Friday, 28 November 2014

Investigation of Darren Wilson's shooting of Michael Brown

At one point during the Darren Wilson proceedings I was assured that I'd become convinced of Wilson's innocence as I learned more of the facts. Instead, the proceedings and emerging facts have raised all kinds of questions about fairness and legality of the investigation into Wilson's shooting of  Michael Brown. Here are a few of the issues:
  • The handling of evidence immediately after the incident -- Wilson washed blood from his hands and packaged his own evidence. No measurements were taken at the scene. (link)
  • There was a failure to record interviews with Wilson (link)
  • During the grand jury, when they were allegedly showing the evidence that a crime had been committed, prosecutors failed to cross examine Wilson despite obvious tensions in his stories or questionable claims that he had made (link (see end of article), link 2). These inconsistencies included his claims that he was near death or being fully incapacitated after two punches while the hospital gave him a clean bill of health.  Wilson also used dehumanizing, and arguably racist, language in describing Brown, all without any sort of response or objection or concern from the alleged prosecutors. (link
  • Lawyers were far more aggressive about chasing down prima facie tensions from witnesses presenting testimony damaging to Wilson, acting as Wilson's defense team rather than prosecutors (link, NY Times link, Vox link)
  • An assistant DA distributed a copy of an obsolete and unconstitutional statute that indicated that police officers were justified in using any necessary force in preventing a suspect from fleeing during an arrest. (link (video)) This obsolete discarded law indicated that Wilson was justified in shooting Brown simply for attempting to flee. Of course, this wasn't true, but during Wilson's testimony the grand jury had reason to believe it was true and it's not clear to what extent that misunderstanding was cleared up.
  • McCulloch, the prosecutor, abused the grand jury process. It was questionable whether a grand jury was the right avenue by which to pursue an indictment in this case, but worse than that, McCulloch seems to have been using the grand jury process not to establish whether there was reason to move forward with a trial but rather as an ill-suited process to establish Wilson's innocence. (link, Vox link) Note that grand juries almost never fail to indict when asked to do so by a prosecutor. (link) That they did so in this case may well have had more to do with a lack of clear set of options from the prosecutor and a deliberate (and inappropriate) attempt to provide exculpatory evidence. Note that McCulloch has a history of not prosecuting police officers involved in shootings despite many opportunities to do so. (link)
  • Witnesses were nearly unanimous in their assertion that Brown's hands were up when he was shot (link) and yet the grand jury seems to have embraced Wilson's claim that they were not.
  • That we've been consistently misled about Brown's distance from the police SUV when he died. (link) This matters because the (untrue but oft repeated) claim that Brown was only 35 feet from Wilson's SUV rather than 150 would be far more plausible in light of the claim that Brown was in some angry rage ready to attack. If he had run that far it seems more like he was attempting to flee and turning only to give up.
  • Oh, and now it turns out that McCulloch intentionally allowed witnesses to testify even when he knew they were lying in violation of professional ethics and state law and, arguably, of suborning perjury. (link) (update added 2014/12/19)

Saturday, 25 October 2014

Before Canadians hurt themselves patting each other on the back ...

A few things about the attacks in Canada this week underscored positive features or trends about Canadian society.  (i) Canada's CBC deserved commendation forits careful, balanced news coverage (link), (ii) Some news media attempted to deviate from the typical US news media's obsession with identifying and discussing personal details of the killer (link, Rex Murphy on youtube) and (iii) evidence of unwillingness to mistreat Muslims as a result of the attacks (links):

That said, there are important respects in which Canada's response has not only failed to exceed the standard set by the US but has been worse.  In particular, it seems significant free speech limitations are envisioned (link):

 “Sources suggest the government is likely to bring in new hate speech legislation that would make it illegal to claim terrorist acts are justified online.
The Prime Minister told the House of Commons on Thursday that Canada’s law and policing powers need to be strengthened in the areas of surveillance, detention and arrest. “

Amazing, we're going to make it illegal to voice an opinion (in addtion to increasing surveillance, detention and arrest?)?  Aside from this being just an obvious violations of the most basic forms of free speech protection that any democracy should embrace, there's a deeper problem. The whole notion of 'terrorism' is one that is often used to simply stifle debate or pave over any nuanced discussion of what may have motivated it. (see a recent article by Tomas Kapitan on this: link.). Furthermore, its sense isn't entirely clear. What should count as terrorism? In many instances it ends up being most anything done against one's own country while being defined in such a way so that the action of US (or Canadian) combatants cannot be terrorism, no matter on whom it is practiced.  Finally, the last thing to consider before praising ourselves for being so much more enlightened than Americans in responding to a perceived terrorist attack, note this particularly ominous quotation from Peter Mackay this week (link): 

"We're looking ... to see if there is a way in fact to improve or build on those elements of the criminal code that allow for pre-emptive actions. ...." [emphasis added]

Hey, Canada is going all Minority Report.  Remember the Precrime department? 

On Greenwald's Comments on the Attack in Canada

I'm usually a big fan of Glenn Greenwald's and appreciate his incisive analysis but I think his recent comments (link) on the attack in Canada earlier this week are a little off.

I think the causal links he claims between Canada's participation in the WOT(tm) and this week's earlier attack is highly speculative at best and probably wrong. I suspect that the causal forces here have a lot more to do with alienated disturbed men looking to lash out at a society in which they failed to find a place. (One of the guys was asked to leave a mosque, so it would be nice if we could also avoid the blaming of Islam here too, okay, Bill Maher?)  In fact, I'm frustrated with the government's eagerness to jump to the conclusion that it is terrorism, but one understands why they might.  All the better to use the attack to justify rollbacks of civil liberties.

If these guys did have any real links with terrorist groups overseas, it serves only to suggest that these terrorist groups are pretty ineffectual. "Hey, take a car and drive into people." "Find an old crappy hunting rifle and start shooting people." Hardly the stuff of devious Bondian super criminals. But that aside, I'll also say that I think he's setting up something of a strawman here. The people eager to call this a terrorist attack aren't really bewildered as to why terrorists might attack Canada. Few people are under the impression that Canada has had no involvement in the WOT. 

Greenwald \conflates the notion of shock and amazement at extraordinary events with inability to give any sorts of causal explanation for the atypical event. If a tree falls on my house, it wouldn't be bizarre for me to freak out and yell and scream and say "wow, that was really freaky and scary, I can't believe what just happened, a tree fell on my house and killed my dog. One minute we were watching TV, the next my dog was dead and my house was in ruins.". Suppose you were to respond, "oh, actually, I can give a causal explanation. Your house was near a tree, the tree was old and it was really windy, we can give a clear causal explanation for the tree falling", That would be to just totally misunderstand the surprise/amazement I'd been expressing about the tree falling. Expressing surprise/awe/amazement at atypical negative events isn't the same thing as expressing ignorance about the cause of those events.

None of this is to downplay or ignore Canada's role in the war on terror (although to its credit, Canada at least stayed out of Iraq), just noting that I'm skeptical of the linkage claimed here and the extent to which Canada's would be baflled about why actual terrorists might want to attack.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

My Ten (or so) Sticky Books

I was tagged me for this "list ten books that have stuck with you" Facebook meme. I tried to do that, list books that have stuck with me. These are books that I still think about from time to time or had some influence and affected what I did or how I've lived in one way or another. Some of these are really great books, but a number of them aren't but, for whatever reasons, best met the "stuck with you" criterion as I understood it.

Godel's Proof - Ernest Nagel: A splendid little book that helped me get started in wrapping my head around the Godel Incompleteness proofs, the most important achievement of the twentieth century.

The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined - Steven Pinker - This book stuck with me because it manages to pore through and present reams of data, explore large numbers of research articles and develop various arguments on a fascinating  subject in an extremely engaging manner. It's an encouraging book that convincingly argues that the world is, by leaps and bounds, becoming a much much better place. (of course, it will all be destroyed soon by climate change but that's another story)

The Wounded Healer - Henri Nouwen - I really appreciated Nouwen's writings in general but especially wrt his sincere and non-patronizing love of and respect for people with profound intellectual disabilities. I picked this book as representative.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance - Robert Pirsig - This isn't a great book at all, but somehow it managed to stick with me and even affect me and the way I lived.

The Brothers Karamazov - Dostoyevsky - The last novel ever written. oh, wow, what a book. "Dostoevsky is a full meal with a vitamin pill and extra wheat germ"

Computability and Logic - George Boolos - The last textbook ever written.

Shadows of the Mind - Roger Penrose - I know people love to disparage this book and Penrose's sympathy for the Lucas argument but this book motivated me to spend a lot of time on the Lucas argument. And while I believe Penrose (and Lucas) is wrong, I spent an awful  lot of time thinking and writing about why it wasn't for the reason(s) most of his critics gave.

Empirical Methods for Artificial Intelligence - Paul Cohen - This is the book that every Intro Stats prof should use (and read)

James Herriot series of veterinary books - I'm not an Anglophile or even atypically obsessed with animals. but I think I read this series five or six times when I was quite young. They delighted me to no end and I still remember many of the anecdotes to this day.

Beyond Beef: The Rise and Fall of the Cattle Culture - Jeremy Rifkin - I stopped eating meat by about the beginning of Chapter 3

The World According to Garp - John Irving - I've read most of the books Irving has written and enjoyed most of them. But this and "A Prayer for Owen Meany" were by far my favourites. I'll pick Garp because it was a bit quirkier and because I still vividly remember reading the pivotal scene

The Secret History - Donna Tartt  - I just finished this after reading and thoroughly enjoying "the Goldfinch". Wow, this was even better, so much better even (and darker). Like "A Separate Peace", but interesting. I so want some masterful script writer and director to  turn this into an amazing movie.

Towards A Just Society: The Trudeau Years, Lloyd Axworthy, Pierre Trudeau - A somewhat academic book about and/or partially written by Pierre Eliot Trudeau. This book greatly changed my views on Trudeau, made me more forgiving of his FLQ blunders and caused me to persistenly long for the day when societies return to wanting, if not a philosopher king, at least a person who has given a lot of thought about what it is to govern and what a society should be.