Saturday, July 30, 2011

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Amy Winehouse is dead at 27.

Amy Winehouse has sadly joined Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Brian Jones, Kurt Cobain, and Robert Johnson in "the 27 Club."

Her Wikipedia page has been rewritten in the past tense. It begins:

Amy Jade Winehouse (14 September 1983 – 23 July 2011) was an English singer-songwriter, known for her powerful contralto vocals and her eclectic mix of various musical genres including R&B, soul, and jazz. She received extensive publicity over her substance abuse and mental health issues.
Rolling Stone writes:
The Daily Mirror states that the 27 year-old singer was found dead in her Camden Square apartment at 4:05 p.m. GMT. There's no word on the exact cause of death, but Winehouse had been struggling with drug addiction for many years.
That Daily Mirror article reports:
Jann Meyer, 33, who lives nearby, said he saw Winehouse around quite often.

"It's not really a shock, it was to be expected sooner or later. She was 27, and all good rock stars go at 27. She was very talented, she was amazing."

Another neighbour, who did not want to be named, said she saw the singer's grief-stricken boyfriend on the ground outside the house.
More from the Rolling Stone article:
Winehouse cancelled a European tour last month after a disastrous shows show in Serbia, during which Winehouse repeatedly forgot her words and was booed by the 20,000 fans in attendance. "Amy Winehouse is withdrawing from all scheduled performances," spokesman Chris Goodman said. "Everyone involved wishes to do everything they can to help her return to her best and she will be given as long as it takes for this to happen." . . .

Rolling Stone writer Claire Hoffman visited Winehouse at her London flat in the summer of 2008. She found the singer living in disarray, with cuts and scratches up and down her arm and garbage strewn all over the house. "To be honest, my husband's away," she said. "I'm bored, I'm young. I felt like there was nothing to live for. It's just been a low ebb."
When I compiled the top 100 songs of 2000-2009, I ranked "You Know I'm No Good" #80 of the decade, and I added:
Surely an autobiographical song. Let's hope she straightens her life out.

Her swan song was a cover of "It's My Party":

So many fans are posting to her Facebook page right now that you have to click several times on "More Posts" to get through each minute of comments.

(Photo by Ivo Garcev.)

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Is throwing a pie in the face of an unsuspecting victim ever a good idea?

No, argues T.A. Frank in the New Republic.

Frank's headline is "Is Pie-Throwing Ever Morally Justifiable?," but I've qualified my heading to make it clear that we have to exclude consensual pie-throwing, which is probably more common than what Frank is talking about: pie-throwing as an attempt at protest.

Pie-throwing is the issue of the day because Rupert Murdoch was almost hit with a pie while appearing before a parliamentary committee in London before his wife, Wendi Deng, successfully intervened.

Frank admits that no one seems to be supporting the pie-thrower in this incident, but he says this isn't a universal reaction to non-consensual pie-throwing. For instance, he cites Matthew Yglesias's approving reaction to someone hitting Thomas Friedman with a pie. Frank writes:

A common defense of pie-throwing is that it’s, well, just a pie. But, of course, the person getting attacked has no idea what the hell is about to hit him or her. In 1976, during a campaign appearance in his first run for the U.S. Senate, Pat Moynihan got pied by a Yippie yelling “Fascist pig.” Moynihan, a child of Hell’s Kitchen, was no softie, “but it scared the hell out of me,” he told The New York Times. It had been “a violent act.”

The defense that the fear lasts only a short while—between the time you first notice you’re being attacked and the time you realize it’s just a pie—doesn’t work, either. If fleeting fear were no problem, then mock executions would be just hilarious. But momentary fear can be very powerful indeed. If someone aimed a machine gun at me and started firing loud volleys of harmless whipped cream, I wouldn’t laugh it off. I’d scream in terror. And, if someone “just” charged me with a foreign object in hand, I’d be pretty damn frightened, too. . . .

Dignity is a tricky concept, hard to define. But it’s central to many religions, and it’s mentioned in numerous international conventions. The Geneva Conventions famously prohibit “outrages on human dignity.” What separates civilized nations from barbarous ones is that they treat all human beings, even the enemies that they kill and the criminals that they punish, with dignity. (If prisoners of war were to have custard pies pressed into their heads upon being taken into enemy custody, decent people would see it as a sickening humiliation.) It’s also what separates civilized people from bullies and brutes. Pie-throwers want to rob their victims of dignity. That degrades the rest of us, too.

By the way, what’s ironic about many of these pie-throwers is how seriously they take themselves. When the supposedly light-hearted [Noel] Godin, who kicked off his career by throwing a pie at Marguerite Duras in 1969, explained why he spattered Bill Gates with a pie in 1998, it was because Gates “chooses to function in service of the capitalist status quo, without really using his intelligence or his imagination.” Yeah, intelligent and imaginative people don’t bring personal computing to half the globe. They spend 30 years throwing pie.

Ultimately, pie-throwing amounts to the most violent way possible to attack someone powerful without being likely to get in trouble for it. (Victims rarely press charges, because they don’t want to look like bad sports.) But it’s the not the hegemony of elites that’s threatened by pie-throwing. It’s ordinary decency and openness. Murdoch goes back to work tomorrow. But, if there are further hearings, the public will have to go through much more security to get access to them. Today, only journalists were allowed to stay after the pie incident. Ordinary onlookers were made to leave. Thanks, pie-thrower.
One exception to Frank's general rule that pie-throwers don't get in trouble is Johnny Marbles, the man who tried to pie-throw Murdoch. He was arrested and jailed. So, does Marbles regret what he did? He writes:
I had intended to unleash a wave of polemic as I made my move. As it turned out, the whole thing was far too weird for me to string two thoughts together, particularly as Murdoch's wife rose from the chair to prevent and avenge her husband's humiliation. As it went, I'm glad I was even able to make the accurate understatement that he was a "naughty billionaire".

As I languished predictably in a prison cell later that evening, I contemplated whether people would understand why I'd done it. I knew it was a tall order: a surreal act aimed at exposing a surreal process was never going to be an easy sell. I worried, too, that my clowning would detract from the scandal, or provide sympathy for Murdoch.

Believe it or not, I even worried about Rupert Murdoch's feelings. You see, I really don't hate 80-year-olds and, at the end of the day, Rupert Murdoch is just an old man. Maybe what I was trying to do was remind everyone of that – that he is not all powerful, he's not Sauron or Beelzebub, just a human being, like the rest of us, but one who has got far too big for his boots.
Even the aspiring pie-thrower himself was unable to articulate a convincing case for what he did, either at the time or in a long-winded editorial after the fact. So I agree with Frank: in addition to being violent and degenerate, pie-throwing simply isn't the incisively satirical act the pie-throwers seem to think it is. In fact, it's the opposite of what it's trying to be. People don't have trouble understanding why Marbles would want to do this because pie-throwing is too surreal or subversive for our comprehension; we have trouble seeing the point because pie-throwing is trite, formulaic, old-fashioned, humanizing toward the target, and ultimately meaningless.

ADDED: A couple people have asked me if I feel the same way about the people who are going around throwing glitter at politicians who are opposed to gay rights. Here's my response.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

"Does Society Encourage Genital Assault Against Men?"

Dr. Helen asked that question in this column from last year. She said:

[N]o one notices or cares about violence against men’s genitals, except to poke fun of those men who are kicked or hit in the balls. People even make fun of men whose penises are severed, as in the case of John Wayne Bobbitt. . . . I often see shows where a man is kicked in the groin and this is often depicted as funny or “no big deal.” Imagine the uproar if a women were punched in the breast on a television show. It is unthinkable.
Now that another one of those stories is in the news, people are going to be talking about genital assault in a way that would be unimaginable if the gender roles were reversed. Why is that?

Monday, July 11, 2011

How to give a compliment that sticks around

Back in college, a friend of mine who was studying theater mentioned that when he would see a play, he'd make a point afterwards to compliment the actors on details about their performance, instead of just saying, "Great show!" or "Good job!" By expressing an original thought, you demonstrate your sincerity. And your feedback is more likely to be remembered.

Here are a couple compliments I've recently gotten from friends, which will stick with me because of their originality:

"I wish I could put your sense of reason in a bottle and serve it to people."

"Never have I seen someone so opinionated try so hard to diffuse his own opinions."

It took me a while to be sure the latter comment was even a compliment.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Is the death penalty "racist"?

The New York Times printed an op-ed yesterday with the headline:

Death Penalty, Still Racist and Arbitrary.
The piece begins:
LAST week was the 35th anniversary of the return of the American death penalty. It remains as racist and as random as ever.

Several years after the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, a University of Iowa law professor, David C. Baldus (who died last month), along with two colleagues, published a study examining more than 2,000 homicides that took place in Georgia beginning in 1972. They found that black defendants were 1.7 times more likely to receive the death penalty than white defendants and that murderers of white victims were 4.3 times more likely to be sentenced to death than those who killed blacks.
I don't think there's much question about that latter point. But the biggest concern about whether the death penalty is racist would not seem to be about the race of the homicide victim.

Rather, when people call the death penalty "racist," the suggestion is that a defendant who's black is more likely to be executed than a defendant who's white, if all factors other than race are essentially the same.

Is that true?

The New York Times itself published an article (in 2008) that took a much more balanced and fact-based look at this issue:
About 1,100 people have been executed in the United States in the last three decades. Harris County, Tex., which includes Houston, accounts for more than 100 of those executions. . . .

A new study to be published in The Houston Law Review this fall has found two sorts of racial disparities in the administration of the death penalty there, one commonplace and one surprising.

The unexceptional finding is that defendants who kill whites are more likely to be sentenced to death than those who kill blacks. More than 20 studies around the nation have come to similar conclusions.

But the new study also detected a more straightforward disparity. It found that the race of the defendant by itself plays a major role in explaining who is sentenced to death.

It has never been conclusively proven that, all else being equal, blacks are more likely to be sentenced to death than whites in the three decades since the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976. Many experts, including some opposed to the death penalty, have said that evidence of that sort of direct discrimination is spotty and equivocal.

But the author of the new study, Scott Phillips, a professor of sociology and criminology at the University of Denver, found a robust relationship between race and the likelihood of being sentenced to death even after the race of the victim and other factors were held constant.

His statistics have profound implications. For every 100 black defendants and 100 white defendants indicted for capital murder in Harris County, Professor Phillips found that an average of 12 white defendants and 17 black ones would be sent to death row. In other words, Professor Phillips wrote, “five black defendants would be sentenced to the ultimate sanction because of race.”

Scott Durfee, the general counsel for the Harris County district attorney’s office, rejected Professor Phillips’s conclusions and said that district attorneys there had long taken steps to insulate themselves from knowing the race of defendants and victims as they decided whether to seek the death penalty.

“To the extent Professor Phillips indicates otherwise, all we can say is that you would have to look at each individual case,” Mr. Durfee said. “If you do that, I’m fairly sure that you would see that the decision was rational and reasonable.”

Indeed, the raw numbers support Mr. Durfee.

John B. Holmes Jr., the district attorney in the years Professor Phillips studied, 1992 to 1999, asked for the death sentence against 27 percent of the white defendants, 25 percent of the Hispanic defendants and 25 percent of the black defendants.
I agree with Durfee's statement that you'd need to look at the merits of each case. Phillips did purport to do exactly that, as the Times explained:
Professor Phillips said that the numbers suggesting evenhandedness in seeking the death penalty did not tell the whole story. Once the kinds of murders committed by black defendants were taken into consideration — terrible, to be sure, but on average less heinous, less apt to involve vulnerable victims and brutality, and less often committed by an adult — “the bar appears to have been set lower for pursuing death against black defendants,” Professor Phillips concluded.

Professor Phillips wrote about percentages and not particular cases, but his data suggest that black defendants were overrepresented in cases involving shootings during robberies, while white defendants were more likely to have committed murders during rapes and kidnappings and to have beaten, stabbed or choked their victims.

When the nature of the crime is taken into account, Professor Phillips wrote, “the odds of a death trial are 1.75 times higher against black defendants than white defendants.” Harris County juries corrected for that disparity to an extent, so that the odds of a death sentence for black defendants after trial dropped to 1.49.

Jon Sorensen, a professor of justice studies at Prairie View A&M University in Texas, said he was suspicious of Professor Phillips’s methodology.

“It’s bizarre,” Professor Sorensen said. “It starts out with no evidence of racism. Then he controls for stuff.”

Moreover, Professor Sorensen said, Professor Phillips failed to take account of other significant factors, including the socioeconomic status of the victims.
Again, I just don't know see how you could ever draw a firm conclusion about any of this without looking at the specifics of each case. And even if any researcher had time to do that, they'd need to apply their personal opinions to weigh how bad the different crimes were. But there's no reason to trust even the most fastidious and impartial researcher to do this, since they could only make these judgments by looking at a cold, paper record of a case. A judge and jury in each case are uniquely well-positioned to make judgments about whether a defendant is guilty and how bad the defendant's specific actions were. You can never fully step into the judge's or jury's shoes.

As one example, we're told that black defendants are more likely than white defendants to kill during "robberies." That might sound like a relatively drab category of crime, in contrast with the white defendants, who are described in a way that sounds viscerally reprehensible: they "were more likely to have committed murders during rapes and kidnappings and to have beaten, stabbed or choked their victims." But one could easily imagine a robbery being quite brutal. Off-hand, I have no idea if "robberies" are generally worse than, say "kidnappings."

And remember, the severity of a crime is just one of many factors that can be relevant in sentencing. As the Houston Chronicle reported in a 2010 article about another research paper by Phillips:
District Attorney Pat Lykos, who has been in office for little more than a year, declined to comment on Phillips' conclusions about the past administration. She said under her leadership, a victim's race or ethnicity or education level would play no part in determining whether to seek the death penalty against an accused killer.

If the slain victim was single, that also would not play a role in the decision, but if the victim was married, the impact of the death on their family would be considered, Lykos said. If the victim had a criminal record and whether that was considered would depend on the facts surrounding their death, she said.

Factors that are considered in whether to seek the death penalty, Lykos said, include the victim's age and vulnerability, the number of victims killed, the brutality of the offense, whether the accused killer and victim had any prior relationship, the defendant's criminal record and life history, and the effect the crime had on society.
The 2008 article shows that the New York Times is capable of setting a high standard for itself in conveying these nuances about the limits of our ability to make a sweeping judgment about thousands of unique cases. Yesterday's op-ed shows that the Times is willing to let this complexity get simplified and filtered.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Aphorisms on the limits of knowledge by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

From his recent book The Bed of Procrustes: Philosophical and Practical Aphorisms:

It is much harder to write a book review for a book you've read than for a book you haven't read. . . . (49)

Today, we mostly face the choice between those who write clearly about a subject they don't understand and those who write poorly about a subject they don't understand. . . . (50)

Most info-Web-media-newspaper types have a hard time swallowing the idea that knowledge is reached (mostly) by removing junk from people's heads. (58)
(Taleb is probably best known for his book The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, and he's also written highly technical works on human error — for instance, this paper on the error rates of error rates.)

Friday, July 8, 2011

Egg producers and the Humane Society of the United States . . .

. . . have stopped their "squawking."

"'The industry moving from saying anything goes to saying there should be legal limits at the federal level is an enormous difference.'"

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Why are powerful men so likely to cheat on their wives?

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, on Huffington Post, argues:

The biggest mistake we make in determining why powerful men cheat is to believe they're looking for sex. If it's sex they're after they have wives who can cater to their needs. No, these men are looking for something else entirely: validation. Men cheat not out of a sense of entitlement but out of a sense of insecurity. . . .

What makes men slowly climb the ladder of success is a desire to prove they're a somebody. They want to be and feel important. . . . It is not the promise of their potential that drives them, but the fear of being a nonentity. . . .

And that's why these men turn to women to make them feel good about themselves. They want to feel desirable. They seek to silence the inner voices that taunt them as to their own insignificance. Because of its power, sex has a unique capacity to make insecure men feel -- however fleetingly -- like they're special. Having women desire them makes them feel desirable.
Amy Alkon (the "Advice Goddess") says: "Oh, please." Rabbi Boteach "doesn't get it":
They take sex because it's there, in variety, because they can. Because it would be fun to have a little strange, and the little strange is right there bending over sweeping up a broken glass, and seems willing, and Maria is nowhere to be seen. . . .

Regarding the evolved male preference for sexual variety, as the late Margo Wilson and her husband and partner Martin Daly pointed out: Sperm are cheap; eggs are expensive.
I don't see why there needs to be a polarized debate about whether men commit adultery because they want sex. Of course they want sex. But even if Alkon's evolutionary-psychology explanation is right, that alone isn't a reason to dismiss other explanations like Rabbi Boteach's.

Robert Wright explained why in his book The Moral Animal. First, here's his explanation of why men (more than women) become increasingly likely to cheat as they get older and more successful:
As a marriage progresses, the temptation to desert should—in the average case—shift toward the man. The reason isn't, as people sometimes assume, that the Darwinian costs of marital breakup are greater for the woman. True, if she has a young child and her marriage dissolves, that child may suffer—whether because she can't find a husband willing to commit to a woman with another man's child, or because she finds one who neglects or mistreats the child. But, in Darwinian terms, this cost is borne equally by the deserting husband; the child who thus suffers is his child too, after all.

The big difference between men and women comes, rather, on the benefits side of the desertion ledger. What can each partner gain from a breakup in the way of future reproductive payoff? The husband can, in principle, find an eighteen-year-old woman with twenty-five years of reproduction ahead. The wife . . . cannot possibly find a mate who will give her twenty-five years worth of reproductive potential. This difference in outside opportunity is negligible at first, when both husband and wife are young. But as they age, it grows. . . .

A poor, low-status husband may not have a chance to desert and may, indeed, provide his wife with reason to desert, especially if she has no children and can thus find another mate readily. A husband who rises in status and wealth, on the other hand, will thus strengthen his incentive to desert while weakening his wife's. (87)
Now, here's Wright on why the ev-psych explanation isn't mutually exclusive with other psychological explanations:
Objections to this sort of analysis are predictable: "But people leave marriages for emotional reasons. They don't add up the number of their children and pull out their calculators. Men are driven away by dull, nagging wives, or by the profound soul-searching of a mid-life crisis. Women are driven out by abusive or indifferent husbands, or lured away by a sensitive, caring man."

All true. But . . . emotions are just evolution's executioners. Beneath all the thoughts and feelings and temperamental differences that marriage counselors spend their time sensitively assessing are the stratagems of the genes—cold, hard equations composed of simple variables: social status, age of spouse, number of children, their ages, outside opportunities, and so on. Is the wife really duller and more nagging than she was twenty years ago? Possibly, but it's also possible that the husband's tolerance for nagging has dropped now that she's forty-five and has no reproductive future. And the promotion he just got which has already drawn some admiring glances from a young woman at work, hasn't helped. (88)

Monday, July 4, 2011

Life imitates Seinfeld

"NY motorcyclist dies on ride protesting helmet law," the Associated Press reports:

Police say a motorcyclist participating in a protest ride against helmet laws in upstate New York died after he flipped over the bike's handlebars and hit his head on the pavement.

The accident happened Saturday afternoon in the town of Onondaga, in central New York near Syracuse.

State troopers tell The Post-Standard of Syracuse that 55-year-old Philip A. Contos of Parish, N.Y., was driving a 1983 Harley Davidson with a group of bikers who were protesting helmet laws by not wearing helmets.

Troopers say Contos hit his brakes and the motorcycle fishtailed. The bike spun out of control, and Contos toppled over the handlebars. He was pronounced dead at a hospital.

Troopers say Contos would have likely survived if he had been wearing a helmet.