Saturday, October 27, 2007


There is an oft-stated assumption that print media, especially books, are more accurate than what appears on the web. In fact you'll often hear it said that any information from the web is automatically suspect.

There's a sense in which that's true. But what the people making those statements forget is that information that appears in books is -- or should be -- suspect as well.

When I was a newspaperman
(to resurrect an obsolete term) I was frequently amazed, and usually, appalled at how uncritically people accepted something as true simply because it had been committed to print.

Ah, but that's newspapers,
the critics protest. Books are inherently much more accurate because they are written by experts and pass through an editing process.

To paraphrase Mr. Bumble: If the critic believes that, then the critic, sir, is an ass.

I've written books as well and I've seen first-hand how that 'editing process' works. Mostly it doesn't.

There is also the incontrovertible fact that there are a mountain of horribly inaccurate books out there. Some are wrong for political reasons, some are wrong because the information is outdated and some are wrong because they are simply, flat wrong and the writer's didn't know what they were talking about.

Case in point: I was just boxing up some of my library to give to Goodwill when I ran across a shining example I had picked up a few years ago in a fit of optimism. The title was "A Manual of Foreign Dialects For Radio, Stage And Screen", copyright 1943. Since I write fiction I'm always interested in improving my dialogue. And I figured this could help.

Boy, was I wrong!

It is painfully obvious the authors, a husband-and-wife team of dialect coaches, had tin ears and were massively ignorant to boot. While there's some good information in the prefatory parts of the book and they manage, after a fashion, some of the more common (in 1943) dialects, their advice on how to speak with, say, a Japanese accent is utterly ludicrous.

The example isn't chosen at random. I have visited Japan in much more than the usual tourist role, learned to speak Japanese at a kindergarten level and studied Japanese culture in something more than a haphazard fashion for a number of years. I am by no means an expert, but I have listened to a lot of Japanese and tried to reproduce faithfully what I heard.

The authors have no idea what a Japanese accent sounds like and their attempts to guide actors to reproduce it is absurd. Their 'explanations' are even more ridiculous. For example they claim kana (a phonetic syllabary used to write Japanese words) is a separate language.

They claim the Japanese don't like to pronounce two consonants together. It's not a matter of like. The Japanese syllabaries have only one naked consonant, "n". All the other "letters" are consonant-vowel combinations, or worse. Japanese are conditioned to add vowels after consonants, both in loan words (like basubaru -- baseball) and in speaking other languages like English.

Similarly they repeat the sterotype of Japanese hissing when they start to speak. In all the time I have dealt with Japanese, listened to Japanese, watched Japanese movies and television shows to help learn the language, etc., etc., etc. I have never, ever heard a Japanese hiss in this fashion.

Since I also spent some time in Ireland, I checked the section on Irish dialect as well. It is better, but much of it is not-very-good examples a form called "stage Irish" which the Irish abhor. Stage Irish is a phony Irish dialect that actors, mostly English and American, cooked up to 'sound Irish.' It is not at all the way the Irish speak naturally. (Hint: If you hear someone say "faith and begorra", whack him over the head with your shillelagh.)

In short, the book is a wildly inaccurate farrago of nonsense. Yet it was put into print and issued by a reputable publisher. And unlike a similar production on the web -- were one unwise enough to attempt it -- it can't be corrected by counter-postings from the more knowledgeable people. Instead it sits there like some strange insect preserved for the ages in amber.

The real point is that you can't automatically trust anything because it appears on the web or in print. Critical thinking is a vitally important skill and has been practically since the invention of literacy. The difference is that the web not only further highlights the need, it makes it much easier to cross check the information

Thursday, October 25, 2007


Personally I think "intellectual property" is surrounded by its very own stupid field.

It seems like every time the subject of copyrights, patents, or trademarks emerges, someone, usually a big corporation, gets enmeshed in the stupidity field and does something really, really dumb.

But now comes the defense industry with what has to be the all time low in stupefying copyright/trademark incompetence. The really bad thing is it isn't something new. It's been going on for years.

Big defense contractors are demanding -- and getting -- licensing fees from model airplane companies for making models of military aircraft!

This is so breathlessly dumb on so many levels words (very nearly) fail me.

Legal idiocy aside, this is a classic case of giving yourself a pedicure with a tommy gun, both practically and from a PR standpoint.

Now let's see... Who designs these aircraft and other vehicles for our oligarchy of bloated, inefficient defense contractors? Why engineers, of course. And where do we get engineers? From engineering schools. And who enrolls in those engineering schools? Why young men and women who have a desire to design and build things? And where did they get this desire? From building things in their youth, like, oh, I dunno, Model Freaking Airplanes!

Wanna bet that the French, the Chinese and the Indians aren't doing everything they can to aim their kids toward engineering by encouraging them to do things like build model airplanes. And what are our defense contractors doing? Right. They're demanding money so people can produce model kits that kids can build.

But of course that doesn't matter. In a few years we'll outsource all that design work to places like India and China anyway, and we'll buy more of our aircraft from the French. So who cares whether our kids get interested in the grubby details of engineering? Meanwhile, full speed ahead and soak those little so-and-sos for all we can get. Teach them what American capitalism is really about, by God!
Engineers? We don't need no steenking engineers. We got lawyers!

Nor are the amounts of money insignificant be it noted. The licensing fee amounts to up to 8 percent of the cost of an $8 plastic model. You have to be familiar with the hobby business to realize how big a bite that represents out of everyone's razor-thin margins.

The second little detail is this business is a PR disaster in the making for an industry that needs all the good, or at least neutral, PR it can get. At a time when the cost of our high tech toys has doubled from the confident estimates of contractors and the DOD a few years ago (The F-35 has gone from $30 million to $60 million, or more) the last thing the contractors need is to be seen as a bunch of penny-pinching money-grubbing SOBs.

Siphoning money out of children's pockets does wonders for that image.

While the amount of money might be a big concern for the model airplane companies, most of whom are tiny by defense standards, it isn't even pocket change for LockMart and the other hybrids that charge us stupidly large amounts of money for their products. In fact the few thousand dollars a year they collect on each of these deals probably doesn't even cover the costs of the legal thuggery involved.

And people are starting to catch on. There's a bill in Congress to end this nonsense and I'd love to see the defense bozos trying to defend their stand. Should be more fun than watching cigarette execs swear under oath that nicotine is not addicting.

Ironically the defense leeches are getting support from their minions (in the original sense of the term) in the Defense Department. As another story on this massive case of institutional dumbth notes:

The Pentagon, however, “strongly opposes” Andrews’ provision, devoting an entire page to the issue in its latest authorization appeals package. Such appeals are typically reserved for last-ditch efforts to save big DOD programs from funding cuts.

DOD “can envision no valid reason why a trademark owner should ever be compelled to allow another entity to use that intellectual property, even for reasonable license fees,” the appeal says.

Obviously someone at the Pentagon needs to get his or her eyeglasses cleaned -- or to get a new guide dog.

Or alternatively they can just spend a minute looking at how much it costs the Air Force to recruit someone to work on the real thing. If the clowns in the Defense Department had a lick of sense -- and could manage to get their noses out of the defense contractors' back pockets -- they'd not only prohibit licensing fees, they'd subsidize the model companies for helping them get recruits.

However this particular piece of military yahooism serves as an adequate introduction to the legalities of this tissue of nonsense.

First, of course, those military designs were developed with taxpayer money -- potloads of it. The designations, such as F-22 Raptor, were assigned by the government. Where do these vultures in pinstripes get off demanding money so kids can built toy replicas of American military designs?

I doubt seriously the basic shapes and external details of any aircraft, military or commercial, even be copyrighted, under the functionality provisions of the copyright law. Granted these guys are claiming trademark, not copyright, but I think that's even shakier for much the same reasons. But who's got the money to fight an arcane trademark case in court against the contractors and their law firm of Rich, Greedy & Powerful? They're sucking in so much money from the public trough they can bury just about anyone.

And even if by some miracle the outline of something like the F-22 can be copyrighted, or trademarked, what moron decided that the design should be owned by the company that built the thing with government money?

But enough. This is an utterly silly, massively stupid and finally pointless exercise. It simply demonstrates once more -- if there is some cave-dwelling Kallikak out there who still needs a demonstration -- how completely our intellectual property laws are broken.

(Whew) Thank you. I feel much better now.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007


"There are some things it is impossible to parody. Today's parody is tomorrow's design document"
The collected sayings of Wiz Zumwalt

In his blog, Jeff Gomez is loudly proclaiming that print is dead. He adduces some interesting if not necessarily completely convincing arguments. For further enlightenment, Jeff suggests consulting the full form of his argument -- in a printed book called "Print is Dead."

Meanwhile, one of my favorite editors, Esther Schlinder describes her attempts to get press credentials to the Blog World conference and expo, which is devoted to blogging, Web 2.0 and other harbingers of the future. Before handing out credentials, the staff wants to see articles she has written on the subject. And it wants them faxed! Neat trick since almost all of the writing on the subject, Esther's included, appears online with no paper copies whatsoever.

And finally, the Storage Networking Industry Association, SNIA, has prepared a very good tutorial on its troubled SMI-S storage management standard. The tutorial -- all 116 pages of it in tiny little type -- is available as a pdf on SNIA's website. With printing blocked so you can't print out a copy to actually read.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Copyright redux

I really didn't intend for this to be a blog about copyrights, but it seems like every day brings new news highlighting the intellectual poverty of the old media in this area.

From Radiohead's new album to the latest RIAA silliness, to some other stuff, there's a lot of copyright news I intend to comment on.

It's not all about copyright. A fascinating essay of the wisdom of crowds and how it applies to everything from evolution to wikis (not my essay, but I intend to comment on it). More on community building, the crossovers between MMPORGs and network television, virtualizing reality versus really virtualized reality, and, of course, virtual trade shows.

As soon as things get sorted out, watch this space.

Monday, October 8, 2007