Monday, April 29, 2013

"The new global battle over the future of free speech"

I recommend reading this interesting and important article about "the Deciders." That's the author, Jeffrey Rosen's, term for the people in charge of content policy at Google, Twitter, and Facebook, whose "positions give these young people more power over who gets heard around the globe than any politician or bureaucrat—more power, in fact, than any president or judge."

I strongly agree with this part:

"The company that has moved the furthest toward the American free-speech ideal is Twitter, which has explicitly concluded that it wants to be a platform for democracy rather than civility. Unlike Google and Facebook, it doesn’t ban hate speech at all; instead, it prohibits only “direct, specific threats of violence against others.” Last year, after the French government objected to the hash tag “#unbonjuif”—intended to inspire hateful riffs on the theme “a good Jew ...”—Twitter blocked a handful of the resulting tweets in France, but only because they violated French law. Within days, the bulk of the tweets carrying the hash tag had turned from anti-Semitic to denunciations of anti-Semitism, confirming that the Twittersphere is perfectly capable of dealing with hate speech on its own, without heavy-handed intervention.

As corporate rather than government actors, the Deciders aren’t formally bound by the First Amendment. But to protect the best qualities of the Internet, they need to summon the First Amendment principle that the only speech that can be banned is that which threatens to provoke imminent violence, an ideal articulated by Justice Louis Brandeis in 1927. It’s time, in other words, for some American free-speech imperialism if the Web is to remain open and free in twenty-first century."

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

"Your odds of dying in a terrorist attack...

... are still far, far lower than dying from just about anything else." See point #8 at that link, which points out:

In the last five years, the odds of an American being killed in a terrorist attack have been about 1 in 20 million (that’s including both domestic attacks and overseas attacks).
And Megan McArdle explains why deadly terrorist attacks are "so rare":
I can right now think of several terrorist strategies which would kill a lot of people and be nearly impossible to defend against. I'm not going to offer terrorists any ideas, but here's one that's already been tried: the DC sniper. They were caught only because they were too poor to switch the cars they were shooting from; a slightly better bankrolled effort could have effectively gone on forever. And you can't really imagine how you'd re-engineer America to defend against such attacks.

So why don't they happen more? The most convincing answer I've gotten to that question is that fostering terror is only one of the aims of a terrorist attack. These attacks also function as recruiting, and as fundraising promotions for your terrorist organization. There are what you might [call] business considerations, in other words, and those business considerations dictate the kinds of attacks that terrorists want to carry out.

Thank God, randomly shooting one person every week or so does not satisfy the business plan. Terrorists want large, splashy attacks on specific sorts of targets that have high emotional resonance for both the victims and the people on your side who you hope to recruit, or tap for money. This helps explain why Al Qaeda was so obsessed with the Twin Towers, a place that--until they fell--most New Yorkers regarded as a rather ugly landmark containing some so-so office space. To a terrorist group looking for publicity, on the other hand, it had immense symbolic value: the tallest building in America's biggest city, with the hubristic name of "World Trade Center".

That's why we don't get high-frequency, low-intensity attacks on crowded spaces near some Texas town that no one in Abottabad has ever heard of. When attacks on those places happen, they tend to be the provenance of local lunatics for whom the nearby mall, or primary school, has some immense symbolic emotional importance.

And thankfully, there are not nearly as many lunatics as there are schools, or malls, or even marathons. That's why most of our public spaces are safe from mad bombers--and I'm glad to say, why they will remain so.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Guns and mental illness

Alex Knepper explains what's wrong with our national conversation about them:

In the aftermath of the tragedy at Sandy Hook, the NRA called for a "national database" of the mentally ill, against which new gun sales can be checked. Similarly, President Obama has consistently advocated that Congress do something to prevent the mentally ill from possessing guns.

The general public's thought process seems to be something like this: Anyone who would use a gun to murder children must be crazy -- and crazy people should not have access to guns in the first place. But it is impolitic to use the word 'crazy,' which sounds too loaded, too politically incorrect. The polite way of expressing such a sentiment is to declare that 'mentally ill' people should not own guns.

Contrary to the general public's ignorant abuse of the term, though, 'mentally ill' does not mean 'crazy.' The term covers an extremely broad spectrum of disorders whose symptoms and causes vary significantly. Paranoid schizophrenia is classified as a mental illness, but so are Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, and anorexia nervosa. The real question, then, becomes: Which mental illnesses should disqualify a person from owning a gun, and by what grounds do we justify singling out the people who suffer from them?

And this is where the argument starts to fall apart. As is usually the case, crafting a specific, viable policy plan is a bit more difficult than making empty emotional pleas to do something. While people with severe mental illnesses -- such as paranoid schizophrenia or major depression -- are somewhat more likely than the average person to commit acts of aggression, they account for only 4 percent of all violent crimes. Virtually all people with severe mental illnesses are just everyday men and women, no likelier than you or I to commit an act of violence. Of course, the authorities should investigate any credible claims of violent tendencies, but this is true regardless of the status of the suspect's mental health. The logic of a blanket policy targeting the mentally ill is identical to the logic of racially profiling Arab Muslims at airports.

My own experience as the close friend of a young woman with severe mental health issues has taught me that politicians, insurance companies, and the general public are astonishingly unfamiliar with what such people's day-to-day lived experiences are like. One of the most debilitating issues that my friend confronts is simple ignorance: Misconceptions about mental health issues are frighteningly common, and they can cause problems in school, work, and family life. Most mentally ill people have the ability to live normal lives -- but only with a network of support....

Michael Fitzpatrick, the director of the National Association for the Mentally Ill, expressed hope that President Obama's call for dialogue would help combat the stigma against the mentally ill. It hasn't, and it won't -- and it's easy to see why. The framing of this 'dialogue' is in the context of Sandy Hook; that is: in the context of violence and fear. What message does it send to the public that we only bother to talk about mental illness after an act of mass murder against children has taken place? The central question of the dialogue should be "How can society help those who suffer from mental illness?" But the dialogue as it has actually happened has centered around the question, "How can society protect itself against crazy people?" That's no way to craft good public health policy. It's time to stop scapegoating the mentally ill -- and start looking for real ways to help them.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Roger Ebert (1942-2013)

Roger Ebert has died at age 70:

His death was announced by The Chicago Sun-Times, where he had worked for more than 40 years. No cause was specified, but he had suffered from cancer and related health problems since 2002. It would not be a stretch to say that Mr. Ebert was the best-known film reviewer of his generation, and one of the most trusted. The force and grace of his opinions propelled film criticism into the mainstream of American culture. Not only did he advise moviegoers about what to see, but also how to think about what they saw.

President Obama reacted to Mr. Ebert’s death with a statement that said, in part: “For a generation of Americans — especially Chicagoans — Roger was the movies. When he didn’t like a film, he was honest; when he did, he was effusive — capturing the unique power of the movies to take us somewhere magical.”

Mr. Ebert’s struggle with cancer gave him an altogether different public image — as someone who refused to surrender to illness. Though he had operations for cancer of the thyroid, salivary glands and chin, lost his ability to eat, drink and speak (a prosthesis partly obscured the loss of much of his jaw, and he was fed through a tube for years) and became a gaunter version of his once-portly self, he continued to write reviews and commentary and published a cookbook on meals that could be made with a rice cooker.

“When I am writing, my problems become invisible, and I am the same person I always was,” he told Esquire magazine in 2010. “All is well. I am as I should be.”

Ebert introducing his reviews of 100 great movies:
We have completed the first century of film. Too many moviegoers are stuck in the present and recent past. When people tell me that "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" or "Total Recall" are their favorite films, I wonder: Have they tasted the joys of Welles, Bunuel, Ford, Murnau, Keaton, Hitchcock, Wilder or Kurosawa? If they like Ferris Bueller, what would they think of Jacques Tati's "Mr. Hulot's Holiday," also about a strange day of misadventures? If they like "Total Recall," have they seen Fritz Lang's "Metropolis," also about an artificial city ruled by fear?

I ask not because I am a film snob. I like to sit in the dark and enjoy movies. I think of old films as a resource of treasures. Movies have been made for 100 years, in color and black and white, in sound and silence, in wide-screen and the classic frame, in English and every other language. To limit yourself to popular hits and recent years is like being Ferris Bueller but staying home all day.

I believe we are born with our minds open to wonderful experiences, and only slowly learn to limit ourselves to narrow tastes. We are taught to lose our curiosity by the bludgeon-blows of mass marketing, which brainwash us to see "hits," and discourage exploration.

I know that many people dislike subtitled films, and that few people reading this article will have ever seen a film from Iran, for example. And yet a few weeks ago at my Overlooked Film Festival at the University of Illinois, the free kiddie matinee was "Children of Heaven," from Iran. It was a story about a boy who loses his sister's sneakers through no fault of his own, and is afraid to tell his parents. So he and his sister secretly share the same pair of shoes. Then he learns of a footrace where third prize is . . . a pair of sneakers.

"Anyone who can read at the third-grade level can read these subtitles," I told the audience of 1,000 kids and some parents. "If you can't, it's OK for your parents or older kids to read them aloud--just not too loudly."

The lights went down and the movie began. I expected a lot of reading aloud. There was none. Not all of the kids were old enough to read, but apparently they were picking up the story just by watching and using their intelligence. The audience was spellbound. No noise, restlessness, punching, kicking, running down the aisles. Just eyes lifted up to a fascinating story. Afterward, we asked kids up on the stage to ask questions or talk about the film. What they said indicated how involved they had become.

Kids. And yet most adults will not go to a movie from Iran, Japan, France or Brazil. They will, however, go to any movie that has been plugged with a $30 million ad campaign and sanctified as a "box-office winner." Yes, some of these big hits are good, and a few of them are great. But what happens between the time we are 8 and the time we are 20 that robs us of our curiosity? What turns movie lovers into consumers? What does it say about you if you only want to see what everybody else is seeing?

Ebert on Siskel and himself:
I produce twice as much work as he does. He thinks of me as lazy because I make it easy for myself. He thinks of himself as a workaholic, but most of his workaholism consists of spinning his wheels. I review every major movie for the Sun-Times, and I have a piece in the newspaper every Sunday. He does little one-paragraph minireviews for the Tribune and he has a piece in about once a month. I’ve written four books. I teach a film class at the University of Chicago. And yet he thinks that he works harder than I do. Somehow, Gene thinks it means you’re working harder if you arrange to work all night long. The question is not how hard you work but how much you produce, and I’m much more productive than he is....

People ask which one is the intellectual and which one is the populist. My answer is, I’ve got him surrounded. I am both more intellectual and more populist than he is. He is Mr. Middle of the Road.

Ebert's last blog post:
Last year, I wrote the most of my career, including 306 movie reviews, a blog post or two a week, and assorted other articles. I must slow down now, which is why I'm taking what I like to call "a leave of presence."

What in the world is a leave of presence? It means I am not going away. My intent is to continue to write selected reviews but to leave the rest to a talented team of writers handpicked and greatly admired by me. What's more, I'll be able at last to do what I've always fantasized about doing: reviewing only the movies I want to review....

At this point in my life, in addition to writing about movies, I may write about what it's like to cope with health challenges and the limitations they can force upon you. It really stinks that the cancer has returned and that I have spent too many days in the hospital. So on bad days I may write about the vulnerability that accompanies illness. On good days, I may wax ecstatic about a movie so good it transports me beyond illness....

So on this day of reflection I say again, thank you for going on this journey with me. I'll see you at the movies.

Ebert on death:
I know it is coming, and I do not fear it, because I believe there is nothing on the other side of death to fear. I hope to be spared as much pain as possible on the approach path. I was perfectly content before I was born, and I think of death as the same state. I am grateful for the gifts of intelligence, love, wonder and laughter. You can’t say it wasn’t interesting. My lifetime’s memories are what I have brought home from the trip. I will require them for eternity no more than that little souvenir of the Eiffel Tower I brought home from Paris....

Still, illness led me resolutely toward the contemplation of death. That led me to the subject of evolution, that most consoling of all the sciences, and I became engulfed on my blog in unforeseen discussions about God, the afterlife, religion, theory of evolution, intelligent design, reincarnation, the nature of reality, what came before the big bang, what waits after the end, the nature of intelligence, the reality of the self, death, death, death.

Many readers have informed me that it is a tragic and dreary business to go into death without faith. I don’t feel that way. “Faith” is neutral. All depends on what is believed in. I have no desire to live forever. The concept frightens me. I am 69, have had cancer, will die sooner than most of those reading this. That is in the nature of things. In my plans for life after death, I say, again with Whitman:

I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,

If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles....

What I expect to happen is that my body will fail, my mind will cease to function and that will be that. My genes will not live on, because I have had no children. I am comforted by Richard Dawkins’ theory of memes. Those are mental units: thoughts, ideas, gestures, notions, songs, beliefs, rhymes, ideals, teachings, sayings, phrases, clich├ęs that move from mind to mind as genes move from body to body. After a lifetime of writing, teaching, broadcasting and telling too many jokes, I will leave behind more memes than many. They will all also eventually die, but so it goes....

I will not be conscious of the moment of passing. In this life I have already been declared dead. It wasn’t so bad. After the first ruptured artery, the doctors thought I was finished. My wife, Chaz, said she sensed that I was still alive and was communicating to her that I wasn’t finished yet. She said our hearts were beating in unison, although my heartbeat couldn’t be discovered. She told the doctors I was alive, they did what doctors do, and here I am, alive....

Someday I will no longer call out, and there will be no heartbeat. I will be dead. What happens then? From my point of view, nothing. Absolutely nothing. All the same, as I wrote to Monica Eng, whom I have known since she was six, “You’d better cry at my memorial service.”