March 30, 2012

Friday Review: Autobahn

It was inevitable when I started diving into electronic music a few years ago that I’d eventually wind my way to Kraftwerk. To lots of people the German pioneers are electronic music, at least of the accessible pop-flavored variety. No album is more responsible for that than Autobahn. It was, rather inexplicably, a hit in the United States and in Europe.

Autobahn is technically not the first Kraftwerk album, but it might as well be. In fact, main men Florian Schneider and Ralf Hütter have essentially disowned the three albums that came before (they’ve never been released on CD, IIRC). From what little I’ve heard of those albums, there is some recognizable Kraftwerking going on, but they had not yet fully embraced electronics they way they did on Autobahn (and later, of course).

There’s also a conceptual rigor that starts to be flexed on Autobahn that would really bear fruit on the next several albums, at least when it comes to what was (back in the olde days) side one. The title track, an epic of proggy proportions, sprawls out across that side, conveying musically a car trip across Germany. Lyrics are sparse and in German, although the refrain of “fahren fahren fahren auf der Autobahn” has the effect of sounding like a Beach Boys reference (not intentional, from what I understand). The music is undeniably electronic, although Schneider’s flute still makes a couple of appearances.

The concept doesn’t hold over to side two, which appears to be kind of neglected by listeners as a result. Regardless, it contains the track that convinced me to keep digging in the Kraftwerk katalog. “Kometenmelodie” is another epic, split into two parts. The first part sounds like something I might come up with on a particularly inspired evening, which is maybe why I like it so much.

Autobahn isn’t my favorite Kraftwerk album from stem to stern. But it was the onramp, so to speak, for my discovery of the band. Apparently, it was the same for lots of other folks, too.

On a related note, if you’re interested in Kraftwerk and the German experimental music scene from which they sprang, I highly recommend the documentary Kraftwerk and the Electronic Revolution. It’s long (3 hours!), but it covers a lot of ground and provides some interesting insight into the whole milieu that was German music in the late 1960s/early 1970s. The film’s biggest flaw is that neither Schneider nor Hutter participated, although Karl Bartos (who joined just after Autobahn) provides some interesting insight.

Autobahn, by Kraftwerk
Released 1974

1. Autobahn (22:43)
2. Kometenmelodie 1 (6:26)
3. Kometenmelodie 2 (5:48)
4. Mitternacht (3:43)
5. Morgenspaziergang (4:04)

Ralf Hütter (voice, electronics, synthesizer, organ, piano, guitar, electronic drums)
Florian Schneider (voice, vocoder, electronics, synthesizer, flute, electronic drums)

Wolfgang Flür (electronic drums "Kometenmelodie 1–2")
Klaus Röder (electric violin "Mitternacht")

March 29, 2012

Leave the Dead Alone (the Living, Too)

I’ve written before about the bizarre Mormon practice of posthumous baptism, which is in the news again thanks to the persistence of Mitt Romney in the presidential race. That, plus, they keep doing it for high profile dead people, like Daniel Pearl, which tends to piss people off. Although it’s all woo and mystical hand waving to me, I think it’s perfectly reasonable for folks to get upset about it.

Which is to say I disagree with Ed at Dispatches (and Eugene Volokh, whose post Ed links to) about the whole mess. Per Volokh’s reasoning, either the Mormons are wrong about the impact of these things, in which case no harm no foul, or they’re right and they’re actually doing dead folks a great service. Or, as Ed puts it:
All these people are doing is wasting their time doing silly rituals that have no effect at all on anyone else. Some say that it’s arrogant or disrespectful, and they’re right, but why should anyone really care?
I think Ed and Eugene miss the point, in a couple of ways. Most obviously, they’re applying a rational analysis to what is, inherently, an emotional reaction. Presumably, most of the people who are upset about posthumous baptism believe is some form of afterlife and/or higher power and thus are particularly sensitive to things that mess with those beliefs. It’s awfully easy for atheists to sit on the sideline and say “what’s the big deal?” when we don’t believe a word of it.

Second, I think it overlooks the fact that, to a whole lot of people their religious beliefs aren’t simply a label to check off on a demographic form, but it truly informs who they are and how they live their lives. It is arrogant for somebody from another branch of woo to come along and provide a posthumous opportunity to “fix” something that person didn’t consider broken.

Finally, I think Ed and Eugene both overlook the particularly insensitive nature of the posthumous baptisms as they relate to people like Pearl or Holocaust victims. After all, those people were murdered in cold blood because of their religious identification. Holocaust victims in particular are a shitty target for post hoc salvation, given that one’s fate under the Nazi racial laws had less to do with actual belief than it did with ancestry.

So I can certainly see why some people – family members and co-religionists in particular – would be upset about the whole posthumous baptism thing. And while I agree that the whole process is a whole bunch of nothing, doing a whole bunch of nothing that pisses off grieving loved ones doesn’t rate highly in my book under the heading “nice things to do.” Mormons have the perfect right to do whatever they want, of course, and, at the very least, the whole thing gives me a wonderful idea for a story.

And, to the Mormons credit, at least they’re just messing with the dead. Other believers (not Catholics! This time, at least) are messing with real live kids:
A southeastern Pennsylvania church subjected members of a youth group to a mock kidnapping and interrogations without telling them it was staged, and the outraged mother of one 14-year-old girl has filed a complaint with police.

* * *

[Pastor John] Lanza [of the Glad Tidings Assembly of God] said there were about 17 students at the meeting and the mock kidnappers covered the students' heads, put them in a van and interrogated them. Neither the students nor their parents were told about the raid beforehand, he said, though it was discussed with the parents of one youth who might have health issues.
You read right. A church group decided to “mock” kidnap a bunch of kids. Putting aside the fact that, unless somebody consents to it a “mock” kidnapping is just old fashioned kidnapping (did nobody in the Glad Tidings brain trust think to consult a lawyer?), why on Earth would kids need to learn how to deal with that kind of situation? According to Lanza:
the intent was to prepare them for what they might encounter as missionaries.
Now, in spite of my lack of belief I am 100% in favor of people being able to get out there and preach whatever flavor of gospel they believe in. Violent reaction to that kind of stuff is both stupid and uncalled for. That being said, the vibe I get from “missionaries” is that it means going to other countries to try and recruit. In said countries, outsiders coming to try and sell their faith might not go over so well. In other words, if your missionary work is meeting with violent rejoinders, you’re probably doing something wrong.

Take a tip from the Mormons and stick to messing with dead folks. They’re less likely to fight back, you know.

March 28, 2012

Some Brief Health Care Thoughts

With the Supreme Court winding up its massive arguments about the Affordable Care Act, I thought I’d toss out a couple of things I haven’t seen others emphasized from yesterday’s session, which focused on the individual mandate. As to the fate of the mandate itself, I’m not going to argue with court watchers who suggest that it’s in “trouble” and the case may be closer than expected. They may be right. It’s always dangerous to read into questions asked at oral argument. I’ve had judges ask me questions during an argument that made me think, “shit, I’ve lost that one,” only to have them rule my way in the end.

But that’s not really what interests me. Let’s assume the mandate goes down in flames. I wonder, at the end of the day, if the folks challenging the law will be any happier. Consider several interesting things that came up during the argument (transcript here, recording here).

First, everybody – attorneys for both sides, the justices asking questions (meaning excluding Thomas) – agreed that the Feds can, in fact, force you to purchase medical insurance, if that happens when you actually seek medical care. So, rather than require purchase ahead of time (when it would be cheaper and broaden the risk pool), purchase could be required when you arrived at the ER with a bloody stump. It might look something like this:

Second, just about everybody (and maybe everybody – it was hard to tell) agreed that in order to tackle the problem addressed by the mandate – free riders – Congress could simply tax everybody to cover the short fall.

Third, again, just about everybody, agreed that Congress could simply bypass all the nonsense and setup a national health service, paid for by broad taxation.

Whether any of those alternatives are politically viable, I have no idea. But if the mandate and the rest of the ACA goes down in flames, we may find out, ‘cause the underlying mess that his our health care system isn’t going to magically get better. I can’t imagine those other options would be any more popular amongst the Tea Party folks and others who have most vocally assailed the ACA.

The irony of one of those solutions being the final outcome is that it may come about because the conservatives grabbed the torches and pitchforks and gunned down what was their own idea, after all.

March 27, 2012

There’s No Justice Like Mob Justice

I was on the road in Richmond last week for court, which meant I spent more time watching cable news than I normally do. That was when I started to hear all about Trayvon Martin, the 17-year old kid shot in his own neighborhood by self-selected “neighborhood watchman” George Zimmerman. Once I knew the names, I noticed the blog posts and Facebook requests for outrage at the fact that Zimmerman had not been charged with any crime. Arrest, trial, and conviction was the only answer, it seemed.

Given my line of work, I didn’t sign up for any of those petitions. I will admit that the whole situation seems messed up beyond belief. It’s hard to believe that somebody who shoots and kills an unarmed kid doesn’t get immediately arrested, although release on bond might make sense. But two things keep me from grabbing a pitchfork and joining the growing crowds calling for an arrest.

First, it just goes against my constitutional makeup (although not the Constitution, of course) to demand someone go to prison based on news reports. I’m not sure whether that’s a result of my years as a criminal defense lawyer or if it was there beforehand and supports the work. Either way, it’s just not in my nature. Second, I’m a skeptic and more than anything else, skeptics want to hold out for all possible information before coming to a conclusion.

Now, we’re starting to see a counter narrative, as the local police release reports about the incident (via):
In Mr. Zimmerman’s account to the police, he returned to his S.U.V. after he was unable to find him. Trayvon then approached Mr. Zimmerman from behind and they exchanged words. Then, Mr. Zimmerman said, Trayvon hit him hard enough that he fell to the ground — which would explain what Mr. Zimmerman’s lawyer, Craig Sonner, has said was a broken nose — and began slamming his head into the sidewalk.
Of course, one needs to be skeptical of this account as well – Zimmerman, after all, is hardly a disinterested party and, given the outcry about their handling the shooting, the police department might not be, either. What it shows, however, is that there might really be two sides to this story.* The only way to make the incident cut and dried either way is to choose sides ahead of time and then cherry pick the alleged facts in a way that supports that side.

Which is, of course, what a trial would all be about, providing it gets that far. Florida’s self defense law is one of the most defendant friendly in the country, so the state has high hurdles to clear to even bring the case that far. And if it does, is any potential jury pool contaminated beyond repair?
If Zimmerman is indicted by state authorities for homicide, or for a federal hate crime, where in the world will the judiciary find an impartial jury? So many people have already convicted Zimmerman; so much prejudicial evidence and speculation have been so widely disseminated.

You can listen to the enhanced audio tape of Zimmerman’s 911 call, including an arguably audible racial slur. You can read about Zimmerman’s ‘long, lonely war against black people doing things.’ You can hear politicians and pundits ranging from Rick Santorum to Al Sharpton discrediting Zimmerman’s ‘stand your ground’ defense and demanding his arrest, and hear President Obama suggesting that Martin could have been his son. Or, you can join the nearly 2 million people who have signed a petition posted at by Martin’s parents calling for George Zimmerman’s murder prosecution. Who doesn't harbor preconceptions about this case?
As Wendy Kaminer points out, that’s the danger inherent in populist cries for justice in high profiles cases like this. Not only might it prompt a prosecution to satisfy political pressure, but it might make a truly fair trial nearly impossible. Having said that, impartial jurors have been found in other high profile cases (as OJ or Casey Anthony), and I’m not sure that, at the end of the day, this case will linger in memory any more than those. In addition, sometimes the popular groundswell gets it right and forces the state to actually do the right thing.

It’s a problem worth pondering and one to which there are probably no good solutions (as is usually the case). But at the very least, people should actively remind themselves to try and avoid coming to conclusions before all, or at least most, of the facts are in. We should be particularly eager to seek out facts from the “other” side of the issue, if only to wind up discarding them as false, misleading, or just irrelevant.

In the end, I think Jeralyn at TalkLeft summed it up best in response to a commenter who asked if she had formed an opinion about the case:
I am an advocate. With the possible exception of a few police and military misconduct cases, I view criminal cases through the lens of the Constitution and in a way that promotes the rights of those accused of crime.

I wasn’t there, no evidence has been introduced in court and my concern in cases like this is more with the fairness of the process. If Zimmerman is to be convicted of anything, it should be based on evidence admitted in court, not what one side or the other is telling the media. Trials should take place in courtrooms, not living rooms
On that last bit, at least, we should all agree.

* Old Vorlon proverb: there are three sides to every story – your side, their side, and the truth.

March 16, 2012

Friday Review: Senna

For my first two years of college, I lived in dorms. Back in those dark days, kids (we called them the 1990s), dorms weren’t wired up and hooked in the way they are now. TV viewing, such as it was, happened in common rooms. That was the only place there were cable hookups. There was no Internet to speak of, certainly no Youtube or streaming services. It was truly like the dark ages.

Which is why on May 1, 1994, a Sunday, I woke up earlier than any reasonable person should, threw on some clothes, and headed downstairs to one of the Stalnaker Hall common rooms, flipped on the TV, and flopped down on a couch. It was a Formula 1 morning. The Grand Prix of San Marino, particularly, in Imola. This was my only opportunity to watch it. It was either that or wait for the race report in the late lamented On Track a few weeks later. Some people get up early on Sundays for Jesus, I do it for Formula 1. That Sunday, I wish I’d slept in.

Imola that year was already in a bad way when Sunday morning rolled around. In Friday practice, Jordan’s Rubens Barrichello (recently moved to IndyCar) walked away from a horrific crash that saw his car launched over the tire barrier. Saturday was even worse, as Austrian Roland Ratzenberger, driving for Simtek, was killed in a crash during qualifying. The race start on Sunday was auspicious, too, when Pedro Lamy slammed into the stalled car of J.J. Lehto when the green flag fell.

Ayrton Senna was on pole position at Imola. His third race with a new team, Williams, after several years, and three World Championships, with McLaren. Stripped of the electronic aids that made it so dominant the past two years, the Williams was an unruly beast that had failed to finish the first two races of the season. Senna had yet to tame it, but he at least wrangled it well enough to be fast. That was what he did, after all.

On lap seven, after a restart following the Lamy/Lehto crash at the start, Senna was leading Michael Schumacher. In a corner called Tamburello, a lightning fast left hander, something on the Williams broke. Senna and the car slammed into the outside wall. A suspension piece broke free from the car and struck Senna in the head. The greatest racing talent of his generation, and one of the all time greats, was dead, the final casualty of that weekend at Imola.

As you might expect, any documentary about Senna leads to that bloody weekend at Imola. It’s a credit to director Asif Kapadia that Senna still manages to be emotionally riveting and compelling even when you know how the film must end. That’s particularly true if, like me, you saw it all happen on TV. He does it by keeping things focused on archival footage, mostly of Senna on track and around it, but also with some old home movies (young Senna in a kart is a thing to behold). There are no cutaways for talking head interviews (although they are used as voice overs), nor any fresh footage of any place or person relevant to the film.

That rawness and immediacy is the flim’s best feature (it’s kind of amusing to read reviews by critics amazed by the all the in-car footage). It’s also its biggest downfall. Because Kapadia is focused so much on what happens on track and plumbing the F1 film archives, we learn very little about Senna the man outside of the car. Via some interviews we learn that he was deeply religious (Tim Tebow’s got nothing on him) and there are a couple references to his charity work, but not much else. To be honest, there might not be much there. Senna came from a privileged background, broke through to the top levels of the sport pretty quickly, and never really suffered through any kind of slump or personal turmoil. Still, I wonder if the lack of depth would keep non-race fans from really being sucked in to the film.

What takes center stage is Senna’s rivalry with Alain Prost, the calculating French driver who would win four World Championships. Their time together at McLaren is the stuff of legend. The film makes a good case that Senna couldn’t cope with the sport’s political currents, while Prost navigated them with aplomb. In a wise move, Kapadia doesn’t get bogged down in the blame setting details of their confrontations (nor does he dwell particularly on what exactly happened to cause Senna’s fatal crash). It’s not important who was right, but simply that they were at odds. Whatever their animosity, however, we learn just before the closing credits that Prost is now one of the trustee’s of Senna’s charitable organization.

I’ll be honest – I was never a Senna fan. When I started following Formula 1 he was one at the top of the heap, the kind of guy I generally tend to root against. Had he moved to Ferrari instead of Williams, all would have been forgiven, however (Ferarri was an underdog back then, so I gravitated that direction). But I never questioned his talent or his dedication. In his final season with McLaren (embarrassing his teammate Michael Andretti most of the time), he won the European Grand Prix at Donnington in a driving rain. He was untouchable (as he had always been in the rain), driving a car that was not really that good.

That’s what comes through the most in Senna.  A supreme talent, gone much too soon. If you are any kind of race fan, it’s a must see. If you’re not, odds are you’ll still get wrapped up in it.

The Details

Released 2011
Directed by Asif Kapadia

March 14, 2012

Give Him Credit, He’s Really Selling It

For the past several years, soccer fans and officials alike have been on a crusade against diving, or, as the upper crust call it, “simulation.” And with good reason. It doesn’t do the sport any good to be seen as a place where cheats and good actors make a big impact on games. There is such a thing as taking it too far, however.

Although I was never a particularly gifted player, I have played more than my fair share of soccer games. I know what happens on the field and the weird ways that two players can come together around the ball. Are there divers? Absolutely and I have no problem showing them a card.. Is it a dive every time somebody goes down and instant replay shows he wasn’t fouled? No. Contact happens, even if it doesn’t rise to the level of a foul. More to the point, sometimes a player with the ball is off balance or what have you and naturally will go to ground more easily that you might suspect. Again, no foul, but that doesn’t mean it’s a dive. There is some middle ground.

I suppose what I’m saying is that the pendulum has swung so far towards punishing diving that refs sometimes get carried away. Take this example (via):

That’s right, a player gets knocked unconscious in the box and is taken away on a stretcher, during which the ref shows him a red card (does the card still count of the player was unconscious and unable to appreciate the punishment?). I can completely understand how the ref may have, from the angle he had on the incident, initially thought it was a dive. But, really, once the guy’s being wheeled away by paramedics, is there any doubt about whether he’s faking?

I don’t want to see divers rewarded in soccer. But neither do I want to see every contact that results in somebody on the ground get sorted into the “foul” or “dive” boxes. It’s a contact sport. Sometimes shit happens.

March 13, 2012

The World Scoffs at Simple Solutions

I may be the one person on the Web who hasn’t watched the “Kony 2012” video, probably because I already knew who Jospeh Kony is and what his brutal (Christian – that gets left out a lot) militia has been up to over the decades. I’m not surprised that the video’s basic message – that Kony is a bad dude and something needs to be done with him – is resonating around the Web, given the horrible things he has done.

I’m also interested in the slowly building voices that are taking aim at the Kony 2012 project and the group that produced it, Invisible Children. A main critique is that the video distills what is a long-raging conflict with a complex history and distills it into a simple “good versus evil” narrative, complete with the heartstring plucking use of IC’s 5-year old son as a prop, which suggests a simple solution to the problem. Mark Kersten, writing in Salon, explains:
Many have said it is manipulative and patronizing. But the most problematic and potentially dangerous aspect of the film is what it doesn’t do, which is give an adequate understanding of the dilemmas and situation facing those who live in LRA-affected areas. Invisible Children’s smooth message brutally obfuscates key realities about the conflict and other real and less costly solutions, in both human life and monetary terms.

* * *

As many critics have pointed out, the crisis facing LRA-affected areas, which include northern Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Central African Republic, Sudan and South Sudan, is far more complex than the ‘KONY2012’ filmmakers portray. It is a conflict that reaches as far back as 1986, and one in which atrocities have been committed not only by the LRA but by the government of Uganda.
Or, as Alex Dewaal of the World Peace Foundation puts it:
In elevating Kony to a global celebrity, the embodiment of evil, and advocating a military solution, the campaign isn’t just simplifying, it is irresponsibly naive. ‘Big man’ style rulers – of which [Ugandan] President Yoweri Museveni [who is no saint himself] is one – prefer to dismiss their opponents as disturbed individuals, and like to short-cut civil politics by military action. The ‘let’s get the bad guy’ script is a problem, not a solution.
That’s important, given that the main action urged by IC is some kind of military intervention. But that’s been tried before, with bad results:
In 2002, following the U.S. declaration that the LRA was a terrorist organization, the Ugandan People’s Defence Force won the reluctant cooperation of Sudan and launched ‘Operation Iron Fist’ on both sides of the Uganda-Sudan border. It didn’t succeed. In 2008, after the LRA had relocated to north-eastern Congo and the adjoining areas of southern Sudan, a joint offensive by the armies of Uganda, Congo and South Sudan also failed. Another episode was a 2006 operation by special forces attached to the UN mission in Congo. Experts in jungle warfare, Guatemalan commandos were dispatched to the Garamba national park with the objective of executing the recently-unveiled ICC arrest warrant against Joseph Kony and senior commanders. The operation ended in disaster with the UN soldiers fatally shooting each other.
I’m very sympathetic to those criticisms. The world seldom breaks down into simple Manichean struggles of good guys versus bad guys. Simpleminded solutions often tend to make things worse, not better, or at least prolong the suffering. But I’m also sympathetic to IC and its desire to make Kony public enemy number one. He’s a religious nutcase who kills and enslaves people. There is no good there. That doesn’t make the situation in which he exists simple, however, nor does it point to a simple solution.

I’m less sympathetic to criticism like these (again, from Kersten’s Salon article):
While much of the criticism has taken a vitriolic character, some have tapped into larger debates about human rights activism in Africa and ‘[t]he White Man’s Burden.’ The Nigerian-American novelist and photographer Teju Cole, for example, argues that ‘[f]rom Sachs to Kristof to Invisible Children to TED, the fastest growth industry in the U.S. is the White Savior Industrial Complex.’ Writing in the Christian Science Monitor, Semha Araia, founder of the Diaspora African Women’s Network, noted that Invisible Children ‘must be willing to use their media to amplify African voices, not simply their own. This isn’t about them.’
Don’t get me wrong – I’m hip to the problems of culture imperialism. It’s just that I seem to remember decades of pleas for the West to do something in response to various crises in Africa, from Ethiopia to Rwanda to Sudan. Often the pleas are literally that – do something, anything – without any real specifics attached. So which is it – hands off and let the locals hash things out? Or swoop in and provide some assistance?

There must be a happy medium. I think Araia is perfectly right that, in the end, problems like Kony “isn’t about” the would-be saviors who come in from the outside. They’re about the locals who have lived (and died) with the problem for decades and will be there long after the spotlight shifts to a juicier atrocity. There’s a world of difference between providing valuable assistance to the locals that empowers them to find long-term solutions and just sending Steven Segal in to jump out of a C-130 and kill Kony with his bare hands while grateful locals grovel in thanks, after all.

Which, when it comes right down to it, is just another reason why simplicity really shouldn’t be the guide star for solving problems like this. History is messy. Local rivalries are complex and long standing. Viable solutions have to take all of that into account. They don’t always make for such compelling viewing or the most effective sound bites, unfortunately.

March 9, 2012

Friday Review: Le voyage dans la lune

If you’ve seen Martin Scorsese’s Hugo (which is pretty damned good, by the way), then you know of Le Voyage Dans La Lune. Produced in 1902, it’s generally regarded as the first science fiction film ever made. It’s floated around for decades in grainy black and white, admired nonetheless for its groundbreaking effects and whimsy.

But grainy black and white wasn’t the way Georges Méliès intended Le Voyage . . . to be seen. In what must have been a truly pain in the ass process, Méliès and his collaborators colorized the original black and white print – painting it by hand. In 1993, a full-length version of the color print was found, but it was in terrible shape. It took nearly 20 years for it to be restored to the point where it could be shown again in public.

The premier took place at the Cannes Film Festival last year. To mark the occasion, the French electronic duo Air was commissioned to do a soundtrack (Le Voyage . . . is a silent film, after all). When I heard that, it was like a perfect storm of geekiness – a classic old film refurbished, a landmark piece of sci-fi, and a new electronic soundtrack? Sign me up! I figured I’d wait a few years before Criterion or Kino made the whole thing available on DVD.

So imagine my surprise when I discover a new album by Air called Le Voyage Dans La Lune, which takes the soundtrack for the 16-minute film and stretches it out to about twice that length (still pretty short for a modern day album). And, oh by the way, it comes with a bonus DVD that contains the film, in all its restored glory. Needless to say, I jumped on it, with more interested in the DVD than the album itself.

Needless to say, Le Voyage . . . is almost a completely different beast from movies being made 110 years after its debut. There’s no real narrative flow, just a series of connected scenes. The original film has no credits whatsoever (the restoration crew and the band get some added on). And, what’s most striking to me, is that there are no interstitial bits with written dialogue or explanation, as later silent films would have. It really is a completely visual experience.

Having said that, it’s really a hoot. The color palette has a lot more in common with animation than the real world (or even Technicolor), which would give the whole thing an otherworldly vibe, if it wasn’t already there thanks to, you know, it being about a trip to the moon. It’s easy to see why it caused such a sensation and stirred such wonder in the people who saw it on the screen. It’s also easy to imagine that with the first sci-fi film no doubt came for the first sci-fi fan nitpicker, who would deride the scene in which the massive cannon fires the “craft” towards the moon with no recoil whatsoever.

But this, technically, is a review of the album, not the movie, so what of the music? It’s good. As a soundtrack, it doesn’t mesh particularly well with the film until the first scene is over, which is a little off putting. Otherwise, it works quite well. The score itself is all instrumental, but the extra material on the album includes a couple of vocal tracks and some spoken word bits. They sustain the mood and feel of the film in fine fashion (the music on the album is not sequenced in the same way as the film). I’ve found Air’s output to be a little hit and miss, and while this is no masterpiece, it certainly qualifies as a “hit” in my book.

Bottom line – this is a pretty cheap way of owning a part of cinema history. And you get a pretty good album in the bargain, too.

Le voyage dans la lune, by Air
Released 2012

1. Astronomic Club (3:12)
2. Seven Stars (4:22)
3. Retour sur terre (Back on Earth) (0:45)
4. Parade (2:31)
5. Moon Fever (3:50)
6. Sonic Armada (5:06)
7. Who Am I Now? (3:03)
8. Décollage (Takeoff) (1:39)
9. Cosmic Trip (4:10)
10. Homme lune (Moon Man) (0:27)
11. Lava (3:03)

Jean-Benoit Dunckel (vocals, Mellotron, Wurlitzer, piano, synthesizer, organ bass, Solina, vibraphone, drums)
Nicolas Godin (guitar, harpsichord, synthesizer, timpani, bass, vocals, piano, Mellotron, electric sitar, percussion, drums, banjo, electric guitar)

Au Revoir Simone (vocals)
Victoria Legrand (vocals)
Vincent Taeger (drums)
Alex Thomas (drums)
Isabelle Vuarnesson (cello)

March 8, 2012

Orwellian Nightmare? There’s an App for That!

Oh, joy, just what my state needs – easier electronic snoopery, courtesy of your fellow citizens (via) :
In less time than it takes to play a turn in Words With Friends, smartphone users can report a ‘suspicious person’ to the West Virginia Department of Homeland Security.

The domestic counterterrorism agency’s West Virginia branch, in association with the West Virginia governor’s office, unveiled a new mobile app called the Suspicious Activity Reporting Application this week. ‘With the assistance of our citizens, important information can quickly get into the hands of our law enforcement community allowing them to provide better protection,’ Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said in a statement. The app is available in the Apple App Store and the Android Market.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with harnessing current technology to make real emergency reporting easier. After all, first responders of any stripe can’t be everywhere at once, but there are regular folks damned near anywhere. Still, it just sounds creepy. It doesn’t help that there’s no really well explained quality control, thus:
On its face, there’s nothing about the app that protects either the civil liberties of citizens or the busy schedules of West Virginia homeland security operatives. You don’t have to affirm that you have evidence of a crime, or even a suspected crime, to send information to the Fusion Center.

* * *

In other words, there’s nothing in the app to stop you from snapping a picture of your annoying neighbor and sending it to the attention of federal and state counterterrorism agents in West Virginia, who can keep information on your neighbor’s face, body and perhaps his vehicle for an unspecified period of time.
The potential for abuse is even more of a concern when you consider that West Virginia is hardly a hotbed of terrorist activity (or criminal activity in general). So why, of all things to be in the lead on, have we decided to focus on improving the ability of average citizens to snoop and report on each other? Forget Mountain Mama – bring on Big Brother!

March 7, 2012

On Respect

When religious believers talk about nonbelievers, and vice versa, often a word that gets thrown around a lot is “respect.” I think we all agree on what respect sounds and looks like. Where we disagree is on what is deserving of respect. The question was thrown into sharp relief recently in, of all places, a discussion of progressive rocker Steven Wilson.

In a recent discussion at Innerviews* Wilson (of Porcupine Tree, No-Man, and now a solo career fame) was discussing motivations, which lead into this exchange (paragraph breaks added):
Are you an atheist?

Yes. I guess I am in some ways your archetypal atheist. I think the whole myth of religion is absolutely absurd. I say this with the caveat that I understand it brings happiness to people who would otherwise be unhappy. There is comfort in it for people who would otherwise be tortured by their own existence and all that stuff. I appreciate those reasons and arguments, but at the end of the day, I’m afraid it’s just a silly fairy tale that mankind has dreamed up because of our fear of death. It’s as simple as that. It seems so obvious to me that’s why we created this myth.

Religion, lest we forget, is a relatively new thing. You can go back as far as the Stone Age to see that man has always worshiped something, such as the sun. But the contemporary idea of religion has been around for less than 2,000 years. I’m speaking as someone that grew up with the idea that if you’re going to be religious, you’re going to be Christian. Well, the Bible was written 200-300 years after the events it supposedly depicts. That’s certainly true for the New Testament and The Gospels. People were employed by politicians and leaders of the church to write it and that says it all to me.

I’ve done a lot of reading and research about religion, because it’s something that fascinates me. What fascinates me is the compulsion or need for many to believe in this nonsense. A great deal of us seem to have this need to fall back on this crutch of faith and belief. People say to me ‘Well, it’s all a matter of faith. You don’t need proof.’ Well, faith for me in that sense becomes a synonym for believing a lie and that’s no explanation at all.
The interview, which touched on lots of interesting musical things, naturally prompted a thread over at Progressive Ears, naturally enough. In the course of that discussion, someone said (bad spelling in original):
I thought the interview was well done with the line of questioning, but once again I am dissapointed with the answers. Steve shares that he is an athiest, and being a Christian, I find that a little dissapointing. But what really dissapoints me is his condescending view of religion. Everyone has the right to believe what they want to believe. I do think you should show a certain amount of respect to others belief system. Ian Anderson is an athiest but is respectful to those who have chosen to believe. Steve gives his pseudo intelectual nonsense as his explanation of why religion is silly. I'm not as dissapointed in his religious beliefs as I am his lack of respect to others.
I’m not sure why “belief systems” themselves are deserving of respect. I’m not sure the author of that post really does, either, hence the reference to Wilson’s “pseudo intelectual [sic] nonsense.” Seems more of a emotional reaction to somebody calling his particular belief system “absurd” and “silly.” I doubt most religious believers respect the belief that the Holocaust never happened or that the moon landing was a hoax (Buzz Aldrin certainly doesn’t!). Or that Xenu brought people here in spaceships that looked just like DC-8s before killing them with nuclear weapons. Or how about this one:
‘God has always been discriminatory’ when it comes to whom he grants the authority of the priesthood, says [religion professor Randy] Bott, the BYU theologian. He quotes Mormon scripture that states that the Lord gives to people ‘all that he seeth fit.’ Bott compares blacks with a young child prematurely asking for the keys to her father’s car, and explains that similarly until 1978, the Lord determined that blacks were not yet ready for the priesthood.

‘What is discrimination?’ Bott asks. ‘I think that is keeping something from somebody that would be a benefit for them, right? But what if it wouldn’t have been a benefit to them?’ Bott says that the denial of the priesthood to blacks on Earth — although not in the afterlife — protected them from the lowest rungs of hell reserved for people who abuse their priesthood powers. ‘You couldn’t fall off the top of the ladder, because you weren’t on the top of the ladder. So, in reality the blacks not having the priesthood was the greatest blessing God could give them.’
And that’s fine – I don’t respect any of those beliefs, either. Why should any other set of beliefs be off limits?

I suppose there is an argument that religious beliefs are so integral to someone’s identity – people often identify themselves first as Catholic or Baptist or Hindu – that is should be off limits to criticism. That would put religious belief on the same level as race and gender, immutable characteristics that aren’t chosen by the individual. But religion doesn’t work that way. People change their religious beliefs all the time. If you look at the “Why I Am An Atheist” series at Pharyngula, you’ll see that many, if not most, atheists come from religious backgrounds.

Or take my own family. My parents were both raised as church goers. Baptists, even. My mother’s told tales of being scared to death by the hellfire and brimstone to which she was subjected on Sundays. But in spite of that, neither of my parents now are religious. They didn’t take me or my two older brothers to church when we were young. Yet, in spite of that, my brothers have both become regular church goers in their adulthood. Who knows where their children will end up? That doesn’t sound like an immutable characteristic to me.

So if religious beliefs (or lack thereof) aren’t immutable, then what other basis is there for giving them special treatment, shielded from the rough and tumble marketplace of ideas? It is important to people, sure, but that doesn’t make it special. Animal welfare is important to a lot of people. Celebration of good music is important to others. That something is important to one person doesn’t mean anyone else has to respect it.

Since there’s no reason to treat beliefs themselves with respect, then what exactly is deserving respect? On a meta level, there’s respect that’s due the right of others to believe whatever the hell they want. Not only is it OK for people to disagree with you, it’s OK for other people to be wrong about all kinds of stuff. They think you’re wrong about all kinds of stuff, too. As long as we’re not trying to force any particular belief down each other’s throats, it’s all good.

There’s also no reason why a lack of respect for a person’s beliefs on the big issues – religion, politics, music – requires a lack of respect for that person as a whole. I respect a whole lot of people who I think are wrong about that kind of stuff. That’s because I know them as people, not walking ciphers for an idea. We are more than the sum of our philosophical beliefs, after all.

In the end, when people complain that others don’t “respect” their beliefs, I think what they mean is that they’re hurt that someone else could be so dismissive of something so important to them. After all, why is it worse for someone to call your belief “silly” rather than “wrong” or simply “I don’t believe that?” It’s an emotional reaction, not an intellectual one. It’s an understandable one, too, and you’ve got a right to it. What you don’t have a right to is a life free from offense or hurt because of what others think of your beliefs.

UPDATE: John Scalzi addresses a similar point with regards to Kirk Cameron, who has a sad because people tend to tell him what they think of his ideas. As John points out:
To put it another way: The First Amendment guarantees a right to speech. It does not guarantee a right to respect. As I am fond of saying, if you want people to respect your ideas, get better ideas. Likewise, freedom of speech does not mean freedom from consequence. If you’re going to parade around on television engaging in hateful bastardry, then, strangely enough, people will often call you out on it.
* If you’ve never been to Innerviews and you’re interesting in off the radar kind of music, by all means get yourself over there now. Anil has a great track record of getting interesting musicians to say interesting things.

March 6, 2012

Nobody Tell Nancy Grace About This

There are times when the whole media circus that surrounds the criminal justice system in this country, particularly in high-profile death penalty cases, makes me want to puke (to borrow a phrase from Rick Santorum). It is worth it, however, to remember that however deprave we may be when we come to this kind of thing, it’s worse elsewhere.

Consider one of China’s most popular Sunday night TV programs (via). It’s called Interviews Before Execution. Give it credit for one thing – it’s not false advertising:
The glamorous Ms Ding conducts face-to-face interviews with the prisoners, who have often committed especially gruesome crimes. Her subjects sit in handcuffs and leg chains, guarded by warders. She warms up with anodyne questions about favourite films or music, but then hectors the prisoners about the violent details of their crimes and eventually wrings apologies out of them.

She promises to relay final messages to family members, who are usually not allowed to visit them on death row. The cameras keep rolling as the condemned say a farewell message and are led away to be killed by firing squad or lethal injection.
China executes more people than any other place on the planet, even Texas. Interviews Before Execution regularly garners 40 million viewers, a number that most American networks would kill for. Of course, this isn’t just the free market at work:
Officials in the ruling Communist Party regard the series as a propaganda tool to warn citizens of the consequences of crime.

Inmates are selected for Ms Ding by judiciary officials who pick out what they consider suitable cases to ‘educate the public’.
As popular, and useful, as the show may be, it has it limits, apparently. It is coming to light thanks to a BBC documentary, which may have gotten a little too close for comfort, according to one Chinese TV official:
It’s fair to say the BBC programme has created a problem for us. Officials here do not want the foreign media saying there are no human rights in China, particularly at this sensitive time politically.
According to the story, only five inmates who have been offered a chance to be on the show have refused. That shouldn’t come as a great shock. Given how cut off they are from the outside world, unable in some instances to even see their family members, it makes sense that they might jump at any chance to talk with someone. I do wonder how many of them actually know what they’re signing up for. Maybe they do – self-righteous twits still do interviews with The Daily Show, for some reason – although I have my doubts.

Which is why, if some enterprising producer in this country decided to import the Interviews Before Execution Format – we’re famous for not being swift enough to come up with our own cheap trashy reality shows, of course – I could see it happening. So, please, I beg of you, keep this post away from Nancy Grace! Although, if she heard about it, the mere idea might drive her mad with ecstasy. And I’m sure that’d get on TV, too.

March 2, 2012

Friday Review: Hyperion/The Fall of Hyperion

One of the hazards of any series – of books, movies, or even a TV series – is that the various installments invariably get compared against one another. If you’re lucky, things get better as the series progresses. More likely, things tail off a little bit as the series moves on, but it remains interesting and compelling. Spare a thought for Dan Simmons, then, who knocked it out of the park so hard with the first novel in his Hyperion Cantos that even a very good follow up pales by comparison.

Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion are, in essence, two halves the same book that tell a unified story. In fact, Hyperion ends rather abruptly in the way that really infuriates me when it comes to individual books in a series. Having read both books now, I can see why such an abrupt transition was necessary. Each novel is so different from the other in terms of structure that it would have been impossible to tell the story in the way Simmons did in one continuous narrative.

The Hyperion Cantos (there are two other novels, plus some short stories that make up all this) take place in a far future where the Earth is gone (victim of the Great Mistake) and humanity has spread amongst the stars. Along with the humans are a super advanced network of artificial intelligences that help bind the human race together via interstellar communication and travel. Most important are the farcasters, portals through which people and material transfer from one spot to another. Think of Star Trek’s transporter system fused with the Internet and you kind of get the picture. Planets linked to the farcaster network are part of the WorldWeb, in fact. There’s an existential threat to the WorldWeb, the Ousters, who live outside the reach of the network and its AI managers.

One of the interesting things Simmons does with the farcasters is that he takes a completely fantastic technology and makes it utterly commonplace. They aren’t only used for quick transit between distant planets, they’re used for quick transit from one room of a home to another. The truly wealthy, in fact, have homes with so many farcaster portals that each room is on a different planet. Makes any gold-plated mansion Trump comes up with look like an outhouse.

Against that background, Hyperion adopts the structure of The Canterbury Tales to set in motion a catastrophic change in the universe. It tells the story of seven pilgrims on their journey to Hyperion, a planet that lies outside the WorldWeb and sort of off on its own. Hyperion is home to the Shrike, a demon/god/monster that impales people on its metal tree of thorns near a clutch of artifacts called the Time Tombs. A church or cult has sprung up around the Shrike throughout the WorldWeb. An odd number of pilgrims, it is said, seek out the Skrike. All but one is killed. That one may have his or her request heard.

But Hyperion is less about all that than it is about the pilgrims making the journey. The Canterbury Tales frame format allows Simmons to essentially tell six separate short stories (one of the pilgrims disappears before we hear his tale), in varying styles, about these characters. As it turns out, all have been touched by the Shrike in some way, from the poet who thinks the beast was his bloody muse to the father whose daughter, upon encountering the Shrike during a research expedition to the Time Tombs, is now aging backwards. Each story works on its own merit and serves to make you care deeply about these people.

In the background of all that is an impending invasion of Hyperion by the Ousters and what that might mean for the WorldWeb. And that’s where the big shift happens between the two books. In Hyperion, the galaxy spanning war and intrigue plays a back seat to the character stories of the pilgrims. In The Fall of Hyperion, things get flipped. Via a couple of new main characters (including a AI simulacrum of John Keats – no kidding!), the focus shifts from the personal to the epic.

That transition isn’t completely successful. Simmons has enough interesting ideas to keep things afloat in the second book, although it becomes increasingly messianic as things go along. Unfortunately, all those people we grew so attach to in the first book aren’t left with much to do. They all deal with the Shrike, in their own ways, and so there is a sort of closure. However, they all essentially end up for the good at the end of things, which diminishes some of the horror and dread surrounding the Shrike built up in the first book.

In the end, The Fall of Hyperion fails mostly because it is inextricably entwined with Hyperion, which is a masterpiece. Had the tables been turned, had the merely good come before the great, it would have made perfect sense. As it is, The Fall of Hyperion comes off more as a wasted opportunity than a grand sequel.

The Details
The Fall of Hyperion, by Dan Simmons
First published 1989
Hugo and Locus award winner – best novel

The Fall of Hyperion, by Dan Simmons
First published 1990
Locus and British Science Fiction award winner – best novel