Blog Articles 101–105

Due Process and George Zimmerman

Can due process produce a result that is, in some sense, unjust? Yes. People can kill and defraud and rape and abuse but leave insufficient evidence of their crimes to prove their guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. The fact that the victim suffered is unjust. The fact that the perpetrator was not punished is unjust. The fact that skin color drives outcomes is unjust. It is unjust that moral wrongs go unredressed: such as, perhaps, the moral wrong that Trayvon Martin would be alive if George Zimmerman didn’t think he had a right and duty to confront people of the wrong color in his neighborhood. But there’s a central question some people ignore about such injustice: compared to what?

People assail results like the acquittal of George Zimmerman. But critics don’t tell us what the alternative should be. Shall guilt or innocence be determined by society’s reaction to the vapid summaries of prosecutions on cable news? Clearly not. Should verdicts necessarily reflect social consensus of the time about the crime and the accused? Tell that to the Scottsboro boys — theirs did. Should we make it easier to convict people of crimes in order to reduce injustice against the weak? How foolish. The weak already suffer because it is too easy to convict — because we love to pass criminal laws, but hate to pay for an adequate defense. Thanks to “law and order” and the War on Drugs and our puerile willingness to be terrified by politicians and the media, one-sixth of African-American men like Trayvon Martin have been in prison, trending towards one-third. The notion that we can improve their status in America by making it easier to convict people and by undermining the concept of a vigorous defense is criminally stupid. The assertion that an acquittal is wrong and unjust might, in some cases, be true, in the sense that some juries will vote their ignorance or racism or indifference. But the assertion that an acquittal is by its nature unjust because of how we feel about the case serves the state — the state that incarcerates 25% of the world’s prisoners.

Ken White on the Zimmerman trial. He later concludes by noting that he is more afraid of the state than of the George Zimmermans of the world. The whole article is very much worth your time.

Remembering John Riedl

John Riedl, my Ph.D adviser, mentor, and friend, passed away this evening after a 3-year battle with cancer. If you didn’t know already, that’s what this post was about.

The world knows John as one of the inventors of collaborative filtering (go watch the re-presentation of the original GroupLens paper he wrote with Paul Resnick and others) and a leader in the field of recommender systems, as well as an influential researcher in social computing systems broadly.

For me, he is the one who taught me how to stay sane in the oft-insane world of academia.

I met John when I was assigned to be his TA for CS2 my first semester as a Ph.D student. Two things quickly stood out about him: 1, that he knew how to run an efficient meeting, and 2, that his family was a high priority. Throughout the semester I also saw him to be an excellent and thoughtful teacher.

Swat-Raiding the Mayor

Even after they realized they had just mistakenly raided the mayor’s house, the officers didn’t apologize to Calvo or Porter. Instead, they told Calvo that they were both “parties of interest” and that they should consider themselves lucky they weren’t arrested. Calvo in particular, they said, was still under suspicion because when armed men blew open his door, killed his dogs, and pointed their guns at him and his-mother-in-law, he hadn’t responded “in a typical manner.

— From an excerpt of Radley Balko’s book Warrior Cop. The county police department’s continued defense of itself and refusal to even apologize is mind-boggling.

Grieving in the Eighth Layer

I open my chat roster and see him. His name, his smile, his year-old status message. The presence indicator, an emblem fixed for days in unaltered yellow. Away. I don’t think XMPP has a code for ‘and unlikely to return’.

I check my day’s agenda and see his shared Google calendar, filled with meetings that will be missed. Parties that will carry on, short an honored guest.

Google Drive shows me a list of documents. Some have his name under ‘Last Modified’. Or ‘Owner’. Unfinished projects that will either languish or be carried on in his absence. In his memory.

Is this what grief, what remembrance, what loss looks like today? Pain, alloyed with memory of joy and fruitful collaboration, delivered via Google? The eighth layer, weeping, prodded and salted by the rest of the stack?

Bipartisan Consensus

It is easy, in our present age of apparent gridlock and vitriolic talking points passing themselves off as reasoned arguments, to be discouraged about the state of political discourse in our great Republic. To think, perhaps, that there is no common ground in our political disputes, that we are doomed to talk past each other with no mutually-agreeable outcome. That there is nothing of substance about which the leaders or people of the land are in agreement on the best course of action.

In such times, it is important to remember that there is, in fact, wide bipartisan consensus on a number of important issues of our day. Obviously there are a few misguided individuals who obstinately refuse their consent, but the following points see little dissent from either side of the aisle in our present political landscape:

  • It is totally fine, if not admirable, to be in a perpetual state of war against a nebulous, undefinable enemy (the ‘Bad Guys’).
  • The national surveillance state is a good and necessary development to protect ourselves from aforementioned Bad Guys.
  • Drugs are a great evil; to attempt to stop them, it is appropriate that the Land of the Free has the highest incarceration rate in the world.
  • We must secure the border from people who wish to pursue gainful employment and thereby contribute to our nation’s industry and economy.
  • Gasoline should be inexpensive, and the private automobile sustained as the principle means of transport.
  • Our constitution guarantees criminal suspects the right to be informed of the charges against them and brought to a speedy trial, unless the President alleges the suspect to be a Bad Guy. In that case, there is no problem with locking them in jail until the world ends.
  • Edward Snowden has betrayed his country and undermined democracy by alerting the people to the secret actions of their government. This has greatly aided the Bad Guys.