Aesop in the Lab

It says something about our times that the news reads increasingly like a fable – which is to say, folly so pure it becomes object lesson.  The latest example comes from Ames, Iowa, where a biotech start-up by the name of Phytodyne recently bit the dust.  The company was going to develop a way to speed up the genetic engineering of crops.  Typically the process takes six to eight years; Phytodyne was going to cut that by two.

This would be the “holy grail of the $30 billion crop seed industry,” as the Des Moines Register put it.  It could help “turn Iowa’s 23 million acres of cheap corn and soybeans – now used primarily for livestock feed – into a gold mine of food, fiber, fuel and pharmaceuticals, supporters say.”  University administrators, the state’s governor, faculty at Iowa State University involved in the project, all were salivating.  The state actually committed $5 million in financial aid.


Who Owns a Batting Average?

What is it about baseball statistics? The records of no other sport – of nothing period except maybe the stock market –have the same effect. Kids who can’t do long division can tell you Ted Williams’ batting average for every year in his career. Games based on baseball stats have become a teeming subculture. In the Fifties it was All Star Baseball, a board game with a circular card for each famous player. The cards were sectioned off according to that player’s statistics. You put one on a spinner, spun the metal arrow, and if it came to rest on the section marked “1”, it was a home run, and so on. Babe Ruth had a huge “1” section; Eddie Collins, the great second baseman, had a small one, but a large area for singles, which was “7” I think.

Then came a more sophisticated version that took pitching and fielding into account. My younger brother played an entire season one summer with his best friend. They kept batting and pitching records, the whole thing. Now’s there’s fantasy baseball, in which participants manage teams composed of players they choose from current major league rosters. The performance of the players tracks their daily performance in the ongoing season. Some 16 million people play in Fantasy Leagues. I’ve known writers who were avid fantasy ballers. Now it all could come to a crashing halt, thanks to the Major League Baseball monopoly.


The Concept of the Fall

There is a dimension of tragedy to the events unfolding in Washington – tragedy in the classic sense. The White House’s woes are not the result of the usual partisan scheming. The President’s party runs the entire government; even the prosecutor is a Republican. Unlike Watergate, moreover, the protagonist in this case is not a crusading press.

What’s happening instead is tragedy in almost pure form. It was the hubris of the President and his aides, their belief that the rules did not apply to them, that has summoned forth the enforcement of those rules in a most unlikely way. Rarely in Washington has there been such a sense that the characters behind the deed, rather than their pursuers, were themselves evoking the punishment for them.


Harriet Miers and the Market Stalls of Manila

The hounds are sniffing for a paper trail on Harriet Miers, the President’s nominee to the Supreme Court. Yet a matter of great significance is out in the open, in her official biography, and most opponents don’t seem to notice. Ms. Miers was a corporate attorney in Dallas. Her clients included Microsoft and Disney, and her specialties included what is called “intellectual property.” This deserves a look.

Microsoft and Disney have been leaders – if that’s the word – in pushing the boundaries of the copyright laws far beyond what the Founders intended. They have helped to criminalize the ordinary act of sharing with a friend; and they have set in motion what seems destined to become a property police state. In the process they have helped to stymie the very engines of creativity that the copyright (and also patent ) laws were intended to advance.


Junk Law

The President has declared war on what he calls “junk lawsuits,” but the only kind of legal action that seems to bother him is when ordinary people seek justice from large corporations. When the shoe is on the other foot — when the corporations are siccing their lawyers on you and me — there seems to be no problem.

Take Ma Bell. Not the telephone company; it doesn’t exist any more. I mean Michele Yontef, a private investigator in Tucson, Arizona, who searches for missing children and the like. Ms. Yontef goes by the name “Ma Bell,” in part because her father used to sing to her the Beatles’ song “Michelle,” which includes the line “Michelle, ma belle.”


Stuff the Suits

We’ve all heard the justifications for the emerging property police state — the copyright term extensions, the international jihad on infringers, the government mandating of anti-copying technology and the rest. It’s to protect the “creative process,”, the inspired artist laboring away in a basement or garage.

To listen to the whining from the film and recording industries, it is a wonder that a Charlie Chaplin ever bothered to pick up a camera, or Frank Sinatra to croon a song, seeing that the term of copyright was much shorter in their days than it is now.


Open Source Kitchens

Some go to dine, others to eat. I’m an eater. I get edgy in establishments in which a meal costs more than the price of a haircut — a Chinatown haircut, — and where I have to worry about which is the proper fork. The celebrity chef thing is lost on me. The writing is just awful, too. Take the inflated prose of rock reportage a la Rolling Stone, gussy it up with Fine Arts 13 affect and society gossip, and you pretty much have the genre. Forget eating. It makes you want to barf.

A recent example is the cover story in the current New York Magazine, called, alarmingly, “The Obsessive Pursuit of the Perfect Meal: Can Jean-Georges Get His Groove Back?” (The bit of contrapuntal slang in the subhead is a giveaway. Downtown is uptown now.) It’s by Jay McInerny, who seems to do a lot of this these days. Basically, it’s about a guy by the name of Jean-Georges who was a big man with a skillet once, hung up his apron early, and now is trying a comeback.


Heavy Boots at Berkeley

What happens when faculty at a major university raise questions about a multimillion dollar research deal between a corporation and the university? And what happens to science when the search for truth becomes a quest for corporate gain? You could ask Ignacio Chapela. It wouldn’t be a bad idea, because the way things are going, there are likely to be a lot more cases like his.

Chapela, as many readers will recall, was a leader in the opposition to a $25 million deal between U-Cal Berkeley and Novartis, the Swiss biotech firm in 1998. (Novartis since has become Syngenta.) When his tenure application came up, his colleagues in the College of Natural Resources supported him by a 32-1 vote. A special tenure committee backed him unanimously.


Where’s Hoover?

The inkjet printer represents one of the worst business models ever devised. They sell the things for practically nothing. “What?” you think. “I can buy a printer for less than a hundred dollars?” Then you discover that the cartridges cost twenty-five to thirty dollars each, and that they wear out all the time, so that you’ll pay for the printer several times over within a year or two.

Not only that. They make a slightly different cartridge for each series of models, so that you can’t interchange them. If you had a stash left over from your old printer, too bad. They design them to be hard to refill — with most types you actually have to use a drill. If you do refill anyway, the cartridge won’t send the proper signal back to your computer, so the control mechanism gets thrown off.


Tollbooths of the Mind

If one thing is central to the idea of America, it is the ability to breathe freely in the atmosphere of the mind. Thomas Jefferson was the champion of this ideal, and he saw that government was not the only threat to it. Taken too far, private property could shackle freedom, too, as the slaves from Africa knew only too well.

“If nature has made any one thing less susceptible than all others of exclusive property,” Jefferson wrote, “it is the action of the thinking power called an idea.”