July 28, 2014

The End to a Great Soccer Story

Even in the world of post-World Cup soccer euphoria, there's not much reason people noticed the announced retirement of Jay Demerit last week.  Demerit, a defender, played 25 times for the United States national team, including several games in South Africa for the 2010 World Cup, and had to call time on his career for the most mundane of reasons - accumulated injuries prevented him from continuing to play at a top level.  He wound up his career with the Vancouver Whitecaps in MLS, moving there when the team joined the league in 2011.

What's really neat about Demerit, aside from the fact that he seems like a great guy off the field, is how he even got that far.

Like many American players, Demerit went to Europe to find playing time.  But he didn't move straight from a youth team to a competitive club near the top of a European league or even a second-tier club.  Instead, he went to England after college (taking advantage of some helpful European quasi-citizenry) and wound up at mighty Southall FC, who currently reside in the "Spartan South Midlands League."  For the uninitiated, that's at the 10th level of the English soccer pyramid.  If you want a baseball analogy, where the Premier League is the Major Leagues and the Championship is AAA, then Southall is, essentially, on the level of Little League.*

In fact, Demerit only played two games for Southall before moving on to Northwood (7th level - about high school), but never played a competitive match for them.  That's because he so impressed one of their preseason opponents, Watford (then in the Championship), that he earned a two-week tryout.  After that, he got a one-year deal.

Then came 183 games for Watford, over five seasons, during which Demerit became a regular starter and helped Watford move up to the Premier League.  In fact, he scored the game winning goal in the Championship playoff final against Leeds (*sniff*) that sent Watford up.  It was Demerit's performances at Watford that led to him being called up for the national team, which included play in the 2009 Confederations Cup (When we dumped Spain), as well as the aforementioned South African edition of the World Cup.  And from there, on to Vancouver.

Why Vancouver?  As Demerit explains:
After the World Cup in 2010 I was a free agent, and Whitecaps FC were the team that fought hardest for me and the team that wanted me to play the role that I hoped my experience in this game could handle.
It's nice to be wanted, isn't it?

All in all, it's the kind of story they make movies about right?  Right:

Thanks, Jay.  Enjoy your retirement!

* Actually, that's not fair.  Far down the rung as Southall is, its players are adults and even get paid, albeit a very very little amount.  It really is amazing the amount of soccer that gets played at a serious level in England.

July 23, 2014

How to Coerce a Confession (Amateur Edition)

Many times before I've written about false confessions and how police obtain them.  They're professionals, after all, and have at their disposal a frightening array of psychological and legal tricks that make such things possible.  But it's easier than that to force someone into making an untrue statement, as a recent case from Texas (highlighted by Radley Balko) shows.

Alfred Brown was a suspect in the murder of a Houston police officer.  The grand jury investigating the case brought before it Ericka Dockery, who had been Brown's girlfriend for about six months.  She told the grand jury that Brown was asleep on her couch when investigators thought he was meeting with other suspects.  But the grand jury didn't believe her and, by the time trial came around, Dockery was the state's star witness.

What happened - which we know only thanks to the fortuitous release of a usually secret grand jury transcript - is that Dockery was beaten down emotionally to the point where she did what most people who give false confessions do: she told her inquisitors what they wanted to hear.

Naturally, they suggested she was lying, asking the prosecutor about the penalty for perjury, before going on:
'I'm just trying to answer all your questions to the best of my ability,' Dockery says.
A bit later, a female juror asks pointedly: 'What are you protecting him from?'
'I'm not protecting him from anything. No ma'am. I wouldn't dare do that,' Dockery eventually responds. As [prosecutor] Rizzo and the grand jurors parse Dockery's every word and challenge each statement, she complains they're confusing her.
'No, we're not confusing you,' a grand juror says. 'We just want to find out the truth.'
But things get really nasty when the grand jurors raise the spectre of Dockery's children being taken away if she doesn't tell the "truth" they seek:
When the grand jury returns, the foreman says the members are not convinced by Dockery's story and 'wanted to express our concern' for her children if she doesn't come clean.
'That's why we're really pulling this testimony,' the foreman tells her.
The foreman adds that if the evidence shows she's perjuring herself 'then you know the kids are going to be taken by Child Protective Services, and you're going to the penitentiary and you won't see your kids for a long time.'
That was the crack in the wall, which the grand jurors then exploited with the flair of a seasoned attorney locked in cross examination of a hostile witness, with admonishments to "[t]hink about your kids, darling," and that "what we're concerned about here, is your kids."  Eventually, not only did Dockery recant Brown's alibi, she admitted making a call to another one of the suspects.  One grand juror even said she thought Dockery was in on the murder itself.

As a reward for her truthiness, Dockery was charged with perjury, anyway.  She was kept in jail for 120 days, released only when she agreed to give more evidence against Brown (she even had to check in with a detective every week).  Once she testified and Brown was convicted and sent to death row, Dockery's perjury charge evaporated and she went on with her life.

What makes this situation particularly repugnant, is, as Balko explains, grand juries aren't supposed to work this way:
Grand juries are supposed to protect us from false allegations, but the old saying that prosecutors could get a grand jury to 'indict a ham sandwich' reflects the reality that most fail on that front. Instead, as this study from the Cato Institute explains, they’re often used to harass and intimidate.
Keep in mind that the traditional rules of evidence don't apply in grand juries and witnesses don't have a right to have counsel with them while testifying.  In addition, it's an entirely one-sided affair, as there is no opposing counsel to try and keep things in line.  There's not even a judge - the prosecutor runs the show.

By the way, remember that phone call that Dockery said Brown made from her house originally?  Balko again (with my emphasis):
seven years later, a phone record showed up proving that Brown had called Dockery from her apartment on the morning of the murders, supporting his story — and hers, before she was pressured to change it. That important bit of exculpatory evidence was found in the garage of a Houston homicide detective. Brown is still waiting to learn if he’ll get a new trial.
It's perhaps not surprising that grand jurors, regular citizens who get pulled into doing this kind of duty, start acting like cops or prosecutors in pursuit of convictions over all else.  After all, if the cops don't have play by the rules, why should they?

July 18, 2014

Friday Review: The Postman

A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its boots on.

You can lead with all new lines
If you believe in what you say
And life can be just as you make it

Believe the lie and it will all come true

Yeah, OK, so sometimes the lie is easier to tell than the truth.  But what happens when the lie is a noble one, one that (to borrow from The Simpsons) embiggens your fellow man?  And what happens if the lie gets out of control and takes on a life of its own?

That's the basic idea behind The Postman, by which I mean the lauded David Brin novel, not the critically savaged (hello Razzies!) Kevin Costner flick that sprang from it.  Gordon Krantz is not actually the titular postman - indeed, there are no such things in the post-apocalyptic world Brin lays out (in what is now our actual past). But he claims to be one, just to survive.  Then, shit happens.

Brin does an interesting thing in The Postman because instead of taking us through the apocalypse and the initial postlude of survival, he drops Gordon (and us) in 16 years after everything went to hell.  That's allowed the world to settle a bit, although it's settled into a world full of dangers, from mundane bandits to leftover pre-war survivalists with a philosophy that's very like Ayn Rand on steroids. It's while escaping from those kinds of bandits that Krantz comes upon an abandoned USPS truck, complete with dead driver inside.  He nicks the uniform purely for warmth and grabs a bag of mail for reading (and presumably other) material, no real intent to pull a scam on anybody.

The scam, such as it is, unfolds slowly and does require a bit of a stretch, that being that after nearly two decades of there being no such thing as the United States, much less the United States Postal Service, people are overwhelmed at the idea of getting mail service back.  Krantz's attempts to slip away from the first small town he comes to are complicated by people trying to pay him to take letters for them.  From there, Krantz builds an entire facade of being an official of the Restored United States and begins to forge some connections between the scattered Oregon settlements.

That's part one, in which Krantz falls into and embraces his scam.  Part two adds a nice twist.  He comes to the town of Corvallis (home of Oregon State University and a prime location for the post-apocalyptic Dies the Fire series), where society seems to be holding on pretty well and surging toward a brighter future.  It's precisely the kind of place Krantz has been looking for all these years, a place to settle down and help rebuild the world, but he's now trapped by his own lie.  He's unable to give up the postman game because of how much the lie has taken root behind him.  Thrown in another nice twist in the form of a still functional (maybe) super computer and this middle section of the book is a highlight.

The third part (perhaps not coincidentally, the part that wasn't originally published in stand alone form)doesn't fare so well.  There's an invading army of Randians threatening the struggling civilization, which Krantz decides to stay behind and fight, rather than flee.  Which is a shame, because when the big showdown comes - between genetically enhanced soldiers who have played no real part up to this point - he's watching from the sidelines.  Add in a weird bit of extremist feminism that seems more like parody than anything else and the book ends with a bit of a thud.

Naturally, this being Brin, it ends on an uplifting (ha!) sentiment.  He's big on science fiction as an inherently positive endeavor, showing how mankind will keep on keeping on in the future.  It's a hard fit for a post-apocalyptic tale, so it has to at least suggest that happy days are on the way to being here again.  Having said that, there's at least enough uncertainty in the world of The Postman to not make it feel like a cop out.

The Details
The Postman
by David Brin
Published 1985
Winner Locus Award, Aurthur C. Clarke Award

July 16, 2014

I Was Going to Say That

So, when the Supreme Court announced the decision in the Hobby Lobby case, I was immediately seized by the need to write something satirical about it.  I got about this far, before I ran out of spunk (as often happens with satire):
SCENE: A boardroom on a bright summer morning.  Sunlight streams through an animatronic stained glass window depicting Eric Idle singing the "Money" song.
My closely held brethren in profit, welcome to this, the annual feast day of the holy Hobby Lobby.  Before I go further, let me thank the sisters for the wonderful coffee and baked goods upon which we feast this day.  Although, please, ladies, no more danishes?  The Danes, of course, are godless communists and we have no room for that here at GloboCorp.
And sisters, if you wish to stay while we speak, please sit down in the back of the room and be quiet?  Blessed are thou.
It would have continued in that vein, feasting the holy Hobby Lobby as the paragon of how to make even more money by appealing to the name of God.  As I had written up for insertion later:
Muhammad, my brothers, may have moved the mountain, but he did not increase the bottom line.
But, as I said, I ran out of spunk and it sat there for a bit.  Then, along comes Kathryn Pogin, writing at the New York Times philosophy blog (it's a thing) and she, while not aiming for the snark I was going for, hit what I think are all the high points of why the whole Hobby Lobby thing is such a miss.

To begin with, science and the actual world has little to do with Hobby Lobby's objections:
Some corporations that have objected to the contraceptive requirements of the Affordable Care Act, like Hobby Lobby, claim that they do not wish to discriminate against women by denying them access to contraceptives generally, and that their opposition is merely to abortion. However, their understanding of which medications act as abortifacients rests on an outdated understanding of medical science and is at odds with the facts of the matter. Use of these contraceptive methods is not tantamount to abortion, and moreover, providing women with access to safe, reliable contraceptives for free drastically reduces the actual abortion rate.
Nor does it matter that Hobby Lobby's concern about particular contraceptives is of recent and dubious vintage:
Hobby Lobby offered coverage for some of the contraceptives it now claims its religious faith forbids it to have any association with, until shortly after the Becket Fund for Religious Freedom asked it if it would be interested in filing suit. The company continues to profit from investments in the manufacturers of the 'objectionable' contraceptives through the 401(k) plan it offers its employees. Recently, Hobby Lobby has faced legal trouble for false advertising. It has built a fortune, in large part, by selling goods manufactured in China, infamous for its poor labor conditions and related human rights violations. These are the practices of a corporation that will emphasize the Christian faith of its owners when convenient and profitable, but set that faith aside when it would be costly to do otherwise.
What Pogin overlooks, or ignores (it's a philosophy blog, after all, not a legal one), is that none of those considerations were relevant to the Supreme Court.  Neither the majority or dissent were willing to take on the substance of the company's stated beliefs and how they interacted with the real world.  This, quite correctly, is a feature not a bug - the government, including the courts, shouldn't be in the business of deciding the truthfulness or sincerity of religious or similar beliefs.  But therein lies the rub - because those beliefs are off limit from official inspection, neither can they be a basis for a get-out-of-obeying-any-regulation-I-don't-like card.  The Supreme Court got it right in Smith.  Unfortunately, Congress saddled us with RFRA (which was the controlling law - not the First Amendment), another nasty gift of the Clinton era that keeps on giving.

Having said all that, Pogin also gets exactly right the actual impact of the decision on women and why the "it doesn't ban anything" argument rings hollow:
This is economic coercion. Opponents to the contraceptive mandate have insisted that women remain free to purchase whatever health care services they choose, but this is woefully insensitive to the reality that low-income women and families face. For these women, there is a very large difference between what is available to them for purchase in principle and in effect. It is easy for those who do not regularly face desperate decisions due to financial insecurity or medical complexities to forget the difference. An intrauterine device, for example, can cost a low-income full-time worker more than a month’s wages. For some women, this is both the safest and most effective medical option, yet hopelessly unaffordable.
Pogin has another interesting angle, too, that being that Hobby Lobby isn't even a good Christian, but that's a hunt in which I have absolutely no dog.

At the end of the day, the question is whether Hobby Lobby is as limited in its impact as the Court seems to think it will be.  I, honestly, can't see a way to distinguish the exemption approved there from the ones the Court seemed to clearly think were different, but I sometimes lack imagination.

I guess we'll have to wait and see after GloboCorp finds Jesus, huh?

July 2, 2014

World Cup Thoughts

Nearly 24 hours later, I'm still gutted by the United States's exit from the World Cup.  Don't get me wrong - if someone beforehand had said we'd vanquish the history with Ghana, emerge from the Group of Death, and take Belgium (a very trendy darkhorse pick going into the tournament) to added time before bowing out, I'd have been happy with that.  But there was so much that we left on the table.  But for a last-second brain fart, we come from behind to beat Portugal, winning back-to-back group games for the first time (and maybe, just possibly, winning the group).  But for Chris Wondlowski choking like an autoerrotic asphixiant last night, we steal a win against Belgium and are planning on how to stop Messi and company on Saturday.  All in all, I'm both pleased and frustrated.

A few player specific thoughts . . .

  • Tim Howard is God.  And I'm an atheist, so that should count double, or something.  Brad Guzan has some big gloves to fill for the next cycle (and the next Gold Cup - only a year away!)

  • Michael Bradley had a bad WOrld Cup.  I realize that he put in an awful lot of work (after the group stage, at any rate, he was one of the leaders in amount of ground covered), but he was too often unable to hold on to the ball or do anything interesting with it (brilliant assist last night aside).  Whether that's because he was playing in a role that's not really his own or something else, he's got to get back on track when he returns to Toronto.  And Klinsmann needs to figure out how to get the best out of him.

  • Jermaine Jones was great, probably our best player overall through four games.  He showed all the poise, restraint, and good timing going forward that he's hinted at for years.  I mean, seriously, who expected him to get through four games with only one yellow card?  And that goal was really a screamer.  I hope he can claw his way back to a bigger European club after this showing.

  • As for Julian Green, I said a month ago that I thought Klinsmann's decision to include him on the roster was a mistake, but hoped "they both prove me wrong in the next few weeks.".  Proof given, I am ready to eat crow.  Green's flick to score against Belgium last night was not the act of a kid who is out of his depth.  And he did contribute the cause at this World Cup.  Well done.

  • Clint Dempsey had a weird cup.  On the one hand, he scored two goals, becoming the first (?) American player to score in three consecutive World Cups.  On the other hand, in the wake of Jozy Altidore going down injured, Clint was left to fill a role that's not really his (sort of like Bradley) and, as a result, disappeared for long streches of time.  Not his fault, obviously, but kind of disappointing nonetheless.

  • As for Jurgen Klinsmann himself, it's hard to say at this point.  His deftness with substitutions continues (see sub goals for Green and John Brooks), but the way things shook out it's hard not to fault some of his roster choices.  There was no cover for Altidore in terms of a big, strong, back-to-goal kind of player when one was available in Terrence Boyd.  Likewise, there were no reinforcements in the holding midfield role once he went to having Jones and Kyle Beckerman (who had a good three games) in with Bradley.  That's to say nothing of the wastes of roster space that were Brad Davis (played one horrible half) and Mixx Diskerud (didn't play at all).

One final thing.  This World Cup has captured American attention like none I remember before (since 1994, at least) and I hope some of that "sticks."  I don't expect everybody who tuned in yesterday to pick up Major League Soccer for the rest of the season or even the Gold Cup when it comes around this time next year.  But if just a few people are converts to the charms of the beautiful game, I think we'll have to call this World Cup a success.