Monday, December 28, 2009

Refreshingly Old-School Business Acumen's founder and CEO, Jeff Bezos: "I always tell people, if we have a good quarter it's because of the work we did three, four, and five years ago. It's not because we did a good job this quarter."

If only our banking industry "gurus" thought like this.

Not The 'Last Airbender' One, But The Other One

I saw Avatar yesterday afternoon, and while visually it was absolutely breathtaking, and I appreciate the film's (albeit preachy and simplistic) message, unfortunately there was nothing original about the characters or plot: I guarantee that you have seen every character in this film before, and a child could have written the outline of the story.

The two modestly novel ideas that film possessed did not justify the film's three hour runtime. The clownish 'villains' uttered painfully cliche dialog, and the central treasure of the alien world was called "unobtainium." WTF? My fiancee quipped that it was probably a placeholder name that was never replaced, and that as movies are akin to software development projects, one could label that absurdity "going live with a known defect."

One other comment: my experience of the film was also hindered by the 3D glasses, which were extremely heavy and bulky and pressed my eyeglasses down upon the bridge of my nose until I had a headache. I think that was unnecessary.

I can't beat down this movie too much, though. It was a spectacle of entertainment. And as I mentioned earlier, visually, it is a never-ending feast. When I was a boy I used to gaze wistfully at Roger Dean's fantasy art for hours, immersing myself in his fantastic worlds. Apparently James Cameron, and the art designers for the film, had a passion for his groundbreaking art as well - this movie is his art realized in a motion picture. Sitting in the theater with my friends as the credits rolled, I wondered out loud whether Dean had worked on the film. He did not, but I just looked at Roger Dean's personal website, and it appears that I'm not the only one who spotted the rather striking similarities between the film and his work. Not sure what to say about that.


Friday, December 18, 2009

Oh Yeah

I don't know why I haven't spent more of my life making cookies, especially for the holiday season. I intend to rectify this deficiency forthwith. There is little better than that hallowed, delicious enterprise, except perhaps sharing the proceeds of such labors!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Jury Duty

In October I sat among twelve people who convicted a man of first-degree murder. A grim and solemn occasion. The accused was charged with the murder of his infant daughter and the assault of his daughter's mother. The woman, who was six months pregnant at the time, was repeatedly punched in her swollen abdomen by a stranger. The baby girl was born prematurely as a result of the assault, and she died nine days later. The state alleged that the father planned the crime with the attacker, and that in so doing he had procured the death of his daughter.

The prosecution laid out a damning circumstantial case against the defendant, but there was no evidence presented in the trial that directly linked the two men together in this crime. The defense attorney seized upon this apparent factual gap, and in his closing arguments, he brought up an old logical and scientific adage, "you can't prove a negative." He was trying to say that the defendant could never "prove" that he wasn't involved, and since the prosecution did not definitively show that he was, the jury must acquit his client.

I wrestled with this argument during deliberations and afterward. It has a powerful resonance! Did that gap in evidence constitute "reasonable doubt"? But I kept coming back to the judge's instructions: "intent, being a process of the mind, is wholly subjective and may not be demonstrable through direct evidence alone," and again "use the evidence presented, your knowledge, experience, and common sense to reach your verdict."

In the end, the circumstantial case was enough for me. I did my best to persuade my fellow jurors, and together we voted to convict the defendant on all charges: first degree murder with premeditation; second degree murder with intent; and first degree assault, great bodily harm. In a bit of courtroom theatrics, the defendant's brother stormed out, slamming the door with terrific force. But our service was complete.

After the trial, in chambers, the judge revealed that the man who committed the assault, who had plead guilty and is serving forty years for his role in the attack, refused to testify at the last moment. He had been threatened by the defendant that we had just convicted! I think that assuaged some of the jurors who felt that we needed to hear the attacker's testimony in order to convict on all counts. After all, his testimony had been promised in the prosecution's opening remarks, and it would have filled the evidentiary gap in the case. It was the 'pat on the back' that they had done the right thing.

For me, however, it was sobering: in making an argument, I tend to assume a posture of certainty. Whether they realize it or not, I think most people do. It is more expedient; it inoculates oneself against errors and the unknown. Unfortunately, this posture does not help to reveal truth, and can all-too-easily obscure it. Lesson learned. Again.

Apart from the epistemological challenges that I continue to dwell upon in the aftermath of this case, there is also the question of imposing a first-degree murder sentence upon someone for the death of a fetus. In retrospect, I wish I had discussed this question with my fellow jurors. By doing what they did, these men did commit murder; the law is very clear on this point. But it also leaves me unsatisfied. I've been a fairly strong supporter of choice, and I wonder how I can square my vote to convict, these laws, this precedent, and my views on choice.

Does this man deserve to spend life in prison without the possibility of parole because he didn't have the self-awareness, courage, and foresight to ask his girlfriend if she would consider an abortion? I don't know. Why did he have such crippled faculties of mind that he did not so much as ask? I don't know that either.

For the pain he caused and the evil that he did, he will be punished. But I feel pity for him and for the fellow who carried out the assault, for I see them as tragically ignorant fools.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Out of the Woods

In relation to the news cycle, I am as old as a dinosaur and as slow as a snail, but now that I am back to writing, I cannot resist the urge to comment upon Tiger Woods' domestic problems. My initial reaction to all of this was pretty typical for me: "this is nobody's business" and "why must I once again be subjected to 'news' of a celebrity's personal foibles?"

The episode sits squarely at the top of the three-headed monster of race, sex, and class, however, and as such, it demands a bit of attention. Thankfully, coverage that I have seen has been devoid of overtly racial themes. That said, I have been made aware that person(s) known to me, big fans of Mr. Woods prior to the scandal, have made comments about black men, apparently fishing for permission to cast the conversation about Tiger into a racial one. Repugnant, to be sure. But how isolated was that attempt? Probably not as rare as one would hope.

Part of the reason I had to comment upon this story is that I cannot avoid it. Yesterday afternoon in the grocery store checkout line, I was visually assaulted by the tabloids - Us Magazine proclaimed: Mistress: Tiger Woods Told Me He "Wasn't Happy at Home With Wife"; while In Touch screamed: Tiger Tells His Mistress: I WILL LEAVE MY WIFE FOR YOU. The People magazine cover was the worst: Tiger's Wife: Inside Elin's Nightmare. All of these headlines demonstrate a prurient interest in Tiger's exploits, to be sure, but they also reveal gender politics of what I thought was a bygone era. Here in these salacious quotes is writ large: infidelity on the part of a man justifies domestic violence on the part of a woman. Is this the 21st century?

Let's go to Dubai. Why Dubai? It turns out that the richest athlete in history, like every other rich man that walked the earth before him, could not accumulate that kind of wealth without some kind of devilry. The one golf course in the world that bears Tiger Woods's name sits in that desert city; an unnatural oasis that uses four million gallons of water per day, to say nothing of the rest of the city, its appalling labor practices or its centrality to the international sex slave trade.

Nation writer Dave Zirin calls Tiger to task for this and for his corporate deals with Chevron as well. Zirin put it best when he said, "Woods has every right to keep his personal problems personal. But when he makes deals that benefit dictatorships and unaccountable corporations, all in the name of his billion-dollar brand, he deserves no privacy."

Last night my mind wandered to Tiger and his all of this recent media attention as I watched The People Speak. Muhammad Ali, one of the most famous athletes of his time, went to prison and was stripped of his title rather than fight in Vietnam, a war to which he objected. Contrast that to Woods, who would rather collect another few million than come out against barbaric labor practices, child sex slavery, or toxic polluters.

While he's taking time off, presumably to repair the damage he did to his family, Mr. Woods might consider rethinking all of his priorities and reflecting upon what truly makes a life well-lived.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

A Long Absence


After alternatively avoiding and forgetting about this space for a long while, I find that I am at last drawn back to it. After all, I still aspire to be a better writer. But how to sum up the last six months and more? A lot has happened: I got engaged, bought a house, help move my fiancee across country, served as a juror on a murder case, read several books, lost more hair, started a workout program... any one of these things could be fine material for a whole series of entries.

Rather than trying to wax poetic about these events right now, I'll just say that more is on the way. Happy Holidays.