Friday, March 27, 2009

12 not-so-angry men (and women)

"We have a criminal jury system which is superior to any in the world; and its efficiency is only marred by the difficulty of finding twelve men every day who don't know anything and can't read" -- Mark Twain

"Jury: A group of 12 people, who, having lied to the judge about their health, hearing, and business engagements, have failed to fool him." -- Henry Louis Mencken

I just got finished serving on a jury (6 total days). It was a case where a guy was riding his bicycle without lights or reflectors, drinking a beer, and going down the middle of Central Ave (a busy street normally) in south Phoenix at 1 in the morning. For those of you that haven't been there, south central Phoenix is not unlike "south central" in any other major city ... a place that you don't want to be at 1 in the morning.

An unmarked Tahoe with 3 gang enforcement police tried to get him off the roadway for his own safety and that of traffic, he ignores them, chucks a beer at their vehicle and continues on. This goes on for awhile, the cops get out, there's a scuffle and a couple of the cops got hurt.

Once they got him in cuffs, he said that they better arrest him because he was going to "fucking kill them" and then he starts saying that he is Sur Trece and a Sereno (Latino gangs). Interesting case. 8 total counts including aggravated assault and resisting arrest but they also tagged on several gang-related charges.

We ended up convicting him on the assault and resisting arrest charges because they were all evidence-based. But the gang charges just didn't stick for many reasons. The guy was 36 (kinda old for a gang banger) and riding a bicycle. He was certainly a moron and probably was involved with a gang when he was younger but it just seemed like the police were trying to tag on some extra charges because they were gang-enforcement police. There were no witnesses besides the cops to his proclamation. Most of us felt that he did make the threats but he didn't do it until he was already in cuffs. He had a zillion opportunities to flash gang signs or say something before then, but didn't. He was just spouting shit once he got caught. Trying to puff himself up. He had no weapons of any kind and no normal gang paraphernalia or clothing. Gang-enforcement police have a vested interest in making it into a "gang" case.

The guy was definitely not a brain surgeon but these were all serious charges and you really have to make sure. It's a weird feeling having someone's fate in your hands. Someone who has 3 young children. Being on a jury is an experience I'd recommend for anybody that gets the chance. Seeing the court system's workings from the inside definitely paints a different picture than what you see on TV.

As it was, he had some previous convictions on unrelated stuff and the 3 guilty charges that we gave him ended up in a sentence of 25 years on top of whatever else he had. I wonder if he's thinking he should have handled that situation that night a little differently. If he'd have just stopped, he'd have probably been sent home with a warning or, at worst, a charge for an open container. But a series of boneheaded decisions will keep him locked up for a long time, away from his family. Crazy stuff. I now know more about Latino gang culture that I ever did before.

"I'm no idealist to believe firmly in the integrity of our courts and in the jury system -- that is no ideal to me, it is a living, working reality. Gentlemen, a court is no better than each man of you sitting before me on this jury. A court is only as sound as its jury, and a jury is only as sound as the men who make it up." -- Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird

Sunday, March 22, 2009

America, One Nation Under No God?

America, One Nation Under No God?
The number of secular Americans is rising faster than any other religious group. But faith will continue to influence politics
by Michelle Goldberg

In recent years, non-religious Americans have won a modicum of public acknowledgment. Not long ago, politicians insulted them with impunity or at best simply overlooked them. But the heightened public religious fervour of the Bush years led the country's infidels to organise as never before, turning atheist authors like Sam Harris into celebrities and opening lobbying offices in Washington, DC, just like religious interest groups do.

Politicians have responded. In his inaugural address, Barack Obama - doubtlessly realising that secularists constitute a big part of his base - described America as a "nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus ... and non-believers." Even Mitt Romney came to express second thoughts about leaving atheists and agnostics out of his high-profile campaign speech on faith. The United States is not Europe - it will likely be a long time before we have a publicly agnostic president - but it is becoming more tolerant of the godless.

It has to be: no religious group in the United States is growing as fast as those who profess no religion at all. The latest American Religious Identification Survey, which Trinity College published last week, shows that the number of non-religious Americans has nearly doubled since 1990, while the number of people who specifically self-identity as atheists or agnostics has more than tripled. An astonishing 30% of married Americans weren't wed in religious ceremonies, and 27% don't expect to have religious funerals. This suggests whole swaths of the culture are becoming secular, since one can assume that non-believers in religious families often acquiesce to traditional marriage rites and expect to be prayed over when they're dead.

The irony, though, is that even as the country becomes more secular, American politics are likely to remain shot through with aggressive piety. What we're seeing is not a northern European-style mellowing, but an increasing polarisation. In his recent book Society without God: What the Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us About Contentment, the sociologist Phil Zuckerman described the secularised countries of Scandinavia as places where religion is regarded with "benign indifference". There's consensus instead of culture war. That's not what's happening in the United States. Instead, the centre is falling out.

According to the American Religious Identification Survey, Christianity is losing ground in the United States, but evangelical Christianity is not. Just over a third of Americans are still born-again. Meanwhile, the mainline churches, beacons of progressive, rationalistic faith - the kind that could potentially act as a bridge between religious and non-religious Americans - are shrinking. "These trends ... suggest a movement towards more conservative beliefs and particularly to a more 'evangelical' outlook among Christians," write the report's authors.

In some ways, there's a symbiotic relationship between evangelicals and secularists. The religious right emerged in response to a widespread sense of cultural grievance stemming from the social upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s. Today's newly organised atheists and agnostics were mobilised by the theocratic bombast of Bush-era Republicans. More than ever, one's religion is tied up with one's political choices rather than family history.

That means faith won't fade into the background. If European secularism is defined by disinterest in organised religion, American secularism is largely defined by opposition to it. Thus non-believers in the United States are increasingly becoming an organised interest group, demanding their share of civic respect. The more they want to escape organised religion, the less they can ignore it.

"Benign indifference" -- that'd be nice. It really does seem like religion has gotten so tied up with politics in America. You go to any congregation and they are 80% Republicans or Democrats.

If it was more like Europe over here, atheists and agnostics wouldn't feel so compelled to vocalize their angst. You are beat over the head with religion everywhere here -- parents of your child's classmates, at the polls, by your political leaders. If they did that in the UK, I'm guessing it would be viewed rather amusingly.

And, as the article states, it makes rock stars out of people like Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins. As I mentioned in a previous post, I'm among that group.

I guess I should be glad that it's not as much of a Scarlet Letter to be an atheist any more. It's nice to have a voice in the discussion. But, personally, I'm hoping for those days where a person's faith, or lack of it, shouldn't matter at all.

"So much blood has been shed by the Church because of an omission from the Gospel: "Ye shall be indifferent as to what your neighbor's religion is." Not merely tolerant of it, but indifferent to it. Divinity is claimed for many religions; but no religion is great enough or divine enough to add that new law to its code." -- Mark Twain

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Is This the End of the Age of the Automobile?

Is This the End of the Age of the Automobile?
by Harvey Wasserman

As a dominant form of transportation, the automobile is dead. So is GM, which now stands for Gone Mad.

But the larger picture says that the financial crisis now enveloping the world is grounded in the transition from the automobile---and the fossils that fuel it---to a brave renewable world of reborn mass transit and green power.

If GM lives in any form, it must be owned and operated by its workers and the public.

But the larger transition is epic and global, based on a simple structural reality: the passenger car is obsolete. Auto sales have plummeted not merely because of a bad economy, but because the technology no longer makes sense.

Franklin Roosevelt took GM over in 1943-5 to make the hardware to beat the Nazis. Barack Obama should now do the same to beat climate chaos.

Make streetcars, not passenger cars.

Hybrids are too little, too late, with problems of their own. Solar-powered electric cars will help phase out the gas guzzlers.

But in the long run, the automobile itself needs to be dismantled and re-cycled, not retooled or rebuilt.

Cars still kill 40,000 Americans/year, and thousands more worldwide. No matter how much less gas each may burn, they all consume unsustainable resources to manufacture, operate and terminate.

We need to dig up roads, not build more. We need rails and coaches, bio-diesel buses and self-propelled trolleys, Solartopian super-trains and in-town people movers, not to mention windmills, solar panels, wave generators and geothermal piping.

In America's corporate-conceived “love affair with the automobile,” our first spouse---mass transit---was murdered. Now the unsustainable obsolescence of the private passenger car is collapsing a global financial system built on the illusion of its constant growth.

Mother Earth can’t sustain the old four-wheeled carry-one-person-around-the-block paradigm, be it hybrid, electric or otherwise.

If the automobile and its attendant freeways continue to metastasize in India, China and Africa as they did in the 20th Century United States, we are doomed.

Our true challenge is to envision, engineer and build a Solartopian transportation system that moves people and things cleanly around a crowded planet with diminishing resources and no margin for ecological error.

For that we need every cent and brain cell devoted to what’s new and works, not what’s failed and could kill us all.

Harvey Wasserman ... is senior advisor to Greenpeace USA and the Nuclear Information & Resource Service, and writes regularly for, where this article first appeared.

"The car has become a secular sanctuary for the individual, his shrine to the self, his mobile Walden Pond" -- Edward McDonagh

Is it any wonder we're disconnected from each other? We spend 2 hours a day in a car ... alone. As we are driving, we listen to mind-numbing talk radio that further panders to the glorification of the one over the many (Beck, Hannity, Rush, etc.). When we get home, we pull into our attached garages and immediately close the garage doors, never to converse with our neighbers. Many of us don't even know our neighbors.

Think of all the money, lives and sanity that would be saved by plowing under all of these bloated highways and parking lots and replacing them with parks. Are cars really adding anything to our lives? They are endless money pits that are wasteful and polluting. They had their time and undoubtedly hastened a lot of the prosperity of the past century, but at what cost ... sprawl, pollution, etc.? And are we really more prosperous? We work more than ever and spend less time with our families. When we replaced one of our cars with a scooter, it was one of the smartest and most satisfying things we have done. If we were to lose our remaining car tomorrow, I wouldn't shed a single tear. I really don't get people's fascination with the automobile. I have an inkling on the male fascination with cars (as would Dr. Freud). But it's time to get over it. For everyone's sake.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Nerd-dom Sacred Cows

This last week I saw Watchmen and finished the book, Dune: The Butlerian Jihad by Brian Herbert and Kevin Anderson. Not really related, you say. You're probably right, I say. But humor me ... I find it amusing to try and link disparate things. It gives me an excuse to do a blog post.

My premise is that there are several sci-fi/comic/fantasy artistic sacred cows out there that other artists have been reluctant to adapt or expand upon because of the anticipated backlash from "fanboys".

The first of those "sacred cows" that I'm going to discuss is the original Dune by Frank Herbert. It is one of the classic sci-fi novels and probably my favorite book of all time. I read that book and the others in the original series when I was in my teens. Loved 'em.

Starting in the late '90's, Frank Herbert's son Brian, along with co-author Kevin Anderson, expanded upon a lot of the back story that is mentioned when you read Dune. A lot of the information was firsthand from Brian's own conversations with his dad before he passed away and from his dad's notes. Since that time, they've written about 10 books, I believe.

While it is not the original Dune, and lacks the artistry of Frank Herbert, it's still quality sci-fi and serves the purpose of illuminating a lot of events and characters mentioned in Dune. These books chronicle events thousands of years before the events of Dune. I don't think it takes away from the original at all. I'm actually looking forward to rereading Dune with the added info.

With this generation of fanboys, Alan Moore's graphic novel, Watchmen, is held in even higher regard than Dune. A movie adaptation has been bouncing around for years with directors as diverse as Terry Gilliam, Darren Arronofsky and Paul Greengrass attached. Much in the same way that the LOTR movies were entertaining, Watchmen adds on to the world of the graphic novel without taking away from it. They are not meant as replacements but more as one fan's interpretation. And Zack Snyder is certainly a respectful, knowledgeable fan in the same way Peter Jackson was. While the Tolkien family viewed the LOTR movies more favorably than Alan Moore views Watchmen, that says more about Moore than it does about the movie. Moore does not even watch the adaptations of his novels and is openly hostile towards them.

I don't think that Snyder changed anything drastically that hurt the movie overall. Some of the flashbacks to the older super heroes were done in the intro. The comic within a comic about the sailor from a couple of hundred years ago is not included. How could it? It really wouldn't make any sense unless you had read the graphic novel. As it is, I'm sure that there are a lot of people that have seen the movie that don't understand everything because they haven't read it.

The casting in the movie is fine with the high points being Billy Crudup as Dr. Manhattan and Patrick Wilson as the Nite Owl II, but especially Jackie Earle Haley as Rorschach. He's fantastic. The low point being Malin Akerman as Silk Spectre II. She may be nice to look at, but she can't act.

The look of the movie is very faithful to the novel ... almost shot for shot. Snyder is the right guy to adapt graphic novels as his previous one, 300, did a great job with the look also.

The ending was changed a bit but there has always been some criticism that that was one of the weaknesses of the original story. I had no problem with the change.

So, overall, for fans of Dune, I recommend the Brian Herbert/Kevin Anderson collaborations. And for fans of the Watchman graphic novel, I do recommend the movie. Fans of all types need to lighten up a bit and not hold things quite so sacred. You're missing out on truly entertaining stuff. And just because you may enjoy an updating or reinterpretation of a story, doesn't mean the original is in any way diminished.

"Sacred cows make the best hamburger" -- Mark Twain

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Richard Dawkins - Origins symposium

You know you are a nerd when you get as stoked about seeing Richard Dawkins and Craig Venter speak in person as you would a movie star or rock star. I just got tickets for the afternoon session of the Origins symposium at Arizona State University next month. The session that I'm seeing:

Richard Dawkins (author of The God Delusion, Blind Watchmaker, etc.)
Craig Venter (instrumental in mapping of human genome)
Lawrence Krauss

Noble Panel, moderated by Ira Flatow (from NPR):
Baruch Blumberg
Walter Gilbert
Sheldon Glashow
David Gross
John Mather
Frank Wilczek

The whole day is awesome with about a dozen authors I've read including Steven Pinker (I have his books The Language Instinct and the Blank Slate ...) and Brian Greene (Fabric of the Cosmos ...) in the morning. And in another session in the evening, which I couldn't get tickets for, Christopher Hitchens, Stephen Hawking and others. That one would have been sweet.

I'm a scientist groupie. How sad is that?

BTW, Wunelle, posted a link to a great hour show with the Four Horseman of atheism, as it were: Dawkins, Hitchens, Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett. Check it out.

Atheism's Four Horseman