Wednesday, December 31, 2008

2008 - My Year in Film & Video

As with last year, I saw a lot of movies in the last twelve months. I even managed to see a decent number of (good) flicks the old fashioned way, in the popcorn stadium! So, here we go, the ones that made the greatest impression on me.

In the Theater

  • There Will Be Blood: Yeah, it was released (to lots of critical praise) late last year, but I didn't get around to it until early January. Fueled by a brilliant performance by Daniel Day Lewis and a terrific score by Johnny Greenwood (of Radiohead), I thought it was excellent. One of my fellow WV bloggers (can't remember which, sorry) said it reminded him of Kubrick, which makes sense to me.
  • The Dark Knight: You probably didn't hear anything about this understated little independent film, right? Driven by another monstrous performance (the late Heath Ledger's psychotic take on The Joker), this was the comic book movie as high art. Worthy of all the praise and popular success it received.
  • Hellboy II - The Golden Army: If The Dark Knight was the height of the comic book movie as art, this one was a pretty damn good example of the comic book movie as pure entertainment. Big, loud, and great fun to look at (what else would you expect from Guillermo del Toro?), it was a solid mid summer big picture experience.
  • Slumdog Millionaire: Scottish director Danny Boyle goes to India to make a movie infused with Bollywood flair that hangs on the outcome of the local version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? Sound like a recipe for disaster or, at best, a glorious mess? It certainly could have been. Instead, Boyle uses the frame of the game show to tell the backstory ("bizarrely plausible," as one character puts it) of the main character and develop an epic love story. Does it all work? Not really. Does enough of it work, particularly the visual style, to make you overlook the shortcomings? You bet.
On Video
  • 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days (2007): I've seen this on several "best of" lists for 2008, but I'm pretty sure it was released last year. Regardless of when it arrived, this is a brilliant film full of observations on life under the reign of Ceauşescu in Romania in the 1980s. Nominally about a very grounded woman helping her flightier friend obtain an (illegal, of course) abortion, it really reaches out beyond that issue. Highly recommended.
  • Network (1976): I blogged about the continuing relevance of this classic mass media satire back when I first watched. Nothing more to add to that, really.
  • The Conversation (1974) & The Lives of Others (2006): Two movies, separated by a generation, but both about those who listen and the impact on them of what they hear. In The Conversation, the listener is Harry Caul (Gene Hackman), a private and paranoid professional eavesdropper. When he allows himself to care about what he thinks he hears, his world comes unraveled. In The Lives of Others, the listener is Wiesler, a member of the East German secret police assigned to listen in to the lives of a playwright and his girlfriend who may be enemies of the state. Wiesler's attempts to protect the couple after he begins to sympathize with them lead to an unravelling of his world. Both are excellent (The Lives of Others is brilliant) and would make an interesting double bill.
  • Journey From the Fall (2006): Another film I saw for the first time this year was The Killing Fields, which left me cold and felt a bit distant. I think that was because I saw this film first, one of the girlfriend's picks. It's the story of a South Vietnamese family that is separated during the fall of Saigon. Mom, son, and mother-in-law escape to a new, strange life in Los Angeles, while the father is packed off to a"reeducation" camp. The movie's two strands, showing the family's survival, are equally moving in their own way.
  • Paprika (2006): I watched this film twice in the space of a week and I'm still not really sure what it's about. It has something to do dreams, people getting into each others dreams, and a general breakdown of the barrier between reality and the subconscious. Did I mention that it was a Japanese animated flim? It would almost have to be, wouldn't it? At times incomprehensible, at times brilliant, it's one of those movies that are best enjoyed by just laying back and letting it wash over you.
  • Zodiac (2007): I've never been particularly fond of David Fincher's work (I reamed Fight Club last year as "an overrated piece of crap!"), but this long meditation on the corrosive power of the search for truth is a great piece of work. It covers almost the whole breadth of the investigation into the Zodiac killings in Northern California, from the crimes themselves (two of them shown in their entirety), to the police investigation, and finally to the amateur sleuthing of a newspaper cartoonist (upon whose books the film is based). There's no closure, as the case has never been solved (and, we learn in text at the end, the cartoonist's prime suspect was later exonerated with DNA testing), but it hardly feels like a cop out.
Well, that's it for 2008, folks. Everybody have a Happy New Year!

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

2008 - My Year in Tunes

Yes, folk(s), it's that time again. As the year winds down, it's time for my annual "My Year in . . ." posts. Up first - tunes. Although I personally only managed a tiny bit of musical output this year, I managed to collect quite a bit from other people (54 new albums, by my count). So much so that, for once, I had a hard time selecting only a few actually new discs to talk about. Aren't you lucky! Without further ado . . .

New for 2008

  • 3rDegree - Narrow Caster: Back when I was in law school, I got a used copy of 3rDegree's Human Interest Story from someone on the Web. A subsequent review attracted the attention one of the guys in the band, who was selling of the back stock of the album, who explained that they had broken up, unable to really get a footing in the rock world or the prog one. Nine years later, I got an email from him announcing their return effort, Narrow Caster. It was well worth the wait, a more mature evolution of the near-prog sound the band forged in the 1990s. Solid songwriting abounds, as well as some choice playing from all involved. Highly recommended.
  • D.F.A. - 4th: Another band that waited a while between albums. I picked up their 1997 release Lavori in Corso used last year and liked it a lot. When I saw this new disc at 3RP this summer (more on that later), it was a must have. The band cranks out that fusion-tinged (mostly) instrumental prog that the Italians do so well. It smokes, it soothes, it rocks.
  • Mike Keneally - Wine & Pickles: I've repeatedly admitted to being a Keneally fanboy, but even I didn't expect a collection of leftovers and miscellaneous bits of sound to be so excellent in the end. Mike assembles tracks that didn't make Dog and Dancing, some alternate versions from those albums, some collaborations, and even some cues/bumps he did back in the day for Court TV. Highlights include "Feelin' Strangely," the long promised finished studio version of "L'il," and "Inhale," a collaboration with Lyle Workman.
  • Marillion - Happiness is the Road: Last year's Somewhere Else was a disappointment. Not so much as some people would have it, but still, pretty lackluster, particularly after the brilliant Marbles. When the band first released Happiness for download prior to its release this year, I wasn't completely convinced that they righted the ship. After living with the real CDs (two volumes, one dubbed Essence, the other The Hard Shoulder) for a few months, now I'm convinced. Some judicious editing could have coalesced Happiness into an amazing 1-disc record. As it is, there's enough to love over both discs (the title track, "This Train Is My Life," "The Man from the Planet Marzipan," "Asylum Satellite 1," and "Real Tears for Sale" in particular) to make it an essential addition to the collection.
  • The Tangent - Not as Good as the Book: Life Happiness, The Tangent's fourth studio album probably could have been pared down to one disc without losing anything essential. What to cut, however, would probably spark some long and heated debates. I wouldn't want to live without Andy Tillison's continuing midlife crisis in "Lost in London 25 Years Later" or the title track. And I certainly wouldn't sacrifice the epic "Four Egos, One War," my favorite track of the year. Plus, the special edition came with a novella written by Tillison (which I still haven't read), so you can't argue you're not getting value for money, huh?
New to Me
  • Yezda Urfa - Sacred Baboon (1976): Another gem I picked up at 3RP, from one of the numerous American bands that managed to cut one album in the wake of prog's golden age before going the way of the dodo. Clearly influenced by Yes, Gentle Giant, and Zappa, the music here is on the verge of being so complex it's out of control. But the band tread that fine line with aplomb. Great fun to listen to.
  • Ritual - The Hemulic Voluntary Band (2007): Considering all the new music I heard this year, I'm amazed that I can even make this determination, but - this is, hands down, my favorite album of the year. Steeped in the Moomin stories of Finnish writer Tove Jansson, it is melodic, bombastic, pastoral, and just really fun to listen too. It's also a very organic album. No synths (shudder to think!), but loads and loads of great clavinet and piano work, backing up some really interesting folk instruments here and there. Absolutely brilliant.
  • The Mandrake Project - A Favor to the Muse (2006): 3RP is shorthand for "3 Rivers Progressive Rock Festival," which debuted this summer outside of Pittsburgh. Yes, right in the girlfriend's back yard! I managed to take in only half of Saturday's festivities, but came away with two things. One was a huge load of CDs, which continues my generous plan of putting Greg Walker's kids through college. The other was the discovery of The Mandrake Project, a local band and second on the bill Saturday morning. All instrumental, influenced by the post-rock scene I think, they just blew me (and most of the others in attendance) away. Needless to say, I had to pick up this album, which is equally brilliant. A new one is on the way for 2009.
  • Jean Michel Jarre - Oxygene (2007): I decided to explore some electronic music this year, given my increased interest in synths and making music with them. This was the cream of the crop, a rerecording by Jarre of his 1976 classic (as heard in, among other things, Gallipoli). Particularly cool was the DVD that came with the CD, which has Jarre and a few helpers recreating the album (with some excursions) live, scuttling in and out of the coolest collection of vintage synth gear this side of VSE.
  • Phideaux - Doomsday Afternoon (2007): Another brilliant album that I missed by a year. Phideaux is sort of a musical collective lead by its namesake, Phideaux Xavier. His day job, no kidding, is directing TV soap operas. Whatever pays the bills, huh? Doomsday Afternoon is the second of a three-part concept dealing with a future ecological crisis (the first part, The Great Leap, didn't do so much for me). They'll be at the 2009 version of 3RP, which I'm looking forward to a great deal.
Honorable Mention: This is how I work in something that is neither "new" nor even "new to me," the third and final Genesis box set. Covering the halcyon Gabriel days (minus From Genesis to Revelation), each album gets remixed in really excellent fashion. As All About Jazz (of all people) put it:
The remix/remaster work is absolutely top-notch, bringing clarity and depth, detail and transparency to music that still holds up nearly 40 years later.
But the real treasure trove is the DVD extras that come with each disc. Contemporary interviews with the guys in the band (including Anthony Phillips for Trespass, but, alas, no John Mayhew) are interesting, while Foxtrot and Selling England by the Pound contain about 90 minutes of classic live footage. The Selling England . . . DVD, in particular, contains the "Shepperton Studios" footage, complete with Gabriel in all of his costumed glory. Really, if you're at all a fan of Genesis before they went pop, you owe it to yourself to grab a copy next time Borders has a deal on box sets.

The War on Frosty

Christmas is over, but it's still winter, so how about a controversy over gigantic snowmen? Only in the Land of Palin. Radley Balko at Reason has the details on the city fathers of Anchorage versus Billy Powers and "Snowzilla," who lives in Powers's yard:

The first Snowzilla stood about 16 feet tall. But as Powers and friends began building this year's Snowzilla, the city sent Powers a cease and desist order, describing Snowzilla as a 'public nuisance' and a 'safety hazard.'

The next morning, Snowzilla rose anyway, this time topping a whopping 25 feet. Powers coyly insists he doesn't know where the second Snowzilla came from.
It gets better. A picket line of snowmen showed up at city hall, only to be, er, "dispersed" by the maintenance guy. According to the local paper:
A group of snowman protesters -- apparently rallying in support of the towering Anchorage outlaw -- appeared on Christmas Day in front of City Hall. They carried signs that read 'Snowzilla needs a bailout' and "Snowmen have rights too."

* * *

Today the remains of the protesters lay in frozen pieces. Their signs sat in a nearby Dumpster.
Fight the power, Snowzilla! Snow justice snow peace!

Monday, December 29, 2008

Late Entry for Dipshit of the Year

A while back, I took a group of Kentucky atheists to task for alleging, as part of a meritorious suit against that state to strip its homeland security plan of blatant God bothering, that the presence of the unconstitutional enactment caused them "mental pain and anguish." As I said:

Anybody should be made of stronger stuff, but particularly atheists. We're supposed to be the doggedly rational bunch, right? Such a frivolous claim allows those on the other side to point out the whining instead of dealing with the constitutional issue.
Now, from a letter to the editor in Colorado (via Volokh) comes a similarly thin skinned dolt:
Every time you wish us a Merry Christmas you are claiming that you have rights that we do not have. You are declaring that through your belief in a deity, you are better than us. Every time you say, 'Merry Christmas' to a non-Christian, you might as well be suicide-bombing them or nailing them to a cross, placing a crown of thorns on their heads and sticking a spear in their sides. You are trying to force your religion on them.
Putting aside the rather silly argument that someone saying "Merry Christmas" is an attempt to force religion on anyone, it's entirely over the top to compare it to something like blowing up scores of innocent people or an arcane and particularly brutal form of capital punishment. Get a backbone, man! Sticks and stones and all that, right? The fact is, this kind of whining will get much more play than, say, the first comment to that letter from a non-believer taking him to task. It makes us all look bad.

Can't He Do Anything Right?

One of the few unchecked powers everybody agrees the President has is to issue pardons and commutations. Sure, some pardons are unpopular, but when your on your way out of the Oval Office, who gives a rat's ass. Leave it to Duhbya to mess up even this simple act:

In an unusual move, President Bush on Wednesday reversed his decision, announced a day earlier, to pardon Isaac R. Toussie, a Brooklyn developer who pleaded guilty to fraudulently obtaining federally insured mortgages and to defrauding Suffolk County, N.Y., by selling it overpriced land.
Basically, lines got crossed in the process. The counsel to the President though the Department of Justice had signed off on the pardon for Toussie, but it hadn't. Nonetheless, Duhbya signed the necessary paperwork.

So, can the President taketh back what he hath given? Or is he bound by the ancient legal maxim of "no backsies"? Not surprisingly, the legal blogosphere has different takes on the issue. According to this analysis at Pardon Power, Toussie should walk. Whether he does or not remains to be seen.

Energy Crisis Solved

During the presidential campaign, "energy independence" was a popular buzz phrase. I was never quite sure what it meant, but I think the general idea was to become more energy efficient and try and cut our reliance on imported fuels sources. With that in mind, have I got some good news. If this report from Forbes (via Concurring Opinions) is accurate, our crisis is over:

For a time, Beverly Hills doctor Craig Alan Bittner turned the fat he removed from patients into biodiesel that fueled his Ford SUV and his girlfriend's Lincoln Navigator.
Dr. Bittner's research unfortunately came to a halt (he was sued for allowing the girlfriend to do surgeries!), but imagine the possibilities! Obesity is a huge problem in this country. Forget diet, exercise, and denying our gluttonous urges. Just suck everybody slim and then turn the fat into fuel! We could probably even keep all the SUVs then.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Happy Xmas

With the actual holiday right around the corner, I've got precious little time for blogging. So I'll sign off for a bit with a couple of tunes.

First, a little Greg Lake:

And then, for the Hanukkah celebrants in the audience:

Happy Holidays, whatever specific one(s) you celebrate. If any. Just be cool, OK?

Friday, December 19, 2008

Jump, George, Jump!

I've never been a particular fan of It's a Wonderful Life. It's the kind of feel-good sappy movie that just doesn't do it for me. I don't hate it. I just don't get weepy about it like lots of other people do. But maybe that's because I've never looked at it through this guy's eyes:

“It’s a Wonderful Life” is a terrifying, asphyxiating story about growing up and relinquishing your dreams, of seeing your father driven to the grave before his time, of living among bitter, small-minded people. It is a story of being trapped, of compromising, of watching others move ahead and away, of becoming so filled with rage that you verbally abuse your children, their teacher and your oppressively perfect wife. It is also a nightmare account of an endless home renovation.
It gets better:
Take the extended sequence in which George Bailey (James Stewart), having repeatedly tried and failed to escape Bedford Falls, N.Y., sees what it would be like had he never been born. The bucolic small town is replaced by a smoky, nightclub-filled, boogie-woogie-driven haven for showgirls and gamblers, who spill raucously out into the crowded sidewalks on Christmas Eve. It’s been renamed Pottersville, after the villainous Mr. Potter, Lionel Barrymore’s scheming financier.

Here’s the thing about Pottersville that struck me when I was 15: It looks like much more fun than stultifying Bedford Falls — the women are hot, the music swings, and the fun times go on all night. If anything, Pottersville captures just the type of excitement George had long been seeking.
After all this, the writer still claims to love the film, but not for the reasons everybody else does. Which is fine, but I suspect he may be trying to have it both ways.

For what it's worth, I think the film would have been immensely helped if Capra had used the alternate ending:

Thursday, December 18, 2008

I Love This Strip

Today Pearls Before Swine introduced a new character - Pippie the Prairie Dog Preacher. I only wish my blog template was wide enough to show a strip correctly. Check it out here.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

We're Doomed

The Day the Earth Stood Still, directed by Robert Wise with a distinctive Theremin-infused score by Bernard Hermann, is one of the classics of sci-fi. Released in 1951, it captured the imagination of a world just entering the Cold War and coming to grips with the idea that the human race was to the point where it could extinguish its very existence (more on that here).

So, of course, some dipshit has decided to remake . . . er, excuse me, "reimagine" the film. To make matters worse, it relies on the talents of Keanu Reeves, the only in actor in Hollywood who can honestly be confused with a cardboard cutout of himself. Judging from the early reviews, apparently "reimagine" means "turn a classic into crap." Color me surprised.

But that's not the bad news, merely expected. The bad news is that the producers of the new version are beaming it into space:

Seeking the ultimate red carpet, or perhaps a chance to get a good word in for humanity to whoever might be Out There watching, the makers of the new movie “The Day the Earth Stood Still” have arranged for it to be beamed into space on Friday, on the same day the movie opens here on planet Earth.
Oh, great, just what we need: to assault our nearest interstellar neighbors with dreck like this. At least it's not the first thing that's gone up:
As an interstellar broadcast, the movie at least beats a Doritos commercial, which was broadcast into space by a set of European radar stations in June in the most recent high-profile space transmission. Whether it lives up artistically to the Beatles song “Across the Universe,” which NASA sent off in February as part of the agency’s 50th anniversary, remains to be seen.
Of course, as anyone who's read Carl Sagan's Contact (or seen the inferior film) knows, we've been sending TV signals into space for decades. The first broadcast powerful enough to reach the stars? Adolph Hitler's welcoming address from the 1936 Munich Olympics. So it's not as if we put our best foot forward in the first instance, either.

If we're lucky, the signal will just reach the Omicronians which, evidence has shown, don't have very good taste, anyway. They might appreciate it.

'tis the Season

Government displays of religiously themed materials are sure to be controversial and lead to some serious silliness at any time of year. But during the holidays, when so many faiths have their own competing celebrations, along with the secularized versions of same, things can get particularly silly. Like they have in Washington state at the capitol in Olympia. Here's a good account of the background (paragraph breaks added by me):

According to The Spokesman Review (Spokane, WA), conflict has been brewing in the Washington State Capitol over the past few years. In 2005, state Rep. John Ahern (R-Spokane) decided to protest the state's decision to call a large evergreen tree placed inside the Capitol this time of year a 'holiday tree.'

Evidently, Rep. Ahern found this form of cultural sensitivity unacceptable. He gathered some like-minded Christians to sing carols on the Capitol steps and added a small 'Merry Christmas' sign and a cardboard menorah at the bottom of the tree.

In 2006, rabbis showed up to light a large menorah with the Governor, and Christians asked for a nativity scene. The state initially denied this request but then caved during a lawsuit, paving the way for the nativity scene the following year. Now the state says they'll allow virtually any sort of religious or political display.

Enter the atheists.
That's right. With the lawsuit establishing that if the capitol area is going to open to any party for a display it must be open to all, a creative bunch of non-believers put up a sign this year that reads:
At this season of the Winter Solstice, may reason prevail.
There are no gods, no devils, no angels, no heaven or hell.
There is only our natural world.
Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds.
Granted, it's a little heavy handed at the end, but I can't say I disagree with the sentiment. Whether such a sign is the best way to advance "the cause," whatever that may be, is best left for another day.

Needless to say, the presence of those words at the state capitol have sent some folks into apoplexy. Complaints from religious folks have sprung the issue to national attention, gaining the ire of such noted clear thinkers as Bill Donohue and Bill O'Reilly. As a result, more folks are flocking to Olympia to have their message endorsed by the state:
The skirmish over Christmas in Washington state just gets funnier every day.

Now someone wants to put up a Festivus pole in the capitol. That's hilarious enough, but it gets better.

The Westboro Baptist Church has demanded to be allowed to put up a sign that says, 'Santa Claus will take you to Hell'.
Personally, I find the idea of an unadorned metal pole (tinsel is too confusing) in the state capitol very amusing. I just hope the Phelps folks will be singing to the tune of "Santa Claus is Comin' to Town."

The underlying lesson in all this hullabaloo is simple - the state shouldn't be in the business of displaying anybody's religious beliefs. Period. Put you tree/nativity/menorah/pole up on private property to your heart's content. But keep the state out of it. As the First Amendment intends.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Some Good Racing News

It's been a rough week or so in the racing world, in the wake of the global economic slowdown. Honda has shuttered its F1 program. Audi announced it would not participate in the 2009 American LeMans Series, aside from bringing its new prototype over for the 12 Hours of Sebring. And then there's the question of what any of the Big 3 might be able to contribute next year, particularly in lieu of today's burnout flameout.

With all that said, it was nice to get some good news today, particularly involving ALMS:

The rumors of a Dyson Racing and Mazdaspeed marriage had circulated since September, and with the ink having just dried on the partnership, two of the most famous names in American sportscar racing have formed and incredibly potent challenge for their LMP2 competitors. Fielding two Lola Coupes -- the same closed top prototypes as seen in the final two ALMS rounds this year -- the team, sponsored by BP, will make use of the stout 2.0L AER-built MZR-R turbo engine.
With the continued BP presence, it should look a bit like this:

As I said last year, when the program was first announced (with BK Motorsports), I'll take one to go, please!

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

A Plea for Profanity

The big political news of the day is the federal arrest of Illinois Governor Rod R. Blagojevich (D - Jacknutistan) on some truly mind bending corruption charges. The lengthy criminal complaint (available here) has some detailed excerpts from wiretaps on the Gov's phones. The excerpts are rife with colorful language: "fuckers," "motherfuckers," and just good plain "fuck." The media, and US Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald have gone out of their way to not actually say those words at press conferences and in TV stories.

C'mon. It's in a criminal complaint, for crying out loud. There's no point in "bleeping" yourself, and then explaining that "the word wasn't actually bleep," over and over again. What is this, The Christmas Story? The man's headed for some years in the federal pen (perhaps in a special Illinois Governor's Wing somewhere). If you're going to hang him with his words, don't sugar coat them!

Monday, December 08, 2008

On Light Brigades and Historical Fictions

In today's New York Times, columnist Bill Kristol commends his conservative colleagues for sticking with the small government argument, even when it isn't working. I'll not comment on that for now.* Instead, I want to focus on a reference he uses in the final paragraph:

I can’t help but admire some of my fellow conservatives’ loyalty to the small-government cause. It reminds me of the nobility of Tennyson’s Light Brigade, as it charges into battle: “Theirs but to do and die.” Maybe it would be better, though, first to reason why.
The "Light Brigade" to which he refers is the famous poem "The Charge of the Light Brigade." It's usually taken as championing fighting on for a lost cause in the face of terrible odds. The emphasis, at least in popular culture, is on bravery, patriotism, and the horror of war. But the most interesting part of the poem usually gets forgotten:
Forward, the Light Brigade!"
Was there a man dismay'd?
Not tho' the soldier knew
Some one had blunder'd.
Come again? What's blundering got to do with such a noble pursuit?

The real charge of the Light Brigade was part of the Battle of Balaclava during the Crimean War. It was an attempt by the Russians to break the siege of the port city of Sevastopol, which was controlled by an alliance of Great Britain, France, and the Ottoman Empire. At the end of the day, the siege stood, while several hundred men lay dead or dying.

The Light Brigade was a cavalry unit that was part of the allied defense force. During the battle, the allied Heavy Brigade drove a Russian cavalry column back to its artillery line. The Light Brigade was ordered to "prevent the enemy carrying away the guns," but didn't specify which particular guns. The captain who delivered the order pointed out the wrong set of guns and the Light Brigade set off.

The guns pointed out by the captain were at the end of a long valley that would become known as the Valley of Death. Russian artillery and infantry were deployed along both sides of the valley. In spite of the withering fire from both sides of the valley, the Light Brigade actually made it to the guns at the other end, but were quickly forced to retreat. Of the 600 men in the brigade, almost half were killed and wounded.

So, far from being a glorious hail-mary type attack that should serve as an example of gallantry and bravery, the Charge of the Light Brigade is, in fact, a complete and total fuck up (one French Marshal said "It is magnificent, but it is not war"). On second thought, maybe that's a more apt description of the modern GOP than I thought. Perhaps Kristol is onto something.

Interesting historical note: Tennyson had a bona fide hit with "The Charge of the Light Brigade." It was so popular that it was printed up and distributed to British troops in the Crimea. A few years later, he did another poem, this one about the Heavy Brigade, the one that actually achieved and objective. It was a flop. What that says about human nature, I'm not sure.

* People like it when government does things for them and does it competently. Who knew?!

An Interesting Development

In the wake of last month's terrorist attacks in Mumbai, there are a lot of burials going on. Or, in some cases, not going on (via Ed):

A Muslim graveyard in the heart of Mumbai has broken with Islamic tradition and refused to bury the bodies of nine terrorists who were killed during the attack on India's financial capital.

The influential Muslim Jama Masjid Trust, which runs the 7.5-acre Badakabrastan graveyard, said it would not bury the gunmen because they were not true followers of Islam.

Hanif Nalkhande, a spokesman for the trust, said: 'People who committed this heinous crime cannot be called Muslim. Islam does not permit this sort of barbaric crime.'
Often when attacks like these happens, some wags demand that the mass of peaceful Muslims stand up and speak out against them. I'm not one to get bent out of shape over burial plots, but it means something to members of that faith. In that sense, it's a positive development.

Funny Because It's True

One thing that never ceases to amuse me is how fans of a particular fan of dogma can look at somebody else's and see it for the hooey that it is, while getting deeply offended when someone does the same to their particular dogma. In other words, this (via PZ):

Thursday, December 04, 2008

We Miss Ya', Frank

Hard to believe, but it was 15 years ago today that Frank Zappa left the building. His body of work, both what he released in his lifetime and what the Zappa Family Trust has released since, is a wide ranging testament to his skewed genius. So here's a few bits of video in honor of the occasion.

First up, it's "Montana," by the famous Roxy lineup (release the damn DVD already, Gail!):

Next, my favorite of Zappa's trademark guitar tunes, "Watermelon in Easter Hay." This version is a little too quick for my tastes, but still . . .

Finally, here's is Frank in a Today Show interview in 1993, shortly before his death. The interview is fairly vapid (on Today? Who knew!). But there is interesting video of Ensemble Modern and Frank with the Synclavier that's really cool:

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Weirdness Next Door

Last week, a Kentucky newspaper ran an interesting story (via PZ) about that state's anti-terrorism plans. Ironically, it rests a lot on faith:

The 2006 law organizing the state Office of Homeland Security lists its initial duty as 'stressing the dependence on Almighty God as being vital to the security of the Commonwealth.'

Specifically, Homeland Security is ordered to publicize God's benevolent protection in its reports, and it must post a plaque at the entrance to the state Emergency Operations Center with an 88-word statement that begins, 'The safety and security of the Commonwealth cannot be achieved apart from reliance upon Almighty God.'
The executive has been playing along:
Under previous Gov. Ernie Fletcher, a lay Baptist preacher, Homeland Security interpreted the law at face value, prominently crediting God in its annual reports to state leaders and posting the required plaque.
Now, I figure this story had been laying around for a while. It was in the day after Thankgiving edition, after all, and struck me as the kind of filler somebody pulled out of the "slow news day" file. But it looks like somebody was paying attention:
An atheists-rights group is suing the Kentucky Office of Homeland Security because state law requires the agency to stress 'dependence on Almighty God as being vital to the security of the Commonwealth.'

American Atheists of Parsippany, N.J., and 10 non-religious Kentuckians are the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, set to be filed Tuesday in Franklin Circuit Court.
I agree with AA's legal director (who happens to live in Boone County, KY) that the law is "breathtakingly unconstitutional" and hope the declaratory judgment portion of the suit succeeds.

On the other hand, the plaintiff's claim for monetary damages - because they suffered "mental pain and anguish" as a result of the law - is silly. Anybody should be made of stronger stuff, but particularly atheists. We're supposed to be the doggedly rational bunch, right? Such a frivolous claim allows those on the other side to point out the whining instead of dealing with the constitutional issue.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

NaNo Update - I'm a Weener!

Not like I waited until the last minute or anything, but I'm happy to report that I am a "winner" of National Novel Writing Month 2008. That means I've written at least 50,000 words this month. As I said earlier, this won't be the end of it, as I've got a ways to go before this first draft is finished (current total is 50,806 words*). Still, I'm content to sit back now and revel in a sense of accomplishment for a few minutes. Woot!

Thanks again to everybody who provided support or encouragement over the past month or so!

For the record, the 50,000th word was "pieces," if you're scoring at home.

* Actually, the total is now 52,382! The juices were really flowing today.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Black Friday

For all the retail slaves manning the stores, and all the shoppers causing them grief, a little Steely Dan:

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Happy Thanksgiving!

Happy turkey day, everybody. Don't overdo it on the bird, tho', OK? And remember - turkey's can't fly:

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

What a Great Twit!

This story:

A Santo Domingo man is in jail, accused of driving drunk and leading police on a chase that finally ended with him running over himself.

* * *

After narrowly missing other vehicles, police said Aguilar drove through a ditch and a barbed-wire fence before stopping. He tried to put the truck into park, but it ended up in reverse.

Police said Aguilar fell from his open door and both of his legs were run over by the front driver's side tire.
Requires posting this sketch:

It's a shame we don't have competitions like that in America.


Over at Reason's Hit and Run blog, Radley Balko has a post simply titled "Here's a Bad Idea." He's right. What is the idea? Electing public defenders:

Witness Matt Shirk, a Republican recently elected public defender in Jacksonville, Florida. Shirk, who was backed by the local chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police, has never defended a homicide case. His campaign promises included a vow not to oppose funding cuts to the office he was running for, and a promise to squeeze as much money as possible out of indigent defendants, including a proposal for the postponed billing of acquitted defendants who might later be able to find some employment.
The FoP and the PD should not be friends. Cordial colleagues, OK, but nothing more than that. And the idea of running on a platform of cutting costs in an office that is chronically underfunded is mind boggling.

As prosecutors sometimes do, Shirk is cleaning house in his office, including some mildly famous faces:
As it turns out, several of the fired attorneys Shirk fired worked on the high-profile case of Brenton Butler, a 16-year-old wrongly accused of the robbery and murder of an elderly tourist. The Butler case was a huge embarrassment for Jacksonville’s sheriff’s department. Trial testimony suggested Butler’s confession had been beaten out of him by detectives with the department. Butler’s case eventually became the subject of the Oscar-winning HBO documentary Murder on a Sunday Morning. The sheriff’s department apologized to Butler, and reopened its investigation into the murder.
If you've never seen Murder on a Sunday Morning, get it in your Netflix queue right now. It's an amazing documentary and a real story of the hard fight for justice. I'll have to take another look at it, as it's one of those things that makes me proud to be a PD.

I Don't Remember These

The Onion has some important Supreme Court decisions I've overlooked for all these years:

I'll have to try and work Jablome v. Freely into my next brief.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Killer Robot Parade

Today's New York Times has an interesting article on the near future possibility of autonomous robots on the battlefield. Part of the appeal is that robots would be hardwired with rules of engagement and would avoid things like emotionally fueled war crimes. This part in particular caught my eye:

In a report to the Army last year, Dr. Arkin described some of the potential benefits of autonomous fighting robots. For one thing, they can be designed without an instinct for self-preservation and, as a result, no tendency to lash out in fear. They can be built without anger or recklessness, Dr. Arkin wrote, and they can be made invulnerable to what he called 'the psychological problem of ‘scenario fulfillment,’' which causes people to absorb new information more easily if it agrees with their pre-existing ideas.
Coincidentally, I'm currently reading (well, listening to) The Forever War, by Joe Haldeman. It's a Hugo/Nebula award winner (although it's showing its age now) about a soldier who fights a war on far off planets while, thanks to the magic of time dilation, the Earth he's fighting undergoes fundamental changes.

In the part I listened to on the way home from work yesterday, the narrator explains why, several hundred years in the future, robots did not prove useful as ground troops - precisely due to the lack of a self-preservation instinct. That would seem counterintuitive, but maybe that will be the outcome after all?

Is Hillary Eligible?

After all the “will she or won’t she” melodrama over whether Hillary Clinton would accept Obama’s invitation to be his Secretary of State, might it all have been for naught? As extrapolated more fully in a couple of posts over at The Volokh Conspiracy, she might not even be eligible to take the office.

The problem is Article I, Section 6, Clause 2 of the Constitution, which reads:

No Senator or Representative shall, during the Time for which he was elected, be appointed to any civil Office under the Authority of the United States, which shall have been created, or the Emoluments whereof shall have been encreased during such time ....
This is a problem because in January of this year, Duhbya, via an executive order under authority granted to the President by Congress in 1990, gave a Cost of Living Adjustment (“COLA”) to all executive branch employees, including the Secretary of State. So the question is, does the Emoluments Clause prevent Hillary – who was a Senator when Duhbya’s executive order was entered – from serving in “any civil Office under the Authority of the United States”? It’s not at all clear. A couple of commentators say no, even if Hillary relinquishes her Senate seat before nomination.

Personally, I find some of the comments over at VC about the nature of COLAs fairly persuasive. The argument is that the “emoluments” of the Secretary of State include a salary of x+COLA and thus only increasing “x” would be problematic. That makes sense to me. In my job, I’m paid like a civil servant (even though I’m not one), in that I get stepped up the grid for every year of service. That would be equivalent to increasing “x”. But separate and apart from that, we occasionally get COLAs which, in essence, bump the entire grid up. I don’t think of COLAs as a raises, in the traditional sense.

Of course, the question might all be purely academic (like the “is West Virginia constitutional?” issue) wrangling. Assuming Obama nominates and the Senate confirms Hillary, I don’t imagine a judge will look forward to ousting a sitting Cabinet member of an obscure Constitutional provision that may or may not apply. It might take some legalistic tap dancing to make it work, tho’.

Monday, November 24, 2008

NaNo Update - The Stretch Run

We've moved into the final week of National Novel Writing Month and I'm happy to report that I'm still on target to hit the goal of 50,000 words by the end of the month. My current total is 41,317 words, so I only need about 1500 words for the rest of the month to hit 50k.

That's the good news, dear reader(s). Now here's the bad news - the book won't be done at 50k. In fact, I've just turned the corner and finished up what I think of as "part one." If part two is the same length, this won't be done until well into December. As a result, blogging might continue to be light to nonexistent for the foreseeable future. I'll be back, I swear!

Well, That's Depressing

As the economy teeters on the brink and we prepared to (hopefully) recover the country from the horror of The Duhbya Years, here's a news report (via Kos) that reports that we might not be in the best hands:

US elected officials scored abysmally on a test measuring their civic knowledge, with an average grade of just 44 percent, the group that organized the exam said Thursday.

Ordinary citizens did not fare much better, scoring just 49 percent correct on the 33 exam questions compiled by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI).

'It is disturbing enough that the general public failed ISI's civic literacy test, but when you consider the even more dismal scores of elected officials, you have to be concerned,' said Josiah Bunting, chairman of the National Civic Literacy Board at ISI.
Actually, what's really depressing is that the test questions cover really basic stuff. You can take it for yourself here.

I'm not the brightest bulb in the box and I got 84.85% (28 of 33) right. In fact, the questions I missed were all in the free market cheerleading section (after Q 26) at the end, so I think I aced the actual "how government works" hunk. If you don't know that stuff, you got no business in Congress. Hell, I'm not ever sure you have any business voting for Congress!

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

I Must Have This!

Dear Santa,

For Xmas, I want a cool new game:

Wholesale slaughter of innocents is nothing new in games — board or online — where players adopt godlike figures to whack others along their way to victory.

But a new board game replaces ancient gods or invented goddesses with game characters from major religions of the modern world.

Playing Gods: The Board Game of Divine Domination bills itself as the world's first satirical board game of religious warfare.'
It's like Risk, but better:
Three-inch plastic figurines include Jesus bashing people with a cross, Moses slugging away with the tablets of the Ten Commandments, the Buddha with a machine gun, and a turbaned fellow with a bomb and a dagger vaguely hinting at Mohammed, all to be set loose to "force the people of the world to worship you."
I wonder if they'll include the Futurama version of Santa as a bonus? Ooh, maybe so:
Players can choose among the five figurines or make one for themselves with stickers for a "god" who resembles Oprah, a stein of beer or Satan or add a word label such as Islam, technology, even 'the Almighty Dollar.'
I'll take Jesus and his +2 cross over Oprah any day of the week.

You can get one here, Santa!

Your pal, JDB

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Who Is Making These New Brown Clouds?

This doesn't sound promising:

A noxious cocktail of soot, smog and toxic chemicals is blotting out the sun, fouling the lungs of millions of people and altering weather patterns in large parts of Asia, according to a report released Thursday by the United Nations.

The byproduct of automobiles, slash-and-burn agriculture, cooking on dung or wood fires and coal-fired power plants, these plumes rise over southern Africa, the Amazon basin and North America. But they are most pronounced in Asia, where so-called atmospheric brown clouds are dramatically reducing sunlight in many Chinese cities and leading to decreased crop yields in swaths of rural India, say a team of more than a dozen scientists who have been studying the problem since 2002.
First global warming, now global browning?

One of the challenges of the environmental movement is to convince developing nations to skip the quick and dirty industrialization the west enjoyed in the 19th and 20th centuries and do it in a greener, more sustainable, and expensive way. That's why any "global" environmental pact that excludes China, India, etc. just doesn't make any sense.

Better ask a philostopher.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Ack! The GOPers Were Right!

How could we have been so blind:

In a devastating blow to millions of unsuspecting Americans, newly elected president and international con man Barack Obama fled the country Wednesday with nearly $85 million in campaign funds.
At least he left a note:
'To my tender little pawns, the all-too-trusting people of America,' said FBI lead investigator Ray Hilland, quoting the letter at a press conference Wednesday. 'If you are reading this, then I have already left your silly country in my private jet, and am right now sipping fine champagne with my lovely associate, a woman you have come to know as 'Michelle.''

'I assure you, this was the most pleasurable and fulfilling con I have ever pulled off,' the note continued. 'Not since the Moroccan elections in 1984 have I taken so much joy in raising, and then crushing, the hopes and dreams of so many pathetic, disenfranchised, and downtrodden people.'

'It's been an absolute delight doing business with you. Rest assured, your generous contributions will be well spent,' the note concluded. 'Fondly yours, Ψ.'

Monday, November 10, 2008

NaNo Update

Well, it's ten days into my second attempt at National Novel Writing Month and, I have to say, things are going much better so far this year.

The daily target to reach the 50,000 word threshold is 1667 words a day, which I've rounded up to 1700. After ten days I'm up to . . . 17,003 words! Woot! To put that in some perspective, my project last year limped across the finish line at about 19,000 words and died completely at 22,000 a couple of months later. Not only am I keeping up on the word count this year, but I've got a firm idea of where I'm going know there's a lot of words left in me on this story, so I think I've got a good shot of hitting 50k before the month is out.

If anybody is interested in seeing how it's going, check my profile over at NaNoWriMo and click on the "Novel Info" to read an excerpt from the scene where our hero first meets his new client.

And a big thanks at this point to everyone for the support in the comments, my coworker who is actually eager to read the finished product, and the girlfriend for putting up with me driving up to see her these past two weekends only to flip open my laptop and start writing!

PDs of the World Unite . . .

The stereotype of the public defender, especially in the state courts, is one of overwork, underpayment, lack of resources, and clients who get "represented" in only the most basic sense of the word. While I'm sure the reality on the ground varies from state to state, it's gotten so bad in some places that PD offices are simply not taking new cases, according to yesterday's New York Times:

Public defenders’ offices in at least seven states are refusing to take on new cases or have sued to limit them, citing overwhelming workloads that they say undermine the constitutional right to counsel for the poor.

* * *

In September, a Florida judge ruled that the public defenders’ office in Miami-Dade County could refuse to represent many of those arrested on lesser felony charges so its lawyers could provide a better defense for other clients. Over the last three years, the average number of felony cases handled by each lawyer in a year has climbed to close to 500, from 367, officials said, and caseloads for lawyers assigned to misdemeanor cases have risen to 2,225, from 1,380.
Now, I'm assuming that the folks who aren't getting represented by the PD offices are being represented by appointed private counsel. They don't get paid much, either, but I'm sure that it will cost more to pay those guys than to up the staff in the PD office and provide them proper funding to handle additional cases. As usual, short term bean counters in the state legislatures are missing the longer view.

BTW, be sure to check out the short video on the Times site. It'll give your a pretty good idea of how things work in the state courts.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

I Voted

Did you? There's still time, as the polls don't close in WV until 7:30 this evening. And I don't care what anybody says - one vote can make a difference:

For the record, I did not vote a straight Dem ticket. I couldn't bring myself to vote in the Senate race at all - couldn't vote for Rockefeller (D - Telecoms) this time - and colored the bubble for the Mountain Party for Gov, rather than Governor Amicus. Even voted for a couple local Republicans!

So there you go, it's your turn now. Don't make me send Diddy after you:

Saturday, November 01, 2008

And So It Begins . . . (Programming Note)

As threatened earlier, it's now November, which means I'm off for my second stab at National Novel Writing Month. As a result, my creative energies (such as they are) will be directed there and blogging will be light. If you're interested, you can follow my progress by clicking on the "JDB @ NaNoWriMo" link to the right.

What's this year's book about? Here's the "back of the book" blurb, as it were:

Public defender Greg Crowe has heard plenty of outlandish stories from his clients. But this one takes the cake – a young woman is arrested and charged with the sale of 'counterfeit spaceship parts.' Her defense? They weren’t counterfeit, they’re real pieces from a UFO crash 50 years ago. Crowe thinks she must be crazy, until he starts to investigate. The mystery he unravels could mean a whole lot more than the guilt or innocence of one backwoods girl.
Wish me luck!

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Good News for Stevens

While Ted Stevens (R-The Tubes) is facing some bad poll numbers in the wake of his fraud convictions this week, at least he's picked up one vote - his own. Looks like he will be able to vote in this election after all:

Stevens' failure to report gifts is a Class D felony under federal law and constitutes such a crime because it involves willful fraud, said an opinion by Michael Barnhill, a senior assistant attorney general with the state.

But when is a person deemed convicted? Barnhill conceded in his opinion there are two ways to read the law, with a popular interpretation being that the jury's verdict is enough. But most legal precedents lean toward waiting until the judge in the case has entered his formal judgment and sentence, Barnhill said.

No date for sentencing Stevens has been set.
That actually makes perfect sense and I'm peeved with myself for not thinking of it the other day, given my line of work. I can't take anyone's case up on appeal until they've been sentenced. The final judgment and commitment order doesn't get entered until after sentence is imposed, so things technically are flexible until then.

Judicial Elections

I hate electing judges. It's not that I'm unsympathetic to the theory that the voters should have some say over who runs the courts. It's that I'm not certain that it's possible to actually make informed choices about judges. After all, they can't come out and make campaign promises to rule certain ways on certain issues. Most people don't really understand what judges actually do, anyway, and if they did they wouldn't care (imagine a scintillating debate on the scope of the excited utterance exception to the hearsay rule!).

That information void then gets filled with biographical platitudes, irrelevant religious pronouncements, and the occasional really nasty attack ad. One of those latter ones was in my mailbox this evening, urging me to vote against a sitting judge out here in the Valley using imagery out of Forrest Gump. And it's false to boot.

The judge in question is N. Edward Eagleoski, whom his opponent, Phillip Stowers (also a sitting judge) accuses of being "the worst sitting judge in the state" and "the lowest in intelligence and reasoning ability" based on the State Bar's 2008 Judicial Evaluation Poll. But based on the results, that claim doesn't hold up.

The poll has lawyers rate the judges in 6 categories on a scale of 1 to 5 and also reports the average rating across all categories. Indeed, among 29th Circuit judges, Eagleoski fares the worst, averaging 2.0, with a 1.9 in "intelligence/reasoning ability." Stowers picks up 3.0 in both categories (O.C. Spaulding leads the pack in the circuit with 3.6 & 3.7, respectively).

So Eagleoski certainly doesn't shine in his own area, but "worst . . . in the state?" Nope. Robert Carlton from the 30th Circuit gets 1.6 in both categories, while G. Todd Houck in the 27th Circuit weighs in at 1.3 and 1.0. Finally, Eldon Callen from the 17th Circuit scores a pair of 1.7s.

Stowers's claim is objectively false, but how many voters will figure that out? How many will care? Why should that apathy determine who sits in judgment in cases that affect lives for years and years? Maybe Ecuador has got it right - just hold a lottery.

My Irony Meter Just Exploded

I know it's become de riguer for the religious types to try and solve all national crises with prayer - keep trying, it might work eventually! - but this one really takes the cake (via PZ):

Did you know that some Christian dingbat has dubbed today the 'Day of Prayer for the World’s Economies?' Well here they are, at the Wall Street bull statue thing, praying to Jesus for money. The dingbat has explained, 'We are going to intercede at the site of the statue of the bull on Wall Street to ask God to begin a shift from the bull and bear markets to what we feel will be the ‘Lion’s Market,’ or God’s control over the economic systems.'
Emphasis mine. That would be, you know, this golden beauty:

Photo by Christopher Chan.

So the Christians got together and prayed in front of an oversized golden calf (and laid on some hands, too!). Does the Bible have something to say about golden calves? Something not too flattering?

Talk about fail on a Biblical scale!

Please Tell Me He's Funning Us

When fundies go nutty about the ill effects of books like the Harry Potter series, because they indoctrinate kids into magic and witchcraft, the sane among us rightly laugh them off. It's just fiction, after all. Indulging in suspension of disbelief for the sake of entertainment is a long way off from actually believing the stuff is real. So why does Richard Dawkins, of The God Delusion fame sound like he's channeling those loons:

Prof Dawkins will write a book aimed at youngsters where he will discuss whether stories like the successful JK Rowling series have a "pernicious" effect on children.

The 67-year-old, who recently resigned from his position at Oxford University, says he intends to look at the effects of 'bringing children up to believe in spells and wizards'.

I think it is anti-scientific – whether that has a pernicious effect, I don't know,' he told More4 News.

'Looking back to my own childhood, the fact that so many of the stories I read allowed the possibility of frogs turning into princes, whether that has a sort of insidious affect on rationality, I'm not sure. Perhaps it's something for research.'
I'm hoping either he's just having some fun or there's some broader context for this (given the source, it's entirely possible), 'cause otherwise it would really add to that image of "militant" atheism that so many people have.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Music? On MTV?

Yes, kids, back in the days when if you wanted to talk with someone you had to pick up a telephone and "texting" meant proficiency in ASCII programming, the "M" in MTV actually stood for "Music." They played videos and stuff. Since they no longer do that on TV, they've opened up a spot on the web where you can search out your favorite videos.

There are lots of holes (I know I've seen old Marillion vids on MTV/VH1, for instance), but there's a bunch of really cool stuff, too. Like:

Robert Wyatt? Are you kidding me? Of course, I did first hear about Shleep during an MTVNews blurb, so maybe that makes sense.

More Pollin' Blues (or Not)

With less than a week to go before the election, we're inundated by polls. Most of the tracking polls in the news survey a completely irrelevant measure - the national popular vote (just ask Al Gore). Those polls are tightening a bit, with the RCP composite showing a six-point margin for Obama. Should the Dems be concerned? Are things slipping away, again?!?

Not yet, anyway. Where it matters, in the state-by-state battle for electoral college votes, Obama is looking very solid. Consider the AP's recent battleground state poll:

Notice that Obama leads in every single one, including the six one by W in 2004 (all but PA and NH). He doesn't need to maintain that kind of dominance, of course, but it doesn't bode well for McCain. He would need to pick off several of those to have a chance.

Another thing to consider about the popular vote, aside from its essentially meaninglessness, is that it rarely has a spread of more than six or seven points, even when the electoral vote is a blowout. Consider (from here):

  • 1996 - Clinton beat Dole %70.4 to 29.6% electoral, only 49.23% to 40.72% popular
  • 1992 - Clinton beat GHW Bush 68.8% to 31.2% electoral, only 43.01% to 37.45% popular
  • 1988 - GHW Bush beat Dukakis 79.2% to 20.6% electoral, only 53.37% to 45.65 % popular
  • 1980 - Reagan thrashed Carter 90.9% to 9.1% electoral, only 50.75% to 41.01% popular
That's an average electoral spread 54.7%, compared with a popular spread of only %7.88. In other words, with a popular vote lead like Obama shows in the polls now, he could still win a convincing electoral victory. Obviously, the numbers in complete blowout elections (i.e., Reagan v. Mondale in 1984) or squeakers (the last two) track a bit more evenly.

My point? Don't panic. Just vote!

The Critic's Burden

I'm a big fan of Roger Ebert, but I'm afraid he's made a bit of a boner. Have you heard of a new film called Tru Loved? Me neither. I certainly haven't seen it. Neither has Ebert, but that didn't keep him from thrashing it nonetheless:

Earlier this month, Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert ripped into a movie called Tru Loved like he was carving a Halloween jack-o'-lantern, labeling it 'on about the same level as a not especially good high school play. . . . It fails at fundamentals we take for granted when we go to the movies. By lacking them, it illustrates what the minimum requirements are for a competent film.'

Tru Loved, a low-budget, starless film about a gay teenager moving from San Francisco to a conservative suburb, is not exactly an Oscar contender. So there was no real news in a veteran film critic dumping on a cheap-jack indie flick . . . not until the 16th paragraph, anyway, when Ebert disclosed that he'd only watched the first eight minutes of Tru Loved. He confessed to lifting his summary of the plot from the website, and that some of the actors he criticized didn't even appear in the part of the movie he saw. No matter, he wrote: 'The handwriting was on the wall. The returns were in. The case was closed. You know I'm right.'
Ebert defended his decision in a couple of blog posts. The link above is from a Miami Herald roundtable where the paper's various critics took issue (in varying degrees) with Ebert's decision, either to write the review in the first place or back load the info that he only saw eight minutes of it.

Although I sympathize with the idea that life is too short to suffer bad movies (or books or albums or . . .), isn't that part of the job description of a critic? Shouldn't they take one for the team so we don't have to?

One of the reasons I stopped writing album reviews on a regular basis is I didn't want to feel compelled to listen to CDs over and over again that weren't interesting me. I didn't think it was fair to my reader(s?) to pass judgment on stuff I wasn't listening to. Seems to me that if you're getting paid for the opinion, it ought to be fully informed.

Joe the Ancestor

If you're a history buff, like me, and are looking for a different angle on politics, Errol Morris has a neat post tracking the history of "everyman" political ads. He should know - he's done a few. Not surprisingly, they've been a staple since TV ads started up in the 1950s. Maybe "Joe" the "Plumber" can check it out while he's out not being exploited by the GOP.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

A Biggie Goes Down

When I was in college I had a couple of classes that included a major newspaper as part of the required reading. That was my first exposure (in those heady pre-Internet days) to the New York Times and The Christian Science Monitor, which I always thought was just a religious tract. How wrong I was - it's coverage, particularly of international issues, is rightfully praised. So it's a little disappointing to hear that the Monitor will no longer exist as an actual newspaper:

After a century of continuous publication, The Christian Science Monitor will abandon its weekday print edition and appear online only, its publisher announced Tuesday. The cost-cutting measure makes The Monitor the first national newspaper to largely give up on print.

* * *

The Monitor is an anomaly in journalism, a nonprofit financed by a church and delivered through the mail. But with seven Pulitzer Prizes and a reputation for thoughtful writing and strong international coverage, it long maintained an outsize influence in the publishing world, which declined as its circulation has slipped to 52,000, from a high of more than 220,000 in 1970.
I guess that's progress. The least I can do is add 'em to my list 'o links.

Prosecution to Somewhere, After All

As if things weren't going poorly enough for the GOP, yesterday the jury in the Ted Stevens (R-The Tubes) corruption trial came back with a verdict - guilty on all counts. I've noted before the prosecutorial misconduct that plagued Stevens's trial and will, I'm sure, form the core of his appellate issues. What I hadn't realized until yesterday was that Stevens was on tape talking to the guy who did the questionable work at his home and basically admitted to the wrongdoing. I can't find it online, but in ABCNews's coverage last night, they included a snippet in which Stevens said (I'm paraphrasing) that it wouldn't be a big deal if they got caught and wouldn't got to jail. Whoops!

With a week to the election, Stevens is still on the ballot in Alaska and would look headed for certain defeat. He was in a tight fight to begin with, so the conviction certainly doesn't help. Both Sarah Palin and John McCain have called on him to resign. It's not altogether clear what would happen if he does that:

Stevens is not scheduled to be sentenced until after a status hearing in late February, several weeks after he would have been sworn into a new term. Were he then to resign or be forced out by his fellow senators, state law mandates a special election to replace him within 60 to 90 days.

But the law is unclear on how, exactly, that would happen. In 2004, the Legislature changed the law to say the governor must appoint a temporary senator pending the special election. But in a ballot initiative the same year, voters said the governor should not have that much power and voted to get by with no temporary replacement.

The state has yet to resolve the conflict.
That assumes, of course, that Stevens hangs on through next week and wins the election. If he loses, it's a moot question. If he would resign before next Tuesday, could the Alaska GOP get a replacement on the ballot? Should it matter that Stevens sought a speedy trial as a political strategy to clear his name before election day?

And putting that aside for the moment, has Stevens lost at least one vote - his own? He is a convicted felon now, after all. And what if he's already voted absentee? The mind boggles.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Ethics in Politics?

We all have seen where candidates, either in advertisements or debates, shade the truth, bend the facts to their position, or just flat out bullshit. Should ordinary citizens resort to similar shenanigans to get the right vote? It's an interesting question, raised over at Concurring Opinions in the context of California's upcoming gay marriage initiative:

In short, a 'yes' vote on Proposition 8 ends gay marriage in California; a 'no' vote protects the right to gay marriage.

Imagine that you are participating in a phone bank placing calls to encourage Californians to vote against Proposition 8 (in other words, you favor gay marriage). You place a call, and the voter on the other end tells you that she is opposed to same sex marriage and that's why she's voting no on Proposition 8. Your response? Do you say 'Thanks for your time -- make sure you get to the polls!' or do you correct her error, and explain that a no vote on Proposition 8 is actually a vote in favor of gay marriage?
I think it's a fascinating dilemma.

On the one hand, the voter's misconception of the issue isn't your fault and they're going to vote "your way," for whatever reason. Surely you wouldn't turn that down? McCain may not be pleased with people who won't vote for Obama because he's black/Muslim/from Mars, but surely he won't ask those folks to stay home (or vote for Bob Barr). Your job is just to get out the vote, however misintended.

On the other hand, isn't this the sort of voter ignorance we'd like to think we should care about? If someone seems passionate enough to vote, don't you bear some responsibility that they actually know what they're voting about? And if we, as citizens, aren't willing to correct a false belief just to secure a vote, how can we blame the pols for creating false beliefs in the first place?

The first position is most pragmatic and cynical. The second is more naive and hopeful. Am I wrong to wish for one and think I'd do the other?

Palin Goes Rogue?

A couple of weeks ago I admitted making a wrong call on McCain's selection of a running mate, mainly because she's proven to be political dead weight outside of the hard core GOP base. Now it looks like it's even worse than that, as today's New York Times explains:

Mr. McCain may still win the election. Still, anticipating that he will fall short, the pre-postmortems have already begun, both inside and outside his campaign headquarters. And without question, the biggest one is whether he would have been in a better position today had he not chosen Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska as his running-mate.

The answer, in the view of many Republicans and Democrats, is almost certainly yes.
Former Pennsylvania governor Tom Ridge all but said that if he had been McCain's running mate the GOP candidate would be ahead in that crucial battleground state.

Anecdotally, on my way to band practice last night I saw a "McCain / Romney" bumper sticker on the highway. Underneath it said "the right choice." I don't know if that was from a batch printed up before Palin was picked, or if it's cropped up since McCain's campaign has started to crater. So it's either stinging commentary or very prescient - you choose.

Local Weirdness

I don't know why, but these two stories from today's paper just struck me as weird.

First, they've renamed - or, rather, renumbered - one of the main drags in my neck of the woods. It's one of those situations where the original road, US Route 35, was a winding two-lane road that runs from here into Ohio. It really needs to be a 4-lane, so they're in the process of building a new Route 35 to handle the excess traffic. Of course, they can't have two Route 35s, but why rename the old one (State Route 817, if you're keeping score at home) and give the old name to the new road? Why note give the new road a new name? Regardless, at least we're not saddled with "alternate" or "scenic" Route 35 now.

Second, a local priest, who apparently really goes for the whole vow of poverty thing, is suing the state of West Virginia for paying too much for public projects:

All projects funded with public dollars in West Virginia pay the prevailing wage, which is set on a county-by-county basis. It's determined by surveys and inquiries conducted by the Division of Labor.

Acker contends the surveys rely heavily on unionized labor, setting an artificially high wage.
Come again? Isn't the main job of the union to get better wages for its members? How is that a bad thing, on balance? It's hardly "artificial," either, except from a hard-core libertarian perspective.

Like I said, just weird all around.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Stay Classy, Republicans (Redux)

Racist propaganda is one form of desperation, but faking an attack by a scary Obama supporter takes it to a whole different level:

A campaign worker who claimed she was the victim of a politically-motivated attack in which she was beaten, kicked and cut, now admits that she made the whole story up.

According to Pittsburgh police spokeswoman Diane Richard, Ashley Todd, 20, told investigators today that she 'was not robbed and there was no 6'4" black male attacker.'

Todd initially told police that she was robbed at an ATM in Bloomfield Wednesday night and that the suspect began beating her after seeing a John McCain bumper sticker on her car.

Todd claimed that the mugger even cut a backwards letter 'B' in her check.
Of course, the whole "scary black guy" theme is still there, too.

Back when the incident was fresh and being pushed as an example of how wild the Obama supporters are, the Executive VP of none other than Fox News wrote:
If the incident turns out to be a hoax, Senator McCain’s quest for the presidency is over, forever linked to race-baiting.
From his blog to voters' ears.

On Term Limits

There's an interesting political story brewing in New York City in which I have absolutely no stake, but I'm fascinated by it nonetheless. Mayor Michael Bloomberg is nearing the end of his second term. Like the US Constitution, the governing law of NYC limits the chief executive to two terms in office. Not satisfied, Bloomberg is seeking to have the limit revoked and plans to seek a third term. And it appears to be working - City Council approved the move, 29-22, yesterday. Already, two lawsuits have been filed challenging the vote, which also killed similar term limit provisions for most city offices (including City Council).

To me, this seems like a whole big plate full of wrong. Honestly, I've never liked the idea of term limits. If a particular constituency wants to send the same person back to represent them year after year, who is anyone else to stop them? After all, the reason that folks like Bob Byrd, Ted Stevens, and John McCain keep going back to DC is that the folks in West Virginia, Alaska, and Arizona like how they represent those states' interests. Who cares if Ohioans or Texans find them annoying?

Having said that, if they're already in place it's not wise to meddle with them, particularly not for the benefit of one particular politician. It's the same as when there was some talk of removing the native-born citizen requirement for President from the Constitution when Arnold Schwarzenegger's political star was first rising - maybe there are good reasons for chucking that requirement, but it should give pause that some particular person wants it done. Remember when, in the wake of 9/11, Rudy floated the idea of extending his term? Same thing.

Maybe Bloomberg is the best mayor NYC could have. Or maybe he's just another power hungry politician out to enrich his own ego. Regardless - the voters of NYC can always send him packing on their own.

JDB, iLawyer?

It's one thing to specialize in computer law, but are we on the verge of needing virtual attorneys? This week, the Volokh Conspiracy noted two interesting cases of real world legal consequences coming out of virtual worlds.

The first comes from the Netherlands, where two yutes (or however you pronounce "youths" in Dutch) were convicted of extortion for actions in an online game:

The Leeuwarden District Court says the culprits, 15 and 14 years old, coerced a 13-year-old boy into transferring a 'virtual amulet and a virtual mask' from the online adventure game RuneScape to their game accounts.

'These virtual goods are goods (under Dutch law), so this is theft,' the court said Tuesday in a summary of its ruling....
Now the coercion, which included physical violence, took place in the real world, so legal consequences make sense. But what if everything happened in the context of the game?

The second is from Japan, involved a sort of virtual homicide:
A 43-year-old Japanese piano teacher's sudden divorce from her online husband in a virtual game world made her so angry that she logged on and killed his digital persona, police said Thursday.

The woman, who has been jailed on suspicion of illegally accessing a computer and manipulating electronic data, used his identification and password to log onto popular interactive game 'Maple Story' to carry out the virtual murder in mid-May, a police official in northern Sapporo City said ....
Apparently, the woman got a hold of her "husband's" login info while they were married and she used that info to login and "kill" his avatar. Like the Dutch case, the actual criminal activity - unauthorized access of a computer account - took place in the real world.

Most online worlds, from what I've read, have rules and regulations, but not much of a way to enforce them. Is it only a matter of time before "attorney" characters join the mages, orcs, and what have you in World of Warcraft?

Do We Need a Butlerian Jihad?

Lots of other folks have been all over the problems we've had around here with voting machines changing people's votes. I don't have much to add, except this depressing observation from Concurring Opinions:

Such 'vote switching' is a well-known problem and has occurred in prior elections. Indeed, a July 2007 investigative report revealed that 30 to 40 percent of ES&S's e-voting machines under review changed voters' selections. And Colorado's Secretary of State decertified e-voting systems manufactured by ES&S because tests demonstrated that the machines could not accurately count votes.
ES&S made the machines at issue in WV. *sigh*

As I said over at Rebecca's place the other day, the sad fact is that the real lesson of 2000 is that the infrastructure of our democracy is not really capable of handling a close election. Hopefully, Obama's margin will be big enough next month that it won't be an issue.