Intellectual Property

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There was a time when movies were based on either a book (typically a very good book) or an original screenplay (typically by a great screenwriter). That was then, this is now.

I’d always had the notion that something was changing, but Alex French’s article in the New York Times magazine, “How to Make a Movie Out of Anything — Even a Mindless Phone Game,” so revealing – and so frightening. Here how he began:

In 2013 a movie producer named Tripp Vinson was thumbing through Variety when he stumbled upon a confounding item: Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, a pair of writers and directors, were working on something called ‘‘The Lego Movie.’’ Vinson was baffled. ‘‘I had no idea where they were going to go with Legos,’’ he says. ‘‘There’s no character; no narrative; no theme. Nothing.’’

Since Vinson got into the business, something has changed in Hollywood. More and more movies are developed from intellectual property: already existing stories or universes or characters that have a built-in fan base. Vinson thinks it started in 2007, when the Writers Guild went on strike. ‘‘Before the strike, the studios were each making 20-­something movies a year,’’ he says. ‘‘Back then, you could get a thriller made. After the strike, they cut back dramatically on the number of films they made. It became all about I.P.’’ — intellectual property. With fewer bets to place, the studios became more cautious. ‘‘The way to cut through the noise is hitching yourself onto something customers have some exposure to already,’’ he says. ‘‘Something familiar. You’re not starting from scratch. If you’re going to work in the studio system, you better have a really big I.P. behind you.’’

This trend toward I.P.-­based movies has been profound. In 1996, of the top 20 grossing films, nine were live-­action movies based on wholly original screenplays. In 2016, just one of the top 20 grossing movies, ‘‘La La Land,’’ fit that bill. Just about everything else was part of the Marvel universe or the DC Comics universe or the ‘‘Harry Potter’’ universe or the ‘‘Star Wars’’ universe or the ‘‘Star Trek’’ universe or the fifth Jason Bourne film or the third ‘‘Kung Fu Panda’’ or a super-­high-­tech remake of ‘‘Jungle Book.’’ Just outside the top 20, there was a remake of ‘‘Ghostbusters’’ and yet another version of ‘‘Tarzan.’’

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Super Soldiers

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America has depended on the men and women of the Special Operations Command to deal with the threats of this century. Army Rangers, Navy SEALS, Air Force and Marine Corps special operators and others have been on the front lines, “on the wall” protecting us from enemies who would do us harm.

But few know the history of special operations, and fewer still know it began beyond our borders. That’s why I found Max Boot’s review of “Rouge Heroes,” Ben McIntyre’s history of Britain’s SAS so fascinating. Here is part of what he said:

Once upon a time, when the president wanted to use military force without becoming embroiled in a major conflict, the cry would go out: “Send in the Marines!” Today the role once played by the Marine Corps — as the troops of choice for low-profile missions without a formal declaration of war — has been largely supplanted by the United States Special Operations Command. With tens of thousands of “operators” and a multibillion-dollar budget, Socom has become virtually an independent military service.

Given the ubiquity and importance of Special Operations today, it is a little startling to realize just how novel they are. While there have long been specialized units, like Rogers’ Rangers of the French and Indian War, professional Special Operations forces date back only to World War II. All of the combatants employed them, but it was the British who were most assiduous in creating small units of swashbucklers.

The regular army establishment, of course, sniffed at the idea of a self-proclaimed military elite, and not without cause. Field Marshal William Slim, the liberator of Burma, wrote, “Armies do not win wars by means of a few bodies of supersoldiers but by the average quality of their standard units.” But Winston Churchill was enchanted by the supersoldiers and countenanced the creation of myriad units like the Commandos, the Long Range Desert Group, Popski’s Private Army, the Special Operations Executive, the Special Boat Service and the Chindits.

None were more storied than the Special Air Service (S.A.S.), which survives to this day and inspired the creation of foreign counterparts like the United States Delta Force and the Israeli Sayeret Matkal. The origins of the S.A.S. are recounted with verve by the veteran British historian and journalist Ben Macintyre, who has made a specialty of writing about clandestine operations in World War II and beyond. (His most recent book was about the British double agent Kim Philby.) This is hardly the first time the S.A.S. story has been told — a number of its veterans wrote entertaining memoirs, among them Fitzroy Maclean’s “Eastern Approaches” — but “Rogue Heroes” is the best and most complete version of the tale, because Macintyre was granted access to a hitherto-secret scrapbook known as the SAS War Diary.

 

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Up or Down

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There is a lot of bad news out there: Church shootings, North Korea nukes, catastrophic storms, and on and on. It’s easy to wonder if the world is going to hell in a hand basket.

That’s why I found a recent piece by David Brooks so revealing as well as uplifting. Here is part of what he said:

The popular gloom notwithstanding, we’re actually living in an era of astounding progress. We’ve seen the greatest reduction in global poverty in history. As Steven Pinker has documented, we’ve seen a steady decline in wars and armed conflict. The U.S. economy is the best performing major economy in the developed world.

In 1980 the U.S. had a slight edge in G.D.P. per capita over Germany, Japan, France and the U.K. But the U.S. has grown much faster than the other major economies over the past 37 years, so that now it produces about $54,000 of output per capita compared with about $39,000 for Japan and France.

During the mid-20th century the West developed a group-oriented culture to deal with the Great Depression and the World Wars. Its motto could have been “We’re in this together.” That became too conformist and stultifying. A new individualistic culture emerged (pivot) whose motto could have been “I’m free to be myself.” That was great for a time, but excessive individualism has left society too fragmented, isolated and divided (hatchet). Something new is needed.

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Silicon Valley: Your Friend?

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Almost from its inception, the World Wide Web produced public anxiety — your computer was joined to a network that was beyond your ken and could send worms, viruses and trackers your way — but we nonetheless were inclined to give these earnest innovators the benefit of the doubt. They were on our side in making the web safe and useful, and thus it became easy to interpret each misstep as an unfortunate accident on the path to digital utopia rather than as subterfuge meant to ensure world domination.

Now that Google, Facebook, Amazon have become world dominators, the questions of the hour are, can the public be convinced to see Silicon Valley as the wrecking ball that it is? And do we still have the regulatory tools and social cohesion to restrain the monopolists before they smash the foundations of our society?

By all accounts, these programmers turned entrepreneurs believed their lofty words and were at first indifferent to getting rich from their ideas. A 1998 paper by Sergey Brin and Larry Page, then computer-science graduate students at Stanford, stressed the social benefits of their new search engine, Google, which would be open to the scrutiny of other researchers and wouldn’t be advertising-driven. The public needed to be assured that searches were uncorrupted, that no one had put his finger on the scale for business reasons.

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Insider Information

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Many writers look for “insider information” on not only how to write but also how to market what they write.

I’m always looking for both, and that’s what intrigued me about a recent interview with literary critic Parul Sehgal. Here is part of what she shared:

I love being part of both a tradition of literature and this fantastic, fractious, quarrelsome thing known as criticism, which is part of literature, and on top of it, and alongside it.

Criticism can be a way of adding to a bank of knowledge, a bank of understanding, a way of refreshing and renewing and protecting language.

In scientific fields, there’s this established idea that you’re always standing on the shoulders of giants — that every discovery pushes the whole enterprise forward. When it comes to the arts, though, we don’t talk about things that way. We tend not to say that, because of some novel, we now know X or Y. But I’ve always felt that to be true. Because of the modernists, for example, we have a greater sense of subjectivity.

I like to think of literature and criticism as an act of pushing something forward, of mapping new terrains, internal and external, of doing things with language that reveal something about what it means to read and to live.

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What is Your Idol?

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Full disclosure: I’m a huge fan of David Brooks. So, when I see his op-ed each week, I feel like I’ve received a gift.

Recently, he penned a piece, “When Politics Becomes Your Idol.” It spoke to me and I think it will speak to you. Here is part of what he said:

What you see is good people desperately trying to connect in an America where bonds are attenuated — without stable families, tight communities, stable careers, ethnic roots or an enveloping moral culture. There’s just a whirl of changing stepfathers, changing homes, changing phone distractions, changing pop-culture references, financial stress and chronic drinking, which make it harder to sink down roots into something, or to even have a spiritual narrative that gives meaning to life.

Today, partisanship for many people is not about which party has the better policies, as it was, say, in the days of Eisenhower and Kennedy. It’s not even about which party has the better philosophy, as it was in the Reagan era. These days, partisanship is often totalistic. People often use partisan identity to fill the void left when their other attachments wither away — religious, ethnic, communal and familial.

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Tech Dread

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Most of us would agree that technology has enriched our lives in countless ways. But as it has, we have begun to become wary of the ways it may have less-than-positive effects.

Here is how a recent piece in the New York Times tried to get at the heart of just what it is that is making us uneasy about technology:

Technology has crossed over to the dark side. It’s coming for you; it’s coming for us all, and we may not survive its advance. So why am I feeling so bad about tech?

Well, who isn’t, right? Look around you. It’s difficult to get jazzed about smartphones and social networks when smartphones and social networks might be ruining the world. The technologies we were most excited about 10 years ago are now implicated in just about every catastrophe of the day. (See how Russian propagandists used Facebook and Twitter to inject false narratives into the news media last year.)

More immediately, there’s the threat of ever-growing corporate control over much of what we do. These companies are not evil; they’re all led and staffed by smart, well-meaning people who believe that technology can radically improve the world. But as I argue in the series, we have not, as a society, come to grips with the scope of their control over our lives. And we don’t have many good ways to limit it, if we decided that’s what we’d like to do.

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Number Crunching

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It was bound to happen sooner or later – and later is now! Literature has met big data. Are we ready for it?

I’d always “suspected” something was afoot, but it hit me like a two-by-four when I read a recent New York Times article: “Reading by the Numbers: When Big Data Meets Literature.” Here is part of what this intriguing article offered:

Most literary criticism is grounded in close reading, with scholars poring over individual texts to tease out subtle meanings. But to truly grasp the laws of literature, Mr. Moretti has argued in a series of polemics, requires “distant reading”: the computer-assisted crunching of thousands of texts at a time.

It’s a pie-in-the-sky idea, perhaps, but one that Mr. Moretti has put into practice. Since 2010, Stanford Literary Lab, which he founded with Matthew Jockers, has issued a string of pamphlets chronicling its research into topics ranging from loudness in the 19th-century novel to the evolving language of World Bank reports.

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A Recipe for Happiness

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Some people believe that a solitary journey toward contentment is what will really make them happy. Sadly, it a self-help truism that isn’t really true.

I thought I understood that…at least intuitively…but it really hit home for me when I read a piece, “Happiness is Other People. Here is part of what this recent op-ed had to offer:

In an individualistic culture powered by self-actualization, the idea that happiness should be engineered from the inside out, rather than the outside in, is slowly taking on the status of a default truism. This is happiness framed as journey of self-discovery, rather than the natural byproduct of engaging with the world; a happiness that stresses emotional independence rather than interdependence; one based on the idea that meaningful contentment can be found only by a full exploration of the self, a deep dive into our innermost souls and the intricacies and tripwires of our own personalities. Step 1: Find Yourself. Step 2: Be Yourself.

Self-reflection, introspection and some degree of solitude are important parts of a psychologically healthy life. But somewhere along the line we seem to have gotten the balance wrong. Because far from confirming our insistence that “happiness comes from within,” a wide body of research tells us almost the exact opposite.

Academic happiness studies are full of anomalies and contradictions, often revealing more about the agendas and values of those conducting them than the realities of human emotion. But if there is one point on which virtually every piece of research into the nature and causes of human happiness agrees, it is this: our happiness depends on other people.

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Printing Press and iPhones

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If you read only one article this week, read, “The Phone Is Smart, but Where’s the Big Idea?” Here’s just a taste:

I used a smartphone GPS to find my way through the cobblestoned maze of Geneva’s Old Town, in search of a handmade machine that changed the world more than any other invention. Near a 13th-century cathedral in this Swiss city on the shores of a lovely lake, I found what I was looking for: a Gutenberg printing press.

“This was the Internet of its day — at least as influential as the iPhone,” said Gabriel de Montmollin, the director of the Museum of the Reformation, toying with the replica of Johann Gutenberg’s great invention. It used to take four monks, laboring in a scriptorium with quills over calfskin, up to a year to produce a single book.

With the advance in movable type in 15th-century Europe, one press could crank out 3,000 pages a day. Before long, average people could travel to places that used to be unknown to them — with maps! Medical information passed more freely and quickly, diminishing the sway of quacks. And you could find your own way to God, or a way out of believing in God, with access to formerly forbidden thoughts.

The printing press offered the prospect that tyrants would never be able to kill a book or suppress an idea. Gutenberg’s brainchild broke the monopoly that clerics had on scripture. And later, stirred by pamphlets from a version of that same press, the American colonies rose up against a king and gave birth to a nation.

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