June 30, 2008

Get real -- really

Any time an e-mail starts with something like "IT IS FOR REAL..." you can be pretty sure it's not.

This oldie that's not a goodie actually landed in my inbox today:

"…To all of my friends, I do not usually forward messages, But this is from my friend Pearlas Sandborn and she really is an attorney. If she says that this will work - It will work. After all, what have you got to lose? SORRY EVERYBODY.. JUST HAD TO TAKE THE CHANCE!!! I'm an attorney, And I know the law. This thing is for real. … Bill Gates sharing his fortune. … Microsoft and AOL are running an e-mail beta test When you forward this e-mail to friends, Microsoft can and will track it …"

And make you a billionaire without your having to spend years learning how to make software that billions of people use every day.

Bill Gates is sharing his fortune, all right, but he's sharing it with genuinely needy people who don't have, like, roofs over their heads and food to eat, OK? Not a bunch of folks who can't be bothered to Google "Microsoft and AOL are running an e-mail beta test" so they can find all the pages that tell them this a hoax.

I wrote about this in OBJ back in 2003, and bunches of people wrote about it before me, including the venerable Snopes.com, under the brilliant heading of "Thousand Dollar Bill."

So here we go again, kids. Do us all a favor: When you get one of these e-mails, before you forward it, go to Snopes.com and look for it. You will be amazed at how many of these things are just absolute lies.

I should say you may be amazed. If you're a jaded journalist, you won't be amazed at all, just sad. Not only sad that so many people pull these hoaxes, but that so many people fall for them.

June 28, 2008

Little orphan everybody

We’ve all heard of crazy legislation: bridges that go nowhere, museums dedicated to people you never heard of, etc. . .

But one piece of crazy legislation now being pushed through Congress is seriously worrying me.

Both the house and senate versions of the Orphan Works Bill—H.R. 5889 and S.2913—would dismantle copyright as we know it.

As it stands now, both in the U.S. and abroad, one’s original work is considered one’s own. Period. Those who use your work without your permission must pay you if they are caught.

Mind you, catching them is the hard part, but that’s kind of beside the point.

The point is that this proposed legislation would change the law so that those who use your work need not pay you if they can show they believed your work to be “orphaned.”

Traditionally, an “orphaned” work was one whose creator was either dead or unable to be located.

For example, I have an old photo of a lovely woman with a Gibson Girl hairdo. There is no name on the photo, and the only relatives who might have known this lady's name are dead.

This is an orphaned work. Both the subject and the photographer are likely dead, and even if those centenarians are still living somewhere, I can’t find them, because I don’t know their names, or even where the photo was taken.

But under the so-called “Orphan Works Bill” of 2008, any work, regardless of when it was created, can be considered orphaned merely because a potential infringer failed to find it listed in a database.

You realize what this means?

Every work not registered in one of the proposed databases (which would be operated by private companies) would be considered orphaned, even if it’s a photo I took of my child yesterday.

Under current copyright law, an artist who claims his work has been infringed upon must prove that he is the creator of the work. No registry, not even the copyright office, need be involved.

Under the proposed law, even the existence of the work in a registry would not protect an artist from infringement, because there could be any number of databases, and the potential infringer is not required to check all of them. He is only required to make a “reasonable effort.” But he, not the artist, gets to define “reasonable.”

So artists, most of whom have a hard enough time making a living from their art, are expected to spend their time and money entering their work in databases owned not by the Copyright Office, but by private, for-profit companies. The bill’s proponents claim this is letting the private sector solve the orphan works problem. What it’s really doing is creating a private-sector business model from a non-problem.

It actually creates a whole new problem, because it orphans every work not registered. And since the proposed registry—or registries—are not meant to incorporate current Copyright Office records, that means that the minute this bill passes, every creative work everywhere, including this blog, the paintings at my local Starbucks, and the “Tower of Light” sculpture in front of Orlando City Hall, are all “orphans” until they are registered.

In fact, this bill’s requirement that works be registered in databases stands in direct opposition to international copyright law, which prohibits countries from requiring the registering of works. Proponents of the bill say that registration is optional. But the only way for an artist to prove infringement would be to register his work. Brad Holland of the Illustrators' Partnership put it this way: "You'd have to start paying protection money to a bunch of commercial entities."

If anything, given our global economy, we should be trying to standardize laws across countries so as to encourage international commerce. Taking U.S. law so far from that of—well, everybody, frankly—makes us look like a bunch of lawless hicks who care more about stuffing corporate pockets than ensuring artists receive fair compensation for their work.

Lots more information about this matter is available at the Illustrators' Partnership. They also have a link that will help you write your senator or representative.

Mark Simon's interview of Brad Holland, along with an insightful article by Mark, are here.

You can sign a petition here.

We can't afford to just shrug this off and say "this legislation is too crazy to pass." We're talking about the same body that passed the "Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007," which legislates what type of light bulbs we may use.

“No man's life, liberty or property is safe while the legislature is in session.”—New York State Surrogate Court Judge Gideon Tucker, in 1866

June 23, 2008

Pored stiff

This is one of those fine points that shows up in just about all the grammar books, so I can only assume that the persistence of the error results from not enough people reading those books.

So I add my voice to the chorus warning about the confusion of pore with pour.

Never mind the pores on your face.* This "pore" is a verb. It means to stare or study intently.

Its homophone, "pour," (to cause a liquid to flow) is often used when "pore" is meant. You can't "pour over a document" unless you are emptying your glass onto its pages.

The confusion is understandable, since both words come from the Middle English pouren. Since our 14th-century predecessors were notoriously lax in their spelling, it's a wonder there's a distinction at all.

Now that I have finished poring over my dictionaries and usage manuals, I'm going to pour a cup of tea.

* — OK, since you asked, the noun "pore"—meaning the openings in your skin that get clogged with oil and turn to pimples—comes from the Greek poros, meaning passage.

June 21, 2008

What color is arthritis?

While shopping this weekend, I found a wide assortment of pink-ribbon branded products, sold as fundraisers for breast cancer research.

You can get a pink-ribbon day planner, pink-barrelled pens, a pink-ribbon cookbook; I lost track, frankly, of them all.

The breast cancer foundation really has its fund-raising act together. Or maybe it's just that women like to buy pink things.

But what about those of us who have other medical conditions? Can a guy not buy a manly planner to raise funds for prostate cancer research?

Heart disease affects far more women than breast cancer, yet the heart association's "Go Red" campaign has a long way to go before it matches the power that is the breast-cancer-research fundraising juggernaut.

This despite the fact that heart disease is the leading cause of death for Americans. Cancer—which is to say, all forms of cancer combined—is the No. 2 cause.

Meanwhile, although arthritis isn't a primary cause of mortality, 21 percent of American adults are living with it.

Let's compare shopping opportunities, shall we?

The American Heart Association's Go Red for Women site carries Red-branded clothes, jewelry, and household items.

The Susan G. Komen for the Cure's Promise Shop carries clothing, accessories, furniture, and a pink iPod Nano case.

At the Arthritis Foundation's store, you can get exercise videos, books, and free pamphlets. Whoo-hoo.

You see the problem. Other foundations need to tap into the same shopping gene that's done so well for the Komen group.

I mean, wouldn't it be great if all of us were able to fund research into the disease that most affects us just by buying pajamas?

June 15, 2008

I beg to differ

The phrase "begs the question" is so increasingly misused these days that even I recently caught myself using it, and had to self-edit mid-sentence to say "leads us to the question."

To beg the question is not, as I myself almost mistakenly put it, to ask the question that logically follows from what we now know. Now, it is true that the use of "begs the question" to mean "leads to the question" is now so common that some dictionaries recognize it. But I side with Bryan A. Garner, who writes in Garner's Modern American Usage, "Though it is true that the new sense may be understood by most people, many will consider it sloppy."

"Begging the question" doesn't mean to evade an issue, either. The phrase that's wanted when you avoid answering a question is "beg off," which is to say, ask to be excused.

To beg the question, as I well know from my philosophy classes lo these many years ago, is to engage in circular reasoning. In other words, to draw a conclusion that merely restates the original statement.

For example, we know that the Harry Potter books are massively popular.

This leads us to the question, "why?"

Some may beg off this question, because popularity is so difficult to explain.

And the one who says "Harry Potter books are massively popular because lots of people are reading them" merely begs the question.

June 13, 2008

Editing the Great Charter

Some, including British statesman Tony Benn, are claiming that Magna Carta has been "repealed." They're a little behind times.

What happened is that Britain's House of Commons voted to extend the length of time a prisoner may be held without charges being filed from 28 days to 42 days. That is a bit extreme, and I tend to agree with opposition leader David Cameron, who said, "Terrorists want to destroy our freedom, and when we trash our liberties, we do their work for them."

While it's true that the right to not be imprisoned without knowing the charges against you is included in Magna Carta, so are a lot of other things. Really useful things that are pillars of democracy, like allowing the king to levy a tax to pay for the marriage of his eldest daughter.

OK, bad example.

It is true that many of our diplomatic stanchions—like the right to a speedy trial—are descended from Magna Carta.

But to declare the demise of the entire document on the basis of one vote on one issue is rather like saying the Constitution was "repealed" when we threw out the Eighteenth Amendment.

In fact, like the U.S. Constitution, Magna Carta has undergone changes throughout its history. The U.K.'s Statute Law Database shows that most of Magna Carta's clauses have been repealed, though some were revised and incorporated into modern legislation.

Others were eliminated from modern law, and with good reason. For example, Clause 54: "No one shall be seized or imprisoned on the appeal of a woman for the death of any one but her husband." Yeah. Not exactly a pillar of egalitarianism, that one.

So let's not get the idea that Magna Carta is some kind of unchangeable holy writ—the Gospel of Runnymede—for which we face plagues and damnation should we add to or take away from it.

Magna Carta is a great document. It defined a great moment in history when the nobility, faced with a tyrant, made him understand that he, too, is bound by the law. But it is not carved in stone, nor should it be.

I don't believe in coincidences; I am certain it is Providence that this all came about on the heels of the National Archives' receiving a 1297 copy of Magna Carta. It's now on display just down the hall from the Bill of Rights. There's an article about that in the current issue of American Heritage magazine, which must have gone to press weeks before the current British brouhaha. It's also worth noting that this Sunday, June 15, is the 793rd anniversary of the sealing of Magna Carta by King John.

June 6, 2008

Get used to it

My environmentalist brethren have been saying for decades that the world's supply of oil is finite, and is likely to run out by the middle of the 21st century, if not sooner.

So why does everyone act surprised when the price of it goes up?

Frankly, my dears, I'm getting a little tired of the moaning that inevitably sounds when the price of oil climbs. Oil was up to $139 per barrel today. So? Surely I am not the only one who saw that coming.

This is basic supply-and-demand economics, folks. Americans are still using Hummers as commuter vehicles, and people in China and India are buying cars faster than teenagers buy video games. The number of cars on roads is increasing, and the amount of oil in the world is decreasing. The price slope is easy to predict.

So can we please stop playing the "what is the world coming to" game every time the price of oil goes up?

The only time I'm surprised by the price of oil anymore is when it goes down.

June 1, 2008

Off the map

Jeff Gerke, founder of one of my favorite online hangouts, Where the Map Ends, is launching an independent publishing company, Marcher Lord Press. He recently posted the prologue to MLP's first release, Hero, Second Class, which Jeff describes as "a laugh-out-loud comic fantasy." I, for one, am really looking forward to this book. And I really did laugh out loud.