For the first time in forever (maybe ever), Pi Wen and I recently caught a film on its opening night.
This was Florence Foster Jenkins, starring Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant and Simon Helberg. It's based on a true story, of a socialite with an awful singing voice who nonetheless performed at Carnegie Hall.
Jenkins's husband St. Clair Bayfield spares her from the knowledge of her terrible voice as an act of love. Esteemed vocal coaches say nothing to Jenkins because they want her money. Whether from greed or kindness, the end result is the same: Florence Foster Jenkins believes she can sing well even though she most definitely cannot.
Or at least this is the case in the film -- it is hard to believe that the real-life Jenkins was as clueless as her screen counterpart. Helberg plays her accompanist, Cosme McMoon.
Although Jenkins's case is extreme, and the film plays it as farce, there are genuine ethical dilemmas here. If a person is blissfully unaware of their lack of talent and causing no harm to themselves or others, why shatter their illusion? Or is this framing itself an illusion, as the lack of talent causes some discomfort in others at the very least? If you choose to tell someone that their talent is only in their head, do you do it gently and risk that the message will be lost? Or in a tear-off-the-bandaid fashion that leaves no doubt about the truth of the matter, but at the cost of hurt feelings?
In the film Jenkins does finally learn the harsh truth, from a caustic newspaper critic (a Hollywood trope if I ever did see one). In the end her husband could not her spare her. The review is so rough that one wishes he had let her down ever so gently (but not too gently) many years before.
That dean, Roman Kochan, replied with a tart missive to Allen. Kochan's message, in essence, was that Allen had stepped out of his lane and had best step back.
What was the fuss about? Allen accused one of Kochan's librarians, Gabriel Gardner, of promoting Sci-Hub. Yes, Sci-Hub, the site that publishers hate ("piracy") and researchers love ("it's so easy.") Now with over 50,000,000 papers and counting -- many if not most obtained through such dubious means as computer hacking -- Sci-Hub is the strongest threat yet to publisher paywalls and revenue streams.
Rather than evolving their business models, the main response by publishers so far has been to double down and build two-factor authentication schemes to protect their current revenues. This nerdy instance of whack-a-mole continues apace.
Back to Tom Allen, CEO of the Association of American Publishers (AAP). Allen's beef with librarian Gardner was that Gardner had not shilled sufficiently for AAP during a recent ALA presentation. Allen wanted Gardner to proclaim Sci-Hub illegal, immoral and detrimental to all human life. But Allen alleges -- on the basis of very scant evidence -- that Gardner encouraged people to use Sci-Hub. The more probable version of events is that Gardner simply noted that Sci-Hub is easy to use (it is). Allen charges instead that Gardner aided and abetted lawless behavior, but that's plainly ludicrous.
Let's not be too harsh -- Allen is just doing his job, throwing some red meat to his base of angry publishers. This is blatant propaganda, easily dismissed.
Nonetheless Allen's gambit does pose an interesting question: How should we discuss things that are clearly illegal (in the court of law sense) but are much more ambiguous ethically?
For Sci-Hub fits squarely into this frame. There is absolutely no doubt that the site is illegal, sourced by still-in-copyright materials Sci-Hub does not own or license.
And yet. The very fact that publishers can copyright, and profit by, the results of what is often taxpaper-funded research is unconscionable. It's legally permitted but morally outrageous. Even if we grant that publishers add value to scholarly communication (and I do) this does not mean they need the iron grip on content they currently have in order to make a profit. It's the system we've chosen to build, not the only system we ever could have.
Sci-Hub is far from blameless in this equation, as it falsely impersonates people and steals network credentials in order to obtain articles. But, of course, no such actions would be necessary if all scholarly content were open access at the time of publication.
So back to the question: what to do when something is legally forbidden but ethically ambiguous? Say so. Librarians discussing Sci-Hub with anyone should say, "This is illegal but the laws are bad. Live within these constraints AND seek to change them." Of course, most people listening will ignore the legal constraints (Sci-Hub is damn easy) and do nothing whatsoever to change copyright law. It's up to librarians and progressive attorneys to take that part on.
In 2012 the Republican Party conducted an "autopsy" to learn lessons after Mitt Romney's defeat as President, with the goal of retaking the White House in 2016.
Given that the 2016 GOP nominee is one Donald John Trump, this line from the report feels prescient: "If our Party is not welcoming and inclusive, young people and increasingly other voters will continue to tune us out." (Page 10)
Huh. Part of me feels the delicious schadenfreude in all this, in certain moods I look upon the GOP's implosion with delight. But most of the time I'm just sad about it. The Grand Old Party has been a vibrant and essential part of our democracy for more than 150 years, and in the space of just one year it gave away its soul to a most unworthy recipient. Trump has not simply coarsened the dialogue, stoked hate and embarrassed America. He has brought a great party down too, as collateral damage for his ego.
Some background: Aaron Swartz, tragically, committed suicide at the age of 26. At the time Swartz was under federal indictment for "data theft," after downloading millions of articles from JSTOR via a server at MIT. Swartz -- even in the course of his brief life -- had already become a long-time advocate for open access to scholarly and legal information. He saw his actions regarding JSTOR as a clear moral good in the service of increasing access to information. The argument against Swartz was that he was a brazen thief of copyrighted materials.
In the immediate aftermath of Swartz's death I wrote a post on this blog, "Clarifying Copyright." This was in response to a San Francisco Chronicle feature that offered contrasting takes on the meaning of Swartz's legacy, some of which reflected an incorrect understanding of the purpose of copyright. In my post I noted that copyright law -- which exists as an incentive to the production of creative works, by offering control over that work's distribution "for a limited time" -- was misapplied to scholarly works. Novelists and journalists write (among other reasons) in order to put food on their table -- of course they deserve copyright protection, and of course they should be paid.
The authors of scholarly research articles and books do not write in order to earn a livelihood, as they have sources of income already -- they write so that their ideas and knowledge are shared. For this group copyright actually presents a barrier to sharing their work, rather than acting as an incentive to create that work in the first place. But our notions of copyright are (still) one size fits all.
In this context it is important to note that Aaron Swartz's two prominent "illegal" downloads involved running scripts to perform a bulk download of the transcripts of court trials (the PACER case) and of the results of scholarly research (the JSTOR case). He was not finding a way to ferret out the next great American novel from someone's hard drive and post it online for free.
With that, let's go back to Pesca and Peters. Their conversation (which takes place between minutes 6-23 in the provided link) begins well. Pesca and Peters establish who Swartz was, providing necessary and interesting biographical detail. Then, around minute 11, they start delving into Swartz's ideals and describe his efforts to make it easier to access legal materials (PACER).
Then, at 15:30-15:35, Pesca states, "It's seems he's a bit of a zealot." Pesca goes on to say that surely journalists need to make a living and that, more generally, some types of content should be paid for at the point of sale. Peters, bless him, promptly corrects Pesca: "it's important to make the distinction between journalistic work and academic research papers." This is the exact distinction I outlined just above, between people who are writing to eat and those who are not.
If this crucial nuance is lost on an intelligent observer like Mike Pesca, heaven help us if and when our policymakers decide to review the copyright code.
Pesca's question gave me a sad sense of deja vu. Shortly after Swartz's death, Wesley Yang wrote a detailed profile of Swartz in New York magazine. It's a thoughtful and thorough review of Swartz's legacy. But deep within it we find this troubling paragraph:
"The moralistic language spoken by the Open Access movement—with its invocations of Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and Rosa Parks—may seem slightly perplexing to those of us raised with the common-sense view that works of science, art, and culture circulate in our society through institutions that fund them by charging fees to the public to access them. But the partisans of the open Internet were informed by a different experience and set of ideals than the rest of us, those of a techno-utopia that really existed and has been continuously under siege ever since John Perry Barlow, the former Grateful Dead lyricist turned Internet visionary, co-founded the Electronic Frontier Foundation and declared the independence of cyberspace as a self-regulating realm of perfect freedom beyond the reach of any territorial government’s laws."
There's that claim again -- that Swartz and other open access advocates believe that everything ever written should be free at the moment it is written, and that nobody should ever get paid for anything even if all authors die of starvation as a result.
That's not what Swartz stood for, and that is not what open access is about. Open access assumes that scholars have other sources of income for their livelihoods (generally a university affiliation of some variety), and that they write their work to be read and not to be paywalled.
Swartz broke through a few big paywalls, and found himself in deep trouble because his contemporary values did not accord with antediluvian copyright laws. The best way to honor his legacy now is to make what he was fighting for is as crystal clear as humanly possible, and to keep on pursuing that goal.
Despite Trump's stupidity we should take a look at the core claim in his tweet about Brexit: "They took their country back, just like we will take America back."
Trump's entire campaign rests on the premise that America was once a perfect land that has been laid low by trade and immigration.
The fact that America is a nation of immigrants, and that trade actually brings us consumer goods at very low prices, holds no sway against the emotional appeal of "we were robbed." Trump plays to the lizard brain, not our better angels.
The leaders of the "Leave" moment in the UK -- Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson, Michael Gove -- used this exact same playbook. Demonize immigrants. Claim that faceless bureaucrats in Brussels are stealing from the UK. Insist against all logic and history that closed borders will lead to more jobs, not few.
Of course there will still be immigration! says one Leave leader. Turns out we don't send that much money to the EU, sorry about that! says another.
Should the United States actually elect a President Trump, he would do the same thing. Oh, I didn't mean those things. I've got the biggest heart there is.
And so forth. This is the inevitable result when fools play leader.
The mission before us, though, is to thwart any chance of a President Trump. To do so we must understand and respond to the feelings of Trump's supporters.
Here the Brexit saga is instructive. Both the Leave and Trump campaigns -- misguided and cynical though they may be -- are reactions to real pain felt by real people. The north of England was once a proud manufacturing center, and now those jobs are overseas. The same goes for the US rust belt.
It is true that, on balance, free global trade is a good thing. It lifts up the global economy as a whole, and increases the standard of living for millions of people. But there are also millions of people left behind. The days when you could make an honest and respectable living in the trades have vanished, and now almost all gains go to the educated and politically connected elite.
The solution is not to demonize everyone who looks different, or to pretend that you can build walls that will never actually be built. This is the snake oil peddled by Trump and Leave. The solution -- and something that real leaders such as Hillary Clinton can build toward -- is to genuinely work to include everyone's talents within the new global economy.
In the US, this year it must be all hands on deck to dump Trump. Next year the work of our true leaders can begin.
Language is mutable. Nothing is permanent, nothing should be assumed.
And so, imminent linguist David Crystal's declaration that the period (or full stop) is fading away should not be summarily dismissed. The Times article on Crystal's claim in this regard, which is devoid almost completely of periods, is a delight to read.
Within this article Crystal makes a strong case that periods are disappearing from text and instant messages. Such messages are generally short, declarative, and to the point. There is no need for a period to demarcate discrete sentences. Indeed, periods usually seem too fussy and formal in this context. Or they are emotion-laden and filled with significance.
Example: "Fine" in a text/instant message means all is well. "Fine." in those same venues means the sender is upset with the recipient. The period, here, is more like an angry exclamation point.
That all makes sense -- I use periods much less frequently in texting than in formal writing, and it is immediately apparent when a period signifies something strong.
All that said, the period is here to stay. Formal writing -- legal documents, administrative manuals -- will always need periods as guides for wending through their blandness. Extended creative writing -- novels, long-form essays, prose poems -- will always need periods to allow the reader to collect their thoughts and reflect.
A complete abandonment of periods -- in all cases and whatever the cost -- would signify the death of introspective, deep reading. Even in a flamboyantly attention-deprived age that would be nothing to celebrate.
In the constant skirmish between privatized assets and public goods, vigilance is essential.
It is fine for a private citizen to earn the maximum profit on a new gadget or invention. It is not fine for public servants to sequester their works -- paid for by taxpayers -- within the mantle of intellectual property. But that is exactly what might happen in California, due to currently pending Assembly Bill 2880.
The construct of "intellectual property" is dubious. No idea is truly unique and we need common tools -- such as, for example, a language -- to learn from each other and to build new knowledge. Of course, in a capitalist economy such notions will only have limited purchase.
Even so, if there is anything that should be in the public domain it is the work of government employees. At the federal level this is already the case. US government works cannot be copyrighted. States take various approaches, with some states unduly restricting the dissemination of government information. Until now California has been open with its government works, as the Electronic Frontier Foundation points out.
AB 2880 would reverse this course, by needlessly extending the scope of privatization deep into California's state and county governments. As Mike Masnick points out in Techdirt, many things do not need to be owned. This is certainly true of government produced work.
The ostensible dichotomy -- and hierarchy -- between the skills of a humanist and those of an engineer never held water. We're in an especially ripe age for humanities bashing these days, as the salvation of big data and slick code is bandied about the land.
Alas, it has ever been thus. C.P. Snow's book The Two Cultures, which is about exactly this tension, is now more than 50 years old.
One must wonder why storytelling as a means of learning and sharing knowledge gets such short shrift. After all we are all narrators.
My best guess is that the "hard" sciences -- all those test tubes and beakers, all that code -- are seductive because they over-promise. We're always just one experiment or theorem away from the promised land.
Humanists call this for what it is: hubris.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with seeking to understand the natural world, devising innovations to help people live longer and more productive lives, writing elegant code, or building perfectly suspended bridges. Go for it, scientists and engineers. Just don't be so self-righteous.