Wednesday, May 29, 2013
The Irony of Copyright Protection
In Copyright Protection That Serves to Destroy, Terry Teachout lays out some of the fundamental issues surrounding the preservation of art, in particular focusing on recorded sound:
Nowadays most people understand the historical significance of recorded sound, and libraries around the world are preserving as much of it as possible. But recording technology has evolved much faster than did printing technology—so fast, in fact, that librarians can't keep up with it. It's hard enough to preserve a wax cylinder originally cut in 1900, but how do you preserve an MP3 file? Might it fade over time? And will anybody still know how to play it a quarter-century from now? If you're old enough to remember floppy disks, you'll get the point at once: A record, unlike a book, is only as durable as our ability to play it back.Digital preservation is already a big problem for current librarians, and not just because of the mammoth amounts of digital data being produced. Just from a simple technological perspective, there are many non-trivial challenges. Even if the storage medium/reading mechanisms remain compatible over the next century, there are nontrivial challenges with ensuring these devices will remain usable that far into the future. Take hard drives. A lot of film and audio (and, I suppose books these days too) are being archived on hard drives. But you can't just take a hard drive and stick it on a shelf somewhere and fire it up in 30 years. Nor should you keep it spinning for 30 years. It requires use, but not constant use. And even then you'll need to ensure redundancy because hard drives fail.
Just in writing that, you can see the problem. Hard drives clearly aren't the solution. Too many modes of failure there. We need something more permanent. Which means something completely new... and thus something that will make hard drives (and our ability to read them) obsolete.
And that's from a purely technological perspective. They're nontrivial, but I'm confident that technology will rise to the challenge. However, once you start getting into the absolutely bonkers realm of intellectual property law, things get stupid really fast. If technology will rise to the challenge, IP owners and lawmakers seem to be engaged in an ever-escalating race to the bottom of the barrel:
In Europe, sound recordings enter the public domain 50 years after their initial release. Once that happens, anyone can reissue them, which makes it easy for Europeans to purchase classic records of the past. In America, by contrast, sound recordings are "protected" by a prohibitive snarl of federal and state legislation whose effect was summed up in a report issued in 2010 by the National Recording Preservation Board of the Library of Congress: "The effective term of copyright protection for even the oldest U.S. recordings, dating from the late 19th century, will not end until the year 2067 at the earliest.… Thus, a published U.S. sound recording created in 1890 will not enter the public domain until 177 years after its creation, constituting a term of rights protection 82 years longer than that of all other forms of audio visual works made for hire."Sheer insanity. The Library of Congress appears to be on the right side of the issue, suggesting common-sense recommendations for copyright reform... that will almost certainly never be enacted by IP owners or lawmakers. Still, their "National Recording Preservation Plan" seems like a pretty good idea. Again, it's a pity that almost none of their recommendations will be enacted, and while the need for Copyright reform is blindingly obvious to anyone with a brain, I don't see it happening anytime soon. It's a sad state of affairs when the only victories we can celebrate in this realm is grassroots opposition to absurd laws like SOPA/PIPA/ACTA.
I don't know the way forward. When you look at the economics of the movie industry, as recently laid out by Steven Soderberg in a speech that's been making the rounds of late (definitely worth a watch, if you've got a half hour), you start to see why media companies are so protective of their IP. As currently set up, your movie needs to make 120 million dollars, minimum, before you start to actually turn a profit (and that's just the marketing costs - you'd have to add on the budget to get a better idea). That, too, is absurd. I don't envy the position of media companies, but on the other hand, their response to such problems isn't to fix the problem but to stomp their feet petulantly, hold on to copyrighted works for far too long, and to antagonize their best customers.
That's the irony of protecting copyright. If you protect it too much, no one actually benefits from it, not even the copyright holders...
Posted by Mark on May 29, 2013 at 10:46 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, January 30, 2013
The Streaming Narrative
The NYT laments the sorry state of royalties paid out by music streaming services like Spotify.
A decade after Apple revolutionized the music world with its iTunes store, the music industry is undergoing another, even more radical, digital transformation as listeners begin to move from CDs and downloads to streaming services like Spotify, Pandora and YouTube.So I really don't know enough to comment on whether or not the whole royalty situation for streaming will pan out (or not!) the way some think it will, but the interesting thing here is the narrative.
The NYT credits iTunes with revolutionizing the music world, and in some ways it did, but only by making the revolution legal. The real shift began with file sharing services like Napster. One of the old narratives that the music industry endorsed was that if you liked a song and wanted to own it, you had to also purchase the 10 or so other songs that surrounded it on an album. Napster was free, and while it's ability to enable widespread music theft was probably the cause of its popularity, it also changed that whole album purchasing paradigm. You like "For Whom the Bell Tolls", fine, download it and stick it to that annoying Lars guy. No need to go buy the whole album. Apple, to their credit, realized that the narrative had shifted, and when they implemented iTunes, they allowed customers to purchase only the songs they wanted.
Like I said, the free downloads were probably the main cause of Napster's popularity, but the success of iTunes shows that the whole a la carte idea was also a key component. A decade later, and the narrative is changing again.
The thing that struck me reading the article is that free music streaming services like Pandora and Spotify, while providing truly minimal royalties, also shine a light on another narrative about listening frequency. Namely, once you bought a record, the music industry could care less how often you listened to it. But streaming services aren't based on sales, they're based on "listens" - the number of times you streamed a specific song.
I'm probably the last person in the world who should be commenting on listening habits, as I suck at music. I love it, I'm just bad at keeping up with this stuff and constantly go back to the same well (What? I've got movies to watch, books to read, and beer to drink over here, leave me alone!) All of which is to say that I have to wonder how the metric of "listens" will impact the industry. I tend to listen to the same thing over and over again, and when I do that, I'll probably earn someone a few cents of royalties. But I have a large suspicion that a lot of people will give most music a single listen (especially given the low barrier of entry on streaming), maybe revisiting once or twice if they're really psyched about it.
Music is certainly relistened to more than movies are rewatched, and being more of a movie guy, that might throw off my calibration on this issue, but I really have to wonder about the relationship between sales and listens. Yeah, such and such album or song may have sold a million copies last week... but how long will that song be in heavy rotation in streaming? And when you literally have millions of songs on your fingertips, are you likely to cast your net far and wide, or return to the same music over and over again? Will this notion drive what kinds of music becomes available? More pop music with clear hooks, less experimental stuff? Will those experimental folks be able to survive on the long tail?
I don't have any answers here and I don't really know enough about the music industry to say how this will play out, but I'm thinking we'll see some interesting developments in the next few years. Incidentally, movie streaming doesn't seem to have caved to streaming in the same way. They don't charge streaming services like Netflix per watch, but for the general ability to stream a certain catalog. I'll be curious to see if we ever reach a Spotify-level streaming service for movies. As I've mentioned before, I don't think that's going to happen anytime soon... but again, the next few years will be interesting.
Posted by Mark on January 30, 2013 at 08:30 PM .: link :.
Sunday, June 26, 2011
Tasting Notes - Part 4
Another edition of Tasting Notes, a series of quick hits on a variety of topics that don't really warrant a full post. So here's what I've been watching/playing/reading/drinking lately:
Posted by Mark on June 26, 2011 at 06:22 PM .: link :.
Sunday, March 28, 2010
I may have posted about this before, but I'm not a very astute music fan. Don't get me wrong, I love music, I just don't understand it the way I do with something like, say, movies or books. I gather I'm very unusual in most respects when it comes to music, especially when it comes to lyrics. In short, I rarely pay attention to them. My focus is generally on the music and the way the sound of the voice plays into that, which I know is a crazy way to listen to music, but it's what I generally find myself doing. When I really get into an album or a band or something and I spend a lot of time listening to their stuff, I will eventually get around to the lyrics. Sometimes I'm very pleased with the experience and it takes me to the next level. Other times, I find out that I've been listening to German anarchists (and I suppose there's a next level there too).
Part of the issue is that I really have no technical knowledge of music. Tune, chords, notes; I have a general idea of what these things are, but I'm not a musician. I treat music much more subjectively than I treat movies or books. I can recognize when I like the pretty sounds coming out of the speakers though, and that's good enough most of the time.
Anyway, I've lately come to realize that my music catalog is becoming outdated and rather stale. I'm getting sick of listening to the same stuff, so I thought it was time to branch out. Even when it comes to my preferred genres of music (i.e. Rock), I'm not a terribly knowledgeable listener. So in an attempt to broaden my musical horizons, I got a book called 1,000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die by Tom Moon. So far, I've made my way through 38 of the albums listed, which is pretty slow going. At the current rate, it would take me a many years to listen to all of these at least once, but it's still been fun. Here are a few highlights (The book has a website, but not all the albums have the descriptions posted yet):
Posted by Mark on March 28, 2010 at 05:35 PM .: link :.
Sunday, March 14, 2010
Remix Culture and Soviet Montage Theory
A video mashup of The Beastie Boys' popular and amusing Sabotage video with scenes from Battlestar Galactica has been making the rounds recently. It's well done, but a little on the disposable side of remix culture. The video lead Sunny Bunch to question "remix culture":
It’s quite good. But, ultimately, what’s the point?These are good questions, and I'm not surprised that the BSG Sabotage video prompted them. The implication of Sonny's post is that he thinks it is an unoriginal waste of talent (he may be playing a bit of devil's advocate here, but I'm willing to play along because these are interesting questions and because it will give me a chance to pedantically lecture about film history later in this post!) In the comments, Julian Sanchez makes a good point (based on a video he produced earlier that was referenced by someone else in the comment thread), which will be something I'll expand on later in this post:
First, the argument I’m making in that video is precisely that exclusive focus on the originality of the contribution misses the value in the activity itself. The vast majority of individual and collective cultural creation practiced by ordinary people is minimally “original” and unlikely to yield any final product of wide appeal or enduring value. I’m thinking of, e.g., people singing karaoke, playing in a garage band, drawing, building models, making silly YouTube videos, improvising freestyle poetry, whatever. What I’m positing is that there’s an intrinsic value to having a culture where people don’t simply get together to consume professionally produced songs and movies, but also routinely participate in cultural creation. And the value of that kind of cultural practice doesn’t depend on the stuff they create being particularly awe-inspiring.To which Sonny responds:
I’m actually entirely with you on the skill that it takes to produce a video like the Brooklyn hipsters did — I have no talent for lighting, camera movements, etc. I know how hard it is to edit together something like that, let alone shoot it in an aesthetically pleasing manner. That’s one of the reasons I find the final product so depressing, however: An impressive amount of skill and talent has gone into creating something that is not just unoriginal but, in a way, anti-original. These are people who are so devoid of originality that they define themselves not only by copying a video that they’ve seen before but by copying the very personalities of characters that they’ve seen before.Another good point, but I think Sonny is missing something here. The talents of the BSG Sabotage editor or the Brooklyn hipsters are certainly admirable, but while we can speculate, we don't necessarily know their motivations. About 10 years ago, a friend and amateur filmmaker showed me a video one of his friends had produced. It took scenes from Star Wars and Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan and recut them so it looked like the Millennium Falcon was fighting the Enterprise. It would show Han Solo shooting, then cut to the Enterprise being hit. Shatner would exclaim "Fire!" and then it would cut to a blast hitting the Millennium Falcon. And so on. Another video from the same guy took the musical number George Lucas had added to Return of the Jedi in the Special Edition, laid Wu-Tang Clan in as the soundtrack, then re-edited the video elements so everything matched up.
These videos sound fun, but not particularly original or even special in this day and age. However, these videos were made ten to fifteen years ago. I was watching them on a VHS(!) and the person making the edits was using analog techniques and equipment. It turns out that these videos were how he honed his craft before he officially got a job as an editor in Hollywood. I'm sure there were tons of other videos, probably much less impressive, that he had created before the ones I'm referencing. Now, I'm not saying that the BSG Sabotage editor or the Brooklyn Hipsters are angling for professional filmmaking jobs, but it's quite possible that they are at least exploring their own possibilities. I would also bet that these people have been making videos like this (though probably much less sophisticated) since they were kids. The only big difference now is that technology has enabled them to make a slicker experience and, more importantly, to distribute it widely.
It's also worth noting that this sort of thing is not without historical precedent. Indeed, the history of editing and montage is filled with this sort of thing. In the 1910s and 1920s, Russian filmmaker Lev Kuleshov conducted a series of famous experiments that helped express the role of editing in films. In these experiments, he would show a man with an expressionless face, then cut to various other shots. In one example, he showed the expressionless face, then cut to a bowl of soup. When prompted, audiences would claim that they found that the man was hungry. Kuleshov then took the exact same footage of the expressionless face and cut to a pretty girl. This time, audiences reported that the man was in love. Another experiment alternated between the expressionless face and a coffin, a juxtaposition that lead audiences to believe that the man was stricken with grief. This phenomenon has become known as the Kuleshov Effect.
For the current discussion, one notable aspect of these experiments is that Kuleshov was working entirely from pre-existing material. And this sort of thing was not uncommon, either. At the time, there was a shortage of raw film stock in Russia. Filmmakers had to make due with what they had, and often spent their time re-cutting existing material, which lead to what's now called Soviet Montage Theory. When D.W. Griffith's Intolerance, which used advanced editing techniques (it featured a series of cross cut narratives which eventually converged in the last reel), opened in Russia in 1919, it quickly became very popular. The Russian film community saw this as a validation and popularization of their theories and also as an opportunity. Russian critics and filmmakers were impressed by the film's technical qualities, but dismissed the story as "bourgeois", claiming that it failed to resolve issues of class conflict, and so on. So, not having much raw film stock of their own, they took to playing with Griffith's film, re-editing certain sections of the film to make it more "agitational" and revolutionary.
The extent to which this happened is a bit unclear, and certainly public exhibitions were not as dramatically altered as I'm making it out to be. However, there are Soviet versions of the movie that contained small edits and a newly filmed prologue. This was done to "sharpen the class conflict" and "anti-exploitation" aspects of the film, while still attempting to respect the author's original intentions. This was part of a larger trend of adding Soviet propaganda to pre-existing works of art, and given the ideals of socialism, it makes sense. (The preceeding is a simplification of history, of course... see this chapter from Inside the Film Factory for a more detailed discussion of Intolerance and it's impact on Russian cinema.) In the Russian film world, things really began to take off with Sergei Eisenstein and films like Battleship Potemkin. Watch that film today, and you'll be struck by how modern-feeling the editing is, especially during the infamous Odessa Steps sequence (which you'll also recognize if you've ever seen Brian De Palma's "homage" in The Untouchables).
Now, I'm not really suggesting that the woman who produced BSG Sabotage is going to be the next Eisenstein, merely that the act of cutting together pre-existing footage is not necessarily a sad waste of talent. I've drastically simplified the history of Soviet Montage Theory above, but there are parallels between Soviet filmmakers then and YouTube videomakers today. Due to limited resources and knowledge, they began experimenting with pre-existing footage. They learned from the experience and went on to grander modifications of larger works of art (Griffith's Intolerance). This eventually culminated in original works of art, like those produced by Eisenstein.
Now, YouTube videomakers haven't quite made that expressive leap yet, but it's only been a few years. It's going to take time, and obviously editing and montage are already well established features of film, so innovation won't necessarily come from that direction. But that doesn't mean that nothing of value can emerge from this sort of thing, nor does messing around with videos on YouTube limit these young artists to film. While Roger Ebert's valid criticisms are vaid, more and more, I'm seeing interactivity as the unexplored territory of art. Video games like Heavy Rain are an interesting experience and hint at something along these lines, but they are still severely limited in many ways (in other words, Ebert is probably right when it comes to that game). It will take a lot of experimentation to get to a point where maybe Ebert would be wrong (if it's even possible at all). Learning about the visual medium of film by editing together videos of pre-existing material would be an essential step in the process. Improving the technology with which to do so is also an important step. And so on.
To return back to the BSG Sabotage video for a moment, I think that it's worth noting the origins of that video. The video is clearly having fun by juxtaposing different genres and mediums (it is by no means the best or even a great example of this sort of thing, but it's still there. For a better example of something built entirely from pre-existing works, see Shining.). Battlestar Galactica was a popular science fiction series, beloved by many, and this video comments on the series slightly by setting the whole thing to an unconventional music choice (though given the recent Star Trek reboot's use of the same song, I have to wonder what the deal is with SF and Sabotage). Ironically, even the "original" Beastie Boys video was nothing more than a pastiche of 70s cop television shows. While I'm no expert, the music on Ill Communication, in general, has a very 70s feel to it. I suppose you could say that association only exists because of the Sabotage video itself, but even other songs on that album have that feel - for one example, take Sabrosa. Indeed, the Beastie Boys are themselves known for this sort of appropriation of pre-existing work. Their album Paul's Boutique infamously contains literally hundreds of samples and remixes of popular music. I'm not sure how they got away with some of that stuff, but I suppose this happened before getting sued for sampling was common. Nowadays, in order to get away with something like Paul's Boutique, you'll need to have deep pockets, which sorta defeats the purpose of using a sample in the first place. After all, samples are used in the absence of resources, not just because of a lack of originality (though I guess that's part of it). In 2004 Nate Harrison put together this exceptional video explaining how a 6 second drum beat (known as the Amen Break) exploded into its own sub-culture:
There is certainly some repetition here, and maybe some lack of originality, but I don't find this sort of thing "sad". To be honest, I've never been a big fan of hip hop music, but I can't deny the impact it's had on our culture and all of our music. As I write this post, I'm listening to Danger Mouse's The Grey Album:
It uses an a cappella version of rapper Jay-Z's The Black Album and couples it with instrumentals created from a multitude of unauthorized samples from The Beatles' LP The Beatles (more commonly known as The White Album). The Grey Album gained notoriety due to the response by EMI in attempting to halt its distribution.I'm not familiar with Jay-Z's album and I'm probably less familiar with The White Album than I should be, but I have to admit that this combination and the artistry with which the two seemingly incompatible works are combined into one cohesive whole is impressive. Despite the lack of an official release (that would have made Danger Mouse money), The Grey Album made many best of the year (and best of the decade) lists. I see some parallels between the 1980s and 1990s use of samples, remixes, and mashups, and what was happening in Russian film in the 1910s and 1920s. There is a pattern worth noticing here: New technology enables artists to play with existing art, then apply their learnings to something more original later. Again, I don't think that the BSG Sabotage video is particularly groundbreaking, but that doesn't mean that the entire remix culture is worthless. I'm willing to bet that remix culture will eventually contribute towards something much more original than BSG Sabotage...
Incidentally, the director of the original Beastie Boys Sabotage video? Spike Jonze, who would go on to direct movies like Being John Malkovich, Adaptation., and Where the Wild Things Are. I think we'll see some parallels between the oft-maligned music video directors, who started to emerge in the film world in the 1990s, and YouTube videomakers. At some point in the near future, we're going to see film directors coming from the world of short-form internet videos. Will this be a good thing? I'm sure there are lots of people who hate the music video aesthetic in film, but it's hard to really be that upset that people like David Fincher and Spike Jonze are making movies these days. I doubt YouTubers will have a more popular style, and I don't think they'll be dominant or anything, but I think they will arrive. Or maybe YouTube videomakers will branch out into some other medium or create something entirely new (as I mentioned earlier, there's a lot of room for innovation in the interactive realm). In all honesty, I don't really know where remix culture is going, but maybe that's why I like it. I'm looking forward to seeing where it leads.
Posted by Mark on March 14, 2010 at 02:18 PM .: link :.
Saturday, December 20, 2008
12DC: Day 7 - Weird Holiday Music
The 12 days of Christmas continues with a couple of strange Holiday songs for your enjoyment. First up is an animated Bob & Doug McKenzie singing The 12 Days of Christmas:
Next is the Carol of the Bells as performed by guitarist Gary Hoey:
Ok, so not that weird so far, but here's a genuinely odd one from Jonathan Coulton (with Paul & Storm) called Chiron Beta Prime. Just his description of the song, before he even starts singing, is worth watching...
Well that's weird enough for me. Special thanks to Widgett, who is one-upping me by doing 13 days of Christmas. Anyway, he's responsible for the Bob & Doug McKenzie and Jonathan Coulton songs and has a few other demented holiday songs too...
Posted by Mark on December 20, 2008 at 09:35 AM .: link :.
Friday, October 26, 2007
Bride of Friday is List Day
It's been months since I've posted one of these, and even Roy isn't doing this anymore, but I figure, why not?
Posted by Mark on October 26, 2007 at 11:11 PM .: link :.
Sunday, June 10, 2007
A few weeks ago, I wrote about how context matters when consuming art. As sometimes happens when writing an entry, that one got away from me and I never got around to the point I originally started with (that entry was originally entitled "Referential" but I changed it when I realized that I wasn't going to write anything about references), which was how much of our entertainment these days references its predecessors. This takes many forms, some overt (homages, parody), some a little more subtle.
I originally started thinking about this while watching an episode of Family Guy. The show is infamous for its random cutaway gags - little vignettes that have no connection to the story, but which often make some obscure reference to pop culture. For some reason, I started thinking about what it would be like to watch an episode of Family Guy with someone from, let's say, the 17th century. Let's further speculate that this person isn't a blithering idiot, but perhaps a member of the Royal Society or something (i.e. a bright fellow).
This would naturally be something of a challenge. There are some technical explanations that would be necessary. For example, we'd have to explain electricty, cable networks, signal processing and how the television works (which at least involves discussions on light and color). The concept of an animated show, at least, would probably be easy to explain (but it would involve a discussion of how the human eye works, to a degree).
There's more to it, of course, but moving past all that, once we start watching the show, we're going to have to explain why we're laughing at pretty much all of the jokes. Again, most of the jokes are simply references and parodies of other pieces of pop culture. Watching an episode of Family Guy with Isaac Newton (to pick a prominent Royal Society member) would necessitate a pause just about every minute to explain what each reference was from and why Family Guy's take on it made me laugh. Then there's the fact that Family Guy rarely has any sort of redeemable lesson and often deliberately skews towards actively encouraging evil (something along the lines of "I think the important thing to remember is that it's ok to lie, so long as you don't get caught." I don't think that exact line is in an episode, but it could be.) This works fine for us, as we're so steeped in popular culture that we get the fact that Family Guy is just lampooning of the notion that we could learn important life lessions via a half-hour sitcom. But I'm sure Isaac Newton would be appalled.
For some reason, I find this fascinating, and try to imagine how I would explain various jokes. For instance, the episode I was watching featured a joke concerning "cool side of the pillow." They cut to a scene in bed where Peter flips over the pillow and sees Billy Dee Williams' face, which proceeds to give a speech about how cool this side of the pillow is, ending with "Works every time." This joke alone would require a whole digression into Star Wars and how most of the stars of that series struggled to overcome their typecasting and couldn't find a lot of good work, so people like Billy Dee Williams ended up doing commercials for a malt liquor named Colt 45, which had these really cheesy commercials where Billy Dee talked like that. And so on. It could probably take an hour before my guest would even come close to understanding the context of the joke (I'm not even touching the tip of the iceberg with this post).
And the irony of this whole thing is that jokes that are explained simply aren't funny. To be honest, I'm not even sure why I find these simple gags funny (that, of course, is the joy of humor - you don't usually have to understand it or think about it, you just laugh). Seriously, why is it funny when Family Guy blatantly references some classic movie or show? Again, I'm not sure, but that sort of humor has been steadily growing over the past 30 years or so.
Not all comedies are that blatant about their referential humor though (indeed, Family Guy itself doesn't solely rely upon such references). A recent example of a good referential film is Shaun of the Dead, which somewhow manages to be both a parody and an example of a good zombie movie. It pays homage to all the classic zombie films and it also makes fun of other genres (notably the romantic comedy), but in doing so, the filmmakers have also made a good zombie movie in itself. The filmmakers have recently released a new film called Hot Fuzz, which attempts the same trick for action movies and buddy comedies. It is, perhaps, not as successful as Shaun, but the sheer number of references in the film is astounding. There are the obvious and explicit ones like Point Break and Bad Boys II, but there are also tons of subtle homages that I'd wager most people wouldn't get. For instance, when Simon Pegg yells in the movie, he's doing a pitch perfect impersonation of Arnold Schwarzenegger in Predator. And when he chases after a criminal, he imitates the way Robert Patrick's T-1000 runs from Terminator 2.
References don't need to be part of a comedy either (though comedies seem to make the easiest examples). Hop on IMDB and go to just about any recent movie, and click on the "Movie Connections" link in the left navigation. For instance, did you know that the aformentioned T2 references The Wizard of Oz and The Killing, amongst dozens of other references? Most of the time, these references are really difficult to pick out, especially when you're viewing a foreign film or show that's pulling from a different cultural background. References don't have to be story or character based - they can be the way a scene is composed or the way the lighting is set (i.e. the Venetian blinds in Noir films).
Now, this doesn't just apply to art either. A lot of common knowledge in today's world is referential. Most formal writing includes references and bibliographies, for instance, and a non-fiction book will often assume basic familiarity with a subject. When I was in school, I was always annoyed at the amount of rote memorization they made us do. Why memorize it if I could just look it up? Shouldn't you be focusing on my critical thinking skills instead of making me memorize arbitrary lists of facts? Sometimes this complaining was probably warranted, but most of it wasn't. So much of what we do in today's world requires a well-rounded familiarity with a large number of subjects (including history, science, culture, amongst many other things). There simply isn't any substitute for actual knowledge. Though it was a pain at the time, I'm glad emphasis was put on memorization during my education. A while back, David Foster noted that schools are actually moving away from this, and makes several important distinctions. He takes an example of a song:
Jakob Dylan has a song that includes the following lines:As Foster notes, this doesn't mean that "thinking skills" are unimportant, just that knowledge is important too. You need to have a quality data set in order to use those "thinking skills" effectively.
Human beings tend to leverage knowledge to create new knowledge. This has a lot of implications, one of which is intellectual property law. Giving limited copyright to intellectual property is important, because the data in that property eventually becomes available for all to built upon. It's ironic that educators are considering less of a focus on memorization, as this requirement of referential knowledge has been increasing for some time. Students need a base of knowledge to both understand and compose new works. References help you avoid reinventing the wheel everytime you need to create something, which leads to my next point.
I think part of the reason references are becoming more and more common these days is that it makes entertainment a little less passive. Watching TV or a movie is, of course, a passive activity, but if you make lots of references and homages, the viewer is required to think through those references. If the viewer has the appropriate knowledge, such a TV show or movie becomes a little more cognitively engaging. It makes you think, it calls to mind previous work, and it forces you to contextualize what you're watching based on what you know about other works. References are part of the complexity of modern Television and film, and Steven Johnson spends a significant amout of time talking about this subject in his book Everything Bad is Good for You (from page 85 of my edition):
Nearly every extended sequence in Seinfeld or The Simpsons, however, will contain a joke that makes sense only if the viewer fills in the proper supplementary information -- information that is deliberately withheld from the viewer. If you haven't seen the "Mulva" episode, or if the name "Art Vandelay" means nothing to you, then the subsequent references -- many of them arriving years after their original appearance -- will pass on by unappreciated.I know some people who hate Family Guy and Seinfeld, but I realized a while ago that they don't hate those shows because of the contents of the shows or because they were offended (though some people certainly are), but rather becaues they simply don't get the references. They didn't grow up watching TV in the 80s and 90s, so many of the references are simply lost on them. Family Guy would be particularly vexing if you didn't have the pop culture knowledge of the writers of that show. These reference heavy shows are also a lot easier to watch and rewatch, over and over again. Why? Because each episode is not self-contained, you often find yourself noticing something new every time you watch. This also sometimes works in reverse. I remember the first time I saw Bill Shatner's campy rendition of Rocket Man, I suddenly understoood a bit on Family Guy which I thought was just a bit based on being random (but was really a reference).
Again, I seem to be focusing on comedy, but it's not necessarily limited to that genre. Eric S. Raymond has written a lot about how science fiction jargon has evolved into a sophisticated code that implicitely references various ideas, conventions and tropes of the genre:
In looking at an SF-jargon term like, say, "groundcar", or "warp drive" there is a spectrum of increasingly sophisticated possible decodings. The most naive is to see a meaningless, uninterpretable wordlike noise and stop there.While comedy makes for convenient examples, I think this better illustrates the cognitive demands of referential art. References require you to be grounded in various subjects, and they'll often require you to think through the implications of those subjects in a new context. References allow writers to pack incredible amounts of information into even the smallest space. This, of course, requires the consumer to decode that information (using available knowledge and critical thinking skills), making the experience less passive and more engaging. Use references will continue to flourish and accellerate in both art and scholarship, and new forms will emerge. One could even argue that aggregation in various weblogs are simply exercises in referential work. Just look at this post, in which I reference several books and movies, in many cases assuming familiarity. Indeed, the whole structure of the internet is based on the concept of links -- essentialy a way to reference other documents. Perhaps this is part of the cause of the rising complexity and information density of modern entertainment. We can cope with it now, because we have such systems to help us out.
Posted by Mark on June 10, 2007 at 03:08 PM .: link :.
Friday, March 09, 2007
Friday is Apparently List Day
After several years of blogging, I've finally figured out that Friday is list day. So here are a few lists:
Saturday, August 26, 2006
Travelling Link Dump
I'll be on vacation this week, so Kaedrin compatriots Samael and DyRE will be posting in my stead, though they may not be able to post tomorrow. In any case, here are some links to chew on while I'm gone.
Sunday, June 18, 2006
David Wong's article on the coming video game crash seems to have inspired Steven Den Beste, who agrees with Wong that there will be a gaming crash and also thinks that the same problems affect other forms of entertainment. The crux of the problem appears to be novelty. Part of the problem appears to be evolutionary as well. As humans, we are conditioned for certain things, and it seems that two of our insticts are conflicting.
The first instinct is the human tendency to rely on induction. Correlation does not imply causation, but most of the time, we act like it does. We develop a complex set of heuristics and guidelines that we have extrapolated from past experiences. We do so because circumstances require us to make all sorts of decisions without posessing the knowledge or understanding necessary to provide a correct answer. Induction allows us to to operate in situations which we do not uderstand. Psychologist B. F. Skinner famously explored and exploited this trait in his experiments. Den Beste notes this in his post:
What you do is to reward the animal (usually by giving it a small amount of food) for progressively behaving in ways which is closer to what you want. The reason Skinner studied it was because he (correctly) thought he was empirically studying the way that higher thought in animals worked. Basically, they're wired to believe that "correlation often implies causation". Which is true, by the way. So when an animal does something and gets a reward it likes (e.g. food) it will try it again, and maybe try it a little bit differently just to see if that might increase the chance or quantity of the reward.So we're hard wired to create these heuristics. This has many implications, from Cargo Cults to Superstition and Security Beliefs.
The second instinct is the human drive to seek novelty, also noted by Den Beste:
The problem is that humans are wired to seek novelty. I think it's a result of our dietary needs. Lions can eat zebra meat exclusively their entire lives without trouble; zebras can eat grass exclusively their entire lives. They don't need novelty, but we do. Primates require a quite varied diet in order to stay healthy, and if we eat the same thing meal after meal we'll get sick. Individuals who became restless and bored with such a diet, and who sought out other things to eat, were more likely to survive. And when you found something new, you were probably deficient in something that it provided nutritionally, so it made sense to like it for a while -- until boredom set in, and you again sought out something new.The drive for diversity affects more than just our diet. Genetic diversity has been shown to impart broader immunity to disease. Children from diverse parentage tend to develop a blend of each parent's defenses (this has other implications, particularly for the tendency for human beings to work together in groups). The biological benefits of diversity are not limited to humans either. Hybrid strains of many crops have been developed over the years because by selectively mixing the best crops to replant the next year, farmers were promoting the best qualities in the species. The simple act of crossing different strains resulted in higher yields and stronger plants.
The problem here is that evolution has made the biological need for diversity and novelty dependent on our inductive reasoning instincts. As such, what we find is that those we rely upon for new entertainment, like Hollywood or the video game industry, are constantly trying to find a simple formula for a big hit.
It's hard to come up with something completely new. It's scary to even make the attempt. If you get it wrong you can flush amazingly large amounts of money down the drain. It's a long-shot gamble. Every once in a while something new comes along, when someone takes that risk, and the audience gets interested...Indeed, the majority of big films made today appear to be remakes, sequels or adaptations. One interesting thing I've noticed is that something new and exciting often fails at the box office. Such films usually gain a following on video or television though. Sometimes this is difficult to believe. For instance, The Shawshank Redemption is a very popular film. In fact, it occupies the #2 spot (just behind The Godfather) on IMDB's top rated films. And yet, the film only made $28 million dollars (ranked 52 in 1994) in theaters. To be sure, that's not a modest chunk of change, but given the universal love for this film, you'd expect that number to be much higher. I think part of the reason this movie failed at the box office was that marketers are just as susceptible to these novelty problems as everyone else. I mean, how do you market a period prison drama that has an awkward title an no big stars? It doesn't sound like a movie that would be popular, even though everyone seems to love it.
Which brings up another point. Not only is it difficult to create novelty, it can also be difficult to find novelty. This is the crux of the problem: we require novelty, but we're programmed to seek out new things via correllation. There is no place to go for perfect recommendations and novelty for the sake of novelty isn't necessarily enjoyable. I can seek out some bizarre musical style and listen to it, but the simple fact that it is novel does not guarantee that it will be enjoyable. I can't rely upon how a film is marketed because that is often misleading or, at least, not really representative of the movie (or whatever). Once we do find something we like, our instinct is often to exhaust that author or director or artist's catalog. Usually, by the end of that process, the artist's work begins to seem a little stale, for obvious reasons.
Seeking out something that is both novel and enjoyable is more difficult than it sounds. It can even be a little scary. Many times, things we think will be new actually turn out to be retreads. Other times, something may actually be novel, but unenjoyable. This leads to another phenomenon that Den Beste mentions: the "Unwatched pile." Den Beste is talking about Anime, and at this point, he's begun to accumulate a bunch of anime DVDs which he's bought but never watched. I've had similar things happen with books and movies. In fact, I have several books on my shelf, just waiting to be read, but for some of them, I'm not sure I'm willing to put in the time and effort to read them. Why? Because, for whatever reason, I've begun to experience some set of diminishing returns when it comes to certain types of books. These are similar to other books I've read, and thus I probably won't enjoy these as much (even if they are good books).
The problem is that we know something novel is out there, it's just a matter of finding it. At this point, I've gotten sick of most of the mass consumption entertainment, and have moved on to more niche forms of entertainment. This is really a signal versus noise, traversal of the long tail problem. An analysis problem. What's more, with globalization and the internet, the world is getting smaller... access to new forms of entertainment are popping up (for example, here in the US, anime was around 20 years ago, but it was nowhere near as common as it is today). This is essentially a subset of a larger information aggregation and analysis problem that we're facing. We're adrift in a sea of information, and must find better ways to navigate.
Thursday, June 15, 2006
It's been a while since I've gotten really into an album, but Tool's new 10,000 Days seems to have broken that trend. I've been listening to it almost nonstop for about a month now, and I'm still picking it apart. As I mentioned the other day, I have some odd musical tastes:
...I usually only listen to the music (as opposed to paying attention to the lyrics). When the music is interesting enough to me, I'll eventually get around to the lyrics. Sometimes, I'm pleased, other times I find out I'm listening to German anarchists. Oh well, you win some, you lose some.As such, I think I generally approach music in a different way than most people. One other thing to note is that when it comes to music, I have next to no technical knowledge. Tune, chords, notes, I have a general idea of what these things are, but I'm no musician. I treat music much more subjectively than I treat movies or books; I just know what I like to hear, and that's about it. So here are my thoughts for each song on this album:
Tuesday, June 13, 2006
Julenka posts the first 50 songs in her current playlist. When it comes to music, I seem to be on a completely different wavelength than most people. Part of this has to do with the fact that I usually only listen to the music (as opposed to paying attention to the lyrics). When the music is interesting enough to me, I'll eventually get around to the lyrics. Sometimes, I'm pleased, other times I find out I'm listening to German anarchists. Oh well, you win some, you lose some. Anyway, that might be worth keeping in mind as you read this list of 30 songs which I got by putting my iPod on shuffle. Also, it seems that the practice of simply ripping a lot of CDs and putting them on the iPod have given me a quite a few songs that I would probably skip if they came up, so I'll make some notes for each song too...
Sunday, June 11, 2006
Time is short this week, so just a few links I found interesting...
Sunday, November 06, 2005
Last Friday's Bleat featured James Lileks' first (that I know of) podcast. Since I've now got an iPod, I figured I might as well download it and see what all the fuss is about. It's strange to hear the voice of someone you've previously only read. In this case, Lileks' voice is much deeper than the voice I have in my head when I read his stuff.
It's a short podcast, but the main topic is "a demonstration of the thesis that every era gets the Batman music it deserves." Pretty good, and it's about what you'd expect from Lileks. I only have one minor quibble - how can you talk about Batman music matching the time period and not actually go into detail on Prince's horrific (yet appropriate for the 80s) Batdance? (Prince's role in the 1989 soundtrack is mentioned, but no clips are played.) Oh, and 1 other minor complaint is that the podcast isn't listed in iTunes, so I can't set it to automatically update. Get with the program James! Anyway, this weeks was quite good, and I look forward to future installments...
Speaking of podcasts, does anyone have any recommendations? The only other podcast that I've gotten into is the CHUD Show (which is interesting, but probably only to movie nerds who can appreciate really bad jokes like myself).
Sunday, October 30, 2005
Save it with the music
In general, the process of making a movie is a difficult one, but some genres are more difficult than others. Horror (and science fiction), in particular, require certain leaps of faith that are more difficult to accomplish than other, more conventional, genres. This places more importance on all aspects of the film. For a good horror movie, everything needs to be there, including the writing (important for any movie, but horror films usually require a little more imagination), cinematography (very important in horror), and the music, amongst other aspects.
I'm going to focus on the music because while music is important in all films, it is even moreso in horror. Films depend on music to help set the mood, and good composers are often able to do so without calling too much attention to themselves. Perhaps it's just me, but music is often able to evoke an understated emotional response, one that sometimes isn't recognizable until after the film has ended. As such, the auditory aspects of a film are often overlooked in favor of the other, more overt, features of the film. Yet any good horror film will rely almost as much on the sound as the visuals to provide the scares.
"Music in horror films is probably more powerful than in any other genre, so it's good for a composer to do them because he can be very influential on the action."That quote is from composer Simon Boswell (found via this excellent article on sound and horror films), notable for his work on many horror films (including several by the infamous Italian director Dario Argento), and I think he's right. Some great examples of how composers really shape the action can be heard in Jaws (courtesy of John Williams) and John Carpenter's Halloween. John Williams' ominous searching cue steadily builds on itself, brilliantly setting the tone for the viewer. Perhaps even more evokative is John Carpenter's score for his seminal slasher flick, Halloween. He describes the process of writing the music for Halloween:
I shot Halloween in the spring of 1978. It was my third feature and my first out-and-out horror film. I had three weeks of pre-production planning, twenty days of principle photography, and then Tommy Lee Wallace spent the rest of the spring and summer cutting the picture, assisted by Charles Bornstein and myself. I screened the final cut minus sound effects and music, for a young executive from 20th Century-Fox (I was interviewing for another possible directing job). She wasn’t scared at all. I then became determined to "save it with the music."And she was right. Just try watching halloween with the sound off and you'll see what I mean. Most of the tension fades away, and while there are certainly some creepy visuals, it's the music that truly cements the scares in the film. The simplistic three-note piano melody that Carpenter composed for the main theme (mp3) is truly haunting. It stays with you, and plays in your head whenever the lights go out.
The scoring sessions took two weeks because that’s all the budget would allow. Halloween was dubbed in late July and I finally saw the picture with an audience in the fall. My plan to "save it with the music" seemed to work. About six months later I ran into the same young executive who had been with 20th Century-Fox (she was now with MGM). Now she too loved the movie and all I had done was add music. But she really was quite justified in her initial reaction.There are some techniques which are more obvious than others, but if they're done well, there's nothing wrong with that. The aformentioned Jaws theme is an excellent example of a long musical build-up that also builds tension in the audience, who becomes convinced that something is going to happen. In Jaws, it does, but many composers have subverted that convention by using the musical build-up as misdirection (i.e. instead of a giant monster, it turns out that the ominous sounds were just caused by the family cat).
Another obvious technique is what Roger Ebert describes as the "boo" moment (or what Carpenter calls the "stingers"), where a sudden sharp noise startles the audience, which is also often used to emphasise a visual surprise. This is sometimes referred to as a "cheap" technique, but I think it's fine if it's used sparingly.
However, even in films that have striking themes and stingers, the music ultimately serves as a medium for subliminal suggestion, setting the mood and subtlety evoking an emotional response. In a horror film, this is of paramount importance, and that's why most great horror films have notable soundtracks. John Carpenter had resolved to "save it with the music," but I don't think there was anything unique about that experience. I think most horror films need to have that musical base to truly be effective.
Update: This post has been featured in the Carnival of Music! Check it out for lots more music goodness.
Thursday, November 01, 2001
The Belated Blues
Hellhound by Mitch Myers (real audio): An interesting NPR piece I heard on the way home yesterday. It is based on the story of legendary blues artist Robert Johnson, who, legend has it, sold his soul to the devil to obtain his amazing guitar skills. As if to strengthen this Faustian explaination, Johnson explored in his music the battle of good against evil and recorded songs like "Hell Hound on My Trail" and "Me and the Devil Blues." There is some contention as to where Robert is buried, too. Two graves in different cemetaries in Greenwood, Mississippi both bear his name, and there is a popular roadside spot nearby where some believe he was interred. Myers' story is an interesting one, concerning ghastly secret track on Robert Johnson's boxed set. In his short life, Johnson recorded only 41 tracks, many of which are alternate takes of the same song, but his sound has had an large impact on blues and rock music ever since.
Posted by Mark on November 01, 2001 at 09:16 AM .: link :.
Thursday, September 06, 2001
Third Eye Open
There has been a press release regarding a string quartet tribute to Tool which sounds rather interesting. "This concept, inspired by the complex compositions and unique sound of Tool, delivers dramatic interpretations of the best of the band. This album takes the band's rhythmic guitars, assault-rifle drums, wide-ranging, multiple-octave vocals and turns them into aggressive string playing, deep and percussive cello, and vigorous yet delicate vocalizations on violin." I have long been a fan of the Finnish Apocalyptica, who played some of Metallica's greatest hits with their cellos (then later went on to arrange their own cello-driven heavy metal with their latest album, Cult), so I'm sure I'll enjoy this tribute to Tool...
Posted by Mark on September 06, 2001 at 01:01 PM .: link :.
Tuesday, August 14, 2001
NIN Naming Conventions
While rifling through one of my old backup cds, I found the following image which describes the rather humorous way in which Trent Reznor (of Nine Inch Nails fame) names his numerous hard drives, filenames, and programs:
Posted by Mark on August 14, 2001 at 11:56 PM .: link :.
Tuesday, May 15, 2001
Today marks the release of Tool's long awaited new album, Lateralus. DyRE was lucky enough to catch KROQ playing the album in its entirety, two days before its release. He recorded his thoughts during the playing. Apparently, it rocks ("fuck yeah!"). DyRE also posted a weblog entry with an awfully cool interview with Maynard and Danny Carey (I was especially pleased to see Mike Patton as a "related artist" at the bottom of said interview). All of this craziness has inspired me to embark on a perilous quest for the new album during mine lunch break. I can only hope that my co-workers understand when I start trashing my cube because the album rocks so much...
Posted by Mark on May 15, 2001 at 08:36 AM .: link :.
Monday, March 19, 2001
Where the Hell is the DVD?
Chapter One in the touching story of the rumored Nine Inch Nails DVD, by Meathead. For those of you who are unfamiliar with Meathead's work, I highly recommend you check it out, even if you aren't a big fan of NIN (for instance, chapter one contains a menacing Sting as well as the horrors of the evil Verizon empire). Rarely have I ever seen someone who is able to consistantly rant about a single topic with such quality for so damn long. Bravo, Meathead. Bravo.
Now that I'll actually have some computing power, I'm beginning to look forward to things like this.
Posted by Mark on March 19, 2001 at 08:31 AM .: link :.
Thursday, January 18, 2001
I Care Because You Do
Richard D. James, the genius/lunatic behind Aphex twin, acts almost as wierd as his music sounds. The man lives in an Bank and he owns a working Tank that he drives around town. A real tank, it even fires (but he uses this function sparingly as he only has 4 rounds of ammo left). When asked what other purchases he plans to make, he says he'd like a submarine. "I don't know anything about submarines. I just know I'd like to have one. It would be wicked for parties, and stuff like that." As if his music wasn't unique enough, he goes on to explain that the acoustic possibilites for recording on a submarine are incredible. Wierd guy, cool ambient/technoish music. [via Metascene (i think)]
Posted by Mark on January 18, 2001 at 09:36 AM .: link :.
Tuesday, November 21, 2000
Perspectives Falling Apart
Those of you who think my short review of Things Falling Apart sucks will be glad to know that I agree and that I am linking to a funnier review of the cd. So there. For those of you NIN fans who are not familiar with The Meathead Perspective, I do suggest you check it out. Its a riot.
An exerpt from Meatheads review of The Great Collapse: "This track is a bit repetitive, and fairly simplistic, and a bit repetitive, but after listening to it a few times, it grew on me, kinda like a mild case of hives. "
Posted by Mark on November 21, 2000 at 11:28 PM .: link :.
Things Falling Apart
The new Nine Inch Nails EP Things Falling Apart was officially released today. I got my hands on a copy a few days ago, and its pretty cool, as remix albums go (despite the fact that there are 3 remixes of my least favourite Fragile song, Starf*ckers, Inc). As usual, the remixes are not as dense or robust as the originals, but there's a few decent mixes on this CD. Slipping Away, a remix of Into the Void, is probably my favourite of the new mixes. Also included is the remake of Metal and a remix of 10 Miles High (a Fragile B-side). Cool schtuff.
Posted by Mark on November 21, 2000 at 12:19 PM .: link :.
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