October 31, 2012

Check Your Calendars

Yes, friends, if you’ll look to your monthly time keeping tool of choice, you’ll see that it’s almost November. In addition to the thankful end of the interminable election campaign, that also means it’s time for . . .

That’s right, November is National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo, during which intrepid souls like myself attempt to produce a novel (or at least the first 50,000 words of it). This will be the fifth year I’ve taken part.

Which means that, like last year, Feeding the Silence will essentially go dark for the month. Focusing on the novel writing last year got me to the NaNo goal of 50,000 words, even though the project cratered shortly thereafter. As it happens, the idea I was working on last year was really more of a short story thing than a novel. I still need to go back and salvage the good parts.

Ironically, this year is flipped around, with my NaNo project being something I originally tried to flesh out as a short story. I think it will work much better in a longer format, so we’ll see.

What’s it about? Let’s just say it plays on the idea that, historically, many West Virginia elections have involved the participation of the dearly departed. But that’s just the underlying idea – we’ll see how it all pans out.

Wish me luck and I’ll see y’all in December!

October 24, 2012

Couldn’t Happen to a Worse Person

I try not to get caught up in other people’s misfortunes – schadenfreude isn’t very attractive – but I’ll make a special case for Nancy Grace. Regular readers know I have a special spot in my heart for the loud-mouthed cable news legal “analyst.” It does that spot some good to know she’s getting sued for libel (via TalkLeft):
A day before his parole hearing, Michael Skakel filed a defamation lawsuit against CNN television host Nancy Grace alleging that she made false statements on her show about evidence in the 1975 murder case for which he has been sentenced.

* * *

In the segment, ‘Kennedy Cousin Asks Judge for Shorter Jail Time,’ Grace asks [Tru-TV host Beth] Karas if Skakel was masturbating in a tree near [murder victim Martha] Moxley's window. Karas responds: ‘His DNA was found.’
But apparently that’s not true. So, have fun with that one, Nancy!

Karmic juiciness aside, the case does raise an interesting issue, at least in my tiny mind. Skakel is a convicted murder, after all. Whatever doubts there may be about his factual guilt, he’s guilty in the eyes of the law. Given that the entire point of a defamation claim is that the plaintiff’s reputation has been sullied by the false statement, can a convicted murderer be defamed? Particularly for something related to his conviction?

With the caveat that I’m far from an expert in the area, the answer doesn’t appear to be all that clear. Courteously, the Connecticut judiciary has put its model jury instructions online to help get the lay of the law.

Start with the generic instruction on defamation, which sets forth three elements:
To establish a case of defamation, the plaintiff must prove the following:

1. the defendant published a defamatory statement to a third person;

2. the defamatory statement identified the plaintiff to a third person; and

3. the plaintiff's reputation suffered injury as a result of the statement.
Likewise, the instruction specifically for libel requires the plaintiff to prove that “the publication caused harm to the plaintiff.” So injury to reputation appears to be a key part of the case.

But not so fast – Connecticut law also provides for per se versions of both libel and slander.* To quote the libel instruction:
Certain written defamatory statements are considered to be so harmful in and of themselves that the person to whom they relate is entitled to recover general damages for injury to reputation, without proving that any special or actual damages were caused by the statements. These defamatory statements are called libel per se. Libel per se is a type of libel in which the defamatory meaning is apparent on the face of the statement.

When the defamatory words are libel per se, the law conclusively presumes that there is injury to the plaintiff's reputation. The plaintiff is not required to prove that (his/her) reputation was damaged.
The instructions go through various categories of per se defamations, with the slander categories more wide open than the libel ones. Whether public masturbation falls into those categories, I can’t say (it doesn’t at first glance). If it doesn’t, Skakel will have to prove that Grace’s blunder damaged a reputation already diminished (if not destroyed) by a murder conviction. That might be a tough sell to a jury, or even a judge. It will be interesting to see how Skakel’s lawyers play things.

It will also be interesting to see how Grace and company defend their “honor.” Here’s hoping they can’t.

* Libel is written defamation, slander is spoken defamation. I’m not really sure under which branch a TV program falls.

October 23, 2012

Vintage Lawyer Bashing

I recently read an interesting law review article that dealt a lot with the tension in in the historical development of the American idea of the “rule of law.” Specifically, the tension between the technical law as written and larger, more nebulous concepts of justice and common sense. As you might expect, bound up in that discussion was the historical American view of lawyers.

The short version is that we’ve always been on the shit list, even though many bigwigs of American history come from the legal profession. It’s part of the job description.

But just how far back does it go? Consider this quote from a census taken in New Hampshire in 1770 and reported to the king:
Grafton County . . . contains 6,489 souls, most of whom are engaged in agriculture, but included in that number are69 wheelwrights, 8 doctors, 29 blacksmiths, 87 preachers, 20 slaves and 90 students at the new college. There is not one lawyer, for which fact we take no personal credit, but thank an Almighty and Merciful God.
No wonder I’m an atheist!

October 19, 2012

Friday Review: The Apostle

When people complain about whether a particular story works or doesn’t, most of the time they focus on how things end. Either “it just ends” or “the ending doesn’t make sense” or “I thought it was over but it kept going.” You know what I’m talking about. But just as important to the success of a story as when and how it ends is when and how it begins.

After all, most characters in any story exist before and after the story we actually see. They have backgrounds, histories, triumphs and setbacks that inform who they are, but that we never quite figure out. The question is, how is the best way to spend time with them?

The biggest flaw of The Apostle, written and directed by Robert Duvall, who also delivers an amazing performance as the titular pastor, is when it begins. That’s not because the flim’s too long (although, at just north of two hours and 15 minutes, it is), but because by the time the story really gets going, we know too much about Duvall’s character, Sonny. It’s a tale of redemption, but we get to know Sonny too well to actually want him to be redeemed.

He’s a preacher. And not one of those quiet, speaks in metaphor, Unitarian types, either. I’m talking full blown gonzo, just short of speaking in tongues (he refrains to get on the radio), revival tent firebrand. He doesn’t just talk to God, he shouts. He is the kind of asshole who, upon finding a car accident along his drive, stops not to provide first aid, but to confront the dying driver with the fact that he’s going to hell if he ain’t right with Jesus.

If that was the only thing wrong with him, the following tale of redemption would mean much more. Instead, we see Sonny stalk his estranged wife (throwing a rock through her window in the process), drag her around by her hair (in public) in a way that shows he’s no stranger to domestic violence, and smash her new boyfriend in the head with a baseball bat, killing him. What’s worse, Sonny wraps his problems up in his religion, such that his problems aren’t caused by his own violence and rage, but by the devil.

But that’s only the first half hour of the movie. At that point, Sonny flees and finds refuge in a small town as the “apostle” E.F. The rest of the movie tells the story of how he establishes a new church and builds it into a community landmark. It could be a moving, even charming, tale, did we not know what an asshole Sonny really was. I’m not one to argue that a person is beyond redemption – I’m a criminal defense lawyer, after all – but killing a man in a blind rage and then waving it away as part of some religious world view is a pretty high hurdle to cross.

Which is to say that the question of when to start the story has a great impact on what comes behind. I’ll be honest – Sonny was never a character that was going to worm his way into my heart. Having said that, had his backstory been a little more mysterious, or at least doled out along the path of his attempts at redemption, it would have made for a more compelling story. As it is, my main thought for most of The Apostle was “is he really going to get away with this?”

Which is, perhaps, the question Duvall wanted viewers to be asking as the film progressed. I kind of doubt it, but it’s possible. Whether he does, in fact, “get away with this” depends on your perspective and whether you value the enforcement of secular law or spiritual redemption.

The Apostle isn’t a great film, mostly because of how it tells its story. It does revolve around a great performance, however, so it’s well worth seeing.

On an ironic note, The Apostle and last week’s Friday Review subject, Red State, both end with a fundamentalist preacher incarcerated and unwilling to stop trying to preach the good news. Red State’s response (delivered by Kevin Smith, off camera) is “shut the fuck up.” Nobody does the same in The Apostle, but I imagine someone was thinking it.

The Details
The Apostle
Released 1997
Written and directed by Robert Duvall
Starring Robert Duvall, Farah Fawcett, Miranda Richardson, et. al.

October 18, 2012

In Vino Addo

When I buy wine, I have a very few, completely unscientific things I look for. One is a cork, as I’m wary of wine with a screw top (although those are becoming increasingly popular). The other is a cool label or name, something that jumps out at me. After that, the actual details of the stuff in the jug is purely secondary.*

As it happens, one afternoon I was driven to purchase a bottle of wine called The Night Harvest:

The label isn’t particularly interesting, but something about the name grabbed me. I think the vintner saw it as an expression of innocence or some such. But I took it just the opposite way. To me, “the night harvest” sounds like a euphemistic way of dealing with a horrible act of violence. Something that regularly comes and sweeps something, or someone, away for nefarious purposes. I think it also puts me in mind of The Night Watch, the definitive live document of the last 1970s variant of King Crimson.

With that in mind, I sat down and started to build a track. I wanted to use some repetitive phrases and rhythms to build a sense of foreboding as the harvest is about to begin. I layered several different sounds on top of one other, including the sound of marching feet. Everything breaks loose when the harvest actually happens, then things shift again with some mournful phrases as the horror subsides. Maybe, even, there’s some hope in the aftermath.

In addition to my own sounds, I used some samples from Freesound, which I first learned of through Richard Barbieri’s solo albums. People upload various samples and allow them to be used with attribution. This track uses the following samples:
  • 25273_freesound_argghh-ses2.wav
  • 20186_patchen_foot-stomp-d.wav
  • 70100_gregswinford_errir-forest.mp3

“The Night Harvest” is the longest tune I’ve put together since “Outpatient Beast,” but is much more satisfying. With “Outpatient Beast” I started out with the idea of stringing several sections together in order to create a prog-esque epic. Frankly, it shows. “The Night Harvest,” on the other hand, grew organically to this size and, I think (I hope), works much better in the transitions and such.

So, grab a glass of wine and enjoy!

* For the record, this appears to work pretty well.

October 17, 2012

Music for a Parasite

Over the summer, you may have heard about a study which concluded that folks who clean their cat’s litter box regularly are at an increased risk for suicide. As it turns out, the “increase” was beyond minimal, but the science behind why there’s any increased risk at all was kind of fascinating.

As explained in this story from All Things Considered, there’s a parasite in cat poop that first needs a living host, then needs to escape from said host. As a result, it causes the host to behave less cautiously than it might otherwise. As for bugs:
Janice Moore, a biologist at Colorado State University, says one example is a tiny worm that infects pill bugs.

JANICE MOORE: And when those worms mature in the body cavity of those pill bugs, then the pill bugs behavior changes and it roams around out in exposed areas. It no longer cares about crawling under things, which is ultimately really, really bad for it.

HAMIILTON: But good for the worms; reckless pill bugs are more likely to end up in the stomach of a bird which is where the worms complete their lifecycle.
Driving home listening in the car, “reckless pill bugs” jumped out at me as a perfect name for a song title. So I wrote it down when I got home, along with countless others I keep handy.

A few days later, a rhythm wormed its way into my head during a meeting. I managed to quantize it on paper and thought that it might sound good as a one-note synth sequence. I took it home, programmed it, ran it through the Minimonsta and it sounded pretty good. It was up tempo, skittish, and sort of mechanical. I immediately thought, “this is a reckless pill bug!”

Once I decided to grow the track from there, things fell into place fairly quickly. The rest of the synth bits that match the driving rhythm were also programmed in ACID and driven through the Minimonsta. The bass riff came from the Minitaur, of course, as does the wobbly little lead bit in the middle section. A happy accident with a detuned oscillator, that.

As the song came together, I decided it needed one more thing – my voice. Not much of it and, naturally, not in its natural state. The Micron has a primitive, but effective, vocorder that I used to mess with me repeating the song title over and over. I’ll probably play around with that a little more in the future.

So, without further ado, the adventures of an addle-brained lil’ bugger and the passenger trying to get out:

Yes, I realize that the song title makes “pill bug” one word. Is it better if I claim laziness or artistic license?

Up tomorrow – something altogether darker and more epic!

October 16, 2012

It’s All About Tunes

A few weeks ago I mentioned reorganizing my online musical life, shutting down the old account at ACIDPlanet and consolidating things at Soundcloud. At the time, I took down all the tracks I had up at Soundcloud, in order to put them back up in the proper format and running order.

Yes, I’m that pretentious.

I’ve taken the cream of that crop and organized them into a new “set” (think of it as an album, if you wish) called Working Title. Unlike the two ADICPlanet sets, which made use of premade loops as well as my own stuff, these tracks are all my own. Here’s the set as it exists now:

Over the next couple of days, I’ll upload two more tracks to round out the set. I’m really happy with them, as they’re completely different from one another and both came from concrete ideas in my head, rather than just growing out of fortuitous doodles.

Speaking of reorganizing, it’s been a while since I showed what the studio setup looks like these days (click here for a bigger view):

For the gear heads, here’s what you see in that picture, from left to right:
  • Alesis SR-18 drum machine
  • Korg M50 workstation (bottom) w/ GFS Greenie Classic fuzz box
  • Alesis Micron virtual analog synth (top)
  • Korg Kaosilator synth
  • Zoom R-16 digital recorder
  • Peavey KR-1 amp
  • M-Audio Axiom-61 MIDI controller (bottom)
  • Nord Rack 2X w/Boss PH-2 Super Phaser (top left)
  • Moog Minitaur bass synth (top middle)
  • Berhinger MIDI controller (top right)
  • Gateway computer running ACID Music Studio and various software synths, including GForce Minimonsta and M-Tron and virtual versions of Korg’s M1, Wavestation, and Polysix synths

Up tomorrow – music inspired by a skittering little bug!

October 12, 2012

Friday Review: Red State

Disclosing my bias up front, I’m a big fan of Kevin Smith. Ever since my college roommate and I first rented Clerks way back in the days of VHS. I recognize his shortcomings as a filmmaker (as he does himself), but I like the overly talky scripts and, yes, the dick and fart jokes. Besides, it’s always nice to see a self-taught fat fuck make good (we can all dream). And the man tells some mean stories.

Unfortunately, when he steps out of his comfort zone, things get rocky. I didn’t think Jersey Girl was as awful as most people did, but it clearly wasn’t the bold breakout from the View Askew universe, to which he ran right back for Clerks II. I was hoping that Red State, which is ever further outside his comfort zone, might fare better. Sadly, it doesn’t.

Red State is actually three different movies, thrown together and jostling for attention during its run time. It begins in the most Smith-like way, with three high school boys excitedly planning to meet an older woman for sex via some kind of online service (one kid says, “it’s like Craigslist for people who want to get laid,” to which another says, “I thought Craigslist was all about people who want to get laid?”). It is, of course, a setup, in which the three are entrapped by their hookup (Melissa Leo, of all people) and drugged into unconsciousness. Like a setup for a teen horror flick.

But then one of the three kids awakes in a cage in a church, home of a Phelps-like clan of ultrafundie Christians. They not only spout the hate of the Phelps bunch, they take action – executing a gay dude (Saranwrapped to a cross, no less) they had earlier abducted from somewhere. Through a lengthy sermon from the leader (who is more long winded than even Jay), it becomes clear that our horny teens will meet the same fate. So, it’s a movie about a cult or fundamentalist religion, right?

Shift again. Contact with local law enforcement at the compound goes badly, which brings in the ATF to conduct a Ruby Ridge/Waco style siege that, of course, turns horribly bloody. There’s a layer of modern post-9/11 terrorist hunting in there, too. Things spiral down into a confusing firefight that seems to last longer than the war in Afghanistan. To top it off there is, possibly, the actual apocalypse, in a head fake that might have truly gone somewhere interesting.

Any one of those flicks might have worked on its own merit, but bumped up against each other none of them really get a chance to breed. The ATF materialize out of nowhere, for instance, without even the wherewithal to keep the local sheriff from carrying on in his own stupid way. The cult/religious stuff can only go so far, as we don’t really get beyond the placard slogans you’d see on the evening news (although Michael Parks, as the leader, is suitably chilling). By the end, with one exception, there’s no character to care about to the point that when the bullets start flying and the blood flows, you just want it to be over with.

I’ve read that Smith is basically done as a director, turning his attention to being a full time talker and social media personality (perhaps the Gore Vidal for the 21st century?). I hope he goes behind the camera for at least one more shot at a movie that exists outside the View Askew world. I’m pretty sure he’s got a good one in him, even if he hasn’t been able to find it yet.

The Details
Red State
Released 2011
Written and directed by Kevin Smith
Starring Michael Parks, John Goodman, Melissa Leo, et. al.

October 11, 2012

On Being Polled

After work yesterday I was where I frequently am – sitting on the living room floor in front of the TV with a PS3 controller in my hand – when the phone rang. Given the time of day I was sure it was a telemarketer of some sort, but since my caller ID is on the fritz I picked up anyway. Under normal circumstances, I tell telemarketers I’m not interested and hang up before they get into their spiel, but the woman on the other end of the line did something that made me hold on for just a second.

She pronounced my name right. You’d be amazed at how many different and interestingly wrong ways “Byrne” can come out of someone’s mouth.

Turns out she wasn’t selling anything, but asking questions for a “research” firm. I assumed it would be political, given the season, and I was right. So I settled in and answered a bunch of questions. It was an interesting experience.

This survey focused on West Virginia elections, particularly the governor’s race, although I was asked about the presidential race and the West Virginia senate election as well. Oddly enough, when it came to the West Virginia races, I was asked who I would vote for in races involving both all the candidates (i.e., throwing in the Mountain and Libertarian party candidates) and only the Democrat and Republican candidates, but for the presidential contest was only offered the Obama/Romney choice. To her credit, the lady on the phone accepted my “neither” answer on that one without complaint.

My guess is that this poll was being conducted on behalf of Bill Maloney, the Republican challenger to West Virginia governor Earl Ray Tomblin. I was specifically asked about my opinion of Maloney and whether it had changed recently, but wasn’t asked the same question about Tomblin. There were a long series of questions about which candidate most reflected certain ideas (regardless of which one you would vote for.) Thankfully, once again, when I answered “neither” to the question of which one “cared about people like me,” my inquisitor took that answer without question.

The pollster didn’t identify itself, so I have no idea whether the results of this inquiry will be made public or if it’s an internal poll done for one of the campaigns (that’s my guess). Regardless, it’s ironic that my answers to those questions over the phone will probably have more impact on the election than any vote I cast. After all, polling is based on samples of the population, so each person who answers questions is really doing so on behalf of perhaps thousands of people. In the voting booth, I’ve only got one ballot to cast, even in West Virginia.

So, hey, maybe I made a difference this time around!

October 10, 2012

Judges Behaving Badly

Everybody makes mistakes. Everybody has bad days. But when you’ve got “judge” in your job title, chances are your bad day is going to make headlines. Here are a couple of cases that crossed my virtual desktop where misbehaving judges got caught, in one way or another.

The first, from Kentucky (via the ABA Journal), isn’t really about a judge doing anything wicked, so much as venting his temper in court. But he did so in a way that struck a chord with me.

Judge Martin McDonald* was hearing a prisoner’s habeas corpus action challenging his conviction. He was not a happy camper (all of this was caught on the court’s video system, put online by the local paper, and is embedded in the ABA Joural article). The prisoner was represented by someone from Kentucky’s version of the public defender system who is designated an “appellate counsel.” That’s what it says on my business cards, you see. So I caught McDonald’s barbs full force:
But then the judge erupts again:

‘I would appreciate DPA sending lawyers who actually are trial lawyers, and not some backseat drivers, that’s what I would appreciate. You’ve never been in the heat of the battle in one of these cases, and now you’re criticizing lawyers that actually are real lawyers that do the work, the dirty work, the down in the trenches work. That’s what I find distasteful and disgusting about this whole business.’
Note that folks like me aren’t “real lawyers” because we don’t do trial work. I’ve dealt with that slur long enough that I’ve grown used to it, ever since one of my divorce clients back in my Legal Aid days told me she was going to go get herself a “real” lawyer (i.e., one she had to pay for). Still, it’s beyond the pale for a sitting judge to ding a lawyer appearing before him that way.

Ironically, the judge backed down a bit later in terms of actually letting the prisoner’s lawyer do his job:
The judge relented, however, as the assistant commonwealth’s attorney, fearing an issue on appeal, urge[d] the judge to allow her opposing counsel more leeway, and allowed the hearing to continue.
Ah, we appellate lawyers are a crafty bunch!

As for the second, well, I think we can all agree that “crafty” is not the right word to use. As told by the The Legal Intelligencer, Philadelphia Traffic Court Judge Willie Singletary was showing some pictures on his phone to a contractor. They included pictures of his mom, his kids, him with Stevie Wonder and one more thing – his penis.

The Court of Judicial Discipline, which concluded that Singletary brought “the judicial office into disrepute,” explained:
We think that the public — even those members of the public who register the lowest scores on the sensitivity index — do not expect their judges to be conducting photo sessions featuring the judicial penis and then to be sending the photos over the electronic airwaves to another person.
The “judicial penis?” Does it have a robe? A gavel? Scratch that - I don’t even want to know.

There’s actually an interesting legal issue there, as the court had to determine whether Singletary intentionally showed the penis pictures to the contractor, even though the parties agreed that he forgot the pictures were on his phone. As the court explained:
We hold that a judge who intentionally grooms his penis for photography, and then intentionally photographs his penis for the purpose of display to others, had better remember that the photographs are in his phone lest they ‘slip out’ at some inopportune (albeit unplanned) time under circumstances which are likely to offend another person or persons, for, if they do, we will hold such conduct satisfies the ‘mens rea requirement’ so as to support a finding that the conduct is such that brings the judicial office into disrepute.
You know, in this day and age when nothing electronic really disappears, that’s just good sound advice, whatever line of work you’re in. If you’re a judge (of any rank or stature), doubly so.

* Although the articles refer to him as “retired,” it’s unclear how he’s sitting on a current case. That does happen – witness my argument with the retired Justice Sandra Day O’Connor a few years ago.

October 5, 2012

Friday Review: Clockwork Angels

Over the years, Rush hasn’t shied away from the epic. Back in the 1970s they cranked out three album side-long suites. A little later they spread a four-piece collection of songs over four albums released 21 years apart! But for all that, the band had never done a full-on concept album, giving the whole project over to a single idea.* I suppose they were waiting until they had enough experience under their belts to make it work.

And, boy, did the waiting ever pay off.

I was pleasantly surprised when the band came back with Snakes & Arrows in 2007, their best album in decades. Clockwork Angels takes the basic blueprint of those tunes, stretches them out a bit more, and wraps them around the story Neal Peart wanted to tell. It’s their proggiest work in a long time, sublime riffage and epic arrangements carrying a tale of wonder through the world that Peart conjured in his head.

I’ll admit that Clockwork Angels didn’t immediately grab me like Snakes & Arrows did, which is partly down to the lyrical content of a lot of that album. But the new one’s grown on me, hard, over the past few weeks. Is it Rush’s best album, as I’ve read in places? Probably not, but when you consider the scope of the band’s career and just how long they’ve been at it, the ability to crank out something this good at this time is really special. In a year of kick ass new albums, Clockwork Angels will be near the top of the heap.

But, as Ron Popeil might say – wait, that’s not all!

Author Kevin J. Anderson, a long time Rush fan, collaborated with Peart on a novel for Clockwork Angels, taking the basic story from the album and fleshing it out. The result isn’t all that great and is a good data point in the argument for leaving musical stories alone in that form (see also, Ken Russell’s version of Tommy or the film version of The Wall).

As a book, Clockwork Angels is essentially Candide, with an overlay of Rush’s own “Hemispheres” suite, or maybe the Shadow War portion of Babylon 5. Our young, naïve, dumb as a box of rocks protagonist Owen Hardy travels through his world, pulled between the autocratic Watchmaker and the “freedom extremist” known only as the Anarchist. It’s order versus chaos, Apollo versus Dionysous, Vorlons versus Shadows.

Unfortunately, neither Anderson nor Peart are Voltaire. Where Candide was a scathing satire on the world in which Voltaire lived, Clockwork Angels is just a story, set somewhere other than here without any connection to the real world. I’ve got no problem with that – I write other world fantasies, after all – but you lose something in the relocation. The end product is a fairly routine coming of age story, even if it does involve airships and alchemy.

Nor is Owen a Candide. Voltaire’s hero was sheltered and naïve, but I don’t remember him being stupid. Owen really takes his time to figure certain things out, clinging desperately to the propaganda phrases the Watchmaker has fed him all his life. It’s like you can hear the clockwork mechanisms grinding away in his brain. His need to ponder everything he experiences leads to Anderson essentially going through most incidents twice, without really gaining anything in the retelling. Also, to be blunt, Owen’s trevails are much more of an “adventure” in the positive sense, compared to Candide’s experiences of war, death, natural disaster and religious persecution.

The world into which Owen is dumped has some interesting steampunky features, but some of the more tantalizing ones are left hanging. There’s apparently some kind of parallel universe structure at work, but it’s not deeply examined. The Watchmaker runs Owen’s home country, Albion, through the use of alchemy and precision clockwork. Yet the other places Owen goes seem to have the same technology. Why? Does the Watchmaker trade the tech to other nations for resources? Does he play favorites? Albion is basically a superpower – what does the rest of the world think of that? It’s simply not discussed.

Two other things seriously impeded my enjoyment of the book. For one, Anderson decided at some point to pepper the book with phrases from Rush lyrics, not just from this album but from lots of others. I found that really distracting, both because Peart’s words don’t always sit easily next to Anderson’s and because it just seemed like too much of an in joke. The other problem, which played into the lyric dropping, comes from Peart. Of course, I digested the book in audio form, which is read by Peart. Unfortunately, Neal sounds like he’s reading a story to a group of kids and doesn’t really work as a narrator. And he hits those lyrical Easter eggs like a bad comedian hammering a punch line, in most instances.

Ultimately, the difference between the album and book were driven home to me while listening to “BU2B,” short for brought up to believe, which deals with Owen’s “education:”
Believe in what we’re told
Until our final breath
While our loving Watchmaker
Loves us all to death
From Owen’s mouth (or Peart’s), those lines are rote recitation, nearly meaningless, spoken by someone who’s never really thought about them. On the other hand, belted out by Geddy Lee in a song full of rocking syncopation, they come across as biting, somewhat angry, and cynical. That Owen Hardy would have been a much more interesting protagonist than the one Anderson ultimately delivers.

In the end, the book’s primary failing is that it is merely adequate, while the album upon which it’s based kicks all manner of ass. My recommendation – leave the book on the shelf, throw the album in the car, and crank it up during a long drive.

* I’ve seen some references here and there to things like 2112 or Hemispheres being concept albums, but they aren’t. One side got the suite, the other had songs that were completely unrelated.

Clockwork Angels, by Rush
Released 2012

1. Caravan (5:40)
2. BU2B (5:10)
3. Clockwork Angels (7:31)
4. The Anarchist (6:52)
5. Carnies (4:52)
6. Halo Effect (3:14)
7. Seven Cities Of Gold (6:32)
8. The Wreckers (5:01)
9. Headlong Flight (7:20)
10. BU2B2 (1:28)
11. Wish Them Well (5:25)
12. The Garden (6:59)

Geddy Lee (bass, bass pedals, vocals, synthesizers)
Alex Lifeson (guitar, additional keyboards)
Neil Peart (drums, percussion)

The Details
Clockwork Angels
By Kevin J. Anderson (story by Anderson and Neal Peart)
Published 2012

October 4, 2012

When the Good Guys Lie

I’ve been ruminating about this video for a couple of weeks, since it was pimped by Neil Gaiman on Facebook. It’s about a town library that was in danger of closure unless residents voted in favor of a minor tax increase. Tea Party forces mobilized to oppose the tax and looked to carry the day. Then, this:

I mean, the good guys won, right? And, in the end, the pro-library folks came clean and everybody knew what was up before the vote happened. So what’s the problem?

Well, the problem is that, in my gut, the pro-library folks were lying. The entire outlandish possibility of a book burning was a complete work of fiction, and not even one with a connection to reality, either. If the library closed down, it’s most likely that its collection would be sold off to help close the financial hole. My local library sells used books every year as part of the West Virginia Book Festival (coming next weekend!). They don’t burn the excess parts of the collection.

However, as political lies go, it’s fairly harmless, but if making shit up to get people to vote your way is kosher, where does it end? What about organized campaigns to warn of Obama’s double secret atheist Muslim agenda to impose Sharia law in a second term or how Romney is really a Mormon Manchurian Candidate who will force us all to give up caffeine and wear magic underwear if he’s elected? Where do we draw the line?

Perhaps the problem is that I’m a bit irked that it’s the “good guys” who took this route. They had the better argument and should have won the day via force of rhetoric. Or am I just naïve to think that reason wins the day when it comes to politics?

Maybe I am.

Over at the New York Times philosophy blog (yes, there is a such a thing), Michael Lynch examines whether reasoning leads us inexorably to the value judgments we make (and political decisions are nothing if not value judgments), or just the opposite – does reasoning just provide justifications for conclusions we reach for more emotional reasons. Research shows the latter:
Recently, however, some social scientists, most notably the psychologist Jonathan Haidt, have upped the cynical ante. In Haidtt’s view, the philosophers’ dream of reason isn’t just naïve, it is radically unfounded, the product of what he calls ‘the rationalist delusion.’ As he puts it, ‘Anyone who values truth should stop worshiping reason. We all need to take a cold, hard look at the evidence and see reasoning for what it is.’

* * *

According to Haidt, not only are value judgments less often a product of rational deliberation than we’d like to think, that is how we are supposed to function. That it is how we are hardwired by evolution. In the neuroscientist Drew Westen’s words, the political brain is the emotional brain.
Lynch argues hopefully against this conclusion, but I’m not completely convinced. The example he uses as a long-term change in attitude – the acceptance of homosexuals – I think supports Haidt’s hypothesis. I don’t think people generally decided they didn’t have a problem with homosexuals on a rational level. I think it was more down to the increased visibility of actual gay people and the realization that they’re aren’t actually the monsters they had been made out to be. In other words, people became OK with the idea emotionally, not rationally.

At the end of the day, though, I think I side with Lynch:
Giving up on the idea that reason matters is not only premature from a scientific point of view; it throws in the towel on an essential democratic hope. Politics needn’t always be war by other means; democracies can, and should be places where the exchange of reasons is encouraged. This hope is not a delusion; it is an ideal — and in our countdown to November, one still worth striving for.
But maybe that’s just because I want it that way.

October 3, 2012

Our Fucked Up Penal-Industrial Complex

As we ready ourselves for the first of the Obama/Romney debates, Stephen Colbert highlights one sector of the economy that’s not just growing, but thriving:

To a criminal defense attorney, UNICOR is the same kind of double-edged sword as “cooperation,” aka being a snitch. On the one hand, it’s good for clients to get into a UNICOR program, for multiple reasons, including maybe learning a useful skill for when they’re released. On the other hand, it’s just barely not slave labor and conditions are bound to not improve now that the program has the ability to compete with private enterprise.

It also results in some truly fucked up irony on the ground. As Colbert points out, UNICOR originally sold only to other federal agencies including federal defender offices. That’s right – my office probably includes furnishings made for almost now pay by someone our office once represented in court. Isn’t that sick?

It’s not that I’m opposed to the idea of prison labor in general. It makes perfect sense as a limited program, designed both to provide job training to inmates and labor to maintain the facilities in which they’re incarcerated. But there’s a line that gets crossed when people locked in a cage are working for outsiders at a rate of pennies per hour. Keep in mind, we’ve been down this road before as a nation.

Of course, UNICOR’s ever expanding scope is just another symptom of a criminal justice system that is being turned into a Twilight Zone-ish profit center for private enterprise, which should be viewed as a national tragedy. But I’m guessing it never comes up during tonight’s debate, which is the real tragedy.

October 2, 2012

What’s Spanish for “Chuztpah”?

As the story goes, the best definition of “chutzpah” is when a son who murders his father and mother then seeks mercy from a court because he’s an orphan. That is a good one, but this one might not be far behind.

You probably don’t know the name Cecilia Giménez, but you no doubt are familiar with her work. Giménez is the elderly Spanish woman who decided to do something about the deteriorating fresco of Jesus at her church and turned it from this . . .

. . . into this:

Images via Wikipedia.

Giménez and her handiwork have been roundly mocked,* but the increased attention has made the small Spanish church a tourist destination. And Giménez wants in on the action:
According to El Correo, Gimenez has apparently lawyered up, and is now asking for royalties from her church’s newfound money stream.
She also complains that the notoriety of her work has led to her becoming a virtual shut in due to media attention and tourists flocking to the church. It’s not clear to me how getting a piece of the church’s revenue from the painting would solve that problem (if anything, it seems likely to make it worse), but I’ll admit I’m unfamiliar with the Spanish legal system.

I have been curious, since the story broke, as to just what the legal landscape of this situation was. As I understand it, Giménez took this project up on her own volition and without authorization from the church leaders. If so, it sounds like vandalism, doesn’t it? If somebody came into my house and started “renovating” the stuff on my walls, I’d be kind of pissed. If that’s the case, getting royalties would seem to be a stretch. On the other hand, if Giménez had some vague permission to do what she did and it’s become a cash cow, I think she’s got a legitimate claim for some compensation.

Even if she never sees a Euro, Giménez nonetheless wound up with a level of fame (or infamy) that most artists only dream of. That’s got to count for something.

* I kind of like it. Who needs another “realistic” vision of a pasty white Jesus, anyway?