Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Posts tagged ‘US culture’

The man with the Kalashnikov

Having been on a Thalys to Paris yesterday I took particular interest in the aborted attack the previous day. We hadn’t heard anything about it, but a conductor told us a bullshit story about how the news media got the story all wrong: the attacker was actually being followed by police, the capture was planned, and he didn’t have firearms.

But here’s what I’m wondering. According to the NY Times,

Less than an hour away from Paris, a French passenger got up from his seat to use the toilets at the back of the carriage. Suddenly, in front of him rose a slightly built man. Across the man’s chest, in a sling, was an automatic rifle of the kind favored by jihadists the world over: an AK-47.

The passenger threw himself on the man. The gun went off, once, twice, several times. Glass shattered. A bullet hit a passenger.

The man with the gun kept going down the carriage, holding his AK-47 and a Luger pistol. In a pocket was a sharp blade capable of inflicting grievous harm. He had at least nine cartridges of ammunition, enough for serious carnage.

So, they’re heroes. But if this had happened in the US, would they be the ones in prison? After all, up until the point where they attacked him, he was just another open-carry enthusiast celebrating his constitutional right to keep and bear arms. Once he was attacked, of course, by rowdy foreigners, it is perfectly understandable that he started firing. And even if he did fire a single shot first (the news reports disagree on this point), well, how could they have known that it wasn’t self defence. They should have waited until he’d shot at least two people before infringing on his civil rights.

Maybe that’s why they don’t have trains in Texas… (Actually, that’s not entirely true.)

Social climber

What is it about rock climbing that makes it such a useful synecdoche for enjoying your life? In an article about an unusual case about a girl whose lawsuit against a sexually abusive teacher foundered when her claims of “loss of enjoyment of life” seemed to be contradicted by a happy Facebook page, I was struck by the comment

Melissa’s account was mostly locked to outsiders, but some pictures were visible: Melissa hanging out with her boyfriend, Melissa working at a veterinary hospital, Melissa rock climbing, Melissa out drinking with friends… Nor did it support her claim of “loss of enjoyment of life,” which one judge has defined as the loss of “watching one’s children grow, participating in recreational activities, and drinking in the many other pleasures that life has to offer.” Rock climbing is a recreational activity; drinking with friends is one of life’s pleasures, after all. Last month, the court ordered Melissa to hand over every photograph, video, status update, and wall message ever posted on her Facebook accounts so that the school district may search for more clues that Melissa is secretly thriving.

And that reminded me of an article many years ago in Harper’s about American casualty adjustors, whose job it is to put a price on someone’s life for purposes of wrongful death suits.

I ask them to evaluate my worth, and they tell me that outdoorsy people are worth more than people like me, who stay home and read. “People have no sympathy for somebody who sits alone on his couch, drinks beer, eats food, and is a load,” Ed says.

“That’s why nobody likes me,” says George. “It’s how sympathetic you are. People go, ‘He rock climbed,’ you know. `This guy enjoyed life. He was out there doing things.’ You cherish life more if you are interacting with it.”

Contrapositive version of “C’est pire qu’un crime, c’est une faute”

A judge in Chicago has reversed this famous Napoleonic bon mot. Whereas Antoine Boulay attacked a judicial decision (to condemn the Duc d’Enghien) as “Worse than a crime, an error,” Judge Dennis Porter has decided to acquit a murderer with the reverse argument: “It was not an error, therefore not as bad as a crime.”

The basic facts are these: the accused, off-duty police officer (not that that has anything to do with it) Dante Servin, having decided on his own initiative to confront a noisy crowd from the comfort of his automobile, says he was spooked when he mistook a telephone for a gun. He naturally did what any reasonable person would do in such a situation: He fired five shots blindly into the crowd, missing the man with the dangerous telephone, but killing one other person and injuring another. In his trial for manslaughter the judge ruled that he could not possibly be guilty of that crime, because manslaughter requires “recklessness”, and Servin was clearly not reckless because he intended to shoot at people. No, really:

Porter… agreed that Servin was acting intentionally when he fired his gun. In fact, he said in his ruling, Illinois courts have long held that when a defendant “intends to fire a gun, points it in the general direction of his or her intended victim, and shoots, such conduct is not merely reckless,” but “intentional” and “the crime, if any there be, is first degree murder.”

Since he had not been charged with first degree murder, the only alternative was to acquit him.

Abercrombie cool

I don’t know anything about Abercrombie & Fitch. I know it’s a chain of stores that sell clothes, I’m sure I’ve seen their stores, but I’ve never been inside them. Everything I know about their brand comes from an 80-year-old satire by James Thurber that begins

 I always try to answer Abercrombie & Fitch’s questions (in their advertisements) the way they obviously want them answered, but usually, if I am to be honest with them and with myself, I must answer them in a way that would not please Abercrombie & Fitch. While that company and I have always nodded and smiled pleasantly enough when we met, we have never really been on intimate terms, mainly because we have so little in common. For one thing, I am inclined to be nervous and impatient, whereas Abercrombie & Fitch are at all times composed and tranquil…

Take the one recently printed in an advertisement in this magazine. Under a picture of a man fishing in a stream were these words: “Can’t you picture yourself in the middle of the stream with the certain knowledge that a wise old trout is hiding under a ledge and defying you to tempt him with your skillfully cast fly?” My answer, of course, is “No.” Especially if I am to be equipped the way the gentleman in the illustration is equipped: with rod, reel, line, net, hip boots, felt hat, and pipe. They might just as well add a banjo and a parachute….

I was reminded of this in reading about a case that is currently being considered by the US Supreme Court, in which Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has charged the company with religious discrimination, after it refused to hire a Muslim woman, because her headscarf would conflict with the Abercrombie dress code. (As the law would require reasonable accommodation to be made for religious observance, the legal case turns on the relatively uninteresting question of whether the district manager who made the decision, and who reportedly said  “if we allow this then someone will paint themselves green and call it a religion”, is really the last man left in America so uncontaminated by media representations of Muslims that he is not even aware that Muslim women often wear headscarfs as part of their religious practice.)

According to court documents,

Abercrombie described its brand as “a classic East Coast collegiate style of clothing.” When Elauf applied for a job in 2008, the Look policy included prohibitions on black clothing and “caps”; these and other rules were designed to protect “the health and vitality of its ‘preppy’ and ‘casual’ brand.” As Justice Alito put it during oral arguments, Abercrombie wants job candidates “who [look] just like this mythical preppy or … somebody who came off the beach in California.”

From fly-fishing in an east-coast stream to a beach in California. You’ve come a long way, baby!

Counting to zero

I was amused by the comments made by right-wing American TV news personality Bill O’Reilly, who referred to his time in the Falklands “war zone” because he reported on an unruly protest in Buenos Aires after the war ended. He supported his position by quoting a NY Times report that referred to a police officer firing five shots, without mentioning that the shots were fired “over the heads of fleeing protestors”.

Rich Meislin, the Times reporter who wrote the article, said on Facebook that as far as he knew no demonstrators were shot or killed by police that night. On Monday, Mr. O’Reilly said he was just reading clips from the piece during the Media Buzz interview and that official reports on casualties there were difficult to obtain.

One could imagine that in a dispute over the exact number of protesters shot or killed you might say that the official reports were “difficult to obtain”. It seems like an odd defence when people are claiming that the exact number was zero, since, of course, in that case there would be no reports on casualties to obtain. “I do remember that there was tension between the authorities and the crowd,” [CBS correspondent Charles Gomez] said, but added that he “did not see any bloodshed.”

Humans have a separate system for unconsciously apprehending the numbers of items under about four, called subitizing, that is distinct from the conscious process of counting. The idea of “counting” one or two items seems ridiculous, and counting zero items exaggerates the comic effect. I was reminded of a scene in the second volume Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, The Restaurant at the end of the Universe. Ford Prefect and his friends have accidentally stowed away on a space ship programmed to crash into the local sun (as part of the light show for a rock concert). Zaphod Beeblebrox yells “Ford, how many escape capsules are there?”

“None,” said Ford.

Zaphod gibbered.

“Did you count them?” he yelled.

“Twice,” said Ford.

 Update: In another interview O’Reilly continued to conflate the Falklands War with the unruly demonstration in Buenos Aires:

“A lot of people died,” said O’Reilly, nodding his head. “You bet.”

“On both sides, both the British and the Argentines,” Browne said, appearing to reference the broader war rather than the protests.

“Nine hundred deaths on the Island,” O’Reilly said. “And we don’t know how many in Buenos Aires.”

We don’t know how many. The number is generally reckoned to be around… zero.

What does an anti-vaccine activist want?

With the swelling of interest in the anti-vaccine movement, inspired by the recent California measles outbreak, I’ve seen a number of opinions published similar to this one from Ian Steadman in the New Statesman

Then there’s also this to think about: if somebody’s distrust of scientific and/or political authority is so great, for whatever reason – maybe they’ve been scared by sensationalist stories in the media, or maybe they sincerely believe the government has no moral right to dictate health choices to citizens – that they’re willing to significantly increase their child’s risk of catching a (possibly fatal) illness, then calling them names and telling them scientists and politicians disagree with them is probably futile. Arguing that “the science is settled” with someone whose stance is predicated on the belief that the standards of proof used by scientists are flawed is definitely futile.

The article is excellent, but I don’t entirely agree with this sentiment. Living in Berkeley and Oxford, I have encountered some vaccine refuseniks, and it’s not clear to me that they have anything as definable as a belief about “the standards of proof used by scientists”. Rather, I think that they have a desperate need to feel special, protected not by mass vaccination — and definitely not by anything as infra dig as “herd immunity” — but by their special virtue, which may be Christian purity or organic health-food purity. (more…)

Clushtering

I was somewhat nonplussed by this article in Slate by journalist John Ore, who gives up drinking alcohol every January and had the dubious inventiveness to coin the name “Drynuary” which, he says, has caught on in some circles. What I found odd was that he seems to be plagued by demands to explain or hide the fact that he’s not drinking alcohol.

Everyone who knows me well already understands that I do this Drynuary madness every year—I’m not shy about it, after all—so their immediate reaction is usually an eye-rolling “Again?!” as they pathetically try to peer-pressure me into doing a shot with them.[…]

My wife, and other pregnant friends, have used certain sleight-of-hand tricks early in a pregnancy before they were ready to reveal that they were expecting. She would order the same drink as I would—say, a glass of red wine with dinner—and wait until mine was almost drained. Subtly, we’d switch glasses when no one was looking, and viola! It looked like she was pounding hers, and I was playing catch up.

It seemed odd to me personally because I rarely drink alcohol — and in Oxford that means frequently turning over my wine glass at dinners and drinking orange juice at social events with students — but I can’t recall that anyone has ever asked me why. Maybe it’s a difference between Britain and the US — more universal alcohol consumption here, but less eagerness to intrude on other people’s privacy — but I never had those questions when I lived in the US either. (Once I recall someone expressing surprise that I did drink something alcoholic, but without asking for an explanation. Perhaps I was just not sufficiently sensitive to the implications.)

I recently came upon this plot of alcohol consumption in the US. About 30% consume no alcohol, and the median is about one drink per week. So if Ore were hanging out with average Americans one would have to think that one in three of his companions would also not be drinking, and a second of three might very well pass on the opportunity as well. It wouldn’t seem worth commenting on. But obviously people don’t hang out with random samples of the population. And he specifically says that in his profession — presumably he means journalism — “business events and travel naturally involve expense accounts and the social lubricant of alcohol.” I’ll refrain from commenting on what this might explain about the state of journalism as a profession, but I’m pretty sure that in my profession alcohol definitely doesn’t get to be counted as a travel expense, and in some cases even the bottle of wine shared at a post-seminar dinner needs to be paid for separately because it’s specifically excluded. (more…)

Birmingham

A “terrorism expert” on Fox News in the US has raised eyebrows on both sides of the Atlantic by informing his viewers that

in Britain, it’s not just no-go zones, there are actual cities like Birmingham that are totally Muslim where non-Muslims just simply don’t go in. And parts of London, there are actually Muslim religious police that actually beat and actually wound seriously anyone who doesn’t dress according to Muslim, religious Muslim attire.

This is, of course, well known, and was first brought fleetingly to public attention by the Rev. Dr Martin Luther King, Jr in his famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail. As some people have forgotten, in his role as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (based in Brighton, I believe) Dr King attempted to open the totally Muslim city of Birmingham to Christians, by staging a nonviolent march. After his arrest by the Muslim religious police (who actually beat and actually wounded him seriously) he penned these stirring words:

I think I should indicate why I am here in Birmingham, since you have been influenced by the view which argues against “outsiders coming in.”[…] I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. […] I cannot sit idly by […] and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

I am offering my services to Fox News, to appear as a history expert and discuss this neglected background to the current crisis in Birmingham.

It is perhaps to the credit of “expert” Steve Emerson that his organisation has posted the transcript of this interview, together with a sort-of-apology:

I have clearly made a terrible error for which I am deeply sorry. My comments about Birmingham were totally in error[. …] I do not intend to justify or mitigate my mistake by stating that I had relied on other sources because I should have been much more careful.

There are several more sentences in the same vein, followed by a non sequitur offer of a donation to Birmingham Children’s Hospital. While I appreciate his refusal to “justify or mitigate”, I think in this case an exposition of his sources would be informative, or at least entertaining. But these think tanks are not so much scholarly organisations as conspiratorial cells, and unless we take him to Guantanamo we’ll never get the names of his contacts.

I guess he’s standing by the London comments. I think this is a real opening for Labour, if the government is cutting housing assistance but still funding the Muslim religious police. And he hasn’t yet apologised for neglecting Dr King’s contributions to intercommunal understanding in Birmingham.

Aposematism and toy guns

Another person has been shot in the US because he was brandishing a toy gun.

Police hit the 32-year-old man three times Sunday evening after he pulled from his waistband what was later determined to be an air gun, which fire metallic projectiles such as pellets or BBs, police spokesman Albie Esparza said.[…]

The air gun did not have a colored tip on it, which is a standard identifier of a toy gun, Officer Gordon Shyy said Monday.

Actually, this wasn’t even exactly a “toy”. More, a sublethal weapon. I’m generally not the most sympathetic to police officers who kill the citizens they are supposed to be protecting. (In Utah last year police were the leading category of homicide perpetrators.) And the case of the boy who was shot on a playground because he had a toy gun clearly seems tinged with racism. But I can’t blame the problem on a lack of coloured tips on the gun.

Surely a brief thought about warning colours and mimicry in nature suggests that a strategy that says “a red tip means the police don’t need to worry about this otherwise very dangerous-looking weapon” can’t be viable. It’s too easy to mimic the signal and gain the advantage (lessened police response to your weapon). This is not quite the same as aposematism — advertising ones inedibility to predators through defensive colouration — but the general problem of cheap signals undermined by mimicry is the same. (more…)

People who wore top hats

In thinking about the response of many Americans to the revelations of torture of prisoners by the CIA (not that it was a huge secret before, but I think most people still found something to be surprised and appalled by in the Senate report, such as the 26 people whom even the CIA acknowledges were held in error, or “rectal feeding”), but also the response of many American and British Jews to atrocities and human rights abuses by Israel, I often find myself coming back to the remarks of Aldous Huxley, in his 1958 Brave New World Revisited. In discussing the distinction between the old-fashioned totalitarianism of 1984 — innovative propaganda and mental manipulation, to be sure, but backed up by hard power and torture — and the purely medical and psychological manipulation of Brave New World, he admits that he was too hasty in consigning the crude atrocities to the ashheap of history:

Fifty years ago, when I was a boy, it seemed completely self-evident that the bad old days were over, that torture and massacre, slavery, and the persecution of heretics, were things of the past. Among people who wore top hats, traveled in trains, and took a bath every morning such horrors were simply out of the question. After all, we were living in the twentieth century. A few years later these people who took daily baths and went to church in top hats were committing atrocities on a scale undreamed of by the benighted Africans and Asi­atics. In the light of recent history it would be foolish to suppose that this sort of thing cannot happen again. It can and, no doubt, it will. But in the immedi­ate future there is some reason to believe that the punitive methods of 1984 will give place to the rein­forcements and manipulations of Brave New World.

This phrasing is perfect. (I’m willing to give Huxley the benefit of the doubt by reading ironic scare quotes into “benighted Africans and Asiatics”.) Compare “people who took daily baths and went to church in top hats” with this excerpt from an interview with torturer-in-chief Dick Cheney:

CHUCK TODD:

Well, let me start with quoting you. You said earlier this week, “Torture was something that was very carefully avoided.” It implies that you have a definition of what torture is. What is it?

DICK CHENEY:

Well, torture, to me, Chuck, is an American citizen on a cell phone making a last call to his four young daughters shortly before he burns to death in the upper levels of the Trade Center in New York City on 9/11. There’s this notion that somehow there’s moral equivalence between what the terrorists and what we do. And that’s absolutely not true. We were very careful to stop short of torture. The Senate has seen fit to label their report torture. But we worked hard to stay short of that definition.

CHUCK TODD:

Well, what is that definition?

DICK CHENEY:

Definitions, and one that was provided by the Office of Legal Counsel, we went specifically to them because we did not want to cross that line into where we violating some international agreement that we’d signed up to. They specifically authorized and okayed, for example, exactly what we did. All of the techniques that were authorized by the president were, in effect, blessed by the Justice Department opinion that we could go forward with those without, in fact, committing torture.

Instead of going to church in top hats to have their crimes blessed by God, they went to the Office of Legal Council in slick suits to have their crimes blessed by the Justice department. But the idea is, people like us don’t commit atrocities, because they’re people like us.

CHUCK TODD:

Let me go through some of those techniques that were used, Majid Khan, was subjected to involuntary rectal feeding and rectal hydration. It included two bottles of Ensure, later in the same day Majid Khan’s lunch tray consisting of hummus, pasta, sauce, nuts and raisins was pureed and rectally infused.[…]  Does that meet the definition of torture in your mind?

DICK CHENEY:

–in my mind, I’ve told you what meets the definition of torture. It’s what 19 guys armed with airline tickets and box cutters did to 3,000 Americans on 9/11. What was done here apparently certainly was not one of the techniques that was approved. I believe it was done for medical reasons.

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