January 24, 2014

Friday Review: Broadway the Hard Way

In 1988 Frank Zappa embarked on what would be his last tour.  He put together a big band, complete with a five-piece horn section and drilled it on dozens of songs, both reworked old favorites and new material.  Zappa mainstays like Ike Willis and Ed Mann were joined by newly minted stunt guitarist Mike Keneally.  Musically, the result was one of the best periods of Zappa's career, with argument being split as to whether this band or the mid-70s Roxy & Elsewhere band came out on top.

Sadly, the band fell apart, rather spectacularly, following stops in the eastern United States and Europe.  As a result, the 1998 band has an almost mystical quality to it, both because people wonder just what caused it to implode and the because it was, for many folks, the best band they never heard in their lives.

Thankfully, Zappa saw fit to record every stop on the tour (save one, due to technical difficulties) and, for a band with an aborted lifespan, it's ridiculously well documented.  During Zappa's lifetime he released three albums of material, with additional tracks showing up on some You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore collections.  Even more tracks have been released since Zappa's death.

The first of the three albums to be released was Broadway the Hard Way (also the name of the tour itself).  Originally an LP of almost all new material, it was expanded for its CD release with several reworked older tracks.  The new stuff is almost all political or socially satirical in nature  and will put off some folks.  However, the political stuff is bipartisan (Jesse Jackson gets smacked in "Rhymin' Man," along with the GOP in tracks like "When The Lie's So Big?" and "Jesus Thinks You're a Jerk") and some of the other stuff is good fun ("Elvis Has Just Left the Building," for instance).  There's also an appearance from "Mr. Sting" to perform "Murder By Numbers" and a ripping "Hot Plate Heaven at the Green Hotel."  Still, it's the least essential of the three because it's so bogged down in the era.

The two-disc The Best Band You Never Heard In Your Life featured more older material, although in radically different forms given the arsenal Zappa had at his disposal.  Good examples would be the run of One Size Fits All tunes on disc one.  It also features the highest quotient of Jimmy Swaggart related songs (he was a regular rhetorical punching bag throughout the tour), including "Swaggart Versions" of "More Trouble Every Day" and "Lonesome Cowboy Burt."  Finally, this release includes some bizarre cover versions, some recorded during sound checks, topped off by a version of "Stairway to Heaven" in which Zappa the guitar god lets the famous Jimmy Page solo be taken by  . . . the horn section.

The final release, also two discs, was Make a Jazz Noise Here, which is the most "serious" and "heavy" of these albums.  It's also the most essential.  It covers a lot of the more extended instrumental tracks, often laden with improvisation and Synclavier madness from various parties.  It's here where the band shines the most, as on the suite of old Mothers tunes stripped (for the most part) of vocals.  Check the uniform attacks from the horns and percussionist Ed Mann on "The Orange County Lumber Truck" and marvel.  Having said that, some of the pieces on disc one wander a bit.  However, disc two is probably my favorite hunk of Zappa ever released (except, maybe, depending on the day of the week and the barometric pressure, Roxy & Elsewhere).  All the songs are strong and they have enough structure to them to let you know where you are.  When things end with Zappa introducing the band at the end of "Strictly Genteel," it sounds like a perfect cap on the whole affair.

Speaking of the whole affair, what the fuck happened to this band, anyway?  The short answer is that a rift quickly developed between bass player Scott Thunes, also the "Clonemeister" (the guy responsible for rehearing in Zappa'a absence) for this tour and most of the rest of the band, particularly drummer Chad Wackerman and the horn section.  The long answer (although, honestly, there isn't much more to it) is laid out in Andrew Greenaway's recent book, Zappa the Hard Way.  Using extensive interviews (new and old) with most of those involved, Greenaway provides an interesting insight into the tour, the personalities involved, and how the whole thing fell apart.  It's not the most integrated work - Greenaway is prone to introducing a person and quoting whole paragraphs of the interview - but it's chock full of interesting anecdotes, not all of them focused on what went wrong (my personal favorite was the story of the night Mats & Morgan got to meet and play with Zappa).

One thing Greenaway gets right - because I agree with him! - is that Zappa was a bit of a hypocrite when it comes to these live albums.  In the liner notes to each, Zappa proudly explains that the music contained therein was all performed live and with no overdubs.  While that was true, it elides the fact that most of the tracks are stitched together from multiple performances, thus presenting performances that never really existed in the wild.  I've got no problem with that - it's a stunning technical achievement in some instances (over 20 in "Jesus Thinks You're a Jerk") - but don't get all holier than thou about it.

At the time the 1988 tour fell apart, nobody knew it was Zappa's last.  He made statement (both after and before) about being done with the rock band thing, but it's hard to say if he could have kept off the stage had he lived past 1993.  As a last hurrah, it's a shame it had to implode the way it did.  But it did leave behind an awful lot of excellent music for posterity.

The Details:
Broadway the Hard Way, by Frank Zappa
Released 1998

1. Elvis Has Just Left the Building (2:24)
2. Planet Of The Baritone Women (2:48)
3. Any Kind Of Pain (5:42)
4. Dickie's Such An Asshole (5:45)
5. When The Lie's So Big (3:38)
6. Rhymin' Man (3:50)
7. Promiscuous (2:02)
8. The Untouchables (2:26)
9. Why Don't You Like Me? (2:57)
10. Bacon Fat (1:29)
11. Stolen Moments (2:57)
12. Murder By Numbers (5:37)
13. Jezebel Boy (2:27)
14. Outside Now (7:49)
15. Hot Plate Heaven at the Green Hotel (6:40)
16. What Kind Of Girl? (3:17)
17. Jesus Thinks You're A Jerk (9:15)

The Best Band You Never Heard In Your Life, by Frank Zappa
Released 1991

Disc one
1. Heavy Duty Judy (6:04)
2. Ring Of Fire (2:00)
3. Cosmik Debris (4:32)
4. Find Her Finer (2:42)
5. Who Needs The Peace Corps? (2:40)
6. I Left My Heart In San Francisco (0:36)
7. Zomby Woof (5:41)
8. Bolero (5:19)
9. Zoot Allures (7:07)
10. Mr. Green Genes (3:40)
11. Florentine Pogen (7:11)
12. Andy (5:51)
13. Inca Roads (8:19)
14. Sofa # 1 (2:49)

Disc two
1. Purple Haze (2:27)
2. Sunshine Of Your Love (2:30)
3. Let's Move To Cleveland (5:51)
4. When Irish Eyes Are Smiling (0:46)
5. "God Father Part II" Theme (0:30)
6. A Few Moments With Brother A.West (4:00)
7. The Torture Never Stops (Part One) (5:19)
8. Theme From "Bonanza" (0:28)
9. Lonesome Cowboy Burt (Swaggart version) (4:54)
10. The Torture Never Stops (Part Two) (10:47)
11. More Trouble Everyday (Swaggart Version) (5:28)
12. Penguin In Bondage (Swaggart Version) (5:05)
13. The Eric Dolphy Memorial Barbecue (9:18)
14. Stairway To Heaven (9:19)

Make A Jazz Noise Here, by Frank Zappa
Released 1991

Disc one
1. Stinkfoot (7:40)
2. When Yuppies Go To Hell (14:36)
3. Fire and Chains (3:57)
4. Let's Make The Water Turn Black (1:36)
5. Harry, You're A Beast (0:47)
6. The Orange County Lumber Truck (0:42)
7. Oh No (4:43)
8. Theme From Lumpy Gravy (1:12)
9. Eat That Question (1:55)
10. Black Napkins (6:56)
11. Big Swifty (11:13)
12. King Kong (13:11)
13. Stars Won't Work (3:33)

Disc two
1. The Black Page (New Age Version) (6:45)
2. T'Mershi Duween (1:42)
3. Dupree's Paradise (8:35)
4. City Of Tiny Lights (8:01)
5. Royal March From L'Histoire Du Soldat (1:00)
6. Theme From The Bartok Piano Concerto #3 (3:43)
7. Sinister Footwear 2nd Mov. (6:19)
8. Stevie's Spanking (4:26)
9. Alien Orifice (4:15)
10. Cruisin' For Burgers (8:28)
11. Advance Romance (7:43)
12. Strictly Genteel (5:37)

Players for all:
Frank Zappa (lead guitar, synth, vocal)
Ike Willis (rhythm guitar, synth, vocals)
Mike Keneally (rhythm guitar, synth, vocals)
Bobby Martin (keyboards, vocal)
Ed Mann (vibes, marimba, electronic percussion)
Walt Fowler (trumpet, flugel horn, synth)
Bruce Fowler (trombone)
Paul Carman (alto saxophone, soprano saxophone, baritone saxophone)
Albert Wing (tenor saxophone)
Kurt McGettrick (baritone saxophone, contrabass clarinet)
Scott Thunes (electric bass, MiniMoog)
Chad Wackerman (drums, electronic percussion)

Zappa the Hard Way, by Andrew Greenaway
Published 2011

January 22, 2014

A New Look Prison for a New Approach?

Most of the time when I write about prisons, it's about the desire of the United States to have fewer of them.  That being said, we're not likely to go the route of Sweden and start closing prisons anytime soon.  To the contrary, between replacing aged structures and the popular job project that is rural prison building, we're likely to be having pen raisin's for some time to come.

Which is what makes this proposal so intriguing (via).  It's from an architecture student at Harvard who has plans for a new concept prison-plus called PriSchool.  Rather than being built in the sticks, would be built right downtown:
PriSchool is designed precisely for those non-violent offenders who struggle to stay on the right side of the law when released. Situated in a Brooklyn neighborhood surrounded by “million dollar blocks” – city blocks with such high crime that the state is spending over a million dollars a year to incarcerate their residents – the prison/school hybrid rethinks what a prison can achieve, positing it as a place where prisoners and students can learn from each other, and where criminals can be rehabilitated in preparation for their return to society.
It would be a complex of four linked buildings - the prison itself, a school of criminology, a 'pre-release building' (something like a halfway house, I'm assuming), and a community center.  Take a look at some of the pictures here

It's awfully cool looking concept, if nothing else.  It also shows the kind of approach that might lead to long term solutions, if it can overcome short term objections.  Some folks, no doubt, will not want a prison or any kind plopped down in the middle of their neighborhood (although rural communities tend to welcome the jobs).  And others, unfortunately, are too caught up in the idea that convicts need to be punished and nothing else, regardless of the fact that most people in prison will get out someday.

I'm not certain that the problems of our incarceration nation can be solved by architecture, but I'm willing to give it a shot.

January 17, 2014

Friday Review: Bright-Sided

My favorite current comic strip is Pearls Before Swine.  Part of why it appeals to me is that I see the two main characters, Pig and Rat, as the dueling sides of my own personality (see also, Van der Graff Generator's "Man-Erg").  Pig is sunny, trusting, gullible, and generally simple minded.  Rat is a cynic, a curmudgeon, and thinks the best character for a childrens' book series is a frequently drunk, homicidal donkey.  You get the picture.  I mention that because, while reading/listening to Bright-Sided, I kept wondering about how Pig and Rat would react to a "positive thinking" sales pitch.  Undoubtedly, Pig would gleefully embrace the power of positive thinking.  Rat, by contrast, would beat it into a coma with a tennis racket.

Barbara Ehrenreich would probably help Rat by holding positive thinking down.  In Bright-Sided she catalogs how the idea that good thoughts can manifest good outcomes in the world around us has infiltrated just about every facet of modern American life.  She begins with the world of breast cancer, with which she was diagnosed in 2000.  She was appalled by the amount of ink spilt not only on the idea that one must have a positive attitude toward treatment in order to survive, but that in many quarters suffers are encouraged to see breast cancer as a "gift" that actually changes their lives for the better.  Ehrenreich traces such counter-factual positive thinking through modern business, religion, academics, and financial sectors.  It is, she argues, largely responsible for the financial meltdown of 2007.

Ehrenreich also goes back in time a bit to figure out where this aversion to reality came from.  Oddly enough, she traces it back to another aversion from reality - religion.  Specifically, Ehrenreich argues that what we think of today as the "positive thinking" movement began as a reaction to the particularly harsh, judgmental 19th Century form of American Calvinism.  In a world shaped by a view that your salvation (or, more likely, lack thereof) was preordained, a contrary voice saying you had more power to shape your own destiny than you ever knew was compelling.  The result was the New Thought movement, out of which sprang things like Christian Science and the Unity movement.

One irony of the positive thinking movement is that, although it began as a reaction to a particular strain of Christianity, it was eventually adopted by a wholly different one - the "prosperity gospel" megachurches.  Ehrenreich delves into that as well - particularly focusing on the church of Joel Osteen - and we see the self-affirmation and "imagine it and you can have it" morphed into "pray hard enough and God will provide it."  Same shit, different container, as they say.

To be honest, I've never given positive thinking, or its more recent commercial versions like The Secret much thought.  It's woo, of course, but largely harmless woo, right?  Ehrenreich convinced me otherwise.  Aside from the basic truth that someone who thinks they can mould reality to their will is going to be seriously disappointed eventually (perhaps in disastrous ways - see the financial meltdown), Ehrenreich also went into how the push to think positively helps obscure injustice in the world.  This particularly came through in her discussion of positive thinking as it invaded business practices during the 1980s, particularly when it comes to downsizing.  Why be angry at a political or economic system that just made you unemployed after years of work for a company when, if you think it hard enough, you can see it as an exciting new opportunity to change your life?  Likewise, why should the cancer patient rail against the inequality of living in the only civilized country on Earth without national healthcare when you can discover personal growth through the arduous (and expensive) process of mere survival?  In the end, all gurus sound like Pangloss, preaching about how this is the best of all possible worlds.

Having said that, there's a sense that Ehrenreich is only going after low hanging fruit.  It's easy to point and laugh at people who think they'll get a new Mercedes just by thinking hard enough about it.  The folks that peddle that nonsense are cranks of the first order.  Wealthy cranks, but cranks nonetheless.  But Ehrenreich doesn't really investigate where positive yet still realistic thinking might be helpful in certain circumstances.  To use a personal example, I wouldn't keep writing and working on fiction to try and get it published if I didn't have a little bit of "I know I can do this" running round in my head (confession time - I occasionally daydream about what my Wikipedia entry will eventually say).  That being said, I don't sit back and think I'll get published and be a successful author just by visualizing it.  I know there's a lot of work still to be done and lots of things I need to learn.  But if I didn't have some positive outlook on the whole process, why would I stick with it?

Which is to say, Ehrenreich's book isn't going to sway a lot of people away from the power of positive thinking.  She's largely preaching to the skeptical choir.  Nor does she really make any attempt to understand the allure of positive thinking to those who support the industry by buying books and DVDs and attending seminars devoted to it.  Sure, the stuff about the Osteens had its place, but what about those in the congregation who come back Sunday after Sunday?  It's too easy (and condescending) to dismiss them all as idiots and be done with it.

What Bright-Sided has going for it is that it's a fun read and, in many spots, an interesting one.  However, it falls short of really proving how positive thinking undermined America.

The Details
Bright-Sided: How The Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermining America
By Barbara Ehrenreich
Published 2010

January 16, 2014

Avoid Woodbridge, Illinois (Or Pay the Price)

Let's just get right down to it.  If you are arrested in the Village of Woodbridge, Illinois, you will be billed for the pleasure.  You will be separated from $30, regardless of whether you are eventually convicted of the crime for which you were arrested.  There is no procedure in place to challenge the fee or have it reimbursed.

If you think that's outrageous, you're right.  What's even more outrageous is that the Seventh Circuit just blessed it (via).

Here's how the scheme works - if you are arrested for committing a crime in Woodbridge, you will be charged $30 when brought to the police station for booking.

That's it!  Doesn't matter if the cops arrested the wrong guy or lacked probable cause to make an arrest or were out to score vengeance against the guy who slept with his wife.  Guilt or innocence is irrelevant.  If you're booked by the Woodbridge police, you will be billed for the pleasure.

Jerry Markadonatos challenged this practice after he was arrested and then participated in a diversionary program that left him with the equivalent of a not-guilty verdict.  Seems like a due process slam dunk, right?  Generally, if the government is going to take your property, they've got to provide some procedure by which you can fight it.  The Woodbridge fee is a binary, no discretion rule - get arrested, pay $30.

Amazingly, for two of the judges on the Seventh Circuit panel, this was the program's saving grace.  For one of the things to consider in a due process challenge is the chance of an erroneous deprivation of property which, in the case of Woodbridge, the court concluded is "non-existent":
Under the scheme, every person who is arrested is charged the booking fee, regardless of whether they were arrested without probable cause. Thus, a Woodridge employee determining whether to charge the booking fee is presented with a binary choice: 'yes' the booking fee must be charged to a person who has been arrested and is being booked by the Village; or 'no' the booking fee must not be charged to a person who has not been arrested and is not being booked by the Village. This determination is made all the easier by the fact that the booking fee is collected only upon an individual’s arrest and booking. Thus, the Court cannot envision any situation in which one who has not been arrested is charged the booking fee. That is, it is only when one is arrested and booked that the collection of the fee occurs, thus making the potential for erroneous deprivation practically non-existent.
In other words, because the bureaucratic drone presented by a cop with a freshly arrested person has no authority to question the arrest, there's no risk of an erroneous deprivation of that person's property.

Yes, that's as loopy as it sounds, but it gets even worse:
Mr. Markadonatos was arrested and later appeared before a judge. Thus, if he believed that he was not or should not have actually been arrested, he had the opportunity to alert both the arresting officer and the judge hearing his case of that fact. While neither of these opportunities is formally provided for in the statute, they are more than sufficient to safeguard against an erroneous deprivation that will practically never occur.
Seriously?  Let's take the second option first - have you ever appeared before a judge and asked him or her to do something that's not within their power?  It doesn't make them happy.  That hardly seems like a reasonable option.  As for arguing with a cop, that's a good way not only to be loaded down with further charges (and, presumably, $30 fees) but wind up beaten, tazed, or shot.  Arguing with a cop, even if you're in the right, almost never ends well.

On top of that, the court concludes that the village has a legitimate interest in collecting this some kind of user fee, to help defray the cost of them deciding to arrest you.

Judge Hamilton dissents from this decision and lays out why it's ludicrous in the first paragraph:
This should be a simple case. The village’s 'booking fee' ordinance is unconstitutional
on its face. It takes property from all arrestees—the guilty and the innocent alike—without due process of law. The deprivation occurs at the time of arrest, immediately and
finally. It occurs based on only the say-so and perhaps even the whim of one arresting officer. By no stretch of the imagination can that be due process of law. The fee is in substance a criminal fine, modest but a fine nonetheless, and it is imposed regardless of the validity of the arrest and regardless of whether there is any criminal prosecution or what its outcome might be.
He also points out the absurdity of the court's "no risk of erroneous deprivation" conclusion:
the risk of erroneous deprivation is in fact very substantial. The pivotal decision that imposes the deprivation is a lone police officer’s decision to arrest. A lone police officer’s decision is subject to judicial review even when she writes a mere speeding ticket, let alone imposes a criminal fine. Many people who are arrested are not even charged with crimes, and many charges result in either dismissal or acquittal, so that as many as 30 percent and perhaps nearly 50 percent of arrestees may pay the fee without any criminal conviction.
In the end, the most difficult thing for Judge Hamilton is whether the scheme is more Orwellian or like something out of Lewis Carroll.  Both, is what he concludes.

As for the "user fee" concept, he points out that cases involving user fees all arise when someone voluntarily takes advantage of some service, like crossing a toll bridge.  Being arrested is not, except in some truly rare circumstances, a thing done voluntarily:
During oral argument, the village tried to justify this user fee theory by explaining that a person arrested by mistake would still properly owe the fee because he would have
benefitted from the “services” of being photographed and fingerprinted. That argument surely qualifies as Orwellian.
Indeed.  Regular readers know that one of my pet peeves is states locking people up on the cheap.  If you want to deprive people of their liberty, you have to pay for it.

So, a bit of advice as you're making vacation plans for the summer - avoid the village of Woodbridge, Illinois.  If they've got nobody to arrest, they've got no need to raise funds, right?

January 14, 2014

On Coming Home

As late as the early 1990s, if you were an American and wanted to play soccer professionally, your only real option (leaving to one side minor leagues and indoor) was to head to Europe.  The generation of players who put US Soccer back on the map largely played overseas.  Paul Caligiuri, who hit the "Shot Heard Round the World" that sent the US to the 1990 World Cup played for SV Meppen in Germany.  When the US hosted the World Cup in 1994, major starers played in Germany (Thomas Dooley at Leverkusen and Eric Wynalda at Saabrucken), England (John Harkes at Derby County and Cobi Jones at Coventry City), and even Italy (Alexi Lalas at Padova).

That changed in 1996 when Major League Soccer kicked off.  Nobody then (particularly) or now would argue with a straight face that MLS is one of the world's best leagues, but it was something to build on and provided a place for new American talent to grow.  Not for nothing, but a lot of those Yanks Abroad - including Harkes, Lalas, and Wynalda (who scored the league's first goal) - came home to help the league get going.

Regardless, since then there's been a perception among lots of American soccer fans that for American players to really maximize their potential, and push the US Men's National Team to higher things, the best of them needed to play in Europe.  MLS was fine for starting out, but testing yourself against the best players in the world by playing in the English Premier League or Serie A should be the ultimate target.

For the longest time the whipping boy for American fans on this score has been Landon Donovan who, for all his success in MLS and with the USMNT, never really found a spot at a top European club.  When he returned from Leverkusen in 2005, critics called him soft and questioned his commitment to being the best player he can be.  In spite of that criticism (or maybe because of it), Donovan kept his top form, for the most part, and will step away from the USMNT sometime soon as one of its all time greats.

As it happens, as MLS nears its 20th anniversary, there appears to be a wave of American stars coming back home.  It started with Clint Dempsey, moving from Tottenham in England to the Seattle Sounders last year (though he's back in England on load during the MLS off season), but appears be be gaining steam.  Most notably, midfielder Michael Bradley has decided to trade in the Serie A club Roma for the altogether more frigid environs of Toronto.

Bradley, after a stint in MLS with New York, moved to Europe in 2006.  In fairly quick succession he moved successfully from club to club, from Holland to Germany and finally to Italy.  All the while he became one of the USMNT's best players, finally emerging from the shadow of nepotism when his father, Bob, moved on to coach the Egyptian national team in 2011.  As a result, there's been some backlash about Bradley's return to MLS.

Unlike Dempsey, who's arguably reached the peak of his career and will only trend downward (slowly, we hope!) from here, Bradley is only 26 years old.  He should have another three of four years of development.  And, unlike another returning player, defender Michael Parkhurst (from Germany to the Columbus Crew), Bradley was not simply riding the pine at Roma.  He had played less than he would like, obviously, and perhaps the situation was going to get worse.  But that is precisely the kind of cutthroat competition that most American soccer fans think will make players better in the long run.

In other words, there are some fans who are peeved because, regardless of how beneficial the move will be for Bradley financially or MLS in terms of stature, it could hurt the USMNT.  It's particularly bad timing, given the World Cup coming up this summer in Brazil, where Bradley figures to be a key figure.  The fear, then, is that Bradley will backslide during his time in the Great White North.  And, besides, what will the rest of the soccering world think if our best player runs back home at a time like this?

I admit, I'm conflicted.  As an MLS watcher I think that if this is part of a plan by the league to build the level of play and do so with recognizable American players, that's a good thing.  I'd rather Bradley come to DC United, but what can you do?  On the other hand, there is something disappointing about leaving Roma so early.  Will it impact the World Cup?  Hard to say - is it better to play regularly at Toronto in the run up or sporadically at Roma?  I don't think anybody really knows the answer to this question.

Here's the thing, though, when it comes down to it.  Neither Bradley nor any other player owes me anything, really.  He's got to make decisions based on what he thinks is best for him as a player and his family.  If he'd rather come back to MLS and play, who am I to tell him he's wrong?  Same for the inevitable discussions on dual-nationality players who decide to play for another country - there's no point getting pissed about it, right?

As for the national team - it is what it is.  The United State will likely never be the kind of consistent world power that Spain, Brazil, or Germany is.  We're much better than we once were and, when the circumstances are right, can beat anybody.  A good, deep run in a World Cup isn't beyond us, but it isn't likely, either.  As fans, Americans need to accept that.  Hope for the best, root hard, and scream loud for the team to win it all, but know, at the end of days, it's not likely to happen.  Regardless of where Michael Bradley or anybody else decides to make his living.

January 9, 2014

New Year, New Tune

In spite of the title of this post, this song has actually been percolating since April of last year, but I just got around to finishing it.  It originally had a different (more macabre) title and was going to wind up going a completely different direction.  Such is the life of music.

If "Wombats In Estrus (Parts 1, 2, and 3)" sounds awfully silly, that's because it is.  One of the great benefits of writing songs without words is that song titles can be just about anything (see, Zappa, Frank and National Health, among others, for some wonderful examples).  I jotted down the title sometime last year becsuse it reminded me of King Crimson's "Larks Tongues in Aspic."  Given the history of that tune (4 parts spread over three records), it seemed to fit what this piece became.

"Wombats . . ." is based around two notes that spawn the bass lines, chords, and the melodic bits.  It wasn't planned that way, but it turned out pretty well.  Part 1 (heavilly indebted to OMD's "New Stone Age") is more synth-poppy, while Part 2 is more ambient and spooky.  Part 2 includes samples from Freesound  (193818__geoneo0__four-voices-whispering-6-wecho by geoneo0) and a Sony collection called Rabbit Asylum (The Stuttered 00's), which is as weird as the name suggests.  Part 3 was originally it's own separate bit, but I thought it tied things together nicely (the drum pattern is indebted to "Astonomic Club" from Air's soundtrack for Le voyage dans la lune).

Equipment wise, this tune relies heavily on two of my older bits of kit, the Korg M50 workstation and the Alesis Micron virtual analog synth.  There's also some (virtual) Yamaha CS80 in the midsection and, of course, some (virtual) Mellotron in Part 3.  The final melodic bit in Part 3 is from the Nord Lead 2X.  None of that matters to most of you, but somebody might find it interesting.

So, enjoy "Wombats In Estrus (Parts 1, 2, and 3)"!

January 7, 2014

Another Day, Another Corrupt Crime Lab

If you live in West Virginia and care about criminal justice issues, the name Fred Zain should make you cringe.  Zain was a serologist in the West Virginia State Police crime lab between 1977 and 1989 (after which he took his talents to Texas).  Zain made a habit of falsifying evidence leading to wrongful convictions.  You can read the details of his conduct in this 1993 West Virginia Supreme Court decision, which concluded:
The matters brought before this Court by Judge Holliday are shocking and represent egregious violations of the right of a defendant to a fair trial. They stain our judicial system and mock the ideal of justice under law. We direct Prosecutor Forbes to pursue any violation of criminal law committed by Trooper Zain and urge that he consult with the United States District Attorney for the Southern District of West Virginia. We direct our Clerk to send all relevant papers to both of them. This conduct should not go unpunished.
Zain died before he was held criminally responsible for any of his misdeeds.

Almost more important than his individual culpability, though, was this observation:
This corruption of our legal system would not have occurred had there been adequate controls and procedures in the Serology Division. Judge Holliday's report is replete with the deficiencies and derelictions that existed and as were uncovered by the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors whose team reviewed the forensic data.
That was two decades ago.  Which is just to say that, in West Virginia at least, we should not be surprised by malfeasance in crime labs.  Yet it continues to happen.

The latest notorious crime lab scandal comes from Massachusetts, where chemist Annie Dookhan was convicted of doing false testing in numerous drug cases, leaving a complete mess in her wake:
When the scandal broke in August 2012, those incarcerated based on evidence Dookhan had tested did have a day in court. Many were identified immediately, and had their sentences stayed. More than 3,200 'drug lab' court hearings have been held.
In spite of that, things are moving slowly, if at all, when it comes to remedying the situation.  Explains the state ACLU's legal director (and former fellow Fourth Circuit public defender) Matt Segal:
'The state has already spent hundreds of millions of dollars on this scandal, and what have we gotten for that expenditure? The answer is almost nothing,' Segal says. 'Certainly hasn't been justice; it hasn't been a better approach on the drug war.'
Among the things Dookhan lied about were her credentials, for which, at any rate, there are no national standards.  Standards may not matter much, anyway, as most of the labs involved in some kind of scandal are accredited by a national organization. For what it's worth, West Virginia officials were told in 1985 that Zain had failed courses in sreology and blood testing, but nothing came of it.

A major problem is that crime labs are - like police and prosecutors - part of the State that prosecutes defendants (although, it appears, that Dookhan's lab wasn't part of the state police, at least).  They're on the same side of the ledger, not a truly neutral arbiter of scientific fact.  By contrast, public defenders (federal ones, anyway) are employees of the court system itself, a branch apart from the prosecution.  Any pressure that a scientist feels to return the "right" answers as opposed to the accurate one has dire consequences in court.

And lest anyone think "well, they're just criminals, they must have been guilty of something," keep in mind that you, dear taxpayer, pay the final bill:
Besides the expense of investigating and prosecuting Zain, and retrying cases related to him, West Virginia has paid at least $6.5 million to settle lawsuits by wrongfully convicted defendants.
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His work in Texas also was under fire and led to the payment of at least $850,000 to two men.
Crime lab reform needs to happen because it's wrong to lock people in a cage based on bullshit and made up results.  But if, as is so often the case, the only motivation for change is to save money down the road, I'm all right with that.