Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The public domain and why it's important

I've been thinking a lot about the public domain ever since I wrote my proposal for a reform of copyright law in the United States. In that proposal I discussed the value of allowing works to expire (I set a time frame of 30 years, but that number is arbitrary; the important element is the expiration), but I continue to hear corporations who own copyrights "explain" how their business will be in ruin, should their works expire, fueling the continued extension of copyright terms each time they are about to expire. But, this fails to explain why the public domain was considered valuable enough to enrich with expired works in the first place. What is it that we, the public and the creators of new works derive from copyright expiration and the public domain?

When we discuss the public domain today, it can be difficult to understand its true value because so few works expire today. However, the works which have already expired have had a deep impact on our modern culture. One need look no further than Walt Disney Corporation's success in adapting public domain works such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Cinderella, Pinocchio, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Alice in Wonderland, and The Jungle Book. How is it, then, that we continue to argue that copyright terms must be extended in order to protect our cultural heritage? Is it possible that such examples are just outliers and the public domain doesn't actually benefit the public and our culture? Hardly. In order to illustrate that point, let me provide a few examples:

It's likely impossible to fully account for the impact of William Shakespeare in  modern culture. Hamlet, alone, has spawned dozens of adaptations for film and television, not to mention its continued performances and adaptations on stage. Film alone accounts for over fifty adaptations of the play! Overall, there are over 400 adaptations of Shakespeare's plays, just in film.

Since the copyright expired in 1956 there have been over 40 adaptations of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and related books and characters in film, television and stage.

The script for Braveheart was based mainly on Blind Harry's 15th century epic poem, The Actes and Deidis of the Illustre and Vallyeant Campioun Schir William Wallace.

The 1985 film, Ran, by Akira Kurosawa is based on legends of the daimyo Mōri Motonari, as well as on the Shakespearean tragedy King Lear.

The 1959 film, Ben-Hur, was the third film version of Lew Wallace's 1880 novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, though I have not been able to determine if, in fact, the novel's copyright had expired by 1959, it does seem likely that it had.

The Wizard of Oz, Braveheart, Ran and Ben-Hur are all listed in the Internet Movie Database top 250 films of all time. How could it be that our popular culture could be so influenced from the public domain and yet we continue to argue that enriching the public domain by allowing works to expire is harmful?

The simple fact is that corporations fear losing any source of income, regardless of how much they might ultimately benefit from a copyright system that enriches the pool of works upon which they might draw. This is understandable, but should not be the basis on which we form our laws.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

TV credenza

I've been looking at TV stands and credenzas for some time now, but I didn't see anything that met my needs and was well designed. In the end, I was going to give up and build something... then I found the Prepac TV Console. At first I thought it was kind of nice looking. Height was a big thing for me. I bought a conservatively small TV, and most stands are fine for 50" behemoths, but they're too short for what I have. At 26.75" this stand was a perfect height, and the shelves looked well placed.

I had already decided to buy it when I clicked on the image to see a close-up. That's when my mind was blown. The swing-out DVD/CD racks are beautiful and the holes for cables in the back aren't holes... they're notches cut into opposing, sliding panels that let you get equipment in and out easily from the back (also affording you trivial cabling access).

I've seen a ton of TV stands over the past few months and this has to be the best one I've laid eyes on, hands-down. What's more, for the price, it's a steal!

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Scott Pilgrim: What comic book movies should be

I saw Scott Pilgrim vs. The World with friends last night. I had not realized, when I saw it, that it was based on a graphic novel, but it makes perfect sense. The film is as visually creative as Tim Burton's recent Alice in Wonderland but with a Wayne's World sensibility. The first image you see is an 8-bit video game-style rendering of the Universal Pictures logo. This is accompanied by an appropriately retro version of the usual signature theme. From this point on, the movie firmly establishes itself as a movie / video game hybrid, and I expect that audiences will fall into two camps: those who are aware of video game (specifically console and hand-held video game) culture who will enjoy the humor and visuals and those who are not and won't.

I can't say enough about the work they've put in to layering a video game world over the movie. I'll likely have to watch the movie again just to pick up on some of the touches I missed, but keep an eye on out-of-focus backgrounds. These are often fully rendered and the subtle touches are just as much a part of the story as the costuming and makeup.

The love story is essentially ignorable. Boy meets girl, girl has sketchy past, boy sees through all that, love springs eternal. It's nothing you haven't seen before. On the other hand, the secondary relationships are absolutely priceless. Scott's chaste relationship with an underage girl, his gay roommate with whom he shares a bed, and his cartoon-thin band mates are the real fulcrums of this story of a young man who hasn't yet given up being a boy.

Is it all good? No. What's entertaining about the film is its constant string of humorous twists on the culture of the generation that was born in the late 1980s to early 1990s. Some of the references are spot-on. Some of them miss the mark or just don't play well to the audience (I'm not in the target demographic, however, so there might be a very different mix of humor that works for people who are). The film walks a fine line between goofy spoof and cutting satire and sometimes comes up short on both sides. Still, the vast majority of movie works well and it's a rare movie that attempts as much as Scott Pilgrim.

I refer the frequent reader of my blog back to The best days of cinema were... 2009? where I described why I believe that creativity and quality story telling are alive and well in modern movie making. I'll happily add Scott Pilgrim vs. The World to the list of films that make my point.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Parrot and PIR: The best tool you don't use

For over 10 years now, many eyes have been on Perl 6, watching and waiting for it to be stable enough to use. Its promise is vast. Powerful "rules" will transform complicates parsing tasks into trivial libraries; A multi-method OO system like Common Lisp, but without the syntactic hurdles of learning to live with Lisp, a typed dynamic language that doesn't tie you down to type management. All of these features seem like the white whale of Melville's story, and yet they all exist today in a usable and stable form. Why doesn't anyone know about this? Well, I'm here to change that.

Parrot, the virtual machine first intended for Perl 6 and developed in parallel with that project, has the underlying mechanisms for everything Perl 6 wants to accomplish. It even has a pseudo-Perl 6 language called NQP (Not Quite Perl) for writing rules and other Perl 6-like functionality. But one thing slowing people down, to date, has been the lack of a coherent tutorial on using Parrot as a general purpose programming tool. Enter Parrot Babysteps. This Web tutorial (which is also a Github project) aims to teach people to program with Parrot. Its examples range from the typical and trivial, "Hello world" to a star catalog manager.

Parrot code is anything but beautiful. The language is modeled on assembly and is designed to be easily transformed into machine code via a JIT compiler, so don't expect it to be full of syntactic sugar like Perl. On the other hand, the combination of JIT compilation and high level constructs gives you the kind of power and performance that even Java is hesitant to offer.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Zen Alarm Clock

Zen Alarm Clock... it sounds like some kind of scam, doesn't it? Some New Age, crystal-based frob that's supposed to make you wake up.

But I bought my first Zen Alarm Clock back in ... oh it had to be '96 or so. I was having a hard time waking up, and no alarm clock worked. I can sleep through a jack hammer, and have, literally. Someone recommended this clock and I tried it out, even though it cost $100, which seemed like a ton for an alarm clock. The difference was staggering. Instead of doing something loud and obnoxious enough to force you to wake up immediately, it uses a long series of increasingly frequent chimes, none of which on their own would wake you.

By the time you become aware that it's going off, you've been gradually waking up for a good 10 minutes or so, which means that you don't feel like you're still asleep, being propelled only by the adrenaline release triggered by a loud noise. Instead you're just "up". If you put the clock on the other side of the room, that final act of getting out of bed and walking over to turn it off is usually sufficient, even if you're sleep deprived, to wake you up thoroughly.

My old clock is now breaking down after about 15 years, and it's time to upgrade to the digital version. I just purchased it today, and hope to get it in the mail in a few days. Can't wait.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Contest: Primes with an unusual number of a digit

I'd like to propose a quick contest. Here are the rules:
  1. You must submit your entry by September 2, 2010, 23:59 (sorry, I can't wait until 2011, the next prime year)
  2. Your submission must be a sequence of decimal digits.
  3. The number that these represent must be prime (which make up (in order) a prime number. You may use a test like Rabin-Miller, which will be the method used to validate the submission. Note that it is therefore possible for the submission to fail such a test, even if it passed for the sumitter.
  4. The number must be composed of at least either 155 decimal digits or 512 bits (either will do).
  5. The winner will be the number which has the highest ratio of any one digit. For example, "23" has a 50% ratio of the digit "2" while 1011 has a 75% ratio of "1"
  6. You must send your entries to essay-contest@ajs.com
As an example, here is a number:

1074934746  0579280428  5352135601  3625508347  1908730962  4560090445  3404800574  5211453514  0988380000  3920392507  2147060801  0391490408  0059833120  1609426475  4887127734  07857

which has 31 zeros for a ratio of 20%. Obviously, your submission should seek to beat at least this relatively low number.

You can submit as many times as you like, but in order to avoid making me unhappy with you, I suggest waiting until the last minute (or whenever you decide to stop searching) and submit the best result you have by then.

The winner will get a lifetime subscription to this blog and their name prominently featured in the article in which the number is published.

For fun, I'll be writing my own solver in Rakudo Star Perl 6. It won't be very efficient, so I expect it to get seriously trounced, but I'll do it for the fun. Even if I find the best number, I'll publish the best submission from someone else.