sweet & sour notes

thoughts on music, politics, & society, from Dominique Cyprès

This web site went down for a day. It's not the strangest technical problem I've ever seen, but it's a good example of that frustrating kind where even after it's been remediated and things are back to normal the cause isn't obvious and therefore there's no surefire way to mitigate against future recurrences.

On the morning of Saturday 21 January 2023, I opened the Seafile shared file-hosting app on my phone to check some notes I'd been drafting there. Those notes are stored remotely by the Seafile server-side software on my virtual private server (VPS), an Internet-connected virtual machine (VM, a sort of virtual computer that can operate alongside other VMs on shared computer hardware) that I rent at a monthly rate. But all I got was a connection error. Concerned, I tried loading my blog, also hosted on the VPS, in a browser. That didn't work either. I looked at my dashboard on the hosting provider's web site.


Well, I couldn't imagine why it would be shut off. I hadn't requested anything like that. And I hadn't changed anything since I connected the day before. So I just turned it back on. But no dice. Still nothing connecting, no response when I tried to ping the IP address of the VPS, no route for me to issue terminal commands to it. Both small kids in the house were awake at this point, and I was the only adult awake with them, so I was only taking the limited diagnostic steps I could take with half-glances at my phone in the middle of other stuff. Still, I sent a support inquiry to the hosting provider. I was hoping to hear that it was a temporary degradation of data center connectivity or I just needed to update payment info or something. Anything that would make it not really my problem.

But no, when I got a response, the ball was back in my court. I was politely reminded that the VPS hosting is for experts who diagnose their own server issues, and that there was an emergency console I could use as an alternative way to send terminal commands, and if that should fail there was a rescue mode that would suspend my VPS and give me a kind of barebones, temporary rescue server I could use to investigate and edit the VPS's files.

Eventually I wasn't the only adult around anymore, so I grabbed my laptop and tried the emergency console, but it crashed while loading. On to the rescue mode, then. I managed to connect to the virtual disk containing the VPS files, but not without the rescue system complaining about and automatically cleaning up some “orphaned inodes.” This indicated that something had gone mildly wrong with the way the files were stored on the disk. I began poking around in system logs files looking for something that would tell me why the VPS shut down. But where I expected to see maybe some error message to explain this, I found only a log where the last messages were a refused incoming connection from a user called pivpn at a particular IP address, followed at some later time by an incomprehensible log entry containing a mix of numbers, symbols, and letters from various scripts, including ő and Ə.

At this point I had exhausted most of my diagnostic options. All I had gathered was that something had caused my VPS to start writing information to the disk incorrectly and to shut off, and now it wasn't booting correctly. I sent a desperate follow-up to my support contact hoping they had access to some kind of hypervisor log or something, some information from outside the VPN that would tell me something definitive like “The VPS ran out of memory and had to be shut down,” but this went unanswered. I had seen all the info there was to see.

Children dipping their hands into a whirlpool generator

I felt a little down on myself at that point. What did I think I was going to accomplish, playing at sysadmin, especially when I ought to be spending time with the kids? Maybe it would be better if I scrapped the idea of running a web site again and cancelled my VPS subscription. But I figured it was better to put the whole thing aside for a while and let the frustration fade before I made a decision like that. Anyhow, we had committed ourselves to take the kids to the science museum.

So I let the web site stay offline while the kids ran around the interactive exhibits. They had a blast, and I got a good workout trying to corral the two-year-old.

Back at home I decided to give up on diagnosis and switch to remediation. There was no more I was going to learn about why the site's VPS went offline, so it was time to find the most expedient way to bring it back up.

I launched the rescue system again and began downloading a bunch of files. I had all the data for my blog stored in a database system called MySQL. A system like MySQL is supposed to be kind of opaque in that it has its own format for storing and organizing data in an optimized way, and instead of working with or knowing anything about this format, the user or any application that connects to the database uses a relatively simple language called Structured Query Language (SQL) to fetch information from or add information to the database. The usual way to back up an SQL database like this is to perform an “SQL dump,” which means asking the database system to output a list of SQL commands that could recreate all the information in the database on a new system. I hadn't got around to setting up automatic SQL dumps to backup my blog, so I didn't have anything like that. But I hoped that if I kept a copy of all of MySQL's files on the disk, the contents of a directory called /var/lib/mysql/, I could somehow restore my blog's data from that. I also backed up the static images I was serving from the root hamster.dance domain to embed in blog posts, and the files for my Seafile server.

Then I deleted the whole VPS and opened up a new one. The process of actually installing the software I had running on the VPS before was faster than it might have been otherwise, because my hosting provider has a NixOS VPS image ready to go, and I had the whole system configuration saved as a file that I could use with NixOps to enact that configuration from my laptop. That part took a matter of minutes.

The thing that seemed a lot trickier was extracting the blog data (mostly the posts themselves) from the MySQL files. I poked around in some forms and got the idea of copying over to the new VPS just the files for the blog database itself and some general MySQL files with names that began with ib. That seemed too simple to me, surely there could be some peculiarity of MySQL installed on one machine that might make it unable to use these files created on another. But I tried it anyway. MySQL refused to start after that, complaining of corrupt formatting in those ib files. So I returned it to the way it was before, and this time only copied over the files for the blog database itself. This time MySQL started, and was able to show me a list of all the data tables in the blog database, but couldn't actually access anything in those tables. Trying to load my blog in the browser at this point yielded a server error. So this time I decided to try something that I didn't really expect to work at all; I replaced the whole /var/lib/mysql/ directory on the new VPS with the one I had copied from the old VPS. It worked perfectly, the while blog loaded in my browser again right away. A similar approach restored everything on my Seafile server.

Not knowing what caused this outage means I don't really know what can be done to prevent it from happening again. It's in this kind of situation that people who work with computers sometimes like to trot out unlikely-sounding explanations to cover their asses. Maybe a stray cosmic ray hit the server hardware just so and flipped an important bit from 1 to 0. Maybe someone walked through the data center in clothes that produced a static discharge, corrupting some storage. Maybe some NSA agent doesn't like the font I use on my blog and used an undisclosed vulnerability in the Nginx web server to corrupt crucial system files. Suggesting any of these would be a fancy way to basically shrug my shoulders, absolve myself of any responsibility, and acknowledge that I don't have a way to keep it from happening again.

But I can at least take some steps that will hopefully make it easier to recover if it does happen again. Turns out my hosting provider doesn't charge all that much extra per month to automatically keep several daily snapshots of the virtual disk, so if I notice within a week that something like this has happened, I can quickly revert to the state things were in before. And maybe I'll get around to automating those SQL dumps.

Where not otherwise noted, the content of this blog is written by Dominique Cyprès and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

When a friend recently shared her retail work experiences on social media in an effort to encourage some respect for workers in that sector of the economy, she invited others to share their stories about difficult customers. It's been a little while since I've been in that position myself now; fortunately for me I managed to get out before the COVID-19 pandemic that hit “essential” retail workers (grocery store cashiers, etc.) especially hard. But I do have a few stories from those “before times” and it seems to me that people who haven't had to work these jobs, or haven't had to rely on them to pay the bills, might do well to hear what it's actually like.

I'll be vague about precise store locations, but all of these stories occurred in Massachusetts or New Hampshire between 2012 and 2018.

Tough customers

I didn't personally experience physical or sexual harassment from customers, though of course it does happen, and often enough that anti-harassment law compliance training materials have to address it specifically. I did experience a some verbal interactions that were demeaning or vaguely threatening in some way, but the one such interaction that sticks with me is something that happened to a coworker. Once when I was cleaning/relabeling the wine aisle at BJ's Wholesale Club (giant warehouse-type store like Costco or Sam's Club) someone came around to the meat department to ask about some five-layer dip that was usually in a little display cooler full of prepared side dishes nearby. It was out of stock. I wasn't close enough to hear the beginning of the conversation but I do know it led to this customer screaming a tirade that began with “I want… THE DIP!!!” in a voice so loud that three managers immediately came running from the other side of the store, fully ready to call the cops. In fact it was only when they threatened to involve the cops and eject him from the store that he backed down.

More often customer interactions weren't directly threatening like this but betrayed an sense of entitlement and objectification that suggested that on some level the customer didn't think of me as a full person. Once at Target some guy came up to me and said “I need a female to talk to.” Turned out he was looking for advice on hair products. I didn't connect him with a “female,” but he did get to talk to Scott, who was in charge of the cosmetics area and had luxurious shoulder-length hair.

After I helped one customer shopping at Target with her children in December find some things, she unexpectedly told the kids that I was one of Santa's elves, and then I had to play along or make for an awkward situation with these children.

At BJ's, after corporate had us rearrange a few aisles, a customer walked up to me and shouted, “Young man, where did you put the oatmeal?!” I chuckled but it turned out she was legit upset at me personally for moving it, even after I immediately showed her the new location of the oatmeal.

Someone at Target who got upset with the “Guest Service” desk staff told them that “Some people don't deserve their Christmas bonuses.” Clearly someone who had never worked an hourly-wage job at Target where no one has even heard of a “Christmas bonus.”

The behavior of customers toward each other could have a negative impact on me too. It was a little depressing to watch one customer who felt she had been cheated of her place in line snarl “Merry Christmas!” in the most nakedly venomous tone you could imagine at the offending party.

The aisles at BJ's were enormous, but one customer I recall managed to park one of the also-enormous shopping carts across the entrance to the isle and near an advertising display such that it effectively blocked that end of the aisle. Another shopper who was using a motorized cart and needed to leave the aisle came to a gentle stop in front of this barricade and deftly rolled it out of the way without exiting the motorized cart, just enough to pass by. When the shopper who had barricaded the aisle turned back to her cart and saw it in a slightly different position than where she'd left it she was instantly furious and began to berate the visibility disabled customer who had dared to move it aside

The naughtiest thing I ever did in retail was when I was working a really busy cashier shift at Target and I was due for a state-mandated 15-minute break. I had turned off the light at my register. Usually people take that as a hint not to line up at that register and sometimes they even offer to move to another register when they're already in line (no need for that, but thanks). But this time it just didn't happen and people kept lining up at my register. When about the twentieth customer to line up at my register with its light pointedly turned off arrived, and had already loaded half their stuff onto the belt while I was finishing with the previous customer, I pretended not to notice them and walked off.

A display of greeting cards at Target, featuring one card that jokes about excessive Target shopping

The worst kind of customer

The worst kind of customer is the kind of tough customer that always sticks around: a bad boss.

I was made to watch an anti-union training video when I started work at Target. I certainly would have appreciated some help from a union when store management at one of the Target locations I worked broke its promises about working hours, refused to give us our weekly schedules in a timely fashion so we could make any kind of plans, fudged bad performance reports for budgetary reasons, or told us all on-the-job injuries were university caused by the injured worker's own carelessness, and not ever by the state of the equipment or the unsafe pace demanded of us while using said equipment. But a number of the people I worked with at the time had conservative and anti-union views I felt I would probably not manage to change, and all the stories I read about near-successful unionizing efforts at Target seemed to end in corporate finding some excuse to shut down the store that was about to go union.

BJ's expected me to sign a “union-free philosophy” pledge. (I remember that phrase because in my head it goes to the tune of that one line from “Hakuna Matata.”) I signed it because I knew I was an “at will” employee, so they could legally fire me without showing cause. A sign went up near the time clock warning us that the BJ's “anti-solicitation” policy forbade discussion of unions and the distribution of union literature at the store—or even amongst employees off the store premises. I overheard some of the store managers' training material that told them to report any employee talking about the benefits of unions to corporate.

At Target, I moved because rent was too high for me in the city, and I got transferred to a store closer to where I was moving. They were kind of evasive about whether I was going to continue to be working 40 hours per week. Turns out the new location had a different scheduling system and I'd be working 40 hrs per week for a few weeks at a time in the peak season around December, then maybe 12 hrs per week or at completely random times throughout the week during other parts of the year. This made it pretty much impossible to commit to a second job because people who did block out a few hours per week with Target to make room for a second job got their hours cut to 6hrs per week or so. Of course I fell way behind on rent and had to move in with relatives 60km away, so I asked for a transfer to a location closer to home. They strung me along for months, then told me I didn't qualify because of my performance reviews (which they had told me were poor because they couldn't afford to give me a raise from the near-minimum hourly wage I was making). Then I got the job at BJ's and they told me if I had just held on another month they were going to get me that transfer. One of my favorite lower-level managers at that time (a “front end team leader”) was homeless, which told me that job was never going to pay the bills no matter how well I performed.

I was very fortunate that store management at BJ's let me alter my schedule to work 40hrs per week while moving my shifts to accommodate morning or afternoon classes so I could work on a computer science degree part-time (shortly after our oldest kid was born). But there was one short-tempered manager at the store who for some reason never remembered this arrangement no matter how many times we communicated it to him and was outraged every time I left the store earlier than the paper schedule said I should do, so I could attend a class (after I had started my shift earlier to compensate).

I got out

In the end I got lucky, and got out. But I want people to know that the retail industry is still generally like this, that it's mostly not just high school students doing easy busy-work in their spare time for a little spending money, but people trying to pay the bills in punishing, exploitative working conditions. I've watched some recent unionizing successes at Amazon distribution centers and Starbucks cafés, and I hope to see that kind of effective labor organizing happen at BJ's, at Target, and all over retail.

Where not otherwise noted, the content of this blog is written by Dominique Cyprès and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Intellectual property law is failing to protect artist livelihoods and art as a public good.

Coney Island strand photographed in winter ca. 2010, facing the Parachute Jump from the east, with gulls and apartment buildings in view

I'd thought maybe some of the global discussions around intellectual property had cooled down a little, what with various forms of commercial streaming displacing a lot of digital media piracy. But now recent flashpoints around AI-assisted art enabled by the proliferation of tools like Midjourney, Stable Diffusion (visual art), and ChatGPT (writing) are raising new questions about intellectual property.

These tools are typically trained through a complicated analysis of vast quantities of art published by people on the internet. When someone types a prompt into one of these tools and generates an intricate digital painting of fantasy cities, alien landscapes, and impossible creatures, is it art? If it is art, who is the artist? The person who fine-tuned a written prompt that would produce this picture? The AI tool itself? Or the untold legions of artists whose work was used as training data? And what of those artists behind the training data? Assuming their work was collected by web crawlers without their consent, was their work stolen? And, if so, by whom—the end-user of that AI tool, the AI tool itself, or the data scientists who added that art to the training data in the first place?

Yes, it's art

For me, “Is this art?” is the easy part, and independent of the other questions. The answer is yes. I don't have a philosophical proof for this, but I do have a few guiding principles and examples to make my case. Firstly, the act of crafting the right prompt for an AI tool like this is a creative act. It involves experimentation, spontaneity, and communicating the ineffible through a set of visual and stylistic descriptors. We know it involves expertise, because it can be done inexpertly; someone new to writing these prompts might often generate an image that contains all the things they described, but not at all in the style or tone they intended, or marred by unwanted, districting details, like a human hand with an improbable number of fingers.

While art created in this way is art, it is also clearly derivative of prior artwork. It's hard to escape evidence of this. Hauntingly, the graphical output of these tools sometimes features indecipherable signatures imitating artist signatures in the training data, not unlike Frankenstein's monster newly assembled from a hodgepodge of corpses and struggling to speak his name for the first time.

Art derived from the artwork of others is still art. This is not to say that it is always ethical, or that it is always “good art” by any particular measure.

One of my favorite examples of wholly derivative art is The Grey Album by Danger Mouse, which consists of the acapellas from The Black Album by rapper Jay-Z accompanied by backing tracks built entirely from samples of The Beatles' self-titled 1968 album popularly known as the “White Album.” Every sound on The Grey Album comes from these two other albums, and at the same time it is unambiguously an original artistic work. If you've heard The Grey Album that doesn't really mean you've heard The Black Album, and definitely doesn't mean you've heard The Beatles. The beats are compelling, and they highlight different aspects of Jay-Z's vocals than you might notice with a different backing track. Not just anyone could make what Danger Mouse did given access to the samples he used. It's art. It's also, legally speaking, an unauthorized use of the recordings it samples and almost certainly a violation of intellectual property law. The Grey Album began as a personal project not intended for a wide, commercial release, but gained international attention online. Ultimately, Jay-Z and the surviving Beatles approved of The Grey Album, but EMI, the corporation that controlled the cought of Beatles recordings, threatened legal action. There is some argument to be made that the use of unauthorized samples in original works could be covered by the “Fair Use” doctrine that outlines some limited exceptions in US copyright law, but this is very much a legal gray area shaped by evolving case law. I suspect The Grey Album wouldn't have great chances in court, but since the album surfaced in 2004 it has never landed there. So:

✅ It is art.
❌ It is probably not legal.
❓ Is it ethical? I don't know. As far as I can tell it didn't hurt anyone.

I don't think Jay-Z or The Beatles can be said to have suffered financially from people downloading The Grey Album. But what of the more general case? What damage is caused by the unauthorized consumption of art?

You wouldn't steal a car

A 2004 public service announcement produced by industry associations infamously compared movie piracy by home viewers to automobile theft, stating unambiguously that “Downloading pirated movies is stealing.” The PSA lives on in public memory as an object of mockery because of an obvious flaw in its central comparisons. Most people tend to think that what makes it “wrong” to steal a car isn't that you have a car you didn't have before, but that because of you, someone else doesn't have that car anymore. When you download a pirated movie, no one else is deprived of that movie. Everyone who had that movie before still has it now. But now you have it too.

This is one of the fundamental issues of intellectual property as a concept; it relies too much upon the principles of physical property, but it plainly doesn't play by the same natural laws as anything you could physically hold; you can give it to someone without it leaving your possession and it is constantly multiplying and moving all around us. If someone takes it from you, you still have it. And once it has multiplied enough, it is effectively indestructible.

When these industry associations present a more developed argument against copyright infringement, they sometimes argue that media piracy is “not a victimless crime” because it does deprive people of revenue. This point is debatable and can be subjected to empirical scrutiny.

Anecdotally, we know that at least some people who download a pirated movie simply wouldn't watch it if they couldn't pirate it—because they're broke and can't afford it, because it wasn't officially released in their region or language, or because it's rare, out-of-print, and not on streaming services.

We also know of times when media piracy has driven discovery and sales. The musician Benn Jordan, for example, has said that in the pre-Spotify days of iTunes, frustrated in his attempts to secure a cut of the profits from his music being sold on the new digital music platform, he uploaded his own music to torrent trackers, with a note to listeners containing a URL through which they could pay him directly. This created a new audience and a new revenue stream for the musician—more revenue, in fact, than the musician was getting from iTunes sales at the time. Perhaps ironically, this model of audience engagement is less viable today because so many music listeners are already buying subscriptions to music streaming services that pass unlivable and ever-shrinking shares of their profits to musicians.

So we know that, in individual cases, acts of media piracy have been neutral or even positive in their impact on artist revenues. Certainly there must be times when someone chooses not to but media they could afford because they can download pirated copies instead. So the question that can be investigated empirically is whether the net effect on artist revenues is positive, negative, or negligible. I haven't done that work or deeply read existing research in this area, so I won't assume an outcome here.

When you “steal” a movie by downloading a pirated copy, no one loses the movie. Whether artists lose revenue is somewhat unclear. But what is definitely lost is distributor control, the ability of the company that sells and licenses that movie to control the circumstances, to monetize the platforms that mediate authorized access to that movie and to target you for advertising through those platforms, to passively collect demographic data about who is watching the movie and use it to adjust their business model.

So who suffers from this crime?

✅ The ability of distributors to exercise control over your media consumption suffers.
❌ Benn Jordan apparently didn't suffer, but instead materially benefited from the piracy of his own musical recordings.
❓ Do artists in general suffer? It's something we can investigate through data.

The mythical artist

But hang on… A lot of the examples I've given regarding media piracy involve Hollywood movies. Who exactly is the artist deserving of payment when a Hollywood movie is made? A lot of film critics assume the primary creative force behind a movie is typically the director. But some academic citation formats would have you credit the executive producer first. Certainly the screenwriter plays some part. And the actors too can influence the tone and texture of a movie and sometimes even make changes to the plot. In fact a typical Hollywood movie is the creative product of a whole army of people who work at the studio; that's why the end credits are so long. And who really can say that any of the people named in that list didn't contribute artistically to the movie you saw? Would that climactic scene have felt exactly the same without the work of a competent hair stylist? Would the actors have delivered exactly the same performance if the set weren't adequately catered?

When you watch a movie in a movie theater, you don't directly pay each of those artists listed in the end credits. For artistic work under some circumstances we have established indirect means of funding. In this case you pay the movie theater, the movie theater uses ticket sales to pay some distributor, that distributor bought the distribution rights to the movie (a subset of the intellectual property rights for that movie) from the movie studio, and that studio hopefully paid all the people who worked on it, either through a percentage of revenues (for producers and top-billing actors, maybe), a lump sum negotiated before production, an ongoing contract, or meager hourly wages. Though if there were interns on set, they may have been “paid” in experience alone.

In fact, most media consumption today relies on some kind of indirect scheme to pay the artist. When your access to an artwork is mediated by institutions, those institutions determine what portion of subscription fees, ticket sales, ad revenues, merchandise profits, etc. are paid to the artist. What that portion is and how it is determined is rarely transparent to the audience or even to the artist. And anecdotally, this portion seems to be shrinking all the time in most cases.

A few rules to live by

  1. The world is better with art in it. That is to say, art is a public good.
  2. Everyone deserves a basic standard of living that includes (among other things) adequate food, shelter, and healthcare, and access to art.
  3. Artists have more time to make art when they don't have to do a lot of other things to maintain a basic standard of living.

The above are axioms I hold to be obvious. I think a lot of people in the world probably agree with them. Taken together, they also demand a radical rejection of intellectual property as it is currently conceived.

We live in a system where (unless you're born rich) a basic standard of living has to be “earned” through work that has been assigned a material value. In theory, the work of creating art can be assigned that material value. But it doesn't happen automatically. If you just decide to paint something, or take a carefully composed photograph, or play music, or write something, outside of any kind of contract, you will not be paid just by virtue of having made your art. You might get paid if you can find a way to sell your art, and if you do there's no guarantee that you will bring in enough money to live on or even to pay for the materials you used to make your art. To make art in this world is a good in itself, but it is also a gamble with the time and money we use to maintain a basic standard of living.

I often hear that “artists deserve to be paid.” I agree but didn't include it in my axioms above because I think that artists deserve to be paid because everyone deserves a basic standard of living and when that has to be bought with money gained through so many hours of work per week, any artist who isn't already wealthy is risking their standard of living by making their work. They could be using their time and their material resources to do work that pays them without that extra step of selling what they've already made and hoping someone buys it—whether that's the audience directly buying from the artist, or some institution agreeing to exhibit the artist's work and mediate the process of selling it.

What's so threatening about the idea that AI-assisted art tools are reassembling uncredited artwork into new, monetizable images is that in obscuring the artists behind the training data, the creators and users of these tools have cut off any chance of those artists being indirectly paid for the sale of this new art they unwillingly helped to create. It's a case that should have been addressed, I think, through consent and attribution mechanisms. But it is also a case that existing intellectual property law is unequipped to address. Existing law has not even really settled the legitimacy of derivative artworks in general, or when such works do or don't require someone's permission. This does not even touch on works that draw on thousands or even millions of other artists' work through an automated tool.

The new patronage

One very old model for bringing art into the world while providing artists with a basic standard of living is the patronage system. The storied patrons medieval Venice etc. were exceptionally wealthy people who contracted artists to make big, impressive works that were both enjoyable for the patron and a means of projecting status in high society.

Today we have things like Patreon or Substack where a bunch of people who might not be extraordinarily wealthy make small, recurring donations to an artist whose work they want to encourage, and, perhaps with the addition of some one-time sales through platforms like Bandcamp or commissions sold via direct communication and online payments systems, those donations will add up to enough for the artist to live on. Like patrons of old, Patreon donors might receive some exclusive benefits to encourage their financial support, like access to some work that is not publicly available. The exclusivity of that access often implicitly relies on intellectual property law.

I respect artists who use platforms Patreon and Bandcamp to financially enable their work. And I respect people who may not be especially wealthy but choose to support the art they enjoy through those platforms. It's sometimes pitched as a way of democratizing the distribution of art and cutting out opaque institutions with conflicting interests. I think that's an admirable thing. But it's not The Solution to our problem. To get paid this way, artists still have to do work to grow a following on Patreon or Bandcamp, when they could be working on their art itself. And it's skilled work, work most artists (most people, really) are not just naturally good at doing. It also tends to imply walling off at least a little of the art exclusively for people who can and do pay a little money for it, to entice them to keep paying. I consider that justifiable. But I'd rather we didn't have to do it that way.

Reclaiming the Creative Commons

The Creative Commons is a legal project that crafts “some rights reserved” copyright licenses written in the appropriate legalese, which people can apply to their work to explicitly allow the public to do some things with it that are implicitly disallowed by traditional “all rights reserved” copyright licenses. These licenses are meant to enable the creation of a new “commons,” a new pool of creatlive work that the public had a right to use, enjoy, share, and maybe reinterpret with free restrictions.

Creative Commons licenses somewhat paradoxically rely on existing copyright law to provide legal enforceability for their “copyleft” measures. If a litigious publisher were to allow an author to release their work under a Creative Commons license, but later sue another party for activities explicitly allowed by that license (say, non-commercial distribution of copies of that work retaining full attribution, which the Creative Commons licenses generally allow), a legal defense would rely on the author's copyright claim to give authority to the terms of the Creative Commons license they chose. It is the author's exclusive copyright claim that authorizes them to give away some of those rights implied by copyright to the public. In this sense the Creative Commons project strikes a compromise between building toward the free culture we could have and acknowledging the legality of the intellectual feudalism we do have.

But maybe the greatest weakness of the Creative Commons project is that in practice it places the onus on writers, musicians, filmmakers, artists, and “creators” of all stripes, as original copyright holders, to invest their own work in this enterprise. To trust that ceding to the public some of these rights granted to the author by intellectual property law will not threaten their livelihoods. To take a leap of faith. But in this economic landscape, will anyone be there to catch them?

Photograph of the Coney Island Parachute Jump in an abandoned state ca. 2010

The scope of the Creative Commons project is to offer alternatives that could help mitigate the public access to art part of our conundrum, but it doesn't directly address the part about guaranteeing artists access to a basic standard of living.

What is it good for?

So now I have to ask… If the current conception of intellectual property is not equipped to enable crediting and paying artists whose work contributes to the training of AI art tools used in making monetized artwork, how is it helping? If intellectual property law cannot guarantee artists a basic standard of living, and only protects their access to one inasmuch as the artist can figure out how to leverage it to sell their work or negotiate a pittance from some mediating institution, what end is it achieving? If the alternative to this system of intellectual property is a system where the livelihood of the artist still depends on monetizing the art, but the artist has no right whatsoever to dictate the terms of that monetization, then intellectual property law is a thin, arbitrary, and highly conditional protection for artists that better serves mediating institutions. But if the alternative is a system where the artist enjoys a decent standard of living independent of any monetization of the artwork, then intellectual property becomes a kind of theft, a siloing off of what could be our creative commons of artworks in public dialog with each other into paywalled gardens and the hands of gatekeepers.

Paths forward

So how do we build that alternative, the world in which the “necessary evil” of intellectual property law becomes more plainly unnecessary? The most obvious answer is a standard of living unconditionally guaranteed to all.

But I think there are steps we as a society can take to a world beyond intellectual property even within the capitalist economies we inhabit. For one thing, we could dramatically cut the out-of-control longevity of copyright terms. Under present rules, for example, the 1927 science-fiction movie Metropolis only entered the public domain in the U.S. in 2023, and will not enter the public domain in the European Union until 2047. Art in the public domain, like the works of Mary Shelley or El Greco, can be endlessly republished, reinterpreted, remixed, parodied, and pastiched by anyone and without authorization. This body of classic art that belongs to all in common is fertile ground for new and innovative derivative works. Keeping the copyright of artworks tied up in literary estates 70 years after the author has died, and potentially well over 100 years since initial publication, stunts the growth of the public domain, to the point that there is very little public domain art most of us would recognize as modern. We could act to expand that public domain in short order with a change to copyright terms.

We could start forcing publishers, record labels, streaming services, movie distributors, etc. to pay artists some minimum portion of revenues for their work. We could begin to impose some Creative Commons-like terms (like allowing non-commercial redistribution, perhaps after a very short exclusivity period at initial release) upon those same companies, and mandate that they provide lendable copies of digitally published works of any medium to public institutions like libraries for a reasonable fee.

But we should really do more than chip away at the edges of copyright law. We could and should also collectively invest in public art as a public good. At one time, the U.S. government attempted to mitigate the impact of the Great Depression upon arts, infrastructure, and the culture of democracy through initiatives like the Works Progress Administration in which they directly hired unemployed people to build public infrastructure and create public art of various kinds. It was by no means a perfect system but it points the way to what we should be doing: collectively investing in artists so they can create art without having to hustle for a living.

To that end, any collective investment that reduces the pressure on everyone to “earn a living” will of course support artists as well. Public housing and single-payer healthcare are examples. A properly implemented universal basic income (UBI) that does not displace existing social services also has the potential to vastly increase public creativity.

A better world, a world with more art in it, is possible, and there are steps we could take now to make it a reality.

The open conversation

I've hesitated to share this post because I know I'm just scratching the surface of this problem. How can we best support both artist livelihoods and art as a freely shared public good? My hope is that even talking about it in a relatively surface-level way like this enough, and in enough places, will encourage a productive level of public discourse on the subject. Because something has to change.

Where not otherwise noted, the content of this blog is written by Dominique Cyprès and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Lately a lot of my interaction with music—listening, sharing, discovering, and making it—has been mediated through cassettes. So maybe I should explain why.

You know what we're talking about, of course: the Compact Cassette, that physical audio format developed by Philips in 1963, supporting four analog tracks magnetically encoded in the metal or metal oxide particles suspended in a long, ⅛”-wide strip of acetate spooled up inside a hard, standardized shell with spinning hubs and pullies to allow playback equipment to smoothly pull it across a little transducer at a constant rate of 1⅞ inches per second. If you grew up in my milieu, you probably just called them tapes.

A hand-labeled beige cassette containing the album Teliffusion by Concretism

They've had a little bit of a comeback lately. And that's been handy for me, because I was ready to reconnect with this format that was such a staple of my experience of music when I was a kid. But there's more than nostalgia to it for me. Listening to or sharing music on cassette offers some things I don't get from streaming digital platforms, and even some things I don't get from other other physical formats.

It's not about analog superiority

Let's just get this out of the way first: I don't listen to tapes because they sound “better” than digital. They don't.

Audiophiles might point out that analog audio sources can theoretically hold details you can't hear in digital. This is true because values in analog media are continuous. Over imperceptibly short periods of time, the numbers that represent different values on a sound wave in a digital recording jump instantaneously from one discrete value to another with no gentle slope between. Analog signals instead form smooth curves, so at some level they can contain tiny variations in slope that are too subtle for the digitization of that signal to represent.

The problem with analog superiority in general is that, when that digital signal is of standard CD quality (44,100 samples per second at 16-bit resolution), whatever details in the analog signal are too subtle to be captured digitally are also too subtle for me or really most people to hear.

Another issue more specific to cassettes is that, in practice, microscopic physical imperfections in the tape always introduce noise into the signal, which is much more audible than any details that would be lost to digitization and manifests as a constant hiss. This tape hiss could be much quieter than the recording on high-quality tapes in high-quality playback equipment, near-imperceptible even under just the right conditions, but it's always there, and various industry techniques exist for filtering it out as much as possible while leaving the recorded signal intact. The big reel-to-reel tapes that preceded cassettes and continued to be the standard for studio recordings for some time mitigated the hiss issue with much wider tape run at much higher speeds than cassette tape, to overwhelm those little physical imperfections through scale—usually ¼” wide at 15ips, but sometimes as wide as 2” and as fast as 30ips. When cassettes arrived with their narrower tape running at slower speeds, it was a compromise that sacrificed sound quality for portability and ease of use; it would take a few years for tape formulations to improve enough for mass market adoption of the cassette as a music format and not just a medium for voice dictation.

But in the end, digital will always have the advantage when it comes to resisting signal degradation and distinguishing signal from noise, for the same reason that it's easier to make out the dots and dashes of Morse code from a distant radio broadcast than it would be to identify spoken words under the same conditions: discrete, binary, off-or-on values are less ambiguous amidst noise.

The sound of home

Our gradually degrading analog audio media may not sound “better” than digital, but they do sound different, and for some they can sound different in a way that's preferable to digital perfection. My grandmother has often said that she would sometimes rather listen to her old vinyl records, or even digitizations of them, than to a perfectly remastered digital copy. The records, worn over time, their grooves filling with dust, have an added layer of noise when played back—pops, crackle, hiss, and skips—that are deviations from the original recording, imperfections, but nevertheless familiar imperfections that in many cases have become part of her memory of a song. When she listens to a remastered digital copy, it may be almost exactly what was originally recorded, but it is not quite the same song she has listened to on vinyl for all these years. Similarity, the imperfections of a cassette can personalize its sound for the listener, so that what they hear is not just a copy of the original recording, but their familiar, personal copy.

For some audio producers, deliberately creating or imitating these “lo-fi” imperfections can be a way to manufacturer a kind of stimulated nostalgia in a recording, or to add unpredictably and “character” to an otherwise “clean” or sterile sound. It's a common technique in some forms of hip-hop and electronic music.

The audio talisman

What I primarily get from cassettes is a qualitative, social-emotional experience of sound that I don't think I could entirely ever recreate with digital streaming. The way I relate to a recording when I carry it around physically in my pocket—not just my phone, which can provide access to that recording and many others, but a tape dedicated to containing just that recording and no other—just feels different. The tape becomes a little talisman that turns an intangible recording into a very tangible object, something I can see and turn over in my hands and physically give to another person. I would never suggest we all give up the technology of digital streaming, which is so much less limited in the recordings to which it can provide access, but the physical format offers a way to relate to and experience those recordings as physical objects in a way that streaming does not.

A commercially recorded cassette becomes a kind of touchstone to the time and place of its manufacture; for example my cassette copy of Switched-On Bach by Wendy Carlos may date back as far as the album's initial release in 1968. Its sound is somewhat rough, perhaps owing to the state of tape formulations at that time, and touching and listening to it makes me think of Columbia Records offices in the late '60s, when they were producing recordings of Wendy Carlos, Miles Davis, and Simon & Garfunkel, all of whom had to fight with the label for fair treatment in various ways.

A home-recorded cassette likewise becomes a touchstone to whoever recorded it, and the circumstances in which they did. Maybe it was a friend or relative hooking up their old phonograph to a cassette deck in a home they no longer inhabit. Maybe you recorded it yourself when you were a kid.

A stack of identical aqua-colored DIY demo cassettes for the album South Tower by Dominique Cyprès, in clear poly boxes

For me, this talismanic use of physical audio media as a portable physical manifestation of a recording is better served by the cassette than by similarly available formats like CDs or vinyl because I'm not afraid to handle cassettes. At times I've had to replace a pressure pad (basically just a little rectangle of felt on a spring barely inside the cassette, which gently holds the tape itself against the playback equipment's tape head, and which may disintegrate after a few decades), but overall it's a relatively resilient format; it doesn't scratch or shatter if I fumble it while carrying it around, and it doesn't have playable grooves to fill with dust or a shiny, exposed playing surface that collects smudges and fingerprints. It almost begs to be handled.

Physical specificity

The Compact Cassette standard allowed for s lot of variety. For one thing, there were three different widely-produced standards for tape formulation, which were indicated externally on consumer blank cassettes by the configuration of notches along the top edge: Type I (“normal bias”), Type II (“high bias”), and Type IV (“metal bias”). (There was also a short lived Type III variant that never caught on commercially, but it has the same notches as Type I). Within these types, manufacturers developed different proprietary take formulations that became known for different sonic properties. Some were better at recording bass frequencies; others had more accurate treble or a lower noise floor. And they had subtly different colors, ranging from light brown to dark gray or black.

Cassettes could also have slight mechanical variations. After all, the cassette is not an innert disk or strip of tape but a mechanical device with moving parts that the playback equipment uses to transport the tape itself, so some manufacturers would fine-tune the pulleys, liners, hubs, or bridge to improve stability and reduce friction.

But more fun than that are the aesthetic variations; the cassette shell could be any color at all, or any combination of colors, or clear and colorless, with pulleys and hubs of different colors inside. If the cassette wasn't fully transparent, a little rectangular window in the otherwise opaque shell could provide a view of how far the tape had progressed from one spool to the other, or a big oval window could do the same, or there could be no window at all. The surface could be matte, textured, or glossy and the corners sharp or rounded. Paper or vinyl labels could be applied, or various kinds of printing or etching could be done right on the cassette shell. And of course the packaging of the cassette could be infinitely more varied; though mass-market, commercially recorded cassettes in North America were mostly sold in standard-sized, hinges cases of rigid plastic with a clear front showing a J-card with album art and spine text and a clear or black back panel, novelty cassettes, underground releases, or mass-market releases in other markets such as Japan could be in any conceivable package from cardboard slipcases to vinyl clamshell boxes.

A Maxel Metal Capsule C-100 cassette. The shell is off-white with rounded corners and a very large oval window. The label indicates that Hounds of Love by Kate Bush is recorded to Side A

These specific physical attributes of a cassette enhance its talismanic quality, tying it more specifically to certain remembered experiences.

What makes a format eligible for a comeback?

Renewed consumer interest obviously fuels the revival of once-dominant media formats, but there is an important factor of market readiness as well. CDs are also having a sort of revival, and it helps that the supplies and equipment are ready to go because optical discs are still a preferred digital backup option for certain cases where cloud storage and USB devices are not considered adequate. The playback equipment for vinyl is relatively simple technology for small manufacturers in the boutique market to produce, and small vinyl presses have been kept going by a market of dedicated collectors and analog audiophiles that never went away, so vinyl is always ripe for a little resurgence.

Likewise, a lack of media and playback equipment can certainly hinder any kind of comeback. DAT, DCC, and MiniDisc all have a similar appeal to me as the Compact Cassette but are not as accessible or making as widespread a comeback.

Digital Audio Tape (DAT) was suppressed as a consumer format by the recording industry during its heyday, over concerns about the possibility of music listeners making unauthorized, perfect, digital copies of commercial recordings, so there is not all that much DAT equipment or media on the secondhand market. And any manufacturer that might want to make new DAT playback or recording equipment would need to use hard-to-source (and probably prohibitively expensive) helical scanners, which are much more complex than the tape head in a cassette deck and are more like a miniaturized version of the read component in a VCR.

Digital Compact Cassette (DCC) faces similar issues; its very short commercial life has left working equipment and media rare, and both the tape formulation and the tape heads require much more manufacturing precision than the Compact Cassette ever did.

MiniDisc is seeing a little comeback amongst some niche internet music labels, but since Sony discontinued the format, no small manufacturer has been up to the task of making either more media or new equipment. It's all very small and very precise magneto-optical components, and hasn't lived on as a backup solution like CD-sized optical disks. Additionally, unlike in Europe, where much of the MiniDisc resurgence occurs, here in North America MiniDisc never met with commercial success, owing to complicated market factors. This has left MiniDisc equipment and media harder to come by where I live.

Compact Cassettes avoid all of these problems because they and their equipment were so ubiquitous across most of the world for such a long time, and can be manufactured to relatively forgiving standards.

I just think they're neat

Ultimately, what I like about cassettes isn't that they're in any way an ideal or superior format. Sound quality and convenience are both better served by digital streaming. Thorny issues of digital ownership, archival, and “digital rights management” (DRM) are better addressed by CDs or maybe even DAT and digital backups.

The real reason that I prefer cassettes is, as Marge Simpson once said of potatoes: I just think they're neat. I hope I've explained some of what's neat about them.

Where not otherwise noted, the content of this blog is written by Dominique Cyprès and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Out with the old

I had a blog on my site for a little while. I was “rolling my own” blog software based on Python with Django and PostgreSQL. It was fun, but eventually it was too much to tweak that software just to maintain my blog, especially with parental duties &c. at home. And in all that tinkering I never got around to making regular backups. Eventually I kinda nuked the blog and shut down my VPS for a while. I might get around to recovering some of those articles via the Internet Archive / Wayback Machine.

In with the new

So this time instead of using my own custom blogging software I'm running WriteFreely. It has pretty much all the features I want in a blogging system and none of the extra stuff I don't need that is offered by a bigger platform like WordPress, so it's pretty easy for me to host. It feels better to start with a blogging system that already does things write, instead of incrementally trying to make my own system conform to various standards and work smoothly in a project that was falling pretty far down my list of priorities.

What to expect

I want to write a lot about music. Sometimes music I'm making, or musical ideas I'm learning/exploring, but also other people's music. Classics, indie stuff I've been listening to, the work of friends, &c. But I've never liked keeping my writing to just one area, so you can expect some politics, armchair sociology, navel-gazing, &c.

All in all it's just my personal blog. It's not a Substack. I'm not asking anyone to subscribe. Just having some fun and sharing some thoughts.

Posts I want to write in January 2023

  • Thoughts about performing my synth music live (which I am preparing to do but haven't done yet)
  • Why I'm so into cassettes as a music format
  • At least one music review
  • A review of README.txt by Chelsea Manning, which I am currently reading

Wait, who is this?

If you've somehow landed on my blog without knowing who I am… This is Dominique Cyprès. I have a page on tilde.town, a Bandcamp page, and a Mastodon account.

Where not otherwise noted, the content of this blog is written by Dominique Cyprès and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.