May 27, 2011

Friday Review: ROSFest 2011

The Rites of Spring Festival (ROSFest to its friends) started in 2004 near Philadelphia.  A few years ago it moved to Gettysburg, which isn't the obvious choice for a progressive rock festival.  After my first ROSFest experience last weekend, I'm pleased to say it it's an excellent fit.  The Majestic Theater is a beautiful venue (seats about 800, I think) and the people there treated hundreds of confusing prog fans quite well.  But what of the music itself?  Read on . . .

First up Friday night was a brief set from Epiicycle (USA), who had an in with the ROSFest powers that be – the guitarist/vocalist’s father, George, is the festival patriarch. Clearly pumped to be playing for a festival crowd, I don’t want to sound too harsh, but they sounded very much like an unfinished work in progress. Most tunes didn’t so much conclude as they simply ended. But they were on stage for such a short period (half the time of anybody else during the weekend), it’s unseemly to complain.

Going into the festival, I knew not one note from Tinyfish (UK), although I had seen some glowing reviews of their last album, Big Red Spark, in the press. They rocked. Their music isn’t the most complex in the world, but it’s impeccably put together and has a great atmosphere. It didn’t hurt that guitarist/vocalist ??? and drummer ??? (who may be Keith Moon reincarnated) got on great with the audience. A unique feature of Tinyfish is that their primary vocalist isn’t actually a part of the band, but provides dramatic narration throughout the show. I wouldn’t have thought that would work. I was wrong. I also have to say that, at the time of their set, I thought they were using a lot of canned keyboards, which was a shame. Turns out I was wrong - ??? was heavily using a guitar synth to cover all those parts – cool!

Wrapping up Friday night was Moon Safari (Sweden) who, if you’ve never heard them, sound like what I imagine the Beach Boys would have sounded like, had they grown up in Sweden listening to a steady diet of Yes albums. Lush, light, symphonic prog with a heavy dose of harmony vocals, which, to my surprise, the band pulled off spectacularly (their second[!] encore was a six-part acapela bit). Having said that, I find two hours of their stuff almost too much to take – things all start to sound the same. Still, a good way to windup day one.

Opening things on Saturday was Osada Vida (Poland), who take the Porcupine Tree-influenced heavy prog of their countrymen Riverside and pull it even further away from PT’s more ambient influences. Having picked up one of Osada Vida’s albums before the fest, I knew what to expect and wasn’t disappointed. Although heavy, they don’t go in for loads of metal riffage and bring some other interesting influences to bear. I also thought they had the best sound of the weekend – it’s distressing how, even at a prog festival, the keyboards tend to disappear in the mix.

Phideaux (USA) was my first repeat band of the weekend, having seem them at 3RP in Pittsburgh in 2009. I was blown away that time. This time, less so, but mostly due to the fact that I knew what to expect going in. After getting to know Snowtorch, I was pleased to get a heaping dose of it in live form, including a killer rendition of “Helix.” Mr. X kept his 10-piece band churning throughout their headline-length set. Besides, how could you not groove on heaping helpings of Doomsday Afternoon just hours before the Rapture was supposed to happen?

Galactic Collective (USA)
is basically keyboardist Erik Norlander, of Rocket Scientists and Alesis tech fame, plus an 80s-hair-metal-style power trio. Seriously. The original thought was the produce an album reworking some of Norlander’s older instrumental material, which they did. For the live set, however, they were joined by a pair of vocalists (including Norlander’s wife, Lana Lane), so that idea sort of burned away. Honestly, I’ve Norlander’s stuff has never really connected with me. Given the lavish introduction from someone with the Bob Moog Foundation and the presence of Norlander’s epic Moog modular synth on stage, I was hoping for something a little more electronic. Oh well.

I skipped out on Saturday’s headliner, Daemonia (Italy), not because I have something against them, but because I was aurally drained by that point. Had to rest up for Sunday, anyway.

When I saw Mars Hollow (USA) at Progday last year, I was knocked out. They remind me a bit of early days Spock’s Beard – suitably complex and shifty, but with loads of melodies and hooks, topped off by great playing from all involved. Their opening set on Sunday didn’t disappoint, either, as they ripped through some tracks from their just released second album, World In Front of Me. A great way to start day two.

I will admit at the outset that I am firmly in the minority camp when it comes to District 97 (USA). They really brought the house down. Mars Hollow’s bass player, Kerry, was sitting in front of me for their set and, I’m pretty sure, had a religious experience. Or a sexual one. It was hard to tell. While I certainly appreciate the chops and enthusiasm of the band, and concede their set was fun to watch, their music is just to metally for my taste. Lots of double-bass powered riffage. But, like I said, that’s a minority view. They were surely the audience favorite of the fest.

More to my liking was The Reasoning (UK), which boast the same lineup (bass/drums/keys/guitar/chick singer). While their set was certainly heavy in spots (seems like everything coming out of the neo/symph realm these days shares that characteristic – Moon Safari a notable exception), I found their music more melodic and interesting. And while they weren’t dull on stage, as the older band they certain had an air of “been here, done that” that was sort of interesting, coming after the youthful exuberance of District 97. Not my favorites of the weekend, but a solid set.

Prior to the fest, I’d picked up two albums from Quidam (Poland), their debut and their most recent. I liked them. Musically, they are the most traditionally neo band in the festival lineup and I like that kind of stuff. But I wasn’t overwhelmed. Their live show changed that. An excellent performance, using extended arrangements and inspired covers to show off some sonic colors (flutes of various types and violin) that were otherwise absent from the weekend. They closed with a long finale that ended with the band members sitting, cross-legged, together at the front of the stage. It was a cool, understated way to wrap things up.

Of course, a prog fest wouldn’t be a prog fest without vendors. It’s really the only chance folks like me have to window shop for our kind of music. Of course, that comes at a cost, namely the tower of new tunes I came home with (paper towel roll provided for context):

Yes, there are many more Fridays worth of reviews in there!

All in all, ROSFest was a great weekend. It was, without a doubt, the best run fest I’ve been to, in terms of getting bands on and off the stage when promised. The venue is great. The surroundings are pretty cool. And, most importantly of all, the music was (mostly) fantastic.

May 26, 2011

The Great Directionator

I spent last weekend in Gettysburg, PA, attending ROSFest (full write up forthcoming).  The venue for the fest is just off the main hub of town, Lincoln "Square."  I'm sorry, but when there's a traffic circle (or, for proggy purposes, a roundabout) involved, "square" doesn't really fit.

At any rate, tucked away in one corner of the square is what I can only figure out is a statue of Abraham Lincoln . . . giving a modern tourist directions:

I can't remember exactly what he's pointing towards, although it might have been the parking building.  It is tucked away in an alley, after all.  I realize that the town basically exists as a tourist destination, but that statue still gave me the creeps.

On the other hand, this sign, on the side of a building across the street from the venue, is just plain weird:

The dangers of living in a historical town.

May 25, 2011

This Should Go Without Saying

Earlier this week, a 5-4 split Supreme Court affirmed a lower court ruling ordering California to reduce its prison population by about 46,000. It’s currently running at nearly twice the capacity it’s designed for (the court order only gets it down to 137.5% of capacity). That level of overcrowding has led to a parade of horrible set forth in the Court’s opinion that should make any human being cringe.

Along the way, the Court majority, via Justice Kennedy, writes (citations omitted):
To incarcerate, society takes from prisoners the means to provide for their own needs. Prisoners are dependent on the State for food, clothing, and necessary medical care. A prison’s failure to provide sustenance for inmates ‘may actually produce physical ‘torture or a lingering death.’’ Just as a prisoner may starve if not fed, he or she may suffer or die if not provided adequate medical care. A prison that deprives prisoners of basic sustenance, including adequate medical care, is incompatible with the concept of human dignity and has no place in civilized society.
I’ve said before that if we, as a society, want to lock up more people than other places on the planet, we’ve got to pay for it. The citizens of California could have avoided this result years ago (the cases have been pending for decades) by either (a) concluding that they were locking up too many people and reviewing their penal law accordingly or (b) pull their heads out of their assess and pay to build more, bigger, and better prisons to hold these people.

A human being locked in a cage because he’s done wrong (or not, given the continued ludicrousness of the War on Drugs) is still a human being. If you’re going to keep him from getting fed, sheltered, and cared for on his own, you’ve got to step up and provide. It’s that simple.

May 23, 2011

Apocalypse Not-ish

I remember precisely where I was when the Rapture didn’t come.  It was 6 o’clock last Saturday evening, right?  I was in the Majestic Theater in lovely Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, smack in the middle of Erik Norlander’s set.  Transcendent, but not in the way Rapture fans would expect.  Imagine my surprise when absolutely nothing happened.

That should not have come as a shock to anybody, even the overly gullible.  It’s not as if Harold Camping, the Biblical numerologist who pinpointed the time of the Rapture’s arrival, wasn’t a known quantity.  He’d gotten it wrong in 1994, too.  His excuse was that he hadn’t considered the Book of Jeremiah.  Some Biblical scholar he is!

Camping, of course, is neither the first nor the last charlatan to drum up the fears of the faithful by incanting the precise moment when the Apocalypse will kick off.  In fact, one of Camping’s forebears in that regard led to one of the best names in history for such an event.

In the early 19th Century, the United States played host to the Second Great Awakening, a religious movement that swept the nation.  It was spawned mostly by revival preachers, travelling the land in what Kevin Gilbert would call a “rave up church gospel” event.  The numbers of people joining these movements swelled the ranks of the faithful.  As a result, many of the more peculiarly American religious sects came out of that movement.

One of the leading figures in the Great Awakening was a preacher named William Miller.  Originally a Deist, Miller’s experiences during the War of 1812 led him to eventually become a Baptist.  And an important one at that.  While trying to reconcile his conversion to his old Deist buddies, Miller first came to conclude that the time of Christ’s return, the Second Coming, could be deduced from a careful analysis of scripture.

Analyze Miller did, until he concluded that the Second Coming would happen sometime in 1844 (about 25 years after he was working, although he kept the news to himself for a few years).  He started lecturing publicly about it in 1831.  A movement coalesced around him, Millerism, and he nailed down the particular date of the event: October 22, 1844.

Of course, October 22, 1844 came and went, with no surprise appearance by Jesus.  The result is known to history as The Great Disappointment.

I shit you not.
To get a feel as for why, consider this reaction of one Millerite:
I waited all Tuesday [October 22] and dear Jesus did not come;– I waited all the forenoon of Wednesday, and was well in body as I ever was, but after 12 o’clock I began to feel faint, and before dark I needed someone to help me up to my chamber, as my natural strength was leaving me very fast, and I lay prostrate for 2 days without any pain– sick with disappointment.
Non-Millerites were a bit miffed, as well.  Millerite churches were burned, one congregation was attacked, and one group of Canadian Millerites were tarred and feathered.  One would think that would have killed Millerism right off, but of course not.  In fact, theological descendents of Millerism include Seventh-Day Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses.

So Camping, clear fraud that he is, at least is in good company.  His legacy stretches back at least to Miller, if not before.  And it would leave the rest of us just to point and laugh at those gullible enough to hitch their wagons to such hucksters.  In reality, they are more entitled to pity:
Knowing the date of the end of the world changes all your future plans,' says 27-year-old Adrienne Martinez.

She thought she'd go to medical school, until she began tuning in to Family Radio. She and herhusband, Joel, lived and worked in New York City.  But a year ago, they decided they wanted to spend their remaining time on Earth with their infant daughter.

'My mentality was, why are we going to work for more money? It just seemed kind of greedy to me. And unnecessary,' she says. And so, her husband adds, 'God just made it possible — he opened doors. He allowed us to quit our jobs, and we just moved, and here we are.'
I saw a similar story in the New York Times about a set of parents who blew through their teenage kids’ college funds to spread the word.  The kids aren’t on board.  And now, they’ll be shouldering the burden of college all on their own.  It could have been worse.  PZ Myers has a collection of Rapture madness stories, including a woman who tried to kill her children and herself and another man who succeeded in killing himself.

The world would be a better place if people like Camping would just be shrugged away as nuts.  In reality, the only think nuttier about Camping that most other religious folks is the specificity that he finds in his doctrine.  The ideas underlying it are just as irrational as those that are the foundation of most religions.

Also, a final note on what, exactly, was supposed to happen on Saturday.  It was not the end of the world.  It was only the Rapture, the first part of the process leading to the end of the world.  Camping’s weird math had the world actually ending in October.  At least he’s not wrong about that, yet.

May 20, 2011

Friday Review: Garrow's Law

Before a couple of weeks ago, I had never heard of William Garrow.  Why should I be familiar with an English barrister who got his start while the Revolutionary War raged on?  Thanks to a highlighted Wikipedia entry, now I know.  He was, in many ways, the forefather of modern criminal defense attorneys, so much so that he is credited with introducing the phrase "innocent until proven guilty" into the vernacular.  Surely such a trailblazer deserves a modern pop culture gloss, right?

Enter the BBC and Garrow's Law, a short series (8 episodes in total spread across two seasons) based on the young Garrow's fledgling practice in the Old Bailey, which started in 1783.  When I found out that the first season was available on Netflix, I shipped it straight to the top of the queue.  The result is a suprisingly rousing and entertaining few hours, especially if you do what I do for a living.

Although there are dramas that play out elsewhere from the Old Bailey, that's where the action really is, as young Garrow finds his feet and butts heads with his regular adversary, Silvester (not a cat, but a prosecutor - and crack shot).  Court itself is a much livlier affair that we're used to these days, even on Law & Order.  It's sort of like a state magistrate court affair, played out before an audience borrowed from Jerry Springer.  Except the stakes are much higher - the drop or, at the least, transportation to one of the colonies.  I have no idea how realistic the depiction is (the records of the Old Bailey were used as inspiration, we're told), but it sure is fun.

In court, we see Garrow grapple with the same issues his progeny still wrestle with today.  It's one thing to be a zealous advocate for someone who's really innocent, but what of the guilty?  Does every accused deserve the best defense?  Plus, we see an early deployment of the "lying slut defense," which works like a charm.  One thing that's never fully developed is just how Garrow changed the system in which he worked.  You just don't show up one day and say, "today, m'lud, I'm going to defense these accused."  Some better foundations would be nice.

But, at the end of the day, Garrow's Law is a courtroom drama, like any other.  Save for the period costumes and the lack of CSI-style forensics, of course.  And a solidly entertaining one, at that.

The Details

Garrow's Law, season one
Released 2009
Created by Tony Marchant
Starring Andrew Buchan, Alun Armstrong, Lyndsey Marshal, Rupert Graves, Aidan McArdle, Michael Culkin, et. al.

May 18, 2011

I Sing the Genome Electric

OK, so this is a super cool idea. Not entirely new, but new to me, thanks to, of all places, the Volokh Conspiracy.

The idea behind the Genetic Music Project is pretty simple: DNA is made up of only four nucleotides (identified as A, C, G, and T). It’s the combination of those four things, and the various patterns they form, that influence everything from baldness to some mental illnesses. The Genetic Music Project lays out genetic markers for several different things.  Assign each nucleotide a pitch and then use the genetic pattern as a template for ordering the pitches. Everything else (tempo, timbre, etc.) is up to the musician. What makes the Genetic Music Project different from other similar setups is that the DNA, in this case, comes from the guy who runs the site.

Already, several people have taken up the offer to “[g]o forth and musicify!” with interesting results:

"Restless Leg Syndrome" (no kidding)

"Heroin Addiction"

I’ll have to get in on this. I’m thinking of the genetic patterns as sort of a biological arpeggiator.  We'll hear where it leads!

May 16, 2011

Careful What You Wish For

My boss has said, on more than one occasion, “a day out is a day out, and a day in is a day in.”  Meaning that any reduction in a client’s sentence, even if it seems insignificant at the time, is a good thing.  It’s hard to see the long view, however, if you just got a 15-year sentence, even if you might have otherwise gotten 20.

That must have been what was going through Eric Torpy’s mind, if anything was, when he was sentenced for armed robbery in Oklahoma several years ago.  See, he made an odd request of the judge (via):
In October 2005, Torpy asked an Oklahoma County judge to tack on three more years to his 30-year prison sentence for armed robbery and two counts of shooting with intent to kill.

'He said if he was going down, he was going to go down in Larry Bird’s jersey,'’ Oklahoma District Judge Ray Elliott told the Associated Press back then. 'He was just as happy as he could be.'
I was a Larry Bird fan as a kid, too.  You know what I did?  I got 33 to be my jersey number when I played basketball in elementary school!*  I never thought of taking it farther than that.  Maybe my elementary-school self realized you had to draw a line somewhere.

Of course, after doing six years in the klink, Torpy is having second thoughts:
'Now that I have to do that time, yes I do,' says Torpy. 'I kind of wished that I had 30 instead of 33. Recently I’ve wisened up.'

'That three is a big deal, you know? Three years matters.'
Nonetheless, the fault for his predicament lies elsewhere:
Torpy said the district attorney and judge should never have lengthened his plea bargain agreement.

'In my mind, they became unprofessional,' he says. 'Why feed into my game? I’m a criminal.'
Here’s a bit of free legal advice – don’t taunt judges.  They are very unlikely to grant your request if it involves some type of break for you – less time, a better prison placement, what have you.  But if you make request for more time, even one as dumbassed as Torpy’s, you’re likely to get just what you ask for.  Judges don’t like to me messed with.  And they will let you know it.  And the prosecutor is not going to step in and keep it from happening.

* That was before I learned about my all-purpose number of choice for such things, of course.

May 13, 2011

Friday Review: Snowtorch

I have a bone to pick with Phideaux, the Los Angeles-based band helmed by guitarist/vocalist/composer Phideaux Xavier.  Almost everything they've released since 2006 are conceptual pieces that promise to be ongoing.  Yet, rather than provide part three of the trilogy started with The Great Leap, they produced Number Seven.  Instead of the promised a quick-on follow up to that one, called, creatively enough, 7 1/2, we get Snowtorch.  Can't they follow through with anything?!?

OK, that's not really a bone I'm too prone to pick when the tangential results are as good as Snowtorch (and Number Seven, for that matter).  Running just long enough to fit onto one side of a 90-minute cassette, Snowtorch is the band’s most overtly proggy release to date.  A good hunk of the two epics (parts one and two of the title track) are given over to extended instrumental workouts stretched over shifting meters and rhythms.  But workouts are (or sound to be) carefully constructed passages, not just a clump of aimless jamming.  Themes rise, fall, and appear again minutes later.  This is what epic prog should be.

Lyrically, the album is as inscrutable as ever (at least to me – I’m not very good a digging deep meaning out of things, as my high school English teachers), but we seem to be dealing with the origins of the Earth and life upon it.  Shouldering that burden, vocally, is Xavier, of course, and his usual cohort of female vocalists.  One of them (Valerie Gracious, I think) comes to the fore on “Helix,” which acts as the meat in the “Snowtorch” sandwich.  What common sense might say should be a calm port in the storm between the two halves of the epic instead booms out at you, thanks to the vocals.

One of the things that has always appealed to me about Phideaux’s music is that it so often has a relentless sense of forward motion to it.  I’m not talking about a drum beat rhythm (although that helps), but rather the rhythmic churning of the rest of the band that propels things forward.  Snowtorch has that feel in spades, almost relentlessly pushing itself to the end of its 45 minutes.  By the time we’ve reached the short instrumental finale (a sort of cooling off exercise), it’s been one hell of a ride.

In the end, Snowtorch takes the Phideaux sound and cranks the proggy elements up to 11.  Along the way, it’s still full of the fantastic lush arrangements that make the band so fun to listen to again and again.  Pick this one up – it’ll be one of the best of 2011.

The Details
Snowtorch, by Phideaux
Released 2011

1. Snowtorch - Part One (19:39)
            a) Star Of Light
            b) Retrograde
            c) Fox On The Rocks
            d) Celestine
2. Helix (5:54)
3. Snowtorch - Part Two (16:11)
            a) Blowtorch Snowjob
            b) Fox Rock 2
            c) Coronal Mass Ejection
4.  ...  (2:34)

Total Time: 44:08

Phideaux Xavier (acoustic guitar, piano, vocals)
Johnny Unicorn (keyboards, saxophone, vocals)
Mark Sherkus (keyboards, piano)
Linda Ruttan Moldawsky (vocals, metal percussion)
Molly Ruttan (vocals)
Gabriel Moffat (electric guitar)
Mathew Kennedy (bass guitar)
"Bloody" Rich Hutchins (drums)
Valerie Gracious (vocals)
Ariel Farber (vocals, violin)
with Stefanie Fife (cello) and Chris Bleth (flute, soprano sax)

May 11, 2011

Fun With Photoshop (bin Laden Edition)

By now, we’re all familiar with the famous shot of the White House situation room, in which Obama, Biden, and numerous others watched while the hit on bin Laden was carried out:

In the week or so since then, that picture has taken on a life of its own, depending on who’s playing around with it.  The silliest (though not funniest – see below!), and most controversial, is the version published in Der Tzitung, a newspaper for orthodox Hasidic Jews published in Brooklyn, in which they eliminated Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and another woman from the photo.  Why?  To keep good with God, of course:
In accord with our religious beliefs, we do not publish photos of women, which in no way relegates them to a lower status. . . . Because of laws of modesty, we are not allowed to publish pictures of women, and we regret if this gives an impression of disparaging to women, which is certainly never our intention. We apologize if this was seen as offensive.
They are, of course, free to publish whatever they want (or not) in their paper, whether it’s motivated by religion or any other reason.  But “God tells us to do it” doesn’t work as a defense to such an obviously sexist practice.  Cutting women out of a photograph in the name of “modesty” sounds an awful lot like the school of misogyny based on making women so special and precious that they have to be protected from everything around them.  It’s an old saw.

Consider Bradwell v. The State, an 1872 Supreme Court decision dealing with an Illinois woman who had the temerity to want to practice law.  She was denied the license by the state and appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which affirmed.  In doing so, Justice Bradley explained (in a concurring opinion):
the civil law, as well as nature herself, has always recognized a wide difference in the respective spheres and destinies of man and woman. Man is, or should be, woman's protector and defender. The natural and proper timidity and delicacy which belongs to the female sex evidently unfits it for many of the occupations of civil life. The constitution of the family organization, which is founded in the divine ordinance, as well as in the nature of things, indicates the domestic sphere as that which properly belongs to the domain and functions of womanhood. The harmony, not to say identity, of interest and views which belong, or should belong, to the family institution is repugnant to the idea of a woman adopting a distinct and independent career from that of her husband.
In other words, women are too delicate to mix it up with the men in the big bad wider world and, oh by the way, get back in the kitchen, squirt out a baby, and make me a pie!  For more on women breaking into the legal field see here.

But, as I said, the publishers of Der Tzitung have the perfect right to be sexist douchebags and print their newspaper accordingly.  If they want to be so unethical as to distort the historical record in their paper, that’s their business.  And, likely, they did nothing illegal in ‘shopping the women out of the room, as a photograph created for the U.S. government has no copyright control on it, so it’s not subject to the restrictions found on most works.

And that’s a good thing, because while it makes the publishers of Der Tzitung easily identifiable unethical dipshits, it also provides fodder for some really funny stuff.  Wired collected a bunch of modified versions of the photograph from around the web, some of which are pretty good.  My two favorites:

I particularly like the Blue Screen of Death reverse image.  More fun here.

May 10, 2011

The Essence of Sport

You know the easiest way to get the ball in the middle of the fairway? Walk down there and place it with your hand. Who are you kidding?
- Dick Rugge, Senior Technical Director, U.S.G.A.
That quote is from an article in today’s New York Times about a golf ball, called the Polara. The Polara cures one of the most common afflictions of bad golfers (read “most of us”), the slice. For those not familiar with its charms, a slice occurs when the ball you hit curves gracefully away from the place you wanted to hit it. Right handers slice right, left hander slice left. It is, in a word, frustrating.

So, the Polara is a wonderball, right? Well, yeah, except for one problem – it’s not legal under the rules of the game. Whether that should matter to rank amateurs, and whether it might even draw more people to the game. Since I don’t play it any more, I don’t really care.

But the quip from Rugge reminded me of one of the most supremely stupid things I’ve ever read about sports, something that completely missed the whole point of sports.

It came from Frank Deford, one of the country’s notorious soccer haters. He’s the type of guy who ignores the sport most of the time, but when something like the World Cup comes around, he pops up to wonder why Americans just don’t like soccer. His comments are largely ignorant and petty, but they’ve rarely been this dense. In an appearance on PBS (via) during the 2006 World Cup (yeah I know, but still), he said:
And it doesn't have the proficiency that sports do that use your hands. It's totally bizarre when you think about it that a game would be played with feet and head rather than hands. I mean, this makes no sense whatsoever.
Now, how does a rule in soccer that says “don’t use your hands” make any less sense than a rule in football that says “give the ball to the other team if you can’t get 10 yards in four downs” or a rule in Formula 1 that says “your engine can only be 2.4 liters big?” After all, football would be a whole lot easier if you didn’t have to let the other team have the ball. Being able to show up with twice the horsepower of your rivals in an F1 race? Even Red Bull couldn’t keep up. So, too, with the “no hands” rule in soccer.

The entire point of sports is to have everybody agree to restrictive rules that make the object of the game difficult. Otherwise, what’s the point? That soccer emphasizes a particular set of skills makes it the same as every other sport. You’d think somebody like Deford, who’s written about sports for decades, would grasp that. And maybe he does, when he’s not blinded by his hatred of the beautiful game.

Which brings us back to the Polara – does it make the game easier for amateurs who would otherwise drop the sport? Or does it change it in a fundamental way? The technology v. sport dynamic has been playing out in motorsports at the top levels for years. Road cars are easier and easier to drive, largely because of technologies developed in racing. But they make the race cars easier to drive, too. Where’s the fun in that?

In his May column for MotorSport, Nigel Roebuck writes of this dilemma. In it, he relates a telling anecdote:
Remember when Ayrton Senna tested Emerson Fittipaldi’s CART Penske at the end of 1992? At the time F1 was festooned with ‘gizmos’, from active ride to traction control to launch control to ABS, and Senna loathed the lot of them – quite reasonably, too, for they served to flatter a driver, to reduce the gap between the good and the great. Now Ayrton got into the Penske, with more power – and much less grip – than an F1 car, with a manual gearbox, without gizmos. ‘I love it,’ he said. ‘It’s a human’s car . . ..’
In the end, sport comes down to the challenge. If it’s not hard to do, it’s not worth doing. Whether it’s trapping a 50-yard pass on your instep or hitting a drive straight and true, it’s not that hard to figure out.

May 9, 2011

Some bin Laden Thoughts

Remember the Lloyd Bridges character in Airplane!, who several times opines (to nobody in particular) that “it looks like I picked a bad week to give up . . .” a succession of mind-altering substances?  Well, it looks like I picked a bad week to give up blogging, huh?  No more than 90 minutes after I posted the little update below did the word start to leak out that Osama bin Laden was dead.  Under the banner of “better late than never,” here are a few thoughts.

First, regardless of the impact bin Laden’s death has on the War on Terra, or our relationship with Pakistan, or anything else, the world’s a better place with bin Laden out of it.  To throw out another movie reference, I’m reminded of the news update at the beginning of the South Park movie, when the anchor explains that it’s been weeks since Saddam Hussein had been killed by wild boars “and the world is still glad to be rid of him.”  We, the planet, are going to be glad we’re rid of bin Laden for a long time to come.

Having said that, the mob-like reaction to the news, which looked like something that might happen after your team win the Super Bowl (per the local news, couches were burning in Morgantown!), was not our finest hour.  I understand the catharsis of the moment, particularly for those who were victims of 9/11 or family members.  But publicly cheering the death of your enemies – isn’t that something the bad guys do?  I’m not talking about a joyous celebration of the end of the War – ‘cause we aren’t there, yet.  This was one of those things that needed to be done, and those who did it should be satisfied in a job well done, but other than that we just need to get on with things.

The mechanics of the actual killing bother me less.  To my knowledge, bin Laden is on record repeatedly saying he wouldn’t be taken alive.  While that may have been idle blustering, at a certain point you have to take a man at his word.  I’m not certain that someone who set in motion plans that have killed thousands of innocent people around the world is really entitled to the benefit of any doubt in that area.

Then there’s the question of Pakistan – willfully ignorant or merely epically incompetent?  I suppose we’ll find out down the road.

But the real important question that must be answered – right the fuck now, please! – about bin Laden’s death is who gets the credit for it, politically?  Like it or not, Republicans, but as a nation we have a “you broke it, you bought it” style mentality when it comes to presidents.  Whatever good happens during their terms they get credit for, whatever bad happens is their fault.  Actual causality is too tricky to figure out.  It’s why presidents get the praise/blame for economic cycling, even though they have very little impact on such things. 

It’s also how the Republicans give credit to Reagan for the end of the Cold War, as if he kicked over the Berlin Wall himself.  History, of course, is rarely that simple.  Reagan’s contributions to the end of the Cold War were set upon the building blocks of his predecessors.  Likewise, while Obama gets the credit for drilling bin Laden, the operation that brought him down stretches back to the Bush II years (and even the Clinton era, if you want to squint hard enough).  Yes, I know what Bush said and I’m not saying he gets a lot of credit.  But he and his cronies laid some of the foundation upon which the operations was based.  History is like that - it doesn’t really play political favorites.

In the end, the only question that really matters is whether bin Laden’s death makes things any better for us and the world at large.  Yeah, it feels good that he’s gone.  But the War on Terra, like the War on Drugs, isn’t going away anytime soon.  And any hope that burying the bin Laden hatchet would have turned the corner on anti-Muslim feeling in this country is, apparently, wishful thinking.  Only time will tell.  It always does.

May 1, 2011

Programming Note

As I've got a massive brief due this coming week (two trials plus sentencing issues!), blogging will cease until I've recovered from that experience.  Until then, place nice.