Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Murder, Sex, TV and Contradictions in Pop Culture

I'm constantly amazed by what passes for entertainment.

I'm constantly amazed by what must be withheld by the censors, the people who ostensibly are there to protect our minds from images and ideas that are unacceptable.

Let's look at what's on tonight: CBS has NCIS, then NCIS Los Angeles.  That's the two roughest offerings tonight and frankly the rest of the week is going to be kind of toned down.  It is Thanksgiving week, after all.

But there's the various flavors of CSI, Law and Order, Castle...any number of offerings.  The common element in all of them: somebody's been murdered.

I don't mind a police drama.  I really enjoyed NYPD Blue, the way it picked out the complex interpersonal relationships between the detectives and their superiors, the grudging respect of the uniform cops for the detectives, just the whole tenor of the thing.  And somebody wasn't getting killed every five minutes, either.  I did think it was a little too formulaic that assorted members of Andy Sipowicz' family and friends had to get killed off to give the season a big juicy ratings bump at the end of each season.

What I mind is that these terrible images, the ghastly dessicated corpses that litter the examining tables in Bones, the assorted bits and pieces of person on Ducky's slab in NCIS make it past the censors, but God forbid if anybody's derriere shows.  Yes, those people are dead and their guts are splayed all over, but their groins are covered and the women don't have nipples.

Are we, as a nation, that scared of sex?  We can handle murder and grisly disemboweled corpses better than we can handle naked live people?

I can hear the censor now: "The death and disembowelment is an adult topic.  Those shows are geared for adults.  They can handle it."

But what would the censor say about full frontal nudity?  "There might be children watching."

What about the children watching the disemboweled corpse?  No response.

Here's my thing: it makes no sense to me for a very simple reason.  I want my kids to grow up appalled by murder, by violent death.  I don't want them used to it, to not flinch at it on the screen.  I expect them to live very long, very full lives that don't include them murdering anyone.

I do, however, expect them to have sex once in a while.  They'd better.  I want grandkids one of these days.

So.  To recap: we have endless opportunities for young people to become completely inured to the idea of killing, of murder, of assorted violence.  But we carefully police how familiar they become with how naked people look?  As if they couldn't simply turn around in front of the mirror after a shower and figure it out?

Humans are weird.

Monday, November 21, 2011


I love music.

Let's clarify the topic a bit.  Some people think "rap" is music; I'm not one of them.  At first rap had a kind of musicality, but a lot of that seems to have gone away and what's left is angry chanting.  If I want angry chanting, I'll watch video of an Occupy demonstration.

I don't go for hip-hop either.  It just doesn't sit well with me.

I enjoy some classical but mostly I'm a pop, rock and folk-rock kind of guy.  I like music that moves to a good beat, especially stuff that has a pace that's right for walking.  It just helps a guy move along, and next thing you know you're clear across town and how did you get there?  Ah, who cares - the tunes have been great.

I was wandering around YouTube just a few minutes ago, can't remember what I was chasing exactly, but there on the suggested viewing list was Judy Collins' song, "Both Sides Now."  I've always loved Collins' ethereal voice, and I clicked it.

The organ starts, high and sweet.  A few taps of the high hats.  And Judy sings.  She's a couple of verses into it before I can completely pull myself together and hear what she's saying.

"Moons, and Junes, and Ferris wheels
The dizzy, dancing way you feel
When every fairy tale comes real
I've looked at love that way."

I wept.  She's singing about a heartbreaking naivete and a wrenching knowledge that the naivete must come to an end.  Innocence is gone, no matter how well you remember what it was like to be that carefree.  There have to be some clouds in that wondrous expanse of sky.

Do I necessarily share all these views, have I lived this life she's torn out of her heart to show to us?  No.  But it certainly sounds like she has; if she hasn't, Judy has pulled me into the most mesmerizing fantasy because it sounds like she lives each and every moment that she's singing.  I do enjoy it when the singers really throw themselves completely into the song.  If you're going to round up people to play behind you, if you're going to stand behind that microphone in front of that great big audience, how could you possibly give them anything less than everything you have?

I suspect I may be a depressive personality.  Some of my absolute most favorite songs ever were the saddest.  "Both Sides Now" is a good example.  Arlo Guthrie's "City of New Orleans" is a despondent obituary of the poetic railway journey of an older time.

It's not all sad songs, though.  John Denver's "Country Roads" is one of the best songs of all time.  And "Thank God I'm a Country Boy" is a flat-out party.  Go listen to it! 

And it's not all old stuff, either.  I know I'm too old to be considered hip, but that never stopped me from taking a listen at what's out there.  Jason Mraz is great; Beyonce is a dance party looking for a place to happen.  Marc Brussard's deep bayou blues-rock sound is an absolute blast.  Al Green is old-school cool.

But there's so much more.  They've been around for a little while but I recently discovered this Croatian duo of cellists, 2Cellos doing a cover of Michael Jackson's "Smooth Criminal."  It was, in my opinion, actually better than Michael's original version.  It was brilliant stuff.

There will always be trends in music.  Rap has been around for awhile, it may go on forever and it may fade away.  Crunk seems to have died, good thing too.  Grunge was always there - it just didn't go by that name.

There will always be ballads.  There will always be room for a little ensemble of guitar, drums and keyboard.  A vocalist steps up to the mic and shares a little of his soul.  Sometimes the group is bigger.  Sometimes it's just one lonely singer, humming the words he can't quite remember.  But he loves the music.

I finished writing this while listening to Queen's "You're My Best Friend."  I miss you, Freddie.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

GPS Tracking: Does It Need a Warrant?

Antoine Jones is a bad guy.  I don't think anyone will contest that fact.  He got nailed with over 200lbs of cocaine and over $800,000 a while back.  But the case got tossed out because the way the police observed him isn't entirely legal.

They put a tracking device on his car.

Full disclosure: I've done this.  At the request of a supervisor, I placed a tracking device inside a company vehicle, and retrieved the device at the end of each day to download where it had gone.  As it turned out, nothing untoward was going on and the suspicion was unwarranted.  As a representative of the agency to whom the vehicle belonged and at the behest of the supervisor to whom the driver reported, I placed a tracker and reported its findings to the supervisor.  I did not retain the findings and since they disclosed nothing of interest, I destroyed them.  The issue was one of workplace discipline, not discovering illegal activity.

But it appears that the US government is a little dodgy about whether it's legal for law enforcement officials, either local or federal, to place such a device on a car.  Especially whether it's legal to do so without a warrant.

Jones' car was monitored by such a device, one that transmitted his vehicle's location every second in real time.  Mine couldn't do that, but you can find them that do.  The thing is, Jones' car was equipped with a monitor but not with the authority of a warrant.  Cops just stuck it on his car and watched where he went.

That Jones was caught with the cocaine is beyond debate.  That he was caught with a suspiciously large amount of money isn't in question.  What's really beyond the pale is, the cops should not have been able to do that.

When investigating a crime, cops can either react to what they see with their own eyes, or they can explain what they suspect - and support that with evidence - to a judge, who will then either declare it worth further investigating and provide a warrant, or not.  There has to be this chain of authority, or else the police force will have to be considered a law unto themselves.  We all know just how bad "laws unto themselves" are.  That's how Libya wound up with Gaddhafi, look at how that turned out.

At the heart of this case in particular is the warrant.  According to law enforcement, GPS data is how they gather enough information to convince a judge that a warrant is, for lack of a better term, warranted.  But what about that initial GPS device?

It's nothing to say that anyone can watch you driving around.  Can't help it, you're out there in the open.  And if a policeman sees you, that's fine.  He sees everybody else around him too.  But suppose there's a GPS device affixed to your car that you didn't know about, constantly updating the policeman on exactly where you are, what direction you're headed at what speed, and where you stop?

It's a little offputting, isn't it?  What if he can ticket you for speeding because he has a GPS record of your exact speed?  It feels like he's cheating, doesn't it?  I've been pulled over for speeding once or twice (all verbal warnings so far!) and I didn't really mind being pulled over that much.  Yeah, I was going too fast.  Sure enough, and you caught me.  Busted, fair and square.

But what if the speeding ticket came in the mail?  "YOU WERE DETECTED IN A ______SPEED ZONE MOVING AT _____ MILES PER HOUR YOUR FINE IS $_____.  HAVE A NICE DAY."

With the cop, you can offer mitigating circumstances: "Either let me keep driving at the speed I was going or she's going to have the baby right here."  You can explain to the judge, "The throttle was stuck wide open.  Why else would I do 105mph in a 35 zone?  Yes sir, of course it's fixed.  Here's the receipt for the new parts."  With the GPS, there's just cold data.  Binary code, zeros and ones.  You're speeding or you're not.

In his Known Space-situated stories, Larry Niven describes a device for faster-than-light communication that makes it possible to detect when a traveler gets too close to a star, but because it requires a mind to work it, it cannot be left to an autopilot.  It has to be observed and interpreted.

GPS data is like that.  And of course the LEOs (that's Law Enforcement Officials) are indeed parsing out the meaningful data since we're nowhere near as advanced as Niven's Puppeteer-riddled future.  But what gets me is the fact of the infiltration on the LEO's part to get the data.

You can't control the light bouncing off you.  Going out, you know you can be observed.  But the GPS system requires a LEO place a device on your car and monitor that.

The monitoring isn't bad.  Going after bad guys is good and getting them fair and square is great.  If warranted GPS monitoring makes that happen, more the better.  But to place the device without a warrant, that's something else entirely.  That's an awful lot like an illegal search - your private property is altered without your knowledge.

Think of the "nanny cam."  It's totally okay in my mind, and in the mind of courts everywhere if I'm right, to place a monitoring device that watches how the nanny handles your child.  But put the nanny cam in the nanny's bedroom and you're in a completely different place: illegal search, wiretapping, etc.  Because what she does on her time with no kid around is completely up to her, unless she's lighting up a big doobie on your property.  You'd still have a tough time introducing evidence like that in court, if the room was designated the nanny's private residential space.

The question is one of privacy, and whether you have a right to an expectation of privacy.  That you are completely observable is beside the point, the point is that your private property has been illegally tampered with for the specific purpose of gathering evidence against you.  The same way LEOs cannot break into your home and install monitoring devices without a warrant, they shouldn't be able to do that kind of thing to your car.

If I ever find such a device attached to my car, I'm going to attach it to the next parked police cruiser I see.  Such unrestricted monitoring cannot be legal unless it is applied to all citizens equally.  Placing one presupposes a level of guilt and then dispassionately amasses a huge volume of data, whether that data is relevant to the case at hand or not.  How then if the data points up an illegal activity that was not part of the initial investigation?  If the placement of the GPS was under a warrant, but the warrant did not specify that crime, can that be considered a permissable search?

This is one of the many intersections where law and technology collide and grind.  As we generate more and more information about ourselves and continue to place more and more of ourselves into an open forum accessible by the world in general, what we retain for privacy must be protected even more carefully.

Catch me fair and square.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Backstage: Between Worlds

When the lights go down and the audience goes quiet, a new universe comes into being.

Mr. Rogers had it right, when he invited his young viewers to travel with him to the Land of Make-Believe.  But at the time, I had no idea that the Land of Make-Believe had so many different faces and places to visit.  Each time we put on a play, we find a new place to go to, a new vista to show to the audience.

On the stage as the production is going on, it's a land of light and color, of sounds and shapes that all correspond to things as we see them in the real world, but a little different.  Some things are just a bit bigger - so people whom we aren't supposed to believe in, the audience, can see them clearly and know that those things are there.  Some things are just pretend.

The entire upstairs of the house where our current production takes place doesn't actually exist.  But for two hours each evening, it's believed to be there and no one argues the point.  People leave the stage to go upstairs, and they're gone for a while.  They must be upstairs; where else would they go?

A wall of nothingness separates us in our world from the world with the audience in it.  We don't acknowledge that the wall is there and we don't test it, but we treat it as if it were both completely solid and impenetrable, while also being, somehow, a place upon which to focus our attention when thinking out loud, when declaring for emphasis to no one in general.

And backstage is an entirely different place.  Here is the strangest universe of all, where the things that are about to become real onstage wait for their entrance.  Backstage they are debris, tools.  Food and candles and carrots and walkie-talkies.  Onstage, though, they become underlines and bright illuminated arrows and emphasis of the characters that they exist around.  The firewood isn't just firewood, it's Betty's firewood.  If it weren't for Betty there wouldn't be any need for firewood.  The firewood is only there to make Betty more Betty.  Nothing else matters.

The Cokes are for me.  If I didn't need Cokes there would be no Cokes in this little world.  And for that matter, there wouldn't be a bottle opener.  As worlds go it's not very impressive, but as worlds go discovering the purpose and interrelations of things is simple and clear.

But what happens to the people of that onstage world when they step offstage?  They completely change.  In one moment they are loud and active and alive; backstage they are dark and quiet, shifting from place to place in silence as they shift about the building blocks of that bright world, peering dimly through the curtains and cracks at the world as it spins just beyond the veil.

In spite of all the stress and difficulty associated with rehearsing and playing, I love it.  Acting is a completely foreign slice of life, frantic energy for a few moments before hundreds of hungry eyes, followed by stealth and sneaking in darkness in preparation for the next burst of light and sound.

It makes me feel like I'm filling up with an electrical charge.  The potential builds and strains until the air fairly crackles with it, then...

The last show of this production is Sunday November 6 at 2:00p, at the Norris Community Center in Norris Tennessee.  If you're in the area, stop by.  Be there when the lightning strikes.


Friday, November 4, 2011

Norris Little Theater's The Foreigner: Opening Night

Here we are, opening night.  All the late nights rehearsing, all the weekends spent building, building, building sets, all the stress and angst of wearing the face of a person I really can't stand.  It all comes to this.

It's not really opening night per se.  We've already had a paying audience in the form of kids from Norris Middle School across the street.  And unlike the middle school audience we played to for And Then There Were None, these laughed in the right places, were tense in most of the right places, and generally gave a lot back.  It was a pretty gratifying show.

But let me make a recommendation, kids: SHUT UP.  No one is paying to hear you talk.  Don't repeat the dialogue back at the players, don't shout "He's got a knife!" during the pivotal scene.  SHUT UP, and stay shut.  What you're doing, if it isn't that, is rude. Whether it's an issue of self-respect, respect for your fellow theatergoers, or whatever, shut up.  Whatever it takes.

Hang up the cell phone.  Don't text on it, either.  If you're not watching the play, then what are you even doing in the seat?  Get out. I busted my butt to learn these lines and build this set and get home in time for rehearsal for over a month.  And I'm not the only one - there's a few dozen people involved with making this show happen.  So if that's not worth your attention, get out of the seat so someone who will appreciate it can watch.

So there's my little rant.  That's over with.  And now that I've had a performance where I confess I flubbed a whole block of lines (and thank you Drew for saving the scene!) some of the big stress of the whole experience is just gone.  Can't do it worse, right?

Well, let's not test that.  I've got butterflies again.

Call is in thirty minutes.  Curtain goes up again in ninety.  Break a leg!