Monday, March 30, 2009

Album of the Day (Special Edition)

The Hazards of Love, by The Decemberists (2009): I was off in Richmond last week (hence, light blogging then), and so was unable to score a copy of the new Decemberists opus. Thankfully, the girlfriend was looking out for me and brought a copy down with her for the weekend - thanks, honey! Laid up ill today (and, perhaps, for a few more days - hence, more light blogging), I had a chance to lay down and listen to it, curled up with the liner notes and everything. That's important, as it's basically one long piece of music (17 separate tracks segued together) that tells a story. That's right, friends - it's a concept album!

And a damned fine one, at that. I agree with what some people have said that it's sort of a mix between The Tain and The Crane Wife. One thing, for sure - it rocks harder than anything else they've done. Granted, if your favorite Decemberists stuff is the shorter catchier stand alone tunes, this one probably will not rock your world. Which is too bad, really.

Elder Porn?

Eugene Volokh has a post over at VC about an interesting development in Massachusetts, where a law has been proposed that would make it a crime to, among other things, produce pornography using folks over 60 years of age:

The law is not limited to people who are mentally handicapped and thus unable to consent, or who are photographed against their will by their caretakers (the justification discussed in this story). The operative provisions cover people over 60 and the disabled whether or not they are incompetent. One provision, relating to people's being "deemed incapable of consenting," would cover only "an elder or a person with a disability adjudicated as incompetent by a court of the commonwealth," but I don't see how this would stop liability under the other provisions, since consent is no defense under the other provisions in any event.
As Eugene points out, the law would essentially treat this stuff like child porn, i.e., very severely.

I'm sympathetic to the idea of protecting folks who can't consent or are otherwise disabled from being exploited. But what's the deal with the blanket age restrictions? I've got no desire to check out a bunch of nekkid grandparents, but surely somebody does.

Assuming a bunch of 60+ fully consenting geezers want to provide them with material, why should the state step in to "protect" them? Isn't it incredibly ageist to assume that just because someone was born before 1949 they can't protect themselves from being exploited? Not to mention, it seems to reinforce the notion so central to our culture that "youth=sexy," which exacerbate the kiddy porn issue.

Really, is there a need here?

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Snitches Lie

Here's another one from the "no shit" file. In what is reported to be the first study of its type (via TalkLeft), researchers have discovered that people who are given "incentives" for "secondary confessions" - i.e., snitches who are doing it to help themselves out - are likely to be bullshitting:

A study by psychology researchers Jessica K. Swanner and Denise R. Beike investigated how 129 research volunteers would respond if offered an incentive for information and found that incentives tended to increase the reporting of false information.

'The results of our study were interesting but discouraging,' Beike said. 'An incentive actually did the opposite. It brought forward not the reluctant informant, but the opportunistic.'
According to the abstract of the study (linked at TalkLeft), the researches thought going in that giving incentives would really increase veracity. I have no idea why and imagine they must not have spent a lot of time in the criminal justice system.

Does this mean that every time someone comes forward and drops a dime on someone he or she is lying? No. It means that lawyers, judges, and juries should be very skeptical of such evidence when it is presented and not take it at face value.

UPDATE: A couple of things, spurred by the comment of Anonymous (who may, or may not, be who s/he says s/he is).

First, the link at TalkLeft I referenced is actually a press release type device, not an abstract. My bad.

Second, I may have misread a quote attributed to one of the researchers, to wit:
With the use of incentives, we should have seen an increase in true secondary confessions. But an incentive actually did the opposite.
My reading of "we should have seen" is equivalent to "this is what we thought would happen." I suppose you could read it as "in a perfect world, it would be good if this would happen," but the research didn't back that up. I'll admit I could be wrong, but it's not exactly clear. If I am wrong, I apologize for the flippant remark above.

Regardless, the important part of this story is not what the researchers thought they would discover going in, but what they actually did learn in the end. And, for that, I thank them for their efforts.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Album of the Day

Harbor Lights, by Bruce Hornsby (1993): This album kicked of Bruce 2.0, if you will. He left The Range behind and started putting on record the more extended and instrumentally interesting pop/jazz/bluegrass hybrids that popped up during live shows. The basic trio of Bruce, John Molo (drums), and Jimmy Haslip (bass) is augmented by such high profile guests as Pat Metheny, Branford Maralis, Bonnie Raitt, and Jerry Garcia. It's a brilliant reinvention, one that served as a solid foundation for the next phase of his career.

Guard Your Dying Tongue

It might be true that someone who knows he's about to die have no motive to lie about something, but that doesn't mean it's a good idea to get all verbose at such moments. You might just get better:

A US man who thought he was dying and confessed to having killed a neighbour in 1977 has been charged with murder after making a recovery, US media say.

* * *

Convinced he was dying after a stroke, Mr Brewer reportedly admitted to police he shot dead 20-year-old Jimmy Carroll.

The 58-year-old, who had fled Tennessee after the killing, was arrested after his condition improved, reports say.
See, it never pays to talk about crimes, even with one foot in the grave.

Blame the Charts

Someone once said (my Google-fu is weak today, I can't figure out who) that we change something by measuring it. That's why "reality TV" is such a contradiction in terms - by definition, filming what people do changes what they're doing. A corollary of that principle might be that by changing the way we measure something, we can change how it develops.

That's the operative theory behind this piece over at HuffPo by John "Don't Call Me Cougar" Mellencamp. He blames the downward spiral of the music industry on the change in how the charts were figured back in the 1980s:

At this very same time, new Nielsen monitoring systems -- BDS (Broadcast Data Systems) and SoundScan were employed to document record sales and radio airplay. Prior to 1991, the Billboard charts were done by manual research; radio stations and record stores across the country were polled to determine what was on their playlists and what the big sellers were. Thus, giving Oklahoma City, for example, an equivalent voice to Chicago's in terms of potential impact on the music scene. BDS keeps track of gross impressions through an encoded system that counts the number of plays or "spins" that a song receives. That number is, thereafter, multiplied by the number of potential listeners. SoundScan was put in place at retail centers to track sales by monitoring scanned barcodes of units crossing the counter. A formula was devised whereby the charts were based 20% on the SoundScan number and 80% on BDS results. The system had changed from one that measured popularity to one that was driven by population.

Record companies soon discovered that because of BDS, they only needed to concentrate on about 12 radio stations; there was no longer a business rationale for working secondary markets that were soon forgotten -- despite the fact that these were the very places where rock and roll was born and thrived. Why pay attention to Louisville -- worth a comparatively few potential listeners -- when the same one spin in New York, Los Angeles or Atlanta, etc., was worth so many more potential listeners?
That makes some sense, but I'm not sure things weren't headed that way long before. The music biz underwent a huge shift in the 1970s, particularly as artists started filling arenas and stadia. It was no longer enough for an artist to make some money for the company over a long term. Instant and, preferably, huge success was more important.

It reminds me of something Bill Bruford said once about Ahmet Ertegun, the founder of Atlantic Records in one of the old Yes documentaries (Atlantic was home to Yes for years). He said that the early record labels were started by guys like Ertegun who were basically zealous collectors. In other words, passionate about the music itself, not so much the biz. Once that generation was passed by, the paradigm shifted.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Album of the Day

Absolution, by Muse (2003): Muse is one of those bands that isn't really prog, but gets mentioned a lot in prog circles (ProgArchives puts them in the "prog related" ghetto). I don't really see why, in particular, but I like lots of stuff on this album, regardless. I particularly like the thundering use of piano here and there, which adds a nice touch. I'll definitely check out some more of their stuff.


Neil Gaiman makes up the stuff about the dead people!

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I'm so crestfallen . . .

Having the Last Word

It may come as a shock to some people but we do still prosecute moonshiners in this country. My office winds up representing people in those cases every now and then. One of the more famous shiners, Marvin "Popcorn" Sutton, was recently convicted and sentenced to 18 months in prison. He was 62 years old.

Rather than report to prison yesterday, he killed himself. But he went out with a message, courtesy of his custom made tombstone:

See a picture here. It's not how I'd go out, but he certainly did it his way.


More like dialing for dollars:

Information Age Prayer. For the low, low price of $3.95 a month, they will run your prayer of choice through a voice synthesizer every day, and allow the computer to speak to god for you. Is a loved one sick? For only $9.95 per month, the computer will beg god to help them 5 times a day!
Assuming, for the sake of argument, that there is someone/thing up there to beseech, don't you think it would piss her off awfully bad to have the help do it?!?

I think I'll start up a companion service, maybe to allow people to pay to have someone entreat Satan on their behalf to do some bad things. I could do it for less than $3.95 a pop and still make a killing!

The Myth of Fingerprints

Remember the National Academy of Sciences report I blogged about last month about the sorry state of forensic science in this country? Today's LA Times has a column that looks at one of the most widely used and venerated parts of the field and its particular problems. Starting more than 100 years ago, there have been questions raised about fingerprints:

But by the time of Stratton's trial in 1905, fingerprinting had moved from the realm of scientists to that of police agencies.

Faulds was sitting silently at the defense table, Beavan wrote, stewing bitterly. The limitations of his technique were being ignored.

'The least smudginess in the printing of them might easily veil important divergences ... with appalling results,' Faulds wrote in a book that year. Police were 'apt to misunderstand or overstrain, in their natural eagerness to secure convictions.'

His warnings were ignored. Jurors took just two hours to decide Stratton's fate, with the fingerprint as the only piece of evidence linking him to the crime. He and his brother were hanged 19 days later.

The concerns Faulds raised would go unanswered and largely ignored for decades as fingerprints became definitive proof of identity. What had started as a hypothesis for 19th century scientists became an article of faith for forensic scientists and the courts in the 20th century, says Michael Saks, the author of several articles on the social history of identification sciences.
That article faith has sent many people to prison, and maybe a few to their deaths. How many were innocent? We'll never know, until someone is willing to launch off the Fingerprint Reformation.

Sober Deleting Won't Trump Drunk Bestiality

Somewhat along the lines of yesterday's post about anonymity on the Web, chances are lots of what you've "deleted" from your hard drive is actually still there. Generally, all deleting does is relabel that space as available for use, it doesn't actually erase it. That "unallocated disc space" can be a rich source of embarrassment, and criminality, if someone knows to go look through it.

Which means, it's never a good idea to point somebody in that direction. Like this woman, who while in the drunk tank accused her boyfriend of looking for child porn while on her computer. Unfortunately:

According to a police affidavit . . . a cop told Owen that he had found videos of her on the laptop and asked if she 'knew what those files might be.' Owen, pictured in the below mug shot, replied, 'The one with the dog.' Cops believe that the dog in question, Toby, is a beagle. After asking if she was 'going to be charged with this," Owen said that the videos "were just something she did when she was drunk and barely remembers it,' adding that she tried to 'delete them the next day when she was sober.'
Damn that demon alcohol and those seductive beagles!

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Album of the Day

Inferno, by Squonk Opera (2001): Squonk Opera isn't actually a band. It's a theater group from Pittsburgh that specializes in multi-media avant garde musical productions, several of which have made it to CD. I was vaguely familiar with the name and picked up their first album (which really is just an album) a little while back. It intrigued me enough to pick this one up when I saw it at Paul's last year. Inferno is inspired by Dante's poem, but is set in Centralia, Pennsylvania, a town that rests on top of an ongoing coal mine fire. It's certainly not Oklahoma! and it's ilk, but it has its own charms.

There's Crazy, Then There's Batshit Insane

Wow, they really are tougher in Texas. You'd think this would qualify someone was legally insane in just about anybody's book:

While in the Grayson County Jail five days after his arrest, Thomas plucked out his right eye. A judge subsequently ruled he was competent to stand trial.

Last December, a death row officer at the Polunsky Unit of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice found Thomas in his cell with blood on his face and had him taken to the unit infirmary. Thomas told officials he had pulled out his remaining eye and ate it.

He was taken to a hospital for treatment, then was transferred to a prison psychiatric unit.
Case closed, right? Nope:
A condemned Texas inmate who removed his only eye and ate it in a bizarre outburst several months ago on death row is "crazy," yet sane under state law, a judge wrote in an appellate court ruling Wednesday that rejected his appeals.

* * *

Thomas 'is clearly 'crazy,' but he is also 'sane' under Texas law,' Judge Cathy Cochran wrote in a 14-page statement accompanying the court's brief order.
Look, I know that the legal definition of insanity is much more narrow than the medical definition, much less the popular conception of crazy. Nonetheless, someone not named Oedipus who plucks out his own eyes, then eats one for good measure, should probably get the benefit of the doubt.

There Goes Your Anonymity

I've argued, on more than one occasion, that thinking you can be anonymous on in the Internet is a fool's game. People who spout off about their jobs, spouses, or what have you online and then get angry when someone calls them on it aggravate me to no end.

Along those lines, over at Findlaw Julie Hilden looks at the issue of when a court can force an ISP to disclose the identity of of an anonymous poster in a defamation case. She endorses the approach from Maryland's highest court, which held that:

the plaintiff must establish facts sufficient to make out a prima facie case as to each of the elements of defamation, including damages and, if such a case is made, the court must balance the defendant's First Amendment right to anonymity against the plaintiff's right to seek a remedy for claimed defamation in deciding whether to unmask the defendant.
But she also calls for a federal standard to apply nationally, which might not be a bad idea.

So, remember folks - before you badmouth somebody online, think about whether you can afford to pay the bill!

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Album of the Day

When Dream and Day Unite, by Dream Theater (1989): Since I've been rolling with a theme of "when lead singers leave," here's another one that fits the bill. Charlie Domenici is sort of the John Rutsey of Dream Theater, appearing on their debut album and then disappearing into the ether. Although James LaBrie certainly has his off nights (e.g., lots of Once in a LIVETime), he's got a better metal screamer style voice. He suits DT's material better. That being said, this is still a pretty excellent album, especially for a debut. I wouldn't want to live without "Only a Matter of Time" in my collection.

Who Says Racism Is Dead?

Over the weekend, a 73-year old cancer survivor in Homer, Louisiana, was gunned down by cops while hosting a backyard barbecue (via Reason). He was black, the shooters were white. Coincidence? Apparently not:

"People here are afraid of the police," said Terry Willis, vice president of the Homer branch of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People. "They harass black people, they stop people for no reason and rough them up without charging them with anything."

That is how it should be, responded Homer Police Chief Russell Mills, who noted the high rates of gun and drug arrests in the neighborhood.

"If I see three or four young black men walking down the street, I have to stop them and check their names," said Mills, who is white. "I want them to be afraid every time they see the police that they might get arrested.
Credit Mills for his honesty. That doesn't change the fact that he's a bigot who needs to hand in his badge right now.

More on Those AIG Bonuses

A quick follow up on yesterday's post about the AIG bonuses, on the day that AIG's CEO got smacked around by a House committee. Big Tent Democrat over at TalkLeft reprints an Email he received from "a person knowledgeable about the inner workings of AIG over the last decade" that explains some of the background. Anonymous makes two relevant points.

First, he argues that most of the employees at AIG, including most of those getting the bonuses, didn't have anything to do with the toxic stuff that caused the firm's collapse. That includes the CEO who was getting whipped up on the Hill today, as he just came on the job last September.

Second, these bonuses are not what most people traditionally consider "bonuses." They are not rewards for good performance. Rather, they are rewards for staying with the firm. Most important, the payments being made now are the reward for a promise made a year or two ago to hang around. In other words, it's the carrot that was dangled in front of these folks before the shit hit the fan. That puts these payments in a different light.

I'm still not sold on whether there's not something that can be done about these bonuses, but I'm starting to come around a bit.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Album of the Day

Vigil in a Wilderness of Mirrors, by Fish (1990): Since last week I highlighted the first Marillion album after Fish split with the band, it seemed only natural to highlight his first solo album, too. The split was certainly on his mind, both lyrically ("View From a Hill" is essentially about the breakup) and visually (the original gatefold artwork included bums with the faces of two Marillion members huddled around a trash fire). I think Fish definitely got the shorter end of the stick after the parting of the ways, but his debut was easily as strong (if not better) than Seasons End. It's just that, while Marillion went onwards and upwards, Fish never really got that mojo back.

Jury Service in the Age of Twitter

If you aren't a regular reader of Doonesbury, you really should go check out the last couple of weeks of strips. Press legend Roland Hedley (who made it back alive from a quest to find Reagan's brain) has embraced the newest Net gadget, Twitter, and has promptly disappeared up his own bellybutton (while on camera for Fox News). It's not that far fetched, given that we now live in an era when people take hands-free cellphone calls in the middle of Kroger and Congressmen can't even sit through a Presidential address without sending something pithy out over the Web.

How bad has it gotten? The all-consuming access to the Web has started to infiltrate the jury room:

Last week, a juror in a big federal drug trial in Florida admitted to the judge that he had been doing research on the case on the Internet, directly violating the judge’s instructions and centuries of legal rules. But when the judge questioned the rest of the jury, he got an even bigger shock.

Eight other jurors had been doing the same thing. The federal judge, William J. Zloch, had no choice but to declare a mistrial, wasting eight weeks of work by federal prosecutors and defense lawyers.
And, yes, Twitter is getting involved, too:
Last week, a building products company asked an Arkansas court to overturn a $12.6 million judgment against it after a juror used Twitter to send updates during the civil trial.

And on Monday, defense lawyers in the federal corruption trial of a former Pennsylvania state senator, Vincent J. Fumo, demanded that the judge declare a mistrial after a juror posted updates on the case on Twitter and Facebook. The juror even told his readers that a “big announcement” was coming Monday. But the judge decided to let the trial continue, and the jury found Mr. Fumo guilty. His lawyers plan to use the Internet postings as grounds for appeal.
Jurors have always ignored judges warnings about outside sources of information. I remember a big murder conviction in Charleston when I was in school that had to be reversed because a juror brought a newspaper with coverage of the trial into the jury room during deliberations. The defendant got a new trial and was convicted again. Curiously, the outrage was directed at him and his lawyers, not the juror who ignored the judge's instructions.

But modern technology makes such situations much more likely than in the past. It's just so easy (and tempting, apparently) to jurors to misbehave. Although I'm a big fan of technology in general and the Net in particular, I'm starting to wonder if we are becoming too infatuated with being in constant contact with it at all times.

On Those AIG Bonuses

Like most folks, when I heard over the weekend that failed insurance giant AIG, which owes its continued existence to a huge infusion of federal bailout funds, was paying out $165 million in bonuses, I was a little pissed. It just defies common sense that the same folks who brought the company to ruin should be rewarded, right?

But the ferocity of the widespread backlash, which has led to the President to order his people to explore all legal means of stopping the bonuses and one GOP Senator to suggest AIG executives kill themselves, gives me pause. After all, the riled up mob very rarely gets it completely right and tends to not do nuance all that well. Is there a justification for still paying these bonuses?

Andrew Ross Sorkin over at the New York Times gives it a go, but it's not all that persuasive. He basically puts forward two arguments.

One, which is what the AIG execs are citing, is that the bonus payments are required by contracts which cannot be broken. Sorkin argues that breaking those obligations will have long term aftershocks that will outweigh the short term good feelings gained by stopping the bonus payments. There are a few problems with that. For one, no contract is unbreakable, as this post over at Concurring Opinions suggests a myriad of grounds that might apply. For another, given that AIG wouldn't exist right now but for the bailout, and the bonuses would have evaporated as well, it's a bit amazing that they would survive the upheaval.

Sorkin's other argument is basically that the folks who are getting these bonuses are needed to fix their own fuckup. It's a combination of the "need to maintain the best and brightest" argument with the "these folks are the only ones who know where the bomb is buried" argument. That assumes, of course, that AIG's situation is so unique that nobody from the outside could figure it out. But even if it is, imagine the long term message that sends - if you can fuck things up comprehensively enough, you'll be rewarded for helping to fix it. It will hardly discourage this sort of thing in the future.

So, I'm open to convincing that these payments should get made, but I'm a long way from convinced.

Fast Art

There was a time, back in the 1970s, when the rules for race car color schemes were changing. The traditional national racing colors (Italian red, German silver, British green, etc.) were giving way to sponsor-driven livery, but there was still some room for something truly original.

So in 1975, Herve Poulain got a friend, Alexander Calder, to come up with a nifty paint scheme for the BMW 3.0 CSL that he would drive at Le Mans that year (photo from here):

That's when the BWM Art Cars were born, with future installments from such luminaries as Roy Licthenstein and Andy Warhol. All 16 are on display in New York right now, which prompts this good story from the New York Times. Be sure and check out the photo gallery for pix of all 16.

Talk About Cognitive Dissonance

This blurb from USA Today's website fascinates me:

An Episcopal priest in Seattle is fighting attempts by Rhode Island Episcopal Bishop Geralyn Wolf to defrock her for practicing Islam and Christianity at the same time.

Ann Holmes Redding, who marks the 25th anniversary of her ordination on March 25, says she believes she can practice both faiths and should not have to recant her Muslim beliefs.
Granted, I'm not a religious scholar, but this would seem to be one of those situations that requires a person to make a choice one way or the other. I'm not saying you can't see a lot of similarity in the real world dictates of the two faiths. But it seems to me impossible to at once hold that Jesus was the Son of God while also holding that he was merely one of a series of prophets.

But, of course, if Redding wants to work it that way, she's more than welcome to. That's what the First Amendment is all about. Which is why I've never understood the reluctance of some folks to leave one flavor of faith for another. Hell, make up a new one, if you want, it's a free country. Why go through the grief of getting kicked out?

Monday, March 16, 2009

Album of the Day

Hoist, by Phish (1994): With Phish back on the road, this seems like an obvious AotD choice. I'm in the minority, I think, in greatly preferring the band's studio work to their famous live shows. The live stuff I've seen/heard is just too loose and unfocused to hold my attention. In the studio, however, the best stuff tends to get distilled and honed into some very cool tunes, full of lots of different influences and terrific playing. No surprise, then, that the basically improvised 10-minute closing track leaves me cold. This isn't my favorite album of theirs, but it's got some really good stuff on it. Plus, there's some interesting guests, including Bela Fleck, Alison Kraus, and Jonathan Frakes. Yup, you read that right!

Save the Mountains

Today's New York Times has a good editorial about the status of mountaintop removal mining in the current administration. It calls on Obama to put an end to the practice (which both Obama and McCain pledged to do during the campaign). As for what it is:

Mountaintop mining is just what the name suggests. Enormous machines — bulldozers and draglines — scrape away mountain ridges to expose the coal seams below. The coal is then trucked away, and the leftover rock and dirt are dumped into adjacent valleys and streams.
As bad as the flattening of mountains is, the real legal problem is the filling in of valleys and streams, which could violate the Clean Water Act.

Mountaintop removal mining is controversial in West Virginia and the rest of Appalachia because it's been pitched as the cheapest way (and therefore the only profitable way) to mine coal. Regulations shutting down or restricting it are seen as taking jobs away from locals, with long term environmental damage being glossed over.

That attitude seems to be changing, if a recent conversation I had with my oldest brother is any indication. Our main autocross venue is located across the highway from a flattened mountain, now being "reclaimed." We were talking about it as a potential future venue (acres and acres of flat land is hard to find) and he told me about the last time he flew home from Charlotte. It was a sunny and cloudless day, so he was able to see the terrain clearly. As he flew over the southern part of the state, around Beckley, he could get a good view of what mountaintop removal mining has done to the landscape. He was appalled and thinks, maybe, it's not such a good thing.

Given that he's much more conservative and pro-business than I am, I take that as a hopeful sign. Maybe public pressure will shift Obama and crew into doing something.

Fuck, I Am Old!

Well, this is a fine how do you do. I knew that my sexual peak passed long ago, but my mind is already on the slip?

Mental powers start to dwindle at 27 after peaking at 22, marking the start of old age, US research suggests.

Professor Timothy Salthouse of Virginia University found reasoning, speed of thought and spatial visualisation all decline in our late 20s.
That's great. I spent my golden mental years in law school! What a waste.

But, wait a sec, maybe it isn't that bad:
The first age at which there was any marked decline was at 27 in tests of brain speed, reasoning and visual puzzle-solving ability.

Things like memory stayed intact until the age of 37, on average, while abilities based on accumulated knowledge, such as performance on tests of vocabulary or general information, increased until the age of 60.
So, apparently, I've got less than 24 months before I start getting forgetful, but I'll be in prime Jeopardy form for decades to come. That's a relief!

Yet Again, More Drug War Stuff

I've been writing a bit about the corrosive effect of the War on Drugs over the past few weeks. Yesterday, the local paper (via the Chicago Tribune) had an article about one of the more egregious examples of a collateral effect of the drug war, forfeiture laws.

Forfeiture laws - the exist on both state and federal levels - allow law enforcement to seize assets that are related to drug crimes. In theory, it's to provide an additional disincentive to the dealers, who will not only be thrown in prison but will also come out poor. But the mechanism for doing so is completely bass ackward:

Forfeitures, however, can fall into two categories--criminal or civil--and due to some high-profile abuses, civil asset forfeiture has become extremely controversial. Under criminal law, the government can seize property as punishment only after its owner has been convicted of a crime, and our justice system ensures that they are considered innocent until proven guilty. But under civil law, it is the property itself--not the owner--that is charged with involvement in a crime. What's more, that property is considered "guilty" until proven innocent in court by its owner, thus turning our usual system of justice on its head.
It's a system ripe for the type of abuse, which, according to the Tribune fortune, is currently happening in rural Texas:
That's because the police here allegedly have found a way to strip motorists, many of them black, of their property without ever charging them with a crime. Instead they offer out-of-towners a grim choice: voluntarily sign over your belongings to the town, or face felony charges of money laundering or other serious crimes.

More than 140 people reluctantly accepted that deal from June 2006 to June 2008, according to court records. Among them were a black grandmother from Akron, who surrendered $4,000 in cash after Tenaha police pulled her over, and an interracial couple from Houston, who gave up more than $6,000 after police threatened to seize their children and put them into foster care, the court documents show. Neither the grandmother nor the couple were charged with any crime.
The cops insist that this isn't about making money, but of course they keep the lion's share of the loot. The Supreme Court has rightly concluded that making a magistrate's pay dependent on the number of warrants he issues violates the Fourth Amendment. Similarly, you'd think a system so stacked in favor of the folks keeping the money wouldn't pass muster.

Into the Lens

Earlier this month I blogged about a pending Supreme Court case where the key piece of evidence - video from a cop's dashboard camera - was put on YouTube for all to see. Along those same lines, Steve Chapman over at Reason calls for those cameras to be installed in every cop car in the country:

Nine years into the 21st century, why isn't every squad car in America equipped with a dashboard video camera? Why do we persist in relying on the slippery, self-interested, incomplete, and unverified accounts of opposing participants when we have the means to see the truth with our own eyes?
Chapman reports that Chicago, where the incident he relates took place, has cameras in only 11 percent of their cars and that to install more is just too expensive.

There are other, lesser reasons, for not recording every traffic stop. Similar arguments are made to videotape statements made by suspects during criminal investigations. Having the "confession" on tape would be better for all involved, right?

Years ago, one of the newsmagazine shows (20/20, I think, but don't hold me to it) had a story about a teenager who was charged with murder. This was in rural Minnesota, IIRC. He had confessed, according to cops, so it was an open and shut case. Except that the entire statement was on video and jurors were able to see how the interrogators had beaten down the poor kid until he would admit to anything. He was acquitted.

The lesson learned from that case? Don't videotape anything. Hopefully, that attitude won't keep such a useful tool from being more widely deployed.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Album of Last Friday

Seasons End, by Marillion (1989): By the time I became a Marillion fan in college, the question of whether the band could make it without original front man Fish had been answered. But that outcome was anything but certain when this album, the first (of 11 and counting) of the Steve Hogarth era, came out. The band needed a home run and they nearly got it. Although the lead off single, "Hooks In You," struck some as too straight on, the disc produced a host of future classics - "Easter," "Berlin," "The Space." A pretty awesome beginning to Marillion 2.0.

A note of irony. The title track, which is about climate change, speculates "that it might never snow again in England." Of course, earlier this year, London was shut down by an unexpected blizzard. It so happened that the storm hit on the day that Marillion's latest, Happiness is the Road, was released in stores. The stores which, due to snow, nobody could get to. These guys just can't buy a break!

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Album of the Day

Monsters and Robots, by Buckethead (1999): Buckethead was one of those names I'd heard for a long time without actually checking him out. I knew he was a guitar player and I knew he at least bumped up against the prog world here and there. I did not realize that he actually wore a KFC bucket on his head while on stage. 'course, you can't see that on CD, so it's good to know that the music rises beyond the gimmick. He alternates between serious Vai-esque shredding, but also has a knack for more esoteric sounding stuff in the Fripp/Belew mold. On this disc, that all bounds around songs cobbled together with help from Les Claypool and Brain of Primus and Bootsy Collins, among others. It even tells his origin story, after a fashion:

Gotta' get me some more of this.

Oy Vey

I cook. Fairly well, I've been told. But I'm more of a recipe slave than an improviser. That means if a recipe calls for a particular variation on a common ingredient, I'll do my best to stick to the script. For example, I've got a couple of recipes that specifically call for kosher salt, which I otherwise don't use. Which is why I have two 3-pound boxes of kosher salt in my cupboard, each with about 1/2 a teaspoon missing.

But I never really thought about what made it "kosher." Turns out, it's not so much what it is as what it's used for:

Kosher salt gets its name not because it follows the guidelines for kosher foods as written in the Torah (nearly all salt is kosher, including ordinary table salt), but rather because of its use in making meats kosher, by helping to extract the blood from the meat. Because kosher salt grains are larger than regular table salt grains, when meats are coated in kosher salt the salt does not dissolve readily; the salt remains on the surface of the meat longer to draw fluids out of the meat.
An interesting fact to know and tell. Makes sense. And it makes this guy look like a King Kong sized dipshit (via Ed):
Retired barber Joe Godlewski says he was inspired by television chefs who repeatedly recommended kosher salt in recipes.

"I said, 'What the heck's the matter with Christian salt?'" Godlewski said, sipping a beer in the living room of his home in unincorporated Cresaptown, a western Maryland mountain community.

By next week, his trademarked Blessed Christians Salt will be available at, the Web site of Memphis, Tenn.-based seasonings manufacturer Ingredients Corporation of America.
What makes it "Christian"?
It's sea salt that's been blessed by an Episcopal priest, ICA President Damon S. Arney said Wednesday.
I'm not sure the blessing took, however. If you go to the company's website, it tells you:
All our ingredients are Kosher Certified and FDA approved
So, if you're so insecure in your faith that you need everything in the house to say "Christian" on it, please, by all means, spend your money there. It's all kosher in the end, after all.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Album of the Day

Egg, by Egg (1970): Egg was one of the first of the Canterbury prog bands to hit the scene, but mostly became known later on as the first band of keyboardist Dave Stewart and bassist Mont Campbell, who both went on to play major roles in a host of excellent bands during prog's heyday. It's sort of a shame, because Egg's best stuff stands up well with what would come later in the genre. Any band that records a tune called "The song of McGuillicudie the Pusillanimous (or don't worry James, your socks are hanging in the coal cellar with Thomas)" - which almost takes longer to say than it does to play - has something going for it.

This reissue includes as a bonus track Egg's first single, "Seven Is a Jolly Good Time," a tune in praise of odd time signatures. How some band hasn't covered that to open up one of the prog fests I don't know. It's practically a prog theme song!

Drug War Futility

Here's a follow up to this week's earlier post about ending the War on Drugs. I was working on a brief this morning when I came across a telling admission. It's from a 2004 report by the United States Sentencing Commission that evaluated the first 15 years of sentencing under the Guidelines. In a section laying out some of the problems with the way the Guidelines treat repeat offenders, the Commission explained:

Unlike repeat violent offenders, whose incapacitation may protect the public from additional crimes by the offender, criminologists and law enforcement officials testifying before the Commission have noted that retail-level drug traffickers are readily replaced by new drug sellers so long as the demand for a drug remains high. Incapacitating a low-level drug seller prevents little, if any, drug selling; the crime is simply committed by someone else.
In other words, a combination of demand for the product and the money to be made by it's illicit nature makes the War on Drugs a particularly futile exercised.

That's at page 134 of the Commission's Fifteen Years of Guidelines Sentencing.

Fun With Pandora

If you're a music geek with a high-speed Internet feed, you probably know Pandora. If not, you should. You feed it a favorite artist or song and it uses some sort of algorithm to find "similar" songs that you might like. It's sort of like having a personalized radio station. The girlfriend turned me onto it (thanks, honey!) and is a great source of background music while I'm, for instance, watching the Barcelona-Lyon match from earlier today.

While a song is playing, the site displays tabs from which you can get different information on the artist, the album from which the song is taken, and the song itself. It's the last bit that's been amusing me lately. The song information consists of a list of three other "similar" tracks and lists five different characteristics of the song. They don't seem incredibly accurate to me, but that's where the fun part comes in.

I'm currently listening to "Trilogy" by ELP, which has these traits:

great musicianship
mild rhythmic syncopation
acoustic rhythm piano
chromatic harmonic structure
demanding instrumental part writing
It's the last one there that really tickles me, because it's always about demanding part writing, but never the playing, which should be equally tricky, right? And that one shows up a lot, which makes sense if you know my musical tastes.

Anyway, it's free and highly recommended.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Album of the Day

A Fine Line: Arias & Lieder, by Don Byron (2000): I'd never heard of this guy, a jazz clarinetist, until the girlfriend gave me this disc for Xmas. On this album, the tunes alternate between instrumental versions of "songs" as well as vocal tracks (hence the subtitle). The vocal cuts are a mixed bag. "Glitter & Be Gay" is hard enough to take in the context of Candide and it's insufferable here. On the other hand, Roy Obrison's "It's Over" and the Sondheim song "The Ladies Who Do Lunch" are both very good. But it's on instrumentals like "Reach Out I'll Be There" where Byron, particularly on bass clarinet, really shines.

While Government Fails, the Market Thrives

My nearly ten years practicing law have all involved providing legal services to folks who couldn't afford them. But in both the civil legal aid field and as a public defender, I could see people that fell through the cracks, for various reasons. There were a couple of interesting newspaper pieces today about the state of legal services in the country that pricked my interest because of that background.

The first is a sad commentary on the state of the modern criminal defense system. Writing in today's Washington Post, former VP Walter Mondale writes about the danger of losing the legacy of Gideon v. Wainright, in which the Supreme Court held that the Sixth Amendment right to counsel mean the right to have the state pay for it, if need be:

A report published by the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law School last fall, 'Eligible for Justice,' found that if Gideon were to face criminal charges in Florida today, he might well be denied a public defender. Under Florida law, he could be disqualified for counsel if he has assets exceeding $2,500 (excluding a house), a car valued above $5,000, or had posted bail of more than $5,000, even if none of those assets permitted him to pay the retainer -- often several thousand dollars -- that defense lawyers routinely charge.
In his home state of Minnesota, the state PD faced a shortfall of nearly $5 million at the end of the last fiscal year. The danger is that people who are charged with crimes but can't afford to retain counsel are going to get substandard representation. That can lead to wrongful convictions, as happened to Gideon himself.

But while the criminal side of legal services is hurting, the civil side is responding to the gap between those who qualify for legal aid services and those who can afford to pay for their lawyer is being filled in:
Fortunately for the newly downgraded, the access-to-justice movement has advanced in recent years from Skid Row to Main Street.

At storefront law offices like Santa Monica's LegalGrind, a cafe-legal clearinghouse, those facing court dates to deal with divorce, custody matters, driving offenses and debt can find out for $45 how best to tackle their problems without plunking down a $5,000 retainer and $400 an hour for a lawyer.

Bar associations in California and a dozen other states, meanwhile, have whittled away at the ethics rules and industry mind-set that used to discourage attorneys from taking clients on a 'limited scope' basis. This involves representing them on specific aspects without taking responsibility -- and charging fees -- for the client's full range of legal problems.
The collapsing economy has hit the legal practice as hard as anything else, so I suppose it only makes sense that lawyers would go in search of under served markets. If the legal work is up to snuff (I have no reason to think otherwise) it's a beneficial situation all around.

One Team to Rep Them All?

It's called the United Kingdom for a reason, you know. The UK is technically composed of four separate nations - England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. At least that's the way FIFA, soccer's governing body, and UEFA, its European counterpart, see it. Each nation plays separately for World Cup and Euro purposes and each has its own domestic league. Rugby works similarly, IIRC.

That setup has never worked particularly well for the Olympics, which only recognize the UK. It's no big deal most years, as Olympic soccer is a bit of a neglected step child compared to the World Cup (the men's version, at least). But with the Olympics coming to London in 2012, there is a push on in some quarters to have a single UK team play in that competition. Sounds great, right? Only if you're English:

The Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish football associations are opposed to a joint squad in case it affects their independent national sides.

* * *

The debate was opened by the SNP's Pete Wishart, who said participation in the 'meaningless' Olympic soccer competition could jeopardise the future of the Scotland national side.

He said: 'We should do absolutely nothing that would ever threaten our independent football status.
The issue might soon come to a head:
A Great Britain football team will play at the 2012 Olympics even if it is made up entirely of English players, sports minister Gerry Sutcliffe has insisted.
The fact is, the non-English parts of the UK would likely be shut out of any UK team. Let's face it - soccer in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland is not exactly sizzling. Scotland hasn't qualified for a major tournament since World Cup 1998, Wales since 1958, and Northern Ireland since World Cup 1986. And it's not as if their club teams make a dent in European competitions, either.

The real danger, it seems to me, in a joint UK team is not that FIFA will eventually pull the plug on the Home Nations, but that, aside from England, they'll simply become irrelevant.

The Irony, It Burns

I didn't even realize Billy Graham was still with us, much less answering reader mail (via PZ). Given his answer to this question, I'm not sure if he's up to the task:

Why do people get involved in cults? My cousin has gotten involved in one, and no matter what we say to him, he refuses to listen. He says we are the ones who are in the dark, and he alone in our family has found the truth. — S. McM.
Good question, one that could get into all sorts of fascinating psychiatric and sociological areas. Here's how Graham's answer starts:
One characteristic of cults is that they strongly believe they alone are right in their beliefs and everyone else is wrong. Thus they reject the central truths of the Bible that Christians have held in common for almost 2,000 years and substitute their own beliefs for the clear teaching of Scripture.
Um, yeah. In other words, as one of PZ's commenters puts it:
my cult is better than your cult leader told me so.
Graham then goes on to dispense what he believes are self evident truths, you know, in the dogmatic kind of way that any cult, er, excuse me "religious" leader does. Maybe one's sense of irony withers once you reach 90.

For what it's worth, I've always held to the proposition that the only meaningful difference between a religion and a cult is that religions have better lawyers.

UPDATE: Seems like Graham is taking a page out of Reverand Lovejoy's book:
This so called 'new religion' is nothing but a pack of weird rituals and chants designed to take away the money of fools. Let us say the Lord's prayer 40 times, but first let's pass the collection plate!

Monday, March 09, 2009

Album of the Day

Scapegoat, by Ensemble Nimbus (1998):Scapegoat” is one of those words that most people know, but few know about where it comes from. I’d never really thought about it until I got this album. One track, “Offering,” includes a spoken word section about, literally, sending a goat out into the woods to carry away the sins of the populace. Sure enough, that’s where it comes from. Specifically, chapter 16 of Leviticus (the gift that keeps on giving) explains the ritual. See kids – listening to weird mostly instrumental chamber rock from Sweden can broaden your horizons!

Do You See What I See?

Last night on 60 Minutes, Lesley Stahl had a story about something that is too common in the era of DNA exoneration of wrongly convicted people - unreliable eyewitness testimony. You can watch the two-part video here and here.

In brief, Jennifer Thompson was raped in a small town in North Carolina in 1984. During the attack, she tried to pay particular attention to what the rapist looked like, in order to better identify him later on. She helped police put together a composite sketch of the rapist, which looked a little like Ronald Cotton. Police brought Thompson in to see a photo lineup that included Cotton. She ID'd him as her rapist.

Cotton came in to talk to police - almost always a mistake. He had an alibi for the weekend of the rape, but it didn't pan out. He'd gotten his weekends confused, so he was lying in the eyes of police. He was arrested and put in a normal lineup, where Thompson again identified him. An officer told her:

'Well, what was said to me afterwards was, 'That's the same person you picked out in the photo lineup.' So, in my mind I thought, 'Bingo. I did it right.' I did it right,' she said.
Cotton went to trial, where Thompson ID'd him from the witness stand. He was sentenced to life in prison.

Here's the thing - Cotton was innocent. Thompson identified the wrong man, as DNA testing later proved. He served more than 10 years in prison for a crime he didn't commit. The man who actually raped Thompson was later convicted of another rape before finally going to prison (where he and Cotton worked in the kitchen together).

That's really just the lead in for the two very important parts of the story.

One is the scientific explanations of how someone like Thompson can be so certain she is correct and be so wrong. Make no mistake, she was not lying when she ID'd Cotton repeatedly. She honestly thought he was the guy. Her memory, like the memory of countless eyewitnesses, just isn't all that reliable. It is also highly suggestible, which is where police practices come into play.

The other important part of the story is at the very end, where we learn that Thompson and Cotton are now good friends. He has forgiven her for sending him to prison for more than a decade. And they have joined together to raise awareness about the fragility of memory and the problems of eyewitness testimony. It's an issue that everyone should learn more about.

Stop Making Sense

The Economist is not exactly a liberal institution, nor a libertarian bastion. So when it steps up and calls for an end of the War on Drugs, it makes as splash (via TalkLeft). It doesn't break any new ground with regards to the arguments for drug legalization (short version - prohibition has never worked and does more harm than good), but the piece does a particularly good job of dealing with objections to legalization.

It is also perfectly honest about the issues at stake. Drug legalization is not a panacea. It will have some negative consequences, particularly in First World consumption countries, which may have to deal with increased addiction issues. Nonetheless, legalization is "the least bad policy" and would, globally, do more good than harm. I've never been convinced otherwise.

Ineresting Numbers

Today's USA Today reported on a new study of religion in the United States and the numbers of those involved with particular religious groups. The bottom line: the country is becoming less enamored of organized religion, but it's hard to tell much more than that. The big news is the huge rise in "Nones" - people who claim no religious affiliation - since the 1990 survey:

So many Americans claim no religion at all (15%, up from 8% in 1990), that this category now outranks every other major U.S. religious group except Catholics and Baptists. In a nation that has long been mostly Christian, 'the challenge to Christianity … does not come from other religions but from a rejection of all forms of organized religion,' the report concludes.
"Nones" is a broad group that not only includes atheists and agnostics, but "people who claimed no religious identity." In other words, it would be a vast oversimplification for my non-believing brethren to claim that 15% of the populace is compose of nonbelievers. For many, it's more a rejection of organized worship than a major change in belief about the nature of reality:
Haynes, like 69% of Americans, said in the ARIS survey that he believes there is 'definitely a personal God.' He calls himself a deeply committed 'follower of Christ,' rather than aligning with a specific denomination. He attends a non-denominational community church where he likes the rock music, but Bible study is the focus of his faith.

'We just look to Jesus,' he says. 'That's why I don't pay attention to surveys. Christianity is moving totally under the radar. It's the work of God. It can't be measured. It happens inside of people's souls.'
It's similar to the growing number of voters who register "Independent" rather than with one of the major parties. That doesn't mean they vote third party on election day, tho'.

Of the 34.2 million "Nones" out there, according to the survey, only 1.8 million (based on ABC's reportage I just watched) are atheists. That's damned near double since 1990, but still, it's less than 1% of the population, by my figuring. So let's not get ahead of ourselves.

I'm pleasantly surprised that West Virginia's percentage of "Nones" matches the national numbers. At least we're keeping up with the rest of the country in that category.

Album of Last Friday

Why I Sing the Blues, by B.B. King (1992?): Most of the B.B. King albums I own are either live records or collaborations with some other artists. This is, I think, the closest thing to a "real" studio album I have. I say "real" because I can't quite tell what it is. It sounds like it should be some sort of compilation, but I can't tell. Honestly, I prefer B.B. live. Although there are great tunes here - "The Thrill Is Gone," "How Blue Can You Get?", and "Sweet Sixteen" - I don't care much for all the strings that get layered on. Fortunately, B.B. tends to leave the strings at home when he hits the road. And hey, there's even a collaboration on here - Carole King plays piano on the close, "Chains and Things."

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Album of the Day

As Far as We Get, by Dagmähr (2001): It's getting late, so I'll just say that I got this disc based solely on the description in Greg Walker's catalog. That can be a hit or miss proposition, but it's certainly more on the hit side for this one. How can you not like an album with a song title like "An Odd Season in the Blasphemous Garden of Social Disease"?

Sing It, Sita

Late last year, Roger Ebert had an intriguing post on his blog that started like this:

It hardly ever happens this way. I get a DVD in the mail. I'm told it's an animated film directed by "a girl from Urbana." That's my home town. It is titled "Sita Sings the Blues." I know nothing about it, and the plot description on IMDb is not exactly a barn-burner: An animated version of the epic Indian tale of Ramayana set to the 1920's jazz vocals of Annette Hanshaw. Uh, huh. I carefully file it with other movies I will watch when they introduce the 8-day week.
Ebert later got an email from an old friend talking up the flick, so he finally watched it and was entranced. Cool, huh? It's what critics seem to live for, finding a hidden gem among all the crap out there and shining some light on it. Go straight to Netflix and reserved your copy, right?

Not exactly. The writer/director/almost everything else for the film, Nina Paley, can't find a distributor because of copyright issues. As I understand it, the actual recordings used in the movie have made it to public domain, but the publishing rights to the actual music has not.

Thankfully, it looks like Paley has found a solution to the problem. According to the Wiki page about the flick, she negotiated down the rights holders' claims from about $220k to $50k and took out a loan to pay the rights. So the flick is now "legit," even though it's not exactly readily available.

So where can you see it? Public TV station WNET in New York will broadcast it this weekend and, helpfully, has put it up in streaming form on their website. There are also free legit downloads from lots of places on the Web, as collected at the film's website. A DVD release is in the works.

Is it worth the hassle to see Sita Sings the Blues? I'd say so. It's an intriguing mix of music video and smart-assed mythic commentary. There's a frame story, too (taken from Paley's life), but it doesn't really add much to the film, IMHO. The animation is sort of low budget, but clever, so it works better than you might think.

Is it the best thing since sliced bread? No, but it's very good. Is it like anything else you've ever seen? Not a chance. That's reason enough to watch it, especially for free.


At work this week, I've been working on what I call a "ground up" brief. That means it deals with an issue or issues that I've never written up before, so I can't cannibalize older briefs when putting together. It's exciting and interesting, but it can also be a royal pain in the ass. Research leads you down dead ends and writer's block lurks around every corner. And, unlike when I'm working on the novel, I can't break through it by just making shit up!

So, imagine what I felt like when I got home, mentally burned out, checked my Email and found this bit of wisdom waiting for me:

Law is a bottomless pit; it is a cormorant, a harpy that devours everything. - Jonathan Swift (1667 - 1745)
That about sums it up. Shit!


I just finished a really neat book, The Sun & the Moon, by Matthew Goodman. It's about a series of articles published in The Sun newspaper in New York City in the 1830s which claimed to be the reports of an astronomer who, using an ultra powerful telescope, had discovered intelligent life on the Moon. It was, of course, a hoax, but that didn't stop it from being a huge success. The whys, hows, and whos of the hoax (its orbit includes such luminaries as Edgar Allan Poe and P.T. Barnum) is what makes the book very interesting.

While reading about a hoax perpetrated more than 150 years ago, it's easy to start feeling a little superior. Those rubes - who could ever believe such obviously made up hokum? Here in the 21st Century, we're much too sophisticated to be taken in by such things, right? Well . . .

Here's the debunking from a more reliable source. How wonderful is 24-hours cable news?

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Album of the Day

The Iron Man: The Musical, by Pete Townshend (1989): The story of the Iron Man began in a 1968 novella by Ted Hughes. In the story, a huge metal man from outer space crashes in the English countryside, where he chomps on farm machinery, befriends a boy named Hogarth, and eventually does battle with a Star Spirit to save the Earth. Ultimately, this version attracted attention from Hollywood, where it lingered until director Brad Bird made the far superior (but changed, of course) animated version, The Iron Giant.

How Pete Townshend got a hold of the story and decided to do a concept album about it I don't know. It's probably the most "staged" of Pete's rock operas (it actually was staged in London in 1993), with a deep cast of characters for a 45-minute album. It includes two tunes done by The Who, which was a big deal at the time. All in all, it's my least favorite of Pete's big projects that I own, but I admire the effort.

At Least There Is Light

They say light is the best disinfectant. I hope that's true, because that might be the only thing that really is brought to bear on the legal abuses of the Bush years. This week, the Department of Justice released a series of memos written in the wake of 9/11, and only repudiated just before Bush left office, that essentially rewrote the Constitution. Actually, "rewrite" is too kind of a euphamism. Shit upon and ripped apart is a more apt description.

Take, for example, one entitled "Authority for Use of Military Force to Combat Terrorist Activities Within the U.S," authored by Assistant Attorney General John Yoo and Justice Special Counsel Robert Delahunty. Glenn Greenwald sums it up:

The essence of this document was to declare that George Bush had the authority (a) to deploy the U.S. military inside the U.S., (b) directed at foreign nationals and U.S. citizens alike; (c) unconstrained by any Constitutional limits, including those of the First, Fourth and Fifth Amendments. It was nothing less than an explicit decree that, when it comes to Presidential power, the Bill of Rights was suspended, even on U.S. soil and as applied to U.S. citizens. And it wasn't only a decree that existed in theory; this secret proclamation that the Fourth Amendment was inapplicable to what the document calls "domestic military operations" was, among other things, the basis on which Bush ordered the NSA, an arm of the U.S. military, to turn inwards and begin spying -- in secret and with no oversight -- on the electronic communications (telephone calls and emails) of U.S. citizens on U.S. soil.
Emphasis Glenn's. Jack Balkin's assessment is even more stark:
The President, because he is President, may do whatever he thinks is necessary, even in the domestic context, if he acts for military and national security reasons in his capacity as Commander in Chief. This theory of presidential power argues, in essence, that when the President acts in his capacity as Commander-in-Chief, he may make his own rules and cannot be bound by Congressional laws to the contrary. This is a theory of presidential dictatorship.
The scope of what Bush sought, and the legal lemmings gave him, is frightening.

Obama and AG Eric Holder should be commended for releasing these documents and giving them the full airing they deserve. Unfortunately, that light may mean little if Obama continues to rely on Bush's legal positions in court, where the rubber meets the road. As Greenwald has repeatedly observed, the new look DoJ sounds an awful lot like the old one.

The most shocking part of all this, as an attorney, is that lawyers like Yoo and Delahunty signed off on whatever overreach the adminstration sought. When I joined the bar a decade ago, I had to affirm that:
I will support the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the State of West Virginia; that I will honestly demean myself in the practice of law; and, to the best of my ability, execute my office of attorney-at-law;
Yoo and his compatriots had to do the same or similar. Our job is to protect the Constitution, not help our clients wipe it away like a bad suggestion left on a school blackboard. It's what being "an officer of the court" is all about. Yoo and his ilk violated that affirmation and the trust that goes along with it. As Balkin points out:
These views are outrageous and inconsistent with basic principles of the Constitution as well as with two centuries of legal precedents.
This wasn't imcompetence, it was malice. I'm ashamed to share my profession with them.

Bringing Back the Past

In a future issue of The New Republic, John Summers has an interesting piece on the ongoing attempt to return the battlefield at Gettysburg to its condition during the 1863 Civil War battle.

Summers, for several reasons, thinks this is not a good idea and points out several practical problems. The fact is, nobody gave two shits about Gettysburg, Pennsylvania before July 1, 1863, so there aren't a whole lot of sources to turn to to figure out what it was like. Post war sources lack the consensus needed to really get it right. As he points out:

To truly experience what it was like to be at Gettysburg, we would need to lie with soldiers as they bled to death, groaning in pain; rotting corpses with missing limbs; streams running red; winds swarming with flies; air smelling of burning horseflesh. As we cannot know the precise cartography of the battlefield, or the movements of every soldier, or the location of every tree, so we should not try to leap backward into authenticity, or expect to become an eyewitness to history simply by showing up. The arrogance laid up around this expectation is astonishing. At Gettysburg, as elsewhere, the parties of preservation, restoration, and rehabilitation seek to transport us forward into the past by scrubbing off the blemishes of time. But, in offering the illusion of authentic experience, inviting us to 'almost feel the bullets,' they promise both too much and too little: They forget that historical suffering must be regarded from a distance if tragedy is to make us humble--or even be understood at all.
Burgess's article dances around an interesting question without ever actually asking it: what should we want people to get out of historical sites like Gettysburg?

I tend to agree with him that trying to recreate the "reality" of history is a fool's errand. I think it does a disservice to future generations to present something as an accurate depiction of how something happened. It gives them a skewed version of the event and a great misunderstanding of history.

History is messy. History is constantly in flux. History is subject to debate about exactly what happened, why, and what it means. Presenting people with a "definitive" account takes the event and seals it away from reconsideration, at least for the majority of folks. It would be better if people learned, early and often, about how history really worked. It's much more interesting than most people think it is, to boot.

The Limits of International Law

This is a positive development:

Judges at the International Criminal Court ordered the arrest Wednesday of President Omar Hassan al-Bashir of Sudan for atrocities committed in Darfur, but Sudanese officials swiftly retaliated, ordering Western aid groups that provide for millions of people to shut down their operations and leave.

After months of deliberation, the judges charged Mr. Bashir with war crimes and crimes against humanity for 'intentionally directing' attacks in Darfur and playing an 'essential role' in the murder, rape, torture, pillage and displacement of large numbers of civilians there. But the judges did not charge him with genocide, as the prosecutor had requested.
Now, who is going to go execute that warrant and actually arrest him? Yeah, there's the problem with international "law."

Dumb Delegate Tricks

Oh, boy, it's that time of year again in Charleston. The chill is fading from the air, the downtown will be awash with basketball fans, and the Legislature is in session. Which can mean only one thing - a stream of asinine new laws get proposed! And have we got a couple of doozies already.

First up is a bill to attack the plastic menace that is ruining our lives - Barbie:

Democrat Jeff Eldridge introduced a bill in the House of Delegates on Tuesday that would ban the sale of Barbie dolls - and 'other dolls that influence girls to be beautiful' - in West Virginia.

Eldridge said the dolls have encouraged girls to value their physical appearance more than their education and intelligence.
I appreciate Eldridge's point of view, but it's hardly the basis for a legal prohibition. Education, parenting, and social pressure make more sense. Of course, the bill provides no punishment for violating the ban, so it's hard to see if there's any more to this than just a legislative cry of attention.

Second, and more serious, but equally bad, is a bill from a delegate from the Eastern Panhandle that would require folks who receive public assistance to be randomly drug tested. Of course, such a law would run headlong into the Fourth Amendment (the Sixth Circuit struck down a Michigan attempt to do the same). But beyond that, it's getting not just dissent but derision from one other Delegate:
In a sharply worded rebuke Tuesday, a colleague of Delegate Craig Blair suggested that he should undergo drug testing for proposing 'inane' legislation to mandate drug tests for recipients of welfare, food stamps, or other public assistance.

'I can only assume someone stole your stationary and then submitted the most ridiculous bill of the 2009 session under your name and without your knowledge,' Delegate Sally Susman, D-Raleigh, states in the letter she hand-delivered to the Berkeley County Republican on Tuesday.

'Your latest legislative proposal is such staggering nonsense, I was surprised the members of your own party did not laugh you out of the House of Delegates,' her letter continues.
Ah, good ol' fashioned local politics. How many days are left in the session?

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Album of the Day

Abacab, by Genesis (1981): Yesterday I was wondering why I ever bought that album. Today, I know why I did, but I could honestly live without it. For a long time, my Genesis collection ended with Duke (in terms of studio albums, anyway) and I didn't have any interest in going any further. I suspected that the later released live albums and videos covered the cream of the other albums and didn't really worry about filling the gaps. But when the boxed sets started coming out, the middle years set ended with Abacab, so I ended up with this copy. Turns out I was right. The tunes that I don't have live elsewhere (all of which are superior to their studio versions) are either forgettable or affirmatively awful. "Who Dunnit?" All three of them, according to the liner notes, for which they should probably do time.

Revenge is a Dish Best Served Buzzing

File this under "unintended consequences," a story of one businessman's revenge upon some meddling civic officials (via Reason).

Michael Zarlenga owned the Trophy Room, a hunting and fishing store in the historic downtown portion of Alexandria, Virginia. Over the course of two years, and at the cost of more than $350,000, Zarlenga made plans to expand the store:

Zarlenga's saga with the building dates to 2001, when he opened his hunting and fishing store. In 2006, he bought the building with the idea of renovating and expanding it to include more retail space, a bathroom and an elevator.

He hired a Washington architectural firm, which created eight designs for the project. The final one included plans to raise the roof on the back of the building and demolish a small section of a historic brick wall that was built about 1800. Most of the back wall would have been incorporated into the renovation.

Zarlenga said he consulted Alexandria's historical preservation staff along the way to be sure everyone was on board with his plans. He said he relied heavily on the advice of Peter Smith, who at the time was the principal staff member of the city's Board of Architectural Review.

But when the project came before the review board in 2007, it was rejected partly on Smith's recommendation that it would cause an 'unreasonable loss of historic fabric.' Zarlenga said Smith did not explain to him why he changed his mind.
Read that again. After spending a lot of money based on advice from the city fathers, they turned around and shot him down. Without an explanation, no less.

Zarlenga, of course, was pissed. So he got his revenge by renting out his building to another business - a sex shop, Le Tache. It is having the desired effect, with the city fielding complaints while feebly explaining that there is nothing they can do about the business. The owner of La Tache is aware of the irony:
Kenney, who says he caters to couples, had no retail presence in Old Town before because he hadn't found a receptive landlord. But in Zarlenga, he got an owner who didn't mind rankling city leaders.
Heh. Karma is a bitch, isn't it?

Back on the Killing Streets

Writer/produce David Simon is rightly famous for a string of excellent TV shows he helped create - Homicide: Life on the Street, The Corner, and The Wire. But before turning to TV, Simon was a police reporter in Baltimore. It was there that he did the research for his book, Homicide: A Life on the Killing Streets, that became the basis for the brilliant TV show.

It's to that first vocation into which he was drawn again, according to a story he wrote in Sunday's Washington Post. It's about how the newspaper climate in Baltimore has devolved from one of intense oversight to simply parroting the information, or lack thereof, provided by official spokespersons. The stonewalling involving the police shooting of a 61-year old man - authorities refused to identify the officer involved - prompted Simon to start making some phone calls and get the information.

The irony, of course, is that a major part of the last season of The Wire (so I'm told - I'm working through it on Netflix) is about the crumbling of a Baltimore newspaper. Life imitating art, and not in a good way.

All Hail King Rushbo!

You, I almost pity Michael Steele, the newly elected head of the Republican National Committee. The GOPers got their asses handed to them in last year's elections and the new administration continues to enjoy good ratings. Wading into that mess, Steele has my sympathies. Which doesn't mean I'm not going to point and laugh at him while he cowers before the real power in the GOP - Rush Limbaugh.

Steele's trouble started over the weekend, when he was on CNN talking with D.L. Hughley:

Mr. Steele bristled after a questioner on CNN referred to Mr. Limbaugh as the de facto leader of the Republican Party on Saturday.

'No he’s not – I’m the de facto leader of the Republican Party,' Mr. Steele responded.

'Rush Limbaugh is an entertainer,' he said. 'Rush Limbaugh, the whole thing is entertainment. Yes, it’s incendiary, yes, it’s ugly.'
But that won't just do. Rush was having none of it, firing back on his show yesterday:
'I hope the RNC chairman will realize he’s not a talking head pundit, that he is supposed to be working on the grassroots and rebuilding it and maybe doing something about our open primary system and fixing it so that Democrats don’t nominate our candidates,' Limbaugh said, his voice rising. 'It’s time, Mr. Steele, for you to go behind the scenes and start doing the work that you were elected to do instead of trying to be some talking head media star, which you’re having a tough time pulling off.'
So what does Steele do? After all, he was right. Rush has always been an entertainer and frequently says provocative things. Stick to his guns? Nope. In what looks like growing trend of GOPers kowtowing to the Duke of Dittos, he caved:
'My intent was not to go after Rush – I have enormous respect for Rush Limbaugh,' Steele said in a telephone interview. 'I was maybe a little bit inarticulate. … There was no attempt on my part to diminish his voice or his leadership.'
That's right, the loud, boorish, thrice-married, one time pill popper is part of the "leadership" of the Grand Old Party.

I'll say this for the GOPers - when things aren't going their way, they are awfully fun to watch.

Mr. Massey Goes to Washington

Today was the big day in D.C., as the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Caperton, et al., v. A.T. Massey Coal Co., et al., aka the case about whether a judge who gets a $3 million campaign boost from one person should step aside when said person's big case comes before the court. Lyle Denniston has a good write up of the proceedings over at SCOTUSBlog, but you can read the transcript for yourself, too.

After a brief once over, it looks like whatever opinion comes out at the end of the process is going to be fractured and contentious. It's clear that several justices (guess who) don't appear willing to constitutionalize West Virginia's judicial recusal system. You'd think that means a 6-3 for Caperton, particularly given Stevens's comment that:

We have never confronted a case as extreme as this before.
If Caperton wins, it's unclear what it would mean going forward. It may come down to a very narrow ruling that would do little than resolve the current case. Or it could signal a seismic shift in the way courts work. I guess we'll have to wait and see.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Album of the Day

Cracked Rear View, by Hootie & the Blowfish (1994): Why on Earth do I own this album?!? Most of the albums I own that truly suck are either failed experiments, gifts, or near freebies. It's hard to work up too much of a hate for those. But I paid full price for this (from Columbia House no less!) at a time when the singles saturated the airwaves. What was I thinking? This is the musical equivalent to a room full of walls painted beige. Utterly inoffensive and dull. My memory is that these guys were big on the frat party circuit in South Carolina and I can see why. It's the perfect unobtrusive aural wallpaper, with just enough of a groove to impress that sorority chick with your stumbling drunk dance moves. That's all well and good, I guess, but it's seriously not my thing.