The greatest movie summer ever

Via @SonnyBunch, check out the box-office chart from this weekend thirty years ago:

summer84

Yeah, I know, Rhinestone.  And few Star Trek fans would put Search for Spock at the top of their lists.  But any summer with Ghostbusters, Gremlins, Temple of Doom, the original Karate Kid and Top Secret! would rank as a particularly great blockbuster season under any circumstances.   (Also, The Natural, which I’m sad to admit I’ve never seen.) These were all playing at the same time – not to mention spring holdovers Romancing the Stone and the best Police Academy movie without Bobcat Goldthwait.

Things did cool off considerably in July, 1984, but a few more classics, near-classics and childhood favorites came out that month: The Last Starfighter, Purple Rain, Revenge of the Nerds (a true word-of-mouth hit that didn’t even debut in the top ten), Bachelor Party and The Muppets Take Manhattan.

August, traditionally a dumping ground, was pretty barren – Clint Eastwood’s Tightrope was biggest opener. But my theory is that one particular movie released in August, 1984, was so intimidating that all the other studios let it have the month:

I had a weird dream once that they remade Red Dawn with North Koreans instead of Russians, and starting the guy who played Thor or his brother or something. Must have been something I ate.

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Don’t start making counterfeit Washington Redskins merchandise just yet

In recent years, the campaign against the team’s offensive name has gained considerable momentum, with even Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid publicly speaking out against it:

Despite this, I still think the team should change its name.  And a recent “landmark” decision by the U.S. Trademark Trial and Appeal Board, cancelling trademark registration of the “Redskins” name for its innate offensiveness, is being held up as a major step forward.

Tim Lince at World Trademark Review, however, says the decision is not nearly as big a deal as it seems.  The ruling is stayed pending appeal, and in any event, even if it were upheld the team would still have recourse against unauthorized producers of team merchandise:

Under the assumption that the REDSKINS term is now under no legal protection, hundreds of people on websites, social media and forums are saying, presumably mostly as a joke (but you never know!), that they will now start making unofficial REDSKINS merchandise in the wake of the decision. William McGeveran, associate professor at the University of Minnesota Law School, says he “wouldn’t expect the [trademark] team to police its marks any less aggressively as a result of this decision”, but affirms that “news reports suggesting that counterfeit Redskins jackets will now be legal are just plain wrong”.

WTR covered the original cancellation of the REDSKINS trademarks and subsequent overturning of the decision in 2003 and wrote about the case being dismissed in 2009. As Tim Kelly, partner at Fitzpatrick, Cella, Harper & Scinto LLP, notes, “the decision that the term REDSKINS was disparaging to a ‘substantial composite’ of Native Americans at the time the trademarks were registered is based on substantially the same evidence that was viewed as insufficient in the appeal of a prior proceeding”. Given this, the Washington Redskins’ lawyer Bob Raskopf’s gave a defiant response to yesterday’s decision: “We’ve seen this story before. And just like last time, yesterday’s ruling will have no effect at all on the team’s ownership of and right to use the Redskins name and logo. We are confident we will prevail once again.”

For now, the REDSKINS trademark registrations that are the subject of the cancellation proceeding will not be cancelled until the appeals process is exhausted. Kelly adds: “Importantly, the TTAB does not have jurisdiction to prevent the use of the marks it ordered cancelled. As such, the petitioners in the cancellation proceeding will need to seek a court order to prevent the NFL from using the name. An interesting question will be how much deference the courts will give to the decision of the board, an issue that the Supreme Court is already considering taking on, albeit in the context of a likelihood of confusion claim.”

[...]

Sommers notes: “Even if a court upholds the cancellation of the registration on appeal, the team will still have so-called ‘common law’ trademark rights arising from its long and consistent commercial use of the name. And those rights are very strong. They include the ability to stop other people from using the mark in a way that appears to be authorised by the team.” However, with media reports declaring that the trademarks are cancelled, readers could interpret that as a free-for-all to capitalise on the REDSKINS brand. Job one for the team’s trademark department, then, is managing that information flow. After all, any spike in infringing activities will mean that the trademark team’s policing burden gets heavier.

Anyone else think it’s no accident that the anti-“Redskins” campaign picked up steam after litigious bully (and bad free-agent picker) Dan Snyder bought the franchise?

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The end of the Top 40

Further to my post about Casey Kasem, the Christian Science Monitor notes the difficulty in charting America’s most popular songs in the digital age:

…as Mr. Kasem’s time before the microphone dwindled, the format he created to determine pop music popularity became less relevant. With the splintering of radio formats, followed by the advent of digital media, it became more of a challenge to quantify hit songs, no less figure out what American consumers, as a collective, were listening to together and at once.

“The notion of a ‘No. 1 record’ began to be outmoded even with the rise of FM Radio in the 1960s, which became the cutting edge music on radio,” says Paul Levinson, professor of media studies at Fordham University in New York City.

[...]

Listeners now exist in a niche world of culture and enjoy the freedom to curate their own tastes without the guiding hand of radio programmers. That’s why megahits are no longer quite as mega as in Kasem’s time.

“The problem of identifying ‘No. 1’ songs has certainly become more complex in recent years. No longer can a charting organization look to one or just a few types of sources to calculate a song’s success,” says Ed Arke, a communications professor at Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, Pa.

Even what constitutes a hit is now elusive: Social media buzz can catapult a song like the 2013 hit “Harlem Shake” by Baauer to instant mass attention and skyrocketing download sales without outside exposure, for example. Viral popularity based on views and not retail sales is often difficult to assess, but it has not gone unnoticed, which is why Nielsen Soundscan now tracks major streaming services.

“What we’re seeing is more artists who are having small to medium success and fewer megahits, a trend likely to continue because the number of sources to factor into such a rating systems have grown so much, it is becoming increasing more difficult to gather all of the relevant data from across the country and around the world,” Professor Arke says.

Even the world of countdown shows has multiplied since Kasem departed the airwave. In addition to Seacrest’s “American Top 40,” other countdown shows exist on SiriusXM, CMT, VH1, Last.fm, Hype Machine, among other outlets – many based on different metrics and showcasing different results.

The Billboard Hot 100 is still around, but the current version of American Top 40 now uses data from Mediabase, with very different results.  (Note that several country songs – extending the definition of “country” to include Florida-Georgia Line, of course – rank fairly high on the Billboard chart, but are nowhere to be found on AT40.)

During the Casey Kasem era (and even when Shadoe Stevens was hosting AT40) it was very common for songs from other genres to cross over to the countdown.  Programmers today make sure that never happens.

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Book review: “The Secret World of Oil” by Ken Silverstein

[originally posted at Canadian Lawyer on May 19, 2014]

The good Lord didn’t see fit to put oil and gas only where there are democratic regimes friendly to the United States.” — Dick Cheney
You might not be a fan of the last vice president of the United States, but the experienced oilman was on to something when he made this observation. There is actually a lot of oil under (or in the sea next to) wealthy Western democracies, but much of the black stuff just happens to be located in some of the world’s poorest, most corrupt, and lawless nations.If anything, these countries are corrupt and lawless because of the oil in their ground. The revenues are used as a personal piggy bank for dictators and their cronies, while very little of that wealth is used for good schools, hospitals, or infrastructure. Meanwhile, armies of lobbyists, consultants, brokers, and former politicians have spread out around the world, helping smooth things out between those who control the oil and the energy companies who want to drill for it.Everyone knows about Exxon Mobil Corp. or Suncor Energy Inc., but few will have heard of, say, Glencore Xstrata, one of the wealthiest and most secretive enterprises in the world. The Secret World of Oil, by journalist Ken Silverstein, will surprise and intrigue readers with its vivid portrayals of these powerful, little-known players — but the book also, perhaps inadvertently, illustrates the importance of the rule of law.In Louisiana, for example, the oil and gas industry has a lot of clout, and they’ve been very effective at ensuring Democratic and Republican legislators make sure laws governing the industry aren’t too strict. But that’s not the whole story: as illustrated in The Secret World of Oil, creative and determined lawyers have developed innovative and surprisingly effective strategies to help people who’ve been wronged by these powerful, politically connected energy interests. Dubbed “legacy lawsuits” by the industry, landowners in the state have sought redress against oil and gas companies for serious environmental damage caused to their property. In 2003’s Corbello v. Shell decision, the Louisiana Supreme Court upheld a $33-million judgment against the Anglo-Dutch giant, which had negligently stored salt water in unlined pits on William Corbello’s property. Critically, the court held punitive damages against corporate polluters could exceed the fair market value of the property. (“They’ve never learned the lesson taught to the rest of us by our mothers, which is you do the right thing and clean up your own mess,” says trial lawyer Gladstone Jones III.) The energy companies have fought back against legacy lawsuits, with some success, lobbying for legislation that would limit damages awarded in such cases. Still, even though the players in the game may not be evenly matched, at least there are clearly defined rules and effective ways for the underdog to fight back. In oil-producing nations like Equitorial Guinea, by contrast, there really are no rules except for the ones the ruling family make up on the fly. Run by the tyrannical Teodoro Obaing since 1979, this tiny African country is one of the wealthiest nations, per capita, on the continent. Unfortunately, most residents haven’t benefited at all — indeed, according to some social indicators, things have gotten worse for the average citizen since the oil started flowing. Obaing and his inner circle have done pretty well for themselves, though. So has Nursultan Äbishuly Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan, who has used the services of none other than Tony Blair to promote his country’s booming energy sector. So have the Communist rulers of Cambodia, who are quickly opening their country to energy exploration and making a fortune. The major oil companies understandably don’t talk about this much, but The Secret World of Oil quotes several executives who admit to dealing with shady characters, but explain there is simply no other way to do business in much of the world. The result is a vicious cycle of corruption, which becomes more and more pervasive and destructive. Informative, entertaining, and refreshingly non-preachy, The Secret World of Oil will change the way you look at the industry, and the legal systems which govern them. Or, in many nations, don’t govern them.
POSTSCRIPT: after this review was originally posted, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal signed legislation preventing state bodies from pursuing legal action against oil and gas producers, and Foreign Policy published an eye-opening piece about how the government of oil-rich Azerbaijan is throwing its weight around.
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America’s mix tape

After a lengthy illness – and a brutal family feud which included his wife throwing hamburger meat at his children while recurring Bible verses – iconic radio host and voice actor Casey Kasem has died at age 82.

Listening to Kasem’s American Top 40 every Saturday (on OZ FM in St. John’s, 10AM to 2PM) was my weekend ritual growing up, and judging from the overwhelming reaction on Facebook and Twitter, a lot of Generation Xers did the same.   This tweet from The Dissolve’s Scott Tobias explains the unique appeal of Kasem’s pioneering countdown show:

American Top 40 – and its imitators, like the Rick Dees Weekly Top 40 (inevitably broadcast on the number-two station in your town, like VOFM/Magic 97 back in St. John’s) and even Casey’s Top 40, founded by Kasem after he left AT40 following a contract dispute – counted down the 40 popular songs in America regardless of genre.  And it wasn’t just pop – in the mid- to late-80s a typical countdown would include hard rock acts, metal bands, boy bands, “alternative” groups, hip-hop artists, rappers, R&B and soul singers, country performers, even the occasional crossover from jazz or contemporary Christian music.

American Top 40 is still around, now hosted by Ryan Seacrest. The few times I’ve listened to it on recent years, however, there seems to be remarkably little diversity in the kind of music that makes it to the countdown.

I doubt know if music consumers’ tastes have changed, or if the show’s chart methodology has changed. But the modern AT40 listener can listen to the whole show without once being introduced to anything from a musical genre he or she didn’t usually pay attention to.

These days, we have satellite radio and thousands of online live streams to choose from, and it’s wonderful. But it does feel like we’ve lost something, in that we no longer have to be exposed to music we aren’t familiar with.  I have SiriusXM in my vehicle, and in theory I could be trying out dozens of channels featuring songs, and entire genres, I’ve never heard.  In practice, I usually go back and forth between the 80s and 90s channels.

That’s true not just for music, but for almost every kind of pop culture, and even news and politics. We aren’t all watching the same TV shows anymore, and we certainly aren’t getting our news from the same sources anymore.

More choice is a good thing, but it does allow us to go our entire lives without ever having to come across and put up with things we dislike or disagree with. This might make us feel more comfortable, but it also keeps us from growing like we should.

They don’t make ‘em like Casey Kasem’s countdown shows anymore, and with that, we’ve lost more than we think.

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Two stories about capital punishment

“Study: 1 in 25 death penalty cases likely innocent”

About one in 25 people imprisoned under a death sentence is likely innocent, according to a new statistical study appearing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. And that means it is all but certain that at least several of the 1,320 defendants executed since 1977 were innocent, the study says.

From 1973 to 2004, 1.6 percent of those sentenced to death in the U.S. — 138 prisoners — were exonerated and released because of innocence.

But the great majority of innocent people who are sentenced to death are never identified and freed, says professor Samuel Gross of the University of Michigan Law School, the study’s lead author.

The difficulty in identifying innocent inmates stems from the fact that more than 60 percent of prisoners in death penalty cases ultimately are removed from death row and resentenced to life imprisonment. Once that happens, their cases no longer receive the exhaustive reviews that the legal system provides for those on death row.

[...]

Death sentences represent less than one-tenth of 1 percent of prison sentences in the U.S., but they account for 12 percent of known exonerations of innocent defendants from 1989 to 2012. One big reason is that far more attention and resources are devoted to reviewing and reconsidering death sentences.

“The high rate of exoneration among death-sentenced defendants appears to be driven by the threat of execution,” says the study. “But most death-sentenced defendants are removed from death row and resentenced to life imprisonment, after which the likelihood of exoneration drops sharply.” The study estimates that if all defendants sentenced to death remained in that status, “at least 4.1 percent would be exonerated. We conclude that this is a conservative estimate of the proportion of false conviction among death sentences in the United States.”

Oklahoma stops execution after botching drug delivery; inmate dies

A vein on an Oklahoma inmate “exploded” in the middle of his execution Tuesday, prompting authorities to abruptly halt the process and call off another execution later in the day as they try to figure out what went wrong.

The inmate, Clayton Lockett, died 43 minutes after the first injection was administered — according to reporter Courtney Francisco ofCNN affiliate KFOR who witnessed the ordeal — of an apparent heart attack, Oklahoma Department of Corrections Director Robert Patton said.

That first drug, midazolam, is supposed to render a person unconscious. Seven minutes later, Lockett was still conscious. About 16 minutes in, after his mouth and then his head moved, he seemingly tried to get up and tried to talk, saying “man” aloud, according to the KFOR account.

Other reporters — including Cary Aspinwall of the Tulsa Worldnewspaper — similarly claimed that Lockett was “still alive,” having lifted his head while prison officials lowered the blinds at that time so that onlookers couldn’t see what was going on.

Dean Sanderford, Lockett’s attorney, said that he saw his client’s body start “to twitch (and) he mumbled something.” Then “the convulsing got worse, it looked like his whole upper body was trying to lift off the gurney.”

Admittedly, no one has suggested that Lockett is innocent didn’t carry out the truly horrendous crime for which he was convicted.  But unless something changes, it’s only a matter of time before an innocent person is tortured to death by the state.

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A quick and easy solution to the Trinity Western Law School controversy

This has been a pretty awful week for Canada’s newest would-be law school:

Nova Scotia’s law society has voted to approve accreditation of Trinity Western University law school, but only if it drops the controversial policy prohibiting same-sex intimacy that some say is discriminatory.

Ten members of the council of Nova Scotia Barrister’s Society voted to conditionally accredit, while nine voted against allowing graduates from the faith-based Trinity Western University to practise in the province.

The decision follows that by Ontario’s law society to refuse to accredit the new law school.

[...]

The law society’s ruling could create turmoil on a national scale. Some lawyers have voiced concerns that having some provincial law societies deny accreditation when other provincial societies have granted it could threaten a new national mobility regime that allows lawyers licensed in one province to practise across Canada. The system took more than a decade to establish, and leaders of the Law Society of Alberta have warned that a decision such as the LSUC’s could pose a “direct threat” to mobility agreements.

Anger over Trinity Western’s plans has focused on the university’s community covenant, a document requiring all staff and students to abstain from “sexual intimacy that violates the sacredness of marriage between a man and a woman.” Detractors say allowing Trinity Western to train only those law students who agree to abide by the covenant is discriminatory.

TWU will probably challenge these decisions in court, but it’s not clear whether the school will be successful.   (Paul Daly of Administrative Law Matters thinks a decision either way by the Law Society of Upper Canada would be upheld by the courts.)

As I wrote a few months ago, I’m downright enthusiastic about Canada getting a law school with a distinctly Christian, conservative perspective.  But I just can’t get past a “covenant” that clearly discriminates against prospective students who are gay.  I think the Nova Scotia decision, which puts the onus on TWU to change or eliminate the covenant, is the right way to approach this issue.

Trinity Western could resolve this dispute with just a small wording change:

In keeping with biblical and TWU ideals, community members voluntarily abstain from the following actions:

  • sexual intimacy that violates the sacredness of marriage between a man and a woman

There may be some who bristle at the idea of a faith-based university being recognized at all (which would be bad news for St. FX, St. Mary’s, Mount Saint Vincent…), while others say they oppose any kind of guidelines governing students’ behavior at all.  (The Globe and Mail quotes one TWU opponent as saying “‎I cannot vote to accredit a law school which seeks to control students in their bedrooms.”  Taken to its logical extreme, that would prohibit university policies governing sexual consent, a fact of life at almost every school.)

But simply excising these six words from the covenant would almost certainly take care of the school’s accreditation problem, while allowing it to retain its uniquely Christian character.  If they don’t budge, that will say a lot about their priorities.

And I’m afraid this is just the beginning for Trinity Western.  As more people adopt the view that discrimination against gays and lesbians is akin to racial and sexual discrimination, other professions and even university athletic administrations will do what law societies have started.

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