Category: Culture


Jon Benet Ramsey And The Commodification Of Fear

There’s no real shock here. Since John Karr’s DNA didn’t match the DNA found at the scene of Jon Benet Ramsey’s murder, he won’t be charged with the offense. But this story shows us the intensity of public curiosity and anxiety that bubbles just beneath the surface. It’s almost possible to imagine a near-bankrupt media magnate, desperate to raise advertising revenue, creating a John Karr character simply to milk an existing story for a little more cash. (Smell a movie script here?) The Jon Benet narrative is like a natural resource. It was stored in our memory,virtually inert, until John Karr unleashed the expolosive power of our pent-up curiousity and anxiety. How many other stories are just waiting for re-ignition?

I suppose it seems strange to commodify crime and other horrors, but one thing’s for sure: somebody made money off John Karr this past week, and it’s not hard to figure out who. The same people who dread, yet will thrive upon, the next terrorist attack. Why wait, though? Pent up anxiety spells pent up revenue. No surprise, then, that outlets like CNN and Fox News routinely try to tap into our latent fears in order to immediately access some of the advertising dollars that would otherwise flow to the 195 other networks on our digital dial.

Since you can’t count on the likes of John Karr every day, a good media business will facilitate a more routine release of fear. Fear music, fear voice, fear font. Jon Stewart got that right. (Video link.)


Name And Status Changes On The Federal Bench

Reading a complimentary piece about the tough Judge Kristi DuBose, of the Southern District of Alabama, I recalled that Judge DuBose once visited my juvenile justice class at the University of Alabama. That was way back when, in 1999, during my first year of teaching. And back then, she was Kristi Lee – Senator Jeff Session’s chief counsel in Washington. In 2000 she became an Article I federal magistrate judge. And in 2005 she became a full fledged Article III district judge. Can the 11th Circuit be far behind?

I found two aspects of her life story curious. First, she changed her name while on the bench (ableit while she was still an Article I.) This must have been slightly disconcerting to attorneys who presumably then made mistakes in both filings and courtroom argument. But it’s also strikes me – and perhaps only me – as a little odd. One of the key aspects of the federal judiciary is that it feels solid and consistent. Although name changes are not substantive, it seems to me that they undermine a certain perception of continuity. Can you imagine if a Supreme Court Justice changed her – or his, for that matter – name? How would we deal with Justice Ginsburg if she divorced and remarried George Clooney. This could really happen! Would we then call her Justice Clooney? The Former Justice Ginsburg? Justice Clooney nee Ginsburg? Pehaps the stakes are lower on the district bench, but what of the circuit courts? All of this leads me to wonder: how many federal judges have sported more than one family name during their terms of service?

Second question. How often do federal judges make the shift from Article I to Article III? If it happens often, you’d think that the study of these creatures would be fertile ground for some empirical research. Does lifetime tenure really matter? If the transition is rare, why is that? Are Article I judges typically non-political creatures? You’d be hard pressed to find better preparatory job experience for an Article III position than a few years as a magistrate judge. If only there was an Article I Groupie around to ask these questions.


Score that as E 26.1303 or How to Prevent the Study of Evolutionary Biology

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The New York Times reports that “Evolutionary biology has vanished from the list of acceptable fields of study for recipients of a federal education grant for low-income college students.”

The Department of Education has claimed the omission is an error. You be the judge. The list is apparently a standard list that normally includes evolutionary biology, “the scientific study of the genetic, developmental, functional, and morphological patterns and processes, and theoretical principles; and the emergence and mutation of organisms over time” as 26.1303.

As Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, noted students must use the code system to declare their majors and the claimed omission error “is ‘odd,’ … because applying the subject codes ‘is a fairly mechanical task. It is not supposed to be the subject of any kind of deliberation.’”

Furthermore as the article notes when one looks at the list there is a clear gap between 26.1302 and 26.1304. You can see the list here. Go to page 7 of the pdf to see the gap in question.

With the number removed, students in the National Smart (Science and Mathematics Access to Retain Talent) Grant program would not be able to receive the $4,000 grants available through the program if they declared evolutionary biology as their major. That means that while the country may want to develop the talent of “third- or fourth-year, low-income students majoring in physical, life or computer sciences; mathematics; technology; engineering; or foreign languages deemed “critical” to national security” evolutionary biology may not be up to snuff.

My guess is we will never know whether the omission was a lame attempt to sneak one by the public or whether someone thought it was a funny thing to remove but failed to revert to the correct version for publication. Still as one person quoted in the article put it: “Removing that one major is not going to make the nation stupid, but if this really was removed, specifically removed, then I see it as part of a pattern to put ideology over knowledge. And, especially in the Department of Education, that should be abhorred.”


Podiatrists For The Hand

A brief email interchange with one of our readers – my mom – led me to a burning question. Why isn’t there a medical specialty for the hand? Feet have their own docs – podiatrists. And hands seem to get almost as much hard use as the ol’ dogs. What goes wrong with the hand, you say? There’s arthritis, carpal tunnel (which is certainly within the metro area, if not in the hand per se), and a host of minor catastophes when fingers show up where they oughtn’t be. Perhaps there are good medical or market reasons for this gaping hole in the medical service field. But if not, perhaps now is time for President Bush to issue a national call. Forget engineers. Forget chemists. Forget ethnomusicologists. (Oops, I think we already have.) Podiatrists for the hand, I say!

Which reminds me. If you’re going to be in NYC this weekend, let me commend to you an amazingly bizarre and fun pair of one-acts, Americana Absurdum, playing at the Lucille Lortel Theater as part of the NY Fringe Festival. The plays, written by Brian Parks, feature an odd character who sells “foot powder for the head.” Perhaps he’s on to something there.


The Pleasure Of Transgression: Foie Gras And Other Crimes

Two things people seem to like: duck liver and lawbreaking. Yesterday, in Chicago, diners and restauranteurs revelled in the transgressive pleasure of eating foie gras. They ate it on Connie’s pizza (and let me confess a profound soft spot for Connie’s, where my dad used to take me before White Sox games); they enjoyed it at Harry Caray’s; and they even chowed down at BJ’s Market & Bakery, a soul food joint on Stony Island (on the South Side, where I grew up.) But Chicago recently adopted an ordinance banning the sale of this fatty food product on the grounds that the ducks and geese that provide the delicacy are abused. The restaurants serving foie gras yesterday were breaking the law.

Both the Trib and the NY Times featured the story of the outlaws who ate the evil liver. (Curiously, these two stories covered remarkably similar ground. I’m thinking that either these reporters are copycats or someone put out a press release directing eager reporters to the same dining establishments.) It’s clear that restaurant owners and customers were downright happy to break the law. But wait a minute. This is the law here! That incredible institution that must be respected, lest the entire society be put at risk. Or not.

Law-breaking is a powerful source of pleasure for many people. We elect representatives to set speed limits, and routinely violate them. Those same legislators create open liquor ordinances which we flout at outdoor concerts, parades, and other festive occassions. They ban gambling, and we ignore them. Even Justice Rehnquist got into law breaking; his chambers sponsored the NCAA pool at the courthouse and he even he hosted an election night pool involving the ’92 Bush-Clinton race.

Crime isn’t the only transgressive pleasure. Take the briefest detour down the path of the Internet Porn Machine – or save yourself the effort, and read your spam folder – and you’ll soon discover a smorgasbord of socially-proscribed delights. Smoking cigarettes has become much cooler now that it’s prohibited everywhere. And let’s face it. Eating super-fatty meat products like foie gras has become a social violation in many quarters. But the truth is, people love actual lawbreaking. Sure, if nothing else is on the tube, we’ll watch the CSI team fight crime. But true TV pleasure comes when we root for Tony Soprano, cheer for the Hendrickson family on Big Love, or laugh with the 420-ready housewife on Showtime’s Weeds.

Many criminal laws are designed to protect society from serious harm. Others are less essential, and reflect the preferences of particular powerful groups. And in many respects, the best way to show opposition to the ruling majority – to take a public stand against the regulators and with our nation’s wild past – is to break a few laws. Or perhaps less dramatically, lawbreaking is one small way to assert one’s individuality against the rigidity of state regulation.

Over the years, I’ve met my share of self-described rule-followers. But scratch the surface and you’ll usually find these people have identified at least one offense that they deem unworthy of respect. Or simply well-suited to producing the pleasure of transgression.


AOL’s Treasure Hunt for Spammer’s “Nazi” Gold

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AOL is prospecting for gold. Literally. CNET reports that AOL won a $12.8 million verdict against three men one of whom is Davis Wolfgang Hawke, an alleged neo-Nazi and spammer sending ads pushing penile implants and diet pills. The judge in the case “granted a motion giving AOL the right to any property that Hawke left with his parents or his grandparents.” So AOL is planning on using sonar and radar to search Mr. Hawke’s parents’ property. His parents, Hyman and Peggy Greenbaum, (according the article Mr. Hawke changed his name from Andrew Britt Greenbaum to cover his Jewish heritage) are not pleased and think their son is not a spammer and that “their son would [not] be ‘stupid’ enough to bury gold bars on their property.”

Curiously, CNET reports that Mrs. Greenbaum believes gold bars do exist, just not on her property. She also thinks her son is hiding in Belize.

With all the oddity on the defendant’s side, AOL’s spokesperson may be the winner in the understatement category as he noted “This particular defendant may have a colorful and outrageous history–there are some conditions that might make this case unique” but asserted that AOL always goes after assets and property and cited past examples such as AOL’s taking a Porsche, a Hummer, and gold coins.

So my question is does AOL sell these items on its site or on eBay?


Ain’t Them People Funny!

It’s been an awful long time since I booted up and got blogging. A lot has happened in the past month. Lets see: there was that vacation in Seaside, Florida. Then there was my final week in Alabama, during which Isadly packed up my office at UA and made my last, long drive home from Tuscaloosa to Birmingham. Next came the move to Philadelphia and Drexel University College of Law. I took a detour to the fabulous National Association of Sentencing Commissions conference where I visited with favorite crim profs Doug Berman and Ron Wright and gave a talk about the rebirth of rehabilitation in the juvenile justice system. And then back to the mines.

I haven’t had the inspiration to blog – or even to navigate to the “create new entry” page of MovableType – until I stumbled upon Stuart Elliott’s Advertising column in yesterday’s NYTimes. Nothing gets me stoked like hearing about a New Yorker discover culture in the Sticks. Elliott shops at a SuperTarget. (Hello! Is there any greater joy? Can you believe that, now that I’ve moved, my nearest SuperTarget is 193 miles away?) He’s impressed that folks in Alabama and Florida quaff Starbucks and Wal-Mart shoppers buy organic. He’s inrigued that a Super-8 motel would offer free WiFi. He’s also tickled by all the religious billboards.

The article wasn’t explicitly condescending, and perhaps wasn’t condescending at all. But if not, it certainly evidenced the kind of narrow world view that people in the various cities he visits – Birmingham, Tallahassee, Indianapolis, and the like – expect of Northeasterners. Because in the end, most New Yorkers probably read the column and thought “very interesting.” And readers from the 42 (or so) not-so-cosmopolitan states probably thought “only a New Yorker would be surprised to discover that Starbucks has drive-throughs.”

It reminded me of a classic opinion by Federal Judge Samuel Kent, writing in Smith v. Colonial Penn Insurance Co.:

Defendant should be assured that it is not embarking on a three- week-long trip via covered wagons when

it travels to Galveston. Rather, Defendant will be pleased to discover that the highway is paved and

lighted all the way to Galveston, and thanks to the efforts of this Court’s predecessor, Judge Roy Bean,

the trip should be free of rustlers, hooligans, or vicious varmints of unsavory kind….


As to Defendant’s argument that Houston might also be a more convenient forum for Plaintiff, the

Court notes that Plaintiff picked Galveston as her forum of choice even though she resides in San

Antonio. Defendant argues that flight travel is available between Houston and San Antonio but is

not available between Galveston and San Antonio, again because of the absence of a commercial

airport. Alas, this Court’s kingdom for a commercialairport! The Court is unpersuaded by this

argument because it is not this Court’s concern how Plaintiff gets here, whether it be by plane, train,

automobile, horseback, foot, or on the back of a huge Texas jackrabbit, as long as Plaintiff is here at

the proper date and time. Thus, the Court declines to disturb the forum chosen by the Plaintiff and

introduce the likelihood of delay inherent in any transfer simply to avoid the insignificant

inconvenience that Defendant may suffer by litigating this matter in Galveston rather than Houston.

Defendant will again be pleased to know that regular limousine service is available from Hobby

Airport, even to the steps of this humble courthouse, which has got lights, indoor plummin’, ‘lectric doors,

and all sorts of new stuff, almost like them big courthouses back East.


Evidence Against Moussaui Availabe Online

According to the NY Times, the U.S. District Court that tried Zacarias Moussaoui has posted all trial exhibits online here. (Right now, perhaps due to traffic, I cannot access the site.) Among the exhibits, apparently, are tape recorded 911 calls from victims.

This transparency may be a good thing, but it will also have the effect of producing substantial traffic (and, probably,revenue) for various news and entertainment outlets. As I have written elsewhere, the media is always hungry for salacious, uncopyrighted content. The Starr Report was a boon for publishers and websites. This new release will probably also be very valuable. I wonder whether any publishers will repackage this stuff for sale. I feel confident it will drive traffic to various sites – CNN, the New York Times, and no doubt many blogs – as people look for access to the juiciest pieces of evidence.


Amazon’s Text Stats and a Little Orwell

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Watching changes on is a good way to see how much one’s information can be stretched. The continual refinement of suggested books and other items is a little disturbing, but it often yields titles that I find useful. The Gold Box with its game show approach to sales is an example of the information mining. To use the Gold Box one clicks on the box and then one is offered an item that ususally relates to something you purchsed before or at least looked at. When the item is on screen, one must choose between accepting the sale offer or passing on it to see the next offer with no chance to go back to the previous offer. All decisions must be made within one hour of opening the box. I have opened the box a few times and am often surprised by some of the items that show up in there. Given how often Amazon seems to correlate interests, when what seems to be an aberration pops up, I wonder whether it is a random shot to see if it will stick or whether in some deep way Amazon has discerned that I have a hidden desire for vitamins, herbal remedies, or hairdryers. So when I saw that Amazon had added Text Stats I had to poke around. After all who knows what information would come my way by seeing the statistics (whatever they may be) on a book?

I found that not all books have this information but it seems that when publishers play along Amazon will give a book’s statistics including syllables per word; words per sentence; total number of characters, words, and sentences; and my favorites, the “Fun Stats,” words per dollar and words per ounce. Amazon takes this information and gives scores for Readability (explained below). Apparently the Bible, depending on the edition, requires either a twelfth grade reading level or a tenth grade reading level . Yet, one study of government Web sites states that “half of Americans read[] at no higher than the 8th grade level.” You may draw your own conclusions.

Text stats also gives information about where the book is in relation to all other books (and in some cases one can compare within classes of texts). So I started to poke around and it seems that (if we take the numbers seriously and there is reason not to do so when one examines exactly what readability means) perhaps the best writing correlates to simpler writing which reminded me of Orwell’s Politics and the English Language but I’ll get to that later. To have fun and play with that idea I looked at the Modern Library’s list of 100 best novels to see how they compared to all text in the Amazon set and then within literature.

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