"Money was maliciously introduced in ancient times as a tool of enslavement" -
Michael Tellinger

"The present belongs to the future and future generations, and all old laws, religious and other, should be abrogated immediately. Free us!" - Vinay Gupta on Twitter

"You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete." - R. Buckminster Fuller

"You find the strangest ways to be positive!" - Diane Duane, Wizards Abroad

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Internet democracy, and Rip!: A Remix Manifesto (film recommendation)

Yesterday I got one from demandprogress.org saying that Sen. Wyden (OR) is willing to filibuster to help hold back the current attack on Internet freedom, and suggesting that we send him our names to read on the floor if it comes to that. I eagerly signed and Tweeted. Here's the link to go there directly, and add your name if you  haven't done it yet: 

Now, 50,000 in less than a day. Apparently I'm not the only one who knows this is important. Hooray for Sen. Wyden. 100,000 names would keep him filibustering until he dropped (not that I'd want to see that happen) but really, what a great way to help him in the fight. I know politics don't often measure up these days, but when the system is working for us, all the more reason to lend our voices in support, I think.

To me, this is a wonderful story - both about online life and what we can accomplish with it, and about the fact that many people really DO care about Internet freedom (and are, dare I hope, waking up to the crisis). Corporations have already made deep inroads, and will continue to push, but this gives me hope that we can push back effectively. Until we have our own resilient Internet systems functioning, anyway, an online Commons not owned by corporations. Which I hope we'll see before too long.

All of which has everything to do with an important cultural issue that often intersects with restrictions on Internet freedom: copyright and copyleft, human creativity, sharing of work and building upon the past.
The remixers manifesto:
1. Culture always builds on the past.
2. The past always tries to control the future. 
3. Our Future is becoming less free. 
4. To build free societies, you must limit control of the past.

Looking for poster I came across this greatwebsite
Ever since I started this blog I've collected good links on the issue of intellectual property, copyright and copyleft, and the Cultural Commons movement to reclaim human culture for the benefit of humans. I love the reference to the Commons, because it places this issue in a historical context. It's not just about the Internet, the Internet is just the most recent Commons territory, or shared resource, that those in power want to grab for themselves. It all comes down to that: what (other than laws they wrote themselves, fronted into law by legislators in their employ) gives the powerful the right to put fences up limiting life for the rest of us? Certainly no moral, ethical, or even commonsensical right. The Earth, and human culture, belong to everybody. Anyway, some links about all this are collected in a section of the right-hand column of this blog.

Which brings me to this film recommendation. This week on Free Speech TV I stumbled upon a great documentary, Rip!: A Remix Manifesto, which does a beautiful job of telling the story and defining the issue of intellectual property as a concept, and explaining about the ongoing lawfare (I love that word! Saw it first used by John Robb) by monied interests on the creative commons of human culture as it functions naturally. You can also view the documentary online; in keeping with the values propelling it, the film is there for anyone to see, mash up, and even pay for, at whatever level you feel is right for you. Now that's democracy in action. And authentic culture.

Here's a wonderful example of global culture at work in a mashup project - Star Wars Uncut. Now think: why would the filmmaker and the whole creative crew have wanted to discourage this? They probably wouldn't because obviously it only increases the original film's popularity and demonstrates the public's love for it. And makes you appreciate the artistry of the original film even more, even as you love these hilarious but affectionate recreations of it by people without those means. Who would object? Idiot studio executives and their lawyers would. Fortunately they didn't get in the way. I wonder what the story was there. 

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Laila's Birthday (film review)

As another dawn arrives on the West Bank, Mr. Abu Laila tenderly checks on his sleeping child; his wife awakens; they all prepare for another day. They make their plans: on his way to work driving a cab, Mr. Laila will drop the little girl off at school; his wife will pick her up on her way back home from her day at work; he promises he will be home by 8:00 to celebrate Laila's seventh birthday. It is clear that this event is the rock upon which he must build his day: Laila's birthday. A photo of Laila is on the dashboard of the cab, a touchstone to which Mr. Laila frequently returns throughout his day.

As the titles roll, a number of countries flash by: the 2008 film was made in the Netherlands, Tunisia, Palestine. But one of this film's most remarkable characteristics is its sense of place, and that's the city of Ramallah on the West Bank, Palestine: with the feel of cinema verite, we travel block by block through the city, on the ground, in a cab, in this slice of life in an ordinary day for Abu Laila, an ordinary man. Yet we soon learn that he is anything but ordinary: he was a judge in another country--asked by unspecified agents to come back and serve his country, and then (because of repeated changes in power and government administration) denied that role. So, while he waits for his own form of ordinary life to return to him, he drives his brother in law's cab.

Still, judge he remains, and with grave demeanor and fine judicial discernment he navigates his day as the judge he is, deciding on each prospective customer on the case's merit as he sees it (and denying several of them their ride because he won't have them in his cab). He reminds people to fasten their seatbelts, walk on the sidewalk, or not carry firearms, and they think his admonitions absurd, as they have accepted as normal a world which has lost its moorings. True to his sense of propriety, Mr. Laila goes to extraordinary lengths in an attempt to return to its owner a cell phone left in his cab--and in this society, he almost gets lost in a Kafkaesque police system determined to find a different story in his simple quest to return the phone.

Laila's birthday is a day made up of incidents like this, marked by the judge's stubborn integrity, by his refusal to relinquish his own sense of how things should be or to stop trying to impose it on others. This juxtaposition of his stern sense of order, of what is right and proper, with the off-the-rails situations he encounters, is a rich source of dark comedy as the absurdity of his own position in life expands to a view of the absurdity of his country's life as everyone attempts to carry on. One of the film's most deliciously comedic moments occurs when Abu is in a coffee shop waiting for his car to be repaired in a nearby garage. The television is on and the men in the cafe are discussing, in classic desultory barroom fashion, what they're seeing on the news: those are Israeli soldiers. No, they're Americans. This is Palestine; no, it's Iraq. And on it goes - none of it really makes sense, nor does one have the feeling it really matters, here in this cafe, to know.

Of course, given the time and place, we expect something terrible to happen, and it does, when an explosion hits the garage. Then the conversation moves to the floor, where the men are huddling under a rickety table for protection. What was the explosion? Who caused it? More possibilities are discussed but again there is no answer, and such information seems irrelevant in any case as the story moves on to the scene and the immediate situation must be dealt with.

At the scene, a donkey has been driven "insane" (a panic reaction) by the explosion and people are trying to help it; Abu's car is commandeered to take the injured to the hospital. Later, the car winds up decorated for a wedding and finally he arrives home, birthday cake intact. He straightens his tie, visibly pulls  himself together, still in one piece after his harrowing day, and enjoys Laila's birthday. (I hope that isn't a spoiler; I don't think the point of the movie is to be suspenseful.) The viewer is not betrayed; this is a comedy, however dark, and it has a happy ending. So don't be afraid to see it.

What's in a name? I have to think the choice of "Laila" (meaning something like "night beauty," I think) for both the father and the daughter is a reference to the classic Laila-Majnu story, which I knew from its Hindi version. It's Arabic in origin, having been brought to India by the Muslims, but now is iconic in India in the same way that Romeo and Juliet are in English tradition. In Indian movies (and not just the Hindi ones), references to Laila or Majnu are usually translated into English, in the subtitles, as Juliet or Romeo. It's a tragic love story in which the lovers, from different tribes, are thwarted, Laila (the epitome of Love) is sacrificed and Majnu is driven insane. In this lovely, brilliant film, the land of Laila is similarly riven and its inhabitants, like the confused donkey, are driven into forms of madness, each in their own way, by thwarted destiny and love denied. Abu's is a tribe of humanity riven by forces opposing love and unity, its people's natural course of peace and productivity thwarted, its energies channeled into "insane" behaviors. A reference to the Romeo and Juliet of Arabs seems true and very fitting here.

To this foreign viewer, the genius of this film is not just in portraying the irony of ordinary people carrying on with daily life in absurd circumstances, when war impinges randomly. It does that, but it makes the point in such a way that the message is much more universal because the people are all so ordinary that they they would be completely recognizable in my own town, in a different country, different circumstance, different crises. No matter where we live, ordinary life is just an illusion, because everything can change in a moment.

Mohammed Bakri, who plays Abu Laila, is wonderful as the extraordinary Everyman, his restrained, dignified performance reminiscent of a Buster Keaton or a Jacques Tati, who also found themselves trying to uphold their dignity in trying circumstances--or maybe even more, of a Charlie Chaplin when he found himself in the grip of the machinery of the factory or the state. Of course, here the situation is far more serious. There are also many memorable cameos, especially among the taxi passengers (both men and women). Mashid Masharawi, the director, has created an extraordinarily humane film about the human condition, rich in ironic humor and, I think, a faith in the goodness of people. Or at least a recognition that goodness exists in some of us.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Steady as she goes... in the godforsaken sea (book reviews)

I love being on the water. I always dreamed of living on a houseboat and finally did that, for a few years, in DC. Then I lived on a lake for several years, where where I could swim 24/7. Sailed a little, too. I've loved body surfing in the Mediterranean (when a storm brought in some waves), Hawaii, South India's western coast, and the Atlantic off Assateague Island and Nag's Head. I ran rivers for decades, in rafts and canoes, in several states, starting when I was a kid and my father bought a couple of surplus Army rafts, pretty much pioneering the sport in northern California. But since I've lived here in the mountains, I haven't done any of that, except for a couple of guided tours -- a jet boat ride in the Rogue River's Hellgate Canyon and a lovely raft trip on the upper Klamath. Southern Oregon does have beautiful rivers and some of them are even being set free, with the removal of dams.

And now all the bad news - radiation from Fukushima poisoning whales, the giant toxic plastic soup in the middle of the Pacific, and of course the huge dead zone now from BP in the Gulf... I almost can't think about water anymore, it's so depressing. Here are a couple of books I was able to enjoy in more innocent times, having to do with human adventures on water. These are ones I reviewed in SLJ. Maybe I'll add more later. Most of my adventures were far tamer than any of these (though I did nearly drown twice and suffered a badly broken leg once on rafting trips), I saw enough to appreciate what these people experienced, and their stories are well told.

In this anthology, women writers render in vivid and often moving terms their stories of shipwrecks, busy harbors, big oceans, and small boats. 

Some traveled alone, while others had families or partners. 

One gloried in her work as a mechanic in a noisy engine room, while another rowed long distances alone in silence along the coast, reveling in her strong muscles. 

They were novices or lifelong sailors, captains or crew, aboard to make a living or to realize a dream before settling down. 

One woman learned an important lesson when she made a youthful error in judgment during a yacht race. Another made a naturalist's journey to the Sea of Cortez. Yet another worked on an Alaskan fishing boat. 

Some writers swagger, while others muse; each essay is well written, in a unique voice. Most are original to this volume, though a few are reprinted or excerpted (one rather abruptly). The 20 essays, and the fine introduction by the editor, cover such a wide range of experience that it seems at first that the only thing they have in common is water (and that the women all lived long enough to write about their experiences in or on it). 

But running through all of the selections are threads of quiet courage, an often stunning originality, self-confidence, presence of mind, and a degree of vitality that should appeal strongly to readers of all ages.

Godforsaken Sea: The True Story of a Race Through the World's Most Dangerous Waters  by Derek Lundy.

Arguably the most extreme sporting activity of any kind, the Vendee Globe is the "Everest of sailing races." In this four-month, single-handed circumnavigation, the competitors follow a hazardous route down through the Atlantic to the bottom of the world, around Antarctica, and back again. 

In the "godforsaken" Southern Sea it is difficult just to survive, let alone race. In continuous gales unimpeded by land masses, hurricane-force winds whip up waves several stories tall. Freezing temperatures, poor visibility, icebergs, and sleep deprivation compound the challenge to the sailors, who hurtle through these waters at top speeds in lightweight 60-foot boats. To stay in the race, competitors must not accept help with repairs or stop for supplies.

Lundy relates the suspenseful tale of the 1996-97 race, in which there were a string of disasters, several thrilling rescues, and one competitor lost at sea. Radical new boat designs were put to the test and humans were pushed beyond what would seem possible (one even performed emergency surgery upon himself).

The author writes with such skill that even non-sailors will appreciate the conditions and feats he describes. He is equally adept at showing the personalities, motivations, and gifts of the men and women drawn to this challenge, and brings these unusual individuals to life. Musing on the meaning of it all, Lundy extends the perspective beyond the world of sports, and gives readers plenty to think about. This fine work of journalism should have broad and strong appeal.

I'll probably be adding more links and related reviews to this post later.