December 30, 2011

Friday Review Year In Review

Nothing special to mark the end of the year, just a easy to navigate list of Feeding the Silence's accidental regular feature, the Friday Reviews.  Sorted helpfully by review type, just because I'm that kind of guy:

Music

Movies & TV

Books

More to come next year!

December 22, 2011

My Gift to You

Here's a little musical treat, for you and yours at this festive holiday season:

Carol of the Bells by Infinity Ranch

Because nothing says “Merry Christmas” quite like Minimoogs, Mellotrons, and Taurus pedals.

Yeah, look, I know it's not as rad as, say, Mr. Mackey's arrangement:


But I hope it has its own charms.

That’s it for Feeding the Silence in 2011 (aside from a housekeeping post late next week). I’ll be back in the new year with all sorts of stuff, I assume. I guess you’ll have to check back and find out, won’t you?

So whatever holidays you celebrate this time of year, may they be safe and joyous.

December 21, 2011

A War Movie Without the War

For years, I’ve seen ads for the play War Horse while I flipped through my New York Times on Sunday mornings. Never had a clue what it was about, but the imagery in the ads was striking. So I wasn’t surprised when I heard it was being made into a movie or that Stephen Spielberg was the one making it. After all, the man’s made a few war movies in his time.

Then, a few weeks ago, I saw an ad for the movie on TV, complete with excerpts from the obligatory John Williams score and a Christmas Day opening. Just based on what I saw, it involved a horse, a boy, and World War I. I turned to K and said, “a feel good Christmas-day movie about the cavalry in World War I? That’s an interesting choice.”

You see, World War I is where the cavalry went to die. Literally. The days of massed men on horseback were numbered as far back as the American Civil War, when smoothbore muskets gave way to rifled ones with greatly increased range and accuracy. By the time the First World War came around, the game was over.  Men on horseback were simply no match for machine guns. So how does one make a heartwarming movie in that milieu?

The answer for Spielberg was to ignore it. Seriously:
Despite stunning stagecraft that evokes the horror of war in general, War Horse keeps its focus narrowly on the boy-stallion relationship, saying little about the First World War itself. It sounds like the film treats the conflict in the same way. ‘I didn't pay a lot of attention to the first World War,’ Spielberg said in an interview earlier this month. ‘I didn’t know very much about it. And I also don’t consider War Horse to be a war movie. This is not one of my war movies. This is much more of a real story between the connections that sometimes animals achieve; the way animals can actually connect people together.’
To be fair to Spielberg, War Horse’s source material is a children’s book, so it’s not exactly the hard hitting meditation on the horrors of war those NYT ads suggested to me. It’s a boy-and-his-dog story (except the dog is a horse), not Full Metal Jacket. Nevertheless, it’s hard to call a move that takes place in the middle of a war zone and whose main characters are doing the fighting something other than a “war movie.”

None of which has anything to do with whether the movie is good or not, although at least one early review is not too kind. Kurt Loder called the experience of watching the film like:
being lowered into a vat of warm tears, there to remain for nearly two and a half freakin’ hours
and notes that the
movie so boldly old-fashioned that much of its true target demographic must be long dead, or nearly enough.
Ouch. Maybe I’ll pass on this one.

December 20, 2011

What Scares Me

I hate flying. I know, nobody really likes the whole rigmarole that is flying in the 21st century. Dashing through airports to meet connecting flights, since it’s hard, or outrageously expensive, to fly directly from one place to another.* Being crammed into a metal tube with hundreds of strangers whose theories on hygiene and personal space vary in ways unimagined in political discourse. The food sucks. No leg room. There’s always some dipshit who decided the right thing to do was to cram his grand piano in the overhead bin.

Then, of course, there’s the TSA.

But none of that is what really irks me about flying. What really makes me nervous (ask K – I gripped her hand so hard on the way to St. John last year I nearly cut off circulation) is the thought that should anything go wrong, I’m going to die. I know in my rational brain that air travel is an exceptionally safe mode of transit, more so than travel by car. But most of my car travel comes while I’m driving, which gives me some sense of agency over whatever happens. Besides, if you are actually in a crash, odds are better that you walk away from one in a car rather than one in a plane.

It’s the sense of having my destiny in someone else’s hands that really does it, I think. Particularly when you hear about things like this (via).

On June 1, 2009, Air France Flight 447 left Rio bound for Paris. Somewhere over the Atlantic, it simply disappeared. It wasn’t shot down or blown out of the sky by a terrorist. There was no report of some kind of freak structural failure. It just went down, killing all 228 people on board. The wreckage was found two miles below the surface of the ocean.

At first, based on a little bit of data collected by tracking stations, one theory of what happened emerged:
As [Popular Mechanics] found in our cover story about the crash, published two years ago this month, the data implied that the plane had fallen afoul of a technical problem—the icing up of air-speed sensors—which in conjunction with severe weather led to a complex ‘error chain’ that ended in a crash and the loss of 228 lives.
However, once the wreckage was recovered, the black boxes were also recovered and their data able to be recovered. The picture that data paints, as set forth in the new PM article, is even more chilling than one of a “complex error chain.” It’s a story of simple human fuck ups, compounded by inexperience and fear (for the record, French authorities haven’t backed this conclusion). As the article explains:
We now understand that, indeed, AF447 passed into clouds associated with a large system of thunderstorms, its speed sensors became iced over, and the autopilot disengaged. In the ensuing confusion, the pilots lost control of the airplane because they reacted incorrectly to the loss of instrumentation and then seemed unable to comprehend the nature of the problems they had caused. Neither weather nor malfunction doomed AF447, nor a complex chain of error, but a simple but persistent mistake on the part of one of the pilots.
Ironically, there may be some blame in the very fact that commercial aircraft are become so safe that pilots have little experience to fall back on when things go wrong:
Over the decades, airliners have been built with increasingly automated flight-control functions. These have the potential to remove a great deal of uncertainty and danger from aviation. But they also remove important information from the attention of the flight crew. While the airplane's avionics track crucial parameters such as location, speed, and heading, the human beings can pay attention to something else. But when trouble suddenly springs up and the computer decides that it can no longer cope—on a dark night, perhaps, in turbulence, far from land—the humans might find themselves with a very incomplete notion of what's going on. They'll wonder: What instruments are reliable, and which can't be trusted? What's the most pressing threat? What's going on? Unfortunately, the vast majority of pilots will have little experience in finding the answers.
Thus, when I fly, my head rages with battle between my rational and irrational selves. My rational self is perfectly calm because the chances of anything really bad happening are so remote, I might as well worry about being struck by lightning. But my irrational side fights back, with the knowledge that if something does go wrong, we’re all well and truly fucked.

In other words, I’ll be in the car.

* As Brock Yates once put it, “if you want to get somewhere fast, fly. If you want to get somewhere on time, drive.”

December 19, 2011

I Don’t Think That Means What You Think That Means

There’s an old joke that goes something like this:
Q: What’s the difference between a cult and a religion?

A: The religion has better lawyers.
Of course, what really distinguishes a cult from a religions is numbers. In other words, popularity. If enough people join and the cult grows past a certain point, it becomes a religion. Christianity, after all, started off as a small cult splintering off of Judaism.

That’s an awkward introduction to a more pressing question: what’s the first thing that comes to your mind when someone says “cult movie.” If you’re like me, it’s something like the Rocky Horror Picture Show or, perhaps, Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. In either case, we’re talking about movies that didn’t make any real impact when initially released (financially – critical reception is another matter), but found audiences down the road that revere the films and keep the somewhat commercially viable in various new media.

I bet movies that didn’t pop into your mind include things like the Star Wars movies, The Sound of Music, and The Wizard of Oz. Yet, those are among some of the 100 cult movies compiled in a new book by a pair of academics (one Canadian, the other British) who really take a different view on what makes a “cult” movie, one that focuses more on the fans than the films themselves:
I think amidst their popularity, there's a degree of fandom that exceeds the bounds of moderation. It's that very engaged committed and loyal enduring fandom for "The Lord of the Rings" and "Star Wars" and "The Sound of Music" and "The Wizard of Oz" that makes them the cult films as well.
Wait, what? Maybe they’re inspired by the future history set forth in Futurama, whereby an actual cult of Star Trek arose and caused such problems all copies of the series and movies were shot into space.* I’m not sure I buy it:
There's a subset of fans, but those fans, they don’t invent stuff. They latch on to elements of the movie, which they then pull out of normality, if you want, and they start questioning it, discussing it extensively up to the point where then other people, other fans start asking themselves. Yeah, that's right, actually. This isn't quite normal, such as, for instance, the friendship between Luke and Leia.
So, films that are popular enough to inspire discussion about them are now cult films? Are film critics cultists? Academics who study film the way English majors study literature?  There’s a touch of elitism in that view that rubs me the wrong way.

Without a doubt, fans of any particular cult film may be inspired to do silly things (as with the aforementioned Rocky Horror Picture Show). But the very point of such shenanigans is that they’ve found something valuable – whether it’s profound truths about the universe or just a reliable good time – in a movie that the mass of film goers didn’t. A cult film, by definition, has to be an outsider experience.

There are probably lots of interesting things you can learn about fans of movies, both popular and less so. Just because they take the damn things more seriously than you do doesn’t make them a cult. Just ask their lawyers.

* The cult members themselves were dealt with in the way most befitting their status as virgins – thrown into a volcano by a pair of heavies quipping “he’s dead, Jim.”

December 16, 2011

Friday Review: Anvil! The Story of Anvil

Progressive rock, it should come as a shock to nobody, is a seriously niche phenomenon. Aside from the 1970s pioneers and a few notable others, “underground” barely describes the scene’s profile. Albums are hard to find (if you don’t have a good source). Tours, at least in the States, are maddeningly short, if they happen at all. And, with few exceptions, the people making the music can’t make a living from it. So a lot of the artists I listen to on a regular basis do it because they love to make music. It’s a calling, not a career.

That knowledge added an extra layer of poignancy to Anvil! The Story of Anvil, a documentary of a Canadian heavy metal band that almost nobody has ever heard of. In fact, it’s a little hard to tell in the beginning whether it’s a real documentary or a modern take on Spinal Tap (indeed, the band’s drummer is even named Robb Reiner). But it’s real and the story it tells is both inspiring and pathetic in turns.

Anvil got its start in the late 1970s and, via its first few albums, got just to the edge of making it big. Enough that they were part of a big festival in Japan with a bunch of other rising bands you might have heard of – Scorpions, Bon Jovi, etc. For reasons that the film doesn’t really explore (one of its two major faults), the breakthrough never happened. The core of the band, drummer Reiner and vocalist/guitarist Lips (not his real name!), have nonetheless perservered through the years, banging away for a faithful, if small, following.

The movie shows the band going through a pair of painful musical adventures. One is a poorly organized European tour. After a festival gig in Sweden before a large and appreciative audience, the tour devolves into night after night of playing for a few dozen people in a tiny packed club. Not that there’s anything wrong with that – I’ve seen great shows in such places – but it’s not the kind of situation that suggests bigger things are right around the corner. That they don’t get paid for much of the tour (in spite of this, one of the other band members marries the Russian woman who ran the tour – he’s no longer with the band).

The other major music event is the recording of the band’s 13th studio album and their attempts to get it released with some kind of fanfare. They manage to get a respected producer to do the sessions (in England – they visit Stonehenge, thus making another Spinal Tap link), during which Lips and Reiner argue, break up, and then make up again. In the end, they release the album independently, selling directly to the fans (the album would be picked up by a label associated with VH1 when the movie came out).

Two things come through in these episodes. One is the indefatigable spirit of the band, and Lips in particular, to do what they regardless of how hard it is. Lips says at one point he’d play in front of a crowd of nobody, just because he gets off on the energy of playing that much. It may have been a rationalization (at one gig in Europe they played to less than 200 people in a huge gymnasium-type shed), but it sounded sincere. After all, if you really weren’t in it for the music, there’s no way you’d keep up with it year after year, right?

The other thing that comes through is little more depressing and, in touches, even a bit pathetic. Even after all these years in the metal wilderness and after railing about the inequities of the music business, Lips and Reiner appear to genuinely believe that breakthrough success is right around the corner. It’s like a gambler chasing the next big score, certain that the next time will really be different from all the others.

Fact is, rock stardom is a young man’s game. If you’ve made it to your forties and haven’t hit the big time yet, chances are it’s not going to happen. The impression I get from most of the proggers out there who struggle with day jobs is that, aside from a few eager young ‘uns, they know that they will never be a chart topping success playing to sold out arenas. And they’re all right with that. Sure, they want to make a living doing what they love rather than some other job, but who doesn’t? But I think most are happy when the music they love making connects with an audience, no matter how small.*

In end, it’s hard not to root for the guys in Anvil. They’re enthusiastic about their band and their music. Your heart definitely wants them to make it big. But your head knows better and hopes, one day, their heads will overtake their hearts, too. Then they can enjoy more what they’ve got, rather than pining for what they’ll never have.

* Of course, I could be full of shit.

The Details
-------------------

Anvil! The Story of Anvil
Released 2008
Directed by Sacha Gervasi

December 15, 2011

Lawyers, Lies, & Laments

The reader(s) of the old blog will recall that I’m quite fond of Shattered Glass. The 2003 film charts the fall of writer Stephen Glass. Working primarily for The New Republic, Glass fabricated a load of allegedly nonfiction articles. When his lies were brought to light, his world crashed hard around him. Made for great drama, of course.

If you’ve seen the film, then you know that while things were falling apart, Glass was actually taking classes at Georgetown’s law school. What the film doesn’t show is that Glass went on to get his degree from Georgetown (with honors) and is now trying to become an attorney. In 2002, his application to the New York state bar was rejected due to his history of making shit up wholesale (he even wrote a semi-autobiographical novel about it, The Fabulist). Shot down there, he moved his efforts to California.

Since 2007, Glass has been battling with the legal powers that be in California, trying to join the bar.* A committee denied Glass’s application in 2009, concluding that he hadn’t really changed since things went to shit at The New Republic. However, he appealed to an administrative judge, who came to the opposite conclusion. A 3-member appellate panel affirmed that decision (2-1). Now the California bar has appealed the case to the state’s supreme court.

Since things have reached that point, all the documents involved are now public record. That’s allowed Jack Shafer at Reuters to dig deeply into the case (via). There’s a lot there, from Glass’s overbearing parents to his continued problems dealing with the full scope of his fabrications. Whether he’s really reformed or not (Shafer votes “not”), you’ll have to see for yourself.

More to the point, is the whole exercise a bit silly given the generally shitty reputation lawyers have with the public in the first place? I mean, when the general opinion of people is that the whole profession is full of bullshit artists, what’s wrong with bringing one more into the fold? If nothing else, Glass knows how to tell a hell of a story, which is a key part of being a good advocate. And haven’t there been cases where lawyers commit serious crimes but return to their legal practice years later?

At the risk of sounding like a member of the tribe justifying the protection of his own, I think it might make a difference when your character flaws become apparent. This is assuming, of course, that one’s character should be relevant at all when it comes to getting a license from the state to practice a profession. But I think it makes a difference whether you can evaluate a person’s character flaw in the context of the work he or she has done as a lawyer or not.

Assume you have two people, both with a compulsive gambling problem. One, call her Betty, is an attorney with about a decade’s worth of experience. The other, call him Bob, is of a similar age but has just passed the bar exam. Each of them has a spectacular flameout caused by their gambling problem, which resulted in criminal and civil proceedings against them. Betty notched a felony conviction, had her license to practice law suspended, and is now seeking reinstatement. Bob was hounded into bankruptcy by debts caused by his gambling and now wants to be admitted to the practice of law.

A bar committee looking at those two cases has an important bit of extra information in Betty’s case. They have her record as an attorney and can determine, however severe her gambling problem was, did it impact her practice? Did she, for example, dip into client funds to fuel her habit? Did late night gambling binges at the local casino leave her strung out and unprepared for court appearances the next day? After all, the main question in these proceedings is the fitness of the applicant to practice law.

Bob, by contrast, has no track record in the profession. There is no way to tell how those same questions might be answered in his case. Thus the committee runs the risk of bringing someone into the profession who might screw over clients because he’s not sufficiently reformed or rehabilitated. Unlike Betty, who comes with a track record, Bob only comes with his big character issue.

What this means for Glass, I think, is that he faces an uphill battle to break into the profession. Had he been a lawyer when everything went down at The New Republic, he might have a better chance of getting back in. Does that make sense? I think it does, or at least I think it can. Whether the differential analysis I laid out above goes on in real life, I have no idea. But it’s at least a justifiable rationale for an apparent double standard.

* I assume that he has actually passed the bar exam itself. In West Virginia, at least, you only get the character questions after you cross that bridge.

December 14, 2011

Is Law School Worthless?

I have a confession to make: I liked law school. Hard to believe, but it’s true. To be sure, I always enjoyed school and liked learning about new stuff, so that certainly helped. Plus, I made the decision early on to focus on taking classes that interested me intellectually, rather than simply load up on stuff I needed to learn to pass the bar exam (that’s what bar review courses are for, you see).

Here’s another confession: I use very little of the substantive stuff I learned in law school in my current practice. Not because I skipped the bar exam classes, but because the real practice of law involves so many things that don’t fit neatly into the pages of a hornbook. There’s no good way to read about how to tell a client he’s facing life in prison or that, in spite of what the law on the books might say, he’s not going to prevail on appeal.

That split, between what you learn in law school and what you need to know to actually practice law, is getting renewed attention these days, partly due to the fact that going to law school is so fucking expensive. In spite of the tens of thousands of dollars of debt freshly minted lawyers run up, more and more firms have to spend valuable time (and money) training even the best and brightest to actually practice law, rather than merely think like a lawyer. Is it time for legal education to change?

Stanley Fish, who teaches some of the more esoteric stuff at Yale, makes a spirited defense of legal education as something more than a trade school here. For Fish, it’s about being able to work for a client with knowledge of the broader context of things:
One can, however, make the case that the practice of law is more than a technical/strategic exercise in which doctrines, precedents, rules and tests are marshaled in the service of a client’s cause. The marshaling takes place within an enterprise that is purposive. That is, law is more than an aggregation of discrete tactics and procedures; it is an enterprise informed by a vision of how the state can and cannot employ the legalized violence of which it is the sole proprietor. That vision will come into view in the wake of a set of inquiries. What obligations do citizens owe one another? How far can the state go in enforcing those obligations? What restrictions on what the state can do to (and for) its citizens should be in place? How do legal cultures differ with respect to these issues?
On a philosophical level, I agree with Fish. He’s made similar arguments about the demise of liberal arts education in college, and perhaps I’m biased when it comes to such arguments. The focus of my undergrad education – history, philosophy, political science – was not exactly designed to widen my employment prospects (at the time, I didn’t know historians could get millions lobbying for . . . er, I mean, “consulting” for financial institutions). And, as I said, the electives I took in law school were much more about intellectual stimulation than cramming rules into my brain. I’d like to think all that stuff at least informs the way I do may daily work. Besides, I’m a big fan of learning for the sake of it.

But on a practical level, I think he oversimplifies things. Yes, a legal education should include some of the more longhaired stuff Fish champions. That doesn’t mean it can’t also address some of the more practical aspects of being a lawyer. It’s not an either/or proposition. Or, at least, it shouldn’t be.

Expanded clinical programs have addressed those issues somewhat over the years, but they’re not big enough at most schools to allow all students to participate. Something more radical is necessary, probably something modeled on the kind of internships doctors in training go through. Whether that would be a replacement for law school’s third year or some sort of compliment to it, I don’t know. What I do know is that while we don’t want law schools turning into simple trade schools, neither do we want them to become so obsessed with theory and the esoteric that they don’t really prepare students to be lawyers.

So, end the end, is law school worthless? I don’t think so. I can be improved, though. And I will say this to anyone weighing whether to go to law school: For the love of your God, don’t do it unless you really want to be a lawyer! It’s too damned expensive (and too hard, frankly) to be a way station on the road to somewhere else.

December 13, 2011

Beware the Flying Snowman

There’s a scene in Dogma, Kevin Smith’s religious satire, where Rufus, the overlooked thirteenth apostle, explains to Brittany, the film’s heroine, that she is the last descendent of Christ. She objects:
Bethany: Jesus didn’t have any brothers or sisters. Mary was a virgin.

Rufus: Mary gave birth to Christ without having known a man's touch, that’s true. But she did have a husband. And do you really think he'd have stayed married to her all those years if he wasn’t getting laid? The nature of God and the Virgin birth, those are leaps of faith. But to believe a married couple never got down? Well, that’s just plain gullibility.
That’s the first thing that popped into my head when I read this post by John Scalzi. It stems from the kind of argument only a geek could love – whether the way Gollum dies in The Return of the King lacks realism because the lava that consumes him doesn’t work the way physics says it should. Scalzi makes the reasonable objection that, in a movie filled with fantastic elements that don’t exist in our world, what is it about lava that goes too far? He calls such moments The Flying Snowman (for reasons you’ll have to read the post to understand).

Scalzi is not arguing that just because a story is fantasy (or science fiction, for that matter) that you just switch off your brain and ignore things that don’t seem quite right. Rather:
if you’re going to complain about one specific element as being unrealistic, you should consider the work in its totality and ask whether in the context of the work, this specific thing is inconsistent with the worldbuilding.
I think that’s a fair demand, so I’ll deploy it to analyze one of my personal Flying Snowmen – vampire sex. Regardless of whether we’re talking about the dark brooding Angel type vampire or the sparkly douchebag variety, everybody agrees that vamps are dead. Or the “undead,” whatever the hell that means. As a result they have no pulse. Blood does not circulate through their veins. Yet this seems to not put a damper on their sex life (other things do, but that’s not relevant to the point). So my question is, how they hell do undead beings with no pulse or circulation manage to get erections? It just doesn’t make sense.

Until you apply Scalzi’s analysis. After all, by digging into a story about vampires, you’re already buying into a lot of stuff that’s simply explained by some magical hand waiving. If they’re dead, how do they move at all? How does an inert digestive system evolved to subsist on regular food make energy out of blood? What’s with the no reflections in the mirrors and such? By the time you get to undead boners, “magical Viagra” really isn’t that much of a stretch.

Everybody, I suspect, has their own Flying Snowmen when it comes to fiction. The question becomes whether it’s something that just makes you snicker or completely throws you out of the suspension of disbelief needed to enjoy speculative fiction. It also asks broader question about how readers should approach fictional worlds that are clearly not our own.

One approach is to assume the world is like our own, except when specifically shown otherwise. That’s easier said than down when dealing with modern urban fantasies (like the aforementioned Angel) than heroic or high fantasy, since we know how the world around us operates, but it’s possible. For example, the medieval world into which the heroine of Doomsday Book is dropped behaves just like our own, although she got their via time travel. With such an approach you wind up looking for oddities and things unexplained by the narrative.

The other approach is to say that since we’re in a fantasy world all the rules are off the table, unless otherwise demonstrated. Assume you have a world populated by non-human sentient creatures. One gets hurt, maybe thrown from a great height onto solid ground, in a way that would render a human out of commission for a long time. This creature recovers quickly, however. There’s nothing “wrong” with that, assuming we haven’t learned somewhere else in the story that these creatures are as frail and breakable as humans. Maybe that story element doesn’t work on its own merits, but that’s a different issue.

Which approach works best? It depends on the story, of course. I’ve got one epic fantasy kind of thing with no humans at all (ready for a second draft in 2012!).  It’s a completely alien world.  I’ve got another one percolating that will have exclusively humans involved.  It’s different, but it looks a lot like what we know of the world. I’ll think about those differently as a writer. I’d expect a reader to do the same.

In the end, everybody’s Flying Snowmen moment is different. It’s impossible for authors or directors to be able to anticipate every area of expertise that a reader/viewing might be able to bring to bear on a story. Difficult as it can be, perhaps it’s best to heed the words of the MST3K theme song
repeat to yourself it’s just a show / you should really just relax
Although, in the case of Gollum’s fiery demise, I suspect it has less to do with worldbuilding or the mystical nature of Mount Doom than it does with a very real phenomenon: artistic license. Sometimes, you don’t let the real world get in the way of a good story.

December 12, 2011

Explanation of Origin, But Not Persistence

I won’t lie, I’m not a huge hockey fan. On TV, at least, it’s too damn hard to follow what’s going on (I’ve never seen a game in person, so maybe that’s different). Besides, the NHL season goes on way the hell too long before it gets to the Stanley Cup playoffs, which basically everybody gets into anyway. I tend to get into things like the Olympic tournaments, but mainly for the same reason people jump on the USMNT bandwagon during the World Cup – naked patriotism.

That caveat aside, I’ve never understood why fighting is such an inherent part of the game. Yes, hockey is a violent sport in and of itself, but so are sports like football and rugby. Neither of those tolerate, or even celebrate, the kind of fighting that goes on in hockey. The old joke, of course, is that “I went to a fight and a hockey game broke out.” How did it get to be that way in the first place?

This article (the end piece to a long series in the New York Times about the death of a hockey enforcer) suggests it has to do with the ethnic rivalries inherent in the game’s early days:
The first organized hockey games were played here [in Montreal] in 1875 by English-Canadian rugby players looking for a winter sport. For the first 20 years or so, the players were mostly members of Montreal’s English and Scottish elite; French Canadians joined in the 1890s, when the Catholic Church in Quebec started to drop its resistance to sports. Montreal’s Irish, as English-speaking Catholics, occupied a kind of middle ground between the Protestant Anglo-Scots elite and the Catholic French majority.

They all had their own hockey clubs, some of whose names are still etched on the Stanley Cup: the Scottish, represented by the thistle on Montreal’s flag, had the Victorias; the English, with the rose, had the Montreal Amateur Athletic Association; the Irish had the Shamrocks; and the French, of the fleur-de-lis, had the National and the Montagnards. The Shamrocks often allied with French clubs against the English and the Scottish in disputes over who would be allowed into the top leagues.
The theory goes that ethnic rivalries spilled out onto the ice, where they were dealt with using the violence of the game. In other words, a punch out on the ice was one that didn’t happen on the street. It’s an interesting idea, but other researchers haven’t found any evidence that there was a whole lot of fighting in early hockey in the first place. Violent play, particularly whacking other players with the hockey stick (as got one player convicted of assault in 2000 when he clonked an opposing player on the head), was reported, but not game stopping fights.

Regardless of the origins, fighting is fairly endemic in the modern game:
By 1960-61, the N.H.L. averaged one fight every five games, but the rate rose steadily until 1987-88, when the average game had 1.3 fights. Then the rate dropped, and today the league averages one fight every two games.
But why? And why don’t we see the same thing in other sports? After all, football is more inherently violent and there are soccer teams out there who have served as proxy armies in racial, ethic, and religious rivalries for decades (ask anyone in Glasgow about the Old Firm). What makes hockey different? One theory is that fighting developed as a kind of safety valve after more violent play was cracked down upon.
I’m not sure how far that goes, however, given attitudes like this:
Calls for stricter rules against fighting in hockey have been heard for decades to little effect.

‘You can no more ban fighting in hockey than in any other sport,’ [writer Adam] Proteau said last month. ‘But you can punish it more appropriately, starting with a game misconduct and ejection for any fight, and a sliding scale of fines/suspensions for repeat offenders.’
To an outsider, that sounds an awful lot like a rationalization. If you define “ban” only to mean “completely prevent at any time in the future,” then, yes, you can’t ban fighting in any sport or any other walk of life. But compare the aftermath of this weekend’s Cincinnati/Xavier college basketball brawl with a hockey game. Why is extracurricular fighting a part of one game but not the other?

If fighting really isn’t a part of hockey, seems pretty easy to clamp down on it. First offense? Half-season suspension. Second offense? Full-season suspension. Third offense? Banishment from the game. That would cut down on the problem pretty quickly, yes? Unless, of course, it’s not really a problem at all.

December 9, 2011

Friday Review: The Magicians

I’ve read lots of books and seen lots of movies and TV shows with characters that are less than stellar. Heroes, even, who are deeply flawed and, in many cases, assholes. I get it. A complex and tortured protagonist makes for compelling drama. But in all of my life, I’ve never wanted to haul off and hit a fictional character.

Until I met Quentin Coldwater. If I ever, somehow, ran into Quentin, I would no doubt pop him in the mouth on general principles. Quentin is the hero and main character of The Magicians, which more than one reviewer dubbed “Harry Potter for adults.” Quentin is also a complete, utter, and colossal douchebag.

Quentin is an about-to graduate high school student who is whisked away to an exclusive (and invisible) college in upstate New York, where he will study instead of Princeton. During his years there he, along with his friends and rivals, learn to be magicians. To what end? Well, there isn’t really one. There’s no great battle against evil for which they are being trained. Further study of the actual mechanics of magic is discouraged, as it tends to make people go crazy (allowing the author to skirt the issue of how magic in this world actually works – either a clever sidestep or a cowardly dodge, I’m not sure which). Although we’re told that magicians work around the world behind the scenes of governments and other power centers, the world of The Magicians is, in terms of history and society, exactly like ours.

Which is why, for the last hunk of the book, after Quentin and crew have graduated, they spend most of their time in another world, where their training comes in handy. Called Fillory, it’s a lot like C.S. Lewis’s Narnia with the serial numbers filed off. In fact, according to a comment to this review, it was originally supposed to be Narnia but Lewis’s lawyers put the kibosh on that. Exciting things happen in Fillory, and lessons are learned, but none of it really carries much weight.

That’s because Quentin is such a colossal douchebag. He begins the book as the stereotypical moody teenager, completely disaffected with the world around him. And by the end of the book . . . he’s exactly the same, only older (horribly lame attempt at a happy ending/sequel setup notwithstanding). I get the point being made (Quentin is constantly looking for meaning anywhere but where he is and is never able to find it), but it doesn’t make for a protagonist that I can really care about.

Take, for instance, the time Quentin spends in New York City after graduating from college. He reunites with some friends who graduated a year earlier. Unlike his dour home in Brooklyn, they live in Manhattan. They don’t have to work, have mastery over the elements, and spend their days planning lavish dinner parties. They drink too much and fuck (too much, too, as it turns out). All the while, he’s got a girlfriend whose only real problem is that, for all her brilliance, she can’t see what a douchebag Quentin is. With all this going for him, Quentin is still a miserable shit. Seriously? He’s not even the 1%, he’s the 0.01% and he’s still a mopey twit? Arghh!

Given all that, I can’t say I really liked The Magicians, obviously. However, it’s got an episodic feel to it and some of the individual set pieces are worth the trip. Others aren’t, such as the laughably bad ending. It’s definitely a mixed bag.

There’s a sequel, as I mentioned, which I already have to I figure I’ll get around to reading it at some point. I only hope that, a few years on, Quentin’s learned to enjoy himself a little bit. Or I’ll have to pop the douchebag in the mouth.

The Details
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The Magicians, by Lev Grossman
First published in 2009

December 8, 2011

Deliver the Kidney (Oh Yeah!)

In law school, I took a class that was a bioethics seminar (the title of my final paper was a line from a Van der Graaf Generator song!). Among the issues we discussed was whether the law should recognize and enforce commercial contracts for surrogate motherhood. In other words, should you be able to pay someone else to carry a pregnancy to term with you.

A lot of people seemed to be OK with “altruistic” surrogacy, where a friend or family member agrees to carry the pregnancy for free (although usually with some consideration for medical expenses). Add money to the equation, however, and things changed. There was something cheap or tawdry about renting your body out for cold hard cash. I objected to the disparate treatment. It shouldn’t matter whether the surrogate you’ve got is a friend doing a favor or a woman who advertised on Craigslist. Either the whole surrogacy thing is wrong or it isn’t right?

So why don’t I feel the same way about people selling kidneys?

The other day in the New York Times, Alexander Berger made the case for creating a heavily regulated market for kidneys. Not a libertarian free for all, mind you, but federally regulated. Berger suggests paying willing donors $50,000 for their trouble.

The argument is pretty simple. There is currently a vast discrepancy between the number of people who need kidney transplants and available donors. Unless you have a friend or loved one who will make an altruistic donation to you, you pretty much have to wait for somebody to die and move up the list of transplant candidates. Only half of the people who made it onto that waiting list actually got a kidney.

So, offer a cash incentive to the public and the gap disappears, or at least narrows considerably. After all, most folks have two healthy kidneys and can make do with one. The operation, according to Berger, is very low risk, especially if you’re young and healthy. People will line up for the easy payday, right?

Well, maybe. For one thing, Berger oversells things just a bit. If the donation process is so easy, why pay $50,000 for it? After all, the average American only earns a little over $48,000 per year. A year’s salary for one operation? For a few days work, 50 grand is a hell of a payday.

For another, Berger hints at the concern of a lot of people, which is that in dire economic times like this, the wealthy will essentially harvest the poor for spare parts. His federally regulated market would limit purchasers to the government or certain nonprofit organizations, not private citizens. But there is still something skeevy about people needing to sell body parts to make ends meet.

But, then, why is that any different than the surrogacy situation? Why should someone with the connections to procure a volunteer donor live while someone without should die? I can’t really give a good answer to that.

In the end, I think I have to admit that my objection to creating a (legal) market for kidneys, or any other disposable organ, has its basis in the “ick” factor. That’s not good enough. In the end, we need to do better with organ donation. If cold hard cash on the barrel head is the best way to do it, I might have to learn to live with that.

December 6, 2011

Another Moral Panic Falls Apart

While I was off doing NaNoWriMo, there were some news reports about one of the more peculiar ideas teenagers were having across the country. It involved vodka, tampons, and . . . well, let’s let Stephen Colbert sort it out:


Field tests showed it didn’t work that well, anyway (via). But it’s a good story on how a moral panic gets rolling, especially when it involves something teenagers do. After all, they’re an alien species to adults, anyway, so who knows what kind of weird shit they’ll come up with. More times than not, however, the facts on the ground don’t really match up to the hysteria that initial media reports stir up.

So, on that front, remember the great threat to civilization known as sexting? You know, where teenagers were taking pictures of themselves in various stages of undress and sending them to other teenagers via cell phone and what not? It was an epidemic, another example of how the sexualization of the culture was reaching young people.

Only, it turns out, it wasn’t. As with the vodka-soaked tampons, the hullabaloo about sexting is more about heat than light. As reported here, a pair of new studies shows that instead of nearly 1 in 5 teens engaging in that kind of behavior, the real numbers are more like 1 in 100:
‘There’s a zeitgeist in America socially that suggests that sexting is something that’s really prevalent,’ Pew research specialist Amanda Lenhart told the [New York] Times. ‘I think this research shows that it actually isn’t that prevalent. It happens, but the likelihood of it happening to any given person is pretty low.’
How does something like that get so blown out of proportion? The co-author of one of the studies explained:
It only takes one or two cases to make people think this is very prevalent behavior. This has been reported as if it were something that everyone was doing...It's really not the case.
That’s particularly true in the modern media world, fed by a 24-hours news cycle and the fertile fields of social media. How do we avoid falling into that kind of trap next time some sensational news story breaks? As usual, a healthy dose of skepticism (nay, even cynicism) goes a long way. You know how when it comes to financial scams that if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is? I propose a similar truism when it comes to new stories about the habits of teens – if it sounds too weird to be true, it’s probably bullshit.

December 5, 2011

A Drummer, A Writer, & West Virginia

I love Wikipedia.

Dearly and passionately. It’s such a treasure trove of juicy info. Yes, I know, it’s perhaps not the most reliable source in the world on some things, but unless you’re trying to solve the nation’s current political issues or intractable moral problems, it’s really pretty good. It’s just so easy to go, “hey, I wonder about . . .” and go try and find out.

That’s what I did the other day. I was watching a TiVo’d version of the latest Rush DVD, as broadcast on VH1 Classic. It’s from their last tour, which featured a performance of Moving Pictures in its entirety (even the long dormant epic “The Camera Eye”). Somehow, for some reason, I plugged “moving pictures” into the Wikipedia search field and . . . voila! You learn all kinds of things.

Take, for example, the song “Red Barchetta.” Always a favorite of mine, I knew it was based on a short story (“A Nice Morning Drive,” available here) published in Road & Track in 1973. Briefly, it’s about a dystopian future where automobiles, like the titular vehicle (think something like this) have are illegal but a rebellious narrator sticks it to the Man, anyway. Or, more succinctly:


Anyway, I knew all that. What I learned from Wikipedia is that drummer/lyricist Neal Peart tried to contact the author of the story, Richard Foster, while making the album. He never did. Not then, anyway. But, as Wikipedia tells it:
In July 2007, Foster and Peart finally made contact with one another; Foster later posted an online account of their journey by motorcycle through the backwoods of West Virginia between stops on Rush's Snakes and Arrows tour.
Wait, what? The drummer of one of my favorite bands road tripped through my state? Neat! And, hey, it being Wikipedia and all, guess what’s laid out at the bottom of the page – a link to Foster’s post about the trip, over at the BMW Bikers of Metropolitan Washington Message Boards.

It’s a fun read. Foster met up with Peart and the other bikers in the Rush tour group after the band’s show outside of DC, from which they took the very scenic route to Pittsburgh through West Virginia (they stopped in Buckhannon for the night). Lots of pictures. Lots of confusion in the West Virginia wilderness.

Didn’t I say I love Wikipedia?

December 1, 2011

Winner Winner Chicken Dinner

Wait, what?  Where the hell did the last month go?

Oh, right, National Novel Writing Month.  Well, hey, guess what . . .


Yes, I managed to hit the 50k mark in thirty days.  Slow and steady, too.  My daily output only dropped below 1400 twice and never topped 2000.  I was right in the 1600-1800 per day sweet spot.  I really does add up after a while.  Final total was 50,278 words for the month.  So, hooray for me!

Alas, the damn thing's not done, yet!  Probably another 15-20k in the works, which I'll have to pound out in December.  Then put it away and return to an older project for a rewrite.  Hey, at least I've got plans.

As for blogging, regular service resumes on Monday.  See you then!

November 1, 2011

Bloggus Interuptus (Novelus Writus)

Last year, I bailed on National Novel Writing Month, aka NaNoWriMo. But I had a good excuse – K and I took a trip to St. John in the Virgin Islands to celebrate our fifth anniversary (pix here, if you’re curious). It would have been unseemly to take on the task of writing every day while we were away, and impossible to make up for lost time when we got back. But I’m back in the game this year!


This will mark the fourth time I’ve done NaNoWriMo. In 2007 I crashed and burned about 60% of the way to the 50,000-word target for the month, although I expect to revive that novel in a different format someday. I “won” in 2008 and 2009, although neither novel was finished during the month. 2008’s effort is now moldering in a box in my closet, after a second draft convinced me it was shit. 2009’s effort, which is considerably more epic, is set for a second draft in early 2012. I kind of like it, so I expect I’ll push through the polishing it needs. This year I’m taking on immortality and what I might do to people who are and aren’t really cut out for it. We’ll see how it goes.

All of this is a longish way of saying that I’ll be otherwise occupied this month, so there won’t be any updates at Feeding the Silence. See y’all in December!

UPDATE: Track my progress . . .

October 27, 2011

The Play’s the Thing, But History Still Matters

Hello. I'm Leonard Nimoy. The following tale of alien encounters is true. And by true, I mean false. It's all lies. But they're entertaining lies. And in the end, isn't that the real truth? The answer is: No.
- The Simpsons, “The Springfield Files”

This past weekend, K and I were out at the West Virginia Book Festival, where we ran into my sister-in-law and my niece plowing through the used book sale. My niece, who’s in high school, already had two armfuls of books. Among them were a boatload of Shakespeare. She got them not to fulfill some requirement for English class, but because Shakespeare references were popping up lots of places and she wanted to know more about them (in contrast to her lunkhead classmates, as I understand it).

Yes, I was one proud uncle.

Perhaps inevitably, discussion slid towards Anonymous, the latest Roland Emmerich opus to hit the silver screen (opening tomorrow). It’s about how Shakespeare really didn’t write the stuff that’s attributed to him, giving the honor instead to Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford (who, in the movie, is also the son and lover of Queen Elizabeth I). It sounds like riveting, entertaining, popcorn scarfing fun. It’s also complete fiction.

Which, you know, is fine when it comes to drama. The parallel that immediately came to my mind when I heard about Anonymous was Amadeus, which tells the fictional tale of how Mozart was offed by a jealous rival.* It’s fantastic drama, but it ain’t history. Which is fine, as long as that’s all it presents itself as.

If only Anonymous was doing that. Instead, Emmerich and Sony “have produced a documentary and classroom study guide”  to go along with the film. Which is why Shakespeare scholars and boosters are pissed.

One scholar laid out the case against Anonymous in the New York Times last week. The de Vere theory has some history behind it, at least:
The case for Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, dates from 1920, when J. Thomas Looney, an English writer who loathed democracy and modernity, argued that only a worldly nobleman could have created such works of genius; Shakespeare, a glover’s son and money-lender, could never have done so. Looney also showed that episodes in de Vere’s life closely matched events in the plays.
Historian Simon Schama did a similarly caustic putdown here (http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2011/10/16/film-anonymous-doubts-shakespeare.html).

But what’s so wrong with a theory that’s famous believers include Freud, Antonin Scalia, and John Paul Stevens?
[P]romoters of de Vere’s cause have a lot of evidence to explain away, including testimony of contemporary writers, court records and much else that confirms that Shakespeare wrote the works attributed to him. Meanwhile, not a shred of documentary evidence has ever been found that connects de Vere to any of the plays or poems. As for the argument that the plays rehearse the story of de Vere’s life: since the 1850s, when Shakespeare’s authorship was first questioned, the lives of 70 or so other candidates have also confidently been identified in them. Perhaps the greatest obstacle facing de Vere’s supporters is that he died in 1604, before 10 or so of Shakespeare’s plays were written.
Supporters of the Looney theory get around the lack of evidence in a way well known to modern political observers – a conspiracy theory! Thus, the absence of evidence is, in fact, evidence itself. The usual caveats about such things apply, of course, from the traditional problem of how all those conspirators kept the secret for so long to the equally prevalent issue of why would anyone care to put up and maintain such a faƧade?

Shakespeare supporters are striking back, too. The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust is:
is protesting the release of “Anonymous,” . . . by covering Shakespeare’s name on several signs in Warwickshire, the British county that was the playwright’s home.

BBC News reported that the trust had taped over Shakespeare’s name on nine local road signs to coincide with the London Film Festival premiere of “Anonymous.” It said the group would also cover up signs on 10 pubs and drape a sheet over a Shakespeare memorial in the playwright’s hometown of Stratford-upon-Avon.
I guess the idea is to protest the writing of Shakespeare out of history by . . . writing him out of history, albeit temporarily. It’s not the most clever protest, but it will do.

Although I wonder if the Shakespearians doth protest too much. After all, the Bard himself is well known for his “histories,” most of which have little to do with actual history. They are sublime dramas, but anyone really wanting to know about the fate of Julius Caesar or King Macbeth of Scotland should dive into actual history. Given Shakespeare’s own loose relationship with history, maybe Anonymous is a certain kind of karmic payback?

Or maybe not. A.O. Scott’s review is less than kind:
“Anonymous,” a costume spectacle directed by Roland Emmerich, from a script by John Orloff, is a vulgar prank on the English literary tradition, a travesty of British history and a brutal insult to the human imagination. Apart from that, it’s not bad.

Unless the point of the film is to undermine what Scott calls “a hoary form of literary birtherism” by exposing just how absurd the whole theory is. I suppose you’ll have to buy a ticket and see, which is the best thing for Emmerich’s bottom line, regardless.

And in the end, does any of this matter, anyway? Times theater critic Ben Brantley argues that it doesn’t. After all, the play’s the thing, as somebody or another once said. Nonetheless, there’s nothing wrong with standing up to conspiracy theories that upend the settled historical record. Truth is its own reward. Or at least it should be.

* To be completely fair to Amadeus, it’s told as a series of flashbacks by a man in an asylum, so there’s an obvious unreliable narrator problem staring you right in the face.  I have no idea if Anonymous uses the same trick to ensure some plausible deniability.

October 25, 2011

Evil, But Not Criminal

Over at the Volokh Conspiracy, Orin Kerr writes about one of those cases where the law doesn’t really catch up with the wickedness of the world.

It involves a fact pattern straight out of a Hollywood movie. A group of drug enforcement officers go about their usual routine – investigate tips of drug activity, make controlled buys of drugs from dealers, arrest them, etc. Everything is on the up and up, with one exception. Instead of sending the dealers into the criminal justice system, the cops let them go. Then the cops take the drugs they seized from the dealers, sell them, and pocket the cash for themselves.

Now, surely the cops committed a crime, right? Well, yeah, but which one? How about violation of the dealers’ civil rights (their Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches and seizures, in this case) under color of law, pursuant to 18 USC 242? The Sixth Circuit said, “yes” and affirmed convictions (and life plus 255 year sentence) under that statute. Kerr makes a pretty compelling argument that the Sixth Circuit got it wrong.

The problem that Kerr correctly identifies is a long line of Supreme Court cases interpreting the Fourth Amendment holding that the proper way to analyze those claims is by using an objective, rather than subjective, approach. The only issue is whether there was probable cause to search/arrest, not whether the cop doing the searching/arresting for some other reason.

It’s an outgrowth of a case called Whren, in which a motorist argued that a cop violated the Fourth Amendment by pulling him over because he was black, rather than because he committed a minor traffic violation. The Supreme Court wouldn’t bite and held that as long as there was a legit basis to make the stop, it doesn’t matter if the cop had an ulterior motive in making it. One the one hand, that holding makes sense – to hold otherwise would require some real mind reading on the part of courts. On the other hand, it’s pretty much given cops carte blanche to stop folks for any reason they want, as long as they can gin up some objective “facts” to support it.

At any rate, as Kerr points out, under Whren and subsequent cases, so long as the cops in this case had probable cause when they stopped and searched these dealers (everybody agrees that they did), there was no violation of a “clearly established right.” You have no right to be free from reasonable searches and seizures, after all. That the cops never had any intention on following through with the normal procedure afterwards is irrelevant.

The Sixth Circuit gets around Whren two ways, although the meat off their analysis is that the defendant’s conduct was “thoroughly and objectively illegal from start to finish.” Whren doesn’t apply because the cops weren’t acting as cops (“bona fide law enforcement purposes”), they were acting as criminals. The Sixth Circuit also argues that Whren was all about excluding otherwise valid evidence in a criminal trial, and thus was distinguishable from what went on here.

Kerr isn’t convinced and I’m not sure I am either. He notes that Whren doesn’t mention “bona fide law enforcement purposes” nor really provide any support for that qualification on Fourth Amendment analyses. However, the Fourth Circuit relied on a similar rationale in a case decided last year, although in a very different context. In US v. Taylor (click here for a fuller discussion), the court held that an officer who entered a home while trying to locate the parent of a lost child (and, in the course of doing so, found contraband) didn’t violate the Fourth Amendment. Along the way, it noted that a warrant was not required because the officer was not involved in a law enforcement investigation when he entered the house. In other words, he wasn’t acting for “bona fide law enforcement purposes.”

Obviously, the Fourth Circuit isn’t the Supreme Court and Taylor is very different from the case Kerr is discussing. However, it does show that the Sixth Circuit might not be as far out on a limb as Kerr makes it out to be.

Although this appears to be a case were the court is attempting to ensure that crooked cops don’t get away, the fact is there are lots of other crimes for which these guys were convicted. Among others, there’s garden variety drug trafficking. There’s no need to stretch the law to cover every evil thing these guys did. The garden variety tools are just as effective. Just ask Al Capone.

October 21, 2011

Friday Review: The Destiny of the Republic

Everything I learned about presidential assassinations I learned from musical theater.

OK, that’s not entirely true. The details of the Lincoln assassination are so prevalent in the culture that you sort of soak those up during your life. As for JFK’s killing, well, there’s always Oliver Stone (kidding!). But as for our two lesser know victims, James Garfield and William McKinley, my knowledge base really comes from Stephen Sondheim’s brilliant, macabre take on the whole political killing business, his 1990 musical Assassins. Such are the benefits of having a college roommate with both a deep appreciation of musical theater and a skewed view of the world that resembles my own.

Thus, my prior knowledge of the Garfield assassination was pretty much limited to the fact that he was shot by a crazed office seeker named Charles J. Guiteau. Guiteau claimed that he was only doing God’s will, but (as the song says) “God was acquitted, and Charlie committed until he could hang.” Turns out, of course, that the situation had a lot more factors going into it than can be distilled into one song (even a really good one).

Those factors come to life in The Destiny of the Republic: A Tale Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President, a detailed examination of the whole incident by Candice Millard. Millard makes a compelling case that Garfield’s eventual death – he lingered for almost three months after shot by Guiteau – was due at least as much to the medical care he received as it was to an assassin’s bullet. American doctors, who at the time were still fighting back Joseph Lister’s theories on antiseptic medicine, poked and prodded the president with numerous unsterile instruments (including their unwashed fingers), triggering infections that eventually led to his death.

While Millard spends a great amount of time (particularly in the book’s second half) on Garfield’s lingering death, the first half of the book is spent setting up not only the lives of Garfield and Guiteau up to that point, but the world in which they lived. It’s a fascinating snapshot, showing both how different the United States of the 1870s-1880s is compared to today, and how disappointingly similar the two eras are.

Both men had formative events that would not happen in the modern era. Guiteau had a long spell as a member of a utopian socialist commune in New York, becoming part of a vibrant movement in the 19th Century that knows no real analog today. Meanwhile, Garfield managed to become President of the United States without ever seeking out the office. Not only did he enter the 1880 Republic convention in Chicago without being a candidate, his role at the convention was to make the nominating speech of a fellow Ohioan, John Sherman (brother of General William Tecuhmsa Sherman). But his speech, part of a back and forth between entrenched spoils-system Republicans and reformers, was so well received (and made, in part, on the behalf of some oppressed delegates from West Virginia), that he began to receive votes during the numerous rounds of ballots. After two days of voting, he was the GOP nominee. Imagine Chris Christie getting drafted in that way today!

The politics of the day, however, would be depressingly familiar to anyone who pays attention to the way the game is played today. While Garfield holed up on his Ohio farm (it was considered unseemly for presidential candidates to actually campaign in that era – outgoing President Hayes suggested to Garfield that he sit on his porch and “look wise”), his surrogates engaged in the kind of negative campaigning we find today. His opponent, former Union General Winfield Scott Hancock (at one point, it seems like every pol in the book can be called “General”), is bashed not only on his lack of a record (printing up blank pamphlets titled “Hancock’s Achievements”), but for being a Democrat and, therefore, quite possibly a Confederate sympathizer (in spite of, you know, being a Union general and all). Undaunted, Hancock’s forces lobbed corruption allegations at Garfield, scrawling “329,” the amount of money he allegedly gained from an insider trading scandal, all over the place – even including inside the homes of prominent Republicans. The result was a comfortable Garfield victory, although the popular vote margin was on 1898 votes (out of nearly 9 million cast).

Guiteau, meanwhile, leads a life that would be familiar to anyone who deals with mental illness and the criminal justice system. There’s little doubt that Guiteau is insane. He was also a crafty con man, managing to repeatedly run up various debts and then simply slip away under cover of darkness. He could be violent, threatening his sister with an axe and tormenting his wife during their short-lived marriage. However, given that he was a pauper and his family had few assets, they couldn’t afford to have him committed. Even his purchase of the gun has a ring of Dirty Harry to it – he knows nothing of firearms, so he goes in an buys the biggest damn pistol he can find.

Even the nation’s reaction to the shooting seems familiar. In spite of popular conceptions of 19th-century America as being a collection of isolated parochial places, fact is the nation was uniting as it never had before, thanks to railroads, telegraphs, and the recent introduction of Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone (more of him later). Word of the shooting spread across the wires immediately after it happened. Some papers printed rushed incorrect information that Garfield had already died. Letters of support and advice poured in to the White House from all over.

Sadly, the reaction to Guiteau’s act was also something that would not look out of place today. He was locked up immediately, more for his own protection than because he was charged with anything. One of his jailors took a shot at him. Crowds gathered and called for Guiteau to be lynched (Millard even quotes newspaper editorials in favor of it). Once Garfield died and Guiteau’s legal defense hinged on insanity, it was clear that nothing other than a guilty verdict and the death penalty would do. And, of course, political points were scored, with civil service reformers linking Guiteau’s acts to the politicians most associated with the spoils system (including Chester A. Arthur, who became president when Garfield died).

All of this lends rich context to the basic story Millard tells of the President, the assassin, and incident that linked them in history forever. That being said, the book tends to drag a bit in that second half, partly because the story of Garfield’s slow death is redundant and partly because of an odd shift in focus.

Guiteau slinks to the shadows for much of the second half (at least until his trial), while Bell comes to the fore, feverishly working on an invention that would allow Garfield’s doctors to find the bullet lodged within him. While fascinating that the inventor was involved in the situation at all, there’s really no payoff. For one thing, it’s never clear what the doctors would have down had they known where the bullet was (their guesses, it turned out, were way off). Millard even mentions that many gunshot victims and Civil War vets walked around with bullets still inside them with no ill effects, so it’s an odd thing to focus on. But, more importantly, Bell’s gizmo doesn’t work in the end, so the whole tangent seems a bit pointless. In this interview, Millard explains that she came to the Garfield assassination while doing research on Bell, so maybe she was just reluctant to let that research go to waste.

Instead of leaning on Bell’s story, I wish Millard would have focused more on Guiteau and what happened to him after the shooting. As I said, he was in jail the whole time, but it doesn’t appear he was charged with anything until Garfield died. Did anybody suspect that might be a problem? And we learn that the only lawyer willing to represent Guiteau is his own brother, who practiced patent law, not criminal law. Surely they searched for someone else, the era’s version of Clarence Darrow or Gerry Spence, who would have reveled in the challenge. Did they all say “no”? Did nobody even look into the possibility? Yes, I admit, I’m a criminal procedure geek, but c’mon!

Millard also falls a little short of her title, Destiny of the Republic. Although there is some discussion of the political calculus in when to bring the vice president into the mix, there is no sense of urgency about the matter. Garfield, while dying, was fully lucid and conscious to the end. There was nothing like, say, Ronald Reagan’s unconsciousness following his assassination attempt (or an equivalent to Alexander Haig’s “I am in control here” declaration). And once Garfield was dead, Arthur stepped in and performed admirably. However traumatic Garfield’s lingering death was to the national psyche, it’s hardly a turning point in the nation’s history.

In the end, where the book really shines is in the contrast of Garfield and Guiteau, two men swept into their fatal confrontation by things beyond their control. It’s ironic that Garfield, who never really wanted to be president, is the kind of person who we should want to become president – educated and inquisitive, a voracious reader, and apparently a genuinely decent guy. And yet, even as part of a very select club of assassinated presidents, he’s pretty much forgotten these days. Of course, Guiteau is not exactly a household name, either.

Unless you’ve been to the theater.

The Details
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The Destiny of the Republic: A Tale Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President, by Candice Millard
First published in 2011

October 19, 2011

Talk About Bad Timing

As the Major League Soccer regular season comes to a conclusion, things in DC United land just took another unexpected turn. The team’s been in a skid for the past few weeks, in spite of the lure of the playoffs dangling right in front of them. Nothing exemplifies that more than Saturday’s home game against Chicago, where DC appeared to salvage a late win on a Dwayne de Rosario penalty kick, only to concede two goals to the Fire in stoppage time.

So the club’s playoff hopes hang by the slenderest of threads (win the last two games and appeal to the fates for help), when this happens.

Two years ago, Charlie Davies was a rising star with the US National Team. A skilled forward with blazing speed scoring goals in a top European league (France’s Ligue 1, with Souchoux), he appeared to be the answer to the perpetual American quest for a true finisher up front. Then, before a World Cup Qualifier against Costa Rica in DC, Davies broke curfew, went to a party, and wound up involved in a horrific car wreck. Davies was severely injured, another passenger was killed, and the driver, who was drunk, was later convicted of manslaughter.

One of the feel good stories at the beginning of the season was Davies’s return, playing for DC United on loan from Souchoux, after recovering from his injuries.. Although he’s not back to his prior form (and has developed a reputation as a bit of a diver), Davies’s 11 goals have helped keep DC in the hunt all season. It’s still a pretty good story.

Save for this latest complication. Davies has sued, for $20 million, both the club at which the party was held and, ironically, Red Bull (which, of course, owns the hated rivals from New York) which organized it. DC, apparently, has a version of a statute commonly called a Dram Shop Act, which allows people injured by someone to sue the providers of the alcohol they consumed, if it was obvious the person was drunk and should have been cut off. The theory, then, would be that the club (and vicariously Red Bull) should not have continued to serve alcohol to the driver because she was visibly intoxicated.

It sounds to me (with the caveat that I have no experience with this kind of litigation – to quote Herman Cain, “I don’t have any facts to back this up, but . . .”) that this will be a tough sell. For one thing, it seems to me that Dram Shop Acts were designed to protect wholly innocent third parties, not others associated with the drunk driver. In other words, to compensate the driver of the other car, not the passengers who rode with the drunk driver. I imagine a jury will want to know how, if the driver was so obviously intoxicated, Davies didn’t see that as well. His lawyer’s already out in front on that question:
We believe the facts will show, among other things, that Mr. Davies had no interaction with the driver at the Shadow Room and was in a separate room. Without getting into detail, as he was leaving, the driver asked if she and her friend could give him a ride to his hotel. In the hustle and bustle of the lobby as he was walking out -- a split-second decision — he said yes. There was no meaningful time in which Mr. Davies had an opportunity to ‘observe’ the driver; he had no knowledge what she had been drinking or whether she had been drinking.
We’ll see how that goes (see Update below). More problematic, at least to the extent that Davies’s suit is looking for compensation due to his missing out on the World Cup last year and his career generally coming to a halt, he’s really go nobody to blame for that but himself. Had he heeded the instructions of his coach, he never would have been out in that situation at all. I don’t know if Dram Shop Act cases deal with contributory/compensatory negligence, but I’ll bet a good defense attorney makes sure that information gets in front of a jury, regardless.

But, above all, what shitty timing. Davies has been a spotlight player for DCU and the league this year. He was in the mix for the Gold Cup squad this summer before he picked up a knock. I understand that the timing is down to the statute of limitations (most states have a 2-year statute of limitation on tort suits), but still. To anyone predisposed to see any lawsuit as a bad thing, Davies looks like a guy who made a bad decision trying to fob it off on someone else, at a time when his team is in desperate need of cohesion. It’s going to leave a bad taste in the mouth of not just DC fans, but many USMNT fans as well.

Davies may very well win his suit, one way or the other. But I wouldn’t count on being welcomed back into the good graces of the American soccer faithful anytime soon.

UPDATE:  Of course, he told Sports Illustrated soccer writer Grant Wahl something different earlier this year:
Davies says he didn't drink any alcohol that night, and Roberta and Espinoza, in his words, 'seemed completely normal. There wasn't even a second where I thought they might have had too much to drink.'
Oops.

October 18, 2011

Wrong and Happy About It

Let it never be said that I won’t fess up when I get something wrong.

Back in August I blogged about a fascinating case up in Rhode Island, where the state’s governor, Lincoln Chafee, refused a request from the federal government to turn over an inmate in state custody to face trial on federal charges that could carry the death penalty. Invoking a little-known clause of the Interstate Agreement on Detainers, Chafee exercised his right to refuse based on Rhode Island’s long stance against capital punishment. The Feds didn’t like is, so they filed a writ of habeas corpus ad prosequendum to drag the defendant to federal court. Chafee and the defendant sought to have the writ quashed.

At the end of my blog post, I wrote:
In the end, I expect the First Circuit (and maybe the Supremes afterwards) to hold that Chafee has to turn [the defendant] over. But I’m willing to be pleasantly surprised if it turns out otherwise.
Guess what? I’m pleasantly surprised. Last week the First Circuit affirmed Chafee’s ability to refuse to comply with the writ, on the grounds that once the Feds invoke the IAD, they are bound by its terms, including the provision allowing the governor of the state in possession of the inmate to refuse to turn him over. It was a split 2-1 decision, although I did not find the dissent compelling. However, that fact could be a springboard for the Feds to seek en banc review from the entire court or take it to the Supreme Court.

Which, sadly, I expect they will do. The case has an issue that probably should be settled by the Supreme Court, but one would think that in this time of runaway deficits that the Feds could find something better to do with limited resources than spend (potentially) millions of dollars to try, convict, and execute a guy who will die in a Rhode Island prison anyway.

Sure, there are state sovereignty issues at play, too, but as demonstrated by the latest crackdown on state licensed medical marijuana operations, the Obama administration doesn’t give a shit about that. Still, money talks and bullshit walks, right? Yeah, but not when the blood lust runs high and an execution is in the offing.

What will the en banc First Circuit or the Supreme Court do with the case, if the Feds push it further? I don’t know. The majority’s opinion is in depth and compelling, but I still find it hard to believe that it will end up being the last word on things. So I’ll keep my original prediction in play, of the Feds seek further review – this defendant will eventually get turned over to them for trial. Either I’ll be right or, again, pleasantly surprised. I’ll take those odds.

October 17, 2011

Behind the Scribbling: “The Last Ereph”

Over the weekend, the final edition of The Absent Willow Review went live, which includes my short story, “The Last Ereph.” You can read my story here. Be sure and check out the rest, too. Some of them look pretty good. Thanks again to the AWR folks for publishing my story, and my condolences on going out of business.

That said, I thought I’d provide a little bit of background on that story.

I actually started this story out the old fashioned way, longhand. I took a pen and notebook with me to ProgDay in 2010, figuring that the rustic setting and downtime between sets would provide some good inspiration. Why I didn’t think to take my netbook, I have no idea. My handwriting is legendary in its awfulness and my hand cramps up after a few lines. Regardless, it jotted down about the first half of things in the shade at Storybook Farm, appropriately enough. The rest came together at home, with invaluable editorial assistance from K. Any particularly brilliant turn of phrase is probably due to her. Thanks, honey!

The inspiration for the story came, oddly enough for an atheist, from some sympathy for a dying religion. I read an article a while back in the New York Times about Zoroastrianism and how it was on the verge of dying out. Now, the Zoroastrians were monotheists way before it was hip, worshiping one god in Persia before even the Jews came on the scene, must less the late arriving Christians and Muslims. That being said, they should be legion, yes? Not anymore. From what I remember from the article (caveat – I could have it completely wrong), Zoroastrians don’t prosthyletize, don’t claim an exclusive in to the truths of the universe, and don’t frown on things like intermarriage with folks from other faiths.

What I took away from the article was that the Zoroastrians were disappearing because they were open minded and non-confrontational, which really struck me as kind of a shitty fate. So I decided to write about it. In the universe of “The Last Ereph,” people belong to “cult houses” like people today belong the churches. They’re more philosophical than religious, although there are those about (I guess – maybe we’ll find out sometime later?). The semi-hero, Kol, stumbles into a decrepit house of a cult with only one remaining member. Will it stay that way? You’ll have to read it to find out.

As for the perhaps most critical question, asked by my parents: “how do you pronounce ‘ereph’?” I have no idea. That’s one of the beauties of writing fantasy – I get to make up words and not give a damn what they sound like out loud. I’ll leave the film/television/audiobook adapters to worry about that.  And individual readers, of course.

That's it.  Enjoy!

October 12, 2011

A Musical Interlude

Apparently, the long holiday weekend has drained my blog-fu for this week. So here's a quick ditty I whipped up a couple weeks ago to tide you over until next week.

Friday Night (and My Baby's In Another State) Blues by Infinity Ranch

October 7, 2011

Friday Review: Contagion

I’ve seen multiple reviewers quip that watching Contagion, Steven Soderbergh’s meditation on a global pandemic, in a movie theater is a bit like watching Jaws in a rowboat. That’s true. Even before Gwyneth Paltrow’s face gets peeled off during an autopsy, the way Soderbergh’s camera lingers on every bit of human contact makes you hyperaware of any cough, sniffle, or wheeze emanating from your fellow moviegoers. In that sense, Contagion is frightening as hell. Shame it’s not a very good movie.

The problem isn’t with what is on the screen. Soderbergh’s a great director with well developed visual chops, which he puts to great use in the beginning of the film as we trace the spread of the disease out of Hong Kong via a handful of people unfortunate enough to have interacted with the aforementioned Paltrow at a casino. We get quickly introduced to a broad range of characters, from public health officials and scientists tracking the disease, to those impacted by the spread, to even a crazed altmed blogger who sees the thing through the lens of conspiracy theories.

A good start. Problem is the movie plows on through the spread of the disease and the eventual development of a vaccine to stop it in a way that is almost completely devoid of the characteristics of engaging drama. The characters are barely fleshed out. Some disappear for long stretches of time for no good reason. The world’s going to hell in the background, we’re told, but it hardly ever shows (electricity flows, the water works, and everybody looks pretty well fed). There’s no real conflict, at least one that’s more concrete than the metaphysical “man v. nature” theme. Yes, obstacles are overcome and (in the end) someone saves the day, but it’s done with all the power of a midlevel documentary produced for high school students.

A part of the problem might be something for which Soderbergh and his collaborators should otherwise be praised. Everything I’ve read suggests that the science in Contagion is spot on. It’s rare enough for Hollywood to get it kind of right, but to get it really right is an achievement in and of itself. Unfortunately, it doesn’t necessarily lead you anywhere, dramatically. Years ago I blogged about a German film, Sophie Sholl - The Final Days, that was so true to the historical record that some scenes had entire stretches of dialogue taken directly from transcripts of the heroine’s interrogation session. Historically interesting? Certainly. Compelling drama? Not so much. Same with Contagion. The process of how things worked out is interesting in its own right, but it’s not particularly enthralling.

To the extent that Contagion goes looking for conflict, it finds it in the contrast between the diligent and persevering scientists/public health types and the nutty blogger mentioned above, played by Jude Law. There’s actually a lot there you could go into – click the link for Respectful Insolence at the right for a blog devoted to that kind of conflict – but Contagion stacks the deck too heavily on the side of the scientists for it to be a fair fight. Not only are the scientists all diligent, competent, and generally good at their jobs, they are also selfless altruists who make grand gestures for the benefit of their fellow human.

Perhaps the best example is Kate Winslet’s character, sent by the CDC to Minneapolis (where poor Gwyneth returns to lose her face) to get a handle on the situation and work with the local public health apparatus. Of course, she gets the disease and dies. With her dying action, she tries to give her coat to the guy in the cot next to hers in the ward where the dying have been stockpiled. On its own, it would be a touching human moment. Combined with a CDC director who gives his dose of the vaccine to the child of one of the facility’s janitors, a researcher who tests the successful vaccine first on herself, and a World Health Organization researcher who develops a quick case of Stockholm Syndrome (off screen, natch’), it’s just one more repetitive beat on the nature of the good guys.

In the face of that, Law’s nutty blogger never really stands a chance. It’s not enough that he floats the idea that the virus is the result of a biological weapons program gone amok (it’s not). It’s not enough that he revels in the standard anti-vax conspiracy theory that drug companies ramp up fear to get people to buy their products. It’s not enough that he promotes a bullshit herbal treatment for the disease that may lure in the gullible (although, to be fair, there’s no other treatment at the time). No, on top of all that, it turns out that he’s actually making a huge payday off the sales of said herbal remedy and, in fact, is arrested for (of all things) insider trading.

I’m not saying that Soderbergh gets it wrong in this conflict when he assigns the white hats and black hats. It’s just that the good guys are so good they border on saintly. Meanwhile, the antagonist is not only a loudmouth of questionable influence, but is a shitty money grubber, too. It’s hard to make compelling drama out of a conflict when you put your thumb on the scales like that.  Hell, even movies with Nazis as bad guys try to make them a little more complex than the mustache-twiddling baddies from 1930s serials.

Which is a real shame, because Contagion lays out how something like this would really go. With some tweaking, it could be educational and gripping. As it is, it just comes off as stilted and cold. One thing’s for certain – you’ll never look at a hand shake the same way again. Or Gwyneth Paltrow’s skull.

The Details
-------------------

Contagion
Released 2011
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Written by Scott Z. Burns
Paltrow, Laurence Fishburne, et. al.