Friday, October 28, 2005


Google wars, Karadzic, missing podium, PhRMA fiction, Mingus

First, an update on the Google controversy, which continues to rage even as the search-engine behemoth prepares to start scanning books again on November 1. In the San Francisco Chronicle, Clarissa Pinkola Estés initially makes nice to Google's Print Library Project. It would be, she argues, a godsend to ethnographic researchers like herself, dependent on the "green volumes of the U.S. Anthropological Survey" and other archival materials:
Recently at a library, these old ethnographic books fell apart in my hands. In our high-country desert clime, they'd become crisp as cracker. Pages literally shattered as I turned them. Librarians said there was no money for climate control, that the books were past saving. Thence comes Google, saying it will save public-domain books--to me, a researcher of 40 years standing, a priceless treasure.
What Estés doesn't like is Google's opt-out policy, which she compares to a shotgun marriage: "I would like to have my work digitized, and I would like to choose my own suitor to do that." But according to Joanna Glasner's new piece in Wired, a good many authors are eager to step up to the altar. Even Ashton Applewhite--author of Cutting Loose: Why Women Who End Their Marriages Do So Well and a skeptic, one supposes, about the whole matrimonial enterprise--is eager to be Google's blushing bride. She insists that authors lost effective control of their copyrights a long time ago: "The dike was breached when they invented the Xerox machine and put it in libraries. People who want to steal will always find a way, but I think this is going to tap into a much larger audience."

Yet Applewhite overlooks the presence of multiple suitors. Microsoft, for example, has just joined the Open Content Alliance (as reported in the New York Times). The OCA "is working to digitize the contents of millions of books and put them on the Internet, with full text accessible to anyone, while respecting the rights of copyright holders." Note the anti-Google dig in that second clause. And note Microsoft's transformation from marketplace-dominating ogre to plucky rebel.

Speaking of ogres, here's W.H. Auden:
The Ogre does what ogres can,
Deeds quite impossible for Man,
But one prize is beyond his reach:
The Ogre cannot master speech.

About a subjugated plain,
Among its desperate and slain,
The Ogre stalks with hands on hips,
While drivel gushes from his lips.
Auden wrote "August 1968" to protest the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, suggesting that human monsters were essentially incapable of speech. But where does that leave fugitive war criminal Radovan Karadzic, who's just published a book of poetry? According to the Guardian, the former psychiatrist and Bosnian Serb demagogue has collected 47 poems in Under the Left Breast of the Century. Despite the enigmatic title--I assume Slobodan Milosevic is under the right breast--the book has a distinct pastoral flavor. Alas, the detailed descriptions of mountains, lakes, and forests probably won't lead the UN war crimes tribunal to the dapper dictator's door. Too bad.

Next, a story I missed the first time around: the president's podium is missing! Yes, the very podium from which George W. Bush addressed the nation on September 11, 2001, at Barksdale Air Force Base in Shreveport, Louisiana. After the president delivered his less-than-stirring speech, this modest piece of office furniture vanished into the maw of history--or more precisely, it passed into the capable hands of the Federal Surplus Property Agency, which donated it to an Arkansas school district. (There was, I should note, a $75 handling fee.) Then the folks at Barksdale AFB decided they wanted the podium back for a historical display. After some sleuthing, it was traced to the Arkansas City School District 470. Officials did allow the school to keep the podium until after graduation day. Read all about it at the Arkansas Federal Surplus Property site (scroll down for story) and in this old BBC News piece. If anybody has an update on this--did the podium ever make it to Barksdale?--I'd love to hear it.

Here's a keeper: according to Michael Hiltzik's hilarious column in the Los Angeles Times, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America tried to burnish its image by commissioning a suspense novel. The book, to be published by Michael Viner's Phoenix imprint, would trot out a new villain to rival Doctor No himself: the Canadian drug industry.
According to the proposal, PhRMA would pay Phoenix a six-figure sum for the marketing and production of a written-to-order fictional thriller. The plotline was what Hollywood would term high-concept--a group of shadowy terrorists conspires to murder thousands of Americans by poisoning the medicine they're importing from Canada to beat U.S. drug prices. (Think "True Lies" meets the Physicians Desk Reference.)

If this scenario sounds familiar, it's because PhRMA has tried to scare state legislatures and Congress out of giving Americans access to cheap Canadian drugs by warning that terrorists might poison the imports.
Eventually PhRMA pulled out of the project, citing (more or less) creative differences and offering the authors $100,000 "if they would agree never to speak ill of PhRMA or the drug industry for the rest of their lives." I'm not making this up! And I can't fit all the delicious details into this post. Please, please read the entire column--you'll thank me later.

Finally, a balm for the soul: via the Bad Plus blog, I came across this link to the official Charles Mingus website. Click on the home page and you get a video of Mingus whipping through two fantastic choruses of "I Can't Get Started." A perfect way to start your day--or mine, anyway. And don't miss the many additional goodies on the site, including altoist John Handy dancing atop some of the gigantic ensemble passages in Epitaph.

Yes, the podium made it back to Barksdale. It is now displayed at the 8th Air Force Museum located on the base.
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