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Jun. 9th, 2016

Copyright

Other people can write about copyright more knowledgeably than I will (Quiggin's recently tackled the subject here and here, for instance); I'm just going to use my LiveJournal like it's 2006 and spout some opinions, partly Hamilton-inspired. Citations are generally absent but if you comment or tweet at me, then I'll probably dig up an article or YouTube video.

The debates over copyright that I see usually have two opposing camps. One says that artists have a right to earn income from their work and prevent others from profiting off it without permission; furthermore it would be unfair, for instance, to cut off the royalty flow to an author now in retirement from works published earlier in life, so copyright should at least last as long as the author's life.

The other camp takes the more economic-modelling-y approach and considers all the consumer surplus that would come from freeing up the copyright laws. The moral basis for copyright, in this framework, is to encourage the production of new artistic (or non-fiction or whatever) work, and for this purpose only a moderate copyright period is necessary; the Productivity Commission recently wistfully wished for 15 to 25 years.

I find that I very easily slip into arguing* from the second moral framework when responding to moral claims from the first framework. Recently, I saw someone on Twitter being scathingly dismissive about a 20-year copyright term – that published author considered it absurd that the Rolling Stones would no longer be entitled to revenues from their albums, or that JK Rowling would soon stop being paid for the first Harry Potter novel.

*In my head. I don't actually want to argue with authors about copyright on Twitter.

"You think that's absurd?" I mentally tweeted back. "As if JK Rowling needs a second billion dollars for Harry Potter to have been worth the effort of writing it, or to encourage other authors to write! As if becoming fabulously wealthy rock legends isn't enough of a dream for young people to make music!" (Imaginary tweets not only make Twitter a happier place, but they don't even have to be constrained by the character limit.)

But my counter-argument, which feels incredibly strong to me even as I've tried to present it as missing the point, does indeed miss the point. To some people, and many apparently artists feel this acutely, people are entitled to revenue from the art that they create when other people consume it.*

*This statement can probably be tightened up a little, but you get the idea.

There's no way to fundamentally reconcile the two competing frameworks – society simply has to decide on a balance between giving artists a revenue stream based on their work being consumed, and letting utility flow from consumer surpluses after copyright expires. Legislatively, the balance of this debate is being won handsomely by the corporations that own the copyright from long-dead authors, and I would happily accept an expiry of copyright at the author's death, instead of author's death plus 70 years. (Even as I'm inclined to think, without being sure by any stretch, that total abolition of copyright would be an improvement on the status quo.) At least we don't have eternal copyright, as argued (morally) in this NYT op-ed. I just want to read Australian newspapers in 1955 without using a microfilm reader, is that too much to ask?

I mentioned this post being partly Hamilton-inspired. I've never followed musicals closely, and I don't have any memories of musical productions at high school level (is that an American thing? Or just not a the-school-I-went-to thing?), so the world is all quite new to me. The biggest musicals earn more money than the biggest films – they run for years, gradually building a total audience in the millions or even tens of millions while selling tickets at somewhere around $100 each. Andrew Lloyd Webber is a billionaire.

Lin-Manuel Miranda says that he and others spent seven years working to make Hamilton a great piece of musical live theatre, and this seems a reasonable enough argument not to get too annoyed at the decades-long wait for a possible film. But it's an argument that also dovetails perfectly with what's most financially lucrative for Lin-Manuel Miranda.

Of course I would hardly claim that Miranda is morally obliged to sell the movie rights and start filming already. What I was more surprised by is that musical writers and playwrights have such control over their work that even high school productions have to pay a royalty fee, even if the performance is free, and even then only once the author permits it. That is not currently the case for Hamilton (it will likely be licensed for schools in a few years); there's a heavily abridged (~25min) high-school performance of it on YouTube, and there are a couple of commenters saying that they couldn't possibly have the rights to sing and dance in character to half a dozen Hamilton songs in front of an audience.

My instincts here are extremely opposed to copyright protection in cases where no money is made from the performance(s). At least one of my instincts finds it absurd that it'd be illegal to charge $5 a ticket, but I can see that it would be immoral to have a professional production and charge $100 without any of that going to the creators (and original investors?), so I don't see a way to draw the line at anywhere other than zero.

(Another consideration is that most musicals lose money (and I'm guessing most plays as well, but their royalty fees are much lower than musicals'), even some that win lots of awards. Are any of these losses cushioned a little by a slow trickle of amateur and small-theatre productions?)

Something feels qualitatively different to me in the control over theatre performances, but I don't know if it's a morally relevant distinction. In the case of a copyright-breaking book, it's the exact text that is copied; for a film, it's reproducing the precise video and audio. For plays or musicals, I can see the natural parallel that it would be illegal to publish a bootleg recording of a performance – that's the performance that ordinarily you'd have to buy a ticket to see. But preventing other people from performing the show feels like an extra level of protection. Is it really? I'm not sure. You can think of it as protecting the "musical entity" from something akin to unauthorised broadcast.

Anyway I have no conclusion.

Jun. 2nd, 2016

Hamilton

I like Hamilton more than any other creative work I've ever consumed.



For much of the past few years, I've felt that I'm happier with life if I'm making something, or have recently made something and can look on it with satisfaction or pride. Whether it's a big project of some general interest, or just me coding some mathsy pictures for myself and a few interested friends, there's something about the effort that goes into it and the results that come out that give me a profound sense of purpose and usefulness. It's a feeling that very much isn't replicated by watching endless hours of sport on TV or reading essays in the New Yorker. I no longer have a TV and Foxtel subscription and I think I'm happier for it. I do now have a subscription to the New Yorker, and for the past six months I've been reading it and other long-form journalism or essay writing a lot more than I used to; it doesn't seem to give me any lasting happiness, and I've felt generally lethargic, perhaps burnt out after a hectic 2015.

(As a curious aside, reading books, electronic or paper, does bring me a feeling of accomplishment. But I haven't opened my Kindle since getting about a third of the way through Piketty.)

Daniel Kahneman talks about the experiencing self and the remembering self, and suggests that we usually give too much weight to the remembering self – ignoring the moment-to-moment happiness that we might feel but which later dissipates, instead focusing on our judgements when we reflect on what we've done or accomplished, or memories of experiences, even when we spend relatively little time enjoying any such reflections or memories.

There's a thought experiment of sorts, which I'll adapt very slightly for my purposes, that asks whether or not it would be worth it to hit a magic button that artificially made us happy all the time by directly stimulating the relevant parts of the brain (without any of the side-effects of narcotics). The LessWrong crowd call this "wireheading".

Despite largely accepting the logic of Kahneman's defence of the experiencing self, I nevertheless still care mostly about my memories and reflective judgements, as indicated by the second paragraph of this post. And I've generally been sceptical of being made artificially happy by wirehading – it would be a happiness without the reflective satisfaction that, rightly or wrongly, I seem to care about.

The one thing that's really shifted my mind on the wireheading question is listening to the Hamilton cast album. I'm not even a musicals person! I enjoyed it a lot on my first listen, but it grew on me enormously on subsequent listens.* I have never had such an intense emotional reaction to music. It's not like an Adele album or an hour spent on YouTube watching Paul Potts' Britain's Got Talent audition and related videos. Those work in ways that are well-crafted but basically expected. By contrast, after a week of listening to Hamilton, becoming more entranced each listen, I was moved to tears by the federalist papers. One night, after finishing the album and before falling asleep, I cried when thinking of Washington's Farewell Address.

*Perhaps this is partly because I wasn't following along with the lyrics on my first run-through. I'm not used to the speed of rap and missed quite a lot; also I was often unsure of which character was rapping/singing. I'm also not clever enough at understanding stories and musical themes to have made the sort of commentary in this very entertaining live-tweet Storify by someone listening to Hamilton for the first time.

This is on top of the more ordinary storytelling – the rousing battles in Act 1, and the assorted betrayals and deaths in act 2 and Eliza's epilogue in the final song. This mildly exaggerated and very silly video captures most of the effect (though, for whatever reason, I was never so invested in Hamilton's character that I felt hurt or frustrated when he cheated on his wife).

That first week was an incredible time. I'd spend my day at work looking forward to 5pm, so that I could go home and listen to Hamilton. I'd start it playing after dinner, and in calmer moments I might notice a clever rhyme that had previously flown past me, making me love the album a little bit more. But mostly, at least in my memory's telling, I was emotionally convulsing for the better part of two and a half hours. Exhausted and sobbing at the end of 'Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story', I felt that if I could put this listening experience on a constant loop, interrupted only to eat or sleep or shower, then that would be a satisfying life worth living, even if I accomplished nothing else of any merit.

I wondered how long these daily paroxysms would last. Sometimes when I hear a song I like I put it on loop and hear it several dozens of times in a row before I feel like changing it. Would I need to listen to Hamilton several dozen times before its effects started to wear off? No. The end of that week was the peak, and a couple of days later, my eyes weren't even watering at 'It's Quiet Uptown'. I thought that Hamilton would soon be merely in the category of "music that I like to listen to".

It got a new lease of life when YouTube recommended to me a bootleg video of 'Helpless' and 'Satisfied'.* I was a wreck a minute into 'Helpless' – seeing faces and colours and choreography made it a whole new level of wonderful. I started crying again when I next listened to the album straight through.

*My ethics on this are that if I see it on YouTube before Lin's lawyers launch the copyright claim, then it's fair game. I've resisted the urge to learn how to torrent to get the whole show.

And from then on, more than anything else, Hamilton as an abstract entity has been a radiating source of happiness. I check the Hamilton subreddit most days; I've cried at people excitedly posting that they have tickets and they'll soon get to see the show, and I've cried at fans writing reviews. I've watched lots of amateur covers and adaptations on YouTube and I almost always watch the videos a second time. I was well satisfied with the time I spent reading through a 23,000-word recap of the staging on Tumblr.

I've felt (and still feel) a sense of kinship with other fans of the show. Most of these are anonymous redditors or Tumblr users, but I've even felt some goodwill towards Louise Mensch (culture warrior and former Tory MP) after yesterday seeing her tweet a Hamilton line to a detractor and learning that she's been raving about the show since she saw it at the Public Theater last February. I've seen people who, for unaccountable reasons, dislike Hamilton, but for everyone else it really does feel to me like the show gives us a shared sense of humanity.*

*Freddie DeBoer: Me? Economically conservative but culturally liberal, I think poor kids should be fed expired Kraft singles but I like the Hamilton soundtra

The intensity of my reactions to the songs is now very much on the wane. I haven't even cried at 'One Last Time' for a couple of weeks, and that's perhaps given me some motivation to write this up – as a record for myself of what this extended listening experience was like.

The wonder of it is that Burr and Hamilton are hardly sympathetic characters. When Hamilton's motivated by high principles, it's for a subject as dry as federal government debt. It says something interesting about dramatic story-telling that this actually works to create a compelling part of Hamilton's character arc – as long as the character has some principle to fight for, the details of what's wanted don't matter so much, and we'll all go along for the ride.

I'm also fascinatd by my reaction to Washington's character. The historical Washington was a slave owner, and even put out an advertisement for the capture of a fugitive slave of his wife. The show regularly reminds the audience (or listener) about slavery, but Washington's own relation to the subject is mentioned only obliquely.* I love Washington's character. I don't know if that's because I can put up a wall in my brain between historical-Washington and the near-perfect character-Washington, or if I'm simply able to celebrate the good things while knowing about the bad, in a way that I'd perhaps previously have struggled with.**

*In the text, the closest is the deliberately ambiguous "Not yet" in response to John Laurens' "Black and white soldiers wonder alike if this really means freedom." The actor Chris Jackson feels it keenly though, and he talks in this interview with some of the cast (at 27:45) about a subtle point of the staging in 'Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story'. When Eliza sings "I raise funds in DC for the Washington Monument," Washington responds with "She tells my story," and Jackson describes how he's exuding a revelling spirit at having his story told. Then when Eliza follows up with "I speak out against slavery," Washington feels shame, bows his head, and retreats.

**At first I felt it was the former, but I think the latter might be a growing principle in me. I've often enjoyed watching Barack Obama speak, but in recent years it's been an enjoyment accompanied by troublement, particularly about the millions of deportations he's been responsible for. But I was watching his commencement address at Howard University recently, it was interesting and inspiring in roughly equal measure, and I felt much freer, in a moral sense, to celebrate his words.

Of course all this reflection is by design – Jefferson in particular is made to be a brilliantly charismatic presence so that we enjoy him at the time and then later feel uncomfortable at having done so. I can only imagine what extra feelings it generates for Americans; I have to rely on cut-price borrowed patriotism to stir all these feelings up that extra little bit.



Michelle Obama described Hamilton (at 4:50) as "the best piece of art in any form that I have ever seen in my life", which sounds absurdly over the top, but it's utterly appropriate. It is (so far) an enduring source of joy, and I can only hope that one day I'll actually see it live, as I impatiently await the film, to be released in circa 2036.
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Apr. 16th, 2016

Hamilton bubbles

I don't follow pop culture, and in particular music, at all closely. But through my social media feeds I get some sense of the media-hype cycles and who the biggest stars are – Kanye, TSwift, Adele – and sometimes I even join in the hype and buy a CD.

The Hamilton musical started becoming a common topic on my Tumblr dashboard late last year, despite my dashboard only mildly overlapping with any fandoms; it was enough to make me add one of the tags to my Tumblr Savior blacklist. Vox published a lot of stories and explainers about it. I saw a recommendation for the cast album on a blog I read, saying that "It’s a musical about the life of Alexander Hamilton set to rap, but you will like it even if you do not like rap or early American history." The YouTube video of the first song is geoblocked in Australia, so it took a long time for me to give in and listen to it*, but when I finally did so a week ago, almost immediately I saw an Atlantic story about the GOP race with a Hamilton reference in the headline, a New York Times article about its historical accuracy or otherwise, and a tediously weird rebuttal in Vox (of course). Hamilton is everywhere.

*I installed Spotify for this, listened to the first 40-odd minutes, then bought the double-CD; Napster's lawyers would be proud of me.

But I seem to be living in a bubble or two, because the cast recordings are nowhere near as popular on YouTube as the pop music which crosses my radar. The opening song (geoblocked in Australia, and apparently unlisted on YouTube) has just 3.4 million views, having been uploaded in September 2015. I scrolled down the Billboard charts to try to find something comparable, and clicked on Kenny Chesney's Save It For A Rainy Day, which spent five weeks on the chart and peaked at #54, and which has over 11 million YouTube views since its upload July 2015. That seems pretty typical (in my admittedly very limited sampling) – I could watch the top 50 on Rage every week, and pretty much every song will be more popular than Hamilton currently is.

(The cast album is doing OK on the album chart, having spent half a year there, peaking at 12 or 15 depending on the source, and still at 19 this week. And maybe it's doing proportionally better on Spotify than on YouTube. Still I think there's a mismatch between Hamilton's presence in my corners of the Internet, and how many people are actually listening to it.)

That Hamilton isn't Swift-level popular is probably because it's theatre, inherently not a mass-consumption product. The Richard Rodgers Theatre seats about 1300; at around eight shows a week, the total audience for the first year of its Broadway run will be about half a million. Of course the album makes it far more accessible, but it's marketed as a musical, and most people will therefore ignore it.

Why is it everywhere in my Internet then? One possibility is that even the presence of mashup fandom posts on my dashboard doesn't imply that everyone reblogging has watched or listened to Hamilton:

While catching up recently with a friend who is much more active in fandom than I am, she mentioned Hamilton. “Oh, have you seen the show?” I asked. “It’s incredible.” She laughed and responded that she hadn’t listened to a single song, but “it’s on my Tumblr dashboard—every fandom mashes up with it, so it’s like I know it.”

I follow a handful of people from so-called 'rationalist Tumblr', a loose grouping of people vaguely connected to LessWrong, generally without all of LW's strange dogmatism. Many of them often think in ways I like, and apparently that includes appreciating clever rhymes about weighty subjects.

I keep an organised collection of my favourite science songs (link!), but economics or history works as well. Hamilton gives us clever rhymes with professional production, and gives us 20,000 words of it. It's so lyrically incredible that it oughtn't take much to spread across a receptive little Internet subculture once someone in there first listens to it.

Hamilton's more than just clever rhymes (though so many of them fly by so quickly that it rewards multiple listens) – it's a compelling story in its own right with interesting characters, and totally warrants an even larger dedicated fan base.

My favourite aspect of the fan side of Hamilton is the Ham4Ham YouTube videos. Hamilton tickets cost a lot, but a handful are sold cheaply to lottery winners, who used to form a crowd outside the theatre. Miranda would organise some sort of short performance for the patient crowd, someone would video it with their phone and upload it to YouTube (they've since switched to online lotteries and pre-recorded Ham4Ham videos on the official YT channel). These videos often have poor sound quality, people running in front of the camera, and they have astonishingly high like:dislike ratios. Usually a ratio near 100:1 is what you'd get for a video that's really good (or an old song that people who don't like it won't search for), 200:1 for something exceptional. This poor-sound-quality video is at 375:1; this spoken-word version of Cabinet Battle #1 from the White House is at 500:1; a six(?)-year-old Lin-Manuel lip-synching (a video of little interest apart from its subject) is at 1377:1. It's a very happy corner of YouTube, both in the ratings and in the comments.

What about Vox and the Atlantic and the New York Times? I wonder if it reflects what Freddie deBoer complains about ("If our political media was made up of something other than affluent Ivy League grads...") – the people interested in theatre are a small proportion of the general public, but there's a disproportionate number in the media. (On a related note, Matt Bruenig had a hilarious line about Paul Ryan, tweeting that "his schtick is so well calibrated for the NPR/Hamilton crowd, it's actually kind of impressive".)

On the other hand, Vox is pretty SEO-focused, so presumably their Hamilton articles get lots of clicks. And when Junkee posted an article on Facebook about (tentative) plans to bring Hamilton to Australia, it got 500 likes and 100 shares, a lot better than Junkee FB posts usually do.

Is it just that the relatively small Hamilton-fan demographic is super-passionate and will read and share articles on the subject? I don't know.

No conclusion.

(But if you're not sure if listening to the 2.5-hour cast album is worth the time investment, try this 4min video of Miranda at the White House, performing in 2009 what became the opening song to the musical. The only background knowledge assumed is that Aaron Burr, as Vice-President, killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel, and that Hamilton, the first Secretary of the Treasury, is on the US $10 note.

If listening to the cast album, I recommend following the Rap-Genius lyrics and annotations, so that it's clear who's who.)
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Apr. 13th, 2016

Hamilton

Very late, I listened to the Hamilton cast album. My take is that it is good, and below I list some of my favourite bits (numbers are track numbers).

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Jan. 9th, 2016

Star Wars

Spoilers ahead. The Internet has no shortage of Star Wars opinions, but Star Wars is fun to think and write about even if there's no-one reading.

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