Thursday, January 31, 2008

Album of the Day

Recollection Harvest, by Djam Karet (2005): This is an odd album. For one thing, it's actually two albums in one, Recollection Harvest and Indian Summer. The first one covers the first 45 minutes of the disc and is very different from the only other Djam Karet I've got, Live at Orion. That album is dominated by the dual guitar interplay and tricky rhythm section work. Some synths are there, but mostly as background. On Recollection Harvest, by contrast, they're right up front - along with gobs of tasty Mellotron - and carry a lot of the melodic load. Indian Summer, covering the last 25 minutes, is more ambient and has some more ethic influences and is more along the lines of what I expected when I picked this disc up. Both hunks are really good, so it's really like getting two albums for the price of one.

Quantifying the "Ick" Factor

Today's New York Times has an interesting article on what I call the "Ick" Factor - that deeply ingrained gut feeling that makes you object to something, even if you can't explain why. Economists are trying to figure out why that happens, as in the case of situations where the Ick Factor deploys when money gets involved:

Often introducing money into the exchange — putting it into the marketplace — is what people find repugnant. Mr. Bloom asserted that money is a relatively new invention in human existence and therefore 'unnatural.'

* * *

Money is clearly the issue in situations involving the human body. Paying young women for eggs to be fertilized and men for sperm is now common practice — even though they are still regularly referred to as 'donors.' Yet the sale of tissue, cells and eggs for stem-cell research or organs for transplant are still the subject of vehement dispute.
For all the mularkey that "the business of America is business," we often get freaked out in certain situations where a profit motive seems inappropriate. That's illogical, in most instances. But it's a hard reflex to get past.

A Dubious Honor

This week's list over at the Onion AV Club singles out for scorn "18 particularly ridiculous prog-rock album covers." I own 12 of them.

Including all the ones on the first page!

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Album of the Day

Picaresque, by The Decemberists (2005): When I first picked up The Crane Wife and blogged about it last year, Brandon from Ground and Sky recommended picking up the band's earlier albums. I kept my eye open and eventually picked the all up. This is the best of the lot and, in my mind, is about level with The Crane Wife. I think it's actually more consistently excellent, but lacks the serious highs of the later album (I'm generally in agreement with Brandon's review). Which is not to say it isn't chocked full of good ones. But sometimes consistently excellent and occasionally brilliant tend to balance themselves out.

I'll Take One to Go, Please

When Mazda started it's American LeMan Series program, it dropped one of its iconic rotary engines in the back of a Lola P2 prototype and went to town. Sadly, the rotary doesn't have the stones to keep up with the Porsches and (now) Acuras. In response, last year, they swapped the rotary for the turbocharged 2.3 liter inline-4 MZR-R engine. That's the racing version of the package driving the Heart of Gold. So, naturally, when the 2008 car was unveiled, with some new sponsorship assistance, I paid attention:


Wonder if it would fit in my garage?

Supreme Court Hijinks Get National Attention

An elected supreme court can be so much fun. Recently, a scandal involving the Chief Justice of the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals has dominated the local headlines. In brief, pictures surfaced that showed CJ Maynard and Massey Energy chief Don Blankenship hob nobbing with each other while on vacation in Europe. While the story is that they both just happened to be in the same place at the same time, it's raised serious questions given Blankenship's big spending on recent judicial elections. A major case involving a verdict against Massey was reversed on appeal by a 3-2 vote, with Maynard and Justice Benjamin (who benefited from Blankenship's spending in his election) were in the majority. Maynard has since recused himself and the case will be reconsidered.

That scandal, and the Massey backstory, are apparently the inspiration for John Grisham's new thriller, The Appeal, as explained in this Christian Science Monitor column written by a WV native currently at Cornell Law School:The real-life analogy to Grisham's book:

a case in my home state of West Virginia. There, in 2002, Massey Energy, the largest coal producer in Appalachia, lost a $50 million verdict in the local courts. As in Grisham's fiction, the five-member Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia was severely divided. And before Massey's appeal reached the state's highest court, the 2004 judicial election would pit a "liberal" incumbent against an unknown corporate lawyer who had never argued a case before the court.

And as in Grisham's book, the campaign was high-cost and nasty. Both sides spent more than $5 million. Massey's CEO alone spent more than $3 million out of pocket to attack the incumbent. The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University ranked it one of the nation's most vicious and costly judicial elections. When all the attacks and counterattacks were over, the unknown attorney defeated the sitting justice.
The argument goes that when you elect judges, such shenanigans are bound to happen. Is that really true? Well, perhaps. Over at Concurring Opinions, there's a post about a new study of the Louisiana Supreme Court Justices and the potential influence of campaign donors:
Their basic calculations indicated the justices to have voted in favor of their contributors, on average, 65% of the time. (In the case of some justices, the level rose to 80%.)
Digging more deeply into the study, via Adam Liptak at the New York Times:
Justice John L. Weimer, for instance, was slightly pro-defendant in cases where neither side had given him contributions, voting for plaintiffs 47 percent of the time. But in cases where he received money from the defense side (or more money from the defense when both sides gave money), he voted for the plaintiffs only 25 percent of the time. In cases where the money from the plaintiffs’ side dominated, on the other hand, he voted for the plaintiffs 90 percent of the time. That is quite a swing. . . .

Larger contributions had larger effects, the study found. Justice Catherine D. Kimball was 30 percent more likely to vote for a defendant with each additional $1,000 donation. The effect was even more pronounced for Justice Weimer, who was 300 percent more likely to do so.
It's hard to draw a direct cause/effect relationship here - correlation is not causation, after all. It's possible, though not particularly plausible, that those results under scrutiny were legally correct, regardless of any potential bias. Still, as the CO post says:
If they're even a little right, though, it seems like quite a finding. And perhaps quite telling, about justice and the elected justice.
Indeed.

... and Then There Were Still Quite a Few

With Super Duper Tsunami Tuesday Bright Happy Funtime Hour (Presented by Chocolate Frosted Sugar Bombs) right around the corner, presidential candidates are starting to drop like flies. Fred Thompson bit the dust last week. Now, on the heels of his third place finish in Florida, Rudi "9/11 Uber Alles" Giuliani is on his way out. It's hard to remember that, at one point, Rudy was the clear cut front runner:

In the beginning, few cracks were evident in the Giuliani campaign machine. He led the Republican field in polls conducted by The New York Times and CBS News throughout the summer, as his support peaked in August at 38 percent nationally in a four-way fight with Mr. McCain, Mr. Romney and Fred D. Thompson. That put him 20 points ahead of his next closest competitor, Mr. Thompson, who has since dropped out of the race.
But Rudy's unique strategery - to basically skip the early states and count on a Florida win to propel him into Super Tuesday - fell flat. The New York Times article there chronicles how it all went so wrong so fast.

Although I have no love for any of the current or past crop of GOP contenders, Rudy was the one who worried me the most. For one thing, with his more moderate stance on social issues (the same thing that doomed him in the GOP races) would have made him a formidable general election opponent. For another, Rudy's emphasis on 9/11 and general ruthlessness led me to believe that he was the one most likely to take the extra-legal maneuvers of the Duhbya days and firmly entrench them. So, areverderci, Rudy - don't let the door hit you on the ass on the way out.

Meanwhile, the Democratic field is essentially down to the big two, as John Edwards pulled out this afternoon. I had not written Edwards off in my mind as worth my vote, so I'm sorry to see him go. I don't know that I would have voted for him, eventually, but he was good to have around to keep Hillary and Barrack semi-honest.

As for the choice between those two - oy. I'm reminded of a Sunday Bloom County that ran around the time of the 1988 election. Opus goes into the voting and is presented with two choices: "wimp" (Bush) or "shrimp" (Dukakis). Unable to decide, he asks the old lady running the poling place, "[c]ould I, like, write in 'Margaret Thatcher?'" "NO!," she screams back. Back to the polling booth - more pondering - "Gregory Peck?" "NO!!" To the booth one more time, Opus finally makes a choice and his hit in the face by a pie thrown up by the voting machine. Out on the sidewalk afterwards, he tells Portnoy, "I tell you, it's not the results that are important . . . it's that we participate in the process." A disgusted Portnoy - also with pie all over his face - shoots back "Aw, shaddup!"

Needless to say, I'm feeling a bit like Opus right now.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Album of the Day

Diacronie Metronomiche, by Deux ex Machina (1996): Italian proggers Deux ex Machina have a hyperactive, complex style that can be daunting to the unfamiliar. On top of explosive guitar/keys/violin interplay, you've got vocalist Alberto Piras howling away (in Latin, no less) with the confidence of a cross between Queensryche's Geoff Tate and Area's Demetrio Stratos. Imagine all that and, in the words of Nigel Tufnel, turning it up to 11. That's what you get on this live album, drawn from the band's first three studio albums. All that makes it sound impenetrable and unlistenable, which isn't true. In fact, it's a lot of fun - although I'm not sure I'd want to listen to it all day!

Does An Author Owe the World His Work?

Over at Slate (via Concurring Opinions) is an article dealing with a fascinating question - if an author says he doesn't want his work published, should people respect his wishes? In the case at issue, the author is Vladimir Nobokov (of Lolita fame), the "people" is his son and sole surviving heir Dimitri, and the work in question is an unfinished manuscript (written on index cards) called The Original of Laura. It currently resides in a safe deposit box in Switzerland.

Nobokov apparently was very clear about what he wanted to happen to The Original of Laura - that it be destroyed. But, for whatever reason, neither Dimitri nor Nobokov's wife could bring themselves to do the deed. Dimitri has vacillated semi-publicly about what he would do and may have finally come to a decision. It's not completely clear.

I'm not sure what the right thing to do is in such a situation. On the one hand, Nobokov's wish seems pretty clear. I don't read this to be a situation where someone alleges that he wouldn't want it published because it was unfinished and was such a perfectionist - there appears to be a specific request to destroy the would-be-book. It doesn't seem like a situation that allows for discretion on Dimitri's part. On the other hand, what if The Original of Laura - even in its unfinished state - is a revelation? Bruce at CO mentions to the case of Max Brod, who disregarded Franz Kafka's wishes to destroy his unfinished work upon his death. As a result, we have access to some of his most interesting work, including The Trial.

I think in most instances, the answer is clear and the wishes of the deceased should be respected. But it's hard to say that someone who is such a literary giant should be able to posthumously limit their output. On the other hand, there's surely no duty for authors to publish anything, so why should death change things? And what of things that were never meant for publication in the first place, like letters, notes, etc.?

Regardless, I'm glad I'm not in Dimitri's shoes.

More on Justice, Inc.

Yesterday, I blogged about a Sunday New York Times article about the economic impact of locking people up (or, more precisely, not locking so many people up). A related article appears in today's Times (via TalkLeft). It deals with another part of the criminal justice system that proves profitable some folks - the bail bond business. Although the concept of bond and bondsmen dates back to olde England, the modern bail-for-profit business is uniquely American:

Other countries almost universally reject and condemn Mr. Spath’s trade, in which defendants who are presumed innocent but cannot make bail on their own pay an outsider a nonrefundable fee for their freedom.

'It’s a very American invention,' John Goldkamp, a professor of criminal justice at Temple University, said of the commercial bail bond system. 'It’s really the only place in the criminal justice system where a liberty decision is governed by a profit-making businessman who will or will not take your business.'
It's not a universally beloved peculiarity - four states have done away with the practice, in addition to the federal government. It attracts scorn from both sides of the criminal aisle, yet is persists, like so many things do, 'cause there's money to be made. It's the American way!

Monday, January 28, 2008

Album of the Day

Some Rainy Morning, by Robert Cray (1995): While I prattle on about prog this and prog that on most days, blues is well represented in my collection. That's a darn good thing, 'cause without blues between us I'm not sure the girlfriend and I would have much in common, musically speaking. Of the blues guys, Robert Cray is sort of a mixed bag. I've never been a huge fan of his really thin barely plugged in tone, but he plays it well. On the other hand, he has one of the best voices going and is a good writer, to boot. Which means, more than anything else - I need to go get some more Robert Cray albums!

Prison, Inc.

Everyone would probably agree that having fewer people in prison would be a good thing, right? If we could close a bunch of facilities because there were fewer people in need of being shut away, people would cheer, right? Well, not everybody. As this New York Times article from yesterday makes clear, closing prisons has economic effects on the (often rural) communities that tied their fortune to them.

While I have sympathy for anybody who loses a job because business dries up, we shouldn't let that sympathy blind us to the realities of incarceration. Locking people up as an economic development plant just isn't sound. No person's job is worth another person's freedom.

The Perils of In-Court Reading Material

I don't know about most lawyers, but I occasionally take reading material with me when I go to court, if I think I might be waiting for a while. If that happens, I'll usually grab a case, transcript, or law review article that I'm reading and take it with me. I try and keep it somewhat relevant to the job. My lone attempt at contraband occurred when I tried to take a newspaper with me into the Fourth Circuit on an oral argument day (I wasn't arguing - I'd gone the day before). That's not allowed, for reasons that were not provided to me.

Via Concurring Opinions, however, I see that not everyone takes the law with them when they need some in court reading material:

A Rowan County District Court judge held a local attorney in contempt Wednesday for reading a men's magazine during a court session, according to a contempt order filed in the Rowan County Clerk of Court's Office.

Judge Kevin Eddinger found Salisbury attorney Todd Paris in contempt after he saw him reading a Maxim magazine with 'a female topless model' on the cover, according to the order.

When Eddinger gave Paris a chance to respond he apologized and 'stated in his view the magazine was not pornography, was available at local stores and that he did not intend contempt,' the order said.
Apparently Eddinger isn't aware of all those obscenity cases talking about how just because something is for sale locally doesn't mean that it meets the relevant "community standards." But I am a little confused, 'cause in my experience (browsing on the Krogers newsstand, mind you) Maxim doesn't actually have "topless" pics, just scantily clad one. That raises the question of whether (a) the judge needs his eyes checked or (2) Paris was reading something a little more hard core.

That being said, this seems like a huge overreaction by the judge. It doesn't sound like there was a crowd gathered around Paris and his quasi smut book. When called the bench, the judge wouldn't allow him to just throw it away. However, it doesn't look like Paris exactly covered himself in glory once called on the carpet:
When the judge returned to the bench, Paris tried again to justify having the magazine in court, saying the magazine belonged to his girlfriend and asking Eddinger to look at the mailing label.

Paris also said he has taken similar magazines into courtrooms in other counties and never had a problem.

At some point, Paris read some of the captions under the pictures, which the officer described as explicit.

The officer said many people in the courtroom couldn't understand what was going on.

Eddinger then showed the magazine from the bench, with the crowd erupting in laughter.
That's classy - "my girlfriend did it!" Maybe the contempt is justified if he's just a schmuck.

Album of Last Friday

Alba Y Ocaso, by Codice (1999): Believe it or not, there is an active Mexican prog scene. While dominated by the prodigious output of Cast, other groups tend to get a word in edgewise. Codice decided to follow the "more is better" approach and provide two full discs of tunes on this release. Honestly? It's just too much. Like Cast, Codice follows in the footsteps of Hackett-era Genesis and (to a lesser extent) Camel. Their use of lots of nylon string guitar and (fairly sparse) lyrics in Spanish help to set them apart from their countrymen. That's about all that's noteworthy, however. No single tune really stands out and there's so much there that by the end of things, you're just glad that it's over. That makes it sound worse than it is, but it's true.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Album of the Day

Sacred Scenes and Characters, by Canterbury Glass (1968): Every year, I put together a list of CDs I want as part of an Xmas list for the family. They're almost all obscure stuff that nobody's every heard of and you can't get except over the Internet. Imagine my surprise when I got this disc from my parents for Xmas last year and learned that my dad stumbled across it in one of the local shops. To out obscure me (there's no entry for this band in the Gibraltar Encyclopedia of Progressive Rock) - with a brick and mortar find, no less - is no mean feat!

The album itself is notable for the early presence of two guys who weren't actually in the band. One is engineer Chris Kimsey, who, in addition to his work with U2 that's in the promo blurb, went on to work with such prog luminaries as Emerson, Lake, & Palmer (engineer on Brain Salad Surgery) and Marillion (producer on Misplaced Childhood and Clutching at Straws). The other is guitarist Steve Hackett, who guests on "Prolouge" (actually the last track) several years before he hooked up with Genesis.

Musically, it's a solid piece of late 60s proto-prog, with some blusier elements (some nice harmonica here and there), with four long tracks, plus a bonus. Hackett's trademark sound hasn't developed, yet, so his contribution isn't all that distinctive. Despite the title, it's not an overly ambitious attempt as rock religiosity. Certainly better than this classic:

This pretentious ponderous collection of religious rock psalms is enough to prompt the question, 'What day did the Lord create Spinal Tap, and couldn't he have rested on that day too?'
And's it's loads better than Shark Sandwich!

The Long Ear of the Law

This may come as a shock to some people, but in jail you are almost completely stripped of your privacy. That extends to your communications to the outside world. Except for communication with your attorney, everything else is subject to being monitored. I know in the jails here in West Virginia, there are big signs in the visitation rooms and phone rooms that say, in no uncertain terms, "we are listening."

Don't believe me? Check out this tale, via SL&P. Melissa Arrington pleaded guilty to negligent homicide and aggravated DUI (BAC of .156!) for running over and killing a bicyclist, Paul L'Ecuyer. Under normal circumstances, she would face about 4.5 years in prison on those charges. But she blabbed:

She could have gotten as few as four years behind bars, but Superior Court Judge Michael Cruikshank sentenced her Tuesday to 10½ years -- one year shy of the maximum.

Cruikshank said he found a telephone conversation between Arrington and an unknown male friend, a week after L'Ecuyer was killed, to be 'breathtaking in its inhumanity.'

During the conversation, the man told Arrington that an acquaintance believed she should get a medal and a parade because she had 'taken out' a 'tree hugger, a bicyclist, a Frenchman and a gay guy all in one shot.'

Arrington laughed. When the man said he knew it was a terrible thing to say, she responded, 'No, it's not.'

Assistant Public Defender Michael Rosenbluth told the judge his client has never been 'cold, callous or flippant' about L'Ecuyer's death and has always felt remorseful.
Ouch.

I feel sorry for the PD, as it appears he wasn't aware of his client's statements until after he argued on her behalf. It's hard enough to get juries and judges to see your client as something more than just a criminal, to reshape them into a human being, without the client "helping" out.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Album of the Day

Happy Days, by Catherine Wheel (1995): Here's another of my "one-disc wonders," only it took a while for me to appreciate this one. I picked it up blind (er, deaf) when Marillion's Mark Kelly mentioned them online somewhere. Of course, they sound nothing like Marillion (although I can hear a little influence flowing the other way). Lots of chunky guitars and short blasting songs. The exception being the longish more atmospheric "Eat My Dust You Insensitive Fuck." A handful of the songs are really great, while some others fall flat. Overall, there's enough of the former to overshadow the later, but I'll admit that outside of the A-Z I rarely listen to the disc start to finish.

Bigfoot's Alive . . . on Mars?!?

So sayeth the BBC. Well, not exactly. The BBC is just reporting on speculation that's been growing on the Net since NASA released this photo, taken in 2004 by the Spirit spacecraft/rover when it landed on Mars. If you look really closely at the left-hand side of the photo, well:

A magnified version of the picture, posted on the internet, appears to some to show what resembles a human form among a crop of rocks.

While some bloggers have dismissed the image as a trick of light, others say it is evidence of an alien presence.
Take a look - it really does resemble those blurry photos you see of alleged bigfoots (bigfeet?). Other theories are even more bizarre:
One said it was a garden gnome, another that it was the Virgin Mary.

* * *

But the consensus seemed to be that it bore a striking resemblance to the Little Mermaid statue in the Danish capital, Copenhagen.

Poster 'Madurobob' said it was a statue 'obviously built by an ancient civilisation that later departed Mars and settled Denmark'.
So the Danes are aliens? That would explain Peter Schmeichel.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Album of the Day

For Girls Who Grow Plump In the Night, by Caravan (1973): This is one of those "one disc wonders" I have - where I have only one album from a band that I like quite a bit, but I never seem to get around to getting more of their stuff. Caravan was part of the Canterbury prog scene, although the jazz influences are less pronounced. There's lots of good viola on this album, which makes it stand out a bit from that crowd. Besides, how can you not love an album with titles like "C'thlu Thlu," "The Dog, The Dog, He’s At It Again," and "Derek's Long Thing" (a bonus previously unreleased track).

In the Interest of Fair Play

During the presidential campaign season I've dogged Republicans Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney for their attempts at religious campaigning. In order to show that, when it comes to religion and politics I'm an equal opportunity ranter, check out Glenn Greenwald's examination of Barack Obama's "Committed Christian" flier in South Carolina.

I realize that Obama has to counter the bullshit whispering campaign that he's really a Muslim who, if elected, will establish (along with Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota) a new caliphate in the United States. And I realize that religious voters are a big demographic, even in the Democratic party. I just wish candidates could reach out to them on shared values, rather than blatantly playing the "See, I'm one of you" game.

Speaking of Awards . . .

The Oscar nominations were announced this morning in LA. You can find the entire list of nominees here. The nominees for the big one - best picture - are:

I've seen only No Country . . ., so I won't begin to offer opinions. I am sort of surprised by the awards season showing of Atonement, given the luke warm reviews I read when it first came out. But it won a Golden Globe and has been nominated for a BAFTA best picture as well, so what do I know. I am a little suspicious because it's the one best picture nominee missing from the best directory category, replaced by the French film The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. I've never really understood how that could work, but what do I know?

Screw Just Being Nominated

It's nice to win one once in a while! Actually, I'm not quite sure what this one means or what I've done to deserve it, but that never stopped me from accepting accolades before. With that in mind, heaps of thanks to jedi jawa for awarding me with a Roar for Powerful Words! Spiffy graphic soon to follow. The whole thing apparently grew out of a blog in New Zealand (which, I've been told, is nowhere near West Virginia) and has spread across the blogosphere like so much virtual kudzu. What can I say - it's nice to be recognized by my peers.

Unfortunately, this award comes with strings attached, unlike, say, a Nobel or Pulitzer. I have to come up with three rules that I think are essential for "good, powerful writing," and then pass the honor on to five other bloggers. That sounds an awful lot like work, and I don't even get an oversized novelty check, but here it goes.

Three Rules for Powerful Blogging

  1. When in doubt, use all caps, bold, and funky colors to give your readers a seizure. Nothing jazzes up a dull blog post, or punches up a factless political/religious/sports argument like some good ol' fashioned Internet shouting. Add in bold text and funny colors, and you'll confuse your readers so much that they'll agree with you just so they can go read another blog.
  2. Well documented and linked-to facts are never as interesting as completely unsubstantiated rumors. Never let reality get in the way of a good rant. Hold an unfounded grudge against [insert presidential candidate name here]? Go on, write that you heard he spent his college years snorting crystal meth off the backsides of underage Cambodian sex slaves. Who cares if it isn't true? Imagine the number of comments you'll get!
  3. Don't take yourself - or your blog - too seriously. Unless you get paid for blogging, always keep in mind that it's a hobby and it should be fun. If you're not getting anything out of it, if it becomes a chore, or you think of blogging as some sort of obligation, just stop. Don't be afraid to take a blogging vacation to recharge your batteries (and upgrade your color palate and font size options).
Obviously, only that last one is serious. Blame the first two on the third one. And now to pass it on to five deserving victims, er, winners:
  • DC Comictician on Star Trekiology: Fully employing jedi jawa's Third Rule, I'll take a a couple of his suggestions for blogs worthy of recognition that he didn't make it to. The very Reverend Elvis shows us the way to the truth - that the nation is going to hell in a handbasket until we submit to the wisdom of the Justice League.
  • Raging Red: Another of jedi jawa's suggestions, another blog from a local lawyer that's a great read. Needs more frequent posts, tho', Red!
  • Interview With the Chinchilla: How can you not recognize the blog of a rodent who outscales his diminutive proportions every time he posts? Plus, he's interviewed me twice, so I figure I owe him.
  • Carpe You Some Diem!: Art, art, and more art. And occasionally music. And family stuff, too. And teaching stuff. Just go see for yourself, OK?
  • A Public Defender: A non-West Virginian, but a fellow public defender soul. Gideon tells it like it is for those of us who toil in the criminal justice system on the side of the accused and (frequently) guilty.
There could be more - everything in the links to your right is worth reading. Check 'em out and spread the love.

UPDATE: Surfing through the blogosphere later this evening, it looks like there are some redundant awards being handed out. Oh well. Not like it's a bad thing for people to be too rewarded for something, is it?

Monday, January 21, 2008

The Risk of Being an Outlaw Nation

Last week, both TalkLeft and SL&P pointed to an AP article about murder suspects from the United States fleeing to Mexico. Why is that important? Because it allows them to escape the death penalty:

Mexico routinely returns fugitives to the U.S. to face justice. But under a 1978 treaty with the U.S., Mexico, which has no death penalty, will not extradite anyone facing possible execution. To get their hands on a fugitive, U.S. prosecutors must agree to seek no more than life in prison.

Other countries, including France and Canada, also demand such "death assurances." But the problem is more common with Mexico, since it is often a quick drive from the crime scene for a large portion of the United States.
Shockingly, this pisses off some prosecutors and "victims advocates," for whom there is no justice without a state-sponsored killing. What they seem to miss is that Mexico (or any other country) is under no obligation to extradite anybody anywhere for any crime. It's only via treaties, like the 1978 one discussed in the article, that the United States has any right to request the return of those fugitives. Mexico can put whatever strings it wants on their return, assuming the United States agrees to them in the first place.

When it comes to the death penalty, the United States is an outlaw nation. We shouldn't get pissy when other countries treat us as such. It's the risk we run for being so out of step with the rest of the civilized world on this issue.

Those Big Lawyer Bucks

Last year, I took umbrage at another blogger's advice to avoid, at all costs, becoming a lawyer. However, in conclusion, I wrote:

A law degree is not necessarily a ticket to great wealth. It's not a free pass into the upper class. It's something that lets you do a job. If it's a job you want to do, it's a good thing. If your heart really lies someone else, it's a burden and it sucks. Make your own choice.
Don't just take it from me. Take it from Kristen Wolf, who rolled up tens of thousands of dollars of law school debt, only to discover that she didn't want to be a lawyer:
A B+ student at B[oston] U, she thought she could expect a starting salary of around $85,000 if she went into private practice—which is, she says, what BU and other such law schools listed as the average for their graduates on their admission materials. But, as detailed in an earlier ABAJournal.com post, such averages can be comprised of stratospheric starting salaries paid to a lucky few stellar students at the top of their class—for first-years at top-paying firms in major cities, annual pay can now exceed $160,000—and much, much lower salaries paid to the rank-and-file of ordinary law graduates.
Wolf, who is on a "one-woman mission to talk people out of law school," notes the financial realities:
It affects my life in every way. And the jobs that you think are going to be there won’t necessarily be there at all. Most people I know that are practicing attorneys don’t make the kind of money they think lawyers make. They’re making $40,000 a year, not $160,000.
Fact is, most lawyers never make the kind of money that non-lawyers imagine that they do. As I read somewhere else (I really wish I knew where - honest!), most laypersons think it's like LA Law, but reality is closer to the early days of The Practice. Which is not to say that some lawyers don't become fabulously wealthy. But they're the exceptions, not the rule.

So, I'll reiterate what I said last year - if you don't actually want to practice law once you're aware of what it's really like, don't go to law school. It's money poorly spent and grief you don't need.

More Progress Passses NASCAR By

I've scoffed before at the decision by the NASCAR potentates to label their new chassis the "Car of Tomorrow." Now, as the 2008 racing season is about to get rolling, international sports car racing - where new ideas are actually being tried and refined - moves another step forward. Toyota, which last tacked the 24 Hours of Le Mans in its GT-One in 1999, will return in 2009 with a hybrid-powered prototype. It will take on the next-gen turbo-diesels of Audi and Peugeot. Perhaps even Honda may join in the fun by that point.

African Soccer With an American Twist

The African Cup of Nations - the continental championship for African national soccer teams - got underway this past weekend in Ghana. Last week, the New York Times profiled Senegal goalkeeper Bounda Coundoul, who came to the United States to play college soccer and now plies his trade in Major League Soccer. He's made quite an impression:

Coundoul made his international debut for Senegal in November, playing the second half in a 3-2 victory over Mali in Paris. In M.L.S. last season, Coundoul endeared himself to fans in Colorado when he arrived for the season opener at the Rapids’ new stadium dressed in traditional Senegalese garb.

He played all 30 regular-season games for the club, finishing third among the league’s goalkeepers with a 1.08 goals against average. He also had nine shutouts.

During a television interview, he coined a catchphrase, calling his passage 'Bouna Time!'
Bouna Time restarts in MLS on March 29, when the Rapids host the LA Galaxy in their 2008 MLS season opener.

Album of Last Friday

Feels Good to Me, by Bill Bruford (1977): Since my pick of Brand X for the last AotD installment was so popular, might as well tap another prog-drummer-goes-jazzy disc, right? In this case, it's Yes/King Crimson rhythmatist Bill Bruford leading his own band. After he and guitarist Alan Holdsworth left UK, Bill brought in bassist Jeff Berlin and keyboardist/harmonic consultant Dave Stewart (of Egg/Hatfield and the North/National Health fame) to round out the quartet, with vocalist Annette Peacock appearing on a few tracks as well. The music reminds a lot of UK gone fusionier, with a heavy helping of Stewart's style on the side. And, to continue the Brand X connection, guitarist John Goodsall provides some extra guitar and keyboardist Robin Lumley co-produces.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Album of the Day

Unorthodox Behaviour, by Brand X (1976): Back in the day, when Phil Collins wanted a change of pace from his day job, he didn't run off to do some snoozing Disney musical. He did what he did best - just be a drummer - with lots of different folks. One of those was fusion group Brand X, which he formed with Percy Jones (bass, primarily fretless), John Goodsall (guitar), and Robin Lumley (keyboards). Their debut album was a solid slice of jazz influenced prog that would set the band (in various arrangements) down a long and winding path. Thanks to the interaction between Collins and Jones, Brand X had a distinctively liquid feel that set them apart from their contemporaries.

Oh The Injustice!

OK, fine - so they've made a videogame version of Harvey Birdman: Attorney-at-Law, but in what formats? Wii? Check. PSP? Check. PS2? Check, again. Xbox or Xbox360? NOPE! Am I to be denied the thrill of controlling one of the two great legal cartoon influences in my life (the other being Lionel Hutz, of course)? Apparently. But, from this review in the New York Times, I'm not missing much. For those who have never seen the show:

As with other Adult Swim series like 'Aqua Teen Hunger Force' and 'The Brak Show,' Birdman is a meta-cartoon whose mix of mild social commentary, dopey humor and general weirdness seems aimed at the sort of people who memorize Monty Python routines, own a Jedi outfit, joust on the weekends and listen to obscure alternative rock bands.
Hey! I only fit two of those criteria!

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Album of the Day

Blackfield, by Blackfield (2004): Blackfield is one of the many side projects of Porcupine Tree guru Steven Wilson, a collaboration with Israeli musician Aviv Geffen (PT drummers Chris Maitland and Gavin Harrison come along for the ride, too). I picked it up because I'm a PT fan and I wasn't disappointed. The music and lyrics share a mood and general sound with later day PT, but the arrangements are much more restrained. There are no lengthy instrumental passages or leisurely soundscapes. But they're hardly simple upbeat pop songs, either (sample lyric: "We are a fucked up generation / It's cloudy now"). It's a good record to pull out every now and then, but not as compelling as PT's best.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

GOP=Hezbollah?

Hezbollah - the terrorist group cum political party in Lebanon - puts its focus right in the name: it literally means "Party of God" in Arabic. Will the Republican Party soon follow suit?* Yesterday, one of its leading presidential candidates proudly said that if the Constitution somehow transgresses his God's law, the founding document of this nation needs to change:

'[Some of my opponents] do not want to change the Constitution, but I believe it's a lot easier to change the constitution than it would be to change the word of the living God, and that's what we need to do is to amend the Constitution so it's in God's standards rather than try to change God's standards,' Huckabee said, referring to the need for a constitutional human life amendment and an amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman.

Huckabee often refers to the need to amend the constitution on these grounds, but he has never so specifically called for the Constitution to be brought within 'God's standards,' which are themselves debated amongst religious scholars. As a closing statement he asked the room of nearly 500 supporters to 'pray and then work hard, and in that order,' to help him secure a victory in Tuesday's GOP primary.
Of course, there's video:


Up until this point, it's been sort of amusing to watch the Frankenstein monster of the GOP that is Huckabee laying waste to the GOP's moneyed interests. But this shit's got to stop. Huckabee leaves no doubt that his loyalty lies with some imaginary sky king, not the Constitution he would be sworn to uphold. It's time for the more reasonable wings of the GOP to once and for all shut down the theocrats on its extreme right wing.

UPDATE: To be fair, it looks like Huck is getting his butt whumped pretty good in Michigan tonight.

* NOTE: I'm absolutely not saying the GOPers are terrorists or in any way on the level of Hezbollah. I'm saying that if the GOP follows Huckabee down this rabbit hole, it would be making political actions subject to religious dogma in the same fashion.

Album of the Day

Desire of the Rhino King, by Adrian Belew (1991): Belew's first few solo albums - made during his first stint in King Crimson - weren't initially released on CD and are hard (if not impossible) to find. In their place, Island produced this 21-track release, compiling tunes from each album on one disc. The first two, Lone Rhino and Twang Bar King are Belew and band ripping through his unique brand of off-kilter rock/pop. Highlights include the raucous "Paint the Road" (which shares its main riff with Crimson's "Thela Hun Ginjeet"), "The Ideal Woman" (complete with man in the street interview clips!), and two quasi-bookends dealing with the rigors of change ("The Lone Rhino" and "The Rail Song"). The remainder are from Desire Caught By the Tail, which is just Belew doing lots of things guitars generally shouldn't do, but end up sounding very cool.

The Monkey-Controlled Robot Threat

Forget the War on Terra (or Drugs or whatever), the economy, or wacky religious beliefs - why aren't the presidential candidates addressing this menace? It sounds right up Ron Paul's alley, to be honest:

If Idoya could talk, she would have plenty to boast about.

On Thursday, the 12-pound, 32-inch monkey made a 200-pound, 5-foot humanoid robot walk on a treadmill using only her brain activity.

She was in North Carolina, and the robot was in Japan.

It was the first time that brain signals had been used to make a robot walk, said Dr. Miguel A. L. Nicolelis, a neuroscientist at Duke University whose laboratory designed and carried out the experiment.
Actually, the plan is not for monkeys to use this kind of technology to overcome the human race and takes us into Planet of the Apes territory. The hope is that it will lead to technologies that will allow folks who have been paralyzed to walk again by transmitting brain signals to some sort of exoskeletal device. Pretty neat!

If Only Politicians Showed This Kind of Follow Through

I've written a lot in the past about the Supreme Court's Booker decision and how it really threw the world of federal sentencing into a state of higgledy-piggledy. Things were so messed up that trial judges within the same district couldn't agree on how things should work. Judge Kopf in the District of Nebraska wrote in a footnote to a decision back in 2005:

I like and have great respect for Judge Pratt. Nothing I say in this memorandum is intended as a personal criticism of him. I simply (but strongly) disagree with his legal reasoning on this subject. While I take the liberty of using Judge Pratt's decision as an example of a methodology that I think is incorrect, I certainly do not intend to single him out. Indeed, and to be fair, many of my colleagues (Judges Bataillon and Strom, for example) side with Judge Pratt. If I turn out to be wrong, I will buy them all a beer.
Judge Kopf later extended that bet to Doug Berman over at Sentencing Law & Policy. Today we learn from Doug that Judge Kopf is, indeed, a man of his word.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Album of the Day

Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967), by The Beatles: I don't listen to my Beatles albums often enough. So much of the rest of my collection rests on the foundation they set, but I rarely take the opportunity to actually pay attention to how good the foundation itself is. In that sense, I sometimes feel about Sgt. Pepper's like I do about the Godfather films. They had such an impact in their genre that by the time I finally got around to seeing them - after Goodfellas and The Sopranos and . . . that I was underwhelmed. That's the danger of being a foundation. People trod upon you all day long, but rarely take the time to appreciate you.

Am I the Only One Appalled By This?

The public schools in Putnam County - the betwixt Charleston and Huntington 'burbs where The Ranch is located - are considering a new voluntary plan to drug test students. The plan is to offer kids "incentives such as movie discounts, store coupons and restaurant gift certificates" to piss in a cup and have it tested - sent off to a Federal credentialed lab, no less. Just like our clients on probation and supervised release have to!

It's labeled as "voluntary," but you can be sure that kids who dare to resist - maybe they've heard of the Fourth Amendment from some scuzzy guy with a copy of the Constitution in his pocket - will draw suspicion. Which will probably result in mandatory tests for them. Hell - let's have drug tests for everybody K-12!

At least we know that these programs have produced results when they've been rolled out in the rest of the country, right?

Three studies have been done on the effectiveness of student drug testing, and they showed mixed results, Madras said.

'The [scientific] literature is not as mature as I would like it to be,' she said.
Translation - the facts don't back up my position, but I hope someday they will. Sort of like with the abstinence only "education" crowd, and all know how well that turned out.

This Is Sleazy

The next big contest in the presidential primaries is tomorrow in Michigan. Well, for the GOP, at least. The Democratic primary is essentially meaningless, as the state's decision to move the primary up to January resulted in the DNC basically telling the delegates "you're not welcome" at the convention in December. In the wake of that decision, Obama and Edwards pulled their names off the ballot, leaving Hillary as the only front runner left.

What's a Dem in Michigan to do with their, in essence, worthless vote? Well, there is an "undecided" option if their candidate of choice isn't on the ballot. Or they could simply stay home and join those of us whose votes generally never count for anything.

Unsatisfied with those options, Markos, the namesake ringleader over at DailyKos, came up with a third option. Since Michigan practices open primaries, he's encouraging Michigan Dems to cross party lines and vote for local boy Mitt Romney in the GOP primary. The theory is that by helping Mitt win in Michigan (which he desperately needs), it will keep things hopping in the GOP primaries for months to come. The remaining candidates will beat each other up so badly that once the general election comes around it'll benefit the Dems.

I think that's a pretty shitty idea. While I'm not sold on the strategery behind it, that's not my main objection. This is precisely the kind of "politics as sport" that turns voters off from the entire process. It places "team loyalty" over ideals of fair play. For the record, the problem is not that Dems would vote in the GOP primary -the dumbass open primary system ensures that - it's the attempted coordination attempting to influence the race. It's perfectly legal (again, thanks to those open primaries), but not at all ethical, in my opinion. And the argument that all's fair because the GOP has done it before doesn't wash - we're supposed to be better than that, right?

The open primary is an idea that's time has passed, if it ever made any sense in the first place.

UPDATE: All that being said, this is pretty funny:

Some Updates

I saw a couple of stories in the last couple of days that I blogged about last year. Figured I'd pass along some updates.

First, back in July I blogged about Oscar Pistorius a South African sprinter who is also a double amputee. In the place of legs, he has a pair of ultra high-tech prosthetics. Those were the hurdle (so to speak) he faced in trying to qualify for the next Olympics. Well, the international governing body for track & field has determined that Pistorius is not eligible for Olympic competition:

Brueggemann’s biomechanical and physiological analysis found that from a mechanical standpoint, the Cheetahs were more efficient than a human ankle and could in fact return energy in maximum speed sprinting. Specifically, he established that 'the mechanical advantage of the blade in relation to the healthy ankle joint of an able-bodied athlete is higher than 30 percent.' This means, according to the statement, that Pistorius was able to run at the same speed as the able-bodied sprinters with about '25 percent less energy expenditure.'

In a telephone interview last week, however, Brueggemann noted that this did not necessarily translate to a general advantage. Still, it was enough for the I.A.A.F. to decide that the Cheetahs are in'“clear contravention' of the rules.
An appeal is expected.

Second, late last summer I blogged several times about Stephen Dunne, the Massachusetts would-be lawyer who refused to answer a question on the state bar exam because the factual scenario dealt with same sex marriage (which, you'll remember, is legal in Massachusetts). He sued the state bar, but eventually withdrew the suit. Apparently, he's had a complete change of heart:
Stephen Dunne said he was 'embarrassed' for being an 'instrument of bigotry and prejudice,' in a letter to the editor and interview in the Jan. 3 edition of Bay Windows, a Boston newspaper serving lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered readers.

'By filing a misguided federal lawsuit . . . in respect to the legitimacy of same-sex marriage, I have regrettably perpetuated intolerance and animosity towards my fellow Americans,' Dunne said in his letter. 'My religiously based discrimination of gay people was callous and diametrically opposed to America’s core principles of freedom and equality.'
Good for him. It's never to late to evolve your world view.

Album of Last Friday

Rock Spectacle, by Barenaked Ladies (1996): I got this from Columbia House, I think - one of those "I've got to buy something . . ." purchases - based on the general buzz around the band at the time (although this was before they broke big on MTV). It didn't make much of a first impression. Above average pop fluff, but not much else. When I spun this the other day, tho', I was grooving on it quite a bit. Time for a reassessment, I guess. Which is one reason I do this exercise every year.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Magic Power, Indeed

"Music is THE BEST" - Mary (from the bus - you know, last tour)

Sometimes, you just have one of those nights that puts a smile on your face and spring in your step. Music is such a regular part of my life that sometimes I just forget how fun it is, until I get a couple hours like tonight.

First, I went back to my first band practice since our Xmas concert in December (which jedi jawa skipped 'cause he was too busy partying for his Bday - Happy Birthday, dude!). We played almost all new music, some of which is very cool. My embouchure didn't hold up very well (as expected), but I had a much easier time getting into new music the first time around than I did last fall. I didn't even mind staying after the band finished for our little clarinet chorale thing, when I got to pretend I played bass!

Then, I was driving home listening to a CD I made of all the tunes I put on ACIDPlanet last year. With them all in one place, the wheat is pretty quickly separated from the chaff. I was pleasantly surprised that more of it than not held up after this time. And then the middle section of "In the Wreckage of Our Ambitions" absolutely kicked my ass and gave me the biggest shit-eating grin I've had in a long time (by myself, at least).

I suppose what I'm saying that, for me, music is about so much more than background noise. It's a fabric of my being - my soul, if I dare say so. So I'll leave you with a song that kind of spells it out:

Rock on, people.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Album of the Day

Azigza, by Azigza (2000): One of progressive rock's defining characteristics is the incorporation (or appropriation, depending on your point of view) of ideas from other musical genres, from classical music to jazz to avant garde. In the modern scene, it makes sense that one of the influences to be absorbed would be world music, which is what sets Azigza apart from the pack. They incorporate lots of eastern sounds and rhythms (the band has 3 - count 'em! - percussionists) with some really interesting guitar work and strong female vocals. It's distinctive and engaging. And, I have to say, one of the few prog albums I own that the girlfriend actually seems to like, due to the lack of electronics involved.

History Is Not Necessarily Drama

When Hollywood deals with history, it often pisses people off. They take an actual event and twist it around for the sake of drama or comedy or what have you, apparently with little regard for what actually happened. It's bad enough when something is "based on a true story," but when it's merely "inspired," it really gets bad. Having said that, the basic goal is usually laudable - fiction, even fact-based fiction, is supposed to be engaging and dramatic. If it's just the base facts we need, a documentary will do.

Those thoughts were going through my head last night after I watched Sophie Scholl - The Final Days, an Oscar-nominated 2005 film from Germany. The movie tells the amazing true story of a young woman who, along with her brother and other students, urged resistance to the Nazi regime during World War II while deep in the heart of the Reich. And it plays it straight - according to Roger Ebert's review, much of the dialogue comes from court records and transcripts of Scholl's interrogations.

While that's admirable, the end result is a film that has almost no dramatic tension to it. The title gives away the inevitable conclusion - it covers the last few days of Scholl's life, during which she is caught distributing anti-Hitler leaflets, arrested, charged, tried, and executed. The interrogations she undergoes at the hands of a cold Nazi cop are oddly dry - the reviewers who call them "intense" or "harsh" have apparently never seen videotapes of real interrogations in the United States, or even an episode of Homicide. The odd fact that our heroine actually did what she is accused of doing opens up lots of potential avenues, but since we're hewing to the historical record, they can't be explored. Once the charge comes down, the rest is all inevitable and while it's hard to watch (the court scene, in particular, will make your skin crawl), it lacks anything that really draws you in.

With that said, it's not a bad film - far from it. The performances are good, particularly the guy who plays the interrogator. The end of the film contains perhaps the most chilling bloodless killing ever put on screen. But there's just not much in it by the end, at least for me.

So next time you're watching/reading something "based" on history, keep in mind that it's still fiction and that fiction has different goals than documentary works. Take it easy on Hollywood when it's trying to entertain.

Divorce Court v. Free Speech

Today's New York Times has an interesting article about an uncertain intersection of the law. It involves a nasty divorce that's gained lots of notoriety:

The husband, William Krasnansky, posted what he calls a fictionalized account of the marriage on his blog late last year. His wife, Maria Garrido, complained to the judge overseeing their divorce, who ordered Mr. Krasnansky to take down 'any and all Internet postings' about his wife and their marriage pending a hearing next month.
Note that, in spite of the judge's order, the blog is still active. The kind of blanket prohibition that the family judge in this case has (unsuccessfully, it appears) imposed would generally raise serious First Amendment questions in other context. Are divorces different? Eugene Volokh over at The Conspiracy has written a lot about the intersection of the religion clauses of the First Amendment on divorce cases (custody decisions, primarily), but I don't remember the speech clause getting quite so much attention. If kids aren't involved, shouldn't hurt feelings or false pronouncements be dealt with in garden variety tort actions?

"He's Dead, You Idiots!"*

Believe it or not, it's not all that uncommon for people to collect the benefits checks - Social Security, pension, etc. - of dead folks and keep the money for themselves. We occasionally have a client who perpetrates that kind of low-grade fraud. That being said, they're rarely this obvious about it:

Two men face trial after wheeling their dead friend down a Manhattan street in an alleged attempt to cash his Social Security cheque.

The sight of two men pushing a partially-dressed, pale, stiff body on an office chair raised the suspicions of a passing policeman.
There's some eagle-eyed police work! One onlooker said that Bernie "looked very dead." Presumably this dead.

* Elaine Benes, film critic, on Weekend at Bernie's

More Death Avoidance

Earlier this week I blogged about the Supreme Court's Baze case and what the debate over how we execute people (rather than the fact that we do in the first place) and what that says about us. Along those lines, I noticed this story in today's Charleston Daily Mail that makes somewhat the same point:

In West Virginia, it's pretty common during hunting season to see a pickup truck with a dead deer in the bed or strapped to the hood or roof.

A McDowell County girl finds that offensive and has prevailed on one of her local legislators to try to do something about it.

A bill sponsored by Delegate Clif Moore, D-McDowell, would require hunters to cover harvested game to conceal it from public view.

* * *

McKinsie and Moore said they are not against hunting. It's just a matter of courtesy.

'I don't have anything against hunting,' McKinsie said. 'But I really don't think it's right to just kill and leave it out in the open for kids to see.'
In other words, we want to portray hunting as a good thing, something passed down from generation to generation, but don't want the next generation to actually see the results. Just like we don't really want people to see what state-sponsored killing really is. Got it.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Album of the Day

Tilt, by Arti & Mestieri (1974): I got this album for Xmas a couple of years ago along with another Italian classic, Area's Crac!. As a result, Tilt got a little lost in the shuffle initially. After (many) repeated listenings, this one has become a favorite. Like Area, A+M's brand of Italian prog fuses jazz and rock, with A+M bringing in some more traditionally symphonic elements. And, as the Ground and Sky reviews point out, it's got a much lighter overall feel. It's all tied together by the Animalistic drumming of the appropriately named Furio Chirico. Good stuff.

Street Racing Still Sucks

Last year I blogged about the inanity of street racing, prompted by a New York Times story about Alex Roy, who set a new "record" for crossing the United States in a car. An astute but nameless soul left me this comment this morning:

I saw this guy on the news and on Letterman tonight. I agree this is the true defintion of an idiot, when someone has too much money for his senses. He says he can't afford to race, yet he has a highly modified M5 and Bentley and chase plane? C'mon! I had $4,000 and did an entire season in SCCA ITB racing (Car, suit, entrance fees, etc) I have no respect for this kind of faker. I can only hope he gets caught and does time on his next attempt.
You can see the interview here. As Anon points out the "I don't have the money" argument is pure bullshit on its face, compounded by the guy's laughing description of all the law evasion tech he uses (including the one that allows you to drive without headlights - brilliant, dipshit!).

I'm very disappointed in David Letterman - he's involved with legit racing in both the IRL and ALMS and could use the show to promote alternatives to this kind of jacknuttery. Instead he laughs along. Bad move, Dave.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Conroy Wins Out

One of the big local stories last year was the controversy about using a couple of Pat Conroy's novels in some advanced high school English classes. The whole mess died down while a committee actually read the books and considered whether they should be removed from the classes. The first, Beach Music, was allowed back in last year. Now the committee has recommended the same for Prince of Tides. Of course, the news of the books being challenged was on the front page, while the resolution appears buried in the nether regions of the local paper.

Album of the Day

Anderson Bruford Wakman Howe, by Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe (1989): The late 80s in Yes-world were, well, weird. After a fairly successful run earlier in the decade, the band had split into two almost separate bands. Yes West, led by Chris Squire and Trevor Rabin, retained the Yes name. Meanwhile, four of the group's leading lights had gotten together to record new material. Without the name (and with Tony Levin filling in for Squire), ABWH produced one studio album and accompanying tour that most fans count as part of the Yes cannon. Well, I do, at any rate. The album's uneven, but the highlights ("Birthright," in particular) are well worth the price of admission. Once you get past Bruford's Simmons fetish and Wakeman's sterile digital synth sounds.

Time for More BCS Tinkering

Well, Ohio State got whupped again by an SEC team in the BCS championship game last night. It must be an administrator's nightmare - four BCS conference champs finished the season with two losses. It's nearly impossible to conclude that the end of the season #1 is clearly the best team in the land. Still, they're champs, so props to LSU.

Now, the off season kvetching will begin about what changes can be made to the system for the upcoming years. A popular non-playoff alternative is the "plus one" system, where the top two teams after the bowls are finished play for the title. That still wouldn't solve this season's mess, of course. But USA Today has word of a proposed "plus three" system, which might sort of do the trick.

It would work like this. First, the traditional bowls would get played, with the top teams in the four BCS bowls. Next, the four winners would move on to a pair of semifinal games played a week later. Finally, the two remaining winners would meet a week later for the title. The plan isn't fully sorted out - would the bowls revert to their old tie ins, would the top 8 teams get seeded in them, for instance? - but it's a step in the right direction. It'll be interesting to see if this goes anywhere.

An Alternative to Word

After my rant yesterday about the NY Times writer who pimped an author's alternative to MS Word without mentioning it was a Mac-only application, I poked around last night to see if I could find a good Windows based one. To my surprise, there are lots of Mac-only applications. But there are a handful of Windows ones, one of which has the ultimate feature - it's free.

yWriter (now in it's 4th edition) was developed by Australian author Simon Haynes, it's small, quick (it can run on a USB key), and looks to have lots of cool features. It's based around a system where you compose scenes that become chapters and can later be easily rearranged. It provides an easy way to keep track of characters, locations, and things from scene to scene. It can import and export text in various formats. In short, it looks to be a very effective tool. And you can't beat the price.

Pikcing Sides

When I was young, I had a vague idea of what the Chamber of Commerce did. It mostly involved sponsoring local festivities and occasionally trumpeting some urban renewal project. I had a history prof in college who referred to the "Chamber of Commerce mentality" when discussing folks who wanted gloss over messy history and focus only on moving forward. That always sounded about right.

But over the past decade or so, I got the impression that the national Chamber of Commerce was becoming more and more politically vocal. It's a loud voice on the side of "tort reform," for instance. Turns out I'm not crazy, this has actually happened. An article in today's LA Times discusses a loud threat from the Chamber's leader to the presidential hopefuls:

'We plan to build a grass-roots business organization so strong that when it bites you in the butt, you bleed,' chamber President Tom Donohue said.

The warning from the nation's largest trade association came against a background of mounting popular concern over the condition of the economy. A weak record of job creation, the sub-prime mortgage crisis, declining home values and other problems have all helped make the economy a major campaign issue.

* * *

Reacting to what it sees as a potentially hostile political climate, Donohue said, the chamber will seek to punish candidates who target business interests with their rhetoric or policy proposals, including congressional and state-level candidates.

Although Donohue shied away from precise figures, he indicated that his organization would spend in excess of the approximately $60 million it spent in the last presidential cycle. That approaches the spending levels planned by the largest labor unions.
That level of involvement is not new:
The chamber has become a significant force in state and national politics under Donohue's decade of leadership. Once a notably bipartisan trade association with a limited budget and limited influence, it has hugely increased its political fundraising and developed new ways to spend money on behalf of pro-business candidates.

Under Donohue, the organization has also frequently aligned itself with GOP priorities.
I've got nothing against the Chamber having it's voice in the process - it's got the same First Amendment rights as any group. But folks should be aware that it's not some quasi-governmental body, just a lobbying group pushing an agenda favorable to its members.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Album of the Day

Ah, the blessed ease of routine. Every year, I take a spin through my entire CD collection (over 700 counting) to see what I've been missing. Every day while I do that, I pick one album to shower with affection (or derision) as the Album of the Day. This year, it's back to the traditional A-Z format, based on artist name. So, without further ado:

Megalazottak es Megszomoritottak, by After Crying (1992): As usual, we start with the beginning. After Crying is a Hungarian band that could best be classified as chamber rock, I think. There's enough drums, synth, and vocals to sound like the most esoteric of prog rock, but it's all bound up with lots of live strings and horn. It's certainly not "And You and I," at least. It's also an excellent disc, one that's grown on me since I got it. The two lengthy tracks are the centerpieces (I particularly love the thick and rich basses on the 22-minute epic "A gadarai megsz√°llott." But the shorter pieces aren't just throwaways. They're more like rough sketches, as opposed to fully fleshed out paintings. The vocals (with lyrics in Hungarian) are sparse by very effective. Good stuff.

Baze and American Capital Schizophrenia

Today the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in one of the biggest cases of the term, Baze v. Rees. Baze, the petitioner, is a convicted murderer currently on death row in Kentucky. The appellate and collateral reviews of his conviction and sentence have come and gone. The issue before the Court is whether the lethal injection procedure used in Kentucky - and every other state (save one) that uses lethal injection, as well as the Federal government - violates the Eighth Amendment prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.

More specifically, the issue is whether the three-drug protocol used in Kentucky presents a needless risk of causing pain to the condemned during the procedure. The three drugs are administered in such a way that the condemned is first anesthetized, then paralyzed, and finally killed by stopping the heart. If everything goes right, it's a relatively peaceful death. However, if the first drug doesn't work, there's no way of knowing whether the third drug leaves the paralyzed condemned in excruciating pain, unable to react. The legal issues, and the history of the procedure, are complex and fascinating. For a good back and forth on them, see this discussion between a couple law profs.

But that's not what really interests me about the case. What interests me is that in the 21st century we're actually having this debate. This it the ultimate "tinker[ing] with the machinery of death" that Justice Blackmun described. It highlights the weird two-mindedness that Americans have about the death penalty.

As much as I hate to admit it, capital punishment enjoys fairly wide support amongst the public. New Jersey recently made news by being the first state in 40 years (IIRC) to dismantle its death penalty. While many states use it only rarely, others, led by Texas, have a fairly robust death row. Lots of people take the visceral appeal of "an eye for an eye" to heart and feel that the ultimate crime deserves the ultimate sanction. It's a deeply held belief that leads to some allegedly "pro life" folks to support state killing of murderers. So on the one hand, the death penalty is popular and not going anywhere.

On the other hand, the actual execution of the death penalty is shrouded in secrecy and carefully hidden from public view. Gone are the days when crowds would turn out to watch a public hanging. These days, executions takes place in the dead of night deep in the bowels of a prison and are witnessed by a handful of people. That shift to secrecy had been combined with the odd quest to make the execution itself "more humane." Hanging gave way to the firing squad to the electric chair to the gas chamber and, most recently, to lethal injection.

The struggle is to shade the reality of what is going on here - the intentional killing of a defenseless person. Note that "defenseless" is not remotely the same thing as "innocent" or "good" or what have you, but it's an apt description of somebody strapped to a gurney with an IV pumping lethal chemicals into their veins. If all goes well, there's no blood. No struggle. No visible signs of death. The condemned simply slips off to sleep, never to awake.

The result is an odd dissonance in our public mind. We want the death penalty. We want to righteously punish those who kill, but we're a little squeamish about the actual act. Sort of like wars - we want them fought, but prefer the "bravery of being out of range" when it comes to seeing how it really works.

The two halves of the brain of our body politic don't interact, thus we're left with cases like Baze, where the machinery is tinkered with, but there's no discussion about the machine itself. My point is not that we shouldn't care how executions are carried out. It's that the most efficient and "humane" (meaning quickest) ways of doing it - the guillotine, a well-placed shotgun blast to the back of the head, etc. - are bloody and make too obvious what is going on. That we may not be comfortable with that fact means the tinkering must stop.

For more on Baze, you can read the oral argument transcript here, or check out the thoughts of Lyle Denniston, Orin Kerr, and Doug Berman.

On Screen Ultra Violence = Good?

Over the weekend, the girlfriend and I got a chance to see Tim Burton's new big-screen version of the Sondheim musical Sweeney Todd.* It's a brilliant adaptation, streamlined without losing huge chunks of the play. It is also incredibly bloody. I mean, I'm not up on the recent trend of "torture porn" horror movies, but I'm fairly sure they don't match the demented barber's blood letting, if not body count.

But aside from the artistic achievement, Sweeney may have been doing a public service, as well. It appears that a pair of economists have crunched a bunch of numbers and concluded that, contrary to popular belief, violent movies may actually help reduce violence in society. How, exactly?

. . . concluding that violent films prevent violent crime by attracting would-be assailants and keeping them cloistered in darkened, alcohol-free environs.

Instead of fueling up at bars and then roaming around looking for trouble, potential criminals pass the prime hours for mayhem eating popcorn and watching celluloid villains slay in their stead.

'You’re taking a lot of violent people off the streets and putting them inside movie theaters,' said one of the authors of the study, Gordon Dahl, an economist at the University of California, San Diego. 'In the short run, if you take away violent movies, you’re going to increase violent crime.'
Not surprisingly, there are lots of criticisms of the study, both for the conclusions reached and its scope (some more thoughts along those lines over at Concurring Opinions). Still, it's an intriguing idea.

* That's right, it's a musical, for those who haven't picked up on that yet. It's one of the milestones of late 20th century Broadway. But if that sort of thing isn't up your alley, don't waste your time and then complain about it, m'kay?

Mitt & His Merry Mormons

Lots (probably way too much) has been written about Mitt Romney and his "Mormon problem," which Mike "I'm With Jeebus" Huckabee rode to victory in Iowa last week. However, there was a really interesting article in this Sunday's New York Times Magazine that takes a historical view of Mormonism and its place in Republican politics. Along the way, it makes a point that I've wanted to make from the get go:

Still, even among those who respect Mormons personally, it is still common to hear Mormonism’s tenets dismissed as ridiculous. This attitude is logically indefensible insofar as Mormonism is being compared with other world religions. There is nothing inherently less plausible about God’s revealing himself to an upstate New York farmer in the early years of the Republic than to the pharaoh’s changeling grandson in ancient Egypt. But what is driving the tendency to discount Joseph Smith’s revelations is not that they seem less reasonable than those of Moses; it is that the book containing them is so new. When it comes to prophecy, antiquity breeds authenticity. Events in the distant past, we tend to think, occurred in sacred, mythic time. Not so revelations received during the presidencies of James Monroe or Andrew Jackson.
The real problem with Mormonism is that it's of recent enough vintage that it's woo can be much more easily debunked than older forms of woo. The mist of the eons has a way of clouding folks' perceptions when it comes to such things.

Misleading Jackass

As a frustrated writer, I'm always looking for a better way to help me organize my thoughts. I use MS Word to write, both at home for fun and at work for profit (although my secretary prefers WordPerfect - we occasionally have words, so to speak). So I was intrigued by a piece in the Sunday New York Times Magazine by Virginia Heffernan called "An Interface of One's Own." It's all about a Word alternative called Scrivener, designed by a writer for writers. Great idea, huh? It's is, except for one small problem - it's a Mac-only program.

That's right - for the vast majority of us who work in Windows,* Scrivener is not an option. Is that mentioned anywhere in the piece? Nope. That would have been good to know before I went poking around the Scrivener website! *grumble grumble grumble*

* Contrary to the cutesy ads, Windows PCs dominate the market (to the tune of 97-98% share) and appear to be used by most of the folks in the writer's forum I frequent.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

A Plea

Today the mailperson brought me an Amazon package with last year's concert DVD by The Tangent, one of my favorite prog bands of the new century. Called Going Off On One, it was recorded in 2006 in a small club after their third album, A Place in the Queue was released. It's a very good performance (although Andy Tillison can't quite pull off the vocal duties convincingly while thrashing the keyboards in the live setting), but plagued with a common affliction for modern concert DVDs - unnecessary visual effects.

I understand that the directors/editors/whatevers who work on these DVDs are artists too and need to express themselves in some way. But please, as someone who will in all likelihood never get a chance to see The Tangent or Porcupine Tree or [insert another obscure band name you've never heard of before here] live in the flesh, what I want from a live DVD is (a) a great musical experience that is (b) cleanly presented. Gods forbid, I want to see instruments being played! At least with the keyboard player plonked up front it's hard to overlook his ivory tinkling.

Is that too much to ask?

Basking in the Afterglow

I'll admit, I'm still a bit giddy about WVU's Fiesta Bowl romp last night/early this morning. It's the feel good story of an otherwise uninspiring BCS season so far. It even ended WVU's search for a coach, as interim coach Bill Stewart coached his way to the gig with the win over Oklahoma.

Stewart was very sly about trying to get the job, repeatedly saying he "wouldn't politic" for it (whatever the hell that means). But both before and after the game, he pimped his Mountain State bona fides and declared his loyalty to the state and the University. For a fan base still stinging from Rich "Which Way to Ann Arbor?" Rodriguez's departure, it was music to our ears. I only hope that the emotionally filled decision to remove the "interim" tag proves to be the right one in the long term, once the rest of Rodriguez's assistants move to Michigan and such.

Oh, and, for the record, WVU has as much of a claim to be in the national title debate as the other two-loss BCS teams so far - USC and Georgia - do. Georgia didn't win their conference, USC has a loss at least as bad as the one to Pitt (Stanford!), and WVU walloped the most dangerous bowl opponent. Not that I think WVU deserves that kind of consideration, but neither do the other two.

Rich Who?

Well well well - it wasn't supposed to go like this! WVU were underdogs in the Fiesta Bowl, not given much chance to knock of Oklahoma. The team was in turmoil and Oklahoma was on fire (indeed, some argued they should be playing in the championship game next Monday). But, as they say, that's why they play the games.

48 West Virginia
28 Oklahoma

Woot!

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

BCS Bore

Oh, my. The Bowl Championship Series isn't off to a very auspicious start for 2008. First, the Rose Bowl's adherence to tradition produced a game where USC whooped up on an overmatched Illinois (sorry, Dima), 49-17. Then the feel-good story of Hawaii's undefeated season came crashing to the ground as they got smacked around by Georgia, 41-10. Um, yeah, I guess I was wrong to think that Hawaii deserved a shot at the national title. My bad.

That brings us, of course, to tonight's Fiesta Bowl between WVU and Oklahoma (where, I've been told, the wind comes sweepin' down the plain). Most folks are predicting a Sooner victory (according to MSNBC, the line right now is Sooners by six), particularly given (a) WVU's season ending debacle against Pitt and (b) the flight of head coach Rich Rodriguez to Michigan shortly thereafter.

Honestly, at this point, I hope it's just a close game. We really don't have much to lose - who'd expect a team in such turmoil to go out and beat the Big 12 champs? But I can hear the critics around the country if we get blown out - ragging on the school, the state, and the conference - and I don't want to hear it. Let's just not embarrass ourselves, OK?

Let's Go Mountaineers!

POTUS, Esq. (Redux)

Last year I briefly blogged on the fact that several of the presidential hopefuls in both parties were lawyers with some fairly divergent practice backgrounds. As we wind up for the Iowa hootenanny tomorrow, Michael Dorf over at FindLaw takes another look at how the legal candidates are spinning their experience. I don't think we necessarily need a lawyer in the White House, but if we are going to wind up with one, I'd prefer it was somebody with some practical on-the-ground litigation experience. Some connection to the real world would be nice.