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Thoughts, Opinions, and Assorted Rants

With a Capital "S"

One of my pet peeves are style books (and pedantic editors who treat them like scripture) that still insist on spelling Southern California with a small "s." As the style manual for the Government Printing Office says: "A descriptive term used to denote a definite region, locality, or geographic feature is a proper name and is therefore capitalized...."

But, the manual adds, "A descriptive term used to denote mere direction or position is not a proper name and is therefore not capitalized."

But does anyone really use Southern California "to denote mere direction"? To split California evenly north and south, you'd draw the line at about Merced. Yet who thinks of, say, Bakersfield, when they think of Southern California? Or Blythe, for that matter -- or any of a hundred other towns outside the Los Angeles metropolitan area?

Even when writers don't define the term, their generalizations usually give them away; comments about the Mediterranean or Semi-Tropical or generally mild climate, for example, mean little to our friends living in Barstow.

Again, who can picture Southern California without thinking of the coast lying nearby, and the line of mountains ringing it in?

No, Southern California is clearly not being used as a geographical term by most people. They have in mind a very distinct region, and (for better or worse) a very distinct culture.

Southern California (with a capital S) also has a long, proud history, dating back to the 1850s, if not before. And not just in California. Even the august New York Times capitalized the term in the 1850s. The phrase also appears in the Los Angeles Times more than 50,000 times prior to 1900 (if the ProQuest search engine can be trusted). I did not check each of those references, but their style has been to capitalize the name since the paper's founding in 1881.

In 1952, Walter Braunschweiger, president of the All-Year Club of Southern California, bragged about the growing use of the capital S, even in eastern newspapers.

"This is no trivial thing," he added. "Southern California has now the stature of a 49th state because we have been hammering away at our trade-mark -- Southern California, was a capital S. We are now established as a very important individual region in the eyes of the nation's business and industry as well as those of vacation travelers. This, though the years, has brought billions of dollars to our area." (L.A. Times, 6-7-52)

Newspapers have, in general, been more likely to give Southern California its due. The Associated Press stylebook, for example, calls for the capitalization of both Southern and Northern California.

No, it tends to be the academics who continue to cling to the small "s" -- leading to odd dichotomies, like the Historical Society of Southern California, which used to capitalize the S in their journal, but now does not.

The good news is that I think the tide is turning. I see the University of Oxford Press capitalizing the S in all of Kevin Starr's books, and I even sometimes see it in books from the University of California Press -- and if the folks in Berkeley can accept Southern California with its capital S, then there's hope for us all.

Wacky Wiki

On a recent Google search for "Orange County, California," the third hit was the Wikipedia, so I finally took the time to take a serious look at this on-line phenomenon. I was less than impressed.

The Wikipedia folks brag that they are the "largest reference site on the Internet." They compare themselves to a traditional encyclopedia, but in fact their entries are created in a totally different way.

The Wikipedia is essentially one big, open forum, where anyone "can edit, correct, or improve information." Its promoters in fact ask people to "be bold" and join in their project. What's more, they specifically state that their "volunteer authors ... don't have to be experts or scholars." And if their Orange County entries are typical, that is certainly true.

The Wikipedia claims to operate on three guiding principals: a neutral point of view, the use of verifiable information, and the exclusion of any original research.

Their guiding principal on neutrality seems to be that by having a large number of people join in a collaborative process, they can weed out personal opinion and subjective points of view.

In the same way, they hope to find "verifiability" but "not truth" in asking their contributors to only draw from reliable, published sources, which can be cited and confirmed. (Yet the entries I looked at included very few citations, and most of them were to other websites.)

Their curious corollary to this idea is a refusal to consider any "previously unpublished ... data, ideas, [or] statements." Again, they seem to view this as a way to avoid "personal views" sneaking in.

Thus the whole thing sinks to the level of a high school term paper - or worse, actually, since the litigious-minded promoters of the site are very careful to avoid letting anyone actually quote from these published sources they seem to value so highly.

The whole premise of the Wikipedia seems flawed to me in several ways:

Without recognized scholars doing original research, it is not a traditional encyclopedia.

The notion that by bringing enough different people in on their "collaborative" effort will somehow result in a coherent, complete whole strikes me as akin to the old ‘a thousand monkeys with a thousand typewriters."

A random group of contributors is sure to provide a random set of entries - random in scope, perspective, and clearly, accuracy. (Keeping the contributors and editors largely anonymous also seems to fly in the face of their insistence on the importance of verifiable sources.)

And even if their collaborative process could eventually result in a sold reference tool, in the meantime, their current entries can only be viewed as a rough draft, or a work in progress.

The whole thing is very post-modern in a way. They seem to value their "collaborative" story over objective "truth." And like too much of the internet, they seem to be more concerned with the quantity rather than the quality of the information they provide. Thus we learn more and more about less and less - or rather, learn more and more about the contributors and less and less about the subject at hand.

The curse of the internet.

I Remember Balboa

Back in the old days -- before central air conditioning and 60 hour a week jobs -- getting away to the beach or the mountains come August was an important part of life in Southern California. Everyone who could afford it owned (or at least rented) a beach cottage or a mountain cabin. Rich families had both.

My family wasn't rich, but we were lucky enough to own a beach cottage, right by the foot of the Balboa pier. My great-grandmother bought it in 1944, and we owned it for more than 50 years. I spent a lot of time there when I was a kid, and had a wonderful time rummaging around Balboa.

Now people who don't know Newport get confused when I say Balboa. Most ask, do you mean Balboa Island? But no, I'm talking about Balboa, one of a score of towns, neighborhoods, and islands that make up the City of Newport Beach.

Newport just seems to be one of those places that no one is from. Instead, they're from West Newport, or Peninsula Point, or Corona del Mar, or Lido Isle, or Bayshores, or a dozen other places.

As late at the 1980s, Balboa was still a complete little community, with a downtown scattered between the historic pavilion and the Balboa Pier. There was a drug store, and a hardware store, a post office, a barber shop, and a five and dime (Donaldson's); a hotel, a nice market, a great bakery, a beautiful bank, a movie theatre (I saw "Endless Summer" there), several restaurants, a couple of gift shops, and even the Bay Department Store, which carried some quality merchandise. Plus the Fun Zone, with its rides, arcades, and places that sold Balboa Bars.

But in a little more than a decade, almost all of it disappeared. The bank was the first to go, torn down. The hardware store, the bakery, Donaldson's, the Bay Department Store and even the market are all gone. The Balboa Pharmacy survives as a genuine local business, but for how long, I wonder?

And it gets worse. Old downtown Balboa has been replaced by an ever-changing string of t-shirt shops and sunglass places -- and short-lived restaurants. Efforts to restore the old Balboa Theatre have dragged on for years, and I wonder how successful it can ever be as a live theatre? The Fun Zone has been sold to the Newport Harbor Nautical Museum, and will never be the same.

It's sad. People are desperate for community these days, yet our cities and towns are in meltdown. Downtown Balboa didn't die because WalMart moved in, or redevelopment and eminent domain swallowed it up. People simply forgot what makes a community work -- local people, local businesses, local identity, local connections.

And our little 1927 beach cottage? Not long after we sold it, it vanished into one of those Newport Beach "remodels" that preserved the foundation and not much else.

I don't go to Balboa much anymore.

Baden-Powell's Biographers

The worldwide Scouting movement was founded by an Englishman, Lord Robert S.S. Baden-Powell, who made his fame during the Boer War in 1900.

The standard, official biography of Baden-Powell is William Hillcourt's Baden-Powell. The Two Lives of a Hero (1964). But in recent years, other authors have attacked B-P, describing him as a selfish, racist, Imperialist -- or worse.

Tim Jeal, in his biography, Baden-Powell (1989), addresses all of these charges, dismissing some, but endorsing others. Most damning is his assertion that B-P was a "repressed homosexual." Most of his evidence seems circumstantial to me, and open to various interpretations. Jeal seems to be looking for material to support his theory, rather than seeing where the evidence leads him. He also relies on a doggedly Freudian analysis which I hope will only sound more and more dated as the years go by.

But ultimately Jeal's theory fails because it fails to explain all the facts. He cannot seem to make his theory fit into the larger picture of B-P's life, and in fact treats the subject in a separate section (where we are treated to his thickest scholarly tone and manner).

Some of the modern opponents of Scouting seem to want to make much of his theory -- though we are never quite told exactly what it proves. Most of them, I suspect, have never even read Jeal's book, which has yet to be published in America.

Lost Valley . . .

It was 1981, and Roscinda Nolasquez was back in Lost Valley for the first time in nearly 80 years. At 89, she was the last of the old Cupeño who had once journeyed to the valley for the yearly acorn harvest.

She was delighted with the camp, and with the staff, who gathered to hear her memories. Lost Valley, she said, was a sacred place.

"What do you mean by that?" one of the older staff asked.

Lost Valley was a part of her people's world, she said. Part of their territory, part of their history, part of their lives. And even though they didn't come here any more, they still carried it in their memories.

That sense of the sacred survives at Lost Valley, as Scouts, Scoutmasters, and especially staff build their own memories here.

It is memories that really make Lost Valley special; experiences, adventures, discoveries, relationships. What we take from it, and what we put into it.

Not everyone will find their memories here. Probably not even most. But they must find them somewhere.

We need memories. We need places and things and people in our lives that we share with those around us. The sharing is part of the enjoyment.

But to find these memories -- like anything else -- we have to look for them. We need to go through life with our eyes open. And our hearts.

And perhaps that is why a place like Lost Valley can come to mean so much to so many people.

The valley itself offers a sense of isolation, a certain rough-edged beauty. Big enough to explore, small enough to embrace. Our own little piece of the wilderness. Leaving behind our ordinary lives helps us to open our eyes.

Scouting plays its part as well. The learning, the leadership opportunities, the mix of people and fellowship, brings us together.

And there is summer camp, too. Almost a rite of passage for young people; away from home, with freedom to explore, but watchful eyes to keep them safe. New experiences wait around every bend. New memories, waiting to be born.

And that is where we truly reach Roscinda's sense of the sacred. To learn to leave without leaving behind. To learn to see that our past is always a part of our future.

The Public Domain

James Boyle has published a new book on a subject near and dear to my heart - The Public Domain (Yale University Press, 2008). It explores the complexities of copyright, patent, and trademark laws, and argues that the current laws have gone too far in protecting the rights of authors and inventors and - more importantly - subsequent owners of those rights.

Copyright and similar notions (he points out) were once seen as a means of giving authors and inventors an incentive to produce good works. The U.S. Constitution spells out some of this, but specifies that these exclusive rights should only be for a limited time.

Now, copyright terms are being extended, not only for new works, but for works already in existence, even when the author is dead. How then is that an inventive to those authors?

The problem (it seems to me) is that copyright is no longer about creation, but about ownership. A copyright is an asset, to be bought, and sold, and protected.

Yes - Boyle says - but not indefinitely. The public domain, he argues, is valuable in building a healthy culture.

18th and 19th century thinkers - Thomas Jefferson among them - saw copyright and patent laws as necessary evils; a monopoly, that could easily be abused. In their eyes, it was a trade-off society chose to make, weighing the benefits of encouraging creativity versus the costs in locking up ideas.

Under the current system, only a few favored copyright owners continue to profit over the years. Boyle points out that 85% of all copyrights were never renewed under the older system, suggesting they had little commercial value left. Yet now works are protected for the life of the author plus 70 (or even 95) years!

The rise of the internet has only increased the pressure to restrict access to material and move away from the concept of "fair use." The argument is that the internet (and other new technology) makes it easier for people to copy copyrighted material. But - as Boyle points out - that same technology also makes it easier (and cheaper) for copyright holders to copy, distribute, advertise, and sell their material. The impact of the internet cuts both ways.

As for fair use, historically it has always been a part of copyright protections. It is not an infringement on those rights - Boyle argues - but one of the conditions for granting an exclusive right.

But by treating intellectual property just like any other tangible property, we ignore the fact that illicit copying does not take it from the owner. It is a false analogy.

The increasingly draconian laws also create a climate of fear and uncertainty, where even legitimate fair use is discouraged.

Boyle's book is valuable because it not only describes the trend in increasing copyright protections (often in the face of the facts), but also presents the thinking that lies behind these new laws and rulings. That is the trend that is truly disturbing.

To prove his commitment to fair use, downloads of Boyle's book are available for free on line at: thepublicdomain.org

"We restrict the length of intellectual property rights. (At least, we used to. The framers thought it so important to do so that they put the need to have a limited term in the Constitution itself; nevertheless both Congress and the Supreme Court seem to have given up on that one.) We restrict the scope of intellectual property rights, so that they cannot cover raw facts or general ideas, only the range of innovation and expression in between. (At least, we used to. Developments in database protection, gene patents, and business method patents are clearly eroding those walls.) As with fair use, we impose limitations on the rights when we hand them out in the first place. The exclusive right conferred by copyright does not include the right to prevent criticism, parody, classroom copying, decompilation of computer programs, and so on."

- James Boyle, The Public Domain, 2008

"Well, I'll tell ya - in all my years I never heard, seen, nor smelled an issue that was so dangerous it couldn't be talked about. Hell yes, I'm for debatin' anything!" - "Stephen Hopkins" in 1776 (by Peter Stone and Sherman Edwards, 1969)