Friday, February 21, 2014

Musk Thistles in Bloom

Saw Nebraska tonight, at the Opera Plaza, a popcorn littered theater that looks like the decrepit homestead we encounter in this film, and seating that feels like United economy.  The environment was appropriate for the run-down black and white setting of this film.  The characters traverse three states of wintery, bleak landscape, populated by unemployed, retired, angry, and hard depressives.  They cling stubbornly to failing communities like musk thistles. 

The opposite of depression, they say, is not happiness, but vitality.  These folks are depressed, verging on catatonic; except for Woody’s wife, whose energetic hectoring comes across as down-right mean.   But it’s a heartwarming tale.  And funny.  Beautiful to look at with its lonely, wide open scenery.  The soundtrack is called on to carry whole chunks of the contemplative action on its back.  Here is Timothy Monger’s spot on description of Mark Orton's sountrack:
At times haunting and quirky, his sparse, percussive, acoustic guitar and fiddle score is a perfect match for the film both in tone and geography. Peppered with accordion, trumpet, bass, harmonica, and a variety of other emotively lonesome instruments, the music rolls by like the heartland's wide-open landscape, complementing the film's austere cinematography and enhancing its wit and emotion. It's appropriately wistful, haunting, playful, and decidedly uncluttered.

 The usual arc of a film dealing with such victims of a failing economy is to start out innocently enough and then descend into miserable depths as the story unfolds. Think of Winter's Bone, for example.  Here, after sketching a bleak landscape, all the foreshadowing is of happy developments.  As the story unfolds, there is adventure, warmth, human contact.  By the middle of the film there are several laugh out loud moments.  Alcoholic, withdrawn, depressed, forgetful, and unable-to-drive Woody and his younger son embark on a road trip from Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska to collect the old man’s $1,000,0000 “You may already be a winner” prize.  Something akin to caring, love, and insight emerges between the two, and by the time the mother and older son join them, they embark on a madcap caper as a family.  The musk thistles are in full bloom,  with some vitality, and not so weedy after all. 

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The Grace and Power of a Perfect GS Turn

Today Ted Ligety won the Giant Slalom competition in Sochi.  He won by half a second, an enormous margin of victory for an Olympic GS event.  The New York Times has produced a great video showing Ligety's perfect technique.

In my senior year in high-school and for three years in college I worked on the triple jump--about 20 hours a week.  Ligety bounds from gate to gate not unlike a triple jumper:  a balanced take-off, initiated well above the gate, landing at the apex (where he applies maximum pressure on the edges and is almost parallel to the ground), followed by the smoothest of weight transfers, all the while gobbling up many meters of ground between apexes on opposite edges.  It's the triple jump broken into an exercise, bounding we used to call it. Bound-bound between the gates--57 of them, at incredible speeds.  

The best skier I have the privilege to ski with is Richard Newmark, who was a ski-racer in college and a long time ski-patrol guy in Utah.  Here are his observations, and those of Bode Miller on Ligety's skiing: 

Ted IS the man in GS, he has completely revolutionized GS in the past couple years, it is even more remarkable how he skis given the change in rules a couple years ago when they required a longer turn radius on the skis (safety argument to reduce knee injuries – dubious data support).  They bumped GS skis up from 185 cm w/ 27 m radius to 195 cm w/ 35 m radius (see Ted’s comments at the time:/ pretty funny).  [yes, my skis have a 13 m radius; I’m not sure that I could make a turn on his skis]. When I talk about high edge angle this is the archetype for what I have in mind, so just watch Ligety videos and you’ll have it perfect.

It was interesting to hear Bode’s comments on Ted’s style vs his own (after the gold medal run this am) where he talks about the longer route that Ted takes vs the straighter and more direct route that he attempts (operational term here is attempts); 
“In general, (Ligety) just carries speed from turn to turn better,” said Miller. “Because he’s going deeper, his turn is actually longer … Ted goes so round that his turn is naturally a longer radius. So by the time his turn finishes, it’s time to go into the next turn. … That way, he generates from one turn right into the next one and tips it up. The two things work together. He generates more speed … and because he has so much space, he never pinches or gets in trouble because he’s always way far away from the gate. 
“Take nothing away from Ted. I think he’s one of the best GS skiers in history,” added Miller, “but if he had some competitors that skied alternative styles to his — everyone right now is trying to do what he’s doing … If you saw a guy like (Alberto) Tomba at his best or Hermann (Maier) at his best or even (Michael) Von Gruenigen, those guys had there own thing going and they knew exactly how to do it. It would be tough for Ted to compete against somebody who was cutting that much line off him.”
Bode’s comment should not be interpreted as deprecating, merely a reflection of his personal philosophy on how to get down the hill the fastest (though not particularly consistently).  This has been why he has fought with his coaches for his entire (pretty good) career ;-).

I think that when I watch Bode ski I’m always astounded by what he does, when I watch Ligety I marvel at his mastery !

Monday, February 17, 2014

President's Day 2014: A Call To Arms to Make the Presidency More Subject to the Rule of Law

President's Day goes back to our beginnings.  Congress implemented a Holiday for government offices in the District of Columbia to celebrate our first president, George Washington, in 1879.  This was expanded to include all federal offices in 1885.  The Holiday was initially celebrated to mark Washington's actual birthday,  February 22, 1731.   In 1971, however, the federal holiday was shifted to the third Monday in February by the Uniform Monday Holiday Act.

As a result my office was quiet and cold today.  

To celebrate the day, our local NPR affiliate aired an interview with Bruce Ackerman, professor of law and political science at Yale University.  Ackerman is concerned about the state of our Imperial Presidency.  If our founding fathers were clear on one thing, he says, it was that they didn't want the President to have a king's prerogative and they wanted him (now potentially her) to be subject to the rule of law.  

But there has been a growing trend for Presidents to place themselves beyond the rule of law in the sphere of national security and foreign relations.  This trend has accelerated under both parties since the Carter Presidency.  Ackerman is a careful lawyer and so he confined himself to just a few examples he knows well, such as 1) There are statutes that require the President to cut off funding when there is a military coup in a country; this has unquestionably happened in Egypt--Obama has ignored it; 2) The FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978) makes most decisions in secret.  Secret laws and secret executive action cannot be reviewed by the political checks and balances.  They invite abuse.  

Even though Ackerman is an expert in constitutional law, he does not have access to these secret FISA rulings.  For example, some entities have recently been expelled by Al Qaida as affiliates.  Do the Congressional measures that authorize the President to take covert and lethal action against these entities still apply?  Ackerman observes that in studying this question, he is relegated to rumors in the New York Times and the Washington Post.  Administration lawyers "are said to be debating the question" these papers report.  But what are they debating.  This is Kremlinology he observes.  

We need to get more politically active on this issue.  Making the President subject to the rule of law is a big deal.  The Snowden leaks have provided an opportunity to make some headway on this.  The Patriot Act measures enacted in the wake of 9/11 and reauthorized and expanded under Obama will sunset on June 1, 2015.  Almost all the NSA spying that has been revealed will be illegal when that happens.  This means the President will have to bring forth a proposal.  Congress will have an opportunity to reign back some of these Presidential powers to act in secret.  

The expiration of the Patriot Act will also provide an opportunity for Obama to shape his legacy by placing some of these Presidential powers back on a constitutional footing.  Will he?  Not without some help from us.  If we can apply some meaningful pressure to rein some of this in we'll owe a debt to Snowden.  If we can't  .... woe is us if we get an extremist President in future. And shame on us.   So let's get active. 

Saturday, February 15, 2014

California's "Justified Homicide" Statute: Not so Different from Florida

California has had restrictive weapons carry legislation.  In general Californians cannot carry a loaded weapon in public, and concealed weapons require a permit and a showing of "good cause" such as an actual threat.  As a result the incident of gun deaths in California is significantly lower than it is in other states with fewer regulations.

Two days ago in Peruta v. San Diego  the 9th Circuit ruled that under the 2nd Am of the U.S. Constitution California cannot deny a concealed weapons permit to any person of "good moral character" who might want one.  The ruling is stayed pending possible review by the entire 9th Circuit panel of judges, so nothing much will change immediately.

Gun advocates are cheering this result.  Any upstanding citizen should be able to carry a concealed loaded weapon in public.  Sure as shootin'!  

In Florida, a jury just returned deadlocked on First Degree Murder Charges in the trial of Michael Dunn.  He shot a black teenager at a gas station.  The teenager was armed with the color of his skin and loud music, and perhaps a foul mouth.  No gun.  Of course, this follows the spectacle of the shooting of Treyvon Martin near his home by a neighborhood watch captain in an upscale Florida subdivision.  Martin was armed with the color of his skin, a hoody, and some junk food.... no gun.

So with visions of every other person walking around with a concealed and loaded weapon dancing in our heads.... here is California's version of "Stand Your Ground" legislation.  It turns out it's not so different from Florida's.

California Penal Code Section 197, first enacted in 1872, reads like something from the Wild West, which it is.   It's justifiable to kill, among other things,  to (1) prevent a felony, (2) defend your home or property, (3) defend the property of another against a felony by violence or surprise, (4) in defense of others if it looks like there might be a felony planned, (5) when necessary to make a citizen's arrest of a felon.

If it ever turns out that half the people in cars, half the people in bars, and half the people at football games are really carrying loaded concealed weapons we might have to revisit this statute.    Just sayin'.

Of course, we have plenty of people illegally packing heat now; and just because it might become legal for virtually everyone to pack a loaded handgun, this does not mean that they would.  These things are cultural.  Do gun advocates really want half the population to walk around armed at all times?  It's a different question from "Should we have the right?"  This is the flip side of the abortion debate, after all.  Pro-lifers want to control abortions like gun advocates want to control guns.  But when it comes down to it, it's not about the laws, it's about the culture.

For me, it's a good thing if our culture can keep guns out of the hands of the George Zimmermans and the Michael Dunns.  A society where substantial numbers carry concealed weapons would be a coarser, less trusting, more uptight society.

In the meantime, however, we may as well start cleaning up our statute books.  And, while we're at it, let's require substantial insurance for all damage caused by guns we own on a strict liability basis, and let's have lots of training and mental counseling paid for by high taxes on ammunition.