Jonathan Coulton, Internet censorship, and creativity as industry

January 24, 2012 In The News, Politics / Religion, Writing Comments (0) 383

I was blacked out last Wednesday [well, I wasn’t — my web site was] in web solidarity against internet censorship, so my three readers had to go elsewhere for their information on house centipedes [seriously, it drives like 90% of my search engine traffic]. You already know about SOPA and PIPA and why they must be stopped, so I won’t bore you by restating. How incredible to watch last Wednesday as public awareness skyrocketed, prompting cosponsors to drop off and kill a bill in what was essentially a few hours. I work in public interest and let me tell you, things don’t work that way most of the time. It was definitely one of those “Uh-oh, you woke up the Internet” moments.

As an author, and one who hopes to one day make writing my sole source of income, I have a vested interest in copyright law. I believe in copyright, and I recognize that the whole idea of a creative industry is reliant on intellectual property law. More than being illegal, I view piracy as morally wrong – at least, when it’s an artist trying to earn a living from whom you are pirating. However, to put large corporations in charge of deciding what is or is not a violation of copyright is just totally ludicrous.

Corporations cannot be trusted with IP decisions. Has everyone forgotten when Disney tried to trademark “Seal Team Six,” the name of a Navy Seal division? Marvel and DC Comics co-own a trademark on the term “Superhero.” Whole industries have sprung up around buying photo copyrights and suing unknowing bloggers. Corporations have no belief in education, parody, satire, critique, or any other fair use. Their only interest is in protecting their valuable property.

As much as I care about copyright, and the right of the artist to compensation, I also believe in maintaining an open forum for discussion and a free exchange of ideas. As an author, I recognize that readers are going to share my work around – whether lending books, or even in some cases reproducing them. Hell, I don’t just recognize it, I hope for it. Not only because it potentially creates more fans to purchase my products, but because I believe in a world where people can share things like art and music with friends, without having to treat that act as a financial transaction.

Which brings us to Jonathan Coulton, and his thoughts on both the SOPA/PIPA issue and the US Government’s ensuing shut-down of Megaupload. Coulton [whose work on Portal alone was enough to make me a fan] points out that, really, the business model we’re defending has been around a relatively short time, and there is no God-given right to make money from making art:

It so happens that technological and societal blahbity bloos have conspired to create a situation where selling songs about monkeys and robots is a viable business, but for most of human history people have NOT paid for art. I don’t want this to happen again, and I would be very sad if this came to pass, but it’s not up to me to decide.

This is pretty on-the-nose, frankly. As sad as I would be to see my dreams of writing for a living go up in smoke [really, really sad – so keep that in mind before you pull the new Lady Gaga track down off Frostwire], it’s the nature of the business and the era we are all living through and shaping. I want to make a living doing what I love, but I don’t want it enough to justify a law that hamstrings free expression and the free exchange of ideas. Sony and Disney and Comcast might think their dollars are worth more than our collective minds. I just don’t happen to agree.

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Philly Writers Group / How Occupy Philly Drove Me Away

December 6, 2011 In The News, Politics / Religion, Writing Comments (1) 492

Yes, the Occupy Sign App is real.

Saturday I attended the monthly Philadelphia Writers Group meetup, which is always a terrific experience. If you’re a writer and you aren’t finding some opportunity to discuss your craft and your work with peers, you simply must remedy that – is a good place to start looking.

A few of us went for drinks after the meeting, and the conversation turned to Occupy Philly. At the time of our November meeting the encampment on Dilworth Plaza outside City Hall was thousands strong. On Saturday it was gone, cleared away by police so construction crews can start tearing up Dilworth for a major renovation project. In that same month, everyone at the table agreed, Occupy managed to squander considerable popular support and goodwill and alienate most of Philadelphia.

In October I wrote a post about my participation in the Occupy movement. Others at our table had taken to the streets, and voiced their prior support. Yet by December we were all fed up, and everyone agreed on the reasons: Occupy Philly stopped being about a message we supported [my attempt at summary: to counter the Corporate power-grab in America and fix the system that privatizes profit and socializes loss] and became a petty squabble over Dilworth Plaza. Continue Reading

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How I became an insider, or Why I #Occupy, and Why You Should Too.

October 10, 2011 In The News, Politics / Religion Comments (0) 517

This is not about analysis of the 99 Percent Movement. You can get that elsewhere. This is about my own experiences with the movement in Philadelphia – how I wandered into the #OccupyPhilly camp outside City Hall as an outsider and critic, and by the end of the day considered myself a full-fledged member of the movement. This is an effort to show you what the protest is really like, and why you should lend your own support – or at least see it for yourself before you make judgements. You can (probably) find the #Occupy protest nearest your home at

I was slow in coming to join the 99 Percenters. In the first weeks of the Wall Street occupation, I – like most people – wrote it off as the latest exercise from the hippies and the anarchists. Protests are the raves of the twenty-first century, I told friends. These people just need attention, and damned if I can figure out what they are protesting. As the weeks went on, despite the pepper spray and the batons, the movement seemed to grow stronger, the message grew clearer, and like many others I began to pay attention. By the time the movement spread to Philadelphia (and hundreds, if not thousands, of other cities, towns, and localities around the country) I was intrigued enough to stop by and see for myself.

The Philly occupation began at 9 am on Thursday, October 6. I was there at 9:10, and the crowd was already impressive. Approaching as an outsider, my attention first went to the dreadlocked hippies in their uniforms of brown vegan-friendly cloth, and the anarchists, faces hidden behind bandanas. Working for ACLU, you encounter a lot of protests, and you come to recognize the “protest culture,” the folks who are just angry at the world and take any chance to yell at mainstream Americans for being “sheeple” and whatnot. They’re the folks the TV cameras focus on, and that lead many of us to look the other way. What struck me Thursday morning was how the protest culture really was the minority. Most of the people there were clean-cut. They were students, and retired folks, and people on their way to work. Most had hand-written signs, but unsure of exactly how to begin, they milled about with nervous energy, searching for familiar faces.

At that stage, there still wasn’t a coherent message. Surveying the signs and shirts, one could find almost any cause represented, from the anarchists and the socialists who sought to end American capitalism altogether, to the Paulites with their “END THE FED” signs, animal rights people, anti-war people, tax reform people, anti-tax people, homeless advocacy people, civil rights people, and many others. The one common thread that united everyone – that continues to unite everyone, whether they are participating in a drum circle or discussing monetary policy in a working group – is a populist spirit and a sense that our system in America has become fundamentally unfair to the vast majority of the people. Though any two people may disagree fiercely on policy, everyone can join together in the most frequent chant: “We are the ninety-nine percent.”

There were also droves of media, out early to get the footage they needed now that #occupy had reached their city. I did two interviews myself, not quite sure of my talking points, but explaining that I am not anti-capitalist, but I think capitalism only works when the people in charge have a basic sense of fairness and decency. I didn’t get quoted, that I’m aware of.

The thing that really won me over was the level of organization. By 9 AM on the first day, facilitators had already set up stations for medical care, food distribution and collection, communications, waste removal, and more. By the time I returned that evening, all of Dilworth Plaza around City Hall had been divided into stations and sections, and a miniature government had been established, based around direct democracy and a consensus system. This, I learned, was why things like messaging took so long to emerge from this movement – because every decision that affected the group was put before the entire group, in a shockingly organized and respectful meeting known as the general assembly.

If you are one who writes off this group as radical or disorganized, I can’t stress enough how much you need to attend a general assembly meeting. There are two a day in Philadelphia, and every single person is invited – whether you’ve been encamped since Thursday or you walked in two minutes ago, your voice is equal to everyone else’s. The assembled group sits quietly, volunteer facilitators lead the discussion, and every person is given an opportunity to speak. When they do speak, they are amplified by “the people’s mic.” Speakers deliver their message in three-to-five word sentence fragments, and each time they pause the crowd at large repeats what was said. The end result is that everyone is heard, and everyone is respected. When a discussion requires a decision, it’s not simply about majority rule – consensus requires that any significant objections be respected, and no decision made until the objectors represent a significant minority of the gathering.

The general assembly has no leaders, because the camp has no leaders. It has facilitators, who help to organize, and to spread information, but whose authority exceeds no one else’s. They help to make the camp aware of goings on, and to spread messages about “housekeeping” – for instance, reminders to please respect the rights of the homeless who called Dilworth Plaza home long before the #occupation arrived, to avoid blocking traffic, and to respect the Philadelphia Police who have so far been so exceptionally professional in their working relationship with the 99 Percent. One of the most important aspects of this protest is that it is not about disrupting the lives of the people of Philadelphia – they are, after all, fellow members of the 99 Percent. The protest is about sending a message to the American ruling elite, to counteract the billions of dollars in lobbying money that protect the interests of the few by raising the voices of the many. As the protestors have been respectful of the City and its population, the Police and the office of Mayor Nutter have been incredibly cooperative, and even helpful, to the movement. There is no sense of danger at City Hall, no sense of tension or impending conflict with the police. If anything, there is a sense of partnership – the police are, after all, fellow members of the 99 Percent.

The overall effect of a few hours at the occupation is a sense of energy, of hope, of urgency. Talking to the people around you, you begin to realize how much American policy has harmed the lives of your friends and neighbors – and you realize that some people aren’t thinking of themselves. I’ve met many others like myself, who are fully employed and making a secure living, but see the problems around them and want something done. I’ve met others who are desperate, who are one paycheck away from homelessness, who seem to find relief in the camaraderie around camp.

What the camp, and the entire protest, really need is greater participation. We need more middle-class people, more of the folks the media don’t expect to find. We need union folks and teachers, religious leaders and housewives. We need working people. We need racial and ethnic minorities, especially in Philadelphia. We need soldiers and enlisted men and women. We need Tea Party folks and liberals and independents and everyone else. This movement is, after all, about America. It’s about 99 percent of the population – which means there’s a pretty good chance it’s about you.

To those who criticize, I will say that many criticisms are valid. The message is indeed muddled. The hippies with their drum circles and the anarchists with their masks do damage the appeal to middle America – but they are equal members of the group, and though they may not be a PR asset, their opinions and perspectives are just as valid and important as anyone else’s. The solution is not to silence them, but to come and add your voice. As a coworker told me early in the movement, when I complained that the message was unclear, “talk to them and help them do better.” If you think the protests are directionless, or you’d like to see concrete policy suggestions, then come and speak up. I promise you will be heard, and I promise there will be people who agree with you – possibly enough to shape the future of this movement.

What I would suggest – nay, urge – is, if you live within a traversable distance of a protest – and the odds are very good you do – that you stop by. Don’t look from a distance, walk in. Talk to some people. Carry a sign – it doesn’t really matter what it says, as long as it’s important to you. Hold your sign out to the street, and hear how many cars blare their horns in support as they pass. Find a facilitator and ask when the next general assembly will be held, and stick around for that. Speak, and be heard. Your voice is as important as anyone’s voice, and your opinion as important as anyone’s. I realize that’s an unfamiliar concept in the United States, and it may seem foreign, but try it on. As soon as you step into that camp, you own it as much as anyone, and you can shape its message. Go and see what it’s like to not only complain about the problem, but to demand a solution.

If you’re like me, you’ll enter as an outsider. Once you’re in camp, though, you’ll quickly realize that this isn’t their movement, it’s your movement. It’s about all of us – or, well, almost all. We are, after all, the Ninety-Nine Percent.

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NYC: Marriage and Front Runners Pride Run 2011

June 30, 2011 Gay and Lesbian, Personal Comments (4) 885

I had the good fortune to be in NYC visiting Elizabeth this past weekend – pretty much the best time in the past 100 years or so to be in New York. We stayed up Friday night watching the State Senate debate (and tweeting – I tend to do a lot of that when I watch parliamentary process) and waiting for the historic vote. As you all know now, we were not disappointed. I won’t go on about it, except to say that I’m delighted, awestruck, and incredibly proud of the state of my birth. I only wish my current home state could buy a clue.

Saturday morning Liz and I ran the NY Front Runners Pride Run, my first official Central Park race. As expected after the vote on Friday, the mood was upbeat and celebratory, though there were far fewer costumes than I expected – and not a single man running in a wedding dress! The fellow at the top of this post was one of the exceptions. As I ran past I got to hear his advice for anyone considering such a costume, “Lots and lots of Body Glide.”

I learned several things in this race. I learned that many runners don’t respect corrals. I also learned that speed walkers, and some regular walkers, feel similarly toward corrals. Lastly, I learned that when I am slowed down by people who started two or three corrals in front of their designated corral, I get super bitchy.

Not that I was the only one. As the race kicked off, with eight thousand runners jockeying for position, a bicyclist came riding at high speed from behind us, nearly plowed into the crowd, all while shouting “oh yeah, like there’s nobody else here!” Would that I could have conversed with the man, I would have pointed out that there were eight thousand of us and one of him, and which one of us was acting self-important? Alas, my attention was occupied with trying to get around the speed walkers and the groups of ladies who were forming human walls so they could converse while running slowly, something that wouldn’t have been problematic had they started in the right corral (have I communicated my annoyance about this whole corral thing?)

Despite feeling slow and stiff before the race, Liz set a PR, coming in 9th among all women and 4th among women in her age bracket. I finished about two and a half minutes behind my best 5-mile time, thanks in part to the hilly terrain in Central Park but mostly to the stupid corral jumpers.

Here’s some video of Liz just after her surprisingly strong race. You’ll also get a good sampling of my attitude after my own finish. I manage to slander an entire city on the basis of a few slow runners. Behold the bitchiness.

By the way, it sounds like I don’t like the popsicle, but actually I thought the popsicle was awesome.

Liz and I also marched in the NY Pride Parade on Sunday with the contingent from the New York Civil Liberties Union. More on that soon.

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