Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Run for the Borders: a Modest Proposal for Books and Music in the 21st Century

I like books, and I like music. Books have complex ideas rendered in text that can change the way you think; music has abstract expressions rendered in sound that can change the way you feel. Without stories and songs, life would be a very boring and frustrating place indeed.

I was born in 1974, and grew up in the 80s, and what I remember about books and music from my childhood was this: they were both relatively free. I spent many an hour at both my school and public libraries, poring over everything from reference materials about witchcraft to compilations of old folk song lyrics to The Day It Rained Cats Over Borneo. I spent an equal amount of time listening to the radio (AM radio and shortwave, no less!) grooving to the Axel F theme and Newcleus and UTFO, and lounging to Dreamweaver and Stranger On The Shore.

The reason I think of media and information as being relatively free is because that is quite simply my experience. It's only in modern times that we have begun to curtail media, to put locks and codes into it, to force its seekers to jump through a number of hoops before they can be allowed to have it. And usually, this entails money to a certain degree, but not as much as it entails holding down that mechanism of control, because more than anything power always acts to preserve its own encroached status quo. Put another way: it's not the fact that iTunes charges 99 cents a song that galls me. It's the fact that that system, now firmly entrenched, means that they can charge me whatever they damn well please. The 99 cents is a pittance; it's having to go through Apple to get to what I want that is the insult.

Intellectual property, in my admittedly less than humble view, is the invention of cowards who never had that many good ideas in the first place, and need a government hitman to protect the few ideas they have. No one corporation personifies this more than Disney, whom have actually made a very lucrative career out of rehashing the folk stories and mythologies of centuries past (The Little Mermaid, Hercules, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, etc. etc. -- with more on the horizon, including Rapunzel and John Carter of Mars). Unlike Alan Moore, whose League of Extraordinary Gentlemen reimagines these public domain figures from within its own set of parameters, thus leaving them free for others to use later, Disney hijacks the historical context of these stories in such a manner that no one can ever use Snow White, Tarzan or Peter Pan again without thinking of their "official" version. (To be fair, some are more effective than others; I don't think anyone is thinking of an anthropomorphic fox when they read Robin Hood. I would propose, however, that it happens more often than not.)

It also means that Disney gets to control what parts of their version of the public domain you get to see, and what parts you don't. For a good example, let's take a look at Song of the South, a Disney film based around the old Negro folk tales of Uncle Remus. It's never been released to video in the US, due to 'racially insensitive' material. Keep in mind that this is the same Disney that had no qualms casting Eddie Murphy in Mulan, or reimagining the the history of Native Americans in Pocahontas. In fact, one could make the argument that they refuse to release the film to video because it portrays minorities better than the films they've made since.

Two items in the news have given me the impetus to talk about these ideas. First, this article about a woman who has been charged nearly two million dollars in payments to the RIAA for pirating music. Two million dollars! Let's do some math here: the average number of songs on a CD is about 12. So let's take the 1700 songs this woman shared and divide it by 12.5: that's 136 compact discs. Assuming the average price of a CD to be $12.95, that gives us a whopping total of $1761.20.

So where does the 1.92 million dollar price tag come from? Well, remember that our unfortunate pirate was sharing said music, not just downloading it, which is how the RIAA justifies the losses. But let's do a little more math: $1.92 million divided by $1761.20 leaves us with the result that Thomas-Rasset would have had to share every one of those songs with 1090 people. You should have such good upload speeds!

(The pendantics among you will no doubt point out that since peer-to-peer is a non-linear mode, she could have uploaded them to, for example, only five people, whom then could have uploaded them to 218 people each, and the same effect is had. However, I would counter that she's hardly responsible for what other people decide to share. If someone sells a chef's knife, and the buyer uses it to stab someone to death, the knife salesman isn't going to be charged as an accessory.)

The point the RIAA is making here is that control of the distribution of music media is their firm purview, and infractions will be be met with the severest punishments. This brings me to item number two: apparently, Amazon doesn't even know its own DRM policy for Kindle. I'll admit I don't know much about Kindle, and the reason I don't is because I largely eschew e-books. Not that I haven't used them; I have an Acrobat Reader on my old Palm Tungsten C, and CDReader for comic books on every computer in the house (word to the wise: invest in a pivot monitor).

Still, I find it unnerving that you have to repurchase digital media when your number of licenses runs out. I'm actually borrowing a few books from acquaintances right now; thankfully, I don't see blank pages when I open up the tomes because I haven't been registered with the publisher. Again, this seems to me not to be a matter of the money; after all, if it was, they'd charge for every copy of the book on every device. They don't do that. They give you an arbitrary number of licenses for an arbitrary number of devices (six? I'd love to know what process that number was derived with), which are themselves open to wide interpretation so long as you're willing to jump through the customer service hoops. That's the point: they don't want you to pay more, they want you to jump through hoops.

Well, I don't want to jump through hoops. I am a grown-ass man.

So here's what I'm proposing: start stealing. I don't mean the mamby-pamby pseudo-stealing on the internet that everyone does and everyone has resolved is okay because nobody gets hurt. I mean real-ass stealing: shoplift CDs, and walk right out of the Barnes and Noble with a cookbook. So what if you get caught? Here's the facts: Shoplifting fines vary from state to state, but on the whole items under $300-$500 are considered petty theft. That means: you'll be fined for what you stole (usually only up to about double what you stole) and you may have to do jail time or community service.

That may sound harsh, but go back to that $1.92 million from earlier in the article and compare the two. One goes on your permanent record; the other permanently ruins your life. Which seems like less of a punishment? The industry has tipped its hand: they're far more worried about intellectual property than actual property. And why wouldn't they be? Once the records and books get to the shelves of your local Wal-Mart, they've already got their money; it's someone else's problem. By stealing their records and books, you're actually supporting the artists!

We must therefore cease all this downloading nonsense. The convenience of the the 21st century gadget society is no longer convenient. Let us return to CD players and bookshelves, and loot the stores like a New Orleans Katrina refugee.

Friday, June 19, 2009


"I don't get it," I said, "I'm taking on red-level quests now and just flying through them. I even accidentally killed the boss from the next quest in the chain."

"Yeah, sounds about right," he said. "Face it, dude, you're ready for PvP."

"But I hate PvP," I protested. "The whole reason I play World of Warcraft is because I despise interacting with people. I don't want to romp around with a bunch of twelve-year-olds with the collective linguistic skill of a capybara."

"You're preachin' to the choir there," he countered, "but you've said it yourself: PvE is too easy. Levelling up isn't doing it for you. Even your vaunted soloing of 5-man dungeon crawls are getting boring. What else is there?"

I sighed. "Fine," I said, "I'll give it a try."


The Arathi Basin began to fill up with Horde preparing for battle. Visibly nervous, Oa tried to hide her inadequacy by handing out buffs to everyone; she figured it was a polite thing to do.

"You there, paladin!" yelled a mage. "What do you think you're doing?"

"Uh," stammered Oa, "I was just, y'know... figured I could help..."

"Blessing of Might is a melee buff," huffed the mage. "Do I look like a melee combatant to you?"

Oa felt like an idiot, but before she could respond, the gate opened. The Horde poured into the valley, splitting off into groups in order to capture the resource positions. Oa was rapidly left standing alone, having no idea what to do. She felt her heart jump to her throat. Stupidly, she stumbled out of the gate and ran towards the nearest outcropping of rocks to hide behind.

She could hear the sounds of battle over the ridge. Her teammates were engaging the enemy, and here she was cowering and hoping no one would find her. "I'm pathetic," she cursed herself. "Some paladin I am. I'm supposed to be a natural leader, but the only courage I have is when I'm fighting predictable foes. I'm a phony."

She heard a sound, a footstep. Timidly she peered over the ledge. There was a night elf on a cat mount; she hadn't even realized until then that she could use her mount. "He's alone," she thought to herself, "and he looks like a hunter. If I can surprise him, I might be able to take him." Steeling her reserve, she summoned her warhorse; the mighty steed leapt from behind the rocks with a fierce whinny.

"What the-" said the night elf aloud. He panicked and ran; Oa gave chase. Through the basin the hunter zig-zagged, trying to shake the paladin, but she stayed with him.

He rounded the stable house, disappearing from view. As Oa came around after him, he leapt off of his mount, sending his pet in to attack her. "Surprise!" he shouted, firing a volley of arrows at her -- and that was when Oa saw his teammate, another paladin, rushing up on her. Three against one.

Oa froze with fear for the briefest moment. She swung her Sword of Omen, let Judgements and Consecrations fly, tossed dynamite willy-nilly into the fray. She encased herself in a bubble and healed frantically. Her strategy was nonexistent; she was quite simply doing anything and everything she could to stay alive. The only driving force of her actions was the sheer terror of death.

Then it was over, and Oa was panting, and sweating, and she felt on the verge of tears. She heard another noise behind her and swung around; it was a blood elf, like her -- a hunter by the looks of him, walking up to where she stood. Behind him were a troll shaman and a tauren druid.

"Whoa," said the tauren, looking over the battlefield. At Oa's feet, three corpses laid bleeding into the fertile green earth.

The troll whistled. "Three on one," he said. "Pretty impressive."

The hunter said nothing, regarding Oa for a moment, then offering a simple nod.

Oa averted her eyes from them; she couldn't look them in the face. There was nothing heroic about what she had done -- she had moved from a position of cowardice to a position of backstabbing, and gotten in over her head, and got lucky. Saying nothing to the group, she mounted her steed again and rode away in a random direction, wanting only to get away from the site as quickly as possible.

The three Horde got on their mounts and followed her. She stopped, turning to them. "Why are you hassling me?" she demanded.

"I'm sorry!" yelped the troll, looking embarassed.

"We just, you know," started the tauren sheepishly, trailing off a bit before coming back to his train of thought, "...we figured you knew what you were doing, so we decided to back you up."

"You're a paladin," agreed the troll. "You're a natural leader."


"So you liked it, then."

"I had a blast," I said. "I don't know why I waited so long. I didn't do incredible, but I was in the top third of the rankings."

He laughed. "I knew you were going to love it. Don't get me wrong, PvE and dungeons have their place, but if you're not doing PvP, you're missing the greatest challenge."

"This may be hubris," I pondered, "but I almost feel like I know what real war feels like. Of course, I was never in any true danger; it's just a game. But for a game, it managed to scare me pretty shitless. Real combat isn't scripted. It's stochastic, like an earthquake."

"And like an earthquake," he added, "all you can do is ride it out and try to stay alive any way you can."