Thursday, February 28, 2008

Album of the Day

Live Art, by Bela Fleck and the Flecktones (1996): Two things. First, yes, this is out of order when compared to yesterday's AotD - that's what happens when a snow day throws you for a loop. Second, I know I seem to gush about this album just about every year, but it really is that good.

What's the Problem, Exactly?

I'll admit, I don't often agree with policy positions from the Chamber of Commerce, but I'm really having a tough time wrapping my head around this one. The West Virginia House of Delegates has passed, and the Senate is considering, a bill that:

would prohibit employers from forcing their employees to attend meetings where the employer endorses political candidates or offers anti-union rhetoric.

* * *

The bill prohibits employers from firing employees who do not attend meetings. The bill allows lawsuits and civil penalties.
The Chamber is vehemently opposed, claiming that the law would be "another nail in the coffin for the state's economic future" and is possibly unconstitutional. Putting the constitutional issue to the side, what exactly is so awful about giving employees an out if their employer wants to shove some political dogma down their throat? If it was a religious meeting, there'd be no doubt that the employees could opt out. Why should politics be any different? Assuming you're not working in a political office, how are your politics any of your boss's business?

The Value of Recon

Talk about your bad timing. A hint for the criminally minded - the best time to knock over a bar is not when the local biker club is having their monthly meeting there:

Two armed robbers who targeted a Sydney bar that was hosting a bikers' meeting must have 'failed robber school', said the club's chairman.

The men stormed the bar brandishing machetes and wearing balaclavas - unaware that 50 bikers were holding a meeting in an adjoining room.

Alerted to the robbery, some of the bikers chased the men as they fled.

One was caught after trying to escape through a back door. He was later treated in hospital for minor injuries.

The other man ran off but was arrested by police in a street nearby.

Southern Cross Cruiser Club chairman 'Jester' told local media that the robbers had 'picked the wrong night'.
That's an understatement, Jester.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

From the Mouths of Babes

Star Wars (the original one), explained in 90 seconds by a 3-year old:

Yeah, it's cute and all, but what's her take on the independent contractor debate? Bet she loves Ewoks, too.

Album of the Day

Paradox Hotel, by the Flower Kings (2006): I have a deal with the girlfriend - the next time I'm CD browsing and I wind up with a Flower Kings album in my hand, she's supposed to remind me that I have too much of their crap already and to put it back. OK, that's an overly harsh sentiment, but it'll get the message across. Fact is, I like what Roine and the boys do, for the most part. But it strikes me as a bit like restaurant comfort food for the prog fan's soul. It's tasty, but mostly because it triggers memories of the original in the deep recesses of your mind. But just like Bob Evans is never going to measure up to what Mom makes (advertising to the contrary), the Flower Kings will always be a step behind the originals like (in particular) Yes. Plus, their complete unwillingness to self edit (this is yet another 2-CD studio album) leaves me feeling all bloated afterwards.

Won't Someone Think of the Children?!?!

"There was abuse in my family, but it was mostly musical in nature." - Terry Bohner

I've heard of parents exposing their kids to lots of questionable things - but this goes too far:

It sounds like a clubber's worst nightmare, but for parents who can't let go of their dancing days a new breed of disco is emerging - where mums, dads and toddlers come together to boogie.

It's half-past-two and the club is pumping. A badly dressed, sweaty man in his mid-30s is strutting his stuff to Night Fever, while a girl young enough to be his daughter smiles fondly.

As the glitterball twirls above and the light squares on the dancefloor flash, the man is transported back to his youth, when this sort of thing happened every Saturday.

"Gimme that night fever, night fever," the loudspeakers blare, while fingers all around are raised John Travolta-like.

Then, with the slap of a tiny hand on his cheek, the man is catapulted back to reality. That girl IS his daughter. It's 2.30 - but in the afternoon. This is dayclubbing, with the family in tow.
It's called "Baby Loves Disco," and sounds like the kind of warped depravity that could only have thrived in George W. Bush's America. First waterboarding - now this!

Where's Ralph When You Need Him?

While Nader focuses on another quixotic presidential bid, who is going to protect me from compact fluorescent light bulbs?

A couple of weeks ago, a floor lamp in my living room (the wrong place in my living room, I've been told) burned out it's three-way bulb. At the store in search of a new menage-a-lumiere, my choices were limited, so I figured I'd invest in one of the energy saving, long lasting, and expensive compact fluorescents. Long story short - it wasn't bright enough - but I wish I'd seen this at the time:

Compact fluorescent lights -- those energy-efficient bulbs popular as a way to combat global warming -- can pose a small risk of mercury poisoning to infants, young children and pregnant women if they break, two reports concluded today.

* * *

The Maine study, which shattered 65 bulbs to test air quality and clean-up methods made these recommendations: If a bulb breaks, get children and pets out of the room. Ventilate the room. Never use a vacuum -- even on a rug -- to clean up a compact fluorescent light. Instead, while wearing rubber gloves, use stiff paper such as index cards and tape to pick up pieces, then wipe the area with a wet wipe or damp paper towel. If there are young children or pregnant woman in the house, consider cutting out the piece of carpet where the bulb broke. Use a glass jar with a screw top to contain the shards and clean-up debris.
Are you shitting me? I am a clumsy guy (ask the lovely lady who tells me my floor lamp's in the wrong place) and I break light bulbs on occasion. I don't want to have to call in one of the local meth-funded HAZMAT teams to clean up after my oopsie.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Album of the Day

Flight of the Cosmic Hippo, by Bela Fleck and the Flecktones (1991): Bela and the boys cover so much stylistic ground, that it's hard to locate a definitive Flecktone album. For the Howard Levy era, at least, this it probably it. You've got the slow grooving title track (and reprise) that became a concert favorite, the energetic lead off that was adopted as a stylistic description ("Blu-Bop"), and a well worked Beatles cover ("Michelle"). Oh, and "The Star Spangled Banner." If you've ever wondered what the hell "jazz banjo" would sound like, this is a pretty good place to find out. Plus, the Wooten brothers are gods among men.

On Religion, Here and There

There were a couple bits of interesting religion news from around the globe today. They're related in that they both show the changing face of religious belief in countries half a world apart.

First up, via USA Today and Pharyngula, is the latest Pew report on religious belief in the United States. The numbers are interesting (see the chart at Pharyngula - PZ had better luck putting it in the blog format that I have). 78.4% of Americans identify themselves as Christian, with the largest subset being evangelicals at 26.3% (point of order - if there are more evangelicals than "mainline" protestant churches, aren't the evangelicals the "mainliners" now?).
After Christians, the next largest group, at 16.1%, is the nebulous group of "unaffiliated," which includes atheists (all 1.6% of us). Although I appreciate the difficulties inherent in classifying something like religious belief (or lack thereof) in a demographic report, couldn't they do better than "unaffiliated?" It makes us sound like free agents, just waiting on the big club to offer us a new contract. I'm sure that's true for some folks, but not all of them.

Another interesting nugget:

Faith is fluid: 44% say they're no longer tied to the religious or secular upbringing of their childhood. They've changed religions or denominations, adopted a faith for the first time or abandoned any affiliation altogether.
I'd be interested by how "changed religions" is defined. Does it include switching from one flavor of, say, Christianity to another or only switching from one branch of faith to another (or to nothing at all)? In my experience, it's not that common for people to completely change faiths. They may drift from Methodism to Presbyterianism (for example), but not usually from Christianity to Islam. But I could be wrong.

The other interesting story comes from Turkey (via the BBC), where a group of religious scholars it trying to revitalize Islam for a modern world:
The country's powerful Department of Religious Affairs has commissioned a team of theologians at Ankara University to carry out a fundamental revision of the Hadith, the second most sacred text in Islam after the Koran.

The Hadith is a collection of thousands of sayings reputed to come from the Prophet Muhammad.

As such, it is the principal guide for Muslims in interpreting the Koran and the source of the vast majority of Islamic law, or Sharia.

But the Turkish state has come to see the Hadith as having an often negative influence on a society it is in a hurry to modernise, and believes it responsible for obscuring the original values of Islam.

It says that a significant number of the sayings were never uttered by Muhammad, and even some that were need now to be reinterpreted.
Turkey is rare in the Muslim world in that it is a very secularized modern state. It's thus not surprising that something like this (one scholar says it "is kind of akin to the Christian Reformation") would happen there first.

Spiffy New Links

I wanted to take the time to point everybody to a couple of new links over there to the right.

First up is my brother Sluggo's (not his real name!) MySpace page. Like his younger brother, Sluggo's a musical guy. Unlike his younger brother, Sluggo actually has talent. Head over to his page, listen to some tunes, and show him some love.

Second up, finally, is a redesigned website for my office. Every great collection of legal minds deserves its own space on the Web, and now we've got one, too!

Monday, February 25, 2008

Uh Oh

Man, I've never done acid, but I'm still having a nasty flashback:

Ralph Nader on Sunday announced a fresh bid for the White House, criticizing the top contenders as too close to big business and dismissing the possibility that his third-party candidacy could tip the election to Republicans.
Yeah, 'cause that's never happened before. Ralph Nader - Unsafe in Any Election.

And You Think You've Got Problems

At least you're not dead, according to the government, anyway. Via Concurring Opinions, attend the tale of the note-so-late Laura Todd:

According to government paperwork, Laura Todd has been dead off and on for eight years, and Todd said there's no end to the complications the situation creates.

'One time when I (was) ruled dead, they canceled my health insurance because it got that far,' she said.

Todd’s struggle started with a typo at the Social Security administration. She said the government has assured her since the problem that they have deleted her death record, but she said the problems keep cropping up.
Sounds like something out of a Douglas Adams novel. But not quite as amusing.

Mondays With Stanley - Unnaturally Trained Killers

For most people, taking someone else's life - even someone who had done you wrong or was a threat to you - is not something done likely. It's likely to impact you on such a base level that you might never be able to function again. That being the case, one of the jobs of any military training is to rub away the civilized veneer of modern life and turn relatively well adjusted people into trained killers. That, I think, is at the heart of Full Metal Jacket - what it means to transform human nature in such a fundamental way and whether, indeed, any level of training can really do the trick.

The film is divided into two, largely separate, parts.

The first 50 minutes or so focuses on a platoon of Marine recruits going through basic training at Paris Island, South Carolina. It is dominated by two powerful performances. The first is from R. Lee Ermey, a retired Marine drill sergeant who was originally the technical adviser on the film. After whipping the other actors into shape for their roles as Marines, he sort of sidled his way into the part of their drill instructor. He is the worst nightmare of every drill instructor in any movie you've ever seen. The first 25 minutes of the film basically consist of him yelling at the new recruits, beginning the process of breaking them down to remold them into killers. Ermey's abuse is most copiously heaped upon a dim, slow, overweight recruit he dubs Private Pyle (as in Gomer), played spectacularly by Vincent D'Onofrio. As training continues, Pyle slowly loses his grip on reality, leading to a chilling climax to the first part of the film.

The second part of the film shifts the action to Vietnam, where one of the recruits, Joker, is now a reporter with Stars and Stripes. In the wake of the Tet Offense, he and his photographer are sent deep into "the shit," where he reunites with a fellow recruit and his new outfit. What follows is a lengthy set piece where the company wages battle with a lone sniper in the bombed out ruins of Hue (actually filmed in London, if you can believe it). Men die, the chain of command breaks down, and Joker and the others come face to face with the harsh realities of modern urban warfare in general and Vietnam in particular.

While Full Metal Jacket is a Vietnam film, it is not nearly as specific or personal to Vietnam as something like Oliver Stone's Platoon nor as epic in scope as Scorsese's Apocalypse Now. In that sense, it works on a broader scale than those movies. The ideas of Full Metal Jacket, both in terms of human nature and the nature of modern urban warfare, are evident in debates about Iraq (indeed, the urban scenes set in Hue look disturbingly like any number of Iraqi cities). For that reason, its stature in the pantheon of war movies may rise as the years pass.

Blockbuster Hypocrisy

Although I've known about this for a long time, an experience over the weekend leads me to blog about it.

The girlfriend and I were browsing at her local Blockbuster over the weekend, and was surprised to see several copies of Lust, Caution, Ang Lee's latest film. I was surprised because (a) I wasn't aware it was out on DVD yet and (b) it was an NC-17 rated film, and, in my experience, Blockbuster wouldn't rent films that either carried an NC-17 or were unrated. In fact, when I was in law school I had to bypass the right-down-the-street Blockbuster store and trek to the local video store on the other end of town to rent things like David Cronenberg's Crash and Todd Solondz's Happiness. But with the advent of "unrated" versions of big movies showing up at Blockbuster, I figured maybe they'd done away with that policy.

Sadly, no. The versions of Lust, Caution available at Blockbuster were of a recut R-rated version (although you can apparently get the real thing from their online service).

I don't have any problem with Blockbuster decided what movies to rent or what kind of movies they rent. If they think that anything beyond an R rating isn't an appropriate product to rent/sell, more power to them. But I'm a bit confused as to why they won't rent the as-intended version of a Cannes-honored film by an Academy Award winning director, but will happily provide you with even gorier uncut versions of things like Saw or The Devil's Rejects. Are a couple of frank sex scenes really any worse than a series of dismemberments? According to this blog post:

It is true that Blockbuster does not carry movies that the Motion Picture Association of America has rated NC-17; this is a long-standing Blockbuster policy, Cannizzaro says. Blockbuster does carry some unrated films, but only those that the company has determined would not have received an NC-17 rating had the MPAA rated them. Thus even though they weren't rated, you won't find John Cameron Mitchell's "Shortbus," Michael Winterbottom's "9 Songs," nor, of course, Kirby Dick's "This Film Is Not Yet Rated" at Blockbuster.
Not surprisingly, I had no trouble getting all three of those flicks from Netflix. But that logic doesn't seem to hold water - why would the Saw folks cut down on the gore if not to secure the R rating they need to wide distribution? The logical inference is that the unrated material would have gotten the film an NC-17 had it been included.

Or, perhaps, Blockbuster is just applying the incomprehensible logic of the MPAA that Dick laid bare in his flim - that the ratings people are disproportionately concerned with sex and bad language, but generally don't give a shit about violence. In which case, shame on Blockbuster for bowing to that illogic.

It Is Finished (Redux)

Just to follow up on my post from the road last week, yes, indeed it is finished. Word came down Friday that the powers that be in the IRL and Champ Car have come to an agreement on a unified future for American open-wheel racing. Tony George and Kevin Kalkhoven were on Speed's Wind Tunnel last night, a little short on specifics but clearly committed to getting the details worked out ASAP. And neither one of them appears to care for Robin Miller, so I suppose that's a base upon which to build.

So who all is on board to make the switch from Champ Car?

It’s believed Newman/Haas/Lanigan (Graham Rahal and Justin Wilson), PKV Racing (Oriol Servia). Walker Racing (Will Power) and Conquest Racing (Franck Berera) are definites to join the IRL, with PKV and Conquest expected to field two cars.

Minardi Team USA, Forsythe, RocketSports, Dale Coyne and Pacific Coast Motorsports remain question marks.
When I went to Mid-Ohio last year for the combined ALMS/IRL weekend, it did seem to me that the IRL field was only about four or five drivers away from being seriously deep at the front end. Hopefully the top Champ Car guys, once the learning curve flattens out a bit, will provide that bump.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

It Is Finished

Back in the early 1990s, American open-wheel racing was in great shape. The CART series, which included (but did not sanction) the Indy 500, was on equal footing with NASCAR when it came to TV ratings and sponsorship dollars. When CART started running at Surfer's Paradise in Australia, it caused a fit with the F1 powers that be, which saw it as competition. It boasted an interesting blend of American and international drivers, including ex-F1 champs. Multiple chassis and engine builders gave the series a deep technical variety, which was matched by the circuit's mix of short ovals, super speedways, road courses, and street circuits. All that came to an end when a rift between Indy owner Tony George and the CART car owners led to the creation of two separate series, the Indy Racing League and (eventually) the Champ Car World Series.

The split has drained the American open wheel scene of almost all of its positive attributes. Drivers, sponsors, and teams have fled Champ Car, which has been reduced to a handful of spec cars running only on street and road courses. The IRL isn't much better, outside of Indy itself and the events it shares with other series. It has branched out to some road racing venues (good ones, too - Watkins Glen, Sears Point, and Mid-Ohio among others), but the oval races are foot-to-the-floor pack racing just waiting for disaster to happen.

For years, lots of open wheel fans have begged the power that be in both series to somehow bury the hatchet and create a single unified series and try to rebuild what's left of the Indy tradition in America. It finally looks like it's going to happen, but it will be more a takeover by the IRL rather than a true meeting of the minds.

And I'm OK with that. Don't get me wrong - Tony George pretty much single handedly ruined things when he took his Indy 500 ball and went home, but the collective mismanagement of the CART/Champ Car guys made it inevitable that they'd run the series into the ground. Any unified series needs to have the Indy 500 as its centerpiece, so that means it will have to involve George. Maybe if he comes out of this as the top dog, it'll be better for everyone in the long run. I certainly hope so.

UPDATE: Perhaps I spoke too soon, but the writing certainly is on the wall.

Note from the Road

For the direction compilers at Mapquest:


Were it not for your directions (wrong or unhelpfully unclear in at least 3 occasions), I would have been here 45 minutes ago! Grumble grumble grumble . . .

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Programing Note

As I'll be on the road most of this upcoming week, posting will be light and sporadic, at best. Regular programing (including Album of the Day and Mondays With Stanley) will resume the week after.

When "Stock" Realy Meant "Stock"

So, you've just watched an exciting Daytona 500 - and successfully fought the urge to beat the Fox announcing crew repeatedly with a fish* - and you want to put your money where your mouth is. Why not go down to your local Dodge dealer and pick up a Charger just like the one Ryan Newman drove to victory lane? Well, because you can't:

This year’s 500, the 50th running of the race and the season opener for the Sprint Cup series, is the first of a new era in which a single car shape will be used by all teams at all races. The generic body, not related to any “stock” model in showrooms, was designed specifically for Nascar competition.

Called the Car of Tomorrow, its phase-in began last year in a program Nascar instituted to improve safety and reduce costs, admirable goals indeed. But its arrival also signals the probable end of fan loyalty to favorite cars; the battle front will be entirely under the hood, with the V-8 racing engines becoming the main difference among them. To tell a Fusion from an Impala or a Charger from a Camry, fans will have to read the lettering on the fenders.

It wasn’t always this way.
Indeed, as the slide show accompanying that article shows, in the 1960s and 70s, Detroit regularly cranked out homologation specials.

And it extended beyond Detroit - BWM's famous M3 started off as a homologation special for the German touring car championship. In fact, in most GT and touring car series around the world, homologation rules are still in place. But we're America, so we have to do it differently.

* Really, are they always that bad? I don't generally watch NASCAR - it doesn't really yank my crank, so to speak - so I don't have a great frame of reference. Their over abundance of enthusiasm and need to explain just how important the 500 is makes ESPN's domestic soccer guys or *shudder* Derek Daly seem sedate by comparison.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Album of the Day

Tales from the Big Bus, by Fish (1998): Since it's been announced that the big man will headline Friday night at NearFest this year (as part of a US tour, thankfully), I figured I'd highlight this "official bootleg" from his Sunsets on Empire tour. It's a complete show (basically - it's missing the encores, for technical reasons, and Lisa Simpson's intro, for legal reasons) from Koln, Germany, and I mean complete - there's probably 20+ minute of Fish's interactions with the audience spread around two discs. It's occasionally amusing, but also frustrating in equal measure because he lapses in and out of German when he talks to them! Musically, there's a nice smattering of old Marillion stuff and several solid takes on Sunsets material. The highpoint absolutely is the fire-breathing version of "Jungle Ride." Fish may have lost a few steps over the years, but he's still one of the best shows in the prog universe.

More on Modern Slavery

A couple of weeks ago I blogged about a case from the Fourth Circuit where a women was prosecuted with conspiring (along with her in absentia husband) to enslave a girl from Nigeria. Just to show such things aren't limited to Maryland, here's a BBC story about similar situations in the UK:

Penny was almost 29 when she was trafficked from Rwanda to the UK, tricked into believing she could start a new life.

Instead, she ended up trapped in a small flat in south-west London.

She had unwittingly stepped into a trap laid by a trafficker, becoming a commodity in what campaigners say is the world's fastest growing illegal trade - in people.

Yet when Penny agreed to meet the agent, introduced to her by a friend, she was unaware that human trafficking even existed.

'I didn't think about the consequences. I just took the opportunity to get out of the country,' Penny said.
The numbers are pretty grim:
Penny's story is just one of many that remain hidden. The UN estimates that some 2.5 million people are in forced labour at any given time, as a result of trafficking.
In the 21st century, it's hard to imagine that such things go on.

NASCAR Goes Hollywood

The 50th anniversary running of stock car's biggest race - the Daytona 500 - is this Sunday, so today's USA Today devotes a lot of coverage to . . . a rookie driver's wife? To be fair, the "rookie" is last year's Indy 500 and IRL champ Dario Franchitti and his wife is actress Ashley Judd, so they are a little higher profile than most. Dario is one of another handful of drivers fleeing the sinking ship that is American open-wheel racing.

While Dario and Ashley have their own cachet, the more intriguing rookie to me Jacques Villeneuve. In addition to being French-Canadian (though not, sadly, sponsored by Perrier) and, thus, not particularly typical NASCAR stock, he's a former Indy 500, CART, and Formula 1 champ. He's easily one of the most accomplished open wheel drivers North America has produced. It will be interested to see how he adapts to the NASCAR world.

Boring anecdote alert - I was actually in the same space as Dario and Ashley one time. My brother and I were in line for food at the inaugural US Grand Prix at Indianapolis underneath one of the infield grandstands. In the midst of a bunch of fans bundled up against the cold misty rain, here came this impeccably dressed couple, both wearing sunglasses. I think everybody looked, but it took a sec before we realized who they were. My brother was much more excited about meeting some guy in line who knew Road & Track writer Peter Egan. Told you it was boring!

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Album of the Day

Faust IV, by Faust (1974): I picked up this album on a whim because (a) I vaguely knew the name as being part of the German Krautrock scene and (b) I figured I should explore that scene a little bit. Heck, the first track is even called "Krautrock"! Ironically, this album came after the band decamped from Germany for the UK on the fledgling Virgin label. From what I've read, some early fans were disappointed that the sound streamlined a bit and moved away from some of the tape cut-and-paste style of earlier albums. Not knowing those, I can't really say, but I do like what's going on here, particularly the longer tracks that engage in some nifty wall-of-sound building. Some of the others sound more like early Zappa/MoI-style skewed pop tunes. It's an odd mix, but it sort of works.

Spot the Loony

Here's an actual factual situation that took place somewhere on the planet earlier this month. Two athletic teams from two schools show up to compete in a game, when one of the teams objected to one of the officials who would referee the game. On what basis? Some sort of bias or previous bad experience with that official? Nope:

The reason given, according to the referees: Campbell [the ref in question], as a woman, could not be put in a position of authority over boys because of the academy's beliefs.
That ref and her male counterpart walked off the court, game canceled.

Where did this take place? One of those Middle Eastern counties in the grip of Sharia law? Saudi Arabia, perhaps?

How about Kansas. The protesting team was from St. Mary's Academy, which adheres to "older Roman Catholic laws." Laws that are apparently as compatible with reality in the 21st Century as buggy whips.

Dumb All Over?

Public displays of stupidity abound (see Jacknut Chronicles, The), but are those anything more than amusing anecdotes? Or are Americans hostile to knowledge and learning? Thats a question brought up by this article in today's New York Times. The article focuses on a new book by Susan Jacoby, who is not optimistic about the culture:

Ms. Jacoby, whose book came out on Tuesday, doesn’t zero in on a particular technology or emotion, but rather on what she feels is a generalized hostility to knowledge. She is well aware that some may tag her a crank. “I expect to get bashed,” said Ms. Jacoby, 62, either as an older person who upbraids the young for plummeting standards and values, or as a secularist whose defense of scientific rationalism is a way to disparage religion.

* * *

But now, Ms. Jacoby said, something different is happening: anti-intellectualism (the attitude that “too much learning can be a dangerous thing”) and anti-rationalism (“the idea that there is no such things as evidence or fact, just opinion”) have fused in a particularly insidious way.

Not only are citizens ignorant about essential scientific, civic and cultural knowledge, she said, but they also don’t think it matters.
It's a troubling assertion, but I'm not altogether convinced. Yes, there are rifts in the popular discourse where a complete ignorance of facts doesn't stop people from holding fast to opinions based on that ignorance. But is it more prevalent today than in the past? Or is it just more pronounced, thanks to the blogosphere, YouTube, and reality TV?

In other words, now that every mouthbreather can spout any babble he wants to a world wide audience, is there more of it or do we just see it more often?

Yes, for the record, I understand the irony of posing that question on a blog.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Album of the Day

Kamakiriad, by Donald Fagen (1993): Fagen's second solo album doesn't seem to get the same respect as The Nightfly. I've got nothing against the first album, but this one has a special place in my heart, for some reason. Maybe it's because back when it came out, in my pre-prog revival days, it was a tight, jazzy oasis in a desert of crappy pop music. I kind of dig the road trip concept, too. The album is also notable for the first collaboration in more than a decade between Fagen and Steely Dan collaborator Walter Becker, which led to the rebirth of the Dan, eventually.

I've Been Meme'd (Book Version)

Over at Muzings, Muze got memed with a neat little book thingy and passed it on to me. Keeping mind that my computer perch in the living room is about as far away from the studio (which doubles as library) as it can be, I'm lucky there's anything around at all! Here we go. First, the rules:

1. Pick up the closest book of 123 pages or more
(No cheating.)
2. Find page 123
3. Find the first five sentences
4. Post the next three sentences
Now, here's my entry:

Vine, Phyllis (2004). One Man's Castle: Clarence Darrow in Defense of the American Dream. Amistad/HarperCollins. New York.
Whatever inspiration led him to compose over two hundred tunes for Broadway with his brother, Rosamond, had dwindled. He never returned to the stage, nor did he resume managing the national and international performances for the team, Johnson and Cole. And as a writer, he remained an unknown quantity because his first novel, Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, had been published anonymously.
The book looks fascinating, about a trial in which Darrow represented a black man in 1925 Detroit, Ossian Sweet, who was charged with murder after a white man, who was part of a mob marching on Sweet's home in a just-integrated neighborhood. A great $4 find during the last outing to Half Price Books with the girlfriend.

I'm not going to tag anybody with this one - if you want to play along, feel free to leave something in the comments. If you don't, well, to heck with you then!

Bang a Gong, Get It On . . .

Have you ever wondered about the mating habits of T. Rex? No, no, no - not that T. Rex, this T. Rex:

(Photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Not the most romantic visage in history, but there's someone for everybody, right? And it's nearly Valentine's Day to boot.

Over at The Wild Side, Olivia Judson speculates on the potential amorous adventures of the thunder lizard. It's a more difficult problem than you might imagine, as fossils are ill equipped to show the gender of most creatures and answer even the most basic of questions that might provide a hint. For instance - did the male T. Rex have a penis (and if so, would he have still been bombarded with male enhancement emails?)? And if so, what kind? These aren't questions with obvious answers:
I could answer a question that sometimes bothers me. Did T. rex have a penis? Did he even, as lizards do, have two?

I ask the question not out of prurience, but because it’s a matter of scientific interest. There are a couple of reasons why. First, the penis is another important indicator of the mating system. In species where females usually mate with a single male during a breeding episode, penises tend to be small and uninteresting. In those where females mate with several males (whether by choice or by force), penises are typically larger, and come with fancy decorations such as grooves, nobbles, and spikes. Second, the question of the dinosaur penis provides an exercise in evolutionary inference.
Judson figures he did, although she admits it is, at best, an "educated guess." One of her conclusions that it's hard to quibble with, however:
I imagine that when two T. rex got it on, the earth shook for miles around.

Grooves? Nobbles? SPIKES?!? Damn, there's some kinky critters out there!

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Album of the Day

My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, by Brian Eno and David Byrne (1981/2006): I was so taken with Eno's Another Green World when I picked it up used that when I saw this at Borders a few weeks later I had to pick it up. The album is distinctive for using "found" vocal tracks to the exclusion of traditional lyrics and vocals (Eno had "given up the idea of writing songs") laid on top of deeply layered instrumental tracks. The found bits include Arabic singers, nameless radio hosts and callers, and preachers. The instrumental backing - everything from bass and drums to esoteric guitar and sythns - were done mostly by Eno and Byrne, with an occasional assist (from Chris Frantz and Bill Laswell, among others). The overall result is always interesting, occasionally amusing, and frequently brilliant.

Originally released in 1981, it was rereleased in 2006 with a third "side" and extensive liner notes.

Help, It's a Rock! Help, It's a Rock!

What an utterly bizarre little story. Seems there was a rock in the middle of the Ohio River, between Portsmouth, Ohio and neighboring Kentucky. When the river ran a bit low, it would protrude from the water. At which point, folks from both states would swim/boat out and do things like carve their initials on it. Whatever - they were simpler times back then (where "back then" equals 19th and early 20th centuries) and I guess folks were hard up for entertainment. It wasn't even mystical or anything, although it had a picture of a head crudely carved on it. But it was the subject of speculation:

In Portsmouth and beyond, the boulder became known as Indian Head Rock, because its bottom half bore a crude etching of a round head, with two dots for eyes, another dot for a nose, and a dash for a mouth; a kind of early Charlie Brown.

The face spawned many theories of origin. An American Indian petroglyph. A river bandit’s carving to mark where loot was stored. A boatman’s crude measure to gauge fluctuating water levels. Or, as a 1908 newspaper article has it, the 1830s handiwork of a Portsmouth boy named John Book, who then grew up to fall at the Battle of Shiloh.
Anywho, when the Ohio was dammed up at various places, the rock disappeared beneath the waves, lost forever.

Oh, but it was not!
In the late 1960s, though, an Ohio Valley schoolboy read of the Indian Head Rock in a musty book of local history, and he never forgot it. That was Steve Shaffer. He grew up, studied historical interpretation at Ohio University, developed an interest in prehistoric rock carvings, and quietly resolved to find the rock.

He and some divers began the hunt in 2000, using clues in old newspaper accounts about the rock’s location. He remained in the boat, though; he had lost 70 percent of his hearing to Meniere’s disease, and diving could cause further damage. But when the expeditions of 2000 and 2001 found only abandoned cars and dumped refrigerators, Mr. Shaffer earned his diver’s certification and joined the search — at great risk to his hearing.

The risk paid off. In September 2002, a diving buddy rose to the surface to exclaim: That’s it! It’s got initials all over it! Mr. Shaffer immediately went down to see for himself. There, amid the river’s murk: the Indian Head Rock.

Nearly every summer after that, Mr. Shaffer dove down to pay his respects to the rock. “Just to check on it,” he said.

Then, late last summer, and almost on a whim, he and some diving friends resurrected the boulder with a harness and some barrels and air bags. They soon reported to Portsmouth’s mayor, James Kalb, that they had something to show him — and it’s bigger than a breadbox. The stunned and grateful mayor thanked them, saying a piece of Portsmouth’s past had been salvaged.
You'd think that would be the end of the story, a nice human interest tale about a man fulfilling a boyhood quest. Not so fast - Kentucky thinks the rock belongs to it, and has a legislative resolution to back it up. Not to be outdone, one Ohio lawmaker is ready to defend the rock from bluegrass poachers with his muzzle-loading shotgun. It's all but taken over the Ohio school system, too:
But Todd Book, an Ohio legislator from Portsmouth who last week introduced the resolution praising the rock’s resurrection, said Ohioans believed they were in the right.

Mr. Book — who likes to think he is related to the John Book who may have carved that face on the boulder — said the story of the rock had already become an educational tool in Ohio. Fourth graders in the region are being asked to write essays on what the state should do with the rock, he said, while high school seniors are being asked to write position papers on the following: 'Why the rock should be Ohio’s and not Kentucky’s.'
As with most things involving legislative resolutions, I'm shocked that all the other problems of the two states have been solved. It's a rock people - get over it.

The Cold War Heats Up

Last summer, I blogged about Russia's resumption of Cold War-era long range bomber patrols. They've continued over the past few months and, last weekend, one of them buzzed a US aircraft carrier in the Pacific. The bomber involved apparently violated Japanese airspace on the way to its rendezvous with the Nimitz. Everybody's maintaining a fairly good sense of humor about the incident, but it's still a bit concerning. Particularly with the BBC reporting that Russia is now threatening to target ICBMs at neighboring Ukraine if it joins NATO and accepts missile-defense protection:

Speaking at a news conference at the Kremlin on Tuesday, Mr Putin said he had advised Ukraine not to join Nato, but admitted he would be unable to interfere in any such move.

'Joining such a bloc means a country restricting its own sovereignty,' he warned.

When asked about the consequences of Ukraine gaining Nato membership, Mr Putin said Russia was concerned that its neighbour would agree to host parts of the US missile defence shield on its territory.

* * *

'I am not only terrified to utter this, it is scary even to think that Russia, in response to a possible deployment of... [parts of the] missile shield in Ukraine... would have to target its offensive rocket systems at Ukraine,' he said.

'The goal [of the missile shield] is to neutralise our nuclear capabilities... This would prompt Russia to take retaliatory action,' he added.
We ignore Putin and his successors' saber rattling at our own peril, methinks.

Thanks for Nothing, Jay

I see that the Senate has passed the renewed FISA bill, complete with a provision shielding the telecom companies from liability for . . . well . . . helping break the law for the past few years. Glenn Greenwald has more here. In a dazzling display of continued impotent leadership, the Republicans were able to beat back Chris Dodd's and Russ Feingold's attempt to strip that provision - and that provision only, mind you - from the bill with the help of several pathetic Democratic allies. Among them, sadly, was Jay Rockefeller, the junior Senator from West Virginia. In fact, Jay's been something of a cheerleader for telecom immunity. But I had hopes that when push came to shove, he'd undergo a Grinch-style change of heart and see the light. No such luck.

For fuck's sake, how could Reid and company mess this up?!? Duhbya had already said (a) that the Nation's safety was at stake if the wiretaps couldn't continue, but (b) that he'd veto anything without telecom immunity. In other words, it's more important to cover the asses of big business than actually conduct this surveillance. How does the non-immunity bill not land on Duhbya's desk (the House version doesn't have it)? Force him to veto it and then hang it around McCain's neck this fall! This is hardly rocket science.

This is yet another example of why I am very dubious of Barack Obama's appeal to unity during his campaign. The fact is, the GOP as currently constituted isn't interested in any kind of meaningful cooperation. The party discipline displayed by the GOP since the Dems took over the Senate is something a precision Marine drill team would envy. Holding out our hands and offering to sing "Kumbaya" with them just isn't a viable strategy. Which is why I wish Chris Dodd, who actually tried to stop this madness (with lukewarm approval from Obama and Clinton) was still in the Presidential race.

So, I guess I'll have to support Jay's challenger in the May primary, who is . . . nobody. The GOP doesn't even have someone lined up to challenge him.


UPDATE: Raging Red has some good thoughts on Jay's handy work here.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Album of the Day

The Spiral Notebook, by Rik Emmett (1996): Rik is best known as the fleet-fingered guitarist and high-flying lead vocalist (my brother called him "The Nutless Wonder") of Canadian power trio Triumph. When I got this disc from Columbia House I was hoping that it would showcase those talents, albeit probably in a more grown-up manner. Sadly, that's not the case. Although Rik's voice is great and he can still rip off some killer licks, his song writing (on this album, at least) has gone to pot. There's nothing here that rises about garden variety adult rock. Not appalling, by any means, not not inspiring, either.

Mondays With Stanley - Jack Goes Apeshit

To be honest, the only reason I ever sought out The Shining is because it's a Kubrick flick. Kubrick is one of a handful of directors with which I'm so smitten that I'll watch anything they've done once.* Before I Netflixed it a couple of years ago my only exposure to it, in fact, was in Simpsons parody version. That's for two reasons. First, I'm just not a big horror fan. Not that I don't enjoy a good fright, it's just that most horror flicks strike me as terribly dumb. Second, before college, my only exposure to Steven King was the movies based on his books which were, well, terribly dumb. Thanks to jedi jawa I actually read some of King's stuff and while I'm not a huge fan, the man definitely has talent.

In my admittedly limited experience, King's skill doesn't lie so much in the actual tales told, but in the way he tells them. He's a master of description and does an excellent job at getting under your skin, even if what's happening isn't particularly interesting. In that sense, I think Kubrick was a natural to work up one of his books (even if King wasn't particularly happy with the result). Kubrick's penchant for long slow shots to establish scenes are the cinematic equivalent of King's descriptive writing. Thus we get a great sense of the vast emptiness of The Overlook and just how out in the middle of nowhere it is. It makes it perfectly plausible that anybody left there for months would go nuts.

And who better to go nuts than Jack Nicholson? The script provides Jack with ample opportunity for his trademark scene chewing. In fact, when it comes to paradigmatic "Jack as Lunatic" roles, this and his version of The Joker in Tim Burton's Batman are the ones I think of. Thankfully, Jack does going nuts very well and his descent into madness is quite compelling. He carries a lot of the load, given the small cast of characters, and does a better job of it than the kid who plays his son.

Rounding out the case is Scatman Crothers, in what has to be one of the prototypical Mystical Black Man roles. He shows up early on to set up the whole concept of "shining," give Jack's kid a forbidden destination, and promptly decamps to his swingin' Florida bachelor pad, complete with X-rated Nubian artwork (nekkid black chicks with big boobs and bigger fros!). Upon his return, he's turned into another horror movie cliche - the violently killed black character. Not only is the only black character in the film and he gets killed - he's the only person who gets killed in the film!

Even at nearly two-and-a-half hours, The Shining is a fairly taut piece of work. Kubrick's trademark/lamented pacing builds up the suspense slowly. When it pops - it pops big. Along the way you got a host of memorable imagery, from gallons of blood pouring out of the elevator to Jack's "Heeere's Johnny!", to a guy in a tux getting blown by a guy in a bear suit. A rousing bit of entertainment, then!

That being the case, that's about all it is. It doesn't really aim to make any larger points, as in A Clockwork Orange or 2001. For that reason, it may be my least favorite of the Kubrick flicks I own, but that's sort of like saying Boil That Dust Speck is my least favorite Mike Keneally album - it's not much of a condemnation.

* The others, for the record, are Terry Gilliam, Spike Lee, the Coen brothers, Kevin Smith, and, most recently, Akira Kurosawa.

Jesus Christ Superhero

Over at his blog, the Reverend Elvis takes great pains to show how the Bible could really use some punching up when it's compared to the Great Comic Books of Truth. It appears that someone is listening. The result is a manga-version of the Bible:

Ajinbayo Akinsiku wants the world to know Jesus Christ, just not the gentle, blue-eyed Christ of old Hollywood movies and illustrated Bibles.

Mr. Akinsiku says his Son of God is 'a samurai stranger who’s come to town, in silhouette,' here to shake things up in a new, much-abridged version of the Bible rooted in manga, the Japanese form of graphic novels.

'We present things in a very brazen way,' said Mr. Akinsiku, who hopes to become an Anglican priest and who is the author of 'The Manga Bible: From Genesis to Revelation.' 'Christ is a hard guy, seeking revolution and revolt, a tough guy.'
Not surprisingly, given the format, the focus is on holy ass kicking, which leaves precious time for, you know, the actual "love your neighbor" philosophy:
In a blurb for the Manga Bible, which is published by Doubleday, the archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev. Rowan Williams, is quoted as saying, 'It will convey the shock and freshness of the Bible in a unique way.'

No doubt. In the Manga Bible, whose heroes look and sound like skateboarders in Bedouin gear, Noah gets tripped up counting the animals in the Ark: 'That’s 11,344 animals? Arggh! I’ve lost count again. I’m going to have to start from scratch!'

Abraham rides a horse out of an explosion to save Lot. Og, king of Bashan, looms like an early Darth Vader. The Sermon on the Mount did not make the book, though, because there was not enough action to it.
If that's not a sad commentary on the modern state of Christianity, I don't know what is.

On a related note, the article points out:
Publishers with an eye for evangelism and for markets have long profited by directing Bibles at niche markets: just-married couples, teenage boys, teenage girls, recovering addicts. Often the lure is cosmetic, like a jazzy new cover.
If it's the word of God - or even just "divinely inspired" - why does it have to be repackaged for every generation and potential market? Shouldn't its transcendent truths shine through regardless?

Album of Last Friday

Welcome Back My Friends to the Show That Never Ends . . ., by Emerson, Lake & Palmer (1974): The sprawling two (or more) disc live album was a staple of mid 70s rock, and ELP were no exception. Sprawling is the right word for it, too, as the band indulges their epic side with extended versions of both "Tarkus" and "Karn Evil 9," in addition to an extended "Take a Pebble" with solo spots from Lake and Emerson (Keith just goes on and on and . . .). It's an impressive performance, particularly when it kicks of with "Hoedown" performed at the speed of light.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Album of the Day

Emerson, Lake & Palmer, by Emerson, Lake, & Palmer (1970): Geez, prog is barely out of the gate and already it's spawned a supergroup! I've never paid a whole lot of attention to ELP's debut. It's easy to overlook it in light of Tarkus, Trilogy, and Brain Salad Surgery. It's better than I've given it credit for, really. It does a good job of mapping out where ELP was headed, with the longish instrumental workouts ("Take a Pebble" and "Tank"), classical reworkings ("The Barbarian" and "Knife Edge"), and, of course, the prototypical Lake ballad, "Lucky Man," complete with ground breaking Moog solo. It's a little half-baked at places, but still a pretty solid debut.

Somber Anniversary

Yesterday marked the 50th anniversary of one of the darkest days of European sports. On February 6, 1958, a plane carrying the Manchester United soccer team, including some journalists and staff, crashed at the end of a runway in Munich, killing 23. As the New York Times reports, the anniversary provided some added nostalgia regarding English soccer:

But more than the mournful remembrances, the 50th anniversary has occasioned a wave of nostalgia in Britain for an era when soccer stars were a simpler and seemingly sturdier group than the sport’s contemporary icons, whose off-field excesses are almost as likely these days to put them on the front pages as in the sports columns.

* * *

Manchester United players at the time earned a maximum of $100 a week. The best-paid players now earn a weekly $250,000, and the club’s highest-rated player, the Portuguese Cristiano Ronaldo, has been valued by the club at $140 million, according to British newspapers.

The 1950s team played, often, on a sea of mud, with a leather ball that, when wet, had the feel of concrete. Today’s team, at Old Trafford, play on an artificially drained surface like a lawn, with lightweight balls that soar. Many of the 1950s players often came from apprenticeships in coal mines and steel mills, or trades like plumbing, and returned to them when their playing days were over.
Another thing that the article doesn't mention is the ManU team of 1958 was almost (if not entirely - I'm not sure) British. While the English Premier League has risen to be Europe's richest and perhaps best league (it's exploring playing matches on on other continents next year), the number of Brits figuring prominently in the top teams' starting lineups has dwindled. I think that probably figures in the nostalgia.

Somebody Had Fun With This

There's a nice story in today's Daily Mail about the day care center that serves the state capitol employees. But it comes under an oddly phrased headline:

Legislators admire small children, but sometimes make them cry
Makes them sound like monsters from a fairy tale or something.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Album of the Day

mei, by echolyn (2002): One of the things that sets echolyn apart from lots of the other modern proggers that came out of the 1990s is that when they talk about influences, most of them aren't older prog bands. Rather than dip into the well of 70s prog pioneers, they have collected their own set of influences and blended them into a unique sound. That's particularly obvious on mei, with it's one 50-minute title track. There's very little padding in it, with the long solo instrumental passages that generally characterize such epics largely absent. Which isn't to say that Chris Buzby doesn't have a couple of fiery Nord leads and Brett Kull doesn't throw in some nice licks here and there. But in "mei" they serve the music as a whole rather than exist just as personal showpieces. This is truly a masterpiece.

UPDATE: Appropriately enough, an Album of the Day entry is post #2112 on this blog. Hello, all the Rush geeks who get that reference.

On Flailing Pianists

I stumbled across an interesting column in today's New York Times about the problem with modern concert pianists. At least in this guy's eyes the problem is visual:

Wandering from one television channel to the next the other day, I came across young people playing the piano. One man, bearded and a little hefty, rippled through a Beethoven sonata, sharing with the camera complicit smiles, exultant grimaces, gazes to the right and left, and a gentle swaying from side to side.

The next, a young woman, sat down to Schumann, bending her back, lifting her head and gazing straight up. Maybe God was sitting in the rafters just above her, and she was using the opportunity to say hello. Both pianists were perfectly fluent. They kept time, played the right notes and sounded expressive when they were supposed to.

I had to turn away. I could listen, but I couldn’t watch. Two performers, four glazed eyes and four waving arms were too much for my stomach. And if someone with a lifelong love for the piano repertory has this kind of reaction, what about those coming to classical music from the outside? Think of the smart young people ready to believe, filled with curiosity and good thoughts, and imagine with what astonishment and amusement they must come away from such scenes.
It's an interesting complaint, but one that seems misplaced. I'll admit, I enjoy seeing musicians who get into a little bit when playing. I can conjure up vivid images of Stevie Ray Vaughn, sweating out every note of a solo, like his soul was pouring out his fingers. Or of Mike Keneally, grinning maniacally as he and the band rip through some tune. But I don't hold it against Bob Fripp or Tony Banks that they have the stage presence of banana slugs. It doesn't change my opinion of their playing. Sure, fake enthusiasm is awful, but fake reverence would be just as bad, it seems to me.

My Cutting Political Analysis

Well, Super Duper Tsunami Tuesday Bright Happy Funtime Hour (Presented by Chocolate Frosted Sugar Bombs) has come and gone. It was fun to watch unfold, but it didn't really settle much, did it? I'll leave the GOP three-way to someone else, but I think I may have found a useful analogy to the Democratic results from last night:

The Battle of Antietam

That's right, the bloodiest day in American history. Not that it was that ugly. But consider this. Antietam was the finale of a campaign by Lee to bring some of the war north and force McClellan to be defensive for a little while. The pivotal battle in Maryland was a tactical draw, with McClellan unable to push the next day and deliver a crushing blow to Lee's army. It effectively blunted Lee's grand plan, but it didn't really settle anything.

Put Obama in the Lee role (ironically) - the insurgent with momentum from recent victories trying to carry the fight to the established power and perhaps force a breakthrough. Clinton fits the McClellan role, with the more extensive power base and a need to blunt the other side's momentum. The results play out like the battle itself - lots of small victories for both sides, but an overall draw. As the insurgent, Obama has to be a little disappointed that he couldn't breakthrough somewhere like California. On the other had, Clinton couldn't wield the big stick and break Obama's momentum completely. In the end, it's pretty much status quo ante.

Which, of course, begs the question - if last night was Antietam, where and when is Gettysburg?

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

YouTube Gem

I didn't know there was any video from middle-Fish era Marillion, but here it is. Maybe my favorite overlooked Marillion tune, "Cinderella Search," live on Swiss TV in 1984:

Love that last section ("Maybe it was infatuation . . ."). Seems that Fish is going to be touring the US this summer - hope he winds up somewhere in the vicinity.

Album of the Day

Tall Blonde Helicopter, by Francis Dunnery (1995): I got this disc back in the days after Phil Collins left Genesis, as Dunnery (ex-frontman of It Bites) was mentioned as a possible replacement (vocally, anyway). Based on this album, it would have been an interesting match. It's mostly singer/songwriter style stuff, but it's very good. Dunnery has a distinctive voice that adds a lot of character to the songs and whips out some terrific lyrics (i.e., the description of his alter ego as having "stealth bomber timing and an overdub's voice"). There's also a really nice cover of Cat Stevens's "Father and Son." Highly recommended.

Game On! (Political Version)

Can't you just taste the excitement? Super Duper Tsunami Tuesday Bright Happy Funtime Hour (Presented by Chocolate Frosted Sugar Bombs) is upon us and West Virginia is already off and running. Well, the Republicans are, at least. Sort of.

In order to try and play a greater role in the selection process without moving the May primary, the state GOP held its first party convention in Charleston today. 18 of the state's 30 delegates were up for grabs (the rest get allocated in May during the primary). And the winner is . . . Mike Huckabee! Mitt Romney topped the first round of voting, which dumped Ron Paul from the proceedings, but couldn't overcome the Huckabee juggernaut, apparently powered by McCain supporters.

The plan from the McCain camp appears to be if he can't win it, The Mittster better not, either. Which makes me giggle and think of Mary Matalin, who was on Meet the Press this weekend (with her hubby, James "Gollum" Carville), just irate that Huckabee hasn't dropped out yet so that Romney can smash McCain. She damn near popped a vein. I can't imagine what this kind of strategy is doing to her.

UPDATE: Geez, nobody but the Huckster is happy. As Lincoln Walks at Midnight reports, both the Romney and Paul camps are pissed at how things turned out in West Virginia.

The Crack House Rules

OK, so it's not exactly John Updike, but it's a lot funnier. Over at A Public Defender, Gideon has posted a list of rules (via The Saucy Vixen) one should observe when present in a particular crack house. Think of them as what Miss Manners would say - if Miss Manners was a young, sex-0bsessed crack head. As Gideon notes, it's an R-rated list.

My particular favorite is number 7 (Reginald apparently has a thing about dick breath).*

They're almost as funny as these rules:

* I told you they were R-rated!

Kids, This Is Unsafe Sex

What, she's never seen Parenthood?

Police said they arrested a man and woman who wrecked their vehicle and lied to police about who was driving.

* * *

Officers saw a man running from the accident scene, according to a criminal complaint filed in Kanawha Magistrate Court.

Police chased the man and advised him to stop, the complaint says. He was eventually apprehended and found to be intoxicated, it says.

* * *

Clark had no shirt on and his jeans were unzipped, partially exposing his underwear, the complaint says.

* * *

Stewart said she was the driver of the crashed vehicle, but witnesses who had gathered at the scene said they saw Clark behind the wheel, the complaint says.

Stewart was adamant about being the driver and told police, "It's not his fault."

* * *

After she was taken to the police station, Stewart asked what was going to happen to her, and when the penalties for DUI were explained, she immediately changed her story, the complaint says.

She told police she was performing oral sex on Clark as he was driving and that was why he crashed the car, the complaint says.
Ah, the comedic side of criminal justice.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Album of the Day

Texas Sugar Strat Magik, by Chris Duarte Group (1994): What is it about the Austin? Is there something in the water? From the city that gave us Stevie Ray Vaughn and Eric Johnson, here's another Strat slingin' guitar fiend. While there's not a whole lot that's original going on here, when it's good, it's pretty damn good. "Shiloh" is pretty much worth the price of admission all by itself.

Mondays With Stanley - Sex, Moogs, and Violence

If 2001 is all about the visual and aural aspects of film, to the expense of meaningful dialog, 1971's A Clockwork Orange is the complete opposite. How could it be otherwise? Any adaptation of Anthony Burgess's novel would have to maintain the Nadsat dialect in which the humble narrator, Alex, addresses the audience and damn near everyone else. As a result, there is a nearly constant voice over from Malcom McDowell as Alex tells his sad tale.

And what a tale it is. Alex begins as a psychopathic teenager who revels in three things: the ultraviolence, the ol' in-out, and the music of Ludwig van (Beethoven), particularly his Ninth Symphony. Alex leads a pack of like minded hellions ("droogs") who get hopped up on drugged milk and commit various violent acts. A final violent act - a murder - along with betrayal by his droogs lands Alex in prison. He sidles up to the prison chaplain and eventually is selected to take part in an experimental therapy that will cure him of violent impulses.

After two weeks of conditioning, Alex can no longer act out violently, instead becoming seriously ill. As a side effect, he has the same reaction when he hear's the Ninth Symphony. Dumped back into society, thrown out of his home by his parents, Alex meets up with several of the people he's done wrong earlier in the film, who exact various types of revenge, both physical and musical. A failed suicide attempts lands Alex in the hospital and the Government in hot water. They come to an arrangement and Alex proclaims, insincerely, that he's been cured.

The telling of Alex's story is replete with, well, sex and violence. Roger Ebert's original (non-flattering) review notes an "X" rating, but the DVD calls it "R." There's lots of nudity, for example, but the only sex involved is a single scene that's so sped up (to the tune of the William Tell Overture, no less) that it's mostly a blur. A presumed rape happens off screen. And while there's copious violence, there's very little blood. It's nothing compared to what comes out these days. And it helps showcase not only the brutality of Alex's shallow world view, but the equally shallow world view of those that take their revenge on him.

As for the Moogs, they come courtesy of Wendy (then Walter) Carlos, who provides the film's original score. It's one of earliest films to feature lots of electronic music, both original compositions and reworkings of classical pieces. While it's fairly primitive and raw compared to what would come later (say, Vangelis's soundtrack for Blade Runner a decade later), it's very effective, particularly in invoking the right mood in the film's more surreal moments. Considering that even the most massive Moogs at the time were monophonic, it's pretty impressive.

Of course, the whole point of the story is to explore ideas of free will and morality. Alex's condition renders him incapable of being violent, but not by choice. As the prison chaplain points out, Alex acts only in his own self interest and thus, can't be said to acting as a moral agent. The irony of that observation really jumped out at me today, for the simple reason that the same could be said of Christianity or any religion premised on punishment in the afterlife for not acting in a moral (i.e., the way God wants) fashion. The treatment fails in other ways (it leaves Alex completely defenseless, for one thing), but that is it's central moral dilemma.

A Clockwork Orange is probably more dated that many other Kubrick flicks. The visual design and Moogy soundtrack scream "1970s." But the central question it poses is part of a timeless debate on what it means to be human. In that sense, it will outlive its era.

Mondays With Stanley - The Ultimate Trip

For Xmas, the girlfriend (thanks, honey!) gave me a spiffy new boxed set with five of director Stanely Kubrick's best films - 2001, A Clockwork Orange, The Shining, Full Metal Jacket, and Eyes Wide Shut. All have been lovingly transfered to DVD, with remastered sound and amble bonus features. Since they're all epics in their own way, I decided that the best way to work through them was to set aside a day a week to watch a flick. The idea to blog about it only came to me on the way home from work today. Thus, a special two-for-one for our first Monday With Stanley!

If there is a single iconic Kubrick film, it is 1968's 2001: A Space Odyssey. It was so different from anything else at the time and really hasn't been matched since. All of the things for which Kubrick sometimes gets slammed - deliberate pacing, underdeveloped characters, a generally cold feel - works to perfection in what has to be the only movie ever to cover hundreds of thousands of years in a fleet 2 hours and 20 minutes. Part of the accomplishment, of course, has to be shared with sci-fi author Arthur C. Clarke, with whom Kubrick developed the screenplay.

The plot, such as it is, can be summed up like this - an ancient alien intelligence messed with humanity, wackiness ensues. Well, not "wackiness," exactly, but some fairly weird shit. In the first of the film's three epochs, our ape-like ancestors on the African plain find themselves in the presence of a strange, perfectly smooth, black monolith. A touch of the monolith inspires one of the apes to pick up a bone and start using is at a tool and weapon. In the mother of all cut scenes, the ape flings a bone into the air, where it turns into a satellite circling the earth. The cut to 1999 brings us to another monolith, this time buried under the surface of the moon. After the monolith poots forth an ear-slitting signal of some kind, we cut again - this time to 2001 and aboard the Discovery.

That, believe it or not, is where things really get started. Discovery is on its way to Jupiter to explore the target of the monolith's transmission. Three of its five crewmen are in suspended animation, to be awakened once the ship reaches Jupiter. Two other crew members attend to the ship's functions, as does Discovery's super advanced computer, the HAL 9000. Things go badly, HAL kills one of the living crew members and all the frozen ones (to be fair, in self defense), and the surviving crewman sets out to explore yet another monolith that is orbiting around Jupiter. The last half hour of the film, as he journeys "beyond the infinite," is surreal in the extreme and ends with the birth of a "star child" somewhere near the Earth.

What does it all mean? I have no fucking clue. Kubrick himself may not have, really - as he admitted in a 1968 Playboy interview (via Wikipedia):

You're free to speculate as you wish about the philosophical and allegorical meaning of the film—and such speculation is one indication that it has succeeded in gripping the audience at a deep level—but I don't want to spell out a verbal road map for 2001 that every viewer will feel obligated to pursue or else fear he's missed the point.
So if I admit I don't really "get" it and the man who made the movie doesn't want to explain it, then why do I consider 2001 such a great film?

Well, for one thing, it makes such great use of cinema's visual and aural potential. It's a movie that is brief on the "whos" and "whys" - it's got only about 40 minutes worth of dialog in it. If you want more depth on those issues, read Clarke's novel. The movie is a series of brilliantly designed and choreographed visual pieces, perfectly matched with a non-original soundtrack or - in the most effective cases - no sound at all. The contrast between the Romantic-era pieces from Strauss and Brahms and the haunting modern choral pieces by Ligeti are striking. The visual/aural narrative structure is something that could only be done in film.

For another, Kubrick and Clarke got the science right, for the most part. Which isn't just a positive for its own sake, but for the way it helps develop tension. The most intense parts of the film - when things start to go to hell on Discovery - are when the only things you hear are a spare voice here and there, breathing (lots of breathing), and nothing at all. HAL's first homicidal act, for example, is done entirely in silence.

It's also worth noting that for all the ground breaking work done in this film, it was still released by a major studio. It's hard to imagine modern Hollywood getting anywhere near such a different film, even with their quasi-independent indy boutique subsidiaries.

2001 is not for everyone - I'll grant that. But for those who get it, on whatever level, it really is the ultimate trip.

Modern Slavery - In Maryland

Last Friday, the Fourth Circuit upheld a conviction based on behavior that you'd hope wouldn't surface in the 21st Century. In US v. Udeozor, the defendant and her husband convinced a family in Nigeria to allow their 14-year old daughter to emigrate to the United States, with promises of education and money sent back to the family. It didn't work out that way:

The victim lived with the Udeozors from October 1996 until October 2001. During that time, the Udeozors required her to care for their children, to clean their house, and to cook for them. The victim testified at trial that she was also required to work in Dr. Udeozor’s medical office, where she performed multiple tasks, including answering the phones, preparing patient charts, verifying patients’ insurance information, and cleaning out medical examination rooms. The victim received no compensation for her work. The victim’s father testified that he received only '[o]ne piece of cloth and a bag of rice.' The Udeozors never enrolled the victim in any school.

During this time, the Udeozors subjected the victim to repeated physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. In particular, at trial, the victim testified that Dr. Udeozor hit her with an 'open hand, and sometimes her fist, and then sometimes she would use her shoe.' She also testified that Dr. Udeozor threw things at her, and that Dr. Udeozor 'would twist and pull [her] ear.' During one particular beating, the Udeozors forced the young girl to kneel and raise her hands above her head, after which Dr. Udeozor beat her in her sides with a flexible wooden cane, and Mr. Udeozor struck her in the hand with the metal part of a belt. After the beating, Dr. Udeozor forced the victim to continue kneeling for an additional forty-five minutes. This beating left the victim with marks on her sides and breathing difficulties. During another beating, Dr. Udeozor struck the victim with a shoe, causing her wrist to be dislocated. The victim never received any medical attention after any of these beatings.

The Udeozors also emotionally abused the victim. The Udeozors threatened to send the victim back to Nigeria, and they told her that the government would deport her if she left the house because she did not have 'papers.' Finally, between 1997 and 1999, Mr. Udeozor forced the victim — on numerous occasions — to engage in sexual intercourse with him, conduct which the government characterized in its argument at trial as 'rape.' The victim testified that Mr. Udeozor threatened to and did sexually assault her more frequently and more forcefully if his children misbehaved or suffered harm while in her care. Mr. Udeozor also warned the victim that if she spoke to anyone about the sexual assaults, he would tell her parents that she had become a prostitute.
Udeozor was convicted of conspiracy to keep someone in a condition of involuntary servitude and harboring an alien for private gain. She received a sentence of 87 months in prison. The husband, it appears, has skipped the country.

The Fourth Circuit summed up the situation quite well:
In the jury’s view, Dr. Udeozor was part of a conspiracy that substituted for a promised education and compensation a regime of psychological cruelty and physical coercion that took some of the best years of a young girl’s life. For that, involuntary servitude is not too strong a term.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Album of the Day

When Dream and Day Unite, by Dream Theater (1994): This album gets the not today solely because it was one of the 18 heinous prog album covers called out by the Onion AV Club the other day that I actually own. Which, really, is nothing compared to the cheezy band pics in the CD booklet! Oh, and the music is pretty good. A little half-baked, compared to what would come very shortly from the band. Still, it makes me miss Kevin Moore's more restrained keyboard work.

On Mountain State Lifers

West Virginia doesn't have the death penalty. For crimes that are defined as "capital" - first-degree murder and kidnapping - once convicted, a jury has two options when it comes to sentence: life with or without mercy. "Mercy" means that the defendant will have a chance at parole 15 years down the line. No mercy = never getting out of prison.

Today's Daily Mail has an article about the increase in lifer in WV prisons. The numbers of both those serving straight life and life with mercy have increased in recent years. It contains an interesting observation:

He said there's a common misconception that lifers, considering their crimes, are more violent than the rest of the inmate population, or that people who have no chance of parole might cause more trouble in the system than others.

Rubenstein said that's not necessarily the case.

'Once they are received by (the division), the inmate generally wants to just try and settle into their new environment and get on with their life,' Rubenstein said. 'For the most part, inmates serving a life sentence are usually the easiest inmates to manage because they realize they are going to be in the system for the rest of their life and they don't want any trouble.'
I've always been against the death penalty. As a consequence, I was once in favor of straight life sentences. But after actually being in prisons and actually meeting men who are serving those types of sentences, I think it's equally unjust to deny them the possibility - however slim - that they will ever be released.