April 27, 2012

Friday Review: King of Number 33

Since I went to my first prog fest outside Pittsburgh a few years ago, I’ve gone back and forth about whether to try and get up to speed on bands playing at a festival before I actually go. I’ve both gone in completely cold and completely prepared and both approaches have their plusses and minuses. What I’ve settled into is looking at how deep a particular band’s catalog is and, if they’ve got more than a couple of albums, pick one up ahead of time to try and get my feet wet (aurally speaking, of course).

So why, you might ask, did I pick up the new album from this year’s ROSFest lead off hitters DeeExpus (don’t ask what the name means – I have no clue), given that it’s only the band’s second? A good question with an easy two-word answer: Mark Kelly. As a long-time Marillion fan and keyboard player Kelly’s one of my musical heroes (and a nice bloke, to boot). I thought it would be interesting to hear him back in the overtly neo-proggy widdly-twiddly keyboard role.

That being said, the main man behind DeeExpus is Andy Ditchfield ,who made a brief appearance at ROSFest last year during Tinyfish’s excellent Friday night set. Ditchfield is the main writer for the band, in addition to handling guitar, vocals, and keyboards on most tracks. Kelly throws in on a few of tracks, most notably the 25-minute title track. Regardless of who’s playing what at any given time, the tracks hum with strong melodic bits that define neo-prog (for better or worse).

They also reflect a trend in recent years of neo band leaning more and more on hard-rock style riffing. “Me and My Downfall,” the lead off track here shows that particularly well. I don’t know if this is just a natural progression or a change that’s been brought about by the success of heavier prog bands like Dream Theater, Porcupine Tree, and Opeth (that’s my guess). Regardless, DeeExpus never slips over into too much balls ‘n chunk, which I appreciate.

As I mentioned, the centerpiece of the album is the epic “King of Number 33,” which is the best long-form prog tune I’ve heard since The Tangent’s “In Earnest” back in the last decade. In this case, the song tells the story (inspired by actual events, I believe) in which “Number 33” is a bus and the “King” is a mentally ill man who, after years of being a mostly harmless oddity, explodes into some kind of violence (just what is left quite vague). Maybe it’s because I have a particular affection for epics about lost souls (“In Earnest” certainly qualifies as well), but the lyrics really grab me in a way that lots of others don’t. Regardless, it’ll be brilliant to get it live in all of its glory in Gettysburg next week!

King of Number 33, by DeeExpus
Released 2011

1. Me and My Downfall (7:09)
2. Maybe September (7:39)
3. Marty and the Magic Moose (4:41)
4. The King of Number 33 (26:47)
   i - Pauper's Parade
   ii - Accession
   iii - The Physician and the Traitor
   iv - The Hunt
   v - Never Ending Elysium
   vi - Rex Mortuus Est
5. Memo (7:28)

Tony Wright (vocals)
Andy Ditchfield (guitars, keyboards, bass, vocals)
Steve Wright (guitar, vocals)
John Dawson (bass)
Henry Rogers (drums)
Mark Kelly (keyboards)
Mark Joliffe (keyboards)
Gregg Pullen (cello)
Nik Kershaw (vocals)
Ainsley Wells (guitar)

April 25, 2012

An Interesting Test Case

For years, the running meme when it came to the death penalty was that it had a majority of popular support (if not an overwhelming majority), but that support becomes a lot less solid once the possibility of life without parole is put on the table. This fall, we’ll get some idea of whether that dynamic really exists, at least in California, where there will be an initiative on the ballot this fall to repeal the death penalty and commute the sentences of the state’s current death row residents to life without the possibility of parole.

Although this is, to my knowledge, the first time the issue is going directly to voters, there has been a growing legislative trend in favor of repeal:
During the last five years, four states have replaced the death penalty and Connecticut is soon to follow.
Connecticut’s repeal is particularly interesting, because it is crafted to keep current death row inmates on schedule for death and only apply the ban prospectively. I’m not sure the courts will let that fly, but I guess we’ll see.

California’s death penalty is not the most robust in the world – it ain’t Texas, after all – but a repeal by initiative would be an important step in the ongoing tussle over capital punishment. Why now? Not because liberal do-gooders like me are growing in influence:
Backing the new measure are Ron Briggs, who ran the 1978 campaign for a successful ballot initiative that expanded the reach of California's death penalty; Donald J. Heller, an ex-prosecutor who wrote the 1978 initiative; Jeanne Woodford, a former warden of San Quentin State Prison who oversaw four executions; and former L.A. County Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti, who said his experience as D.A. helped change his mind about the fairness of the system.

Although their views on the proposition are unknown, former California Chef Justice Ronald M. George and current Chief Tani Cantil-Sakauye, both Republican former prosecutors, have stated publicly that the death penalty system is not working.
Part of the swing comes from the increasing number of cases where people get off of death row years after their convictions thanks to scientific breakthroughs that shed light on unreliable witnesses, shady cops and prosecutors, or just wrong conclusions reached by jurors. Of course, there’s a financial component as well:
A three-year study by a judge and a law professor concluded last year that the death penalty in California costs $183 million more to administer than life without possibility of parole, and that California's 13 executions cost taxpayers $4 billion. The additional expense includes legal costs for expanded trials and appeals and for housing inmates in single cells.
I’m against the death penalty and have been for a long time. Aside from equal protection issues, however, I think it’s undoubtedly constitutional. So the only hope to get rid of it is through political action. And while I’d like to see a full-throated rejection of capital punishment on moral/philosophical grounds, if it comes down to financial reasons, I’ll take that. So, as much as also despise initiative setups like California’s, I hope this one turns out the right way.

Maybe, like so many other things, California will lead the rest of the nation where it needs to go.

April 24, 2012

The Reason (If Not Rhyme) of 26.2

If you’re like me, you probably thought that the length of the marathon – 26.2 miles (you’ve seen the stickers on the back of runners’ cars everywhere) – was that peculiar for history reasons. After all, the race commemorates the feat of Pheidippides, who ran the 25 miles from Marathon to Athens to inform the citizenry of their victory over the Persians in 490 B.C. There were no gold medals for him, however – he dropped dead after delivering the good news.

Whatever actual truth might be buried in that legend, it would make sense if the length of the race run in honor of Pheidippides would be 25 miles long right?* In fact, it began that way in the 1896 Olympics in Athens, covering 24.85 miles. Likewise, the courses in Paris (1900) and St. Louis (1904) covered roughly 25 miles. It wasn’t until the 1908 Olympics in London that the 26.2 mile length became set.

Why the change? As with most things odd and British, the royals played a part:
For the 1908 Olympic marathon, the Princess of Wales watched the start, which began near the window of the royal nursery [at Windsor Castle] so that her children could watch, according to David Miller’s history of the Olympics, ‘Athens to Athens.’ Thus, Miller wrote, the marathon distance ‘was determined in a bizarre manner.’

* * *

It was about 26 miles from Windsor Castle to the Olympic Stadium in West London at Shepherd’s Bush. The original plan had the runners coming into the stadium at the royal entrance and running about 585 yards, circling the track counterclockwise and finishing in front of the royal box, Davis said. But the royal entrance was deemed unsuitable; instead the runners entered at the opposite end of the stadium and, to enhance the view for the Queen and others, ran clockwise for 385 yards to the royal box.
Thus, 26.2 miles. Now, it’s not for certain why the race started at Windsor Castle, but it did. And the last run ‘round the stadium produced a controversial finish (and an American winner – although the Italian who was disqualified got a song written about him by Irving Berlin) so it all worked.

And it shows the distance of the marathon isn’t set in stone, which is perhaps why some of today’s top runners think it should be lengthened. Says the current world record holder:
‘People are used to running’ 26.2 miles, [Kenyan Patrick] Makau said. ‘They run it like it is a short distance. Longer would be better.’
Sounds like what lots of drivers say about endurance races like the 12 Hours of Sebring or the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Still, nobody suggests making those longer – the 14 Hours of Sebring just doesn’t have the same ring to it. Nor does 30 miles. It’s much too round a number, compared to 26.2. Besides, do you really want all those car decorations to be obsolete?

* Real tough guys run another race in honor of Pheidippides’s earlier feats before the Battle of Marathon – the Spartathlon, which covers the 153 miles between Athens and Sparta.

April 17, 2012

My Musical Philisophy

Hell, it's pretty much my general philosophy for just about anything:

More classic Bloom County goodness here.

April 13, 2012

Friday Review: Take Shelter

King Crimson’s sole full-length album in the double trio format, THRAK, is one of my favorites. But I don’t listen to it precisely as Fripp and friends intended. The album kicks off with the instrumental “VROOM” and returns, in the end to a reworking of its themes with “VROOM VROOM.” Somewhat oddly, for me at least, the album then proceeds to the short “VROOM VROOM: Coda,” which is completely superfluous. “VROOM VROOM” is a perfect summing up of things and a matching bookend to the opener. So, when I listen to THRAK, I just stop the CD after “VROOM VROOM.” Problem solved.

TRHAK and its ending popped into my head while I was thinking about Take Shelter and realized that they had a lot in common. The film, for nearly all of its (admittedly a little overstuffed) two hours, is a slow but fascinating character study of a decent man grappling with emerging mental illness. Then in the end . . . well, something happens that may or may not make all that meaningless. Whether it does or not might not even change your mind about the overall worth of the film, which is saying something.

Michael Shannon (who, between this, Shotgun Stories, and Boardwalk Empire really needs to be cast as the witty gay friend in a romantic comedy just so he won’t explode) plays Curtis, who appears to have a pretty good life. Solid job in construction, loving wife, cute daughter. But he’s also begun having seriously vivid apocalyptic dreams, from which he awakes in terror. They involve a huge storm rolling in, accompanied by rain that looks like fresh motor oil, and a host of other odd things. They never end well. Even worse, some of the bits of his dreams – unexplained sounds of thunder, for example – are starting to crop up in real life.

Curtis begins to suspect he’s going mad, and not without reason. His mother is schizophrenic, having been diagnosed during his youth. He is determined not to abandon his family the way she did and, so, while dealing the prospect of insanity, Curtis also builds an expensive storm shelter in the family’s back yard. In essence, he’s covering both his bases. Thus, the movie plays with you, playing it loose with the question of whether Curtis is really nuts or whether something supernatural is going on.

There is a storm, severe enough trigger the town’s tornado warning system, and the family does run for cover into the storm shelter. But it’s hardly apocalyptic. When Curtis’s wife finally convinces him to open the shelter and see what’s up, he sees like going on pretty much like normal. Neighbors are picking up downed limbs. The sun is shining. It seems to confirm that it’s all in Curtis’s head. He and the wife go to a psychiatrist and commit to some intensive treatment, just after a family vacation to the beach.

But that’s not where things end. The “VROOM VROOM: Coda,” if you will, happens at the beach where another storm shows up. This one is more like the ones in Curtis’s dreams, down to the oily rain. Except this time, there is no waking up, only the end credits (with only the sound of thunder for a soundtrack – very creepy). So, is this real? Is this another dream? If it’s real, does it ruin the whole damned movie? Those questions (and others) are hashed out ad nauseum over at IMDB.

Personally, I’m not sure it matters. As with THRAK, a little extra appendage at the end of an otherwise brilliant work doesn’t ruin the whole thing. Furthermore, I’ve convinced myself that it really was another dream (so he doesn’t wake up before the movie ends – you think Curtis exists only within the confines of the film’s run time?), one that shows how Curtis has accepted both his illness and the knowledge that his family is there to support him in dealing with it. Dare I say it, when looked at that way it kind of works as a happy ending. And I’m not one to go looking for those.

The Details
Take Shelter
Released 2011
Directed & written by Jeff Nichols
Starring Michael Shannon, Jessica Chastain, Shea Whigham, et. al.

April 12, 2012

The Iceberg Was Framed

There were no heroes, no villains . ... Instead, there were a lot of human beings trying to do their best in the situation as they saw it.
Sunday marks the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, and the death of more than 1500 of its passengers and crew. As one might expect when that kind of milestone rolls around, there’s lots of renewed talk about the wreck and what happened that night. Hey, if the occasion warrants a rollout of the 3D version of Cameron’s movie (which Jezebel watched again so you don’t have to) and a Blu-Ray version of A Night to Remember, we might as well try to better understand the actual event, right?

That better understanding comes in the form of two new theories about how Titanic came to be slashed by an iceberg. One, from a Brit named Tim Maltin (whose quote is set forth above), involving a cold air mirages:
Most people know mirages as natural phenomena caused when hot air near the Earth’s surface bends light rays upward. In a desert, the effect prompts lost travelers to mistake patches of blue sky for pools of water.

But another kind of mirage occurs when cold air bends light rays downward. In that case, observers can see objects and settings far over the horizon. The images often undergo quick distortions — not unlike the wavy reflections in a funhouse mirror.

* * *

Mr. Maltin’s book shows how mirages could have created false horizons that hid the iceberg from the Titanic’s lookouts. By this theory, the intersection of dark sea and starry sky would have looked blurry, reducing the contrast with the looming iceberg.
If the crew had understood the phenomenon, Maltin argues, the crew would have slowed the ship and been better able to deal with the ice.

As for the ice itself, researchers from a Texas university and Sky & Telescope magazine offered an additional complication:
The team discovered that Earth had come unusually close to the Sun and Moon that winter, enhancing their gravitational pulls on the ocean and producing record tides. The rare orbits took place between December 1911 and February 1912 — about two months before the disaster.

The researchers suggest that the high tides refloated masses of icebergs traditionally stuck along the coastlines of Labrador and Newfoundland and sent them adrift into the North Atlantic shipping lanes.
I lead off with the quote from Maltin because I think it gets to the heart of things, even if his particular theory doesn’t pan out. “Human error” is a broad heading under which falls everything from outright stupidity (maybe even malevolence) to errors made in good faith. There’s a world of difference in saying that someone did the wrong thing for understandable reasons versus simply fucking up. As I’ve said before, real life is rarely black and white.
Titanic calls Carpathia in the night
Through nothingness, through 57 miles
And the sparks still fly, down through history
And down through every walk of life
It’s also worth remembering, on this 100th anniversary, that of the 2200 people on board Titanic, about one-third actually survived the wreck. That’s largely due to the fact that Titanic was equipped with a state of the art wireless setup and Jack Phillips, the senior operator, stayed at his post until the ship went down:
Wireless was still a relatively young technology at the time of the Titanic's maiden voyage.

The Marconi company, the Edwardian equivalent of a top technology brand, had put its wireless operators on board some of the more prestigious ships.

The Titanic, as the showcase of an ambitious, optimistic era, had the biggest and best wireless equipment in the world.
At the time, the wireless was used more as a high-tech amusement for passengers (who sent news along to friends and loved ones during the voyage). Ships did share information, but the idea that the wireless was first and foremost a safety system hadn’t yet caught on.

It did after Titanic went down and Carpathia was called to rescue the survivors. It was, perhaps, an epoch defining moment. The theme off the last album by The Tangent, COMM, is (not surprisingly) communication. The highlight, for me at least, is “Titanic Calls Carpathia” (quoted above), in which lyricist/vocalist/keyboardist/prime mover Andy Tillison argues that the rescue of the Titanic survivors was really the dawn of the digital age. Without the ability to reach out “through nothingness, through 57 miles,” many (if not most) of those who survived the initial sinking of Titanic would not have survived.

We take that communication, and that connection, for granted today. Our first instincts when some kind of calamity occurs is to call 9-1-1 and record the event on video, which then gets uploaded for all the world to see. It wasn’t just a different time and place where Titanic went down, it was a different world. It’s worth remembering that on this 100th anniversary and marveling in the speed of progress.

April 11, 2012

Finally, a Growth Industry

It took a couple of economics classes in college, wherein I learned about how economic impacts of certain activities are measured. Ideally, simply creating a job isn’t enough. You want to create a job with some kind of multiplier, implying that it will lead to the creation of other jobs in related sectors. I’m pleased to see that, as long as we’re going to make an industry out of locking up more people than any other nation on the planet, there is at least some ancillary job creation going on as a result.

Saturday’s New York Times had an article about the booming industry of prison consultants:
The business — which entails advising people who are facing jail time on how to prepare for life on the inside, deal with medical issues, transfer to other prisons and even reduce their sentences — has been around for decades. It enjoys a burst of publicity when a boldface name like Bernie Madoff or Michael Vick hires a consultant.
Unfortunately, this isn’t a job you can get with a fancy degree. The only experience that matters is hard earned (although others, such as former prison guards and lawyers are in the field as well), but nobody knows just how much is enough to make someone an expert. The article talks about Larry Levine, a prison consultant who spent 10 years in (federal, apparently) prison and who laments the qualifications of new folks entering the market:
‘This industry’s exploding,’ mourned Mr. Levine, who operates two Web sites, American Prison Consultants and Wall Street Prison Consultants. He reached to a nearby coffee table and picked up a piece of paper listing the names of several dozen competitors and the length of their prison sentences. This is not a rap sheet, it’s market research.

The business, he said, is ‘becoming saturated with people who don’t know what they’re doing.’

He and his competitors (some of whom find his prison time equally unimpressive) walk a fine marketing line, bragging about an extensive criminal record to attract customers.
Another consulted explains how Levine is “like a used-car salesman” and that he “wouldn’t share a chow table” with Levine. Needless to say, there aren’t any regulations for this sort of thing, nor does there appear to be any professional organizations setting up standards that people can use to judge which consultant to hire, if any.

After all, do these guys really provide a valuable service? Maybe. The article asserts that people can find the relevant information themselves, but doesn’t offer any examples (or any expert to back that up). It does raise a good point, however:
‘You think a warden is going to change a decision based on advice from a former resident? That is just not going to happen,’ said Joel Sickler, who runs Justice Advocacy Group and has been a prison consultant for 30 years and, before that, a prison guard. He said his unblemished past would go over better with prison officials when he’s trying to petition for, say, a client transfer.

The ex-convicts in the business see things differently, arguing that relevant experience matters.
I can see both sides of that. Sickler is almost certainly right, but sort of dodges the question. Surely the role of folks like Levine isn’t to deal directly with the warden or other prison staff, but to provide his clients with the information needed to do it themselves. It also seems that what might be most worth knowing when going to prison is how things really work and how inmate life really operates, rather than the official rules and regulations that are honored more often in the breach than every day. Given that, a former inmate is could be a valuable source of expertise.

What’s really striking is that we’ve come to this as a nation. Incarceration shouldn’t be a business, but that’s what it is becoming more and more, from prison consultants to private companies running prisons (and seeking guarantees of occupancy). We, as a citizenry, should be righteously pissed off of this kind of stuff. That we’re not doesn’t speak well of us.

April 10, 2012

Tunes From the Road

When I travel on business these days, at least when I’m going to be gone more than a day or so, I’ve started taking my Korg Kaosilator with me. It’s a great bit of fun to carry around – battery powered, fits in the palm of your hand, and has lots of nifty sounds which can be looped and layered one upon another. The Kaosilator’s touchpad input scheme also unleashes creativity in a way that a traditional keyboard does not. For a diversion on the road, it’s hard to beat.

This song, “Suitcase Life,” started out in a hotel room in downtown Richmond a few weeks ago. In fact, the restatement of the main groove at the end of the song was recorded there, with my headphones sandwiched around the tiny mic on my MP3 player. Sounds like shit, but it’s a nice effect. Once I got home (and finally managed to incorporate the Kaosilator in my studio setup), I recreated that groove and used it as the basis for this song.

Aside from the drum and stab bass blurb, the rest of the song comes out of the Korg M50, Nord Rack 2X, and, in its Infinity Ranch debut, the Moog Minitaur. I don’t argue that it’s brilliant, but I had fun putting it together. Hope you enjoy it:

FWIW, the title (at least) draws inspiration from Thomas Dolby’s “I Live In a Suitcase”:

April 3, 2012

That’s Not How the Constitution Works

In a short speech yesterday, President Obama argued that the health care reform law that is his signature legislative accomplishment will survive scrutiny from the Supreme Court (and outlined some of the popular parts of it that will likely go down the tubes if it doesn’t). Along the way, he made a statement that is breathtakingly simpleminded, at least from a legal standpoint (via):
Ultimately I’m confident that the Supreme Court will not take what would be an unprecedented, extraordinary step of overturning a law that was passed by a strong majority of a democratically-elected Congress.
I realize this is a political, not a legal, argument, and one made by both sides when it suits their purposes, but even with those caveats it’s pretty vacuous. In any other context would anyone – Democrat, Republican, whatever – agree that the fact that a law is passed by a properly elected Congress makes it immune from judicial review? I know that some folks, in a quest to avoid the obvious when it comes to allegations of “judicial activism,”* want to define that term with regards to whether a court strikes down legislation or not, but that’s sort of the point of judicial review, right?

Consider the most obviously egregious breach of the Constitution written into law by Congress. Let’s say, for example, that Congress passed legislation that not only repealed the Criminal Justice Act and did away with appointed counsel in criminal cases, but went further and required all criminal defendants to represent themselves at trial and banned lawyers from the courtroom. Assume it passes with the kind of broad bipartisan support that Obama only dreams the health care reform package had. Constitutional?

Of course not! Such a requirement would violate the Sixth Amendment, which provides:
In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall . . . have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.
No statute or regulation, no matter how popular, can wipe that away. Would we want the Supreme Court to sit by idly and let it happen? I sure as hell wouldn’t. Furthermore, the whole idea that a Congressional mandate should be immune from judicial review assumes that those voting in favor of the legislation are actually concerned about whether it violates the Constitution or not.

Remember back in the 1990s, when Congress first ham-handedly tried to regulate the Internet via the Communications Decency Act? When it passed Congress and was signed by Clinton, civil libertarians loudly protested that it violated the First Amendment. The Supreme Court eventually agreed and struck down the law.

Sometime around when that decision came down – just before or after, I can’t really remember – Nadine Strossen, then head of the ACLU, spoke at my law school. The focus of her speech was the CDA and the ACLU’s battle against it. She related a shameful anecdote from an unnamed (of course) member of Congress. When asked if he didn’t think the CDA had some First Amendment problems, he shrugged and said that the Supreme Court would take care of it. He could never be seen voting against “decency,” after all.

In theory, the judicial branch is supposed to do precisely what Obama is urging the Supreme Court not to do – reign in the other branches when they overstep their authority. It doesn’t mean the courts should strike down legislation willy-nilly or that an act legitimately passed isn’t entitled to some level of deference, particularly in close cases. Maybe health care reform is one of those cases, I don’t know.

But in the end an appeal to popularity is just irrelevant to the Court’s job. Or, at least, it should be.

* It’s not that hard, really. “Judicial activism” is what a court does when it reaches a conclusion with which you disagree. It’s a political jeremiad, not a term of legal art.