Saturday, September 26, 2009

Happy One-Hit Wonder Day!

Yes, it's that little-known holiday, "National One-Hit Wonder Day." The songs to be celebrated are the soundtrack of my teen years, absolutely littered with musical classics that never went anywhere but are still featured prominently in my iPod's "1980s" playlist.

As I wrote this, I just found VH1's list of the top 100 1-hit wonders of the 1980s. Is it sad that 20-30 years later, I can read the song titles and immediately begin singing (or at least humming) the vast majority of these? Nope. They may have only been fleetingly famous but these songs are loads of fun. Seriously, how can you not enjoy "Your Love" by The Outfield?

Jenn and I just looked at the list and began singing spontaneously. We are baffled, however, that "Rock Me Amadeus" by Falco and "Walking on Sunshine" by Katrina and the Waves didn't make VH1's top 100 list. You have to be joking!

All in all, "National One-Hit Wonder Day" gives us an opportunity to celebrate some great 1980s cheese. Thankfully, I never had the 1980s hair. Or at least there's no photographic evidence. But I will admit it here for the first time that I went out and bought the 45 RPM single of Taco's "Putting on the Ritz". It was a moment of temporary weakness. I really should have invested in the single for "The Safety Dance" by Men without Hats.

Can Nemo and the Nautilus be far behind?

Scientists conducting research in the Gulf of Mexico announced that they netted a 20-foot long giant squid earlier this summer. Unfortunately, the creature didn't survive the inadvertent capture due to the changes in water pressure as it was raised more than 1,500 feet to the surface. I suppose, in a way, that was lucky for the scientists involved because we all know what the squid tried to do to Kirk Douglas and James Mason.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Literacy gets a reprieve!

Just a follow up to my recent post about how the 54 libraries serving the City of Philadelphia were about to be closed down due to funding issues...

It appears that the legislators in Pennsylvania realized that they were on the verge of being colossal boneheads and came up with the $$$$ to keep the Philadelphia libraries. Not that I've ever been inside a Philly library or even to Philadelphia (yes, I know, it's a cultural gap I need to fill) but you can't help but be in favor of funding libraries, wherever they may be.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Born to Run

My parents and I went to see Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band perform at an outdoor venue just as Born to Run was reaching the airways. Sadly, I don't remember much of the experience but it's understandable I guess, having only been 6 at the time. The only thing that I came away with from that experience (besides a really cool balloon that actually had a valve at the bottom to fill it up) was a lasting appreciation for Springsteen. Of course, the fact that my parents were Springsteen fans and played his albums at home might also have had something to do with it.

Anyhow, it's with that background of fandom that I recently read "The Birth of Born to Run" by Louis Masur on Slate. It's a fascinating look at the songwriting process. As a writer, I'm used to crafting multiple drafts of documents, throwing away pieces, moving others. However, I'd never really given much thought to the songwriting process. I love the idea that there are alternative versions of the song -- rough drafts, if you will -- out there to listen to, to compare with the final brilliant song, and that small club crowds in New York and New Jersey heard them as he worked out the kinks. That sounds like a lot more fun than writing a novel.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Call it what it is

verb: persuade (someone) to act in one's favor, typically illegally or dishonestly, by a gift of money or other inducement
noun: a sum of money or other inducement offered or given in this way

In today's Sunday New York Times, the grand jury investigation into payments to former Senator John Edward's mistress is described as follows:

According to people familiar with the grand jury investigation, prosecutors are considering a complicated and novel legal issue: whether payments to a candidate’s mistress to ensure her silence (and thus maintain the candidate’s viability) should be considered campaign donations and thus whether they should be reported. (my italics)

Campaign donations? Are you kidding me? Please, let's be adults about this and just call these "campaign donations" what they are -- bribes. They were bribes paid by Edward's wealthy supporters to ensure the political survival of their man. In doing so, these supporters would no doubt then gain tremendous levels of access and have a prominent politician in their back pocket. Edward's mistress received "large financial benefits, including a new BMW and lodging, that were used to keep her out of public view".

It's no different than the revelations that Senator John Ensign's parents (!) paid his mistress nearly $100,000 "out of concern for the well being of longtime family friends during a difficult time." Oh please. Wrap it up in the trappings of "a pattern of generosity by the Ensign family to the Hamptons and others" and comply with tax laws on gifts all you like but be honest here. It was a bribe, pure and simple, to try and save their son's political career and avoid the shame and embarrassment that went along with it.

Our language is a powerful tool. But like any tool, it can be misused and abused. Too often, it is employed to obfuscate, confuse, and manipulate in the service of those who seek to the avoid consequences of their actions.

Even as the rationalizations and wordsmithing tumble like so many counterfeit coins from the mouths of these politicians and their lawyers, we all know the truth. People aren't fooled. We know what happened and why. So please spare me the flowery statements and own up to what we all know this miserable business is -- bribery, carried out by and for politicians and their families to save their careers, their reputations, and their influence.

The last time I checked, bribery was illegal. Can someone please tell me why no one has been punished yet?

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Old Ben is Rolling in His Grave

Another casualty of the financial situation, budget shortfalls, or perhaps simply a gambit by the city to get more money from the state? Whatever it is, this recent posting on the Philadelphia Free Library website is rather distressing:

All Free Library of Philadelphia Branch, Regional and Central Libraries Closed Effective Close of Business October 2, 2009

All Free Library of Philadelphia Customers,

We deeply regret to inform you that without the necessary budgetary legislation by the State Legislature in Harrisburg, the City of Philadelphia will not have the funds to operate our neighborhood branch libraries, regional libraries, or the Parkway Central Library after October 2, 2009.

Read the entire letter...

If you read the whole letter, it's stunning the impact this system-wide closing will have. This isn't simply about people being able to check out books for free. It's after-school programs, programs for seniors, small business programs, support for those seeking jobs, computer classes, and so much more.

How sad. Let's all appreciate the irony that the city that saw the creation of the first public library in America (founded by Ben Franklin) will have no libraries in less than 3 weeks. Oh, and if this is the city playing financial chicken with the state, can we all agree that it's a reprehensible tactic?

I feel for the people of Philadelphia and count myself lucky that I live in a town that, despite nay-sayers and many who failed to recognize the long-term value, went ahead and invested in the updating and expansion of the town library. In doing so, they created a jewel in the state's library system and a new center for culture and community in town.

I grew up going to the library constantly and still do. Every time I go into the Rogers Free Library, the computers are full of kids working on school projects, adults searching for jobs or doing research, people browsing the stacks, and others curled up in chairs by the wide windows immersed in books. The idea of losing that resource in our small town would be heartbreaking. The idea of losing every library in a city like Philadelphia? It must be devastating.

Thanks to Cory Doctorow at BoingBoing for spotting this as well as for his impassioned response.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Kicking off the season

It's only one day into the 2009 NFL season and I'd already like to propose a new rule. Before the Giants/Redskins game came on yesterday, I watched the conclusion of the Philadelphia/Carolina game, which appeared to have been an utter disaster for the Panthers - 7, yes 7 turnovers and down 38 to 10 at the end. Towards the end, a Panther player sacked the Eagles QB or tackled a running back for a loss (I don't recall was such a lousy game that I didn't really care). However, at the end of that play, the Panther player who made the stop began to do the "no way, not in my house, you're stuffed, I denied you" strut, complete with waving arms, shaking head, and an apparently primal scream of triumph.

And so I would like to propose a new rule for the NFL that I call the "You Haven't Earned It Prohibition": if your team is getting crucified, if your defense has given up 38 points, if you can't score, and your team looks like a bunch of half-drunk frat boys who can't throw a spiral or run in a straight line during a pickup game, you are not allowed to do the "no way, not in my house, you're stuffed, I denied you" strut, complete with waving arms, shaking head, and an apparently primal scream of triumph. Trust me. Trying to do it only makes you look foolish.

It's just a thought.

And on a final note...did anyone watching tonight's game doubt that Tom Brady would lead the Pats back against the Bills? Not me. Of course, I didn't have much confidence that the defense would stop the Bills on the final drive but it's nice to be proven wrong.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Remembrance Eight Years Later

Driving to work today I passed the Portsmouth, RI, fire station as I always do on workdays. Today was different though.

From the base of the hill on East Main Rd, well before the station itself came into sight, the ladder truck's basket soared into view, extending out over the wooded, four-lane road.

An American flag, stirring in the gentle breeze, hung straight down above the cars that slowed almost as if in a funeral cort├Ęge as they passed below.

In front of the truck, visible only as you reached the station itself, was a single wreath of flowers, a fireman's jacket and helmet, and a pair of empty boots.

No one honked.

No one sped up to pass the other cars.

Everyone remembered.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Thanks for the help but...

First, let me just say that the Providence Place Mall is a perfectly adequate mall, provided you're not susceptible to vertigo, in which case the long, narrow, and extremely tall mall with a wide open center is not for you. Regardless, it's easy to find your way around and has all of the requisite stores that you expect in a mall (Apple Store woo hoo!). On the flip side, the Providence Place Mall's parking garage has to rate as one of the worst on the planet. Labyrinthine, narrow, virtually impossible to navigate, capable of hiding whole families, and a multitude of accidents waiting to happen, I dread having to park there.

Such was the case today when I drove into the city to volunteer for the United Way of Rhode Island's Waterfire event. For those who haven't attended one, I heartily recommend Waterfire. Tonight was the kickoff of UWRI's annual campaign and some 150 volunteers would be walking the 1/2 mile Waterfire route to raise awareness.

Anyhow, I park at the mall, close to the end of the Waterfire walk and trek down to the other end where I meet up with my wife and the rest of the UWRI staff and volunteers. After a practice walk down to the location of tonight's "Ring of Fire", a leisurely stroll back to the start, and a brief break we turn around and trek back, this time for real. At the end, we settle down, the torches are lit around the perimeter, the torches are lit out in the river, the music plays, and then it's time for me to head home. I work my way through the dense crowds, trek across to the mall, and then find my way to the sixth circle of hell where my car is parked.

Stepping out into the parking lot, I come to a stop. I was lucky, having found a parking spot directly in front of the doors. From there, I can see a large piece of paper quite conspicuously sticking out of my door for all to see. Hmmmm...I think. Maybe it's a flyer for one of the stores or for an event. So I cross to the car and grab the paper.

"Providence Place Security Tip" it reads.

It would appear that one of the parking garage security personnel was wandering among the cars and spotted my radar detector, which is stuck to the front windshield but very low, just above the dashboard.

OK, I can appreciate the thought. If I'd pulled the radar detector off the window and put it in the glove compartment, perhaps it would reduce the risk of crime.

On the other hand, I can guarantee that virtually no one would have spotted that radar detector except a security guard walking among the cars...or anyone who knew that these prominent pieces of paper fluttering in car doors are clearly identifying exactly which cars have perceived valuables exposed, have unlocked doors, have unlocked trunks, etc.

Basically, in a move designed to raise my awareness of a potential crime risk, my car has just been flagged as a prime stopping point for any ne'er-do-well casing the joint for targets of opportunity.

Fine, next time I'll stash the radar detector but please, Providence Place Mall parking lot cops, I'd appreciate it if you didn't help quite so much next time.

So how fast do the lobsters go?

Oh sure, if you want classic lines and lovely sails, you go to see the schooner races in Maine. But if speed and a certain level of craziness is your thing, then it's the lobsterboat races throughout the summer that will seize your fancy. And at the moment, that craziness appears to have reached new heights with Sunfire, the Ca'-Boat (say it with a Maine accent and it makes perfect sense). Of course no one will actually be lobstering using the Pontiac Sunfire convertible mounted on a sawed-off cabin cruiser but the Ca-Boat apparently is adding even more zip to an already wild circuit of events.

Just one more reason you've got to love Maine.

Friday, September 4, 2009

School daze

As the school year gets underway, you sometimes just need to shake your head in wonderment.

In the local weekly paper, a constant source of amusement is the Speakout section in which anonymous calls to the paper's voice mail are transcribed and reprinted. Usually the comments range from the pleasant (thanks to the person who returned the caller's purse) to the obsessive (really people, can we just drop the incessant rantings about the local university and paying taxes?). Last week, a new topic showed up as a caller railed, in a righteous rage that clearly came through in the transcript, against the local school district for asking the students to read Upton Sinclair's The Jungle. "Why are we asking our children to read socialist and communist books," asked the caller. "They should be reading good American books!" much for open minds, a literate society, and an appreciation for a classic of American literature.


In other local news, the question has been asked: so exactly what does it take to remove a teacher from her classroom? Surprisingly, it appears that being under the influence of alcohol during the school day, reports of driving under the influence with children in the vehicle, and repeated arrests for domestic assault and battery with alcohol involved aren't quite enough. After the local superintendent fired an elementary school teacher, she was restored to her position after a R.I. Superior Court judge upheld an arbitrator's decision that she was fired without proper cause.

Obviously, you never want to see someone lose their job unfairly. Clearly, this woman is in need of help for her issues with alcohol and instigation of domestic violence. However, as someone who will hopefully have a kid going to elementary school in the years ahead, I can understand the outrage and shock among parents that someone with this track record (and the inherent risks associated with such behavior) would be allowed back into a situation where she is responsible for the health and safety of children. I can only hope that she gets the help she needs to combat her addictions and that no child is put at further risk or comes to harm.

Is he "Steele" a jackass? Oh, you bet!

How can these people be taken seriously? Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele exceeded his already stratospheric jackass quotient for the day when he mocked and laughed at a young woman whose mother passed away from cancer 6 months ago after having insufficient insurance and financial resources to pay for all of her chemo medications. You show 'em, Mike! That's the way the Republicans will win back the hearts and minds of Americans.


Don't get convicted in Texas

Last night, I read David Grann's profoundly disturbing article "Trial By Fire" in the New Yorker. An investigation into the arrest, trial, conviction, and execution of Cameron Willingham, Grann makes a remarkably strong case that the unthinkable has happened -- that the State of Texas put to death an innocent man. What's worse is that in a state other than Texas, there's a good chance that Cameron Willingham would still be alive, if not a free man.

Willingham was tried and convicted in the 1991 deaths of his three children, accused of setting fire to his home while his wife was out and the children were asleep. The conviction rested largely on the testimony of an assistant fire chief and a deputy arson investigator. Their commentary, along with the statements of two psychologists who never actually met or spoke with Willingham, were sufficient to lead the jury to a guilty verdict and hand down the death penalty.

Looking at several reports that were commissioned in recent years to examine the Willingham case, however, Grann eviscerates the "expert" arson investigators whose testimony directly led to Willingham's execution:
Nearly two years later, the Innocence Project commissioned Lentini and three other top fire investigators to conduct an independent review of the arson evidence in the Willingham case. The panel concluded that “each and every one” of the indicators of arson had been “scientifically proven to be invalid.”

In 2005, Texas established a government commission to investigate allegations of error and misconduct by forensic scientists. The first cases that are being reviewed by the commission are those of Willingham and Willis. In mid-August, the noted fire scientist Craig Beyler, who was hired by the commission, completed his investigation. In a scathing report, he concluded that investigators in the Willingham case had no scientific basis for claiming that the fire was arson, ignored evidence that contradicted their theory, had no comprehension of flashover and fire dynamics, relied on discredited folklore, and failed to eliminate potential accidental or alternative causes of the fire. He said that Vasquez’s approach seemed to deny “rational reasoning” and was more “characteristic of mystics or psychics.” What’s more, Beyler determined that the investigation violated, as he put it to me, “not only the standards of today but even of the time period.”
What's almost as tragic as the use of such disastrously flawed "evidence" to convict and then execute a man is the case Grann makes for how skewed in favor of death the Texas penal system is right now. Reading the article, I was aghast at the callous and indifferent attitude of officials who have the ultimate responsibility for whether or not someone lives or dies:
  • Judge Sharon Keller, now facing charges of judicial misconduct, refused to allow a clerk's office to remain open for an additional 15 minutes to permit defense attorneys to submit a petition for a stay of execution for another inmate following a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that very day that directly applied to the Texas inmate's case. The inmate was executed hours later.
  • A scientific report submitted to the Board of Pardons and Paroles and demolishing the prosecution's case against Willingham was apparently never even read by members of the Board, one of whom remarked, "We get all kinds of reports, but we don’t have the mechanisms to vet them" despite the fact that according to that same member of the Board, they are tasked with ensuring that before an execution occurs that there are "no glaring errors."
What does this add up to? 439 executions in Texas between 1976 and 2009 with the trend line accelerating (33 in the 1980s, 166 in the 1990s, and 240 thus far in the 2000s).

I guess comedian Ron What wasn't actually joking when he declared "Texas has the death penalty and we use it! Other states are trying to abolish the death penalty. My state's putting in an express lane."

I've always had somewhat mixed feelings about the death penalty. In virtually all cases, I'm opposed though I suppose that there could be extreme situations in which I could be convinced it would be justified. Maybe. The issue is that execution is irrevocable. There's no option for "oops!" You can't take a mulligan. There's no additional appeal. If you're wrong, you can never take it back.

Former Supreme Court Justice referred to the execution of an innocent person as "a constitutionally intolerable event". On the flip side, Justice Antonin Scalia, that paragon of compassion, declared that there has not been “a single case—not one—in which it is clear that a person was executed for a crime he did not commit. If such an event had occurred in recent years, we would not have to hunt for it; the innocent’s name would be shouted from the rooftops.”

Sadly, David Grann's article and the diligent work of arson investigators basing their work on scientific analysis appear to make a compelling case that the State of Texas did indeed execute an innocent man in the face of evidence that he was innocent, a profoundly wrong and irrevocable action.

Perhaps it will be Cameron Willingham's name that will be shouted from the rooftops, hopefully somewhere within earshot of Antonin Scalia, Sharon Keller, Texas Governor Rick Perry, and the members of the Texas Pardons and Parole Board.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Sports Musings

Just a quick post of some random thoughts on happenings and around sports...

In a big game situation, I loved to see Curt "Bloody Sock" Schilling on the mound but does that really make him qualified to run for senator?

OK, maybe it's legally feasible but did anyone at the Washington Redskins stop to think that it might be a PR nightmare to sue a 72-year old woman and 45-year long season ticket holder into bankruptcy over her season ticket contract after she lost her job and was living on $400 a month in Social Security?

No one can tell me that it's as hard to pitch in the National League as it is in the American League. John Smoltz, who went 2-5 with a 8.32 ERA while pitching for the Red Sox against the likes of the Yankees and Angels, suddenly looks like a Hall of Famer again after moving to the Cardinals. Brad Penny, who could barely get anyone out the second half of the season for the Red Sox, immediately looked like the second coming of Cy Young after shifting to the San Francisco Giants. I have trouble believing that it's all a matter of feet slipping off the pitching rubber but no one noticing (Smoltz) and an overuse of his fastball (Penny). Something tells me that BoSox pitching coach John Farrell and catcher Jason Varitek would have spotted these things.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The Harbinger

You know that summer is ending and autumn is upon us when that yellow school bus rumbles by at 6:50 AM for the first time. It comes to a halt, brakes wheezing, and the driver or aide sounds like an adult in a Charlie Brown special, using the microphone and speakers to tell the kids to sit down.