I've just about had it with advice columns. Especially those sex columns that now appear in every newspaper, weekly, and quilting magazine in America. All they do (it seems) is answer the same question month after month after month, namely "Is it okay to cheat on my partner under the following circumstances?" And the columnists usually say no, and sometimes say yes, but inevitably respond in terms of consequences: your husband will leave you, you life will improve, etc. They rarely talk about the more fundamental question of whether such action is ethical in the first place.
Randy Cohen, on the other hand, tackles nothing but these puzzlers in his column The Ethicist. Not only does he dispense advice a bit more practical than "don't sleep around," he also tackles just about any dilemma that could cause a person distress, and does so with aplomb and humor.
I have been an avid reader of The Ethicist ever since I came across it in The New York Times Magazine about a year ago. So when I saw that Cohen had released The Good, The Bad, And The Difference -- a compendium of his writings for The Ethicist -- I snapped it up as quickly as I could. And I found it to be an enjoyable read, despite the fact that, Ethicist addict that I am, I had read most of it before.
I say "enjoyable read" rather than "enlightening read," because most the time Cohen only tells you what you already know, although you often don't realize (or want to admit) this fact. Indeed, Cohen is an expert at discussing everyday ethics in a manner which feels comfortable; it's not as if he is some omniscient being handing down moral edicts but that he's only pointing out the ethical nuances that you already sensed but couldn't quite articulate. In this way he is unlike, say, a manners columnist, who looks each question up in Ye Big Book Of Correct Behavior and announces which fork to use for the salad. Cohen freely acknowledges that there is no guidebook when it comes to these matters, and that he's just a guy whose gotten good and mulling over and writing about these commonplace conundrums.
This accessibility is not by accident. Cohen does not have a degree in philosophy or, you know, ethicsology or whatever. He was, in point of fact, a writer for Late Night With David Letterman prior to becoming a columnist. The New Yorks Times Magazine hired him for the job not despite his credentials, but because of them: because he was a guy who could (and would) think about ethical qualms in the same way you and I do. His dual roles as "Ethicist" and "Everyday Joe" make him a figure you can immediately relate to.
Furthermore, Cohen clearly thinks these questions all the way through, instead of just offering the pat answers. Take this question, found in the chapter Civic Life
My neighbor, a 20-something and quite good looking, never draws his blinds. The view from my apartment is extraordinary. Every night at 8:15 he returns from jogging to shower and prepare for bed, which I enjoy watching. What should I do?Of course the obvious (unthinking) answer is "Never look," and that's certainly the one that most columnists would provide. But Cohen takes a different stance.If the dreamboat across the way forgot one night to draw his blinds, you should respect his privacy: it would not be right to exploit a moment's carelessness. However, if he leaves them open every night in a big city where he obviously has neighbors, you can assume he knows what he's doing ... So enjoy! It would be almost insulting to avert your glance.It's this "going beyond the easy answer" that sets this advice book apart from the countless others on the market.Of course, I don't always agree with his answers. Cohen, recognizing that reasonable people can disagree on some of the thornier issues, provides space in his book for rebuttal and "Guest Ethicists" to weigh in. All this makes The Good, The Bad, & The Difference vastly more interesting than a dry compendium of dos and don'ts, and makes for one of the more entertaining books I've read all year.October 30, 2002
My Name Is Luka
I walked into a door this morning, and now I have a big red blemish on my face. All day people at work have been asking me what happened. And I don't want to say "I walked into a door," because that totally sounds like something you'd say if your spouse hit you and you didn't want to admit it. So, instead, I've been saying "my spouse hit me". It's not technically true, but at least people don't think I'm hiding anything.October 29, 2002
The Adventures of Into Perspective Putting Woman
Me: [Exiting my place of business] Aw, man.
Woman, Complete Stranger, Standing on Curb: [Gruffly] What's the problem?
Me: [Gesturing at the pouring rain] I don't know what I'm going to do.
Woman: You're gonna get wet, that's what you're gonna do!
Me: Yeah ...
Woman: Oh quit your complaining, it's raining on everyone.
Jury Duty V: Verdict and Aftermath
An hour after we had come to our decision we were ushered back into the courtroom. I had expected all the participants to be present: the victim, the witnesses, the family, etc. Instead, it was just the judge, bailiff and clerk, the defendant and his wife, the two lawyers, and us.
The foreman had expressed concern that he would have announce our decisions, as they do on tv. As it turned out, that's not how it's done in the Seattle Superior Court. Our verdict was first handed to the bailiff, who gave it to the judge to review. The judge then gave it to the Court Clerk, who first entered it into the records and read it aloud. In a way, I was kind of glad the Clerk read the verdict, as she, of all the people in the courtroom, looked the most distraught during the trial. During the victim's testimony I thought she might break into tears.
The defense attorney asked the judge to "poll the jury". Accordingly, the judge asked each of us, in turn, if the announced verdict was our own. We all answered in the affirmative. Apparently, if any juror suddenly says "What tha -?! That's not the verdict I rendered!" during a poll, we all get sent back sort things out. Polling the jury is truly the last ditch effort on the part of a defense.
Having been found guilty on three of the five counts, the defendant was remanded into custody as we filed back to the deliberation room. After a few moments, the bailiff came back and told us we were free to go. She also mentioned that both the Prosecution and defense attorneys would be available to speak to anyone who wanted to explain the verdict. Attorneys often like to talk to jurors to find out what swayed their decision, the bailiff said, but she emphasized that we were under no obligation to discuss the case with anyone. Given the heinousness of the crime and my dissatisfaction with both the Defense and the Prosecution, I opted to hightail it out of there. So as soon as we were allowed to leave, I hurried to the stairwell, removed my "JUROR" badge, and left the Courthouse as quickly as I could.
It's been two weeks since the verdict, and the whole thing still amazes me. When I describe the case to other people, they seem dumbfounded by the paucity of evidence we used to convict the guy. "That's all you had to go on?" my friends ask, and I want to say "Oh no, there was lots of other stuff we factored in." But the truth is that one person's testimony was pretty much all we based our verdict on. When I think about this aspect objectively, I find it rather unnerving. But subjectively, I know we came to the correct conclusion. I'm having a hard time reconciling my certainty that we came to the right verdict with my unease that we were allowed to render a verdict at all.The foreman of our jury sent me an email the other day. He had spoken with the attorneys after the trail, and they told him a lot of interesting stuff. Throughout the trial there were elements of the case that were never mentioned directly. Whenever one side would allude to these verboten topics (such as a long-standing family feud), the other side would object, and the objection would invariably be sustained. Occasionally an attorney managed to sneak in a reference to the disallowed material, but such statements were usually stricken from the record. That meant that we couldn't use them in our deliberations, even though we wished we had been given the whole story. At any rate, the facts which had been withheld from us during the trial were revealed by the attorneys afterwards, and they only served to strengthen our belief that we returned the correct verdict. The whole process of deciding what evidence can and cannot be known to the jury during a trial is something I know nothing about, but is undoubtedly another fascinating aspect of the process.My experience with Jury Duty was a lot like my experience with the Peace Corps: I went in with overly optimistic and romantic ideas of what my service would entail, and came out a little jaded and a little wiser. I'm glad I did it, but I don't relish the idea of ever having to do it a second time. The experienced hammered home the fact that the judicial branch of government is as human and messy as the other two branches. I had previously envisioned a trial as akin to two grandmasters sitting at a chess board, but now I realize that the process is more sport than game, full of fumbles and interception, played on a muddy field. It's not a bunch of dispassionate rationalists applying the law with scientific exactitude, but just a bunch of people doing the best they can with imperfect information. And I can't decide if I find this realization reassuring or terrifying.
IHT In The Making
It's vaguely exciting that we Americans are getting to watch the making of an Inscrutable Holiday Tradition. IHTs are those celebratory things you do for no fathomable reason, like kissing someone under mistletoe at Christmas, or dyeing eggs on Easter, or giving security guards wedgies on New Years Eve. At some point there was probably a reason (or at least justification) for doing these things, but the rationale has been lost to the mists of history.
Well on its way toward joining them is the Inscrutable Holiday Tradition of buying two bags of bite-size candybars in October. Of course, it isn't Inscrutable yet. We buy them to give out to those Trick-Or-Treaters who come to our door on Halloween night. But if your neighborhood is anything like mine, Trick Or Treaters are rapidly becoming a thing of the past. Kids these days go to malls or stay home playing "X-Treme Trick Or Treating" on the Xbox or something, I dunno. At any rate, they don't come to Chez Baldwin any more; we get fewer each year, and this year we aren't expecting any. But we still bought two bags of candybars. If we hadn't, and a T-o-T'er were to show up, we'd have to give him cans of lentil soup and beer coasters, which is the functional equivalent of tp'ing your own house.
I'm guessing that this will convert into a Full-On Inscrutable Holiday Tradition over the next 30 years or so. In 2032, families will purchase bags of bite-size candybars on October 1st without having the slightest idea why they are doing so. They will then, in accordance with tradition, dump the sweets into a big bowl and set it by the front door, where it will remain, untouched, until the end of the month. On the evening of October 31, everyone will dress up like bunnies and ballerinas and the Inexplicably Still Living Strom Thurman and watch holovision until they fall asleep. And on the following morning, everyone will gorge themselves on syntho-chocolate, having completed the annual Halloween ritual. And then they will get in their HoverSUVs and telepathically listen to Jenna Bush's State of the World address while they commute to their office on Phobos, the end.October 28, 2002
White House Raises Bush Popularity Level In Preparation For Elections
The White House today raised Bush approval rating to "Popularity Orange" in preparation for the upcoming November elections. Federal officials say the escalation was in response to a significant uptick in "chatter" concerning the possibility of Democrats retaining control of the Senate. Bush's approval, which had been at the "Elevated Popularity" level (70%-80%) since the anniversary of 9/11, was raised to the 80%-90% range, where it is expected to remain until the conclusion of the 2002 midterm elections. The White House said it does not foresee the need to go to "Popularity Red" -- the highest level of Approval possible -- but reserves the right to do so "if the situation merits a more forceful response". The public reacted almost immediately to the news: in a CNN/Reuters poll taken soon after the announcement, five out of six Americas said their impressions of Bush were "favorable" or "very favorable".October 25, 2002
Same As It Ever Was
Do you know what the greatest thing is about the Western Lowland Gorilla? I shall tell you. The greatest thing about the Western Lowland Gorilla is that his full, scientific name is -- I kid you not -- "Gorilla gorilla gorilla". That is simply awesome.
In other news, I'm having one of those days where everything I do is steeped in deja vu. I started a write an email this morning, and then spent 10 minutes searching my "sent" folder to make sure I hadn't already emailed that exact same message. And at the meeting I just went to, I swear I could have predicted every word that was said by the participants. (This is the case at almost any meeting, true, but the feeling was especially strong today.)
I think The Fates fucked up and gave me a rerun today.
Clotho: Okay, the sirens have this room in 20 minutes, so let's keep things moving. Matthew Baldwin. Lachesis?Lachesis: Yeah?Clotho: What's in store for Matthew Baldwin tomorrow?Lachesis: How should I know?Clotho: Because tomorrow's Friday.Atropos: And you're doing Matthew Baldwin on Fridays, now.Lachesis: Whoa whoa! I did him last Friday, one time, as a favor. That's all I agreed to.Atropos: Well I didn't schedule anything for him, because you said you had him covered.Lachesis: That is such bullshit.Clotho: All right, knock it off you two. It's too late to come up with a game plan, now. Lachesis, just take one of his days from a few months ago, change a few of the details, and give him that one again. His short-term memory sucks, he'll never know. Moving on! Who's got Betsy Sein?The most unsetting thing about the deja vu is the constant sense of --
Hey, wait. Have I posted that Gorilla thing before?
Jury Duty IV: Deliberations
Previously: The Trial
This is the part of the story where I become a hero.
You already know how it goes. We retire to the jury room and take a preliminary vote. It is 11-1 guilty, and I have cast the lone "Not Guilty" vote. Everyone else is shocked, but I explain my reasons. I point out subtle logical inconsistencies in the State's case. I make a series of astonishing deductions that demonstrate flaws in the State's argument. And in an exciting finale, I show that all the evidence conclusively supports my alternate hypothesis, something obvious yet overlooked, an angle even the Defense attorney failed to explore. One by one my fellow jurors realize that I am right, that they not only abandon their "guilty" vote, but that they actually believe the defendant to be innocent. After a final tally is taken it is 0-12, "Not Guilty," and I have single-handed adverted a travesty of justice.
Anyhow, that's how it works in Twelve Angry Men (and That One Happy Days Episode). It's a shame real life doesn't work like that.
We began be choosing a foreman. Back in the olden days of yore, a million years ago when I was all jazzed to be on jury duty, I was totally jonesing to be the foreman. It would be just like being elected student body president! Now I was enthusiastically seconding the nomination for someone else.
We did not start with a preliminary vote. Instead, we plowed right into the case, trying to reconstruct the chronology and details of the five allegations. In a perfect world the Prosecution and Defense would have made coherent cases, obviating our need to reconstruct. But, as mentioned yesterday, both attorneys put forth such meandering and scattershot arguments that it was up to us to take the various pieces that had been flung at us and try to fit them together.
Furthermore, we were not given a transcript of the courtroom proceedings to aid in our memory. We had been allowed to write down details during the case, and these notes, along with some thoroughly useless "evidence" (e.g., the photo of the door), was all we could use to reach a verdict. Even the mysterious "transcript" that the Defense had repeatedly referred to when asking the victim about the additional abuses was nowhere to be found. Our general discussion of the case took three days.
On the fourth day we got down to business. The consensus was "something had happened": everyone agreed that the defendant had abused the victim to some degree. The question was whether or not we could find him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt on any of the specified counts.
We decided to start with the first, most serious charge, which was also the one with the most details. We took a straw poll, and the vote came out 10-2 Guilty. I had cast one of the two "Not Guilty" votes. The other "Not Guilty" came from the foreman, who said that he wanted to vote "Guilty," but he was worried that we would vote 12-0 Guilty and not discuss the charge any further. That left me to defend the defendant. So, see?: it was just like the movie! Except that, rather than being the hero, I strongly suspected that I was the person sticking up for the serial child abuser.
Still, I did my damnedest to plead my case -- or, rather, the defendant's case, since my heart wasn't really in it. Look (said I), we have no circumstantial evidence whatsoever. How would we possibly convict on that? And wasn't it at least conceivable that the victim was making the story up? Perhaps she had told a little fib and it had snowballed into a colossal lie. Perhaps these were false memories, planted by the police or her therapist or, or ... I dunno, someone. Surely there was, as the Defense kept insisting, reasonable doubt all over the place.
My fellow jurors would have none of it. Yes, they conceded, it was conceivable that she had made the story up. But if we had to find guilt beyond a conceivable doubt, no one would ever go to jail. The question, they reminded me, was reasonability. Is your doubt reasonable, they asked -- that's what matters.
Deadlocked 11-1 on this count, we moved on to others.
Two of the counts we were, as a group, inclined to dismiss. In both cases, the description given to us by the victim (and the Prosecutor) did not meet the technical requirements for the charge. For example, in one it was impossible to say whether any molestation had actually taken place even if you assumed that the events happened exactly as the victim described. We finally came to a consensus that we would not be able to convict on these two.
At this point we broke for lunch. I used my 90 minutes to go to the gym and run on the treadmill, as I tend to do my best thinking while exercising.
I mulled the case over while running, and came to a few conclusions. First, I realized was that reading an entire book on the scientific method just prior to this trial was not one of my better decisions. I am a pretty hardcore skeptic by nature (almost to the point of atheism, although I refer to myself as agnostic), and this particular text had put me in full-on Mr. Spock mode. Second, although I thought I had disabused myself of all my romantic ideas about the law, the truth was that I had not. I still wanted one side or the other to prove their case beyond a shadow of a doubt. I wanted Perry Mason to demonstrate that it was physically impossible for his client to commit the crime; or I wanted the State to overwhelm me with evidence.
But my biggest realization, in regards to the first count, was that my fellow jurors had convinced me that my doubts were unreasonable. Part of me had been resisting this idea, because it seemed like I was "caving in," that I was willing to vote to convict someone just because everyone else did. I wanted to be the hero who talked everyone over to his side, but it finally occurred to me that this only works when the hero is correct. The defendant was guilty, and I knew it, and I had had known it for quite some time, and refusing to vote that way was a sign of stubbornness rather than integrity.
So when we reunited after lunch, I announced that I had reconsidered, and we were now 12-0 Guilty on the first count. From here it was just a matter of mopping up. We ultimately found the defendant Guilty on three counts, Not Guilty on the remaining two. The foreman signed the necessary papers, rang for the bailiff, and we awaited the return of the judge to we could announce our decision.
Next: Verdict and Aftermath.October 24, 2002
Stuck On You
You know, I don't really like bumper stickers, but I could spend all day over at makestickers.com dreamin' them up.
Jury Duty III: The Trial
Previously: Voir dire
During voir dire we were lectured, questioned, and talked down to. Then the jury was selected and we broke for lunch. Upon our return, we were suddenly treated like royalty. "All rise for the jury," demanded the bailiff every time we entered the room. And the attorneys began speaking to us like we were their closest, most trusted friends.
In an effort to keep the participants in this case as anonymous as possible, I'm going to largely avoid the specifics of the case. But here's the gist.
The charges were multiple counts of molestation and rape of a child. The allegations were brought forth by a young woman, in her late teens, who claimed that the defendant (a relative) had serially abused her throughout her childhood. The (alleged) victim had no history of medical, psychological or behavioral problems, nor had anyone else known of or suspected the abuse until she had first confided in a friend some 16 months ago. There was, in short, almost no circumstantial evidence to corroborate her claims.
The case was thin to begin with, but the State still managed to mungle what little they had. The first item the Prosecutor entered into evidence was a huge, blown-up photograph of a door. It was the door to the room that one of the molestations was said to have taken place, yes, but the picture had been taken seven years (!) after the date of the incident -- so long that it wasn't even the same door that hung in the house at the time of the alleged molestation. The Prosecutor put this picture on an easel so we could all look at it while she made her opening remarks, which were essentially a narrative stringing together the five allegations of abuse. My gaze kept returning to the picture of the door, waiting for her to point out some fingerprint or footprint or something I had overlooked, but she never mentioned it. After she finished her statement, the picture was removed and never referenced again by either side. I was left to conclude that this "evidence" was, in fact, a prop, something to help us visualize the dramatic events she was describing. It seemed like an embarassingly clumsy courtroom device, a technique they might advocate in "Prosecuting For Dummies". I found it far more distracting than helpful, and her introduction of evidence-that-wasn't-really-evidence made her argument seem weak from the get-go.
The State then called a number of witnesses, all of whom testified that the victim had recently told them about the abuse. That's it: they couldn't (and didn't) speak to the actual veracity of the allegations, only that the claims had been made and that they believed them. The Prosecution spent a lot of time on these witness, but I couldn't figure out why. Neither could the Defense, apparently, because he let each go with nothing more than a perfunctory cross-examination.
On the second day, the victim herself took the stand. She described the allegations in some detail, giving a vivid account of each of the five charges. Here again we learned of no additional circumstantial evidence that would help substantiate the claims; but, that said, her testimony was eminently believable. Curiously, when the Defense cross-examined her, he spent little time questioning her account of the charges brought against the defendant. Instead, he referred to a transcript of an interview she had conducted with a police officer a year ago, and grilled her on some additional allegations of abuse she had mentioned then.
Apparently he was trying to trip her up on the details of these other incidents, but the message he sent me was: "I can't poke holes in your accounts of the actual charges, so I'm going to poke holes in your accounts of some other, not-entirely-relevant claims." Furthermore, by asking about all these other occasions, he was only reinforcing the premise that her abuse was systematic and frequent. On redirect the Prosecutor made a point of telling us that it was she, and not the victim, who had opted to only pursue the five specified allegations. But had it not been for the Defense attorney, we may well have believed that these five occasions were the only time she had been abused. In fact, I had been wondering just that, thinking it odd that there were few molestations over the course of seven years. Thanks to the Defense, this significant doubt about the State's case was dispelled.
The whole trial went like this: the Prosecution would do a inept job of making her case, and the the Defense would get up there and make it for her. There were times when I wanted to interrupt one lawyer or the other and demand to know what side they were on. At one point a witness rambled on and on in response to a question from the Defense, while the lawyer stood there reviewing his notes, seemingly oblivious to the fact that she was shredding his case as she went.
By the time the Prosecution rested, I was ready to vote "Not Guilty" on all charges -- it wasn't that I didn't believe the victim, it was just that I thought the Prosecution had failed to make their case. Then the Defense went. By the time he was done, I wasn't sure what to vote. He managed to take my five "not guilty" votes and give each a healthy shove towards "the other side.
He did this by calling only three witnesses, asking them completely nonsensical questions, and eliciting responses that were so clearly rehearsed as to be wholly unbelievable. Much of his rebuttal centered around the door, the door that was sort-of-but-not-really pictured in State's Exhibit #1. The door led to a room owned by another member of the family (who was conspicuously absent from the courtroom), and the Defense asked the same line of questions to everyone he called. It went like this
Defense's Question Witness Answer Believability "Did the owner of the room lock his door when he wasn't around?" Emphatic yes Believable "Did the defendant have a key to the room?" Emphatic no Believable "Did anyone in the household, aside from the room's owner, have a key to the room?" Emphatic no That's pretty odd "Did the owner of the room ever let anyone else go into his room?" Emphatic no Come on "Did the owner of the room leave his room unlocked even a single time over the course of the five years he lived there?" Emphatic no Gimmie a break!Afterwards, several jurors pointed out that the overuse of absolutes ("never," "always") by the witnesses and the blatantly scripted nature of their testimony rendered the entire defense useless, except insofar as it helped to convince people like me to reconsider their "not guilty" votes. The defendant himself did not testify, but that, the judge reminded us, could not be held against him.
After the Defense had rested, the Prosecution made her closing arguments. She frankly admitted that her whole case came down to the testimony of one person -- the victim -- but that we could still find the defendant guilty if we believed the allegetions beyond a reasonable doubt. Circumstantial evidence obviously helps, she said, but you don't need it to make a conviction. Then the Defense went. He essentially summarized how I had been feeling just after the Procecution rested: that the State had failed to make its case, and that there was, in his words, "reasonable doubt all over the place". Then, to my surprise, the Prosecution got to make a second closing statement. This was technically a "rebuttal," but it sounded just like a closing statement to me. I thought the Defense always got to go last, but apparently not.
The trial concluded, we now found out which among us was the alternate juror. The judge had (wisely) not told us who the alternate was before the case, because he wanted that person to pay attention during the proceding. I was hoping against hope that it would be me.
Alas, it turned out to be the guy who probably would have been our foreman had he not been excused. He tried to look bummed out, but didn't quite succeed. He quickly gathered up his stuff, headed for the door, and said "I don't envy a one of you."
Next: Deliberations.October 23, 2002
America's Favorite Snack Just Got Favoriter!This summer, people across the nation thrilled to the taste-sensation of the Deep-Fried Twinkie. But that fad is so last-August. Americans want something newer, something bigger, something that takes deep-frying to the edge and then over the edge and then across a verdant meadow and right up to a second, edgier edge.That's why Adipose Industries (a child corporation of defective yeti Foods and Lockheed Martin Aeronautics) is pleased to introduce
Deep-Fried Deep-Fried Twinkies!
And Coming Soon from Adipose Industries: Chocolate-Covered Deep-Fried Deep-Fried Twinkies Pork-Flavored Chocolate-Covered Deep-Fried Deep-Fried Twinkies Deep-Fried Pork-Flavored Chocolate-Covered Deep-Fried Deep-Fried TwinkiesAdipose Industries' revolutionary secret process is to take a traditional deep-fried Twinkie and deep-fry it, adding a patented second layer of oil and batter to this already delicious, nutrient-free treat! You'd have to eat 730 bowls of Total to get the same caloric content as a single Deep-Fried Deep-Fried Twinkie-- that's enough energy to power your SUV to the moon ... and back!But don't just take our word for it: "American Glutton Monthly" ranked the Deep-Fried Deep-Fried Twinkie #4 in their 2002 "Excellence In Corpulence" issue! And "Eating Well" magazine called it "an abhorrence"!So drive, don't run, to your nearest county fair, and experience all the seizure-inducing excitement this fat-tactular snack has to offer!
Deep-Fried Deep-Fried Twinkies It's like Armageddon ... For Your Mouth!October 22, 2002
Look Upon My Works, Ye and Despair
I'm having a hard time deciding which facial expression is the funniest. I really like "Ron Weasly, Ralphing" in the lower left-hand corner, but "Guy Showing Perhaps A Little Too Much Interest" in the tan jacket, far right, might just take the cake.
Jury Duty II: Voir Dire
Unlike the first two jury pools, my group of 50 did not immediately tromp off to meet their judge. We were instead asked to fill out a questionnaire and return it to the Courthouse Clerk. I picked up mine, returned to my seat, and felt my zeal for Jury Duty whoosh out of me like oxygen from an open airlock.
Every question had something to do with molestation -- or, in legaleese, "sexual misconduct". "Have you ever been the victim of sexual misconduct?" "Has anyone you know been the victim of sexual misconduct?" "Have you ever been accused of sexual misconduct?" Worse still, tucked away in the middle of these queries, was the unnerving question "Has anyone you known had a child forcibly removed from their home?" Sexual Misconduct + Child = case I did not want to be on.
I checked "no" to every single question, meaning I wouldn't get tossed out for out-and-out bias. I began mentally reviewing all the Jury Dodging techniques that friends had imparted to me. My wife told me to emphasize my schooling, that they rarely accepted folks with a Bachelors degree. So, in the "years of education" section of the questionnaire, I put "17" instead of "16," deciding that this would be a good time to start counting kindergarten as a grade. A coworker told me to play up the fact that I was a programmer, because (he claimed) they dismiss analytical types. Under "Occupation" I therefore put "System Anaylst Programmer" -- the only time I have ever used my full title on an official document. I was pretty proud of that, until I realized that any advantage I might get by having the word "analyst" in my title would probably be negated by the fact that I misspelled it.
After the questionnaires had been returned we were lined up and marched to the courtroom. As we filed in, the first 13 were told to sit in the Jury Box (12 Jurors + an alternate), while the rest of us sat on the observation benches, ordered by number. That put me three seats away from the Box -- two seats, really, because Juror #15 had vanished after turning in her questionnaire. The judge welcomed us and explained a bit about the Voir Dire process. Voir dire, he said, means "to speak the truth," and that was our job as the lawyers peppered us with questions. Afterwards, each side in the case could dismiss an unlimited number of potential jurors "With Cause" -- that is, if they could convince the judge that the person was biased -- and a certain number of "peremptory" challenges, which they could use to dismiss anyone for no stated reason.
Another "sure-fire jury duty avoidance technique," I had been told, was to give long, honest and candid answers during voir dire. I resolved to do so and get me one of them peremptory challenges. I briefly toyed with the idea of acting maniacally eager to be on the jury ("I will do anything to be on this jury, Your Honor! Anything!"), but decided that would be too much work.
I found voir dire to be the most interesting aspect of the whole trial, possibly because it was the most "game-y". At this point they could not yet tell us the specifics of the case, but the two sides could phrase their questions in such a way as to lay the foundation for later arguments. The defense attorney, for example, prefaced nearly every question with "Given that the defendant is innocent until proven guilty ..." In a sense, each councillor was trying to to simultaneously detect and instill bias in the jurors, and every question was masterfully worded to accomplish both objectives.
The prosecution went first, and started by lobbing softballs. She posed some followup questions to those who had provided "yes" answers on the questionnaire. She asked if we understood the concept of "reasonable doubt" (all while subtly redefining the term). She asked if we understood that "direct evident" (i.e. testimony) was given as much weight as "circumstantial evidence" (e.g., smoking guns and DNA) in a court of law. She was very emphatic on this last point, so much so that I began to suspect that she was, in essence, describing her case. When she asked if anyone would have a problem convicting someone based solely on testimony, I raised my hand. "I think I would find it very hard to find someone guilty beyond a reasonable doubt without some physical evidence corroborating the testimony," I announced. I then did some mental back-patting, certain that I had just earned my dismissal.
Things looked even better for me when the defense started. He asked if anyone had friends or family who worked in law enforcement. "Actually, a good buddy of mine was a Seattle police office," I told him. "And another friend of mine is a prosecutor in a nearby city."
He looked profoundly unhappy when I said the word "prosecutor". "Do you ever discuss cases with your prosecutor friend?" he asked.
"Sure. In some detail," I replied. "I am interested in law, so when I see her I generally have her give me the full rundown of her recent cases."
"And does she ever talk about defense attorneys?" he asked.
"Ohhhhhhh yeah," I crowed. "It is fair to say that, as a prosecutor, she has an adversarial relationship with defense attorneys." At this moment I was so assured that I was a goner that I had restrain myself from picking up my backpack and strutting out the door with a "See ya!"
We went sent home for the day. The following morning, as we filed back into the courtroom, our numbers were diminished considerably. Apparently all of the "With Cause" dismissals had been made, leaving a jury pool of 35 folks. Some of the newly vacant seats were in the Jury Box, so I was officially at risk of being selected. Still, I was certain that I would be back at work on the following day.
Having concluded voir dire, the lawyers were ready to use their peremptory challenges to select the jury. In this they alternated: first the defense would axe someone, then the prosecution would get a turn. As they began, the Jury Box contained eight men and four women, but that immediately changed as the defense dismissed one of the females and a male took her place.
Then the prosecution dismissed a woman, who was replaced by a man. Then the defense dismissed another woman, who was replaced by a woman -- except that the replacement didn't even get into the Box before she was dismissed by the prosecution and replaced by a man. That left us with 11 men and a single woman. If this was a sexual misconduct case (as it surely was) and the victim was a woman (as it surely was), then I could understand why the defense would want an all-male jury. But what was the prosecution doing? Wouldn't she want women on the jury for the same reason that the defense didn't? To this day I still don't know what her strategy was.
The upshot to this was that I, and all the other men, were ignored. The whole thing reminded me of the days of yore, when kickball players would get picked from all around me while I remained standing on the wall. Finally a male was dismissed but, sadly, it was a non-me male. The prosecution then challenged the one remaining woman, but the chair she vacated was filled by yet another female. Eleven to one again. As the next three jurors-in-waiting were all women, I figured this is where the lawyers would cease the gender Cold War and finally get around to excusing some System Analysts.
Instead, the defense said "Your Honor, we accept this jury."
And the prosecution said "The state also accepts this jury."
And I said "Aw, crap."
Next: The Trial
Carrot Top Urges Sniper
To Contact Police Using 1-800-CALL-ATT
Sources: Call would be 'free for the killer,
cheap for authorities'October 21, 2002
Jury Duty I: Summons
All my life I have wanted to do Jury Duty. As a teen I was addicted to Perry Mason novels and L.A. Law; in college I got a phenomenal score on a practice LSAT test I took for kicks; in Peace Corps I resolved to become an environmental lawyer upon my return to the States. In a sense, my interest in the law is a natural extension of my interest in games: after all, what is the law but a bajillion-paged rulebook, and what are councilors but those who play at a Grandmaster level?
And the easiest way to get involved in the judicial system, it seemed to me, was for someone to draw my name out of a hat and call me in to hear a case. Alas, this had only happened once so far, and I was working in Bolivia at the time. Meanwhile, my friends and family seemed to get roped in on a weekly basis. I could never understand why they dreaded the prospect, why those lucky enough to get picked would suddenly develop medical conditions or embark on mission-critical work-related projects when they were called to serve.
My wife had been picked for Jury Duty only two months prior. She was assigned to the municipal court, presumably to help sort out parking tickets and other such minutiae. But, as it turned out, she didn't do a damned thing. She showed up Monday morning, her name was added to the roster, and she told her to return to work. If they needed her, they said they'd give her a ring -- and that was the last she heard from them. So when my notice showed up a few weeks later, I assumed that that's what I would be doing is well. In fact, it wasn't until just two days before my summons date that I finally read the thing and discovered that I was destine for the King County Superior Court.
The King County Superior Courthouse is located in one of the Seattle's worst neighborhoods. I suspect that many of those charged with assault and robbery don't have to travel far to get from the scene of the crime to their trial. As instructed I arrived on the premises at 8:00, Monday morning, and upon entering I realized I had visited the building on a "Civil Law" fiel trip class I had taken in high school. I don't recall if you had to run a gauntlet of security barriers to enter the joint back in 1988, but you certainly do now.
Once I walked through the metal detectors (which I managed to do with my keys in my pocket, to no alarm whatsoever) I found an intriguing mix of lawyers, criminals, defendants, witness, and hapless folks like me, citizens who can't even figure out where they are supposed to go. It was odd to contemplate that the six people currently queued up in the lobby's coffee shop to purchase muffins might conceivably, in an hour's time, all be playing radically different roles in the same courtroom: some on trial, some defending or prosecuting, some sitting in judgment.
The Jury Waiting Room was on the seventh floor. Every window in sight was either frosted to the point of opaquity or covered up with boards (remnants of the 2001 Seattle Earthquake, I was told), making the place look like a casino hotel worried about suicide jumpers. The waiting room itself looked like an uncomfortably tiny airport boarding area, with chairs every bit as luxurious as those you'd find at Sea-Tac gate D-17. Everyone got a badge that had "JUROR" on it but no name. On Jury Duty you are more than just a number, you are also a bar code.
The first thing you do upon arrival to Jury Duty is nothing. Maybe they were waiting for all the stragglers to show up and check in, or maybe that "8:00" show-up time is a ruse to get everyone in the house by the real time of 9:00. For whatever reason, we all had to sit there and stare at the wall for an hour. Well, many of us read, actually, but a remarkable number of people took the wall-staring route. On the bus I always wonder why so few people have books or magazines, but I suppose reading in vehicles makes some folks ill. These jokers had no excuse.
Some folks made half-hearted attempts to converse with their neighbors, but no one was really in the mood for chit-chat. Men were gently hitting on every attractive woman. Well, perhaps not "hitting on," per se, but it's universally understood that "may I use your clipboard" is little more than a conversation-opening gambit. The guy sitting directly across from me was wearing a very smart three-piece suit and reading The Wall Street Journal; the young man sitting next to him was wearing camouflage shorts and reading Harpers.
At 9:15 they showed us a video about the history of Trial by Jury. The bulk of the video was a generic "Yay, Judicial System!" bit, not unlike a training video you'd be forced to watch on your first day at Hotdog On a Stick. But prefacing this was an introduction by Raymond Burr, informing you, in a "I'm not a lawyer but I play one of TV" kind of way, that being on a jury is right up there with getting shot in a war in terms of service to your country. The core of the video was designed to be shown anywhere in the nation, but the filmmakers tried to "customize" this introduction by throwing in as many references to Washington State as they could. "The Judicial system is as majestic as the Olympic Mountains," Burr said. "And as exciting as a Seahawk game."
Then we sat around for a while longer. People became openly restless. A woman in the corner nearly completed a jigsaw puzzle. The guy to my right played game after game of Klondike on his PDA.
Finally, at 10:00, the first jury was called. "The following people are to report to Judge Gray," boomed a voice over hidden speakers. "When I call your name, yell 'here' at the ceiling; we have microphones up there. David Ganther."
"You are Juror number one. Diane Mayu."
"You are Juror number two."
Judge Gray got 50 Jurors in total. After the last name was called they were herded out of the room, not to be seen again. Not by me, anyhow, as I was not among them. Thirty minutes later a smaller set of Jurors was rounded up and sent to meet another judge. I was again unselected.
There were still a huge number of people in the waiting room with me -- so many that, it occurred to me, not everyone could possibly wind up on a case. According to my sheet, those of us who were not on a case by the end of the second day would be dismissed. So I began to suspect that this would be my entire Jury Duty experience: sitting around in this astronomically dull room for two days, reading my book and drinking hot chocolate out of "Wild Card Poker" paper cups. I could feel my Jury Duty enthusiasm oozing out of me with frightening rapidity.
At 11:00 they started calling names for a third jury. "Matthew Baldwin."
"Here!" I shouted at the ceiling.
"You are Juror number 16."
I was finally on a case, and was again psyched to play a part in the judicial process of the United States.
The thrill would last for about 90 seconds.
Next: Voir Dire
Let Me Get This Straight
Guy At Bus Stop: [After spending some quality time staring at the Feather Teaser I am holding] What is that?
Me: It's a cat toy.
GAB: For a cat?
Me: That's correct.October 18, 2002
My Big Fat Redundant Idea
You know what the problem with the Internet is? It's that every knucklehead with a great idea can go online and blab about it. So, now, whenever I have a great idea, and I search Google to make sure that I am the first person ever to think of it, I always wind up with, like 74,000 hits. Lame. Remember when you were a kid and you would say "blander-la blander-la gnart!" and touch a tree, and then think "I am the first person in the history of the world to ever say 'blander-la blander-la gnart!' and touch this tree' and how that made you feel all special? Not any more! Now you enter "blander-la" into Google and the first thing you'll find is some idiot's blog entry about how he said that exact same thing while touching your tree seven months ago.
I started thinking about this yesterday, when I had this hil-lare-ious idea of taking the movie poster for My Big Fat Greek Wedding, and Photoshopping it so that it contained pictures of Bill Gates and Keven Smith and whatever, and then renaming it My Big Fat Geek Wedding! Ha! But then I foolishly decided to search Google for the phrase "My Big Fat Geek Wedding" and found out that I am the last person on Earth to think of this. Stupid search engine.
Or here's another. The other day my friend and I were eating Hatian Grand Slams at Denny's, and he, my friend, was all like "hey, do you think that x to the nth power plus y to the nth power could possibly equal z to the nth power if x, y, and z are non-zero intergers, and n is greater than two?" And I said "no way, dude, because all semistable elliptic curves with rational coefficients are modular, so if n were greater than 2" blah blah blah. Well it doesn't really matter what I said because it's all moot!! After dinner I was, like, "I bet I'm the first person to figure that out! I'm going to write about that on my blog." But then I checked Google, and it turns out that some joker named Andrew Wiles said the exact same thing a while ago, the jerk.
So the moral of this story is: if you have a great idea, don't be selfish and put it on the web or tell anyone about it.
It's a Boy!
Games: Royal Turf
What the hell? I wrote a rave review about Puerto Rico and basically called it the best thing since the invention of the pluot, and not a single one of you went out and bought it? You are so disappointing. I mean, okay, I kind of see your point: few of you are avid board game players like myself, so the prospect of buying (much less learning and teaching) a game with 700 rules and twice that many pieces might have seemed a bit daunting. Perhaps you need to be eased into this hobby. So let me make another suggestion: purchase Royal Turf. Now! Do it! Actually, Royal Turf, while a very enjoyable game, isn't worthy of such exhortations. But if you've been toying with the idea of trying out these "Designer Games" I'm always rambling on about, this might be exactly what you're looking for.
Let's start with the bad news: The rules that accompany Royal Turf are in German. But it doesn't matter, honest Native American. You can easily find an English translation on the web (tah-dah!), and since the game is about British horse racing, the names of the horses (the only text on the game components) are English: Albino, Earl Gray, Othello, etc. So don't let that stop you. The good news is that Royal Turf is very simple to learn, plays in under and hour, and is small enough to fit on the table of a tavern.
The game consists of three races, and each race has three phases: the Betting Phase, the Racing Phase, and the Payout. Before each race, a Movement Card is revealed for each horse, and the animals are queued up at the start of a 33-space racetrack. Each player also receives three betting chips. During the Betting Phase, players place their Betting Chips on the horses of their choice. Players must use all of their chips and cannot bet more than once on a single horse, so at the end of the Betting Phase everyone will have wagered on three of the seven contenders.
And they're off! During the Racing Phase, each player in turn rolls a special die, and then movies one of the horses forward a specified amount. The die has a Horsehead icon on three of its sides, with the other sides bearing a Horseshoe, a Saddle and a Jockey's Cap. The Movement Cards show how far each stallion advances for each of the four symbols. The Card for "Sahara Wind," for example, might indicate that he advances 3 spaces on a Horsehead, 9 spaces on a Cap, 5 spaces for a Saddle and 7 spaces for a Horseshoe. After rolling the die, the player may choose which horse he wishes to advance. Once a horse has moved, his Movement card is pushed aside to indicate that it cannot move again; after all horses have been used, the Cards are restored to their original places and each is again eligible for movement.
The race ends when the third horse crosses the finish line, at which time the horse currently in last place goes to the Losers Box. Each player who bet on a winning horse receives money, dependent on what place the horse came in and how many other players bet on the same horse.
Place / # of Bets 1 Bet 2 Bets 3 Bets 4 Bets 5+ Bets Win $500 $350 $250 $200 $150 Place $350 $250 $200 $150 $100 Show $250 $200 $150 $100 $100
Everyone who bet on the Losing Horse must pay $100 to the bank. After three races, the player with the most money wins.
There are plenty of fun decisions to be made in Royal Turf. After rolling, deciding to move one of your own horses a long distance or moving an opponent's horse a few spaces is always an agonizing choice (and the other players will cheerfully badger you with their opinions on the matter). Because a moved horse cannot advance again until all the horses have been used, moving an opponent's stallion forward "1" can seriously hurt their chances of winning. The betting Phase also entails some tough choices. Betting on a popular horse means you'll get less money if the horse wins, but it also makes a win much more likely.
There's not a ton of strategy in Royal Turf, but certainly enough to make for an interesting 45 minutes. Best of all, the game, while nowhere near an actual simulation of horse racing, does a good job of recreating the track atmosphere: you'll find yourself cheering for your favorite pony and groaning with dismay when he's hobbled by an opponent. Simple rules combined with a popular theme makes this a perfect game for families or groups of friends who just want something to do while sipping beer at the local brewhouse. If you have any interest in games but have been hesitant to take the plunge, Royal Turf would be an excellent place to start.October 17, 2002
Fun While It Lasted
Head on over to Testclear.com if you need to purchase some powdered urine online.
Well, there you go folks: the Internet is officially complete. Thanks for stopping by.
For Every Season, Turn, Turn
Reasons To Lament The Passing of Summer Reasons To Celebrate the Advent of Winter Can no longer drink ale with lemon in it without looking like a nancyboy Can begin drinking stout with the viscosity of motor oil and the alcohol content of brandy without looking like a drunk Realization that I have gone another year without once riding my bicycle to work Realization that I again have the opportunity to become an avid snowshoer No more warm days Opportunity to swaddle scrawny frame in layers of bulky clothing Possibility of snow Possibility of getting out of work due to snow Can no longer barbecue Can begin using fireplace Fewer daylight hours makes running in the evening more difficult May now dismiss excess 10 lbs. as "winter weight" No more baseball No more wasting 10+ hours a week watching baseball Wife and cat become moody due to lack of sunshine [There is no upside to this] Impending holiday season brings with it an onslaught on unchecked consumerism Unchecked consumerism results in my receiving presents Goodbye, women wearing sundresses Hello, women wearing sweaters
White House Petitions Congress For Fourth Adjective
Just 24 hours after referring to North Korea's nuclear weapons program as "troubling," The Bush Administration has asked Congress to authorize a fourth adjective for use by the executive branch. "In these troubling times of cowardly acts, it is essential that the White House have the necessary adjectives to describe people of evil," Bush insisted. But Senate majority leader Tom Daschle expressed skepticism that a fourth word would be allotted. "In the wake of 9/11, we gave the President almost unlimited use of the word "evil," -- it's not our fault that he applied it to everything from foreign nations to pretzels. And when he came to us earlier this year, asking for 'Cowardly' and 'Troubling,' he assured us that three words would be more than sufficient. Now he wants a fourth? How do we know he won't just squander this one like the others?" When asked to comment on Daschle's remarks, White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer characterized them as "Cowardly, troubling, and evil."October 16, 2002
Movies: One Hour Photo
(Vague Spoilers for Signs herein.)
There are two types of thrillers: Thrillers that depend on plot, and thrillers that depend on atmosphere. (I'm fully aware that the preceding statement is, like, 400% incorrect. But stick with me, here -- I'm making a point.) Movies like The Usual Suspects and, more recently, Signs keep you on the edge of your seat because the plot is so elaborate that you never know what is going to happen next. But movies like Psycho are almost completely atmosphere-driven -- you grind your teeth because you know exactly what's going to happen next, and that "next thing" ain't gonna be good. What you don't want to see, though, is a thriller start out in one vein and keeps lapsing into the other. This was essentially my objection to the ending of Signs: The whole movie was plot driven, and then, in the last five minutes, it turned into "And then God saved them, the end. P.s. don't think too hard about the rest of the movie." If you're going to pitch your tent on plot, I expect you to stay camped there for the duration of the movie.
On the other hand, One Hour Photo is all atmosphere. Or, at least, it should be. Instead, director Mark Romanek keeps ruining a perfectly fine movie by tossing in handfuls of plot as seemingly random moments. The story centers around Sy Parrish, a clerk in a Wal*Martesque photo lab. Sy takes his job very, very serious -- so seriously that you're pretty sure that it's all he has to live for. As it turns out, Sy also has his family -- except that it's not really his family, technically. In fact, it's someone else's family entirely. But Sy has been developing this family's photos for so long that he has come to feel like an Uncle -- the intense, unhinged Uncle Sy. The family in question knows nothing about Sy's fixation. And Sy, truth be told, knows much less about the family than he seems to think. He believes them to be the very model of the happiness, and when he begins to learn otherwise his obsession spins out of control.
That's enough of the plot for you to get a feel for the film. And, frankly, that's enough plot to carry the film. Robin Williams does a fantastic job as Sy, making the character entirely believable. Sy is one of those people that's a little "off' -- not so much that you don't feel sorry for his not having friends, but just enough so that you don't especially want to befriend him yourself. That right there is enough to make anyone uncomfortable while watching Photo, and when Sy begins to slide into madness the film becomes downright scary.
The problem is, every time you start to become immersed in the atmosphere of One Hour Photo, it suddenly switches gears and throws some plot at you -- and it's often plot that doesn't make a whole lot of sense. Having jarred you out of your reverie, the plot disappears and the atmosphere resumes, but getting back into the groove is like falling back asleep after being awakened by a phone call.
If the movie had stuck to what it was good at -- namely, sitting back and letting Mork from Ork creep the pants off you -- it would have been excellent. But the decision to try and liven things up with some completely unnecessary plot twists was a big mistake, in my opinion. Maybe if the screenplay had gone through another revision this would have been corrected. As it stands, Photo, while enjoyable, feels somewhat undeveloped.
#733 In A Series
At my library, on the "New Arrivals" shelf, I noticed yesterday that they now carry The Worst Case Scenario Survival Handbook: Golf.
Gimmie a break. What's next?AA Is For Another AlibiFurry Love: The RulesEnder's PancreasLonely Planet Guide: AntarticaDrunken Groping (Silhouette Intimate Moments, No. 1179)Starfleet Retirement Community #14: Sulu Checks InChicken Soup For Martin Danderson of Kentdale, Iowa's SoulMars Won't Ask For Directions, Venus Loves To Shop: More Explorations Into Gender StereotypingThe Darwin Awards XXIV: More Dumb People! Dying!The Worst Case Scenario Survival Handbook: Played-Out Franchise Book Themes (Step one: "Don't panic! No one will read the 72nd or 73rd book in the series, but that doesn't mean a publisher won't buy them.")Update: Rory reminds me that, when it comes to marketing, you can never assume that an idea is so absurd that it doesn't actually exist.October 15, 2002
Have you ever gone to buy a candy bar out of the snack machine and done that thing? You know, that one thing? Where you put your money in, fully intending to buy a Kit Kat or a Snickers or something, but then, just as you go to press the buttons, you suddenly feel kind of sorry for the unpopular candy bars, like the Big Hunk or the Bit-O-Honey? So then, in an impulsive fit of sympathy, you actually wind up buying one of the often overlooked treats? And a few moments later you're, like, standing there, masticating your Payday and wondering what the hell got into you, why on earth you found yourself inexplicably rooting for an inert hunk of milk chocolate and caramel?
Never? That's never happened to you? What, you mean not even once?
Well uh, yeah, of course that's stupid. That's what I'm saying. What? No. No, of course I've never done that, ha! No, this was strictly a, whatayacallit, a hypothetical. I mean, I've heard of some people, some stupid people, doing that, but not, you know, me personally.
What, this? I, uh. I happen to, you know, like Idaho Spud Bars, that's all.October 14, 2002
Books: How To Think About Weird Things
Mr. Companion, my eighth grade social studies teacher, was convinced that aliens had build the Egyptian pyramids. "They know for a fact that it was aliens," he informed us, "because in the middle of the biggest pyramid there's a room, and in this room there's statues of all the races on man -- Caucasian, Mongoloid, Negroid, Eskimo, all of them. And since the Egyptians had obviously never seen Eskimos, it must have been been aliens. You see?" He also helpfully stocked the shelves in his classroom with copies of Chariots of the Gods, and encouraged us to "check them out".
I thought about him a lot while reading this book.
How To Think About Weird Things is a primer on critical thinking skills. And by "primer," I mean it is suitable for someone just begining to fully appreciate their faculty for reasoning, such as a high school student or college freshman. So how did I wind up reading it? Beats me. I don't even remember putting a hold on it. But when Nice Librarian Lady handed it to me last week, along with my stack of other reserved books, I figured that a refresher course in critical thinking couldn't possibly be a bad idea.
As it turns out, Weird Things was an enjoyable read, even if repetitious and too basic to be of much use to me. The author, Theodore Schick Jr., explicates critical thinking in three broad sections. First, he spends a few chapters reviewing why we humans are so susceptible to logical pot-holes. One of the main reasons, Schick postulates, is our inability to intuitively grasp probability, which leads us to routinely over- and underestimate the likelihood of various events. You think of a friend and, 10 minutes later, that friend calls. What are the odds? It must be ESP, right? Well, the "odds" aren't that bad, Weird Things points out, when you calculate how many times a month you think of your friends, and chart that against how many phone calls you receive from friends in a given 30-day period.
Another font of problems is our unreliable perceptions and memories. The human brain, when faced with random or unknown input, does it's best to make sense of the data, and this sometimes leads it to "see" or "hear" things that aren't there. You look at a crater on Mars and you see a smiley face, or a cat yowls next door and you hear your late grandmother calling from the foyer. Furthermore, human memories are infamously unreliable. (Less than a month after the 9/11/01, studies showed that many people who had watched the attacks unfold on tv were already confusing the chronology of events, claiming, for example, that the Pentagon had been hit first.)
If we can't trust our own eyes and recall, what can we rely on? Schick reassures us that there are things we can ascertain, facts that can be discerned by studious application of the scientific method. You state a hypothesis, you amass evidence, you apply the data and see if it confirms or negates the initial proposition. This isn't just the formula white-coated astrophysicists at NASA should be using, these are the tools that each of us should be hanging onto our belts every morning as we head out the door.
Schick then examines (and eviscerates) a number of popular parapsychological topics, ranging from Homeopathy to UFOs to Near Death Experiences. In each case he rigorously applies his recommended criteria and finds them wanting.
It's fair to call How To Think About Weird Things a treatise on skepticism. But while chary of topics such as dowsing and channeling, Schick does not employ the all-too-common double-standard and call such things 100% false. He acknowledges that stating with certainty that Astrology is false is just as faith-based as believing in it wholeheartedly. But Schick makes a very convincing argument that we do ourselves a disservice when we put stock in beliefs bereft of supporting evidence. Astrology may not be false, but given the preponderance of evidence against it you would be foolish to embrace it.
As Weird Things is clearly intended to be a textbook, it is somewhat difficult to read recreationally. For one thing, he tends to tell you what he's going to tell you, tell you, and then tell you what he told you -- useful when preaching to a student who is reluctantly plowing through your book, but terribly redundant for those who are reading out of an interest in the topic. Furthermore, no depth is plumbed too deep. He mentions a smattering fallacies in the appendix, for example, but doesn't detail them in the way that, say this book would. But as a general introduction to the principles of critical thinking, How To Think About Weird Things is an fine work. I honestly believe that the world would be a better place if a book such as this was required reading for every high school student. And Mr. Companion.
Age and Arbor
It is early Sunday morning. My wife and I are lollygagging about, reading books and drinking coffee. She climbs out of bed and leaves the room to refill her mug, while I continue my book on critical thinking.
The chapter I am reading is all about fallacies: mistakes people make in their arguments and reasoning. The current paragraph states:The Fallacy of Hasty Generalization: One is guilty of hasty generalization, or jumping to conclusions, when one draws a general conclusion about all things of a certain type on the basis of evidence concerning only a few things of that type.At this moment my wife re-enters the room and, glancing out the window, says "Wow, our Madrone tree is looking beautiful."
I follow her gaze to the backyard. The Madrone has recently shed its bark, and it now appears youthful and hale. The only bad thing about this tree is that it drops leaves year-round, many of which fall on the the property to the south -- something that perpetually vexes that elderly homeowner. "Yeah, it looks great," I agree. "Too bad the neighbor doesn't like it."
"Oh, you know old people," my wife replies as she clambers back into bed. "They hate trees."October 08, 2002
Dockers Lockout Imperils National Supply Of Dockers
A weeklong Dockers lockout has brought the nation's supply of Dockers to perilously low levels, the President warned earlier today. "The time has come for resolution," Bush said during a speech at St. Louis University. "Those who work in 'Dress Down' environments can no longer afford to go trouserless." He also cited an alarming upswing in the number of people attending weddings and funerals clad only in collared shirts, boxer shorts, socks and shoes. Although the President says he has not yet decided to intervene in the dispute, business leaders around the country are urging him to intercede before Casual Friday.October 07, 2002
Law And Order: Matthew Baldwin Unit
Jury Duty -- huzzah! No postings until I manage to weasel my way out or until my trial is concluded.
Update: Stupid justice system.
Apparently I possess subpar weasling skills, so no yeti for the remainder of the week. I leave you with:
Overheard Jury Pool Pickup Lines
- "Is this your first time on jury duty?"
- "So, who's your judge?"
- "You wanna use my clipboard?"Confidential to Justice System: Oh for Pete's sake, stop your blubbering. I didn't mean it when I called you stupid. Seriously. I consider you one of the top three branches of federal government, no shit.October 04, 2002
defective yeti's Puzzle Korner
You are Black. White has just advanced his pawn to e6. It is now your move. What do you do?
[Answer: Bishop to d5. Keep finger on bishop, rise, view board from overhead perspective. Return bishop to a8. Bishop to b7. Stand up, maintain contact with bishop, examine board from several angles. Return bishop to a8. Bishop to, in turn, c6, e4, f3, g2 and h1. Scutinize board after every move. Return bishop to a8. Mutter "fuck," bishop to e4. Remove hand from bishop. Quickly put hand back on bishop, say "Wait!" Vehemently deny you took hand off bishop. Insist you had tip of index finger on bishop at all times. Tell opponent if he really wants to win by cheating there's nothing you can do to stop him. Return bishop to a8. King to h7. Become irritated when opponent points out you are moving into check. Return King to h8. Stare at board for seven straight minutes. Jump with surprise upon realizing you can capture opponent's bishop. King to g8. Watch in dismay as opponent moves Queen to g7, captures pawn, announces checkmate. Stand up suddenly, overturning table. Say "Yeah?! Well maybe if you didn't spend so much time playing chess, your wife wouldn't be sleeping around!"]
The Bad Review Revue: Gone Ballistic Edition!
Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever is the only film I have ever seen in the Rotten Tomatoes Top 10 Grossing Movies section with a composite score of 0%. (As a point of reference, note that even Battlefield Earth had 4%.) Truly a spellbinding acheivement."The movie stars Lucy Liu as Sever, a former agent for the Defense Intelligence Agency; Antonio Banderas is Ecks, a former ace FBI agent who is coaxed back into service. Now let's discuss the curious fact that both of these U.S. agencies wage what amounts to warfare in Vancouver, which is actually in a nation named 'Canada'..." -- Roger Ebert, CHICAGO SUN-TIMES"You could run this film backward, soundtrack included, and it would make no less sense." -- Stephen Hunter, WASHINGTON POST"Amply demonstrates how even a movie with wall-to-wall action can be a crashing bore." -- Lou Lumenick, NEW YORK POST"The main foe is a martial arts specialist played by Ray Park, who was Darth Maul in 'Star Wars'. Without face paint and special effects, he's as menacing as Eeyore." -- Lawrence Toppman, CHARLOTTE OBSERVER"Lacks anything approaching even a vague reason to sit through it." -- Mick LaSalle, SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLEOctober 03, 2002
"Star Wars: Episode III" Trailer To Air Before Iraq War
Lucasfilms Ltd. has inked an exclusive agreement with the White House to air the "Star Wars: Episode III" trailer before the upcoming War on Iraq. "The most exciting military action of the 21st century just got better!," boasted White House spokesman Ari Fleischer. "You'll come to see Anakin, but you'll stay for the bombing!"
Calvin Penner, market analyst for Variety, says the arrangement is a big win for both parties. "It's a perfect fit. The key demographic for the Star Wars franchise tends to be middle-class males, 18-40, who want to experience all the drama and adventure of battle without ever leaving their chair. And that's exactly who the White House hopes will rally behind this war."
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was equally enthusiastic. "The America people will get to see the conclusion to the Star Wars Saga and the Saddam Saga all in the same year," he said at a press conference earlier today. When asked what would happen if military strikes against Iraq were ultimately found to be unnecessary, Rumsfeld replied "No war, no trailer -- that's the deal we signed."
The message boards at jedijunction.com were immediately flooded with fans eager to discuss the latest development. "the midle-east looks just like tatoonie so this works out grate!!" noted one. But some worried that anti-war protests could derail the event. "If you see any hippies, tell them to go home!" a poster urged. "They're probably a bunch of new-age Trekkies anyhow."
As part of the agreement, a new subplot -- in which Obi-Wan Kenobi urges the Republic to slash taxes -- will be added to the Episode III screenplay. In return, the US Government has promised to digitally insert Jar-Jar Binks into 5% of their Iraq War footage before turning it over to CNN. Bush's request that Lucas loan them "some of those Battle Droids," however, has reportedly been denied.
New Additions to the Sidebar
I've added some new sites to the sidebar on the right.Mimi Smartypants: First recommended in the comments of this thread, already one of my favorites.Why God Why: I do not know why I was not reading this site prior to this week. I blame my upbringing.Electrolicious: I was attracted to Ariel Meadow's site after reading her fine article about blogging on my bus ride home.Boardgame Geek: Because I am one.October 02, 2002
YourMy Pithy Observation
This quotation from Mimi Smartypants is so funny that I'm just going to post it here and pretend that I wrote it.[Here's] a very weird subject line for spam: Watch Me Film Myself Masturbating. Whoa. That's pretty removed from the subject/object consciousness. Can't I just watch you masturbating? I have to watch "the making of" you masturbating?I'm hoping that, over time, I will come to believe that I wrote this myself. I'm pretty sure this will work, because I've recently noticed that I treat other people's stories and ideas the same way I treat their CDs. When I first borrow someone's CD I'm very careful, when taking it out of my player, to set it off to the right side of my desk, far away from the pile of my CDs on the left side of my desk. But one day in my haste to listen to the new Creed album, I take the borrowed CD out and just leave it in the middle of the desk. And then, on some later date when I'm straightening up, I pick up the uncategorized CDs in the middle and throw them into my pile, making a mental note to sort them out later. And from that point on it's pretty much my CD. I'll even create an entire backstory in which I purchased the CD myself using an Amazon.com gift certificate.
Same deal with borrowed experiences. At first, when I'm recounting something that happened to or was thought up by someone else, I take great care to properly attribute it. But then one day it occurs to me that it's a lot quicker to say "me" instead of "a friend of mine I went to high school with" after the opening "A funny thing happened to". And after the next mental straightening-up the great story gets integrated into my own biography and the great idea becomes something I dreamed up years ago. It's better than the CD scenario, though, because you never have that awkward scene where the original owner demands you return the perloined goods, and you're all like "screw you, dude, this is totally my Swimfan Soundtrack," and then there's all the punching.
Wow! That's a pretty great analogy that I just made and/or read somewhere!
Movies: Das Experiment
About once a year I urge all my cinemaphilic friends to go see a movie on my word alone. I just say "Go see such and such without reading anything about it -- the less you know before you walk into the theater, the more you'll like it. Assuming you like it at all. Which I don't guarantee." Two years ago the Blind Faith Movie was Run Lola Run. Last year it was Memento. This year the movie to see "cold" is, without a doubt, Das Experiment.
And because I consider every member of my faithful yeti-readership to be a friend (albeit a friend in a no-I-don't-want-to-'cyber' kind of way), I'm not going to tell you a goddamned thing about the plot of this movie. (I'm not even going to link to the movie's "Rotten Tomatoes" or "Metacritic" page, because I don't want you skulking off and reading about it). I will instead limit my reflections on Das Experiment to these five items:
- This is easily my favorite movie so far this year, beating out The Good Girl by a country mile. So you'll be pleased to know that my "Wah-wah, there are no Mulholland Drives this year" bleat endth here. Furthermore, I don't foresee any movie on the horizon knocking this out of my "#1 for 2002" spot, save only, perhaps, The Two Towers.
- I don't want to classify Das Experiment as either a "psychological thriller" or a "horror movie," but I will say that the overall atmosphere of the film falls somewhere in between Memento and The Blair Witch Project.
- During this movie my heart was pounding. And by "my heart was pounding" I'm not talking about that mamby-pamby "The Tuxedo is heart-pounding excitement!" Gene Shalit crap -- I'm telling you that I could literally feel my own pulse throughout the latter half of the film.
- At various points during the film, the audience in my theater audibly gasped with surprise and horror. Not just the woman with hypertension sitting behind me, the entire, collective audience.
- Moritz Bleibtreu -- the hottie boyfriend from Run Lola Run -- is stark naked on several occasions. (If you haven't seen Lola, imagine a burlier Keanu Reeves with approximately the same command of the English language.) I dunno if "naked Bleibtreu" motivates you -- I'm more of a Franka Potente man, myself -- but I believe the world would be a better place if all movie reviews mentioned the good-lookin' naked people. That said, I should point out that, despite wanton male nudity, this movie is not even remotely erotic. If erotic was Ackron, Ohio, Das Experiment would be Neptune. In fact, this may well be the worse date movie in recent history.Lots of people won't like Das Experiment. You may be one of them. It's actually kind of agonizing to sit through. And critics are pretty divided: the Rotten Tomatoes page (which, I'll remind you, you're not to read) gives it a composite score of 64%, which puts it just one percentage point above Blue Crush. The Village Voice liked it and The New York Times didn't -- that may tell you something right there.Is this a recommendation? Sort of. I am telling you to go see it, make no mistake about that. I'm also saying that you might hate me for having done so. But (and if this review has any point, this is probably it) no matter what your final opinion, you will get more out of Das Experiment if you don't know any more than the above when you purchase your ticket. You'll just have to take my word for it. Consider it a little experiment in trust ... one that might go horribly wrong.
From my spam filter's log file:From: firstname.lastname@example.org Wed Oct 2 09:17:36 2002Subject: Do You Think of Spam as a Game?Destination: /dev/nullOctober 01, 2002
defective yeti's Daily Affirmations For Dogs
Wednesday, October 1st: "Who's a good dog? Who's a good doggy dog? Is it me? Is it me? Yes it is! I'm a good dog! I'm a good snookie-wookie doggity dog! Yes I am! Do I want a tummy rub? Do I want a tum-tum-tummy rub? Yes I do! Yes I do!"
Desperately Seeking Skjhjfd44lkgjhlkf8fjkfgkjgfdfi8
Hello, email@example.com? Yeah, you sent me some email a few minutes ago. About your webcam? And trout? Remember? But when I replied my message bounced -- you must have mistyped your address (which is understandable -- it's pretty long). Anyhow, if you read this please drop me a line and let me know your correct address so I can send you my credit card number, thanks.
Movies: My Big Fat Greek Wedding
Halfway through my book on The Evils of Consumer Culture I got in the car, went to the mall, ate at Taco Time and watched America's #1 movie, an utterly predictable piece of formulaic Hollywood "feel good" entertainment that I nonetheless enjoyed quite a bit. Take that, you socialist hippies!
[Dear Mom: please don't read this paragraph, thanks. Love, Matt.] I've known I would wind up seeing My Big Fat Greek Wedding for some time, as I had long since picked it out as my current Mom Movie. Back before I learned the value of pre-selecting Mom Movies, my parents would sometimes propose a Movie Night, and my mother would inevitably suggest we see the romantic comedy du jour: Notting Hill or The Wedding Planner or whatever. This puts me in a ticklish position, as the only thing more painful that snubbing your own mother is actually sitting through Kate & Leopold. So one day I decided to get all proactive 'n shit. I started keeping a mental list of all the movies that I thought both my mother and I would enjoy -- or, rather, the films I was certain my mother would love and that I thought I could endure. And Greek Wedding has held the title of #1 Mom Movie ever since Ebert and The Other Guy, Mr. Roper Or Something, both gave it their ringing endorsement. So when the family went to the movies last weekend, Greek Wedding was a foregone conclusion.
Usually I don't like to discuss movie plots in my reviews since my abhorrence of spoilers borders on the pathological, but, honestly, if you have seen even one "romantic comedy" in this lifetime then you already know every key element My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Boy meets girl, girl feels inadequate, girl embarks on a campaign of self-improvement, boy meets girl again and is smitten, boy and girl decide to get hitched, and everything would be coming up roses were it not for that wacky, wacky Greek family! And yet -- somehow! -- you have this crazy suspicion that everything is going to turn out okay in the end. [**MAJOR SPOILER AHEAD!!**: you're right.]. In fact, as soon as you figure out what a character in the film Really Wants -- not what they say they want, mind you, but what they capital-R Really Want -- you know they will get it before the film is through. Dad says he wants his daughter to marry another Greek, but he Really just wants her to be happy; daughter says she wants to elope, but she Really wants to spend this special occasion with her family; and so on.
Yeah, I know -- I can hear your eyes rolling from here. So how could I -- a guy how insists he loves Mulholland Drive for it's nonlinear chronology and not just the hot girl-on-girl action -- possibly enjoy this? Simple: whereas most screenwriters would have lazily plugged some unremarkable dialogue into this generic framework and called it good, Nia Vardalos (writer and star of Greek Wedding) instead opted to pack this blazingly unoriginal storyline with barrels of genuinely witty banter and a even a couple of hilarious sight gags. Trust me: no one tried harder to dislike Greek Weddings than I, but after 40 minutes and my third belly-laugh I had to admit that I was liking it just fine.
It's no Memento, that's for sure. And even knowing what I know now I wouldn't have opted to see it without a a matriarch in tow. But it was about as good as a Romantic Comedy gets, and, frankly, more entertaining than whatever pretentious hunk of art-house crap I would have dragged the tribe to if the decision had been left to me. (Which is why the decision if never left to me -- not since Mulholland Drive, anyway.) Judged on it's own merits it gets maybe 3/5 stars, tops, but put a Mom in the seat next to you and My Big Fat Greek Wedding becomes a freakin' Citizen Kane.
P.s.: I saw this film with my Ma-In-Law, despite the fact that the Emergency Mom Movie is kept in reserve for my mother. When I spoke to Ma Baldwin a few moments ago and guility confessed that I had gone to see "Greek Wedding" without her, she replied "Oh that's okay, I've already seen it three times."
P.p.s. I am now taking nominations for my next "Mom Movie".
P.p.p.s. Anyone who suggests "Sweet Home Alabama" will be banned.