Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Threat Gap

It's been a while since I complained about the Homeland Security Advisory System, but I just learned today that it is basically copied from the French Vigipirate system.

Now, that doesn't bother me. You never caught me ordering "Freedom Fries," or pouring Champagne into anything but a glass bound for a table. What bothers me is that the French have more threat than we do! Yes, ladies and gentleman, there is a Threat Gap, and the French are winning! As you can see from the helpful graphic here, the French have dispensed with the useless peacenik levels of Green and Blue, but have developed a greater Threat Capacity through the deployment of the the color scarlet. (It's not pink, it's scarlet, y'hear?) "Menace certaine," they say. What threat can we possibly field against such a menace?

In fact, I fear that the epistemological sophistication of the French system (or, as they say, "systeme") allows for development even beyond what our system is capable of deploying without radical readjustment. Our system, as you can observe, while having a significant hue element, is, in fact, based on altitude. Low, general, elevated…The problem is that if we develop another threat level, the only place we can get any higher is in orbit. And, quite frankly, if we put the terrorists in orbit, I'm quite happy to leave them there.

A brief aside: I don’t have the stomach today to confront the appalling knowledge that while we have "threats", the French are armed with "menaces." When I think on such a prima facie difference in fear, I feel like a cop in a blue uniform, when the criminals get to wear black.

The French, on the other hand, have merely to develop NEW COLORS, because their system is based on ACTUAL METHOD. Yes, six years ago, it seemed that political expedience was a serious threat to our freedoms (I recall that right, right?), but, as Donald Rumsfeld knew quite well, the upper limit to what you can know is the facts at hand; the French acknowledge this with their first level, "No indications of threat." When they get to yellow, it is an "imprecise threat"--the dawning knowledge that we're not sure what we know. Red is a "probable threat"--the point at which, scarily, we know what we don't know. And red is "Certain threat"--when we know what we know, and it ain't pretty.

What you may not realize is that this leaves French Threat Engineers only at the mercy of their painters in developing at least two more threat levels: The point at which a threat is being actualized for one, and the point at which an actualized thread is being analyzed. And, I'm realizing with horror that the French academy has already been enlisted as a skunkworks for yet another level: the point at which discourse analyzing an actualized menace is in turn analyzed! It is possible that certain scientists from institutions such as The University of Chicago may be ready to confront this future level of Threat, but who knows if we can close the Threat Gap by that point?

Call your congressman today! We demand a Scarlet Menace, and won't feel properly unsafe until we have it!

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Sale or license? (with a dash of California vs. New York!)

That nice boy from the midwest, Marshall Mathers, just won his case, F.B.T. Productions v. Aftermath Records in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. This is, for lack of a better term, a pretty Big Effing Deal for electronic publishing in any medium. Here's why.

When authors or musicians (and other kinds of talented and creative individuals) sign a contract with a publisher, it's usually structured in the following way. Every time the publisher sells a copy of the work, the author (I'm going to say author, though the artist here is a musician) gets a cut, anywhere from, oh, four percent up to maybe twenty or twenty-five percent. (The more copies that the publisher thinks will sell, the bigger a percentage they'll pay to the author, since fixed costs for the work—editing, design, mastering, preparation of "plates" [digital or metal], and the like—become a smaller percentage over a bigger print run.)

However, if the publisher licenses subsidiary rights in the work to someone else, then the author and publisher usually split the proceeds fifty-fifty. This is because the publisher is doing work to negotiate these deals—they wouldn't happen without the publisher making them happen in most cases—but not, usually, investing much, if anything, in these subsidiary-rights ventures. What sorts of things are we talking about? Translations, abridged editions, adaptations into another medium (movie versions of books! comic book versions of movies!), licensed merchandise and apparel, coursepacks, magazine excerpts... you get the idea.

Now, here's why I think that the Ninth Circuit made a good decision: The [music] publishers were trying to have it both ways. They were claiming, when it came to their talent, that they were selling copies of the works to distributors, who were in turn selling copies to their customers. They were therefore accounting for any money that came in on these deals as Sales, and paying the authors a Royalty on these sales, as their authors were due in their contracts, maybe 5, 10, 15, 20 percent. However, the publishers were turning around and treating their "distributors" on these deals very much as licensees: the publishers made them all sign license agreements, which were only in force for limited times; the publishers retained the right—and the material/electronic capacity—to withdraw access to the work; the publishers only allowed very specific in short, they called it a license, they structured it like a license, and it quacked like a license.

The court said, "Nuh uh uh! You want this to be a license because you want to keep lots of control over the work itself. You can't go paying the author like you've sold copies of the work and don't have any control over where they go from here." Calling BS on any entity trying to own both sides of an argument is a good thing in my book.

Where will things go from here? Well, the article I kicked off with does a pretty good job of summarizing things: Fretting and complaining from publishers of all stripes, then someone will take a position "for the author" and "against the industry" and bang, higher royalties for authors on electronic editions (succumbing to what will surely be an increasingly loud plaint from authors and agents for such a raise). The ways that these institutions respond is quite familiar.

To give a little background for what's going on in the last paragraphs of the article: First, there is a broad sense that the Ninth Circuit is "more liberal" than the Supreme Court (see Newdow), but that may be more of an image than the substance warrants (I do have a day job, or I'd check stats for Supreme Court reversals of 9th Circuit decisions), and this isn't a straightforward liberal/conservative issue anyhow. Within the realm of publishing, things get even more complicated; while the Ninth circuit encompasses California, and, within it, a whole squadron of film and music companies, the biggest players in the publishing of words are located in New York, in the Second Circuit, and the Second Circuit has never felt the need to bow to Ninth Circuit precedent (I suspect that the Second and Ninth Circuits might even take a tiny breath of pleasure in taking a contrary position to what the other has staked out).

Third, no one wants to take this to the Supremes, since a broad decision is an awful big gamble and this court isn't knee-jerk predictable on these issues. So we're unlikely to get a firm, nation-wide binding system to establish the lines between sales and licenses, but we are likely to see more clarity about such things in contracts.

And last, the prospect of more direct-from-publisher-to-consumer sales of electronic editions is growing. In selling such editions, publishers can maintain the control they would have to use a license to maintain in an environment of distributors and retailers.

“Justice?—you get justice in the next world, in this world, you have the law.”—Wm. Gaddis, A Frolic of His Own

Friday, August 13, 2010

An open letter to Google

Please, feel free to cut, paste, and send this message to the Googleplex from as many directions as you see fit.--Dingbat

Dear Google,

Please cease and desist from claiming "Map Data (c) 2010 Google" in the lower edge of the maps you present at your lovely and helpful web page, http://maps.google.com. As any legal hack can tell you, data cannot be copyrighted. You are, at best, embarrassing yourself, and, at worst, stealing from the public, by claiming ownership over something that is our common property, the public domain. That's pretty evil, in my book, and I think your corporate charter says something about that.

With thanks,


PS: When you give transit directions to MDW airport (e.g.), you don't need to send folks to the MDW transit center, and then back out again on the 63W bus so that they can go in the "front door" on 63rd Street. It's probably a good guess that they want to go to the terminal, and probably a good guess, too, that the Transit Center is there so people can get from PT to the terminal. Cheers!

Monday, July 26, 2010

A dryly humorous intro to Josephus

Written in 1852, this review of the (then-new) Traill translation of Josephus highlights the virtues of Josephus' work (and the flaws of the Whiston translation!).

Sunday, July 25, 2010


The pathologically frugal meets the ecologically correct. (split straw
+moistened straw wrapper)

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

An open letter to Victoria Espinel

Victoria Espinel is the United States Intellectual Property Enforcement Coordinator--unofficially, the "copyright czar" of the U.S.A. She was appointed to that position by Barack Obama last September, and confirmed by the Senate in December. She's the first holder of this position, a job which was created by the PRO-IP Act, a bill that passed through Congress in 2008 and increased civil and criminal penalties for copyright and trademark violation. The job of the "copyright czar" is to "formulate a Joint Strategic Plan for combating counterfeiting and piracy of intellectual property and for coordinating national and international enforcement efforts to protect intellectual property rights.(According to the Bill Summary). The document referred and linked to in the first sentence below is the first major product of her office; it was released a few weeks ago.

Dear Ms. Espinel,

I have recently received a copy of the 2010 Joint Strategic Plan on Intellectual Property Enforcement, and there is much in the document to be commended. In particular, its awareness of the benefits of fair use (p. 4) and its call for research into the actual effects of infringement (pp. 18-19) are highly laudable.

However, I was dismayed to find not a single mention of the public domain, much less any protection for it. The entire report focuses on governmental protection of private property holders, a necessary goal, to be sure, but who speaks for the public? It is the responsibility of the government to protect the public against those who would steal our common property away through false copyright claims.

If we are to use the analogy of theft, then the false claim of copyright on material in the public domain is akin to allowing individuals and corporations to enter our National Parks and take, not pictures, but trees. No, worse, it is to allow them to build vacation homes on the land, fence it off, and shoot trespassers.

Such activity is piracy and intellectual property theft of the most naked sort, and it robs every one of us. If the Executive Branch of the US Government does not speak for public property, who will?

With thanks for your consideration,


Monday, July 12, 2010


Scholars are always in danger of projecting their own images onto their research subjects. Erich Gruen, for example, is a great scholar; I have learned a ton from every one of his books and articles that I've read, and enjoyed them, too. His The Hellenistic World and the Coming of Rome is my go-to book for the expansion of Roman power in the Mediterranean, and his Heritage and Hellenism: The Reinvention of Jewish Tradition was intensely influential in getting me to study what I'm writing a dissertation on: Hellenistic and Roman Judaism.

However, this latter book in particular may suffer from the fault of projection. Gruen deals with all the major Jewish writers, and the minor ones, too: from Josephus and Philo to Demetrius the Chronographer and Ezekiel the Tragedian. And, almost to a man, they come off startlingly like Gruen: Witty, intelligent, cosmopolitan, faithful without being dogmatic, even funny.

I've got two problems with this. First, I claim false advertising! I went to grad school expecting, on Gruen's analyses, to be reading the ancient equivalent of Noel Coward, and I'm stuck with…Andrew Lloyd Webber. I find these guys pedantic without learning, melodramatic without sympathy, and heavy-handed without relief. Josephus, I'm finding, has all the flaws of an absolutely terrible scholar: he fudges when he can't ascertain a fact, he relies too heavily on a few weak primary sources, he seems blissfully unaware of the secondary literature, and he's unclear even on his own methods, not to mention the methodologies of his peers and predecessors.

Which brings me to the second problem: what does this analysis say about me?

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

It's Complicated

I recently posted on a popular social networking web site a link to this blog post by Randall Munroe, the funny and smart author of xkcd, pulling out as the money quote, "The role of gender in society is the most complicated thing I’ve ever spent a lot of time learning about, and I’ve spent a lot of time learning about quantum mechanics." One commenter asked, "What's so complex?" and it's a good question. It's something that (working in the job I do) I've been steeped in long enough, and has come as a series of small discoveries or realizations, that it's good to step back and take a look at it and say what is so complicated about gender, since it does seem pretty straightforward in everyday life. Here's an attempt:

Gender (or sex; I'll use gender) has been a pretty useful concept for a long time. What it (and its subsets male, female, etc.) actually describes are a bunch of attributes that we (as a society) are slowly realizing aren't necessarily bundled together. "Maleness" has meant (in various times and places), the package (as it were) consisting of: a Y chromosome, a certain appearance of external genitalia, increased facial and body hair, deep voice, large size, increased risk of heart attack, capacity for logic, capacity for moral reason, capacity to own property, capacity to own slaves, closer connection to God, right to wear pants, right to kill, right to vote, right to drink fermented beverages, control over emotions, control over passions, privilege of wearing comfortable shoes, ability to run more than 800 meters, right to walk on the street unaccompanied, freedom from inherent pollution (whether every day or only sometimes), right (and/or obligation) to perform sexual penetration, right to be paid for work, right to have multiple sexual partners, right to have multiple spouses, ability to legislate, ability to ride a horse with a leg on either side, ability to drive a car, high-quality spatial reasoning, mathematical acuity, physical aggression, muted colors of clothing, bright colors of clothing, belts, short hair, long hair, large jaws, large noses, large ears, refusal to wear perfume or makeup, exclusive right to wear perfume or makeup, ability to inherit property, ability to pass on family name, right to wear no shirt at the beach, head hair that doesn't scare God or man, a lack of interest in shopping for clothing, a keen interest in automobiles,

Is this boring yet? Or has it turned into a fun party game?

The long and the short of it is that while some of these things are social, and some are biological, and some are legal, and some are stereotypical, none of these things has to come along with any other. Yes, it's often useful to have a tick box for 'male' or 'female' (though I'm told that in England 'male' and 'female' refer to non-human animals; we are 'men' and 'women.') but that doesn't quite sum it up.

The last fifty years (in the US), saw at first the slow realization that women are people, and only recently has it dawned on the academic class (and the knowledge is slowly spreading) that all people, in fact, are people, and insisting on dividing everyone into the categories of 'male' and 'female' does some of us a disservice, an injustice, or even an act of violence.

I'll draw a final analogy and then get off the pedagogical horse: The concept of "race" is now widely acknowledged to be far less useful than it used to be. We don't (legally) use racial demarcations to determine fitness for all sorts of things that we used to, just as we don't (legally) use sex to do so. And it is useful, for example when doing medical research, to keep track of race and sex. To plug another book I worked on, Stephen Epstein's Inclusion tells the story of how in the mid-20th century medical research was basically conducted on white guys--be they white guys in their fifties admitted to hospitals, or white young adults in college and graduate school--and this really screwed up some results because of how these white guys were and were not representative of everyone. There's a new model in medical research, which now particularizes (and monetizes!) difference, developing (and patenting and getting FDA approval for) heart disease drugs in African Americans.

So race, like gender, can be a useful, even a helpful concept. It can also be a frickin' disaster!

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Wasting time

The Good Dr. Fledermaus and I have been considering What To Do With The Books. We are, after all, Bats of Very Little Means (well, of means not enough to construct a handsome two-story library addition onto the time-honored halls of our current residence), and so we ponder: continue the overshelving of the hallway as library? How to have stacks (that don't call to the dust like a magnet to an iron filing)?

And how do our electronic resources fit into all this? What To Do With All The Learning is, after all, a professional consideration of mine--ours--and so it was with interest that I read Alex Halavais' piece, "The New University Press." This is a pre-release version of a talk Halavais gave at last week's American Association of University Presses annual meeting, and it's a good set of insights into what academic publishers actually do, and do well. And it's good and provocative advice about how to do it better.

But I'm going to leave aside Halavais' main points and focus on some of the more homey aspects of what he says, since he talks a good deal about his own relationship to books. I sympathize with his desire to keep the library after the birth of his child, and stash the kid in a closet (Bat Jr.'s bed, I hasten to add, is only half in the closet. And it is a very nice closet, I assure you). And there's a certain intellectual satisfaction to be had, I'm sure, in destructively scanning one's books, and taking responsibility for fairly using the electronic versions he's created.

But the most significant passage, I think, is this: "I would suggest if you want to remain undistracted, a traditional library is perhaps the worst place to be. I’ve wasted hours at libraries and bookstores—wasted them enjoyably, but wasted them nonetheless." This is the mark of literacy and, I think, a turning point--or a demarcation--between book culture, TV culture, and internet culture. Leaving aside the questions of what any of these are doing to our brains our attention spans, , our political sensibilities, which are all questions about the results of "media use," let's pause and think about the non-results, the time wasted.

This may sound obvious, since most of us (in the U.S.) stopped wasting time in books a generation or two ago, and started wasting it on TV, but it's not what you use for work, whether you're in an academic or other research-based job, it's what you do for fun. And not just fun, but lose-track-of-time, holy-mackerel-I'm-late-and-Mom's-gonna-be-pissed-of time wasted.

Now that we've gotten here (and I've wasted a half-hour of my lunch, in some sense, writing this), what's the upshot? Clearly I think books and libraries are worthwhile. The ability to lose oneself in a book for three hours will certainly serve a kid well, when it comes time for him to analyze The time has definitely come for a Slow Information Movement. Perhaps I'll just wrap up by pointing the educators and the policy-makers and the pundits to worry a little less about how we and our kids are spending time, and think rather about wasting our time well.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Weather.com needs an editor.

See that big blob of rain, bearing down on my softball game? No problem, I'll just click "TURN OFF WEATHER." And just to make sure things clear up in time, "RIGHT NOW."

Oh, and unless I'm sorely mistaken, the Future is either always or never new; in either case, the labeling of it as such can be stricken.

(If there's a larger point to this post, it's that editors are responsible for looking out the window. And seeing obvious metaphysical irregularities.)

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Babies, Worms, and Other People

It is with some small guilt that I post to an almost-abandoned blog. BikeSnobNYC missed merely a week for the birth of his child, so I can't legitimately use the birth of Batboy as an excuse, since the blessed event eventuated itself blessedly more than two months ago and almost four months since the previous last substantive post (gifts on his natal anniversary will be accepted in his Cayman bank account any time during the temporal window thus described, though he shares a birthday with Theobald Böhm
[a childhood hero of mine]).

Given the fact that even BSNYC's doing it, I'm tempted to suggest that the childbearing scene is now full, and babies are no longer hip. My opinions on popular culture, however, are about as widely interesting as in-depth discussions of the nature of historiography in Hellenistic Judaism.

Anyhow, the big surprise of duogeny is the interaction between Bat Jr. (now 4 and a half, by her reckoning) and Batboy. The other day Bat Jr. was talking about how a friend of hers was showing off a worm he'd found. "I held it!" she said proudly "It was wiggly." "Much like Batboy," I thought.

And as so often, when I think ridiculous things, my second thought is how ridiculous they're not: worms and babies are both wild animals; they don't do--because they haven't yet learned--the range of social behavior that we expect from others. And yeah, a lot of funny things that kids do are funny because they don't yet know about social norms ("Mommy, mommy, I lit a candle in the bathroom because I pooped and…"--"Sweetie, you really just have to say, 'I lit a candle in the bathroom,' Mommy will know why."), what makes worms and babies interesting is that they do socially unexpected things while you're holding them in your hands.

It's really a strangely intimate thing: this ability to surprise someone with physical contact. Most of our physical interactions are highly socially structured, even ritualized: shaking hands, hugging, high fives. Even our pets get trained to certain types of contact (or at least we get used to their untrained behavior). But babies and worms wiggle on.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Oh, THAT'S where my keys were!

Seen upon arrival--oh, a mile and a half or so after unlocking the
bike and trailer.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Happy New Year!

The Dingbat is alive, and perhaps posting more this year. Several other 2010 resolutions may outweigh the "post daily to the blog" commitment.