Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Drummer Hoff was Framed!!!!!

For reasons that, quite honestly, escape me one of the books I remember most from my very youngest days is Barbara and Ed Emberley's Caldecott Medal winning Drummer Hoff.  For those of you who may not be intimately familiar with this tragic volume, I shall provide a link - but in summary it is a description of the process whereby an early gunpowder era cannon was fired.  Wikipedia says of the art style that it evokes "both 1960s psycheldelica and Colonial American engravings."  I can't think of a better way to put it, myself.

The work is clearly a product of the sixties, both in its artwork, but particularly for the tone and anti-war message most people see in it.  I see something else, that doesn't seem to strike as many people, when they read the book.  Before going any further, here's the video:

New Hampshire public television, hosting the 1969 Weston Woods short film version  (Sorry, there are a couple of versions on YouTube, but they're either annoying or distracting.)

The video also has a teacher's guide associated with it.  In the guide it highlights three things that they think the children should learn from the book:  recognition of the horrors of war; recognition of the idea of division of labor; and following a sequence of events.

The horrors of war, to me, seems rather iffy.  There is no sense of desperation or contested achievement in firing off the cannon in the book.   If anything it looks far more like a celebratory event (until the final denoument, at least.) than anything I'd call war.  However, I'll concede the point, and admit that my own view is probably a bit skewed.  Further, for that time period in the American consciousness, an anti-war message is a likely intent of the authors.

The division of labor, and the sequencing of events are unobjectionable, and clearly a part of the work.

Where I feel that the teacher's guide fails is that it ignores the lesson that I seem to remember being most vivid about the whole work:  That blame, if not accountability, is going to flow downhill to the lowest member of any hierarchical organization in the wake of a disaster.  With every step of the sequence of events the reader is being reminded that the ultimate step taken was Drummer Hoff's.  Not only does this emphasize the sequence of events, but also places in the minds of the audience the sense that the person who must have been at fault was Drummer Hoff.

In short, this work is a masterful frame job for poor Drummer Hoff, providing us a concrete example in children's literature of the truism that Rudyard Kipling wrote in his poem The Hyenas:

"Nor do they defile the dead man's name - 
That is reserved for his kind."  

In this book poor, dead, defenseless Drummer Hoff is clearly, and relentlessly, saddled with the guilt for firing off the cannon and killing the squad that set up the weapon.  And no one cares to admit it.

As an adult, I find that message and warning even more explicit than I found it as a child - knowing that the sort of cannon ruptures shown in this work are usually the result of poorly cast weapons means that if there is any fault involved the most likely culprits are never named, let alone investigated nor called to account for their actions.  After all, why investigate further when we all know that it was hapless Drummer Hoff who fired it off?

I will close with some lines from another source, which may be familiar:

"This story has no moral; this story has no end;
this story only goes to show that there ain't no good in men."


Tuesday, October 23, 2012

How Drunk Must One Be?

Part of what's likely to be an ongoing series, asking the perennial question:  Just how drunk must one be for this to seem a good idea?

Today's example comes to me via Dr. Grumpy's Twitter feed, and describes a pair of Russian men who decided that they wanted to have sex with pocupines.

Enjoy your wince.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Mitt Romney and Individual Autonomy

Like most everyone else in the US, I have strong opinions about the upcoming election.

While I see plenty of room, usually, for honest disagreement on most policy issues, this election cycle has been particularly depressing for me.  The various clear-cut policy issues matter to me, and I feel, strongly that one of the general proposed plans of actions between the two parties is better than the other.   But I'm not about to touch anything substantive about that today.

Rather, I'd like to take a moment to discuss the moment I really began to see Mitt Romney not merely as a politician whose policies I disagree with, but a person whom I find terrifying to consider being in a position of power.

During the Republican primary process Mitt Romney began to battle his personality handicaps - whatever else one may say for or against him, he doesn't come off as a very warm, personal person in public.   Which isn't a fatal flaw to my mind, I don't particular care to choose my President based on whether I'd care to spend an evening with him at the bar.  But it is a factor with the public at large, and so he began rerunning an ad from a previous campaign that described one of the more human moments in his personal history - where he used his influence and resources to help an acquaintance find and be re-united with his missing teen aged daughter.

Here's a video of the ad, describing the situation and Mitt Romney's solution:

Based on what I've seen at various fact-check sites, this story has been presented in a fairly accurate manner. Before I go any further I feel I should make it clear, I do not criticize Mitt for wanting to help, nor for the goal of saving a 14 yo girl from a potentially horrible situation.  I am glad the girl was found, and re-united with her family.  For that matter, I'm not going to discuss the questions about the effectiveness or need for such help - that's all irrelevant to my gut reaction.

But the means of the help is horrifying to me.

First off, to be completely callous, 14 yo girls disappear every day in this nation.  What made this case different was that Mitt Romney had a personal connection to the family.  So, he felt the need to help out.  I'd be the first to say that it's normal, human and admirable to want to help people one has a personal connection to.  However, if you're running for the Presidency - I don't want to hear that your idea of helping people is to arrange a tiger team to look for one girl whom you happen to know personally.

Public policy shouldn't run on the same lines as private actions.  When talking public policy the problem wouldn't be "how can I help this individual girl?"  The question, or challenge, is:  "What is the root cause of this phenomenon, and can public policy be enacted to effect a change for the better?"  Actions focused upon an individual recipient are always going to be limited in their effect by the degree that that individual touches upon public life.

Secondly, the manner of the help that Mitt chose to offer is horrifying.  For a man who argues strenuously against public assistance programs for individuals, he had a shocking readiness to treat his employees at Bain as his minions without any autonomy of their own.  Read the transcript of the ad, again:  Bain was shut down, to free up the workforce for this quixotic campaign.  Even at the most benign, I have to assume that this became an unpaid vacation for the employees.  If there were the slightest pressure to make the effort to help this girl seem a mandatory requirement for the job things get even worse.

Hell, let's extend the fantasy even further:  assume that the employees were still receiving their salaries while they were schlepped off to NYC.  Travel, especially travel on short notice with no set return date, is a hardship for most people.  You have to arrange for people to watch your home, to take care of pets, or plants, mail has to be redirected - all those little details.  If you have a family it's even more disruptive.  Then there's the question of who was paying for the cost of living expenses while in NYC:  If it was being done on Bain's dime, well and good.  If it wasn't, if it didn't include a per diem for those little things that most of us buy every day without noticing, again - he imposed a financial hardship on his workers willi-nilli.

And all of this was in service of someone who, to be completely classist about things, had advantages that most of the workers at Bain never would and never will have.  In short, Mitt Romney treated his employees as if they were his minions, in the grand old pulp fiction evil mastermind model, existing to simply be automatons for his will - in the service of helping a personal friend.

If that's how he was willing to run his business, where to be honest, he has more incentive to keep his minions happy and feeling that their interests align with his - just how is he going to treat the great masses of people in the US as President?  Are we going to simply be more minions in the service of helping his friends?

Before you dismiss my concerns as class warfare, or hysterical scare-mongering, consider this:  We've already got one serious allegation of a company that was perfectly willing to tell its workers to take unpaid time off to go to a Mitt Romney political event.  Granted, this was at a Murray Energy subsidiary, and I start from the premise that Murray Energy is a blight upon the face of the Earth.  It wasn't something that Mitt set up, nor do I believe the candidate had any knowledge of what happened.  For that matter, I doubt that Murray, himself, knew either.  But the corporate attitudes are often simply a reflection of the attitudes of the higher ups, repeated and emulated by boot lickers going down the chain of command.

For that matter, the defense offered by the company spokesperson at the time is hilarious - if you're into Orwellian humor:  "Murray Energy Chief Financial Officer Rob Moore told Blomquist that the charges were untrue.
“There were no workers that were forced to attend the event,” Moore said. “We had managers that communicated to our work force that the attendance at the Romney event was mandatory, but no one was forced to attend the event."  
Newspeak at its finest.  And individuals being treated as automatons in the service of their boss' whims. Not even on the clock - but off the clock.  

Still think I'm simply being hysterical?

ETA:  I"m aware of the letter sent to the Obama campaign claiming that the complaints about the rally are false.   I'm also sufficiently skeptical to think that a company that can say that something is "mandatory" without recognizing that this means "forced attendance" would see nothing wrong with pressuring its workers to lie to try to cover up their misdeeds.  

Friday, October 19, 2012

Copyright, licensing, e-publishing, and Kodak or Am I the Only One to See the Parallels?

I'm in Rochester, NY.  One of the major institutions for the city is this little company called Eastman Kodak. With the money George Eastman made with his business he founded a number of institutions that are still vital to the city's public life, ranging from the Eastman School of Music, the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, the George Eastman House, and many others.  Further, the company also has been a major supporter for other institutions that were not founded by George Eastman.  Add to that the thousands of employees at Eastman Kodak, and the thousands more retirees in the area, seeing the company going down the tubes has been a long, drawn-out torture.

This week, Kodak announced a deal with the retiree's representatives to end their current retirement benefits package.  Concurrently the company continues to flail trying to find a new line of product to tie their star to, to give them a goal or direction to bring them out of Chapter 11 restructuring.  Particularly disheartening is to see that the company has decided that the previous killer ap that was going to save them - going very aggressively into the home printer market - was not going to work after all.  Again, not a surprise - I know I'm not the only person who questioned the optimism that was being brought to that project - but disheartening all the same.

I believe that Kodak's problems date back twenty years, or more.  And they can be summed up by one simple aphorism:  You can't hold back the tide.

Newsweek has announced yesterday that this December will see their last print issue.  Newspapers across the nation are suffering, and cities that used to have two or three daily papers may now be served by a single paper that prints on a less than daily schedule.  Digital publishing is here to stay, and for a lot of ephemera the buying public has made it clear that as a whole it's not willing to pay to support print editions of many former national institutions.  Until recently I hadn't been aware that the Christian Science Monitor hasn't had a print edition in years.

 Then there's book publishing.  The bankruptcy of Borders after that company's expansion (along with the expansion by Barnes & Noble, and the shift of marketshare to Amazon) was blamed for the mass eradication of the small bookseller finally got some people to admit in public that the market for publishing is changing from the old models.  Recognizing the problem exists is the first step, but it's not a sufficient step by itself, and working out a new model is going to be a bear of a solution.

I got my notification this week for the proposed settlement for the Texas et al v. Hachette Book Group et al. Case No. 12-cv-6625 price fixing lawsuit pursued by the State Attorneys General of 49 states.  I was disappointed by the fact of a settlement, because I happen to believe that the price-fixing of ebooks, and the way they're tied to such a large fraction of the hardcover price for the same volume should also be exposed. I simply find it impossible to believe that the costs for bringing an ebook to market are actually identical to those for bringing a paperback volume to market.  Quite frankly - transport, warehousing, and sales costs (both labor and associated inventory costs) are not of the same magnitude for the two formats, and anyone who insists they are, or should be, is insulting my intelligence.  I would have loved to see a trial where all the issues involved with setting ebook pricing might come out in front of judge, or jury.  Which, I'm sure, is one reason that most of the publishers involved have chosen to accept this settlement.

For the moment, anyone who claims that ebook publishing can exist without associated paper editions for most general market volumes is deluded.  But observe that caveat.   There are already places where for niche markets getting away from the major publishing house model not only makes sense, but works.  The market is changing and the major publishing houses, at the moment, are screaming and scheming to find ways to make sure that the newer model doesn't supplant the old model they already know.  There has been progress made - the general ebook retailer I use most often, Sony, has ditched DRM on its books, except in very rare cases where the publisher insists on it, still.  (I say general ebook retailer, because I'm a long-time customer at Baen's ebook website, which never had DRM in the first place, and still has what I consider the closest to ideal ebook policies that I'm aware of in the whole marketplace.)  With the exception (admittedly, it is a kiler exception) of the Kindle, ebook readers have gotten away from requiring proprietary formats.  But for the moment, I believe there is much progress yet to be made.

Particularly of concern to me is the upcoming Supreme Court case that's going to be looking at the legality of restricting after sales on the basis of copyright violations.  This case strikes me as having the potential to be explosive for all aspects of intellectual property rights.  Given the support the RIAA and MPAA can find in Congress and the Justice Department, I'm very, very concerned about this.

But the key thing about all this to me seems to me to be that there is a determined effort by the publishing houses to not simply avoid changes, but to force the whole market to declare that change is illegal, immoral and even fattening.  

I repeat:   You cannot hold back the tide.

Kodak invented digital photography.  Yet they never attempted to capitalize on that in a major way with the average consumer.  They did put out digital cameras, but those were never as heavily marketed as their film cameras.  There was fear that if there were a major shift in the marketplace away from film they'd be hurting their core business.  Which is, with the benefit of hindsight, a very valid fear.

What seemed shortsighted then, and insane now, is to believe that they alone could dictate what the marketplace would be or do.  The assumption that if they kept their digital camera offerings to a limited degree, they'd be able to force digital photography to remain a curiosity  and insignificant to the market in general.  In short, they tried to hold back the tide, and have ended up bruised, bloodied and in bankruptcy.

What's particularly ironic, if you like that sort of thing, is to think of how George Eastman made Eastman Kodak into a worldwide recognized product.  George Eastman did not invent the camera.

I don't believe that he, personally, even had much interest in photography until he discovered just how difficult it was for the average person to use the cameras of the day.  That not only were individual photographers being expected to have a functional understanding of opitcs that seems bizarre to the modern consumer; but for most people development was likewise a home-process using a number of noxious chemicals.   For most people who expressed a casual interest in taking home photographs, the reality was so daunting, and expensive, that they simply chose not to.

What George Eastman eventually managed to do was to bring to market a sealed camera with film in it that the home user could expose, not getting the same quality that a studio photographer might get in the same situation, and then send in to be developed at a central site.  There are some people who claim it was his Brownie that brought photography to the masses.

By making it accessible.

I can't help but see the contrast there with the decisions made by the Kodak board of the 70s and 80s.

I don't know what business model Kodak have might have used to better position itself with digital photography.  But I can't imagine that making the effort to control the emerging market wouldn't have had a worse effect than the one we have today.

I think that's a lesson that the publishing houses ought to be thinking on, too.