December 31, 2013

And You Thought [Insert Crappy Beer Name]* Tasted Like Piss!

Ignore the headline on this article from the Atlantic - it's the kind of thing that comes from running an excerpt adapted from a book as a standalone article.  It doesn't purport to prove what it promises, but there's an interesting bit of history buried in it.  Besides, I clicked on it, so you, gentle reader(s), must bear some consequences, right?

In an all-too-slight discussion of whether the roots of religion can be traced to the use of hallucinogenic plants and the like, the article detours into a discussion of one particular plant, Amanita muscaria or "fly agaric," which is described as "certainly the world's most famous mushroom."  Whatever that means (it gets good tables at restaurants?).  It's available all over the globe, used everywhere from northern Asia to Mexico, and (by one telling) may be the basis for the substance Soma discussed in ancient Hindu scriptures.

But that's not the interesting, and mildly amusing, part.  No, that comes courtesy of Philip Johan von Strahlenberg, a colonel in the Swedish army of the early 18th century.  See, for 21 years at the beginning of the century Sweden (and others) fought a war with Russia (and others), during which von Strahlenberg became a prisoner of war.  He spent 12 years in Siberia and, in 1736, wrote a book about his observations of the locals:
Among other things he described the use of Amanita muscaria as an intoxicant by the local people. He also noted the following unusual behavior: 'The poorer Sort, who cannot afford to lay in a Store of these Mushrooms, post themselves, on these Ocassions, round the Huts of the Rich, and watch the Opportunity of the Guests coming down to make Water; And then hold a Wooden Bowl to receive the Urine, which they drink off greedily, as having still some Virtue of the Mushroom in it, and by this way they also get Drunk.'
Lest you think this is just a Swede with a grudge making fun of the locals, the practice first revealed by von Strahlenberg was confirmed by further observation.  Said observation provided more details on the practice, including the fact that the shroom is so potent that:
it was observed that the drinking of drug-containing urine could continue for up to five cycles passing from one individual to another before the urine lost its capacity for intoxication.
When it comes to getting fucked up, human beings can be a pretty determined and resourceful lot (one of many reasons the War on (Some) Drugs is such a farce).  Think paint huffers or addicts who, when the find out they can no longer crush Oxycontin pills, turn to the next best thing - heroin.  Regardless, drinking piss has to rank right up there on the list of WTF ideas.

* I'm not a beer drinker.  I wasn't even a drinker at all until I met my wife (boy does that sound worse than it really is!).  In order to provide verisimilitude to you, dear reader(s), I asked around for a good example of a shitty beer that might be said to taste like piss.  Sadly, I got too many varying answers to make it possible to choose one.  Apparently a lot of it tastes like piss, so I'm not really missing anything.  So, in order to get the full snark experience, please insert the name of your least favorite beer - the kind you'd take to a mortal enemy's party - in this spot.

December 27, 2013

Friday Review Year In Review

2013 wasn't the most productive year here at Feeding the Silence, but if there was one thing I returned to time and again, even in fairly fallow periods, it was the Friday Review.  Partly, I'm sure, that's because if I have something to say about a movie, album, or book this is the best place to do it.  It's also due to the fact that, based on page views at least (meager though they be), this feature is fairly popular.  So, here's what you might have missed in the past 12 months:




More to come in 2014!

December 25, 2013

Christmas Treats!

To commemorate the festive occasion, have a little Christmas classic, reimagined by our friends in the Great White North:

Alas, not every Christmas song can be of such lasting quality.  Revel in this complete destruction of a disturbingly awful recent example, which is richly deserves (NSFW, naturally):

Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, Sweet Saturnalia, etc. from the crew here at FtS!

December 23, 2013

Of Persons, Legally Speaking

I've written before about the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision and about how I generally think the Court got it right.  Now, I concede there are legitimate arguments that they didn't and I'm open to the argument that decision had a negative effect on the last election, but that's not really a concern of the First Amendment.  But my biggest pet peeve when I hear people (on the left, mostly) complain about Citizens United is when they insist the Court made some sort of sweeping, never before contemplated, holding about corporations being "people" in some sort of legal sense.

I bring this up because the idea of what constitutes a "person" legally has raised its head in a couple of cases the Court has accepted for review dealing with the Affordable Care Act's contraceptive coverage mandate.  There's some argument that because the Court found a corporation's First Amendment right to free speech was violated in Citizen's United, it will do the same with a corporation's putative Free Exercise rights.  But that's not quite the right question to ask.

Eric Posner dives into this a little bit, bringing in another recent legal case championed by the political left - an attempt to use New York's habeas corpus statute on behalf of chimpanzees being held in captivity.  He makes a couple of important observations.

First, he explains how the concept of non-humans being legal "persons" is not only not a new thing, but essential to the workings of the law:
The law also treats various nonhuman, nonsentient entities as 'persons' for certain legal purposes. Corporations, estates, trusts, partnerships, and government entities are often defined this way. Walmart, Illinois, and the California Pension Fund can sue, for example, without anyone asking if they have a right to abortion. Sometimes, corporations can bring suit (or be sued) because a statute explicitly gives 'persons' that right, and defines 'persons' to include corporations. At other times, the statute does not define 'persons,' but courts interpret the word to include corporations because they believe that is what Congress intended. This transubstantiation of corporations into persons advances some pretty uncontroversial policy goals. If corporations lacked personhood, you couldn’t sue FedEx for crashing a van into your car, or Walmart for selling you a defective space heater that burns down your home, or J.P. Morgan for defrauding you when you get a lemon mortgage. You wouldn’t be able to enter into contracts with a corporation at all. Legislatures and courts have been treating corporations like persons for hundreds of years: There is even a general interpretive rule in the law that when Congress says 'persons,' it means corporations as well, unless the context of the statute provides otherwise.
In other words, we want corporations to be persons sometimes because, if not, they'd exist wholly outside the law.

The other point he makes, which I think is important, is that in cases like the ACA one or the chimp habeas one, the ultimate issue is whether the particular statute it issue was meant to include itself in that group of applications where corporations are persons.

Hobby Lobby’s opponents do not argue that RFRA doesn’t apply to corporations—they can’t, because it is undisputed that the statute applies to nonprofit corporations like the Catholic Church. The argument instead is that Congress did not intend RFRA to apply to for-profit, commercial corporations. Whoever is right, the answer turns on what Congress intended, not the metaphysics of personal identity.
This, I think, is a particularly important part when it comes to any big deal Supreme Court case.  In the media those tend to get boiled down into one or two grand issues, great questions of metaphysics and politics that capture popular attention.  In actuality, it's almost always more technical than that, wrapped up in procedural oddities that make it impossible for the Court to really take such questions on directly.

So, when Mitt Romney famously (and politically tone deafly) said, "corporations are people, my friend," he was neither completely wrong nor right.  Sometimes they are, sometimes they aren't.  And it's been that way for a long long time.

December 20, 2013

Friday Review: The Weight of the World

In spite of what Foreigner says, it never really feels like the first time.  There's just something about the spark of discovery that can't be replicated.  That's true of music as much as it is of, well, other things.

When Sanguine Hum took the stage at ROSFest 2012 I hadn't heard note one from them.  They only had one album out and I was perfectly willing to wait and see what they were all about in a live setting.  That worked out well, as they completely blew me away.  I went out and got a hold everything related to the band I could, from their album Diving Bell to a pair of EPs by a prior incarnation of the band called Antique Seeking Nuns.  I even tracked down an electronic side project called Nunbient. I was musically smitten.

Then, this year, along came The Weight of the World.  A new album!  Oh, joy!  Oh, rapture!  Oh . . . hey, wait a minute.  This isn't quite the same, is it?  No, this time I've got some idea what to expect going in.  The result, as it happened, was that the new album landed in my mind with a kind of depressing thunk.  It wasn't bad, certainly, but wasn't brain rattlingly brilliant.

That was months ago.

Now, I'm pretty convinced that The Weight of the World is, in fact, brain rattlingly brilliant.  It takes the style of Diving Bell, refines it even further and adds some neat extras (some imported from Nunbient, to my pleasant surprise).

Take "From the Ground Up," which opens the album with just a synthy beat and vocals, unlike anything from Diving Bell.  Things get more "organic" once the whole band joins in (Matt Barber favors a lot of Rhodes piano, which is far from a bad thing) and the long, lilting vocal lines sit atop winding guitar and synth lines.  Similar touches of electronica infuse "Cognoscenti" and the exponential spiraling of "Day of Release," as well.  A couple other tracks, including the instrumental "In Code," conjure a Zappa-esque feel with some finely crafted tuned percussion work.  All this leads to the epic title track, which wraps up everything in neat, if sprawling, package.

In the end, it's hard to pin down just what it is about Sanguine Hum that hits my musical sweet spot.  Their music is dense, layered, and complex but doesn't come off as "complicated" just for the sake of it.  In other words, the band doesn't scream "progressive rock," it's just as proggy as it wants to be.  On the other hand, it's generally melodic and tuneful, but with a dark edge to it that doesn't exactly leave you walking down the street whistling. Antinque Seeking Nuns had a Canterbury-ish sense of humor that's lacking, or at least tempered by serious melancholy, in Sanguine Hum.  Maybe that's it - that combination, leavened with a heavy dose of genuine Englishness, curdles into something I just can't resist.  It doesn't sound like anything else out there, that's for certain.

Regardless, The Weight of the World lives up to its ambitions and is, if not the very best album of the year, certainly one of them. So, no, it's not like the first time.  It's even better.

The Weight of the World, by Sanguine Hum
Released 2013

1. From The Ground Up (5:35)
2. System For Solution (8:02)
3. In Code (4:35)
4. Cognoscenti (3:57)
5. Day Of Release (5:51)
6. Phosphor (3:04)
7. The Weight Of The World, Parts 1 to 3 (14:51)

Matt Baber (keyboards, drum programming)
Joff Winks (guitar, vocals)
Brad Waissman (bass)
Andrew Booker (drums)

December 18, 2013

Changing the Labels Doesn't Change Reality

I'd like to think I'm above falling for click-bait headlines, but I guess I'm as susceptible to it as anyone else.  So, when I saw the subheadline on this piece at Reason - "Would a free society be a crime-free society?" - I just couldn't help myself.  Shame that the substance doesn't live up to the promise.

To be fair, Sheldon Richman says right off the bat that he's not Utopian and doesn't:
foresee a future of new human beings who consistently respect the rights of others.
Rather, he investigates the historical distinction between crimes - wrongs committed against and punished by the state - and torts, which are private causes of actions individuals bring against each other in order to be made whole again.  In simple terms, a murder is a crime and will result in the perpetrator being sent to prison, while medical malpractice is a tort, resulting in someone (an insurance carrier, most likely) making the victim whole via monetary compensation.

The history itself is interesting.  As Richman explains, tort once reigned above all.  It was only as English kings began to accrue more power (and, Richman argues, quest for more money) that more things became crimes.  Richman sees this development as something "[l]iberty-minded people should regret," although it happened centuries ago.  He argues, while stating that the reasons are "too obvious to need elaboration," that a justice system aimed solely at restitution is more preferable to what we've got now.

I can't say I buy that, possibly because I occasionally deal with clients who are ordered to pay restitution, in the rare case where there's an actual victim involved.  The sad fact is, for a lot of people, paying full restitution simply isn't an option.  Furthermore, you'll still need some kind of coercive agency with the power to force those who can pay to actually do so.

Aside from practical considerations, I'm not sure restitution as the goal of the system is theoretically feasible.  Most tort cases involve monetary damages that can fairly easily ascertained.  But how does one determine the proper amount of restitution for murder?  Or rape?  Or some kind of systematic problem like perjury?  It just doesn't lend itself well to those kinds of crimes.

In the end, all this is sort of pointless because Richman doesn't show how any revised system would eliminate crime itself, it would just change the labels.  There may be different ways to deal with the aftermath of somebody whapping me over the head with a crow bar or kidnapping somebody's child, but regardless of what you call the system those are still crimes as any modern person would call them.  Sadly, Richman had it right when he said that people aren't simply going to start behaving nicely anytime soon.

I'm sympathetic to what, I think, is Richman's underlying point - that the prevalence of victimless crimes is something that ought to be of concern to anybody who thinks "freedom" is a good idea.  As I said, the current criminal justice system is clogged with people charged with offenses that have no actual victim.  But swinging all the way to the other direction and thinking, just by switching a label, that we can eliminate victims is just silly.

On a side note, I find it ironic that a libertarian and/or anarchist would resort to dealing with a problem simply by changing the label on it.  That doesn't make the problem go away, just obscures it for a while.  It's a favorite tool of repressive governments everywhere.  As Babylon 5 once had a character explain when asked when all the problems on Earth - homelessness, crime, unemployment - were solved:
When we rewrote the dictionary.
In the end, it's a trick, and not even a very clever one.

December 17, 2013

You Wouldn't Like Them When They're Angry

When courts review an encounter between a cop and a member of the public to see whether the Fourth Amendment prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures has been breached, they do so by evaluating the "totality of the circumstances."  That is, facts that, taken in isolation might appear innocent, can be given a not-so-innocent meaning when evaluated in context.  As a result, it's hard sometimes to say just what behavior will get you in trouble with cops and what won't.

To take just one example, in US v. Foreman, 369 F.3d 776 (4th Cir. 2004), a driver was pulled over based in part on the driver's "lack of eye contact" with the officer.  The court upheld the stop, but one of the judges noted (citations omitted):
[The officer's] instant reliance on [the driver's] lack of eye contact is at odds with the government's stance in other cases, in which officers attempt to ground reasonable suspicion — and sometimes successfully do so — on the fact that an individual looks or stares back at them.
In other words, it's hard sometimes to figure out just how to behave when there's a cop about.

One thing, however, is for certain - if you make a cop angry, you will most likely regret it.  As noted legal theorist Chris Rock once explained in a related context, if you make the cops chase you, you can be damned sure they're bringing an ass kicking with them.  Similarly, YouTube is littered with clips of drivers who, during a traffic stop, piss off the officer and wind up getting tasered (or worse) for their sin.

This came up most recently in one of the odder crimes to circle the Web, the theft of electricity.

Earlier this month, a Georgia man plugged his Nissan Leaf into an outlet on the outside of a school to recharge.  According to the man, he did this while watching his son play tennis at the school courts.  Later, rather famously, he was arrested for theft for stealing what appears to be, about, five cents worth of electricity.

Putting to one side the whole issue of whether this is either really a crime or, if it is, one that warrants 15 hours worth of detention after arrest, consider the police version of events.  In it, an officer responds to a 911 call and found the car hooked up at the loading dock.  Then:
a man on the courts told the officer that the man playing tennis with him owned the vehicle. The officer went to the courts and interviewed the vehicle owner. The officer's initial incident report gives a good indication of how difficult and argumentative the individual was to deal with. He made no attempt to apologize or simply say oops and he wouldn't do it again. Instead he continued being argumentative, acknowledged he did not have permission and then accused the officer of having damaged his car door.

* * *

Given the uncooperative attitude and accusations of damage to his vehicle, the officer chose to document the incident on an incident report. The report was listed as misdemeanor theft by taking.
The emphasis is mine.  You'll rarely find it so boldly stated - this guy got charged with a crime because he was an asshole to the cop.  Granted, it's never wise to argue with a cop, particularly if it looks like he's not going to write you up for anything (if you get pulled over and the cop says you were doing 75 and you were only doing 73, if he's going to let you off with a warning why argue the point?), but that's still not a really good basis to charge someone with a crime, either.

Having said that, sometimes you can be too nice.

In Ohio, an officer pulled over someone for going 45 in a 35 zone.  As a court later related:
Patrolman Haslar approached Fontaine’s vehicle, advised him of the reason for the stop, and then requested his driver’s license, proof of insurance, and registration, which Fontaine immediately provided. Patrolman Haslar further stated that, during this exchange, he became suspicious of criminal activity. Specifically, Patrolman Haslar testified as follows: 'While speaking to Mr. Fontaine I felt that his body language and his behavior was a little bit unusual. He was extremely — like almost overly polite, and he was breathing heavily at times while I was talking to him.'
Calling this "reasonable suspicion" (the lowest measure of evidence needed to justify a search), the officer patted down the driver and a second officer arrived with a drug dog.  Some pot and a gun were found in the car and the driver was arrested.

Thankfully, the trial court suppressed that evidence.  Even more thankfully, the appeals court shot down an appeal by the state, agreeing that being "overly polite" and breathing heavily weren't enough to constitute reasonable suspicion.  Still, the fact that it was even arguable shows how far down the rabbit hole we've gone when it comes to the Fourth Amendment.

December 13, 2013

Friday Review: Earth Abides

If Isherwood Williams is the future of the human race, perhaps best just to let it go and call it an eon.

I sometimes have a problem coming to things too late.  By the time I saw The Godfather and its sequel, the culture was so saturated in mob stories - from Casino and Goodfellas to The Sopranos (did I mention I came to it late?) - that it didn't seem fresh or all that interesting.  That's not a knock on its quality, just that it didn't really do it for me.

I get the same vibe from Earth Abides.  It is one of the first, if not the very first, examples of the post-apocalyptic "last man on Earth" subgenre of science fiction.  Published in 1949, it's won its share of acollades, including inaugural International Fantasy Award.  Heck, the version I read/listened to was even introduced by Connie Willis, no slouch herself.

So why doesn't Earth Abides do anything for me?  No, scratch that - why did it encouraged in me a positive loathing, at least at times?  Certainly part of it has to do with the genre itself having been played out ad nauseum over the ensuing decades.  The vistas of empty cities, decaying landmarks, overgrown lawns, and the like are all fairly common now.  Same for the struggle to survive in a world where the conveniences of modern life are gone.

That's certainly part of it, but a large part of my negative opinion of Earth Abides is that it is deeply entwined with its lead character, a hero who really is anything but.

Said hero, referred to as Ish for most of the book, is at an isloated cabin in the woods near San Francisco when some kind pandemic hits that wipes most of humanity off the Earth.  How he escapes that fate isn't really explained (it may have something to do with an infection from a rattlesnake bite he was fending off), but that's not important.  What is important is that when Ish comes down from the mountains to rejoin society, society's pretty much gone.

Early on Ish cites his background as a geographer and his termperment as giving him the perfect tools to observe how the planet will reclaim itself without mankind around to mess things up.  While this leads to some interesting digressions into the survival (or not) of particular environments or critters, it also, unfortunately, highlights the fact that Ish (and the author) are much more interested in watching than doing.  In fact, my main problem with the book is that we're trapped in Ish's head most of the time, even when he describes events that could serve as narrative jumping off points for some real drama.

A perfect exmaple - the book is divided into three main parts and covers over fourty years.  However, most of those years are blazed through in a pair of chapters in which Ish simply ticks of things that happend, including births and deaths that impact the makeup of the little tribe that just might be the future of the human race.  In addition to giving short shrift to those kinds of events, this allows Ish (and the author, by extension) to ignore lots of potential conflicts that could arise among a few dozen people trying to make a go of it after the world goes to shit.  There's very little dialog and even less tension, since everything is filtered through the lens of Ish's perception

Which is a major problem, because Ish is, sad to say, pretty much an asshole (I haven't disliked a main character this much since I read The Magicians).  His stand offishness doesn't come off as a chacater trait that will make it difficult to integrate with the new world, a barrier to overcome (which might have been interesting).  Instead, it's part of a smug superiority complex about himself compared to the rest of what's left of humanity.  Most of the first half of the book is taken up by an epic transcontinental journey during which Ish meets some other survivors, none of whom measure up to his standards for companionship.  Once he returns to the San Francisco area and settles down things get no better.  He repeatedly puts down the others in his little group as being stupid, not interested in intellectual matters, and generally inferior to him.  None of them are up to the task of rebuilding civilization, which Ish thinks is important, but not important enough to ever do anything about.  All of this wouldn't be so bad if we had something other than Ish's word to go by, but since we rarely see anybody else in action it's hard not to think he's just an elitest prick.

It doesn't help that Ish is very much a creature of his time.  The women of his little group (again, by his description only) are good for little more than house keeping, baby making, and a generic sense of "strength" in the face of even more generic adversity.  The one exception is Evie, a grown woman with some kind of mental deficiency or developmental disability.  For the most part she's simply an other, always kept apart from the tribe's subgroups when Ish feels the need to give us a census.  He even muses about killing her simply to be done with her and the problems she presents.

Evie's only part to play in the story is when an outsider, Charlie, comes to town with two of the younger men who have made another (aborted) transcontinental journey.  He's immediately "trouble" and starts to move in on Evie, probably giving her the only real attention she's recieved in years.  Ish is concerned and it's easy to see why - it looks like Charlie intends to take sexual advantage of a woman who's not metnally competent.  Good for Ish.  Only, it turns out, Ish's real concern is not for Evie's individual rights or bodily integrity, but that the resulting offspring would be idiots and, thus, drag the tribe down.  When Ish and a few others decide to off Charlie, it's less out of a sense of protecting an innocent than from some misguided low-tech eugenic concern.

It also doesn't help matters that Ish constantly changes the way he feels about the world lost and the world as it might be when he's gone.  On the one hand, he belittles some of his companions for holding onto memories of things from the old world that won't return for a long time, if ever.  On the other, he extols the virtue of books and the need to consume the knowledge in them, even if he never finds anyone worthy of his pursuit of that knowledge.  He wants someone to rebuild civilization, but it's never clear why as he didn't seem to have much fondness for it.

Which, oddly, counts for the greatest strength of Earth Abides.  For all its faults, the story itself is not the stereotypical one of surivovors picking up the pieces of a shattered world and trying to rebuild it.  Instead, Ish and his fellows just live, for years and years (all to easily, if we're honest), without undertaking great quests or schemes for rebuilding.  That's not the direction most works in the genre it helped spawn take, so kudos for that.

I recognize the prime place Earth Abides has in the genre's history.  And I recognize that, read at an earlier time with a more open mind, perhaps it would have a great impact on a reader (as it has to many others).  But on the verge of 2014, I have to admit that I just don't get it.  Earth may abide, but I don't think I'd be able to abide Ish for very long.

The Details
Earth Abides
By George R. Stewart
Published 1949
Winner, International Fantasy Award (1951)

December 11, 2013

Will Work for Beer

I am so totally not making this up.

Not to be outdone by the Swedes closing prisons left and right, the Dutch have discovered another frontier of substance abuse treatment.

Amsterdam has a problem with litter. It also has a problem with alcoholics. The solution? Smush 'em together like a penalogical Reese cup:
Fred Schiphorst finally landed a job last year and is determined to keep it. He gets up at 5:30 a.m., walks his dog and then puts on a red tie, ready to clean litter from the streets of eastern Amsterdam. 
* * *
His workday begins unfailingly at 9 a.m. — with two cans of beer, a down payment on a salary paid mostly in alcohol. He gets two more cans at lunch and then another can or, if all goes smoothly, two to round off a productive day.
But, as the Dutch equivalent of Ron Popeil might say, that's not all. Schiphorst and others similarly employed also get lunch, some tobacco, and 10 euros a day (about $14 according to today's exchange rate). It's an attractive offer, as the program has a lengthy waiting list.

Nor is it as crazy as it sounds:
The basic idea is to extend to alcoholics an approach first developed to help heroin addicts, who have for years been provided with free methadone, a less dangerous substitute, in a controlled environment that provides access to health workers and counselors.
'If you just say, ‘Stop drinking and we will help you,’ it doesn’t work,' said Mr. Wijnands, whose foundation gets 80 percent of its financing from the state and runs four drug consumption rooms with free needles for hardened addicts. 'But if you say, ‘I will give you work for a few cans of beer during the day,’ they like it.'
And it appears to be working, giving the folks involved an alternative to "just sitting in the park and drinking themselves to death." The guys doing the cleaning are positive about it, as are the local residents who had to deal with the aforementioned park drinkers. Prior police-oriented crackdowns did nothing other than move the alcoholics around and lead to fights with cops.

At bottom, this appears to be a good example of how to deal with substance abuse issues. It views these folks as human beings in need of assistance, not as rogues flaunting the law. This is a public health issue, not a criminal one.

Finally, credit where credit is due, the idea did not originate in the home of Amstel and Heineken. That honor goes to our friends up north, where the Molson and Moosehead roam.

December 9, 2013

Score One For Sweden

Ah, Sweden.  'tis a wonderful place, with a deep well of excellent prog bands, from the bucolic symphonic splendor of The Flower Kings to the brutal RIO of Gosta Berling's Saga. It is a place where, so the song says, "the coulds are nice," where "the weather's realy pleasin' and they have good rice."  Then, of course, there are Volvos.

Now they've got another thing to add to the "pro" column, at a time when most other countires, and certainly ours, can't hope to match them - they're closing prisons (via):
Sweden has experienced such a sharp fall in the number of prison admissions in the past two years that it has decided to close down four prisons and a remand centre.

'We have seen an out-of-the-ordinary decline in the number of inmates,' said Nils Öberg, the head of Sweden's prison and probation services. 'Now we have the opportunity to close down a part of our infrastructure that we don't need at this point of time.'
Before you say, "well of course they're going to shut down prisons when the crime rate drops," keep in mind that the crime rate in the United States - particular the violent crime rate (you know, where there are actual victims) - has been going down for decades.  

In spite of that (although some will argue because of that), we put more people in prison than any other place on Earth:
The US has a prison population of 2,239,751, equivalent to 716 people per 100,000. 

China ranks second with 1,640,000 people behind bars, or 121 people per 100,000, while Russia's inmates are 681,600, amounting to 475 individuals per 100,000.
The Swedes, by contrast, lock up only about 76 of every 100,000 people, good for either 112th or 180th in the world, depending on who's counting.

To what do the Swedes attribute this sudden surplus of prisons?  Part of it stems from a recent court decision that limited drug sentences, but part of it is also a reflection of:
Sweden's liberal prison approach, with its strong focus on rehabilitating prisoners.
In fact, in the editorial announcing the numbers Öberg argued:
Sweden needed to work even harder on rehabilitating prisoners, doing more to help them once they had returned to society.
Can you imagine something similar happening in this country?  Think about how those prison closures would quickly become economic issues.  After all, so many poor rural communities are tying their futures to the booming prison business, who's to say that closing prisons wouldn't wind up like trying to get rid of weapons systems the Pentagon doesn't want because of the pork associated with their production?  At best, we'd wind up with a bunch of uselessly open empty prisons.  At worst, the powers that be would find new and devious ways to keep them full.

So, congrats, Sweden on your sudden excess of punitive real estate.  Please don't sell them off to any Americans, OK?  It's hard enough to keep my clients close to home as is.

December 5, 2013

What I've Been Up To

Hello again, gentle reader(s). In case anybody's wondering where I've been and what I've been up to the past couple of months, here's the info.

Largely, things have been quiet here at FTS because I haven't had a lot to say about what's going on in the world. There's only so many times you can look at political bullshit going on in the world and say, "is't that some political bullshit?" The powers that be provide us with lots of said excrement, but its not really worth talking about.

For the past month I've largely directed my creative energies toward National Novel Writing Month, as usual. This year was different because my project for Nano was a sequel. The Endless Hills is book two of the trilogy that began with The Water Road back in 2009. That tome, along with last year's project, Moore Hollow, are both to the point where I'm ready to do something with them, but I'm not sure what that something should be.

When I started writing fiction in earnest several years ago I never really gave any thought to what would happen when I had a "finished" product.  I didn't do it to find a new career or seek stardom, although it would be nice for people (aside from my lovely, supportive, and insightful wife) to read the stuff.  To the extent that I started with short stories the process there is pretty straightforward - finish story, polish 'til it gleams, submit it directly to magazine/website/anthology. No muss, no fuss, but plenty of rejection.

Speaking of short stories, I've joined an online critique group, Critters, that caters to writers of sci-fi, fantasy, and horror.  The deal is that in return for reading and critiquing the work of others, they do the same for you.  I've found it extremely helpful, particularly reading what other people are writing.  It forces you to think critically about a story, what its trying to do, how it might do it, etc.  That really carries over to your own writing.  The feedback I've gotten on a couple of short stories has been very helpful.

I also got a chance to take in my first West Virginia Writers conference up in Elkins. It was a good chance to hang out with like minded folks and learn some good stuff.  It certainly won't be my last.

But back to publishing novels, which is a whole different story from shorts. If you want to publish with one of the big houses, you need to get an agent first. That means sending queries and manuscripts out all over the place and hoping they connect. If you are interested in working with a smaller press you can submit directly to them, but the query/manuscript process is largely the same (frustratingly, just about everybody does it a little bit differently). Either route will give you what most people think of as "real" publishing - an editor, cover designer, layout specialists, and all that. It's the gold standard.

On the other hand there's the increasingly respectable avenue of self publishing, particularly in electronic (Kindle, etc.) format and particularly in the sci-fin/fantasy ghetto in which I live. The author retains completely control (and a bigger cut of sales), but you have to either contract out all the work a publisher normally does or do it yourself, which opens up all kinds of potential problems. In addition, marketing primarily electronic books seems like a real effort. All in all, I'm not sure I'm up for it.

Regardless, any decision on which way to go (or to go one way with one book and another with the other) is put off until the first draft of The Endless Hills is done. It's a bit more complex than The Water Road. That book only had two main characters with stories that paralleled each other. This one's got about eight "main" characters, many of which converge at one point, but many others don't. Lots of plates to keep spinning!

Musically, I've got a song in the can that needs mixed and given a new name. The working title is too stupid, even for me. It starts out heavily indebted to OMD's "The New Stone Age," but then goes in a different direction. I've also embarked on a cover of "Kashmir," so we'll see how that goes.

That's it. Regular service (or semi-regular, at least), resumes next week.