to go and bury my father. But Jesus said unto him, Follow me; and let the dead bury their dead.”

Okay, so one of Jesus’s teachings was that corpses were to be allowed to rot unburied. Have I got that right?

Earlier in the same chapter, a centurion comes to Jesus requesting that Jesus heal his servant, who is “grievously tormented” by the palsy. But the centurion doesn’t want Jesus to be seen entering his house! “For I am a man under authority,” he explains. He wants Jesus to heal the servant remotely. Jesus does so — but what’s remarkable about this incident is that Jesus goes out of his way to praise the centurion’s great faith. “Verily I say unto you,” he says to his disciples, “I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel.”

The centurion is worried about losing his job if he’s known to be hanging out with Jesus, and Jesus praises his faith. That’s enough to set my head spinning. Jesus is unabashedly praising fear and hypocrisy. He’s praising a man for not wanting to lose his job.

And yet he also says, “Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on.” Yes, that does seem to be fairly unambiguous, though it’s precisely the opposite of what he praised the centurion for.

Can we safely assume that the woman who is following the teachings of Jesus has no interest in dieting and nutrition? Can we safely assume that she doesn’t bother to wash her clothes or make sure that her socks match?

Or, as is much more likely, shall we assume that she is picking and choosing among the teachings of Jesus, embracing the teachings that she likes and ignoring those that would be embarrassing, inconvenient, or dangerous?

I’m not too concerned, at the moment, about hypocrisy. That’s not what I’m driving at. What I want to suggest is that not even the most scrupulously religious can dodge personal responsibility for their moral and behavioral choices. If you try to follow every single thing in your favorite holy book, of course you’ll go mad, because holy books are full of contradictions. But even if you did try to do that, it would still be your personal choice. You can’t evade responsibility for your actions by trying to blame it on Jesus. In practice, people do pick and choose the verses they will admire and embrace. And that’s as it should be.

But if you do it that way, and if you have even a scrap of honesty, you really have to admit to yourself that the Bible is not a reliable guide to anything. The only reliable guide to morality or life’s difficult choices is your own personal sense of right and wrong. Jesus got nothin’ to do with it.

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Posted by midiguru on January 9, 2015

I’m not a philosopher. The contortions of academic philosophy as a discipline leave me, alternately, gasping for breath or rolling on the floor laughing. I’m just a reasonably bright guy who likes to think about stuff.

Lately I’ve been thinking about things that happen (occasionally) in my life that seem to have no detectable cause. I’m pretty sure most people encounter these odd events from time to time. One popular term for them is “coincidences.”

The notion behind the word “coincidence” is that when two events happen in conjunction with one another for no detectable reason, it was just pure dumb luck. Randomness in action. In the course of your daily life, thousands and thousands of events will occur; the probability that a few of the concidences will seem meaningful is actually quite high.

My own experience, however, suggests that meaningful coincidences seem to occur preferentially (though not reliably) at moments of heightened emotional significance. I’m driving along a road, thinking profound thoughts about the nature of the universe, stumble upon an especially pregnant insight — and at that moment I pull up at a stop light behind a car whose license plate comments in a very specific and personal way on my insight.

That actually happened to me, by the way. Such things — all different, all unlikely, all meaningful — have happened half a dozen times in my life that I can recall offhand.

One essential point to understand about such moments is that they cannot be investigated scientifically. They can’t be taken into a laboratory. You can’t run a double-blind study while repeating them with controls. They’re essentially one-off events.

Here’s the big question: Is it possible that the universe occasionally produces meaningful constellations of events for which there is no cause? Or rather, for which there is no cause other than the fact that the events are being experienced together by somebody who finds them meaningful?

The reductionist physicist view of this idea is that of course it’s nonsense. Events cluster at random, that’s all. Each individual event is caused by simple physical processes involving molecules, and that’s the whole story. Sometimes we perceive meaningful connections between events, but the meaningful connections exist only in our minds.

The difficulty with the reductionist explanation is that it presupposes that all events in the physical universe have physical causes, and that the physical causes are entirely sufficient to explain why a given event occurs. This is a form of the First Cause argument in philosophy — a thoroughly pondered but quite silly argument for the existence of God. The First Cause argument starts with the thesis, “Whatever begins to exist has a cause.”

That thesis is suspect on at least two grounds that I can summon up without being a philosopher. First, physicists assure us that matter and energy can be neither created nor destroyed. So in fact nothing ever “begins to exist.” It’s all already in existence. Second, and perhaps more alarmingly for the philosopher in his ivory tower, how do we know that that statement is true? What if it’s not true? What if there are millions of uncaused events going on around us all the time?

The human brain likes to find causes, and there are profound evolutionary reasons for that. If your ancestors heard a rustling in the bushes, it was darn well important for their brains to jump (and quickly) to the conclusion that something was hiding in the bushes. Could be a lion, could be something tasty — but if they didn’t think about the cause of the rustling, they were a lot less likely to pass on their genes to the next generation.

The fact that we’re hard-wired to look for causes does not imply that everything in the universe necessarily has a cause.

The universe doesn’t know the difference between male and female. The universe doesn’t even know the difference between 1 and 2. (Conjoined twins are a fine example of this fact. Not one baby, and not two babies. 1-1/3 babies, or 1-5/6 babies.) The universe, I would argue, is not bound for a moment by human ideas of logic or causation. Those are just human ideas.

Think about electrons for a moment. There are untold trillions of electrons whizzing around in your body at this very moment. The physicists will assure us that all electrons are identical. They all obey the same simple set of physical laws. But why? Well, because they do, that’s all. There is no outside force compelling electrons to interact with other particles the way they do. If there were such a force, the same question would have to be asked of it: Why does this force behave the way it does?

The short answer, as unsettling as it may be, is that there is no cause. Electrons just do what they do, that’s all we can say about it. We can investigate their behavior, but we can’t explain it. If we try to explain it, we’ll find ourselves hunting for the philosophers’ elusive First Cause. We’ll tumble down the rabbit hole into an infinite regression.

Maybe electrons are like mushrooms. They just pop up. (Yes, I understand that mushrooms are the fruiting bodies of mycelium. I’m using a metaphor here. Cut me some slack.) And maybe larger events, events that we can observe with the naked eye, sometimes just pop up too, without being caused.

The universe doesn’t know about logic. It doesn’t know about the difference between 1 and 2, or between true and false. It just is. We only expect it to adhere to the “laws” of causation because evolution trained us to look for causes. Sometimes there are causes, yes. Sometimes it’s the mycelium creeping along under the ground. But what outside agency would force the universe to always have causes for things?

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Food for Worms

Posted by midiguru on December 14, 2014

In the course of prepping a couple of obsolete computers for recycling, I discovered I have CD and DVD copies of the entire Myst series games. Unfortunately, I’m unable to play the later ones, because Windows has moved on. I’ve got realMyst (an enhanced version of the original), and for some reason Myst III: Exile runs fine under Windows 8. But IV and V are toast. Or coasters, I suppose.

The sad part about this is that in some sense these games are digital art. And they’re gone. Okay, maybe not as great art as Beethoven’s Third or a Van Gogh painting, but Myst had a real visual style. Arguably, the games have a narrative theme too — or several themes, actually. That the world is vast, lonely, and mysterious. That there are places you may want to visit that are not accessible to you. That you may need to explore hidden places and find unlikely connections in order to solve the basic problems of existence. That the Creator has moved on and left you behind to deal with his inconvenient handiwork in whatever way you can manage.

I happen to have a Windows XP laptop, which is on its way to recycling in a day or two. I hauled it out of the trunk of the car and installed Myst IV. Unfortunately, it’s a MusicXPC machine, built for dedicated audio professionals. As such, it has no soundcard. None. Myst needs a soundcard to run.

So I plug in an M-Audio Fast Track Pro that I happen to have lying around. It’s class-compliant. Windows XP likes it fine — system sounds play. But Myst IV still isn’t happy. It complains that the desktop isn’t in 32-bit mode, even though it is in 32-bit mode.


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What’s in the Cards

Posted by midiguru on December 14, 2014

Playing cards seem to have been invented near the end of the 14th century. In addition to the precursors of the four suits that we know and love, the earliest decks had a variety of additional picture-cards. Today’s Tarot cards are a systematization of those early decks.

As a hardcore atheist, I don’t have much patience with the idea that if you lay out a spread of Tarot cards for the purpose of divination, the universe will somehow produce a meaningful spread. What cards show up in a spread — that’s random.

Nonetheless, the symbolism found in the Tarot is fascinating. The images on the cards have very little to do with any scientific description of the world, except accidentally. But they have everything to do with human perceptions and human psychology.

The meanings of the images on the cards are anything but cut-and-dried. Some are simply vague and open to interpretation. Others are close to what Jung called archetypes: They represent deeply unconscious tendencies in the human brain. Your interpretations may not be at all like mine, and either of us can change our interpretation from day to day. On Monday, The Fool may represent the Eternal Now. On Wednesday, it may depict childish impulsiveness. And so on.

Once you know the basic (and multi-faceted) meanings of the cards, if you lay out a spread in a calm, attentive manner your intuition may be prompted toward a new realization with respect to whatever concerns you. The cards are not going to give you advice, but your unconscious may give you a nudge that’s prompted by whatever random cards show up in the spread. Or not. No guarantees.

Lots of artists today are designing, printing, and selling Tarot cards. Some hew closely to the set of images in the Rider-Waite-Smith deck, which has been around for a hundred years now. Others offer radical reinterpretations. Some are visual feasts; others are regrettably amateurish in execution.

One of the things that I like about the Tarot is this cultural free-for-all. The cards seem to satisfy some of the same human cravings as religion, but unlike the Bible or the Koran, the cards are almost entirely wordless. The very few words that are associated with the Major Arcana (The Tower, The Emperor, The Star, and so on) are not infrequently redacted by card designers who prefer other terms, due either to the needs of a new deck with a particular theme or to simple squeamishness. Sometimes the Death card becomes “Transformation.” In a Celtic-themed deck, The Devil is transformed into Cernunnos, the horned god.

I also like the idea that you can carry 78 beautiful paintings around in a small box.

If you’re curious to see what the card designers are up to, a good site to visit is Aeclectic Tarot. You’ll find decks depicting everything from Egyptian mysticism to cats.

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Imaginary Games

Posted by midiguru on November 25, 2014

Last night I had a dream about playing contract bridge using Tarot cards. For the rest of the night (mostly while asleep) I was musing about how such a game might actually be played. I have no definite proposal for the rules, just a lot of mildly interesting speculations.

The Tarot deck has 14 cards per suit rather than 13. That’s a fairly trivial difference, although (if there were no other considerations) it would give you 14 tricks per hand, which would allow the bidding to go up to the level of 8 rather than 7. But wait: The Tarot deck also has a set of 22 extra cards called the Major Arcana. The deck as a whole has 78 cards.

The Major Arcana cards (MA for short) could be used as trumps, but that would make the process of bidding fairly pointless. One simple possibility would be to make them “sub-trumps.” One of the 22 could be used to trump a trick in the usual way, but would be over-ruffed by any card in the contracted trump suit. If a MA card is led, the MA would have to be considered a fifth suit, and maybe that’s a better idea. Some special rules would have to apply to this fifth suit, since it has so many cards.

Speaking of which, we’re going to need five players at the table rather than four. Each player is dealt 15 cards, and three are left over. The three extra cards are placed face down on the table. One is turned face up before bidding begins, the other two when bidding ends and play begins. These three cards obviously have some special meaning or utility, but I have no idea what it might be. Certain of the Major Arcana, if they appear, might change the rules for a given hand. The declarer might have the option of swapping one or more of the three cards into the dummy, replacing existing dummy cards.

The fifth player is called the spoiler. She is nobody’s partner. The position of spoiler rotates around the table, which means that the partnerships will also change from one hand to the next. Given five players — A, B, C, D, and E — when A is the spoiler, B and D are partners, as are C and E. In the next hand, B is the spoiler; C and E are still partners, but now A and D are partners. When C becomes the spoiler, A and D are still partners, but now B and E are partners. One easy way to think about this is that in a given hand, the two players to the left and right of the spoiler are never partners. (They will be partners in a later hand.)

Why “spoiler”? One idea (and remember, I was asleep) is that when this player takes a trick, she can choose to give it to the declarer, or to the defenders, or she could keep it. That makes it awfully easy for the spoiler to play favorites, tilting the game in favor of one player or another, but because the position of spoiler rotates, maybe it would all balance out in the end. Even if the spoiler keeps all her tricks, she could still play favorites by deliberately avoiding taking a trick that she could win, in order to give the trick to either the declarer or the defenders.

What role the spoiler would play in bidding, I don’t know. If the spoiler bids and everybody passes, she will have to play against four opponents, and with no dummy, which would make it difficult to make the contract unless she has a boatload of high cards. Maybe a spoiler who wins the contract could choose either of the two players sitting opposite her as the dummy.

Whatever. We can speculate endlessly. Nobody will ever play this game — it’s too cumbersome. But it might show up in a fantasy story sometime. Maybe this is how the gods play bridge.

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The Map and the Territory

Posted by midiguru on October 31, 2014

Over on Facebook I fell into a discussion of how scientists attempt to develop intellectual constructs that model the real world. Someone else asked, “What makes a good model?” That set me thinking.

A good model makes testable predictions, that’s a fairly pragmatic criterion. Beyond that, however, physicists like models that are simple and elegant. Underlying the search for the Grand Theory of Everything (GTE) is the notion that we should be able to develop a single mathematical model from which can be derived all known physical processes.

Currently, or so I’ve read (and I’m not an expert), there is no theory that explains both quantum mechanics and general relativity. These two basic theories have both been tested, and the test results indicate that they both accord closely with how physical processes work — but they contradict one another. The hoped-for GTE would unite them.

My question is this: Why should we assume that the universe we live in can be explained by a simple, elegant model? The visible universe is, in fact, extremely messy on almost every level. Maybe it’s messy at the level of basic physical processes too. As Walt Whitman said, “Do I contradict myself? Very well — I contradict myself. I am large. I contain multitudes.” Whitman was a poet, not a physicist. But how can we be certain that the universe does not contradict itself? The quest for a simple, elegant model that explains everything is, I would suggest, an aesthetic quest. We like simple models. But of course the universe doesn’t care what we like.

Light is both a particle and a wave. You can set up an experiment that proves light is parceled into discrete quanta, and you can also set up an experiment that proves a single photon is smeared out across space — that it’s a wave. But you can’t do both at the same time, using the same photon. Light itself is a contradiction. But the problem is not with light itself. The problem is that people don’t like contradictions. We seek simple, clear explanations. We feel satisfied when we find them, and when we can’t find them it’s like an itch: We have to keep looking.

This emotional craving is powerful, and has led to some wonderful scientific discoveries. I’m not trying to suggest that the search for understanding is a bad thing. I’m just saying, maybe it’s the nature of the universe that it will forever escape any attempt to understand it in a clear, logical manner.

Maybe this is mysticism. I’m not a mystic, but maybe if you follow your intellect carefully enough, you’ll end up in the same territory. I believe it was Haldane who said, “The universe is not only stranger than we understand — it is stranger than we CAN understand.” Yeah. That.

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Slice, but Don’t Dice

Posted by midiguru on October 28, 2014

This week’s big adventure was a trip to the emergency room Friday night, followed by an appendectomy in the wee hours of Saturday morning. Hey, I thought when I turned 40, appendicitis was one health risk I didn’t have to worry about anymore! Statistically that’s true, but statistics don’t apply to individuals.

Here, in no particular order, are a few of the things I’ve learned:

1) The team at Kaiser Permanente in Walnut Creek is excellent. Consistently first-class work.

2) They really do want to get you out of the hospital quickly (because hospitals are where the really nasty germs hang out). I was on my way home within 8 hours after surgery.

3) Health care seems to be a booming field for the non-Anglo job seeker. Most of the staff I encountered, other than the doctors, was Hispanic, Asian, or Pacific Islander.

4) If you aren’t fit to do anything else, watching the World Series is a great way to pass the time!

5) Getting in and out of bed without using my abdominal muscles is all but impossible. I’ve slept the last three nights in my recliner. Next month I think I’ll go out and buy one of those motorized recliners, to be prepared for next time.

6) Being able to let go of attachments (in the Buddhist sense, I suppose) is a handy skill to have before surgery. As an atheist, I have no illusions about surviving when something goes horribly wrong, as sooner or later something certainly will. So what’s the point of fear? If you’re afraid of surgery, all that happens is you mess with your own head. It doesn’t change the outcome.

7) Stool softeners are your friend.

8) Suspenders are great too. I can leave my trousers entirely unzipped, which is handy when you’re bloated.

9) After laparoscopic surgery, the incisions (three in my case) are covered with BandAids. Do not make the mistake of thinking that this means the procedure was minor. You’ve just had your abdominal cavity cut open.

10) You can play the sympathy card a few times after surgery, but try not to overdo it, okay?

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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 »


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