Thursday, April 30, 2009

Album of the Day

Grace Under Pressure Tour 1984, by Rush (2006): This isn't really an album, so much as a bonus CD that came with the Reply x3 box set. In fact, its the audio from the second disc in the set, taken from a concert in Toronto in 1984. Maybe because Grace Under Pressure was my first "new" Rush album, or because I like the increasing use of synths from around this time, but I've always loved this concert. It's got a then full version of the "Fear" trilogy (including a Count Floyd intro for "The Weapon") and a really great version of "Vital Signs." Only for completests, but they'll enjoy it.

The Flu That Dare Not Speak Its Name

The world is currently in the grip of swine flu panic, ever since it burst forth from Mexico a few days ago. One would think that the last thing to wrangle about at this point is what we actually call the virus.

Alas, what's a name in the face of thousands of years of religious woo?

It may be called swine flu around the world, but a senior Israeli official on Monday changed the term in order not to pronounce the name of the animal whose meat is banned by Judaism.

'We will use the term Mexican flu in order not to have to pronounce the word swine,' said Deputy Health Minister Yakov Litzman of the ultra-religious United Torah Judaism party.
I mean, that's just silly, right? Only someone suffering from a case of magical thinking could do something so silly. Er, well, not quite:
U.S. officials, particularly the agricultural department, were under pressure from the pork lobby that fears the term 'swine flu' is confusing people into thinking they can catch the virus from pork, which they can't, the AP says.

* * *

So the U.S. government is now officially going with 'H1N1' even though the bureaucracy is finding it hard to shake the old 'swine flu' label.
Why don't we just rename it Bin Laden Flu and be done with it!

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Album of the Day

Lavori in Corso, by D.F.A. (1997): "Lavori in corso" means "works in progress," which is a pretty good description of D.F.A. (aka Duty Free Area) at that time. They were still finding their feet, although it's an awful lot of fun listening to them shuffling along. Musically, this is prime Italian prog/fusion, full of intricate playing and energy. Unfortunately, the production is fairly muddy and the band was till trying to work vocals into most tracks. They're not bad, but they don't add much (although the muddy production doesn't help matters).

More Tortured Thoughts

As the subject of torture, and what to do about it (if anything), continues to swirl about, I wanted to pass along a couple of things on the topic.

The first is that, when it comes to waterboarding, the question of whether or not it's torture is really not an open historical question. Fact is, it's been categorized as torture for years, by the United States and other nations. In a 2007 law review article (draft available here*), prof Evan Wallach briefly surveys that history in the United States. Most instances involve international actions - either ours or our foes - but one domestic prosecution is particularly interesting:

In 1983, the Department of Justice affirmed that the use of water torture techniques was indeed criminal conduct under U.S. law. Sheriff James Parker of San Jacinto County, Texas, was charged, along with three of his deputies, for handcuffing prisoners to chairs, placing towels over their faces, and pouring water on the cloth until they gave what the officers considered to be confessions.
The sheriff and his deputies were all convicted.

Note the time period for that case, smack dab in the middle of the Reagan years. Lest you think that it was the result of some bleeding heart DoJ leftover from the Carter administration, consider this post over at DFtCW. Reagan was a champion of the Convention Against Torture, which, by its terms, appears to require prosecution of torturers. So why, when they so slavishly worship all things Reagan, are the GOPers ignoring his history with this issue? Why do they want to make Zombie Reagan cry?

The other thing goes back to my discussion last week on how we've moved on from a discussion of "is torture wrong" to "does torture work?" If we're going to have that discussion, we need to be open and honest about it, as I said. That includes discussing the possibility that torture has a backlash that outweighs any potential benefit:
The use of torture by the US has proved so counter-productive that it may have led to the death of as many US soldiers as civilians killed in 9/11, says the leader of a crack US interrogation team in Iraq.

'The reason why foreign fighters joined al-Qa'ida in Iraq was overwhelmingly because of abuses at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib and not Islamic ideology,' says Major Matthew Alexander, who personally conducted 300 interrogations of prisoners in Iraq. It was the team led by Major Alexander [a named assumed for security reasons] that obtained the information that led to the US military being able to locate Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the head of al-Qa'ida in Iraq. Zarqawi was then killed by bombs dropped by two US aircraft on the farm where he was hiding outside Baghdad on 7 June 2006. Major Alexander said that he learnt where Zarqawi was during a six-hour interrogation of a prisoner with whom he established relations of trust.
"Alexander" refused to let his unit engaged in the "enhanced" techniques, instead relying on old fashioned (and useful) interrogation techniques. If the torture defenders really want to play the "it stopped attacks" card, they need to check the other side and see how the numbers add up.

* If you have access to Westlaw or such, the full cite is Drop By Drop: Forgetting the History of Water Torture In U.S. Courts, 45 Colum. J. Transnat'l L. 468 (2007).

Some Hope for Crack

OK, this is the sort of paradigm shift folks who voted for Obama were hoping for:

Newly appointed Criminal Division chief Lanny A. Breuer told a Senate Judiciary Committee panel this morning that the Obama administration would support bills to equalize punishment for offenders accused of possessing the drug in either form, fulfilling one of the president's campaign pledges.

Breuer explicitly called on Congress to act this term to 'completely eliminate' the sentencing disparity.
The hearing (which you can watch here) was fairly one sided on the issue. The witness representing law enforcement said unequivocally that equalizing crack and powder was the only solution to a situation he called an "unmitigated disaster." The closest thing to a discouraging word came from Senator Lindsay Graham, who seemed most intent on reminding people of the problem that the 100-to-1 ratio was designed to solve (similar to the "9/11 changed everything" argument about torture). The biggest questions revolved around how to apply any change retroactively to folks who have already been sentenced.

I don't expect it next week or even within the next few months, and I suspect retroactivity issues will slow things down. But I think the momentum has finally swung on this issue. Hopefully.

More Than Meets the Text

Is Susan Henwood, a Utah mother of four, a martyr for First Amendment and open court values, or a cunning member of a two person conspiracy? It's hard to tell, based on this news piece, passed along via SL&P. Here's what we do know:

In early April, Joshua [aka Mr. Henwood] was sick and couldn't make his court appearance in a debt collection case. He sent Susan to ask for a continuance and to keep him updated, so she sent a text that said: 'It doesn't look good for you' and 'They're coming for the Polaris Ranger.'

The Polaris was one of several items the other side of the case wanted to sell to recoup supposed losses.
For her trouble, Henwood was thrown in jail for 30 days for contempt of court. Not, the judge insists, for the sin of texting, but for what she texted.

Has Henwood been wronged? As her husband points out, you don't get than kind of time for DUI, so it seems extreme for texting in court.

Unless, of course, the whole thing was a setup. Was Henwood's husband really "sick," so much so he couldn't come to court? Why, precisely, would he need a "heads up" that someone was coming for the property? It's a little suspicious. It certainly sets my cynical sense a tingling. But I'd like to think that the judge had something more than a hunch to go on before locking her up for a month.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Album of the Day

Thanks in Advance, by Bryan Beller (2008): Beller is best known as the long time bassist in crime with Mike Keneally, but with a second solo album under his belt he's a force to be reckoned with in his own right. Expanding his circle of collaborators from his debut effort, View (although Keneally, Rick Mussallam, etc. are all still there), Beller creates another hour's worth of (mostly) instrumental tunes that shine equally with instrumental dexterity and musicality. Not as much of a revelation as View, but only because the first one raised the expectations so high.

What the Fuck!

In one of the more eagerly awaited decisions of this term, the Supreme Court today upheld the power of the FCC to punish broadcast profanity, even so called "fleeting expletives." Wait a sec . . . I feel a song coming on:

With that said, it's important to keep in mind precisely what the 5-4 decision held (read it here). The Court did not resolve any issues of First Amendment law. This case was all about whether the FCC's decisions about fleeting expletives squared procedurally with the requirements of the Administrative Procedures Act. The stations raised some First Amendment issues, but the Court squarely declined to address them. If/when those issues reach this Court, things could get very interesting, given Thomas's concurring opinion today.

Ooh, wait . . . another song:

With that said, I can't find too much fault in the Scalia-penned decision. It might be wrong, but not woefully so.

I will point out one thing about the opinion that Ken at Popehat noticed, too. In 1971, the Court held that a guy couldn't be convicted for disturbing the peace for wearing a jacket with "Fuck the Draft" written on it, thanks to the First Amendment. In that opinion, the Court didn't shy away from actually writing "fuck" where it was necessary. By contrast, today's case is replete with references to the "F-Word" and "S-Words" (plural? Is "snugglebunnies" on the FCC banned list?).

C'mon, Supremes, we're all adults here. How many kids to you think stay up late at night, furtively reading copies of the US Reports with a flashlight under the covers? I'll lay odds on somewhere between "zero" and "none." If the broadcasters want - er, need, now - to bowdlerize, fine. There's no need for courts to.

UPDATE: Oh boy, I've seen a lot of people discussing this excerpt from Scalia's opinion:

In programming that they originate, their down-home local guests probably employ vulgarity less than big-city folks; and small-town stations generally cannot afford or cannot attract foul-mouthed glitteratae from Hollywood.
This in response to the dissent's concerns about the effect of the FCC rule on smaller local broadcasters. Elitism on parade! And almost certainly false, to boot. I wonder what color the sky is in Scalia's world?

How Can We Do It?

For a criminal defense attorney, the most asked question in your life is usually some variant of "how can you represent those people?" Depending on the circumstance, "those people" might be several things other than guilty. The Telegram from Worcester, Massachusetts (outside Boston) asked that question and got answers from several local defense folks.

Most of them riff on a variation of the "we do it for the system/Constitution/your rights" theme. While that is important, I don't think it is the only thing that explains our situation. For me, at least, it's equally important that we are the one person (or two people, in some instances) that stand between the overwhelming weight of the prosecution and the defendant. Even if they're guilty as sin - and usually they are - there's a lot of work to be done making sure their guilt isn't an excuse just to treat them like a piece of meat and lock them away forever.

"Guilty of a crime" does not necessarily equal "evil and dangerous." People convicted of crimes are sons, fathers, brothers, daughters, and mothers. They are human beings, perhaps desperately in need of help. They are not merely cogs in the system. Sometimes, their lawyer is the only person in the process to treat them like people, instead of cattle.

Unfortunately, I don't expect most people to grasp that idea (see the comments to the article). Until they find themselves on the wrong side of the "v." in a criminal complaint. Then they'll find out what it means to have someone else step up for them.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Album of the Day

B'Sides Themselves, by Marllion (1988): With the Fish era drawn to a close, EMI decided to collect all the band's non-album cuts and release them in one place. The result is a disc that shows, in brief, the band developing from a too-heavily Genesis influenced outfit to a much more interesting, original, and polished band. That being said, there is a great amount of fun listening to the opener, "Grendel," the band's first attempt at a proggy epic. It's so very derivative of "Supper's Ready," but made for a fantastic live set piece, as Fish took on the persona of the title beast, plucked an unlucky schmuck from the audience, and proceeds to "slaughter" him during the instrumental finale. After "Grendel," the band wouldn't try their hand at another epic for nearly 15 years, but they've certainly grown into it at this point.

Oh, and - Best. Compilation. Title. Ever.

You Rock, Greg!

Late last week, I got a wild inspiration to buy some CDs to preview the bands at this year's 3 Rivers Progressive Rock Festival I wasn't familiar with. So I dropped an Email to Greg Walker at Syn-Phonic Music, with whom I've done business for a long time, and asked what he had in stock. After a little back and forth, Greg sent me the order details (price, etc.) just after midnight on Saturday night.

The discs arrived in the mail today. All the way from Utah!

If you've ever wanted to check out some of the more obscure artists I blog about here at the Ranch, go check out Greg's place. He's knowledgeable, quick, and altogether a nice guy. He'll get you hooked - just like he did me back in college!

I'm Not Really Shouting

Today's New York Times has a nice article about the increasing visibility of atheists in the United States, particularly as just being regular folks. The headline is:

More Atheists Shout It From the Rooftops
I'm not sure shouting is really necessary to shout. I try not to shout about it. Subtlety is probably a better long term strategy, anyway:
They are connecting on the Internet, holding meet-ups in bars, advertising on billboards and buses, volunteering at food pantries and picking up roadside trash, earning atheist groups recognition on adopt-a-highway signs.

They liken their strategy to that of the gay-rights movement, which lifted off when closeted members of a scorned minority decided to go public.
I think that's an apt analogy. Most people either don't know any actual atheists, or don't know that they do. They think we're all baby eating puppy kickers who just like to say "fuck" all the time. I'm only in for the last one, so, maybe I can convince some folks of their error just by being me.

The rise in the media of stories about atheism is due to that study I blogged about recently that showed a big increase in the number of "Nones" - folks who claim no religious identity. As I said back then, "None" does not equal non-believer, must less atheist, as this column in today's USA Today makes clear.

There's no need to try and pad our numbers, just be good examples. The numbers will come.

This Doesn't Add Up

Near the end of Terry Giliam's dystopian classic Brazil, the hero is arrested and, well, informed of his options:

Either you plead guilty to, say, seven or eight of the charges, which is going to help keep costs down within your means, or you can borrow a sum, to be negotiated, from us at very competitive rates.

We can offer you something at, say, 11.5 percent over 30 years, but you may have to buy insurance to qualify for this. If you prefer something more specific, say, against electrical charges over 70 pounds . . ..

Plead guilty, it's easier and cheaper for everyone.
We're headed that way, apparently. It's bad enough that poverty probably means getting an overworked public defender. Can't we avoid charging them for the cost of locking them up?
A night’s stay in a new 268-bed lockup in southwest Missouri will get you uniformed pants and shirt, a jail bunk and three squares a day.

All for just $45. Stay a year, and you’ll shell out $16,425.

Like other incarceration agencies across the country, the Taney County jail is charging inmates who have been sentenced to its facility.
There's something unseemly about locking someone up and then charging them for the pleasure. After all, it's not as if they'll be able to really work it off while in the klink. The cost of incarceration - like the cost of police, courts, and the rest - is part of the cost of maintaining a civilized society.

If we're not willing to pay to lock up that many people, maybe we're locking up too many people, huh?

Friday, April 24, 2009

Album of the Day

Tales from the Acoustic Planet, by Bela Fleck (1995): On the heels of the trio Flecktone album, Bela and crew (although technically a solo album, the Wooten brothers are all over this disc) went unplugged, with great results.

But enough about that. Did you know that Bela made a movie? OK, so it's not Hannah Montana: The Movie, but I'm sure it'll hold up better in the end. It's called Throw Down Your Heart (NYT review here) and opens today, but unfortunately only in New York. It'd a documentary that follows Bela across Africa as he searches for the historical origins of the banjo. Along the way, he jams with a lot of African musicians and gets an appreciation for the continent. It sounds excellent and is already in the Netflix queue!

What He Said

Following up on yesterday's torture post, I think I agree with what Paul Krugman said in today's New York Times:

Isn’t revisiting the abuses of the last eight years, no matter how bad they were, a luxury we can’t afford?

No, it isn’t, because America is more than a collection of policies. We are, or at least we used to be, a nation of moral ideals. In the past, our government has sometimes done an imperfect job of upholding those ideals. But never before have our leaders so utterly betrayed everything our nation stands for. 'This government does not torture people,' declared former President Bush, but it did, and all the world knows it.

And the only way we can regain our moral compass, not just for the sake of our position in the world, but for the sake of our own national conscience, is to investigate how that happened, and, if necessary, to prosecute those responsible.
Krugman also points out that the people involved in any investigation aren't the same folks who are working on the economy, for instance, so there's not much to the "we're too busy for this" argument. My biggest fear is that the GOP would turn completely obstructionist, though it might be hard to tell the difference at this point.

I've Heard This Song Before

Litigation can unearth some really juicy information. The Association of International Automobile Manufacturers, part of the Global Climate Coalition, is suing the state of California over the state's environmental regulations. In the process of discovery, they Association turned over some internal Coalition documents (the GCC ceased to exist in 2002) that were subsequently leaked to the New York Times.

Those documents show an industry bullshitting the public over the science of global warming:

But a document filed in a federal lawsuit demonstrates that even as the coalition worked to sway opinion, its own scientific and technical experts were advising that the science backing the role of greenhouse gases in global warming could not be refuted.

'The scientific basis for the Greenhouse Effect and the potential impact of human emissions of greenhouse gases such as CO2 on climate is well established and cannot be denied,' the experts wrote in an internal report compiled for the coalition in 1995.
The GCC spent millions of dollars trying to convince the public of something they knew was false. Sound familiar? Sounds like the tobacco industry, which for decades tried to pretend that smoking cigarettes wasn't a health threat.

In my mind, the tobacco companies lost any benefit of the doubt in public discourse once their bullshitting was exposed. Seems only fair to treat the emissions industry the same way. So much for "clean" coal, et. al..

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Album of the Day

The World That We Drive Through, by The Tangent (2004): The second album from the beast that began as Andy Tillison's solo project is sort of an odd duck. It is sort of an era unto it's own, as original member David Jackson departed in favor of Theo Travis on winds, but Roine Stolt hung around for one more ride. As a result, it's not a clearly Andy's project as the two successive albums, but isn't quite as instantly impressive as the debut. Still, it's grown on me a lot over the years, and I'll take "Photosynthesis" and the title track as Tangent classics any day of the week. I even like the epic "A Gap in the Night," of which Andy is not too fond (refuses to play it live), for reasons I don't know.

So It's Come to This

Torture has been in the news and much on my mind lately. Between the release of Department of Justice memos where the likes of John Yoo and Ninth Circuit Judge Jay Bybee do their best to avoid the obvious, the Senate Armed Services Committee report on our treatment of detainees oversees (personally approved by those in the White House), and apologists like Dick Cheney and Carl "Turd Blossom" Rove on the air every time you turn around, it's been hard to avoid. In fact, it's been so hard to avoid that I haven't been able to really figure out what to think about it.

OK, that's not quite true. I'm disgusted, as I always have been, with this sort of stuff. Law professor Peter Shane, a former Office of Legal Counsel lawyer, lays out his views at the American Constitution Society's Blog, with which I generally agree.

I'm less sure what to do about it now. Prosecutions? Maybe, but there are legal and political hurdles to doing that. Disbarment for the attorneys involved and the impeachment of Bybee? Easier to achieve (just tell the GOPers that Bybee is on the Ninth Circuit and they'll impeach him on general principle), but would require a more dispersed approach. I'd like to think, at least, that under Obama and Holder we won't do any of this shit again, but given what the new DoJ has done in current litigation, I'm skeptical.

Most distressing is that the New York Times can now run a piece that starts like this:

Even the most exacting truth commission may have a hard time determining for certain whether brutal interrogations conducted by the Central Intelligence Agency helped keep the country safe.

* * *

Senior Bush administration officials, led by Vice President Dick Cheney and cheered by many Congressional Republicans, are fighting a rear-guard action in defense of their record. Only by using the harshest methods, they insist, did the intelligence agency get the information it needed to round up Qaeda killers and save thousands of American lives.
So this is what we have become? We're not even debating whether procedure X is torture, we're just concerned with whether it works? As the vicious Captain Cartman would say, "the fuck?!"

To me, the question of whether torture works is in the same league with the issue of whether the death penalty actually deters criminals. It doesn't matter to me either way - some things are off limits, regardless of the utilitarian calculus. But we shouldn't hide out from the truth because of that. If torture works, we should know that. If the death penalty deters, we should know that. Moral choices, although based primarily on broader principles, still have to be seen in the light of reality. We've done ghastly things in the pursuit of absolute security. Let's at least have the guts to look at the results square in the face.

Some things a nation that wants to be considered as civilized just does not do. If we, as a nation, can't stand up and say, "no, this is wrong regardless of its utility" we might as well pack it in.

Bayer Responds

Earlier this week, a congressional committee released a report suggesting that last year's explosion at my local Bayer chemical plant (which killed two) could have been much much worse. Now Bayer has responded.

Not surprisingly, they deny the doom and gloom scenario in the report was ever a possibility:

Asked Wednesday if it could have resulted in an accident worse than Bhopal, Bayer CropScience spokesman Bryan Iams replied, 'We would say no - that you cannot compare the two sites because we have multiple layers of protection and those layers of protection are designed to ensure and prevent any such incident.'

* * *

Regarding the August explosion, Iams said, 'The facts are as follows: At no time was any MIC involved in the event. The storage tank for MIC was never compromised. There were no releases of MIC. We have multiple layers of protection designed to ensure safety and those worked as intended.'
I'd feel a bit better about Bayer's assurances if they hadn't stonewalled local officials and targeted critics for daring to suggest otherwise. It's sort of like trusting Dick Cheney about . . . well, about anything, really.

Next Up - Water Boarder!

Wow, turns out you really can get an app for just about anything for your iPhone:

A company called Sikalosoft is currently selling a $0.99 iPhone application called Baby Shaker, as of Monday. The object of Baby Shaker is to stop the incessant crying of an infant pictured on screen by violently shaking the iPhone, at which point two red 'x' marks appear over the baby's eyes. 'See how long you can endure his or her adorable cries before you just have to find a way to quiet the baby down!' reads the sales pitch for Baby Shaker.
As I understand it, just about anybody can produce an iPhone app, although Apple supposedly vets every app that eventually hits the market. Apparently this one slipped under the radar.

To its credit, Apple has pulled Baby Shaker down only hours after it went up. Which means it will surely become some sort of collector's item and probably command prices much higher than it's actually worth.

Album of Yesterday

Hold Me to This: Christopher O'Riley Plays Radiohead, by Christopher O'Riley (2005): I got this album for Xmas a couple of years ago, having never heard of O'Riley. He's a classically trained pianist with a show on public radio (From the Top) dedicated to young talent. He's also, apparently, a big fan of Radiohead, as this is the second of two discs full of his solo piano interpretations of Radiohead tracks. Perhaps because several of these tunes come from albums I don't have, I can't evaluate it in terms of how well he adapts them. I will say that it makes for a fairly pleasant listen and that the thunderous version of "Paranoid Android" is worth the trouble to put it in.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Album of the Day

Blood of the Berry, by Timothy Pure (1997): "Lush" is the word that comes to mind when I think of this band's proper debut album (someone at Progressive Ears referred to The Fabric of Betrayal as basically a collection of demos, which makes sense). Thick keyboard backgrounds and lots of vocal harmonies set the tone. It reminds me, in some ways, of a mix between a moodier Moody Blues and the more expansive bits of Pink Floyd. It's a concept album, though it's not critical to get too involved in what it's supposed to be about (I've never figured it out). Definitely one of those albums that flies under the radar for a few listens before it grabs you and drags you into its depths.

That's Comforting

Last August, I was on my way to bed when I flipped on the late local news. They were in "breaking" mode, covering an explosion at the Bayer chemical plant down the highway in Institute. Turned out nothing noxious was released (although two workers were killed in the explosion and resulting fire), but it turns out it could have been much worse:

The Kanawha Valley may have narrowly escaped a chemical plant catastrophe that could have surpassed the 1984 Bhopal disaster, according to a report released today by congressional investigators.

The August 2008 explosion at the Bayer CropScience Institute plant turned a 2 1/2-ton chemical vessel into a 'dangerous projectile' that could have destroyed a nearby tank of deadly methyl isocyanate, according to the report by House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee staff.

* * *

The Aug. 28 explosion 'came dangerously close' to compromising an MIC storage tank 80 feet away, congressional investigators concluded. Had the residue treater hit the MIC tank, 'the consequences could have eclipsed the 1984 disaster in India.'
But wait, it gets better:
'Evidence obtained by the committee demonstrates that Bayer engaged in a campaign of secrecy by withholding critical information from local, county and state emergency responders; by restricting the use of information provided to federal investigators; by undermining news outlets and citizen groups concerned about the dangers posed by Bayer's activities; and by providing inaccurate and misleading information to the public, the committee said in a 20-page report released at the start of a hearing this afternoon.
That's just great. Not only did Bayer's fuck up nearly get us all killed, they bullshitted everyone about the problem. The committee also obtained an internal Bayer memo that laid explained how management should marginalize those who might ask questions, like People Concerned About MIC and The Charleston Gazette.

But, hey it all worked out in the end, right? Thank goodness we have such a beneficent multinational corporation looking out for our, er, their best interests!

The Ultimate Hot Rod

It's not all that unusual for a couple of guys to buy some rusted out hunk of ex-automobile and nurse it back to health. Then again, Ed Shadle and Keith Zanghi are not your usual couple of guys:

Mr. Shadle, a retired IBM field engineer, is 67 now, and he is still racing. So a bit over 10 years ago, he and his good friend Keith Zanghi bought a junker in Maine, pounded out the dents, customized the exterior, dropped a big engine in it and painted it red.

Except this junker was a Lockheed F-104 Starfighter. The real thing. The single-engine Mach 2.2 interceptor that ruled the skies in the 1950s and 1960s. 'In a post-9/11 world we probably wouldn’t have been able to get one,' Mr. Shadle acknowledged. But in 1999 they drove this one away for $25,000.
Why buy a junked old supersonic jet fighter? To try and turn into a land speed record setting car, of course! Shadle and Zanghi's goal is to hit 800 miles per hour on wheels (the British team that has broken the sound barrier on land is aiming for 1000!).


Jason Plato has them.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Album of the Day

Gordian Knot, by Gordian Knot (1999): I can't remember what brought this band to my attention. Well, "band" is the wrong word, as it's actually a project of bassist/stickist/keyboardist Sean Malone. Joined by a host of talent guys, some more well known than others (Trey Gunn and John Myung), he produces a really interesting instrumental album. Some tunes are nearly Frippian soundscapes, while others have a churning metal undercurrent. The really cool bits, to my ears, however are the ones where Malone & Gunn pepper tracks with the distinctive complex funk that seems to flow so easliy from the touch guitars. Malone did a second album, recruiting more heavy hitters (Bill Bruford and Steve Hackett), but I've not heard it.

An Interpretive Problem

This is autocross:

As you can see, it involves navigating a course set out using big (and small) orange traffic pylons. You do not want to hit one of those cones. If you do, and knock it over, you have 2 seconds added to your time, which pretty much means you lose. An event at our event yesterday sent me to the rule book to try and figure out just what it means to knock down a cone. The result says something about interpreting rules, whether they come from the SCCA or the US Code.

Yesterday's course had a tight right-hand hairpin in the top left corner of the parking lot you see in the video. In addition to having a clutch of cones in the middle to act as a pivot, it was defined with a wall of cones on the outside. Carry too much speed into the hairpin and you risked taking one of the wall cones with you when you left. Out of that corner was a short straight blast, followed by a tight right-left lane change.

One of our drivers, in a Mustang GT, overcooked that corner and plowed out of the hairpin. In the process, he slammed a pylon under the front of the Mustang. It's not all that unusual to take a pylon for a ride, although it's always good for some spectator amusement. But as the Mustang took off on the straight stretch, the pylon started working its way towards the back of the car. The Mustang turned right around the pylon marking the beginning of the lane change. Apparently, the motion of the car caused the lodged pylon to come bouncing out the back. As the Mustang sped away through the end of the course, the wayward pylon bounced backwards up the course. It hit the lane change pylon, knocking it over.

So, the question was raised - how many pylons did the Mustang hit and therefore how many seconds are added to his time? Just the one he took off the hairpin wall? What about the second one at the lane change? Nobody really knew (it wasn't his best run of the day, anyway, so in the end it didn't matter). My brother suggested someone needed to dig into the rule book to figure it out, so that's what I did.

It wasn't very enlightening. The current SCCA Solo rulebook (available for free download), although being hundreds of pages long, says surprisingly little about pylons and knocking them down. In a way, I suppose that makes sense. With the exception of the safety sections, none of the rulebook is binding on the local regions that run the vast majority of the autocrosses across the country. Federalism is alive and well in autocross. Still, the rules apply to Divisional and National events and are followed by lots of regions, so you'd think they'd say something.

Alas, this is all there is (emphasis mine):


7.9.1 Course Markers (Pylons)

A line two inches wide or two lines two inches apart will describe the location of each pylon. (If two lines are used the distance between the inner edge of the inner line to the outside edge of the outer line will be two inches plus or minus 1/4".) The inner edge or inner line will be used to describe the outer edge of the pylon base as accurately as possible and the outer edge or outer line will be the penalty limit. If the pylon is upset or totally displaced outside the penalty limit, two seconds will be assessed. At Regional events, local methods for locating pylons may be used.
OK, fine, but what does "upset" or "totally displaced" mean? Does it require intent of some sort? What's the driver's role in all this? There is no guidance.

As I said, local regions are free to adopt their own rules in this area. Maybe the SWVR Supplemental Regulations shed some light (emphasis mine):
Course Markers:

1. A penalty of 2 seconds will be assessed for each pylon displaced or knocked over.

2. Course defining pylons displaced will incur the above penalty. Directional or ‘pointer’ pylons do not incur the penalty; except those placed after the finish line.

3. If weather permits, the course will be lined on at least one side. Crossing the lines incurs no penalty.
Again, not very helpful. No definition of "displaced" or "knocked over." Knocked over by what, or by whom, exactly?

What we're left with from a review of the applicable rules is that only one condition is needed to incur a penalty: an upset or totally displaced pylon. If it gets knocked over, add two seconds.

For a literalist, that's the end of the analysis. There are no exceptions to the rules as written. It doesn't distinguish between slamming a pylon while trying to cut a corner and a barely measurable earthquake shaking a pylon to the ground. That's the rule. If the rule makers want to change it, they're free to do so.

But that can't be right, can it? I mean, a driver should only get penalized for something that's his fault, right? It only seems fair. A couple of years ago, during our event at the Mid-Ohio Valley Regional Airport outside of Parkersburg, the wind was so fierce that pylons were literally being blown over. In fact, we had to stop the event because of that problem. Nobody seriously suggested that whichever poor schmuck was on course at the time the winds whipped up should be penalized for their ill timing.

So what? Should fairness even enter into the discussion? After all, either the SCCA or SWVR could rewrite the rules to take such situations into account. Maybe change it to a pylon "upset or displaced by the action of the driver." But do we need to do that? Or should whoever makes the decision be able to apply some basic fairness and common sense in reaching a decision? The rules don't directly address it, after all, and a mechanistic application of what's written in the book would produce a harsh result.

Many times, that's the basic underlying issue when it comes to differing judicial values. It's hard sometimes for layfolk to grasp how the Ninth Circuit and the Fourth Circuit can both interpret the same rule book - the US Code and Constitution - and come up with different results. They both read the same words, after all, so how can the Ninth come out more pro-defendant and the Fourth more pro-prosecution?

It's not because the Ninth is composed of bleeding heart lovers of criminals or the Fourth is stocked with dogmatic "hanging" judges. That's too simplistic. I think it comes down to which set of judges worries more about tempering harsh results with a sense of fairness. Lest you think that fairness has no place in courts, keep in mind that the US court system merged the olde Enlglish concepts of law courts and equity courts in one body. Equity courts were all about broader notions of fairness.

Both approaches have their value. Carving out case by case exceptions to the rules to avoid unfair results can potentially lead to rules that exist on paper only and the exceptions swallow the rule. Clinging hard to the plain language in the rules can lead to unfair results in individual cases, even those where the rule writers might have found the result unfair. One leaves the decision with the court, which will see the detailed factual scenario of every case up close and personal. The other leaves the decision with the rule makers - legislators or, in our case, the SCCA/SWVR - who can act with broader mandates. Where you think that decision making authority should rest says a lot about your political philosophy, I think.

Getting back to the Mustang - should he have gotten an additional 2 second penalty for the lane change pylon getting whacked by the wayward pylon spit out the back of his car? Probably, under either approach. The rules clearly call for a penalty for every pylon "upset" and the second one certain was that. But even trying to carve out an exception to the rules, the Mustang loses. It did pick up the first pylon, which became the missile that careened into the second one. Had he not picked up the first one, there would be no issue.

So, in this case, both approaches produce the same result. Justice, it appears, was done, even if we didn't quite know why. But it doesn't always work out that way.

I'm Farming!

Well, not really. More gardening, really. Not even that. Actually a hopeful attempt by me to avoid deploying the black thumb that's claimed most of the plant life I've ever tried to cultivate. Seriously, the only vegetation I've been given that I haven't killed is a bamboo plant (named George, after our former Shrub in Chief) the girlfriend gave me shortly after we met. It's hearty and will survive just about anything aside from malice, which I can just barely manage.

Which I way I have some hope for this project. For the coming of spring, the girlfriend gifted me with a starter herb garden, using a planter that's sat unused in front of my house for a couple of years. She filled it up with thyme, basil, oregano, and parsley:

If I can just remember to water the thing occasionally, I should have a bevy of fresh herbs to use in a few weeks. And if I remember to actually harvest them. And not do anything completely stupid. It's a low bar and I intend to meet it!

Besides, I couldn't let Maia's hard work go to waste. She so vigilantly supervised, and also kept the salamander at bay who was apparently living behind that planter, that she had to go have a lie down:

Album of Last Friday

American Idiot, by Green Day (2004): I never thought I'd actually buy a Green Day record. I mean, really, punk is just about the anti-prog, right? It's just not my thing. But this album go so much press it was hard to avoid. I heard interesting rumors. It's a concept album. It's got a couple of "epic" tracks. So, several years after it came out, when I came across a used copy, I went ahead and snapped it up. I'll say this - it's worth every bit of the $4 I paid for it. Granted, my expectations were incredibly low, but I was pleasantly surprised. Not enough to dive deeper into the back catalog, of course.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Album of the Day

Three Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, by Bela Fleck and the Flecktones (1993): For a brief period of time, Bela and crew were a three man operation, after keyboardist/harpist Howard Levy left and before wind man Jeff Coppin came aboard. This is the only studio album produced by that lineup and it's my favorite of Bela's studio albums (Live Art is in a league of its own). Pared to three players, all of them deployed an impressive array of tech toys to fill out the sound. The result never sounds forced or fake and it was all played live in the studio, according to the liner notes. Bruce Hornsby and Branford Marsalis make appearances on a couple of tracks to flesh things out.

A Real Fake Lawyer

For the decade I've been practicing law, it's always been as a free lawyer, first at legal aid and then as a PD. Free to my clients, anyway. Several times, over the years, I've had clients tell me they were going to go off and hire a "real" lawyer. You know, one they actually have to pay for.

All of which flooded back to me when I saw this post over at TalkLeft about Howard Kieffer. Kieffer was just convicted in federal court in North Dakota for fraud, based on holding himself out as an attorney without actually being one. This article from the ABA Journal has much more detail about Kieffer and his history, which includes charging clients $25,000 to take their case, as well as multiple prior fraud convictions.

What's really interesting about Kieffer, however, is that he looked to know what he was doing, for the most part. He held himself out as an expert on federal sentencing issues, particularly those related to the Bureau of Prisons. He even ran a mailing list dedicated to BoP issues which, according to the comments on the TalkLeft post, was very helpful.

That doesn't excuse his fraud, of course. And the ABA Journal article is unhelpfully vague as to his success rate in court. If nothing else, Kieffer's story should serve as a cautionary tale to those who think the only "real" lawyers are the ones you have to pay for.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Album of the Day

THRAK, by King Crimson (1995): None of the various incarnations of Crimson have been long lived, but even by those standards, the double trio version had a very short shelf life. This was the only studio album it produced, although there was an EP released the year before. Coming a decade after the 80s version of the album disbanded after Three of a Perfect Pair, THRAK is an nifty combination of that group's interweaving guitar lines and the heaviness of the Bruford-Wetton era lineup. It's really a shame that this version of the band didn't hang around for a few more years. Once they found their footing, it would have been a real force to be reckoned with.

One Step Forward?

As we try to figure out precisely what the endgame is in Afghanistan, it's sometimes hard to figure if things have gotten any better since our post-9/11 invasion.

Take, for example, this horrible story, from one of the areas where the Taliban has reasserted itself (via PZ):

The Taleban in Afghanistan have publicly killed a young couple who they said had tried to run away to get married, officials say.

The man, 21, and woman, 19, were shot dead on Monday in front of a mosque in the south-western province of Nimroz.

* * *

Governor Ghulam Dastageer Azad told the AFP news agency the killings followed a decree by local religious leaders and were an 'insult to Islam'.
All the couple wanted was to elope - their families did not approve of them marrying - and tried to escape to Iran. But they were intercepted by militants and brought to a mosque by a group of three mullahs, who pronounced that the couple must be killed. They were shot right outside.

A story like that is enough to make you throw up your hands and say, "fuck this." But there are signs of progress elsewhere.

As today's New York Times reports, the government recently passed a law that would, among other heinous things, legalize spousal rape. But in a marked contrast from how things worked years ago, the women of Afghanistan are speaking up:
About 300 Afghan women, facing an angry throng three times larger than their own, walked the streets of the capital on Wednesday to demand that Parliament repeal a new law that introduces a range of Taliban-like restrictions on women, and permits, among other things, marital rape.

It was an extraordinary scene. Women are mostly illiterate in this impoverished country, and they do not, generally speaking, enjoy anything near the freedom accorded to men. But there they were, most of them young, many in jeans, defying a threatening crowd and calling out slogans heavy with meaning.

With the Afghan police keeping the mob at bay, the women walked two miles to Parliament, where they delivered a petition calling for the law’s repeal.
Not only is it important that these women feel they have a right to stand up for their own selves, but it's also heartening to see the police actually protect their right to do so.

It's a sign that, at least in some ways, things have gotten better there. Admittedly, it's a very small step. But it's a step in the right direction, out of the dark ages and, perhaps, towards the 21st Century (or the 20th, at least). We owe it to those women - and that murdered couple - not to throw up our hands and walk away.

And You Think You Had a Bad Day

Remember, it could always be worse:

A Kenyan man bit a python which wrapped him in its coils and dragged him up a tree during a fierce three-hour struggle, police have told the BBC.

The serpent seized farm worker Ben Nyaumbe in the Malindi area of Kenya's Indian Ocean coast at the weekend.

Mr Nyaumbe bit the snake on the tip of the tail during the exhausting battle in the village of Sabaki.
But don't worry, the police are on the case:
The police officer said they took the snake to a sanctuary in Malindi town but it escaped overnight, probably from a gap under the door in the room where it was kept.

'We are still seriously looking for the snake,' said Supt Katam. 'We want to arrest the snake because any one of us could fall a victim.'
I know it's probably a translation or cultural misunderstanding, but exactly what, pray tell, will they "arrest" the snake for? Attempted predation?

The State of Indigent Defense

Last month I blogged about an op-ed from former Veep Walter Mondale in which he argued that the promise of Gideon - that every person charged with a crime that could result in imprisonment should have legal representation - is not being met. Today, a group of which Mondale is a co-chair, the National Right to Counsel Committee of The Constitution Project, released a report that largely came to the same conclusion:

'It does not paint a pretty picture,' said Tim Lewis, one of the report's authors.

Lewis is a former federal judge who co-chairs the Constitution Project's National Right to Counsel Committee. His group spent five years studying indigent defense in every state. Lewis said far too many states fail miserably.

'You should not have a better shot at justice, a better opportunity for an adequate defense, depending upon who arrests you in this country or where you were when you were arrested or what court system a defendant winds up in,' Lewis said. 'This is a basic constitutional right.'
Lest you think this conclusion comes from a bunch of bleeding heart defense attorneys, committee members include judges and prosecutors, too.

At bottom, the problems come down to lack of resources. That lack leads to many indigent defenders - either full time PDs or private attorneys who take appointments - to have crushing caseloads that prevents them from providing the necessary amount of attention to every case. The report (which you can read here) also takes issue with the "tough on crime" stance of most politicians, which has not only created more severe consequences for criminal convictions, but greatly expanded the amount of conduct that qualifies as "criminal."

The solution, ultimately, is more money and more of a concern on the part of politicians to adequately address these problems (the report provides 22 specific recommendations). I won't hold my breath waiting for it to happen.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Album of the Day

Tales from the Lush Attic, by IQ (1983): Recently departed IQ keyboardist Martin Orford sounded off over at Progressive Ears about his loathing for the term "neo-prog rock." IQ, of course, is usually cited as one of the originators of the subgenre, along with the other British bands breaking at the time, such as Marillion, Twelvth Night, and Pallas. But listening to their debut album today, maybe Martin had a point. One of the allegedly defining features of neo-prog is that it's more streamlined and commercial friendly than the symphonic proggers of the 1970s. I won't argued that IQ's stuff was as complex as those guys, but an album with two side-long epics doesn't exactly strike me as an attempt at radio friendliness.

Not that it matters, in the end. Although a little rough and shaky around the edges, Tales is a solid debut that set the band on the long path it continues on today.

Jumped to Conclusions, Revised

Last week, I blogged about the blogosphere jumping to conclusions about something without having the essential facts in. Of course, such rushes to judgment aren't new to the blogs. The traditional media has always done it and the cable news networks, with a need to feed the 24-hour news cycle, are particularly apt to do it.

One good example of that happening, but being revised years after the fact, is the Columbine massacre, which took place nearly 10 years go this month. As this lengthy piece from USA Today explains, almost everything we thought we knew about the shooting and the shooters in the immediate aftermath has turned out not to be accurate:

They weren't goths or loners.

The two teenagers who killed 13 people and themselves at suburban Denver's Columbine High School 10 years ago next week weren't in the 'Trenchcoat Mafia,' disaffected videogamers who wore cowboy dusters. The killings ignited a national debate over bullying, but the record now shows Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold hadn't been bullied — in fact, they had bragged in diaries about picking on freshmen and 'fags.'

Their rampage put schools on alert for 'enemies lists' made by troubled students, but the enemies on their list had graduated from Columbine a year earlier. Contrary to early reports, Harris and Klebold weren't on antidepressant medication and didn't target jocks, blacks or Christians, police now say, citing the killers' journals and witness accounts. That story about a student being shot in the head after she said she believed in God? Never happened, the FBI says now.
As usual, truth is more complex than most people are willing to acknowledge. And it takes a lot longer to start getting near that truth. By the time somebody has a good idea of what actually happened, we've often moved on to our next tragedy or outrage.

So, next time something sensational happens and pundits and analysts breathlessly explain what really happened or what it all means, remember that they're talking out their asses. The truth will come along later, in it's good time.

Pirate Issues

With the resolution of the piracy standoff off the coast of Somalia this weekend, the United States now finds itself in possession of the lone surviving perpetrator. Will be be tried criminally in the United States or turned over to other authorities? This article over at the Christian Science Monitor details some of the issues prosecuting him in the US would raise:

The case offers President Obama an opportunity to punctuate the Navy's swift military response Sunday with an equally bold legal response – by affording the Somali suspect the full protections of a United States court of law. The concern is that aggressive US defense lawyers might tie up the case in a flurry of motions – including questions about the suspect's potential status as a minor.

'Everyone agrees that pirates are bad, but the issue is what are you going to do with them,' says Michael Passman, a lawyer with the Chicago firm Cassiday Schade and author of articles on piracy and the law.

Justice Department officials declined to comment Monday on the status of the case, and whether the suspect would eventually be sent to the US for trial. One matter that could complicate the case is the pirate's age. Defense officials estimate that all four alleged pirates were between the ages of 17 and 19. Under international and US law, younger defendants are generally not held to the same level of culpability as adults. Proving the precise age of the suspected pirate may be difficult, given the level of disorder in Somalia.
I tend to think that, given this was a US-flagged ship that was hijacked and the hostage was a US citizen, that we have a responsibility to lead any prosecution of the remaining perpetrator. There's no reason we can't do it. Fear that defense lawyers might, *gasp*, do their jobs and zealously represent the guy doesn't cut it.

Quoted for Truth

Over at Prawfsblawg, Brooks Holland passes along an interesting quote from Elihu Root, about one of the realities of the law:

About half the practice of a decent lawyer consists of telling would-be clients that they are damn fools and should stop.
Very true, to a point. For criminal defense attorneys, of course, we generally come in after our clients (many of whom are, indeed, damn fools) have "stopped." Or been stopped, rather.

Root had a rather long and distinguished career, which included winning the 1912 Nobel Peace Prize.

Monday, April 13, 2009

That "S" on His Chest Stands for "S&M"

Oh my, this is bound to ruffle some feathers amongst the faithful. Seems that one of Superman's creator had a more colorful side to his career:

Jeepers, Mr. Kent!

That's what a shocked Jimmy Olsen might say after seeing the hundreds of racy, violent and sadomasochistic cartoons by Joe Shuster, one of the creators of Superman, that have been unearthed by comic-book historian Craig Yoe
.When he was struggling in the 1950s, Shuster took to writing underground comics that sold off the books:
Within are naked women with whips, brutish men brandishing red-hot pokers, exotic torture and politically incorrect spankings. What makes the illustrations more than simply a curiosity of the times is the disturbing fact that many of the characters look exactly like Shuster's Superman and Lois Lane.

'Yes, they look like Lois and Clark,' Yoe says. 'Joe obviously had some very dark fantasies. There's a panel in an early Superman comic book where he has Lois over his knee and is spanking her. But certainly nothing of this depth or extremeness.'
Or maybe they are Lois and Clark? Were these books left out of the canon to spare the feelings of the faithful?

He Who Smelt It . . .

. . . gets a yellow card, apparently.

When I was playing soccer for a few years, I managed to make it through season after season and only collected one yellow card. I had the bad sense to get into an argument with the ref, during which I accused him of not knowing the Laws of the Game. He didn't take too kindly. Other than that, I managed to play a pretty clean game.

It's a good thing I didn't know about this particular provision, however:

A referee ordered a penalty to be retaken in a Sunday league football game when an opposition player broke wind as the ball was kicked.

The Chorlton Villa player got a yellow card for the noise which was classed as 'unsporting behaviour'.
I always figured that the regulation of noxious, but non corporeal, bodily function during game play would be limited to something like cricket!

Friday, April 10, 2009

Album of the Day

Dog, by the Mike Keneally Band (2004): Holy smoke, has it been five years since we've had a new Keneally studio record?! Don't get me wrong, I love the live stuff and the orchestral ventures. But I think, when push comes to shove, Mike's best forum is putting his considerable skills (and those of his collaborators) to use in the studio, skipping across genres with gusto. Thankfully, it appears that he's on the downhill run on the long awaited Scambot project which, like the conclusion of The Wheel of Time series, is going to end up split in three parts. Three parts, three hundred parts, I can't wait. Hurry up, Mikey!

Jump to Those Conclusions

This story over at the New York Times Lede blog is one of the weirdest I've seen this week relating to Obama's stop in Turkey. Apparently, a Turkish news personality took to the airwaves in blackface to do some sort of piece on Obama's visit. Odd as that is, even more head scratching is how the blogosphere jumped in half cocked to explain what they knew nothing about:

After posting the video, bloggers from the left and the right of the American political spectrum — including the Huffington Post, Town Hall, Scoop This and Think Progress, among others — started trying to make sense of it.

Readers at Town Hall guessed that the incident was evidence that the Turkish people were rejecting Mr. Obama’s overtures and mocking him. Scoop This asserted that the Turkish anchor was actually denouncing his own country’s failure to denounce “Islamic terrorism,” and “is trying to show shame for what his country has done, so that is why his face is painted in black.” The Huffington Post quoted a blogger from Buzz Feed who guessed that the makeup was “a metaphor for the way the Bush administration ‘darkened’ the face of the Turkish public, and how the anchor hopes Obama will turn things around.”
Jonathan Turley, they note "at least got in touch with someone who speaks Turkish before" sounding off. You'd think that understanding what someone is saying in a video like that would be a priority before trying to figure out what it meant.

Leave it to the NYT folks to, you know, actually get someone from Turkey to actually try and explain things (several commenters who speak Turkish fill out the story, too). Basically, it looks like it was an attempt at humor, some sort of satiric performance.

In other words, the some of the loudest voices in the blogosphere basically got punked by the Turkish version of the Onion News Network. Well done, folks! Who needs knowledge based analysis, anyway?

Bad Week for DoJ

Earlier this week, when dismissing the corruption conviction against Ted Stevens, the district court judge reamed the Department of Justice from the bench. Apparently, that was only the beginning of the Government's bad week:

U.S. District Judge Alan Gold ordered the government to pay $601,795 to cover legal fees, litigation expenses and expert fees for Dr. Ali Shaygan of Miami Beach after a superseding indictment was returned against the doctor last summer.

* * *

The judge reprimanded the two trial prosecutors, Sean Cronin and Andrea Hoffman, as well as their supervisor, Karen Gilbert, the narcotics section chief. Gold said Cronin and Hoffman, along with Drug Enforcement Administration agent Christopher Wells, 'acted vexatiously and in bad faith.' He cited Gilbert and her deputies for acting with 'gross negligence.'
Their sin? Taping conversations of the defense team. Whoever thought that was a good - or legal - idea?

Unlike Stevens, Dr. Shaygan was acquitted, but not until after a trial and considerable expense. But at least he had an expense to recoup. And he was out on bond. What about the indigent defendant represented by a public defender who was in jail the whole time? What's his remedy?

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Album of the Day

Aqua, by Asia (1992): Asia never exactly lived up to its potential, given the pedigree of its original (and, apparently, current) members. But, as I've said before, the band at least started out with a decent AOR album. Things went downhill pretty quick, though, and by the time they got to Aqua, I don't know why they bothered. Of the original members, only Geoff Downes and Carl Palmer really contributed (Steve Howe is there, but not doing much). The new guys, bassist/vocalist John Payne and guitarist Al Pitrelli, just aren't up to the task. "Cheese" is the word I'm looking for. Even for the cutout bin price I paid for this disc, I feel cheated.

That's Gonna Leave a Mark

Apparently Bill O'Reilly is busy making an enemy's list which includes the Chicago Sun-Times. Bad idea, BillO. It has earned him the wrath of Ebert. My favorite dig:

I understand you believe one of the Sun-Times misdemeanors was dropping your syndicated column. My editor informs me that "very few" readers complained about the disappearance of your column, adding, "many more complained about Nancy." I know I did. That was the famous Ernie Bushmiller comic strip in which Sluggo explained that "wow" was "mom" spelled upside-down.
Snap! At least he didn't suggest BillO would be better used as a pile of banjo picks, as he did in a film review once.

Double Entendres in 7 Letters or Less

Via Volokh, the story of one woman thwarted in her attempt to share her love of tofu with her fellow drivers:

The 38-year-old mother of three asked the DMV to approve a special plate emblazoned with 'ILVTOFU' for her Suzuki SL-7.

It was not 2 B.

The agency turned down the request, saying the plate might be offensive to some people.
Turns out "FU" is on a list of banned letter combinations at the Colorado DMV. I'll admit, I probably wouldn't have picked up on the tofu thing on a quick scan. But, I've got a dirty mind, so make of that what you will.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Album of the Day

Safety in Numbers, by Umphrey's McGee (2006): The other day, in discussing UM's new album, Mantis, I mentioned being in the minority in not being disappointed with this album. Looking over the reviews online this afternoon, maybe I had the wrong impression of the reaction to it. It's not as beloved as some of their other stuff, but it seems to be pretty well regarded. I remember reading criticisms that the material here was more "song oriented" than early albums, but I'm not sure I hear it. What I do hear is a collection of really awesome songs - "Words" and "Ocean Billy" in particular - that is well worth having.

Holy War!

An antique store in Girardville, Pennsylvania (near Philly, IIRC), has a statue of a pirate by the front door. Not just any pirate. A girl pirate, complete with breasts and cleavage and everything. That's not sitting with the local moral loudmouth (via PZ):

'I believe that it's indecent. I guess it would categorized as soft porn. If there is a definition of that I would call it soft porn,' said Father Edward Commolly.

* * *

Father Commolly commanded the owners to remove it.

'He pointed to the statue and very dictatorially and said, 'I curse you. I curse this place. I want to see this destroyed. I want her destroyed,'' said pirate owner Peggy Kanigoski.
Now, normally, an uptight religious nut going about cursing things is cause only for amusement. But not in this case, for he has blasphemed a pirate.

Pirates, of course, are "divine beings" according to the followers of the Flying Spaghetti Monster (may you be touched by His Noodly Appendage). This is nothing less than a full throated assault on the beliefs of Pastafarians everywhere. In the spirit of Bill Donohue and his lot, I believe the FSM should order His faithful to respond in kind.

Watch out for flying meatballs, Father Commolly!

The Revolution Will Be Tweeted

It was bound to happen. As Twitter creeps into the halls of Congress, jury rooms, and religious services across the country, most motivated folks are using it to foment revolution:

A crowd of more than 10,000 young Moldovans materialized seemingly out of nowhere on Tuesday to protest against Moldova’s Communist leadership, ransacking government buildings and clashing with the police.

The sea of young people reflected the deep generation gap that has developed in Moldova, and the protesters used their generation’s tools, gathering the crowd by enlisting text-messaging, Facebook and Twitter, the social messaging network.

The protesters created their own searchable tag on Twitter, rallying Moldovans to join and propelling events in this small former Soviet state onto a Twitter list of newly popular topics, so people around the world could keep track.
Even the old man in me (who is increasingly mumbling "you damn kids" about this Twitter stuff) can see that this is a good use of Twitter and the like. Although I wonder how smart it is to organize on what is, in essence, an open service. Is there no need for operational secrecy anymore.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Album of the Day

Labyrinth, by Kit Watkins (1981): Kit Watkins is perhaps best known as the keyboard player with pioneering American prog band Happy the Man. But he has had a long solo career once the band split up in the late 1970s (and then, like so many, reappeared in the Web-fueled prog underground), working in more ambient and world music influenced areas. Recently, Kit made a large portion of his back catalog (all that he owns the rights to, I think) available on his web site as free downloads. Entire albums, including artwork and liner notes.

That's what prompted me to download this album (and a couple of others), in which Kit is joined by percussionist Coco Roussel. It's less "ambient" and more like Happy the Man style instrumental prog in most places, which is a good thing, in my book. Kit is a terrific player and skilled writer/arranger, developing some really intricate tunes. Definitely worth a listen for free, yeah?

Prosecution to Nowhere (The End - Really)

I really had no intention of blogging about the court proceedings that formally vacated and dismissed the fraud conviction of ex-Alaska senator Ted Stevens. But given what went on today, I really had to.

As expected, the district court granted the Government's motion to dismiss the case. In doing so, the court said (via TalkLeft):

In nearly 25 years on the bench, I've never seen anything approaching the mishandling and misconduct that I've seen in this case
But that, as they say, was not all. For one thing, the court has appointed a special prosecutor to review whether criminal contempt proceedings should begin against some of the prosecution team. For another, the court spoke more broadly than just the Stevens case:
At a hearing Tuesday morning in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on the government's motion to dismiss, Sullivan said Stevens' case was symptomatic of a larger trend of misconduct. The judge urged his colleagues around the country to enter exculpatory evidence orders at the outset of every criminal case, and to require that exculpatory material be turned over in a usable form.

The judge said Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. should train new and veteran prosecutors on the rules of evidence. He further suggested that President Barack Obama obtain the commitment of prospective U.S. attorneys to abide by these rules, and that the Senate Judiciary Committee push nominees on this point during confirmation hearings.
Ouch. I've blogged before about how the Government tends to get a lot of breaks that defense attorneys don't get when it comes to complying with procedural rules and whatnot, so it's good to see a judge hold their feet to the fire.

One only wonders if there is a "larger trend of misconduct" why it took such a botched prosecution of a high profile political figure for the court to jump on it. How many indigent folks, represented by my colleagues in DC rather than a big name firm, suffered similar fates?

This Will Honk Some Folks Off

But, then again, the truth always does (via PZ):

President Obama told reporters in Turkey that America is not defined by any one religion. 'I've said before that one of the great strengths of the United States is, although as I mentioned we have a very large Christian population, we do not consider ourselves a Christian nation or a Jewish nation or a Muslim nation. We consider ourselves a nation of citizens who are bound by ideals and a set of values,' said the president.
This, of course, is not news:
As the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Musselmen; and as the said States never have entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mehomitan nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.
That's Article 11 of the Treaty of Tripoli, signed in 1796 during George Washington's second term and unanimously ratified by the Senate the following year during John Adams's first.

Like I said, not news, but I still imagine it will frustrate those folks who cling to the idea that we are a "Christian nation," whatever that would mean. It's nice to hear it from the Prez.

Chasing a Phantom

For 15 years, German officials worked to track down a serial killer. The unknown woman, was allegedly responsible for six murders, had been called the most dangerous woman in Germany by the police. Finally, after all that time, the mystery has been solved, but not as the cops had hoped:

Police in Germany have admitted that a woman they have been hunting for more than 15 years never in fact existed.

* * *

Investigators had connected her to six murders and an unsolved death based on DNA traces found at the scene.

Police now acknowledge swabs used to collect DNA samples were contaminated by an innocent woman working in a factory in Bavaria.
Oops. The contamination was apparently traced back to the swabs used to collect fluids from the scene. Of course:
One company making swabs said they were not intended for analytical, but only medical use, while another said that there had been no requirement for the swabs to be free of DNA.
Apparently the United States isn't the only country in need of overhauling its forensic science programs.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Album of the Day

Mantis, by Umphrey's McGee (2009): If there's an early front runner for album of the year in the proggy part of the Net, this is it. Folks hail it as their proggiest, most focused, and well put together album to date. Make no mistake, it's a great listen, but I've yet to catch the fever full force. Of course, I'm in the minority in really liking Safety in Numbers, so what do I know? All I can say is that I'm still having a hard time telling one track from the next. They all seem to run together in my ears. Oh well, maybe it'll grow on me.

Memory B-Gone

Memories are persistent, for most people. Of course, that includes not only happy memories of childhood or loved ones past, but also bad memories of trauma, disaster, and heartbreak. If you could wipe those bad memories out of your mind, would you do it? You may not have as long to ponder that question as you think:

Researchers in Brooklyn have recently accomplished comparable feats, with a single dose of an experimental drug delivered to areas of the brain critical for holding specific types of memory, like emotional associations, spatial knowledge or motor skills.

The drug blocks the activity of a substance that the brain apparently needs to retain much of its learned information. And if enhanced, the substance could help ward off dementias and other memory problems.

So far, the research has been done only on animals. But scientists say this memory system is likely to work almost identically in people.
Of course, there are numerous ethical questions that come with such a treatment. Does obliterating memories, even just bad ones, change who we fundamentally are as people? If we are largely a product of our combined experiences, it would seem to.

It calls to mind two pieces of sci-fi tech that might be around the corner. One is the process that's the catalyst for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which deals directly with the idea of wiping out memories (although both bad and good ones, as it turns out). Another is the capital punishment replacement presented in the Babylon 5 universe, the "death of personality," in which a criminal's memories are basically erased and his brain reset to a law abiding state. Of course, there's a bit of A Clockwork Orange in there, too.

With all that in mind, it seems to me this is a technology that should be developed. It's all well and good to wax poetical about what memories mean to our humanity, but for people who are laboring under traumas that keep them from living a normal life, they should at least have the chance to try it out.

Selling the War

One of the more interesting books I read in college was War Without Mercy, about issues of race in American and Japanese propaganda during World War II. In short, it details how both sides portrayed the other side in animalistic terms in a concerted effort to dehumanize them. Easier to kill 'em that way, of course.

I was reminded of that book by this article over at Reason. It's an interview with Alan Axlerod, who's written a book called Selling the Great War: The Making of American Propaganda. As with many American tales, it's the story of a dedicated individual:

George Creel was a crusading journalist of the generation of muckrakers at the start of the 20th century. When President Wilson first ran for the White House in 1912 he became a passionate supporter. Wilson was a progressive reformer, and Creel wrote an entire book in defense of Wilson’s decision to avoid entering World War I.

In 1916, Wilson ran on the slogan 'he kept us out of war.' When within a few weeks after Wilson was inaugurated for a second term he went to Congress to request a declaration of war, Creel offered his services to Wilson to help in any way he could.
Creel went on to create the Committee on Public Information, which would become such a successful propaganda organization that it became a model for the Nazis. An ignominious achievement, to be sure, but still . . ..

Looks like an interesting read.

Friday, April 03, 2009

Album of the Day

Shleep, by Robert Wyatt (1997): I bought yesterday's entry because of the extensive praise it got in the mainstream media. I picked this album up just because I heard about it on MTV, of all places! It was in some MTV News blurb about new CDs that were "off the beaten path" or some such. Which, of course, it it. At the time, I wasn't familiar with Wyatt's story, from his role in the early Canterbury scene to his paralysing fall from a hotel balcony and then to his subsequent solo career.

Now, years later, I've got a decent idea of what his music is like and I've become a big fan. I'd be lying if I said every bit of this album (or any others I've heard) is brilliant - some of it is just too odd to connect with me. Wyatt's vocal stylings take a while to get used to, but his unique delivery really adds a great deal of charm in most places. Abetted by folks like Phil Manzanerra and Brian Eno on this album, when it all comes together it's really excellent.

And here's a great live performance of my favorite track from this album:

Who Are They?

What if they gave an execution and nobody showed up to throw the switch? It's a problem Washington state is facing, as their volunteer death squad has all quit, for fear of having their identities revealed (via SL&P):

The four resigned Tuesday, which was the deadline Thurston County Superior Court Judge Chris Wickham had set for the team's records -- detailing the members' credentials, qualifications and experience in administering lethal drugs -- to be submitted for his review.

The state is now without a lethal-injection team, and it's unclear what effect the resignations will have on the court proceedings.

* * *

Team members, who must all meet minimum qualifications, were approached and asked to serve based on their respective backgrounds, Sytman said. Three are current Department of Corrections (DOC) employees and the fourth is a retired employee, he said.

'Walla Walla is a small town, so it's not hard to figure out (someone's identity) based on their qualifications,' Sytman said. 'They don't want picketers showing up on their front lawns, and they don't want offenders knowing who they are.'
At one time, executions were public and the identity of executioners wasn't particularly secret. As society has struggled to produce a more "humane" version of the death penalty, the actual act has been taken behind closed doors and shrouded in a certain amount of mystery.

That folks involved in the killing process don't want their identities revealed says something about what they feel about it deep down. I'm not quite sure what, tho'.

Another Morris Mystery

All this week, Errol Morris has been trying to answer a question about a famous "unknown" soldier who was killed at Gettysburg. When his body was found, there wasn't any identifying information on him. However, he was clutching a photograph of three children, apparently his last focus before death. Over five parts (final part here, it has links to the others), Morris sets out to answer "whose father was he?" But, in typical Morris fashion, there's much more to the story of the man, the children, and the photograph than meets the eye. Well worth the read.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Album of the Day

OK Computer, by Radiohead (1997): If there is one mainstream album that I remember starting to get described using the "p-word," this is it. It's sort of a concept album (though about what I have no idea), certainly works best as a whole, and has the band working in a lot of different sonic areas. There were comparisons to Pink Floyd, as I recall. It's even got an "epic," depending on your point of view ("Paranoid Android" is a whole 6.5 minutes long!). Is it really prog? Not to my ears. Does it matter? Not a bit. It's mostly brilliant - almost worth the price of admission alone for the Melotron drenched "Exit Music (For a Film)" - and was my gateway drug for Radiohead.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Album of the Day

The Crime, by Grey Lady Down (1994): GLD (named after a submarine movie starring Charlton Heston, IIRC) were, in their day, about the very epitome of the second wave of neo-prog. Not riffing off the originals of the 70s so much as the 80s groups that had already digested the original stuff. The result, frequently, is entertaining and engaging to listen to, if wholly unoriginal. But when the band cranked on all cylinders, they were capable of some great tunes. Granted, I find their second album, Forces, much better, but how can I not like an album that has not one but two epics about a criminal?

George Would Be Proud

One of the late George Carlin's great obsessions was language, particularly the bastardization thereof. In particular, George seemed to have a soft spot for euphemisms. I remember a bit he did about the evolution of the term "shell shock" to "post-traumatic stress disorder" in only a few decades. The point being that the further we muffle the original term in pleasant sounding bullshit, the more distanced we are from the concept at its core and, ultimately, distracted by it.

As Jon Stewart and John Oliver explain, the Obama folks are all over that idea.

The Daily Show With Jon StewartM - Th 11p / 10c
Redefinition Accomplished
Daily Show Full EpisodesEconomic CrisisPolitical Humor

The Daily Show With Jon StewartM - Th 11p / 10c
Obama Rebranding
Daily Show Full EpisodesEconomic CrisisPolitical Humor

Oy vey. Haven't we learned by now that just changing the name doesn't solve the problem?! This isn't the sort of "change" was I hoping for.

I was wrong - George would be pissed.