I want to go to Provence. In 1970.

There was a secret shared, and in time, the secret was widely shared. It was beautiful. Tasty and life-affirming, too. And many of us benefit from it every day of our lives.

Before 1970–give or take a few years either way–we ate frozen and canned foods, modern conveniences for the busy family. Fresh food wasn’t on the radar (and certainly not on the Radarange). Restaurants weren’t modern, not yet focused on locavores, or for that matter, shared cuisines beyond, say, a local pizza or Chinese restaurant.

What changed? Lots of cultural norms–greater awareness, shifted sensibilities, a focus on nutrition and fresh foods. This didn’t happen magically. It may have begun, in earnest, in 1970, when several iconoclasts gathered in nearby homes in the south of France. They changed the way we think about food, and if food is life, they changed the way we think about life, too.

They were Julia and Paul Child, whose rough contours were sketched in the film Julie & Julia. And, to a lesser degree, Simone Beck, who co-wrote “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” with Julia, and whose insistence upon classic French tradition emboldened Julia to think more clearly about the real world of American moms (few American dads cooked–except outdoors). There was the travel / food / free spirited writer M.F.K. Fisher and the American food expert  James Beard, struggling through an extensive survey of our unique and sometimes inexplicable cuisine. And several others who cooked together, argued, and savory the good life that was making its way to Sonoma and Napa.

Their story is told by Ms. Fisher’s nephew, Luke Barr in a book that’s becoming quite popular. It’s called Provence, 1970, and it provided a  winter weekend’s entertainment. There are menus, and they lead into wonderful stories of friends building meals together– serious cooks experimenting and showing off for their foodie friends. It’s loose and informal, and I kept fantasizing about what it might have been like to join them, if just for a night. Few nonfiction books draw me into the story in quite this way, and it was fun to be a part of it, if only as an observer nearly fifty years later.

It’s now available in paperback, but there’s something about the hardbound edition that’s even more appealing.


BTW: The complete title is “Provence, 1970: M. F. K. Fisher, Julia Child, James Beard, and the Reinvention of American Taste.” Here’s an excerpt, courtesy of NPR.

M.F.K. Fisher, clearly enjoying life.P.S.: I think I need to read more by M.F.K. Fisher. One intriguing title is a 1942 book called “How to Cook a Wolf.” I found a review of the book when it was new in the digital catacombs of The New York Times. They wrote:

Mrs. Fisher writes about food with such relish and enthusiasm that the mere reading of her books creates a clamorous appetite. She also writes with a robust sense of humor and a nice capacity for a neatly turned phrase.”

Beyond the Decisive Moment

Cartier-BressonHenri Cartier-Bresson was one of the great photographers of the 20th century. Best known as a prolific street photographer (for whom color was a commercial concession, not an aesthetic option), HCB’s life story is no less compelling than his lifetime of images. His career and personal commitments were well-described last year at an extensive exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. Happily, the exhibition has been packaged as a coffee table book by Clément Chéroux and published by Thames & Hudson. It’s expensive ($75) and it’s worth the money, in part because Mr. Chéroux curated the 2014 exhibition.

Students of photography associated HCB with “the decisive moment. Just as Martin Luther King (okay, “MLK”)’s life work far exceeds the brief period of his “I Have a Dream” speech, Cartier-Bresson’s infatuation with the precise instant when a photograph ought to be made is only part of an expansive range of artistic and journalist expression.

Born in 1908, Cartier-Bresson grew up in a comfortable Parisian household; the family owned a large cotton and thread manufacturing company. 1908 was also the year that, in England, Robert Baden-Powell published “Scouting for Boys” to support his new progressive approach to education known as the Boy Scouts. The organization’s combination of an active life for boys, with ample freedom and discipline, was a good match. At age 14, as a Scout, Henri began to experiment with photography, but only as  hobby. The family’s plan for Henri was all business—he was sent to the best schools so he could, sometime, lead the large family business. Of course, things didn’t work out as planned. Instead, with the blessings of his family, he studied art. Mostly cubism. Which he found “boring” because it was “too systematic.” He preferred the more expansive world view offered by surrealism. In October, 1930, by now free from both his formal education and military service, Cartier-Bresson followed Europeans curious about “the Dark Continent.” He spent nearly a year in Cote D’Ivoire, Cameroon, the French Sudan, Togo, and along the Niger River, he photographed children on the streets and people at work—avoiding the exotic and tribal imagery, just focusing on the day-to-day. Over the next few years, his casual interest in travel photography became a passion, then, a career. He traveled to, and photographed street activities in, Paris, Marseilles, Milan, Florence, Sienna, Trieste, Madrid, various parts of Mexico, and more.

Along the way, he learned by copying the styles of Eugene Atget (streets of Paris, store windows); European photographers intrigued by the geometry of city life (mostly); the golden section that is key to classic composition; various less-than-compressible surrealistic sketches and distortions. In time, he worked out his own style. Before he turned 30, he had created enough distinctive images to display his work in a successful exhibition.

The story becomes more interesting as HCB moves from travel photography and street work (often one and the same) to work with a more specific purpose: often, related to his attachment to the ideals of Communism. Stories of the Spanish Civil War, Mussolini, and the utter transformation of Europe are among the best stories—supported by some of the best images—in this book. He becomes concerned about poverty and tells his visual stories so they will provoke attention. He attends to the facial expression and behavior of crowds, often ignoring (and needing to caption) just what they are looking at. He documents free time—a relatively new idea in 1938 France, at least for the working class—and this is probably my favorite selection of his work. For example, a Sunday on the banks of the Seine from that year:


In truth, what I love about this book is the arc of the creative story. It begins with a smart teenager who decides he likes art and photography better than college and business, who grows up quickly as he travels and makes stunning pictures. Then, he finds his political and social conscience, and plays a very active role, using his photography as a very effective tool. Then, he realizes that his political affiliations will become a career problem, so he co-founds Magnum, a journalistic photo agency with Robert Capa and several other extraordinary photojournalists, and becomes one of LIFE magazine’s active contributors. Then, he explores topics that interest him: the growing connection between people and machines (a project for the IBM of the 1960s, for example), icons of power (very powerful—and decidedly odd—image of a giant Lenin in front of the Winter Palace in Leningrad as a man and his small child stroll in the foreground), and the ways that crowds behave. And then, in this 60s, he begins to slow down, to take images that are more focused on the feeling than the moment. And he begins to draw, picking up on something he loved to do as a child. He visits art museums, and spends hours sketching great works. He takes pictures of the family with his legendary Leicas. It’s a lovely life story, wonderfully punctuated by his pencil on paper self portraits from 1987 and 1992. One of the better free bios on the web is here. And there are a lot of smaller books filled with specific HCB projects that you can find on Goodreads, along with the compendium Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Man, The Image and His World, also from Thames & Hudson.

Henri-Cartier Bresson was born in August, 1908 and died in August, 2004—he lived, and documented, the better part of a century. And nobody did it better.

On the left, a picture of an American woman in 1947. On the right, “Giant Effigy of Lenin” from 1973.




An Authentic, Modern Meal in Venice

Venice is a small city overrun not with cars, but with tourists. It is a charming place to stroll, romantic in the dark alleys of the  night, a bit spooky when a rat crosses the path (the place is filled with canals and infrastructure that pre-dates Columbus), charming in so many ways. Venetian cuisine differs from traditional Italian cuisine—this is not the place where you will find fried breaded meats in tomato sauce covered with mozzarella cheese. Instead, it is a place where fish dominates, and cuisines have been shaped by constant trade with the far east, the near east, northern Africa and the rest of Europe. You’d never know it to walk into just any restaurant in touristy San Marco, but I headed to the edge of town to enjoy a proper meal of Venetian specialties prepared by a gloriously obsessive restauranteur whose past history includes years as a session musician (a bassist) in the recording studios of Paris, GP Cremonini.

My meal began with fish. Not one fish. Lots of small crudo (raw) pieces of fish that resembled, but did not taste like sushi.


On the upper left, that’s salmon covered by stracciatella and alfalfa sprouts. I savored the red snapper—number two on the top—but I could not figure out what the green flavor might be—it turned out to be a very fresh lime, a delightful companion. The strawberry rests on a morsel of sea bass, and it’s followed by a piece of sea bream with a bit of fresh mint. The second row begins with sea bass and wild fennel, then swordfish with a slender stick of vanilla, and finally, that’s passion fruit relish on amberjack. There were eight fish—the one that I ate before I took the picture was tuna with a bit of citrus, probably orange. Overall, a wonderful introduction to the region’s fresh fish, and a clever way to present their flavors in a fresh and inviting way. But there’s more to the story…consider the level of commitment to ingredients, the experimentation to find just the right combination. That’s the obsession that plays out with nearly 200 food suppliers to Riveria. GP had spent much of the day meeting with his grappa supplier, and talked to me about the herb gardener whose tiny backyard garden is the best in the region. He cares a great deal about the food. We’ll see what comes next.

Scallop-SaladIt’s a salad with the obvious fresh greens and toasted scallops, smaller than the ones we find in the U.S., and a bit saltier, too. There are bits of a local bacon, too, which enhances the salty favor. The sauce is a red pepper puree, which adds the necessary sweetness to balance the salty flavor. Bit of polenta toast complete the dish.

Along the way, wine with the early courses—but in time, I felt I ought to focus on the food, so I slowed down. I started with a Bianco Secco from Quintarelli, then moved on to a more robust unfiltered white wine called Sassia from Angiolini Maule. “Only the grape, you’re tasting only the grape,” GP explained and instructed me about the importance of simplicity in this wine and in his whole approach to food. Unadorned, wonderful, carefully selected ingredients are his secret, and Venice and the Veneto region is superb place to find them. But it takes a great deal of time to find these ingredients, to get the mixes right, to train the staff to do things differently. For the first six months, the staff struggled to understand GP’s unorthodox approach and his combinations of flavors, and his working style, but in time, they came to understand what he was doing, and why it was important to both preserve and update the Venetian traditions. This was decidedly different from the routines at other area restaurants where they had worked, so it took time. It was great fun to understand the backstory and enjoy the highly-evolved meals. There are nineteen tables here, and 173 suppliers—“one for the bread flour, another for the mozzarella,, for the polenta.” Everything is done properly, nothing is rushed. It is the way that GP and his partner want to run their business.

On the previous night, I had sampled Sior with local sardines, and they were tasty, but not extraordinary. Here, the dish of Venice’s fisherman—preserved fish with onions—took on a different character. The key was the scampi—the word translates as our langostini, not as an Italian restaurant’s garlicky butter sauce for shrimp—“one is a scampo, more than one is scampi,” GP explained. He went on, “this is a very traditional dish, with any available fish. Sailors would take it to sea. Here, we prepare it at least a day in advance.” With thin slices of fresh apple.


The next dish was my favorite. Gnocchi, but a gnocchi unlike any I have tasted before. This is pasta made with potato flour, but most preparations tend to be heavy, thick and gummy. Riviera’s gnocchi was light and airy, and as prepared with a thin basil pesto with crackling fresh broccoli and bits of sea bass and small tomatoes, it was the kind of dream dish that one hopes to encounter in a superior restaurant.


I’m beginning to fill up. Our strategy of small dishes was working well—until the gnocchi showed up. I ate all of it, and that curtailed my ability to try another half-dozen courses (good reason for a second visit). Still, there were two more dishes that I was destined to try. The first was a single large ravioli colored by squid ink and filled with scallop. You’ll excuse me—I took a first bite before I remembered to snap the picture. The dish is called cappallechi, and the tomatoes are called detereno. The sauce is lovely, but I don’t recall why I loved it so (my notes are limited to “lovely sauce.”


We’re still going. Next and last among the mains is a sea bass with a pool of pumpkin sauce. There are tiny poppy seeds on the side of the fish to add punch and texture. The salty slivers of fresh artichoke complement the mild fish flavor.


Time for dessert. A lineup of five small portions, each one special in its way. Once again, I’m impressed by the care and creativity associated with so many different presentations. Here, the lineup includes a hazelnut mousse, then the best sachertorte I have ever tasted (noting that my time in Venice was followed by a short week in Vienna), a cream puff with a bit of strawberry, a pannacotta (texture of flan but a vastly different sweet flavor), and a tiny tiramisu with fresh espresso dust. Not pretentious—just simple preparations made by a very skillful baker and pastry chef.Dessert-Row

And just when I thought the meal was ending, another small taste of sweets to complete an extraordinary session. The biscuits were standard issue, but oh those little chocolate balls! Cold and alcoholic (rum), with coconut overtones, they’re called puncetti, and I wish I could find or make them at home. What a nice way to end a meal.

GP invited me to sample a deeply personal, thoroughly modern excursion through traditional Venetian dishes. The meal came with more than a few friendly conversations and background stories, making it that much more special. Riviera is not standard tourist fare, and it requires willingness to walk perhaps fifteen minutes beyond the tourist section, but the restaurant is part of a larger story. Venice is sacrificing its authentic past, its artisanal approach to the arts, because tourists expect less. Here, it is reasonable to expect more, and to engage in a conversation about the Venice of the 21st century.

Here’s how to find it. Be sure to reserve—everything in Venice becomes busy when the tourists arrive.

Strolling through Everyday Venice

The day began, as it should this time of year, with a stroll through the ancient streets of Venice: the paths along the canals (“fondamenta”), under the occasional tunnel to somewhere or nowhere (“sottoportego”), and, of course, over the many tiny bridges (“ponte”).

On one particular ponte that I could never find again (many look alike), there is a border collie and a man who likes to dress in New York Yankees sweats. I never got the dog’s name but I will always remember his wonderfully obsessive behavior. When he spotted an oncoming gondola, he would stick his head through the ponte’s iron work, stare for a moment, then race over to the other side of the ponte (not more than two meters) to watch the gondola emerge out from under the bridge and out the other side. He did this over and over and over again, and enjoyed it every time. I suspect he does this every day of his doggie life. Here’s a picture, just as the process begins.

Dog gondola

220px-CaffeflorianJust keep walking. Morning tea at the Florian, an old and not especially crowded coffee house (the first two weeks of December, nobody is in town, so I had the place to myself). It’s a landmark on the Piazza San Marco, and has been since the 1720s, when the Turkish invaders introduced coffee to the city. Casanova, Proust and Dickens hung out there, and now, so have I. The place is gorgeous, inside and out. I enjoy my $15 tea—it’s served in a clear teapot with a blooming cluster of leaves that open up as the tea brews. I contemplate the pigeons on the far side of the square—and the San Marco Basilica which seems to need a good cleaning. The treasured mosaics do not sparkle in the sunny day. They are obscured, in part, by inevitable scaffolding. The place is surrounded by expensive Fifth Avenue fashion shops, and Italian brands (Loriblu, for example, with splendidly silly crystalline boots in the window). Time to move on to more interesting surroundings. I keep walking. Time for lunch. Closed on Sundays (today is Thursday), the place to go is Dal Moro’s, which is not so hard to find if you simply follow the calles (alleyways) and trust your instinct that this tiny storefront really is around the corner. And there it is, perhaps the finest pasta in all of Venice. The pasta comes with an urging to eat it hot, but there is no place to sit down. One eats the pasta standing up, as this couple is doing. Pasta CoupleWe chat for a bit, then I move on to a favorite campo in the Santa Croce area of town. It’s square dominated by a very old church called San Giacomo dell’Orio, and it dates back to 1225 (“Tradition says that the church
was founded in 555, but the first documented reference dates it to 1089.”) The bell tower (“campanile”) was last repaired in the 1300s. I love this campo for several reasons, all related to a sense of real life for real Venetians—there are only about fifty thousand of them who actually live in the city, and it is here that I was able to watch children on scooters, dogs out for their daily walk (and tie-up to a post while the owner picks up supplies at a local market), great gelato down the main street, wonderful pastries and soup at Majer nearby, aging women gossiping about everyone they know. Every day I was in Venice, I spent at least an hour just sitting and watching life go by. On this particular day, I sketched for a while, then just sat back and took it all in. Somehow, this seemed like a better way to spend the afternoon than staring the art that the Venetians had stolen from other countries when they had the power to do so. It fills the museums, and there would be time, in a day or two, to fully absorb myself in the gold-leafed grandeur.

Santa Croce campo 2

Santa Croce campo 1

The day is beginning to wind down—or, at least, the sunlight is beginning to fade away. That happens around 430PM this time of year, but so much of Venice sees so little sun (small alleys and enclosed campos), it’s only about 4PM, but it seems to be getting dark. I keep walking, and sure enough, by the time I reach the bridge to dell’Accademia, the Grand Canal is fading to a deep blue.

darker Venice from Bridge

I wander around the Dorsoduro—another of Venice’s districts—and poke around the shops. There are shops everywhere, and most of the them sell tourist stuff. I keep an eye out for the work of craftsmen, or, at least, local artisans (most of what is sold in Venice’s shops is made in China—an odd historical turnabout). Somewhere along the way—Venice being so confusing, it’s difficult to recall which shop is in which district and which day the visit occurred—I found a local print shop with its own old-time Heidelberg press, asked far too many questions, and left with a satchel full of bookmarks and a lovely three-color print of the Grand Canal made on the shop’s printing press by the two men who own and operate it. I wish there was more of that in Venice, but the economics and the government policies tend to discourage local enterprise. Still, it can be found, if one takes the time, does the research, asks the questions, and, gets lucky.

Walking along the watery edge of the Dorsodoro, I watched cruise ships in a dredged waterway that was too small for their bulk, and wondered about the Las Vegas style hotel building across the way. I found out that the odd Stucky building had been a wheat mill (Mr. Stucky became Venice’s richest citizen before he was murdered—so much drama!) Sure enough, the place is now a Hilton hotel. I was walking along the Giudecca canal (“guidecca” was the name of the island where undesirables where kept—the word refers to those who are judged). I was headed for dinner at Rivera, an upscale restaurant that serves a modern version of traditional Venetian cuisine. Stay tuned…

Night at the Operas

If I had arrived several weeks earlier, I might have seen “La Traviata” or perhaps “Simon Boccanegra,” but I was only to be in Venice for a few days, and there was no opera scheduled at Teatro La Fenice. I was happy to settle for a Diego Matheuz conducting Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony—just to spend an evening listening to music in one of Europe’s most extraordinary concert halls. Unfortunately, Matheuz did not perform because there was a general strike on Friday. I did, however, manage to attend a Saturday night performance of a contemporary work. More on that later.

DSC01491loc-grande-guerra-page-001-344x1024Why did I care about this particular theater? The history, mostly. And the way it looks on the inside. Just being there, even if there isn’t the same there that was there before. This is the opera house where Verdi’s “La Traviata” made its debut. Same for “Simon Boccanegra,” where Maria Callas became a star. It is, or was, a remarkable place in the history of music. Why the dancing verbs? Because the place has a history that’s as crazy as any opera plot. Originally built as the San Benedetto Theatre in the 1730s, it burned down in 1774, and was rebuilt as Teatro La Fenice (“Fenice” translates as “phoenix”) to begin anew in 1792. Immediately, there was squabbles, the theater survived and by early 1800s, it was a world-class venue, mounting operas by Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti, the big names in Italy at that time. In 1836, it burned down again, and was quickly rebuilt a year or so later. That’s when Verdi started writing operas for La Fenice, including “Rigoletto” and “La Traviata,” which debuted there. So began a century and a half of magic—until 1996, when two electricians burned it to the ground. Remarkably, engineers had measured the theater’s acoustics only two months before, so the theater was rebuilt sounding much the same as its predecessor.

DSC01752That’s the theater that I visited, the 1,000 seat theater that hosted the premiere of “La grande guerra (vista con gli occhi di un bambino)” – a tale for men’s chorussopranonarrator and instruments with music by Claudio Ambrosini, featuring Sonia Visentin (soprano), Sandro Cappelletto (narrator), Matteo Liva (piano), Alberto Perenzin (trumpet), Giulio Somma (percussion), Coenobium Vocale (Maria Dal Bianco, choirmaster ). The title translates as: “The Great War (as seen through the eyes of a child”). The instrumentation was carefully chosen: the soprano Visentin represents the voices of the mothers and sisters and aunts who bore unceasing sorrow as they lived their short lives. The child, who wrote the World War I diaries, is manifest in the percussion work of a twelve-year-old musician who masterfully handled the xylophone, tympani and other instruments. The men’s choir—rather flawless in their relentless soldiering on through the era’s music—represent the soldiers. Capalletto’s narration tied everything together in the words of the child. So painful, so affecting. So frustrating—I wanted to understand every word, but I could only understand some of what was being said and sung.

DSC01772It was a beautiful performance in a beautiful place. But it was not my only engagement for the evening. Fearful of seeing no music in Venice, I also booked a seat at the tourist-oriented Musica a Palazzo, just a few dark alleyways, a campo (plaza), and several bridges away from the opera house. I raced over in the dark to catch the final act of an intimate staging of the story in an old mansion–the last Barbaggio family member died in 1804).  Each act is staged in a different room of the mansion. I arrived in time for Violetta to die in her bedroom, the men in her life beside her, three performers singing their hearts out for perhaps a hundred people with the accompaniment of a quartet (violin, viola, cello, piano). The intimacy of the performance, and the the familiar strangeness of the setting in the old mansion, turns out to be a delightful for a tourist to spend an evening in Venice—but you must be willing to buy into the schtick. The audience seemed to delight in doing just that.

DSC01499The contrast was fun to contemplate. On the one hand, a classic old opera house rebuilt from its own ashes less than twenty years ago presenting material from World War I in a 21st century setting. On the other, an old mansion dating back two centuries— Ca’Barbagio presenting an opera that debuted at La Fenice in 1853 for 21st century tourists visiting an old city of just 50,000 permanent residents whose long decline probably began more than 500 years ago. Today, the city exists mostly for its history and tourism—more than 20 million people visit Venice every year. I was lucky enough to spend my time at La Fenice sitting next to a local woman, Mirella, whose love for La Fenice has less to do with classic old operas and more to do with the many contemporary works, like those by Ambrosini, for this is, after all, her neighborhood music house.

Studying Funny

There is a dead frog with its guts all over the place. More about this unfunny amphibian later.

HumorCode52GfQLFor now, the challenge is to figure out what’s funny, why it’s funny, how funny is constructed, what happens inside our brains when funny is happening, how funny works in different countries and why funny often misfires. Although I want to believe that this is a fascinating intellectual and scholarly pursuit, the whole idea of studying funny seems, to me, to be an odd pursuit that’s not likely to yield meaningful results. And yet, there are these two books, each with an embarrassingly unfunny cover, that have been staring at me all summer long. One puts Groucho glasses on a globe and calls itself The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny and the other has a big goofy grin with the word “Ha!” writ large with “The Science of When We Laugh and Why” down below. The former was written by a University of Colorado professor named Peter McGraw; he runs the Humor Research Lab (or, “HuRL”) and promises to be “a leading expert in the interdisciplinary fields of emotion and behavioral economics.” His co-author us a free-lance writer named Joel Warner. HA! was written by Scott Weems, whose Ph.D. is in cognitive neuroscience.

Weems taught me that it’s possible to make a rat laugh. How? Tickling works pretty well—scratch its belly and a rat will emit a high pitched screech at around 50kHz (which other rats can hear, but humans cannot). If you stroke a rat, it doesn’t laugh. Young rats are more likely to laugh, and laugh bigger, and more often, than older rats. Apparently, humans are the same way. If you leave a rat alone for an extended period, then tickle him, the rat is more likely to laugh a lot.

And then, things get weird. A rat scientist named Burgdorf (I’m sure there’s a better title) inserted electrodes into each rat’s dopamine-producing center and “achieved the same result.” Then, Burgdorf taught his rats to tap a metal bar to administer the dopamine provocation on their own. Similar result. All of which leads Weems to this conclusion, “Apparently, rats aren’t so different from humans, which suggests that laughter might have been around for a very long time.”

Yeah, you’re seeing the same problem I am. It’s cool that we can make rats emit a sound by tickling them, but there’s a pretty large gap between explaining that screech—which may or may not be laughter—and, say, what Richard Pryor or Robin Williams could do on their least productive days. Or why, when I’m bored, I will try (and often succeed) in making others laugh and lose focus (I’ve been doing this since fourth grade). Or why elephant jokes are still funny.

Q: Why did the Elephant stand on the marshmallow? 
A: So she wouldn’t fall in the hot chocolate.

Men and women seem to laugh at different things, at different times, in different ways. We don’t yet understand how computers might make us laugh. Research related to laughter, short-term health and longevity is inconclusive (but it couldn’t hurt). Ethic humor remains popular (throughout the world), but the 21st century’s political correctness limits its use in polite company. We’re still okay making fun of animals, and even in our enlightened world, nothing succeeds like a good poop joke:



All in all, I didn’t learn much, but I did find out that scientists are taking an interest. That’s nice, but frankly, I’d rather watch a funny movie.

The comedy team of McGraw and Warner trekked a lot further (“two guys…19 experiments…five continents… 91,000 miles…”) but didn’t manage to cover any more ground. Studying humor is exceedingly difficult, probably because we’re not smart enough to understand what’s happening, which is why scientists come up with theory and do their thing, but the process is not much fun to watch. McGraw’s intrepid performance at a comedy club—these guys really are trying—is a flop. Their Venn diagrams are promising (one circle: “vomit in church” and the other “causing mass vomit in church” with the intersection marked, simply, “funny”). Both books tell the story of the girls in Tanzania who couldn’t stop laughing and comedian Gilbert Gottfried’s “too soon?” excuse to roll into the Aristocrats schtick shortly after NYC’s towers came down; and, sure enough, on page 81, the authors are talking about tickling rate here, too.

Their world tour is interesting, mostly for people who don’t usually follow the comedy business. This book attempts to be a global comedy road trip, and it’s interesting to visit Yoshimoto Kogyo in Japan: a comedy school that also manages 800 Japanese comedians (not sure why, but the image of 800 Japanese comedians makes me laugh). The company owns many of Japan’s comedy clubs and used to own a comedy theme park, too. There are Yoshimoto Kogyo golf balls, and instant ramen meals, too. The authors make good use of their travel budget, visiting Scandinavia where their obsession with the Danish cartoons that rattled Islam sensibility tends to overshadow the warmth and classy outrage that has been part of Danish humor since the days of Victor Borge (don’t miss this!). Humor on the Gaza Strip (conflict and humor are often linked), and in a chapter about the Amazon (where the inevitable Norman Cousins story about laughter as medicine is told, along with some notes on Patch Adams).

In the Montreal chapter—which is about the world’s largest comedy festival, the authors summarize what seems to be a list of items that didn’t require a full volume:

– Make fun of yourself before others get the chance to do so.

– Laughter is disarming. Make light of the stuff everyone’s worried about and you’ll negate its power.

– Create a safe, playful space where folks are free to laugh.

And so on.

I read these two books because I was hoping that the state of the science had greatly advanced (two books from two major publishers in the same year), but I was mostly wrong. We don’t know much more than we did before. And after thinking about that on a rainy weekend afternoon, I came to the conclusion that there is no problem in not understanding comedy. Maybe there is a point in studying it—or, at least, continuing to study laughter—but in some ways, I hope we never figure it out. I don’t think I want a science of humor. And I certainly don’t want a funny robot to be programmed into my brain to provoke dopamine provocation. Really, I’m good not knowing, I’m great knowing that Robin Williams and Victor Borge were funny, and not knowing or caring how or why that happened or how to replicate his magic.

So what about the frog? For that answer, everyone seems to refer to what E.B. White wrote in 1941:

“Humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but

the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging

to any but the our scientific mind.”






The Other Stuff

Tubi TV Teaser from adrise on Vimeo.

Although Netflix, YouTube and other video providers offer a whole lot of stuff, I’ve often wondered where the other stuff resides, why we’re not seeing so many old TV series and movies, and why so little that is produced and distributed outside of the U.S. is offered to U.S. audiences.

TubiTV (dreadful name) is about to change that, or, at least, some of that. It’s a new video-on-demand service with about 20,000 titles in its startup library. According to Variety, “Tubi TV content partners include Starz Digital Media, Cinedigm, Shine International, Jim Henson Co., Hasbro Studios, Film Movement, ITV, Endemol, Zodiak Rights, DRG, All3Media, Kino Lorber, Korean TV network MBC and Korean studio CJ Entertainment. In addition, Tubi TV has lined up several digital content partners, which include Newslook, AP, Reuters, anime distributor Funimation, Havoc Television, ACC Digital Network, Viki, Anyclip.com and Wochit.”

When it launches in the U.S. this summer on multiple platforms, it is expected to be free (ad-supported).



Two Books About School

…but not books about reading, writing or arithmetic. Not exactly.

Both books tell surprising stories about creativity, and support the thesis that experiential learning can be far more powerful than anything that can be tested.

I really like the way elementary school John Hunter sets up his story, so I’ll recap it:

“Three children have made their way into the room, gazing silently at the Plexiglas structure that represents our planet. It’s an imposing, four-level affair—undersea, ground and sea, airspace, and outer space—covered with submarines and ships, soldiers and cities, tanks and oil wells, spy planes and satellites….There is a United Nations, a World Bank, two or three arms dealers, and a weather god or goddess, who controls the vagaries of tsunamis and hurricanes, determines the fate of the stock market, and tosses coins to determine the outcomes of battles and coups d’etat. The children are provided with national budgets, assets, stores of armaments, and portfolios outlining fifty global crises. Then they are given ten weeks to save the world.”

For a video overview, click on the picture:

World Peace Game

The game works because it is is difficult, requiring students to figure out the many things they need to know, but do not know. So they figure things out—a far better way to learn than memorization or textbooks. Hunter describes three types of thinking that improve by playing the game:

  • the development of knowledge based upon facts
  • the unexpected insights and creative solutions that result from trying and failing and trying again
  • the gradual accumulation of wisdom that comes from collaboration, cooperation, conflict, and observation

book-3d-340For thirty years, Hunter has been playing the game with his students, without much notice, mostly in Virginia and Maryland. Then came a documentary, then a TEDTalk, then, this book. He’s now quite well-known, but a cursory understanding is quite different from the deeper understanding that a few hours with a good book and a good author can provide. The book works best when he is the teacher, which, of course, means learning a great deal about himself. He tells one story of his desire to expand his own personal world view by traveling and studying eastern religions and philosophies in ancient monasteries. Feeling good about his worldliness, he (and his dreadlocks) attracted the attention of several Chinese school girls on long train ride. After trying out their English and asking questions about American life, they asked him several simple questions: “Sir, where do you belong? Who do you belong to? Who is your group?” This set off a series of questions in his own mind; he explains: “This struck me because I had been in so many different groups since I left my home community—so many spiritual and social groups—that I’d begun to feel that I had no particular allegiance anywhere, simple because I had come to have allegiance everywhere.” A short time later, woken from a  dream, he conceived of all of the mechanics of the Game in a single instant. “It came to be in a diagram, an interconnected matrix of countries aligned in opposition to one another on every possible level—vertically (undersea, ground and sea, etc.) and laterally—each country at odds with every other in every possible sphere: economic, military, social, ethnic. I would actually see the multifaceted crises floating there above my bed as I lay awake in the pre-dawn hours.”

Hunter teaches in Richmond, Virginia. Several hundred miles up the coast, just north of Philadelphia, Tracey Krause is continuing the work that her teacher, and then, her mentor, Lou Volpe began. They produce high school theater. At Harry S Truman High School, theater may be the most important thing they do. It’s the school whose test runs of Les Miserables and RENT were so good, the owners of those properties determined that these productions could, in fact, be produced in high school. In high school theater, that’s a pretty big deal. In the life of Truman, it’s a minor detail.

Drama HighWhen the author visits Lou Volpe in his home, the living room walls are covered, top to bottom, with theater posters. When he watches Volpe interact with students, the author comments, “over time, one of the things that I come to see is how deeply Volpe knows his students. How couldn’t he? They take chances on stage that reveal their inner selves. But it is also true that the very things they learn from being involved in theater—empathy, the ability to imagine lives other than their own, the actor’s gift for giving a character a backstory…allow them to know him.”

It all ties together. “The theater classes are the foundation of Truman Drama, an essential element in its success. Plays and musicals that Volpe puts into production are already familiar to his students because they have studied them in class….In Volpe’s classroom, thousands of books are piled into bookshelves and stacked so high that if you remove a volume, you have to be careful the whole tower of them does not come tumbling down. The books are a reflection of one man’s catholic tastes—works by Shakespeare and Sondheim; David Mamet and David Hare; Wendy Wasserstein, Beth Henley, Thornton Wilder, Yasmina Reza, Wallace Shawn, Horton Foote, Paul Rudnick, Athol Fugard and on and on and on. They are not for decoration; they are used. If a student is looking for a monologue to perform in a festival or for a scholarship audition, Volpe reaches into the pile, pulls out something from the stack, and says, ‘Look in here. You might find what you want.’”

From a terrific article in Broadway World, a look at Volpe’s production of Les Miserables. Producer Cameron Mackintosh attended the last performance, which proved that the show could be produced on a high school stage, and so, the producer made it available to high schools everywhere.

From a terrific article in Broadway World, a look at Volpe’s production of Les Miserables. Producer Cameron Mackintosh attended the last performance, which proved that the show could be produced on a high school stage, and so, the producer made it available to high schools everywhere.

Author Michael Sokolove was inspired to write Drama High, in part, because he attended Truman (then, Woodrow Wilson). He tells the story of Truman Drama, mostly, through individual students, their personal and academic lives, their hopes and dreams, and their lives as young performers. He also allows Mr. Volpe’s successor, Tracey Krause her time in the spotlight: “Her energy level is staggering.. She teaches all day, spends endless hours with the theater program, coaches her kids’ soccer teams (she used to coach the sport at Truman), runs half marathons, has an active dating life, makes frequent visits to the tanning salon, and finds time to jet off to Las Vegas for occasional weekends to visit her best friend.”

So what are we learning? Sure, there are lots of ways to do school, some more and some less traditional. This isn’t an English class essay, so I’ll steer clear of identifying common themes, but I’ll allow myself just one. The sense of community provided by a big game, and a theater program—a sense that some student enjoy because they’re good at sports and others enjoy because they’re just plain brilliant. Here are two stories about two teachers (three, including Ms. Krause) that open doors for every student willing to enter and engage.

Google Books vs. Every Published Author, Part III

(Be sure to read parts one and two.)

The world is changing. As an author and creative person, I want as much intellectual property protection as possible. As a creator, I want as much flexibility as possible.

Here’s the summary of a very significant intellectual property case decided this month by U.S. Circuit Judge Denny Chin:

In my view, Google Books provides significant public benefits. It advances the progress of the arts and sciences, while maintaining respectful consideration for the rights of authors and other creative individuals, and without adversely impacting the rights of copyright holders. It has become an invaluable research tool that permits students, teachers, librarians, and others to more efficiently identify and locate books. It has given scholars the ability, for the first time, to conduct full-text searches of tens of millions of books. It preserves books, in particular out-of-print and old books that have been forgotten in the bowels of libraries, and it gives them new life. It facilitates access to books for print-disabled and remote or underserved populations. It generates new audiences and creates new sources of income for authors and publishers. Indeed, all society benefits.”

On the one hand, Google is providing a substantial public service by unearthing, scanning, and distributing works in the public domain that may otherwise be forgotten. What’s more, they’re placing everything into a searchable database that can be accessed by just about everyone who wants or needs it.

On the other, Google has gone too far by scanning and distributing works that are not in the public domain, but are, instead, owned and controlled by copyright holders. (Most are authors, who typically assign publishing rights to their publishers but retain their copyrights.) Here, in my view (not a lawyer, but an author and a business person), the solution is simple, reasonable, and available. Google must ask permission of copyright holders before freely distributing their work. (Yes, this is cumbersome, but Google is a company whose cleverness is exceeded only by its resources.) Of course, authors could be pro-active in making such grants because they believe, in their sole and reasonable judgment, that their work’s inclusion in the Google Books database would be in the public interest or would benefit the author’s work from a marketing point of view.

According to Joe Crawford of Moorpark, California, you are free: to share (to copy, distribute and transmit the work, and to remix (to adapt the work)  Under the following conditions: attribution – (You must attribute the work in the manner specified by the author or licensor (but not in any way that suggests that they endorse you or your use of the work). Joe established the rules for his copyrighted property. This is reasonable, and it is now done on a massive scale.

According to Joe Crawford of Moorpark, California, you are free: to share (to copy, distribute and transmit the work, and to remix (to adapt the work). Under the following conditions: attribution – (You must attribute the work in the manner specified by the author or licensor (but not in any way that suggests that they endorse you or your use of the work). Joe established the rules for his copyrighted property. This is reasonable, and it is now done on a massive scale.

In fact, Creative Commons has done a lot of good work in this area, making it easy for copyright owners to establish rules with regard to sharing, copying and other uses of their property.

The issue is not whether Google Books should scan and distribute books, and the issue not whether this activity results in a public good. The issue is whether making full digital copies of a book in a public library that is still protected by copyright, and then distributing the digital copy without permission of a copyright holder is, under any reasonable interpretation of the law, more similar to a 21st century card catalog or more similar to copyright infringement on a massive scale.

As an author, I am strongly inclined to vote in favor of copyright protection and a requirement that Google, or any other party, affirmatively secure permission of my intellectual property prior to its distribution.

As a producer and businessperson, I could reconsider that position because the current decision may apply to future projects in some interesting ways. For example, one might contemplate an online system of recommended books that include substantial portions of copyrighted work—full chapters, perhaps, or more—as a kind of public literacy project. Or, one might translate entire works into other languages to provide greater access to those works. In both cases, if the works are scanned into a database so that researchers might use them for educational purposes, no permissions should be necessary.

Let’s take that a step further. There is so much video now available on the internet, and, for the most part, it is very difficult to search within those videos. If you were to create a database of, say, movie scripts or, in a more advanced form, movie dialogue, you might well be able to show the whole movie, perhaps in “snippets” (the term used by Google for its portions of larger works), or, at least, include these movie excerpts in a series of online documentaries that explore, for example, the mythology of the Star Wars films, or the role of animal characters in Disney or Pixar films. If it’s all for the public good, and it’s all part of a searchable database, Judge Chin’s ruling suggests that Fair Use is both a reasonable defense with regard to challenges, and, in a larger sense, that this sort of activity is to be encouraged if it serves a research need, promotes the films, and transforms the ways that people consume these films.

It’s easy to be glib or flippant about the tremendous reach of the judge’s decision, but in the end, this isn’t about books, or Google. It’s about whether creative professionals will be able to earn a living in the future. With each step into a new digital future, that future becomes just that much more murky. In doubt about that? Read this.

Google Book Chronicles vs. Every Published Author, Part II

(Be sure to read parts one and three.)

The statement from Google:

As we have long said., Google Books is in compliance with copyright law and acts like a card catalog for the digital age, giving users the ability to find books to buy or borrow.”

Baseball pitcher Jim Bouton wrote a popular book called Ball Four. The book is out of print, but it is available through Google Books. Jim Bouton is a plaintiff in the case against Google Books because the work was used without his permission.

Baseball pitcher Jim Bouton wrote a popular book called Ball Four. The book is out of print, but it is available through Google Books. Jim Bouton is a plaintiff in the case against Google Books because the work was used without his permission.

And from the Author’s Guild:

Google made unauthorized digital editions of nearly all of the world’s valuable copyright-protected literature and profits from displaying those works…In our view, such mass digitization and exploitation far exceeds the bounds of the fair use defense.”

Of course, the Author’s Guild plans to appeal the decision, but, for now, it stands.

The judgment was written by U.S. Circuit Court Judge Denny Chin, who has been working with Google and the Author’s Guild on the future of Fair Use as it applies to Google’s insistence upon scanning and posting intellectual property without permission of the copyright holder. (Be sure to read yesterday’s post because it sets the stage for this one.)

This wonderfully cluttered bookshop in Tenby, Wales, UK is precisely the sort of mess that Google Books tries to solve. In the bookstore, there is no search, no apparent organization whatsoever (except those lovely Penguin classics in the spinner rack). On Google Books, every word of every book is part of a searchable database. (Photo by Howard Blumenthal, all rights reserved, do not duplicate or distribute without written permission.)

This wonderfully cluttered bookshop in Tenby, Wales, UK is precisely the sort of mess that Google Books tries to solve. In the bookstore, there is no search, no apparent organization whatsoever (except those lovely Penguin classics in the spinner rack). On Google Books, every word of every book is part of a searchable database. (Photo by Howard Blumenthal, all rights reserved, do not duplicate or distribute without written permission.)

Happily, my book, The Creative Professional, has not been violated by Google, but I will borrow from my own work to review the four “prongs” of Fair Use of copyrighted material:

  •  The first is the character of the use. “The focus of this factor is ‘whether the new work merely supersedes the objects of the original creation… or instead adds something new, with a further purpose or different character, altering the first with new expression, meaning, or message; it asks, in other words, whether and to what extent the new work is transformative.’”
  •  The second is the “nature and copyright status of the plaintiff’s work.” A work that is factual receives more protection than a work that is imaginative. Remarkably, an unpublished work is more likely to be protected than a published work.
  •  The third Fair Use test is the amount of material used. Fair Use protection is more likely to be extended when the percentage of the original work used in the new work is comparatively small.
  •  The fourth judgment is an evaluation of market impact. If the Fair Use was allowed, how might this use impact the market for the copyrighted material? If the copyrighted material is not currently in the market, or if its sales are minor and the use was otherwise fair, this factor may lead to judgment in favor of the defendant who claims that no infringement has occurred. However, if the material is not in the market, and sales are minor, but the use, based on the above three factors, was unfair, then discussion of this fourth factor may not enter in the decision at all. This becomes complex; whether you are defendant or plaintiff, you will want a smart lawyer who is well-schooled in the subtle features of Fair Use and copyright law.

Let’s add it all up:

  • Character of the use. Google’s use adds nothing new, except the ability for anybody to read AND COPY any portion of the copyrighted work without paying for it. I can’t argue that this is not, somehow, “transformative” but I can imagine the use of the term mostly in terms of, say, opening the back of an ATM and transforming bank customers into people who can take money freely, as they wish.
  • Nature and copyright status of the plaintiff’s work. It’s factual, and it’s under copyright for a reason. Copyright provides creative people with protection against unauthorized use. (This is a more complicated idea than one would think, so I’ll leave it to the lawyers to elaborate.)
  • The amount of material used. All of it. Every word. Seriously, is this what we really want as a society?
  • An evaluation of market impact. If we define market impact in two ways: sales of books and promotion of the authors for potentially greater market value, I think I can speak as an expert with regard to my own creative work: sales of books have not been affected in any measurable way, and NOT ONE PERSON has ever told me that they bought the book because they first saw it on Google. And I am no more famous than I was on the day before Google entered my life with their interesting theories and practices about Fair Use.

And let’s have a look at what the judge wrote in his decision:

  • Character of the use. “Google’s use of the copyrighted works is highly transformative…Google Books has become an important tool for libraries and librarians and cite-checkers as it helps to identify and find books…Google Books is also transformative in the sense that it has transformed book text into data for purposes of substantive research, including data mining and text mining in new areas, thereby opening up new fields of research. Google Books does not supersede or supplant books because it is not a tool to be used to read books. Instead, it “adds value to the original” and allows for “the creation of new information, new aesthetics, new insights and understandings.”…even assuming Google’s principal motivation is profit, the fact is that Google Books serves several important educational purposes. Accordingly, I conclude that the first factor strongly favors a finding of fair use.
  • Nature and copyright status of the plaintiff’s work. “the vast majority of the books in Google Books are non-fiction. Further, the books at issue are published and available to the public. These considerations favor a finding of fair use.” (Nonpublished works are subject to greater protection.)
  • The amount of material used. “Google scans the full text of books — the entire books — and it copies verbatim expression…Here, as one of the keys to Google Books is its offering of full-text search of books, full-work reproduction is critical to the functioning of Google Books. Significantly, Google limits the amount of text it displays in response to a search.  On balance, I conclude that the third factor weighs slightly against a finding of fair use.
  • An evaluation of market impact. Here, plaintiffs argue that Google Books will negatively impact the market for books and that Google’s scans will serve as a “market replacement” for books… a reasonable factfinder could only find that Google Books enhances the sales of books to the benefit of copyright holders. An important factor in the success of an individual title is whether it is discovered — whether potential readers learn of its existence. Google Books provides a way for authors’ works to become noticed, much like traditional in-store book displays…Google provides convenient links to booksellers to make it easy for a reader to order a book. In this day and age of on-line shopping, there can be no doubt but that Google Books improves books sales. Hence, I conclude that the fourth factor weighs strongly in favor of a finding of fair use.

Clearly, this is a topic that warrants a third article. See you tomorrow.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 303 other followers

%d bloggers like this: