Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Polanski and the Squishiness of Facts

Yeah, but what is truth? If you follow me.
- Lionel Hutz
I continue to be fascinated by the Roman Polanski saga. As the director sits in jail in Switzerland, folks on both sides of the case continue to hammer away at each other. In the process, it's become clear that a lot of people don't really have a firm grasp on the facts of the case and what those facts might mean.

There are basically two sets of facts that tend to get conflated in Polanski's case: one surrounding the crime itself and another dealing with the mechanics of the prosecution.

As for the facts of the crime, there are really two sets of facts. First, there are the facts as set forth in the victim's grand jury testimony, which formed the basis of the original six-count indictment against Polanski. The Smoking Gun has the transcript here. That's where the most disturbing facts come from - the booze, the drugs, the victim's repeated attempts to get Polanski to stop. It's stomach churning stuff. It's easy to see where charges like rape by use of drugs and sodomy come from.

But, Polanski's defenders rightly say, that's not what Polanski pleaded guilty to and, therefore, stands convicted of. Polanski pleaded guilty to one count of unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor, a.k.a. statutory rape. A felony, yes, a crime, to be sure, but not quite the same on the scale of evil as forcibly raping a drunk, drugged girl. The more serious allegations were never put before a jury, the victim never cross examined.

The case really does play out differently depending on which set of facts you embrace. If Polanski is a violent sexual predator, it seems unreasonable for anybody to complain about hauling him back to court from across the Atlantic. On the other hand, statutory rape is a notoriously foggy charge, which tends to show Polanksi as more misguided rather than evil, particularly given his law abiding life ever since (set aside being on the lam for the moment).

The facts of the case mechanics themselves don't fare any better. From the outside, the case looks like any other: multiple-count indictment is pleaded down to single-count offense. Among other reasons, the victim's family didn't want her to go through the rigors of a trial, so the state was willing to deal. At the plea hearing (also available at The Smoking Gun), Polanski admits to having sex with the victim and acknowledges that the judge is not bound by the plea agreement and will determine the final sentence.

What went on behind the scenes, however, is largely drawn from the documentary Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired, in which David Wells, a former prosecutor (but not the one on Polanski's case), tells how he essentially convinced the trial judge to send Polanski to prison, even though everyone else involved (prosecutor, defense counsel, probation officer, victim) argued for probation. The judge's intent to impose more prison time is what led Polanski to bolt. The revelations in the film were the basis of Polanski's motion to dismiss the case last year.

What's odd is that when it comes to which set of facts get emphasized, the positions flip from the facts of the case. Polanski's defenders are quick to jump on Wells's interview in the documentary, even though it was not under oath and, obviously, has never been subject to cross examination, where they minimize the sworn victim's testimony about what actually went on [see update below]. By contrast, the other side harps one the generalities of the plea colloquy to argue that Polanski knew what he was getting into when he pleaded guilty.

And now, there's a further complication to add into the mix. Marcia Clark, famous for not convicted OJ Simpson, reports on an interview with Wells in which he claims that his story in Wanted and Desired was almost complete fiction. He labels himself a liar, which leaves Polanski's allegations of judicial and prosecutorial wrongdoing where, exactly? Maybe, with the heat generated by the doc and Polanski's arrest, Wells is playing damage control and trying salvage his reputation. Or, maybe he was pulling the doc director's leg the whole time. Either way, it's hard to build a case with a witness who admits to being a liar (cue Witness for the Prosecution: "The question is whether you were lying then or are you lying now... ").

The bottom line is that "truth," in any case is a slippery concept. But in this one, it's slipperier that it appears at first glance. If you follow me.

UPDATE: One of the most vocal critics of Polanski's arrest and possible extradition is Jeralyn over at TalkLeft, with whom I generally agree on these things. However, she displays exactly the kind of selective use of facts I'm talking about, as expressed in the final comment in this thread:
Right before the thread closed, someone posted the link to the state's answer to Polanski's motion to dismiss. Since the first 7 pages of it recount grand jury testimony never proven in court, which Polanski and his lawyer did not have the opportunity to cross-examine, and charges to which Polanski never pleaded guilty or admitted, I am not hosting it here. You can read the legal arguments in the answer which begin on page 7 here.

I'll write more on this case where there are new devolopments [sic]. The self-serving sudden recanting by DA Wells is not a new development worthy of a post in my view.
In other words, the facts that support the argument to "free Roman" (from an unsworn interview in a documentary film) are taken as gospel truth, while those that do not (the sworn grand jury testimony, Well's fresh recantation) are not only ignored but purged from the argument. That's not a rational way to have an argument.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Ten Long Years (Part 2)

As I said a couple of weeks ago, this month marks a pair of milestones for me. One was the 10-year anniversary of my first autocross. The other, today, is the 10-year anniversary of my admission to practice law in the State of West Virginia. This trip down memory lane should be a bit shorter than the last one, mostly due to the fact that I don't have any pictures to joggle my mind.

When I was in law school (and for a while before, I suppose), I picture myself as a litigator, a trial lawyer. Most people in law school do, at some point, at least. I took part in mock trial competitions and felt good doing it. I could see myself doing this "for real" - getting paid for it, in other words - once I got out of school and passed the bar. I didn't know quite how I wanted to do it, but criminal law and generally helping the downtrodden appealed to me.

A funny thing happened on the way to me becoming the next Gerry Spence or Clarence Darrow - I couldn't get a job doing trial work! My first interview out of school (before I even took the bar exam) was with a county public defender office outside of Charleston. It was only a 3-person office (the Defender and two assistants), so when the second assistant left the office, the Defender couldn't hire on a complete newb with no actual license to practice yet. Had I gotten that job, I wonder where I'd be now.

Instead, I wound up taking a job with legal aid in Beckley, down in the southern coal fields. Legal aid is like the civil counterpart to the public defender, representing low-income people in domestic cases, landlord-tenant disputes, that sort of thing. I was hired on as the domestic violence staff attorney under a Department of Justice grant. That mean that I represented battered women (and the odd man), usually in domestic violence and divorce/child custody proceedings.

Trial work it was not. Most of my court appearances were in domestic violence hearings, where the respondent (a.k.a., the abusive husband/boyfriend/baby daddy) wasn't represented by counsel and trotted out some half-baked "defense" (i.e., "the bitch deserved it"). There were final divorce hearings, too, but in cases without kids there simply wasn't much of anything to argue about. I had one, honest to goodness flat out contested divorce hearing (about child custody), which I happened to win.

The work I did at legal aid, while important and (I like to think) of great impact in the lives of those who needed our services, was soul crushing. Nothing brings out the spirit of idiocy in human beings like a divorce. Virulent arguments break out over the most mundane of things, like who gets the commemorative Smurf glasses (I shit you not).

There had to be something more engaging out there. After a year in Beckley, I made a shift of scene and job. I moved back to Charleston and went to work for the Kanawha County Public Defender office in their appellate division.

I had always liked writing and researching, the prime appellate skills. Dates back to my undergraduate history education, I imagine. But I never figured I could focus on appellate work outside of the kind of big civil firm that I didn't really want to work for. The opportunity to do it in a PD office, and scratch my criminal law itch to boot, was too good to pass up.

That being said, appellate criminal work in West Virginia can be frustrating. There is no intermediate appellate court in West Virginia and the Supreme Court has discretionary jurisdiction, so nobody convicted of a crime in this state (even of murder) is entitled to a review of their case. You've got to convince the Supreme Court to take the case before you brief it on the merits. As a result, very few cases get reviewed. In the two years I was with the KCPD office, I didn't have any cases accepted for review and only had one chance to pitch a case to the court in person.

Aside from the frustrating appeals, I also worked on state habeas corpus proceedings. I learned, fairly early on, that I great preferred appeals to habeas cases. Appeals have a set record, a fixed universe of facts from which one can draw when writing a brief. Habeas cases, by contrast, allow for supplementation of the record and often require a ground-up review of the case, tracking down witnesses, etc. In other words, they involve the kind of legwork that the original trial did. And I figured out that I didn't really care for that type of stuff.

I was generally happy with that gig, but nonetheless I kept my eyes open for something bigger and better. I found it when the Federal Public Defender in Charleston had a position open for what is known, in AO lingo, as a "Legal Research and Writing Specialist." Sounded interesting, so I sent them a resume and had an interview. Long story short, I thought that job would suit my skill set a bit better, so I switched the state courts for the federal courts.

That was seven years ago (next month) and I've been there ever since. My business cards say "Appellate Counsel" instead of that long-winded job title, which is a pretty fair summary of what I do. I get to sit in my office all day, digging through transcripts, hunting the corners of the Federal Reporters for case law, and keeping abreast of the latest and greatest pronouncements of the Supreme Court.

Some lawyers, even the lawyer I wanted to be in law school, who think that sounds like hell, rather than heaven. It works for me, though. So I think I'll keep at it for a bit longer. Who knows where I'll be in another decade?

Monday, September 28, 2009

The Perils of Polanski

After more than three decades on the lamb, a Los Angeles County arrest warrant finally caught up with director Roland Polanski last weekend, as he arrived in Switzerland to accept a lifetime achievement award from the Zurich Film Festival. I don’t know much of Polanski’s work (I’ve seen Chinatown – good, but not great IMHO), but the sordid details of his case as they’ve come to light in the past couple of years caught my attention. Although the nitty gritty of how the system worked (or didn’t) in his case is fascinating, I’m also interested in what the reaction to Polanski’s arrest says about the criminal justice system and our perception of it.

But first, the very basic facts. In 1977, Polanski arranged for a private photo session with a 13-year old girl (set up by her mother, IIRC). The photo shoot wound up at Jack Nicholson’s house (Jack was out of town), where Polanski provided champagne and quaaludes and, according to the victim’s grand jury testimony, he raped her orally, anally, and vaginally. Polanski was charged with six felonies (including rape), but worked out a plea agreement and pleaded guilty to one count of unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor. He was sent to a California prison for 42 days for a psychiatric evaluation. One day before sentencing, Polanski fled, first to Great Britain and then to his native France. He’s been a wanted man ever since (although he’s managed a career that included a 2003 Best Picture Oscar for The Pianist).

Things were largely quiet on the case until last year, when HBO showed a documentary called Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired, that delved into the mechanics of the criminal case. Particularly, and spectacularly, the movie included an interview with a prosecutor, David Wells, who had a great influence on the case behind the scenes. Wells was not the prosecutor on the Polanski case, except for some search warrant work early on. But he was the prosecutor regularly assigned to the courtroom of Judge Lawrence Rittenband, who presided over the Polanski case. According to Well’s interview in the film, he opined to the judge that the plea agreement was too lenient and would result in Polanski not getting any prison time. He also provided the judge with a news story about Polanski in Europe while awaiting sentencing that Wells construed as the director “flipping [the judge] off.” Most importantly, Wells gave the judge the means to send Polanski to prison for a short period of time in a manner that an appellate court couldn’t review – commitment for a psychiatric evaluation prior to sentencing.

In the film, both Polanski’s lawyer at the time as well as the prosecutor handling the case explained how Judge Rittenband seemed to change his opinion of the plea agreement based on “criticism” he’d received from unnamed sources (Wells, presumably). The judge told them he planned to send Polanski back to prison for the remaining 48 days available under the psychiatric exam statute and that if the parties didn’t agree with it he’d boot the whole plea agreement. Furthermore, everyone was supposed to go into the courtroom and agree to this “deal” as if it were happening real time. Neither party, nor the probation officer nor the victim and her family (via counsel), argued that Polanski should go to prison. Faced with that situation, Polanski bolted. Thus, as portrayed in the film, Polanski’s case was tainted by the ex parte arguments of a prosecutor to a celebrity obsessed judge who had a penchant for arranging off the record deals.

With that set forth, a couple of meta thoughts.

Of Waiting and Weighing
One fact looming over this case is the sheer passage of time since Polanski’s offense and since he skipped town. In the three decades since, he has apparently led a law abiding life. Although a French citizen, he’s cut off from the global center of his industry, Hollywood, due to the fact that if he set foot in the United States he would be arrested. That’s why, when The Pianist hit the Oscars, he didn’t grace the ceremony with his presence. Isn’t that punishment enough, along with the fact that he’s already done more time in this case than anybody outside the judge ever thought he should? I don’t know. The problem with that argument, as with when it was made regarding Sarah Jane Olson, is that it appears to reward evasion of the law and turn the whole process into an endurance test. I’m not sure that’s the way we want the system to work.

Another fact brought forth by Polanski’s defenders (or at least critics of his arrest), is that the victim in this case as repeatedly said that she does not want Polanski to go to prison. In fact, even back in 1977 she and her family maintained that position. There are reasons to wonder about that position back then (what was mom’s role? was she afraid that if her daughter was the “girl who put Polanski in prison” would her nascent modeling career be over?), but now, as an adult, she’s certainly entitled to it. Does that mean she should have veto power over a prosecution?

No. The case against Polanski is not framed as “victim v.” for a reason. It’s “The People of the State of California” doing the prosecution. The state has interests in enforcement of its criminal law separate and apart from what the victim of any crime wants. Should those wishes be considered? Sure, and in California they are required to be (as they are at the federal level now, in the rare case where there’s actually a victim involved), but they shouldn’t control. Victims and their families may have a lot of reasons they want things to “just go away,” but they aren’t necessarily going to forward the state’s goal of deterring future criminal activity and rehabilitating a wrong doer.

As to why, after all these years, the victim in Polanski’s case may want nothing to do with it anymore, I think Amanda at Pandagon makes some good points:

Victims of sexual or domestic violence are, for completely understandable reasons, mostly intent on getting acknowledgment that what happened was real, and that it was not their fault. And then they want to move on with their lives. Her needs were filled when she won a lawsuit against Polanski, and she has healed, I’m sure. But these kinds of crimes aren’t just about the current victim, but the larger problem.
Just because prosecutors typically wrap themselves in the mantle of victim's rights doesn't mean the victim should control the prosecution, regardless of how they feel about the outcome.

Other Criminal Justice Concerns
Let’s put aside, for a second, the question of whether it’s worth it to go grab Polanski because of the age of the underlying offense. Are there any other legitimate interests that the California criminal justice system (or the federal one, for that matter) have to be vindicated? A pretty big one, it seems to me.

Criminal law can be divided into two parts. One is the substantive criminal law – prohibitions against murder, rape, robbery, etc. – which is what we generally think of when we hear that somebody’s been charged with a crime. The other is what you might call systematic criminal law, that deals with the correct operation of the system itself. Into that category would fall things like perjury, obstruction of justice, and escape. Flight from a jurisdiction pending sentencing certainly falls under that umbrella, which means that Polanski has probably committed a further offense by being a fugitive all these years. Indeed, he appears to have violated federal law, 18 USC §1073 (in pertinent part):
Whoever moves or travels in interstate or foreign commerce with intent . . .to avoid prosecution, or custody or confinement after conviction, under the laws of the place from which he flees, for a crime, or an attempt to commit a crime, punishable by death or which is a felony under the laws of the place from which the fugitive flees . . . shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than five years, or both.
Separate and apart from its interest in seeing that Polanski does (more) time for an offense most agreed he should have gotten probation from in the first place, the system has an interest in ensuring that someone of Polanski’s means and connections can’t simply skip out on the process when it turns against him. Sure, the process around Polanski, if it took place as Wanted and Desired, was fucked up and heading for an injustice. But you know what? I’ve got clients who think the same thing every day, but they know better than to run off. They’d be in for a rude takedown by the US Marshals and a whole lot more time in prison, to boot.

To make an analogy, suppose that Polanski was sent to prison and he was in immediate danger of being killed. He escapes. In that case, he’d actually have a defense to the escape charge, as long as he could prove that he “submitted to proper authorities after attaining position of safety.” US v. Williams, 791 F.2d 1383, 1388 (9th Cir. 1986)(California law appears to be the same). You can’t just keep on running, though.

All that said, I have some sympathy for Polanski given the farce that Wells and Rittenband made of his criminal case. Shockingly, the sort of behind the scenes dealings that scuttled Polanski’s case seemed to be part for the course in Rittenband’s courtroom. Given the unified front of prosecution and defense in this case, it seems like it would have been a perfect opportunity to drag that misconduct into the light. I can’t imagine defense lawyers I know letting judges get away with such stuff.

But my sympathies would be a little greater if Polanski hadn’t dealt so mercurially with the courts himself.

In 1997 his attorneys and the prosecutor agreed to try and resolve the case and a new judge (Rittenband having died in the interim) agreed that if Polanski returned to the United States and submitted to arrest, he would be released on bond and not sentenced to serve any additional time in prison. There was one condition – that the resolution of such a high profile case be televised. Polanski balked, allegedly because he didn’t want to deal with the media circus that would ensue from a televised hearing. That’s either naivety beyond par or just being stubborn. Any hearing in the case of a famous film director who pleaded guilty to statutory rape and then fled the country would produce a media circus, TV or no TV.

Then in 2004, Polanski successfully sued Vanity Fair for libel after it published a story alleging he made sexual advances to a young model on the way to his wife’s funeral. What’s so bad about that? He sued Vanity Fair, an American publication, in the United Kingdom, making use of their exceptionally lax libel laws, while appearing via video link from France. Why? Because if he set foot in the UK he would be arrested on the outstanding California warrant. That’s chutzpah, in my book.

In the end, I think Polanski may be guilty as sin, but also a victim of a horribly botched criminal justice system. How that susses out in the end, I have no idea.

UPDATE: On the issue of artists and crime, how about a word from George Orwell, at the end of an essay about Salvador Dali (via Volokh):
If Shakespeare returned to the earth to-morrow, and if it were found that his favourite recreation was raping little girls in railway carriages, we should not tell him to go ahead with it on the ground that he might write another King Lear.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Watch This

This is a contestant from Ukraine's Got Talent (yup, that stuff's everywhere) who works with sand art. Her work is just amazing:

Via PRI's The World.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

It's the Arts

A few bits of interest from around the artsy fartsy world.

Scambot’s Here! (Almost)
Had a missive in my Email box today from Mike Keneally with some good news on his first new studio album in several years, Scambot 1 (first in a series). It’s about ready for preordering. Here are the groovy details:

The concept of Scambot had its genesis in a comic strip I drew in one of my sketchbooks in 2001, while I was working on Wooden Smoke. It was fleshed out further, with the addition of new characters, during the making of The Universe Will Provide and Dog in 2003, and for the past five years it has been my central creative project, one obviously very long in gestating. (The earliest music it contains is 'You Named Me' from 1998, recorded during sessions which also resulted in Nonkertompf.)

The project evolved in an intentionally relaxed and organic fashion, with no time-related pressure placed on its creation. The three different aspects of the Scambot universe - my character art, music/lyrics, and written plotline/dialogue - each grew individually while they influenced the development of the other two aspects. It was a blast, I am freaking pleased as punch that it's finally done and that I enjoy it as much as I do, and I'm very happy that you'll get to hear it soon.
It’ll be available as a regular CD, a digital download, or a 2-CD special edition with a second “music inspired by” disc. Guess which one I’ll be ordering!

Meet the Beatles (Again)
In his Scambot missive, Keneally also approves of the new Beatles remasters, in stereo and mono format. I used the new publicity wave to plug the holes in my late-era Beatles catalog, picking up Revolver, Magical Mystery Tour, and Let It Be (only had it on tape). Of the bunch, I’m really grooving on Revolver the most, along with Magical Mystery Tour. In the whole scope of their catalog, Let It Be seems a little hit and miss to me, these days. Regardless, I listened to more of The Beatles in the past couple of weeks than I have in years.

Having said that, I agree with Hoyt that replacing the whole catalog on CD, if you’ve already got them, is probably not worth it. Instead, join in on his countdown of the top Beatles tunes, as he whips through all 200+!

Plots R’ Us
You know, in just a few weeks it will be National Novel Writing Month again. I’ll be participating, again, as I have the past two years. If you want in on the action, too (and who doesn’t?), but are having a hard time getting your imagination jump started, David Maliki has you covered. Tuesday’s edition of Wondermark (a brilliant cartoon that you really should read twice a week), he lays out the matrix for the Electro-Plasmic Hydrocephalic Genre-Fiction Generator 2000. But better yet, if you click here, you’ll get a random alignment of those things with no fuss. Why, who wouldn’t want to get started on a story like this:
Your title is: “The Steam Wars”

In an ancient medieval Europe, a young idealistic revolutionary stumbles across a magic diadem which spurs him into conflict with an army led by a sadist, with the help of a girl who's always loved him and her cleavage, culminating in a heroic sacrifice that no one will ever remember.
What are you waiting for? Get cracking!

Read a Banned Book
Next week is Banned Books Week, sadly necessary in a nation where narrow minded dipshits think that knowledge – or worse, fiction! – is a threat to health and welfare. This year, the Banned Book Week site has a nifty map of all the book challenges in 2007-2008 across the country. Sadly, there are plenty of arrows crowding the map. Even more sadly, one points to Charleston, a reminder of the school board’s kerfuffle over some Pat Conroy novels a couple of years ago. At least the good guys won that battle.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Don't Look Now . .

But progressive rock is surging on the charts! In Europe, at least:

Observant chart watchers may have noticed an unfamiliar - and unusual - name in the UK top 30 album chart this week.

Among a flurry of new entries from Peter Andre, Jay-Z, Pixie Lott and David Gray is an album by a band that has been around longer than any of them: Porcupine Tree.

Porcupine who?

Although largely unknown to mainstream audiences, the Grammy-nominated band's 10th studio album The Incident went straight in at number 23.
Not bad for an album with a 55-minute hunk of music on disc one.

And that's not all. Muse's new album (which, admittedly, has gotten mixed vibes on the prog forums) debuted at number one. It's not just the UK, either. According to this review, Polish proggers Riverside (who sound just a bit like PT, honestly) hit number one in their home country with their new album, too.

Prog even has its own eponymous monthly magazine, too, albeit a British import (available at your nearest Borders, however!).

But perhaps the most positive sign in that article:
'I have less on an issue with the word 'progressive' than I did even five years ago,' says Steven Wilson, Porcupine Tree's founder and frontman.
Yay! There's a long tradition of prog musicians slagging off the genre in general or proclaiming they're band isn't really a prog band (really Mr. Fripp? C'mon!). Nice to see someone embrace it, for once.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Welcome to Iowa! Step Out of the Car, Please

Of all the dumb ass ideas I've heard for boosting tourism, this one really takes the cake (via Volokh):

A tourism gimmick in the southeast Iowa town of Kalona is giving new meaning to the phrase three hots and a cot.

Last week the town's Chamber of Commerce and Washington County sheriff pulled over people with out-of-state license plates and offered them an all-expense paid visit -- including free meals and a night's lodging just as if they were really being arrested -- to the town of 2,300, about 20 miles southwest of Iowa City.
Thankfully, it appears that the cop got the "right" couple. If by that you mean a pair of people perhaps too flummoxed to tell a cop they didn't have "20 hours to spend with us here in Kalona." They spent the night (not in the jail), received some local goodies, and were on their way the next morning.

Which does not make it all right. Make no mistake, this bonehead move violated the Fourth Amendment's prohibition on unreasonable seizures. To make a traffic stop, a cop must have at least reasonable suspicion that some suspicious is afoot. He can't just pick random folks out for a chat. Consider that failing to stop for officer who lights you up is a crime in and of itself.

Remarkably, this isn't the first time cops have stopped the innocent for a publicity stunt. In 2007, I blogged about cops near Sacramento pulling people over to reward them for "good driver" with gift cards from Starbucks. How anything like this passes muster with the city/police force's legal department is beyond me.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Beware The Sith Lawyers

You know, Frank Zappa once said that you can't be considered a real country:

unless you have a BEER and an airline - it helps if you have some kind of a football team or some nuclear weapons, but at the very least you need a BEER.
Along similar lines, you can't be a real religion until you can complain that someone has discriminated against you because of your faith. But that measure, the Jedis have arrived.

I am absolutely not making this up. A Brit has established an official Jedi Knight religion, one that claims to be the fourth largest in the UK. Now, he's alleging that he was thrown out of a chain grocery store because of his religious headgear (via Volokh):
Tesco has been accused of religious discrimination after the company ordered the founder of a Jedi religion to remove his hood or leave a branch of the supermarket in north Wales.

Daniel Jones, founder of the religion inspired by the Star Wars films, says he was humiliated and victimised for his beliefs following the incident at a Tesco store in Bangor.

The 23-year-old, who founded the International Church of Jediism, which has 500,000 followers worldwide, was told the hood flouted store rules.
There actually is a great deal of law, in the United States anyway, about these kinds of religious accommodations. I don't know if the UK has something similar, but one wonders if Tesco has similar problems with other religious head coverings. Particularly if, as Jones claims, the hood didn't cover his face. Hard to see what's reasonable about demanding that he remove it in that case.

"But wait," you're saying, "this is a joke religion. It can't enjoy the same sort of protection as 'real' religions, can it?" Why not? It's "holy books" are a whole lot more entertaining that most religious tests, even if the, um, "new testament" kind of sucked. One thing governments should be exceptionally wary of doing is wading in to discussions of what faiths are "true." It doesn't appear that the Jedi faith was created as a means to evade some criminal law, after all. Unless a religion does, the government should keep its hands off the dogma.

But I'm under no such restriction, so I'll just say that maybe Jones needs to study his own holy books a little bit more:
Tesco said: 'He hasn't been banned. Jedis are very welcome to shop in our stores although we would ask them to remove their hoods.

'Obi-Wan Kenobi, Yoda and Luke Skywalker all appeared hoodless without ever going over to the Dark Side and we are only aware of the Emperor as one who never removed his hood.
Pwned, as the kids say. Jones does deserve bonus points for being from Holyhead (no kidding) and starting his own religion, tho'.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Gonna Be Some Changes Made

I've been writing this blog for more than five years, during which I've made over 3000 posts. I say that not to toot my own horn, but to show just how much time I've spent writing this thing over the years. As a result, sometimes the blogging crowds out my other creative outlets, sapping what you might call my precious creative fluids. At least, that's the excuse I've come up with for my sluggish "progress" in other areas.

The upshot of this realization is that I've decided to greatly slow the pace of things here at the Ranch in order to (hopefully) concentrate on some other writing. Rather than post up anything that strikes my fancy - several different things, on a good day - starting Monday, I'm going to confine myself to one post a day. Try to contain your grief, dear reader(s)!

This will do a couple of things, I hope. One, the (fewer) posts that show up here at the Ranch will be more substantive, with fewer "holy shit, will you look at this" one-line posts. Two, I'll have more time in those hours between work and dinner (when my motivation to do much of anything disappears completely) to work on fiction and such and get some stuff done in that area.

Wish me luck - and keep reading!

Friday, September 18, 2009

Ten Long Years (Part 1)

This month marks a pair of ten-year anniversaries in my life. Later this month will mark ten years since I was sworn in as a member of the West Virginia bar (yeah, there'll be a post about that when the time comes). But tomorrow it will be ten years since I ran my first autocross. So let's take a trip down memory lane, shall we?

I started autocrossing about a month after my brother, Scott, finally bit the bullet and started himself. I was living in Beckley at the time, which meant driving an hour or so to Charleston to actually get to an event. I've since driven much farther to autocross (and do other things), but looking back on it, I'm kind of surprised I mustered up the enthusiasm to make the trek.

It's not as if I had the perfect autocross car sitting in the parking lot of my apartment complex. While I was in law school, I got my first car (actually in my name and everything), a Ford Escort LX. It was a fine piece of basic transportation, but it wasn't exactly what I'd call a "sporty" car. I was a 5-speed, at least, so that sort of made me feel like I was doing something.

That first event was in a parking lot attached to the Capitol Complex in Charleston, across the street from then Laidley Field. It's a small lot, even by our standards (we don't run there anymore), but it was big enough. I didn't finish DFL (54th out of 59, but still!) and, more importantly, I was hooked on autocross. How much? I was back a couple of weeks later for a benefit event and have been a regular ever since. Legal Eagle Racing was born!

I tried to make the Escort a little more appropriate for autocross, installing a low budget set of dampers and getting my first set of "stickies" (DOT approved R compound tires), which lived in my dining room between events. They confounded my local tire installers in Beckley - they wondered if I paid full price for tires with such little tread! Here's a picture of the Escort in max autocross prep:

Here's another one, more of a close up. As you can see, from early on, I've used magnets and such to at least try and make things look "racy." For all its faults, the Escort did deliver me my first win:

Hooked on the sport, and saddled with an Escort, I started looking around for a more suitable car. This would become a theme in my life - I tend to get a wandering automotive eye after I've lived with a car for a couple of years. The answer, at least at that time, was to get a second car to use for autocross.

I found a Honda CRX on the local dealer's used lot (I'd moved back to Charleston by this time) that I ran for a while. CRXes are great cars - small, nimble, only two seats - but I got wrong variant. I was hopelessly outgunned in terms of horsepower. Still, it was fun to build a car up, to a certain extent:

Eventually, the two car thing got too difficult to manage (another recurring theme) and I traded both the Escort and the CRX in on a Nissan Sentra SE. It was a great double duty car. It started out prepped for SCCA's "Stock" class, complete with a set of those sticky tires:

In that configuration, the Sentra won me my first class championship in 2003.

The urge to tinker got the better of me, so I modded the car a little more and went chasing after my brother in STS. Here's a pic of that configuration from an event in Virginia:

And another from Riverside High School, our current regular venue:

Again, I had the wrong tool for the job, as the Sentra was just too hefty for that class (weight is a killer in autocross). That meant I went back to looking for a second car, something autocross specific. I wound up with a red Dodge Neon that I bought from one of the other guys in my region.

It was rough, raw, and unrefined compared to the Sentra (I named it "Cletis," both in honor of the Slacked Jawed Yokel and Clint Mathis) and I never really took to it.

After a little more than a year, I sold it to yet another guy in the region, who then again sold it on to somebody from the Carolinas. It blew up in the middle of its first event down there, IIRC.

Back to a one car family, I was driving down the highway and saw this, propped up on a corner display at a local dealership:

I had really liked this version of the Civic Si when I bought the Sentra, but I couldn't afford a new one at the time. But used? Hey, why not? It was only gently used, to boot, with about 1300 miles on it. The story I was told, anyway, was that I guy bought it new on a whim, brought it home, and the wife threw a fit, so he had to sell it right away.

Yes, it looks an awful lot like Honda's Odyssey minivan of the same era. Thus, it was dubbed by my competitors "The Minivan (tm)." Fair enough, but once it was prepped . . .

. . . it was quite a car. In "Stock" trim, that car took me to four trophies in 2006 - a class championship, the SWVR's overall index championship, and two SWVR trophies handed out every year to the region's "best" driver (based on some very esoteric mathematics, I have to admit).

For all that success, I was also deeply humbled that year. I took the car to a SCCA Solo National Tour event in Peru, Indiana, one of the dozen or so events leading up to the Solo Nationals every year. On a much bigger course than I was used to, I got absolutely spanked, finishing last in class (although not DFL, thankfully). Things were bound to be tough when I had trouble getting the Tire Rack windshield banner on right:

The next year, my automotive eye started to wander, again. I wasn't sure what I wanted to do - go back to a two-car setup, get something completely different, etc. - until I was killing time before a Marshall-WVU football game and spied this on a local lot:

I was curious about Mazdaspeed3s, having read the rave reviews. A quick test drive (and I mean quick!) and I had such a big-assed smile on my face I knew I had to have it. It's been my ride and race car ever since, in basically dead stock form:

Even like that, it helped me capture the Street Tire Challenge class in the Steel Cities Region last year. And it does look good at speed:

So what have I learned over ten years of autocross? That I'm a pretty good local driver, but that I've neither the technical know how nor commitment to compete at a higher level. I'll go back to a National Tour event, and hopefully to Nationals, at some point, but not with any real hope of winning anything. And even locally, there are lots of people who I'll be chasing for a very long time.

The more important thing, though, is that I've had a lot of fun over the last decade doing this. Generally, the people involved in this sport are great, friendly, helpful people. It's a tight knit community, both locally and nationally, that I'm proud to be a part of. Big thanks to everyone who's ever helped me out and freely provided some advice on how to be a quicker driver.

Plus, where else can you go out and screech around in your car like a loon?

Thursday, September 17, 2009


I’m wondering if I was the only person in the country this week to walk out of a CD store with both the new Porcupine Tree opus, The Incident, and the new Bruce Hornsby album, Levitate, under my arm? I can’t imagine there’s a lot of overlap between those two fan bases.

Of All the People

If you were going to embark on a scheme to impersonate a public official, why on Earth would it be Joe Manchin? Why not go for someone that, I don’t know, people actually like?

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Curiouser and Curiouser

Over at his New York Times blog, Stanley Fish does something I've never really seen before - he goes after curiosity as a character trait. The jumping off point is a speech given by the National Endowment for the Humanities at the University of Virginia recently that asked whether that institution's founder would have valued curiosity as part of the inalienable right to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." Fish isn't buying:

This sounds right, even patriotic, but there is another tradition in which, far from being the guarantor of a better future, curiosity is a vice and even a sin. Indeed, it has often been considered the original sin.
Oh, wait, I see where this is going. Curiosity means wanting to see behind the curtain when confronting the Wizard of Oz, perhaps to discover a mere mortal lurks behind if, indeed, anything does. In short, curiosity is anathema to dogma Sure enough, the anti-curiosity crusaders tend to be religious thinkers, although the same applies to political ideologues as well.

Fish's argument reminds be of a book I read during law school by Roger Shattuk called Forbidden Knowledge: From Prometheus to Pornography. The book traces the history of the idea that there are certain things that man is just not meant to know. The inference of what this means for society is that some form of censorship is a good thing, as it keeps the unwashed masses from having to wrangle with this information. Curiosity, to return to Fish's piece, must be reigned in for the common good.

Even assuming the premise is accurate, here's the problem - who gets to decide what is and isn't fit for mass consumption? Some group of elites, I guess, but why should we assume they would exercise their authority in a truly benevolent way? Doesn't history show us that they would label information dangerous to their hold on power as "forbidden"? From that power, all other tyranny follows. That's why something like the First Amendment must be kept robust and allow all of us - the masses, the elites, whomever - to examine things for ourselves and come to our own conclusions.

On a much less grand scale, I can't imagine going through life without being curious about the world around you. No, the truth won't always make you happy, but it will set you free. Someone who isn't curious about the world is either unbelievably arrogant enough to think they know it all or they might as well be dead inside.

Another Banner Day for Texas "Justice"

One would think that discovering that the judge who presided over your murder trial was having an affair with the man who prosecuted you (and put you on death row) would be pretty solid grounds for a do over. Not in Texas, thanks to a feat of judicial formalism overwhelming all else (via Crime & Federalism):

The question of whether a romantic relationship between a judge and prosecutor is unfair won't be decided by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.

The issue in the capital murder case of Charles Dean Hood roiled the legal community last summer, but the Court ruled Wednesday it would not consider the issue because defense attorneys did not raise it initially.

* * *

Hood is on death row for the 1989 robbery and murder of Ronald Williamson and Tracie Lynn Wallace in Plano. His attorneys had tried to explore the issue of whether the relationship between judge and prosecutor had affected the trial for years but had little except rumors.

Then a few weeks before Hood's June 2008 execution date, a former assistant district attorney filed an affidavit indicating he was aware of the relationship.

In September 2008, Hood's attorneys finally got the proof they needed by forcing depositions from the two parties under a civil procedure. At that time, Holland and O'Connell admitted to having a sexual relationship before Hood's trial, which had not been revealed to the defense at trial or during years of appeals.
I understand the principles behind issue preclusion and "raise or waive" rules, but we're not talking about a clever legal argument here. We're talking about a clandestine affair that - guess what? - wasn't known until years after trial. Notice that once some evidence came out, Hood's lawyers scrambled to prove the allegations.

The lower court judge, which had ordered Hood's case to go forward, said the state's "hands are unclean." No kidding. When the executive and the judicial branches are sharing pillow talk at night while one of them's trying to get you sent to death row, that's pretty damn shameful. What can you expect from Texas?

If Virginia Is for Lovers . . .

. . . then apparently Denmark is for anonymous hook ups? That appears to be the message, believe it or not, of a Danish tourism advertisement, highlighted by the BBC:

A video promoting tourism in Denmark has been removed from YouTube after complaints it promoted promiscuity.

* * *

In the advert, the woman says - in English - that she was 'trying to find August's father'.

'We met one night a year and a half ago when you were on vacation here in Denmark.

'We met... and then decided to have a drink and, yeah, it's really embarrassing but it's more or less what I remember.

'I don't remember where you're from or even your name.'
Not surprisingly, even many of the normally relaxed Danes weren't pleased with the spot or the image of their country it presented.

To her credit, the head of the tourism board has a pretty good explanation:
Ms Kiilerich said she regretted any offence the video may have caused, but the intent had been to tell "a nice and sweet story about a grown-up woman who lives in a free society and accepts the consequences of her actions".
What a novel concept.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Help Some Orphans

K's friend Julie is on the Board of Advisors of the Ascent Russian Orphan Aid Foundation, an organization:

that spends 100% of donations to provide basic necessities such as food, clothing and shelter to orphans and homeless children living in the former Soviet Bloc countries.
I wanted to pass along its latest fund raising effort, from their latest newsletter:
We have been offered a challenge grant by ! Torez Special Needs Orphanage in Ukraine is home to over three hundred children living with many types of disabilities. With $10,907.50 Ascent can purchase some desperately needed therapy equipment for the orphans. is willing to give us half that amount, if we can raise the additional $5,453.75 by October 31st.

As a challenge grant the offer is only on the table until October 31st 2009! Please help us to reach this goal for the children of Torez. A donation of any size will make a difference!
You can get more information and make a contribution here. Let's do this!

Building Coalitions

In general, I’m a fan of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a non-proft (or “non-prophet”, as they say) organization dedicated to maintaining the separation of church and state. But I think they’ve committed a strategic blunder, one that’s emblematic of the way some atheists miss the political realities of the world.

Over the summer, FFRF bought a series of ads across the country, usually on the sides of buses, with quotes from famous nonbelievers about why they didn’t believe: Mark Twain, Clarence Darrow, etc.. The quotes aren’t really vicious, but they certainly call out religion as the kind of fairy tale most atheists think it is. Confrontation, I guess would be the description, but in a very mild way.

A couple of months ago, FFRF took all the quotes and put them together in a full-age ad taken out in UU World, the magazine of the Uniterian Universalist church. Not surprisingly, this provoked some angry letters in the next issue, which included a message from the magazine’s editor that the decision to run the ad was a mistake and no more FFRF ads would run.

Seems fair enough. I agree with the analysis here, rather than this one, that it’s perfectly acceptable for a religious organization (which, for all the talk about inclusiveness, the UUC is) to decide not to accept ads criticizing religion in their publication. You wouldn’t expect the NAACP to run a recruiting ad for the Klan in their monthly magazine, would you? But I think that both of those arguments misses a major point – the FFRF ad was a bad decision from a political and PR standpoint.

Although the numbers of atheists, agnostics, and otherwise unaffiliated nonbelievers has grown over the years, we still are a very very small minority in the American population. That’s true for American politics, as well, where even the most liberal of politicians has to prove his or her religious bona fides to get elected.

There’s just no way nonbelievers as a group can get a seat at the political table unless we have allies – liberal religious folks who understand the threat that an eroding wall of separation poses to the religious as well as the non-religious. Well, you can’t get much more liberal than the UUC. It makes much more sense, if you’re going to reach out to a group like that, to say, “hey, we don’t see eye to eye on some things, but we all agree that fundamentalists running things are no good for either of us – let’s join forces.” Instead, FFRF just stuck a finger in their eye and, legitimately, pissed them off.

In the current climate, the focus of nonbelievers should be on building coalitions against common foes, not some sort of misguided ideological purity. Conversions are what the other guys do, remember? Let's leave it to them.


Something the President says that we can all get behind - Democrat or Republican, independent or dependent, communist or fascist: Kanye West is an asshole (via Volokh)!

Must suck to get dissed by the Pres, huh Kanye? Oh well, you'll always have fish sticks.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Take That, You Whippersnappers

Does anybody here remember Vera Lynn?
- Roger Waters
With the release of their entire catalog in remastered form last week, you'd expect that The Beatles would top the charts, for a week at least. Not so fast (via):
Dame Vera Lynn beat The Beatles and other artists to top the British charts on Sunday, and become the oldest living singer to have a number one hit album, at the age of 92.

* * *

'We'll Meet Again -- The Very Best Of Vera Lynn', a compilation of 24 of her best-loved recordings, has been rising through the charts, 70 years on since she recorded the title track.
Don't shed too many tears for the (remaining) lads from Liverpool, tho'. They still notched numbers five (Sgt. Pepper's . . .), six (Abbey Road), nine (Revolver), and ten (Rubber Soul), anyway.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Well, That Sucks

The engine that drove one of my favorite bands has been forced into retirement:

Phil Collins today revealed he will never drum again because he is suffering from a painful spine injury.

The former Genesis star can't even hold his sticks after years of sitting in front of a drumkit.

'My vertebrae have been crushing my spinal cord because of the position I drum in.

It comes from years of playing. I can't even hold the sticks properly without it being painful, I even used to tape the sticks to my hands to get through.'
For all the crap that Phil gets (rightly or wrongly) from fans of old school Genesis for his pop success and the band's later years, you can't deny that he was a monster drummer. Listen to the old Genesis albums, his work with Brand X, or any of the numerous quasi-session gigs he's done and see for yourself.

Friday, September 11, 2009

What He Said, Too

I missed Obama’s big health care speech the other night – the whole thing’s been so watered down that I’ve got little interest, plus we were playing T&T at the time – so I missed the outburst from a GOPer Rep from South Carolina when he blurted out “you lie!” It’s been hard to miss the press coverage of the aftermath, tho’, which would be amusing if it weren’t so pathetic. I agree with Glenn Greenwald’s take (via TalkLeft):

Eugene Robinson today absurdly calls the GOP's disrespectful behavior at Obama's speech 'un-American.' Right-wing contempt for Obama is often petty, deeply emotional and ugly -- just like right-wing leaders themselves. But the demand that the President be venerated and treated as royalty is far more 'un-American' than disruptive transgressions of etiquette. Wilson's heckling was juvenile and dumb, but that's all it was. If only a fraction of the media dismay devoted to his two-second breach of 'decorum' had been directed to, say, rampant presidential lawbreaking, or the implementation of a torture regime, or the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of people in our various wars, we would be much better off. The American Right is indeed dominated by crazed extremists who often seem barely in touch with basic reality and who are at war with core American political values, but Joe Wilson's irreverence is one of the least significant examples of that, if it's one at all.
I’ll trade civility in favor of the truth any day of the week. Let’s move on to something important, shall we?

What He Said

I’ve blogged before about how the restrictive residency regulations for sex offenders sometimes leaves released offenders with no place to live in towns or counties. In one instance, folks have been forced to live under a bridge. Radley Balko at Reason points out that now even that is ticking some tough on crime people off. I agree with him completely when he says:

Look, I have no sympathy for child rapists. Or regular rapists, for that matter. But this is insane. If you don’t want these people getting out of prison, change the sentencing laws. But don’t let them out, then zone them out of civilization to the point where they’re forced to live under bridges, then complain that they’re congregating under bridges.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Whatles?

Unless you've been living under a rock for the past month, or so, you know that another wave of Beatlemania is sweeping the globe. Not only do the Fab Four get their own installment of Rock Band, but EMI has finally released their entire catalog in remastered form (in stereo and mono, to boot). The Onion A.V. Club has an appropriately humorous look at the set.

Meanwhile, the BBC is diving into its archives for a collection of "classic and curious" Beatles covers. I had no idea Joe Cocker's "friends" included Jimmy Page and Steve Winwood. In that spirit, here's one of my favorite Beatles covers, decidedly not from the BBC vaults:

George provided backup for that track, so he must have approved!

Two to Go

The finishing line is in sight for qualifying for next year's World Cup finals in South Africa. Several teams booked their spots yesterday (Spain and England, most notably), but the situation in CONCACAF is far from settled.

Of the six teams in the final round of qualifying, only Trinidad & Tobago has no hopes of making it to South Africa. After scraping out wins over El Salvador (2-1) and at T&T (1-0), the United States is back on top of the group, but only barely:

The United States (5-2-1) leads the final round of North and Central American and Caribbean qualifying with 16 points, one ahead of Mexico (5-3), three in front of Honduras (4-3-1) and four ahead Costa Rica (4-4). The results of Wednesday's other two games helped the Americans, with Mexico beating visiting Honduras 1-0 and Costa Rica losing 1-0 at El Salvador.
Our remaining matches are on the road against Guatemala and in DC against Costa Rica, neither of which will be easy. At the very least, we're assured of fourth place in the group and a playoff against the fifth place team from South America (which right now would be Argentina, who are really fighting for their lives), but that's not really what we want. At this point, I wouldn't be surprised if we either won the group of scratched through to the playoff.

Why I Love Wikipedia

Part of my daily web rounds include stopping by Wikipedia, as they always have some neat stuff on their front page. Where else would I ever hear about Mike the Headless Chicken, who survived for 18 months after his farmer owner tried to cut his head off (to serve him to his mother-in-law). Mike toured the freak show circuit until he finally died. Sadly, without his head:

A pickled chicken head was also on display with Mike, but this was not Mike's original head, as a cat had already eaten it.
My life is richer for knowing this!

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Actually Innocent? Sure Looks Like it

In the debate over the death penalty, perhaps the most perverse Holy Grail that has been pursued is proof that an innocent person has actually been executed. Such a clear injustice would surely sway some hearts and minds to the side of abolition. It’s not enough that hundreds of people have been exonerated from death row before their execution could be carried out. Since they got out, eventually, pro-death penalty advocates say those are examples of the system working, not failing. And let’s forget about potential historical examples and concentrate on the here and now – in the modern United States, the land of constitutionalized criminal procedure and seemingly endless appeals, has a state ever gotten it completely wrong?

Increasingly, it’s looking like one state has. To nobody’s great surprise, it’s Texas.

In 2004, Texas executed Cameron Willingham, who had previously been convicted of murdering his three children. They died when the family home burned down just before Christmas 1991. The linchpin of the state's case against Willingham was the conclusion of state fire investigators that the fire was arson, rather than accidental. That conclusion not only provided the "how" of the crime, but caused many witnesses to change their perception of Willingham's behavior during and after the fire. For a good run down on the case and prosecution, see David Grann's recent in-depth article in the New Yorker.

Willingham went to his death proclaiming his innocence (alleged jail house confession to a snitch of questionable mental health aside). What makes his case more notable than similar claims is that several fire investigation experts have reviewed the evidence in the case and concluded that the fire was an accident. Most recently, a state-procurred report from an expert laid waste to the trial evidence:

The state fire marshal on the case, Beyler concluded in his report, had 'limited understanding' of fire science. The fire marshal 'seems to be wholly without any realistic understanding of fires and how fire injuries are created,' he wrote.

The marshal's findings, he added, 'are nothing more than a collection of personal beliefs that have nothing to do with science-based fire investigation.'
In other words, this isn't a "he didn't do it" case. It's a "nothing was done" case. There was no crime for which anybody should have been convicted.

Will this be enough for the state to admit it got this one wrong? The prosecutor, who has moved on to become a judge (of course), isn't conceding a mistake, even though he admits the arson conclusion is "undeniably flawed." Instead, he throws out a host of irrelevant and stretched facts (see Grann's response) in an effort to invoke what an old boss of mine called the "Dirty Bastard Rule" - in other words, Willingham was a son of a bitch and we're better off without him on this Earth, guilt of this crime be damned.

It's interesting that the developments in Willingham's case are flaring up right now. Last month the Supreme Court garnered a lot of attention for indicating that the Constitution may prohibit the execution of someone who is actually Innocent of the crime. Troy Davis may prove (or disprove, if you prefer) his case and break new ground on that issue. But it will come too late for Willingham.

Which is one of the key problems with the death penalty - there are no do overs or makeups if things go wrong. Is it good enough that the system gets it right most of the time? What was once a more theoretical issue can no longer be put off to another day. That day is here.

This Will Piss Some Folks Off

British writer Phillip Pullman, who threw a whole lot of fundies into a tizzy with the His Dark Materials series, has a new project that's bound to push them over the edge again:

He enraged America's religious right with his portrayal of God as a senile old man in the His Dark Materials trilogy, and now Philip Pullman is set to court more Christian controversy – this time with a novel about 'the Scoundrel Christ'.

The book will provide a new account of the life of Jesus, challenging the gospels and arguing that the version in the New Testament was shaped by the apostle Paul. 'By the time the gospels were being written, Paul had already begun to transform the story of Jesus into something altogether new and extraordinary, and some of his version influenced what the gospel writers put in theirs,' said Pullman . . .
The book is part of a series of authors retelling myths from different perspectives. I'm sure the Greeks won't go nuts about retellings of The Odyssey or the myth of Prometheus, but I wonder what the Bible thumpers will think of Pullman's work. Not like a fictional work about Jesus has ever caused controversy before, right?

Better Late Than Never (Again)

Yesterday, I talked about how the New York Times played a part in the partisan wrangling between competing "discoverers" of the North Pole. Poking around today, I did find that the Times did eventually issue a correction - 79 years later. I guess they had better things to do.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

The Annoyance of Imposed Salvation

Tell the men and messengers
Salvation is my own affair
- finneus gauge, "Salvation"
I have a collection of "words of wisdom" tacked to a filing cabinet in my office.* The first one, from Frank Zappa, goes like this:
Anybody who wants religion is welcome to it, as far as I’m concerned – I support your right to enjoy it. However, I would appreciate it if you exhibited more respect for the rights of those people who do not wish to share your dogma, rapture or necrodestination.
That's a hard position to argue with. At the end of the day, all many of us want is to be "let alone," which, as Justice Brandeis put it, is "the most comprehensive of rights and the right most valued by civilized men." That's why it rubs me so the wrong way when over zealous Christians, driven by the commands of their faith to spread the "word" and save us sinners, run around doing press gang salvations. With kids, no less.

Take, for instance, this example, from USA Today (via Kos):
A mother is angry about a trip led by the head football coach at Breckinridge County [Kentucky] High School. The coach took about 20 players on a school bus late last month to his church, where nearly half of them — including her son — were baptized.

Michelle Ammons said her 16-year-old son was baptized without her knowledge and consent, and she is upset that a public school bus was used to take players to a church service — and that the school district's superintendent was there and did not object.
It's unclear whether the coach was up front with others about whether the meeting would include only an "inspirational" speaker and a meal or was going to be a "revival" and how "voluntary" the whole thing was. Regardless, one wonders what salvation has to due with football in the first place (Touchdown Jesus and the Immaculate Reception aside, of course).

Lest you think that Ammons is one of us wild-eyed non-believers:
Ammons, who lives in Big Spring, said that she is a Baptist but her husband, Danny, is Catholic, and that both feel like their son should wait until he is 18 to make important decisions on religion.

'We felt he was brainwashed,' she said.

* * *

'They have no right to take my son on a school bus across county lines to be a church to be baptized,' she said.
One wonders how all those apoplectic souls who were up in arms about Obama's big speech today feel about something like this? My guess is they're not all concerned (it's all for the "good" after all).

That story called to mind something that PZ uncovered over at the Answers in Genesis web site (the loons responsible for the Creation "Museum"). It's a testimonial from two believers who hosted an exchange student from France, an agnostic. In joyful tones, they tell how they turned the girl to Christ, admitting that, when it came to going to their church "we didn't really give much of an opportunity for her not to agree." What gracious hosts!

Even if that story is true (which I find kind of unlikely), it's revealing that someone would still think is says something positive about them. That they took in a child from another country and saw it as an opportunity for conversion, rather than cultural education and exchange. Can you imagine the absolute furor that would develop in this country if a young Christian student went overseas and came home an atheist or agnostic? And it would be justified.

The bottom line is this - folks are free to believe whatever they want to believe. And they're free to discuss what they believe to anyone who is actually curious about what they have to say. Go knock on doors, or what have you. No problem there. It should go without saying, however, that captive audiences - of kids, in particular - are off limits.

Just remember that, as Uncle Frank said, we don't all share your dogma, nor do we have to. And as Uncle Louis said, some folks just want to be let alone. Be a decent human being, rather than a zealous salesman, and respect those wishes.

* If you're curious, the others are from Matt Groening (about Frank Zappa), John Adams (decidedly not about Frank Zappa), and former WVSC Justice "Dandy" Dick Neely, who said once that "the entire criminal law system most often boils down to the powerful state with all its weapons – police, prosecutors, courts, prisons, and probation officers – going after poor, uneducated, stupid folks." That's from his dissent in State v. Rummer, 432 S.E.2d 39, 55 (1993).

Tales from the Land of DIY

I came across a couple of stories today of folks taking a home grown approach in areas you might not imagine, with varying degrees of interference from the government. One is thriving thanks to Federal regulatory largess, while the other operates under the specter of rarely enforced Federal criminal law.

From the New York Times comes the story of KXZI radio, which broadcasts from a front porch in Montana. No kidding:

[Scott] Johnston’s antenna, out by the big cottonwood trees that line the road, is not as fortified as it might be either. Unsupported by wires, it sways in the wind, so that when a storm front strikes northwest Montana, the station’s signal fluctuates. And even in the best of times, 100 watts go only so far — the music cannot be heard even in nearby homes because the signal does not penetrate walls very well.

Mainstream media it is not.
KXZI, which is also available online, is one of about 800 low-power radio stations created during a lull in FCC regulations to try and stimulate some competition in the increasingly integrated radio market. Not that Johnston and KXZI are a threat to Clear Channel, but he does provide an outlet for "jazz, blues, folk, bluegrass and more" as long as it tickles Johnston's fancy. A new bill in Congress could double the number of low-power stations.

As someone who blog has a similarly selective appeal (ha!), I appreciate where he's coming from. Often times the only places with prog-friendly programming are Internet stations.

While Johnston and his ilk are flourishing thanks to relaxed Federal regs, another group of DIYers are engaged in a little bit of cloak and dagger. Following on from folks who make their own wine or brew their own beer, Salon reports about the resurgence of DIY booze - moonshine. The scene is flourishing - websites offer stills and folks gather to swap tips and tales - in spite of the fact that:
Distilling homemade spirits is a felony. Unlike wine or beer, which you're allowed to make at home for personal use, making any sort of untaxed spirit on an unlicensed still remains very much illegal, punishable by a federal fine of up to $10,000 and five years in jail for each offense, plus state penalties.
Indeed, my office had a case earlier this year that started off as a moonshine investigation. The largest 'shine bust in history came in 2001, not during Prohibition (or the early days of NASCAR). It is very much a crime, although one that is not high on the list of law enforcement priorities (rightly so).

Still, if you want to test your luck, there's enough in the Salon piece to point you in the right direction. I wouldn't recommend it, though. If you want to be creative with homemade alcohol, you can always brew beer in your robot.

Clinging to Dogma (Polar Edition)

Quick, who was the first man to reach the North Pole: Frederick Cook or Robert Peary? Might be a trick question as, it appears, neither man actually got there. According to this story from the New York Times, what it calls the "most successful fraud in modern science" continues to provoke debate that sounds awfully familiar, in form if not in content:

The believers who have kept writing books and mounting expeditions to vindicate Cook or Peary resemble the political partisans recently studied by psychologists and sociologists. When the facts get in the way of our beliefs, our brains are marvelously adept at dispensing with the facts.

* * *

When we contemplate contradictions in the rhetoric of the opposition party’s candidate, the rational centers of our brains are active, but contradictions from our own party’s candidate set off a different reaction: the emotional centers light up and levels of feel-good dopamine surge.

With our rational faculties muted, sometimes the unwelcome evidence doesn’t even register, and sometimes we use marvelous logic to get around the facts.
As the story makes clear, the illogic of the competing sides is stoked by the partisan media. Including the Gray Lady herself:
When Cook cabled his tale to The New York Herald, the newspaper promptly devoted its entire front page to the news: 'Fighting Famine and Ice, the Courageous Explorer Reaches the Great Goal.'

Several days later Peary cabled his claim to The Times, which had helped sponsor his expedition. The Times hailed his triumph, reporting that 'the world accepts his word without a shadow of hesitation” and quoting Peary’s denunciation of Cook as a fraud who “has simply handed the public a gold brick.'
Apart from what this says about science and psychology, it's yet another reminder that the good ol' days of "honest" and "impartial" journalism are pretty much a pipe dream. Makes for some fun reading a century after the fact, tho'.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

Chicks Make Us Dumb

Any guy can tell you that there's a peculiar brand of tongue tiedness that comes over us when we talk with women. It's not just in your head, fellas -n ow there's science to back it up (via Volokh):

The research shows men who spend even a few minutes in the company of an attractive woman perform less well in tests designed to measure brain function than those who chat to someone they do not find attractive.

Researchers who carried out the study, published in the Journal of Experimental and Social Psychology, think the reason may be that men use up so much of their brain function or 'cognitive resources' trying to impress beautiful women, they have little left for other tasks.
Sounds like something out of Seinfeld, but it's true. At least I've got a defense next time the girlfriend and I are together and I say something completely stupid. Not that she suffers from a similar deficiency:
Women, however, were not affected by chatting to a handsome man.

A Few Words

Now that I've escaped from the tangle of asphalt and blacktop that is the greater Washington, D.C., metroplex, I'd like to say a few words to the authorities who maintain that labyrinth.

First, to the Maryland State Highway Administration - thank you. The Interstates and other byways in the Maryland part of the metroplex are well signed, particularly at critical moments that could send a wary traveler off in the wrong direction if he missed an exit. And I can't blame you for the fact that everybody and their brother apparently decided to leave DC at the exact same moment yesterday. Job well done.

Second, to the Virginia Department of Transportation -


You nitwits are as bad as your counterparts in Pennsylvania! Getting in or out of town via the Commonwealth shouldn't be a game of hide and seek with road signs, off ramps, and on ramps. Here's a hint - if I can't get back on the Interstate the same direction I got off, tell me ahead of time, all right!

Yes, I was a bit frustrated. Happiness is the road my ass!