Friday, August 31, 2007

Somebody's Gotta Say It

Somebody’s Gotta Say It by Neal Boortz (HarperCollins 2007).

Neal Boortz is one of America’s most popular talk radio hosts, with an average daily audience of more than 3.75 million listeners. Until last week, I’d never heard of him.

Turns out, he’s not on the air in Los Angeles. Well, he’s broadcast by a station up in Palmdale, but that doesn’t count.

Boortz portrays himself as America’s Last Rational Man by espousing libertarian views which would prevent him from being elected to any office in the land. Fortunately, the radio gig pays well, so he won’t be running for Congress anytime soon. A smattering of Boortz’ impolitic opinions:

 “If you’re an adult between the ages of eighteen and sixty-five who has been in the workplace for longer than six months, and you still can’t manage to earn more than the minimum wage . . . . You’re A Pathetic Loser!”

 “Teachers unions pose a graver long-term threat to freedom, prosperity and the future of this country than do Islamic terrorists.”

 “The poor keep getting poorer because they keep doing whatever it was that made them poor in the first place. Ditto for the rich.”

 “Republicans have absolutely no fiscal discipline whatsoever. No Congress has ever blown money on vote-buying programs quite like the newly departed Republican Congress did.”

 “Democrats clearly have no intention of defending America from Islamic fascism – not now, not next month, not until the price of that defense is catastrophic.”

In his new collection of bite-size rants, titled Somebody’s Gotta Say It, Boortz hits many of his favorite topics. The United States is not a democracy and shouldn’t be – because at least half of Americans are breathtakingly stupid. The Seventeenth Amendment should be repealed, and U.S. senators elected by state legislators again. Citizens shouldn’t be able to vote for president, either.

Boortz has an oblique sense of humor. He once caused pandemonium throughout Georgia by broadcasting reports about “cat chasing,” a (fake) sport in which a live cat is thrown out of an airplane and skydivers race to catch the cat before it hits the ground. On the day of the “championships,” the local sheriff stopped Boortz in the radio station parking lot and had a word with him.

In addition to the entertaining shtick, Boortz makes some valid points. One of his themes is that, rhetoric aside, most Americans do not believe in individual freedom, preferring to have the government make decisions for them. President Bush’s proposed Social Security reform was defeated because Americans “were simply unwilling to take responsibility for investing even a miniscule 2 percent of their earnings for their own retirement.” Similarly, Americans want government to mandate employer-provided health insurance, set minimum wages, license professionals and regulate television content.

“This country is populated by far too many people who cannot exist at anything other than a basic level without someone else stepping forward to take care of them,” Boortz writes. “They’re adult children. They look upon the government as their mommy and daddy, there to kiss whatever hurts and make sure food is always on the table. These people yearn, and deserve, to live in a dictatorship where their fealty to the government is rewarded by lives absent of uncertainty and choice.”

A dictatorship would immediately ban Boortz from the airwaves. Or achieve the same end by re-instating the Fairness Doctrine.

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"Beyond the barricade, is there a world you long to see?"

Sherman Oaks, California

George Will profiles reformist French finance minister Christine Lagarde.

BTW, Forbes named Lagarde the 12th most powerful woman in the world.

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Thursday, August 30, 2007

Passport Inspection

New York, New York

Immigration Officer (looking at my passport at JFK): You travel a lot.

Me: Yes.

Officer: Why?

Me: I like to see the world.

Officer: You been to Brun-ee?

Me: It’s pronounced Brun-eye.

Officer: What do they have there?

Me: They have very nice mosques.

Officer: People friendly there?

Me: It’s one of America’s closest allies in the region. The people are very pro-American.

Officer (stamping my passport): Welcome home.

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Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Welcome, Wall Street Journal Online Readers!

Sherman Oaks, California

Welcome, new readers from The Wall Street Journal Online! Please bookmark this blog and check in every week or so.

I am a Hollywood entertainment lawyer who took a year off to travel throughout Asia and blog about it. Currently, I'm back home in God's Chosen Valley, but I'm still blogging about travel, law and foreign affairs. If these are of interest, please bookmark and visit every now and then for a welcome champagne and free in-flight meals.

(And my thanks to WSJ writer Scott McCartney for linking to me at the end of his Middle Seat column today.)

Monday, August 27, 2007

Joining The Regional Jet Revolution

Sherman Oaks, California

RJs are everywhere.

“Regional jets,” the term for small jet or turboprop aircraft which carry 30 to 100 passengers for relatively short distances, have become a mainstay of the American air transport system.


They’re cheap.

They’re cheap to buy, with a new 37-passenger Embraer EMB-135 bearing a list price of $16 million, and a new 86-passenger Bombardier CRJ-900 pricing at $32.7 million, according to Airline Fleet and Network Management magazine. By contrast, a 110-passenger Boeing 737-600, a step up the aviation food chain, lists for almost $50 million. (Purchasers negotiate substantial discounts off the list price.)

But what really makes regional jets cheap is the fact that many of the RJs which feed into the Big Six’s hubs aren’t owned or operated by the major airlines at all. AmericanConnection, for example, is a trademark licensed by American Airlines to Chautauqua Airlines and Trans States Airlines – two completely separate businesses which agree to operate as an adjunct of the mainline carrier. Regional carriers such as these are like the Las Vegas 51s minor league baseball team, part of the Los Angeles Dodgers farm system but owned and operated by Mandalay Baseball Properties. (Some regional carriers are wholly owned subsidiaries of the larger airline.)

All of which is why I flew a round-trip the other weekend in which I booked a ticket on the United website, checked in at United self-service kiosks, was issued a United boarding pass, went to a United gate and flew between Los Angeles (LAX) and Sacramento (SMF) on . . . SkyWest Airlines.

What the heck is SkyWest Airlines?

One of the larger carriers in the United States, it turns out. SkyWest operates 275 planes across the country, averaging more than 1,800 departures per day. SkyWest principally flies under the United Express name, but also has agreements to provide service on certain routes under the names Delta Connection and Midwest Connect.

That’s the what. Here’s the how.

* * * * *

United Airlines Flight 6491 to Sacramento was scheduled to leave from LAX’s Terminal 8, a pier-like terminal which services many of United’s regional jets. Walking down the concourse, the destinations on the departure boards were pure glamour: Fresno, Boise, Modesto, Inyokern.

The United customer service desk near the entrance to the terminal was unmanned. A monitor above it displayed a real-time weather map of the country, which was a thoughtful use of technology. Better: No CNN Airport.

The passengers at the nearest gate looked miserable. Their 10:40 a.m. departure to Sacramento had been terribly delayed, and their flight was now scheduled to depart at 2:09 p.m. Passengers from the northern part of L.A. could have made comparable time driving.

All of the gates made an attempt to reward United elites. A short, separate line to the Jetway was reserved for Global Services, United First, 1K and United Business travelers, a short red carpet marking the lane. A small touch, but it showed that United was thinking of its higher-revenue passengers when they traveled on these predominantly single-class planes.

Unlike the flight of the damned next door, my flight was more or less on time. Scheduled to depart at 2:40 p.m., it pushed back at 3:01 p.m. and rotated into the sky at 3:10 p.m. The regional jet seemed to taxi at a palpably faster speed than the large commercial jets. (By the way, the end of the Jetway does not fit snuggly onto many regional jets, requiring passengers to cross a ramp to board (pictured).)

All 50 seats in the Bombardier CRJ-200 were filled. At six foot one, I found the cabin, with its 2-2 layout, cramped but acceptable for a one-hour hop. The sole flight attendant provided a beverage service as we cruised at 23,000 feet. A family of Japanese tourists – Dad, Mom and two teenage daughters – snoozed on the other side of the aisle. I flipped through the United and SkyWest in-flight magazines. The seats were blue leather with a jazzy SkyWest logo on the headrest.

Krunk! There was no mistaking when the landing gear dropped. We landed in Sacramento at 4:12 p.m. after a smooth, uneventful trip up the spine of the state.

Sacramento International Airport – it offers direct passenger flights to Vancouver and Guadalajara and is therefore “International” – is one of those fantasy small town airports. New. Clean. Easy to navigate. Short lines. All support services a free shuttle ride away.

Terminal A showcased a clever sculpture composed of discarded luggage. The airport hotel was directly across from Terminal B. I was sitting in my rental car within minutes, asking myself, “What on earth is a Pontiac G6?”

The next days’ flight back (also numbered Flight 6491, curiously) was the reverse mirror image, with a different flight attendant. I was able to watch the captain walk around the CRJ (tail number N916SW) for the pre-flight visual inspection. It may be a form of “safety theater,” but I like knowing that the guy at the controls gives the ship a personal once-over before departure. We pushed back at 4:49 p.m., rotated up at 4:59 p.m., flew down without incident, made the W-I-D-E turn over Los Angeles to line up with the runway, and landed at 6:10 p.m.

As usual, I wandered over to the Tom Bradley International Terminal to see what exotic birds had migrated to Southern California. A Mexicana A320 sat on the north side, a toy next to its massive relative, a Swiss Air International Airbus A340-300 (tail number HB-JMG). On the south side of the TBIT was a Singapore Airlines A340-500 (tail number 9V-SGB), preparing for its 8,770-mile non-stop journey home.

That’s not a route you can fly on a regional jet.

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Saturday, August 25, 2007

Blog Rating Service Receives An F-

Sherman Oaks, California

This blog is rated NC-17.

So says the Mingle2 blog rating service – which will be shut down by the Motion Picture Association of America’s trademark lawyers any minute now for its, um, free-handed use of the MPAA’s symbols.

Not protected by intellectual property law is the fact that the Mingle2 blog ratings use the same reductionist thinking as does the MPAA. A “bad” word or image triggers a more restrictive rating, without considerations of context or of the ideas being conveyed.

Mingle2 admits as much. When a blog is rated G, the site says, “No bad words were found.”

Not just swear words, mind you. Knife Tricks earns the restrictive NC-17 rating due to its use of words which only the most uber-sensitive would consider objectionable. To wit:

knife – 13 times

death – 11 times

dead – 7 times

hell – 4 times

gun – 3 times

drugs – 2 times

ass – 1 time

This method of “rating” is astoundingly wrong-headed. What is objectionable per se about a knife? It’s a tool that’s used to cut food and rope and other objects far more often than it’s used to harm a person (or be thrown at a piano, as Ernest Hemingway did one absinthe-fueled night). Shouldn’t children – the class ratings are ostensibly meant to “protect” – learn about the safe use of knives instead of being shielded from the word?

And what’s wrong with discussing – scratch that, mentioning death? Last time I checked, it’s something everybody will have to deal with sooner or later. Recent Knife Tricks entries have discussed death in the context of threats made to an Australian journalist by Japanese nationalists, the penalty for drug trafficking in Singapore and the duration of copyright protection under North Korean law. Quick, cover the kid’s eyes!

I also got dinged for using the word “dumbass” to facetiously describe a person who didn’t quite understand why it's not possible to take an overnight flight from the East Coast to the West Coast. I better not write any more about what I think of the Mingle2 blog rating system for fear of an even more restrictive rating.

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Friday, August 24, 2007

Ask The Pilot

Ask The Pilot: Everything You Need to Know About Air Travel by Patrick Smith (Riverhead Books 2004).

On one side: The “Big Six” domestic airline carriers, determined to make air travel as bland, boring and functional as a drain pipe.

On the other side: Patrick Smith, underemployed pilot and aviation columnist for, determined to revive the romance that propelled the Golden Age of Air.

It’s no contest, of course. American consumers have voted with their dollars, and they have stated clearly and overwhelmingly that they want low fares – not gracious service, not gourmet food, not a refined ambiance. Americans want to fly round-trip between Philadelphia and Fort Lauderdale for $150.

To Smith, there’s more, so much more to air travel. “The disconnect between air travel and culture seems to me wholly unnatural, yet we’ve seen virtually a clean break. Nobody gives a damn anymore how you get there,” Smith writes in his book Ask The Pilot, a collection of his Salon columns.

What a difference thirty years makes. In the days before airline deregulation, the government set the price of domestic air travel using distance-based formulas. Constrained in their ability to compete on price, America’s larger airlines – which included names from the past like TWA, Braniff and Hughes Air West – enticed passengers with perks and comforts and style. Aware that many repeat travelers were men on business trips, several airlines emphasized the beauty of their flight attendants in commercials that would cause an uproar if aired today (especially this one).

Everything changed with a stroke of Jimmy Carter’s pen on October 28, 1978. The Airline Deregulation Act was arguably the signal domestic policy achievement of the Carter Administration, its consequences felt today. After deregulation, the airlines, seeking to service as many city pairs as possible, created the “hub and spoke” system which required most travelers to change planes. The industry re-organized, with start-ups and mergers and failures – the saddest being the dismantling of the once-mighty Pan Am.

Fares plummeted, and continue to plummet. As Smith notes in his most recent column, between 2000 and 2006, average air fares decreased 12% despite the fact that the cost of jet fuel rose 150% during the same period. Since 1980, airfares have fallen 40%, according to the Government Accountability Office.

The money previously earned from airfares had to be made up somewhere, and part of it came out of customer service. Call centers were outsourced, freebies for kids were pared, and complimentary meals became as retro as the word “stewardess.” The airlines routed more people through more airports and onto more flights, all the while trimming staff. Something had to give.

The result is U.S. air travel, 2007. For a typical flight, you drive an hour or so to a secondary airport on the outskirts of your city. You and 49 other passengers board a regional jet, filling every seat. The plane – which may or may not be operated by the airline you booked; it’s unclear from the markings – looks like it could use a cleaning, and you have to stoop when you walk down the narrow aisle. The overhead bins are packed solid. You fly for two hours, crammed into a small seat, with one perfunctory beverage service, no meal, no pillow, no in-flight entertainment, no extras of any sort. By the time you are walking through the concourse at your destination, you have completely forgotten the flight and the name of the airline, since it was indistinguishable from every other domestic flight you’ve taken in the past five years.

That’s what $160 round-trip gets you. And that’s what Americans want, judging by how they spend their money.

Smith, on the other hand, approaches air travel with the zest of the aviation-mad kid he was while growing up in Boston in the 1970s. One day, he and like-minded friends at Logan Airport quietly boarded a parked Northwest DC-10 and spent an hour in the cockpit, pretending to fly the giant machine. Smith spent his teenage years pouring over route maps and timetables. He earned a professional pilot license, but, due to the vagaries of the economy, has not been consistently employed.

His enthusiasm is entertaining and, I hope, contagious. On any given year, 60% of U.S. citizens do not take even one flight, according to Arbitron. With such inexperienced clientele, it’s no wonder U.S. carriers can get away with being mediocre.

Smith tries to lure reluctant Americans down the Jetway with tales of exotic (and safe) trips on the old Air Afrique and Iraqi Airways. He explains in a lively fashion how incredibly safe flying is the world over, how rare a “fatal event” is, and how, when crashes occur, they are usually the result of a series of million-to-one factors, each of which could have been harmless by itself. Although Smith is sometimes criticized for being a cheerleader for the industry, cheerleaders are pleasant and peppy company.

Smith devotes a chapter to answering the questions he’s been bombarded with during his career in the cockpit. No, a wing cannot just fall off. No, the pilots do not increase the flow of oxygen to force passengers asleep. No, a senior airline pilot does not “earn $250,000 a year for a few hours of work a week,” as the airlines claim at contract re-negotiation time.

Hardened by his years of answering questions from passengers, Smith is unfailingly polite, even to the person who asked why the overnight “red eyes” fly from the West Coast to the East Coast but not vice versa. My answer would have been, “Because the Earth rotates, dumbass, and you’d know that if you flew more often.”

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Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Hints Of More Troubles in Japanese Imperial Family

Sherman Oaks, California

Prince Tomohito of the Japanese royal family stated yesterday that his alcoholism had grown worse during the last three years due to unspecified "troubles in my family."

Prince Tomohito (pictured) made a small but memorable contribution to the decade-long debate about whether the Imperial Household Law of 1947 should be amended to allow a woman to reign as the Emperor of Japan.

As noted by Ben Hills in his effortlessly readable Princess Masako: Prisoner of the Chrysanthemum Throne:

"Remarkable to relate, even today bringing back concubinage to save the monarchy has its supporters. As the debate raged, Prince Tomohito of Mikasa, [Emperor] Akihito's eldest cousin, let it be known through a newspaper column he writes that this was his preferred option. 'Using concubines like we used to is one option,' he wrote. 'I'm all for it, but this might be a little difficult considering the social climate in and outside the country.' Few agreed with the ageing, cancer-stricken prince, who is closely aligned with the conservative Right."

Meanwhile, nationalist groups have allegedly made death threats to author Hill and bullied his publisher, due to the upcoming September release of the Japanese translation of the book.

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Video Postcard From Macau

Sherman Oaks, California

James Fallows of The Atlantic posts a narrated slideshow about Macau, China.

He also posts about Macau -- a colorful, gritty place -- on his blog. I'm going to give Fallows the benefit of the doubt and assume he knows that the "greeter girls" at the StarWorld Casino were not born girls.

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Sunday, August 19, 2007

The Tuf Tuf Club: "Fighting Petty Bureaucracy And Authoritarianism Every Step Of The Way"

In Holland, a group of motoring rights activists called the Tuf Tuf Club have decided that speed cameras (called "Gatsos" in Europe) are not compatible with a free society.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Failure To Launch

Sherman Oaks, California

If you want a quick example of how U.S. airlines have fallen into mediocrity, you only need to know two words: “launch customer.”

The launch customer is the swashbuckling airline that places a multi-billion-dollar bet on a new and untried plane, trusting that the manufacturer's engineers and designers can translate their vision into soaring metals and composites. Because the launch customer of a new airframe sometimes orders a dozen or more planes, the transaction can be a “bet-the-company” teeth-rattler for both buyer and seller.

In other words, it takes guts to be a launch customer.

U.S. airlines used to have that kind of mettle. In 1963, United Airlines was the launch customer for the Boeing 727 tri-jet, which became the most popular airplane of its era. Eastern Airlines received the first 757 narrowbody in 1982, the same year that United accepted delivery of its larger sibling, the 767 widebody. And the second-greatest launch in aviation history -- after the one at Kitty Hawk -- occurred on January 21, 1970, when Pan Am first flew a bulbous megalith called a 747.

New airplanes are still being created, although only two companies still build large commercial jets, Boeing and Airbus. The Boeing planes are numbered using a 7x7 designation, and the Airbus planes are numbered using an A3xx designation.

Where are the Americans? The launch customers are now heavily foreign.

The double-decker A380 “superjumbo” will fly in service for the first time this October. It will wear the livery of Singapore Airlines. Boeing’s new entrant, the fuel-efficient mid-size 787 Dreamliner, will first be flown by Japan’s All Nippon Airways.

Of the eight principal Airbus airframes, seven were launched by European or Asian carriers. (The exception is the giggle-inducing Airbus A318, which entered service with U.S. budget carrier Frontier Airlines in 2004.)

The story’s not much better if you look at the variants produced in the last 10 years. The plane with the longest range of any jet in the world is the Boeing 777-200LR. The world-straddling colossus of a carrier that ponied up more than $150 million per plane was Pakistan International Airlines. That’s just embarrassing.

The other three 777 variants of the past decade were all introduced by foreign carriers. British Airways was the first to fly the 777-200ER in 1997. Hong Kong’s Cathay Pacific took the controls of the 777-300 in 1998, and Air France and Japan Airlines shared the honors for the 777-300ER in 2004.

You have to go back to 1995 to watch a real roll of the dice by an American carrier. To its great credit, United gambled that passengers would accept long journeys over the oceans on only two engines. The 777 became one of the success stories of modern aviation.

America’s airlines used to lead the world in bringing innovative planes to market. Now they follow, in the middle of the pack.

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Friday, August 17, 2007

"And You Got Caught At The Miami Airport? Really?"

Back when encounters with airport security were Michael Vick's biggest problem. (Two days after this SNL segment aired, charges against Vick were dropped.)

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Poor Marks Over The Water

Sherman Oaks, California

United Airlines' heavily promoted new International First Class service receives poor reviews from the grizzled veterans at FlyerTalk.

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Passport Horror Story: "The average waiting time is 163 minutes"

Sherman Oaks, California

Bruce Reed of Slate attempts to renew his family's passports.

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Saturday, August 11, 2007

Ninth Circuit Clarifies Basis of Airport Screening

Sherman Oaks, California

Daniel Kuualoha Aukai is no criminal mastermind.

When Aukai decided to transport crystal meth from Honolulu, Hawaii, to Kona on the Big Island in 2003 (his first mistake), he decided to fly commercial (his second mistake). He passed through the metal detector without incident, but he failed to produce government-issued photo identification (his third mistake). Consequently, he was subject to a secondary search by a hand-held magnetometer which beeped when it passed over Aukai’s right front pants pocket, where Auhai had left his keys or his change (his fourth mistake). The TSA officers investigated further and found several bags of meth on Aukai’s person.

After a guilty plea (with a limited reservation of appeal rights), the U.S. District Court in Hawaii sentenced Aukai to almost 6 years in jail for possession with intent to distribute methamphetamines and for being unbelievably stupid.

I mention this because the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, the federal appellate court for the westernmost United States, ruled on Aukai’s appeal on Friday. Not surprisingly, the conviction was affirmed.

Of interest to frequent travelers is the Ninth Circuit’s ruling that, language in prior decisions notwithstanding, consent has nothing to do with a search at airport security.

An airport search is a “special government needs” search, the court unanimously clarified in a special 15-member panel. The majority opinion read:

“The constitutionality of an airport screening search, however, does not depend on consent, and requiring that a potential passenger be allowed to revoke consent to an ongoing airport security search makes little sense in a post-9/11 world. Such a rule would afford terrorists multiple opportunities to attempt to penetrate airport security by ‘electing not to fly’ on the cusp of detection until a vulnerable portal is found. This rule would also allow terrorists a low-cost method of detecting systematic vulnerabilities in airport security, knowledge that could be extremely valuable in planning future attacks. Likewise, given that consent is not required, it makes little sense to predicate the reasonableness of an administrative airport screening search on an irrevocable implied consent theory," the Court wrote.

"Rather, where an airport screening search is otherwise reasonable and conducted pursuant to statutory authority, all that is required is the passenger’s election to attempt entry into the secured area of an airport. Under current TSA regulations and procedures, that election occurs when a prospective passenger walks through the magnetometer or places items on the conveyor belt of the x-ray machine. The record establishes that Aukai elected to attempt entry into the posted secured area of Honolulu International Airport when he walked through the magnetometer, thereby subjecting himself to the airport screening process,” the Court continued. United States v. Aukai, Case No. 04-10226 (9th Cir. August 10, 2007) (en banc) (emphasis added).

In footnotes, the Court agreed with the government’s position that a passenger becomes subject to the search upon entering the screening line or upon presenting identification and a boarding pass to a TSA officer prior to screening. Three concurring justices felt that the references to 9/11 were irrelevent to the constitutional analysis.

These legal distinctions are, however, academic to Mensa member Aukai. According to the federal Bureau of Prisons, Aukai was released from custody on July 3, 2007.

In the future, he may prefer to travel by boat.

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Friday, August 10, 2007

Air New Zealand Avoiding United States

Sherman Oaks, California

Air New Zealand is trumpeting the fact that its Auckland-to-Europe route now avoids the United States and the hassles imposed by the TSA on transiting international passengers. Patrick Smith, who writes the "Ask The Pilot" column for Salon, is on the story (third item down). Because, if there's a group of people our policies are supposed to scare away, it's the Kiwis.

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Thursday, August 09, 2007

Rendezvous with Rama

Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke (U.K. 1973).

(Spoilers: This post discusses the conclusion of the novel.)

In retrospect, the solution was obvious.

If your planet were in danger of being destroyed, you wouldn’t build an arc or launch a fleet of battlestars with the last remnants of your race. The times and distances involved in safely transporting thousands of individuals to another inhabitable planet wouldn’t allow it.

Science fiction writers avoid the problem by using the short cuts of faster-than-light travel or suspended animation, sometimes both. But, from the perspective of “hard” science fiction, that’s cheating. As far as we know, nothing can travel faster than the speed of light, and no complex living organism could survive in an extended state of suspension.

That’s still the state of science in the 22nd century, as depicted in Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke. The United Planets governs the inhabited portions of the solar system from its headquarters on Earth’s Moon. (Earth’s gravity is too heavy for people born on Mercury or Mars to tolerate, and the settlers and pioneers are suspicious of the political power of Earth in any event, so a relatively neutral site was selected for headquarters.)

Operation Spaceguard – created to protect the solar system from the interstellar debris that destroyed Padua, Venice and Verona on September 11 (yes, September 11), 2077 – detects an unknown object heading toward the sun. An unmanned probe reveals that the object, christened “Rama,” is not an asteroid but a hollow cylinder 50 kilometers long, with ends 20 kilometers in diameter, too perfect in its dimensions to be anything but artificial. The closest spacecraft, the survey ship Endeavor, is ordered to land on Rama’s surface and explore its interior.

The men and women on the rendezvous wander into a wonder. Rama is a ring world, with land and an ocean held to the sides of the cylinder by the light gravity generated with Rama’s spin. An explorer standing on the “ground” of Rama can see the landscape curve up on both sides and meet at the “ceiling” twenty kilometers above, which is land that would appear to be the “ground” for anybody standing on it.

Rama appears to be completely lifeless, a dead world with no sign of its creators, dubbed “the Ramans.” And so the crew members of Endeavor begin their exploration, always aware that they will have to abandon mission when Rama comes too close to the sun. As the explorers catalogue strange outcroppings and a ribbon of a sea bisecting the cylinder and an interior lighting system on apparently automatic controls, they ask themselves the same question:

“What is Rama for?”

The answer, intimated half-way through the book, is that Rama is a machine for making Ramans.

Of course. If the distance to the nearest inhabitable planet is measured in tens of light years, “survival” would have to be redefined. Individuals and families won’t live through the trip, and their viability would depend on potentially balky life support systems. A thousand things could go wrong during the journey, threatening the species with extinction.

The greatest chance of “survival” is to create and launch a spacecraft that would, at the proper time, begin to assemble self-replicating amino acids and then provide an environment for accelerated evolution. The Ramans would survive, although no particular Raman would.

Rama holds many other mysteries and suspecting its purpose does not make it easier for the explorers. Along with its science and philosophy, Rendezvous With Rama provides page-turning adventure as humans contend with the dangers of walking on a world they were never meant to visit.

Rama is also leavened with the author’s trademark gentle humor. “Even in the twenty-second century, no way had yet been discovered of keeping elderly and conservative scientists from occupying crucial administrative positions,” Clarke writes. “Indeed, it was doubted that the problem ever would be solved.”

The final surprises in the book are the best. They hit you between the eyes, and – as is the case with great literary surprises – you kick yourself for not figuring them out, there were so many clues.

In retrospect, it’s obvious.

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Wednesday, August 08, 2007

The Home Run King

Sherman Oaks, California

I see in the morning paper that no professional baseball player has yet to break Sadaharu Oh's record of 868 home runs amassed with the Tokyo Giants between 1959 and 1980. Apparently, there's been some movement further down in the standings.

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Tuesday, August 07, 2007

You Couldn't Make This Stuff Up, Chinese Communist Party Edition

Sherman Oaks, California

Chinese authorities, who have made empty promises that foreign reporters would be able to freely cover Chinese news during the 2008 Olympic Games, harass and detain foreign reporters at an event devoted to press freedom in China.

Other coverage: Washington Post. Associated Press.

UPDATE: The L.A. Times has posted a story as well.

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Yet More on the Kim Il-sung Mummy Issue

Sherman Oaks, California

For the six people who are following this thread:

Mark Magnier, Beijing bureau chief of the Los Angeles Times, has clarified to Knife Tricks his intent when he discussed a “wax likeness” of the late North Korean strongman Kim Il-sung.

“I was referring to the International Friendship Museum north of Pyongyang,” Magnier e-mails. The Museum contains a replica of Kim.

I would be remiss if I did not point out that the details in Magnier’s article fit the Kamsusan Mausoleum (where the Great Leader’s preserved body lies in repose) more comfortably than they fit the Museum. The article reads:

"A museum north of Pyongyang features a Madame Tussaud's-style wax likeness of Kim Il Sung. We're instructed to wear ties and bow to the graven image. A group of North Korean women, visiting at the same time, emerges tear-stained. Its members have seen their maker."

Locals and travelers generally dress up to go to the Mausoleum, not the Museum, and North Koreans tend to break into tears at the Mausoleum, not the Museum, I am informed. But I promised Magnier his say, so that’s what I’m posting.

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Monday, August 06, 2007

"We Are The Department of Homeland Security"

"Liquids and Gels" From Saturday Night Live.

The Government's Most Boring Report?

Sherman Oaks, California

We have a contender: The Department of Homeland Security issues a series of reports under the theme What Every Member of the Trade Community Should Know About:. In March 2006, DHS added to this series with the publication of Distinguishing Bolts From Screws.

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Sunday, August 05, 2007

More On The Kim Il-Sung Mummy Issue

Sherman Oaks, California

Curtis Melvin of North Korean Economic Watch has posted more information about the Soviet (now Russian) team of embalming experts which specializes in the upkeep of famous Communist corpses. Interestingly, the team's principal source of income is now the embalming of Russian mobsters and businessmen.

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Friday, August 03, 2007

Everything You've Ever Wanted To Know About the North Korean Copyright Act

Sherman Oaks, California

The following is a summary of the text of the Copyright Law of North Korea (which refers to itself as the “Democratic People’s Republic of Korea” or “DPRK”). The Copyright Law, of which I possess a Korean- and English-language hard copy purchased while in the DPRK, does not appear to be available on the web for linking.

In reality, North Korean intellectual property laws are worthless and are not respected by the regime in Pyongyang. The United States has accused the North Korean government of creating and selling counterfeits of U.S. currency, cigarettes and pharmaceuticals. According to Human Rights Watch, "North Korea allow[s] neither the freedom of information, association, movement, and religion, nor organized political opposition, labor activism, or independent civil society." From the perspective of a chaperoned traveler, it was obvious that all copyrightable expression in the DPRK was strictly controlled by the state and was used almost exclusively for propagandistic purposes.

The DPRK government may have promulgated its Copyright Law to provide the appearance that its domestic legislation conformed with provisions of the various multi-lateral intellectual property treaties to which the DPRK has acceded, e.g., the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works.

In the following section, I will summarize the DPRK copyright laws as written, without reference to whether or how they are enforced. I will generally follow the method of organization used in the classic treatise International Copyright Law and Practice, edited by Paul Edward Geller and Melville B. Nimmer.

* * * * *

Constitutional Basis. The copyright laws of the DPRK have a constitutional basis. Article 74 of the 1998 DPRK Socialist Constitution reads: “Citizens are free to engage in scientific, literary and artistic pursuits. [¶] The State shall grant benefits to inventors and innovators. [¶] Copyright and patent rights shall be protected by law.”

Legislative History. The DPRK Copyright Law was adopted on March 21, 2001, by a decree of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly and amended on February 1, 2006, by a decree of the Assembly as a whole. (The 17-member Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly acts as the nation’s legislature for all but the few days a year that the Assembly as a whole is meeting.)

Policy. The DPRK Copyright Law begins with a general statement that its “aim” is to protect the rights of copyright holders and “contribute to the development of literature, art, science and technology by establishing a strict system and order in the use of copyrighted works.” DPRK Copyright Law, Article 1. (All further citations are to the DPRK Copyright Law. A statutory “article” in North Korean legal usage is analogous to a statutory “section” in U.S. legal usage.)

The Law addresses the protection of copyrights held by people who reside outside the DPRK. “The copyright of a corporate body or an individual whose country is a party to a convention to which the DPRK has acceded shall be protected by the convention. However, in the event a corporate body or an individual whose country is not a party to the same convention makes public his works for the first time in the DPRK, the works shall be protected by this Law.” Article 5.

Copyrightability. The DPRK Copyright Law does not specify any minimum standard of originality, creativity or novelty which must be satisfied for a work to enjoy protection.

One potential exception exists. The Law recognizes a copyright in “compiled works such as a dictionary or an anthology.” Article 11. “In this case, the selection and arrangement of the materials should be creative.” Ibid. Thus, the Law appears to impose on collective works an arguably non-mandatory creativity requirement (“should”) which is not imposed on other types of works.

The Law notes that copyright protection will not be accorded to unlawful works. “The copyright of any works whose publication, issuance, performance, broadcasting, show and exhibition are prohibited shall not be protected.” Article 6.

Furthermore, copyright protection will not be accorded to “documents for state management, current news or information data” unless “commercial purpose is pursued.” Article 12.

Types of Works Protected. The Law specifies the types of works that enjoy protection, which are referred to as “objects of copyright.” Article 9 of the Law provides what appears to be an exhaustive list: scientific treatises; novels; poems; music; “theatrical art such as opera, drama, acrobatics and dance”; “visual art such as film and television program”; “fine arts such as painting, sculpture, industrial art, calligraphy and design”; photography; “graphic art such as map, chart, blueprint, sketch and model”; and computer programs.

The Law does not contain an express fixation requirement. (In the United States, a work is only protected by federal statutory copyright if it is fixed in a tangible form, e.g., written on paper or captured on digital audio tape.) Consequently, performances which are not filmed or otherwise recorded may be copyrightable under the DPRK Law.

Derivative Works. The Law recognizes an “independent” copyright for derivative works (which it terms “objects of related copyright”), although the text does not state whether copyright subsists in the entirety of the adapted work or only in the newly added material. Article 10. See also Article 18 (noting that the copyright in a work which is adapted as a “visual art work” can be “exercised independently” of the derivative visual art work.)

A derivative work copyright is expressly recognized for nationalistic adaptations. “Modernized versions of national classics shall also be the object of copyright.” Article 10.

Adapters must apparently obtain permission from the owner of the rights in the underlying work, although this requirement is stated in the form of a prohibition against unauthorized adaptation. “The adapter or editor of a work shall not, in his exercise of copyright, infringe upon the right of the copyright holder of the original work.” Article 19.

"Related Rights." The Law devotes a separate section (Chapter 5) to the “related right holder,” which is defined as the person or entity who “performs, sound-records, video-records or broadcasts using a copyrighted work.” Article 33. As with the aforementioned editors and adapters, holders of related rights “shall not infringe on the right of the copyright holder to his work.” Ibid.

Related rights holders – which include performers and broadcasters -- may reproduce their works and, “in case of need,” disseminate them. Articles 34, 35, 36. The Law does not define what constitutes a case of “need.”

Persons or entities who desire to “use” a performance, recording or broadcasting “shall secure permission” from the holder of the related rights and “shall pay reasonable royalty.” Article 37.

Duration. The term of copyright protection commences upon the publication of a work. Articles 23, 24, 25.

The duration of copyright protection for a work authored by a natural person is the life of the author plus 50 years. Article 23. In the event that a work is co-authored by more than one natural person, the copyright protection for the work continues until 50 years after the death of the last surviving co-author. Ibid. Works authored by “an institution, enterprise or organization” are protected for 50 years from publication. Article 24.

Related rights are protected for 50 years “from the moment of performance, sound- or video-recording or broadcasting.” Article 38.

The 50-year duration for both copyrights and related rights commences on the January 1st following the publication, performance, recording or broadcasting of the work or the death of the author (or last surviving co-author). Articles 25, 38.

Ownership of Copyright. “The copyright holder shall be the author of works in the fields of literature, art, science and technology or the one who inherits the author’s rights.” Article 13. The copyright owner shall hold both “moral and property rights.” Id. (It is not clear if Article 13’s listing of “works in the fields of literature, art, science and technology” acts to limit the listing of “object of copyright” found in Article 9.)

The copyright in a work created “in the name” of a person is “owned” by the person. Article 16. Likewise, a copyright created “in the name” of an entity is “owned” by that entity. Ibid.

A copyright in a joint work created by two or more individuals “shall be held jointly” by the authors. Article 17. The Copyright Law does not expressly address a work jointly authored by two entities.

The issue of ownership of motion pictures and other multi-author audiovisual works is determined with a bright-line rule. “The copyright of a visual art work shall be granted to its producer.” Article 18.

Works Made For Hire. The work made for hire provision of the Law is not mandatory, but vests power in the employer. “In case a copyrighted work is created by a citizen affiliated with an institution, enterprise or organization as part of his duty, the institution, enterprise or organization in question may have priority to using the works.” Article 28.

Transfer of Copyright. Copyrights may – in whole or in part -- be “transferred or inherited,” but transfer to a foreign person or entity requires government authorization. Article 21. “Related rights” can also be transferred. Article 33.

If an entity holding a copyright is “dissolved,” the successor entity shall “take over” the copyright. Article 22.

Sub-licenses or sub-assignments may be granted with the permission of the holder of the underlying rights. Article 30.

“Use of Copyrighted Works.” In Chapter 4, titled “Use of Copyrighted Works,” the Law states the various allowed “uses” of copyrighted works.

Article 26, titled “Basic Requirement,” appears to be a listing of the specific sub-rights which constitute a copyright and appears to be a statutory provision analogous to Section 106 of the U.S. Copyright Act. “The use of copyrighted works is an important undertaking of disseminating them by reproduction, performance, broadcast, exhibition, distribution, adaptation and compilation.” Article 26.

Copyrights may be used by the copyright holders or, “with . . . permission,” another person or entity. Article 27. A person or entity “shall use the copyrighted work within the permitted or authorized limit.” Article 29.

Fair Use. The Law specifies instances in which a work may be used without the permission of the copyright holder. These instances include: use “by an individual or within the family”; library, archive, museum or “memorial hall” use; “school education”; for “state management”; use in broadcast or print media “for the purpose of its introduction”; quotations (length not specified); free performances: and Braille uses. Article 32. A work may also be used without permission of the rights holder “when a copyrighted work in public places is copied” – a statutory phrase with unclear meaning. Ibid.

Moral rights. The three moral rights recognized by the Law consist of (1) the right to determine publication, (2) the right to be the publicly acknowledged author, and (3) the right to “keep unchanged the title, content, form, etc., of their works.” Article 14. The use of the word “form” implies a right to prevent the destruction or physical alteration of a work.

"Guidance and Control." While the majority of the Law is written (or at least translated) into relatively straightforward statutory language, the portion titled “Guidance and Control of Copyright Protection” (Chapter 6) employs diction characteristic of the North Korean regime and of speeches and writings credited to Chairman Kim Jong-Il.

Article 41 reads: “Intensifying guidance and control is the principal guarantee for the correct implementation of the state policy on copyright protection. [¶] The state shall intensify guidance and control of copyright protection.”

Authority for the “guidance” of copyrights is assigned in general terms. “Guidance of copyright protection shall be undertaken by the leading institutions of publication, culture, science and technology under the uniform guidance of the Cabinet.” Article 42.

Infringement. The unspecified “leading institutions” are directed to “exercise strict control so that copyright and the related rights may not be infringed upon.” Article 45. Furthermore, people and entities are prohibited from imitating or pirating the works of others that have been submitted for publication. Article 44.

Infringers may be sued for damages equal to “the resulting losses.” Article 46.

Infringers may also face criminal or administrative sanctions. “Officials of institutions, enterprises and organizations, or individual citizens[,] who are responsible for the serious consequences resulted [sic] from their violation of this Law shall be subject to administrative or penal responsibility.” Article 47.

Copyright disputes are to be mediated and thereafter adjudicated, but the Law does not establish how jurisdiction for any specific dispute is determined. “Any dispute arising in relation to copyright shall be settled by consultation. [¶] In case of failure in consultation, it may be referred to an arbitration body or a court for settlement.” Article 48.

Finally, North Korean Economy Watch has listed the various international intellectual property treaties to which the DPRK has acceded and notes the contact information for the DPRK Copyright Office in Pyongyang. The DPRK Copyright Office does not appear to have a web site.

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