Thursday, May 25, 2006

The Subway This Morning

As the F train was leaving Smith/Ninth Street, one of the two above-ground stations in Brooklyn that rise over the Gowanus Canal, the conductor comes on the PA: "Look to the left side of the train, you can see the jets performing for Naval Week." During Fleet Week, as it's officially called, American (and a few international) military and Coast Guard ships converge on New York city waters for demonstrations and tours.

We all looked out the subway windows and saw a formation of fighter jets moving slowly across the New York skyline, past the Statue of Liberty. They looked like this:


That's how I put it together in my mind after they disappeared, but now that I see how many planes that would be, I'm thinking it must have been more like this:

------------> >
-----------> > >

Yes, I'm quite sure it was that [it was. The New York blog Gothamist has a photo.]. Some of us smiled, excited like children. Others seemed not to notice. A couple asked each other if they'd spotted them. 'Yeah, they were really small.' They were. Pretty far away. Some of the people must have had 9/11 flashbacks -- fighter planes circled the city for a couple days after the Towers went down.

A part of me swelled with New York pride -- local, if not national patriotism. It's the part of me that needs to belong, that feels left out when I see people dancing in a club or enjoying social barbecue. That part was filled with belonging and reassurance, which was probably one of the reasons the Airforce buzzed the city in September 2001.

When I saw those fighter planes flying over, I was reminded of how invested I am in "9/11" -- annoying shorthand for the terrorist attacks that were once so abstract. Now it's more urgent. I was appalled at the very idea of that 9/11 movie United 93. It seemed in terribly poor taste -- though I later heard it was well-done and quite respectful -- why would someone even attempt such a movie?

Things are mostly back to the way they were the first time I visited New York in 1999. But not completely. Yesterday a jury in Brooklyn convicted a Pakistani immigrant of plotting to bomb the subway station at Herald Square. That's the stop right after the one I get off at every morning.

Many of us cringe when we hear about the NYPD's nasty tactics during the Republican National Convention a couple years ago, but we're pleased to hear, as we did in William Finnegan's New Yorker piece last July, how the NYPD's international counter-terrorism unit now rivals the FBI's in ambition, intelligence, and scope. The Herald Square conviction was made with the help of a Muslim NYPD officer, selected from the police academy to join the Intelligence Division as a spy for New York. I'm not comfortable with how comfortable that makes me feel.

I've seen a lot of different Haruki Murakami novels being read on the subway, but never Underground, his non-fiction collection of interviews about the Tokyo subway gas attacks of 1995. Reading this book on a subway seems almost as spooky as watching United 93 on a plane. Still, I might do it. What better talisman against an actual subway attack? It couldn't happen because it would be too ironic. 9/11 killed irony, right?

Not at all. Gilbert Gottfried, the nasal New York comic, told a 9/11 joke two weeks after the fact during the Friar's Club Hugh Hefner roast. The Times' Frank Rich described it:
"Restlessness had long since set in when the last comic on the bill, Gilbert Gottfried, took the stage. Mr. Gottfried, decked out in preposterously ill-fitting formal wear, has a manic voice so shrill he makes Jerry Lewis sound like Morgan Freeman. He grabbed the podium for dear life and started rocking back and forth like a hyperactive teenager trapped onstage in a school assembly. Soon he delivered what may have been the first public 9/11 gag: He couldn't get a direct flight to California, he said, because 'they said they have to stop at the Empire State Building first.'"
There. Doesn't that feel better?

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Lad Lit's Beginning and End

Benjamin Kunkel's novel Indecision belongs to a burgeoning genre that Michael Kimmel, a sociology professor at SUNY Stony Brook, calls "lad lit," the disaffected male counterpart to "chick lit."

Kunkel is one of the editors of n+1magazine, which I've had a link to on the side of this website. [Elif Batuman's article "Babel in California" from the second issue was one of the most entertaining pieces of lit crit I've read in years.] Indecision is Kunkel's first novel.

Kimmel, in a nasty review in the Chronicle of Higher Education, writes:
"Kunkel's is the latest in a spate of books that have collectively been dubbed "lad lit," the male riposte to "chick lit" — that juggernaut spearheaded by Helen Fielding's Bridget Jones's Diary in 1996, which sold two million copies and spawned both a sequel and a companion book, two films, and countless imitators. Each of the recent lad novels is a sort of anti-bildungsroman, in which a sardonic, clever, unapologetic slacker refuses to grow up, get a meaningful job, commit to relationships, or find any meaning in life."
A friend of mine who works at Harper Collins noticed recently that all of the chick lit writers are really well-educated -- or at least educated at really good schools. We wondered at what it must take to write literary fiction. The same is apparently true of lad lit -- it's written by smarties (Kunkel went to Harvard), but it isn't high art either.

Michael Kimmel sarcastically summarizes the genre:
I may be 30, but I act 15. I am adrift in New York. I'm too clever by half for my own good. I live on puns and snide, sarcastic asides. I don't look too deeply into myself or anyone else — everyone else is boring or a phony anyway. I may be a New Yorker, but I am not in therapy. I have a boring job, for which I am overeducated and underqualified, but I lack the ambition to commit to a serious career. (Usually I have family money.) I hang out with my equally disconnected friends in many of the city's bars. I drink a lot, take recreational drugs, don't care about much except being clever. I recently broke up with my girlfriend, and while I am eager to have sex, which I do often given the zillions of available women in New York, the sex is not especially fulfilling, and emotions rarely enter the picture. I am deeply shallow. And I know it.

Oh, and then something happens. I go on a journey, get inside the media machinery, sort-of fall for a new girl. Or 9/11 happens, but that doesn't really affect me much either. And though I might now mouth some bland platitudes about change, anyone can see that I'm still the same guy I was before. Only different. But not really.
Ouch! Some of that sounds a little too close to home! Some of it.

Kimmel's conclusion: "Women won't read these books unless there is some hope of redemption, some effort these guys make to change. And men won't read them because, well, real men don't read."

Mine: I plan on reading Indecision as soon as my booze 'n whores bender subsides.

UPDATE: I bought a copy of Indecision. Snide remarks forthcoming.

Postal Service Sells Out, Gun Shops Not Among Beneficiaries

Consumers didn't do much with the Postal Service's make-your-own stamps -- they couldn't. There were lots of restrictions, like no recognizable people allowed, imposed after Unabomber and Jimmy Hoffa stamps appeared. But now, the rules have been relaxed a bit -- for the benefit of advertisers. E-mail has been eating into profits lately.

According to Ad Age, Hewlett-Packard will get the first commercial stamps. One design shows the HP logo. Another shows a nostalgic photo of the company founders.

Ad Age, quoting Cymfony marketer Jim Nail and consultant Joe Calloway predicts a consumer backlash:

Images on "postage stamps have always been George Washington or the flag or scientists, educators and innovators, reflective of the culture," said Jim Nail, chief marketing officer of media-and-marketing consultant Cymfony. "There has to be a backlash of some sort. Here it is, this sacrosanct space where we've never seen ads before."

However, he believes the backlash will not result in lost sales, but rather a more psychological hardening of resolve against the overall inundation of advertising.

"If there is a negative reaction, I think it will be along the same lines of the way some people reacted when baseball and football stadiums began selling corporate naming rights," said Joe Calloway, an independent branding consultant and author. "There was a great outcry, but then, for better or worse, it wore off and we all became used to it."

Technically, these stamps aren't stamps -- as far as I can tell it has to do with two things: the fact that you pay more than the face price for them, and the fact that the price is next to your image. So the stamp is the narrow strip that has the bar code and the postage price. It's a weak technicality, one stamp collectors aren't paying any attention to, but it's real.

Zazzle is one of the three retailers of personalized stamps. Their rules for business stamps stipulate that the following are off limits:

  • Alcohol and tobacco
  • Promotions and sale announcements ('come to our 50% off sale')
  • Promoting the stamp as a coupon ('bring this stamp in and get 10% off')
  • Gambling related industries
  • Sex-related industries

But what about guns? The 'no weapons use' rule appears in the guidelines for personal stamps, but isn't mentioned in the business rules.

So I sent Zazzle the following message:
I noticed that customers aren't allowed to create stamps depicting weapons use, but that rules for business stamps didn't mention a guns -- just alcohol, tobacco, and sex. May I create a stamp for my gun business? May I use the word 'gun' or picture of a gun?
Zazzle's response:
Thank you for your email to

You can advertise your gun store but you can't have any images of the product. And you can have the text "gun" but it cannot be glorified in the stamp image. I understand that this is probably confusing, but basically you can have the text "Harry's Gun Store" or what ever the name of your gun store is, but you cannot have text where it is advocating the use of guns. I hope this makes sense, please feel free to submit your stamp image to Zazzle and our Content Management Team will review the image for you.

Thanks for using ZazzleStamps!

Best Regards,
Content Management Team, Inc.

I'm glad Tony cleared that up.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Lost City Arts and Unattainable Design

Lost City Arts, the big and amazing mid-century modern furniture store at 18 Cooper Square in Greenwich Village has been around since 1982. It's fun too look around if you treat it like a museum, but their prices are ghastly. I don't doubt that the Bombardment Chandelier (designed by Poul Henningsen in 1933 and pictured below) is valuable. But the price tag dangling from it said $24,000. I think that's my take-home pay for a year. Think about that -- a year's worth of my work is worth the same as this lamp:

Even the smallest thing I saw there -- a cast iron coin bank the size of a pack of cigarettes, in the shape of the Flatiron Building -- was $550. The price scales here are geared for the rich. I saw a sofa version of Arne Jacobsen's famous egg chair in a Copenhagen department store for $40,000 a few years ago. That's absurd.

This is truly one of the biggest failures of modern design: it's unattainable. I noticed that a chair I grew to loathe growing up is back --
Thanks, Design Within Reach. They offer this blurb:
"Robin Day embarked on a design career after World War II in a spirit of optimism, and that elan is blazingly apparent in his pathbreaking Polyside Chair (1962). When Day discovered the economic, structural and aesthetic virtues of injection-molded polypropylene, he began to design furnishings that made it possible for ordinary Britons at work, school and home to have comfortable, affordable, colorful and enduring chairs that were lightweight as well as stackable. One of the best-selling chairs of all time and winner of numerous awards, the Polyside remains a model of industrial ingenuity. The chair is a single piece of injection-molded plastic on a tubular metal frame finished in black epoxy. The body has a fully rolled-over edge, an engineering detail that protects against over-flexing. Prefiguring ergonomic design, the seat back of the Polyside is gently cupped to hold the back comfortably, while the seat pan widens toward the front to provide ample space for the lower body. More than 40 years later, the Polyside, which has passed the highest standard of commercial testing, still looks fresh. Made in England."
Yeah, but can ordinary Britons afford it now at $98 each? I mean, wasn't the brilliance of these materials -- tubular metal and injection-molded polyproylene -- their affordability? These chairs were everywhere when I was growing up; these or variations on these. And now they're back as hipster design fetish items.

East Village Dogs

I found this pair of front stoop hounds on Seventh Street between First and Second Avenue in the East Village. The rest of the building was ornate too, but not nearly as strange.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

We'll Need Ten Grand if You Want to Air That Ringtone

On The Media, NPR's weekly radio show about ... the media, had a couple segments this morning about plagiarism and copyright.

Brooke Gladstone interviewed Amy Sewell, a filmmaker who had a terrible time getting her documentary Mad Hot Ballroom made because of all the bureaucracy with intellectual property. In one case, Sewell filmed a woman walking down the street. Her cell phone rang -- the Rocky theme --and Sewell had to clear it with Sprint and with EMI which owned the rights to the song that the rigntone played. It was six-seconds of a phone ringing. EMI wanted $10,000. Sewell talked them down to $2,500. Later in the show, legal experts laugh about that, saying it was "a classic fair use" case.

The nastiest example was how the rights holders of C+C Music Factory's "Everybody Dance Now" wanted $10,000 to let Sewell use a scene she filmed in which a child yells out "everybody dance now." (You may recall C+C Music Factory was shamed when the slim Zelma Davis appeared in a video lipsynching to the rotund Martha Wash's vocals. She had been told that she was too fat to be in the video.)

One of the legal experts Gladstone interviewed was Duke University law professor James Boyle, one of the founders of Duke's Center for the Study of the Public Domain. (The Center's website is great -- worth browsing.) Boyle said in nasty cases like the ones Sewell had to deal with, it's "not so much the law ... it's the culture around the law." Meaning zealous rights holders are intimidating people and overstepping their bounds.

Boyle talks about the "permissions culture," which he describes as "the assumption that you have to pay for every fragment of copyrighted material where ever it appears whether in a movie or any other context, that the rights holder gets to control every use, no matter how tiny, no matter how fleeting, no matter how accidental."

Fordham University's Hugh Hansen says it started with big movies clearing rights to things they didn't really have to get permission for. They did it "to make everyone happy." Hansen says everyone got used to this and began to expect it, even though it isn't legally necessary. Remember, we're talking about documentary films. This should fall under the heading journalism.

James Boyle and two others made a comic book called Bound By Law in which a crusading filmmaker, "trapped in a struggle she didn't understand" made documentaries by day and fought for fair use by night. Naturally, the comic book is free to download and distribute. The comic book poses all sorts of questions -- do you have to get permission from someone if a piece of art appears in a shot? What about a tv program in the background of a scene shot in a bar? And if someone sings "Happy Birthday"? It's scary stuff.

I found a link on the Public Domain Center's resource page to Columbia Law School's Music Plagiarism Project. I started looking at a case in which the band ZZ Top sued Chrysler for using the song "La Grange" in an ad for the Plymouth Prowler. The website includes full video of the commercial and an mp3 of the song. Clearly, Chrysler used ZZ Top's song. Why would you do that without permission? Aha! In the words of the judge, "[the] defendant has conceded that it copied La Grange , but challenges the originality and copyrightability of La Grange."

Why? Let's look at an earlier case. La Cienega Music Co. v. ZZ Top. John Lee Hooker's 1949 song "Boogie Chillun" (or "Chillen," it's spelled both ways here) had a guitar riff that sounds an awful lot like ZZ Top's "La Grange" riff. So in the 90s, Hooker sued for plagiarism. Problem was the song was in the public domain because only the sound recording was copyrighted, not the written music. Oops.

In the comments, a Columbia observer writes:
"The music in question is no more than a guitar riff, but ZZ Top also imitated the marginally coherent ramblings over this riff one hears in "Boogie Chillun." ZZ Top was mainly capitalizing on the earthly, "black" style of the plaintiff's song in producing a slick, pumped-up version of this sound (mass marketed to middle class white men but copyright does not offer protection from such capitalizations."

So the court didn't even hear the arguments for copying the song -- it was public domain. I would argue this: who cares? That's art. As I discussed in an earlier posting, this is how art develops and evolves. To say ZZ Top can't use a similar riff and vocal style is ridiculous.

Back to the Chrysler case. Chrylser argued that "La Grange" was close enough in sound to John Lee Hooker's song, and to Norman Greenbaum's 1969 song "Spirit in the Sky" that ZZ Top didn't have a case. [Funny they should mention Norman Greenbaum. I just bought an album by Goldfrapp that has a single (used in a Coke commercial) that has a very Greenbaum-esque guitar riff in it. Wikipedia claims she sampled "Spirit in the Sky," but that may or may not be true. If she didn't sample it, she's imitating it.]

But is that really an argument? You can't use a recording of my song in your commercial just because I imitated other songs. It's still my recording. So isn't that a separate issue? Unless Chrysler actually had another artist record the song. Which would be the height of sleaze. I can't figure out what happened. But the judge sided with ZZ Top, as he should have.

The Columbia website is fascinating. There's a case in which someone sued Britney Spears for the "Oops I Did it Again" song. Another, in which the Beastie Boys were sued.

When I read about all the music copyright cases, I have to say, the musicians are being total babies. There was another case where a band sued another because they used a phrase that sounded like one in their original song. Get over it. I have yet to see a music case where I side with the defendant.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Molecular Mixology

The New York Times had a long article about science applied to mixed drinks -- the Times calls it "molecular mixology" -- producing things like leather-infused bourbon, "a 'rum and Coke' made of rum powder from a flavoring company and soda-flavored Pop Rocks, for fizz," and using a class-4 laser to burn the essence of a vanilla bean onto a wine glass's surface before filling it with wine.

I've long been a connoisseur of bizarre beverages, and I've done a bit of experimenting with cocktail concoction. My greatest triumph was the Harrytini, a vodka martini with a green Chartreuse-soaked sugar cube -- until I found an alarmingly similar drink on the web, inexplicably named the Harry Denton Martini.

My newest creation: The Dexatrini, a martini with a Dexatrim Max2-0 effervescent tablet as the garnish. It's mixed berry flavor. Now you can combine the euphoric effects of alcohol with the weight loss benefits of Dexatrim. Go ahead, have another -- it's ephedra-free.

Norwegian Painter Escapes Murder Attempt by Crazed Swedish Playwright

There's an article about a new Edvard Munch biography in Policy Review in which I found this choice passage about Munch's estrangement from the Swedish playwright August Strindberg:
"The two split after Strindberg accused Munch of trying to kill him through magic spells. Munch received a postcard from Strindberg that said, 'Your attempt to assassinate me through the Muller-Schmidt method failed. Enjoyed the evening. Signed Strindberg.'"

Brilliant. I must learn this method.

[the portrait of Strindberg is a lithograph by Munch from 1896.]


Thursday, May 18, 2006

The Brilliance of Dom DeLuise

When I was in Sacramento a couple weeks ago visiting my friend Jennifer and my god-daughter Aurora, I went to a charity auction. I could barely contain my excitement when I saw a collection of autographed memorabilia from one of Brooklyn's greatest sons, Mr. Dom DeLuise. The great thespian and comic genius has appeared in such screen gems as Cannonball Run and Cannonball Run II.
I placed a modest bid ($10) on this collection of Hollywood history ... and won! Sadly, I had to share my bounty with Jennifer. She got the 8x10 but I got the full color postcard and a drawing by Le DeLuise.

That Asparagus Smell

"Only some of us have digestive systems that almost instantly turn asparagus into really foul smelling urine. And not everyone's nose can detect the odour, no matter how rank," writes Kenneth Kidd in the Toronto Star. According to the Star, we only figured out that some people don't "produce the smell" in the 1950s. But scientists don't know what makes the smell. Fear not: researchers are on this.

Further research, by Alan Hirsch, neurological director at the Smell & Taste Treatment and Research Foundation in Chicago, says: "Those who adore asparagus, it turns out, tend to be 'dramatic, theatrical people who like to be the centre of attention.' They're also 'lively, enthusiastic, flirtatious, provocative and seductive,' with a penchant for 'flights of romantic fantasy.'"

Sunday, May 14, 2006

New York vs. Art Students

It's always exciting when artists try to provoke the public and which ever administration. It can save unimaginative art from irrelevancy.

This time the Brooklyn parks commissioner took the bait, according to the New York Times. The exhibit of Brooklyn College students art at a city building by the Brooklyn Bridge "featured a penis sculpture, a caged rat and a sexually charged video" (and "watercolor paintings of gay sex," says the Seattle Post Intelligencer).

The college has been using the public building, a World War II memorial, for six years for these student exhibits. The commissioner was worried about families seeing the sexually explicit art.

The show, called "Plan B," eventually moved to the campus. The students set up a blog -- Plan C(ensored) to protest the park commisioner's locking up of the building -- with their art still inside. The student bloggers posted an article --more of an editorial -- from the Riverdale Press that said:

"The commissioner-turned-critic apparently didn’t like the image of a penis with homoerotic overtones or a video on Biblical themes that included sexually-charged footage of Eve in the garden. Next thing the students knew, a locksmith was changing the locks on the gallery, effectively impounding their work."

Hmm. You think it was the penis?

Student art is a strange thing. I went to a University of Minnesota student art show at the end of last school year. I went to see a friend's work, which I was relieved to find I liked. I found the art that perplexed me the most was art that was based on ideas more than on a combination of an idea and skilled method.

I walked by a young woman who was trying to explain her art to an older woman who must have been her grandmother. How do you explain plaster casts of your underwear and bras to a seventy year-old? She didn't seem to know either, but she was very ernest in her efforts.

There was a video installation projected ten feet high onto a white wall in which a woman recorded herself slowly shaving all of her body hair. Yes, that too. Being a good Minnesota boy, I dutifully averted my eyes. Instead I concentrated on the two men -- father and son? -- who were watching the video with an intensity that they could have been arrested for. And the older one was videotaping it. Sick.

So what is the difference between art and porn? I think part of it has to do with intention. Few people will label material created solely for sexual gratification as art. But then, these labels are a matter of personal opinion. Liberals will seldom contest labels "artists" give themselves -- we don't want to hurt anyone's feelings or trample on anyone's rights. But by being so generous, we open the category so wide we lose our bearings.

Back to the Brooklyn show. The students got even more upset when the parks department moved all their art, apparently damaging some of it. In an anonymous letter posted on the blog, a "concerned community member" wrote:

"For your information, your Art department was founded by people escaping fascist Germany for freedom here in Brooklyn. I am dumbfounded that artwork from the students of this same department has been censored by a government and removed by an academic administration that are entrusted, each in their own way, with protecting that important legacy. Then, continue the episode with the fact that the art was being exhibited in a hall commemorating our country's freedoms, as fought for by WWII soldiers (I am the son of a veteran!), and the whole event you perpetrated is vile. Those soldiers died for ideals obviously too grand for you or Bloomberg and Benepe and their cronies to understand or respect."

Any time someone compares art criticism or censorship to fascism, beware. It's a dodge and a cheapshot.

Both sides are being disingenuous. Orthodoxy in enforcing family-friendly content in public areas is silly and any time conservatives and officials cry out about obscene art, they are merely promoting said art. On the other side, subjecting the world to your self-indulgent sexual expressions is not your right -- don't be surprised when you rankle some codgers.

The first problem in a situtation like this is that the two sides didn't explain themselves to each other. They never got a chance because the parks commissioner simply locked the building and left. That isn't fair. The solution should have been a sign at the door saying the college art show was up for a few weeks, and that it had some graphic sex in it. Go in at your own discretion.

Discretion is what's missing from these debates these days. It's a good thing more of us don't have the power to shut down everything that offends us. Liberals need to be more realistic and stop acting surprised when penises and sexy bible stories offend people. Conservatives need to avert their eyes when they see something they don't like instead of petitioning to have it removed.


My New Map

I bought a big retractable map of the United States, the kind we used have in classrooms. It's about five fee wide and when unfurled, about eight feet high. I put it on my wall and I have to say, it really ties the room together. I found it at an antique store in the Lower East Side. I thought it would be a pain to carry on the subway, even rolled up, but it wasn't.

Looking at this huge map, you have to take a few steps to get from one coast to another. It reminds me of a debate I've had with friends from the "Midwest." Being a Minnesotan, I've always figured that the Midwest actually consists of Minnesota and all the states that surround it. So Minnesota, the Dakotas, Iowa, and Wisconsin. Sometimes Illinois, sometimes Nebraska. Michigan? Hmm. Rarely, but sometimes. So where does that leave Indiana and Ohio? Look at the map. They are clearly in the Mideast.

One thing that surprised me was seeing that Toronto is well south of the Twin Cities' 45th parallel. It looks like Canada is creeping in to our territory. I don't like it. Isn't there something we can do?

Friday, May 12, 2006

Plagiarism and Design

In an article in the excellent graphic design forum, graphic designer Michael Beirut says he was shocked when he realized he had imitated a Willi Kunz design from 1975:

"Did I think of it consciously when I designed my poster? No, my excuse was the same as Kaavya Viswanathan's: I saw something, stored it in my memory, forgot where it came from, and pulled it out later — much later — when I needed it. Unlike some plagiarists, I didn't make changes to cover my tracks. (At various points, Viswanathan appears to have changed names like "Cinnabon" to "Mrs. Fields" and "Human Evolution" to "Psych," as one professor at Harvard observed, "in the hope of making the result less easily googleable.") My sin is more like that of George Harrison, who was successfully sued for cribbing his song "My Sweet Lord" from an earlier hit by the Chiffons, "He's So Fine." Just like me, Harrison claimed — more credibly than Viswanathan — that any similarities between his work and another's were unintended and unconscious. Nonetheless, the judge's ruling against him was unequivocal: "His subconscious knew it already had worked in a song his conscious did not remember... That is, under the law, infringement of copyright, and is no less so even though subconsciously accomplished."

Here are both designs:

[Beirut includes a link to a copyright website where you can hear both George Harrison's and the Chiffons' songs and judge if he infringed.]

We all reference, we all imitate. Sometimes I'm surprised at how easy it is to recall someone else's words or style. Other times, I'll write something and then think I deleted it, so I'll rewrite it and then find the original (that's actually happened more than once) -- I'm always shocked at my inability to remember my own words accurately.

Imitation in art, sincere or unconscious is one thing -- and that's what Michael Beirut was doing -- but copying -- which is what Kaavya Viswanathan was doing -- is another. If Ms. Viswanathan's plots and themes were similar to a published writer's, that would be imitation. She copied, and then changed a few proper nouns.

Michael Beirut had an article in Design Observer about a year ago which dealt with a similar situation. In Designing Under the Influence he describes meeting a designer nine months out of school who had something in her portfolio that looked familiar. He wrote:

The best piece in her portfolio was a packaging program for an imaginary cd release: packaging, advertising, posters. All of it was Futura Bold Italic, knocked out in white in bright red bands, set on top of black and white halftones. Naturally, it looked great. Naturally, I asked, “So, why were you going for a Barbara Kruger kind of thing here?”

And she said: “Who’s Barbara Kruger?”

Okay, let’s begin. My first response: “Um, Barbara Kruger is an artist who is…um, pretty well known for doing work that…well, looks exactly like this.”

[This is an untitled Barbara Kruger design from 1987.]

“Really? I’ve never heard of her.”

Beirut figures one of a number of things happened:

One: My twenty-three year old interviewee had never actually seen any of Barbara Kruger’s work and had simply, by coincidence, decided to use the same typeface, color palette and combinational strategy as the renowned artist.

Two: One of her instructors, seeing the direction her work was taking, steered her, unknowingly or knowingly, in the direction of Kruger’s work.

Three: She was just plain lying.

And, finally, four: Kruger’s work, after have been so well established for so many years, has simply become part of the atmosphere, inhaled by legions of artists, typographers, and design students everywhere, and exhaled, occasionally, as a piece of work that looks something like something Barbara Kruger would do.

Turns out this debate comes up often in design. Beirut writes: "We've debated imitation, influence, plagiarism, homage and coincidence before, and every time, the question eventually comes up: is it possible for someone to "own" a graphic style? Legally, the answer is (mostly) no. And as we sit squarely in a culture intoxicated by sampling and appropriation, can we expect no less from graphic design?"

And then he links to a Design Observer article by his colleague William Drenttel called Bird in Hand: When Does A Copy Become Plagiarism?, which looks at two designs, photos, that feature hands with small birds perched on them. One of the photos is from a well-known photographer. The other, later photo, is a stock photo that a design magazine used for its cover. Drenttel writes:

"We all know that ideas come from many sources: they recur, regenerate, take new forms, and mutate into alternative forms. In the world of design and photography, there seems to be an implicit understanding that any original work can and will evolve into the work of others, eventually working its way into our broader visual culture."

But one of the photographers had made his career on pictures of birds in hands, and had published a critically acclaimed (in the design community) book on it. Why would a design magazine use a stock photograph from another photographer that looks so obviously similar? Bad judgement if nothing else.

So why, Drenttel asks, is written plagiarism considered more serious than design plagiarism? Good question.

Drenttel links to a 2004 New Yorker article by Malcolm Gladwell called Something Borrowed. It's worth revisiting in today's climate of Kaavya Viswanathan.

Gladwell begins by telling about a play that borrowed way too liberally from a real person's life, and then from a profile Gladwell wrote on the person. But further on in the article, he visits a friend who "works in the music industry" who plays him endless songs that resemble other songs in scandalous ways:

  1. The bass line in Shaggy's "Angel" and Steve Miller's "The Joker"
  2. Led Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love" and Muddy Waters's "You Need Love"
  3. Shabba Ranks's "Twice My Age" and Terry Jacks's "Seasons in the Sun"
  4. Wham!'s "Last Christmas" and Barry Manilow's "Can't Smile Without You" AND Kool and the Gang's "Joanna"
  5. Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and Boston's "More Than a Feeling"

This friend could apparently go on like that all night. And that's what music is about for him -- endless riffs on previous riffs. Gladwell writes:

"... if Kurt Cobain couldn't listen to 'More Than a Feeling' and pick out and transform the part he really liked we wouldn't have 'Smells Like Teen Spirit'—and, in the evolution of rock, 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' was a real step forward from 'More Than a Feeling' ... A successful music executive has to understand the distinction between borrowing that is transformative and borrowing that is merely derivative."

Couldn't that go for all art?

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

If it ain't free I won't read it

If I come to a website that asks me to register in order to read their content, I usually go away. If I do register, I usually make something up. I'll often use a phone number I remember from some lamentably successful advertising: 407-W-Disney. I'll tell them I'm a 26 year-old female that makes more than $100,000 a year, and that my business is "other."

That got me into trouble once. I was trying to read an article on a British business website. It had to do with the technology I write about at my job, so I decided to register, but I had to use my work e-mail address to get the password. I must have used an obscene pseudonym because the site's editor e-mailed me back within minutes, horrified by my cheekiness. I and everyone at my office would be banned from accessing his site, he wrote. I was being terribly unprofessional.

I wrote him a jocund reply saying I was only trying to read an article, and that I meant no offense. He was disarmed by my manners and admitted in his next e-mail that his website's qualifications for readers were very restrictive, and that he was thinking of doing away with them. I'm guessing his aggressive response to my registration attempt was the result of a whole heap of phony registrations.

Finding a way to track your readership while maintaining a relatively open website is tricky. I'll register for some websites, like the New York Times, because I read it every day. I can't afford to get it delivered -- as I mentioned in a previous post, a year's subscription would cost me almost a month's rent.

But I won't pay for the Times' "Select" service because I'm part of the generation of Americans who believe everything on the web should be free. Last fall I volunteered for the Times' Great Read in the Park, a Sunday afternoon event in Bryant Park behind the New York Public Library that has author readings, a used book sale, and panel discussions. A huge guy with freckles and a light, helmet-shaped afro came up to my post outside the panel discussion tent (where several Times columnists whose columns were now behind the "pay wall" of the website were talking on one of the panels). He was particularly livid about being denied access to Bob Herbert's columns, saying what good was Herbert's progressive platform if regular people couldn't afford to read it? This guy was so loud and indignant that several people outside the tent got nervous.

I agreed with him. But the problem isn't just one of democratic ideals, it's an economic one. We as web surfers don't see Internet writing as valuable because we cannot hold it in our hands. Being in the magazine business though, I keep hearing that if you don't charge for information, people won't think it's valuable. I'm aware of the irony of my writing all of this in a free blog, a blog that is ostensibly a replacement for a printed zine that I'm too lazy to produce.

But that brings me to another complaint: people have to register in order to comment on my blog. I don't like that. What that means is that the only commenter I've had so far is a friend ( who also has a blogger-based blog -- he doesn't have to sign up, he's already in the system. He also works in media -- the business side of it, even -- so I'm hoping he'll comment on this one. And I'd like to acknowledge baiting him with my post on the Minneapolis Star Tribune's ridiculous policy of charging its employees for paper copies of the very paper they write. What do you think, K?

Fizzy Sake and Bad Merlot

I got to try fizzy sake last weekend in Sacramento -- I was assured it's big in Japan. I liked it, and when I looked for a word to describe it, the Japanese woman offering samples told me it was refreshing. The product's distributor, a middle-aged gaijin, compared it to champagne. The brand I tried was Zipang, made by the Gekkeikan company.

The bubbles in sparkling sake are made, according to Sake-World this way: "Fermentation is halted earlier than is usual, when the alcohol is only around 5 to 10 percent, as opposed to the 18 to 20 percent of normal sake. At this time, there is still plenty of sugar in the mash. The sake is then pressed and bottled. There, in the bottle, a secondary fermentation takes place that produces carbonation."

The New York Times now has a wine blog. It's called The Pour, and it's written by Eric Asimov. It's surprisingly interesting. In a May 9 post he tackles merlot, a variety that I learned was bad from the movie Sideways. I tried a merlot last weekend, and I thought it was good, but I'm not very sophisticated. Asimov says that merlot really is bad, that it really does deserve its bad reputation. However, he's found some good ones.

Fox News, that old arbiter of taste, reported last year on the film's affect on wine sales in an article called Hell No, Merlot: 'Sideways' Alters Wine Market. Reading the article though, sales aren't down that much.

"California destroyed its own Merlot business a number of years before the movie was even released," said Chris Shipley, wine director for New York's 21 Club. "Customers have come to realize that the ones the growers were devising to fill this supposedly endless demand for the grape weren't very good. And so there's a fatigue on the customer's part. The craze is clearly over, and the movie was picking up on that."

The movie had a bigger effect on pinot noir sales, which are (or were) up more than merlot sales are down. Shipley warned that the same thing could happen to pinot if wine growers get too excited.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Militant what?

I found a bizarre story about a French organization called CRAV, or the Regional Committee on Viticultural Action. They have been, if Decanter is to be believed, wreaking havoc in the French countryside. That's right, militant wine makers. They bombed a France Telecom call center last week -- who knows why -- and they've been emptying opponents' wine tanks and bombing warehouses.

Dr. Vino explains their position on his wine blog:

"What do these disaffected winemakers want with their campaign of violence? Well, the status quo. Actually, a reversion to the status quo ante. The French government has been in a process of weaning table wine growers off of subsidies for two decades or more. Table wines, in this case, are a category of insipid wines that previous generations consumed in vast quantity. As French consumers have started to drink less, but better wine, the table wine producers face increasing difficulty in finding a market for their wines. Thus they rely on the state to issue a guaranteed minimum price for their wines and periodically request crisis distillations as they did earlier this year. (Appellation wines, which now account for over half of the wine produced in France, receive no subsidy and are left to the whims of the market, which of late have provided a bumpy ride)."

Beverage Daily wrote about an outbreak of CRAV violence last year before a General Assembly of Winemakers conference:

"The conference came barely 24 hours after dozens of masked militants armed with baseball bats stormed a nearby wine facility in broad daylight, smashed open the vats, and sent 730,000 litres of French wine gushing into the street.

"The attack marks the re-start of the campaign by militant vintner group CRAV (Comité Régional d'Action Viticole), whose attacks disrupted supplies of South American and Spanish wine moving through France's Languedoc Roussillon region before the summer."

It sounds like what's happening is that the French are drinking less wine, and they're getting choosier about it, which leaves the table-wine makers with cheap wine no one wants. Further aggravating the situation is the influx of inexpensive wine from places like Chile.

The Scotsman reported on CRAV tactics last year in an article titled French wine rebels employ brut force and dynamite. CRAV seems to like setting vehicles on fire. Apparently they've bombed government buildings in Montpellier, Carcassonne and Nimes. They've also bombed wine warehouses. They usually write "CRAV" on the walls of the places they attack.

Is there any American analogue to this? I can't imagine microbrewers setting macrobreweries on fire, but it's fun to imagine.

The Fisher Space Pen

When I told my boss I was thinking about buying a Fisher Space Pen to replace the swanky black chrome model I lost about 14 years ago, he recalled the apocryphal tale of two space programs: one which spent a million dollars to engineer a pen that wrote in zero gravity and another, which relied on pencils, that old-school zero gravity writing implement. Those practical Soviets.

Days later, after said boss purchased his own Space Pen in a covert ops-ready matte black, he alerted me to an article called The Billion-Dollar Space Pen that he found on The Space Review, an online forum for writing about space exploration.

Turns out -- if we're to believe The Space Review … I'm suddenly nervously aware of the Internet's tendency toward bullshit -- there is some truth to the Space Pen urban (galactic?) legend: in 1963, "several newspapers reported that the mission would carry two pencils that cost $128.84 apiece. NASA had spent $4,382.50 to purchase 34 of the pencils."

Why? "The pencils were made of lightweight, high strength materials that could be attached to the inside of the spacecraft. The pencil housings had been expanded so that the astronauts could use them while wearing their bulky spacesuit gloves. The writing mechanism inside the housing had been procured from a local office supply house and had cost $1.75 each."

The Fisher Space pen was designed and funded privately by Mr. Paul Fisher. He asked NASA to endorse it and approve ad copy about it, but they didn't. But NASA was already planning to use Fisher's AG-7 pen on a future mission.

Fisher's website gives the clean version of the story, focusing on the AG-7.

The Space Review article, written by Dwayne A. Day, has in-text links to NASA documents about the Space Pen. Day's conclusion:

"The Million Dollar Space Pen Myth is just that, a myth. The pens never cost a lot of money and were not developed by wasteful bureaucrats or overactive NASA engineers. The real story of the Space Pen is less interesting than the myth, but in many ways more inspiring. It is not a story of NASA bureaucrats versus simplistic Russians, but a story of a clever capitalist who built a superior product and conducted some innovative marketing. That story, however, is a little harder to sell to a public that believes what it wants to believe."

Movie Review: M. Night Shyamalan's Signs

I'm watching the movie Signs, M. Night Shyamalan’s 2003 alien crop circle suspense movie starring Mel Gibson. The story starts immediately with a stone-faced Gibson discovering his kids in the cornfield with the family dogs, inspecting an elaborate series of crop circles.

There’s a great shot a little bit later where we see the family car driving from a bird’s eye view, in which the roads and crops and buildings echo the patterns of the crop circles. The director is setting up the circles as maps, and he does it well.

We learn pretty quickly that aliens are the most likely culprits for the crop circles, and that it’s happening all over the world.

Joaquin Phoenix’s character, Merrill, has the idea that the circles are a hoax executed by "nerds". We understand that he’s scared and he’s trying to make the phenomenon sound mundane, both to calm his brother’s kids and to relax himself. He’s a jock, but he doesn’t act like one. He had an amazing minor league home run record, but he also had a nasty strike out record. Justifying the latter to a military recruiter and the town bully, Merrill has a telling line: "it didn’t seem right not to swing," which implies he only understands brute force.

There are a lot of terror codes here. They hear something(s) speaking different languages over the baby monitor. We see the director in a cameo as a lone “other” in this small Pennsylvania town. Who is he? My guess was that he’s a guy who accidentally ran over the matriarch of the family and killed her, and I turned out to be right. Did I know that subconsciously or have I just seen so many of these movies that I could actually write them?

So if the subtext of the movie really is terrorism, we have to ask, why would any terrorist group attack a rural community? Good question. Maybe the aliens have an answer to that. I mean, why the hell would the aliens hang out in small town, Pennsylvania? Think about and you’ll be able to come up with millions of reasons. That’s how paranoia works.

About 40 minutes into the movie, when it looks like aliens are making themselves known all over the world – Mexico City specifically – Gibson’s character, Graham, tells his younger brother Merrill (Phoenix) that there are basically two ways people see good (or bad) fortune: as luck, or as evidence of God. That is, as random chance or as a sign of something bigger. Now Mel Gibson the actor might say something here about ‘intelligent design.’ But we expect more of Mr. Shyamalan.

Graham goes on to say that the people who see things as random will be very suspicious and fearful of this UFO incident in Mexico City . Their belief system isn’t equipped to deal with something like this, so they worry. Merrill says he’s falls on the side of faith, but Graham delivers bad news. He was a reverend before his wife died – he’s since quit. He tells Phoenix about his wife’s dying words, which sounded like a random memory of one of Merrill’s baseball games. Random. “We’re all alone,” he tells Phoenix. He’s scared, but there is room for movie redemption. Why have a father who’s lost faith unless it could be regained? Ah, now we have a movie plot.

So what’s really going on? This seems strange:

  • Why would aliens care about a farm family?
  • Why can’t the aliens get through wooden doors?
  • Why is it the book about aliens that Morgan reads has an artist’s rendition of this family’s house, complete with three bodies in front of it?
  • Does any of this have to do with the dead mother?
  • And finally, are we going to be terribly disappointed when we learn the truth?

First, let me answer the last question: affirmative. In reverse order: of course it has something to do with the dead mother. She, near death, was not speaking nonsense at all, but giving her husband a coded message from God on how to defeat the one alien who stayed long enough to try to kill Graham’s asthmatic son. Whose asthma saves him from breathing in the alien poison. Question three: no good answer except that it furthers the suspense. Instead of answering question two – why can’t the aliens get through the most meager barriers – let me add this puzzle: how is it an invading force of aliens didn’t count on their allergy to earth’s most abundant resource (water)?

The best alien movie I’ve ever seen was an Australian film called Encounter at Raven’s Gate. It too deals with a rural family that runs into extra-terrestrial trouble. In that movie, we never see the aliens, and if my memory serves me correct, the term ‘aliens’ is never used. That’s the mark of a great genre movie: it ignores precedent. I mention this because Signs makes the crucial mistake of showing us the aliens. This is a mistake because no artist’s rendition can do them justice. They will always look silly in a movie that waits till the end to show them.

Adding insult to injury, the aliens are caricatures of the ones familiar to us from UFO lore: it’s as if they were propaganda cartoon versions drawn by a racist group. The ending is so silly that it makes the rest of the movie look like a vehicle for messages of xenophobia and Christianity. It’s hard not to read this 2002 movie in the context of America in late 2001. This movie appears to pander to the xenophobic fears of rural America, and the only remedy it offers is faith. That’s this movie’s intellectual failing.

War of the Worlds with Tom Cruise did a much better job of trying to blend an alien takeover story with a single father, two children subplot because it didn’t sequester the family for too long. And it showed the aliens (or at least their ships/machines) early enough that they weren’t disappointing. Signs' biggest failing is in its plot. It tries to do too much. It tries to be an ‘aliens take over the world’ movie but it fails because it focuses on one family. It tries to twist the typical ghost story, but it fails because most of the suspense is removed by the backdrop of alien world domination.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

How Kaavya Had a Team of Experts Write Her Groove

Here's how I think Harvard student Kaavya Viswanathan actually "wrote" her book How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life:

  1. Ms. Viswanathan was identified by a series of marketers as an ideal "face person" for a book deal: she's young, smart, an Ivy League student, and she fills a new market niche: chick lit about smart, hip, upwardly-mobile Indian-Americans -- a niche topic not yet stripmined by chick lit producers.
  2. Focus groups compiled a list of successful chick lit to use as base material.
  3. Ms. Viswanathan wrote an outline: part autobiography, part fantasy -- a sort of James Frey type of thing, but written only for the marketing team.
  4. The marketing team picked the best/most helpful chick lit novels collected by the focus group and used a cut-and-paste method to replicate Ms. Viswanathan's outline.
  5. A team of proofreaders changed the names in the cobbled-together manuscript to the names of Ms. Viswanathan's characters.
  6. A team of "editors" went through the manuscript and connect all of the sections of copied material, using Ms. Viswanathan's words when possible.
  7. Consultants of Indian extraction read through the manuscript to make certain enough Indian and Indian-American references and atmosphere are included to sufficiently flavor the manuscript different from mainstream chick lit.
  8. The final check is done by the original marketing team.
  9. The book is handed to Little, Brown.

Think I'm joking? Here's what PublishersWeekly's Sara Nelson said about book packagers:

"Enter book packagers, who traditionally respond to a perceived market opportunity by researching, commissioning and producing books for publishers. Our bookstores are filled with decorating and entertaining titles, film and TV tie-ins, many of which are sumptuously produced, well marketed and perfectly fine this way. But in recent years—and this is what is disturbing—the kinds of books packagers do has widened. As is now generally known, a packager called Alloy Entertainment not only shares the copyright with Viswanathan on Opal, but has had a serious hand in the making of some of the most successful YA books around. The packaging of Opal has caused a particular stir because it has been published, despite its young themes, as a novel for adults. Such "real" novels we consider to be personal works of art, or entertainment, anyway, not something produced by a committee awash in demographics."

The Chinese Invented Golf?

I cheered when I heard the Chinese were making a case for "discovering" America long before Columbus. As a Minnesotan of Norwegian ancestry, I was raised to believe that Leif Erickson landed on American soil long before that damn Southerner did. So I'll gleefully endorse any challenger to Cristobal Colon.

But the Chinese map of the world -- and America -- that was supposed to prove that a Muslim Chinese admiral and eunuch, Zheng He, hit American shores in 1421 was too good to be true.

The map was purported to be a 1763 copy of one from 1418. The story fizzled out, only rumors remaining.

But there's good news: the Chinese may have invented golf.

The Times Online reports:

"More than 400 years before Scottish shepherds began tapping a ball across the grass at St Andrews, the Mongol emperors of China were swinging their clubs in the game of “hit ball”, the Chinese Golf Association announced yesterday, in a ceremony at the Great Hall of the People where China’s leaders receive visiting heads of state and the parliament gathers once a year."

Of course -- hit ball. The evidence came partly from four paintings, partly from an array of carved rosewood clubs modeled after the ones depicted in the paintings. They show an emperor and his ladies using putters to put balls in holes marked with flags.

The Times continued:

"Cui Lequan, a professor of the cultural history working committee of China General Administration of Sport, compared “hit ball” with modern golf and quoted from a rule book written in 1282 to back his case. “If you read Ball’s Rules and compare that with the rules set by St Andrews in 1754, there is little difference.”"

Professor Cui suggests that Mongol hordes brought hit ball to Europe, where it was blended with a similar, existing game that became golf as we know it.

The Times reminds us that the Chinese invented the compass, gunpowder, paper, and printing. But there's more. Some cliff paintings discovered early this year "suggest residents of the far western Xinjiang region were skiing in the Stone Age." And a 4,000 year-old bowl may prove the Chinese invented pasta. And the fork. The word is that, like football (and golf for that matter), the Chinese invented the fork and then grew weary of it for hundreds of years, letting the West pick it up.
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