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Benjamin Russell

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Wednesday, January 18, 2012



Today's Google Doodle is a black bar of censorship over the logo, as Google protests a bill in front of Congress ostensibly designed to aid in the enforcement of copyright violation. Now, I don't know a teenager who isn't in favor of copyright violation. Copyright can seem simply like one more thing that prevents you from getting what you want instantaneously, and since a teenager's life tends to feel like a never-ending series of crises that need to be taken care of RIGHT NOW, paying attention to the legality of downloading can seem trivial at best and totally irrelevant at worst.

So while Google is imploring you to call your congressperson and prevent a favorable vote on the Stop Online Piracy Act (or SOPA), the "you" in question is probably not someone who votes, and probably the person that the Act is trying to attack. Of course you're opposed to it. But probably not for the reasons Google wants you to be.

This blog post starts with an image. It was an image I found on Google Image Search after putting in the search terms "censored text". It showed up about three screens down, after a picture of Kristen Stewart, an inappropriate-for-school T-shirt, the cover art for both Anderson's Speak and Dean Myers' Monster, and — bizarrely — an image of NyanCat. Because of a lack of restrictions on the freedom of the internet, I was able to copy and download this image and add it to this blog. Exactly the sort of thing you do for PowerPoint presentations, for posting on Facebook, for cluttering up your network folders on the S: drive.

Technically, however, this is copyright violation. I don't own the image, and I don't own the rights to the image. Specifically, I don't own the right to copy the image and use it to my own ends, because I did not make it, and I did not ask for permission. As a sop to this, I have altered the image (also a right I do not have) to indicate that I know I don't own the image, and to tell people where it originally came from. This is what we ask you to do with bibliographies and Works Cited documents: to indicate that you know what you did and did not create, and to give credit where credit is due. Now, because you are doing this for educational purposes, you are largely protected from when you fail to do this properly, but when you do this on your own, the SOPA provisions will give companies the ability to shut down your websites, your online accounts, if they believe or simply claim that you have violated their copyrights. No notification, no request, no official channels, just the power to unilaterally shut you down. But using this image — even with attribution — without permission, the owners of Salon Internet, Inc. could shut down this blog.

This blog — being an official Blogger™ blog — is hosted by Google, and subject to their Terms of Service. In that TOS is the exhortation that I not engage in illegal activity, and copyright violation is illegal. Google would prefer that I not simply redistribute stuff that doesn't belong to me. However, Google is indicating lack of support for this bill. One could, as some senators have done, interpret that this means that Google is pro-piracy. However, I prefer to think of it as Google not being in favor of businesses being given the powers of copyright law enforcement.

Libraries believe in access to information. Libraries understand that information is not free, and spend umpteen thousands of dollars every year to purchase access to information so that people can use it, gain from it, and share in it. We believe in upholding copyright so that people who create, compile, edit, and publish information receive the appropriate compensation so that they will continue to provide books, films, articles, songs, webpages, and images for our edification and enjoyment. The free internet is not free, and it needs protection. But it needs to be protected justly, equally, and not in a way that gives companies and copyright holders an unfair advantage over their audience.

Related Links:

Official Google Blog: Don't Censor the Web

Fight for the Future: Stop American Censorship

Fight for the Future: Video explaining the potential effects of SOPA and the Protect IP Act

The Wikimedia Foundation: Why Wikipedia Has Gone Dark A technical examination of SOPA and PROTECT IP

McSweeney's: A Day's Worth of Facts to get you through Wikipedia's 24-Hour Blackout

Tuesday, August 09, 2011


Hufflepuffery, and Other Magic Digits

Well, the countdown clock for Harry Potter has begun. The final bell has rung, the final credits scrolled up the screen, and people have had their fond farewells. It's only a limited amount of time before the character becomes a vaguely recalled wisp of childhood, fondly remembered but too embarrassing to revisit.

But, Mr. Russell!, I hear you cry. Harry Potter was a worldwide phenomenon, enjoyed, read, and watched by children and adults alike! How can it possibly become little more than a blushing trifle of nostalgia?

And, maybe I'll be proved wrong. Look at the cache that Star Wars, another children's film embraced by both young and old, has enjoyed. Millions upon millions of dollars of merchandizing, innumerable take-offs and spin-offs, and the ability to pack convention halls with sweaty, geeky man-children. Star Trek may have had the documentary about fans who transform their lives, houses, and jobs to resemble their favorite escapism, but Star Wars is the go-to punchline for arrested development. And endorsements by Joseph Campbell aside, the story has not stood up to critical acclaim. It's got enough boffo, whiz-bang special effects to dazzle, but even at the start — more than thirty years ago — lead actor Harrison Ford infamously told George Lucas that, "[Y]ou can type this shit, but you sure as hell can't say it."

Harry Potter started off as tissue-thin, wish fulfillment escapism, notable for its copious irrelevant detail in world-building and its utter lack of suspenseful pacing. One can easily understand the appeal of the desire to find one's humdrum life transformed into a magical success, but the sheer hyperbolic stakes that Rowling set up in order to tell us who was good and who was bad were such gross exaggerations that she herself spent many books trying to correct them. Please consider the following summary of the beginning of book one:

Harry's aunt, uncle, and cousin are the most loathsome of trolls, eventually given the slightest of motivation (jealousy) several years after they'd already been rendered as little more than corpulent grotesques on page and on film. Because fat people are heartless and selfish! Oh, Jo, your penetrating glance into human nature knows no bounds! Instead of just living a contentious existence with his family, Harry lives in a cupboard! Under the stairs! Because Jo Rowling strives for realistic depictions of family situations. And which is why Harry's situations caroms to the opposite side of the spectrum with such spectacular subtlety: he is a secret celebrity, with a secret cavern of gold. A special group of magic people send him to a posh school, and even a magic wand with unique capabilities chooses him. Despite having never participated in this special wizard culture, Harry discovers he's really good at their special wizard sport, and gets promoted to the lead position, where he can win the game single-handed only he can catch the special wizard sport ball with it's realistic amount of game-altering points. He does this all on the most current, cutting-edge wizard broom, which — despite his untold riches — was purchased for him by a secret benefactor.

Sure, the books get better. But they take years to escape this sloppy, pedestrian origin. This childish (Not "child-like"; that's a quality. "Childish" is not.) collection of lists of stuff is fun on a Goodnight Moon level, where one enjoys pointing out all the stuff in the pictures, but it's not really a story. And it doesn't feature recognizable people. And in a few years, once the glamour has worn off, teenagers will be moved to revisit the series, to feel again the flush of fun that comes with comfortable familiarity. And they will find the first book hard-going, with its wearying reluctance to actually move to the plot along, its obsessive cataloguing of special! magical! versions of ordinary things, and its cut-out heroes and villains. And book two is even worse, if such a thing can be conceived.

And modern youth, young people having heard of the books and having been exposed to the hype, will quietly let the series die. They will start at the beginning and find an absence of charm befitting its reputation. They will abandon it in its early days, and the series will moulder and fade. Libraries with multiple copies of each volume, from each book's release heyday and the resulting voracious temporal demand, will suddenly get yards of shelf-space back. (See also, the box-office records for the final film: after getting it out of their collective systems, attendance dropped a whopping 72% during the second weekend. In anything else, that would have sent studio execs scurrying in alarm.)

Fans of Severus Snape, looking to trace his secret goodness back to its roots, will not find a through line that exhibits the signs of any plans for redemption. That doesn't really start until book three. There is an interesting story to be told about the Harry Potter series, and it's about how J.K. Rowling took what could have been a series of uninteresting, unremarkable, repetitious stories, and turned them into a series with a long-term plot and character development. She learned how to write, in public, and transformed slowly from a writer to an author between 2001 and 2009. If she were to write something now, it could actually be good; she has the potential, even if she has yet to demonstrate it. Certainly, the series ends with a maturity of tone, with an exhibition of the understanding of consequences, and many demonstrations of having exploded many of its own limiting conventions.

Me, I'm going to enjoy living in a post-Potter world by reading a little post-Potter literature. It's release day for the sequel to Lev Grossman's excellent The Magicians. The Magicians, like ...and the Sorcerer's Stone, is a book that didn't need a sequel. But unlike Harry Potter and The Publisher's Mistrust of an American Audience,* the first book was so well-constructed, so mature its outlook, and so knowing in its genre conventions, that I will gladly give the second volume a chance, to see if Grossman can up the game. I'm certainly willing to play.

Monday, September 13, 2010


How do we search? Distractedly.

This is old news, but timely at the beginning of the school year as we refocus on making sure we're aware of how we search the web: Google has an automatic function as part of YouTube that allows you to make a short movie of what you search for.

One of the more entertaining aspects of the web has always been the tangential nature of hyperlinks. An article or website can link out to various related content which can send you spiraling out, far away from your original intent, your original search object (my friends call this "falling down the wiki hole", which references perhaps the densest collection of unrelated links as well as Alice's Adventures in Wonderland). Google (other search engines are available) further increases this, not by providing hyperlinks that move you away from what you meant to look for, but by providing one with the effortless ability to look at results, become dissatisfied, and try searching from a different or related angle. Wrong results will spark a secondary and often unrelated thought, and zoom! you're off. And the amount of time it takes before you circle back around to what you'd originally intended to do can be considerable.

The above video is a fun little frolic I constructed to describe a train of thought that I, hypothetically, might once have had. It goes a little like this (bear with me):
In the first book of Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shae's Illuminatus Trilogy, the bit I best remember was an extended sequence where a character, in order to prove the numerological significance of the numbers two and three, goes on a rant listing all the incidents wherein the number twenty-three occurs in semi-significant places (this was years before the film The Number 23). This sequence introduced me to the meaning behind the phrase "23 skidoo" (which I can never remember how to spell), which was used by the villain character The Terror in the FOX Kids animated show The Tick in order to show just how old he was. There was a brilliant gag in that episode of The Tick where The Terror talks about how he built a ray-guy, which turned everyone it touched into a gas station attendant with a nametag that read "Ray", which I think is hilarious, and makes me think of that record album with the Flash Gordon raygun on the cover that I can never remember who it's by. Which reminds me of the great Threadless t-shirt with rayguns, which reminds me how often Star Wars references show up in Threadless designs, and whether I should buy that one shirt (which now seems to be out of print) for my brother, who loves Star Wars, but never seems to use the totally awesome Yoda backpack I got him for Christmas a few years ago.

Phew! What sort of stream-of-consciousness tangents does the web allow you to go on? Feel free to make your own search story and share!

Thursday, May 06, 2010


Paper Tiger with Virtual Teeth

FLICKR: Facebook Window StickerSo, I got a letter from Facebook yesterday. A real paper letter, in the mail, signed (with a pen, not by a pre-print computer image file!) by an actual human being. Since the Belmont High School Library has an FB page, the gentleman at Facebook corporate headquarters was hoping that I would spend money to use any of their various tools to increase my number of visitors, fans, hits, and pageviews. To encourage this, they sent me the cheerful sticker on the left and a coupon for a push banner ad to make non-fans aware of the page.

This is obviously self-serving. It's dressed up in very accessible business rhetoric, as more activity is equated with more involvement, better dissemination of key information, and a greater emotional investment on the part of the patron. But if I get more activity on the library's FB page, Facebook gets more ad views and more revenue. They would probably classify this as a "win-win", but one might notice that while this means that they win and that I win, you aren't included in that victory pairing.

In fact, those who are conspiracy-minded or simply concerned about corporate excess may have noticed for some time now a regular stream of news articles that have appeared in technology and business sections about Facebook's series of missteps with regard to the privacy of its users. (The Fake AP Stylebook recently summed it up nicely: "It is no longer necessary to write new stories about Facebook privacy issues; just change the dates." Google apparently tweaks its website 550 times a year, and they don't get this sort of outcry.) While users tend to respond to each change aesthetically ("Bring back the old layout! I hate the new mini-feed!" etc.), the changes have always been a steady march toward two simple things: 1) increasing the number of users so that advertizers have an attractive pool of recipients, and 2) increasing the ways in which a user in this ever-enlarging pool can be commoditized. Facebook doesn't care about you beyond whether you have a sufficiently pleasant experience so that you'll keep coming back. And, considering that a recent study has shown that teens grow anxious and depressed when asked to abstain from social networking for even a weekend, you are likely going to come back.

Some of you may remember the kerfuffle last year when Facebook changed their Terms of Service. "Terms of Service" is the long, written-in-legalese document that you're supposed to read and never do before clicking the box that says, "I have read and agree to the Terms of Service." What most people who had read the ToS already knew was that despite any illusion you might have had that what you put up on FB was "yours", the truth stood in silent disagreement. Because the servers that host your pictures and your posts and your notes and your personal data all belong to Facebook, all the content that you saved to those servers does as well. Even if you cancel your account. So any pretense that it's "your" account is, frankly, farcical.

Screencap by www.itbusiness.caAnd because you checked that box, "your" data can be used any way that they like, including their new plan of integrating your FB content onto other websites, like online newspapers, Pandora, and Microsoft. And unless you specifically opt out of this service, your content is available to these associate websites, and opting out still allows your friends to see your profile information. Again, not because it's what you wanted or what you asked for, but because you've been commoditized.

This has even gone so far as to inspire the U.S. Senate to request that Facebook simplify their privacy controls so that users are actually aware of what information they are and are not sharing. Facebook's practice of providing your information to partners and vendors, and then allowing you to restrict it is at odds with privacy rights groups' feelings of best practices, but I remind you... it's not your information anymore, anyway. Once it's on Facebook, it doesn't belong to you. And they can use it in any way that they want.

You don't have to go so far as to respond to this by canceling your Facebook account; the library certainly plans on continuing to maintain its fan page until such time as it becomes dangerous or stupid. But, as it is Choose Privacy Week (as sponsored by the American Library Association), the library thought that we should do what we could to inspire you to mull these issues over. Social networking is fun, and it feels more fun the more content you put online, as it generates more responses from more friends and acquaintances. But unless you are really in control of that content, we want to make you more aware of some of the ramifications of that fun. Don't be a tiny piece of data, a commodity to be traded and sold between major corporations. If you're going to share your identity online, make sure you do it safely, privately, and on your own terms.

Friday, November 13, 2009


Day of Reckoning

DC Comics' Calendar Man fights Batman and RobinToday is International Bowie Day! Woo!

Normally, when I make one of these pronouncements in front of my students, usually accompanied by an ad hoc assemblage of thematically-related books, I usually get one of two responses:
  1. That's ridiculous.
  2. Says who?
Granted, this is in part because I've foisted off some pretty unusual days on them before. International Pancake Day (Feb. 16, 2010), Wonder Woman Day (Oct. 25), and Unicorn Independence Day (Sept. 25) have all be met with narrowed eyes and varying degrees of skepticism. And with the last one, well, the skepticism was well-founded as it was unilaterally declared by a friend of mine from his computer terminal in Vancouver.

When the library has displayed various calendars of unusual holidays, the question of how one gets a Day declared usually comes up. For a day to be nationally recognized, it requires a declaration of Congress, but mayors and governors can do so on a city or state level, so I suppose the national executive branch may also have journally declarative powers. Then again, tomorrow was designated National Gaming Day by the American Library Association, and they don't have any official ratifying power to speak of.

Flickr: Mr. Russell in City of HeroesWhich brings us to the power of the internet. Most of these so-called National Days I've encountered and displayed? Found on the internet. No ability to trace them, ratify them, prove them. But it also gives people the power to create a movement on a local level, spreading the word through blogs and forwards and the like. National Novel Writing Month started as a very local phenomenon, and had 119,301 registered participants last year. Neither Rabbit Hole Day (Jan. 27) nor National Gorilla Suit Day (Jan. 31) have taken off in quite the same electric manner, but they could... they could.

All of which is to say: my friend Jamie has decided that today is International Bowie Day. So call up the Laughing Gnome, Major Tom, and the Goblin King and celebrate, or simply join in the fun on Twitter. Me, I'm going to be limbering up in order to properly participate tomorrow, as I'll likely bust out some superheroics in City of Heroes. Zap! Pow! BAM!

Wednesday, October 21, 2009


NEHS: The PDF of Dorian Gray

As we begin the second year of the "What Dreams May Come" chapter of the National English Honor Society, we've decided to embark upon an experiment.

Display of the text of a cell phone novel, from the Florida Reading Assoc.With all the buzz around the Amazon Kindle, Sony's competing e-Reader, and the rumors of a Google downloadable book system that will be comparable to iTunes, electronic books are a high-investment venture. The cost of producing a book for a screen pales in comparison to the cost of printing thousands of copies of a book on paper, and if we can drive the cost of books down, some say, more people would buy them and more people would read. Movers will tell you that some of the heaviest material to cart in or out of a person's house are boxes of books. Books are dense, inconvenient, expensive, and environmentally debatable. A system of electronic books could address many of these issues... if people would adopt said system, and if the electronic-book readers were not priced so prohibitively.

Japan has discovered an interesting way to deal with this last issue: keitai shousetsu are novels that are written to be read on — and are frequently composed on — cell phones. Granted, much of Tokyo's popular culture is cell phone-based, and their phones are correspondingly more technologically awesome than our own, but people embrace the idea that that little screen is a place where people can read... we read text messages on them, why not pages of a book? In fact, five out of the top ten Japanese best-selling novels in 2007 were first written on a cell phone, and then translated into book form once they had reached a commercial level of popularity.

(Of course, that does show that even the Japanese are still wrestling with the issue, as the best-sellers were established as such in paper, and not simply on screen. Still, it has gone a long way toward legitimatizing the form.)

The Picture of Dorian Gray, Penguin edition The book that the Belmont High School chapter of NEHS has chosen to read, Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray, has been in the public domain for almost twenty years. Written in 1890, copyright laws currently allow for reproductions of the book to be made without license and to be distributed without compensation to the writer or his estate. And there are plenty of versions of the text to be found online. While in the past, the library has provided sufficient number of copies for all the members of NEHS (the much maligned Neuromancer, for example), we have chosen instead to merely make participants aware of the multiplicity of free, legal ways in which they could acquire the text. And as area libraries don't have copious numbers of copies, we hope that people will take the risk of seeing what reading an entire book can be like on a phone, or an iPod, or a computer screen... We are as much interested in talking about that experience as we are talking about the book itself.

A MS-Word 2003 document containing links to the available free and cheap options for getting one version of Dorian Gray or another, can be found here.

Sunday, November 30, 2008


Last Minute: NaNoWriDay

Book in a Month, by Victoria Lynn SchmidtNovember, as this blog has trumpeted before, is National Novel Writing Month. A month during which participants — namely, anyone who wants to — dash out just under six pages each day during the thirty days before December 1st in a mad, high-energy attempt to get 50,000 words down on paper. One hundred and eighty pages may feel like pretty short for a finished novel (some middle school teachers wouldn't let you write a book report on anything less than two hundred), but over the course of a hectic November, it can seem like an unattainable vastness.

I had grand plans to participate in NaNoWriMo this year, as I have a novel furtively buzzing in my brain, and wanted to put some first draft down on paper before too much time passed and the raw inspiration thinned out into just another faded dream, evaporating under the cold glint of dawn. But while I had plotted in late October to hunker down the following week and at least start the project, it wasn't until well after the seventh of the new month that I remembered my schemes and saw that I was already twelve thousand words behind schedule.

So I scrubbed my plans, and vowed to try again some other year. But really, who picked November for this thing, anyway? Why not February? Nothing happens during February anyway, save for the deepest, darkest exhibitions of Seasonal Affective Disorder, which always turns the shorted month into the most interminable. I bet I could write something the length of Crime and Punishment whilst huddled in the grey depths of February. No distractions, no warmth, just the chilly comfort of the clicking keyboard... that's the way to emerge from the long, dark winter of the soul.

Not Quite What I Was Planning: Six-word memoirs by writers famous & obscureIn any case, if you, like me, were moved to participate in National Novel Writing Month, but never got 'round to it, I'm offering you a cheap and easy alternative: National Memoir Writing Minute. On this last day on NaNoWriMo, take a minute and write your memoirs in a mere six words. A new collection of six-word memoirs has just been published, Not Quite What I Was Planning. According to NPR and the Daily Telegraph, Ernest Hemingway was bet that he couldn't write a complete story in just six words, and he won the wager with the following evocative sentence: "For sale: baby shoes. Never worn." Smith magazine, an online journal, solicited writers for their six-word memoirs, and Not Quite What I Was Planning contains 8,000 selections, featuring jokes, quips, thoughtful pauses, and briefs from such well-known individuals as Dave Eggers, Aimee Mann, Stephen Colbert, Joan Rivers, Lionel Shriver, Chuck Klosterman, and Joyce Carol Oates.

Check out the following links for examples, or simply construct your own. We hope to read your concise life stories in the comments... even if you don't get to it before the end of November. And as for my own wistful contribution...

"Me? I want what is over."

+ Daily Telegraph - A Life in Six Words?:
+ NPR - Six-Word Memoirs: Life Stories Distilled:
+ USA Today - Famous Writers Sum Up Their Lives:
+ BONUS: "This Song's Just Six Words Long" by Weird Al Yankovic:

Friday, February 15, 2008


RESOURCES: Juvenile Justice

A series of web-based resources with regard to juvenile crime, as compiled for a debate class in the University of Michigan can be found here:

The page hasn't been updated since 1998, so some of the links are no longer extant, but the webmasters have accumulated some useful links to statistics about youth crime. The Reports, Statistics, and Government Information sections are where you should concentrate your efforts, as it's likely that statistics would still be useful, even ten years later, and that the links would still function. The library particularly recommends the U.S. Department of Justice website of Crime Statistics.

One of the key links that is outdated, however, is that of the American Civil Liberties Union's juvenile justice system "Fact Sheet". The updated link is here, at the bottom of a brief list of other juvenile justice resouces hosted by the ACLU.

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