2008

I just spent weeks learning more than I ever wanted to know about the sorry state of video editing on Linux, but the result is worth it:

Nina Paley, being interviewedsite logo for sitasingstheblues.com

It’s an in-depth interview with animator and cartoonist Nina Paley, whose award-winning, feature-length film Sita Sings The Blues cannot be distributed because of copyright restrictions.

She built the film around episodes from the Indian epic the Ramayana and songs recorded by torch singer Annette Hanshaw in the 1920s. The recordings are no longer in copyright jail, and the Ramayana never was, but the compositions are. Nina Paley is therefore expected to pay tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars for the right to distribute the film. That’s a lot of money just to affix some 1s and 0s to some platters. Are we running out of 1s and 0s? Is there a shortage?

The most chilling part of the interview, for me, is where she talks about how thoroughly most filmmakers have “internalized the permission culture”, to the point where they won’t even consider incorporating existing art into their works, because of the potential copyright entanglements. Everything must be separate; everything must unconnected to everything else; novelty is enforced by decree, whether it suits the artist’s inspiration or not.

Hello? This is not censorship because… why, exactly?

Apparently Barack Obama has now gotten his first intelligence briefing.

Hearing that made me think of one of my favorite passages from John Piña Craven‘s book The Silent War (Craven was Chief Scientist of the U.S. Navy and a key figure in developing its nuclear submarine program):

The Silent War, by John Piña Craven.

Whenever I participated in the presentation of similar briefings to new cabinet secretaries and undersecretaries, new presidents and vice presidents, and other newly elected or appointed officials, I would watch for the same psychophysiological encounter with terror at a point in the briefing that I called “the overwhelming moment”. Poker players will have observed such a moment in the glaze that forms on the eyes of the neophyte when he realizes that he is out of his depth and that he has already staked more than he can afford or its emotional equivalent on the outcome of the game. In these briefings, the overwhelming moment would invariable be followed by either a blind surrender to the exigencies of the program or by a bracing of the shoulders as the members of the [military program] had braced their shoulders in realization of the authority, responsibility, and accountability that participation entailed. Only one official, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, would not respond this way. Initially, I believed this to be the result of a superhuman level of understanding and self-confidence. Sadly, I would discover that this only reflected his unshakable belief in a dogma of management practice that substituted bean-counting formulas for knowledge and understanding.

For some reason, Craven’s publisher decided to market the book as a kind of real-life military thriller, hence the cheesy cover. That’s a pity, because it’s actually a serious book about how technological innovation happens in the military — the Navy, in this case — and about the political implications of that process.

It is no romanticization of imperial might to realize that the moment when a president-elect is told exactly what the intelligence services really know, and exactly what the capabilities of the military really are, must be sobering in a way that makes the campaign seem like child’s play. If the candidate has any ability to grasp the magnitude of what he’s hearing, he cannot help but feel unsettled, and probably terrified, at the responsibility.

Let’s hope, for the world’s sake, that Obama is an Obama, not a McNamara.

Watching Joe Biden handle being interviewed by this sky-addled loon is a particular kind of pleasure. It’s sort of like watching Tiger Woods play golf in a raging hailstorm — maybe he can’t beat par today, but he can still beat the weather:

(By way of the ever-alert TalkingPointsMemo.)

I also have to admire Obama’s and Biden’s self-discipline in never pointing out that the so-called ACORN voter fraud we’ve been hearing so much about from the McCain campaign is a fraud on ACORN by its own employees, not a fraud on the electorate by anyone, and therefore is of zero concern even if the allegations are true. They’re consummate politicians: don’t complicate the message, don’t explain why the whole premise is wrong, just deny any connection and move on to a more profitable subject right away.

What total pros.

Wow. I’ve never seen a more completely wrong article than this one by Andrew Keen (author of “The Cult of the Amateur”):

Economy to Give Open Source a Good Thumping

It’s hard to know where to start. Does he really think that the best way to understand open source projects, and other collaborative projects like Wikipedia, is as a “donation” of “free labor” by people who are about to be reminded of the hard realities of life by the economic crash? Does he think that’s how the participants understand their own participation?

Of all the wrong sentences in his piece, this one perhaps best represents his core wrongness:

Being paid to work is intuitive to the human condition; it represents our most elemental sense of justice.

The only correct thing in that sentence is his use of the semicolon. Being paid to work is not only not intuitive to the human condition, it is a very recent phenomenon both evolutionarily and culturally; even today, it’s not clear that it accounts for a majority of human activity. What the volunteer open source developers and the Wikipedians of the world are doing is far more intuitively human than working for a wage will ever be, barring major structural changes to the human psyche.

In addition to everything else, Keen doesn’t even grasp the economics very well: if you’re unemployed, participating in an open source project doesn’t hurt you (because there’s no opportunity cost — you’re not giving up some other wage-producing activity in order to spend more time on the open source project), and may help by giving you contacts with people who can recommend you to jobs and vice versa. Furthermore, it helps you by giving you a satisfying sense of productive activity and collaboration with other people.

The economic downturn will not hurt open source, and it may actually help: if the value ratio of money to time goes down, then spending money buying software will become less attractive, and learning to use open source in corporate infrastructure will become more so (that is, long-term investments in cutting costs start to make more sense in a cash-starved environment, as opposed to, say, investing that money in market expansion). A great deal of open source work right now is supported by for-profit corporations that have already made that decision; in the coming months, more corporations will have reason to come to the same conclusion.

If anyone knows how to turn Andrew Keen into a stock, please let me know so I can short him.

I was reunited with my piano today:

piano

Incredibly, it’s still in tune, give or take few cents, despite having spent nine months on its side in a warehouse in California, followed by being trucked across the country, then spending another week in a warehouse in New York. (It’s been a long move.)

After playing some Bach and Schubert, I’m now unpacking everything else. The assistant super and I spent yesterday painting the place, before which it looked like this.

John McCain

I’m beginning to worry that the McCain camp might be spinning their own candidate. A certain amount of bravado is to be expected from campaign aides, but now that credit crisis has hit full on, they’ve entered a level of fantasy that I don’t think I’ve ever seen before in a Presidential campaign. Could it be that they’re partly doing it to buck up the candidate — to make him think that he really is the man of the hour?

I’m not sure how else to explain the alternate-universe quality of reports like this one:

The senator’s top aides said planning for the announcement began late Tuesday night, as McCain began to receive word that Bush’s rescue plan was faltering in Congress, and as Democrats began to demand leadership from McCain.

“We got a good sense last night, even more so this morning,” one top aide said. “Got in a position where Democrats were warily circling McCain — not going to commit to a deal unless McCain does. It was just a time for leadership. So he just stepped up.”

Hello? Is this a credit crisis or a cowboy movie? “…warily circling McCain”? Please. The man is known for his lack of expertise on economic matters; he’s even admitted it himself. This is just group hallucination, and any reporter who pressed them on what exactly they meant would frankly be doing them a favor — sure, it hurts to be brought back to Earth, but it’ll only hurt more the longer the fall.

Not only is Obama going to win this, he has to win this. We can’t afford a President who is both math-averse and delusional. Again.

Bernanke and Paulson

My friend Biella made a really good point about the financial crisis and the government bailouts this week:

Consider the position of politicians and free-market theorists who decry government regulation of financial markets. Compare that with our situation today: effectively, we now have government nationalization of much of the financial services industry. As Biella observed, the strongest possible form of regulation is to simply own the regulated entity, or to lend it money under terms so strict that they are the equivalent of owning it.

We have regulation either way; the only question is whether we admit it. If our policy is to bail out anything that’s “too big to fail”, then the form of our regulation is after the fact and improvisatory; that is, our policy is to regulate, but only on an emergency basis. We could choose a different policy: to regulate before the fact and on a non-emergency basis.

What we cannot choose, however, is not to regulate. That is clearly impossible.


David Brooks wrote an Op-Ed column (“The Post-Lehman World”) in the New York Times today, in which he argues, half-persuasively, that current calls for greater regulation in the future are unrealistic and possibly the result of the same herd mentality that got us here in the first place. He makes a number of good points, but I think he missed some as well. I wrote a letter to the editor in response; probably they get a ton of those and the chances of its being published are very low. For what it’s worth, here it is:

To the Editor,

David Brooks' "The Post-Lehman World" (Op-Ed, September 19th) is
excellent, but he overlooks a subtle point when he writes: "As McArdle
notes, cracking down on subprime loans just when they were getting
frothy would have meant issuing an edict that effectively said: `Don't
lend money to poor people.'  Good luck with that."

This is a misunderstanding of what was happening.  Poor people do not
benefit by being made loans they cannot repay.  And, ordinarily,
lenders do not benefit by making loans they cannot collect.  However,
a lender who makes many such loans and then sells them off, packaged
as something less risky than they actually are, does benefit -- and it
is precisely this deceptive practice that cried out for regulation.

It was easy to detect; we cannot plead ignorance.  When large numbers
of unqualified borrowers are being given inappropriate loans, it's not
hard to figure out that it's happening.  Everyone who worked in the
mortgage industry knew -- even if those on the bottom rung were not
aware that the ultimate driving force was the desire to sell
mislabeled debt packages.

Regulating that mislabeling would have left everyone better off: poor
people, lenders, and now all U.S. taxpayers.  Despite Brooks'
pessimism, stopping the cycle would have been politically possible, by
an administration that cared to stop it and knew how to explain to the
public that overly-easy credit helps no one.  Certainly, much of the
public understands it now.

-Karl Fogel