March 28, 2014

Friday Review: The Half-Made World

We often talk of making the world over in our own image, but at the end of the day, the world is what it is.  Any transformation is mostly metaphorical and, on a cosmic scale, brief.  But what if the world itself was still in the process of being made?  And what if human expansion is what finally tamed it?  That's the background for The Half-Made World, an entertaining mix of steampunk, alternate history (sort of), and "weird" tales.

The eastern portion of The Half-Made World looks a bit like Europe or the eastern United States in the Victorian age.  Out west, over the mountains, is a country in the process of being settled, sort of equivalent to the American west of the same time period.But further west, beyond that, things get wild.  Part and parcel of that is a native population that is more in tune with the unmade world than the more "civilized" parts of it.

Our journey into this world comes with the aid of Liv, a practitioner of the budding field of psychology who, leaves her life in the east to work at a hospital on the edge of the settled west; Creedmore, the agent of one powerful faction who kidnaps her and one of her charges; and Lowry, commander of another power faction trying to track all down.

The factions are a pair of ruthless forces that are more ideology than physical things.  The Gun favors chaos and destruction, wrought through its agents who are controlled (to a greater or lesser extent) by demons that live in their firearms.  The Line, on the other hand, preaches mechanical progress (it's main instrument are engines, which appear to be sentient trains) and converts everything in its past to a world that sounds slightly like a predecessor to Terry Gilliam's Brazil (that the Line's commander is named Lowry is surely not a coincidence).

The Half-Made World has two things really going for it.  The first is the world in builds (so to speak), particularly the way it turns an age old order/chaos conflict into the running battle of the Line and the Gun.  There isn't much time spent on why each faction does what it does or where they come from - I kind of like the ambiguity.  Instead, the book focuses on how out west everyone's lives are controlled by their relationship to one of those two factions (ally, foe, or wary neutral).

I also wonder if the way the Line and the Gun are meant to be a metaphor for American anti-terrorism activities in the 21st century.  The Gun are the ultimate terrorists, causing damage and death for the heck of it.  The deeds are committed by scattered agents that number, perhaps, in the dozens, as opposed to a kind of formal militarized force.  The Line, on the other hand, is precisely that kind of militarized force, deploying a formidable array of clever weaponry that obliterates basically everything in its path.

Early on, as the Line is in pursuit of Creedmore before he arrives at the hospital, he winds up in a small town, Kloan.  When his identity is revealed a firefight ensues that leaves most of the town's prominent citizens dead and much of the town on fire.  In spite of all that, Creedmore escapes.  What's left behind is a town now under control of the line, one that was truly destroyed so it could be saved.  If that echo of our anti-terrorism policies abroad wasn't intended commentary, it's a hell of a coincidence.

The other thing The Half-Made World really has going for it is Creedmore.  He's the only of the three main characters who really stands out in your mind.T he Line commander is just a cog in a wheel, easily replaceable, which doesn't make for great characterization.  And Liv, while fully realized in her own right, just doesn't have a lot to do.  Creedmore, on the other hand, has a fascinating past - he fell into a life of crime only after trying just about every do-gooder organization in this world (abolitionists, advocates for the native "hill folk," religious groups, etc.).  But he's a good criminal, which is what attracted him to the Gun in the end.  But now, a long way down a life extended by the Gun's magic, Creedmore is having second thoughts about his master, with whom he has nearly constant running discussions.  I appreciate that the book presents all this as an ongoing matter and dodges the easy cliche of a "bad" man who turns "good."  Creedmore is much more interesting than that.

Unfortunately, there's an awful lot of chasing that doesn't add up to a whole lot.  The unmade part of the world isn't as interesting as the Line/Gun lands.  This shift about and are generally "weird," but not all that dangerous.  As someone else pointed out elsewhere, there's still air to breathe and food to eat.  Still, the chase comes to an end, so that means something, right?  Not really.  The great secret that all parties have been chasing is never explained, although it's hinted at.  More importantly, the main characters don't seem to have arrived at any sort of end point in their stories. The book ends like it's the first of a series, but although there is a second book set in this world it isn't a direct sequel.  So the lack of a hard ending is a big disappointment.

Not big enough to avoid recommending the book, however.  The world is inventive and it's worth spending time with Creedmore as the action spills out over the west.  That it might have been better doesn't stop it from being very very good.

The Details
The Half-Made World
By Felix Gilman
Published 2010

March 26, 2014

Away Goals Are Not the Solution

When I first started really following soccer, back in college, that meant European soccer and, at the time, that mostly meant the UEFA Champions League.  The Champions League is sort of a European super league, involving top teams from all over Europe (although it is no longer, as the name implies, comprised soley of champions).  After a certain phase, the teams are drawn into the typical 16-team knockout bracket until we have a champion of Europe.

Unlike, say, the NFL playoffs, those knockout rounds are each two-legged: the teams play twice, once each at their home stadium, with the winner being determined by total goals scored.  It is, in essence, one 180-minute game with a week-long (or more) halftime.  So what if, after all that, things are tied up?  In order to avoid going to the dreaded PK shootout, UEFA will award the win to the team that scored the most goals away from home.

That is the "away goals rule," as used in Europe and elsewhere.  I'm not a big fan - I think it overestimates the difficulty of scoring on the road and, therefore, makes teams more cautious.  That being said, I recognize that for a competition where the teams aren't seeded according to some regular season results it at least makes some sense.  But where there is some ranking of teams heading into the knockout rounds, it really doesn't.

Since its inception, Major League Soccer has struggled to figure out a playoff structure that worked well, that captured the excitement of championships in other US sports while rewarding success in the regular season.  It initially went with the baseball/basketball/hockey setup of a best-of-X (3, in this case) series, but that necessitates winners and losers in each game, which can lead to some issues in soccer.

More recently, the league switched to a two-legged series similar to what the Champions League does, with the higher seed hosting the second game and, if necessary, the extra time and PKs in case of a tie.  Although it's produced some fantastic contests (such as the epic 2003 Earthquakes-Galaxy series or the 2012 DC United-New York Red Bulls series), it doesn't work all that well.  It doesn't provide the higher seed with much of an advantage, making the regular season nigh-on meaningless.  And, in the end, you can still have ties and PKs.

So now, with the new season just underway, MLS has announced that it will now tweak the system further by bringing in the away goals rule for the playoff series.  While this will no doubt cut down on the dreaded PKs, it doesn't really solve the problem of the league's long regular season being next to meaningless.  If anything, the away goals rule also means potentially fewer periods of extra time in the second leg, which is the only advantage a higher seed gets in the first place.

If MLS is serious about solving the playoff dilemma, it needs to look not to European football, but to good ole' fashioned American gridiron football.  The NFL has the best postseason of any American professional sport.  The playoffs last about a month, are super easy to follow (win or go home), and - as is particularly important here - rewards regular season achievement by allowing the higher seeds to host games.  Scrape into the NFL playoffs and you're on the road the whole way.  Cruise through the regular season and you get to stay home.  Not that upsets can't happen and do, but they feel more earned if the lower seed goes on the road and gets it done.

It would be easy for MLS to import that system.  Currently, 10 teams make it into the playoffs.  That gives you four rounds - it even kicks off with a wild-card kind of round, giving the top seeds a week's rest at the end of the season.  That round, by the way, is a one game winner takes all contest hosted by the higher seed.  Why not just carry that format forward for the rest of the playoffs?  No more midweek games that can't get on TV, no more cramped travel schedules.  Easy!  As a bonus, casual fans who might come across a game can get invested knowing that a result will occur that night - no need to wait for the second leg to see how things turn out.

I understand that part of the reason the league wanted multi-game series was to give each club an extra game to play, to fill the stadium and make some money.  But lots of those games, with short turnaround and poor scheduling, aren't played in front of full stadiums anyway.  Playoff games in front of empty seats don't look good for anybody.  And, at any rate, if the league's going to grow up and away from such concerns eventually, it might as well go ahead and do it.

A one-game playoff structure isn't perfect, either.  It increases the chances of games going to PKs, unless MLS did something truly original and forced the teams to play until there's actually a winner.  My personal theory is that if teams knew there was no way a game could end in a draw they would be more interested in trying to win it, rather than simply trying not to lose it and slide through to PKs, but I admit I have no data to back that up.  Still, even a PK-strewn playoff system would be better than the multi-legged confusion the league has now.

It's one thing for MLS to want to play like the rest of the world on the pitch.  But when it comes to how to structure the league, it needs to do what works best for its market.  The NFL has shown the value of a one-and-done playoff format.  Why reinvent the wheel?

March 20, 2014

Ghost Dope Strikes Again

A little while back I mentioned the concept of "ghost dope" in federal criminal cases, which is the relevant conduct that the Government tries to load on a defendant during sentencing.  I made a passing reference to the fact that evidence about ghost dope doesn't need to be presented to a jury (or, in fact, the judge in the case I was talking about) and can even be rejected by a jury.  A recent decision from the DC Circuit brings that part of the phenomenon into stark relief.

Ball put the government to its burden of proof concerning allegations of a massive drug conspiracy and murders; a very lengthy jury trial led to Ball being acquitted in November 2007 on every count of a massive racketeering, drug conspiracy and murder indictment save for one crack distribution count related to a $600, half-ounce, hand-to-hand crack-cocaine deal in 2001.
In spite of the jury's verdict, the district court took all of that acquitted conduct into consideration at sentencing, imposing a 225-month sentence, near the statutory maximum for the single offense for which he was convicted.  Berman argues that recent Supreme Court decisions imperil the ability of judges to do just that - consider acquitted conduct at sentencing.  Over at The Volokh Conspiracy, Paul Cassell (himself a former district court judge) argues differently, that what happened to Ball is perfectly OK under existing law.

In terms of what the law is, I'm afraid Cassell is right.  Ball was convicted of a charge that carried a sentence of anywhere from zero to 20 years in prison.  Sentencing law (federal in particular, but most states work the same way so far as I know) is designed around providing the judge with all the information he could possibly want when making a decision about what sentence to impose.  As it exists now, it's hard to argue that some facts should be off limits because a jury failed to find they existed beyond a reasonable doubt, a higher standard than applies at sentencing.

However, in terms of what the law should be, Berman is on the right track.  Ask 10 people on the street if you could be sentenced to a longer prison term based on stuff a jury said you didn't do and most, if not all of them (assuming there were no lawyers in the sample), would say no.  It goes against something very fundamental to our criminal justice system to just ignore what the jury finds and move along.

The problem here is largely attributable to one person - Ruth Bader Ginsburg.  In 2005, the Supreme Court decided that the Sentencing Guidelines - mandatory at the time - violated the Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial because they forced judges to increase sentences based on facts found by the judge.  That was a 5-4 decision.  In the second half of that opinion - also a 5-4 opinion - the court remedied the problem by making the Guidelines advisory, rather than requiring the Government to prove all the sentencing facts beyond a reasonable doubt.  

Why blame Ginsburg?  Because she was the only justice in the majority in both decisions.  Not only that, she didn't write a separate opinion explaining her position.  As a result, we're left with a system designed by people who didn't think there was a problem with the system in the first place.  That's not a recipe for success, or at least one that makes sense to the general public and, more importantly, individual defendants.

I'll be the first one to admit that the legal system is complex enough that "lay people are confused by that" is not a good reason to do away with something.  On the other hand, when most of the public has a gut feeling that something is "wrong" in a moral sense with the way the law operates, it might be time to reconsider how its done.

UPDATE: Will Baude, also writing at Volokh, has a different angle on this case:
If appellate courts affirm a long sentence only because of the judge-found facts, then they are essentially creating a new common-law maximum sentence; they’re implying that a 19-year sentence for simple possession would be unreasonable, but that sentence for a massive conspiracy would be reasonable.

That means that there’s a maximum sentence imposed on the district judge from above, unless the judge finds a fact that justifies a higher sentence. This kind of imposition, Apprendi and Blakely and Booker said, was unconstitutional. It’s not the district judge’s decision to issue a long sentence that’s the problem; it’s the requirement that the judge justify that sentence using judge-found facts.
 That comes from a concurrence by Scalia and, while Baude is correct that the Supreme Court has not rejected Scalia's take, neither has it adopted it in a majority opinion. It's certainly an argument worth making, but it isn't a clear winner.

March 18, 2014

Some Truths About Cats & Dogs

I've mentioned before (I think) that I was not much of an animal lover before I met my wife.  But she came with a dog and two cats so something had to change, right?  Over the years we dated across state lines I became more of a critter person, but there's only so much you can learn about living with animals on the weekends.  Now after several months of sharing a house with all the critters (both cats still and now two dogs), certain things have become apparent.

For a reminder, the two cats are Kali:

and McNally:

They live in our sun room, which - to head off any angry letters - has heat and air conditioning, so they're not being left in the elements.  More critically for my observations is that, somehow, I have inherited the job of catering to their whims, i.e. feeding, watering, and litter box patrol.  Maybe this was somewhere in the vows when K and I got married, but if it was I don't remember it.

What I've learned performing that duty is that, in spite of having constant access to food and water, the cats, McNally in particular, are only comfortable eating in my presence.  In fact, McNally will sit at the kitchen door and meow like crazy for someone, for the love of gods, to please come see him, only to turn and make a beeline for the food bowl the moment you open the door.  Kali is more subtle about it, but tends to follow his lead.  Or maybe she puts him up to it?

If they can't eat without me, they can certainly, um, deposit while I'm absent.  Most of my litter box experience prior to last year came from attending to one of my in-law cats, Torrie, when her people went on vacation.  Torrie has the personality of a grumpy Vorlon bureaucrat on a bad day, but, to her credit, she has dainty litter box habits.  Our cats, not so much.  For one thing, they fling the litter all over the place, even though they have a very stylish Buckminster Fuller style domed litter contraption (so it's not a box, technically).  For another, there is no way two normal cats can produce as much stuff as I scoop out of said contraption every night.  My working theory is that they kill drifters (small ones), cut up their bodies, and bury the parts in the litter.  I only pray that my food, water, and scooping services will keep me on their good side.

Whatever the cats are up to, Maia definitely has figured out one of the oldest organized crime schemes, the protection racket.  You remember Maia:

When we first got Maia we rewarded her with a treat for going outside and doing her stuff.  Positive reinforcement and all that.  Good plan, except we never stopped the rewards once the behavior was established.  This was a bad idea, as Maia has now caught on to our scheme and has figured out how she might have many treats through the course of a day.

While we're at work, gone for hours, she's able to manage not to do anything inside (most days), but if one of is home or, heaven forbid, we both are home on the weekend?  She needs to pee every hour.  She does with this look on her face that's like, "nice wood floor you got here in the family room.  Shame if something happened to it."  In my head, it sounds almost exactly like this.  Maia has become a Mafia dog!

As for her sister, well, when we first got Uzume she had two fully functioning eyes.  Now, thanks to an infection she lost one altogether and the one she's got left just doesn't work anymore:

In spite of that, she knows when her picture is being taken, somehow.

When she went blind, we read about how animals who lose their sight will adapt to their surroundings, making a mental map of their little world to get around in.  Based on Uzu's experience, I'll quoth Opus and proclaim "that's a bunch of crapola."  At the very least, Uzu's cartographical skills aren't very good, as she continues to ram head first into walls, furniture, and whatever else might get in her way.

Or, maybe, she's just playing it smart.  After all, with our concerns about her concussing herself into oblivion, it means that Uzu pretty much gets picked up and carted anywhere she needs to go in our arms, as her privileged status demands.

Wait a second, I sense a trend here.  Have I been outsmarted by my critters?  Dammit!

March 13, 2014

Friday Review: Dying of the Light

If you only know George R.R. Martin thanks to Game of Thrones (and the Song of Ice and Fire books upon which it's based), you should know two things.

First, he is not your bitch.

Second, he wrote stuff before A Song of Ice and Fire, some of which was really pretty good.  When your debut novel is nominated for a Hugo award, you're no slouch.

Which is not to say there aren't some parts of Dying of the Light that sound a bit familiar all these years on.  It's set on Worlorn, a rogue planet that's spent about 60 years in a place where it was habitable.  As a result, it hosted a festival that became a kind of World's Fair on steroids for the neighboring planets, but, as the novel starts, the festival has ended and the world is growing slowly colder and colder.  That's right - winter is coming!  There's also a typical Martin focus on detail (what everybody's wearing, eating, etc.) that, at some point, goes from interesting background detail about the world into overkill.  Oh, and did I mention that one faction that comes to the fore in the second half of the book has a wolf's head as a sigil?  Only they ain't Starks.

Our hero (of sorts), Dirk, comes to Worlorn at the urging of an old lover, who may or may not need his help.  As a result, he's dropped into some first rate culture shock when he finds out that said lover, Gwen, is now married (after a fashion) to a guy, Jaan,  who is also in a long term relationship with another man (his "teyn"), Garse.  It's complicated, but Martin does a good job of fleshing out the culture of High Kavallar (where Jaan and Garse come from) and its honor-based economy.

The other thing Dirk finds himself in, of course, is the middle of a planet that's dying.  The most effective part of the book for me was the first third or so, during which Gwen shows Dirk around the planet, taking him to several of the different cites set up by the various cultures that participated in the festival.  Those include a still fully active (and sparsely inhabited) city run by computers and the haunting Crying Lamia, an entire city designed as a musical instrument played by the winds.  The music it makes is so melancholy that it drives people to suicide.  Kind of like Magma (kidding!).

This exploration also gives Martin a chance to dig into the rich relationship between Dirk and Gwen.  To say Dirk holds a torch for Gwen is putting it mildly, although it's not clear that she has any real affection for him.  She takes him to task for holding onto a memory of another version of her that he basically made up (and gave a different name - names are big in Dying of the Light), but isn't certain whether she's in a better position in these days than those.

I thought the second half of the book was less interesting, mainly because it turns into a standard (if well done) series of chases, double crosses, and reveals of middling effectiveness.  And as the running occurs there's an inordinate amount of Kavallar dick swinging that, along with everybody going by their full several-words-long name, gets old fast.  Martin wraps everything up by not really wrapping up anything, with an ending that is either cleverly open ended or downright maddening (you'll have to judge for itself).

It's worth keeping in mind that Dying of the Light, for all its charms, is a creature of its time.  As this review notes, Gwen is "more than a McGuffin but not much more."  She's the only woman in the novel and, although she's not merely a damsel in need of rescue, the book mostly revolves around how the men in her life scheme over her.

The Details
Dying of the Light
By George R.R. Martin
Published 1977

March 11, 2014

Playing In A Rigged Game

When people talk about our Anglo-American justice system, in contrast to civil law systems around the world anyway, the word they most often use is "adversarial."  That is, it's based on the idea of two interested parties of relatively equal strength battling it out so as to allow the fact finder (be it judge or jury) to ferret out the truth.  That's as opposed to the inquisitorial system of continental Europe, which is driven by the judge herself.

It's a nice idea, but it very rarely works out that way in the real world, particularly when it comes to criminal justice.  Truth is, in terms of resources the prosecution and it's related agencies - state or federal - have much more power than most defendants.  Moreover, prosecutors often have the unfettered discretion of charging decisions, which can turn a minor controversy into a major prosecution.  In addition to all that, there's the simple fact that the rules of the game don't apply equally to both sides.

That's something I wrote about a long time ago on a blog far, far away.  But I'm motivated to write about it again thanks to a recent decision of the Fourth Circuit that really puts things into sharp relief.

The defendant in US v. Robinson pleaded guilty to several drug offenses, including conspiracy to distribute crack cocaine.  The case is not about his guilt, but about his punishment.  Under the US Sentencing Guidelines (which, while not mandatory are nonetheless given great weight) a sentence in drug cases is largely driven by the amount of drugs involved.  How much crack did Robinson admit to selling during his guilty plea?  It doesn't matter, because the Guidelines are based on "relevant conduct" - that is, everything you've done in relation to a particular crime, whether found by a jury or not.*

Relevant conduct often ranges far beyond the facts of the offense itself because it only has to be proven by a preponderance of the evidence, rather than beyond a reasonable doubt.  In the trade we even have a term for the drug weights that come out of nowhere following a conviction to bolster the relevant conduct finding.  We call it "ghost dope," for reasons that should become obvious.

When the presentence report came back in Robinson's case it attributed more than 1.4 kilograms of crack to him based entirely on statements from a witness named Battle.  Robinson objected, arguing that Battle had given conflicting stories in the past.  In addition, Battle had specifically said Robinson sold him PCP cigarettes during a particular period of time when Robinson was in another state.  In other words, Robinson argued that Battle wasn't reliable and his statements - nothing produced under oath, mind you - should be disregarded.

At sentencing the Government did not produce Battle to testify, even though it had notice that his reliability had been questioned and the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure provide for such things to be hashed out at sentencing.  Instead, it argued that there were three other witnesses, also not present for the hearing, who could provide information that would make Robinson's situation even worse - i.e., attribute even more ghost dope to him.  Their statements somehow did not "make their way" to the probation officer who prepared the presentence report.
As I wrote over at the Fourth Circuit blog:
The district court presented Robinson with two alternatives.  First, it would conclude the sentencing that day 'with what's here and now, and I'll make the decisions that I need to make by a preponderance of the evidence.'  Second, it would continue the hearing, 'unwind the whole thing,' and get a revised PSR that would include the Government's new witnesses.  Robinson chose to go ahead, after again asserting that Battle was not credible.
Robinson was sentenced to 140 months in prison.

On appeal, he renewed his argument that Battle wasn't credible and he should not have been attributed all the relevant conduct found by the district court.  This is a hard argument to make in the first place - it's a factual question, subject to a very deferential standard of review.  But in this case, the Fourth Circuit didn't even consider it, concluding instead that Robinson waived his right to challenge the relevant conduct determination by choosing to go forward at sentencing.

If something seems amiss about to you, you're right.  Judge Diaz, who dissented, pointed to why:
The majority declares that Robinson made a considered decision and should have to live with the consequences. But that rationale upends the equities--and, indeed, facts--of the case before us. It is not Robinson who seeks a mulligan, but the government. 
When Robinson objected to the PSR--before the hearing--the government was put on notice that its 'evidence' was suspect. Yet it did not produce Battle. Nor did it produce the probation officer who interviewed Battle. And it had never even submitted the other witnesses’ statements to the probation officer in the first place. Despite its lack of preparation, the government was presented--as the majority sees it--with a win-win scenario: either it would have a second chance to do the job right (securing an even longer sentence), or it would get a pass on the evidentiary standard.
Remember, the burden of proof is supposed to be on the prosecution.  One could argue that it's always better for the court to have more facts when it makes a decision, but that's not the way an adversarial system works.  The parties are - or, rather, should be - stuck with what they present to the court.  There shouldn't be do overs in order to achieve the "right" result.

I wonder sometimes if the fact that our criminal justice system is basically a game - one with high stakes, no doubt - doesn't hurt defendants who are caught up in and and truly guilty as charged.  It's easy in such circumstances to focus in on the game itself, the players, and how they're not following the rules, rather than your own culpability.  If we care at all about rehabilitation, that's probably a bad thing.

I suppose I'm guilty of that too, when it comes right down to it.  Like the song says, "it's just a game, and all I can do is play."  The least the powers that be can do is make sure the rules apply to all the players equally.

* In fact, even if a jury acquits you of a particular transaction, a court can still hold it against you at sentencing.  That's a topic for another day.