27 July 2010

Daily Digest, 2010.07.26

Monday: 92,000 documents on the Afghan war, at Wikileaks; Mary Churchill on what happens after tenure disappears; does Facebook disallow the word "Palestinian" in page titles?; Facebook may now allow account deletion (or not); using eBay for archival research; the 5th Circuit says breaking DRM okay if not done for illegal purposes; why does the press swallow the "studies" put out by the entertainment industry?; copyright begins to eat its own tail (the case of player-piano rolls); how can Mucha be under copyright?; is print now an "elite" medium?; science and free will; preachers who don't believe; Liberman on Lera; Bolles reviews Fitch (continued); xkcd on period speech; the intelligent octopus; horses and human social cues; "sex week" at The Loom; gay Lutheran pastors; a musical of Animal Farm? (noooooo!); Alex Higgins dies.

As usual on Monday, a flood of fascinating and important stuff—so much that I've had to defer a couple of items until later.

World News

Monday's big news, as I'm sure most of you will already have heard, is the publication at Wikileaks of 92,000 classified military documents on the war in Afghanistan, covering the period 2004 to 2009. 

No attempt to comment here (I've only had time to read an introductory article at The New York Times and listen to some reporting on NPR). Here is the main Wikileaks page for the documents: "Afghan War Diary, 2004-2010." Wikileaks gave prior access to The New York Times, The Guardian, and Der Spiegel, all of which provide extensive reporting and analysis.


Mary Churchill, Executive Director of the University of Venus, has a brief but incisive essay that is cross-posted at Inside Higher Education, "When Tenure Disappears: Walking away from the Ivory Towers."

Yet another essay that tells at least part of the truth about the current situation in academic employment as I have experienced it (although I think her suggestions for reform don't dig deeply enough).  Quotes:
One problem lies in the fact that we are being trained under an old model. In the majority of our PhD programs, we are trained for one position, one role – that of faculty member, one who is primarily a researcher and secondarily a teacher. We take courses in theory and methods within our discipline. We are not taught the theories and methods of teaching. We do not complete practicums in teaching. It is assumed that we are brilliant thinkers who will be able to convey the results of our research in our courses. This is rarely the case.


We are squandering the wealth of our knowledge workers. We are forcing them into the confines of a narrowly prescribed identity where the majority write for free and teach classes at rates that keep them at poverty levels. Many are severely depressed, disengaged, and forgoing long-term partnerships and families of their own.
I am not at all enthusiastic about rebranding scholars as "knowledge workers" (which sounds uncomfortably like "sex workers") in a "knowledge economy."

But regarding the unsustainability of the current situation, she's right on.


Does Facebook disallow the use of the word "Palestinian" in the title of a "page"?  Some reports suggest that it does:  see the story by Paul Woodward at Mondoweiss (hat tip to Diana Digges).  However, read the comment thread (some of which, unfortunately, carries a taint of anti-Semitism), for a sense of the apparent complexities of the situation.

I think we can all agree by now, however, that Facebook is anything but an open and transparent platform dedicated to promoting the best interests of its users.  Rather, it is a huge corporation that seems bent on exploiting its very large user base in order to amass even more money and power.

My suggestions for new company mottoes:
Microsoft:  "Trying hard to be as evil as we used to be"
Apple: "Do it Steve's way"
Google:  "At least we're not as evil as Microsoft or Apple"
Facebook:  "I'm Mark Zuckerberg, and I am God.

Slashdot forwards a report that Facebook has quietly introduced an option in Account Settings to delete your account permanently, including all the information you have shared.  As Slashdot notes, however, reports vary.

And in fact, when I checked my own Account Settings just now, there was only an option to "Deactivate," not "Deactivate or Delete."

In any case, the option to delete today (if it actually exists) might be gone again next week, as Facebook seems to change its fundamental policies on the privacy and degree of control of its users weekly.

Personally, I'm looking forward to a fully open and transparent alternative.  Perhaps it will be Diaspora.  We can hope, at any rate.

Kristin Thompson at Observations on film art has an interesting post on the use of eBay for archival research: "Research you can bid on"


Cory Doctorow at BoingBoing (and several other sources) reports that the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that it is not illegal to break DRM (Digital Rights Management) if this is not done for purposes of copyright infringement.  The "Industry," of course, has lobbied very vigorously to make the circumvention of DRM illegal under any circumstances.

See also the report at Courthouse News Service.

An interesting irony in this case is that the defendant is not a college student or grandmother, but the hugest of the huge:  General Electric.  Here is the beginning of the report from Courthouse News:
General Electric did not infringe on a power supplier's digital copyrights when it used protected software unlocked through a hacked security key, the 5th Circuit ruled.

"Merely bypassing a technological protection that restricts a user from viewing or using a work is insufficient to trigger the (Digital Millennium Copyright Act's) anti-circumvention provision," Judge Garza wrote for the New Orleans-based court.

"The DMCA [Digital Millennium Copyright Act] prohibits only forms of access that would violate or impinge on the protections that the Copyright Act otherwise affords copyright owners."
In related news, see the report yesterday by Nate Anderson at ars technica on the latest round of DRM exemptions from the Library of Congress.
"...allowing widespread bypassing of the CSS encryption on DVDs, declaring iPhone jailbreaking to be "fair use," and letting consumers crack their legally purchased e-books in order to have them read aloud by computers."
Steve will not be at all happy about "jailbreaking" being declared "fair use."

Three items from Mike Masnick at Techdirt,

"Why Does the Press Still Blindly Believe 'Studies' Put Out by the Entertainment Industry?," inspired by last week's widely reported (but statistically almost certainly bogus) story that only 0.3% of BitTorrent traffic consists of legal files.

And in answer to Mike's question: perhaps for the same reason they believe "research" published by Big Pharma?


"Copyright Finally Getting Around to Destroying Player Piano Music...One Century Late"

One of the reasons I recommend Techdirt so highly is that Mike Masnick knows the history of copyright (and other "intellectual property" rights). I was trained, basically, as a historian, and my doctoral work dealt with the reproduction and distribution of music (in this case, mostly Mozart) in an era before music was covered by copyright.  (The pre-copyright era for music, one should add, gave rise to a very large proportion of the classical musical canon, so obviously a lack of copyright did not inhibit musical creativity.)  And as I continue to study the current dysfunctional quagmire of copyright and associated law, it is increasingly clear to me that we need to understand the history of copyright law in order to understand how we got into this mess, so that we can find a way to get out of it.

Masnick points out here that the 1909 Copyright Act in the United States came about largely in order to "protect" musicians from the player piano, which they felt was going to destroy their ability to make a living.  (And this didn't happen, of course.)

But now the descendants of this very same law are creating stumbling blocks for those who are trying to preserve decaying historic piano rolls by digitizing them.


"How is it that new copyrights are being claimed on work done by an artist who died 70 years ago?"

The artist in question here is Czech Art Nouveau artist Alphonse Mucha (1860-1939), whose 150th birthday was this past Saturday.  Mucha's work was frequently used or imitated by creators of psychedelic poster art of the late 1960s, and his style (frequently including young women with elaborately flowing hair) had a tremendous influence on my own style during my days as a pen and poster artist in high school (my early style was basically a combination of Mucha and Aubrey Beardsley, sometimes in day-glo colors).

Mucha's "Maud Adams as Joan of Arc," 1909 (via Wikipedia)

Here is an example I remember well, which certainly influenced my own adoption and adaptation of this style, Mucha's 1896 advertisement for JOB cigarette papers, famously (if you're old enough to remember) used in 1966 by Stanley Mouse as a poster for a concert at the Avalon Ballroom (information from the site of poster artist Wes Wilson).

I used this same "interlocking hair" style in my own first silk-screened dance poster for my high school (Charles Wright Academy), when I was 15 or 16; the poster was (as I recall) for the then celebrated Northwest band The Wailers (no, not those Wailers).

On Saturday, to commemorate Mucha's birthday, Google used a Mucha-style logo:

Seeing this led one of Masnick's readers to do some digging, and the reader ran across a recent interview with Alphonse's grandson, John Mucha, who is, apparently, claiming a new copyright on newly created photos of his grandfather's art. 

As Masnick points out, the law, in the U.S. at any rate, has generally held that a photograph of a copyrighted work does not receive a new copyright. But the law on this point is still rather vague and inconsistent, and as Masnick points out, the situation in Europe is unsettled.

The question reminds me a bit of the concept of "editio princeps" in European copyright law, which gives the copyright of a previously unpublished historical work to whomever creates the first modern instantiation—not necessarily an edition, but perhaps a recording or video—or, one supposes, a photo.  I don't have the time to do further research on this right now, but the links in this passage from the German Wikipedia article "Erstausgabe" may be useful:
Von besonderer Bedeutung ist die Bestimmung editio princeps, die 1965 Eingang in das deutsche und 1993 einheitlich in das europäische Urheberrecht fand und unter bestimmten Umständen besondere Schutzrechte aus der Erstveröffentlichung nachgelassener Werke herleitet.

[Of particular importance is the clause "editio princeps," added to German copyright law 1965 and to the unified European copyright law of 1993, which under certain circumstances gives special protection to the first publication of unpublished works. (My translation)]
This is, in my opinion, a noxious and idiotic policy that inhibits scholarship and performance.


Kent Anderson at The Scholarly Kitchen asks "Is print an elite medium?"

Now that publishing is no longer a scarce resource, is publication in print becoming (merely) a status symbol?

Anderson makes some trenchant observations on the role of editors in attempting to maintain the status quo.  As I have previously alluded to in my writings on this blog, editing is one of the only remaining sources of "added value" in the world of digital publication, and it's time for publishers and editors to realize that.  There are business opportunities here.  (Hmmm, that gives mean an idea...)

Anderson's closing sentence:
However, as audiences continue to move online, print will likely continue this drift into the symbolic and status realm. Someday, print may convey only status, leaving real communication to the technologies that work. Whether the writers, editors, and publishers migrate early enough and in sufficient numbers to make a difference remains to be seen.

The Human

William Egginton writes at The Stone (hosted at the Opinionator at the NYT) on the implications of recent science for free will.

Alex Tabarrok at Marginal Revolution has an interesting post, "Preachers who are not believers," quoting from (and linking to) an article with that same title by Daniel Dennett and Linda LaScola in Evolutionary Psychology. The article is based on interviews with five preachers who no longer believe in God.  The article is freely available for download here.


Mark Liberman at Language Log has a reaction to Lera Boroditsky's essay in the Wall Street Journal, which I mentioned in yesterday's Roundup.  Liberman incoudes useful links to Boroditsky's preprint list (hooray for self-archiving) and to a list of publications by Caitlin Fausey, whose work is extensively discussed in Boroditsky's essay.

Edmund Blair Bolles at Babel's Dawn continues his review of W. Tecumseh Fitch, The Evolution of Language, a book with which he is in fundamental disagreement, but which he thinks everyone who is interested in the evolution of language should have. 

I'm deeply interested in the evolution of language (and the evolution of music), and Fitch's book is on my Amazon Wishlist.

xkcd on period speech

Animal Cognition

Emily Anthes has a brief article in the "Ideas" section this past Sunday's Boston Globe on the intelligence of octopuses. Don't miss the infographic summarizing recent research on octopus tool use, problem solving, "stealth motion camouflage," spatial mapping, and play. Much of the research has been done by Jennifer Mather and Roland Anderson.

A quick search turns up quite a lot of recent scientific and popular literature on octopus intelligence.  I haven't had time to investigate this literature yet, but the Wikipedia articles "Octopus" and "Cephalopod intelligence" would seem to be good places to start.  Try also this article by Carl Zimmer in Slate in 2008

Jason Goldman at The Thoughtful Animal (a blog I already should have been subscribing to) has a good post on recent research into the ability of horses to respond to human social cues.  The study he is summarizing is:
Leanne Proops and Karen McComb, "Attributing attention: the use of human-given cues by domestic horses (Equus caballus)," Animal Cognition. The 9-page article is behind a paywall at SpringerLink, and costs $34.00.  Proops and McComb are both at the University of Sussex, a publicly-funded institution.  I would like to read this one, but....
Here is the abstract:
Recent research has shown that domestic dogs are particularly good at determining the focus of human attention, often outperforming chimpanzees and hand-reared wolves. It has been suggested that the close evolutionary relationship between humans and dogs has led to the development of this ability; however, very few other domestic species have been studied. We tested the ability of 36 domestic horses to discriminate between an attentive and inattentive person in determining whom to approach for food. The cues provided were body orientation, head orientation or whether the experimenters’ eyes were open or closed. A fourth, mixed condition was included where the attentive person stood with their body facing away from the subjects but their head turned towards the subject while the inattentive person stood with their body facing the subject but their head turned away. Horses chose the attentive person significantly more often using the body cue, head cue, and eye cue but not the mixed cue. This result suggests that domestic horses are highly sensitive to human attentional cues,including gaze. The possible role of evolutionary and environmental factors in the development of this ability is discussed.


Carl Zimmer has announced that it is "Sex week" at The Loom.


The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America now accepts openly gay pastors, Laurie Goodstein at the NYT reports:
With a laying on of hands, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America on Sunday welcomed into its fold seven openly gay pastors who had until recently been barred from the church’s ministry.

The ceremony at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in San Francisco was the first of several planned since the denomination took a watershed vote at its convention last year to allow noncelibate gay ministers in committed relationships to serve the church.
The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is now the largest Protestant denomination in the U.S. to accept openly gay ministers. However, 185 congregations (out of a total of 10.396) have already voted to leave the denomination over the issue.


"Say It Ain't So" Department

Elton John and Lee Hall are at work on a musical version of George Orwell's Animal Farm, according to Baz Bamigboye at the Daily Mail.


The brilliant if erratic Belfast-born snooker player Alex Higgins has died; see the obituary by John Rawling at The Guardian.

I knew nothing of snooker except the name (and the idiom) when I moved to Cardiff in 1993 to teach at what at that time was still verbosely called the University of Wales College of Cardiff (now Cardiff University).  But as an enthusiastic pool player during my misspent youth, I was fascinated by snooker, with it's large table, tiny pockets, and strange assortment of colorful balls.  To the uninitiated, the rules of snooker seem at least as obscure as those of cricket, and I was (perhaps justifiably, for a change) impressed with myself for figuring out the rules simply by watching.  (I won't try to explain them here, but I'll point out to my American readers that a "147" is roughly on a par with a no-hitter in baseball in terms of rarity and excitement, and considerably less common, I would imagine, than a perfect 300 game in bowling.)

When I started watching snooker in 1993 and 1994 (and where but in Britain would you find both snooker and darts regularly televised?), the game was well into the period dominated by Stephen Hendry, who was displacing Steve Davis from that position, although the latter was still a force to be reckoned with. But the eccentric and slightly dissolute-looking figure of Alex Higgins still sometimes appeared in major matches, erratic and obviously past his prime, but still capable of occasional flashes of genius at the table.

And I don't use the word "genius" lightly.  I am by no means a major sports fan; at the best of times, I have watched sports only sporadically, in spurts of enthusiasm. And since I stopped watching television altogether in 2007, I rarely watch sports at all, unless I'm visiting someone who has cable or satellite TV. 

But I've always been fascinated by those rare sports figures to whom the word "genius" can be applied: figures whose abilities go beyond "ordinary" skill, however highly developed, who astonish, delight, and sometimes do the seemingly impossible.  Charlie Parker was this kind of genius in music, as was (to me) Glenn Gould. The young Andre Agassi was a genius of tennis; in his later career he became much more consistent and by every measure a better player, but he was less thrilling to watch.  I think also of Josh Beckett pitching in the 2007 playoffs and World Series. I'm sure you'll have your own favorite examples (and feel free to share them here).

Alex Higgins, at his top, was one of those.
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