Quote of the day--when he's right, he's right edition

>> Thursday, June 30, 2011

Where does it come from, this silly and feigned idea that it's good to be able to claim a small-town background? It was once said that rural America moved to the cities as fast as it could, and then from urban to suburban as fast as it could after that. Every census for decades has confirmed this trend. Overall demographic impulses to one side, there is nothing about a bucolic upbringing that breeds the skills necessary to govern a complex society in an age of globalization and violent unease. We need candidates who know about laboratories, drones, trade cycles, and polychrome conurbations both here and overseas. Yet the media make us complicit in the myth—all politics is yokel?—that the fast-vanishing small-town life is the key to ancient virtues. Wasilla, Alaska, is only the most vivid recent demonstration of the severe limitations of this worldview. But still it goes on.

-Christopher Hitchens,
"Has Bachmann Met Her Waterloo?"
Slate, June 29th, 2011

I don't always agree with Hitch, but dammit: when he's right, he's right, and I happen to think he's right about this; I share his irritation with the idea that clinging to a small-town parochialism is somehow supposed to make one superior to a cosmopolitan.

Look, okay, small towns have their charms and even, sometimes, their virtues. The country, which often gets conflated with small towns, also has its charms and virtues. There are, inevitably, repellent and awful things about metropolises. But at the risk of committing the naturalistic fallacy, I think there are reasons that the general drift of humanity in civilization after civilization for millennium after millennium is towards the urban: it is because those teeming masses of humanity, whether in ancient Babylon or modern Tokyo, are gathering where there are the most opportunities to live and work and be on the cutting edge of whatever your current era has to offer. Cities are cultural centers, technological centers, social centers, and no matter what advantages rural life may offer, the trade-off is necessarily to step away from culture, technology and society; it is the definition of and inherent to "rural" that you are talking about decentralization of population and therefore the social connections that create culture and necessitate technology become fewer and more remote. On top of this, one must note that it is far easier for a small town or remote community to exist as an insular cultural monoculture than it is for a community to persist that way when it is constantly butting up against other cultures in a massively populated density; that is, diversity is a natural emergent from cities, perhaps an inevitable one unless there is some forcible intervention to create an artificial cultural monoculture.

I should also point out that I use "monoculture" quite deliberately for its negative associations: it is a quality of natural (and other) monocultures that they are unhealthy, that their lack of biodiversity makes them vulnerable to being wiped out. A cultural monoculture risks becoming ignorant and isolated and therefore unable to adapt to change, unable to evolve, whereas a diverse culture has some inherent capacity to embrace the new, to adjust to changes, to borrow those aspects of its subcultures that extend and advance happiness and prosperity. We might be saddened to witness the demise of a culture, yes, but the truth is that a culture that cannot evolve has no future and deserves less sympathy than we're usually inclined to give it. Better, if at all possible, that its best traditions are assimilated into a polymorphous mass culture and its worst ones relegated to that proverbial dustbin of history.

But anyway: we fetishize country living and heap abuse and contempt on the majority of Americans who don't live that way. Go figure. I suppose one might suggest Hitchens goes a tad far with any implication that rural Americans don't know about laboratories and trade cycles and urban Americans have some kind of automatic understanding of such things; then again, fuck that--if he's going overboard in his rhetoric, it's mainly a corrective to the smug perception of some kind of moral superiority in being a hick that is foisted off as conventional wisdom. You don't hear American politicians and pundits claiming so-and-so is someone from a small town who groks globalization and the diplomatic and legal tangles pertaining to the use of unmanned drones against individual belligerents in non-War Powers contexts, say; no, you hear these jackasses braying about how so-and-so has "small town Main Street American community values", i.e. by implication that so-and-so shares the bigotries and prejudices of the least-informed, most-cloistered yutz in some part of the country where the population density is behind the decimal point. If Hitchens hurt anyone's feelings, fuck 'em, I'm tired of their holier-than-thou country mouse bullshit, myself.


Most asinine Beatles song ever?

>> Wednesday, June 29, 2011

On the way in this morning, Andrew Loog Oldham followed up Jane's Addiction's "Been Caught Stealing" with The Beatles' "Taxman", which was cute. Thieves and thieves, we get it, nice associative pairing. That's why I like satellite radio, y'know, because most of the DJs and their programmers still get to do that sort of thing, whereas any station with a broadcast range wider than a few yards usually can't because they're all owned by Clear Channel now, right?

Thing is, I couldn't help thinking as I was listening to it today what a prissy little hissy fit the song is. Okay, yes, it's a totally kickass hook and Harrison's McCartney's little solo is pretty awesome, and the wordplay is adorable ("If you take a walk, I'll tax your feet"--no surprise that John Lennon gave Harrison some "advice" on the song, so to speak).

But these guys pretty much grew up on public assistance, y'know? Harrison's family lived in a council house when he was a kid and he was educated in state-funded schools. I don't know if Harrison or any of his bandmates were actually on the dole at any point when they were dividing their time between Liverpool and Hamburg, but it seems pretty likely, doesn't it? How did they think the Commonwealth's social safety net was being funded? Well, they didn't, they were just musicians, not until they got billed for it.

In all fairness, the Wikipedia entry for "Taxman" quotes John Lennon as saying "I didn't want to do it..." in reference to helping Harrison on the tune; it's hard to tell, though, whether he's referring to realizing the song was biting a hand that fed them or whether he had mixed feelings about Harrison emerging as a songwriter in his own right. (Lennon added, "I just sort of bit my tongue and said OK. It had been John and Paul for so long, he'd been left out because he hadn't been a songwriter up until then.") But otherwise, it was like this great heaping shock that civilization has to be paid for.

So, okay, a 95% tax bracket maybe seems a little excessive; there was a lot of talk in the '60s and '70s about a British brain drain, and a lot of wealthy Brits did end up spending at least some time abroad for tax reasons (though it also appears there was evidently little analysis at the time of whether the drain was occurring, the extent of it if it was, or the permanence; much of the concern over brain drain seems to have been Labour and Conservative politicians and pundits accusing the other side of causing it and/or making promises to fix it (PDF link)). But it has to be noted that when The Beatles were poor, working class musicians, they weren't paying 95%, nor would they have been doing so if they'd been modestly successful, able-to-quit-the-day-job working musicians riding around England in a little tourbus; they were hit with the 95% tax rate because they were The Fucking Beatles, producers of hit singles and albums that flew off store shelves, world tourists playing sold-out gigs on multiple continents, movie stars, and licensors of Fab-Four-ulous tie-ins--lunch boxes, dolls, drinking glasses, posters, articles of clothing, widgets, winkles, doohickeys and whatsits.

So they were young men and all, and hopefully they wised up a bit. Oliver Wendell Holmes is credited with saying he liked taxes because he bought civilization with them; he may have been lying about the first bit--I don't know if anyone really likes paying taxes. But they aren't a form of theft, they're the passing around of the plate so we can have nice things like roads and schools and affordable public housing so that people don't have to live in tarpaper shacks beneath highway underpasses. Taxes create a society that offers some kid an opportunity to sneer at his parents and learn how to play guitar; I wonder how far along Mr. Harrison might have gotten if his parents had been forced to sell him to a mill when he was five so that daddy wouldn't have to go to debtors' prison this week.

I doubt I'll ever be wealthy enough to be in a 95% tax bracket should the United States ever do the smart and moral thing and abolish our obscenely low tax rates, but if I am: I welcome it. It means I've benefited from this society enough that I owe it something for my liberty and opportunity.

Still, dumb kids being selfish hypocrites in their youth or not: bitchin' guitars on that song, George Paul.


Green Lantern

>> Tuesday, June 28, 2011

I would say Green Lantern was maybe in the second tier of my favorite superheroes when I was a kid. He was good friends with The Flash in those days, for one thing, and The Flash was in the first tier of my favorite comicbook heroes along with Ghost Rider and The Hulk. I suppose it doesn't hurt that green is my favorite color and has been for as long as I can remember. The main thing, though, was that GL's power was awesome; this was a guy who could do anything he imagined (so long as he didn't try doing it against anything yellow--an absurd limitation, to be sure). His real power, although it's usually dubbed "willpower" these days, was pure imagination, making Green Lantern at his best the second most visually interesting and absurdly cool hero in all of comicdom after Plastic Man in his prime (Hal Jordan just creates anything he can imagine, Eel O'Brien is anything he can imagine).

There's also something, perhaps to the observation that most of my favorite superheroes as a kid were sort of genre superheroes, and those genres were science fiction and horror. Ghost Rider's kind of obvious as a horror superhero: dude's a half-demon who made a deal with Satan that turns him into a awesomely bad pun (he's a Hell's Angel, get it?). But what's The Hulk except an update of The Wolfman with a gamma-ray bomb for the transformational McGuffin? (In his earliest adventures, available in a big ol' anthology I owned that was put out around the time of the TV series, Dr. Banner and his pure angry id even transformed back and forth at sunset and sunrise, not when he was stressed or relaxed.) The Flash, in the post-Schwartz incarnation of the comics I grew up with, was a police scientist whose powers came out of a lab accident and whose powers--not just super-speed but the ability to "vibrate" through walls and sometimes travel through time--involved some wonderfully pseudoscientific SF technobabble about his ability to control his own atoms. (To an eight-year-old geek, the idea that The Flash could take advantage of said geek's recent science-book discovery that most matter is made of empty space was possibly the most awesome thing about the character ever, frankly.) Firestorm, another superhero whose powers had a pulp SF gloss (and who could create anything!) was another early favorite.

When Julius Schwartz decided to reboot Green Lantern in 1959, much as he'd rebooted The Flash in '56, he liberally... errrrr... borrowed... from E.E. Smith's Lensmen stories. Where the original Green Lantern had been a guy with a ring and lamp made from some sort of mystical meteor metal, the Silver Age GL was part of an interstellar police force armed with vaguely-defined-but-awesome superscience. There were alien Green Lanterns from sectors all over the galaxy charged with maintaining peace and order, something very much like another childhood obsession (that's persisted into my so-called adulthood), the Jedi order from Star Wars, guardians of peace and order from a more civilized time. No coincidence, of course: George Lucas also... errrrr... borrowed... from those same Lensmen stories.

What I'm trying to get at in my way is that with Green Lantern you had a science-fiction superhero whose superpower was infinite, unbridled creativity. I know you could point to all comic book heroes as having genre trappings--Batman is a detective, Superman has his extraterrestrial origin, Spider-Man was a scientific hobbyist and Reed Richards a full-blown scientist, etc.--but in Green Lantern the pulpy space opera elements were right there at the front of things. The guy was flying through space and fighting aliens. And he was doing it by picturing things in his mind and then kicking ET ass with them. If you were anything like me, you had to love it.

So it was a foregone conclusion I was going to see Green Lantern in the theatre when it came out, no matter what the reviews were. And of course the reviews have been mostly terrible, but somehow that was kind of to be expected: for better or worse, the novelty of summer big-budget superhero movies has worn off, and they get reviewed at best like they're any other movie and at worst with a certain amount of thinly-veiled (or sometimes even naked) contempt that they're not the sort of gay cowboys eating pudding movies that let a critic really show off his filmographic erudition. Reviews be damned: when the previews showed off an army of Green Lanterns being rallied by a pre-nefarious Sinestro and panoramic views of Oa, I was sold; hell, as long as the movie was even halfway serious and not some lameass shit starring Jack Black, I was in (and just for the record: I've liked Jack Black since his Mr. Show days, I just don't want him in my goddamn Green Lantern movie).

The Significant Other and I went to see it on Saturday. 2D, because I'm just not going to pay a surcharge to see an upconverted film unless friends drag me kicking to go see it. Upconverted 2D tends to give you that awful diorama effect, and it almost has to just because they're using computers to invent information that just isn't there in the original frame; sure, they can call it "extrapolated from the image" all they want, but it is what it is. Of course, that gets trickier when you're talking about a CGI-intensive film like Green Lantern: CGI models are inherently 3D, and so the CGI isn't being upconverted to 3D, it's being rendered. Still, I don't want to encourage all of the film industry's bad habits: if you make a movie with two cameras mounted for 3D, I'll pay the bounty to see it the way you shot it; if you shot it with one camera and ran it through a computer to charge me more for the privilege of seeing a View-Master effect, fuck you.

I'm pleased to say we had a great time. I'm not going to sit here and tell you that Green Lantern is the greatest superhero movie ever made, much less that it's the best thing since Citizen Kane; I'm not even sure I can tell you that it's a "good" movie in any kind of, I dunno, cinematic sense. The bad reviews aren't "wrong", quote-unquote, but I would say they're misleading.

Here's what I mean by that: Green Lantern is something of a throwback for superhero movies, for better or worse. The vibe is a little bit reminiscent of 1978's Superman: hero discovers destiny, appears before the world, has a cute-not-deep romance with the lead actress, saves the world. I.e. Green Lantern isn't offering up the comic book movie as metaphor for really deep things à la The Dark Knight (the global war on terror) or X2 (the struggle for gay rights); it isn't offering up the family melodrama, father-son coming-to-terms like Batman Begins or Ang Lee's direly misconceived Hulk; it isn't a sweet-but-exciting coming-of-age story like the first Spider-Man movie. And while I found Green Lantern to be a lot of fun visually, I'll concede it isn't some kind of Unique Director's Vision kind of thing the way Batman and Batman Returns were movies Only Tim Burton Could Make, f'r'instance.

You might compare Green Lantern to Favreau's Iron Man, if you're looking for something more recent than 1978 for a comparison. A fun, kinda goofy popcorn movie with some tense bits, some cool action scenes, some great visuals--and no, it doesn't necessarily hold up to a lot of logical scrutiny or offer too much character development, but why you always gotta be thinking about shit, man? What's wrong with you?

Some of the bad reviews just seem weirdly misguided. E.g., I ran across one reviewer kvetching over a fun sequence in which GL saves a crashing helicopter by turning it into a race car and running it around a giant Hot Wheels track until it loses momentum and stops (matter of fact, turns out there's even an official Hot Wheels tie-in to the helicoptermobile). Said reviewer wonders why GL didn't just, you know, use his magic ring to grab the helicopter. Well, duh, he couldn't do that because fuck you, that's why, Mr. Smartypantsreviewer: he wanted to make a giant track and turn the helicopter into a toy racecar, and he fucking had the power, man. Same thing with the bit where GL makes a couple of jetplanes to pull him out of the Sun: jet planes are cool, and anybody who wants to point out that jetplanes can't actually fly in space has clearly never been a small child. Freak.

I have one complaint. Unless I missed something, I did not see Mogo. To be fair, as we all know, Mogo doesn't socialize; still, I hoped he might drift through the end credits.

I guess you can't have everything.

What did I get? Ryan Reynolds is a cromulent, if somewhat douchey Hal Jordan. Blake Lively is pleasing to the eye as Carol Ferris. I was less smitten by Peter Sarsgaard's performance as Hector Hammond than most critics have been, but Parallax's voice was provided by the ever-awesome Clancy Brown and Mark Strong's Sinestro is great. The special effects were pleasing: Oa looks fabulous and the sight of thousands of alien Green Lanterns gathered together is made for a geek's heart--this is what the Jedi Academy should have looked like in the Star Wars prequels. The fight scene between Hal Jordan and Parallax is cool beans, with Jordan finding all sorts of cool ways to peg the hell out of a giant yellow evil Wizard Of Oz smokey head monster (Parallax's method of devouring its victims' fear by eating their skeletons is pretty frickin' cool, too). I came, I saw, it kicked ass.

So I want a sequel, right? That may be the best review I can give it.

I'm not denying any of the movie's weaknesses; I'm also not sure that some of those bugs aren't features. I adore The Dark Knight, but does every movie about crimefighters in tights have to offer up the serious drama or a deconstruction of the genre or some deeper meaning? I don't want those things to go away, mind you: I want The Dark Knight Rises to be serious and powerful and tragic like its predecessors, and I kind of hope that Nolan has the balls to end the movie with Batman getting his back broken. But sometimes I want to go to a superhero movie and I want to be eight, y'know?

Green Lantern is good for about two hours of that.


Ask Standing On The Shoulders Of Giant Midgets: Shakespeare on love

>> Monday, June 27, 2011

And this is it. Our very last day of this series of "Ask Standing On The Shoulders Of Giant Midgets" I would like to thank everybody once again for contributing; I feel like these have been excellent questions and, if I'm allowed to say so myself, some pretty good responses.

Our last question is from Jeri, who writes:

Shakespeare says, "Men have died and worms have eaten them, but not for love."

First, was it really Shakespeare? Second, is it true? And third, does the same apply to women?

First, it was Shakespeare, sort of: the quote is a slightly-mangled version of something Rosalind says in Act IV, scene 1 of As You Like It:

No, faith, die by attorney. The poor world is almost six thousand years old, and in all this time there was not any man died in his own person, videlicit, in a love-cause. Troilus had his brains dashed out with a Grecian club; yet he did what he could to die before, and he is one of the patterns of love. Leander, he would have lived many a fair year, though Hero had turned nun, if it had not been for a hot midsummer night; for, good youth, he went but forth to wash him in the Hellespont and being taken with the cramp was drowned and the foolish coroners of that age found it was 'Hero of Sestos.' But these are all lies: men have died from time to time and worms have eaten them, but not for love.

I should say at the outset that As You Like It is a work I am almost wholly unfamiliar with at this point in my life: as someone who is and was very serious about language and fond of Shakespeare and who was a theatre geek and would-be actor from junior high school through college, it is very possible I've read As You Like It or have seen it performed--but at this point I can recall nothing about it at all and had to resort to Wikipedia for a plot summary.

With that disclaimer placed out front, I don't think one needs to be too familiar with the play to see what's happening: Rosalind is rebuffing a would-be paramour, Orlando, with quite a bit of snark. Orlando has just claimed he'd die because Rosalind has just teasingly spurned his advances; Rosalind quite rightly calls bullshit on his melodramatic claim. Citing two romantic legends that were popular subjects of medieval and renaissance romances, the stories of Troilus and Cressida (a matter Shakespeare would himself visit two years after As You Like It was performed) and Hero and Leander, Rosalind points out that the common romantic assertion that Troilus and Leander "died for love" (swoon) is ridiculous: the former died of a head wound in battle and the latter drowned in the Dardanelles. It's hard to argue with.

I think we know this. Ironically, it's actually essential to the romantic ideal of "dying for love" that "dying for love" is, in fact, a euphemism for dying from something more conventionally fatal as a result of doing something (usually something pretty stupid) because one was in love (or thought he or she was). There is something romantic in the Knights Of The Round Table getting themselves killed in assorted ways because they're emotionally wracked over Guinevere, Iseult or any of the various other femme fatales of Arthurian Romance; when a character in a romance dies for no particular reason and then someone says it was caused "by a broken heart" (yes, we're talking about the Star Wars prequels again, dammit), it just seems stupid, it just seems to reflect a certain lack-of-access-to-clues about basic physiology. We can accept that somebody who is in love might take a foolish risk that leads to tragedy, but we all know perfectly well that there's no coroner's report in existence with "Love" written on the "CAUSE OF DEATH" line in place of, oh, I dunno, "Knife Wound To Eye" or whatever.

Panda Bear didn't die of "Broken Heart", she died of "Plot Contrivance". Search your feelings; you know it's true.

Shakespeare talks about men dying from real-causes-of-death-not-love because he's referring to the romantic conventions of his era and anyway it's Rosalind (a woman) thumping Orlando (a dude). (Though As You Like It is one of Shakespeare's cross-cross-dressing plays, with male actors playing female characters who are disguised as men.) There's no reason Rosalind's statement-of-fact doesn't run the other way. What Rosalind is saying for Shakespeare, really, is "cut the crap". It may be a bit hard-nosed on her part, but sometimes it's called for, especially when some creep has just said he'd die without you. ("Sure, and you'll call me in the morning, too, right?")

Don't get me wrong. I like love. I like being in love. Then again, I also like having aged out of all that melodramatic horseshit that afflicts the young, that state of cluelessness in which every hormonal surge, every infatuation, every sweaty surge of horniness is mistaken for lifelong passion more essential to life than the very air itself, etc. and ad nauseum; if you so much as look at anyone else I shall die, my heart is breaking as we speak, blah blah blah, ugh. Passion, sure, but good riddance to the emotional theatrics played large enough to be seen up in the cheap seats.

You know what has killed more men than love? cows.

But these are all lies: men have died from time to time and worms have eaten them, but not for love. No, they've died for cows. Man, those things are vicious. Stomping on people with those big-ass hooves of theirs, knocking them over and stepping on them. Motherfucking cows. That's why I'm not a vegetarian, Orlando.


Hope that answers your questions!

And thank you once again, everybody. It has been a lot of fun, and I hope everybody had a good time!


Indecisive Sunday potpourri musical performance with kitchen sink

>> Sunday, June 26, 2011

So I couldn't think of whose music video I wanted to pop up here today. Which makes this one perfect for the indecisive: Dave Grohl, Little Steven, The Boss and Elvis Costello performing a song by The Clash as a Grammys tribute to the late Joe Strummer. Why pick one artist when you can have everybody and they're all awesome, basically, is what I'm thinking here.

We'll wrap up the "Ask Standing On The Shoulders Of Giant Midgets" this week, plus I may get around to telling you what I thought of Green Lantern, which I saw the other night with the Significant Other. In the meantime, hope you're having a lovely Sunday afternoon!


Repeat and jam as needed....

>> Saturday, June 25, 2011

No, I'm not posting these because anything's wrong, I'm posting them because they're awesome and they've been stuck in my head because I had one of those channel-surfing serendipity things this week where both of these were blasting out of the car speakers in pretty close proximity to each other.

In some ways this is like a perfect archetype for a classic rock song insofar as in addition to that beautiful hook it has, like, basically one verse that's repeated over and over with slight modifications to the first line. I mean, it's as basic as you can get and that's not a bug, it is, indeed, a motherfucking feature, all'a'y'all. You could play this song forever if you wanted to, or blast through it in a minute-and-a-half. (Does anybody know if The Ramones ever covered this and if not how we alter the space-time continuum to rectify that horrific oversight?)

Oh yeah: I'm talking about "Ain't That A Shame". Fats Domino and Cheap Trick (respectively, not together, though that would be a dream team supergroup if there ever was one):

Crank it.


Ask Standing On The Shoulders Of Giant Midgets: law school

>> Friday, June 24, 2011

I think I'm going to do what I did last week and take one more question, plan on taking the weekend off, then wrap up this latest series of Ask Standing On The Shoulders Of Giant Midgets. These have been some excellent questions, fun to answer, and I'd like to thank everybody--I feel like some of the responses in this series have been some of my better blog posts to date; at the risk of cliché, I hope everybody has enjoyed reading these as much as I've enjoyed writing them.

So, the last question for the week. Seth writes:

Okay, I finally thought of a question. I'm going to assume you've heard something about the collapse of the legal job market, the explosion in the price of law school tuition, and the scammy tactics many law schools are using to inflate their post-grad employment rates. Given all that, if you were a young person contemplating law school today, do you think you would still do it?

I've been practicing law long enough to have a love/hate relationship with it. Going to law school doesn't mean one is going to practice law--in fact, I had no intention of practicing law when I applied--but it's the most obvious thing to do with a law degree. There are times I feel a great deal of satisfaction in what I do, and there are times when I'd chew my leg off to get out of it, and I write that with little exaggeration: there are times when this job feels like those classic Bruce Springsteen lines: "It's a death trap, it's a suicide rap".

There are times when despair and work-related angst are strongly upon me that I wonder why I went to law school and why didn't I go get a Masters and Ph.D. in History? Or maybe if I could go further back in time: why didn't I work more seriously on artistic pursuits to the point where I could cobble a living together from a relatively low-stress and trivial day job and nights spent playing guitar or writing the Great American Genre Novel. If I were a young person knowing what I know now, would I have gone to law school or done something else with my life? Quite possibly not. Maybe even probably not.

That's a personal answer that both does and doesn't answer the general nature of your question, Seth. It doesn't answer it because it goes to my own personal regrets over missed lefts at Albuquerque, roads not taken in the woods, neighbors with greener yards, etc., etc., etc. But it does answer the general insofar as I might say to any young person contemplating law school today, "Is this what you want to do, kid, is it really really what you want to do?"

Let's set aside the dire employment situation and the fact that law schools have accepted too many students and created a glut where the supply of young lawyers grossly exceeds what the demand for their services would likely be even if the rough economy wasn't causing employers (even in the private sector) to cut back; let's leave that aside and point out that the legal profession is notorious for its rates of substance abuse and stress-related health problems. Well, of course it is. The law requires taking on a large amount of responsibility--sometimes the stakes are literally life-and-death. The amount of work to be done can be paralyzing. Furthermore, the practice of law of any kind quickly brings the attorney into contact with some of the worst examples of human behavior: after all, people who are satisfied with the performance of a contract, who are satisfied with the settlement of an estate, who are happy in their marriages, who have never been accused of a crime, who haven't been injured in an accident or at their workplace or accused of causing injuries--these people hardly ever need lawyers to help them deal with their routine, mundane, banal lack-of-unhappiness. No, there are few areas of law (real estate, perhaps) where a lawyer's services are needed and there's nothing wrong; mostly, people need lawyers when there's a problem, and believe me that takes its toll sooner or later. We traffic in human misery, which is part of why people hate our profession; for what it's worth, we often end up hating ourselves to some degree as a result.

Is this what you want to do, kid, is it really really what you want to do?

I'm also an odd duck in some ways because, as I mentioned earlier, I didn't go to law school to be a lawyer. When I was majoring in History as an undergrad, I thought I'd like to end up in the State Department at some point; well, I looked at the Foreign Service Officer Test application paperwork and sample questions and quickly grokked that there was no way I was smart enough to take the damn thing. Law school seemed like a good way to smarten up, get some additional qualifications for a job at State, so I took the LSAT. But looking at tuition rates, it was very apparent that I could only afford Carolina and that there was actually no point in applying at any of the other schools I might go to, as I couldn't afford to go to the others had I been admitted. (It happens that when you take the LSAT, you receive all sorts of offers for various kinds of grants and scholarships from places you've never heard of if you please, please, pretty please apply to the Bumfuck Egypt School Of Law, so had I really specifically wanted the law degree, I could have applied to one of those places if UNC hadn't taken me, but I didn't see the point in getting a piece of paper from a JD mill in the middle of nowhere. At any rate, I was lucky to get in the place I applied.)

Once I got to law school, however, I discovered what I was good at and what excited me was the criminal defense. I knew by the end of my first year that I'd be looking for work as a public defender when I graduated. This happens to a lot of law students, this discovery that what you have an aptitude for or interest in isn't what you thought you were going for. Which also makes it difficult to advise that young person contemplating law school, you might realize. "I'm going to law school to help homeless people find housing," he might say, "and that is what I really, really want to do, old dude," and then three years later he's a tax lawyer because, man, that tax code is really, really fascinating and stuff. And then there's a young woman in his class who was going to get rich writing contracts for corporations and now she's eating cold canned Spam-A-Roni and contemplating defaults on her student loans after an exhausting day representing Social Services in family court. That kind of thing. Is that what you want kid? Hell, it's probably going to turn out you don't even know what you're going to want.

I wanted to be a lumberjack. (Well, not really, but that line seemed to go there.)

But I mention this because when I was a young person contemplating law school, it wasn't really an end but a means to an end that had very, very little to do with law school or even the law. It was something I could do while I got to a next stage that I ended up never getting around to. So what would I have said to myself; conversely, if my younger self were fast-forwarded to the present economic situation, would he have said, "Well, since I don't plan on practicing law, I'm not too worried about my job prospects"? Might have, yes.

It is very hard for me to know if I'd have been happier not going to law school. Some days, it seems like a mistake, a wrong turn. Other days, it's not so much that it seems like the "right" thing to do but I feel like it wasn't a mistake, that it was something that was an interesting and enjoyable experience that set me off into a field where, maybe, I sort of did something good for somebody at some point, and managed (to date, at least) to make an adequate living doing it. Still, y'know, maybe there's an alternate universe out there where I'm signing the development deal for the HBO miniseries based on my third novel or something. There's probably no such thing as a life without regret.

I don't know if this answers your question or not, Seth. I don't know if there is an answer. If there was a useful insight, I'm happy to have offered it.

It looks like Jeri's question is the last one in the queue for this series; I hope she won't mind if we pick it up on Monday. And, once again, thanks to everybody for the great questions!


Ask Standing On The Shoulders Of Giant Midgets: the loneliness of being Newt

>> Thursday, June 23, 2011

I do these in the order they're received, so I apologize to Wendy for any seeming lateness in answering the questions she's submitted to Ask Standing On The Shoulders Of Giant Midgets. Wendy writes:

SOTSOGM - Some comments please on [the recent] revelation that Newt's entire top-tier staff abandoned his campaign. I know that just made your lil' heart quicken a couple beats.

The shots from all the local stations lurking in his building's parking lot waiting for someone to show up at the now-vacated office were priceless!

Otherwise... let me know if you'd stand up and walk out on me...

Well, of course as we all know now, this week another shoe dropped with the resignation of Gingrich's finance staff on top of the earlier resignation of his campaign staff that you were asking about, Wendy. Wow, does this dude inspire confidence in his followers, or what? The real question that we should be asking now is who's going to turn out the lights? Will Gingrich have the chance to quit before any other remaining staffers turn in their keys?

I wish I knew exactly what was involved in a presidential nomination campaign so I could set up a dead pool we could all play. Will Gingrich's bus driver quit before the interns do? If he still has a publicist, will he or she outlast any remaining tech consultants? I don't know who's left, so I don't know how to set up a grid for you folks to play on. It's probably just as well: we couldn't play for money or prizes without violating state and Federal gambling laws, probably. We could only play for "funsies", and "meh" to that, amiright?

I tell ya, dude's campaign personnel are quitting Newt faster than the guy sloughs ex-wives. I hope this doesn't mean he's dying of cancer or something.

Artist Don Davis impact.arc.nasa.govBetween the mass emigrations and the latest bit o'news regarding Gingrich's other Tiffany's credit line, it's hard to understand why somebody as sharp as Gingrich allegedly is can't see the stratospheric mushroom cloud of rubble, seawater and dead fish over the horizon. Of course, I guess that particular conundrum fixes itself when you recall the obvious fact that Newt Gingrich is actually a moron. Mystery solved.

But wait--that's right, the man's a moron! My gods--now that he's declared a candidacy, he might not quit at all, even after he loses the Republican nomination. I can picture Gingrich showing up at the nominee's campaign stops, forlorn and ruffled, trying to intercept people going into the actual event to shake their hands, seizing shrieking babies out of random passers'-by BabyBjörns in an ill-conceived attempt to kiss them, telling people he really is still running for President. A camera at the first debate will catch Gingrich standing in the orchestra pit at the foot of the stage, surrounded by nervous-looking forum security and a Secret Service detail, raising his hand and bouncing on his toes every time Gwen Ifill reads the next question off the notecard in her hand. Gingrich in the same, obviously uncleaned suit, shirt untucked, his silver hair mussed askew and with visible stubble on his face, tackled by large men as he runs onto the stage to grab the microphone from the nominee during his or her concession speech....

It could happen.

Yep, way things are going, Newt Gingrich could be the first presidential candidate in American history to get zero votes anywhere--and yes, I'm aware he could vote for himself and his wife could hypothetically vote for him, too. If they really wanted. But why would Tiffany's offer them anything for that?

As for walking out on you, Wendy: what do you take me for, a Gingrich staffer?

(Thank you, thank you, I'll be here all week.)


Ask Standing On The Shoulders Of Giant Midgets: relaxation and tuneful singing

>> Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Another day, another "Ask Standing On The Shoulders Of Giant Midgets"! David writes in with two questions:

My question: Do you relax by doing something else or by doing nothing?

Alternately: What would you do if I sang out of tune?

This is a little hard to answer because, y'know, the only people who do nothing are the dead. Well, they decompose, but aside from that.

The things I do to relax include reading, trying to write, playing games. Of course one can immediately point out is that these activities aren't necessarily relaxing. Writing, particularly, has been a hard burden of late for whatever reason. The reason some books have been in my "Reading" sidebar for aeons and aeons is that some of the books there are possibly more irritating than actually enjoyable (I'm looking at you, Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, And Steel--mixing banal observations with sweeping generalizations does not a persuasive thesis make, sir). And while I don't play games--video, board or card--as much as I'd like, it's pretty easy to get stressed out with that activity, too.

But the main thing, really, is that none of these are really "doing nothing" even when they're not taxing. Reading a book that's a pleasant, low-wattage, easy read is still doing something. So is a walk and taking photographs, another activity I occasionally enjoy. For that matter, it also occurs to me as I write this that a considerable amount of a courtroom lawyer's "work" consists of waiting around for his case to be called--which really can be considered doing nothing even though it's (a) working and (b) really, awfully dull and not the least bit pleasant or relaxing.

As for what would I do if you sang out of tune: the one bit of wisdom a one-time friend offered many, many years ago (good grief--it's now decades ago, as hard as that is to get my head around) was that what made singing the best thing (or one of the best things) on Earth was that anybody could do it and it costs nothing. Which is true. Just open your mouth and rattle your vocal cords, and singing takes care of itself.

That singing might not be tuneful really doesn't have anything to do with anything. Tom Waits' voice now sounds like it's coming through solid walls of cigarette cotton stuck in his throat and Leonard Cohen's voice has devolved into a spoken singsong and aren't they wonderful performers to listen to? (Interestingly, both men were better at carrying a tune when they were younger; one wonders what happened.) Waits and Cohen have a female counterpart in Marianne Faithfull, whose dry rasp is an amazing instrument. The Velvet Underground & Nico is a spectacular album notwithstanding the obvious vocal limitations of Lou Reed and Nico alike. And how about John Lydon? The man's an incredible frontman and, dare I say it, vocalist notwithstanding the fact he doesn't so much carry a tune as he throws it over his shoulder and drags it up a rocky slope.

Who cares if you sing well? Did you sing passionately is what I want to know.

The worst thing you can ever tell someone is that they're singing out of tune or off key. Well, context. I suppose if you're at some kind of rehearsal and they're supposed to be singing in a particular way, it's alright to coax them towards wherever they're supposed to be pitch-wise. But as far as, say, singing in the car? The only appropriate criticism is, "You're not singing loudly enough!"

(Here is where I confess I haven't always been a good or decent man when it comes to the others' singing. There have been, I believe, times when I was critical or even cruel. This is because I am a base hypocrite scraping towards perfection on bloodied palms and knees.)

Sing away!


Ask Standing On The Shoulders Of Giant Midgets: Superhero movies

>> Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Howdy, howdy, howdy! (Hey, look at me everybody! I'm a cowboy!) Heh. So, we're back for another entry of Ask Standing On The Shoulders Of Giant Midgets. The next question in the queue is Mrs. B.'s, but we went ahead and answered it because it was related to one from CursiveArts. So that should bring us to Matt's query:

Marvel comics is on its way to having a big movie franchise to tie in its other movie franchises when The Avengers comes out. Why do you think DC isn't doing the same with a Justice League movie?

What's your position of fan films of comic books etc. that are done well (e.g. Batman Dead End)? Should those people be given a shot at making a movie for reals?

Superhero comics have a long history of crossovers, team-ups and epic "who-would-win" fights between assorted characters; it's almost an essential part of comics culture back to the dawn of superhero comics in the 1930s, and publishers have been more than happy to oblige with marketing events that are sometimes little more than fanservice. But the scene is a little different in the movies.

In the movies, in fact, franchise crossovers have long had the reek of death about them. This goes back to the 1940s when some genius at Universal noticed the downward death-spiral box office trend afflicting the once profitable Frankenstein franchise. The now-popular idea of a "reboot" not only wouldn't have occurred to anyone in those days, but would probably have been laughed out of the office as confusing to audiences. Unfortunately, it also didn't occur to anyone that the main problem with the Frankenstein franchise was that James Whale's brilliant Bride Of Frankenstein (1935) was followed by a pair of increasingly silly and gratuitous sequels, the adequate-but-only-just Son Of Frankenstein (1939) and the fairly wretched Ghost Of Frankenstein (1942), and that maybe what was needed if they weren't going to retire the series while they were still just ahead would be to drop more money on the script, cast and effects for the next entry instead of simply relying on the "Frankenstein" brand to sell tickets. No, what occurred to the genius at Universal was that the studio had just had a hit with The Wolf Man (1941)--why, if you could combine the audiences for Wolf Man with the audiences for the Frankenstein pictures, you could have the monster (painful pun intended) hit of the year.

The ridiculous Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man (1943) did well enough, sadly, for Dracula to get dragged into the mix in the following year's House Of Frankenstein, and somehow things managed to go downhill from there. (Second-best thing about House Of Frankenstein: the way the poster proudly proclaims the presence of "Hunchback!" and "Mad Doctor!" as if these are marquee characters. The best thing about House, of course, is the way John Carradine plays Dracula as if he's constantly surprised he's in this movie--Dracula's surprised or Carradine is, take your pick.) By 1948, "monster rally" movies would be played for comedy, pretty much terminating-with-prejudice the entire first generation of Universal monsters (Dracula, Frankenstein's Monster and The Wolf Man and all their miscellaneous relations and dwellings) until Hammer resuscitated (or shamelessly stole, depending on your perspective) the classic Universal monster formula in the 1960s by adding blood and boobs.

A similar thing took place through the '50s and '60s with Japan's giant monster movies, though Western audiences never took them all that seriously to begin with and it wasn't until fairly recently, even, that American audiences suddenly became aware that Gojira was, in fact, a fairly serious and metaphor-laden horror movie and not a semi-comic-surreal carnage fest about a giant monster capable of eating Tokyo and a fire-breathing lizard (sorry, Raymond Burr jokes are just too easy to pass up, not that you could miss Raymond Burr--rimshot!). But there, anyway, you have team-ups and crossovers in the movie industry: they've traditionally been the last penny-grabbing gasps of a creatively-bankrupt franchise and/or silly kiddie movies with no plot beyond the havoc being wreaked onscreen.

Which makes Marvel's extended gameplan bold and possibly suicidal. We'll just have to see if they can make it work. They're gambling on audiences being more plugged into comics, where team-ups are practically obligatory, than to films, in which team-ups are one step away from "Heyyyyyyy Aaaaaaaabbbbbbbottttt!" Problem is, I'm not exactly sure that's going to work, since the core geek audience plugged into superhero comics substantially overlaps with the core geek audiences for science fiction and horror films in which crossovers are treated with suspicion (see also: the mixed-mostly-negative reaction to AvP and general recoil from AvP: Requiem). Plus, the fact that it takes more than the geeks to make a film a hit: even assuming loyal fans flock to Joss Whedon's Avengers, if loyal fanaticism were enough to guarantee success, Whedon would be working on the third or fourth Serenity sequel instead of a superhero movie, wouldn't he?

Let's put it another, even less optimistic way: if Marvel's gameplan works it will basically be bucking six decades of conventional wisdom about movie franchises, regardless of how awesome or awful Avengers might be. Indeed, Avengers may be the greatest superhero movie ever made (no disrespect to Whedon but this is highly unlikely: his competition for that includes The Dark Knight, Spider-Man 2 and X2 just off the top of the head and for starters), and if it bellyflopped at the box office I don't think anybody outside of Marvel would actually be surprised and quite a lot of people would say "I told you so" while numbering off on their fingers a number of the sequels I've already mentioned in this post.

Possibly the only thing offsetting the poor cinematic history is that team comics have been a mainstay for Marvel comics to a greater extent than any other publisher. Indeed, with The X-Men and The Fantastic Four, I do believe that Marvel may have been the first publisher to introduce comic book heroes who only existed as teams (I don't feel like researching this point at this exact moment and if anybody wants to point to a predecessor in the comments section, please have at it). It's such a part of Marvel's identity that, for instance, the X-Men movies didn't feel like "rallies" because "The X-Men" are, sort of conceptually, an organic whole or function as a single hero (yes, I know that members like Wolverine actually wandered in from other comics and subsequently wandered out into their own books and other crossovers, but I think you know what I mean). There may be one other offset, which is the fact that Marvel has been setting up several of their recent superhero movies as semi-prequels to The Avengers, though that may cut more than one way: the fact that Iron Man 2 felt more like a prequel to an unmade film more than it felt like a coherent sequel to Iron Man was one of the most pretentious and irritating things about the damn thing and exacerbated the general messiness, lack of focus and superabundance of loose and/or dangling plot threads; it sort of made me want to not see The Avengers just to get Iron Man 2 back for kind of ripping me off.

Anyway, speaking for myself, I have some trepidation and skepticism about whether Marvel's bet is going to pay off. I wouldn't mind Avengers being very good and very successful, though at the same time I'm not sure I expect it to be and am afraid that it's success will most likely lead to everybody making "superhero rallies" until the cow is not only sucked dry but completely deflated and only suitable for use as a kind of pathetic leather beanbag.

All of which may answer the question of why DC isn't following suit. DC's team-ups, with the possible exception of Neal Adams' Green Lantern/Green Arrow run in the 1970s, have usually felt less vital or necessary than most of Marvel's (though there have been exceptions through the years). Although Batman and Superman were frequently paired up, that often felt like pure marketing and not because anything in the internal logic of either character caused it to make sense that they'd share a dimension, much less nemeses and adventures. The Justice League Of America has frequently felt like that situation multiplied, with science-fiction, fantasy and mystery characters jumbled together in ways that sometimes worked but frequently lead to head-scratching if you overthink things (and show me a true geek who doesn't overthink things). I would say part of this is pure real-world history: whereas Marvel (a successor imprint to Timely Comics and Atlas Comics) went into the superhero business in the 1960s under the guidance of a single editor (Stan "The Man" Lee) imagining a shared universe (or at least, at first, a New York City over-brimming with neurotic superheroes), National/DC was essentially a conglomerate from early on, starting with a series of mergers that turned into a number of absorptions of separate imprints and/or intellectual properties by way of purchases, lawsuits and settlements. The Fantastic Four and Spider-Man exist in the same universe because that's how Stan Lee imagined the New York created by the artists he worked with; Captain Marvel and Superman exist in the same universe because National Periodicals sued Fawcett Publications into near-bankruptcy with a claim that Marvel was nothing but a Superman ripoff and then bought all the character rights for a song. So if Marvel and Supes seem both a bit redundant and negatory when they make JLA appearances together, as if they're some kind of matter-antimatter pair and how does a planet have room for two all-powerful caped-and-tighted demigods without one annihilating the other by mere proximity, well... yeah, that's exactly what they are, actually, a proton-antiproton pair from alternate dimensions squeezed into a comics panel by a lawsuit.

One of the interesting things you may not be aware of is that DC and Warner Brothers did contemplate a superhero rally, or at least teaming up Batman and Superman. Significantly, Batman Vs. Superman was a very serious proposal made during the aftermath of the catastrophic release of Batman And Robin and fan uproar over the leaked Superman: Flyby draft (you know, the one where J.J. Abrams thought it would be awesome if Krypton didn't blow up, Lex Luthor was an alien CIA agent and Superman got his powers the same way Ralph Hinkley did; ever feel like the universe dodged a bullet?): i.e. Warner and DC were looking at doing pretty much what Universal did when faced with the underperformance of the last Frankenstein movie and a lack of ideas for continuing the Wolf Man franchise, "fixing" the poor reception to Batman And Robin and the long, long, looooonnnnng gap since Superman IV by green-lighting a movie that would throw them together, hey, why not? Nevermind that one character can do anything, even reverse time by flying backwards really fast, and the other guy's an ordinary billionaire in a rubber suit with nipples on it; forget that what was keen about the one franchise was that you had a technicolor-blue dude doing spectacular stuff against the backdrop of a fairly ordinary and familiar (and even banal) '70s/'80s New York City while the other franchise existed in a surrealist goth version of the Emerald City from Wizard Of Oz. People like Superman, right? And they like Batman, right? So they should like Superman + Batman twice as much, that's logic. Right?

Happily, somebody at Warner's decided to make Batman Begins and the underrated Superman Returns instead, and Batman Vs. Superman remains tabled for now.

And, really, undoable until Warner's reboots Batman, which I imagine they'll do as soon as they respectably can after Christopher Nolan finishes what's expected to be a trilogy. The rumor, at least, is that The Dark Knight Rises is going to be Nolan's last Batman film. We'll see, though I suspect that if there are directors capable of turning their backs on dumptrucks full of money being backed into his driveway, Nolan's one of them. (The fact that Inception was, ahem, a modest success doesn't hurt, does it?) While one doesn't know how many rumors one should take seriously, especially when talking about a director and writer who keeps things close to the vest and has a magician's talent for misdirection, I won't be shocked if Nolan's apparent decision to put Bane in the movie signals that Nolan is willing to do something irrevocable to Batman, knowing that Warner's will eventually do a complete reboot/reimagining of what he's made whenever they want to anyway; that is, I happen to think Christopher Nolan is perfectly capable of ending a Batman film with Bruce Wayne in a wheelchair, or dead, or with the audience wondering if the top kept spinning after the credits. I'm not making a prediction, I'm just saying Christopher Nolan has really big balls. And they're made of a very dense and shiny metal.

But I think I got sidetracked: the point I was actually getting around to is that one of the distinguishing things about Nolan's Batman franchise is that he's made the movies as near-present, quasi-realist mystery-science-fiction as opposed to something more conventionally "superheroic". That is, his Gotham is pretty clearly Chicago using a pseudonym and maybe wearing a wig and false moustache, and while there's nothing "realistic" about a guy going out every night and getting into a completely un-refereed UFC smackdown and still being able to walk every morning and things like identifying fingerprints from a shattered bullet or turning every cell phone in the world into a sonar mapping network is completely SF, Nolan's Batworld is still recognizably related to our own. I.e. it isn't one where super-powered aliens fly around and shoot rays from their eyes or magical rings, though those things might be less far-fetched, really, than the amount of damage Batman takes without displaying any signs of parkinsonism.

It probably also doesn't help that previous efforts at live-action DC superhero team-ups have become notorious comedy fodder on the Internet.

Anyway, all that probably covers it. But wait until the box office returns from The Avengers are in: if The Avengers is a hit, I imagine Warner and DC will rush to get some kind of superhero team onscreen, and if it flops, well... there will be much joy in Mudville the boardrooms of TimeWarner.

But wait, there's another question there!

What's your position of fan films of comic books etc. that are done well (e.g. Batman Dead End)? Should those people be given a shot at making a movie for reals?

That's actually a fairly easy one to give a short answer to: the ability to make a good short film doesn't really say a lot about one's ability to handle a feature. They're completely different animals in almost every respect, and while a short film may be some indication of one's artistic abilities in framing or lighting a shot or other technical aspects of filmmaking, making a film with your own money and the donated work of friends and colleagues over a couple of days says nothing about your ability to make good use of large amounts of other people's money allocated among many different departments over a period of months.

The subject of the film doesn't really enter into it. Christopher Nolan and Brian Singer have made some of the best comic book adaptations committed to film, and their previous projects wouldn't lead one to think either man would have the least bit of interest in comic books or superheroes at all. (That indeed may be the secret to their successes: Nolan and Singer both approached their superhero projects as films first and comic book adaptations second, putting much of their focus into story, theme and character and letting the big action setpieces fall into place and take care of themselves in due course.) Sam Raimi's work prior to the Spider-Man films certainly suggests comic books are a good fit for his sensibilities (indeed, he'd already directed a superhero movie, 1990's Darkman, before making Spider-Man) but Raimi's background would generally be considered that of a maker of horror movies (experience that's used very effectively in the operating room scene in Spider-Man 2, by the way). Zack Snyder's adaptation of Watchmen, on the other hand, suggests that revering a comic book may be a disadvantage when turning it into a movie; Watchmen isn't terrible by any means, but it isn't especially good, either, and it's slavish devotion to putting every one of Dave Gibbons' panels onscreen in some form or another is one of the things that weighs the whole thing down until it's a bit of a drag.

All that said, I'm all for giving talented directors of short films (about whatever) chances to handle features (about whatever), especially if they happen to be friends of mine and deserve the work and their success would make me happy tho' I'd miss them if they're local and ended up moving to L.A. But it's probably obvious that that's more about my prejudices and sticking up for friends than anything else. As for directors of well-made shorts who I don't know, I wish them well. (The hacks can go back to their day jobs.)

Thanks for the question(s), Matt!


Ask Standing On The Shoulders Of Giant Midgets: Texas psychics and no bodies at home...

>> Monday, June 20, 2011

Hi, how was your weekend? Mine was alright. Ready for some "Ask Standing On The Shoulders Of Giant Midgets"? Yes? Excellent!

Phiala posted:

Your thoughts on the police search of the house with the anonymous tip of many bodies, the out-of-control news coverage, and the revelation that the tip came from a psychic?

That's an excellent question, because when I first read about that in the news, before the police went and found exactly zero bodies at the house, my immediate reaction was, "What the bloody hell is wrong with people?" And I thought about doing a blog entry about it, but I decided to wait because while there's exactly zero evidence for any kind of psychic phenomena, it was just possible that the other shoe would drop and piles and piles of bodies would be found. When the tip unsurprisingly turned out to be bogus, I still thought about doing a piece on it, but wasn't sure how to approach it.

Thanks for giving me an in!

I suppose the place to start is that alternative footwear has been raining down like flies from a bug zapper since the Liberty County Sheriff's Department ended up looking like tools back on June 6th of this year. According to some reports, "Angel", the purported psychic says she was just calling in a social services welfare report on live children in jeopardy, and she apparently is denying that she claimed there were any bodies at all. Law enforcement, meanwhile, insists that the tip came from a "psychic" and that this gave them pause, but claims they were obligated to take the tip seriously. Some media observers connected to NPR say the whole thing was the media's fault for credulously rushing to press without all the facts on the ground (see here and here. So, is "Angel" backtracking or is she telling the truth and wires got crossed at the sheriff's department, or are the Lincoln County officers covering their asses and Angel's now fibbing about whether she made paranormal claims, and in any case is the reason this blew up and became an international sensation that the media will now rush to press with anything on a slow news day and don't know shit from Shinola anyway?

Well, the answer to the last may be "yes" regardless.

So, anyway, there we are: turns out that we don't know exactly what happened beyond the Lincoln County, Texas, SO got some kind of phone tip from someone who may or may not have claimed to be psychic, and they went and tore up someone's yard looking for bodies that may or may not have been reported to be there, and didn't find jack. And the press may have gone with the psychic angle because, well, it's the kind of thing you see in movies, right?

But what about the sheriffs' claim that they had to look into the tip? Well, maybe, sort of, kind of. The gold standard on anonymous tips is a United States Supreme Court case, Florida v. J.L. - 529 U.S. 266 (2000); in 1995, police in Miami received a tip that a black guy in a plaid shirt was hanging around a bus stop and had a gun; when the police showed up at the bus stop to investigate, they found a juvenile, J.L., milling around in a plaid shirt and they searched him and found a gun. J.L. was found responsible for underage possession of a firearm, but the SCOTUS unanimously overturned the verdict. Why?

Because a phoned-in tip has to do more than identify a particular person: it has to have sufficient "indicia of reliability" to give law enforcement officers some basis for forming a reasonable suspicion that a crime is actually taking place. Anonymous tips are inherently suspect, because whereas police may be able to judge the credibility and history of reliability of a known or identified informant, the unidentified informant could be anyone--could be phoning the tip in from a lunatic asylum or just to cause trouble for some personal enemy. An anonymous tip might give the police a basis for some nominal investigation: to conduct a "knock-and-talk", for instance, or to put an individual under observation to see if any specific illegal conduct is occurring (in J.L., all the kid in question was doing as far as could be observed was hang out at a bus stop while wearing plaid--hardly suspicious behavior). An anonymous tip might also be buttressed by additional verifiable details: i.e. an anonymous tip that someone wearing plaid at a bus stop has a gun is insufficient to trigger a reasonable suspicion of criminal behavior, but a tip that a tall, thin white male who is around 45 years old will be at the train station between 4:30 P.M. and 5:15 dressed in a black suit and carrying a powder-blue Samsonite hard case full of heroin, dropped off by an African-American woman driving a white Cadillac might be sufficiently detailed to be deemed credible if such is observed arriving at the train station (these details are all fictitious, by the way).

Some of the news reports indicate that Lincoln County SO responded to the tip by going to the house and discovering blood on the porch (a member of the household's boyfriend tried to commit suicide there and was hospitalized) and a "foul odor", which led to their obtaining a search warrant. I find this a little troubling, phoned in by a "psychic" or no, because it doesn't sound like there was much basis for the issuance of the search warrant. We don't know what details "Angel" gave to the police in her then-anonymous tip, but it would appear all the police had to go on was a description of the property that (1) wasn't clear enough to get them to the right house the first time they tried to visit the property (!!) and (2) probably could have been obtained from Google Maps. They had no basis at that point for evaluating whether "Angel" herself was trustworthy, and if she in fact identified herself as a psychic or as having received her information from angels, one might think that would tend to discredit her reliability (in retrospect, the sheriffs are now saying that "there was perhaps a moment of pause" over the "psychic" nature of the tip--and wouldn't that undermine a claim that the tip had sufficient indicia of reliability to be acted upon?

I don't have any problem with the Lincoln County Sheriff getting a tip--even if the tipster claims to be psychic--and sending a deputy out to tap on the door and see if everything's alright. You may be thinking, "But the caller said she was psychic and psychic powers are a bunch of horseshit." I agree, but suppose for the moment that someone connected with the household is an accessory to crimes committed there or has become familiar with crimes committed there because someone they know has loose lips--a surprisingly common circumstance; they call it in and when they're asked how they know about all these bodies, they don't want to admit knowledge or complicity or provide information that could lead back to their identification, so, ummm, "I have psychic powers and I have had a vision from beyond--oooooooooooooo," click, dialtone, right? Kind of a lame excuse, but it gets you off the phone and you can lay your head down on the pillow knowing you at least tried to do the right thing, sort of, and if the Sawyers keep eating hitchhikers, well, you know, now it's not your fault, it's the cops fault because you called it in, right? You did your part.

But when the deputy gets out there and all he finds are stains and a smell? Well, that ought to be the end of it. Maybe he can walk around a little and see if there's anything in plain view that looks out-of-whack, anything that would lead to reasonable suspicion or probable cause (or even a decision that exigent circumstances justify calling for backup and kicking in the door). But if nothing's there, nothing's there.

Y'know, there's a really good question at the bottom of what the Lincoln County SO did: supposing they had found bodies, would the search warrant that was issued based on the information they had stand up at trial or would that entire pile of bodies have been suppressed as evidence for being the fruit of an illegal search and seizure? This is why it's pretty damn important for law enforcement to actually do a little leg work when acting on anonymous tips. The Supreme Court doesn't like anonymous tips, and rightly so, because such tips offend the originalist and civil libertarian wings of the Court alike; the conservatives start ranting about The Star Chamber and the liberals spout off about penumbras of privacy rights and the dignity of man. How often do the left and right wings of the SCOTUS agree on anything, and J.L. was a unanimous decision from the Court, remember.

Be a bit embarrassing, don't you think, to have a whole mountain of corpses and you can't show a single dad-blamed one to the jurors because you heard about them from a witch or something?

I could perhaps go on a bit about psychics and cops in general, but I think this is maybe a good place to wrap this post up. Hope that answered your question, Phiala, and thank you again. Anyone have any thoughts, comments, follow-ups?


In memoriam: The Big Man

>> Sunday, June 19, 2011

News came over last night that Clarence Clemons is gone. This is a little hard to process.

Bruce Springsteen knew Clemons a little longer than I've been alive; well, maybe I'd been conceived. The story is appropriately self-contained and epic, like one of The Boss' early, sprawling songs: an unknown-but-rumored Springsteen was playing an Asbury Park club one dark and stormy night when Clemons, sax player for another local band, decided to check out this guy everybody in the hood was talking about; so Clemons goes to this bar, the story goes, but when he tries to go inside the wind from that terrible storm grabs the door right out of his hand and blasts it right open, and there he is, this giant standing in the blown-open door of this little club, framed by the wind and lightning. The rest is history. A couple of years later, he'd be blowing the roofs off arenas with Springsteen and the E Street Band; meanwhile he became one of the band's earliest members, and one of the only three to travel with Springsteen from the first album, Greetings From Asbury Park to 2009's Working On A Dream (not counting, of course, the hiatus when Springsteen worked with "The Other Band" in the '90s--not as bad as most people think, still, the less said the better--or side projects like the Seeger Sessions Band).

Springsteen's first two albums didn't sell and the only thing he really had going for him were that some folks at Columbia Records weren't willing to write him off just yet; these days, his career would have been over, but back in the early '70s you had still had some folks in the industry who weren't just looking at the bottom line. And anyway, Springsteen had been discovered by the legendary John Hammond, the guy who discovered Aretha Franklin and Bob Dylan, the guy who almost signed Robert Johnson except the Reaper signed him first; Dylan's first couple of records hadn't done that well, either, and who was going to make the mistake of second-guessing Hammond on another tousled troubadour, give the kid time. Still, Springsteen's days were numbered, everybody knew it, especially Springsteen.

So the kid doubled down, figured if he was recording his last record, he might as well shoot his whole wad on recording the greatest rock'n'roll album ever recorded. And holy fucking hell, what he came out with was Born To Run and I'll be damned if it's not at the very least, the very least, a contender for the greatest rock'n'roll album ever recorded. I wouldn't say it's my favorite, and somehow, paradoxically, I'm not sure I'd say it's Springsteen's best despite being as close to perfect as anything that's ever been pressed to vinyl.

This was epic rock, that big Phil Spector-inflected pop sound being used to relate this myth-cycle of hustlers and musicians and grifters trying to grab some kind of heroic glory on the Jersey shore. And Clarence Clemons and Springsteen were right there in the midst of this cosmology, Springsteen as "Bad Scooter" and Clemons, "The Big Man" on Born To Run's second track, "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out":

When the change was made uptown
And the Big Man joined the band
From the coastline to the city
All the little pretties raise their hands
I'm gonna sit back right easy and laugh
When Scooter and the Big Man bust this city in half
With a Tenth Avenue freeze-out, Tenth Avenue freeze-out
Tenth Avenue freeze-out...

This was the duo on the album's cover (reproduced at the top of this post), Springsteen almost by himself on the front cover but when you opened the gatefold out there was Clemons, caught blasting away on his saxophone. Springsteen, appropriately, is leaning on the Big Man, Clemons is a tower of support; Clemons looks at the camera but Springsteen is looking at Clemons, hand covering a wicked, loopy grin. They're Sancho Panza and Don Quixote, but the funny thing is it's Springsteen who's the delusional one tilting at windmills, Clemons is the grounded secret hero of the whole thing.

Well, y'know, the damnedest thing is it didn't just work as art. Born To Run was an enormous commercial success, and only the Muses know what would have happened next if Springsteen's career hadn't gotten bogged down for the next several years with a business dispute with his manager that effectively exiled Springsteen from the studio and kept him from breaking into bigger live venues; when the smoke cleared, Springsteen and a somewhat reconfigured E Street Band would tack off in a different direction on 1978's Darkness On The Edge Of Town, a less-sprawling and grandiose album despite full-on rockers like "Adam Raised A Cain", "The Promised Land" and "Candy's Room".

If you grew up in the 1970s, anyway, Born To Run was everywhere. Not just the music on the radio, I mean every record store you went into for at least a decade following that record's explosion in '75, poster versions of the expanded gatefold sleeve, that Eric Meola photo of Panza and Quixote, was up on a wall somewhere, usually in a high, permanent place where it was never going to be taken down again. That image was the cover of Sgt. Pepper's, the cover of Dark Side Of The Moon, Sticky Fingers. That image was rock and roll and if you wanted to go and assemble the ultimate rock covers, the question isn't whether the faces of Clarence Clemons and Bruce Springsteen sharing that moment belongs in the Top Ten, but where does it place in relation to Dark Side and Velvet Underground And Nico (a.k.a. Peel Slowly And See)?

My Dad was--and is--an enormous Springsteen fan all the way back, as far as I can remember. Here's my earliest Springsteen memory, for what it's worth: lying on the rug of whatever crappy apartment my family was living in at the time, playing two-player Risk while Born To Run was on in the background. Back in '99 or '00, when Springsteen had just gotten the E Street Band back together--the bigger than ever E Street Band, with Little Steven Van Zandt sharing the stage and trading licks with Nils Lofgren, the guy who replaced Little Steven in the mid-'80s when Van Zandt wanted to do some things on his own, and why pick one when you can have both (and talk about mad, easily-overlooked genius on The Boss' part: the big E Street Band has three incredible lead guitarists in the forms of Van Zandt, Lofgren, and himself, and Springsteen the arranger finds great parts for all of them so that nobody is overshadowed and everybody gets a showcase)--anyway, back in '99 or '00 I took my Dad and my little sister to see the bigger'n'ever E Street Band play in Charlotte; when I called my Dad last night to see if he'd heard the awful news about Clarence, he reminded me we were on Clemons' side of the stage, over him the entire night. He sounded awesome that night, he sounded awesome every night.

People have been wondering if this means the end of the E Street Band. Springsteen is already saying they'll go on in his honor, and I reckon they will and they have to. It's just hard to imagine that stage with a Clemons-sized space in it. There are great saxophonists the world over, but Clemons was a unique persona and he was one of the band's oldest troupers. You know there are only two Springsteen albums that feature someone other than The Boss on the front cover/gatefold, right? There's Clemons and Springsteen on Born To Run and then there's the cover of the Live In New York CD (same tour I took my Dad and sister to see them on), two men in silhouette, Sancho Panza and Don Quixote, again. Clemons isn't the E Street Band's first casualty, and it seems almost accidentally cruel that his death, I dunno, diminishes the loss of Danny Federici a few years ago--there didn't seem any doubt that the show would go on, but now there is, now it just seems as impossible as it's probably inevitable. They have to, but everybody knows it won't be the same.

The New York Times' obituary can be read here, but the best obit I've seen today and the one you really, really should read is this one at The Onion A/V Club.

The obituary at the A/V Club pointed me to something I didn't know about but doesn't surprise me--everybody knows that Clemons' sax solo on "Jungleland", the final cut on Born To Run, is one of the most amazing things ever. But did you know it has its own Facebook page? As in, seriously, The Sax Solo In Jungleland Facebook page. People are leaving the virtual equivalent of flowers at the shrine, you might, too.

Speaking of: one of the treasures of the Internet age is being able to find things like the E Street Band's classic 1978 Passaic, New Jersey concert up at YouTube, converted from a very rough VHS copy and uploaded. This is "Jungleland" in all its glory:

Rest in peace, Big Man. You will be terribly missed by all of those you've left behind you.


Weekend break: "Bohemian Like You"

Keeping with yesterday's Radio Sunnydale theme, here's The Dandy Warhols taking the piss out of hipsters with "Bohemian Like You", a song that cracks me up every time I hear it.

Since I don't know where you might be watching this, if you watch it, I feel obligated to mention that the video features brief shots of male and female full-frontal nudity.

Whoa ho woo! Hope you're having a great Sunday and we'll have some more answers to some more questions starting tomorrow!


Weekend break: "Stop Thinking About It"

>> Saturday, June 18, 2011

Like I said yesterday, I'm going to run filler today and tomorrow and return to "Ask Standing On The Shoulders Of Giant Midgets" on Monday.

Stuck with a loaner car through the week, I ended up listening to a couple of CDs for the commute, including Radio Sunnydale, which features this great one from the great Joey Ramone. This is an audio-only clip, basically, but I hope you enjoy the tune.

"Stop Thinking About It":

Hope you're having a good weekend!


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