Monday, October 31, 2011

Guillotine for Halloween

Halloween and the French Revolution would seem to be made for each other--opportunities for period costume galore and bookoo headless gore.

Except that Halloween doesn't really exist in France. And France--well, France seems not to exist either, on this side of the Atlantic (USA).

So I thought I'd try to remedy the situation by reelizing a recent lyrical effort called "Ptet ta tete," which means "maybe your head." I called it Cherokee Justice--more on that later.

The words of the chorus are in that made-up language called "French." Here they are with a translation:

Ptet ta tete, ptet ma tete, ptet on causera avec la foule [maybe your head, maybe my head, maybe we'll chat with the crowd]
Ptet ta tete, ptet ma tete, on est ici pour faire la fete [maybe your head, maybe my head, everybody's here for a party]
on est ici pour regarder la chute, toi ou moi aucune difference [they're here to see the axe fall, on you or me, it makes no difference]
la descente en panier [somebody's going down]
la descente en panier [somebody's going down]
Dame Gaga Lady Guillo Dame Gaga Lady Guillo Dame Gaga Lady Guillo [gibberish meant to conflate the guillotine and Lady Gaga. I don't have an explanation other than it felt right. But Lady Gaga uses gibberish in her own songs. And she has a guillotine in the video of one of them.]
Dame Gaga Lady Guillo Dame Gaga Lady Guillo Dame Gaga Lady Guillo [ditto]
Occupez, occupez,  [occupy, occupy--as in Wall St.]
O coupez!  [Off with their heads! As in Wall St. Haha! Just kidding!]

The guillotine was most famously the instrument of (primarily) Jacobin justice. The Jacobins were the party in power in 1792, during the French revolutionary period known as the Terror, when the Jacobins in Paris executed pretty much everybody they could get their hands on, including themselves. At the same time, they were fending off invading armies. The soldier-heroes of the day were the "sans culottes"--commoners who wore pants instead of the "culottes" or knee-breeches of the aristocracy. (Today apparently the French have decided that "culottes" are "panties," so that if you look for information on "sans culottes" on today's Internet, you will find shots of Lady Gaga in less than a complete state of wardrobery.)

But, back to the video: I wondered who might be a satisfactory target of Jacobin justice, at least theoretically speaking.

Ask yourself what single U.S. President inflicted more undeserved hardship on any group of Americans in our history? Don't have the answer? Okay, then, what President best combines the characteristics of the Ku Klux Klan and Adolf Hitler? Still don't know? Okay, then, take out your wallet and pull out a twenty. That guy.

So here's the project: remove his face and replace it with that of someone who actually did something positive, like introduce literacy to his people by inventing an alphabet to suit their language. Justice? Probably not. But sometimes even an empty gesture is better than nothing.

Happy Halloween! Bonne Guillotine! Cherokee Justice!


Monday, October 17, 2011

Sequential Fortuity: "Cloudsplitter" and "The Poisonwood Bible"

Oh, the manifold joys of learning through reading fiction! I'm tempted just to leave that sentence there and not explain it, partly because the thought has loosed an unharnessable stampede of other thoughts, a veritable expanding universe right inside my own brain.

It will be awhile before I come down to earth.

At least there's no doubt about who the Creators are. The most recent ones are Russell Banks and Barbara Kingsolver. Neither I nor they had any idea that they belonged together on the same Olympus or Parnassus, but getting them there was as easy as two people making suggestions at my Nevermore Book Club: Doris and Gary, one for Cloudsplitter (Banks) and the other for The Poisonwood Bible (Kingsolver), thereby being the Titans that the Creators depended upon. (The pantheon of my life is a pretty crowded place, as you can well imagine.)

And when I say "learning through reading fiction," I certainly don't mean to spite the cranial universes that are made possible through reading nonfiction. Mostly, nonfiction is what I read in order to learn. But to have a world unfold before your very eyes! To put yourself in someone else's cranial universe! Much less someone's shoes: empathy is a mere moon by comparison.

I've been digressing ever since that very first sentence sent me out into a universe from which I'll never return, and from which I must now return (quarks and away!) in order to share the discovery that launched me into that digression: having read Cloudsplitter and The Poisonwood Bible back-to-back, I've found that these two books belong back-to-back.

And what has just cemented that opinion is that just now, having written that paragraph, I wondered "I wonder if anyone else has thought about putting them back-to-back?" You know, how you do when you think of a phrase as a good title for a book or a name for a band or a product line for the budding entrepreneur in you, but you have to Google it to be sure nobody's already copped it, and it always seems somebody has. Well, in this case I went to Google to find out, and guess where the two occur back-to-back? In a list of books given as examples of the kind of fiction that qualifies for the prize that Barbara Kingsolver funds!  Mind you, this is just a coincidence of the two titles together one after another on a list, but hey: it's Barbara Kingsolver's list. So it's not like I'm completely without gravity, here.

What is it, then, about the two books that demand they be read sequentially? At the center of each is an individual who is determined to impose his Christian-God-inspired vision upon a society that resists. In fact, more than resisting, the society in large part actively repels the vision. And, remember, it's a society. As opposed, remember, to an individual.

In Banks's case, the individual is the famous abolitionist John Brown, who was famously executed after failing in an attempt to foment a massive slave revolt by seizing a Federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry. Brown is commonly depicted as a crazy man--wild eyes, long unkempt beard, brandished rifle. I had always wondered if in fact he was crazy. Cloudsplitter is told as the memoir of his son Owen, who--according to this account--played a crucial role in bringing his father to act on well-reasoned, religious beliefs he had long held, and to act in such a way that required killing others in pursuit of his vision of freedom and equality for the enslaved Negro.

In Kingsolver's case, the individual is the Baptist missionary Nathan Price, who follows a call to the Congo in the late 1950's, during the last days of Belgian colonialism. His unwavering vision is the conversion to Christianity of African souls through the mechanism of immersion. The African souls resist the notion, given that the local baptistry is a crocodile-infested river. But Rev. Price refuses to let any of the realities of Africa dilute the purity of his faith: his realities are the only ones that matter.

Revolving around these central characters driven by unfaltering faith in a Christian God are their families. Brown's sons do not share his faith, but they share at least to some extent a belief in the justice he seeks, revere him as their leader, and are willing to die alongside him. Price's daughters (in whose voices Kingsolver tells her story), unshielded by the armor of God, bear the brunt of the African reality's parasites, pests, and poisons--indigenous biological ones and invading political ones. But the daughters have a life, at least--the tragic mixed with the blessings of love and learning--whereas the father pursues his vision of salvation until he reaches it, alienated and alone, at the hands of those he is trying to save. His life is all about death.

Both books depend on history. Banks, as Owen Brown's "memoirist," is to some extent the vessel of historical record--but to what extent? Kingsolver has been criticized for writing a tendentious novel upon which to hang an anti-American agenda. But with books such as these, history is only an excuse to engage morality. Humanity hangs in the balance: who can sway us? Do we bring faith to the world, or bring the world to faith? Which martyr will we follow, and which will we burn?

The answers expand outward, growing with the universe brought about by the collision of Cloudsplitter and The Poisonwood Bible.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Learning outside the box

Historian Niall Ferguson says in an April, 2011, interview in The Guardian: “The debate that I'm interested in having is with seriously smart people about how we design institutions in the 21st century that will genuinely address problems of poverty and educational underachievement. Now that's an interesting debate to have, but very few people in this country are interested in having it."

Presumably, “this country” refers to Great Britain. A similar lack of interest exists in the United States when the subject is poverty, which we’ve determined can no longer occur in an age of near-universal cellphone usage. We don’t debate poverty because we’ve decided it isn’t there anymore.

But educational underachievement? Tom Brokaw, trumpet major of the Greatest Generation, has declared “education in America” to be “THE national imperative of the 21st century.” There seems to be near-universal agreement that a prosperous economic future for the U.S. will depend on having an educated populace to spin out the money-making notions of the future—which the Chinese and Indians will presumably then manufacture.

The debate seems to be how we should go about getting that educated populace, when what we seem to have right now is an increasingly expensive system of—to use Ferguson’s words—educational underachievement. (Anyone remember A Nation at Risk? That was 1983. What would it be called if it were issued today? A Nation Really, Really, Really at Risk?) Many seriously smart people are involved in the discussion, to judge from the continuous flow of high-profile books on the topic: Class Warfare by Steven Brill pits charter schools and big city superintendents like New York City’s Joel Klein against teachers’ unions, but overall the regime is one that is driven by the need to perform well on standardized tests; Diane Ravitch, in The Death and Life of the Great American School System, says that the tests are themselves the problem.

In fact, the problem is that we have a basic, fundamental misunderstanding of education as something that occurs only in a box within a box—in a classroom within a school—where a teacher causes learning to happen. This is wrong, and all of our efforts to change education will fail unless we realize this.

I recently read the book Incognito by David Eagleman, which emphasized (among other things) the point that all vision occurs in the brain. Our eyes receive the light, but the attribution of pattern and perception to the light all happens in the brain. Thinking about this, I felt this point to be a kind of brilliant “duh.” Isn’t it obvious that all seeing occurs in the brain? Well, yes, it is in a way, but it is also worth thinking about—because among other things you start to “see” (haha) that vision is in no way a passive reception of inherent qualities in the world around us.

Thinking thus about learning/education produces a similar kind of “duh”—“yeah, well, it’s obvious that a teacher can only teach. All the learning happens in our brains.”

Obvious, maybe. But once you’ve taken this step, you start to see how limiting our model of education is; limiting, and maybe even destructive, if it is blind to other valuable ways of learning.

This is in no way a criticism of teachers. In fact, every teacher (I’ve been one myself) knows the truth of this. Every teacher has seen the light of learning ignite in a student’s eyes; every teacher has seen a student’s dogged, plodding, and commendable persistence with homework or rote learning so as to internalize knowledge; every teacher knows all too well the high walls that keep students from learning what is being taught; every teacher knows how students sometimes build those walls themselves.

But it is important to dwell on the fact that—to use an ungrammatical usage purposely—the teacher never “learns” us. We ourselves do the learning.

The reason I’m focusing on what may seem to be the obvious is that, when it comes to education, we do not, in fact, act as if we understand this to be the case. Instead, what we do is to declare, in effect, that education is a product of the classroom. That is a far cry from saying that it is a product of the brain.

To demonstrate a very clear consequence, I will draw on my own field of librarianship. I have recently been inspired by two books on copyright—Common As Air by Lewis Hyde and Reclaiming Fair Use by Patricia Aufderheide and Peter Jaszi—to dare to think that the fair use doctrine as applied to certain public library usages is out of whack and needs to be adjusted.

For a long time, I’ve been interested in building up public library activities like book clubs and speaker series as a way to get people actively engaged in some of the more communal (and—in our classroom-focused world of education—overlooked) forms of learning.

Among the things I’ve thought about doing has been a film discussion series, in which the library would show a film for the purpose of provoking discussion afterwards. Having participated in numerous “shared learning” activities in the past, I can testify to the educational value of these kinds of experiences. As such, I would like to claim that this kind of film series—showing a movie from the library’s collection for the purpose of stimulating discussion—should satisfy the educational exception to copyright restrictions that would otherwise prevent showing a movie without paying licensing fees.

The problem is that the American Library Association has a document—ALA Library Fact Sheet 7, last updated in Aug., 2009—that says I can’t.

The Fact Sheet lays out the following requirements that must be met in order for the educational fair use to apply to “videos.” First of all, it must be a “classroom use” in which seven factors must apply:

1. The performance must be by instructors or by pupils.
2. The performance is in connection with face-to-face teaching activities.
3. The entire audience is involved in the teaching activity.
4. The entire audience is in the same room or general area.
5. The teaching activities are conducted by a non-profit education institution.
6. The performance takes place in a classroom or similar place devoted to instruction.
7. The person responsible for the performance has no reason to believe that the videotape was unlawfully made.

The Fact Sheet then goes on to say that “most public performances of a video in a public room (including library meeting rooms), whether or not a fee is charged, would be an infringement. Such performances require a performance license from the copyright owner. The only exception would be educational programs meeting all seven requirements listed above.”

So there you have it. Even the American Library Association does not recognize a lay discussion group in a public library meeting room as having an educational purpose. The only category of educational fair use exception is a “classroom” one involving “instructors” and “pupils.”

I would be without much—or any—hope were it not for Hyde’s inspiration to take back the intellectual commons and Aufderheide/Jaszi’s very specific history of the recent development of current fair use doctrine.

According to A/J, many of the existing guidelines on fair use, including those developed to “interpret” the video revolution, are “unhelpful” and “distorted by powerful industry interests.” The authors remind us over and over that the Copyright Act is supposed to be a balancing act between the creators’ expectations of income and the general public’s first amendment right to free use of created works. The result of the video and digital revolutions have been in general to tip the balance quite a bit to the creators’ side—often as a result of the heavy hand of the media corporations.

The guidelines, say A/J, are “what you might expect from negotiated settlements where one side is much more powerful and invested in weakening fair use.” In other words, the guidelines can be “harshly limited” by using specific quantities and proportions in ways that have “no grounding whatsoever in the Copyright Act.”

My reading of the ALA Fact Sheet—in the context of my interest in having a public library film discussion series—is that it lays out an unduly narrow definition of an educational fair use of video material and that it needs to be replaced.

A/J recommend that “communities of practice”—such as, say, public librarians—draft “codes of best practices” as a way of balancing the competing copyright interests in various scenarios, or “situations.” For example, I would say that the educational fair use would be met by the lay discussion film series, but it would not by the mere showing of a film or movie. Similarly, a movie used as part of an interactive story hour would be educational fair use, but not a random showing for entertainment purposes.

Talk about a tiny, tiny niche. I know. But I believe it's instructive; it shows how far away we are from a real understanding of how learning happens. (And, mirabile dictu, we're not even in a classroom!) For us to be so far away from something so basic means that we’ll revisit A Nation At Risk every thirty years and wonder why Harry Potter doesn’t come back and do something about it.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Which came first, the pumpkin or the earworm?

It's a chicken and egg question. If you're going to write a song, do you start with the words or the music?

With Paul McCartney, we know that the egg came first. The lyrics for the three syllables that became "Yesterday" were originally "scrambled eggs." Keith Richards, to judge from his autobiography, liked his fried--however his eggs may have been cooked.

Giuseppe Verdi's technique was to play chicken with a metronome. Tinpan Alley learned that if you cut the head off the chicken first and let it run around, sometimes it produced a golden egg before it died. If only they could clone that "sometimes." Hmm, wait a sec: "sometimes." It has the sound of a hit! Grab a chicken!

I share a study with three backup oboists who perform under the name of Los Tres Oboes. As far as they're concerned, every composition starts with eggs and chicken--huevos rancheros and pollo loco--as well as a part for each one of them. "But guys," I tell them, "you're backup oboists. You make 'afterthought' look like an alpha male."

They hate it when I say that. They get back at me by inserting an earworm into my, well, ear. Actually, they are very cleverfully inserting it into my brain--as should be obvious, but if you read Incognito by David Eagleman, you'll see that obvious things are quite invisible. Los Tres Oboes must know this, too, because along with the so-obvious-it-was-invisible earworm (in the form of an uptempo bass line), this time they left a pumpkin in my foyer, got my wife to decorate it with flowers, and pretended to know nothing about it even as they blinked an instinctive challenge at me to mate it with the earworm. Musically speaking, of course.

Talk about creative process. I might say I don't want to go there, but I have to. The earworm already has me muttering "p'tet' ta tete" which means "maybe your head," which could be a pumpkin, right? No? Folly? Of course. Grab a chicken!

Los Tres Oboes are pretty smug about it. I'm stuck, and they already have a part. Not bad for a backup oboe trio.