Thursday, August 28, 2008

Death of a Champion

Phil Hill, the first American to win the Formula 1 World Championship, has died:

Hill won the Formula One title for Ferrari in 1961. He also was the first American to win the 24-hour endurance race at Le Mans, France, -- a race he would win twice again -- and he won the Sebring 12-hour race three times, among many other victories.
Hill was an icon in American motorsport, one of only two Americans to win the sport's top prize (Mario Andretti, in a Lotus in 1978, is the other). From everything I've ever read or seen about him, he was also a gentleman of the first order and a terrific ambassador of the sport.

Hill at the Nurburgring in 1962, in the famous Ferrari 156 "shark nose," courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

Thanks, Phil. You will be missed.

PDs Get No (Well, a Little) Love

Another good example of the low esteem in which the general public holds public defenders. Steven Bochco's (of L.A. Law, Murder One, etc. fame) new lawyer show, Raising the Bar, premiers on TNT next Monday. It's about young lawyers duking it out in the criminal justice system in New York. It's based, somewhat, on Indefensible, a book by a 15-year PD vet about his experiences. That sounds like a kick ass basis for a TV series, but it's apparently not enough:

'I thought it was terrific, but I didn't want to develop a show about a public defender,' Bochco says. 'I wasn't sure an audience would identify with someone who represents the accused. We've done a show with a more wide-angle point of view of the entire criminal justice system.'
I guess critically praised shows about mobsters, crooked cops, and a serial killer are OK, but not a PD! How naive to think that anyone could identify with someone who goes to work every day to stand up for the Constitution and try to help people out at their absolute lowest ebb? Nope. Gotta have some "good guys" for the audience to root for, I guess.

But, Bochco knows his stuff, so I can't blame him. I guess I'll just blame the culture in general.

Try Harder, Spam Boy

I've already talked about fraud a couple of times this week. Here's a good example from my own inbox of something that should raise some red flags. The spammers have taken to sending messages with subject headers that appear to be breaking news headlines, but they're a little fishy. Marvel at today's entry:

Paris Hilton Wins Pulitzer Prize
Uh huh. Think anybody is buying that one? Sadly, I know that someone probably will.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Smilin' Bob Goes Limp

I always figured that Enzyte was a scam, but I never realized quite the dimensions of it. Via SL&P, the man behind the "male enhancement" pills and their ubiquitous pitchman, CEO Steven Warshak, is on his way to the federal pen for a long long time:

Steven Warshak did more than lie to banks, hide his money and mislead thousands of customers who bought his “male enhancement” pills, a federal judge said today.

He also dragged his family and friends through a legal mess that left many of them broke and, in some cases, on their way to prison.

The judge said it’s a tragedy caused by Warshak’s ego and greed.

'Not only is Steve Warshak corrupt, but he corrupted members of his family and good people who worked for him,' U.S. District Judge S. Arthur Spiegel said. 'He gambled with their lives. Steve Warshak was blinded by his arrogance.'

Spiegel then sentenced Warshak to 25 years in prison and ordered him, his company and some members of his family to repay more than $500 million.
Warshak's 75-year-old mother got two years for her troubles, as well. What exactly did he do?
Prosecutors said the slick ads masked a criminal enterprise that involved false advertising, fraudulent bank documents, hidden profits and unauthorized charges on customer credit cards.

The key to the scheme was Berkeley’s 'continuity program,' which automatically charged additional orders of Enzyte to credit cards each month. The program was not fully disclosed in ads, and customers who complained were given the run-around or referred to a 'quality control' officer who did not exist.
I generally don't have a whole lot of sympathy for fraud victims - c'mon, did you really think a little pill (available without a prescription, no less!) is going to make your dick bigger? - but this apparently went well beyond mere fraud.

And I will say this - several of the crack cases I'm working on now involve sentences of similar lengths. At least the product those guys sold got you buzzed as advertised!

Shouldn't It Be Scots?

Golf is an international game. Players from all over the world come to the United States to chase big bucks and major tournaments. Apparently this is a problem for the LPGA, which is making an interesting move:

Concerned about its appeal to sponsors, the women’s professional golf tour, which in recent years has been dominated by foreign-born players, has warned its members that they must become conversant in English by 2009 or face suspension.

'We live in a sports-entertainment environment,' said Libba Galloway, the deputy commissioner of the tour, the Ladies Professional Golf Association. 'For an athlete to be successful today in the sports entertainment world we live in, they need to be great performers on and off the course, and being able to communicate effectively with sponsors and fans is a big part of this.'

'Being a U.S.-based tour, and with the majority of our fan base, pro-am contestants, sponsors and participants being English speaking, we think it is important for our players to effectively communicate in English.'
The logic is that because the tour (and the players) survives mostly on money from sponsors, the players have to do PR events with them and need to speak their language. There's a similar dynamic at work in motor racing, of course, where I'll point out that everybody involved in Formula 1 speaks English, as least passably. That includes the drivers, only four of whom are from English speaking countries (none from the US, sadly).

It certainly makes business sense for the foreign players to bone up on their English. But it seems that the market should take care of those who don't - if they aren't valuable to the sponsors, after all, they're unlikely to hang around the tour that long. By imposing the English requirement from on high, the LPGA looks heavy handed and xenophobic. Judging by the comments to the linked article, it's not the kind of publicity the tour is looking for.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Holy Litigation, Batman!


In 1990, the Supreme Court decided Employment Division of Oregon v. Smith, which was a major decision outlining the relation between church and state. Smith and another man applied for unemployment benefits after being fired for "misconduct" - using peyote. They did so, as members of the Native American Church as part of a religious ritual. Their claim was denied, but the Oregon courts overruled, holding that such actions unduly burdened their right to religious freedom under the First Amendment. The Supremes disagreed and, in an opinion by Scalia, held that neutral laws of general application don't violate the First Amendment if they happen to infringe on some religious practice.

This made many religious folks quite upset (Oregon, IIRC, changed their own law to accommodate the practice). That led Congress to pass the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in 1993 and, after that was struck down by the Supremes, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act in 2000. Several states also passed their own versions of the RFRA (see here for more details). The upshot of this legislation was to make it easier for believers to carve exceptions to general laws that infringed on some religious obligation. In the case of the RLUIPA, it was specifically designed to apply to inmates in prison.

All that background may put the lawsuit discussed in this Daily Mail article in a little better light. A man doing time at Mount Olive for sexually abusing a child has filed suit claiming that his right to practice a Native American religion is being violated by prison administrators. He almost certainly won't win every request (the sweat lodge is a no hoper, I think), but a lot of his claims seem legit. At least under the heightened scrutiny that the laws discussed above require.

Not surprisingly, the comments to the article are filled with ignorant rantings about how prisoners don't have any rights. Of course they do, but that's not even the point. If a Christian was denied a Bible or something similar, I imagine many of those same folks would be up in arms about the injustice of it all. So many cons seem to find Jesus/Allah/Batman in prison, after all. Those folks need to realize that if you're going to bend over backwards to accommodate religion at all, you gotta' bend over for everybody, at least somewhat.

Sound Advice

Over at Crime and Federalism, Mike has the story of a lawyer taken in by a prototypical Email scam. As a public service, Mike takes apart the Email and points out the signals that should have tipped off a highly trained legal mind. Or anybody with a pulse and an EEG with a few bubbly waves. Read it - it's good advice, and it's fun! It's also a perfect excuse to share another Internet PSA:

Monday, August 25, 2008

Grammar Vigilante Gets Nicked

There are people in the world who have a heightened sensitivity to grammar errors. It's not just that they know the rules and recognize mistakes, it's that they have all the information front of mind and make reference to it regularly. Like superheros, or something. I was raised by two of them and work with a couple of them, as well. So this story (via Volokh) is for them:

A man from Somerville, Mass., and his friend who went around the country this year removing typographical errors from public signs have been banned from national parks after vandalizing a historic marker at the Grand Canyon.

Jeff Michael Deck of Somerville, and Benjamin Douglas Herson, of Virginia Beach, Va., pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Flagstaff after damaging a rare, hand-painted sign in Grand Canyon National Park.

They were sentenced to a year's probation, during which they cannot enter any national park, and were ordered to pay restitution.
Upon further review, shouldn't these guys be in Gitmo?
An affidavit by National Park Service agent Christopher A. Smith said investigators learned of the vandalism from an Internet site operated by Deck on behalf of the Typo Eradication Advancement League, or TEAL.

According to the Internet posting, TEAL members agreed to stamp out as many typos as they could find in public signage and other venues.
Maybe my parents and coworkers are secret agents of TEAL? Are there grammar terrorists in my midst?

What's Next, a Wet Habit Contest?

I'm generally not one to offer advice to religious leaders, but I think I'd reconsider this plan. A priest in Italy is concerned that nuns are traditionally viewed as "old and dour." His solution? An online beauty contest!

Antonio Rungi says The Miss Sister Italy online contest will start on his blog in September.

"Nuns are above all women and beauty is a gift from God," he told Italy's Corriere della Sera newspaper.
I don't think there will be any "naughty nun" costumes, tho:
Father Rungi stressed that nuns were not being invited to parade in bathing suits, saying it will be up to them whether they pose with the traditional veil or with their heads uncovered.
I would think that a better way to revamp the stereotype that Father Rungi is concerned about would be copious pictorial/film documentation of young(ish), outgoing nuns doing good works out in the world. Wouldn't that make some sense? The "let's turn them into objects" approach is a little to 19th century, isn't it? Even for the Catholic church?

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Fresh Tunes - a Twofer!

Aside from a leftover quasi-classical thing, it's been a while since I uploaded some new tunes. No doubt there's a portion of you who thought, "thank fuck that's over . . ." as the weeks passed. Well, sorry.

For the (admittedly smaller) portion of you who actually listen to these things (if even just for a laugh), here's why. After I got the Micron in the spring, it took a while to figure it all out and get my recording setup working with it. Over the weeks, I ended up with no complete tunes, but lots of little bits here and there I'd whipped up. I've started methodically working through those to "finish" them up as best I can. Here are the first couple of results of that plan.

First up is something that had laid around for a while before I finished it up in July, then it took me another month to getting around to mixing it. "At the Edge of the World" is an attempt a minimalism, I guess. It's slow, sparse, and longish (just under 10 minutes). Not exactly a drop the top crank it up driving tune, if you get my drift. It's mostly loops, with a little bit of piano and synth (M1) flavoring.

The other one is "Puppeteering the Stumps" and is more typical of the stuff I usually do (and about half as long). In addition to a couple of old favs (MTron and Minimoog), this marks the recording debut of the Micron. It contributed a lead and a pattern in the second bit. The title comes from a line in Guy Maddin's weird but excellent The Saddest Music in the World, which would be a much more accurate description of "At the Edge . . .," come to think of it.

As always, you can't beat the price - enjoy!

That's the Olympic Spirit!

Just in case you've forgotten exactly where the Olympics are taking place:

Two elderly Chinese women have been sentenced to a year of 're-education through labor' after they repeatedly sought a permit to demonstrate in one of the official Olympic protest areas, according to family members and human rights advocates.

The women, Wu Dianyuan, 79, and Wang Xiuying, 77, had made five visits to the police this month in an effort to get permission to protest what they contended was inadequate compensation for the demolition of their homes in Beijing.

During their final visit on Monday, public security officials informed them that they had been given administrative sentences for 'disturbing the public order,' according to Li Xuehui, Ms. Wu’s son.
'cause you know that it's the septuagenarians you have to worry about!

We may have the "protest zones" (coming soon to a political convention near you), but at least we haven't sent anybody away for "re-education." Yet.

Good Point

I'm not voting for McCain, but I've got nothing against the man or his Vietnam service. It would be nice if he didn't try to hide behind the "but I was a POW" defense all the time, but I suppose that's par for the course. But that's not the good point.

This is, from Andrew Sullivan:

In all the discussion of John McCain's recently recovered memory of a religious epiphany in Vietnam, one thing has been missing. The torture that was deployed against McCain emerges in all the various accounts. It involved sleep deprivation, the withholding of medical treatment, stress positions, long-time standing, and beating. Sound familiar?

According to the Bush administration's definition of torture, McCain was therefore not tortured.

* * *

No war crimes were committed against McCain. And the techniques used are, according to the president, tools to extract accurate information. And so the false confessions that McCain was forced to make were, according to the logic of the Bush administration, as accurate as the 'intelligence' we have procured from "interrogating" terror suspects. Feel safer?
Nope. But I do feel pissed, ashamed, and appalled.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

I Think "Show Trial" Pretty Much Sums It Up

Admit it - you thought it, but you didn't want to. A few weeks ago when Salim Hamdan's military tribunal wound up with a 5.5 year sentence, someplace in the back of your mind you thought, "Bush'll never let him go." Right? Well, guess what:

Hamdan's sentence of 5 1/2 years, which amounts to five more months in U.S. custody, was far lighter than some Pentagon officials had expected. Prosecutors had asked for a sentence of at least 30 years, and now officials are preparing for the possibility of having to set him free or hold him indefinitely as an 'enemy combatant.'

Bryan Whitman, a Pentagon spokesman, said it has always been the Defense Department's position that detainees could be held as enemy combatants even after acquittal at military commissions or after serving a prison sentence. 'That's always been on our minds in terms of a scenario we could face,' he said. 'He will serve his time for the conviction and then he will still be an enemy combatant, and as an enemy combatant the process for potential transfer or release will apply.'
For fuck's sake, why even bother with a trial, then? At least someone in the Pentagon thinks that might pose a PR problem:
Defense Department officials said there are concerns about the public perception of holding Hamdan after his prison term runs out, because it could label the military commissions a 'show process' with no meaning to its sentences. They also worry about possible precedents that could be set in U.S. courts if Hamdan's attorneys immediately file a habeas corpus petition seeking his release in five months. Hamdan previously won a Supreme Court case that invalidated the Bush administration's earlier military commissions procedures.
I wish I could say I was surprised.

Yes = Tap?

Given the shambolic tour chronicled in This Is Spinal Tap, you'd think bands would run away from any hint that they inspired the fictional British metal group. Far from it. It's some sort of strange badge of honor for some to say "we inspired Tap."

The latest contenders? Yes, if former (who can tell these days?) keyboardist Rick Wakeman is to be believed. In a column in last Sunday's UK Daily Mail, Wakeman (who's written a book, apparently) writes about his personality clashes with the rest of the band:

The singer, guitarist, bassist and drummer were all thoughtful people - interested in philosophy and alternative lifestyles and this was an image at odds with the fact that the keyboard player was a beer-swilling, darts-playing, meat-eating oaf, one who would happily eat a curry in the middle of a show.
Rick did in an interview once famously say he "drank for England," after all. As for those Tappish moments:
There are people who think the film This Is Spinal Tap is simply a very funny 'mockumentary'. Well, with Yes we lived it.

Take the hilarious scene in the film in which the bass player is trapped in a giant pod - that actually happened to Alan one night.

It also occurred during the Tales From Topographic Oceans album tour. That was not my favourite Yes album and I said so at the time. Maturely, I renamed it Tales From Toby's Graphic Go-Kart.

The grandiose elements of Yes were spiralling out of all control and the stage set was unbelievable. It had been designed by Roger Dean, who had done the album cover, and reflected the record's artwork.

The drum kit was inside a giant seashell, which would open after the show started, revealing Alan doing his stuff. However, one night when the curtain went up the gearing jammed and he was trapped inside.

The problem was, it was a sealed unit, so Alan quickly began running out of air.

As this was live on stage in front of thousands of people, Alan, the consummate professional, continued playing. Meanwhile the roadies began trying to smash the pod open, staying out of the line of sight of the crowd so no one noticed.

Before long, they had to start pumping oxygen in until eventually, somehow, they prised the wretched thing open with pickaxes.

By now the audience must have noticed the rescue effort because as the pod sprang open a huge cheer went up, and Alan stumbled out gasping for breath.
We may have a winner! Still, I'm fairly confident in saying that Jon Anderson was never in danger of crushing any stage scenery.

The whole article is a good read, even if you're not a Yes fan. It's a humorous chronicle of 70s rock excess.

Buried Bloom County Treasure

Searching for an online version of the Bloom County comic I referenced yesterday, I stumbled across this nifty site. It collects a lot of the Bloom County strips that were left out of the books (or otherwise edited) due to space concerns. It covers the first three books and the Bloom County Babylon anthology. If, like me, you became a big fan via the books (we didn't get the right newspaper when I was young), it's like finding treasure trove of lost Bloom County goodness.


The Wisdom of Frank

I ran across this Frank Zappa quote over in the comments at Pharyngula:

My theory is that music is good, it's the only religion that delivers the goods. And anybody who wants to hear any kind of music is entitled to hear that music because it's good for you - it makes you feel good. If you like it, go for it. Just because I don't like it doesn't mean anything - it's a matter of personal taste.
Works for me.

Monday, August 18, 2008

BFFs In Court

Hoyt over at Donutbuzz has been all over the Manchin/Dupont amicus controversy, but another column defending the Gov in today's Daily Mail compels me to chime in here.

First, a little background, via the New York Times:

The case involves thousands of residents in and around Spelter, W.Va., where DuPont operated a zinc-smelting plant. Last October, a jury in Harrison County ruled that DuPont deliberately endangered those residents by dumping toxic arsenic, cadmium and lead at the plant.

In the largest civil penalty ever levied against DuPont, the court ordered the company to pay nearly $382 million to monitor nearly 8,000 residents in the area for signs of cancer, to clean up the site and pay punitive damages.
I should say something here about West Virginia's court system. Most state court systems (as well as federal) have three tiers: a trial court, a mid-level appeals court, and a supreme court. Every case gets reviewed, at least, by the mid-level court, but the supreme court generally picks and chooses only a few cases to hear each year. In West Virginia, we lack the mid-level court, but the state supreme court maintains control over its docket. As a result, it's entirely likely that a party will never have their case reviewed by a higher court.

With that in mind, it's not surprising that Dupont has asked the state supreme court to review the case. What is surprising - and completely unprecedented, from all indications - is the Gov's decision to file an amicus ("friend of the court") brief urging the supreme court to do so. While technically not filed in support of Dupont, and couched in terms of ensuring punitive damages cases get reviewed by the court, it's pretty clear whose side he is on.

Against that background, statewide radio host Hoppy Kercheval writes in today's Mail:
In fact, what the Manchin administration did is what lawyers, organizations and, yes, government agencies do all the time: The governor's lawyers submitted legal briefs in support of a particular position that's being considered by the court.
Well, no, Hoppy, that's just completely false, at least as it applies to West Virginia. On a meta level, yes, it's not surprising for executive branches to file amicus briefs. The Solicitor General, who represents the United States before the US Supreme Court, frequently files amicus briefs in cases where there is some federal interest but the Government is not a party. For example, I downloaded one today for a Supreme Court case involving a Fourth Amendment issue next term. Because it comes out of the Arizona courts, the US isn't a party.

But from all indications, executive amicus briefs are not part of the regular course of business. In fact, this decision by the Gov is completely unique in the state's history. At the very least, the folks like Hoppy who keep making the "business as usual" argument haven't found one yet.

Perhaps it should be regular practice - as it is in some other places - for the state via the Gov to pipe up in such cases. But it clearly hasn't been. And the timing of when to start taking such an interest, and the identity of the appealing party, belies any pretense of neutrality. The Gov's tagline has been "Open for Business" - it's pretty clear to him that means full appellate review of big verdicts against big businesses. I suppose it could chase them off if they think they'll get dinged when the fuck over the plebes.

More from Hoppy:
Manchin believes West Virginia should be like most other states and provide an automatic right to appeal civil verdicts.
I happen to agree with that, actually. Similar review should happen in criminal cases, as well. It's obscene that someone can be convicted of a serious crime and locked away forever (without a chance of parole) and not get any substantive review of their case. But if the Gov's really that concerned about automatic appellate review, why hasn't it been a focus of his administration to create a mid-level appellate court? Again, when the concern in due process only comes up when a big business's ox is gored, it looks a little fishy.

What will be really interesting is what happens if the supreme court takes the case. I imagine that, by that point, the Gov will be smart enough to settle back and let Dupont's well-paid hired guns take their shots. But you never know.

On Counting Medals

For all the touchy feely bits of the Olympics, at the end of the day they are sporting events. That being the case, who wins what is generally worth getting right. So what to make of how we, versus the rest of the world, rank the medal winners? As this post over at the New York Times's Rings blog explains:

A number of people have written in to ask about the way countries are ranked in the medal listings on the Times site and in other news outlets. We use for our medal tables a feed from the Associated Press, which ranks countries according to the total number of medals won. Others, including the International Olympic Committee, arrange their rankings by gold medals won.
Not surprisingly, some folks accuse the American media of favoring the AP method, since it allows the US to top the table, even though we're getting trounced in the gold medal count by China (but we've doubled the tally of third place Australia, at least). It's hard to say, since I'm not sure how long the AP has done it this way, nor how long the IOC has done it their way.

I can see both sides. On the one hand, it is a "medal count," and they hand out more than gold medals at the Olympics. On the other hand, like I said, it's a sport and it's all about winning. Silver and bronze medals are nice, but they're just first and second losers, after all. The team that loses the Super Bowl or MLS Cup Final don't get a trophy, only the winners do.

In the end, of course, it's one of those meaningless bits of sport controversy that provide nice grist for argument but is, in the end, completely trivial. Which is what makes it so fun.

Paging Sammy Hagar . . .

According to USA Today, there's a movement afoot to return the nation to a 55 mile-per-hour speed limit. It's driven (pun intended) by high (but falling) gas prices, the theory being that the slower you go the more efficient you are. Fine - but as someone who routinely logs a bunch of Interstate miles, I hope this doesn't go anywhere. Anybody can drive 55 and save gas if they want to, of course. And, it's worth noting, the highways haven't exactly run red since the double nickel bit the dust:

[GOP Va. Senator John] Warner says safety is a reason to lower speeds too. He points to a National Academy of Sciences finding that the law 'saved up to 4,000 lives per year from highway accidents.' Disputing that, opponents point to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's figures that show the rates of traffic fatalities and injuries have been declining for more than a decade. The fatality rate in 2007 was 1.37 per 100 million vehicle miles traveled, compared with 1.69 in 1996.
The "slowing down X miles per hours will save Y lives" argument always reminds me of an old Bloom County where Milo is helping Opus with VP debate prep (from 1988):
MILO: I understand that my opponent supports the 55 MPH speed limit.

OPUS: Saves 500 lives a year! I fully support saving lives.

MILO: Then he'd support the saving of another 10,000 lives by lowering the limit to 40 MPH.

OPUS: 40?

MILO: Or to 20 . . . saving 30,000 lives a year.

OPUS: Gee . . . 20 is pretty slow.

MILO: Apparently my opponent would send 30,000 men, women and children to fiery, mangled deaths just so he can zoom along to his manicurist at 55.

OPUS: I don't have a manicurist!

MILO: He probably doesn't. Most mass murderers don't. Hitler didn't.

OPUS: Stop it! Stop it! Stop it! *bangs on the lectern*

MILO: Rebuttal?

OPUS: What?

MILO: Give your rebuttal.

OPUS: Uh . . . Bush is a wimp.
Opus then retreats the safety of the tub and consoles himself that even Reagan "never really sounded totally sober without note cards, either."

The point (aside from the political commentary, of course) is that safety is always a trade off fr convenience. If we all just stayed home every day, nobody would die in traffic accidents, regardless of the speed limit. Of course, we all eventually die of starvation, so pick your poison.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Car Porn

Of an admittedly soft core variety, mind you. I've started using Flickr to manage some picks online. As a result, I've got a "set" (sort of like an album) dedicated to the cars I've autocrossed over the years. Amazingly enough, I've got at least one pic of all of them hanging around on my laptop. The set includes some commentary from me on what's what and why I ended up with what.

If you're interested in that kind of thing, click here.

Hanging in the Slow Lane has released its second survey of download/upload speeds across the country. West Virginia is not exactly flying along in the fast lane, compared to our neighbors (dl/ul):

  • West Virginia: 1987/271 kps
  • Pennsylvania: 2396/504 kps
  • Maryland: 3981/1000 kps
  • Virginia: 5033/837 kps
  • Kentucky: 1795/395 kps
  • Ohio: 2523/484
So, we're just a tick ahead of the Kentuckians, and only on downloads. As usual, "thank god for Mississippi" (1567/512 kps), although even they get up faster.

For the record, the median download for the country was 2346 kps and upload is 435 kps. The fastest upload state was Rhode Island (6769 kps), while the slowest is Alaska (814 kps). West Virginia slots in at 37th place.

Some Jury Thoughts

A couple of interesting jury issues popped up on in the blogosphere today that I thought I'd pass along.

First, via Volokh, the Cato blog has the story of a juror whose drive to nullify forced a federal judge to kick him off the jury and write a 40-page opinion about it. It was a routine drug case, of the kind that pepper the federal courts:

The jury sent a note to the trial judge with the following query: Since the Constitution needed to be amended in 1919 to authorize federal criminal prosecutions for manufacturing and smuggling alcohol, a juror wanted to know from the judge where 'is the constitutional grant of authority to ban mere possession of cocaine today?'

* * *

Federal District Court Judge William Young was startled. He says he has been on the bench for 30 years and has never faced a situation where a juror was challenging the legitimacy of a criminal law. Young tried to assure the jury that the federal drug laws are constitutional because the Supreme Court has interpreted the commerce clause quite expansively. When the jury sent out more notes about a juror that wasn’t going to sign off on an unconstitutional prosecution, Young halted the proceedings to identify the 'problem juror.' Once discovered, that juror was replaced with an alternate–over the objections of defense counsel. Shortly thereafter, the new jury returned with guilty verdicts on several cocaine-related charges.
I've written before about jury nullification, so I won't repeat my thoughts. But I'll note that defense counsel apparently objected to the juror's discharge, so it will be interesting to see if the incident requires a higher court to address the topic head on.

Second, over at the Freaknomics blog at the New York Times, Ethan Lieb questions the wisdom of requiring unanimous jury verdicts in American courts. As he points out, we don't require unanimity in other important decisions, so why stick to it with juries? Of course, the defense attorney in my clings to the idea of the lone holdout turning the tide for an acquittal. It would certainly render 12 Angry Men much less interesting.

Where Chef Went

Via Dispatches from the Culture Wars, Slate answers the question that's been on everyone's mind since Isaac Hayes checked out last week: what do Scientologists believe happens when you die?

Basically, it's sort of like reincarnation, but with a typical Scientologist twist:

Unlike religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism, in which reincarnation functions as a kind of justice system—i.e., an individual's behavior in one life determines the caliber of the next—rebirth in Scientology is a more mechanical process.
When the released Thetan finds a new host body, it doesn't remember any of its past and has to start its "clearing" process all over again. How convenient - unless you get it all right the first time, you have to go back to the bottom of the Scientology pyramid scheme and pay all over again to work your way back up.

There's more, of course - about Thetans, Venus, and other stuff - that you can read for yourself. I agree with Ed's bemusement:
People actually believe this shit, folks.
Indeed they do.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Olympic Update

Been under a rock since the Olympics started last weekend? Jon Stewart gets you up to speed on the important stuff:

I'm a Cheap Date

Well, a cheap blog, at least. Via Volokh - how much is your blog worth?

My blog is worth $10,726.26.
How much is your blog worth?

At least the cranky ol' guy with all the coins can't afford it!

Cold Hard (and Heavy) Cash

I've heard people say that if you really want a good deal on a car, pay in cash. I'm not sure this is what they had in mind:

An Ohio man with a hatred of paper money slapped down $8,000 in coins at a car dealership to buy a Chevrolet pick-up - then paid the rest by cheque.

James Jones, 70, produced 16 coffee cans full of coins to buy his new Chevrolet Silverado in Cincinnati and staff spent 90 minutes counting it.
Why partake in this non conventional savings plan?
The new owner of the Chevy says he does not trust banks or paper money.

'Paper money will burn, but it is hard to damage coins,' the retired engineer pointed out.
I'm surprised he doesn't mention how we've gone to hell with a handbasket since we ditched the gold standard. But I bet he sounds exactly like Grampa Simpson.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Killer Instrumentals

This week's list over at The Onion A.V. Club is "29 Terrific Instrumentals By Bands That Usually Sing." They recognize Rush with "YYZ" (I would've gone with "La Villa Strangiato"), Genesis with "The Brazilian" (my choice - "Unquiet Slumbers for the Sleepers . . . in That Quiet Earth"), and Pink Floyd with "Interstellar Overdrive" (a fine choice), but overlook several favorites of mine. Stretching "usually sings" to its broadest meaning, some additions to the list:

King Crimson - "Lark's Tongues in Aspic, Part II" (double trio version):

Dream Theater - "Ytse Jam" (apologies for the drum solo):

Mike Keneally - "Dolphins":

And, of course, Frank - "Strictly Genteel":


Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Have Your Hired Gun Call My Hired Gun

Adam Liptak is back, with another in his series of articles about American legal oddities in today's New York Times. Today's target - expert witnesses for hire. He sets the scene:

One expert, who had been testifying for defendants for 20 years, said the accused, Timothy M. Wilkins, was mentally retarded, had a verbal I.Q. of 58 and did not understand the proceedings.

The prosecution expert, who had testified for the state more than 200 times, said that Mr. Wilkins’s verbal I.Q. was 88, far above the usual cutoffs for mental retardation, and that he was competent to stand trial.

Judge Dillard, of the Johnson County District Court in Iowa City, did what American judges and juries often do after hearing from dueling experts: he threw up his hands. The two experts were biased in favor of the parties who employed them, the judge said, and they had given predictable testimony.
While that's an extreme example, it is the logical endpoint of a system where everyone (except the judge and jury, of course) are brought into court as part of an adversarial process.

While not unique to the United States, the expert-for-hire system is fairly rare, even among other common law countries. Some others have adopted an Australian alternative called "hot tubbing":
In that procedure, also called concurrent evidence, experts are still chosen by the parties, but they testify together at trial — discussing the case, asking each other questions, responding to inquiries from the judge and the lawyers, finding common ground and sharpening the open issues. In the Wilkins case [discussed above], by contrast, the two experts 'did not exchange information,' the Court of Appeals for Iowa noted in its decision last year.

Australian judges have embraced hot tubbing. 'You can feel the release of the tension which normally infects the evidence-gathering process,' Justice Peter McClellan of the Land and Environmental Court of New South Wales said in a speech on the practice. 'Not confined to answering the question of the advocates,' he added, experts 'are able to more effectively respond to the views of the other expert or experts.'
Would that work in the US? It's hard to tell. For one thing, it's premised on the idea that there is some expert consensus that can be reached. In some instances, that's just not possible. There is a reasonable debate and a judge or jury will have to pick the best one. By the way, it's worth noting that, in most other counties, judges will make the pick, not juries.

The other potential problem with hot tubbing in US courts is that it is designed to get at "truth," which is not the goal of the American legal system. A legal resolution, with winners and losers, is. Truth is sometimes a happy byproduct of that process, but it's not the goal.

Fact is, the problems Liptak points out with experts-for-hire are inherent in an adversarial legal system. As long as it's winner take all, you better walk into the ring with the best weaponry:
Melvin Belli, the famed trial lawyer . . .. 'If I got myself an impartial witness,' he once said, 'I’d think I was wasting my money.'
And your client's time.

Olympic Formula Libre

Every now and then, some race series tries to run on the idea of "formula libre" - a free formula, basically free of rules and restrictions. It's run what you brung. There are no unfair advantages. In this age of plastic surgery, body sculpting, and commercially peddled mind altering chemicals, is it time for the Olympics to follow suit?

That's the argument (basically) in this New York Times column, in relation to performance enhancing drugs:

Once upon a time, the lords of the Olympic Games believed that the only true champion was an amateur, a gentleman hobbyist untainted by commerce. Today they enforce a different ideal. The winners of the gold medals are supposed to be natural athletes, untainted by technology. After enough 'scandals,' the amateur myth eventually died of its own absurdity. The natural myth is still alive in Beijing, but it’s becoming so far-fetched — and potentially dangerous — that some scientists and ethicists would like to abandon it, too.

What if we let athletes do whatever they wanted to excel?

Before you dismiss this notion, consider what we’re stuck with today. The system is ostensibly designed to create a level playing field, protect athletes’ health and set an example for children, but it fails on all counts.
The argument is based on the idea that it's impossible to actually police these things, so take the reigns off and forget about it. It's not an incredibly persuasive argument. Competitors will always exploit whatever rule set they're given, some in a good-natured attempt to discover every nook and cranny of the rules' penumbras, while others will outright cheat. There may be better ways to enforce the rules, but there will always be people breaking them. Indeed, as this comment at the Times blog points out, the whole point of sport is artificial restriction on abilities. That's where the challenge lies.

The more interesting argument, I think, is in the idea of the "natural myth" as an Olympic ideal. What does that even mean? Look at the people competing in Beijing this year. How "natural" do they look to you? Are all the rigorous training methods, specialized diets, and cutting edge medical treatments that got them there "natural?" How can we tell?

If we've long since moved past the ideal of the "natural" athlete, anyway, what's the harm in letting them use all the tools science and commerce has made available to them to go faster, farther, and higher?

Monday, August 11, 2008

Finger Lakes Fantasia

As I mentioned last week, K (the girlfriend) and I took a little road trip in celebration of her birthday. We took off to the Finger Lakes region of New York, where K's friends J and W live, along with her de facto niece, V.

J & W live on the mountain rising from the eastern shore of Keuka Lake, above the village of Hammondsport. As you might expect, they have a magnificent view off their front porch:

Excuse the poor patch job - that's an attempt to string together three pix in panorama fashion. You get the gist, at least.

K and I spent the first night in the area in nearby Corning, which is something like a small city. It's know as Crystal City because of its long connection with glass manufacturing. With that in mind, the next morning K and I headed off to the Corning Museum of Glass. Here's K, peaking out from behind an over sized version of the museum logo, to which I took an instant liking. I've finally figured out why - it's very similar to the stylized "Q" that IQ used in the booklet artwork for Subterranea!

In addition to housing a huge collection of glass art and exhibits on the history and making of glass, the museum has a hands on bit where you, the patron, can make your own bit of glass art. K took advantage of the opportunity to make a glass bead (which she'll incorporate into some jewelry project down the road).

So the studio was our first stop, where K picked out the three colored glass rods that would get melt into shape:

K (with an assist from her Austrian assistant/summer wage slave) flaming away at the base glass bit:

And here we have said glass bit, before it cooled down any at all. Unfortunately, I wasn't quick enough to get a picture of the finished product before it took a sand bath for cooling. When K gets it in the mail, maybe she'll take a picture for me (hint hint!).

After the above craftiness, we moved on to the objects de art at the museum. A few of the more interesting pieces . . .. A formal gown made entirely from glass:

A large collection of glass knives, poised above an unsuspecting country town. I really like this one. I'm not sure what that says about me:

When K saw this one, she said it had to go on her wall. The least I could do was snap a picture.

After we finished up at the museum, K and I met up with J & V and wandered around Corning's "gaffer* district," which includes a bunch of shops and restaurants. It also includes a couple of interesting pieces of building art. A gratuitous raspberry face on one building . . .

. . . and a buffalo bursting out of another. That's the Rockwell Museum of Western Art, so it at least goes with the theme. Note the artsy touch of me taking a picture of K taking a picture of the buffalo.

That was day one. Day two we took in a large dose of the region's other main industry - wine making. The shorts of both Keuka and Seneca Lakes are just riddled with vineyards. We decided to head up the eastern side of Seneca Lake and sample the local wares (K and I sampled, J drove, and V provided astute commentary). The ones that we hit, that I can find online and remember were:

There was at least one more, but I can't find it online and we didn't buy anything there, so perhaps that doesn't count.

I'll admit that, while I enjoy a glass of wine now and then, I'm far from an expert. K and J (and even V, for crying out loud) would talk about each sample in the terms of the trade, while I simply fell back on a simple "like it / don't like it" duopoly. That being said, I appreciated a bit of honesty from one of the folks at Atwater when I admitted that fact. He explained that I was no different from anyone else and that all those medals they so proudly display are really just popularity contests that comes down to the same "like it / hate it" choice. Props to him.

At Chateau La Fayette Reneau, we went out on the back porch and J took this loverly picture of K and myself:

Oh, yeah, and we bought some wine:

If you're playing at home, there's (from L-R) Catherine Valley's Seneca Steamer; Penguin Bay's Valvin Muscat and Percussion (x2); Chateau La Fayette Reneau's Seyval Chardonnay and Curvee Rouge; Red Newt's Red Newt White, Red Eft, and Gewurztraminer; Atwater's Meritage; Chateau La Fayette Reneau's Pinot Noir Blanc (pink wine for my sisters in law); Rasta's Sweet Forgiveness; and McGreggor's Sunflower White (a gift from J&W for K's BDay).

Day three we kicked around "downtown" Hammondsport before heading back to K's place. All in all a nice restful getaway. If you really need to see more pictures, they're here.

* Like you, I once wondered, "what the fuck's a gaffer? Contrary to what these guys say, it's not someone who gaffs. It's the highest rung on the ladder of glass workers.

The Menagerie

I finally managed to get pictures of all of the girlfriend's critters.

Of course, you're all familiar with Maia:

And then we have McNally, the more outgoing and talkative of the two cats. He's fond of crawling over you while you sleep and jumping into places where he shouldn't be. An exceptionally loud purrer.

Finally, the most elusive of the critters, Kali. For a long time after I met the girlfriend, Kali would simply retreat to a spot under the bed when I was there, rarely seen. Sort of like the Loch Ness Monster - but smaller and furrier. Recently she's become a lot more sociable, but is still more laid back and less twerpy than her tabby brother.

More critter pictures here.

Now This Is Retarded

A while back, the girlfriend and I were at the movies and saw a preview for Tropic Thunder. I immediately thought, "a comedy film about Americans getting shot at in a South Asian jungle - this is not going to sit well with some folks." I just didn't figure out it would come from this angle:

A coalition of disabilities groups is expected as early as Monday to call for a national boycott of the film 'Tropic Thunder' because of what the groups consider the movie’s open ridicule of the intellectually disabled.

* * *

A particular sore point has been the film’s repeated use of the term 'retard' in referring to a character, Simple Jack, who is played by Mr. Stiller in a subplot about an actor who chases an Oscar by portraying a mindless dolt.
Of course, it's perfectly OK for someone to decide to boycott a film on such grounds. I boycott lots of films because they suck, for example. And it's even OK to try and convince other folks to do the same.

But this is just, well, retarded:
Mr. [Timothy] Shriver [chairman of the Special Olympics] said that he had also begun to ask members of Congress for a resolution condemning what he called the movie’s 'hate speech' and calling for stronger federal support of the intellectually disabled.
Oh, please. For one thing, Congress has better things to do than wag its collective finger at movie makers for making fun of a particular group. For another, if a broad satirical movie is really "hate speech," then the term is so broad as to have no real meaning.

Contrary to popular opinion, you do not have a right to be free from offense in this country. The First Amendment ensures that people can say mean things about your or your group. And it also ensure that you can verbally fire back. That's all that is needed.

Bye, Chef

I don't know what's sadder - that my first post vacation post is about the death of Isaac Hayes or that when I heard about it my first thought wasn't "Shaft" but . . .

Of course, maybe that's because I never really realized what a career Hayes had:

Soon he began writing songs with David Porter, and their music — numbers like 'Soul Man' and 'Hold On, I’m Comin’ ' for Sam and Dave, and 'B-A-B-Y' for Carla Thomas — came to embody the Stax aesthetic. It was tight, catchy pop, but full of sweat and grit, a proudly unpolished Southern alternative to Motown.
Damn. Thanks for the tunes, Soul Man.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Programming Note

Due to a busy briefing schedule followed by a short road trip in celebration of the anniversary of the girlfriend's birth, there won't be any action at the Ranch this coming week. Play nice while I'm away, kids!

Friday, August 01, 2008

A Neat Film Resource

Since I know there are some movie lovers amongst the readership here at the Ranch, I thought I'd pass along a really cool link I discovered via this post over at Volokh. It's called Chasing the Frog and it's dedicated to exploring the true stories behind movies "based on" real events. They also have a section for books turned into films.