Saturday, July 27, 2013

All I wanna do is have a little fun before I die

A week from today is the twentieth anniversary of the release of Sheryl Crow's Tuesday Night Music Club, which is a great album as a whole, but which is mostly notable for the hit single "All I Wanna Do."  It's a great song that you've heard, probably many times.  It is one of my favorites, one that I never seem to tire of listening to, and it has a permanent place on my main Spotify playlist, the appropriately titled "Awesome."

(My Awesome playlist--see how that works as a name?--is a collection of about 170 songs from nearly every genre and time period, from Ray Charles to Nine Inch Nails to George Strait to Bibio, that I enjoy.  There are fixed points of reference, but the content does vary over time.)

Lately I've been in a nostalgic mood.  There are lots of reasons for that:  my recent 20-year high school reunion, my move back to my home state, getting acquainted with new friends who are about 15 years younger than I am, and getting reacquainted with old friends with whom we seem to just click.  And lots of other reasons, too.

I'm having a hard time with the realization that All I Wanna Do is 20 years old.  I remember distinctly the first time I heard it.  I was at a New Year's Eve party at the end of 1993, and most of us were friends I knew from during high school, or from college, at the home of one of the coolest people I've ever known, whose parents had vacated.  We were old enough to be unsupervised but young enough to need supervision. 

I had never heard anything quite like that song before.  It was an instant favorite.  Danceable, though I wasn't much on dancing, dangerously close to one another or otherwise.  Catchy accompaniment, sort of almost-free verse, and unlike most songs sung by women, singable by me both in terms of the range required and the fact that I could sing it without sounding like I liked boys instead of girls.  At that age, I foolishly cared that people not think I was gay based on the words of a song I might be singing.

And what great fun it would be to sit in a bar all day, drinking beer, not having to go to work or school or anywhere else, I thought.  All I really want to do, I thought, was sit here at noon on a Tuesday and drink Budweiser and watch the world go by.  Happy, happy song.  Great atmosphere.

My older self wonders how he came to be, what with the fits and starts and follies of youth.  And my youth hardly had any follies at all.

Because All I Wanna Do isn't a happy song at all.  It's full of regret.  The folks in the bar aren't really having fun.  They're lamenting that all they really want to do is have some fun, and what they're doing isn't that.  Otherwise, the song would have a line like, "All I wanna do is sit here and drink beer until the bar closes, and I'm doing that, so, mission accomplished."

The secret to a good life is in figuring out, in the first instance, that there are lots of moments wasted on empty tasks.  Even if you're industrious, and go to your job at the phone company or the record store (or, in the poem the song is based on, the genetic engineering lab), and use your lunch break to wash your car, or you lead a slack life, drinking and whiling away the hours, empty tasks are still empty and joyless.  The point of living is to find joy in what you're doing.  You are the only one who experiences the pleasure of the things that please you.  Every minute spent on the mundane and empty is a minute robbed from your fuller life.  You will never get that minute back, and when you're dead, that's it.

All I really wanna do is have a little fun, all the time.  I want to love what I do all the time.  And even if I can't achieve that, I want to try.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Looking before leaping

About two years ago, Michelle and I made the decision to change course just a little bit.  We had spent 13 years in the wilderness as we now think of it, first in the D.C. suburbs for three years while I was in law school and she finished her degree, then 10 in the Charlotte area.  Neither one of us was particularly happy with living and working in North Carolina.

As with a lot of things, it came down in a lot of ways to money.  There was a time when I enjoyed my work--the challenges of small-firm practice, the feeling of us-against-the-world that comes from being a very capable person with limited resources and unlimited enthusiasm for hard work--but the perils of a terribly down economy along with some unfortunate, if foreseeable, occurrences on a personal level made small-firm practice a bit too challenging.

I have been lucky enough during my entire career to have new clients step in as old ones faded, just at the right moment to keep the doors open sometimes, but there comes a time when it's hard to justify the long hours for little money.  A lot of people assume that lawyers are rich by default; they don't quite make the connection between lawyers having money and clients paying their bills on-time and in full.  I drive a 9-year-old car with a wobbly rear end and an annoying tendency to think one of the doors is being repeatedly opened and closed (and to sound the "door ajar" alarm accordingly), but it is paid for and has been reliable transportation.  As much as I'd like to replace it, there are higher principles at work.

We made the decision a couple of years ago to simplify our lives.  Until that point, we made ample use of borrowed money to make ends meet; we invested in our businesses but lived on more than we made, believing, as optimists often do, that better days are around the corner, without evidence that they were. 

We got rid of cable television, quit going to the movies, and vowed to spend more time reading and exercising and entertaining than before.  Eventually, we held a giant garage sale to dispose of the detritus of fifteen years of a shared life.  Things--physical objects, I mean--became less important than time.  Our dreams changed.  We no longer wanted the fancy house, the new car, the expensive office, the rich clientele.

Whether these changes were a symptom of the rapid onset of the disease from which no one escapes alive--old age--or simply a guttural impulse driven by the despair of an empty life, I'm not sure.  I'm not sure it matters.  Both could apply, though neither one exactly fits. 

When you're not happy with your life, the only thing you can do about it is change.

About a year ago, we realized that with a bit of planning and a lot of luck, we could make a big change.  We had a handful of friends in North Carolina, but fewer than we might have.  The problem, aside from general introversion, was that we simply worked too much to make friends.  Friendships are born from shared experiences.  They are forged from time spent together.  Work too much and you don't spend enough time with others to become friends.  Even when we met new people, work tended to tread heavily on those green shoots.

So, after things went our way for a change, we moved to Little Rock.  At first, we were cautious, keeping one foot in North Carolina and one foot in Arkansas.  I restructured my law practice to cut costs and confine it to work that I could do from anywhere.  What was waiting for us in Little Rock were the shared experiences of our former life--old friends, close family, familiar locales--along with new and brilliant friendships that I suspect will last a lifetime.  It has taken some doing, and we're not to the point where we want to be yet, but I am happier today than I have been in years, even though from traditional measures we have less than before.  My optimism has returned.  I am excited about what the future holds, once again.

It is a new start.  But it is only a start.  In the coming months and years, Michelle and I have more changes planned.  We are looking before we leap.  But we will leap.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013


I was attending my 20-year high school reunion when word came down that George Zimmerman had been acquitted in the death of Trayvon Martin.  For me, that placed a bit of a damper on an otherwise joyous occasion.

I had been hoping that Zimmerman would be convicted.  My sense of justice can be a little quirky sometimes--we lawyers can get some funny ideas from time to time. I don't usually take sides in these hyped-up court cases.  I want there to be a fair trial and the jury to reach the right legal result, and if that means a conviction or an acquittal, so be it.  In this case, that went out the window, because Zimmerman had already admitted to acts that in my view deserve jail time.

If you read this blog regularly--and if you do, thank you for reading, and please add your own comments--then you know that a recurring theme is the role that freedom plays in our American culture.  The liberty of the individual is our highest value, and it is the one thing that sets us truly apart not only from every other nation on earth, but also from every other nation that has ever existed on earth.

Looking at the chain of events that led to Trayvon Martin's death, it looks like it might be fairly easy to see where things went wrong.  You have a 29-year-old white man drawing a gun and shooting a 17-year-old black kid dead.  Before that, you have that kid getting into a physical altercation with the man and possibly beating him savagely.  Before that, you have the man following the kid through the neighborhood after the police told him not to.  Before that, you have the man arming himself to go on a nighttime patrol in the neighborhood.  Before that, you have a neighborhood watch group putting the man in charge of doing that.

There were a lot of chances along the way for this not to happen.

I can understand the desire for residents of the neighborhood where Martin died to protect themselves and their property from criminals.  I've never lived in a place where it occurred to me that I was unsafe and needed to do more than lock my doors at night to avoid being a crime victim. I don't know the situation in that neighborhood, but I suspect that this "patrol" was probably not all that necessary.  Maybe I'm wrong.

But I know this for certain:  Trayvon Martin should have been able to go out that night, alone and unarmed, to get the snack he wanted and to return to the house where he was staying without being followed by George Zimmerman.  He should have been able to transit to and from that house without having to get into a physical fight with someone who was hassling him because he was a teenage kid out late at night.

And he should have been able to make that trip without being killed.

He should have been free to do that without George Zimmerman or anyone else interfering with him.

That's what freedom is.  It consists in our ability to make our own choices, to travel on public streets, to do what we want to do as long as it does not interfere with the ability of others to exist and be free themselves.

And if George Zimmerman is guilty of anything, he's guilty of usurping the choices that Trayvon Martin had the right to make.  He was tired of punk teenagers, so he was going to make sure that this punk teenager didn't get away with it.

With what?

With making choices that George Zimmerman didn't like, such as making a late-night snack run.

There are a lot of people who have made this story about race.  It may well be that if both men were black or both were white, a different outcome would have obtained.  The authorities in Sanford, Florida, certainly have some explaining to do; they need to be called to account for the soft racism that allowed them to give George Zimmerman a pass until national media attention forced them to act.  That's the racist component of this story, and it matters.

But the story of George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin, to my mind, isn't about race at all.  It's about a privileged group of individuals, Zimmerman included, who weren't satisfied with controlling their own lives.  They had to control what other people did as well.  Maybe it made them feel powerful, but in my book it just makes them petty.  Their priorities put George Zimmerman on that street and set this horrible chain of events into motion.

It is no wonder that Trayvon Martin bristled at being followed or decided to do something about it.  He ought to have been free to go to the store and pick up some Skittles and iced tea without being followed.  We don't live in a police state, and neither did Martin until Zimmerman decided to make it one, and to use deadly force to enforce it.

That's the real issue here.

We are a broken people because there are too many of us who can't stand that others get to make choices of their own.  Abortion rights, welfare, race relations, immigration's ALL the same thing.  There is a huge component of the American people who don't give a tinker's damn about the freedom of other people, as long as they get to make all the choices they want to make.  It's sickening and un-American at its core.

Monday, July 15, 2013

The View From Here

I spend almost zero time thinking about the ABC woman-oriented talk program The View.

I say "almost zero" because I sometimes take a break from work at 11 a.m. to watch Jeopardy!, which comes on in Little Rock at that time on the local ABC affiliate.  The program that immediately proceeds Jeopardy! is The View, and if I am a little early turning on the TV, I might catch the last thirty seconds of it.  I really don't have an opinion on the show itself because I'm certain I have only ever accidentally seen any of it to speak of.

It has, however, been controversial at times, which is what happens when you have outspoken, opinionated women who get a forum for airing their thoughts.  (Those who know me know that this is not a criticism.  I like outspoken, opinionated women, and it is a good thing that they have a forum like The View because they are certainly not given equal time on most other shows.)

The latest controversial move is adding Jenny McCarthy to the roster of panelists who appear on the show.  Wikipedia tells me that Jenny McCarthy is an actress and model.  Reviewing her extensive IMDb page does not reveal anything that I've ever seen her in other than possibly a few guest appearances on shows I might have watched, or might not.  She was also apparently in Playboy.

But Jenny McCarthy is controversial because she is perhaps the most outspoken and visible advocate for the now thoroughly discredited idea that vaccines—specifically, the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine known as MMR—cause autism.  She remains outspoken about this idea even though the evidence against her position is overwhelming and conclusive and even though the doctor whose supposed research showed such a link has now been stripped of his medical license for fraud.

McCarthy is a mother, and her child has been diagnosed with autism.  I am not a parent, but I can understand that when your child has a condition such as autism, it is perfectly natural to look for a cause and a cure.  That should be tolerated and encouraged.  There are diseases that have found treatments as a result of parents who pushed the bounds of medical science to try to help their children—perhaps most famously Augusto and Michaela Odone, who formulated Lorenzo's oil, a treatment for adrenoleukodystrophy (ALD) that is named for their son.  Their activism led to a discovery that has made better the lives of many individuals who suffer from ALD, a degenerative genetic disorder.

But vaccines do not cause autism.  We know that conclusively.

Vaccines do, however, prevent diseases.  Measles, mumps, and rubella are diseases that kill children, or cause them lifelong impairments, or cause them severe pain.  Because of vaccines, there are numerous diseases that once killed millions of humans that now only exist in laboratories.  Smallpox was so deadly that it was the agent of genocide against the American Indian race; vaccination made smallpox a thing of the past.

Jenny McCarthy is a celebrity with a megaphone and an agenda.  Her activism has had consequences.  In the last six years, since she began speaking publicly, according to the CDC, there have been nearly 120,000 cases of vaccine-preventable illnesses in the United States.  There have been 1,170 deaths.  And in that time, there have been exactly zero autism diagnoses scientifically linked to vaccines.  Diseases that had been almost completely eradicated in the U.S., like measles and rubella, are making a comeback.

I am genuinely sorry that Ms. McCarthy's child suffers from autism.  I understand that the condition is poorly understood, and I think it's important that research continue.  But it is irresponsible for ABC to give her an even bigger platform to spread her poisonous, deadly views.  Those views are dangerous and they do NOT deserve equal time.

Saturday, July 6, 2013


In the last couple of years, at the bottom of articles on your favorite "content" site, you might have noticed several links to--well, it's hard to call them articles--let's say other content that might have some relationship to what you just read, or might not.  I'm not talking about links to articles on the same site.  These are links to other sites.  Many of them are driven by a service called Outbrain.

Outbrain works like this:  Outbrain's customers pay Outbrain to drive traffic to their specified sites, which might include ad-supported content-heavy sites, or direct advertising, or thinly-veiled "sponsored content."  Heavy traffic sites can install Outbrain's content recommendation app on their sites, and may get a cut of the ad revenue.  Outbrain tracks your interests and activities on the websites that give it access to do so and recommends articles you might like.

It's kind of a cool business model for Outbrain, and even though I find the content to be kind of ridiculous and vapid, I have been swayed into clicking on those links more than a few times.

Today was one of those days.  Today's irresistable article was called "10 Mythical Things That Actually Existed," and it was featured on a site called ""  BoreBurn seems to be a site that follows the BuzzFeed model (in fact, pretty closely, with one exception).  BuzzFeed is the home of lists of things.  For example, at the moment, BuzzFeed is featuring the following lists:  "28 Images That Will Make You Feel Cooler on This Disgustingly Hot Day," "18 Types of Roommates You Should Never Become," "17 Things That Are So Fluffy We Could Die," and "23 Books You Didn't Read in High School But Absolutely Should."

In fact, much of Outbrain's customer base appears to be BuzzFeed-type sites. 

I like BuzzFeed as a time-waster.  There's a lot of good information on there.  It covers a wide range of topics, and therefore it is good for building a knowledge base for trivia competitions, which are my hobby.

I've been doing a lot of thinking about myths and credulity lately, which is leading up to a future post, so BoreBurn's article seemed like it might be interesting.  Rather than thinking about fake things people believe are real, I was expecting to learn about real things people believe are fake.  So I clicked.

The first Actual Thing:  Amazon women.  OK, this is a promising start.  There is at least some historical evidence of a female-centric warrior society in antiquity, even though a lot of the story from Greek mythology is probably apocryphal.

The next Actual Thing:  Mermaids.  Well...kind of a stretch.  They correctly point out that sailors, most notably Columbus, have reported seeing mermaids.  That doesn't mean that mermaids, as in water-dwelling humanoids who have gills and fish tails, exist.  I should have known something was up when the accompanying photo showed two sailors hunched over a large fish; the fish, however, had been badly photoshopped to have a woman's head and torso, and the sailor's heads were replaced with smiling photos of Regis Philbin and Joe Lieberman, for some reason.  The text said something about Atlantis.  I skipped to the next item.

Dragons.  Back on track.  The Komodo dragon exists today, and it has a much larger extinct relative.  No fire-breathing or flying, but the extinct lizard did spit venom.

Then hobbits.  Well, kind of.  H. florensiensis remains were discovered a few years ago on a remote island in the South Pacific; the individuals identified were fully grown but very short-statured.  And Mocha Dick (CH as in cherry, not charisma), an enormous white whale that was the inspiration for Melville's novel Moby-Dick.

The sixth item is Atlantis.  At this point, I'm guessing that whatever editor was responsible for this article fell asleep.  This is how BoreBurn describes the "real" Atlantis:
The Atlanteans were a civilization of highly evolved human beings with extraordinary powers. They existed in a world of five dimensions, and electrified cities by manipulating energy from crystals. The civilization came about essentially as a universal experiment to see what would happen if a variety of spiritual beings, including humans, live as material beings with free will. This experiment occurred three times, the last one lasting for a very long time, before matters got out of hand (again).
No. "Highly evolved human beings with extraordinary powers"?  All humans are highly evolved, and compared to other organisms we do indeed have some extraordinary powers--higher reasoning and language, to name a couple. But that's not what the folks at BoreBurn are talking about.

There is nothing in that paragraph that is even remotely real.  It is sad that even one person believed it enough to write it--unless we're being punk'd by the writer, which I admit is a possibility.

But there is a larger point here.  Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.  That's something every scientist and logician understands.  For example, if you are going to claim that advanced superhumans from a fifth-dimensional society traveled around on flying carpets during antiquity, you'd better have something to back it up.  By the same token, if you are going to claim that humans evolved from a common ancestor with other apes, proof is required (and we do have proof of that).

The BoreBurn example is probably a bad one; if you're looking to Outbrain (or something like it) to send you to the place to learn about history and science, you're probably looking in the wrong place.  But there are literally billions of people on this earth for whom the most important "facts" stored in their brains are utter unsupported fantasy.  The only thing separating those "facts" from the story of Atlantis is the number of sincere adherents. 

Time and again I have found it to be true that people are most often harmed not by the things that they do not know, but by the things of which they are absolutely certain, that are simply not true.  Critical thinking--now that's an extraordinary power.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Missouri has a problem

Missouri has a problem, and it is not just that it's Missouri.  Missouri's problem is that its state Supreme Court will not allow it to kill death row inmates fast enough, and it is in danger of having the stock of its new execution drug expire before it can use it all.

Missouri's attorney general, Chris Koster, put out a panicked news release yesterday noting that he had demanded that the Missouri Supreme Court set execution dates for a couple of death row inmates soonest possible, because Missouri only has so much propofol and what it does have will expire next spring.

And now for a brief interlude:

The Good Counsel blog isn't post-partisan.  I believe there are many important differences between Republicans and Democrats, and it is no secret that I vote on the Democratic line and think the GOP has gone nuts.  But the Republicans don't have the market cornered on stupidity, either.  As it turns out, Chris Koster is a Democrat.  But if I were Ford Frick I'd have to put an asterisk* by his name, because Koster spent most of his waking hours as a Republican until seeing the light in 2007 and switching parties.  Plus, he looks like a Republican, in that preachery way that middle-aged Republican men look, with the parted hair and the wild eyes.

Missouri AG Chris Koster (D?), who goes to Great Clips.
* - Despite Billy Crystal's pre-eminent movie titling skills, there was never actually an asterisk by Roger Maris's record.  The record book, such as it was (unofficial at the time) merely specified that Maris held the record for home runs in a 162-game season, while Babe Ruth retained the record for a 154-game season. 

No reliable word on which party Frick favored, but his predecessor, Happy Chandler, was a yellow-dog Democrat until civil rights turned him independent, then into a (perhaps unintentionally) racist caricature.  He was particularly unfond of people from Zimbabwe.  His Wikipedia photo makes him look like a mafioso, but maybe only because that was the style back in those days.

Don Happy Chandler, at youse guys' service.
Anyway, back to Missouri.

I stop short of being fully anti-death penalty, mostly because I think there are some awfully heinous crimes that are within the capability of human beings.  If Hitler hadn't offed himself, I would have had a hard time not advocating for him to be hanged at Nuremburg with most of the rest of his cronies.  But even though it is fairly rarely administered, I think it is still handed out too often, for reasons that are beyond the scope of this post.

You may remember propofol as the drug that killed Michael Jackson, or at least made it much easier for him to die.  It's used mostly as a general anesthetic, and it is marvelous at that task.  This is the first I have heard of it being used as an execution drug.

There has been a lot of controversy lately about traditional execution drugs such as sodium thiopental and potassium chloride, mostly because the companies that manufacture them have become reluctant to do so or, in some cases, have been banned by their home countries from selling them to the U.S. for use in executions, which has caused a bit of a shortage.

Also, it bears mentioning that Big Pharma isn't exactly excited about having its name-brand drugs closely associated with state-sponsored death. This shouldn't be surprising, given how spectacularly the whole "Mississippi Gas Chamber Presented by Exxon"** thing failed.

** - Yes, I know that the "gas" in "gas chamber" is not gasoline. Roll with it.

Because it is getting harder for states to find these drugs, state legislatures have been casting about for other drugs to use when humanely dispatching their most fearsome criminals.  (Or, at least, their blackest ones.)  Missouri settled on propofol and managed to trick the manufacturer into selling it some before it became clear that the state wasn't planning on using it for surgical anesthesia or a Michael Jackson tribute.

I'm a big believer in respecting expiration dates, especially after that time I found aspirin in my grandparents' medicine cabinet that carbon dating showed was from the Nixon era.  And so is Chris Koster, I guess.  But there is something wrong with being so anxious to kill people, even very bad people, that you will try to hasten their deaths because you might lack the reliable tools to kill them when the official time comes.

And maybe we should look at Missouri's problem as a sign that it's time to join the rest of the civilized world.