Wednesday, 13 May 2009

Editing the Listener

I wrote in a previous post of the now defunct New Zealand Listener. Astute readers will know that I am either profoundly ignorant, woefully out of touch with the New Zealand media landscape, or prone to the occasional bout of irony, especially when it regards said media landscape.

In that comment, I was alluding to the decline of New Zealand's favourite, once centre-left journal, presided over by one Pamela Stirling. As a teenager, I was an avid reader of that magazine, and in many ways it played a formative role as I began to develop an intellectual and critical perspective on New Zealand and world politics and cultures, insofar as I can be said to have one. It has a long history of political engagement from a leftist perspective, and covered a wide range of issues that were important locally and globally with integrity. Some people found it boring and predictable, but their opinions on the Listener are just about as relevant as my opinions on the NBR.

In 2004, Finlay MacDonald stood down as editor to do god-knows-what, and was replaced by Pamela Stirling. Under Stirling, the Listener has become a lifestyle magazine, regularly covering such hot issues as New Zealand house prices ("when will the bubble burst??"), aging remedies for baby-boomers, which schools are the best value for money, and more crap about the health of baby-boomers. Pretty much all media in New Zealand is dreadful, and (with honourable exceptions such as Di Wichtel) Stirling did a fine job in making it a little worse.

I'm not going to mention the abominable Joanne Black or that twat Bill Ralston, because it's too depressing and nobody reads what they write anyway. I just want to point out one of the stupid things I saw when I picked up the issue I found sitting on the coffee table the day I returned to Auckland after a year and a bit overseas. Jane Clifton's weekly 'Politics' column began with the claim that "almost overnight, we're having to realise that, beyond a certain point, governments can't do much for us. They are all powerless and clueless in the face of both the global credit crisis and the possibility of a pandemic, of which swine flu is just the latest menance" -- just as our forebears had to experience the bubonic plague as a fact of life, so we too have to endure these things, because governments just can't do that much about it.

This is, on the face of it, a ridiculous claim. We will start by noting that western societies don't often face the bubonic plague these days, and have eradicated many once endemic and extremely destructive diseases. Their success in doing this was not accidental, was not luck, and certainly wasn't decided by the market, but was in fact due to government programmes, be they in immunisation or in quarantine to prevent the spread of diseases. This recent Swine Flu to which Clifton alludes, if it was to be a pandemic, has thus far at least been contained by a concerted global effort of government organisations. Schools have been closed throughout the United States, whole cities in Mexico have shut down, and nice people at the Auckland airport asked me if I was feeling well as I walked towards customs. It's not a coincidence, and although the capacity to carry diseases over great distances at great speed has increased dramatically over the past 40 years of commercial air travel, the coercive power of the state, its techniques around quarantine, and its ability to administer vaccines are also extremely effective.

Likewise, the recession. It is true that the New Zealand government could have done little to prevent the recession, and it's also true that New Zealand's economy is so intertwined with the fortunes of global markets that there's little National can do (which is fortunate, because it seems there's so little that they want to do), but similar events in the past suggest that it is, in fact, possible for governments to do things to recover. Indeed, not undoing one of the things that that government did would have been a good thing to have done, or not done, to prevent the current mess, if you follow me.

Now, despite her relationship with a senior National MP, I don't mean to insinuate that Clifton's column is part of some right-wing conspiracy to manipulate the chattering classes into supporting the Government's laissez-faire approach to economic practice at a time when it seems like an especially bad idea (I was going to find a link to a comment that suggests that there are people that would easily believe this, but one of the reasons I can't be bothered with actually doing these blogs is that I'm too lazy to do that sort of thing). Rather, I think that she's guilty of sloppy reasoning, shallow thinking, and a lack of historical perspective that I would call extraordinary if it weren't so frequently encountered in the New Zealand media. After all, why think about things and provide informed analysis when you can pound out a few witless one-liners and appear to provide a holistic, though meaningless, view of the world. This is New Zealand after all, it's such a small population, we're punching above our weight on one global stage or another, and you're just a tall-poppy cutter-downer. Or something. Here, listen to my electronic dub CD.

So, Editing the Listener was to be a kind of homage to the excellent Editing the Herald, whose news-rage benefits us all. Unlike Editing the Herald, Editing the Listener would have been dedicated to a longer form of criticism, in respect of the different style of journalism one encounters in that august journal, and also my long-windedness.. However, given Editing the Herald's late legal difficulties, the existence of other, slightly more competent bloggers who are willing to do the job for me, and the fact that I don't usually live in New Zealand and the Listener doesn't like to put articles online for ages, the whole enterprise seems a little pointless.

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

Things That Bore Me

I like to consider myself an engaged citizen of one nation and an interested (albeit cynical) resident of another, an individual who takes global issues seriously and who, although not wedded to a programmatic ideology, at least has firm, definitely leftist, vaguely postmodern philosophical principles from which more nuanced views on specific issues can be developed. Lord knows, I spend a lot of time in front of my computer, reading crap on the internet.

Nevertheless, there are some things that I just can't bring myself to care about. I haven't thought about it enough to decide whether there's a common thread to it all, but, in no particular order, Susan Boyle, the fabled New Zealand cycleway, the Jonas Brothers, and the Mt. Albert by-election are all issues that bloggers seem to get very worked up about whilst I look on, bewildered. I'm not even going to start on the longest-running, dullest of them all (although my answer is Mac, for what it's worth). There are many more of these issues that seem to have so much at stake in online discourse, and yet at best provoke in me a fury at the tedious predictability of it all (Susan Boyle), but usually just leave me a little bored, and a little confused. Things That Bore Me would have been decidated to documenting my boredom with these issues, but the entire project is self-evidently a bad idea, and I just lost interest.

Tuesday, 21 April 2009


As a follow up to my last post, I once thought it would be funny to have a blog where I just posted random thoughts several times a day, each one of 140 characters or less. But, um, yeah. So then when that turned out to be done already, and also turned out to be boring, I thought it would be funny to have a blog where I posted really long random thoughts all day. But I really find it much easier to do that only once or twice a week, so, y'know.

Sunday, 19 April 2009

Why I Blog

In yet another competition from which I was disqualified, Giovanni Tiso suggested a title for a blog post least likely to be read might be 'Why I Blog.' He then challenged Paul Litterick to read all 181, 000 posts on the subject (follow the link and you'll see my poor google skills in action, btw). Paul took up the challenge, only to discover, much to everyone's dismay I'm sure, that there have only been about 500 posts with that title in the whole history of the internet. Between the entry of the word into the mainstream media over the past decade, and the obvious narcissism of anyone who writes one of these things (myself excluded, of course, for I am doing it ironically), it seems to me that there should thousands upon thousands of blog entries on this subject.

So, as promised to the people of PAS, Why I Blog was to be a blog that both reviewed posts entitled why I blog, and added a stream of new posts with that title, in order to fill the apparent void. But I soon realised that it all sounded too much like work. Besides, it's all about microblogging these days, and in that, too, I just lost interest.

Saturday, 11 April 2009

Copyright Must Change Watch

As a student of the history of the book, the interaction between technology and social, cultural and economic practices is important to me. This interaction has been the focus of debate about the printing press: Elizabeth Eisenstein argued, in a comprehensive study of the early-modern press, that the press brought not only widespread access to books, but 'fixity', whereby both textual production and meanings were standardised and reproducible. Through the press, Eisenstein argues, readers could expect that the text they were reading in, say, London, was identical to the text being read in Berlin. This was an assurance that could not be expected in the days before the printing press, when manuscripts had to be copied by hand, and were prone to changing through inaccurate scribal work.

This argument, in which technology determined the shape and use of its product, and in turn reshaped European society, has been countered (or, as he argues, supplemented) by Adrian Johns. In the ironically titled, The Nature of the Book, Johns argues that what Eisenstein believes are properties of the printing press were in fact products of the efforts of the community of readers. Credibility and fixity had to be developed around the press by human agents, and didn't spring from the technology itself.

One of the products of this process was the creation of copyright. According to Johns, the reason credibility had to be established around the press, rather than through it, was that it made piracy rife. Piracy in our time (which is the actual subject of this post for those of you who can make it past the long-winded academic intro) is generally thought of as the illegal reproduction of work under copyright, either in part or in whole. It is mostly confined to music and video, and of course since the advent of Napster it is largely a digital practice, although I did manage to pick up a pirated copy of Amartya Sen's The Argumentative Indian when I was in Udaipur in late 2007. Johns, however, argues that in the seventeenth century piracy was a word to describe a range of activities related to the press, which included copying and selling without permission, but also included things like selling work not written by an author under that author's name, or selling the work of one author under another's name. The range of acts that were described of piracy was much broader than these practices, and apparently Johns is working on a book on the history of print piracy at the moment.

Before I move on to the actual subject of this post, I need to mention one other site of historical debate, also based in the seventeenth century. According to German sociologist J├╝rgen Habermas, another of the products of the printing press was the public sphere, a mediated space in which a self-constituted public could debate amongst themselves and criticise their government in a reasoned manner. For Habermas, this space for public debate acted as a check on government, and it arose not only out of the press itself, but from the practice of merchants bringing news from abroad during a period of increasingly long-range travel due to the rise of mercantile capitalism.

Habermas locates the emergence of the public sphere at the beginning of the eighteenth century, and pegs it not only to the press but to the emergence of capitalism. There is reason to be sceptical of his arguments -- on the one hand, there is evidence of a public sphere of sorts existing in the seventeenth century, based not in capital but in religious arguments, and on the other hand it is hard to say that this sphere of reasoned debate ever existed at all once one has read a few early-modern pamphlets, which tended to make scurrilous accusations and ad hominem attacks with satisfying regularity.

All of which is to say that the printing press was not itself an agent, and that copyright is the product of a historical process, and that the sphere in which public argument takes place is also historically contingent and, contra Habermas, has never been untainted by commercial media, nor has it ever been practised in an ideal way by men of reason.

Which brings me to the actual subject of this post. Five months ago, New Zealand blogregator Public Address featured a post regarding copyright, entitled Copyright Must Change. Written by guest poster Matthew Poole, the post recounted a talk at a New Zealand university by copyfight luminary Lawrence Lessig. You can read the post yourself. We have time.

This post was written in the context of an ongoing discussion on Public Address System, Public Address's forum, about the response of the music and other media-owning industries to the challenge of doing business in the digital age. Russell Brown, Public Address's founder, long-time journalist, and one of New Zealand's first columnists to take a serious interest in the Internet in his now-defunct 'Computers' column in the now-defunct and sorely missed New Zealand Listener, has long been a critic of the music industries attempts to strong-arm music fans into buying music rather than pirating it through DRM technology and lawsuits.

Public Address System is, in my opinion, an example of a web community that functions more or less well. Insofar as we can believe in a public sphere, PAS lives up to some of the ideals, most of the time. Its contributors are generally well-informed, and usually treat one another with a degree of respect. Trolling is rare, although it can be spectacular. It gets criticised by the Marxists for being bourgeois, and by the denizens of the likes of the right-wing Kiwiblog
(which I won't link to, because it's not worth your time) as being a bunch of lefties agreeing with each other. There is some truth in those accusations, although as a bourgeois lefty, it doesn't bother me too much.

The Copyright Must Change thread, and indeed any PAS thread on copyright, is a different story, and for one reason. PAS user Robbery disagrees with Russell Brown over copyright, and is not afraid to say so. As can be seen from the first page of the thread, Robbery has a history of disagreeing with the people of PAS on copyright issues, to the point that one regular poster remarks "Here we go again", in anticipation of Robbery's arrival, which doesn't happen until page three or four. Two posts later, another poster declares that he 'is out of this one'. Readers of Just Lost Interest will note that the thread, which is still active, continues for another 78 pages as of today, and is up to 1547 posts.

Those readers will also note that post number 1547 is written by one Simon Grigg, who ruled himself out of the thread on page one. Grigg is a luminary of New Zealand music, who now lives in Bali and travels extensively through Southeast Asia. He owned one of the early independent labels, and has managed or been otherwise involved in some of New Zealand's more successful indie acts, including the Screaming Meemees and OMC. Despite his pseudonym, it was established at one point that Robbery is in fact Rob Mayes, owner of New Zealand indie label Failsafe Records.

There are other players, like Mark Harris, Sacha, Kyle Matthews and Giovanni Tiso. But the heart of the battle is between Grigg and Mayes. Mayes is a copyright absolutist, who thinks that illegal downloading is theft and should be protected against through legislation and DRM, and that unless one has had a great deal of experience in the music or other creative industries, one's opinion is worth little. He also doesn't shy away from a straw man. He makes this argument in the face of others who tend to agree that technological change has outstripped copyright conventions, and that the creative industries 'need to find new ways' of dealing with it. Grigg, for his part, recognises the use of copyright, but consistently argues for a need to face reality and recognise the need for changing business models. He doesn't believe that the industry will deserve to 'go the way of the dinosaur' if it can't reconstruct its practices, but he is generally thoughtful and realistic about the future. He also can handle about two pages of circular arguments, pointless nit-picking, and low-level abuse from Robbery before declaring that he's walking away from the thread, only to come back for another round a few days later.

The real star of the show, and the reason for its tremendous run, is Robbery. I won't attempt to describe Robbery's inimitable style, but I suggest you have a look at his latest coup. First, he describes an event he didn't attend to people who were there, baits them into re-describing it, accuses them of wanting to cover up their bad behaviour, insists that there are only two possible 'sides' one can be on in the debate, claims victim status for being outnumbered, and then, as the estimable Sam F predicts, proceeds to question the credentials of those who attended. This post is a classic. Truly, he is a master of arguing on the Internet.

Other than his inability to get his head around the obvious benefits of setting up with eMusic (is 15 cents a song viable? Is it better than zero cents?), my favourite part of Robbery's multi-faceted approach is his firm belief that copyright is an absolute right, and that any discussion that seeks to address the question of copyright in the digital age is 'against copyright'. Copyright used to last for 20 years beyond the death of the author, and now it lasts for 70? That's progress. Not because it's better per se, but because it was one way in the past, it is another way in the present, therefore the current model is more progressive. Does it matter, as has been repeatedly pointed out to him, that copyright expiration was changed because Mickey Mouse was about to pass into the public domain? Does it hell! There are two directions for Robbery, forwards and backwards. Robbery likes forwards.

So, Copyright Must Change Watch was going to be a daily round-up (on those days when the thread was active) of the arguments, particularly focusing on the fascinating interaction between Simon Grigg and Rob Mayes. As with Scraps in Stacks, I first declared my intentions to start this blog in my Facebook status, to general approval as expressed through the 'like' function. Unlike Scraps in Stacks, I never had any intention of starting this blog, because frankly I have better things to do with my time, so I never even had the opportunity to lose interest.

Update: No sooner had I posted this, than Giovanni linked to it on the Copyright Must Change thread. I think that this must be what they call 'postmodern'.

Monday, 6 April 2009

The Pedant's Almanac

This idea for a blog predates my having heard of blogs. It was originally meant to be a daily journal, and stems from my lifelong experience of Aucklanders having no concept of seasons. Seeing as I woke up to an inch of snow blanketing Pittsburgh today, despite there being blossoms, new buds, and bunnies everywhere, I thought it would be appropriate to tell you about it anyway.

I'll spare the rant about uninsulated housing, and people wearing jandals on sunny but cold days in July, and all of that, but take my word for it that there is a causal link between people that experience relatively benign weather year-round, and completely unrealistic expectations about what the weather will be doing at any given moment. As soon as it's sunny in September (which is, of course, the very end of winter in New Zealand), people start breaking out the shorts and t-shirts, and planning trips to the beach. When it inevitably rains for most of December, which it does every single year, people complain that they're not going to get a summer. Occasionally this turns out to be the case -- I think we all recall the miserable summer of 02/03, where it barely stopped raining for more than two days at a time, and New Zealand defeated India at home by making the pitches virtually unplayable.

Anyway, this particular cultural trait is annoying to anyone with any sense of perspective, but is especially annoying when one works in retail, which I did for about a year and a half in my early-twenties. When you're selling people things, there is little to talk about except the weather, so of course the complaints came daily. It came to a head for me one evening in early September, 2003. We had had about two days of sun, so Summer was officially here, despite the NPC still having nearly two months to go. After these two days of sun, we of course had a chilly wind and rain, and on this particularly evening, a woman came in and exclaimed 'it's supposed to be summer!' I responded quietly that it was, as a matter of fact, spring, but I don't think my response really registered with her. I have never believed in the maxim that the customer is always right, and even if I did believe in it I don't see why it should apply to phatic communion.

It was then that I resolved to begin a daily journal to record the weather, so that over the course of many years I would develop a kind of personal almanac, and could confidently tell people that it is, in fact, perfectly normal to see a period of sun in the last weeks of October, followed by a few weeks of rain, and that they should quit their whining and be thankful they don't live in Canada. I even told my boss of my plans. Had I had regular access to a computer and known about blogging at the time, I might well have begun this project, but as it was I would have needed to go out and buy a notebook. I couldn't be bothered with that, and just lost interest

Friday, 3 April 2009

Scraps in Stacks

When I was studying for my comprehensive exams in 2008, I read about 100 books, mostly from the Hillman Library at the University of Pittsburgh, but also from the PALCI system. In a handful of these books, I found scraps of paper with notes on them. There were about five in total: some referred specifically to the book in question, one was a shopping list, one was a puzzling fragment from the life of a stranger, and one was a lengthy (though mundane) email exchange between two people I know personally.

I said I was going to start a blog about this in my Facebook status, where I usually say I'm going to start these blogs that I'm never going to start, and later in a comment on a friend's blog about scrap writing. By the time I wrote that comment, comps were well over and I'd thrown out the notes, or lost them in the enormous pile of my own notes that now sit ominously in the corner of the living room. Besides, the screen on my camera was smashed under mysterious circumstances, so I couldn't photograph them at the time, and just lost interest.