Monday, August 30, 2010

Thought experiment

From an evolutionary perspective, if cats hate water so much, why do they love fish? It makes no sense.

There are only two possible explanations:

Cats, like dolphins, went back to the water. After awhile they changed their minds and returned to the land. But they kept their taste for fish.


At some point in the remote past, the earth was infested with, say, walking catfish. Cats developed a taste for fish. The fish went back into the sea. The cats retained their taste for fish.

That's the best I can come up with.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Copyrights and copywrongs

Interesting NPR Marketplace interview of Lewis Hyde, author of "Common as Air" dealing with intellectual property.">

Just for the sake of blatant irony, here's a transcript:

Bill Radke: Ah, Dylan -- love him or hate him, he is an American original... Isn't he? Well, actually, Bob Dylan will be the first to tell you he's more of a borrower. He has always borrowed from the music around him -- old folk songs, blues, sea shanties. It all sort of mixed in his head -- he would copy a lyric here, a chord change there and then, add a little something of his own.

Well, that is not theft, says my next guest. That is the way the cultural commons is supposed to work.

Lewis Hyde's book is called "Common As Air," and he worries that we are privatizing our common heritage, thanks to the rise of intellectual property rights.

Lewis Hyde: It used to be the case that you had to register to get a copyright. But that's no longer the case. Everything that you create is automatically copyrighted. Your grocery list belongs to you. If I copied it without your permission, technically, you could take me to court.

Radke: Well, should Bob Dylan and his record company not own his songs for a good long time?

Hyde: I think that artists should own their work. The problem is how long the ownership should What's been happening in the last 50 years, especially, is an enclosure of the commons of the mind, as it were. When this country was founded, you got a 14-year property right in your writings. Now, a corporation gets 95 years. I get, if I live long enough, over 100 years.

Radke: Well, the argument for intellectual property rights is that, first of all, innovators deserve to profit from their work. And also, that that profit encourages more innovation. Is there an economic argument going the other direction, in favor of holding more in common?

Hyde: You know, often people think of common ownership and private ownership as at odds with one another. But in fact, they can work in tandem. Famous example in this country is that roads and waterways, navigable waterways, are held in common so that you can have commerce. A second example is the protocols that operate the Internet. The great innovation in the 1990s was to throw them open to common ownership. Such that nobody had a stake in them and everybody could use them. And as a result, you got tremendous commerce on top of that. So, one wants to think of the places where common ownership enables commerce and places where one or the other should better be the rule.

Radke: We're talking about the right number of years for a copyright or a patent, but it sounds like you're getting at something more philosophical about what it means to be people and community.

Hyde: Part of the point of my book is to go back to the founding generation and to understand why they thought we might do this. And one of their great concerns was that we were trying to set up a democratically governed nation. And in such a nation, you want to be very wary of giving people power over expression. They wanted people to be able to act publicly in a scientific community, to act publicly politically. And they thought that the more private control you have over art and ideas, the less you are able to be a public person.

Radke: Yeah, Ben Franklin wasn't interested in holding his ideas privately, and he didn't think that's the way it ought to work.

Hyde: Franklin got involved in trying to understand how electricity works. It was always the case that you could not own a natural fact. So Franklin figures out, for example, that electricity has polarity -- he's known as the discoverer of this. But he couldn't possibly own it. You can't own natural facts.

One thing that's happened recently is that we have changed the rule such that biotech companies can own parts of the human genome. This is a great change. In Franklin's day you couldn't do it, and rightly so.

Franklin also was an inventor. He invented the lightning rod, he invented bifocals. And he could have, but never did, take a patent on these. This is an old ideal called "civic republicanism." People often say, "Well, Benjamin Franklin had a lot of money by then," which is true, he was a very successful printer. But why do you have a lot of money? What is the end of becoming wealthy? In those days, the end was to turn yourself toward public service, and that was Franklin's ideal.

Radke: Lewis, do you mind if copy your book and represent it as my own.

Hyde laughs

Hyde: Well, there's two different pieces of that. One is attribution and one is ownership. I don't mind if you copy it, but you should attribute me correctly.

Radke: Fair enough. Lewis Hyde's book is called "Common as Air: Revolution, Art, and Ownership." Lewis, thank you.

Hyde: You're welcome.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Things I miss

Record Shops
Not the big chains. The old school "High Fidelity"-type record shops. Black stacks of plastic wax. LPs arranged in skategories. The Rolling Stones, Yambo Rools, Rude Boys, The Kinks -- Lord have mercy, here's Lenny Bruce's Stamp Help Out. Anything is possible. Everything is here. just ain't the same.

Book Stores
Not Barnes & Noble. The weird little niche operations with owners and clerks who actually knew you -- and knew something about books. Places you could browse and find weird accidents.

Stuff you could just turn off.
God forbid you simply turn your computer off. No. You have to go to the shutdown menu. You do that, and tell the !@#$ computer to shut down. Half the time it doesn't shut down. Such and such a program won't let it. Shut down, you say. Shut down! Then another menu pops up like a nervous Scotty on the original Star Trek. "Are you sure, Captain? Are you absolutely positive you want to shut down? Do you think that's a good idea? You might destroy any open files." Yes, you say. Yes. Shut down. I'm serious. I want you to shut down. Then, by cracky, half the time it doesn't shut down. instead, it installs some updates from the Microsoft motherlode. NOW INSTALLING UPDATES ONE OF THREE. DO NOT SHUT YOUR COMPUTER DOWN. The damn giant TV has one remote for the output source (the giant screen) and another for the input source (the cable box from Verizon). You have to turn them off in the right order or you're screwed. If you dial somebody's robot answering machine by mistake and hangup, your !@##$ phone rings you back and resumes the message where it left off.

Stupid popular culture
There used to be a dumbass morass of idiocy that made me feel intellectually superior. In the good old days, stupid stuff was made by stupid people. Today, all the stupid stuff has been cleverly engineered by really smart people with a cynical but brilliant grasp of their target demographic. There's a malign brilliance behind most crap.

Being Out of Touch
You're driving in your car. You're taking a crap. Nobody can call you. Remember?

Feature-Length Animated Cartoons
I'm no Luddite. I love CGI and 3D. But there's something special about drawings that move. Living drawings. Le dessin animé.

The Amnesia of History

I achieved consciousness at the age of 36. As a child, teenager and young adult, I was essentially a poltroon, an idiot, a chump, a mook, a laughingstock. If the stuff I did as a kid survived on YouTube forever, I've jumped off a bridge a long time ago.

Fukuyama was right. History ended in the early 1990s. What we have now is more like championship wrestling. The guys with the American flag costumes are screaming at the guys with the black leather and chains. It's a !@#$ fake. I've lost interest.

The Space Program
Earth is a seed. There's lots of stars, but it's a vastly barren universe. We need to get out there, grow, spread, multiply and change. It's just that simple.

The Cold War
Never thought I'd miss this one. But, in retrospect, we had a biopolar world of West vs. East. Basically, a high stakes chess game. Now, we have a multipolar game of 43-man Squamish -- a constantly shifting, anarchic mix of Rollerball, Whack-a-Mole and Space Invaders in which anybody can strike anywhere at anytime.

It used to be stuff died and that was it. Slavery, piracy? That all died in the 19th century. Nazis? We won, they lost. Hitler's skull turned into Stalin's ashtray. They're dead. No more Nazis. Korean War? Hey, same as the last war. We won. They lost. But the 21st century is more like a zombie movie. Stuff that's supposed to be dead just refuses to die. North Korea. Nazis. Slavery. You name it. You freaking killed it, but it keeps coming at you.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Quote of the Week

If my doctor told me I had only six minutes to live, I wouldn't brood. I'd type a little faster.

--Isaac Asimov

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Web is Dead?

The current issue of Wired is nothing less than brilliant. In a nutshell, the writers argue that the developments Jonathan Zittrain warned against have come to pass. The future of the Internet is here and there's nothing we can do to stop it.

To paraphrase --

In its early years, the World Wide Web resembled the Old West in the frontier days. Lots of wide open space and freedom or anarchy, depending on how you look at it. By now, the Web has come to resemble everything bad about the Old West. The Wild, Wild Web is full of showdowns, shootouts and thieves who steal, not only your money, but your freaking identity. You basically need a War Wagon of digital protection to survive there. Worse than that, it's perilously difficult to make money on the Web -- and ridiculously easy to waste money on advertising with zero results. You're out there in the wilderness with millions of other people giving content away for free.

But the Web is a subset of the Internet. According to Wired, more and more businesses and users are bypassing the Web entirely.

The emerging trend is portal-to-portal communication to "tethered appliances" (iPods, XBoxes, etc.) or sites like Facebook that resembled the "Walled Gardens" of the mid-1990s that everybody thought had died forever. If you log in, you can get to Facebook site; Google can't. It's a private party. It ain't searchable. And Facebook is not alone in its construction of moats, gates and walls.

What used to be wide open spaces are now strung with barbed wire.

It's sad. But probably inevitable.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Quote of the Week

"The world is given to me only once, not one existing and one perceived. Subject and object are only one. The barrier between them cannot be said to have broken down as a result of recent experience in the physical sciences, for this barrier does not exist."

--Erwin Schrodinger

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Catch-up ball

OK, a few thoughts about writing about the future when the future keeps changing.

It's built into the job description.

The science fiction writer aims to hit a constantly moving target. H.G. Wells and Jules Verne predicted tanks, submarines and mechanized warfare – but the real things to come took a different shape. Back in the 1980s, Gibson, Rucker, Sterling and other "cyberpunk" authors first started writing about the implications of cyberspace and personal computing. They were prophetic. They were largely wrong.

What complicates matters: the Tiresias problem. Every prophecy about the future changes the future. I.e.: Science fiction predictions affect the evolution of culture and technology. We avoid the nightmare, seek the dream. Sometimes, we get tired of the dream.

Example #1: SF writers had already explored the galaxy by the 1930s. They've made return trips ever since. In today's pop culture, the specifics of space travel and colonization are as familiar as the Western town in Gunsmoke. Although humanity hasn't been to the moon since 1972. Simulated space exploration may explain the lack of the real thing. "Space may be the final frontier but its made in a Hollywood basement." If Columbus had 3D IMax movies about America, he'd probably still be in Spain.

Example #2: Cyberpunk literature (great stuff) gave birth to lots of movies (usually godawful) and cyberpunk culture (in the future, everyone dresses in leather!) This culture sprang up before the stuff they fantasized about existed or worked all that well. Then it became old news. The original writers (who never liked the term "cyberpunk") had moved on a long time ago.

Different trips. Same destination.

We get bored with the future before it happens.

To compensate, SF writers tend to abandon certain over-used themes, situations and predictions. Meanwhile, culture and technology gradually catches up with the earlier predictions. SF writers eventually notice and play catch-up ball. Me, included.

My problem is this ...

The big thing on the horizon is scarcity. I don’t want to write about scarcity. It’s depressing. It’s been done. I’ve seen Mad Max.

The alternative is some development – equivalent to the first Industrial Revolution – which creates global prosperity. Ain't that nice? Glinda the Good floats down and waves her magic wand and says, “Just add nanotechnology, and everything’s bright and clean!” Yeah. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

This leaves me with my obsessions, namely: media as a global ecosystem; the tension between the buying and selling of ideas and the free exchange of ideas; where creators of original art fit in. In a world where stuff is free, ideas are what you pay for. Intellectual property is the only property.

I'm a child of Marshall McLuhan. The future I imagine -- the future I want to imagine -- is the future of media. Not robots and rocketships.

Gibson, Sterling et al imagined a global “cyberspace” dominated by corporations where the few remaining individualists would be cowboys and criminals surviving illegally in the cracks inside the system. The future would resemble the L.A. of Raymond Chandler. Wrong.

I had my own ideas. Also wrong.

As it turns out, the future is more like a giant hot-tub at Esalen. It’s a vast, bubbling pool of touchy-feely sharing, gossip and chitter-chatter. We are one. We are Facebook. We are Twitter. **

When I hear the words “social media” I wanna stick my head in the freaking microwave. I’m forced to think about it, if I wanna keep writing about the future.

Circa 1995, I condemned the narrow focus that certain visual artists had on selling art to make money. Inspired by R. Crumb, I pointed out another – free – side to art. Art, I said, is a repository of cultural memory – the RNA memory of the tribe.* People dance, tell stories, carve wood, etc., without being paid. Modern reproductive tech tended to destroy all that. The Man sells us our images, songs and stories at the store. Artists should be concerned about that.

Yeah, well. A decade and a half later, the evolution of media tech has – perversely – turned the tables. Like kudzu, there’s an insanely growing network of home-grown stories, videos, you name it – all created by folks who work for free. I kinda prefer the stuff I pay for. I definitely prefer getting paid.

Now, if I want to keep writing about the future, like it or not, I have to imagine what this kudzu of social media will turn into.

Be careful what you wish for.

*Yeah. I know it’s a discredited theory.

** To be fair, Gibson was right about one prediction. There are criminals in cyberspace, ready to mug you the second you get out of the hot tub.

Monday, August 9, 2010


In case nobody's noticed, I've been gradually moving my sketch comedy to another site. Just didn't fit here.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Quote of the Week

Most people act as though they had a private understanding but in fact the Logos is common to all.

Walt Disney -- Antichrist

From a cartoonist's perspective, Walt Disney was basically the Antichrist. (Or still is, if they managed to put his brain in an audioanimatronic body -- the premise of one of my cartoons.)

Top Ten Reasons Why:

1. Disney absorbed stories and folk tales like a giant blender, ground them up and turned them into commercialized mush. Disney's Snow White became everybody's idea of Snow White. Or Toad of Toad Hall. Or whatever. His formulaic crap eclipses the originals.

2. Disney's "imitation of life" poisoned the genius of American cartooning. No, we don't want fantasy and fun. We want creepy, rotoscoped puppets. Yeah!

3. Disney was a fascist. His cartoons had a relentless theme of conformity. The lesson is always fall in line, do what you're told, clean your room, take a bath, you rotten dwarves, obey.

4. Disney hated strong women. He constantly punished them.

5. Disney was always killing moms.

6. Disney had a creepy, pedophillic obsession with little boys' rear ends.

7. Disney infected the American imagination with marketing. Hey, were not creating stories about characters -- we're selling product! Mickey Mouse began as a cartoon character. He turned into a !@#$ logo.

8. He created an empire that continues to infect the American imagination.

9. His empire helped kill traditional cel animation with ubiquitous CGI.

10. Disney is the example that everyone tends to follow. Create an honest story? Speak from the heart? Who does that anymore? Almost everyone thinks of story and character as products to be designed and marketed for various demographic niches. The goal -- find the perfect formula, then repeat. Create art on an assembly line. Turn artists into replaceable parts -- hired hands. Subordinate the vision of the individual artist to the corporate mission. Avoid risk and originality at all times.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Hard drive crash

The human brain is a lousy storage medium. You can yap, you can type, you can draw -- but you can't upload its thoughts directly. There's no way to make a backup copy. Ultimately, they all suffer a hard drive crash.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Lisa's Wedding

Well, kids. Lisa got married today.

How time flies.