On Halloween

I’ve long thought of Halloween, and its various traditions, as pretty daft. It seems mostly like a colossal nationwide waste of resources, engineered by the marketing departments of a few large corporations. My tune is changing, though.

On Halloween, we teach our children that their neighbors will help them. Specifically, we teach them that

  • if you use a bit of common sense, you can safely approach anyone and ask them for something
  • if you follow the customary etiquette and ask politely, people will try to satisfy your request
  • this is true even if your request is not something especially useful or worthwhile
  • this is true even if neither of you can identify the other

Not only do we teach these things, but we actually demonstrate them. I can hardly think of another festival that so directly instills a culture of communal trust and mutual assistance.

I don’t mean to claim that this lesson is deliberate, or that it’s particularly well absorbed, but it’s enough to make me rethink the holiday. At least for kids. I haven’t yet figured out the psychosocial benefit derived from dressing up as Sexy Nemo.

It’s Alive!!!

I was in lab until after midnight last night… but that was because I had a small breakthrough, and my system is finally really working. It turns blurry images into crisp ones. I am very excited.

Of course, there is still much to do: more axes, more complex motions, less contrived systems. Nonetheless, the second stage “proof of principle” is now firmly in place.

Commute

One highly effective way to improve the quality of one’s commute is to stay in lab until 10:30 PM. This is a surprisingly agreeable solution, at least when the Dermatology department decides to leave a complete dinner over from their Halloween party. Riding back, through the deserted streets and deep burnt orange leaves, was truly lovely.

Worst Commute Ever

Ok, possibly not the worst ever, but pretty bad. The rush hour crush, in the rain, after dark, through stimulus-fired construction zones that reduce the number of lanes, made for a Really Good Storm of traffic. It was gridlock, in places, but the rain and darkness made visibility too poor to dart between cars and split lanes as cyclists can often do. The trip took me twice as long as it normally would, at least.

Am I whining? I may be whining. I’m pretty sure it would have been a lot slower in a car.

Bugs

As I sat outside my office last night, eating my Subway sandwich under the imposing facade of the Boston Lying-In Hospital, I noticed a bug. It was maybe as large as a quarter, and crawling quickly on spindly legs. It was a bit too small to be a cockroach, I think, but definitely had the general shape of a beetle.

A few moments later I saw another, and as I stood up and looked around, I realized there were dozens of them one every meter or two across the entire patio. Their sheer abundance made me wonder if they were Cicadas, but they made no noise and I saw no wings.

I’m still not sure what I saw there, in the dark. I doubt they’ll be in evidence tomorrow morning. I’m glad I haven’t seen any inside the building.

Performance

Last night VoiceLab gave a performance at the Harvard student bar. It was noisy, and we’re not very experienced with microphones as a group, but I don’t think we embarrassed ourselves … at least, not any more than necessary.

I spent all day today in lab, until the last shuttle at 10:30. Nothing seems to want to work. Experimental science is hard. It makes me wish I were a theorist.

VANNA WHITE v. SAMSUNG ELECTRONICS AMERICA

It’s amazing what you can find on Wikipedia. Someone could probably make a lot of money just by posting a new incredible thing from Wikipedia every day. Here‘s mine:

In 1993, [Vanna] White won a lawsuit against the Samsung Electronics corporation over its use of a humorous ad featuring a robot turning letters on a game show. The decision later was affirmed by the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. The issue was over the property right to publicity. The court ruled in favor of White’s claim of a right to her property of publicity.

The majority opinion is easy to read and full of amusing legal arguments:

Consider a hypothetical advertisement which depicts a mechanical robot with male features, an African-American complexion, and a bald head. The robot is wearing black hightop Air Jordan basketball sneakers, and a red basketball uniform with black trim, baggy shorts, and the number 23 (though not revealing “Bulls” or “Jordan” lettering). The ad depicts the robot dunking a basketball one-handed, stiff-armed, legs extended like open scissors, and tongue hanging out. Now envision that this ad is run on television during professional basketball games. Considered individually, the robot’s physical attributes, its dress, and its stance tell us little. Taken together, they lead to the only conclusion that any sports viewer who has registered a discernible pulse in the past five years would reach: the ad is about Michael Jordan.

The dissenting opinion is even more striking, to the point that I will simply quote the whole opening section:

Saddam Hussein wants to keep advertisers from using his picture in unflattering contexts. Clint Eastwood doesn’t want tabloids to write about him. Rudolf Valentino’s heirs want to control his film biography. The Girl Scouts don’t want their image soiled by association with certain activities (Girl Scouts v. Personality Posters Mfg., 304 F. Supp. 1228 (S.D.N.Y. 1969) (poster of a pregnant girl in a Girl Scout uniform with the caption “Be Prepared”)). George Lucas wants to keep Strategic Defense Initiative fans from calling it “Star Wars.” Pepsico doesn’t want singers to use the word “Pepsi” in their songs. Guy Lombardo wants an exclusive property right to ads that show big bands playing on New Year’s Eve. Uri Geller thinks he should be paid for ads showing psychics bending metal through telekinesis. Paul Prudhomme, that household name, thinks the same about ads featuring corpulent bearded chefs. And scads of copyright holders see purple when their creations are made fun of.

Trademarks are often reflected in the mirror of our popular culture. See Truman Capote, Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1958); Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Breakfast of Champions (1973); Tom Wolfe, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968) (which, incidentally, includes a chapter on the Hell’s Angels); Larry Niven, Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex in All the Myriad Ways (1971); Looking for Mr. Goodbar (1977); The Coca-Cola Kid (1985) (using Coca-Cola as a metaphor for American commercialism); The Kentucky Fried Movie (1977); Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man (1991); The Wonder Years (ABC 1988-present) (“Wonder Years” was a slogan of Wonder Bread); Tim Rice & Andrew Lloyd Webber, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat (musical).

Hear Janis Joplin, Mercedes Benz, on pearl (CBS 1971); Paul Simon, Kodachrome, on There Goes Rhymin’ Simon (Warner 1973); Leonard Cohen, Chelsea Hotel, on The Best of Leonard Cohen (CBS 1975); Bruce Springsteen, Cadillac Ranch, on The River (CBS 1980); Prince, Little Red Corvette, on 1999 (Warner 1982); dada, Dizz Knee Land, on Puzzle (IRS 1992) (“I just robbed a grocery store – I’m going to Disneyland / I just flipped off President George – I’m going to Disneyland”); Monty Python, Spam, on The Final Rip Off (Virgin 1988); Roy Clark, Thank God and Greyhound [You're Gone], on Roy Clark’s Greatest Hits Volume I (MCA 1979); Mel Tillis, Coca-Cola Cowboy, on The Very Best of (MCA 1981) (“You’re just a Coca-Cola cowboy / You’ve got an Eastwood smile and Robert Redford hair. . . “.

The creators of some of these works might have gotten permission from the trademark owners, though it’s unlikely Kool-Aid relished being connected with LSD, Hershey with homicidal maniacs, Disney with armed robbers, or Coca-Cola with cultural imperialism. Certainly no free society can demand that artists get such permission.

Something very dangerous is going on here. Private property, including intellectual property, is essential to our way of life. It provides an incentive for investment and innovation; it stimulates the flourishing of our culture; it protects the moral entitlements of people to the fruits of their labors. But reducing too much to private property can be bad medicine. Private land, for instance, is far more useful if separated from other private land by public streets, roads and highways. Public parks, utility rights-of-way and sewers reduce the amount of land in private hands, but vastly enhance the value of the property that remains.

So too it is with intellectual property. Overprotecting intellectual property is as harmful as underprotecting it. Creativity is impossible without a rich public domain. Nothing today, likely nothing since we tamed fire, is genuinely new: Culture, like science and technology, grows by accretion, each new creator building on the works of those who came before. Overprotection stifles the very creative forces it’s supposed to nurture.

The panel’s opinion is a classic case of overprotection. Concerned about what it sees as a wrong done to Vanna White, the panel majority erects a property right of remarkable and dangerous breadth: Under the majority’s opinion, it’s now a tort for advertisers to remind the public of a celebrity. Not to use a celebrity’s name, voice, signature or likeness; not to imply the celebrity endorses a product; but simply to evoke the celebrity’s image in the public’s mind. This Orwellian notion withdraws far more from the public domain than prudence and common sense allow. It conflicts with the Copyright Act and the Copyright Clause. It raises serious First Amendment problems. It’s bad law, and it deserves a long, hard second look.

Boston

Liquid misery poured from the sky and funneled through the concrete canyons of downtown Boston this morning as I rode to Voice Lab’s first performance of the year. We gave a very short concert at Quincy Market (next to Faneuil Hall) for their annual a cappella festival. It was supposed to be held outdoors, where passersby might stop and listen, but due to the weather it was held in an undiscoverable performance space hidden off the second floor of the central rotunda. We sang well enough, given the challenging and disorganized context.

The ride home was just as terrible as the ride there. I think it’s time to upgrade my foul weather gear, if I’m going to attempt to continue riding this year.

911

As I was biking home last night, right after crossing through the major intersection in the hospital district, I saw a car coming in a bit fast in the opposite lane. A few seconds later, I heard a screech, and a loud crash. I turned around to see that, maybe 100 feet behind me, there had been a major accident. One car was obviously totaled, and there were bits of glass and metal scattered across the intersection.

I immediately stopped and pulled my bike up onto the sidewalk. Pedestrians at the intersection were beginning to accumulate around the cars. It took me a few seconds to process what had happened, and maybe 15 seconds to decide that the right thing to do was to call 911.

Dialing took maybe 30 seconds, mostly due to the difficulty of using a touchscreen while wearing gloves. Once dialed, my call was picked up by the Massachusetts state-wide emergency response line. I described the situation and the location … and they asked “which city?”. When I told them I was in Boston, they redirected me to the Boston emergency line, where I got to tell my very short story again. As I was talking I could already hear a distant ambulance, so I may not have been the first caller, although one frequently hears ambulances in the Medical Area.

As I biked away, I heard a different ambulance, much louder and closer.

Vanquished

I have killed the Heisenbug … or at least, a bug that closely resembles the Heisenbug. (The frustrating thing about probabilistic bugs is that you can never be sure if they’re gone, or just hiding.)

This code has a huge array of pointers to random stuff of various types, although the array itself is of type int. Apparently, some other code is actually accessing elements of that array, casting them back into pointers, and messing with their contents. This code must think it knows the type of the things it is frobbing, but that knowledge is now wrong. Unfortunately, I have no idea what that code is, and nor does anyone else I’ve asked, so instead I’ve had to introduce a crazy shim that maintains the old type (int), and periodically bidirectionally synchronizes the values against the true internal value (a float).

So far, so ugly, so good.