A moral puzzle, and a solution

On Saturday I went to the Hannaford supermarket with a coupon giving me $7 off a purchase of $75 or more. Among the items I got were two boxes of cat litter. At the register, the clerk started out by putting those two boxes in the bottom basket of my cart. I started to say it would be inconvenient for me to lift them from down there to my car, but he interrupted me to explain that he’d be able to scan them from there. It was a tiny issue, so I didn’t press the point.

The total came to $75 and a little change. Though I hadn’t been totaling my purchases, I’d made a rough estimate of a higher amount, and expressed my surprise to the clerk that I’d qualified for the coupon by such a tight margin.

On the way home I started wondering if he’d actually scanned the kitty litter, so I looked over the receipt. He hadn’t, which explained why the total was lower than I expected. So now the question was whether I should go back to the store and make up the shortfall.

Initially I was inclined not to. First, I’d be creating a lot of fuss for a small item. Either I’d have to haul the two 20-pound boxes back, or I’d have to get someone to go to the shelf and re-scan the item. This would create an inconvenience for the employees dealing with it, or to put it another way, a labor cost for the store, since they probably don’t deal with such a situation often. Second, the clerk’s name was on the receipt, and the mistake would look bad on his record, so I’d likely generate more resentment than appreciation. Third, I wasn’t at fault; I reacted to the clerk’s odd procedure and mentioned that the total was surprisingly low.

Still, these seemed like inadequate excuses. Besides, there was a way to avoid the problems! On Sunday I drove back, put the two boxes into a shopping cart, and went into the store. No one was going to pay attention to someone sneaking merchandise into the place. I picked up a couple of other items while I was there and went to the checkout, where I paid for everything. The books are balanced and no one got annoyed.

What would you call that, shopdropping? Anyway, I’m rather pleased with how the strategy worked out.

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Thoughts on Bach’s St. John Passion

Last week I listened to my CDs of J. S. Bach’s St. John Passion. I love the music, but the text is disturbing. The narration repeatedly blames “die Juden” for the treatment Jesus gets, and the choruses representing the high priests and the mob are in a noisy, undignified (yet also kind of fun) style which is a significant departure from Bach’s normal religious music. Pilate gets dignified music and comes off completely clean. The text is all from the Bible and nearly all from the Gospel of John. The theme of blame on the Jews is in John as well, but the person who selected the text for the Passion seems to have picked out all the lines that emphasize it. I grant that the German words “die Juden” used to cast blame have a chill which “the Jews” doesn’t.

Hostility to Jews was widespread in German culture for centuries, with Luther contributing some really nasty remarks. This was only partly a matter of religious doctrine, and by the Nazis’ time religion wasn’t the major factor. Jews were allowed into well-paying jobs that were too sinful for Christians, and not-so-rich people often hate rich people who aren’t of their kind. The German nationalist movement was also a factor, since Jewish ties transcended national boundaries. Wagner’s comments on “Jewish music” bring out this point.

All of Christian Europe shared this hostility, but it seems to have been especially strong in Spain and Germany. In Spain nearly all the Jews were driven out, killed, or converted by the 16th century; the still deadlier event in Germany didn’t happen till the 20th. At least that attitude has since become a minority view that’s generally despised.

It’s the combination of this barbaric cultural idea with the music of one of history’s greatest composers which disturbs me. He probably never thought twice about the text’s piling blame on the Jews; it was all Holy Scripture, and that excused anything. I don’t know if he shared the attitude himself, but it would surprise me if he didn’t. He wasn’t an original thinker outside music, and even musically he favored traditional forms. The ideas of a culture are its atmosphere. It can be hard to notice from inside that they’re there, and still harder to change them. In Germany it took the deaths of millions and defeat in a war.

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Fahrenheit 451 as the future of books?

Books are going through their most serious change since the development of movable type. It’s now cheaper and easier to distribute them electronically than by physical copies. In fact, it’s too easy to suit publishers. In the absence of inhibiting technology or legal fears, anyone can make huge numbers of copies and distribute them. This creates an obvious problem for publishers and authors: How do they make any money?

There are two main approaches. One is to trust readers to pay rather than grab free copies; the other is to create technical barriers to copying. Both have serious problems.

The trust-based approach assumes some people will go for the free copies, but enough will pay to keep the authors fed and the publishers making a profit. The problem is that when people see they can get something without paying, quite a large number of them will. The paying market may shrink over time, as people notice that more and more of their friends aren’t bothering to pay. The protection-based approach (DRM) assumes sufficient powers of enforcement to keep people from circumventing protection. Serious protection is impossible; the words have to be delivered to the user in the end, so people just have to figure out how to tap into the output stream and make a permanent copy.

Both approaches reward breaking the rules. People who take copies of unprotected books get them for free. People who take copies of protected books get that, as well as the benefit of having a copy which isn’t dependent on the publisher’s continued support to remain readable.

The idea of lending a book doesn’t work well with e-books. You can lend a physical book, because it can be in only one place at a time. With an e-book, you still have it, so it’s meaningless to talk about returning it. All you can really do is give out a copy with a promise that the “borrower” will observe some kind of restriction. It’s easy to forget those promises, even easier than it is to forget to return a book. Most large publishers won’t sell e-books to libraries, and those that do provide a copy that expires after a certain number of checkouts.

The biggest problem with books with DRM restrictions is that they will inevitably become useless after a while. Even with the best of intentions, it’s silly to suppose that Amazon will support today’s DRM on the computers of 2112 (if there’s even an Amazon then). Every book issued with DRM will go down the memory hole in a few decades or less. It will take longer than that for them to go out of copyright. If DRM becomes the default way of issuing books, that will add up to major cultural amnesia.

Actually, though, the books won’t disappear, because lawbreakers won’t let them. There will be people making illicit unprotected copies. Perhaps law enforcement can keep them off the public Internet, but it can’t keep them off people’s private computers or keep people from exchanging them covertly. This is a scenario right out of Fahrenheit 451, with “firemen” destroying all the copies of books they can find but being unable to stamp out the underground that keeps them alive.

It’s not the only possible future, though. Music distributors have mostly given up on DRM and haven’t gone bankrupt. However, this works because musicians have live performances as a source of income, and they can consider every illicit copy of their recordings as advertising. Can the book publishing industry find a comparable channel to monetize free riders? One possibility is selling subscriptions which give readers special privileges, such as access to discussion forums in which the authors participate.

I strongly suspect that e-books will make the existing model of book sales obsolete, whether they use DRM or not. Publishers can try as hard as they want to create technical and legal impediments, but that just won’t work. The tougher the restrictions, the more inconvenience and resentment they’ll create. Something different will have to develop.

Personally, I avoid “buying” downloads with DRM. The “buy” button is a lie; read the fine print, and you’ll see that the content is licensed, not sold. Recently I “bought” a TV episode on iTunes because I was so eager to see it that I didn’t mind the $3.99; when it finished downloading it was unplayable because it used a codec requiring hardware I don’t have. If iTunes could figure that out after downloading the movie, why couldn’t it warn me before charging my credit card? Hardware incompatibility can happen even without DRM, of course, but I’ll take that as a lesson.

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Two cartoons — OK, three

This week I saw a Warner Bros. Entertainment Academy Awards Animation Collection DVD for $14.99. That was too good a price to pass up, and it was marked down at the register to $4.99. Interestingly, most of the items on it are MGM cartoons which few people remember today, including seven Tom and Jerry shorts. What I’ll be writing about here, though, are some of the ones from Warner.

“So Much for So Little” is, to put it bluntly, government propaganda. It promotes the federal Health Centers that were around in the forties and fifties, promising cradle-to-grave health protection at absurdly low costs. (And you thought that was something new.) The narrator asserts that 2,621,932 babies “will be born next year,” and 118.481 of them “will die before reaching their first birthday.” That’s really impressive predictive precision, trying to give the impression of governmental omniscience but just sounding silly. The willingness of the judges to grant such drivel an Academy Award just shows how eager they were to get the government’s favor.

“Speedy Gonzales,” on the other hand, is unintentionally subversive. Today people object to it for presenting Mexican stereotypes, but that’s not all it does. The cartoon opens with a shot of a mesh fence at the international border, with starving Mexican mice looking through it at the Ajax Cheese Factory. The fence doesn’t stop mice, but Sylvester the cat is there as the fierce American border guard. A terrified mouse is picked to try to get to the factory and grab some cheese; we see his fate only by its reflection in the faces of the surviving mice and the tossing of his sombrero onto a pile of discarded ones. Once Speedy shows up, he repeatedly makes a fool of the gringo pussycat. In frustration, Sylvester blows up a huge pile of cheese, succeeding only in making it rain on the happy mice behind the fence.

Viewed today, does it really make Mexicans look bad, or does it ridicule the Fortress America mentality?

I also have to mention “The Dot and the Line,” which I’d never heard of before but has to be the most wonderfully nerdy cartoon ever made by a major studio. It’s a completely abstract presentation of a Flatland-like love of a line for a dot, which doesn’t sound like something I’d care for but justified the price of the DVD many times over. It’s based on a story by Norton Juster, who also wrote The Phantom Tollbooth, and its elaborate graphics were created without the benefit of computers. The moral at the end of the story convulsed me with laughter.

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A letter to the president of Brandeis

I have just printed out and will shortly send the following letter.

November 6, 2012

Frederick M. Lawrence, President
MS 100 Brandeis University
P.O. Box 549110
Waltham, MA 02454-9110

Dear Mr. Lawrence:

I am outraged by the treatment I was given by employees of Brandeis University yesterday evening.

Last night I went to a small concert by Heather Dale and friends (by which I mean friends of mine as well as hers) at Lyman Ballroom. To get in, I was made to empty my pockets, go through a metal detector, and then was wanded down because the detector went off anyway.

One of the three guards present noted my Swiss Army knife and asked if I was planning to use it. Since I didn’t expect to be opening any difficult plastic bags, I said no. He told me that if I had said yes, he would have confiscated it. I must conclude from what he said that guards sometimes confiscate people’s property.

A private institution such as Brandeis has the right to set ludicrous conditions of entry such as passing through a metal detector as if I were in an airport and not a university. It does not, however, have any right whatsoever to take visitors’ property away from them. That is theft, plain and simple.

I do not know if this “confiscation” is authorized. If not, then Brandeis employees are stealing from visitors and this needs to be stopped. If it is authorized, then Brandeis University is stealing from visitors.

As a further example of the surveillance-state mentality which evidently pervades Brandeis, the guest Wi-Fi demanded my name, phone number, and email address as a condition of access. As an example of the stupid security theater that goes with this, the SSL certificate of the Wi-Fi server was expired. I could have been giving that information to anyone. Since the connection was untrusted, I had to give false information. For your records, I was the one who signed in as “nobody@nowhere.com.”

The treatment I received yesterday at Brandeis was outrageous, and I hope I will never have to set foot on its campus again.


Gary McGath

Update: As of November 20, I’ve received no reply. It appears from the silence that Brandeis has no problem with guards who steal from visitors. If I do hear anything I’ll post a further update.

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Descending into hell

Lately I’ve been seeing posts on the Internet spitting hatred at anyone who boycotts the presidential election or votes for a minor-party candidate. Journalist Sidney J. Harris once said: “Once we assuage our conscience by calling something a ‘necessary evil,’ it begins to look more and more necessary and less and less evil.” To justify supporting their candidate, people first minimize the significance of their candidate’s evil acts, then deny that they’re evil, then attack anyone who objects to them.

The way that many Republicans went through this process between 2001 and 2008 and the way that many Democrats have gone through it since the start of 2009 aren’t that different. They listen to leaders of their party and decide they must be right. They follow commentators they respect and decide that what they’re silent about can be ignored. They listen to what their friends are saying and consider what words will get their approval.

The leaders of both major parties approve of illegal war, torture, assassination, and widespread covert surveillance. There are still many people — libertarians, the more pro-civil liberties portions of the left, and a smaller number of people on the right — who are desperately objecting. If the party conformists are bothered by that, they tell themselves that “extremism” is bad and “bipartisanship” a virtue.

Today’s Democrats generally don’t exhibit the rah-rah patriotism that usually goes with justifying deeds like Obama’s. Rather, it’s a conspiracy of silence. They don’t talk about the outrages, and when someone does they pretend they don’t hear. It’s just the desire to keep their party in power (and so keep the favors they’re getting) that motivates them to cover their ears. But as it becomes impossible to ignore the objections, they face the choice of accepting or rejecting them. They thought silence was safe because Romney promises to be even worse, but now they’re faced with the possibility that some people won’t vote for either Kang or Kodos. Now their only escape is sheer vitriol against the dissidents. It’s not too big a step after that to claim the outrages are actually a positive good.

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Superman as Randian hero?

There’s a bit of irony in how much attention Clark Kent’s resignation from the Daily Planet is getting from the media. The reason he gives up his reporter’s job is that he “believes that news should be about — I don’t know, news?

Still, Glen Weldon’s NPR article on this comic-book issue takes an interesting approach:

But I dunno. Something about that quote — the way it posits a Man of Steel seething with resentment over the fact that his specialness is going unrecognized, unrewarded — introduces discordant and distinctly un-Super notes of Millennial entitlement and, weirdly, Ayn Rand.

And that would represent a fundamental mis-read of the character. The fact that Superman puts the needs of others over those of himself is coded into the character’s DNA. It’s not a thing he does, it is who he is. It’s all he is.

My evaluation is different from Weldon’s, but he’s right that Kent’s resigning because he values his integrity and the kind of work a reporter should be doing is reminiscent of Rand’s heroes, at least in passing. (But then Clark thinks, “I hate myself for doing this,” which none of Rand’s heroes would ever think.) The writer in Atlas Shrugged who quit because she “believes that when one deals with words, one deals with the mind” is especially close to what Clark is saying.

Weldon’s association of Rand’s ideas with “entitlement” and a seething desire for recognition is bizarre. Is he right, though, in saying that Superman’s defining characteristic is putting others’ needs over his own? I haven’t read any recent Superman comics, so I can’t comment on the current version of the character. I did read them regularly in the late fifties and most of the sixties, and that certainly wasn’t the impression he gave then.

The Superman I remember had a passion for justice and a love for the way he could use his powers to defend it. He had a private life which he protected diligently. There’s more than one direction in which writers can take a superhero; the job isn’t altruistic by nature. A superhero may hold that his powers represent an obligation to give up personal concerns and serve those weaker than himself, or may be a neurotic who finds great power more of a burden than a value, but it’s just as possible to portray him as someone whose powers serve his passion for what’s right, who fights because he can make the world a little more like the one he wants to live in.

If I had a superpower, what would I do with it? I don’t think I’d make a good crimefighter by temperament, and I wouldn’t become one just out of an obligation to use my power for the good of humanity. What I’d want would be to use it in the pursuit of knowledge. Just about any superpower I can think of — strength, flying, speed, harnessing energy, x-ray vision — would be useful in some kind of research. Certainly mankind would benefit from that too, but I’d do something like that because it would be what I wanted most.

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