Friday, May 30, 2008

Album of the Day

Stop Making Sense, by Talking Heads (1984/1999): Stop Making Sense is one of the most highly praised concert films of all time, though I've never really seen anybody explain why. Don't get me wrong - it's a great concert (and it seems to have made an impact on younger folks). And in this day and age of graphic overlays for concert vids, it's refreshingly direct. But for all that, director Jonathan Demme still manages to focus on the wrong things sometimes - yes, it's great to see cousin David do some odd dancing, but wouldn't it be more interesting to see what Bernie Worrell is doing to that Prohpet 5? Alas, perhaps I'm just too picky when it comes to these things.

For the record, I own the original 9-track version of the album, that misses about half of the tracks in the movie, which I've got on DVD. I can't say that the CD is really lacking any critical material, however.

Thanks, Hedley

Harvey Korman, best know for his work with Carol Burnett, died last night. For my money, I'll always remember Korman from two of my favorite Mel Brooks flicks, and History of the World, Part 1 and Blazing Saddles. In appreciation, a favorite bit from the second one (also featuring the great Slim Pickens):

Adios, Harvey!

An Increasingly Hot (and Slippery) Commodity

Around these parts, the hot target of thefts of opportunity is copper wire, usually taken from a mine site. That may change, however, as the latest target on the national stage gains prominence - grease. That's right, grease. As this article from the New York Times explains, what was once basically a waste by-product of restaurants is now worth quite a bit:

Outside Seattle, cooking oil rustling has become such a problem that the owners of the Olympia Pizza and Pasta Restaurant in Arlington, Wash., are considering using a surveillance camera to keep watch on its 50-gallon grease barrel. Nick Damianidis, an owner, said the barrel had been hit seven or eight times since last summer by siphoners who strike in the night.

'Fryer grease has become gold,' Mr. Damianidis said. 'And just over a year ago, I had to pay someone to take it away.'
But it's just junk, right, so what's the harm? Well, not anymore:
Much to the surprise of Mr. Damianidis and many other people, processed fryer oil, which is called yellow grease, is actually not trash. The grease is traded on the booming commodities market. Its value has increased in recent months to historic highs, driven by the even higher prices of gas and ethanol, making it an ever more popular form of biodiesel to fuel cars and trucks.

In 2000, yellow grease was trading for 7.6 cents per pound. On Thursday, its price was about 33 cents a pound, or almost $2.50 a gallon.
One imagines that catching these thieves will be, well, slippery.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Album of the Day

Always Almost, by Still (1997): Back in the mid 1990s, when echolyn broke up (right after I discovered them, naturally), the band basically split in two. Keyboardist Chris Buzby started finneus guage, which took the complex echolyn style and moved it into a Bruford/UK-influenced direction. Guitarist Brett Kull, drummer Paul Ramsey, and vocalist/bassist Ray Weston formed Still. Although Still's only release (their next release, God Pounds His Nails, was released under the "Always Almost" name - go figure) was billed by some as "just like echolyn!", it's quite different. It's rockier, rougher, and more straight ahead than echolyn was. To say I was disappointed at the time was an understatement. More than a decade on, I can enjoy it more for what it is (and hear some of where the current echolyn sound began), but it's still not a favorite in the cannon of the echolyn universe (I prefer God . . ., actually).

Beware the Zone of Death!

Before you finalize your vacation plans, you might want make sure you don't go camping in the Idaho portion of Yellowstone National Park. You see, that 50 square mile patch of wilderness, is, in addition to being completely uninhabited, completely lawless, according to Michigan State law prof Brian Kalt. In a law review article a couple of years ago, Kalt argued that you could perpetrate the "perfect crime" there and escape criminal punishment - the Zone of Death. How could that be? It's a little complicated, but basically it goes like this:

Under both the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, defendants charged with federal crimes have a right to be tried by a jury of their peers drawn from the state and district in which the crime was committed. So, if you sell drugs in Charleston, you have a right to be tried in West Virginia and, specifically, in the Southern District of WV. Yellowstone is all federal property, with the federal government responsible for law enforcement there. Most of Yellowstone (over 3 million square miles) is in Wyoming, but small bits overflow into Idaho (50 square miles) and Montana (260 square miles). When those states and their accompanying federal district courts were created, the District of Wyoming was defined to include all of Yellowstone, even the part that flows over into other states.

Therein lies the rub. If you commit an offense in the Wyoming portion of Yellowstone, you could be prosecuted in accordance with the Constitution in Wyoming. But if you committed your offense in the Idaho portion, it's impossible to try you both in the state (Idaho) and district (Wyoming) where the crime was committed. Since there are no people in that portion of the park, there's no pool from which to draw a jury (the small population of the Montana portion probably could work, if needed).

Would it really work? Who knows - Kalt deals with the potential work arounds and shoots them down pretty effectively. Given that - you'd expect that Congress would jump at the chance to fix the problem, right?

Not quite. As this follow up article shows, Kalt's attempts to get a Congressional fix fell on deaf ears. He did, however, manage to draw the attention of the National Enquirer and a best-selling author, who used the Zone of Death as a plot device in one of his books. Someone even got prosecuted in the Montana area - for illegally shooting elk - and used Kalt's argument, but the district judge shot it down summarily and a subsequent guilty plea squelched any chances of the circuit court taking up the issue.

So, beware if you're hiking the wilds of Yellowstone. You might be the perfect target!

Another Persepctive on Florida & Michigan

Following up on my post from last week about the whole Florida/Michigan mess, I'll just point out this post over at TalkLeft that lays out pretty well how the whole thing went down. Short version - the whole Democratic calendar was completely fucked up, with states shifting endlessly to keep their position in the lineup. It's embarrassing that a system like that is the best we have for picking a presidential candidate.

That still doesn't change the facts that (1) everyone agreed to the Florida/Michigan penalties back in the day because (2) nobody thought it would make any difference in the end. What it does is reinforce the need to change the whole damn system for 2012.

UPDATE: More fuel for the fire - the Michigan Democrats' letter to the DNC rules committee. In brief, the argument is that New Hampshire broke the rules first and suffered no consequences, so Michigan was free to do the same. I'm not particularly convinced. For one thing, as a trained professional criminal defense attorney, I can tell you that, "but juuudge - they did it first!" is not a valid defense. For another, from the letter, it appears that everyone was on board with New Hampshire, Iowa, Nevada, and South Carolina being the first four and all NH did was move itself within that order - it's rule breaking had no impact on Michigan.

The Komplications of Karma

In the west, we seem to have a vague conception of karma, without really getting a full grasp of it. That conception - that you'll get what's coming to you (or, as a man once sang, "your karma has come to hunt you down") - is getting fresh press because of something unbelievably dumb that Sharon Stone just said:

And Sharon Stone, a convert to Buddhism, has claimed - to much criticism - that the earthquake that killed at least 68,000 people in China was bad karma for Beijing policy in Tibet. 'I thought, is that karma - when you're not nice that the bad things happen to you?' she mused at the Cannes Film Festival.
As one of the commenters points out, that's just another side to the Pat Roberston/John Hagee "9-11/Katrina was God's punishment" woo. But would you expect theological nuance from Sharon Stone?

Not on this level, at least:
Dhammadassin, a teacher at the London Buddhist Centre, says that Stone's take on karma is common - glossed over as an outcome that is the result of something done in the past - or even a past life.

'This reduces the enormously complex matter of causes and their effects to a question of retribution meted out for unspecified previous actions,' she says.

But the law of karma states that it's the motive behind one's actions that affects the outcome of that particular act.

* * *

In a complex world, it's too simplistic to expect that a positive intention will always have a positive outcome as many factors are involved, she says.
I dunno - that last bit sounds an awful like "whatever happens, it's God's will," which, of course, we mere mortals can't really grasp. In other words - same woo, different spin.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Album of the Day

Perennial Favorites, by Squirrel Nut Zippers (1998): If there was a prize in my collection for "lowest per-disc investment for an artist," it would go to the Zippers. Through repeated gifting from jedi jawa in our college days, I obtained damn near the band's whole catalog, this being the last one. I don't think this one, overall, is as good as Hot, as it has a few uninspired moments ("Trou Macaq" sounds like an attempt to bottle lightning twice and is very derivative of "Hell"). Curiously, it also seems to have a lick, in the intro to "My Drag," that sounds lifted from the beginning of Gentle Giant's "Funny Ways." Still and all, there's lots of cool stuff here, including "Ghost of Steven Foster," which produced an equally cool video:

Kill Witness, Go to Jail (Do Not Pass Go, Do Not Collect Sixth Amendment RIghts)

A few years ago, the Supreme Court stood criminal trial practice on its ear by deciding, contrary to several decades of recent precedent, that the Sixth Amendment's right to confront witnesses really meant something. "Something," of course, being, the right to actually confront and cross-examine those witnesses. If the defendant can't confront the witness, the prosecution can't use any prior statements against him. Since then, the Court has been tinkering with the results.

This term, the Court is figuring out an interesting confrontation issue that Sherry Colb over at FindLaw writes about:

At Giles’s trial, the prosecutor offered the victim’s police statement as worthy of belief - as 'hearsay,' in other words. The victim, because she is deceased, was not available for cross-examination. Was it proper for the trial judge to admit her statement to the police, even though the defendant could not expose its weaknesses through cross-examination? That is what the Court must decide.
At issue is the common law rule of "Forfeiture by Wrongdoing" (which is also written into the Federal Rules of Evidence). The rule says, in essence, if you kill a witness, you can't complain about not being able to confront that witness at trial.

Makes sense, right? But the rule appears to be directed at situations where the defendant kills the witness to prevent him/her from testifying against him at a particular trial - i.e., Angry Bob kills (or otherwise renders unavailable) Steve before Steve can testify that he saw Angry Bob steal his neighbor's yard flamingos.

The situation in Giles is quite different - the absent witness in Giles is the murder victim herself. It's absurd to say that Giles killed her in order to keep her from testifying against him in a trial for killing her! On top of that, the earlier victim's statement comes in if the trial court determines - by a preponderance of the evidence, not beyond a reasonable doubt - that Giles committed the offense for which he is on trial. It's an odd form of evidentiary bootstrapping, in my book.

Regardless, it will be interesting to see what happens.

Where'd She Stick the Loot?

I'm with Mike - something's not quite right here:

A nude maid cleaned up good at a Florida man's home.

The Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office says the maid stole more than $40,000 from a Cheval home despite not wearing any clothes.

The 50-year-old man hired the maid from the Internet on Friday to clean his suburban Tampa home.
My favorite bit to this story:
Sheriff's office spokeswoman Debbie Carter says the man told deputies he left the maid alone in the bedroom to clean.

When the man's wife came home from vacation, she discovered $40,000 in jewelry missing from their bedroom.
For one thing, who hires a nude anything and then leaves them alone to do their thing? For another, can you imagine the conversation with the Missus when she got home? Almost makes you feel sorry for a guy who hired a nude maid off the Internet.


Monday, May 26, 2008

Close Encounters of the Brit Kind

One of the foundational tenets of faith among UFO believers is that classified documents locked away in some secret government file contain the truth that the Earth has been visited by extra terrestrials. If the experience of researchers in the UK means anything, they're going to be disappointed:

Whatever they were, these phenomena reported to Britain’s Ministry of Defense over the years and made public this month were almost certainly not actual alien aircraft piloted by actual alien beings.

'The government has been telling us the truth,' declared David Clarke, a senior lecturer in journalism at Sheffield Hallam University, who has a side interest in U.F.O.’s. 'There are a lot of weird things in the sky, and some of them we can’t explain, but there’s not a shred of evidence for a single alien visitation.'
Bummer. If you think Clarke's missed something, some of the documents are available online from the National Archives.

Judges Securing Their Own Jobs

As we observe a uniquely American holiday, it's worth examining another American peculiarity - the popular election of judges. As this article from Sunday's New York Times explains, we are among a tiny group of countries - the other two are Switzerland (in some cantons) and Japan (though the elections are mostly formalities) - that leave judicial selection to the whim of electoral politics.

As odd as it seems, there is a theory behind the practice:

The question of how best to select judges has baffled lawyers and political scientists for centuries, but in the United States most states have made their choice in favor of popular election. The tradition goes back to Jacksonian populism, and supporters say it has the advantage of making judges accountable to the will of the people. A judge who makes a series of unpopular decisions can be challenged in an election and removed from the bench.

'If you want judges to be responsive to public opinion, then having elected judges is the way to do that,' said Sean Parnell, the president of the Center for Competitive Politics, an advocacy group that opposes most campaign finance regulation.
87% of all state judges face elections of some sort (federal judges, of course, are appointed by the President with the consent of the Senate). That responsiveness can lead to some troubling results in particular cases:
judges often alter their behavior as elections approach. A study in Pennsylvania by Gregory A. Huber and Sanford C. Gordon found that 'all judges, even the most punitive, increase their sentences as re-election nears,' resulting in some 2,700 years of additional prison time, or 6 percent of total prison time, in aggravated assault, rape and robbery sentences over a 10-year period.
In an age when those extra years, in addition to working a serious injustice against the defendants who bear them, will cost taxpayers upwards of $25k a year, should we change the way we do things?

And if so, how? The Times article focuses on the French system, in which judges are mostly civil service technocrats, but fails to mention that French law (and most European systems) is based on civil codes and judges there don't do the same common law analysis that judges in the US or UK do. Of course, the Brits appoint their judges:
In common law countries, judges are generally appointed by executive branch officials, though lately judicial commissions made up of lawyers and lay people are taking a larger role in the initial selection of candidates. Scotland adopted that method in 2002, and England and Wales in 2006.

Alan Paterson, a Scottish law professor who serves on the Judicial Appointments Board for Scotland, said his country’s system was transparent and worked well, though he acknowledged that the idea behind judicial elections was attractive.

'Part of me likes it,' he said. 'It follows from the separation of powers. But in practical terms, it’s very difficult. They have to raise a lot of money.'

'The theory is a nice theory,' he said. 'The practice of it is unworkable. We’re not going to do it.'
The question is, in land where we are living with the unworkable practice, what will it take to change it?

WV Cops 8, PA Cops 0

Yesterday, after spending a sunny Saturday with the girlfriend, I headed about 1.25 hours north to autocross with the Steel Cities Region at BeaverRun Motorports Complex. On the long drive home, I witnessed an amusing phenomenon.

On the 100 miles (or so) of Pennsylvania Interstates I covered, I didn't see a single cop running radar - particularly odd, given a high-traffic holiday weekend.

Once I hit the West Virginia border, however, things completely changed - I saw two WV state troopers with people pulled over within four miles of the state line! I saw two more in quick succession, although they didn't have any prey at the time. Altogether, in the 160 miles from the state line to Charleston, I saw eight WV troopers.

So, at least our state troopers are working hard this holiday weekend!

Friday, May 23, 2008

Album of the Day

V, by Spock's Beard (2000): From my first Beard experience yesterday, to the end of their glory days, in my opinion. In fact, it's sort of paradigmatic Beard, distilled onto one album: a couple of well assembled epics, the obligatory Gentle Giant vocal homage, and a few shorter more direct tracks (of varying success). There's nothing really new here, and it seems like the band plateaued (at least) from here on out. In fact, when it first came out, I didn't much care for it as it felt too "Beard by numbers." In the years since, I've come to enjoy it a great deal, however.

Sure Beats Chrysler's Free Gas Offer

Hey, why get free/cheap gas when buying a car when you could have something even better:

A car dealership in the United States is offering a free handgun with every vehicle sold.

Max Motors in Butler, Missouri, says sales have quadrupled since the start of the offer.

Customers can choose between a gun or a $250 (£125) gas card, but most so far have chosen the gun.
It's been a popular promotion, for the most part:
Mr Muller said that every buyer so far 'except one guy from Canada and one old guy' chose the gun, rather than the gas card.
You can almost here the suspicious/derogatory tone he uses when he said "guy from Canada," can't you?

Free Speech Takes a Hit in Europe (Redux)

An update on this week's post about European assaults on free speech. One incident, at least, appears to have worked itself out:

Legal action has been dropped against a 15-year-old who faced prosecution for branding Scientology a 'cult'.

The teenager held up a sign which read, 'Scientology is not a religion, it is a dangerous cult', in May outside its headquarters in the City of London.
A good outcome, but it should never have gotten even that far.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Album of the Day

The Light, by Spock's Beard (1995): Jeez, has it been 13 years?!? I still remember ordering this album from the band's first attempt at a website and the ensuing problems (leading to guitarist Alan Morse eventually singing me a chorus of "Country Roads" over the phone) like it was yesterday. It's aged well, in my opinion, and has a special place in my discovery of new (and old, for that matter) prog. That's part of the reason why I think it's my favorite Beard album, although the next few are all excellent. It's a milestone album, no doubt.

PKs Suck, But What's the Alternative?

Yesterday's All-England Champion's League Final between Manchester United and Chelsea had everything - huge crowd, semi-exotic locale, drama out the wazoo. Everything, that is, except a winner after two hours of play. With the teams deadlocked at 1-1, things proceeded to the dreaded penalty shootout to determine Europe's top club.

As shootouts go, it was pretty gripping stuff - Petr Cech stoning Ronaldo after his little stutter step, Chelsea captain John Terry slipping and missing on the decisive kick, another great save by Edwin van der Sar to win it for ManU. But, alas, it was still a shootout, prompting at least one English wag to proclaim that it's time to "scrap" the shootout.

Yeah, OK, fine - it's like deciding a baseball game with a home run derby. But what's the alternative?

In days of old, knock-out matches that were tied at the end of play were just replayed at a later date. Modern schedule congestion and television demands won't allow that now, however (aside from a very few instances in the FA Cup).

Robbo's suggestion is to start taking a player off every so many minutes, but that doesn't seem right, either. Fewer players on the pitch means more room to cover for already tired legs that have run for 90 or 120 minutes already, anyway.

We could return to either Golden Goal (sudden death) or Silver Goal (play the rest of the half) overtimes, but neither proved particularly popular. Of course, either might work considerably better once the promise of PKs coming in at a certain point was eliminated completely.

How about just let them keep playing, maybe with some provision for additional substitutions? After all, some of the great American sports moments have come in double or triple overtime playoff games in the NHL or NBA. The concern that the players would be too whipped for the next match doesn't hold water in a tournament final. If both teams knew somebody had to win on the pitch, maybe they'd be less likely to play not to lose and actually play to win.

Or, maybe things wills stay the same and we fans will just have something to keep bitching about. Isn't that what sports is really all about, anyway?

On Michigan, Florida, and Counting Votes

With the finish line of the Democratic primary season on the horizon, the campaigns and party big wigs are trying to figure out what to do with Michigan and Florida. Here's the problem - back before the primaries got rolling, the DNC told those two states not to move their elections up so as to screw with the primacy of Iowa and New Hampshire. They did anyway, so the DNC stripped the states of their delegates. As a result, nobody actually campaigned in either state (Obama and Edwards even took their names off the ballot in Michigan).

If the primaries had gone the way everyone expected - just like the GOP race (in which Florida and Michigan lost half their delegates) - and a front runner emerged early and seized control, it wouldn't really matter. Once a nominee was clear, everybody would kiss, make up, and sing "Kumbaya" at the convention in Denver. But, the close race between Obama and Clinton killed that vision. Now the voters in those states have become a serious problem, as Democrats don't want to piss off all those voters come November.

Whirling around the issues is the craven nature of the Clinton campaign's position on Michigan and Florida. As this Slate piece makes clear, Clinton was on board with ignoring Michigan and Florida back when she was the presumptive nominee. In fact, when the DNC made the decision to strip those state's delegates, the only vote against the idea was an Obama backer from (take a guess) Florida. But now that she need every last vote and delegate to mount any argument for the nomination, she's falling all over herself to be the champion of the suppressed voters. It's embarrassing.

Which is not to say that coming up with some accommodation for Michigan and Florida isn't necessary (Obama is proposing a solution). Pissing off Democratic voters in two swing states isn't the brightest thing to do. Is another GOP administration a price worth paying for keeping Iowa and New Hampshire on their primary pedestals? I don't think so and I hope the Dems in those states don't think so, either.

You know, this entire primary campaign has highlighted how messed up the Democratic system is. It seems like every state does things differently - caucus, open primary, closed primary, convention, a combination of all those - and it makes it really difficult to get a national consensus about a nominee. Maybe this year's mess will lead to some changes for the next time around.

As in 2000 (and, to a lesser extent, 2004), democracy seems to be at its worst when the race is tight, which is just when we need it to be at its best.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Album of the Day

Dead Winter Dead, by Savatage (1995): A few days ago, I waded through a discussion of books that "screwed up the world." I'm not sold on the concept, but if they ever do one for albums, I nominate this one. This pretentious (barely) prog-metal concept album delves into the disintegration of Yugoslavia with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. What's worse, it's appropriation of snatches of classical music (metal Mozart!) and the Christmas setting indirectly spawned the truly awful Trans-Siberian Orchestra and their Spinal-Tap-does-Xmas projects. The cheese of hair metal, the pretension of prog - what could be worse?

Thank You, Thank You

Demonstrating his questionable taste, jedi jawa has bestowed upon me and The Ranch an award, the "You Make My Day" award. That's because The Ranch is one of "5 blogs that make me think and/or make my day."

Firstly, thank you very much, your jawaness. Secondly, I'm pleased to be in such illustrious company (check out his other four - they're all worth a visit). Thirdly, I'm going to take this meme and blow it all to heck!

See, the last time I got memed it was the same deal, but by the time I got around to naming five of my favorite personal blogs, the awards were doubles and, well, it was embarrassing. So, this time, I'm taking a slightly different approach, and highlighting five blogs on my "Other Fav Blogs" list that folks might not have checked out, but really should (in alphabetical order):

  • Orcinus: Dave Neiwert is a free-lance journalist in Seattle who has spent a long time researching, tracking, and writing about racism, nativism, and eliminationism on the fringe right. He brings that experience and knowledge to bear on current events, politics, etc. Lots of very interesting posts and good comments, too.
  • Pharyngula: PZ Myers is a Minnesota-based biologist who is an outspoken atheist (it's where my Big Red A came from), scourge of the creationist/ID crowd, and all around curmudgeon. He's blunt, but honest. Occasionally, there's some heavy duty scientific stuff on his blog that's way over my head.
  • TalkLeft: Run by Jeralyn Merritt, a long-time criminal defense attorney, TalkLeft provides a liberal perspective on criminal justice issues. Co-blogger TChris won the Booker case at the Supreme Court, too. During this election cycle, it's focused a lot on the Democratic presidential race, becoming a haven of sort for Clinton supports run off some of the other liberal blogs. It's at its best when dealing with criminal justice issues, IMHO.
  • The Volokh Conspiracy: A collection of law profs, with a conservative/libertarian bias. I often don't agree with what they're saying, but the issues they raise and the discussions of them are thought provoking.
  • Zoom: Documentarian Errol Morris's blog at the New York Times. He doesn't post often, but when he does, it's well worth the read. It will challenge your ideas about how you perceive the world.
I dare to be different!

Every Picture Tells a Story

But how do we know what the story really is?

Errol Morris's latest documentary, Standard Operating Procedure, is an examination of the prisoner abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib. In the latest post on his New York Times blog, Zoom, Morris takes one particular part of that scandal - one particular photograph, in fact - and deconstructs it, looking for the real story.

This is the picture (courtesy of Wikipedia Commons):

That is Specialist Sabrina Harman, smiling over the body of Manadel al-Jamadi, who died after being seized by US forces as a suspect in a bombing that killed two Red Cross workers. al-Jamadi passed through various hands at Abu Ghraib before he was found dead in a shower room. In the interim, he was beaten and tortured (see Morris's post for more details).

What is so jarring about that picture for so many people, Morris included, is obvious:
'How can you say she’s a good person?' I am sitting in an editing-room in Cambridge, Mass. arguing with one of my editors. I reply, 'Well, exactly what is it that she did that is bad?' We are arguing about Sabrina Harman, one of the notorious 'seven bad apples' convicted of abuse in the notorious Abu Ghraib scandal. My editor becomes increasingly irritable. (I have that effect on people.) He looks at me as you would a child. 'What did she do that is bad? Are you joking?' And then he brings up the trump card, the photograph with the smile. 'How do you get past that? The smile? Just look at it. Come on.'

The question kept coming up. How do you explain the smile? What does it mean? Not only is she smiling, she is smiling with her thumbs-up – over a dead body. The photograph suggests that she may have killed the guy, and she looks proud of it. She looks happy.
From there, Morris goes into great detail about that photograph, when it was taken, and what the other photos taken during the same session show. He consults an expert in facial expressions to see if Harman's smile means what we think, at first glance, it must mean. It's a long detailed post which really demands a full read.

As usual, the final answer is neither quite as obvious nor quite as emotionally satisfying as first-blush revulsion. It not only raises issues about abuses like Abu Ghraib, but also about how photographs effect us and what they mean as evidence. I'm not sure I agree with Morris's conclusion, but I know one thing - if I ever get charged with a crime, I want him on my defense team.

Free Speech Takes a Hit in Europe

For all our problems in this country when it comes to human and civil rights, the First Amendment's protection for freedom of speech remains pretty robust. Certainly, it's worth pondering what kinds of shenanigans are possible when those protections are absent. Two recent cases from generally liberal European countries provide some cautionary tales.

First, authorities in Holland have taken to prosecuting cartoonists (via DFtCW):

The Dutch Public Prosecutor's Office has announced that the cartoonist who works under the pseudonym Gregorius Nekschot was arrested for publishing 'insulting cartoons'.

The cartoonist will not reveal his real name out of fear that Islamic extremists will seek revenge for the cartoons, many of which make fun of the Muslim religion.

It is extremely unusual for a Dutch artist to be arrested for his works. Justice Minister Ernst Hirsch Ballin says he does not believe the case has anything to do with suppressing free expression.
I'm not sure what is more distressing - that someone was arrested (and detained more than a day before being questioned) for drawing "insulting cartoons" or that the "justice" minister doesn't think it has anything to do with freedom of expression.

Second (via Volokh), a British teenager was cited by London police for carrying a sign calling Scientology a "cult" during a demonstration in front of a Scientology building:
The incident happened during a protest against the Church of Scientology on May 10. Demonstrators from the anti-Scientology group, Anonymous, who were outside the church's £23m headquarters near St Paul's cathedral, were banned by police from describing Scientology as a cult by police because it was "abusive and insulting".

* * *

The teenager refused to back down, quoting a 1984 high court ruling from Mr Justice Latey, in which he described the Church of Scientology as a 'cult' which was 'corrupt, sinister and dangerous'.

After the exchange, a policewoman handed him a court summons and removed his sign.
A common link between the two incidents is the state stepping in to prevent someone from "insulting" a religious group. The Founders, via the First Amendment, correctly figured that the government should stay as far out of the hurt feelings business as possible. Robust public debate - complete with insults, ridicule, satire, etc. - is critical to smooth operation of the marketplace of ideas. Once the state can lock you up or take away your message because it's "insulting," you're well on the way to surrendering your right to insult or be critical of the state, as well. And nothing good comes from that.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Album of the Day

Catatonia, by Salem Hill (1997): I try to focus on music and not visuals, but sometimes a bad first impression from the CD packaging can kill my enthusiasm. The original 1997 release of this album has, hands down, the worst packaging I've ever seen. The front and back covers are incredibly pixelated, as if they were blown up from a much smaller size. I could overlook that if (a) there was a tracklist somewhere and (b) the lyrics weren't all crammed on one page of the CD booklet in tiny print and one single-spaced paragraph. It's not even worth trying to figure them out - a particular problem with a concept album! That being said, the music is fairly serviceable but unremarkable neo-prog. So my only real impression of Salem Hill is - spend some dough on the visuals!

My Newest Obsession

When the girlfriend and I first met and were still feeling each other out (emotionally, you clods!), I made the mistake of disclosing that I have a computer program that manages a database of my CD collection. It's actually really cool - it tracks the total time of the discs, average times, accepts ratings - but it's a sure sign of a anal retentive geek. Thankfully, the girlfriend didn't run in terror at this disclosure, but said that she hoped someday to find something similar to catalog her enormous collection of books. It's one reason I love her.

Now, she has, and she's dragged me along with her. LibraryThing is an online catalog for your books. You add books by title, author, or ISBN. You can then see how many other people have the same book, share the same tastes, get recommendations, etc. If you're a book geek, it's incredibly addictive. And if you're a bloggin' geek, you can put a widget on your blog to show what's in your collection (down below the archive, to your right).

Sadly, for me, my collection - the entirety of which I've inputted in two days - pales in comparison to the girlfriend's. As I've said before, she reads books like I drink Diet Cokes. Good thing I'm not self conscious about such things!

So go on, try it out. You'll get hooked. I did. Thanks, honey!

Do You Accept the Terms?

You know those "Terms of Service" agreements that are ubiquitous in the computer world? You've clicked through them a hundred times installing software or registering for a web forum. Do you ever take the time to read them? Yeah, I didn't think so. Me either. You might want to start, tho', lest the weight of the federal government come crashing down upon you.

Folks are no doubt familiar with the case of Megan Meier. If not, here's the short version:

Megan was an awkward 13-year-old girl with a MySpace page. Via MySpace, she struck up a friendship/love interest in "Josh," a 16-year-old boy. After lots of communication, Josh turned on Megan, sending all kinds of vicious messages. The last one, essentially, told Megan that the world would be better off if she was dead. She took Josh's criticism to heart and killed herself shortly thereafter.

As tragic as that would be, there was an even more sinister story lurking behind the facts. "Josh," was not, in fact, a 16-year-old boy. He was a fake MySpace identity created by Lori Drew, a mother who lived down the street from Megan. She was motivated to do what she did, allegedly, to gain information about nasty things that were being said about her daughter online. By all accounts, Drew is a horrible human being who has done some evil shit.

But does that make it criminal? Authorities in Missouri, where Meier and Drew lived, eventually concluded it was not. But prosecutors in the US Attorney's Office in Los Angeles (where MySpace's servers are located) concluded otherwise. They've charged Drew with 18 USC 1030, the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. As Orin Kerr explains:

To understand this case, you need to understand the government's theory. The indictment is not charging Drew with harassment. Nor are they charging her with homicide. Rather, the government's theory in this case is that Drew criminally trespassed onto MySpace's server by using MySpace in a way that violated MySpace's Terms of Service (TOS).

Here's the idea. The TOS required Drew to provide accurate registration information, not to harass or harm other people, and not to promote conduct that was abusive. She didn't comply with these terms, the theory goes, so she was criminally trespassing onto MySpace's computer when she was logging into her account. The indictment turns this into a federal felony conspiracy charge by arguing that she did this in concert with others to obtain information and to further tortious conduct — intentional infliction of emotional distress — violating the felony provisions of 18 U.S.C. 1030(a)(2).
Orin goes on to explain the vary serious problems with this theory. He's not the only one who is troubled (via TalkLeft).

Two thoughts.

First, if the Government's theory gets approval from a judge and jury, it will instantly make millions of computer users criminals, as we've no doubt all violated some minor TOS that we glossed over by checking a box. Needless to say, that's a bad thing. It would be a livable consequence if the Government's theory wasn't such a stretch and seemed to be merely a prosecutor seeking to cash in on popular outrage.

Second, bad cases, as they say, make bad law. What is criminal is not necessarily evil, and what is evil is not necessarily criminal. Is has always been so. We, as a society, need to realize the potentially negative consequences of trying to burn the latest heretic at the stake in a blaze of outrage. We might be next.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Album of the Day

Snakes and Arrows, by Rush (2007): Working through the Rush discs this week, I've focused on era-defining discs. So what does it mean that 25 years passed between the last entry and this one? Well, it doesn't really mean that the intervening quarter century was a wasteland in terms of Rush's output. But it is indicative that, really, after about Grace Under Pressure or Power Windows the band plateaued through a series of good but unremarkable albums. Don't get me wrong - I own them all and listen to them, but will admit that there's a fair bit of chaff present. Snakes and Arrows, however, is genuinely fantastic. The band sounds revitalized. And apparently the stuff comes off even better live. So maybe this is the start of another era - one of late career excellence?

Food for Sentencing Thought

At work today, I got a copy of an interesting letter from the Deputy Assistant Director of the Administrative Office of the US Courts. The AO is, basically, the office that keeps the courts, probation offices, and public defenders running in the federal system. The subject of this particular letter was the "Cost of Incarceration and Supervision." As you suspect, it ain't cheap.

Annually, it costs:

  • $24,922 to keep someone in prison
  • $23,506 to keep someone in jail pending trial
  • $22,871 to keep someone in a "community correction center" (i.e., a halfway house)
  • $3621 to be supervised by a probation officer
  • $2133 to be supervised by a pretrial services officer
According to US Sentencing Commission data for 2007, the average sentence length is 59.3 months - a little over 4 years, assuming maximum good time credit. That'll cost over $100,000, not to mention the extra $3500 per year on supervised release. In the Fourth Circuit, the average goes up to 90.3 months, or over 6 years (w/good time) - more than $150,000.

Of course, it's worth $25,000 a year to keep Terry Nichols or some sex predator in the pen every year. But what about your garden variety drug dealer, who was probably selling to support his own habit? Wouldn't that $25k - or even half that - be more effectively spent elsewhere?

Regardless, at least Stephen Colbert has though this issue through and come up with his usual insightful solution:

On Gay Marriage in California

Yesterday, the California Supreme Court held, 4-3, that under that state's constitution the state could not extend marriage to heterosexuals and deny it to homosexuals. It's a big ruling - perhaps bigger than the similar decision in Massachusetts a few years ago - simply because of the sheer size of California. Gleen Greenwald has a good write up of the decision, what it is and what it isn't.

I want to focus on one reaction, in particular - the very predictable whine of the opponents of gay marriage that the court's majority were "activist" judges. Put aside, for a second, that for most people "judicial activism" = a decision they don't like. Put aside, for another second, that these judges were doing what judges since time immemorial have done - resolve a conflict between two (or more) applicable laws, applying previously decided precedent in the process.

Consider, however, that, in this case, the will of the people appears to support gay marriage in California. While the voters passed a ballot initiative that was anti-gay marriage back in 2000, since then the California legislature has twice passed legislation to sanction gay marriages. In both cases, the bills were vetoed by Governor Schwarzenegger. Why?

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed a same-sex marriage bill Friday, the second time in three years that such a measure died on the governor's desk.

Schwarzenegger vetoed a similar bill in 2005.

'I support current domestic partnership rights and will continue to vigorously defend and enforce these rights,' the governor said in a statement Friday.

In his veto message, the Republican governor said it is up to the state Supreme Court and then, if necessary, voters to alter Proposition 22, which defines marriage as between a man and a woman in California.
In other words, a weak-willed Gov punted the issue onto the court. I don't know if he wanted the court to go one way or another on the issue, but he certainly wanted the court to do the heavy lifting. And it did.

The situation reminds me of a law school experience I blogged about a while back:
I'm reminded of when I heard a lecture by ACLU president Nadine Strossen while I was in law school. They were fighting the Communications Decency Act in court at the time. She told of trying to sway Congressmen to vote against the Act arguing that it violated the First Amendment (as the Supreme Court later held that it did). She got no takers, with one Congresscritter actually telling her that a "no" vote would be dangerous politically and that the Supreme Court would clean up the mess down the road.
In other words, sometimes we need the courts to do the job that the politicians are too scared to do (because, to be fair, they're scared of our reaction). So, California, don't blame the court for doing its job and deciding an issue of law that nobody else wanted to decide.

Oscar Can Run!

On a couple of occasions I've blogged about Oscar Pistorius, the South African double-amputee sprinter who wanted to attempt to qualify for the Olympics this summer. Earlier this year, track and field's governing body determined that Pistorius could not compete in the Olympics, as the high-tech prosthetics he wears to run could be an unfair advantage. A panel of the Court of Arbitration for Sport has overridden that decision, however, based on expert testimony that contradicted that finding. That would seem to be the right call:

Pistorius had flirted with able-bodied competition last spring running in a ‘B’ race at the Golden Gala meet in Rome and then at a Grand Prix meet in Sheffield, England. Even so, Pistorius had not met the Olympics’ automatic qualifying standard of 45.55 seconds in the 400 meters. But he likely will earn an invitation onto the South African 4x400 meter relay team which would take a squad of six sprinters to Beijing.
I hope he makes the team on pure speed. It would be interesting to see what kind of discussion his presence would generate in China later this year.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Album of the Day

Signals, by Rush (1982): If AFtK was the start of Rush's proggiest period, Signals was a fairly definitive statement that it was over. The songs are more concise and overtly radio friendly. Which is not to say dull or straightforward, but certainly more accessible. Signals also marked a rise in the prominence of synths in the mix, which would continue, really, until Counterparts. Rush fandom is divided on the synth era. It's some of my favorite Rush stuff, both because it was what was new when I was growing up and because I'm a keyboard player anyway, so I'm not biased against their use. Besides, who can't love that fat Oberheim sound that kicks off "Subdivisions"?

Defending My Home State

The good news about the intense focus on Tuesday's primary is that it gave West Virginia some face time on the national stage. That doesn't happen very often. The bad news, however, is that the results of the vote, particularly the exit polls, have confirmed a lot of preconceived notions about the state - namely that we're all ignorant, racist, insular hicks who simply will not vote for a black man. Today's Daily Mail has an article about it, while the comments to this New York Times blog post from earlier in the week give you a flavor of what people are saying about us. As with many things, it's just not that simple.

To be fair, the numbers are pretty ugly. According to CNN's exit polling, Obama didn't win a single demographic group in the state nor a single county. Along the way, he lost the white vote 69-23, which made up 96% of the voters. Almost 1/4 of voters said "race" was either "most important" or "one of several" factors they considered in voting (Clinton won those groups 86-10 and 80-13, respectively). Ouch.

Yet, when you look at other states, they're not much better. In Pennsylvania, a win for Clinton, she carried the white vote 63-37 and 19% of voters said race was "most important" or "one of several" factors they considered. In Arkansas, Clinton won a whopping 79% of the white vote. Even in North Carolina, where Obama won handily, Clinton carried the white vote 61-37. Simply put, Clinton's pull among white voters is not something that is new to West Virginia.

What was different about West Virginia is that, compared to most states, it is damn near all white (see the 96% statistic above), which boosted Clinton's overall numbers. Why is that? Are we an inherently racist state? Not really. It all comes down to history.

African-Americans tend to be concentrated in two areas of the country - the deep south and industrial cities. The majors forces of history responsible for those concentrations largely bypassed West Virginia.

On the one hand, the deep south concentration is largely a vestige of slavery. While slavery was legal in West Virginia while it was part of the Old Dominion, it was not as economically viable here as it was in the tidewater plantation areas. So there just weren't that many slaves in West Virginia to begin with. On the other hand, the urban concentration is largely due to the Great Migration, when scores of African-Americans left the south to find work in the North, Midwest, and West. West Virginia never possessed the type of urban centers that provided that kind of economic incentive, so the migration largely passed it by. As a result, West Virginia never had the influx of African-Americans that other states did.

But, as Ron Popeil might say, that's not all. In addition to the racial demographics of the state, the age breakdown of the state's population favored Clinton, too - it is the oldest state in the Union, after all. She's done better that Obama among older voters, of which we have quite a bunch - 64% of voters Tuesday were over 45 and they broke overwhelmingly for Clinton. As they did in Pennsylvania and other states, though to a lesser extent. In other words, West Virginia was the perfect demographic storm for Clinton - the oldest and whitest state in the union. And that's why she did so well Tuesday night.

Does that explain why white folks and older folks prefer Clinton to Obama? No. Does racism play a part for some of them? Undoubtedly. But for most of them it does not. It certainly doesn't in the (admittedly small) sample of those in my world who voted for Clinton. It's unfair to them and to Clinton to subscribe the basest motive to their votes.

To the extent that racism played a part, it doesn't appear to have more sway in West Virginia than in other states. Which was really the whole point of this. If you're willing to write off an entire state because of the way one election turned out, that's says much more about your narrow minded views of the world than the people of that state. As always, life is much more complicated.

UPDATE: Of course, none of the above will make the impact of the idiots in this video piece over at The Film Geek's place. Oy.

Will McCain Target the Chronically Ill?

The other day, a spokesman for Barack Obama announced that as president he would stop federal raids on medical marijuana providers. Since California and other states have legalized medical marijuana, they've been unable to completely flourish because producing and selling marijuana is still a felony under federal law. Unfortunately, that's been the policy since those laws started popping up back during the Clinton administration. Obama's position would be a clean break with current policy.

So the GOP, of course, is jumping all over it. Stupidly, of course:

Barack Obama’s pledge to stop Executive agencies from implementing laws passed by Congress raises serious doubts about his understanding of what the job of the President of the United States actually is. His refusal to enforce the law reveals that Barack Obama doesn’t have the experience necessary to do the job of President, or that he fundamentally lacks the judgment to carry out the most basic functions of the Executive Branch. What other laws would Barack Obama direct federal agents not to enforce?
Actually, it's that statement that raises "serious doubts about [the] understanding of what the job of the President . . . actually is."

See, the thing is, people with the duty to enforce the laws possess something called "prosecutorial discretion." That means they don't have to throw every person they can in jail just because they can. On a broader scale, executives - say, the President - can prioritize what crimes should be investigated and charged. There is a finite amount of resources, after all. It would be perfectly reasonable for President Obama (or Clinton) to decide that the resources of the DEA, FBI, and US Attorneys could be better spent going after violent criminals or big-time white collar crooks. In the same way that Duhbya's administration has prioritized anti-terrorism and obscenity prosecutions.

Feel free to disagree with Obama's position on the merits - argue that it makes sense to spend taxpayer dollars to imprison people providing pot to terminally ill folks under a state-approved system - but don't get all blustery about what the "job of the President . . . actually is" when it's clear that you don't understand it yourself.

Leeds Update (Again)

One step closer - Leeds defeated Carlisle 2-0 today to win their playoff semifinal series 3-2 on aggregate. They'll play either Doncaster or Southend United in the League 1 playoff final (at Wembley?) next Sunday.

Leeds lost the home leg 2-1 and had to go and grab a win at Carlisle, which had the best home record in the league this season. To make things even more improbable, Leeds's two goals came from midfielder Jonathan Howson, who had scored only three goals all season.

I'll try not to get carried away - this is the same spot Leeds was in in the Championship two seasons back. They lost the final and then promptly bottomed out and were relegated the next season. Still, for now at least - w00t!

Time to Go, Mike

As someone who spent seven years in Morgantown, obtained two degrees from WVU, and is still paying for the last one - it's time for WVU President Mike Garrison to resign. There have been calls for his resignation ever since the report a few weeks ago that the University awarded a degree to the Governor's daughter that she didn't earn.

Since then, the faculty has voted overwhelmingly (twice) for Garrison to resign. Garrison has been steadfast and denied being involved in any wrongdoing. While that may be true, abstaining from wrongdoing isn't the only duty of a University president. Part of the job is maintaining the confidence of your employees. When it's so clear that that confidence is lacking - and, to be fair, maybe is was never there in the first place - something's got to be done.

In this case, the only real solution is for Garrison to go. Do it soon, Mike. While my educational credentials still carry some weight, OK?

Album of Yesterday

A Farewell to Kings, by Rush (1977): With this album, Rush entered into their most overtly prog era. Longer songs, fantasy/sci-fi lyrics, and the debut of Geddy Lee as keyboard player. To round out the more diverse sonic palette, Neal Peart continues the expansion of his Borg-like drum kit, while Alex Lifeson brings in some nice 12-string and nylon-string acoustic guitars. It's interesting, then, that amongst the 11-minute "Xanadu" and 10-minute "Cygnus X-1" (which would be followed by the side-long title track on the next album, Hemispheres), is the band's first hit, the brief "Closer to the Heart." It's become the band's signature tune, to the point that when they first played Latin America a few years ago and tried to drop it from the set list, fan demand led to its return!

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Album of the Day

Fly by Night, by Rush (1975): This, the Canadian power trio's second album, is really the debut of Rush proper. Serviceable but unspectacular drummer John Rutsey gave way to "The Professor," Neal Peart, who also took over the lion's share of the band's lyrical duties. With that foundation in place, Fly By Night showed signs of what the band would become, even if it was still a little underdone. There's their first multi-part song ("By-Tor and the Snow Dog"), some other fantasy/sci-fi references ("Rivendell"), and the first Ayn Rand anthem (called "Anthem," actually). It's also got one of my favorite underrated Rush tunes, "In the End."

UPDATE: Well, that's some shitty timing on my part. Appears that John Rutsey passed away over the weekend. Don't I feel like a putz.

Why I Voted for Obama

Polls closed about twenty minutes ago here in West Virginia, where for the first time in forever we had a relevant presidential primary election (see here for an international report). After some amount of thought, tho' not a lot of deep soul searching, I pulled the lever (virtual lever, as it turned out) for Barack Obama. Obama, in typical JDB-backed candidate fashion, will go down to flaming defeat tonight. Whether or not that will change what appears to be his inevitable march to the Democratic nomination, we'll have to wait and see.

So why did I vote for the Senator from Illinois? Three reasons, I think, in the end.

First, when it comes to issues, Obama and Hillary are really really close on most things. They're both clearly distinct from John McCain, of course. But when it comes down to it there were two issues where I think Obama nudged ahead. One is health care, where I think his game-the-market-without-a-mandate plan is better than Clinton's everybody-must-get-insured plan. Both are far short of the complete overhaul we need in this country, but I think Obama's is more likely to produce results. The other is foreign policy, where I think Hillary is a little too eager to rattle sabers and not explore all diplomatic angles. I don't think she's Duhbya the Second or anything, but I do see a bit of difference between her and Obama.

Second, I think Clinton has run a piss poor campaign (I mean, look at her volunteers!*). To the extent that that reflects on her judgment and leadership skills it negatively reflects on her ability to run the country. I've been particularly frustrated with the Clinton campaign's continued ability to move the goalposts on what it takes to get the nomination, always in a way that favors her, of course. To a certain extent that's just politics, but it seems so craven and blatant that I just can't get behind it.

Finally, I think that, to the extent that any politician can, Obama comes closer to telling the truth about what the country needs to hear rather than just pandering. The whole "bitter" fiasco and his recent position against the proposed gax tax holiday strikes me as a fresh bit of truth (or at least perceived truth) that this country desperately needs. We can continue to convince ourselves that we're the greatest thing since sliced bread and we're "resilient" in the face of adversity, but unless and until we actually acknowledge problems and address them head on, we'll do it while slowly circling the drain. Again, I don't think Obama is beyond politics or anything naive like that, but he seems a little less so than Clinton (or McCain, for that matter).

For what it's worth, I have problems with Obama. Like my mother, I fear a bit that his "unity" schtick will not play with a disciplined GOP that has made minority status in Congress a minor inconvenience. And, no doubt, he's got some demographic issues in the exit polls that will have to be addressed. And at the end of the day, I will happily vote for Hillary if she is the nominee.

Of course, there were state races on the ballot as well. For the Supreme Court I voted for Bob Bastress, an old professor of mine, and Menis Ketchum. I was not completely sold on Ketchum until I recieved not one but two mailings from the local "tort reform" group branding him as one of those evil trial lawyers. Decision made! Also, in the Congressional race, I went with Anne Barth, who is a long time employee of Robert Byrd. I really like that Ritchie Robb switched parties because of Iraq and is in favor of a single-payer health care system, but I don't see him being able to dislodge an incumbent in November. Barth can do that.

UPDATE: All that being said, I think that we're late enough in the game that Hillary will and should, as one MSNBC wag just put it, "go the distance." Which is as much of an excuse for Cake as I need:

* I keed, I keed. :-p

Maybe Not Such a Smart Idea After All

Year after year, relentlessly sometimes, it seems like the trend mongers are looking for the small car that will capture the American imagination and ween us from our SUVs, minvans, and muscle cars. The Prius has lived up to the hype, but it's more the exception than the rule. Most great small hopes crash and burn (just metaphorically, we hope).

The latest next-small-thing is the Smart FourTwo, from a division of Daimler-Benz. Already out in Europe for a few years, the small two-seat bubble on wheels weighs just 1800 pounds, with a small 3-cylinder engine hanging off the rear axle. It's so small that two can fit in the typical city street parallel parking space. Given its diminutive proportions it promised great gas mileage. Seems like just what a country paying $4+ for gas is waiting for, right?

Maybe not. The FourTwo is actually on the streets now and reviews from non-PR people are coming in. The several I've read have ranged from luke-warm praise to fairly savage criticism. Take, for example, Car and Driver's take:

Its short wheelbase (73.5 inches) results in a nerve-jangling ride on neighborhood streets that are raggedy, a place where, oddly, it is supposed to shine as the perfect errand boy. And there’s no overcoming the minuscule cargo space, although if you cram stuff up to the headliner, the room swells to 12 cubic feet, and the passenger seatback folds down flat. Our test vehicle got a disappointing 32 mpg overall, not the 50 or 60 mpg it looks like it should deliver, and the tiny engine requires pricey 91-octane fuel.

Still, the Fortwo has real charm and can be fun to drive if you like to drive. If you don’t and are simply looking for some relief from three-dollar gas prices, think Chevy Aveo, Honda Fit, and Toyota Yaris. They’re as potato-faced as Jimmy Kimmel, but they do have back seats and trunk space, and the prices are in the same ballpark.
0-60 shows up in 14+ seconds. Don't even ask about a quarter-mile.

Those lackluster MPG figures are a theme of other reviews. But that's not the only deficiency. Behold this review from Sunday's New York Times:
The Smart Fortwo could do for Midtown gridlock what Mr. Bloomberg’s successful bans on smoking and trans fats did for New Yorkers’ health: after a few miles in this anemic two-seat tomato can, drivers will sprint to the subway and abandon the surface streets for good.

* * *

But unlike the mostly fabulous Mini, the Smart Fortwo, with room for just two urban warriors and a few loincloths of cargo, turns out to be a Trojan pony, primitive in its performance and no more fuel-efficient than some far more practical cars.

* * *

If the engine is mediocre, the five-speed automated manual transmission is an engineering embarrassment. You could practically squeeze a half-inning of baseball into the maddening delay between the release of one gear and the engagement of the next. The Smart loses momentum in the pause, lurching passengers forward, and then Barcalounges backward when it oozes into a higher gear.

The Smart has been described as fun to drive by some reviewers, but other than showing taillights to the neighborhood riding mowers, I don’t see it. The Smart steers decently but feels clumsy when pushed hard. Tire grip is meager, the body wallows, and big city bumps come crashing through the suspension.
Ouch. Another Times review from Sunday (from a writer who tested it in LA) is almost as scathing.

To be fair, our FourTwo is not the same one they get in Europe, which is powered by a turbo diesel motor that produces much better mileage. And, if they're not just trying to justify spending the money, several satisfied Smart owners in this thread claim that the mileage increases once the engine gets broken in.

Still, given that you can buy a real car with excellent mileage, better performance, and more room for the same money - why wouldn't you? It's the smart thing to do.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Tomorrow's the Big Day

After much banter, babble, and brouhaha, the West Virginia primary takes place tomorrow. In addition to the headline-grabbing Democratic presidential race, there are important local races for Supreme Court, Congress, and others. If you haven't taken advantage of the early voting options, be sure and let your voice be heard tomorrow.

Don't make me send Diddy to your house!

Album of Last Friday

The Hemulic Voluntary Band, by Ritual (2007): I know you're thinking - "what the hell's a 'hemulic voluntary band?'" A good question, one that I don't know the answer to myself. It has to do with the work of Finnish author Tove Jansson. All but one of the songs on the album (Ritual are Swedish, FWIW), save one, are based on characters and stories from Jansson's work, with the closing epic "A Dangerous Journey" based on a short story of the same name. Regardless, this is a fabulous album, musically. Ritual relies more heavily on folk influences and instruments than you're general modern prog band. On this album, in particular, it gives the whole thing an organic woodsy feeling that fits the lyrics very well.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Album of the Day

Return to the Seventh Galaxy, by Return to Forever (1996): I generally shy away from compilations, but this is a really good one, for a couple of reasons. First, it somehow manages to completely cover Return to Forever's career, with the exception of Romantic Warrior, which happens to be the only other album of theirs I have. Second, it's got some really good unreleased live tracks on it. I particularly like the early group's workouts on "Spain" and Stanley Clarke's "Bass Folk Song." It's also neat to see the band move from a latin-influenced group to the full on synth-powered fusion of its heyday.

UPDATE: OK, I was wrong that Romantic Warrior was the only album that wasn't covered. There's another after that, Musicmagic, which isn't represented.

Don't Piss Off the Cops

Via the New York Times blog, a story of a guy who shows (as the Times blog puts it) "how not greet police officers":

A man riding an unlicensed motorcycle in Copiague made an obscene gesture at two police officers and did a wheelie right in front of them, then led the officers on a chase, Suffolk police said yesterday.

The pursuit ended with the rider under arrest after he crashed the bike into a police cruiser, giving himself minor injuries.
Not very bright. I guess he's never seen this public service announcement, courtesy of Chris Rock:

See How the Sausage Gets Made

Juries are weird creatures. They're made up of ordinary citizens. No special training is necessary - hell, most of the time its a disqualification. They wield the power to ruin someone's life, and in some cases end it. Yet jurors generally are under no obligation to talk to anyone about their deliberations and it is exceptionally difficult to try and get a verdict overturned for some kind of misconduct.

So, it's always interesting when a writer of some sort gets on a jury. It's even better when it's a case that involves a big name. Last week, a jury convicted a New York man of stalking and threatening Uma Thurman. Wall Street Journal writer Emily Steel was on the jury and writes about her experiences here. It's an interesting example of how jurors use their own experiences when resolving issues.

For example, one issue was whether a package of stuff that the guy sent to Thurman was meant to frighten her:

This package generated one of the aggravated-harassment charges. That has a different legal standard than stalking. The judge told us we had to decide whether the package was intended to harass, annoy, threaten or alarm her.

We read through all of the package's contents again. We still couldn't agree.

The woman who worked as a rock-show caterer said the card was disturbing, and that Mr. Jordan was a smart, manipulative man who knew what he was doing. He had graduated with a degree in English literature from the University of Chicago. By marking out some words, she said, he indicated that he knew what he was sending was inappropriate.

A juror who works as a statistician compared the situation to writing emails to a woman at work: If I did that, he said -- even if I hoped it would make her like me -- it would be inappropriate and get me fired.

I didn't agree it was Mr. Jordan's intent to harass, annoy, threaten or alarm Ms. Thurman with that card. Sitting a few seats away from Mr. Jordan as he testified in his own defense, I saw him as a lovesick individual who was trying to prove himself to her with these cards and objects, which he described as artworks.
Or another example, of the jurors doing what appellate courts think they are in the best position to do - judge a witness's credibility:
We talked about Ms. Thurman. She said on the stand that she was very frightened when she read the contents of the package. As she testified, I was struck by how she wouldn't look at Mr. Jordan. At one point, leaving the stand, she seemed to hide her head in the crook of her arm.

But was she genuinely afraid? While we believed her testimony, we discussed whether Ms. Thurman could have exaggerated her fear. The fact that she was a famous movie star made us partly charmed, partly suspicious. One juror jokingly said Ms. Thurman isn't that great an actress, but that her delivery on the witness stand was the most heartfelt performance he'd ever seen her give.
It's hardly the case of the century and, in the grand scheme of things, pretty meaningless (the defendant faces only a year in jail). Still, imagine these same discussions and application of personal experiences in a murder trial or rape trial. Does it give you confidence in the work of your fellow citizens? Or does it give you the willies?

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Album of the Day

In Rainbows, by Radiohead (2008): In Rainbows will probably always be known for the way it was initially released. The band made the whole album available for download last year for whatever price the downloader wanted to pay, from pretty much free to, well, whatever.* I waited for the hard copy edition to come out this year, 'cause I'm an old fashioned album sort of guy. I like the whole package - music, art, liner notes - to be complete. Musically, In Rainbows comes out a little lighter and less electronic than the last few albums, with some prominent (real) strings and acoustic piano on a couple of tracks. It has not, to be honest, made the same impact that Hail to the Thief did, but it's growing on me.

* IIRC, there was a minimal processing charge, so you couldn't actually get it for free.

When Satire Becomes Prophecy

My Netflix queue is dotted with various "classics" that, for whatever reason, I've never seen. Moves that I feel, as a film buff, I should see. Sometimes, I get one that really makes me think, "damn, no wonder that's a classic." Other times, I fail to see the charm, perhaps because whatever made it a classic in the first place has leeched into popular cultures so much (that's what happened with The Godfather, for example). But it's really rare that I rack one up that I not only think is excellent but is eerily prescient.

Last night I watched Network. Even if you've never seen Network, you know its iconic moment: a frazzled looking older man, soaking wet, raging to the world (or whoever is listening), "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore!" That man, not quite 'round the bend but definitely in sight of it, is Howard Beale. Beale was once one of America's most trusted national news anchors. But time has not been kind, and Beale has been fired, due to low ratings, effective in a couple of weeks.

After receiving the news, he tells his viewers that, in a week's time, he will kill himself on the air. But that's not when the fun really begins. It starts rolling the next night. What was supposed to be an on-air apology turns into an obscenity-laced tirade. Beale, he says, has simply, "run out of bullshit." Beale's rant, far from being a death-knell, turns out to be a godsend for the last-placed UBS network.

With a young, driven programming director and a shark-like corporate raider calling the shots, Beale becomes a prophet of the angry everyman, taking the airwaves every night (along with a psychic, muckraker, and public opinion feedback) to deliver a fresh rant. Filmed in front of a live studio audience (that chants Beale's trademark saying back at him), Beale rails and wails until he collapses from exhaustion. If he had a roadie with a cape, he'd be James Brown.

Eventually, as these things tend to do, Beale, though incredibly popular, turns out his masters, sabotaging a corporate takeover deal backed by investors from Saudi Arabia. After a come-to-Jesus moment with the corporate overlord, Beale turns from anti-establishment rants to essentially nihilist philosophizing. Ratings plummet, but Beale is preaching what the boss wants. The solution? Homicide. On the air, of course.

In the age of Jerry Springer, reality TV, and the 24-hours news cycle, Beale and his show sounds like something that could come about today. Which makes is all the more amazing that Network came out in 1976. At that time, it's vicious satire captured public sentiment (the film won 4 Oscars) and was surely seen as one of those "it will never get this bad, but don't let it even it close" kind of warnings. 32 years later, it seems like a painfully accurate prophecy.

When Not to Smoke Pot

How about while on break from jury duty when you're hearing . . . a drug case:

Judge Sherman Ross tried to assemble a jury of peers for a woman accused of possession of a marijuana on trial Tuesday.

But authorities say prospective juror Cornelia Mayo might have taken that concept a bit too far after she was caught smoking a joint outside the courthouse during a break.

* * *

Ross said he realized something was wrong when juror No. 2, Mayo, didn't return from a 45-minute break. Before the judge could file a bench warrant for the missing juror, his bailiff got a call from police notifying him that Mayo was being booked on a charge of smoking marijuana outside the criminal courthouse.
I won't say that pot makes you stupid, but, well, this is pretty dumb.


The end is nigh. That's what I just paid for a gallon of gas here in the lovely Teays Valley (where it tends to be cheaper than downtown). Of course, the Heart of Gold takes premium, but it won't be very long before even the low-grade stuff breaks the $4 barrier.

That sucks. Still doesn't make the Clinton/McCain gas tax holiday idea any more than a cheap political stunt, however.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Album of the Day

Fear of a Blank Planet & Nil Recurring, by Porcupine Tree (2007): This is a bit confusing. Last year, Porcupine Tree released two separate CDs made up of music recorded at the same time, from the same writing sessions, and with some of the same guests (Robert Fripp appears on both). And if you add the total times together, they just about equal one fully loaded CD. So, WTF?

From what I've seen (via an interview on YouTube that I can't seem to find), PT guru Steven Wilson came to the conclusion that CDs in general are too long these days and that the 45-50 minute album length from the LP days is ideal. So he trimmed the material from these sessions into two bits, the full album (Fear of a Blank Planet) and a 28-minute EP* (Nil Recurring). He also argues that the EP material doesn't really fit with the album concept, but it's hard to see what sort of impact that would have had. I will say, however, that nearly an hour and 20 minutes of the current bleaker version of PT would be a bit much to take at one sitting. And, frankly, I prefer Fear of a Blank Planet, anyway.

* For comparison's sake, the next album after Nil Recurring in the running order today was PFM's Storia di Un Minuto from 1972, which is only six minutes longer.

Christianity Leads to Broken Homes (and Flying Dogs)

So this (via Pharyngula) is the "sanctity of marriage" the fundies are always going on about?

Highly intoxicated and dissatisfied with her sex life, a 28-year-old woman was arrested Tuesday for stealing her husband's wallet and later assaulting the deputy who booked her into jail.

The meltdown, which deputies witnessed along with the couple's 3- and 4-year-old children, started when the husband, 24, had told his wife they had three hours to quit smoking, drinking, swearing and engaging in some sex acts because "they were going to be good Christians now," the woman said.

The man said she had woken him up to have relations, but then became disappointed and angry.
Now, I'm not a married man, but I imagine that if the lady of the house rouses you in the middle of the night to "have relations," that is not the best time to explain your new found religious prudery to her.

Not that the wife is completely innocent of loony behavior:
During an argument with one of the deputies, the woman picked up the family's 20-pound dog and threw it at the deputy, who caught it, the report said.
Nice catch, deputy! Sadly, the wife had the same problem on the way to the police station that so many of mine do - she has the right to remain silent, but not the ability:
The deputy who drove the woman to jail reported she questioned his manhood, asked God to forgive him because 'he knows not what he does,' and 'donkey-kicked' him in the shin while he attempted to walk her from his patrol car to the jail, reports said.
Donkey kicked?

Monday, May 05, 2008

Album of the Day

Stupid Dream, by Porcupine Tree (1999): With this album, Porcupine Tree began its shift from purveyors of long, spacey, Floyd-influenced ramblings to more succinct hook-oriented material. It's not straight-up pop by any means, but it's much more accessible than the earlier material. Quite frankly, I like the change of direction. Steven Wilson has a great ear for tight songwriting and lush arrangements. As a result, even the most straight forward tunes sound unique. After a couple of albums in this vein, the band would move forwards towards a hard rock sound, which also has it's charms.

Doing the Right Thing

Words of wisdom:

Da Mayor: Doctor...
Mookie: C'mon, what. What?
Da Mayor: Always do the right thing.
Mookie: That's it?
Da Mayor: That's it.
Mookie: I got it, I'm gone.
Last night on 60 Minutes, there was a story about inmates in Texas who had been released from prison after serving years - in some cases decades - following wrongful convictions. They were all from Dallas County, which for years had a reputation of pursuing convictions "at all costs," including the cost of putting innocent people in prison.

What makes the situation in Dallas County remarkable is that the drive to exonerate the wrongfully convicted is actually be aided by the new prosecutor, Craig Watkins. Not only is Watkins changing the culture of the Dallas County DA's office, he is teaming with the Innocence Project of Texas to review old cases. It's not politically popular, but it is the right thing to do.

Of course, such a change of course wouldn't have been necessary if prior DAs had "done the right thing" in the first place. Watkins points out that a prosecutor's job is to pursue justice, not rack up convictions. More prosecutors need to hear that message and take it to heart.

Do the right thing. It's a simple mantra, but one worth repeating.

Sometimes, All You Can Do Is Laugh

Matt Taibbi - Rolling Stone correspondent and one of Bill Maher's election reporters - had a new book out, The Great Derangement (SusanG has a review at DK). It sounds like quite a read. Part of it is based - purely on dumb luck - on the time Taibbi spent "undercover" as a member of Cornerstone Church in Texas - home of the Jeremiah Wright of the right, pastor John Hagee.

You can read an excerpt from the book, covering Taibbi's experience going on a really bizarre church retreat, courtesy of Rolling Stone. It's more funny that disturbing, although the way the whole thing ends up in an orgasmic festival of demon release is . . . well, disturbing. More disturbing, however, and relevant to the coming election, is this passage about a Hagee sermon (from TBogg at Firedoglake):

'This is the Pale Horse,' [Hagee] warned. 'He is the color of rotting flesh. He will be given the power to destroy twenty-five percent of the population. This is going to happen during the Tribulation. You do not want to be there.'

From here Hagee went into a long spiel about the difference between the Christ of the Gospels and the Christ of Revelation. This is an important point for people who are not fundamentalist Christians and want to understand them. The Gospels Christ is basically a long-haired, touchy-feely hippie who goes around being nice to people.. The Christ of Revelations is built like the Rock and roams the universe braining sinners with lead pipes. Fundamentalists clearly prefer the Revelation Christ. Hagee explained:

'In Matthew he is the lamb being led to the slaughter. In Revelation he is the LION OF JUDAH! He is going to rule with a rod of iron!'

And when that rod-bearing Christ comes back, us unbelievers had better fucking duck:

'How is Jesus going to crush secular humanism and liberalism and anti-Semitism and atheism?' Hagee asked. 'He is not going to ask the Supreme Court to put the Ten Commandments up in our courthouses. He is going to tell them, and they will bow down to him like children.'

The crowd roared.

'And those judges who let men get married - he is going to cast them into the pit of Hell to be roasted for all of eternity like they deserve!'

I raised my hands in a full Freeze-Motherfucker. Go Jesus! Waste those judges.

But just when it seemed that Hagee had his crowd right where he wanted them, he switched gears and began talking about Iran and Israel. Hagee is a subtle operator. Whenever he mentions the Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmandinejad, it always not moments after a long tirade about Satan. He will give hints about the Antichrist's identity - he is not an American, says Hagee, but he is a smooth talker.

'He will come preaching peace,' said Hagee, 'and he will sign treaties that he has no intention of keeping.'

'Like Muslims!' someone behind he we whispered.

And just as the crowd was ruminating over the possible identity of the Antichrist, Hagee switched gears and dropped a bombshell on the crowd. 'Iran's president is planning a nuclear holocaust, and our how empty-headed leaders in Washington don't see that, I don't know!' he grumbled.

From there he went on for a while about Israel and Iran. I felt the energy leaving the hall. The people in this church come to services for help in dealing with their own problems, which of course are legion. They are there to find a reason for living amid the financial struggle, the constant battles with sin and despair, or romantic disappointments, loneliness, abuse, addiction. They could give a shit about Israel and they could give a shit about Iran. And so, while Hagee worked himself up into a frenzy about Iran, the crowd only cheered politely. This was even true at the climax.

'And now comes a new Hitler,' roared the pastor, 'and his name is Ahmandinejad. Iran MUST BE STOPPED!!!'

Polite clapping from the crowd.
As TBogg says, it does kind of give you a warm feeling, doesn't it? Good thing Hagee's brand of apocalyptic Christianity it as the fringe of 21st-century GOP politics.

Oh, wait a sec . . .