Letters

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  • The Heavenly Jukebox
  • Fourteen
  • Green Surprise?
  • Borges on Tale-Telling
  • Shipbreaking
  • Grizzly Bears
  • Advice & Consent

    The Heavenly Jukebox

    Congratulations to Charles C. Mann ("The Heavenly Jukebox," September Atlantic) on one of the more well-reasoned and insightful articles about digital music and Napster. His commentary on the relative monetary insignificance of the entire music industry was instructive amid the cries of those who claim that fortunes will be lost in the near future.

    As a twenty-year-old student and MP3 fan (well before Napster was launched, I had downloaded thousands of songs from FTP servers and services such as Hotline), I can say that price is not the most attractive reason for moving music to the Internet. Rather, young people download music instead of buying it because the downloading process represents one of the hallmark pursuits of my generation: instant gratification.

    To my parents, who I suspect still secretly find FM radio a novelty, getting into the car to go buy a CD at Tower Records may not seem to be too much of an exertion. To me, accustomed to MTV, instant messaging, and e-mail, this half hour of wasted time might seem longer only if it were accomplished in a horse and buggy instead of a car.

    Alex Rubalcava

    I would like to point out one minor inaccuracy in Charles Mann's excellent article on Napster and intellectual property and the Internet. Mann writes, "As Lawrence Lessig, of Harvard Law School, points out, the structure of the Internet is set by software and federal law, both of which can always be rewritten."

    This is only partially correct. In fact there is a huge infrastructure that makes up the Net; this cannot be easily "rewritten." This infrastructure was originally designed, in its DarpaNet days, to be nuclear-weapon-proof. Witness the difficulty China has in controlling the Net. The Chinese government requires that all queries originating outside China go through government proxy servers. This simply would not be possible in the Western world. No matter what the law, security experts, the record companies, or others think, the days of unbridled profit from intellectual property are over -- exactly what the earliest computer pioneers dreamed of, and exactly the way it should be. The software-development world has been slowly waking up to the fact that the place to make profits is in the support of what we write, not in the fact that we wrote it.

    Yves Orton

    Charles Mann's article is the most thoughtful I have yet read on the implications of digital music. However, Mann's emphasis on major-label artists neglects the financial implications of free digital music for unsigned artists. Unsigned artists rely on CD sales for a substantial part of their income. The CDs that musicians sell at performances supplement the minuscule performance fees paid to independent artists. These CD sales can double the income that a band makes at a given performance and thus allow the band to make a living playing music. If the audience believes that the music now on CDs should be cheaper or free, then a substantial number of artists will no longer be able to make a living playing music. This will reduce, not increase, the diversity of music available to the average listener. Musicians have already been hit hard by diminishing performance fees at bars, driven in part by the use of DJs and CD jukeboxes. There is no turning back the tide of digital music, but independent musicians cannot be as sanguine as Mann is about its effects on their livelihood.

    Kevin Johnsrude

    I am sorry that Kevin Johnsrude thinks I am "sanguine" about the fate of independent musicians. What I was trying to say is that because they are not well treated by the present system, they might benefit from its demise. The Internet may make it more difficult for independents to sell CDs, but it also provides greater opportunities for them to be heard. In the long run, the increased chance for exposure may outweigh the loss of CD sales.

    Fourteen

    About Stephen Zanichkowsky's "Fourteen" (September Atlantic): one aspect of our experience as a family isn't reflected in my brother's piece, which is understandable because he did not experience it. I should correct that -- it wasn't a family experience but an experience within the family that left a few girls in a somewhat different psychological situation from that of the rest of the kids.

    I was in this group, the subset of the children called "the three girls." Although there were nine girls, we were grouped according to age, to bedroom and bedtimes, to chores and relative privileges. The three girls -- Grace, Rita, and I -- somehow formed a bond with one another, which apparently was never replicated by anyone else in the family. We were extraordinarily lucky to have had this, and came to be envied in adulthood (who knows -- perhaps earlier) by our other siblings, because for us the terrible sense of isolation-in-the-mob that Stephen described was somewhat mitigated. Stephen is the only one ever to have mentioned to me explicitly that our other siblings were jealous of what we had. But I could tell it indirectly, by our other sisters' attempts to join in, our attempts to welcome them, and the failure of the whole experiment.

    An example: for most of our adult lives, when we three got together, we traded clothes, a habit born of typical Zanichkowsky envy of other people's cool stuff tempered by an atypical willingness to share and be generous just to see the other person happy (at least, I always felt this when Grace or Rita expressed enthusiasm about something I had to give). It never mattered who got more or who got less, because the trading was based purely on desire and the freedom to say yes or no. When two people wanted the same thing, the code seemed to involve an elaborate unconscious understanding of who needed most to hear "yes" at that time, but mostly exchanges were smooth and easy.

    Stephen's account is otherwise profoundly true and familiar. Our experiences and perceptions are different, but I recognize Stephen's vision of sticking out in the public because one was a crowd -- that eerie phenomenon of being conspicuous and anonymous at the same time: they all notice us, but no one knows me. Thanks for running the story.

    Elizabeth Zanichkowsky

    Yesterday I read "Fourteen," by Stephen Zanichkowsky. Today I am still thinking about it. Indeed, I shall never forget it.

    As a seventy-eight-year-old grandmother, I want to put my arms around this writer and tell him how cherished he is, how valuable he is, and to thank him for sharing his family and his great gift as a writer with me.

    Mary Ann Reilly

    Green Surprise?

    The opinion piece by Gregg Easterbrook ("Green Surprise?," September Atlantic) did not establish that George W. Bush is anything other than the stereotyped "pro-business oilman who would let polluters run amok." One way to judge the expected future performance of a politician is to assess his record. And by any measure Bush's record on environmental issues in Texas is dismal.

    Numerous studies have shown that Texas tops the nation in toxic releases and carcinogens in air and water. Houston, Dallas, Fort Worth, Beaumont, Port Arthur, and El Paso are all designated Environmental Protection Agency "nonattainment zones." In addition, Austin, Tyler, San Antonio, and Longview are all ready to be added to the EPA's list. The impoverished area along the border with Mexico is another scandal. Despite Easterbrook's claims, this is not simply owing to the large number of petroleum companies in the area. Bush has repeatedly intervened to protect major polluters in the state. In one notable case he blocked legislation that would have imposed federal standards on 850 refineries that were "temporarily" grandfathered under the 1971 Clean Air Act. These refineries produce more than a third of the air pollution in Texas.

    Gloria Lyles Chawla

    Gregg Easterbrook attacks the Sierra Club for its criticism of George W. Bush's environmental record. He argues that Bush's record shows he is not "a foe of conservation."

    Easterbrook tells us that under Bush's voluntary cleanup program, 324 companies have disclosed violations -- but he fails to mention that the Bush program to date has achieved reductions from polluting industry of only 2.4 percent. Easterbrook doesn't mention that during Bush's administration pollution laws were routinely drawn up by polluting industries and that purchases of new state park lands came to a complete halt -- despite the fact that Texas probably has fewer acres of public land per capita than any other state in the nation.

    Carl Pope

    The biggest "green surprise" in Gregg Easterbrook's assessment of the environmental records of the presidential candidates is his conclusion that George W. Bush "is hardly a foe of conservation."

    One of Bush's first actions was to cancel an auto-inspection program designed to reduce air pollution. Subsequently, from 1995 to 1999 days with unhealthful levels of smog increased by 37 percent in Houston and Dallas. From 1997 to 1998 levels of industrial air and water pollution in Texas both increased, according to the EPA's latest data. Contrary to the Bush spin repeated by Easterbrook, twenty-two states made larger proportional reductions than Texas did in industrial toxic pollution from 1995 to 1998. And Bush's vaunted voluntary air-pollution-control program for aging industrial facilities -- written with oil-industry assistance -- has reduced air contamination by a mere three percent, according to The Dallas Morning News.

    Daniel J. Weiss

    We question Gregg Easterbrook's conclusion that "federal environmental controls do work -- pollution is declining and prosperity is on the rise under a regime of Washington command-and-control." Part of that statement is true, but Easterbrook identifies the wrong cause for our success.

    By the end of the 1990s state environmental agencies ran three quarters of the national environmental programs on a day-to-day basis, provided just under 80 percent of their funding, collected almost 94 percent of the environmental data on them, did more than 97 percent of the inspections, and conducted about 75 percent of the enforcement actions.

    We certainly agree that the environment is in better condition today than it was in 1990. And we agree that the EPA played an important role in that improvement. But the lion's share of the work was done not in Washington, D.C., but in Sacramento and Albany, Austin and Nashville, Pierre and Phoenix, and all the other state capitals.

    Robert E. Roberts

    R. Steven Brown

    These letters exemplify the fractious state of environmental debate. Two from the Sierra Club denounce George W. Bush; this does not come as a surprise, considering that the Sierra Club endorsed Al Gore, and by its own estimate spent $2 million in "soft money" in an attempt to influence this fall's presidential election.

    Daniel Weiss, the political director of the Sierra Club, says that "contrary" to the article, "twenty-two states made larger proportional reductions than Texas did in industrial toxic pollution from 1995 to 1998." This isn't contrary to the article, which said only that Texas's toxic emissions were declining at the same rate as the national average. Of course there will be states both above and below the national average. Carl Pope, the executive director of the Sierra Club, complains that the article "attacks the Sierra Club." Here is the article's sole reference to his organization: "Sierra Club ads depict Texas as an ecological hell." That the Sierra Club perceives this simple factual statement as an "attack" says much about why environmental consensus is hard to come by.

    Borges on Tale-Telling

    An infallible rule: authors who write about bayonet charges and hand-to-hand combat don't know what they're talking about. Here is Jorge Luis Borges ("The Telling of the Tale," September Atlantic) writing on narrative poetry and the epic, the absence of which in contemporary writing he deplores. He says that poets and novelists do not give us great stories like the Odyssey because we no longer want heroes. "There is another book, quite forgotten now, which I read, I think, in 1915 -- a novel called Le Feu, by Henri Barbusse. The author was a pacifist; it was a book written against war. Yet somehow epic thrust itself through the book (I remember a very fine bayonet charge in it)."

    It's been years since I read Le Feu, but if there is a bayonet charge in it, so much the worse for Barbusse's veracity or the sanity of the French. No one in 1915 charged with the bayonet or engaged in hand-to-hand combat if he could possibly avoid it. There was nothing heroic about the bayonet, no epic "thrust." The bayonet was generally used for opening cans.

    Borges is asking for a return to narrative poetry and the epic. "Nowadays," he says, "when we speak of a poet, we think only of the utterer of such lyric, birdlike notes as 'With ships the sea was sprinkled far and nigh, / Like stars in heaven' (Wordsworth)." Who on earth thinks this way? Moreover, narrative poems, and some fine ones, have been written in our time, though they are not epic -- Patrick Kavanagh's The Great Hunger, for example. Attempts to imitate Homer are tedious -- poetry, if it is at all alive, reflects the age in which we live. To wish that poets were still writing epics is to wish that poetry were dead.

    Louis Simpson

    Although I found the transcription of Jorge Luis Borges's Norton Lecture fresh and fascinating, I believe one passage has been mistranscribed: "When we read the Odyssey, I think that what we feel is the glamour, the magic of the sea; what we feel is what we find in the seafarer. For example, he has no heart for the harp, or for the giving of rings, or for the delight of a woman, or for the greatness of the world. He thinks only of the long sea-salt streams."

    Here Borges is referring not to Odysseus but to "The Seafarer," an Old English poem found in The Exeter Book. As translated by Kevin Crossley-Holland in The Battle of Maldon and Other Old English Poems (1967), the poem reads in part,

    He thinks not of the harp nor of receiving rings,
    Not of the rapture in a woman nor of any worldly joy,
    But only of the rolling of the waves;
    The seafarer will always feel longings.
    Meadows are beautiful once more, the whole world revives;
    All these things urge the eager man
    To set out on a journey over the salt streams.

    David King

    Shipbreaking

    William Langewiesche's article "The Shipbreakers" (August Atlantic) brought back memories of how one summer during the early 1970s I worked cutting apart old World War II cruisers. Thirty years earlier those ships had been part of a proud fleet, but now they had come to a very unceremonious end.

    All the new workers started out on a training ground some distance from the ship. Using three-foot cutting torches, we began by cutting up the bigger pieces of steel into smaller, more manageable sizes. Those who did well were promoted to the ship; those who did not were kept on the ground, moved to other, noncutting duties, or just let go. Cutting thin metal was not too difficult, but cutting the thicker metal of the hull took skill. The foreman kept checking to make sure that we didn't touch our torches to the metal while we were cutting, because doing so might fuse the torch to the molten steel. We worked ten-hour days, and by the end of a day the torch felt like it weighed fifty pounds.

    From the description of how the ships are dismantled in Alang, it would seem that things have not changed much in nearly thirty years.

    Ricardo A. Perez

    A good middle name for William Langewiesche would be Empathy. Never before have I read an article written with such understanding and compassion for conflicting views and cultures and situations. I didn't realize how much writing, even when excellent, is slanted, with only one "correct" viewpoint, until I finished reading this article; it was superb.

    Jean Lewis

    William Langewiesche's gruesome account of the shipbreaking industry in India and Bangladesh seems, on its face, to frame a tough question: How do we retire ships in an environmentally responsible manner when it costs dramatically more than just tearing them apart?

    The answer is omitted from the article only because it's so obvious: We will have to pay for it. The price of consumer goods must begin to reflect, not externalize, the costs associated with shipping, including the life-cycle costs of the ships themselves. In the long term we'll save on health care, humanitarian aid, and other social costs of pollution and global poverty -- and if those savings don't offset the necessary correction in consumer prices, we can always choose to consume less.

    The ravings of a leftist lunatic? Look again at those photographs in the article and decide who's insane.

    Mike Livingston

    Grizzly Bears

    David Whitman's contention that grizzly bears make the outdoors "less free" ("The Return of the Grizzly," September Atlantic) bespeaks an American attitude toward wilderness that needs to be examined. We seem to think that in the wild we should be able to go anywhere and do whatever we want, whenever we want.

    In Whitman's article the message is that greater range for bears means less for people. But who was here first, and who has more right to the wilderness? If we could only see ourselves as sharing the world with other inhabitants, we would perceive these issues not as win-lose propositions but as questions of how to balance our needs with those of bears (or darter snails, or spotted owls).

    James L. Gerardi

    Concerning David Whitman's article on grizzlies: there is no reward without risk. The problem is that the people who must live near the newly introduced grizzlies have all the risk, while rewards are parceled out to all who love the wild.

    I assume that local ranchers are reimbursed for their losses from grizzlies. If not, they should be -- at the highest current market value for their stock. I agree that there should be a limited spring hunt, if the bear population can sustain it. Permits should be allocated by lottery, to local people only, and winners should be allowed to sell their tickets to the highest bidder, thus distributing greater rewards to those who bear the greatest risk. This creates a local constituency for the bears, so people will be far more likely to report poachers.

    I agree that preservation of the environment should be an overriding concern for all of us. But it can't be achieved, especially in poverty-stricken areas of the world, unless local people have a greater immediate stake in its success.

    Alan Silverman

    Advice & Consent

    I'm certain that I and most other horseback riders seldom look or feel as relaxed and self-confident during a modern fox hunt as the three riders in the illustration that accompanies Stephen Budiansky's excellent article "Tallyho and Tribulation" (September Atlantic). However, I have seen a fox look nearly as relaxed and self-confident as the one shown curled up in the grass reading a book while the pack appears confused about its nominal mission to sniff him out and hunt him down.

    At a hunt in South Carolina some years ago, the hounds and the lead riders were closing in fast on what was supposed to be their prey when the fox quickly and totally turned the tables on the pack, the horses, and the hunters. He, or she, simply stopped in mid-stride, whirled around in a complete 180, froze for a moment, and then jumped straight toward the lead hound.

    Can a running fox's body language be interpreted? This fox appeared to express frolicsome contempt for its pursuers as it scampered across the lead hound's face, back, and tail, and then seemed to dance across the backs of the rest of the pack, its own feet barely touching the ground. Meanwhile, the hounds' noses were all in the scrubby grass -- lost in their instinctual pursuit of the fox's scent -- as the fox ran among the horses' legs and then off into the bushes. The hounds never took the scent again, and the hunt was effectively over.

    Later, at the hunt breakfast, riders far more experienced than I agreed that this hunt was simply a variation on the usual outcome. Only one or two of the oldest members could recall a hunt that followed what was supposed to be the prescribed scenario.

    Budiansky surely has it right: cars and highways "get" far more foxes than do hounds, horses, and hunters. It is not entirely impossible that fox hunts are as exhilarating for the foxes as they are for the dogs, the horses, and the people.

    Bernard Z. Friedlander


    The Atlantic Monthly; December 2000; Letters - 00.12; Volume 286, No. 6; page 8-12.

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