Friday, May 25, 2018

What Hath God Wrought? Free Online Course from Bear!

Note: Bear European Privacy Compliance Statement

If you're reading this from Europe, please go away. Bears have a very low tolerance for a bunch of foreign sissies demanding they get fussy about silly things. If you value your privacy that much, you should not be online in the first place. In fact, you should not leave your house.

The Bear is an intellectual. Just like this guy in the movie line from Annie Hall.




Most people would not call themselves intellectuals. It seems like a pose, or bragging about one's own intelligence. Also, intellectuals get made fun of a lot.

However, all the Bear means is that he is pursuing with whatever intellect, education, and experience he has, the traditional vocation of the intellectual, now largely abandoned. That is, thinking about stuff that affects everyone, but which no one else bothers with because they're busy leading productive lives and pursing particular ends.

Some may have run across the phrase "trahison des clercs," perhaps once or twice in this very ephemeris. Literally, it means "treason of the clerks," but a better translation would be the English title of Julien Benda's classic extended essay from 1929, The Treason of the Intellectuals. His argument and the Bear's intent can be put in a nutshell: the moment an intellectual picks a side, he becomes a traitor.

(See? Only intellectuals talk like that.)

Benda makes a pretty good case that everyone was better off when intellectuals devoted themselves to the general and disdained the particular. He saw in the political upheavals preceding and resulting in World War I the influence of French Thinkers, or German Thinkers, or Thinkers of the People. Such intellectuals were traitors to their historic vocation.

So, to what subject is the Bear directing his attention as a born-again intellectual?

Communication as medium separate from content.

You see, the Bear believes what we're doing here online may look like older methods of communication -- good old reliable print, in particular -- but is really nothing like anything we've seen before. Furthermore, this is distorting content and even changing the ways we can think. As one example, he believes this is contributing to a fragmented online simulacrum of the Catholic Church because Pope Francis and bloggers both have yet to realize how the new way they are trying to handle information is sabotaging their good intentions.

During the course, the usual content-oriented comments ("but the Pope is wrong because he said..") will be disallowed. However, comments about all forms of communication in general are encouraged, and may use any relevant examples, including -- as examples only and not pressing a particular point of view -- ones from the Church.

This is a huge topic, and a lesson the Bear has finally learned is that this is a hit-and-run medium. Therefore, this is just an advertisement for a free online course entitled: What Hath God Wrought. Your first homework assignment is to discover the significance of this phrase to the subject. You may provide your answers in the comments.

The optional textbook for overachievers is Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman (1985). Class begins Tuesday! See you then!

Monday, May 21, 2018

The Real Problem with Reinstating the Illinois Death Penalty


Coin-Flip Reliability of Illinois' Death Penalty and Now, Revival

In the two decades leading up to the 2000 death penalty moratorium in Illinois, the state executed 12 men while exonerating 13 innocent ones sitting on death row. 

Some, including Illinois Governor George Ryan, were troubled by the coin-flip reliability of the system. In 2003, Ryan followed up the moratorium by commuting all death sentences to life in prison without parole. (Only one of my many cases ended in a death penalty - I was a prosecutor in the 1996 Niels Nielsen case.) In 2011, the death penalty was abolished in a rapid and surprising development that caught even those at the heart of the system off guard.

Now, Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner, a pro-abortion Catholic Republican, has included both reinstatement of the death penalty and strict new anti-gun measures in an effort to square the political circle. The initial death penalty qualifiers would be mass murder and killing a police officer, but more would no doubt be added over time. A curious "beyond all doubt" standard has been proposed. (Don't ask me; I don't know either.)

Do not fear, your Bear has not set paws to keyboard to debate the morality of the death penalty in the abstract. He has salmon of a more practical nature to fry.

Why the Death Penalty was Abolished in the First Place

The last execution in the Land of Lincoln took place on March 17, 1999. Andre Kokoraleis, an abominable member of the infamous "Ripper Crew" in Chicago, was executed by lethal injection at the Tamms Supermax, deep in the heart of nowhere, down in southern Illinois. (In a surreal conversation the next day or so at the Alexander County State's Attorney office, I was present as the warden spoke with an almost paternalistic note of approval about how well-behaved Kokoraleis was at the end.) 

Southern Illinois has a history of death penalty lasts. In 1928 our colorful local gangster Charlie Birger was the last person hanged in the state.

By the time of the 2000 moratorium, Illinois had spent $800 million dollars in the previous two decades to execute those 12 men. (This is on top of what life in prison would have cost.) Those 13 innocent men had spent a combined 115 years on death row. And there were tens of millions of dollars in settlement money for the wrongfully convicted.

Besides wrongful convictions themselves, Illinois was rocked by Chicago's Commander Burge torture scandal and evidence DuPage County police and prosecutors suppressed evidence favorable to Hernando Cruz in the horrible Jeanine Nicario murder. Brian Dugan had confessed, and when the case was reopened, his DNA linked him to the crime. Cruz was freed, and three prosecutors and four deputies were indicted. They were acquitted of deliberately railroading Cruz. Burge was convicted and spent four years in the federal pen.

The Fixes

When the death penalty was abolished in 2011, I was one of a handful of lawyers on the state payroll charged with assisting defense counsel in these unique and difficult cases. My position was just part of the foundation Illinois had painstakingly laid to guarantee (as much as humanly possible) that past death row scandals would not be repeated.

Some of the fixes were simple. Perhaps one of the most effective was requiring police to tape interrogations in homicide cases. Others, however, were more complex and expensive.

Strict standards of experience and training were established, and lawyers had to be screened and admitted by the Illinois Supreme Court to an elite new Capital Trial Litigation Bar. Continuing legal education requirements were established. A multi-million dollar fund was created to pay for trials. There were not only lawyers’ fees to cover, but the unique multidisciplinary challenge of “mitigation” (providing the jury context for their verdict on the death penalty).

And, there was the  unit of which I was a part.

Putting Humpty Dumpty Protections Back Together Again

In 2011, that complex machinery of safety was not put into mothballs. It was nuked. Fund money was reallocated. The cadre of certified lawyers moved on. Death penalty specific training ceased. And the office to which I belonged that trained and assisted lawyers was abolished within weeks.

If the death penalty reforms were Humpty Dumpty, abolition pushed him off the wall in 2011 and all the king's horses and all the king's men haven't even thought about putting him back together again.

Aside from political, constitutional and moral considerations, no debate over reinstating the death penalty in Illinois can be complete without recognizing the significant difficulty, expense and time it would entail. Oddly, this seems to have been missed.

It was easy to abolish the death penalty - and the protections my state had determined were necessary - with the stroke of the very pen that hangs on the Bear's wall as a souvenir, or, perhaps, consolation prize. Recreating all those protections will not be so easy seven years later. It seems unlikely Illinois could return to the relative safety of 2011 any time during a second Rauner term.

Friday, May 18, 2018

It’s Official: U.S. Population Extinct

NEW CDC REPORT: BIRTH RATE HITS 30 YEAR LOW, U.S. JOINS EUROPE IN EXTINCTION CLUB.


UPDATE: This gives a general idea of Total Fertility Rates. South vs. North.

How does it feel to be a dinosaur?
And you yawned through the Bear’s demographic articles. Turns out he was right all along.

Our anti-family culture was as deadly and unavoidable as a Kansas-size asteroid. Western economic penalties an the stigma attached to large families contributed and birth control was the means, but Bear blames Catholics. At least they knew better. Not only did they contracept at the same rate as everyone else, but even the best of them worried more about pop singers at the Vatican.

Next to extinction of the West, a lot of things seem kind of trivial, but at least we were distracted while it happened.

The math is simple enough even a Bear can do it. Any species requires two offspring who survive to breed in order not to shrink and eventually go extinct. (One to replace mom and one to replace dad.) In modern Western countries with very low infant mortality rates, that’s a “Total Fertility Rate” of 2.1.

No population is known to have recovered once its TFR dropped below 1.80 - the demographic Point of No Return. Europe is already well below that and the U.S. was circling the drain, but now it’s official: it’s a Dead Population Walking.

If all this isn’t clear, the Bear is saying it’s all over but the shouting, you had a good run, and (with apologies to T.S. Eliot) you banged without the resulting whimper of babies. You will soon notice real world consequences. “Immigration” is not an “issue” any more than “electricity” is. Both are required to keep the lights on, as babyless Europe learned.

Demographics is destiny and you, gentle reader, are destined to extinction.


Wednesday, May 16, 2018

About Those Missing Seven Days...

EMBEARRASSED. Bear noticed (apparently the only one) his protagonist in Judging Angels has a mysterious seven-day gap in his whereabouts, or possibly sojourn in alternate time dimension. Trying to figure out how to address this.

-Shows up naked in grocery store after “Walter White Fugue.”
-Wakes up in a motel with a dead hooker, but Italian guys take care of it.
-Says he spent seven days trapped in a shower with someone named “Bobby.”
-Has been busy putting up flyers with the picture of some redhead that say HAVE YOU SEEN THIS WOMAN?
-Stalking his estranged wife.
-Taping cooking show with his famous “Krow Kebab” recipe.
-Locked up by elderly blind lady downstairs “to keep you out of trouble.”
-Remind readers that he is, after all, suffering from postconcussive syndrome so who knows?
-Wait until sequel to explain it (along with everything else).
-Pre-kidnapping all his children so they’ll know what to expect.
-Just working on the old love nest (replacing mirror, washing walls, cleaning up after search warrant execution, and trying to get that smell of shellfish out of his kitchen).
-Working hard to pay off Totally Not My Girlfriend, Just Giving a Girl a Hand related credit card debt.
-Memorizing pickup lines from famous poems, which is really hard with postconcussive syndrome.

Could really use some help.

Bear Amnesia? From 2015

The Bear was rifling through his archives to steal some of his own material for something else and was surprised to find his critical examination of Catholic blogging is nothing new. What has changed since the 2015 article (one of several along the way) is that it did not represent the settled opinion of the Bear. Three years later, the criticism seems just as timely and more urgent.

Here is Blogged to Death Part II. (The title alludes to Neil Postman’s 1985 critique of the television age.)

Monday, May 14, 2018

Slacker Bear

You will probably notice diminished output from the Bear for a while. For one thing, it is a lot easier to riff off the latest Pope Video or dog-bites-man story. Another thing is that he has no more intention of courting controversy in one direction than the other. It is unpleasant to be seen as suddenly turning on the very people who are following you (although that is a standard Bear tactic in the wild).

The main reason is that now that his books belong to him he’s not happy finishing the sequel (working title, Sandy Goes to Hell) without addressing some issues with Judging Angels. Not that he thinks it’s bad, but it can be better. Sure, there are the usual problems of excess dialogue tags and striving for ever-more-natural character voices, but mostly, it’s the length, especially now that it will be searching for a new publisher.

The Bear is certain readers of this ephemeris assume he is getting paid by the word. JA is good enough to be less self-indulgent and thick books are out of style. At 158 thousand words, it could stand to lose 30k at least. (To give you an idea, a chapter runs 2500 - 4500 words.) Part of the excessive length comes from too many digressions into legal themes, naturally enough, Bear supposes, for a lawyer.

Some of that is interesting, even essential, but a better, or at least more experienced, writer would have figured out which was which earlier. That also contributes to the impossibility of marketing a book that is not a genre novel at all, but looks like a mashup of a half-dozen genres. (Urban fantasy/police procedural/romance/mystery/Catholic/thriller/dark comedy.)

The Bear thinks of Catholic novelist Michael O’Brien’s Voyage to Alpha Centauri. If you had never heard of Michael O’Brien, you would assume it was a science fiction genre novel. Since a lot of people have heard of Michael O’Brien, though, he can get away with it. No one has heard of that Capps fellow.

In the Bear’s defense, all of these elements serve one theme: not only does no person or institution have a clue to what’s going on, as products of a post-Christian world, they can’t. Mistaken identities abound, and even characters think they are something they’re not.

No diet is easy. The most obvious problem is JA carries the dual weight of serious themes and a capering plot true to the Bear’s beloved old Hollywood conventions to keep the pages turning. (Especially the old “comedy of remarriage,” although it’s a pretty dark comedy.) More subtly, it is obsessively structured. Something in chapter one finds completion in the last chapter. Revealing a world charged with magic that is our world, not Westeros, and faithfully Christian at that, requires a lot of reminders, subtle and otherwise.

It is easier for people to feel at home with wizards and dragons these days than a Christian world-view that was rejected and is now mostly forgotten. It’s as if Dante had to stop and argue why Paolo and Francesca are being punished. Florentine politics is the least obstacle to a modern reader’s understanding of the Inferno.

Selling the sanctity of marriage when everyone has given up on it isn’t easy.

Given how everything is connected, the Bear can’t just drop bombs from 20,000 feet. He must stalk each page and murder a lot of beautiful children face-to-face while not “cheating” readers of the original.

JA was not conceived as the entree to a series, either. It came from an older “Adapt” universe of a very different project. (Opiuim is the religion of the masses, those clever devils.) It’s time to bring everything back together and reveal the domestic troubles of our unhappy characters in their much larger context. Marriage isn’t just good, it turns out, even one may be the cosmic lynchpin. So, this is also a good chance to address some continuity issues with the next two books, which are already well underway.

One minute you’re chatting up a strange redhead in a bar, the next thing you know, not one, but two worlds are in crisis. Well, thanks a lot you terrible Able couple!

So, that is requiring a lot of Bear hours.


Friday, May 11, 2018

American Gods: Pray for the SMOD before Season 2

The only honest review of Starz series American Gods is this: find some god, any god, and pray for the Sweet Meteor of Death to obliterate us before season two airs. 

Start With a Clever Novel

Neil Gaiman's American Gods was recommended to me by a likable prosecutor in a murder case. I thought it was interesting with some very memorable parts. (The story gets put on extended hold somewhere near the middle, though - how does that happen at this level?) But the Bear is a sucker for Golden Age roadside attractions like Rock City. Also, the melancholy forgotten time capsule of Cairo, Illinois is a sort of second hometown for the Bear, and it is a setting. But the word "overrated" once again comes to mind, as it so often does when the Bear casts his jaundiced eye on post-Hayes Code culture.

What's it about?

Old gods are dying because nobody believes in them anymore. New gods are media and tech. If the old gods are willing to be re-branded for an atheist world, they can survive in style. The catch is, they won't be worshiped.

"Everyone Will be Talking About Showtime After This!"

Critics are raving over Starz prestige production of the book. As usual, the Bear thinks the critics are raving mad degenerates.

The executive summary is that American Gods just wallows in filth, making it too uncomfortable for any normal person to watch. The details are not important. The Bear bugged the meeting at Showtime, no, wait... Starz? Whatever. Here's a short transcript.

TRANSCRIPT

Starz Network Execs: Game of Thrones got  buzz for sex and violence and violent sex and profanity. That's the ticket, but we ain't exactly HBO. So, we're goin' all the way to Hell. And listen: hit stuff like borders, guns and homosexuality hard.

Creative Team: Homo-freaking-what? You mean LGBT, right, you Nazi bastards who are paying for this?

Starz Network Execs: Uh, yeah, sorry, that's what we mean. The point is, you know what we mean. No critic will dare say anything against us out of fear of being called a Trump supporter. The main thing, though, people are going to remember the Showtime brand!

Creative Team: Showtime? We want to renegotiate our contract.

Starz Network Execs: Starz. Whatever. See the problem? YOU are the solution.

END OF TRANSCRIPT

If you took out every sentence with the F-word it would be a silent movie.

Sad, but it's a winning publicity formula today. In a weak Starz defense, the novel was not exactly edifying in parts, but there are some things you might read about with an acceptable kind of horror that you just do not want to ever see with your eyes. (Bilquis and don't ask.) It might be adapted for television with a careful touch, but here, much of what makes the novel interesting is ignored or buried in excrement.

So, writing a review of American Gods is like asking, "So, Mrs. Astor, other than that, how was the voyage?"

Where Story Doesn't Matter

The Breaking Bad network, AMC, had for its motto: "Story Matters Here." Starz is "Story? F*** That." Aside from anything else, American Gods is literally a television series without a story. Not even a make-it-up-as-you-go LOST story or quirky atmospheric Twin Peaks story.

This is some accomplishment for a series based, after all, on a novel.

Each episode, some stuff happens. A lot of the time the same characters are on screen doing the same sorts of stuff. Driving without getting anywhere; talking without ever getting to the point. Ian McShane plays the role he was born to play, which is the same role he always plays, come to think of it, so he's had a lot of practice. But none of the other characters are given a chance to gain much traction.

Sometimes, instead of no story, the writers give us some completely different story, although the Bear is sure they would tell him it's really sort of the same story if he were paying attention. Hey, writers. YOU HAD ONE JOB. TO MAKE ME PAY ATTENTION.

Writers: No, our job is to make sure everyone remembers the Showtime brand through wretched excess.

Bear: You mean Starz.

Writers: Whatever, NAZIBAR.

The general idea is that Ian McShane and his sidekick are going somewhere to do something important. But by the end of the first season, we haven't even made it to House on the Rock, let alone Rock City.

What's Done Relatively Well

Easter Party Where Things Actually Make Sense and Stuff Happens

This is not to say there are not parts that are done relatively well.

The season finale (Come to Jesus) with Kristen Chenowith as "Easter" (pagan Ostara, having sold out to Christianity for the whole eggs-and-bunny thing) has a recognizable plot and even makes sense. It is shot in dazzling small-screen Technicolor and drips with style. The menacing dance of glitch-replicating walking stick-and-tux faceless men resembles a tech-twisted vision of Fred Astaire's Top Hat, White Tie and Tails. (Fred does, after all, mow down the entire chorus line by using his stick as a gun.) New god Media (Gillian Anderson) is rocking Judy Garland's costume from Easter Parade.

It is as if everyone realized, "Maybe something could, you know, actually happen in the season finale. It would be even better if we could also explain something, since no one has a clue what's going on."

Too bad the whole "telling a story" concept wasn't discovered until the final episode.

That is the creative problem with American Gods in a nutshell. You could watch this episode by itself and not be at the slightest disadvantage compared to people who watched the whole season.

Of course, there are "Jesuses" from various cultures as the party's guests of honor. While not as blasphemous as you would expect (a low bar indeed) let's just say Starz isn't going to be pulling this joke on the Muslims.

When Ostara is confronted with how she's been co-opted by Christianity, a compassionate one-of-the-Jesuses (played by Jeremy Davis) mournfully says something like, "I'm so sorry," prompting Kristen Chenowith to flutter over to him, the perfect hostess who, behind her frozen smile, is starting to realize her big day is turning into a fiasco.

That is actually pretty funny and of a piece with the concept, not a gratuitous slap.

I Want My MTV Back

In other words, you should think of American Gods (if you must) not as a drama, like Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones, but early MTV. A series of unconnected segments of different styles and quality. It is occasionally stylish and engaging. Occasionally very clever. If it's sole purpose was not to put Starz on the cultural radar through a shock and awe devastation of good taste, there is talent enough behind it to make something less awful. 

You can catch glimpses of it, but nothing more, even if you don't miss anything looking for your emesis basin.

When you used to watch MTV, for every Money for Nothing, there were a hundred Barbie Girls. But, even then, you didn't feel obligated to burn your house down around you every week.

Don't just skip it. American Gods requires nothing less than for humans to nuke their entire planet from orbit before season 2. It's the only way to be sure.

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