Friday, October 30, 2009

Happy Halloween!

I know it's a day early (or a day late, if you go by organized trick-or-treat dates), but here are a couple ghost stories to help mark the occasion.

The first is an oldie, but a goody, the tale of the Greenbrier Ghost. Yes, it's from Greenbrier County, West Virginia, and it's a story of murder and testimony from beyond the grave! Talk about Confrontation Clause issues.

The second is an original of mine. It does not take place in West Virginia and in fact is set in the fictional world I've created for my NaNoWriMo project this year (more on that on Monday). Enjoy:

UPDATE: Sorry, I've taken the story down for retooling and possible submission.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Yes, This

Randy Cohen writes a column, “The Ethicist”, for the New York Times Sunday Magazine. He also has a NYT blog where he hashes out ethical issues. Earlier this week he made some excellent points about religion in the public sphere, some that I think are key to one big thing so many of us non-believers would like to change. The short version is that religion, like every other idea on the planet, is subject to the rough and tumble of the marketplace of ideas. It deserves no special protection or place of privilege when it comes to ridicule, satire, or other kind of harsh criticism.

For Cohen, the issue came up both in an overwhelming response he got to a question he answered in “The Ethicist” as well as the tepid reaction to the Catholic Church’s recent olive branch to splintered Anglicans who aren’t too keen about women or homosexuals being priests. He observes:

My political beliefs, my ideas about social justice, are as deeply held as my critics’ religious beliefs, but I don’t ask them to treat me with reverence, only civility. They should not expect me to walk on tiptoe. It is not as if religious institutions occupy a precarious perch in American life. It is not the proclaimed Christian but the nonbeliever who is unelectable to high office in this era when politicians of every party and denomination make a public display of their faith.
True that. The persecution complex on display by many Christians in the country (jedi jawa had a recent example) is astounding when you consider that upwards of 75% of Americans identify at Christian and they control nearly every organ of government from the bottom up.

The First Amendment protects the free exercise of religion. It also protects freedom of speech, which means that folks get to say what they want to about the beliefs of other folks. That's how it should be. Let the best thoughts win.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Distance of History (or Not)

One of the problems with the 24-hour news cycle - and a blog in every pot, to be honest - is that we demand instant analysis of people and events as they take place. Often times we don't demur until we have some distance from the event. Distance tends to cool passions, allow factual disputes to sort themselves out, and generally let us figure out how something or someone actually impacted the world. A century and a half would seem to be enough distance, right?

Maybe not. A couple of weeks ago marked the 150th anniversary of one of the most galvanizing events in US history, John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry. Brown, already a star figure among abolitionists, and 20 of his followers stormed the United States armory in Harper's Ferry, hoping to incite a slave rebellion that would ultimately lead to the end of our "peculiar institution."

By the time Brown's raid was put down and he was hanged for various charges, the incident involved a plethora of famous or soon to be famous names. The US Marines who stormed the armory were led by Robert E. Lee, with J.E.B. Stuart among the junior officers. Virginia governor Henry Wise, who would lead a Confederate army in West Virginia in a few months time, personally led the criminal investigation. Cadets from Virginia Military Institute, including instructor soon-to-be Stonelwall Jackson, were brought in to provide security for the trial. Writers including Ralph Waldo Emerson and Victor Hugo took up Brown's cause. Even John Wilkes Booth was involved, posing as a militiaman so he could witness the execution.

Given all that I suppose it's not surprising that two separate exhibitions about Brown can yield such different perspectives:

The two exhibitions are also subtly different, reflecting in some respects contrasts that have their origins in the controversies of that earlier era. In New York 'John Brown: The Abolitionist and His Legacy,' developed by James G. Basker, president of the Gilder Lehrman Institute, and others, states its goal from the start: to examine 'John Brown’s beliefs and actions in the context of growing national divisions over slavery in the 1850s.'

* * *

In Richmond in 'The Portent: John Brown’s Raid in American Memory,' something quite different happens. In the South Brown was condemned not only for his abolitionist views but also because he tapped into latent fears of a slave rebellion. Now, of course, the curators, the historians William M. S. Rasmussen and Robert S. Tilton, take the virtues of Brown’s abolitionist cause for granted; indeed, the last part of the exhibition is devoted to a series of 22 schematic, affecting prints of Brown’s life and his martyrdom by the artist Jacob Lawrence (based on his 1941 paintings). Melville’s 1859 poem 'The Portent,' about Brown’s hanging, gives the show its title, presciently calling Brown a metaphysical herald, a “meteor of the war” that was about to begin.

But in Richmond abolition is not the theme; Brown’s tactics are. And we can hear the clamor of the debate more clearly. As the show points out, Brown’s virtue was not always so transparent, even in the North.
Not that either perspective is "right" to the point of the other being "wrong." History is too complex to ignore either the world that gave rise to Brown or the methods he used in pursuit of his goal. Maybe even 150 years is too close.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Oh, Rush

You know, it's funny enough when Rush Limbaugh gets punk'd by a prank. It's a whole 'nother level of funny when he tries to defend himself.

Last Friday, Rush stumbled upon a hot and juicy exclusive - Obama's college thesis, in which he wrote:

'While political freedom is supposedly a cornerstone of the document, the distribution of wealth is not even mentioned,' read the fake report on Obama's Columbia University thesis, referring to the Constitution. 'While many believed that the new Constitution gave them liberty, it instead fitted them with the shackles of hypocrisy.'

Limbaugh went off on his show.

'So here is who we have as our president of the United States: an anti-constitutionalist man who finds it an obstacle and is finding ways around it on purpose, unconstitutionally,' Limbaugh said.
The fires were stoked, according to Limbaugh, because someone at Time had this story for months and was sitting on it. The outrage! The injustice! The spittle flecked rant!

One problem - it was all a hoax, which Rush fell for hook line and sinker.

Which is funny enough. But what's really revealing is how Rush handled the news:
Later in the program, Limbaugh learned the report was a fake and alerted his listeners. But he insisted the fabricated thesis was still in line with what the president thinks, the New York Daily news reported.

'So I shout from the mountaintops: 'It was satire!'' Limbaugh said on the program. 'But we know he (Obama) thinks it. Good comedy, to be comedy, must contain an element of truth, and we know how he feels about distribution of wealth.'
In other words, the important thing is what Rush thinks about Obama, not the actual truth of the matter. That's particularly ironic, coming from Rush.

Remember the dust up when he was booted out of the group looking to buy into the St. Louis Rams a couple of weeks back? Turns out that several of the racist statements attributed to Rush, some of which were picked up by the mainstream media, were hoaxes themselves. Rush fans were outraged. Turns out, all that outrage was wasted, as Rush has now shown that what someone actually says isn't important, it's what we think they said (or really think) that's important.

Thanks for clearing that up, Rush!

Monday, October 26, 2009

Colbert on the Cross

Yeah, well, OK, not exactly "on the cross," but rather pontificating about the case I blogged about a couple of weeks ago:

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
The Word - Symbol-Minded
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical HumorMichael Moore

As usual, Stephen cuts right to the heart of things in his own special way.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Let's Go Mountaineers!

Yeah, so the whole couch burning thing in Morgantown is not cool, but this is funny as hell:

Friday, October 23, 2009

Who Builds Stuff, Then?

It’s been a good year for Ayn Rand, aside from the fact that she’s still dead. Her books shot up the best seller charts at Amazon over the summer as the Tea Party brigade embraced her as an icon. A new biography of Rand is also developing a lot of buzz. That’s the jumping off point for a couple of posts over at The Volokh Conspiracy about Rand’s influence. One claim about her, in particular, from a post by David Bernstein, caught my eye. Among her accomplishments:

First, and as is most evident in Atlas Shrugged, Rand turns Marxism on its head. While Marxists argue that ‘capitalists’ make their profits on the backs of the working class, Rand illustrates that the working class, as such, makes almost no contribution to wealth, but relies on the efforts, risks, sacrifices, and most of all the genius of the entrepreneurial class.
I’ll admit, I’ve not deeply read Rand’s stuff, but I’ve read a bit and have the general feeling that Bernstein is right in describing her position. If so, it buckles and falls under the weight of what should be an obvious question:

Who builds stuff, then?

Really, all the great minds producing brilliant ideas aren’t going to amount to a hill of beans without somebody, usually further down the socio-economic ladder, to actually put those ideas into action. It seems so obvious.

Consider, for example, Howard Roark, the hero of Rand’s The Fountainhead (made into a major motion picture that would go on to be sampled on the first echolyn album!). Roark is a cutting edge architect, in the mold of Frank Lloyd Wright, whose demand to do things his way and without compromise keep him from popular success. Brilliant as Roark is (until he turns into a domestic terrorist, at least) and as boundary pushing as his designs might be, they only exist on paper. To bring them to fruition, he needs to enlist the working class – many of them even union members! – to build the actual buildings.

What’s lost in Rand’s philosophy is that without the working class, the idea people are essentially useless. Without both groups being healthy, the other suffers. That, at least partly, is the underlying them of Michael Moore’s latest screed, Capitalism: A Love Story. It’s not just that the rich get richer, it’s that the gap between rich and poor has widened to such a point that the symbiotic relationship between the upper and lower classes is on the verge of collapse.

For another, less political, example, look at major league sports. Sports in the United States, especially the powerhouse National Football League, is all about socialism. Think about it. Teams share wealth, not just commonly generated stuff like TV revenues but actual ticket revenue (as I understand it). The worst teams this year get the first crack and the top draft choices next year. Parity is praised because it keeps more teams in the hunt for the playoffs and the Super Bowl further and further into the season. That’s good for everybody, ‘cause it keeps more eyes on the TV and more butts in seats.

Compare that to major soccer leagues in Europe. They are cutthroat exercises in pure capitalism, in comparison. At the top, the same handful of big clubs make and spend the majority of the money and win the hardware. The only way the status quo gets upset is when some fabulously wealthy person buys a club and spends an obscene amount of money to reach the top (see, e.g., Chelsea and, maybe, Manchester City in England). Meanwhile, at the bottom the worst teams in each league get sent to the minors. Sure, the best teams in the minors get promoted, but most of the time they lack the resources to compete with the big boys and drop right back down.

What the big clubs in Europe are starting to realize is that the status quo isn’t going to last forever. The Manchester Uniteds and AC Milans of the world need other teams to play through the season. Small fries with no budget, no players, and no hope don’t exactly inspire enthusiasm amongst the fanbase. They’re starting to realize what the NFL figured out a long time ago – everybody prospers when the league as a whole prospers, so some reigns on individual teams are necessary.

So where does that leave Rand and her philosophy, at least what I know about it? Like other strains of libertarianism, it makes some sense as a starting point and has some fine principles to use as guideposts. But it tends to break down upon interaction with the real world, where we can’t just reset everyone’s position in life to nul and allow the best and brightest to thrive (and the rest to scrounge). As a thought experiment, kind of tantalizing. As dogma, not so much.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Quick Hits

A few blurbs of interest from here and there.

More Legislative Tomfoolery
Children, er, politicians not playing well together continues apace, this time in Connecticut, where the state GOP created a bunch of fake Twitter accounts in the names of Democratic legislators. The scheme was shot down when Twitter was notified, as the fake accounts violated their terms of service. Amazingly enough, the GOPer state chairman has the chutzpah to complain about Twitter’s trampling of “free speech.” No wonder they’ve got less weight in state politics there than even in West Virginia.

Cover Thy Shame (or Else)
From time to time, we all wander around the house naked as a jaybird, right? C’mon, admit it. Did you ever imagine it could be criminal? Maybe so, if you happen to live in Springfield, Virginia and a sensitive soul, and her sensitive offspring, happen to catch a glimpse through an open window while walking through your yard. Reason has all the links and details.

A History of Hoaxes
With the saga of Balloon Boy winding down, it’s worth remembering that this is far from the first time that the media has been taken in by a clever (or not so clever) hoax. Heck, there’s a long tradition of it, as this post at The Morning Delivery sets forth, some of it even including balloons:

On April 13, 1844, Edgar Allan Poe wrote an article in The New York Sun, chronicling how Monck Mason, leaving England for Paris drifted off course and had traveled across the Atlantic in three days, landing safely on Sullivan’s Island near Charleston South Carolina, while riding an 'egg-shaped gas-filled balloon', named the Victoria.

The story caused such a stir that an excited mob quickly gathered outside of the editorial offices of the Sun, hoping to land a copy of the historic edition. Not until two days later did the New York daily publish a correction, noting the story was pure fiction. The published correction read: 'We are inclined to believe the intelligence is erroneous.'
What’s interesting to me is that the post leaves out another famous hoax involving the New York Sun, the great “Moon Hoax” of 1835. Long story short, the paper published a series of articles, themselves alleged reprints from a Scottish journal (that had since gone out of business), detailing the discovery of life on the Moon. It was wildly popular and helped cement the Sun as the city’s largest daily paper. For an entertaining account of the whole affair, I highly recommend The Sun and the Moon, by Mathew Goodman.

Speaking of hoaxes, could one of the most notorious incidents in recent West Virginia history be on the same level as Balloon Boy? In 2007 Megan Williams claimed to have been abused in any number of ways by six others who held her captive in a Logan County trailer. There was a racial angle – Williams is black, her alleged attackers white – which blew the story into a national one, drawing in civil rights leaders and generating calls for the use of hate crimes laws against the six accused, in addition to the more mundane criminal charges.

All six eventually pleaded guilty (only one to a hate crime), but now Williams is, via counsel, recanting and claiming that the incident never took place (via Volokh). In the wake of Williams’s recantation, the prosecutor on the case (now in private practice), predictably, says the convictions are iron clad and based not on anything Williams said but on physical evidence and statements/confessions from the six involved. All that may be true – Williams is hardly a reliable narrator and has never been – but it’s not a stretch to think that the six were hammered into pleading so authorities could tie up the whole ugly mess and move on. Now it looks like the bundle is coming untied.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Where Are We, New York?

Earlier this year, I blogged about the shenanigans going on with the New York state Senate. You remember - the narrowly split body was thrown into chaos when a couple of Dems switched sides and caucused with the GOPers, shifting the balance of power and generally resulting in a state of higgledy-piggledy. Normalcy (such as it is in politics) has since been restored.

As amusing as it was to watch that spectacle from afar, it's much less entertaining when similar silliness is happening in the "big leagues" in DC (via Volokh):

Rep. Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.) locked Republicans out of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee room to keep them from meeting when Democrats aren’t present.

Towns’ action came after repeated public ridicule from the leading Republican on the committee, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), over Towns’s failure to launch an investigation into Countrywide Mortgage’s reported sweetheart deals to VIPs.
I know nothing about the underlying dispute, aside from what I saw in Michael Moore's new flick over the weekend. It may be a case of GOPers trying to make a mountain out of an ethical molehill. I don't know. But is it too much to ask that everybody behave like adults while it gets sorted out?

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Opening Pandora's Box

A few months ago I blogged about Pandora, the streaming music service that takes the songs you request and your favorite artists and tries to figure out other tunes that you'll like. It's a lot of fun, especially since it's free. This Sunday's New York Times Magazine had a fascinating article about the mechanics behind Pandora and the Music Genome Project, which powers it.

What was interesting to me about the process is that human beings play a large part in pulling apart the songs and figuring out what makes them tick. It's not just a computer running code:

Some elements that these musicologists (who, really, are musicians with day jobs) codify are technical, like beats per minute, or the presence of parallel octaves or block chords. Someone taking apart Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” documents the prevalence of harmony, chordal patterning, swung 16ths and the like. But their analysis goes beyond such objectively observable metrics. To what extent, on a scale of 1 to 5, does melody dominate the composition of “Hey Jude”? How “joyful” are the lyrics? How much does the music reflect a gospel influence? And how “busy” is Stan Getz’s solo in his recording of “These Foolish Things”? How emotional? How “motion-inducing”? On the continuum of accessible to avant-garde, where does this particular Getz recording fall?
As for what the goal of Pandora is, it's something revolutionary when it comes to talking about music:
Pandora’s approach more or less ignores the crowd. It is indifferent to the possibility that any given piece of music in its system might become a hit. The idea is to figure out what you like, not what a market might like. More interesting, the idea is that the taste of your cool friends, your peers, the traditional music critics, big-label talent scouts and the latest influential music blog are all equally irrelevant. That’s all cultural information, not musical information. And theoretically at least, Pandora’s approach distances music-liking from the cultural information that generally attaches to it.

Which raises interesting questions. Do you really love listening to the latest Jack White project? Do you really hate the sound of Britney Spears? Or are your music-consumption habits, in fact, not merely guided but partly shaped by the cultural information that Pandora largely screens out — like what’s considered awesome (or insufferable) by your peers, or by music tastemakers, or by anybody else? Is it really possible to separate musical taste from such social factors, online or off, and make it purely about the raw stuff of the music itself?
I suspect that it's not completely possible to eliminate the influence of peer pressure, general popularity and such (though, your gods know, I'm trying!). But, it does lead to some good stories:
He [Pandora founder Tim Westergen] likes to tell a story about a Pandora user who wrote in to complain that he started a station based on the music of Sarah McLachlan, and the service served up a Celine Dion song. “I wrote back and said, ‘Was the music just wrong?’ Because we sometimes have data errors,” he recounts. “He said, ‘Well, no, it was the right sort of thing — but it was Celine Dion.’ I said, ‘Well, was it the set, did it not flow in the set?’ He said, ‘No, it kind of worked — but it’s Celine Dion.’ We had a couple more back-and-forths, and finally his last e-mail to me was: ‘Oh, my God, I like Celine Dion.’ ”
As hurtful as a revelation like that could me, it's better to open yourself up to the music on its own terms rather than wallow around with a limited biased worldview.

The whole article is a fascinating read.

UPDATE: David as Prawsblawg offers a discouraging word about the entire Pandora philosophy, what he calls "the moral tyranny of the blind taste test." If you're that superficial, I guess it's not for you.

Also, I hear from Robert in 3rDegree that Pandora wouldn't "take" them for part of the database, for unknown reasons. That's a shame, because it seems like the Pandora system would be a perfect way for more people to hear about a band like 3rDegree and help them grow the fanbase.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Hell Hath No Fury . . .

. . . like the American public duped. Seriously, if you want to really get on the bad side of the American populace - I'm talking about across all ages, political viewpoints, and what have you - dupe them into caring about something that turns out to be bogus. Involve the safety of a child? Serious bonus points.

I'm referring, of course, to the saga of the "Balloon Boy", which captivated the nation last Thursday. You remember, where the backyard balloon builder's creation got away from him and - oh noes! - his six year old son was trapped on board. By the time I left work, I remember, the craft had hit the ground, with no sign of the child. There was much concern.

To their credit, by the time I got home and the kid was located hiding out in the attic at home, people were already suspicious. Displaying a cynical skepticism that would be better applied to important things like religion and politics, folks were quickly questioning whether the whole thing was a setup. As with the "runaway bride" a few years back, folks immediately started calling for a full investigation and for authorities to "throw the book" at the parents.

Looks like the skeptical mob will get its wish:

'They put on a very good show for us, and we bought it,' Sheriff Jim Alderden of Larimer County said Sunday morning at a news conference.

Calling the episode an elaborate hoax, Sheriff Alderden said he expected to file felony charges against the parents — Richard Heene and his wife, Mayumi — who claimed Thursday that their 6-year-old son, Falcon, had climbed aboard the homemade helium balloon before it soared thousands of feet into the skies above Fort Collins, Colo.
Potential charges include conspiracy, contributing the delinquency of a minor, and attempting to influence a public servant, all felonies.

And the Heenes aren't the only characters in this story, either:
The neighbors of the family, most of whom seem unusually inarticulate, are either unhappy or very happy with all the media attention. A fight broke out between two men outside the house Sunday which a news camera duly recorded. (More on that here.)Since none of those present who were interviewed could speak in a complete sentence, it's not clear why or how it related to the attention the case has brought to the neighborhood, but the news reporter said it did.
So we have a UFO-nut father with a desire for reality TV fame, a parcel of oddly named kids used as props, and a monosyllabic Greek chorus to connect all the dots for us. This should really be fun, in the coming weeks.

If I represented the Heene, I would try and keep as low a profile as possible over the next few weeks. The 24-hour news networks, which provided the oxygen to Heene's spark that turned the whole thing into a national firestorm. A few weeks away from the spotlight and the country will move on. Then Heene and family can work out some painless deal with authorities and get this whole mess behind them.

And then sell their story to Hollywood, of course. Can't let sensation like this go to waste, after all.

Friday, October 16, 2009

It Is, But It Isn’t

When is a religious symbol not a religious symbol? When religious folk want to keep it on public land and its convenient to argue otherwise.

That kind of practical illogic is the only way I can understand what’s commonly called “ceremonial deism.” That’s the argument that some religious expression in the public square – “under God” in the pledge of allegiance, a squishy non-denominational prayer, a copy of the 10 Commandments in a courthouse – is not really religious after all. It’s been drained of its religiousness due to its pervasiveness in the public cultures. It’s more “civic” than “sectarian” and, therefore, doesn’t pose a First Amendment problem.

This makes no sense for a couple of reasons. For one thing, the folks who tend to foist these things on the public are often deeply religious and are doing it because religion (their particular brand, of course) doesn’t have the sway it used to in America. So how can it be non-religious once it’s put up in a public place? If you’re so willing to water down the meaning of the act or symbol to make it First Amendment compliant, what’s the point of going through with it in the first place? For another, it requires some real illogic to support it, such as that on display during a Supreme Court argument last week.

Salazar v. Buono is about a cross erected in the middle of a public reserve in California (a desert, for the most part) as a memorial to fallen World War I vets. Why the VFW, who put up the cross, went with an obviously Christian symbol isn’t clear. What is clear is that when a Buddhist asked to put a complementary memorial in the vicinity, the Government said no. A lawsuit followed (although it was brought by someone other than the Buddhist). To dodge any First Amendment problems, Congress sold the land under the cross back to the VFW, with a few reservations. The Supreme Court is trying to figure out if that cures the First Amendment problem that the Ninth Circuit recognized initially.

At oral argument, most Justices seemed to agree that the underlying First Amendment issue – whether the cross violated the Establishment Clause – wasn’t actually live, for procedural reasons. The only issue was Congress’s attempt to get around the problem. Except for Justice Scalia, who wanted to go back to square one:

JUSTICE SCALIA: The cross doesn't honor non-Christians who fought in the war? Is that -- is that --

MR. ELIASBERG: I believe that's actually correct.

JUSTICE SCALIA: Where does it say that?

MR. ELIASBERG: It doesn't say that, but a cross is the predominant symbol of Christianity and it signifies that Jesus is the son of God and died to redeem mankind for our sins, and I believe that's why the Jewish war veterans --

JUSTICE SCALIA: It's erected as a war memorial. I assume it is erected in honor of all of the war dead. It's the -- the cross is the -- is the most common symbol of -- of -- of the resting place of the dead, and it doesn't seem to me -- what would you have them erect? A cross -- some conglomerate of a cross, a Star of David, and you know, a Moslem half moon and star?

MR. ELIASBERG: Well, Justice Scalia, if I may go to your first point. The cross is the most common symbol of the resting place of Christians. I have been in Jewish cemeteries. There is never a cross on a tombstone of a Jew.


MR. ELIASBERG: So it is the most common symbol to honor Christians.

JUSTICE SCALIA: I don't think you can leap from that to the conclusion that the only war dead that that cross honors are the Christian war dead. I think that's an outrageous conclusion.

MR. ELIASBERG: Well, my -- the point of my -- point here is to say that there is a reason the Jewish war veterans came in and said we don't feel honored by this cross. This cross can't honor us because it is a religious symbol of another religion.
That's at pages 38-39 of the transcript.

What's really outrageous is that a Supreme Court Justice could suggest that the Christian cross - - perhaps the most successful visual brand/icon in human history - has some other generalized nonreligious meaning. Or maybe it does. In which case, there's no need to keep it on public land, right?

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Sporty Schadenfreude

I know it’s not very nice to revel in the misery of others. “Do unto others . . .” and all that. But when it comes to sports, it really goes with the terrain, doesn’t it?

I mean, by definition, if I want my team to win I want the other team to lose, right? Thus the misery. When the other side is a hated rival, it’s all the sweeter. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve got nothing against Marshall University or its alums (most of the rest of my family went there for a spell – I’m the weird one who went north), but I will take pleasure in WVU crushing them on Saturday. And I’ll be sure to rub it in at our autocross on Sunday. But it’s all in good fun.

But last night, my schadenfreude meter nearly exploded, first for what happened on the field and then for what happened off of it.

Last night was the final night of qualifications for next year’s World Cup in CONCACAF, the region of which the US is a part. We punched our ticket to South Africa over the weekend with a 3-2 thriller in Honduras. So last night’s game was technically meaningless. For us, that is. Not for our opponent, Costa Rica, who needed a win to secure a spot in the Cup next year, nor for the Hondurans, who needed a win of their own plus some help from us to leapfrog the Ticos. Given the classy treatment the Honduran fans gave our team Saturday night after the win, most US fans were hoping to help them out. Add in the high emotions in the wake of Charlie Davies’s massive car crash this week, along with Costa Rica’s earlier embarrassment of us at their place, and it was safe to say that a Costa Rican win was not desired.

Nonetheless, the Ticos jumped out in front 2-0 in the first half. After that, they sat back and generally got thumped by a US team that (in typical fashion) created a lot of chances but couldn’t finish them. Michael Bradley pulled things back to 2-1 in the second half, but as time ran out things looked bleak for the US and Honduras (who held up their end of the bargain, beating El Salvador 1-0). When Oguchi Onyewu blew out his knee on a corner kick, so badly that the two Costa Ricans around him were frantically waiving for medical attention, and we were down to 10 men (already used all three subs), that seemed to be it. The Ticos were on the way to South Africa, Honduras on the way to a playoff with Uruguay for a spot.

Then the Costa Rican coaching staff went nuts. The Ticos were already trying to waste time and kill the game, but during an attempted substitution the head coach actually laid hands upon the fourth official. In the mess that followed, not only were several members of the coaching staff ejected from the game (leaving the fitness manager in charge!), but several minutes had elapsed. As a result, the referee added more than five minutes of extra time to the end of the game.

Guess what happened in the fifth minute of extra time?

That’s right. In the glut of extra time caused by the Costa Rican coaching staff’s nonsense, Jonathan Bornstein headed in the equalizer. US fans delighted, Hondurans went nuts, and Costa Ricans were completely crushed, having had a trip to South Africa slip through their fingers.

Given all that, how could I not gloat a little? Bask in the joy of watching the Costa Ricans hoisted on an extra time petard of their own creation? Could it get any better than that?

Why yes, it could. As that game was unfolding, the ESPN ticker was reporting this news:

One day after Commissioner Roger Goodell said that Rush Limbaugh’s bid to buy the St. Louis Rams would receive little support from N.F.L. ownership, Limbaugh was dropped from the group of investors hoping to buy the team.
It couldn’t happen to a nicer guy, you know? Rush has been a football fanatic for a long time and already got bounced from his dream NFL-related job once. Slipping back in as a silent partner in an ownership group wasn’t going to raise any hackles. Until some players said they wouldn’t play for a team owned by Rush. Until other owners said, “thanks, but no thanks.” All because they’ve come to know Rush via his public persona over the years and find that so repulsive that they want nothing to do with him. Like the Costa Ricans, he was hoisted on his own petard.

Yeah, it was a good night last night!

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

This Is Super Cool

Or super scary, I can't figure out which. Remember the huge supercollider they built in Europe that, at one point, someone worried was going to cause the end of existence? When they actually switched the thing on it just broke, so that particular doomsday scenario got pushed back a bit. But now a couple of physicists have come up with a more intriguing possibility:

Then it will be time to test one of the most bizarre and revolutionary theories in science. I’m not talking about extra dimensions of space-time, dark matter or even black holes that eat the Earth. No, I’m talking about the notion that the troubled collider is being sabotaged by its own future. A pair of otherwise distinguished physicists have suggested that the hypothesized Higgs boson, which physicists hope to produce with the collider, might be so abhorrent to nature that its creation would ripple backward through time and stop the collider before it could make one, like a time traveler who goes back in time to kill his grandfather.
I have not an inkling of whether such a thing is really possible. My knowledge of these things is limited to reading the entertaining but ultimately unsatisfying sci-fi thriller Blasphemy. It does boggle the brain just to think about it, tho'.

Monday, October 12, 2009

A Word (or Four) on Concert Etiquette

I really shouldn't have to do this. Your parents should have taught you, sometime back when your troglodytic brain was being formed. They should have taught you that when you go to a concert and someone is up on stage playing/singing something, you should


Really, I'm constantly amazed by people who pay good money to go to a concert and talk through the whole damn thing. I dragged the girlfriend to see Bruce Hornsby last night in Pittsburgh. He started the show with about a 15-minute solo spot of improv weaved around "Darlin' Cory" and "A Night on the Town." At least I think he did, 'cause the dip shits sitting behind us were talking about something else. Similar things were happening during the opening act as late comers arrived.

Maybe I'm gettin' old or maybe I'm just over sensitive to this stuff. But mostly, I can't understand why you'd pay good money to talk during a concert when you can do it at home for free!

Friday, October 09, 2009

Wait . . . What?

I think I’m losing my grip on reality.

First, I get home yesterday and find an article at Salon about whether blackface is making a comeback. Then I see a story on CNN about how, for the first time in eons, a sitting President will not meet with the Dalai Lhama while he is in Washington, for fear of honking off our Chinese creditors. Finally, our massively important World Cup Qualifier in Honduras this Saturday is only available to view via closed circuit TV in a handful of big city bars (and then primarily for the benefit of the resident Honduran fans). What the eff? As Cartman might say.

And then I wake up this morning and find this:

President Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday for his 'extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples,' a stunning honor that came less than nine months after he made United States history by becoming the country’s first African-American president.
I guess “confused” is as good a descriptor of my thoughts as anything. Don’t get me wrong, I voted for Obama and generally like him, although he’s got a long way to go before he delivers on the promise of his campaign. And I appreciate that his “talk first, shoot later” mentality in foreign relations is about 180 degrees from the Bush years. But, still, he’s only been around about nine months. What’s more, when the nominations closed in February, he hadn’t been in office long enough to figure out how the White House phones worked! Shouldn’t he at least, I dunno, actually do something first? Words and attitudes are nice, but the only thing that really matters in the end is the result.

And that ignores a couple of large elephants in the room, Iraq and Afghanistan (now with escalation!). As Glenn Greenwald correctly points out:
Through no fault of his own, Obama presides over a massive war-making state that spends on its military close to what the rest of the world spends combined. The U.S. accounts for almost 70% of worldwide arms sales. We're currently occupying and waging wars in two separate Muslim countries and making clear we reserve the 'right' to attack a third. Someone who made meaningful changes to those realities would truly be a man of peace. It's unreasonable to expect that Obama would magically transform all of this in nine months, and he certainly hasn't. Instead, he presides over it and is continuing much of it. One can reasonably debate how much blame he merits for all of that, but there are simply no meaningful 'peace' accomplishment in his record -- at least not yet -- and there's plenty of the opposite. That's what makes this Prize so painfully and self-evidently ludicrous.
Yeah, that.

Oh, and if Glenn is right about the Democratic National Committee response to the critics of the award (“you’re with the terrorists!”) then, well, fuck you. It was a shitty tactic when the GOPers did it and it’s no better now. Yeah, there’s a hunk on the right that will have an instant knee-jerk anti-Obama reaction to anything that happens (witness the petulance at the Olympics fiasco last week), but even a stopped clock is right twice a day.

Good thing I’ve got a long weekend ahead. I think I need it.

UPDATE: Glenn has a more fleshed out post here laying out his objection to the "they're with the terrorists!" arguments. I agree completely.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

It's the Arts

Another installment my (regular? occasional? time will tell) series of odds and sods from the artsy fartsy realms.

Happy Anniversary – I
Monty Python has been such a ubiquitous presence in my life (it's where the post title came from) that sometimes it’s hard to remember it’s been around longer than I have. In fact, this year marks the 40th anniversary of the debut of Monty Python’s Flying Circus on BBC television. Last Sunday’s New York Times had a large article about the group and the upcoming anniversary events. For true Python fans, the big one is a new six-part documentary, Almost the Truth (The Lawyer's Cut), that debuts on IFC the week of October 18-23.

One of the interesting things about Python, given its staying power, is that there hasn’t been any new material for more than 25 years. Yeah, things like Spamalot! repurposed the old shtick, but the five remaining Pythons haven’t been back “in the studio,” so to speak, since the Reagan years. Does that add to the staying power? Imagine if, say, Yes stopped producing new material after Drama. Would their reputation be better, without bearing the weight of Big Generator, Open Your Eyes, and the like? Maybe the Pythons got it right.

Happy Anniversary – II
OK, there’s 40 years of Python, so how about a milestone for another major influence of my formative years, Bloom County? Next year will be the 30th anniversary of the strip’s debut and will see the entire run of the series reissued in a series of (hardback? I hope) books. Bloom County is not only my all-time favorite strip, it’s one of my favorite things of all time. It had a perfect mixture of whimsy, socio-political commentary, and open hearted good humor. I see a lot of myself in the various characters and how they view the world.

Anyway, to mark the occasion, USA Today this week has an interview with the stripper (look it up) Berkeley Breathed, along with a series of old strips annotated by the author. Among his revelations in the interview, what the main characters are up to these days:

Q. Are the Bloom County characters ageless to you, or do you imagine them as having aged and grown up since 1989? If they have aged, what would you imagine they are doing these days?
A. If you force me to do this:

Milo: An early retiree with $200 million of bonuses from AIG.

Binkley: Became a hairdresser, as his dad feared in 1983.

Oliver: One of the New Atheist writers. Privately still trying to reconcile the existence of Rush Limbaugh with Darwinian evolution.

Bill the Cat: Finally revealed to be a sexy smoochy teen vampire. New stuffed versions of himself on the way.

Opus: As many know, he's tucked in and sleeping in the bunny's bed from Goodnight Moon. Forever. Where we all hope to go, really.
The strip annotations have some interesting info in them, too. Check 'em out.

LUFC on the Big Screen
As long as they toil in the third circle of English football (even though it’s called League One), I’ve got no chance of catching Leeds United on the TV over here. At least they’re top of the league at this point! But I will get to see a bit of infamous Leeds history on the big screen soon, with The Damned United opening on the coasts this weekend.

The film, which Salon is calling one of the year’s best, is about the tumultuous 44-day tenure of Brian Clough as the team’s manager in 1974. It’s one of the more spectacular flameouts in English sports history, IIRC. It’s brought to the big screen by the writer of The Queen and Frost/Nixon, with Michael Sheen (who played Tony Blair in The Queen and David Frost in Frost/Nixon) playing Clough. I doubt it will make much of a splash in the US, given its subject, but I'm looking forward to it.

A Virtual Treasure Trove
I found an awesome link for art lovers today in, of all places, the comment thread to this Reason article on the oral argument in the Stevens case this week. Turns out the Metropolitan Museum of Art has most of their extensive collection sorted and cataloged online, available for anybody to browse. More than that, their terms of use allow you to post their images to your blog/website, providing it’s not a commercial one.

So, for example, here’s an interesting van Gogh:

That's "Corridor in the Asylum," a view from a French asylum where van Gogh spent about a year later in his life.

There are over 136,000 items in their collection, so just about anybody can find something interesting in there.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

I Think I've Been Insulted

I’m pretty sure I have. Maybe not, though, it’s always so hard to tell, especially with Supreme Court Justices. The other day, Justice Scalia told a C-SPAN interviewer, in response to a comment from Chief Justice Burger about the poor quality of advocacy before the Court (via Volokh):

'I used to be disappointed that so many of the best minds in the country were being devoted to this enterprise.

'I mean there’d be a ... public defender from Podunk, you know, and this woman is really brilliant, you know. Why isn’t she out inventing the automobile or, you know, doing something productive for this society?
Speaking as a public defender from Podunk, to me Scalia seems to be saying that the poor charged with crimes aren’t entitled to a rigorous defense, at least not the kind that would be the product of a brilliant mind. It’s insulting to think so, both to the people who do the work and the folks they represent. Standing up for those folks in court, often the only people in their lives who ever had, is not “doing something productive for this society?” Seems to me it does something quite productive for society, allowing it to function by ensuring that it has a criminal justice system that ensures fairness and even-handed treatment. In theory, anyway. On a more cynical level, it also creates a cadre of professionals who actually care about the folks who too often are cast off from society as dangerous, crazy, or inferior in some way. If we do the heavy lifting, the rest of you don’t have to.

But what Scalia’s after here is a more generalized rip on lawyers (of which he is one, ironically):
I mean lawyers, after all, don’t produce anything. They enable other people to produce and to go on with their lives efficiently and in an atmosphere of freedom. That’s important, but it doesn’t put food on the table, and there have to be other people who are doing that.
Scalia worries that we’re wasting “too many of our very best minds” in the field. This makes little sense to me, for several reasons.

First, practicing law puts food on my table with great regularity. It also puts a roof over my head, a car in my garage, books on my shelves, etc. all of which I bought from someone else, allowing them to put food on their table. The idea that some vocation is valuable only if it produces a physical good at the end of the day made some sense in the days of Locke, but not in modern 21st Century America. We thrive on service industries, after all. Those, by definition, thrive on enabling other folks to do things, not producing durable goods.

Second, as Scalia admits, we do provide some value, in providing a peaceful means to settle disputes and resolve issues. We could go back to trial by combat, I guess, or private enforcement, but I doubt most people would want to. You'd need your own gang to back you up and, given Heller, it will probably be well armed. Wild West, ho!

Third, if I may be so bold as to put myself in the class of “our very best minds,” I’ll be honest and say I can’t think of anything “productive” I could do as well as I practice law. I have the mechanical aptitude of a fruit fly, honestly, and I disappointed my elder brother by not going to engineering school. I couldn’t “invent[] the automobile” if my life depended on it (aside from the fact that it’s already been done, of course). Aside from writing non-law stuff for a living, I can’t think of anything else I really have the skill set to do.

Having said all that, are there too many lawyers around? Maybe. Do too many people go to law school because of a false impression of what the profession is really like or out of some kind of academic inertia? Almost certainly.

My advice - don't go to law school unless you want to practice law, to get down and dirty in the day to day operations of the law. Don't do it for money and don't do it because it's the option of least resistance. You'll wind up deep in debt and toiling away at a job you hate. Hell, you might even wind up in Podunk.

Monday, October 05, 2009

The Perils of Trying to Be Hip

What is it with GOPers and popular music? Can't they get things straight in advance for once? Ronald Reagan famously appropriated Springsteen's "Born in the USA," figuring it must be a patriotic anthem, without actually listening to the lyrics, apparently. And then during last year's presidential campaign, McCain started using some John Mellencamp songs, only to be smacked down.

The latest winger to glom on to a popular band in pursuit of hipness is none other than Glenn "The Weeper" Beck. Apparently, one of The Weeper's favorite new bands is none other than UK semi-proggers Muse. But just liking them isn't good enough. No. They've got to support his politics. Except they don't:

Beck, an outspoken conservative known for his caustic attacks on Barack Obama, praised a song on [Muse's] new album The Resistance for warning against the dangers of “one world government”. Describing their music as “absolutely fantastic”, Beck implied that the band members shared his concern about the centralisation of power by liberal politicians. [...]

But Beck withdrew his recommendation after being emailed during the show by a representative of the band.
Ha! I'm particularly amused because Beck hasn't been shy when it comes to bashing atheists, but Muse's leading man Mathew Bellamy is one of the most visible atheists around (sorta).

To his credit, Beck took the news with good humor:
'They would like me to retract my endorsement,' Beck told listeners. 'My apologies to Muse for saying that I like them. I didn’t mean to destroy all their credibility and all their coolness.

'It’s an awful album and you should never go out and buy it.'
If only he was that rational and good humored most of the time.

Friday, October 02, 2009

Another Season Preview

Ah, it's October. Both the college and pro football seasons are firmly underway, while in Europe the soccer season is in full swing, both domestically and internationally. But there's one more fall milestone to come around - First Monday, the opening of the Supreme Court's term.

When Chief Justice Roberts brings the gavel down on Monday morning for the Court's first round of oral arguments, it will kick off a term that's full of interesting cases. And, of course, the Court has a revised membership, with Justice Sotomayor taking over Justice Breyer's spot. Will things change or will it be more of the same? Only time will tell. Here are a few particularly interesting cases on the docket.

First up, next Tuesday, is a case that blends two of my areas of interest - criminal law and the First Amendment. The issue in US v. Stevens is whether a federal statute that bans the commercial sale of videos depicting intentional animal cruelty violates the First Amendment. As Jacob Sullum at Reason explains:

Although President Clinton said when he signed the law that it should be used to prosecute people only for material akin to the "crush videos" that provoked it, all three cases brought so far have involved footage of dog fights. In the case before the Supreme Court, Robert Stevens, a Virginia pit bull enthusiast, received a three-year prison sentence for selling two videos showing pit bulls fighting and one showing them hunting wild boar.
The Government is arguing, as with child porn, that the videos document criminal activity and thus lack First Amendment protection. One problem, however, is that the statute deals with things illegal anywhere and at any time, so it covers Stevens's videos that were shot in Japan, where dog fighting is legal, and in the United States in states where it was once legal. How the Court deals with a case that pits speech that most of us find revolting against the First Amendment rights of the speakers is always interesting.

Second up is a case to be argued November 4 that involves some horrific behavior that might go unpunished. In Pottawattamie County v. McGhee, the behavior at issue came from two prosecutors, as Radley Balko at Reason explains:
A prosecutor manufactures evidence in order to win a conviction. After the convicted serves 25 years in prison, exculpatory evidence pointing to another perpetrator surfaces. The convicted is released. Should he be able to sue the prosecutor who concocted the false evidence used to convict him?

Believe it or not, it's still an open question. . . . The facts of the case aren't in dispute. In 1978, a retired Iowa police captain was killed by a shotgun blast while working as a private security guard. Prosecutors Joseph Hrvol and David Richter then worked with local police to manufacture evidence against the two chief suspects, Terry Harrington and Curtis McGhee, Jr. The two men were convicted of the murder in separate trials, and each was sentenced to life without parole.
After their convictions were vacated in state court, they sued the prosecutors for manufacturing and presented false testimony in court. Here's the problem - prosecutors (and judges too, for that matter) have absolute immunity for things they do in court. Doesn't matter what they do, they cannot be civilly liable (criminally, yes). So, one issue is when the constitutional violation takes place - prior to trial, when the evidence is fabricated, or at trial, when it's introduced? How the Court answers that question may resolve the case.

Lest you think that the case is just about money, consider this bit of info from the respondents' (the guys who went to prison) brief (at page 56):
The most notable thing about amici’s lengthy catalog of supposed remedies, however, is that petitioners have not faced any of them. The highest court in the State of Iowa found that petitioners had violated the Constitution by suppressing exculpatory evidence. Harrington v. State, 659 N.W.2d 509, 521-25 (Iowa 2003). What consequences befell the prosecutors for that unconstitutional action? Petitioners did not face so much as a state-bar investigation, and they remain members in good standing of the Iowa bar in private practice in Council Bluffs. 'Remedies' that go unused when serious, documented prosecutorial misconduct comes to light are little better, and perhaps worse, than no remedies at all.
In other words, this is the only venue really available to right this wrong. Sadly, that's the situation in lots of cases, thus the outcome of this case could have serious ripples throughout the criminal justice system.

Finally, we have a case that will draw a lot of attention as it gets set up for oral argument next year. This week, the Court announced that it would decide, in a case out of Chicago, whether the Second Amendment's individual right to bear arms, recognized a couple of years ago in the Heller decision, applies to the states as well as the federal government.

Why is that an issue? Because the Bill of Rights, by its terms, generally applies only to the federal government. Starting in the last century, however, the Court has "incorporated" most of the rights there to apply to the states via the Fourteenth Amendment. Most, but not all. The right to an indictment, for example, has never been incorporated. Long ago, the Court held that the Second Amendment did not apply to the states, but that was before Heller more concretely defined what the Second Amendment actually meant. I expect the Court will apply Heller to the states, but you never know.

Of course, that's only a few of the cases coming down the pike this term. Ain't October great?

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Call Me Old Fashioned

Although I like to think of myself as a technologically hip and cutting edge kind of guy, I admit that when it comes to media I'm a bit of a stick in the mud (as the comments to this post pointed out!). I like my music on CDs, something tangible I can hold in my hand, rather than just as files on a PC or iPod. Similarly, I like my books (although CDs outnumber books in my house) the same way, except for the occasional audiobook (so sue me - I'm in the car a lot).

I bring all this up because today's New York Times has a story about the next big thing in "books" - video:

On Thursday, for instance, Simon & Schuster, the publisher of Ernest Hemingway and Stephen King, is working with a multimedia partner to release four 'vooks,' which intersperse videos throughout electronic text that can be read — and viewed — online or on an iPhone or iPod Touch.

And in early September Anthony E. Zuiker, creator of the television series 'CSI,' released 'Level 26: Dark Origins,' a novel — published on paper, as an e-book and in an audio version — in which readers are invited to log on to a Web site to watch brief videos that flesh out the plot.
In the short attention span age in which we live, publishers see this as a way to hook readers who wouldn't normally take the time to get tied down to a real book.

I don't actually have any objection to using new media as part of story telling, but it's really not a book, is it? I mean, unless you're reading it (or having it read to you), it's something else. In a similar fashion, a performance by people on a stage with dialog, action, etc. is a play. Putting the same thing on film turns it into a completely different piece of art (a fact that many directors adapting plays for TV or film don't grasp).

Maybes it's the wave of the future. Honest to goodness books will wither and die, to be replaced by some sort of multimedia experience, that stimulates all our senses instead of just our imagination. I hope it doesn't go that far, though. There's something about the written word that exercises your brain. As author Walter Mosley puts it:
Reading is one of the few experiences we have outside of relationships in which our cognitive abilities grow
As a species, we don't want to lose that, do we?

Hey, wait a second . . . that gives me an idea for a novel!