August 31, 2011

In Defense of Remakes (Sorta)

One common complaint about Hollywood these days is that nobody there has any original ideas. It’s not true, of course, but that perception is fed by the big budget blockbusters that seem to be either sequels, remakes, or adaptations from some other source. As luminaries like Martin Scorsese and Spike Lee embark no remakes, Matt Seitz over at Salon defends the whole concept of remakes. In the process, all he does is prove that any given remake is about as likely to suck or be great as any other movie.

He does makes one important historical point first, however: none of this is new. Hollywood’s always been a remake factory, to the point that in earlier generations directors would remake their own films a few years after the fact. I suspect it seems more prevalent these days because, thanks to DVDs and cable/satellite TV, the originals don’t slip quietly into memory any more. It’s hard not to compare the remake of, say, Fright Night* with the original when it’s on Starz every few days.

That being said, it seems obvious that some remakes suck and some don’t. But not all remakes start out with the same goal and I think that what the remake is trying to do. Simple recycling usually doesn’t get the work done.

In that sense, the most infamous remake of recent times is Gus van Zant’s shot-for-shot remake of Psycho. Aside from some sort of performance art experiment, that seems pointless to me, but what do I know? Still, I wouldn’t expect any remake taking that route to appeal to a large audience, particularly where the original is so iconic.

More common are remakes like the aforementioned Fright Night (or an earlier Friday Review subject, The Wicker Man), which takes a decent mainstream movie and updates it for modern technology and tastes. I’ll be the first to admit that the inspiration for such remakes is probably completely financial (to tap into an existing fanbase), but that doesn’t mean the end product will inevitably suck. It does run a good chance of backfiring if said fanbase is pissed because the remake ruins the memory of the original.

Other types of remakes strike me as completely different beasts, though, and probably have a better chance of being interesting products in their own right. I’m thinking particularly of something like the Spike Lee project, Oldboy, which is a remake of a recent highly praised South Korean film. Taking a movie made in another culture and language and translating it into your own seems like a worthy justification for a remake.

If done correctly, you get both a new and entertaining/interesting film exposed to a wider audience as well as the original for the auteurs to seek out. People who decide they’ll never see a foreign flick because they don’t want to “read the movie” shut themselves out from a lot of meaningful movie experiences. But I’m not naive enough to know that The Magnificent Seven reached a lot more people in this country than Seven Samurai. As long as the adaptation is cognizant of what it loses and gains by changing settings, I’m all for it.

Beyond that, you really start moving out of the realm of “remakes” and into new works inspired by older ones. West Side Story, after all, isn’t a “remake” of Romeo & Juliet, any more than Ran (to keep the Kurosawa theme going) a “remake” of King Lear. Given that no idea in the 21st Century is truly original, it’s hard to take issue with anybody doing such reinterpretations.

So, as I said, that’s a long winded way of saying remakes are just like any other movie. Apply Sturgeon’s Law: 95% of them will be crap. Not because they’re remakes, mind you. Just because.

* FWIW, the remake is pretty good fun. It’s almost worth the price of admission alone to see The Doctor as a lush foul mouthed con artist.

August 30, 2011

Lyin’ Eyes

Unless you’ve been under a rock for the past few years, you should know by now that eyewitness identification testimony, which often comes as the dramatic highlight of a criminal trial, is not nearly the ironclad evidence it was once made out to be. As one study showed:
In one experiment, a 'customer' went into a convenience store to buy a soft drink with a traveler's check, which required him to provide an ID and spend a few minutes conversing with the clerk. Later, the clerks were asked to find the person in a group of photos. Forty-one percent made a wrong pick.

Errors don't happen because crime witnesses choose to lie. Most of them sincerely believe what they say. But their memories may be addled by shock, colored by a desire to punish the villain, or led astray by police suggestions.
But the proof is out in the real world, too:
The idea that human memory is frail and suggestible has gradually gained acceptance among leaders in law enforcement, buttressed by more than 2,000 scientific studies demonstrating problems with witness accounts and the DNA exonerations of at least 190 people whose wrongful convictions involved mistaken identifications. About 75,000 witness identifications take place each year, and studies suggest that about a third are incorrect.
Thankfully, courts are finally starting to take notice and change the way eyewitness identification is presented in court. Last week, the New Jersey Supreme Court, in an opinion of Proustian length, put more responsibility on the trial court judge’s shoulders to assure bogus ID testimony doesn’t get in front of a jury:
The justices said that 'courts must carefully consider identification evidence before it is admitted to weed out unreliable identifications' and 'juries must receive thorough instructions tailored to the facts of the case to be able to evaluate the identification evidence they hear.'

Like other evidence, it must be subject to careful scrutiny and challenge. The burden of disproof will still fall on the accused, but it will be easier to meet. Chances are good that, as a result, some blameless individuals will be spared.
And, as the New York Times article I linked above shows, some police departments are coming around to adopting recommendations from researchers about how to do non-suggestive and more accurate lineups (which are mostly done with pictures these days).

Even the Supreme Court is getting involved. Perry v. New Hampshire, on the Court’s docket for argument in November, involves an on-the-scene identification by a witness of the defendant. The officer who was talking with the witness did nothing improper. Nevertheless, the circumstances of the ID (including that the witness could not ID the defendant in a later photo lineup), raised questions about its veracity. The issue the Supreme Court will consider is whether Perry’s due process rights can still be violated by a problematic ID, even when the police didn’t do anything sleazy to procure the ID.

We’ll have to wait to see whether the Court will use Perry as a vehicle to revisit eyewitness ID testimony on the whole or maintain a narrow focus. Regardless of the outcome, the real change will only come when jurors learn to treat eyewitness ID with the skepticism and scrutiny all testimony deserves.

August 29, 2011

Coming to a Viewing Screen Near You

I'm very happy to announce that one of my short stories has found a home.

"The Last Ereph" has been accepted for publication by ezine The Absent Willow Review in their November 16, 2011 issue.  Is the story of a thief on the run and the dying cult in which he seeks refuge, set (as they say) a long time ago in a land far far away.  I'll got into a little more detail about it when it goes online in November.

Appropriately enough, this story was written largely by hand in a notebook on the lawn at Storybook Farm between sets at ProgDay during Labor Day weekend last year.

If you're keeping score, this is my first "sale," the first thing I've convinced total strangers to try and get people I don't know to read some of my fiction.  So I'm pretty fucking pleased, just at the moment.  The first of many?  We'll see!

August 26, 2011

Friday Review: Triskaidekaphobie/Le Poison Qui Rend Fou

My first exposure to Present, the Belgian RIO band, was the DVD Rising to the Surface, composed of highlights from the 2005 version of NEARFest. Each band was given about 20 minutes on the DVD. Present’s time was taken up by one long track, filled with hypnotic and ferociously repetitive rhythms and musical motives. No vocals. No melodies, really, to speak of. The weirdness of the scene completed by an older guy on stage sort of 'conducting,' but only in the loosest sense and by a dude who came out about five minutes from the end wearing only a kilt and face paint, with a metal pipe he proceeded to beat the hell out of for the rest of the song.

After I saw and heard that, I said to myself, 'Self, you’ve got to hear some more from these guys.' It was not something you would walk away humming. But it was compelling, interesting, and deeply odd.

Turns out that the guy semi-conducting was Roger Trigaux, who had been one of the founding members of the other Belgian gift to RIO, Univers Zero. Trigaux, a guitar play, left Univers Zero to form his own band (although Univers Zero drummer/guiding light Daniel Denis worked with both). Given the shared histories, comparison is inevitable and, I think, unusually useful. Univers Zero takes more of a chamber music approach, so much so that I once wondered in a review if they could be called a “rock” band at all. Present is a little more obviously a rock band, given that Trigaux is primarily a guitar player. What both bands share is a commitment to making wonderfully uncommercial music that really calls out for close attentive listening.

Triskaidekaphobie is the band’s first album, released in 1980, while Le Poison Qui Rend Fou followed in 1985. In 1989, the wonderful Cuneiform label released them both on the same CD. They are precisely what I expect from Present at this point, even if they were the ones that set the standard in the first place (that lengthy workout on the NEARFest DVD is actually the lead off track from Triskaidekaphobie). I’d be lying if I said I had completely absorbed all this music, or even that I prefer it to 2001’s High Infidelity (definitely not a cover of the REO Speedwagon chart topper!), which I’ve had for a while.

Sometimes when I listen to stuff like this I’m reminded of the description of the Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: it "is like having your brain smashed out by a slice of lemon wrapped round a large gold brick." But in a good way. Seriously!

Triskaidekaphobie and Le Poison Qui Rend Fou, by Present
Released 1980, 1985, and 1989

Tracks, Triskaidekaphobie:
1. Promenade Au Fond D'un Canal (19:16)
2. Quatre-vingt Douze (15:34)
3. Repulsion (3:21)

Tracks, Le Poison Qui Rend Fou
4. Le Poison Qui Rend Fou, Part 1: Ram Ram Va Faire "Pif Paf" (15:25)
5. Ersatz (5:07)
6. Le Poison Qui Rend Fou, Part 2: "Didi, Dans Ta Chambre!" (9:42)
7. Samana (9:15)

Roger Trigaux (guitars, pianos)
Alain Rochette (pianos, synthesizes)
Daniel Denis (percussion)
Chistian Genet (electric bass on Triskaidekaphobie)
Ferdinand Philippot (electric bass on Le Poison Qui Rend Fou)
Marie-Anne Polaris (vocals)

August 25, 2011

Who Are You Suing, Dave?

In the wake of the news that Steve Jobs is stepping down as the head of the cult . . . er, company that he helped found, Apple, here’s some interesting litigation action going on over one of their patents for the iPad.

Apple has sued Samsung for infringing on its patent for the iPad. In its defense, Samsung is arguing that the form of the iPad wasn’t really all that groundbreaking anyway, and so the patent Apple received should never have been granted in the first place (my understanding is that this a common line of argument in such cases). To bolster their argument, Samsung has turned to an unlikely source of legal support – Stanley Kubrick.

Specifically, his masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey:
'In a clip from that film lasting about one minute, two astronauts are eating and at the same time using personal tablet computers,' the lawyer wrote . . .. As with the design claimed by Apple’s patent, 'the tablet disclosed in the clip has an overall rectangular shape with a dominant display screen, narrow borders, a predominately flat front surface, a flat back surface (which is evident because the tablets are lying flat on the table’s surface), and a thin form factor.'
See for yourself (Samsung lawyers included this link in their filing):

Full disclosure – I know next to nothing about patent law, so I have no opinion on whether this is a winning argument. According to one of the comments to the Wall Street Journal blog piece, the litigation is entirely about the look of the products, not their actual function (in other words, it’s about the outside, not the electronic guts inside). If that’s the case, Apple seems to be reaching to “own” such a generic design.

And it wouldn’t be the first time that a forward thinking piece of science fiction scuttled a later inventors quest for a monopoly:
Science fiction has been used as prior art in patent lawsuits before — Robert A. Heinlein described something like a waterbed in a 1930s short story, and this was cited in a successful case against someone who wanted to patent the waterbed in the 1960s.
Maybe I should start working in patent law. That way I could read sci-fi all day and call it "legal research!"

August 22, 2011

Prog Primer: Marillion

A question from one of my loyal readers (I know! I'm just as surprised as you!):
Best Marillion album for a newbie? I am enjoying Glass Hammer per your blog.
Happy as I am to try and answer that question, it's really a tricky one. Marillion has been around so long and shifted sounds so much that it's hard to tell a newb where to start. To understand why, you have to know a little about the band.

The obvious dividing line in the band's history is when original front man Fish left after four studio albums. It's not really that simple, however, as Steve Hogarth (aka "H"), the "new" guy has not been around for 22 years and a dozen studio albums is own damn self. More to the point, he's the face of the band now, so if you're interested in getting in on the train moving forward, he's your guy.

The Fish Years

But let's start with the beginning, which means the Fish years. Marillion, along with IQ, Twelfth Night, and Pallas, were part of an early 80s resurgence of progressive rock dubbed neo-prog. Heavily influenced by Genesis, Pink Floyd, and Camel, they took the 70s prog formula and streamlined it a bit, updating it for a new decade.

One of things that set Marillion apart from that pack was that Fish owed more to Peter Hammill than Peter Gabriel as a lyricist (or vocalist. Songs about drug addiction ("He Knows You Know"), vengeful ex-lovers ("Incubus"), and the resurgence of anti-semitism in Europe ("White Russian") aren't quite the airy fairy nonsense that populated most early prog albums.

That being said, if you're a fan of early Genesis albums, early Marillion will resonate with you. From Script for a Jester's Tear each album gets further away from that sound (or stereotype, if you will), until the band was the very definition of neo-prog. My entry into Marillion was Misplaced Childhood, their most successful album, commercially. It hit the top of the UK charts and spawned a set of hit singles. Nonetheless, it's two original sides basically ran together and it was played all the way through live, so it's epic beyond the singles. Any album born of a 10-hour acid trip is bound to be. Although I prefer Clutching at Straws more often than not these days, Misplaced is the place to start for the Fish years.

The H Years: Major Label Era

Musically, the H years pick up where the band left off with Clutching, moving further and further away from the Genesis influenced neo-prog blueprint. Some folks never got over that and parted ways with the band. Others stuck it out and have been rewarded with a band that is constantly taking on new influences and new ideas. As a result, they're producing music that is still modern and interesting.

When H came along, Marillion was still riding a pretty high profile in Europe, with major label support at a time when their contemporaries were struggling. But diminishing commercial returns meant those days were numbers. Perhaps appropriately, H got four studio-backed albums with the band, just like Fish did. One of them, Holidays in Eden, was a conscious attempt to be more commercially successful and suffers for it, although it still had some great music.

That being said, perhaps the failure of Holidays in Eden to please most anybody led the band to one of it's perceived heights in of the H years, Brave. A return to the concept album format, it was spawned by news reports about a teenaged girl found unwilling (or unable) to speak while wandering the Severn Bridge between England and Wales. The album explores various themes about how she might have gotten there and how the world reacts to such things. It's utterly brilliant and marks the beginning of the band's experimentation with looser more ambient material.

They followed that up with Afraid of Sunlight, the first album I got when it was new. Although it didn't completely grab me at first, it's grown into not only one of my favorite Marillion albums, but one of my favorites of all time. On the surface, it seems little lighter and more radio friendly than Brave. But dig past a couple of tracks and the expansive soundscapes that band hinted at on Brave explode on songs like the title track, "Beyond You," and "King." Afraid of Sunlight also contains "Out of This World," about the death of water speed record seeker Donald Campbell and inspired the salvage of his doomed "boat" Bluebird.

You'd be hard pressed to go wrong with either of those albums as a starter. Pick Brave if the concept album idea appeals to you, Afraid of Sunlight if stand alone tracks strike your fancy.


The H Years: Transitional Era

Brilliant as Brave and Afraid of Sunlight were, they were not particularly successful on the charts. As a result, the band's tenure on a major label came to an end. Over the next few years they found their footing going forward, both musically and financially.

Although the three albums in this period - This Strange Engine, Radiation, and - all have their moments, they're all kind of patchy when it comes to quality. Honestly, I wouldn't recommend anybody start with any of these to begin with. They're most interesting to listen to now knowing what came next.

The H Years: The Modern Era

When the band emerged from the wilderness, they had discovered how to tap into their loyal, if not huge, fanbase to support them in making the kind of music they were interested making, from tour funds to album preorders to finance recording. The music they wanted to make, turns out, doesn't bear a whole lot of resemblance to what they were doing a decade or so before.

The first real musical statement they made was Anoraknophobia, which further explored some of the ambient influenced soundscapes and trip hop. It was also packaged and marketed in a way that screamed "we're not that band that sounds like Genesis anymore!" They're right (and it's a good thing), but the eagerness to escape the "prog" label on that album always struck me as kind of a slap at those of us who had supported the band for a long time.

The real masterpiece of the band's current era, however, is Marbles. It takes what was going on before, adds a healthy dose of Floydian scope and some melodic overlays for all the lush stuff in the background to make the definitive statement of modern Marillion. Epic and intimate, lush and sparse, floating and rocking. If you don't find anything on Marbles that flips your switch, then modern Marillion just isn't for you.

Marbles was originally released in two versions, the 2-CD deluxe version for those (like me) who ordered it way ahead of time, and a 1-disc version released to retail shops. Since then, the 2-CD version (minus the lengthy book artwork from the original release) has become available on the band's website. I'd recommend going with that one, as the 1-disc version omits the epic "Ocean Cloud," which is worth the extra price of admission.

The couple of albums since Marbles have been a little hit and miss, although Happiness is the Road (another 2-CD set) has a lot to recommend it. For beginners, though, I'd hold off on those until later. For the record, I don't consider Less Is More, the recent album of acoustic versions of some songs as an "album" proper, since there was nothing new on it.

So, Start With . . .

So, the short answer after that lengthy explanation as to where to start with Marillion is, "it depends."* If you're interested in the band's early days, at their most obviously proggy, go with Misplaced Childhood. For a feeling of the early high points of the Hogarth era, it's Brave or Afraid of Sunlight. For what they're up to now, head for the 2-CD version of Marbles.

Or . . .

If you're the kind of person who goes for DVD things, there's another option. For the past decade or so, the band has put on festival-style weekends in Europe and Montreal, with three full nights of music (one usually built around a particular album). There are DVD releases from many of these events, but the two from the last run, Live in Montreal or Out of Season would be good starters. Each is 3 DVDs, one with the entire Seasons End album (plus some extras), one with a chronological walk through their discography, and another focusing on the epic tracks. Here's a teaser for Out of Season:

Again, if there's nothing in those discs that flips your switch, you're just not cut out to be a Marillion fan.

* I learned in law school that's the right answer to damn near every question.

August 19, 2011

Friday Review:Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills

This is kind of a cheat, as I saw this documentary a while back. But it's relevant as ever today, and not just because it popped up on Morgan Spurlock's countdown of 50 Documentaries to See Before You Die that's running on the Keith Olberman Netwo . . . I mean Current TV.

On May 5, 1993, three 8-year-old boys were reported missing in West Memphis, Arkansas. The next day, the bodies of the three boys were found in a ditch, stripped naked and hogtied. From the beginning, there was a dispute about whether the boys had been killed there or the bodies dumped there after killings elsewhere.

Suspicion fell on three teenagers - Jessie Misskelley, Jr., Jason Baldwin and Damien Echols - who were outsiders in the small town. Each had been in trouble for minor crimes and two had dropped out of high school. They shared an interest in heavy metal. A theory developed that the murders had been committed as part of some sort of occult ritual.

The three teens went to trial and were convicted. One, Echols, was sentenced to death. You can read more details about the case here.

As all this was going on, filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky were covering the investigation. They even became a part of it when a knife that may have been involved in the killings was delivered to them. The result of their work, Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, not only became a powerful documentary of a heinous murder case, but kicked off a nationwide campaign to have the convictions of the teenagers, labeled the West Memphis 3, reversed.

Paradise Lost is a compelling piece of work (it's sequel somewhat less so, if only because we sort of know what's happening going on). It doesn't come to a conclusion as to who killed the three 8-year-olds, but it certainly leaves the impression that something was rotten in the trial of the West Memphis 3. For years, they've fought to get out.

Today, the West Memphis 3 walked free. Sort of. As Jerlalyn sorts it out, the state agreed to a plea agreement by which the three pleaded guilty using a process known as an Alford plea, meaning they do not actually admit guilt, but admit the state could prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt. Although they were all sentenced to, essentially, time served sentences, they are subject to 10-year terms of what look like something akin to unsupervised probation. So any little fuck up could send them right back.

Paradise Lost didn't lead directly to exoneration of an innocent man the way Errol Morris's The Thin Blue Line did.  But it certainly raised the profile of the case to a level that made it impossible for authorities in West Memphis to just sweep the whole thing under the rug.  The West Memphis 3 will never get back the hunk of their lives they spent in prison.  And, at least for a little while, they're not really "free."  But it's certainly an improvement.

Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, followed by Paradise Lost 2: Revelations
Released 1996
Directed by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky

August 18, 2011

"I Don’t Know" Only Goes So Far

Penn Jillette, half of the famous magic duo and a co-host of Showtime’s mostly brilliant Bullshit!, has a new book out called, God, No! Signs You May Already Be an Atheist and Other Magical Tales. So he’s been making the rounds on the TV book circuit. Last week, he went on Piers Morgan’s show and was grilled about his atheism and libertarianism. In this column at CNN’s website, he follows up on that conversation (at least he didn’t walk off in a huff like Christine “I am not a witch!” O’Donnell did last night).

Jillette’s main point is the power of being able to say “I don’t know” about something and how that lead him to both be an atheist and a libertarian. I certainly agree that not only recognizing that you, personally, are ignorant of some things (in a humble sort of way), is important, but so is being comfortable with that fact. After all, there are a lot of “God of the gaps” arguments deployed be believers that basically comes down to their inability to accept “I don’t know” as an answer for the universe’s big questions. Atheists and agnostics, on the other hand, don’t have that problem. I can see the intersection there.

I’m not convinced that what applies in one arena applies in the other. Questions about the existence of God, how the universe came to be, or why we’re here are important (and fun!) ones to consider, but they’re also largely irrelevant to daily life. God or no God, everybody’s got to find food, shelter, clothing, sex, and provide for the needs of their families. That I don’t believe in God impacts the rest of the world not at all.*

Here’s how Jillette explains it:
What makes me libertarian is what makes me an atheist -- I don't know. If I don't know, I don't believe. I don't know exactly how we got here, and I don't think anyone else does, either. We have some of the pieces of the puzzle and we'll get more, but I'm not going to use faith to fill in the gaps. I'm not going to believe things that TV hosts state without proof. I'll wait for real evidence and then I'll believe.

And I don't think anyone really knows how to help everyone. I don't even know what's best for me. Take my uncertainty about what's best for me and multiply that by every combination of the over 300 million people in the United States and I have no idea what the government should do.
That argument doesn’t really lead to libertarianism, though, or any other political ideology. What it really leads to is political disengagement. It’s somewhat similar to what Ilya Somin often writes about at the Volokh Conspiracy – the rational ignorance of voters (put simply, that a single vote means so little that the voter casting it has little reason to educate himself before casting it). Staying out of the political process because “I don’t know” makes some sense in that case.

But it’s not a persuasive reason to become a libertarian. Libertarianism isn’t disengagement with the political process. It’s an affirmative ideology that holds certain base principles and applies them to the real world. You’ve got to “know” stuff in order to sign on to those base principles. The same is true of any political ideology.

If anything, a rigorous adherence to a skeptical “I don’t know” position should lead one away from a fixed political ideology. Dogmatic adherence to ideology is rarely the best answer to every question, regardless of the venue. Politics is no different. Skepticism would counsel questioning all the first principles and examining the evidence of how a particular problem has been solved (or not) in other places.

We’d all be better off if we could get ourselves comfortable with giving “I don’t know” as an answer to questions big and small. It would lead to people being more open to rational solutions to problems and less reliant on the knee-jerk responses common to ideologues of all stripes. So I applaud Jillette for embracing his not knowing. I’m just not why it leads him to drink the libertarian Kool-Aid.

* Acting on beliefs, regardless of what they are, is a different story, of course. But we’re just talking about belief itself, or lack thereof, right now.

August 17, 2011

The Neverending Campaign

I don’t remember when the 24-hour news cycle kicked in. My big reference point is the days after 9/11, once the actual news died down, when the tickers that CNN and the rest started running along the bottom of the screen held on and became fixtures. But I’m sure it started well before then.

Likewise, I’m not certain when the political realm kicked into perpetual campaign mode. Nobody actually governs anymore, they just lurch from one electoral contest to the other. Maybe it’s always been like that and I was once too young to notice. Maybe it took the 24-hours news cycle to feed it. After all, when you’ve got no other news to digest, handicapping the presidential horserace is an easy way to fill time. Even if the first real vote is months away.

Which is a long way of saying I agree with just about everything that Glenn Greenwald had to say in his column yesterday. Far from simply noting the ongoing campaign season and bemoaning it, he does a good job of arguing why it’s actually bad for the country as a whole.

For one thing, Greenwald argues that the near exclusive focus on the campaigns helps obscure what those same politicians are actually doing in office. It also impacts the way the news media treats the whole business, turning into just another reality show that’s more focused on style and personalities rather than substance. That the bloviators are often wrong when it comes to the handicapping of the race in which they allegedly have some expertise (Greenwald mentions a Washington Post columnist who three weeks ago argued that questioning Tim Pawlenty’s chances was “silly,” but said of his withdrawal from the race over the weekend that it was “no great surprise”) is icing on the cake.

More detrimental, in my eyes, is how the relentless campaigning feeds the political tribalism that forms the debate in this country. Elections are either/or affairs (for the most part) and the constant campaign drumbeat makes it easy for people to slip into “my team rules, your team sucks!” positions without much thought. As Greenwald points out, that makes criticism of “your guy” more difficult and, therefore, less frequent and less helpful to the overall discussion.

And it goes beyond that:
Those depressing, destructive trends are exacerbated by the manipulative fear-mongering that drives these campaigns. Every four years, The Other Side is turned into the evil spawn of Adolf Hitler and Osama bin Laden. Each and every election cycle, each party claims that -- unlike in the past, when Responsible Moderates ruled and the "crazies" and radicals were relegated to the fringes (the Democrats were once the Party of Truman!; Ronald Reagan was a compromising moderate!) -- the other party has now been taken over by the extremists, making it More Dangerous Than Ever Before. That the Other Side is now ruled by Supreme Evil-Doers means that anything other than full-scale fealty to their defeat is viewed as heresy. Defeat of the Real Enemy is the only acceptable goal. Election-time partisan loyalty becomes the ultimate Litmus Test of whether you're on the side of Good: it's the supreme With-Us-or-With-the-Terrorists test, and few are willing to endure the punishments for failing it. It's an enforcement mechanism for Party loyalty that -- by design -- breeds slavish partisan fealty.

None of this has anything to do with reality.
How to solve the problem? I have no clue. Greenwald doesn’t offer any ideas, either. I sometimes hear people ask why we can’t have short to-the-point campaigns like they do in, say, the United Kingdom. That overlooks the wholesale differences in political structures and the presence of the First Amendment. It would be nearly impossible (and clearly unwise) to try and muzzle a potential candidate, or media outlet willing to cover her, for a certain amount of time before an election. We could always rely on the good taste and common sense of the American people, but only if we’re willing to ignore the fact that it’s what got us here in the first place.

The one place I disagree with Greenwald in this piece is the lament (as I’ve read elsewhere) that Ron Paul is being unfairly ignored in the wake of the results in Iowa last weekend. Greenwald argues he’s being made “all but an ‘unperson’ in Orwellian terms.” John Stewart, of course, makes the case in a more amusing way:

I think that overlooks two things.

First, the Ames Straw Poll is of dubious use as a predictor of electoral success. Of the five prior winners only one-and-a-half (Bob Dole and Phil Gramm shared the title in 1995) went on to win the GOP nomination and only one of them, Bush the Younger, went on to become president. It’s not quite the curse of death that the Best New Artist Grammy is, but it’s not much better.*

Second, the nature of the straw poll is that it serves candidates like Ron Paul, who have small but dedicated followings, very well. He’s done well in such forums before, as when he won the CPAC straw polls in 2010 and 2011, but those results never materialize into wider electoral support in caucuses and primaries. In other words, the media has seen this story before and knows how it ends. If there’s one thing the news media doesn’t want, it’s old news and Paul appears to be it.

I’m not saying the media should ignore Paul while he’s still in the race. The coverage would probably be richer for it. But it’s not “unfair” and I understand why they’ve moved on to newer, shinier people to cover.

Which, I suppose, goes back to Greenwald’s main point. So maybe he’s right after all. Fuck.

* Ironically enough, today at work I was listening to a lot of stuff from Frank Zappa’s 1988 tour, which including lots of digs at the idea of a Pat Robertson presidency. Robertson won the Ames poll in 1987. He didn’t get the GOP nomination.

August 16, 2011

Spoilers Are Good for You!

All right, well, maybe not "good," but not nearly as bad as some people make them out to be.

A couple of years ago, over on the old blog, I took aim at people who bitch and complain about "spoilers," information that discloses crucial plot twists or endings of movies, TV shows, or books.  As I said at the time:
if the only thing that moves you about a movie or TV show is the mechanics of the plot, you're pretty much beyond hope.
Or maybe it says more about what you're watching/reading.  But, honestly, if this is your impression of Citizen Kane once you know the big secret:

I'm afraid I can't help you.

But not to fear! New research from UC San Diego shows that the presence of spoilers doesn't really impact a reader's enjoyment of a particular story.  Researchers took several short stories with "twist" kind of endings and had some people read the original and others read a version with spoilers in the introductory paragraph.  The results:
Subjects significantly preferred the spoiled versions of ironic-twist stories, where, for example, it was revealed before reading that a condemned man’s daring escape is all a fantasy before the noose snaps tight around his neck.

The same held true for mysteries. Knowing ahead of time that Poirot will discover that the apparent target of attempted murder is, in fact, the perpetrator not only didn’t hurt enjoyment of the story but actually improved it.

Subjects liked the literary, evocative stories least overall, but still preferred the spoiled versions over the unspoiled ones.
A brief aside as the genre writer in my notes that even when they know the ending, people still don't like the high-brow stuff as much. Ha!

Why, exactly, would people prefer the spoiled stories?  That's beyond the reach off the study itself, but one researcher speculates that:
'Plots are just excuses for great writing. What the plot is is (almost) irrelevant. The pleasure is in the writing,' said Christenfeld, a UC San Diego professor of social psychology.

'Monet’s paintings aren’t really about water lilies,' he said.
I wouldn't go quite that far.  Plot surely isn't nearly irrelevant, but perhaps the brutal outline of the story - the Joe Friday version, if you will - is.  It's really only an excuse to get characters moving, talking, and thinking about things.  In other words, coming up with a story isn't the hard part.  Telling it is.


August 15, 2011

Second City Visions

Last week, K and I spend a few days in Chicago in honor of her birthday.  Birthday trips have become a sort of tradition for us.  We'll load up the car, head for a not-too-far-away metropolis, plop down in the middle of it, and enjoy ourselves.  We chose Chicago because K had never been there and I really enjoyed the couple of days I spent there while I was in law school.

Here are some pics to give you an idea of where we went and why.  Unless otherwise noted, they were all taken by K, the official photographer of Feeding the Silence.

Of course, we were not alone in our travels.  Maia, the One-Eyed Wonder Pup, and Uzume the Perpetual Motion Pup came along, too.  This was Uzume's first big city trip.  She adjusted pretty well.

She even found time for one of her favorite pastimes - sitting and growling at her food for no apparent reason.

We stayed just north of the river, near Trump Tower, and so had to navigate down to The Loop on foot.  Here's a shot down river from the North Street bridge.  We had dinner that night at the restaurant on the right.

We only had two real targets for this trip, one of which was The Art Institute of Chicago, famous home of Seurat's Sunday Afternoon . . ., Hopper's Nighthawks, and, as of 1999 when I was last there, a bizarre installation called "Clown Torture."  Sadly, that last one appears to have gone away.  Regardless, the building is still guarded by a a pair of sturdy lions.

K took several pictures of interesting paintings and others things you can see in the set on my Flickr feed.  Here are a couple of the more gargantuan pieces.

I have no idea who sculpted this guy, or who he is supposed to be.  He's just plopped in the lobby of the Institutes's modern wing.  It called out for photography.

This stairwell (which has several different bits, as you can see), contained an installation called Public Notice 3, by Jitish Kallat, which takes the words of a speech given at the 1893 First World Parliament of Religions urging the end of fanaticism and emphasizing tolerance of all beliefs and lays them out under the steps.  K posed for this one, so I must have taken it.

As I said, we dined that night in a restaurant right on the river beside the North Street bridge.  Here's a picture I took from our table up North Street.

Our other "must do" was a concert on Wednesday night at Ravinia Festival, Chicago's big outdoor concert venue in the northern suburb of Highland Park.  We decided to take the scenic route up there and catch a couple of interesting sights along the way.

The Bahá'í Faith emerged from 19th-century Persia and teaches a  message of the unity of mankind and its religions.  If you've never heard of them, don't feel bad - they claim only 155,000 adherents in the United States (we marginalized atheists, by contrast, can at least muster a few million).  Regardless, their house of worship in Wilmette (one of only seven in the world and the only one in the United States) is a breathtaking building.

As you can see, the architecture carries on the unity theme, incorporating several religious symbols.

Photography of the dome inside isn't allowed, but apparently that doesn't stop everybody.

Photo by ctot_not_def, taken from Wikimedia Commons

The Arabic script at the top translates to "O thou glory of glories."  Here's an arty shot of the sun peaking out over the dome.

From the Bahá'í house of worship, we proceeded to the Chicago Botanic Garden.  Unlike the Phipps Conservatory in Pittsburgh, the Chicago Botanic Garden is mostly outside and covers a lot of ground.  They've got water lilies.

And a waterfall.

And some lovely sculptured islands for the Japanese portion of the gardens.

A portion of the Japanese section include some willow trees that hung out over the surrounding water.  K took this really neat picture under one of them.  Check out the full sized version in the Flickr feed.

No pictures of the concert, featuring Los Lonely  Boys and Los Lobos.  It was excellent, with the end of each set evolving into a jam session featuring both bands.  Good times.

The next day, we took a tour on the river given by the Chicago Architecture Foundation.  It's a great way to get a feel for the city's history and see some pretty neat buildings.  Like the Tribune Building, built for the newspaper, which tops a high rise with a Gothic temple type device.

Or this building (it lacks a cool name, just has an address) of with curved green glass that matches the bend in the river.  It also reflects the buildings across the river.

This is part of the Boeing headquarters, which has both a tall tower and this shorter annex.  The superstructure at the top there isn't ornamental - it's actually the support from which the rest of the building hangs.  Traditional underground supports wouldn't work because the train runs underneath.

And then we came home.  It was a wonderful little trip with lots of cool things to see.  But with all the pictures, this one is my favorite.

August 5, 2011

Friday Review: I, Claudius

When modern TV critics write wistfully of the good ol' days, when high-class miniseries produced for broadcast networks roamed the Earth, they'll inevitably cite Roots and I, Claudius as touchstones. After spending a few days working my way through the 13-episode British tour of the early Roman Empire, I can see why.

Produced by the BBC in 1976, and brought to the US by PBS a year later, I, Claudius roams well beyond the life and times of Rome's fourth emperor. In fact, were it not for a clever framing device lifted from the novels upon which it's based, we wouldn't even see Claudius until the third or fourth episode. Instead, the run covers Rome's first four emperors, including the illustrious founder Augustus and that batshit star of 1970s high-form porn, Caligula.

The frame device that allows Claudius, and Derek Jacobi (in a career making role), to show up from word one is that the story that follows is a history of his family that Claudius himself wrote. He cleverly buried a copy to avoid the destructive fires of other (his successor, Nero - you know what happened to him) so that the truth can be known to posterity. That device also allows a clever out for anything presented that might not be faithful to the historical record - it's only the word of Claudius, who might not be the most reliable of narrators.

And what a story Claudius tells. Over the first six episodes, things are driven by Livia, wife of Augustus and grandmother to Claudius. She has but one goal in life - to see her son, Tiberius, follow Augustus as emperor, preferably to exercise unquestioned authority (whether Rome's lost republic will rise from the ashes hangs over the entire series. She lets nothings stand in her way and gets her hands pretty bloody (metaphorically - she's a champion poisoner). Livia, at least as presented here, makes Cersei Lannister look like the MILF who brings the orange slices to soccer practice.

Those first several episodes set the tone for all that comes after. Alliances wax and wane, the inconvenient are killed for that sin, and occasionally there are orgies. History, as we generally learn it, goes on off set, but usually only mentioned in passing. The scheming lives of the imperials is the focus here. Unfortunately, that means that once Livia dies (Claudius later makes her a goddess), things get a little repetitive. Nobody who comes after is as compelling a focus.

What saves the series is an unholy collection of British acting talent, many of whom would go on to prominence in the sci-fi/fantasy world:

Sian Phillips - Clash of the Titans, Dune
Brian Blessed - Flash Gordon, Dr. Who
John Hurt - Alien, 1984
Patrick Stewart - Star Trek: The Next Generation
George Baker - Dr. Who
John Rhys-Davies - Lord of the Rings, Sliders

Even Derek Jacobi himself wound up on Dr. Who (there may be a BAFTA bylaw requiring every actor in Britain to be on that show, or a spin off, at one point). Watching Vultan and Picard plot and scheme is just fun on a bun.

That being said, the series shows some signs of age. Aside from technical issues (it looks pretty good, but the sound needs remixed), the biggest drawback is that the whole spectacle is obviously playing out on sound stages. It works, most of the time, but it leads to scenes where we only know the characters are (say) at a gladiatorial contest because they're in the stands reacting to what they're seeing. There's no outside location shots and no real attempt and creating a "realistic" feel. The result is more like an extended theater piece than modern historical series like (obviously) Rome or even Game of Thrones. That staginess sometimes carries over to the performances, which can go overboard at times.

In fact, given the juiciness of the material, I'm surprised HBO or even the BBC hasn't made a remake yet. The script lends itself to the type of stylized debauchery that's so in vogue today. This version isn't even the first attempt to put this story on the screen. In 1937, Alexander Korda started production on an epic movie version (with Charles Loughton as Claudius), but it fell apart only a month into shooting.

Thankfully, the original is still eminently watchable. It lacks the spectacle of its 21st-century decedents, but, at bottom, it tells a simple story. In the end, it's all about power, what people will do to get it, and what it does to them. You don't need a big effects budget to pull that off.

I, Claudius
Originally broadcast 1976
Written by Jack Pulman
Based on I, Claudius and Claudius the God, by Robert Graves
Starring Derek Jacobi, Sian Phillips, John Hurt, et. al

August 3, 2011

The Sweet Sting of Rejection

I spend my free time over the weekend trying to get my writerly life organized, at least somewhat. Figured now as as good a time as any to take stock of things.

The motivating event for that organization was that I finished the second draft of my 2008 NaNoWriMo project, Plausible Reliability. I had started to revised it once before, but couldn't slog through more than about 80 pages. What triggered the second (successful) attempt was getting a red-penned copy of the first draft back from my father. He handed it back to me with some kind words of encouragement, so I took another whack at it.

Second draft finished, I went out Saturday and had it printed up and collected in a spiffy three-ring binder. Then I stuck it in a box. And put the box in the closet. There it will moulder forever, or at least until I kick the bucket and my executor decides to ignore my wishes and try and publish it anyway.*

That second pass through, unfortunately, reinforced my conclusion that Plausible Reliability sucks, and sucks pretty hard. It's slow, nothing really happens until the final fifth of the book, and then when it does it's kind of an anticlimax. I still like the general idea, and might return to it someday. But for now, it's into the box it goes.

That's not an entirely bad, or even unusual, thing. Nearly every writer's first novel sucks. Many of them wind up "trunked," which is just a shorter way of saying "dumped in a box in the closet for eternity." Plausible Reliability will always be a milestone for me because it was the first novel I finished and let me prove to myself that I could string together a long-form story. The fact that I can look at it now, see that it sucks, and figure out why will only make things easier going forward with other projects.

Speaking of other projects, my attempts to sell one my short stories continues to be like bashing my head against a brick wall. Since January I've shopped around six different stories to 24 different markets and received . . . 23 rejections! The only hold out right now is Tor's website, which takes forever to get back to people. I sent the other five, and a new one, back out last night, all to new (to me) markets, to change things up a bit.

I know, logically, that this sort of rejection is par for the course for writers, new and unpublished ones especially. It's one of the gauntlets you have to run in order to break into the biz. Sort of like why I had to take a tax law course at WVU even though it wasn't on the bar exam - everybody else had to suffer, damn it, now you will, too!

Nevertheless, it can get disheartening. I take some comfort in the fact that, in spite of what seems like a lot of shoot downs, I haven't even been at this for a whole year. So, I'll keep plugging away at it, at least until my email account is overrun by rejection notices so that the entire system crashes under their weight.

Hey, that gives me an idea for a story . . .

* Did I just compare myself with Kafka? Maybe, sorta. I've got some nerve, huh?

August 2, 2011

Don't Trust, Just Verify

Back in 2007, I wrote about how conflicted I was over the issue of criminal defendants "rolling" on one another in order to try and get a lower sentence. In other words, "snitches." As I said back then, cooperating with authorities is often the only way a defendant in the federal system can reduce his sentence, so defense attorneys are bound to pursue that option when it presents itself. On the other hand, when someone else is doing the cooperating against our client, we rail about the unreliability of testimony bought for a reduced sentence.

With that in mind, I'm intrigued by what might come of a law California Governor Jerry Brown just signed that takes aim at jailhouse informants:
Jerry brown jailhouse informant law signed The new law requires prosecutors to present forensic evidence or uncompromised testimony that corroborates information provided by in-custody witnesses who claim to have been told or overheard incriminating statements by the defendant.
In other words, a jury could not convict someone on the word of a snitch alone. According to Scott at Simple Justice, the law is a stricter version of one passed in Texas (and was vetoed by Cali's interim governor in 2008 because it would make it too hard to convict people). Scott also has some of the evidence that shows how unreliable snitch testimony can be.

Since snitches get a benefit for their testimony, in at least the possibility of a reduced sentence, doesn't that quid pro quo raise other questions? For a while late in the 20th century, one court said it did.

In 1998, the Tenth Circuit, in a case called US v. Singleton, held that such arrangements violated a federal statute providing that "whomever . . .directly or indirectly" gives "anything of value" to a witness based on his testimony commits a crime. The court specifically rejected the Government's attempt to read a "law enforcement exception" into that statute and held that the testimony of Singleton's codefendant at her trial, produced as result of a plea agreement requiring cooperation, should have been suppressed. I was in law school when Singleton came down and remember what a shock wave it sent through the legal community.

Of course, such a ground breaking precedent couldn't stand. The entire Tenth Circuit reheard the case en banc and decided, 9-3, that the statute did not apply to snitch situations. "Whomever," the court concluded, did not include prosecutors acting in their official capacity. Crisis averted, things returned to normal.

But, as Scott points out, the status quo has serious problems. Maybe laws like California's will help change it.  Not every snitch is unreliable, but the nature of the beast is that there is motive to make stuff up.  As usual, skepticism is the best bet.  Don't trust, just verify.

August 1, 2011

Know Your Regionalisms

Over the weekend, Britain's The Telegraph newspaper had an article about the strange case of DB Cooper, who disappeared after he jumped from a plane he hijacked in 1971.  Along with $200,000.  It's still and open case and, according to the article, the FBI is even tracking down a potential new lead.

That's fine and all, but one line in the article made me nearly laugh Diet Coke out through my nose.  Writer Alex Hannaford is trying to establish just how fascinated some folks are with the case, even all these decades later, when he writes:
As one person told me, Cooper is the Bigfoot of the Pacific Northwest. He is an enigma and a huge subculture has sprung up devoted to sleuthing his story.
Ahem.  Actually, to be completely accurate, you know what the Bigfoot of the Pacific Northwest is?  Bigfoot!  The legend dates back to Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest, although there have been sightings in other areas.  And, of course, Bigfoot has an Asian cousin, the Yeti.  He does get around.

I wonder who the Loch Ness Monster of Scotland is?

Tossing a Mokney Wrench Into the Machinery of Death

West Virginia has it's issues, but one thing I take a great deal of pride in about my home state is that we got rid of the death penalty in 1965. Although there are some occasional rumblings about bringing it back, it never really gets anywhere. Why should it? The state has one of the lowest crime rates in the nation and couldn't really afford the cost of actually implementing it, anyway.

But the state's law isn't the final word on whether somebody in West Virginia might face the death penalty. The feds can step in and prosecute a case that falls within their jurisdiction and can, if they so desire, seek the death penalty. They did just that a few years ago in the case of a Mingo County man charged with killing a drug informant.  After securing a conviction and death sentence, the conviction was tossed out due to some issues with a juror. The retrial ended in another conviction, but no death sentence. The feds squandered millions of dollars in the effort.

That case sprang to mind when I read about a battle of wills going on between the governor of Rhode Island, Lincoln Chafee and the local United States Attorney over the fate of Jason Wayne Pleau. Pleau is serving a state sentence in Rhode Island that's set to expire in 2028. He is also charged, in federal court, with a robbery and murder for which the feds could seek the death penalty.

The feds submitted a request to the governor under the Interstate Agreement on Detainers Act asking for Pleau to be turned over for proceedings in federal court. The governor said no:
Chafee based his denial, believed a first in the nation, on Rhode Island’s longstanding rejection of the death penalty. Chafee said Pleau’s lawyers told him their client would agree to plead guilty in state court and face life without parole, the maximum penalty under Rhode Island law.
Undeterred, the feds went to the federal district court and applied for a writ of habeas corpus ad prosequendum, which is the usual means of bringing someone in state custody into federal court to, say, testify in someone else's trial. Chafee's lawyers (and Pleau's) argued last week to the First Circuit Court of Appeals that the feds couldn't get the writ because, once they invoked the IADA, they were bound by Chafee's decision to not hand Pleau over. The IADA does give a governor that power, but apparently nobody else ever thought to actually exercise it.

Chafee's argument has some gut appeal, but I'm not sure it will ultimately prevail (it didn't in the court below). For one thing, I'm not sure that Congress ever intended the IADA to act as a permanent bar on transferring someone from state custody. For another, it seems that if Chafee prevails it means that, in the future, the feds should just avoid the IADA all together and apply for the writ. Cut out the possibility of gubernatorial obstruction completely. If that happens, what's the point of the federal government being a part of the IADA?

That being said, the IADA provision allowing Chafee to decline the feds' request has to mean something, too. After all, he can't prevent Pleau from being tried by the feds completely - they'll just have to wait until he's released from the Rhode Island prison. And given the difference between the feds and Rhode Island when it comes to the death penalty, isn't that a legitimate basis to deny the request? Other countries, when dealing with extradition matters, can force the feds to take the death penalty off the table before they turn over a defendant, why shouldn't the states do the same?

In the end, I expect the First Circuit (and maybe the Supremes afterwards) to hold that Chafee has to turn Pleau over. But I'm willing to be pleasantly surprised if it turns out otherwise.