Saturday, March 24, 2012

Martin and Zimmerman

I'm suffering from opinion overload after reading so many comments about the Treyvon Martin killing.  It disturbs me to see everyone so ready to draw conclusions about a case in which a great deal remains unknown.  It's probably no different than what has always happened when information about an event gets disseminated, but it is much easier to see the effects now.

There are only two clear things about the case as far as I can tell.  One is that George Zimmerman should not have followed Trayvon Martin, and if he had not followed him, Martin would still be alive.  The second is that the police should have launched a formal investigation rather than just taking Zimmerman's word for it.

Beyond that, it is mostly speculation.  The key question is how Zimmerman and Martin ended up in a scuffle.  Zimmerman said he was ambushed, which seems unlikely to me, but I have no way of knowing what scenario actually played out.  I'm afraid that no one may be able to learn the truth at this point, although maybe some detectives will come up with evidence through forensic science that tells us more.

Everything else about the case is secondary.  People keep saying that it was not a crime for Martin to be walking in his own neighbourhood.  Fair enough, but it also wasn't a crime for Zimmerman to be on the watch for criminal activity.  Whether what he saw warranted his suspicions is an open question, but it doesn't really matter.  Whether he was confronting a teen returning home from 7-11 or a criminal casing a joint, he had an equal right to ask the person what he was doing there.

It is true that how he asked this question is material.  He may have been approaching Martin with the intention of having a conversation something like this:

"Hey, what's up?"
"Are you just out for an evening stroll?"
 "Just getting some snacks and heading home."
"Okay, man, be safe."

That might be a totally unrealistic interpretation of what Zimmerman was up to.  Perhaps his past experience encounters with people he suspected would shed some light on it.  Maybe he was going to run up to Martin and say, "What the @$%^ are you doing around here at night?"  Maybe words would be exchanged, threats made, and things would have turned ugly.  My point is that Zimmerman was not a priori wrong to notice Martin and to ask what he was up to, any more than Martin was wrong to be out at night buying snacks.  He was wrong if, and only if, he approached Martin in an aggressive manner and precipitated a confrontation, which may very well have been the case judging from his call to police.  But it is not certain, based at least on what I know.
I keep reading about how Zimmerman is paranoid, psychotic, or other terms.  I'm not going to try to be an armchair psychologist, but we should admit that there have been numerous crimes in his neighbourhood and he was trying to stop them.  He was overzealous in pursuing Martin and he was perhaps overzealous in his watch activities in general, but he had a real reason to be concerned.  Some cities have curfews for teenagers.  Sanford didn't, but the fact that curfews exist indicates that there is an inherent concern about young people being out at night.

My point is that there is a big gap in our knowledge of what happened.  We know that Trayvon Martin was innocently walking home from the store.  We know that George Zimmerman was looking out for criminal activity, that he was frustrated with the amount of crime in the neighbourhood, and that he was too willing to try to do something about it himself.  We don't know how Zimmerman acted toward Martin, what made Martin run away, or how the two ended up fighting.  I will be the first to say that a gun law should not allow someone to pick a fight and then use it as an excuse to shoot someone; if that happened, Zimmerman is guilty of murder.  If his version of the story is true -- that Martin ambushed him -- then Zimmerman was acting in self-defense.  If, as seems likely, the truth is some shade between these options, the jury will have to sort out the responsibility.  No one can be sure from what has been reported that events happened one way or the other.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Hate crimes

Is anyone else concerned that such a thing as "hate crimes" even exists in our law?  I was reminded of their existence because of the decision handed down today against a Rutgers student who videotaped his roommate engaged in a homosexual act (here and here).  Admittedly, the law uses the term "bias intimidation" instead of "hate crime," but it is widely reported as a hate crime law, and those words probably came up during the debate in the legislature.

The concept of a hate crime seems disturbingly Orwellian to me.  I realize the law considers the mindset of the defendant, whether the act is premeditated, whether he feels remorse, and so forth, but that seems quite a bit different than debating whether he did it out of hate or some other motive.  The end result is the same, and whether the person feels indifferent or antipathy to the victim does not seem to matter much in practice.  Either way, he is sociopathic.  Even if the crime is committed out of a misplaced sense of love, the perpetrator is still operating outside the law and should be punished.

The actual title of the crime in New Jersey law, "bias initimidation," is not much better than "hate crime."  Intimidation is against the law (I presume -- anyway I wouldn't have any objection to a law against intimidation), and I don't know why it would be better or worse to intimidate a person out of bias, jealousy, or just for fun.

As usual when I hear of hate crime laws, they don't seem to add anything useful that existing laws couldn't cover.  The defendant in this case is already guilty of invasion of privacy, which is punishable by jail under New Jersey law.  The bias intimidation charge doubles the amount of time he can be imprisoned, but it doesn't keep a guilty person from going free.  What is the benefit of putting this person in jail for an extra five years if in fact he acted because he didn't like his roommate's sexual orientation?  Why would he merit less punishment if he acted because he thought his roommate was a general loser rather than someone in a protected category?

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Sandra Fluke is Ruining America

Obviously, Sandra Fluke can't ruin America by herself.  But when too many people share her attitude, they can.

I was led into this by the controversy surrounding Rush Limbaugh's description of her as a slut.  At first, I was interested from the point of view of a double standard in the media.  Yes, there is one. But in the course of my research,I went to this page to find out what Fluke really said.  What interested me was that her answer to the obvious question, "In the media lately, some conservative Catholic organizations have been asking what did we expect when we enroll in a Catholic school?" 

She responded with a lot of nonsense.  Such as, "We can only answer that we expected women to be treated equally."  Why, does Georgetown provide free contraception to men?  She continued that she expected "to not have our school create untenable burdens that impede our academic success."  Not giving women free contraception creates an "untenable burden" to academic success?  That's a pretty low standard for a burden, I must say.  No doubt her school also expects her to rent her own room.  That's a much more expensive, and, I daresay, necessary burden than contraception, yet somehow that doesn't warrant a mention?

She adds, "We did not expect that women would be told in the national media that we should have gone to school elsewhere."  Really?  You didn't expect anyone to suggest that obvious alternative?

But what really bothered me is how she concluded, "And even if that meant going to a less prestigious university, we refuse to pick between a quality education and our health."  This is a problem, first of all, because the choice between buying contraception and having it paid for by insurance is not even a matter of health.  No one who fails to use contraception is less healthy than someone who does, except in the fringe cases that she mentions of women who need to take birth control to prevent cysts -- which she admits is actually covered by Georgetown's insurance anyway.

The biggest problem, however, is the false choice that Fluke presents of a quality education vs. free contraception.  Liberals claim to like choices, but they don't like to admit that choices come with consequences.  Sandra Fluke made several choices:  (a) she chose to go to law school, and (b) she chose specifically to go to Georgetown, and (c) she chose to buy her health insurance from Georgetown, even though she claims it is completely unsubsidized, and of course (d) she chose to have sex.  Having made all those decisions, and finding that they collectively faced her with the consequence of having to pay for contraception, she decided that someone else should pick up the tab.  She decided that Georgetown should not have the choice to offer contraception on its medical care, even if it would be contrary to their beliefs.  She decided that everyone else who buys health insurance from Georgetown should have to subsidize her contraception, even if they don't need or want it themselves.  She is in favour of choices for herself, but not for anyone else.

America is a great country precisely because we have choices.  You can choose to go to law school at dozens of places, you can choose to purchase health insurance from numerous providers, you can choose to have as many sexual partners as you want of any race or gender, which is not the case in many other countries.  You can also choose to be selfish and want other people to bear the consequence of your choices.  That is normal, but what is not normal (or at least good) is when this selfishness makes its way into national discourse as a form of "choice" or "freedom."  It is a kind of freedom that is entirely one-sided, because the choice is all on the part of one person; everyone else is made to bear the consequence, without having any choice in the matter.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012


I have a large collection of random screws, but I can never seem to find the one I need when one goes missing.  Have you ever tried buying a screw by matching all its characteristics?  Obviously you need to know how long it is and how big around it is, and whether you want Phillips or slotted.  Do you want a point on the end?  How about the lag between the head and the threads?  Of course, you need to know the threads per inch and the thread depth, especially if you are using the screw in a metal object.  The head of the screw can be flat, oval, pan, truss, or hex washer, and I'll be darned if I understand the advantage of any but the flat head.  I particularly like this website, which even has a section for "sex bolts and mating screws," which seems appropriate because of all the double entendres possible when dealing with this form of hardware.

So many choices, and all of them dirt cheap.  I keep old screws because I have a hard time throwing anything out, and because they're so small that they're easy to store.  I'm not sure I've ever used any of these around the house, however.  There are so many different sizes that I usually can't find what I need, even if I happen to have the right combination of length, diameter, thread count, thread depth, and so forth.  The thing is, there really isn't any point to keeping screws.  They are so cheap that it would certainly be no imposition to pay for the exact kind I need every time.  In fact, it would be cheaper if you count in the time I spend looking through every one of six dozen different screw types trying to locate the one that fits.

Screws are a very humble part of the modern industrial age, although doubtless many items in my house would fall apart without them.  When I first learned about simple tools, and heard that screws were a variation on the inclined plane, I didn't understand it at all.  Now I can see how the "threads" -- really a single thread -- is just an inclined plane that converts circular to linear motion.  The inclined plane hardly seems like a tool at all, but it lies at the foundation of so many mechanical items:  not only the screw but also the ramp, the wedge, the knife, and scissors.

I like screws because they are easy to use -- I have no talent for hammering nails (another use of the inclined plane, by the way).  I have heard people complain about Phillips head screws; The Straight Dope says that the advantages are chiefly for industrial applications but not for individuals.  I don't know how anyone could think that, since I have spent many frustrating moments when a flat screwdriver slipped out of its slot and I had to realign it.  Does everyone think that slot screws are better?

The one problem with Phillips screws is that it is so easy to deform the slot, making it impossible to remove it again.  I have always wondered why Phillips screws are particularly susceptible to this, and how hard it would be to make a stronger screw that would not buckle so easily.  I'm sure it would cost more, but I would be willing to pay some premium for a stronger screw; the question is, how much more would I have to pay?