Thursday, July 10, 2014

"Well, if it's a crime to love one's country then I'm guilty..."

In reading news stories, I sometimes encounter stories where a bad thing happened, someone is charged with a crime, but (at least from the facts that are presented) the guilt of that person is far from clear.  Recent examples include the Georgia father whose son died after being left in a hot car all day (and the mother) and the teenage companion of a violent man who killed a police officer before being killed himself.  (Also once Josh Powell, but at this point he's clearly guilty of murdering his children regardless of what happened to his wife.)

I could spend some time discussing why these people may not be guilty of the crimes that they're charged with (or may soon be charged with), but that's not really my point.  My point is to criticize the common reaction that people have to these stories.  They look at the situations that these people were in and say, "I would never do that.  Therefore these people are clearly guilty."  People who say this are wrong.  In particular, the first part of that statement is wrong.

When I read those stories, I don't see the actions of monsters.  I see people who made little mistakes that got out of hand and led to huge consequences (or people who were just in the wrong place at the wrong time).  As a less controversial example, let me refer to a somewhat older case.

In 2002, a Springville family had an adopted daughter who, because of her background prior to adoption, was stealing things like food.  The family had sought the advice of a psychologist who suggested that when this daughter steals something they give her lots of it so that she could learn that she doesn't need to steal.  Then, one day she stole a drink, so they had her drink a lot of water.

The daughter died, and the parents were tried with murder.  In writing the last paragraph, the whole explanation felt rather lame, and jurors agreed, finding the mother guilty of murder (and acquitting the father so as to not leave their other children effectively orphans).  But the problem with that analysis is that we're looking at it with hindsight.  These were well-meaning, generally good people who had opened their home to a difficult child and were trying to help her overcome the challenges of her childhood.  While the parents had definitely taken the actions that led to the girl's death, the death was by many accounts an accident.  These aren't hardened criminals, they're people who made a mistake that had terrible consequences.

This is what people don't realize about crime.  They think, "I'm not a criminal," but they don't realize that a) they commit crimes every day (speeding, anyone?) and b) they're just one unfortunate accident away from looking just like Mark Hacking (a man who was all kinds of terrible, capping it off by killing his wife and disposing of her in a dumpster).

So, the next time you see someone who accidentally left their child in a car (if you've ever left something like a drink on top of your car, then you too could have left a child in the car), even if they've recently read some puzzling things on the internet (think of the story that your browsing history from the last week would tell) and spent the day sexting their underage girlfriends (seriously, this guy hit the jackpot in terms of having dirt for police to dig up), consider that maybe this is just a terrible accident buried under a lot of unfortunate coincidences.

And the next time you read about someone who looks like they deserve whatever the law can throw at them, take a moment and be grateful that you didn't get accused of a terrible crime today.

Friday, July 04, 2014

Antisocial Attitudes and Misanthropy

Today I went to a parade.  I was not happy about it.

I started off being really upset at all the people who had, starting more than 36 hours before the parade, blocked off space with chairs, canopies, and ropes, and left them sitting there.  Even at the start of the parade, an astonishing number of these "reserved" spaces were completely unoccupied and most of them had empty seats.  (My family sat next to the largest canopy I saw all day--I believe that one woman and her infant child came and sat under it, using one of the six camp chairs that had been left to hold the spot.)

So I was angry about the greed and waste and inconsiderateness of the whole thing, and I realized that I was projecting that on everyone I met.  At one point I was carrying an umbrella (to provide my family with some shade, since we aren't supposed to use the enormous, empty canopy that we're sitting next to) and I realized that I was hoping it would hit everyone and everything I passed.  In short, I was being misanthropic.

I also realized that this is similar to how I feel about other large gatherings of people.  In October I went to an SEC college football game.  I was really cranky about that too, and ultimately left at half time.  (Incidentally, the home team came back from a significant deficit to lose in overtime.  By all measures it was a fantastic game, as college football games go.)

But during the tailgate party I went to and the part of the game that I did attend, I saw that this was more than a chance to stand in the hot sun on a humid day and possibly watch a few minutes of actual playing take place.  It was a chance to interact with 100,000 other people who were all sharing this same experience of watching the game.  I wasn't enjoying that aspect of the event, but I could tell that most of the people around me were.

It turns out that, while I do okay at times and have generally been getting "better" (just last week I spent 3 solid workdays talking to a room full of people), I'm an introvert.  I don't get all excited about sharing my life and the various events in it with huge masses of people.

This is something I've encountered in a couple of articles written by what I think are some very introspective, neurotic people.  They both noted that some people just prefer to not be in a huge crowd, nor to be the center of attention.  We aren't sad being alone, and we don't need to be "saved" (as happens in so many movies).

(On the other hand, I went to only one football game while I was in college (the first time) at the prompting of a well-meaning friend who wanted to save me from my reclusive ways.  He met a girl at a tailgate party and made me sit next to her, and now I'm married to her.  So what do I know?)

(On the gripping hand, I only enjoyed that football game because I spent it talking to her instead of paying attention to the game, which my school's team won by a large margin.)

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Feedly's Stand Against Criminals

I wish to congratulate the newsreader service Feedly on not caving into their attackers, who are currently staging a second DDOS on the service in as many days.



I'm a Feedly user, and I'll gladly wait for them to sort out the issue internally, rather than paying the ransom demanded. Good on them.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

The Philosophical Uncanny Valley

The Uncanny Valley is the phenomenon where, as depictions of people become more life-like, they reach a point where they become really creepy.  It's a popular idea, and I've not heard any ideas that conclusively explain why we react worse to things that are almost-but-not-quite-like us than to things that are very different from us.

I have my own theory, which is that our ability to see things varies from object to object.  With things that we're familiar with, we are able to see in nuanced detail.  An example of this is the "all black people look alike" phenomenon.

This kind of selective myopia happens in other aspects of our lives.  I realized this a little while ago while thinking of a coworker of mine.  He's a fantastic guy who, in addition to his day job, is very active in his religion.  He does counseling, volunteer work, and has become our building's de facto chaplain (we don't have a lot of public prayers, but sometimes we eat together and he gives a blessing that is moving poetry).  He isn't aggressive about his beliefs or anything, but they are a part of all aspects of his life, down to his coffee mug.

My beliefs are, in many important ways, quite similar to his.  But they are also different in some meaningful and irreconcilable ways.  This got me to wonder what he thinks of his heretic neighbors.  Does he see the similarities, or the differences?  I don't know about him (we're not close enough that we would talk about this sort of thing), but there are a lot of other people like him who seem to only see the differences.

I think that we encounter this all the time.  We each have a philosophical uncanny valley.  This is where a belief is very similar to our own, but different enough that it's all we can see.  It happens with religions (which is why Christians and Muslims seem to hate each other, but not as much as Sunnis and Shiites).  And it happens with just about everything on the internet.

I bring this up so that we can be aware of this characteristic of ourselves.  Maybe we can learn that there is more to see in others than their otherness.

Thursday, May 15, 2014