January 30th, 2012

The West Memphis Three

I won't rehash the details (see here if you have further interest), but basically the "West Memphis Three" were three almost certainly innocent young men sentenced to either death or life imprisonment in Arkansas in 1994 on the basis not of anything actually connecting them with the crime, but rather mainly on the basis of their love of rock-and-roll music and black clothing, from which the jury was invited to infer that they were all members of a hypothetical Satanic cult (for which itself there was no evidence) that committed a triple homicide the previous year. Suffice it to say this case was outrageous every step of the way, and nobody in the civilized world was surprised when eventually DNA evidence failed to link any of these three people to the crime, leading to their release last August.

I'm mentioning this now because of some recent news: as City Arts magazine just reported, Jason Baldwin (one of the West Memphis Three) has moved to Seattle, plans to attend law school, and will be a guest DJ on the KEXP rock show "Seek and Destroy" on March 11 (midnight to 2am at the beginning of that day).

Anyway, I'm planning to tune in: at least in part it was this kid's love of rock-and-roll which put him in jail for seventeen years over a crime he didn't commit, and it's good to see that despite this horrific experience he hasn't lost his love for it.

[Note: the printed issues of City Arts list the above date incorrectly - the March 11 date is what is given on that magazine's web site, and was confirmed by KEXP when I contacted them yesterday.]

Related YouTube Video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=89ZFHXnfIzc

Shut Up Little Man!

The infamous Shut Up Little Man! recordings have grown on me quite a bit since I was first introduced to them late last year.

My favorite parts are when Peter and Raymond are visited by a police officer, their apartment manager, or an angry neighbor. Those portions have a delightful Lord of the Flies character: as the listener you were caught up in Peter and Raymond's ever weirdening interactions, basically going along for the ride, when suddenly the real world shows up and you instantly realize just how far out of touch with reality they'd become.

Related YouTube Video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HZv5BlVjZGY

Reactions to the new Steve Jobs biography

I just finished reading Walter Isaacson's new biography of Steve Jobs. My reactions, in no particular order:

  1. Mr. Jobs' perfectionism went far beyond anything which could be justified based on real improvement to Apple's actual products, and his abuse of employees went far beyond anything which could be considered motivating: put bluntly, although at one time I envied this man, after reading this biography I no longer do.
  2. Once pointless conspicuous consumption is off the table, the ultra-rich don't have access to any greater entertainment pleasures than people of modest means. In other words, if you can (for example) save up enough to make it to Chicago and see the Art Institute of Chicago ($12 for students) as well as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra ($10 for students), then you'll have two types of experiences which unlimited wealth couldn't have improved on.
  3. Much of the "tech elite" criticism of Apple products is based on nothing more profound than the fact that the word "open" sounds nice. This is something which has been bothering me for a while: like a politician using "for the children," an editorial writer using "transparent," or a non-profit consultant using "community," the word "open" is one of those words which it's easy to get nods for using even when you haven't really earned it. This hit a fever pitch of absurdity with the iPad, when noted tech essayists damned the entire device simply because you couldn't easily install alternate operating systems or change the battery, as if to say that monkeying with computers is the only form of creativity which should ever matter to anyone, or that changing a battery is the best way to get children excited about engineering. If you want to seriously experiment with hardware or software then a desktop computer is going to be much more suitable than any portable device, and due to the ongoing user demand for Linux the ability to install alternative operating systems on desktop machines isn't an ability you're even remotely likely to lose for the foreseeable future.
  4. There's still tremendous value in being a life-long explorer, and not worrying about what others might think when deciding whether to take a course of action that you believe has value.

Related YouTube Video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1jqSK8Qv4ZY and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CXcfDN6L9d8

My first 1/3/03 diary entry

"Thou shalt not even listen to generalized criticism from anyone who is not willing to offer a practical suggestion, or their own time, to improve the situation they're complaining about." -RussellB's Prime Directive of Nonprofit Organizing

I mean it.

By taking unconstructive criticism seriously, as a volunteer your morale is impacted to no good end. Furthermore, until pressed to offer their solution, the person complaining will only continue to see themselves as a mere consumer rather than a participant.

My second 1/3/03 diary entry

"A religion old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the universe as revealed by modern science, might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths. Sooner or later, such a religion will emerge." -Carl Sagan

Look around the room for a moment, and let's say your eye comes to rest on a plant, or an animal. Millions of years of evolution, and untold thousands of generations, incrementally perfected the life you see in front of you. Even the smallest part of the lowliest form of life, in complexity and robustness and perfection to its task, is awe-inspiring.

Now, let's say your eye comes to rest on a man-made object. Maybe it's painted: think about all of the hundreds of years of experimentation with different dyes and pigments that led up to modern paints and painting technology. Maybe it's electronic: think about all of lifetimes of work first in science and then in engineering which led up to our ability to create that object for you. Think about the lifetimes of human work and research into materials and construction which went into its physical formation, leading all the way back to the raw materials from which it was made, incrementally improving just as evolution has glacially improved the plants and animals.

Now, let's say you look out the window (through the amazing man-made glass) at the sky: if it's daytime, then you can think about the amazing fact that we have a livable layer in which to live, with an atmosphere and absolutely filled with life and all of the resources we need to eventually achieve space travel and begin to colonize other worlds. If it's nighttime, then you can think about how complex and wonderful modern science tells us through cosmology and quantum mechanics that the universe really is: matter and energy, interchangeable, and on that ultimate level not subject even to the words "pollution" or "extinction" or "waste".

Even if you can't see, then you can reflect on your own mind, and on the wonder that individually lifeless elements could combine in such a way as to give you a feeling of self-awareness, and of enough capability to, at some point in the distant future, colonize new worlds and create new forms of intelligent, self-aware life.

Doing this "thankfulness" exercise could probably be a religion in and of itself, specifically one which doesn't just co-exist with science but is actually catalyzed by it.

My 2/3/03 diary entry

A poem by Charles Simic that I found touching:


Go inside a stone
That would be my way.
Let somebody else become a dove
Or gnash with a tiger's tooth.
I am happy to be a stone.

From the outside the stone is a riddle:
No one knows how to answer it.
Yet within, it must be cool and quiet
Even though a cow steps on it full weight,
Even though a child throws it in a river;
The stone sinks, slow, unperturbed
To the river bottom
Where the fishes come to knock on it
And listen.

I have seen sparks fly out
When two stones are rubbed,
So perhaps it is not dark inside after all;
Perhaps there is a moon shining
From somewhere, as though behind a hill?
Just enough light to make out
The strange writings, the star-charts
On the inner walls.

My 3/27/03 diary entry

A poem I found by Thich Nhat Hanh:

The Good News

The good news
they do not print.
The good news
we do print.
We have a special edition every moment,
and we need you to read it.
The good news is that you are alive,
that the linden tree is still there,
standing firm in the harsh Winter.
The good news is that you have wonderful eyes
to touch the blue sky.
The good news is that your child is there before you,
and your arms are available:
hugging is possible.
They only print what is wrong.
Look at each of our special editions.
We always offer the things that are not wrong.
We want you to benefit from them
and help protect them.
The dandelion is there by the sidewalk,
smiling its wondrous smile,
singing the song of eternity.
Listen! You have ears that can hear it.
Bow your head.
Listen to it.
Leave behind the world of sorrow
and preoccupation
and get free.
The latest good news
is that you can do it.

My 4/23/03 diary entry

So, this morning I listened to Jean-Yves Thibaudet performing Debussy's collected works for solo piano.

The last track on the second CD was titled "Pour le piano," which at first just didn't make any sense to me.

I mean, what is the point of feeling sorry for a piano? Pianos are beautiful instruments, granted, but they aren't sentient and it doesn't make sense to sympathize with them in the same manner one might sympathize with a person. As a simple mechanical device, if a piano deteriorates to beyond the point of repair, it's merely an opportunity for another fine instrument to take its place.

But digging into this a question a little deeper helped me realize something that made "Pour le piano" more sensical. As it stands, we're being told by our government that "French" and "freedom" are equivalent words, and that where one sees the former one should substitute the latter (as in "freedom fries"). Seen in this light, perhaps the note of sympathy which the title "Pour le piano" conveys is intended merely to lament the fact that, as an inanimate object, a piano can never be truly free.

My 5/4/03 diary entry

OK, so here's my new Big Idea...

In more fashion-conscious towns, such as Miami, Los Angeles, and New York, there's a big tradition of night clubs which don't actually let people in: instead, you wait outside in a big line until a muscular and well-dressed doorkeeper selects you.

I say take this to its logical extreme, and open a night club which doesn't let ANYONE in.

The night club could be called "Blackjack," and to judge by the line of Beautiful People and Celebrities outside its door each night, it would be the hip place to be. Every time the front door accidentally opens, you see flashes of light and hear the thumping bass of house tracks. But you never actually let anyone in to this, the hippest of all night clubs in your city.

On the last night of your club's existence, of course, you DO accept bribes to let people in, but when they enter they see not a hip crowd of dancers, but a completely empty room filled with nothing other than an old TV, a few empty folding chairs, and a portable table on which people were playing blackjack.

My 5/11/03 diary entry

One always thinks of the funniest things to say only after the moment has passed, today being a great example.

The instructor for my cooking class was going on about how great supermarket pre-cut bags of chopped spinach are. As she explained, "You just open the bag and empty the contents into a bowl, at which point you have the beginnings of a salad - it doesn't get any easier than that!"

Right then I wish I'd raised my hand and helpfully added, "Well Ma'am, technically you could skip the bowl and have a servant open the bag."

My 5/28/03 diary entry

Late last year I had the good fortune to tune into 89.5FM, our local non-commercial dance music station, during their pledge drive. Their pledge drive strategy was to keep replaying a rave remix of John Denver's song "Thank God I'm a Country Boy" until they met their fundraising goals.

But this pledge drive strategy brought up a question for me: "Just how long could I listen to the same annoying three minute song over and over without losing my mind?" Fortunately I had an MP3 file on hand of the song "Cotton Eye Joe" by the The Rednex, and listened to this song (over headphones) for about three hours at work the next day.

For reference, the lyrics of this song are as follows:

Cotton Eye Joe

If it hadn't been for Cotton-Eye Joe
I'd been married long time ago
Where did you come from where did you go
Where did you come from Cotton-Eye Joe
If it hadn't been...

If it hadn't been...
If it hadn't been...

He came to town like a midwinter storm
He rode through the fields so handsome and strong
His eyes was his tools and his smile was his gun
But all he had come for was having some fun

If it hadn't been...
If it hadn't been...

He brought disaster wherever he went
The hearts of the girls was to hell broken sent
They all ran away so nobody would know
and left only men cause of Cotton-Eye Joe

If it hadn't been...
If it hadn't been...

If it hadn't been...
If it hadn't been...

If it hadn't been...

I found this song endlessly fascinating, as its lyrics quite honestly raise more questions than they answer. The following are just a few examples:

  1. Did the people whom our protagonist Cotton Eye Joe ("CEJ" for short) seduced follow him to the next town?
  2. Was jealousy an issue, or did CEJ have personal boundaries such that this wasn't a concern for him?
  3. Who is the mysterious narrator, and is he either envious or disdainful of CEJ for his behavior?
  4. I wonder if there are any sub-genres of slash fiction in which the narrator of this song consummates some sort of affection for CEJ, and that THIS rather than CEJ leaving for the next town explains why the women all had "hearts ... to hell broken sent."

But at the end of the day, for me the most poignant question posed by this song is the eternal one: "Where did you come from where did you go?"

Indeed, where do we come from, and where do we go? Just as a generation ago AC/DC asked us, "Who made who? Who made you?", in urging us to reflect on the origins of life, so The Rednex asks us to consider the unknowns at the edges of our existence.


Cotton Eye Joe, for whom does the bell toll?

It tolls for thee.

My 7/9/03 diary entry

Another quotable quote from work: "I've always thought of myself as the lone wolf type, answering to no man other than his superiors."

My 7/13/03 diary entry

I had a funny thought in Vancouver.

You know how people like to come up with alternate names for their body parts?

Well, I think it would be funny to have a pet name for your entire body.

So for example, I'm Russell, but I might refer to my body as "Descartes."

Just as a quick sample, here are some of the things you might hear:

  • "Ordinarily I'd LOVE to see the director's cut of Battlefield Earth with you, but I promised Descartes I'd take him for a walk, and you know how he can get..."
  • "Well, I liked the pickled cabbage, but Descartes threw a total fit!"