Thursday, February 26, 2009

Album of the Day

UK, by UK (1978): Word in the prog world is that drummer Bill Bruford, who shines on this album, is easing into retirement. Initially, it sounded like Bill was just stepping down from touring, but, apparently, he'll be out of the biz completely after a new album comes out later this year. That's a damn shame, but he's certainly earned it. Bill is like the Kevin Bacon of the prog world, with all kinds of bands and subgenres linking through him: Yes, King Crimson, National Health, Genesis, etc. Enjoy the golden years, Bill!

Stop the Bleeding!

After six weeks on the shelf (actually the dining room table), I'm back to work on the novel. Last year was the fun part, the making shit up and getting it all out of my head bit. Now comes the stuff that's kind of like work - editing.

I'm no stranger to editing my writing, evidence of screw ups here on the Ranch to the contrary. I self edit my briefs at work and my coworkers are more than willing to wield the red pen, too. And I read quite a bit about editing before starting in on it this week and absorbed the teachings. First drafts suck, particularly for first novels. You have to be vicious with your own work and characters. There can be no fear as you plunge forward and destroy in order to rebuild.

OK, I get all that, but . . . damn, I put down a lot of red on the pages! That's a good thing, I know, but it's a little disheartening. I guess I'll really be in trouble if I get through to editing a second draft and still shed so much blood. Wish me luck!

Admit Your Fuck Ups, Please

We all make mistakes, even Presidents. The truth test of integrity isn't being flawless, but recognizing when you mess up and own up to it. A few weeks ago, when Tom Daschle's candidacy for a cabinet post imploded, Barack Obama admitted that "I think I screwed up." It was a refreshing change from the past eight years, during which Duhbya famously couldn't even conjure up a mistake made when asked.

Which is why the rather minor historical flub in Obama's speech the other night is kind of a downer. He was talking up the US auto industry:

In promising support in his speech to Congress Tuesday, he said, 'I believe the nation that invented the automobile cannot walk away from it.'
One problem - we didn't invent the automobile, the Germans did. Specifically, Karl Benz in 1885 and Gottlieb Daimler in 1886. Americans didn't get in on the act until 1893, thanks to the Duryea brothers.

True, it's not the most well known historical fact, but it's not really in dispute. Unless you listen to the White House spin:
White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki, in an e-mail, cited the Duryeas as first, but added, 'There may be some question about who invented the car, but make no mistake, we still make the best cars right here in America.' She said the president was encouraging Americans 'to remember our rich history of ingenuity.'
But there isn't any question about it. We can't lay claim to that particular milestone, so why try? Why not congratulate the Germans and be done with it?

They always say it's not the crime that gets you, it's the cover up. Along the same lines, it's not the mistake that's most telling, but the reaction to it. The White House's attempt to create a historical controversy where there isn't one just to avoid admitting Obama messed up isn't a good sign.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Album of the Day

Toy Matinee, by Toy Matinee (1990): Sometimes, the quality of an album hits you at the weirdest time. I got it, used, sometime while I was in law school. The only tunes that registered in the first few listens were "Last Plane Out," which reminded me of Rabin-era Yes's best pop stuff, and "The Ballad of Jenny Ledge," which struck me as a modern take on Steely Dan. Everything else just failed to register. Then I'm in the courtroom at school, getting ready to do a mock trial, nervous as all get out. For some reason, "Things She Said" popped into my head. Not in the "I can't get this horrible earbug out of my head" sort of way, either. It just "clicked," and the rest of the album did so shortly thereafter. Like I said, weird, huh?

More Than the Sum(mum) of Its Parts?

Today the Supreme Court handed down a decision in one of the more intriguing cases of this term, Pleasant Grove City, Utah v. Summum. A unanimous ruling, it's more interesting for the issues it raises going forward, rather than the one it resolved.

The case involved the attempts of Summum, a religion founded in Salt Lake City in 1975, to place a monument in a park in Pleasant Grove City. The park already contained one of the Ten Commandments, donated to the city in 1971 by the Fraternal Order of Eagles. Summum sought to place in the park a monument setting forth its Seven Aphorisms which, it contends, God handed down to Moses before the Commandments. Pleasant Grove City declined, on the basis that the Summum monument was not related to the history of the town and was not being donated by a group with "longstanding ties to the . . . community."

Summum sued, unsuccessfully in the district court. But on appeal, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed. Relying on an earlier decision in which it held that such Ten Commandment monuments were private, not government, speech that the town couldn't reject without a compelling justification. No such justification existed.

The Supremes took the case and, as I said above, unanimously held in favor of the town and reversed the Tenth Circuit. The Court concluded - quite correctly, it seems - that such monuments become government speech once given to the town and therefore the decision was based on the town's First Amendment speech rights, not Summum's. The park, while a traditional public forum open to all when it comes to transitory speech, wasn't similarly open to the erection of permanent monuments.

What makes the decision really interesting is that, as Scalia puts it in a concurrence, the case was a Free Speech Clause case, but was "litigated in the shadow of the First Amendment's Establishment Clause." In other words, if the Ten Commandments monument if government speech, how can that government endorse that particular religious speech and not provide a similar platform for others?

In another concurrence, Souter suggests that this is a thornier problem than Scalia makes it out to be. I tend to agree. I hope Summum reloads and fires another complaint at Pleasant Grove City. I doubt the Court has heard the last of Summum.

The New York Times has a good article covering the basics of the decision.

UPDATE: Let me clear up something that is rampaging through the comments to the Times piece. The only issue decided in this case was whether the town's refusal to accept the Summum monument violated the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment. Summum did not press, for whatever reason, any Establishment Clause argument. The Court (aside from Scalia) was correct not to address the Establishment Clause issue, as it wasn't before them.

Dumb Prosecutor News

It's good sport to point and laugh at dumb criminals. It's even better when said criminal is an assistant prosecutor (via Crime & Federalism):

A Clarke County assistant district attorney resigned today, hours after his arrest downtown where he refused to pay for a hot dog during a drunken tussle with a street vendor.

William Michael Olson, 36, was arrested on misdemeanor charges of public intoxication and theft of services, Athens-Clarke police said.
Yup, he was caught red, er, shirted:
A vendor told the officer that Olson ate a hot dog and walked away without paying, but before he left the prosecutor put his hands on the vendor’s chest two times, according to police.

When the officer caught up with Olson, the prosecutor said he didn’t know anything about a hot dog, though he had ketchup and mustard on his shirt, police said.
If it had ended at that, it would have been mildly amusing. Here's where the real funny business comes in:
The officer told Olson he would arrest him if he didn’t pay for the hot dog, at which time the prosecutor pulled out his wallet and flashed his assistant district attorney badge and cautioned the officer, police said.

He 'told me I needed to be careful' and asked if 'I was sure that I wanted to do this,' the officer wrote in a report.
There's a theory that what somebody does and says while they're drunk is a pretty good indication of how they really are (see Gibson, Mel). If that's true, Olson's attempt to get out of trouble by using his office is an indication of a pretty serious character flaw.

Of course, maybe the cop is embellishing things in his report. It wouldn't be the first time. In which case, this sort of public humiliation is probably all the punishment Olson needs.

This Will Be Cool, if It Comes to Pass

It's hard being a Formula 1 fan in the United States. It's bad enough that we don't have a race to call our own anymore (we can't even annex Canada!). Add to that a lack an American driver, team, or manufacturer to root for in the series and things look pretty bleak. But there is some hope on the horizon, in the form of USF1, a new team that plans to join the series in 2010:

The founders of a proposed Formula One team from the United States insist they are ready to enter the sport in 2010.

Peter Windsor and Ken Anderson, the duo behind the scheme, have said the cars will be built in North Carolina and driven by American drivers.

They also confirmed they have finance in place and that F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone has given them his backing.
No doubt, Windsor and Anderson are big names with a serious pedigree. Windsor, while best known as the pit/paddock/grid reporter for Speed and Fox's F1 broadcasts was once the team manager at Williams. Anderson has a long career as a race engineer in F1 and Champ Car/IndyCar on his resume. I wish them luck.

But I'm also very skeptical:
Despite this USF1 will not be be backed by a manufacturer or wealthy businessman, with Windsor saying they have put together a viable business plan that will work.
Given the aforementioned lack of interest in F1 in the US, where is the money supposed to come from? F1 right now is the province of the factories (Ferrari, Renault, Mercedes, etc.) and the excessively wealthy (Force India and the Red Bulls). There may be another way, but Windsor and Anderson haven't provided any details about how it will work.

Nor does this fill me with confidence:
Anderson has admitted that [IndyCar star Danica] Patrick would be an attractive proposition for USF1 and is keen to see if the 26-year-old would fancy becoming the sixth female F1 driver.

'Danica's great - she gets a lot of press,' he said.
Yup, but that's about all. She has precisely one win to her credit in her automotive career, despite being with one of IndyCar's top teams. And that was on an oval. Fact is, if USF1 wants Americans in its cars, they need to start digging for talent right the hell now. And hope they get lucky.

As I said, I wish Windsor and Anderson luck. It would be great to have a "home team" to root for. But the cynic in me can't help but think 2010 will come and go without any cars on the grid.

An Overlooked Oscar Gem

It's safe to say that anything not called Slumdog Millionaire was overlooked during Sunday's Oscar pageantry. Which is not to say its success isn't well deserved, but it wasn't the only brilliant film to win a gold statue of a little naked man this weekend.

One of the others was the winner for best short animated film, La Maison en Petits Cubes. Thankfully, it's available online, at least for a while.* It's only 12 minutes long, but it is one of the best and most moving films I've seen in a long time:

Where Slumdog is bright, loud, and about as subtle as a brick, Le Maison . . . is quiet, contemplative, and actually subtle. The style of animation is wonderfully "dirty" for the 21st Century. It's just brilliant.

UPDATE: Unfortunately, looks like Google has been hit with the copyright claims, too. Hopefully, this vigorous post-Oscar legal blitz means that the film will be widely released (in some form) in the near future.

* The version I found on YouTube yesterday has been taken down due to copyright claims.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Album of the Day

Such Fine Particles of the Universe, by Bubblemath (2001): I think "frenetic" is an apt description for what these guys do. Think early echolyn, or maybe its spin off finneus guage, hopped up on crystal meth and that just about gets it right. Maybe all that energy is what they need to keep warm up in Minnesota! That said, when it all works, as it does quite a bit, this a really fun disc to listen to. The lyrics are often clever and occasionally insightful. The tunes are dazzling in their odd meters and start/stop bits. However, on occasion, it sounds like they're trying a bit too hard (lyrically, in particular). It's a winner more often than not, tho'.

More on Junk Science in the Courts

I know, I know, I'm starting to sound like a broken MP3, but this National Academy of Sciences report on the state of forensic science in the criminal justice system really is a big deal. I wanted to point reader(s) to Radley Balko's thoughts about it over at Reason.

He has a different concern, one of remedies. The report's main suggestion - a federal agency to oversee forensic sciences - won't really do the trick. As Balko points out, the FBI lab itself has been heavily criticized. Another government agency won't do the trick:

The problem with criminal forensics is the government monopoly on courtroom science in criminal trials. In too many states, forensic evidence is sent only to state-owned or state-operated crime labs. There’s no competition, no peer review, and in some cases, crime lab workers either report to or can be pressured by prosecutors when test results don’t confirm preexisting theories about how a crime may have occurred. This sort of bias can creep in unintentionally, or it can be more overt. But studies show it’s always there. The only way to compensate for it is to bring competitors into the game, other labs who gain by revealing another lab’s mistakes. Every other area of science is steered by the peer review process. It’s really unconscionable that criminal forensics—where there’s so much at stake—has existed and evolved so long without it.
That bias played heavily in some of the Fred Zain cases, IIRC. Rather than operating independently, Zain would often learn who the "right" suspect was and craft lab results appropriately.

Balko goes on to provide some suggestions, which have some merit. So they'll probably never go into effect.

Album of Last Friday

Caress of Steel, by Rush (1975): The things you learn on Wikipedia. I always thought that the lyrics to "I Think I'm Going Bald" were the product of Geddy Lee, as the band at this point was still transitioning into Neal Peart being the dominant lyricist in the band. What else could explain such a crappy tune? Alas, according to Wiki, I'm wrong and the blame lies with Peart, allegedly a homage to Kiss (with whom they toured a lot back then). It's safe to say that Neil has developed quite a bit as a lyricist since then, huh? Apologies to Mr. Weinrib for ever besmirching him with the credit!

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Album of the Day

A Passion Play, by Jethro Tull (1973): This the second album in a row that Tull produced containing only two tracks -one on each side of an old LP. They're both concept albums, but they come across very differently. The predecessor, Thick as a Brick, is, according to Ian Anderson, a response to critics and fans who incorrectly labeled Aqualung a concept album. It's supposed to be a parody of the form, complete with the backstory that the lyrics were actually a controversial poem written by a grade schooler. It also happens to be an excellent example of the form, that manages to be epic, playful, clever, and satirical with great aplomb.

What's odd is that the following A Passion Play strikes me as exactly the sort of bloated, rambling, and pretentious project that Thick as a Brick parodies. It sounds like the band is trying to hard. The music isn't as accessible and there's a odd spoken word break that sits (to paraphrase Monty Python) like a silver turd in the middle of the album. It's as if Anderson, having had his fun with Brick decided to do a "proper" concept next. Regardless, it's always struck me as a pale shadow of its predecessor.

Blinded By Junk Science, For Real

A couple of weeks ago, I blogged about a forthcoming National Academy of Sciences report that was set to turn the world of forensic science on its ear. Well, it's here and it did.

It's hard to tell what the entirety of the report has to say (it's available here for sale), but the press release gets to the basics:

Forensic evidence is often offered in criminal prosecutions and civil litigation to support conclusions about individualization — in other words, to 'match' a piece of evidence to a particular person, weapon, or other source. But with the exception of nuclear DNA analysis, the report says, no forensic method has been rigorously shown able to consistently, and with a high degree of certainty, demonstrate a connection between evidence and a specific individual or source.
Several of the other folks in the criminal defense blogosphere have intelligent things to say about what this means. Scott at Simple Justice puts it plainly:
In other words, everything that was taken as true, as real, as a necessary and inherent part of almost every criminal case, is no longer worthy of scientific reliance. From drug tests to strange little black boxes that magically provide evidence that convicts people, the entire forensics paradigm is now suspect. They aren't saying that science doesn't work, or that science isn't real. They are saying that the science used in courtroom across our nation is not trustworthy.
Or, as Gideon even more succinctly puts it:
The NAS just called 'bullshit' on many of the forensic techniques used in labs across the country.
This should be huge news nationwide, but I'm afraid it will get lost in the shuffle of bad economic news, a ramp up in troop levels in Afghantistan, and other such trifles. I know defense attorneys will make the most of what the report has to say, but will the powers that be - prosecutors, governors, attorney generals - really get the message? They're the ones that need to hear it the most.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Album of the Day

Quiet Life, by Japan (1980): I bought this album for one reason - I knew that keyboardist/synthesist Richard Barbieri, of Porcupine Tree (and, finally, a solo career) fame had been in it. I didn't really know what they might sound like, but was curious what kind of work he was doing back in the day. Turns out, some pretty cool stuff, at least in spots. Musically, this album makes me think of an artier and more earnest Duran Duran, particularly the more up tempo stuff. The slower stuff, however, has some really cool ambiance and slow grooves. Plus, the cover of Velvet Underground's "All Tomorrow's Parties" is very good. All in all, I'd be up for another Japan album, if I ever come across one.

Where's the Service?

I'm loathe to give a prosecutor a hard time when he's talking about alternatives to incarceration. When it comes to a plan to lock up fewer people, I'm generally in favor of it. But I can't get completely behind this:

New Kanawha County prosecutor Mark Plants is proposing allowing people sentenced to community service to work off some of that time through Bible study or other faith-based programs.

* * *

Plants said the alternative sentencing program might allow a person who's been sentenced to three hours of community service, which typically involves activities such as cleaning up trash on the roadside, to do two hours of physical labor and one hour of faith-based study.
Faith-based programs make me queasy to begin with, but as long as they're doing something productive I'll not raise a stink. But Bible study as community service? Exactly how is the community helped by giving someone time to read the Bible?

It would have to be a voluntary program, anyway, so it's not as if you could force heathen criminals to read the Word of the Lord and repent of their criminal ways. And what about the other options you'd have to allow to avoid an Establishment problem? If I am nailed for DUI and get community service, can I spend an hour listening to Zappa or Yes? They're much more meaningful to me than some book of mythology.

Like I said, alternatives to incarcerations are good thing, but they should benefit the community in some way. An hour picking up highway litter makes much more sense than an hour spent with the Good Book (of whichever variety).

Kids Today

You know the phrase, "at least he gets an A for effort"? It's not an educational promise, just a figure of speech and an insult at that. It means that, in spite of the fat that you came up with the wrong answer, at least you gave it a shot.

Per today's New York Times (via Prawfsblawg), kids today seem to think it's an entitlement:

A recent study by researchers at the University of California, Irvine, found that a third of students surveyed said that they expected B’s just for attending lectures, and 40 percent said they deserved a B for completing the required reading.

* * *

Jason Greenwood, a senior kinesiology major at the University of Maryland echoed that view.

'I think putting in a lot of effort should merit a high grade,' Mr. Greenwood said. 'What else is there really than the effort that you put in?'

'If you put in all the effort you have and get a C, what is the point?' he added. 'If someone goes to every class and reads every chapter in the book and does everything the teacher asks of them and more, then they should be getting an A like their effort deserves. If your maximum effort can only be average in a teacher’s mind, then something is wrong.'
Jason, perhaps it time that somebody explained to you that not everybody in life gets As. It's not about effort, it's about comprehension and understanding. That's how the real world works. I know there's the sports cliche that winners are the ones who "want it more," but that's basically bullshit. I hate to break it to you, Jason, but you just might be average. At least academically.

I've seen briefs that I know an attorney worked on really hard. They were still barely readable and couldn't string together a coherent argument. A court isn't going to give your client time off for "effort." Effort's part of the equation, but not all of it.

I'm not particularly surprised where one commentator place the blame for this kind of attitude:
'I think that it stems from their K-12 experiences,' Professor [Aaron M. Brower, the vice provost for teaching and learning at the University of Wisconsin-Madison] said. 'They have become ultra-efficient in test preparation. And this hyper-efficiency has led them to look for a magic formula to get high scores.'
In other words, "teaching to the test" is leading kids to think that the rote work of test prep is what education is all about. It's not, of course. The sooner we realize that and get back to actually learning about the world around us and how to learn itself, the better off we'll be.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Album of the Day

Stock, by RPWL (2003): I have a bad habit of buying the "wrong" album when checking out a new band. I get the album that's generally regarded as a weak or atypical effort or end up with some sort of leftovers collection. Such is the case with Stock, a collection of material that didn't make it onto RPWL's first few albums. In this case, however, it worked out. Although there's not much here, what there is - a very Floyd influenced proggy sound (the first track is Barrett's "Opel") with some really nice instrumental interludes - was enough to get me hooked. Their next album, World Through My Eyes, is really good, if a bit overstuffed.

Tale of a Great Car

Over at, they've been doing an occasional series (along with Ultimate Car Page) on classic race cars. Today's entry is as classic as it gets, the Porsche 956. The 956 was Porsche's entry into the Group C series for sports prototypes back in 1980s. Here's a sample of the 956 in its element, at Le Mans, where it won four times:

The 956 gave way to the 962 for the IMSA GTP series (required because of different safety regulations) and then the 962C for Group C. The 962C, in various versions, notched three Le Mans victories.

What makes the dominance of the 956/962 all the more impressive is that it was done while building a lot of cars:

Key to the success of the 956 was the large fleet of customer entered example, backing up the works entries. A total of 10 works and 17 customer cars were constructed.
Compare that to the dominant Audis of recent years, which were rare in number and jealously guarded by the factory. Porsche would sell to anyone who could pay. Sports car racing would be in better shape if somebody did something similar today.

The Right To Be Read To

Although I've never fiddled with one, I understand that Amazon's Kindle e-book reader is a pretty nifty gadget. There are several fans in my office, at least. Last week saw Amazon release the second version of the Kindle, which includes an interesting new feature - an option to have the Kindle read text to you out loud.

Neat idea, huh? Not everyone is impressed (via Reason):

Some publishers and agents expressed concern over a new, experimental feature that reads text aloud with a computer-generated voice.

'They don't have the right to read a book out loud,' said Paul Aiken, executive director of the Authors Guild. 'That's an audio right, which is derivative under copyright law.'

An Amazon spokesman noted the text-reading feature depends on text-to-speech technology, and that listeners won't confuse it with the audiobook experience.
I can see where Aiken is coming from, but it seems a bit silly. I can't imagine that audiobook business will be harmed. After all, who is going to ditch a richly narrated recording in favor of a computerized playback that sounds like a stilted Dalek?

In response to the hubbub, Neil Gaiman (whose The Graveyard Book I listened to over the weekend) made this observation:
My point of view: When you buy a book, you're also buying the right to read it aloud, have it read to you by anyone, read it to your children on long car trips, record yourself reading it and send that to your girlfriend etc. This is the same kind of thing, only without the ability to do the voices properly, and no-one's going to confuse it with an audiobook. And that any authors' societies or publishers who are thinking of spending money on fighting a fundamentally pointless legal case would be much better off taking that money and advertising and promoting what audio books are and what's good about them with it.
It wouldn't be the first silly IP fight that an organization allegedly representing artists had undertaken on their behalf.

Prosecution to Nowhere? (The Sequel)

One of the more compelling political stories last year was that of ex-Alaska Senator Ted Stevens (of "The Tubes" fame), who simultaneously ran for reelection while going through a nasty corruption trial. Neither went well for him - he lost the election (only barely) and was convicted on the criminal charges. However, as I wrote at the time, it wasn't a particularly smooth road to conviction for the Government.

Things have not improved for the Government since. In fact, the wheels have come off a bit, as tends to happen when a federal judge holds three prosecutors in contempt (via Volokh):

During yesterday's hearing, Sullivan repeatedly asked three Justice Department lawyers sitting at the prosecution's table whether they had some reason not to turn over the documents. They finally acknowledged they did not, and Sullivan exploded in anger.

'That was a court order,' he bellowed. 'That wasn't a request. I didn't ask for them out of the kindness of your hearts. . . . Isn't the Department of Justice taking court orders seriously these days?'

* * *

'That's outrageous for the Department of Justice -- the largest law firm on the planet,' he said. 'That is not acceptable in this court.'
As the article points out, courts just don't hold prosecutors in contempt every day. That's doubly true for AUSAs. At the end of the day, Stevens is still convicted and, of course, unemployed. Whether all this is enough to win him a new trial is anybody's guess.

From the "Just Plain Weird" File

I have no words:

Ohio police say a man held a woman captive in handcuffs and an adult diaper for three days while he read Bible passages to her.

Troy Brisport, 34, was charged with kidnapping and felonious assault. Bail was set Tuesday at $400,000.

He picked up the woman Wednesday night in Detroit after she told him she had nowhere to stay, and brought her to his home in Toledo, about 55 miles away, police said.

The woman told police that after she fell asleep Brisport handcuffed her wrists and ankles, gagged her, undressed her and put her in an adult diaper, then read Bible passages, said police Capt. Ray Carroll.
I suppose that's not as inhumane as forcing her to listen to the collected works of Barry Manilow, or something. But only just.

Monday, February 16, 2009

More on Massey, Benjamin, & the Supremes

Over the weekend, there were a couple of big newspaper stories about the upcoming Supreme Court case involving Massey Energy's Don Blankenship and West Virginia Supreme Court Justice Brent Benjamin's failure to recuse himself from a case involving Massey.

First, in the New York Times, Adam Liptak has a good overview of the case, for those of you who aren't familiar with it. As to why the case warrants the attention of the Supremes:

The case, one of the most important of the term, has the potential to change the way judicial elections are conducted and the way cases are heard in the 39 states that elect at least some of their judges. In many states, campaigns for court seats these days rival in both expense and venom what goes on in, say, a governor’s race. Yet it is commonplace in American courtrooms for judges to hear cases involving lawyers and litigants who have contributed to or spent money to support their campaigns.
Blankenship continues to peddle the argument that all he cared about was beating incumbent Justice Warren McGraw, without any care about his replacement:
'I’ve been around West Virginia long enough to know that politicians don’t stay bought, particularly ones that are going to be in office for 12 years,' he said, referring to the terms of State Supreme Court justices. 'So I would never go out and spend money to try to gain favor with a politician. Eliminating a bad politician makes sense. Electing somebody hoping he’s going to be in your favor doesn’t make any sense at all.'
As I explained last week, this is complete balderdash. In a West Virginia judicial election, the only way to defeat an incumbent is to support a challenger. There is no ability to select "none of the above" or just "throw the bum out." It's nonsensical to think otherwise.

The other big story was in yesterday's Sunday Gazette-Daily Mail, in which investigative reporter Paul Nyden did some digging into some claims made in Massey's brief with the Supremes. Most notably, this one:
In a recent brief to the U.S. Supreme Court, lawyers for Massey Energy say CEO Don Blankenship and West Virginia Supreme Court Justice Brent Benjamin are not friends and 'there is no indication that Blankenship and Justice Benjamin even knew one another, before or after the election.'

But Blankenship and Benjamin have met.

On March 30, 2006, Blankenship had dinner with Benjamin, former Supreme Court Justice Elliott 'Spike' Maynard and Chris Hamilton, vice president of the West Virginia Coal Association, at the Athletic Club Sports Grill at the Embassy Suites Hotel in Charleston.
Oops. Massey's lawyer contends he didn't know about the meeting, and I believe him. Still, one should do some due diligence before you make sweeping statements like that in a brief.

The brief also raises the "I only cared about defeating . . ." argument, again. If that's the best they've got (and, to be fair, it may not be - I've not read the briefs), I imagine it will be a long day come oral argument.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Album of the Day

Planet P Project, by Planet P Project (1983): I picked this up a little while back from the cutout bin at the mall. Somewhere, sometime, I heard this band mentioned as one of those prog-related type groups that prog heads might appreciate. It's synth-heavy pop style sort of nods towards new wave and prog while staying firmly in the pop/rock mode. There are enough highlights, including the opener "Static" and the minor hit (video here) "Why Me?", to warrant a listen every now and then, tho'.

Some Things are Recession Proof

On the eve of Valentine's Day, USA Today has a couple of appropriate articles about some romance-related industries that aren't tanking, in spite of the recession.

One is the domestic surveillance industry:

Flowers and chocolate aren't the only big sellers for Valentine's Day. There's also spyware.

The use of tracking devices and hiring of private investigators surge around this holiday — an opportune time to catch a cheating spouse.

* * *

Private investigators agree. 'Valentine's Day is a day of lovers, and sometimes the lover is not a spouse,' says Jimmie Mesis, editor of PI magazine. That's why, he says, investigators are often busy this time of year.
One would think that clandestine lovers would have a little bit more discretion around a holiday like this, but I don't have any experience with cheating, so what do I know?

The other article is about the boom in condom sales recently:
While car purchases plummeted and designer clothes mostly stayed on the racks, sales of condoms in the U.S. rose 5% in the fourth quarter of 2008, and 6% in January vs. the same time periods the previous year, The Nielsen Co. reports

The sales bump squares solidly with one of the nation's most common trends during any recession: nesting. At the same time, condoms make for a relatively inexpensive form of birth control at a time many cash-strapped families are hesitant to grow.
Makes sense to me.

And, lest you think that you will have the worst Valentine's Day around this year, consider this poor bastard's lot:
On this special day for lovers young and old, few things can top a gourmet meal served by candlelight on small, tasteful plates. It's much more intimate than cards or candy, and it certainly beats meeting a grisly end at the hands of the Church's enemies. So by all means, enjoy your duck confit and chocolate mousse while you stare into the eyes of the person you love. What a romantic way to celebrate the 1,739th anniversary of the day I was bludgeoned to within an inch of my life and then publicly executed!
Now that's festive!

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Album of the Day

Graceland, by Paul Simon (1986): This has always been one of my favorite pop albums. The diverse influences filtered through Simon's songwriting lens produces some excellent results. But I learned a disturbing bit of news about it today. From my last AotD post about Graceland, five years ago:

But one of the best tunes ("All Around the World or The Myth of Fingerprints") has a closer-to-home set of collaborators - Los Lobos.
Turns out, they might be a bit more than collaborators:
The group Los Lobos appear on the last track, "All Around the World or The Myth of Fingerprints." According to Los Lobos's saxophone player Steve Berlin, Simon stole the song from Los Lobos, giving them no songwriting credit:

'It was not a pleasant deal for us. I mean he [Simon] quite literally — and in no way do I exaggerate when I say — he stole the songs from us... We go into the studio, and he had quite literally nothing. I mean, he had no ideas, no concepts, and said, 'Well, let's just jam.' ...Paul goes, 'Hey, what's that?' We start playing what we have of it, and it is exactly what you hear on the record. So we're like, 'Oh, ok. We'll share this song.' ...A few months later, the record comes out and says 'Words and Music by Paul Simon.' We were like, 'What the fuck is this?' We tried calling him, and we can't find him. Weeks go by and our managers can't find him. We finally track him down and ask him about our song, and he goes, 'Sue me. See what happens.'
Simon's response isn't exactly compelling, at least according to Wikipedia. Still a great tune, and a great album, but it's a shame it's stained by some controversy.


For years, Dave Neiwert over at Orcinus has been tracking the rising tide of "eliminationism" amongst the right wing talking heads. That's when the bloviators go beyond simply arguing that their opponents are wrong, but rather are evil, something less than American and/or human, and suggest that the world would be a better place without them. Dave has cataloged a few of the more noteworthy examples here.

Of course, we know millions of people listen to that stuff every day. But does anybody actually take it to heart? Apparently, one man did. Remember last year when a Tennessee man shot up a Unitarian Universalist Church during a service, killing two members? The perpetrator of that act, James Adkisson, was sentenced the other day to life in prison. At that time, he provided a copy of a 4-page hand-written "manifesto" to the local media explaining his crime. It was apparently intended to be a suicide note, but the police did not oblige his desire for suicide by cop.

Adkisson left little doubt about why he did what he did. After stating, "This was a hate Crime," he goes on:

Who I wanted to kill was every Democrat in the Senate,+ House, the 100 people in Bernard Goldbergs book I'd like to kill everyone in the Mainstream Media. But I knew these people were inaccesible [sic] to me. I couldn't get to the generals + high ranking officers of the Marxist movement so I went after the foot soldiers, the chicken shit liberals that vote in these traitorous people. Someone had to get the ball rolling. I volunteered, I hope others do the same, it's the only way we can rid America of this cancer this pestilence!

* * *

I thought I'd do something good for the Country Kill Democrats 'til the cops Kill me
If decent patriotic Americans could vote 3 times in every election we couldn't stem this tide of liberalism that's destroying America.

Liberals are a pest like termites. Millions of them. Each little bite contributes to the downfall of this great nation. The only way we can rid ourselves of this evil is kill them in the streets. Kill them where they gather.
Pay particular attention to that last part. Making your opponents subhuman is a good step towards not thinking twice about killing them.

So, what should be done about the right wing noise machine that fed this man's rage?

Should we indict Bernie Goldberg and his ilk for incitement to murder and put them in prison? No.

Should the families of the victims sue their pants off for spreading that kind of bile? No.

One of the hard parts about applying the First Amendment is that it becomes meaningless if it only applies to speech we like. It's not only competing ideas that are protected, but the means of transmitting them, subject to some very narrow exceptions that I don't think apply here. So, no, there's nothing the law can do. But one would hope that perhaps the purveyors of this swill might think twice the next time they're ready to fire off an eliminationist comment. And maybe the people who listen to it and, more important, the people who pay for it will decide that they don't want to endorse that kind of bile anymore.

Getting Crowded Out There

Usually, when we think of pictures of the Earth taken from space, they're beautiful shots of our little blue marble, hung in the vast void of space. You don't often get pictures that show the increasing amount of junk that's floating around in orbit, however. Over the decades, we as a species has hoisted thousands of things into orbit, many of whom simply don't work any more and are left up there to collect space dust.

It's so crowded that things are starting to smack into each other:

Space officials in Russia and the United States were on Thursday tracking hundreds of pieces of debris that were spewed into space when a U.S. satellite collided with a defunct Russian military satellite.

The crash, which Russian officials said took place on Tuesday at about 1700 GMT (12:00 p.m. EST) above northern Siberia, is the first publicly known satellite collision and has raised concerns about the safety of the manned International Space Station.
So the United States Joint Space Operations Center can add about 600 new pieces of debris to the 18,000 in orbit they were already tracking. That's a lot of junk.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Album of the Day

In Rainbows, by Radiohead (2008): Given my odd musical tastes, it's not surprising that I don't buy a lot of Grammy winners, at least when they're new and fresh. So score this one for me, at least! It won best album in whatever genre ghetto it was stuck ("alternative" I think), but did lose out for Album of the Year. Oh, well, that's probably about right. Every time I listen to In Rainbows I enjoy and admire it, but it lacks something that the previous few albums had. It just doesn't compel me to listen.

Speaking of the Grammys, it was a pretty good year for proggy stuff. In addition to Radiohead, The Mars Volta won an award and Dwezil Zappa's tribute band won an instrumental Grammy for its version of "Peaches en Regalia."

It's On

Less than 90 minutes from now (7pm on espn2), the US kicks off against Mexico in the final round of World Cup Qualifying in Columbus (much to Sven Goran Eriksson's chagrin).

As a US fan, one of the annoying things about playing Latin American opponents, like Mexico, is that games played in this country wind up feeling like road games. Lots of immigrants show up to root on their homeland, rather than their adopted home. That's one reason we're playing this game in Columbus instead of, say, Los Angeles.

Today's LA Times has an interesting column about that topic. The author is of Guatemalan ancestry, but roots for the US internationally. But he has other Latino friends that do just the opposite. It seems to come down to what caught their fancy growing up. Given that there really wasn't much to US soccer before the 1980s, it's not surprising that even second-generation immigrants keep hold of the loyalty to the mother country. Being a plain white mutt American, I never went through that process. I could root for Ireland, I guess, but that's nearly pointless.

In the end, I want to clarify that this only bothers me as a soccer fan. It's more down to being disappointed that my fellow "native" Americans haven't embraced the sport with the fervor of our immigrant communities. As an American, I think it's kind of cool - and possibly unique - that not everybody roots for the Stars and Stripes just because they live here.

Either way - Mexico goes down tonight!

Gotta Get This!

I was once, in my youth, a fairly early adopter of new gizmos. I at least knew what they were and the various merits of the competing brands. But that was then (I only just got a cell phone - it lives in the car and just makes phone calls). This is now:

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Albums of the Day

Peter Gabriel (aka Car) & Peter Gabriel (aka Scratch), by Peter Gabriel: I'm going for a twofer today because I just happened to listen to these first two Gabriel solo discs (1977 and 1978, respectively) this afternoon. They both show a guy stretching out and trying to find his voice as a solo artist, but in much different ways. The first album had Gabriel sampling a variety of styles (from progressive rock to barbershop!), with a fairly consistent success rate. The second album is more cohesive in terms of sound, but falls off greatly in quality after "White Shadow." It wasn't until the next eponymous album (aka Melt) that things really took off.

Paging Martin Luther

I know that Ratzi is trying to reign in some of the more "modern" impulses of the Catholic church, but, really, indulgences? They're making a comeback:

In recent months, dioceses around the world have been offering Catholics a spiritual benefit that fell out of favor decades ago — the indulgence, a sort of amnesty from punishment in the afterlife — and reminding them of the church’s clout in mitigating the wages of sin.
Railing against indulgences was Martin Luther's main shtick back in 1517 when the Reformation was born. The Church flat out sold them back then, which they haven't done since 1567. But that doesn't mean salvation is free - charitable contributions can get you there.

So how, exactly, do these things work?
According to church teaching, even after sinners are absolved in the confessional and say their Our Fathers or Hail Marys as penance, they still face punishment after death, in Purgatory, before they can enter heaven. In exchange for certain prayers, devotions or pilgrimages in special years, a Catholic can receive an indulgence, which reduces or erases that punishment instantly, with no formal ceremony or sacrament.

There are partial indulgences, which reduce purgatorial time by a certain number of days or years, and plenary indulgences, which eliminate all of it, until another sin is committed. You can get one for yourself, or for someone who is dead.
Sorry, folks, but this type of discount eternal punishment scheme is just as silly as thetans and Xenu nuking volcanoes. Different flavor, but same type of silly nonsensical dish.

Hypocrisy, Thy Name Is Bill'O

I know, it's hardly news that Fox News blowhard Bill O'Reilly is a shameless hypocrite. But Jon Stewart nails him particularly effectively for this bit of two facedness:

I'm sure Bill'O will figure out some way to be outraged. Probably send someone to ambush Stewart!

Taken to the Shed

You never want to have a court start its opinion in one of your cases like this:

After pleading guilty to a multiple-count indictment charging,inter alia, two independent firearms counts under 18 U.S.C. § 924(c), Jose and Abraham Beltran-Moreno benefitted from the district court’s erroneous construction of that statute at sentencing. They should have quit while they were ahead.
That's the lede from a recent Ninth Circuit case in which the defendants got a 35-year sentence. Harsh, but better than the mandatory minimum to which they were subject (40 years) and well below the recommended Guideline sentence (life). The sentence was apparently a mistake by the district court, sort of like the "bank error in your favor" card in Monopoly.

Inexplicably, they appealed. Thankfully for them, the Government didn't, so the Ninth couldn't fix the district court's error (thanks to a recent Supreme Court decision). All it could do was reject the arguments and affirm. But along the way, the judges took defense counsel to the woodshed:
The Beltrans’ trial counsel had the good sense not to object to the district court’s sentence, which — given that it was lower than legally permitted — was certainly better than they could have possibly imagined. Their appellate counsel,however, have exhibited anything but good sense. For reasons beyond our understanding, the Beltrans have appealed their sentences . . .

* * *

Counsel do not urge us to reconsider any of these precedents; rather, they appear simply to be ignorant of the controlling law.

* * *

We hope that this case will serve as a strong warning for the defendants’ appellate counsel. Only by the unanticipated fortuity of Greenlaw, combined in Jose’s case with a failure to present persuasive arguments on the merits, have counsel avoided a disposition that would have raised their clients’ terms of incarceration . . .

* * *

While it is ultimately the client’s right to pursue an appeal, we seriously question the quality of counsel’s advice when an appeal with essentially zero potential benefit and a significant opportunity for harm is pursued in such a manner as this one has been. We also remind counsel of their ethical obligations not to present arguments to this court that are legally frivolous. Fortunately, in this instance, counsel did no serious harm to their clients, and have escaped this appeal without the imposition of sanctions. However, in the future, we caution counsel to be more diligent, for their own sakes and, more important, for their clients.
Ouch. That's going to leave a mark.

I have some sympathy for counsel. I've had clients who, no matter how many times it was explained to them, insist on appealing their case (sometimes even where they've waived that right!). But, if the opinion is correct, the arguments they came up with were worthy of an Anders brief, anyway, so I'm not sure why they subjected their clients to the danger of reversal and themselves to being benchslapped like that.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Album of the Day

Misplaced Childhood, by Marillion (1985): Believe it or not, Marillion were once very big in Europe and this album is why. Spurned by a couple of hit singles, Misplaced top the charts across the continent. Granted said singles were pretty much the weakest thing on the album, but that's often the case. As a whole - each of the original album sides ran continuously, although each had five separate tracks - it is perhaps the most distilled example of first wave neo-prog. It's more straight forward and hooky than the 70s giants, but there's definitely a Genesis-inspired sheen all over it. They've come far (and done better) since, but it's still a landmark.

Setting the Record Straight

Bigwig local lawyer Al Emch takes to the pages of the Charleston Daily Mail today to defend West Virginia Supreme Court Justice Brent Benjamin, who is the focus of an upcoming argument at the United States Supreme Court. In doing so, I think he gets some things wrong about the procedural posture of the case that make it look much better for his side than it actually is.

The case has the such a sheen of sensationalism that it inspired a John Grisham novel. In 2004, incumbent Justice Warren McGraw was up for reelection. Anxious to swing the court in a more business favorable direction, A.T. Massey coal company owner Don Blankenship bankrolled an "issue ad" campaign against McGraw to the tune of more than $3 million. That benefited McGraw's general election opponent, Benjamin, who at the time was relatively unknown statewide. Benjamin took his seat on the court, for a 12-year term, in January 2005.

A year later, Massey petitioned to the state Supreme Court to review a $50 million dollar fraud verdict entered against it in the trial court. The winner at the trial, Caperton, asked Benjamin to recuse himself from the case, given the massive aid Blankenship provided to his campaign (albeit indirectly). Benjamin refused, the court reversed the verdict against Massey, and did so again after a rehearing. Caperton sought review from the United States Supreme Court, which will hear oral arguments in the case in early March.

Emch's side may very well have the winning legal argument before the US Supreme Court, I don't know - big dollar civil litigation is not my area of expertise, after all. But in making his case, he makes some dubious conclusions about the process thus far.

First, the lede, which, to be fair, he might not have written, reduces Benjamin to a patsy:

WEST Virginia Supreme Court Chief Justice Brent Benjamin has for months been caught in a vicious cross-fire -- on a battlefield that he did not choose, in a war he did not start -- among combatants with goals that they are all willing to sacrifice him to achieve.
First, Benjamin benefited from Blankenship's huge expenditure during the campaign and never, to my knowledge, sought to distance himself from it. Second, Benjamin is the one who refused to recuse himself from Massey's appeal. Twice. So, he very much chose to be a part of this battle.

Second, about the case itself, Emch writes:
Let us first consider the interests of the party who has brought this matter before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Hugh Caperton had his claims reviewed by the state Supreme Court twice, by no fewer than seven different judges. He lost both times.
Boy, sounds like a dog of a case, huh? What Emch doesn't say is that Caperton won at trial, so both a trial judge and jury were convinced by the strength of his case. Believe me, trial courts and juries get it wrong sometimes, but it's one data point to consider. More importantly, Emch glosses over how close the case was in the state Supreme Court and the role Benjamin played in ensuring Massey's victory.

As I said, Caperton asked Benjamin to step down when the case first came to the state Supreme Court. Benjamin refused. The court heard the case and ruled in Massey's favor, 3-2. In other words, Benjamin was the deciding vote. The court agreed to rehear the case (unanimously, it must be said) after local journalists published photos of Blankenship on vacation in France with Spike Maynard, another justice on the court. Caperton again asked Benjamin to step aside, but he refused (Maynard did, to his credit, as did another justice). On rehearing, the vote again was 3-2. So, yes, Caperton "lost both times" - by a single vote delivered by Benjamin.

Going on, Emch writes:
Unable to win his appeal on the merits, he pursues this collateral attack on Justice Benjamin as a possible end run.

Where in the media reports on this case have we seen an analysis of the substance of the issues involved and the reasoning of our court in ruling on them? Nowhere. The merits are unassailable, which is why Caperton attacks Justice Benjamin instead.
This either is a head fake by someone who knows how the US Supreme Court does business or is written by someone who doesn't know. I'm not sure which to assume.

The United States Supreme Court does not sit to simply correct errors in the courts below. That's doubly true when considering appeals from the state courts. It takes only a handful of cases each year, cases that have broader reach than just the litigants in one case. The US Supreme Court isn't interested in just reviewing the case to ensure justice was done. Some issue of Constitutional import was needed to catch their attention. Thus, in the same way that I weed out the sufficiency of the evidence claim I raise in the Fourth Circuit to focus on the Fourth Amendment issue that might have wider application, Caperton focused on what would get the attention of the Supremes. It's the way the Court works.

On a related note, where, previously, was Caperton to raise this issue in this manner? He asked for the appropriate relief (recusal) at the state Supreme Court. Had Benjamin stepped aside, or been on the losing side, there would be no issue to raise.

Finally, Emch takes on the characterization of the money spent by Blankenship:
Commentators almost invariably characterize Don Blankenship's expenditures through his foundation And For the Sake of the Kids as 'contributing $3,000,000 to Benjamin's campaign' or otherwise suggest that what Don Blankenship did constituted a 'campaign contribution' to Benjamin.

That is false. What Blankenship did was mount an 'issue' campaign against then-Justice Warren McGraw.

While this may have benefited Benjamin's campaign, Blankenship probably cared much more about who lost the election than he did who won it.
This is technically true, but disingenuous. Nobody has argued that Blankenship's money went directly to Benjamin or his campaign, but that he "contributed" to the campaign by helping to ensure McGraw's defeat.

As to whether Blankenship cared "more more about who lost the election than he did who won it," that's hardly relevant. Judicial elections in West Virginia are a zero sum game - for one candidate to lose, the other must win. There is no "none of the above" on the ballot. The only way for McGraw to lose was for Benjamin to win. Thus, if Blankenship cared at all, he cared who won.

I will agree with Emch on one thing. This case has attracted a host of hangers on with axes to grind and issues to press who don't have any connection to West Virginia. Alas, that is also part and parcel to how the US Supreme Court does business.

I only hope that when the Court is done with this case the state can move on to (a) getting a mid-level appellate court and (b) getting rid of judicial elections. Maybe Emch will agree with me on that.

Justice Comes Too Late

It's bad enough when someone spends years in prison for a crime they did not commit. It can wreck their lives, not to mention the lives of family and friends, but at least they get to one day walk free. Timothy Cole never will. He was exonerated last week in Texas for a rape he didn't commit, but he died in prison in 1999. TalkLeft and NPR have the details of a story the judge called "the saddest case" he'd ever seen.

Using the case as a jumping off point, Dan Solove at Concurring Opinions raises a troublesome issue:

This case illustrates how our criminal justice system punishes the innocent more harshly than the guilty.
It's frightening, but true. How may times have we had an execution that nobody will stop because the condemned won't "admit what he did"? On a more industrial level, the Sentencing Guidelines, as Solove points out, encourage guilty pleas and punish going to trial.

Some type of systemic reform is necessary, but it's not really clear what it should be. Eliminate guilty pleas? Do away with sentencing benefits for pleading guilty? I don't know. But before anything changes, more people will have to start caring about the problem. I won't hold my breath in anticipation.

The Gift That Keeps On Giving

Last week I blogged about the backlash against the Pope's refrocking of an excommunicated Bishop, Richard Williamson, who just happens to be a Holocaust denier. The Pope has asked/ordered Williamson to recant his denial, which has led him to promise to read up a bit, at least.

But the understandable furor over the Holocaust denial has led most folks to overlook Williamson's other loony beliefs (outside the garden variety Catholic woo, of course). These have come to light after a Canadian website for his order, the Society of Saint Pius X, tried to disappear some of his older letters down the memory hole. Guess they don't teach their charges about Google's cache!

For one thing, he's a grand master conspiracy theorist, seeing vast plots in everything from the sinking of the Maine to the attack on Pearl Harbor to the 9/11 attacks. Of course, that dovetails nicely with the the anti-Semitism of the Holocaust denial and comments like:

In the same letter, the Bishop wrote that both Muslims and Jews were 'a scourge to punish faithless Christians” and that 'the United States is now caught precisely between these two scourges of God.'
Seeing as how the Jews were here first, it's impressive that they're a scourge of the Johnny Come Lately Christians!

But, as they say on TV, that's not all. Williamson doesn't much like women, either:
In one letter from 2001, addressed to his 'friends and benefactors' in Canada, Bishop Williamson came down firmly against college education for women, arguing that 'women going to university is part of the whole massive onslaught on God’s Nature which characterizes our times,' and concluding: 'True universities are for ideas, ideas are not for true girls, so true universities are not for true girls.' In the same letter the Bishop also asserted that for women, wearing trousers was another violation against nature and should be discouraged.
Oh, noes! The girlfriend has ideas! Real ideas of her own, not even ones that I tell her to have! Is she not a “true girl?” Since I’m in love with her, am I not a “real boy?” Do I need to go track down the Blue Fairy? Wait a sec – am I a blue fairy?!? Fuck!

Friday, February 06, 2009

Album of the Day

Another Green World, by Brian Eno (1975): My first foray into electronica and I didn't even realize it at the time. I picked this up used at a place that allows you to look at the liner notes before you buy, so when I saw the lineup of people contributing (Phil Collins, Percy Jones, Robert Fripp) and encouraging (Fred Frith, Ian MacDonald, Phil Manzanera, Pete Townshend, Robert Wyatt), I had to check it out. I'm glad I did. It treads a fine line between sonic experimentation and pop sensibilities. The results are always interesting and frequently catchy. You can't beat that!

A Little Late for Image Control

It looks like the only sponsor of Michael Phelps that is going to bail on him in light of his bong picture from The News of the World is Kellogg, because:

The Battle Creek, Mich.-based company said Thursday that Phelps's behavior _ caught on camera and published Sunday in the British tabloid News of the World _ is 'not consistent with the image of Kellogg.'
Hmm, I've never really thought about the image of Kellogg before, but I don't think a stoner will hurt it:
This would be the same company that for decades has been encouraging children to start the day by inhaling sugar by the spoonful. It's also the company that still proudly bears the name of the man who advocated yogurt enemas and pouring carbolic acid on the clitoris to prevent women from experiencing sexual pleasure.
And that leaves out his fondness for eugenics. What a guy!

It reminds me of an episode of The Simpsons where Lisa disrupts Springfield's bicentennial festivities with the revelation that the town found was, in fact, a notorious pirate rather than a Founding Father. The sponsors aren't happy:
Quimby: You are tampering with forces you cannot understand. We have major corporations sponsoring this event.

Lisa: I hope you know you're sponsoring a celebration of a murderous pirate.

Man: A pirate? Well, that's hardly the image we want for Long John Silver's!

Thursday, February 05, 2009

What I Do

I'm sure there are sometimes, dear reader(s), when I mention "autocross" and you think to yourself, "what the heck is that?" Well, here's a good news story about it, from NBC News, of all places:

Album of the Day

High Tension Wires, by Steve Morse (1989): What makes an album a "solo" album? If you're just one of many guys in a band and you make an album under your own name, that surely counts. But what about someone like Steve Morse? He was the driving force behind The Dregs, as the primary song writer. After they split up, rather than forge on under just his own name, he recorded two albums with "The Steve Morse Band," which, obviously, he led. Nonetheless, for this disc he drops the "Band" and says, in the liner notes "[t]his is my first actual solo album." Regardless, it's my favorite of his, full of lots of influences and Steve's tasty guitar playing. So maybe it doesn't matter at all what it's called?

For what it's worth, a true solo album to me means the guy with the name has "final say," as Bill Bruford put it in the notes for Feels Good to Me. It's all about where the buck stops.

Blinded By Junk Science

Prosecutors like to moan about the so-called "CSI effect," which causes juries to want more and better forensic evidence during criminal trials than usually exists. Shows like CSI, its spinoffs and imitators, take such dramatic license with forensics that it leaves jurors thinking something might be hidden from them. In reality, the kind of forensic science portrayed on those shows just doesn't apply in most cases. For instance, I had a prosecutor tell me during an evidence review for a habeas case years ago that in the 20 years he'd been in the office he'd never had a trial that involved fingerprints.

The flip side of that concern is one that worries defense attorneys - that jurors tend to treat whatever scientific evidence the prosecution puts on as being more along the lines of divine revealed truth than potentially false evidence. Which is why a forthcoming report from the National Academy of Sciences may signal a seismic shift in the field:

The report by the National Academy of Sciences is to be released this month. People who have seen it say it is a sweeping critique of many forensic methods that the police and prosecutors rely on, including fingerprinting, firearms identification and analysis of bite marks, blood spatter, hair and handwriting.

The report says such analyses are often handled by poorly trained technicians who then exaggerate the accuracy of their methods in court. It concludes that Congress should create a federal agency to guarantee the independence of the field, which has been dominated by law enforcement agencies, say forensic professionals, scholars and scientists who have seen review copies of the study. Early reviewers said the report was still subject to change.
Of course, just plain old bad science isn't the only problem. There's completely made up science, too. West Virginians (and Texans) will remember the sorry tale of Fred Zain, a forensic chemist with the West Virginia State Police. As set forth in this report from the state supreme court, Zain made up evidence on numerous cases that sent innocent people to prison.

Jurors would be well advised to be skeptical of all evidence presented at trial, regardless of who presents it. It doesn't become magically trustworthy because it's presented by the prosecution or comes from the lips of a police officer or the witness has a bunch of extra letters after her name.

Becks Is A Putz

Let me first say that, as a DC United fan, I've always felt that David Beckham was a putz. Still, his recent declaration that he'd rather stay with AC Milan than return to the Galaxy next season increases his putziness. Ever since Becks was loaned out, most thought he was probably gone for good. Still, for a man who once said this:

'I'm coming there not be a superstar,' the 31-year-old Beckham said Friday via satellite from Madrid. 'I'm coming there to be part of the team, to work hard and to hopefully win things.

'With me, it's about football. I'm coming there to make a difference. I'm coming there to play football.'

* * *

He's joining a so-so team in Major League Soccer, considered sort of bush league by fans in the more fervent soccer countries around the world.

'I'm not saying me coming over to the States is going to make soccer the biggest sport in America. That would be difficult to achieve,' Beckham said. 'Baseball, basketball, American football, they've been around.

'But I wouldn't be doing this if I didn't think I could make a difference.'
The idea, at the time, was that a few seasons of Becks playing for the Galaxy would put more butts in seats (who would hopefully get hooked), raise the profile of MLS a little bit around the world, and general add some star power to the American soccer scene. The butts came, but not much else, and this departure will probably confirm to the doubters that MLS is just bush league.

That said, I tend to agree with Ives that MLS will overcome any negative hit that comes from Becks heading to Italy. Of course, with Becks setting sail and Landon Donovan probably gone to German power Bayern Munich, the Galaxy may be in a heap of trouble for next season. But as a DC United fan, I'm OK with that.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Album of the Day

New York Suite, by Magenta (2006): It says something about the CD age that this "EP" finds itself in the order amidst full-length albums from the LP era. As I understand it, Magenta had more than enough material for a one-disc concept album, Home, but not enough to stretch over two discs. So main man Robert Reed stripped out these tunes and repurposed then for a separate EP. I suppose maybe that's why they leave me unimpressed, as they're basically B-sides. Credit them, I guess, for not going all Flower Kings and adding even more filler to the main album to make it worth two discs. Not bad, but not good enough to make me seek out their other stuff.

The Rivalry: A History

A week from tonight, the United States kicks off the final round of World Cup Qualifying against Mexico. While, in the end, the results of the two matches between us won't matter much in the qualification process, that doesn't mean the rivalry isn't as hot as ever.

If you're curious about the US/Mexico rivalry through the years, this piece over at ESPNsoccernet will get you up to speed. It was not always as contentious as it is now:

For nearly 57 years following the 1934 World Cup, soccer in the U.S. struggled, with players either changing sports or performing in obscurity. Nor would the U.S. achieve a significant result against Mexico. The U.S. did take a 2-1 decision over the Mexicans in a 1980 qualifier, but it had already been eliminated and only 2,126 spectators bothered to show up for the match in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
By contrast, a game these days - even a friendly - can draw 60,000+ fans. Unfortunately, most of them are still rooting for Mexico, but that's changing. Should be a very home friendly crowd in Columbus next week.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Album of the Day

Nursery Cryme, by Genesis (1971): When I got the last of the Genesis box sets last year, which collected the Gabriel-era albums in remixed form, I found myself actually listening to them more closely than I had in years. Nursery Cryme is one of those albums where the three big tracks - "The Musical Box," "The Return of the Giant Hogweed", and "The Fountain of Salmacis" - became fan and concert favorites but the rest of the album kind of slipped off the radar. That's a shame, 'cause there are a couple of gems in there. "Seven Stones" and "Harold the Barrel," in particular. They're not masterpieces, by any means, but they round out the album nicely.

In the end, Nursery Cryme was an album where the band was still really feeling their way around, particular with two new members in tow. Nevertheless, it works on its own, not just as a springboard to the masterpieces to come.

Ratzi's Backlash

It's certainly none of my business who the Pope decides to kick out of or let back in his little club, but I'm nonetheless amused by his latest controversy. Last month, he lifted the excommunication of four bishops from a regressive sect that yearns for the pre-Vatican II days to return. Part of that group was Richard Williamson who is, of all things, a Holocaust denier:

Last November, British-born Bishop Williamson angered Jewish leaders across the world when he told Swedish TV: 'I believe there were no gas chambers [during World War II].'

He said he believed that up '300,000 Jews perished in Nazi concentration camps but none of them by gas chambers'.
If you're new to the lunacy that his Holocaust denial, historian Deborah Lipstadt takes Williamson's statements (which are pretty standard for that crowd) apart here.

Not surprisingly, Ratzi's decision has perplexed and offended lots of folks, including German chancellor Angela Merkel. Jewish groups are none too happy, as you might expect. I just don't see the positive side in his decision. But, like I said, I'm hardly an expert on inside Catholic politics, so maybe he has a good reason to welcome back an anti-Semite denialist.

The Horror!

It was big "news" over the weekend when a British tabloid got a picture of US Olympic hero and swim freak Michael Phelps taking a hit off a bong. Predictably, Phelps apologized:

“I engaged in behaviour which was regrettable and demonstrated bad judgment. I’m 23 years old and despite the successes I’ve had in the pool, I acted in a youthful and inappropriate way, not in a manner people have come to expect from me. For this, I am sorry. I promise my fans and the public it will not happen again,” Phelps said in a statement.
His career, the Times intones "may now be tarnished beyond repair." They may be right, but I tend to agree with Ed's take over at Dispatches from the Culture Wars:
Give me a break. Maybe this should send a message of truth to children -- and adults -- that pot is not some terrible drug that ruins your life, no matter how much the government lies to you. Having a few bong hits at a party is no more a problem for him or a threat to morality or the public good than the head of the USOC having a glass of wine or a martini. I'm far more worried about the pervasive lies the government tells about pot to children than this allegedly bad message.
Notwithstanding Government propaganda to the contrary, all drugs are not created equal. The idea that pot is as dangerous as meth or heroin is just silly. The only reason pot may be a "gateway" drug is that, in order to get it, people have to deal with a black market that also offers much more dangerous products. Legalize it and that problem vanishes.

The Definition of Awesome

Top Gear + ski jump + rocket-powered Mini. What's not to love?

Monday, February 02, 2009

Album of the Day

The Sky Is Crying, by Stevie Ray Vaughn & Double Trouble (1991): I know that this is a compilation album, pulled together from left over bits from older albums after Stevie died, but it's my favorite of his. There are no weak moments, although the title track and the version of Jimi's "Little Wing" really stand out. As does "Life By the Drop," which gives me the same lump in the throat feeling that Kevin Gilbert's "Song For a Dead Friend" does. It feels like Stevie was singing a song about the way people would feel once he was gone. Maybe I read to much into it, but it knocks me out every time.

The Most Human of Errors

Usually when a plane crashes, or there is some other type of accident, we hear a lot about "human error." About how the weak link in the chain wasn't some piece of equipment or complex mechanical system, but the chump at the controls. In most cases, the error a question is a mistake, not an intentional act. It has the air of tragedy, not criminality.

Is say all that as an introduction to this story in yesterday's New York Times (via TalkLeft):

A new examination of wrongful convictions in New York City and around the state found that a number of them stemmed not from DNA evidence being used to prove someone’s innocence, but from a far older phenomenon: human error.

The report, released on Friday by the New York State Bar Association, studied the cases of 53 men and women whose convictions were overturned, often after spending years, sometimes decades, in prison for murders, rapes and other crimes they did not commit.
But here's the thing - they're using a very broad definition of "human error." One that includes any human action, regardless of intent or motivation. That doesn't really fit for some of the instances cataloged:
Betty Tyson spent 25 years in prison before her murder conviction was overturned in 1998. She was convicted of strangling a Philadelphia businessman in Rochester in 1973, largely as a result of the testimony of two teenagers who said they had seen her with the victim.

One of the teenagers later recanted his account, and a police report of an interview with the other teenager, in which the witness said he did not see Ms. Tyson with the victim, was suppressed by the police and never given to her lawyers at the time of the trial, according to the report and news accounts.

James Walker was convicted in 1971 of murdering an armored car driver in Brooklyn, based on the testimony of an informant. But the report stated that the prosecutor and the lead detective in the case suppressed the fact that the informant had actually implicated a second man and that a surviving victim had seen Mr. Walker in a lineup but selected another person. Mr. Walker served 19 years in prison and was freed in 1990.
Notice anything about those two anecdotes? They are not cases of accident or negligence. They are cases of police misconduct. That's not tragic, that's criminal, and those responsible should be treated accordingly.

Warner Lays Blame

And it's Jesus's fault:

Tampa, FL (KE) -- Kurt Warner, the 37-year-old veteran quarterback for the Arizona Cardinals, blamed the Christian God for the team's heartbreaking loss to the Pittsburg [sic] Steelers in Sunday night's Superbowl XLIII. Speaking to a pool of gathered reporters outside the team's locker room, Warner stated, 'I always credit God for my victories and earlier this week I said I had an advantage in tonight's game because of the power of Jesus. Clearly, however, Jesus let me down. And so I am not responsible for tonight's loss. If you want someone to blame, this one is 100% on the man upstairs.'
Well, OK, not really. But wouldn't that be great, just once? It's amusing, nonetheless. Almost as amusing as the folks in the comment thread who thought it might be real.

All About (British) Prog

Just recently, the BBC produced a 90-minute history of British progressive rock. Well, the first wave in the late 1960s/early 1970s, anyway. Not surprisingly, it's shown up on YouTube in three half-hour chunks:

Part 1: 1967-1970

Part 2: 1970-1973
Part 3: 1973-1977

It's a good overview of the British scene, with some interesting interviews. In particular, it deals with more than the "big 5" and pays some welcome attention to the Canterbury groups (nice interviews with Robert Wyatt and Mont Campbell).

Highly recommended if you're a fan. If not, and you sometimes wonder what I go on about when I talk prog, here's your chance to do some learnin'.