Saving the World Part V

Here we go again!

I’ve already posted four previous articles wherein I brilliantly solve some of the world’s most complicated conundrums. Today, I will solve a problem that has plagued every democracy in the world for centuries: the question of capital punishment.

This is all a bit untoward, what?

Capital punishment has been employed since the advent of civilization. When someone commits a crime that marks them as a mortal threat to a community, the only options are complete forgiveness (dangerous), banishment (possible repercussions), imprisonment (costly) or execution (barbarous but effective). Execution became wildly popular because it served two sociological purposes: it rid the community of a mortal danger and it wreaked vengeance for those affected, be they community members or the State itself.

When the world emerged from the horrors of world war in the 20th century, many nations banned capital punishment. It was all too clear how dangerous it was to trust the State with the option of executing its own citizenry. The Western world was quick to ban it. Today in the West, only Belarus and the United States continue to enforce capital crimes. Much of Africa and Asia continue to employ it, including the otherwise pacific people of Japan.

Gosh, look how civilized we are!

I’ve read a few books on the subject, but I won’t bother recounting the moral aspects of the various methods of execution. Instead, I will forward a policy designed to bridge the gap between capital punishment supporters and critics.

To do this, I’ll address the aspects that trouble us:

1) That capital punishment deters others from committing capital crimes;

2) That capital punishment is a just vengeance for survivors of a capital murder;

3) That the State can’t be trusted to fairly enforce capital punishment;

4) That capital punishment is morally reprehensible.

In a nutshell, my plan is the following: remove the power to execute from the State and deliver it to the People as a civil matter. Sound crazy? Then let’s get on with the crazy!

Meet our murderers:
John Smith………………………………….Hank Jones

While every criminal case is different, for my purposes I wish to delineate first degree murder cases into two categories: those based on circumstantial evidence and those based on indisputable evidence. John Smith (not his real name) was arrested after his wife was found dead. Police found forensic evidence at the crime scene and on his person that linked him to the crime. Hank Jones (not his real name) was in a public place and, in front of dozens of witnesses, shot to death three people in an effort to murder a man who he mistakenly believed had cheated him of $60.

Right now, lawyers are already angry with me, as “every case has its details and merits” and “you can’t just categorize so broadly”. But yea, I think I can. So stay with me for a bit.

Let’s assume both men were found mentally fit to stand trial for first degree murder. Both men were convicted of the charges. There are families that want to see these men dead. And there are attorneys who disagree on the particulars of these trials and harbor continued concerns about the convictions. People are calling for The Chair. Others are calling for clemency. What to do? Here’s what I think.

My primary concern is the same of all the other Western democracies: the State cannot be trusted to enforce capital punishment fairly. Liberals, Conservatives and Libertarians should all agree on this point. Hell, we don’t feel the State fairly enforces parking regulations, much less the decision to execute its own citizens! We all know that prosecutors are tasked to convict every clown that shows up in the dock to the furthest extent of the law. They build careers on this. They are  not obliged to be merciful. And they have been historically unconcerned about having prosecuted innocent people. Shit happens, right?

Well, when your zeal leads to an innocent man being executed, you have crossed a line that most civilized nations find unacceptable.

So, since the State cannot be trusted to fairly enforce the power of executing its own citizenry, we are left looking at the other side of the coin. Does society have a vested interest in seeing a convicted murderer executed?

We can take care of this ourselves, right pardner?

I would faithfully submit that every competent study on capital punishment (in America) shows a negligible effect as a deterrent. That just isn’t how murderers think. If it’s not a crime of passion, it’s a crime of single-minded cruelty and vengeance. Pro’s and con’s aren’t being weighed. And that’s why we can’t afford to have these people running loose.

So, the deterrent argument is crap. That leaves us with the moral dimensions. Is it immoral? And should the survivors of a capital crime have the right to see their antagonist executed? Before you say “yes” and “no”, imagine this:

You’re an anti-capital punishment guy at a house party with your spouse, your two young daughters and seven friends. A guy bursts in with a gun and a bomb. He threatens to blow up the bomb if anybody moves. He proceeds to rape your daughters and forces you to watch. Then he shoots both girls to death as you watch. He has a big belly laugh and urinates on the corpses. He did it for fun, and he says you and your spouse are next. Just then, he is overpowered by the dinner guests. He is arrested, arraigned and convicted of two counts of first degree murder. In court, he leers at you and during conviction threatens to rape your spouse and kill both of you afterward. Your life is devastated. You can’t sleep. Your marriage crumbles. You think you are losing your mind. Through a confederate, this guy continues to send you death threats. He just won’t stop.

Do you now feel a need to have this guy executed? Maybe, maybe not. But the moral dimension has surely shifted. Life in prison without parole for this guy may not be enough for you.

Step 1: weight of the evidence.

Let’s look at my plan now.

To begin, I would remove from the State its ability to sentence anyone to death. Life without parole would be the toughest sentence possible. In most cases, and in most civilized countries, this is the end of it. The State is now charged with dealing with this person.

I must stress that according to American law, this person was convicted because they were found guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt”. Reasonable doubt has been a legal football kicked by attorneys for many decades across untold criminal cases, but it remains the Law of the Land. It is perhaps purposefully vague, yet we still observe it.

So, the State can find someone guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. However, that standard does not apply in civil cases. The preponderance of evidence is weighed by a civil judge, and that judge’s decision can be appealed. In most cases, the standards of evidence in civil trials is something less strict than “beyond a reasonable doubt”. It’s a weaker standard. Since execution is irrevocable, any legal standard to execute someone must go the other direction: it must have a substantially higher standard of evidence.

You are hereby remanded to a private execution service!

I would submit that in the case of first degree murder, any person who can show direct damage from the defendant’s actions can lobby a civil court to have that person executed, but with the following caveats:

1) The civil court must find that the evidence leading to conviction was not just “beyond a reasonable doubt”, but that the evidence reached a higher standard that I call “overwhelming and compelling”.

2) If this civil court finds the defendant was convicted with evidence that was “overwhelming and compelling”, the plaintiff can ask the court to remand the defendant to a private facility at the plaintiff’s cost.

3) The defendant can appeal the civil decision.

4) If the appeals fail, the defendant is remanded to a private institution and a fixed date of execution is set. This date cannot be delayed or forwarded.

5) At the private institution, the staff arrange for the defendant to be executed in a manner determined to be neither cruel nor unusual.

6) At the proscribed moment, the plaintiff performs the action that causes the execution to occur.

7) After the execution occurs, the defendant’s family or representatives reserve the right to sue for wrongful death should evidence arise that counters the “overwhelming and compelling” evidence that caused the civil execution case to move forward.

I think this recourse solves the many conflicting aspects of capital punishment. It removes the State from responsibility and places it firmly in the hands of the plaintiffs (the aggrieved party). It filters out defendants who were convicted with less-than-overwhelming evidence. It places a substantial personal and financial burden on the aggrieved party. It causes execution to become personal and extremely rare.

In my estimation, the vast majority of capital cases will be reduced to Life Without Parole. Only the Worst of the Worst will become truly capital cases. And even if a bloodthirsty plaintiff insists on pleading to a Civil Execution court, they remain on the hook for a potential counter-suit. Only the most passionate of the aggrieved will bother.

This will likely result in an effective abolition of capital punishment, but (importantly) it does not remove the concept from public consciousness. We can still consider ourselves to be tough on crime. Yet we will no longer be a nation that lets the State do our killing for us. That is a dangerous policy and my plan solves it.

So, unless you are willing to hound your murderer to the very end of the legal rope, and unless you are willing to do the killing by your own hand, you need to suck it up and accept Life Without Parole as the best possible outcome.

As for the private execution services? I’m sure Halliburton could come up with something.

Is Optical Media Dead?

When Apple released the MacBook Air in 2008, there was a very curious omission in the design: the computer had no optical drive. No CD, no DVD. Sure, you could opt to purchase an external CD/DVD drive, but by purposefully omitting the drive, Apple made a bold statement: “We don’t think there’s any future in optical media.”

Microsoft fanboys and crotchety old coots like me howled in disbelief. After all, we had accumulated massive libraries of software applications, games, music and movies on optical media. What good is a new computer if I can’t put my ancient copy of Cubase on it? And what if I need to burn a music mix onto a CD to give to some chick in an effort to show her how cool and sensitive I am? And what if I need to burn an ISO of a cool program or DVD that I just pirated from the torrents? What about DVD backups of my prOn collection? Hmm? Is Apple crazy?

Like usual, Apple was crazy like a fox.

Go ahead. Live the life!

In the intervening years, optical media started to disappear like like cupcakes in Adele’s pantry. Valve’s Steam download service became the go-to method of obtaining new games and in recent months they have started offering direct downloads of mainstream software applications as well. Netflix and other streaming services obviated the need to collect a bunch of plastic disks of your favorite movies and TV shows. Most folks download “apps” instead of full-fledged programs, and most major developers offer pay download services rather than disks. And music? Who buys CD’s any more? Your grampa?

Media storage has never been cheaper. Terabyte drives, home-based NAS file servers and even cheap USB memory sticks serve the vast majority of people as viable back up systems. You can even back up your stuff to “the cloud”, if you trust corporations to be hands-off with your sensitive files.

It seems Apple was right. Optical media is going the way of the floppy disk. But before we start digging its grave, we should consider the ramifications of our actions.

Physical media comes in many forms.

Before we go flying off into the Fantastic World of Tomorrow, we need to slow down and assess what we’re doing. Ever since Julius Caesar, Aurelian and the Christian Patriarchy took turns burning down the Library at Alexandria, we have to ask ourselves: how can we save our works for posterity?

How many of Edison’s cylinders were ever converted to vinyl? How many vinyl masters and tapes were ever encoded to a CD? And how many CD’s have been ripped to MP3 or similar formats? How much music was lost forever in this endless process of media evolution? What have we lost?

I submit to you the following: we have lost a lot. From early 20th century bluegrass to moldering silent films to wacky girlie magazines of the 1960′s, in our headlong rush for the new we are leaving behind the gemstones of civilization. This is all due to the vagaries of physical media. If we could digitize this stuff with the highest degree of granularity possible, future generations will merely have to perform the comparatively easy task of trans-coding to more modern formats.

Errol Flynn’s first film “Murder at Monte Carlo” – gone forever.

Wikipedia has a list of  lost films. It is far from comprehensive. Only 10% of silent films and early talkies have survived. Of the golden age of film-making (1927-1950), about half are lost forever. Sure, some of those films were boring. But they all contain at least a grain of insight into the minds of the people that created them and the society that watched them. I’m sure a lot of the scrolls in the Library at Alexandria were pretty damn boring, but civilization is far poorer for their loss.

The Library of Congress and similar organizations are making efforts to preserve as much of this stuff as they can. In fact, the next time somebody tells you that everything the government does is worthless and wasteful, do point them to the Library of Congress website. Then ask them to please continue droning on.

Is it enough? No. Optical media is on its deathbed. It’s up to you, the hoarder of CD’s and unpopular DVD’s, to start a digital library of your stuff and start sharing it. That’s right: share it. The copyright nags are the enemy of civilization. For them, there is a dollar value on the scrolls at Alexandria. They insist that society and culture should move forward only at the pace that provides them maximum financial return. Disney is the enemy, not PirateBay.

The Internet is much more than a series of tubes. It is the first ever repository of human knowledge which has an amazing aspect: the ability to reproduce perfectly, endlessly. But if it isn’t in there, it won’t be out there. To that end, I give you Rudy Vallee singing “My Song” from 1925. After all, he wanted you to hear his song!

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All my pretty speeches are a bust
And so I must try something new.
I’ve been sitting up the whole night long
Writing a song all about you.
I don’t care if it’s a big success;
As long as it will change your ‘no’ to ‘yes’…

Chorus:
My song won’t appeal to a lover of art.
My song will reveal what I feel in my heart.
It won’t have so much of Franz Schubert’s touch.
And I can’t begin like Irving Berlin.

My song, though a poet would never OK,
My song, still you know what I’m striving to say.
My words may be crude; the tune may be wrong,
But you’ll find my heart in my song.

 

Ghosts

Haunting your house since time immemorial.

When I was a kid, I watched every cheesy 1950′s horror movie broadcast in the New York City area. Some of them gave me a mild chill while others scared the living crap out of me.  One of them, Fiend Without a Face, fed my nightmares for years. It was about malevolent aliens composed of human brains and spinal cords who were rendered invisible by radioactivity. To this day I try to avoid disembodied nervous systems.

But of all the aliens, monsters, vampires and zombies, the movies that struck me to my core were ghost stories. Why? Ghosts don’t have fangs or claws. They rarely even physically harm anyone. But they stir a primal fear in us. Their mere appearance drives us into paroxysms of horror.

They’re here.

Ghost stories evolved in the modern era, with Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist becoming the high water mark in the genre. Now in full color with full gore, we had connected our historical fascination of ghosts with scientific certainty. Kooks and crackpots exalted and filled bookshelves with ridiculous claims and silly narratives (many of which were read by young library visitors in New Jersey) .

Having matured into a Man of Science, I reject all those silly theories and spine-chilling stories. Yet somehow, I still maintain a nagging fear when I convince myself that somewhere in the darkness a phantasm awaits. Why is this?

I returned to my library books of yore and discovered something quite profound: ghosts are the inevitable manifestation of our warmth for nostalgia. They are the impossible past leaping forward to invade our present. They are deeply personal reflections of our foibles and regrets. This is far more terrifying than the external threat of tooth and claw. Let’s look back on the history of ghosts, then we’ll wrap it up with some observations about modern ghost stories.

Ancient Babylonians had some serious ghost problems.

Ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt had ghosts galore. The spirits of the Dead sometimes languished among the Living and affected their lives. Back then, ghosts weren’t very malevolent. The Roman writer Cicero told the story of Simonides, who buried a stranger’s body he had chanced upon. To return the favor of a proper burial, the dead man’s ghost appeared before Simonides and warned him not to board a ship he was scheduled to sail upon. Simonides took the ghost’s advice and that ship later sank at sea. Thanks, Mr. Ghost!

Pliny the Younger maintained the “unburied dead” concept when he wrote about a house in Athens haunted by a ghost who terrorized the homeowners until a chained skeleton was located beneath the house and properly buried. Ghosts regularly appeared in Homer’s epics, appearing with spine-shivering regularity and delivering warnings that our heroes would ignore at their peril.

Boo!

The Christian era buried the Pagan Gods but retained the myth of ghosts. On the third day after Christ’s interment, the stone was rolled away and Jesus walked out in his burial shroud. His followers immediately freaked out. It’s a ghost! It took some convincing from the risen Christ to convince them he was not a malingering phantom but actually a supernatural manifestation of God, leaving now to take a seat at the right hand of the Father.

Phew! Glad that all got sorted out!

The Roman Catholic church taught that the spirits of the Dead ascended to Heaven, fell into Hell or were held in indefinite limbo in Purgatory. There was no canon for disembodied spirits to walk the Earth, so the Church assumed any such apparition was surely a demon. And thus began the Western tradition of ghosts as malevolent monsters, usually in league with witches.  They caused crops to fail and damned villages. This led to some rather unsavory public policies among European and American societies. Thousands of men and women were burned alive in the quest to stamp out the effects of demonic spirits.

But the ghosts that haunted my dreams were those popularized in the Victorian era. They terrorized us without engaging in murder or slaughter. Their very appearance was their stock in trade: “Malevolence and terror, the glare of evil faces, the stony grin of unearthly malice.” They caused such fear that otherwise sane individuals would go utterly mad and require incarceration in an asylum.

Forevermore!

Edgar Allen Poe became the poet laureate of the spectral apparition. With Gothic pen in hand, he scribbled stories of vengeful spirits haunting the nights of the Living, marking their lives with reproach and guilt. Once again, these phantasms didn’t attack our protagonists with murderous rage. Instead, Poe used vivid descriptions of defiled corpses and eldritch estates to invoke a sense of dread. The ghosts were the inevitable manifestations of our uncertainty about shadows flickering down the hall and odd bumps in the night. The Divine Edgar knew what struck fear in the hearts of the Victorians and he exploited it for all it was worth.

Throughout the Victorian and Edwardian eras, writers continued frightening readers with tales of lurid pasts coming awake to haunt us. From Lord Dunsany to HP Lovecraft, the spectral world was forever reaping the harvest that foolish men had sown.

Cashing in on the craze.

Of course, it wasn’t just Victorian writers making a living from the Dead. An entire industry of “spirit mediums” sprang up, promising to bridge the gap between fictional ghost stories and our everyday lives. For a fee, of course. These charlatans and delusional eccentrics understood the effect of ghosts on the primal consciousness of the average citizen as well as Poe did. The cultural descendents of these con artists continue to operate today.

Yet somehow the lore of the ghost has fallen out of favor in modern times, replaced with rotting zombies and vampires who go to high school. The “Poltergeist” and “Amityville” films renewed the ghost myth in popular culture, but even the laudable “Ring” films were a drop in the bucket of blockbuster werewolf, vampire and zombie outings. A recent series of laughably stupid television programs and “Paranormal” ghost movies continue to exploit our preternatural fear of ghosts, but modern viewers want blood and guts, not bumps in the night.

Modern horror films are less cerebral.

We can attribute this to our truncated attention spans and less-than-introspective lifestyles. If a spy film has no car chase, Hollywood won’t back it. If a horror film has no gore in it, independent studios won’t back it. The days of Vincent Price raising a sharp eyebrow as a clinking noise echoes through a Bavarian castle are long gone.

Surprisingly, it the ghost myth that is most likely to frighten the average person in the night. We don’t assume that creaking noise or muffled footfall is a vampire or a werewolf. Or even a zombie. Instead, we brace ourselves for the possibility that a ghost is in our midst. We squint into the darkness and cast our eyes quickly over our shoulders. Did I just see something? Was that a shadow? How did it move? What is out there? “Hello! Is anybody out there?”

We aren’t calling out to find a person. We are calling out to dispel a ghost. Whether we are successful or not – that is the question. Because if we are not, then we will certainly be faced with a spectral mirage of someone long dead. It may not physically harm us, but it cannot be killed and it cannot be wished away. It has an agenda. And it has nothing to fear, while we have everything to fear.