October 20, 2014

If You're Worried About Rosebud, You're Missing the Point

It's his sled. It was his sled from when he was a kid. There, I just saved you two long boobless hours. 
- Peter Griffin, spoiling Citizen Kane

Saw Gone Girl last weekend.  It's really good, particularly if you like the kind of movie that takes place in an air of dread that's perfectly summoned by David Fincher (with able assists from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross).  I say that even knowing the big twist of the film going into it.  Not because I had read the book on which it's based, but because my wife blurted it out during a TV commercial. She didn't know I wanted to see it.

Point is, she didn't really "spoil" the movie for me, in the true sense of the word.  That's because the flick is good enough that it doesn't rise or fall on the big "twist" (which, for what it's worth, happens about halfway through - this isn't The Sixth Sense we're talking about).  In my opinion, any movie/book/TV show that rises and falls on that twist isn't really worth watching.

What's more, people seem to enjoy things more once they know how it turns out.  At least that's what some research says.

Back in 2011, as The Atlantic reports, a study was published that sounds pretty neat:
Scientists asked 900 college students from the University of California, San Diego, to read mysteries and other short stories by writers like John Updike, Roald Dahl, Agatha Christie, and Raymond Carver. Each student got three stories, some with "spoiler paragraphs" revealing the twist, and some without any spoilers. Finally, the students rated their stories on a 10-point scale..
The results?  Readers preferred the spoiled stories.  But why would we want to know how it ends ahead of time?
One theory is that our anticipation of surprises actually takes away from our appreciation for the 99 percent of the movie that isn't a monster twist. 'The second viewing is always more satisfying than the first,' Sternbergh said, 'because you notice all the things you missed while you were busy waiting for the twist.' Psychologists have observed that when we consume movies and songs for a second (or third, or hundredth time), the stories become easier to process, and we associate this ease of processing with aesthetic pleasure.
Think about this for a second.  Most of us have some piece of culture that we go back to again and again.  I know that the big escape at the end of Brazil takes place all inside Sam's head, but I still watch it.  I know that Arthur and Ford wind up on a primitive Earth populated by a bunch of idiots expelled from a better planet, but I'll still reconsume Hitchiker's Guide . . . again (in its many forms).  And I know Tommy goes back to being blind, deaf, and dumb at the end, but that doesn't make "Pinball Wizard" kick any less ass.

Of course, there might be other reasons why spoilers really aren't, including the uncomfortable recognition that we really like predictability more than we let on.  But, in this area at least, I'd like to not be completely cynical* and think that, deep down, we realize that works built on the big twist only are, as someone else put it in the Atlantic piece:
like artistic flash paper: It excites for a moment but offers little lasting wonder.
After all, we want to be better than Peter Griffin.  Right?

* I know, you're shocked, right?  How's that for a twist!

October 15, 2014

On Criticism of Islam

So, a few weeks ago, Bill Maher said this:



That stirred up a bit of shit, but the real deal came the next week, when Maher brought up the topic again, this time with Sam Harris and Ben Affleck in the free fire zone:



I like Bill, but I think he's on the wrong side of thing here.  Or, if he isn't, he's not being sufficiently specific in his criticism to convince me.

For one thing, he never actually names the "liberals" he's calling out or provides examples of the kinds of things to which he objects.  Without that, it's hard to tell whether he's right or wrong.  Reading between the lines, he might be talking about people who argue either that (1) it's important to distinguish radical Muslims from those more moderate and liberal ones and who stress the need to not paint an entire religion with a broad brush or (2) religion isn't really the root cause, or is one of many contributing causes, to the violence in Iraq and elsewhere.

I'm leaning toward the first, because Bill is fond of making broad sweeping comments, in this and all other areas.  Also, it's bolstered by something Harris said during the second segment:
There are hundreds of millions of Muslims who are nominal Muslims, who don't take the faith seriously, who don't want to kill apostates, who are horrified by ISIS.
This is an argument I see pop up with some regularity in the atheist blogosphere that really makes no sense.  I've hinted before that, as an atheist, I really don't have a say in who gets to claim the label of Muslim, Christian, Hindu or whatever.  It's enough to note that radically different people with apparently irreconcilable positions both claim the title and leave them to sort it out.  Thus, it comes off as awfully arrogant to claim that the non-lethal members of a religion are so in name only and really don't take their "faith seriously."

It's also stupefyingly bad politics.  Although there are some atheists who are intent on turning other people into atheists, most of us (I hope) are more interested in ensuring that the government stays a secular institution and that no religions dictates get enshrined into law.  In that quest we can count on a large number of Christians, Jews, and other religious folks who value church/state separation, for whatever reason.  It's beyond counterproductive to tell them they aren't "really" religious because they've signed on to a moderate form of a particular faith that lets them live in peace with their neighbors.  After all, that should be the goal.

Leading the push back against Bill and Sam (or coming to Affleck's rescue, if you like) is author Reza Aslan.  In a New York Times piece he makes an interesting point:
What both the believers and the critics often miss is that religion is often far more a matter of identity than it is a matter of beliefs and practices. The phrase 'I am a Muslim,' 'I am a Christian,' 'I am a Jew' and the like is, often, not so much a description of what a person believes or what rituals he or she follows, as a simple statement of identity, of how the speaker views her or his place in the world.
As a form of identity, religion is inextricable from all the other factors that make up a person’s self-understanding, like culture, ethnicity, nationality, gender and sexual orientation. What a member of a suburban megachurch in Texas calls Christianity may be radically different from what an impoverished coffee picker in the hills of Guatemala calls Christianity. The cultural practices of a Saudi Muslim, when it comes to the role of women in society, are largely irrelevant to a Muslim in a more secular society like Turkey or Indonesia. The differences between Tibetan Buddhists living in exile in India and militant Buddhist monks persecuting the Muslim minority known as the Rohingya, in neighboring Myanmar, has everything to do with the political cultures of those countries and almost nothing to do with Buddhism itself.
Azlan also argues that "scripture is meaningless without interpretation," which I think is his way of saying that no text, regardless of how explicit it appears, stands on its own.  Everything has to be interpreted, which says as much about the person doing the interpreting as it does the text itself.  Don't believe me?  Read courts taking opposite positions on the same statutory or Constitutional language - it happens all the time.

Which is not to say that Islam itself is off limits from criticism, nor are those who act in its name when they do horrific things.  Fareed Zakaria sums up the situation pretty well:
Islam has a problem today. The places that have trouble accommodating themselves to the modern world are disproportionately Muslim.
In 2013, of the top 10 groups that perpetrated terrorist attacks, seven were Muslim. Of the top 10 countries where terrorist attacks took place, seven were Muslim-majority. The Pew Research Center rates countries on the level of restrictions that governments impose on the free exercise of religion. Of the 24 most restrictive countries, 19 are Muslim-majority. Of the 21 countries that have laws against apostasy, all have Muslim majorities.
And that was before ISIS wrote proudly in its Enlglish language magazine (there is such a thing!) of its enslavement of Yazidis in Iraq.  Yet Zakaria still concludes that Bill and Sam are guilty of being too broad when talking about Islam.

If Bill's problem with liberals and Islam is the second one I laid out above - that they might tend to look deeper than just a "religion=bad" analysis, he's on even shakier ground.  It's easy to point to religious conflicts through history, ones where one faith battled another.  But it's hard to find ones that are really, deep down, about religion itself.

To use a non-Islam example, think of The Troubles that racked Ireland for so many decades.  On the surface, it was a sectarian struggle, between Catholics and Protestants.  Dig deeper, however, and it turns out that those were convenient labels for groups that were actually split between Irish republicans and British royalists.  They weren't fighting over the finer points of the Reformation or Transubstantiation, they were fighting about political control of Ireland.  As Azlan wrote, being "Catholic" or "Protestant" in the context of that struggle was more about a form of identity, not theological rigor.

Hell, even Richard Dawkins is softening a little bit as to whether ISIS and the like are really about religion or not.  If the Grand Poo-Bah Supreme Potentate of Atheism (tm) has come to that conclusion, surely Bill can't complain!

There's nothing wrong with criticism, either of a person or an idea.  However, broad criticism of entire groups of people does very little good in the end.  It doesn't help you understand the nuances of a situation or the deeper currents that may be driving it.  It doesn't help draw those to your cause who may think you're an arrogant dipwad for telling them what they believe.  It might feel good to blow off a little steam and feel superior for a while, but that doesn't get you very far.

October 9, 2014

We're Fooling Ourselves

3rDegree's 2012 album The Long Division is a political album.  In the sense that it's about our modern political world, not that it was trying get people to vote one way or the other.  The verdict of the album's half dozen related tracks is that the system is undeniably fucked up, partly because we, as a nation, have lost the ability to talk with people on the other side of an issue.  The lead off track lays it out well:



But this isn't just a snarky observation by a bunch of musical types from New Jersey (mostly) - it's backed up by statistics.  In a post over at The Volokh Conspiracy, Ilya Somin (quoting a Cass Sunstein op ed) lays out some numbers about the rise of "partyism" in the United States.  They're kind of chilling:
In 1960, 5 percent of Republicans and 4 percent of Democrats said that they would feel 'displeased' if their son or daughter married outside their political party. By 2010, those numbers had reached 49 percent and 33 percent. Republicans have been found to like Democrats less than they like people on welfare or gays and lesbians. Democrats dislike Republicans more than they dislike big business.
As Somin then points out:
Increasingly, we assume that supporters of the rival political party are not just misguided about political issues, but also untrustworthy or malevolent people in general.
Although it's sometimes hard to admit, democracy (and life, more generally) is about compromise.  To quote another rock lyric, "you can't always get what you want."  You have to be able to give a little to get a little.  But that's damned difficult when the person on the other side of the aisle isn't just wrong, but is (in Somin's words) "evil, selfish, or stupid."  Compromise with evil is immoral and compromise with stupid is impossible.  So we all throw up our hands and go have a press conference while nothing gets done.  It's the modern equivalent of fiddling while Rome burns.

So what to do about it?  Do we chastise talking heads and Internet commenters who jump to the worst possible conclusions about their political rivals?  We should, but I'm not sure that's going to get very far.  What I think it's going to take to back the country down from this precipice is the very thing 49 percent of Republicans and 33 percent of Democrats fear - ideological mixing.

Because, here's the thing.  When it comes to most people who hold opinions different from you, they're actually not monsters or morons, evil or stupid.  They're people, with all the flaws that entails, who, ultimately, probably want the same broad things you do (a good life, safe neighborhoods, educated kids, etc.).  They may be ignorant about a particular issue, but we're all ignorant about something (lots of somethings, more likely).  When we forget that, we slide back into ideological tribalism.

I'm speaking from some experience here.  I'm the outlier among my brothers (and sisters in law, for that matter) in being a liberal atheist.  My older brothers have both become more conservative and religious as they've grown up, had kids, and the like.  When it comes to many matters of politics or theology, I think they're wrong.  But I know, because I've known them all my life, that they're not "evil, selfish, or stupid."  We see the world differently, but that's all right.  It makes it a lot harder to demonize the opposition when you know them as real people, not just soldiers for Team Red or Team Blue.

That's not to say all we need is to get together, sing "Kumbayya," and everything will work out.  Like I said, folks on either side of a political dispute are just people.  As there are (generally) good, thoughtful people out there, so to are there assholes, opportunists, the short sighted, and, yes, the evil.  But they're a smaller proportion of the population than we think in our worst "our side uber alles" flag waving moments.

Through my forty years, it's just been a fact that (at the national level anyway) one side doesn't get what it wants all the time.  Even during all those years the Democrats controlled Congress they had to deal with fierce GOP minorities or a GOP President.  Neither side will ever triumph over the other completely.  None of this is to suggest that partisans on one side or the other should refrain from calling the other folks out for being wrong. But there's a world of difference between calling someone (or, more correctly, his or her idea/proposal/argument) "wrong" and calling them dipshits, evil doers, or (to pull one example I saw today) a "weasel."

If we don't recognize that and try to at least make a good faith attempt to understand, rather than caricaturize, the other side, then we really are fooling ourselves if we think the country is ever going to get better.

October 5, 2014

Ignorance Is No Excuse . . . Unless It Is

The old maxim goes that "ignorance of the law is no excuse."  That's certainly true when it comes to us plebs, but what about the cops?  Or does "almost" count for law enforcement, the way it does for horseshoes, hand grenades, and atomic weapons?  The Supreme Court, in a case that kicks off the 2014 term Monday, is about to tell us.

Nicholas Heien was driving in North Carolina when he got pulled over for having a busted tail light.  A subsequent search uncovered drugs, which lead to Heien being prosecuted for, among other things, the busted taillight.  But the North Carolina courts determined that state law only required one working tail light, regardless of how many lights the car was supposed to have.  One busted one, therefore, was not a crime, so long as the others were working.

So much for Heien's driving charge. But what about the drugs?  Was the stop good, now that we know it was based on an incorrect interpretation of the law?  The state supreme court decided almost was good enough - so long as the cop's mistake of law was "reasonable," the stop doesn't violate the Fourth Amendment.  Because state law on tail lights was uncertain, the cop's stop of Heien in this case was reasonable.

Orin Kerr lays out the issues and why he thinks the defense should prevail. I agree that they should, but that doesn't mean much in modern Fourth Amendment law.  That being said, this case does have two interesting angles that might lead it to buck the trend.

First, a lot of the modern cases stripping the Fourth Amendment deal not with the amendment itself but with the exclusionary rule - the rule that says that evidence discovered during an unconstitutional search can't be used at trial.  The Supreme Court (and the lesser courts) has, for the past few years, expanded the once-limited "good faith" exception to the rule, giving cops more room to make mistakes and not pay a price for it.  Heien can't be viewed through that lens because North Carolina, in its state constitution, explicitly rejected the good faith exception.  So the Supremes will have to deal with the issue head on.

Second, and hanging over the whole thing, is the goose/gander angle I mentioned above.  As Kerr explains:
it seems only fair to apply the same rule to the police that applies to regular citizens. Mistake of law is a classic subject taught in first-year Criminal Law. Students read cases like People v. Marrero, 69 N.Y.2d 382, 507 N.E.2d 1068 (1987), in which a federal prison guard was convicted of possessing a weapon in violation of a state law that had an express exception for 'corrections officers . . . of any penal institution.' After Marrero was charged, a divided lower court ruled that 'any penal institution' only meant a state penal institution, which to his shock excluded Marrero. New York’s high court then ruled that Marrero could not assert a mistake of law defense in light of this ruling. Ignorance of the law was no excuse, even if 'the law' was handed down in a surprising way only after the defendant’s arrest. This was a harsh result for citizen Marrero, perhaps, but it was needed to give individuals an incentive to learn the law.

That’s the usual rule in criminal law, and I’m not sure why the same thinking shouldn’t apply in criminal procedure.
I wouldn't expect a generic Fourth Amendment case to really catch the public's attention.  We've let it atrophy so much over the past few decades that I wouldn't blame most folks if they thought it had just vanished into thin air.  But I'd expect there to be an uproar if the Supreme's give the cops more leeway when it comes to knowing the law than they do regular citizens.  If the fear of that is what it takes for them to get this one right, so be it.

UPDATE: Scott over at Simple Justice has a more pessimistic take.  Having read about half of the oral argument transcript, he might be right to worry.

September 29, 2014

Thoughts on the Prog 100

Back in my college days, when I was young (*sigh*), to find discussion about progressive rock you had to dig deep into the Internet.  These were the days before Facebook, before Youtube, and even comprehensive websites like ProgArchives.  The best you could do, usually, was a Usenet newsgroup - all text, all the time!  I remember downloading 15-second samples (over dial up!) of the first Spock's Beard album, for crying out loud!

Which is all a way of saying that I'm still stunned that I can find a regularly published, glossy magazine devoted to prog on newsstands every month.  The appropriately named Prog (from the folks at Classic Rock magazine) is very British and, thus, very a month behind when it arrives in the states.  Still, it's great to be able to pick it up and dive deep into interviews, reviews, and album features every month.  It's a sign of how far things have come in the past twenty years.
 
In honor of its 50th issue, Prog conducted a reader poll to sort out the top 100 prog albums of all time.  The results ran in the August issue and, naturally, prompted discussion in various parts of the prog universe.  Who am I not to chime in?

It's worth keeping in mind that this was a reader poll, although several noted musicians chime in with their top albums as well.  As a result, it reflects the tastes of the readership of a magazine that tends to stick to the more classically "prog" end of the spectrum.  It's pointless to complain that the results look like a popularity contest - it is a popularity contest.  Not that there's anything wrong with that, of course, and I'm hardly one to complain about the collective choices - I own 77.5 of the 100.*

That focus is partly why the list had a lot of choices from prog's modern era, from bands like Porcupine Tree, Opeth, and Spock's Beard.  The mods even cracked the top 10, with Steven Wilson hitting the ninth spot with The Raven That Refused to Sing (and Other Stories).  On the one hand, I think that's great - it speaks to the vitality of modern prog.  On the other hand, it's hard to imagine that there aren't a lot of older albums that were overlooked that should have taken those spots.

As for the overlooked - where do we start?  How about with the really avant garde, which is almost completely neglected.  Aside from Can's Tago Mago (#98) and Henry Cow's Legend (which current King Crimson front man Jakko Jakszyk singles out as his number one), there's nothing of the more adventurous and, dare I say, challenging side of prog.  No Magma, no Univers Zero, no Present, no Krautrock (Can aside).  That's a pretty big hole, given that the entire point of prog is to push boundaries.

Another odd gap in proceedings involves the Canterbury scene, which has some of the most interesting and beloved artists in prog.  Caravan and Robert Wyatt each get a mention, but there's no Soft Machine, no Hatfield and the North, and no Steve Hillage or Gong.  At the very least, National Health's Of Queues and Cures should have made an appearance.  It would be in my top ten without doubt, maybe battling for the top spot.

The final blind spot that really sticks out for me is that, for the most part, this is an English (and related nations) list.  There's not a single album on the list with lyrics in a non-English language, which overlooks the fertile prog land of Italy completely.  Any top 100 list that lacks PFM, Banco, Le Orme and others is questionable.  Granted, it's a British magazine, but there's still no reason, in 2014, to not embrace the wide world of prog in all its multinational wonder.

That being said, if you knew nothing about prog and stumbled upon this list, there are worse places to start learning about the genre.  Just remember, that there's much more to the world out there, to the delight of your ears and the distress of your wallet!

* Big Big Train's English Electric was originally released in two parts, but it appears on the list as one volume.  I have the first part, but not the second.

August 25, 2014

Eric Cartman Pens an Op-Ed

Since the killing of Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri a couple of weeks ago, a lot of words have been written.  I can't claim to have read them all, but I can say without hesitation that this piece in the Washington Post has to be one of the most outrageous.  Strangely, it has nothing to do with the specific facts of the Brown shooting, but it says an awful lot about how the police view the world around them and the people who live there.

Sunil Dutta is now a professor of "homeland security" at a for-profit university, but before that he spent 17 years as an LAPD officer.  Last week, Dutta wrote a column entitled:
I’m a cop. If you don’t want to get hurt, don’t challenge me.
Provocative, yes?  However, if you know anything about journalism you know that, quite often, the person who writes the article doesn't write the headline and the headline is crafted to be sensational and generate page views.  Hell, some places like Slate are so bad about it that the percentage of time the headline matches the article contents probably hovers around the Mendoza Line.  So, maybe, give Dutta the benefit of the doubt and assume he has a more nuanced point to make.

Not so much:
Even though it might sound harsh and impolitic, here is the bottom line: if you don’t want to get shot, tased, pepper-sprayed, struck with a baton or thrown to the ground, just do what I tell you. Don’t argue with me, don’t call me names, don’t tell me that I can’t stop you, don’t say I’m a racist pig, don’t threaten that you’ll sue me and take away my badge. Don’t scream at me that you pay my salary, and don’t even think of aggressively walking towards me. Most field stops are complete in minutes. How difficult is it to cooperate for that long?
In other words:



To be fair, Dutta "side[s] with the ACLU" and argues that all officers should wear body cameras and all police cars should have a camera, too (although, as Radley Balko points out, those are hardly a panacea).  And he writes this:
And you don’t have to submit to an illegal stop or search. You can refuse consent to search your car or home if there’s no warrant (though a pat-down is still allowed if there is cause for suspicion). Always ask the officer whether you are under detention or are free to leave. Unless the officer has a legal basis to stop and search you, he or she must let you go. Finally, cops are legally prohibited from using excessive force: The moment a suspect submits and stops resisting, the officers must cease use of force.
Emphasis very much mine.  This, while nice in theory, directly contradicts the "respect my authoritah" mantra he relies on earlier.  If a cop says he's going to stop me and I don't think he has the right to do so, what do you think will happen if I don't "submit" to it?  We're talking about a relationship with a serious imbalance of power between the two people.  The officer has the gun, after all, and, as we've seen, generous legal cover should he or she use it.  I, on the other hand, am likely to at least wind up arrested for something vague like "disorderly conduct," of not worse.

Ken at Popehat is right.  Dutta's attitude, and the fact that we generally accept it without much objection, is "servile and grotesque."  If anything good comes out of this whole mess, maybe it will be that society starts to rethink the hands off attitude we have toward the way the police do their job.

August 21, 2014

Second Thoughts From An Unlikely Source

In 1989, 11-year-old Jacob Wetterling was snatched off the street by a stranger, the paradigmatic example of the kind of abduction that gives parents nightmares.  He was never found and his abductor never captured.

All that prompted Jacob's mother, Patty, to become involved with the issue of sex offender registries.  At the time, a few states had registries, but most did not.  Patty's efforts paid off in 1994, when Congress passed the Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children and Sexually Violent Offender Registration Act, the first comprehensive national sex offender scheme.

In the years since, state registries have exploded and Congress has repeatedly enacted new laws that expand the nature of the registries and provide harsher punishments for offenders who don't follow the registration scheme.  Now more that 750,000 people are on sex offender lists in the United States.  If it works, great, but what if it doesn't?

It's not surprising that people in my line of work would argue that sex offender registries are overbroad, prevent ex-cons from being able to reintegrate back into society, and generally constitute extensive punishment beyond their prison terms.  What is surprising is that Patty Wetterling is starting to have second thoughts, too:
These registries were a well-intentioned tool to help law enforcement find children more quickly,' she told us. 'But the world has changed since then.' What’s changed, Wetterling says, is what science can tell us about the nature of sex offenders.
What the science says is that, contrary to popular myth, sex offenders are not egregious recidivists.  In fact, they commit new crimes at a lower rate than burglars, fraudsters, and (naturally) drug offenders.  In addition, we know now that the overwhelming number of victims of sexual abuse are victimized by people close to them - family, friends, or community figures.  Jacob's kidnapping out of the blue is such a terror precisely because it is so rare.

Fear has played an important role in getting us where we are now:
Wetterling remembers watching this spiral of fear after Jacob’s disappearance. 'The fear was real. It was devastating,' she said. 'People became absolutely terrified. There were people in my community who wouldn’t let their children bike anymore or play in the park.' Twenty years on, she has come to see this reaction as 'not information-based.' And two decades after she succeeded in persuading Congress to pass Jacob’s Law, she’s now asking people to take a second look to see whether laws like the one named for her son are doing more harm than good and should be curbed.
Jeralyn at TalkLeft has pointed out before that laws named after people are generally a bad idea:
Let us not enact laws out of grief and passion, or in response to a singular criminal event, however horrific it might be. Cooler heads are needed where our fundamental liberties are at stake.
But she, and I, after all are criminal defense attorneys - what would you expect us to say?  Which is why Patty Wetterling's voice is so important on this issue.  She knows the pain of losing a child, but has come to realize that the anger and desire to do something - anything - in the wake of such a tragedy doesn't always produce good results.