Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Offside Explained

Without a doubt, the most confusing part of the Laws of the Game for non-soccer fans to grasp is the offside rule. It's not particularly intuitive and whether the refs get it right or not is so often up for debate that it lacks easy definition. So here, to explain it, is John Cleese:

If you're one of the two people in the country who actually have GolTV on your cable/satellite system, the whole of Cleese's The Art of Football premieres there Wednesday at 8pm.

Again From the "No Shit" File

This doesn't seem particularly newsworthy, but still interesting, I guess:

The Somali pirates who hijacked a Ukrainian freighter loaded with tanks, artillery, grenade launchers and ammunition said in an interview Tuesday that they had no idea the ship was carrying arms when they seized it on the high seas.

'We just saw a big ship,' the pirates’ spokesman, Sugule Ali, told The New York Times. 'So we stopped it.'

In a 45-minute-long interview, Mr. Sugule expounded on everything from what the pirates want — 'just money' — to why they were doing this — to stop illegal fishing and dumping in our waters' — to what they have to eat on board — rice, meat, bread, spaghetti, 'you know, normal human-being food.'
Although one wonders how an area 200 miles off the Somali coast is "our waters," that is where the latest round of Somali piracy began:
The piracy industry started about 10 to 15 years ago, Somali officials said, as a response to illegal fishing. Somalia’s central government imploded in 1991, casting the country into chaos. With no patrols along the shoreline, Somalia’s tuna-rich waters were soon plundered by commercial fishing fleets from around the world. Somali fishermen armed themselves and turned into vigilantes by confronting illegal fishing boats and demanding that they pay a tax.

'From there, they got greedy' explained Mohamed Osman Aden, a Somali diplomat in Kenya. 'They starting attacking everyone.'
Greedy - isn't that just like a bunch of pirates?

Lost Amidst the Panic

If there was good news for Duhbya and crew yesterday when his bailout proposal flamed out, it was that almost nobody has paid attention to the latest news in his US Attorney scandal. It's not pretty:

The 356-page report, prepared by the department’s inspector general and its Office of Professional Responsibility, provides the fullest account to date of a scandal that dogged the Bush administration for months last year over accusations that it had politicized the federal justice system by ousting prosecutors seen as disloyal.

It provided particular detail in the dismissal of David C. Iglesias, a former New Mexico prosecutor who was let go at the prodding of Republican leaders in Washington and New Mexico who were dissatisfied with his work in investigating accusations against Democrats. Despite the denials of the Bush administration, the political pressure was 'the real reason' for Mr. Iglesias’s dismissal, the report said.
Not pretty, but also not complete:
The investigators acknowledged, however, that they could not answer some critical questions because the White House refused to turn over internal documents and to allow interviews with some crucial figures.

Investigators interviewed about 90 people in the last year and a half, but three senior administration officials who played a part in crucial phases of the dismissals — Karl Rove, the former political adviser to President Bush; Harriet E. Miers, a former White House counsel; and Monica M. Goodling, a former Justice Department liaison to the White House — refused to be interviewed.
To his credit, current AG Michael Mukasey has appointed Nora Dennehy, the US Attorney for the District of Connecticut, to more fully investigate and pursue criminal charges if necessary.

This should be bigger news, particularly in light of the McCain campaign taking over Palin's "Troopergate" investigation and engaging in the same kind of stonewalling. We've had enough of this sort of bullshit in the past eight years, haven't we?

Monday, September 29, 2008

Fuck Ronald Reagan!

There, I said it. And I mean it.

As jedi jawa has pointed out during his yeoman's slog through the right-wing radio world, the ghost of Ronald Reagan lurks in every nook and cranny of GOP politics. If zombie Reagan appeared on the horizon and could get around the 22nd Amendment, he'd win the GOP presidential nomination in a landslide. Or at least it seems that why. How else can you explain this:

Representative Darrell Issa, a Republican, said he was 'resolut[e]'" in his opposition to the [failed bailout] measure because it would betray party principles and amount to 'a coffin on top of Ronald Reagan's coffin.'
Now, perhaps there are good reasons to vote down this bailout plan, but "it might make zombie Reagan cry" is surely not one of them! Come up with something better.

While I'm on the subject of the bailout - it's being reported that some House Republicans decided to vote against the plan after Nancy Pelosi took to the House floor and made a speech that slammed Duhbya's economic record. It might have been enough to swing the vote. Really?

To the Republicans - grow the fuck up! Voting against a plan to save the (inter)national economy, which your own president submitted, by the way, because someone hurt your feelings is the mark of a petulant child, not a leader. Shoot back in the press afterwards, for fuck's sake.

To Pelosi - are you that goddammed dense? You need support from the other side to get this thing passed, so you figure now is the right time to launch a rhetorical broadside against the same folks whose votes you need?!? I'm no political expert, but I sure know that it's not the best idea to, say, start an oral argument by telling the court, "good morning, you ignorant fucks." Of course, that wouldn't be an issue if you could rally your own damned party to do anything, but that's too much hope for at this point, I guess.

I will say one other thing, though. On NPR on the way home, one of the California Dems who voted against the plan (can't find a link, but I'm pretty sure I heard this right) said, in essence, that the predictions of doom are coming from the Bush administration and when was the last time you could believe anything they said? Imagine if the boy who cried wolf was Duhbya.

'Eers Earworm!

Everybody go read today's Pearls Before Swine right now. Get it out of your head now!

Tax the Churches

This past weekend, a group of churches made a coordinated effort to challenge a long-standing provision of tax law. Put simply, it bars churches from overt political activity if they want to maintain their tax exempt status. As usual, the pastors complaining of being aggrieved don't quite get it. You see, any tax exempt non-profit group has to abstain from political activity. Doesn't matter if its a church, the local arts organization, or the local SCCA region.

If the pastors in question want to turn their churches into political pulpits, they are perfectly free to do so. They just have to play along with the same rules as the rest of us do.

Dear Jury Consultants

I've long argued that nobody should be surprised if something they say online - on a blog, in a chat room, on a discussion forum - turns up in the "real world" somewhere down the road. Yesterday's Los Angeles Times had an article about another example of that truth - jury consultants tracking down info online:

Social networking sites are proving a useful tool in digging up information that can get an unwanted individual struck from a jury, said Marshall Hennington, a clinical psychologist whose Hennington & Associates has offices in Beverly Hills, New York and Miami.

'We're really getting an opportunity to find out where the skeletons are hidden,' he said of jurors who seemed inscrutable in the courtroom.

In a recent murder case, Hennington recalled, a jury candidate denied knowing a fellow potential juror. The consultant discovered on the man's Facebook page that they not only knew each other, they were cousins. That was enough to get the juror dismissed.
Another example was a juror whose online business dealings made her more sympathetic to a patent infringement plaintiff.

Privacy concerns? "This is the 21st Century," people:
As for concerns that the research may invade people's privacy, analysts note that those with social networking sites control their own content.

'If you post something on the Internet for all the world to see, you shouldn't be surprised if all the world sees it,' said Rebecca Jeschke, media coordinator for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which champions technological advances as empowering consumers.
No kidding. So if any jury consultants Google this post in the future, I'll make it easy on them. I do not believe that cops are any more truthful than any other human being. If a cop says something on the stand that sounds unbelievable, I won't believe it. I also believe in a vigorous presumption of innocence and burden of proof. I will not vote to convict someone just because it seems likely they are guilty. I won't vote to execute anyone. I am pro civil plaintiff and pro criminal defendant. That's just how I roll.

Rethinking Farting as Battery

Last week we made national news as a local man was charged with battery of a police officer after allegedly farting on him. The charges got dropped and probably couldn't have stuck, anyway, but another local story makes me think maybe passing gas at the local constabulary might imperil broader law enforcement goals.

It's about a local priest and a parishioner who were charged with possession of marijuana with intent to distribute. How did they get caught?

In the complaint against the priest, the officer wrote:

'While traveling southbound on Central Overpass this officer could smell a strong odor of marijuana coming from the vehicle that was in front of my vehicle. This officer stopped the vehicle - a silver Chrysler Town & Country - at Kanawha Turnpike and Elm Street . . ..'
Wow, that's some nose! Either he's got a really superior olfactory sense or . . . well, he's manufacturing probable cause ex post facto. You can see how odoriferous emissions directed at such a highly trained honker might endanger us all!

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Goodbye, Paul

We knew this was coming, but it still sucks nonetheless - Paul Newman passed away yesterday. Most folks, of course, are familiar with Newman's prodigious acting career and social activism. But he also held a special spot in the hearts of racing fans:

In a statement issued today by the Newman Foundation, the charity organization mourned its founder saying he will be missed by all who surrounded him.

'Paul Newman's craft was acting. His passion was racing. His love was his family and friends. And his heart and soul were dedicated to helping make the world a better place for all.
Newman was not a rich poseur whose only result on a race track was to get in the way of the professional fast guys. He was a winner and a champion:
In the 1970s, Newman, admittedly bored with acting, became fascinated with auto racing, a sport he studied when he starred in the 1972 film, ''Winning.'' After turning professional in 1977, Newman and his driving team made strong showings in several major races, including fifth place in Daytona in 1977 and second place in the Le Mans in 1979.
In 1995, he became the oldest driven to win a major race as part of the winning driver lineup in the 24 Hours of Daytona. He won in Trans-Am and (IIRC) was an SCCA Runoffs winner. In addition, he was a founder of Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing in 1983, which became one of the premier teams in Champ Car racing, winning 8 titles, and being one of the leading lights in American open wheel racing.

As I said, this isn't a complete surprise:
On August 13, the Lime Rock Park race track near his Connecticut home shut down for a couple hours so that Newman could take a few final laps in his GT1 Corvette. The world will certainly be a poorer place with his passing.

UPDATE: According to one of my SCCA buds, Newman was, in fact, a 4-time SCCA National Champion: 1976 (D Production), 1979 (C Production), 1985 (GT1), and 1986 (GT2).

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Prog - A Primer

Regular readers have probably scratched their heads (or rolled their eyes) when I prattle on about "prog," aka progressive rock. It's my favorite type of music, but it peaked commercially the year after I was born, so it's not exactly well known these days. If you've ever been genuinely curious about prog, this article wouldn't be a bad place to start. A taste:

'Progressive', for those innocent of its glories, was a label originally applied in the 1960s to any music that sought to extend itself beyond the safe, conservative format of the commercial pop song.

Only later, when contracted to 'prog', did it become the brand name of a particular sub-genre of avant-garde rock music, characterised by ambitious lyrical conceits, extended feats of musical virtuosity and lengthy songs, culminating in the now much-derided 'concept album' (an entire LP exploring a single narrative or theme). It owed its genesis (as it were) to a unique, and probably unrepeatable, combination of circumstances.
It is, often, as the liner notes to Ain Soph's A Story of Mysterious Forrest put it, "not dancing music, but basically music for listening to." And that's why it rocks, in its own way.

Don't Mess With Letterman

So, yesterday, John McCain made a big deal out of suspending in presidential campaign (or not) to go back to DC and take care of the ongoing economic crisis. He was supposed to go on David Letterman's show, but pulled out, to . . . well, you'll see:

Hell hath no fury . . .

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

When Satire Goes Wrong (or Not)

The other day, something weird happened. On Roger Ebert's web site, a post sprang up entitled "Creationism: Your questions answered." It was a Q&A session that worked through many typical creationist claims. It all sounded a little odd, particularly the last Q & A:

Q. Why would God create such an absurd creature as a moose?

A. In charity, we must observe that the moose probably does not seem absurd to itself.
WTF, right? Had Roger gone apeshit? Was his site hacked? Was it all a weird joke.

Turns out, it was option 3, as Ebert explains in a post on his blog:
What was my purpose in posting the article? Can you think of a famous Creationist? Perhaps I was trying to helpfully explain what Creationists believe. The article, although brief, was accurate as far as I could determine, which explains why there have been no complaints from Creationists. What was there to complain about? Nor have I received any praise from Creationists, which speaks well for their instincts; they're apparently more canny than the evolutionists who believe I have lost my mind.

But the purpose of this blog entry is not to discuss politics (a subject banned from the blog). Nor is it to discuss Creationism versus the theory of evolution (that way lurks an endless loop). It is to discuss the gradual decay of our sense of irony and instinct for satire, and our growing credulity.
In other words, it was a joke and lots of people weren't swift enough to catch on. Who's to blame - the audience for not catching on or Ebert for not being a better satirist. PZ Myers leans towards the latter, arguing that Ebert's attempt at satire failed because it's almost impossible to tell his "satire" from the real ravings of creationists. I don' think that's quite right. There are hints, aside from the moose question, that it isn't quite on the level.

But the reaction to Ebert's piece (and his reaction to the reaction) got me thinking about the nature of satire and the danger that it will go over like a lead balloon. Doing so reminded me of two movies I blogged about earlier this year, Network and Dr. Strangelove. Both are satires, but they exist on opposite ends of the satirical spectrum.

Network is broad, bizarre, and at the very edge of plausibility. What it portrays is a caricatured version of reality that some folks won't recognize. In fact, I think that's the key to whether you like the film - if you can't suspend disbelief for large hunks of the movie, it just seems silly.

By contrast, Strangelove is (mostly) dry, subtle, and more rooted in reality. The humor (and the horror, in that case) comes not from exaggerating real life, but simply putting it all in once place so that the absurdity of it overwhelms you. You initially laugh at General Turgidson's advice on how to win an accidental nuclear war ("I'm not saying we won't get our hair mussed . . ."), but eventually you realize that real people make that argument, in a more dignified way, all the time.

If the danger of Network is that it's so over the top it becomes off putting, the danger of Strangelove is that the humor never gets recognized. That's what I think happened with Ebert's creationism piece. Though there is evidence there that folks should see the "invisible quotation marks" (as Ebert puts it), it's not right up front. Certainly there's nothing like the word "satire" superimposed over a scene, Python style.

And that's the danger of satire. You're never quite sure how much of your audience will get it. Since whether they do get it is, ultimately, your job, it's best to proceed cautiously.

You Go With What You Got

You've been pulled over by the cops because your lights weren't on. You fail a sobriety test and are about to be charged with DUI. What do you do? Deploy anything in your arsenal you've got (via Crime & Federalism):

When police were trying to get fingerprints, police say Cruz moved closer to the officer and passed gas on him. The investigating officer remarked in the criminal complaint that the odor was very strong.

Cruz is now charged with battery on a police officer, as well as DUI and obstruction.
Emphasis mine. Really? Nobody likes being farted on, but is it battery? Here's the statute:
c) Battery. -- If any person unlawfully and intentionally makes physical contact of an insulting or provoking nature with the person of another or unlawfully and intentionally causes physical harm to another person, he shall be guilty of a misdemeanor and, upon conviction, shall be confined in jail for not more than twelve months, or fined not more than five hundred dollars, or both such fine and imprisonment.
WV Code 61-2-9(c).

Does "physical contact" include wind that breaketh upon thee? Does the "strong odor" constitute "physical harm to another person?" It seems like a stretch to me, but I could be wrong (there's probably a Guideline enhancement for it somewhere). But if farting is battery, that leads to a more serious question - does giving a Dutch oven constitute malicious wounding?

UPDATE: I can't get the link to work but, according to the Daily Mail, the battery with a (silent but) deadly weapon charge has been dropped. You'll just have to trust me.

What's Spanish for "Schadenfreude"?

Our continuing financial meltdown is apparently going to hijack this week's UN heads of state gathering in NYC. Leaders from Brazil and Argentina are touting their stable economies and arguing that they're not in any kind of crisis. And Duhbya's getting a little ribbing from an old friend:

The U.S.'s chief antagonist in the region, self-declared revolutionary socialist President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, said his oil-based economy is insulated from the U.S. crisis by its growing detachment from 'this perverse financial system.'

He mocked Bush for using government funds to bail out private companies. The Bush administration is seeking congressional authority to buy as much as $700 billion in bad investments from financial firms to unfreeze the U.S. financial system.

'I nationalize strategic companies and get criticized, but when Bush does it, it's OK,' Chavez said on weekly television program Sept. 21. 'Bush is turning socialist. How are you, comrade Bush?'
Heh. He's a despot, but he can get in a zinger every now and then.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Now That's Some Change

I've given John McCain some grief over his attempts to rebrand himself (and his 25-years Washington career) as the agent of change, but I have to admit that when he starts channelling Huey Long, he's changing:

Fourth, no Wall Street executives should profit from taxpayer dollars. It is wrong to ask teachers and farmers and small business owners to fill the gas tanks of the helicopters of Wall Street tycoons. The senior leaders of any firm that is bailed out should not be making more than the highest paid government official.
Long, you'll recall, was the Louisiana populist whose "Share Our Wealth" program included a plank taxing personal holdings above $1 million (in 1934 money). So McCain is tapping into a long history of populist animosity against the rich when the economy turns sour. Smart (will he take Newt's advice?).

One assumes that the official McCain has in mind is the President, who pulls down $400,000 a year, which isn't chump change. I wonder what the football coach at Air Force makes, tho'?

What's Going On With Yes?

Considering that it's the 21st century and all, it's been a pretty good recent run for the big 70s proggers (Rick Wright's recent death aside). King Crimson just finished up a short but very enthusiastically received tour, as did Genesis last year (to a lesser extent). Van der Graff Generator didn't just get back together to tour but have recorded a couple of new albums, while Rush bounced back with an excellent album last year in Snakes and Arrows.

Given all that, what the hell's gone wrong with Yes? The band was all set to do another tour this fall, to celebrate the group's 40th anniversary. When we last left them, the lineup had reverted to the "classic" one of Jon Anderson, Chris Squire, Steve Howe, Alan White and Rick Wakeman. But touring isn't really high on Rick's to do list anymore, so the group drafted in his son, Oliver, to play keys. That's understandable and not unprecedented - Yes keyboard players are almost as numerous as Spinal Tap drummers (thankfully, they don't tend to meet the same fate!). No problem, right?

Well, except that then Jon Anderson got sick. Sick enough that he couldn't go and tour. Keep in mind that, while Squire is the only Yesman to be on every album, Jon's only absence was Drama, which is an excellent album but produced a fairly disastrous tour, mostly due to the negative reaction to Trevor Horn signing Jon's bits. So Anderson is as key to what "Yes" is than anybody else.

Without Anderson available, the other Yesmen pulled a Journey and recruited a singer from a tribute band. Actually, that's not really fair to Journey. They took their new guy and recorded a new album with him before going out on tour. Yes has no such plans, so at this point it really is a weird quasi tribute to itself. Don't get me wrong - as I said, I love Drama and if the band wanted to crank out some new material with a new vocalist that would be great. But it doesn't look like that's in the cards.

To make things worse, it's emerged recently that the whole situation wasn't exactly blessed by Anderson:

In a statement at his official website, Anderson has slammed the forthcoming Yes reunion (minus himself and Rick Wakeman).

He says he is 'Disappointed that, with the exception of one phone call from Alan, none of the guys have been in touch since my illness, just to find out how I am doing, and how we will foresee the future for YES. And disappointed that they were not willing to wait till 2009 when I’m fully recovered'.
Anderson also claims to have done pre-tour work (including with Roger Dean) and appears to be blindsided by the whole thing. Regardless of the legalities - I'm not sure what stake Anderson has in YesCo anymore - that's a pretty shitty way to deal with, literally, the voice of Yes.

The whole thing is rather sordid and a sad way for one of prog's pioneers to wind down its days. Having never seen the band in the flesh, I'd probably jump at the chance to see the real deal live, even just blowing through the old war horses. But I've got no interest in YesLite. If that's the best they can do, maybe it's time to call it a day.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Who are the Sexists, Again?

You know, when Democrats criticize Sarah Palin for her lack of experience, penchant for power grabs, and the like, the GOPers scream "sexist." But what explains this:

At the insistence of the McCain campaign, the Oct. 2 debate between the Republican nominee for vice president, Gov. Sarah Palin, and her Democratic rival, Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr., will have shorter question-and-answer segments than those for the presidential nominees, the advisers said. There will also be much less opportunity for free-wheeling, direct exchanges between the running mates.

McCain advisers said they had been concerned that a loose format could leave Ms. Palin, a relatively inexperienced debater, at a disadvantage and largely on the defensive.
So, she's not ready to debate Joe Biden, but she's ready to lead the free world? It's just as sexist to protect the women folk from the big bad mens in a debate as it is to make fun of her.

Maybe Palin can call in some higher support for her date with Biden:
The pastor whose prayer Sarah Palin says helped her to become governor of Alaska founded his ministry with a witch hunt against a Kenyan woman whom he accused of causing car accidents through demonic spells.

At a speech at the Wasilla Assembly of God on June 8 this year, Palin described how Thomas Muthee had laid his hands on her when he visited the church as a guest preacher in late 2005, prior to her successful gubernatorial bid.

* * *

'And I'm thinking, this guy's really bold, he doesn't even know what I'm going to do, he doesn't know what my plans are. And he's praying not 'Oh Lord, if it be your will may she become governor,' no, he just prayed for it. He said, 'Lord make a way and let her do this next step. And that's exactly what happened.'
It's amusing to me that it impressed Palin that this whackaloon would do this without knowing anything about her. Maybe, if he'd done his homework, his impression of her would have faded like it has with most Americans.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Legal Short Takes

A few bits of trivia from the criminal justice system:

  • Too fat for prison? Too fat to be executed?! You know the obesity epidemic is getting out of hand when it starts to be a problem for jailers and executioners! Seriously, tho', one wonders how the half-ton woman in the first story managed to work up enough energy to move herself to (allegedly) beat her nephew to death?
  • Good Samaritan = 15 months in prison. I guess the message the US Attorney in Delaware wants to send is "if your loved one is about to blow her brains out, whatever you do don't take the gun away from her!" If that's not bad enough, guess who turned in the Samaritan to the feds? The baby mama he saved from suicide! Talk about ungrateful.
  • It's no surprise that we've been losing prestige in the world for the past eight years, but who knew it was hitting the Supreme Court? Adam Liptak, in part of his continuing series on American exceptionalism, explores how similar courts in other countries are looking the Supremes for guidance less and less.

Mark Your Calendars

This certainly sounds well thought out - over at DftCW, Ed reports that some scholar has concluded that the world will come to an end in 2013. He can't pinpoint the date, however. Regardless, I'm not taking any chances and booking REM for the entire year, just to be safe!

All Is Explained

Well, not "all," really. What am I, a prophet? But at least with regards to the Wall Street meltdown, this post over that the New York Times Freakonomics blog answers several questions. It's fairly basic economic stuff, tho', no real political analysis.

As for politics . . .. As I said the other day, I am not an economist. I took a couple of classes in college and managed to make it out alive, so I consider that a moral victory (they don't call it the "dismal science" for nothing). But in recent weeks we've heard a lot about whether a floundering company is or isn't "too big to fail," meaning that a company is so critical to the American and/or global economy that the government can't allow it to melt down.

I don't know enough about the details to know whether any of the recent bailouts were really necessary under that theory, but I have come to a realization - the next time some company gets "too big to fail," saddle up the anti-trust ponies and break it up. Anything that gets that big and has that much influence can't be a good thing.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Critcs' Secret Revealed!

Roger Ebert's battle with cancer has robbed him of his vocal ability, but not his voice. In addition to his regular movie reviews, Ebert is blogging (about once a week) over at the Chicago Sun Times site. This week, he takes on an interesting accusation: does he go easier on movies than most critics and if so, why? Ebert agrees that he does, indeed, tend to generally rate movies more highly than some other critics, and offers some explanations about why that's the case. I particularly appreciate his note about genres - Ebert is one of the few big name critics who don't reflexively shit on anything sci-fi (aside from 2001, of course).

That being said, I think Ebert delivered the most scathing review of any film I've ever heard on the TV show years ago. It was of this Dana Carvey flick and went something like this (going from memory, of course):

this film is so bad that it wouldn't even be useful if you chopped up the stock and used it to make banjo picks.
I don't care who you are, that's gotta sting!

Happy C Day!

That's right, fellow Americans, today is Constitution Day! Brought to you by none other than our very own Robert Byrd (D - Big Bang) in 2004. It's mostly overlooked (we don't get the day off, sadly), but I suppose that's fitting - the Constitution itself is mostly overlooked these days.

So, go out and exercise a Constitutional right, or something. Use 'em while we got 'em!

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The Hypocrisy, It Burns!

Good grief, you must be kidding me. Via Pharyngula, I see the Pope has identified the problem with society:

Pope Benedict XVI condemned unbridled 'pagan' passion for power, possessions and money as a modern-day plague Saturday as he led more than a quarter of a million Catholics in an outdoor Mass in Paris.

* * *

Paraphrasing from the New Testament, Benedict decried 'insatiable greed' and said 'the love of money is the root of all evil.'

'Have not money, the thirst for possessions, for power and even knowledge, diverted man from his true destiny?' the pope asked.
I'm sorry, what now? The man who lives here . . .

. . . and works here . . .

. . . in a lap of incredible luxury has the gall to tell the rest of the world that pursuit of material goods is evil? I guess a grasp of irony is not a holy job requirement.

As usual, The Onion gets it right:
Heaven Less Opulent Than Vatican, Reports Disappointed Pope
Photos courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

On Acquitted Conduct

Via SL&P, ABC News has a story about a weird issue of federal criminal law - acquitted conduct. The problem goes like this:

Defendant is charged with two counts, distribution of drugs (0-20 years) and possession of a firearm in connection with that distribution (5 years). He goes to trial and the jury convicts on the drug count, but acquits on the gun charge. At sentencing, the Sentencing Guidelines for the drug distribution top out at, say (for convenience's sake), 100 months. At sentencing, the court finds that, in spite of the jury verdict, Defendant did indeed possess that gun in connection with his drug offense and enhances the sentence up to 120 months.

"But wait," you say, dragging up memories from your high school civics course, "there's a presumption of innocence in this country and the jury didn't convict Defendant of the gun charge. The judge can't override that, can he?" Well, yes. Yes he can.

Here's why. Being convicted of a charge generally subjects a defendant to a wide range of imprisonment options, like the 0 to 20 year range in this case (one of the goals of the Guidelines was to narrow the range available at sentencing). In figuring out what sentence within that range to impose, judges can consider just about any piece of information they want (aside from race, gender, religion, etc.). That includes, paradoxically, conduct for which the defendant was acquitted.

As the article points out, the courts are wrangling with this issue in the wake of Booker and its progeny:

Several federal judges have said the practice violates the constitutional right to a jury trial and a few have called on the Supreme Court to reconsider its 1997 decision, in U.S. v. Watts, upholding increased prison sentences based on so-called 'acquitted conduct.'

'[W]e have a sentencing regime that allows the government to try its case not once but twice. The first time before a jury; the second before a judge,' Judge Myron Bright of the federal Eight Circuit Court of Appeals recently wrote.

'This state of affairs is unfair, unjust and I believe plain unconstitutional,' he wrote. 'Though the government might have 'won,' everyone and everything else the defendant, the jury system, the Constitution loses.'
There is something fucked up about acquittals not placing certain information off limits at sentencing. On the other hand, if the theory is that judges should have lots of discretion within the statutory sentencing range when choosing a sentence, why should any evidence be off limits? The court is still limited to the statutory range for the offense(s) of conviction - in the example above the court couldn't impose a sentence of more than 20 years.

And if acquitted conduct is a problem, what about the (more prevalent, in my experience) situation in which judges rely on evidence that was never presented to a jury in the first place? If it can't pass a beyond-a-reasonable doubt standard, should it be off limits?

I know where the PD side of my brain falls on this issue, but I'm not so certain my logical/political/philosophical side of my brain is convinced. Not yet, anyway.

*Face Palm*

I'm sitting here watching ABC's evening news which is focusing, unsurprisingly, on the economy and the tanking of Wall Street (apparently not one of McCain's "sound fundamentals"). In a story discussing and contrasting how McCain and Obama would address the problem, one wag said that the problem with more regulation is that it will "make it more difficult for people to get credit."

What. The. Fuck?!?!?

I'm no economist, but it's my understanding that a lot of this current financial mess is down to the whole subprime mortgage fiasco, in which people who really shouldn't have qualified for loans in the first place borrowed way too much money. If that's the case, might it be a good thing if it was more difficult for people to get credit?

Monday, September 15, 2008

Shine On

Richard Wright, the keyboardist and a founding member of Pink Floyd, died today, of cancer (apparently). Although Rick was possibly the least known of the Floyd, he was a critical part of their sound and success. His keyboard work was more restrained and minimalistic than some of his prog counterparts, but it perfectly fit the mood of Floyd's epic soundscapes. His solos in various bits of "Shine On You Crazy Diamond" are a perfect example of "less is more." While not the most prolific songwriter, Wright made big contributions on tracks like "The Great Gig in the Sky" and "Echoes," not to mention one of my favorite Floyd tunes, "Us and Them":

If you haven't seen the DVD from David Gilmour's last tour, on which Wright played, I highly recommend it. It's worth it alone for the excellent version of "Echoes."

Thanks, Rick.

Who Are the Brain Police?

Polygraphs, contrary to TV cop shows (or Dr. Phil, even), are notoriously unreliable and are inadmissible in court. But what if there was a better lie trap out there? Perhaps something that literally reads your brain waves? It's on the way:

The technique he calls 'brain fingerprinting' is an electronic test of a specific kind of brain wave that he says can identify incriminating information despite an individual's attempt to conceal the knowledge.

* * *

As part of this research, Farwell ran across what would become the scientific basis of brain fingerprinting. It is a type of signal in the brain known as a P300 wave, so-called because it is an involuntary response to a recognized object or piece of information that happens within 300 milliseconds.

It's been a well-known and widely accepted phenomenon within neuroscience. What Farwell did is connect it with another related electrical brain response that he dubbed a MerMer (for 'memory and encoding related multifaceted electroencephalographic response') that he contends provides a foolproof method for testing an individual's knowledge -- or lack of knowledge -- of a criminal act.

'It's 100 percent reliable and has been ruled admissible in court,' Farwell said.
I doubt Farwell's confidence (is anything 100 percent reliable?), but the technology has already made a couple of court appearances (one leading to an acquittal in a murder case).

If it really does work that well, what could it mean for our traditional adversarial system of justice? The Fifth Amendment, of course, protects your right to remain silent and to not be compelled to testify against yourself. That's fairly rare in the realm of global justice. There are at least two justifications for it. First, it simply makes the state's job of putting you in prison more difficult, which is a good thing in and off itself. Second, people compelled to testify against themselves can't necessarily be trusted to be accurate and may falsely incriminate themselves.

Assuming most folks think the rule rests on the second justification (as most do, I think), what support would the rule have if there was a full proof means of determining if the defendant was telling the truth? Sure, you'd have some folks who really believed they were telling the truth, but weren't, but would that be an acceptable margin of error? Something to ponder.

UPDTATE: Via Volokh, apparently brain scanning is already at work in the courts in India.

Another Real Car of Tomorrow

Earlier this month I blogged about Corsa Motorsports and their P1 hybrid program in the American LeMans Series. They won't be alone, as Peugeot will be entering the hybrid game, too, with a P1 car for 2009. The target debut is LeMans next year, although I wouldn't completely rule out a Sebring appearance. It will be interesting to see if Audi takes the bait on the hybrid thing. Audi was first out of the box with a diesel P1 car, with Peugeot chasing, unsuccessfully (at LeMans at least). The French guys have moved the goal line - will Audi (or, maybe, Acura?) follow?

What Isn't a Mark of the Beast?

I know that Revelation is basically a Rorschach test, but isn't there anything safe from the "mark of the beast" tag? Apparently not (via DPftCW):

'Use of a numbering system for their premises and/or electronic numbering system for their animals constitutes some form of a 'mark of the beast' and/or represents an infringement of their 'dominion over cattle and all living things' in violation of their fundamental religious beliefs,' according to the farmers' lawsuit filed Monday in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.
Now, the federal livestock registration idea might not be so hot, for a host of legitimate reasons (some of Ed's commenters make that argument), but c'mon! At this rate, it's just watering down the brand. What about the Wal-Mart "Roll Back" guy - isn't he a mark of the beast? Surely!

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Coffin Farm FC

I know it's not completely out of the ordinary for recently deceased Americans to be buried in the colors of their favorite sports teams. Weird, but not unheard of. A German soccer club is taking the next logical step - a team cemetery:

Hamburg have become the first football club in Europe to open their very own cemetery where fans can be buried next to the club's stadium.

The German side's HSV Arena stadium is clearly visible from the cemetery, which can cater for up to 500 fans.
Of course, this ain't cheap:
Hamburg supporters will pay up to £1900 for the privilege of being buried just a stone's throw from the stadium in a coffin decked out in the club's traditional blue-and-white colours and bearing the club's logo.

They can also choose to have their ashes buried in an official club urn, which will cost about £315.
That's real dedication, to spend your eternal rest next door to the stadium. Sure, it sounds great now, but what happens when Hamburg fall from glory and wind up playing in the minor leagues?

Everybody Chill!

Wow, who would have thunk it - the most stressful state in the nation is little ol' West Virginia:

West Virginia is home to the highest percentage of stressed-out people in the United States, research from the University of Cambridge suggests.

West Virginians are more anxious, impulsive and stressed than residents of any other state - even New York, which ranked third - according to the study.

* * *

he reasons for West Virginia's high score: Researchers found a connection between stress and poor health.

In West Virginia, people exercise less. Heart disease and cancer rates are sky-high. Life spans are shorter than just about anywhere else.
I suppose that makes some sense. After all, if you're worried about impending death and laboring with a chronic disease, things can get a little heavy. I have to say, tho', I'm not sure exactly how our short life spans jive with being the oldest state in the Union.

So, here's what Dr. JDB prescribes - everybody take a deep breath, sit down, have yourself a drink, and (to continue the week's Marillion theme) let "Angelina" take care of you:

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Free Music (by Real Musicians!)

Since I mentioned the upcoming Marillion album, Happiness is the Road, the other day, I thought I'd pimp the band's latest attempt at publicity. They've taken a page from Radiohead's playbook and made the album available online:

Rock group Marillion are to make their new album available as a free download through file-sharing websites.

But a pop-up box will appear on computer screens when the tracks are first played, encouraging fans to give the band their e-mail address.

Keyboardist Mark Kelly said downloaders would be contacted with offers of gig tickets and other merchandise, to try to make some money back for the band.
I like Mark's complete honesty:
Kelly acknowledged that making Marillion's music available for free was against his natural instinct - 'we come from a long tradition of selling it'.
Indeed. If you've ever wondered what Marillion is all about, here's your chance. I can't vouch for the new album yet (I'm not up on file sharing stuff, so unless somebody wants to download it and send me a copy), but I think you'll be pleasantly surprised. And you can't beat the price!

UPDATE: Those (like Red) who are curious to see what the band sounds like can download the album (track by track) from Music Glue here.

It Works (and We're Still Here!)

Today was a big day for science, as the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland (and France), went online today. It's a pretty big deal:

'It’s a fantastic moment,' said Lyn Evans, who has been the project director of the collider since its inception. 'We can now look forward to a new era of understanding about the origins and evolution of the universe.'

Eventually, the collider is expected to accelerate protons to energies of 7 trillion electron volts and then smash them together, recreating conditions in the primordial fireball only a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang. Scientists hope the machine will be a sort of Hubble Space Telescope of inner space, allowing them to detect new subatomic particles and forces of nature.
Pretty cool, huh? There were some minor concerns before start up, at least in some minds, however:
Others, worried about speculation that a black hole could emerge from the proton collisions, have called it a doomsday machine, to the dismay of CERN physicists who can point to a variety of studies and reports that say that this fear is nothing but science fiction.
Coincidentally, this weekend I finished reading (well, listening too, actually) Blasphemy, by Douglas Preston. It's about a bigger better American version of the collider, built under a mountain on the Navajo Reservation in Arizona. It's startup arouses the ire of the locals and religious fundamentalists that stir up a whole heap of trouble. Of course, it's science fiction.

Or perhaps, more accurately, fantasy, as the president in Preston's novel is not only interested in science but sees the collider as his great legacy. Reality is quite different:
In 1993, the United States Congress canceled plans for an even bigger collider and more powerful machine, the Superconducting Supercollider, after its cost ballooned to $11 billion. That collider, its former director Roy Schwitters of the University of Texas in Austin said recently, would have been in operation around 2001.

Dr. Schwitters said that American particle physics — the search for the most fundamental rules and constituents of nature — had never really recovered from the loss of the supercollider. 'One non-renewable resource is a person’s time and good years,' he said, adding that many young people have left the field for astrophysics or cosmology.
So we're going to let the French and the Swiss (those filthy neutrals!) beat us to the secrets of the universe?!? Yeah, probably.

And I Thought My Clients Were Difficult

Every public defender has stories of clients who are nearly impossible to communicate with. It's like trying to talk to a brick wall that manages to babble incoherently back at you. But at least they're not, well, animals:

A minister in the Democratic Republic of Congo has ordered a Kinshasa jail to release a dozen goats, which he said were being held there illegally.

Deputy Justice Minister Claude Nyamugabo said he found the goats just in time during a routine jail visit.

The beasts were due to appear in court, charged with being sold illegally by the roadside.
Free the Kinshasa 12! It's dinner time!

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

House Arrest En Masse

Maybe it's because it's an election year, but I'm stunned that I haven't heard about the situation in Helena-West Helena, Arkansas until now (via Appellate Law & Practice). In short, a large hunk of the small town (created by the merger of two separate towns in 2006), is currently under a 24-hours curfew as a crime fighting tool:

In August, [Mayor James] Valley and the Helena-West Helena City Council, citing out-of-control crime, unanimously created a 24-hour curfew zone in one of the city's poorest areas, a 10-block sector that has had its share of violence and drugs. Valley and the council later extended a form of the curfew citywide that allows for police to conduct searches of any passerby.

Immediately after the curfew passed, the 30-officer Helena-West Helena Police Department flooded the area. Some of the officers brought from home assault rifles with night-vision scopes. With City Council approval -- but without probable cause -- police officers stopped anyone walking or driving through the area residents now call The Zone.
If you didn't have any warrants or contraband, you apparently were just ordered home. Alas, 32 folks were arrested after being stopped, in prosecutions that (as the article points out) are likely to be thrown out of court once they get there.

Of course, the real damage being done is to the innocent folks being treated like criminals. Thankfully, the ACLU is on the case and sparring with Mayor Valley:
A few days after the city enacted its curfew, ACLU representatives arrived from Little Rock, registering complaints of civil rights violations at a City Council meeting. They were met with heckling from the town's politicians.

"You can't tell me the crime problem in Helena-West Helena is any worse than in the Bronx or L.A. or Cincinnati, or Little Rock, for that matter, where they haven't suspended the Constitution," says Rita Sklar, executive director of the ACLU of Arkansas.

For his part, Valley is unapologetic.

"I've offered to give the ACLU lady a house on Second Street," he says. "That way, she can see if the Constitution will protect her there."

Responds Sklar: "The arrogance of small-town tyrants never ceases to amaze me."
This particular small-town tyrant has some other problems, as well:
When the city's animal shelter fell into disrepair recently, stray dogs became a nuisance. Instead of working with volunteer groups on a solution, Valley ordered the dogs released into nearby St. Francis National Forest.

"We just opened the door and let 'em go," Valley says. "Ain't our problem now."

Following a complaint from the Humane Society of Southeast Arkansas, Valley was charged with misdemeanor animal abandonment, mistreatment and neglect. When asked about the pending charge, the mayor simply rolls his eyes.

Valley faces professional problems as well. The Arkansas Supreme Court Committee on Professional Conduct recently suspended his law license for 30 days following complaints of misconduct and shoddy legal work.
That's lead some citizens to wonder if the curfew is just a clever PR stunt to distract from the mayor's other problems.

Regardless, it's a blatant spit in the face of the Constitution that simply cannot be justified on general crime fighting grounds. It should enrage folks across the country, but it won't. Not that, in this day and age, I'm surprised. Sadly.

A Case Study in Prohibition

So there's a super hallucinogenic herb from Mexico called Salvia divinorum. Originally used mostly by shaman in Oaxaca "seeking revelation," its popularity has grown as a recreational drug. In fact, pump "Salvia divinorum" into YouTube and you can find bunches of videos of people tripping on the mint relative, with cameras rolling.

Apparently, it's mostly harmless:

Though research is young and little is known about long-term effects, there are no studies suggesting that salvia is addictive or its users prone to overdose or abuse. Indeed, a salvia experience can be so intense, and at times so unsettling, that many try it just once, and even devotees use it sparingly.

Reports of salvia-related emergency room admissions are virtually nonexistent, likely because its effects typically vanish in just a few minutes.
Nonetheless, prohibitionists in this country have never needed actual harm before they outlawed some mind altering substance. But beyond legitimate concerns about restricting liberty, there are some other concerns if the herb gets the controlled substance treatment:
Pharmacologists who believe salvia could open new frontiers for the treatment of addiction, depression and pain fear that its criminalization would make it burdensome to obtain and store the plant, and difficult to gain government permission for tests on human subjects. In state after state, however, including here in Texas, the YouTube videos have become Exhibit A in legislative efforts to regulate salvia. This year, Florida made possession or sale a felony punishable by 15 years in prison. California took a gentler approach by making it a misdemeanor to sell or distribute to minors.
The researchers concerns seem legitimate, seeing as how the feds treated marijuana over the years as scientists tried to determine its medicinal benefits.

Sure, some folks tripping on salvia have apparently done bad things. Good thing that never happens with alcohol or prescription drugs! Let's at least weigh all the advantages and disadvantages of prohibition before we create another category of natural substance that turns harmless users into criminals.

The Politics of Music

You may have heard/read elsewhere that GOP VP pick Sarah Palin is nicknamed "Barracuda," apparently from her high school days. Somewhat naturally, then, during her GOP convention roll out last week, the Heart tune "Barracuda" got played in the hall for her. This was much to the displeasure of Ann and Nancy Wilson, the sisters who are the heart of Heart (so to speak), who are not fans of the GOP. So, what can they do about it? Not much:

Like thousands of other songs, 'Barracuda' is distributed by the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers, meaning that any entity that is licensed with ASCAP can play a song without getting the artist's explicit permission. This license can be held by a venue, like a club or a sports arena, and apply to all events that take place there. In this case, the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn., would be the holder, but a representative tells the Explainer that the venue's ASCAP license applies only to sporting events for the Minnesota Wild and the Minnesota Swarm, the professional hockey and lacrosse teams, respectively; otherwise, it's up to the people who use the premises to get their own. A spokesperson for the Republican Convention said the event did have an ASCAP license separate from the one for sports.
That's probably that, as far as the convention goes. But if the GOP want to use the tune in ads, the Wilson sisters might have a better shot:
While an ASCAP license covers the right to perform a song, you need a separate 'synchronization license' from the publisher to put the song in an ad. Some artists ask for stipulations in their contracts with publishers that prevent their songs from being used for political advertisements or any other causes they find objectionable.
All of this confusion stems from a "common practice" that Robert Fripp has described as "always questionable, often improper, and is now indefensible" - that artists generally sign over rights to their music to record companies and publishing companies. That's changed recently, in some respects, but for the classic rock tracks that politicians always seem to appropriate it's the status quo.

When Appellate Judges Attack

Dissenting judicial opinions are occasionally caustic, snarky, and downright testy (see any of the fine examples by Scalia, for instance, but few are this blunt (via Volokh). The case, from the Sixth Circuit, involved the federal court review of a state burglary conviction. Under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (a wonderful legacy of the Clinton years), federal courts in such situations have to pay so much deference to what occurred in the state court that the review is largely toothless.

In this case, two of the three judges, applying that very deferential standard, found in the state's favor. Judge Keith, verily, did not:

The majority's opinion flagrantly violates the Fourteenth Amendment. I therefore vehemently DISSENT. It is “[b]etter that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.” 4 William Blackstone, Commentaries at 358. This powerful and wise axiom reveals that a court commits the ultimate injustice by convicting and imprisoning a person based on insufficient evidence. Such a judicial transgression contravenes the most important right our Constitution affords the accused: “the Due Process Clause [of the Fourteenth Amendment] protects the accused against conviction except upon proof beyond a reasonable doubt of every fact necessary to constitute the crime with which he is charged.” In re Winship, 397 U.S. 358, 364, 90 S.Ct. 1068, 25 L.Ed.2d 368 (1970); U.S. Const. Amend. XIV, § 1. Apparently neither the state trial judge nor the majority ever read or understood the Constitution, for in the instant matter, they recklessly disregarded this fundamental requirement of proof beyond a reasonable doubt by convicting Defendant Raymond Tucker of home invasion without any evidence sufficient to prove his guilt.
Emphasis mine.

Damn, that's going to leave a mark. Not to mention make the next judicial conference a little awkward.

Monday, September 08, 2008

Happiness is . . .

. . . a new Marillion album on the way:

As for the "Whatever Is Wrong With You?" contest, I'm a little biased in favor of the South Park treatment:

Dunno why Mark's eyes make him look like a cult member, tho'!

Happiness is the Road - October 20, 2008.

The Right Palin

Honestly, when I first heard "McCain picks Palin for VP," this thought went through my head, too:


Last week, I mentioned the US date with Cuba in Havana for a World Cup qualifier on Saturday night. As with last month's match in Guatemala, the US gutted out a 1-0 victory that was hardly a thing of beauty. But it's still three points - on the road, no less. As Ives points out, success on the road in qualifying isn't a given:

Anyone thinking that winning games on the road in World Cup qualifying isn't as tough as people say might want to reconsider after last weekend.

Skeptics might want to ask France (pictured), which was thrashed by Austria (ranked 90 spots below the French in the FIFA rankings). They could also ask Angola, which lost to Benin (ranked 46 spots lower), or Ivory Coast, which tied Mozambique (ranked 80 spots lower).
Heck, Cyprus - Cyprus! - held World Cup holders Italy scoreless for nearly 90 minutes this weekend! Yes, it would be nice if the US could dominate the CONCACAF minnows on the road on a regular basis. But that's not as important as the basic math: wins on the road, however ugly, equals a trip to South Africa 2010.

Friday, September 05, 2008

That's Just the Way It Is

I didn’t catch my of John McCain’s speech at the GOP convention last night, but I did hear some highlights this morning. The whole “change” meme, coming from someone whose party has been in charge for most of the last eight year (c’mon, name one thing the Dems did in the last two years that the GOP didn’t sign off on) and who’s been in Washington for 25 years just seems . . .. Well, I like Tom Shales’s formulation:

He used the word 'change' at least 10 times in his bombastic speech -- the convention's emotional climax -- but since the Republicans have controlled the White House for the past eight years, what does McCain want to change from? And to? It really is an audacious ploy, to tell people that the country's got to correct the mistakes made by a political party when that's the very party you represent.

It's like staging a revolution against yourself -- saying that the Republicans have got to go so the Republicans can move in and clean up the mess.
“We’ve so screwed things up, let us have one more chance to fix it.” If I didn’t know better, I’d think the GOP was the abusive husband trying to convince his battered wife that, honestly honey, this time I’ll change!

There's No Pleasing Some People (Redux)

A while back I blogged about a drunk who wanted the police to take him to jail rather than a place to dry out. Along those lines, here's another person who demanded to be locked up, except this time it didn't happen:

A Kanawha judge has denied a request from a young Raleigh County woman who asked to go to jail rather than spend two years on probation and do some community service.

Victoria Lynn Summers, 22, of Beckley, convicted in magistrate court last spring of driving under the influence, appealed her sentence to circuit court of seven days in jail. At that time, she didn't want to be behind bars, telling Bloom she was in nursing assistant school, looking for a job and caring for her two-year-old son.

But on Thursday Summers said she has now changed her mind, and asked Judge Duke Bloom to change his.
Duke did not.

Although it sounds odd, it's not completely unheard of. Federal convicts are required to serve a term of supervised release (essentially like probation) after being released from prison. If you violate a term of your supervised release, you can get sent back to prison and put on another term of supervised release. It's not uncommon for a client who has violated his supervised release (particularly for the second time or more) would rather do more prison time if it means not being "on paper" anymore.

Another Milestone

That rather unspectacular post below about five intrepid American soccer fans in Cuba is the 2500th post for me here at the Ranch. Thanks to everybody who reads and/or occasionally comments. I've only ever done this because I enjoy having the outlet to vent, ramble, and laugh at the world, but it's nice to know that someone else gets a kick out of it occasionally, too.

Those Happy (and Brave) Few

Saturday night, the United States continues its World Cup qualification with a match against Cuba in Havana. Given the state of relations between the two countries since Castro came to power, it's not surprising that we haven't played them on their soil in over 60 years. When the Cubans have come here for the Gold Cup, it's not been pretty, with big defeats on the field and regular defections off it. That to one side, will they make the most of their home field advantage?

It's not like there will be a cadre of US supporters to make some noise. Travel between the US and Cuba is still very restricted. In spite of that, CNNSi soccer guru Grant Wahl has a story about five intrepid (and unidentified) American supporters who made it to Havana via Mexico. A commando unit of Sam's Army, as it were. That's a long way to go to support the team.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Mystery Solved?

Five years ago, the nation was transfixed by what seemed like something out of a Coen Brothers flick - a bank robbery gone bad, with surreal results:

In one of the most bizarre crimes in recent memory, a pizza deliveryman walked into a bank near [Erie, PA] five years ago and gave a teller a note saying a bomb strapped to his neck and torso would detonate if he was not given money.

The man, Brian D. Wells, walked out with $8,702, got in his car and was stopped almost immediately by state police troopers. Minutes later, the bomb exploded, killing Mr. Wells.

Before he died, Mr. Wells, 46, told the troopers that he was an unwilling participant in the crime. He said a group of black men had abducted him as he was delivering two sausage-and-pepperoni pizzas and forced him to rob the bank by strapping the bomb on him.
Ever since, folks have wondered just what happened. What Wells an innocent victim of a horrible scheme? Was he in on the deal? Who would come up with such a stunt? The investigation lingered for years.

Early last year, federal authorities made two arrests in the case, nabbing two of the conspirators of the scheme. One of them has now pleaded guilty and is providing some details about Well's involvement:
The guilty plea of Kenneth E. Barnes went a long way toward answering questions about his involvement in the Brian Wells pizza bombing case.

But the extent of Wells' knowledge of the plot remains murky.

Wells met with Barnes and Barnes' co-defendant, Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong, about the bank-robbery plan that ended in Wells' death, according to evidence Assistant U.S. Attorney Marshall Piccinini presented at Barnes' plea hearing Wednesday.

But Piccinini also presented evidence that Wells -- named as an unindicted co-conspirator in the case -- might not have known beforehand that the bomb locked to his neck was live.
Wells's brother has a website where he argues that Wells was forced into participating.

We may never know exactly what happened, but things might become a little bit more clear when the other conspirator's case wraps up.

UPDATE: This Cleveland Plain Dealer blog entry from the time of the arrests last year gives some more details on what the authorities believe happened:
About 1:30 p.m. Aug. 28, 2003, Brian Wells delivered two sausage and pepperoni pizzas to a secluded area where construction workers often toiled.

There, he met Rothstein, Barnes and Stockton, and they told him that the device was real. Wells tried to bolt, but they wrestled him to the ground and forced it on him. They gave him a nine-page letter that sent him on a scavenger hunt for clues that would get the device off his neck.
So even by the Government's theory, Wells wasn't much more than a victim.

Feel the Love

The other day I said that John McCain's VP selection was partly designed to shore up his support amongst the religious right. Apparently not everybody is on board (via DFtCW):

So here is my three point plan:

1. Vote Constitution Party. (I vote my conscience and cannot support McCain even with Palin.)

2. Pray for Sarah Palin to win. (I am an idealist, but also a realist!)

3. Pray for John McCain's salvation and speedy death. (Google The Forerunner's articles on Impecatory Prayer if you think this is harsh.)
Wow, I'm not sure what is more unhinged - praying for someone's death or voting for the Constitution Party (they're a little bit out there). At least they put salvation first. I suppose that's the "love thy enemy" idea I've heard so much about.

UPDATE: Along these lines, Eugene Volokh answers the musical question - are people who pray for God to strike down their enemies committing attempted murder? Probably not, but it's still a fun hypo.

Yeah, But What Have the Romans Ever Done for Us?

Not much, at least when it comes to AIDS, at least. You see, we never part of the empire:

The spread of the Roman Empire through Europe could help explain why those living in its former colonies are more vulnerable to HIV.

The claim, by French researchers, is that people once ruled by Rome are less likely to have a gene variant which protects against HIV.
But was it intentional? Probably not:
However, the researchers do not believe that the genetic difference is due to Roman soldiers or officials breeding within the local population - history suggests this was not particularly widespread, and that invading and occupying armies could have been drawn not just from Italy but from other parts of the empire.

Instead, they say that the Romans may have introduced an unknown disease to which people with the CCR5-Delta32 variant were particularly susceptible.
Just like a conquering power, huh?

See what we missed out on?

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Better Hold My Tongue

The girlfriend, as I've mentioned before, lives outside of Pittsburgh, so we often head into the city when I go visit. The drive in is usually accompanied by some frustration on my part directed towards the incredibly inept Pennsylvania Department of Transportation or the state's bizarre driving decisions (who comes to a complete stop on an Interstate on ramp?!?).

I try not to let it get to me too much, but I do occasionally let fly with a choice expletive. I guess I better be careful, according to the ACLU (via TalkLeft):

City police wrote nearly 200 disorderly conduct citations over a 32-month period for swearing, obscene gestures and other acts deemed disrespectful, a number that a civil rights group said was unacceptable and showed a lack of officer training.

After filing a Right to Know request, the American Civil Liberties Union found 188 such citations between March 1, 2005, and Oct. 31.

'Nobody likes to get sworn at, but you can't make it a crime,' said Witold Walczak, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Foundation of Pennsylvania.
He's right, of course. Nevertheless, I guess I better watch my fucking mouth when I'm in the Steel City!

The More Things Change . . .

Back in the days before "no fault" divorce and the concept of irreconcilable differences, it wasn't uncommon in the United States for unhappy couples to work a sort of bizarre sting operation. With both husband and wife in on the deal, the husband would get setup to be caught being unfaithful. Adultery always was (and still is) grounds for divorce. And it was frightfully easy to fake.

While things have changed here, that's not the case in Japan, where you can purchase similar services:

Kyoko, of course, is not the girl’s real name. She did not meet Mr A by chance and does not work for a design company, as he thinks. She is an agent paid to seduce him. She regularly texts the team from her mobile and has a couple of GPS devices in case they lose her. Shimizu is her bodyguard and will move in if there are problems. And the whole operation is paid for by Mr A’s wife, who gets an amply illustrated report every time an encounter takes place. The aim is to have Mr A fall so completely for Kyoko that he wants to marry her and asks for a divorce. Failing that, his wife will have a sizable dossier with evidence of infidelity to confront him with.

In Japan, if you have the money you can sort out virtually any problem in your love life. If you want to get rid of an unwanted spouse, retrieve a straying one, get back with an ex or even get together with someone you’ve seen but don’t yet know, there are companies that will help you, using all the technology and expertise in human psychology at their disposal. Not so long ago Japanese wives put up with any amount of infidelity and abuse. A divorced woman was shunned and unlikely to marry again. But these days 'people want to be happy', says Tomiya. The result has been an enormous increase in divorces and in companies such as GNC.
I'm not a fan of legal fictions. It's probably healthier for all involved to be able to admit their unhappiness and move on with their lives without resorting to some sort of farce out of a bad opera. Still, you gotta' admire the free market response to the need in Japan.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

On Sarah Palin

Over the long weekend, as the John McCain Veepsakes pick seemed to spiral out of control. I was planning on a writing a nice, long post about Sarah Palin and her first few days on the national stage. Full of links and such. But the later the evening got (I was wrapped up in research for my NaNoWriMo project for this year), the less energy I had for the task. After all, I'm not exactly the target demographic for McCain's strategery. So, here's an abbreviated version.

I think Palin is a pretty decent pick by McCain. She allows him to firm up his bona fides with the right-wing religious base of the party (who are suspicious about him in the first place) - she's an extremist "pro-life"r, a creationist, and opposed to gay marriage. He did that without rewarding either of the guys who fought over that terrain in the primary, Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee. And, by picking someone that only the most hard core political people had even heard of, it plays into the whole "maverick" meme. Yeah, her lack of experience completely undermines his attacks on Obama, but those were probably played out, anyway. The only downside I see to Palin's selection is if McCain thought by choosing a woman he would nab some disaffected Hillary voters. Given Palin's record, I don't think that's very likely.

As for the pregnancy stuff of the past couple of days . . . give it a rest. The whole "Palin's infant son is really her daughter's" story was as full of holes as any conspiracy theory and the fact that her teenage daughter really is pregnant now just doesn't matter that much. Conservative moralist religious types not living up to their talking points? Again? Yawn. There's so much more to her record that makes her unsuited to the position that it's best to take the high road and leave the family stuff alone.

And, of course, there's the little fact that she's just the VP nominee. Even with John "Granpa Simpson" McCain at the top of the ticket, it doesn't really matter all that much.

Publishing from the Grave

Way back in January, I blogged about a controversy regarding a work by Vladimir Nobokov that was unfinished at his death. At issue was whether the executor of Nobokov's estate (his son) should honor Nobokov's wishes and not publish the manuscript. Over at Concurring Opinions, Dan Solove has some thoughts on a similar situation that occurred with Franz Kafka:

The famous story about Kafka's papers is that Kafka asked his friend, Max Brod, to burn them after his death. Although Kafka had published a few works during his lifetime, a great many stories, parables, letters, and diary entries were unpublished, as were Kafka's two great book masterpieces, The Trial and The Castle. Brod refused to burn them. Instead, he published them, and Kafka would go on to achieve enormous posthumous fame as one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century.
But should Brod have done so? It's not a question with an easy answer.

Divided Loyalties

Tomorrow is the US Open Cup final, at RFK Stadium in DC. The Open Cup is America's soccer national championship. As in the more well known FA Cup in England, the Open Cup is just that . . . "open," to any club that wants to take a shot at the title, from amateur weekend teams to the professional minor leagues and top Major League Soccer teams. Also, as with the FA Cup, part of the charm of the tournament is watching the minnows try to upset the top-level clubs.

That's why I've got a case of divided loyalties. Tomorrow's final is between my favorite MLS team, DC United, and my favorite minor league team, the Charleston Battery. Yeah, I know, that's the "other Charleston," but (a) they built a soccer specific stadium (complete with a pub!) and (b) have a great locally flavored nickname, so I've adopted them.

So who to root for? DC, on the one hand, could really use some hardware after a couple of semi-lean years. The Battery, on the other, are the prototypical underdogs, to which I'm generally attracted. It's a final, so rooting for a draw is no help. Ack!

I guess I've got until 7:30 pm tomorrow (kick off on Fox Soccer Channel) to figure it out.

The Real Car of Tomorrow

I have a T-shirt that I got at the American LeMans Series race at Mid-Ohio a couple of years ago that has examples of the four classes of cars in the series on the back, with "The Real Cars of Tomorrow" on the front. It was a dig at NASCAR and it's vintage 1950s "Car of Tomorrow" package. It was true then and it's even more true today:

A racing team competing in the American Le Mans Series endurance-racing program plans to unveil a hybrid car today.

The car, a prototype called the Corsa Zytek Hybrid, is the result of a partnership between the Salt Lake City-based race team Corsa Motorsports and Zytek Group Ltd., a U.K. automotive engineering and electronics company with offices in Novi, Mich. It competes in a series of races in North America and Europe that range in length from just under three hours to 24 hours.
The main sticking point in development right now is, of course, the reliability of the batteries, particularly over the course of an endurance race like the 10-hour Petit Le Mans, where the car will debut in a few weeks. Of course, it's precisely this kind of development of emerging technologies that top level motor racing is supposed to be about.