Friday, December 16, 2011

A Sequence, in the morning

I open my eyes. Everything is blurry and that's a good thing. It means I remembered to take my lenses out. Sunlight is everywhere, pouring through the open door and window slats because I was way too drunk to close them. How drunk? The taste and total desiccation in my mouth says, "quite." A huge gap in my memory says, "very quite."

In the bathroom, my stream is radioactive yellow and practically viscous. That's how dehydrated I am. Somehow, I don't feel like shit. My stomach is calm if very empty. Back in my room, Bella's stolen my comforter and wrapped herself up in it at the foot of the bed. She's being so cute that I let her hang onto it.

Going downstairs for the first time, I see the handle of King's Bay. It's been left out, capless and very warm, standing next to a half-full glass of chaser and a single shotglass. There is, at most, twenty-eight percent of the bottle remaining. I cringe. Surely Nick and I didn't do all that ourselves. Maybe Alex drank with us. He probably didn't. Let the hazy forensic tour of the apartment begin.

There's a large paper map folded out on the table. It's an official map of Skyrim. We don't own that game. Yet here's the map, and on the table is a PS3 Skyrim case. I guess we own that game. Suddenly an epiphany: Nick's brother Zach came over last night and delivered it as a late birthday present. He came over around 9:30, after work. Now we're getting somewhere. He didn't drink with us, but I definitely talked to him about the latest EA/Visceral projects. I don't remember exactly what was said, but I definitely oozed over Dead Space and hit him up repeatedly for a writing job at Visceral. I wince, because clearly I was extremely drunk during this time. Chance I made a total ass of myself and Zach left laughing at me: 80%. It is, however, possible that I was functional during this time. I don't slur and have on occasion carried out perfectly normal conversations with people who had no idea what state I was in. Worst-case scenario: somebody I barely know things I am a drunken loser. That doesn't bode well for a job at Visceral, but did I have any actual tangible prospects there? No. Just gonna laugh this off.

I put the rum away and start to assemble the basic components of a meal I like to call "Corn Chex." My breakfasting efforts are cut short by broken glass all over the kitchen floor. Another epiphany: I broke a shotglass last night by fumbling it and knocking it to the floor. "SHIT," oy sez to moiself, "I can't believe I left broken glass all over. Thank God nobody was hurt." Then I recall something: I cleaned that glass. Inspecting the shards, I see that this is a DIFFERENT broken shotglass--it's smoked glass, not the clear painted glass from my little boo-boo. This makes me feel better in one way, and much worse in another.

After some sweeping, I take my cereal upstairs and fire up the Interwebs. The sun is shining and the house hasn't been this warm in weeks. I'm the only one awake, just eating my cereal and celebrating my good fortune at escaping from a brutal night more or less hangover-free. And then this great day crashes right into a lousy wall, because the first thing I see online is the news that Christopher Hitchens is dead.

It seems appropriate, somehow, to emerge from a drunken stupor to this news. Hitchens may, after all, have been the world's greatest functioning alcoholic. The sheer amount of punishment the man put his body through, over thirty-plus years of massive drinking and smoking, should have made his career impossible. Some people, it turns out, are just that goddamned brilliant. Hitchens himself said that the lifestyle was what gave him the energy to do his work. Maybe that's true, and he wouldn't have been the same without it. Trent Reznor's career is doing just fine since he put down the bottle, but as far as I'm concerned the genius is gone. Sure, the mechanical genius of assembling notes and crafting songs stuck around. A sober Hitchens would likely have kept his terrifying powers of language. But his erudition and wit weren't what made him great. It was the soul of the man, this cantankerous disheveled drunken genius (if you've ever seen him on TV, he was probably tipsy) who wouldn't let anyone get away with anything, who believed completely in himself and dared the world to prove him wrong. They couldn't--he was just too fucking brilliant.

I never met the guy. I could have--we share a mutual friend--but never asked for an introduction or made any effort to meet him. That's not my style. I figured it would eventually happen; just given the loose connection, I would eventually find myself in a room with him. When he was stricken by cancer, I knew that had been a mistake. Which, having written it, strikes me as kind of a shitty selfish attitude--oh, well. The man was about nothing more than honesty. And maybe it's because I'm an over-educated atheist contrarian asshole who loves nothing more than to tell other people how WRONG THEY ARE, but I felt a real kinship with this man. I never met him and if I had, I wouldn't have had much to say. He probably would have found me boring, like the other six billion people whose company on the Earth he drank to endure. But I've had the good fortune to meet a few truly brilliant people in my life, and selfishly it's enough to be around them for a little bit.

One sentimental note in eulogy: Chris Hitchens was a character, he had style, and he had such an overpowering presence with that deep scotch-and-fags baritone that we lose the real person there. This was a man who lived and loved and drank and smoke and fucked and married and changed diapers and cleaned vomit and wept over dead pets and demanded that Andrew Sullivan kiss him "with tongue." This was a real man with a family who knew him as a real man. Keep it in mind; this was a titan, not a god.

I deeply admired Chris Hitchens. Sometimes you just see yourself in a person, even if that person is better and smarter and more accomplished than you'll ever be. He was a tremendous inspiration for my own writing, though I've never imitated him--and how could I, hailing from a totally different culture, continent, and generation? The man's greatest inspiration was P.G. Wodehouse and his greatest foe was Henry Kissinger. I can't relate to that and it would be dishonest and phony (lord, did he hate those qualities) to try. But I've been thinking a lot about the future in the past few months, and to see a man like this leave the world crystallized a little something in my head ("With all the pot you smoke, I bet a lot of you is crystallized!" yuk yuk yuk)

American society is decaying. I feel this strongly enough that I'm confident asserting it. It's not just us, and it's not cause of THAT BLACK NIGGER BARACK HUSSEIN OBAMA (if anything, that very imperfect man is one of the few real hopes we have). I think if you're under 30 or over 50, and you're not too busy taking trips to Vegas or buying Tahoe ski condos or engaging in the richie-rich fun time summer camp that is business school, you can feel it too. It's getting worse, though I'm not sure why. When somebody talks on TV, I can feel it getting worse. When Hitchens talked, for my part it was a giant ray of light cutting through darkness. In the Internet age, everyone's a liar. Everyone pretends, because the pouring of all our many identities into a single online persona forces us into dishonesty. It keeps us safe and sane, but it's collectively destroying our society. Ditto the automation, the numbers, the relentless engineering optimization that seems to drive every enterprise. An ad spot on the radio, at the very least, has the intimacy of the DJ's voice. He is trying to connect to you, investing his credibility in a product that he seems to earnestly hope improves your life. But a spot on Youtube is loaded with keywords, annotation, a hundred different optimizations to increase the odds that a machine will place the product in front of you for consideration. ADVERTISING, that most soulless of enterprises, has lost its soul. I'm sorry if that seems like a digression, but I'm just trying to explain in words what I feel, with rheumatic certainty, in my bones.

There you go, Hitch. I said "rheumatic certainty." I'm sorry the rest of us weren't easy to deal with. And with this written (I cried only a little this morning at the news, and not at all during this composition), I'm going to have a drink. The rum should be cold again, by now.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Jury duty, pt. 3

Remember when I said "and here my troubles began?" Normally you're only allowed to use that phrase once in a single product, but I think it applies here. I didn't know what I was about to get into; I thought the case was a fairly simple issue of judgment behind the wheel. It turns out that nothing is simple when people are asked to decide something, and certainly not when they've been given a whole week's worth of information to process on their own. The first day, we had only an hour before the building closed. We spent it selecting a presiding juror (a "foreman" in less-progressive states) and agreeing when to show up the next day. We also took a brief vote on the first question on the verdict form. The way it was set up, if the first question (to paraphrase, "did this bitch do something wrong?") were answered in the negative, we could go home immediately. No question of damages, breaking down culpability, or anything. That sounds great, but when you've spent so long on something you want to see it through and get your way. At least, I want those things. I've been described as something of a jerk.

During the five years and change I spent playing World of Warcraft (admittedly, I did other things during this time like graduate from college and start my career and have a girl ruin my life), I learned about the human race's infinite capacity for fucking up. It turns out that no matter the stimulus or piece of information presented, people have ways of seeing it differently. This might be a triumph of diversity or a testament to the spectrum of the human condition if it weren't for the fact that so many of those interpretations are wrong. The initial vote was split 6-6. It sounds awful, but this was a civil trial so only nine jurors needed to agree on any given verdict question. The way you're supposed to do it, you vote on one question at a time because the questions are set up in a logical order. The idea is to isolate debates on one question at a time, focusing on a single issue and eliminating the idea of "trading" votes on one question for another. It's a good idea. It doesn't work for even an instant.

Realizing that consensus needed forging, I went to work. I had specifically not put my name forward for presiding juror, because I anticipated having to argue with my fellow jurors (in legal parlance, "motherfuckers"). So I started pushing; clearly, to my mind, the defendant was negligent in driving. She chose to go through the yellow, and the video showed an easy window for the SUV to turn left. Remember, the SUV driver had settled already for an amount we weren't allowed to know. So what if the defendant had her line of sight blocked by another car? Going through the intersection when you don't know if anyone is turning left? That's actually worse to my mind, but I grew up in Boston where we actually take responsibility for our decisions. Californian drivers disagree. A Boston driver, tasked to explain all his on-road actions in retrospect, can do it. A Californian won't recall a single thing that happened, but will swear they hit their brakes. It's the ultimate description of why Californian drivers are awful: they think brake lights are fucking deflector shields.

So I went to work. I established that even 1% culpability from the defendant was enough for a "Yes" vote on the question of which this bitch fucked up. That got two votes; the rest were a group of four people. Among them, two old men, one Chinese lady, and a mom. It is not, in retrospect, surprising that these people would choose to defend poor driving as "normal." Four people were dead-set in their opposition to a single iota of responsibility for the defendant. Their resolution clearly bonded them to each other, in the worst and most predictable fashion. Has anyone else noticed that the phrases "worst" and "most predictable" describe 96% of human behavior? I needed one convert.

"Why can't you see how WRONG you are?" Or, how to swing a jury in four hours
People rarely make arguments based on substance. Most of what a given human being believes is a pungent stew of tribalism, emotion, and self-interest all coated with the veneer of calm consideration. If somebody's got a rational basis for 20% of what he believes, that's a reasonable person. Moving from this base, I started the process of persuasion. Defensiveness is one of the most intractable of human emotions, and when trying to turn over somebody's position you need to be careful. The natural human tendency is to retreat from any information that contradicts already-held belief, and so to convert somebody I couldn't engage them directly. In this, I had an unwitting ally: the "leader" of the other faction, a jowly red-faced 50something gentleman. He wasn't going to move; he was way too stubborn and way too emotionally invested in this case. But that gave me an easy target: somebody with whom I could aggressively disagree and not worry about permanently losing his vote. He was lost already, so I could drive a wedge between his extreme position and the rest of his faction. I attacked the unreasonable guy, and spared the folks who might swing. The key was just getting those "attacks," out. I use scare quotes because none of this is personal; I actually like this gentleman.

It took about four hours to hem him in. I could have done it faster, but part of managing the jury room is not talking too much. If you're seen as dominating the discussion to an unreasonable degree, folks will resent you. The key is to pick your spots: arguments you can make and win, to which you'll really commit. If a point of discussion is secondary or tertiary to your main point, sit and keep your mouth shut. It's important to let people talk and feel like they're contributing, even if what they have to say is stupid or irrelevant.

SPEAKING OF WHICH, the Filipina grandma was just the worst. Between her and the heavily-accented Chinese man, it was a circus of non sequiturs. They would insist on getting an un-interrupted chance to speak, and then spend two minutes making some point that mattered not a bit to ANYBODY and typically mis-interpreted the last 30 minutes of debate. These people are on juries all the time. Thank fucking Christ they started on my side. I'll note, the Filipina grandma was against me until I explained what a "no" vote on the first question actually meant. Again, these people serve on jury. It's probably best to avoid any crimes for this reason.

Eventually, I had the other side pinned down: an assertion by Max that ANY conduct that's legal cannot by definition be negligent. The defendant, in the absence of any left-turning vehicle, could have gotten four wheels in the intersection. Therefore she couldn't be at fault; not even a little. If you're thinking "that's absurd," you are correct. Welcome to Team Tony. Once this was on the table, I turned the screws on the young mom: couldn't you take plenty of legal actions in the presence of your children that would be inappropriate, unreasonable or negligent? Of course, the answer was yes. Faced with the contradiction, I expected her to double down. I expected to drive home really fast on the lunch recess to do shots of rum and lament the human condition, but NOT SO. This woman actually flipped her vote along with another gentleman. After four hours, I had finally shrunk the opposing argument to the size where I could throttle it with my bare hands.

And with that, the baby had crowned. This was the single hardest question for us to answer, the question that determined the rest of the case for the most part. Over the next few hours we hammered out some damages; it wasn't difficult once we agreed to some basic parameters. The Bloc of Four was always a problem, and remained pretty resolute that zero damages could be considered. They were hanging together at this point basically out of tribalism and admitted as such; it was not enough to force some self-evaluation. At the point where you realize you're making arguments based on an emotional attachment to prior arguments...well, I don't know what you're supposed to do at that point. Either change your tune, or set yourself on fire.

We didn't award many damages. I'd have liked more, but we always had to get at least one vote from the Bloc of Four and the numbers got skewed downwards to something pretty minimal (but something we could live with--this motorcyclist got seriously injured through no fault of his own). The plaintiff had screwed up himself, eschewing some diagnostic tests that probably would have revealed some lasting damage. I don't know how you spend that much time and money on an injury lawsuit without getting a fucking MRI, but that's what happened. The highlight of this second act was the leader of the Bloc of Four stating, in all seriousness, that he didn't think the defendant's negligence (remember, we've agreed to this and it's part of the official record) contributed to the plaintiff's injuries. At the point where we've agreed the pickup truck was negligent, and it plowing into the SUV caused the injury, how could anyone argue this? His verbatim line: "maybe the sidewalk impact caused the injury." Where did the kinetic energy come from to propel him to the sidewalk? Christ. Luckily, this was far too stupid for the others in the Bloc and we got some headway.

When all was said and done, we knocked on the door and told the bailiff we had a verdict. He had to open the door, naturally, because we were locked in the room by law. Doesn't seem fire-safe, does it? We came back into the courtroom and the judge read the verdict. No palpable reaction from either party of their lawyers, though the defendant's lawyer asked that the jury be polled. What's that? Well, it turns out that in California you can ask for a reading of the verdict with every juror chiming in to say if he voted for it. Not a big deal in criminal trials, as you might imagine, but if a civil lawyer gets a chance to drag out the proceedings he's honor-bound to take it. So everyone had to go through every line of the jury form stating whether they voted for it. I said "correct" every time; the opposition leader might have said it once on a minor question. I got what I wanted. And isn't that what justice is all about?

Side note 1: The lawyers wanted to speak with the jurors outside the courtroom after everything was done. Most jurors went home; I stuck around, since I'd invested so much time and effort already. The lawyers were great; legitimately interested in what we thought of their performance and what we'd found persuasive. They were very friendly with each other, and disclosed that the original settlement (with the SUV driver) had been $100,000. Additionally, everything from the collision to the plaintiff's medical expenses had been covered by ample and generous insurance. Why then, you might ask, did we go through all this bullshit? Because children can't agree on anything and need grown-ups to make their decisions for them, apparently.

Side note 2: in the hallway outside the courtroom right before the verdict was delivered, we saw the judge. Prior to that point, he'd always been up on his bench (throne, if you'd prefer). He would enter and exit the room through a door behind the bench, so he seemed very mysterious and powerful. Or some shit. Anyway, this was the first time I'd actually seen the man standing there. He was maybe, generously, five foot five. I pictured little pointy shoes beneath his robe. They'd have bells on the toes, but they'd be taped down with black electrical tape to keep from jingling while he walked. Gotta maintain decorum.

Side note 3: The fact that I was selected for this jury reflects poorly on the judgment of both attorneys. Having a juror like myself in the jury room--an outspoken, opinionated, educated person feeling no compulsion to listen to trial lawyers or bought-and-paid-for "expert witnesses"--is exactly what they should try to avoid. The court system treats the decision-making process like a dangerous weapon, so why give that dangerous weapon to the guy with the crazy eyes fingering it hungrily? I love to argue and take the process very seriously. You don't want me on your jury. On the upside, if I'm ever put in the box again I can get out of it. A brief recounting of my past jury-room experience should be enough to send any halfway competent lawyer running for the hills.

Last thoughts
First, I think the civil trial system is bullshit. If a citizen is asked to serve on a criminal jury, that's a public service. You're acting as a check against arbitrary action and helping to ensure your own protection by jury trial (should you ever be accused of a crime like possession of all the drugs you typically possess). But whom was I serving all those days and all those hours? It wasn't the state; it was the plaintiff, the defendant, and their lawyers. Dispute resolution is a specialty that lawyers pay thousands of dollars for; but why bother when we can just ask the addled Filipina grandmother and the over-opinionated metalhead to do that work for free? Juror compensation needs to be higher in general, but it really should be higher for civil trials, since the plaintiff and defendant can just pay out of pocket. That would provide a powerful incentive to resolve disputes before reaching trial, which is something I think we can all get behind. If your issue is that important or you have that much money, take it all the way. I guess this is my point: lawsuits can be valuable, but this one sure wasn't.

All that time, all that public and private expenditure, to try and wheeze a little better result out of the system than you might have got otherwise? Ugh. The upside is that I think justice really was served: though the letter of the law favored the defendant, she fucked up in a major way and put other people at risk. Somebody was hurt, and damages will be paid. At the same time, the breakdown of blame we did at the end favored the extremist "zeroes" of the Bloc of Four. The total restitution paid by the defendant will be about $5,000, paling in comparison to any of the legal expenses or even the cost of hiring one expert witness. Everyone loses, and those fuckers deserve it for not coming to a settlement. By the way, the proposed settlement before the trial was $25,000 (we couldn't know this in the jury room, obviously). The plaintiff turned it down, thinking he could get more in a trial. I would have actually liked to see him get more, but FUCK YOU for turning down that kind of cash with a hundred-grand already on the table.

Which brings us to the final lesson of this long, long tale. I'm very happy if you read this far, because I know it's been long. I'm not even sure how interesting this is to an outside observer. I know I learned a lot from these experiences, but the crucial lesson is really the repeating theme of human existence: everything is terrible, and people fuck everything up. If accused of a crime, I would absolutely want a jury trial. But I would be terrified of the bored-looking stooges in that little wooden box.

Life is great and worth living; everyone should keep living it. But please, PLEASE try to think about what you're doing. Just try to be less of an asshole. Except if the folks on the other side of the jury table are WRONG WRONG WRONG WRONG WRONG.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Jury duty, pt. 2

The Trial
The trial started on Friday, the prior two days consumed entirely by jury selection. The jurors assembled outside the courtroom at 9am; I was still uncomfortable talking to any of them. One of the old guys was basically Butters from South Park, aged sixty years and made less adorable. The dorky hopelessness was all there. Still, if you wanted to talk to anybody it had to be one of the old guys. The old ladies would chatter amongst themselves in Tagalog and everyone else was absorbed in her cell phone. I had my book and headphones, which together provide a pretty airtight seal against human interaction. This makes my life better in so many ways, and I figured there'd be plenty of time to get to know these people.

Complicating everything was a series of admonitions that the judge stated before EVERY recess: don't do any independent research, don't talk about any aspect of the case especially with your fellow jurors, and (most importantly, quoth he) don't form any opinions in your spare time. This was a recurring theme of jury service and the judge really took pains to stress it: not developing opinions. It's an odd request to make of people whose lives you're hijacking for the express purpose of forming opinions, but it reveals something larger about the justice system. They're very aware of the fact that they need jurors to resolve disputes and keep the entire system running, but they're terrified of the actual decision making process. In theory, you're not supposed to form any opinions until the whole trial is done. Only once all the evidence has been presented and the closing arguments made, and only once all the jurors are in the deliberating room, are you supposed to form ANY opinions. The government would like you to remain a blank-slate drone who absorbs the information presented to your stupid face, right up until you're all locked together in the jury room (yes, they lock the door). They treat the decision-making process as though it were live explosives, rolling a grenade into the jury room before sealing it off and plugging their ears.

The trial actually started, even before opening arguments, with a playback of a video. To set the scene, this was a three-vehicle collision at a major intersection with a four-way traffic light and no protected left turns. There was a control camera at the intersection, so the accident was captured for all to see! They ran through the tape a few times, which was nice because there was a lot to look at. An SUV trying to make a left turn has to wait for the yellow to go. As she goes, a pickup truck trying to make the light blows through the intersection and strikes the SUV. The SUV's rear swings around and strikes a motorcycle stopped at the red light, blowing the rider off his bike. And...scene.

Opening Pitch presented by Geico
The opening arguments are sort of confusing; they're talking about evidence that'll be presented and witnesses that will be called to prove X and Y and such. About half these things actually happened during the trial, and by the end the claims had shifted. So, tip for future jurors: spend this time daydreaming or examining the faces of the court staff for funny faces. They didn't want us taking notes during the lawyers' arguments (not evidence, they said), so doodling was hard. The biggest highlight of the opening arguments was the defendant's lawyer, who had giant coke-bottle glasses and an annoying habit of walking around the entire courtroom while he spoke. In high school speech competitions, there were certain kids who actually spent time working on their speech-walking. They'd hit certain spots on the floor for each part of the speech, and it ultimately described a weird kind of triangle where you ended up at the exact same spot you started. If you plotted it out, it looks like an Illuminati pyramid with the start/endpoint being that laser-eye at the apex. This will all be covered in National Treasure 3. Or The Da Vinci Code 3. Or Deus Ex 3. Or some shit.

Side note: if there's anything we should have learned from the past few years, it's that major international conspiracies are just as impossible as alien visitors. I mean "impossible" in a physical, scientific sense: just as the aliens are constrained by the speed of light, any conspiracy is naturally constrained by the incredible human capacity for fucking up. The world economy is crippled by problems that we know how to solve, but can't convince ourselves even exist. These people are not capable of grand, intricate conspiracies. They can barely tie their own shoes or keep their hands off big-butted Sofitel staff.

The plaintiff's lawyer was an unfortunate-looking man. It's not easy being a short, pudgy, middle-aged Jew, though Jason Alexander seems to have had a good run for the last thirty years. He was not a handsome man, a little rodent-y, but this guy did himself no favors. He sported a greasy, pencil-thin mustache. His tightly-curled Jewfro hair was a little long, but it was a weird length. It was cornrow-length; as though his neck were his legs and his hair were a pair of capris. It was pulled back into a natty little salt-and-pepper knot at the back of his skull. My father sports a ponytail that I'm willing to defend; this was not defensible from a man who actually has a full head of hair. Between the strange bun and the little mustache (not to mention the garish yellow ties and vests that made him look like a penguin), it was a comedy of unforced errors. Speaking of which, he was unable to pronounce any of the medical terms deployed in the case, like "encephalocele." The defendant's lawyer had only a little more medical knowledge, but he could at least say human words with his mouth. After the opening arguments (mercifully brief), we started with witnesses.

The evidence
The witnesses themselves weren't too remarkable. There were only about half as many as promised, and for that I'm extremely grateful. The trial proceeded at the glacial pace demanded by our somnolent judge, who really struggled to stay awake in the sessions just before and after lunch. He had a great face when the sleepies got overwhelming: a sort of grouchy, old-man-chewing-even-with-no-food-in-there set to his jaw. The old guys in the jury had similar problems, but everyone else was really professional. The court reporters were highly competent and totally silent at all times, which was extra scary because they wore a LOT of makeup and had earrings as big as my fist.

Being in court wasn't as bad as I thought; having recently been through secondary school and college, I'm accustomed to the idea of sitting in a chair and taking notes while somebody drones on for ninety minutes. And thanks to the schedule of the court, you never go much more than ninety without a break (appropriately called "recess"). Lunch was ninety minutes on its own, which was enough time for me to drive home and make a sandwich and play with my puppy. Being a juror in the County of San Mateo pays a grand total of fifteen dollars per day, plus mileage. It's insulting to actually think of it as pay, so I consider it a per diem. Specifically, it pays for transportation, lunch, and the booze you'll need every night when you get home.

The evidence was unremarkable. Honestly, we could have decided the case with a reading of the relevant laws and a copy of the video. The expert witnesses were a mix of doctors and "accident reconstruction specialists," which I guess is a thing these days. It sounds like a good gig; regardless of the economy, people will keep fucking up and crashing their cars. They helped to establish some basic facts, but nothing that ended up mattering in deliberations. They were paid hundreds, if not thousands of dollars to appear and say these things, in addition to the thousands they billed for their preparatory pre-trial work. If I make $200 a week I'm happy. Just keeping everything in perspective.

These witnesses established that the defendant (the pickup truck driver; the SUV driver had already settled for an amount we weren't allowed to know) could have stopped for the yellow/red, but chose not to. They also established that her line of vision was blocked by other cars, so at the point where she saw the SUV she couldn't have stopped. Essentially, both of them made poor decisions. As for the medical evidence, the plaintiff had three main problems: headaches, shoulder pain, and a testicular surgery he'd undergone following the accident. That's right, we got to talk about balls. A lot. The surgery was for a pre-existing condition that was non-painful but wacky: essentially, harmless golf-ball-sized cysts inside the scrotum. There were all kinds of lost-wages and economic harm claims, because the plaintiff was a small business owner. It was a mess, and there was a lot of repetitive testimony that shed remarkably little light on everything.

The defendant's attorney was enamored with his deposition book, and during every cross-examination would try and needle the witness about any semantic differences between his testimony and his deposition from a year prior. UNDER PENALTY OF PERJURY, as he said. He really liked that phrase. I imagine it's the lawyer equivalent of those giant foam noodles people brought to the local pool. You know, the ones that every young boy in history has immediately picked up and used as a comically floppy sword? The lawyers are the young boys, swinging these weapons that don't hurt anyone but land with a satisfying THWACK. PERJURY. HAH! I see the appeal, but it was a singularly un-appealing tactic for the jury. This isn't a boxing match; we're not keeping score and awarding you points for landing a blow. Between the video (which I thought showed terrible judgment on the defendant's part) and her lawyer's skeevy tactics, I wasn't sympathetic to that side. OH NO I FORMED AN OPINION!

Kyra Sedwick is the Closer, even though it looks like her mouth could unhinge and open like a python's
Closing arguments. These were absolutely brutal, and the fact that they were at the end of the trial didn't help. At least the witnesses were being asked questions, so the back-and-forth kept everyone awake. In the closing arguments, the lawyers just get to talk for basically as long as they want. In the past, this took days. It's the only part of the court system that's gotten faster over the years. The plaintiff's closing argument was a full hour and I thought that was bad; not so. The defendant's lawyer took over two hours for his closing argument, though to be fair he knew there was a brief rebuttal coming. He spent the entire two hours talking in circles, walking in circles, and engaging in bait-and-switch sophistry. Those semantic differences between the witness testimony and their depositions? MAJOR ISSUE. His first declaration: "this case is about two things: fear and greed." Two minutes later, he's telling us to "pay attention to the scientific details in this case." I'm sorry, there was no expert witness to explain to me the science of FEAR AND GREED. When the man thought he was making a particularly clever point, he'd get this little smirk just so we'd know how clever it all was. He also took a shot at a vacation the plaintiff took with his children when he was "supposedly disabled." Really, you're going there? I know we've been given instructions not to consider sympathy, but it's hard NOT to feel sympathy for this man when you're being such a dick to him.

Eventually it was over; the plaintiff's rebuttal to the defendant's enormous closing statement was a brutally efficient rebuttal. He hit every major point in a fraction of the time I thought he'd need. It was a shining moment of competence, which was frankly startling given how badly both lawyers screwed up their arguments with regard to the medical evidence. Trial lawyers are just highly-trained arguers; you'd think their expertise in the subject would really matter, but it turns out bullshit is a kind of universal firmament. We were read a final round of instructions by the judge (ninety minutes of lowest-common-denominator bullshit) and whisked off to the jury room. This has already been long, and I'm leaving out a ton of events because I wasn't actually doing anything for them. We're nine days plus a weekend into jury duty, and I've spent the ENTIRE TIME just sitting there quietly taking notes. In the third part, I'll detail the deliberations. Spoiler: I owned face.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Jury Duty, pt.1

The First Day
At noon two Wednesdays ago--September 28, for the sake of posterity--I had just finished up some work. I was feeling good. Bella was amped up and fussy, and I was about to take her to the park for some frisbee action. But a little bell kept going off in my head. "Tony," quoth it, "isn't there something else you're supposed to do today?" And suddenly that bell was a giant clanging siren, screaming "JURY DUTY JURY DUTY YOU STUPID ASSHOLE." It was right on two counts: I did in fact have jury duty that day, and I was a stupid asshole for forgetting it.

Rushing downstairs, I quickly find the San Mateo County envelope. I knew exactly where it was all along, but I never put it on my desk upstairs. Here's how the mail works the The Humboldt: if it's on the table downstairs with a hundred other articles of shit and about five pounds of spare change, I'm not going to think about it. Unimportant things go there. Important things like bills and court summonseseseses go upstairs on my desk, which is a surface containing the polar opposite psychic charge from the table. Which is to say, anything on the desk becomes a constant source of anxiety, possibly to the point of disrupting sleep. I wish there were some happy medium between these two spaces, but there isn't. The jury summons should have gone on one space; it went on the other. Sprinting upstairs with the letter, I enter my jury pool ID into the court website. This was supposed to happen the night before, so I'm desperately hoping they told me I didn't have to come in.

No dice; I had to report. But somehow the Gods smiled on me--one of the few times I can remember such an obvious bit of serendipity. Instead of the typical 8:30am summons, I didn't have to show up until 12:30pm! Checked the clock: 12:20. I'd expected to be totally screwed and have a "failure to appear" on my hands--instead I was only a little bit screwed! So I took Bella to pee, apologized to her, and ran out the door. The screwage turned out to be less severe than I thought, and I slipped into the initial juror orientation meeting about ten minutes late. Easy. Doing fine. Despite not knowing I even had jury duty at 12:15, here I was at the courthouse by 12:45.

And here my troubles began. The meeting was innocuous enough, and I'd missed almost nothing in the first ten minutes. Something you learn very quickly about the juror system: like the military, it's geared towards the lowest common denominator. It's designed to ensure that the absolute least qualified zero can succeed so long as he can follow directions. What this means as an intelligent person is that you can just ignore 90% of what you hear. The only important information: where you need to be and when. There is also a video that you have to watch, where former jurors talk enthusiastically about their experiences. On the scale of instructional videos, I'd rank it somewhere above an airline safety video and somewhere below a PSA telling family to devise fire escape plans. The latter ones often include some sweet stock footage of burning houses.

There were sixty-two people in my jury pool. The judge had all of us brought up to the 8th floor, which took about twenty minutes given the limited elevators. He explained in basic terms the case before the court: a civil case concerning a three-vehicle accident back in 2007. He stated they'd need twelve jurors and two alternates: fourteen people out of sixty-two. Great odds, right? I was optimistic. So naturally, my name was the very first one called from the computer-randomized list. A minute later, the other chairs were filled. I figured I still had a pretty good chance; from what I know, trial lawyers hate several things in jurors. Among them are education, creativity (particularly in their job), and familiarity with the subject matter. Given that this was a personal injury case and I deal with personal injuries all day in my work, I figured this was a slam dunk. I'd be out of here in no time and one of the other sixty people would be in my place. That's when the judge turned to me and says, "All right, Mr. Palumbi. Tell us about yourself; your education, your background, what you do for a living." It's a totally open-ended question, and seventy total strangers (including the plaintiff, defendant, and their lawyers) are staring right at me as I'm expected to talk about myself.

This is basically my worst nightmare that doesn't involve fire ants. My response was something that's happened in other situations, mostly when meeting new girlfriends' parents. I engaged my high-school debating instincts. I was a pretty good debater in high school ("were you a MASTER debater? Hurr hurr hurr") and it gave me an invaluable skill. In public, when called upon, I can speak eloquently at high speed about basically any subject for basically any length of time. Given the right motivation, I could extol the virtues of grapefruit for eight solid minutes, and you would think pretty highly of what you heard. It would all be bullshit, and I hate the bitterness of grapefruit, but you get the idea. So this is basically what I did in court--ran my goddamned mouth. I focused on the particulars of my work, since I was counting on this to bail me out of jury duty. Because I was nervous (remember the seventy strangers, and me being the first to speak), I cared nothing for brevity. The judge eventually stopped me, asking "Do you always talk this much, Mr. Palumbi?" I was mortified, but somehow managed to force a smile and tell him I did. I do, by the way. I talk all the goddamned time. I can either project a gregarious over-sharer, or be sullen and quiet in the corner. I wish there were more than two options, but I wished that about the table and the desk too.

I kept the rest of my answers short. I felt shitty for wasting everyone's time. But I had no idea what the judge was really like; over the course of the next few hours, he went through all the other jurors on the stand. All went into considerable detail about themselves, but the judge was practically determined to slow down the proceedings. He would ask questions dovetailing with his own personal experiences; one woman mentioned she'd gone to the University of Michigan, and the judge started asking her questions about whether she'd ever seen or been inside their new law library. Which is apparently gorgeous. So there's that, if you ever find yourself spending an idle day in Ann fucking Arbor. Another man's last name prompted the judge to ask if he was any relation to a woman with the same surname. The name? GUPTA. It's an Indian guy named Gupta, how many of those could there be? Only about 150 million on the planet and five million in this country. And this man being no relation didn't spare us, either. The judge went ahead and explained his connection to this woman whom NOBODY KNEW. He also spoke...very...deliberately. It was murder.

The ways people try to weasel out of jury duty when they're actually in the box are amazing and hilariously transparent. I didn't raise any substantial objections to serving; I had no real bias or legitimate problems that rose to the level the judge specified (he specifically used the example of a loved one being on her deathbed. But many didn't go down so easily. A Filipina woman (there were many in the pool) stated she didn't want to serve on a jury, because her Catholic faith prohibited her from passing judgment on others. Now, I'm pretty sure that judging other people consumes roughly 40% of a typical Catholic's day, but leaving that aside: these people hosted the SPANISH INQUISITION. How on Earth could anyone make such a blatantly false theological claim?

The judge was all over it, noting the only recognized group with such a prohibition are 7th-day Adventists. Something to look into the next time that jury duty slip comes around. But then he went off on his own special tangent, asking the woman if she was familiar with St. Thomas More. This is a 30something Filipina nurse who was clearly not raised in this country, or fucking England. The judge pointed out that More was a famous litigator and judge in addition to being a sainted Catholic, which is basically where I thought he was going. But he goes further, explaining not only the fact that More was executed but specifically why (his opposition to Henry VIII's remarriage). He then goes even further, explaining the parentage for both Ann Boleyn (I don't remember) and Catherine of Aragon (she was the daughter of Kind Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain!). All sixty jurors are dumbfounded. The lawyers and parties have poker faces. Things are weird. And of course, this little woman can do nothing but repeat her original (retarded) position. Ugh. The event proceeds until around 5pm, when the judge lets us all go home.

"But Tony," you ask, "what about the other sixty people?" We all had to come back for a second day of jury seletion. The process was such a glacially slow clusterfuck that sixty people (the vast majority of whom would never spend one moment in the juror's box) had to take a second day off work and re-appear to watch other people get interviewed by lawyers and a long-winded judge. Most of them slept or played games on their smartphones. The bailiff didn't care as long as everything was quiet. He was a pretty chill guy, for a mean old cop. Of the original fourteen in the box, eight were eventually dismissed. The folks who took their places were dismissed pretty rapidly, and the lawyers were given eight challenges each. There was a cranky Indian man who believed his self-employment should exempt him and claimed he would never vote with the plaintiff because he was "wasting my time by forcing me to be here." Yes, just you and only you. Another man claimed he'd been in a motorcycle accident six months prior that was nearly identical to the one described, and stated he could never vote with the defendant. A lot of people made up these claims, and stubbornly repeated them even as the judge and lawyers tried to unearth reasonability. All the real assholes got let go--this is a good lesson about how the world works, and how society is geared to privilege assholes. In any civilized discussion, the least reasonable person wins. Remember this for later.

Eventually we had our fourteen. Five men, none (save myself) younger than fifty. Nine women, ranging in age from 29 to 60something. One was legitimately hot; another was sneaky-hot. It's hard to describe. Anyway, on Wednesday at 12:15 the thought of jury duty hadn't even crossed my mind. By Thursday at 4:30, I was officially Juror #1 in the case of Gardner v. Lane. Despair was sinking into my fellow jurors. They were realizing that the next week or two or their lives would be consumed by what essentially mounted to a giant steaming pile of bullshit. Some had been blindsided, like the young mom who was the very last picked from the pool late Thursday. That would have been worse, I think--sitting for two days in silence, watching the box, thinking "At least I've dodged this bullet and they'll eventually let me go." And then, right at the end, you get thrown up in the box and accepted and suddenly HAH YOU'RE FUCKED. I got two whole days to internalize exactly how fucked I was, and to reach a level of acceptance.

And what of acceptance? Well, the attitude I adopted (which I heartily recommend for others in the same situation) was essentially the attitude I have at the airport. See, I hate traveling. I dread it in advance, I hate it while it's ongoing, and unlike most people I just can't get excited about the destination until we're there. It's called being a pill. Anyway, I adopt the following stance at the airport: I am being cast into a giant machine. It's far larger than me, and I have no control over any aspect of it. I'm simply entering one end of the machine, and I know that it must eventually spit me out the other side. I don't worry about anything that appears to be a disruption, like delayed flights or sudden court recesses--they're just part of the system. I don't hope for good things to happen--they probably won't, and if they do they're also part of the system. Eventually I will materialize on the other side. I just need to read a book and listen to music and ignore the awful sea of humanity around me until it's over.

Part two, next: the actual trial itself! Part three will be deliberations. And yeah, it's been six months. Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Fish. How do they work?

I'm writing a marine biology book. It focuses on the wildest, most awesome aspects of the ocean. Cherry-picking really interesting stuff is a big part of making normal people actually give a crap about science. The best communicators--when they don't have effortlessly likeable personalities and convenient TV platforms--are good at hitting the points people care about and skipping the rest. Typically I despise self-promotion in all its forms, but my work is so ridiculously solitary that half the time I've got no idea whether anyone else gives a shit about it. In other words, some outreach is in order. I've picked selected critters from various chapters in my book and I'll present to my internet audience the result of my Scientific Research. These aren't excerpts; I can't give away my bread and butter like that! Also, this is a humor blog and there are standards. Even when the humor is "I can't believe Tony blew up 'Rufio and Juliet,' a concept whose merit begins and ends with the name, into an entire one-act play in iambic pentameter. I really can't believe he actually finished the thing despite realizing early in the process how bad it was going to be." Well...I hope somebody in the universe laughed as a consequence of "Rufio and Juliet." Even if it was God, at the futility of His creations.

The Fastest: Sailfish
In general, things don't move as fast in the water as they do in the air. Water is dense; easy to understand. There are several kinds of speed (sprints, distance, twitch reflexes) but sailfish are really the Ferraris of the ocean. They blast around at 30mph normally, but get up to about 60 and can make giant leaps completely out of the water. They're similar to swordfish and marlin, but smaller and generally less delicious. Adorned with mohawks that easily mark them as badasses to other fish, they use that big bill as a wand to stun and kill prey. When threatened by true apex predators like orcas or sharks, a billfish can also use its bill as a wand to conjure a Patronus. Unfortunately, not all form of the Patronus Charm work in the ocean: that majestic stag is going right to the bottom. Since the Patronus form has a large genetic component (Rowling 1999), billfish with non-marine aspects were weeded out over eons of natural selection. Today, nearly 96.4% of adult billfish are able to produce a functional Patronus Charm under stress situations.

But sailfish have a problem: they're actually too fast. Fish brains aren't high-HP machines (horsepower, not hit points). As anyone who's driven 100mph at night through suburban Massachusetts to make it home before curfew knows, the world is harder to process at high speed. You have less time to react to the marks in the road. Now consider a stupid fish trying to track prey at 40 knots in three dimensions: it's like trying to pick up a coffee cup from the asphalt while you drive your car down the highway. Consider further the cold-blooded nature of that fish: its brain and eyes, immersed in chilly open-ocean water, are sluggish and impaired. Now you're picking up the coffee cup drunk and without your glasses. Oh, you don't wear glasses? I bet you had a nice childhood. I'm kidding; that's just what miserable kids with bad eyes tell themselves. Anyway, a unique adaptation to this odd problem makes all the difference: specialized warming cells.

Like little zero-efficiency muscles, they're fibrous tissue that produces all heat and no movement. Typically these warmers are found in cold-weather animals like insects that need to keep their muscles warm for rapid-twitch escape responses and impressing lady insects. In sailfish, the warmers are found in the brain case and eye sockets. They pump heat through the organs most important to information processing, drastically increasing the visual acuity and mental agility of the fish. Essentially, it goes from a goddamned fish to a stupid-but-athletic cat. The sort of cat that easily catches birds and rabbits, but when you move its food it just sits in the old food spot yowling and continues to do this for the next six months. Sailfish are prized by sport fishermen because they're so difficult to chase down and catch. "Tony, aren't regular fish hard pretty hard to catch?" Yes, but if you're sipping on Busch in a rowboat with aching legs and a sore butt, it's hard to show off how much fucking money you've got.

Bizarre Family Life: Palolo Worms
Palolo worms are one of many so-called "bristle worms" that live on tropical coral reefs. They bore through the rock and coral, eating whatever they find and being generally hideous. An English aquarium recently discovered a four-foot bristle worm hiding in a tank (WARNING: CANNOT BE UN-SEEN), having grown from a larval stowaway into a legitimately dangerous/poisonous beast from the womb of Shub-Niggurath. The picture above is a Palolo worm--no less hideous, but much less likely to induce madness in onlookers. Socially, being a reef worm is really limiting: you hang around your tube, more or less, and never get to hang out with other worms because they're so far away and across such dangerous waters. It's a little like being a writer, but the dangers are ghosts that you control with medications. I'm just kidding, guys. Tom Cruise told me medications are bullshit. Palolo worms are about a foot long, brown or pink with lots of little ringed legged segments like a millipede. They're important because of their spawning habits. They breed together, all at once, on a single day every year. The worms who hit puberty late sometimes follow up with a lame straggler's orgy, but nobody's sure how to feel about it.

Moving on! In the weeks leading up to spawning day, the Palolo worms start to change. The back halves of their bodies wither and shrink, vacating muscle tissue and organs. At the same time, the gonads undergo enormous growth. They crank out huge volumes of eggs or sperm (they aren't hermaphrodites) until their rear is a just a giant reservoir of gametes. At the neap tide of the three-quarter moon (or some shit--I don't follow astrology) they spring into action, convulsing until their back halves break off. The liberated segments use what's left of their legs and muscles to swim to the surface. They're guided by an eyespot: a little region of pigment that even on a cloudy night can discern which way the moon is. The spawners gather at the surface in huge swarms: remember, every Palolo worm attempts to breed at the same time, and there are millions spread across miles of reef. They all release their precious cargo, dumping sperm and eggs into the water to mingle freely: like a frat party, only streamlining the whole process. The surface is covered with a thick, goopy layer of genetic filth along with the spaghetti-like tendrils of the dying spawners. Waiting for them are hundreds of Pacific islanders.

Samoan, Tahitian, Vanuatan--they're all brown, all love to sacrifice virgin hotties to their volcano gods, and all love to eat Palolo worms. Not the actual animals in the reef--gross!--but the spawners. In fact, like most truly foul cuisine, it's considered a delicacy in a sort of large-scale societal ruse to convince people to actually fucking eat it. If I lived on an island, this would be Worm Spooge Day and we'd stay out of the gloopy-ass water. Instead, the 2:00 AM collection of the spawners occasions a huge festival in many of these island communities. The spawners are fried, grilled, baked into loaves with onions, and served on toast or crackers like caviar. True enthusiasts simply pick them out of the water and gloop them down. The ocean's brine is a fine seasoning! While the image at right would seem to be from The Walking Dead, it's actually just some dude enjoying the fruits of God's creation. Which is exactly how a zombie would view his own feeding process. Think about it.

P.S. If this blog were SEO optimized, I'd turn "The Walking Dead" into a link. But is linking you to the IMDB page for a well-known and popular show really going to add anything to your life? No, it's just going to foist more bandwidth into your skull: GO HERE! DO THIS! Which is only worthwhile for links that actually add value to your life. In theory, this non-optimization is bad blogging. See how fucked up the world is? Now, watch Workaholics on Comedy Central Wednesdays at 10:30 (between South Park and Stewart). I don't plug things I don't believe in; every promo I've seen for this show has been brilliant.

Have a great day, you kids.

Monday, February 28, 2011

The Vagaries of Fame

It's hard to be famous. The constant demands on your time and money, the tax headaches for all that income and all those residences in all those different states, and keeping your oeuvre straight with all the fans. Let's face it: if hundreds of people are screaming and cheering at a regular jerk like you or I, the exact reason will probably be obvious. We just made a half-court shot during halftime of an NBA game. We just rescued a small girl child from a well (nobody really cares when bad things happen to boys). This doesn't happen every day for us. But for a legitimate celebrity, who the hell knows? If somebody's cheering at Tom Cruise, how's he to know what the dude is thinking? Did he love Days of Thunder or is he just applauding the hard work Mr. Cruise does to promote the acceptance of crazy people in decent society?

I'd imagine the problems are amplified by events like last night's Oscars ceremony. Outside the theater are fans you who love you because of your work and media workers who love you for the money you make them. Inside, it's just an orgy of LA onanism as you celebrate, along with your industry, the members of your industry that you've chosen to celebrate. Not only that--the self-congratulation is broadcast on national television to the millions of fans who couldn't be waiting right outside the theater to see you walk into it. It's not all bad--during the portion of the show that's not broadcast on TV, they hand out technical awards to all kinds of hard-working non-famous people. Also, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross won for composing the music to The Social Network. "Tony, there was no goddamned music in that movie. Just people talking nonstop." It was so subtle you barely noticed it! Whatever, Trent Reznor won an Oscar and that's awesome. If you're going to complain about something in that film, how about the fact that they gave the single worst line to foxy Rasheeda Jones? Timberlake should have taken the bullet on that one.

During the show, I was actually at a Chinese seafood buffet eating myself sick. Not from the volume, from the accumulated heavy minerals I absorbed from eating all that cheap shellfish. There were a lot of strange dreams that night. Anyway, all this got me thinking about what celebrities are famous for, as opposed to what they should be famous for. I've touched on this idea in the past in the context of Jon Malkovich's performance in Mutant Chronicles. I called it Celebrity Conversation Starters; this isn't quite the same thing, but it should be obvious that you'd ideally lead a conversation with the "should be famous for" items. You want to talk to Malkovich about Being Jon Malkovich? What an asshole you are or would be.

Dan Marino
Is famous for:Being the statistically greatest NFL QB in history until Brett Favre took his records. Probably the greatest pure passer ever. Greatest QB to never win a Super Bowl. Lots of commercials. Being dumb as a bag of hammers.

Should be famous for: His role in "Ace Ventura: Pet Detective," where he played himself in a handful of scenes despite being the focal point of the film's climax. Brett Favre tried to copy him here as well, being a major plot element in "There's Something About Mary" but mercifully only appearing at the end. Marino KILLS this role, especially the shot where they're both driving to the stadium with their heads out the window. Best question you'd ask in person: "Did Jim Carrey ever give you any bubble gum when the cameras were off?"

Malcolm McDowell
Is famous for: A prolific career stretching forty years. Narrating "The Compleat Beatles." Starring in Kubrick's classic "A Clockwork Orange." Voice acting in a host of cartoons and video games. Crazy eyes.

Should be famous for:
His role in "Doomsday," as a mad scientist turned medieval king. I'll admit, he could put a little more energy into the role, but the guy's old! And he gets to spit contempt at somebody during his only scene with any real dialogue, which is really McDowell's specialty. Best question to ask in person: "Hey, I know you weren't in that scene, but how did all those hooligans in broken-down shitwagons catch up to Rhona Mitra in a Bentley?"

Christopher Walken
Is famous for: Prolific decades-spanning acting career. Being intensely weird in almost every performance. Possibly being really weird in person, but it's hard to tell because HE ALWAYS TALKS LIKE THAT. His fantastic performance in "Catch Me If You Can." His ability to nail every single performance essentially just by being himself. Having an AMAZING fake Twitter account until The Man took it down (it's not like the real actor has an account!).

Should be famous for: His appearance in Tim Burton's Sleepy Hollow, as The Headless Horseman. He has a head (with a face on it!) in a handful of scenes, and those are all Walken. YOU CANNOT REMOVE YOUR EYES FROM HIM. He doesn't even get a line in the script, making it pretty apparent that Tim Burton did this just because it's awesome. Walken wears hilarious fake sharp teeth and all he does is yell GRAAAAAHHH and chop people's heads off and bite the villain's face at the end. His hair is crazy, his makeup is crazy, everything about the dude is nuts in that movie. And he doesn't even get to use his ridiculous speaking cadence! Best question in person: "Will you please please please smoke pot with me and then record my phone's voice mail?" Final thing: this picture is a young Walken in 1955 sporting clown make-up. If he re-enacted that photo today, it would be the single most terrifying image ever committed to film.

Charlie Sheen
Is famous for: "Platoon," a modern classic. "Two and a Half Men," the show proving nobody is better at creating the television equivalent of empty fast food calories than Chuck Lorre THE EVIL JEW. Charlie's been especially topical lately, doubling down on crazy by calling Alex Jones and anyone else who will agree to put him on the air to rant about how he's a space fighter with laser cannons who bangs seven-gram rocks all night long (and porn stars for brief spells when he can achieve an erection). Muammar Qaddafi's been the craziest motherfucker on the planet for the last couple weeks, but the former Carlos Estevez is really tearing away at the chains of reality.

Should be famous for: His role in "Hot Shots!" as Topper Harley, who's Tom Cruise in "Top Gun" but actually tall enough to realistically land that hottie. Though I'm not sure she'd be down to share with two coke-dusted hookers named Powder and Donut. Guess which one does anal. Yeah, you're right, both do anal. Anyway, "Hot Shots!" is basically that generation's Wayans Brothers Topical Comedy Shit Casserole. But it's directed by Jim Abrahams of "Airplane!" fame, so it's actually funny. Best part of the movie: how the character of Goose is basically unchanged from the original. That character was so ridiculous in "Top Gun" that he didn't need to be altered for comedy. Best question in person: "Hey, I'm from a porn company. We're gonna send some girls by later. Can I hang out with you for now?" I guarantee two hours later, he's convinced you're his friend and you're in the Sheen Zone for at least the next couple days until you OD or get mauled by a syphilis bacterium the size of a Labrador. Because unlike Charlie, you do not have tiger blood.

My take on the dude's latest issues: I think he finally woke up. Think of him like Kobe on the Lakers before they were handed Pau Gasol for nothing: he was destined to be one of the greatest ever, but he'd never be the greatest. He sulked away and pined for a trade, like Charlie when he tried to give the marriage-and-kids thing a go. He even found a nice girl (Denise Richards) who LOOKS like a porn star. Anyway, one day Kobe/Charlie woke up and realized he had a chance to be The Greatest all along. Kobe got Pau and went back to winning titles (during one year where KG was hurt and another where Perkins ACL blew up in Game 6 of the Finals FUCK YOU). Charlie realized if he could just SURVIVE his binges, he could make a run for Most Depraved of All Time, right at Caligula--the MJ of ridiculous excess (and played by Malcolm McDowell in the famous film!). So he split from Denise, shot himself up with tiger blood, and went to work. Remember, he kept working on his terrible show for a LONG time to make sure he'd have enough money to pull it off. He explicitly wanted to have a retirement where he did drugs and hung out with a gaggle of porn stars all day and night. So I can't really take him to task for it, the same way nobody could criticize Kobe for wanting to supplant MJ. This is what he really wants, and he's got some truly historic goals in sight. I say let him go for it.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

A Juxtaposition

I'm not in the habit of doing mini-posts. There's an awfully slippery slope between "hey guys check this out real quick" and "hey guys here's an iBook webcam shot of me with my dog. Check out the bomb-ass pattern I just painted on my nails!" Which is to say, a descent into girlblogging. I've resolved not to let this happen (or to ever "re-blog" something--Jesus Christ, write your own content), but please allow me to share these videos. First, right-wing talk radio host Alex Jones attempts to re-define political discourse:

Unfortunately for Doctor Jones, John Cleese beat him to the punch by about 35 years.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

A Guide to Proper Crowd Violence

Before the Guide
It's been a rough few days, physically speaking. On Saturday I played ultimate for over two hours , which would have been strenuous on its own, but I was also wearing my brand-new Nike Mercurial Vapors and they took the skin off my heels. That's the actual color, by the way. I thought I might be able to get neon pink, but they only had the green in size 12. I could not have gotten a tasteful color if I wanted to (and why would I?). Anyway, we're way past blisters--the blisters have developed, been popped and sheared away, and the skin beneath them as well. It's just what happens if you don't take it easy with new cleats--and honestly, it's gonna hurt even if you take it easy. So have fun, deal with the pain, and complain about it afterwards on your blog. Also, buy Neosporin and a lot of band-aids.

That was Saturday. Sunday night, The Humboldt hosted a group excursion to San Francisco's "DNA Lounge" to see the Australian metalcore band Parkway Drive. The DNA Lounge has no genetics- or helix-themed themes whatsoever, not even a spiral staircase. Slim's is presumably named after some shifty and probably fictional proprietor, who put Playboys in the bathrooms back when people were capable of being offended by something so tame as exposed breasts and genitals. I should be able to understand why you gave your club this name, is all I'm saying. The East Bay punk/hardcore act Set Your Goals opened, and they owned pretty hard. The crowd was ROWDY AS HELL during their set, which was obviously enhanced by the fact that these guys were local. I was getting knocked around pretty well and the stage dives were going--it was clear at this point that we were all in for a bumpy night. If these relatively tame punk rockers ("Gaia Bleeds" might be their heaviest song) had the crowd this riled up, the very legitimate brutality of Parkway Drive might actually incite a riot.

When the time came, even I was not prepared. To be fair, it's not the first time this has happened. It was the most violent show I've ever been to, though a couple others have come close. Circle pits--typically the most dangerous things you'll encounter at metal shows--were the least of my problems. We all got separated immediately, and the surges going back and forth across the crowd were easily enough to knock people off their feet. Stage divers, when they started up in the first song ("Samara/Unrest"), were wild and got wilder. The singer made matters worse at every turn, escalating the violence by demanding MORE MORE MORE. See, a true frontman makes YOU want to please HIM. Only by the intensity of your devotion will he ever accept and love you, and you NEED that love. As Stephen Colbert has noted, the craving for the love of a distant authority figure whom you can never truly satisfy marks all the best relationships. Parkway Drive's Winston McCall was insatiable on Sunday, demanding more stage dives and more circle pits and more crushing of the floor. Always more. It does help that the whole band is really appealing in general; not only do they write amazing face-crushing music, but they're all effortlessly handsome, fit Aussie surfer guys. My sister (who came to the show and risked her surgically repaired back on multiple stage dives, proving yet again that she's way braver than me) was drooling over them, and even if you don't want to bone hot Aussies you can't help but be dazzled by their smiles.

The problem was this: the crowd's energy was probably the best I've ever experienced personally, yet it was so sloppy and out-of-control that it ultimately detracted from the experience. It's not Winston's fault (I would never blame you!). It's the crowd's fault. It was a young crowd (all-ages show, what can you do?) and so I understand their sloppiness. What I don't understand is their fashion taste, or their utter lack of shame in promoting said taste. Shame is an important part of teenaged life; it's one of the few things that can actually regulate their awful behavior. Every teenager is an awful embarrassing stain on the Earth, and if you aren't appalled by the memory of your teenaged self you don't have a good memory. The point is, I'm here to help. But you've gotta cut your fucking hair.

Now It's The Guide
First, let's talk about general behavior; you're up near the stage in standing room, but not looking to do anything crazy (crowd surfing, stage diving, or going in a circle pit). We'll leave wall-to-walls out of this; that's some really advanced stuff and honestly if you ever participate in one you need to evaluate your life choices. If you're standing and the crowd is surging back and forth, these are the important things:
--KEEP YOUR FEET. No matter what happens, keep your feet on the ground. Falling is the worst and most dangerous thing that can happen. If you are really confident in your footing, you can dance or jump around. If you choose to do this, try to keep your movement vertical only. You've seen what happens when a basketball player lands on somebody's foot? He gets hurt, and like all mammals you also have feet. Plan accordingly.
--ELBOWS OUT. These are your best friends in the crowd. Keep your arms up and elbows out, to make sure you have a bare minimum of space. If you're crammed so tight that your chest and back have other peoples' chests and backs pressed against them, you can be pushed off your feet. Remember rule 1? Yeah. Also, like in rule 1, this rule can be broken if you expand vertically (putting your fists/hands in the air) and you have enough space.
--CORE STRENGTH. This isn't really something you can work on at the show. But if you do a lot of push-ups, sit-ups, or other core exercises you'll find it MUCH easier to deal with occasional surges. Go along with them, bend, but don't break and fall. Also, if you have a cut stomach or something there's always the chance somebody hot will notice. I mean, it's never happened to me, but there's a lot of things my ass don't get. "Like pussy and respect!"

Next, circle pits. This is the biggest problem a typical concert-goer will run into. Or rather, get run into by. Because that's what happens; people careening at high speed around a pit smash into the walls. The walls are made of people! It's an irritant up until the point when you're getting hammered so hard that you have to turn away from the stage to watch the pit and protect yourself. If you do decide to get into the pit, they can actually be a lot of fun. I dove in several times myself during particularly awesome segments of particularly awesome songs. Normally I don't do this, for two reasons. First, I'm a pussy and I don't like getting hit. I love watching football, but I'm sure I would have hated playing it. Second, in my experience the circle pits are always dominated by the most orc-like denizens of the venue. 5'9" guys who weigh 230, took their shirts off before even entering the club and probably have at least one neck tattoo. I'm willing to bang bodies with my fellow rock fans, but I'm not looking to get drilled by a drunk'n'angry bulldog. See: the above speculation on playing football. At this particular show, there were so many teenaged kids that I was one of the bigger, stronger men in the venue (standing an imposing 6-foot-nothing and 160 pounds).

If you hop in, go with the flow. Clockwise or counter, try to move in the same basic direction as the other moshers. This lets you enjoy yourself without high-speed collisions, where people fall. KEEP YOUR FEET. If you hit other people, use the meat of your shoulder or the palms of your hands. Stay away from joints and bones, because they hurt. Above all, beware of a particular kind of mosher. He's young, often a teenager, and possessed of all the myriad jackasseries endemic to his race. He will often wear a shirt commemorating over-caffeinated guttertrash bands like A Day to Remember or Bring Me the Horizon (if there's a four-letter acronym, that's a bad sign). His style of moshing can best be described as "fighting the invisible ninjas," as he kicks his legs and windmills his arms in furious punching motions. Nobody knows why they started doing this, but on the Internet these children will actually defend their ridiculousness by claiming "it's about protecting your body." I suppose so, in the sense that punching a complete in the face is self-defense. Space is limited in a circle pit, and the last thing you want to do is piss everyone off by smashing your fists into their bodies if they get anywhere near you. Honestly, the best solution is to drill the kid directly in the back with your shoulder. It's the one part of his body he can't protect with his fists, and it'll typically wipe him out into the wall of the pit. He might get kicked in the face, and it might be a learning experience.

Finally, stage dives. These were a big thing on Sunday night, since the only security employed by the DNA Lounge was stationed outside the venue. Which made sense, I think, in case an army of gun-toting hoods tried to take the club hostage Die Hard-style. That didn't happen, so the arrangement was a smashing success. People could jump onstage at any time, and did so with abandon. Mr. McCall encouraged this by letting them scream into the mic, high-fiving them, and explicitly demanding more stage dives after every song. I heart you, Winston. During the set there were an average of 1.4 non-band-members on the stage at any given time. During the encore, it was probably 2.3, which is to say a LOT of people were taking dives. And, well...a lot of them were getting fucked up. This happened for a variety of reasons, because 16-year-olds are prone to a variety of mistakes. Let's review some important tactics:
--PEOPLE ARE NOT FURNITURE. If you want to stage dive, you need to get up to the stage and climb up on it directly. While you can be crowd-surfed to the stage, getting up over that crowd should be done with the assistance of your buddies. Your buddies, not random strangers. I had a half-dozen kids try to vault over my shoulders to get up, and it feels really weird to get jumped from behind like that. The good news? I don't have to put up with it, and would just drop my left shoulder every time. The stupid kids then lose their balance and fall on their faces, serving the cause of Justice. For those kids: use the stage, or your buddies.
--THE CROWD HAS LIMITS. Any time you stage dive, you are asking up to a dozen complete strangers to carry you, lest you smash your face into the concrete floor. Keep this in mind. Particularly if you take a leap, that's a lot of work that needs to be done. If stage dives are happening fast and furious--as they were on Sunday--divers need to take care that they dive into a region of the crowd that can actually support them. If one long-haired douchebag kid dives and is absorbed by the crowd on the left side of the stage, and his skinny-jeans-wearing douchebag friend dives into the same general area, what's going to happen? Sorry, skinny jeans, hope somebody grabs your arm before you faceplant. So, no matter your size, even if you're a girl (they always get caught), wait at least ten seconds before diving into roiling waters.
--BACK OR STOMACH. If you're willing to take the extra risk, you can take a big leap. But remember, somebody has to catch you, and that somebody really needs to be like five somebodies. Those five guys need to have somewhere to grab, so you present surface area, meaning your stomach or back (ladies should obviously go back-first to keep the groping to a socially acceptable level). If you lead with your head, nobody's going to catch you. If you do a backflip, nobody's going to catch you. If you jump feet-first, I hope you break your fucking legs because the LAST thing anyone's catching is a pair of rock-hard shoes flying at them. You're going to kick somebody in the face. Speaking of which, I was kicked in the face by some guy at the show who pulled this exact shit. He hurt my neck and cut my forehead, and I went after him with the legitimate intention of socking him in the eye. Because if you get to kick me in the face, I get to punch you in yours. My initial shove of challenge caused him to fall, terrified and flailing, back into the circle pit where he got stomped on. Call it a draw. Interestingly, I could have beat the shit out of this kid without a single security guy in sight. Something to think about, DNA Lounge.

We'll close this with a Parkway Drive live video, to commemorate their spectacular performance. I wish they'd played this song and a few others, but that's how set lists go. Also, the show started late and had to end at midnight. It's not a perfect world.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Unifying Theories, vol. 1: Romantic vs. Industrial Societies

Welcome to the Unifying Theories course, here at the Mountain View Scientology Center! I presume you all brought your copies of Dianetics and a check for $2,000? Seriously, though, there really is a Scientology bookstore/center/future site of mass suicide in Mountain View, California. It's downtown right next to an amazing Turkish restaurant. Come for the food; leave with both diarrhea and reading material for the toilet! This is the first of what may be a multi-part series on my larger unifying theories for how the world works. The next one could be "Men are stupid, women are crazy." But maybe not--you remember Ludicrous Video Game Tropes? Only two issues. Sometimes bad things happen to good ideas.

The Idea
I submit that among European societies, all can be divided into two broad categories: Romantic and Industrial. The theory is limited to European societies because I'm broadly ignorant of most others. If there's one thing I've learned about humor, it's that if you're going to generalize about other peoples' cultures they should have at least the same skin color as you. And honestly, I'm not sure it even holds for others. Third-world countries by definition aren't industrial. East Asian societies seem to exhibit characteristics of both. So let's stick to what works. And by the way, you should treasure this paragraph. How many times do I proclaim my ignorance on my own blog? You should probably make a wish, as you would for any other cosmically rare event.

Anyway, the theory is that Romantic and Industrial societies share common weaknesses and strengths. It starts from the bottom, from the collective Ids of human beings over the course of centuries. Eventually, a national character forms, with a number of tendencies that shape the aspirations and capabilities of the entire society. If nobody in France cared about painting, they'd have far fewer painters in general and likely no great ones. I think you get the idea.

What do I mean by Industrial societies? To name a few, Britain, Germany, Australia, America, and Canada because that's basically America.

What do I mean by Romantic societies? To name a few, France, Italy, Spain, and Quebec because that's basically France.

Russia is kind of an exception. It's got elements of both societies, but it's really a Fucked Up society. In Fucked Up societies, they drink vodka. Russia is a fucked-up place filled with fucked-up people and always has been. I took a Russian History class in college, and it was more depressing than my Milton class.

Industrial Societies

The drink of choice for the industrial man. And his woman. And their children. Beer was one of the few things that was actually safe to drink a thousand years ago, and countries like England and Germany specialize in it. The unique brutality of Australian metal is made possible only by throats well-lubricated with Foster's. Americans similarly love their beer and metal, and while we do produce wine I should note that all our wines are rip-offs of French and Italian wines. So there. Beer is the result of production, not cultivation. You can craft it, yeah. But you can't have beer until you can process grain, and beer is essentially liquid bread. It built the fucking Pyramids! Well, beer and whips. Lots of whips. By contrast, you've never had an Italian or French or Spanish beer, and it's not because they don't exist. It's because nobody outside of those countries wants to drink their particular flavors of swill.

American cars, though they suffered a decline in the past couple decades with the rise of Japanese manufacturers, were long considered the standard across the world. The British and Germans also make great cars. For Industrial societies, automobiles represent the cutting age of engineering and manufacturing. The two greatest highway systems in the world are the US Interstate and the Autobahn. England might be able to compete if they weren't concerned about rampaging bands of Picts destroying any infrastructure they invest in. Don't believe me? King Arthur, Centurion, now The Eagle. All involve battling shitloads of Picts. I don't make these things up. In contrast, Romantic countries make shitty cars. French cars are such a joke that Paris drivers routinely jostle each others' parked vehicles around to wedge into a space. Nobody cares, because these are such pieces of shit. "But Tony, what about all those Italian sports cars?" While flashy, they are more products of visual design than amazing cars. Ferraris in particular are known for their unreliable transmissions. They make Vespas. I guess those are cool.

This is closely related to cars. Why? Because the same kind of technological superiority represented in a BMW as opposed to a Peugeot translates into battlefield superiority. The Spanish Armada was sunk by England. Need I remind you of the tempestuous relationship between France and Germany? It was a rivalry in the sense that the Yankees and Red Sox had a rivalry prior to 2004. When France used the spoils of World War I to build the mighty Maginot line, Germany was like, "You realize that there's another French-speaking country to your undefended North, right?" The greatest French military leader of all time was defeated by snow. Germany is so fantastic at war that we had to essentially ban them from the local ballcourt. And the greatest war speech of all time? English.

Romantic Societies

Wine and Food
They get a combined section because they're intrinsically linked. Wine is an accompaniment for food; beer is a substitute for food. I've never developed a taste for the stuff personally (one of a thousand misconceptions I had about adulthood: that I would "grow to like" wine) but I can acknowledge its role in human civilization. In fact, this might be one of the earliest determinants of whether a society becomes Industrial or Romantic: thousands of years ago when alcohol was the only way to ensure the safety of your beverages, did your society turn to wine or beer? If it's beer, your men will spend the next few centuries taking enormous shits, designing toilets to handle them, and eventually applying that toilet engineering to cars and war. If it's wine, your men will spend the next centuries eating too much and trying to get laid. German food essentially exists to keep you from throwing up your beer; it's just sausage, sauerkraut and heavy grains. Mustard is a food group for German people. English food is so legendarily bad that Nobel-winning economists have written papers on it. Swedes are incapable of creating any food or drink that isn't REALLY WEIRD. Indeed, the best food you can get in either England or Germany is from kebab stands run by Turks or North Africans. Meanwhile, just walk into a sandwich shop somewhere in Barcelona. I defy you to come out of there with something that isn't one of the five greatest things you've ever put in your mouth.

Art and Music
The single most important edge the Romantics have over us stuffy Industrialists. The greatest artists and creative forces in the history of Western civilization were all French, Italian or Spanish. England and Germany have some good prose fiction writers, but the novel is an industrial product. Compare that to poetry, which the Romantics are awesome at but which we can't touch without being embarrassed. "But Mozart was German!" No, he was AUSTRIAN, and both Austria and Switzerland are Romantic societies who happen to speak German. Visit those places sometime; fairy-tale whimsy practically drips from their architecture. Mozart's Austrian operas are amazing; Wagner's German operas are fourteen hours long and inspired the aesthetic of National Socialism. And shall we talk about painting? Italian artists brought about the Renaissance; French artists gave us Impressionism, which is exactly like having your contact lenses get all dry and blurry but without the scratching sensation. Picasso was a Spaniard (and probably un-trustworthy for that reason). And here, by contrast, is the most representative sample of English art I can find:

"It's dreadful, isn't it? God, it's a bore." Those words were actually used by John L'Heureux to describe Joyce's Ulysses, but it's utterly appropriate here. The painting is called "The Northwest Passage" by John Everett Millais, and it's supposed to represent the English national shame at being unable to find and navigate the Northwest Passage--the mythical shipping route across the Arctic ice cap. So, what does Millais give us? A women looking sad as she pores over charts and ship logs. Meanwhile, her grizzled sea captain husband sits inert in his chair and stares out to sea. He's a broken man, confined to his chair for fifteen hours a day by joints corroded by salt and suffering. His arthritis is so bad that he can't un-ball his fists. Erections are a distant memory. He's got nothing to do but sit and rot here in drydock, like his barnacle-encrusted vessel long since broken apart for scrap lumber. Inside, he's already dead, and the sadness in his wife's eyes is less shame for her husband's failure than shame for her own. She wasn't meant to live like this, locked away with a mouldering ghost until at last her Sad Keanu goes to his meager reward of damp earth.

This is a tricky one; everyone thinks they're good at sex just like they think they're good at driving. The good news is that sex is easier than driving; there's less to pay attention to. It's also lamer because you're allowed to change the music at any point while you drive. Anyway, let's be real: Industrial societies are bad at sex. Our women are intimidating, and our men aren't emotional enough to crack their shells. Industrial societies also tend to be cold and sunless, especially in the winter, so everyone ends up pale and unattractive. As a result, Industrialists are like Pandas: they're just not that into sex. They recognize the practical need for it, but MAN would it be easier if we didn't have to think about this. Interestingly, everything I've just written describes the prevailing sexual attitudes at Stanford University during the time I was there. Girls in general seem to have become skankier since then; maybe it's different. Industrial people are embarrassed by their inner drives in general; the idea of taking our clothes off and flopping around to fulfill a biological need seems...un-dignified.

By contrast, people in Romantic societies spend huge amounts of time and effort on these pursuits. It's why we Americans fear our women going to Italy or France alone; it's not that we fear direct competition with those greaseballs, it's that we know Romantics will happily embarrass themselves for sex. A French dude has no problem begging any attractive woman he sees to sleep with him; after all, if you ask fifty women to sleep with you, at least one of them probably will. And by corollary, if your girlfriend is directly propositioned by fifty greasy long-haired dudes in skinny jeans with unbuttoned shirts, she's going to bang one of them. We can't compete with those guys; they're not even playing the same game.

Thanks for reading.