Thursday, July 31, 2008

Strange Bedfellows

The old saying is that "politics makes for strange bedfellows." That's can also be true when it comes to criminal defense. Via Concurring Opinions, here's an interesting story from Washington Monthly about a big federal murder case in Baltimore that's been derailed by extremist legal tactics. The case, which has been dragging out for a few years, involves a violent drug conspiracy with several defendants and even more dead bodies. The defendants are African-Americans. The case went federal so the DoJ could seek the death penalty.

When things got weird when the defendants appeared for a hearing in November 2005:

A few minutes after 10 a.m., United States District Court Judge Andre M. Davis took his seat and began his introductory remarks. Suddenly, the leader of the defendants, Willie Mitchell, a short, unremarkable looking twenty-eight-year old with close-cropped hair, leapt from his chair, grabbed a microphone, and launched into a bizarre soliloquy.

'I am not a defendant,' Mitchell declared. 'I do not have attorneys.' The court 'lacks territorial jurisdiction over me,' he argued, to the amazement of his lawyers. To support these contentions, he cited decades-old acts of Congress involving the abandonment of the gold standard and the creation of the Federal Reserve. Judge Davis, a Baltimore-born African American in his late fifties, tried to interrupt. 'I object,' Mitchell repeated robotically. Shelly Martin and Shelton Harris followed Mitchell to the microphone, giving the same speech verbatim. Their attorneys tried to intervene, but when Harris’s lawyer leaned over to speak to him, Harris shoved him away.

Judge Davis ordered the three defendants to be removed from the court, and turned to Gardner, who had, until then, remained quiet. But Gardner, too, intoned the same strange speech. 'I am Shawn Earl Gardner, live man, flesh and blood,' he proclaimed. Every time the judge referred to him as 'the defendant' or 'Mr. Gardner,' Gardner automatically interrupted: 'My name is Shawn Earl Gardner, sir.' Davis tried to explain to Gardner that his behavior was putting his chances of acquittal or leniency at risk. 'Don’t throw your life away,' Davis pleaded. But Gardner wouldn’t stop. Judge Davis concluded the hearing, determined to find out what was going on.
The defendants had discovered a set of routinely rejected legal arguments developed by tax protesters and the like over the decades. Basically, it goes like this:
Hucksters and charlatans prowled the Midwest as the farm crisis deepened, selling desperate farmers expensive seminars and prepackaged legal defenses 'guaranteed' to cancel debts and forestall foreclosure. Since the gold standard had been abandoned in 1933, they argued, money had no inherent value, and so neither did their debts. All they had to do, farmers were told, was opt out of the system by sending a letter to the appropriate authorities renouncing their driver’s license, birth certificate, and social security number. That number was allegedly tied to a secret government account held in a secure subterranean facility in lower Manhattan, where citizens are used as collateral against international debts issued by the Fed and everyone’s name is on a master list, spelled in capital letters—the very same capital letters used in the official court documents detailing foreclosure and other actions against them. The capital letter name was nothing but an artificial construct, they were told, a legal 'straw man.' It wasn’t them—natural, live, flesh and blood men.
The irony is that these theories trace their roots back to a virulent racist and anti-Semite. And so, here were a group of African-American defendants adopting legal theories crafted by men who would begrudge them their very humanity.

How did these guys learn of these theories? The bane of defense counsel the world over - the jailhouse lawyer:
In October 2004, a prisoner named Michael Burpee arrived at the Maryland Correctional Adjustment Center in downtown Baltimore. Burpee had recently been convicted in Florida of trafficking PCP to Maryland. Hoping for leniency, he pled guilty, only to receive a twenty seven-year prison sentence dictated by harsh federal sentencing guidelines. Desperate for a way out, he began listening to someone—presumably a fellow prisoner—who explained how the charges were all part of a secret government conspiracy against him. Then Burpee was brought up on new federal drug charges in Maryland, and shipped north. He carried with him a pile of documents that were remarkably similar to those that had been filed by the Montana Freemen.

In Baltimore, Burpee found a group of inmates at the margins of society, people like Willie Mitchell and company who were staring at the full force of the federal government. As one defense attorney representing a flesh-and-blood defendant put it, they 'saw a freight train coming and felt three feet tall.' Soon the unorthodox legal filings and courtroom outbursts began to multiply. It was, one public defender later explained, 'like an infection that was invading our client population of pre-trial detainees.' Burpee appears to have been patient zero in the epidemic. For over a year, he harangued his lawyers and judge about the conspiracy and spread the word in the Baltimore lockup.
What does all this mean for the Baltimore murder defendants? It's hard to tell for sure, as the trial still hasn't happened yet. But, the Government has taken the death penalty off the table, which may or may not be a consequence of the legal spanner they've thrown in the works. We'll see.

Please read the whole article by Kevin Carey. He goes through some fascinating history as to where these theories came from and the irony (fully grasped by the trial judge) of the situation.

Why Pay for Law School?

I don't know what it says about my profession that a multiple felon with no law degree could practice law in 10 federal courts in about four years without anybody getting suspicious. I'm not sure his clients got their money's worth, but he certainly walked the walk:

In Missouri, attorney Bruce C. Houdek agreed to sponsor Kieffer on the pro hac vice application to represent a defendant who was challenging a child-porn sentence.

Houdek said he had no idea that Kieffer wasn't a lawyer.

'It was my responsibility,' Houdek said when asked who should have checked Kieffer's credentials. 'I just did not have any inkling.'

Houdek met Kieffer about three years ago while Kieffer was a panelist at a federal defense conference sponsored by the U.S. Administrative Office of the Courts.

'I was significantly impressed while at this seminar,' Houdek said. 'He appeared to be knowledgeable.'

In Georgia, where he represented a con artist posing as a pastor, Kieffer was admitted to the federal court by listing Lynn Fant as local counsel.

Fant said she too had no idea Kieffer wasn't a lawyer because she had attended one of his panels at a National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers conference.

'That saddens me,' she said in an interview. 'He acted very lawyerly, so to speak. He was extremely professional and an aggressive criminal defense attorney.'
So, there you go. Act lawyerly and the court world is your oyster. At least until you get caught.

FWIW, I can't imagine anybody faking being a lawyer for the privilege of working on a kiddy porn case.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Sharks on Film

Or lawyers, anyway. The ABA Journal this month puts out its list of "The 25 Greatest Legal Movies." Here's the top ten:

  1. To Kill a Mockingbird
  2. 12 Angry Men
  3. My Cousin Vinny
  4. Anatomy of a Murder
  5. Inherit the Wind
  6. Witness for the Prosecution
  7. Breaker Morant
  8. Philadelphia
  9. Erin Brockovich
  10. The Verdict
I've seen eight of those (the other two are in the Netflix queue) and don't really have any qualms with them. I'm beyond pleased to see Breaker Morant get a nod. I think I would have bumped A Few Good Men into the top ten (from 14th), but it's a minor quibble. The bottom of the list is a little more questionable, particularly when some of the Honorable Mentions are considered (The Accused, The People v. Larry Flynt, and the criminally underrated Intolerable Cruelty).

Regardless, like all these kinds of lists, it's a nice discussion starter. It's not like anybody would sue over it or anything.

Too Many Lawyers?

Move to Japan:

There was no inherent reason that this northern Japanese town, population 19,743, had never had a lawyer until now. It had its share of people with debts, disputes over property, wrangling over inheritances — enough disharmony, certainly, to keep at least one lawyer busy.

But Japan, in contrast to the United States, has long suffered from a shortage of lawyers, especially in the countryside. If it was not unusual for towns with five times Yakumo’s population to have no lawyer, how could Yakumo hope to secure one just for itself?
There's even a national program to boost law school attendance!

Of course, as the article points out, cultural differences explain the low number of lawyers in Japan:
Like many Japanese who consult lawyers, the four seemed embarrassed about doing so.

'Japanese by nature don’t want to publicize their problems,' Mr. Hirai explained. 'And coming to see a lawyer is to admit that there are problems inside your home or workplace.'

It was precisely to dispel the shame of consulting a lawyer that Mr. Hirai chose to open his office in the town’s most prominent square.
By contrast, in my experience, Americans are more than happy to tell you all about their problems, even if there's not a damn thing you can do about them.

Best Headline This Week

Yeah, I know, it's just Tuesday, but this one from today's Charleston Daily Mail will be pretty hard to top:

Nude man involved in fight at store, Kanawha deputies says
After a setup like that, the actual facts can't really do it justice:
A Clay man was arrested after allegedly walking into a store naked and fighting with others.

Kanawha County deputies went up Kelly's Creek to Mammoth in response to a call about a fight.

While en route, deputies were informed by dispatchers that one of the people involved was drunk and naked, according to a complaint filed in Kanawha Magistrate Court.
However,by the time the cops showed up he'd managed to rustle up a pair of shorts. Which, given the drunk and the fighting parts, was probably a good thing for all concerned!

Monday, July 28, 2008

A Blast From My Past

Through Byzantine web surfing that need not bother you, gentle reader(s), I came across a nifty gem on YouTube:

Yeah, that's from the beginning of Patton. When I was in junior high, I delivered that speech - verbatim, salty bits and all - at a forensics competition. And I was good! But, alas, I ran into narrow mindedness. In the finals, one of the three judges basically concluded that this wasn't appropriate material and I got dinged for it. Injustice! Shock! Outrage!

Well, it wasn't that egregious. But it was a good lesson - winning doesn't always equal quality. I cling to that every day, in my line of work!

Join the Band

Today's New York Times had a neat little article about the Bath Municipal Band, based in Maine:

Another summer evening, another village green, another sustaining gig for the Bath Municipal Band. Its members step onto the portable stage and use clasps and clothespins to keep their sheets of musical exuberance from taking flight. They live for this.
The article reminds me, of course, about the Kanawha Valley Community Band, of which jedi jawa and I are a part. Particularly, the music selection: "Liberty Bell March?" Played it. "Armed Forces Salute?" You betcha. "Beer Barrel Polka?" Polka your eyes out, boyo.

But what really ties together the Bath Municipal Band, KVCB, and all the others like them throughout the land - constant change underlined by long-term continuity:
The Bath Municipal Band also maintains the time-honored tradition of flux within the ranks. Gifted musicians move into town to steal the limelight from lesser players, who leave in a huff. Old-timers who are comfortable with playing the music of, say, R. B. Hall, the pride of Maine, chafe at an Andrew Lloyd Webber medley. A woman takes over as director, unheard of a generation ago, and let’s just say some are more comfortable with her than others. People grow old or fall ill; the steps to the stage get steeper.

But the band continues, its music a life force. A trombone player lost part of a lung to cancer; he played for another year and a half. A trumpet player developed respiratory problems; an oxygen tank joined the band, giving him the breath to blow. A clarinetist slipped slowly into dementia; unable to play, unable to remember the names of loved ones; still, she often sat in the audience, singing the words to every song.

They’re gone now, but their band continues.
Indeed. Time to go drag the clarinet out and get ready to get back at it!

Makes F1 Look Pretty Good By Comparison, Huh?

I got home yesterday from visiting the girlfriend's in time to see about the last 20 laps of the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis. I was sort of half listening, but kept hearing references to "when they throw the next caution." Huh? Did Paul Page suddenly go all psychic? Then I heard the phrase "competition yellow," which was even worse. What the heck was going on?

Turns out Goodyear screwed up. And big. Seems the tires they brought to the race (Goodyear is the exclusive tire supplier for NASCAR's top division) sucked and wouldn't last beyond about 10 laps of green flag racing. We're not talking "after 10 laps they go off," we're talking "after 10 laps, the cords start showing." To deal with the problem, NASCAR took to throwing "competition yellows" ever dozen laps or so. The race took four and a half hours to finish and the fans are not pleased.

It makes me think of the 2005 US Grand Prix, also at Indy, where problems with Michelin tires led to 14 of the 20 cars not taking the grid. The 6-car race (dominated by Ferrari) was rightly derided as a fiasco. But I'll say this - the F1 powers that be refused to mess with the competitive integrity of the event to bail out the Michelin teams. It was their responsibility to show up with adequate equipment and they didn't. Tough shit.

My opinion is a minority one, however. Most fans - both those who watched the show on TV and those who went to the race - thought something should have been done to get the full grid rolling. A makeshift chicane, a speed limit in the crucial Turn 13, etc. Something - anything - to produce something like a real race.

Well, that's just what NASCAR tried to do yesterday. It could have, after confirming the tire problems with an early pitstop, left the teams to their own devices. Pit more often? Go slower? Pack up and go home? Who knows? Instead, it came up with the long-series-of-heat-races solution. Guess what? The fans are still pissed.

In other words, NASCAR did just what the F1 fans wanted FIA and crew to do and still nobody's happy! It makes the F1 situation look not quite so ridiculous. At least it could be justified as a harsh application of the sporting regs.

Yeah, Who Cares Who Actually Played and Wrote This

Although I only ever owned a handful of actual LPs (at least I didn't have to replace a bunch of them on CD), I've always loved the format. I'm all about album covers, well thought-out running orders, and liner notes. In the age of the iTunes download those things are going the way of the Dodo, of course (and not this Dodo, either).

In yesterday's New York Times there was a story that focused specifically on liner notes:

M[usic] geeks flipping through the CD booklet for Teddy Thompson’s 'A Piece of What You Need,' released last month by Verve Forecast, may be in for a shock. Instead of the names of the musicians and technicians who worked on the album, or any thank-you’s to friends, they’ll find a photo of a beach, followed by a blank panel. A sentence in small type directs listeners to Mr. Thompson’s Web site for 'full album credits and more details.'

* * *

But as anyone who has ever downloaded music knows, the names of the people who wrote, produced and played on songs, not to mention essays and other background information, are almost nowhere to be found on generic MP3’s sitting on hard drives or in iPods.
I know I'm a music geek, and a weird one at that, but I can't imagine people not be interested i knowing who wrote, played, and produced what. It's not just a matter of acknowledging the talent involved. It's a resource for finding out other music you might be interested in. To me, it's like reading a book without looking at the author's name. Or not knowing who directed a movie.

But, like I said, I'm weird that way.

A King Is Dead

Wow, what a distressing end to this story I blogged about last week. One of the convicted rivals for the title of "Spam King" - Edward Davidson - escaped from a federal prison last week, you'll remember. He was last seen driving away from the facility with in his wife's car. After a brief search, Davidson was found, along with his wife and 3-year old daughter, shot to death. Apparently, it was a murder/suicide. So Davidson won't hold on to the title of Spam King, but King Kong Jacknut of the Year - for taking his wife and child with him, dumb shit - just maybe.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Max Wins

The legal saga of Max Mosley came to a surprising end today, as the beleaguered Formula 1 boss won his breach of privacy lawsuit against British tabloid News of the World. In reaching that ruling, the judge made some very important findings for Mosley's future:

At the High Court, Mr Justice Eady said there was 'no evidence that the gathering on 28 March 2008 was intended to be an enactment of Nazi behaviour or adoption of any of its attitudes. Nor was it in fact.

'I see no genuine basis at all for the suggestion that the participants mocked the victims of the Holocaust.'

The 'bondage, beating and domination' that did take place was 'typical of S&M behaviour', he said.
The Nazi stuff was the most damaging allegation against Mosley in terms of public perception, I think. The S&M stuff would have been quickly ridiculed and forgotten. So give Max credit - were standard operating procedure for such things is to apologize, resign, and skulk off into the shadows, he stood up, refused to admit he did anything wrong, and was vindicated in the end.

One From Three

One of the things I love about West Virginia is our unique history - the only state created from another one without its consent. Still, that idea, although it's a singular event in the nation's history, wasn't limited to the Appalachians. Today's New York Times has an interesting article about a movement in the 1930s to carve a new state out of parts of Wyoming, South Dakota, and Montana.

The new state, to be called Absaroka, would have had its capital in what is now Sheridan, Wyoming. And it was not just idle chit chat:

The tale of the would-be rebels, who called their new state Absaroka (pronounced ab-SOR-ka), from the Crow word meaning 'children of the large-beaked bird,' then faded into the mist. Details were forgotten — how a baseball-player-turned-street-commissioner in Sheridan named A. R. Swickard appointed himself governor and began hearing writs of grievance, and how license plates were distributed along with pictures of Miss Absaroka 1939, the first and apparently last of her breed. There was even an Absarokan state visit, when the king of Norway made a swing through Montana.
It's nice to know that the girlfriend's home state has some colorful history, too!

News of the Weird

Two really odd news stories, both from down under(ish). I don't know if that means something.

First, from Melbourne, Australia, a Darwin Award candidate - an 18 year old man who decided to play chicken with oncoming traffic while in his underwear. Not surprisingly, he got hit and seriously injured. The cops are giving him no sympathy:

'Police are dismayed at the utter stupidity of a man who decided to play chicken on the Tullamarine Freeway,' the [Police] statement said.

'It was lucky nobody was killed as a result and police couldn't believe anybody would be foolish enough to take such grave risks with their personal safety and that of other road users.' The driver and passenger in the car were unhurt, though the vehicle was a write-off.
Damn, must have been a big dude!

Second, from New Zealand, comes some judicial activism of an odd sort:
A judge in New Zealand made a young girl a ward of court so that she could change the name she hated - Talula Does The Hula From Hawaii.

Judge Rob Murfitt said that the name embarrassed the nine-year-old and could expose her to teasing.

He attacked a trend of giving children bizarre names, citing several examples.

Officials had blocked Sex Fruit, Keenan Got Lucy and Yeah Detroit, he said, but Number 16 Bus Shelter, Violence and Midnight Chardonnay had been allowed.
Geez, what happened to the good ol' days, when people named their kids Dweezil or Brooklyn?

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

A Bad Week for Genocidal Dictators

A couple of weeks ago I Netflixed General Idi Amin Dada, Barbet Schroeder's 1974 documentary about the Ugandan dictator. It's not a great film, but it has quite a bit of great film in it. Schroeder had exclusive access to Amin, who sort of took over the production at times, pontificating on all sorts of things. It comes through loud and clear that he knows that he's right about everything, a visionary, and the soul of wit, too. The obviously staged demonstrations of affection from his subjects don't seem to phase him.

I thought about Amin when I read about the president of Sudan,Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who, after being accused of genocide in Darfur by the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, decided to go on tour amongst his, um, "admiring" subjects:

Omar Hassan al-Bashir, the president of Sudan who has been accused of genocide, is not especially well known for his dancing moves.

But on Wednesday, in front of tens of thousands of people packed into what appeared to be a mandatory pep rally in Darfur, the portly president jumped on a desk and did a little jig. He jutted his cane. He rolled his hips. Shadows of sweat bloomed under his arms. But the crowd did not seem to care.
Even when the stunts don't work, he rolled with it:
But on Wednesday, Mr. Bashir did not seem to be feeling too guilty. He focused on peace, development and pleasing the crowds. The minute he stepped off the plane here, a white dove was thrust into his hands.

Mr. Bashir threw the bird toward the sky. It flapped a few times, but did not really fly.

No bother. Mr. Bashir beamed and strutted down the runway.
Generally, being accused of genocide would be the worst thing to happen to a dictator in a week, but this has been quite a week. But Radovan Karadzic's week was even worse, as the former Serbian strongman was arrested in Belgrade after 15 years on the run. If the ICC judges issue a warrant for Bashir's arrest, will it take 15 years for Sudan to arrest him? Let's hope not.

I'd Fire the Campaign Boss

Just when I think that West Virginia politics is about as surreal as it gets, something pops up from somewhere else that moves the goal posts. Consider the reelection campaign of Oklahoma County (Oklahoma) Commissioner Brent Rinehart. He's got some problems:

He's been accused of abusing his office for personal gain, and will go on trial in the fall on felony campaign finance charges.
Don't worry - he's not to blame:
But apparently, this is all a conspiracy of homosexuals, liberal do gooders, and good ol' boys to force Rinehart out of office.
But wait, that's not all. To explain his side of things, Rinehart has produced (with the help of an artistic friend) a comic book that, well, just has to be seen to be believed. The Reason article has a few choice pages, but you can see the whole thing here.

"Justice" at Work

If we, as a nation, are going to have the death penalty, is it too much to ask for some consistency in its application?

Via TalkLeft, consider the situation of Dale Bishop, who is scheduled to be executed today in Mississippi. Bishop was one of two men involved in the beating death of Marcus Gentry. Bishop held Gentry and kicked him, but he didn't deliver the fatal blows. Nonetheless, he was convicted of accessory to murder and sentenced to death. As for the guy who did deal those blows:

Gentry was beaten with an 18-ounce carpenter's framing hammer on a dirt logging road outside Saltillo on Dec. 10, 1998, after an argument. ...

Testimony identified Jessie Johnson as the one who repeatedly hit Gentry with the hammer. Johnson is now serving life without parole in the murder.
It's not clear how that happened (maybe Johnson copped a deal and testified against Bishop), but it sure seems fucked up that the guy most culpable for the death escapes the ultimate punishment while his helper gets the chair.

But wait, that's not all.

For in Mississippi, even if the jury sends the actual killer to death row, the governor can still step in:
Given [Governor Haley] Barbour's commutation of killer Michael David Graham's life sentence last week, it would seem hypocritical in the extreme for the governor to ignore Bishop's plight. A trusty at the Governor's Mansion, Graham, 54, has served 19 years of a life sentence for the 1989 murder of his ex-wife, Adrienne Klasky Graham.

Graham shot his ex-wife in the face with a 12-gauge shotgun as she sat in her car waiting for a traffic signal in Pascagoula. His ex-wife's father was across the street when the murder occurred and he saw the carnage. Graham was sentenced to life in prison.
So, shoot your ex in the face with a shotgun and not only escape the death penalty but, eventually, get a commutation from the governor!

I'm against the death penalty in all situations, as I've said many time. But I'd hope that people who generally favor capital punishment would reconsider their support in light of this kind of evidence of how capricious its application is.

Duelling Spam Kings?

I'll admit, I haven't paid a whole lot of attention to legal regulation of Email spam since I wrote a law review article about it (now vanished from the net) back in law school. But today (via SL&P) I see two separate articles dealing with the criminal travails of two Spam Kings. Yes, there are two of them. Who knew?

Spam King #1, Edward Davidson, was sentenced to 21 months in federal prison (plus more than $700,000 in restitution) in April and was doing his time at FCI Florence. Until Sunday, when he walked away from the facility. Well, more like drove away, actually, after his wife had visited. What was the King's offense?

Between 2002 and 2005, Davidson's Power Promoters spamming network promoted watches, perfumes and other products, U.S. Attorney Troy Eid said. Then he started concentrating on a Texas company's penny stock.

Eid and prosecutor Tim Neff said the e-mail messages Davidson and his subcontractors sent to hundreds of thousands of addresses contained false header information that concealed the actual sender.
Spam King #2, Robert Soloway, was sentenced yesterday to 47 months in prison in federal court in Seattle. That was less than half of what prosecutors were after, but still quite a bit longer than Davidson. Soloway's crime?
Soloway violated the Can-Spam Act, in part, by falsifying the header information in his e-mail messages. The program he used automatically substituted the e-mail recipient's name for that of Soloway's, making it appear that the recipient had sent a message to himself or herself or used bogus addresses in the from field. The purpose of these digital gymnastics was to get around any spam filter on the recipient's computer.
So, it's been a bad week so far for Spam Kings. Of course, with Soloway in the can and Davidson on the lam, who will step in to wear the crown next?

Once a Band Geek, Always a Band Geek

My marching band history compels me to pass along this story from today's New York Times about a wildly successful camp run by the Marching 100 from Florida A&M University. They're not your typical college marching band:

The Marching 100 has created a revolution in band style, radically infusing the traditional catalog of songs and formations with the sounds and dances of black popular culture. 'It slides, slithers, swivels, rotates, shakes, rocks and rolls,' the band’s founding director, Prof. William P. Foster, wrote in his memoirs. “'t leaps to the sky, does triple twists, and drops to earth without a flaw, without missing either a beat or a step.'
But that's not all. Campers, in addition to learning field moves, perform with concert, chamber, or jazz ensembles, as well. And they come from all over the world for the privilege.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

When the Brits Don't Trust Us . . .

The British have been our steadfast allies for generations. They've gone along with even the less popular parts of the "War on Terra" (see, e.g., Iraq) and are often the only major Western power to help us out. So if we get to the point where even the Brits have had enough, that would really mean something.

We've gotten there. Via Glenn Greenwald, the British government has publicly concluded that it can no longer trust us in such matters:

In a damning criticism of US integrity, the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee said ministers should no longer take at face value statements from senior politicians, including George Bush, that America does not resort to torture in the light of the CIA admitting it used 'waterboarding'. The interrogation technique was unreservedly condemned by Foreign Secretary David Miliband, who said it amounted to torture.

* * *

Today's committee report said there were 'serious implications' of the striking inconsistencies between British ministers continuing to believe the Bush administration when it denies using torture. 'The UK can no longer rely on US assurances that it does not use torture, and we recommend that the government does not rely on such assurances in the future,' said the committee. 'We also recommend that the government should immediately carry out an exhaustive analysis of current US interrogation techniques on the basis of such information as is publicly available or which can be supplied by the US.'
I know its one of the right wing articles of faith that we don't care what the rest of the world thinks about us. American exceptionalism and all that. But it's one thing to not particularly care what the masses might think about you. When your friends start to turn their back on you, however, it should be a clear sign that something is not quite right.

I'd say its time for an international intervention, but we'd probably just lock everybody up at Gitmo and waterboard them.

Could You Imagine?

The presidential campaign season is always a tough time for unbelievers. Both the major party candidates are falling all over themselves to out holy each other in pursuit of religious voters. Meanwhile, those of us in the 16% of voters who have no religious belief are left on the side of the road. So it's hard to imagine either political party giving an atheist/agnostic/heretic a place of influence. But it's happened before:

At the end of the 19th century, Robert Ingersoll was the most notorious heretic in the land, famous for his lectures debunking Christianity and the Bible. Yet Republicans — yes, the party of George W. Bush and the Rev. Pat Robertson — begged him to campaign in their behalf.

Campaign, he did. For more than two decades, Ingersoll barnstormed across the country drawing huge crowds, including one at an 1896 campaign appearance in Chicago for William McKinley that the Chicago Tribune claimed was 20,000 strong. Ingersoll was not merely a stage attraction but a confidant of Republican leaders — and a highly public one. In a masterful speech, he nominated Senator James G. Blaine for president at the party’s 1876 convention in Cincinnati and nearly won Blaine the nomination. When Blaine lost the contest to Rutherford B. Hayes, Ingersoll stumped vigorously for Hayes in turn.
Indeed. According to the Wikipedia entry on Ingersoll, audiences would pay the outrageous sum of $1 to hear him speak. I have to admit, I like his style:
Ingersoll’s lectures on religion — 'Some Mistakes of Moses' was a typical title — left the pious apoplectic. Evangelicals considered his influence so pernicious that they organized a day of prayer for his conversion. (He thanked them for their concern but remained happily heretical.)
Ha! Truly he was the Oolon Colluphid of his age.

Yeah, But They're Still Drummers

The forefront of medical research - doctors in England hooked Blondie drummer Clem Burke up to a bunch of instruments to measure the workout he gets during a gig. The results are sort of surprising:

Playing the drums for a rock band requires the stamina of a Premiership footballer, research suggests.

Tests on Clem Burke, the veteran Blondie drummer, revealed that 90 minutes of drumming could raise his heart rate to 190 beats a minute.

Despite rock's reputation for unhealthy living, Dr Marcus Smith, from Chichester University, said drummers needed 'extraordinary stamina'".

A hour in concert could burn between 400 and 600 calories, he said.
And that, it has to be said, is coming from a guy who is not exactly a whirling dervish on the skins. I'd imagine a Mike Portnoy or Neil Peart, not to mention Terry Bozio, might top those numbers.

As it turns out, rock drummers might be even more fit than Prem footballers:
He found that during a performance, his heart averaged between 140 and 150 beats a minute, peaking at 190, levels comparable to other top athletes.

However, Dr Smith said that while top footballers were expected to perform once or twice a week, drummers on tour would be doing it every night at a different venue.
I'll leave it to the haters to argue about whether all this info means drummers are really that fit or top-level footballers are just wussies. Assuming the best, drummers are still just . . . well, drummers.

Q: How can you tell of the drum riser is level?
A: The drummer drools out of both sides of his mouth.

Hey, I'm a lawyer - I've got to take easy targets when I see them!

BTW, be sure and check out the video embedded in the BBC article and turn up the volume. It goes to 11!

Monday, July 21, 2008

Towards a More Complete Metropolis

Fritz Lang's 1927 silent masterpiece Metropolis is a landmark in science fiction. But the story of its release, editing, and rediscovery is almost as compelling. When is premiered in Berlin, the film was 210 minutes long. It was almost immediately edited and sped up (due to the change over to faster running sound projectors) for 1928 showings in Europe and the United States. Archivists through the years , working from edited 90-minute versions, managed to piece together a somewhat definitive 118-minute version, which was lovingly restored for a 2002 DVD release.

The original 210-minute version, however, was thought lost to the mists of time. Until earlier this month, when a film archivist in Argentina (acting on a tip from her ex-husband) discovered a complete copy of the 1927 version of the film (NPR interviews her here). The print, which is nearly unwatchable at this point, is being restored for a future release.

All of which makes me a little bit giddy, even if it means I'll have to buy another version of DVD. At least it will hopefully be the version that Lang always wanted us to see.

On Pole Position

I've blogged before about street racing, so I thought I'd pass along this neat story from today's New York Times. It's about how the city of Lodz in Poland has become a beacon of the Polish automotive boom by setting up sanctioned, legalized, and safe street drag races:

As a result, municipal leaders in Lodz (pronounced 'Woodge'), deciding that if you can’t beat them, organize them, set up events in which proud car owners, overwhelmingly young and largely male, could challenge one another head to head over a quarter-mile of closed road downtown. The city government even spent close to $20,000 to buy timing equipment, with the local emergency services providing fire trucks and ambulances free of charge.

On a recent Sunday afternoon, thousands of people turned out to watch the organized races, called Street Legal, with the earsplitting roars of tuned-up engines and the brimstone scent of speeding tires. The monthly events, which are open only to local residents, have made Lodz’s racers the envy of others in Poland and earned the city the unofficial title of the country’s street-racing capital.
I don't necessarily advocate cities spending money to sanction races - private groups are perfectly able to do that. But the Lodz experience shows that the best way to deal with street races is to channel their need for speed into constructive events.

As for the Poles, membership in the European Union has created the economic atmosphere conducive to a car culture and a national hero in Canadian GP winner Robert Kubica to rally behind. Good for them!

Are You Shitting Me?

In the wake of the Democratic capitulation on the FISA bill, one would think the powers that be would want to move on as quickly as possible. Apparently not, as Glenn Greenwald shows.

The 2008 Democratic National Convention - sponsored by AT&T.

And the wonder why people hate politicians!

Friday, July 18, 2008

We're Different - Are We Better?

In today's New York Times Adam Liptak continues his occasional series "American Exception" with a look at one of the more controversial bits of the American legal landscape, the exclusionary rule.

Created by the Supreme Court in 1914 and extended to the states in 1961, the exclusionary rule requires courts to suppress (i.e., not consider or not allow a jury to consider) physical evidence obtained in violation of the Fourth Amendment. In other words, if the cops bust into your house without a warrant (or without any recognized exception to the warrant requirement) and find the body of your dead spouse in the living room, the state can't use that as evidence against you in a criminal trial. As you might expect, it rubs some folks the wrong way that (to use Cardozo's turn of phrase) "the criminal is to go free because the constable has blundered." Which may explain why the rest of the world generally doesn't follow suit (although it's a little unclear from the article how true that is).

In truth, it very rarely works that clinically. In fact, after several years in the trenches wrestling with Fourth Amendment issues, I don't think the exclusionary rule works all that well.

For one thing, it hardly ever comes to bear with full force. Courts frequently fold, spindle, and mutilate the teachings of the Fourth Amendment to conclude that no violations occurred in the first place. In fact, my hunch is that courts engaging in those analyses apply some form of the Dirty Bastard Rule to avoid the implications of the exclusionary rule. As a result, Fourth Amendment jurisprudence gets twisted beyond all recognition.

For another, it's not clear that the cops who violate the Fourth Amendment in these cases take it all that personally such that it really deters anybody. Sure, in the dead body case above it probably would. But those cases are exceptionally rare, if not near urban legends. But in your garden variety traffic stop/search/drug case, I doubt anybody really gets all that upset.

So if the exclusionary rule doesn't really do what it's supposed to and has some negative side effects, why keep using it? Well, there isn't really a better option. The status of the law with regards to civil suits against officials who violate the Fourth Amendment is in probably worse shape than the criminal Fourth Amendment law, which is really saying something. Scalia has hung his hat on recent rises in "professionalism" among police, but I'm not sure that really means much, either.

Unfortunately, our uniqueness in this area doesn't equal superiority, at least in my eyes. But to improve, we'd have to scrap the whole damn system and start over, which isn't likely to happen. So it's about the best we've got, for now.

Oscar Doesn't Make the Cut

It appears that we've reached the final chapter in the Oscar Pistorious saga - at least for this Olympic cycle. Pistorious, you'll recall, is the South African double amputee sprinter who won a legal battle to become eligible for Olympic competition, in spite of his use of high-tech prosthetics he wears to run. With the legal hurdles out of the way, all Oscar had to do to book his ticket to Beijing was to run the 400 meters in less than 45.55 seconds. Unfortunately, he didn't make it, coming up with a best of 46.25 seconds. Faster times by a few other sprinters kept him off the South African 4 x 400 relay team, too.

With the legal battle behind him, Oscar plans on focusing on making the 2012 Olympics in London. Good luck to him.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Colbert + Rush

Equals pure TV gold:

How cool is it that Ged has a spinning Neil action figure drum kit in front of his keyboard rig (complete with the new Little Phatty)?

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Free Guns!

First it was a car dealer using guns as a promotional gimmick, now it's a church. The very Reverend Elvis has the details. I'm not sure what it says about your faith that the only way to get kids interested in it is to tempt them with free weapons.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

You Think You've Got Problems

From Cary Tennis's advice column at Salon today:

Anyway, we were all at Sea World and it was hotter than hell, so we decided to go to a show to cool off for a while. It was one of those shows where the dolphins jump up and do tricks and then the big killer whale splashes everybody with water. And at this show I started watching the dolphins jump around, and it just captivated me. I admired their soft slippery skin. It was just so exotic; I had never felt that way before. Looking at those soft underbellies and long slender fins was like seeing the face of God. I came out of my dolphin-induced trance and wiped the sweat from my brow. It was then that I realized that I had an aching erection. I became alarmed, but that only made it throb harder. For the entire rest of the show I tried my damnedest to keep my arousal in check, but every glance I took at the cetaceans in the pool below induced a surge of hormones from my perspiring testicles.
Yeah, OK, it's too funny to be true (which Cary figures out), but it is funny! The remaining question is did the writer intend to be found out or did (s)he think it might generate a serious answer? In either case, maybe the letter writer was inspired by last night's episode of Penn & Teller: Bullshit!

I'm Number Two! I'm Number Two!

As SCCA regions go, the SWVR is fairly small. But we're smack dab in the middle of a handful of bigger regions, all about 3-4 hours away. I've always tried to get out and run with those groups. It's good to see how other folks run their events and it's always interesting to match your skills up against a new group of drivers.

This year, I've followed several of the SWVR to the Steel Cities Region, which runs around Pittsburgh. I've been running there semi-regularly, because (a) it's in the girlfriend's neck of the woods and she graciously lets me go play; (b) they have a great regular venue in the Vehicle Dynamics Area (aka "a big flat piece of asphalt with no landscaping or light poles!") at BeaveRun Motorsports Complex; and (c) they have a Street Tire class, in which cars from from all the open classes that run on street tires rather than slicks compete against each other. The Street Tire class is particularly cool since I'm into the "show up and drive" mode this year.

I've run four events with SCR this year and developed an amazingly annoying consistency - I've finished second every time. Behind three different people. It's very frustrating. I'm thinking of getting one of those big foam hands with two fingers to put on the car's antenna or something.

This past weekend was SCR's biggest event, run in conjunction with the Pittsburgh Vintage Grand Prix. The PVGP is a really neat event, running through the downtown streets around Schenley Park. But the course is really narrow, lined with walls and the like, and limits participation there to smaller slower cars. A few years back, they started running an event for the bigger faster cars at Beaver Run the weekend before the Schenley Park races, so SCR piggybacked an autocross along with it.

And, yes, I finished second. Saturday and Sunday. And overall. ARHGHHHH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Having said that, here's some action shots from the weekend, taken by my fellow SWVR peeps Martin and Tara:

Time to Raise the Cap

OK, it's officially time for Major League Soccer to give a serious bump to the salary cap - a player has found the priesthood to be a suitable alternative to a pro soccer career:

Hilgenbrinck accepted the calling on Monday when he left the New England Revolution and retired from professional soccer to enter a seminary, where he will spend the next six years studying theology and philosophy so he can be ordained as a Roman Catholic priest.

'It's not that I'm ready to leave soccer. I still have a great passion for the game,' he said in a telephone interview. 'I wouldn't leave the game for just any other job. I'm moving on for the Lord. I want to do the will of the Lord, I want to do what he wants for me, not what I want to do for myself.'
Of course, it goes without saying that even Steve Nichol has a hard time competing with God for talent.

Technical Difficulties (Redux)

It appears that the graphic I needed for my old template has, indeed, gone completely away. So, for now, I've reverted to a stock Blogger template. It's readable and coherent, if not exactly attractive. I'll be on the lookout for a better solution in the near future. If anybody out there knows of any good treasure trove of Blogger templates, please drop me a comment.

Monday, July 14, 2008

That Missle Picture

Not surprisingly, Errol Morris has some interesting thoughts about the photograph of an Iranian ballistic missile test that was Photoshopped to show four missiles firing rather than three:

NEWSPAPERS and blogs are once again filled with a story about a digitally altered photograph. A picture of missiles launched by Iran. A picture that purports to show four missiles being fired rather than the three shown in other photographs of the launching. Are we to infer that no missiles were launched? Or just three? Or maybe only two? Take several steps back. Are we being tricked into thinking that Iran is a bigger threat than it is?

Oddly enough, the effect of all this publicity — including this essay — is to draw further attention to the missiles. If the casual reader passed over them quickly when they first appeared on the front pages of American newspapers, the missiles are now more than ever firmly embedded in the popular imagination.
As Morris points out, photographs - allegedly incontrovertible proof - have gotten us into trouble before (see Colin Powell at the UN pre-Iraq). Are we headed down the same road again? Faked photographs, after all, have a long and rich history, as they play into our "willingness to uncritically believe."

Regardless, it's given the Iranian missile test more press than it probably deserved in the first place.

Wait, I Thought Obama Was the Foreigner?

You know when people talk about how someone isn't "qualified" to be present they're almost always talking out their asses. There are only a few actual qualifications the Constitution sets out for the President. One those few is the requirement that the President be a "natural-born citizen." Guess who might not meet that requirement? John McCain.

The problem stems from McCain's birth in the Panama Canal Zone:

In the most detailed examination yet of Senator John McCain’s eligibility to be president, a law professor at the University of Arizona has concluded that neither Mr. McCain’s birth in 1936 in the Panama Canal Zone nor the fact that his parents were American citizens is enough to satisfy the constitutional requirement that the president must be a 'natural-born citizen.'

The analysis, by Prof. Gabriel J. Chin, focused on a 1937 law that has been largely overlooked in the debate over Mr. McCain’s eligibility to be president. The law conferred citizenship on children of American parents born in the Canal Zone after 1904, and it made John McCain a citizen just before his first birthday. But the law came too late, Professor Chin argued, to make Mr. McCain a natural-born citizen.

'It’s preposterous that a technicality like this can make a difference in an advanced democracy,' Professor Chin said. 'But this is the constitutional text that we have.'
Now, the Senate has resolved that McCain meets the requirement of natural-born citizenship (with both Obama and Clinton voting in support, IIRC) and it doesn't appear all that likely to
be an issue down the line (although there is apparently some sort of lawsuit pending in New Hampshire). Still, don't you love the irony of the "America first" party nominating a foreigner?

No Wonder We're So Busy

Holy cow (via TalkLeft) - every year in this millennium, Congress has created an average of 56.5 crimes per year! That's about the same rate as during the 1980s and 90s, too. Yikes.

Whatever you're doing right now? It'll probably be a violation of Federal law before too long, regardless of who wins the White House or runs Congress. Sadly.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Bring the Noise, Bring the Pain

Back in March, Mother Jones compiled a "Torture Playlist," made up of tunes used by the American military in interrogations. In other words, music so bad that it makes people scream for it to stop. A few of the list's gems:

  • "Fuck Your God" by Decide
  • "White America" and "Kim" by Eminem
  • "Enter Sandman" by Metallica
  • "Born in the USA" by Springsteen
  • "Stayin' Alive" by the Bee Gees
  • "America" by Neil Diamond
  • "American Pie" by Don McLean
  • The "Meow Mix" jingle
  • "I Love You" by Barney (aka the Barney theme song)
Quite an aural rouges gallery, huh? I can certainly get behind the pain-inducing powers of Neil Diamond and Don McLean - but Barney? Surprisingly, the man behind that theme song isn't particularly upset:
Well, I'm sorry, but I'm not terribly upset about the use of "I Love You." I'm amused and slightly perplexed, but I frankly don't believe that any artist or composer can really have much of a say about what happens to his songs after they leave his hands. Songs take on a life of their own once they hit the public consciousness, and we composers and songwriters just get to go along for the ride.

When I heard that "I Love You" had been used at Abu Ghraib to break the will of terror suspects, I just laughed. It's absolutely ludicrous. A song that was designed to make little children feel safe and loved was somehow going to threaten the mental state of adults and drive them to the emotional breaking point?
He's got a pretty healthy attitude about the honor, I think. Still, given how truly awful anything Barney is, I wouldn't mind strapping him down and force feeding him a few hours of "Stayin' Alive,"

Wiffle Ball v. The Man

From today's New York Times, a tale of young enthusiasm turned ugly. A group of teenagers in Greenwich, Connecticut, took a vacant lot and turned it into a Fenway-inspired Wiffle ball field. Industrious youngsters, diving deep into America's low impact past time, rather than passing their time in front of the tube. All is good right? Of course not:

But, alas, they had no idea just who would come — youthful Wiffle ball players, yes, but also angry neighbors and their lawyer, the police, the town nuisance officer and tree warden and other officials in all shapes and sizes. It turns out that one kid’s field of dreams is an adult’s dangerous nuisance, liability nightmare, inappropriate usurpation of green space, unpermitted special use or drag on property values, and their Wiffle-ball Fenway has become the talk of Greenwich and a suburban Rorschach test about youthful summers past and present.
Good lord, what kind of town has a "nuisance officer"? You have to love the kids' reaction to the mess:
The regular players, mostly high school boys but including Tara Currivan, 15 (who swings a mean bat and brings lemonade to the field), and Scott Atkinson, 13, seem a little befuddled by the whole thing. “They think we’re a cult,” said Jeff Currivan, 17. “People think we should be home playing ‘Grand Theft Auto.’ ”
As someone who occasionally spends Sunday mornings wandering around a parking lot dotted with pylons, I can relate to the cult comment.

Technical Difficulties

As you can see, something just doesn't look right here at the Ranch. For some reason, the website that hosted the background graphic for this template has gone "bye bye." Without that, the blog was all washed out and hard to read. This fix is workable, but temporary, so bear with me.

Just what I wanted - to redo all those links again!

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

With Dems Like These . . .

What's a little something like the Fourth Amendment to get in the way of some hare-brained political strategery? In one of the most depressing episodes since the Dems gained control of Congress in 2006 (and that's saying something), the Senate today overwhelmingly approved a revised FISA wiretapping statute.

How they managed to give up such a big victory to a President with approval ratings below freezing - and after his program has been repeatedly found to violate the Constitution in the courts - I'll never know. Throw in immunity from civil liability to the telecommunication companies that answered the administration's warrantless request for records. I've already given WV's junior senator hell about his role in this debacle. What's particularly depressing is our Presidential nominee's performance:

The issue put Senator Barack Obama of Illinois, the presumptive Democratic nominee, in a particularly precarious spot. After long opposing the idea of immunity for the phone companies in the wiretapping operation, he voted for the plan on Wednesday. His reversal last month angered many of his most ardent supporters, who organized an unsuccessful drive to get him to reverse his position once again. And it came to symbolize what civil liberties advocates saw as “capitulation” by Democratic leaders to political pressure from the White House in an election year.

Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, who was Mr. Obama’s rival for the Democratic presidential nomination, voted against the bill.
But, then again, I suppose he just couldn't resist arguments like this:
Senator Christopher S. Bond, the Missouri Republican who is vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said there was nothing to fear in the bill 'unless you have Al Qaeda on your speed dial.'
Obama's reversal means that, at least in the near term, there won't be any real hope of rolling back the executive power grabs that have marked Duhbya's terms (McCain wasn't present to vote, but supported the bill). Which is only the latest in a string of troubling moments from Obama. Looks like another year of voting for the lesser of two evils.

For more on the FISA bill, why it's awful, and what's next, check out Glenn Greenwald's work over at Salon.

UPDATE: From Greenwald's latest post:
As [law prof Jonathan]Turley says, and as I've written many times over the last two weeks, what is most appalling here beyond the bill itself are the pure falsehoods being spewed to the public about what Congress is doing -- and those falsehoods are largely being spewed not by Republicans. Republicans are gleefully admitting, even boasting, that this bill gives them everything Bush and Cheney wanted and more, and includes only minor changes from the Rockefeller/Cheney Senate bill passed last February (which Obama, seeking the Democratic Party nomination, made a point of opposing).

Rather, the insultingly false claims about this bill -- it brings the FISA court back into eavesdropping! it actually improves civil liberties! Obama will now go after the telecoms criminally! Government spying and lawbreaking isn't really that important anyway! -- are being disseminated by the Democratic Congressional leadership and, most of all, by those desperate to glorify Barack Obama and justify anything and everything he does. Many of these are the same people who spent the last five years screaming that Bush was shredding the Constitution, that spying on Americans was profoundly dangerous, that the political establishment did nothing about Bush's lawbreaking.

It's been quite disturbing to watch them turn on a dime -- completely reverse everything they claimed to believe -- the minute Obama issued his statement saying that he would support this bill.

Max Goes to Court

Earlier this year, when a London tabloid published stories about F1 grand poobah Max Mosley's Nazi-themed sex party, Max vowed to (in the words of my Torts professor) sue the bastards for invasion of privacy. According to the New York Times, the trial against News of the World is well underway:

The Victorian Gothic edifice in central London that is home to the Royal Courts of Justice has witnessed many bizarre trials in its 126-year history, but the one now under way amid the rich oak paneling and stone-arched windows of Court 13 — the case of Max Mosley versus The News of the World — would have a claim on any list of the most unusual.

How often could any court hear a disquisition on the pleasures of caning from a woman who specializes in sexual fantasy play, giggling as she compared taking 12 strokes on the bottom to the joy of finishing a marathon? And how many courts have been treated, as was this one, to an audiotape featuring what one of the tabloids feasting on the trial, The Daily Mail, described as “the sounds of slapping and thwacking” during the Chelsea session?
Give Max credit for sticking to his guns on this. He's consistently refused calls from the other F1 potentates to resign. He's not been shy about his fondness for sadomasochism (although apparently the wife found out via News of the World - ouch!) and is arguing that what consenting adults do in private is nobody's business but their own.

On a purely legal note, I'm astounded at how quickly this has progressed. The scandal broke back in April of this year and the trial is in full flight less than three months later. I can't imagine taking care of a parking ticket in a US court that quickly, much less a large civil suit. Way to go, Brits!

Unlikely (But Welcome) Outrage

When I worked at jedi jawa's office, my boss introduced me to what he called the "Dirty Bastard Rule." Basically, appellate courts deploy the Dirty Bastard Rule in order to affirm the conviction of someone charged with doing something heinous, even though there were errors in the trial process. The technical term for this is "harmless error," but Dirty Bastard Rule is more accurate and honest, in my opinion.

It wasn't always such. At one time, any error in a trial would justify a retrial. That was particularly true in Federal courts, where criminal prosecutions were rare. But with the incorporation of constitutional protections to the states, the Supreme Court gradually began to apply harmless error analysis to just about every potential flaw in trial procedure. I grasp the concept - sometimes the error is so minor, in the grand scheme of things, that it doesn't really undermine the verdict. More often then not, however, it seems to me like an exercise in judicial hand waiving to reach that conclusion.

All that is background to this column in the New York Sun, taking the Seventh Circuit to task for finding harmless error in the appeal of Conrad Black. I don't know if it's a legitimate case of harmless error or one of those hand waiving exercises. But it's nice to see someone worked up about the process, for a change.

It's Over

Finally, sanity prevails in the saga of RichRod.

According to USA Today, former WVU football coach Rich Rodriquez will pay up the $4 million his contract with WVU called for should he leave the school. It took a lawsuit, some nasty discovery revelations, and, eventually, the largess of RichRod's new employer, to get him to pay up.

That should put this whole sad mess to rest. RichRod walked away from his contract with WVU and he (well, sort of) will pay the price. Time for the state to collectively get over it and focus on more important things - like ripping on Marshall and Ohio State!

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Don't We Already Have One?

That bipartisan odd couple, James Baker and Warren Christopher (of 2000 Florida recount fame), have called for new legislation to deal with the President's ability to wage war without Congressional approval. The plan, apparently, is to revamp/scrap/fix the War Powers Act:

Two former secretaries of state have declared the War Powers Resolution of 1973 obsolete and proposed a new system of closer consultation between the White House and Congress before American forces go into battle.

Their proposal would require the president to consult lawmakers before initiating combat lasting longer than a week except in rare cases requiring emergency action. Congress, for its part, would have 30 days to approve or disapprove of the military action.
I know it's not this simple in the 21st Century and the War on Terra, but don't we already have something like that? Say, Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution:
The Congress shall have Power . . . To declare War . . .
Of course, we haven't actually declared war since 1941, but that hasn't stopped Presidents of both parties from getting us into wars and other military actions of varying lengths and successes. Which begs the question - if the country conveniently ignores the plain language of the Constitution, why would a nouveau War Powers Act fare any better?

A Long Way to Go For a Joke

I'll be up front and admit that the whole Borat thing kind of passed me by. Similarly, this latest Baron Cohen stunt leaves me scratching my head:

Crowds in Arkansas came for the lure of cage fighting and $1 beer, but police say what they got instead was men ripping each others' clothes off and kissing — a stunt suspected of being orchestrated by Sacha Baron Cohen of Borat fame.

* * *

Producers said 'there would be a romantic embrace,' Holland said. 'They said it was kind of to essentially make fun, poke fun at wrestling — two guys rolling around on the floor, all sweaty.'

An elaborate array of mounted and handheld video cameras caught the crowd of 1,600's reaction as the two men 'went right up to the line' of the city's morality laws, Holland said. The two men stripped down to their underwear, kissed and rubbed on each other, the sergeant said.

The audience, as well as local fighters drawn to take part in the show, became enraged. 'It set the crowd off lobbing beers,' Holland said. 'They had beers in plastic cups. Those things can get some distance on them actually.'
Apparently there were signs to make people aware of the filming and the folks in the audience signed waivers, but I wonder if anybody actually read what they were signing (free legal advice - never sign anything without reading it!). Regardless, I guess I don't see much humor in duping people into reacting like that.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Throw in the Whole Damn Library of Congress

Long ago, I came across a great quote in a state supreme court case about the proportionality of long prison sentences:

it is one thing for a sentencing justice to throw the book at a defendant . . . whose crimes indubitably merit severe punishment, but it is quite another to bury him alive under a whole library’s worth of hardback years to serve . . .
State v. Ballard, 699 A.2d 14, 17 (RI 1997).

That quote raced through my head when I saw this story (via Volokh):
A Springtown man was sentenced to 4,060 years in prison Wednesday for sexually assaulting three teenage girls.

James Kevin Pope, 43, will be eligible for parole in the year 3209, according to the Parker County District Attorney’s office.
How can you run up a sentence measured in millennia?
Jurors convicted Pope of 40 counts of sexual assault of a child and three counts of sexual performance of a child, authorities said. They sentenced him to life in prison for each sex assault conviction and 20 years for each sex performance conviction.

At the request of prosecutors, District Judge Graham Quisenberry ordered Pope to serve the sentences consecutively, Swain said.
I wonder if that first parole hearing in the 33rd Century is already on the calendar?

Undermining the Faith

Although I'm not a believer in any particular flavor of religious woo, I'm interested in those belief systems and their histories. Which is why I find stories like this one intriguing. Seems that someone discovered (a while ago) a tablet dating back to before the birth of Jesus that tells a familiar story: messianic figure rises, is killed, then rises from the dead three days later.

So, what, exactly?

If such a messianic description really is there, it will contribute to a developing re-evaluation of both popular and scholarly views of Jesus, since it suggests that the story of his death and resurrection was not unique but part of a recognized Jewish tradition at the time.

The tablet, probably found near the Dead Sea in Jordan according to some scholars who have studied it, is a rare example of a stone with ink writings from that era — in essence, a Dead Sea Scroll on stone.
Of course, being centuries old and written (not carved) in an ancient language means there's lots of interpreting that needs to be done. Still, depending on how it turns out, it could have wide ranging repercussions:
To whom is the archangel speaking? The next line says 'Sar hasarin,' or prince of princes. Since the Book of Daniel, one of the primary sources for the Gabriel text, speaks of Gabriel and of 'a prince of princes,' [Israel Knohl, an 'iconoclastic professor of Bible studies at Hebrew University in Jerusalem'], contends that the stone’s writings are about the death of a leader of the Jews who will be resurrected in three days.

He says further that such a suffering messiah is very different from the traditional Jewish image of the messiah as a triumphal, powerful descendant of King David.

'This should shake our basic view of Christianity,' he said as he sat in his office of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem where he is a senior fellow in addition to being the Yehezkel Kaufman Professor of Biblical Studies at Hebrew University. 'Resurrection after three days becomes a motif developed before Jesus, which runs contrary to nearly all scholarship. What happens in the New Testament was adopted by Jesus and his followers based on an earlier messiah story.'
Not that such a conclusion would shake the faiths of most people - they'd find a way to work around it, I'm sure.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Birthday Tunage

Happy Birthday, nation (and my Dad!). Have some Yes:

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

From the Beginning

With Pixar's new flick WALL-E winning rave reviews and doing big box office bucks, The Onion's AV Club takes a look at the history of Pixar in its continuing "Primer" series. Among the goodies, the Oscar winning short film that started it all:

Still holds up 20 years on, huh?

I'd Say "Amen," But . . .

Over at Pharyngula, PZ is on a roll, critiquing an interview in Salon with physicist Karl Giberson, author of Saving Darwin: How to Be a Christian and Believe in Evolution. I haven't read the whole interview yet, so I won't comment on the substantive criticism, but this paragraph of PZ's is brilliant:

Look at the bible as a pastiche, a collection of mutually and often internally inconsistent fragments slapped together for crude reasons of politics and art and priestly self-promotion and sometimes beauty and a lot of chest-thumping tribalism, and through that lens, it makes a lot of sense. It does tell us something important…about us, not some fantastic mythological being. It tells us that we are fractious, arrogant, scrappy people who sometimes accomplish great things and more often cause grief and pain to one another. We want to be special in a universe that is uncaring and cold, and in which the nature of our existence is a transient flicker, so we invent these strange stories of grand beginnings, like every orphan dreaming that they are the children of kings who will one day ride up on a white horse and take them away to a beautiful palace and a rich and healthy family that will love them forever. We are not princes of the earth, we are the descendants of worms, and any nobility must be earned.
As the kids say, quoted for truth.

Wow, We Get Everything From China

In 1957, a sociologist named Albert Biderman wrote an article called "Communist Attempts to Elicit False Confessions From Air Force Prisoners of War," about the routine practice of Chinese interrogators coaxing false confessions of war crimes and such out of downed American pilots shot down over North Korea.

Imagine where the techniques Biderman set forth in 1957 have popped up?

The military trainers who came to Guantánamo Bay in December 2002 based an entire interrogation class on a chart showing the effects of 'coercive management techniques' for possible use on prisoners, including 'sleep deprivation,' 'prolonged constraint,' and 'exposure.'

What the trainers did not say, and may not have known, was that their chart had been copied verbatim from a 1957 Air Force study of Chinese Communist techniques used during the Korean War to obtain confessions, many of them false, from American prisoners.

The recycled chart is the latest and most vivid evidence of the way Communist interrogation methods that the United States long described as torture became the basis for interrogations both by the military at the base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and by the Central Intelligence Agency.
That's right. Not only have we imported "interrogation" techniques from the Chinese, we've imported the ones that were notorious to produce false confessions! Can we all agree that, aside from any human rights issues related to these techniques, that if they produce false confessions they should be scrapped?

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

We Do What We're Told

Today's New York Times had an interesting article on the continuing impact of Stanley Milgram's famous experiment in acquiescence to authority. In particular, there are two new articles about Milgram's work, one that determines the precise level at which the participants started to have qualms with the test and another that shows the continuing validity of Milgram's conclusions. It's always a interesting psychological milestone to go back and rethink every little bit (while listening to the Gabriel tune, of course).

Beware Fake Cops

It's bad enough that the War on Drugs has let real cops trample all over the Fourth Amendment and such, but now civilians are getting in on the action:

They said the agent, a man some had come to know as “Sergeant Bill,” boasted that he did not need search warrants to enter their homes because he worked for the federal government.

But after a reporter for the local weekly newspaper made a few calls about that claim, Gerald’s antidrug campaign abruptly fell apart after less than five months. Sergeant Bill, it turned out, was no federal agent, but Bill A. Jakob, an unemployed former trucking company owner, a former security guard, a former wedding minister and a former small-town cop from 23 miles down the road.
Note a couple of things.

First, Jakob's shenanigans were not discovered until a local reporter got curious. Nobody in the local power structure - police, prosecutor, mayor - thought to think twice about this crime fightin' stranger who came to town.

Second, Jakob did some serious shit. We're not talking about just walking around town in a fake uniform hassling passersby and asking, "what's all this, then?" He led warrantless break ins of people's homes! With long-lasting repercussions:
'He was definitely in charge — it was all him,' said Mike Withington, 49, a concrete finisher, who said Mr. Jakob pounded on his door in May, waking him up and yanking him, in handcuffs, out onto his front yard.

Mr. Withington said he had not yet been charged with a crime; Gary Toelke, the Franklin County sheriff, confirmed that no local charges had been issued against him. But the mortification of that day, Mr. Withington said, has kept him largely indoors and led him to consider moving. Since the search, residents have tossed garbage and crumpled boxes of Sudafed (which has an ingredient that can be used to make methamphetamine) on his lawn, he said, and he no longer shops in town, instead driving miles to neighboring towns.

'Everybody is staring at me,' he said. 'People assume you’re guilty when things like this happen.'
The mayor was utterly clueless, buying Jakob's excuse that, as a federal agent, he didn't need search warrants. I think we need a Fourth Amendment seminar in central Missouri, stat!

Paging Michael Kenyon (or Ray White)

Presented without comment (via PZ):

A monument to the enema, a procedure many people would rather not think about, has been unveiled at a spa in the southern Russian city of Zheleznovodsk.

The bronze syringe bulb, which weighs 800 pounds and is held by three angels, was unveiled at the Mashuk-Akva Term spa, the spa's director said Thursday.

"There is no kitsch or obscenity, it is a successful work of art," Alexander Kharchenko told The Associated Press. "An enema is almost a symbol of our region."
Now there's something to be proud of! OK, so that's one comment. For those who don't get the title reference, click here.