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Quite the World, Isn't It?

This could be a blues song: 'Sentenced to Write'

You often hear writers say that they don't write for pleasure but out of a sense of compulsion -- they have to write.

But there's a difference between that and being sentenced to write. Pity the poor Bristol-Myers Squibb exec ordered by New York Judge Ricardo M. Urbina to serve two years' probation, during which he must write a book about his experiences -- including lying to federal officials over the firm's attempt to settle a patent dispute over Plavix, the blood thinner.

Yes, he sentenced sentences.

The New York Times reports Urbina issued a similar sentence in 1998 to a lobbyist who admitted breaking campaign finance laws. Urbina ordered James H. Lake to pay a $150,000 fine and write and distribute at his own cost a monograph about campaign finance laws covering corporate contributions, and distribute it at his own cost to 2,000 fellow lobbyists.

Our particular little writers' prison is already over-crowded, but what the hell, one more can't hurt ... Read More 
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South Pasadena school kids channel Woody Guthrie

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Prop. 8 stands. Civil rights, not so much.

Well, the California Supreme Court did the expected this morning and upheld Prop. 8, which bans gay marriage in California. With no legal background, I'm not going to try to parse the details of it -- I'll leave that to Maura Dolan, a former LA Times colleague.

But given how each state has a different take on this issue, it's clear this needs to get to the Supreme Court -- where, admittedly, the deck seems stacked against gay marriage. But I would hope the Loving v. Virginia case would be precedent here. In that case, from 1967, the Supreme Court struck down as unconstitutional a state ban on interracial marriage.

That decision held that marriage is a basic civil right and thus eligible for federal protection. A civil right is a civil right, and it defies logic that the federal protections would be limited to opposite-sex marriages. At its heart a legal marriage license, which grants all the perks (tax, survivorship, etc.) is a contract, and such it should be available to all.

And if, instead, it is deemed to be a function of religion -- which is the undercurrent of the anti-gay marriage argument -- then you have to wonder what business any level of U.S. government has in sanctioning a religious rite.

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Any Nero Wolfe fans in the house?

I have to admit to a certain fascination with the trial underway in Manhattan over the alleged plundering of the late Brooke Astor's estate. The drama falls somewhere between Tom Wolfe and Rex Stout, the creator of the one-seventh of a ton genius detective Nero Wolfe.

At its heart it's a throwback story, drawing in the top layers of Manhattan's high society, beginning with Astor, at one point the hostess in New York City. Graydon Carter, Vanity Fair's legendary editor, and Henry Kissinger (a war criminal in some quarters; the hero of American diplomacy in others).

But it's also a deeper tale of crumbling families, greed, probably a little jealousy and, deepest of all, betrayal. And that the victim was elderly and infirm takes the story out of all those zones and places it in the heart of nearly every American family that has dealt with a matriarch or patriarch reaching such advanced, and debilitated years.

Damn, it should be a novel.
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Unbashed shilling for a friend

My friend and soccer mate Scott Laumann is on a three-month sabbatical in Minnesota with his wife and their young daughter (we're hoping the mosquitoes and black flies are merciful).

But that's not why I'm posting. He's a wonderful artist and remarkable illustrator, with works getting play in the LA Times, Rolling Stone and slew of other places. Below are a couple of samples, but check out his web site for the full array. We have a couple of his pieces (prints) in the living room, part of his giants-of-jazz series.

Great stuff.

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WiFi + FCC = Warrantless Search?

There's a bizarre story over at Wired that explores something I hadn't seen before. If you have a wireless system in your house, the FCC asserts, then federal inspectors have the right to warrantless entry.

According to the piece, for years the FCC has used the Communications Act of 1934 to enter properties in search of rogue radio stations and other violators of federal communications licenses covering use of radio frequencies (RF). That used to be limited to pirate radio and ham operators, the only folks with radio transmitters in their homes. The reasoning is similar to that under which fire and health inspectors are allowed to make warrantless entries to businesses. But the FCC says we're all suspects, in a sense.

From Wired: “Anything using RF energy — we have the right to inspect it to make sure it is not causing interference,” says FCC spokesman David Fiske. That includes devices like wireless routers that use unlicensed spectrum, Fiske says.

The piece goes on to cite cases in which FCC inspectors entered properties without warrants, didn't find what they were looking for but did find evidence of unrelated illegal activity, and the Supreme Court upheld the convictions.
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A troubled process for a troubled state

I've got an idea. Why don't we have one more California ballot initiative -- a binding, non-reversible proposition that would bar more initiatives? Because, as the old saying goes, this is no way to run a railroad.

Voters yesterday rejected five proposals that Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Democratic legislative leaders said were necessary to close the state's $21 billion budget gap. Now that the measures have been shot down, look for some serious budgetary bloodletting -- not all of the dark-day scenarios the governor trotted out over the past few days were scare tactics.

But we also need to take a step back and look at how California got in such straits. And one of the biggest culprits is the initiative process itself. It began as a Progressive-era embrace of direct democracy, but has become so dominated by money-backed agendas that it has just added another mechanism for lobbyists to influence policy.

And I know it's heresy to say out here on the West Coast, but one of the biggest problems is Prop. 13, which has resulted in our absurd tax structure. A family that just bought the same size and design house as ours, a couple of blocks away, will pay more than double the property taxes. Why? Because we bought our houses at different times.

But back to the process itself. Over the past near-century the process has been used to do everything from trying to deny government service to illegal immigrants to taxing cigarettes to provide daycare. Between 1912, when the first initiatives began, to 2002, nearly 1,200 initiatives had been prepared, 290 made it to the ballot and 99 were passed. More, obviously, have been approved since then.

But this is why we have a Legislature, to handle these issues through the mediation of the legislative process. After years of covering politics I understand fully the cynicism with which most people view politicians and legislatures. But this initiative process has done little more than give people with money and an agenda a way to circumvent the legislative process and get their desires inserted into the law books. Instead of making government more responsible, it has, combined with term limits, made it less accountable -- and made it harder to govern.

So let's have one more initiative: End the process. And while we're at it, let's get aggressive about ending the role of money in the political process. That's the fire behind the smoke.
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