A Fool in the Forest

A fool, a fool! I met a fool i' the forest,
A motley fool; a miserable world!
As I do live by food, I met a fool
Who laid him down and bask'd him in the sun,
And rail'd on Lady Fortune in good terms,
In good set terms and yet a motley fool.

As You Like It, Act II, Scene 7

L'homme y passe à travers des forêts de symboles
Qui l'observent avec des regards familiers.

Les Fleurs du Mal, “Correspondances”

Saturday, July 26, 2003
If All Politics is Local, Why Isn't It on the Local TV News?

Kevin Roderick at L.A. Observed is planning to take the weekend off from posting, so I'll step in to point you to today's "Regarding Media" column by the L.A. Times' Tim Rutten. Rutten's text for the day is those "programs [that]convention demands we call news, though most station operators long ago turned their faces resolutely away from any recognizable journalism and hardened their hearts against its most rudimentary notions of responsibility." Why pay attention to this timeworn topic? Rutten has plenty of reasons:
One, of course, is the chilling finding by poll after poll that a majority of Americans now say that local television is their primary source of news. Another reason is the bruising debate now underway in Washington over whether to permit ever greater concentrations of media ownership. Then there is the release Wednesday of an extraordinary study by scholars at USC and the University of Wisconsin quantitatively demonstrating the appalling depths to which local TV news has declined. Finally, there is the disturbing question of whether local television news has the will or ability to play a responsible role in the historic gubernatorial recall now convulsing California politics.
The entire piece is worthwhile as a summary of the squalid condition of local television and the combination of conditions that have made it that way. It also serves to reinforce the healthy urge to turn to other sources [such as this shiny new Internet thing I keep hearing about] for actual news content.

Rutten does not offer any proposed solutions to the problems he identifies, though one suspects that a more stringent re-regulation of broadcast media might be on his mind. His pointers to the market forces that drive out good solid political coverage -- such as the risk that actually covering the campaign for free would cause the campaigners to withdraw their lucrative ad buys -- reminded me somewhat of an observation (not new, but nicely stated) in Doc Searls' much-blogged article at Linux Journal on "Saving the Net":
There's also a problem with conceiving broadcast service--especially the commercial variety--as a 'marketplace.' Its customers and consumers are different populations. The customers of commercial broadcasting are advertisers, not viewers and listeners. In fact, commercial broadcasting mostly is an advertising business. The 'content' it distributes is merely bait; the goods sold are the ears and eyeballs of 'consumers'. That means commercial broadcasting's real marketplace is Madison Avenue, not radio and TV dials. As a consumer of commercial broadcast programming, your direct influence is zero because that's exactly what you pay. (Paying for cable or satellite service doesn't count, because that payment is for access, not for the content itself.)
(The rest of this argument leads to a meditation on the public domain, copyright, the awkwardness of attaching ideas of ownership to ideas, and any number of other issues of which I seemingly cannot get enough. If you share my predilection, by all means read the whole thing.)
Friday, July 25, 2003
More Fun With Fonts

The weekend approaches, so it must be time for a pointless but amusing time-waster. It's an Epic Battle of Serif-Impaired Titans! It's Helvetica vs. Arial!

[An earlier foray by this blog into the world of typography can be found here.]
Welcome and Thanks

Warmest welcome to all readers so kindly referred to my Dylan piece by Terry Teachout. If you are in a particularly Dylanesque mood, you may also want to look at this earlier entry from July 17, excavating Dylan's superheroic secret life. [This is Blogspot, so I make no guarantee that the preeding link will actually work; if not, please go to July 17 in the Archives to view the entry, entitled "The Continuing Ventures of Zimmerman."]
Thursday, July 24, 2003
It's No Wonder No One Loves Us, the Way We Carry On

I've just returned from a deposition - that's a procedure used in litigation to obtain information by questioning a party or witness under oath prior to trial - thoroughly aggravated with the demeanor of my worthy opposing counsel. He behaved, not to put too fine a point on it, like what we call in the law a Total Jerk. This is hardly unusual: while there are vast swaths of attorneydom occupied by some of the nicest people you could ever hope to meet [I suspect that lawyers who blog fall almost universally into that category], a significant minority among attorneys involved in litigation feel obliged, either as a conscious strategy or by virtue of some basic temperament, to be confrontational and difficult about Every Little Thing. [Insert low growl and rolling of eyes here.]

On the bright side, this little tête-à-tête served to remind me of a post Walter Olson put up on Overlawyered last week, discussing a proposal in Arizona to eliminate a requirement in that state's ethics rules that a lawyer always be "zealous" on a client's behalf:
We're impressed. Time and again, in our experience, the putative obligation to represent clients in a 'zealous' fashion has proved the last resort of the scoundrel litigator and ethical edge-skater. Yes, in principle there can also arise dangers when lawyers aren't zealous enough, but no sane observer could imagine that the big problem with American litigation is that lawyers care so much for honor that they aren't combative enough. We'll be watching with interest to see whether the change produces any felt difference in Arizona litigation practice.
Disclaimer [what did you expect?]: I definitely do not mean to suggest by that quote that the particular attorney I was dealing with today is either a scoundrel or ethically suspect. I do not know or believe anything of the kind. In fact, I find it even more frustrating when otherwise honorable and respectable attorneys feel obliged to carry on like Rude Boys (and Girls) in the name of "zealous advocacy." It's not only annoying, it's so blasted unnecessary. Thus endeth the rant.
Litigation Duties Call
Out and about for depositions and meetings with witnesses, at least for the first part of the day. Blogging resumes later.
Wednesday, July 23, 2003
Bad Film 'n' Motion [We're Gonna Penalize You]

Since I am returning to subjects raised in earlier posts, it's time again to consider Bob Dylan.

That gentleman appears in the large ensemble cast of Masked and Anonymous, a film that is opening this week in Los Angeles after previously showing at Sundance. That large cast includes any number of impressive names: Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, Jessica Lange, Bruce Dern, Ed Harris . . . it goes on and on, up to and including Shirley Jones (!) in the role of "Third-World Prostitute (uncredited)." (Full cast and crew credits are here.)

Interesting actors notwithstanding, the reviews to date are uniformly awful. The review in the Hollywood Reporter [via RottenTomatoes.com - so you can look at all of the disparaging notices] is typical, calling it "a movie bloated with pretension, unplayable scenes, snarled dialogue and an erratic neither-here-nor-there look."

Now, here is the detail that struck me: in the print ad in the Los Angeles Times, a single review is quoted. It is not from any established outlet in the print or broadcast media. It is not from any of the innumerable blurb factories operating online. It is not from some faceless network affiliate in the hinterland [e.g., "A non-stop Oscar-worthy thrill ride for the senses!" Huffy Puffington, UPN, Hoople, North Dakota.] No, this advert trots out a quote from no less a figure than Andrew Motion, Poet Laureate of Great Britain.

Now, the quote in the ad comes from an essay [Danger! Contains Spoilers!] that the Laureate has contributed to the film's online presence. A second such essay -- not quoted in the ad I've seen -- comes from Princeton professor and New Republic contributing editor Sean Wilentz.

The circumstances under which these pieces were written are not entirely clear. There is no way to tell whether the writers' opinions were solicited (or paid for) by the filmmakers. I assume they actually hold the opinions they express, and that these are not the scholarly equivalent of the fabricated blurbs of the fictitious David Manning.

What is clear is that these essays immediately join the ranks of Hopelessly Pretentious and Self-Important Musings that Dylan has long provoked in Deep and Serious Thinkers. Wilentz, as if unable to help himself, even invokes the white whale:
It is said that Bob Dylan's work is allegorical, and the same thing is bound to be said of Masked and Anonymous. Is it? The answer is: not exactly. Anyone looking, at any level, for exact correspondences between characters, things, and symbols, and history or current events will be disappointed. But the references, gestures, and hints all do pile up. In this way, Masked and Anonymous (like much of Dylan's work) operates as pop sensibility in an American tradition of high allegory going back at least to Melville's Moby-Dick. (Melville, 1851: "I had some vague idea, while writing it, that the whole book was susceptible of an allegoric construction, & also that parts of it were. . . .")
The Laureate, for his part, praises the film as a sort of apotheosis of all things Dylanesque and provides an exhaustive summary of the plot. He can't seem to sort out just what any of it means, but you can tell that whatever it is is Important:
On the face of it, Masked and Anonymous is a film about political corruption, the tensions between religions, and shady business deals - all subjects close to Dylan's heart. Its deeper concerns are closer still: do artists have a responsibility to interpret their work? What value does art have in a corrupt world, and what use? How can the artist protect his gift from his admirers, let alone his detractors? And then there's a third and even more personal level of interrogation. Can happiness be pursued, or must we wait for it to come to us? Are dreams an acceptable alternative to realities? Can our tangled relationships with family and loved ones ever be 'straightened out'?
Grab your popcorn, America!
Dare to be Interesting

Michael Kinsley in Slate returns to a topic I touched upon the other day: why is Tony Blair, and especially his recent speech to the Congress, so darned appealing to we Americans?
In part, of course, it's just the British accent, which to American ears makes any words sound authoritative. And in part it's simple eloquence. But Blair's speech also had qualities that go beyond eloquence. They might be summed up as rhetorical courage. These are qualities like complexity, humility, reality, irony, and freshness. Rhetorical courage comes down to a willingness to be interesting. Interesting can be dangerous, so American pols tend to avoid it.
Too true, too true. As they say in the blogging trade: read the whole thing.
You Scratch My Blog and I Scratch Yours

I am a Bad Influence and you should not let your children play with me. My long time chum Rick Coencas has risen to the bait and started his own blog, under the name of Futurballa. Only one post there so far -- speaking well of this blog (thanks!) and of The Third Man -- but I fearlessly predict great things. And I like his photos, which are online just behind this hyperlink.
Chuck the Shaw in Favor of a Cuppa Joe's

Slate's Mike Steinberger uses an article on cheap wine you can actually drink to lay into the now-notorious wines bottled under the Charles Shaw label available at Trader Joe's stores around the country. Available in huge quantities and priced at $1.99 in Southern California (as high as a whopping $3.50 in other parts of the country), the Shaw wines have become well known as "Two-Buck Chuck." Steinberger is having none of it:
Yet there is cheap wine and there is undrinkable wine, and while many oenophiles are surely more cost-conscious these days, it is doubtful they are doing their wine shopping at Trader Joe's. Having recently tried the Charles Shaw merlot, I can unequivocally state that I would switch to beer or go on the wagon before making a habit of this plonk.
I hold no brief for the current Shaw wines, particularly since Charles Shaw himself has had nothing to do with them in more than a decade. Mr. Shaw was actually something of a dreamer, believing that he could produce a really good wine from Gamay [the principal grape of Beaujolais] in the Napa Valley. The good news was that he was right -- I drank and enjoyed several vintages of Shaw's Gamay back in the 80's -- but the bad news was that no one particularly wanted a really good Gamay from Napa. New York Times wine writer Frank Prial provides as good a summary as any:
Charles F. Shaw was a Chicago investment banker who fell in love with the wine business and, in the late 1970s, bought 50 acres off the Silverado Trail in the Napa Valley. There, he planted gamay grapes to make a California version of Beaujolais. The Charles F. Shaw Vineyard and Winery opened for business in 1979.

Eventually, Shaw was making 10,000 cases a year of gamay and sauvignon blanc. But a dozen years later, after his gamay gamble had met with little success in cabernet country, Shaw declared bankruptcy and returned to Chicago. Bronco stepped in and bought the name, keeping it in deep freeze for about a dozen years.
All of which brings us back to Trader Joe's and my earlier promise to identify non-Chuck wines worth your time if you have a Trader Joe's market conveniently to hand.

My initial recommendation is Trader Joe's 2000 Vintage Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, identifiable by the painting of a rustic barn on the label. Here in Southern California, this wine seems to be in good supply and is selling for $4.99. While you can certainly get better Napa Valley Cabernets at four times the price, you can also find $20 Napa Valley bottlings that are not (and will never be) nearly so enjoyable as this much less-expensive version. And enjoyment is the point, is it not? The wine displays a surprising concentration of true Napa Valley cabernet character, albeit not on the epic scale of more costly and longer lived Napa Valley wines. It is very drinkable just now, in the company of a good meal almost certainly involving a grilled red meat, and it will probably remain so for several years.

A warning re possible confusion: there is a similarly labeled Trader Joe's Cabernet Franc, selling locally for $3.99. It is a more rustic, still quite enjoyable wine, and a nice exemplar of its varietal. It's just not cabernet sauvignon. If you like to stay out of a cabernet sauvignon/chardonnay rut [as well you should], the cabernet franc will probably pique your interest. Now if there were such a thing as a good inexpensive pinot noir, all would be right with the world.
Tuesday, July 22, 2003
Catfish Row

I decided to link to this story in the New York Times when I realized I could make a Porgy and Bess pun/reference in my title. (That title should be read to rhyme with "How now, Brown Cow?" and not with "Mow, grow, flown crow." Get it? Good -- let's move on:)

Unfortunately, the two-edged sword of Google struck me down: double-checking my own recollection of Gershwin, I discovered that Christian Science Monitor had already used the same pun, for this same story, way back on March 12 -- and they probably lifted it from the BBC, which had it -- again for the same story -- last October. You have to be pretty quick-witted these days to stay ahead of that Internet thing.

Three observations in conclusion: (1) I rather like catfish; (2) this shuffling of the rules at the expense of hardworking Vietnamese catfish wranglers does not reflect well on our vaunted commitment to free trade; and (3) I really, really regret that I can't take credit for that pun.

And, lest I forget, the original link to the story came to my attention via Matt Welch at Reason Online's Hit & Run blog. [Caution: the comments to the original Hit & Run post seem to have veered off into the realm of foul-mouthed personal abuse, and may best be ignored.]
Law School Savagery On Parade

I don't mean to turn this into an intellectual property blog -- not my field, you will recall -- but I cannot resist calling your attention to the newest entry at LawMeme, Yale Law School's law and technology blog.

Yale Law student (and LawMeme editor) James Grimmelman unleashes high caliber assault-sarcasm at Shalisha Francis, an unsuspecting Duke Law student who had the temerity to publish a rather naive student note in the Duke Law & Technology Review wholeheartedly embracing the outcome in the Eldred v. Ashcroft case (which I referenced in yesterday's entries).

Mr. Grimmelman is having none of it. Somehow, by the time he is finished, pretty ponies have become involved . . . Read it, if you are interested in Eldred, if you are curious about those ponies (none of which appear to have been harmed in the production of this argument), or if you want to see proof that Yale students take no prisoners.
Giddy as a Schoolboy

Oh rapture! Less than a month into this blogging project, I find that I have appeared in somebody else's list of recommended links. And not just any somebody else: this Foolish blog joins the "Sites to See" listed at About Last Night, critic Terry Teachout's blog (itself only in its second week) at ArtsJournal.com. Get thee hence, gentle readers!
Free Gordon Gekko!

On the scholarly group blog Crooked Timber, Daniel Davies offers a more-detailed-than-is-perhaps-strictly-necessary analysis and defense of Gordon Gekko, the Michael Douglas look-alike financier at the center of Oliver Stone's Wall Street. There are footnotes(!), including a comprehensive list of the film's "hilarious ‘80s kitsch."
Monday, July 21, 2003
Extraordinary Contortions

Stanford Law Professor Lawrence Lessig, cited below in the Starbucks item, is perhaps best known as one of the point men in the fight to preserve as much creative material as possible within the public domain. He served as lead counsel in Eldred v. Ashcroft, the unsuccessful constitutional challenge to the Sonny Bono Copyright Extension Act -- which unilaterally extended the life of all extant copyrights by 20 years, meaning nothing created between 1923 and 1943 will enter the public domain in this country until 2018 -- and continues to argue that exclusive control of creative work should be lifted after a reasonable period of time. (A detailed history of the Eldred case can be found here, and information on a proposed legislative corrective, the "Eldred Act," can be found here.)

He links today to this piece by Brad Stone, attributing many of the problems in the screen adaptation of Alan Moore's graphic novel The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen to a restricted public domain.
“The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen,” both the comic and the film, demonstrate why ordinary people should care about Lessig’s cause. A rich public domain enables creative geniuses like Alan Moore to reach into society’s collective memory and produce complex, fun and socially valuable works. The existence of the “League” comic doesn’t harm the original creators, it directs a new generation of fans back to the source material that continues to inspire pop fiction today. Meanwhile, the film shows how ridiculous copyright restrictions have become.
[One of Professor Lessig's commenters offers a link to an object lesson in what can happen when multiple copyright holders collide: the continuing litigious saga of Miracleman.]
Venti, Vidi, Vici

Professor Larry Lessig caused a modest stir back in May when he reported that Starbuck's prohibits photography on its premises, to protect the company's intellectual property rights in the overall 'environment' of its stores -- what is referred to in the field as Trade Dress. [Various followups to Prof. Lessig's post are compiled here and here.]

Starbucks' official position was that the company is only concerned with controlling professional photography. But what about professional cartooning?

In Sunday's slightly-funnier- than-usual edition of Doonesbury Garry Trudeau, without ever using the company's name, left no doubt where Mike Doonesbury purchases his overpriced, overroasted brew: caps, swirly wall painting, post-mod extra-swirly halogen light fixture and, lest we miss it, esoteric names for serving sizes all scream "Starbuck's." Infringement? Fair use? I'll leave that for the IP specialists to sort out. (I maintain an amateur's interest in the field, but it is not a focus of my practice.)

[Later:] Further poking about on the Web leads me to wonder: was Sunday's strip actually part of the Doonesbury-Starbucks seemingly unsuccessful charitable merchandising venture?
Mel Brooks, Preserver of Antiquities

Wall Street Journal critic Terry Teachout revisited the New York production of the stage version of Mel Brooks' The Producers on Friday and emerged waxing nostalgic for old school, fundamentally New York Jewish comedy:
The Producers is nothing more (or less) than a virtuoso homage to the lapel-grabbing, absolutely-anything-for-a-laugh schtickery on which so much of the stand-up comedy of my childhood was based.

* * *

It is this aspect of The Producers that I found . . . well, poignant. Back when I was a small-town Missouri boy, Jewish humor still had the crisp tang of the unfamiliar, which was part of why it was so funny.
Alas, Teachout concludes, the time for that style of comedy has passed, the price perhaps for the successful assimilation of later Jewish generations. Exhibit A, naturally, is Jerry Seinfeld and company, who "shed their parents' accents and became cool and ironic and put the past behind them." How many levels of irony are there, then, in the fact that the largely sold-out Los Angeles production of Producers stars Seinfeld crony and chicken pitch man Jason Alexander?

I'll put in my own thoughts on the L.A. production when I finally see it in October.
Sunday Reading

The Los Angeles Times Sunday Book Review has been improving for quite a while now, and this past Sunday's edition was full of book-driven goodness. Highlights included Timothy Ferris' review of James Gleick's new short biography of Isaac Newton, from which we learn that, quite apart from calculus and the formulation of Physics As We Know It (while he did not go there himself, Newton left room in his thought for Relativity and the equivalence of matter and energy), Newton was also "the foremost alchemist and one of the leading biblical scholars in 18th century Europe."

Elsewhere, D.J Waldie appeared uncomfortable with Anneli Rufus' new book on the pleasures of being a loner; David Ulin discourses on the origins and significance of folk figure Stagolee (with dutiful citations to the Grateful Dead and the Clash's "Wrong 'em Boyo"); and those who didn't know already could learn that there is rather more to Rupert Holmes than that annoying Pina Colada song.

The online version of Arthur Danto's review of a new biography of artist Arshile Gorky does not include the reproductions that accompany the print version, which is just as well: although much of Danto's point in the review is the enormity of Gorky's stylistic breakthrough around 1943, the Times saw fit to illustrate the story only with works dating to the 30s and before. A handy reference to Gorky images online is available here.