Blast from the past, and the future

by admin on December 30, 2008

The last post of the year calls for two things: something fun and off-topic, and New Year’s resolutions.


I love the Internet because on any given morning, when you’re least expecting it, just surfing along aimlessly, you can come upon something that completely blows your mind. Like this morning, for example.

First, let me explain that I am sort of a fan of webcomics. I’m definitely not as much into them as some people, but there are two comics I read every day (Sinfest and Piled Higher and Deeper, if you want to know), and every now and then I poke around the Internet and look for others. I am also a resident of Santa Cruz. If you do either of those things — live in Santa Cruz or read webcomics — you will sooner or later run into the name of Nina Paley.

Paley was a Santa Cruz local who had a short-lived weekly comic, Nina’s Adventures, that people in Santa Cruz still remember with fondness. It was one of the first comics to appear on the fledgling World Wide Web, way back in the pre-Firefox, pre-Internet Explorer, pre-Netscape days when the only browser you could get was Mosaic. She also drew the logo for Cruzio, the Internet service provider that hosts my website. (It has been my ISP since I moved to Santa Cruz in 1996. Thanks, Cruzio!) I’m sure Paley did lots of other things that I don’t know about. When you look at her comics, you see the kind of talent that effervesces off the page; it is too big and too unpredictable to be contained by a comic page or a little town like Santa Cruz. So it’s no surprise that she moved on to bigger and better things, although I had no idea where she was or what she was doing.

This morning, I was reading the blog of Roger Ebert, the famous movie critic, and there’s the name of Nina Paley again! Turns out that she has spent five years making a full-length animated movie, called Sita Sings the Blues. Ebert writes about how he received a DVD of the movie in the mail, read its description on the Internet Movie Database (an animated version of the epic Indian tale of Ramayana set to the 1920’s jazz vocals of Annette Hanshaw), rolled his eyes and filed it in the drawer for “movies I will watch when they introduce the 8-day week.”

Except that a friend mentioned the movie to him, and also mentioned that Paley is the daughter of somebody Ebert once knew. So out of curiosity Ebert put the movie in his DVD player and he was hooked… “enchanted” … “swept away.” As he writes, “I am smiling from one end of the film to the other. It is astonishingly original. It brings together four entirely separate elements and combines them into a great whimsical chord.”

I’ll stop here, because you really need to go to Ebert’s blog and read the whole review, and then scroll down and read the 95 comments after it. Just remember to come back here when you’re done, okay?

I can’t wait to see Sita Sings the Blues, but I don’t know when I’ll ever get a chance to. As you now know if you’ve read Ebert’s blog, it has no distributor because it is in copyright limbo. The movie uses songs from an obscure 1920’s singer, and the big music studios that own the copyright demanded that Paley pay a six-figure amount of money for the rights to re-use those songs … Never mind the fact that they could probably make more money by letting the movie come out and turn into a hit, and then re-issuing Annette Hanshaw’s old recordings. (Sort of like what happened with the soundtrack to the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou?, which won five Grammys.) On Paley’s blog she says that the studios have subsequently reduced their demands to $50,000 plus a huge laundry list of other fees and residuals, still well beyond the means of an indie filmmaker.

Let’s hope that Paley’s creativity and her viral marketing plan, plus Ebert’s clout, will somehow win out in the end.

As a professional writer, I have mixed feelings about copyright. I love the idea. But the practice is so far from the ideal. You can only really enforce copyright if you have a big organization behind you. If you’re a writer you need a publisher, and if you’re a singer you need a music studio. So I understand why the big companies get involved. But the intent of the law is to protect the artist. In the case of Annette Hanshaw, there is no artist being protected, because she is long since dead. You could say, “Well, what about her estate?” But as someone pointed out in the thread of comments on Ebert’s blog entry, her estate (if it exists) is probably not getting a dime either. She almost certainly did her singing on a for-hire basis, meaning that she signed over all rights to it. (I know about this; I’ve reluctantly signed contracts like this myself.) If that is the case, no one is being protected with this copyright; it’s purely a way for the studios to make profit.

The other thing about copyright is that it’s supposed to expire eventually. But the copyright law has been hijacked (so I have read, in many places) by the Walt Disney Company, which is determined that Mickey Mouse and pals, who were first drawn in the 1920s, should never enter the public domain. So as a result, it looks as if we will forever and ever have a system where you don’t have to pay a thing to perform or copy music from the 1900s or 1910s (hello, Scott Joplin!) but you have to pay $50,000 to reproduce or redistribute music from the 1920s or later.

Anyway, I don’t want this to end on a rant, because I titled this entry, “Why I Love the Internet.” So let me just say that it was such a delight to read this update on the career of one of the most creative people I know about, and in this way also be exposed to so many new and interesting things that I didn’t know about before: Roger Ebert’s blog, the Ramayana, and the 1920s songstress, Annette Hanshaw.


Now to topic number two: the future. What is an appropriate New Year’s resolution for a chess player? Does anyone have any good ideas?

I think that resolutions that are based on specific accomplishments: “I will reach a rating of 2200,” or “I will win xxx tournament,” are not very realistic, because they are too much dependent on other people and on circumstances. Ever since I wrote this blog entry, I have been trying to replace achievement-oriented goals with process-oriented goals, on the grounds that you can’t control what your opponents do, but you can control what you do.

On the other hand, a process-oriented goal is a little bit squishy. It’s too easy to convince or delude yourself into thinking that you are achieving it. A goal like “I will reach a rating of 2200” is black and white. You either do or you don’t, and there is no fooling yourself.

So … With all that in mind, here are my chess resolutions for 2009.

  1. I will make a sincere effort to find a commercial sponsor for the Berkeley International. (Surprise! I discussed this in private with David Pruess and John Donaldson, but I have not said anything about it publicly.)
  2. I will finish reading Silman’s Complete Endgame Course.
  3. I will try to emulate successful players in the following areas: time usage, more solid choice of openings, greater flexibility, less emotional decision-making, more patience (recognizing that the game is just as likely to be decided on move 30 or 40 or 50 as on move 20).
  4. I will improve my rating by an average of at least 10 points per tournament played.
  5. If given permission by ChessLecture, I will attempt to find a publisher for a compilation book of my ChessLectures.

We’ll see a year from now how much progress I made toward these resolutions!

Happy New Year, everybody!

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