Comcast vs. BitTorrent

According to the Associated Press, Comcast inteferes with users uploading online content via BitTorrent and similar applications, allegedly to save bandwidth for its other customers, though some suspect the move is related to the piracy such applications are often used for.

Now, I have no problem with taking action against piracy or conserving bandwidth, but Comcast’s move also affects people who use BitTorrent for legitimate purposes. It is plainly unfair to punish the innocent along with the guilty, and defeats the purpose of law to violate one person’s rights to punish the guilty. Remember, the guilty party is a criminal for violating someone else’s rights, and the purpose of law is to preserve rights for everyone (of course, Comcast should leave law enforcement to the justice system, assuming their motivation here is anti-piracy).

As a parting thought on this topic, no lesser man than Abraham once wrestled with the justice of harming the innocent along with the guilty:

“What if there are at least ten [innocent men in Sodom]?”

“For the sake of those ten,” [the Lord] replied, “I will not destroy it.”

(Gen. 19:32b)…

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Authors and Writers

What’s an author? Someone who writes a book, right?

Well, according to Michel Foucault, it’s not quite that simple. While one could define an author as “someone who writes,” as I understand Foucault’s argument an author is also a person created, in a sense, by his work rather than the other way around. “Shakespeare,” for example, is both a proper name indicating a specific person, but also has a meaning intimately connected with his work. The meaning of “Shakespeare” would change significantly for society if, say, we learned that it was actually Bacon who wrote the plays traditionally attributed to the Bard.

The argument is interesting, but unfortunately I can’t really speak of it except in general terms.…

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Yesterday Never Knew

I present to you, my reader (yes, I’m pretty sure it’s “reader,” singular), the modern system of economics, as proposed by those in favor of music piracy:

1: Artist produces something

2: Artist gives said something away for free

3: ????

4: PROFIT!

Actually, this system has been thought through more than that chart. According to this article from the Illinois Business Law Journal, this story from the New York Times, and a number of other places, step three is “Artist gives concerts and sells merchandise.” At first, I thought this sounded fair enough, but then I realized that step three is a non sequiter. It isn’t related to the original product.

Admitedly, this system of “make a record, give it away, make money some other way” works for most bands, but not all. When a musician sets out to make a record, he is apt to do his best work if he can focus purely on that. I submit as evidence to that effect The Beatles, who wrote and recorded what I personally consider their best work after giving up touring altogether. Without having to worry about performing live, they were free to do whatever the heck they wanted in the studio, with results like Revolver and Sgt. Pepper. Songs like “A Day in the Life,” “Tomorrow Never Knows,” and the White Album’s perennial fan-unfavorite “Revolution 9” are all impossible to perform live, but that’s okay because the band was able to just sell the recording of the songs and still make money.

Ultimately, this model makes about as much sense  as asking the artist to give free concerts and then make money on recordings. Yes, it can work for most bands, but not all, and really, why not just pay someone for the work they do? Someone makes a record, customer pays for the record. Someone gives a concert, customer pays for the concert. Fair compensation for services rendered… how novel.…

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We Hope You Will Enjoy the Show… In One Piece

“[iTunes has shown that] the natural unit of the album is the track.”

This is a quote (more or less direct) from David Weinberg, and I was reminded of it while reading Chris Anderson’s article “The Long Tail” in Wired magazine, when he discusses the online music industry, since he appears to assume a similar viewpoint to what Weinberg stated explicitly.

Put briefly, they are both wrong. The natural unit of the album is the album, and the track relates to the album as a chapter relates to a book.

Now, I’ll concede that there are a number of “albums” for which Weinberg’s statement would hold true. Compilation albums come to mind, and there are many records and CDs whose tracks have nothing in common with each other besides the date of their recording. Really, though, I’m hesitant to refer to these as albums at all, because the term “album” refers to a collection of songs and there is no reason to collect a bunch of songs together unless there is some significant relationship between them. For instance, the tracks of an album may all further a common story (as on Bowie’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Startdust and the Spiders from Mars), theme (such as Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon), or even just a style (such as The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band). However, there is no term that I’m aware of for thrown-together compilations of music, so I must refer to them as albums.

What Weinberg and others I’ve spoken to on the topic of iTunes and online music stores (or, more commonly, piracy) don’t seem to appreciate is that a talented artist is able to make the most of his medium. The Beatles generally get credit for figuring this out regarding the LP. Put simply, if a band is going to have a bunch of songs collected together on a single disc, shouldn’t the songs relate to each other somehow? So, following Paul McCartney’s idea, the band put together Sgt. Pepper, and other bands followed their lead and took the concept further.

Sgt. Pepper uses a very loose concept, but the album does work best when listened to as a single unit. Simon & Garfunkel employed a similar idea on Bookends, on which every song relates to friendship and nostalgia – some more so than others, admitedly, but again there is a definite effect created by listening to the album as it was intended that is lost when the tracks are split up. A few years later, The Who released Tommy, in which every song tells the next part in the titular hero’s story. Tommy is likely the best example for my argument, because it quite simply does not work when split up or rearranged. One may as well split up the chapters of Babbitt or The Scarlet Letter. It just does not function as a work of art anymore.…

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Fleurs du Riens

For a long time, I’ve considered it a point of pride that I’m relatively lo-tech. Part of that is only seldom using Wikipedia, and certainly never bothering to edit a page (well, besides once adding two words to the French version of the Beatles page). So it was with a sense of adventure that I set out this evening to find a Wikipedia page for the express purpose of making a substantial edit to it.

Now, consider this task for a moment. On one hand, Wikipedia has over 2 million articles, so it shouldn’t be too hard to find one that could use some tidying up. Indeed, I found several that suffered from spelling or grammatical errors, and fixed a couple of them. However, also consider that Wikipedia has about as many users as my last Computer Science project had syntax errors. With so many others working on this undertaking, finding an article in need of substantial editing – and one that I’m able to substantially edit – is nearly impossible. Ultimately, I settled on the entry for Les Fleurs du Mal. Not that I was able to add a whole lot, but I did specify exactly which of the work’s poems were banned.

Truly, I can only stand in awe of my amazing ability to be mildly usefull.…

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Group Journalism

Quick question: who is going to produce a better news story, a single random person or a whole bunch of random people?

One can replace “news story” with almost anything, but the basic question is the essence of a democratic system of everything versus a more authoritarian system. I bring this up because I’ve recently been reading about crowdsourcing and Assignment Zero in particular. The general idea of rounding up a bunch of random dudes off the street to write a news story is, I believe, absurd on the face of it, but AZ had a little credibility because there were editors and organizers.

My main problem with the concept is that I fail to see the problem it’s supposed to solve. A specially trained journalist should be able to outwrite a mass of people who may or may not have any such training, and a group of people can be just as biased as a single person.…

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Icky Reviews

Last month the White Stripes released their sixth album, Icky Thump, to mostly positive reviews and strong sales. So, the music must be pretty good, right? Rolling Stone‘s review seems to think so, but while reading their review I noticed that their main critique seems to be not the music, but the lack of a message. For example, the critic (Robert Christgau) said:

Still, what do the White Stripes have to say? What do they stand for? Why do simple pop fans care about minimal Jack and his mythical sister, Meg?

[…] The other part of the answer, sad to say, is that this cultural breakthrough is almost certainly an accident. That’s because Jack White is less a songwriter than a sonic architect. Compared even with Lil Jon or Avril Lavigne, what his hits have in common isn’t anything he stands for.

After this, Christgau does begin to critique the album proper, but what did he accomplish with this little sideshow? It does not give any real insight into the album, but instead tells the reader that Christgau feels all musicians must have a message, as though one cannot produce compelling music unless it is at the forefront of a great political or social movement. I’d be curious about where this attitude comes from. Was it Bob Dylan? Though Dylan has always resented being tied to any social movements, he is well-known for the protest songs of his early career, and Rolling Stone did give Dylan 10 spots on its list of the 500 greatest albums, and 12 of its 500 greatest songs (including the top spot).

Providing an interesting contrast to Rolling Stone‘s review is a review by John’s Music Reviews (which is also the simplest-titled blog I’ve seen). Not a single mention does John provide of the White Stripes’ politics, though he does agree with RS that the band is slightly overrated.

A music review focusing on music. Imagine that……

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“All I Gotta do is…” Update Regularly?

Several decades ago, Buck Owens sang that all one had to do to become famous in the movies is to “act naturally.” According to the Wall Street Journal, the way to become famous in the blogosphere is to “be consistent.” I ran accross this article through John Houghton, who focuses on commercially owned blogs and podcasts, and points out:

You can’t expect to be popular after one or two blog posts, nor can you have a large following after one or two podcasts. If you release weekly, you must stick to it; monthly, that’s not as frequent but you may see results in 9 months. If you release episodes daily, you’ll grow quickly, but make sure you have a staff to support you.

Though I don’t read many blogs, I have found this statement to be very true regarding something I do follow – webcomics. There are several very good webcomics on the internet, but those with the largest audiences are generally those that update the most regularly – Penny-Arcade and xkcd come to mind. On the other hand, I can list several great comics that could, or used to, have larger audiences that floundered due to unpredictable update schedules – Fallen is a good example.

Of course, there are exceptions to this rule. Fred Gallagher, who writes and draws Megatokyo, is infamous for missed updates, though he’s still consistent enough that he hasn’t totally hacked off his fanbase.

Houghton continues:

The article also exhorts us to “Act Like a Pro” and advises against “amateur” production values but that “the most popular material is definitely more polished than the rest of the pack.”

Ah, yes – professionalism, something that is even rarer in online social environments than in the “physical plane.” Just as with any other project, online or offline, people are impressed by those who take the extra effort to make their work just a bit more polished. It does not matter if one is creating art, running a business, or writing a blog, customers will notice when a product is Bush League, like how I misspelled “across” in the first paragraph of this post.…

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But Am I Amusing?

You probably won’t read past this sentence if said sentence does not amuse you.

Maybe that’s too presumptuous, but it’s a thought I had while reading about Dickens World, one of the more surprising attempts at making education entertaining I’ve seen in a while. The place is just what it sounds like – a theme park based on the life and stories of Charles Dickens. While there is nothing wrong with making literature more interesting, a full theme park is too much.

If this all seems trivial, consider this. First, if Dickens cannot stand on his own, then there’s no reason for him to stand at all. When a piece of literature becomes so dull and irrelevant that it requires a theme park to maintain interest, then the theme park is too late. The work does not matter anymore. While the general public is far from discerning in its tastes (the fact that The DaVinci Code sold any copies at all is proof enough of this) Dickens appears to have done well on his own without such gimmicks, both in popular and academic circles, and such an attraction only cheapens his work to just another object to amuse us, like a monkey with a squeeze box.

Second, on a larger scale, I see this as another symptom of the scourge of entertainment value. If something is not entertaining, it does not register in the popular mind. How many news sources reported on Paris Hilton going to jail? Why does anyone oustide the Hilton family even care? I think this attitude is well summed up in this post from the Literature Compass Blog:

Yet the museum comes across confidently, its intention of ‘art for entertainment’s sake’ appearing in a quote from Hard Times that encircles the four walls of the entrance: “People must be amused, squire, somehow. They can’t be always a-working, nor yet they can’t be always a-learning.”

Dickens World has clearly been planned with the emphasis on amusement combined with a smattering of learning.

Art does not need to be entertaining. As with any form of communication, it sometimes is far from amusing. By emphasizing “amusement” with just a “smattering of learning,” one teaches that the former is the more important of the two.…

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