Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Fancy Flight

avianca logo Ben Stiller and one of the Wilson brothers are talking to Egyptians.  Jennifer Garner is annoyed with what looks to be an anorexic Matthew McConaughey.  And next to me, Robert DeNiro is taking a walk in a park.  I’m listening to Beethoven – and while his 9th Symphony is pleasant, I’m reminded of one of the reasons I prefer flying Southwest – simplicity.  Some might call it no frills.  I think of it more as freedom.  Freedom from the entertainment of others.  Intrusion-less into the calm reflective or comradery time that is my time in the air.

On Southwest, I sit in the front row – nearly every time, certainly every time I can – and all the rest of the plane does not exist.  There is no seat back in front of me to crunch my knees.  There is no tray table that doesn’t go flat on my lap.  There is no meal that I can’t eat while everyone else scarfs down food.  We all have the same little baggie of snack something.

I read, write, knit or make friends with the person next to me.  They’re always exceedingly nice.  Mark, the 7’ tall Warriors fan from Australia.  Hamed, the Algerian Berkeleyite with a fabulous seasonal home in North Africa.  The very pleasant gentleman who calmly tolerated the walking stereotype valley girl and her purse doggie.  But Southwest doesn’t fly internationally, so here I am, 10 rows back in seat 14D.  The seats are spacious.  There’s no seat back in my knees, but the tray table doesn’t fit over my legs. 

I have grand plans of reading, but the shiny sparkles of tv screens pull my eyes, darting in every direction.  A man wearing a plastic sheet as a boa, what looks like Julianne Moore dying of AIDS or consumption.  A cave man smooshing the face of the Australian chick from the acapella movie Munchkinhead loves (the one where the sequel has the Packers), and a bunch of old men in a park with that guy who sings “Party Rock Anthem” (what?).  So my book sits on my lap and I blame these fancy flights, these bored passengers taking advantage of the free entertainment, for my lack of interest in Susan Sell.

Truth is, her eye-poking style of writing makes me rather crabby and I’m already having difficulty being nice to the world.  I should have packed some Ruth Okediji instead, or Pride and Prejudice.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Why “Don’t Resist” Advice is Not the Solution

Sitting on an airplane, the man in front of me was watching 12 Years a Slave.  I glanced up.  Two men were just hung.  A third was passing and was kicked by a white man to move along.  The hung – as being hung - looked at him, at the man passing, with what in their eyes?  Not pleading.  I don’t know.  He looked back knowing it was their last look, and they were hung.  Bodies twitching violently in the air, high above the crunchy brown leaves and the stained hats of the stained white men.

This is why “don’t resist” is not an acceptable answer to the pervasive police brutality against black men in this country.  For over 200 years, we have told black men they have no dignity.  We have emasculated them with commandments that they obey our orders and our force or die.  To tell them the solution to not dying is to just obey is not ok.

“Obey, and fight it later in court,” and this, somehow, is supposed to be “justice.”  Without even getting into the skewedness of that system, even if they “win” by not having charges filed or by getting a case dismissed on a 4th amendment violation, their dignity has still been taken.  There is no justice for that; there’s no getting that back.  The closest they can get is a civil judgment or settlement against an officer or a department by their family after they’re dead – or maybe, in extremely rare cases (Walter Scott), a Colors of the Wind quote murder charge against the officer.

The solution is not “don’t resist.”  The solution is showing respect and acknowledging dignity.  It is officers treating human beings as fellow men – not “others,” not “criminals,” not “thugs,” not “pests,” or “suspects” or “perpetrators.”

A lady who had testified during the Congressional Briefing on The Justice Package said on the news, “it’s the system, not the officers.”  Well you know what? The officers are the system.  And until they can treat other humans – black humans, black male humans – with respect, the system will not change.

“Do not resist” is not the answer.  It only addresses the symptom of “death in police custody.”  It does not address the problem, the raping of black men’s dignity, the continued degradation and emasculation of the American black male. 

Thursday, April 23, 2015

When eh’s turn to grrrrr’s

***Spoiler alert*** I’m going to winge on about the plot. If you have any interest in reading the book, don’t read this post.

So I’m still reading Life After Life.  Surprisingly pretty far into it; it is a fast read.  I’m still not feeling it.  In fact, this week, the book went from tiresome to loathsome.

Ursula is finally the main character, but her character is constantly something different.  I suppose this could be part of the point of the book – different choices lead to different character development – but it comes off more as different character leads to different choices.  Sometimes the difference isn’t even her choice; it’s some other character’s.  That all leaves a very eh feeling in my throat.

The downgrade of my opinion of the book happened rather quickly.  I was sitting on the cramped bus as we slowly and not-at-all smoothly jutted and lurched down the road to the Metro station.  Ursula was going up the back stairs of her house for a handkerchief when her brother’s friend comes down the stairs, pins her to the wall and rapes her.  Excuse me?  Besides the logistics of this – in 1920’s clothes, standing, on the stairs – what the?!?  You don’t just plop that down on someone in the middle of their morning.  It took me a couple hours, a few walks around the hallway, Twitter friends, and a concerted effort to throw myself into my work to function.  Bedtime, hours – and now years in the novel – removed from the event, brought nightmares.

The plot line gets more ridiculous from there.  Rather than allowing Ursula to find strength in this experience or recover, or anything, anything at all encouraging, she winds up being beaten to death by an abusive husband.  One can never triumph over their ills, huh? 
It only gets more infuriating.

The whole “thing” about this book is that Ursula dies and comes back and makes a different decision that allows her life to go better.  So, after her husband kills her, she comes back and starts again.  I’m hoping the author gives her a shot to overcome this ordeal – come on author, you can do it.  But no, in order to not wind up murdered by her husband, she has to not be raped.  To achieve this, she punches her brother’s friend in the face when he tries to kiss her, months before the encounter on the stairs.  Last time, she didn’t stop him from kissing her.  This made me even angrier than the surprise logistically implausible stair scene.  It makes what happens on the stairs her fault.

She’s died again since then.  Several times.  There have been some other versions of the story, but in none of them – so far – does the stair scene happen again; she always fends him off at the kissing scene.  Now, she’s hanging out in Bavaria with Eva and Adolf in the 1930s.  Um…. ok….
Yet, still reading.  (But seriously eyeing up that new copy of International Intellectual Property on my shelf.)

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

A Lunchtime Visit to Kenya

I didn’t particularly like her story, the one that won the Caine Prize.  I guess it’s good I’m not the judge.  It’s not that I didn’t like her writing – I was rather ambivalent, in the American sense of the word, about it.  But, I didn’t care for the topic.  It was depressing, gruesome, death-filled in its ghost and background characters that were nearly ghosts.  She was going to be reading from that story, and I knew that, but I went anyway.

Some small part of me hoped that hearing the story in the author’s voice would make me like the story more.  The rest of me, well the rest of the part that had caused me to get up from my desk and clip through the dangerously smooth tunnels under the old buildings, justified it as “how could I not go?”  What an opportunity, to take a lunch hour, a common daily happenstance that nearly everyone has, to listen to authors, scholars, intriguing people from all corners of the globe, talk about their passions.

So here I sat, in the Africa and Middle East Reading Room of the Library of Congress, listening to the 2014 Caine Prize winner, Okwiri Oduor from Kenya reading a story I didn’t care for in a dull unpoetic voice.  She would say later in the interview portion, “I used to fancy myself a poet, but now I know better.”  I agreed, and simultaneously felt connected to this young – younger than Munchkinhead – African woman with a style simultaneously flamboyant and subdued echoing of Whoopi Goldberg, thick twists and nose ring with Keds and dreary faded navy capris.
The interviewer started with “When did you start writing?”  Why do they ask this question.  Is there anyone who does not write as a child, anyone who has access to paper and does not take to it with a writing implement?  Of course, Okwiri gave the expected “as a child” answer and then continued.  She spoke of her muses, her influences, her hopes, her reality:  Africa is bustling with young writers and burgeoning support systems, reading groups, writing groups, publishers, etc.  She spoke of rediscovering Swahili literature.  She spoke of the continent, not of Kenya, finally effusing emotion as she expressed her desires for unfettered visa-free travel and the equivalent of “in-state tuition” for all Africans at any country's universities.  A true pan-African.  I shall check back in a decade.  I’ve known many Pan-Africans in their 20s.  By their 30s, they view this idyllic panacea of Pan-ism as foolish.

By the end, I still had no love for “My Father’s Head.”  However, I had found an interest in Okweri as an author and imagine I will seek out her future work, particularly if she returns kuandika kiSwahili as she did years ago.  And I’ll look for her kiSwahili translation of “The Last Wave.”

She’s about to start a writing program at the University of Iowa.  I really wonder how this shy, Afri-centric, bold woman is going to survive in Iowa City.  I expect she’ll find herself rather bored and lonely with few familiarities.  I wanted to hug her and tell her she’s brave for going.

Friday, April 17, 2015

The Commute pt. 2

I looked up from my book, through the glass pane.

There was a woman staring at me.

Not quite middle aged, but grown.

She looked sophisticated, yet with a roughness showing at the edges, as though someone had tried to fix a scratch in marble with 50-grit sandpaper.

She stared straight ahead.

“Where did she come from?” I wondered.

In my head, I’m still the gangly 13-year old with wild hair and a crooked half-smile.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Page After Page, eh.

I’m reading this book called Life After Life by Kate Atkinson.  The front of the book is six pages of glowing reviews.  It’s a National Bestseller, etc. etc.  I’m not feeling it.  By page 164, the best way to describe the book is “tiresome.”

It’s like reading a Choose Your Own Adventure, except when you do something stupid and die – like standing under a tree in a thunderstorm – you don’t have to back up and choose a different option because the author does it for you in the next chapter.

Supposedly, the main character is Ursula, though for the first third of the book she does little more than keep dying.  Her mother, Sylvie, seems far more the main character.  Now that Ursula’s living a little longer each time, there’s at least something happening.   I keep reading because I don’t like leaving books unfinished.  But so far, definitely not impressed.

Monday, April 13, 2015

The Commute

Five seconds.

Five hours?

Five years?

How long is this eternal moment?

How long until you become human?

How long until I become human to you?

We stare through the glass, like a child at the zoo.

But who is caged?

Who is free?

And who is the animal?

Five seconds.

I look for your eyes, but they are obscured by the reflection of my own.

We stare at each other;

In that instant;

In that moment;

In that never-ending five seconds.

We are ourselves and everyone

- standing across from us

- next to us

- all the faces in and through the glass.


Searching for humanity.

For a soul.

For an indication that we are more than  forms moving through the world.



Five Seconds.

Five pensive seconds.

Five reflective seconds.

Five evaporated seconds;

The doors open.

Whatever we were, we are not.

We are only obstacles in each other’s way, each trying to get from where we are to where we’re going.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Yes, Virginia, Copyright Can Change the World*

Anthony Seeger_001 I got to attend the most awesome presentation, and since there really isn’t a better place to write about it, y’all are just going to have to put up with some fun IP stuff.  (or… you know, go back to looking at Twitter.)

The Suyá

Professor Anthony Seeger is a ethnomusicologist who has been studying and working with a remote indigenous society in Brazil for nearly 45 years.  (He’s also, based on the hints from the introducer and his references to “Uncle Pete,” Pete Seeger’s nephew.)

Professor Seeger began his work with the Suyá in 1971.  He and his wife moved into the tiny village and he began learning about their music.  They taught the Seegers much.  They had songs they’d learned from fishes, and songs they’d learned from trees, and songs they’d learned from tribes they’d captured.  They had songs and ceremonies and art and all sorts of things that they’d gathered over the centuries and incorporated into their lifestyle and their Suyá culture.

A Giant Shift

Then, in 2004, Gisele came - Yes, that Gisele – and everything changed.  Gisele came for a commercial purpose, but more importantly, Gisele came with an NGO and Gisele came under requirements of Brazilian law.  (And this is where I start pulling out books from my “IP and writing shelf”".”)

Brazil and Protection of Culture

In 2001, Brazil enacted Provisional Act No. 2.186-16, on Genetic Heritage and Traditional Knowledge.(1)  Brazil has a very rich biodiversity (hello, the Amazon!).  For the peoples who have lived amid this biodiversity for generations, there’s a lot of knowledge related to the plants and animals in their surroundings, knowledge about what can be used as medicine, how to prepare things, how to find things, etc.  Basically, the communities have a lot of knowledge that has commercial value to outsiders.  The Act required, among other things, the fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from the use of traditional knowledge related to this biodiversity.  And the trend and norms exemplified by the Act apply more broadly to cultural aspects of indigenous societies in Brazil.  If you want to use it, you ask and you compensate.


As Professor Seeger tells the story, Gisele wanted to use some tribal designs on sandals.  She wanted to do some good, too.  I don’t know which came first.  And as discussed above, there were rules to follow: ask permission, compensate.  So, she partnered with an NGO to approach the Suyá about using their tribal designs.  She’d get to sell her sandals; they’d get $200,000 compensation for use of their culture; they’d get to be in a commercial; she’d get to be painted with their traditional body paint.(2)  Everybody’s happy.  Except…

The Suyá learn about the concept of ownership over traditional knowledge and traditional cultural expressions, and they go “wait a minute, we borrowed this stuff from other tribes.  What if the other tribes get mad that we’re using it?  What if they want some of the money?  What if they kill us in retaliation?” New concerns to them.

The Kïsêdjê

The Suyá began taking a critical look at their culture in a way they never had.  What had been “ours” was now analyzed to decide whether or not it really belonged to them.  And they started making changes. 

For the Commercial

First it was small things, mainly for the commercial, mainly so they wouldn’t have to worry about other claims on that compensation.  All the female body painting in their community had been borrowed from tribes further up the river.  They thought hard and “remembered,” reconstructed, what their traditional body paint must have looked like before incorporating paint styles from the other tribes.  This is how they painted Gisele.  For the music and the ceremony in the commercial, they chose very old songs that they were sure were theirs, a ceremony taught by the mice, not from another tribe.

The Songs and Culture

Changes continued long after Gisele left.  They stopped singing certain songs, stopped making certain handicrafts. – They created a brand new style of basket that has no practical purpose whatsoever other than being sold as a tchotchke to tourists, because they were worried about selling the baskets they used daily, which were incorporated from another tribe.(3) – They changed their language.  They even changed their name!  Suyá was what other tribes had called them and they’d gone with it.  But they’re original name for themselves was Kïsêdjê.  Now, they are the Kïsêdjê again.

The Language and Knowledge

Before Gisele, there was no word in their language for theft or stealing.  They would say to the outsiders, “you white people, why do you think that when you give something away you have less?  When we give something away, we have more.”  After Gisele, there are words for stealing and theft.  Their history used to talk of being great conquerors and all the things they borrowed or took from other tribes.  Their history has changed.  There are things they were given; things they learned.

Elders from the village went upriver to see some of the tribes whose songs and ceremonies they had incorporated. (4)  Those tribes said, “these are not ours anymore; you have changed them; you have made them your own; they are yours now.”(5)  But the Kïsêdjê do not want to take chances.

Professor Seeger was last with the Kïsêdjê several years ago.  He is going back soon to see what else has changed.

How We Got Here

Brazil’s laws and cultural norms surrounding  Traditional Knowledge (TK) and Folklore did not arise in a vacuum.  The concept of TK as something that should be owned and protected under the guise of intellectual property began in the 1960s as the global IP community was amending the international copyright treaty, the Berne Convention.(6)  But, it didn’t really pick up steam until the late 1980s and early 1990s when international  Intellectual Property was being shifted out of this sort of wishy-washy handshake treaty home to the very toothy jaws of international trade law.(7) 

In both its initial incarnation and its full blown growth spurt, TK was and is, a response to external intellectual property norms being imported, first through colonialism, then through multi-lateral treaties, and finally through trade agreements. Brazil was always at the forefront of this pushback.  (8)

Following the Path to TK as IP

Gisele brought the Kïsêdjê the concept of ownership over culture.  The rules of the Brazilian society to which Gisele belonged had taught her that cultural elements belonged to the community whose culture they composed.  Scholars and policy people had built this idea into Brazilian culture.  And not just the idea that the cultural elements belong to the community, but that the community has the right to exercise control over the use of the elements by others, the right to prevent use, the right to be compensated for use, the right to determine the manner of use.  Scholars and policy people had applied these rights to the elements they found most valuable in their own countries and communities.  These rights come from a foreign framework for individual ownership of individual’s creations; a foreign framework that was being foisted upon them by other communities looking to increase the market size for the most valuable elements of their own cultures.  It’s a long, connected road.

Mind Blown

I was absolutely stunned by the manner in which the Kïsêdjê incorporated all this.  Pulling out elements that had been in their culture for centuries because they originally came from a different people.  Can you imagine if every culture tried to give back the things they borrowed?!

Can you imagine English without its loanwords?  Can you imagine not teaching preschoolers Ring Around the Rosy, Frère Jacques or Happy Birthday because they’re British, French or Canadian, respectively, and not American?  What would we have left?  What would we eat?!  If we gave all the borrowed cultural elements back.  The idea is baffling.

Drastic changes in a tiny little community in the middle of Brazil’s vast forests are the result of the trade-exportation of Euro-American concepts of Intellectual Property.  Talk about a butterfly effect!



*But is this the change we were aiming for?

(1) This was followed in 2005 by Decree No. 5.459 of June 7, 2005 on Genetic Heritage & Traditional Knowledge.  Since Gisele came to the village in 2004, I’m focusing on the 2001 provisional act.

(2) We got to watch the commercial twice during Professor Seeger’s talk. It’s quite neat. I couldn’t find it on YouTube.  It’s in Portuguese and for sandals.

(3) I find this particularly fascinating because the purpose behind copyright and intellectual property laws in general in the Anglo tradition is to spur innovation.  Coming up with a brand new basket design is innovation.  So in that regard, the concept of TK protection did exactly what is was supposed to do.  However, how useful is innovation that leads to an article that useless from a practical stance?

(4) An anthropologist who studied one of the upriver tribes was in the audience. That was pretty neat.

(5) In Western Copyright law, this would be like the concept of a work that becomes so uniquely its own and removed from the original on which it is based that it is no longer considered a derivative work of the original; such as the relationship between Fifty Shades of Grey and Twilight.

(6) WIPO has a great TK background briefer

(7) Google ngram showing growth of the term

(8) The Implementation Game (Carolyn Deere) goes into this in much more detail on p. 42.

Updated 4/13/2015 with video link.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Bed Nook

“Are you getting divorced?”  The store clerk asked nonchalantly as if asking how I liked the town or something.  I was at Big Lots, buying my new bed.  Buying a twin bed because it’s all that will fit.

nook before changes The nook off the main room at my new place, now dubbed “the bed nook,” is exactly the size of a twin bed.  As soon as I realized that, I knew it’d be perfect.  It looked like the previous tenant had used it as an off-shoot of the kitchen.  There was a large shelf with a microwave and an interchangeable basket shelving unit like Munchkinhead has in Cudahy attached to the wall.  I relocated both.

nook before bed (1) As I mentioned in a previous post, I painted the walls in the nook blue and repainted the ceiling above it with a fresh coat of flat white.  I also gave the alcove near the window a fresh coat of white.  I made sure to put anything I’d want in that storage unit in it before setting up my bed.  And I made sure that would be stuff I wouldn’t want to get to unless I were moving again, because once that bed’s up, I’m not getting into the storage unit.  Luckily, the water meter is viewable from the hole in the side of the alcove.

I use the alcove basically as a nightstand.  In the alcove, I placed a holder of some sort that I picked up at my aunt’s house.  I think it’s for mail or something, but I use it to hold my books so they won’t fall through the cut-out in the wall down into the storage unit.  I also placed my alarm clock on the alcove shelf with a power strip so I can plug my phones in at night. 

WP_20150401_004The outlet is in the middle of the wall, which is nice.  It’s easily accessible even with the bed in place.  The nook has it’s own overhead light with switch.  (The rest of the apartment, aside from the bathroom, is on a single switch.)  And that switch is in the nook itself but still reachable from the main room.  Perfect.

To help separate the bed nook from the main room, I decided to hang curtains around the foot of it.  I considered a bed net (1)number of different fabrics, including heavy light-blocking curtains, but in the end decided to go with a light beige mesh.  The mesh allows light to flow into the main room from the alcove window, but still separates the nook and the room.  The beige goes well with the main room color scheme and the mesh has sort of a mosquito net feel that works with with the African decor in the main room.  The net is hung from buttonholes in the top of the fabric on a number of  brass cup hooks screwed into the ceiling.

The bed nook is super cozy and a great place for sleeping, especially with the down comforter and four quilts on my bed.  It’s a nice, quiet area away from any work spaces in my home, reserved solely for rest and sleep.  Having a window right nearby is very nice and I am excited for the breezes this will provide in summer.  I love crawling into my bed at night and hate crawling out of it in the morning.  A perfect score in the test of a good bed.

my bed nook (2)

(And for those of you who were wondering: yes, it’s on risers and yes, I have to practically jump to get on it.  The top of the bed is 39” from the floor.)

Thursday, April 2, 2015

“Yes” is Not the Absence of No

I learned something very interesting the other night.  It won’t surprise anyone that Berkeley public schools have a very liberal sex education program.  They start teaching it early and they teach it often.  The part that I found so interesting is that the guys are taught that sex is not okay without an affirmative yes.

This is a huge difference from the “sex is not okay if she says ‘no’” that my class was taught in high school, that’s the prevailing message in our media and mainstream culture.  Compare those two:

Sex is only okay if she says yes.

Sex is not ok if she says no.

This is not me asking Mommy for a cookie by whispering, “do you mind if I have a cookie?” out of hearing range because Mommy’s silence means “no.”  This is huge.  What an astounding difference between the results of those -

Sex is only okay if she says yes.

Sex is not ok if she says no.

What a profound effect on our rape culture.  The affirmative eliminates the questions of too drunk or too incapacitated to refuse; it eliminates the ‘she was asking for it,’ the ‘she was playing coy,’ the ‘she secretly wanted it.’  It puts all the control of the situation in the woman’s hands and it requires her to take control.

The affirmative yes requires the woman to be sure, to make a decision, to take responsibility for what is going to happy and what she is going to do.  That is powerful and scary.  There is plenty of writing, plenty of anted octal stories I could  share from friends over the years: girls grow up in a world where sex is wrong, where they are dirty or wrong or a bad person if they want it.  The affirmative yes requires them to be able to get past all that and accept ownership of their desires and feelings.  (I expect the Berkeley version of sex ed also teaches girls that sex is ok and good and doesn’t layer on the guilt stuff, but I don’t know for sure, just a hunch; hippies and all.)

The affirmative yes requirement can still cause problems; misunderstandings can happen with someone afraid to say “yes” as afraid to say “no.”  A couple may have some fights, they may need to work some things out if he’s waiting for a yes and she’s waiting for action.  But it’s a better trade off.  The results of a misunderstood unsaid yes will not lead to criminal charges.