Thursday, February 26, 2009

I don't care about oscars or emmys.

Ok, so this isn't much of a headline, given that many people probably don't care about awards for movies or television shows. But then many people eschew those things because they don't particularly like watching TV or even movies. That's not how it is with me. I love movies and I love TV. And I'm not one of those elitest or snobbish or whatever types who only like shows or movies that are artsy or unpopular or what have you. I love all sorts of TV and movies - from the popcorn flicks right up to the highly intellectual snobfests. Even a bad movie can be fun to watch in the right frame of mind and right company.

I just don't like the award shows or the awards because they really just are meaningless to me. I don't really care who wins what or who gets nominated. The only usefulness I see in the awards is that they can sometimes highlight movies that I've not seen or really paid much attention to and then I go see them (or DVR them). While an award doesnt' guarantee I'll think it is a great film, generally speaking, they at least indicate the film will be enjoyable to watch on some level.

But then plenty of movies without awards are just as good or better than those with awards.

I don't begrudge the academy its popularity contest lovefest. Every industry in some way does awards for its members. Perhaps most of them are meaningless, but it is at least a nice thought and can also be an excuse to just get together with a bunch of people in your field and have a party and drink or whatever else one does for a social night out.

People complain about the criteria used for the awards, or how certain topics for films get them and others don't, but I really don't care about that, either. I mean, even if only movies I love got awards, all based on my own criteria, I still wouldn't care to watch the award shows. Because to me, what I care about is do I enjoy the experience of watching the movie or show. Nothing else matters outside of that, generally speaking.

And ok, I suppose one thing I do care about is having movies made that I really like, and so if movies I like get awards, that might encourage more of them to get made. But that's not really much reason for me to care about the awards, since my tastes are rather wide ranging anyway.

So fire up the popcorn and give me an overpriced fountain drink. I want to be entertained!

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Making time for gaming

It takes a diligent effort to arrange to game, particularly as an adult with so much else going on. I have to arrange for child care, either to watch the children while I'm busy gaming at home (and sometimes that isn't necessary if baby is sleeping and pre-schooler is happy playing next to the table where I game, though I can't count on either of those in advance). Or if it is a Friday, I need someone to come watch the kids so I can start my long drive south to where the game is. That alone makes gaming costly, though I think it is worth it.

Of course, my schedule isn't the only one that counts. Other people also have things come up and generally, if two or even sometimes one person cancels, we cancel the game. This can work out - saves babysitting money, for one thing, but sometimes this happens too frequently and then I don't get my gaming fix.

So I have to work hard to make sure I make time for gaming. I find it is ultimately worth it. It is really my main or only social activity right now other than just being at home with my family. I'd probably go crazy without it. I keep trying to encourage my wife to get something she can do like that - she doesn't game. She did have a book club for a while, but that broke up ages ago.

I'm sure this holds true in general - everyone needs to make time for fun. If you don't, you'll be a dull boy/girl. All work and no play. Or just no play. Maybe you could get a prescription for fun - from a doctor - that says that you have to have a certain amount of fun per week for your health.

I have missed too many games in recent weeks. It is starting to wear on me. That and my wife being out of town for like four weeks in a row now. My three and a half year old daughter is extremely whiny and demanding. All the time. I definitely need an escape. Oh well. Maybe this Friday will work out.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

I hate cursive

I hate cursive writing. Really, totally despise it. It is hard to read, hard to write, and generally is useful only for signing your name. And even there, it can make it hard to figure out who signed.

I've always hated it. I never saw the point in learning it. Now, in the digital age, it is as useless as ever. Hell, if you really want cursive, you can use a cursive font. The advantage there is, it is actually a hell of a lot more readable than real cursive.

Some ancient grammar or pennmanship nazis seem to like cursive, or see it as a lost art or something silly like that, but I don't see it that way. Things become obsolete. We don't use feather pens anymore. The need for cursive is gone. A far more important skill for children to learn is how to type. Typing, texting - that is the new form of communication for our age. Kids who don't learn that will fall behind. Kids who don't learn cursive - well, they'll miss nothing.

I know I won't miss it. I print when I hand write, and I try to type where I can - it is legible, it is savable, and it is editable.

So cursive - R.I.P. You won't be missed.

Monday, February 23, 2009

My thoughts on the NAS Report on Forensic Science

Well, now I've read the full summary of the report and I've also gotten through the first two chapters. From the summary, I can already reach some conclusions, though I plan to read it all the way through.

There is much about it that I like. It does somewhat bother me that they sort of tiptoe around the notion of the strong pro-prosecutor bias in forensics, but I'm sure that is politics. What counts is the recommendations they make, and what they recommend would do much to eliminate that bias. (They do mention something known as "drylabbing" - which simply put is writing a forensic report, complete with "matches" to a defendant, without doing any actual analysis or any actual lab - thus, the lab stays "dry" - others may call this perjury, fraud, or a felony. That there is a word for it, to me, indicates how widespread it must be - sort of like police "testilying")

Ok, they do note the strong pro-prosecution bias in courts, noting that "ironically, the appellate courts appear to be more willing to second-guess trial court judgments on the admissibility of purported scientific evidence in civil cases than in criminal cases." (Page S-8) For this, they cite a study that notes that courts are more lax in their role as gatekeeper on science for criminal trials than civil - and they are much stricter with civil plaintiffs. In other words, they are much more careful about what gets admitted when large sums of money are on the line that might have to be paid by corporate interests than they are when peoples' very freedom is at stake. Big surprise there, right?

So in the end, they recommend what I'd do - having independent labs who serve everyone, not just law enforcement. They further recommend that to implement this at the state level, Congress use the power of the purse - offering funds for forensics only if states adopt an independent forensics lab system (matching what they recommend for the federal level - A NIFS - National Institute of Forensic Science) - The NIFS would be an entirely new agency, not beholden to any other agency, fully independent. They make a good case for why a new agency is needed. First, most existing agencies that could do it are already in bed with law enforcement or are part of law enforcement. None of them really has the focus anyway. It helps that this was what I would do, so I'm biased in favor of it, but that doesn't change the fact that it is an excellent idea.

One thing that struck me in reading the summary (I haven't gotten through the rest so maybe this is spelled out more specifically later) - was that even if you have independent labs, and take other measures, you still have the problem of the courts themselves and what they might or might not allow in. Further, I somehow doubt we'll ever get the independent labs - that would threaten prosecutors too much and prosecutors always get what they want these days (though maybe that will change, I see no sign of it now). But then something else they recommend might be a way to deal with that:

They recommend scientific research on the effects of human bias, intentional or not, in forensic analysis. While they don't go out and say this (at least in the summary) - to me, the main benefit of such research is you could use it to totally destroy the credibility of any forensics lab that is not independent. Because I suspect that if you really did such studies, you'd find out what we have been finding out since DNA evidence has begun releasing lots of innocent people from prison - that the forensic evidence used to put them there with its "100% matches" and certainties really was anything but. And much of that could be laid at the feet of bias for being in bed with law enforcement - some deliberate, maybe other just "helping" things along in more subtle ways. If we have a solid body of scienctific research that shows that non-independent forensic laboratories are hopelessly skewed in favor of prosecutions, that is cause for excluding it from trial altogether. Now, the right-wing jurists may not go along with this, but the intellectually honest ones will have to. So that would be another pressure point to get independent forensics labs - either you do it or you might as well flush your current lab down the toilet for all the good its reports will do you in court.

Also in the report is a strong emphasis on science for training and techniques. Right now, many forensic lab positions are based on an apprenticeship model. There are no scientific papers or underlying, peer-reviewed, scientifically proven techniques for much of what is used - for instance hair matching or even fingerprinting (if you can believe that - it is true - there is almost no peer-reviewed scientific research on how accurate or useful fingerprinting really is for identification). The report advocates eliminating all apprenticeship for forensics and making it 100% science based, starting early, with classes in undergrad onwards. They also advocate science for lawyers, judges, and law enforcement, as there is much scientific illiteracy there as well.

The strong emphasis on science and peer review also probably turns off current forensic experts, as the report notes that many of them were loathe to admit, when testifying before the committee, that their techniques provided anything less than 100% matches. Thus, they are also against another recommendation in the report that the actual scientific margin of error be prominent on reports. Even with DNA, this can greatly reduce the "match" below 100% - because while DNA matching is very good in the lab, there are still possible human errors - mislabeling vials, contaminations, etc. The actual error rate for matches would take all of this into account. So now instead of being told that there is a 99.9999999999% match, jurors would be told that there is a 85% match or whatever it would be, taking EVERYTHING into consideration. That puts the evidence back into the proper perspective, and also leaves room for reasonable doubt where there should be room for it.

Related to the desire to make science the backbone of the whole process is the recognition that it really isn't there, currently. The report notes that forensic labs everywhere are underresourced - you'd think that means not properly funded or manned, and that is part of it, but it goes deeper. The lack of a scientific foundation underlying much of the work means that there is no "there" there - the labs can't properly do their jobs even with more money and people because what they do simply isn't accurate or useful absent an underlying scientific process. That backbone needs to be created, from the ground up, in the world of science, not law enforcement.

As I finish reading the report, getting into the details of all of the above, I may write more on this. Suffice it to say that I think there are a great deal of excellent suggestions in the report. It saddens me to know that it is a virtual certainty that none of the significant recommendations will ever be implemented.

I have already heard criticism - as I mentioned before, law enforcement doesn't want non-independent labs. Well, tough shit for them - they need them. I think they know that they'll actually have to do their job with them and won't be able to take shortcuts, drylabs, or anything like that, and that is the impetus behind much of the resistance. I've also heard criticism that this shouldn't be a federal thing or some new federal agency, with the usual tired complaints about bureaucracy. Well, I think those complaints are bullshit. The lack of uniform standards is a big problem and the only way to get them is to have something national, not state by state. This will take strong leadership at the top to ever get implemented.

The important thing is to put scientists (who are good administrators, but strong in the science) in charge of the office and to keep politics out of it. Measure the results based on science and peer-review. And stick to that. Measure its success by accuracy in the science, rather than convictions or other bullshit numbers, and it may stand a chance.

Here's hoping.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

National Academy of Sciences Report on Forensic Science

I know this has been all over the legal blogsphere, but NAS has released a report on Forensic Science in the United States.

I read about it in many places and also heard about it on NPR on the radio. This is something that greatly interests me. I have not yet read the report. In fact, the report is over 250 pages long and you need to pay for it to download it.

What first struck me about the report was, "duh." After reading about that horrible medical examiner in Mississippi who has been basically telling prosecutors anything they want to hear to get convictions, I knew things were bad.

What amused me most about the report on NPR was that law enforcement/prosecutors seem to agree with most of the report, except for one rather key and important recommendation: The recommendation that forensic labs be completely independent of law enforcement. Oh, they HATED that idea. Of course, the reasons given for their hatred were something plausible, like how they like how they can get quick turnaround time when it is all "in-house" - which is oh so important when you are tracking hot leads that may quickly go cold.

But of course, the real reason I think they don't like the idea of an independent lab is that then they won't have people on the payroll and on their "team" who will be biased in their favor and who will also know who they are interested in and might skew results accordingly - intentionally or not. I mean, if turnaround time is the only issue, there is no reason an independent lab need not be quick, particularly for emergency situations. If you could demonstrate that an independent lab could be that quick, I'm sure law enforcement would come up with some other reason why they need their own labs.

Me, I think it is a travesty that the labs are not already independent. If I were supreme dictator, I'd make it the law that forensic labs had to be completely independent, and also must operate blindly. They'd get things in to test and have no idea where they came from. The lab techs would never know if they were testing evidence for a prosecutor, or for a criminal defendant, or for a civil plaintiff or civil defendant. And just to keep them honest, some of what they'd be testing would actually be dummy tests with known results marked as if they were real, to verify the lab is being accurate. Moreover, criminal defendants would have exactly the same access to the use of the lab as prosecutors. That would be fair and that would eliminate a lot of the bias and skewing in favor of prosecutors that happens now.

I'm sure this will happen - sometime after hell freezes over.

In an effort to dig further into this report, I actually paid to download it. I just started reading it, and once I'm done, I will post again about it.

First Birthdays

First Birthdays. They are fun. And they are for me. Well, for me and my wife. For parents. Because the kid sure as heck isn't going to remember it. He'll be lucky to remember his third birthday. I don't think I even remember that far back. I barely remember most of my younger birthdays. Oh, and why do I say "he"? Because today is my son's First Birthday.

We would celebrate, except a big winter storm will keep us from going out tomorrow. So instead we'll celebrate tomorrow. That's ok. He won't know the difference. Hopefully the cake will stay good until then. Not that he'll know what to do with it. If he's anything like his older sister, he'll mash his own mini-cake right into the table instead of eating it. That was fun to watch. Then again, maybe he'll like cake. His older sister doesn't like it. She doesn't really like candy either. She likes to eat fresh fruit. I guess that's good.

My wife has invited all of our current babysitters to either have lunch with us (and my parents) and then cake or both. I don't know if they will all make it. It will be strange to have them all together at once. Strange in that I can't help but think of them as competing business people. Then again, they all can't babysit all the time, so in a sense, I could think of them as all working on the same team, taking turns at a shift when we need someone to watch our children.

Of course, for this, they won't be babysitters - they'll just be guests. We'll buy them all lunch. And offer them cake. And hopefully they'll have a little fun watching their little charges grow a little bit older. I never did any babysitting as a kid. Moreover, I'm the youngest child (of only two children) so I never saw any younger siblings in my house growing up. I learned how to handle babies (and now toddlers) by a crash-course of on-the-job training. Now I feel like a grizzled veteran. Especially from dealing with my children by myself, as my wife of late has been travelling out of town every single week. Well, not entirely by myself. That's where babysitters come in. I'd go crazy without at least some help.

Between babysitters and day care, we might as well just have me quit my job because we probably barely break even. Well, not quite that bad, but it feels like it. And its not like I make peanuts. I mean, I'm far from the upper brackets, but I get paid more than the median income. I am a lawyer - which doesn't mean as much as some think when it comes to pay.

I just can't believe it has been a full year since my son was born. It all goes by so fast now, especially with two kids. He's already almost walking. He's already feeding himself and using sippy-cups - time to get him off the bottle. Or rather, time to get my wife off of the bottle - she really wants him on it. To me, I'm looking forward to no having to clean and prepare bottles every day. It seems like that's half of what I do each day.

Happy Birthday! Only six more months til my daughter is four. Maybe then the terrible threes will be over...

Friday, February 20, 2009

Dungeons and Dragons DM's Corner: Good DMing is being prepared AND Making it up as you go along

I've played Dungeons and Dragons for decades now. Well, almost three. Off and on. Call it two decades of solid playing. Ok, maybe just one solid, one off and on.

I've learned that to be a good DM (Dungeon Master) to run a game, you really need to be prepared. Strangely, you often need to be more prepared with a published adventure than one you've made up yourself. This is because the published adventure you will not be as familiar with, so you need to learn all the details so you don't mess up, miss something important - and leave your players stuck or mad that you "forgot" to describe some minor but important detail very early on that throws them off for hours.

But I want to get beyond even that distinction to get to what I mean by needing to prepare and also make it up as you go along. Because even the best preparation simply can never cover every possible thing the players may wish to do. That's the beauty of a role playing game in person as opposed to on the computer. In a computer game, you have a very finite number of choices and a finite number of ways to choose them. In person, the world is wide open. That can be scary for a new DM. It can sometimes be scary for players, too, and players will try to stay on track. (Well, some will - others may take delight in going a different route or just like to be creative).

Preparation, be it published material or your own, means being familiar with the capabilities of the monsters and NPCs the players may face in a given night. Know their tactics. Even better, come up with tactics that take advantage of their unique capabilities, especially in combination with foes of differing abilities. A well planned ambush utilizing intelligent tactics can turn what would otherwise be an easy PC slaughter of goblins into a challenging fight to the finish that the PCs barely escape by the skin of their teeth.

It also means being familiar with the overall plot and what is relevant and what is not. You can provide hints and clues to the plot, even ones not in the published adventure, if you are really familiar with it. You can also craft some nifty red herrings that way that won't inadvertantly tie into the plot (or maybe you want them to).

You also need to make things up as you go along because players will never just stick to what is outlined in the adventure. It may simply be a small trip to a magic shop for some trinket in a place where there is no magic shop described. So now you can either say there is no shop, or you can make one up on the spot, complete with proprietor, selection of items, and shifty-looking bodyguard, who seems vaguely familiar. Maybe you throw in the item the player is looking for, maybe not. But on top of that you can include all sorts of other items of interest. Perhaps one is cursed. Perhaps another is stolen. The possibilities are endless. Or perhaps you want to keep things "on track" and so you just make the bare outline of a store and owner and leave it at that. The key to making the most of this is keeping a blank sheet of paper labeled with the name of the city (or whatever the locale is) and to fill it in with all of the details as you create them.

Now, once the players have visited the shop once, you create it on that paper, on the spot. You name it. You name the NPC who runs it. You list the inventory and whatever other notes arise from the interaction in the store with the players. This place now exists and can be visited again and again. You can add notes to it each time. I've often found this is the best way to design a locale. It simply takes too long to fill everything in, particulalry in a large city with thousands of inhabitants. I could spend years writing up details of every locale in my home-brew world. Of course, I don't have time to. Instead, I do "just in time" world design by filling things in as they are sought-out by players. The longer players linger in an area and seek things out, the more details emerge as I create the city around them. As far as the players know, those places and people were always there (and some of them were - I do create SOME of what is there in advance, as I have time).

I've often found that the locales and NPCs I create on the fly like that are more interesting and fun than those I try to come up with in advance. Nothing gets the creative juices flowing like the interaction of actually playing. At least, that's my theory. It can be hard to just make up a whole city in isolation, sitting by myself with a blank page or an empty computer screen.

Now I have many cities with lots of interesting details all over my map, and I never would have had that if I hadn't filled them in as we played.

I've made up whole adventures on the fly this way, though that can be hard to do. Usually I'll at least come up with a general concept or story and then work things from there. Right now, in an effort to save brain cells and also utilize the vast numbers of books I've gotten over the years, I am using a published adventure - the first Pathfinder (as I think I mentioned before). But even there, there is room to fill in some details.

Another fun thing on the preparation side is to just come up with interesting encounters, designing some NPCs and their minions, along with complentary tactics, but not tying it into any particular adventure. Then when you need an encounter on the fly, you can grab one of those and adjust it for the given situation. You'd get the benefit of preparation but you'd have the flexibility of making it up as you go all in one fell swoop.

In sum, you really need to both be prepared and also make it up as you go to be a good DM. You will always need both. Because players are unpredicable. And because half of the fun is the open-endedness of the table-top roleplaying game. Might as well make the most of it! Save the railroading for computer games.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

I don't care about the politics of movie makers

I don't care about the politics of movie makers. When I say that, I refer to the context of whether I'll actually enjoy a movie or not. For instance, while I think Mel Gibson is off his rocker and likey an anti-semite based on things he's done, that really doesn't stop me from enjoying his movies - nor would it stop me from going to see other movies of his. Because I don't go to Braveheart to see Mel Gibson - I go to be entertained and see a (fictional) William Wallace.

It is suspension of disbelief. A good actor should lose him or herself in a role and you should not see anything but the character. That's not to say that bad actors and acting don't have their charms as well. (See Surf Nazis Must Die). But again, I don't really care about or even want to know about the personal lives of the actors (nor the producers or director) for a film. I just don't care. That's not what I'm paying for. I'm paying for an escape. For entertainment. For fun. I want to laugh. Or cry. Or even be forced to think and wonder. If you get right down to it, I'm sure that, given the huge number of people involved in making a film, there isn't a single film out there without at least some completely unacceptably objectionable people who were in the crew or on the screen. So what? Even assholes gotta eat.

Now, I can understand a little someone wanting to boycott a film where the primary financial winner of the film is someone you'd rather not be enriching, but, to use Mel Gibson again as an example, he's rich as hell whether or not I go to see his latest film. And more to the point, given his past track record, the money is likely to go simply to making more movies, many of which I'm sure I'd enjoy, so why not contribute to the pot by buying a ticket to a film I enjoy?

There are things I'd never pay money for - like Left Behind movies or similar such tropes, but then even that may be more about the fact that these movies absolutely suck and are not entertaining rather than my concerns about funding the ass clowns that write and make such Christianist masterbatory material.

I'd have to say, though, that I'd characterize any movie review that goes into the personal politics of the stars as opposed to what is actually on screen also qualifies as a movie review that sucks. So shut up about the stars' politics, turn off the lights, and pass the popcorn! Its showtime!

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Gamers 2: Dorkness Rising - A Mini Review

I finally watched my borrowed DVD of the Gamers 2: Dorkness Rising last night. And it was really good. For a very low budget, independent production, it was well made - extremely well made. But beyond that, it just had a great story and really showcased some things that anyone who has gamed since youth would appreciate.

The only (minor) complaint I would have is that a few of the players, who are all adults, act in ways that is much more reminiscent of early adolescents gaming than adult gaming. But then we are all kids at heart, and it isn't ridiculous (usually) - and finally, it is just plain funny. It reminds me of games played when I was younger. And how else can you really get the full flavor of gaming portrayed in a film?

It was just an excellent film and I found watching it satisfying on all levels, from just getting into the story as well as the game within the story and the portrayal of gaming itself. You see conflict between role players and players who wish to kill everything in sight, including at the end an explanation of why they might be doing that (an explanation that makes sense).

You see an evolution of the players' style as the game progresses. You see a new player learning the game, though it really doesn't get into rules much, it does get into them a lot at just the right moments in ways that are usually fun and humorous.

I don't want to get into more details for fear of spoiling the movie, though maybe I will at a later date with the spoiler warning attached. Suffice it to say for now that I am one satisfied gamer. Too bad this movie didn't get wide release. I'd pay to see it.

Monday, February 16, 2009

The Fourth Amendment is Dead.

As I was reminded by a recent article on Simple Justice, the Fourth Amendment to our Constitution is dead. Sure, there may be some signs of life, but that is just fake motions put in place by conservative jurists to make people just think that the Fourth Amendment is still alive, ala Weekend at Bernies.

As was pointed out at Simple Justice, arguments in favor of the Fourth Amendment, and specifically for the exclusionary rule, are notoriously weak. More to the point, I think they miss the point. The focus seems to be all about police misbehavior - and whether or not it was intentional misbehavior. Which is just what the conservative hacks like Scalia want, because then they can just get rid of that pesky Fourth Amendment altogether by ignoring or not seeing anything the police do as deliberate misconduct - forgetting for a moment that if there was misconduct, just how would the Supreme Court ever know - I'd expect the police would be pretty damn good at covering their tracks.

But that is a red herring anyway, because nowhere are the police mentioned in the Fourth Amendment. The Fourth Amendment does not mention the police or police misconduct because that was not what it was written for. Our founding fathers were concerned about government misconduct, not police misconduct. They did not want the King or any soveriegn getting into their business without a damn good, documented reason, in advance. Somehow this gets lost. It isn't about police conduct, it is about limitations on GOVERNMENT conduct. The government includes not just the police, but the prosecutors and yes, the courts, too.

I mean, looking at individual details, this can be seen, but never are the pieces all put together when analyzing a Fourth Amendment issue. Sure, it is acknowledged that the police need to follow the Constitution. But so does the prosecutor. The prosecutor can't get around it by just going in person and searching your home. That isn't police conduct at all, but it is still covered. And the judge can't go snooping around your house either. Sure, a judge can sign a warrant, but that has to have a good basis in support of it. The judge can't just go snooping around "just because." Thus, looking at police conduct is missing the point. It isn't police conduct. It is government conduct. It isn't about negligence or police malfesance or really anyone's intentions at all. It is a flat limitation of power on our government.

The simplest and most direct way to reflect this is to simply say that unless all of the proper steps were followed (i.e. probable cause leading to a warrant, in advance) - then as far as the government is concerned, the evidence doesn't exist, because to find otherwise is to allow the government to do something which the Constitution flatly says it has no power to do.

The exclusionary rule shouldn't be about deterrence of misconduct. Sure, that should be a good side benefit, but really, the rule should be about simply preventing the government from violating the constutiton. Focusing on this eliminates all of the (often bogus) concerns about what the police were REALLY thinking when they violated your rights. That shouldn't matter. That doesn't matter. The Constitution doesn't give any exceptions. It simply flat out says the government can't. Period. If the government can't, then it can't. Honest mistake? Tough. The Constitution limits the government. The people are supposed to be soveriegn.

And maybe, just maybe, if the Constitution were actually followed again, people could actually have some privacy in their cars. As opposed to now, where bascially stepping into a car, or even being near one, is now taken by right-wing jurists (which most are) to be equivalent to a signed and notarized consent for any and all government officials to give you and your car an anal cavity search.

Sunday, February 15, 2009


Just an FYI. I was travelling Friday through today, so I was not able to post anything. I'm back. Once recovered today, I will get back to posting...

One thing travelling teaches me, always, is just how nice it is to be home. I like sleeping in my own bed. I like sitting in my pajamas in my cozy home, eating breakfast and watching all of the goodies that were saved on my DVR from the previous week (or month or year with how long it takes me to get to things sometimes).

Of all of the devices that exist in fiction and science fiction, I think the one I wish were real the most was the transporter from Star Trek - or teleportation magic. To be able to step from one place to the other instantly would be so nice. Travel time is wasted time. It is tiring. It is not something that is really productive in and of itself. I really hate it when I have to drive. But sitting as a passenger isn't great either. Though at least I can sleep or read or something to pass the time.

Air travel is ok, except for the whole "we're all going to die" vibe you can get. And the hassles of security make me never want to travel. Talk about surrendering to big brother. Train travel isn't so bad if not for it being so slow and not connecting every point on the map. A really good, fast, efficient rail system would be so nice. Ok, for the U.S., I bet that such a thing is about as likely as teleportation and Heisenburg compensators.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Movie Plot Arguments: Star Trek: Generations

Sometimes I hear people criticize a movie for a plot problem, and it just gets in my head that I want to argue about it. If it is a criticism I hear in person, then I will argue it in person. Sometimes the thoughts linger for years. So it was with Star Trek: Generations. Many did not like this movie. I did. I didn't think it was the greatest movie or even a great Star Trek movie, but it was still fun and I enjoyed it.

After it came out, a friend of mine, who is very smart, had a scathing criticism of the movie, one that I thought was undeserved.

His problem was that the Nexus was made out to be this fabulous thing, this thing that was so fabulous you never want to leave and you will be haunted by it for the rest of your life if you get into it - and yet Picard is only in it for a few minutes and already he's ready to leave.

As a side note, he also wondered why the Nexus wouldn't just trick Picard into thinking he left and stopped Soran. That was an easy one to pick apart, though. It isn't like the Nexus was made out to be some sort of twisted "wish" spell from Dungeons and Dragons. It gives you exactly what you want - if it tricked you, you'd not be getting what you wanted.

But to the main complaint - that one wasn't really that much harder to address. The Nexus was made out to be the way it was really through two characters: Soran and Guinan. And both of them were in the Nexus just after their entire civilization was wiped out by the Borg - families killed, rather serious genocide there. In other words, they had nothing in the "real" world and no particular reason not to want to stay in the Nexus forever. So from their point of view, it probably would feel like the worst thing in the world to be yanked out of it - sort of like going from personal tragedy to a happy dream, only to wake up and find out that the happiness was dream and the tragedy was real.

But then Picard had a tragedy of his own. His brother and nephew were killed in a fire just before he went into the Nexus. So he also had a personal reason to really want to be there. Yet that wasn't as bad as what happened to Guinan and Soran. Still, it was a reason for him to stay. And he did seem happy to stay.

But then he sees the Xmas tree ornament. The one with the star burst inside. And that obviously reminds him of the star that was destroyed that allowed him to enter the Nexus. A star that then killed hundreds of millions of people. It also killed his whole crew, but he didn't know that. Not that it would make any difference for Picard. The hundreds of millions would be enough. No way Picard could live with the guilt of all those deaths on his head. Even absent that, he had such a strong sense of duty (a duty you saw in action in someone else in The Perfect Mate - an episode of the TV series). So of course Picard got out of there. And it made perfect sense. Kirk is of the same mold, and he did not face any personal tragedy before going in. Both of them also probably would not be content to live in a fantasy world when there was a "real" world that needed them.

So take that, friend from the past. Maybe almost no one would agree with my friend anyway, so maybe this whole exercise is just me feeling too clever with myself, but I've wanted to get this off my chest for a while now, and thankfully, there's this new invention called "blogs."

Maybe I'll have to write about C-3PO and Darth Vader next.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

To Build an Empire

I enjoy Empire Building. Not the slaughter that goes with it, mind you, just the building.

That's why I enjoy games such as Civilization, in all its incarnations. I like the competition aspect of it, which is why I don't play in an empty world, but come to think of it, I have played games of earlier versions where I played against one or two computer opponents and my goal was more to see how glorious a civilization I could build rather than worry about having to fight for land and other things with other civilizations.

The most recent version of the game, Civilization IV, with all of its expansions, has fixed the AI to the point where I don't feel the need to play in an empty world to do that. (Mostly by not just having all nations want to go to war with you all the time). There are still aggressive nations, but it is something that can be dealt with (mostly) with diplomacy and some strategy.

I have expressed similar building impulses with Real Time Strategy Games (RTSs) like Total Annhiliation. I was the classic "turtle" in that game. I'd spend a great deal of time building the ultimate base/fortress, with walls and defensive weapons and all of that. It was hard sometimes, especially if you were attacked early, but there was a certain beauty if you could pull it off. The only downside was that RTS games tend to be offense-heavy, so no base is truly impregnable, but I'd try my best.

I expressed my empire building even before computer games, when I was a child on the beach. I was in a sand-castle building contest. I built a castle. I didn't win. But then, after the contest was over, I went around to all the other kids on the beach in the contest and got them excited about a new project: connecting all of the various castles on the beach together into one big super-castle. That was a great deal of fun. I was "happy as a pig in shit" as I like to say sometimes. That simple, pure joy that is sometimes difficult to replicate after reaching adulthood, though I think I get it now through playing with my children. Or playing RPGs or computer games.

At times when playing games such as Civ or TA, I'd forget there was even a game with victory conditions and such. I would just want to keep building and have it never end. Or rather, the games would end long before I'd reached the pinacle of the empire I envisioned.

I wonder sometimes what it would be like to be an architect. I'd love to design and build a cool building. A building for me. The problem is, not being rich, I probably never will be able to build my ultimate building. I did help design the house I live in now, and that was fun, and I really love our house, but there was much we couldn't do because of budget. And I was a stickler for that - from the time of the estimate to the final product, we kept within 0.5% of our initial budget. Basically, we went over the initial contract price by $1,100, and that was all for the cost of making our deck larger than we had originally planned. Yes, I'm ruthless when it comes to sticking to budget.

If anyone needs someone to design an Empire to build, I'm available, and my price is very reasonable!

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Superstitions of Youth: Ghosts and Aliens

When I was a kid, I had a fascination with the idea of ghosts. I think what really solidified it for me was a really cool (to kid-me) book with lots of stories and pictures of "haunted" places and even some pictures of ghosts. Some looked so "real" that they freaked me out. I would look at them for hours.

I also had some collections of short ghost stories, and I really enjoyed reading them. I read them many times. Part of what I enjoyed was how they sparked my imagination. They also had little illustrations here and there that just fed into it. They were just enough to give an aura of menace or mystery. I wonder if I still have those books.

Part of this enjoyment of "ghosts" is also probably why I liked stupid shows like 13: Fear is Real (as I mentioned before). Of course, now it is pure entertainment value. For I figured out a long time ago that ghosts are not real. But for a while, they were real to me, or at least, they fed my imagination as a child. It is funny in a way - I cherish those memories in that they were great fun for me. It was fun to be scared of ghosts and ghost stories.

I don't recall exactly when it was I figured out it was all nonsense, but I was still a kid. Then my next level of superstition, which was one at least a bit more grounded, was in aliens. Not the kind that Rush Limbaugh complains about, but the kind that abduct people to do anal probes. At least theoretically, there could be aliens and they could even be visiting the planet. That was a new fun thing to be scared of. I even got to experience once of the common things that people say accompanies an alien abduction - waking up in bed and feeling paralyzed, unable to move. Only I didn't see aliens - I just couldn't move and was freaked out. I later determined that this was simply the normal sleep paralysis that sometimes people experience. Once I figured that out, it wasn't so freaky anymore.

What finally convinced me that aliens (at least in the popular imagination) were no more real than ghosts was the similar lack of evidence. Plus, the anatomical similarities, the obsession with sexual things and other sorts of things that were more akin to old tales of night hags and such, combined with my own experience with sleep paralysis, convinced me rather thoroughly that aliens are more about people's hopes and fears (mostly fears) than anything real.

So ghosts and then aliens were my superstitions for a while. Admittedly not a long while, and mostly while I was a small child, but still, I got to experience them from the inside. It is fun to be scared. I guess the thing that I miss the most from it is that I really can't be scared about such things or anything involving superstitions.[1] It just doesn't register anymore. Kinda kills any chance of being scared by a movie, either. Doesn't mean I don't enjoy scary movies, though. My daughter sure does. She asks for scary movies all the time. Alien is her favorite. She asks to watch that one all the time. Maybe she'll grow up to be a horror movie director.

[1] - Ok, I take that back. Superstitions can scare me - I'm scared of the Republican Party Base. They are loaded with superstitions.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Elected Public Defenders: A really bad idea

From reason:

Imagine the perverse, overly law-and-order sentiment that pervades the elections of judges and prosecutors now applied to the selection of who will represent the indigent accused.

Witness Matt Shirk, a Republican recently elected public defender in Jacksonville, Florida. Shirk, who was backed by the local chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police, has never defended a homicide case. His campaign promises included a vow not to oppose funding cuts to the office he was running for, and a promise to squeeze as much money as possible out of indigent defendants, including a proposal for the postponed billing of acquitted defendants who might later be able to find some employment.

Shirk also promised during the campaign not to make drastic changes to the staff of the public defender office. But last week, he announced he’d be firing ten senior-level attorneys and three administrators.

As it turns out, several of the fired attorneys Shirk fired worked on the high-profile case of Brenton Butler, a 16-year-old wrongly accused of the robbery and murder of an elderly tourist.

The Butler case was a huge embarrassment for Jacksonville’s sheriff’s department. Trial testimony suggested Butler’s confession had been beaten out of him by detectives with the department. Butler’s case eventually became the subject of the Oscar-winning HBO documentary Murder on a Sunday Morning. The sheriff’s department apologized to Butler, and reopened its investigation into the murder.

You’d think the kind of attorneys who could expose that kind of injustice (and, of course, expose the fact that the tourist’s real killer was still on the loose) would be exactly the sort of people a public defender would want on his staff.

Pat McGuiness, one of the fired public defenders who worked on the Butler case, says Shirk hasn’t even had the time to interview or review the personnel files of the people he fired. McGuiness alleges that Shirk’s axing of some of the office’s most skilled and experienced attorneys was a favor, in exchange for the police support he received during the campaign.
Shirk has yet to respond to those allegations, or explain his rationale for the firings.

This is just utterly disgusting. I have difficulty saying anything that could possibly express the level of disgust I feel about this. And I read just after this another article about the ridiculously high incarceration rate in the United States. That article noted that voters pick harsh penalties over due process, every single freaking time. I wonder what can be done about that? Or is this always going to be the inevitable result of elected prosecutors and judges.

I mean, essentially, it sounds like these elected defenders mentioned above are getting elected to sabotage their offices and make it harder for indigent defendants to get due process. Like they want to faciliate convictions. That is not only morally wrong, but that is something they should be disbarred for. But of course, the system doesn't do disbarrments for crushing the rights of defendants. That's because the system is set up to convict, regardless of innocence or guilt, and to sentence as long as possible, regardless of what would really serve the interests of justice.


Sunday, February 8, 2009

Federal Office of Faith-Based Initiatives is Crap

I thought the office of Faith-Based Initiatives under Bush was disgusting - a direct handout, probably in violation of separation betewen church and state, to religious institutions to use to spread religious messages. I was looking forward to seeing this program shuttered.

Sadly, it appears Obama will be continuing it. Now, maybe he has some non-objectionable way to do so, but as a symbol, it isn't encouraging. That said, it was amusing and also disgusting to hear the recipients of the funding whining about how under Obama, they might be forced to hire people they don't want to, or do other things they don't want, that might "violate" their religious beliefs. They whine about the separation of church and state - not realizing the irony of them complaining about the strings attached when they take federal handouts as a violation of church/state separation.

The violation is when they are allowed to use federal funds in a sectarian way - meaning that if they use funds and discriminate based on their religious beliefs, they are violating the law because the government can't use sectarian beliefs as a basis for doing anything. Because otherwise government would be directly funding a specific sect.

It is annoying. If they don't want the strings, it is simple. Don't take the money. But if you do take the money, don't whine about the strings. Guess what - you don't get to take MY money to use for promoting your bullshit fairy tales. And no, non-sectarian, non religious teachings like science, like teaching evolution are NOT the same thing as your fairy tales. So don't start whining about how "secular humanism" as a "religion" is being taught with government money. Ugh.

But really, there should be no "faith-based" initiatives funded with government money. If people want to fund sectarian religious groups, that's fine. They can choose to do so with their own money. Leave government out of it. Follow the Constitution. And stop whining about not being able to discriminate with public money.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

The Arguments against Executive Compensation Caps for Bailout are Frakking Bull

It was so annoying to hear all week the whining of the executives and the executive class (Republicans) complaining about how the compensation cap ($500K max, with possible stock options that can only vest after the bailout money is paid back) is anti-free market or how it will prevent companies from retaining good people as execs flee for higher salaries elsewhere. The bullshit is piled so high in those statements I don't even know where to begin.

First, it is rather rich to complain about how this is anti-free market when it is tied to companies getting billions of dollars of taxpayer money, which is billions in pure welfare. When you are getting welfare, you don't get to set your compensation. And hell, this isn't even anti-free market. This is a pure free-market exchange - value traded for value. In exchange for limiting exec compensation, they get billions of dollars. They are free to reject the billions if they don't think it is a good deal. Or rather, the corporation is free to reject it. Don't like it, don't play.

Second, the arguments presume that there are all these "good people" at these companies, yet aren't these the very same companies that were run into the ground by the "good people" who are now whining about compensation? If you screw up your job, get on your knees, kiss the groud, and be thankful you aren't unemployed.

Third, the big assumption here is that $500,000 is somehow not a very good salary, when it is so ridiculously good that only a very very very tiny elite will EVER make that much money in a year. And other perks come along with it, along with options that would vest when the bailout money is paid back, and I don't think there is any limit on THAT - so it seems what they are really saying is they have absolutely no confidence that they'll be able to pay back the billions and get their options. This would seem to be rather at odds with the whole "good people" who are worth much more notion above.

Fourth, this economy SUCKS. If these bozos really think they can quit and find a job that pays more, with a resume from a failing company, more power to them. I somehow doubt we're going to see these execs actually leaving when the cap is in place, proving that this was just bluster and bullshit. Right now even people with ridiculously stellar resumes can't find ANY job, much less one that pays in excess of $500,000 per year. For instance, I heard on NPR that ex US Attorneys, leaving office as Obama takes over, are out of work and unable to find jobs. This is unprecedented. Usually, an ex US Attorney can write his or her own ticket and get a job anywhere he or she wants. That so many of them are not only not getting plumb offers, but are getting no offers at all, shows just how bad things are. So no executive is going to be finding higher paying work. Heck, probably half of the places they could go to are getting bailout money and wouldn't be able to offer more anyway. And the rest, they are too busy laying people off or going out of business to look at resumes for new hires.

In short, these arguments are so transparently stupid and illogical that they could only be thought up as bullshit GOP talking points. Someone should tell these bozos to quit whining.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Somebody please make a Dungeons and Dragons Movie that Doesn't Suck

This is really a plea. The first Dungeons and Dragons movie wasn't very good. It had a few things that were nice to see, finally, in a movie about the subject, but that's about all you could say about it. The second one was better - it had more of what I would call the classic elements of the game - a party of adventurers, the use of some staple spells and skills, iconic monsters and such, but even that still could have been better.

You'd think with all of the creative talent floating around Hollywood and all of the rich source material available within the world that someone could come up with a halfway decent film. Maybe the problem is that the person with the rights just can't connect up with the right people.

I saw the animated Dragonlance first installment, and THAT sucked. I had such high hopes for it, and yet the animation was lackluster and it just did not capture the spirit of the books or the game. It reminded me of the low-budget, crappy cartoons that were made for saturday cartoons in the 1970s to 1980s.

There's nothing physically preventing an awesome Dungeons and Dragons movie from being made. There's certainly no lack of imagination on the part of the people who play the game. I found the super low budget, and tongue-in-cheek The Gamers (official site) to be far superior and more entertaining than anything else put out on the game. I look forward to seeing the sequel - The Gamers: Dorkness Rising, which one of these days I may actually have time to sit down and watch. I borrowed the DVD from someone in my gaming group - he got an autographed copy of the DVD - he went back to their booth every day and got every single last person who worked on it and was at Gen Con to sign it. Which may simply have been everyone.

In a similar vein, I'd like to see a good video put out on the game itself - a documentary that explains the game and shows how it is played - both to show that it isn't evil and also to show just how much fun it is and how it works. Maybe one of these days I'll try to do something like that. Yeah, right. Well, maybe.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Reality TV Confessions: I watch 13-Fear is Real

Yes, I admit it. I'm a pathetic human being. I've actually been watching the reality TV show 13-Fear is Real. I even DVR'd it - well, I had to, to watch it. But I made sure to do it so I didn't miss it.

Why do I watch it? That is an interesting question. I have enjoyed other reality TV shows, like Survivor - which I try to watch every season. But this one reminds me of a show that I think was on MTV or some channel like that some time back where people would stay in allegedly haunted places and then they'd wear harnesses with cameras on them and go and do "dares" or something silly like that. I liked that show, too. I liked that one probably a bit more than this new one, but this one has its charms as well.

It is cheesy, with a nice altered voice for the "mastermind" or whatever they call the guy (gal?) who gives them their challenges. The camera work is kinda cheesy and there is less sense of peril than with the earlier ghost show I saw (can anyone remember the name of that one??) But that is probably because they have camera people, whereas in that earlier show, the only camera was on a harness or in the walls, so you knew the person was totally alone.

The basic premise is, there are 13 contestants starting off. They are driven into the woods in the swamp to a crappy house, where they are dropped off to stay at night. Of course, it is creepy, with voodoo dolls and statanic looking things on the walls. They are given challenges to do, with the two losers going to the "execution ceremony" - where only one can survive. The first such challenge had the two losers buried alive in coffins and then the first one who managed to break out and get out won. Later challenges tended to have some variation of being tied up and having to escape. Once was with a cage filled with rats on each person's face (which pops open after a while), another one involved both being at the stake, surrounded by flames. Another one had a pendulum blade moving ever closer. One interesting challenge involved being out at night, in pairs, in a sinking boat, bailing water to avoid going into the crocodile invested water. Oh, and there were snakes in each boat.

The contestants are 20-somethings, I'm sure picked for looking good on television. One of the more colorful characters is a guy whose profession is listed as "ghost hunter." He is so into it, making him fun to watch. There's not a skeptical one amongst them, from what they've shown. But no one seems to really think they've seen any ghosts. They know it is a game.

There is a "death box" that one person can get in secret to then use to "murder" three other players. It can only be used in secret - if someone sees you, then the "killer" is killed off. So far, only one person was killed that way, and then the "killer" was eliminated in an "execution ceremony".

So yes, it is cheesy, no there's not much redeeming value in watching it, and yes, I enjoy watching it, though admitedly not as much as Survivor. But then, it isn't like "House" is teaching me anything either, though I love it. Entertainment is entertainment.

When I was younger, socially awkward, and a total nerd, I worried about admitting liking things that were not socially acceptable. Now I'm older, socially awkward, and a total nerd, and I don't give a shit about admitting what I like. There's something liberating in that. So now I proudly proclaim: I am watching 13: Fear is Real, and I quite enjoy it.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Dick Cheney is an Evil Man

I almost have no words.

Dick Cheney is at it again:

Former Vice President Dick Cheney warned that there is a “high probability” that terrorists will attempt a catastrophic nuclear or biological attack in coming years, and said he fears the Obama administration’s policies will make it more likely the attempt will succeed.

In an interview Tuesday with Politico, Cheney unyieldingly defended the Bush administration’s support for the Guantanamo Bay prison and coercive interrogation of terrorism suspects.

And he asserted that President Obama will either backtrack on his stated intentions to end those policies or put the country at risk in ways more severe than most Americans — and, he charged, many members of Obama’s own team — understand.

Cheney is so full of shit I'm surprised he doesn't burst open every time he walks. Maybe that's why he's in a wheelchair.

That's all the GOP has now - fear mongering. For them, "victory" is worth sacrificing everything, including anything that might distinguish us from being evil. Losers like Cheney, John "I'll crush your son's testicles" Yoo, and Josh "I'll blow up the UN" Bolten, have been spreading their lies and fear mongering for eight years and now they want to cotinue it just so they can blame Obama for what are really their failures. I wish Cheney would just go to his undisclosed location and shut the frak up.

The Economics of Dungeons and Dragons

This subject is one that would be familiar to anyone who has frequented game boards, or even who has just played the game through its various incarnations. In short, the economics within the game probably don't make a whole lot of sense in most worlds, but then the game isn't supposed to be Boardrooms and Bank Statements.

First, the most basic economic inconsitency. In D&D, the standard rules list equipment and even magic items with a particular price, usually in gold pieces, the standard currency (though some settings use different coins). The standard rules also say that when a player sells equipment, be it magical or mundane, they only get half-price. While one could say this represents new versus used equipment, for items of magic, they work exactly the same, new or old, and the rules hold true no matter how new an item actually is. The only exception is art objects or gems, which are almost currency in their own right. Now, obviously, this is a sort of artificial construct meant to encourage players to keep what they find (particularly when it is magical and very expensive) versus just selling everything and then buying what they want. There is a certain fun in making do with what you have or using something that you would never have sought out but have ended up with through exploration and adventure. The half price also signifies the lack of a need to wait for a buyer. You can pretty much sell immediately.

In games I've been in, we've modified the rules somewhat, taking away the immediacy in exchange for the possibility of making far more, like between 81 and 110% of the book price, if you are willing to wait. Sometimes the wait is a long time. This is probably more realistic, anyway. And there still is the option of half price if you don't want to wait (or can't).

Now, all of this discussion has avoided the huge glowing elephant in the room: magic. Magic changes things tremendously. With magic, particularly teleportation magic or teleportation circles, you can transport large amounts of goods tremendous distances in an instant, even faster than in the modern world with modern technology (discounting information and software, which is that fast). Not only would such magic seriously and radically alter whole economic systems, it would also render various other medieval staples of the D&D world rather useless. Things such as castles. To deal with this, there seems to be a built in assumption that magic is rare even as it is found everywhere. Truly, I think it is sometihng the game designers have sort of left players and DMs to figure out on their own. I mean, as I noted above, it is not supposed to be an economic simulation. It is an adventure game. And in adventures, it isn't heroic to sit around worrying about economic systems like the continental peasant in Monty Python's Holy Grail.

That's not to say that economics can't be worked into the game anyway. I've done it as a hook for adventure or even as the backbone of an entire campaign. That was my "libertarian librarian" campaign. Uther the pure, the libertarian librarian, sought knowledge in an effort to earn some coin and he hired adventurers to first protect him and then later, to help secure his new trade route. It was kind of fun also to mess around with such ideas in the fantasy world.

Recent discussions with Barefoot Bum now make me wonder what could be done with a medieval form of communism in a D&D world and what sort of adventures that might lead to. Yes, I know, even talking about Economics in D&D marks me as a gold-plated, certifiable uber-nerd.

Which brings me to the medieval system itself: feudalism. It seems to be the assumed system in many D&D worlds, yet such things as magic and monsters would seem to render feudalism nonsensical. But why argue realism in a world with elves and dragons - that ship has sailed! And yet it hasn't - you need internal, logical consistency. Without it, there is no suspension of disbelief. Getting back to Monty Python for a moment, I think it was John Cleese who said that about their sketches. He said they could be as wild and insane as you could imagine, so long as they had an internal consistency to them. For instance, if in the sketch everyone wore a dead fish on their head, that's fine, if everyone does it, then that's just "how it is." But then if someone comes into the sketch without a fish, you have to provide a logical explanation for it in the context of the sketch or you've blown it.

In designing my own homebrew world, I try for the internal consistencies. The main limiting factor seems to be time. I will discuss my own ways of dealing with that and running the game at a later time, probably Friday.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Quantum Mechanics and Biology

There is a fascinating article in this month's Discover magazine about how certain biological processes appear to actually have quantum mechanical components. The most basic and fundamental process analyzed was photosynthesis, the engine of life for almost our entire food chain across the whole planet.

The basic gist of it is that the electrical process within photosynthesis is like 95% efficient, which is ridiculously high, and now it appears that the process might be so efficient because of a form of quantum computer-like process, where every possible quantum tunneling path is "explored" through the probability function of the electrons and then the waveform "collapses" with the most direct route being the one that is actually taken.

Other biological processes explored for possible quantum components include conciousness, green teas anti-oxidant properties, and the sense of smell. I think some of that is more at the "interesting hypothesis" stage, but that'd be with a heavy emphasis on "interesting." Still, cool.

Monday, February 2, 2009

There really is no right to counsel

According to the Sixth Amendment to our Federal Constitution, criminal defendants are entitled to be represented by counsel. Interestingly, in practice, this did not even mean you got a court appointed defense lawyer (guaranteed) until after the Gideon decision.

For all practical purposes, though, this "right" still means what it meant before Gideon. Namely, it means that if you could actually afford to hire a lawyer, you get to, but otherise, you are basically screwed. Because the amount of money paid to appointed counsel is usually ridiculously low, far below market price. Where there are public defenders, it is much better, but then they are just ridiculously short-staffed, so they have very little time to spend on an individual case. The net result is that indigent defendants, or even middle class defendants who don't have the excess cash needed to hire a lawyer, really don't get representation. They get something that might resemble a paper-mache version of representation, but if you look up close or touch it, it quickly crumbles.

Of course, on appeal, there is an up-close look at representation as part of an Ineffective Assistance of Counsel[1] claim. This would present a problem, because an honest look at the system and the effectiveness of appointed counsel would show it to be a sham. Even the good defenders are far too overworked and they are also hamstrung by laws and rules that give ridiculous power to the prosecution, moreso than even judges have (though with the recent rulings on the federal sentencing guidelines, maybe some of that power is going back to the judges). In order to deal with this, the system has innoculated itself with a long string of rulings about what makes effective counsel, setting the bar so low that basically if you are the absolute worst, barely competent, barely functional defense attorney and you spent even five minutes thinking about an issue, that is probably good enough to say counsel was effective and so appellate courts won't second-guess issues of "trial strategy"? What is "trial strategy?" Why, that is presumed to have been whatever it is the defense counsel did. And you can forget about trying to introduce evidence that it wasn't really a strategy, but was instead negligence. Judges don't want to hear it. Sure, there are fears of using this as a crutch to appeal every criminal conviction. But in practice, unless you win at trial, you are really screwed. Thus, the notion that throwing the trial in an effort to claim ineffective assistance of counsel is something we need to protect against is dubious, at best. (It is really just bullshit).

A right is meaningless if there is no mechanism in place to enact it. Sort of like how there really isn't much of the Fourth Amendment left anymore (which is a topic in itself). If everyone doesn't get truly competent counsel, counsel who can spend real time on the case, counsel who also get the resources (such as investigators and a lab) to work it just as well as the prosecution, then there really is no right to counsel. And that is the current state of things. My State, Michigan, is particularly pathetic on this score. No state really does well, so being at the bottom is, well, criminal. But hey, it gets prosecutors and judges elected, so that's what really counts.

As a final note, I just want to say that there are plenty of excellent defenders out there who do the best with that they have and so some indigent defendants really do get some excellent counsel. But this is a haphazzard thing, not something any defendant can count on, particularly in areas where there are no public defenders.

[1] - An ineffective assistance of counsel claim is a claim you can make on appeal after conviction. Essentially, the argument is that your attorney was so horribly bad that having his or her assistance was like having no assistance at all, depriving defendant of his right to counsel. A successful claim vacates the conviction, but just sends it back for a new trial with new counsel. The odds of actually winning using this issue are basically nil, given the ridiculously low standards for "effective" counsel. Also, you need to prove that you wouldn't have been convicted anyway, similar to the general "harmless error" rule - basically what often happens is the appeals judges look at the case, figure defendant is guilty, so would have been convicted regardless, and so let it stand. The courts are stacked with right-wing judges, part of a systematic effort by the GOP since the 1970s - an effort that the Dems have only very recently started to try and match (and really aren't doing much even now).

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Why the hell can't you get real news and tough interviews outside of Comedy Central?

This is probably a rhetorical question, but why the hell can't we get good interviews and actual real news reporting (rather than stenography) outside of Comedy Central's The Daily Show and the Onion. Ok, and there are some good commentaries on Blogs now as well.

But the gatekeeper Mainstream Media (MSM) never seems to really change. It just annoys me so much I can't even watch it anymore. I used to watch MSNBC quite a lot. I also would watch CSPAN in the morning, when I was taking care of my daughter in the months after she was born and I was home with her (studying for the bar exam) while my wife went back to work.

I guess CSPAN was and still is pretty good to watch, though even then I was annoyed by the unchallenged GOP talking points that were often spewed by certain guests. At least there I was first exposed to Glenn Greenwald, leading me to read his blog, which I now continue to read at Salon.

Maybe there really is a transformation taking place, where people get their news from blogs and other sources online as opposed to the MSM. If the MSM becomes irrelevant, so much the better. Of course, then we all live in our alternate, splintered realities - those who read Michelle Malkin exist in a different universe, with wildly divergent facts from those who read Digby.

Back in the 3 network days, at least no matter what the disagreements between the parties and factions, there was a set of commonly agreed-upon facts. The downside to that was it gave the gatekeepers in the MSM an awful lot of power to shape the populace. The upside was there was at least some common ground to work with, whatever that was worth. Now we have huge segments of the population that listen to Rush and Hannity and basically there is no talking to them or reasoning with them and so it is pointless to even try to compromise with them. Then again, maybe this segment of the population would always be there - the Right-Wing Authoritarians (RWAs). I suspect that maybe having the Rushes and Hannitys out there probably increases the RWA population or at least allows them to get organized for maximum effect. Probably there's nothing you can do about that except hope that the proportion of RWAs in the population never gets too high.

So ok, this was a rhetorical question that I already know the answer to. The powerful media are controlled by the same people who control everything else - the rich upper class that runs everything. They have a vested interest in keeping the status quo, which means not probing too deeply and it also means putting on lots of GOP talking heads and talking points, as someone recently noted surrounding the stimulus debate. Ugh. Well, at least there's Rachel Maddow.