AK-47s -- "Not uncommon"

October 9, 2006

Posted by Jay Livingston

Another school shooting, this one in Joplin, Missouri. The shooter was a thirteen-year-old Columbine wannabe. Fortunately, the gun jammed after the first shot, which was fired at the ceiling, so the only damage was a burst water pipe.
Living in the Northeast, I sometimes forget what the rest of the country is like. What really struck me was not that it was another school shooting— like most other good Americans, I’ve gotten used to these. It was these sentences from the AP story

The student left, and officers arrested him behind a nearby building. Police described his weapon as a Mac-90, a replica of an AK-47 assault rifle. . . . .
Jones said the gun belonged to the boy's parents. Farmer said it is not uncommon for people in the area to own assault weapons.
Not uncommon! Lots of folks have them. I wonder what they use these military assault rifles for.

It’s also interesting that these latest school shootings have not brought any calls for stricter gun laws. Polls consistently show a majority of Americans in favor of stricter gun controls. But gun laws, especially in the last 15-20 years, have basically been written by the NRA, even though these policies reflect a minority view. Most of the country has come to accept these laws as inevitable and therefore not worth talking about. In the latest spate of shootings, very few, if any, of the news reports on these shootings asked the NRA to defend its position. It’s as though the issue, for better or worse, has been settled and that the availability of very deadly weapons is sort of like the weather, a condition nobody can do anything about.

The CBS news website has a nice interactive map — click on a state and see a brief description of its rules on gun licences, sales, etc., and its rate of firearms deaths. New York and New Jersey have about 5 gun deaths for every 100,000 residents. States in the West and South, with more guns and fewer gun laws, have gun death rates double or in some cases triple that.


Small Town Life

Posted By: Yasemin Besen
It was no "art": I found Friday Night Lights pretty formulaic. However, what I liked about the show was the depiction of small town life. The show takes place in a small Texas town, where high school football is the main activity: not professional, not college: high school football.
Football is a central activity that creates social cohesion in a small community. It's also the source of pride and town identity in a deprived town. Football is the way to relate to others in town, but it's also the way out of it. In small towns, where economic opportunities are limited, the only way for social mobility is through football. While not many benefit from it, it's the ideal that keeps many from questioning the existing economic structure. Focusing on themes like social cohesion, inequality, small town life, rather than following a formula, would have made it much more interesting.

Friday Night Lite

October 4, 2006
Posted by Jay Livingston
I watched the first episode of “Friday Night Lights,” the new NBC show about high school football in a Texas town. The New York Times critic had given it a rave review, repeating words like “great” and “art.”
Art it may have been (the Times critic was especially impressed by the show’s sound editing, an artistic touch that viewers like me aren’t likely to notice, and not the sort of thing to make us want to tune in next week). But great? It was about football, about teenagers playing a football game. As such, it played on one long-standing idea in American movies and TV: all moral questions, all questions of character, can be settled in a contest. Typically, the story sets out some difficulties for the hero —conflicts with the society, conflicts with some other person or organization, conflicts within himself. It all leads up to some climactic confrontation. Usually the hero wins, occasionally he loses. But the outcome doesn’t matter so much as the nobility of the fight, for win or lose, the hero has fought, and that seems to resolve all issues. The classic example is the old Western with its quick-draw shootout, which resolves issues like economic conflicts between ranchers and farmers over land use. But sports and games figure prominently, especially one-on-one contests like boxing. Rocky is the obvious example, but there are lots of other fight films, and many of them have this same quality: the match seems to melt all problems no matter how complicated, no matter how seemingly unrelated to the match itself—problems between a man and a woman, a son and father, friend and friend.

My own list includes movies about everything from airplane dogfights to chess. Some are classics (“The Hustler,” which ends in a pool match, or “On the Waterfront,” which ends in a fistfight between a worker and a union boss), and many are best forgotten (“The Cincinnati Kid,” which ends in a poker game, or “The Karate Kid” and many, many, others).
More recently — and I guess this will be true of “Friday Night Lights”— the hero is not so much an individual as a team, as in all those “coach” movies. But the assumption is the same: getting ready for the big game and then playing it leads to triumph over all internal or external obstacles in life.
Last night’s episode of “Friday Night Lights” clutched at one other American cliche— the Hollywood Ending. The team is down by ten points with three minutes left; their star quarterback is taken off the field on a stretcher, possibly paralyzed for life with a spinal injury; the substitute quarterback muffs play after play. At this point, I turned to my son, who was watching too, and said, “If they win this game . . .” Guess what. No, you don’t even have to guess. You know. You’ve seen so many American movies that you know what happens.
Again I am reminded of what the Iranian immigrant in “The House of Sand and Fog” says (see the Sept. 27 entry in this blog) — Americans always wanting the sweet taste.

The Magic of Plagiarism; the Plagiarism of Magic

September 30, 2006 
Posted by Jay Livingston
You can’t copyright a joke, you can’t copyright a magic trick. So what do you when another performer steals your stuff?
Eric Walton is a magician. He’s doing a show, “Esoterica,” at a theater down on E. 15th. But some of his act resembles a show another magician, Ricky Jay [photo on the right], did a few years back. The Times ran a story (here) on the on the controversy.

Jules Fisher, the Tony Award-winning lighting designer, who is also an amateur magician . . . .sent an e-mail message to Mr. Walton saying the presentation of the Knight's Tour “so closely approaches its inspiration as to border on plagiarism.”
“Does performing an existing effect, or variation thereof, confer upon the performer of it ownership of that effect, or the exclusive and perpetual right to all subsequent interpretations of it?” Mr. Walton asked in his message. “On this point you and I are obviously in disagreement.”
This was of some interest to me because many years ago, I was hanging around with magicians, thinking that there might be something interesting and sociological there. In survey research, you start with an idea, then you get data to support it. But I was doing ethnographic research, where you often begin with the “data,” usually a group of people in some setting, not sure exactly what you’re looking for but with the sense that, as I once heard William H. Whyte say, “If I look at something long enough, eventually I’ll see something nobody else has seen.”

I wasn’t as successful as Whyte. I never did figure out a framework for my observations with the magicians. I don’t even know where my fieldnotes are now. But on the topic of plagiarism, I do remember this: When magicians talk among themselves, when they demonstrate tricks for one another, they are unusually scrupulous about giving credit where it’s due. Much like academics, they footnote everything. They’ll say things like, “The routine combines Gene Finnell’s Free Cut Principle with the plot from Dai Vernon’s Aces.” They are especially careful to footnote the specific “moves” (sleights) that they use in a trick. “This is an extension of a coin change by Dr. E. Roberts in Bobo,” (Bobo being the author of a classic book on coin magic.)
The problem is that you can’t do this kind of footnoting in a performance. In the first place, it comes close to disclosing secrets of how the trick is done. But more important, the audience doesn’t care. They want to be entertained, not informed. What’s important to magicians — authorship, originality— is not important to the audience. I remember once seeing a street magician in New York who had taken most of his act from another street magician I’d seen a couple of years earlier but who had since moved on. He finished his little seven-minute show and passed the hat for donations from the small sidewalk crowd. The crowd was pleased. I was not really a magician but I was in the know, and I resented his stealing the other guy’s act. I had the feeling that real magicians would too. As the crowd dispersed and the magician turned back to arrange his props for the next show, I approached him and mentioned something about the other magician. “Oh yeah,” he exclaimed, “he’s my idol. I’ve patterned my whole act after his.” And for some reason, I felt that made it okay. I think other magicians hearing this would have had the same reaction. They might not have admired him; they might have looked down on his lack of originality. But his footnoting would have legitimized his act.
Eric Walton cannot get up on stage and say, “A lot of what I’m going to do tonight I took from Ricky Jay.” I suppose he could mention Jay in the notes in the Playbill. And he did, in a way. It turns out that Eric Walton had given an interview to a website where he said that Ricky Jay had been a source of inspiration to him. However, after others noted the similarity of the shows, Walton asked the website to remove that quote.
If students plagiariaze papers, they can be given an F for the paper or even the course. They can even be tossed out of school. If writers plagiarize, they can be sued for real money. But if a performer steals someone else’s act, he is subject only to informal social control