A Victory in the War of Drugs

Russell Eugene Weston Jr., 44 years old, walked into the Capitol Building in Washington DC on July 24th, 1998, in order to save the world from cannibals, and to retrieve top secret information from a satellite system that was capable of time-travel. I’m not sure why he thought the government would be of any use to him, but he did, and when the government didn’t listen he shot and killed two guards.

He is imprisoned in Butner, North Carolina, in solitary, because, after all, he is mad. In what used to be the civilized world, he would be in some kind of treatment program where smart people with degrees in psychology would be trying to help him recover his senses. But this is America of the 21st century and bloodlust over-rules compassion so the government wants very badly to put him on trial for murder and sentence him to death.

The trouble is, of course, that Mr. Weston appears to be insane. It is a well-established facet of the modern justice system that a person who is not responsible for his actions cannot be convicted of crimes committed while he was not responsible for his actions, ie., in possession of his faculties, his reason, his ability to discern right from wrong.

A small obstacle to be sure. In a new, significant skirmish in the real drug war– the war waged by pharmaceuticals to get everybody onto drugs– a three judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. circuit ordered him to be medicated!

Mr. Weston’s lawyer– a public defender (and we all know how awesome public defenders are)– is considering an appeal. Of course, appeals ultimately end up in the hands of those robed dildos of Partisan Politics, the Supremes.

Well, what is wrong with medicating this guy so he can be ruled sane so he can be tried for murders committed while he was insane?  And then executed?   We need to provide a nice deterrent to all those crazy UFO-believers out there with guns.

Apart from the obvious– that just because medications can make him appear to be sane doesn’t mean he was sane at the time of the murders– there is the absurd circumstance of the government drugging people into certain specified conditions (guided by the high priests of mental sanitation, psychiatrists and psychologists) in order to obtain particular results from the justice system.

I know– it’s hard to wrap your mind around this issue, especially if it’s medicated. But break it down. The drugs in question are those very powerful psychotropic drugs the mission of which is to alter a person’s personality or emotions.

Is this allowed by the constitution? The very question is insane– of course not. The idea that a constitution that protects the right of privacy and freedom of speech and presumes innocence until proof of guilt is established and  validated by a duly constituted jury or judge, would permit any government body to forcibly alter a person’s mind with powerful psychotropic drugs— it’s absolutely outrageous.

But that’s not even the most objectionable part of it all. Of what use is this procedure to the prosecution? The man was probably insane when he shot the two guards. The prosecution wishes to argue that he was not insane. They are allowed to specify how his mind should be altered in order to present him as evidence in support of their view????

The precedent is shattering. With the pharmaceutical companies already revving up the corporate cheer-leaders, every prosecutor in the country will now consider the option of obtaining a court order to force prescribed personality alterations of defendants in criminal actions.

You think I’m getting carried away? What if I had told you 50 years ago that we were headed towards the kind of society in which people who are unhappy or dissatisfied with their lives in any form would go to their doctors and readily obtain prescriptions for powerful mood-altering substances that would help them cope with their terrible little lives?

You would have thought I was insane.

Artificial Stupidity: Software That Weeps

I have never liked Stephen Spielberg even when he thinks he’s being oh so serious and profound, as in “The Color Purple” and “Schindler’s List” and “Saving Private Ryan”.  I think he is a brilliant technical director, but he always feels that he has to slug you in the face with the emotional crux of his drama so you don’t miss it.   Spielberg, as is less well known, is also a shameless plagiarist.  He steals from other films, ones that are usually not well known (see the tank scene in “Saving Private Ryan” compared to Bernard Wicki’s “The Bridge”).

And he often employs the worst film music composer in history in John Williams.

I don’t think I have ever heard a piece by John Williams that I found moving in the slightest respect.  Yes, he is universally acclaimed.  He wins Oscars.   I don’t care.  On my side: he did “Star Wars”.  If you really think he’s that great— he did “Star Wars”.

I have always liked Stanley Kubrick who, in my opinion, created the greatest movie ever made in “Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb”.

So it was with stunned disbelief that I learned that Spielberg was the designated heir of Kubrick’s last film project, “AI”, about a boy created with artificial intelligence who wants to become a real boy. Pinocchio with silicon.

I am baffled by some of the early reviews of the film. The New York Times and Salon both made it sound like this was a really interesting film that might have failed on one or two points but, ultimately, represented an advance on Spielberg’s career. Well, Salon was a bit ambivalent and thought Spielberg was a true genius– when he stuck to entertainments like “Jaws” and “ET”.

Anyway, I found “AI” a big disappointment. The last hour– which seemed interminable– is Spielberg at his worst, wringing mawkish, overwrought tears from the virtual viewer with “heartrending” scenes of loss and grief.

But the real problem with this movie is the same problem countless sci-fi films have faced in the past: how to make a robot interesting. If a robot is nothing more than the sum of it’s programming and hardware, then how can it display the big emotions Hollywood regards as essential to the blockbuster film? How can software weep?

This is Spock, remember. Spock, in the original Star Trek, was supposed to something of a logic machine. He represented Reason, the ability of man to analyze and judge without the corrupting influence of emotions. But Star Trek couldn’t bear to leave Spock alone. When the captain was imperiled, the emotionless Spock would take absurd chances with the lives of the entire crew in order to save the one man he… loved?

It’s like claiming that the girl who seduced you in high school was the only virgin in your class.

If the original Star Trek had had any guts, Spock would have said, “tough luck” and instructed Scotty to plot a course to a sector of space not inhabited by gigantic amoeba’s or deadly Klingons. “It would not be rational to endanger the lives of 500 crew members in order to embark upon the marginal prospect of saving the captain’s life when I have calculated the odds against his survival to be 58,347 to 1. Furthermore, the odds of finding a replacement captain of equal or superior merit among current members of the crew are approximately 2 to 1…”

So we’re back to a robot, in AI, a little boy who replaces a seriously ill little boy in the lives of a young couple. When the real boy gets better and returns home, the mother drops the robot off in a woods somewhere and then drives off. Heart-wringing tear-jerking scene number one, and it’s milked for all it’s worth in classic Spielberg style.

We, the viewer, are supposed to feel something that the flesh-and-blood mother in the film–who cared so much about a child that she adopted an artificial one–does not.  But this is bizarre– the primary signal here, of what we should feel about this abandoned child– would normally come from the parents or siblings or friends of the child.  If they feel nothing, why should we?  Why would the mother demand a replacement for her seriously ill boy if she was going to care so little for it that she would drop it off in the woods?

The twist here is that the mother is right to feel nothing for the little robot.  He is a robot!   The deceit foisted on the viewer is that anyone would think she would feel anything for the robot in the first place.

The robot boy sets out to find the good fairy– I’m not kidding– who will turn him into a real boy. He has some adventures during which Spielberg, as is his habit, shamelessly pillages the archives for great shots, including the famous Statue of Liberty shot from “Planet of the Apes” (the first one), and various scenes from “Blade Runner”, “Mad Max”, and, well, you name it. Originality has never been Spielberg’s strong suit.

The truth is that no robot will ever have a genuine aspiration to be anything. What you are talking to, my friends, is a piece of machinery. And it is logically impossible for a machine to behave in any way other than the way it is programmed to respond, no matter how complex or advanced the programming is.

The only way around this conundrum is to imagine the possibility of incorporating organic elements into the robotic brain, something I’m sure Spielberg believes is possible. But then it’s not a robot. It’s an organism, and it may well be heartwarming to some of us, in the same way that “My Friend Flicka” and “Lassie Come Home” are heartwarming. [2011-04]

So when a robot says it wants to be human, what you really have is a human telling a machine to say it wants to be me. Is there any concept in Science Fiction so wrought with Narcissism?  So shallow and pointless?

The problem with that idea is that you would have to believe that humans would someday create sophisticated, powerful machinery that would behave in unpredictable– and uncontrollable– ways. You would also have to believe that humans would feel emotional attachments to these devices the way they attach to pets and social workers in real life.

Anyway, it’s hard to care about what happens to the boy when the premise of the film is fundamentally absurd, and Spielberg is entirely concerned with dazzling visual effects and contrived set pieces. The film opens, for example, with one of the lamest q & a sessions ever imagined, between a brilliant scientist (William Hurt) and a group of docile graduate students who lob softballs at Hurt (and the audience) in order to convey information that isn’t required by the audience anyway.

It is impossible to imagine Kubrick working with this kind of slop and incoherence. “AI” is 100% Spielberg.

Joyce Gilchrist Locks up a few Innocent Men

If you’re a regular visitor to these pages, I hope you’re not getting bored with the rants about false convictions. There are so many.

Joyce Gilchrist is a “forensic chemist” with a police crime laboratory in Oklahoma City. In 1986, she testified at the trial of Jeff Pierce who was charged with rape and robbery. Her testimony was decisive: she said that hairs found on the victim were “microscopically consistent” with samples taken from Pierce. He was sentenced to 65 years in prison. He served 15 before DNA testing– considered far more reliable than microscopic hair analysis– proved he could not have been the perpetrator.

I use the word “considered” with ambivalence.  The microscopic hair analysis was “considered”, in a manner of speaking, reliable at his first trial.  But it was not really “considered” at all: it was accepted with blind faith in this charade of forensic science.

You have to give credit to the police department here, where it is due. After an appeals court overturned several cases in which her testimony was pivotal, the police department ordered a review of other cases in which she had testified. (This may sound like something that should be automatic, but it isn’t. It is amazing how many police departments and prosecuting attorneys will refuse to admit they might have been wrong.)

At this stage, at least, that’s the way it’s supposed to work: the police are supposed to find out what actually happened. In the Pierce case, it looks like they simply picked a likely suspect (he happened to be working as a landscaper in the area in which the crime was committed) and then tried to muster the evidence necessary to convince a jury.

Gilchrist was regarded as a prosecution-friendly witness, who was likely to provide the police with evidence that would confirm their gut feelings about the suspect. She rarely testified for the defense, which should tell you something. She is supposed to be a scientist. She is supposed to testify for whichever side happens to have good science with them. If the science appears to always favor the prosecution, you have to ask yourself a few questions…

An FBI specialist, according to People Magazine, had problems figuring out what led Gilchrist to draw the conclusions she did about Pierce’s hair samples. In other words, she either grossly exaggerated or lied about the similarities. Do you want to know how many other cases she was involved with? Hundreds. No wait. 1,800! I’m not kidding. And an FBI chemist who reviewed four of Gilchrist’s cases said that in all four of them, hair or fibers had been misidentified. Twenty-three of the cases in which Gilchrist’s testimony played a part involved capital crimes. Eleven of the defendants have already been executed. In some cases, the police have destroyed the evidence, so we’ll never know if they were really guilty or not.

In another case, she testified that an FBI test of a semen sample could not exclude Alfred Mitchell from suspicions of rape, sodomy, and murder. In fact, the FBI lab clearly asserted that the one thing the sample did do was exclude Mitchell. He was convicted anyway, on Gilchrist’s “expert” testimony. In 1999, a federal district judge threw out the conviction because of her “errors”.

And another: Robert Miller was convicted of raping and murdering two elderly women, again, largely on the basis of Gilchrist’s “expert” testimony that hair samples found on the victims matched his. After seven years on death row, DNA evidence fingered someone else. As if that wasn’t enough, DNA evidence pointed to a man Gilchrist had explicitly cleared of the crime.

Even more disturbing: the police had the FBI’s exculpatory evidence in their hands before they brought Mitchell to trial, and did not provide the defense with copies of the reports. This is your police department, friends. These are the people in charge of enforcing the law. The appeal judge stated that the “State’s blatant withholding of unquestionably exculpatory evidence is absolutely indefensible.”

Gilchrist is on “paid administrative leave”. Did you know that the laws are written in such a way as to release the police and prosecution from all potential liability for financial compensation for the wrongly convicted? So what does Pierce get for his 15 years in prison? Unless the state gets generous voluntarily, nothing.

The case of Malcolm Rent Johnson is fascinating. He was convicted in 1982 of the rape and murder or Ura Alma Thompson, who was 76 years old. Johnson was executed in January, 2000.

The police found many of Thompson’s missing possessions in Johnson’s room. Johnson claimed that he received the stolen goods from a friend. Gilchrist testified that hairs found on the victim were compatible with Johnson’s hair, and that fibers from a shirt the police took from his apartment were similar to fibers found on the body, and that the semen found in the victim was compatible with Johnson’s blood type. When the police confronted Johnson with the semen evidence, Johnson, according to police, said that was impossible because he hadn’t ejaculated.

Either Johnson was a complete fool– and victims of prosecution misconduct seem to be disproportionately poor and uneducated– or he meant to say that he wasn’t the one who raped Thompson and therefore couldn’t have been the one who ejaculated. It’s a strange statement to make, but even stranger that the police would regard a statement like that as believable enough to be incriminating but not believable enough to contradict Gilchrist’s findings that the semen matched Johnson’s blood type. If he inadvertently told the truth– that he raped Thompson but didn’t ejaculate– then the police should offer that as evidence that he committed the rape and murder, and Gilchrist’s evidence should have been thrown out. Instead, the police had it both ways. He is guilty because he told the truth when he implied he had sex with Johnson but didn’t ejaculate, and besides, the semen was compatible with his blood type.

Or, did Johnson receive the stolen goods from a friend who actually committed the robbery and rape and then “tipped” the police off to Johnson?

Gilchrist isn’t the only incompetent police expert around. In Randall County, Texas, a forensic pathologist named Ralph Erdmann was convicted in 1994 of falsifying evidence on at least six occasions, including at least one capital case. In that one case, an off-duty police officer, James D. Mitchell, approached a car that had skidded off the road and was shot by one of the occupants who claimed that he fired in self-defense. No one disputes who shot who, but the question of whether it is a capital offense hinges on whether the defendant, Randal Wayne Hafdahl, believed he was being threatened or not, and that determination was based on Erdmann’s evidence.

In New York, a former detective named Michael S. Race has made it his mission to re-examine some old criminal cases. He is already responsible for five men being released from prison, including Anthony Faison and Charles Shepherd, who were charged with the murder of a cabby. Some say that Race is trying to assuage his own guilt– he was involved in some these questionable cases as a homicide detective in Brooklyn. In some of these cases, a rather shady witness provided the only compelling evidence. It is clear that the police and district attorneys were derelict in their obligations to ensure that such witnesses were reliable and credible. It didn’t matter: the juries bought it. Innocent men went to jail. In the “tough on crime era”, few people cared.

What all of this means is that the criminal justice system in the U.S. is in a crisis. There is a drug crisis and a medical crisis and an education crisis. Why doesn’t anyone step up and announce that they will make criminal justice an issue in the next campaign? Because conventional political wisdom is that Americans want politicians and judges to be “tough on crime”. But I’ll bet that a lot of Americans are slowly becoming convinced that there is a difference between “toughness” and fairness.

How to Raise Children

I’ve been thinking a lot about this question. I have three children. I feel fulfilled as a woman, but unfortunately, I’m a man. I was so good at bringing them up I have nothing to say. I am really disappointed that those idiots who didn’t know how to bring up their children and never listened to me, as a result, brought up their children.

No civil liberty is so important that it can’t be arbitrarily infringed upon in the name of the safety of our children, even if, 98% of the time, it ends up being Uncle John who molests them and not the porn dealer down the street or the gay couple demanding the right to extended health care benefits.

Our children will be better off and happier in the future with the second car we are buying today with our tax rebate than they would be with safe schools, bridges that don’t collapse, and trees.

It is important to expose your children to important artists, musicians, and film-makers when they are young, because when they get older, they want to know what not to do in order to establish that they are their own persons.

Children will adore Buster Keaton if you make them watch ten minutes of any of his films. Children assume you had sex once, or maybe twice if they are not as old as your marriage. Watching a gaggle of giggling adolescents awkwardly maneuvering around each other at a school party makes me wonder where all the promiscuous ones I keep hearing about are.

Nothing is more boring than bragging about your children. Tell me about yourself instead. Zzzz.

The worst thing about kids is this: if life seems shitty to them at 21, it really does look like the absolute end of the world. They can’t imagine why a 45-year-old would sell his soul to Satan himself to be 21 again. They can’t believe life could be a hell of a lot better in five days, let alone five years.

They have no idea why anyone would bother with foreplay.

They consider themselves so entertaining they are surprised you don’t want to pay them to be around, but they’re essentially right.

What most amazes me: there are 365*24 hours in a year. 8700 hours a year. When I was first married, it seemed like I had about 4000 of those hours to write and think and play and have sex, without interruption. Now, I have exactly 3 hours and 14 minutes a year, and I think they’re home.

Is it worth having kids? I’m with Steve Forbert whom I have often quoted even though Mark thinks he’s a weasel:

I know that life is strange,
but compared to what?

Some Thoughts Upon Hearing Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” One Too Many Times

Some thoughts on the Leonard Cohen song, “Hallelujah”.

I think it should be sung at weddings,
but I’m sure many would disagree.
So maybe it should be sung
at divorces,
but what we need
is a corresponding sacrament to go with the divorce.
The couple marches into church from different directions
at different times
and meets at the front. Then they say, “I don’t”,
and smash wedding cake into each other’s face.
The guests take sides
and a food fight breaks out.
Everything in the church
is destroyed
and then the lawyers come in and present their bills. Counselors descend
upon all concerned
and advise them
to take off their clothes,
writhe on the floor, and make various gestures of affirmation and support for their preferred un-partner. Lastly, the florist
comes in
and heaves
a gigantic
bouquet upon the bride. While she’s is pinned to the floor,
kicking her feet into the air,
the groom slides a garter up her leg and the best man steals her ring. Then a dwarf in a top coat and a tutu
sings Hallelujah,
and all the guests sing Hallelujah
race over to the couples’ house
and sing Hallelujah
and take back their gifts.