Internet Judge, Jury, and Executioner

I have never served on a jury.

But as a lawyer, I’ve been privy to jury trials. They’re long and tedious. Things that you think should minutes take hours. And things that you’d think would take an hour can take days.

Our legal system–flawed though it may be–is usually very careful and deliberate. The course of people’s lives hinge on what we do there, and so lawyers and judges scrutinize the process very carefully.

I.

In an actual trial, people are accused of specific crimes. Typically, there are sub-elements of each crime: an action that includes a few different steps and usually a component of intent.

If someone is accused of killing someone, they can be specifically accused of manslaughter or murder. The latter requires that the killer acted with “malice aforethought.” If the prosecutor wants to convict a person of murder, they must submit evidence that convinces the jury not only that the person did the killing, but that they did so with the requisite intent. Some states have different gradations of first-degree and second-degree murder, or felony murder, each with different specific sub-elements.

The accused might introduce evidence of a reasonable defense. Perhaps the killing was in self-defense, or the accused was coerced.

Accusing someone of a crime is easy. Convicting a person of a crime requires precise argumentation.

II.

In criminal justice, there is proportionality to the punishment depending on the severity of a crime. A person convicted of negligent homicide will spend less time in jail than the person convicted of manslaughter and less still than a person convicted of first-degree murder.

III.

In trials, the jury hears long arguments from both sides about their version of the events. Each side is entitled by law to have a certified professional, bound by ethical and professional duties of competence and zealous advocacy, tell their story.

IV.

In trials, lawyers vet the jury to exclude those who have pre-existing biases and prejudices that would make it difficult for them to consider either side’s arguments with fairness.

V.

Lawyers argue about what evidence should be considered in reaching a verdict, and judges make decisions about what is appropriate for juries to hear. The subject of what constitutes proper evidence is one of the most nuanced and complex areas of the law. Information that is unduly prejudicial or might inflame a jury is kept from them to avoid biasing their decisions. Most often, prior bad acts are inadmissible to prove a subsequent crime, unless the prior acts show a pattern of conduct.

VI.

For alleged crimes where the allegation is not the perpetration of a crime, but rather complicit behavior in someone else’s perpetration of a crime, the standard for criminal prosecution is much higher. A criminal conviction usually requires not just awareness of someone’s else’s crime or a mistake in preventing the crime, but an affirmative act to aid and abet the commission of the crime.

VII.

As passive readers of news and media, we rarely have the information we need to make an informed judgment of another human being.

The accused in the news is rarely accused of a specific crime (at least by the news media itself), and so we can almost never determine whether or not the elements of the crime have been satisfied; we don’t know the facts from the perspective of the victim and the accused; we only have access to biasing and prejudicial news reports; most frequently, the people making the most noises about the allegations are people with pre-exiting biases and prejudices that make them the least reliable sources of information.

When it comes time to pass judgment, we have no ability to mete out justice with proportionality. When it comes to internet justice, there are really on two settings; shame and ostracism or not guilty. And the latter verdict is in short supply.

In sum, judging someone based on headlines violates all the principles our society has established for due process under the law. It’s the quintessence of prejudice.

VIII.

I was in my last year of law school at Duke when the Duke lacrosse scandal blew up. A couple of times, I had television reporters interrupt my daily runs to try to get me to talk on camera about what had happened.

Both times my response (to the reporters, not on camera) was the same.

“I have no idea. I wasn’t there, and I don’t know anybody who was.”

IX.

The problem with trying to make an informed judgment of another human being is that to do it right requires a lot of work. You can’t read just one article. To have any hope of completeness, you’d need to read multiple sources from multiple perspectives. You have to carefully consider their potential biases.

Which leaves you with two bad options: spend tons of time online researching the potential impropriety of someone’s actions you probably don’t know and will likely never meet, or make an uninformed judgment based on incomplete information. The former is almost certainly a waste of time and energy and the latter is horribly unfair.

X.

The weird thing to me is the instinct I feel I have to opine on every matter of public discourse—and think that I’m providing a social good by doing so. As if I’m helping society by spreading misinformation. And I think many people, like me, feel a little guilty when we don’t do this. As if we’re not pulling our weight.

I recently argued that it’s much better not to have a strong opinion about most things most of the time. Holding strong opinions with insufficient information shows an unhealthy lack of epistemological humility. There’s too much news and information out there for any one person to process. It’s ok to just leave most of it unattended and unprocessed. But it occurs to me that this doesn’t come naturally.

XI.

Perhaps an evolutionary explanation for the instinct to judge always and everywhere is our ancient history in much smaller bands. It’s well documented that until about 10,000 years ago, which is to say through most of human history, people lived in small bands of about 150 or less. In communities that small, you’d definitely want to seek out and eliminate all suspect behavior, because it could impact your survival and the survival of your family if you didn’t.

But in online communities of millions and billions, where, because of the law of large numbers, lots of people are always going to be doing bad things, obsessing over everyone else’s perceived misconduct is almost never a good use of time. You could easily spend your whole life studying the details of violent crimes and never scratch the surface of all that’s out there, with little or no benefit to you or your community.

The instinct that was critical in bands of 150 is wasteful and unhealthy in the online communities we have today.

XII.

If I am ever on a jury, I plan to take that responsibility seriously. But until such time as I am summoned and bound by law to participate in the formal judgment of another human being, I will do my best to recognize that I almost never have enough information to judge another person, and that I’m better off refraining from expressing an opinion as to their guilt or innocence.[1]

It’s important to notice that we have this instinct to constantly judge, but that it’s probably not in our best interests if we do.

[1] Here, I think it’s important to distinguish “judging” in the sense that a certain person should be shamed, banished from public discourse, or lose his or her employment from instances where we make snap judgments like, “do I want to spend time with this person?” or “that guy seems like a jerk.” The latter is inevitable and necessary to function. The former is not, unless you’re formally charged with that responsibility.

Charles Mann on the Challenge of Feeding 10 Billion People

An excerpt in the Atlantic from Charles Mann’s new book, The Wizard and The Prophet: Can Planet Earth Feed 10 Billion People?

What the C4 Rice Consortium is trying to do with rice bears the same resemblance to typical genetically modified crops as a Boeing 787 does to a paper airplane. Rather than tinker with individual genes in order to monetize seeds, the scientists are trying to refashion photosynthesis, on the most fundamental processes of life.

David S. Han writes about whether we need to restrict 1st Amendment protections in light of recent terrorist activity.

But as our history has shown, any protection—a decision that may not easily be reversible—calls for epistemic humility and cautious incrementalism. Adhering to narrow strict scrutiny analysis as an intermediate step to more far-reaching doctrinal revision helps to ensure that any such broad revision is the product of substantial deliberation and made at a sober distance, rather than a knee-jerk response driven by the often distorted perceptions of the present moment.

I only recently discovered Dan Wang’s blog, but I’ve bookmarked it as a new favorite. I particularly enjoyed this post, Violence and the Sacred: College as an incubator of Girardian terror.

Yeah, I didn’t know what that meant either until I read the post. But the gist is that it’s a bad idea to put similarly situated people in the same place and make them compete over the same things.

My 12 Rules for Life

This guy recently published a book called 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. I had never heard of Jordan Peterson until a few days ago, and so have not formed an opinion about him. But then I saw others publishing their own 12 rules for life, so I figured I’d do the same

Without further ado:

1) My rules are arbitrary. So too are everyone else’s.

2) We weren’t designed to live the life we are living. That’s why things feel off much of the time.

3) “Don’t worry about making any one perfect decision, but rather a series of solid, sound decisions.” (Stolen from Sonia Kesselring)

4) “After a full belly all is poetry.” (Stolen from Frank McCourt)

5) Ignore the news. You’ll be happier and have a better view of humanity if you do.

6) All of our status competitions end the same way.

7) When you have a few minutes in between stuff, just space out.

8) A comfortable life won’t be a fulfilling one.

9) Most of the time we have no idea why we do what we do.

10) Humanity trumps ideology.

11) Play.

12) If in doubt, spend more time outside.

The Land of Confusion

Luke Muehlhauser’s excerpts from The Doomsday Machine. I remember growing up obsessed with the risks of nuclear war. It was a very ‘80s thing to be worried about.

But as the decades wore on and there were no nukes, we have become more complacent in our belief that because this hasn’t happened yet, it won’t happen. I would take the other side of that bet, if there were anyone on the other side left to collect on it.

I promise I don’t mean that to come off as negatively as it probably sounds.

Speaking of which, Robin Hanson on Ted Kaczynski’s Collapse Theory.

How did I not know that Bernd Heinrich and Lynn Jennings were a couple?

Charles Mann on the problem of genetic erosion. (Possible subtitle: Convincing peasant farmers in Mexico to create a Starbucks for corn tortillas)

The Best Book on Political Theory I’ve Ever Read

I’ve been reading The Logic of Political Survival by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, and I think it’s the best book on political theory I’ve ever read. Here are a few topics explored in the book:

  • Why two democracies almost never go to war with each other
  • Why democracies almost always win their wars over dictatorships
  • Why dictators tend to have longer terms in office than leaders of democratic countries
  • Why countries with small ruling coalitions tend to be more corrupt
  • Why even the most popular and successful leaders in democratic countries tend to be elected out of office after a relatively short time

It’s very rare for me when almost everything I read in a book is new information. But that has been my experience with The Logic of Political Survival. It’s dense, empirically driven, and historically informative. Highly recommended.

New paper on Anarchy, Blockchain, and Utopia. How blockchain technology might “make it more feasible for individuals to exit political-socioeconomic systems at the level of the system itself and elect to accede freely to institutional systems which formulate, promulgate, keep and verify institutions and public records without a centralised authority.”

Color me very skeptical.

My old law professor at Duke, Neil Siegel, just published a paper about something I’ve been thinking ever since Donald Trump’s presidential campaign took off. The real problem with Donald Trump isn’t so much that he’s committed any grave constitutional violations or that his policies are so very bad. While he may be criticized on both of those fronts, the real problem with his presidency is his blatant disregard for established political presidential norms. By failing to respect the rule of law as a political norm, he has helped to foster what may be an irrevocable distrust in the country’s political institutions. The jury is still out on how this will impact the country long term, but I am nervous that it might not be possible to ever put that genie back in the bottle.

An old post by Cal Newport about how social media companies can only succeed if use of their products is compulsive and unhealthy.

I’m not a huge fan of silent movies, but Buster Keaton is something else.

Sometimes You Can, Indeed, Get What You Want

A great story of how Jason Kottke of Kottke.org got to play an extra on one of his (and my) favorite TV shows, Halt and Catch Fire.

Mr. Money Mustache on Bitcoin.

Calculated Risk’s ten economic questions for 2018. Disagree with this man at your peril.

Will Wheaton reckoning with the reputation of the Star Trek character that brought him to the pinnacle of nerd-frame.

A video entitled Self Promotion.

Happy 2018!

Refined Sugars and Ad Hominem Arguments

I used to have a crap ton of unhealthy habits but a real yen for new year’s resolutions. Sometimes I would even make resolutions while I was engaged in the very act of doing the things I was trying to stop. As a particularly ludicrous example, I remember a few times, years ago, when I would draw up plans or a “resolution” for how I was going to drink less or not at all at the very moment I was drunk and in the process of getting drunker.

Perhaps not surprisingly this never worked. And I eventually came around to figuring out that if I wanted to stop doing something the first step was to just stop doing it.

I.

This year, after celebrating with a few glasses of sparkling water, I went to bed on New Year’s Eve around 9:30, put on a noise cancellation device, and woke up in 2018 feeling all right with the world.

And though I don’t much care for resolutions any more, there are still a few bad habits I’m trying to kick: Namely, I’m trying to give up refined sugars and avoid news sources and people that frequently rely on or resort to ad hominem arguments.

My reasoning for giving up the refined sugars is that they’re a collection of (incredibly delicious but) fattening, tooth-rotting substances with little to no nutritional value. And since I’m not the kind of guy who can eat one or two cookies, it’s best that I avoid them altogether. If it comes to bananas and kale, I’m ok at moderating. But when it comes to pure sugar, I’m like a much paler,  hairier version of the cookie monster.

My reasoning for giving up news sources and people that resort to ad hominem arguments is that they’re (easy to read but) emotionally toxic and make me feel angry and unhappy. I like to say that I don’t like Deadspin, Gizmodo, angry rants on Facebook, Buzzfeed or any of that rubbish, but I still occasionally indulge. And the end result is usually the same as when I eat a bag of cookies: I feel swollen, angry, bloated, and hating the world.

II.

The thing that got me thinking about refined sugars was when I was audiobooking the Eddie Izzard autobiography, Believe Me: A Memoir of Love, Death, and Jazz Chickens. Izzard gave up refined sugar a few years back and rants about sugar in the book early and often. He attributes lots of negative things about his youth and early middle age to his excessive consumption of sugar.

But the line that stuck with me the most was when he said that refined sugar “destroys your tastebuds for real food.”

I had never really thought about it like that before, but it makes sense. The more your diet consists of refined sugars—chemically manufactured products designed to lure us with their sweetness—the more real foods don’t seem quite so appealing.

III.

The thing that got me thinking about ad hominem arguments was the recent Sam Altman blog post about how he felt more comfortable talking about sensitive topics in China than in San Francisco. And how he thought this was a very bad thing.

I thought Sam made a very intelligent, reasoned, articulate case for the benefits of a society that is conducive to broader free speech norms.

But then of course the entire internet proceeded to shit all over him. Now, if you Google his name, the 4th thing that comes up is a Gizmodo article called “Sam Altman is an Idiot.”

Sam Altman is a Stanford grad, a wealthy and successful entrepreneur, and the head of the most prestigious startup accelerator in the world, at the age of 32. He is most decidedly not an idiot. If you are in a debate with Sam Altman and your initial conclusion is that he is an idiot, then that probably says more about you than it does him.[1]

But that is the internet we have today.

I happen to agree with Sam. But I can appreciate that there is an intelligent, reasoned position on the other side of the debate. There is no easy way for a government or society to restrict the kind of speech we believe is unhealthy for our society while allowing the good stuff to get through, but it is possible that it can be done better than the US does today. And it is possible that the healthiest equilibrium is one that further restricts speech.

Since Sam is smarter than I am, I suspect he knows this, too.

But there was precious little reasoned counter-argument to Sam’s post. Instead, there was plenty of this.

IV.

At first, I didn’t think there was any connection between refined sugar and toxic online debates. And on the surface there is not. But over time, I started to notice how both began to seem very much alike.

They’re both easy and ubiquitous. And getting more easy and ubiquitous all the time.

Refined sugar is everywhere in the grocery store. Granola bars? Check. (Supposedly healthy) Soups? Check. Emergen-C for when you’re sick? It’s the first and the second ingredients. Fancy yogurt? Tons of it. It’s in damned near everything that comes in a package. It’s quick, tasty, tempting, and easy. And ad hominem arguments, they’re really easy, too. It’s easier to call someone you disagree with an idiot than it is to explain why you think they’re wrong—or to use your best efforts to persuade them on why they might change their mind.

V.

I’ve had a blog for more than two years now! After two years and 170 posts, it’s had literally (barely) thousands of readers.

The most popular article I’ve written thus far is called the Hyperevolution of Hyperstimulus. It’s about why capitalism is making it harder every day to be healthy.

Our sweets are getting sweeter and our booze is boozier and our drugs are getting more potent. Our social media are getting better at devouring our time and attention resources, our streaming TV channels are getting better at making us binge, and our news sources are getting better at getting our clicks. Those sites that don’t pull off this feat cease to exist. The ones that survive keep getting better at getting and keeping our attention.

This means that our entertainment today and our tasty treats are more enticing than at any time in human history. Yay 2018! But it also means that it’s never been harder to resist these temptations. Boo 2018!

VI.

A nuanced, thoughtful discussion is a like a kale green salad with cashews and a touch of lemon. A personal attack on a celebrity is like Count Chocula with chocolate milk and extra marshmallows. Or, if you’re an adult, it’s high-end Malagasy chocolate with caramel and sea salt. You know the former is better for you, but man, chocolate, caramel, and sea salt?

VII.

I remember the first time I ever went online, back in 1995. I couldn’t tell you why now, but whatever reason, the first thing I thought to do was to see what I could find about one of my favorite bands, an obscure country-rock jam-band outfit from San Francisco called Dieselhed.

As a teenager growing up in suburban Denver, I didn’t know a single person who liked Dieselhed. But online I found so many—a whole world of people who traveled around the country to watch their shows, record live tapes, and exchange Dieselhed music.

I knew at that moment, then and there, that I had found my people.[2] I knew, then and there, that after the internet, nothing would be ever the same.

VIII.

If Gizmodo had written an article in response to Sam Altman’s post with the headline, “Contra Sam Altman, here are seven reasons why social shaming of certain forms of speech will provide greater benefit to society than allowing them to continue,” nobody would have read the article. Since their actual post title, “Sam Altman is an Idiot” is the 4th thing that comes up when you Google the man’s name, we can safely assume that lots of people did read it. Or, at least, clicked on the link.

XI.

Avoidance of hyperstimuli is more about what’s left after you get rid of the sugar high than it is about dumping the sugar high.

In lives with less porn, endless sugar, obsession with athletes who play sports on TV, and Netflix and chill, there is more love-making, nutritious food, play, and real human interaction.

And in a world with less shouting online, there is more calm and quiet. There is less feeling that our society, our world, and our own lives are damaged beyond redemption.

X.

We know that salad is better for us than gooey marshmallows. The question, of course, is what do we do with this information?

We could picket our local grocery store with a sign that says, “Down with Frosted Flakes!” but something tells me that’s not likely to be effective. And so, too, an organized boycott of Deadspin and Gizmodo and all sites of their ilk is unlikely to change much.

I believe in nudges and thoughtful choice architecture, but there’s a limit to how well that will work. Because if Facebook optimized for what was healthiest for you, rather than what was most likely to attract your attention, it would just be replaced by another social media platform that was better at getting your attention.

Capitalists are as content to sell you a Hanes t-shirt as a Coach purse. Businesses are looking to make money, and they’re willing to cater to those who want to blend in and to those who want to stand out. They’ll sell you sugary snacks or rolled outs or anything in between. People will find a way to sell you what you want to buy.

Right now, we’re buying (by clicking the links for) the shouting online. We’re buying the insults. We’re buying the personal attacks.

I have the sphere of influence of a small rodent. I know that this blog post will not move the needle of online discourse. But I’m hopeful this resolution (totally unrelated to the turning of the calendar year) to avoid toxic online conversations and people will improve my life. That I’ll be less anxious and upset. That I won’t have that constant, unrelenting feeling that the world is rotten to its core.

As I learned with Dieselhed way back when, there are niches for everything online. It’s just about grooming your little online garden so that it’s a reflection of the life you want. Maybe Metallica’s fan pages were 100,000 times more popular than Dieselhed’s—I’m sure they were. Doesn’t matter.

It’s good enough that you can find your people, and to know that they’re out there.

[1] There are plenty of intellectual types who resort to this garbage, too. One writer who’s recently lost me is Nassim Taleb. I’ve enjoyed much of his writing, particularly this, but then there’s stuff like this, where he calls intellectual-yet-idiot a class of caricatured straw academic who, as best as I can tell, is just a composite of the opposite of him. Sure, he’s a smart and often innovative thinker. But name-calling is still just name-calling. It’s lazy and cheap. It doesn’t reflect well on you even if you’re a writer of Nassim Taleb’s stature (particularly if you’re a writer of his stature).

[2] I never actually became friends with any of those people.

Haidt on the Age of Outrage

Jonathan Haidt on the Age of Outrage. Long, but worth reading in its entirety.

Eliud Ngetich does a fartlek workout in Central Park in NYC. Like a bullet train speeding by cars stuck in second gear.

The same workout in Eldoret, Kenya.

Slate Star Codex on the risks associated with Adderall. I was on Concerta, which is essentially time release Ritalin, from 2006-2010. I developed a tolerance for it where I basically stopped noticing its effects. But, despite the tolerance I had acquired, I also noticed once I had started getting back into semi-serious running that it was causing me to have an elevated heart rate, about ten beats a minute higher than it would have been otherwise. That was compelling enough to make me give it up.

A Beneficial Ruse

One of the only successful surgeons of the 19th century was a woman who pretended to be a man her entire adult life, because that was the only way she could practice medicine at the time.

Last week, my old college cross-country teammate became the first person to coach two separate athletes to national cross-county titles. Congrats, John!

Hugh Hefner died this year. His personality and character left plenty to be desired. Part of me wonders whether his death was a nice bookend to the era of when old men traded power for sex in an open and shameless way, or in a covert and shameful way, and when they were sometimes glorified for doing so.

Without justifying any of that crap, Playboy, the actual magazine, had some genuinely great moments.

On a more pleasant note, here’s a heart-warming video, just in time for the Holidays. It’s a compilation of Russians doing very kind things, filmed on dash cams.

Why Deny the Obvious, Child?

Yesterday, I read this article on FiveThirtyEight about whether, “Passing The Tax Bill [Would] Help The GOP In 2018?”

The conclusion was “probably not.”

I tend to agree, but not for the reasons mentioned in the article.

The tax cut won’t go into effect until 2018. Which means that the effects of the tax cut won’t be felt by most people[1] until April 2019. Whatever the impact of the policy—good, bad, or indifferent—its actual consequences won’t come about until well after the 2018 election.

But somehow in a 1500-word article about whether the tax bill would help the GOP in 2018, the fact that its impact would happen after the election never seemed worth mentioning.

As Hanson would say, politics is not about policy.

Why deny the obvious, child?

[1] Except for those who estimate taxes quarterly, which is only about 10% of the population.