Sunday, June 28, 2009

Read My Friend's Blog: Land of Confusion Photography Blog

Sherman Oaks, California

A mysterious woman known only as Gigi has launched a photography blog called Land of Confusion.

She is a photographer who is not into cameras . . . .

The photo is one of Gigi's works. Is it a tone poem, or a rumination, or a Polaroid of a child and her Louvre?

Friday, June 26, 2009

Coldblooded Observation

Sherman Oaks, California

Update: I've been informed that the Bruno movie contains at least one Michael Jackson joke and that the film is being edited as we speak.

If pop star Michael Jackson has died (as per an initial tabloid report), South Carolina governor Mark Sanford caught the biggest break of his political career.

In addition, with the Sanford, Farrah Fawcett and Michael Jackson stories breaking, this is a week Obama could reissue the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution without anyone noticing.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Welcome Wired Readers

Sherman Oaks, California

If you've come here from Wired's profile of my travel buddy Curtis Melvin, please bookmark this blog and check it out every week or so.

I try to post at least once daily, and the topics tend to cluster around foreign affairs, travel, law and whatever cultural norm is bumming me out.


Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Cranky Old Men Rock, Part 2: Pay The Writer!

Sherman Oaks, California

Science fiction writer Harlan Ellison has a mild, soft-spoken opinion about the economics of the entertainment industry.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Robert Post Named Dean of Yale School Law, Gives Blogger Passing Grade

Sherman Oaks, California

Robert Post -- who today was named Dean of the Yale Law School -- is the nicest guy who ever terrified me. And, in the only extended conversation we ever had, he taught me a great lesson in being a lawyer.

All J.D. students at Berkeley were required to write a thesis paper, and Professor Post was my supervisor. Smart doesn't begin to describe the guy. Other faculty members were intimidated by him -- his brains, I hasten to add, not his manner, which was always kind and gracious to me.

The topic of my paper involved the legal history of the right of publicity, the laws that celebrities use to prevent the unauthorized commercial reproduction of their names and images. One of the elements of the law is that an image of a person must be "identifiable." So, if Cameron Diaz is watching a game in Dodger Stadium, you can use a photo of the crowd in an ad without her permission as long as you can't identify her among the faces. If you can, you may have to pay her.

The paper traced twentieth century court decisions and argued that the identifiability requirement was a direct descendent of the "of or concerning" requirement found in defamation law, which holds that a defamatory statement must be understood to be "of or concerning" the victim. I found early cases which, grappling with the then-novel idea of an enforceable right to a person's image, imported and adapted the prior defamation precedents.

I was jangly with nerves when I met with Professor Post to defend the paper and receive my grade. I had virtually memorized the thing and all of the underlying cases, as if I were preparing for the Moot Court from Hell. If he questioned the basis of any sentence in the paper, I was ready to cite him the exact supporting decision.

"You're absolutely right," he said. "The identifiability requirement comes from the 'of or concerning' requirement."

"Oh," I said, rudderless.

"But you seem to have overlooked the fact that your thesis raises several interesting doctrinal questions . . . ."

And, with that, we had a pleasant conversation, the thrust of which was that proving your case can become the first step in a longer intellectual inquiry. He discussed the way my thesis affected other types of claims -- but his overall point was that I shouldn't become so focused on the immediate goal that I don't see the larger ramifications.

"And what grade would you give this paper?" I asked as the conversation ran its course. In a chickenshit move at the beginning of the semester, I had registered for the paper as a Pass/No Pass, but I was worried, because that's what I do.

He lifted a pencil from his desk, wrote a P on the top, and handed it to me with a big smile, since it was the last grade I needed in order to graduate and become a lawyer.

I've always wondered what the letter grade would have been.

In any event, congratulations to Professor Post for landing the most prestigious job in the legal academy.

Monday, June 22, 2009

How California Uses Health Insurance To Blackmail Its Residents

Sherman Oaks, California

Liberal blogger digby recently posted about the manner in which current health insurance laws provide a disincentive to seek diagnosis and treatment. In short, he and his commenters complain that seeking treatment for a condition makes it harder to retain coverage, and, as would be expected left of the political center, they blame insurance companies.

But state government is the principal villain in this particular drama, not the insurance companies. The state puts its greed for taxes above the health of its citizens.

California is my example. State law makes a distinction between health insurance policies which are issued to individuals and those which are issued to groups. A person who signs onto a group policy -- usually by accepting traditional employment -- must be granted coverage. A person who applies for individual coverage -- usually the self-employed -- can be rejected for any reason.

Why the radical difference in treatment?

It's about tax collection. If you accept a traditional job, the state collects its taxes in the first instance by withholding them from your paycheck. It keeps any excess for up to a year, without having to pay interest.

Self-employed individuals are harder to tax. They may file quarterly, they may wait until the end of the tax year to pay, and, if they are experiencing an income shock, they may pay less.

So, in order to protect its cut, the State of California does a reprehensible thing: It protects a traditional employee's access to health insurance, while placing self-employed individuals at the mercy of the insurance underwriting process.

Sacramento could fix this disparity, but it won't. The public employee unions, which subsist on tax revenues, have captured the Legislature, and it's in their interest to keep the dollars flowing.

There are some problems with the U.S. health care system, and health insurance companies are not saints. But coverage despite the existence of pre-existing conditions is a problem which the state government could easily solve and, in the case of traditional employees, has solved.

But, in the case of the self-employed, they won't solve the problem, because, for all the platitudes praising entrepreneurship, the state prefers that you be a 9-5 drone floating it a zero-interest loan. And it uses the threat of no health insurance to force you into submission.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Cranky Old Men Rock, Part 1: Ray Bradbury Hates The Internet

Sherman Oaks, California

Science fiction writer Ray Bradbury, 88, profiled in today's New York Times:

The Internet? Don’t get him started. "The Internet is a big distraction," Mr. Bradbury barked from his perch in his house in Los Angeles, which is jammed with enormous stuffed animals, videos, DVDs, wooden toys, photographs and books, with things like the National Medal of Arts sort of tossed on a table.

"Yahoo called me eight weeks ago," he said, voice rising. "They wanted to put a book of mine on Yahoo! You know what I told them? 'To hell with you. To hell with you and to hell with the Internet.'

"It’s distracting," he continued. "It’s meaningless; it’s not real. It’s in the air somewhere."

A Yahoo spokeswoman said it was impossible to verify Mr. Bradbury’s account without more details.

The octogenarian also plans to spend more time with his friend Bo Derek.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Religious Humor Returns To "The Tonight Show"

Sherman Oaks, California

Jay Leno is known within the entertainment industry for his aversion to religious humor. Perhaps he thinks it's divisive or could backfire. But comics who appeared on Leno's "Tonight Show" knew to keep the Jewish jokes at home.

Conan O'Brien appears to be less orthodox. Cable curmudgeon Larry David was a guest on Tuesday and did a funny bit on why he would have sex with an anti-Semite. (Watch it here, starting at 27:00.)

Maybe Don Rickles will be Conan's guest host.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Twice As Much Kevin James on KRLA

Sherman Oaks, California

A big congratulations to my buddy Kevin James, whose time slot on KRLA 870 AM recently doubled from two hours to four.

Kevin, who cuts an increasingly high profile in Los Angeles politics, now airs live from 9 p.m. to midnight, with the first hour being replayed until 1 a.m. (You can listen here.)

Kevin has seen his ratings grow strikingly over the last two years, as he focused his interest on local corruption as well as the many issues raised by illegal immigration. Recently, he was a vocal supporter of City Attorney-elect Carmen Trutanich.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, however, will not be pleased with this programming note. So many of Kevin’s listeners called City Hall to complain about Villaraigosa’s vain and partisan governance that the Mayor’s Office dedicated a separate telephone number to handling the traffic.

The Mayor might want to double the number of phones . . . .

UPDATE: Fishbowl LA picks up this post.

Pictured: Kevin James speaking at a May 2009 rally calling for the investigation of L.A. city councilman Jack Weiss.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Now There's A Name You Don't See Every Day

Sherman Oaks, California

Doe v. Jones, sure.

In re Securities Derivative Litigation, no problem.

But it's not often you see a court case with a name like In the Matter of The Enlarging, Extending and Defining The Corporate Limits And Boundaries of the City of Meridian, Lauderdale County, Mississippi. It's at 992 So. 2d 1113 (Miss. 2008).

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Tiananmen Square: The Smoking Gun

Sherman Oaks, California

Premier Li Peng gives the order:

OK, now everybody knows how things stand. At Liubukou, in broad daylight and right under our noses, the rioters seized armored cars and set up machine guns on top of them, just to show off. They even launched an attack on Zhongnanhai's Xinhua Gate and West Gate. The situation was so tense at Zhongnanhai that tear gas had to be used on the rioters. Can we tolerate all this? Yes, we can -- and we have tolerated it. But we mustn't let these rioters get the idea they can take advantage of the government. That's why we have to be absolutely firm in putting down this counterrevolutionary riot in the capital. We must be merciless with the tiny minority of riot elements. The PLA martial law troops, the People's Armed Police, and Public Security are authorized to use any means necessary to deal with people who interfere with the mission. Whatever happens will be the responsibility of those who do not heed warnings and persist in testing the limits of the law.

Excerpts from "Minutes of the Politburo Standing Committee meeting," Party Central Office Secretariat, June 3, 1989 (emphasis added). From The Tiananmen Papers, page 369.

Photo: The protesters and the Goddess of Democracy, June 1989.

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Monday, June 15, 2009

We're Forced To Choose Between Status or Experiences

Sherman Oaks, California

Status in the United States seems negatively correlated with experiences.

By "experiences," I mean exactly that -- a life brimfull of different sensations, people, activities, environments, knowledge, etc. Imagine a man who, in roughly five-year increments, studies geology at a Midwestern land grant college but never graduates, works as a guard in a national park in Ecuador, illegally waits tables in Eastern Europe, earns a nursing diploma in the Philippines and works in that line for a while, teaches English to doctors in Jordan, scribbles a few years as a medical textbook editor based in East Africa, and settles in Bangkok to spend late middle age selling bacterial filters for hospital air conditioning systems.

Mr. Hypothetical makes it a point to read, learn and experience as much as possible about the languages, history, art, culture and religions of his adopted regions, while simultaneously obtaining competence at his job of the moment. He lives in safe and plain rental apartments, and, on his many holidays, he flies economy and sleeps at inexpensive guest houses. I would add that he is unfailingly courteous, is a "nice guy" with women, drives an unremarkable used car on the rare occasions he needs to own one, and has some -- but not a lot -- of savings. He's surprisingly skilled on the zither.

Impressive, yes?

No, says American culture, he's a loser.

Mr. Hypothetical doesn't exhibit any of the syntax of status. He doesn't have a degree from a highly selective university, he doesn't own real estate in a trendy neighborhood of a glamour city, he works principally in subordinate or entry-level positions for employers lacking prestige, he isn't rich, and he's not famous. This guy's chances on are slim (as noted in this 2006 New York Times article about perfectly decent guys who find themselves unmarriageable because they work in humdrum jobs and lack a college degree).

If our male nurse scratches the Bangkok idea and decides to return to the U.S. job market, he's going to have a terrible time. His Filipino degree may not be recognized, he may have to invest in a new set of credentials regardless of his actual ability, and many American employers would consider his foreign experience to be strange, fraudulent or simply not worth the perceived risk. Worse, since he hasn't followed a traditional career path, he would not be considered for mid-level jobs, because many employers reject all applicants who are not already employed in similar positions. He would essentially be starting from scratch, lacking any status.

Our hero's knowledge of languages and histories and art -- and his patent ability to work with people across a myriad of cultures -- would not translate into status, either. For all the talk about globalism, status in the United States is defined by a tiny set of criteria, almost all of which are domestic.

So the person seeking status has to forgo experiences. The status seeker has to focus on high-prestige education and well-paying jobs, which usually crowd out reading for pleasure or the aimless intellectual wandering that can bear the tastiest fruit. Meaningful travel won't happen, not with the American penchant for taking only two weeks of annual vacation, if that. The facetime culture of many workplaces values long hours for their own sake and would not countenance an employee who leaves the office every Monday afternoon to take a class.

There are exceptions. Foreign correspondents and some international business people can enjoy lives of varied experiences. Also, my hypothetical is exaggerated to make a point. But I think the general rule holds that high status in our culture is largely dependent upon a lifestyle that requires a narrow, almost impoverished, set of life experiences.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Who Knew?

Sherman Oaks, California

Anna Leonowens was a nineteenth century tutor to the Court of Siam -- as dramatized in the film and musical The King and I. After completing her time in Thailand, she moved to Canada and founded what is now called the Nova Scotia College of Art & Design.

"Imagined Hyper-Judgmental Third-Party Perception of Yourself"

Sherman Oaks, California

The web site Bitter Lawyer is fratty and juvenile, but it turned a good phrase and made a good point this week.

In an advice column, a third-year lawyer asked about the etiquette of changing jobs. She was concerned how it would look if she moved again after one year of temping and two years with her current firm.

The columnist told her to calm down and stop overthinking it. "You have bills to pay," he wrote, "which means you need to worry about yourself -- and not some imagined, hyper-judgmental third-party perception of yourself."

That's a great phrase, and it accurately sums up the smothering manner in which lawyers are taught to think. You can't do anything because it would be per se interesting or fun or challenging or a necessity, we're told a thousand different ways in law school; you have to approach every choice by hypothesizing what a narrow, status-obsessed person -- usually a law firm hiring partner -- might think of your decision.

It's wearying. Should I take that International Human Rights class? Better not, a hiring partner might think it frivolous. Should I pay for tuition by working weekends for a local storefront attorney or by borrowing more money? Better take out more loans; someone might think the job was insufficiently prestigious. Should I earn a J.D./M.B.A., since I want to understand business? Big risk, because someone might think you lack commitment or decisiveness.

Unfortunately, a lot of people in the legal services industry are hyper-judgmental third parties. So the student or lawyer who conforms to the narrowest definition of acceptability has a greater likelihood of initial success, as defined by the profession.

But my question to the columnist would be, "Who wants to be around such people?"

Friday, June 12, 2009

The Danish East India Company: The General Motors of the 17th Century

“The Danish East India Company,” by Karsten Engsig Sørensen. In VOC 1602-2002: 400 Years of Company Law, edited by Ella Gepken-Jager, Gerard van Solinge and Levinus Timmerman (Deventer, The Netherlands: Kluwer Legal Publishing 2005).

The Danish East India Company was either barely Danish or too Danish, and it’s difficult to decide which was the case. But the fate of the seventeenth-century corporation, as described in a 2005 book chapter by law professor Karsten Engsig Sørensen, could provide lessons for General Motors.

The founders of the Danish Company were not Danes. Jan de Willum and Herman Rosenkranz were Dutchmen who, in 1615, petitioned the Danish king, Christian IV, for the right to organize and operate a trading company. The company received a 12-year monopoly on trade to and from China, Japan and the East Indies (modern day India, Sri Lanka, Burma, Indonesia and Malaysia). The company issued transferable shares, had the power to declare dividends and was a separate entity from its investors, responsible for its own debts. In short, the Danish East India Company was one of the first modern corporations.

But not the first. The Danish company was patterned on the Dutch East India Company, which was founded in 1602 and which is often referred to by its native-language initials “V.O.C.” The Dutch company, in turn, patterned itself on the English company which was created in 1600 via a charter from Queen Elizabeth I.

So the Danish company was founded by Dutchmen and applied English legal innovations. From that perspective, those small sugar cookies are more Danish than the Danish East India Company.

But, over time, the government became the most Danish aspect of the business. In addition to issuing the charter, King Christian IV (pictured) was one of the company’s stockholders. Through government loans, the king also became the company’s largest creditor. And, in what today would be called the redemption of convertible bonds, he took his debt payments in the form of stock, becoming the company’s biggest shareholder in about 1636.

Under government ownership, the business withered. Within three years, the company stopped sending ships to the East. The company was operated as, and viewed by investors as, an arm of the state. In 1650, King Christian’s successor, King Frederik III, dissolved the corporation.

The Danish East India Company hobbled along for 14 years as a government enterprise before being euthanized. I wonder how long G.M. will last.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Stern Man

Sherman Oaks, California

I bought this book last week, and the author has been glaring at me ever since.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

The Air France Crash

Sherman Oaks, California

If you're interested in the crash of Air France flight 447 off the coast of Brazil, then please read this post by Miles O'Brien. Then please don't read or watch any other news coverage until Salon's Ask The Pilot column is loaded late Thursday.

BTW, it wasn't lightning. The traditional media will focus on that theory because it allows for startling visuals and touches upon primal fears. But lighting strikes have been taken into account by every aeronautical engineer since Orville Wright, and machines as sophisticated as the Airbus A330 don't fall out of the sky because they've been hit by lightning.

I will only add one other point: A mishap four hours into a flight is rare indeed. Accidents occur during takeoffs or landings, not in the long flat stretch in the middle.