May 14, 2009

Firstly, an amusing website: http://www.thepirategoogle.com/

Secondly, regarding the recent increase in piracy off the coast of Somalia; the one good thing to come of it, in my opinion, is that people are reminded of what actual piracy is. It involves armed robbery, hostage-taking, and death. Whether making unauthorized copies of a movie or song is immoral or not, it is nothing like actual piracy in its severity. No internet pirate ever killed someone.

Now, on to the Pirate Bay trial. So, the legal debate itself – whether or not providing links to copyrighted material is illegal when you are not providing the material itself – is interesting, but fundamentally irrelevant. I tend to think the Pirate Bay should have won the trial on legal grounds, but I can understand the case against, given current copyright law. Really none of that matters, though; what everyone really cares about is whether or not piracy itself is wrong. Is it even possible to ‘steal’ information?


Turin’s Manifesto on So-Called Intellectual Property

I like to look at this historically. It used to be that data was intimately bound up with physical property. Before the printing press, copies of books were made by hand; the book was valuable for its content, yes, but primarily because it was rare, difficult to produce, requiring hours and hours of painstaking manual labor. If someone wanted to make a copy of a book they had in their possession, they were free to do so; it would require a lot of work, and the new copy would certainly be theirs, since they created the physical artifact.

Then the printing press came along, and it became easy to make many copies of something – if you owned a large and expensive piece of machinery and could put in enough manual labor to produce a single copy of it. Making one copy and making a thousand copies required the same amount of initial effort, with little extra effort added for each copy. This made it so that, if someone wrote a book, they could publish it and make many copies of it, selling each of them for a slight profit – but that the few other people who had printing presses (not just anyone, since almost no one had such presses) could make their own copies of the book and sell them.

There seems something unfair about this; person A wrote the book, but person B profits from selling it because he just takes the text and prints it, giving nothing to person A. It was because of situations like this that copyright law was invented – giving a limited monopoly on the rights to print copies to the person who wrote the book. Anyone would still be allowed to make their own copies by hand, if they wanted to, but it would require so much effort they would be better off just buying a copy; copyright law’s purpose was to make sure that, when the common man bought a copy of a book, he bought one from the person who actually wrote it.

And copyright was for a limited period of time, because eventually the work would become public knowledge of sorts, and it wouldn’t make sense at that point to restrict access to it. That, or it would be forgotten, and it wouldn’t make sense to stop people from making copies of a book that would otherwise never be read. It’s better not to have laws that destroy knowledge.

In the last few decades there has been a radical shift in how easy it is to make a copy of something. Making an electronic copy of an electronic document takes seconds, and costs next to nothing, and almost any form of data – movie, book, song, whatever – can be made into a digital file. So when someone “pirates” something, breaking copyright law, they’re not anything like the people who set up printing presses to make money from books they did not write; they aren’t making money, the people getting copies of the books and movies and songs aren’t being tricked into paying the wrong person for the content; rather, data has been divorced from physical property, and people are beginning to act accordingly. When books had to be physical objects, it made sense to say that those objects could only be sold by the people who actually wrote the books; now, when books can be costlessly transferred online, it makes little sense to say they still must be paid for, and that it is stealing to create a digital copy of something and give it away for free. Again: Copyright law is a cumbersome legacy from a time when there was no way to transfer information except through physical property.

The basic point I’d like to make is that advances in technology require us to come up with different ways of encouraging the arts. Yes, the existence of internet piracy may cause a problem for the current music and film industries; that doesn’t mean we need to get rid of internet piracy, which is a natural result of the current state of technology. Rather, it means we have to find new ways of making sure artists can make a living from their work.

Before the printing press artists functioned under a patronage system; the poet Vergil, for example, was under the employ of the emperor Augustus. When the printing press came along books could be sold directly to the public for profit, and so capitalism and the arts became bedfellows. Now, with internet piracy making any profit from selling something along the lines of the current system dubious, a new system is needed. What it will be, I don’t know. But something has to change, and getting rid of internet piracy isn’t the answer.


Natural Talent

December 3, 2008
This is something interesting that I’m going to post here even though I wrote it for somewhere else first. On the Wesnoth forums, we’re discussing the question of natural talent, specifically in the disciplines of art and music. Is it actually natural? Are they related to each other? Etc. My answer to the (rather open-ended) question is as follows:
With respect to both art and music, I fall into the same category [as Eternal] – I naturally had above-average, but not exceptional skill, but was not motivated enough to actually pursue it, and so now I fall into the category of being better at it than everyone who never took it seriously, but worse than everyone who ever did take it seriously.

For music, for example, I’m pretty sure I was better than most people; in the school orchestra I would always make 1st chair (I play(ed) cello), make all-city and all-region, etc. But I never practiced more than an hour or so a week (they tell you to practice three). When I got to 11th grade, I kept playing it, but not as often because my high school didn’t have an orchestra and I had to take private lessons, which are only once a week and didn’t motivate me to practice as much. Now, I’m in college and haven’t picked up my cello for almost a year; if I picked it up now, I could probably carry a tune on it, be mostly in tune, and maybe even be somewhat musical in my performance, but I’d be much worse than anyone my age who played an instrument regularly.

So, right now I don’t consider myself an art or a music person, even though I sort of did when I was a kid. But it’s not that I wasn’t encouraged, or was disappointed by the realization that I wasn’t really very good and had a lot to improve (I knew that fairly soon) – it was more that I realized just how much damn effort would be required to actually become good at it, and decided I’d rather become good at other things. I could have tried to be a jack-of-all-trades, and become good at mathematics, writing, music, drawing, and maybe a few other things, but I decided to focus on a few.

And, actually, it really was Wesnoth that helped choose the things I would focus on – I started writing campaigns, and found I was decent at it and people kinda liked them, at a time when I was not nearly good enough at art to do portraits (though I tried for a while – the results can probably be found around the forum – and in theory I’m still trying to improve, just slowly) and nowhere near good enough musically to contribute (obviously – musicians here are amazing). So I kept writing, got better at it, and now am in love it and am willing to put a lot of effort into getting better.

I’m also a math nerd, though that doesn’t really show up on the Wesnoth side – but that’s also really more natural talent than actual willingness to put effort into it. I’m still doing math, and plan to major in it, but I don’t yet know whether I have enough internal motivation to keep me at it when I could be writing instead.

So, basically, (like most people here) I am fairly intelligent and, when you are young, that corresponds to being naturally good at most things you attempt. Art, music, writing, mathematics, science, whatever. It’s just a question of which ones you are motivated to get good at – because you can’t be good at all of them. I don’t think it’s so much a question of giving up on one, as of embracing another and thus necessarily abandoning the others along the way.

Back from Babylon

November 30, 2008

Well, Avignon. Over Thanksgiving Break I traveled there, to the site of the medieval “Babylonian Captivity” – when the popes lived in Avignon rather than Rome.

Why were they in Avignon? Basically, in 1309 a French pope was elected and, rather than traveling to Rome, which was dangerous at the time (Roman aristocrats constantly feuded over who was pope, with various intrigue, etc), he elected to stay in Avignon. The Curia and supporting cast moved to Avignon to accommodate him, and the popes stayed there until 1377. This resulted in the French king having a lot of influence over the Church – obviously, if the pope is in France, the pope can’t do anything the French king dislikes without fearing repercussions.

Now, I’d say the Babylonian Captivity was not a particularly bright spot in Catholic history. The seat of the papacy is Rome – they’re not really allowed to move just because the king of France will protect them (provided they do what he tells them to).

But, that didn’t stop me enjoying the fruits of that Captivity – there is a very cool Gothic papal palace in Avignon, and a city wall built by the popes that is somehow still intact. I guess there’s nothing wrong with appreciating the fruits of what we do not approve of… or is there? If there is, there are some issues with ever studying art, literature, music, etc, since any work not by an orthodox Catholic would be suspect. I don’t think we want to say that.

City Plans / Travel Plans

September 28, 2008

So, in my Art & Architecture of Rome class, we have been studying – you guessed it – the art and architecture of Rome. Specifically, I’m thinking about the Roman Forum. We went there last week, and one of the strongest impressions it left on me was that… it isn’t really very organized.

Each building is, for the most part, perfectly geometrical and symmetrical and uniform by itself, but the way the area is laid out, on the whole, isn’t. You kind of have a building here, a building there, some of them make sense in relation to the others, some don’t, but you certainly don’t have any overall geometrical plan. Here, check it out for yourself. The buildings are made almost entirely of right angles and curves – the forum, as a whole, is not.

I know this is kind of a silly concern. But it somewhat bugs me. If the buildings are going to put so much emphasis on unformity and proportion and geometry and suchlike, shouldn’t the city as a whole be more organized than this? I would almost prefer, if you’re not going to plan the city from the ground up and organize the entire thing geometrically, for the entire city to be done so that each building fit closely with its environment and, thus, for all the buildings to work together…

On a completely unrelated note, I’ll mention my travel plans for the rest of the semester, just for the hell of it, so people know when not to expect posts, and because it’s cool.

Obviously I’m in Rome right now. This is where I’ll be for most of the semester.

October 3 to 12, I’m going to be in Greece on an official trip (i.e. not much free time and we still have classes, but we’re traveling).

October 24 or 25 to November 2, we have “10-day” where we can travel around wherever we want. I’m going to be in Austria for at least a few days, and probably also see Munich, and this is really all I know right now. I’m still working out the details with the people I’ll be traveling with.

November 7 to 9, I’m going to be in Stockholm, Sweden, for a weekend trip. I leave at 6AM on the 9th, so it doesn’t really count; I have basically a day and a half there.

November 12 to 17, I’m going to be on a group trip to Venice, Florence, and Assisi.

November 27 to 30, I have “5-day” (even though that’s 4 days), which I will probably spend in Spain.

I fly back to the US on December 13th.


Art and the GPL

September 15, 2008

This was written by the art director of the Battle for Wesnoth project (i.e. Richard “Jetryl” Kettering) and it explains better than I could why Wesnoth uses the GPL for its artwork (well, more generally, why it uses licenses without no-commercial-use, no-derivations, attribution, or similar clauses, in the context of a discussion about whether to switch from the GPL). It’s kind of long, but I think definitely worth reading.

I’m just linking rather than quoting it here because getting the formatting to work right would be a real pain, and isn’t worth it. I know I usually don’t just give links, but this is something I do think you should read, especially if you’re somewhat indifferent about the whole idea of open-source artwork.

Reading Time (August)

August 2, 2008

This is the last month of summer, at the end of which (August 27th, to be exact) I will get on a plane and go to Italy for a semester of school at the University of Dallas Rome campus.

In the slightly-less-than-four-weeks until then, I am going to get myself a cell phone (shudder) for use in Italy, make sure I have enough money, pack, and do a bunch of reading. I went to the library yesterday and checked out A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess, Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (both of which I’ve already finished), Dracula by Bram Stoker, the first three books of A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin, and There Are Doors by Gene Wolfe (who is currently my favorite living author).

Now, much of my life seems to be an attempt to find a balance between, broadly speaking, writing and reading. By writing, I mean any sort of creative activity – doing pixel art for Wesnoth, writing a Wesnoth or Orbivm campaign, writing a short story or poetry. By reading, I mean examining the creative works of others – reading books, watching good television shows and movies. Obviously I do other things (watch stupid TV shows, actually play Wesnoth, waste hours hanging out on the Wesnoth forums), but these are the things I actually spend a lot of energy on and would spend most of my time doing if I were a super-human capable of doing only that and never relaxing. And these are two different kinds of activity, both rather mutually exclusive; it is quite difficult to read a book and write one at the same time.

One might expect that I would, to balance these, spend some time doing one and some the other in basically even amounts. But no; I tend to alternate between them, spending weeks at a time not managing to write or draw much at all but managing to read a lot of books, then switching over and getting a bunch of stuff done on Wesnoth but not reading very much.

In the month of July I managed to get a decent amount of writing done, finish standing-frame pixel-art for both the Arendian and Primitive Mann factions (which is a lot of work, for those who don’t know), and sketch out an outline of another campaign I’m working on (only half a scenario written so far, though). I have also, from May through July, completely animated the Marauder and Lavinian factions (which is a helluvalot of work – I had to draw over 500 72*72 frames, and even if each one only took a minute to do [while in reality each one takes between five minutes and half an hour, depending on complexity] that means over nine hours of difficult work).

So it only stands to reason that now, in a new month, after several weeks of constant writing and such, I have shifted over to the other extreme and feel a great urge to read a bunch of books and not nearly so much of one to draw a bunch of pixel art. Thus my going to the library and checking out over 2000 pages of reading material (and finishing over 400 of them in the next 24 hours).

So, while last month I was Haldric the Great, founder of the kingdom of Wesnoth, this month I am basically the opposite. What is the opposite of Haldric? How about a character from a different fantasy universe, a villain not a hero, and a dwarf not a human? I’m thinking of the villain from the campaign I am currently writing (though probably won’t get much done on in the next few weeks), Lokka, the lord of the northern dwarves. He is uninterested in creating things himself, content to only admire what his ancestors have already created. This is basically what I will be doing this month – reading the works of those who came before me, not actually doing anything myself.

This month, then, I am Lokka. (Obviously no portrait art for an as-yet-unwritten campaign, so I give you the generic dwarven lord portrait.)

Lokka, Lord of the Cavernei

Lokka, Lord of the Cavernei

The Form of the Bad

June 13, 2008

The three worst movies I have ever seen (and I could not have managed to sit through them without the help of the folks who did Mystery Science Theatre 3000) are Manos: The Hands of Fate, Plan 9 from Outer Space, and The Star Wars Holiday Special. What is amazing is that I can’t decide which is the worst. They are all bad in their own ways.

Manos’s main problem is the total lack of technical ability on the part of the film-makers. Put simply, they didn’t know how to make a movie. The camera-work and lighting are horrible, the dialogue had to be dubbed in afterwards, no scene is longer than 32 seconds beause of a horrible camera… I think that if the makers had actually known what they were doing, they could have managed to make a generic, fairly bad, but not terrible horror movie, but as it is the movie is nearly unwatchable.

The makers of Plan 9 clearly had much more technical skill, though there are still some odd parts where it suddenly switches from day to night even though its all supposed to be at one time, or you see a cardboard piece of scenery get knocked over. They make up for it, though, by having an even worse script – the plot simply makes no sense. Aliens… are coming to earth… to force humans to acknowledge their existence… and they’re going to do it by raising zombies? What the hell?

The Star Wars Holiday Special’s problem is that it has no plot to speak of. It’s just a variety-show-style series of songs, dances, cartoons, etc, none of which are any good, with a really stupid premise trying to hold it all together. This was by far the most boring of the three, because the other two at least had a plot that you could try to make sense out of (even if most of the time it was a futile endeavor).

Anyway, when reflecting on these movies, I am reminded of the first like of Anna Karenina; “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” I wouldn’t say that every good movie is alike, but these bad movies certainly do find many different ways of being bad.

It seems to me also that if there was such thing as simply “badness”, these bad movies would all be alike. That they are so diverse suggests that they are not somehow actively bad, they simply all lack qualities that would make a movie good. They lack different qualities, thus they are “bad” in different ways.

I know this is not an actual argument against the existence of bad, but it does suggest to me that bad is just a lack of good.

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