Thursday, August 27, 2009

Weirdness Goes Down

Last year I blogged about a bit of weirdness next door in Kentucky, which by law was required to acknowledge that:

[t]he safety and security of the Commonwealth cannot be achieved apart from reliance upon Almighty God.
I agreed with the local lawyer suing the state that the law was "breathtakingly unconstitutional," but took issue with the atheist plaintiffs seeking monetary damages for "mental pain and anguish." Now it looks like a state judge agrees (via PZ):
Franklin Circuit Judge Thomas Wingate ruled that the law violated the First Amendment’s protection against the establishment of a state religion. Homeland Security officials have been required for three years to credit 'Almighty God' in their official reports and post a plaque with similar language at the state’s Emergency Operations Center in Frankfort.

'Even assuming that most of this nation’s citizens have historically depended upon God by choice for their protection, this does not give the General Assembly the right to force citizens to do so now,' Wingate wrote.
Good call. The story doesn't make any mention of money damages, so I'm assuming those fell by the wayside. Also a good call. Looks like the Kentucky AG is deciding whether to waste the money on an almost certainly futile appeal. In this economy, should be a no brainer.

A Final Word on Compassionate Release

After some looking around, it looks like this diary over at Kos has found some of the operative statutory language regarding Scotland's compassionate release law:

Power to release prisoners on compassionate grounds

(1) The Secretary of State may at any time, if satisfied that there are compassionate grounds justifying the release of a person serving a sentence of imprisonment, release him on licence.

(2) Before so releasing any long-term prisoner or any life prisoner, the Secretary of State shall consult the Parole Board unless the circumstances are such as to render consultation impracticable.

(3) The release of a person under subsection (1) above shall not constitute release for the purpose of a supervised release order.
I can't believe that there isn't more to this (a definition of "compassionate grounds"? a collection of factors to be considered in making the decision?), but that statute does confirm that the decision to release el-Megrahi was discretionary, not mandatory.

So, it seems like what we know is that:

(1) The decision to release el-Megrahi was discretionary, not mandatory, and as such was (probably - I'm extrapolating from American law) subject to limited review, if any; and

(2) Based on the history of compassionate release in Scotland, if the prisoner meets the threshold finding of being terminally ill, he gets released.

Given all that, MacAskill treated el-Megrahi like any other prisoner, an amazing bit of equality that I'm not sure he deserved. It also reinforces my perception that MacAskill has balls the size of church bells for following through on it.

Pet Air

USA Today has a nice story about a really cool program called Pilots N Paws:

The skies next month will be filled with thousands of dogs, cats and other creatures escaping death row through the kindness of strangers.

From Sept. 12 to Sept. 20, small-plane pilots — who for 18 months have been volunteering their planes, fuel and time to fly pets from high-kill shelters to areas where there's space and demand for them — are aiming to fly 5,000 animals.
Neat! Check out their website for more information and ways to help the cause.

Not the First Problem I See

Via SL&P, here's a New York Times story about the latest private prison scandal:

Hawaii prison officials said Tuesday that all of the state’s 168 female inmates at a privately run Kentucky prison will be removed by the end of September because of charges of sexual abuse by guards. Forty inmates were returned to Hawaii on Aug. 17.
But I see a problem that comes well before any abuse - what the fuck are inmates from Hawaii doing in Kentucky?!? By my (admittedly rough) calculations it's 4600 miles from Honolulu to Otter Creek. How on Earth are prisoners supposed to maintain contact with the outside world -the people that might help them integrate back into society - if they're on the other side of the planet? What possible justification could there be for that? Oh, wait a sec:
Hawaii sent inmates to Kentucky to save money. Housing an inmate at the Women’s Community Correctional Center in Kailua, Hawaii, costs $86 a day, compared with $58.46 a day at the Kentucky prison, not including air travel.
As I've said before with regards to charging inmates for the cost of their incarceration, one of the most basic rules of a civilized society is that if you're going to lock folks in a cage, you gotta' pay for it. Maybe Hawaii's budgetary woes are caused by the fact that they lock too many people up in the first place?

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Album of the Day, 3RP Edition (Part 3)

For the third, and final, installment of the review of discs I picked up at 3RP, we travel 'round the world, from Canada and Mexico to France, Italy, Belgium, and Finland. Prog knows no boundaries, both physically and musically. Here we go:

Cabezas de Cera, by Cabezas de Cera (2000): This is a really hard disc to pin down. CdC is a Mexican trio, consisting of a percussionist, string guy (guitar, bass, Stick), and another guy on woodwinds. In addition, from what I remember of reports of live performances, including a storming set at NEARFest this year, they have a collection of homemade instruments to bring to bear as well. Put that all together and you’ve got some really interesting tunes (mostly instrumental) with a lot of variety in terms of sonic texture. Some of it’s more intense in a King Crimson sort of way, while other parts are more subdued and laid back. Either way, I’m really warming to it. Any rock band that deploys a clarinet is OK in my book.

Favorite track – “Gocxilla

En avant doute, by Lazuli (2006): A band that has two percussionists, but no kit drummer; a stick/Warr guitar player, but no bass player; and a one armed guy playing a homemade instrument that lets him play screaming guitar lines almost has to be a progressive rock band, doesn’t it? The buzz about this band is well deserved. The music is intense, interesting, and full of interesting sonic textures. Plus, this version of the album came with a DVD with some live performances, so there’s added value!

Favorite track – “Cassiopee

, by Mörglbl (2007): Power trio French fusion, with a touch of silliness on the side. As advertised, this is fantastic stuff! These guys have chops aplenty, but also know how to craft and sculpt a song so it’s memorable and interesting. No aimless wankery here. They were to play at ProgDay next weekend, but unfortunately were turned away by customs when they arrived in the US. Really sucks for the ProgDay folks, as I’ve heard that Morglbl’s live show is even better than the album.

Favorite track – “Buffet Froid

High Infidelity, by Present (2001): When I first heard of RIO – Rock in Opposition – and avant garde prog, this is the kind of stuff I had in mind. Jagged, dark, menacing, intricate, and highly structured. Repetitive in spots, with almost nothing that could conventionally be called a melody. That description alone would send most people screaming from the room, but if you like to step outside your comfort zone once in a while this is really great stuff.

Favorite track – “Souls for Sale”

Pollen, by Pollen (1976): Hailing from Quebec, Pollen were a two-disc wonder. Absorbing the influences of many of the big prog names of the early 1970s, then band produced an intricate, delicate style of symphonic prog, with a French accent. Given that, it’s not surprising that there isn’t really anything groundbreaking going on. Just good, solid tunes. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

Favorite track – “Etoile

Imparis, by Deus ex Machina (2008): Thinking about it, Deus ex Machina were to me in the 1990s what Beardfish is now – an exciting new band, whose albums I gobbled up only to run into a bit of burn out. There’s only so much hyperactive fusion-influenced Italian prog (with screaming Latin vocals, no less!) that one man can take. Years passed, before I learned about this album and, critically, the accompanying bonus DVD full of live performances. That was enough for me, but I’m pleasantly surprised by the studio material, too. Maybe it’s just me, but it seems a little more laid back and subdued than the older material. Not that it’s easy listening, or whatever. Maybe it’s best symbolized by “Cor Mio,” an unplugged reworking of a tune from their self-titled album that I first fell in love with. It still cooks, but it doesn’t boil over and make such a mess.

Favorite track – “La Diversita di Avere Un’Anima

Being, by Wigwam (1974): I’m not sure just what I expected from this Finnish band, but fluid jazzy prog with a socio-political lyrical bent wasn’t it. No matter, it’s excellent. The keyboard player (and main songwriter), especially, shines all over this album. Just about as the first side winds up, it sounds like Frank Zappa shows up to arrange the winds on “Pedagogue,” which would have been at home on The Grand Wazoo or something (minus the hippie-inspired lyrics, of course). A real pleasant surprise.

Favorite track – “Pedagogue”

That's it! Overall, a very good crop, if I say so myself.

Kennedy's Legacy

With Ted Kennedy's passing, news outlets are focusing on his history with health care, Supreme Court nominees, and his tumultuous personal life. One area that's likely be be overlooked (except by Doug Berman, of course) is his key role in developing the modern world of federal sentencing.

Kennedy, along with Orin Hatch and Strom Thurmond (of all people), pushed along the reforms that culminated in the Sentencing Reform Act in 1984, which gave us the United States Sentencing Commission and the Sentencing Guidelines. The motivation for the Act was pure - federal sentencing up to that point was largely standardless and provided judges with almost unlimited discretion in setting sentences. Inequalities, real or perceived, were inherent in that kind of discretion.

The Act and the Guidelines reigned things in, but at the expense of flexibility. Treating like cases alike sounds good in theory, but nearly impossible to achieve in real life. As a result, the Guidelines traded severity for discretion and, 25 years on, needed reform themselves. So, it's perhaps not the great legacy Kennedy and of the others hoped for, but it's one that will be around for a while.

Why Don't You Like Me? (Redux)

Yesterday, I speculated about why folks don't like lawyers very much. As part of one theory, I argued that:

The new[s] focuses on the sensational cases and big personalities. From that folks get the impression that . . . all criminal defense attorneys are lying weasels who will do anything to get their obviously guilty client off . . .
When I wrote that, I had no idea that a perfect example was playing out just across the street from my office in state court. Thomas Gravely was convicted of multiple sex offenses for raping three prostitutes. Gravely gave a videotaped statement to the police in which he admitted raping prostitutes at knife point. Faced with that, his lawyer went ugly:
Ed ReBrook, Gravely's defense attorney, called no witnesses. But he summed up his case in a dramatic closing argument to jurors during which he called the victims 'tramps' and 'whores.'

'You cannot rape the willing,' ReBrook said. 'They got in those automobiles with the intention of having sex for money.

'I would be horrified if any of the women in my life were raped, but I'm talking about decent, honorable women,' ReBrook said, and then dramatically raised his voice. 'Not whores who have sex with many, many men for money.'

* * *

'They are not like your wife, your girlfriend or your daughter,' he said. 'They are street tramps. And what happened to them was, at least in part, their fault.
Obviously, that backfired and the jury didn't buy it. It's also a paradigmatic example of why people think so lowly of defense attorneys.

Honestly, while I'm sympathetic to the plight of a defense lawyer searching for a defense in a losing case, I don't even see the legal theory ReBrook was hitting at. Sexual consent, assuming it was freely given in the first place, can always been withdrawn at any time, whether the woman (or man, for that matter) is your wife, one-night hookup, or a hooker. The "she's mine to do with as I please" standard hasn't existed for decades.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Album of the Day, 3RP Edition (Part 2)

Today's hunk of 3RP discs come mostly from Sweden, with one from Norway. I've never understood just how or why Sweden developed such a deep and rich prog scene, but both in the heydays of the 1970s and the modern era, they've done it. Anyway, here we go:

Destined Solitaire, by Beardfish (2009): I jumped on the Beardfish bandwagon when I picked up The Sane Day after their breakthrough performance at ProgDay a few years back. I eagerly scooped up the two Sleeping in Traffic discs and, once I heard about another new one on the way, put it on my radar, too. Now, I’m wondering if I’ve gotten hold of too much of a good thing. There’s nothing I can’t point to on the earlier albums that’s missing on this disc, but it seems like a pale imitation, for some reason. Like Beardfish-by-numbers, it lacks a spark of brilliance. The band’s productivity is impressive, but maybe Rikard and crew need to take a bit of time off to recharge the creative juices. Or maybe I just need to stop myself before I buy the next album without thinking about it.

Favorite track – “Coup de Grace”

Who’s the Boss in the Factory?, by Karmacanic (2009): Karmacanic is the baby of Jonas Reingold, long time bass player for The Flower Kings and (until recently) The Tangent. Although it’s a band proper, he drafts several folks from those two groups (including Stolt and Tillison themselves) to flesh out the sound on this album. Musically, it reminds me a little of both TFK and The Tangent, although without the heavy Canterbury leanings of the latter. It’s tasty symphonic prog, full of great playing.

Favorite track – “Send a Message from the Heart”

Agents of Mercy, by Agents of Mercy (2009): As I understand it, this started out as a Roine Stolt (of The Flower Kings fame) solo project, but spiraled into a real band thing, particularly with the vocal contributions of Unifaun’s Ned Sylvan. Other big names come along for the ride, too. Knowing that, I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that this sounds sort of like Flower Kings lite, drained of some of that band’s more up tempo energy. It really didn’t click on first listen, but it’s already grown a bit on me, which is a good sign. As with most of Roine’s projects, some judicious editing probably wouldn’t have been a bad idea.

Favorite track – “Heroes & Beacons”

Tick Tock, by Gazpacho (2009): Norway’s Gazpacho usually get slagged off as a poor man’s modern Marillion, but that’s not quite fair. Like the current version of the M band, Gazpacho occupy a territory on the musical spectrum that’s more prog than straight out rock, but not obviously proggy. In that way, they’re drawing from the likes of Radiohead and Muse as much as Marillion. In fact, Gazpacho tends to have a more organic sound – violin, acoustic piano, lots of Melotron strings – than Marillion does these days. Marillion are spacey and atmospheric, while Gazpacho’s music has a nice amount of space and atmosphere – but they’re not the same thing. If you see what I’m getting at. Which you probably don’t.

Favorite track – “Tick Tock”

Aurum Nostrum, by Sinkadus (1997): This is one of those albums where, the first time you listen to it, it strikes all the right chords (so to speak) and you think, “this is great stuff.” Then you listen to it the second time and the bloom falls off the rose. Make no mistake, this is good stuff - epic "woody" Swedish prog, with lots of flutes, vintage keys, and acoustic guitars. On the continuum of Swedish retro prog, it sits somewhere between Anglagard and White Willow. But there’s not really any bits that are “great”, rather than simply good, to latch onto. Maybe part of that is because I don’t speak Swedish and so the lyrics go right over my head. Still, a solid album overall.

Favorite track – “Manuel”

Elden Av Ar, by Trettioariga Kriget (2004): As hard to pronounce as it is to describe! Twin guitars propel most of this album, although they’re bolstered by the judicious use of piano, organ, and Melotron in spots. Of course, the lyrics are in Swedish, so I have no idea what they’re going on about. All I know is that this is the most pleasant of surprises in the clutch of discs I got at 3RP, if only because I can’t fathom for the life of me how this band jumped onto my radar screen in the first place. Highly recommended.

Favorite track – “Lang Historia
Tomorrow, the rest of the world!

Why Don't You Like Me?

Gallup is out with their latest polling data about various industries (via Volokh). For we lawyers, the news ain't good. Only 25% of my fellow Americans have a positive perception of the legal profession/industry. That ranks us fourth from the bottom, ahead of only real estate, the automobile industry, and the oil & gas industry. It's not much of a change from last year and, of course, it's hardly news that lawyers are reviled by society at large.

So why are we so loathed? There are lots of theories (the Volokh post and comments contains a bunch), but I think two factors really play into it.

First, most people don't deal with actual lawyers all that much. The impression of lawyers and what they do comes from the news and TV/movies/books, neither of which provide an accurate picture of what we do. The new focuses on the sensational cases and big personalities. From that folks get the impression that all civil lawyers are ambulance chasers, all criminal defense attorneys are lying weasels who will do anything to get their obviously guilty client off, or are narrow minded technocrats who bring to mind the bureaucratic regime of Futurama.* A fiction is, well, fiction, after all. Nobody's real life is that interesting or diabolical.

When most people do deal with lawyers, however, it's because of some sort of problem. You've been charged with a crime. You're getting divorced. A loved one just died and you need to probate their estate. Given those circumstances, it's not surprising that the memories those folks have associated with lawyers are negative. After all, even when you get sick and go to the doctor, you come out healthy on the other end (generally speaking). Interactions with the legal system are seldom as smooth.

The other factor, which kind of plays off the first, is that most people don't have a good idea of what lawyers can and can't do for them in a particular circumstance. The public perceptions of lawyers lead folks to think they can do anything and be the ultimate problem solver. Case in point - if you repeatedly sell cocaine to an undercover cop on video, then give a free and voluntary confession when you're arrested, there's nothing even Clarence Darrow can do to keep you out of prison. If you're lawyer's good, she can shave some time off your sentence, but that doesn't seem like such great shakes when you're doing time. Getting angry at your lawyer isn't rational, but she becomes a convenient target.

Of course, there are other factors. It doesn't help that most politicians are lawyers and nobody really likes them (even other lawyers). The real question is, can we change hearts and minds about this? Do we even want to?

* In which the head bureaucrat praises an underling for being "technically correct - the best kind of correct."

More on Compassionate Release

Last week, in trying to figure out Scotland's release of the Lockerbie bomber via compassionate release, I said:

Whether this was a routine extension of a well used procedure or an extraordinary stretching of one is relevant, I think.
I still haven't found a good discussion of the compassionate release law itself, one that would really inform an analysis. But I did come across this explanation, from an NPR program yesterday, from Katty Kay, the Washington correspondent for BBC News:
Well in the last 10 years since the Scottish parliament has being devolved there have been 31 applications for release on compassionate grounds, 24 of them have been freed and the seven that weren't freed, it was because the Scottish prison system didn't think that there was medical evidence that they had terminal illnesses. So it is, yeah, clearly of those you have applied for it on medical grounds with terminal illnesses and the terminal illnesses have been proved, then they've got out.
My emphasis.

If that's the case (and I have no reason to believe it isn't), the decision last week makes more sense - meet condition X (a terminal illness) and you are released. In other words, the severity of the crime the prisoner committed doesn't come into the analysis.

I'd like some more detail on exactly what discretion MacAskill had at the end of the process, however. I can't imagine it was quite that mechanical, but I could be wrong. It's worth knowing if MacAskill was pushing the law or if it pushed him.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Album of the Day, 3RP Edition (Part 1)

As promised/threatened, here are some thoughts about the first batch of new albums I picked up at 3RP a couple of weeks ago. I divided them into three roughly equal groups. Today, the Anglo/American group:

Oblivion Sun, by Oblivion Sun (2007): Oblivion Sun is the afterbirth, so to speak, of the short lived Happy The Man reunion from a few years back, with HTM mainstays Stanley Whitaker and Frank Wyatt soldiering on. As you might expect, the result sounds a lot like HTM, although with fewer new agey moments (perhaps that’s down to the absence of Kit Watkins?). Regardless, it’s expertly written and played melodic prog with a jazzy edge. Highly recommended.

Favorite track – “Catwalk”

The Old Road
, by Martin Orford (2008):
This is Orford’s swan song, released after he somewhat suddenly left IQ and turned his back on the music business in pursuit of an idyllic bucolic version of England that probably never really existed (its American version that conservatives so long for certainly didn’t). That’s a real shame, because The Old Road shows that, musically, Orford was far from the end of his. Joined by some powerhouse talent – John Wetton, Nick D’Virgilio, Dave Meros, and more – he displays compositional and arrangement skills that were obviously key to IQ’s sound over the years. Be warned, though, it’s not all epic New Wave prog – some is closer to something like Asia (the good parts) - although it’s all very good. Most surprisingly to me, Orford’s voice works as a lead and he plays some nice guitar.

Favorite track – “Grand Designs” (or maybe “Out in the Darkness,” for the sentiment alone)

In the Land of Grey and Pink
, by Caravan (1971):
Based on the artwork, you’d think this was a sword and sorcery, Tolkeinesque concept album. In fact, it’s a collection of light, airy, sometimes goofy, laid back Canterbury prog. One thing’s true – the only other Caravan album I have, For Girls Who Grow Plump in the Night, “rocks” quite a bit more. Having said that, there’s a lot of infectious stuff going on, both in the epic “Nine Feet Underground” and elsewhere (I’m growing fond of “Love to Love You (And Tonight Pigs Will Fly)”).

Favorite track – “Nine Feet Underground”

A Miraculous Container, by Mandrake Project (2009): The most instant difference between Mandrake’s sophomore effort and their debut album is the presence of vocals on a few tracks. They worked better than I expected, honestly, since what really appealed to me about Mandrake was their lush, spacey, hypnotic instrumental passages. Overall, I’m not as take with this one as I was by A Favor for the Muse, but that’s probably down more to my memories of the band at 3RP last year and the thrill of discovery rather than any difference in quality. Either is highly recommended.

Favorite track – “Laluna”

Of All the Mysteries
, by Singularity (2007):
Although their 3RP performance had some rough patches, I liked the tunes they played enough that I picked up this album after their set (the only album I bought from a band at the fest, actually). It’s a solid work of occasionally heavy melodic prog. There’s a great deal more subtlety and shading to the songs on disc than live (“Sleep”, for example, has some really nice acoustic guitar and flute bits), which is really nice. The instrumental “XOT” reminds me a lot of Glass Hammer, for some reason.

Favorite track – “Smile”

, by OSI (2009):
The First OSI album has really grown on me over the years, so I had high hopes for the new one, even given some lineup shifting (Gavin Harrison in for Mike Portnoy isn’t exactly a step down). I’m not overwhelmed. IMHO, it’s similar in style to the first album, but not quite as good. Still has its moments, though. One huge negative, however is the design of the packaging. Dark red lettering + black background = damn near impossible to read. Whoever thought that was a good idea needs to find another line of work (or get his eyes checked!).

Favorite track – “Blood”

Insurgentes, by Steven Wilson (2009): You’d think that between Porcupine Tree, No-Man, various engineering/producing duties, and other things, Wilson would hardly have time or material left over for a solo album. Not so, as he proves on his debut stand alone effort. Appropriately enough, it doesn’t really sound like anything his other groups pump out. The best description I can think of is a gritter darker No-Man with occasional bursts of PT-style fury (particularly on the longer tracks). It won’t please the fans of all Wilson’s different facets, but it’s rewarding to see him get a chance to mix and match them at his whim for once.

Favorite track – “Salvaging”

Creatures, by Frogg Café (2003): Frogg Café’s second album, this one is a little more traditionally a progressive “rock” record than the follow up, Fortunate Observer of Time. That being said, it’s still done in very low key, laid back way. Yes, they play their asses off, but they’re not in your face about it. In the middle of this collection of tuneful, jazzy prog, there’s the really way out Charles Ives inspired “The Celestial Metal Can.” I wouldn’t want a whole album of that kind of stuff, but it’s a neat atonal oasis as presented here.

Favorite track – “Creatures”
Back tomorrow with the Swedish/Norse hunk!

Point and Laugh

Last week, Pam over at Pandagon shed light on a completely insane Baptist preacher from Arizona who is on video sermonizing about executing homosexuals and praying for the death of President Obama. Pam has excerpts, which are chilling.

But in a thread about this asshat over at PZ's place, a commenter points out another sermon from this guy that's just . . . well, take a look:

Now, there comes a point that, whatever hateful things somebody might say, he slides from frightening to ridiculous. This is it. Anyone who is seriously concerned with the Biblical stance on whether to stand or sit while pissing is fucking nuts, no question about it. Perhaps slightly more sane than the idiots in his congregation that applaud him, but only slightly.

So, point and laugh at the ridiculous Bible thumper, folks. Ridicule is the only thing he deserves.

How Not to Respond to a Bar Complaint

Last week, NPR had another in the long line of stories about the financial straights of indigent defense around the country. This time, the story focused on Detroit and Wayne County, and particularly on the absurdly low rates at which appointed counsel get paid for representing the accused. Those lawyers, it should be noted, are not "public defenders" in the strict sense, as they don't get paid a salary to represent clients. Rather, they're paid by the hour or by case and, therefore, can be hit harder by tight budgets.

Nonetheless, the main character in this piece is not the most sympathetic guy. Bob Slameka has been practicing criminal defense for four decades, but has left a trail in his wake:

Records show the state Supreme Court reprimanded him for misconduct involving more than 16 clients. In most of those cases, he filed briefs late and didn't keep his clients adequately informed. And then one of his clients, Eddie Joe Lloyd, made national headlines in 2002. He was exonerated by DNA evidence after serving 17 years in prison for rape and murder.
Lloyd died two years after his release. He had enough time to file a bar complaint against Slemka, though, who didn't exactly make a measured response:
After his appeal had failed and before he was exonerated, Lloyd filed a complaint with the state. He told them Slameka never gave him the time of day. Harlin still has a copy of Slameka's rebuttal, which she read out loud:

'This is a sick individual who raped, kidnapped and strangled a young woman on her way to school. His claim of my wrongdoing is frivolous, just as is his existence. Both should be terminated.'

When asked if he really thought his own client should be executed, Slameka said yes, that's what he wrote at the time and that's how he felt.
Everybody knows it's never good to call an ex while you're drunk. Well, similarly, it's never good to respond to a bar complaint while you're pissed. It will never do you favors in the end.

Whatever sympathy I might have had for Slameka evaporated when I read that. Being a decent human being doesn't cost anything, after all.

Death of the Standards

Writing in last weekend's Financial Times, Elijah Wald, author of an upcoming book called How the Beatles Destroyed Rock 'n' Roll, makes an interesting case for technology killing live performance in pop music.

Basically, his theory is that as studio recording technology evolved (aided greatly by the late Les Paul's multitrack developments), pop music shifted its focus from songs to performers and live performance became about the star and not the song. For instance:

Through the 1950s, most dancers still considered live bands preferable to record hops with DJs but the balance was tipping. Teenagers were falling in love with particular performances, which meant it was becoming increasingly common for a record to be a hit, rather than just being a recording of a hit. That might seem a hair-splitting distinction but it is reflected in the words we still use for the pop classics on either side of the divide: 'standards' and 'oldies'. Standards are songs, and even an iconic performance by Frank Sinatra or Ella Fitzgerald is just one recording of that song. Oldies, by contrast, are records – if we ask a DJ to play 'Maybellene', we expect not only to hear it performed by Chuck Berry but to hear the specific recording that was a hit for him in 1955.
The whole piece is interesting, but I wonder if, ultimately, it doesn't make a key distinction between "pop" and "rock" music. Live pop performances, I agree, tend towards the packaged and homogenized, so the 12-year-old girls to whom they're directed sound just like they do on their iPod.

But rock music, it seems to me, has a long history of famous live performances that aren't slavishly faithful to the recorded product. Not even counting the whole jam band thing, live performances captured on tape like At Fillmore East, at Budokan, and Frampton Comes Alive! are part of the rock cannon. Playing live is part of the gig (so to speak), not an ancillary marketing scheme.

Regardless, Wald makes an interesting argument and I'll be anxious to see how it plays out long form in his new book.

Think Twice . . .

. . . before you put that sticker on your car:

You never know who's going to see it.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Fanboys Attack!

I guess John Scalzi doesn't have enough excitement in his life. That's the only reason I can figure that he decided to kick the ultimate geek hornets nest by chronicling the ten worst design flaws in the Star Wars universe. As a certified fanboy - I played the role playing game in college, for Han's sake - he's got some valid points. Particularly this one:

Death Star
An unshielded exhaust port leading directly to the central reactor? Really? And when you rebuild it, your solution to this problem is four paths into the central core so large that you can literally fly a spaceship through them? Brilliant. Note to the Emperor: Someone on your Death Star design staff is in the pay of Rebel forces. Oh, right, you can't get the memo because someone threw you down a huge exposed shaft in your Death Star throne room.
Of course, Family Guy's already covered this one:

Not that the second Death Star didn't have its own issues:

At least Lucas can explain that one. And, yes, the fanboys have attacked.

That's Me

Doing some research this week, I stumbled across a lengthy opinion from earlier this year in which a federal trial court ripped its appellate court for something I've complained about before - bending over backwards to ensure a Government victory on appeal, even in situations where the court won't extend the same benefit to the defense.

The case is US v. Ingram, out of the Northern District of Iowa, which is in the Eleventh Circuit. Written by Judge Bennett, it came after the case was remanded from the Eleventh Circuit to give the Government another chance to prove the defendant had a prior conviction that greatly increased his sentence. It was, in Judge Bennett's words, a "second bite at the apple," given based on an issue not even raised by the Government in its appeal. The opinion, which came out on May 11, 2009, is a fun read if you want to see a judicial underling take a swipe at his superiors.

But I want to highlight one particular facet of Judge Bennett's opinion. He catalogs not only the error he thinks the Eleventh Circuit made in this case, but those made in nearly a dozen others - all in the Government's favor - that were later overturned by the Supreme Court. In other words, the Eleventh looks an awful lot like the much derided Ninth Circuit, except the Eleventh sides with the "good" guys, so none of the usual court haters give a shit.

Anyway, in footnote 6, Judge Bennett laments, after noting the hundreds of defendants convicted in the wake of a major immigration raid on evidence that we now know was insufficient:

This example is just the top of the iceberg of the effect that the repeated erroneous decisions by this appellate court have had on the length of defendants' sentences. Who speaks for the defendants who are serving thousands of extra years of unjustified incarceration?
Why, I do, Judge Bennett. So do my colleagues in public defender offices and CJA panel members across the country. And you have, too, thank you very much. Hopefully someone else is listening.

No Outrage from Me

Let me preface this by saying that (a) I'm not a fan of people who do dumb things with guns and (b) I am not now nor have I ever been a New York Giants fan. With that out of the way, I'm finding a hard time finding much sympathy for Giants receiver Plaxico Burress, who is off to prison for two years, as are many commentators.

Here's what happened. Burress carried a loaded handgun into a club in New York City. It was legally registered in Burress's home state of Florida, but illegal to possess in NYC. While in the club, the gun, which Burress allegedly had stuffed in the waistband of his sweatpants (classy!), went off accidentally. Fortunately, the only person hit by fire was Burress himself, who was not seriously wounded.

Burress was charged with multiple counts, including criminal possession of a weapon, which carried a mandatory sentence of at least 3.5 years. He worked out a deal to plead guilty to attempted possession (nice hair splitting there) and agreed to a two-year sentence, of which he'll probably serve 20 months. The arguments against the sentence is that it's too long for a simple possession of a weapon (which, some argue, shouldn't be criminal at all), with a recognition that it's shaped by the mandatory minimums for the original charges.

I've got no love for mandatory minimum sentences and, were this really a simple possession case, I'd have more problems with it. But Burress is a bad poster boy for responsible firearm ownership. Quite simply, if your gun goes off in public, you need to do some time. The fact that Burress is the only one who got his is pure luck. Nor is the fact that the discharge was accidental a mitigating factor - a yutz who can't keep his gun in his pants may be more dangerous in a crowded space than someone intent on doing non-shooting criminal mischief.

I see lots of clients who end up doing time for doing nothing more than possessing a gun. Not fire it, not waive it around, not carry it around in his pants. If somebody's going to be the poster child for excessive firearm sentences in a post-Heller world, let's use one of them, OK?

Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Limits of Compassion

In debates about the death penalty, supporters often trot out the worst cases - Hitler, Stalin, McVeigh - and ask folks like me, "yeah, but you wouldn't be against executing one of those guys, right?" The scope of the evil doesn't change my mind, but I concede there is emotion appeal there. Similarly, if you're talking about releasing folks from prison before their sentences are served for compassionate reasons - serious illness, family tragedy, age - folks against such programs would provide some eternal bastards and ask, "yeah, but would you release these guys?" Thanks to the Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Justice, we now have one of "those guys."

Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi was convicted in 2001 of participating in the bombing of Pan Am flight 103, which exploded over Scotland in 1988, killing all 259 people on board as well as 11 people on the ground. He was the only person ever convicted in the bombing (his codefendant was acquitted) and was sentenced to life in prison. Today, Cabinet Secretary for Justice Kenny MacAskill released al-Megrahi on compassionate grounds - that he suffers from prostate cancer and has, according to experts, three months to live.

Scottish law provides for such release, but I've yet to see/hear anywhere exactly how common it is. Federal law has a similar provision (with a corresponding Sentencing Guideline to boot), but it's rarely invoked and I can't imagine it would be invoked in the favor of someone who killed 270 people. Assuming el-Megrahi's guilt,* is his crime so heinous to put any idea of compassion out of play? MacAskill makes a powerful plea otherwise:

Scotland will forever remember the crime that has been perpetrated against our people and those from many other lands. The pain and suffering will remain forever. Some hurt can never heal. Some scars can never fade. Those who have been bereaved cannot be expected to forget, let alone forgive. Their pain runs deep and the wounds remain.

However, Mr Al-Megrahi now faces a sentence imposed by a higher power. It is one that no court, in any jurisdiction, in any land, could revoke or overrule. It is terminal, final and irrevocable. He is going to die.

In Scotland, we are a people who pride ourselves on our humanity. It is viewed as a defining characteristic of Scotland and the Scottish people. The perpetration of an atrocity and outrage cannot and should not be a basis for losing sight of who we are, the values we seek to uphold, and the faith and beliefs by which we seek to live.

Mr Al-Megrahi did not show his victims any comfort or compassion. They were not allowed to return to the bosom of their families to see out their lives, let alone their dying days. No compassion was shown by him to them.

But, that alone is not a reason for us to deny compassion to him and his family in his final days.

Our justice system demands that judgment be imposed but compassion be available. Our beliefs dictate that justice be served, but mercy be shown. Compassion and mercy are about upholding the beliefs that we seek to live by, remaining true to our values as a people. No matter the severity of the provocation or the atrocity perpetrated.
I will say this - I hope MacAskill wears something underneath his kilt, because he's going to need something to carry around the titanic balls he's shown by making this decision. However, in an interview on CNN this evening, he was also maddeningly evasive about whether there was any real precedent for his action. Whether this was a routine extension of a well used procedure or an extraordinary stretching of one is relevant, I think.

Death, as they say in death penalty litigation, is different. If that's the case, then 270 deaths are unique. It may be that an extraordinary act was appropriate. Or it was an extraordinary mistake. Either way, it's MacAskill's for the rest of time.

* Which is not a given. Although he gave up his final appeal, apparently to pave the way for this release, al-Megrahi has always maintained he didn't do it. More interestingly, several families of the victims in the UK agree with him and continue investigating the case. I don't know enough about it to make a decision one way or another.

But Is He Right?

Earlier this week, the Supreme Court did an extraordinary thing, granting an "original" habeas corpus petition (as opposed to something seeking review from a lower court) in the case of Troy Davis. Davis was convicted in 1989 of murdering a Georgia police officer, based largely on the testimony of nine eyewitnesses. He was sentenced to death. Since then, seven of the nine have recanted in some shape or form (some blaming police coercion for their testimony) and there's serious doubts about Davis's guilt.

What's extraordinary about the Supreme Court's action is that Davis has already exhausted all the traditional post-trial mechanisms for review. The only potential avenue left is to prove to some court that he is "actually innocent" and thus should not be executed (at the very least!). The Supremes granted Davis's petition and referred his case back to the district court for further fact finding.

Justice Scalia (along with Thomas) dissented from the Court's decision, in a dissent that's been roundly attacked as both legally and religiously suspect. Folks are outraged that Scalia seems to think that the Constitution would allow the execution of a person who didn't do the crime. I admit, it's a repulsive thought, but here's the thing - he's kind of right.

The Supreme Court has repeatedly handled cases where actual innocence claims were made, but dodged the issue. Although several individual justices (current and otherwise) have hinted that the Constitution would prohibit the execution of an innocence, the Court has never actually held that it does. Which, I think, is the nub of Scalia's dissent. Why, he argues, bother to send the case on another trip through fact gathering if none of what that trip turns up means anything, legally? Shouldn't the Court first hold that an innocent person can't be executed and provide some guidance on how that person can become "actually" innocent?

It seems like a niggling procedural point, but it's one that has to be dealt with. Thanks to the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (the Clinton give that just keeps on giving), state prisoners basically only get one shot at having their case reviewed in the federal courts. If the AEDPA prevents someone like Davis from presenting his innocence claims it might be unconstitutional. But a Court ruling to that effect could have massive ripple effects throughout the criminal justice system and should be confronted head on.

Don't get me wrong - if Scalia (and Thomas, remember) concluded somehow that the Constitution could not prevent the execution of an innocent person, I wouldn't be shocked. And I'd certainly disagree with that conclusion. But I don't think he's gotten to that point, because the Court has never squarely addressed the issue. So, for now, he's probably right, which is the real problem.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Fake DNA

Remember earlier this year when the National Academy of Sciences released a scathing report on the state of forensic science in this country? Recall that, as traditionally relied upon, but scientifically dubious, techniques like fingerprint analysis, ballistics, and bite mark examinations were pilloried, one technique was held out as a shining example of getting it right – DNA comparisons. But the good times couldn’t last:

Scientists in Israel have demonstrated that it is possible to fabricate DNA evidence, undermining the credibility of what has been considered the gold standard of proof in criminal cases.

The scientists fabricated blood and saliva samples containing DNA from a person other than the donor of the blood and saliva. They also showed that if they had access to a DNA profile in a database, they could construct a sample of DNA to match that profile without obtaining any tissue from that person.
I’m a little concerned about the cavalier response from back in the US:
John M. Butler, leader of the human identity testing project at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, said he was 'impressed at how well they were able to fabricate the fake DNA profiles.' However, he added, 'I think your average criminal wouldn’t be able to do something like that.'
If only it were the “average criminal” that was the concern. In the wake of things like the Fred Zain scandal in West Virginia and others, it’s abundantly clear that the scientists doing the testing aren’t beyond fabricating evidence to help convict the “right” guy. That doesn’t mean DNA is worthless, only that it should be subject to the same scrutiny and skepticism by a jury as any other piece of evidence.

How Much You Holdin'?

Cocaine, I mean. Because if you've got some cash in your pocket or purse (which is not a given, with the economy and all), you've probably got some coke along with it. It's long been argued that coke residue is so prevalent on money that it could lead to, say, false alerts from drug dogs and the like. Now it looks like the science is going to back that up:

Traces of cocaine taint up to 90 percent of paper money in the United States, a new study finds.

A group of scientists tested banknotes from more than 30 cities in five countries, including the United States, Canada, Brazil, China, and Japan, and found 'alarming' evidence of cocaine use in many areas.

U.S. and Canadian currency had the highest levels, with an average contamination rate of between 85 and 90 percent, while Chinese and Japanese currency had the lowest, between 12 and 20 percent contamination.
Washington, D.C. had the highest concentration, at 95 percent. There's a Marion Berry joke in there somewhere, but I haven't found it yet.

Prog Divorce Law?

Steve Hackett famously attracted the attention of Genesis with an ad he placed in Melody Maker pimping himself as a guitarist "determined to strive beyond existing stagnant music forms." I wonder if his now ex wife took a similar tack in getting her divorce lawyer? From The Times comes news that she's going after a chunk of Steve's old Genesis royalties:

ROCK stars beware. A legal case involving the divorce of the former Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett and his Brazilian wife could decide how creative assets are split.

* * *

Poor has now issued High Court proceedings saying she is entitled to revenue from his share of classic Genesis songs from the 1970s. Her claim could amount to millions of pounds.

The case will be watched closely by musicians, authors, actors and artists who may be planning to divorce. Ayesha Vardag, a leading divorce lawyer, said it would help to clarify how the English courts treat the proceeds of past and future “intellectual property” accrued during a marriage.
I don't know about British law, but generally in American family law, assets that accrue during a marriage belong to both spouses. I don't see offhand why intellectual property should be different. If it wants to play like real tangible property, it's got to go all in. That appears to be what the precedent the article discusses (a dispute over the profits from Trival Pursuit) says, anyway.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Waiting In Columbus

As I said, my musical exploits were the bookends on a brief trip K and I took to celebrate the XXth anniversary of her birth. To do so, there was really only one place, full of exotic splendor and excitement, we could go - Columbus, Ohio!

Let me explain.

When trying to figure out where to go for K's birthday, I looked around to see if anything exciting was happening in any of the nearby burghs. Someplace, preferably, (a) within easy driving distance, and (b) with a pet friendly hotel, so that Maia might join us. Turns out, Columbus fit the bill quite well. The motivating factor was Cirque du Soleil pulling into town for a couple week run. Tickets in hand (thanks to the very friendly Ticketmaster service folks for bailing me out after I couldn't read a calendar), we packed up the dog and made the long journey across the Ohio River.

There are two kinds of vacations, you know. One kind is the regimented "we've got plans and must keep them" vacation, while the other is the "what, we have to do something?" vacation. This trip was the latter - heck the only obligations we had over several days were seeing Cirque du Soleil and getting a massage. It was definitely a "low impact" kind of trip. Maia certainly got into the spirit:

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Even when she thinks she's being tough:

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All that was wonderful from a rest and relaxation standpoint, but kind of makes for boring blog fodder. For example, our first day there we just wandered around a couple of neat neighborhoods downtown, dining and window shopping. We did discover a fabulous discount book store called The Book Loft, which has 32 rooms (in two connected houses, I think) crammed with books. Hey, they had a Japaneses manga retelling the legend of Robert Johnson - how cool is that? Yes, of course I bought it.

As for dining, we did make a pair of discoveries. When we arrived in town, we tried to locate a local BBQ joint recommended by the hotel literature. Guided to the right location by the GPS-powered navigator in K's new phone, we found it had gone out of business. Luckily, we stumbled on an outpost of City BBQ, which was a more than satisfactory replacement. Excellent, actually, in a "this is way too much food, but it's so good I can't stop cramming it in my mouth" sort of fashion. I highly recommend it. Speaking of recommendation, I'd do the same for Basi, a tiny Italian place downtown that was really tasty.

But when it comes to tasty in Columbus, nothing compares to the city's ice cream industry. K has an ice cream problem (like I have a buying CDs at prog fests problem) and we ended up seeking it out every day we were in town. That first night, we happened across Graeter's, which bills itself as the oldest continuously operating ice cream place in the country (founded in 1870, alas, in Cincinnati). They specialize in hand-packed traditional flavors. The results are ultra thick and ultra tasty. But the best in town? Maybe not.

The toughest competition comes from Jeni's, a local chain that specializes in artisanal ice creams. By that, I mean if your kid only eats vanilla, look elsewhere. Queen City Cayenne (chocolate with cinnamon and cayenne pepper)? Oh, yes, please - I love to need a cold glass of water after eating a scoop! Thai Chili? Indeed. And that's just the tip of the iceberg. It is seriously distinctive and seriously good stuff.

Which is better? It depends on your mood, I suppose. I'd be happy to continue to savor the evidence for both sides!

All that being said, it wasn't all sleep and food. One day, we managed to get down to the Franklin Park Conservatory, a set of greenhouses and gardens:


That's the main greenhouse of the building, which was built in 1895. Before that, the area was home to a fairground where, among other things, Sherman gave his "War is Hell" speech in 1880.

As with the Phipps Conservatory in Pittsburgh, the Franklin is home to a number of glass sculptures by Dale Chihuly (some of which were actually at the Phipps, we're pretty sure). Even though the idea was familiar, it can still be spectacular:

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Here's K, caught unawares (you can tell 'cause she didn't have time to take her glasses off!), in front of a boat full of twisted glass:


But the real stars for me were the butterflies hanging around in the tropical section, a couple of which I managed to catch:

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There's even some big metal thingies outside:

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And what of Cirque du Soleil? It was a lot of fun. I'd never seen it before (K had seen one long ago in a parking lot!) so wasn't quite sure what to expect. The show we saw, Saltimbanco, is one of the older ones (although it has been repurposed from big top to arena) and is typical, I suppose.

If you've never seen one, it's kind of hard to describe. There's a "story" or "theme" to the show, but all the songs are in French, so good luck figuring out what it is. Not that it matters. The result it what I imagine a late night TV variety show would look (and sound) like if Salvador Dali was running things. That is to say surreal, entertaining, and occasionally awe inspiring. Major positive points for a live band plopped right on stage to watch during the proceedings (dressed as clowns, natch').

And as if that wasn't enough, there was very nearly a fight right in front of us! As I returned from the restroom during intermission, there were huddles of people looking disgruntled. K explained how some drunken idiot had been . . . well, a drunken idiot during the first half of the show. Once confronted by a neighbor, he got hostile and, eventually, ejected. Yeah, OK, it was in a hockey arena, but who expected something like that?!?

Overall, it was a nice little trip with, of course, the loveliest of company. And really really good ice cream.

A Tale of Two (or Nine) Concerts - Part II

OK, we're back. So, where was I? Oh yeah . . .

You'd think that ten bands over two days is all you could handle, but wait, that's not all! To tide us over during the (overly long?) set changes, 3RP provided some additional musical entertainment in one of the tents setup in the parking lot outside.

On Saturday afternoon, the gap filler was Chapman Stick player Rob Martino, who explained how happy he was to play for people without having explain what a Stick was or who Gentle Giant was! It was the first time I've been able to see a Stick get played up close. It really takes a great deal of dexterity and coordination to make the most of the instrument and Rob had it. He played a mix of ethereal, ambient, original numbers as well as some "name that tune" covers (all solo). Great for a relaxing lunch (during which IQ's bassist inquired about the jumbo hot dogs!).

That evening, I almost missed the other act under the tent, a local trio called Skelnik, a group of young kids dedicated to doing things the old fashioned (i.e., analog) way. Their keyboard player, surrounded by a trial of organs and an RMI electric piano (never seen one of those in flesh before) was wailing away on not one but two Arp Odysseys (or those!) when I arrived. Fun stuff, although I only heard the last couple of tunes. There were some other folks doing the tent thing on Sunday, but I missed them.

3RP, Mk. II - The Swag

One of the cool parts of a prog festival is that it's not just about music, it's about commerce! In addition to the bands performing (and several others - caught up with Robert from 3rDegree out under the big top), several vendors set up inside the hall to hock CDs, DVDs, and what have you. Like an addict who stumbled into a crack house, my self control was overwhelmed. I walked away on Saturday night with 21 new albums:

  • Singularity, Of All the Mysteries (2007 USA)
  • Frogg Cafe, Creatures (2003 USA)
  • Mandrake Project, A Miraculous Container, (2009 USA)
  • OSI, Blood (2009 USA)
  • Oblivion Sun, Oblivion Sun (2007 USA)
  • Martin Orford, The Old Road (2008 UK)
  • Steven Wilson, Insurgentes (2009 UK)
  • Caravan, In the Land of Grey and Pink (1971 UK)
  • Agents of Mercy, The Fading Ghosts of Twilight (2009 Sweden)
  • Beardfish, Destined Solitaire (2009 Sweden)
  • Sinkadus, Aurum Nostrum (1997 Sweden)
  • Karmakanic, Who's the Boss in the Factory? (2008 Sweden)
  • Trettioariga Kriget, Elden Av Ar (2004 Sweden)
  • Gazpacho, Tick Tock (2009 Norway)
  • Cabezas de Cera, Cabezas de Cera (2000 Mexico)
  • Deus ex Machina, Imparis (2008 Italy)
  • Morglbl, Gotesk (2007 France)
  • Lazuli, En Avent Doute (2007 France)
  • Wigwam, Being (1974 Finland)
  • Pollen, Pollen (1976 Canada)
  • Present, High Infidelity (2001 Belgium)
Yes, I have a problem, but I think it's extinguished for a while! In my typical anal retentive fashion, I've broken things down into groups to make digestion easier. Look for some special Album of the Day installments next week once I have an idea of what I've got. The only thing I'm sure of right now is that the Present album doesn't sound a damn think like the REO Speedwagon album of the same name!

All in all, it was a great fest and I really enjoyed it. In a perfect world, a more diverse lineup would have been nice and maybe five bands a day is just too much (both NEARFest and ProgDay have four a day). But that's just quibbling. I'll definitely be back next year.

So, eight concerts (essentially) in two days would have been enough for anybody, right? Not quite.

In Which K Endures the Hazards of Love (in more ways than one)

As it happened, the Friday after 3RP, The Decemberists were in Pittsburgh at the lovely and historic Ryham Theater. Although I'll not drag K to a fest full of prog (I love her enough to spare her that!), I can't go to a real concert all by myself, can I? Of course not! So I dragged K downtown after we returned from our trip.

The Decemberists are touring in support of their latest album, The Hazards of Love, a concept album/rock opera released earlier this year. They're doing the whole thing in one lump for the first half of the show. I expect that won't last past this tour (which involves a couple of extra musicians/back up singers), so since I really like the album I wanted to see it live in the flesh. Damn it, I missed Tommy and The Lamb . . . and Brave when they came around - not again!

Never having seen such a thing, live, I have to say it's quite a thing to come out and play an hour's worth of music straight through without a break. No reaching out to the audience and it's asking an awful lot of them, so it takes a great deal of skill to pull off. Luckily, The Decemberists have that talent and the first half of the show rocked. Although K was not as transported as I was, we did have this brief conversation after Shara Worden brought the house down during "The Wanting Comes In Waves":
K: I want to be her.
Me: Why? Because she's the bad guy or because she's got pipes?
K: Both!
So, it wasn't a completely painful experience for her. Nevertheless, I know she was there solely for my benefit and I love her for it.

The second set was quite a bit more "fun", as you might expect. I was honestly a little bummed by the setlist, as they ditched a couple of things they'd been playing regularly for a couple of new tunes. To get some idea, of the two hours worth of pre-Hazards stuff I had on my MP3 player, they played exactly none of it! Still, a minor quibble. You can't really complain when the encore includes a historical reenactment of the defense of Fort Pitt, assuming it was ever attacked by Napoleon (I don't think it was).

Altogether, a fun show in a great venue that was packed. It would, honestly, be a great 3RP venue, if the fest grew a little bit. Until it does, tho', it's back to the Roadhouse!

A Tale of Two (or Nine) Concerts - Part I

Hiya, kids - did you miss me? Wait a sec, don't answer that. I'll assume from the awed silence that you did. Ahem. I was away for a few days with K on a little trip to celebrate the anniversary of her birth (more on that in a bit). That trip just happened to be bookended by two amazing musical happenings I was able to attend.

3RP, Mk. II - The Bands

Two weekends ago marked the second (annual? hopefully!) version of the Three Rivers Progressive Rock Festival (aka 3RP) at the Pepsi Cola Roadhouse outside of Pittsburgh. Although it's located pretty much in the middle of nowhere (but a stone's throw from Pitt's big outdoor shed, oddly), it's a pretty good venue. It's small enough to make 400 or so people sound like a full house, it's got plenty of parking lot surrounding it, and it's set up to feed (and libate) a crowd as well as entertain them. It's also only 40 minutes from K's house, so no complaints here.

Last year, I only managed to take in three bands (out of ten) due to scheduling conflicts. This year, however, the calendar goddesses smiled upon me and I was able to take in as much as I wanted, which turned out to be nearly everything, with a couple of exceptions. Without further ado, here's my thoughts on the bands I saw over the weekend.

Edensong opened the festivities on Saturday morning. They were probably one of the more highly anticipated festival openers in recent years, as their debut album, The Fruit Fallen, has gotten rave reviews since it was released last year. To be honest, the album hasn't really clicked with me yet and I hoped the live performance would really rock my world. It was very good, but I'm still not convinced. Talented guys and exceptional players, but I'll not queue up for the next album just yet.

Second up was Colorado's Singularity. Prior to the fest, I tried to pick up their latest album from my dealer Greg, but it was out of stock, so I was stuck with their second album, Between Sunlight and Shadow. Somewhat serendipitously, they ended up playing all of that one from start to finish (all tracks segue, as Zappa would say), in addition to several from the newer one. Although they were a little rough in spots (the guitar player had a couple sloppy moments and the vocals weren't quite right) I like their style - sort of spacey symphonic prog - and ended up buying the new album after the set.

The middle of the lineup was one of the two bands that really drew me to 3RP this years, Phideaux. Ever since discovering Doomsday Afternoon last year, they've crept up near the top echelon of my favorite bands. With this performance, they're squarely in amongst the elite in my book. Senor Xavier and his large band (drums, guitar, 2 keys w/a double on sax, four chick singers w/a double on violin) navigated his densely packed arrangements with skill, dexterity, and power. Valerie Gracious has a great voice and it mixes well with Xavier's. The two unreleased tunes were great, so there's something to look forward to as well!

Up next was Saturday's sub-headliner, It Bites. Honestly, I'm not really a fan. They seem more like a straight up 80s power pop band with some proggy flourishes than a "real" prog band, but that's not the problem. They're stuff just doesn't connect with me, whether it's the old Francis Dunnery stuff (like him solo, tho') or their comeback album, The Tall Ships (which lots of people love, so I'm obviously missing something). Maybe it's the regular use of nonsense lyrics or frontman John Mitchell's insistent attempts to turn things into an arena rock show, I dunno. Either way, a passable 90 minutes, but I'll leave it at that.

The headliner for Saturday night was the other band I really wanted to see going in, IQ. They were one of the first bands I discovered when I found the prog mail order houses (Tales from the Lush Attic being in the initial trio of albums I got that way), so seeing them live and in the flesh was a real treat. They didn't disappoint, although I thought the material from the new album was a bit weak and I was a little bummed they didn't dip further into the back catalog, but those are minor quibbles. After a day full of music, their set breezed by, so much that by the end of "It All Stops Here" it barely seemed as if they'd begun.

Given Saturday's lineup, it would be hard for Sunday's to disappoint, although I found it a little less enthralling. To be sure, five bands a day is a lot of music to digest, even if it's all excellent. Eleven in the morning on Sunday rolls around just a little more slowly, after all. That being said, the three bands I hung around for on Sunday all had something to recommend them.

Waking up the Sunday crowd was Pittsburgh's own Persephone's Dream. Of all the bands at this fest, they leaned on the theatrical elements the heaviest, with their female lead singer looking like a much more attractive version of Arthur Brown, complete with gold cape! I've never been a huge fan of that kind of thing, as it takes just the right circumstances to keep it from just coming off as silly. "But wait," you're saying, "aren't you a huge old Genesis fan? With all the fox heads and what not?" Yeah, but I didn't know about any of that stuff, much less see evidence of it, until I was well under the spell of the music, so I can let it slide. Speaking of music, PD were pretty good, if unexceptional, but made good use of a dedicated percussionist here and there. They also pretty boldly came out and did a large hunk of the as yet unreleased album Pan's Labyrinth, which shares nothing but the name with the brilliant film from a few years back.

Second up Sunday was one of the hits of the festival with almost everyone, Syzygy. Hailing from Cleveland (never has a group of people from the Mistake on the Lake been so praised in Steel City!), the now quartet (up from a trio on their debut CD) brought along a dedicated vocalist for the occasion. They were obviously happy to be there, feeding off the energy of a crowd of people who actually appreciated prog. The same is true for most all of the bands I saw, but you could really tell these guys were getting an extra level of bliss out of the experience. They rocked, I have to say, but at the end of the set I was left a little numb by the whole thing. It was all "good," but nothing really grabbed me as "great." Glad to have seen them, however, no doubt.

The middle band on the bill Sunday was Tennessee's Glass Hammer. Long a sort of Steely Dan of prog, basically consisting of Steve Babb and Fred Schenchel (who is literally half the man he used to be - on an older DVD I have he looks like Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons air dropped into a synth rig!), the band tends to expand and contract over albums and the occasional live show. For this show, they were down to a lean five piece and, again, having a lot of fun playing in front of an appreciative crowd. They played a couple of new tunes, too, and dredged up some old favorites. A good set and a good way for me to end the day and the weekend.

I skipped out on the two last bands for Sunday - Crack the Sky and King's X - because they're not really my thing and, like I said above, two days full of bands makes for a long weekend. I've heard good reports on both, so maybe I made the wrong call, but who knows. I'll have to wait for the DVD of this year's fest before I can tell, I guess.

Of course, in good proggy fashion, this post has become a multi-part epic. Join me for part two, won't you?

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Album of the Day

The Great Deceiver: Live 1973-1974, by King Crimson (1992): For years, I couldn't get all that excited about the copious amount of live material out there documenting the last of the 1970s version of King Crimson. Although I love Red, the Bruford/Wetton/Cross/Fripp lineup's focus on live improv didn't excite me. It wasn't until I picked up USA that I really got curious. So when I got a chance to pick up these four discs (now available in two two-disc sets) I did it.

Although this lineup could really cook when on their game, I have to say that four hours and 15 minutes of live Crim is a little more than I can take in one sitting. Some of the improvs shine, but others don't really do all that much and there's just enough repetition in the other material to be annoying. Don't get me wrong - if you're at all a Crim head, you need this set. If not, you can probably make due with USA.

And with that, ladies and gentlemen, we come to the end of the 2009 version of the A to Z Album of the Day project. This year covered 799 albums spanning 897 CDs and running 34 days, 7 hours, 1 minute, and 18 seconds. And that doesn't even include what I'll pick up at 3RP this weekend. Until next year!

Holy War and Holy Warriors

Remember way back in the early days of the War on Terra when Bush used the term "crusade"? It was quickly waived away - a slip of the tongue. Look who's doing the talking, after all. But this weeks, two bits of a news coming out show more and more that some folks, at the highest levels of power, saw the war in Iraq through Christian beer goggles.

First, there's the story from The Nation about the head of Blackwater (now "Xe" - apparently "Xenu" was taken). In a pair of affidavits filed in a civil action against Blackwater in federal court in Virginia, two anonymous former employees accuse boss Erik Prince of everything from arms smuggling to murder. Along the way, one employee explains that:

Among those leveled by Doe #2 is that Prince "views himself as a Christian crusader tasked with eliminating Muslims and the Islamic faith from the globe":

To that end, Mr. Prince intentionally deployed to Iraq certain men who shared his vision of Christian supremacy, knowing and wanting these men to take every available opportunity to murder Iraqis. Many of these men used call signs based on the Knights of the Templar, the warriors who fought the Crusades.
Given that world view, it's not surprising that other allegations include Prince and company treating killing Iraqis like sport and valuing the destruction of Iraq. Read the whole piece - it's chilling, if true. I'm cynically suspicious of anonymous sources.

As if that weren't bad enough, Charleston Gazette editor James Haught, writing at the Council for Secular Humanism (via Kos), describes a conversation between Bush and French president Chirac in the run up to the Iraq war:
Now out of office, Chirac recounts that the American leader appealed to their 'common faith' (Christianity) and told him: 'Gog and Magog are at work in the Middle East…. The biblical prophecies are being fulfilled…. This confrontation is willed by God, who wants to use this conflict to erase his people’s enemies before a New Age begins.'

This bizarre episode occurred while the White House was assembling its 'coalition of the willing' to unleash the Iraq invasion. Chirac says he was boggled by Bush’s call and 'wondered how someone could be so superficial and fanatical in their beliefs.'
Is it any wonder they didn't join in our little adventure?

Between stories like these and the earlier Bible-thumping daily briefings Rumsfeld prepared for Bush, it looks more and more likely that we were thrown into Iraq to fulfill some bullshit religious quest.

Might all that the war has cost - in lives, cash, and opportunity - finally shock the electorate into thinking that having fundamentalist religious types run the place is a bad bad idea? We can only hope, but I won't hold my breath.

This Gives Me An Idea

The BBC has an interesting story about a jury trial in Japan (via SL&P). It's a momentous occasion, because Japan hasn't had jury trials in criminal cases since before World War II (and then only briefly). Their system is actually a hybrid, with three judges and six laypeople on a panel:

In the new system, the jurors - who are considered lay judges - must have the agreement of at least one of three professional judges for their decision to stand. They also decide on the sentencing.
But that's not what really caught my attention in that story. This was:
The BBC's Andre Vornic says that for Japanese prosecutors, an acquittal means a career setback.

This ensures that only cases almost certain to lead to a conviction tend to be prosecuted.
What a brilliant idea! Prosecutors afraid to bring weak cases because it might destroy their careers! Perhaps we should import the idea. Everything cool starts off in Japan, after all.

A Couple of Truths

Oy, it's going to be a long three and a half (at least) years at this rate, people. In the interest of national sanity, I'd like to drive home a couple of truths to both sides of the political spectrum.

First, to the right-of-center/GOPer side of things. Just because we as a nation have elected a black man president does not mean that we have entered a colorblind Utopia. We still have a lot of racial baggage left in this country to work through. Keep that in mind.

Second, to the left-of-center/Dem side of things. Just because we have a black president doesn't mean that every criticism of the man and/or his policies is racist. Yes, the monkey references obviously tap into a long history of white depictions of blacks as animals. But not everything fits that mold.

The latest kerfuffle involves someone who put up a bunch of posters in the Los Angeles area with Obama done up to look like The Joker (specifically, the nightmare crazy Heath Ledger version, not the sort of fun kind of crazy Jack Nicholson version):

Some folks argue that the poster is racist (via Volokh), but that argument seems tenuous, at best. More likely is that the artist (and he's hardly alone - search "Obama Joker" in Google Images and see what pops up) latched onto the latest pop culture bad guy as a reference - a character that even those who don't know Batman from Robin know is a seriously bad dude. It's not racist.

It is stupid, though. As Alice at Concurring Opinions points out, Ledger's Joker is anything but a socialist and is an avowed anarchist. If anything, it's another example that shows most folks who hurl that term around as an epithet don't actually know what it means.

Years ago, when the statewide radio talk show had an old lion liberal newspaper editor in the mix, he would frequently respond to callers who tarred him as a socialist exactly what the term meant. Sputtering indignation usually followed. Sadly, things haven't changed in the intervening years.