June 29, 2011

In Which I Defend Michelle Bachmann (Sorta')

It really really pains me to do this, but . . . y'all gotta' lay off the Michelle Bachman/John Wayne/John Wayne Gacy shtick. Don't know what I'm talking about? Let Steven Colbert explain:

Here's the thing. Two things, actually.

First, Bachmann's knowledge about John Wayne strikes me as precisely the sort of small town mythologizing that happens all over the place. After all, Waterloo, Iowa has no real claim to fame, right? Might as well glom onto some celebrity whose family slipped through town for a little while. Who can it hurt? The fact that Bachmann took this as accepted wisdom only shows her lack of research skills (or desire), as shown by nearly everything that comes out of her mouth. This is hardly her most grievous sin.

Here's the other thing - Gacy wasn't really "from" Waterloo, either. He was born in Chicago and did most of his evil deeds there, although he did get his start in the couple of years he spent in Waterloo. But he's no more "from" there than Charles Manson is "from" Charleston or I'm "from" Morgantown. You're "from" where you're born or, at least, where you grew up.  If you're going to ding somebody for getting their hometown history wrong, you damn well better get it right.

Point is, this is no more than the partisan point-scoring bullshit that passes for political dialog these days. Knock it off! There's serious problems afoot. Not that Bachmann is the woman to solve them . . .

June 28, 2011

Free Speech v. Meaningful Responses

The other case that the Court handed down yesterday is much more confusing, at least to me. Maybe it's because I'm not a fan of the kind of law that the Court struck down, but I'm also not at all convinced that the logic by which the Court got there makes any sense. Believe it or not, getting the right result for the wrong reasons isn’t necessarily a good thing.

At issue in Arizona Free Enterprise Club’s Freedom Club PAC v. Bennett, was an Arizona campaign finance law designed to help level the playing field when it came to elections. It worked like this: Assume you have two candidates, A and B, running for state office. A agrees to accept public funding for his campaign, with all the limitations that implies; B does not. A gets an initial lump sum payment for the campaign. However, once A burns through that cash, he is entitled to new funds matching those spent by B and his independent supporters (over and above the amount equal to the lump sum payment). In other words, the publicly financed candidate gets an additional subsidy if his opponent spends a lot of privately raised or independently spent money.

Several plaintiffs, including privately-funded candidates and some independent groups, sued, arguing that the law "penalized their speech and burdened their ability to fully exercise their First Amendment rights" As Chief Justice Roberts more fully sets out in the Court’s opinion striking down the law (citations omitted):
Although the speech of the candidates and independent expenditure groups that brought this suit is not directly capped by Arizona’s matching funds provision, those parties contend that their political speech is substantially burdened by the state law in the same way that speech was burdened by the law we recently found invalid in Davis v. Federal Election Comm'n. In Davis, we considered a First Amendment challenge to the so-called “Millionaire’s Amendment” of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002. Under that Amendment, if a candidate for the United States House of Representatives spent more than $350,000 of his personal funds, 'a new, asymmetrical regulatory scheme [came] into play.' The opponent of the candidate who exceeded that limit was permitted to collect individual contributions up to$6,900 per contributor – three times the normal contribution limit of $2,300. The candidate who spent more than the personal funds limit remained subject to the original contribution cap. Davis argued that this scheme 'burden[ed] his exercise of his First Amendment right to make unlimited expenditures of his personal funds because' doing so had 'the effect of enabling his opponent to raise more money and to use that money to finance speech that counteract[ed] and thus diminishe[d]the effectiveness of Davis’ own speech.'

In addressing the constitutionality of the Millionaire’s Amendment, we acknowledged that the provision did not impose an outright cap on a candidate’s personal expenditures. We nonetheless concluded that the Amendment was unconstitutional because it forced a candidate 'to choose between the First Amendment right to engage in unfettered political speech and subjection to discriminatory fundraising limitations.'
In other words, a regulation that doesn’t actually restrict speech, but perhaps lessens its impact or causes a candidate to ponder whether the speech would be strategically valuable, violates the First Amendment. Applying Davis, the Court concluded that the Arizona regulation met the same fate as the Millionaire's amendment.

To be honest, I don’t see any "punishment" going on. I’m familiar with the concept of laws that "chill" speech and therefore violate the First Amendment, but I don’t see that happening here. The only thing that would possibly chill the privately-financed B from speaking is that her opponent might get to respond. Does that really violate the First Amendment? I don’t find the Court’s reliance on Tornillo, which struck down a law requiring newspapers to allow a reply from a candidate after assailing his character, all that persuasive. That case dealt with compelled speech by private actors, where this one is all about public funding. I just don’t see the parallel.

The Court’s position seems to come down to the First Amendment not only protecting B's right to speak, but to be heard without rebuttal. But that can’t be right. It’s axiomatic that the First Amendment protects your right to speak, not to be heard or listened to. I can write all I want, but I can’t sue the New York Times or Asimov’s or HaprerCollins and force them to print it. Likewise, no political candidate can claim a right to unfettered distribution of her message, right?

My thoughts are more in line with Justice Kagan’s dissent on this one (citations omitted):
This suit, in fact, may merit less attention than any challenge to a speech subsidy ever seen in this Court. In the usual First Amendment subsidy case, a person com-plains that the government declined to finance his speech, while bankrolling someone else's; we must then decide whether the government differentiated between these speakers on a prohibited basis – because it preferred one speaker’s ideas to another's. But the candidates bringing this challenge do not make that claim – because they were never denied a subsidy. Arizona, remember, offers to support any person running for state office. Petitioners here refused that assistance. So they are making a novel argument: that Arizona violated their First Amendment rights by disbursing funds to other speakers even though they could have received (but chose to spurn) the same financial assistance. Some people might call that chutzpah.

Indeed, what petitioners demand is essentially a right to quash others' speech through the prohibition of a (universally available) subsidy program. Petitioners are able to convey their ideas without public financing – and they would prefer the field to themselves, so that they can speak free from response. To attain that goal, they ask this Court to prevent Arizona from funding electoral speech – even though that assistance is offered to every state candidate, on the same (entirely unobjectionable) basis. And this Court gladly obliges.
In other words, the Court protects not only B's right to speak, but his de facto right to do so free from meaningful response on the part of his underfunded opponent. I'm not sure that makes sense.

Having said all that, I’m no fan of public financing of elections. It's not right to force me, as a taxpayer, to support political speech, even if its speech I might agree with. Doesn’t matter if it's Michelle Bachmann or Barack Obama, their financial support should come from those who actually support those candidates. But that doesn't mean the end result here justifies the pretzel logic in which the Court appears to have tied itself. Public financing may not be the best policy, but that doesn’t make it unconstitutional, particularly based on the rationale set forth in this case.

Grand Theft Auto: First Amendment Edition

The Supreme Court wrapped up its term on Monday with its usual batch of big-time end of the season decisions. Those included a pair of cases that touched on very different aspects of the First Amendment. One, which I address in this post, was a slam dunk that I’m surprised took as long to come out as it did and wasn’t unanimous. The other, which I’ll take up next, is a bit of a head scratcher, even if the end result falls in line with my general stance on the underlying issue.

The first, Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association, is the straightforward one. It involved a California law (signed by Herr Gropenfuher – Brown became the named party when he assumed office) that prohibited the sale or rental of "violent video games," as defined by the statute, to minors. Retailers and game makers sued, arguing that the prohibition violated the First Amendment. The State conceded that video games were entitled to First Amendment protection, which was a wise concession. As Justice Scalia writes for the Court:
The Free Speech Clause exists principally to protect discourse on public matters, but we have long recognized that it is difficult to distinguish politics from entertainment, and dangerous to try.
Once that concession was made, the case was essentially over. Like the federal government in the Stevens case last term, which dealt with so-called "crush" videos, California tried to argue that violent video games, due to their nature, fell outside of First Amendment protection, even if the First Amendment protected video games in general. In other words, it tried to turn violence into something like obscenity. As in Stevens, however, the Court rejected the attempt to create another exemption beyond those recognized at the time the First Amendment was ratified. So, the Court applies strict scrutiny and, as is most often the case, the state loses in that analysis. Along the way, Scalia notes how violent video games corrupting our youth is just the latest in a line of moral panics dating back to the rise of dime novels (and probably before) and drills a dissenting Justice Thomas for concluding that there is no First Amendment protection for speech to minors that doesn’t go through a parent/guardian first.

Having said that, Justice Breyer does make a good meta point in his dissent:
I add that the majority’s different conclusion creates a serious anomaly in First Amendment law. [Other precedent] makes clear that a State can prohibit the sale to minors of depictions of nudity; today the Court makes clear that a State cannot prohibit the sale to minors of the most violent interactive video games. But what sense does it make to forbid selling to a 13-year-old boy a magazine with an image of a nude woman, while protecting a sale to that 13year-old of an interactive video game in which he actively, but virtually, binds and gags the woman, then tortures and kills her? What kind of First Amendment would permit the government to protect children by restricting sales of that extremely violent video game only when the woman – bound, gagged, tortured, and killed – is also topless?
The answer, of course, for Scalia goes back to what was considered to be protected by the First Amendment when it was enacted in the late 18th Century. Obscenity, however defined, doesn’t fit the bill. From a logical standpoint, however, it’s hard to see why that should continue to be so. I take Breyer’s point, but turn it around – it doesn’t support the California law, rather it’s an argument for doing away with the obscenity exception to the First Amendment. More broadly, the disparity points to American society’s warped perception that sex is bad, but violence is absolutely fine.

So the Court got that one right. Now, on to the other decision, which is much less convincing . . .

June 27, 2011

Change We Must

After a tournament filled with oddities - five Mexican players sent home for failing a doping test, the United States losing its first ever group stage match to Panama, of all people - the Gold Cup final on Saturday came down to the match up everyone wanted to see and everyone figured we'd get. The United States took on Mexico at the Rose Bowl, but it might as well have been the Azteca (minus the pollution and altitude, of course).

As entertainment, it didn't disappoint. The US jumped out to a quick 2-0 lead, but the Mexicans had leveled things by the end of the half. The second half saw the Mexicans surge ahead on a pair of wonderfully skillful goals (it pains me to write that, believe me!). Check out the last one for yourself:

In the end, El Tri retained the Gold Cup with a 4-2 win. As a reward, they'll represent the region in the next version of the Confederations Cup in Brazil before the 2014 World Cup. If the continue to play like they did for most of the Gold Cup, they'll be a formidable foe.

It was a frustrating experience for a US fan, seeing so much promise go to shit so quickly. Seemed a little like deja vu, too. Which, of course, it was. In the last version of the Confederations Cup, in 2009, the US made the final against Brazil. In that match, too, we jumped to an early 2-0 lead, only to blow it (Brazil won 3-2). Of course, we only made it that far because of a once-in-a-blue-moon alignment of tie breakers.

In light of all that, it seems clear to me that it is time for US coach Bob Bradley to move on. I've really thought so since the end of last year's World Cup. It's rare for any coach to stay with the same team through multiple World Cup cycles and Bradley isn't special enough to warrant being one of them. I'm aware of what the team has accomplished during his term. I just don't think he has the ability to take us any further.

This Gold Cup has been a perfect example of how frustrating Bradley can be. After a solid opener against Canada, we inexplicably lose to Panama - as mentioned, the first time we've ever lost in the group stage of that tournament. And on home soil, no less. But, no worries, all that stood between us and advancing to the quarterfinals was lowly Guadeloupe, which isn't even a FIFA member (it's still part of France). We cruised past them . . . 1-0. True, the game wasn't as close as the score indicates, but the result should have never been in doubt.

Bradley's roster moves can be head scratching in their variety, as well. The big risk of the tournament was bringing Freddy Adu back into the team, much less starting him against Mexico in the final. That paid off handsomely. However, leaving Landon Donovan out of the starting lineup in the semifinal didn't really pan out.

And Bradley's reaction to the injury of right back Steve Cherundolo was a complete and utter failure. Yes, Eric Lichaj played on the right most of the time during his stint with Leeds last season, but he's been on the left for all of his Gold Cup time and playing brilliantly. Shifting him to the right forces him to play out of position, essentially, in the final, while his replacement on the left, Jonathan Bornstein, was his usual disastrous self. Why not Jonathan Spector on the right?

At any rate, the most common defense I've seen of Bradley in the days since the final is that the United States is simply not that talented and he's doing the best he can with what he's got. That might be so. But if that's the case, shouldn't we bring in a new coach to see if he can do more with the same material? We know what Bradley can and can't do - why not find out what somebody else might figure out?

Now is the time to change, before World Cup qualifying cranks up, not to mention the next version of the Gold Cup in 2013. Make no mistake, the supremacy the United States has enjoyed over Mexico and the rest of CONCACAF is over. We may never win the World Cup, but we can rule our little corner of the planet. It's time to get back there.

June 23, 2011

Those Wacky Mormons

Mormonism is full of wacky mythology. Not any more than any other religion, but the Mormons do seem to have some peculiarly vivid bits of their backstory. It can lead to odd behavior in the here and now, too. None more so than posthumous baptism (or, to steal a term used in the discussion at PZ's blog, "necrodunking").

That's right. You may be a "Catholic the moment Dad came," but you can be a Mormon long after you've achieved room temperature. In a way, it's a very loving gesture. Mormons believe that baptism is a requirement for salvation, so they'll do it by proxy for those who never got around to it when they were alive. It's even better than the Christian deathbed conversion - you don't have to convert/repent at all!

It is also profoundly offensive to some people, for good reason. If someone rejected the Mormon brand of woo during his lifetime, either explicitly or by choosing some other brand of woo, baptism him posthumously seems a little sleazy. It's not as if he could consent, after all. So it's not surprising that a group of Jewish leaders objected to Mormon ex post facto baptism of, among others, Holocaust victims .

In that spirit, I'll object to the to the posthumous baptism of a pair of my "people," as it were. According to Famous Dead Mormons (via), both Carl Sagan and George Carlin, have had the deed done to them. Multiple times, in fact.*  I'd imagine that would be offensive to both of them, being outspoken atheists while they were alive.  What the fuck - they got Frank Zappa, too!  No mean feat, given that the man declared cigarettes to be a food group while he was alive.   Keep your grubby mystical paws off my idols, will you?

Or maybe it's not really worth getting worked up about. In the end, of course, it's all a bunch of pointless hand waiving. Posthumous baptism, just like the regular sort, is a ritual that derives meaning only for those who believe in that particular strain of woo. It has no more effect than a curse or a love spell. So, in the end, no harm no foul. If you get your kicks to play your little games in complete disregard of reality and the memories of the people you're recruiting, have at it.  It's better than molesting the living, at least.

*Indeed, from the details on that site, most famous dead folks get necrodunked more than once. Whether that means they get multiple planets to lord over, I'm not sure.

June 22, 2011

Legal Mythbusting

I’m loathe to recommend anything over at Huffington Post, but with Radley Balko’s move over there from Reason, that’ll be difficult. When it comes to criminal justice issues, particularly the ever disappearing Fourth Amendment, Balko’s about as good as it gets. Thus, it’s still with a little trepidation I highlight his current series on “Myths of the Criminal Justice System.” Part one is here. Part three arrives on Friday.

As for part two, it includes a myth that is near and dear to my heart – that appellate courts exist to retry factual contentions raised at trial. I’ve written about it before. Appeals focus on legal issues and try to sift the facts of the case only in the very rarest of occurrences. I suspect they do it just to keep people like me from saying they never do it.

Just how rare is it? As Balko explains:
In a 2008 article published in the Columbia Law Review, Brandon L. Garrett, a law professor at the University of Virginia, reviewed how appeals courts handled the first 200 cases in which DNA testing exonerated a defendant who had previously been convicted of rape or murder. Of those 200 convictions, just 18 convictions were at one point reversed by appellate courts. Another 67 defendants' appeals were denied without even a written ruling. In 63 cases the appellate court opinion described the defendant as 'guilty,' and in 12 cases referred to 'overwhelming' evidence of guilt. In the remaining cases, the appeals courts either found the defendant’s appeal without merit or found that the errors in the case were 'harmless' -- there were problems with the case, but those problems were unlikely to have affected the jury’s verdict -- due, again, to the convincing evidence of guilt.
It need not be that way. Appellate courts in some civil law countries evaluate the facts for their own sake on a regular basis. But in common law countries like ours, you’ve basically got one chance to get the “facts” to come out in your favor. After that point, I’m pretty well stuck with them.

June 21, 2011

Don’t Crash the Weed Plane, Dude!

Charleston is in the middle of FestivALL, a two-week all-encompassing artsy outburst that covers the entire city. As part of the fun this year, several folks are painting murals on the bland concrete piers that hold up the highway that runs through the city. It’s a brilliant idea and ought to really spruce things up. But artistic freedom isn’t the highest of priorities.

See, the powers that be asked that the murals be done with "historical" themes. Apparently there’s some history folks in this town would just as soon forget:
'They requested historical themes. I did the marijuana plane crashing, with smoke billowing up in the air. I was going to put demons in the smoke, people gathering the marijuana, and marshals running after the people.'

Alas, judges rejected Hamilton's vision of the infamous June 1979 pot plane crash, in which a DC-6 rolled off the end of a Kanawha (Yeager) Airport runway when its brakes failed, spilling 10 tons of baled marijuana over the hillside and creating a bonanza for bag-toting pot scavengers the following night.
Thanks to Charly Hamilton, who floated the idea, for turning me on to this nugget of Charleston lore. My boss filled in some of the details, which apparently included a shibboleth style catch phrase among the many defense attorneys involved and the firing of a local law enforcement officer who just happened to be up at the airport when the ill-fated pot plane crashed.

So even if the powers-that-be want to forget about it, the saga of the Charleston Pot Plane Crash is alive and well!

June 17, 2011

Friday Review: Ammerland

I keep a running list of albums I want to get (creatively titled “Tunes I Want”). I add things to it when I read a review or see an interesting discussion on one of the prog forums about an island. Sometimes, by the time I get around to actually buying stuff, I forget exactly why a particular disc made the list.

I can’t quite remember what went through my head when I put Ammerland on the list, but I think it went like this. It was made by a German duo. It came out in the late 1970s. It involved copious amounts of synth work. The end result, I think I concluded, was probably something along the lines of Tangerine Dream, or possibly Ashra.

It didn’t turn out that way. The two Germans in question, Heinz Frohling and Gerhard Fuhrs, first got together with another guy, drummer Eduard Schicke, and made a couple of albums melding fusion and more symphonic-leaning prog. Inspired by some of the more pastoral bits of those albums, Frohling (guitar) and Furhs (synths and keys) made an album as a duo, Ammerland (named after their home region in Germany).

The result is an unlikely combination that works amazingly well. Frohling lays out various guitar riffs, mostly acoustic, upon which Furhs sprinkles various bits of synthy goodness (with some Mellotron piled on for good measure). The results are light and tasteful, but not dull or twee. Nothing driving or anthemic (no drums on this album), but very interesting. A perfect reflection of their homeland, from all I’ve read. Just look at the cover.

Ammerland, by Furhs and Frohling
Released 1978

1. Ammerland (3:05)
2. Gentle Breeze (5:30)
3. Dance Of The Leaves (2:16)
4. Street Dance (2:29)
5. Sarabande (2:27)
6. Circles Of Live (4:04)
7. Every Land Tells A Story (13:49)
8. Ammernoon (5:05)

Gerhard Fuhrs (synth, keyboards)
Heinz Frohling (guitar)
Edward Brumund Ruther (bass)

June 16, 2011

Jurors Gone Wild

Part of the operating theory for juries is that jurors are supposed to bring their common sense to the table when deciding a case. Jurors are specifically told not to leave their life experiences at the door. It’s important to bring a “lay” person’s perspective into the process. Given how much we rely on jurors to exercise common sense, it’s always a shame to see so many demonstrate a total lack of it.

Witness the antics of Joanne Fraill. Sitting on a jury in a drug trial in the UK (the third time this particular case had gone to trial), she apparently thought it would be a good idea to contact an already acquitted codefendant. Via Facebook, of course. As a result, the trial was again scuttled, resulting in several million pounds going down the drain. Yesterday, Fraill was sentenced to eight months in prison for contempt of court for the contact. It also came out that she had repeatedly searched the Net for information about the case. Given such flagrant violations of the judge’s orders, I’d say the punishment is about right.

Closer to home, a juror in a New York court in 2007 sent the judge what must have been one of the odder requests made of a jurist:
'The note mentioned, among other things, the breakup of the juror's marriage and her view that the male lawyer who sat in the second chair at the prosecution table was a 'cutie,'' the ruling explained. 'The juror asked, perhaps jokingly, to be given that lawyer's telephone number when the trial was over.'
Strange, but not strange enough to warrant a reversal of the resulting manslaughter conviction. An appellate court upheld the conviction, holding that the trial judge squelched any problems by talking to the juror about the note and “obtained her assurance” that she would be impartial. Color me unimpressed. A juror has already shown such bad judgment to ask for a lawyer’s phone number, and now you expect her to be honest about the effect of the infatuation? Appellate judges strike me as appallingly na├»ve sometimes.

When I was growing up, there was a high-profile murder trial in Charleston. Near the end, maybe during the actual deliberations (I can’t recall), it was discovered that a juror had brought a copy of the local paper into the jury room. Of course, it had a large front-page story about the trial in it. This was after jurors were explicitly told not to consult any outside sources of information. Mistrial, of course. Had to do the whole thing over again (defendant was convicted, IIRC). Of all the outrage surrounding the mistrial, I don’t recall much of it being directed at the idiot juror who caused the problem.

We all do dumb shit, of course. Jurors are no different. But sometimes they seem to do things so beyond the pale of good sense that it’s a wonder they make it to the courthouse in one piece every morning.

June 13, 2011

David Simon Doubles Down

One thing’s for certain about David Simon, creator of (among other things) the now departed The Wire and the very much still with us Treme: he doesn’t mince words (via).

Last week, Attorney General Eric Holder appeared with several actors from The Wire on a panel devoted to dealing with the effects of drugs on children. Along the way, Holder had this to say:
I want to speak directly to Mr. Burns and Mr. Simon: Do another season of The Wire. That’s actually at a minimum.… If you don’t do a season, do a movie. We’ve done HBO movies. This is a series that deserves a movie. I want another season or I want a movie. I have a lot of power Mr. Burns and Mr. Simon.
It’s hard to tell from the article if Holder was serious (a lot of people would welcome more of The Wire, after all), joking, or just kissing entertainment-industry ass. Regardless, Simon responded to Holder’s request with one of his own:
The Attorney-General's kind remarks are noted and appreciated. I've spoken to Ed Burns and we are prepared to go to work on season six of The Wire if the Department of Justice is equally ready to reconsider and address its continuing prosecution of our misguided, destructive and dehumanising drug prohibition.
In other words, The Wire is as dead as Omar. Expect a new season about the same time Hell freezes over.

June 10, 2011

Friday Review: Paths of Glory

Gen. Broulard: There are few things more fundamentally encouraging and stimulating than seeing someone else die.

Col. Dax: I never thought of that, sir.

Gen. Broulard: You see, Colonel, troops are like children. Just as a child wants his father to be firm, troops crave discipline.

Col. Dax: I see.

Gen. Broulard: And one way to maintain discipline is to shoot a man now and then.
Of the many appalling scenes in Paths of Glory, Stanley Kubrick’s 1957 anti-war classic, that is perhaps the most appalling.  Colonel Dax, played by Kirk Douglas, has just had three of his men convicted during a court martial for cowardice in the face of the enemy.  Their crime?  Failure to obtain an unobtainable objective.

Set in France in 1916, after the First World War had bogged down into a trench-based stalemate, soldiers are reduced to cannon fodder shredded in pursuit of minor goals.  For Dax’s men it’s The Anthill, a raised portion of ground a few hundred meters out in No Man’s Land.  General Broulard, played by Adolphe Menjou, orders The Anthill taken, even though from the outset it seems impossible.  The task falls to Dax’s men.  After the first wave goes over the top, the advance stalls when the second wave won’t leave the French trench.  Dax’s immediate subordinate even goes so far as to order his artillery to blast his own men out of the trench (the artillery commander, with a rigorous knowledge of procedural regulations, won’t do so without the proper paperwork).  The assault, of course, fails.

Failure isn’t an acceptable outcome for Broulard, so he orders 100 of Dax’s men charged with cowardice – the penalty for conviction is death.  Broulard eventually settles for three scapegoats, one from each company, supposedly selected at random (trench politics dictate otherwise).  It falls to Dax to defend his men in a hastily arranged kangaroo court held in an opulent countryside estate.  Of course he loses.  Of course his men are executed.

In the scene above, Dax confronts Broulard with the information about the artillery orders, in a last minute plea of leniency.  A party is going on in the background.  Broulard, as you can see, is unmoved.  Besides, he has guests to whom he must attend.  Paths of Glory is maybe best thought of as an upstairs/downstairs commentary on warfare, one keenly aware of the division between the grunts and their leaders.

French director Francois Truffant said that there is no such thing as a true anti-war film, because any movie makes warfare look exciting.  Perhaps, but Paths of Glory gets awfully close.  There is only one battle scene in the film, and it is anything but glorious.  No enemies are slain, at least that we can see.  No objective is achieved.  The hellscape that was No Man’s Land is evident as Dax crawls across the muddy landscape, pock marked with rain-filled shell craters, avoiding the entanglement of barbed wire and fallen comrades.  Instead, Paths of Glory focus on the petty machinations of men at war, on both the highest and lowest levels.

In spite of all that comes before, Paths of Glory ends on an oddly hopeful note.  Dax, after a last meeting with Broulard, finds many of his men in a tavern in town, presented with “entertainment” in the form of a frightened German girl (played by the future Mrs. Kubrick) who will sing for them:

It’s a final moment of humanity, and hope, in the middle of such horror (Dax’s men, we learn, are headed back to the front).

Paths of Glory is an odd film to watch in 2011.  It takes place entirely in France.  With the notable exception of the German girl in the end, all the characters are French.  Yet, there’s nary a bit of francais, or even an attempted French accent, anywhere in the film.  Dax and his men sound like they wandered off the set of a typical Western.  Nobody would try to make a movie like that today, but it plays into Kubrick’s long history of skewed reality as a means of getting at a broader points.  Think of Full Metal Jacket (Kubrick’s Vietnam really ain’t the real Vietnam) or Eyes Wide Shut (Kubrick’s New York City is far from the real NYC).  The result is oddly universal, rather than being tied to a particular place and time.

For Kubrick fans, I did a series on my old blog, called “Mondays With Stanley,” where I worked through his biggest films (i.e., the ones I own).  You can find all the links here.

The Details
Paths of Glory
Released 1957
Directed by Stanley Kubrick
Written by Stanley Kubrick, Calder Willingham and Jim Thompson
From the novel by Humphrey Cobb
Starring Kirk Douglas, Adolph Menjou, George Macready, et. al.

June 8, 2011

Bad Taste Is Not a Crime

Look, all I know about The Human Centipede I know from South Park. And that, really, is too much.* I’ve never really been into horror movies and have absolutely no interest in the nouveau torture porn that’s become profitable these days. Still, you know, different strokes and all that. If that’s what entertains you, have at it. I’m not in a position to stop you. But the British Board of Film Classification is.

Per the Guardian, the Board has “denied an 18 certificate” to The Human Centipede II (Full Sequence):
for fears it poses a 'real risk' to cinemagoers.

The BBFC refusal means it cannot be legally supplied anywhere in the UK – even on DVD or download.
The Board also suggested that the film might be legally obscene. To be fair, everybody knew this might be an issue:
In the original 'Human Centipede' a mad scientist surgically fuses three hostages from mouth to anus so that their bodies form one continuous digestive tract. Reviewing the film for The New York Times, Jeannette Catsoulis described it as a 'must-see for coprophiliacs and spanking enthusiasts,' noting that Mr. Six has promised a sequel that will make his original film 'look like 'My Little Pony.''
Apparently, Six has delivered. The Guardian article provides some description of what’s on offer in the sequel and it does indeed sound depraved. And if theater owners didn’t want to show it or no distributor wanted to pick up the film based on that depravity, so be it. You’ve got no right to have other people sell your movie, after all.

But what’s really obscene is the British government saying nobody, even fully competent adults, are free to see it. At least the MPAA system, for all its fucked upness, is advisory (in theory – try catching a NC-17 flick at your local multiplex). I’ve not nothing against making sure that the viewing public knows what they’re getting when they buy a ticket. But the ultimate decision to see it or not, in a free country, rests with the viewer, not the state.

One thing the Board’s decision has done is given the film the aura of the forbidden. People who’ve never heard of it and would never have seen it will now want to.  It certainly appears to play into Six's marketing strategy.  And if the Board thinks it can keep the film from reaching British shores in the file-sharing Internet age, it’s beyond tyrannical. It’s delusional.

* All you need to know comes from Cartman’s gleeful observation “It does e-mail and web browsing and it shits in Kyle’s mouth? This is the greatest thing that has ever been invented!”

June 7, 2011

I Sing the Genome Electric (Redux)

Last month I blogged about the Genetic Music Project and said I thought it would be fun to play around with the idea.  It turned out to be more inspirational than I thought.  The first result of my playing around is now upon the site, called "Errors of Avoidance."

As it says there, I used the Avoidance of Error marker as a guide.  In addition to doing the usual thing of matching up each nucleotide with a specific pitch (as written, with T = E-flat), I took four 10-letter sequences and gave each nucleotide it's own sound in a drum machine.*  Then I used the sequences to develop rhythmic patterns.  I used each of the four patters, with various synthy goodness going on over the top.  I'm quite happy with it.  Greg, the proprietor of GMP, has kindly called it "Trippy, retro, quirky, awesome."  I'll take it!

There will be more to come.  It's both confining and liberating to limit yourself to four notes (more or less) and see what you can come up with.

You'll also see that I've set up an account at Soundcloud.  Expect new music there in the coming weeks.  Of course, I'll be sure to blog about it.  You know you can't live without this stuff. :)

*  The CR78 userbank for Hammerhead, if you're curious.

June 6, 2011

Falling Down the Slippery Slope

Jack Kevorkian died last week, he the most famous, and most notorious, proponent of assisted suicide the country has known. In the grand scheme of things, I’m on Jack’s side – people should have a right to end their own lives, with assistance if necessary. Ensuring proper safeguards to prevent abuse, etc. Nonetheless, I recognize that due to his own eccentricities and lust for the spotlight, Kevorkian may not have been the right advocate to make that case to the nation.

Nevertheless, he certainly shifted the debate and brought a lot of light to the issue. And his death has caused worried thoughts, like those of Ross Douthat’s in the New York Times. He notes that the sentiment into which Kevorkian tapped was genuine, and keeps most from viewing Kevorkian’s cause “as a form of humanitarianism rather than a criminal enterprise.” He goes on:
The difference, of course, is that Kevorkian’s clients asked for it. That free choice is what separates assisted suicide from murder, his defenders would insist.

But this means that the moral case for assisted suicide depends much more on our respect for people’s own desire to die than on our sympathy for their devastating medical conditions. If participating in a suicide is legally and ethically acceptable, in other words, it can’t just be because cancer is brutal and dementia is dehumanizing. It can only be because there’s a right to suicide
Yes? And? The problem with that is? I’ve got no problem coming at the issue from the standpoint of individual liberty and autonomy rather than some squishy notion of what is or isn’t “dehumanizing.” The whole point is that what one person experiences as a terminal obstacle that can be overcome, with some difficulty, on a daily basis is another person’s unbearable agony. What right do I have to tell you, “it’s not that bad, you’ve got lots to live for”? Maybe you don’t – how could I possibly know?

Douthat doesn’t really do the heavy lifting necessary to justify that concern. Rather, he just tumbles down the slippery slope into a squishy puddle of horribles:
And once we allow that such a right exists, the arguments for confining it to the dying seem arbitrary at best.
Contrary to his assertions that is, in fact, a “hypothetical slippery slope,” given that he cites no evidence of it actually occurring anywhere. Any system of human endeavor, including legal regulation of death, is bound to be imperfect and subject to abuse. That’s no reason from recognizing a vial right to control their own destiny for the multitudes whose deaths wouldn’t involve any horribles. Honestly, we tolerate thousands of accidental deaths every year from things as varied as guns, medical procedures, and automobiles. Nobody honestly argues for getting rid of them as a result (well, except the guns).

The funny thing is, the right to end one’s life is one of those rights, like the right to free thought, that can never really be taken away. Assuming a person is physically competent and the procedure works correctly, there’s absolutely nothing anyone can do once the act is complete. Only failures, or those who would provide assistance, can be punished.

I’m not pro suicide. I can’t see myself ever doing it and I certainly hope none of my friends or loved ones do, either. And I understand that a lot of suicides are the result of mental illness and other factors that call into question the actor’s free will. The answer to those problems, it seems to me, is better mental health care and societal support for people in need. It’s not to bring the heavy hand of criminal law into the equation.

June 3, 2011

Friday Review: "Why I Left Harry’s All-Night Hamburgers"

It’s not every day that you read an award-winning short story that takes place in your ancestral home. Much less one that involves trans-dimensional travel and the world’s most serendipitously located diner.

The narrator in “Why I Left Harry’s . . .” explains how he grew up near Sutton, West Virginia, and convinced the owner of a local diner (the titular Harry) to give him a job. Working the graveyard shift, the narrator comes into contact with the eclectic clientele that frequent Harry’s in the wee morning hours after the truckers have disappeared.

They have funny accents, weird money, and, in the case of three women who show up his first night, no shirts. But, as our narrator assures us, they’re nothing so silly as aliens visiting from other planets. In fact, they are travelers from the infinite variety of Earths located in parallel universes. Sutton, it turns out, is a good place to travel between worlds because it’s so far away from anything that such things won’t draw undue attention.

Our narrator desperately wants to get away from Sutton. How far is he willing to go to do it? You’ll have to read and find out. And you want to. Trust me.

My parents grew up in Sutton and my mom’s parents lived there for most of my childhood. It truly is in the middle of nowhere – it’s pretty much the dead center of the state. But it’s a charming little town, nestled in the hills along the Elk River. Recently it’s been reborn as a sort of regional arts center. Still, I can understand why the narrator would want out. A charming small town is still a small town.

I came across this story, written by Lawrence Watt Evans, in a volume called The Greatest Science Fiction Stories of the 20th Century, which includes 12 stories, 9 of which were Hugo winners (including this one), some of which are real gems. Harlan Ellison’s “Jeffey Is Five” is heartbreaking, while Arthur C. Clarke’s “The Nine Billion Names of Gods” goes precisely where it must to have any impact. Another cracker is David Brin’s “The Crystal Spheres,” which imagines a unique impediment to interstellar contact. And did I mention Le Guin’s classic “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”? Yeah, this thing’s loaded.

Which is not to say everything works. The stories in the collection were first published between 1934 and 1988, so there are some older stories that haven’t aged quite as well. For example, “That Only a Mother,” by Judith Merril, uses radiation and mutation as a means of examining the fears of childbirth. It’s a little incongruous when mom-to-be worries over and over about radiation from an ongoing nuclear war, but cheerfully chugs down cups of coffee! Still, that’s a small quibble.

Another small quibble, brought up by some reviewers, is that the title is misleading. Although most of these stories are award winners and many are wonderful, “greatest” is probably a stretch. In addition, several of them don’t fit the standard definition of “sci-fi,” although I’m not a huge fan of genre purity when it comes to things like this. Bottom line, for the price (or either the hard copy or Audible download), it’s hard to find a better collection.

The Details
"Why I Left Harry’s All-Night Hamburgers," by Lawrence Watt Evan
First published in Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, July 1987
Found in  The Greatest Science Fiction Stories of the 20th Century (1998)
Winner - Hugo Award, Best Short Story (1988)

June 2, 2011

Apparently I’m a Terrorist

I hate to fly. Really, I mean it drives me absolutely mad. I know, in the analytical part of my brain, that air travel is exceptionally safe and I run more of a risk dying in the drive to work every morning. Nonetheless, other parts of my brain seize on the lack of personal control you have if something goes wrong on a plane and situations like this which, regardless of their rarity, are almost universally fatal. Ask K – she will confirm my feelings on this.

Given that state of mind, I get really nervous when I fly, particularly before I get on the plane. My pulse quickens, I probably sweat a bit. I fidget. It’s what I do. Well, good news! Apparently my nervousness will keep the Department of Homeland Security from ever letting me near a plane again! Thanks to a wondrous new tool, Future Attribute Screening Technology or FAST (via):
Like a lie detector, FAST measures a variety of physiological indicators, ranging from heart rate to the steadiness of a person's gaze, to judge a subject's state of mind. But there are major differences from the polygraph. FAST relies on non-contact sensors, so it can measure indicators as someone walks through a corridor at an airport, and it does not depend on active questioning of the subject.
'Cause, you know, polygraphs are so reliable.  The object is to “spot people who are intending to commit a terrorist act.” Or, you know, nervous people in general. Although it’s been lab tested with an alleged 70% accuracy rate and is currently being used in the field at undisclosed locations, scientists are skeptical:
Steven Aftergood, a senior research analyst at the Federation of American Scientists, a think-tank based in Washington DC that promotes the use of science in policy-making, is pessimistic about the FAST tests. He thinks that they will produce a large proportion of false positives, frequently tagging innocent people as potential terrorists and making the system unworkable in a busy airport. 'I believe that the premise of this approach — that there is an identifiable physiological signature uniquely associated with malicious intent — is mistaken. To my knowledge, it has not been demonstrated,' he says. 'Without it, the whole thing seems like a charade.'
Indeed, the system seems to be designed to generate false positives. Lie detectors, of course, can be beaten by someone trained to do so. Why won’t real terrorists train to avoid FAST detection? As Ed puts it at Dispatches:
How in the world do you calibrate the measurements to distinguish between someone who is going to blow up an airplane from someone who is merely terrified to fly? Are you going to grab every person in the airport that shows signs of nervousness? Good luck with that.
I don’t know whether to be offended by yet another government overreach in the War on Terra or thankful that I’ve got a new excuse not to fly. Maybe I should send somebody a fruit basket?

June 1, 2011

I Want to Believe

I’ve been thinking a lot about rights lately, about their nature and effect.  Mostly, it’s been focused on the idea that talking about “rights” really boils down to practical concerns more than principled philosophical positions.

For example, in the wake the Supreme Court’s decision earlier this year that the First Amendment protected Fred Phelps and his gang from tort liability for their speech at the funeral of a fallen soldier, I really tried to find the principle that lay at the bottom of that ruling.  A ruling I agree with, by the way.  But at bottom, is the basis for my agreement the idea that free speech is a good in and of itself, even if it causes emotional distress to others and provides no real benefit to society?  Or is it that I believe that no government anywhere in the world can be trusted to get the balance right, to suppress what is really worthless and allow what is worthwhile? In other words, am I really a free speech absolutist, as I always figured, or am I just a realist intent on keeping everybody free to speak so I won’t be silenced?  I don’t know anymore.

That dichotomy was thrown into sharp relief by a couple of things on the Web last week.  The first is a fairly good, if not too realistically tethered, summary on the current state of thought on “natural” rights.  From one of the New York Times blogs, Michael Boylan asks “are there natural human rights?” and proceeds not to answer his own question.  I don’t blame him – he’s a philosopher, it’s what they do – but I don’t find any of the potential bases for “natural” human rights compelling.

Mainly because, as some of the commenters point out, it’s all well and good to speculate about a font of universal rights, but if the power structure where you live doesn’t recognize them, fat lot of good it does you.  The only real “natural” right I can think of is freedom of thought, if only because we lack the technology to get inside peoples’ heads and stop them from thinking what they want.  A theocracy could sweep over the United States tomorrow and compel me, by force, to be outwardly religious, but it couldn’t get inside my head and stop me from being an atheist.

Speech, however, is only as free as the state allows it to be.  They can’t stop me from thinking atheistic thoughts, but they can surely stop me from saying them out loud.  In the United States, and in a thankfully large swath of the rest of the planet, I’m free to fly the red “A” there on the sidebar and proclaim my lack of belief free from state interference.  I wouldn’t be so lucky if I lived in Saudi Arabia.  So is free speech a “universal” right?  How can it be if it varies from place to place?  And if it’s universal but easily violated, then of what use is it?

Which brings me to the other thing that popped up last week.  Neal Katyal, the current Acting Solicitor General, made a welcome, and sobering, admission about one of his predecessors and one of the Supreme Court’s greatest sins:
Katyal said Tuesday that Charles Fahy, an appointee of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, deliberately hid from the court a report from the Office of Naval Intelligence that concluded the Japanese Americans on the West Coast did not pose a military threat. The report indicated there was no evidence Japanese Americans were disloyal, were acting as spies or were signaling enemy submarines, as some at the time had suggested.

* * *

He said that two of the government's civilian lawyers had told Fahy it would be 'suppression of evidence' to keep the naval intelligence report from the high court.

'What does Fahy do? Nothing,' Katyal said.

Instead, Fahy told the justices the government and the military agreed the roundup of Japanese Americans was required as a matter of 'military necessity.'
The result, of course, was the Supreme Court’s OK of the round up and detention of thousands of American citizens without cause.  Although Katyal doesn’t really have any dog in that fight, I admire him for using his official position to point out the wrongdoing of a predecessor.

What Katyal’s admission does, of course, is reinforce what I said above – “natural” rights don’t mean much when the state has the power to take them away.  A right to be free from detention without reason is meaningless if the state is bound to lock you up anyway. 

Does that mean that “natural” or “universal” rights aren’t worth aspiring to or using as benchmarks?  Of course not.  But there’s a difference between encouraging the bloodied protester in the street that he should have the right to have a voice in how his country is run and a lot of professorial hand waving directed at proving that’s a right he already has, state crackdown on that right notwithstanding. 

In the end, I’d really like to believe that there’s some font of universal rights out there, to which all human beings have access.  But history, not to mention current events, pretty much blow that idea out of the water.  It may be nice to ponder philosophically over a beer, but it doesn’t have much impact on the real world.  Unfortunately, that’s precisely where such a thing would do the most good.