Friday, July 29, 2011

Teddybears!



Listened to this on the way to work this morning, and thought you guys might enjoy it on your Friday.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Shrimp Night!!

Delicious shrimp! They came all the way from the ocean to find their way onto the Hop-a-Long grill! Good job, Amy!

Sunday Afternoon at Hop-A-Long

Monday, July 25, 2011

Amy Winehouse, Authenticity, and Audience Confusion

There was a really good piece by Amanda Petrusich recently on Salon.com about the death of Amy Winehouse and the role of authenticity in music.
The article talks about the fact that music fans, and fans of other forms of art as well, crave authenticity in art. It also questions what the authenticity really means in terms of how it applies to art. In general, I guess listeners feel like a piece of music is more "legitimate" if the audience feels like the life of the artist clearly reflects the sort of experiences and emotions that the art seeks to convey. The line of thinking, I suppose, is that art comes from a more sincere, honest place if the audience thinks that the artist has truly lived the through the sort of events described in their work.

But what do you make of that notion in an age when so many artists exert tremendous effort to spin media images that comport with their art after the fact? We have a whole lot of different musicians out there who are surrounded by teams of managers, publicists, etc., all trying to craft a public persona for artists that will help to sell their product, rendering semi-fictional to entirely fictional biographies that only reflect their histories and lives in the most tangential way (a fact which is made even more absurd when you realize that some of these artists are trying to legitimize themselves by bending the truth about their lives, oftentimes in an effort to try to lend credibility to songs and records written by ghostwriters- songs that the "artist" didn't actually write in the first place).
Other artists try to create a lifestyle for themselves which they think will legitimize their music. Many a country music star has grown up in a suburban environment as a fan of rock and roll, never having ever really experienced a rural lifestyle, only to end up later parading around in cowboy hats, talking of their horses and cattle, and singing of the ranching/country lifestyle. A number of rappers have built careers upon descriptions of growing up "on the streets" despite having actually grown up in a relatively comfortable middle class environment. And, of course, many rock acts seem to have picked up self destructive drug and drinking habits almost as a way to prove to audiences that they're musicians who are legitimately deserving of the "rock star" label.
So the audience craves authenticity, but it's hard to know what's authentic a lot of the time.

And even if the lifestyle seems to match the lyrics, isn't it still impossible to know whether the emotions portrayed in the art are genuine? Doesn't anyone suppose that there have been rappers who are actually from the streets, having written songs about the despair brought on by violence and drugs, while in truth they sort of love the street life because it's brought them money, fame, and success? Haven't there been rock stars who've alluded to the pain and sadness of their drug problems, while in truth some of these same people have mostly enjoyed their habits, including the chance to sing about how awful their struggles had become? Is the music authentic just because of the life events of the artist, even if the emotions expressed in the art aren't genuine?
In her article, Petrusich also makes an excellent (and I think accurate) point about the fact that legitimacy, insofar as it actually exists in music, has to come from the audience and not the performer. The emotional resonance that matters is actually the affect that a piece of music has upon the listener. Maybe in some cases it helps a listener to feel more emotionally connected to a song if that listener feels like the artist was feeling some sort of genuine emotional experience at the time that the song was written. On the other hand, even if a song was written for a primarily commercial purpose, if that song conjures up memories or otherwise stirs up valid emotions in the listener, then then the origins of the song may actually be irrelevant.
Authenticity in art might rely primarily upon the emotional reaction of the audience and not upon the emotional investment of the artist. Given the fact that it's all but impossible to be sure exactly what the artist was thinking as they created their work, the genuine emotional response of the audience might be the best that we can ever really hope for in appreciating a piece of art.

Anyway, things aren't going to change, and audiences are going to continue to demand that the lifestyle of an artist mirrors the content of their work in some way.
As Petrusich points out in regard to Amy Winehouse, the problems arise when artists feel so strong a need to legitimize their work that they're willing to sacrifice everything- even their lives- in order to lend an air of authenticity. The whole phenomenon just becomes that more tragic when the whole thing is misguided and sadly self fulfilling on the part of both artists and fans.

Friday, July 22, 2011

What in the World is Wrong With People?

A gunman killed 80 people at a children's camp in Norway today, and seven more were killed in a bomb blast in Oslo, the nation's capital. There aren't a lot of details yet, but police are saying that the two events were linked. The gunman, who is in custody, has been identified as Anders Behring Breivik, a man described as a right-wing extremist by authorities.
I feel bad for the people of Norway.

Really bad.

I read somewhere that the shooter paraphrased British philosopher John Stuart Mill on his Twitter account, saying, “One person with a belief is equal to a force of 100,000 who have only interests.”

And I guess that's what's sort of scary, actually. When John Stuart Mill formed this thought, I'm sure that he meant it to be a highminded, inspirational statement about the sort of things that can be accomplished by an individual of endurance and perserverance if he has a sort of well-conceived, worthwhile set of ideals. And given the time period in which Mill made this statement (pre-internet, pre-personal publishing, etc.), he probably envisioned a world in which most culture shifting, society-altering goals could only be accomplished if an individual managed to gain the cooperation and help of other people. Fervent belief could win people over to one's cause and change the course of history, hopefully to positive effect.

But in Mill's era (1806-1873), the power of the individual was more limited than it is today. A preson pretty much had to win over others if they wanted to have a singificant impact. Even as late as 1873, it was fairly difficult for a single individual to go on a killing spree that might take the lives of over 80 people or to put together a fertilizer bomb that could cause a horrific amount of damage to the population center of a major metropolitan city. In Mill's day they didn't have pistols with 30 round clips, radio controlled detonators, and dum-dum bullets. They didn't have an internet that allowed paranoid, delusional loners to search the globe for other sympathetic loonies so that they could fuel one another's psychosis (ultimately convincing one another that the extremely radical, fringe beliefs of a small handful of loonies were the the strarting point of a social revolution).


Even if a person were able to singlehandedly commit so much mayhem, the sorts of personal, instant publication and communications devices that we have today weren't available to a solitary individual. In Mill's day and age, the lone nut job might be able to blow up a building, but he would never be able to carefully and instantly disseminate his message in the way that a person can do today.

All of this to say that I think we're just beginning to see the beginnings of the significant numbers of one person (or perhaps very small group) terrorist attacks that we'll ultimately going to be in store for. We live in an era when automatic weapons are readily available and easy to use, and an era when manifestos can be published with a keystroke. Enraged loners no longer have to feel alone or powerless. Nowadays they can strike out at the society that has enraged them, and they can die or go to prison with the full confidence that they've adequately justified themselves (in their own minds, anyway) to the targets that deserve their wrath. When in past times they've known that committing atrocities would only get them sent off to death or jail, ultimately dismissed as the crazy people that they are, nowadays these loners are convinced that violence will draw attention and lend credibility to their twisted logic. These people don't understand that society isn't marginalizing them because they're crazy- they think that we just don't understand them because we haven't been paying attention to their insights carefully enough.

And they're willing to go to great lengths to command our attention.


The power of fervent, individual belief has traditionally been something to be admired. But obviously not every belief is worthwhile, no matter how strongly a person believes it. Given events like the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, Columbine in 1999, the Beltway sniper attacks in 2002, the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007, the Fort Hood shootings in 2009, and so forth and so on, it just feels like we're living in a scary time.

Mostly I like technology. I'm a big fan.

Wingnut ideology, the internet, and easily accessible, high powered weapons that just make for some really problematic scenarios, though. And, unfortunately, all of these things seem to exist exist in abundance these days.


Once again, my sympathies go out to the Norwegians.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Final Shuttle Landing


So the final space shuttle flight came to an end early this morning. I really hope that we find some sort of program that replaces the space shuttle so that we can continue our country's tradition of manned space flight (right now we don't really have a specific program in place, from what I understand. Our astronauts are going to be hitching rides with the Russians for awhile- which just seems wrong- and then hopefully we can transition into some new private sector space program). I know that there are some people out there who are sort of critical of space travel and space exploration these days (mostly because of the expense), but I would really like to see it continue. We exist in only the tiniest corner of the universe, and the idea that we might give up on wanting to explore and understand more of it just sort of depresses me (especially as we continue to fund wars for which no one even seems to be able to articulate a satisfactory resolution).
Anyway, my thanks to all the people who worked on the shuttle program over the decades. I know that the shuttle program didn't ultimately reach every goal that it set out to achieve (e.g., it turned out to be a little more expensive than planned), but for almost all of my life it's been America's spaceship. It's done great things, and I'm proud of it.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Grill Night!

Just a couple of pictures from dinner last night. Amy made some really good barbecue chicken with some kind of corn salad (also good!). I stood by a large metal contraption while fire heated up the things Amy made.

Here's Amy, perhaps beginning to feel a bit of the symptomatic madness brought on by summertime barbecue fever.



And here I am trying really hard not to ruin things.



Monday, July 18, 2011

Another Day at the Justice Factory

Prosecutor Room, County Court at Law 5, Monday Morning
(The Lawyer Horde)

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Space Lawyers and Hiding Outside of Time

Haven't written in a while, so.... hi!!!

Here's something that caught my interest recently- apparently researchers at Cornell University are saying that they've come up with a set of lenses that actually cloaks events in time. In their experiments, a beam of light is used along with a set of lenses which leave the flow of the beam apparently unchanged, while, in truth, extremely small, unobserved events have occurred within it. Apparently the current technique only allows events to be cloaked which last about 120 nanoseconds.
Huh.
I'm a little more slow and bumbly than that, so they're going to have to find a way to stretch that cloak time out a bit if I'm going to be able to use it to get into real trouble...
Anyway, cloaking time is cool.
I think.
I'm sure that people in the military are already coming up with various terrifying applications for more advanced versions of this technology.

In other news, there was a sort of interesting bit on NPR this week about the likely expansion of "space law" as a growing area of legal practice. Given ongoing efforts to expand space travel and exploration as a private sector business, the FAA and other federal regulatory agencies are likely to see a much greater need for a whole new set of laws and rules in the relatively near future. (Spaceport America is already under construction near Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, and Virgin Galactic and other companies are planning space flights with purposes ranging from tourism to satellite deployment and repair to resupply trips for the international space station.) Everyone knows that more rules, laws, and regulations mean that there will be more disagreements and arguments about their implementation.
Enter the space lawyer.
I always new that this criminal justice thing was just sort of a temporary gig, anyhow.
I look forward to the day when I rocket into orbit in my suit (perhaps while wearing some sort of bubble helmet) to take depositions from private sector astronauts. It'll be difficult because I'll have to try not to become distracted by the view of earth out the space station windows. Or maybe I'll arguing pretrial motions before a space judge while a robot court reporter takes down my arguments.
But probably earthbound space lawyers will mostly just start out quarrelling over FAA regulations regarding spacecraft design and operation. Entrepeneurs involved in private sector space programs are already expressing concerns about the development of potentially restrictive rules that might hamper the development of new space travel vehicles. Of course, people on the ground might not want giant rockets landing on their homes.
At any rate, space lawyering sounds kind of interesting.
And I know I'd look good wearing a tie in my space suit, with my zero gee briefcase and bubble helmet.

Monday, July 11, 2011

On My Christmas List...



Weekend Update

Just wanted to pop in and say hello.
The weekend was pretty good. Friday night I just kind of hung out and goofed off (watching TV or something?) while Amy studied for a Saturday test.
On Saturday I ran a bunch of errands. Amy took her test, and then afterward we made a celebratory run to Half Price Books followed by a nice dinner at El Meson on South Lamar.
I had never been to El Meson prior to about a month ago (the South Lamar location is relatively new), but I've really started to like it. I hope that it does some good business- although I have to admit that right now it's sort of nice to be able to walk into a good restaurant without having to wait for a table.
Sunday we got up and went to Barton Springs. It was really hot out, but the water felt great. We walked Cassidy, and then Amy went home to do some homework Mono Ensemble practiced at my house (for some reason Amy doesn't seem to think that studying goes very well when there's 120 decibel rock music involved). Band practice was pretty good. We played a version of Ted Nugent's Stranglehold, and that might not have even been the best song of the night.
After band practice, Amy came back over and we just sort of goofed off and read. I mercy watered the front lawn a little bit.
Annnyway, it was a nice weekend! Sorry it went by so fast...

Friday, July 08, 2011

Bye, Bye, Space Shuttle!





Adios, space shuttle!! I know that you're just starting your last mission, but I'm going to miss you!!! You've been with me almost all of my life (I remember watching space shuttle launches since early junior high, at least), and you've always been a symbol (along with all of your astronauts) of the great things that America can do with our collective intelligence, bravery, persistence, and willpower!!!


Anyway, I know that the mission isn't over yet, but I'm already starting to miss the shuttle!

Belated 4th of July Barbecue Photos (from Ryan and Jamie's Barbecue)

Pat and Juan in a cutthroat game of bean bag toss (I learned at the party that some people call this game cornhole. I thought that people were pulling my leg when they told me this, but I looked it up, and it's actually true!) I almost didn't even bring this game with us because it was so hot out, but amy insisted that Americans are drawn to it like bees to honey on the 4th of July...








Amy and I Ryan put on their "American faces" for the 4th. Apparently Ryan's American face reflects a bit more about the historical plight of the migrant worker, while Amy's American face reflects hotdogs and theme parks!










Jamie and Heather. Tow patriotic cats in their hatz!











Thanks for the barbecue, Team Steans!!!

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Casey Anthony

So just a quick word about the Casey Anthony acquittal. I'm not going to go one in much depth here because I didn't follow every detail of the case with the sort of rapt attention that others brought to it. Also, I acknowledge that there's already a ridiculous amount of analysis, speculation, and pontificating that's been associated with this case. Mostly I just want to jot down my thoughts because this seems like one of those big, famous cases that everyone will be talking about for years to come, so I kinda just want to record my thoughts as a matter of what I was thinking "at the time".
First of all, I think that the woman was guilty. I think that almost everyone out there feels like she killed her kid. I even read today that most of the jurors thought that she was guilty, but that the state had not "proven their case" beyond a reasonable doubt.
To be honest, I think that this sort of thinking- the sort of "scorecard" version of justice in which juries try to sort of grade the performances of prosecutors instead of just focusing on whether or not they've been convinced beyond a reasonable doubt of a defendant's guilt- has become more and more of an obstacle in terms of achieving justice in the courtroom in recent years. Reasonable doubt is a standard which is sort of purposefully left vague, and, in my opinion, has for some reason been raised to a strangely unrealistic level in recent years.
Undoubtedly, jurors should be very confident in their decision when finding someone guilty of something like capital murder. I understand, of course, that people want to be confident in what they're doing before they make that kind of crucial decision.On the other hand, I feel like people have begun to hold prosecutors and law enforcement to an unrealistic standard. As I remind my own potential jurors when I do jury selection, reasonable doubt is a standard which should be taken seriously, but it's also a standard under which people are convicted for countless crimes across this country every single day. But it feels as if, lately, many jurors take the concept of "beyond a reasonable doubt" to mean some a level of certainty that would be hard for a person to ever feel unless they had witnessed the crime themself.
Also, people spend a lot of time consuming fictional television programs, movies, and books where every loose end of every case is explained away in excruciating detail, and where forensic science magically and irrefutably provides ironclad, conclusive evidence which is almost always 1000% rock solid. Fictional detectives always get the bad guys to crack during interrogations, and, perhaps most tellingly, fictional criminals always end up leaving some sort of critically damning clue which proves to ultimately be their undoing.
I've been working in the criminal justice for about 12 years now, and I'm here to say that the real world typically isn't like that. In the real world, cases are often circumstantial, and eyewitness accounts, when available, may or may not actually be more unreliable than scientific evidence. In the real world, prosecutors are often required to go forward with the best evidence that they have, but without a smoking gun, and then rely on intelligent jurors to make logically sound inferences that lead them to derive a reasonable conclusion from a sufficient amount of available evidence. The justice system, in short, sort of needs jurors who can take two and two and put them together to come up with four. If you have a halfway intelligent criminal, they're often going to escape prosecution if you can't put these sorts of logical jurors in the box.
I think the jurors on this Anthony case just sort of outsmarted themselves. They got hung up on the exact specifics of how this child died and on other details, and they lost site of the fact that many of the details, including the exact manner of death, weren't really relevant. You don't really need to know exactly how a murder victim died in order to prove a murder. In fact, a fair number of murder convictions have been obtained over the years without the bodies of the victim having ever been found. Mafia prosecutions, for instance, have been filled with trials with missing bodies.
So, I don't know... this verdict bothers me. Like everyone else, it bothers me because a murderous mother will go unpunished, but it also bothers me because I think this verdict is sort of indicative of some recent "forest for the trees" problems that I've seen both personally and in the media with criminal juries.
If anyone reading this ever gets called for a jury on any sort of legal case, please just do me the favor of trying not to check your common sense at the door. Don't expect CSI or Bones or any of the other fictional shows that magically draw a picture right before your eyes of the minutia of how every tiny detail unfolded in a crime. Instead, expect to see hard working law enforcement personnel who are putting the best evidence that they have before you and then asking you to be reasonable as you make a decision. this is the relaity of actualy jury service.
The law doesn't require you to overlook the obvious when you're serving on a jury. In fact, the legal system just doesn't really work if jurors aren't capable of drawing obvious conclusions.

Oooookay. I just had to get that out of my sytem.

Happy Birthday, Sig!!



Today is Sigmund Bloom's birthday. Sig is a good friend, and a fellow member of our savant gard experimental music group, Crack. I first met Sigmund back in 2003? 2004? I think it was 2003. Jeff introduced me to Sig by way of piling him into the back of my CRV so we could road trip for Radiohead in the Woodlands on their Hail to the Thief tour. As memory serves, Sigmund introduced himself, shook my hand, and then promptly passed out and slept all the way to Houston. Jeff assured me that Sigmund usually was more of a talker, and would probably have more to say on the way home. Jeff was right. Sigmund got revved up about music, politics, and life on the way home, and he hasn't slowed down much since.

Anyway, by now Sig and I have quite a few shared experiences under our belts, most of them good, and a few not so great. But it's been really good to have Sig around as we've gone through it all.

Happy birthday, my brother. Best wishes to you and yours as you make your next trip around the sun!

Sunday, July 03, 2011

5 Years


Today marks the five year anniversary of the accident that took Jeff away. I still think about him, and although life has moved forward and some healing has taken place in his absence, life has never been the same since he left us.
I still miss you all the time, Jeff, and I know that a lot of other people feel the same way.

And to anyone and everyone reading this- please, please don't drink and drive this holiday weekend or any other time. I know that it often seems harmless until someone gets hurt, but having some drinks before getting behind the wheel puts innocent people at risk.
Take care of each other.


Saturday, July 02, 2011

Debra


My good friend and coworker Debra Goodlett passed away last night. She had suffered a stroke a while back, and had been gravely ill over the past few weeks. She really was a ray of sunshine in my life, and I'm going to miss her terribly. I know that a lot of people at the courthouse and the Travis County Attorney's Office feel the same way.
Debra, you and your family are in our hearts and minds. Rest in peace.

Friday, July 01, 2011

CNN Reforms and the Difficult World of Modern Media

There was a piece on NPR that I heard recently about Mark Whitaker, CNN's new top news executive, and the difficulties that he faces in taking over a news organization that still has a stated goal of objectivity and bipartisanship in a modern media environment that fosters bias in its reporting and analysis (CNN has recently been growing its audience, but Fox still beats them by more than a 2:1 margin). CNN has strategies that it continues to implement in order to continue to survive and thrive. Whitaker plans (smartly, I think) to move the organization away from a role in which fiery pundits from the political extremes duke it out on air while anchors and reporters mostly stand idly by like hapless referees. Whitaker says that he plans to try to focus on more in depth reporting, with more research and fact checking, and he hopes to bring more of an international sensibility to the network, giving an audience a sense of global context by letting the audience know what sort of stories are receiving attention and reaction around the globe.
I think these are smart moves. Investigative reporting might be more expensive than cheap, colorful political argument (it costs more to pay reporters to do off-camera research and investigation than it does to throw loudmouth pundits on the air), but I think that CNN will be well served if it can manage to carve out a perhaps smaller, but curious and well informed audience. I hope that the audience for this sort of reporting is enough to sustain the network. I hope this not only because I typically prefer CNN, but because it would be nice to know that there are sufficient numbers of people out there who yearn for objective facts to at least support the continued existence of a major media organization. I know that CNN isn't perfect in terms of being objective, but at least they seem to be striving to avoid bias (it's the sort of neutral, middle ground territory that they've staked out), and CNN seems to do a much better job of trying to avoid bias than either Fox or MSNBC.

On a related note, the story about CNN got me thinking about some broader issues. It just bothers me that so many people out there are so consciously willing to allow their news information to be filtered in order to support their particular point of view. Are we really so insecure in ourselves and our beliefs nowadays that we can't tolerate the possibility that unfiltered reality might intrude us? Repeated studies and polls have shown that viewers of Fox News have consistently been one of the most misinformed news audiences in the country (see results here and here and here and here for some examples), yet the Fox News audience continues to grow and grow. People prefer a news outlet that gives them pretailored, prescreened, easily digestible "facts" that only fit their preconceived worldview. And plenty of news sources on the left that offer a similarly skewed perspective (MSNBC has also been shown to have significant numbers of misinformed viewers on some issues). We live in a world where we only read news sites that reflect our biases, only watch television news that reflects our predispositions, and, in many cases, only discuss world events with family and friends who are likely to agree with us.
We've created a culture where we artificially and painlessly exist in a cocoon of likeminded opinion and sentiment, and we've gotten so used to this existence that we can no longer tolerate even the smallest amount of cognitive dissonance brought on by facts that don't support our worldview. Instead of expanding our minds, remaining flexible, and becoming more tolerant, we're insulating ourselves. And I think that our inability to deal with opposing viewpoints or to accept reality on its own terms is making us, although outwardly more opinionated, probably utlimately less confident and secure. Wrapped in the swaddling of likeminded reinforcement (not only in terms of ideology, but an understanding of the world itself), we're kind of becoming spoiled brats. A willingness to sacrifice curiosity about the actual world for a set of selective facts or distortions that reflect our worldview? Well, it just seems like that path leads to solipsism, which ultimately leads to some extremely unhealthy living for both individuals and society.
And I think that this whole phenomenon, the trend toward seeking viewpoint affirmation instead of nurturing a curiosity for undiluted facts, might ultimately be doing some very real and serious damage to the social fabric of our country. Some people are making a lot of money by feeding our appetite for confirmation bias, but I think taht this is occurring at a cost.
I know that the culture wars have been going on for a long time and that our nation has always been home to groups of people with significantly different ideologies, but I still think there's a qualitative difference between living in a country where people are interpreting facts differently versus a country where people were never even exposed to the same set of facts in the first place.
But that's where this fractured news media system is getting us. We're being selectively presented with facts that some third party has determined to be appropriate for what they perceive to be our worldview. We live side by side, but two neighbors living next door to one another in the current media climate may see two entirely different places when they look out the window.

Annnyway, more blah, blah, blah. Mostly, I hope CNN really does try to stick to stronger analysis, more invesitgative reporting, and a commitment to objectivity (refusing to be cowed by self interested allegations of bias arising from any particular political camp). It would really be nice to see that sort of commitment actually pay off.
It never hurts to hope.