Friday, November 30, 2007

Learn vocabulary and give rice

I just came across this awesome vocabulary game called FreeRice. The game is simple, you are given a word and a choice of four words from which you must pick the best synonym. If you choose the correct answer your vocabulary level goes up (max is 50) and the site donates 50 grains of rice to the United Nations. An incorrect answer resets your level to 1, but you do learn the correct answer. I've made it to level 43 a couple of times but the words start to get really esoteric at that point and I'm basically just guessing.

If you build it, trolls will come...

I've alluded in the past to my utter disdain for forum comments but reading some particularly egregious abuses of the human intellect today inspired me to sum up my feelings on the matter with a little graph. The thing about the internet, particularly this whole web 2.0 thing, is that you find yourself confronted with undeniable proof of human stupidity on a daily basis. Sure you could just ignore the comments but it is very difficult not to be a cyber-rubbernecker. Forum comments, particularly those related to any complex or particularly subtle issue, are like a car wreck happening in real-time in your peripheral vision; you can't help but stop and stare at all of the carnage with a look of fascination and horror.

The information age has provided humanity with the remarkable ability to communicate incredible amounts of knowledge across vast distances nearly instantaneously. Millions of years of evolution have led up to this wondrous invention, a river of light upon which all the goods of human dreams may be transported. Or we could just say, "first post" and leave it at that.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007


I've been contemplating switching my desktop system from Windows XP to KUbuntu for many reasons, security among them. Needless to say, this xkcd comic seemed especially timely:

Slicethepie: Music and Economics Collide on the Internet

I came across a new site called Slicethepie which has an interesting take on the marketing and distribution of music for up-and-coming bands. It has some of the elements that I mentioned in my post about artist collectives, most notably a community-centric model that helps fans connect to artists (including a Facebook plug-in to foster the word-of-mouth advertising that is essential for a new band). The site also holds contests for bands to win studio time to produce their albums. This should help some with the catch-22 that bands face where it takes money to cut an album so that you can make money. None of these concepts are particularly new; sites like already provide many of these tools. What makes Slicethepie most unique is its use of a basic concept of economics to look at music in a different way.

In additional to fans and artists, Slicethepie defines the role of a music trader. This is not a trader in the traditional sense of one who trades music files with their friends but rather in the same sense as a stock trader. Music traders on Slicethepie are essentially replacing the role that record labels have traditionally played. The basic unit of trade on Slicethepie is known as a contract unit. These units can be purchased for $3 each (or $1/ea. with the purchase of an artist's album in digital form for $10). As with traditional stock dividends, if a band is successful the stock holders see a share of the profits.

Users rate how much they like an album and Slicethepie pays back dividends at regular intervals to those holding contract units for artists in the top 2% of popularity. This is an ingenious use of the concepts of economics to help bands get over that critical first hurdle. By creating a pressure for people to find the next big thing Slicethepie is focusing the diffuse energies on the internet on a specific task. Not only is the goal to discover the artists that are worthy of funding but, more importantly, to have the community fund them.

If they can make this model work, it truly is a win-win situation. Bands get much needed exposure and (if they're good enough) the funding to establish themselves. Fans can use the internet to provide a more direct feedback about the music that they like - much more so than listening to the radio or buying CDs from retailers ever allowed them. Last but not least, Slicethepie takes their cut from the contract units that fans purchase, some of which they reinvest in the community to ensure its continued vibrancy.

The only unfortunate (though necessary) aspect of this model is its slavish devotion to the whims of the masses. A band's value is based solely on the reviews of users; Slicethepie does not have experts adding input to the system and everyone's vote counts equally. Ideally this democracy is laudable, but the risk is that Slicethepie becomes yet another online niche for the boom-to-bust fads that already plague the online community on a macro-scale. In the end, the community is all about serving the users but I can't help worrying that this will lead to the same kind of one-hit-wonder pop outfits that the labels have been foisting on us for so long.

In any case, I can absolutely see the potential in this idea and it excites me to see other people using the internet to think up new business models. At the end of the day, it can only be good to have more power in the hands of music fans and artists and less power in the hands of the big four and their RIAA attack dogs. When I get a chance, I plan on digging deeper into Slicethepie and I'll be sure to post my findings.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Creep Animated Music Video

Animator Laith Bahrani created a fantastic animated music video for the Radiohead song "Creep". The video has over one million key frames of animation with an attention to detail that is quite impressive.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Microsoft To Get Seven Extra Armies Per Turn

In a move that has alarmed the North American Federation, the European Union and the Co-Prosperity League of the Southern Hemisphere, Microsoft today announced that they have established a base of operations in Irkutsk. This development has world leaders troubled as the Redmond giant now needs only conquer Ural and Yakutsk to have complete control of Asia and a commanding seven additional armies per turn. Representatives met late last night in an emergency session to discuss what is seen as an imminent threat to world stability. Jude Finisterra, a representative of the European Union allayed the fears of many when he revealed that Europe holds a wild card and plans on mobilizing its considerable resources early in the next fiscal year to ensure that the software giant's hold on Asia is not complete:
"We figure we'll slip in and take Afghanistan right before Microsoft announces earnings and their whole land-grab in Asia will only garner a pittance - besides now they have a soft underbelly in China that leaves them vulnerable to incursion from the People's Republican Army of New Guinea"
Representatives from PRANG would not comment on any plans for taking advantage of this perceived weakness instead insisting that they "prefer to sit back and let everyone else kill each other".

Beowulf Killed The Movie Star

After seeing the Robert Zemeckis film Beowulf last night I was left with the sinking feeling that I witnessed a sad milestone for popular cinema. When purchasing tickets I failed to notice that the theater near me had 2D and 3D showings of the movie so I ended up seeing the movie in boring-old 2D. Incidentally, I did really appreciate the creative tweak that Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary put on the plot of this traditional heroic tale.

Seeing the movie presented in 2D did not (as so many reviewers have claimed) ruin the movie for me. In fact, I found the visual effects to be quite impressive without any added illusion of depth or "holy crap the dragon is flying right at me!" moments. The quality of computer rendered animation continues its inexorable crawl toward the holy grail of truly life-like. That said, I have not seen the movie "as it was intended" so I will leave a critique of the multi-dimensional visual spectacle for others to write. The problem that I have with this movie is not the visual effects but rather with a cognitive dissonance that this style of animation causes me to experience.

There is a palpable unease that I experience watching an eerily life-like representation of a well-known actor. Let me be clear, I do not just mean that the representation is life-like in the general sense, I mean that the representation is a dead reckoning of the actor in question (perhaps aged or in period-specific garb but unmistakable nonetheless). Anthony Hopkins as Hrothgar is the most obvious example as his character is rendered as a jovial and rotund Danish doppleganger of the actor. This decision to render the characters as near-exact likenesses of the actors makes sense on multiple levels: not only do realistic renderings naturally follow from the motion-capture technology used to record the actor's movements but the movie is, like all Hollywood vehicles, banking on the marketability of it's stars. I understand this decision but it significantly detracts from the movie.

For me, the worst example of this visual friction is the character of Unferth (voiced by John Malkovich). Every time Unferth's mouth opens and Malkovich's unmistakable voice comes out I am struck by just how wrong everything looks. To be sure, the animation is still a bit wooden at times but this is not the cause of my uneasiness. The problem is not that Unferth is too wooden in his mannerisms as Malkovich is talking; in fact the animators have done a very good job of making the character come to life (certainly much-improved from Zemeckis' past attempts such as The Polar Express).

The problem with Unferth in particular, and all of the characters with recognizable voice actors in general, is not that he is poorly animated, it is that his mannerisms don't match those of the actor. It is as if they have bottled John Malkovich's voice and are uncorking it from some other actor's mouth. As a big fan of anime I had never thought that it would be an issue for a character to be voiced by an actor that looked vastly different, or more importantly one that emotes in a vastly different way. Indeed some of my favorite Miyazaki films feature characters that are voiced by actors that look and perform much differently than their on-screen counterparts.

There is a fundamental difference between an animated character in a Miyazaki film and the characters in Beowulf. In Miyazaki films (and traditional animated films as a whole) the animators are not trying to make the character look like the actor. An obvious example would be the Witch of the Waste from Howl's Moving Castle (voiced by the great Lauren Bacall). The animators are not trying to evoke images of Lauren Bacall (either as ingenue opposite Humphrey Bogart or as the wise matronly persona that she inhabited in her later performances). Instead they rendered The Witch of the Waste as well, a witch. When the witch speaks I may recognize Bacall's unmistakably deep timbre but my mind is not locked into thinking of the character as Lauren Bacall because the character looks so different.

The same cannot be said for Unferth or many of the other main characters in Beowulf (Hrothgar, Wealthow and Grendel's Mother among them). When I see an actor's likeness (or close enough for my mind to chunk it as their likeness) and I hear their voice I am subconsciously going to expect their mannerisms, their gesticulations. All of the subtle visual symbols that come with an actor's years of training and experience. These visual queues are what makes an actor unique, what separates them from all of the other nameless faces trying to make it in Hollywood. Incidentally, these characteristics are also precisely why it is so hard to do a really good impression of someone - it's not just the voice you have to mimic, it's is the entire visual presentation. This visual expectation is happening for the viewer on an a subconscious level. It is not something that one can simply turn off, no more than one could chose to forget the countless times you've seen Anthony Hopkins or John Malkovich on screen.

This is one of the primary reasons that hand-drawn animation has eschewed rendering characters in the actor's likeness. In order to pull this off an animator would essentially have to be able to impersonate all of the voice actors that will be performing. In any case, since the animation is created before the voice acting is even recording this is literally impossible in traditional animation. I believe that this represents a constraint that has served animation well over the years because it frees the animator (and thus the viewer) to use their imagination and not get stuck on the instinctual need to match a face with a voice

Bold claims are being made about the 3D version of this film ushering in a new kind of cinema. In all cases I believe that there is a better alternative, whether it be the blue-screen approach used in movies like Sin City (where the actor's image is cut into digital sets), traditional animation like Howl's Moving Castle (where the actor is completely divorced from their character's representation, often to a comic degree) or in more recent techniques such as the rotoscoping used in A Scanner Darkly (where the actor's likeness is computer-rendered but their mannerisms are left essentially intact). Sadly, I believe the success of Beowulf will only convince others to follow Zemeckis' lead to the detriment of cinema as a medium. If the 3D computer-animated picture takes off, and they continue to render characters in the form of their voice actors, I will be content to take my place with the curmudgeons who refused to accept the talkie or the barbarism of Technicolor.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Stephenson interviewed by Reason magazine

While I'm on the topic of Neal Stephenson I might as well link to an interview that Reason magazine conducted (primary via email) with Stephenson in late fall of 2005. It is interesting to hear Stephenson's work discussed in the context of Libertarianism.

The interview includes a fantastic quote about how terrorism encourages statism and government (inadvertently) fosters Libertarianism:
Speaking as an observer who has many friends with libertarian instincts, I would point out that terrorism is a much more formidable opponent of political liberty than government. Government acts almost as a recruiting station for libertarians. Anyone who pays taxes or has to fill out government paperwork develops libertarian impulses almost as a knee-jerk reaction. But terrorism acts as a recruiting station for statists. So it looks to me as though we are headed for a triangular system in which libertarians and statists and terrorists interact with each other in a way that I'm afraid might turn out to be quite stable.
It is frightening to me how right he is. The first thing that really changed after the September 11th attacks was that it became "patriotic" to stand up and say, "safety is more important than liberty". The most bitter irony of all is that this attitude ultimately leads to the kind of totalitarian hegemony that our constitution was designed to avoid. By granting our government more control of our lives in exchange for the illusion of greater safety we are subverting the very principles that our nation was founded on.

Unfortunately the harder the terrorists fight against us the natural reaction for many is to just work that much harder to entrench the existing power structure under the auspices of "national security". Make no mistake, regardless of who is in office in 2009, if another tragedy on the scale of the 9/11 attacks were to occur on American soil the statists would push for legislation that makes the Patriot Act look tame by comparison. An unfortunate truism about liberty is that it is one of those diffuse qualities that is much easier to identify in its absence than when you are enjoying its benefits.

Clooney to turn The Diamond Age into a six-hour miniseries

I was just wiki-wandering and I stumbled across the news that George Clooney is the helping to produce a six-hour miniseries based on Neal Stephenson's novel The Diamond Age. I am so excited about this; I think doing it as a miniseries makes a lot more sense than trying to cram the story into a 2 hour movie. Incidentally Stephenson is working on the adaptation so there is no need to worry about his novel being butchered by hacks.

For those unfamiliar with the book, it is a wonderfully-crafted bildungsroman that follows Nell, a young girl finding her way as a thete (or one without a tribe) in a futuristic "neo-Victorian" world where nanotechnology is pervasive. Wikipedia rather clumsily describes it as a postcyberpunk novel but there are too many themes at play in this work to allow for easy classification.

Like the work of Neil Gaiman, the beauty in this story is how Stephenson takes fairy tales and re-contextualizes them so that we can look at stories that we've heard a hundred times from a fresh perspective. The protagonist is aided in her development by a technologically advanced primer (the full title of the book is "The Diamond Age or, A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer"). With a nod to Constructivism, the primer is constantly adapting the methods it uses to teach Nell based on the situation that she is in and her current level of experience.

In any case, if you haven't read the book yet I definitely encourage you to do so right away. I have a feeling that even those who aren't fans of the book will enjoy the miniseries when it comes out - George Clooney's name in production credits is becoming a guarantee of quality (except perhaps those Ocean's N movies).

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

80's music videos, David Fincher and musical taste

FincherFanatic has a chronological list of all of the music videos that David Fincher has ever directed. His video for the Nine Inch Nails track "Only" is definitely worth checking out as well as videos for A Perfect Circle, The Rolling Stones, Iggy Pop and others. There are videos dating back to 1984 with varying degrees of the camp and naïveté of the early age of music videos. For good or ill, these videos stand as testament to how influential Fincher was to the burgeoning medium.

I still remember the first time that I saw Guns N' Roses on MTV. I thought that there was no one on the planet as cool as Axl Rose. My how tastes change. Don't get me wrong, I still turn up the radio and throw up the horns when "Paradise City" comes on it's just not exactly the zenith of my musical taste anymore. In this regard I think that one's taste in music is much like our palate. As children we have a very narrow range of what tastes good; anything outside of that range we will simply refuse to eat. As we grow older and (hopefully) are exposed to a wider variety of food, we learn that there are many different kinds of food that we enjoy.

In some cases it is foods that we've never tried before that give us that olfactory epiphany (like the first time I heard R.E.M.). Other times it is simply the dish that we never really liked but we give it a chance years later and come to find that we really appreciate it now (I never really liked The Beatles later work as a kid, now my tastes have matured so I can see the flavors that I was missing before). Changing taste is a natural part of human development and should be encouraged (parent's who tell their children "oh, you don't like that" when a child asks to try something are probably doing the child a disservice).

In talking to people about music I find that some people are confused at the extreme range of my personal taste. The implication that I get from some people is that it somehow detracts from one style of music (e.g. post-feminist culturally conscious riot grrrl rock a la Sleater-Kinney) that you are a fan of another, seemingly opposed style (e.g. beer guzzling, mullet-wearing rock a la Guns N' Roses). To me this assertion is as absurd as the notion that one cannot both enjoy a glass of lemonade on a hot summer day and a rich cheesecake as the culmination of a seven course gourmet meal.

Music is many things, and like any art it has a viral influence on the audience. The more that you enjoy music of many different styles the more that you will find styles of music that you never knew you liked. This is not to say that you will not find things that you don't like (I loathe pea soup and Creed songs in equal measure) but even having a bad meal helps you define the boundaries of your taste (just try to avoid the Insane Clown Posse platter, it's been under those heat lamps for a bit too long).

So take a minute to stroll down memory lane and enjoy the bittersweet taste of 80's popular music. You never know, it might remind you of your favorite forgotten video from the time of neon, leg warmers and big hair.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Drawing Way Outside The Lines

I saw Tool at the Frank Erwin Center last night and it exceeded all expectations. For them to sound this good seventeen years into making music is a testament to their dedication. As with their tours for Lateralus and Ænima the light show was in full effect with many songs accompanied by their respective music videos and some new material. Maynard's voice sounded great and the acoustics of the venue were perfect for Tool's expansive sound.

Following them through the years it has been interesting to see their evolving sound and the way that it informs their live performances. I know that there are some fans that feel that Ænima is the high water mark of their career; as good as that album is, I have to disagree with this sentiment. Last night was undeniable proof that Tool's transition from alt-rock vitriolics to prog-rock epics has been one for the better. Don't get me wrong, I love Ænima, along with OK Computer, it is one of the few true masterpieces of post-Nirvana 90's rock. The difference is one of cohesion.

One can certainly make the case that, taken individually, tracks on Ænima are better than tracks on their more recent albums but I believe that this is failing to see the forest from the trees. Tool albums are no longer about individual tracks, this is especially telling when one looks at which tracks are played on the radio. The radio format is all about three to four minute time slots for listeners with short attention spans and it has become increasingly difficult for their label to get Tool tracks on the air. When even the shortest Tool songs (excluding segues) often stretch to six or seven minutes the only option for radio play is to chose on of the shorter songs and hack it down into a four minute "radio-edit". The reality is that Tool has long since left the land of easily packaged, radio-friendly "popular rock" music. Tool's more recent work is not about tracks, but concepts.

Take, for example the "Wings for Marie (Pt 1)" and "10,000 Days (Wings Pt 2)" song cycle from their latest album. What starts slowly with a quiet brooding over the course of seventeen minutes builds into a cathartic release that to experience live borders on some kind of religious epiphany. This is not about seeing your favorite band crank out rock songs so that you can sing along and wave your lighter. At the risk of sounding maudlin, this is about the experience of seeing a group of dedicated artists create something positive and beautiful. This is all the more powerful from being made in a medium that so often is just used to sell iPods and Volkswagens.

It's been a few years since I've gone to a big stadium rock concert and there is a new trend that has become disturbingly pervasive. Three of the people sitting in the row in front of me spent most of the night alternatively texting their friends (presumably about being at the Tool show) and taking video clips and picture snapshots with their camera-phones. Did I miss a meeting? Since when is it not sufficient to just experience something? I can understand the juvenile need to show off the fact that you were at a big rock show, but to spend the whole evening watching the show through the blurry two megapixel lens of your phone just boggles my mind. I must say the irony was certainly delicious to look out over a stadium thronged with thousands of fans, cell phones held aloft to capture the moment, singing along:

Cause I need to watch things die
From a distance
Vicariously, I
Live while the whole world dies
You all need it too - don't lie.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Vending Machines + Facial Recognition = One More Reason Why Japan Is Awesome

Yesterday a cigarette vending machine was released in Japan that can tell whether or not someone is an adult based on facial recognition. The machine uses a complex system of heuristics to make this determination, including on the bone structure, wrinkles, and the way that the skin sags (or doesn't) on a person's face. In the cases where the machine is unable to determine definitively that a person is 20 years old (the legal age to buy cigarettes in Japan) they can insert their drivers license as an alternate form of identification. This is some crazy science fiction that could only come from the land of the rising sun.

When I visited Japan I made a point of using the beer vending machines, because well, it's beer in a freaking machine! What more reason do you need?! Incidentally an awesome drinking game is to wander the streets of Tokyo aimlessly and buy a biru from each vending machine you stumble across. One thing that I quickly learned was that I was not able to buy beer after 8pm (different machines seemed to have different times but 8pm seemed to be the norm). This was their solution for preventing minors from purchasing beer or cigarettes from the vending machines that blanket metropolitan areas. These machines were equipped with card readers so that locals could use their driver's license as proof of age after 8pm but of course my gaijin passport was not supported. In any case I'm sure they'll start using these for biru and I can't wait to go back to test them. With any luck they will be calibrated to also handle funny-looking white guys...

Monday, November 12, 2007

Ambiguity Made In America

My thoughts on the series finale of The Sopranos


I finally had a chance to watch the series finale of the Sopranos over the weekend. Long gone are the hype that preceded its airing and hysteria that followed. The sheer volume of critical attention given to this one event is staggering. In the end, this is just a TV show and as much as viewers of the show are outraged about the ambiguous and anti-climatic ending there are more important things in life worth getting upset about (one of them, the Iraq war, is even an underlying theme of the last season of the Sopranos).

Now that the disclaimer is out of the way, what is the meaning of this abrupt conclusion to the series? Does Tony get shot? What about his family? Does he escape with his life only to be indicted? So many questions left unanswered, and what does it all mean? Bob Harris has an excellent, and exhaustive, analysis of the religious symbolism in the final scene (along with some fascinating ties to the Godfather trilogy). No doubt many others have mined the rich depths of symbolism in this episode so I will leave it as an exercise to those with curiosity (and time) to look into this further. Rather than simply rehash others' analysis I want to focus on what for many was the main point of contention with the finale. The lack of a definite conclusion, of not knowing Tony's fate is the single biggest criticism being leveled by fans and critics alike.

It seems almost laughable to me that anyone would be surprised when the conclusion to the single most morally ambiguous show on television is itself ambiguous. Like the show, the protagonist Tony Soprano, one of the greatest anti-heroes ever created, is a melting pot of conflicted emotions and paradoxical motivations. A merciless killer who can suffocate his self-described "son" and heir apparent with his bare hands. A family man brought to tears when a family of ducks that was living in his pool flies away. Over the course of seven seasons the show paints these two (along with many other) completely contradictory pictures of the same man. Far from the stereotypical one-dimensional mafioso, Soprano is so multi-faceted it is at times hard to keep track of which Tony we are seeing. In fact the way that Tony can switch from one persona to another at a moment's notice leads to some of the show's funniest and most dramatic moments.

The show does not shy away from the implications of such a conflicted existence. Over the seven years Tony's faces everything from marital estrangement, assassination attempts and nervous breakdowns. Through it all the viewer is brought to a place where we understand Tony (as much as anyone can), where we simultaneously empathize with him for his human foibles and revile him for his monstrous acts. That we can exist in such a moral limbo about the show's main character is ultimately what makes The Sopranos so successful (both commercially and artistically).

The connection between plot and abstract concepts is very tight in The Sopranos, more so that most other shows. Everything from the music playing, background images and the colors of key props is intentional and often has some deeper symbolism. In order to represent such a complex family of characters the show must make full use of the more complex aspects of art. It is only fitting then, that such a complicated and multi-layered show would be concluded in a similarly inscrutable fashion. The creators could have easily created the Godfather-esque bloodbath that so many fans anticipated (nay even hungered for), or the fairy-tale "everyone escapes to live another day" ending. But both of these would be the wrong choice, both would be an absurd oversimplification of what deserves better. To cut to black when he did, David Chase is not abdicating his responsibility as so many have claimed, he is letting his show die the way it lived, in the messy moral gray area where one man can be both a sinner and a saint (sometimes both at the same time). That the creators chose to wrap this faux-climax in religious trappings and leave the final answer on the tip of the tongue is only fitting when none of the answers in this show ever came easily. Indeed the difficult questions in life never truly get answered, at least not forever. That is, after all, what makes these questions interesting, and what makes the process of finding the answers worth while. Only a fool seeks an easy answer to a difficult question and I can't help but see the hubbub over the Sopranos finale as just a bunch of foolishness.

Friday, November 9, 2007

187 On The Album

Ars reports that Jay-Z will not be offering his latest album, American Gangster on the iTunes Store. His reason is an interesting one: he doesn't want the album broken down and sold as individual tracks (something that iTunes requires but many other online music stores do not). From what I can tell, the general consensus is that he should just offer the album as individual tracks and be happy that people want to buy his music. This issue lies at an increasingly busy intersection of technology and art that I am fascinated by so I want to dig a bit deeper into the details.

In reading many of the responses to this announcement I was struck with how strong the sense of entitlement is among many on the internet. Granted the quasi-anonymity that the internet provides can certainly skew people towards the whiny end of the scale it still seems like many people feel that artists owe them something. It is telling that people who, by their own admission, are not Jay-Z fans are indignantly demanding that he "get with the program" and just offer his tracks up on iTunes like everyone else. Even many Jay-Z fans are using this as further rationalization for their use of peer-to-peer networks. There is a wonderful irony to someone saying, "why don't you offer your music the way I want it" out of one side of their mouth and "I don't actually pay for your music" out of the other. So where does this sense of entitlement come from?

Like many of the problems plaguing the embattled music industry, I think much of the responsibility lies at the feet of the record labels and the RIAA. Their policies have been driven solely by greed for so long that they don't know any other way to operate. This is an industry that routinely sells CDs (which cost pennies to manufacture) for $18 while giving the artist an average of less than a dollar per CD sold. Ask them why and they will spew a river of garbage to put Cuyahoga to shame. The reality is that the relationship between labels and artists has always been one-sided which is why many established artists are looking at abandoning their labels entirely. So the label's greed has hurt the artists they claim to promote and has alienated the fans that they claim to serve.

Before the internet there wasn't much that a disgruntled music fan could do. You either paid the exorbitant cost of a CD or you listened to the homogenized sound-gelatin of the radio. The emergence of the internet, along with completely destroying the traditional distribution model for digital media, has provided a forum for the disenfranchised music fans. It is appropriate that an industry enslaved to the economic principle of maximizing profit would be blindsided by a technology that trumps its strongest suit. Manufacturers spent years perfecting CDs to the point that they cost almost nothing to produce. Labels hired armies of lawyers to craft contracts that would turn artists into indentured servants. Then Napster came along and the whole game changed. The cost of distribution shrunk to almost nothing and now all of the music fans, sick of being overcharged for mediocre product, revolted en masse.

So now there are myriad P2P tools that allow anyone to easily get their favorite music for free and music fans (for the most part) are gruntled. Like any revolution, the digital revolution of the early 21st century has left some behind. The artist, long at the mercy of the labels, can now see a way out of bondage but the internet has not yet fulfilled that promise. As in many revolutions, some of the P2P revolutionaries have taken things too far. What started as a rebellion against the records labels has transformed into a culture of entitlement. The motto of "free music from corporate tyranny" has been perverted into "I deserve free music".

To be honest, I'm not a fan of Jay-Z but I do support his decision to not allow his album to be split apart. Technology has dramatically changed the landscape of music, mostly for the better, but music is still a creative endeavor. A painter is (usually) given input into how their paintings are displayed in a gallery. This is because the gallery owner is not solely driven by a desire to sell paintings, they have tempered that with a desire to respect the artist's intent and creative sensibilities. In this context I think that Jay-Z's request that his album be appreciated as a whole and not as individual tracks is completely reasonable. In fact I would argue that anyone selling his album has a mandate, just like a gallery owner, to respect his creative intent. Napster and its mutant offspring may have demolished the distribution model for music but this does not destroy the relationship that an artist has with their work.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

White Chalk

PJ Harvey's latest album is a rather dramatic departure from her more recent work. A minor-key piano heavy affair; Harvey uses her voice to great effect to create the somber mood of the album. Gone is the throaty growl of her early work, replaced by a ghostly timber that is startling to hear at first but ultimately works remarkably well. It is a testament to PJ Harvey's versatility as an artist that she can execute such a dramatic transformation. Her choice of delivery fits the theme of the music perfectly for ultimately this is an album about loneliness. Not the quiescent solitude of one who chooses to be apart mind you, but the bitter regret of one who has lost, who has been betrayed. She has explored these themes before but never has PJ Harvey's choice of delivery given this particular subject matter such potency.

The opening track "The Devil" along with it's sister track "Silence" underpin the major themes of the album. Both deal with the pain of lost love, they describe the pangs of need that lead one to a shared rendezvous in the vain hope that what is lost will be waiting there. This powerful metaphor runs throughout the work and we are like moths drawn to the light of her revelatory confessions. At different points the lyrics mention nakedness, in the literal sense, but this is only a metaphor for the raw emotional state of Harvey's tragic heroine. To be sure, this is an emotional excision; the feelings of loss, betrayal and blind hope all torn from her breast and laid bare before us.

Between the esoteric instruments (Optigan, broken harp, mellotron and mini-moog) and the antiquated language (ether gets prominent mention) White Chalk feels like a Victorian elegy for a lover lost in some tragic Poe short story. The raw sensuality of Harvey's work, often far more overt, here slowly builds to a roiling boil over the course of the eleven tracks until the dramatic climax on the album's devastating closer, "The Mountain". Repetition is used very effectively to establish a mood early and maintain it throughout the album making it feel more like stanzas of a single Sapphic poem than discrete tracks. Like much of PJ Harvey's other work, White Chalk took multiple listens to scratch the surface and reveal the deeper beauties hidden within but she makes the scratching hurt so right that you can't help yourself.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Patent Extortion v. Innovation

Arstechnica is reporting that Canadian-based company Wi-LAN has filed law suits against 22 different companies over two of its patents. Wi-LAN, which bills itself as "a leading technology licensing company" is part of a new breed of companies that don't actually make anything or offer services of any kind. Essentially all they do is buy and register a portfolio of promising patents and then sit on them in the hopes that someone else creates something that infringes one or more of those patents. I'm sure industry experts have all kinds of technical terms for this business model but for simplicity sake I'm just going to call them a patent leech.

Here is the full list of companies that they are suing:
  1. Acer Inc.
  2. Apple Inc.
  3. Atheros Communications Inc.
  4. Belkin International Inc.
  5. Best Buy Co. Inc.
  6. Broadcom Corporation
  7. Buffalo Technology (USA) Inc.
  8. Circuit City Stores, Inc.
  9. Dell Inc.
  10. D-Link Corporation
  11. Gateway Inc.
  12. Hewlett-Packard Company
  13. Infineon Technologies AG
  14. Intel Corporation
  15. Lenovo Group Ltd.
  16. Marvell Semiconductor Inc.
  17. Netgear Inc.
  18. Sony Corporation
  19. Texas Instruments Incorporated
  20. Toshiba Corporation
  21. Westell Technologies Inc.
  22. 2Wire Inc.
They have wisely chosen to file their suit in a patent litigation-friendly district of East Texas where the local laws are essentially structured to favor the plaintiff in these types of cases. This underscores one of the real weaknesses of a legal system based on precedent. They can go to a court system that favors their case and if they emerge victorious they then have the saber of precedent to brandish against all of the other companies that might ever want to use Wi-Fi or power management features in their products even though the case would have been thrown out in a more reasonable court.

This is such a gross perversion of the spirit of patent law it is sickening. From Wikipedia the rationale behind patents has four main components:
  1. Provide incentives for research and development
  2. Encourage disclosure of innovations into the public domain
  3. Protect products for which the cost of commercialization (testing, manufacturing, marketing) is much higher than conception (research and development)
  4. Provide an incentive for companies to be creative and work around existing patents thus spurring development of new technologies that might not otherwise exist
The insidious thing about an "intellectual property" company like Wi-LAN is that they reap the benefits of patent law without paying any of the cost:
  1. Wi-LAN no longer even does any research and development; they simply hold onto broad patents that they filed back when they were a real company and buy up new patents using the money that they have extorted from others.
  2. Wi-LAN does not actually want anyone to know about their patents, the most lucrative scenario for them is when the entire industry unknowingly steps on one of their overly broad patents and establishes a technology that is useful to everyone (e.g. Wi-Fi). They can simply sit back as the technology matures and is brining profit to the companies actually doing the work then swoop in after the value of that technology is well established and extort an entire industry.
  3. The whole point of providing an incentive for conception is so that said company then moves on to commercialization! By creating a niche for companies that don't produce anything but lawsuits patent law has actually hurt commercialization more than it helps it. I can not emphasize this enough, the companies actually doing the work are the ones commercializing Wi-Fi products, not the engineers at Wi-LAN that snuck "multiplexing over multiple transceivers" (Patent 5,282,222) past the knuckleheads at the patent submission office. Don't be confused by all of the fancy language in that patent, the concepts that we are talking about are ones that any college graduate of the relevant discipline could scribble on a cocktail napkin while downing Yaeger Bombs and hitting on co-eds at a South Padre Island pool bar. In short, these ideas are neither new nor inventive.
  4. By waiting until the technology is ubiquitous "intellectual property" companies totally subvert the concept of fostering creativity. It's a bit too late in the game for us to get creative about Wi-Fi. What are we going to do, shut down the hot spots in every coffee shop and book store in America while we wait for someone to find a creative work around? Obviously making the Wi-Fi cards in everyone's laptops useless while our best engineering minds work out a new way to wirelessly transmit data is really all about creativity.
Lest I be mistaken for a pinko, I am not advocating a total abolition of patents, I simply advocate that we take a long hard look at any legal system that fosters these kind of leeches. After all, the point of the open market is a million financial organisms all competing with each other, not a million financial organisms all being granted their own monopolistic niches based on dubious merits.