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2010/05/31

Cacaphonous Babblings!

Lovecraft: Disturbing the Universe
by Donald Burleson

When you pick up a book by a college professor about H.P. Lovecraft, you might expect an analysis of his stories, his cross-referencing of other authors' works, his philosophical views, not to mention some of his ookier ideas on race.

Donald Burleson does none of this. Instead, he spends 160 pages babbling non-sense like an undergrad trying to finish a 1000 word paper on a book he didn't read. A typical example:

"The striking thing, immediately, about the title 'The Statement of Randolph Carter' is the particular manner in which it describes the text. Since the story, in form, is a statement -- Randolph Carter's legal statement to the questioning authorities, perhaps even under oath -- the title refers very closely to the text itself, not so much like a label that merely reads 'Milk' on a bottle of milk, but more like a label on such a bottle that goes so far as to say, 'This Bottle of Milk.' The story 'The Statement of Randolph Carter' is the statement of Randolph Carter, as its title pointedly proclaims."

Burleson goes on like that for three pages, before finally deciding that maybe the title means that Randolph Carter is the statement.

Gott in Himmel!

Dude, Lovecraft wrote a story in the form of a statement to the police, and titled it for what it is. There's really nothing more to it.

Every chapter is like that. The one for "The Colour out of Space" contains a lengthy meditation on the Indo-European root of the word "colour". "The Cats of Ulthar" -- well, "Ulthar" is kinda like "ultra," and "alter" and thus "alternate" and "altercate."

I can understand an undergraduate spewing this non-sense, since they by and large spend their days drunk or stoned, but Burleson is paid for this sort of navel-gazing "analysis."

(NOTE: I have an English degree. I stuck to medieval and Renaissance literature and creative writing as much as I could to avoid this stuff.)

City of Dragons




Kelli Stanley tries very hard to make City of Dragons a hardboiled mystery in the tradition of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. The problem is, the story is based around a colossal cop-out.

It's set in San Francisco of 1940, an era of racism, sexism, homophobia, and all the other nastiness that used to be an accepted part of our culture.

Now, there are several ways for an author to deal with such a period. One is the honest approach of James Ellroy -- acknowledge that your characters are all bigoted jerks, even the supposed liberals who support the civil rights movement. But having such blatantly hateful characters is a turn-off to many readers, so most authors take the alternate route of just ignoring the nasty parts of history. Sure, they might throw in details indicating that things aren't as peachy as they seem, but they avoid having characters deal with any of the ookier aspects of society. This is certainly a cop-out, but it's not unreasonable -- many novels of the period did the same thing. If the author's focus is on the story or characters and not the socio-political problems of the era, it's okay to do this.

But Stanley tries to have it both ways. Her version of San Francisco, 1940 is full of racial strife. Whites look down on blacks, Asians, Mexicans, and even people from the swarthier parts of Europe. The Chinese hate the Japanese and vice versa. Women who get out of line are all considered whores or sluts. That's all realistically done. But her central character, Miranda Corbie, is none of that. She was a nurse in Spain. She's an ex-prostitute who sympathizes with her former coworkers. She gets along with homosexuals. She's upset by the treatment of Jews in Europe. She cares about the Rape of Nanking. She even opposes those who mistreat Japanese-Americans for what their relatives are doing across the sea.

In short, Miranda is a completely modern character who's been transported back to the 1940s. There's not even a minimal attempt to explain why she doesn't share the prejudices of the time -- we're just supposed to accept her anachronistic world-view. This allows Stanley to portray the world as realistically bigoted, while winking at the reader and saying, "Weren't these people awful," like a kinda Mary Sue who's there so the reader doesn't have to sympathize with a realistically unpleasant character.

That's just the biggest problem I had with the book, but there are several others.

For one, Miranda is a chain smoker. Nothing wrong with that in a character. But Stanley feels a need to inform us every time Miranda lights up, which is on average once per page. And it's hardly ever, "She lit a cigarette." No. It's "She lit a Chesterfield," except for a brief period when she has a pack from a different brand. I swear, "Chesterfield" probably occurs in the text more often than "Miranda." An editor could easily have removed two-thirds the references to her smoking, and Miranda still would've come off as a chimney.

In an afterword, Stanley discusses how much research she did for the book -- every phone number, every address, every business mentioned in the story, she claims, existed in 1940. If an author is going to claim that level of research, it would do not to have any obvious mistakes in the text. Like, oh, referring to a gun as a "22 millimeter." Okay, 22 mm is just about one inch -- that's a bullet twice as wide as what a .50 callibre machine gun fires. What she meant is a .22 callibre gun, which fires a bullet about 6 millimeters. I've never even touched a gun, and I know that.

This is one of the worst books that I've ever read all the way to the end.

2010/05/09

Attack of Jury Duty

So last month I had the wonderful experience of jury duty. And I don't mean I wasted a morning sitting in a court room only to be rejected during voir dire. No, I got selected to hear a two week long civil case involving everyone's favorite subject -- highway safety.

I'm going to skip the whole selection process -- everyone who's called for jury duty and rejected tells that part, whereas I made it through all that to the part that's interesting. The only thing I'll say is, if you walk into the courtroom and the bailiffs are bringing in extra tables because there isn't enough room for all the lawyers, RUN AWAY.

I'll start with the basic facts, the things none of the parties disputed.

Back in 2004, Michael Snyder, a recent college graduate, took a job directing traffic at road construction sites. On the morning of July 19, Lee Crawford was driving down the road where Michael happened to be working. Crawford was chewing tobacco at the time, and as he approached the work-zone, he couldn't locate his spit-cup. He took his eyes off the road for about six seconds, and when he looked up again he was bearing down on Michael. Crawford slammed on the brakes and tried to steer out of the way, but it was too late. The car struck Michael at 40+mph. When the paramedics arrived, they pronounced him dead at the scene.

A simple but tragic accident, right?

Now here's the name of the case:

David and Mary Snyder on behalf of the estate of Michael Snyder
vs
Huntfield Estates, LLC
Ryan, Inc.
CHS Traffic Services
Lee Crawford
VIP Limo
Glen Lee and
The estate of Heather Strachan

(According to the depositions we saw during the trial, there were actually two additional defendants at some point. Whether the Snyders dropped the case or the parties settled out of court, I have no idea.)

So how do you get from a very straight-forward accident to a lawsuit against seven (or nine) parties?

Well, Huntfield Estates is a huge subdivision in the area, full of quarter million dollar homes. At the time of the accident, Huntfield was still under construction. Because of the size of the development, the state Department of Highways required they add turn-lanes around the entrance. Huntfield contracted the job to Ryan, the company laying the roads inside the development.

Now something I didn't know until this case -- road construction companies don't put up any of the signs, cones, Jersey barriers, or other safety equipment you see around work areas. That's all handled by specialty subcontractors, which also provide any flagmen necessary to direct traffic. In this case, all that was handled by CHS, the company for which Michael was working.

DOH recommended that the companies employ Traffic Safety Plan Case A-9, which specifies a certain layout to the work site. Under A-9 there were supposed to be four signs in the direction Crawford came from:

Roadwork Ahead
Shoulder Work Ahead
Lane Ends 1000 Feet
A sign with a flagman glyph

The first two were supposed to be semi-permanent signs with blinkers on top that would remain in place for the entire duration of the project. The second two were supposed to be temporary signs that would go up only when the work-zone was active. On the day of the accident, the first set of blinkers were dead, and the Lane Ends sign was not in place. If the site had been set up properly, the Snyders claim, the accident wouldn't've happened.

On the day of the accident, Crawford was allegedly working for VIP Limo. Despite the title, the company has nothing to do with limos -- it's actually a taxi service for Medicaid patients. Glen Lee is the owner of the company, and Heather Strachan was Crawford's alleged supervisor. Medicaid rules say that companies like VIP have to use vans to transport clients, but Crawford was driving Heather's mother's car at the time of the accident. He had two of VIP's alleged clients in the car -- a mentally disabled boy who used VIP to get him to a special school, and an older woman who was on her way to a doctor's appointment. Medicaid required that someone other than the driver be in the car to supervise the child, so Heather was there too.

Notice all those allegedlies in the last paragraph? That's because what I've been describing so far is the plaintiffs' version of events. Some of the defendants had radically different stories, with VIP's side of the case entering Peyton Place territory. And on top of that, with all the parties involved you can guess that there was a lot of finger pointing among the defendants.

For example, Crawford's entire defense was pretty much to agree with everything the plaintiffs' lawyer said. That's because the way the trial was set up, the jury's job was to apportion responsibility between Crawford, Huntfield, Ryan, CHS, and Michael, with the payout being proportionate to their liability. In other words, if we found Crawford deserved 70% of the blame, Huntfield and Ryan 5% each, CHS 15%, and Michael's own actions giving him 5% of the responsibility, and then we awarded the family $1,000,000, Crawford would have to pay $700,000, CHS $150,000, etc. And if we found VIP/Glen Lee, and Heather Strachan liable, they'd be on the hook for at least some of the judgment against Crawford. So it was in Crawford's best interest for the jury to put as much blame on the other parties as possible.

The problem was, Crawford wasn't a credible witness. He's a doddering old man now, and I got the feeling that if one of the lawyers said, "If I represented to you that the sky was green, would you agree?" he'd say, "yes." He'd done several depositions which contradicted what he said when the plaintiffs questioned him, and when defense lawyers confronted him about it, he seemed completely lost.

And of course the other defendants wanted to put all the blame on Crawford. Which was pretty easy since in those depositions, he admitted to not only seeing the three signs that were present, but seeing Michael as well, though he wasn't sure if Michael had been standing in the road or on the side.

Now the plaintiffs' brought in an expert who calculated that, given the terrain, Crawford would've seen Michael at 500 ft -- which even the expert admitted was twice the distance Crawford needed to stop. The state police did their own study and concluded that the sight-line was over 700 ft, while CHS brought in their own expert who went out to the site and took pictures that showed that someone standing where Michael had been, would've been visible from the waist up at 650 ft, and from the knees up at 600 ft.

Huntfield, Ryan, and CHS all joined together in their main defense, which was that any reasonable person who sees someone standing in the road, or even on the side of the road, would keep his eyes forward and be prepared to stop, even if there weren't ANY signs around. Huntfield and Ryan also had the additional defense of, "Hey, we hired CHS to keep our people safe. They're the experts on traffic safety. We shouldn't have to double check their work -- if we were qualified to do that, we wouldn't need them."

CHS's defense was that Michael, though he'd only worked for the company a couple months, had passed not only the flagman exam but the traffic manager test. He was, in fact, in charge of the site on the day of the accident, and any missing signs or inoperative lights were his fault.

And then we come to VIP's defense. cue soap opera music VIP is headquartered in a town called Keyser, which is about 80 miles from here, and at one time they employed both Crawford and Heather as drivers. The company found that they had enough clients in this area that they decided to open a local office. Around the same time, Heather had her license suspended, so Glen Lee decided to do her a favor by making her the manager of the new branch. Instead of obtaining proper office space, VIP decided to rent a house, install an office in one room, and sublet the rest of the place to Heather. Crawford began working out of this branch, and he'd stay at Heather's place during the week and return home to his family on weekends. Soon enough, he and Heather were more than just co-workers, if you know what I mean.

In June, the Keyser office began to receive complaints about the way Heather was operating her branch. At the end of the month Glen Lee went down to meet with her. A huge argument ensued, and Glen fired her. He couldn't kick her out of the house because she had a lease, and he didn't want to go into the place and retrieve VIP property, so he didn't have access to the branch's client list. He had to reconstruct it from Medicaid paperwork. He also set about getting all the phone-lines transferred to Keyser.

In the meantime, he learned that Heather wanted to set up her own Medicaid transport company with Crawford as one of her drivers. So he gave Crawford an ultimatum that expired on Friday, July 16. When the day came, Crawford turned in his keys and his company cell phone. Thus on the following Monday, when the accident took place, Heather and Crawford were acting on their own, using Heather's mom's car to transport two VIP clients who didn't know about the changes. Heather hadn't yet set up her own company, and without a Medicaid contract she had no way of getting paid for the run. She and Crawford were just hoping to retain the clients when they got the new business going.

Of course, the plaintiffs' claimed that this was all a load of horsehockey. One of the VIP vans had broken down the week before, so the company needed an extra vehicle on Monday. After the accident, VIP fabricated the whole story, not only to avoid liability in Michael's death, but because Medicaid required they use vans -- if they admitted Crawford was working for them on that day, they'd lose their contract! Allegedly.

The evidence for this alleged conspiracy was pretty thin. One point was that the company cut a check to Crawford on the 20th, and mailed it out with a letter forbidding him from setting foot on the branch office. VIP's response was that they normally do payroll on Tuesday morning, and in fact they didn't even hear about the accident until that afternoon. They told him to stay off the property just to screw with Heather -- since she was subletting the property, VIP had no power to keep Crawford out of anything but the actual office, but they were hoping to scare him off.

Then there was the phone thing. The plaintiffs called Glen Lee's wife as a witness, since she was the office manager in Keyser, and presented her with a blow-up of the bill for the company cellphone issued to Heather. The lawyer had a whiteboard covered with various numbers for VIPs offices, and went through pointing out all the places they appeared on the bill.

At first, this was really exciting, because I was expecting some great Perry Mason moment where the lawyer would put together all the pieces and prove a conspiracy. It never came. One problem, which none of the lawyers nor the witness pointed out, but which everyone on the jury noticed, was that most of the calls to VIP were billed as one minute. Which we all know means they lasted between 1 and 59 seconds. There was one 15 minute call, but that came at the end of the month when, according to VIP, they'd transferred the number to a new phone.

When the plaintiffs called Crawford to testify and his own lawyers cross-examined him, they tried to bring up that he'd been using VIP's lawyers during the depositions, when his story had been more favorable to VIP. However, VIP's lawyers objected that the line of questioning wasn't appropriate for cross-examination. At first the judge was willing to make an exception since Crawford's health was so bad that he couldn't come back for the defense portion of the trial. But after a sidebar, the judge reversed himself and told us to disregard the questions.

All this about VIP came out during their cross-examination of plaintiff witnesses. Then came their turn to present their side of the case. They probably should have just rested and let the weakness of the plaintiffs' case speak for itself. But instead they called two former employees, a husband and wife, to corroborate their side of the story. Everything was going fine until the plaintiffs started cross-examining these people. Turns out that the two had been fired because the wife had been embezzling from the company. Under cross, they also admitted to lying on their mileage sheets and using company vans to shuttle people to Atlantic City on weekends.

So, yeah, that's how I spent half of April. In a few days I'll do another post on actual deliberation process (including the idiot woman who didn't understand basic concepts like "preponderance of the evidence," and "burden of proof").