March 02, 2006

Yes, they will, indeed, grant a patent to just about any self-styled inventor. Even me.

The funny thing is, nobody ever told me that this thing was granted. I knew when it had been applied for (I'd helped draft and edit the non-legaleese part of the application, and later I received an attractive little cube to commemorate its being filed), but not that it had been granted. I found it as an incidentally while looking for something else.

Well, then. I guess now I should go search the Nobel Prize website, just in case....

Posted by at 03:01 PM in the following Department(s): Technology | Comments (1)
 March 06, 2006
Give George Lucas a Hand

[SPOILER ALERT: If you haven't seen the Star Wars movies, and think that someday you might, be aware that there are some minor spoilers below.]

It has occurred to me that it might be fun to write a satiric piece on the Star Wars saga as a non-Christian religious parable. I've read a number of satiric reviews of well known books and movies that reframe them in terms of hard-line Christian parables (google, for example, Gilligan's Island and the Seven Deadly Sins, wherein each of the cast members represents one of the deadly sins -- except for the Skipper, who represents two, thereby freeing up Gilligan to step into the role of Lucifer, who will eternally torment the others...), and I had thought it might be funny to do the same with Star Wars, only I'd reframe it as a parable from a different major religion.

Of course, satirizing certain religions in any form results in international bedlam and fatwahs and other unpleasantries. Witness Salman Rushdie and the recent Danish Debacle. I'm all for freedom of speech, but do I really want to risk my life or well-being just to make a humorous observation? Perhaps some other day, but not today.

The idea for this satire-that-I'm-not-writing came to me when I realized that Lucas has a thing about chopping off people's hands, and his saga features a religious order that insisted on trumping the political order of society. Many have argued (effectively) that this could describe any of the world's major religions (and there are *many* overtly and uniquely Christian references throughout the scripts, what with Immaculately conceived Anakin going around spouting New Testament quotes hither and yon), but with the hand-chopping-off-kink that Lucas kept returning to, I thought it might be fun to explore a non-Christian angle.

Are you not familiar with the hand-chopping-off motif in Star Wars? Here's a handy guide.

In Episode I, nobody's hands get chopped off that I recall. But...

Episode II, Attack of the Clones:

  • Obi-Wan, in a bar, cuts off the assassin's right arm with his light-sabre (just as in the original Star Wars).
  • Mace Windu, during the climactic battle scene in the arena on Geonosis, cuts off Jango Fett's right hand as a prelude to decapitating him.
  • Count Dooku cuts off Anakin's right arm in their duel at the end of the movie.

Episode III, Revenge of the Sith (The last one filmed)

  • Anakin cuts off *both* of Count Dooku's hands with his light-sabre before decapitating him (the first and only Star Wars movie where the left hand goes as well as the right).
  • Obi-Wan chops off one of General Greivous's left hands. Then one of his right hands....
  • Anakin chops off Mace Windu's right hand.
  • Obi-Wan cuts off Anakin's remaining arm (the left) and both legs, just to be complete about it.

Episode IV, A New Hope (The original Star Wars)

  • Obi-Wan, in a bar, cuts off the thug's right arm with his light-sabre (just as he does in Attack of the Clones).

Episode V, The Empire Strikes Back

  • Luke Skywalker cuts off the ice monster's right arm with his light-sabre.
  • Darth Vader cuts off Luke Skywalker's right hand with his light-sabre.

Episode VI, The Return of the Jedi

  • Luke Skywalker cuts off Darth Vader's right arm with his light-sabre (only to discover that Darth Vader's right arm was already entirely mechanical, as we know, since it was cut off already in Attack of the Clones back when Darth Vader was still Anakin Skywalker).

In my next pop culture critique, I'll examine the endorsement of fascism found in Toy Story and Toy Story 2.

Posted by at 02:54 AM in the following Department(s): Books/Movies/Music | Comments (0)
 March 07, 2006
First steps

I am told that late this afternoon, Nolan walked his first few steps without holding onto anything.

Yay, Nolan!

Posted by at 11:27 PM in the following Department(s): The Boys | Comments (0)
 March 10, 2006
Some changes under the hood

Hi, all.

I have upgraded the content management system that props up my House of Cards (I just made a long-overdue move from MovableType 2.something to 3.2). For the most part, this move is for *my* benefit: to help me better stem the barrage of ads being thrown at my site as "comments" to my entries, set me up for some future expansion, and the like.

One of the big advantages is that the site is now fully RSS-enabled. For those of you on Live Journal who would like to link to my site: now you can! With the RSS feed, search engines and portals will be able to offer my content in syndication, as well.

"Yeah, yeah, yeah, why should I care?"

Well, dear reader, the move is also getting me off of my ever-expanding posterior to provide you with services you've requested. The first of these, an on-site search engine, is now set up (take a peek along the right-hand-side of the page). Look for more changes (hopefully, improvements) as we move forward.

Thanks for your patience! And now... back to our regularly scheduled blog...


Posted by at 03:18 AM in the following Department(s): About This Site
 March 12, 2006
How it *should* have ended

Oh, sure, I comment quite frequently on books, movies, and music. But while I comment on things that are and things that could be, this one site shows how things should have been. Check out their archives regarding how Star Wars should have ended. Neat stuff.

I should also point out that their proposed ending for Lord of the Rings is remarkably similar to what Peter Schoaff discussed in a comment he'd posted here some time ago.

Thanks to Matt Kall for pointing this site out to me.

Posted by at 02:43 AM in the following Department(s): Books/Movies/Music | Comments (1)
 March 18, 2006
Problematic Victories

When it comes to politics, at least, there is an odd sense of "win at all costs" that seems to be coming from the White House these days. A recent instance that leaps to mind (but merely one from a wide variety of available examples): the issue with wiretapping conversations between persons in the US and persons overseas who may have ties to terrorist organizations. The White House had the ability to execute such a program as long as it received the blessing of a secret court managed by the judicial branch of the government. Instead, the White House allegedly chose to circumvent this check / balance, and initiated the wiretapping without seeking this consent.

When confronted about this, the White House and/or its supporters appear to have put pressure on Republican members of Congress to pass a new law that codifies this new behavior as legal -- effectively short circuiting any possibility that the White House acted illegally.

Now, this is a rather over-simplified summation of events, and the story is far from over. However, this kind of scenario keeps playing itself out, and it poses a question that I find problematic:

Do these Republicans not realize that the checks and balances that they remove today because they are inconvenient will continue to be absent tomorrow when the Democrats eventually take back the White House and/or the legislature?

Not too long ago, when the Republicans were concerned that the Democrats might successfully filibuster the President's nominee(s) to the Supreme Court, some members of the ruling party suggested that they might exercise "the nuclear option" of removing the ability to filibuster. Did they not realize that, had they done so, the filibuster would no longer be available to *them* when it is once again the Republicans' turn to serve as the loyal opposition?

If one wants to enjoy the maximum benefit of winning the game for the longest amount of time possible, one must occasionally allow for strategic losses. It would be better to fight a filibuster today than to lose that potential tool forever in the future -- a tool that the Republicans have used quite effectively when they have been the minority party in Congress.

The Republicans may well continue to hold majority power in both houses of the legislature for another two to four decades. They may also lose it later this year. As long as the US remains a democracy, the Republicans can rest assured that someday they will be unseated in the White House, someday they will lose the majority in Congress, and someday they will not hold as much sway in the Supreme Court as they currently enjoy. In order to enjoy their current position of power, they are well advised to employ all political tools at their disposal to accomplish their goals -- but not at the expense of dismantling the checks and balances that keep our democracy robust.

Sure, those pesky checks and balances may seem inconvenient when you want to push through your legislative agenda, but you'll miss them later when you need them. If the Republicans felt the Democrats were ruthless during their forty years of political dominance in the latter half of the twentieth century, how much less ruth will the Democrats show during their next period of dominance, unfettered by those same checks and balances that the Republicans currently seem to be dismantling?

Posted by at 01:01 AM in the following Department(s): Tidbits III | Comments (1)
 March 19, 2006
My First "Pro" Fiction Publication

I'm happy to report that my first "professional" short fiction sale (as defined by SFWA, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America; five cents per word or more, from "qualifying" publishers) is going to the presses. My short story "Band of Sisters" will appear in the anthology Hags, Sirens and Other Bad Girls of Fantasy edited by Denise Little and published by DAW Books. My story is the one about the Sirens.

Quoth "This title will be released July 5, 2006." But naturally, you can buy it in advance now.

Sometime in July, several of the authors and I hope to be at a signing event to celebrate the release of the book. More news as it develops...

In the meantime, I have just recently learned that I've sold another short story at pro rates. I'll post the details once the publication info is finalized (it's for an anthology that is likely to be published in the second half of 2007, but titles, release dates, and other details can change quite a bit in that amount of time).

Now, if only I could find more time to write....

Posted by at 09:36 PM in the following Department(s): Writing | Comments (3)
 March 22, 2006
The Great Cover-Up

Here's a fun game. A friend of mine recently posed the question:

What cover songs are better than the originals?

Of course this is one of those open-ended, matter-of-personal-taste kind of questions that simply begs for controversy because we all have different criteria for what constitutes "better" -- or even "cover songs".

For the sake of argument, I'll define a cover song as any performance after the original "hit" performance of a given song, and the newer recording is recognizably a rendition of the earlier piece. Ergo, this could include an artist covering his or her own earlier tunes (as Dolly Parton, Neil Sadaka, and others have done with notable success). Remixes and live versions by the original artist don't count. And by "better", let's say that if you came across a radio station playing the older version and the next radio station up the dial was playing the newer version, you'd leave your tuner set to the newer version.

My friend thought that a list of cover songs that were better than the originals would be very short. I begged to differ, and looked through my iTunes and found in the "A" artists alone:

  • Aerosmith covered "Big 10 inch" and "Remember (Walking in the Sand)", both of which were better than the originals. Their cover of "Come Together" was also arguably at least as enjoyable to listen to as the Beatles' original (blasphemous though it may be to suggest).
  • Aimee Mann's version of "One" is far more enjoyable than Harry Nilsson's.
  • Alanis Morrisette's recent cover of "Crazy" has more punch than Seal's version.
  • Art of Noise and Tom Jones did a butt-kickin' version of Prince's "Kiss", and they also teamed up with Duane Eddy to out-hip the original cut of "The Peter Gunn Theme" from a few decades prior

Let's play! What covers do *you* like?

A few personal favorites that leap to mind for me (without checking my iTunes list):

  • Two Nice Girls, "Speed Racer"
  • Van Halen, "Happy Trials"
  • Frente!, "Flintstone's Theme (Open Up Your Heart)"
  • Art of Noise, "Peter Gunn Theme" & "Kiss"
  • Faster Pussycat, "You're So Vain"

And, for the halibut, I'll also cast my vote for the absolute worst cover EVER:

  • Madonna, "American Pie"


Posted by at 01:26 AM in the following Department(s): Books/Movies/Music | Comments (7)
Unintentional Consequences and Odd Justice

As regular readers of my journal will note, I do tend to visit the recurring theme of "unintended consequences." In a recent post, I noted the irony of how well-intentioned rules can, in many systems, occasionally thwart the very people that the system is theoretically supposed to help.

We have yet another example today from the headlines, this time involving criminal justice.

I have noticed that when it comes to the cases reported in the national media, statutory rape committed by male teachers (in secondary school) against female students tend to result in the male teacher being prosecuted vigorously, found guilty, and thrown in jail for a very long time. This is as it should be.

I have also noticed that when it comes to the cases reported in the national media, statutory rape committed by female teachers (in secondary school) against their male students tend to result in the female teacher being slapped on the wrist and told not to do it again.

These are trends in what I've observed and, the national media being what it is and my time & attention being otherwise directed, I don't really know whether these reports represent the majority of cases where teachers get caught flagrante delicto with one or more of their students.

Each case is special, and the reasons given by the respective sentencing judges vary, but the trends reported in the mainstream press seem rather clear. Male teacher? Monster who must be punished. Female teacher? Well, typically, we find that the woman is misguided, confused, disturbed, a victim, or has some other extenuating circumstance that mitigates her offense. Convicted? Typically, yes. Punished? Well, maybe not so much.

In the case of Debra Lafave, as reported by the Associate Press and elsewhere, the judge rejected a plea deal because he was horrified that the plea deal did not include jail time. Go, judge! But without the plea deal, the case would have to go to court, and the 14-year-old student victim did not want to testify. A psychiatrist told the court that the child suffered from anxiety as a result of the media attention. The state attorney's office dropped the charges, saying that it was unwilling to jeopardize the well-being of the victim in order to prosecute the case.

It is certainly understandable that a prosecuting attorney would not want to further harm a victim in such a sensitive case. But, was the best plea deal he could come up with one with zero jail time? I'm guessing so, since prosecution in another county led to a plea deal for the same defendant that also included zero jail time. Three years of house arrest was pretty much it. Inconvenient, sure, but it's hard to imagine a similarly light sentence for a man convicted under otherwise similar circumstances.

The media reports that the accused is being treated for bi-polar disorder. Are such mitigating circumstances reasonable to entertain if the perpetrator is a man? Oh, and by the way, this young woman is almost as photogenic as Mary Kay Latourneau, and I think that's a point worth noting. (Seattle media *love* to show the former Mrs. Latourneau's pics whenever they can. She's just *scrumptious*.)

Is there a double standard when it comes to statutory rape cases perpetrated by men as opposed to those perpetrated by women? A quick search through recent news articles reveals:

  • Nicole Long in Ayersville, OH (who is referred to as "Melissa Long" in some news reports), was convicted of having sex with a student. She could have been given five years in prison, but instead, she learned in court this past Monday that she was sentenced to 90 days.

  • Alas, Toni Woods, who is not so photogenic, pleaded guilty to several counts rather than pursuing a deal. She's going to jail for a minimum of four years and could possibly remain there for a full twenty.

  • Last week in Philadelphia, Sara Singley served two days of her supposedly 30-day minimum sentence for her conviction of having sex with an underage student. [Note: the linked story indicates that the student is male, but other stories reference a female victim. See comments for additional discussion.] She was to serve the rest of her sentence under house arrest, because she'd had no prior record.

  • reports that Dang Van Dinh of Lafave's home state, Florida, was sentenced earlier this month to five years in prison for having sex with one of his underage female students.

  • Last week, Stephen Sherman didn't get quite as good a plea deal offer as the above-mentioned Lafave. In exchange for pleading guilty, the prosecuting attorney in Brown County, WI, will recommend to the judge a mere 15-year prison term. Oh, and the judge isn't bound by this plea deal! He can sentence Mr. Sherman to up to 91 years in prison, if he so chooses. Stephen Sherman is 29 years old, by the way. Debra Lafave is 25, which pretty much makes them age-peers. Like Lafave, Sherman is being charged in two counties (and the other county hasn't weighed in yet for Sherman). Unlike Lafave, Sherman's life is pretty much done.

  • In Nashville, local media look at how bail is set in such a way as to indicate a possible gender bias. (In the two cases that were compared, the man's trial has yet to conclude, so the cases can't be compared by their ultimate outcome just yet. That said, the woman's bail was set very low -- she pleaded guilty, but then was released after the first year of her eight year sentence -- while the man's bail was set substantially higher, even though he had fewer counts brought against him.)

  • Here's an interesting one from Washington State. Robert Swalstad married his then 15-year-old student after getting her pregnant. The family of the child bride initially did not cooperate with prosecuters, but prosecutors did not give up the case (unlike what just happened in Florida). They eventually did convict him, and he was sentenced to six months in jail. The community petitioned to have him given a harsher punishment. (Since the charges were dropped in the Lafave case, I don't know what form community outcry could take, if there will even be any.) Teacher and bride have relocated their residence out of state, although Swalstad *is* currently sitting in jail.

I couldn't easily find many recent convictions of male teachers having sex with their students. Then again, what *is* the ratio of men to women in the teaching community? (You'd think that as a former teacher myself, I'd know; but my experience was both brief and very local to one specific school.) This ratio would have to be taken into account in any serious study of conviction rates and sentencing of sex offenders by gender.

Are the Lafave and Sherman cases truly comparable? I don't know. The victim won't testify against Lafave, but the victim in Sherman's case plus another, previous victim *were* willing to testify. The prosecutor had little else to go on in Lafave's case; Sherman, on the other hand, was dumb enough to videotape his crimes. The victims were the same age in both cases (14 years old), but then again: Lafave preyed on a boy, while Sherman preyed on two girls -- and there may be just as much of a bias about the gender of the victim as the gender of the perp. Lafave had a well-groomed legal team to defend her; Sherman can't even post $20,000 bail.

And what if, when all of the evidence is collected and compared, it turns that there *is* a gender bias when it comes to teachers having sex with their students? Is that appropriate? Apologists for unequal treatment will point out that female victims could get pregnant, while male victims are exposed to fewer life-altering risks. That women like Latourneau and Lafave are just confused or unbalanced women misguidedly looking for love (Latourneau was married when she committed her crime, by the way), while men like Sherman and Van Dinh are depraved perverts defiling the innocent flowers under their care. That women and men should be treated differently under the law because women and men are different by nature.

I strongly suspect there is a double standard, that the double standard is not entirely fair or reasonable, but that the double standard is also not entirely unjustified.

There was a judge in Florida who rejected such a notion. He said, in fact, that he was appalled by the notion that a woman should be able to plead guilty and yet serve zero time for such a serious crime. That a grown-up teacher having sex with a child under their care is a crime, regardless of the teacher's or the victim's gender.

Thus the law of unintended consequences was called into play once more.

Posted by at 09:31 PM in the following Department(s): Essays | Comments (7)

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