September 30, 2011

Friday Review: Brave New World

One of the few books I’ve returned to repeatedly over the years is Brave New World, Aldous Huxley’s audacious dystopian classic. When I was young I read it for pleasure. In college, I read it as part of an independent study project on utopia and dystopia in fiction. A few weeks ago, spurred by a sale at Audible, I decided to read . . . er, listen . . . to it again. Fortuitously, I finished it up just as Banned Book Week began. Given that Brave New World is still one of the most controversial books of all time (in the top 10 books challenged in the United States last year), it seemed like a perfect choice for this week’s Friday Review.

For the unfamiliar, Huxley’s dystopia is developed in a completely different way from the nightmarish authoritarian worlds of, say, 1984 or Anthem. Orwell famously wrote that “[i]f you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever.” The world of 1984 is grey, depressing, brutal, and no place than any sane person would want to live. Huxley’s world, on the other hand, is at least superficially enticing. Everybody’s happy. Family strife and trauma have been eliminated, since families themselves are obsolete. There’s loads of things to buy and do to keep people occupied outside of work where, by the way, everybody does what they’re designed to do, so nobody gets fed up with their job. Sex as recreation is encouraged, if not mandated. And, if nothing else, there’s soma, a wonder drug that squelches any lingering worries.

Of course, it doesn’t really work out as well as advertised. If it did there’s be no conflict right? Thus no drama, thus no book. We meet characters who are outsiders, even in a world where everyone is so carefully crafted to be one of the horde. Things go completely haywire when a “savage,” that is a man raised outside the carefully crafted world in which most people live, shows up and begins to ask uncomfortable questions. Usually, at this point, I’d say “wackiness ensues,” but any book that ends with a major character killing himself really isn’t all that wacky.

That said, here are a few observations I picked up reading through Brave New World this time.

First, a writerly observation. Huxley starts the book off in a way that just about every “how to” book on writing says you shouldn’t. He doesn’t introduce any of the main characters. He doesn’t kick off the plot to get you hooked. Instead, he spends several chapters data dumping about how the people who live in this world are created and conditioned. It transitions nicely into the introduction of most of the major characters, but I can’t think a modern editor would be pleased with it. Which just goes to show that you follow the rules, unless you’re good enough to break them and get away with it.

A big part of Brave New World is about conditioning. As I said, Huxley spends several chapters at the outset explaining how children are bred, “decanted,” and conditioned via various means into the caste-bound happy adults they will become. What I never really picked up on before was how that conditioning bumps up against a more traditional form of conditioning, in the character of John “the Savage.” Raised on a reservation by a woman from the wider world left behind during vacation, he grows up as hard wired as the two main bottle-raised characters, Lenina and Bernard. That’s particularly evidence in his reaction to Lenina’s sexual advances, his revulsion driven by what he learned about sexuality in the reservation (namely that his mother, who shared Lenina’s conditioning, was outcast and beaten for having sex with several men in the area). Similarly, his drive to seek refuge in Shakespeare seems to come about in the same unthinking way. It all speaks to me as a commentary on how we are all conditioned by our environments, whether intentionally or not.

Which leads to an altogether less comfortable observation. The philosophical climax of the book is a long discussion between John and Mustapha Mond, the Resident World Controller of Western Europe, who basically runs that part of the world, in which they go back and forth about issues of free will, liberty, and the like. Particularly, John asks about the lower caste workers, who do the truly shit jobs. “Don’t they want better out of life?” he asks (I’m paraphrasing). It’s a question that would come to most us, raised as we are on the importance of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Mond’s answer, of course, is “no,” for the simple reason that they are doing the jobs they are conditioned to do, not just physically by psychologically. They don’t know what they’re missing, in other words.

That conversation resonated to me in that it reminds me of the problem of cultural imperialism and human rights. Like I said, most “Western” nations place a high priority on individual liberty, even at the expense of social order or tranquility. But other cultures – I’m thinking of some Asian ones – don’t place the same emphasis on individuals, instead focusing on group dynamics and social functionality. Does Mond’s explanation of why the lower castes aren’t unhappy with their lot apply equally to people who grow up in other cultures who don’t know they’re being denied the individual liberty others take for granted? Of course, the difference between us and them in the real world is much much less than the difference between the Alphas and Deltas of Brave New World. But I’m not sure that doesn’t just dodge the question.

I always viewed John as “our” representative in the book. After all, he’s the character whose upbringing most closely resembles our own. This time through, I came to the conclusion that I don’t want John representing me. He’s a closed minded fundamentalist asshole, only he quotes Shakespeare instead of the Bible. Not that he doesn’t make some potentially valid criticisms of the world he confronts. He’s just written in such a way that he’s not all that sympathetic. Of course, neither are the representatives of the modern world, either. In that sense, Huxley pushes everyone to the extremes of their positions, for whatever reason. It makes the conflicts ring a bit hollow, in the end, and presents an either/or choice, where something more subtle is possible.

John does have one thing going for him, although it ultimately hastens his demise – empathy. When John and his mother return to society with Lenina and Bernard, she quickly slips into a soma-induced coma and dies. In fact, her convalescence causes quite a spectacle, as people aren’t familiar with aging and are conditioned not to be afraid of death. John behaves in quite recognizable ways when his mother dies – he’s grief stricken, angry at those around him who aren’t, and generally miserable.

By contrast, at the end of the book John leaves the city and tries to live a hermit’s existence in the English countryside. That all goes to hell when a small group of workers catch sight of him flogging himself outside (more problems with sex, of course). Word quickly leaks out about the ritual, which a first brings the press to the area and then a collection of gawkers and curiosity seekers. Looking on from helicopters, they don’t see in John what most of us would – a troubled soul in pain trying to deal with something difficult. They see entertainment, because they’ve been conditioned to treat everything outside of work as entertainment, even other people. As a result, there’s no empathy there and they cheer on John’s flogging for the sake of spectacle. It’s quite nauseating, really. Normally we think of dehumanization as something we do to others, but Huxley turns it around.

Ultimately, what I think struck me most on this go round with Brave New World was my willingness to look critically at whether Huxley’s world is really a dystopia. Yes, the idea of a happy, if shallow, existence free from fear and doubt strikes me as inherently wrong in the gut. In fact, my gut reaction to it is similar to my feelings about transhumanism I wrote about a while back. But as in that piece, I have a hard time making a cogent rational argument as to why a world without pain would be a bad thing. Yes, if we were all eternally healthy we’d take it for granted, but is it necessary to be occasionally ill or injured (perhaps seriously) just to appreciate it? Is my reaction to Huxley’s world mere a result of my own conditioning?

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not going to run for president under a “soma for all!” platform anytime soon. In the real world, transitioning to the type of world Huxley proposed would involve so much coercion and violence that, even if the end product would be desirable, the horrors of getting there would be too much. For a fictional world in which to brainstorm ideas, however, I’m much more skeptical of the dystopian label than I’ve been before.

Which just goes to show you why Brave New World endures, both as a work of literature in its own right and as a target for censors. It makes people think, which can lead to all sorts of wackiness.

The Details
Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley
First published in 1932

September 29, 2011

Why I Love the Multiculture

I first got online in 1994, as part of a special research project I was doing at WVU. At that time, you didn’t get a university email address just be stepping on to campus and home connections were still in the primitive AOHell stage. Nevertheless, the Net was already alive with the kind of discussions and connections that we see today.

For an impressionable college kid it was awesome. Suddenly I had access to whole communities of people interested in the same weird shit I was. Formula 1, at the time, was decidedly niche in the United States. Being able to connect with scattered fans around the country, not to mention those around the globe (I asked a question on USENET about the first Hungarian Grand Prix and got replies from actual Hungarians!) blew my mind. Not only did those connections nurture my love of niche sports like soccer and sports car racing, it eventually led me into the emerging modern progressive rock underground. The rest, as they say, is history.

All of which is introduction to partly explain why I find this column at Salon by the mononamed Toure to be a complete load of horseshit. In it he pines for what he calls the “monoculture,” that is the mass movement pop culture of the kind that you can’t get away from:
The epic, collective roar -- you know, the kind that followed ‘Thriller,’ ‘Nevermind,’ ‘Purple Rain,’ ‘It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back,’ and other albums so gigantic you don't even need to name the artist -- just doesn't happen today. Those Moments made you part of a large tribe linked by sounds that spoke to who you are or who you wanted to be. Today there’s no Moments, just moments. They’re smaller, less intense, shorter in duration and shared by fewer people. The Balkanization of pop culture, the overthrow of the monopoly on distribution, and the fracturing of the collective attention into a million pieces has made it impossible for us to coalesce around one album en masse. We no longer live in a monoculture. We can't even agree to hate the same thing anymore, as we did with disco in the 1970s.
Putting aside some very valid objections from the comments, I’ll take Toure at his word. The monoculture is dead, a victim of the increased number and visibility of niche markets for pop culture works. So? Is he really suggesting that less choice is better when it comes to personal amusements? ‘cause, you know, that’s stupid.

As someone who lived through The Moments(tm) he lists, I can report that I was not swept up by them, except in the sense that I was aware of them. Michael Jackson? Never a fan. Prince? The same, except as the subject of a Kevin Smith monologue. Nirvanna? Meh. I don’t even recognize the other one so, obviously, I could care less. More to the point, at the time those Moments(tm) were happening, I was wandering in the musical desert without any real stuff that was firing my imagination.

You know what changed that? The Net allowed for the niche of all niches, progressive rock, to gain enough of a profile that I found out about it. Not only hadn’t it died in 1975, there were new and vital bands striving to do new and interesting things, as well as harken back to the glory days. It didn’t matter that they weren’t high profile enough to merit being stocked at the local CD store. Thanks to email (and eventually web commerce), I could order directly from the bands. How much more of a niche moment can you have than Alan Morse calling me at home to figure out a problem I had ordering the first Spock’s Beard album, during which he broke into a chorus of “Country Roads?” I wouldn’t trade that to be part of some massive Moment(tm).

The funniest part of Toure’s piece is his example of the devastation that the multiculture has wrought:
Nowadays my music conversations run like this:

‘So what are you listening to?’

‘Aw, you gotta check out Danny Brown and Abbe May and Das Racist.’

‘OK, cool. I've never heard of them.’

‘What are you listening to?’

‘Cat’s Eye and Ariel Pink and Little Dragon.’

‘Oh. I gotta check them out.’

No connection is made.
Wait, what? So the problem today is that when you talk to friends about music you find out about new music you might want to hear? Maybe I’m strange because, but if I had a conversation with a friend about music – presumably one in which I had some faith in his musical tastes (if not, why bother?) – and learned about three bands I’d never heard of before, I’d consider that a good day.

But, then again, maybe I’m just strange. I don’t care about Moments(tm) shared with millions of strangers. I care about finding and experiencing amazing music. New music. Old music. Confusing music. Whatever. To the extent I share those moments with anyone else, it’s in the hope that enough people get into it to keep the artists making more music.

So, fuck the monoculture. Long live the multiculture!

September 28, 2011


Years ago I wrote about cops in New York City who, apparently bored with the lack of real crime going on about them, set about creating some, leaving “lost” purses around town and arresting those who walked away with them with theft. Apparently, that do it yourself mentality is alive and well in the Big Apple as a part of the War on (Some People’s) Drugs. Color me stunned.

As the New York Times reports, simple possession of a small amount of marijuana is not a crime (since the 1970s) in New York. However, possession of pot “in public view” is still a misdemeanor. Enter the NYPD:
Critics say that as part of the Police Department’s stop-and-frisk policy, officers routinely tell suspects to empty their pockets and then, if marijuana is displayed, arrest them for having the drugs in public view, thereby pushing thousands of people toward criminality and into criminal justice system.
As Orin Kerr notes over at Volokh, the question of whether such an order violates the Fourth Amendment is not as easily answered as it should be. And even if it was a clear violation for cops to make such a request, most lay people won’t know they can refuse. Regardless of the constitutionality of the stops, it’s beyond unjust to punish someone for doing precisely what they’re ordered to by the police.

Thankfully, NYPC Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly has issued a memo aimed at stopping the process:
The memo says, ‘A crime will not be charged to an individual who is requested or compelled to engage in the behavior that results in the public display of marihuana.’ The act of displaying it, the order continues, must be ‘actively undertaken of the subject’s own volition.’
That’s a step in the right direction. If we’re going to continue to wage this fruitless War, let’s at least play fair, all right?

September 27, 2011

Live from Richmond!

An overwhelming amount of time, my job consists of me sitting in my office either reading or writing. On a few occasions, I’m dragged out into the light, dusted off, and sent to Richmond for oral argument before the Fourth Circuit. Now, thanks to the wonders of modern technology, you can hear me in action.

Last Friday, I argued a case that dealt with the Fourth Amendment and what has to happen before a police officer can transform a traffic stop into an immigration investigation. You can hear the argument, which went on well past the usual 20 minutes per side, here. For a little bit of setup, here's the summary of argument section of my opening brief:
Guijon-Ortiz was a passenger in a truck that was the subject of a traffic stop. Once the legitimate purpose of the stop had been extinguished and it was concluded that the driver was properly licensed and authorized to drive the truck, the traffic stop should have come to an end. The district court erred by denying Guijon-Ortiz’s motion to suppress the evidence of his identity and immigration status that was discovered thereafter. The district court incorrectly concluded that the officer could use time he otherwise would have used to write a traffic citation to pursue other investigative hunches. It also incorrectly concluded that the officer had reasonable suspicion that criminal activity was afoot. Because the evidence discovered as a result of the improperly prolonged traffic stop was the only evidence supporting the charge against Guijon-Ortiz, his conviction must be vacated.
As you can see . . . er, hear . . . the discussion at oral argument went off on a tangent not addressed in the briefs. It happens, sometimes. It’s both thrilling (talk about thinking on your feet!) and frightening, since you’re obviously stepping into uncharted waters. Regardless, we’ll see in a few weeks/months what the end result is.

September 26, 2011

Church or Jail? Tough Call

As a criminal defense lawyer, I always appreciate it when judges or others in the criminal justice system come up with sentences for low-level offenders that don’t require them to go to jail. We lock entirely too many people up in this country and we should be more vigorous in pursuing alternatives. Nonetheless, is it too much to expect that they not come up with alternatives that blatantly violate the Constitution?

One small town in Alabama has come up with an alternative sentencing scheme that really makes you shake your head. It presents a simple choice – go to jail or go to church:
Operation Restore Our Community or ‘ROC’...begins next week. The city judge will either let misdemenor [sic] offenders work off their sentences in jail and pay a fine or go to church every Sunday for a year.

If offenders elect church, they’re allowed to pick the place of worship, but must check in weekly with the pastor and the police department. If the one-year church attendance program is completed successfully, the offender's case will be dismissed.
It’s actually not even an alternative sentence, it’s better than that. If you choose jail, you have a criminal record that will follow you for the rest of your days. The church program, on the other hand, operates like a pretrial diversion program and erases your misdeeds if you complete it.

Regardless, it’s a clear First Amendment violation, as Eugene Volokh explains:
Both conservative and liberal Justices agree that coercion of religious practice violates the Establishment Clause. And while they disagree on what counts as coercion of religious practice (e.g., does being exposed to prayer, and socially pressured to stand and remain silent, at a high school graduation ceremony that isn’t legally required, qualify as coercion?), this is not a close case: Just as it would coerce religious practice to say someone who hasn’t been convicted of a crime, ‘go to church or we’ll send you to jail,’ so it coerces religious practice to say someone who has been convicted of a crime, ‘go to church or you’ll stay in jail.’
Apparently violates the Alabama state constitution, too.

It’s not enough, as the local police chief who dreamed up this scheme explained, that you can choose jail or church (assuming there is a particular flavor of “church” that includes your own – there are no references to mosques, synagogues, or other non-Christian services in any of the news coverage). In reality, that’s no choice at all.

Kudos to the powers that be for thinking outside of the box, but, to paraphrase a great being, “so ten out of ten for intent, but minus several million for good thinking, yeah?” So, it’s back to the drawing board with you. Read this first. And this. In fact, there’s probably some Alabama statutory law you’ll need to be familiar with, too. Come to think of it, just get together with a law talking guy (or gal) or two. They can set you straight. I hope.

September 23, 2011

Friday Review: Depois Do Fim

To paraphrase Frank Zappa, prog in the late 1970s and early 1980s wasn’t dead, it just smelled funny. In fact, lots of bands, inspired by the pioneers who broke out in the early 1970s, got together and made an album or two during that time. Given the generally hostile reception they got, those bands didn’t tend to last very long. Those albums slipped away into the history books.

One of the cool things about the combination of the growth of the Internet and fairly cheap CD production technology in the 1990s was that lots of these lost gems found their way to the light again. How else would a single album released by a Brazlian band (with lyrics in Portugese, natch’) find its way to the ears of someone in West Virginia?

Which is a fine thing, because Depois Do Fim is a real gem. To be sure, it is a creature of its time. Sonically, it sounds a little dated and a little muddy. Bands at the time didn’t have access to top quality home equipment we do these days. That being said, it sounds good, but in a low budget kind of way. Musically, it’s purely second-generation symphonic prog, influenced greatly by the likes of early Genesis and the Italian scene. There is nothing at all ground breaking about the music on Depois Do Fim.

It is gorgeous, however. The tracks alternate between instrumentals and vocal tracks. The instrumentals have a great sense of melody and flow, allowing the players to stretch a bit without going all wanky. Vocalist Jane Duboc stars on the vocal tracks, obviously, with a beautiful, powerful, and expressive voice. I have no idea what she’s saying, but who cares.

This album came to my attention because it’s rated as one of the top symphonic prog albums of all time by users over at Prog Archives. Is it, really? It’s hard to say. Any piece of second-wave music has to take a step back to the ground breakers that came before it, regardless of how exceptionally executed it is. That doesn’t have any impact on whether it’s a wonderful listening experience in its own right. It is. And I’m grateful it made its way north for me to hear.

Depois Do Fim, by Bacamarte
Released 1983

1. UFO (6:26)
2. Smog Alado (4:11)
3. Miragem (4:54)
4. Pássaro De Luz (2:28)
5. Caño (1:59)
6. Último Entardecer (9:29)
7. Controvérsia (1:57)
8. Depois Do Fim (6:31)
9. Mirante Das Estrelas (6:11)

Jane Duboc (vocals)
Marcus Moura (flute, accordion)
Mario Neto (guitars)
Mr. Paul (percussion)
Delto Simas (basses)
Marco Veríssimo (drums)
Sergio Villarim (keyboards)

September 22, 2011

Good News, Bad News

A quick update on the short story I had accepted for publication last month.

First, the good news. The original plan was for "The Last Ereph" to appear in the November edition of The Absent Willow Review, going online on November 16. Things have been pushed up a month, so it will appear in the edition going online on October 16.

Now, the bad news. That edition will be the last edition of The Absent Willow Review, which is sadly going out of business after nearly three years. The site will remain up until December. It's a shame any time a market shuts down, but it's hard not to take this one kind of personally. Poke around the site while it's still around. And, of course, check back on October 16!

September 21, 2011

Same As It Ever Was

The scandals rocking major college football continue:
[T]he Carnegie Foundation made headlines with a report, ‘American College Athletics,’ which concluded that the scramble for players had ‘reached the proportions of nationwide commerce.’ Of the 112 schools surveyed, 81 flouted NCAA recommendations with inducements to students ranging from open payrolls and disguised booster funds to no-show jobs at movie studios.
By “continue,” I mean they’ve been going on for nearly a century. That Carnegie Foundation report came out in 1929. 10 years later, freshman players at Pitt went on strike . . . because they weren’t getting paid as much as their more senior teammates.

Those two tidbits are just a part of the fascinating, and depressing, history of the commercial side of college sports laid out in Taylor Branch’s new article in The Atlantic (via). Branch is arguing that college athletes should be paid, although I’m still not convinced (beyond the scholarships, academic assistance, etc.). What he does do is make a good case that NCAA invocation of “amateurism” and “student-athletes,” at least when it comes to the big money sports, is not only hollow, but pretty much always has been.

In fact, the term “student-athlete” first popped up in litigation:
The term came into play in the 1950s, when the widow of Ray Dennison, who had died from a head injury received while playing football in Colorado for the Fort Lewis A&M Aggies, filed for workmen’s-compensation death benefits. Did his football scholarship make the fatal collision a ‘work-related’ accident? Was he a school employee, like his peers who worked part-time as teaching assistants and bookstore cashiers? Or was he a fluke victim of extracurricular pursuits? Given the hundreds of incapacitating injuries to college athletes each year, the answers to these questions had enormous consequences. The Colorado Supreme Court ultimately agreed with the school’s contention that he was not eligible for benefits, since the college was ‘not in the football business.’
Equally fascinating is how the NCAA, which wasn’t organized with any real authority over the schools that made up its membership, leveraged the nascent TV coverage of college football (the schools thought TV would kill the sport!) in the 1950s to exert some control over the situation. That control slipped away in 1984, when the Supreme Court ruled that the NCAA couldn’t keep individual schools or conferences from seeking out their own TV deals. Ironically, what kept the NCAA from being crippled financially was college basketball, because only it could sell the TV rights to the men’s national championship tournament, aka March Madness. Starting to see why there’s no similar tournament for major college football?

Of course, it’s TV money that’s largely driving the latest round of conference shifting we’re seeing go on right now. The drive for the ACC, Big (sorta) 10 and the artist formerly known as the PAC-10 to grow big enough to justify a conference championship game was because of the extra revenue, mostly from TV, they generate. Likewise, WVU doesn’t want to be relegated to a crippled Big East and potentially cut out of the windfall that is the BCS sweepstakes.

As I said earlier, I’m still not sold on the idea of paying college athletes. However, Branch does a good job of showing how profoundly fucked up the current system is. It's not quite this bad . . .

But it's close.  Maybe the best option is to blow it up and start from scratch. There’s no good reason for sports to enmesh with academics at all. Let the NFL, NBA, and what have you set up youth academies like the soccer clubs in Europe and elsewhere do and go from there. Or reduce the whole thing to the level of Division III, where those involved really are student-athletes.

Yeah, that’s not going to happen anytime soon. So this Saturday I’ll choke down my concerns, put on my bright yellow WVU shirt, and cheer as “we” beat up on LSU on national TV in primetime. Hopefully. ‘cause if we don’t, it’s only a game, right? At least I have the luxury of looking at it that way.

Same as it ever was, indeed.

September 20, 2011

A Quick Word on Criminal Procedure

It appears that Troy Davis, convicted of murdering an off-duty police officer in Savannah, Georgia in 1991, will be executed on Wednesday night. The Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles rejected Davis’s request for clemency this morning, clearing the way for his scheduled death. He’s already exhausted his other legal avenues, barring some kind of last minute Hail Mary.

For more on the background of the Davis case and the issues raised regarding his guilt or innocence, this dairy at Daily Kos hits all the high notes. I don’t know enough about the case to opine one way or the other on the man’s guilt, although I did skim the federal judge’s lengthy opinion after an unprecedented procedural remand by the Supreme Court a couple of years ago and found the case much less clear than either side portrays it. Given my opposition to the death penalty in all situations, whether Davis is guilty or not is not an issue to me with regards to whether he should be killed.

But I wanted to chime in on one facet of the discussion, particularly as raised by comments to the New York Time article I linked to above. The article makes multiple references to Davis’s failure to prove his innocence, to which many folks in the comments respond with shock and horror. As summed up by one person:
Am I reading this correctly? The goober judge who refused to grant a new trial said that the defense had failed 'to prove the defendant's innocence?' What law school did he go to? In Georgia defendants have to prove their innocence?
Not to stick up for any particular "goober judge," but, yes, in Georgia and the rest of the United States, defendants have to prove their innocence if they have already been convicted by a jury.

Our system, for better or worse, reveres trial court fact finding, particularly jury verdicts. I’ve written before about how deferential appellate courts are to verdicts in criminal cases. That deference continues all through the process. It simply is not enough for a defendant to poke holes in the prosecution’s case years down the road. It’s not enough to show that a new trial based on the evidence as it stands now would result in a different outcome. You must prove that you are innocent, a staggeringly high burden to meet without some sort of forensic breakthrough to hang your hat on. It may be a shitty system (I’m inclined to think so), but it’s the one we’ve got and it’s no use harping on isolated high-profile cases like Davis’s when the problem lies in the bigger picture, not it’s peculiar brush strokes.

None of that has any bearing on the ultimate truth of whether Davis murdered that officer decades ago, of course. But, as I’ve written before, courts aren’t designed to be places to learn the truth. They’re about justice which, sometimes, doesn’t wind up being all that just.

September 19, 2011

Cruel and Unusual

Is any of this deposition true? Any instance or detail? Any goddamn word of it? Because if it is, I'll be practicing divorce law in West Virginia.
ADA Burano (Lance Henriksen) - Prince of the City

No sin requires that much penance.  I spent a lifetime doing West Virginia divorce law one year.  Makes dealing with killers, rapists, and drug dealers all the more appealing.

September 16, 2011

Friday Review: A Dance With Dragons

George R.R. Martin’s epic fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire got off to a fast start, relatively speaking. The first three books appeared in only four years, which, given their doorstop size, is pretty impressive. No surprise, then, that legions of fans were hooked in those years. Things slowed down, considerably, with book four, A Feast For Crows, taking five years to hit the shelves.

Feast was disappointing, partly because three major characters from the earlier books were entirely absent. But no fear - Martin explained in an author's note that Feast as originally conceived was too sprawling for one volume. Rather than split it chronologically, he split it up by location. Those three characters would return in the next book, which was well on the way to being finished, anyway.

That was six years ago. Was it worth the wait? Does Dance measure up to the hype? Yes and no.

The good news is that we do get lots of those three missing characters. Tyrion Lannister, the hard drinking, smart ass dwarf, has his adventures, while the dragon queen Danerys and Night Watch commander Jon Snow deal with the problems of rule in their distinct lands.

The bad news is that, all things considered, the overall plot of the series hasn't advanced all that much by the end of the book. It would be wrong to say that nothing happens - lots of stuff happens. But our main characters spend the book dealing with specific problems, only to have the rug pulled out from under them in the end and essentially reset everything. What happens along the way is interesting enough, but it seems like filler when it has very little payoff in the end.

Thankfully, Martin throws in a couple of new faces along the way who (unlike the ones in Feast) actually make some impact on the plot. One, in particular, shows up with yet another claim on the throne of Westeros and takes some action to get it back.

In the end, it's hard for me to really get a handle on Dance. For one thing, I just came to the series recently, so I haven't been waiting six years for this installment to appear. I don't have the issues with Martin that some fans do. But, I'm deep enough into the series that it's like a favorite TV show - I'm happy to get back into the world and meet up with interesting characters, even if the end result isn't completely satisfactory.

The bottom line? The next book can't get here fast enough.

The Details
A Dance With Dragons, by George R.R. Martin
Book five of A Song of Ice and Fire
First published in 2011

September 15, 2011

Rock Rulz! Bach Droolz!

I stumbled across a couple of posts from one of the New York Times's blogs over the past few days that discussed music education in the schools. The substance of the posts, and the program they discuss, are interesting in their own right. More interesting, or at least more fun to read and snicker at, is the elitist pearl clutching going on in the comments. For the end is nigh, citizens – rock and roll is going to school.

The program discussed in the first post is called Little Kids Rock. It seeks to add a new track to the traditional public school music programs (band, orchestra, etc.) called "contemporary band," along with providing instruments (guitars, mostly) to make it possible. Instead of relying on a well-worn repertoire of "traditional" music, the program focuses on pop stuff that the kids know and are interested in:
On the first day of class, Little Kids Rock teachers place guitars in the hands of their students and get them practicing chords that will enable them to play thousands of songs. (Many simple lessons are freely available online here.) The kids decide what songs they want to learn and the class is off and running. Their progress is remarkable. Within a year, eight- and nine-year-olds are playing electric guitar, bass guitar, drums and keyboards, and giving concerts, even performing their own songs. And the effect is predictable: the children can’t get enough of it.
The idea is that presenting kids with established methods based on traditional music – be it from the classical repertoire or old folk songs – not only fails to get the kids excited by music, it turns them off from it altogether. That may be a false assumption from which the start, but it seems reasonable to me. Depending, of course, on what the purpose of music education programs is going to be. If it's to being training the next generation of players, that might not work. On the other hand, if the goal is to create kids (and, therefore, adults) for whom music becomes important in their lives, it makes a great deal of sense.

Predictably, the idea that rock music might have a legitimate pedagogical position alongside the old masters freaked some people completely out, to the point where the original writer addressed them in a second post. Putting aside one very relevant criticism (that I'll get to in a minute) and the simple misunderstandings, what shines through is an elitist fear that the barbarians have truly breached the ivory tower: allowing pop in the classroom will "dumb down" music education, or letting kids choose what kind of music to learn about is "quite ridiculous" because "[m]ost popular music that students listen to is redundant and simplistic."

That attitude, it seems to me, is most evident in a pair of comments that are less direct, but still elitist:
Many were upset by the idea that schools should teach anything but serious music — like classical music or jazz. (It's worth remembering that people raged against the introduction of school jazz bands 40 years ago, too.) Diekunstder, from Menlo Park, Calif. (25), commented: '[T]here is no classical music industry shoving its values down the public's throat, rather, it is popular music which pervades every corner of contemporary 'culture.'' And Fed Up (44), worried: 'Is this the death knell for classical music and opera? Methinks so. Sad!'
In other words, school music programs aren't about really teaching kids about music, they're a front in the culture wars, a place to beat back the heathen hordes of the Lady Gagas and Kanye Wests of the world. I'm not going to concede that introducing students to new things and ideas isn't an essential part of education, but if the goal is to link "music" to "dull stuff I have to do in school," I can think of few better ways to do it than place the whole of pop culture beyond the reach of teachers and their students.

And, anyway, as the second post points out, programs like Little Kids Rock aren't out to displace more traditional musical programs from the schools. It’s an additional way of reaching kids, which is never a bad thing. Hook kids on the nuts and bolts of music using what they like, then they might more easily appreciate new things thrown at them later. It's not an either/or proposition.

Now, the one very valid criticism I noted earlier. As several comments pointed out, the arguments in favor of programs like Little Kids Rock appear to assume that they have healthy existing traditional school music programs upon which they can build. Sadly, in 21st-century America, few things are more easily brushed aside than arts programs in schools. Never mind the evidence that kids who participate in arts programs do better in school and tend to be more successful down the road. It's fluff and it doesn’t have a standardized test at the end, so cash strapped school districts see it as a place to trim the fat.

But that's no reason to reconsider how music education programs work where they exist. And, maybe, if the ones that are around are perceived as being more successful (however that's measured), it will be easier to ensure their survival down the road.

September 14, 2011

Who Wants to Live Forever?

Over the past couple of days, Slate has been hosting an interesting discussion on the pros and cons of “transhumanism.” That’s the theory/philosophy that essentially holds that human life will be greatly benefited by its entwining with technology. It runs the gamut from folks who argue about various sci-fi tech that could extend lifespans well into triple digits to those like Ray Kurzweil who envision a future when someone can be uploaded into a computer and, essentially, live forever.

Unless I’ve missed something over the past few years, none of the tech really necessary to bring about this kind of thing is remotely feasible at this point. That makes discussions about whether it’s a good thing or bad thing purely theoretical, but interesting nonetheless. So far, the writers involved in the Slate discussion are running two to one in favor.

I kind of wish Nicholas Agar, who’s post title declares “why I don’t want to be a cyborg,” would have tried a little harder at explaining why. Aside from vague assertions about losing our “humanity” (whatever that means), he doesn’t offer any solid reasons why longer living via technology would be a bad thing. I’m not unsympathetic to his position, but I’m struggling to see how it’s any different than arguing that modern medicine and the like has fundamentally changed our humanity.

That being said, I do see two potential problems with embracing transhumanism. The first is brought up by Brad Allenby, who cynically (I mean that in a good way) suggests that whether such coming changes are a good or bad thing, society as a whole will be powerless to stop them. The march of technology and all that. I tend to agree with him. But he points out that the cost of this tech would further widen the gap between rich and poor, essentially creating separate classes of “transhumans” and regular (read “poor”) humans. However, he also points out that folks in developed countries already live twice as long as those in developing nations, without much metaphysical concern about it. Regardless of where we are now, I think it’s something that transhuman proponents need to deal with.

The other problem I see is what I reluctantly call the Miracle Day problem, after the latest (horribly botched) season of Torchwood. On Miracle Day, everybody on the planet stopped dying. Things went to shit almost immediately and the threat of overpopulation loomed over the planet. Now, transhuman tech would presumably produce healthier longer lives, not just stave off death (Miracle Day only stopped death, not disease), but doubling lifespans would still lead to serious resource scarcity. Again, it’s an issue that the proponents need to address.

From what little I’ve read about it, most transhumanists are scientific Utopians, placing faith in technology to deliver us from the reality of life and death. Maybe it will someday – what do I know? But I do know that history is rife with amazing new technologies that produced negative unintended consequences and spawned their own problems. Dreaming about the future is fun and exciting. Ignoring the past while doing so is irresponsible and short sighted.

September 13, 2011

On Writers Reading

There is a plague upon the land, my friends. You probably didn’t notice it, what with all the natural disasters, political shenanigans, and football going on. But it’s important enough to be discussed in the vague sort of terms usually reserved for nebulous terrorist threats. Brace yourself. Are you sitting down?

Some people say that there are would be writers out there who “don’t read.” See, even Salon is writing about it!

Take a moment. Breathe. It will be all right, I promise.

Not because writers who don’t read wouldn’t be a problem. I’m just not convinced that such people exist. Or even could. Now, I’ll concede that there are some non-reader people out there who wake up one day and say to themselves, “Self, I’m going to write a novel.” He or she will set upon the task and . . . fail miserably. We will never be subjected to the result, even in the ever widening world of electronic on demand publishing.

But I think it’s impossible for anyone who seriously wants to write a novel, short story, play or whatever to have never read one. How would you even know what you wanted to do if you didn’t have some idea of what it was? For most things, you could just go read a book. You can do that with writing, too (as an overstuffed shelf in my library can attest), but then you’re reading. So, I don’t think it’s actually possible to write without reading.

What I really think people are saying when they fret about writers not reading is that either aspiring writers don’t read enough or they don’t read the right things. The first may be true, but I’ve yet to see any evidence, at least that matters. If someone who doesn’t read all that much writes a book or play and it’s awful, who cares? Only professional critics, I suppose, who have to read those things for work. I don’t think it says anything meaningful about writers whose work is actually read by something resembling a wide audience. When someone without any real reading background poots forth the next Harry Potter or whatever, get back to me.

In addition, given the explosion of media platforms in the 21st century, stories are being told in more numerous and interesting ways. Writing is, for most of us, about telling stories, rather than the pure mechanics of writing itself. With that in mind, writers can learn a lot from movies or TV or other places and improve the finished product of their writing. To suggest that writers only learn from reading is near sighted in a 19th-century kind of way.

My suspicion – completely without evidence, I’ll admit – is that when critics complain that writers these days don’t read what they’re really saying is they don’t read what they, the critics, think they should. That doesn’t strike me as a very valid complaint. I don’t read esoteric modern literary fiction, but I don’t write it, either. I write science fiction and fantasy stuff which, it also happens, is primarily what I read, at least for fun. Why should it be any different? John Scalzi’s advice is sound: write a story you would want to read. If you really don’t want to read anything, you won’t write anything.

I will say this, however, on the side of those who freak out about this supposed problem. Writing, like any art, is more craft than mystic creative experience. Few people are able to simply sit down, summon a muse, and whip out anything worth reading. They people do exist and the rest of us hate them, trust me. But for the vast majority of us, who have to learn how to do it like we learned to do anything else, seeing how other people do it is invaluable. And I’m pretty sure anybody who takes the whole enterprise seriously knows that.

So, really, everything’s all right. Continue your lives untroubled, my friends.

September 12, 2011

Borders Requiem

Over at CNN’s website, Todd Leopold has a nice piece about the end of the road for Borders, particularly the chain’s flagship store in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Although it’s a natural part of the circle of corporate life, it still sucks.

What first grabbed me about Borders wasn’t the books (sorry, honey), but the music. At the store down the road in Barboursville, I could walk in and paw through racks of CDs that actually had some of the music I listened to in it – Marillion! Porcupine Tree! Van der fucking Graff Generator! Try doing that elsewhere in a small city like Charleston or Huntington and you’re likely to come up short.

Magazines, too.  In addition to the normal essential American car magazines, they regularly carried both Grassroots Motorsports and their vintage cousin, neither of which is exactly mainstream.  Same goes for European soccer mags like Four Four Two and music rags like Q and the newly established Prog (from the folks at Classic Rock).

Oh, yeah, and they sold books, too. And as a writer, any place that sells books that goes out of business is a bad thing.

I know I should look at Borders (and its chain store ilk like Barnes & Noble and Books a Million) as the corporate monstrosity it was, gobbling up and pushing out real independent bookstores over the years. Maybe that’s true in larger cities, but in places where I’ve lived, the truth is closer to what Leopold writes:
The best bookstores have a certain feel, a certain comfort to them. They're stately but not forbidding. The employees are a mix of the young and the eccentric, college students and lifers. The front of the store features their recommendations, a little offbeat, a little intriguing. If you're looking for something specific, they know where to find it; if you don't know what you're looking for, they can be your Virgil and Beatrice, guiding you through the world.

It is a place with a soul.

For much of its 40-year history, that was Borders. Though it was a chain, with hundreds of locations around the world, during its best years it maintained the feel of a great, expansive local bookstore, the 800-foot space multiplied by 10 or 20 (and much better organized). The choices were manifold, the employees passionate, the adventure always beginning.

In some towns and cities, Borders was it.
Now, Charleston has a wonderful, if small, indie in Taylor Books, but it could never match the range or selection that Borders had in its prime. Besides, it was alive and kicking while Borders was in business down the highway.

K, the girlfriend, worked for Borders when we met (she jumped ship back when it was merely taking on water, not yet sinking), first as an assistant manager then as grand poohbah of one of the stores in the Pittsburgh area. With few exceptions, the folks she worked with were as Leopold describes – bright, knowledgeable, and exceptionally helpful. They were hamstrung by a corporate leadership that didn’t know which end was up when it came to the 21st century retail however. As a result, they wound up another dinosaur along the side of the road, dead as the world marches slowly onwards.

So, like Leopold and many others, I’ll raise a glass to the Borders that once was, say thank you, and move on with my cultural life. Things change, after all.

September 2, 2011

Friday Review: The Wake

I’m methodically going through my CD collection at work (as once memorialized in the Album of the Day posts on the old blog), this time in reverse chronological order. With my Prog Primer on Marillion fresh in my head, it turned out that one of my recommended albums of theirs, Misplaced Childhood, wound up playing back to back with The Wake, the early high point of their neo-prog contemporaries, IQ. They make for an interesting contrast.

By 1985, Marillion had emerged as the commercial victors among the neo-prog movement, with major label backing and something resembling popularity. IQ never made that breakthrough (national TV appearance on Live from London notwithstanding). Misplaced Childhood was released by EMI (who still own it) and pushed to the top of the charts. The Wake was originally released by Sahara Records and eventually rereleased on CD (multiple times) by the band’s own Giant Electric Pea label. I bought Misplaced Childhood at the music store in the mall. The Wake had to come from a prog-specialist mail order company.

Sonically, the difference is most stark by comparing arsenals deployed by the keyboard players. Mark Kelly had access to the latest and greatest tech, including the Emulator and PPG Wave, which ain’t cheap. Martin Orford, by contrast, was largely making due with vintage 1970s tech, but wielding it with great effect. “Outer Limits” wouldn’t be the same without that warbling Logan String Synth accompanying the driving bass line, nor would “Widow’s Peak” work without that shaky Mellotron.

Musically, of course, they’re both brilliant. The Wake is darker, both lyrically and musically, and lacks anything close to the hit singles Misplaced Childhood spawned. It also makes more room for instrumental interplay between Orford and guitarist Mike Holmes. All in all, IQ comes across as the more muscular of the two.

Where things really diverge, however, is the paths the bands travelled after these albums were released. I couldn’t pick just one Marillion album as a starting point the other day because they’ve been prolific and have shifted their sound so much over the years. IQ, by contrast, has had long periods of dormancy and have pretty much the same sound these days as they did back then. That’s not a bad thing – they do it better than just about anybody else. But it makes it much easier for me to pick a starting point for their catalog. The Wake is it. They’ve not yet done any better.

The Wake, by IQ
Released 1985

1. Outer Limits (8:15)
2. The Wake (3:12)
3. The Magic Roundabout (8:18)
4. Corners (6:20)
5. Widow's Peak (9:12)
6. The Thousand Days (5:12)
7. Headlong (7:25)

The Players:
Paul Cook (drums & percussion)
Tim Esau (basses & bass pedals)
Mike Holmes (guitars)
Peter Nicholls (vocals, tambourine)
Martin Orford (keyboards)

With Harun (tablas on "Corners") & Dave Stewart (loan of the Sitar guitar)

September 1, 2011

When Sports Really Matter

This is a big weekend for sports that I follow. The US takes on Costa Rica in a Friday friendly that will continue to mark the transition into the Klinsman era. On Sunday, WVU kicks off its football season against cross-state semi-rivals Marshall in a game that means a lot to those of us inside the state, if not to many others. And throughout the weekend the American Le Mans Series and the Indycars break in a new street circuit in Baltimore. I’ll miss a good bit of those, as I’ll be off spending time with friends and loved ones away from sporting concerns. But that’s not a problem, because sports are a pleasant diversion in my life, nothing more.

That’s not true for everyone. I’m not talking about idiots who wrap their self worth up in whether some team or another wins a game. I’m talking about people for whom the diversion of sports is a true lifeline. I’m talking about the well and truly oppressed.

Take this article in today’s New York Times about the popularity of the fledging pro soccer league in Burma (aka Myanmar), which was started in 2008:
'I don’t come here to support any particular team,' said Kyaw Lin, 15, a high school student standing in an especially rowdy section of bleachers during a recent match. 'I come for the freedom to yell anything I want.' Sports is an escape nearly everywhere from the tedium of life. But in Myanmar, with its layers of secret police and prison sentences of as much as 100 years for those who speak out against the government, a soccer match seems something more: an island of raucous merriment in a sea of grinding poverty and fear.
That freedom can get ugly, at times. A World Cup qualifier against Oman was halted in the first half because of objects being thrown onto the field by fans. Speaking of ugly:
The outdoor grandstand reeked of cheap liquor and the occasional pool of vomit. Shirtless fans exhibited a variety of creative, roughly sketched tattoos.

Yes, it appears that the junta that runs Burma is supporting all this as a sort of “rice and circuses” policy. Nonetheless, the breathing room allowed inside the stadium counts for something. And it seems to exist outside to a certain extent, as well:
[U Ko Htut, one of the country’s prominent writers on soccer] was imprisoned for 13 years and tortured for perceived crimes related to his student activism during a major uprising in 1988. Writing about sports, he says, is the closest thing to freedom of expression in Myanmar. The censors rarely bother him, he said, unlike political journalists who spend their careers having their work excised and redacted. (The name of this article’s author is being withheld because foreign journalists, with rare exceptions, are not officially allowed to report in the country.)
I read a book recently in which a character in China communicated with the outside world about dissident crackdowns under the veil of a blog devoted to Chinese professional basketball. Maybe something similar will leak out in reports of Burmese soccer?

So remember, friends, when you’re tempted to burn a couch or yell nasty things about the parentage of the guy who just punted you favorite driver out of the lead, we’ve got it lucky. We can get wrapped up in these silly things (or not) just for the fun of it. It’s not an act of rebellion just watching a damned game.