Archive for January, 2012

As today, January 29th, is the birthday of Thomas Paine, I thought it would be appropriate to address freedom of the press … and on the Internet. Paine was a “pamphleteer” who self-published and distributed many essays including Common Sense, which rallied the colonists to war for independence. John Adams famously proclaimed that “without the pen of the author of Common Sense, the sword of Washington would have been raised in vain.” Throughout the American Revolution, Paine continued to publish his pamphlets, collected in The Crisis, which spurred on the rebel cause.

If he were around today, Paine would not be a politician or a pundit on TV, but a blogger. His approach was grassroots, much like that of the masses who rose up during last year’s Arab Spring, sharing their thoughts and organizing their protests via blogs, Facebook, and Twitter.

It’s pretty clear that freedom of expression on the Internet is inherently tied into freedom of the press and freedom of speech. This has been a hot topic lately, with the recent SOPA blackout and yesterday’s Twitter blackout. I do support the need to protect copyrighted material and understand the frustration of the movie companies and other copyright holders—I try to always link to the official clip, like I did with the Hobbit trailer, or use free clipart. But, there were some draconian provisions in SOPA/PIPA. Internet providers could be forced to block user IP addresses, like they do in, um, China. Also, if someone posted a link to copyrighted material, say as a comment on a blog, that blogger could be held legally responsible and thus shut down. What a relief that these bills have been sent back to the drawing board.

Saturday’s #Twitterblackout protested the announcement that Twitter will begin censoring individual tweets at the request of any country’s government. Hello China and Iran. Reports charge that this new policy is tied to a $300-billion-dollar investment made by Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talaj.

However, Josh Cantone at Mashable argues that Twitter’s change will actually aid political activists by highlighting the censorship enforced by these governments. He also says it will be pretty easy for users to get around the censorship. That may prove the case, but I still took part in the #TwitterBlackout. I knee-jerk react against anything that looks to, in any way, limit our freedom of the press. Ok, it was kind of silly, everyone tweeting about how we weren’t tweeting. But it sent a message. Also, the AP reported that “many of the tweets calling for a boycott of Twitter on Saturday—using the hashtag #TwitterBlackout—came from the Middle East.”  So how could I not show solidarity with people who are fighting for the freedoms that we in the US sometimes take for granted?

Also worrisome is the concern that Twitter will begin to kowtow to corporations, who are already sending requests to block specific tweeters and tweets. Check out more than 4000 such corporate cease-and-desist orders.

Whatever you think about Occupy Wall Street, it was pretty scary and Orwellian that such massive civilian protests (with so many arrests!) were not reported by any major media outlet for nearly a month. The only reporting or coverage was online. I was reading the Hunger Games at the time, and it reminded me of the whispered, and covered-up, rebellions in Panem. Chilling. One could almost argue that keeping protests out of the media is as powerful, or more so, than actually suppressing them. After all, it was Glasnost that brought down the Soviet Union, just as social media fueled the Arab Awakening. Information is empowering. Without freedom to exchange information, how can we monitor and protect our other constitutional rights? The Supreme Court recently ruled that corporations have the same rights as individuals. I’m a capitalist, but this is deeply unnerving.

It’s not just political barriers that are being broken down by online dialogue. The Economist reports that bloggers have improved and expanded “the global conversation about economics.” The blogosphere has spotlighted economic theories and ideas that have been largely ignored by academic circles, “advancing bold solutions to America’s economic funk and Europe’s self-inflicted crisis.”

So going forward, I hope we’ll continue to be wary of attempts to regulate or circumscribe voices on the Internet. As Paine said, “such is the irresistible nature of truth, that all it asks, and all it wants is the liberty of appearing.”

Thomas Paine via Wikipedia

Pampleteer Thomas Paine Would Be A Blogger

The New Yorker: Was Thomas Paine Too Much of a Free-Thinker?

Twitter’s New Censorhip Plan Rouses Global Furor

Twitter Blackout: Taking a Stand in Solidarity

Computer World: The Real Reasons Why SOPA/PIPA are Real Bad

The Guardian: Stop SOPA or the Web Really Will Go Dark Says Wikipedia Founder Jimmy Wales

Work Hits Gone Dark to Protest SOPA/PIPA

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All the complicated details
of the attiring and
the disattiring are completed!
A liquid moon
moves gently among
the long branches.
Thus having prepared their buds
against a sure winter
the wise trees
stand sleeping in the cold.

William Carlos Williams: Poems, Bio, and Articles at Poetry Foundation

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Don’t even try to read this post. WordHits has gone dark for the SOPA/PIPA protest blackout. OK, a little early since I won’t be up at midnight. I do support copyright protection and the need to enforce that, but these acts are seriously, dangerously flawed. Freedom of speech. Freedom of words.

If you need to look up something on Wikipedia, better hit that before midnight. They will also be dark for all of Wednesday, January 18. You can read why Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales feels why this is a crossroads in freedom of information and freedom of expression on the internet.

So is SOPA Dead? Not Exactly Says Forbes

Stop SOPA or the Web Really Will Go Dark Says Jimmy Wales

How Does SOPA Work InfoGraphic

Stop SOPA Action Center

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We’ve just learned that in 1961, the jury for the Nobel Prize for Literature snubbed J.R.R. Tolkien. But the big news isn’t that he lost—so did Graham Greene, Robert Frost, and E.M. Forster that year. The really shocking news was the release of the derisive and not-so-intellectual commentary of the Nobel’s jury: that august group of judges who had been entrusted, on behalf of Alfred Nobel, to select “only the most worthy.”

One could just imagine the stimulating and elevated conversation that would arise in a year that had such luminary candidates as the aforementioned Tolkien, Greene, Frost, Forster, as well as Isak Dinesen, aka Karen Blixen, Lawrence Durrell, and John Steinbeck, who went on to win the next year.

But instead the excerpts read a bit like the outtakes from a fierce session of sorority rush, with apologies to the Greek system. The Nobel jury found that Tolkien (who was nominated by C.S. Lewis, a tidbit that warmed my heart) was ruled out because they felt The Lord of the Rings trilogy “has not in any way measured up to storytelling of the highest quality.” Ouch. And also, huh? Did they not read the books? Maybe Tolkien was not Gabriel García Márquez, but his storytelling was epic, mythical, stirring. Tolkien was a medieval history scholar, and he imbued so much of those legends into the many cultures (and languages) he created in the kingdom of Middle Earth.

The same jury ruled out both Frost and Forster, then 86 and 82 respectively, because of their “advanced age.” Despite the fact that the prolific and legendary Frost was still writing and publishing poetry, the jury argued that his age was “a fundamental obstacle, which the committee regretfully found it necessary to state”. They were much less kind to Forster, whom they called “a shadow of his former self, with long lost spiritual health.” Even as a shadow, Forster, who wrote the pioneering and seminal Modernist novels Howard’s End and  A Passage to India, was one of the most significant and influential writers of the 20th-century from a literary and a cultural standpoint. His themes of cultural conflicts, identity, and miscommunication still perplex us today—“only connect!” I’d like to think they’ve gotten over the ageism, as the latest winner, Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer, is 80, and in 2007, an 87-year-old Doris Lessing won.

I do imagine that it would be an immensely difficult job picking between these lettered giants.  It’s just that I would expect the dialogue to be more focused on the pluses, and er the literary qualifications, rather than on the negatives. One would expect the jury to be awe-struck and full of scholarly wonder at such an impressive slate. Instead, they lobbed a series of blackballs.

One thing I don’t want to get lost in all this hype is the merit and brilliance of 1961’s  winner: Ivo Andrić. There have been a few disparaging comments from the Tolkien camp. Whoa, whoa, whoa. If you have not read his masterpiece, The Bridge on the Drina, then it’s a must for your TBR. The novel looks at the history, strife, and conflict in the Bosnian region as it plays out near a great stone bridge that was built in 1516. It reads much like a novel by James Michener or Edward Rutherford, with layered folklore and a changing cast of characters that unfold over centuries.  There are Serbs, Bosnians, Jews, Christians, Turks, and all of their families, communities, and cultures. The bridge stands indomitable until it is blown away at the start of World War I. “The summer of 1914 will remain in the memory of those who lived through it as the most beautiful summer they ever remembered, for in their consciousness it shone and flamed over a gigantic and dark horizon of suffering and misfortune which stretched into infinity.” Andrić’s “Bosnian Trilogy” (The Bridge on the Drina, Bosnian Chronicles, The Woman from Sarajevo) enjoyed a revival during the terrible unrest in that area during the mid-1990s. The novels still resonate today, and Andrić is claimed as part of Croatian, Serbian, and Bosnian literature.

The jury notes from back in 1961, reveal that Greene and Blixen technically came in second and third, though there are no prizes for that. Still, it is confounding that the committee never chose to honor Greene, whose repeated nominations were passed over by several Nobel juries during the course of his lengthy career. He was in good company, though. The Pantheon of non-winners reads like a college syllabus: Mark Twain, Henrik Ibsen, Ranier Maria Rilke, Thomas Hardy, Joseph Conrad, Theodore Dreiser, and more recently, Michael Ondaatje, Carlos Ruiz Zafón, and Haruki Marakami.  In fact, Ernest Hemingway, who lost several times before finally winning in 1954, termed it the “IGnobel” prize.

It does make one wonder. I’m not sure how much crossover is on the committees, but this is the same organization that in 2009 chose President Obama as winner of the Nobel Peace Prize … two days after NASA bombed the moon.

As to all the ire over the Tolkien news, I’m still reeling from the outrageous and rather blasphemous claim that LOTR is not great storytelling. If anything, it is the apex and apotheosis of storytelling! The trilogy is ranked as the third best-selling novel worldwide, having sold over 150 million copies. Andrew Pettie wrote a wonderful article for the UK’s Telegraph “In Defense of J.R.R. Tolkien.” As Pettie noted, so “Tolkien wasn’t Tolstoy.” Then again, back in 1902 the Nobel committee also passed over Tolstoy, in favor of French poet René F. A. Sully-Prudhomme.

J.R.R. Tolkien’s Nobel Chances Dashed by Poor Prose

In Defense of J.R.R. Tolkien

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I’ve been surprised to hear that many of my friends who saw War Horse—the play on Broadway or the new Steven Spielberg film—did not know that both were based on a wonderful novel by Michael Morpurgo.  For some reason, Morpurgo, who was the Children’s Laureate of the UK, is not that well-known in the states. He has written dozens of children’s books, which are extremely popular in the UK, and indeed, worldwide. Some, like It’s a Dog’s Life and The Butterfly Lion, are geared to early readers. War Horse is one of his several fine young-adult novels.

The story is of Joey, a Devon farm horse, who is drafted into World War I, and Albert, the boy who enlists and vows to find his horse. Morpurgo did not want the book to be partisan, so Joey ends up working in turn on the British and the German sides. We see the humanity, kindness, and brutality of both. Morpurgo paints a picture of how WWI impacted civilians as well as soldiers. The book holds close to historical details, with the new agonies of trench warfare, machine guns, and gas. There’s a moving scene of Joey getting caught in no-man’s-land between the fronts, and also Albert fights in the pivotal Second Battle of the Somme. Morpurgo brilliantly invokes the foolhardy, specious, “charge-of-the-light-brigade” gallantry that would send a cavalry into battle against modern heavy artillery. Whether he is writing about people or animals, Morpurgo creates memorable characters. I particularly loved the gruff but noble workhorse Topthorn.

Another book by Morpurgo that I strongly recommend is Private Peaceful. Also set during WWI, it is an affectionate and wrenching story about Thomas “Tommo” Peaceful and his brother Charlie, who become soldiers together.

After their father is killed in an accident, the two brothers struggle to help their mother keep the family together, now that they no longer have claim to the tenant farm where they live. Morpurgo highlights the resolute and capricious power that the landed gentry had over their laborers—an authority that ultimately forces the brothers off to war at an early age. This class conflict is mirrored by the brutish behavior of some of the officers in the trenches. Again with attention to historical accuracy, Morpurgo focuses on a lesser-known, barbaric injustice faced by many of the rank-and-file soldiers in the British army in the early 20th-century.

The book is told in flashbacks by Tommo, who lied about his age so he could go along when his older brother was drafted. “They’ve gone now, and I’m alone at last. I have the whole night ahead of me, and I won’t waste a single moment of it. I shan’t sleep it away. I won’t dream it away, either.” I was hooked from Tommo’s first line. Also, the pacing that alternated real-time with the past had me ripping through the pages. The countdown felt a bit like an episode of the TV show 24—with the suspense, and the sense of dread, compounding. I finished Private Peaceful in one sitting.

In addition to some lovely vignettes of life in the Devonshire countryside, there is also a charming, understated tween love triangle, which sparkled with the refreshing, best-friend dynamic of childhood romance. Though his books are targeted to young readers, Morpurgo insists they are “stories for everyone.” And I must say I am steadily plowing through them, relieved to find that he is so prolific.

Although the children’s book market has been booming, there is a lot of dodgy, poorly-written, mishmash out there—such as the hackneyed “kitten”, “rainbow”, and “weather” fairy series. And don’t get me started on the fad of celebrity children’s books. Ugh. Do you really want your kids reading this stuff?

Parents looking for quality, compelling books for their children should browse the virtual bookshelf on Morpurgo’s website. Not only are his many books beautifully-crafted with wonderful characters (there are lots of animals and there’s lots of history), but these books are downright satisfying page-turners … for readers of any age.

Fueled by Movie Buzz, War Horse Breaks into Top 50 Bestsellers

War Horse: the Novel

Private Peaceful

Michael Morpurgo’s Virtual Bookshelf and Website

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