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books

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We took Arthur’s Science Fair Trouble out of the library for Maya the other day, and let me tell you: I had always suspected that most of what adults tell you is bullshit, but children’s books live at some horrible Venn overlap of Moore and Sturgeon’s respective Laws where 90% of everything is not only crap but getting twice as crappy every year and a half or so.

I had to go over this book carefully with Maya after I read it, to explain to her why every single part of it is wrong. The description from the dust cover reads:

Arthur has to do a science fair project, but all of the good ideas are taken: Buster is building a rocket, Muffy is growing crystals, and Francine is making a bird feeder. Arthur learns a valuable lesson when he finds his father’s old solar system project in the attic and tries to use it for his own science fair project.

That’s right: Arthur’s in a pickle, because all the good science ideas have been done by other children doing wholly original work. But when Arthur instead decides to update his father’s old solar system project (repainting it) and presenting that he feels, we are told, terribly guilty, finally breaking down after winning first prize to admit the work wasn’t wholly his. He is suitably chastised, of course.

I don’t think Maya understood my rant about why verifying old assumptions was incredibly valuable, not merely per se but particularly in light of Pluto’s redefined status and the inclusion of Eris and Ceres in the “Dwarf Planet” category as well.

I had to explain to her Arthur was explaining the evolution of cosmology by repurposing and updating older (handmade by his father!) demonstration materials, which is not only great on its own, but vastly better scientific and expository work than his classmates’ projects, who were showing no insight into why assembling premanufactured toys might not count as science.

“Maya, the people harassing Arthur for this are lazy, ignorant people saying dumb things to make Arthur feel bad, and Arthur is wrong to feel bad about his work. Building on top of each others’ work is the only reason we have this world of incredible, miraculous wonder we live in, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.”

I don’t think it stuck, but I’ll keep repeating it.

I was thinking about this today when this quote from Mark Twain on plagiarism started making the rounds:

Mark Twain, letter to Helen Keller, after she had been accused of plagiarism for one of her early stories (17 March 1903), published in Mark Twain’s Letters, Vol. 1 (1917) edited by Albert Bigelow Paine, p. 731:

Oh, dear me, how unspeakably funny and owlishly idiotic and grotesque was that “plagiarism” farce! As if there was much of anything in any human utterance, oral or written, except plagiarism! The kernal, the soul — let us go further and say the substance, the bulk, the actual and valuable material of all human utterances — is plagiarism. For substantially all ideas are second-hand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources, and daily used by the garnerer with a pride and satisfaction born of the superstition that he originated them; whereas there is not a rag of originality about them anywhere except the little discoloration they get from his mental and moral calibre and his temperament, and which is revealed in characteristics of phrasing. When a great orator makes a great speech you are listening to ten centuries and ten thousand men — but we call it his speech, and really some exceedingly smail portion of it is his. But not enough to signify. It is merely a Waterloo. It is Wellington’s battle, in some degree, and we call it his; but there are others that contributed. It takes a thousand men to invent a telegraph, or a steam engine, or a phonograph, or a photograph, or a telephone or any other important thing—and the last man gets the credit and we forget the others. He added his little mite — that is all he did. These object lessons should teach us that ninety-nine parts of all things that proceed from the intellect are plagiarisms, pure and simple; and the lesson ought to make us modest. But nothing can do that.

Which is all to say: Constant vigilance!

Two and a half years ago, I mentioned that:

20:05 < mhoye> My dad has a story whose details I can barely remember.
20:05 <@humph> hit me

… but I was wrong, it wasn’t Admiral Nelson. It was Chevalier La Vieuville, from Victor Hugo’s “Ninety-Three”, and my brief retelling of it doesn’t do it anything close to justice.

One of the carronades of the battery, a twenty-four pounder, had broken loose.

This is the most dangerous accident that can possibly take place on shipboard. Nothing more terrible can happen to a sloop of war in open sea and under full sail.

A cannon that breaks its moorings suddenly becomes some strange, supernatural beast. It is a machine transformed into a monster. That short mass on wheels moves like a billiard-ball, rolls with the rolling of the ship, plunges with the pitching, goes, comes, stops, seems to meditate, starts on its course again, shoots like an arrow, from one end of the vessel to the other, whirls around, slips away, dodges, rears, bangs, crashes, kills, exterminates. It is a battering ram capriciously assaulting a wall. Add to this, the fact that the ram is of metal, the wall of wood.

It is matter set free; one might say, this eternal slave was avenging itself; it seems as if the total depravity concealed in what we call inanimate things had escaped, and burst forth all of a sudden; it appears to lose patience, and to take a strange mysterious revenge; nothing more relentless than this wrath of the inanimate. This enraged lump leaps like a panther, it has the clumsiness of an elephant, the nimbleness of a mouse, the obstinacy of an axe, the uncertainty of the billows, the zigzag of the lightning, the deafness of the grave. It weighs ten thousand pounds, and it rebounds like a child’s ball. It spins and then abruptly darts off at right angles.

And what is to be done? How put an end to it? A tempest ceases, a cyclone passes over, a wind dies down, a broken mast can be replaced, a leak can be stopped, a fire extinguished, but what will become of this enormous brute of bronze? How can it be captured? You can reason with a bull-dog, astonish a bull, fascinate a boa, frightened a tiger, tame a lion; but you have no resource against this monster, a loose cannon. You cannot kill it, it is dead; and at the same time it lives. It lives with a sinister life which comes to it from the infinite. The deck beneath it gives it full swing. It is moved by the ship, which is moved by the sea, which is moved by the wind. This destroyer is a toy.

I said that “after the battle the Admiral addresses the crew, commending the sailor for his bravery under fire, and then immediately orders the sailor keelhauled“, but the power of the original text is remarkable, and has a lot more blood pumping through it than my vague recounting of a vague memory did.

“General, in consideration of what this man has done, do you not think there is something due him from his commander?”

“I think so,” said the old man.

“Please give your orders,” replied Boisberthelot.

“It is for you to give them, you are the captain.”

“But you are the general,” replied Boisberthelot.

The old man looked at the gunner.

“Come forward,” he said. The gunner approached.

The old man turned towards the Count de Boisberthelot, took off the cross of Saint-Louis from the captain’s coat and fastened it on the gunner’s jacket.

“Hurrah!” cried the sailors.

The mariners presented arms.

And the old passenger pointing to the dazzled gunner, added,—

“Now, have this man shot.”

You know “Les Miserables” and “The Hunchback Of Notre Dame”, but despite the fact that you’d be hard-pressed to make a stage musical or a Disney movie out of it, this may well be Hugo’s best work. I’m only partway through it, and I’m starting to believe that it is a deeply underappreciated work of that belongs on your shelf next to The Art Of War and The Book Of Five Rings – a book that says one thing, and teaches ten thousand things, utterly justifying my sordid lifelong habits run-on sentences and punctuation abuse.

You should really read the whole thing.

A friend of mine points me to this incredible New York Times article in which publishers lay out the fact that they are fundamentally opposed to public libraries, detailing their struggles as they take up arms against these nefarious institutions promoting such injustices as culture, literacy and the greater public good.

Ms. Thomas of Hachette says: “We’ve talked with librarians about the various levers we could pull,” such as limiting the number of loans permitted or excluding recently published titles. She adds that “there’s no agreement, however, among librarians about what they would accept.”

It’s really a great article, full of these little turns of phrase that seem to come out of publisher’s mouths without them even realize how evil they sound. “There’s no agreement among librarians to bend themselves, the public and the greater good over this barrel we’ve offered to sell them at a very reasonable rate”, they don’t quite say.

HarperCollins was brave to tamper with the sacrosanct idea that a library can do whatever it wishes with a book it obtains.

This sacrosanct idea is better known as the First-Sale Doctrine; those crafty librarians, always falling back things like “established law” and “century-old Supreme Court decisions” to make their case. Crazytimes, right?

But that’s not the best bit:

David Young, Hachette’s chief executive, says: “Publishers can’t meet to discuss standards because of antitrust concerns. This has had a chilling effect on reaching consensus.”

Mr. Young lays it flat out: that laws prohibiting anticompetitive collusion and price-fixing are having a “chilling effect” on major publishers’ attempts to collude, fix prices and thwart competition.

I can’t imagine a functioning adult saying this with a straight face, but there it is. “Laws against doing evil things are having a chilling effect on the efforts of aspirant evildoers.” I’m sure it’s a problem for somebody, but as far as I’m concerned, mission accomplished, gold stars all ’round, well done laws and keep up the good work.

As has been noted many times, by many people, we’ve juiced up the entirely artificial copyright laws of the world to the point that if libraries weren’t already a centuries-old cultural institution, there’s no chance they’d ever be able to come into existence today. And here in this miraculous age of free-flowing information, that’s sad as hell.

I’ve read me some books recently, Ready Player One and two of the Last Chronicles Of Thomas Covenant, and they could not possibly more different.

Ready Player One is a nerdculture bender of a book, about as hard to hate while you’re in the middle of it as it is to love in hindsight; it’s young adult literature for people who were born in the late seventies and haven’t really grown up yet. Of which I am apparently one, it has become clear, but you’re still left with the sense that you’re reading a Cory Doctorow book whose discerning virtue is that the lead isn’t a thinly-veiled Cory Doctorow. Which is a huge, huge improvement, make no mistake, but it’s still relentless, pandering fanservice.

I enjoyed it anyway, I think not because it was strictly good and certainly not because it’s without other flaws, but because it’s targeted with such mathematical precision at my child-of-the-eighties-whose-parents-could-afford-a-PC demographic that I felt obliged to at least appreciate the craft.

Even so, I’ve often said that some works don’t age well but this is the first time I’ve ever felt that way about something in less than a month.

The various Chronicles Of Thomas Covenant, veterans of that series will agree, are the exact opposite of self-congratulatory nerdpop. Differing from RPO in every imaginable respect, maybe the most important distinction is that the primary characters absolutely, relentlessly hate themselves, loathing their own dispositions and actions at baroquely-detailed length at every pause in the narrative’s forward motion. It’s not even a little unusual for a character to spend half a page considering how terrible they are and how miserable they’ve made everyone else shimmed into the space between somebody asking them a question and their answering it. But Donaldson’s built a solid career out of this signature combination of nuclear-winter morality and arcane linguistic affect, so much like Ready Player One enjoying it seems less important at times than respecting the craft. Having said that, the depth of the world and breadth of the landscape is great; the world-building and supporting cast are fantastic, getting all the good lines and stealing all the best scenes. Smartly written and compelling enough to more than make up for the lead characters spending so much time wallowing in their own self-loathing.

But like every reference in Ready Player One, I was introduced to this series very young. There’s a saying, that the Golden Age of Science Fiction is “twelve”; I have a sense that in both cases these stories aren’t really getting their hooks into me, just tying into the anchors anyone my age had bolted on decades ago. Does that matter, if I enjoy it regardless? I’m not sure but I get the sense that it does, and it feels like cheating.

Eastward From Spadina

Oh, god. Via the New York Times:

Google has been talking about entering the direct e-book market, through a program it calls Google Editions, for nearly a year. But in early discussions with publishers, Google had proposed giving them a 63 percent cut of the suggested retail price, and allowing consumers to print copies of the digital books and cut and paste segments. [...] According to several publishers who have been talking to Google, the book companies had balked at what they saw as Google’s less generous terms, and basically viewed printing and cut-and-paste as deal breakers.

Which is to say, “we intend to collude to force our customers to pay more for something with which they will be permitted to do less.” Honestly, that’s your plan? Your business is text, and cut and paste are dealbreakers?

With a plan like that, what could possibly go wrong?

Good luck, publishers. Don’t let the future hit you on the ass on the way out.

Walking The Reservoir
I was asked, on the subject of e-books, whether I thought that it would be moral for me to download copies of books I already own. So, about that.

Legally, I shrug and say “dunno”. The law may or may not be There Yet – I’m no expert in that field, but I suspect that Canadian law looks a lot like American law on this subject and is thus clearly and reprehensibly wrongheaded, to give my position away – but I think that morally speaking, “no” is obviously the wrong answer.

I can see the debate on this going back and forth in a lot of different ways; creators should be paid, I already paid for another format, paid for what and so forth, assuming you accept a mess of implicit premises. But whenever the question of whether or not it’s “moral” to do these things comes up, I always wonder what sort of arguments went back and forth in the dark ages about the clothyard arrow. Only a knight in armor should be able to do battle with another, right? Noblemen fight nobly with other noblemen and peasants are chattel, to be seized and abused from inside our impermeable iron shells. That’s the way it’s always been! But suddenly along comes some guy who’s figured out the longbow, and he had the temerity and poor upbringing to tell somebody else the trick of it. And now any peasant with a steady hand who can figure out how to steam a good strip of yew can punch a messy little hole right through the young Lord Mucksabout from a hundred yards away and, whoops, the old way of doing business might not work anymore. And then gunpowder comes along and forget it; now the horse and metal shirt are liabilities.

It’s not right or wrong that a clothyard arrow can pierce mail but once it could, those who decided to be belligerent about not changing their strategies were easy pickings for those that did, often without ever touching or even seeing the person who cut them down.

You can see where I’m going with this, I’m sure, but here it is: anything made of ones and zeros can be copied an infinite number of times and distributed globally for approximately zero cost. That’s not good or bad or right or wrong, it’s an irrevocable fact of globally networked computing, which is in turn a fundamental element of the world we live in. It is a physical law of the 21st century. It’s a new thing, for sure, but whether or not your business models are prepared to deal with it has a lot less to do with morality than it does with selection pressure.

Which is not to say that it’s the end of the world or that suddenly there will be no more art, but you can see a lot of organizations in the middleman business who’ve decided fight this rather than embrace it, if only to put off the inevitable as long as they can. Because it’s going to be the end of their world, that much is certain.

The Gutenberg press didn’t just make text easier to disseminate, it cut out a lot of middlemen that lay people had to work with to access that text. It’s hard to argue that was a bad thing now, but if you were a foresighted employee of the Illumination industry at the time you’d be thinking, well, shit. That’s pretty much the end of that.

You can see some of the gory details of this tide-fighting in this fantastic diagram of obvious technobunkum that somebody has sold the Associated Press, some desperate rear-guard actions by our local telco companies to preserve their profitable little landline fiefdoms, and in AT&T’s leaning on Apple to pull support for all things VOIPy. None of it’s going to work in the longer term though; they’re ultimately fighting a physical reality, not some temporary fad.

Now, I have a fair bit of love for the idea that content creators should be supported, because I like content. Content is awesome, and it would be great if skilled creators could afford food and shelter for their efforts. I even have some love for the idea of copyright, a limited protection of the right to reproduce original works, and even for the idea that by and large the law matters. But if these particular laws hadn’t been very obviously bought by the people who stand the most to gain from their continued enforcement, we’d be having an entirely different discussion. And if the way you get paid cannot stand up to the fact that your work is trivially, infinitely copyable and dispersable, the way you get paid is not going to keep working for long.

The organizations lobbying for the status quo ante aren’t by and large creators and with few exceptions aren’t interested in the sanctity of their creative properties beyond monetization. And through their efforts copyright, an explicitly fabricated “right” if ever their was one, has effectively been extended to infinity, and virtually all modern culture is now private property.

As an aside, if you’re ever wondering why anything having to do with “Canadian Culture” is so goddamn boring, I tell you, this is why. What new cultural artefact are you simply entitled to, entitled to obtain and consume and recirculate because it belongs to the Canadian people? Answer: effectively none, and certainly nothing timely. Under the current laws, noted First World War poem In Flanders Fields wouldn’t have been in the public domain until 1969, and then only because John McCrae didn’t actually survive the war. William Ogilvie’s “Canadians”, also of WW1 vintage, will be coming up in 2013. And in the meantime, you want it, even though it’s almost a century old, pay up. And you probably won’t be paying a Canadian company, I’ll bet.

I picked up the tab at the first ever Robert Service Supper, a Burns Supper-esque celebration of Service’s work held the first year that his work entered the Canadian public domain, just to be able to say that I did. He died in 1958; that inaugural dinner was January 16th of this year.

But even with the law of copyright extended infinitely in all directions, the facts on the ground are that people are creating more music, more text, more culture than ever before, and often they’re doing it by stitching little scraps of the existing cultural fabric together in novel, fascinating ways. To do that, of course, they need to somehow obtain that whole original cloth, so we’re all fortunate that violating perniciously broad copyright laws is not only trivial but getting easier every day, that technology is getting cheaper and just generally that the obstacles to creating are being overcome or routed around all the time.

This is going to be a bit of a shock for creators earning their livelihoods the old way, by selling physical units of a thing that contains data, but there’s not much that can be done about that that doesn’t also stomp on the rights, freedoms and overall well-being of everyone else on the planet. This has been true for a while now in a bunch of other computery fields, and it’s true now for books: either your customers can trivially make copies of the thing you’ve sold them or being your customer is really fucking annoying.

There’s not a lot of good middle-ground there. And so organizations with the most to gain buy more and more laws to protect their investments, even though everything they’re trying to protect can be copied a million times and shown to a billion people for not much more than free; because if they can’t fix the business models, maybe they can fix the laws! If they’re lucky, they’ll screw fair-use, fair-dealing and the first-sale doctrine while they’re in there.

Trent Reznor gets it:

The point is this: music IS free whether you want to believe that or not. Every piece of music you can think of is available free right now a click away. This is a fact – it sucks as the musician BUT THAT’S THE WAY IT IS (for now). So… have the public get what they want FROM YOU instead of a torrent site and garner good will in the process (plus build your database).

Former NIN drummer Josh Freese also gets it, though somewhat more cartoonishly, and you can see that some forward-thinking people in the music industry are starting to get there, but slowly, so slowly.

Which is understandable, because this is all about cutting out middlemen. It’s hard to know why anyone would need a record label ten years from now. I mean, the name says it all, doesn’t it? You probably won’t need somebody to handle radio-station payola for you by then, because it’s the radio and more profitable to ignore than bribe, and when was the last time you bought a record?

Bruce Schneier laid it out concisely, a little while ago:

Every time I write about the impossibility of effectively protecting digital files on a general-purpose computer, I get responses from people decrying the death of copyright. “How will authors and artists get paid for their work?” they ask me. Truth be told, I don’t know. I feel rather like the physicist who just explained relativity to a group of would-be interstellar travelers, only to be asked: “How do you expect us to get to the stars, then?” I’m sorry, but I don’t know that, either.

I am a scientist, and I explain the realities of the science. I apologize if you don’t like the truth, but the truth doesn’t change because people wish it would be something else. I don’t know how authors and artists will make money in a world of easy copyability. I’m an author myself, personally concerned about protecting my own copyright, but I still don’t know. I can tell you what will and won’t work, technically. You can argue about whether my technical analysis is correct, but it just doesn’t make sense to bring social arguments into the technical discussion.

So, yes. I still buy books, but I don’t feel bad about downloading electronic versions of books I’ve already bought in the least. Not even a little. But the fact that it’s trivial for me to do that whether I’ve bought those books or not sure isn’t going anywhere, nor the fact that I can download literally tens of thousands of books with exactly the same amount of effort. So it’s up to authors (and not necessarily the publishing industry) to figure out how they can make a living in a world where that’s a basic fact of life.

A while ago, I wrote about this, saying that “soon, I will be invincible!”

There is now a book in the world called “Soon I Will Be Invincible”, and it is so great. If you have a single comic-book-loving cell in your body, I strongly advise you to pick this book up immediately. It is simple and beautiful, playing in the space between panels that comics can never touch.

“A brief pause ensues, a twitch moment, like the beginning of a gunfight. It’s always chancy, facing down one of these people. No matter who it is, you’re going to be dealing with the end product of a long, improbable story, of a person so strange and powerful that he or she broke the rules of what is ordinarily possible. Whoever you’re facing is guaranteed to be special – an Olympic wrestler, a radioactive freak, the fated son of somebody. They’re winners. Taking a red arrow or a sea horse or the letter G as their symbol, they sally forth to make your life difficult.”

I am telling you: so great.