Saturday, June 04, 2005

The Do-It-Yourself M.A. in Political Thought

Great guest post by Greg Forster at Evangelical Outpost on how to get an M.A. in Political Thought the autodidact's way. Check it out.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Eyewitness in Iraq

Here's a fascinating eyewitness account of the U.S. job in Iraq, from embedded reporter and science writer Mike Fumento:

"First the weather report. The heat is awesome now. Basically look at the Baghdad temperature and add ten to 15 degrees. At night it doesn’t get cooler than 80 and by 8 in the morning it’s 100. Today we were out working in full body armor and one temperature checked showed 17. I’m amazed I’m handling it as well as I am. But then again, you don’t have much choice. You do your job and that’s that.

"Work was my embed with EOD – Explosives Ordinance Division. They’re a kick-butt bunch of guys drawn from all the services. Their job here is to handled unexploded ordinance, dispose of improvised explosive devices (IEDs), and investigate the aftermath of suicide bombings. It’s like a firehouse here. You sit around with every comfort in the world (except alcohol!) and wait for an emergency call. They got me up early in the morning for the first call, a 130 mm shell stuffed with plastic explosive dug into the dirt by the side of a paved road. A team whose job it is to spot IEDs found it and secured the area before we got there. Bomb disposal isn’t what it used to be. Now they use Talon robots, such as the ones I wrote about. They’re quite amazing. Later I saw them use it to open a door latch and crawl into the barracks. Unfortunately, while the Talon made it to the IED just fine the monitor went out. So the couldn’t use it to yank the wires.

"But then they whipped out a tiny flat little robot they call a 'bomb-blower.' It’s only about 18 inches long and maybe six inches high. They put C-4 plastic explosive onto it, drove it over the IED, and blew it. Nice explosion; got pictures. But as per usual the actual IED, though disarmed, was still active. They collected pieces to be sent to forensics to make determinations about who might have made the made it. They even dust for fingerprints. Then they checked to see if there were wires leading to a detonator because they want to track what systems are being used. We found just six inches of wire but that was enough. Meanwhile, the MPs providing security nabbed two guys running away wearing jogging suits and tennis shoes. They were wearing scarves indicating they were from another Arab country and indeed neither looked the least bit Iraqi. I think they were Jordanian. Since they had absolutely no other purpose being there other than to set off the IED, it’s almost a given they were the would-be killers. Yes, got pictures.

"Then it was time to blow the device itself and the honor was given to me. The det [detonation] cord was bad though so we had to go through it again. This time two Iraqis drove danger close near it. We set off flairs but to no avail. When the charge went off, they both dived out of the truck and one landed in a shallow canal. At first we were horrified but we found them none the worse for the wear and explained with pictograms what we’d done. They were quickly all smiles. They don’t like IEDs, either. Yes, got pictures of everything. Literally a blast. We made several runs after that but they were all pretty worthless. One suspect IED turned out to be literally a bag of chicken s---!. They did collect a piece of mortar round where a poor Iraqi worker had stumbled across one and blown a hole in his chest.

"These guys are real pros. It was quite an honor being with them and yet almost nobody knows they exist. I hope to fix that a bit. After all, this is almost entirely a war of explosives. The bad guys are aren’t too big on standing and fighting."

This material has yet to be published, though it surely will be, and Mike has a lot more to report. His website, www.fumento.com, will be well worth a visit for those desiring more of Mike's excellent firsthand observations and his countless articles on other subjects.

XXX Internet

I doubt that it will make much difference, but the AP reports that the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers has approved a plan to create a "virtual red light district" on the Internet by assigning web addresses ending in .xxx to pornographic websites.

This action will make it very easy for individual computer users to use blocking software to keep children and others from visiting these sites. However, use of the .xxx designation is to be entirely voluntary, and it remains to be seen whether porn sites will choose to move to the "red light district" or prefer to remain more accessible. The AP article noted that John Morris, staff counsel at the Center for Democracy and Technology, "predicted some adult sites will choose to buy 'xxx' Web addresses but others will continue to use dot-com."

The article did not entertain the question of whether governments will eventually require such sites to take .xxx addresses, but that would seem to be an obvious possibility. The U.S. Supreme Court might well find such a federal law to be constitutional, as not being a case of the Congress imposing censorship or prior restraint of protected communications and hence not a violation of First Amendment protections. The U.S. federal government would undoubtedly be able to claim that such a move was allowable under the Interstate Commerce Clause.

This will be an interesting debate to watch, should the move toward requiring the use of the .xxx designation come to pass.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Here's Mud In Their Eyes

Another great Yahoo headline for you - 'Experts: Wet Winter Caused California Landslide.'

I wonder what was their first clue.

And I wonder too: where do you go to become an 'expert'?

The Case Of The Comprehensive Compendium

Like Mr. Karnick, I am a Perry Mason devotee. I have read every one of the novels, novellae and short stories at least once, often eight or ten times, since I began reading them at age twelve thirty-five years ago.

I am linking here the best compendium ever written of Erle Stanley Gardner, his life, his career as a lawyer and as a writer. Well worth reading.

Perry Mason in The Case of the Lucky Legs

With an internet group, I am reading (and in some cases rereading) Erle Stanley Gardner's Perry Mason novels, one per month, in order of publication. Our most recent read was The Case of the Lucky Legs, the third novel in the series, first published in 1933. It's a great read—quick and absorbing, with much action and an excellent evocation of life in Depression-era America. The story centers around a small-town beauty contest winner who gets mixed up in a murder in the big city. Mason defends her at the behest of a bossy, manipulative, wealthy man whose motives are difficult to discern until ultimately revealed. The way the character, Bradbury, attempts to bully and manipulate Perry is quite interesting--obviously he does not know Mason as well as we do.

Perry's interest, however, is in the protection of his client—a classic damsel in distress, though highly modern in her moral dilemmas and the choices she makes—and the joy he takes in a good fight. Gardner had spent some time as a boxer in his college-age years, and Mason exhibits an open joy in fighting through conflicts, with both mind and fists. Perry shows much of the physical toughness of Gardner's earlier pulp-fiction heroes—he even threatens to punch out a policeman. Gardner strives to make the point that Perry is a fighter, returning to this theme several times.

Perry is also ingenious and knows the law thoroughly, enabling him to triumph through brains while protecting himself and his clients with sheer force when necessary.

Lucky Legs was actually the first Perry Mason novel Gardner wrote, though it was the third to be published. As a result, it is rather more hardboiled than most Mason novels (which are much more hardboiled than the TV series was), and the plot is far simpler than the average Mason book.

The atmosphere of the book is gritty and often somewhat sleazy, and Gardner's establishment of Perry as the moral center of the books is very effective. Even more than in the television series, Mason will do whatever it takes to get his client off—but only because he knows his client to be innocent. Mason, in fact, mentions in this book an earlier case (not written as a Mason novel or story) in which he obtained a good plea-bargain deal for his client who killed a man who had been abusing her. (Things have changed a bit since those days, thank Heaven.)

Much of the action in this book, as in other Mason novels, takes place in taxicabs or private automobiles on night streets in the big city, and in cheap hotel rooms. The sense of physical entrapment so common to the Mason novels is established quite well here, and it even comes into play in Mason's office suite, as police or a client await while he tries to get into or out of his office without their knowing. Instances of police or private detectives "tailing" a suspect are quite common in this as in other Mason novels, and Mason even tails a character by chartering an airplane to follow a mail plane on which the person is supposed to be flying—quite an unusual story element in 1933.

To me, the feisty Perry of the novels, especially the early ones, is a much more impressive and interesting character than the domesticated version Raymond Burr portrayed in the television series, and although Gardner would ultimately reduce the amount of physical action Perry got into in later novels, this pugnacious Perry is basically the one we see throughout the series of books.

Perry is much more of a loner here, also, largely running things himself and keeping Della and Paul mostly in the background. One can see that as Gardner developed the concept into a series, Della Street and Paul Drake became much more prominent characters as a way of giving the readers more characters to identify with and as a means of reducing the amount of description necessary; with Della and Paul so familiar to readers, Gardner did not have to spend much time introducing them and could move on to his favorite aspect of writing, the creation of incredibly complex plots. In addition, Lucky Legs is very unusual in that it does not have any courtroom scenes. There is a decent amount of discussion about subtleties of the law, but the courtroom scenes, which would become a highlight of the series, have yet to be established here. Lt. Tragg and DA Hamilton Burger have likewise yet to be introduced.

It is particulary fascinating to read a Mason novel that has such a (relatively!) simple plot--Gardner was one of the great plotters, and TCOT Lucky Legs is startlingly straighforward in this regard (though still more complex than most hardboiled detection novels). Here Mason is basically a rougher, more resourceful and tenacious version of Ken Corning, Gardner's earlier defense-lawyer series character. Once Gardner began to incorporate into the Mason series the plot complexity that he had used in his Lester Leith and Ed Jenkins pulp stories, he began to create true classics of the genre, such as TCOT Counterfeit Eye, TCOT Haunted Husband, and TCOT Silent Partner.

The Case of the Lucky Legs appears to be out of print at present but is readily available at libraries and in used book stories and online booksellers. I highly recommend the book, and would suggest that those interested in the Mason series begin with the first two books, TCOT Velvet Claws and TCOT Sulky Girl. The Mason books are quite addictive and are well worth reading.

Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Felt Wore Two Hats

Eight minutes ago, the Washington Post confirmed the Vanity Fair assertion that the source (known as Deep Throat) who made his Watergate mark felt was W. Mark Felt, number two guy at the FBI.

Was it public-spiritedness that moved him? Or mean-spirited resentment at being passed over when J. Edgar Hoover's replacement was sought? Was he a man of conscience, a Deep man? Or a man of appetites, a Throat man?

The Gaul Of Some People

The news that Paris Hilton is engaged to Paris Latsis brings a perverse symmetry in that anything Ms. Hilton does can be presumed to be motivated primarily, if not entirely, by self-love.

Not terribly surprising, either, that 'Paris' turns out to be an epicene appellation.

If I write a book about this great romance, a title suggests itself: A Tale Of Two Cities. That is, if I can figure out what the Dickens this girl is doing as an icon in our culture.

Being Faithful in the Little Things . . .

Showing real versatility as a writer, my fellow Reform Clubber Jay Homnick hails the best pinch hitter in baseball. I really recommend this little essay with a priceless introduction.

Monday, May 30, 2005

Jacko Boxed In

The analysis in the linked article strikes me as very solid. I agree with the academic and journalistic legal commentators that the Michael Jackson verdict will rely heavily upon the closing arguments. The evidence has been less than definitive. Whichever side captures the imagination and the heart of the jury with greater eloquence is likely to emerge victorious, as it were.

About which, some observations.

1) It is my view that closing arguments should be very strictly regulated; they should be limited to recalling the evidence and arguing the inferences. There should be virtually no dramatic appeals allowed, because they create biases that are inappropriate.

Clemency (or outrage) has its place, of course, but much later: when the judge is sentencing or the governor is considering a pardon. Juries need to be focused entirely on the process of intellect and judgment required to produce the best rendering of a verdict from the facts presented.

2) This idea of conviction 'beyond a reasonable doubt' is honored in the breach rather than the observance [as the Bard said; er, the B(eyond) A R(easonable) D(oubt) of Avon, that is]. Juries are almost always subconsciously applying the civil standard of 'preponderance of evidence' rather than the criminal standard of 'beyond a reasonable doubt'.

In a case like Michael Jackson, the ultimate evidentiary standard may well be: "Does he just look goofy weird? Or does he look nasty weird?"