May 30, 2012

Saving Us From the Shootout

For the past few years, the UEFA Champions League final – the Super Bowl of European club soccer and, some would argue, the highest level competition in the world – has been played on Saturday, rather than the traditional midweek date for European fixtures. That’s mean good mid afternoon time slot and Fox has therefore run the match on the main Fox network (over the air, as it were) rather than one of its cable outlets. So more Americans get to feast their eyes on the final.

And what a final this year, huh? English club Chelsea’s improbable run ran into Germany power Bayern Munich, who had the benefit of playing the final in their home stadium (as with the Super Bowl, the site of the final is determined years in advance). The two teams slugged it out for more than an hour, before Bayern grabbed a late goal that surely looked like the winner. However, given the script, Chelsea struck back with an even later goal of their own, leaving the two sides tied 1-1 after regulation.

Which meant it all went pear shaped after that. Thirty minutes of overtime produced nothing but insomnia, before the inevitable – penalty kicks. Yes, it was dramatic. Certainly, if you were a Chelsea fan, it must have been sweet (Chelsea prevailed 4-3, with the kicks taken in front of the end of the stadium where Bayern’s fans were seated). But for a neutral or, gods forbid, someone who wasn’t a soccer fan looking in with curiosity, it was an anticlimax.

If you’re a fan of the game, you know that shootouts as means to determine a winner aren’t all that popular. If you’re not a fan, you might rightly wonder what is the point of crowning a champion based on a small part of the game, equivalent to a home run derby in baseball. Maybe that’s why Sepp Blatter, the enigmatic chief of FIFA, the game’s global governing body, is searching for an alternative. Maybe.

It was not always so that penalty kicks were a part of the game:
I was in River Plate stadium (before it was known as Estadio Monumental Antonio Vespuci), Buenos Aires, Argentina, June 25, 1978, when three goals were scored in extra time and the hosts defeated the Netherlands to win the World Cup.

No golden goal. No penalty kick shootout lurking in the minds of players and fans. In fact, I believe that was the last World Cup final that would have actually been replayed, two days later, before the major domos at FIFA realized that each and every final must come to a resolution. Travel plans. The demands of television. Not to mention the strain on the players.
Replays these days in such major tournaments aren’t really feasible, for those reasons (although the F.A. Cup manages to deal with them in most rounds, IIRC). So what’s the solution? In my opinion, the problem isn’t so much PKs themselves as a tie breaker (although I think the old MLS version was more interesting), it’s that the teams involved know that, if they hold out long enough, the game will change into whatever the tie breaker is.

So here’s my solution – let them play. In games where there must be a winner and loser (so the vast majority of matches aren’t impacted), tell the teams going in that they’re going to play until there’s a winner. I’m open to suggestions about allowing extra subs or what the overtime periods should look like (I’ve got no real problem with sudden death, or “Golden Goal” as FIFA dubbed it), but at the end of the day, the winner should score more goals that the other team.

Having watched lots of games that ended in PKs, the sense I get is that once teams get into extra time the goal becomes not winning the game, but avoiding losing it, because the PK scenario greatly equalizes the two teams’ chances. In other words, for large chunks of that half hour, it’s a slow speed kick around section, not a competitive match worthy of a major final. My theory is that, without the safety net of PKs hanging out there, teams would be forced to play to win and would, therefore, score goals.

Granted, there could be games that go on for hours and hours, as some Stanley Cup playoff games are famous for, but I think that would be really rare. After all, since a draw is meaningless neither side has a reason to play for one, right? It would be truly exceptional for two teams to be so well matched (or so astoundingly unable to score) that games would drag on and on as a regular exercise. And when they did stretch on to epic lengths, they would be truly epic. What’s the problem with that?

That being said, I don’t expect anything to change real soon. For one thing, PK shootouts only pop up in knockout matches which, even in tournaments like the World Cup or Champions League, are really rare. Easier just to hope the problem doesn’t pop up this year than worry about dealing with it. And, for all its flaws, the shootout does make things easy on the TV programmers, which more and more runs the sports world.

In other words, we’re presented with a long-term deadlock that nobody can seem to break. Hmm, which end do I want to take the penalties in?

May 25, 2012

Friday Review: Palimpsest

At the core of Palimpsest is an intriguing idea: people enter a truly weird otherworldly city (called Palimpsest, naturally) by having sex with others who share the same mark – something like a tattoo, but that is actually a map of one particular part of the city. Whom you plook determines where you go in Palimpsest.

But that’s not quite right. That’s sort of like saying that the core of Tommy is a story about a deaf, dumb, and blind kid who loves pinball or that at the core of Brave is a story about a mute girl wandering on a bridge. Since those are both concept albums, the real core of them is the music. The stories (such as they are) are secondary.

Palimpsest is kind of like that. It’s about words – lots of words – more than it is about the characters and what happens to them. It’s not surprising that Valente, in addition to writing a lot of fantasy and sci-fi prose, also writes a great deal of poetry. Palimpsest is, from beginning to end, a feast of words, of descriptions of the bizarre city and the people who are traveling there (not to mention how they’re getting there).

Language is clearly Palimpsest’s strength. Unfortunately, it’s also its biggest weakness, at least for me. Valente gets so wrapped up in descriptions and baroque prose that it’s easy to get lost in the words and skimp on meaning. As a result, character development suffers, as does any kind of real plot momentum, which greatly ramps up with about 1/3rd of the book left, as if Valente suddenly realized she had to actually do something other than have the characters wander around Palimpsest.

Which is understandable, because Palimpsest itself is an easy place to get lost in. Think of the most bizarre kind of world ever visited by Doctor Who, multiplied by a few levels of magnitude, and then given form by animator Hayao Miyazaki. Seriously, it is completely weird in the best sense of the word. For readers, anyway. For the residents there – including a cadre of mute wounded veterans of a war that may or may not be over – and our visiting main characters, the city tends to have some pretty rough edges. When the four characters decide they want to stay in Palimpsest forever, it doesn’t seem like a natural consequence of their nature, but rather a necessary engine to drive the plot.

Ultimately, what left me most unfulfilled about Palimpsest is the questions that I had about the world Valente created, both as it applies to our “real” world and the fictional city. Valente calls Palimpsest a “sexually transmitted city,” but is it the most communicable STD of all time (all four characters begin the book without the mark, sleep with one other person, then have it – a 100% transmission ratio)? Or is there some kind of volition involved in giving it to someone else? What is it about sex that opens the door to Palimpsest? What happens if the person with the section of the city on their body where you want or need to go isn’t attractive to you? What if you’re straight and that person is of the same gender? Three of the four characters are conveniently bisexual, which removes a potential area that would have been interesting to explore. Why do all four have to agree to go permanently for any of them to do so (another quartet had a member die and is permanently shut out)? And how exactly does Palimpsest work, anyway, with its combination of purely magical mythology and steampunk mechanics?

In the end, the word that jumps most to mind when thinking about Palimpsest is one that gets thrown at things like Brave and Tommy, too – pretentious. In and of itself, that’s not a bad thing – I love Tommy and Brave, after all. But I suspect how much one enjoys Palimpsest will come down to how enamored they are of Valente’s verbose style. It keeps me from being truly wrapped up in the book. But there are enough interesting ideas and audacious imagery that it made me think a bit. And that’s never a bad thing.

A final note on something I don’t comment about much when it comes to books. As with lots of books I “read,” I actually listened to Palimpsest via Audible. I’ve never really gotten thrown off by the reader/narrator, but this one really had some issues. Particularly when it came to one character who is Italian, whom she gave an outrageous “that’s a spicy a meataballa” accent (until, near the end, he thankfully lost his tongue). From a quick search in Amazon’s “look inside” feature, the dialogue doesn’t appear to be written that way. If that’s correct, it was a horrible off-putting choice on the reader’s part.

The Details
By Catherynne M. Valente
Published 2009
Nominee, Best Novel – 2010 Hugo Awards
Winner, SF/Fantasy/Horror – 2009 Lambda Literary Awards

May 23, 2012

Does Genre Matter? Sould It?

Let me tell you about a movie I watched recently . . .

It’s about a 17-year old girl, A, who is on the verge of big things, about to go off to a very prestigious college. She makes a grave mistake, driving drunk and causing a car wreck that leaves a man, B, in a coma and kills his wife and young son. A few years later, after A is released from prison, she seeks out B in order to atone or apologize or . . . well, maybe she doesn’t quite know herself. B, a shell of his former self due to the accident, doesn’t know who she is (juvenile records are sealed, remember). Predictably, yet improbably, they bond, until the awful truth is revealed. A makes one last gesture seeking forgiveness. The end.

If I asked you what genre that film would fit in, what would you say? Drama, broadly, and possibly tragedy, in the classic Greek sense. It’s also a small indie film, of the kind that focuses on only a few characters and their relationships with each other. So far, so good.

Now, let me add a little twist.

The story of A and B play out against the backdrop of a superbly improbable event – the appearance in the sky of a second Earth that, by all accounts, is just like ours (down to having the same people on it). And the last act of forgiveness A does for B is to give up her spot on a spaceship to the other Earth to B, so that he might find his alternate wife and son there.

OK, now what kind of genre are we talking about? It sounds like science fiction, except that the movie almost goes out of its away to avoid any “science,” ignoring the real world calamities that might arise if another planet suddenly appeared very near to ours. Fantasy then, maybe? Or maybe just the general rubric of “speculative fiction” – a simple “what if?” story, without any grander world building ambitions?

The film I’m talking about is Another Earth, a low-budget indie that took Sundance by storm a couple of years ago. It’s very good – the slow dance of the two main characters, although fairly predictable, is very well done – but I’ve seen more than one person up in arms that it dares to call itself sci-fi. Not just in a “this isn’t marketed the right way” sense, but in a “this isn’t sci-fi, therefore it’s crap” sense. As if they feel they’ve been duped. Does that make any sense?

In one way it might. If something is presented to a reader/viewer/listener as “science fiction” or “progressive rock” (to use another genre with hotly contested boundaries) that triggers some particular expectations in their mind. If those expectations aren’t met, they’re disappointed. I understand that. I’ve got albums in my collection that came out of the prog world but don’t really fit the genre, if we’re honest. It took me a little while to let go the “but they’ve got the wrong label!” observation and just get down to the music.

Similarly, while Another Earth is sold as sci-fi (by some, at any rate), it’s pretty clear early on that it isn’t really interested in any of the scientific ideas or problems raised by the sudden appearance of the additional Earth. It’s more of a big blue metaphor, hanging in the sky promising a second chance for our characters. I could understand the frustration if they had tried to deal with the scientific stuff and did it badly, but where that is so clearly not the focus of things, why get hung up on it?

At the end of the day, however, a movie, book, or album stands or falls on its own merits, not how its described, packaged, or sold. To say negative things about a movie because it doesn’t conform to your preconceptions of what you thought it was going to be is awfully closed minded. That doesn’t mean you have to like it – art is subjective, after all, and what moves some people will seem pointless to others. Fair enough. But unless you reach that conclusion with the blinders removed, it doesn’t really count.

At best, genre labels and descriptions are signposts that might guide you to art you would like. If you’ve seen movies X, Y, and Z and they fall under the heading “film noir,” you might want to explore other movies with the same label. But that label doesn’t guarantee quality. Sturgeon was right (or perhaps too generous) – 90% of everything is crap – even within your own pet genres.

I’ve written before about how frustrating it is when writers from outside the genre dip their toes into the speculative fiction pool but furiously deny that’s what they’re doing. It suggests that they have negative preconceptions of what science fiction or fantasy is – pulpy, poorly written, simple escapism, etc. – that they don’t want linked to their work. It’s unseemly and reeks of snobbery. Readers or viewers who do the same thing, and link genre purity with quality, aren’t any better.

May 18, 2012

Friday Review: Destination Moon

In his penultimate column for, John Scalzi laid out nine sci-fi flicks “you should see that you probably haven’t.” I was pleasantly surprised to have either seen all of them or have them in the Netflix queue, with one exception. I knew the name Destination Moon, but had no idea it was a George Pal production and was co-written by Robert Heinlein. With that kind of pedigree, I immediately hit Netlfix and put it at the front of the line. So, was it a journey worth taking?

I think so, although more for archaeological purposes than sheer entertainment. Made in 1950, Destination Moon has a hilariously overwrought “American industry, fuck yeah!” setup that makes you wonder if Ayn Rand, in addition to Heinlein, had a hand in the script. After a governmental rocket program is scuttled by sabotage (done, probably, given the times, by filthy commies!), private industry takes over. A rocket is built to take a crew to the moon (the mechanics of which are explained by Woody Woodpecker). Meddlesome bureaucrats try to stop the launch (due to concerns over its nuclear propulsion system), which proceeds just steps ahead of a court injunction. Really.

Once the rocket launches, things really get off the ground, so to speak. From there on out, Destination Moon is a solid piece of 1950s hard sci-fi, complete with mathematical calculations and legitimate concerns about the safety of the whole enterprise. Of course, some of what is on screen we know now is wrong – laughably so, in some cases – but given where we were at the time, it’s pretty solid.

Unfortunately, the focus on hard science makes for a somewhat dry dramatic arc. Our heroes reach the moon, but this isn’t the moon of Georges Méliès or H.G. Wells?. There are no natives who take our heroes hostage. Not even any man-bats or what have you. Only rocks, dust, and a spectacular view of the Earth. Supreme credit to Pal and his crew for not trying to create excitement at the expense of accuracy. Shame it makes things a little bloodless.

More to the point, it forces us to focus on the heroes themselves who are, to put it mildly, barely defined at all. The notable exception is the second-string radio operator, the walking stereotype of a Brooklyn dimwit, who becomes the audience surrogate when things need explained, in spite of the fact that we all saw the damned cartoon not too long before. He’s hammered in as comic relief that just doesn’t work.

Thus, when drama finally arrives on the Moon, in the form of a variant on “The Cold Equations,” it’s really hard to care that one of the four crew members might have to get left behind to die, especially if it’s the annoying guy from Brooklyn. In perhaps the only real sop to story ahead of realism, the crew has a “Eureka!” moment and figures out a way to leave the Moon safely. So nothing’s really lost, for all that.

If only they would actually get home. It’s ironic that Destination Moon ends with the rocket on its return journey to Earth, but before reentry. We know from Woody that the rocket will deploy a series of parachutes to slow its descent before landing. Unfortunately, nobody seems to have addressed the problem of reentry temperatures and, thus, it seems that our heroes are destined to escape from the Moon only to burn up upon return to the Earth (or die in a fiery crash). Again, it’s likely they didn’t know any better at the time, but still.

While Destination Moon lacks quite a bit as a film, one thing going for it are its exquisite visuals (it won an Oscar for visual effects). It’s clearly dated to 21st Century eyes, but they do a fantastic job of servicing the story and providing some unique views of places nobody had ever been before.

Destination Moon is a odd one. It’s got a cheesy 1950s B-movie sentimentality, but it’s visually impressive and scientifically rigorous (given the times). We rarely see that in modern sci-fi. So maybe it’s more impressive than I give it credit for.

The Details
Destination Moon
Released 1950
Directed by Irving Pichel
Written by James O'Hanlon, Robert Heinlein, Rip Van Ronkel
Starring John Archer, Warner Anderson, Tom Powers, et. al.

May 16, 2012

The Virtual Sky Is Falling! Or Maybe Not

I’m all for good stories about media-fueled inflated panics. Y2K. The Rapture. The world coming to an end according to the Mayans. Good stuff, all. But there comes a point where it’s hard to tut-tut the media for feeding a public frenzy when there doesn’t appear to be any evidence that’s what’s going on. Sort of an inflated panic about inflated panics, as it were.

Did you know there’s going to be an Internet “apocalypse” on July 9? Me neither. But according to this article at Salon:
The apocalyptic story line was once reserved for truly apocalyptic events. Nuclear war. The return of Christ. Environmental or economic collapse. But it’s 2012, and the apocalypse has become the basis for everything from Super Bowl commercials to summer romantic comedies . . . Just read coverage of the so-called Internet Doomsday virus, which will supposedly strike and shut down the Web on July 9.
Here’s the thing – the Salon piece doesn’t cite, link to, or quote any of that coverage. If it’s so pervasive, I figured a quick Google search would provide a cascade of it. Alas, all I found was a few techy articles and links back to the Salon piece. This article at TechRepublic about the underlying problem (and how to fix it), too, begins:
If one were to believe some headlines, there’s an Internet apocalypse coming on July 9, 2012, when hundreds of thousands of computers will be unable to access the Internet because of actions by the FBI.
Again, however, there are not quotes, cites, or links to these pervasive headlines. I’m pretty plugged into the news cycle, especially when it comes to Net-related stuff and I’ve never heard of this impending doom. Given the roots of the alleged panic (the FBI is involved, after all), you’d think that it would have spawned some good conspiracy theories, at least. I haven’t found any. The actual details of the criminal investigation are kind of interesting, though, and are set out in the Salon piece.

Don’t get me wrong – the media frequently latches onto some small problem and blows it entirely out of proportion. Like this:

or this:

So it’s good to hold them accountable when they do. But I’m not sure that’s happening in this case. If you’re going to get into a panic about a bullshit panic, at least provide some evidence of the panic in the first place, all right?

May 15, 2012

In Defense of Janus

In Roman mythology, Janus was the god of doorways, with two faces – one looking towards the future, the other two the past. In a column over at The Guardian, Bernard Harcourt invokes Janus in pondering what he sees as the “two-faced liberalism” of the United States (via) :
This tension, when it gets acute, gives rise to what I would call ‘two-faced’ or ‘Janus-faced liberalism’. Over the last 40 years, during a period characterized by increased faith in free markets, in deregulation, and in privatization, America's Janus-faced liberalism has worsened and fueled the uniquely American paradox of laissez-faire and mass incarceration. In the country that has done the most to promote the idea of a hands-off government, our government runs, paradoxically, the single largest prison system in the whole world.
As a kind of case study for his argument, Harcourt highlights two apparently contradictory recent bits of Supreme Court news – the oral arguments about the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act and the Court’s decision in Florence v County of Burlington, in which the Court upheld the policy of a pair of local jails in New Jersey to strip search everyone who comes into their possession, without any need for suspicion that they are dangerous or in possession of contraband. In particular, he notes that Justice Kennedy (ever the swing vote in close cases) appeared to have real difficulty with the ACA mandate during oral argument, but authored the opinion upholding the searches in Florence.

I saw a lot of similar comments on the web in the wake of Florence – it came out the week after the ACA arguments, which were still being dissect ad nauseum in the press. While I sympathize with them, I think they reflect a layperson’s misunderstanding of how courts work. Harcourt has his own theory about where the Janus stuff comes from in modern America, but he, too, overlooks the practicalities of court decisions.

Hard as this is to imagine, when lawyers go to court and ask a court to do something – or to stop someone else from doing something – the winning argument is not going to be “because it’s wrong.” Or “because it violates ideals of liberty.” Although those kinds of generic sentiments might come up in the rhetoric around an issue, when you drill down into things, courts deal with laws on the books and prior precedent, not first principles.

As an example, a lot of the populist outrage over the ACA comes from the “gubmint can’t make me do that!” standpoint, regardless of what gubmint it is we’re talking about. The actual legal case against the ACA mandate, on the other hand, is rooted in a much more technical and (usually) boring question – does the Constitution give the federal government the power to regulate this activity? Yes, “liberty” in the generic sense plays a role in the debate, but it’s really more about the Commerce Clause and the cases interpreting it.

By contrast, Florence isn’t about a grant of power to the federal government, but about limits on that power and the power of the states (via the Fourteenth Amendment). Again, the question isn’t whether a blanket strip search policy violates generic ideals of “liberty.” It’s whether the Fourth Amendment, and the cases interpreting it, prohibits the state from having such a policy. Whether such a policy is necessary* is not as important as whether it’s permissible. Like it or not, the Fourth Circuit is pretty much dead on its feet for civilians, much less inmates. Courts have to deal with that baggage when resolving new questions in that area.

When viewed in light of those realities, Kennedy’s position in both cases makes a bit more sense, mainly because it’s clear he’s not dispensing opinions based on generic concepts of “liberty” or what have you. He (and the rest of the Supremes and every other judge in the country) decide individual cases that raise discrete issues, not big picture questions of political philosophy. His views on those sorts of questions probably inform his decisions in some way, but they are hardly the only concern.

Popular reaction to court decisions, Supreme Court decisions in particular, tend to break down into either “good” or “bad,” and rarely go beyond that. To the extent that they do, reactions most often arise from a particular person’s political or philosophical positions, not the law that actually controlled the decision. I understand why such folks can find the Court to be two-faced in some areas, and maybe it really is. More likely, it is as I have said many times before, much more complicated than that.

* As Harcourt points out, none of the federal agencies responsible for dealing with prisoners use a blanket strip search policy and rely on individualized determinations of risk. Nonetheless, the Obama administration argued in favor of the decision the Court ultimately made. Another swing and a miss.

May 11, 2012

Friday Review: ROSFest 2012

For the second year running, I made the pilgrimage to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, last weekend for the Rites of Spring Festival, aka ROSFest. As I wrote in my review last year, Gettysburg seems like an odd choice for a prog festival, since it’s not exactly a huge population center. But between the venue and the small town amenities nearby, it’s probably the perfect place for such a thing. So how did this year’s fest measure up? Pretty damned well.

First up for the Friday night double header was British neo-proggers DeeExpus, who you may remember from a recent Friday Review. They led off with the killer title track epic from The King of Number 33, which was quite a bold choice. It’s always difficult to start off a set with 25 minutes worth a music, after all. Unfortunately for me, that choice meant that once that track was over, the rest of the set was downhill, as it’s by far my favorite of theirs. The rest of their set was enjoyable, but never hit the heights of their opener.

Friday night’s headliner was Sweden’s Karmakanic, one of numerous bands with links back to The Flower Kings that were part of this year’s ROSFest. Karmakanic is the project of bassist extraordinaire Jonas Reingold and owes more to his years with The Tangent that with The Flower Kings, bringing it more fusion and jazz elements. That being said, the almost annoyingly upbeat vibe of The Flower Kings pops up a lot, particularly in the lyrics. Their set was noteworthy for several lengthy jams that let Reingold, guitarist Krister Johnson (another alum of The Tangent), and keyboardist Lalle Larson to stretch out. Given ROSFest’s reputation for catering to the “safer” side of the prog spectrum, that may be as far out as any band’s been on that stage. They closed with a killer rendition of “Send a Message from the Heart” and an unexpected Genesis cover (“Undertow” from . . . and Then There Were Three – not exactly their proggiest moment). A highlight of the fest for me.

Opening up Saturday morning was the Aaron English Band, which I knew very little about, having only listened to a few samples here and there on the Web. My impression, confirmed by their set, was that they would be a good case study for the endless “what is prog?” debates, as their stuff sounded is more like well crafted grown up rock and roll than “prog” proper. In that way, their material reminded me a bit of Kevin Gilbert, whose stuff resides in that same region of progginess. Which has nothing to do with quality, of course. I enjoyed their set quite a bit and picked up a couple albums afterwards. They did several interesting covers (like this one) that really take the original and change it up in clever ways. A good opening to the day.

I picked up Resistor’s Rise prior to ROSFest, to get familiar with the band. It’s anchor is a whimsical 35-minute epic called “The Land of No Groove,” about four musicians who journey the world in search of real music. Not surprisingly, Resistor is a four-piece band (although the names have been changed to protect the innocent, I imagine)! Also, not surprisingly, their set led to a full presentation of “The Land of No Groove.” Resistor would be equally comfortable in the jam band camp, I think, with long instrumental excursions fueled by twin guitars (and, occasionally, flute or violin) and a loose, laid back feel. I enjoyed their set a bunch and will have to track down some more of their albums.

Hasse Froberg’s Musical Companion – HFMC – is the clunky moniker for the side project of Hasse Froberg, lead vocalist and secondary guitarist for The Flower Kings (see, there they are again). I hadn’t heard note one from them going into their set. On the heels of their just released second album, HFMC blasted through an energetic set of prog-tinged classic rock. They went over well, but I’ll admit they didn’t really do anything for me. I don’t think it’s a “not prog enough” situation (see above), there just wasn’t anything that jumped out to me about their set. It could also be that, on a late Saturday afternoon and five bands in, I was aurally drained.

Saturday’s headliner was IQ, one of the first bands I discovered when I plunged into the prog world back in college. I saw them at the late 3 Rivers Progressive Rock Festival outside Pittsburgh a few years ago and was stoked when they were announced for ROSFest. I was more stoked when they announced they would do their 1997 concept album Subterranea in its entirety. When they did, in its manifold multimedia entirety. Unfortunately, travel snafus got the band on late (killing planned encores) and things got a little rough in spots (Peter Nichols’s voice was going by the end), but those couldn’t take away from the epic sweep of the performance (aided, in one point, by Resistor main man Steve Unruh on violin). Great capper to a solid day of good music.

First up Sunday morning was British quartet Sanguine Hum, which would otherwise be the winner in the “best name” competition for the weekend if the previous version of the band hadn’t been called Antique Seeking Nuns. No kidding. This was another band I went into the festival without knowing anything about and was pleasantly surprised. Their keyboard player rocked a real Rhodes for their set, which set them off sonically in a different direction than anybody else. They were also the least epic of the bunch, which was a nice change of pace. If anything, they were a bit too laid back for the Church of Prog slot, but that’s hardly their fault.

IOEarth (also British) was the final blank slate for me this year. They went over like a house of fire and, no doubt, laid down a set full of energy, scorching guitar work, and powerful female vocals. Alas, their charms are mostly lost on me. I had the same reaction to the band in this slot last year – District 97 – which was also a minority viewpoint. They’re just too heavy, too riffy for my tastes. I was also put off by a lot of canned backing tracks early in the set. Having said that, it was an enjoyable enough set (the guitarist had a great rapport with the crowd). I just won’t be buying their back catalog.

Discipline is a band I’ve got a weird history with. Their 1997 release Unfolded Like Staircase was hailed as a classic (best album of the 1990s, I’ve read more than once), which meant that, by the time I got a hold of it, it was so dipped in hype that I was prejudiced against it. I’ve softened over the years, but I still wouldn’t call myself a huge fan. That being said, I wondered how they would come off live. Turns out, they came off really fucking well, by far the most intense set of the fest. Even with the guitar player having a decidedly off night (I heard someone say his hands were cramping), they were excellent. Whatever misgivings I’ve had in the past, I’m firmly a fan of Discipline now. Note the capital “D,” please!

Wrapping things up on Sunday night was Agents of Mercy, another Swedish offshoot of The Flower Kings, in this case including the King himself, Roine Stolt. Along for the ride are Jonas Reingold and Lalle Larson of Karmacanic. Agents is a little grittier and heavier than The Flower Kings, but otherwise you can see Stolt’s DNA woven throughout their symphonic prog. Confession time – I’ve never been a huge fan of The Flower Kings. They remind me of chicken soup for the progger’s soul, more than anything else. Not bad, mind you, but not particularly enthralling, either. So while I enjoyed Agents’ set, it wasn’t the high point of the festival.

What was a high point for a lot of people was the Agents encore, which became a kind of Flower Kings reunion, with Hasse Froberg joining Stolt and Reingold (among others). Neat to see and hear, if only for its uniqueness.

Some of these blurbs make it sound like I was less than enthused with ROSFest this year. That’s not really true. Fact is, none of the bands this year were “bad” in the sense that I thought of walking out and doing something else. And some of them were brilliant. In addition, I think there was a good deal of variety this year, within the bounds of the more melodic branch of prog that the fest caters to. You can’t ask for much more than that, can you?

May 9, 2012

Pulling the Monkey Wrench Out of the Machinery of Death

Last year I wrote about an interesting dispute playing out in New England about a man named Jason Pleau. To recap, Pleau, who is serving 18 years in prison in Rhode Island, has been indicted on several federal charges (including robbery and murder) that could expose him to the death penalty. When the feds invoked the Interstate Agreement on Detainers to have Pleau transferred to federal custody to be prosecuted, Rhode Island governor Lincoln Chafee invoked a little known provision of the IAD to deny the request, on the grounds that Rhode Island doesn’t have the death penalty and the feds shouldn’t step in and use it there. Undaunted, the feds filed a writ of habeas corpus ad prosequendum to obtain Pleau. Rhode Island again said no, arguing that it’s denial under the IAD controlled.

The case went to federal court and, to the surprise of lots of observers (including me!), the First Circuit Court of Appeals held (2-1) that the feds had no right to Pleau. Once the feds used the IAD procedure, they were bound by its outcome. Last week, the entire First Circuit, sitting en banc, vacated that decision and held (over two dissents) that the IAD provisions don’t trump the good old fashioned Supremacy Clause in the Constitution, meaning that the feds get what they want.

The en banc decision produced a dissent that I find fairly compelling. If nothing else, the court’s ruling makes the IAD almost superfluous in this area, if the writ can be used anytime there’s a hang up. But I suspect the case will die here. It’s an interesting legal issue, but incredibly fact specific and unlikely to recur with any kind of frequency, which means the Supreme Court is unlikely to take the case. But, as you can see, I’ve been wrong before.

What will really be interesting to see is whether the feds, after fighting this battle, will be inclined to do anything other than seek the death penalty. Pleau offered to plead guilty in Rhode Island to the underlying offenses and take life. It would be too easy if the feds made the same offer and were done with it, right?

May 4, 2012

Friday Review: Slavery by Another Name

You’ve heard of the “banality of evil,” the theory that great evils aren’t perpetrated by supervillains or the criminally insane, but by ordinary folks who think they’re doing the right thing. I’d like to add a corollary to that – the “redundancy of evil” – in that when unjust attitudes and policies are enshrined in law, the evil wrought by them is so repetitive and so mind-numbingly predictable that it tends to become second nature. At the very least, it loses some of its sting in the retelling.

That’s the only real fault of Slavery by Another Name, an exhaustive survey of one of the country’s overlooked indignities. It focuses on a period where, although slavery had technically been abolished by the Thirteenth Amendment, it nonetheless continued to exist in de facto fashion in many southern states. Many states had convict labor programs, in which prisoners serving criminal sentences were leased out to private industries. More specifically, someone would be arrested for a minor crime, sentenced to pay a fine and court fees (which escalated the more one insisted on his innocence – shades of Brazil), and then, when he was unable to pay it all, sign a “contract” with a private concern who would pay the fine/fees in return for a period of labor.

As Blackmon demonstrates, this system was used to hoover countless black men into the system on, at best, minor charges that were unevenly enforced and, at worst, completely fabricated charges (many records, he reports, don’t even note the actual charge for which someone was later convicted and sentenced). Unable to pay the fines and fees, they essentially became chattel, bartered and traded from state officials (local sheriffs, mostly) and private concerns. They were sent to cotton plantation, mines, and other concerns that fueled the industrial development of the South after the Civil War.

To call conditions brutal would be an understatement. As Blackmon explains, in mind numbing detail, work conditions were little better than they were during antebellum slavery and, in some cases, even worse. A slave owner, after all, at least had a motivation to protect the investment he made in a particular slave. An industrialist leasing convicts, however, had no such motive. When one died (and they did, in scores), he’d simply order up some new ones.

As I said, sometimes Blackmon gets bogged down in the atrocities he uncovered, which is only natural. Maybe that’s why the middle section of the book, which details the federal government’s attempts to prosecute the perpetrators in the early years of the 20th Century was the most interesting portion of the book for me. Essentially, Teddy Roosevelt tried a bipartisan reach out that would make Obama proud – appealing to “reasonable” southern Democrats in order to create a bipartisan (and bigeographic) solution.

Of course, it didn’t work. For one thing, while the Thirteenth Amendment eliminated legal slavery, Congress had not at that point actually made engaging in slavery a crime. That left federal prosecutors (‘cause the local ones sure as shit weren’t doing anything) tied to a statute originally enacted to deal with peonage in former Mexican territories. In the end, although lots of guilty pleas were generated, the sentences were mostly small fines that went unpaid. One person (if I’m remembering correctly) actually went to prison. Some of those who otherwise pleaded guilty went right back to business afterwards.

The other problem, of course, is that these were not simple criminal prosecutions. They struck directly at the heart of the post-war South’s conception of itself and the role of freed blacks in it. Woven through the tales of torture and death in work camps are asides about lynchings, race riots, and virulent white supremacy (not all confined to the South, of course). Potential witnesses feared for their lives, as did some law enforcement officers. It’s no surprise that the system perservered during those years.

In fact, after that initial Roosevelt attempt to curtail the practice, things ran smoothly until the beginning of World War II, when the federal government stepped in again. Not based on any great principles of justice or racial equality, mind you, but because they recognized the propaganda value of the practice to the Nazis and Imperial Japanese (one prosecution in Texas is praised in the local paper solely for denying the Japanese a means to appeal to our own disaffected minorities). By that time, some other demographic shifts made it possible to squash the industrial slavery system once and for all.

Understandibly (given the title), Blackmon’s focus in the book is on how the slave labor system was used to keep nominally free blacks in a state of subservience. But two other things jumped out at me throughout the book that I think speak to other aspects of the system.

For one thing, the entire scheme was designed to use the law, or the patina of the law, to keep blacks in their place. The men who sent convicts into industrial hells were sheriffs, judges (usually of the low level magistrate types), and other officials. They weren’t working outside the law, they were using the law for their own ends. It was the gloss of legality that allowed them to perpetuate the scheme on a populace that was largely ignorant (and kept intentionally so) of how such things work. Not to go all Godwin, but there’s a frightening similarity to the horrors of the Third Reich, many of which were written into the statutes to make them “legal.”

For another, the entire system is an example of the sickening synergy of a public trust (the treatment of prisoners) and unregulated free enterprise. Presented with a vast supply of nearly free labor, with no recourse to and legal protections for abuse and mistreatment, industrialists did what they tend to do – push ethics and morality to one side and do what’s best for the bottom line. It’s a cautionary tale for a country where one major political party still thinks the solution to any problem is less regulation and getting out of the way of “job creators.” History shows what happens when that’s taken to an extreme.

Often when we look at history, especially the history of atrocities committed in our own past, we do so with a modern perspective of moral superiority. Such barbarity wouldn’t happen again, surely. We’re better people now, right? Evidence suggests otherwise. For-profit prisons are all the rage, to the point where one company offered to buy several states’ prisons (in return for a guarantee of occupancy, of course). Such privatization of public obligations have led to scandals like the one in Pennsylvania where two judges got kickbacks from a private prison company for sending them juveniles to lock up. Or situations like this, in which a private prison company simply packs up and moves out of state when a federal judge calls its juvenile facility a “cesspool of unconstitutional and inhuman acts and conditions”. And did I mention that debtor’s prisons are making a comeback?

Blackmon has made a great contribution to our understanding of our own history. It would be a shame if people see it only as that, tut tut about how evil the olde days were, and shuffle it down the memory hole.

The Details
Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II
By Douglas A. Blackmon
Published 2009
Winner, 2009 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction

May 1, 2012

Life Beats Death, Hope Beats Both

Last week I wrote about how the voters of California will have a chance this fall to repeal that state’s death penalty via the initiative process. If the initiatives passes, those currently on California’s death row will have their sentences reduced to life without the possibility of parole (“LWOP”). That would be a step in the right direction?

Not so fast, says David Dow, writing at The Daily Beast. He argues that it would simply be replacing one form of barbarity for another:
On the plus side, LWOP saves lives, but that’s about it. In every other way it’s a nightmare: It gives up on everyone, regardless of whether they exhibit any capacity for growth and change; it robs people of hope; it exaggerates the risk to society of releasing convicted murderers; and it turns prisons into geriatric wards, with inmates rolling around in taxpayer-funded wheelchairs carrying oxygen canisters in their laps.
I don’t actually disagree with Dow about the cruelty of LWOP. Back when I was first really cementing my position against capital punishment, I relied on LWOP as a bright line that could still be drawn, a way to deal with the really evil people in society. I didn’t really give it much thought until I started doing appellate work in the local public defender office and actually began representing clients doing West Virginia’s version of LWOP.* Two things became clear.

First, the decision about whether to lock someone up forever or provide them some hope of future release is about as random as the decision about whether that person gets the death penalty or not. I had a client doing LWOP who had shot a guy in the back who was beating up his brother. My client (mistakenly) thought the guy had a weapon. But I also had a client who burned down an apartment building with four people inside. He got life with a chance of parole. How can anyone justify a system that produces such random results?

Second, telling someone they will die in prison is both a poor way to try and achieve any kind or rehabilitation and run a prison. Yesterday I was in a hearing for a client who is currently doing life in prison for drug offenses. Under the 2011 amendments to the Sentencing Guidelines he could have his sentence reduced to 30 years. The judge recognized that when you take a 22 year old and tell him he’s going to spend the rest of his life in prison that it makes him unlikely to worry about finishing his GED or behaving well towards other inmates and guards. After all, what does he have to lose?

As Dow points out, in spite of the popular conception of murderer as unredeemable killers, most actually aren’t. The problem with LWOP, then, is that it prevents an individualized determination as to whether someone has truly reformed and is remorseful. Furthermore, it gives that someone a motivation to not give a shit about whether he does or not – he’s got no chance of getting out. And make no mistake, that’s all I’m talking about – a chance. Some killers are beyond redemption or rehabilitation and should, rightly, never see the light of day again. But it’s impossible to know who they are at the front end of a sentence that is going to last for decades.

So I actually agree with Dow about what LWOP is, but I still think his conclusion about the California initiative is misguided. He writes off the fact that LWOP, compared to the death penalty, at least allows the state to correct a mistake when it convicts an innocent person (as happened yet again recently). Granted, it’s not perfect, but death is far more permanent and irreversible. I think he also overlooks the fact that any criminal justice reform is an incremental process. Voters may not ditch the death penalty in California. Asking them to go a step further and eliminate LWOP at the same time would pretty much guarantee nothing gets accomplished.

I’m not a religious person, so I don’t really believe in “redemption” in a spiritual sense. But I do think that people change and they can change if given the proper motivation. Hope of release one day could provide that motivation for some. It’s better in the long run to give it to them and see what they do with it. Giving up on people won’t get us very far.

* In West Virginia, defendants in “capital” cases – first degree murder and kidnapping with injury – can receive sentences of either life with or without the possibility of parole, a decision made by a jury. If a defendant gets “life with,” he serves 15 years before being eligible for release.