Thursday, October 30, 2008

Good News for Stevens

While Ted Stevens (R-The Tubes) is facing some bad poll numbers in the wake of his fraud convictions this week, at least he's picked up one vote - his own. Looks like he will be able to vote in this election after all:

Stevens' failure to report gifts is a Class D felony under federal law and constitutes such a crime because it involves willful fraud, said an opinion by Michael Barnhill, a senior assistant attorney general with the state.

But when is a person deemed convicted? Barnhill conceded in his opinion there are two ways to read the law, with a popular interpretation being that the jury's verdict is enough. But most legal precedents lean toward waiting until the judge in the case has entered his formal judgment and sentence, Barnhill said.

No date for sentencing Stevens has been set.
That actually makes perfect sense and I'm peeved with myself for not thinking of it the other day, given my line of work. I can't take anyone's case up on appeal until they've been sentenced. The final judgment and commitment order doesn't get entered until after sentence is imposed, so things technically are flexible until then.

Judicial Elections

I hate electing judges. It's not that I'm unsympathetic to the theory that the voters should have some say over who runs the courts. It's that I'm not certain that it's possible to actually make informed choices about judges. After all, they can't come out and make campaign promises to rule certain ways on certain issues. Most people don't really understand what judges actually do, anyway, and if they did they wouldn't care (imagine a scintillating debate on the scope of the excited utterance exception to the hearsay rule!).

That information void then gets filled with biographical platitudes, irrelevant religious pronouncements, and the occasional really nasty attack ad. One of those latter ones was in my mailbox this evening, urging me to vote against a sitting judge out here in the Valley using imagery out of Forrest Gump. And it's false to boot.

The judge in question is N. Edward Eagleoski, whom his opponent, Phillip Stowers (also a sitting judge) accuses of being "the worst sitting judge in the state" and "the lowest in intelligence and reasoning ability" based on the State Bar's 2008 Judicial Evaluation Poll. But based on the results, that claim doesn't hold up.

The poll has lawyers rate the judges in 6 categories on a scale of 1 to 5 and also reports the average rating across all categories. Indeed, among 29th Circuit judges, Eagleoski fares the worst, averaging 2.0, with a 1.9 in "intelligence/reasoning ability." Stowers picks up 3.0 in both categories (O.C. Spaulding leads the pack in the circuit with 3.6 & 3.7, respectively).

So Eagleoski certainly doesn't shine in his own area, but "worst . . . in the state?" Nope. Robert Carlton from the 30th Circuit gets 1.6 in both categories, while G. Todd Houck in the 27th Circuit weighs in at 1.3 and 1.0. Finally, Eldon Callen from the 17th Circuit scores a pair of 1.7s.

Stowers's claim is objectively false, but how many voters will figure that out? How many will care? Why should that apathy determine who sits in judgment in cases that affect lives for years and years? Maybe Ecuador has got it right - just hold a lottery.

My Irony Meter Just Exploded

I know it's become de riguer for the religious types to try and solve all national crises with prayer - keep trying, it might work eventually! - but this one really takes the cake (via PZ):

Did you know that some Christian dingbat has dubbed today the 'Day of Prayer for the World’s Economies?' Well here they are, at the Wall Street bull statue thing, praying to Jesus for money. The dingbat has explained, 'We are going to intercede at the site of the statue of the bull on Wall Street to ask God to begin a shift from the bull and bear markets to what we feel will be the ‘Lion’s Market,’ or God’s control over the economic systems.'
Emphasis mine. That would be, you know, this golden beauty:

Photo by Christopher Chan.

So the Christians got together and prayed in front of an oversized golden calf (and laid on some hands, too!). Does the Bible have something to say about golden calves? Something not too flattering?

Talk about fail on a Biblical scale!

Please Tell Me He's Funning Us

When fundies go nutty about the ill effects of books like the Harry Potter series, because they indoctrinate kids into magic and witchcraft, the sane among us rightly laugh them off. It's just fiction, after all. Indulging in suspension of disbelief for the sake of entertainment is a long way off from actually believing the stuff is real. So why does Richard Dawkins, of The God Delusion fame sound like he's channeling those loons:

Prof Dawkins will write a book aimed at youngsters where he will discuss whether stories like the successful JK Rowling series have a "pernicious" effect on children.

The 67-year-old, who recently resigned from his position at Oxford University, says he intends to look at the effects of 'bringing children up to believe in spells and wizards'.

I think it is anti-scientific – whether that has a pernicious effect, I don't know,' he told More4 News.

'Looking back to my own childhood, the fact that so many of the stories I read allowed the possibility of frogs turning into princes, whether that has a sort of insidious affect on rationality, I'm not sure. Perhaps it's something for research.'
I'm hoping either he's just having some fun or there's some broader context for this (given the source, it's entirely possible), 'cause otherwise it would really add to that image of "militant" atheism that so many people have.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Music? On MTV?

Yes, kids, back in the days when if you wanted to talk with someone you had to pick up a telephone and "texting" meant proficiency in ASCII programming, the "M" in MTV actually stood for "Music." They played videos and stuff. Since they no longer do that on TV, they've opened up a spot on the web where you can search out your favorite videos.

There are lots of holes (I know I've seen old Marillion vids on MTV/VH1, for instance), but there's a bunch of really cool stuff, too. Like:

Robert Wyatt? Are you kidding me? Of course, I did first hear about Shleep during an MTVNews blurb, so maybe that makes sense.

More Pollin' Blues (or Not)

With less than a week to go before the election, we're inundated by polls. Most of the tracking polls in the news survey a completely irrelevant measure - the national popular vote (just ask Al Gore). Those polls are tightening a bit, with the RCP composite showing a six-point margin for Obama. Should the Dems be concerned? Are things slipping away, again?!?

Not yet, anyway. Where it matters, in the state-by-state battle for electoral college votes, Obama is looking very solid. Consider the AP's recent battleground state poll:

Notice that Obama leads in every single one, including the six one by W in 2004 (all but PA and NH). He doesn't need to maintain that kind of dominance, of course, but it doesn't bode well for McCain. He would need to pick off several of those to have a chance.

Another thing to consider about the popular vote, aside from its essentially meaninglessness, is that it rarely has a spread of more than six or seven points, even when the electoral vote is a blowout. Consider (from here):

  • 1996 - Clinton beat Dole %70.4 to 29.6% electoral, only 49.23% to 40.72% popular
  • 1992 - Clinton beat GHW Bush 68.8% to 31.2% electoral, only 43.01% to 37.45% popular
  • 1988 - GHW Bush beat Dukakis 79.2% to 20.6% electoral, only 53.37% to 45.65 % popular
  • 1980 - Reagan thrashed Carter 90.9% to 9.1% electoral, only 50.75% to 41.01% popular
That's an average electoral spread 54.7%, compared with a popular spread of only %7.88. In other words, with a popular vote lead like Obama shows in the polls now, he could still win a convincing electoral victory. Obviously, the numbers in complete blowout elections (i.e., Reagan v. Mondale in 1984) or squeakers (the last two) track a bit more evenly.

My point? Don't panic. Just vote!

The Critic's Burden

I'm a big fan of Roger Ebert, but I'm afraid he's made a bit of a boner. Have you heard of a new film called Tru Loved? Me neither. I certainly haven't seen it. Neither has Ebert, but that didn't keep him from thrashing it nonetheless:

Earlier this month, Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert ripped into a movie called Tru Loved like he was carving a Halloween jack-o'-lantern, labeling it 'on about the same level as a not especially good high school play. . . . It fails at fundamentals we take for granted when we go to the movies. By lacking them, it illustrates what the minimum requirements are for a competent film.'

Tru Loved, a low-budget, starless film about a gay teenager moving from San Francisco to a conservative suburb, is not exactly an Oscar contender. So there was no real news in a veteran film critic dumping on a cheap-jack indie flick . . . not until the 16th paragraph, anyway, when Ebert disclosed that he'd only watched the first eight minutes of Tru Loved. He confessed to lifting his summary of the plot from the website, and that some of the actors he criticized didn't even appear in the part of the movie he saw. No matter, he wrote: 'The handwriting was on the wall. The returns were in. The case was closed. You know I'm right.'
Ebert defended his decision in a couple of blog posts. The link above is from a Miami Herald roundtable where the paper's various critics took issue (in varying degrees) with Ebert's decision, either to write the review in the first place or back load the info that he only saw eight minutes of it.

Although I sympathize with the idea that life is too short to suffer bad movies (or books or albums or . . .), isn't that part of the job description of a critic? Shouldn't they take one for the team so we don't have to?

One of the reasons I stopped writing album reviews on a regular basis is I didn't want to feel compelled to listen to CDs over and over again that weren't interesting me. I didn't think it was fair to my reader(s?) to pass judgment on stuff I wasn't listening to. Seems to me that if you're getting paid for the opinion, it ought to be fully informed.

Joe the Ancestor

If you're a history buff, like me, and are looking for a different angle on politics, Errol Morris has a neat post tracking the history of "everyman" political ads. He should know - he's done a few. Not surprisingly, they've been a staple since TV ads started up in the 1950s. Maybe "Joe" the "Plumber" can check it out while he's out not being exploited by the GOP.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

A Biggie Goes Down

When I was in college I had a couple of classes that included a major newspaper as part of the required reading. That was my first exposure (in those heady pre-Internet days) to the New York Times and The Christian Science Monitor, which I always thought was just a religious tract. How wrong I was - it's coverage, particularly of international issues, is rightfully praised. So it's a little disappointing to hear that the Monitor will no longer exist as an actual newspaper:

After a century of continuous publication, The Christian Science Monitor will abandon its weekday print edition and appear online only, its publisher announced Tuesday. The cost-cutting measure makes The Monitor the first national newspaper to largely give up on print.

* * *

The Monitor is an anomaly in journalism, a nonprofit financed by a church and delivered through the mail. But with seven Pulitzer Prizes and a reputation for thoughtful writing and strong international coverage, it long maintained an outsize influence in the publishing world, which declined as its circulation has slipped to 52,000, from a high of more than 220,000 in 1970.
I guess that's progress. The least I can do is add 'em to my list 'o links.

Prosecution to Somewhere, After All

As if things weren't going poorly enough for the GOP, yesterday the jury in the Ted Stevens (R-The Tubes) corruption trial came back with a verdict - guilty on all counts. I've noted before the prosecutorial misconduct that plagued Stevens's trial and will, I'm sure, form the core of his appellate issues. What I hadn't realized until yesterday was that Stevens was on tape talking to the guy who did the questionable work at his home and basically admitted to the wrongdoing. I can't find it online, but in ABCNews's coverage last night, they included a snippet in which Stevens said (I'm paraphrasing) that it wouldn't be a big deal if they got caught and wouldn't got to jail. Whoops!

With a week to the election, Stevens is still on the ballot in Alaska and would look headed for certain defeat. He was in a tight fight to begin with, so the conviction certainly doesn't help. Both Sarah Palin and John McCain have called on him to resign. It's not altogether clear what would happen if he does that:

Stevens is not scheduled to be sentenced until after a status hearing in late February, several weeks after he would have been sworn into a new term. Were he then to resign or be forced out by his fellow senators, state law mandates a special election to replace him within 60 to 90 days.

But the law is unclear on how, exactly, that would happen. In 2004, the Legislature changed the law to say the governor must appoint a temporary senator pending the special election. But in a ballot initiative the same year, voters said the governor should not have that much power and voted to get by with no temporary replacement.

The state has yet to resolve the conflict.
That assumes, of course, that Stevens hangs on through next week and wins the election. If he loses, it's a moot question. If he would resign before next Tuesday, could the Alaska GOP get a replacement on the ballot? Should it matter that Stevens sought a speedy trial as a political strategy to clear his name before election day?

And putting that aside for the moment, has Stevens lost at least one vote - his own? He is a convicted felon now, after all. And what if he's already voted absentee? The mind boggles.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Ethics in Politics?

We all have seen where candidates, either in advertisements or debates, shade the truth, bend the facts to their position, or just flat out bullshit. Should ordinary citizens resort to similar shenanigans to get the right vote? It's an interesting question, raised over at Concurring Opinions in the context of California's upcoming gay marriage initiative:

In short, a 'yes' vote on Proposition 8 ends gay marriage in California; a 'no' vote protects the right to gay marriage.

Imagine that you are participating in a phone bank placing calls to encourage Californians to vote against Proposition 8 (in other words, you favor gay marriage). You place a call, and the voter on the other end tells you that she is opposed to same sex marriage and that's why she's voting no on Proposition 8. Your response? Do you say 'Thanks for your time -- make sure you get to the polls!' or do you correct her error, and explain that a no vote on Proposition 8 is actually a vote in favor of gay marriage?
I think it's a fascinating dilemma.

On the one hand, the voter's misconception of the issue isn't your fault and they're going to vote "your way," for whatever reason. Surely you wouldn't turn that down? McCain may not be pleased with people who won't vote for Obama because he's black/Muslim/from Mars, but surely he won't ask those folks to stay home (or vote for Bob Barr). Your job is just to get out the vote, however misintended.

On the other hand, isn't this the sort of voter ignorance we'd like to think we should care about? If someone seems passionate enough to vote, don't you bear some responsibility that they actually know what they're voting about? And if we, as citizens, aren't willing to correct a false belief just to secure a vote, how can we blame the pols for creating false beliefs in the first place?

The first position is most pragmatic and cynical. The second is more naive and hopeful. Am I wrong to wish for one and think I'd do the other?

Palin Goes Rogue?

A couple of weeks ago I admitted making a wrong call on McCain's selection of a running mate, mainly because she's proven to be political dead weight outside of the hard core GOP base. Now it looks like it's even worse than that, as today's New York Times explains:

Mr. McCain may still win the election. Still, anticipating that he will fall short, the pre-postmortems have already begun, both inside and outside his campaign headquarters. And without question, the biggest one is whether he would have been in a better position today had he not chosen Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska as his running-mate.

The answer, in the view of many Republicans and Democrats, is almost certainly yes.
Former Pennsylvania governor Tom Ridge all but said that if he had been McCain's running mate the GOP candidate would be ahead in that crucial battleground state.

Anecdotally, on my way to band practice last night I saw a "McCain / Romney" bumper sticker on the highway. Underneath it said "the right choice." I don't know if that was from a batch printed up before Palin was picked, or if it's cropped up since McCain's campaign has started to crater. So it's either stinging commentary or very prescient - you choose.

Local Weirdness

I don't know why, but these two stories from today's paper just struck me as weird.

First, they've renamed - or, rather, renumbered - one of the main drags in my neck of the woods. It's one of those situations where the original road, US Route 35, was a winding two-lane road that runs from here into Ohio. It really needs to be a 4-lane, so they're in the process of building a new Route 35 to handle the excess traffic. Of course, they can't have two Route 35s, but why rename the old one (State Route 817, if you're keeping score at home) and give the old name to the new road? Why note give the new road a new name? Regardless, at least we're not saddled with "alternate" or "scenic" Route 35 now.

Second, a local priest, who apparently really goes for the whole vow of poverty thing, is suing the state of West Virginia for paying too much for public projects:

All projects funded with public dollars in West Virginia pay the prevailing wage, which is set on a county-by-county basis. It's determined by surveys and inquiries conducted by the Division of Labor.

Acker contends the surveys rely heavily on unionized labor, setting an artificially high wage.
Come again? Isn't the main job of the union to get better wages for its members? How is that a bad thing, on balance? It's hardly "artificial," either, except from a hard-core libertarian perspective.

Like I said, just weird all around.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Stay Classy, Republicans (Redux)

Racist propaganda is one form of desperation, but faking an attack by a scary Obama supporter takes it to a whole different level:

A campaign worker who claimed she was the victim of a politically-motivated attack in which she was beaten, kicked and cut, now admits that she made the whole story up.

According to Pittsburgh police spokeswoman Diane Richard, Ashley Todd, 20, told investigators today that she 'was not robbed and there was no 6'4" black male attacker.'

Todd initially told police that she was robbed at an ATM in Bloomfield Wednesday night and that the suspect began beating her after seeing a John McCain bumper sticker on her car.

Todd claimed that the mugger even cut a backwards letter 'B' in her check.
Of course, the whole "scary black guy" theme is still there, too.

Back when the incident was fresh and being pushed as an example of how wild the Obama supporters are, the Executive VP of none other than Fox News wrote:
If the incident turns out to be a hoax, Senator McCain’s quest for the presidency is over, forever linked to race-baiting.
From his blog to voters' ears.

On Term Limits

There's an interesting political story brewing in New York City in which I have absolutely no stake, but I'm fascinated by it nonetheless. Mayor Michael Bloomberg is nearing the end of his second term. Like the US Constitution, the governing law of NYC limits the chief executive to two terms in office. Not satisfied, Bloomberg is seeking to have the limit revoked and plans to seek a third term. And it appears to be working - City Council approved the move, 29-22, yesterday. Already, two lawsuits have been filed challenging the vote, which also killed similar term limit provisions for most city offices (including City Council).

To me, this seems like a whole big plate full of wrong. Honestly, I've never liked the idea of term limits. If a particular constituency wants to send the same person back to represent them year after year, who is anyone else to stop them? After all, the reason that folks like Bob Byrd, Ted Stevens, and John McCain keep going back to DC is that the folks in West Virginia, Alaska, and Arizona like how they represent those states' interests. Who cares if Ohioans or Texans find them annoying?

Having said that, if they're already in place it's not wise to meddle with them, particularly not for the benefit of one particular politician. It's the same as when there was some talk of removing the native-born citizen requirement for President from the Constitution when Arnold Schwarzenegger's political star was first rising - maybe there are good reasons for chucking that requirement, but it should give pause that some particular person wants it done. Remember when, in the wake of 9/11, Rudy floated the idea of extending his term? Same thing.

Maybe Bloomberg is the best mayor NYC could have. Or maybe he's just another power hungry politician out to enrich his own ego. Regardless - the voters of NYC can always send him packing on their own.

JDB, iLawyer?

It's one thing to specialize in computer law, but are we on the verge of needing virtual attorneys? This week, the Volokh Conspiracy noted two interesting cases of real world legal consequences coming out of virtual worlds.

The first comes from the Netherlands, where two yutes (or however you pronounce "youths" in Dutch) were convicted of extortion for actions in an online game:

The Leeuwarden District Court says the culprits, 15 and 14 years old, coerced a 13-year-old boy into transferring a 'virtual amulet and a virtual mask' from the online adventure game RuneScape to their game accounts.

'These virtual goods are goods (under Dutch law), so this is theft,' the court said Tuesday in a summary of its ruling....
Now the coercion, which included physical violence, took place in the real world, so legal consequences make sense. But what if everything happened in the context of the game?

The second is from Japan, involved a sort of virtual homicide:
A 43-year-old Japanese piano teacher's sudden divorce from her online husband in a virtual game world made her so angry that she logged on and killed his digital persona, police said Thursday.

The woman, who has been jailed on suspicion of illegally accessing a computer and manipulating electronic data, used his identification and password to log onto popular interactive game 'Maple Story' to carry out the virtual murder in mid-May, a police official in northern Sapporo City said ....
Apparently, the woman got a hold of her "husband's" login info while they were married and she used that info to login and "kill" his avatar. Like the Dutch case, the actual criminal activity - unauthorized access of a computer account - took place in the real world.

Most online worlds, from what I've read, have rules and regulations, but not much of a way to enforce them. Is it only a matter of time before "attorney" characters join the mages, orcs, and what have you in World of Warcraft?

Do We Need a Butlerian Jihad?

Lots of other folks have been all over the problems we've had around here with voting machines changing people's votes. I don't have much to add, except this depressing observation from Concurring Opinions:

Such 'vote switching' is a well-known problem and has occurred in prior elections. Indeed, a July 2007 investigative report revealed that 30 to 40 percent of ES&S's e-voting machines under review changed voters' selections. And Colorado's Secretary of State decertified e-voting systems manufactured by ES&S because tests demonstrated that the machines could not accurately count votes.
ES&S made the machines at issue in WV. *sigh*

As I said over at Rebecca's place the other day, the sad fact is that the real lesson of 2000 is that the infrastructure of our democracy is not really capable of handling a close election. Hopefully, Obama's margin will be big enough next month that it won't be an issue.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Pollin' Blues

OK, I know that polling is not an exact science, but could someone explain to me what's going on? It seems that every poll of West Virginians in the presidential race comes out radically different. Not within a few points of each other, mind you, but like the scatter of a shotgun blast!

For the longest time, WV was firmly in McCain's camp. It wasn't even a battleground state, like the mother commonwealth, and wasn't getting a lot of attention.

Then came this poll from American Research Group that showed Obama with an 8-point lead, 50-42, back on October 8. I don't think any rational Dems really thought things were that rosy, but it still made for an interesting data point.

Now we have two more recent polls, as reported over at Lincoln Walks at Midnight, that don't even agree with each other. One puts McCain back in front by 6 points, while the other literally has it tied: 41.67% for McCain, 41.33% for Obama.

To top things off, yesterday Time had a report noting that Obama is widening the gap on McCain in several traditionally "red" states. Nonetheless:

Still, Obama's ability to make inroads in red states does appear to have some limits; he lost ground in West Virginia — a state his campaign has said they are just starting to contest — and now trails there by 41% to McCain's 53%, which more than doubles McCain's September lead of 49% to Obama's 44%.
How's that for convoluted? The irony being, of course, that before Duhbya, WV was a reliably "blue" state - we voted for Carter and Dukakis, after all!

Two things, at least, are certain.

First, the Obama/Biden campaign, at least, sees WV as being in play. Biden will be in Charleston tomorrow morning for a rally in the heart of downtown. Literally, he'll be speaking in the middle of an intersection in the business district. A nice visual, but it's surely gonna piss off a lot of people who need to get somewhere tomorrow morning. Hopefully they won't be undecideds!

Second, nobody on either side of this election should think that it's over almost two weeks out from election day. Get out. Vote. Make your voice heard.

Too Hard on Kiddie Porn?

I know, for most people the obvious answer to that question is "of course not," but bear with me. Today's Wall Street Journal has an interesting article on the recent increase in the length of federal kiddie porn sentences. The average sentence length for possession type offenses has increased from three years in 1994 to seven years in 2006. That's due largely to increased mandatory minimums enacted by Congress and the Sentencing Commission jacking up the accompanying Guidelines to keep pace.

Judges have taken notice and have started to question them:

The sentencing guidelines for child pornography crimes "do not appear to be based on any sort of [science] and the Court has been unable to locate any particular rationale for them beyond the general revulsion that is associated with child exploitation-related offenses," wrote Robert W. Pratt, a U.S. district judge in Des Moines, Iowa, in a case earlier this year. In that case, he gave a seven-year sentence to one defendant, even though the advisory guidelines called for a minimum of roughly 18 years.
The issue really is whether people who only possess or, at most, traffic in kiddie porn made by someone else are dangerous predators who will eventually assault a real child:
Fred Berlin, founder of the Johns Hopkins Sexual Disorders Clinic, says many of his patients have a "voyeuristic" interest in child pornography. "Absent any evidence that they have done something other than view child porn, I'm not prepared to conclude they are at a heightened risk of physically abusing a child," he says.

But Ernie Allen, who heads the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, argues the sentences are simply "catching up to reality." Hundreds of thousands of Americans currently possess illegal images and may be tempted to generate child pornography themselves -- by molesting children and taping the acts -- to gain acceptance in Internet groups whose members share images, he says.
We've seen this play before, with crack sentencing: Congress got caught up in a panic about crack cocaine and enacted draconian mandatory minimums (duly adopted by the Sentencing Commission). Almost all the assumptions made to support those penalties have been proven false, but it's difficult to get Congress to step back once it's overreached on an issue like that.

Before we go locking up another segment of society that, keep in mind, hasn't directly harmed someone (producers are a whole other story, obviously), we should make sure we know what we're doing.

Is It Contageous?

I always admire clever lawyering and tax evaders always seem to be good for some new legal twist. How about a top aide to the governor of New York, who claims his failure to pay income taxes for five years was due to him having "late filing syndrome." No kidding:

The lawyer, Richard S. Kestenbaum, said that he believed that the aide, Charles J. O’Byrne, despite an annual income of about $100,000 and an Ivy League education, could not bring himself to undertake the task of filling out his tax forms every year. Mr. O’Byrne and his doctor have described him as clinically depressed during that period.

“Most times, with professionals, these are very high-functioning people who otherwise complete all the other ordinary tasks of their life,” Mr. Kestenbaum said during a news conference in Manhattan.
The AMA doesn't recognized such a diagnosis, not surprisingly. There might be something to the depression contributing to his non-filing, but I'd want to see a lot more evidence of other "ordinary tasks" he skipped on a regular basis.

But hey, who knows what a court might do with this syndrome? If you'll excuse me, I think I'm coming down with something . . .

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

On Death

No no, I’m not going all morbid on you. It’s just that there have been a few things floating around that have made me think a bit about death, dying, and faith (or, in my case, the lack thereof).

The other day, there was an interesting article at Scientific American’s website (via PZ) about the extent to which people believe that a person continues to experience things after death. The upshot of the research the article references is that even people who are “extinctivists,” who believe that once you’re dead anything that was really “you,” namely your mind, just ceases to be.

Why is that? One theory is that our brains are incapable of conceptualizing the experience of nothingness. Life is always something, even if it’s mundane, painful, or just nonspecifically awful, after all. In order to fill gaps the mind grasps at straws for an explanation. The idea of some sort of life beyond death, even if only spiritual/mental, thus has a great deal of appeal.

That brings in the question of religion and what role cultural mores play in shaping an irrational belief in some kind of existence after death. A fairly big one:

On the one hand, then, from a very early age, children realize that dead bodies are not coming back to life. On the other hand, also from a very early age, kids endow the dead with ongoing psychological functions. So where do culture and religious teaching come into the mix, if at all?

In fact, exposure to the concept of an afterlife plays a crucial role in enriching and elaborating this natural cognitive stance; it’s sort of like an architectural scaffolding process, whereby culture develops and decorates the innate psychological building blocks of religious belief. The end product can be as ornate or austere as you like, from the headache-inducing reincarnation beliefs of Theravada Buddhists to the man on the street’s ‘I believe there’s something’ brand of philosophy—but it’s made of the same brick and mortar just the same.
Which, of course, doesn’t mean it’s true, even if we want it to be. In my opinion, it is the maddening uncertainty of what happens after death that drives most people to seek religious guidance, whether it be in the form of heaven/hell or reincarnation. The not knowing is too much to live (or die) with.

With that uncertainty, is it natural to fear death? Or just the opposite – if death really is nothing, and we have no means of perceiving what “nothing” is, what is there to fear? That’s the question that Julian Barnes wrestles with in his new book, Nothing to be Frightened Of, which was reviewed in the New York Times a couple of weeks ago (by Garrison Keillor, of all people). It’s not quite clear from the review if Barnes came to a satisfactory answer, although the title gives a hint. But if the review is accurate, the fears he deals with seem not so much of death itself as dying.

Not only does it seem perfectly natural to fear dying, in modern Western society it’s positively rational. We have long since, in this country and elsewhere, given up the idea of what some call a “good death.” Medical procedures and pharmaceutical advancements keep us alive long past our ability to actually live, in far too many instances. Yet the “culture of life” is so ingrained into our law and custom that it’s unthinkable in most places to even consider providing an out for people who seek a good death.

There are areas of contrast – Oregon and The Netherlands, for example, when it comes to assisted suicide. The Supreme Court has held that Americans have a right to refuse certain end of life treatments, but few know the real extent of that right. To that end, the California legislature recently passed (and Schwarzenegger plans to sign) a bill requiring doctors to inform patients of those rights so they can make an informed choice. Of course, I see clients every day informed of their right to remain silent who nonetheless puke all over themselves, so who knows how effective that will be?

In addition to fear of the dying process, it also seems perfectly rational to fear being dead – not for fear of what experience death will bring (eternal hellfire or what have you), but for fear of an end to the experiences of living. Maybe it’s my privileged place in the world, but I generally find existence to be a pretty good thing. The thought that one day I might not be able to experience one of those weird family moments where an intense political argument is punctured by a joke that fills the house with laughter, or hear a glorious piece of music for the first (or one thousandth) time, or feel the zing up my spine when the girlfriend unexpectedly slips her hand inside mine scares the shit out of me. Of course, I’m somewhat comforted by the fact that I’ll never know I’m missing those things because, well, I’ll be dead.

So, as an atheist, materialist, and humanist who believes that this world and this life is all that we have, I can honestly say I’m not afraid of death. I’m just not looking forward to getting there any time soon.

With that being said, I’m off to find out what the ancient Japanese version of hell is like!

Pro Bono Redux

Following up on yesterday's post about pro bono work, former Duke law prof and current dean at UC-Irvine Erwin Chemerinski takes the judge to task, too:

Jacobs' comments reflect his ignorance of the tremendous good that lawyers do every day by helping those who cannot afford legal services. There are countless examples of this. Many of the nation's largest law firms are representing detainees in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, doing their best to ensure that the rule of law is upheld. Volunteer lawyers and law students have spent innumerable hours helping victims of Hurricane Katrina receive compensation for their losses. Across the country, there are many lawyers volunteering their time to represent those on death row who have no right to an attorney in their federal court proceedings.
Read the whole thing, as he makes a lot of good points.

McCain's Done

He's got no chance with the theremin players are supporting Obama. All dozen of them or so - should put him over the top!

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Look Up "Bigot" in the Dictionary . . .

. . . and you'll see this woman's picture:

Let's hope she gets lost on her way to vote (a distinct possibility, given the intellect on display).

I Thought "Pro Bono" Was a Good Thing?

But apparently I was wrong. Or so says one of the judges of the Second Circuit (via TalkLeft):

Pro bono work primarily is an 'antisocial' and self-serving activity lawyers use to develop their skills, firms use to recruit and "give solace" to associates, and nonprofits use to further a political agenda, Judge Jacobs argued.

In particular, litigation against the government and government officials and impact litigation are attempts to improperly expand the courts' reach in legislative matters, the judge said.
Look, I'll admit that there are some pro bono crusaders who go too far and abuse the system, but can anyone honestly say the same doesn't happen when the attorneys are getting paid? Certainly nobody's ever heard of big civil defense firms who abuse the system for hundreds of dollars per hour, huh? It's apparent that the judge's problems aren't with the lawyers, but with their clients. How dare "those damn people" actually get access to the courts!

Oh, and this particularly amuses me:
'Unlike government lawyers, [pro bono attorneys] don't have to take responsibility for their wins and losses,' Jacobs said.
Yeah, sure. I see courts forcing government lawyers to take responsibility all the time.

Roe for the Right

For 35 years, right-wing politicos and commentators have used Roe v. Wade as the leading example of "judicial activism" - a ruling based not on the law of the Constitution but on the policy preferences of the majority justices. Whether that's an accurate assessment or not I'll leave for another day (I don't think it is), but it's interesting to note that the right wingers may have their own Roe on their hands.

Last year, the Supreme Court handed down the Heller decision, in which, by a 5-4 vote, the Court overturned the District of Columbia's strict firearm regulations, construing the Second Amendment as providing an individual right to bear arms in the process. As expected with any close decision breaking that kind of ground, reactions were mixed. What's been surprising is that a couple of conservative heavy hitters have been outspoken in their criticism of the Court's opinion in Heller:

The judges used what in conservative legal circles are the ultimate fighting words: They said the gun ruling was a right-wing version of Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that identified a constitutional right to abortion. Justice Scalia has said that Roe had no basis in the Constitution and amounted to a judicial imposition of a value judgment that should have been left to state legislatures.

Comparisons of the two decisions, then, seemed calculated to sting.

'The Roe and Heller courts are guilty of the same sins,' one of the two appeals court judges, J. Harvie Wilkinson III, wrote in an article to be published in the spring in The Virginia Law Review.

Similarly, Judge Richard A. Posner, in an article in The New Republic in August, wrote that Heller’s failure to allow the political process to work out varying approaches to gun control that were suited to local conditions 'was the mistake that the Supreme Court made when it nationalized abortion rights in Roe v. Wade.'
You can read Judge Posner's New Republic piece here, and download the article from Judge Wilkinson (with whom I've sparred in the past in Richmond) here. I think they both make valid points on the Court's historical analysis and I applaud Posner for, essentially, admitting that every judicial decision at the Supreme Court level involves some policy determinations.

But what makes the whole issue even more odd is that the Court's position, while authored by Justice Scalia and generally supported by the conservatives, reflects the drift in recent years of liberal scholars on the issue:
For much of the 20th century, the conventional view of the amendment had been that it only protects a collective right. (Warren E. Burger, after retiring as chief justice in 1986, called the individual rights view 'one of the greatest pieces of fraud — I repeat the word ‘fraud’ — on the American public by special interest groups that I have ever seen.')

But some prominent liberal law professors, including Laurence H. Tribe of Harvard, Akhil Reed Amar of Yale and Sanford Levinson of the University of Texas, have concluded, sometimes reluctantly, that the amendment in fact protects an individual right. Professor Levinson’s seminal 1989 article in The Yale Law Journal captured the tone of the enterprise. It was called 'The Embarrassing Second Amendment.'
It may be that the Second Amendment is an anachronism in a 21st Century nation populated by easily obtainable exceptionally lethal firearms. Nonetheless, it says what it says. Of course, therein lies the rub - what exactly does it say?

Monday, October 20, 2008

Well Said, General

Over the weekend, former Secretary of State and Join Chiefs Chairman Colin Powell endorsed Barack Obama for president on Meet the Press. That wasn't exactly a huge surprise, but it was nice nonetheless. More important was his dressing down of John McCain for trying to do the right thing with a confused supporter and still managing to bungle it.

Remember a couple of weeks ago when a woman at a McCain rally confessed that she couldn't trust Obama because he was an Arab?

McCain passed his wireless microphone to one woman who said, 'I can't trust Obama. I have read about him and he's not, he's not uh — he's an Arab. He's not — ' before McCain retook the microphone and replied:

'No, ma'am. He's a decent family man [and] citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues and that's what this campaign's all about. He's not [an Arab].'
At the time I didn't see anybody really pick up on this, but Powell did on Sunday:
I'm also troubled by, not what Sen. McCain says, but what members of the party say, and it is permitted to be said such things as: 'Well, you know that Mr. Obama is a Muslim.' Well, the correct answer is: he is not a Muslim. He's a Christian. He's always been a Christian.

But the really right answer is: What if he is? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer is: No, that's not America. Is there something wrong with some 7-year-old Muslim-American kid believing he or she can be President?

Yet I have heard senior members of my own party drop the suggestion: he's a Muslim, and he might be associated with terrorists. This is not the way we should be doing it in America.
As noted political thinker Ben Afleck put it on Bill Maher's show last Friday, if the woman had said she couldn't trust someone because he was a Jew, the answer of "no, he's not a Jew, he's a good family man" would bring a lot of heat on McCain. I'm not sure if the general pass he got on this one it due more to the fact that at least he actually did try and tame the rabid portion of his base or nobody thinks there was a problem in the first place.

Indeed, the whole "Obama's a Muslim" meme is well and truly enmeshed in the debate. At our monthly autocross yesterday, we had a couple newbies join us, with cars covered in McCain/anti-Obama stickers. I ended up in the grid line behind one guy's car with a "Nobama" sticker, modeled on this Obama bumper sticker.

I've seen the "Nobama" idea before - thought it was a clever twist on the guy's name. What it took me a while to notice yesterday, while I waited to attack the course, was that the stylized "O" image on the left of the sticker had been morphed into a blue crescent and star. Of course, the crescent and star is a well recognized symbol of Islam. So, even a clever little word joke gets bogged down in the "Obama is a Muslim" bullshit.

The good news, it appears, is that the whole scare mongering thing isn't working this time. Or voters are just, rightfully, scared of what four more years of the same old stuff will bring us.

Friday, October 17, 2008

I Am the Champions

Previously I'd mentioned that, in addition to autocrossing with the Southern WV branch of the SCCA, I ran a good hunk of the Steel Cities region events in the Pittsburgh area, as well. Last time I posted, I was chronically finishing second, notching the runner up position in my three events up there.

The three other events I ran up there went considerably better - another close second, followed by two wins! As a result, I finished top of the "Tire (PAX)" class for the season and 31st (of 237!) overall for the year.

If I may toot my own horn - woot! This marks Legal Eagle Racing's fourth championship (2003 G/Stock, 2006 H/Stock and PAX in the SWVR) in the decade I've been doing this. I'm particularly proud of this one, given the level of competition in SCR and the fact that I didn't run enough events to have a mulligan if I needed it (SCR counts the best six results for championship calculations).

And congrats to jedi jawa's mechanic, who eked out the championship in Street Modified, 596.95 to 596.87!

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Stay Classy, Republicans

Wow, think the GOPers don't think the writing is on the wall? At least in California, they're going completely nuts.

First, comes a lovely website from the Sacramento County GOP:

Sacramento County Republican leaders Tuesday took down offensive material on their official party Web site that sought to link Sen. Barack Obama to Osama bin Laden and encouraged people to 'Waterboard Barack Obama' – material that offended even state GOP leaders.
You can see the material here.

Then, from San Bernadino County (via TalkLeft):
A San Bernardino County Republican group has distributed a newsletter picturing Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama on a $10 bill adorned with a watermelon, ribs and a bucket of fried chicken.
To be fair, the state GOP and Governor Schwarzenegger have condemned these things. Still, it's worth noting that these aren't some lone yahoos shouting "kill him" or "traitor" at a McCain/Palin rally. These are official communications from the GOP party structure. It smacks of desperation.

I love the smell of desperation in the morning. Smells like . . . victory!

When Anecdotes Attack

I missed most of last night's debate (was watching our young turks get beat 2-1 by T&T's AARP-sponsored squad), so I missed the saga of "Joe The Plumber." As I understand it, "Joe" had a conversation with Barack Obama about Obama's tax plan during a campaign stop in Ohio a few days ago. "Joe" claimed that he was about to buy a business that was making more than $250,000 a year, the cutoff below which Obama has pledged to cut taxes and above which to raise them. He got brought up repeatedly during the debate last night.

It's a tasty anecdote for the GOPer faithful - regular guy undecided voter takes it to Obama on his tax plan. Except, as it turns out, the whole story was just too good to be true:

An official at Local 50 of the plumber’s union, based in Toledo, said Mr. Wurzelbacher does not hold a license. He also has never served an apprenticeship and does not belong to the union. (The national plumber’s union, the United Association of Plumbers, Steamfitters, and Service Mechanics, endorsed Mr. Obama, it should be noted.)
But wait, there's more:
Wurzelbacher's new notoriety has brought to light the fact that he owes nearly $1,200 in unpaid taxes.

'There is a judgment lien against him for nonpayment of income tax,' Barb Losie, deputy clerk of the Lucas County Court of Common Pleas, told 'The state files hundreds of liens a day. It means he owes that money.'
Ah, but that's not even the best part (back to the Times blog):
And his question to Mr. Obama about paying taxes? According to some tax analysts, if Mr. Wurzelbacher’s gross receipts from his business is $250,000 — and not his taxable income — then he would not have to pay higher taxes under Mr. Obama’s plan, and probably would be eligible for a tax cut.

To recap, "Joe" isn't actually a plumber, actually owes back taxes, and would likely benefit from Obama's tax plan. Reminds me of one of those "When Keeping It Real Goes Wrong" bits from Dave Chapelle's show.

God Is Judgment Proof

Last year, I blogged about a Nebraska state senator who sued God, apparently for damages done to the state during tornado season. Nor surprisingly, his case has been thrown out:

A US judge has thrown out a case against God, ruling that because the defendant has no address, legal papers cannot be served.

The suit was launched by Nebraska state senator Ernie Chambers, who said he might appeal against the ruling.

He sought a permanent injunction to prevent the 'death, destruction and terrorisation' caused by God.
I admire Chambers's pluck, but I could have told him it's impossible to sue somebody who doesn't exist.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

A New Hope

Folks, I want to talk about the future. Because tonight, we are going to get a glimpse of what's coming. A preview of what the next generation of American leadership will look like. A glance at those who will lead this nation to a renewed level of international success.

I'm not talking about McCain. I'm not talking about Obama.

I'm talking about Freddy. And Jozy. And Marvell. And Charlie. And Jose. They're the core of the next generation of the US National Team and tonight could be their coming out party. With our advancement to the next stage of World Cup qualifying secured by last Saturday's 6-1 mauling of Cuba, Bob Bradley can get the young guys some experience in a hostile environment. Trinidad & Tobago still have everything to play for, fighting for a spot in the Hex, so this isn't a meaningless friendly.

Kick off is at 8pm tonight from Port of Spain. It's bound to be more inspiring than the last presidential debate!

Gathering ACORNs

There's been a lot of noise from the GOPers lately about the activities of ACORN - the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now. ACORN is registering voters across the country in advance of the election next month. There have been allegations of voter fraud, inferring that ACORN is doing anything it can, legal or not, to ensure an Obama victory.

As usual, this appears to be a whole lot of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Ed over at Dispatches from the Culture Wars has a good summary of the allegations and what's actually going on. It's too much to excerpt here, so go read the whole thing. And keep in mind that Ed is not an Obama supporter - he's voting for Bob Barr - so he can't be waived away with an "of course he thinks that" dismissal.

Nice Work, If You Can Get It

Kanawha County Circuit Judge Charlie King has the kind of seat that's safe in virtually any election. He's running unopposed for a fresh term next month and I can't, for the life of me, find any primary results from May, where he was also probably unopposed. No opponent on the horizon, no hideous mistakes in the news - what could be better?

Apparently, Judge King is having second thoughts, but he's not quite sure. You see, he's retired. Sort of:

Longtime Kanawha Circuit Judge Charles King resigned on Tuesday, less than a month before the general election, saying he wants to take a few months to decide whether or not to return to the bench in January.

King said he resigned so that he can start to draw his state pension. If he is re-elected, he could legally collect both his state pension and his salary as a judge if he decides to return to the bench.
What a coup! Retire, start drawing your pension, and then, if you want, step back into your $116,000 a year job unopposed in January (yes, in WV, you can do both at once)! Why, it's positively Machiavellian (or Rovian) in its audacity.

What brought this on?
'I love my job,' he said. 'I just wanted the time off to decide whether I want to go back on the bench full time or look for new challenges.'
One would think that kind of reflection should have been done before one decides to run for office again, huh? Don't the voters of Kanawha County deserve some say in who is on the bench there for the next eight years? Granted, it doesn't look like any of the other judge have competition either, but still, surely someone would have showed up to fight over an empty seat.

I don't actually have a dog in this hunt - I don't live in Kanawha County and thus don't vote there (don't practice in the state courts, either, for what it's worth). But I'll just point out that there is a "write in" option on the ballot.

Missed That Call

Last month, when John McCain loosed Sarah Palin on the world, I opined that I thought it was actually a pretty savvy choice on his part. Of course I didn't like her - but I was hardly the target audience. Several weeks later, it looks like I got it wrong:

The top reasons cited by those who said they thought less of Mr. McCain were his recent attacks and his choice of Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska as his running mate.
So Palin has gone from a little boomlet to a complete drag on the ticket. I stand happily corrected!

Sometimes . . .

. . . you're just overwhelmed by cheese:

More On Drug Courts

Apropos of yesterday's post, here is some more coverage of the drug court system, this time from the New York Times:

Since the first drug court began work, in Miami in 1989, the idea has spread to more than 2,100 courtrooms in every state, though they still take in only a small fraction of addicted criminals. Offenders, usually caught in low-level dealing or stealing to support their addictions, volunteer for 9 to 18 months or more of intrusive supervision by a judge, including random urine testing, group therapy and mandatory sobriety meetings. The intent is a personal transformation that many participants say is tougher than prison — and with the threat of prison if they drop out or are kicked out.

'I’ve waited 22 months for this day, and I never thought I’d make it,' Scott Elkins, a 26-year-old hip-hop singer, told the Seattle audience in September. A cocaine user and dealer who had been clean for two years, Mr. Elkins had his felony charges dropped and has a job, his own music production company and marriage plans.
Make no mistake - the world's a better place because Elkins and others like him kicked their habits and became contributing members of society. With victimless crimes, if they must be crimes at all, that should be the goal.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The Mote in God's Eye

This weekend, the girlfriend and I got a chance to take in Religulous, Bill Maher's new movie. Bill hits the road to question religious folks - Christian, Muslim, and Jew - about the nuttier parts of their faiths. In the interviews, he is mostly open, honest, and not all that snarky (a considerable achievement for a man whom I envy for his world-class cynicism). Nonetheless, as the girlfriend pointed out after the film, all you have to do is ask some questions and people start to come unglued.

That observation got me thinking about the "veil of ignorance." Developed by philosopher John Rawls, the veil of ignorance, is the idea that when setting up a society, determining rights, and such, it's best that the folks making the decisions are ignorant about their own personal characteristics. The theory is that you're more likely to be concerned about protecting the rights of all citizens if you don't know whether you're part of the powerful elite or a despised minority.

I'd like to see a similar arrangement when discussing religious tenets. Lots of religious people have no problem seeing the beliefs of others as being weird, loony, or otherwise nonsensical. But confront them with something equally odd about their faith and they get upset. Why? Obviously, because most people don't like having their fundamental personal beliefs challenged. But why should they? If you believed that the world was run by a little pink unicorn, wouldn't you want someone to set you straight? I know, I know - the truth shall set you free, but not necessarily make you happy.

All that aside, who exactly is Maher's target audience? Probably not the faithful, although I think an open minded religious person would enjoy large chunks of it. More likely its the 16% of Americans who, in a recent study, failed to attach themselves to any religious belief. It includes agnostics and atheists, but also folks who just don't have much use for belief in their daily lives. As Bill points out, it's a minority group larger than many others with political pull.

We should get off our asses and make our voices heard. Why? Because in the 21st Century, things like this like this happen in the campaign of one of the major party presidential candidates (via DftCW):

At a McCain rally today in Davenport, a pastor delivered an odd invocation.

'There are millions of people around this world praying to their god -- whether it's Hindu, Buddha, Allah -- that his [McCain's] opponent wins, for a variety of reasons,' said Arnold Conrad, former pastor of Grave Evangelical Free Church. 'And Lord, I pray that you would guard your own reputation because they're going to think that their god is bigger than you if that happens. So I pray that you will step forward and honor your own name in all that happens between now and Election Day.'
Seriously - vote for McCain because God might lose some celestial face? Now that's "religulous."

Choose Your Friends Wisely

Today the Supreme Court heard oral argument in a case that deals with an interesting question of Fourth Amendment law: if you let someone into your house who turns out to be working for the cops, have you invited them in as well?

Sherry Colb at Findlaw has the details:

Four federal Circuits (the Sixth, Seventh, Ninth, and Tenth) have adopted varying versions of a doctrine known as 'consent once removed.' According to this doctrine, police do not need conventional 'consent' (in which a person voluntarily agrees to have the police enter his house or search his property) for a warrantless search to pass Fourth Amendment muster.

Rather, once a person has made 'friends' with an informant or undercover police officer and exposed his house (and potential evidence of crime within that house) to the 'friend,' this voluntary exposure - coupled with the 'friend's' signal of probable cause to the police - amounts to the equivalent of consent to an official police home entry or search by other officers.
The problem is that the doctrine, as Colb puts it, rest on the "untenable fiction" that once you invite someone into your home, you've invited everyone in. It's one thing, it seems to me, if a CI or undercover cop gains your confidence and then spills details about your private life to the police (as in Jimmy Hoffa's case). It's completely different to create some sort of "open door" policy just because you invite someone into your home, whom you don't even know is a cop in the first place! Is it too much to ask that the cops do it the old fashioned way and get a warrant first?

Regardless, the moral to the story (as is the moral to lots of crime stories) - choose your friends wisely.

Reality Bites

I know things have been going pretty badly for the McCain/Palin crew recently, so apparently they've decided to completely tune out reality. The latest example, over the weekend, was the campaign's response to the "Troopergate" report.

Glenn Greenwald breaks it all down. He notes that McCain's campaign manager Rick Davis went on FoxNews and said that "there was absolutely no wrongdoing found in the report" and "no violations of any kinds of laws or ethics rules." Except that's complete horseshit. From the reports FIRST FINDING:

For the reasons explained in Section IV of this report, I find that Governor Sarah Palin abused her power by violating Alaska Statute 39.52.110(a) of the Alaska Executive Branch Ethics Act.
Now, there's an argument to be made - a legalistic one, to be sure - that the report doesn't show any criminal wrongdoing, but that's a different kettle of fish. The plain facts are this report - the product of an investigation begun long before anyone outside of Alaska knew who Palin was - concludes that she violated the law.

If nothing else, this completely blows up any idea that Palin could be part of a "change" in DC, when she's engaged in the same kind of power grabbing rule bending that's been the leit motif of the Bush White House.

About Time For Less Time

Catching up from the weekend . . .. This past Sunday's Washington Post had an article about the US Sentencing Commission beginning to seriously consider alternatives to incarceration, particularly in drug cases.

The particular alternative under consideration is a series of "drug courts" for nonviolent offenders:

The courts operate under similar principles: At sentencing, a judge gives a nonviolent offender the option of going to prison or committing to a rigorous treatment program, where he or she submits to frequent tests and supervision. The aim is to reduce the 67 percent recidivism rate of addicted offenders.

* * *

'Drug courts are the most successful strategy in terms of reducing crime, but they're tremendously underutilized,' [C. West Huddleston, chief executive of the National Association of Drug Court Professionals] said. 'I think a Sentencing Commission recommendation to U.S. courts would create momentum. It'll wake up state legislatures. It's a conversation that should have been had years ago.'
It would be nice to think that the new attention paid to alternatives is because folks have finally figured out that the "drug war" is a big fat failure. Not quite:
'We are leading the world in incarcerating adults, and that's something Americans need to understand,' said Beryl Howell, one of six members of the commission, which drafts federal sentencing guidelines and advises the House and Senate on prison policy. 'People should be aware that every tough-on-crime act comes with a price. The average cost [of incarceration] across the country is $24,000 a year per inmate. . . . It's going up far faster than state budgets can keep up.'

About 2,000 drug courts nationwide spend between $1,500 and $11,000 per offender, according to the National Drug Court Institute.
It's all about the bucks. If that's what it takes to fix a broken system, so be it.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Perfect Albums?

It's a holiday Monday, so what better time to indulge in some pointless list making? In this case, the impetus is this post over at Concurring Opinions, in which Deven lays out his "perfect" albums.

On a fundamental level, I quibble with examples of "perfect" anything - humanity is a flawed enterprise, even at its best, and nothing we make can really be "perfect." But on a more practical and more fun level, here's the albums in my collection that have obtained the fabled "10 of 10" rating in my inventory program, which is close enough (as they say) for rock and roll:

  • Dave Brubeck - Time Out
  • echolyn - Suffocating the Bloom and mei
  • Bela Fleck and the Flecktones - Live Art
  • Genesis - Selling England by the Pound and Seconds Out
  • Gentle Giant - Octopus
  • Kevin Gilbert - The Shaming of the True
  • Bruce Horsnby - Harbor Lights
  • Mike Keneally & Beer for Dolphins - Dancing
  • King Crimson - Discipline
  • Marillion - Brave
  • National Health - Of Queues and Cures
  • Premiata Forneria Marconi - Storia di un Minuto
  • Ritual - The Hemulic Voluntary Band
  • Paul Simon - Graceland
  • Sting - Bring on the Night
  • Yes - Close to the Edge
There are lots of greats that come up just short, with 9s (55 of them to be exact), that might make the list if I really wanted to think about it.

So what are your "perfect" albums?

Friday, October 10, 2008

At Least They Didn't Split the Baby!

For a summer during law school I worked for the Dark Side - the local prosecuting attorney's office. One of the odder bits of law we got to research was what charges, if any, could be brought against an estranged husband for bulldozing half of the marital home. I can't remember what the answer was. But I thought about that when saw this story on the BBC's website:

An estranged couple in Cambodia have sawed their house in half to avoid the country's convoluted divorce process.

Moeun Rim and his wife, Nhanh, who have been married nearly 40 years, split the building last week following an argument, local officials said.
According to the caption on the picture of the split home, Mr. Rim has moved his half of the home to an "undisclosed location." Apparently he's moved in with Dick Cheney!

Prosecution to Nowhere? (Redux)

Last week I wrote about the DoJ prosecution of Alaska Senator Ted Stevens and how it might be going off the rails. The judge has figured out what to do with the case after multiple instances of prosecutorial misconduct came to life. The judge didn't declare a mistrial, but did decide to exclude certain portions of the Government's evidence. Oh, and he's gonna' tell the jury why:

Perhaps more important, he said he would tell the jury on Thursday that he was excluding some of the prosecution’s evidence because 'the government presented evidence the government knew was not true,' an instruction that is likely to undermine the credibility of the prosecution.

In a special hearing outside the presence of the jury, Judge Sullivan said, 'The government knew the documents were lies.'
It will be interesting to see what the jury does with this. Trials are largely about convincing the jury which side's story is more trustworthy. With the judge flat out telling the jury that the Government has been lying to you, will that be enough to torpedo the case?

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Based on Bullshit?

"Based on a true story" is perhaps the most dangerous phrase in the entertainment biz. It promises truth, if not meticulous historical accuracy, and leaves the impression with the viewer that what he just saw actually happened. Once artistic licenses are taken, however, what ends up in the final product rarely gets it "right."

Take The Express, a new film which opens this weekend. It's the story of Ernie Davis, a running back from Syracuse University who became the first African American to win the Heisman Trophy, in 1961. It's a good story, complete with a tragic Hollywood ending (Davis died of Leukemia at 23), that deserves to be told.

So why did the filmmakers decide that the telling would be enhanced by making up an episode that slanders my alma mater?

A review in the show business publication 'Variety' says the movie's 'most electrifying sequences portray Schwartzwalder's unbeaten 1959 Syracuse U. team playing West Virginia and Texas -- not exactly two bastions of racial tolerance -- with a level of racist vitriol pouring out of the stands that is a topical reminder of America's racial heart of darkness.'
Several problems abound. First, WVU and Syracuse didn't play in Morgantown in 1959. Second, when the teams played in Morgantown the next season, nobody involved, from either team, remembers a "racial heart of darkness":
Dick Easterly, 69, of Tampa, Fla. was the Syracuse quarterback that day, when Davis rushed 14 times for 125 yards before a sparse crowd of 20,000.

Easterly saw 'The Express' at a critics' preview last week in Tampa.

'I apologize to the people West Virginia because that did not happen,' Easterly said. 'I don't blame people in West Virginia for being disturbed. The scene is completely fictitious.'

Now in his 62nd year of writing about WVU football, Mickey Furfari was in the press box, covering the game for the Morgantown Dominion-News.

'It's stupid,' Furfari said of the scene. 'It's pure fiction. The moviemakers should be absolutely ashamed.
There are more, but that gives you the idea.

What makes it even worse is that Syracuse's coach at the time, Ben Schwartzwalder, who refused to give into racist pressure not to let Davis play, was a West Virginia native! In fact, the trophy that Syracuse and WVU fight over every year bears his name (the rivalry renews this weekend, FWIW).

I'm not trying to argue that West Virginia in 1959 (or 1960) didn't have racial problems. Hell, we've still got them today. But it doesn't do anybody any good just to make shit up based on stereotypes. If the students and fans that were around in 1960 treated Davis with the respect due any opposing player, how is it fair to them to paint with such a broad brush.

"Based on a true story" - bringing you fiction for gods know how long.

We're Number 1? No Shit?

No shit:

In recent months, West Virginia has bucked the national economic calamity, and has actually led the nation in economic growth since May, a report issued Tuesday by the Rockefeller Institute of Government indicates.

The report 'The Damage is Just Beginning' examines how the economic downturn is likely to affect state government budgets, and cites figures showing that West Virginia was one of only 12 states to have an increase in economic activity from May through August.

West Virginia's economy grew by 2.2 percent during that period, followed by Louisiana, with 0.7 percent growth, and Texas, at 0.6.
How about that? One of the benefits of socio-economic isolation is that you're somewhat sheltered from downturns. Of course, you're also sheltered from booms, too.

Rebranding Downfall

Last year, one of my "Year in Film" selections was Downfall, a searing 2004 German film depicting Hitler's last days. It's a fascinating portrait of a man losing his grip on reality (whatever grip he had, of course). So it's in German, of course, with English subtitles. The foreign language, and Hitler's central blowup, has apparently spawned an entire genre of re-subtitled parodies, like this one:

Much funnier than the original!

Credit Where It's Due (Criminal Edition)

I like to talk about stupid criminals so often, I thought I better at least recognize a pretty clever ploy when I see one (via Concurring Opinions):

It appears to have unfolded this way, according to a Seattle-based NBC affiliate: around 11:00 a.m. PDT on Tuesday, the robber, wearing a yellow vest, safety goggles, a blue shirt, and a respirator mask went over to a guard who was overseeing the unloading of cash to the bank from the truck. He sprayed the guard with pepper spray, grabbed his bag of money, and fled the scene.

But here's the hilarious twist. The robber had previously put out a Craigslist ad for road maintenance workers, promising wages of $28.50 per hour. Recruits were asked to wait near the Bank of America right around the time of the robbery--wearing yellow vests, safety goggles, a respirator mask, and preferably a blue shirt. At least a dozen of them showed up after responding to the Craigslist ad.
Unwilling accomplices/decoys, FTW!

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Can't They Delete the Bad Ones?

According to Jonathan Adler over at Volokh, NBC has disappeared one of the decade's few funny Saturday Night Live skits down the memory hole. It was the one from this weekend spoofing the mortgage bailout, savaging everyone from Duhbya and house Dems to George Soros.

Conspiracy theories are rampant - did NBC bow to political pressure because the skit targeted Dems as well as GOPers? Did the inclusion of Soros and a real life couple involved in the bailout - all Jewish - make the skit anti-Semitic? Who knows. Of course, once NBC officially took it down, it appeared elsewhere like virtual hogweed (Mike at Crime & Federalism found it).

I doubt many folks stuck it out past the cutting edge Lawrence Welk Show parody to see the bailout skit in the first place. Now that it's forbidden fruit, folks will search it out, of course. You know you will!

UPDATE: It's back up, but edited. It surely lives on in unedited form all over the tubes.

And McCain Thinks Obama Is a Mystery

At least we know Barack's a dude:

The Georgia Supreme Court ruled Monday that a transgender politician did not mislead voters by running for office as a woman.

The court dismissed a lawsuit filed by two opponents of the politician, Michelle Bruce, who was born Michael Bruce, that said she disguised her sex while seeking re-election last year in Riverdale, Ga.
It's hard to fathom exactly what advantage Bruce allegedly had, given that she lost the election at issue. So did the two putzes who sued. Surely there's some creative legal theory afoot, right?
But Michael B. King, the plaintiffs’ lawyer, said Ms. Bruce had received an unfair advantage by running as a woman in a heavily female district.

In the lawsuit, Mr. King referred to Ms. Bruce as a man.

'We maintain that Mr. Bruce misled the voters into believing that he was a female,' he said. 'He got more female votes than he would have if he hadn’t used a fictitious name.'
Yeah, because being a woman has always been such an advantage in the political world. Why, next time perhaps she might come out as an atheist during the campaign - that'll surely do the trick!

Lifestyles of the Rich and Paranoid

Wow, I'm not sure what it says about you that are so rich that your yacht comes with pirate countermeasures:

Roman Abramovich, the billionaire owner of Chelsea Football Club, is buying a £200 million yacht with a missile detector to protect him from pirates.

* * *

The 500ft vessel also comes equipped with a yellow submarine which can dive to 160ft below the water so he and his guests can escape attack.

There are also plans to include radar equipment designed to warn of incoming rockets, together with bullet-proof windows and armour plating around the 41-year-old Russian billionaire's cabin.
Granted, when you're rich as Roman it's wise to be a bit paranoid (particularly with Somali pirates on the prowl), but still - an escape submarine? At least it's yellow (singing optional, presumably).

Tax the Churches (Redux)

Last week I blogged about a concerted effort by a group of preachers to preach politics from the pulpit and challenge in IRS prohibition on non-profit groups from politicking. Today, over at FindLaw, Michael Dorf takes a more scholarly look at the issue. I tend to agree with him that the First Amendment neither requires nor prohibits the politicking ban (a leftover from LBJ's legislative career) and that there's nothing inherently wrong with the status quo. Still, if folks aren't happy with it, they're welcome to pay their taxes and free their tongues.

Monday, October 06, 2008


Next month marks the annual National Novel Writing Month (aka "NaNoWriMo"). For the second year in a row, I'll try and finish the month with at least 50,000 words of a novel. Last year's effort cratered at about 22,000, but it was still further than I've gotten in my other attempts, so I was fairly satisfied with the experience.

I think my project this year will make a little more sense (to me, at least), but if I get down in the dumps and need a little motivation, I'll just pull this story up:

JK Rowling is the world's highest-earning author, making more than £5 every second over the past year, US business magazine Forbes has announced.

The Harry Potter writer, who made a total of $300m (£170m) last year, wrote the first of her best-selling books about the boy wizard in 1997.
$10 (approximately) per second? I could live with that! Of course, I don't do anything creative as some part of a genius money making scheme. But a little success at the end of the day wouldn't hurt, would it?

First Monday

Ah, it's that time of the year again. The days are growing shorter, the air has that crisp chill of fall . . . and the Supreme Court is back in action. I won't go so far as to start singing "It's the most wonderful time of the year . . ." - I'll leave that for the end of the term when all the big opinions come down - but it's still pretty exciting. If you're a law geek like me, I mean.

Along those lines, the New York Times had a good overview of what's coming up yesterday. One of the interesting big ticket cases involves the FCC and so-called "fleeting expletives," although the Court may dodge the constitutional issue and send it back to the Second Circuit for a do over. Another interesting civil case:

considers whether adherents of a faith called Summum may place a monument to the 'Seven Aphorisms' of their faith in a Utah park that already contains a monument devoted to the Ten Commandments.
As for criminal cases, there are several interesting cases, but none likely to draw a lot of public attention. Two cases from Arizona address issues of police searches of people in/around/near cars, while another pair continue to examine the fallout from the blockbuster Blakely and Crawford decisions from a few years back.

West Virginia court watchers may take a particular interest in US v. Hayes, a case that originated in the Northern District and is being argued by Charleston lawyer Troy Giatras. Troy is in the unusual position of defending a defendant-friendly Fourth Circuit decision on appeal in a situation where (as the dissenting appellate judge put it) "we are not in the minority on this issue, we are the minority." Sometimes the minority gets it right, so let's hope that's the case here. Good luck, Troy!

Fresh Meat

It's hard to complain when you open up World Cup qualifying with three straight wins, two of them on the road in very hostile territories. Still, US soccer fans are a surly bunch and lots of them (me included) have dinged coach Bob Bradley for sticking with a roster full of under performing veterans rather than bring in some fresh blood that will be the backbone of the 2010 World Cup squad.

With Bradley's choices for the next two qualifiers announced (Sunday v. Cuba @ DC and next Wednesday at T'n'T), our concerns have been answered. Ives over at ESPN has the lowdown on the youngsters, including one particularly intriguing pick:

The most intriguing call-up of the group was Pachuca midfielder Jose Francisco Torres. The Texas-born playmaker had been courted heavily by both the United States and Mexico and ultimately decided to play for the U.S. That didn't stop Mexico from making another last-ditch push for his services even after Torres was named to the U.S. squad for the Cuba match. Torres has stuck by his decision and he now gives the U.S. national team an exciting prospect capable of playing on the left flank or in an attacking midfield role.
Savor that for a second - a talented young (creative!) player, plying his trade at the top of the Mexican league, is choosing to play for the United States. Will he be the first of many? Let's hope, if only to piss off the Mexicans.

A Couple of Political Things

A couple of interesting politics related bits that passed through my field of vision today.

First, a clip from this Sunday's Face the Nation in which GOP Rep. Heather Wilson stands up for Palin/McCain's assault on Obama's patriotism (via TalkLeft):

As BTD puts it:

We all know McCain and the Republicans are not un-American so they must be in agreement with the Bush Administration's actions of the past 8 years. So it is official, McCain and the Republicans are running on the accomplishments of the George W. Bush Administration.
So much for "change," huh?

Second, as we drive on towards the election next month, there will be folks who decide not to vote at all, often on the theory that it won't make a difference, they're all the same, etc. One of jedi jawa's coworkers sends out a "Thought of the Day" every day and today's addressed that very position:
One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors. - Plato
In other words, if you're not gonna' vote then quit yer bitchin'. Probably sounds classier in Greek.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Dancing With the Cons?

Oh boy. Indy 500 winner, Dancing With the Stars champion, and supposed Petit Le Mans competitor Helio Castroneves has a more important date on his dance card now:

IndyCar Series star Helio Castroneves is facing federal tax charges in Miami.

A grand jury on Thursday returned a tax evasion indictment against the 33-year-old Castroneves, alleging conspiracy and six counts of tax evasion from 1999 through 2002. Also indicted were Castroneves’ sister and business manager, Kati Castroneves, and his attorney, Alan Miller. The Conspiracy and Tax Evasion charges are each punishable by a maximum of five years in federal prison.
Helio's initial appearance is set for Friday, which means he likely won't make it back to Road Atlanta this weekend.

I hope this doesn't pan out - Helio seems to be a nice guy, from all I've read, and is a hell of a driver. If he did do it, I almost hope it's simple greed rather than some Snipesian tax protester foolishness.