Friday, November 30, 2007

Bracin' for the Brawl

Tomorrow night marks the 100th edition of the Backyard Brawl, the gridiron clash between my alma mater West Virginia University and our hate rivals from Pitt. Add to the usual rivalry game the fact that a WVU win will almost certainly send us to the BCS national championship game in New Orleans. So even though Pitt has had a really bad year and are 4-touchdown underdogs, they'll be juiced to ruin our season.

Win or lose, authorities in Morgantown are bracing for a rash of couch burnings come Saturday night. This rather odd tradition has left WVU with a less than stellar reputation:

Morgantown led the nation in the number of intentional street fires between 1997 and 2003, with a total 1,129 set. Figuring prominently were wins over Virginia Tech's football team in 2002 and 2003.

In 2003 WVU imposed a zero-tolerance policy for off-campus activities that resulted in criminal charges. But the couch population wasn't safe right away.

About 50 street fires were set in March 2005 after the men's basketball team beat Texas Tech and advanced to the regional finals of the NCAA tournament for the first time since Jerry West led the Mountaineers to the title game in 1959. Police had to use pepper spray to control crowds.
What makes it all the weirder is that the burning also occurs when we lose big games. Only a draw would appear to protect the couches of Motown.

Aside from the couch burning issues, it appears that there is one small corner of the state not rooting for the Mountaineers - the Marshall campus:
'I hope Pittsburgh wins,' said Chad Pyles, a sophomore geography major at Marshall. 'I don't want WVU to go to the national championship. Every time WVU loses, I feel happy inside.'

Pyles, 19, said he has been a Marshall fan for as long as he can remember.
To be fair, I think they're just pissed that a victory over the Herd doesn't warrant a lot of couch burning:
Recently the tradition has quieted down. A single couch burned during post-game celebrations after WVU beat Marshall in the 2006 season opener.
But never mind those folks - LET'S GO MOUNTAINEERS!!!

Oh, and Mike Freeman - fuck you, buddy.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

2001 - a Blog Odyssey

With my last post, I've reached a bit of a milestone here at the Ranch, one that I didn't really see coming - that was my 2000th post. It's hard to believe that I've been at this going on four years! As someone who occasionally popped off online in the old pre-blog days, I would never figured that I could keep up the daily pace I have. I don't always try to be profound, or insightful, or even funny. But I hope it's a least interesting most of the time.

Just like any media anniversary, I feel the need to reminisce. Here are a few of my favorites of the first 2000 posts:

Right about now I really wish I had switched over to the tag format that so many other blogs use. Oh well.

Thanks to everyone who's been reading and commenting. I'll try to keep going for another 2k!

Finally Answer to Yes

If only I'd know about this back then, I never would have put the big red A up over there:

In the first-ever union of the Word of God and the Synthesizer, the Catholic Church's College of Cardinals voted unanimously Monday to incorporate the lyrics of Yes into the New Testament.

* * *

'Let us rejoice in this momentous occasion,' said Pope John Paul II in a special service at St. Peter's. 'And let no man be unmoved, remembering the words of Jesus: 'In and around the lake, mountains come out of the sky, and they stand there.' Amen.'
Now that's my kind of theology! You'd think Genesis would be a better fit, given the name and the Revelation-inspired end of "Supper's Ready." But, somehow, it all works:
Perhaps the most significant change is a more complete history of the life of Christ. In the revised account of Christ's temptation by Satan, the Lord and Savior is brought to a mountaintop overlooking a pastel landscape filled with exotic, half-melted rock formations and wispy, cloudlike trees. Christ, though tempted, "can see all good people turn their heads each day, and, so satisfied, He continues on His way."

Christ's rejection of the Lord Of Lies is then followed by a 16-minute keyboard solo by synthesizer maestro Rick Wakeman.
I wonder how Yes-led scriptures would interact with those Starfleet worshipers?

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

A Teddy Bear Fatwa

This, from the BBC, is one of the more bizarre stories I've seen in a while. It seems that a British teacher, Gillian Gibbons, is current in prison in Sudan because she allowed the kids in her elementary school class to name a teddy bear "Muhammad." She's been charged with "insulting religion, inciting hatred and showing contempt for religious beliefs." If convicted, Gibbons faces six months in prison, 40 lashes, or a fine.

The British government is rightly pissed, as are British Muslims:

The Muslim Council of Britain reacted angrily to the news, saying it was 'appalled' and demanded Mrs Gibbons' immediate release.

'This is a disgraceful decision and defies common sense. There was clearly no intention on the part of the teacher to deliberately insult the Islamic faith,' said Secretary-General Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari, in a strongly-worded statement.

'We call upon the Sudanese President, Omar al-Bashir, to intervene in this case without delay to ensure that Ms Gibbons is freed from this quite shameful ordeal,' said Dr Bari.
Nevertheless, fundamentalist leaders in Sudan aren't looking to be lenient:
But Sudan's top clerics have called for the full measure of the law to be used against Mrs Gibbons and labelled her actions part of a Western plot against Islam.

'What has happened was not haphazard or carried out of ignorance, but rather a calculated action and another ring in the circles of plotting against Islam,' the Sudanese Assembly of the Ulemas said in a statement.

The semi-official clerics body is considered relatively moderate and is believed to have the ear of the Sudanese government.
Holy shit, with moderates like that who needs radicals?!? Maybe they're just pissed off because there's no spot for them in Mitt Romney's cabinet. However, a Sudanese civil rights lawyer predicts no worse than a fine, as she probably didn't actually intend to insult Islam.

Of course, that shouldn't be the issue. Sending someone to prison - or punishing them in any fashion - for "insulting" religion is a grave human rights violation. That she apparently did it in a profoundly silly way just adds to the insanity of the situation.

Just in case you're traveling in a land where hard core religious nuts run the courts, the BBC has tried to explain when it is OK and not OK to name something or someone Muhammad. Whatever you do, just don't say "Jehovah!"

UPDATE: Gibbons was tried, convicted, and sentenced today at what was apparently her first appearance in court. She got a term of 15 days in prison and will be deported afterwards. I can't imagine she'll have any problem with that last part.

I Knew This Would Happen

As wacky and wild as the college football season has been to date, it only seems right that two non-traditional powers - Missouri and West Virginia - are poised to play in the BCS championship game. Aside from the inevitable debate about whether they are rightfully ranked 1 & 2,* now we have the worrying that a UM/WVU clash won't be good for business:

If Missouri and West Virginia advance to the Bowl Championship Series title game Jan. 7, the matchup clearly would lack the luster of recent showdowns between traditional powers Southern California-Texas and Florida-Ohio State.

* * *

Still the name-recognition question persists. Last Saturday's showdown between then-unbeaten Kansas and one-loss Missouri drew a decent 7 overnight rating on ABC, but that was down 27% from that time slot last year for teams with one loss each.

Of course, they were USC and Notre Dame.
This seems to happen every season in the pro sports - pundits worry that the entire sports/industrial complex will collapse if Milwaukee faces Kansas City in the World Series instead of the Yankees and the Angels. While I can understand the financial concerns, isn't is a self-defeating prophecy to say "oh, nobody will watch these small market teams" and then afterwards point to depressed ratings as proof?

Besides, crowning champions isn't about economics, it's about rewarding excellence. That's the theory, at least. Lords know, the BCS is hardly a prime example of that principle.

* Honestly, I think they are, even though I'm a WVU alum and somewhat biased. I can't say that we have any greater claim to a spot in the championship game than any of the other 1-loss teams, but I can't see that the other teams have any stronger claims, either.

Bored New York Cops

Wow, I guess Rudy Giuliani really did banish all crime in New York City if the police have go out and drum up business for themselves. It seems that the police are planting "lost" purses and other bags around the city and then arresting folks who pick them up and walk away, assuming they pass a uniformed cop without turning the property in. Originally, the prosecutions were for misdemeanors, as the items "taken" didn't really have much value. Now, the cops are seeding the bags with American Express cards such that the takings become felonies.

As the linked article makes clear, this has resulted in the prosecution of a good number of people trying to do the right thing. The initial program - "Operation Lucky Bag" (who comes up with these names?) - was shut down by "prosecutors and judges who were concerned that it was sweeping up the civic-minded alongside those bent on larceny." With good reason:

However, more than half of those 220 involved people with no prior criminal record. In dismissing one case, a Brooklyn judge noted that the law gives people 10 days to turn in property they find, and suggested the city had enough real crime for the police to fight without any need to provide fresh temptations. The penal law also does not require that found items be turned over to a police officer. The Manhattan District Attorney’s Office began to dismiss Lucky Bag charges.
As an example:
In February, Aquarius Cheers, a 31-year-old Manhattan man who said he was on a shopping expedition with his wife, spotted a Verizon shopping bag with a cellphone and iPod inside at the 59th Street station of the No. 1 train.

As he was looking in the bag, a train arrived. Mr. Cheers said he and his wife boarded, rushed past a uniformed officer, bringing along the bag with the intention of looking for a receipt. Undercover officers then grabbed him. After his case was reported by NY1, the prosecutors vacated the charges.
Is that really the best thing that cops in NYC have to do with their time? Sting operations aren't inherently bad things, but this one looks like its only goal is the jack up the numbers of the arresting officers and the prosecuting attorneys.

Just Like In Grade School!

Remember in elementary school when someone would do something stupid/funny/loud behind the teacher's back? She'd turn around and demand that the perpetrator inclupate himself. Of course, s/he never would. So the teacher would turn to threats, ordering other kids to rat our their classmate or face the consequences. Eventually resistance would crumble and fingers would point. (the same thing is the leitmotif of federal drug prosecutions).

It's predictable when a grade school teacher does it. It's a little sadder when a judge tries it and it doesn't even work:

'Every single person is going to jail in this courtroom unless I get that instrument now,' he told the courtroom's audience, according to the commission.

'If anybody believes I'm kidding, ask some of the folks that have been here for a while. You are all going.'

Security officers then attempted to find the phone but failed.

After a brief recess, [New York] Judge [Robert] Restaino returned to the bench and again asked who had been responsible for the ringing phone.

When no-one came forward, the judge ordered that the entire courtroom audience of 46 people be taken into custody and set bail at $1,500.

'This troubles me more than any of you people can understand,' the judge explained.
Nice - he even worked in the standard parental "this is going to hurt me more than it's going to hurt you." 14 people in the courtroom were locked up because they couldn't post bail. They were only released by the judge after reporters began asking questions. The commission that booted the judge from the bench called his conduct that of a "petty tyrant." They apparently didn't buy his "I was under stress defense."

For the record, there's a much easier way to deal with cell phone annoyances in the courtroom. At both the federal courthouse in which my office is located and the Fourth Circuit courthouse in Richmond, court security officers will not let visitors take cell phones past security. They are left there and picked up on the way out. It seems a little harsh, but it beats jail time!

Monday, November 26, 2007

Coping With Freedom & the System's Screw Ups

This Sunday's New York Times had an extensive article about the difficulties faced by men who have been wrongfully convicted are released from prison following DNA-based exoneration. A study of men is such situations show that they have problems reintegrating into society, for a multitude of reasons.

For one thing, many of them have missed a whole chunk of their formative years - learning to be self-sufficient adults - that were spent behind bars. For another, even after proceedings show they were wrongfully convicted, there is a stigma attached to men who have served time. Sadly, many of them received no compensation from the state for their wrongful convictions. As a perverse result, they sometimes wind up in worse shape than if they had simply served their time as convicts:

Few of those who were interviewed received any government services after their release. Indeed, despite being imprisoned for an average of 12 years, they typically left prison with less help — prerelease counseling, job training, substance-abuse treatment, housing assistance and other services — than some states offer to paroled prisoners.

'It’s ridiculous,' said Vincent Moto, exonerated in 1996 of a rape conviction after serving almost nine years in Pennsylvania. 'They have programs for drug dealers who get out of prison. They have programs for people who really do commit crimes. People get out and go in halfway houses and have all kinds of support. There are housing programs for them, job placement for them. But for the innocent, they have nothing.'
To drill the point home, the Times has a companion article about the struggles of Jeffrey Deskovic, who spent 16 years in prison for a murder he didn't commit:
Having spent nearly half his life locked up, accused of brutalizing a high school classmate he hardly knew, Mr. Deskovic was sent into the world last fall lacking some of life’s most fundamental skills and experiences.

He had never lived alone, owned a car, scanned the classifieds in search of work. He had never voted, balanced a checkbook or learned to knot a tie.
How did Deskovic end up in prison?
On Nov. 15, 1989, Angela Correa — a sophomore at Peekskill High, like Mr. Deskovic — slipped a 'New Kids on the Block' tape into a portable cassette player and took her camera to a park near her home, snapping a picture of a dove perched on the roof as she left. Two days later, someone spotted her naked body in the woods.

The police retrieved hair and semen samples, which did not match Mr. Deskovic’s DNA; prosecutors argued that they were from earlier consensual sex. Mr. Deskovic, however, fit the description provided by a criminal profiler for the police, and raised investigators’ suspicions when he cried copiously at Ms. Correa’s funeral, though they were not close friends. (In a recent interview, Mr. Deskovic explained that he was always picked on in school and Angela was one of few students who were nice to him, once helping him with algebra.)

After repeated questioning over two months, Mr. Deskovic confessed during a seven-hour interrogation and polygraph test, telling the police he had hit Ms. Correa with a Gatorade bottle and grabbed her around the throat. In the lawsuit, Mr. Deskovic contends that detectives fed him these details, and promised that if he confessed he would not go to prison but would receive psychiatric treatment.

'I was tired, confused, scared, hungry — I wanted to get out of there,' he recalled recently. 'I told the police what they wanted to hear, but I never got to go home. They lied to me.'
More than 1/4 of men exonerated through DNA testing gave confessions.

Not every wrongful conviction is the result of prosecutorial tunnel vision, police misconduct, or dubious profiling techniques. Sometimes honest mistakes are made that result in a person being sent away when they are innocent. Regardless of how they got there, however, once they get out, society owes them more than a simple "sorry about that" on their way out the prison door.

An Etch-a-Sketch Constitution

One of the most redeeming feature of the US Constitution is that it is really really hard to change. That way, when some politician tries to score points with the base by proposing some ham-fisted amendment, everybody knows there's no way it's going to pass, anyway. That's not necessarily true elsewhere:

Venezuelans go to the polls Dec. 2 for a referendum on a major rewrite to their 1999 constitution, which is the country's 26th. Ecuador has gone through 20 charters and Bolivia has ratified 12, yet politicians in both countries are busy drafting new constitutions.
It's easy to think of such shenanigans as just being part of the schemes of tin-horn dictators, but sometimes it actually works out:
When uprisings or elections succeeded in throwing the bums out, new leaders often promised to 're-found' their nations by drafting new Magna Cartas.

Colombia's 1991 constitution helped break the lock on power held by the liberals and conservatives by making it easier to form new political parties. Peru's 1993 constitution helped then-President Alberto Fujimori break government gridlock, resurrect the economy and defeat Shining Path rebels — though he eventually left office.
Still, it seems like it hurts more than it helps.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Thanks You, Razorbacks!

Arkansas 50 - LSU 48 in triple overtime.

With that, WVU again controls its own destiny for the national championship game. If we win out, it will be damn near impossible to keep us out. Woot!

On behalf of WVU fans everywhere, thanks to the guys at Arkansas. In return, I humbly move that all WVU supporters throw their weight behind Darren McFadden in the Heisman race. He's an absolute monster.

I've Been Meme'd

Thanks to jedi jawa, you will all be forced to learn 8 random/(hopefully) interesting things about me. If you don't like the results, you know to whom to direct your complaints. :-)

1. Since number 1 on so many peoples' lists seems to be "what are you doing right now?": I'm sitting on my couch eating Jimmy Dean microwaved sausage biscuits (they're small) and watching Frasier reruns on Lifetime. Yes, I said "Lifetime." Deal with it.

2. Of my good friends from junior high/high school, I'm the only one to complete my education in West Virginia and stay in the state afterwards.

3. I wanted to be a lawyer from the time I was 12 or so and never really wavered all through school. That allowed me to fight off my parents' recommendation that I get an undergrad degree that would be "useful" if I didn't go to law school (history degrees aren't very useful otherwise, sadly).

4. I frequently stay up too late on "school nights" 'cause I get suckered in to watching and Futurama and Family Guy reruns on Adult Swim, even though I own most of Futurama on DVD and you can't swing a dead cat around cable without hitting an episode of Family Guy.

5. "You can't swing a dead cat . . ." is one of the colorful phrases I've picked up in the 8+ years I've been autocrossing.

6. I am the editor/publisher of Rich Mixture, the official publication of the Southern WV Region of the SCCA.

7. Although I'm a WVU fan by virtue of 7 years spent in Morgantown, my first college football love was the Michigan Wolverines, 'cause they have the coolest helmets on the planet.

8. The 3.5 hour drive to the girlfriend's house always seems a lot shorter than the 3.5 hours drive back from the girlfriend's house. Funny how what awaits at your destination works on your mind like that. ;-)

Told ya' - not all that fascinating. Since jedi went ahead and tagged twice as many people as he was supposed to, I'll follow Hoyt's lead and say that if you're within range of this post and haven't been tagged yet - then you're it!

Thursday, November 22, 2007

If You Can't Remain Silent . . .

There's an old joke that goes something like "my clients have the right to remain silent, but not the ability." Sad, but true. If you have to flap your gums after arrest, at least limit your answers to questions not related to your case. As Jerry Crihfield did yesterday after being arrested for sending a threatening Email to Charleston Mayor Danny Jones:

As Crihfield was led in handcuffs out of the police station and to the Kanawha County Courthouse annex, reporters and cameramen followed him.

He answered no questions about his case, but when a television reporter asked if he thought West Virginia University quarterback Pat White should win the Heisman Trophy, he said yes.
At least that won't come back to haunt him. Probably.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

So You Want to Go to Law School . . .

Well, just don't. At least that's the advice of Paul Gowder over at Law and Letters. Gowder makes his case by arguing that basically the jobs lawyers do in the real world "suck," lawyers are generally unhappy, the profession is populated by assholes, and you'll incur enormous debt for all your trouble.

As some others have pointed out, I think Gowder oversells his case. I suppose that, like Gideon, I am just special (my mom always told me so, anyway) because I really enjoy the practice of law. But, then again, I'm a freak, because I actually liked law school in the first instance. Perhaps I'm just lucky that I get to work in a position that provides a constant barrage of interesting issues that arise when representing real human beings. The fact that I get to work in an office filled with folks (lawyers and non-lawyers alike) who are dedicated to the task and do so with great skill and humor surely helps. Are there assholes to put up with? Sure - that's life. Find me a profession where you can entirely sidestep the jacknuts and I'll be impressed.

Gowder's problem, it appears, comes from the fact that he focuses almost entirely on the plight of "elite" law school grads who either (a) have to take super high-pressure jobs to make the money they need to pay back student loans or (b) consign themselves to a life of poverty to do "good" work in some kind of public interest field. As such, his thoughts should serve as a warning to anyone who thinks of going to law school as a default option because there's nothing better to do after graduating from college. As much as I enjoyed law school, I wouldn't recommend it to anyone just looking for a few years to kill.

As for public interest law, Gideon makes some good points, particularly:

If you’re going into public interest law, you don’t need to go to a top ten law school. There, I said it. I went to a bottom of the top tier law school, walked out with 2/3rds less debt and have a job that pays me enough in a field that I love and will do for the rest of my career. I know plenty others who are of the same mind as me.

Find a school that has a good clinical program (they’re not often the top tiered law schools - those clinical programs may be more famous, but they’re not better) or two and has ties to the community.
The WVU College of Law isn't going to be on anybody's list of top law schools in the country (nonetheless, WVU will crush Gideon's alma mater Saturday to claim the Big East crown!). But I got a solid foundation (and a manageable debt load) that I've built upon in the last eight years of practice fairly successfully.

A law degree is not necessarily a ticket to great wealth. It's not a free pass into the upper class. It's something that lets you do a job. If it's a job you want to do, it's a good thing. If your heart really lies someone else, it's a burden and it sucks. Make your own choice.

Monday, November 19, 2007

What's In a Name?

Cars - at least among car geeks like me - get named. For good or for ill, if your car hangs around long enough, it'll get a nickname. My old Civic was affectionately dubbed "The Minivan(tm)," due to the EP3's uncanny resemblance to Honda's Odyssey minivan. Since I got the MazdaSpeed3, I've been trying to come up with a suitable name for hit. At this weekend's autocross, I got hit by the 2x4 of inspiration.

After my last run, I headed over to the timing and scoring trailer to take over computer duties. The guy doing the announcing chores, one of our Corvette pilots named JW, said:

JW: You should get a Nike swoosh for the side of your car.

JDB: Why's that?

JW: Because it looks like a big running shoe.
That wasn't a slam - he said I looked good on course. And it immediately made me think of this:
Beneath it lay uncovered a huge starship, one hundred and fifty meters long, shaped like a sleek running shoe, perfectly white and mind-bogglingly beautiful.
Emphasis mine. It's not "perfectly white," but the rest fits.

Ladies and gentlemen . . .

. . . the Heart of Gold.

Why Wasn't I Informed?!

Apparently today is Banzai Mexican Matatdor Day. That's the only reason I can figure for a strange coincidence in my newspaper reading today. First, USA Today has a story entitled (I so swear I am not making this up) "Mexican Dwarfs Seek Respect in Bullfighting," which details the struggles of the "Original Bullfighting Dwarfs of Mexico":

Critics worry that the shows propagate stereotypes, but the troupes provide steady jobs in a country where employment discrimination is rampant. The bullfighters say they try to tread a fine line between being laughed at for their size and respected for their skill.

'When we run around, our movements are just naturally humorous,' said Gustavo Vázquez, the manager of a troupe known as the Giants of the Bullring. 'But we also put on a quality variety show, and the bullfighting is real. The goal is for the audience to see past the fact that we're little people.'

Unlike traditional bullfights, the animals are not harmed. Calves are used instead of bulls.
Then today's New York Times has a story titled "Child Matadors Draw Olés in Mexico’s Bullrings." They're apparently all the rage in Mexican bullfighting (children fighting bulls isn't allowed in Spain).

I understand the public interest story lurking in tales of mini matadors. It just seems odd that they all his the presses on November 19, 2007!

Friday, November 16, 2007

A Plea On Behalf of the Well Connected

One would think that, at the rate GOP operatives are being indicted for things, someone would peddle some legal insurance to the politically vulnerable. As the White Collar Crime Prof Blog points out, legal defense funds have been set up for such luminaries as Scooter Libby, Tom DeLay, and Jim McDermott (a Democrat, to be fair). The latest to take advantage of that trend are disgraced Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez and professional Rudy Giuliani hanger on Bernie Kerik.

With so much being given to those who already have so much, I'm struck by the timeliness of this plea from the ever wise Sir Pratt:

Hello. I'd like to talk to you tonight about a minority group of people who have no mental or physical handicaps and, who, through no fault of their own, have never been deprived, and consequently are forced to live in conditions of extreme luxury. This often ignored minority, is very rarely brought to the attention of the general public. The average man in the street scarcely gives a second thought to these extremely well-off people. He, quite simply, fails to appreciate the pressures vast quantities of money just do not bring.

Have you at home, ever had to cope with this problem... (cut to a rich young yachting type surrounded by girls in bikinis) or this... (cut to a rich woman loading her chauffeur with all kinds of expensive parcels) or even this... (cut to a still of Centre Point)?

I know it's only human to say, 'Oh this will never happen to me', and of course, it won't. I'm asking you, please, please, send no contributions, however large, to me.
Charity, as they say, begins in Washington.

In Praise of Sloppy Censors

An object lesson that the power of the censor can still be broken through incompetence and sheer dumb luck:

The latest novel by Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez has been banned in Iran - but only after censors noticed its title had been sanitised.

The book, Memories of My Melancholy Whores, was published in Farsi as Memories of My Melancholy Sweethearts.

The first edition of 5,000 had sold out before the authorities realised.
Whoops. Justice was Monty Python swift:
Iran's culture ministry said a "bureaucratic error" had led to permission being granted for the book's publication, the Fars news agency reported. The official responsible had been sacked, Fars said.
Wonder if they fed him to a moose?

Thursday, November 15, 2007

A Sub-Saharan Salem

Today's New York Times has a startling article today about the prevalence of accusations of witchcraft in Africa. Specifically, a rise in those accusations in Angloa and the Congos directed at the must vulnerable victims - children:

In parts of Angola, Congo and the Congo Republic, a surprising number of children are accused of being witches, and then are beaten, abused or abandoned. Child advocates estimate that thousands of children living in the streets of Kinshasa, Congo’s capital, have been accused of witchcraft and cast out by their families, often as a rationale for not having to feed or care for them.

The officials in one northern Angolan town identified 432 street children who had been abandoned or abused after being called witches. A report last year by the government’s National Institute for the Child and the United Nations Children’s Fund described the number of children said to be witches as 'massive.'
As in Salem, there are real down to life factors that lead to such accusations that have nothing to do with the supernatural:
But officials attribute the surge in persecutions of children to war — 27 years in Angola, ending in 2002, and near constant strife in Congo. The conflicts orphaned many children, while leaving other families intact but too destitute to feed themselves.

'The witches situation started when fathers became unable to care for the children,' said Ana Silva, who is in charge of child protection for the children’s institute. 'So they started seeking any justification to expel them from the family.'

Since then, she said, the phenomenon has followed poor migrants from the northern Angolan provinces of Uige and Zaire to the slums of the capital, Luanda.
So, at bottom, it's not really about baseless superstitions. But those superstitions are a shield that people doing shitty things to other people use to justify their actions. We'd all be better off if we could leave all of those kinds of superstitions behind and confront the problems of the real world head on. And as soon as possible.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

At the Movies, With Mike Keneally

From Mike's latest Email missive:

I'm leading with this: puhleeze don't see Bee Movie. By which I mean, you have to f***ing promise me right now that you won't see it. I'm giving you four seconds to say it out loud.

Brendon [of Dëthkløk fame -JDB]and I saw Bee Movie tonight based on a tragic and soon to be betrayed feeling that Jerry Seinfeld's involvement was likely to ensure some sort of reasonably quality entertainment offering. We were the only two people in the theater, which allowed us the blessed freedom to comment out loud to one another (the phrase "piece of sh*t" was used a lot) as the mounting, brain-melting absurdity of the film's pacing, plotting and characterizations turned into an unending, insulting, surreally poor and awful and…oh, you know what, I shouldn't dwell on this, it's not good for any of us. Please simply believe me when I say that this movie doesn't love you, doesn't care about you, doesn't deserve your patronage and precious money and just, please, my God, don't see it. Apart from all that though, "it's a rollicking good time at the theater!! Buzz, don't walk, to this movie right now -- bee there or bee square!" -- Mike Keneally
I felt I needed to pass that along. Sort of a public service announcement. Plus, I'm sort of a fan of bad reviews.

Bench Slap!

Sometimes, it appears from the outside world that lawyers tend to look out for one another to the detriment of the legal system. We'll overlook bad lawyering and bad lawyers because, well, they're lawyers! So when the profession puts the smack down on one of their own, it's worth pointing out. Especially when the one doing the smacking is the Chief Judge of the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals.

Via Decision of the Day
comes the story of US v. Patridge, a consolidated appeal to the Seventh Circuit of a criminal tax evasion case and IRS appeal. The defense counsel shotgunned the court with 19 assignments of error, "all frivolous," writes Chief Judge Frank Easterbrook for the court. After turning away the defendant's issues, the court turns to defense counsel:

Jerold W. Barringer represented Patridge at trial, in the Tax Court, and during the three appeals to this court. He has performed below the standard of a pro se litigant; we have serious doubt about his fitness to practice law. The problem is not simply his inability to distinguish between plausible and preposterous arguments. It is his disdain for the norms of legal practice (19 issues indeed!) and the rules of procedure.
Ouch! Easterbrook goes on to point out that the statement of facts in Patridge's brief was a whopping one paragraph long (a regular-sized one, not a Tale of Two Cities epic), "contains not a single fact and verges on illiteracy." The attorney signed the certification that the brief conformed with the Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure, even though it doesn't. In conclusion, Easterbrook writes:
Members of the bar must be held to standards at least as high as those of unrepresented litigants. Barringer is a recidivist; he ignored our 2006 decision reminding him that taxpayers cannot use a request for a collection hearing to contest their substantive liability. We therefore give Barringer 14 days to show cause why he should not be fined $10,000 for his frivolous arguments and noncompliance with the Rules, and why he should not be suspended from practice until he demonstrates an ability to litigate an appeal competently and responsibly. See Fed. R. App. P. 38, 46(b), (c).
I've been beat up pretty bad at oral argument before. I've lost case after case after case, so much that it doesn't even leave a bruise anymore. But I have never been - and hope I never will be - called out for the kind of bench slap Easterbrook dished out here.

Will He Get a Virtual Lawyer?

I'll admit that I'm not really familiar with the whole "virtual world" thing that some of the networking sites promote. I guess it shows my age that conversing with strangers in print via USENET or web forums seems perfectly reasonable, while creating visual virtual realms for avatars to inhabit and interact in just seems weird. "You damn kids!," as we old folks say.

That being said, it was only a matter of time before real people got prosecuted in real courts for malfeasance committed in these virtual realms against virtual others. As the BBC reports, a case in Holland involves grand theft furniture:

A Dutch teenager has been arrested for allegedly stealing virtual furniture from 'rooms' in Habbo Hotel, a 3D social networking website.

The 17-year-old is accused of stealing 4,000 euros (£2,840) worth of virtual furniture, bought with real money.
I know stupidity isn't a defense to crimes (of, if only it was . . .), but I'm having a hard time mustering a lot of sympathy for people who spend real money on virtual stuff. Where's Carlin when you need him?

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

More on Art Not Being Easy

My post last night on the sluggish progress of The Year of Living Magically prompted a few questions that I thought I'd tackle in a separate post.

Before I get to those, thanks to everybody for the support and encouragement. That's a big part of the NaNoWriMo community, but it means a lot to get some support from the "outside" world as well. For those of you desperate enough for entertainment, I've put up an excerpt from what I've done so far on my NaNoWriMo profile.* Enjoy.

As for those questions, Shark Girl asks:

I'm wondering if the site teaches you how to write, or it just a place to track your writing?

I noticed you said your developing your characters, that's why I was wondering. Did you already know how to do that, or are there lessons in the site?
NaNoWriMo isn't really about teaching, it's about motivating. Don't get me wrong - there's a lot of useful "how to" information available to people (as does the Absolute Write forum in my blogroll). But the main thrust of the program is to set a schedule for writing and provide motivation for sticking to it. In fact, part of the prelim Emails from the NaNo folks is that the most important thing to writing a novel (or anything else) it to actually do it. Get it down on paper and then worry about getting it "right" later. In other words, it's a good swift kick in the virtual ass.

As for character development, I'm sure there's some stuff on the site about that, but the ones inhabiting my story so far have been made up on the fly. I've previously tried to do in depth sketches for characters, but that story never really got off the ground (or on track, to be precise). It's fun to work things out on the fly!

Then Muze asked:
If you don't get this project completed what do you do? Can you use it toward a future project?
Whether I hit the 50k target by the end of November, I plan to complete this story, however long it might take. The text belongs only to me, not the NaNo folks, so I can do anything I want with it when I'm done.

As for the recorder - I've thought about that, but I don't do dictation very well. Instead, I've got small mounds of index cards in various strategic locations I can use to jot down ideas at a moment's notice.

Thanks again, everybody!

* So that makes a little bit of sense - my main character, Danforth, has been dragged by his friend Glenn to a used book sale. Glenn plans to scoop up books to resell on eBay, which is why Danforth is looking through the books in the first place.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Art Isn't Easy

Well, if things went according to plan with the NaNoWriMo thing, I'd be over 20,000 words into my novel by this point.

As usual, things aren't going according to plan. As you can see, I'm only about 33% of the way there. Unless this huge font of words come gushing out of my brain sometime soon, I almost certainly won't meet the 50,000 word mark by the end of the month.

What's gone "wrong?" Nothing, really - it's just a lot harder than it seems. It doesn't help that I'm just not that quick of a writer. For example, the daily word target for NaNoWriMo to hit 50k by the end of the month is 1667 words a day, every day. Today - a day off from work - was my most prolific day at a whopping 1747 words. It surely didn't help that I slept late, ran some errands, a wasted 2+hours on the joke that is Fight Club, but I can't help but think that I still reached the limit of my daily creativity. Which wouldn't be that bad, except that there are a few days every week that I can't write anything at all (there are other things in life, after all). Hence me being far far behind.

That makes it sound like nothing is going right, which isn't true. The fact is, of all my aborted attempts at fiction, none of them have made them this far. And I've still got lots of stuff happening in my head that has to get put on paper, so I feel that I've got more to offer. At the very least, by the end of the month I should have a large chunk of text that will keep developing over the coming weeks. This whole thing has taught me that a little bit of work every few days can pile up into something somewhat substantial.

Most important - this is actually fun! I've given birth to about a half-dozen characters that I sort of care about. I spent most of today working on the back story of a character who wasn't even in my head when this started. It really is a matter of just getting the damn thing started and letting it take you wherever it may lead.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

A Couple of Things

I'm actually writing tonight! So, instead of a substantive blog post, here's a couple of interesting links:

  • The latest on Conroygate in the local public schools. The committee has read Beach Music and has recommended that it be allowed in class, but with a warning sticker on the front, alerting parents of the contents. The Board of Education didn't officially act on the recommendation yet, but they appear to be in support. It's a solution that doesn't look to really please anybody. And we all know how kids react when they see "explicit content" warnings do to kids' desire to read something!
  • Alex Zanardi is one of my heroes, for all these reasons. Over the weekend, he picked up another one - finishing fourth in the hand-powered cycle class in the New York Marathon. It was his first marathon and done after one month of training!
That is all . . .

. . . well, except for this: Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Chuck Schumer (D-NY) are feckless spineless jackasses who don't deserve the continued support of anyone who believes in the rule of law.

OK, that's really all.

Monday, November 05, 2007

In Praise of Lawyers

The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers.

Although lots of people know that line, from act four of Shakespeare's Henry VI (Part 2), few seem to understand what it really means. The line is spoken by a henchman, Dick, of one of the play's villains, Jack Cade, who led an unsuccessful rebellion against the crown. Cade is making a series of boasts about what will happen when his plot is successful:

Be brave, then; for your captain is brave, and vows
reformation. There shall be in England seven
halfpenny loaves sold for a penny: the three-hooped
pot; shall have ten hoops and I will make it felony
to drink small beer: all the realm shall be in
common; and in Cheapside shall my palfrey go to
grass: and when I am king, as king I will be,--

God save your majesty!

I thank you, good people: there shall be no money;
all shall eat and drink on my score; and I will
apparel them all in one livery, that they may agree
like brothers and worship me their lord.

The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers.

Nay, that I mean to do. Is not this a lamentable
thing, that of the skin of an innocent lamb should
be made parchment? that parchment, being scribbled
o'er, should undo a man? Some say the bee stings:
but I say, 'tis the bee's wax; for I did but seal
once to a thing, and I was never mine own man
Cade and his Cheney are evil doers talking about eliminating rivals for power - those who wield paper and official seals as weapons. The rule of law was Cade's enemy and Dick's giving voice to the danger lawyers proposed to their new world order is pretty clearly a statement about what needed to be swept away to win control of the state.

I'm not sure if Pakinstani strong man Pervez Musharraf is much of Shakespeare fan, but he seems to be giving life to Dick's jest. With his declaration of martial law over the weekend, the counter protests are being led by lawyers - taking to the streets in uniform in a way that calls to mind the protests of Burma's Buddhist monks against that country's military junta.

Lawyers take a lot of shit from the rest of society, and sometimes rightfully so. But at our best moments, we stand up for the rule of law and serve as a breaker against arbitrary assertions of state power.

Or at least we should. One of the reasons Duhbya's been able to get away with so much is that smart attorneys too often played the roll of willing enablers to the administrations accumulation of power instead of being breaker that said "no" as the War on Terra train barrelled down the tracks.

That being said, I admire my "brothers in law" in Pakistan trying to stand up to a dictator (granted, he's better than the alternative, but that's not saying much). Putting their lives at risk for something as nebulous - and critical to a peaceful society - as the rule of law.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Commerce Imitates Art (Just in Time for Xmas!)

One of the subplots in Terry Gilliam's Brazil involves the hero's mother and her best friend's involvement with serial plastic surgery treatments. In the end, they both go horribly awry in completely different (and differently upsetting) ways. Anyway, with that context, there's a scene early in the film where the hero's mother wonders at the latest in Christmas gift giving potential - "medical gift tokens," usable at any doctor's office, including plastic surgeons!

That scene sprang immediately to mind when I saw this diary over at DailyKos discussing Visa's newest product - a medical gift card:

The Healthcare Gift Card can be used for a variety of medical expenses anywhere approved merchants or service providers accept Visa debit cards.
Receivers of the Gift Card can use it to help pay for a variety of costs including co-pays at doctor's offices, dentists and pharmacies or for vision care, dental care, health club memberships and elective procedures.

Use it for: Chiropractors, Dentists, Optometrists, Contact Lenses, Doctors, Drug Stores, Health Practitioners, Health Spas, Health Clubs and Memberships, Hospitals, Medical Laboratories, Nursing Facilities, Ophthalmologists, Opticians, Orthodontists, Personal Care Facilities, Pharmacies, Podiatrists, Ambulance Services, Counseling Services, Dental Equipment and Supplies, Prescriptions, Eyeglasses, Hearing Aids, and Medical Services.
Hopefully the folks who get these for Xmas end up in better shape than Mrs. Lowry and Mrs. Terrain!

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Blogging Forecast - Spotty, With Ocassional Downpours

With the beginning of National Novel Writing Month today, my literary efforts are going to be largely diverted for the rest of the month. I'll put up a few things here and there (including some updates on The Year of Living Magically - catchy, huh?), but generally things will be a bit thin 'round the Ranch this month. Please patronize the fine folks listed over to the right in the interim.

Oh, and wish me luck!