October 31st, 2002
It’s not enough to just dress like a Cheez-It, you have to really act the part.Many women use Halloween as an excuse to dress up in skimpy, sexy outfits. You should not be one of them.Make sure your “Human Torch” costume is flame-retardant before setting it ablaze.To avoid breaking fingers while stealing candy, grip a roll of quarters when punching other children.Prevent stomachaches by eating no more than one Snickers bar per minute.Stop sending me that jpg of the vomiting pumpkin or I will kill you.Only put safety razors in apples.It’s always a good idea to write your incantation down backwards on a piece of paper and keep it handy during the ritual, just in case you need to do a hasty unsummoning.While Trick-or-Treating, it’s best to wear a bright, reflective vest over your Spider-Man costume to ensure that you look totally lame.Oh my god! Get out of the house! The killer is calling from upstairs!!I kinda stole that last one from this great Whole Lotta Nothing entry.* * *
October 31st, 2002
I’ve just about had it with advice columns. Especially those sex columns that now appear in every newspaper, weekly, and quilting magazine in America. All they do (it seems) is answer the same question month after month after month, namely “Is it okay to cheat on my partner under the following circumstances?” And the columnists usually say no, and sometimes say yes, but inevitably respond in terms of consequences: your husband will leave you, you life will improve, etc. They rarely talk about the more fundamental question of whether such action is ethical in the first place.
Randy Cohen, on the other hand, tackles nothing but these puzzlers in his column The Ethicist. Not only does he dispense advice a bit more practical than “don’t sleep around,” he also tackles just about any dilemma that could cause a person distress, and does so with aplomb and humor.
I have been an avid reader of The Ethicist ever since I came across it in The New York Times Magazine about a year ago. So when I saw that Cohen had released The Good, The Bad, And The Difference — a compendium of his writings for The Ethicist — I snapped it up as quickly as I could. And I found it to be an enjoyable read, despite the fact that, Ethicist addict that I am, I had read most of it before.
I say “enjoyable read” rather than “enlightening read,” because most the time Cohen only tells you what you already know, although you often don’t realize (or want to admit) this fact. Indeed, Cohen is an expert at discussing everyday ethics in a manner which feels comfortable; it’s not as if he is some omniscient being handing down moral edicts but that he’s only pointing out the ethical nuances that you already sensed but couldn’t quite articulate. In this way he is unlike, say, a manners columnist, who looks each question up in Ye Big Book Of Correct Behavior and announces which fork to use for the salad. Cohen freely acknowledges that there is no guidebook when it comes to these matters, and that he’s just a guy whose gotten good and mulling over and writing about these commonplace conundrums.
This accessibility is not by accident. Cohen does not have a degree in philosophy or, you know, ethicsology or whatever. He was, in point of fact, a writer for Late Night With David Letterman prior to becoming a columnist. The New Yorks Times Magazine hired him for the job not despite his credentials, but because of them: because he was a guy who could (and would) think about ethical qualms in the same way you and I do. His dual roles as “Ethicist” and “Everyday Joe” make him a figure you can immediately relate to.
Furthermore, Cohen clearly thinks these questions all the way through, instead of just offering the pat answers. Take this question, found in the chapter Civic Life
My neighbor, a 20-something and quite good looking, never draws his blinds. The view from my apartment is extraordinary. Every night at 8:15 he returns from jogging to shower and prepare for bed, which I enjoy watching. What should I do?Of course the obvious (unthinking) answer is “Never look,” and that’s certainly the one that most columnists would provide. But Cohen takes a different stance.
If the dreamboat across the way forgot one night to draw his blinds, you should respect his privacy: it would not be right to exploit a moment’s carelessness. However, if he leaves them open every night in a big city where he obviously has neighbors, you can assume he knows what he’s doing … So enjoy! It would be almost insulting to avert your glance.It’s this “going beyond the easy answer” that sets this advice book apart from the countless others on the market.Of course, I don’t always agree with his answers. Cohen, recognizing that reasonable people can disagree on some of the thornier issues, provides space in his book for rebuttal and “Guest Ethicists” to weigh in. All this makes The Good, The Bad, & The Difference vastly more interesting than a dry compendium of dos and don’ts, and makes for one of the more entertaining books I’ve read all year.* * *
October 30th, 2002
I walked into a door this morning, and now I have a big red blemish on my face. All day people at work have been asking me what happened. And I don’t want to say “I walked into a door,” because that totally sounds like something you’d say if your spouse hit you and you didn’t want to admit it. So, instead, I’ve been saying “my spouse hit me”. It’s not technically true, but at least people don’t think I’m hiding anything.* * *
October 29th, 2002
Me: [Exiting my place of business] Aw, man.
Woman, Complete Stranger, Standing on Curb: [Gruffly] What’s the problem?
Me: [Gesturing at the pouring rain] I don’t know what I’m going to do.
Woman: You’re gonna get wet, that’s what you’re gonna do!
Me: Yeah …
Woman: Oh quit your complaining, it’s raining on everyone.* * *
October 29th, 2002
An hour after we had come to our decision we were ushered back into the courtroom. I had expected all the participants to be present: the victim, the witnesses, the family, etc. Instead, it was just the judge, bailiff and clerk, the defendant and his wife, the two lawyers, and us.
The foreman had expressed concern that he would have announce our decisions, as they do on tv. As it turned out, that’s not how it’s done in the Seattle Superior Court. Our verdict was first handed to the bailiff, who gave it to the judge to review. The judge then gave it to the Court Clerk, who first entered it into the records and read it aloud. In a way, I was kind of glad the Clerk read the verdict, as she, of all the people in the courtroom, looked the most distraught during the trial. During the victim’s testimony I thought she might break into tears.
The defense attorney asked the judge to “poll the jury”. Accordingly, the judge asked each of us, in turn, if the announced verdict was our own. We all answered in the affirmative. Apparently, if any juror suddenly says “What tha -?! That’s not the verdict I rendered!” during a poll, we all get sent back sort things out. Polling the jury is truly the last ditch effort on the part of a defense.
Having been found guilty on three of the five counts, the defendant was remanded into custody as we filed back to the deliberation room. After a few moments, the bailiff came back and told us we were free to go. She also mentioned that both the Prosecution and defense attorneys would be available to speak to anyone who wanted to explain the verdict. Attorneys often like to talk to jurors to find out what swayed their decision, the bailiff said, but she emphasized that we were under no obligation to discuss the case with anyone. Given the heinousness of the crime and my dissatisfaction with both the Defense and the Prosecution, I opted to hightail it out of there. So as soon as we were allowed to leave, I hurried to the stairwell, removed my “JUROR” badge, and left the Courthouse as quickly as I could.
It’s been two weeks since the verdict, and the whole thing still amazes me. When I describe the case to other people, they seem dumbfounded by the paucity of evidence we used to convict the guy. “That’s all you had to go on?” my friends ask, and I want to say “Oh no, there was lots of other stuff we factored in.” But the truth is that one person’s testimony was pretty much all we based our verdict on. When I think about this aspect objectively, I find it rather unnerving. But subjectively, I know we came to the correct conclusion. I’m having a hard time reconciling my certainty that we came to the right verdict with my unease that we were allowed to render a verdict at all.The foreman of our jury sent me an email the other day. He had spoken with the attorneys after the trail, and they told him a lot of interesting stuff. Throughout the trial there were elements of the case that were never mentioned directly. Whenever one side would allude to these verboten topics (such as a long-standing family feud), the other side would object, and the objection would invariably be sustained. Occasionally an attorney managed to sneak in a reference to the disallowed material, but such statements were usually stricken from the record. That meant that we couldn’t use them in our deliberations, even though we wished we had been given the whole story. At any rate, the facts which had been withheld from us during the trial were revealed by the attorneys afterwards, and they only served to strengthen our belief that we returned the correct verdict. The whole process of deciding what evidence can and cannot be known to the jury during a trial is something I know nothing about, but is undoubtedly another fascinating aspect of the process.My experience with Jury Duty was a lot like my experience with the Peace Corps: I went in with overly optimistic and romantic ideas of what my service would entail, and came out a little jaded and a little wiser. I’m glad I did it, but I don’t relish the idea of ever having to do it a second time. The experienced hammered home the fact that the judicial branch of government is as human and messy as the other two branches. I had previously envisioned a trial as akin to two grandmasters sitting at a chess board, but now I realize that the process is more sport than game, full of fumbles and interception, played on a muddy field. It’s not a bunch of dispassionate rationalists applying the law with scientific exactitude, but just a bunch of people doing the best they can with imperfect information. And I can’t decide if I find this realization reassuring or terrifying.The whole Jury Duty saga is on one, printable page over here.* * *
October 29th, 2002
It’s vaguely exciting that we Americans are getting to watch the making of an Inscrutable Holiday Tradition. IHTs are those celebratory things you do for no fathomable reason, like kissing someone under mistletoe at Christmas, or dyeing eggs on Easter, or giving security guards wedgies on New Years Eve. At some point there was probably a reason (or at least justification) for doing these things, but the rationale has been lost to the mists of history.
Well on its way toward joining them is the Inscrutable Holiday Tradition of buying two bags of bite-size candybars in October. Of course, it isn’t Inscrutable yet. We buy them to give out to those Trick-Or-Treaters who come to our door on Halloween night. But if your neighborhood is anything like mine, Trick Or Treaters are rapidly becoming a thing of the past. Kids these days go to malls or stay home playing “X-Treme Trick Or Treating” on the Xbox or something, I dunno. At any rate, they don’t come to Chez Baldwin any more; we get fewer each year, and this year we aren’t expecting any. But we still bought two bags of candybars. If we hadn’t, and a T-o-T’er were to show up, we’d have to give him cans of lentil soup and beer coasters, which is the functional equivalent of tp’ing your own house.
I’m guessing that this will convert into a Full-On Inscrutable Holiday Tradition over the next 30 years or so. In 2032, families will purchase bags of bite-size candybars on October 1st without having the slightest idea why they are doing so. They will then, in accordance with tradition, dump the sweets into a big bowl and set it by the front door, where it will remain, untouched, until the end of the month. On the evening of October 31, everyone will dress up like bunnies and ballerinas and the Inexplicably Still Living Strom Thurman and watch holovision until they fall asleep. And on the following morning, everyone will gorge themselves on syntho-chocolate, having completed the annual Halloween ritual. And then they will get in their HoverSUVs and telepathically listen to Jenna Bush’s State of the World address while they commute to their office on Phobos, the end.* * *
October 28th, 2002
The White House today raised Bush approval rating to "Popularity Orange" in preparation for the upcoming November elections. Federal officials say the escalation was in response to a significant uptick in "chatter" concerning the possibility of Democrats retaining control of the Senate. Bush's approval, which had been at the "Elevated Popularity" level (70%-80%) since the anniversary of 9/11, was raised to the 80%-90% range, where it is expected to remain until the conclusion of the 2002 midterm elections. The White House said it does not foresee the need to go to "Popularity Red" -- the highest level of Approval possible -- but reserves the right to do so "if the situation merits a more forceful response". The public reacted almost immediately to the news: in a CNN/Reuters poll taken soon after the announcement, five out of six Americas said their impressions of Bush were "favorable" or "very favorable".* * *
October 25th, 2002
Do you know what the greatest thing is about the Western Lowland Gorilla? I shall tell you. The greatest thing about the Western Lowland Gorilla is that his full, scientific name is — I kid you not — “Gorilla gorilla gorilla“. That is simply awesome.
In other news, I’m having one of those days where everything I do is steeped in deja vu. I started a write an email this morning, and then spent 10 minutes searching my “sent” folder to make sure I hadn’t already emailed that exact same message. And at the meeting I just went to, I swear I could have predicted every word that was said by the participants. (This is the case at almost any meeting, true, but the feeling was especially strong today.)
I think The Fates fucked up and gave me a rerun today.
Clotho: Okay, the sirens have this room in 20 minutes, so let’s keep things moving. Matthew Baldwin. Lachesis?Lachesis: Yeah?Clotho: What’s in store for Matthew Baldwin tomorrow?Lachesis: How should I know?Clotho: Because tomorrow’s Friday.Atropos: And you’re doing Matthew Baldwin on Fridays, now.Lachesis: Whoa whoa! I did him last Friday, one time, as a favor. That’s all I agreed to.Atropos: Well I didn’t schedule anything for him, because you said you had him covered.Lachesis: That is such bullshit.Clotho: All right, knock it off you two. It’s too late to come up with a game plan, now. Lachesis, just take one of his days from a few months ago, change a few of the details, and give him that one again. His short-term memory sucks, he’ll never know. Moving on! Who’s got Betsy Sein?The most unsetting thing about the deja vu is the constant sense of —
Hey, wait. Have I posted that Gorilla thing before?* * *
October 25th, 2002
Previously: The Trial
This is the part of the story where I become a hero.
You already know how it goes. We retire to the jury room and take a preliminary vote. It is 11-1 guilty, and I have cast the lone “Not Guilty” vote. Everyone else is shocked, but I explain my reasons. I point out subtle logical inconsistencies in the State’s case. I make a series of astonishing deductions that demonstrate flaws in the State’s argument. And in an exciting finale, I show that all the evidence conclusively supports my alternate hypothesis, something obvious yet overlooked, an angle even the Defense attorney failed to explore. One by one my fellow jurors realize that I am right, that they not only abandon their “guilty” vote, but that they actually believe the defendant to be innocent. After a final tally is taken it is 0-12, “Not Guilty,” and I have single-handed adverted a travesty of justice.
Anyhow, that’s how it works in Twelve Angry Men (and That One Happy Days Episode). It’s a shame real life doesn’t work like that.
We began be choosing a foreman. Back in the olden days of yore, a million years ago when I was all jazzed to be on jury duty, I was totally jonesing to be the foreman. It would be just like being elected student body president! Now I was enthusiastically seconding the nomination for someone else.
We did not start with a preliminary vote. Instead, we plowed right into the case, trying to reconstruct the chronology and details of the five allegations. In a perfect world the Prosecution and Defense would have made coherent cases, obviating our need to reconstruct. But, as mentioned yesterday, both attorneys put forth such meandering and scattershot arguments that it was up to us to take the various pieces that had been flung at us and try to fit them together.
Furthermore, we were not given a transcript of the courtroom proceedings to aid in our memory. We had been allowed to write down details during the case, and these notes, along with some thoroughly useless “evidence” (e.g., the photo of the door), was all we could use to reach a verdict. Even the mysterious “transcript” that the Defense had repeatedly referred to when asking the victim about the additional abuses was nowhere to be found. Our general discussion of the case took three days.
On the fourth day we got down to business. The consensus was “something had happened”: everyone agreed that the defendant had abused the victim to some degree. The question was whether or not we could find him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt on any of the specified counts.
We decided to start with the first, most serious charge, which was also the one with the most details. We took a straw poll, and the vote came out 10-2 Guilty. I had cast one of the two “Not Guilty” votes. The other “Not Guilty” came from the foreman, who said that he wanted to vote “Guilty,” but he was worried that we would vote 12-0 Guilty and not discuss the charge any further. That left me to defend the defendant. So, see?: it was just like the movie! Except that, rather than being the hero, I strongly suspected that I was the person sticking up for the serial child abuser.
Still, I did my damnedest to plead my case — or, rather, the defendant’s case, since my heart wasn’t really in it. Look (said I), we have no circumstantial evidence whatsoever. How would we possibly convict on that? And wasn’t it at least conceivable that the victim was making the story up? Perhaps she had told a little fib and it had snowballed into a colossal lie. Perhaps these were false memories, planted by the police or her therapist or, or … I dunno, someone. Surely there was, as the Defense kept insisting, reasonable doubt all over the place.
My fellow jurors would have none of it. Yes, they conceded, it was conceivable that she had made the story up. But if we had to find guilt beyond a conceivable doubt, no one would ever go to jail. The question, they reminded me, was reasonability. Is your doubt reasonable, they asked — that’s what matters.
Deadlocked 11-1 on this count, we moved on to others.
Two of the counts we were, as a group, inclined to dismiss. In both cases, the description given to us by the victim (and the Prosecutor) did not meet the technical requirements for the charge. For example, in one it was impossible to say whether any molestation had actually taken place even if you assumed that the events happened exactly as the victim described. We finally came to a consensus that we would not be able to convict on these two.
At this point we broke for lunch. I used my 90 minutes to go to the gym and run on the treadmill, as I tend to do my best thinking while exercising.
I mulled the case over while running, and came to a few conclusions. First, I realized was that reading an entire book on the scientific method just prior to this trial was not one of my better decisions. I am a pretty hardcore skeptic by nature (almost to the point of atheism, although I refer to myself as agnostic), and this particular text had put me in full-on Mr. Spock mode. Second, although I thought I had disabused myself of all my romantic ideas about the law, the truth was that I had not. I still wanted one side or the other to prove their case beyond a shadow of a doubt. I wanted Perry Mason to demonstrate that it was physically impossible for his client to commit the crime; or I wanted the State to overwhelm me with evidence.
But my biggest realization, in regards to the first count, was that my fellow jurors had convinced me that my doubts were unreasonable. Part of me had been resisting this idea, because it seemed like I was “caving in,” that I was willing to vote to convict someone just because everyone else did. I wanted to be the hero who talked everyone over to his side, but it finally occurred to me that this only works when the hero is correct. The defendant was guilty, and I knew it, and I had had known it for quite some time, and refusing to vote that way was a sign of stubbornness rather than integrity.
So when we reunited after lunch, I announced that I had reconsidered, and we were now 12-0 Guilty on the first count. From here it was just a matter of mopping up. We ultimately found the defendant Guilty on three counts, Not Guilty on the remaining two. The foreman signed the necessary papers, rang for the bailiff, and we awaited the return of the judge to we could announce our decision.
Next: Verdict and Aftermath.* * *