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Before

A chronicle of an American life

Archive for Culture

One more thing lost

I’m watching The Pelican Brief (and I’m only 20 minutes in).  Two things stand out.  First of all, Cynthia Nixon played one of Julia Roberts’ law student friends, which is kind of hot.  I guess she got her Sex and The City J.D. by having a part in this film.

Second, I loved — as I always do — the library scene where Julia Roberts rifles through countless dusty old law books, trying to figure out who might have killed the Supreme Court justices.  You can feel the drama.  Then I thought about it: in the digital age, there is no dramatic dusty old book scene.  There’s just Julia Roberts, staring slackjawed at shitty old Westlaw.  Hollywood is never going to put together any frantic iPad research sequence.  (“Turn it to portrait orientation!  Hurry!”)  I hate the iPad and all it is doing to the death of print.

Britain crumbles

I ran across a very surprising article from the Daily Telegraph that the Labour Government in the UK has decided to allow rising ocean levels to consume British villages and farmland in several vulnerable areas.  Under a points-based formula, only certain regions will be “defended” against incursions by the sea.  The article leaks some of the details from the official analysis.

Not surprisingly, some people are very cross about this, and some Conservative members accuse the government of sacrificing Conservative districts (literally) while shoring up marginal Labour constituencies that were affected by this year’s massive river floods.  Whatever; I can’t pass judgment on that.

It is interesting, though, that Britain has the stomach (or lack of backbone, depending on how you feel) to decide what to save and what to let go.  In America, we haven’t made many honest decisions about this, except for a few million-dollar cliffs in Massachusetts.  We certainly haven’t faced up to certain geological and physical realities in many places where a decision will be inevitable.  I’m thinking of New Orleans, of course, but also North Carolina’s Outer Banks, the Florida Keys, and a scattering of Appalachian hollows and river towns.  Our course is always to shore up and rebuild on shaky ground, burying our heads in the sand as it washes away around us.

Cityboy goes green

Lately I’ve found the time to read a ton of books in the sort of earthy/environmental vein.  That and the impending Florida move have made me just feel a lot “greener.”  Let me explain.

When I was growing up, we had all kinds of things in the backyard: apple trees, a cherry tree, a peach tree, grapevines, strawberries, raspberries, gooseberries (disgusting), asparagus, tomatoes, potatoes, radishes, carrots, beans, sunflowers, corn, and God knows what else.  We had a shed, which my dad built from the ground up to hold all the tools, and a compost pile (a mysterious shaggy creature).  We also had some kind of mini-greenhouse on legs, which I think was used to grow herbs.  In the front yard we had a huge lilac bush and a ton of flowers.

It’s kind like I’m going through repressed memory therapy here, but I’m just realizing that damn, I grew up with a ton of gardening going on. It didn’t seem like a big deal at the time.  I’m sure I assumed everybody kept a grape arbor in the backyard, if I had even decided to think about it, which I’m sure I hadn’t.

Now I’m thinking that reviving this life would be a great thing to do on my own, but living downtown in a condo isn’t exactly conducive to having a garden and a compost pile.  The next best thing is to read about it, so I did.

I went down to the library and picked up Compost, a deceptively small book about composting.  The British author says you should actually compost food waste and paper waste in equal quantities — great, because I generate huge amounts of paper waste.  I also read The Square-Foot Garden, a classic that eschews the traditional row method of planting in favor of little squares that you never walk on, so as not to compact the soil.  (I now am realizing our garden looked like that — another thing I just assumed everybody else did.)  For a human perspective, I tried to sift through The 3,000 Mile Garden, a book of sort of gardeny love letters between an Englishman and a Maine cat lady, but it got too creepy.  (I tried!)  Because it was there (in the gardening section! what a scam the Dewey decimal system was!), I also picked up and devoured Silent Spring, the 1962 classic that helped launch the environmental revolution and crusaded against broad-spectrum synthetic pesticides like heptachlor, dieldrin, and DDT, all of which are now off the market.  I read all this stuff in the span of about three days last week, when I should have been studying, then I slept on it.  I heartily recommend all these books except the one.

After all this ecological ferment, I’ve decided: I can’t wait to move to Florida so I can grow a garden.  Apparently the soil is crummy (either sandy or clayey, and full of nematodes), but you can fix that, and you can grow up to five crops a year because of the wonderful sun, temperatures, and humidity.  I also decided I would like to try to never throw anything away, again, ever.  According to Compost, you can even compost things like old clothes (they’re cotton, a natural fiber) and cardboard.  I already recycle all kinds of stuff, including my cans, paper, electronics, and so on.  The only things you really can’t recycle are certain plastics — what else is there to throw out?  So, once the move comes, everything’s going on the compost pile or in the recycling.  I even researched how to compost meat, which everybody says is a bad idea (rats and flies), and I came across “bokashi,” a Japanese invention involving a sealed bucket, wheat bran, and bacteria, which is a process that anaerobically “pickles” your meat, permitting it to then be composted.  Sounds gross, though, to leave a bucket of rotting meat outside, but if it works, why not.

Amusingly, these decisions have led me to realize I’m going to have to live on a lot with some sun and some amount of land, i.e., I might actually have to move to the suburbs or the country (!).  Cityboy might go on hiatus for a while.  But I think it will be enjoyable to come home, change from the suit into the play clothes, go muck about in the garden for an hour or so, then get a shower and have a refreshing drink while admiring the garden, and have a dinner including vegetables I grew myself.  That kind of life should give plenty of time for contemplation.  Shouldn’t life be relaxing and innately rewarding?

Television

Those jerks at HBO have turned down my latest idea for a TV show, which would compete with a certain Sunday night megahit.  My show would be called Disparate Housewives.  Each woman character would be totally unique.

Happy Greek again!

Just thought I would inform everyone that The Happy Greek, Columbus’ 2nd-best hummus provider, has again taken the prize for slowest possible hummus sale.  A phone call to that jocular Mediterranean to order the famous food yielded no clue that the order was going to take a record 26 minutes to be prepared.  Allegedly, the hummus is made while you wait.  Oddly, though, when you order it at the dinner table it comes almost immediately.  Why does this restaurant hate its loyal call-ahead customers, who don’t tie up the limited table space or bother the help?

Lying authors and the readers who love them

Much ado has been made lately over the case of Winfrey v. Frey, the public tiff between the Queen of Pages and the author who fabricated large parts of his criminal history so as to arouse the sympathy of his readers. While I thought the whole affair was a carnival sideshow to begin with, I am pleased that The O had a change of mind and brought James Frey back to justice. While her sheep are hers to command, I’m glad she is herding them back to an appreciation of the truth. It will be interesting to see whose stock rises faster now, hers or his.

Predictably, the evil publishing industry and its media minstrels have been falling over themselves to “debate” the issue of whether nonfiction should be true. I find the whole thing rather distressing, because I believe that books are sacred and not to be trifled with. Call me naive, but the idea of an author, editor, or publisher knowingly permitting outright lies to go into a book offends me deeply.

On the other hand, it is amusing for bookwatchers to act as though this kind of thing has never happened before, and that’s the main reason for this post. I was reminded by some of the Frey coverage that John Berendt was similarly involved in a controversy over his book, Midnight In the Garden of Good and Evil. Not only did I buy this book, it inspired me to take a trip to Savannah so I could see it for myself. Only after I got back did I learn just how much had been made up in his story. This Columbia Journalism Review article from 1998 lists some of Berendt’s sins (not all, I should note, are admitted by him). The most egregious in my mind is the allegation that he did not really start hanging around Savannah until 1985, four years after the murder that is the central event of the story, but there are several other slips and misstatements. Several of these problems, I researched, made it into national newspapers.

I think it is interesting to compare this historical book “flap” (pun couldn’t have been avoided) with today’s. Both authors were embarrassed in the national press. Both prompted a nominal “debate” over the fate of nonfiction. And both sold like a jillion copies. Nothing much changes, it seems.

More on Google Book Search

I couldn’t help writing a rejoinder to those defenders of Google Book Search and, of course, good old Banks.  Because everyone should have the right to own their own content, however, I’ve posted it here on Before.  Why should World get all the good material?  For those who haven’t been following this storyline, start at Marcus’ original post on Google Book Search, then read my comment, followed by his “redux” second posting.

I’m glad we can open this debate because I think it is a very interesting issue lying at the intersection of the law, technology, and books, which are all topics Marcus and I enjoy.  By way of flattery, I should note that Marcus Banks has always been my favorite published book author and I am aware he’s representing himself both as a writer and a reader.  Now on to the discussion.

I’m still troubled by some of the arguments advanced in Google’s favor.  However nice or wonderful it would be to have every book in the world instantly searchable on the Internet, we cannot ignore the steady policy and laws of all the world’s democratic governments just because somebody would like to have that index.

Marcus claims that because some of the books have “absolutely no commercial significance to the publishers” somehow immunizes Google from abridging the copyright of the publisher or author.  Unfortunately, our laws don’t permit an infringer to make their own assessment of a work’s commercial significance and, if they find it to be zero, to use with impunity.  Further, I think the fact that the books are scanned shows they do have some commercial significance to Google.  And perhaps many of these titles have been out of print for years: as Google clearly plans to demonstrate, these old books have a value that can be unlocked by the technologies of scanning and indexing.

And, since each book does have indisputable value, why should Google be the one to profit from the unlocking of that value?  They’re not the author who wrote the book.  They’re not the publishers who took a chance and made an investment in the book.  They’re not even the libraries who shelled out a few bucks to buy the book.  They have no stake in the business of writing books at all.  So why should they benefit to the exclusion of the authors and publishers who do?  It’s argued that our copyright laws are out of date, so there should be some special exception for the Googles of the world.  But inventing a new technology is not some magic wand or shield that, when produced, defeats all claims held by the original creator and owner of a work.  The MP3 pirates learned that the hard way.

And I have to disagree that the appropriation of property with no monetary value can’t be “theft” or even just plain wrong.  I myself have been a victim of copyright infringement, so I know what it’s like.  I posted a rather ridiculous video of myself on my web site scaling down the face of an artificial climbing wall.  Months later, I went to the City Center mall and found it was showing on a fifteen-foot-high screen in a continuous loop!  This was part of a video advertising all the fun things that might be found in a great downtown (for the record, the rock-climbing happened at Easton).  Did my video have any monetary value?  No.  Did the company that stole my work and aired it thousands of times in a very public forum derive a commercial benefit?  Yes — else why do it.  Did they have, at the very minimum, the courteous obligation to ask whether they could use it?  I think the answer to that is clear.

Google argues it would be impractical for them to ask the author or publisher of each book for the rights to scan the book before including it in their permanent digital archive.  Therefore, they’re just going to do them all, copyright be damned.  A simple analogy to the physical world points up the absurdity in this logic.  Google’s stance is like my saying I can drive my car across the backyard of every house in the neighborhood, because it would just take too long to get permission from each homeowner.

Our system of copyright could not be more liberal.  In order to claim the copyright on an original work, all the author has to do is put the word “Copyright” and the year on it.  Unlike with patents, there is no central registry that authors have to apply to for permission: we just want to encourage creative endeavors by giving them reassurance that they’ll earn the fruits of their labors without interference.  No high-flying tech company should be permitted to swoop in and take that away.

Google Book Search

Marcus has written on the legality of the Google Print program, now renamed to Google Book Search.  He cites a six-page Congressional Research Service report that looks at the issue from a lightweight legal perspective.  Partly because of my membership in the Young Conservatives Union, partly because I enjoy taunting the techno-establishment whom I’m supposed to be digitally brainwashed by based on my age and occupation, and partly because I think I’m right, I’ve written a comment digesting the issue and generally opposing the project.  If you’re interested, read all three writings and comment over at Marcus’ World (or here).

French high-rises

There’s an interesting article in the Times today about the high-rise buildings France has built to house its poor.  While the idea that high-rise housing projects lead to desperation among the urban poor is not a new one in Europe or in America, this article gives some interesting insights about what Europe is doing to move away from this concept.

Flight of the penguin

I saw the “cute penguin movie” today (March of the Penguins).  Rather than bore you with the details (cute movie; Emperor penguins are remarkable creatures), I’ll skip right to the funny part.  I noticed in the credits the following three people listed consecutively: pianist, bassoonist, accountant.  My mind immediately fluttered to two courtly musicians and a guy with a giant calculator.

We don’t have liftoff

Mary and David Savoie had returned to their favorite viewing spot along the Indian River, bringing cousins from Pennsylvania to watch the shuttle launching in the distance.  Joshua Lacy had settled beside them with a cooler, and nearby, Tony Vivian had fired up his radio and grill.

All had staked out a grassy lot beside Route 1 to watch the first space shuttle liftoff in more than two years, but after hearing that the launching had been scrubbed, all left dejected.

“It was going to be so perfect,” said Ms. Savoie, casting one last glance at the Discovery, barely a glimmer across the water, before driving home to Sanford, near Orlando.  “Oh, well, make that past tense now.”

- New York Times, 14 July 2005

No, damn it, make that subjunctive!  Regular old past tense is used for things that actually happened in the past!  Grammar idiocy is killing this nation.

Give till it hurts

The millionaire families of Laguna Beach need help!  They can’t afford to pay their expenses from the awful landslide.  Here is a list of profiles of the families who need your money.  The city wants to give each family $3,000 a month for 30 months and $60,000 for geological studies.

Click here to donate thousands.

I like how the obviously gay couples — “Jo and Jm,” and HC and DK, the flight attendant whose Steinway piano was lost — are referred to in carefully gender-neutral ways or their sex is just left out, whereas everybody else is Mr. and Mrs. W. 

It’s also amusing that they actually admit one house was “red-tagged” in a previous 1978 landslide.  Now the same set of spoiled Californians is back for more money.  I was just in Laguna Beach a month ago, telling people it was all a dream and it wouldn’t last.  I was proven right sooner than I thought I would be.  These people have no sense of perspective.  One of them actually told me, “It’s hard to believe that places like Houston and Ohio really exist.  It’s like the whole rest of the country is a big bubble.”  No, you’re in the bubble.

By the way, the city mayor doesn’t want you to think they are millionaires, but before the landslide, they used to be — especially the one family that bought its house for $280,000 eighteen years ago.

America loses a friend

Last night, Alistair Cooke, a veteran BBC reporter and general world culture figure, died at home in New York.  He was 95 years old.

I think he was a great man, a master of subtlety, very endearing, and touchingly funny and sincere.  Even in his eighties and nineties, which are the only years I had to get to know him, he stayed sharp, and put together a weekly radio segment known as the “Letter From America.”  He is best known for this segment, where he observes and comments on our country from a British point of view.  I can certainly remember listening to his “Letter From America” many times on the BBC.  For an Anglophile like me, Cooke’s dispatches let me feel as though he and I were sharing a joke, rolling our eyes over the dotty, amusing ways of our over-eager, good-natured American cousins.  Alistair Cooke was a bit of a connoisseur of absurdity, like I am, and his gentle presence will be missed.  You can read the BBC’s leader on his life and career.

Some advertising in today’s New York Times on the Web, however, creates a jarring scene for those who read about Cooke’s long and fruitful life.  The obituary contained an ad for the movie Never Die Alone.  If you are interested, the full Times article is still available.

Revenge

“It’s 11:30 p.m., and my upstairs neighbors are running their washing machine, again, though only the experienced would know that it is not a helicopter landing.  Three polite notes have done nothing to stop it.”
- New York Times, 21 March 2004, in an article on filtering out life, including by using noise-canceling headphones

The real message to readers: “If you cannot get results by polite means, try adjudicating your disputes in front of a million people in the Sunday Times.”

I wonder how I might have used the same principle…  Thankfully, such means were not necessary.

More small thoughts

I guess all I have these days are small thoughts.  But hey, it’s summertime, the reality shows dominate, and you just gotta have some reality web log entries.  If you really want substance, America, go read my famous Michael Moore entry (still one of the most popular pages on my site).  I’ll be back with serious commentary in September.

That out of the way, here are more small thoughts!

  • Virginia’s new license plates advertise the state’s 400th anniversary — “1607-2007.”  Couple of points for you, Virginia.  1) 2007 is four years away.  There’s no guarantee you’ll even exist.  Some guy from West Virginia might organize a recall election, and your whole state could be replaced by Arianna Huffington.  2) 400 years, huh?  And it took you, what, 260 years to free all the slaves?  370 years to legalize interracial marriage?  400+ to spit that chaw out?  My state is only 200 years old, and we’re way more sophisticated.  Maybe you should catch up to the inland provinces before bragging about your proud history.

  • E-mail I got recently: “Bill F Cash, It’s a world of wine and United [Airlines] can take you there!”  God, if only it were that simple.
  • News story about today’s California ballot lottery: “The letters H, B and S, were drawn as eighth, ninth and tenth, meaning that some high-profile candidates, commentator Arianna Huffington, Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante and actor Arnold Schwarzenegger will be relatively near each other on most ballots.”  This is what passes for news?  The order — not even the content — of the California ballot?  Well, their state is only 150 years old.  :)  Still, pretty tragic.
  • Finally, I’ve come up with a couple of new shows for Bravo to air:
    Boy Meets Girl.  Here’s the setup: a pretty gay boy shows up and has a shot at meeting fifteen potential fag hags.  They line up the women, and they each claim to know so much about things near and dear to the gay boy’s heart, like eyebrows or dance music, while complimenting him on his “zaniness” and “totally sensitive side.”  But what the gay boy doesn’t know is that some of the potential gal pals are actually scary dykes who’ve been recently shaven.  The big finale of the show has the girl revealing the particular horrific personal insecurity — weight, height, breast size, awful middle name — that will come to dominate their fledgling best-friendship.  Grand prize?  Trip to a gay bar, of course, where the boy will ignore the girl and the girl will silently lust after hundreds of cute unavailables.
    Queer Eye for the Straight Teenager.  A lecherous group of hairy fortysomethings drive around in an Impala cruising for hotboys in backward ballcaps.  When they find them (typically at auto battery stores or maybe NASCAR), they offer smart fashion and dating tips such as: wearing less fashion and dating older men.
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