Sunday, September 22, 2013

Rock Star

How old is she? What does she weigh?

Polite people don't ask such questions. But people who admire trailers of a certain age can't seem to help themselves.

I knew Pam loved vintage Airstreams because I endured a year of marital torment before finally admitting last year that if she had to have one, the specimen in the photo above was probably a good choice.

We've just returned from our first real trailer excursion, and I now realize that America has a major soft spot for the silver bullet, and the older it is the softer the spot.

"Love your trailer," they shouted at us at almost every stop.

Others gave us thumbs ups or V signs as they drove past. One man who cornered me while I was trying to examine the pictographs carved on Newspaper Rock in Utah grew emotional.

"I don't know what it is, but I just love old vehicles," he confided. "They're such a slice of Americana. I still drive a Corvair."

"Oh," I said. "Well, wear a helmet."

By the way, "she" is 44 years old and weighs well over 3,000 pounds, stuffed as she was with the organic, free-range, grass-fed, sugar and gluten-free groceries with which Pam provisioned her for the trip.

Her prior owners called her "Streamie," which I thought was dopey when we took possession but which is now a household word and may eventually be a vanity plate.

She scared me to death when the sellers delivered her to us last year. I am a poor hand with machines, and a trailer is a rolling collection of mechanical puzzles. In an antique like ours, they are also balky and brittle with age. I spent hours in the penalty box last week for bad language in front of Elizabeth, nursing scrapes and nasty spatters.

Nevertheless, with only a few minor exceptions I managed to make everything work for a week on the road. Even for the two nights we spent in remote campsites, we had hot water, cold beer, fresh-cooked meals, and reasonably wholesome sanitary facilities.

The high spot of the trip was Canyonlands National Park in southeast Utah, where we snagged the last of the come-as-you-are campsites, nestled beside rock that took 300 million years to lay down and 300,000 more for wind and water to carve into the dazzling shapes that surrounded us.

That's the spot in the photo, which doesn't do it justice.

Nothing broke, not even on the horrible drive into the Chaco Canyon, cradle of ancient pueblo civilization, a 21-mile ordeal for man and machine, 13 miles of which is unpaved washboard that seemed like it would rattle the rivets right off poor Streamie, but didn't. In one low spot we forded storm runoff after passing signs advising us not to cross if any water was present.

"Those Airstreams can go anywhere," said the ranger who greeted us at the campground. "Say, how old is she and what does she weigh?"

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Fair's Fair, Except When It Isn't

We've taken an important step forward in technology adoption at our house. Elizabeth is now willing sometimes to use earphones with her iPad, which means other audio traffic doesn't have to penetrate a backbeat of Dora, Caillou or Peppa Pig.

I was watching the men's U.S. Open final when I took this picture. I recorded the moment because I was so thrilled to be able to hear John McEnroe's commentary at a reasonable decibel level.

But relief from digital toddler background noise comes at a price. It takes more diligence to monitor what she's watching, something that given the nature of YouTube was tricky enough already.

One of the so-called "tropes" of user-generated online video is the taking of familiar clips and altering or replacing the soundtrack to produce something the user imagines is creative.

Even programming originally intended for small children gets fiddled with by amateurs with nothing better to do. The results range from fatuous to vulgar to scatalogical or otherwise obscene.

On YouTube, these moronic contributions to the creative commons show up mingled in the same search results with the real stuff. So Elizabeth occasionally queues one up. Usually we notice right away, but not if we can't hear it, which we can't if she's using the new pinky-pink earphones.

Thinking about this kind of misappropriation of copyright-protected material by juvenile vandals takes me back to my days helping AP with intellectual property issues . . . actually to one day in particular that still rates as one of my worst at the office ever.

It was in the weeks just after a squad of U.S. Marshals in riot gear plucked Elian Gonzalez from the arms of his dead mother's family in a scene recorded in a memorable and celebrated AP photo that was published almost everywhere.

A couple of goofball web designers copied the photo and animated it to produce a crude takeoff on those old Budweiser "Wasssup?" commercials. It was pretty hilarious, but AP's photo department was outraged and insisted that I do something about it.

I sent the pranksters a stiff takedown notice. They did take their video down, but they put my notice up in its place. By then their amusing video had accumulated a huge online audience, courtesy of some radio shock jocks who plugged it on the air.

Within minutes, my email account was clogged with hate messages and death threats, and furious callers almost took down the entire AP headquarters centrex system.

Then the pranksters lawyered up and went to court seeking a judgment declaring that their video was protected parody under the "fair use" provisions of the Copyright Act which AP had no right to suppress.

The case they relied on was one in which the owners of rights to Roy Orbison's "Pretty Woman" tried to quash a rapper version by 2 Live Crew that played off the lyrics, rhythms, themes and images of Orbison's original.

The Supreme Court held that the rappers had made fair use of the original song, producing a new work that did appropriate the original copyright-protected song but only to the extent necessary to create commentary on it. The justices concluded such works are entitled to a free pass from breach of copyright lawsuits.

It's been a pet peeve of mine ever since my Elian misadventure that everybody in the copyright community seems to think that case -- Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music -- stands for the principle that any parody making use of somebody else's work is exempt from copyright prosecution. I truly believe they're all wrong.

If you read the case closely, I think you have to conclude that what the court intended to protect as fair use was parody or satire that directly commented on the appropriated original content. Just goofing around with somebody else's stuff for laughs doesn't qualify.

At best, the Elian video was a spoof of the Bud commercials. It certainly made no attempt to comment on the photo, except maybe on its ubiquity. The spoofers admitted as much afterward.

But in those days AP had no appetite for playing anti-free speech troll in a federal copyright case, so we pulled in our horns and slunk away to watch while the video went viral.

Fair use law remains a muddle, different in the eye of every beholder, and even federal judges often seem not to understand it very well.

But Elizabeth is only three years old, and in our house these are golden years in which I get to decide all by myself which content thefts deserve protection and which are mindless trash.  I am using my power for good.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Move Over, Galileo

My friend Larry down the street used to ride bicycles in Midland TX with a buddy who had a recumbent that looked a lot like the one in this photo.

The buddy died, and the bike ended up for sale  in a shop where Larry spotted it and tried to buy it back for old times' sake.

But recumbents are tricky, and the shop owner didn't want to sell it to Larry without letting him try it first. It was raining that day, so Larry said he'd be back.

When he returned a few days later, the bike had already been sold to somebody else. The shop owner offered to order him a new one for delivery in three weeks, but Larry was pissed off and not disposed to do business with the inconsiderate jerk.

Instead, he acquired some aluminum tubing and went home to his workshop. Less than a week later when the drive train components arrived in the mail, Larry rode a working recumbent out of his garage in time to join a local bike club ride.

The bike shop owner stood there slack-jawed as Larry rode up.

"You never said you had a recumbent," he said.

"I didn't have one," Larry replied.

"Well, where'd you get this one?"

"I made it," Larry said, and was off in a smug cloud of righteous indignation.

He was riding the bike pictured above, which he brought up to Ruidoso last weekend to show off its climbing capabilities, not much use in the flat terrain around Midland.

I've never been an admirer of recumbent bicycles, notwithstanding the many practical points in their favor, so I declined Larry's invitation to try this one myself.

I admire Larry enormously, however, and not just because he can make a bicycle. Actually, once he had made this one he couldn't quit. Half a dozen more recumbents in various alternative designs have rolled out of his shop over the past couple of years and into the hands of friends who otherwise would have paid four-figure sums to buy them. That bike shop owner never knew what his fecklessness cost him.

But Larry's fabrication skills go way beyond bicycles. He owns three airplanes. Only one of them is airworthy at the moment. But the new landlord at the strip where Larry keeps them has changed the rules and raised the rent, so Larry intends to fly all three somewhere else after he's patched them back together.

A sailing friend called Larry several years back after a hurricane smashed up his boat on a lake near Del Rio because he couldn't find anybody locally to repair it and the insurance company wanted to declare it a total loss.

Larry drove down with a trailer he'd made for his own sailboat, hauled it back to Midland, billed his friend's insurer, and then decided it was too nice a boat to salvage for parts. Instead he patched it up, recoated the fiberglass hull, and sailed the boat himself.

A couple of months ago, Larry was working on a new deck in back of his house when Cynthia, his wife, announced that their washing machine was busted. Larry told her it was at least 25 years old and they should get a new one.

"Oh, you can fix it," Cynthia said, not looking up from the magazine she was reading.

Larry came across the street sputtering about his princess bride and asked if he could borrow our Internet connection to look for YouTube clips that might help him please her. A few hours later there were clean socks and underwear in his drawer, and Larry was back at work on the deck.

Cynthia clearly knew what I now realize. The way to get Larry motivated is to annoy him. I hope this post makes him mad. The pilot light on my trailer's water heater needs some attention.