Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know about the People We Don't Know by Malcolm Gladwell (Little, Brown & Co, 2019)
I can't resist Malcolm Gladwell's books, even though they never fail to frustrate as well as intrigue. He reminds me of Steve Landsburg on economics, and other authors who turn conventional thinking upside down and reveal surprising truths. As I said about Gladwell in my review of What the Dog Saw, his ideas may not always be right—in fact I'd lay odds that they're often wrong, or at least greatly oversimplified—but they're always interesting, and always give new insight into what we don't know about what we thought we understood.
Talking to Strangers is no exception. For me, it started slowly, and only an impending library deadline forced me to prioritize reading it past the introduction and first chapter. After that, I was hooked and the rest of the 400 pages went by in a flash. Gladwell's like that. I get frustrated by his prejudices, errors, and simplifications, then get hooked by his discoveries and can't put him down.
People, Gladwell posits, are shockingly bad at determining whether or not they are being lied to by those they do not know. And by people, he means nearly everyone. The professionals, like Securities and Exchange Commission auditors, FBI agents, and judges, are no better at that job than the most innocent little girl lured to the big city with promises of an acting career. In fact, when it comes to making decisions about setting bail conditions, judges who meet face-to-face with alleged criminals have been shown to make far poorer decisions than computer models working with nothing but bare facts.
Part of the problem is that most of us "default to truth." When we interact with another person we're pre-programmed to assume he's honest and truthful, and it takes a great deal of evidence of malfeasance to overcome that. A few people are not like that—we call them paranoid. For example, a man named Harry Markopolos was aware of the massive deception pulled off by Bernie Madoff long before anyone else was, but no one believed him. They trusted Madoff and they trusted the system that was supposed to keep bad things from happening. Markopolos saw the truth because he didn't trust anybody.
But here's the thing: that's no way to live.
In real life, ... lies are rare. And those lies that are told are told by a very small subset of people. That's why it doesn't matter so much that we are terrible at detecting lies in real life. Under the circumstances, in fact, defaulting to truth makes logical sense. If the person behind the counter at the coffee shop says your total with tax is $6.74, you can do the math yourself to double-check their calculations, holding up the line and wasting thirty seconds of your time. Or you can simply assume the salesperson is telling you the truth, because on balance most people do tell the truth. (pp. 99-100)
[H]uman beings never developed sophisticated and accurate skills to detect deception as it was happening because there is no advantage to spending your time scrutinizing the words and behaviors of those around you. The advantage to human beings lies in assuming that strangers are truthful. ... [I]t's easy to see all the damage done by people like ... Bernie Madoff. Because we trust implicitly, spies go undetected, criminals roam free, and lives are damaged. [But] the price of giving up on that strategy is much higher. If everyone on Wall Street behaved like Harry Markopolos, there would be no fraud on Wall Street—but the air would be so thick with suspicion and paranoia that there would also be no Wall Street. (pp. 100-101)
Referring to the infamous Penn State pedophilia scandal that broke in 2011, which turns out to be a whole lot more complex and confusing than we thought based on the media stories at the time:
If every coach is assumed to be a pedophile, then no parent would let their child leave the house, and no sane person would ever volunteer to be a coach. We default to truth—even when that decision carries terrible risks—because we have no choice. Society cannot function otherwise. And in those rare instances where trust ends in betrayal, those victimized by default to truth deserve our sympathy, not our censure. (p. 141)
Another mistake we make in judging strangers is pure hubris: we think we can tell what people are thinking or feeling by their facial expressions and body language. Nope. We're really terrible at that, too, especially if the stranger comes from a different cultural background. It reminds me of my mother's experience, years ago, as an elementary school teacher's aide. She was frustrated in her attempts to get the teacher to deal with the bullying of a small, Asian child—given the time period, he may have been a Southeast Asian refugee, but I don't know that for sure. "Surely it doesn't bother him," insisted the teacher. "You can see that he's smiling." My mother was certain that the "smile" indicated fear, not pleasure.
Transparency is a myth—an idea we've picked up from watching too much television and reading too many novels where the hero's "jaw dropped with astonishment" or "eyes went wide with surprise." (p. 162)
The transparency problem ends up in the same place as the default-to-truth problem. Our strategies for dealing with strangers are deeply flawed, but they are also socially necessary. We need the criminal-justice system and the hiring process and the selection of babysitters to be human. But the requirement of humanity means that we have to tolerate an enormous amount of error. That is the paradox of talking to strangers. We need to talk to them. But we're terrible at it. (p. 166)
It could be worse. One of the scariest sections of Talking to Strangers is about the Amanda Knox case. Amanda Knox, an American exchange student in Italy, was wrongfully convicted of the 2007 murder of her roommate.
I could give you a point-by-point analysis of what was wrong with the investigation of Kercher's murder. It could easily be the length of this book. I could also refer you to some of the most comprehensive scholarly analyses of the investigation's legal shortcomings.... But instead, let me give you the simplest and shortest of all possible Amanda Knox theories. Her case is about transparency. If you believe that the way a stranger looks and acts is a reliable clue to the way they feel, then you're going to make mistakes. Amanda Knox was one of those mistakes. (pp. 170-171)
Amanda Knox was different from the "social norms," as so many of us are.
"I was the quirky kid who hung out with the sulky manga-readers, the ostracized gay kids, and the theater geeks," she writes in her memoir. ... In high school she was the middle-class kid on financial aid, surrounded by well-heeled classmates. "I took Japanese and sang, loudly, in the halls while walking from one class to another. Since I didn't really fit in, I acted like myself, which pretty much made sure I never did." ...
"We were able to establish guilt," [the lead investigator] said, "by closely observing the suspect's psychological and behavioral reaction during the interrogation. We don't need to rely on other kinds of investigation." ... At every turn, Knox cannot escape censure for her weirdness. ... Why can't someone be angry in response to a murder, rather than sad? If you were Amanda Knox's friend, none of this would surprise you. You would have seen Knox walking down the street like an elephant. But with strangers, we're intolerant of emotional responses that fall outside expectations. (pp. 179-183)
I have many times been accused, even by my friends, of being angry, or sad, or some other emotional state that doesn't at all reflect my feelings, based solely on my facial expression. No amount of denial on my part seems to convince them, as they then assume that I am either lying or don't know my own "true feelings." There have also been times when I have been deeply saddened without showing any of the commonly expected signs. I think I'd be in trouble in court.
A trained interrogator ought to be adept at getting beneath the confusing signals of demeanor, at understanding that when Nervous Nelly overexplains and gets defensive, that's who she is—someone who overexplains and gets defensive. The police officer ought to be the person who sees the quirky, inappropriate girl in a culture far different from her own say [something inappropriate] and realize that she's just a quirky girl in a culture far different from her own. But that's not what we get. Instead, the people charged with making determinations of innocence and guilt seem to be as bad as or even worse than the rest of us when it comes to the hardest cases. ... [W]e have built a world that systematically discriminates against a class of people who, through no fault of their own, violate our ridiculous ideas about transparency. (pp. 185-186)
On the problem of sexual assault, particularly in a college setting:
[S]tudents were asked to list the measures they thought would be most effective in reducing sexual assault. At the top of that list they put harsher punishment for aggressors, self-defense training for victims, and teaching men to respect women more. How many thought it would be "very effective" if they drank less? Thirty-three percent. How many thought stronger restrictions on alcohol on campus would be very effective? Fifteen percent. These are contradictory positions. Students think it is a good idea to be trained in self-defense, and not such a good idea to clamp down on drinking. But what good is knowing the techniques of self-defense if you're blind drunk? Students think it's a really good idea if men respect women more. But the issue is not how men behave around women when they are sober. It is how they behave around women when they are drunk, and have been transformed by alcohol into a person who makes sense of the world around them very differently. (pp. 225-226)
On interrogation techniques:
One exercise involved crews of the bombers that carry nuclear weapons. Everything about their mission was classified. If they were to crash in hostile territory, you can imagine how curious their captors would be about the contents of their planes. The SERE program was supposed to prepare a flight crew for what might happen. [One exercise involved] one of the oldest tricks in the interrogation business: the interrogator threatens not the subject, but a colleague of the subject's. In [interrogation expert James Mitchell's] experience, men and women react very differently to this scenario. The men tend to fold. The women don't.
"If you are a female pilot and they said they were going to do something to the other airman, the attitude of a lot of them was, 'It sucks to be you,'" he said. "'You do your job, I'm going to do mine. I'm going to protect the secrets. I'm sorry this has happened to you, but you knew this when you signed up.'" Mitchell first saw this when he debriefed women who had been held as POWs during Desert Storm. They would drag those women out and threaten to beat them every time the men wouldn't talk. And [the women] were angry at the men for not holding out, and they said, "Maybe I would have gotten a beating, maybe I would have got sexually molested, but it would have happened one time. By showing them that the way to get the keys to the kingdom was to drag me out, it happened every time. So let me do my job. You do your job." (pp. 241-242)
The final two chapters shed some much-needed light on our current problems with law enforcement, making me more sympathetic to all sides. Some intriguing studies have shown that we are not looking at crime problems in fine enough detail. It seems that everyone in a city knows the "bad neighborhoods" for crime, but it turns out there are not so much bad neighborhoods as bad blocks. In any given high-crime area, the majority of the territory is not a problem. Most of the crime occurs in a few, much smaller locations, and focussing police action in these areas can cut crime rates dramatically. But the aggressive policing that makes such a difference in the hot spots has been adopted in areas for which it is is totally inappropriate. (Recognize that I am greatly condensing and simplifying here.) On top of that, police officers are no better than the rest of us at making judgements about strangers—and yet their jobs, and their very lives, require them to do so, quickly and under conditions of great stress.
This has been a book about a conundrum. We have no choice but to talk to strangers, especially in our modern, borderless world. We aren't living in villages anymore. Police officers have to stop people they do not know. Intelligence officers have to deal with deception and uncertainty. Young people want to go to parties explicitly to meet strangers: that's part of the thrill of romantic discovery. Yet at this most necessary of tasks we are inept. We think we can transform the stranger, without cost or sacrifice, into the familiar and the known, and we can't. What should we do? (pp. 341-342)
We could start by no longer penalizing one another for defaulting to truth. If you are a parent whose child was abused by a stranger—even if you were in the room—that does not make you a bad parent. And if you are a university president and you do not jump to the worst-case scenario when given a murky report about one of your employees, that doesn't make you a criminal. To assume the best about another is the trait that has created modern society. Those occasions when our trusting nature gets violated are tragic. But the alternative—to abandon trust as a defense against predation and deception—is worse. (p. 342)
What is required of us is restraint and humility. (p. 343)
Ever since our ursine visitor came, I've been a little more cautious when investigating noises in the dark. Especially since I discovered how quietly a bear can move through the vegetation.
It was a different morning visitor this time, however. Forgive the less-than-ideal production values, as I tried to juggle phone and flashlight, to illumine without blinding. (6.5 minutes)
He's rummaging around for bugs and grubs in our garden, and he's welcome to them. The best part wasn't caught on camera, however. He had caught one of our nasty, humongous grasshoppers, the kind that will easily devour an entire plant by itself, and was playing with it as a cat will play with a mouse. Teasing it, catching it and letting it go, putting it in his mouth multiple times—but if he ever actually ate it, I didn't see. I have no love for these destructive insects, but did start to feel a little sorry for it and couldn't help thinking, "Just swallow it already!" But it was funny to watch.
Did you know that landlocked Switzerland has a navy? Or at least they did in World War II; I saw some of their boats in a museum. Here's a short Wikipedia article about it what they have now. (Do not, for the sake of not having to see things you can't unsee, google "Swiss Navy," which is apparently a brand name of something you'd rather not know about.)
The much more pleasant purpose of this post is to alert you to other maritime news: apparently Switzerland also has pirates!
Armed forces, indeed.
If you really want people not to act stupidly, it might be better not to shout continually to them and all the world how stupid they are. Most people do have logical reasons for their actions, and if you want to change their behaviors, it helps to make a serious effort to find out why they do what they do.
I confess: I chose this particular post title because I'm curious what Facebook will do with it. But it's also true that it's about nonsense.
Today I came upon this article in the Tampa Bay Times. Two things reminded me of why following the news isn't good for my blood pressure.
As the pandemic takes another turn for the worse, Florida health experts are struggling with infrequent and incomplete data releases from the state. The state stopped reporting daily COVID-19 infection and vaccination data on June 3.
Sounds scary, right? How can one make decisions without data, and Florida has stopped reporting COVID-19 information.
But no. As the next sentence reveals,
Instead, it sends out weekly reports every Friday
Weekly data ought to be good enough for anyone; in fact, I'd rather get the numbers only once a week, since it smooths out the unhelpful bumps caused by daily reporting variations, e.g. the spike on Mondays because not all agencies file reports on Sundays.
We are far too addicted to instantaneous data, even if it has little significance. Feeding Central Florida hour-by-hour hurricane updates when the storm is still over a thousand miles away does no one any good. We already know what basic preparations we must make just in case it comes our way, and it's 'way too early to make evacuation decisions. Too much data only leads to panic and unwise behavior.
Most annoying from the article, however, is the attitude of this hospital spokesman:
“The reality is that I see a lot of people get sick from COVID, but I haven’t seen people come in with serious side effects from the vaccine,” Wilson said. “I haven’t seen anything bad happen to anyone for getting the vaccine.”
What does this say? It says that this person has no idea why rational and intelligent people would hesitate to get the COVID-19 vaccine. It reveals that she views them all as stupid and stubbornly ignorant. I know many people who have not yet been convinced to take the vaccine, none of them stupid, many of them much more knowledgeable about the risks and benefits than most of us who never questioned the wisdom of getting our shots.
No one I know is worried about present side effects, which is what this hospital representative is addressing. Their concerns are primarily that long-term side effects are completely unknown, because there simply has been no "long-term" as yet. For that matter, we are equally ignorant of the long-term effects of a COVID-19 infection itself. After all, it was decades before post-polio syndrome was recognized. If there are long-term negative side effects of the COVID vaccine, they may be significantly less than the side effects of getting the disease. Or they may be worse. We. Don't. Know.
If I were trying to convince someone to get vaccinated, I'd take their concerns seriously. I wouldn't shut their ears by calling them stupid and ignorant. I'd admit that we simply don't know and can't know what the long-term effects of the vaccine will be, but that to the best of our knowledge (if that is truly the case) they are likely to be less serious than the risks of getting the disease, both immediately and long-term.
It's a calculated risk we take with every vaccine, with every medical procedure, indeed every time we get into an automobile or do anything in life.
Neither coercion nor contempt have a good track record at changing people's minds. Making an effort to understand their point of view guarantees nothing, but it's a much better place to begin.
My favorite Canadian lawyer, the one who always says, "Politics ruins everything," is now running for Parliament (15 minutes).
Why would I post someone's announcement "throwing his hat into the ring" for an election 99.99% of my readers can't participate in? (I know I had at least one Canadian reader at one point, though as I recall she was from a different province.) Because I like what he says. It relates directly to a conversation we had just this afternoon with our Good Neighbor, lamenting the tribalism that has taken over America and the loss of the simple, powerful belief that we can be friends, work for common causes (or even have common causes), and defend, help, and support each other, even when we have strong differences of opinion.
I wish David Freiheit the best. How could anyone not vote for someone whose name means "Beloved Freedom"?
Our grandchildren's community/elementary school playground was recently updated. There was nothing obviously wrong with the old playground, which was not very old. The only obvious improvement was the addition of some equipment that could be more easily used by children with certain disabilities, which is a good thing but surely could have been accomplished without re-doing the whole thing at horrendous taxpayer expense.
Still, a playground is a playground, and this one being within walking distance for our grandchildren is a favorite destination when school is out. Everyone enjoys it, albeit on his own terms.
The first thing every one of them determined was that it was important to break every rule whenever possible. (Click to enlarge.) Beginning, of course, with the one that is not shown here: Adult supervision recommended. After all, it's only a recommendation, and we know what happened when the COVID-19 "rules" changed to "recommendations."
That gotten out of the way, it was time to notice some other interesting things about the equipment. It appears that the students at this school may grow up at a disadvantage in mathematics, at least when it comes to measurement.
I am not under five feet tall, and this is no trick of perspective. For all the money spent on this playground, couldn't they have placed the sign correctly?
On the other hand, I expect the students to have an advantage when it comes to music. How many playgrounds feature chimes in the Locrian scale?
It's 88 degrees outside at the moment, which is actually quite moderate for mid-day, mid-July in Florida. Still, it's ten degrees cooler inside, and that makes all the difference between enjoying my work and wanting to spend the day by (or in) the pool, drinking iced tea.
That increase in productivity I owe in large measure to one of America's great entrepreneurs, Willis Carrier, the "Father of Air Conditioning."
That this post appears today was prompted less by the temperature than by a new article by Eric Schultz' at The Occasional CEO (link is to the article), including an excerpt from his book, Innovation on Tap: Stories of Entrepreneurship from The Cotton Gin to Broadway's "Hamilton" (link is to my review of the book).
Successful entrepreneurship requires (among other traits) knowledge, skill, grit, determination, inventiveness, connection—and being in the right place at the right time. Lucky for us, Willis Carrier had them all, including the last, as you will see if you read the short story of how the Carrier Engineering Corporation opened for business at what looked for all the world like the worst possible time—and stepped into a golden opportunity that would have been impossible even a month later.
Despite My Rocky Relationship with Penzeys Spices, I hold no grudge against the Penzey's mugs I've acquired over the years.
Until one turned out to be an IED, that is. (Click to enlarge.)
It had given me no trouble whatsoever for years. Then one day I noticed the cup seemed exceptionally hot when I took it from the microwave. That should have been a clue. The next time I tried to warm up my tea was more exciting: Pieces of the cup exploded off with loud bangs, revealing rusty metal underneath.
The odd thing is, there had been no previous evidence of a problem. No worn spots, no places that looked thin. And who knew there was metal around the rim of the mug?
You never know what might be lurking in your cupboard.
One of our absolutely favorite local art museums is planning to expand, as explained in the following excerpt from a sign on their property. I've redacted the name of the museum, because we've always loved it and I'm certain they are not alone in their total loss of connection to the English language.
For nearly 21 years, the [Museum] has enriched our community with thought-provoking exhibitions. The future looks bright as we are now poised to add 40,000 square feet of enrichment opportunities; world-class exhibitions, innovative educational programs, and multi-purpose event spaces. This planned addition will make the museum a world-class destination experience.
The plan is inclusive, welcoming, and sustainable. With the open expansion, we will serve more in our community with a mission-driven building designed to seamlessly merge art, education, nature, dwell, respite, function, and form. We started with visionary ideas on how to make the museum more cohesive and increase public access and with [our architects'] brilliant partnership, the visionary has been put into action.
All of it is painful to read, but what on earth are we to make of, "designed to seamlessly merge art, education, nature, dwell, respite, function, and form"? Is it actually saying anything at all? And what could they possibly mean by "dwell" in this context?" Will the expansion contain apartments? Homeless shelters?
I love the museum, and have found its small size to be an advantage, not a drawback, forcing its exhibits to be focused and locally relevant. I hope the implementation of the expansion turns out to be better than the explanation.
I have no illusions that many of my readers will watch this video. Maybe no one at all. It's two hours long, and few of us have two hours to spare for a YouTube video. It's a discussion of human trafficking among David Freiheit (Viva Frei), Robert Barnes, and their guest, Eliza Bleu, a trafficking survivor and advocate. I managed to listen to it all by taking it in small bites and multitasking. Lengthy or not, the topic is important. They don't even try to deal with the more nuanced issues, such as "sex workers" whose participation is really, truly, consensual, and "slave wages" that turn out to be a family's best hope of escaping poverty. They don't even take on "legitimate pornography."
Sadly, I think this is a wise approach, if they don't want to make the mistake abortion opponents made: in that debate, too many people insisted on all-or-nothing, refusing to accept compromises that would have allowed abortions for cases of rape, incest, and where the child is so deformed that he would suffer and die soon after birth anyway. That approach was logical, in a theoretical, ethical sense—but arguing over the rare exceptions resulted in the door for abortion being opened wide and far. In the case of human trafficking, there is more than enough horror on which everyone but the perpetrators can agree; let's focus on that.
The interview is interesting from beginning to end, though that is a very poor word to describe something that can only be endured through a certain numbness and keeping the whole topic at a deliberate distance. The beginning, where Eliza tells her own story, is most interesting, especially to homeschoolers. If you're looking for another reason to hate the big social media companies, there's plenty of fodder in the later part of the video.
I'm frustrated that video is the medium of choice for so much information, especially current stories. I read so very much faster than I can listen, even pushing the video to higher speeds. Plus, anything good that is written has been through at least minimal editing, whereas with interviews, podcasts, and live streams, every um, uh, and rabbit trail remains. I find the written word to be much more efficient, usually much more dense in terms of information conveyed. But sometimes the more personal touch that can come through in a video is valuable, too.
In any case, as our choir director has taught us, it is what it is, and sometimes you have to adapt. I put this out here, (1) so I can find it again, and (2) in the off chance that someone may find it enlightening.
Liberty is meaningless when the right to utter one’s thoughts and opinions has ceased to exist. That, of all rights, is the dread of tyrants. It is the right which they first of all strike down. They know its power. — Frederick Douglass, 1860
When I was in school, my history classes went mostly in one ear and out the other without pausing to impact my brain along the way. I'm not sure how all my teachers but one managed to make such a fascinating subject dull, but they did. At least to me; it may be that those who were already interested in the subject managed to thrive. Don't get the wrong impression: I never received a grade lower than an "A" in any of those courses—I just didn't remember much of anything past the final exam.
Therefore I can't necessarily say that I knew nothing about Frederick Douglass until I went to the University of Rochester, where I encountered him every day. Sort of. Our dining hall was in the Frederick Douglass Building. That alone was enough to make what I've learned about the man since then stay with me. The learning process is a strange thing.
I'm still learning more. I ran into the above quotation just this morning. Since it was a Facebook meme, I did some research to make sure that both the quote and the attribution were correct. They are. Douglass was speaking in response to an incident in Boston, when a mob, supported by the governing authorities, shut down an abolitionist meeting. The speech, along with a good explanation of the context, can be found here: Frederick Douglass's "Plea for Freedom of Speech in Boston". It's not long, and I strongly recommending reading it.
I'd rather end this post here. But, sadly, I feel the need to include a reminder that Douglass was also an advocate for women's rights. Too many people have now (sometimes deliberately) forgotten the days when "man" was the general term for human beings of either sex, much as "duck" is the general term for a particular type of waterfowl, both ducks (female) and drakes (male). I don't want anyone feeling negative about this excellent and important speech because of an unwarranted reaction to Douglass's final sentence: "A man’s right to speak does not depend upon where he was born or upon his color. The simple quality of manhood is the solid basis of the right—and there let it rest forever."
I LOVE the Independence Day parade and festivities in Geneva, Florida. I've written about it many times. We were small in numbers this year, but infinitely bigger than in 2020, when there was nothing at all. Thanks to Liz, our organizer and director-by-necessity, and to the good people of Geneva, marching in the parade was still a blast. The event organizers tell us that our antics are "one of the most frustrating things, and yet one of the things that the parade goers enjoy the most."
Thanks to the fact that the Fourth was a Sunday this year, Geneva's party was held a day early. And the federal holiday is a day late, so we enjoyed three days of festivities. Less happily, our neighbors have been making it a week-long holiday with their fireworks. It's a good thing the drought has broken.
The best part of the parade is interacting with the crowd, and hamming it up with my cymbals as we march along. Porter does the same with the water wagon (and its following shark). All it takes is a willingness to leave all pride and self-respect behind as the parade steps off.
I'll have to admit that the cymbals get heavier with every year, and running to catch up with the band—after letting a small spectator "help me out" by banging the cymbals—now leaves me a bit winded. It's a good thing Porter (aka Gunga Dad) is always ready with a drink to keep me hydrated!
The people of Geneva are always so warm, friendly, and encouraging. They love our country, their heritage, and their band. We didn't start in Geneva; 30 years ago we were the World's Worst Marching Band and played gigs not only in Central Florida but as far away as Atlanta and Philadelphia. Geneva at its worst couldn't outdo the heat of Atlanta's Independence Day parade, when Peachtree Street's pavement melted under our feet and (thanks to Gunga Dad) we were the only band not to have someone faint. But when the World's Worst Marching Band put itself out to pasture many years ago, Geneva welcomed us as their own.
One of the exhibits we checked out this year was a travelling exhibition of artwork created using wood from The Senator, our much-beloved and long-lamented bald cypress, which was the oldest in the world when it was destroyed by a careless drug user in 2012. I was expecting something tacky and touristy ("Get your gen-u-wine Senator key ring here!") but it was nothing of the sort. Rather, it was moving and respectful, telling the story of the tree and displaying beauty from ashes through art.
Are you shocked that Bill Cosby is now free? I was, but now that I know more about the circumstances, I'd be shocked if he weren't.
I'm not one to follow the high-profile prosecutions, especially of celebrities, that are so popular in the news media. I know I'm unusual in not having watched a single minute of the O. J. Simpson trial, for example. Call me weird, but I see no reason to put myself in the position of mentally convicting or acquitting the person being tried unless I'm actually on the jury and have all the legally relevant information.
It is, however, impossible to avoid all the publicity that comes with such trials, and Bill Cosby was familiar to me because of his comedy sketches when I was young. I had a few of his records. I still quote some of his lines, e.g. "Hey, you! Almost-a-doctor!" from the story of getting his tonsils out (15 minutes).
If anyone is shocked that I would publish one of Cosby's works "after what he did," I say that great works have been done by terrible people, and if we reject everything based on the sins of the workers in other areas of life, we won't have a whole lot left.
Be that as it may, the issue isn't Cosby's comedy but his trial, which was a long story, to which, as I said, I didn't pay much attention. When I heard that the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania had thrown out his conviction, my immediate, ignorant, reaction was, "another criminal released on a stupid technicality!"
Not exactly. Viva Frei explains it well here (14 minutes).
If you'd rather not watch the video, the short version, as I understand it—and I certainly don't claim to know the laws—is that the district attorney had decided that he did not have a strong enough case against Cosby to expect a conviction, and that by not pursuing a criminal trial he would make it more likely that the alleged victim would get justice in civil proceedings. Which apparently she did, thanks to the fact that Cosby, freed from the fear of prosecution, made some pretty damning confessions in the civil trial. However, when a new district attorney took over, he did not feel himself bound by his predecessor's decision, and went ahead and prosecuted Cosby, using his civil testimony against him, and thus obtained a conviction. Apparently "pleading the Fifth Amendment" is reserved for criminal cases, and one can be forced to self-incriminate in civil cases. Who knew? The trial court judge allowed this to happen, having decided that there was no "real" agreement between the former DA and Cosby that should tie their hands.
Here is a very small part of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's decision:
Starting with D.A. Castor's inducement, Cosby gave up a fundamental constitutional right, was compelled to participate in a civil case after losing that right, testified against his own interests, weakened his position there and ultimately settled the case for a large sum of money, was tried twice in criminal court, was convicted, and has served several years in prison. All of this started with D. A. Castor's compulsion of Cosby's reliance upon a public proclamation that Cosby would not be prosecuted. ... There is only one remedy that can completely restore Cosby to the status quo ante. He must be discharged, and any future prosecution on these particular charges must be barred. ... A contrary result would be patently untenable. It would violate long-cherished principles of fundamental fairness. It would be antithetical to, and corrosive of, the integrity and functionality of the criminal justice system that we strive to maintain.
In other words, the end does not justify the means. A result cannot be just if it is obtained by cheating. As my attorney friend—who has served much time on both prosecution and defense—tells me, even the worst criminal deserves the benefit of the law. It's time to pull out A Man for All Seasons again (5 minutes).
Much as we might not like it, the same rights and rules that protect us also protect criminals. The First Amendment has the same "problem."
Memes are today's proverbs: None is perfect for every situation, but good ones speak truth clearly and efficiently. This is a good one.
I love sitting on our back porch in the early morning. It's usually dark when I come out, and at first my only company is the insects and the frogs. A little later I can often see the armadillo as he leaves his burrow and goes out on his explorations through a small hole in the fence. As dawn approaches the birds start to wake up. Most common are the Carolina wrens and the cardinals, though there are many more, including owls, hawks, crows, tufted titmice, and unidentified warblers. Soon squirrels are scampering through the trees and across the screened enclosure that covers the pool. If I ignore the traffic noises, the air conditioners, the pool pumps, and the neighbor behind us who gets up early and likes to smoke on his porch, it's a very peaceful time.
Today I went out at about 5:30, and I sat there listening, except for a five to ten minute period when I ducked inside to attend to something in the kitchen. When it was light, I started walking my customary laps around the pool. Shortly before seven o'clock, I heard a small noise from one of the trees, and looked up, expecting to see a squirrel.
Apparently we grow our squirrels on the large side here in Florida.
That photo was taken by our neighbor, Carol; we called them over despite the early hour, knowing how much they would want to see this visitor. The Florida black bear is not uncommon in the neighborhood, but we'd never seen one on our street, let alone in our yard. We're not as close to the bear as you might think; Carol was shooting with a 400 mm lens. The video below was taken with my cell phone and gives you a better sense of the geography of the situation.
At that point we decided it prudent to stand a bit closer to the door to the house, but after descending the tree, he (definitely confirmed to be a male) squeezed back through the hole he had created for himself (Porter's photo), and went on his way. We were lucky he didn't take down a whole section of the fence.
My question is this: Did the bear come into the yard and climb the tree during the short time I was back in the house? Or had he been comfortably ensconced on the branch the whole time I was sitting on the porch in the dark? I'm inclined to believe the former, because when I'm out there I'm listening for and sensitive to unusual noises. But he was amazingly quiet in his moves for something so large, and the idea that he was sitting there the whole time is something to ponder!