January 31, 2013

Hey, Look, Real Tyranny (Almost)!

Words like “tyrant” or “fascist” are thrown around pretty willy-nilly in the modern political climate. Usually they’re just an epithet hurled against someone from the Other Team, regardless of whether the term actually applies (a late and dearly missed local radio host, who would be labeled a “communist” by callers, would sometimes ask them to define the term – they almost never could). When something really tyrannical is in the works it’s worth pointing it out and seeing what put a stop to it.

In December of last year, residents of Paragould, Arkansas (population 26,000), were worried about a spike in crime. In response to citizens’ legitimate concerns, the local police chief announced a plan to address the problem at a town hall meeting (via):
Stovall told the group of almost 40 residents that beginning in 2013, the department would deploy a new street crimes unit to high crime areas on foot to take back the streets.

‘[Police are] going to be in SWAT gear and have AR-15s around their neck,’ Stovall said. ‘If you’re out walking, we’re going to stop you, ask why you’re out walking, check for your ID.’
Lest anyone thing particularized suspicion, the hallmark of “reasonableness” under the Fourth Amendment, was involved, Stovall explained that they were going to “do it to everybody” because “[c]riminals don’t like being talked to.”

The Mayor, too, was on board:
[Mike] Gaskill backed Stovall’s proposed actions during Thursday’s town hall.

‘They may not be doing anything but walking their dog,’ he said. ‘But they’re going to have to prove it.’
Unsurprisingly, Stovall did not consult with an attorney before coming up with his plan. What was it that he thought would bring such roving armed patrols within the ambit of the Fourth Amendment?
This fear is what’s given us the reason to do this. Once I have stats and people saying they’re scared, we can do this,’ he said. ‘It allows us to do what we're fixing to do.’

Stovall further elaborated on the stop-and-ID policy Friday morning, claiming the city’s crime statistics alone met the threshold of reasonable suspicion required to lawfully accost a citizen.

‘To ask you for your ID, I have to have a reason,’ he said. ‘Well, I’ve got statistical reasons that say I’ve got a lot of crime right now, which gives me probable cause to ask what you’re doing out. Then when I add that people are scared...then that gives us even more [reason] to ask why are you here and what are you doing in this area.’
In the lawyer biz, we would technically label Stovall’s reasoning “full of shit.” Courts have repeatedly held that, standing alone, being present in a high crime area is not a valid basis for stop under the Fourth Amendment. See, Brown v. Texas, 443 U.S. 47, 52 (1979); United States v. Moore, 817 F.2d 1105, 1107 (4th Cir. 1987)(holding that while an area’s reputation as a high crime area may be a factor which can be considered along with other factors, being seen in a high crime area, without more, carries no weight).

So what happens if, say, you’re out walking your dog and don’t have ID handy when the cops find you?
Should an individual not produce identification, Stovall said his officers would not back down. Individuals who do not produce identification when asked could be charged with obstructing a governmental operation, according to Stovall.

‘I’m hoping we don’t run across [any] of that,’ Stovall said. ‘Will there be people who buck us? There may be. But we have a right to be doing what we’re doing. We have a zero-tolerance. We are prepared to throw your hind-end in jail, OK? We’re not going to take a lot of flack.’
Zero tolerance - what could possibly go wrong? Heavily armed cops, juiced up on fear, prowling neighborhoods with a “take no shit” attitude from anyone they encounter. How long would it take before some completely innocent poor soul got gunned down?

If you think this all sounds just a bit like martial law, you’re not wrong. Not that the cops care:
[Stovall] even remained undaunted when comparing his proposed tactics with martial law, explaining that ‘I don’t know that there’s ever been a difference’ between his proposals and martial law.
Unfortunately, as Radley Balko explains, Paragould wasn’t going to break new ground:
Using SWAT teams for routine patrols isn’t uncommon. Fresno did this for several years in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The city sent its Violent Crimes Suppression Unit into poorer neighborhoods and stopped, confronted, questioned, and searched nearly everyone they encountered. ‘It’s a war,’ one SWAT officer told Christian Parenti in a report for The Nation (not available online). Another said, ‘If you’re 21, male, living in one of these neighborhoods, and you're not in our computer, then there's something definitely wrong.’

A 1999 report in the Boston Globe found similar units patrolling the streets of Indianapolis and San Francisco, which the reporter noted gave the communities under siege ‘all the ambiance of the West Bank.’
In a way what happened in Paragould is a microcosm of recent American history. Gripped by fear of something, we as a society are ready to give away liberty for the false sense of security that an increased police presence brings. The fear of drugs leads to the dismantling of the Fourth Amendment. The fear of terrorism leads to the wholesale abandonment of principles about torture, due process, and “just” wars, not to mention airport security theater. Think about when you’re afraid – do you make wise, thoughtful decisions in that frame of mind? Why should large groups of people act any differently?

At least, in the case of Paragould, there appears to be a happy ending. There was a backlash to Stovall’s plan and, almost immediately, the city powers that be began walking back the idea:
‘It is my understanding that if they get a call in an area and they go to an area because of some calls of suspicious activity, they’ll make contact,’ [City Attorney Allen] Warmath said.

Warmath said while he had not directly spoken to Stovall, he understood that the street crimes unit would actually be less confrontational than Stovall let on.

‘If they have a call that there’s some problems in the area, they’re at least going to talk to you,’ he said. ‘Maybe that person walking their dog saw something. It gives them some information and some leads to find out what's going on.’
And, according to at least one source, the entire plan’s been scrapped. If so, kudos to the powers that be for wising up. But even more so, kudos to the people of Paragould who stood up and voiced their objections to their city becoming an occupied territory. Cooler heads prevailed against a rising tide of fear.

It’s easy to give into fear – it is the mind killer, as they say. It’s harder to stand up against it and say, “hey, wait a second, do we really want to go that far?” We owe it to ourselves, and to those around us, to take that second step.

January 29, 2013

On Judicial Activism

As someone who reads court decisions for a living, and then has to grapple with what they actually say, it always sets my hair on edge when someone complains of “judicial activism.” It’s such a nebulous term as to be pretty much meaningless. Most of the time its used in the press or in political debates it’s just shorthand for “the court reached a result I don’t like.” Figure out which side’s ox is being gorged and you can pretty easily figure out whether the Dems or GOPers will be waiving the judicial activism bloody shirt.

If judicial activism as a concept has any real meaning, it seems to me it has to have more to do with process than normative results. In other words, in reaching the decision it did (whatever that is), did the court go out of its way to make a bigger impact than the case warranted? Think the infamous Citizen’s United decision, which really didn’t need to reach the First Amendment issue (even if the Supreme Court, in my opinion, got that issue right).

I thought about that when the news broke Friday that the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals had vacated several appointments to the National Labor Relations Board made by President Obama in January 2012. The appointments were made pursuant to the president’s authority to make “recess appointments” while the Senate is out of session, which last only a short amount of time. At the time of the NLRB appointments, the Senate wasn’t doing any real business, but was gaveled to order in pro forma sessions to keep from being in recess.

Such Senate chicanery isn’t a Republican invention:
The current dispute can be traced back to 2007, when Democrats took control of the Senate. Hoping to block Mr. Bush from making any more unilateral appointments, they did not formally recess before going home for Thanksgiving. Instead, they held pro forma sessions, meaning a member came into the nearly empty chamber every third day and banged the gavel. The idea was that the novel tactic would legally break up the long recess into a series of short ones believed to be too brief for recess appointments.

Senate Democrats repeated the move for the rest of the Bush presidency, and Mr. Bush did not challenge it.

Under Mr. Obama, Republicans turned the tables by using the power of the House to block the Senate from adjourning for more than three days. But last January, Mr. Obama decided to challenge the new tactic by declaring the pro forma sessions a sham and appointing the three labor board members . . .
So the issue facing the D.C. Circuit, in an appeal from a NLRB decision by Pepsi, was whether those appointments violated the Constitution. Given the facts of the case, the court could have stopped after deciding that the Senate’s sessions, whether pro forma or not, weren’t a “recess” and that the Senate, rather than the president, gets to decide when it’s in session. For what it’s worth, I think that’s the right result.

But the court did not stop there and, in fact, the court went much further. Not only did it hold that Obama’s particular appointments were invalid, but rather any appointment made in such a fashion that isn’t made between the actual sessions of Congress – i.e., in the space between one Congress ending and the other beginning – is invalid.

I agree with John Elwood over at Volokh, no den of Obama lackeys, that:
This is a very important and very broad holding–indeed, much broader than when it appeared that this case would be resolved on the President’s ability to make recess appointments when the Senate was conducting ‘pro forma’ sessions. It is also the most thorough judicial discussion of the recess appointment power.
By sweeping so broadly, the D.C. Circuit (in a ruling that conflicts with decisions in three other circuits) called into question a long standing bipartisan practice. As Elwood explains:
Intrasession recess appointments have been made fairly commonly since WWII, and have been particularly common since the Reagan Administration. UN Ambassador John Bolton and Judge William H. Pryor, Jr. are two of the more high-profile intrasession recess appointments in recent years.
Furthermore, while there was some controversy about such appointments in the 18th century, by 1823 the Attorney General had concluded that they were all right.

All of this is not to say that the D.C. Circuit, in the end, got it wrong on the broad constitutional issue. I’m hardly an expert in this area of law, so I don’t know. But in going so far and upending long-standing understandings, the court has potentially created some real issues. If the NLRB actions taken with these recess appointments are all now void, what about decisions made by other recess appointments? For that reason, I expect that this decision will not be the last work in the case.

The Constitution limits the jurisdiction of courts to “cases or controversies.” Unlike top courts in some other countries, they cannot offer advisory opinions. Only the particular case before them, and the particular issues it presents, should be resolved. In other words, there’s a good reason for courts to make decisions on as narrow a basis as possible. When they push past that line, it sounds like judicial activism to me, if anything every does.

January 15, 2013

Throwing the Wrench Well Away from the Machinery of Death

It's not many stories I blog about for three years running, but since this one appears to be at an end, I figured I might as well wrap things up.

You may remember, back in 2011, when I wrote about the odd case of Jason Pleau, who is serving a sentence on a Rhode Island state charge that's set to expire in 2028. The federal government would like to prosecute Pleau as well, but with on charges that could bring the death penalty. The state of Rhode Island does not have the death penalty, but that wouldn't stop the federal government from securing a death verdict themselves.

As a result, the feds submitted a routine request under the Interstate Agreement on Detainers Act for Rhode Island to hand over Pleau so he could be prosecuted in federal court. Rhode Island's governor, Lincoln Chafee, mucked things up a bit by using a rarely (if ever) used clause of the Act to deny the request because the potential federal penalty (death) was harsher than any called for by state law.

The feds ran to a federal court get a writ of habeas corpus ad prosequendum, which is another means to get someone in state custody into federal court. Litigation ensued about whether the feds could resort to such a backdoor method (over which the Rhode Island authorities had little control).

To the surprise of several (myself included), the First Circuit initially sided with Chafee, but in a later en banc proceeding held for the feds and ordered Pleau turned over. Chafee took the case to the Supreme Court, which yesterday denied his request to review the case (without comment or dissent, apparently).

So, in the end, the feds get their man. But will they get their death sentence? It will be interesting to see if they pursue it after all this effort and, if the do, whether a Rhode Island jury will give it to them. We'll see, I guess. It's up to the jurors of Rhode Island to have the final say.

January 11, 2013

Friday Review: Dare

I suppose this was bound to happen, my recent exploration of the early synth-pop scene and the fact that, generally, I dig it, even though when it was going on I was turning up my nose at it. So, what the hell happened?

For one thing, must as it pains me to admit it in print, I’m getting old. Not ancient, mind you, but cranky enough that I’ve become that person who looks back on the pop culture of their youth with more enthusiasm than it probable merits, particularly when compared with the shit kids lap up today. You know, the ones who need to get off my lawn?

For another, it was only a matter of time before my examination of electronic music moved into a more radio friendly area. I mean, there’s only so much ambience and Tangerine Dreaming on can do, right? It helped that I found this really interesting documentary on the history of the early British synth-pop scene.

One of the bands featured in that doc was The Human League. To be honest, I’d never given them much thought beyond their super-sized hit:

That track is both very representative and quite different from the rest of the album. As explained by main man Phillip Oakley in the liner notes, the song was punched up and refurbished by the producer and engineer after he’d gone home for the day, under orders from the label that “anything that made the record more saleable must be included.” Oakley says, “I hated it and we had a huge row, but, of course, they were right.”

They might have been, in terms of hit potential, but there’s more interesting stuff going on elsewhere, musically. Lest there be any doubt, this album is fully a product of the early 1980s. Every sound on its electronic, save for the vocals. That aesthetic is less successful in the more overtly radio-friendly material, but really works well when things get more sparse and cold. “I Am the Law” (inspired by Judge Dredd, of all things) and the following “Seconds” (which seems to be about murder) really benefit from stripped down arrangements that dwindle, in some instances, to a single synth, a sparse rhythm track, and Oakley’s vocal.

There’s nothing on Dare that’s transcendent. At its best, it’s a surprisingly bleak capsule of a time when new technology was fully embraced for its own sake. At its worst, it’s still a pleasant enough pop record. That’s not such a bad result, in the end, at least viewed through these nostalgic ears.

And, hey, you kids – get off my lawn!

Dare, by The Human League
Released 1981

1. The Things That Dreams Are Made Of (4:14)
2. Open Your Heart (3:53)
3. The Sound of the Crowd (3:56)
4. Darkness (3:56)
5. Do or Die (5:25)
6. Get Carter (1:02)
7. I Am the Law (4:09)
8. Seconds (4:58)
9. Love Action (I Believe In Love) (4:58)
10. Don't You Want Me (3:56)

Ian Burden (synths)
Jo Callis (synths)
Joanne Catherall (vocals)
Philip Oakey (vocals & synths)
Susanne Sulley (vocals)
Philip Adrian Wright (synths & slides)

Martin Rushent (programming)
Dave Allen (programming)

January 10, 2013

Innocent Confessions, Japanese Version

Regular readers should know by now that anyone who says “an innocent person would never confess to a crime they didn’t commit” is either ignorant or willfully blind. Research, not to mention numerous exonerations, show that it’s not unheard of for someone in the American criminal justice system to confess to a crime they didn’t commit (here is another recent, local, example). Doesn’t mean every confession is false, but it does mean they can’t simply be taken at face value.

It’s a problem, but at least we can take comfort in knowing it’s not a part of that American exceptionalism we hear about so often. As this BBC report shows, the problem of coerced false confessions is bubbling to the surface in Japan, spurred by an audacious (and unethical) stunt.

It started with threats made on the Internet against various high profile people. The police then sprang into action:
After a police investigation, four people were arrested. Two, including a 19-year-old student, confessed while in custody.

But on 9 October, the real perpetrator sent an email to a lawyer - Yoji Ochiai - and local media, explaining how he or she made those threats by taking control of innocent internet users' computers with a virus.

His or her purpose, as stated in the email to Ochiai, was ‘to expose the police and prosecutors' abomination’.

And in a way, it did.
Ochiai was surprised – not at the false confessions, but by the email itself. As the case of Shoji Sakura, who spent nearly 30 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit shows, the techniques used to produce his false confession sound familiar to American ears:
When arrested, aged just 20, he was treated like a guilty criminal, he says.

‘They interrogated me day and night, telling me to confess. After five days, I had no mental strength left so I gave up and confessed.’

‘It may be difficult for people to understand, but being denounced repeatedly - it is harder than you think,’ he adds.
But, of course, Japan is not the United States, either in its criminal procedure or its underlying culture. For example, police interrogations take place without being recorded and the person being questioned doesn’t get to have an attorney with them. More than that, however, is this fascinating overlay from a sidebar to the BBC piece, an excerpt from People Who Eat Darkness by Richard Lloyd Parry:
Japanese courts attach great importance to motive. The reasoning and impulses which led to a crime must be proved in a court; they are a crucial factor in determining a convicted criminal's sentence. The who, what, where and when are not enough: a Japanese judge demands to know why. A detective, then, is obliged to get inside his subject's skull - if he fails to do that, he is not considered to have done his job. In reality the only way to do this is by obtaining a confession.
By contrast, motive plays a very small role in American substantive law, so that desire to answer the “why?” question doesn’t have as much force.*

Then there are different cultural considerations that might lead to a false confession in Japan:
Japanese society’s emphasis on shame and consideration towards their family also plays a role.

Sakurai says he was told that his mother suggested he confessed - he doubts this but cannot ask her as she had passed away before he was freed.

The father of the 19-year-old student who confessed to June's cyber threat said in a statement to the media that consideration to the family was what motivated his son to ‘misrepresent the fact and confess’.
For all that’s different, there’s something depressingly familiar as well - the pressure on cops and prosecutors to get a confession (and the resulting conviction), even if it’s complete fiction. One former prosecutor, who was fired after threatening to kill a suspect, explained:
Another thing he regrets - aside from making the death threat - is writing up a confession statement which did not correspond with the truth.

‘After I grilled the suspect for eight hours, I got him to sign this statement even though he didn’t say a single word of it,’ he says.

‘My boss was pressuring me to get his confession so I thought I couldn't go home without it.’

For Ichikawa, it didn't matter if it was true or false as long as he had the confession.
Is Ichikawa an outlier, either in Japan or the United States? Certainly. But imagine how much damage an outlier like that can do to the lives of people whose only crime is being roped into the investigation of a crime they had nothing to do with. When a skilled interrogator pushes as hard as he can, it can lead to horrible results:

Regardless of geography, the criminal justice system, and society in general, needs to recognize the reality of false confessions and do more to prevent them.

* Don’t confuse “motive” with various mental states related to intent or lack thereof. A man who kills his wife intentionally and with malice is guilty of murder, but only manslaughter if he kills in the heat of passion. It makes no difference if the motive for the killing – the wife was sleeping around – is the same.

January 8, 2013

Seize This!

Roman Officer: Seize him!

Josephus: Ah, seize *this*, honkus!

Comicus: Oh! Don’t ever say that to the cops!
Sound advice, from ancient Rome to modern America. But just because the cops might get pissed if you crack wise with ‘em, doesn’t mean the law will ultimately back them up. Thankfully.

Consider the case of Swartz v. Insogna, decided last week by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals (via).* Just the introduction tells you you’re in for something special:
An irate automobile passenger’s act of ‘giving the finger,’ a gesture of insult known for centuries, to a policeman has led to a seizure of two persons ordered to return to an automobile, an arrest for disorderly conduct, a civil rights suit, and now this appeal.
I don’t normally quote footnotes, but the first one provides a little history of the gesture, beginning with Diogenes flipping of Demosthenes (citations omitted):
Even earlier, Strepsiades was portrayed by Aristophanes as extending the middle finger to insult Aristotle. Possibly the first recorded use of the gesture in the United States occurred in 1886 when a joint baseball team photograph of the Boston Beaneaters and the New York Giants showed a Boston pitcher giving the finger to the Giants.
As for this case, John Swartz was in a car driven by his wife, Judy. At an intersection, he spied a local cop running radar:
John expressed his displeasure at what the officer was doing by reaching his right arm outside the passenger side window and extending his middle finger over the car’s roof. The Plaintiffs, who were not speeding or committing any other traffic violation, continued to the home of Judy’s son.

Alas, as Comicus points out, you don’t talk to cops that way. The officer, Insogna, pulled in behind the Swartz’s car. After he checked Judy’s paperwork (which was all in order):
John then got out of the car and asked if he could speak to Insogna, saying ‘I’d like to speak to you man to man.’ As he started walking toward Insogna, who was more than 20 feet away, three other officers stepped in front of him. John stopped, walked away from the officers, and said to himself in a voice apparently too low for his words to be understood, ‘I feel like an ass.’ One of the other officers asked John what he had said, and John repeated his remark loud enough to be heard. At that point Defendant Collins said, ‘That does it, you’re under arrest,’ but did not say for what.
The “what” ended up being that favorite squishy misdemeanor of officers everywhere, “disorderly conduct.” The charge was pending for “several years” before it was dismissed.

In the wake of all that, John and Judy sued Insogna (among others) for violating their Fourth Amendment rights by seizing them and arresting John without probable cause. Their suit was dismissed by the district court. But on appeal, taking the facts as asserted by the Swartzes (as the law requires at that point), the Second Circuit disagreed and reversed.

As to the seizure, the court concluded that Insogna lacked reasonable suspicion that criminal activity was afoot when he pulled in behind the Swartzes’ car. John’s flipping him the bird just wasn’t enough to justify the stop. In particular, the court scoffed (in legally appropriate language, of course) at Insogna’s claim that he either thought that John was “trying to get my attention” or, alternately, that he “was concerned for the female driver”:
Perhaps there is a police officer somewhere who would interpret an automobile passenger’s giving him the finger as a signal of distress, creating a suspicion that something occurring in the automobile warranted investigation. And perhaps that interpretation is what prompted Insogna to act, as he claims. But the nearly universal recognition that this gesture is an insult deprives such an interpretation of reasonableness. This ancient gesture of insult is not the basis for a reasonable suspicion of a traffic violation or impending criminal activity. Surely no passenger planning some wrongful conduct toward another occupant of an automobile would call attention to himself by giving the finger to a police officer. And if there might be an automobile passenger somewhere who will give the finger to a police officer as an ill-advised signal for help, it is far more consistent with all citizens’ protection against improper police apprehension to leave that highly unlikely signal without a response than to lend judicial approval to the stopping of every vehicle from which a passenger makes that gesture.
Likewise, the court concluded that John’s conduct didn’t qualify as “disorderly conduct,” even “under New York’s expansive definition,” thanks to the gesture’s status as “pure speech.” In other words, the First Amendment (although the court never cited it directly) protects your right to flip off the cops. To round out the day, the court found that the Swartz’s malicious prosecution claim shouldn’t have been dismissed, either.

Believe it or not, this case isn’t even unique. As the ACLU lawyer involved in that case puts it:
’The constitution does protect us when we want to express ourselves,’ Mejia said. ‘Even rudely.’
Fuck yeah.

* I can’t find a direct link for the opinion that works reliably. Go here and search for “Swartz” and it’ll pop up.

January 4, 2013

Friday Review: Dies the Fire

It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel . . . bored.

To be fair, Dies the Fire starts off with a bang. Or, rather, a flash, as some unexplained event centered off the east coast of the United States (there’s an entire other series that deals with what happens to Nantucket as a result) occurs rendering anything vaguely electrical – from electric gadgets themselves to gunpowder – inoperative. After “The Change,” as it’s called, life suddenly gets both a lot more simple and a lot more complicated.

That’s particularly true for Mike Havel, one of the book’s two heroes. A pilot, Havel is flying a family to their ranch in a remote part of Idaho when The Change happens. That means the plane crashes, but, in a foreshadowing of things to come, Havel makes the best of a bad situation and everyone on board survives. That small group evolves into a large group of absurdly skilled quasi-mercenaries called The Bearkillers (‘cause Havel kills a bear, naturally), who pretty quickly adapt to the new world.

The other main thread of Dies the Fire involves Juniper, a woman who doubles as Celtic folk singer and Wiccan priestess who is interrupted mid-set by The Change. After navigating the fiery ruins of Corvallis, Oregon (set ablaze by planes falling out of the sky after The Change), she and her friends and fellow Wiccans convene at a Juniper’s cabin in the woods, where they, too, start rebuilding and coping with the new reality as best they can.

Of course, the Bearkillers and Juniper’s clan come together (quite literally, in one instance) and by the end have forged an alliance that will probably bear more fruit later in the series. I don’t really know or care, since Dies the Fire didn’t convince me to continue on with it.

The problem with Dies the Fire doesn’t lie in its setup or characters so much, although both of the main characters have their own annoyances. Juniper, for instance, is constantly spouting words of wisdom in Gaelic, which she then translates for the rest of us, like an Irish fortune cookie. It’s beyond annoying. The real problem is that Stirling setups up this nasty world and then makes it entirely too easy for our heroes to survive.

For example, although there are lots of detailed discussions about how to do things after The Change, including such necessities as feeding yourself, neither group we follow through the book is ever in danger of actually, you know, starving or anything. This isn’t The Road, in which the two main characters struggle to survive on every page. Particularly in Juniper’s neck of the woods, where her clan settles down and builds, life actually sounds pretty good.

That’s partly because nearly every character we meet who is absorbed into the two groups miraculously possesses some skill that makes them particularly suited to surviving after The Change. People pop up who have experience farming, sword fighting, breaking and training horses, and other useful skills. Nobody’s ever useless or in need of the care of others. Sure, there are children around, but after their initial absorption into either group they’re shuffled off into the background.

Which could be all right – The Road is a fairly depressing read, after all – if there was any kind of conflict happening within the clans themselves. Don’t get me wrong. Stirling gives Havel and Juniper plenty to do with regards to conflicts with black-hat wearing outsiders, from roving bands of thugs to “eaters” (of human flesh, of course) to a megalomaniacal history professor (you read that right) who has set himself up as the ruler of Portland. Those sequences are well done and exciting, if a bit predictable by the end.

But there is no kind of conflict within the groups themselves. Nobody ever suggests that Havel might be wrong to keep slogging through the wilderness rather than setting up a more permanent camp (or throwing in with folks they meet along the way). Nobody ever suggests that Juniper is wrong to fight bad guys on behalf of others based on some Wiccan version of karma. Hell, nobody even stirs shit just because they’d rather be in charge! Add to that the near total absence of any minor real life conflicts like petty thefts, sexual jealously, or good ole’ fashioned hate and Stirling’s world looks damned near utopic.

The single exception proves the rule. One of Havel’s recruits is branded as no good from the beginning, since he’s a drunk and a wife beater. After he does what drunk wife beaters do and is punished for it, he betrays the Bearkillers for no particularly good reason and with a just desserts result. Even that attempt at some sort of internal conflict winds up black and white and pointless.

Which is a damned shame, because Stirling obviously put a lot of work into the world he built and the details of how to survive in it. He would have been better off chucking one of the two main story lines in favor of some other group of characters who are having a more difficult go of things. Things might have been more interesting in a city, with multiple factions stacked on top of each other struggling for survival and authority. Alas, that’s not the story Stirling decided to tell.

It’s never a good sign when, two-thirds of the way through the book, a character writes a fictionalized, Tolkien-inspired narrative of events so far and the main character, concerned that future generations will accept it as history, muses that at least it was “ more colorful than the dirty, boring, often nauseating reality.” You know, the “reality” we’ve been reading about thus far? I wouldn’t call it nauseating, but I won’t argue the boring part.

The Details
Dies the Fire
By S.M. Stirling
Published 2004

January 3, 2013

In Which Sepp Blatter Is *Gasp* Wrong

Readers who follow the global politics of soccer know that when FIFA president Sepp Blatter opens his mouth, stupidity often follows. So it’s perhaps not a surprise that when Blatter turns his attention to Major League Soccer and its place in the American sports universe, he got it wrong.

In an interview with Al Jazeera, Blatter said, in response to a question about the development of the game in China and the United States:
The problem in the United States is a little bit different. But don’t forget that soccer — as they call football there — is the most popular game in the youth. It’s not American football or baseball; it is soccer. But there is no very strong professional league. There have just the M.L.S. But they have not these professional leagues that are recognized by the American society.

It is a question of time. I thought, when we had the World Cup in 1994. … But we are now in 2012 — it’s been 18 years — it should have been done now. But they are still struggling.
Look, nobody’s going to mistake MLS from the English Premier League or Spain’s La Liga. Nor even for the NBA, NFL, or Major League Baseball. But it’s snuck up on pro hockey in the United States and, really, given that the league’s not old enough to drink yet, things are going pretty well. As the New York Times Goal blog puts it:
Perhaps Blatter forgets that Roma, like Rome, was not built in a day. Or that it’s been a while since anyone speculated whether M.L.S. would return the following spring. Or that more than half of the league’s 19 teams now play in new soccer-specific stadiums, and that a half-dozen cities are bidding to host the league’s 20th franchise.
In addition, the league’s gone from buying time from ESPN to get games on television to being paid for the honor. Hell, there was even a bit of a bidding war the last time around, with NBC swooping in to take the rights held by Fox Soccer Channel. Certainly, there’s more to do – my team DC United is basically in stadium limbo right now – but things are headed in the right direction.

Keep in mind, the NFL was founded in 1920, the NBA in 1946, and Major League Baseball dates back to at least 1876. MLS isn’t just a newcomer, it’s an infant by comparison.

So, Blatter’s completely wrong in this instance. In other news, water is wet.