Rothman At-Large

In Search of 'Wooden Watermelons’ and True Net Neutrality

January 15, 2014

Searching for Wooden Watermelons is a sweet indie flick about a bright 20-something in Beaumont, Texas, who is puzzling out her future. Hundreds of Watermelons-style films exist. Call ‘em Small Town Smart and Unhappy.

And yet I couldn’t take my eyes off Watermelons when I watched it on the Vanguard channel by way of the Internet and my Roku box. You’re welcome to disagree. But both the writing and acting resonated with me. Props to Wendy English, the scriptwriter-actor-producer.

Thanks to powerful Washington lawyers and lobbyists, however, the kind described in Mark Leibovich's This Town, quirky delights like Watermelons may vanish from our screens or at least be more expensive than need be to watch. The D.C. Court of Appeals has dissed the idea of Net neutrality. Very possibly, Vanguard will have to directly or indirectly pay up more to giants like Comcast. Meanwhile the big boys perhaps can more easily favor the mass entertainment they find most profitable.

I use the words “may,” “possibly” and “perhaps” quite deliberately, since it’s too early to know how things will ultimately shake out.  Susan Crawford, a visiting professor of law at Harvard, hopes that the FCC can tweak its rules to rebrand Comcast and the rest as “common carriage services.” Most likely the FCC will make the tweak or appeal to the Supreme Court. But though budget threats against the FCC and pressure on the Obama White House---thank you, telecommunications lobbyists---some on Capitol Hill will do their best to prevent that.

Let’s hope that congress members opposed to Net neutrality will reconsider despite of all the donations from Comcast, AT&T, Verizon and friends to candidates and both political parties by way of political action committees and executive contributions.

Granted, Comcast and the like have their better sides. MSNBC, while flawed, is a much-welcome alternative to Fox News, and Comcast’s program to get low-income people online is at least a start despite its shortcomings. More significantly, NBCUniversal, Inc., where English has been working as a producer, is now a Comcast subsidiary. Not everything from the majors is dreck, far from it (by way of disclosure, a draft script adapted from my novel The Solomon Scandals is floating around in Hollywood). But in this case, thanks to Comcast and friends, we’re talking about the risks of higher prices and fewer viewing, listening and reading options for all us.

Watermelons itself is really about choices of a different sort. And maybe Americans need to be more careful about still another kind---the choices we make in the voting booths. Regardless of how well-bought “this town” is (yes, yes, read Leibovich and look up your favorite politicians on OpenSecrets), don’t members of both parties portray themselves as pro-creativity, pro-innovation, pro-consumer and pro-small business? The court decision is anti in all those respects. Ideally people on the Hill would have allowed more consumer-friendly judges to be appointed to the D.C. Court of Appeals, one of the nation’s most important. Then the decision might have gone the other way, meaning less suspense at the FCC.

Small-town Tea Party types, especially, need to appreciate the unpleasant ramifications of the decision. Just study the plot of Searching for Wooden Watermelons.

The film is at least ten years old, and Jude Farnie, the protagonist, needs at the time to go off to Hollywood to be a television writer. Perhaps with a better-wired nation and more competition among Internet providers, which the demise of Net neutrality would reduce, she at least could have sold her first script or found an agent without having to leave Beaumont.

If nothing else, imagine what a boon Jude Farnie would have discovered Netflix, Vanguard and a Roku box to be---in studying Hollywood’s existing works to help hone TV and movie scripts. Jude’s lessons from VHS tapes were far, far less rich that what she’d enjoy today. She might also have taken advantage of 2014-level broadband to participate more easily in screenwriting communities online. Admittedly, being in Hollywood for real helps even now. Still, I think I’ve made my point.

This is just one example. From graphic artists to young software whizzes, the court decision could hurt America’s creative community---especially those members living in places like Beaumont and and elsewhere in Flyover Country.

Internet giants in the past have not always been kind to Beaumont. The last thing in the world we need is to loosen regulations on them.

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Carlos the Bat: Up Close and Personal

September 1, 2013

I named him Carlos, after a Miami–Dade politician with a bat-crazy miserliness toward public libraries.

Our winged friend paid us a bedroom visit last week, announcing his presence in the dark with a rustle. I turned on the light to see a shadow against the wall. How had he gotten into a second-floor condo when all the windows were shut? The mystery remains.

Carlos in Shannon Williams' custody (Photo by: David Rothman) Carlos in Shannon Williams' custody

The first night Carlos eluded capture. But the next one, I managed to chase him into an enclosed balcony. I shut the glass doors. By dawn Carlos had stopped flapping around and was peacefully asleep, hanging upside down from the wall near the ceiling--classic bat fashion. Carly and I took a good look through the doors. His body was mouse-sized, tiny for his extended wingspan of perhaps six or eight inches. Deputy Chief Shannon Williams of the Animal Welfare League of Alexandria dropped by and identified Carlos as an Eastern brown bat, one of the more common bat species around the D.C. area. Carlos struck her as somewhat tired by then, and not just because bats are nocturnal and day had come. Ungraciously we hadn’t allowed enough insects to buzz around to keep our guest properly fed.

The photos show a “jarred” Carlos in Shannon Williams’s custody, awaiting what in effect will be capital punishment for the trespass--a trip down to state health department in Richmond, where his head will be sliced off and he’ll be autopsied and studied for rabies. The photo at right is blurry in places because she shook Carlos up at my request. We wanted him to open his wings at least slightly for the camera in my Nexus 10 tablet, and he obliged--thanks, Carlos. And also for going Number 2 in the jar (no bat goo smelled elsewhere, anyway). Please forgive me for calling in the Animal Welfare League rather than simply letting you fly off.

Still, karmic risk or not, I’d do the same thing all over again. A Washington Post article last spring told of a Capitol Hill photographer who underwent “stunningly expensive” and otherwise horrendous rabies shots because she let her bedroom visitor fly out the window and he or she never made it to the autopsy table. "I pretty much spent three weeks to a month on the sofa with bad TV and atrophy," Ann Hawthorne recalled for the Post. More than a few readers accused her of panicking, including Dianne Odegard of Bat Conservation International, a group quick to point out the services that Carlos’s peers offer humans and other beings. But the CDC says that on rare occasion you in fact can be asleep and then wake up and not know you’ve been bitten, and experts say that without the shots, rabies is almost always fatal. You don’t want it infecting your brain.

I’m vegetarian mainly for health reasons but not entirely--I prefer a creature-friendly diet. I applaud bat conservation. Despite the extreme infrequency of death from rabies here in the United States, however, I’d rather not take my chances. When even a remote rabies threat is so close to home--well, actually in the home--you can think of it as like climate change or the risk of nuclear annihilation. Better to play it safe, as I see it. Keep bats as pets or for pest control? Maybe if you know what you’re doing and have allowed for all the risks. But Carlos was a stranger without a proper introduction. The next one had better fly in with a CV and clearance from the state and city health departments.

So what would you have done if Carlos had visited your household?

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Barack Obama and the Death of Computer Genius Aaron Swartz

January 16, 2013

After Henry Louis Gates, Jr., an African-American Harvard professor, was erroneously arrested for breaking and entering, Barack Obama spoke up.

The President at first overdid his criticism of the Cambridge police, but in the end acted laudably as a peacemaker, inviting both Prof. Gates and the arresting policeman to the White House for a “Beer Summit.”

Now the White House should help make peace in a separate Cambridge case and hold another Beer Summit, in fact a whole series--between copyright lobbyists and America’s librarians, educators and consumer activists. Dead in the copyright wars is Aaron H. Swartz, the 26-year-old computer genius and information-access activist who hanged himself in Brooklyn. He was facing a possible prison term of up to 35 years and a possible $1-million fine for alleged computer-related offenses at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.

Beer Summit (Photo by: Pete Souza at Beer Summit

Beyond the Copyright Beer Summits, here’s how President Obama should respond to the Swartz tragedy--far more outrageous than the specific indignities that Prof. Gates so unfortunately suffered at the personal level:

1.      Offer a heartfelt apology to Swartz’s parents, who accurately described the suicide as “the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach. Decisions made by officials in the U.S. Attorney’s office and at MIT contributed to his death.” Whether or not Swartz was guilty under current law, his intentions were pure. The Obama Justice Department should never have treated him as if he were Aaron Soprano. Alas, Swartz is not the first bullied hacker to die a suicide, and the name of Stephen Heymann, an assistant U.S. attorney for the district of Massachusetts, has come up in both this case and an earlier tragedy.

2.      Work toward the mitigation of extreme copyright laws, including the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, which, in some cases, gave us copyright terms of up to 120 years. Talk about the encouragement of battles between copyright holders and other citizens! Without massive campaign donations over the decades from the copyright industry to members of both major parties, would terms be as long? As a writer, I’m gung-ho on copyright. But let’s not overdo.

3.      Formally propose two well-stocked national digital library systems, one serving public library-related needs and the other fulfilling different academic needs even though the two systems would be tightly intertwined and both universally accessible. The more information is legally free, the fewer confrontations and Swartz-style tragedies we’ll see. What’s more, I’ve told in detail how copyright holders could actually earn more through a greater reliance on the library business model. Fodder for the 2013 State of the Union address?

Ironically, Congressional staffers have illegally downloaded copyrighted books and movies--while congress members were drafting the mercifully killed “Stop Online Piracy Act.” These violations go on. Will the Obama Justice Department investigate and throw the book at Hill staffers, and maybe even their bosses, with the same zeal it showed toward the prosecution of Swartz? Hardly. But the White House and politicians on both sides of the aisle can work toward library-friendly business models that will smarten up the country, promote social mobility and at least somewhat reduce the temptation to violate the law. William F. Buckley Jr. was a big supporter of the national digital library concept, writing two “On the Right” columns for it. Can’t President Obama get more serious about this education-and-jobs issue in disguise?

Meanwhile the President should read comments from MIT President L. Rafael Reif, who, besides offering his sympathies to the Swartz family, wants the university to reexamine its legal actions. As both an Obama supporter in 2008 and 2012 and a member of the U.S. technology community, I hope that the President can show as much open-mindedness.

An earlier and longer version of this column is on the site.

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