Has Copyright Law Ever Worked?

August 20, 2010

Thanks to the Arts & Letters Daily news feed, I came across this interesting article, which suggests that even back in the 18th and 19th centuries, copyright law both stifled innovation and did little to help authors make money from their writing. Even back then, it mainly benefited the publishers. I don’t know whether or not its claims are actually true, but I find most of them plausible, given what I know of copyright in the modern day.


October 29, 2009

Today I finished the most important part of the Junior Poet project: an annotated bibliography of the criticism on Gerard Manley Hopkins (for which I read and commented on 6 books and 22 articles). It wasn’t actually that much work – maybe 2000 pages of reading spread across two months, plus writing a paragraph about each work read – and was certainly amusing at times. I do feel sorry, though, for those who are only halfway done, given that it’s due on Monday – that gives them four days to read 1000 pages. Doable, but not fun.

One strange fact: I actually enjoy reading deconstructionist literary criticism. It is often absurd, yes, but also often has fascinating insights; and they often talk about how language can convey meaning, a subject I find fascinating. Wikipedia describes deconstruction as “rigorously pursu[ing] the meaning of a text to the point of undoing the oppositions on which it is apparently founded, and to the point of showing that those foundations are irreducibly complex, unstable or impossible”; what exactly is wrong with that, done well? It can result in absurd theories, but is often more insightful than the other two main types of criticism I saw, those being “just read the poem and closely analyse the metaphor and language used so that we can rephrase the poem in philosophical language” and “look at the philosophical/literary/cultural influences on the poet and then try to find evidence of their having influenced the poet in the poems themselves.”

So, uh, yeah. Anyone else have anything insightful to say about different types of literary criticism? If not, you probably won’t be hearing about JPo from me until I get around to writing a post analyzing “Spelt from Sibyl’s Leaves.”

Alice and Bob is Married

September 20, 2009

Several friends of mine are taking Symbolic Logic this semester, and one of them has brought to my attention something somewhat bizarre. His textbook, it seems, treats “and” as if it is never equivocal. Just intuitively, this seems wrong.

Take these two examples: firstly, “The lines A and B are parallel,” secondly, “Alice and Bob are Moroccan.” In normal English, the first example almost always means that the lines A and B are parallel to each other; re-phrased unambiguously, one would say “The lines A and B are parallel to each other.” But in normal English, the second example almost never intends any connection between Alice and Bob, except for their both being Moroccan; it could be re-phrased “Alice is Moroccan and Bob is Moroccan.”

Even worse, though, there are some words that can be taken either way by a reasonable person. Take the sentence “Alice and Bob are married.” Usually this means “Alice and Bob are married (to each other).” But I could imagine a situation where it meant “Alice and Bob are married (to Charlie and Deborah, respectively).” The word “and”, it seems, can be ambiguous even knowing the definitions of all the words in the sentence – while the textbook writer for this Symbolic Logic class wants to claim it is never ambiguous, ever!

It took a few minutes of thinking for me to figure out exactly how to phrase the ambiguity formally, but here it is. “A and B are C” can mean one of two things. Either “A and B are C” = “A&B are C” = “(A is C)&(B is C)”, or “A and B are C” = “{A,B} is C” – the collection of objects {A,B} possesses a quality, namely C. This is what we mean when we say “line A and line B are parallel,” or “Alice and Bob are married (to each other).”

In other words, we use “and” to do two different things – to apply attributes to multiple things at a time (what we do when we mean “A&B are C”), and to associate things into groups, and then talk about the groups (what we do when we mean “{A,B} is C”). And there’s no way to distinguish between the two without context.

There’s an easy way to fix this, of course. Change the grammar so that when we mean “{A,B} is C”, we don’t say “Alice and Bob are married” – we say “Alice and Bob is married.” It makes sense; after all, we don’t mean “Alice is married and Bob is married,” we mean they can be considered as a unit – “Alice and Bob” – and that unit is married. Is. Not are, because it’s one thing. It’s a set containing two elements, but it’s still a single set.

of course, we’ll never actually talk like this. It sounds stupid. “Alice and Bob is married”? But it does eliminate considerable ambiguity. It’s worth thinking about.

Lying Minds

June 25, 2008

It’s strange how our brains lie to us sometimes.

For example, for some unknown reason, I was under the vague impression a few years ago that Baruch Spinoza, the 17th-century Dutch philosopher, was somehow related to the constructed language Esperanto. This belief was, of course, baseless, and as soon as I thought about it for two seconds and browsed the wikipedia pages of each that became quite clear. I still, however, subconsciously link the two, and so my gut response to the question of “who thought up Esperanto” is going to be “Spinoza”, and I’ll have to consciously correct myself. Presumably with time this will correct itself, but for now, my brain insists on this link between these two unrelated things.

I think  the fact that our brain is able to do this probably encourages the belief that we somehow have a
mind that is separate from our brain. There is this obvious (if actually non-existent) interplay between our brain, which we think of as functioning as a kind of storage and retrieval system, and our mind, which does the actual thinking – and the brain, we think, can give false information the the mind – when it does this is the brain’s fault, not the mind’s. This makes us want to say, for example, that we could somehow take our consciousness and transplant it to another body and “we”, meaning our consciousness abstracted from our brain, would somehow take control of that body. Really, it’s another example of gnosticism.

This distinction is, of course, absurd. Scientifically there is no basis for it, and neither does religion provide one – at least not the Catholic religion. The person, for the Catholic, is both body and soul, and the soul is intimately intertwined with the body – separating the two leaves you without a complete person. (I suspect that the state of the soul is somehow reflected in the physical state of the brain – this would mean that even if you could observe the process of decision-making in the brain before the person was conscious of their decision, it would not mean that the decision was not freely arrived at by the soul – but I know of no doctrinal support for this belief.)

Yet many of us, whether atheists, Christians, or something else, approach life as if this were the case. I suspect this is because we are predisposed to do so given how we can observe our brains lying to us – even if the distinction between “brains” and “us” is completely meaningless.


April 26, 2008

I recently watched the movie Se7en. It was… well, a decent movie, but I have a serious problem with it.

The basic premise of the movie is that there is a serial killer trying to send a message of repentance. He killed one man for gluttony, another for greed, another for sloth, another for lust, etc. The seven deadly sins. And so in an attempt to learn more about his psychology, the cops themselves read Dante’s Divine Comedy, some Aquinas, some medieval morality plays, and so on. They even eventually catch him by scanning the public library records and seeing who had checked out all those books and books on serial killers. Makes sense, right?

Well… no. The thing is, the concept of the seven deadly sins is damned simple – there’s seven of them, namely lust, gluttony, avarice, sloth, wrath, envy, pride, in ascending order of seriousness. You don’t need any research to learn that. What the killer would have found from those books was what exactly those sins mean. But there seems to be no evidence that he did – the person he punishes for pride isn’t guilty of pride at all, but rather vanity – a sin most people see as the same as pride, but which according to the seven-deadly-sins system is not at all the same.

The one thing he did seem to get from them was the concept of contrapasso – punishing them with their own sins. But even this he didn’t really follow very well. The punishments of the gluttonous, lustful, and wrathful made sense, kind of – the glutton is forced to eat until his stomach burst, the prostitute was raped until dead, the wrathful main character was made angry enough to kill someone and then get punished for it. I didn’t really understand the punishment of the greedy lawyer, so I won’t comment on that. The supposedly slothful drug dealer was tied in his bed and allowed to atrophy – I don’t see how it punishes sloth to force someone to be slothful. There’s no evidence he was slothful before that was done to him. The envious had no contrapasso whatsoever – he just got himself shot. And the vain model who supposedly was prideful was forced to choose between disfigurement and death, and chose death – a sin, sure, but that’s not what pride is, I don’t think. She didn’t die in an act of pride, she died in an act of envy, I would say…

Anyway, the point is, there’s no reason the killer would have had to read all those books to get the idea of killing one person for each of the seven deadly sins. He didn’t seem particularly erudite to me.

So why was that element inserted into the plot? My suspicion is that it is because many people don’t even know that much about the seven deadly sins in the first place. To them, what he was doing did seem to require a great deal of education. At UD, we read Dante, we read Milton, we read Aquinas, and we were kind of laughing at the movie and how the murderer didn’t really seem to be using the source material at all. (We also tried to draw connections between the actual punishments of sinners in the movie and Dante, but alas, there were none to be found. If there were, it would have made the movie much more interesting, in my opinion.) But most people don’t, and so it probably would have seemed mysterious and intellectual.

I suppose this is more of a problem with our culture in general than the movie itself – we no longer can write a book or movie and expect the audience coming in to have already read Homer, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, and many others. That’s probably an unfortunate side-effect of books and movies no longer being written for the upper classes, for people who could afford to get an actual education and had the time to read those things, but rather geared towards a general audience…

Thinking about Thinking (about Thinking)

April 19, 2008

We recently read Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics in my philosophy class (“Philosophy and the Ethical Life”, the first of three required philosophy courses at my school). Among many other interesting topics, in Book K, Aristotle discusses the “contemplative life”, i.e. the life of a philosopher, and argues that it is the happiest and highest life possible to man – indeed, it approaches the divine.

This is, for obvious reasons, an argument I’d like to find persuasive. Thinking as the highest form of activity? Sounds good to me. But… something troubles me about it. Actually, a few things.

First of all, in my mind, thinking is a linear process – you start with a premise and argue towards something. Once you’ve shown what you want to show, then, what are you going to think about? It would be like claiming learning was the highest activity – if that’s so, how does it make sense that at a certain point (unreachable by men, granted) you can no longer learn?

Of course, Aristotle’s definition of contemplation is somewhat different – you first learn something, through a rational sequence of thoughts, but then you just kind of dwell on what you have learned and don’t think about anything else. Aristotle’s God is the first mover who eternally thinks himself. Here, thought is basically a circle, not a line. (Interestingly, since contemplation is the highest activity, the bes thing to contemplate is, well, contemplation – so God ends up being thought about thought about thought about…)

Something bugs me about this circular definition of thought, though. It seems kind of, well, pointless. I suppose that, really, it has to be pointless – if it has a point, then that point is higher than it, and it cannot be the highest. But since it seems that thought, usually at least, clearly does have a point, it’s cheating to say that, despite that fact, true thought doesn’t.

A Defense of Brawl

March 13, 2008

So, Super Smash Bros. Brawl came out Sunday at midnight. A friend of mine bought it then, so I’ve had access to it for the last 96 hours. And I’ve spent way too much time playing it. (according to the game it’s been played for 40 hours, but I myself have probably only played for 10-15 hours. Which is still a lot.)

Sure, it’s fun. For those interested, my characters are going to be Zelda, Pit, Ganondorf and Wolf. I already knew how to play Zelda from Melee; I basically learned Pit on Sunday, since he’s a pretty easy character; I played as Ganondorf for a while on Monday, and I’ve decided I’m going to learn how to use him, but so far I’m not that great with him; I picked up Wolf yesterday and have played him exclusively since then, and have gotten decent with him.

But, I wonder, and perhaps you do as well… Is playing for 10-15 hours not a bit excessive? Am I not wasting my time?

I’ve thought about it, and in the end, I think – no.

Playing video games is justifiable in several different ways. I’ll look at three – (1) It’s a social activity, (2) it stimulates thought, and (3) really, what better stuff do I have to do?

  1.  Clearly Smash is a social activity (as long as you’re playing in a group, not by yourself). And it’s truly social, not like sitting in a room with a bunch of people and watching a movie, which is either a solitary experience in a group setting or extremely unpleasant. You interact with the other people playing – taunting them, allying with them against the leader, yelling raucously, and generally getting into the competitive spirit. If you accept that social activity is a good thing (and I think you have to – if we were not intended to participate in society, we might as well not be corporeal beings), Smash seems like a fairly good option as far as social activity is concerned.
  2. Indeed, I do think Smash is good for the mind. I have been gently mocked for using the term “strategy” in relation to Super Smash Brothers, but I think I had a point – playing Smash, or really any video game of decent complexity, does more than just train pattern recognition and quick reflexes. Take a stage like Hyrule Temple. It requires thought to decide when to go into the “cave of infinite life”, to decide when to charge the enemy and when to use ranged attacks, to figure out the best places to place mines, to decide who to target and who to avoid fighting (and this depends on the skill level of other players as well as the in-game situation). Really, Smash presents the players with a fairly complex system they must try to manipulate – and I think that probably helps with system manipulation in general. (I’ll stop now before it sounds like I think Smash should be taught in schools.)
  3. This isn’t to say I think Smash is the ideal activity or anything. But, really… what do I have to do that’s more important? I can only spend so much time every day processing knowledge, by which I mean the verb “reading” generalized beyond literature, or producing knowledge, by which I mean writing generalized beyond literature. I honestly couldn’t stand spending 100% of my waking hours doing that, and I don’t think it would be natural for me to do so either – like I said above, man is meant to be a social animal, not just a knowledge processing/producing machine. So I might as well play Smash. It’s better than going out and getting smashed.

That said, I could probably stand to spend a bit less time playing Smash and a bit more working on Orbivm, etc… and I probably will. I only played for 10-15 hours over the past four days because the new game had just come out. Isn’t not a permanent thing. Really. I promise.

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