Set Me Free Why Don’t You, Bill?

For over 20 years I’ve been in an abusive relationship. My partner is cold, demanding, unresponsive, passive-aggressive and high maintenance. I’m expected to keep paying more and more but get nothing new in return. My life is one long misery playlist –“Unchain My Heart,” “When Will I Be Loved?” “You Just Keep Me Hangin’ On.”

I should have left Microsoft long ago. I already spend most of my time cuddling with my iPad instead of my heartless Windows machine. It keeps demanding I buy a new version of Windows every few years when the old one is good enough for my purposes.

I’m not alone. A third of all Windows machines are still running XP. Their owners were smart enough to realize that that slut Vista would break their hearts and that 8 would be just a belated knock off of the real touch screen beauties designed by Apple and Android.

Yet now Microsoft, a partner without shame, has announced it won’t support XP anymore. It is orphaning its own child. People using it will be more vulnerable than ever to bugs and viruses, internet marauders and break-in artists. You get in bed with Microsoft and you have to buy its loyalty over and over again plus exterminators and repairmen and security systems to make up for its deficiencies.

Since 95% of ATM machines, and lots of government departments like water and sewer systems run XP, prepare to pay again through taxes or watch out after the cut off date of April 8. Anything might happen when the hackers get a hold of your bank, sewer or water supply.

This kind of endless upgrade is marketed as improving your life, but due to poor design often degrades the user’s experience. It is clearly just a huge protection racket. One shakedown after another. I would have ditched Microsoft long ago but its henchmen and co-conspirators have taken my data hostage and won’t let me leave the Windows family. Quicken refuses to provide a fully functioning Apple version. Several other programs I rely on won’t work on anything but Windows.

MY God, I’m married to the mob. “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.” I thought maybe when Luca Ballmer went to sleep with the fishes they might finally treat me decently. But though the Godfather, Don Guglielmo Gates, is pretending to have retired to a life of charitable good works he still pulls the strings and his plans don’t entail doing right by his customers.

I admit my heart leapt up momentarily when I learned the new Capo de tutti capi, Satya Nadella, was going to make the company’s top-selling cash cow, Office, available at long last for Apple devices. If not exactly a white flag of surrender, it was at least an admission that Microsoft could no longer act so tyrannical since its monopoly was broken. If you count smart phones, only 15% of devices now run Windows.

Microsoft might no longer be able to tell customers to take it or leave it, I thought, or force them to buy new versions they don’t need, or stick them with kludgy software inferior to the often elegantly engineered products of their competitors and then quit supporting it.

But no, Microsoft will never change. Turns out Apple users will be able to have Office on their iPads, but for the privilege Microsoft won’t just charge you to buy it — again. It will charge you a $99 annual fee to use the software you have already bought. Meet the new Ballmer, same as the old Ballmer.

Out of Print but Not Out of Mind

Let’s say you got interested in the books of Eve Babitz after I waxed enthusiastic on Podunk Pundit. So you go to Amazon or your friendly neighborhood bookseller to buy a copy. No dice. Out of print.

Well, it happens. Let’s try Amazon or ABE or Alibris for a used copy. Yes, there they are. I can buy a used copy of “Sex and Rage” for $64, “Two by Two” for $315, “Slow Days, Fast Company” for $105 or a copy — presumably illuminated by cloistered monks — of “Eve’s Hollywood” for $2420.00.

What gives? Rarity, one supposes. But these are mass market books published a scant 40 years ago, not the 1840 Penny Black or the Brasher Doubloon.

But who cares? I’ll just get a nice digital copy now that everything is available on the internets. But there too, no soap. Everything is not available on the internets. Why?

Turns out, according to a study by University of Illinois School of Law Prof. Paul Heald, part of the problem can be traced back to copyright changes that are now granted for the life of the author plus some.

Heald found an odd result. About 85% of popular songs from 1923-1932 are available on iTunes whereas only 35% of popular books from the same period are available as eBooks. And it gets worse if the books are more recent and not in the public domain. So, less than 10% of books reviewed by The New York Times between 1930 and 1950 can be purchased as eBooks.

Letting author’s earn longer has had the perverse effect of not letting them learn anything since their publishers simply let the books remain out of print. Presumably they calculate that they won’t make enough from their oldies but goodies to pay the cost of digitizing them. But they are also apparently unwilling to relinquish the copyright and allow the author or a more enterprising publisher to take the plunge. This is behavior may mother used to describe as a dog in a manger, probably unaware she was channeling Aesop.

The result appears to be a vast Sargasso Sea of intellectual property that is unavailable to posterity or readers willing to look beyond today’s ephemeral bestseller list. Publishers no doubt feel they know best, but they don’t.

A shining example is the wonderful fiction of Dawn Powell which was long out of print until Tim Page, blessings upon him, wrote a biography and twisted the arms of publishers until they brought back a few of her titles. Her “My Home is Far Away” is a classic portrait of the artist as a young American woman and her comic novels of bohemian New York in its late 1940s heyday are priceless. She was a posthumous hit, remains in print and may secure a niche in the canon.

The same could be said of Henry Green and countless others. And that was before the advent of the eBook made it cheaper and less risky to resurrect forgotten authors. Nor is such carelessness with their own possibly valuable property confined to publishers. Recond companies are known to engage in similar short-sightedness.

For years one of Tony Bennett’s greatest albums, “For Once in My Life,” from 1967 was unavailable except on scratchy used vinyl . Yet it boasts tremendous arrangements by Torrie Zito and Marion Evans of rare gems like “How Do You Say Auf Weidersehen?” Finally a CD was issued overseas, then a US reissue and now it can be downloaded, but it was down the memory hole for decades. And this is a guy still going strong who has achieved national treasure status.

What chance do lesser acts have? In this case I blame Columbia which had a tremendous line-up of artists in the 1950s and ‘60s in part due to the brilliant John Hammond. But now much of it languishes in the vaults. Are these people record promoters or hoarders?

For example, where’s “Like Sing,” a lovely vocal jazz album by Jackie and Roy performing songs by André and Dory Previn from the “Mad Men” era. It is unobtainable. God knows how many hundreds or thousands of equally delectable records are MIA.

Put them on line or let somebody else do it. You just might make a buck and would surely gratify fans and keep intact a more complete record of the cultural heritage your company helped create and now is content to forget. Shame.

April Fool Invades Mitteleuropa

On this day there’s a tradition of gentle pranks, whimsical surprises, unexpected amusements after a long, gray unfunny winter. Ideal, then, that a new Wes Anderson movie has finally arrived in Podunk. There have been rumors of it from the Big City, then news that it was playing a couple weeks ago in the middling city down the road, but now it has gotten to the outback.

His latest is called “The Grand Budapest Hotel” and characteristically it is not set in Budapest. The movie tells the tale of the proper concierge of the grand hotel in the autumn of its splendor during the Great Depression. He is M. Gustave, played with becoming precision and hauteur by Ralph Fiennes. He is a man who demands perfection from his staff and who personally sees to the every whim of the guests, especially the wealthy widows.

M. Gustave takes under his wing as Lobby Boy a striving orphan appropriately named Zero (Tony Revolori) and together they experience kaleidoscopic adventures when Gustave tries to claim an inheritance from one of his deceased guests. Her family resorts to any expedient to deny it to him. The divine silliness includes a chase on skis and dogsled (sans dogs), switched wills, an art heist, a prison break and train rides in which our heroes are roughed up by one tyrannical regime after another – the history of the 20th Century in Central Europe in capsule form.

All is told in flashback by an aged Zero, now known as Mr. Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), once the heir to Gustave’s fortune but now living in a squalid room in the decaying hotel. He has lost both inheritance and hotel in the latest change of fortune for his homeland. The fluffy Viennese waltz of the hotel’s early years has been replaced by the drab decrepitude of the worker’s paradise.

As usual with Anderson, the art direction alone is worth the price of admission. Much in the Grand Budapest looks like a child’s pop-up book. Also as usual the Wes Anderson indie stock company is in evidence with frequent collaborators in minor parts – Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Bob Balaban, Jason Schwartzman, Adrien Brody.

Anderson is an interesting case of the American auteur like Woody Allen and Orson Welles before him. His movies have a handmade feel and he relies in front and behind the camera on many of the same people again and again. A family of sorts? He makes films that attract a loyal following and critical praise, but he has never had a mass market hit, in part because he works in no conventional genre. They are personal projects from one man’s slant. They do seem to dwell on a few themes that appear to come from life.

Anderson grew up in Houston, the son of prosperous parents with advertising and real estate careers who divorced when he was eight. He has identified that event as central to his life. He has two brothers and fractured families, absent parents and sibling relations are central to his films – Bottle Rocket, Rushmore (filmed at his own prep school – St. John’s), The Royal Tennenbaums, The Darjeeling Limited, Moonrise Kingdom.

Like one of his favorite directors, Francois Truffaut, Anderson has a soft spot for the young and misunderstood. In Rushmore and Budapest a clever outsider is befriended by an older father figure. In Darjeeling and Tennenbaums bewildered adults are still trying to come to terms with bizarre parents. In Moonrise Kingdom, the young people give up on the hopeless adults and run away to the woods to form their own imaginary Arden. In almost all cases, brotherhood trumps all other bonds.

If Woody Allen has melded Groucho and Bergman and Spielberg is forever revisiting Saturday matinee popcorn genres, Anderson seems to inhabit the land of the Grimm Brothers with their wicked stepmothers, lost and found siblings, scary trolls and lucky heroes.

Lurking behind the ethereal foolery of Budapest is the fact that it was inspired by the work of Stefan Zweig, an ornament of glorious turn of the century Vienna who saw its civilized life perish under the boots of Hitler’s ogres. Though Anderson’s movies seem light comic confections with a dash of the surreal, a closer look often reveals a tear in the eye of the clown.