The Iraq screw-up

Nice piece in Vox summarizing just how badly screwed up things are in Iraq:

So the US air strikes against ISIS are in part to destroy US military equipment, such as the artillery ISIS has been using against Kurdish forces.

The absurdity runs deep: America is using American military equipment to bomb other pieces of American military equipment halfway around the world. The reason the American military equipment got there in the first place was because, in 2003, the US had to use its military to rebuild the Iraqi army, which it just finished destroying with the American military. The American weapons the US gave the Iraqi army totally failed at making Iraq secure and have become tools of terror used by an offshoot of al-Qaeda to terrorize the Iraqis that the US supposedly liberated a decade ago. And so now the US has to use American weaponry to destroy the American weaponry it gave Iraqis to make Iraqis safer, in order to make Iraqis safer.

It keeps going: the US is intervening on behalf of Iraqi Kurds, our ally, because their military has old Russian-made weapons, whereas ISIS, which is America’s enemy, has higher-quality American weapons. “[Kurdish forces] are literally outgunned by an ISIS that is fighting with hundreds of millions of dollars of U.S. military equipment seized from the Iraqi Army who abandoned it,” Ali Khedery, a former American official in Iraq, told the New York Times

It’s not just ironic; it’s a symbol of how disastrous the last 15 years of US Iraq policy have been, how circuitous and self-perpetuating the violence, that we are now bombing our own guns. Welcome to American grand strategy in the Middle East.

Ugh.  And, of course, let’s not forget that we are also talking about thousands upon thousands of lives lost and utterly ruined in all this.


What is funny?

My oldest son David did Improv camp this week and had a great time.  This afternoon I got to attend a performance.  David had a lot less polish than some of the kids, but he was definitely funny.  (Every time I ask about a class presentation he reports back on the laughter, which is why I signed him up for this).  Anyway, it led to a number of interesting discussions this week about what is funny?  I knew some about the incongruity theory and we talked about that.  But, right away it is fairly obvious that just because something is unexpected doesn’t make it funny and that expected things can be quite funny (I can watch “A George divided against himself…” 1000 times and still find it funny).

(I laughed hard just now at the youtube clip).

Anyway,  little googling and I came across the Benign Violation Theory of humor, which I find quite compelling.  I was a little annoyed with myself that I was unaware of it despite a huge series in Slate this spring as well as this nice summary in the New Yorker on-line:

McGraw found his preferred universal theory in a 1998 journal article by a Stanford University researcher named Thomas Veatch. Veatch proposed that humor emerges when something seems wrong or unsettling but is actually benign. (His favorite joke was the following: Why did the monkey fall from the tree? Because it was dead.) Nobody paid much attention to Veatch’s theory, until McGraw, with a graduate student named Caleb Warren, dug it up a decade later and dubbed it the Benign Violation Theory.

Benign Violation explained why the unexpected sight of a friend falling down the stairs (a violation of expectations) was funny only if the friend was not seriously injured (a benign outcome). It explained Jerry Seinfeld’s comedic formula of pointing out the outrageous things (violation) in everyday life (benign), and Sarah Silverman’s hilarious habit of rendering off-color topics (violation) harmless (benign) in her standup routines. It explained puns (benign violations of linguistic rules) and tickling (a perceived physical threat with no real danger).

And it explained something that had particularly vexed Incongruity theorists: humor’s ability to help people cope with stress. Transforming actual violations into benign violations also explained the famed hospital clown Patch Adams’s ability to cheer up terminally ill children, Chris Rock-style racial humor that manages not to be racist, and political satire.

Anyway, pretty interesting stuff.  Here’s a not-all-that-funny TED talk on the theory:

Nobody owns the copyright to this photo of the day

Have you seen the monkey selfie making the rounds on FB?  It’s pretty awesome.  And the center of a fascinating copyright controversy:


Monkey/Wikimedia Commons

Slate’s Jordan Weissman explains:

You have to feel for David Slater. In 2011, the British photographer traveled to Indonesia to take pictures of the crested black macaque, a snouty primate with reddish, somewhat possessed-looking eyes. During the expedition, fortune struck when, in the words of the Telegraph, “one of the animals came up to investigate his equipment, hijacked a camera and took hundreds of selfies.”…

Now, Slater is in a fight with the Wikimedia Foundation, which has posted his photo online in its collection of public domain images and refuses to take it down. It argues that Slater doesn’t own the picture’s copyright because he didn’t take the picture—the monkey did. And since the monkey can’t own the rights, nobody does.

“That trip cost me about £2,000 for that monkey shot. Not to mention the £5,000 of equipment I carried, the insurance, the computer stuff I used to process the images. Photography is an expensive profession that’s being encroached upon. They’re taking our livelihoods away,” he told the Telegraph. “For every 10,000 images I take, one makes money that keeps me going. And that was one of those images. It was like a year of work, really.”…

According to copyright professors, Wikimedia is right: The photo is almost certainly in the public domain.

“It’s a great final-exam question for a copyright class,” says June Besek, executive director of the Kernochan Center for Law, Media, and the Arts at Columbia Law School. “Under the copyright law as it’s been interpreted, there has to be human authorship for there to be copyright. So I would say there isn’t copyright on the photo.”

But didn’t Slater play an important role in the photo’s production, by providing the camera to the monkey?

Not really, Besek says. Authorship of a photo usually involves choosing the perfect angle, moment, and light. “If the situation were different—so the photographer set up a jungle photo, and the photographer stepped out for a smoke, and the monkey ran up and pressed the button, then I would say yes, there is human authorship,” Besek says. A macaque grabbing your Nikon isn’t good enough.

“The photographer doesn’t own it. And the monkey doesn’t, either. It’s in the public domain,” says Chris Sprigman, a law professor at New York University. To copyright a work, an author needs to show he produced it through his own creativity. It doesn’t matter if you traveled thousands of miles to capture a photo if you weren’t involved in actually snapping it.

I suspect I’ll be sharing this bit of copyright law in stories for years to come.  Pretty fascinating.  And a great photo.

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