Thursday, December 28, 2006

2006 - My Year in Film & Video

As in prior years, by Netflix addiction continued unabated. Going back through my rental history, it was actually fairly difficult to narrow it down to a few flicks that really stood out. Again, not "best," but favorites (at least some of them).

  • The Prestige (2006): Hey, something I actually saw in the theater! This tale of feuding magicians in 19th-century London was fun just to sit back and enjoy. Maybe not the deepest thing in the world, but the constant one-upmanship between the two main characters is a lot of fun (in a very self destructive way!).
  • Clerks II (2006): As a big Kevin Smith fan, I was a little apprehensive about a sequel to Clerks. Was Smith just looking for a safe haven after the debacle of Jersey Girl and running back to familiar material? Yeah, probably. In the end, did it matter? Nope. While not the classic that the original is, Clerks II had some tremendously funny bits and something vaguely resembling a plot that satisfied.
  • V for Vendetta (2006): Hype for this flick convinced me to go out and get the graphic novel of the same name, by first real exposure to the genre. The movie can't really hold a candle to the book, but was pretty cool on its own merits. But the book got me hooked on graphic novels, anyway.
  • Paradise Now (2005): If V for Vendetta was about a terrorist who was sure in his motives and means, Paradise Now is about just the opposite. The first Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nominee from the Palestinians, this film follows two friends who are called upon to fulfill their pledge to become suicide bombers as part of the Intifada. This is not a story that tries to "justify" the taking of human life - it is about the mental process that might go on inside someone who is so sure of their path in life, and one who is not so sure.
  • The Saddest Music in the World (2003): Flat out, this is one of the strangest movies I've ever seen. It tells the story of a Canadian brewery baroness who launches a competition during the Depression to find out which country has the saddest music in the world. Competitors arrive in Winnipeg (IIRC) for a series of 1-on-1 matchups, after which the winner splashes down into a pool of beer. There's a layer of melodrama and flim-school "art" on top of the story that requires a little bit of patience to get used to. Once you do, however, it's a really neat flick (great leading man turn by former Kid in the Hall Mark McKinney).
  • Ikiru (1952): A Kurosawa classic in which a lifelong bureaucrat learns he has terminal cancer and decides to "live life." Except that he discovers that the traditional ways of living the high life (women, wine, song, etc.) are as hollow as his prior paper pushing days. He finds meaning in actually navigating a needed public works project from need to completion before his death. In an abrupt shift of point of view, the film goes on for another 45 minutes after the main character's death, as his mourners argue about the meaning of what went on before. A brilliant piece of film.
  • Fire (1996), Earth (1998), Water (2005): The girlfriend is a fan of foreign films, especially those from Southeast Asia and India. Thanks to her, I experienced this trilogy of Deepa Mehta flims in the space of a few weeks. Each deals with controversial issues in modern India, including the Indian/Pakistani partition (Earth), lesbianism among Hindus (Fire), and the treatment of impoverished widows (Water). Fire and Water both led to violence during the production and release of the films in India. All are excellent, but I think Water is the best.
Wow, it was quite a year. That's it for the Ranch, 2006 edition. See everybody in the new year, after another WVU bowl victory!*

* Hey, it worked last year. :)

2006 - My Year in Tunes

As promised (or perhaps threatened, depending on your point of view), here is my annual collection of musical reflections on the year past. Keep in mind that I don't contend that these are the "best" of anything, but I suppose it's fair to say they are my favorites from the last 12 months. As usual, they're divided into 2006 tunes and pre-2006 releases.

New for 2006

  • Univers Zero - Live: When I first experienced Univers Zero (via The Hard Quest), I was a little perplexed. It was a little sterile, not very "rockish," and not nearly as dark as I thought it might be. Nonetheless, I took a chance on this new live album when I came across it and I'm very glad I did. Maybe it's the more aggressive bass playing, but the material in this set smokes. The THQ tunes are sharper and livelier and the other stuff ("Toujours Plus A L'Est", in particular) are equally good.
  • Mike Keneally Band - Guitar Therapy Live: What would one of these annual recaps be without some Keneally? It'd be easier to leave him off it he'd do something not worth talking about. Alas, this smoking live disc isn't it. It documents the second tour of the MKB in four-person form, with Mike joined by bassist Bryan Beller, and guitarist Rick Musallam joined by Zappa vaultmeister Joe Travers. Mike admits in the liner notes that he pretty much flung restraint to the winds on this tour, but the results are almost always justified and, at times, sublime. The version of "Hum" on this disc is worth the price of admission alone.
  • The Tangent - A Place in the Queue: This album, The Tangent's third, is also the band's longest and, as a whole, it suffers for that. Some judicious editing would help, but when the band is cranking on all cylinders, it's the best symphonic prog of the year. Composer/keyboardist Andy Tillison takes over all vocal duties with the departure of Roine Stolt and shines on the first two tracks in particular. "In Earnest" deals with a forgotten WWII pilot whose life since has been a disappointment and is alternately rocking and thoughtful. "Lost In London" tells the story of Tillison's mid-80s journey from his country home to London in search of a record deal and how "Yorkshire folk," and by extension all of us outside the cathedrals of power, are ignored by the higher ups. Seriously good stuff.
New to Me in 2006
  • Brian Eno - Another Green World (1975): Although I was vaguely familiar with Eno's reputation, I hadn't heard any of his work before finding this a used copy of this album. My curiosity was piqued by the roster of musical accomplices (Phil Collins, Percy Jones, Robert Fripp) and well wishers (Fred Frith, Ian MacDonald, Pete Townsend, Robert Wyatt). I was pleasantly surprised by the material, a collection of early eletronica-flavored art pop.
  • Frogg Cafe - Fortunate Observer of Time (2005): Frogg Cafe began life as a Zappa tribute band, but has evolved into an original musical entity of its own with a unique style. Yes, there are Zappa influences (particularly in the instrumentation - tuned percussion, trombone, etc.), but the band draws from a wide array of jazz, fusion, and prog influences. This was one of my favorite finds of the year, once I got past the rather abrupt opening to the disc (it just seems rushed for some reason)
  • Sigur Ros - () (2002): Somewhat like Eno, I was a aware of Sigur Ros for a while, but never actually heard them. Thanks to a birthday present from the girlfriend (thanks, honey!), I've been exposed and probably infected. This is some hard stuff to get your head around (not driving music, that's for sure), but very rewarding. It reminds me of a mix of Godspeed You Black Emperor! (or however they're punctuating themselves these days) and Kid A-era Radiohead, right down to the vocals - the lead singer's voice sounds like Thom Yorke and since I can't understand half of what Thom says anyway, the made-up language in which these tunes are sung doesn't bug me.
  • Beardfish - The Sane Day (2005): Another gift (this time Xmas - thanks, Mom & Dad!), this two-disc concept album has been in heavy heavy rotation this week. More Zappa influences, but this time amalgamating more rock and symphonic influences than Frogg Cafe. The story itself is about a guy who returns to his hometown after getting dumped by his girlfriend, only to find that things have gotten weird back home (among the characters he meets is "a filthy motherfucker by the name of Dwight" who learns to attract women via some kind of punk ballroom dancing). Lots of instrumental breaks thrown in for good measure. I can see why these guys were the big hit at ProgDay this year.
So, there you have it. On to film!

I'd Like to Thank the Academy (redux)

Today via TalkLeft I discovered Public Defender Stuff, a blog devoted to, well, public defender stuff. In addition to maintaining a directory of blogs authored by public defenders, PDS is also handing out awards in several categories for best PD blogs of 2006. I'm stunned and flattered that The Ranch is nominated in multiple categories. Polls close January 5, so head on over, check out the competition, and vote!

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Happy Holidays

Given today's double significance as the Winter Solstice and Frank Zappa's birthday, I suppose this is as good a time as any to close up the Ranch for the holidays. Aside from my traditional Year in Film/Video and Year in Tunes posts next week, it'll be quiet 'round these parts until the New Year, while I frantically try to finish up my Xmas preparations.

So, from the staff here at Infinity Ranch, a Merry X-mas and Happy New Year to all. Be safe in your travels, don't overdue the nog and roast beast, and may Santa Claus, Hanukkah Harry, or Kwanzaa-bot find you wherever you may be!

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Santa and God

Over at Volokh Conspiracy, David Bernstein writes about a British teacher who is in hot water for telling one of his nine-year old charges that Santa Claus doesn't exist. The post has spawned lots of comments about when kids learn that fact, how they figure it out, and what the right (or common, at least) age is for that discovery. It's a fun read (my favorite comment - " I think our schools should devote equal time to both the Parent theory and the Fat Jolly Guy theory of Christmas.").

All of which leads me to a little speculation. I've always considered Santa to be sort of a starter version of God, to which kids are particularly attracted. After all, Santa's existence must be accepted on faith, he performs superhuman acts (delivering all those toys all over the world i 24 hours), is omniscient ("he knows when you've been sleeping, he knows when you're awake"), maintains a list of "good" and "bad," and rewards good children and punishes the bad ones. It's a lot like the Christian conception of the sky-god who sets forth standards for behavior and punishes those who don't meet those standards, when you think about it.

One of my objections with a lot of religious folks* is that they rarely engage in a rigorous examination of their own faith. Most people, in my experience, tend to follow along in the faith of their fathers, without holding it up to critical scrutiny. Why is that? Could it be they don't want to be burned, again? Depending on the kid, the revelation that Santa is a fake and your parents were in on the sham can be shattering. Once you've gone through that once, would you want to try it again with something as important as your faith? If the kiddie version of god is a fake, what about the full-sized one? Does fear of losing faith keep people from questioning it?

I'm not sure. Maybe I'm completely wrong on this, but it is the sort of thing that pops into my head this time of year.

* I'm speaking on an intellectual level here, not moral/ethical/good person level. It's perfectly possible for a person to be a good human being and not rigorously examine their faith. I'm not slamming my religious brethren.

The Drivel Spreads

Well, it appears that the ignorant drivel spouted by Dennis Prager last month about incoming Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison is spreading throughout the right side of the aisle. Ellison, you'll remember, is Muslim and there is a fear among those on the right that he might take his oath of office using the Koran rather than the Bible. Never mind that no Congressperson is actually sworn in on a holy book:

House members are sworn in together on the House floor in a ceremony without any book, holy or otherwise. But in an unofficial ceremony, individual members re-enact an oath so it can be photographed. The tradition dates to the birth of photography, so congressmen could send photos back to their hometown newspapers.
That's not stopping folks on the right from a good spew, however.

First, consider this column by disgraced Alabama Supreme Court judge and failed Republican gubernatorial candidate Roy Moore. Moore, who's inability to grasp basic concepts of Constitutional law would cause him to fail a first-year ConLaw class, thinks that Ellison cannot accurately swear to uphold the Constitution because it is contrary to his Muslim faith. Congress, by Moore's thinking, should exercise its right to "judge . . . the qualifications of its own members" and refuse to seat Ellison in Congress. I don't see how simply being Muslim means Ellison couldn't uphold the Constitution. I imagine Moore's grasp of Islam is even worse than his grasp of the Constitution, so I don't trust him on the matter. Besides, just as most Christians aren't fire-breathing Bible-thumping extremists, most Muslims - particularly in this country - aren't Sharia-loving theocrats.

Next, consider this post over at Glenn Greenwald's blog that contains the text of a letter sent out by Republican Virginia Congressman Virgil Goode, Jr., in which he manages to tie Ellison, who was born and raised in Detroit, to the problem of illegal immigration. We must stop the immigration of Muslims, Goode implores, lest our "values" and "resources" be "swamped." Goode conveniently overlooks that being Muslim is a choice, not a racial/ethnic characteristic, and the Government can't stop anyone from converting to Islam, immigration policies be damned. Unless, of course, you just want to do away with the First Amendment altogether, which probably isn't far from the truth.

I hope that once the next Congress starts this will all go away. Although if the GOP wants to continue to embrace such assholes, it only helps the Democratic cause in 2008.

Holy Foreskin, Batman!

I always thought the Catholic obsession with holy relics was a little odd. The idea that some tiny part of a saint or other holy person could heal the sick, bring good luck, or what have you is just (to me) silly. Sillier than usual, when it comes to religious dogmas. With that in mind, check out this article on Slate that asks the question, "Who Stole Jesus's Foreskin?" It tells the tale of the Holy Prepuce, the small town north of Rome which claimed it as a relic, and how it mysteriously disappeared. Is it a Vatican plot, with the Holy See "feeling a bit bashful about the idea of its flock fawning over the 2,000-year-old tip of the redeemer's manhood"? Who knows. Paging Dan Brown . . .

The March of War

This is a really cool resource. It is an animated map of the Middle East showing who controlled what up to the 20th century. Empires come and go, leaving an extra layer of chaos in their wake. Be sure and hang around 'til the end, too.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Suing Dell for Fun and Profit

Via Concurring Opinions comes this blurb from the New York Times (scroll to the bottom), in which a disgruntled Dell customer, who apparently found their customer service wanting, got even by suing the company. What makes the story notable is how he sued them:

But rather than serving the company at its headquarters in Round Rock, Tex., he delivered the court papers to a shopping-mall kiosk. The result: 'Quite unsurprisingly, no one from Dell turned up in court on the stipulated date,' wrote Conrad Quilty-Harper on engadget, a personal technology blog (

Mr. Dori thus won a $3,000 default judgment. Dell told The Newark Star-Ledger that the settlement was amicable but would not disclose details.
Bet Dell's legal department won't let that happen twice.

You Think the BCS is Messed Up

For all the flaws of the BCS and whether you agree that Ohio State should play Florida (as opposed to Michigan) in the title game, most would agree that whoever wins that game is entitled to be called national champion. Imagine, if you will, a 32-team tournament, in which the traditional power and pre-tournament favorite lost in the quarterfinals, with another old power winning the title. One would think that said traditional power would not finish the season ranked number one. But, you'd be wrong, at least if you expect FIFA, soccer's international governing body, to make any kind of sense. In spite of losing to France in the quarterfinals of this summer's World Cup, Brazil finished the year ranked #1 in the FIFA rankings. Cup winners Italy are second (the US finished up 31st).

I'd be somewhat sympathetic to the argument that these rankings reflect the state of play at the end of the year, whereas the World Cup wrapped up during the summer, but that would require overlooking the fact that Brazil never dropped from the #1 spot. Talk about pre-season bias!

I'd Like to Thank the Academy . . .

Well, can you imagine how surprised I was to find out yesterday that I was named Time's Person of the Year for 2006? OK, OK, so it wasn't "me" in particular, but rather "you," meaning the collective content-creation apparatus of the Internet. Time cites such things as Wikipedia, YouTube, and blogs, before concluding:

Who are these people? Seriously, who actually sits down after a long day at work and says, I'm not going to watch Lost tonight. I'm going to turn on my computer and make a movie starring my pet iguana? I'm going to mash up 50 Cent's vocals with Queen's instrumentals? I'm going to blog about my state of mind or the state of the nation or the steak-frites at the new bistro down the street? Who has that time and that energy and that passion?

The answer is, you do. And for seizing the reins of the global media, for founding and framing the new digital democracy, for working for nothing and beating the pros at their own game, TIME's Person of the Year for 2006 is you.
On behalf of verbose couch potatoes everywhere, I humbly accept Time's praise. And whatever monetary compensation goes along with it.

Friday, December 15, 2006

He's Crazy, but We Made Him That Way

Jose Padilla's lawyers have filed a motion to have the court determine whether he is competent to stand trial:

'Jose’s experience as a detainee was so traumatic that it’s physically and mentally painful for him to answer the questions that we put to him,' said Orlando do Campo, a federal public defender in Miami. 'He just shuts down. We’re covering a lot of the same area as his interrogators, and he doesn’t want to relive it.'
In response, the Government agrees that such a determination should be made:
The government itself cited the affidavit of a psychiatrist for the defense, Dr. Angela Hegarty, who said that Mr. Padilla did not understand the nature and consequences of the proceedings against him and that he suffered 'impairment in reasoning' as a result of post-traumatic stress disorder 'complicated by the effects of prolonged isolation.'
In other words, we made Padilla crazy by locking him away from human contact for the past several years (uncharged, by the way, until recently). One wonders if the Government would be happy to commit Padilla for treatment to make him competent and then continue to argue for the harsh solitary confinement that made him nuts in the first place.

Another Biggie Passes On

Yesterday marked the passing of Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun. Ertegun turned his love of jazz and R&B in the 40s into one of the country's premier labels that went on to be the home to such major 70s proggers as Yes and Genesis (in addition to a little known rock band called Led Zeppelin). Bill Bruford, lamenting the state of the modern music biz, once observed that Ertegun was just a music lover who had such a collection he had to start his own record company. Passion and business acumen like that, combined in one person, is sadly lacking in the biz today. Ertegun also played a role in U.S. soccer (alongside the recently departed Lamar Hunt) history as a founder of the New York Cosmos of the North American Soccer League.

It's also worth mentioning that in a world when we seem increasingly bent on segregating each other and figuring out who the "other" is, Ertegun and his colleagues were an example of the American patchwork in action:

Mr. Ertegun’s music partnerships, he sometimes pointed out, were often culturally triangular. He was Turkish and a Muslim by birth. Many of his fellow executives, like the producer Jerry Wexler, were Jewish. The artists they produced, particularly when the label began, were black. Together, they helped move rhythm and blues to the center of American popular music.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Goodbye, Mr. Hunt

American sports lots one of its legends today with the passing of Lamar Hunt. Most folks are aware of Hunt's involvement with professional football as owner of the Kansas City Chiefs, founder of the American Football League, and one of the men responsible for the creation of the Super Bowl. What a lot of folks don't know is that Hunt has played a major role in soccer in the United States for years. Hunt was one of the founding investors of Major League Soccer and ran several teams during the past decade. He was the first to build a soccer specific stadium (in Columbus), showing the way to solvency for the rest of the league. In recognition of his role in the game, Hunt was inducted into the U.S. Soccer Hall of Fame and the U.S. Open Cup trophy was named after him.

Thank you, Mr. Hunt, for all you did on behalf of the beautiful game. You will be missed.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

The Best of All Possible . . .

Today's New York Times has an article about an interesting new production of Leonard Bernstein's Candide. It revises the setting from 18th century Europe to post 1950s America, with the "Auto-de-Fe" set during the McCarthy hearings and the five kings turned into Dubya and other world leaders. I'm a big fan of the Bernstein work (as well as the Voltaire novel on which it is based), so I'd be interested to see how this "update" comes out.

Oh My - Vampires

Being a criminal defense attorney requires a certain amount of creativity when it comes to making legal arguments. I like to think I'm fairly good, but I would have never come up with this argument, via Decision of the Day, against a federal law requiring the collection of blood from felons for inclusion in a national DNA database:

Among Hook’s more creative arguments is his Eighth Amendment claim, for which he offers 'an uncited, but novel assertion that the Founding Fathers would have considered ‘blood extraction’ to be ‘cruel and unusual punishment’ because, purportedly, ‘[v]ampires were feared and vilified’ at the time of the Founding.’'
Shockingly,the Seventh Circuit was not persuaded!

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Strange Bedfellows

Off Route 75's favorite person is in the news again. Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has organized a conference on Holocaust denial, currently underway in Tehran. Of course, Ahmadinejad being a raving anti-Semite, the conference isn't a scholarly exploration of the Holocaust denial movement, but rather a conference devoted to spreading the gospel (so to speak). Among the speakers is former KKK leader and one-time political candidate David Duke.

Given the focus of the conference, who is the last group of people you'd expect to be in attendance? If you said Orthodox Jews, you'd be wrong. As this BBC piece explains, a group known as Neturei Karta (Guardians of the City) is there. Why?

A representative, UK-based Rabbi Aharon Cohen, told the conference he prayed 'that the underlying cause of strife and bloodshed in the Middle East, namely the state known as Israel, be totally and peacefully dissolved'.

In its place, Rabbi Cohen said, should be 'a regime fully in accordance with the aspirations of the Palestinians when Arab and Jew will be able to live peacefully together as they did for centuries'.

Neturei Karta believes the very idea of an Israeli state goes against the Jewish religion.

The book of Jewish law or Talmud, they say, teaches that believers may not use human force to create a Jewish state before the coming of the Messiah.
The group does not deny the Holocaust, but believes that the Holocaust "was being used to legitimise the suffering of other peoples."

Over a PrawfsBlawg, Paul Horwitz offers an interesting perspective on the conference:
. . . part of the ammunition for such a conference stems from European and Canadian laws restricting or criminalizing the denial of the Holocaust altogether. Thus, some of the conference participants from Western nations effectively described the very existence of such a conference as liberating, noting that, for instance, 'We are forbidden to have such a conference in Germany.' . . . Of course, notwithstanding the efforts of the conference organizers to equate 'Western taboos [concerning the Holocaust] and the restriction imposed on them in Europe,' any pressures against Holocaust denial in the United States come solely from social forces, and not from any legal restrictions. By avoiding any legal penalty for stating such wrongheaded ideas, American law both permits such ideas to circulate and strips from their adherents the dignity of martyrdom. They are protected, but they are also at the mercy of the marketplace and likely (one hopes) to be generally ignored as a lunatic fringe. If David Duke were a German, he would be an insurgent and a champion of free speech; here, he is reduced to his natural state -- laughingstock. I'm glad he has to travel to Teheran [sic] to get any attention.
Holocaust denial is an ongoing example of how differently the First Amendment works than less-stringent provisions in other countries. To our benefit, I think.

The Joys of the Season

Today at, there's an article about the proliferation of radio stations who switch to a 24-hour Christmas music format when the holidays roll around. The very thought makes my blood run cold. It's not that I dislike Christmas music - heck, I even surprised the girlfriend this weekend by not only have Xmas music in the car, but fairly "normal" stuff, to boot! It's just that most of the Xmas music you hear is just reworkings of the same 2-dozen carols or so. How can you possibly make a full day of that? All in moderation, that's my motto.

As a musical selection, I recommend Stan Kenton's A Merry Christmas from 1961. Kenton is a favorite of my Dad's and has roughly the same relationship to the traditional big bands as Genesis, Yes, and King Crimson do to tradition rock bands. No wonder I like it. :)

Adieu, Freddy

OK, that was a little bit of a surprise. In the best kept secret since Pearl Harbor, last night DC United traded away teenage sensation Freddy Adu to Real Salt Lake for a backup goalkeeper and a major allocation (in MLS-speak, that means a big-time player who lives outside the salary cap, basically). This comes on the heals of Freddy's two-week training stint at Manchester United and the belief that once he turns 18 this summer he'll be off to Europe. If that's true, DC made a great move to get an allocation and free up cap room, particularly given that Freddy's best positions are currently handled by the league's MVP (Christian Gomez) and a guy many consider the league's best player of all time (Jaime Moreno). Beau Dure explain more here at USA Today.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

After the Infamy

Today marks the 65th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, ushering the United States into the Second World War. Over here at the New York Times website, they've put together a really interesting resource dealing with the amazing rebuilding job that went on after the attack. As a series of reports from the Times reporter in the area makes clear, a massive effort was made to raise, repair, and relaunch many of the ships sunk during the attack. These reports have never been seen before because they were censored for national security purposes. An edited (for length) version, available here, focuses on the raising and repairing of the USS West Virginia, which was returned to service two years later. The West Virginia was the only ship sunk at Pearl Harbor that was later part of the surrender ceremonies in 1945.

Defending the Constitution

University of Texas law professor Sanford Levinson has been making the rounds lately with his new book Our Undemocratic Constitution. Levinson's thesis, which he summarizes in this post at the new Harvard Law & Policy Review, is that the United States Constitution has produced a political system that impedes true democracy at the expense of effective government. All of which should come as no surprise to anyone who's ever really read the document - it's profoundly countermajoritarian, particularly compared with other modern democracies. The real question is whether that is a bad thing. I'm not convinced that it is, at least enough to embrace Levinson's idea of calling a new Constitutional Convention to produce a more efficient democratic document.

Before I launch into Levinson's critique of the Constitution, I should say that I am not slavishly devoted to a piece of paper written over 200 years ago. The founders were a motivated, intelligent, and committed group of guys (white properly owning guys, of course). But they weren't gods and they would probably be the first to admit that the intervening centuries might offer evidence for modification of the founding charter. Change it one thing - complete abandonment is another. I'm open to tweaks and corrections, but generally think the underlying theory of the Constitution - an inefficient government shackled by inter-branch checks and roadblocks to straight majority rule - is correct.

So, here (in my very summary fashion) are the problems Levinson identifies in his article:

  • Equal state representation in the Senate: Levinson sees no reason why every state, regardless of size, should have the same 2-person representation in the Senate. His whipping boy for this issue is my girlfriend's home state of Wyoming, which has the same two senators as California with 1/70th of the population (West Virginia doesn't do much better, either). This misses two points, I think. First, the Senate is supposed to be a body composed via the states as independent entities, rather than the voters directly. That is important in any system that styles itself as a federalist one. Second, the diffusion of power in the Senate helps offset the concentration of power in the House and acts as a circuit-breaker on potentially misguided popular sentiment. Those are good things, IMHO.
  • The Electoral College sucks: I admit that I tend to agree with this one. Although the same federalism argument from above could be made here, it seems odd to set up a system that allows a President to win a majority of the popular vote without winning the election. However, fixes can be had outside of the Constitution in the way states allocate their electoral votes (by nixing the "winner takes all" system), so a new document isn't necessary.
  • Presidential vetoes flaunt the will of the people: For Levinson, the fact that the President, for any reason, can veto an act of Congress and by doing so kill popular legislation is bad thing. He bemoans the loss of "2,501 laws, many of them of great import." But the Constitution already provides a work-around for vetoes when the law at issue really is popular and of great import, as Congress can override. Much more damaging to any pretense at democratic ideals are the presidential signing statements so loved by Dubya and company.
  • Impeachment without recall: Levinson feels that the Constitution is flawed because it only provides for the removal of the President (and related officers) via impeachment for "high crimes and misdemeanors," but not for simple negligence or dereliction of duty. Unlike parliamentary systems in which the government can be brought down by a no-confidence vote, we're stuck with administrations for full terms unless we go through the national trauma of impeachment. As much as the idea of getting rid of Dubya and Dick right now, as opposed to 2008, is appealing, the modern world of politics would simply take Leinvson's provision and use it for heinous ends. Could you imagine how often the minority party would try to remove a president for simply sucking at his job? Nothing else would ever get done (which may or may not be a bad thing, I guess).
  • Lame ducks: Why should the victors in an election wait months to take office? A damn fine question, really. I've never understood the whole lame duck thing. A small amount of transition time is needed, but something goes one for months and months could probably be avoided. Point to Levinson on this one.
  • Life terms for the judiciary: This is a hot topic in the legal academy and one on which I'm undecided. As Levinson points out, a life term for judges (including Supreme Court justices) made more sense given the shorter lifespan at the time of the founders. Turn over would have been more regular and (presumably) the political process more well greased for appointing successors. Perhaps a long single fixed term is a better idea. But I don't see Levinson calling for popular election of those judges, which would be truly democratic.
  • The amendment process: This is sort of the natural conclusion of Levinson's position. Yes, the Constitution is difficult to amend. But, given the stupidity displayed in Congress on a regular basis when it comes to constitutional amendments (anti-gay marriage, flag burning, etc.), isn't that a very very good thing?
In the end, Levinson's main beef with the Constitution seems to be that it's working as designed, providing some check on the feared "tyranny of the majority." Perhaps a more "democratic" Constitution would be more efficient and representative of the popular will. We just disagree on whether that's a worth goal of our founding document.

In Which I Go Paul Harvey-like

On the way to work today I heard a blurb on the radio about a poor 12-year old kid whose Mom called the cops when he opened one of this Christmas presents early. Sure enough, I didn't hear things wrong. But, the "oh, isn't that funny, in a 'mom must be nuts' sort of way" attitude didn't convey the context in which this happened:

[Mom] said the boy likes attention and has a history of bad behavior. He has shoplifted from stores and stolen money from her, she said. The boy has also been inching toward expulsion from school, she added, and even punched a police officer last month. He was arrested for disorderly conduct in that incident.

She hoped the arrest would be a wake-up call for him. She dreads getting a phone call someday reporting he's been killed.
So, we're not exactly talking about a wayward scamp with Xmas fever being reigned in by a Grinchy mom. Rather, we've got a troubled kid acting out in the way troubled kids do and mom at the end of her rope. Not quite so amusing, huh?

And that, as radio host and Mr. and Mrs. Erotic American narrator Paul Harvey would say, is the rest of the story.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

A Message for You (About) Rudy

It's not even 2007 yet, so I'm loathe to get involved discussing the 2008 presidential race yet. However, this piece in Salon yesterday brings up some important things about Rudy Giuliani's reign as mayor of NYC that have been overlooked since 9/11. As the author puts it:

On 9/11, all Americans were frightened children, and in a moment of mythic personal heroism, Mayor Giuliani filled the gaping leadership void. The president looked like a petrified chimp; Cheney was spirited to an underground bunker. Only Giuliani could pull himself together sufficiently to get on TV in the midst of the wreckage and show America that a grown-up was still breathing. On that terrible day our reptile brains looked at Rudy Giuliani and said, 'We're OK now. Daddy's home.'

And we forgot, some for a moment, some permanently, that Daddy was psycho.
My favorite blurb comes from Rudy himself, responding on his radio show to a person who took issue with NYC's ban on pet ferrets:
There is something deranged about you ... this excessive concern with little weasels is a sickness ... you should go consult a psychologist or a psychiatrist with this excessive concern, how you are devoting your life to weasels. You need somebody to help you. There are people in this city and in this world that need a lot of help. Something has gone wrong with you.
Not that it's any of my business to tell the GOP who to nominate for president, but do you honestly want someone on the top of the ticket who once chastised a person for "devoting [his] life to weasels"?

Rebuilding the Buddhas

Remember back in 2001 when the pre-9/11 Taliban was on a rampage through Afghanistan that included destroying the ancient Buddhas of Bamiyan? The ancient colossal statues (one was 125 feet tall, the other over 180 feet tall, both more than 1500 years old) were blown up as part of a purge of symbols of the "gods of the infidels." Now, with the Taliban in retreat (but not permanently gone - thanks Don, Dick, & Dubya!), the question becomes how and whether to rebuild the massive statues.

There are at least two issues standing in the way of rebuilding. First, the area could lose its status as a UNESCO World Heritage site depending on how the statues are rebuilt. Second, there's the propriety of taking the massive financial undertaking of rebuilding on at a time when the country is still desperately poor. One Japanese scholar suggests rebuilding one of the two statues, leaving the massive gap in the cliff wall from the other statue as a reminder of the crime committed by the Taliban.

Profiting from the Warm Glow of Electric Sex

This article in today's New York Times describes the lengths one man went to in order to recreate the home depicted in the Xmas classic A Christmas Story. He funded this project by selling recreations of the famous electric leg lamp from the film (over 7500, so far). I'm as big a fan of the film as the next guy, but somehow paying money to see the house in which the movie was made is just a little too creepy for my tastes!

Hitler's Hot Rod

Next year, Christie's auction house will attempt to set a record for the most expensive car when it auctions off one of the five remaining Auto Union Grand Prix cars from the Pre-WWII era. As the article points out, the car was the product of cash infusions from the Hitler government into the Auto Union (now Audi, basically) and Mercedes race programs. The result was some of the fastest race cars in the world that were well ahead of their time in terms of technology. Part of the weird/sad legacy of Hitler and the German auto industry.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Designer Babies With a Twist

In the movie Gattaca, the main character, Vincent, is an oddity in a futuristic society steeped in genetic engineering. Vincent is different because he was conceived the old fashioned way and his parents refused to take the normal steps to deal with potential health consequences. As a result, Vincent is born with numerous deficiencies (poor eyesight, bad heart, etc.) that would prevent him from leading the life he dreamed of - in theory, at least (that's the point of the movie - and his does manage to sang Uma Thurmond, so he's not completely gimpy).

Vincent's parents chose not to use the tools available to them to avoid genetic defects. But what about the reverse - using those tools to ensure the presence of defects? That's the theory behind this column in today's New York Times science section:

In other words, some parents had the painful and expensive fertility procedure for the express purpose of having children with a defective gene. It turns out that some mothers and fathers don’t view certain genetic conditions as disabilities but as a way to enter into a rich, shared culture.
The "defects" discussed in the story are deafness and dwarfism. While those conditions present barriers to living a "normal" life, they aren't life threatening. But would the position that the parents discussed in the column have the right to choose deafness or dwarfism necessarily mean that other parents could choose more debilitating defects? What duty does a potential parent have to ensure that his/her child is born as healthy and "normal" as possible?

What Lurks Beneath the Surface

Over at Orcinus, Dave Neiwert kicks off an eight-part seires on eliminationism with an anecdote from the wake of last week's Dennis Prager nonsense. Briefly, a DC-area talk radio host proposed "requiring all Muslims wear crescent-moon armbands, or perhaps even tattooing or branding them." The call-in response was, to use Neiwert's term, "disturbing." Callers were ready to and willing to help with the round ups, internments, and such.

It was all an experiment on the host's part, to see exactly how frothing at the mouth people would get if such ideas were proposed. Sadly, several people raised to the bait (as did several people in the Borat movie, Neiwert points out). It's depressing to see how easily it is to get people to riled up to act against outsiders based on ignorance, prejudice, and fear.

The Torture Never Stops

While recent revelations about the treatment of Jose Padilla have brought the subject of torture back to the surface (for however briefly), it's worth noting that the kind of sensory deprivation visited on the as-yet-unconvicted Padilla are not new, even to the United States. In this column, University of Wisconsin professor Alfred McCoy briefly lays out the development of US psychological interrogation techniques from the 1950s up to their continued use today. The column is a condensation of McCoy's book, A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation, from the Cold War to the War on Terror. Sadly, there's nothing new under the sun.

Monday, December 04, 2006

The BCS Gets It . . . Right?

Let me start this off by saying that I am a Michigan fan. In fact, I rooted for the Wolverines back before my 7 years in Morgantown turned me into a Mountaineer and back in the days when Marshall was just figuring out how to win a game every now and then. That being said, USA Today columnist Joe Saraceno is wrong - the BCS got it right by matching up Ohio State and Florida in the (mythical) national championship game.

Say what you will about how a Michigan - Florida game would play out, or the strength of their respective schedules, or how Michigan beat common opponent Vanderbilt by 20-some points, while Florida struggled. None of that is relevant for the simple reason that Florida did one thing that Michigan didn't - it won it's conference's championship. For my money, given the limited number of games any college team plays in a season, winning your conference (or some non-conference equivalent for Notre Dame) is a condition precedent to playing in the national championship game.

Besides, who ever said that championship games are limited to matchups between the two best teams? Even in playoff systems, the two "best" teams (by whatever means you want to use to figure that out) almost never face each other in in the title game. Who was the "better" team last season in the NFL, the Colts or Steelers? Before they played in the playoffs, folks would have said the Colts. But the Steelers won the game on the field and, eventually, the Super Bowl. The best team in the league that year (it could be argued) was at home when the title was decided.

Finally, if you're one of those folks who think that a playoff would solve all the problems, consider this setup from another USA Today columnist:

You're just in time for the selection of this year's field, so you can see how problem-free this is. Why, when we're done, everyone will be as happy as low-carb dieters at a pig roast.

Ohio State goes first. Then Florida. In this world, Urban Meyer has more time to study game film because he doesn't have to go tracking down Jane Fonda to find out how to organize a protest march.

Michigan. The Wolverines won't have to worry about leaving the season for two weeks and then coming back to find a bunch of Gators in their beds.

See? This process is as easy as biting into a Krispy Kreme.

Oklahoma gets the automatic Big 12 spot, Wake Forest the ACC, Louisville the Big East, USC the Pac-10. Boise State is unbeaten so the Broncos have to be in. And to hear tell, the SEC is better than the NFC West, so LSU is a clear choice. And Auburn went 10-2 and beat Florida. We don't shaft the Tigers here, like the BCS did.


That makes 10. And what idiot left out Wisconsin? You mean 11-1 isn't good enough to get off the bubble? What the blazes kind of system is this?

Notre Dame won 10 games. Everybody from the pope on down knows Notre Dame gets invited with 10 wins. People who say no to Notre Dame sleep with the fish.

The Mountain West Conference has two 10-2 teams — TCU and BYU — and they don't even get a sniff? How come the Pac-10 gets only one team? Or the Big 12? What makes the SEC so special? Because they brag louder than anyone else?

Maybe we should just go back to the old pre-BCS bowl system and write-off the idea of ever having a true national champion?