The Answer Guy Online

Providing information to unwitting victims on a "don't-need-to-know" basis since 1974.

Thursday, October 31, 2002

Web quiz #20….

Congratulations, you're Washington, DC., the capitol of the United States.
What US city are you? Take the quiz by Girlwithagun.

Well, I do live here and all, so I guess it’s good that this is what I came up with. :)

Yesterday, while eating lunch at Mr. Chen’s Organic Chinese Cuisine on Connecticut Avenue (I highly recommend it, BTW) I was reading USA Today. Contained within those pages was an analysis of the competing claims of the different states the snipers allegedly struck on having the first crack at a trial. There was a little chart on the subject (sadly not available at on the “pros” and “cons” column of the different claims. In the “con” column for Maryland was “Maryland has a death penalty, but [has not] fully embraced it” and “forbids execution of juveniles.” In the “pro” column for Virginia was its execution of 86 people since capital punishment was reinstated in the 1977 and procedural rules that allow for quicker executions.

It made it sound almost as if the point of a state’s justice system is to kill, kill, kill, and in the most efficient manner possible.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I’m of the opinion that capital punishment would be categorically wrong in all circumstances. I have no qualms about the execution of serial murderers or terrorists generally. I shed no tears for Timothy McVeigh. Certainly I have no compunction about seeing the “sniper” die, and as of now I have every reason to believe that John Muhammad is the man. I’m not even saying I necessarily have any sympathy for Lee Malvo.

My problem with capital punishment is not that I don’t believe it deters. Most studies done on the subject suggest it doesn’t deter worth a damn. An increase in executions hasn’t helped the murder rates of states that have used them. Those willing to commit capital murder are often incapable of the sort of thinking that would make deterrence effective. Deterrence is an important element of punishment, but it’s not the only reason to punish.

The state ought to have a right to defend itself from certain categories of menaces, namely those who present a future danger so extreme that to allow them to live is tantamount to subjecting society at large to the danger of losing their lives.

But I don’t really trust the American public or its government as it now exists with the power of a death sentence. I do wonder if we take the idea of execution seriously enough. That newspaper article provided me with much to worry about. Politicians seem approve of executing people because it makes them more popular, which makes one wonder if we won’t be seeing gladiator games soon.

Three random thoughts on why I don’t trust America on capital punishment:

1. The first time I ever paid much attention to then-Governor George W. Bush was when future Crossfire co-host Tucker Carlson was asking him during an interview about the impending execution of Karla Faye Tucker. It was newsworthy at the time since Tucker was going to be the first woman executed in the U.S. in many moons, and because Pat Robertson and some prominent religious right figures were pleading with Bush to spare Tucker since she had become a born-again Christian while on Death Row. Bush could have responded with something that reflected the gravity of the situation. But instead we got a smarmy and indignant response, complete with an imitation of Tucker saying “Please don’t kill me.” That mocking tone suggested to me someone with a very cavalier attitude towards sentencing someone to die. What makes me angrier about that is that politicians who display this sort of callous indifference are generally rewarded for it.

2. Illinois found it had more innocent people on Death Row than it had executed since capital punishment was reinstated after Gregg v. Georgia (1976). I can only speculate what the results would be if this project were duplicated in one of those states that’s especially fond of executions – say, Texas or Virginia or Louisiana. We may not have such a study, but we do have this Amnesty International report about capital punishment in Georgia, which suggests that Georgia is at best playing fast and loose with executions. Given all the anecdotes about capital cases I’ve heard coming from Texas in particular, I’ve no reason to believe the results for Texas would be anything other than horrifying.

3. The more poor blacks there are in a state, the more executions per capita occur in that state, and the more the death penalty is likely to be popular. Of the 13 jurisdictions that, according to this Court TV map, lack a death penalty, only Michigan and the District of Columbia have a significant African-American population. Of the 38 jurisdictions that have capital punishment, 10 have not used it since 1977; New Hampshire, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Ohio, Tennessee, South Dakota, Kansas, New Mexico, and Oregon. (Some of those states, most notably New York, have relatively new death penalty laws.) Of the 28 states that have put someone to death, most have used it relatively sparingly – the bulk of the most glaring exceptions being in the old Confederacy with Texas notoriously leading the way but with Virginia, Georgia, Louisiana, Florida, South Carolina, and Alabama right behind, and the border states of Missouri and Delaware thrown in. (I’d have bet you money on Mississippi being near the top of the list but they’re been pretty restrained with only four executions post-Gregg, and Tennessee has been execution-free since Gregg.) That’s an eerie correlation between states that have executions since 1976 and states that were fond of lynching in the early part of the century. Even accounting for the fact that poor blacks are convicted of murder at higher rates than the general population, Death Row is still disproportionately black. The race of the victim has been shown to matter a good deal as well – one is less likely to get a death sentence for killing a black person than for a white person. Even if one doesn’t buy the idea that inherent racism is behind all of this, it should give one pause.

A nation of laws ought not be so quick to give men (and women) its blessings to commit homicide in its name.

The last time capital punishment was seriously debated on the national stage was during the 1988 Presidential Debates, in which Michael Dukakis, a longtime death penalty opponent, was asked whether he would have favored the death penalty for someone who (hypothetically) raped and murdered his wife. His response, which you can find here, in which he spent most of his time discussing drug policy instead, was widely mocked.

What if he said this instead?
“I resent the implications of that question. Either I am a hypocrite if I say “Yes” or incapable of human emotion if I say “no.” Well, yes I am human. Of course I would love to see him killed. I would in fact, like anyone whose loved one is killed, very much enjoy squeezing out the killer’s last breath with my bare hands. I also understand that what I am feeling is an emotional impulse. We all have emotional impulses, but in a civilized society we do not govern based on emotional impulses. Criminals are criminals, in large part, because they are ruled by their impulses. There is also no evidence that capital punishment is a deterrent, or that it reduces crime. There are many better ways to deal with violent crime. We’ve done so in Massachusetts, where we have the lowest murder rate of any industrial state and the largest decrease in crime of any industrial state in America.”

He might still have lost, and support for capital punishment might have remained high, but perhaps it wouldn’t have reached the point where opposition to the death penalty placed one on the fringes of the political landscape the way it did in most of the country in the 1990s.

I remember the first time someone was ever executed, in part, in my name. (Massachusetts has not had a death penalty in my lifetime. D.C. doesn’t have one, and New Hampshire didn’t execute anyone while I was living there.) It was by the federal government, and fortunately, it was McVeigh.

Something to think about, hopefully.

Wednesday, October 30, 2002

Yet another gray, dreary day here in the Nation's Capital. Went to the Drag Races (bunch of menin drag racing down a three block stretch of 17th St) last night and the rain really killed the vibe and depressed turnout.

Now sitting around and not doing much. I've designated today as closet day, the day I bring back my winter clothes to prominent places in my closet. And get rid of some clothes in the process. Then maybe sort my bills.

I lead such an exciting life.

Tuesday, October 29, 2002

Three notable things I read today
True Porn-Clerk Stories
How Appealing (Devoted to covering appellate litigation.)
William Burton.He linked to me. Or at least used to. Yay!

For those of you interested who are reading this...Jukebox From Hell is now up, running, and taking its first batch of votes.

The four-game slide continues for the Patriots, and things are not encouraging. The chances that the Pats will join the 1999-2000 Broncos as the latest team to miss the playoffs completely the following year increase.

Some observations I gathered Sunday night…

There are several teams (including the Broncos, Packers, and Dolphins from this latest streak) in the NFL with more talent than the Patriots and that was true last year too.
Which is not to say the Patriots simply got lucky last year. Sure, there was some luck involved, but by and large they got where they ended up by outplaying their opponents, by executing well. There was otherwise nothing extraordinary about last year’s champs; they lacked, say, the offensive firepower of the Rams or the suffocating defense of the 2000-01 Ravens. The team had few if any superstars, whether on offense or defense.

Tom Brady won’t dazzle you but can get the job done most of the time. He’s more mobile than Drew Bledsoe, but he won’t make anyone forget John Elway. He throws well, but he’s no Dan Marino. He can lead a late-game rally, but no one thinks of him as the new Joe Montana. The important thing is that there is no facet of his game that’s just awful, the way there is most with NFL quarterbacks these days. In the Patriots case, his ability to move around more than Bledsoe was key since the team’s O-line was suspect.
Antowain Smith had a solid rushing season – not spectacular, but good enough to get the job done when the team had to run the football, such as when they had to keep the other team’s offense off the field. Troy Brown did an outstanding job both as a go-to wideout (though there are many better go-to wideouts in the NFL) and as a kick returner. The offense by and large didn’t turn over the ball much, which helped to keep the defense fresh.

The defense for their part performed well without blowing anyone away. For a successful team, they gave up a lot of yardage but became very stingy in the Red Zone, so it didn’t necessarily translate into lots of points for the opposition, who were settling for lots of field goals when they weren’t turning the ball over. It was hard to throw on them consistently. Their run defense, while not quite as good, was strong enough to prevent teams from playing ball control effectively against them. The Patriots forced more than their share of turnovers (though, again, not to a degree that pundits really stood up and took notice) and, late in the season were simply outstanding on special teams. They didn’t commit a lot of costly penalties either.

As we all remember, special teams was the key to their upset of the Steelers in the AFC title game; takeaways on defense was the key to their Super Bowl win.

This year in general, and this four-game stretch in particular, things have been different.

The run has become ineffective, so much so that defenses don’t respect it. (Smith’s per carry totals were decent against Denver, especially considering the quality of their run defense, but he wasn’t used much.) Opposing secondaries have taken more notice of Troy Brown and reduced his effectiveness; the development of Deion Branch and the increased use of the tight ends should improve that situation over the long haul but we’re not seeing it yet. And the O-line, even last year the closest thing the team had to a manifest weakness, has done a poor job of protecting Brady. For Brady’s part, at times this season, especially against Green Bay, did what he largely avoided doing last season – threw costly interceptions. A team that isn’t built around high-octane scoring can ill afford to turn the ball over.

Defensively, the team has been among the easiest to run on in the NFL, which leads to the other team’s offense being on the field too long. For five weeks in a row an opposing rusher had a big game. They’ve been porous in the Red Zone during this streak as well, leaving the offense to try and climb out of holes while holding on to the ball on long drives, which is not something this offense is very good at doing.

Special teams have been bad, especially on punts, although kicker Adam Viniateri has by and large continued to do everything asked of him at least with regard to field goals. On both sides of the ball, there have been too many momentum-crushing penalties to count.
The team has looked flat for long stretches, almost as if they were not ready to play.

Some would say the Law of Averages came back to haunt Bill Belichick and the Patriots. But this team has looked so bad in execution, so unprepared, so flat-out outplayed for much of this year that it’s easy to wonder if Belichick made a deal with the Devil that’s come due.

If I had to look for a silver lining… Denver wasn’t quite as effective an offensive force in the second half – the defense finally came up with an inspiring goal-line stand in the 4th quarter that kept the game alive. Brady and the offense put together a few solid drives late in the game. The dynamics of the game would have completely changed if the defense had put up a few more third down stops – the Patriots could not manage a single third down stop in the first half.

On the list of teams that stand between the Patriots and the last wild card, or for that matter the AFC East, none appears to be unstoppable. The AFC South is only sending one team to the postseason. The AFC North, barring Baltimore or Cleveland getting blazing hot, is most likely sending only one team to the postseason. Oakland may not be waiting to fold down the stretch this year, and it’s tough to imagine three teams from one division making the playoffs with this setup. Even Buffalo, everyone’s new darling at 5-3, has gotten where it is mostly on close wins against the runts of the NFL litter (Detroit, Chicago, Minnesota, and Houston; their one “quality” win came over an extremely banged-up Dolphin team) and the Vikings are only other team to lose to the Jets this season. And Miami’s now got a two game lead on the Pats but have to start Ray Lucas for another month and face late-season dates in both Foxboro and Orchard Park, which can’t warm the hearts of South Floridians much.

Still, they really need a win in Buffalo next week. It’s not hard to imagine Brady and company putting up a lot of points against a soft Bills defense that isn’t even good at shutting down “offenses” like those of the Texans and Lions. Unfortunately, it’s not much harder to imagine Travis Henry having a big game against the Patriots’ defense and Drew Bledsoe being especially ready to play against the team that cast him aside.

Dropping to 3-5 would really put the team’s playoff hopes on life support and just one more loss beyond that (a game in Oakland looms on the horizon) might be enough to pull the plug.

Their losing had never bothered me or anyone else all that much before this season. It’s almost enough to make you wish that the team we’re all used to calling the Patsies hadn’t gone and raised expectations on us like that. (OK, I’m lying.)

I turned my top bar green again. I reminded myself of one of Sen. Wellstone's favorite slogans:
Don't mourn. Organize.

Friday, October 25, 2002

You've probably noticed (assuming I did the HTML right) that I've turned my top bar black.

This, as you may have guessed, is in honor of the late Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-MN), who died in a plane crash today.

People caught on the wrong side of the have-have not line had no better friend in the United States Senate. People who value the integrity of our public officials had no better friend in the United States Senate. Defenders of civil liberties arguably had no better friend in the United States Senate. What's left of the mainstream progressive movement in America had no better friend in the United States Senate. And those who simply value those willing stand up as a voice for principle above all, against the din of push-polls, the fuzzy static of focus groups, the cold white noise of triangulation and above all the deafening feedback of lavish campaign money had no better friend in the United States Senate.

I simply cannot imagine anyone, whether from Minnesota or any other state, filling these roles in his absence nearly as well as the man we've just lost.

Thursday, October 24, 2002

One of my co-workers asks "Why do monkeys always get laughs?"

I think it's because we see some of ourselves in monkeys.
1. If they "act natural," it's funny because we see beings much like ourselves acting in a way we wouldn't think to with people observing. It's not as funny when humans do that, especially when they know they're being watched.
2. If they are depicted as engaging in "human" behavior, again, there's a novelty aspect to it. It also provides a mirror into what animals might be thinking when they see human activity.
3. Either way, the "bodily function" factor can come into play. Since there's a taboo (milder now) against discussing bodily functions in public, it's a rich mine of humor - though it also serves as the unfunny comic's last refuge for cheap laughs.

Any way you slice it, monkeys are pure comedy gold. Other examples of comedy gold:

Foul-mouthed puppets. The juxtaposition of adult language with something associated with children is probably what does it. It's why "Greg The Bunny" worked for me. Or sweet old ladies getting a shock out of acting in totally unexpected ways, such as the jive-speaking old woman in "Airplane" or Betty White in "Lake Placid."

Cats and aquariums. This includes all of the following: cats clawing at aquarium glass; cats reaching into aquariums to grab fish; cats falling into aquariums; and cats clawing at computer screenswith aquarium-themed screen savers.

Overwrought and/or clumsy declarations of love found in song lyrics, especially if the song is by a metal band.

"Whipped" men, whether married or not. Whenever Bill Simmons discusses someone who should be wearing a Doug Christie jersey, that's automatically funny.

Similarly, gay male couples having arguments are inherently funny if you're not involved. Even the most ordinarily masculine gay men sound like they lack a Y chromosome when they argue with their significant other. Comedy gold.

I'm sure there's more, but, well, I have work to do. :)

Test. I wish Blogger would fix my archives.

Your children are not safe anywhere at any time.
Have they caught him? Could this be it? It'd be a load off our collective mind, that's for sure.

Your children are not safe anywhere at any time.
On the subway this morning, just as the police were closing in on John Muhammad out near Fredrick, I was reading about the disruption of Halloween-related festivities in the area this year and thought back another national trauma that scaled back a Halloween season - the Tylenol scare of 1982. At least there all you had to do was avoid open capsules, swallow tablets, and put tamper-proof seals on everything and - ta da! - no more cyanide-laced over-the-counter headache remedies. No big deal, right? At least not compared to : avoid gas stations, shopping malls, jogging excursions, essentially anything anywhere near an off-ramp.

I remember when the digits "911" where what you dialed when there was a car accident on the corner.

I remember when "Bali Blast" was a flavor of Snapple. I couldn't have made that up if I tried.

It wasn't that long ago when rumblings of something bad going down on at my high school involved a fist fight. (There was a school shooting my freshman year at a Worcester high school, but it was not my school, it was one killing and, if I recall correctly, was gang-related.) I remember handling with care a friend's switchblade, though that was outside a school building.

Your children are not safe anywhere at any time.

In the last days of my high school career, there was a recession, and a president named George Bush having a conflict with Saddam Hussein. Come to think of it, we had an intifadeh, the tail end of a bad rash of teen bubble-pop, and an alarming expansion of trashy television. (Sorry, Craig.)

Still, for reasons I can't quite grasp well enough to write in this space, it'd really suck to be growing up now, despite how little many things have changed.

Your children are not safe anywhere at any time.

Enough Already!!

There were something like a dozen ads for the Maryland gubernatorial campaign on TV tonight, and several mornings at subway stations there's all this campaign literature. So far I've learned the following from campaign propaganda...
Glendening and Townsend are solely responsible for the recession...
Bob Ehrlich voted to abolish the federal government...
Glendening and Townsend steal money from schools...
Bob Ehrlich favors giving guns to the criminally insane....
Kathleen Kennedy Townsend is an ineffectual snob...
Bob Ehrlich is a closet racist....
Kathleen Kennedy Townsend wants to tax your income 100% and throw dollar bills at passers by in a Baltimore parade...
Bob Ehrlich derives orgasmic pleasure from dumping toxic waste into Chesapeake Bay...
Kathleen Kennedy Townsend can't walk and chew bubble gum at the same time...
Bob Ehrlich kicks cute little puppy dogs in his spare time....
Kathleen Kennedy Townsend is posessed by demons...
Bob Ehrlich is the devil in disguise. ...

I'm glad I don't live in Maryland. I wouldn't want to vote for either of these people.

Wednesday, October 23, 2002

Heads up from my friend Edmund...

Janis Ian, songwriter of hits "At Seventeen" and "Society's Child,", tells it like it is and sticks it to the RIAA.

I was going to write about this topic as well, as I had already hinted at in a previous posting. I still might, but I'm glad there was an outstanding songwriters' perspective on this issue.

Four Random Thoughts on the Sniper Attacks:

1. The sniper has come back to Maryland where it all began, after apparently taking a detour deep into the heart of Virginia. Life in DC - if it's not one thing, it's another...*sigh*...

2. So, if the ransom note is authentic, it's all about the $10,000,000. Very puzzling, since I don't know how he (she?) is going to get the money if even if someone were prepared to offer it up. Which leads me to believe the letter is fake, and the tarot card might be too.

3. I had up to now assumed the sniper would be caught before Election Day, though now the possibility looms that he (she?) will still be at large, and that this would be a terrible thing for Rep. Robert Ehrlich, since being perceived as the "pro-gun" candidate is a Very Bad Thing(TM) when someone presumed to be a lone wolf is running around shooting at people, and doing in such a way as to not make people think "If I only had my gun, I could stop this guy," the way they might react to, say, a wave of home invasion killings. Plus, all else being equal, it could prevent a minority party candidate (the GOP is very much in the minority in Maryland) from getting more traction since this story has been taking publicity and headline space away from the gubernatorial race - not to mention that the Democratic nominee, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, seems to be a low-watt bulb in terms of campaign acumen. If the sniper is still at large on Election Day, you'd have to think Ehrlich would have the advantage, since most of the people who'd be scared away from turning out to the polls would be in Montgomery or Prince George's Counties in the Washington suburbs, where Townsend leads and where her camapign is most targeted. Ehrlich has a solid lead if you take those two jurisdictions away.

4. My own pet theory - they're not taking this killer alive. When he (she?) goes down, it'll be in a shootout. I'm not crazy about capital punishment, but I don't think I'm the only person that would have no qualms about someone taking this guy down on the spot if he's caught in the act.

Speaking of caught in the act...time to get back to work. :)

Monday, October 21, 2002

Lazy day yesterday, my first in a long time, and I spent it watching football, of course. My Patriots were on a bye this week so they couldn't lose. But here are the games I watched all or part of...

Buffalo 23, Miami 10
I bet Dolphins fans never thought the team would miss Jay Fielder that much. Ray Lucas was so bad he handed the Bills the game, although he didn't have Chris Chambers or Oronde Gadsden to throw to. All of this despite the fact that Buffalo has been among the NFL's easiest teams to score on up until now. Of course if you turn the ball over six times, just about anyone can stop you from scoring. From a Patriots' fan's prespective, while it's good to see Miami taken down a notch, it is unsettling to be looking up the standings at the Bills, who have already surpassed last season's win total. And they get a home game against Detroit next week, while the Pats have to host Denver.

New Orleans 35, San Francisco 27
Is this the year the Saints win more than one playoff game? It just might be, after this gutsy comeback against the 49ers. Two costly late-game turnovers proved the Niners' undoing, and the lesson in the NFL over the last three years has to be that you can win a lot of teams simply by not doing anything to lose them. The pundits are obligated to note that Arizona is now tied for first place with the Niners in the newly configured NFC West, although that should change whenever the Cards have to actually play the Niners instead of the creampuffs they've actually been playing.

Denver 37, Kansas City 34(OT)
The Chiefs are heartbroken yet again. The performance of the AFC West so far this season has probably already put the 3-3 Chiefs on the Endangered List of teams already in danger of becoming irrelevant soon, mostly because, despite Priest Holmes and the breakthrough season of Trent Green, they can't stop anyone else from scoring.

Green Bay 30, Washington 9
The Redskins' fading playoff aspirations take yet another hit, and somewhere I have to wonder if Steve Spurrier is considering yet another QB change after the offense failed to score even a single touchdown and turned the ball over five times. The biggest negative for the Skins was the high number of penalties; Green Bay strung together an entire TD-scoring drive mostly on Washington penalties in the 2nd quarter. For his part, Spurrier I think is finally learning that "fun n' gun" doesn't work in the NFL because you can't count on your wideouts simply outrunning opposing secondaries. Brett Favre was hurt in this game and left early in the second half; however, the Pack has a bye next week and a Monday night game after that, so he has 15 games to recover and keep his "Iron Man" streak alive.

And...and...twins! I hate it when I get stupid commercial jingles in my head. But it could have been worse, like that hardcore-punk-metal-whatver-that-was version of "My Favorite Things" they were playing in one ad.

By next week, I'll be back working Sunday again, so that might be the last time I get to be a couch potato for a while...

I haven’t yet written anything about the academic competition circuit in here, although many of my readers belong to it or used to belong to it. If you have no interest in quiz bowl, you might want to skip this article since I’d have to double its length to explain quiz bowl as a whole to the uninitiated. But if you’re really interested in having quiz bowl explained to you, try this website for starters.

Dwight Kidder in his weblog challenged other quiz bowl players and miscellaneous circuit personalities to express their current state of the academic competition circuit, where they think it is going, and their vision of academic competition’s future.

Things are going this way. I strongly detect a difficulty arms race afoot as players, editors and especially question writers search and search ever more intently for new topics for questions, going ever further from common knowledge inexorably towards esoterica and minutia. I walk into practices at GW now and see freshmen and sophomores scratching their heads at an ever-increasing proportion of questions we come across. At first I wondered if it’s just a matter of us not having talented younger players, but then I ask myself how I would have done as a freshman or sophomore on some of this stuff.

I admit I have been a bit out of the loop this season, with a fairly intense work schedule and other things going on in my life. Now perhaps more people are aware of this disturbing trend and its impact on circuit growth and this year’s tournaments have been adjusted accordingly. I somehow doubt it, because people have been saying things like this for a few years now with no effects.

I don’t know how to enforce this at a practical level, but I’ve been thinking the last couple of years that it’s time to push the dinosaur players more to the margins.

I imagine it’s going to have to come about with some sort of mandatory restrictions. But even if we don’t resort to that… those of you who’ve been playing quiz bowl for seven, eight, nine, ten or more years have to ask start asking yourself something, particularly if you’ve already got numerous tournament titles, All-Star awards, and national championships and such, as most people who’ve been around the block a few times do. What does yet another a 400-point thrashing of a team of first years who’ve never played before prove? At some point, isn’t it time to stop getting your jollies by beating up on 18 year olds on questions you’ve probably heard before?

I imagine that for today’s would-be circuit entrants, it’s pretty discouraging to get stomped on by people who’ve been playing for six or eight or ten years. Now the supporters of the status quo counter with “Well, newcomers to golf can’t be expected to be competitive with Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson or Ernie Els or Sergio Garcia, at least at first. Why should quiz bowl be any different?”

Well, for one thing, we’re still trying to establish ourselves as a popular activity. This is really hard to do when even average circuit tournaments now have a difficulty comparable to that of the old Tennessee Masters, which back in the day was legendary for not being for the faint of heart. We’ve essentially up to now failed to take advantage of the foibles and weaknesses of the former 800-pound gorilla of academic competition, College Bowl, and the unity that their threats to shut us down brought; we’ve largely failed at our efforts to add new life to our circuit by including more once-a-year schools in on the action.

For another thing, the skill and experience level of the playing field profoundly influence, well, our closest analog to a playing field. You don’t ask novice freshmen who’ve never golfed before to make par at Pebble Beach, or people taking the wheel of car for the first time to negotiate Washington’s Dupont Circle without functioning turn signals*. Yet this is exactly what we are asking of our freshmen and sophomores when we send them into battle against a team that consists of - to be somewhat non-hypothetical about it - Dave Hamilton, Mike Starsinic, and Adam Fine. This is particularly true if most of the questions have been pitched at a level as to be appealing to that type of player.

Tournaments pitched at people like myself or Dwight have their place, but most invitationals are now like that and have been for a number of years. Speaking collectively, we’re question connoisseurs who’ve heard many ways to write many questions and are biased by our own experience to write questions we haven’t heard before, which as a matter of necessity are going to generate blank stares by a great majority of circuit players. When we do this, we’re not generally trying to stump players the way some writers new to high-level quiz bowl and eager to fit in do because they are under the impression high difficulty is what we’re looking for. But the end result is the same. Our presence as players (and sometimes as writers and editors as well) is making quiz bowl progressively less accessible.

Yes, novice tournaments are part of the solution. However, their scope is a bit narrow, and they generally do not serve the vital function of teaching younger players the fundamentals of question writing, which is essential to our survival as a circuit for two reasons. One, it helps develop future question writers when the current crop of mostly retired players now supporting the circuit moves on, and two, it is one of the best ways for young players to improve their games so that they might one day compete amidst the giants.

It is my opinion that most tournaments should restrict to at least some degree graduate student play and that NAQT and ACF should have player eligibility rules that more closely resemble those of College Bowl (six year limit on participating in “official” tournaments). It’s the only way to start clearing out the players who are in large part driving the arms race.

I know there are tradeoffs. A circuit with higher turnover leads to some loss of institutional memory, in addition to less experienced writing and editing that penetrates all levels of the game, and possible less capable officiating. But if the circuit ever wants to grow, it has position itself for growth by making it more attractive to outsiders. And I remain unconvinced there aren’t enough people willing to stick around in a non-playing capacity to help stave off the problems I listed above.

There’s still plenty of room for players who have exhausted their eligibility in this fashion. There are masters’ tournaments to play in and there’s no reason there can’t be more of them than there are now, particularly if there are more people out there only eligible for masters’ competition. There are trash tournaments also, although it might be time for TRASH itself to consider some limits on eligibility of its own, and for there to be a trash circuit primarily aimed at college students.

Standard invitationals should be much more newbie-friendly. Teams should write their own questions, and if they’re not up to the sort of standards we would hold, say, ACF Nationals, so what? Question quality at the margins may diminish in the short run. But people learn how to write questions better as they get feedback on how well received their questions were, both immediate feedback by other teams and by staff and via something like the Yahoo! group. They’ll learn what players, both rookies and veterans liked or didn’t like about their set. That’s how we’ll get our future Dwight Kidders and Adam Fines that we need to keep our circuit running, to write questions for national tournaments and to serve as guardians for the circuit’s future.

Now, I’m not suggesting that we pitch everything at newcomers. Surely at tournaments designed for masters’ level play, or tournaments played with national titles at stake, novice players should be on sufficient notice that questions they submit (if any) will be judged against the highest standards of playability, they will be facing the heavy hitters, that their skills will be tested accordingly and that the results might not be pretty. But such events should be the exception rather than the rule.

As it stands right now, packets by newer teams tend to not get used at all in submission tournaments or are radically rewritten to more resemble what a top level squad who’s already heard the standard clues to everything would find challenging. The end result is discouraged entry-level programs, disheartened not only by low finishes (which, to be sure, are a part of any competitive activity) but by seemingly not fitting in to an established quiz bowl culture as inaccessible as the deepest ocean trenches.

And as a tournament editor many times over, I admit I’ve been as guilty as anyone in the past of these sorts of practices. I catered to established customers running GWU’s tournaments, academic and trash, doing my best to make my fellow grizzled vets happy while probably turning off and scaring away possible new converts. I don’t know if after all this time I’m capable of writing or editing in any other fashion, escaping the mental block that years on the quiz circuit, playing and otherwise, has placed on me.

But I should find myself with the spare time to increase my involvement in the quiz bowl circuit back to what it was when I was less busy with my life, I’ll do my best to keep that in mind.

* Yes, I did this once on my first trip to Washington, though I had already been driving six years at that time.

Sunday, October 20, 2002

Last week, oral arguments were heard in the Supreme Court case Eldred v. Ashcroft. The petitioners, a group led by internet publisher Eric Eldred, are challenging the constitutionality of the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998.

Now as an amateur writer, I’m not entirely unsympathetic to copyright holders. Obviously a legal regime where intellectual property is not recognized would result in unwillingness on the part of people to expend resources (time or money) on scientific or artistic endeavors. The Framers of the Constitution expressed their awareness of this principle when they allowed for the granting of copyrights and patents “to Promote the Progress of Science and the useful Art by securing for limited Times for Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries” in Article I, Section 8, Clause 8 of the Constitution.

Now as a society, we’re very cautious about giving out monopolies, and for good reason. This monopoly seems like a good deal on balance, however. The creators get rewarded for their creativity, and the public reaps the benefits of cultural enrichment and scientific progress. After enough time has lapsed to make sure the creator was rewarded, the public is freed from having to pay monopoly prices for whatever the creator has produced and thereafter pays whatever price a competitive market will bear for the product.

Or at least that’s the way it’s supposed to work.

The length of the copyright term been ratcheted up over the years, from 14 years in 1790, eventually reaching to 70 years beyond the death of the author as a consequence of the latest extension (up from 50 years beyond the death of the author). If there is no clearly definable author (i.e. a “work for hire” where the original copyright holder is a corporate entity rather than a person) the term is 100 years – it was 75 years before the 1998 extension. This extension also applies to software, but certainly software doesn’t need this duration of protection; five year old software is usually obsolete, ten year old software has zero commercial value, and twenty year old software is literally worthless.

It was widely perceived that the Walt Disney Company was the main driving force behind the efforts of the entertainment and publishing industries to extend the copyright term, in no small part because Mickey Mouse – who first appeared in “Steamboat Willie” in 1928 – was about to pass from the realm of protected copyright. The Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998 passed Congress easily with broad support from both parties, with the blessing of President Clinton.

(Note: Actually, the Walt Disney Co. can continue to protect Mickey Mouse as a trademark, provided it continues to use Mickey as a signifier, even if the original work in which Mickey appeared were to be no longer covered by copyright. Trademarks in theory can last forever if continually used. All Disney would have to prove in a court is that consumers associate Mickey with Disney so strongly they’d be likely to be confused by something not endorsed or sanctioned by Disney that had Mickey’s name or likeness on it.)

A group of internet publishers challenged the act as an unconstitutional denial of freedom of speech under the First Amendment and as an impermissible overstepping of the Constitutional authority of Congress to grant copyrights for a “limited time.” The courts, at both the District Court and Circuit Court level, got nowhere with either argument, but did get a dissenter at the appellate level.

The Supreme Court surprised some legal observers by granting the plaintiffs’ writ of certiorari, thereby agreeing to hear the appeal. It is generally agreed by most neutral observers the First Amendment argument is a non-starter here. Courts have not thrown out entire intellectual property laws – though they have granted exemptions to some classes of would-be infringers (“fair use,” for instance) - as a denial of free speech and they are unlikely to start doing so now. The other argument – the “Congress exceeded its authority” argument – is the far more interesting one. Did the court take this appeal to foreclose future challenges to copyright laws? Or did they take this appeal to draw a proverbial line in the sand or at least to assert their prerogative to do so at some future date?

For their part, copyright holders and their supporters point out that the incentive structure behind work creation isn’t quite as simple as “Isn’t a term of [n] years - or life of the author plus [n] years - enough?” Certainly one would think that there would be some economic difference in value between 50 years beyond the life of the author and 70 years beyond the life of the author, that might enrich an author, even if most copyrighted works end up under the control of someone other than the author or his or her estate. However, it’s hard to argue with a straight face that whether an author’s right to copyright protection extends 50 or 70 or 100 years after that author’s death affects the incentives all that much either way. You don’t have to take my word for it;

a panel of 17 distinguished economists, including Milton Friedman, Ronald Coase, and Kenneth Arrow, essentially argue that point in a Supreme Court amicus curiae brief. The claim that writers will find themselves unable to sustain a living without this kind of extension is laughable, especially considering that the main impetus for this legislation was holders of copyrights on behalf of persons long deceased. Adding 20 years to, say, the copyright protection of the novels of F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1998 can’t exactly give Fitzgerald the incentive to spend more time writing novels.

They also claim that there is more of an incentive to distribute and disseminate something protected by copyright than something that has passed into the public domain. At some marginal level this might be true, but if companies couldn’t make a profit distributing copies of works in the public domain, no one would do it; the fact is that you can buy everything from Hamlet to The Communist Manifesto to Leaves of Grass to the collected orations of Cicero in bookstores.

Furthermore, works still under copyright covered by this extension that retain some economic value - for instance, Gone With The Wind and Mickey Mouse - are the exception, not the rule. The great majority of works that the 1998 law placed under continued protection are forgotten; most of the books out of print, most of the films unavailable. Copyright protection is in fact doing them more harm than good since there are people out there who might scour the public domain for works to rediscover and revive. This phenomenon is most pronounced in the software field, where a subculture has developed around so-called “abandonware.”

The supporters of the extension have also clouded the debate by introducing piracy issues. This debate has nothing to do with the copyright protection claims of the artists and producers whose works are currently subject to widespread piracy. The underground markets of China are not teeming with bootleg copies of Fitzgerald books or pirated copies of Bessie Smith wax cylinders or unauthorized copies of “Birth of a Nation.” Extending the copyright term 20 or 25 years does not effect the incentives to engage in piracy or not engage in piracy, the incentives to purchase or not purchase pirated material, or the incentives of governments of any stripe to crack down upon or to turn a blind eye to piracy in their midst in any meaningful way. (What is to be done or not done about piracy is a debate for another time, dear readers.)

What’s really on the other side of this issue? Is it simply ungrateful free-loaders and pirates? We are, as both consumers and citizens, all plaintiffs in this case, as is the future of American and world culture.

The ability to freely appropriate the archetypes set down by whoever it was who wrote such myths and legends as Beowulf or Gilgamesh or by William Shakespeare or his Elizabethan contemporaries, or the poets and playwrights and philosophers of ancient Greece and Rome and China and India, or the great storytellers and orators of our nation’s past still drive our culture. If we were to permanently cede to private parties the right to exclusive control of future artistic expressions for in effect an indefinite time, we would be surrendering a lot more than even the best economists could possibly calculate.

Culture needs a public domain, a commons of images and ideas that future artists can build on, appropriating and synthesizing these base elements to create new material, which later artists can in turn build upon. Imagine how culture might have suffered if whoever the first Italian Renaissance artist was to paint “Adoration of the Magi” went around and sued everyone who tried to paint their own version, even if the lawsuits were unsuccessful. Or if Shakespeare was inhibited by copyright litigation from fashioning his plays from earlier sources.

More immediately, imagine a world where every collegiate theater company had to track down the great-great-great-great-great-great grandsons (I’m sure I left out a few “greats” there somewhere) of Shakespeare for permission (not to mention likely forking over some cash) to put their own spin on, say, “Julius Caesar.” If this sounds ridiculous, recall the legal imbroglio over The Wind Done Gone” and think to yourself that such silliness would not have persisted for so long if we didn’t have such a corporation-driven intellectual property regime that gave the Mitchell estate and their handlers this much ability to dictate the cultural dialogue concerning a cultural touchstone like “Gone With The Wind.”

While it isn’t in my opinion quite accurate to say the First Amendment and intellectual property law are contradictory, or that copyright law amounts to “censorship,” surely at the margins there is a tension between copyright protection and freedom of expression that only becomes more pronounced with each broadening of copyright law, particularly with respect to control over “derivative works.” The courts have carved out a First Amendment niche for “parodies” of existing works as covered by freedom of speech, but that’s a very difficult line to tread as it is and policies granting essentially limitless exclusive rights to control who appropriates which elements of existing works only make it dicier. They have also carved out “fair use” exceptions, which generally work for movie reviewers and academics writing papers, but don’t cover other artists generally. Would a writer be more reluctant to include allusions and references to earlier works of literature or film if he or she knew it could result in being sued? (I understand that’s a problem anyway, but at some point this question looms larger and larger as the marginal benefits of granting longer copyright monopolies dissipate.)

By placing the Copyright provision in Article I, which enumerates the powers of the legislative branch, the Constitution does put the ball in the court of Congress, giving them the right to decide the length of this “limited time,” and specifying no other constraints on this power. I’m not a huge fan of the “original intent” school of Constitutional interpretation - due to its high level of subjectivity, its failure to recognize and address that subjectivity, and its tendency to impose 18th century values (or a judge’s perception thereof) out of their proper context – but certainly one would have to concede that the phrase “limited time” must mean something.

On a practical level, however, Congress is institutionally incapable of addressing this issue. There is a concentrated interested private party (or set of parties, if you prefer) that stands to gain a good deal by expending resources on behalf of its position. On the other side is an essentially unorganized public that stands to lose, but in a more diffuse and less immediate manner. Anyone who’s taken a Political Science course (and didn’t sleep through it) knows what’s going to happen here. The private party seeking a private benefit against a diffuse public interest will expend any resources necessary (i.e. hire lobbyists and make campaign donations) to secure that benefit and will prevail. In other words, rent-seeking behavior perfectly predictable for any profit-maximizing entity.

In plain English, at the risk of sounding conspiratorial, that means that Disney, AOL/Time Warner, and other media giants can essentially buy the ability to write intellectual property law as they see fit. Congress has extended copyrights nearly a dozen times in the last half-century, irrespective of party or dominant ideology, and there’s no reason to believe it won’t do so again. And again. And so forth.

That is not to suggest I should resent the profitability of those companies, or of their desire to take steps to be more profitable, since that is what corporate entities are designed to do. It is to suggest that it is a function of the public sector to set ground rules on rent-seeking behavior, and that it ought to be a cause for concern if the public sector cannot effectively do so.

Someone has to draw the line if Congress won’t. If the Supreme Court decides that it categorically cannot do so, than the phrase “limited time” would be essentially meaningless. D.C. Circuit :

The Congress that can extend the protection of an existing work from 100 years to 120 years; can extend that protection from 120 years to 140; and from 140 to 200; and from 200 to 300; and in effect can accomplish precisely what the majority admits it cannot do directly. This, in my view, exceeds the proper understanding of enumerated powers reflected in the [
U.S. v. Lopez] principle of requiring some definable stopping point.

As of now, there is no such “definable stopping point” with respect to the Copyright Clause. It may be a bit arbitrary on the part of a court to fashion one. However, the 1995 Lopez (514 U.S. 549) decision stands for the proposition that the power of Congress to legislate pursuant to the Commerce Clause, whatever its contemplated extent, cannot be infinite. And neither should the power of Congress to legislate pursuant to the Copyright Clause.

That is not to say that defenders of this particular extension do not have at least one strong substantive point to make. This latest copyright extension harmonizes U.S. copyright law with that of the European Union, making international cooperation against piracy and infringement easier – something very much in America’s interest considering its status as far and away the world’s top creator of intellectual property. Though not in and of itself a material issue in an American court of law, world legal harmonization – particularly when it touches on valid treaties properly approved by the U.S. government (Berne Convention on International Copyright, to be exact) – is certainly something worth consideration.

But what about the next time “Steamboat Willie” (Mickey Mouse’s debut cartoon) or “White Christmas” or Gone With The Wind is about to enter the public domain?

Even if you’re going to accept the arguments of copyright holders on the merits of this particular case and this specific statute and therefore find against these plaintiffs, it would be a great loss for the American public, and for the future of American and world culture, if the door were slammed on judicial review of ever-increasing Congressional extensions of intellectual property.

Would it better if our legislators would stop giving away the store to the entertainment and publishing industries? All else being equal, yes. But it’s not the first time the courts were faced with either having to limit the powers of government when they could not be trusted to limit themselves, thereby risking charges of “judicial activism,” or to acquiesce and risk irrelevance. It won’t be the last time either.

By the way, dear readers, if you want to read more on this topic, this article in Wired magazine which encapsulates the issues involved in this case well, is a good place to start.

Saturday, October 19, 2002

And now for the 19th installement in an occasional series: Tim takes random web quizzes!

What revolution are You?
Made by altern_active

Mom would be proud.

Although there's now a Gap at Haight & Ashbury in San Francisco, believe it or not.

Thursday, October 17, 2002

Allison had some interesting things to say about class consciousness the other day.

I too hail from blue collar roots and I’m somewhat different from my peers in subtle ways that perhaps most people don’t pick up on. It’s influenced my political thinking to this day – I have a lot more sympathy to organized labor than most people at Dartmouth, GW Law, or most folks I run into nowadays. But it’s more cultural than anything else.

But what I really wanted to rant about before I went to sleep was this:

Too many kids in this country in general and the Washington area in particular grow up without ever having to work a low-level job. I worked a few such jobs and wasn’t especially suited to most of them (I was a good pizza delivery guy since I learned the labyrinthine streets of the towns around Worcester cold.) As a society, our young people are by and large being told that menial work is beneath many of us, that vacations in Italy, tennis camp, and maybe a cushy office internship with Daddy’s law firm are entitlements.

Now more and more these sorts of jobs are what fresh-off-the-boat immigrants or the poorest of the poor or ex-convicts do. Especially in the Washington area. I’m not saying we shouldn’t have immigrants or anything. But I do wonder if we’re moving towards a newly stratified society, I can’t imagine that’s a good thing.

Americans like to think of themselves as a classless society. At some level we know that’s not true. Our national obsession with race is sort of a proxy, and an imprecise one at that, for discussions of class.

Am I longing for the days when even kids from well-off families often worked at the soda shop or the supermarket because, as old folks are inclined to say, menial work “builds character?” Not really. I’m still not even sure what that means. I’ve always told myself I would never forget what it’s like to be a kid. I may be getting old, but I haven’t forgotten yet. I still can’t say “it builds character” with a straight face. I’ll know I’m really old when I can say that without drenching it in irony.

What crappy work does do for someone, I think, is provide someone, even someone headed for the Ivy League, with a perspective on life. There are people who have to support themselves and help support their families bagging groceries, washing cars, flipping burgers, and digging ditches. If you’ve had to wait on rude people at a restaurant, it’s less likely you’re going be the kind of customer wait staff can’t stand to serve. If you’ve had to deal with impatient customers in a supermarket checkout, you’re probably not going to be like that when you’re out shopping.

If you’re never had these sorts of experiences, if you’ve always been the customer, if you’ve always “had it your way,” so to speak, it’s far easier not to think about the human beings who are making chump change taking abuse from obnoxious people. And so you’re rude to them more often. I’m sure this has something to do with the decline in civility many perceive in public society.

I may call myself the Answer Guy. I wish I had an answer for this one.

Good night, readers.

Wednesday, October 16, 2002

I have to admit that I altered my behavior patterns ever so slightly today with the sniper still at large. I had a late supper at a Subway on K Street. There were tables outside and the weather was still warm enough for outdoor eating but I decided to stay inside. I walked to an enclosed ATM (to my horror, the door was unlocked) to deposit my paycheck. I decided to take the bus rather than walk up 16th Street.

I figured that maybe the killer was going to shift his pattern, get daring and go for a kill in the heart of the city.

This may strike you as mundane, but I guess I'm not half as unflappable as I thought.

Tuesday, October 15, 2002

Well, Day 17 of work begins tomorrow. I'm so drained when I get home it's hard for me to form coherent thoughts about much of anything.

* The Pats have now dropped three in a row going into their bye week. And then they get to play the Broncos, albeit at home in Foxboro. Not that that helped much against the Packers this last week.

* I just remembered I haven't said anything about the sniper killings in this area. Obviously they have us all on edge. The only thing I am thankful for on this score is that he hasn't hit the heart of the city - yet. And his M.O. seems to involve killing in locations easily accessible to major highways. This isn't exactly an easy neighborhood to flee quickly in a white van, or any other kind of car for that matter. My own pet theory is that he's ex-military, possibly inolved in top secret matters, sort of like the John Malkovich character in "In The Line of Fire."

Oh, well, bedtime calls, dear readers. Nighty night...

Monday, October 14, 2002

Well, I decided to create a separate space entirely for the Jukebox From Hell.
The page can be located at

Sunday, October 13, 2002

Coming soon to this space:

The Answer Guy's

Jukebox From Hell

[insert maniacal laughter here]

What is the Jukebox From Hell, you may ask? It's 256 songs, selected for the purpose of determining what is the most annoying, irritating, grating, awful, horrible, hideous, nauseating, jaw-dropping, groan-inducing, G*d-damn-it-I-hate-this-f**king-song-so-fu**king-much-I'm-killing-the-next-f**king-DJ-who-plays-it song in history. Over the next few weeks, dear readers, I'm counting on your help. Every few days we will have a series of votes as to which song you loathe and despise more. We will then continue until we have eliminated all but one song, which will be crowned the "Worst Song Ever."

This list, still being finalized, was selected from a series of brainstorms by yours truly and some of his friends and coworkers. Let me point out that you might actually like some of these songs. I actually like some of the songs on this list. Here are the criteria:
* The songs have to be worthy of a Jukebox From Hell. For that. they need to be jukebox material. Therefore, no Shaggs, no "Metal Machine Music," no William Shatner singing "Mr. Tambourine Man," no Wesley Willis. All of these songs were either pop hit singles or radio staples in one format or another.

* The songs are generally not novelty records, although there are exceptions in the case of some unusually horrible novelty records. In other words, the bar is higher for novelty songs.

* These songs are meant to inspire a visceral dislike in some people. Some of these songs are to this day cherished by some other people. This list is not an attempt to pick the 256 worst songs ever, according either to me or to anyone else; it is more like a list of songs that some people really hate. I am sure I left some things out.

If you know neither song in a pair, just skip it. If you know only one, you are allowed to vote depending on how you feel about the one song you know (i.e. feel free to vote for the song you know if you have trouble imagining the other song being worse.) Feel free to abstain if you can't make up your mind, or if, G*d forbid, you actually like both songs. The first round pairings were generally selected in a fashion so as to minimize "Monty Hall" situations where one of the choices is unknown; people familiar with one song in a first round matchup are likely to be familiar with the other one as well.

Apologies to Craig for my stealing of his poll idea. (He's running a poll where one rates the relative merits of 128 of what are deemed to be a set of good songs.) But I thought of this one day during a discussion of terrible songs and it mushroomed into this massive undertaking. People love to talk about bad songs. The power of discussing bad songs has brought the shyest people in my workplace out into a conversation.

The list is being finalized, and soon the first set of pairings will be announced. First round voting will take place in groups of 8 pairs over a 3-4 day period. Voting can be done in two ways. Either you can click on the e-mail link and send me your vote (include something in the subject line that lets me know it's a poll vote) or if you want to make your vote public, you can simply use the comments function. (Try to avoid doing both - makes it harder to count.) The Answer Guy will only vote, by the way, to break ties.

I bet we're going to have fun tonight. And maybe, dear readers, have some Wang Chung tonight as well.

Friday, October 11, 2002

Oh, yeah - forgot to mention something. The Yankees aren't going to win the World Series. They're not even going to be in the World Series. This has not really sunk in yet.

I'm letting you down, dear readers. Work has gotten to me.

Heck, I've found out recently I have readers I don't even know. They want to know what I think about the Maryland gubernatorial campaign, John Stuart Mill, and Doug Forrester's web domains. I promise I will get to these and other issues someday.

But first, Brian posited an interesting pop culture quandry:
What is the most inexplicable hit song in history?

By hit song, I'm going to be a bit subjective. For it to qualify.. it should have been a high-charting single, a driving force behind sales of a big-selling album, or it should have gotten a good deal of radio exposure, either at the time of its release or at the present.

Things that make a hit explicable for purposes of this discussion:
1. Acknowledged quality. If it's a near-universally recognized classic of music, ir even of its genre, it can't be inexplicable. (This isn't a "most inexplicable genre" debate.)
2. Pop Charms. If it's got a good hook, killer riff, or catchy chorus, no matter how vapid the song is, it's hit status is explicable.
3. Fads and Trends. If it spawned a dance craze (e.g. "Macarena") or was part of a larger musical trend, it's explicable. Therefore, even the worst disco song (my choice would be "It's Raining Men") is explicable. I also consider "Achy Breaky Heart" part of the "hot country" trend of the early 90s, in addition to spawning that ridiculous dance. Otherwise I think we'd have a contender.
4. Fame of the artist. Yes, the Rolling Stones' "Emotional Rescue" sucks pond water. If a no-name band took this up the charts, it'd be a contender. This applies equally to songs that suck by famous people not primarily famous for making music, so stuff like Eddie Murphy's "Party All The Time," no matter how awful, can be explained that way.
5. Cover version. We will probably have a "Worst Cover Version" discussion at some point. This is not the time for it. Besides, on the theory that if pop fans bought it once, they'll buy it again, it's not hard to explain why it's easier to sell the public on a song if they've already heard it before. (Note that this rule only applies in the case where the original was also a well-known hit; covers of obscure songs can still be inexplicable.)
6. Novelty. This is a tricky one. If it was designed primarily to make someone laugh, it doesn't count. This is mostly because it's not nearly as interesting to argue over the worst novelty song as it is to argue over the worst song pop fans bought because they actually liked it as a song. For our purposes, "Because I Got High," anything heard on "Dr. Demento," and anything by Weird Al is ineligible.

Go to town, dear readers. I'll weigh in this weekend.

Friday, October 04, 2002

Friday night, and here I am again.

It's like this when I work. Long hours, not enough sleep, too tired to go out much or to blog much.

One of my readers requested I discuss the writings of John Stuart Mill, whom I have not read since freshman year in college. I promise sometime soon I will get to a really interesting pop culture question posited by Brian.

I think I'm going to take a respite from political musings for the next week or so, since I imagine some of you are tired of reading long, rambling political analyses.

But before I do favorite shouted slogans from the anti-war rally and march last Sunday I attended....
"Dick Cheney, Dinosaur - We don't want your oil war!" (Heard at Dupont Circle, and elsewhere)
"Exxon Mobil, BP, Shell / Take your oil war - go to hell!" (Heard on Mass Ave @ 24th St NW)
"We all live in a military state / A military state / Military state"
(Sung to the tune of the Beatles' "Yellow Submarine," as cops encircled marchers in front of the British Embassy)

And the best poster slogans...
"War - Bush's Weapon of Mass Distraction"
"Axis of Oil - Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld"
"We Need Regime Change In Washington"
"George W. Bush - #1 Threat To World Peace"

There was of course lots of "Hey-hey-ho-ho-[blank] has got to go!" and "1-2-3-4 We don't want your [blank] war!" chanting as well. They're a tad uncreative at this point, so I figured I'd give props to the above in contrast. Another thing the crowd sang was the chorus of Edwin Starr's "War."

By the way, for some reason, "War" is extremely effective in dislodging bad songs that get stuck in one's head. I was able to use it today to remove Air Supply's "All Out Of Love" (piped into a supermarket I in which I was shopping early this afternoon on lunch break) for which I was thankful. Props to my friend Rick G. for that discovery.

Well, bedtime calls, dear readers....

Wednesday, October 02, 2002

The New Jersey Supreme Court has ruled that the state's Democratic Party can place a substitute candidate on the ballot for the U.S. Senate. The ruling was unanimous 7-0 decision; the Court is comprised of four Democrats, two Republicans, and one independent.

No word from the Republicans as of yet, who have suggested they might appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court if the state's Supreme Court decided against them.

This is obviously great news for the Democrats, even if the Supreme Court steps in and overturns the state decision, which I don't think is likely. A Democratic rallying cry that sounds something like "The Supreme Court already picked a President, we're not letting them choose our Senator for us" could be a pretty effective incentive to boost voter turnout among Democrats in the state. Either way, the salience of the Torricelli ethics issue will be reduced.

I didn't mean to sound like a partisan in last night's column, though I imagine it crept into my analysis. To elucidate further on the foreign policy issue and the "Bush coattails" issue, I suppose I should have mentioned that Bush's approval ratings would likely help the chances of Republican Senate hopefuls and incumbents in most of the seats in play. New Jersey is one of the few states with a Senate seat considered to be in play where an association with the Bush administration could be more a liability than an asset. Most Democratic challengers (and vulnerable incumbents, for that matter) are trying to use their idiosyncracies, personalities, and records as a way to overcome a Republican trend in their states. Only in New Jersey are Democrats seeking to "nationalize" the election to this extent.

Tuesday, October 01, 2002

Thank you for the question, Brian.

Actually, he asked two questions; the other will give rise to a fun musing on the history of popular culture. This one’s timely, so I’ll take it. It involves the sudden announcement that Sen. Robert Torricelli is giving up his re-election campaign for the U.S. Senate.

“Do you think that Sen. Torricelli's resignation from the 2002 race came in time for the N.J. Democratic Party to save the seat by drafting a credible candidate, or will the GOP grab the seat thanks in part to New Jersey's election law deadlines? I can see Bradley winning if the Dem. party can convince him to step in, even if it's a write-in campaign, but will Jersey voters hold any successor of Toricelli responsible for "the sins of the father"? I would ask if the Jersey GOP has a suitably strong candidate plus support to pull off the win, but I'm not sure how Doug Forrester is bridging the gap between the average N.J. voter's platform and the "mainline" GOP platform.”

Since I started fielding this question, the news has come saying New Jersey Democrats have named former U.S. Senator Frank Lautenberg as the man they want to designate to run for the Senate seat.

I am not an expert on New Jersey election law, or on the vicissitudes of the New Jersey Supreme Court, which would control this decision. The Republicans’ main legal argument against it is that, not only has the Sept. 16 filing deadline passed, but some people (particularly in the military) may have already filed absentee ballots. The Democrats counter that case law in New Jersey and other states allow for such substitutions, though most of those involve the death of a candidate. If the Republicans prevail in the legal arena, the Democrats would have two options – a write-in candidacy for Lautenberg and keeping Torricelli on the ballot.

Write-in campaigns – the all-but-assured re-election of District of Columbia Mayor Anthony Williams despite a ballot fiasco notwithstanding – are an inherently dicey proposition. The reason Williams’ campaign was successful, was, frankly, because there were no first-tier or even second-tier opponents appearing on the ballot and the only other candidate with substantial support (Rev. Willie Wilson) himself ran a write-in campaign. Perhaps if New Jersey had a “majority” requirement the way Georgia does (i.e. if no one wins a majority, the race goes to a runoff) and combination of Torricelli and write-in votes would lead to runoff if Forrester were held to under 50%, a write-in candidacy might be feasible. But with no such law, a write-in candidate faces a nearly impossible burden.

Another possibility – the Democrats could keep Torricelli’s name on the ballot while he pledges to resign if he wins. This would allow the governor, a Democrat (James McGreevey) to choose a Democratic successor (Lautenberg in this case) if Toricelli won the election. Obviously this is less than ideal for Democrats, as Torricelli’s name and at least some the negative baggage it carries would still be on the ballot. But it would allow other issues Democrats prefer to focus on to enter the debate. It would also allow Democrats to spend much more time talking about how this race could tip the balance of the Senate, since, all else being equal, New Jerseyites would not prefer reinstalling Trent Lott as Senate Majority Leader.

The catch here of course is that if Torricelli wins and then resigns the seat, the chosen successor would have to stand for re-election two years later, or leave the seat open. One would want to think twice before spending the money to defend a seat in two consecutive elections, particularly in a state as expensive as New Jersey - Texas and California are probably the only two more expensive states to run a statewide campaign, since reaching New Jersey voters mostly involves reaching the expensive New York and Philadelphia markets. However, if I’m the Democrats, whether it’s Lautenberg or some other Democrat (Rep. Robert Menendez is talked about a lot, as is Rep. Frank Pallone) on the ballot two years from now, I like my odds.

The GOP has not won a Senate seat in New Jersey in 30 years. New Jersey has gone Democratic in the last three presidential elections, and the campaigns of both Bob Dole and George W. Bush essentially wrote off New Jersey as a lost cause. Christie Todd Whitman is the only ticket head to win anything statewide in New Jersey in over a decade.

Gore carried all but six of the state’s counties, and none of those six (mostly clustered in the thinly settled northwest corner of the state) ranked among the top half in population. The Republican advantage in the state’s most populous and vote-rich county, Bergen, has vanished in the last decade. Republican strength in the legislature has been largely dwindling since their boost following the unpopular tax increases of Jim Florio in 1990.
The state’s House delegation is 7-6 in favor of Democrats, but only one of those Democratic seats is considered marginal while the Republicans hold three seats they can’t take really for granted even with the current incumbents. Furthermore, the GOP would face a tough fight in any of their House seats should they become open in the near future and have essentially no prayer of contending in four of the seats held by Democrats.

The Senate campaign has largely hinged on whether Torricelli’s famed ethical lapses should cost him his Senate seat up until now. Doug Forrester’s campaign would tell you that he’d rather discuss the issues but that the media has focused mostly on Torricelli’s fitness to serve. The Democrats would tell you that Forrester’s appeal derives mostly from a message of “Hey! I’m not Bob Torricelli!” and taking that message away would leave him without much to campaign on. Democrats would like to see greater emphasis on economic issues, particularly hitting Forrester, a pharmaceutical benefits management company president, on the issue of skyrocketing prescription drug costs and escalating health care costs in general, where he is vulnerable to attacks. Democrats would also like to see social issues become an important factor in key races in states in like New Jersey that are trending their way on those issues.

Forrester’s stance supporting drilling in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge isn’t likely to be popular in state where most voters, including many Republicans, consider themselves “environmentalists.” His support of a so-called “partial birth” abortion ban is also a highly unpopular position in New Jersey, even among many Republicans; Forrester realizes this, since his position on this issue is difficult to find on his website. These issues aren’t being discussed much now, and it’s very much to Forrester’s advantage they not be discussed much. On the other hand, Forrester may be very eager to discuss Iraq and foreign affairs, although his ability to speak on such issues and derive political gain from those issues will be somewhat limited both by his lack of foreign policy experience. Also, pushing the hawkish Bush line on foreign policy too hard might push people who usually vote Democratic but were considering supporting Forrester back into the Democratic column.

A lot of this is complicated by the fact that Torricelli and Lautenberg have never gotten along. Bradley or Menendez are both on substantially better terms than Torricelli. Lautenberg might also have trouble with getting the money needed in to run a Senate race in New Jersey. However, Lautenberg as a longtime former Senator does have fairly high name recognition in the state, though not as high as, say, Bradley. His name recognition may in fact be higher than Forrester’s despite Forrester’s considerable expenditures in his Senate campaign.

Forrester has been able to channel the anti-Torricelli vote, including Democrats, and this election has so far looked a good deal like the election in Illinois where Peter Fitzgerald defeated Carol Moseley-Braun in 1998 in a race that focused almost entirely on Mosley-Braun and her various ethical lapses and not on Fitzgerald’s fairly conservative stances on a variety of issues that make him a very likely Democratic target in 2004. (I expect Fitzgerald to go down in 2004, his chances further endangered by what I expect will be a poor Illinois showing by George W. Bush.)

Torricelli and all his baggage trail the largely-still-little-known Forrester. There is at least a strong possibility that with some of this baggage shedded, the normal Democratic advantage in the state would be enough carry a ghost candidacy to victory. It worked for the late Mel Carnahan in Missouri in 2000 to unseat John Ashcroft; while there will be little sympathy/tribute vote for the political death of Bob Torricelli, maybe his exit will boost Democratic hopes of holding onto their one-vote working majority in the Senate.

Right now, I’d give the Democrats a 55-60% chance of winning if they are able to substitute Lautenberg’s name on the ballot, a 40-45% chance if they opt for the “ghost campaign” option, and less than 10% if they choose the write-in route.

Well, that’s the best I can do for now, Brian. Bedtime awaits, dear readers…

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