Monday, April 30, 2007

Paralysis - the New Penalty for Speeding!

Today the Supreme Court handed down an opinion in an interesting Fourth Amendment case. In Scott v. Harris, Harris was the driver of a Cadillac in rural Georgia that was clocked going 73 MPH in a 55 zone. Once he was lit up by police, Harris chose to run rather than pull over and get a ticket.* The result was a several mile chase (which the Court put up on its website) along a two-lane highway that only ended when a pursuing officer rammed Harris's Caddy, which then crashed (hard), leaving Harris a quadriplegic. He sued under Federal civil rights laws, arguing that the cops violated his Fourth Amendment rights by performing an unreasonable seizure.

Not surprisingly, the Court ruled against Harris, 8-1, and found no Fourth Amendment violation. The Court's opinion, written by Justice Scalia, deemed Harris's chase as being equivalent to something out of a Hollywood movie (watch the vid - Bullitt it's not) putting numerous other drivers at risk. Indeed, Harris (and the pursuing officers) passed about a dozen cars during the chase. It's thus hard to have a lot of sympathy for Harris's self-inflicted situation.

Justice Stevens, however, disagrees and makes a compelling case in his dissent for why a jury, rather than a court, should resolve the issue of how dangerous the chase was (the lower appellate court ruled in favor of Harris). In the process, he makes a sort of "you damned kids!" statement in footnote 1, chiding his colleagues for not knowing how inherently dangerous two-lane roads can be, having grown up with Interstates and the like. Quite amusing, considering Scalia is no spring chicken himself!

* Presumably. There's nothing in the opinion or the briefs that indicate why Harris was so keen on running.

Get Out of Jail, Sort of, but Not for Free

Yesterday's New York Times had an article about a disturbing penalogical trend that, at the moment, seems confined to California - pay-to-stay jails. With the right connections and a little bit of money (cash only, the article notes, just like bribes!) you can serve your time in a private correctional facility rather than the county jail:

For roughly $75 to $127 a day, these convicts — who are known in the self-pay parlance as “clients” — get a small cell behind a regular door, distance of some amplitude from violent offenders and, in some cases, the right to bring an iPod or computer on which to compose a novel, or perhaps a song.

Many of the overnighters are granted work furlough, enabling them to do most of their time on the job, returning to the jail simply to go to bed (often following a strip search, which granted is not so five-star).

The clients usually share a cell, but otherwise mix little with the ordinary nonpaying inmates, who tend to be people arrested and awaiting arraignment, or federal prisoners on trial or awaiting deportation and simply passing through.
Or they tend to be POOR! For fuck's sake, I'm not naive enough to think that class plays no role in the criminal justice system. I'm a public defender, after all. But can we all agree that once you get a ticket to the pokey, money shouldn't play into it? It's one thing to segregate inmates based on legitimate penalogical interests (criminal history, nature of the offender, etc.). It's a whole different kettle of fish to let the better off make their stays more comfortable simply because they can.

PS: Frank Pasqualle over at Concurring Opinions has some similar thoughts on the issue.

Hitchens v. God

OK, it's not quite that grand, but Christopher Hitchens is taking on organized religion in a big way. His new book, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, Hitchens joins the chorus of recent authors taking square aim the world's faiths. Slate put up three excerpts/previews last week, consisting of a broad overview and specific bits about Islam and Mormonism. Let's hope he has fatwa insurance:

Islam when examined is not much more than a rather obvious and ill-arranged set of plagiarisms, helping itself from earlier books and traditions as occasion appeared to require. Thus, far from being 'born in the clear light of history,' as Ernest Renan so generously phrased it, Islam in its origins is just as shady and approximate as those from which it took its borrowings.
Hitchens goes on to show how the Koran went through a process of canonization that's even more obtuse than the modern Bible.

The Mormons fare no better:
In March 1826 a court in Bainbridge, New York, convicted a twenty-one-year-old man of being 'a disorderly person and an impostor.' That ought to have been all we ever heard of Joseph Smith, who at trial admitted to defrauding citizens by organizing mad gold-digging expeditions and also to claiming to possess dark or 'necromantic' powers. However, within four years he was back in the local newspapers (all of which one may still read) as the discoverer of the 'Book of Mormon.'
As Hitchens tells the story of the Book of Mormon, it's hard to to hear the South Park voice over from their telling of the tale ("dumb dumb dumb dumb dumb . . ."). And kudos to Hitchens for the phase "attempted necromancy."

Ironically, tonight PBS begins a two-part examination of Mormonism. Talk about timing!

Albums of Last Thursday and Friday

Post-vacation hangover got the better of me last week, hence no blogging on Thursday or Friday. I was still churning through tunes, however, like these:

  • Thursday - Pathways, by California Guitar Trio (1998): CGT is a trio of Bob Fripp Guitar Craft disciples who perform an unique and skillful blend of different styles. There's classical adaptations ("Allegro con brio" from Beethoven's Fifth and two parts of Moonlight Sonata), odd pop covers ("Misirlou" anyone?), and originals. On a few tracks they're joined by some soprano sax and Warr guitar frosting to mix things up. I still can't say that this album sets my soul on fire, but I am pleasantly surprised to see they'll be in Charleston this Sunday and may check out the live show.
  • Friday - Playtime, by National Health (2001): This live album is the only documentation of the final active form of these classic Canterbury proggers. From the lineup that produced the brilliant Of Queues and Cures, keyboardist Dave Stewart is gone, replaced by band co-founder Alan Gowen. It's not surprising, then, to see Gilgamesh's "Play Time" make an appearance, as does "Flanagan's People," which would get the studio treatment on the posthumous D.S. al Coda. I find a lot of what goes on here interesting, but not particularly compelling. It's a bit raw and tends to wander a bit. But when it locks in, as in Phil Miller's "Nowadays a Silhouette," it's great stuff. Not my favorite National Health disc, but one well worth having.
Album of the Day entries will probably be a little light this week as I work through a clutch of albums that either just came out or I just acquired. That includes the new Porcupine Tree, Rush (out tomorrow!), and (if I can find it) Marillion discs, the reissues of the first two Mike Keneally albums, and a couple other things I picked up this weekend (by accident, honest).

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Gone Tomb Raidin'

The Ranch will be quiet for the next few days, while the girlfriend and I jaunt off to Philadelphia to take in the King Tut exhibition at the it's final American stop at the Franklin Institute. So everybody play nice - don't make me turn this blog around!

Album of the Day

Octopus, by Gentle Giant (1972): More than anything else, one of things I love about Gentle Giant is the sheer variety they managed to cram in an album. Over eight tracks on this album, the band goes from medieval madrigals, to hyper-technical vocal work, to fiery instrumentals, and finally a simple, beautiful song of lost love. This is, for me, GG at the top of their game.

Pirates, Ahoy!

One of my favorite South Park episodes begins with the boys forming a garage band, Moop. They have a fight about their musical direction, prompting Cartman to go off and form a Christian rock band, Faith +1. The remaining members of Moop, still casting about for a musical direction, learn about free music downloads from the Internet and decide to grab a bunch of tunes to inspire them. While they're in the process of downloading, a FBI SWAT team busts in and arrests them for illegally downloading music.

To show them the error of their ways, an agent takes the kids around to the homes of various music stars, showing the grave impact of illegal downloads on their careers - Master P's son won't get his own island for his birthday, Lars Ulrich won't be able to put a shark tank bar in his pool, and - horror of horrors - Brittany Spears will have to replace her Gulfstream 4 private jet with a Gulfstream 3. The point being, of course, that illegal downloads have precious little impact on the bottom lines of most artists and probably helps them out (Parker and Stone practice what they preach - they don't object to shows being downloaded off the Web, although I'd guess that Comedy Central might).

The point of this reminiscence is that, from today's column over at FindLaw, it looks like Marci Hamilton is part of the RIAA SWAT team. She rails against websites that exist solely to provide links to illegal copies of TV shows for download. She's right about the fact that the sites probably violate copyright law, or should, at any rate. But the rhetoric she uses to get there is amusing:

If one ever lacked a reminder of the greediness of human nature, a few minutes on the Internet would make the point impossible to forget. The list of entities willing (at some point) to use the Internet to get for free what they should have purchased is long.
Yeah, that's right. The greed in the entertainment business is on the consumer's end. That's such a complete pile of steaming horse shit that it's hard to take anything else Hamilton says seriously. Particularly when Hamilton reveals her solution to the problem - reversing the Supreme Court's landmark decision in Sony v. Universal City Studios, aka the Betamax case. That case made it legal under US copyright law to sell VCRs that were capable of recording stuff off of TV. Because most users would use that capability to merely "time shift" when they watch a program, the non-infringing uses of the item greatly outweighed its potential infringing uses. If Hamilton had her way, the modern equivalent to the VCR - TiVo and it's ilk - would cease to be legal. To channel my Second Amendment friends, you can have my TiVo when you pry it from my cold dead hands!

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Album of the Day

A Non-Obvious Ride, by Indiscipline (1994): While listening to this one today it occurred to me that I have two albums by bands named after tunes from King Crimson's classic Discipline that sound nothing like 80s Crim. One is Michigan's Discipline, which worked in the symphonic prog vein with a side of VdGG-like lyrical intensity. The other is this French-Canadian band ("Indiscipline" is another track on the Crim album - my favorite one, to boot) which, thanks to crunchy guitar and a heaping helping of violin, does bear some resemblance to the mid 70s version of the band. It's better than I remember it being, too.

What's Good for the Goose . . .

When Christians try and force their faith into the public arena, they often give lip service to the idea that if any other faith would try the same thing, that would of course be OK. Well, be careful what you wish for. From Decision of the Day comes note of two court decisions requiring small towns to allow the display of the Summum faith's Seven Aphorisms in public parks. Why? As equal time with the Ten Commandments monuments that are displayed there.

What, exactly, is Summum, you ask. According to Wikipedia:

Summum is a religion and philosophy that began in 1975 as a result of Claude 'Corky' Nowell's encounter with beings he describes as 'Summa Individuals.' According to Nowell, these beings presented him with concepts regarding the nature of creation, concepts that have always existed and are continually re-introduced to humankind by advanced beings who work along the pathways of creation. As a result of his experience, Nowell founded Summum in order to share the 'gift' he received with others. In 1980, as a reflection of his new found evolutionary path, he changed his name to Summum Bonum Amen Ra,but news stories indicate he goes by Corky Ra.
They practice modern-day mummification, too! One wonders if even Central Park is big enough to hold monuments for every religious group's basic principles?

Confronting the 3-Headed Elephant in the Room

From the beginning of our adventure in Iraq, the administration has pushed the goal of creating a unified, democratic Iraq. Is such a thing even possible? Is it worth trying to hold together an unnatural coalition of different religious and ethnic groups in order to preserve a country that only came into existence when the British started to shed their empire after World War I? Those questions animate this column in today's USA Today. It rightly argues that until we deal with the three constituent national identities within Iraq, democracy and some kind of peace is likely to be a pipe dream.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Album of the Day

Mr. Music Head, by Adrian Belew (1989): Formula for a successful single - write a song in which your young daughter wonders why you haven't had a hit single and have her contribute vocally to the track. Release and voila! Instant success. That's what worked for Belew, at least, with "Oh Daddy," the lead off track on this album, with daughter Audie sharing vocal duties. That's the only hit Belew's had (although "Beat Box Guitar" scored a Grammy nomination a couple of years ago) and, in true hit fashion, it's probably the weakest track on the album. Much more interesting are the monorhythmic "Peaceable Kingdom," the plaintive "Bad Days," and "1967," the best Beatles tune the Liverpool quartet never wrote.

Overstating the Case for God

In yesterday's USA Today, a gentleman named Don Feder wrote a column that seems to be of a type that's popping up recently - the "my, these atheists do seem to be getting a bit uppity these days" column. In response to books like The God Delusion and Letter to a Christian Nation, religionists are wondering why there seems to be a sudden interest in atheism. The answer seems pretty obvious - after years and years of having fundamentalist Christianity pushed in our faces, we've gotten a bit tired of it and decided to speak up, too. After all, the First Amendment gives atheists the same right to believe what we will and talk about it as Christians, Muslims, Hindus, you name it.

For what it's worth, Feder's conclusion is a valid, common sense one: the debate over faith, belief, the existence of God, is not over or settled in favor of either side. That's undeniable - a debate that's raged for millennia won't go away any time soon. To the extent that the more vocal atheist writers claim otherwise, perhaps in strident tones, they're wrong and (frequently) obnoxious. However, while getting to the right destination, Feder makes a couple of dubious detours.

For one, he brings up the classic canard regarding atheists and morality:

What would a world without God look like? Well, for one, morality becomes, if not impossible, exceedingly difficult. "Thou shalt not kill" loses much of its force when reduced from commandment to a suggestion. How inspiring can it be to wake in the morning, look in the mirror, and see an accident of evolutionary history — the end product of the random collision of molecules?

A universe that isn't God-centered becomes ego-centered. People come to see choices through the prism of self: what promotes the individual's well-being and happiness. Such a worldview does not naturally lead to benevolence or self-sacrifice.

An affirmation of God can lead to the Ten Commandments, the Sermon on the Mount and the Declaration of Independence. In terms of morality, a denial of God leads nowhere.
That's wrong on so many levels, it's hard to know where to start. Morality can be easily divorced from belief in God and has been in other cultures for centuries. Logical systems of how to relate with our fellow man exist, many of them similar to the Golden Rule, which is hardly unique to Jesus and Christianity. It doesn't take a father figure in the sky threatening eternal damnation to get to the non-worship versions of the Commandments (don't kill, steal, lie, etc.) or the Sermon on the Mount (the aforementioned Golden Rule, help the poor, etc.). I'm not quite sure how the Declaration gets in there, given Jefferson's rather peculiar religious beliefs.

Furthermore, how is acting morally because God, who will smite you if you don't, not "ego-centered." Doing what you think is right to avoid eternal damnation is as ego-centered as it gets. In any event, being good to each other and defining a non-God based morality means quite a bit more when you believe that this world is all there is and the only way for it to get better is via human progress.

Secondly, in arguing that God's fingerprints are all over history, Feder writes:
Jews introduced the world to monotheism.
Or not. The Zoroastrians might have something to say about that, although they're a lot harder to find these days than Jews.

Like I said, in the end, Feder gets it right - the debate is not settled and it likely never will be. But the believers out there need to realize that the debate has two sides and they can't be surprised or offended when that side starts to speak up.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Albums of Yesterday

One of the reasons I decided to do the A-Z thing by album title rather than band name this year was to provide some variety in the daily listening rotation. That theory certainly bore fruit yesterday. Behold, this run of discs:

  • Megalazottak es Megszomoritottak, by After Crying - Hungarian chamber prog
  • mei, by echolyn - Modern American post-neo epic prog (1 53-minute track!)
  • Mekano, by Miriodor - French-Canadian avant-prog, but with a catchy edge
  • Mercury Falling, by Sting - Competent, but dull, AOR/Adult Contemporary pop
  • Metropolis Part 2: Scenes from a Memory, by Dream Theater - Progressive metal concept album
  • A Midsummer Night's Dream, by Steve Hackett - Orchestral program music with solo acoustic guitar
It's a rare day that provides that much variety and quality, even given the knock about the Sting album.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Album of the Day

Marbles, by Marillion (2004): With the release of the new Marillion album, Somewhere Else, a few weeks away (it's already out in Europe - to mixed reviews, sadly), it makes sense to look back at the band's last effort. I have the special 2-disc version, so I got the whole Marbles experience. If the album had some weak spots when I first heard it, the whole of it has really grown on me. The early favs - "The Invisible Man," "Fantastic Place," and "Ocean Cloud" - haven't lost their luster, while even the things that didn't really hit me back then I've warmed up to. I've learned to love the end of "Neverland," the hit (believe it or not) single "You're Gone," and, of all things, "Angelina." So I guess the lesson here is when it comes time to check out Somewhere Else, give it some time to grow.

Kurt Is Up In Heaven Now*

I suppose it's appropriate that just after I bloviated about the importance of the arts in the world that one of my favorite artists of all time, who has influenced my perspective on the world so much, dies. Writer, free thinking, and all-around curmudgeon Kurt Vonnegut died last night in New York City. A lengthy New York Times obit is here, while the BBC also weighs in. In addition, the New York Times provides a page with links to review of Vonnegut's books, as well as articles written by him for the newspaper (his review of a reissue of Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land touches on the "serious" v. "pop" art schism I discussed yesterday).

I can't precisely remember my first exposure to Vonnegut's work and skewed view of the universe. I remember reading his short story "Harrison Bergeron," a tale of an exceptional individual burdened by the impact of state-imposed equality. The other early memory I have is borrowing a friend's mother's copy of the latter novel Galapagos, about the next phase of human evolution. They both contain that unique gift Vonnegut had for using humor, absurdity, and imagination to dig to the core of the human experience.

Regardless of the starting point, other Vonnegut works followed. The stack I pulled out of the "these books will go in the bookcases that will go in my studio" include Player Piano, The Sirens of Titan, Cat's Cradle, Slaughterhouse-Five, and the short story collection Welcome to the Monkey House. Lurking somewhere, or perhaps loaned out and never returned, are others . . . Hocus Pocus, Timequake, and countless essays over the years. Oddly enough, just Monday I watched the 1996 film version of Mother Night, which was very good (and blessed by the man himself, apparently), but you could see the director and screenwriter struggling to deal with material that sometimes defies description.

Perhaps as a result of all this, I identify quite a bit with what appears to be Vonnegut's bi-polar view of the world. On the one had, humanity as whole has not evolved much beyond the old state of nature, where life was "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." The catalog of man's inhumanity to his fellow men and women in the 20th century alone is enough to make you give up hope. On the other hand, when sufficiently motivated, human beings are capable of achieving great acts of beauty, kindness, and justice. The need is to get more people to do the latter rather than the former. As Vonnegut himself put it in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater:

Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It's hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It's round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you've got about a hundred years here. There's only one rule that I know of, babies -- God damn it, you've got to be kind.
Amen, brother Kurt. Thanks for everything.

* If you've read this blog and seen me talk about religion, you might wonder why I, of all people, would say "Kurt is up in heaven now." Well, it's because that's the way the man wanted it:
I am, incidentally, Honorary President of the American Humanist Association, having succeeded the late, great science fiction writer Isaac Asimov in that totally functionless capacity. We had a memorial service for Isaac a few years back, and I spoke and said at one point, 'Isaac is up in heaven now.' It was the funniest thing I could have said to an audience of humanists. I rolled them in the aisles. It was several minutes before order could be restored. And if I should ever die, God forbid, I hope you will say, 'Kurt is up in heaven now.' That's my favorite joke.
From A Man Without a Country.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Album of the Day

Looking Homeward, by Tristan Park (1998): Progressive rock sometimes gets flack for taking itself too seriously. To the extent that's true, albums like this one reinforce that stereotype. The lyrical content here is really heavy - half an hour is devoted to songs inspired by An American Tragedy, for crying out loud - and presented with earnest sincerity. But what verges on the edge of too much for most of the album goes careening over that edge on "The Cruelest Month," a paean to the futility of the Boston Red Sox (notice the year this was released). What could have been a pleasant diversion or change of pace is instead presented with the serious weight of the rest of the album. The result is laughable and really taints the rest of the album. Not that there's anything particularly objectionable about the rest - it's standard neo-prog, although the vocalist reminds me of John Bon Jovi!

On Supporting the Arts

A couple of weeks ago, composer Michael Gordon (not to be confused with ex-Phish bassist Mike Gordon) had a post on the New York Times blog The Score about the importance of the arts (music in particular) in society and the need to support them. Gordon tells the story of playing a festival in Italy with his band and uses that generally as a springboard to argue about the importance of music to bring understanding to the world. His conclusion is very powerful:

After our arrival here in Catania the local cultural emissary took my band out for dinner. As usually happens in Europe our hosts asked us how we could have elected George Bush as president. I have heard the conversation many times. We reminded them that half of the country did not vote for Bush. As members of my band tried to assuage the negative impressions these Europeans had about Americans, I thought that here a different type of cultural diplomacy was going on. There are thousands, maybe tens of thousands of American artists performing around the world — not passing through like tourists but having real, meaningful, positive interactions with the citizens of other nations. In these many small interactions, we communicate a different America.
A good point, although he takes a couple of missteps along the way.

First, he insinuates that the best way to support for the arts is with government funding:
The arts play an extremely important role in European life. I’m not a statistician, so don’t hold me to exact numbers, but a quick search on the Web brought me this information: In the most recent study on government spending on the arts, Finland, which leads the European countries, spent about $91 per capita. (The data is summarized in a January 2000 research note by the National Endowment for the Arts.) Most European countries trail that figure by a bit, but they’re all in the same ballpark. However, the United States, the world’s greatest economic power (isn’t that what our political leaders keep telling us) spent about $6 per capita on the arts.
Why is that so important? Because the arts will be our legacy:
What we remember about a culture after thousands of years is most likely to be their arts, architecture, writing and achievements in thought. Is it worth nurturing, exporting and preserving our culture? Most countries think it is. But in the United States this isn’t a Democratic issue or a Republican issue. It’s a non-issue.
Oddly enough, I remember making that exact same issue with a fellow student in a high school social studies class during a debate about the National Endowment for the Arts. He took the traditional conservative position that public money shouldn't be used to subsidize artists (he went on to join the College Republican at WVU - go figure). I argued the contrary. But in subsequent years, I've changed my position.

Direct subsidization of artists by the government, it seems to me, is both haphazardly random and counter-capitalistic. How can a government agency possibly determine what art deserves funding and what doesn't without moving into some shady First Amendment areas? And why should a few artists lucky enough to curry favor with the government funders be sheltered from the market forces with which we all must deal? Propping up artists who make art that nobody wants to consume is wasteful and just a bit pointless.

What I'd prefer to see the NEA do is shift its mission in two ways. First, its primary goal should be arts education in public and private schools. The market for artistic works will be buoyed by educated consumers who have their appetites whetted in school. Second, if it subsidized any performers directly, it should be artists who serve economically depressed areas that could not support such art on its own. In other words, take the NEA grant away from the Metropolitan Opera and give it to some organization that takes opera on the road into rural areas that otherwise would never see and hear it.

The other misstep Gordon makes is a familiar one:
Those of us who perform and compose semi-popular music — that is, experimental, art, classical and jazz — cannot survive in the free market like rock, urban and country musicians do. Although there is a fan base for these more esoteric types of music that numbers in the millions, it just doesn’t add up to the large CD sales and stadium tours that the popular music stars enjoy.
In other words, "serious" music needs support from the public via the government, regardless of popular appeal, while "pop" musicians and artists are left to suffer the whims of the marketplace and, in the words of Frank Zappa, "got to play for poot in the bistro bars."

That rests on, what I feel, is a fundamental flaw in trying to shuffle "art" music and "pop" music into separate ghettos. I refuse to draw such distinctions. Music is music and its value to any given person can be measured only by how they react to it, not whether it's made for serious purposes or otherwise. Speaking for myself, music that moves me in some way reaches the same place in my brain and (dare I say it) soul, regardless of where it comes from. The bridge from "Afraid of Sunlight," the fiery workout at the end of "Starless," and the guitar solo in "Watermelon in Easter Hay" have jammed themselves in the same crevice of my skull as the delicate second movement of Mozart's clarinet concerto, the broad strokes of Copland's Third Symphony, or the brutal rhythms of The Rites of Spring. I simply see no reason to put Marillion, King Crimson, or Zappa aside as not being "serious" artists. It's worth considering that lots of what we now consider essential parts of the orchestra repertoire was popular entertainment when it was made.

If you look at it that way, the idea that non-pop musicians should be shielded from the market falls away. If an artist can't figure out a way to sell what he or she does well enough to make a living, that's life. I've heard lots of talented musicians who play for 100 people a night and then have to go to shitty day jobs to make ends meet. Most pop musicians don't "survive in the free market." In a perfect world, we'd all be able to pursue our muse without regard to making a living. But this is not that world and as long as it's not, the playing field should be the same for everyone.

But, to get back to Gordon's broader point, he is absolutely correct about the value of music (and the arts in general) in life, in building bridges between people and cultures, and in defining who we are as a civilization. And I certainly have no problem with private citizens and foundations funding what ever kind of artistic programs they want, market forces be damned. So get out there and make your voice heard as a consumer the best way you can - support your local artistic endeavors with your dollars and your time.

Keeping Imus In Perspective

As the media feeding frenzy following Don Imus's stupid, racist, misogynistic comments about the Rutgers women's basketball team continues, an important bit of perspective comes from this column in USA Today by Legal Times writer Tony Mauro. He writes about what he calls "insult laws" that proliferate around the globe to criminally punish speech that allegedly degrades someone or something else. He notes:

In its early days, the United States was not immune from these impulses. The Sedition Act of 1798 made it a crime to utter or publish 'false, scandalous and malicious' comments about the government. Some public officials today probably wish they still had that tool to silence critics.

But thankfully, the principles of free speech and freedom of the press have prevailed. And whatever fate ultimately awaits Don Imus, I think nobody would want him labeled as a criminal for what he said about the women's basketball team from Rutgers University (my alma mater).
Imus's employers are free to deal with him as they see fit, but criminal punishment is off limits. As it should be.

Citing Wikipedia (Redux)

A couple of months ago I posted about the propriety of citing Wikipedia as a definitive source on anything. In the process of arguing that it was OK in some contexts, I said:

But, sometimes, you just need a cite for something tangentially relevant but not super important. I don't think I've ever used Wikipedia in a brief, but I cited Mapquest directions before to show the distance between two addresses that, while commonly known to the parties and trial court before which the issues was first argued, surely weren't know to the judges in Richmond.
Turns out I was wrong. Today I was working on a petition to the US Supreme Court of a case we lost in the Fourth Circuit. The factual scenario that led to the conviction started off with an AMBER Alert. How it works and what it is really isn't critical to the case, but I felt it was important to drop a footnote explaining what an AMBER Alert is, so I cited to the Wikipedia entry. I carried that over to the cert petition as well.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Soccer Smackdown Defined

UEFA Champions League, quarterfinal, 2nd leg at Old Trafford in Manchester:

Manchester United 7 - AS Roma 1

That is a comprehensive ass kicking, particularly considering that Roma won the first leg 2-1 in Rome! For the American football faithful, that's the equivalent to a NFL conference semifinal game ending 49-7.

Album of the Day

Living Proof, by IQ (1992): Back in 1985, while preparing to tour in support of their second album, The Wake, IQ appeared on a British TV show called Live From London. In an hour-long set, they ripped through tunes from the new album and Tales from the Lush Attic (plus the early favorite "It All Stops Here"). To the band's surprise, someone bootlegged the soundtrack from the show and released it on an LP. It became somewhat of a collector's item, so when the band started their own label back in the 1990s, they cleaned up the sound as best they could and released the show as Living Proof. The result is a neat little time capsule of the original IQ, but it suffers from a few things. For one, the sound is just barely better than bootleg quality. For another, Pete Nichols had a truly off night. But, while it wasn't their best performance, it is (to my knowledge) the only artifact of the band from this period. So for IQ fans, like me, it's a nice thing to have around.

As you know, in the DVD era, everything old is new again. The powers that be have been releasing the Live from London concerts on DVD since 2005 (the title link in this post actually goes to a review of the DVD, but its the same set and soundtrack as the album). In addition to IQ, other struggling neo-prog bands of the time make appearances, like Twelfth Night and Pallas. Having Netflixed a couple, the IQ one, filmed at the Camden Palace, comes off better than the Twelfth Night, which was recorded in the much more cramped (but more famous) Marquee Club. In addition, whoever filmed/edited the IQ show correctly figured that fans of a progressive rock band might have some interest what the keyboard player might be doing!

Praise for the Band

Today's Charleston Daily Mail has a nice write up about my high alma mater's concert band. The GW band has been named a State Honor Band every other year for the last 16 years. Why every other year? Because bands can't win the honor in consecutive years. I'm quite proud to say that that 16-year stretch began while I was plugging away in the clarinet section. Not bad, considering my first year in the band included my director being arrested for bank robbery!

Monday, April 09, 2007

Album of the Day

A Live Record, by Camel (1978): I have come to the conclusion that I own enough Camel. Between the three studio albums, later-day DVD in my collection, and this live album, I think I've caught about all the band has to offer. None of it is bad - far from it. There's a lot of nice playing going on, between Barden's liquid synths and Lattimer's Gilmour-ish guitar. But not much of it goes anywhere. For example, the first 10 tracks on disc one of this 2-disc set were completely new to me and, after several listens, I can't tell them apart. They blend together into a pleasing, if unremarkable, whole. I will say this, however - the CD reissue of this set got punched out and expanded to include two full discs of material, which is a good thing.

An Object Lesson In Modern American Politics

I was fascinated last week as the saga of Mitt Romney, the great white hunter, played out in the media. Romney, one of the leading candidates for the GOP presidential nomination in 2008, got things kicked off last year when he joined the National Rifle Association. He cleverly paid up for a "lifetime" membership, which allows him to claim that label, even though he's been part of the organization for less than one year. Last week, Romney claimed at a campaign event that he had been a hunter "all his life." That quickly fell apart, however, as the only two hunting trips anybody could remember Romney taking were last year and back when he was 15 years old.* Trying to ramp up his manly credentials, Romney attempted to clarify:

When he corrected his staff's statement during a news conference Thursday in Indianapolis, Romney said: 'I've always been a rodent and rabbit hunter, small varmints, if you will.' He added: 'I began when I was 15 or so and I have hunted those kinds of varmints since then. More than two times.'
But even that didn't really take, as the AP surveyed the four states where Romney has lived and concluded that he never got a hunting permit. The excuse this time, Romney said, is that he rarely hunted in areas where he needed one (which assumes there were some times where he was hunting illegally, right?).

All of this goes to show that, when it comes to ass-kissing politics, Romney doesn't exactly have a deft touch. Which I suppose is to his credit - his ham-handed sucking up to the NRA and hunters everywhere is so transparent that it's unlikely to win him any new supporters. That being said, it's a sad commentary on modern politics. As last week's run of Doonesbury hilariously pointed out, Romney has changed his position on almost every major issue in a play for conservative GOP primary voters. Support for gay rights? Gone. Pro-choice? Like George H.W. Bush before him, conveniently jettisoned for political gain. The list goes on and on.

I'm not sure what's worse - that candidates (and Romney is hardly alone - he's just the best example) do this repeatedly and routinely, but that voters just roll with the punches and go with it. I'm not asking for rigid positions out of which no candidate can be moved - smart people keep their minds open and always consider the possibility they might be wrong. But would it be too much to ask that candidates not fall all over themselves to try and portray themselves as something they clearly aren't just to get a few more votes.

The underlying moral of Romney's NRA pandering seems to be that unless you own guns, join the NRA, and blow away small furry animals you're not qualified to be President. That's no skin off my nose - Romney's already told me I can't be President, anyway.

* The 2006 event doesn't really count. It was one of those "hunting" reserves where people like Dick Cheney pay good money to shoot elderly lawyers. C'mon, that's not real hunting!

Billo Goes Kablammo

This has been all over the internets since last Thursday but, please, if you haven't already, go check out Bill O'Reilly taking on fellow Faux News talking head Geraldo Rivera. At issue was a drunk driving death wherein the driver was an illegal alien. Billo wants to use the incident to engage in polemics against illegals, but Geraldo will have none of it. Billo gets so irate that I thought Geraldo may have been in danger of getting another broken nose! You just can't make this stuff up.

Album of Last Friday

Live Encounter, by The Trey Gunn Band (2001): Trey Gunn is best known as Warr guitarist for King Crimson in their latest recorded formation. He has a fairly lengthy, if not particularly prolific, solo career as well. Live Encounter showcases an augmented version of the Trey Gunn Band from The Joy of Molybdenum (with the addition of a second Warr guitarist) to rip through tunes from that disc and a few others. The music itself is really interesting and features lots of Asian influences (tabla out the wazoo!) in addition to Crimsoid complexity. Excellent stuff, including the two videos on the CD showing the band in action.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Damn, God's a Petty Bastard

At least that's what this sign at the local church says to me:

I know the Lord is full of wrath, but, c'mon, is that the best She can do?

Album of the Day

Live at NEARFest 2002, by Miriodor (2005): My first exposure to Quebec's avant-proggers Miriodor was via a webcast of this performance at NEARFest. I was impressed and promptly went out and got their then-current release, Mekano. Years later, when the band released its next studio album, Parade, they included this live album as a second disc in the packaged. It's a good performance, but unfortunately 11 of its 13 tracks are from Mekano, so it's a bit redundant. Still, it's worth it to have a copy of "Igor, the Motorbike Bear!"

For the Legal History Geeks*

Lately, at work, I've been working my way through the briefs in an upcoming Supreme Court case, Panetti v. Quarterman, which presents an interesting death penalty issue. The defendant, Panetti, is absolutely completely 100% batshit loony insane. Only in Texas could he be convicted and sentenced to death. The issue now is whether he's so insane so as to preclude his execution. To put it briefly, while Panetti knows why the state seeks to execute him (murder), he believes it's all a cover for the state's desire to silence his preaching of the Gospel. If he knows what the state says its motivation is, but disbelieves it, does it matter?

Anyway, one of the amicus briefs is from a collection of legal historians and details the state of the common law on execution of the insane at the time the Bill of Rights was ratified. Part of their argument utilizes information about pre-1789 trials in England. A resource they cite is The Proceedings of the Old Bailey. The Old Bailey is the main criminal court in London. The website is:

A fully searchable online edition of the largest body of texts detailing the lives of non-elite people ever published, containing accounts of over 100,000 criminal trials held at London's central criminal court.
The info dates from 1673 to 1834 and looks to be a real treasure trove of interesting stuff.

* I don't say that to be derogatory - I'm a big legal history geek myself.

Local Legal Conundrum

Someone somewhere once defined "chutzpah" as when a child kills both of his parents and then begs the court for mercy because he's an orphan. In a similar vein, lots of states (including West Virginia) have enacted so-called Slayer Statutes, which prevent a person from inheriting money from someone that they killed. In other words, if you kill dad to get to his inheritance, you'll not get anything at all.

A local murder case has raised an interesting twist on the issue. Richard O'Neal was charged with killing his mother, Bonnie. Richard was found not guilty by reason of insanity at trial. Now the rest of Bonnie's heirs are trying to invoke West Virginia's version of the Slayer Statute to prevent Richard from getting his piece of the pie. The twist, of course, is that while Richard was found not guilty, it was not because he didn't do it. He was insane, and thus not legally liable for the death, but there's no doubt that Bonnie died at his hand. The same issue would arise if Richard had been found not guilty by reason of self defense, I imagine.

On the one hand, Richard did kill his mother. And he has not, in a practical sense, "gotten away with it" - he'll be cooped up in a state nut house for the next 40 years. But on the other, he's legally innocent. If the point of the Slayer Statute is to deter murder-for-inheritance, that rationale doesn't apply to someone who is insane. By definition, he was incapable of doing the mental calculations necessary to be deterred.

Of course, from a practical standpoint, what is Richard going to with his share of his mother's estate if he's locked up for 40 years? Will the state intervene on his behalf in order to recoup some of the costs of his incarceration?

Vuelta del Gigante Hogweed?

The flora of the Southwest apparently are not on board with the Minutemen. According to USA Today:

A giant, aggressive weed growing along the border with Mexico is draining massive quantities of water, overrunning roads and bridges and providing cover for illegal immigrants, drug smugglers and anyone else trying to sneak into the country, the Homeland Security Department says.

Called Carrizo cane, the invasive, non-native plant grows stalks up to 18 feet tall and can get so dense it makes roads impassable.
It's not quite the Giant Hogweed, but surely Cast can whip up a suitable prog epic for the occasion!

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Album of the Day

A Little Nonsense, by echolyn (2002): In brief, here is the echolyn story: the band released two full-length CDs and an EP independently, got signed by a Big Label, released on album on Big Label, broke up, released a posthumous compilation album, then reformed in 2000 to begin anew (they continue to this day). When the band signed to Big Label, the two old albums and the EP got locked in Big Label's vaults. After the band regrouped in the new millennium, they made it a point to free the old albums and give them a proper remastering and rerelease. Their second album, the brilliant Suffocating the Bloom . . ., got its own release.

For the rest, the band put together this 3-disc set. Disc 1 is the band's self-titled debut. In a current discussion on the mailing list, the band has been poo-pooing that album, a bit unfairly in the opinion of most fans (myself included). Yes, it's rough. Yes, they sound better, more mature, and more confident now. But the energy and youthful enthusiasm shine through, so it's still a good listen. Disc 2 combines the early EP, . . . and Every Blossom, with four mostly acoustic tracks, and the posthumous compilation disc, When the Sweet Turns Sour, which contains some live cuts, unreleased studio tracks, and a cover of the olde Genesis tune "When the Sour Turns to Sweet." Disc 3 is a real grab bag, holding four reworked "2000" versions of old tunes, three "live in the studio" cuts from the reunion album Cowboy Poems Free, and an old old jam session called "The Edge of Wonder."

It's a neat set, overall. I usually invade it for the debut album, honestly, 'cause the When the Sweet Turns to Sour material has it's own disc that I can pull out when I'm in the mood.

For the Kiddies

Via Appellate Law & Practice, check this out. The Supreme Court of Louisiana has created a coloring book for kids about the courts. That's right, while Daddy's public defender tries vainly to get the court to do some justice, little Connie can color in everything from the State Seal to the Scales of Justice. Oddly lacking from the book seems to be the court itself sitting on the bench. But hey, I hear if you come to court on your birthday, your case is decided for free!

On Mandatory Brain Buckets

Today's edition of USA Today has a couple of articles dealing with mandatory helmet laws for motorcycle riders. First up is this article that details a renewed effort to pass mandatory helmet laws after many decades of moving in the opposite direction. The driving force behind the new push was the crash of Pittsburgh Steeler's quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who wrecked his bike just before the season started last year. He was not riding a helmet at the time and suffered some minor head injuries (nothing that kept him from missing more than a game or two, mind you).

The other article details the lobbying efforts over the years that have produced a rollback of lots of helmet laws that were already on the books. That, to me, is the much more interesting story. I get the argument against mandatory helmet laws - part of the allure of a motorcycle is the sense of freedom it brings, the wind rushing through your hair, etc. It's a popular belief - when I'm visiting the girlfriend in Pennsylvania, I see bikers from neighboring states who take their helmets off at the border to enjoy riding sans brain bucket. In addition, my libertarian streak sees this as unwarranted government intrusion.

But the lobbyists in the article aren't just anti-mandatory helmet laws, they appear to be anti-helmets completely. Witness:

The latest result of helmet-law opposition has been to stall a landmark study that motorcyclists themselves say would save lives.

Motorcyclist groups have long sought an in-depth analysis of why riders are killed. Researchers would rush to the scene of hundreds of motorcycle crashes to determine why they occurred. By finding the main causes, the study would urge safety improvements in anything from training to motorcycle design.

The study was the top priority of a broad motorcycle-safety plan written in 2000 by safety experts, motorcyclists and NHTSA.

When lawmakers in Congress proposed in 2005 that the Department of Transportation conduct and fund the study, the American Motorcyclist Association objected.

'We don't want DOT to do the study,' association lobbyist Edward Moreland said in a recent interview. 'They want to focus on protective equipment' such as helmets. The association wanted 'an independent third party' to run the study, Moreland said.
This would seem, to me, to be akin to blocking a study to show whether water is, in fact, wet. Does anybody serious argue that, in the event of a crash, a head hitting the pavement with a helmet around it is in better shape than a bare skull? If the anti-helmet folks want to maintain the right to not wear helmets, shouldn't they focus on philosophical/political arguments rather than blocking studies into their effectiveness? Surely the motorcycle folks don't want to become the Tobacco Institute of the 21st Century.

For what it's worth, while I agree with the anti-mandatory helmet law folks in principal, their libertarian argument fails in a modern interconnected world. If there was someway to completely limit the excess cost of caring for the brain damaged victims of bike accidents, I'd be all for it. But as long as I and the rest of the insured and tax paying have to help foot the bill, you owe us a little courtesy.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Album of the Day

Legend, by Henry Cow (1973): The title of this album varies from source to source. My CD, on both the disc and spine of the jewel case, use the single word "legend." Others, including some of the Ground and Sky reviewers, call is "Leg End," which fits with the cover art (it's a sock - leg end, get it!). I suppose the unsettled nature of the title is appropriate, given the quirky quality of the music. While, by all reports, this is a more accessible Henry Cow than other albums - indeed, some of it sounds a bit like Canterbury prog on acid - there's still some real weirdness on here. But a good kind of weirdness.

We Never Saw This on Oz

This is one of those stories that gets stranger the farther into you read. The main event, so to speak, is odd but not particularly strange:

A female Thai prisoner has boosted her chances of freedom by winning the world light flyweight boxing title.

Samson Sor Siriporn, a convicted drug dealer, beat Japan's Ayaka Miyano in a bout staged at the mixed Klong Prem jail, known as the 'Bangkok Hilton.'
OK, so I lied - that is particularly strange, in and of itself, tailor-made for Hollywood. Sort of a cross between Rocky, a chicks in prison exploitation flick, and Victory. But what makes the whole thing seem all the more surreal are the details of the match that make it sound like something right out of HBO's infamous prison drama:
The match took place in a makeshift ring in the grounds of the Klong Prem prison, in front of a crowd of about 700 people, including a few prison inmates.

Transvestites released from their cells for the event paraded in high heels around the ring with placards.
Apparently, Siriporn has shown prison officials that she has "talent" and is a "changed woman," thus justifying the commencement of parole proceedings.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Album of the Day

Larks' Tongues in Aspic, by King Crimson (1973): This is one of those albums that somehow doesn't manage to live up to the sum of its parts. For my money, most of the tracks exist in superior versions elsewhere - "Exiles" and a briefer "Easy Money" on USA and the head-rippingly good double-trio versions of "The Talking Drum" and "Larks' Tongues in Aspic, Part Two" from B'BOOM. The first part of the title track drags on a bit and "Book of Saturday" doesn't really have any pop to it. In fact, that's the whole problem - it all sounds a bit to clinical and dry. The fury that invests the live version with extra life is sadly lacking.

What's Next, the Emily Bronte Centerfold?

A couple of weeks ago I talked about what to do when a favorite artist has disagreeable politics. But what if they're just plain ugly? According to this article in yesterday's New York Times, a debate is raging over the physical qualities of 19th-century author Jane Austen. Apparently, there was never a proper portrait made of her, and thus readers and scholars have been left to their own imaginations when picturing her physical features. Now a fairly crude sketch by Austen's sister is leading to some hand wringing that, to put it bluntly, Jane wasn't - as the kids would say it today - teh hawtness.

Who cares? Putting aside the observation that beauty is much more than skin deep, what would it matter? What if Austen was a bitter, vicious, angry woman festooned with boils and (to quote Monty Burns) a mighty hump? Does that change the quality of her work? Does it make it any more or less entertaining, relevant, or interesting? I can't say that it changes my view of Pride and Prejudice from my high school days.

It seems such ado about nothing. And perhaps a sad comment on our very visual, very superficial, 21st Century culture.

Chocolate Christ Sends Donohue Over the Edge

As I mentioned last week, the life-sized milk chocolate Jesus has pissed off Catholic League Bloviator-in-Chief Bill Donohue. As proof of that, read the transcript or see the video of his appearance on CNN with the artist, Cosmo Carvallo, over at Crooks & Liars. In just a few minutes, Donohue manages to threaten Carvallo with beheading and finger breakage, call Carvallo a false Christian, insult New Jersey, and artists in general "losers." You know, when some videotape from bin Laden or some similar person shows up on TV, Bill O'Reilly an his ilk are always demanding that moderate Muslim groups denounce whatever the latest pronouncement is. Where are the same demands that mainstream Catholics tell a hate-monger like Donohue to go fuck himself and stop presuming to speak for them? Isn't O'Reilly a Catholic? He could do the trick.

And, to follow up on jedi jawa's point on the initial post - yes, I'm sure that the dark brown color of the statue is pissing off some people. In addition, Donohue and company seem pissed that the statue is anatomically correct. 'cause, you know, Jesus couldn't have had naughty bits.