Wednesday, October 31, 2007

A Candy-Coated Conspiracy

My office allows for some flexible work schedules. I take advantage of that by going in early in the mornings and leaving early in the evenings so I can avoid rush hour traffic and have a little more time at the end of the day. As a result of the change when we shift out of daylight savings time this year, my mornings are pitch black, which sort of sucks. I've been willing to blame Duhbya for this (why not?), but it appears there is another culprit:

it gets even stranger than that, at least according to Michael Downing, the author of the 'Spring Forward: The Annual Madness of Daylight Saving Time' (Shoemaker & Hoard, 2005). Mr. Downing says that the candy lobby also played a significant role in pushing Halloween into daylight saving time, believing that extra hour of trick-or-treating in daylight would spur more candy sales but arguing that it would decrease deaths. The candy industry and the bill’s sponsor dispute his account.
Of course the candy men would deny it - blame the farmers (although it appears that Wall Street is involved, too)! It's probably some Legion of Doom plot.

Nice Pants, but No Job

Remember this guy?

The other shoe has dropped, as Roy Pearson, the DC administrative judge who notoriously sued a local dry cleaner for $52 million because of a lost pair of pants, has lost his job. Actually, his position on the bench expired in May, but he remained on the payroll as an "attorney advisor" in the meantime. The Office of Administrative Hearings claims that the pants suit didn't have any impact on the decision:

Instead, the committee said it had reviewed Pearson's judicial decisions and audiotapes of proceedings over which he had presided and found he did not demonstrate 'appropriate judgment and judicial temperament,' according a source who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the case.

Sources said Pearson also was criticized for displaying a 'combative' nature with supervisors and colleagues and for failing to comply with policies in drafting opinions.
'cause none of those characteristics were on display during the pants debacle!

Halloweeny Tunage

While, as my interview with Mr. C made clear, I don't do the whole dress up thing for Halloween, I'm not beyond using it as a cheap excuse/organizing principle for a playlist at work. So here's what keeping me spooked at the office today.

First up, the longhair stuff:

  • Grohg, by Copland - an early ballet about vampires inspired by Nosferatu
  • Symphonie Fantastique, by Berlioz - the very definition of early program music, it tells the story of Hector's fevered opium dream that ends with an unholy dance of death
  • Night on Bald Mountain, by Mussorgsky - anybody who's seen Fantasia knows how this plays out
Of course, I still gotta' rawk:
  • "Zomby Woof" and "Titties n' Beer," by Zappa - I swear the second one is a modern retelling of Stravinsky's Histoire du soldat (as is "The Devil Went Down to Georgia"!)
  • "The Musical Box" and "Return of the Giant Hogweed," by Genesis -a ghost story and a twisted zoological monster's tale
  • "Man-Erg," by Van der Graff Generator - in truth, Peter Hammill's vocals are so intense he could make a vegan's grocery list sound menacing, but he's at his spooky best unpacking the devils inside us all
  • "Day of the Cow I/Snowcow/Day of the Cow II," by Mike Keneally - a bovine revenge fantasy, right out of PETA's dreams
  • "Poisoned Youth," by England - a tale of eternal youth gone awry (think The Picture of Dorian Gray in epic prog form)
  • The Fear "Trilogy" ("The Enemy Within"/"The Weapon"/"Witch Hunt"/"Freeze"), by Rush - can't have Halloween without fear
  • "Karn Evil 9," by ELP - by the end of its 30+ minutes, machines are giving the orders
  • "Grendel," by Marillion - Beowulf's nemesis gets his say (which is almost as scary as the dumbed down ripoff of "Supper's Ready")
  • "Moon Over Bourbon Street," by Sting - more vampires, with a debt to Ann Rice
  • In the Court of the Crimson King - An Observation by King Crimson - the debut album from a band named after the Devil
Happy Halloween!

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

A Protest to Get Behind

From the girlfriend, (wo)manning the Pittsburgh bureau of the Ranch, comes word of an unorthodox method of political expression:

Women in several countries, including Australia, have begun sending their underpants to Burma embassies in a culturally insulting gesture of protest against the recent brutal crackdown. 'It’s an extremely strong message in Burmese and in all Southeast Asian culture,' said Liz Hilton, who supports an activist group that launched the 'Panties for Peace' drive earlier this week.

* * *

Hilton said women in Thailand, Australia, Singapore, England and other European countries had started sending or delivering their underwear to Burma missions following informal coordination among activist organisations and individuals.

'You can post, deliver or fling your panties at the closest Burmese Embassy any day from today. Send early, send often!' the Lanna Action for Burma website urges.
Flinging undergarments may win somebody a Nobel Peace Prize!

Paging Mr. Darwin . . .

Well, this is an impressive display:

A man who was trying to run away from police after a high-speed chase failed to put his pickup truck in park, and the vehicle ran over him, dispatchers said.

* * *

During the pursuit, Deputies L.D. Deitz and A.C. Pile saw the driver strike a trash truck, according to dispatchers.

The man finally stopped his truck and was attempting to flee on foot near Turkey Pen Drive, but he neglected to put his car in park. That's when the truck ran over him, dispatchers said.
It looks like this jacknut will pull through, which rules him out of Darwin Award contention. He might qualify for some version of this competition, tho':

He'd give Oliver a run for his money, at least!

Yet Again, More Conroy-gate

Further developments in the Nitro school book controversy, thanks to Raging Red. In the comments to this post, the the teacher who is at the center of the controversy weighs in, as well as the GW student whose Email to Conroy sparked his letter to the local paper. Lots of interesting stuff in those comments.

Monday, October 29, 2007


In yesterday's New York Times, Adam Liptak had an interesting column looking at the numerous 2008 presidential candidates who were practicing attorneys. They range from federal prosecutors (Giuliani and Thompson) to civil litigators (Clinton and Edwards) to a civil rights specialist (Obama).

Of particular interest to me was Obama's impression of "the system" during his time practicing:

But Mr. Obama sometimes seemed ambivalent about the law. In his 1995 memoir, 'Dreams From My Father,' he wrote that the law could be 'a sort of glorified accounting that serves to regulate the affairs of those who have power — and that all too often seeks to explain, to those who do not, the ultimate wisdom and justness of their condition.'
I can appreciate Obama's perspective. There are times when it seems that everyone involved in my cases - prosecutors, defenders, defendants, cops, judges - are just playing their part in a system that has very little to do with "justice" or punishing grave transgressions against the body politic. Usually I get that vibe in drug cases, particularly when reviewing a presentence report that honestly reports in one section that "there are no identifiable victims in this case."

On another front, the next time the Chamber of Commerce types try and tar John Edwards with the "trial lawyer" epithet as some sort of shiftless ambulance chaser, consider this:
Mr. Edwards, for instance, was known for choosing his cases with care.

'He was very selective,' said James P. Cooney III, who defended a dozen medical malpractice cases brought by Mr. Edwards. 'He only took the best cases, and by that I don’t mean the ones with the highest damages. I mean the ones where somebody had done something really bad.'
That's the "bad guy," admitting that sometimes when people get sued they really deserve it.

Why I'm Not a Millionaire

Yesterday's New York Times had a cover story about young millionaires and the stories of their success. One of them, Max Levchin, made a mint when eBay purchased PayPal. And that was a problem:

He thought he would spend the time after the sale 'exploring my inner self.' Instead, he spent the better part of 12 months 'feeling worthless and stupid' and baffled by what he might do with the remainder of his life. He felt too young to retire or downshift a gear or two — and too restless to become a philanthropist.

'I enjoy sitting on nice beaches and hanging out with my girlfriend and playing with my dog, but that’s three hours a day,' Mr. Levchin said. 'What about the remaining 18 hours I’m awake?'
Two things come to mind. First - holy shit, he only sleeps three hours a day?!? Second - although I love my job and career, if I fell into some money I wouldn't have any problem spending hours on the beach with the girlfriend and the dog (I wonder if the Levchin's girlfriend and dog hung around for their hour-a-day for very long).

I guess my ambitions aren't properly tuned for generating wealth. Oh well.

Round Two With Mr. C

Mr. Chinchilla, the small gray furry Barbara Walters of the blogosphere, is returning to some of his interview subjects to ask them about Halloween. You can see my answers to his questions here. They involve Dick Cheney in a clown suit!

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Guess I'm Rooting for the Sox

I've long had a problem with athletes who give praise to the Lord when the win games, but never seem to blame Jebus when things go wrong. As George Carlin points out, you never hear the losing team say "we would have won, but Jesus made me fumble." As annoying as that can be, the Colorado Rockies have taken it to a whole other level.

As this article from Britain's The Independent shows, the Rockies are a team of faith:

The team's chief executive is a born-again Christian. So is the general manager and the team coach. Their two star players, along with many other members of their regular line-up, are not only believers but attend team-organised Bible studies.

The team doesn't like to talk about it much – mainly because the overlords of Major League Baseball don't think it's good for business – but they have an explicit policy to recruit as many Christian ball players as they can.

In other words, the Rockies – uniquely, even in a country as religion-obsessed as America – play faith-based baseball. And, in their view, God just rewarded them – big time.

'You look at some of the moves we made and didn't make,' general manager Dan O'Dowd said in the only interview he has given on the subject, long before the Rockies' remarkable ascension over the past few weeks. 'You look at some of the games we're winning. Those aren't just a coincidence. God has definitely had a hand in this.'
One might opine that indeed it's not just a coincidence at all - it's just that the players actually started playing well! Talk about an insult to the talent. Not to mention the arrogance that not only does the Supreme Sky King of the Universe care about baseball but he wants you to win!

And what has the Lord done for the Rockies anyway?
The game was a thriller, the score see-sawing until the two sides were tied at six runs apiece after the regulation nine innings. San Diego eventually broke the game open with two runs in the top half of the 13th inning, only to see the Rockies bounce back with two runs of their own, leaving their star hitter, Matt Holliday, just 90ft away from victory at third base.

On the first pitch faced by the next batter, Holliday came tearing towards home plate and collided with the Padres' catcher, who had the ball in time to intercept him and get him out. But the ball flopped out of the catcher's hand, and the umpire quickly ruled Holliday safe. The run was in, the Rockies were up 9-8, and the game was over.

Except that the umpire appeared to have made the wrong call. Close inspection of the replay suggested Holliday never actually touched home plate, as the rules require, because the catcher's foot was in the way.
In other words - God cheats. Which shouldn't really come as a surprise to anyone. Not only that, he holds a grudge - after casting the Padres out of the playoffs, he set place on fire!

The (Dead) Spirit of Radio

Yesterday, I blogged about how some government control of the book market in Germany leads to a flourishing and varied literary culture there. Now for the, "but what about . . ." counterpoint. Today's New York Times reports on the state of popular music in China, which is heavily regulated and censored by the state. The result isn't pretty:

Marxists once referred to religion as the opium of the people, but in today’s China it is the music promoted on state-monopolized radio that increasingly claims that role. China’s leader, Hu Jintao, has talked since he assumed power five years ago about “building a harmonious society,” an ambiguous phrase subject to countless interpretations.

But Chinese musicians, cultural critics and fans say that in entertainment, the government’s thrust seems clear: Harmonious means blandly homogeneous, with virtually all contemporary music on the radio consisting of gentle love songs and uplifting ballads.

* * *

Many say one result has been the dumbing down and deadening of popular music culture. Fu Guoyong, an independent cultural critic in Hangzhou, likened today’s pop music culture to the politically enforced conformity of the Cultural Revolution, when only eight highly idealized Socialist 'model operas' could be performed in China.

'Nowadays singers can sing many songs, but in the end, they’re all singing the same song, the core of which is, ‘Have fun,’' Mr. Fu said. 'Culture has become an empty vessel.'
Say what you will about the modern American music scene, it's not an empty vessel. Lots of it may not be all the "good," however you define that term, but it at least does a better job at reflecting reality.

Here He Comes to Save the Day!

Oh, thank goodness. I see, via TalkLeft, that former FEMA director Mike Brown is available for media interviews as an "expert" in disaster relief on the response to the California wildfires. Yes, that's Mike "You're Doing a Heck of a Job, Brownie" Brown who was so effective overseeing the federal response to Katrina. I bet it's a heck of an interview.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Conroy Weighs In

Author Pat Conroy, whose novels Prince of Tides and Beach Music are at the center of a controversy at Nitro High School, offered his thoughts on the situation today in a lengthy letter to The Charleston Gazette. Conroy spends of the letter in a passionate defense not of his own work, but of English teachers:

I’ve enjoyed a lifetime love affair with English teachers, just like the ones who are being abused in Charleston*, West Virginia, today. My English teachers pushed me to be smart and inquisitive, and they taught me the great books of the world with passion and cunning and love. Like your English teachers, they didn’t have any money, either, but they lived in the bright fires of their imaginations, and they taught because they were born to teach the prettiest language in the world. I have yet to meet an English teacher who assigned a book to damage a kid. They take an unutterable joy in opening up the known world to their students, but they are dishonored and unpraised because of the scandalous paychecks they receive. In my travels around this country, I have discovered that America hates its teachers, and I could not tell you why. Charleston, West Virginia, is showing clear signs of really hurting theirs, and I would be cautious about the word getting out.
As for the books is question, they:
are two of my darlings, which I would place before the altar of God and say, 'Lord, this is how I found the world you made.' They contain scenes of violence, but I was the son of a Marine Corps fighter pilot who killed hundreds of men in Korea, beat my mother and his seven kids whenever he felt like it, and fought in three wars. My youngest brother, Tom, committed suicide by jumping off a fourteen-story building; my French teacher ended her life with a pistol; my aunt was brutally raped in Atlanta; eight of my classmates at The Citadel were killed in Vietnam; and my best friend was killed in a car wreck in Mississippi last summer. Violence has always been a part of my world. I write about it in my books and make no apology to anyone.
Not everyone is appreciates his point of view:
Board member Bill Raglin was not sympathetic.

'That fool, Conroy, assumes ... that every person who is an English major [or teacher] is above reproach,' Raglin said. 'I’m a chemist. Do I believe that all chemists are good? No.

'Maybe I should go back to school and change my major.'

He favors a book rating system or disclaimers on controversial books.
Another little interesting tidbit from that article: the College Board, which oversees materials for AP classes, approved the use of Prince of Tides in the Nitro class.

* Just to clarify, there is no "Charleston school board." The local school board covers all of Kanawha County. Nitro, in fact, is a wholly separate city from Charleston.

Question Answered

Last month I blogged about filmmaker Errol Morris and his quest to answer a question about a famous early war photograph called "Valley of the Shadow of Death," by Roger Fenton:

Or, rather, two photographs. That one and another of the same scene with a clear road (i.e., no cannon balls). Which one came first? Was the famous shot staged? Does it make any difference?

Morris's quest to find the answer brought him into contact with many experts and took him to the Crimean and back. Finally, today, he provides the answer:

And so, it turns out that Keller, Haworth-Booth and Sontag are right. It is OFF before ON [the photo above - JDB]. I tried hard to prove that Keller and Sontag were wrong – to prove that ON came before OFF. I failed. I can’t deny it. But I did prove that they were right for the wrong reasons. It is not their assessment of Fenton’s character or lack of character that establishes the order of the pictures. Nor is it sun-angle and shadow. Rather it is the motion of ancillary rocks – rocks that had been kicked, nudged, displaced between the taking of one picture and the other. Rocks that no one cared about. “Those little guys that got kicked aside.” Their displacement was recorded on those wet collodion plates not because someone wanted to record it. It happened inadvertently. Ancillary rocks, ancillary evidence – essential information.
When I first blogged about this series what intrigued me was Morris's skepticism and questioning of the received wisdom that ON was the second photo and that the scene had somehow been altered before it was taken. In the end, that skepticism proved to be unfounded. But that only goes to prove that questioning assumptions and "facts" doesn't always lead to some messy revolution. Sometimes it just becomes confirmation, which is good thing, too.

On Competing Values

In spite of Chamber of Commerce propaganda to the contrary, we Americans worship at the altar of the free market. We've embraced moving manufacturing jobs overseas, eroding of organized labor, and the Wal-Marting of the country in the quest for cheaper stuff. In some cases, the market provides a staggering array of choices, but in others the domination of a few megacorps has the effect of squeezing out smaller retailers.

In Germany, they have a different perspective, at least when it comes to selling books:

If you want proof that a cultural divide separates Europe and America, the book business is a place to start. In the United States chain stores have largely run neighborhood bookshops out of business. Here in Germany, there are big and small bookstores seemingly on every block. The German Book Association counts 4,208 bookstores among its members. It estimates that there are 14,000 German publishers. Last year 94,716 new titles were published in German. In the United States, with a population nearly four times bigger, there were 172,000 titles published in 2005.

Germany’s book culture is sustained by an age-old practice requiring all bookstores, including German online booksellers, to sell books at fixed prices. Save for old, used or damaged books, discounting in Germany is illegal. All books must cost the same whether they’re sold over the Internet or at Steinmetz, a shop in Offenbach that opened its doors in Goethe’s day, or at a Hugendubel or a Thalia, the two big chains.
And, oh by the way, book prices dropped a half a percent last year. So the Germans get more selection, reasonable prices, and maintain local businesses. Do they know something we don't?

E tu, Rudy?

OK, so I know pandering goes hand in hand with being a politician - particularly when running for President. But aren't they usually a little more clever than this:

Sounds like a baseball flip-flop. Rudy Giuliani, a lifelong New York Yankees fan, said Tuesday he's pulling for their most hated rivals, the Boston Red Sox, to win the World Series over the Colorado Rockies.

'I'm rooting for the Red Sox,' the Republican presidential contender said in response to a question, sparking applause at the Boston restaurant where he was picking up a local endorsement.
C'mon, Mr. New York - the Red Sox?!? Aren't there some loyalties that you just won't compromise? Oh sure, he blames it on being an "American League fan" and rooting for the AL champs (except, possibly, against the Mets), but that just raises more questions - can we really have a President who supports the Designated Hitter rule? Look where the former owner of the Texas Rangers has gotten us!

Monday, October 22, 2007

On Gay Wizards

In one of the odder bits of news from the last week, Harry Potter J.K. Rowling has outed one of her characters - Albus Dumbledore -as gay, even though the subject never comes up in the books (so I'm told). Strangely enough, Michael Dorf finds that this is a good jumping off point for discussing the original intent theory of constitutional interpretation. It goes like this:

But given that the Potter books, now complete, make no mention of Dumbledore's sexuality, Rowling would not appear to have any authority to declare the print version of Dumbledore gay, straight or bi. Her views on such matters are naturally of interest to fans of her books, but the work must stand on its own.

These principles may seem obvious enough when considering the relation of a fiction writer's intentions to her text, but they are highly contentious when it comes to legal documents. In the balance of this column, I will explain why James Madison is no more of an authority on the meaning of the U.S. Constitution, than J.K. Rowling is on Dumbledore's sexual orientation.
It reminds me of Ray Bradbury's recent claim that his novel Farenheit 451 is not really about censorship, but a critique of the corrosive effect of television. Not many people bought that and I'm not sure many people will buy Rowling's outing of Dumbledore. If Dorf is right, we don't have to.

Athletic Shadenfreude

The Major League Soccer regular season wrapped up this weekend, with the MLS Cups set to kick off Thursday night. The final regular season game pitted the Chicago Fire against the LA Galaxy, for whom David Beckham had finally returned. Through a combination of MLS's lax playoff setup (8 of 13 teams is just too many) and an out of character late season run, the Galaxy were a win away from making it into the playoffs. They didn't get it, falling 1-0 to the Fire. As someone who got so so sick of all the Beckham hype and the accompanying propaganda (sorry, Lexi, the Galaxy are not the "gem of MLS"), that makes me just a little happy.

Oh yeah - DC United finished the season on top of the league, capturing their fourth Supporter's Shield and the top seed in the playoffs. Whoo-hoo!

Friday, October 19, 2007

Getting Into Somewhere Else

I listen to music while I'm at work. A lot. I try not to foist my weird musical sensibilities on my coworkers - I keep the door shut, try not to crank it up too much, etc. Nevertheless, my next door neighbor knocked on the door the other day and wondered what I was listening to - he seemed to like it. As it happened, I was finishing up Marillion's latest, Somewhere Else, which has really grown on my since it was released (part of it, anyway).

All of that is just an excuse to post this video:

It's the band performing the title track earlier at this year at the London Forum, as preserved for the forthcoming DVD Somewhere in London. Enjoy!

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Even More Banned Books

The battle between the Kanawha County Board of Education and the novels of Pat Conroy continued last night at a contentious board meeting. I'm proud to say that students from my alma mater have joined the students at Nitro in protest at the books being removed:

Nitro senior Justin Fletcher organized a silent student protest after 'The Prince of Tides' was suspended from his Advanced Placement literature class.

'We’re not here to challenge parents’ rights,' he said, saying parents like the Tyrees and Frazier deserve alternative books. Still, he added, 'We want to read this book. We want to stand up for these books.'
The complaining parents don't seem to have a firm grasp on the legal issues:
Rich Edwards, a Cross Lanes resident, argued against allowing the books in classrooms.

'Our students, as well-meaning as they are, are still subject to the norms of our society,' he said. 'It’s very indecent, it’s very obscene.' He said to the students that 'this is not an individual-rights question.'
Obscenity is a legal term of art with a precise meaning. Under the Supreme Court's Miller test, one element to be considered is whether the work as a whole "lacks serious literary, artistic, political, and scientific value." Say what you will about Pat Conroy (I'm sure he has his critics), I don't think any court is going to find that his books lack artistic or literary value. We're long past the days when works by mainstream authors with a few "dirty" parts will be considered obscene.

Nevertheless, the dispute continues.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Pushing the Limits of Felony Murder (redux)

Last week in discussing the case of Stephanie Holsinger, I boldly proclaimed:

The trial judge will make a decision on Monday about Holsinger's argument, tho' I expect the state Supreme Court will have the final say in the matter.
Well, I neglected to mention the possibility of a plea bargain rendering the whole thing moot. As the Charleston Gazette reports:
On Monday, Holsinger, 24, entered into a similar deal, pleading guilty to first-degree robbery. Like Gilmer, she was indicted on felony murder and conspiracy charges in August. In her case, the state agreed to stand silent at sentencing.
There's some confusion as to what sentencing consequences Holsinger faces: the article says that she faces at least 10 years in prison (there's no statutory maximum for robbery in West Virginia), but the article cites Holsinger's attorney for the prospect that he will ask for probation and/or home confinement. My Sentencing Guideline-driven world can't comprehend such judicial discretion!

Street Racing Sucks

Alexander Roy is an asshole and a punk. He's a street racer, claiming to have recently set a new speed record for the New York-Los Angeles drive. Sure, he's fabulously wealthy and his exploits utilize a wildly modified BMW and a chase plane (no kidding) to spot cops. But he's really no different from the dumb kids who line up around the country and drag race down the city streets, oblivious to the risks to themselves and others.

Like the idiots in Los Angeles whose race ended with the death of a mother and her two children. It's one thing when the racers off themselves or those that egg them on - that's got Darwin Award written all over it. But to risk the lives of innocent passers by just so you can prove your manhood is asinine in the extreme:

Trais Hand, 17, a senior at John W. North High School in Riverside, who had just received his driver's license a month earlier, found that out too late.

Hand served 106 days in juvenile hall after an impulsive midday race last October resulted in the death of Reyna De Leon.

'It was kind of a spur-of-the-moment, a heat-of-the-moment type thing, and I ended up making a bad choice,' Hand said. 'I didn't intend on harming anybody.'

Hand was stopped at a light in his 2001 Jetta when a friend pulled up on his right with the window down.

'He said something like, 'My car's faster than yours,' ' Hand said. And then it was on.

The two cars made a right at the light and then started to race on Olivewood Avenue.

'I just lost control,' he said. The car smashed into a light pole, the air bag deployed and the car slid 100 feet, hitting and killing 38-year-old De Leon, who was in a wheelchair.

Since his release from juvenile hall, Hand has attended counseling sessions and spoken out at Riverside County high schools about his experience. 'It helps relieve some of the guilt,' he said.
I'm a car guy. I get the desire to go fast. But there are so many safe, legal, and fun ways to get your jollies that taking it to the street is just mind-numbingly retarded. If precise car control and intense competition is your thing, there's autocross. If parking lot battles aren't your thing, there are lots of options to get out on great road courses like Mid-Ohio, Watkins Glen, and VIR - track days, time trials, full fledged road racing. Or, if pure acceleration is your thing, there are hundreds of drag strips across the country where you can let it rip without worrying about pedestrians.

Street racing is dumb, dangerous, and illegal. There is no such thing as good street racing. And the only good street racers are those that have seen the light, grown up, and moved on with their lives before they ended somebody else's.

No Slippery Slope

When arguments heat up over physician-assisted suicide, folks who oppose the practice often raise the specter of coerced euthanasia. The slippery slope argument goes that once the able minded are able to enlist the help of others to end their lives, folks within the orbit of the not-so-able minded will be able to pervert the process to end the lives of the inconvenient. If true, it would be a powerful argument to proceed slowly, although it doesn't seem to me to require a complete ban on the practice.

But, as a new study reported in USA Today shows, those fears may be unfounded. The study, in the Journal of Medical Ethics reviewed practices in Oregon and the Netherlands, where physician assisted suicide is legal, as they impacted "vulnerable groups":

Researchers focused on such groups as the elderly, women, the uninsured in Oregon (the Netherlands has universal insurance), racial and ethnic minorities, the poor, the less educated, people with psychiatric illnesses, minors, the chronically ill and people with AIDS.
The conclusion:
The study finds that people with AIDS were the only group with heightened use of physician-assisted suicide. This has been found in previous studies, especially in areas with large gay communities such as in San Francisco, says bioethicist Margaret Battin, a professor at the University of Utah and author of the study.

Overall, people who died with a doctor's help were more likely to be members of groups 'enjoying comparative social, economic, educational, professional, and other privileges,' the study says.
Opponents of physician-assisted suicide, apparently unable to tear down the research, attack the messenger:
But groups opposed to physician-assisted suicide such as Not Dead Yet based in Illinois, Californians Against Assisted Suicide and the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition based in Canada have criticized Battin's study because she did not disclose that she is on the board of the Death with Dignity National Center, a non-profit organization leading the defense of Oregon's assisted-suicide law.

Battin says the study is objective research in a peer-reviewed journal, and she does not receive money from the center.

The study was sponsored by the University of Utah, Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, Oregon Health & Science University in Portland and VU University Medical Center in Amsterdam.
One would think it might be good news to those groups that their major concern with the practice has not materialized.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Tri-Point Rocks

Now that I'm a Mazda owner, I have a rooting interest in the Speed World Challenge Touring races, as the front runners include a bevy of Mazda6 sedans. The leading Mazda team, Tri-Point Engineering, in addition to being the home to a pair of former autocrossers, has joined up with the comic strip Mutts for the season's final two races (two weekends ago at Road Atlanta and this upcoming weekend at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca) to raise awareness for the adoption of shelter animals:

For the final two races, each will have a new teammate as the Tri-Point Motorsports team has adopted ‘Earl’ and ‘Mooch,’ the beloved "MUTTS" comic strip characters, to ride along. Jeff, Randy, ‘Earl’, and ‘Mooch’ have joined forces with The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) in their efforts to promote the adoption of shelter animals.
Honestly, all I know of Mutts is that its Earl and Mooch couldn't smooth out the rough edges of Rat from Pearls Before Swine. But their hearts are certainly in the right place on this one, as are the Tri-Point guys. Plus,it gives me a chance to post a pic of my favorite shelter adoptee:

Questing for Validation

In a comment to yesterday's post about the Reverend Buzz, Rebecca of Carpe You Some Diem wonders:

I don't understand why people think that keeping church and state separate means having a totally Godless existence.
I think one explanation is that in spite of public protestations of deep and abiding faith, many religious folks are scared of having it yanked out from underneath them. They constantly seek public validation of their beliefs as "correct" in order to bolster their faith. Thus you have places like Illinois, that recently introduced a mandatory "moment of silence" at the beginning of the school day. It's prayer by another name, and the faithful are desperate to have it, but they'll disclaim any religious motivation. Same thing with getting the 10 Commandments in schools or court houses - they'll loudly disclaim that it's about "tradition" and legal "foundations," but it's really about making sure their God gets the prime real estate in the state's organs of power.

For another example, see this interview (via Pharyngula) from Fox News with professional victim Bill Donohue and Father Jonathan Morris, who are upset about the forthcoming movie The Golden Compass. The movie is an adaptation of the first book in the His Dark Materials trilogy by Phillip Pullman. The trilogy is a work of fantasy for kids (the first volume won the Carnegie Medal in 1995 and was named as one of the ten most important children's novels of the past 70 years) that has the audacity to involve anti-religious overtones. Think of it as an atheist equivalent to C.S. Lewis's Narnia books.

The film adaptation has Donohue and Morris in a tizzy for precisely that reason - they think that such ideas are too advanced for the film's PG audience:
[Host John] GIBSON: Father Morris if a movie is pushing atheism, should it get a PG rating?

MORRIS: Well, this is the point John, you know coming to the belief that there is no such thing as transcendence, there is no such thing as heaven, there is no such thing as destiny, that's a big deal. Now if that's an issue that adults come to in a very serious way, it should be presented in a serious way among adults. Putting a PG rating on it I think is saying this is a conversation that's worthy of kids. And that's my problem with this film.

* * *

MORRIS: . . . Now, again, we have to be careful that there isn't ideology pushed. These books by Pullman, is — they're fiction of ideology. And ideology is a big thing. It distorts minds of kids.
I don't necessarily disagree with the dangers of ideology, but is Morris so short sighted that he can't see that he pushes an equally dangerous one? Why is it OK for PG audiences to be subject to Lewis's pro-Christian allegory but not Pullman's pro-rationality one?* I'll make them a deal - I'll support a push for a PG-13 or R rating for The Golden Compass if Donohue and Morris will agree to the same rating on religion in general.

It's got nothing to do with ideology per se, it's got to do with Morris, Donohue, and their ilk protecting the next generation of consumers of religion (who, it appears, are fairly sick of the whole thing) from a competitor. It's ideological protectionism. Trade barriers for the mind. Their so fearful that somebody may actually think for themselves and reject their particular flavor of dogma that they want to limit exposure. They need public acceptance - validation - of their beliefs.

C'mon, guys - you afraid of a little competition?

* To be complete, it looks like the Left Behind movies got PG-13 ratings, but I'm not sure that really counts if nobody outside of Kirk Cameron's family actually saw them.

NASCAR Uber Alles

USA Today has a lengthy article today about the exodus of open wheel drivers to the greener pastures of NASCAR. Although there's always been migration between stock cars and Indy-type open wheel cars (Jeff Gordon got started in midgets, Tony Stewart won an IRL title before heading to NASCAR), the damn really broke open last year when Juan Pablo Montoya left a top-flight ride in F1 with McLaren and rising talent AJ Almendinger bailed on ChampCar (after torching the field for five wins) for the Nextel Cup.

As the article notes, the trend continues with IRL and Indy 500 champ Dario Franchitti, US F1 hopeful Scott Speed, and (probably) multiple IRL champ Sam Hornish settling in for next year. The biggest name, however, is Canadian Jacques Villeneuve, who won the World Championship in 1997. Why are the moving? NASCAR regular Dale Jarrett has one answer:

They used to look at this form of racing as backwoods. But I think they see opportunities now to extend their careers.
Unspoken in Jarrett's comment is the observation that NASCAR's world is a lot less cutthroat than, say, F1, where a driver isn't able to hang on to a job for years on end without sniffing the winner's circle.

The more relevant concern, in my opinion, was voiced by Allmendinger:
'In the long term, if I make NASCAR work, am I going to make more money? Hell yeah,' Allmendinger says. 'But it also was that I was in a series that I didn't know was going to be around the next year.'
In other words, if you want to make a long-term living as a race driver in the United States, about the only option you have is to shoot for NASCAR.* That's what 11 years of Tony George's ego-fueled split in open wheel racing has gotten us.

* Or you can be on the of the sports car guys who runs two or three series, sometimes on the same weekend. While those guys are insanely talented and, quite frankly, I'd give my left nut to be one, it's more like being a well respected session musician versus a big name headliner.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Preach On, Reverend Buzz!

Today's USA Today has an op-ed column by Oliver "Buzz" Thomas - a reverend, attorney, and author - about the myth that the Constitution creates a "Christian nation." As he shows:

Ask most Americans what the Constitution says about God, and their answers may surprise you.

'One nation under God?'

Nope, that's the Pledge of Allegiance.

'Oh, yeah, right, right. How about, 'Endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights'?'

Sorry, but that's the Declaration of Independence.


Mostly what you'll get is a lot of blank stares. Trust me. I've tried it in nearly 50 states. Fully 55% of the country, according to a recent survey by the First Amendment Center, believes that the U.S. Constitution establishes us as a 'Christian nation.' Worse still, while nearly all Americans say freedom of religion is important, only 56% think it should apply to all religious groups. The truth is that the Constitution says nothing about God. Not one word. And, you can bet that some of the local clergy back in the 1780s howled about it. Newspapers, pamphlets and sermons decried the drafters' failure to acknowledge God.
Wrapping up, Buzz gets in a nice zinger:
America's so-called Godless Constitution, with its provisions separating church and state, has given us the strongest political and religious institutions on earth. Among developed nations, no one else believes and worships as much as we Americans. One can only marvel when today's pious pulpiteers clamor for federal dollars for their 'faith-based initiatives' or complain that God has been kicked out of the public schools. Perhaps they were praying in school when they should have been studying their history.

Just in Time for Christmas

Wondering what to get that hard-to-buy-for person on your Christmas list? Don't think the hard copy of the new Radiohead album is quite extravagant enough? Well, then the Vatican has got you covered. It has just released a series of documents relating to the Church's prosecution of the Knights Templar in the 14th Century. We're not just talking about a coffee table book, however:

The document, known as the Chinon parchment, shows that Pope Clement V found the Templars not guilty of heresy, but guilty of other lesser infractions of Church law. Nonetheless he ordered the disbandment of the order.

The Vatican's Secret Archives, one of the world's great repositories of historical documents, is selling a limited edition of 800 numbered copies of the Chinon parchment.

It is printed on synthetic parchment, comes complete with a reproduction of the original papal wax seal, and is packaged in a soft leather case together with a scholarly commentary.

Each copy will cost just over 5,900 euros ($8,000; £3,925).
No word on how deeply it'll be discounted at Wal-Mart.

Running an "Adult" Campaign

Remember in high school when one enterprising student council candidate would put up a sign that read something like "SEX - Now that I've got your attention . . ."? Well, one would have thought that professional politicians would outgrow such things. Maybe not:

Hialeah City Council incumbent Jose 'Pepe' Caragol, 76, used the slogan 'If you like oral sex, vote Caragol for council' as part of his campaign for re-election, The Miami Herald said Saturday.

The slogan, which Caragol has uttered in Spanish during several TV and radio appearances, was quickly criticized by his campaign opponent.
Of course it was. Which begs the question - is Caragol's opponent anti-oral sex? I can't imagine that's a very popular position in Hialeah.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

New York Times Annexed by Colbert Nation

Stephen Colbert is many things - genius, patriot, bear fighter - and now he's become an Op-Ed columnist for the New York Times. Specifically, he's taken up Maureen Dowd's invitation to write her column for today:

He was observing, approvingly, that 'Dick Cheney’s fondest pipe dream is driving a bulldozer into The New York Times while drinking crude oil out of Keith Olbermann’s skull.'

I called Colbert with a dare: if he thought it was so easy to be a Times Op-Ed pundit, he should try it. He came right over. In a moment of weakness, I had staged a coup d’moi. I just hope he leaves at some point. He’s typing and drinking and threatening to 'shave Paul Krugman with a broken bottle.'
In the process, Colbert's ruthless efficiency killed two birds with one stone:
Before I get started, I have to take care of one other bit of business:

Bad things are happening in countries you shouldn’t have to think about. It’s all George Bush’s fault, the vice president is Satan, and God is gay.

There. Now I’ve written Frank Rich’s column too.
By the end of the day, he'll conquer the whole Op-Ed page!

A Bad Omen?

Last week, I broke down and finally signed up for NaNoWriMo and committed myself to trying to write a novel next month. So what do I get for a fortune in the cookie with my Chinese last night?

As long as you don't sign up for anything new, you'll do fine.
Oh, isn't that just great!

Friday, October 12, 2007

Pushing the Limits of Felony Murder

The law of homicide is really much more complex than most people imagine. One of the doctrines that lay people aren't aware of is called felony murder. Basically, if a defendant commits a felony and during the course of that felony somebody dies, he is guilty of murder. Intent doesn't matter, malice doesn't matter (see WV's model jury instruction for felony murder here). It generally doesn't even matter if the victim is the target of the underlying felony (i.e., the robbery target) or a third party (i.e., the cop who intervenes). My opinion is that prosecutors use it as a crutch to obtain easy Murder One convictions when they otherwise couldn't prove intent or malice. Surely it has it's limits, right?

A local case is going to test that:

Stephanie Holsinger, 24, of Blue Creek, was one of three people who faked a disabled vehicle to rob Justin Johnson at his St. Albans apartment in April.

L.B. Booker, a former Capital High School basketball star, died when Johnson pulled a gun out of his sweatshirt and shot him.
In other words, one of the perps got killed during the botched robbery attempt. Holsinger's attorney (and jedi jawa's boss) argues that the law recognizes an exception where the person killed is not an innocent party. Since the vic was one of the robbers, Holsinger can't be liable for his death. The prosecutor handling the case (who - small world - I went to law school with) disagrees, pointing out that but for the robbery attempt, the victim would still be alive. The trial judge will make a decision on Monday about Holsinger's argument, tho' I expect the state Supreme Court will have the final say in the matter.

It's been a long time since I've really done any felony murder research (since back when jedi's boss was mine as well), but I seem to remember cases in which one of a group of multiple perpetrators was killed and the others were held liable under the felony murder rule. But the law in WV may be more favorable than that.

In US v. Martinez, 16 F.3d 202 (7th Cir. 1994), Judge Posner provides a good overview of the issue in trying to determine whether the Federal statute covers such situations. It being a Federal case, the issue came up at sentencing under the Guidelines, of course. Posner cites State ex. rel. Painter v. Zakaib, 411 S.E.2d 25 (WV 1991), in which the state Supreme Court held that a defendant could not be held liable for the death of an accomplice following a botched burglary where the accomplice committed suicide. However, Posner ultimately distinguishes the WV case and concludes:
The better rule, hence the one we would hope to see adopted in cases under the federal felony murder statute, is that the death of a felon, whether by his own hand or that of another felon, in the course of any of the felonies (including arson) listed in the statute, is a felony murder. The lives of criminals are not completely worthless, so their deaths should not be considered nonevents for sentencing purposes; and lest that seem an amorphous and even mawkish ground for an expansive interpretation of felony murder, we add that liability for felony murder in a case such as the present serves the practical function of deterring felons from using lethal weaponry, more broadly from committing the kind of felony in which someone is likely to be shot or run down or otherwise injured (and hence possibly killed), by punishing them severely should death result--to anyone. Cases that refuse to apply the felony-murder rule when the death is caused by someone outside the criminal enterprise, typically a victim or a police officer, do so on the mechanical ground that the acts of these outsiders cannot be attributed to the criminals by the principles of the law of agency. . . . One who commits a crime of violence is more likely to be shot by a victim or a police officer than one who commits a non-violent crime. Even within the class of violent felonies, a felon is more likely to be shot by a victim or a police officer if he is armed--and if he is not shot but his cofelon is, he stands to receive a heavier punishment. If we must have felons, at least let them be peaceable felons.
It doesn't sound good for Holsinger, but the state Supremes have shown a willingness recently to take the minority view (Mullins anyone?).

Banned Books (redux)

An update on the Nitro High School/Pat Conroy kerfuffle. A group of parents, including the two aggrieved parents, met last night in a church building (color me shocked - the library was booked?) to discuss the situation. They don't want the books banned - they just want alternatives made available to their delicate children. As one former Nitro HS parent put it:

Brad Liston also attended the meeting. In 2000, Liston complained that his daughter, also a Nitro student, had to read John Irving’s 'A Prayer for Owen Meany.' Liston argued that the book contains vulgar language, sexual innuendo and lewd behavior.

Liston had said teachers should have provided his daughter with a list of alternative books, the same argument Frazier and Tyree are making now.

Frazier wants a list, not just one book for required reading or one alternative.

'That’s the way it used to be,' she said. 'That way there’s freedom of choice and no one has to be offended.'
What a novel concept - choose your own curriculum! If only I had thought to beg for something other than Of Human Bondage during my AP English class. And why stop there - that required reading of the tax code in law school certainly wasn't any fun.

Why is it that when non-believers object to school prayer or the 10 Commandments being posted in public buildings, we're told that it's only a passing reference and that we should suck it up - "Ceremonial Deism," they call it. Well if we have to put up with that, is it too much to ask that honors high school students put up with a little "Ceremonial Debauchery" now and then?

Thursday, October 11, 2007

More Unwarranted Congressional Resoluting?

I've been hard on Congress recently for wading into various political free speech controversies. It's an area into which it just shouldn't go. Similarly, I tend to think the House Foreign Relations Committee should stay out of the business of resolving historical disputes in other countries. Yesterday, the Committee voted 27 to 21 to recognize the genocide of up to 1.5 million Armenians in Turkey during the dying days of the First World War and the Ottoman Empire.

The Turks are touchy about that time in their history. While they don't deny that tremendous loss of life occurred, they argue that it was a natural byproduct of war and not genocide. Ethnic Armenians around the globe have campaigned for its recognition as genocide for years, with limited success. The French Parliament recognized it in 2006. Oddly, the House Committee isn't the first US agent to use the label - Ronald Regan did during his presidency (his quote rolls at the end of Atom Egoyan's Ararat, IIRC). But, as the Times article points out, his successors have backed off that label in the interest of good relations with Turkey.

I think there's a tremendous amount of denial involved on the Turks' part - a forced evacuation of an ethnic minority leading to a death march across the country sounds like genocide to me.
But a resolution from a House Committee isn't going to settle the debate - it's not as if they're a panel of historians, after all.. And it only serves to strain relation with the Turks at a time when they're keen to charge into Iraq in pursuit of Kurdish separatists. So why do it now? Of all the times to put aside politics and do the right thing!

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

GOPers Attack 12-Year Old to Show "Family Values"

A couple of weeks ago, during the debate over the expansion of the federally-funded children's health insurance program, SCHIP, a 12-year old named Graeme Frost delivered a brief Democratic radio message in support of the program. He told about how he and his sister were covered by SCHIP after sustaining life-threatening injuries in a car accident.

Apparently desperate to back up Duhbya's veto of the bill expanding SCHIP and aware of the program's great popularity, a bunch of GOP shills decided that the right next move was to attack the Frost family, rather than the program they supported. As this article from the Baltimore Sun explains, the counter offensive began on the right-wing blog RedState, with such comments as:

If federal funds were required [they] could die for all I care. Let the parents get second jobs, let their state foot the bill or let them seek help from private charities. ... I would hire a team of PIs and find out exactly how much their parents made and where they spent every nickel. Then I'd do everything possible to destroy their lives with that info.
'Hang 'em. Publically,' the contributor wrote. 'Let 'em twist in the wind and be eaten by ravens. Then maybe the bunch of socialist patsies will think twice.'
Junior detectives from RedState quickly assembled some half-baked facts about the Frost family (including their home address, which was published on the blog) that they thought proved conclusively that the Frosts were just wealthy liberals gaming the system.

Unfortunately, they were completely wrong, as the Sun article explains. But that doesn't matter. Reliable GOPer organs such as Michelle Malkin, National Review Online, and Rush Limbaugh. At least one Democrat has actually noticed this latest outrage:
Pelosi fired back yesterday.

'I think that the attack on this family is just breaking new ground and stooping to new lows in terms of what happens in Washington, D.C.,' she told reporters. 'I think it's a sad statement about how bankrupt some of these people are in their arguments against SCHIP that they attack a 12-year-old.'
For the record, I think using kids as political props is disgusting and both parties would be well served to swear off them (remember Duhbya's "snowflake kids"?) and the Dems should have used someone else to do the address. Also, for the record, I think it's perfectly acceptable to think SCHIP is a bad program on practical or philosophical grounds and don't equate all folks who think that with the jacknuts like Malkin and Limbaugh.

For more on this sorry spectacle, see blurbs over at Orcinus and DailyKos.

Fresh Meat for 2010

Believe it or not, just a year after World Cup 2006 in Germany, the whole shebang is getting set to start up again with qualifying matches for the 2010 edition in South Africa. While the US waits for the preliminary rounds of CONCACAF qualifying to work themselves out, Bob Bradley has decided that the time is now to start looking for new talent. To that end, his roster for next Wednesday's friendly with Switzerland in Basel is chock full of guys who have never seen national team duty before. Also called in is former DC United wunderkind Freddy Adu, who is not exactly setting the world on fire at Benfica.

Will this be the core of the team we send to South Africa in 2010? I don't know. But it's time to start finding out.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

No Turning Back Now

Those of you who have read my bio see that I've described myself as a frustrated writer of fiction. Frustrated because my "writing process" usually goes like this: (1) I have an idea that I think is pretty good; (2) I try and flesh it out a little bit, scribble things down on notepads or on the laptop; and (3) I do nothing whatsoever afterwards. Thus, the evidence shows that I'm more of a procrastinating writer than a frustrated one.

So I did something drastic. I signed up a write a novel next month. Last night I signed up for National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), the point of which is to prod people to write 50,000 words during November. They have a nice laid back approach (from the welcome Email):

It's okay to not know what you're doing. Really. You've read a lot of novels, so you're completely up to the challenge of writing one. No plot? No problem! If you feel more comfortable outlining your story ahead of time, absolutely do so. But it's also fine to just wing it. Write everyday, and a book-worthy story will appear, even if you're not sure what that story might be right now.
Good to hear, since I have no idea what I'm going to write about yet. Why tell you all about it?
Tell everyone you know that you're writing a novel in November. This will pay big dividends in Week Two, when the only thing keeping you from quitting is the fear of looking pathetic in front of all the people who've had to hear about your novel for the past month. Seriously. Email them now about your awesome new book. The looming specter of personal humiliation is a very reliable muse.
So, see, it's a win-win for you folks: If I produce some best-selling masterpiece (or even best-selling trash), you can say "I knew him when." If I fall flat on my face, you can stand by Nelson Muntz style and cackle to your heart's content.

Once I get rolling, I'll keep things updated. Wish me luck!

It's Always Banned Book Week

Although Banned Book Week is officially over, censorship never sleeps. On either side of the Atlantic. Here in Kanawha County, author Pat Conroy is the subject of controversy in a high school AP English class. Why?

Because some parents (well, OK, a whole two of them) think his novels Beach Music and The Prince of Tides are too "adult" for their kids to handle (nearly adult kids, keep in mind). The county's main English guru appears to be fighting an uphill battle:Gillian, the language arts curriculum specialist for Kanawha County schools, is asking board members to let a committee of local volunteers decide whether the books should be suspended.

'Is there any concern about age appropriateness?' [school board member] Raglin asked.

'Age and maturity are two different things,' Gillian said. She believes that should be defined by parents and teachers.

Raglin persisted, saying he wants to know what’s age appropriate.

'This is not a situation where absolutes will work,' Gillian said.
Perhaps the school board will seek an ally in the UK with the Happy Ending Foundation. It argues that children's books that don't have happy endings should be banned. And they're old school about it:
The Happy Ending Foundation is planning a series of Bad Book Bonfires for later this month, when parents will be encouraged to burn novels with negative endings.

The foundation has also written to school librarians across the country to coincide with Children's Book Week, which began on Monday, urging them to take ' controversial' books off shelves.
Shockingly, this all begins with a troubled child and clueless parent:
Adrienne Small founded the organisation when her ten-year-old daughter became depressed and withdrawn after reading the first book in the Lemony Snicket series.

She said: 'I talked to other mothers and friends and we decided to do something positive with books that were more upbeat.

"I'm not trying to say the world should be viewed with rose-tinted glasses but you have got to do your best to protect your children.'
And because you failed in that role, Ms. Small, the rest of the populace has to suffer?

Contrary to what Tears for Fears may think, not everybody loves a happy ending. Kids should get a little idea of what the world might be like in their literature - where they can absorb it, digest it, and discuss it with adults and each other before the reality of the real world comes crashing through their door.

Going After the Poop Merchants

I'm waiting for my neighbors
To tell me what's obscene
- Kevin Gilbert, "Waiting"

Obscenity operates in a weird nether region of American law. Technically, it exists outside the First Amendment and thus does not enjoy its protection. However, concerns about chilling First Amendment speech animate the test of determining what is obscene and what is merely objectionable. That test includes the infamous "community standards" element to which Gilbert refers. If that isn't confusing enough, while it is a crime to distribute obscene materials, its mere possession cannot be criminalized.

With that legal landscape, you'd think that prosecutors across the country would use their limited resources on more dastardly criminals - drug dealers, child predators, and such. And that would probably not be the case, were it not for a push from the Religious Right. As this LA Times article explains, the Dobsons of the world have put great pressure on the Ashcroft/Gonzalez Department of Justice to pursue such cases:

Specifically, it raises a question of whether increasing public acceptance has shifted the legal standard of obscenity -- once aimed at the works of such authors as James Joyce, Henry Miller and William S. Burroughs -- so that only the most extreme margins of porn can be stopped.

The conservative groups who pushed for the initiative say no, and complain that it is virtually pointless to go after fringe figures whose material does not have the societal impact of big commercial productions.

Many federal prosecutors, meanwhile, feel obscenity cases are not worth the time and resources they take away from their main missions, such as stemming terrorism and organized crime.

By focusing on the most distasteful, extreme material, prosecutors are 'picking off the low-hanging fruit,' said Loyola Law School professor and former federal prosecutor Laurie Levenson. 'What does this accomplish? That is the question. These cases take a lot of prosecutorial resources.'
An example of that "low hanging fruit" is LA porn merchant Ira Isaacs, who specializes in bestiality and poop porn (I shit you not - we briefly had a client who dealt with the latter stuff, before a First Amendment group stepped in to represent him). Regardless of how nasty that stuff is, and putting aside the animal cruelty issues for the moment, is the return of convicting folks like Isaacs worth it given that the only people who see his stuff are adults who ask for it?

What of other priorities?
Within the Justice Department, resistance to the task force's mission figured in the U.S. attorney firing controversy that sparked Gonzales' resignation.

U.S. Atty. Dan Bogden in Las Vegas, who was one of the ousted attorneys, balked at assigning one of his prosecutors to a task force case against a man who sold videos of himself urinating on his own wife. Bogden told a congressional committee investigating the firings that the target was 'seemingly nonsignificant' and that his office was down eight assistant U.S. attorneys and facing several major trials, including a racketeering case against the Hells Angels. He didn't understand why four Justice officials had to fly out from Washington to pitch the case to him.
More sloppy governance from Duhbya's administration - push aside the violent biker gang prosecution in favor of locking some guy who makes scat porn!

Big Brother Is My Co-Pilot

From today's New York Times comes another sign of the ever expanding reach of "the man." The next generation of GM's OnStar satellite navigation system will allow the company, at the behest of the police, to actually slow the car down remotely. The theory is that it will help prevent car thieves from getting away in a stolen vehicle and prevent dangerous high-speed chases. But, as Last Night in Little Rock mentions on TalkLeft:

Sure, the story is about stopping police chases. But, how long before the police figure out that they can stop people just because they can and then walk up to ask questions under a ruse.
It's a legitimate concern. The Fourth Amendment barely applies to cars in the first place. Pretextual stops are generally OK, so long as the cops can come up with some flimsy justification ex post facto. With the power to reach out and seize someone electronically, would you trust these guys not to abuse it?

Monday, October 08, 2007

Another Setback for the Rebellion.

Somebody went out and built a life-sized version of an X-wing fighter from the Star Wars universe. They tried to launch it. It worked. For a little while. Then it didn't. Spectacularly.


More years under the heel of the Empire, I suppose.

On to the Crimean

A couple of weeks ago I blogged about documentarian Errol Morris's quest to discover the correct order and origins of a famous early war photograph, "Valley of the Shadow of Death," taken during the Crimean War. Late last week, he posted part two of his story, which took him to the Crimean, where, with the help of a disgruntled guide, he found the Valley and gathered some evidence on the question. An answer (perhaps) is due in part three.

More Bad Cops

Last month I blogged about the kind of out-of-control cop that makes the regular folk treat the police with disdain. Last week, there was another example of an even more organized version of the same thing. It involved a "competition" amongst LA Sheriff's Deputies to see who could tally the most bookings and vehicle seizures:

Results from the competitions, called Operation Any Booking and Operation Vehicle Impound, had been posted on a wall in the Lakewood station. Two hundred deputies are based in Lakewood, which is the local police force for 120,000 residents in five cities southeast of Los Angeles, Artesia, Bellflower, Hawaiian Gardens, Lakewood and Paramount.
What's more appalling than the competition itself? That the Sheriff doesn't think there's anything wrong with it:
The sheriff called the attention on the contests 'much ado about nothing' and said he had no plans to punish the deputies who competed or the 'well-intentioned lieutenant' who had the idea.

'They’re not acceptable,' he said. 'They’re not appropriate. But no harm, no foul. The only disciplinary action I’ve taken is saying to the lieutenant who organized them, ‘Hey, knock this’' off.
In other words, the sin was in getting caught, not making light of creating an incentive to arrest innocent citizens and steal their property. Non-cops caught on to the evil pretty quick:
Samuel Walker, an emeritus professor of criminology at the University of Nebraska in Omaha called the competitions 'absolutely outrageous.'

'I’ve been teaching in this field for 30 years, and even back then it was commonly understood that quotas were a bad idea,' Professor Walker said. 'They just encourage bad arrests. They distort policing priorities. They encourage police to make weak arrests that won’t stand up or arrests on trivial matters instead of more serious crimes like gangs, gun violence, drugs, murder.'
Note to the LAPD: "To Serve and Protect" does mean to serve your own interests and protect your own asses.

It Liveth

As seems to be its lot in life, the WV Blogger's Forum is on the move again (it's fourth home, IIRC). I've updated the link to the right, or just jump here to get back in the action. Hopefully the new management won't yank the thing down without warning this time.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

What a Muddled Mess We Weave . . .

Slate's Dahlia Lithwick has some thoughts on yesterday's Supreme Court arguments in the Gall and Kimbrough cases that I mentioned earlier in the week. She adequately summarizes the situation:

There used to be a lack of uniformity in sentencing. Congress created sentencing guidelines. The court decided the guidelines were merely advisory [because the mandatory version violated the Sixth Amendment - JDB]. Appeals courts said sometimes advisory guidelines are still mandatory. District courts got confused. And now the high court asks the parties to make immutable rules out of standards, and flexible standards out of rules. Kimbrough and Gall think a good rule is that the guidelines should go away. The Justice Department thinks a good rule is that the judges should go away. And the court? It may finally have to pick a side.
More aptly, she notes that the legal world is divided into Booker people and non-Booker people:
The oddities of the high court's strange bedfellows and the weird twists and turns in its Sixth Amendment jurisprudence are endlessly fascinating to Booker folk precisely because they defy all expectations and easy categorization. The world's non-Booker people evidently include an old college friend, now an attorney, whom I nearly mow down on the Supreme Court's plaza after argument today. 'How do you think it went?' I ask him, eager for some insight. He rolls his eyes. 'Booker,' he sighs.
From my experience, that divide exists in the larger world, too - or at least in mine. I know the girlfriend gets that "oh no, here we go again" look on her face when I start talking Booker and sentencing cases!

Time for Take Out

Once, long ago, I tried making blackened chicken at home. It was not a success - my apartment filled with smoke and smelled like a chimney for days after. But it was only a minor inconvenience, not a reason to call homeland security:

A pot of burning chilli sparked fears of a biological terror attack in central London.

Firefighters wearing protective breathing apparatus were called to D'Arblay Street, Soho, after reports of noxious smoke filling the air.

Police closed off three roads and evacuated homes following the alert.

Specialist crews broke down the door to the Thai Cottage restaurant at 1900 BST on Monday where they discovered the source - a 9lb pot of chillies.
The restaurant's chef was making Nam Prik Pao, which uses deliberately burned chillies. Neighbors called in the biological threat:
Alpaslan Duven, a Turkish journalist based in the restaurant's building, said: 'I was sitting in the office when me and my chief start coughing and I said this was something really dodgy.
I know they say that any publicity is good publicity, but I'm not sure the Thai Cottage would agree.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

New Tune - With a Story

For the most part, the titles I use for songs have nothing to do with the songs themselves. In fact, I have a Word file filled with song title ideas that amuse me, collected from various sources. This new one is a little different, as the title came to me a long time ago and suggested a musical structure, if not the music itself. In all it's glory, the title is:

"Perpetuities (including 'The Dance of the Fertile Octogenarian')"

Lemme explain.

First year law students learn all about the Rule Against Perpetuities in their basic property class. It's the type of confusing legalism that makes lawyers feel confused and lay persons feel stupid. It's so convoluted that a California court famously held that an attorney doesn't commit malpractice when he whiffs on the Rule in court. The Rule's purpose is to prevent a person in a will or trust from controlling the use of land from beyond the grave. As such, it involves detailed calculations about who might inherit said land. Such calculations are done presuming that any person is capable of generating offspring, regardless of age - hence, the Fertile Octogenarian.

So I had these terms floating around in my head. I put them together as a sort of homage to the song titles on the first King Crimson album - 4 of the 5 are things like "Epitaph (including 'March for No Reason' and 'Tomorrow and Tomorrow')." Put the two together and - voila - "Perpetuities (including 'The Dance of the Fertile Octogenarian')". The musical idea was to take two more lush ambient sections and sandwich them around a more up-tempo middle section. It sort of worked.

With that overlong backstory - enjoy!

More on Blade Runner: The Final Cut

Thanks to a pointer from Allclick on the WV Blogger's forum I can pass along this interesting interview with director Ridley Scott about the forthcoming Blade Runner rerelease. I didn't realize how clipped Scott's initial vision had been by the studio:

Fresh off his second successful movie, an up-and-coming director takes a chance on a dark tale of a 21st-century cop who hunts humanlike androids. But he runs over budget, and the financiers take control, forcing him to add a ham-fisted voice-over and an absurdly cheery ending. The public doesn't buy it. The director's masterpiece plays to near-empty theaters, ultimately retreating to the art-house circuit as a cult oddity.
Reminds me an awful lot of Terry Gilliam's Brazil, another one of my favorite films (largely due to the battle Gilliam waged to get his version of it into theaters).

I Just Pass 'em On, Folks

Some real weirdness, courtesy of the BBC. First, the headline:

North Carolina pair feud over leg
It gets better:
A US man who stored his amputated leg in a barbecue smoker that was later auctioned off is locked in a custody dispute with the man who bought it.

John Wood's smoker was sold to Shannon Whisnant last week after he fell behind on payments at the storage facility in North Carolina where it was kept.

He wants his leg back but Mr Whisnant says he has a receipt for the smoker's contents and wants to share ownership.
Why, pray tell, would someone want to hold on to another man's amputated leg? The commercial possibilities, of course:
He initially gave the leg to the police, who concluded it had not been removed as a result of a crime and sent it to a funeral home until Mr Wood could pick it up.

But after making money by charging adults $3 (£1.47) and children $1 (49p) to look inside the empty smoker, Mr Whisnant asked for it back.
Let that sink in for a second - life is so dull in North Carolina that people will pay money to look in an empty barbecue smoker! Wood is planning to take custody of the leg from the funeral home where it currently resides ASAP. But Whisnant thinks he's really onto something here:
Having had his offer rejected, Mr Whisnant has threatened to begin legal action if the leg is not returned to him by next week.

He says he has a receipt showing he bought both the smoker and its contents at the auction.

'Everybody knows it's mine, period,' he said. 'And if anyone tries to take it, I want everything they got.'
And people make fun of West Virginia!

Here We Go Again

Last month I castigated the Senate (in a roundabout way) for taking time away from important things to pass a resolution condemning for engaging in political speech that lies at the core of the First Amendment. The House followed suit the next week.

Now the Dems are getting in on the action, with Rep. Mark Udall (D-Colorado) introducing a measure to condemn Rush Limbaugh for saying something equally stupid on his radio show last week about "phony soldiers" who come back from Iraq and advocate ending the war. I'm no fan of Limbaugh - I think Al Franken had it right when he labeled him a big fat idiot. And his condemnation of guys who have been shot at and killed as "phony soldiers" is reprehensible. But it's part of what a free and flowing First Amendment discourse sounds like. He says dumb shit, some citizens condemn him for it, and others give him mega dittos. That's how it works. And the Congress, regardless of which political party is trying to score points, should stay the hell out of the condemnation business.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Read a Banned Book!

Hoyt over at Donutbuzz beat me to the punch (that's what I get for taking weekends off!), noting that this is Banned Books Week. Here you can see the American Library Association's list of the 10 most challenged books in 2006, topped by And Tango Makes Three, by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell. It apparently involves penguins, which are very popular. Unless they're gay, apparently. I can't say that I've read any of this year's top 10, sadly. However, it's noteworthy that perennial favorites The Catcher in the Rye, Of Mice and Men, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (all of which I've read, actually) have slipped off the list.

So, kids, read a naughty book! Don't let The Man or The Woman tell you what you can keep in your mind!

UPDATE: If you need a starting point for your banned book reading, check this list of the 100 most frequently challenged books between 1990 and 2000.

Play Ball! SCOTUS Ball, That Is

Today was the first Monday in October, which means the first day of the Supreme Court's 2007-2008 season, er, term. As this article in the Christian Science Monitor explains, the coming months will see the Court take on many issues that will likely be resolved with 5-4 votes based on Justice Kennedy's vote.

For federal criminal lawyers like myself, things get off to a big start tomorrow with oral arguments in two cases, Gall and Kimbrough, that deal with the current state of federal sentencing. In Gall, the issues involves what district courts have to do to have sentences imposed outside of the advisory Sentencing Guidelines upheld on appeal. In Kimbrough (which may be argued by my counterpart in the Eastern District of Virginia), the issue involves how/when/if district courts can consider the inequities in the 100-to-1 ratio for crack and cocaine powder when imposing sentence. Both cases could be huge in the federal sentencing field. Or they could be duds. You never really know.

Welcome to Maryland, Now Please Leave

Quick to judge
Quick to anger
Slow to understand
Ignorance and prejudice
And fear walk hand in hand...
Rush, "Witch Hunt"

The story of American often is told with reference to oppressed religious minorities fleeing persecution in their homelands and finding a home here. One would think that the Ahmadi Muslims would fit the bill:

Ahmadis are considered heretics by Islam's Sunnis and Shiites and maintain no ties to mainstream Muslims. The sect began in 19th-century India when followers of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad proclaimed him the messiah, fulfilling Christian and Muslim prophecies of a second coming. Although the Ahmadis' holy book is the Quran, the Pakistani government has declared them non-Muslims.

Abbasi, the pharmacist, says he left Pakistan after his house was stoned and other family members saw their homes and businesses destroyed by mobs. Today, there are 15,000 Ahmadis in the USA.
Alas, some folks in rural Maryland, where the Ahmadis want to build a worship center, would appreciate it if the they would practice their First Amendment rights somewhere else, thank you very much:
Among those opposed is Clark Millison, 70, a retired graphic designer. 'I don't know that much about Muslims,' he says, 'but I understand they want to take over the world and want us all dead.'

* * *

'We don't begrudge the right' of Ahmadis to practice their religion, says Mary Mowen, 53, a college English tutor, 'but we don't feel that Walkersville is the best place' for them to do it.
Thankfully, the Ahmadis do have support from some folks in the community - their fellow religious types:
Gerald Hanberry of Glade United Church of Christ is one of the few pastors of Walkersville's 18 churches who support the group. "There are people adamantly opposed to a Muslim group doing anything in this community," he says. "I don't believe land-use decisions should be made on the basis of religious faith."
Good to see someone standing up for the right of everyone - even the outsiders - to worship as they wish.

Don't Blame the Goalkeeper

While I was on my way to Richmond last week, the US Women's National Team was crashing out of the World Cup, getting mauled 3-0 by Brazil. The big news items surrounding the game was the benching of starting keeper Hope Solo in favor of veteran Brianna Scurry and Solo's ensuing post-game rant in which she called coach Greg Ryan out. With such juicy pulp in the media, many commentators have focused in on that aspect of the team's tournament.

However, as Andrea Canales over at ESPNSoccernet points out, that focus has allowed Solo to become a scapegoat and shoulder the blame for the team's failure that rightfully falls on Ryan's shoulders. Although the USSF shares some of the blame, it was Ryan who failed to adjust his tactics when the team was surprised early on by North Korea and limped to a 1-0 victory over Nigeria.

I said at the time of the Nigeria game that if we played that poorly against Brazil, maintaining so little possession and relying on set pieces for offense, we'd get beat handily. And we did. We didn't play like the #1 team in the world. We played like a team that was outmatched technically and had to rely on brute strength to get through the tournament. No doubt, other nations have caught up with the US and we no longer enjoy the advantage we had in the 1990s. Does that mean we can't play attractive, technical, and successful attacking soccer anymore? I hope not.

Quick Hits

A few interesting bits and pieces from there and there:

  • Yesterday's New York Times had a lengthy article about the upcoming "final cut" of the classic sci-fi flick Blade Runner. This version, assembled by director Ridley Scott from reworked existing footage and some previously lost scenes cut from the original, this will (allegedly) by the definitive version, as Scott always intended it to be. As such, he confidently proclaims "Yes, [Deckard]’s a replicant. He was always a replicant." I will have to have one!
  • Then today's New York Times has an interesting article on odd (to our ears) African names. They work like this - many African cultures traditionally give children names to convey a specific meaning. In their native tongues, they sound foreign enough to be "normal." Anglicanlized, however, you get names like Godknows, Knowledge, and even Hatred. Which is, well, odd, regardless of where one comes from, according to some folks quoted in the article.
  • Finally, S. COTUS over at Appellate Law & Practice takes a crack and fashioning some questions for the new and improved citizenship test. My favorites:
    3. What percentage of Americans should be in jail?
    4. Which kinds of pornography are not protected by the First Amendment? Draw pictures if necessary.
    13. Imagine that you are a prosecutor. What is the easiest way to increase a sentence without having to prove facts to a jury?
    15. Which major political party has the blessing of god?
    With questions like that, there are no good answers.