The Little Things

     |    Wednesday February 27th, 2013

Next week, The Ward Report will be reporting from Brooklyn; the next two weeks from SXSWi, which ought to make for some entertaining reading, given some of the boneheaded digital culture that’s always on display there. This week, though, we’ll clean up some of the stuff that’s been lying around the desktop here in a stunning collection of miscellanea like you’ve never seen before — well, maybe once or twice.

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First off, what ever happened to that hapless NPR intern whose admission that she hadn’t paid for most of the music in her collection sparked a ten-day wonder of recrimination, defense, and discussion last year? I have no idea what she’s doing now, but her life was definitely changed by her essay, and it was nice to see her back in print this week with an essay in Billboard talking about the things she’s learned. It’s worth reading: she (correctly) discerns a generational divide in the reactions to her original article, but her recent conversion to streaming over “ownership” ignores the fact that different people use music for different things. If I’m giving a talk or doing a broadcast, at a given moment I’m going to be needing access to a piece right now, and I don’t see how that’s going to work with streaming. And this bit makes no sense at all:

Traditionally, when people pay for music so much of that money goes to the cost of the container, experience, convenience or curation — but not the music itself. Huge amounts of money are still made around music, but little of that money makes it back to artists. It’s really time to start paying the creators instead of the containers.

I agree the artists should be able to make more, but I don’t see what the “containers” have to do with it. Still: worth reading, thinking about, and commenting on.

Record store comic

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I’m afraid it’s impossible to discuss this new ad for Amazon’s Kindle without giving away the punchline, but it does make me wonder a number of things, starting with whether it’s supposed to air on American television or just get the kind of viral boost I’ve given it by posting it here. Actually, neither answer would surprise me — or a yes to both — but it’s definitely right out of the headlines. Not that I’m endorsing the Kindle. Single-use digital items don’t jibe with my philosophy, which is why I’m glad that this laptop enables me to type the stuff I write, watch movies, surf the web, send and receive mail, and conquer the world from time to time (via games, in case a snoop is reading this). Plus, I tend not to read at the beach.

And I still tend not to read all that many e-books, either, because it seems that every time I do, the good (I was happy to look up some arcane military terms and Irish slang in a couple I read recently simply by holding my finger on the term and waiting for either the definition or the option to go to Wikipedia or Google to show up) mix so inextricably with the bad (footnotes that don’t work or don’t return you to where you were reading, horrendous reproduction of illustrations, an obvious lack of once-over by a copy editor before pushing the “publish” button). That’s why I found this rant about digital textbooks by Michael Boezi, “Vice President of Content and Community at Flat World Knowledge” (gotta love that job description), so encouraging. And discouraging: we’re how many years into this imagined digital utopia and we’re still not getting it right? Or even close? Apple allegedly launched iBooks as a means of capturing the digital textbook market before Amazon could get to it, and yet if Boezi is to be believed (and I guess he should be; I certainly don’t have any insights into this field), publishers have done exactly zero to take advantage. What’s on my iBook shelf? One perfectly serviceable text-only novel by George Pelecanos, two enhanced novels by a friend of mine, Jesse Sublett, a version of Michael Chabon’s wonderful Telegraph Avenue whose “enhancements” did nothing but make me vow to buy a paper copy as soon as possible in case I ever wanted to read it again, and a copy of a book by Wilco which has music and stuff embedded in it, which I haven’t been interested enough to open.

So: nothing new on that front, unfortunately.

Instead of new books, though, there’s a nice article about some old books, yet another city in Mali, Djenné, which has another stash of ancient manuscripts, including a number on maraboutage, a system of magic whose center is in Djenné. Its power, as anyone who’s seen Ousmane Sembene’s wonderful film Xala can attest, is not to be trifled with. The picture of the miniature Koran is worth the click all by itself.

Not thought to be among the holdings in Djenné


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Another field that’s become completely unrecognizable from its past self in the last couple of decades is photography, and that’s one where I am totally gung-ho about the changes, much as I respect those who lament them. At long last, a terrible photographer like me can shoot away, and the bad shots can be recognized and discarded without my having to pay someone to use a bunch of chemicals to render them from the film to the negative and then from the negative to the paper, all of which takes time and toxic supplies. My photography is toxic enough without adding chemicals to the wastewater supply.

But although the democratization of photography has caused its own headaches, older photos need to be preserved, and the beated recognition of photography as art by the visual art establishment has meant that new problems have arisen. Not just preservation, but authentication is now an issue. A fine article from Chemical and Engineering News, of all places, takes on a bunch of these issues and its lede contains something I’d never even considered: if you buy a print of a historic photo, well, that’s the photo the photographer took, right? If it’s a print of a famous photo, like Arnold Newman’s iconic photo of Igor Stravinsky leaning on a grand piano, a photo I once almost bought a copy of myself, you just naturally assume that the photographer or a trusted assistant struck that copy. But, as the article makes clear, some excellent prints of valuable photos (primarily older ones) have been made by people having no connection whatever to the photographer or his studio, and passed off as having been made by (or with) the artist’s hand. Does it make a difference? Didn’t Pieter Breugel the Elder start a cottage industry in which his sons continued to paint his paintings over and over to sell, even after his death? Aren’t a lot of contemporary artworks made without the artist ever laying a hand on them?

Sure, but printing a photograph from a negative involves an intimate interface between technological know-how and physical involvement. In the days before Photoshop, crafting the image depended on techniques that required a deep knowledge of what was stored on the negative, which areas needed tweaking, which needed to be cropped. Once the artist has arrived at that complex of decisions, it’s easy enough to reproduce the result, but if you’re shelling out serious art dough for it, you should be paying for nothing less than the original artist’s physical labor, just as you would with a sculpture or oil painting.

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Okay, back next week with, I hope, something completely different!