Friday, January 30, 2009

I Love the Smell of Desperation

On February 11, the United States kicks off the final round of qualifications for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa by hosting bitter rival Mexico at Crew Stadium in Columbus. We've owned Mexico in recent years, beating them repeatedly outside of Mexico City (including in the 2002 World Cup in Korea). Think it's getting to them just a bit? Oh yeah:

The Mexican sports daily Record had published an ad for the campaign on Tuesday, printing coupons for fans to clip and redeem at their local Radio Shack store for a voodoo-doll likeness of a U.S. player.

An illustration showed a pair of scissors slicing off the leg of a doll in a U.S. jersey; the doll grimaced in pain with its arms covered in bruises, as stuffing leaked from its No. 10 jersey, stuck with pushpins.

* * *

'Help end the losing streak so Mexico advances,' the ad read.
FWIW, Radio Shack has pulled out of the promotion. Not that it matters, at this point. Smells like victory!

Bathroom Wisdom

On the way back from Richmond this afternoon (I did not use my rap opening - I doubt Judge Shedd would have approved!) we stopped at a gas station/convenience story outside of Beckley. Scratched into the plastic toilet paper dispenser in the men's room was:

White Power
Written in on top in black magic marker was:
Barack Obama says stop that
There you go. Change is working its way into the every corner of the country, even a skeevy gas station men's room.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Album of the Day

Please Don't Touch, by Steve Hackett (1978): For Steve's second solo record, he assembled a host of talented folks - Steve Walsh and Phil Ehart of Kansas, Richie Havens, Zappa's rhythm section (Tom Fowler and Chester Thompson) - to help him work through a varied set of tunes. While his debut, Voyage of the Acolyte, was purely in the Genesis-like symphonic prog mode (it's almost a missing Genesis album, really), this release has Steve exploring pop, folk, and soul in addition to the trademark prog. One of my all time favorites.

More Musical Deep Hurting

Microsoft has a new product called Songsmith, which is being touted as a home music creation tool. But here's the deal - all the user does is sing lyrics with a melody and the program creates backing tracks in response. It actually sounds like a neat idea, in a parlor trick sort of way (says the user of loops without any hint of irony).

Befitting that status, YouTube is now ablaze with videos in which folks take classic songs, strip out the lead vocal, run it through Songsmith and post the results. Said results are either side slippingly hilarious or profoundly painful, depending on your point of view. Check these two out for size.

First, Ozzy Osborne's "Crazy Train":

Next, The Police and "Roxanne":

If those pique your interest, more are collected here and over at Pandagon.

One IP War Comes to an End

Last year I blogged about a battle between Frank Zappa's widow Gail and the German Zappanale festival. Gail wanted to keep the festival from selling unapproved Zappa merchandise. Thankfully, a German court has ruled for the fest:

Frank Zappa's widow, Gail Zappa, filed the suit in early 2008 because of what she saw as a violation of the Zappa trademark. She sued the Arf Society, which organizes the annual Zappanale near the Baltic Sea coast and sells merchandise with its version of the Zappa logo, for €150,000 ($193,000) in damages plus a further €250,000 should the Zappanale continue selling Zappa merchandise.

But the court on Wednesday found that the Zappa Family Trust, which is headed by Gail Zappa, was unable to prove that it actively uses its trademark in Germany, a requirement for such lawsuits to win. Furthermore, the differences between the official Zappa logo and that used by the Zappanale, the court ruled, were great enough to preclude confusion of the two.
While ostensibly about the trademark issue, Gail made no bones about the fact that she wasn't a fan of the unlicensed festival playing Frank's music. I leave it to you to decide whether she was really acting in the interest of Frank's music or just trying to tap a potential revenue stream.

Crusaders and Enemies (The Prequel)

Remember what I was saying yesterday about how sometimes lawmakers ride a wave of outrage about something that doesn't exist in an effort to enact even more numerous and draconian drug laws?

When I wrote that, I had no idea that the New York Times would have an article about, perhaps, the all time champ of irrational drug war frenzy - the epidemic of "crack babies" back in the 1980s and 1990s. Yeah, well, it never actually existed:

When the use of crack cocaine became a nationwide epidemic in the 1980s and ’90s, there were widespread fears that prenatal exposure to the drug would produce a generation of severely damaged children. Newspapers carried headlines like 'Cocaine: A Vicious Assault on a Child,' 'Crack’s Toll Among Babies: A Joyless View' and 'Studies: Future Bleak for Crack Babies.'

But now researchers are systematically following children who were exposed to cocaine before birth, and their findings suggest that the encouraging stories of Ms. H.’s daughters are anything but unusual. So far, these scientists say, the long-term effects of such exposure on children’s brain development and behavior appear relatively small.
It's not that cocaine is a good thing to take while pregnant - Dr. Spock surely is not going to start recommending it - but you have to keep things in perspective:
Cocaine is undoubtedly bad for the fetus. But experts say its effects are less severe than those of alcohol and are comparable to those of tobacco — two legal substances that are used much more often by pregnant women, despite health warnings.

Surveys by the Department of Health and Human Services in 2006 and 2007 found that 5.2 percent of pregnant women reported using any illicit drug, compared with 11.6 percent for alcohol and 16.4 percent for tobacco.

'The argument is not that it’s O.K. to use cocaine in pregnancy, any more than it’s O.K. to smoke cigarettes in pregnancy,' said Dr. Deborah A. Frank, a pediatrician at Boston University. 'Neither drug is good for anybody.'
So, the legal drugs are more harmful. Imagine that. Your Drug War dollars at work.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Album of the Day

Au-delà du Délire, Ange (1974): Two things immediately spring to mind when I listen to this French disc. The first is how amazingly lush it is, with huge swaths of Mellotron strings augmented by lyrical guitar work. The second is that I keep waiting for the vocalist to hork up that hairball he seems to be working on throughout the disc. I know French is supposed to be a beautiful language, but it certainly doesn't seem so here. Which is alright, because that's not what's important. The best parts of the album are synthesized in the closing title track, where the 'Tron and guitar shine.

More Crusaders In Search of an Enemy

Remember a couple of weeks back when I blogged about the epidemic of Internet predators that never existed? With the lessons of that hysteria freshly unlearned, a pair of Senators is looking to tee up the next "think of the children" bogeyman - flavored methamphetamine. No kidding:

Last week Sens. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) reintroduced a bill aimed at combating a new drug menace that, as far as anyone can tell, does not actually exist: candy-flavored meth. The Saving Kids from Dangerous Drugs Act, a.k.a. 'the candy-flavored meth bill,' would automatically double penalties for anyone who 'manufactures, creates, distributes, or possesses with intent to distribute a controlled substance that is flavored, colored, packaged or otherwise altered in a way that is designed to make it more appealing to a person under 21 years of age, or who attempts or conspires to do so.'
Oh, joy. Another draconian hammer wielded in the War on Drugs without a firm basis in reality.

Never mind that, finally, after years of sticking heads in the sand, the country seems to realize the error of the (largely unfounded) fear driven excessive sentences given to crack dealers.

Never mind that federal law already carries distinct offenses and sentencing enhancements for selling any drug to kids.

How about the fact that this seems to be very much a solution in search of a problem, according to Snopes. That's right - a underlying basis of a criminal law introduced in Congress has been debunked by an Internet urban myth debunker. Let's hear it for bipartisan idiocy.

Rabbit Is Dead

I've only read a smattering of John Updike's work. Nonetheless, I enjoyed what I read and recognize as a titan of American literature. He died today of cancer, at a hospice outside Boston. He will be missed.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Album of the Day

Close to the Edge, by Yes (1972): Through all of Yes's legendary number of lineup changes, there are two that I think stand out as era-defining ones. The first was after Close to the Edge, when Bill Bruford left to join King Crimson (the other, if you're keeping score, is when Trevor Rabin joined up). I love Alan White's drumming and Yes made lots of good albums afterwords, but Bruford's thought that once CttE was done they'd only start repeating themselves is fairly true. Sure, Tales from Topographic Oceans went more epic and Relayer added some fusion flavor, but for the most part CttE was the pinnacle of what Yes was about. So good, in fact, that the entire album found its way onto the Yesshows live album.

Science v. Religion

History is rife with conflicts between religious dogma and scientific discovery. Even The Simpsons couldn't put it to rest, although Judge Snyder did enter a restraining order to keep science and religion at least 500 yards apart at all times. The most notable modern flash point is the evolution/creationism debate, which seems to rage anew every few years as the creationists reboot and come up with new packaging for their old arguments.

With that background in mind, Jerry Coyne has a lengthy column in a forthcoming issue of The New Republic (via PZ) that covers the conflict. In the context of reviewing two books in which authors try to reconcile the use of evolutionary theory and their religious views. Coyne concludes, rather persuasively, that it can't be done:

It would appear, then, that one cannot be coherently religious and scientific at the same time. That alleged synthesis requires that with one part of your brain you accept only those things that are tested and supported by agreed-upon evidence, logic, and reason, while with the other part of your brain you accept things that are unsupportable or even falsified. In other words, the price of philosophical harmony is cognitive dissonance. Accepting both science and conventional faith leaves you with a double standard: rational on the origin of blood clotting, irrational on the Resurrection; rational on dinosaurs, irrational on virgin births. Without good cause, Giberson and Miller pick and choose what they believe. At least the young-earth creationists are consistent, for they embrace supernatural causation across the board. With his usual flair, the physicist Richard Feynman characterized this difference: 'Science is a way of trying not to fool yourself. The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.' With religion, there is just no way to know if you are fooling yourself.
This is important beyond the interesting philosophical issue. Why?
And so the culture wars continue between science and religion. On one side we have a scientific establishment and a court system determined to let children learn evolution rather than religious mythology, and on the other side the many Americans who passionately resist those efforts. It is a depressing fact that while 74 percent of Americans believe that angels exist, only 25 percent accept that we evolved from apelike ancestors. Just one in eight of us think that evolution should be taught in the biology classroom without including a creationist alternative. Among thirty-four Western countries surveyed for the acceptance of evolution, the United States ranked a dismal thirty-third, just above Turkey. Throughout our country, school boards are trying to water down the teaching of evolution or sneak creationism in beside it. And the opponents of Darwinism are not limited to snake-handlers from the Bible Belt; they include some people you know. As Karl Giberson notes in Saving Darwin, 'Most people in America have a neighbor who thinks the Earth is ten thousand years old.'
That bodes ill for our future. In an ever complicated world in which rational thinking and problem solving become more critical, we as a nation cannot afford to slip further beneath the waves of faith-based public policy.

It's a problem. I just don't know how to deal with it.

Maybe I Should Try This

I've read lots of advice about legal writing in my career. But I've never had anybody suggest rapping a brief:

Justice might be blind, but apparently it has good rhythm.

A jazz musician who filed a legal brief in a child custody dispute with rap lyrics won his appeal and will get out of paying nearly $4,000 in fees.

* * *

Royal, who has since moved out of state, said he wanted to use creativity to convince the appeals court that he was being treated unfairly and shouldn't have to pay. He spent three days writing his brief in the form of rap, which he said can capture the essence of an argument with few words.
You know, I've got an oral argument in front of the Fourth Circuit on Friday. I wonder what the panel would think if I rapped my opening?

Friday, January 23, 2009

Album of the Day

Inuit, by Armonite (1999): Back when I regularly wrote album reviews, I had a few bands contact me and ask to send me a copy of an album to check out. This Italian band was one of them, so I ended up with a CD-R of their first (and apparently only) album. I never got around to reviewing it, as it showed up about the time I became disillusioned with the whole process.

It's a shame the band didn't make it further than this album, because they had some distinctiveness going for them. The band lineup includes a pair of violinists, bass, drums, and keyboards (piano mostly). Except for the medieval sounding choral bits that bookend the disc, the music is all instrumental. It's good, solid, melodic prog, with some nice dual violin work and good background atmospherics. It rarely jumps out and grabs you, but it doesn't really sound like anything else in my collection.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Album of the Day

John Barleycorn Must Die, by Traffic (1970): A long while ago, I got this disc from Columbia House, curious to hear what Traffic was all about. It made no impression on me whatsoever. It languished on the shelf for years until a few years ago when, for some reason, I was inspired to put it on. I don't know why, but it clicked then and it has ever since. Winwood and crew throw a bunch influences together (rock, folk, jazz) and come up with a loose jammy sound. The title track is a reworked British folk tune with its own interesting history.

That's Not a Prop . . .

I know realism is important to actors, but this is nuts:

Real-life tragedy nearly struck at a Florida theatre on Monday night, when an actor fired a live gun at a cast member's head.

During rehearsals for an amateur production of John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men in Sarasota, the show's director, Bill Bordy, shot 81-year-old actor Fred Kellerman in the back of the head at point-blank range, only to realise with horror that the gun he used was loaded with live ammunition. Luckily the shot only grazed Kellerman's skull, and he was quickly released from hospital.
The gun was borrowed from a friend that, oopsie, forgot to unload it. Good thing, as Bordy put it, "I was a lousy shot." Otherwise, they'd have to have one of those Gallagheresque "the front three rows will get wet" warnings in the playbill!

Now There's Some Change I Can Believe In

Ah, that's more like it:

President Obama signed executive orders Thursday directing the Central Intelligence Agency to shut what remains of its network of secret prisons and ordering the closing of the Guantánamo detention camp within a year, government officials said.

The orders, which are the first steps in undoing detention policies of former President George W. Bush, rewrite American rules for the detention of terrorism suspects. They require an immediate review of the 245 detainees still held at the naval base in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, to determine if they should be transferred, released or prosecuted.

And the orders bring to an end a Central Intelligence Agency program that kept terrorism suspects in secret custody for months or years, a practice that has brought fierce criticism from foreign governments and human rights activists. They will also prohibit the C.I.A. from using coercive interrogation methods, requiring the agency to follow the same rules used by the military in interrogating terrorism suspects, government officials said.
About fucking time. Gitmo and the like are a stain on our national soul. The sooner they are undone the better.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Album of the Day

Octopus, by Gentle Giant (1973):When it comes to the “what is progressive rock?” discussions online, someone inevitably applies the term “epic” as a description. Certainly, it’s true that a large hunk of what is universally recognized as prog fits that mold (think Yes, ELP, and Genesis with their side-long suites). But for every rule there is an exception and when it comes to prog and the epic, Gentle Giant is it.

Octopus is a perfect example. Eight tracks, only one of which drifts past five minutes. In terms of length, they fit squarely in the pop/rock ideal. But that’s about all they conform to. Neither the Renaissance-era feel of “Raconteur Troubadour” nor the insane complexity of “Knots” (you should hear it live!) will leave you wondering why the prog label applies to Gentle Giant. But, as if to break another rule, the band shows the ability to strip away the complexities on the beautiful “Think of Me With Kindness.”

Epic in scope, perhaps, if not in size, is a good way to think of Gentle Giant.

Deep Hurting (Musical Edition)

I'm all for alternatives to incarceration and creative punishments for minor offenses, but do we have to get music involved? Maybe I've just seen A Clockwork Orange too many times, but the idea of tunes as negative stimuli just makes my blood run cold. So I'm not sure I can get on board with one judge's project:

The guiding principle in Municipal Judge Paul Sacco's courtroom is an eye for an eye. Or rather, an ear for an ear.

So when teenagers land in front of him for blasting their car stereos or otherwise disturbing the peace in this small northern Colorado city, Sacco informs them that they will spend a Friday evening in his courtroom listening to music -- of his choosing.

No, they can't pay a fine instead, he tells them. So, he adds with a snicker, ever heard of Barry Manilow?
The article goes on to describe one session of the musical punishment, which starts off with the Barney theme song and doesn't improve appreciably for the next hour. It's not all awful - the playlist includes, ironically, part of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony - as the judge is smart enough to choose stuff the kids hate, regardless of quality.

Still, I can think of few worse things in life than being required to stay in a room while Barry Manilow was played. It may not be "cruel and unusual," but it's certainly a recipe for some deep hurting!

The Death of Liberal Arts

I have a soft spot for a liberal arts education. Not just because I have one - my undergrad degree, with a history major and philosophy/poli-sci minor is practically worthless in terms of real world application. I actually think that part of being a well adjusted human being is having a broader perspective on the world than just knowing how to make a living. Insight into the human condition, in all its manifest forms, is a good thing, particularly since said condition effects everything from politics to economics to crime to entertainment.

Anyway, apparently, the old fashioned liberal arts education is on its last legs. In his column this week at the New York Times, Stanley Fish relates the thesis of a new book on higher education that says that the concerns about the demise of a liberal arts education have been overtaken by the reality of its demise:

[Frank] Donoghue [author of The Last Professors: The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities] begins by challenging the oft-repeated declaration that liberal arts education in general and the humanities in particular face a crisis, a word that suggests an interruption of a normal state of affairs and the possibility of restoring the natural order of things.

'Such a vision of restored stability,' says Donoghue, 'is a delusion' because the conditions to which many seek a return – healthy humanities departments populated by tenure-track professors who discuss books with adoring students in a cloistered setting – have largely vanished. Except in a few private wealthy universities (functioning almost as museums), the splendid and supported irrelevance of humanist inquiry for its own sake is already a thing of the past. In 'two or three generations,' Donoghue predicts, 'humanists . . . will become an insignificant percentage of the country’s university instructional workforce.'
The culprits Donoghue trace back to Andrew Carnegie, who in 1891 praised the graduates of a business college for
being 'fully occupied in obtaining a knowledge of shorthand and typewriting' rather than wasting time 'upon dead languages.'
That runs to the modern development of online (and offline) universities for profit that specialize in career-oriented training rather than book learning.

I can understand why the market has developed a bias in favor of "practical" college education. At one time, a high school education produced people able to step right into the workforce. A higher education was just that - something above and beyond what most folks needed to make a living and lead a good life. That's all changed, partly because of technology issues and partly because of how badly secondary schools prepare students for the world.

In a way, the decline in the liberal arts focus is the end product of the "teach the test" mentality. Literature, philosophy, history and the like often aren't on the "test" of life, at least not obviously. I can't blame people for sidestepping them. Doesn't mean I can't mourn the loss, though.

Absolutely Insane

If true, the allegations in this lawsuit (via PZ) are absolutely staggering.

A woman in New Mexico went to a local medical facility to have her IUD adjusted. Instead of doing her job, the nurse who performed the procedure "accidentally" pulled the IUD out (which caused the patient to experience "a sharp pain in her uterus similar to a very strong menstrual cramp"). Mere incompetence? Not quite:

Olona [the nurse] then stated, 'having the IUD come out was a good thing.' She asked (the plaintiff) if she wanted to hear her 'take' on the situation. Without receiving a response, Defendant Olona stated, 'I personally do not like IUDs. I feel they are a type of abortion. I don't know how you feel about abortion, but I am against them. What the IUD does is take the fertilized egg and pushes it out of the uterus.
Think about that for a second. This woman went in for a routine medical procedure, got battered, and then got lectured by some anti-choice nutter!

This is the logical end point of regulations, like the one pushed out before Duhbya left town, that would allow medical professionals to opt out of providing a legal service if it conflicted with their conscience. In other words, if the pharmacist down the street doesn't think you should be having sex, you unmarried slut you, he's under no obligation to fill your birth control prescription.

Such regulations seem incredibly problematic to me. Transfer the setting from medicine to law and try this one for size. Assume I undergo a religious conversion (it's hard to imagine, I know) and believe in my heart of hearts that personal well being and eternal salvation requires confession of sins and public repentance. If those regs applied, I could refuse to take any case to trial where I thought my client was guilty and needed to unburden their souls by pleading guilty to whatever they were charged with. In other words - I couldn't do my job. Maybe the US Attorney's office would hire me?

The medical scenarios seem similar to me. If something in your religious/ethical makeup will prevent you from fulfilling the requirements of your job, then find another line of work. That's particularly true when the job at issue - like doctor, pharmacist, or nurse - requires state licensing that effectively restricts the market of potential competitors. Vegans don't work at McDonald's and pacifists don't join the Army, after all.

That being said, the most disturbing part of this whole story is how the nurse's coworker's responded:
Defendant Olona stated, 'Everyone in the office always laughs and tells me I pull these out on purpose because I am against them, but it's not true, they accidentally come out when I tug.
Wow. Just . . . wow.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Album of the Day

That's right, dear reader(s), it's that time of year again. It's the time when I work my way through the breadth and depth of my CD collection while listening at work and tell you about it. This year, being an odd one, means not using the traditional "A-to-Z" method.

Instead, using my spiffy recording inventory program, I'm going to work my way through based on the length of the recording. This applies only to albums released independently of any other release, so no bonus discs or anything like that. With that in mind . . .

The Tain, by The Decemberists (2005): As is traditional, we begin with the first disc in line. In this case, it's this 18-minute EP in which The Decemberists engaged their proggy tendencies completely. In one epic track, Meloy and company tell the tail of Táin Bó Cúailnge from Irish mythology. I don't quite get the whole story, honestly (it involves livestock somehow), but that's not important. The music rises and falls and conveys the gist of it.

Inaugural Thoughts

I will admit, I'm a bit sick of all the hoopla surrounding today's inauguration. Still, I find myself plonked on the couch watching the parade on C-SPAN (since they don't talk over the bands). It is an oddly compelling spectacle.

The first inauguration that I had any interest in was Bill Clinton's first in 1993. Part of that was because I had just turned 18 about 15 months prior and so that was the first election in which I voted. I even did some exceptionally low level volunteer work for Bubba's campaign in Morgantown. It also helped that during the actual mid afternoon festivities I didn't have class and could give my full attention to it.

What struck me most about that event was how orderly and regimented it was. This was a time, remember, when the fall of the Iron Curtain was still of very recent vintage and it wasn't at all clear that the fledgling democracies in the Eastern Bloc were going to make it. Against that backdrop, the orderly and completely as-given handover of power was really moving. Even more so because, unlike this year, the person relinquishing power was defeated straight up by the person taking the oath. Such things just don't happen in lots of places around the globe.

As for today's events . . .

I thought Obama's speech was good, if short on particulars. I thought when he went into the bit about not sacrificing our ideals for security that he was going to turn to Duhbya and shoot daggers from his eyes. I appreciated the references to science, "data and statistics," and the shout out to non-believers. Still an awful lot of god talk, tho' (and, damn, isn't Warren a long winded dude?).

Chief Justice Roberts chumped the oath, which is both amusing and a little scary given his role in the world. Of course, he chumped the Fourth Amendment last week, so maybe we should have seen it coming.

Nice to see some drum corps taking part in the parade. I've seen Colts and the Cadets so far. Given Obama's from Illinois, maybe Phantom Regiment is involved? Apparently not. Another musical note, "The Final Countdown" is not appropriate parade material!

I came to federal court in 2002, well into Duhbya's reign. So every time I've gone to court to represent a client against the "United States of America," it's been Duhbya's government. It's not any more. I've never had a guy I voted for on the "other" side.

It's a new era. I hope it's a better one. Let's not blow it.

Friday, January 16, 2009

After the Bright Lights and the Noise

The NCAA currently has a series of TV commercials running that make the point that most college athletes "go pro in something other than sports." It's a good point and one that gets overlooked in the glare of big time college sports. Seems like the only stories you hear are about the guys who make it in the pros or who bomb out so spectacularly after college that they end up on America's Most Wanted.

Today's New York Times has an article on what I imagine the vast majority of college athletes experience after college. It's about former WVU basketball star Kevin Pittsnogle. You remember him, sports fans:

Less than four years ago, he was a basketball star and a folk hero, a homegrown kid with a funny name, a bowl haircut, a 6-foot-11 frame covered in tattoos, and a baby-soft 3-point shot. During West Virginia’s unexpected thrill ride to the quarterfinals of the 2005 N.C.A.A. tournament, his name became a taunting verb: you’ve been Pittsnogled. His mother still has a box of the T-shirts in a closet.

Less than three years ago, Pittsnogle was an all-American senior averaging 19.3 points who led West Virginia to the 2006 regional semifinals. He expected to be chosen in the N.B.A draft. He was not.
So where is Pittsnogle now? In prison? Living on the streets? Nope. He has, as they say, gone pro in life:
Now, at 24, he is a middle school teacher in his hometown. He is also an unpaid assistant coach for a high school basketball team. He bowls in leagues three nights a week and occasionally plays bingo at Big Bucks Bingo. His wife, Heather, is a bank teller. They have two children and live in a double-wide trailer, and together they wonder how much appetite they have for uprooting their lives again so Pittsnogle can have one more chance at a basketball career.
As the article goes on to explain, thanks to the discovery of a hormone problem that affected his weight, Pittsnogle has another chance to try and break into the NBA. He's not sure it's worth it, given the life he's established in Martinsburg.

It's an interesting look at life in the real world after the crowds are gone.

Dumb But Fun

There's a truism in my profession to the effect that "our clients have the right to remain silent, but not the ability." The sad fact is that most people, once arrested, want to spill their guts and tell their side of the story. As if it matters. It's a source of constant frustration for defense attorneys, but it does have a bright side - people often say some amusingly stupid things.

Take this news item from the local paper:

After being arrested by police, a Nitro couple started to bicker about whether a home burglary had really been such a great idea, according to a criminal complaint.
That's right. Details:
While the patrolmen were investigating the burglary, Southworth's live-in girlfriend, Samantha Nicole Bishop, 23, approached the scene and started asking questions. Bishop told police that she had been in a nearby gambling parlor, but witnesses at the gambling parlor told police they hadn't seen the woman, according to the complaint.

* * *

The couple started to argue at the police department and Bishop told Southworth, 'I told you not to go down there, we should have just stayed home like I wanted. Now look - we're going to jail,' the complaint said.
It's not bad enough to get caught in the act of burglary, but your girlfriend shows up to rub it in (and get arrested in the bargain!). Criminal law is so entertaining.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Talk About Entwined Destinies

If the Pittsburgh Steelers beat the Baltimore Ravens this Sunday to win the AFC Championship, they're guaranteed to play a piece of their past in the Super Bowl. You see, they were, briefly, one with both the Eagles and the Cardinals:

As national duty cut into N.F.L. rosters during World War II — more than 600 players were drafted at a time when teams seldom carried more than 28 — franchises scrambled for solutions. So in 1943, the Steelers and the Eagles became the Steagles, and in 1944, the Steelers and the Cardinals became Card-Pitt, all in the interest of keeping professional football alive during the war.
Neither merger faired particularly well, although the Steagles bore some interesting fruit:
Under Greasy Neale of Philadelphia and Walt Kiesling of Pittsburgh, who served as co-coaches, the Steagles also contributed to the game’s development. Because Neale and Kiesling hated each other, they divided responsibilities along the lines of offense and defense. Modern offensive and defensive coordinators were thus born of a loveless marriage.
The Steagles went 5-4-1 that season, which is a far cry from what Card-Pitt produced the next year: 0-10. In that case, the coaches apparently got along too well:
But at least the Steelers’ Kiesling got along much better with his new coaching partner, Phil Handler of Chicago. The problem, according to Algeo, was that Kiesling and Handler might have gotten along a little too well. 'Legend has it they spent more time at the racetrack than watching game film,' he said.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Not So Dangerous, After All

Remember the panic over sexual predators on the Internet? Dire warnings about how our kids were at risk by just undertaking the very act of logging on? Yeah, well, turns out it was completely overblown:

A task force created by 49 state attorneys general to look into the problem of sexual solicitation of children online has concluded that there really is not a significant problem.

* * *

The panel, the Internet Safety Technical Task Force, was charged with examining the extent of the threats children face on social networks like MySpace and Facebook, amid widespread fears that adults were using these popular Web sites to deceive and prey on children.

But the report concluded that the problem of bullying among children, both online and offline, poses a far more serious challenge than the sexual solicitation of minors by adults.
One of the AGs involved doesn't agree with the findings:
Not everyone was happy with the conclusions. Richard Blumenthal, the Connecticut attorney general, who has forcefully pursued the issue and helped to create the task force, said he disagreed with the report. Mr. Blumenthal said it 'downplayed the predator threat,' relied on outdated research and failed to provide a specific plan for improving the safety of social networking.
Looks like "forcefully pursued" means "was using it as a political issue," which of course means that he's not going to let actual data interfere with his political strategy.

Not a Difficult Concept

Today's New York Times contained a revelation that was not, exactly, all that revelatory:

The senior Pentagon official in the Bush administration’s system for prosecuting detainees said in a published interview that she had concluded that interrogators had tortured a Guantánamo detainee who has sometimes been described as 'the 20th hijacker' in the 2001 terrorist attacks.
Official confirmation of what we've all known for a while - the outgoing (damn, that sounds good) administration got us into the torture business. Ain't that grand?

You would think that the moral and legal issues surrounding torture were somehow undeveloped or unresolved. If they were, maybe we could give Duhbya, Dead-Eye Dick, Yoo, etc. the benefit of the doubt. Sadly, that's just not possible.

Ever heard of Friedrich von Spee? Neither had I, until I read this diary over at Kos. von Spee was a 17th Century Jesuit priest. During the Thirty Years War (a religious conflagration that left Germany in shambles), von Spee became involed with witch trials and, in particular, with the torture of "witches" to gain confessions.

Although he continued to believe in witchcraft, von Spee had some honest to goodness relevlations about the process of condemning and executing them. In a book,Cautio Criminalis, he laid out several arguments against torture. Like:
To immediately presume that the prisoners are just guilty, and therefore one may do to them those things which it has been said some priests do do to them, is completely intolerable.
The tortures customary everywhere are by their very nature great and cause grievous suffering beyond measure. However, it is the nature of the greatest suffering that we do not fear meeting even death itself in order to avoid it. Therefore there is the danger that many women, in order to extricate themselves from the agony of the rack, might confess to crimes they have not committed and fabricate any crimes for themselves, either whatever the inquisitors suggest or what they themselves have previously planned to confess.
How about that? "Innocent until proven guilty" and "coerced confessions are unreliable," all 150 years before the Bill of Rights was a twinkle in Madison's eyes.

If it was that obvious to a 17th Century witch hunter, shouldn't the Duhbya and his buds been able to figure it out?

Dangerous Art

The Czech Republic is rotating into holding the presidency of the European Union. To celebrate the occasion, they commissioned a piece of art. It wasn't what they expected:

A new art installation going on display at the European Council building in Brussels has angered EU members with its lampoons of national stereotypes.

Entropa portrays Bulgaria as a toilet, Romania as a Dracula theme-park and France as a country on strike.
The commissioners thought they were getting a work that would utilize artists from all 27 EU nations. Instead, the project was done by Czech artist David Cerny and two assistants. According to the BBC's man in Prague, Cerny is:
the enfant terrible of the Czech art world.
Oops. To be fair, apparently "enfant terrible" is art world speak for fraud:
Mr Cerny, who presented Entropa to his government with a brochure describing each of the artwork's 27 supposed contributors from each member state, has apologised for misleading ministers, but not for the installation itself.

'We knew the truth would come out,' said Mr Cerny. 'But before that we wanted to find out if Europe is able to laugh at itself.'
Ah, so it's all a joke, in the end. Sounds like Ann Coulter when some whopper blows up in her face.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Studio Update

With the book on the shelf for a few weeks, I'm hoping to channel my creative energy back into tunage. To help me out, I've got a new toy to get the creative juices flowing in the studio:


That there on the left is a Korg M50, their new entry in the budget workstation class. It's got the same sound set and synthesis engine as the big time M3 workstation, along with a 16-track sequencer and some other goodies. It's a good sonic complement to the Micron and the sequencer should let me get some ideas down without having to go through the trouble of hooking up the laptop.


I haven't had much time to really dig deep into the features, yet. But tonight I managed to record about a minute's worth of music and get it saved for future use, so I'm learning.

M50 2

New music to follow, I promise! Or threaten. Take your pick.

Getting Snippy During Oral Argument

It's fairly well assumed, at least in appellate lawyer circles, that when Supreme Court Justices ask questions during oral argument, they're not doing it to get information. More often than not, they're speaking to others on the bench, trying to persuade or dissuade them from a particular position on the issue at hand. Still, it's rare to see it get as directly confrontational as in one argument yesterday.

The case deals with the issue of whether state death row inmates who are entitled to lawyers in federal court during post-conviction proceedings are also entitled to those lawyers during state clemency proceedings. It boils down to the interpretation of a federal statute and all the frivolity that entails. As a result, the ever present debate between Scalia and the rest of the Court over the use of legislative history in such cases (Scalia is against it), raised its head:

The phrase 'executive or other clemency,' Ms. Hansen Chavis added, gave a further indication of Congressional intent. All federal clemency proceedings take place within the executive branch, she said, and so the words 'or other' must have referred to state proceedings in which other parts of the government play a role in granting clemency.

Justice Antonin Scalia, who speaks often about the importance of fidelity to statutory text, liked that point. He was less receptive when Justice Stephen G. Breyer observed that Representative John Conyers Jr., Democrat of Michigan, had said he understood the law to apply to state clemency proceedings.

'I thought this was a federal law,' said Justice Scalia, who is hostile to judicial consideration of legislators’ statements in determining what laws mean. 'Is this a Conyers law?'

Justice Breyer responded, 'He happens to be the person who wrote it.' Justice Scalia continued to interrogate Justice Breyer as Mr. Jay, representing the government, looked on.

'Did his colleagues know what he said?' Justice Scalia asked.

'Yes, they did,' Justice Breyer responded.

Chief Justice Roberts stepped in. 'Counsel, you lead,' he said to Mr. Jay. 'We direct our questions to counsel.'
Ouch, scolded by the boss! Even at that lofty level, there's somebody higher than you in the food chain.

Condeming the Coulter Effect

I don't like Ann Coulter. Hell, I downright loathe her. In the media personality realm, she occupies one of the lower levels of hell in my eyes, alongside Nancy Grace. She is a vicious, mean spirited, and altogether disingenuous person whose "commentary" is nothing more than some sort of long running performance art piece, designed to elicit hoots of approval from the right and howls of protest from the left. I'll give her this - her shtick works, at least when it comes to selling books.

I say that as preface because I'm actually going to defend her, a bit. But it's on principle, rest assured. Over at Concurring Opinions, Kaimipono D. Wenger has a post about "The Coulter Curve:"

What's the opposite of a bell curve? How about a Coulter curve, where all of the numbers are either wonderful or terrible. Check out the Amazon reviews for Ann Coulter's latest book, Guilty: Liberal "Victims" and Their Assault on America.
The numbers, as of this writing, using Amazon's five-star scale are:
  • 5-star = 64
  • 4-star = 4
  • 3-star = 3
  • 2-star = 1
  • 1-star = 60
As a result the average is, perhaps appropriately, 3 stars. The odd dispersion of ratings isn't just a function of Coulter's polarizing polemics (although it helps). More likely, both the 5-star and 1-star numbers are being boosted by fans or detractors who haven't even read the book yet. I've seen quasi-organized assaults on the ratings for other politically heated books, so I doubt this is any different.

It's also a crock of shit. Say what you want about Coulter, or any other fire breather from across the political spectrum - it's dishonest to rate her work if you haven't actually read it. Sure, some people who think she's a blight on the Earth's surface will read it. "Know thy enemies" and all that jazz. But it's beyond petty to go dump her in the ratings toilet on general dislike.

Either deal with her on fair ground (i.e, read what she has to say) or ignore. Just because she might not do the same to you is not excuse. Likewise, before you heap praise upon her new tome, do your homework, OK?

Monday, January 12, 2009

It is Finished

Back in November, as part of National Novel Writing Month, I started off on my second attempt to write a novel. I kept up with it through the month and hit the 50,000 goal on the last day. Since then, I've continued to work on it with less frequency, but equal intensity. Finally, it's paid off - I just printed off a first draft!

The plan for now is to put it on a shelf for a few weeks and then start the editing process. Hopefully, by sometime this summer, I'll have a draft that I'm willing to share with some selected victims, er, beta readers and start getting some feedback.

It sucks, of course, but it's done! I've written a complete work of fiction! Woot, as the kids say.

Things You Learn on Wikipedia

Often I see something in a movie or on TV that I know nothing or little about (it happens - work with me) I hop over to Wikipedia to get some background. A couple of weeks ago, a movie the girlfriend and I were half-watching on TV had a scene that involved a "Punch & Judy" show.

Knowing the term, but knowing nothing about it (and knowing that a song of that title was the first single off of Marillion's Fugazi), I looked it up when it came back to mind (i.e., right now). The Wiki entry is pretty detailed and interesting, and contained this bit that made me laugh my ass off:

The stereotypical view of Punch casts him as a deformed, child-murdering, wife-beating psychopath who commits appalling acts of violence and cruelty upon all those around him and escapes with impunity; this is greatly enjoyed by small children.
Really? No wonder little kids freak me out - they're a bunch of little sadists who get off on watching others get hurt!

Alabama Justice

I know that lots of state codes have weird provisions dating from prior centuries that people sometimes exploit. But who would have thought that making a profit on inmates was ever a good idea, even in Alabama (via TalkLeft)?

The prisoners in the Morgan County jail here were always hungry. The sheriff, meanwhile, was getting a little richer. Alabama law allowed it: the chief lawman could go light on prisoners’ meals and pocket the leftover change.

And that is just what the sheriff, Greg Bartlett, did, to the tune of $212,000 over the last three years, despite a state food allowance of only $1.75 per prisoner per day.
A long time back, magistrates and other judges in some states got a monetary reward for every search or arrest warrant they issued. The Supreme Court held that such practices violated the Fourth Amendment, as the financial incentive to issue the warrants meant the judge was not a "neutral and detached magistrate" as the Fourth required. A similar perverse incentive is obvious in this situation.

Years ago, a federal judge presided over a lawsuit against Bartlett over the meager provisions given his charges. The suit resulted in an agreement that Bartlett would improve conditions. He didn't, and the judge sent him to jail for contempt. It only took one day for Bartlett (probably not in his own jail, alas) to come up with the logical solution - spend all of the state's generous per diem on feeding people.

Truth (?) In Advertising (Redux)

Last week I blogged about an atheist bus campaign in the UK that was forced to equivocate - their sign said "[t]here’s probably no God" - and that even the equivocation wouldn't make everybody happy. I was right (via PZ):

Now Stephen Green of Christian Voice, who formerly hit the front pages by launching a legal challenge against Jerry Springer the Opera on the BBC, has complained to the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) and is calling for the adverts to be withdrawn

Mr Green released a statement saying: 'I believe the ad breaks the Advertising Code, unless the advertisers hold evidence that God probably does not exist.

* * *

Mr Green has challenged the adverts on grounds of 'truthfulness' and 'substantiation', suggesting that there is not 'a shred of supporting evidence' that there is probably no God.
One wonders if Green will press his claims in court. If he does, might we hope (pray?) for a benchslap of Biblical proportions for Green, maybe along the lines of Holocaust denier David Irving's libel suit against Deborah Lipstadt?

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Why We Don't Care

Stalin famously said (maybe) that "the death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic." Brutal, but true. But why? Why don't we react to progressively more suffering with an equivalent amount of empathy? It's hard wired, apparently, according to one professor (via Hit & Run):

Slovic's research suggests that the central reason the United States has not responded forcefully -- and quickly -- to crises ranging from the Holocaust to the Rwandan genocide, from the ethnic cleaning that occurred in the 1990s Balkan conflict to the present-day crisis in Sudan's Darfur region, is not that presidents are uncaring, or that Americans only value American lives, but that the human mind has been unintentionally designed to respond in perverse ways to large-scale suffering.
A pair of experiments show that. In one, people were more likely to spend money to get water that would save 4500 refugees to a camp with 11,000 refugees than to a camp with 100,000 people. In the other:
Slovic asked people to imagine they were disbursing money on behalf of a large foundation: They could give $10 million to fight a disease that claimed 20,000 lives a year -- and save 10,000 of those lives. But they could also devote the $10 million to fight a disease that claimed 290,000 lives a year -- and this investment would save 20,000 lives.

Slovic found that people preferred to spend the money saving the 10,000 lives in the first scenario rather than the 20,000 lives in the second scenario: "People were responding not to the number of lives saved but the percentage of lives saved," he said. In the one case, their investment could save half the victims; in the case of the more deadly disease, it could save 7 percent of the victims.
OK, but why are we so irrational in such situations? He doesn't have a good explanation, yet, but focuses on the perceived diminished returns that come with larger numbers of victims.

I also think part of it is simply that the more people are involved in some tragedy, the harder it is for observers to empathize with any particular one. There's a reason why TV news coverage of disasters and crimes focus on human interest angles - the tearful tornado survivor or the heartbroken mother of a murder victim. Most viewers never met these people and never gave a damn about them, but in such coverage they can connect on a simulated one-on-one level. That's just impossible when you're talking about genocide or mass famine.

In addition, I wonder if, in a world of global news coverage where things are always awful somewhere if we just reach a saturation point and tune things out. Makes me think of a verse from this Genesis tune:

Lets skip the news boy (Ill make some tea)
The Arabs and the Jews boy (too much for me)
They get me confused boy (puts me off to sleep)
And the thing I hate - oh Lord!
Is staying up late, to watch some debate, on some nation's fate.
Given recent events, I find myself feeling that way quite a bit.

No Return Without Receipt

Some gifts just can't be taken back. Like body parts. Once you give something like a kidney away, you're just not going to get it back. Even in a divorce (via Hit & Run):

When Dr. Richard Batista's wife needed a kidney, he gave her one of his.

And now that Dawnell Batista has filed for a divorce, he wants it back.

If he can't get the kidney, his attorney, Dominic Barbara of Garden City, said Wednesday that his client wants $1.5 million -- which, he said, reflects in part the value of the kidney transplant.
Good luck with that. Two problems spring to mind.

One, you can't put a dollar value on organ donation. It's illegal to sell body parts, so a kidney is technically worthless. Yeah, there may be a black market, but do you think a court is going to dive into that?

Two, could you be a bigger prick? I don't care what the woman did to you (allegedly or actually), to, in essence, demand money for saving her life is pretty low. Even jacknutish.

Sodom - The Real Story

In cartoon form, no less (via PZ):

That's actually about right (for something so snarky). Most people overlook godly Lot offering up his daughters to be gang raped. Yet his wife gets punished?

Now That's Heartwarming

I've never been a fan of the Supreme Court's obscenity jurisprudence, but I'll admit it's been good for some laughs. Before the Court went with the "community standards" test, it basically had to pass on the obscenity of works of art on a work-by-work basis. It led to lots of late nights in the court house, as recounted in The Brethren (via Volokh):

During his later years, Harlan [who was by then nearly blind -EV] watched the films from the first row, a few feet from the screen, able only to make out the general outlines. His clerk or another Justice would describe the action. 'By Jove,' Harlan would exclaim. 'Extraordinary.'
I'd heard that story before, but wasn't sure if it was apocryphal or not. The comedy writes itself!

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

The Perils of Testifying

One of the things the drives me nuts about legal dramas on TV or the big screen is how often defendants in trials take the stand and testify in their own behalf. In my experience, defendant testimony is very rare (in the ever rarer situation where a case actually goes to trial), particularly outside of something like a self defense case. The reason why is that testifying opens the defendant up to being questioned about his past.

You see, in most circumstances, a defendant's past criminal record is off limits to the prosecution. The rules of evidence in federal and most state courts prohibit the prosecution from presented that evidence as proof of a "propensity" to commit a crime. In other words, the prosecution can't tell the jury that the defendant is a three-time convicted burglar so he must have committed the burglary he's charged with.

But when a defendant testifies, things change. Any witness can by cross examined to determine their credibility and the weight a jury should give their testimony. Part of that cross examination can include diving into the witness's criminal record. It's the same for defendants. In such situations, judges tell jurors to only consider that information as it goes to the defendant's credibility as a witness, not his general propensity to commit crimes. Does that work?

Apparently not. Over at FindLaw, Sherry Colb writes about a forthcoming study (draft available here) shows that the revelation of prior convictions when a defendant testifies can have an effect on the jury, but not the intended one:

Interestingly, Eisenberg and Hans observed that the jury's knowledge of the prior record did not affect its assessment of the criminal defendant's credibility as a witness. This is an important observation because, as noted above, it is the supposed relevance of prior convictions to the defendant's credibility that provides the legal rationale for permitting the introduction of prior convictions against a testifying criminal defendant, while suppressing the same convictions against a nontestifying criminal defendant.

If, in other words, juries do not in fact consider prior convictions a reflection on a defendant's credibility as a witness, when the convictions have been admitted exclusively for that purpose, then the criminal record apparently plays no legitimate role in the trials at which it is offered. It instead serves, as Eisenberg and Hans conclude, only to lower the jury's threshold for conviction and thus to reduce the burden of proof on the prosecution from "beyond a reasonable doubt" to something less demanding. This diminished burden, in turn, may contribute to the conviction of innocent defendants.
What's the solution? Colb offers several, the most radical of which is to prohibit defendants from testifying at all. That way, jurors would also be prevented from drawing a negative inference from a defendant's decision not to testify.

Colb cites olde English common law and some early American law for the premise that defendants at one time were considered "incompetent" to testify because they had a vested interest in the outcome of the trial. But that's been discarded (it used to apply to any interested witness, including the parties in civil cases) and Colb rightly admits being hesitant to silence a criminal defendant.

It's an interesting idea, but one that's not likely to get anywhere. But, I'll admit, I don't have a better one.

Truth (?) In Advertising

Apparently, the war for the hearts and minds of mankind is being waged on the sides of buses. Last year there were stories of religious folks and unbelievers buying advertising space on the sides of buses proclaiming their message.

Today's New York Times has a story about the Atheist Bus Campaign that's doing the same thing. The messaged in that campaign reads "There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life." Fine by me, but why "probably?" Nietzsche isn't famous for saying "God is probably dead." It sounds more agnostic than atheist, anyway. Turns out it's down to British advertising laws:

But the element of doubt was necessary to meet British advertising guidelines, said Tim Bleakley, managing director for sales and marketing at CBS Outdoor in London, which handles advertising for the bus system.

For religious people, advertisements saying there is no God 'would have been misleading,' Mr. Bleakley said.

'So as not to fall foul of the code, you have to acknowledge that there is a gray area,' he said.
I wonder if the same is true in reverse? Will the rejoinder from the religious folks be limit to, "uh huh, there probably is a God"? I somehow doubt that the same "gray area" would be relevant.

Lyin' for Jesus (Plagarism Edition)

I saw this story over at the New York Times and had to pass it along. It's about a heart warming Christmas story and how one purveyor of God-woo ripped it off from another.

Neale Donald Walsch, author of something called Conversations With God (in three volumes, plus sequels! Apparently He is a long winded deity), posted a story at Beliefnet about how at a dress rehearsal for his son's winter pageant, a bunch of kids were supposed to spell out "Christmas Love," but a little girl chumped the "m" and turned it upside down, resulting in "Christ was Love." Heart warming, or so I'm told.

Only it wasn't true that Walsch witnessed it at his son's rehearsal. Where did the story come from? He ripped it off from another dispenser of such heartwarming pap:

[Candy] Chand’s essay was reprinted, with her clearly identified as the author, in 'Chicken Soup for the Christian Family Soul' in 2000, as well as on, a Web site for inspirational stories. In 2003 Ms. Chand copyrighted the story with the United States Copyright Office. Last June Gibbs Smith, a small independent publisher, released the story, 'Christmas Love,' as an illustrated gift book. The story has also been passed around through e-mail and on blogs, sometimes without attribution.

Except for a different first paragraph in which Mr. Walsch wrote that he could vividly remember' the incident, his Dec. 28 Beliefnet post followed, virtually verbatim, Ms. Chand’s previously published writing, even down to prosaic details like 'The morning of the dress rehearsal, I filed in ten minutes early, found a spot on the cafeteria floor and sat down.'
His excuse?
'someone must have sent it to me over the Internet ten years or so ago,' Mr. Walsch wrote. 'Finding it utterly charming and its message indelible, I must have clipped and pasted it into my file of ‘stories to tell that have a message I want to share.’ I have told the story verbally so many times over the years that I had it memorized ... and then, somewhere along the way, internalized it as my own experience.'
That's pretty slick. If something is 'utterly charming' and has a message you like, it's perfectly OK to call it your own to ramp up the emotional impact when you use it later. I'm not the only one who's suspicious:
Ms. Chand said in a telephone interview that she did not believe Mr. Walsch’s explanation. 'If he knew this was wrong, he should have known it was wrong before he got caught,' she said. 'Quite frankly, I’m not buying it.'
Heh. And she's not turning the other cheek, either:
Speaking of Mr. Walsch, she asked: 'Has the man who writes best-selling books about his ‘Conversations With God’ also heard God’s commandments? ‘Thou shalt not steal. Thou shalt not lie, and thou shalt not covet another author’s property’?'
At the very least, thou shalt not rip off a fellow Godbot!

I suppose the reason this amuses me is that Walsch's whole shtick is based on believing that he has talked with God (according to the Wiki entry for the series, he wrote an "angry letter" to God, who then answered and filled his head with what became the books). If he rips off treacle like this Christmas story from other folks, how can you believe anything else he says? As if it was super credible to begin with.

The other reason I'm amused is because one interesting bit of the otherwise forgettable documentary The God Who Wasn't There, which I watched last night, was how the couple that runs have collected multiple examples of stories passed around the Internet as fact that were completely fictional - some even began life clearly marked as such. How would such a thing happen? Because dipshits like Walsch find them "utterly charming" and useful for their ends. Why let the truth stand in the way of a good faith-affirming story?

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Tesla v. Top Gear

There's an interesting little conflict brewing in the world of high end motoring. It provides an interesting example of the fine line between entertainment and journalism, not to mention an example of attempted PR misdirection.

In one corner is Top Gear, the British car guy show that's become a sensation in the States thanks to BBC America (and, of course, YouTube). It's a show that, thanks to the wit and cynicism of the hosts, has fans beyond the realm of traditional "car guys" (like my boss, for instance). They routinely bad mouth cars they test, especially American ones, although you can read between the lines and get a bit of respect from them in most cases.

In the other corner is Tesla Motors, a California company that builds electric cars. Unlike the old EV-1 or modern hybrids, Tesla is building a roadster that car guys might actually want to drive (photo by):

Look familiar? It's based on the Lotus Elise, one of the most desired sports cars in the world. All that and electric power - what's not to love!

The issue betwixt Tesla and Top Gear arose after the show's test of the Tesla was broadcast in the UK. It probably won't make it to BBC America for a while, but you can view it here now. As the New York Times auto blog puts it:

In the segment, Jeremy Clarkson, one of the show’s three hosts, flogs a Tesla around a test track – to whoops and hollers – until the car slows down and unexpectedly stops. Mr. Clarkson looks at the camera, seemingly befuddled. He and three others are forced to push the car into a warehouse for a battery recharge. At least that’s what the video seems to show.

“Although Tesla says that it does 200 miles, we worked out that on our test track, it would run out after just 55 miles,” Mr. Clarkson says in a voice-over.

But did the car actually run out of juice?
It didn't. Tesla claims the segment is misleading by suggesting that it did. Data obtained from the two cars Tesla loaned the show demonstrates that neither ran out of juice. Top Gear shoots back that that portion of the report was designed to show what would happen in the event the car ran out of juice and what a pain in the rump that would be.

Who's got the better argument? Having watched the test, I think it's edited quickly enough and moves onto the problems of charging and such that Top Gear is in the clear. What happens when the car runs out of power is something that needs to be covered in any review, as it's different from running out of gas/diesel in a regular car. That the charging process hampers the car's everyday driveability is very relevant to any review.

Top Gear (or at least some its fans) also hides behind the "we're not journalists, we're entertainers" defense, which is pretty lame. Certain things about car reviews will always be subjective. But others aren't, such as whether the car broke or otherwise failed during a test. I don't think the test reads that way, honestly, but if it did the "lighten up, it's all fun and games" defense is pretty weak.

If you watch all of the review, you can see why Tesla decided to harp on the impression that the car ran out of juice. Both of the cars Top Gear had developed terminal mechanical problems: one had brake issues, the other suffered from overheating. Neither reflects well on the company and neither (to my knowledge) had been refuted by them. Better, then, to scream and waive hands over something else to distract from the real issues.

FWIW, Top Gear fans, here's The Stig whipping the Tesla around the test track as quickly as a Porsche 911 GT3! Not bad.

Can the Senate Keep Him Out?

In a scene right out of a political TV melodrama (tho' without the Sorkinesque repartee), would be Illinois Senator Roland Burris was turned away from the Senate today as he tried to take his seat. Though he was blocked by the Illinois Secretary of State's failure to certify his appointment, the real problem, of course, is that Burris is the choice of disgraced governor Rod Blagojevich. The chutzpah of Blago to go ahead and name someone to fill Obama's seat while under a cloud of impeachment and criminal corruption proceedings has prompted a lot of debate over whether the Senate can do anything about it other than welcome Burris in.

Big name legal scholars are lining up on both sides. The argument, largely, is over whether Article 1, Section 5 of the Constitution, which makes each house of Congress "the Judge of the Elections, Returns, and Qualifications of its own members," applies in the Burris situation.

Last week, Akhil Amar and Josh Chafetz, writing at Slate, laid out the argument for excluding Burris. They argue that "returns" can be defined to include an appointment (not just an election) and thus fall within the scope of the clause. If, as they seem to take as given, the Senate could refuse to seat someone who won the seat during a corrupt election, then it could do the same for an appointment. Burris, or anyone else appointed be Blago, can therefore be excluded as the end product of an allegedly corrupt proceeding.

Meanwhile, writing in today's Los Angeles Times, UC-Irvine law dean Erwin Chemerinsky takes the opposite approach. He relies on a 1969 Supreme Court decision involving Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., whom the House refused to seat after a clean election:

[Chief Justice Earl] Warren, writing for a 7-1 majority (with one justice not participating), quoted James Madison: Allowing the House to exclude properly chosen individuals would be ''vesting an improper and dangerous power in the legislature.'' Instead, there must be a 'narrow construction of the scope of Congress' power to exclude members-elect.'

The court concluded that the only qualifications the House could consider were those specified in Article I, Section 2of the Constitution: Was Powell at least 25 years old, seven years a citizen of the United States and a resident of the state from which he had been elected?
Applying that logic to the Senate, all it can do is check to see if Burris is 30 years old, a US citizen, and a resident of Illinois. As he meets all those qualifications, the Senate can't keep him out.

I think Chemerinsky has the better argument. It's hard to remember in all the hullabaloo, but Blago is still the governor of Illinois, with all the powers that entails. He's not been convicted of anything, nor impeached. Unless there's something corrupt in his selection of Burris (an allegation I haven't heard anyone make yet), it's still his decision to make.

I also think that allowing either house of Congress the authority to do anything beyond ensuring its members comply with Constitutional requirements to be seating opens a potentially huge can or worms. In the 21st Century hyper-partisan political world, do we need each new session of Congress to get wrapped up in examining the "qualifications" of new members (or old)? I think that's a bad idea.

So, what's the bottom line? I'm glad I don't live in Illinois and can just marvel at the train wreck from afar.

Monday, January 05, 2009

Know Your Lizard People

As the Minnesota Senate race shows some signs of winding down, it's worth reflecting on one of the more odd challenged ballots cast in that race:

That's right. Someone wrote in "Lizard People," not just for the Senate race, but also president (hey, they must have a deeper candidate slate than the Libertarians!). If you're wondering where this new power in American politics is coming from, this diary over at DailyKos has a humorous overview.

Alas, the voter in question, Lucas Davenport, has stepped forward:
'I don't know if you've heard the conspiracy theory about the Lizard Men,' said Davenport. 'A friend of mine, we didn't like the candidates, so we were at first going to write in revolution, because we thought that was good and to the point. And then, we thought the Lizard People would be even funnier, and there was kind of a running inside gag between some friends and I.'

Lizard People refers to the conspiracy theory there's a race of shape shifting lizards masquerading as humans who rule the world, but Davenport doesn't consider himself a believer.
Well, thank goodness for that. He's not a conspiracy nut, just someone with an odd sense of humor.

Where's Ron Popeil?

Because he'd love this deal (via Ed, who provides humorous commentary):

Here's what Rick Warren said: 'I'm saying that this is the perfect time to open their life, to give it a chance. I'd say give him a 60-day trial.'

To which [Alan] Colmes responded: 'Like the Book-of-the-Month Club.'

Warren: 'Give him a trial. See if he'll change your life. I dare you to try trusting Jesus for 60 days. Or your money back guaranteed.'
I always figured that at the heart of organized religion lies Elmer Gantry, but didn't figure it was maybe closure to Popeil or Billy Mays. Same difference in the end, I guess. And that yutz is being given a national stage by the Pres Elect. That's an odd form of "change," to me.

Friday, January 02, 2009

Defining Down Victimhood

Everybody get together and let's have a pity party for disgraced former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. In a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal (via Hit & Run), he actually tried to paint himself as a victim of the War on Terra:

During a lunch meeting two blocks from the White House, where he served under his longtime friend, President George W. Bush, Mr. Gonzales said that 'for some reason, I am portrayed as the one who is evil in formulating policies that people disagree with. I consider myself a casualty, one of the many casualties of the war on terror.'
For. Fuck's. Sake. Are you shitting me, Fredo? You're having problems finding work (law firms are apparently "skittish" about hiring him) because you were a nakedly sycophantic AG for one of the worst Presidents in history. You oversaw the lock up of dozens without charge or hearing, torture on a scale that has alienated us from the family of nations, and politicized the DoJ to a degree previously unseen in the nation's history.

Here's a hint - you don't get to do a bunch of stuff and then claim to be a "casualty" or a victim of the backlash. Victimhood usually requires some degree of innocence, after all.

Thankfully, he's got a book in the works to explain all of this to us.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

How Not to Handle a Speeding Ticket

Epic fail, as the kids say!