Monday, September 26, 2005

Petit is beautiful; grand, not so much

So my grand jury duty is over (as of 9/1, to be precise). Just in time, because it was starting to get old, what with getting up well before noon to truck (bus) down to the county courthouse and all. Also, of course, most of the cases they presented took no thought at all on our part. Again, grand juries hand down (or "up," actually) indictments, not verdicts, and all we hear is the prosecution side. And naturally the cases they are most likely to pursue are the ones where the guy clearly did it, and probably won't ever go to trial, having pleaded it out once we indict.

So a lot of the time it goes like this (drug cases are the worst), reminding one uncannily of a Socratic dialogue:
Prosecutor: You were on duty on the afternoon of March 22, 2005, correct?
Witness [invariably a police officer]: Yes, that's right.
P: And you pulled over a car which was going 80mph in a 50mph zone?
W: Yes.
P: You asked the driver for his license and registration?
W: That's correct.
P: And then you noticed a glassine bag filled with a greenish-brown vegetation which you took to be marijuana?
W: Yes.
P: ... and which was later tested at the police lab and determined actually to be marijuana?
W: Yes, that's correct.
P: And it was determined to weigh 8.26 grams?
W: Yes.
P: And you also saw another glassine bag with a whitish powdery substance?
W: I did indeed.
P: ... which was later tested at the police lab and determined to be cocaine?
W: It is as you say, o madam prosecutor.
P: And cocaine is a derivative of the coca leaf?
W: Only children and fools would disagree.
You might be wondering why this isn't "leading the witness." The answer is that the prosecutor has the police report in front of her and she's picking out the key facts that show what happened to be the particular crime she says it is (we don't want to hear every insignificant detail). It gets to be testimony because every few phrases the witness puts in a "that's correct." I bet police officers hate grand jury appearances. And yes, most of the prosecutors were women (real ones, though, not impossibly cute ones like on Law & Order).

By the way, they have to say that part about the coca leaf every time because the law in question doesn't actually mention "cocaine," just "derivatives of the coca leaf." One prosecutor told us (after the case) that there's one law which was on the books for some time before they corrected it (I think they corrected it!), where the legislature had made a mistake, and the law read "process" where it should have said "proceeds" -- so each time, the prosecutor had to get the witness to talk about "process" instead of "proceeds." So by now that's a fairly well established way of talking. Interesting method of language change.

Sometimes it goes like this:
Prosecutor: After making the buy, you then engaged in a drug-related conversation with the suspect?
Witness: Yes, I did.
P: ... during which he affirmed that the drugs were of a particularly high quality?
W: Yes.
I always wanted to know (you're allowed to ask questions, and they're actually very patient at repeating or explaining things, but I didn't feel like I could mess with them for my own amusement) if the witness could remember the actual words of the "drug-related conversation." After all, the suspect surely didn't say "I hereby affirm that the drugs which I have sold you are of a particularly high quality." I swear I saw a hint of a smile on one detective's face at this point, as if amused by the incongruous legal language.

And yes, over the course of 9 weeks and some 75 cases with several hundred charges, we indicted Every. Single. Time. Exceptions: a couple of times they asked us not to indict (the decision not to prosecute came so late in the process that we had to not-indict in order to clear the case from the system). Not all votes were unanimous though. I guess it's worthwhile, if it keeps flimsy cases from going to trial. Plus I got paid $5 per day (check to arrive in 6 to 8 weeks), plus coffee vouchers (I saved them up and got an egg sandwich on week 7) and a Certificate of Appreciation!

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

The third what now?

Tonight on the news there was a woman from San Francisco, or at least California, who said that a while back (before 9/11) there was a FEMA drill or simulation that dealt with three scenarios: a terrorist attack on NYC, a hurricane in NO, and an earthquake in SF, and what with the first two having come to pass, she was "waiting for the third shoe to drop." It's clear what she means, of course, but that struck me funny.

Oh, and there's a new Philosophers' Carnival.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Feat of Clay

I had seen the blog 3 Quarks Daily listed on a blogroll or two, but I didn't go there until last month, when I discovered that it rocks, although it overwhelms one with material (more like 3 kazillion quarks per second if you ask me). A natural comparison is Arts & Letters Daily, rather than a proper blog, and more geared toward science and global culture than the latter site. Check it out!

I also discovered that it's run by a friend of mine from grad school whom I had lost touch with. How about that! In a post last month, Abbas tells us of his great admiration for Muhammad Ali (i.e., "The Greatest," as opposed to "the Great One," who is someone else entirely), and urges us to see the documentary film When We Were Kings, the story of the 1974 Ali-George Foreman fight known as "the Rumble in the Jungle" (the Zaïrean jungle, to be specific).

So I did that, and I was very impressed. I had forgotten the details – I was a mere lad at the time, and I have to confess that, although, or perhaps because, I was not a boxing fan then, I was rooting for Foreman, because I thought Ali was kind of a hot dog (true enough, but as they say, it ain't bragging if you can do it), and Foreman was the highly favored champion (which seems more like a reason to root against him, but there it is). The fight was promoter Don King's doing, and it was a big pan-African extravaganza, with lots of publicity and concerts and Ali mouthing off and Foreman glowering. The music footage is great, with James Brown in fine form, but the best part is Ali riffing on black pride and African unity and (on) stomping on Foreman's defeated body. And then, finally, the fight itself, with Norman Mailer and George Plimpton, of all people, giving their reminiscences (and there are some great stills with Plimpton and Don King). At the end there's an amazing sequence of photographs of Ali with everyone from Malcolm X to the Beatles.

I missed my favorite piece of historical footage though. In an interview which must have been after the first Liston fight, though I'm not sure, Ali is exultant, naturally, and yells: "I'm pretty! I'm a baaad maaan!" Classic Ali – I wonder why they left it out.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005


Long time no blog. Sorry about that - I really do mean to make it worthwhile for people to stop by now and then. I'm teaching a class this semester in an area of philosophy that is (*cough*) not my specialty, so it's taking a lot of work to overprepare for it. MavPhil has a saying: nulla dies sine blogposta (with a macron on that last "a", I suppose, to mark the ablative), but that's going to be a non possum. Let's try for every week.

Here's something you will have missed if you don't read the ridiculously short New Yorker letters page. In the 8/22/05 issue, Jim Holt, who clearly has some background in philosophy, though it's not clear how much, reviewed that old Frankfurt article (I mean "new book"), as well as Simon Blackburn's new popular effort, Truth: A Guide. I like Holt's work, but sometimes he's in over his head. (Hell, I think Blackburn's in over his head too, but these are particularly deep and treacherous waters.) In the article Nietzsche plays his standard role as proto-pomo looney tune; I'm surprised Brian Leiter didn't blow a gasket, given what he said the other day about that relatively innocuous Times book review about Curtis Cate's Nietzsche biography.

I sent in as short a letter as I could manage, "leaving the hash Holt makes of Nietzsche to the outraged Nietzsche scholars," but they didn't print it. In today's issue (9/18), though, there is a letter from a Michael Stern of Eugene, Oregon:
Jim Holt, in his discussion of Simon Blackburn's new book, "Truth: A Guide," says that Blackburn "accuses Nietzsche of sloppy thinking" (A Critic at Large, August 22nd). Holt argues that Blackburn's protest arises from Nietzsche's claim that we are limited by our perspectives. However, this is to ignore the Nietzschean "will to power," which interprets, and seeks to engage with, as many perspectives as possible. Nietzsche sought to describe the complex relations between perspectives and how we organize the multiplicity of existence as knowledge. Simplifying Nietzschean perspectivism in this way effectively pulls the teeth of a complex argument in order to declare in the next moment that it has no bite.
Well said! In fact, that's the best short explanation of the connection between will to power and perspectivism in Nietzsche that I've seen. W.t.p. engages other perspectives in order to dominate them (naturally). It sees (we see) difference as disagreement (that is, as someone else's error), and it attempts, Borg-style, to assimilate the truth available from other perspectives into our own while quashing the error, and thereby showing/manifesting its own superiority. Of course that's not always possible (but tell that to the w.t.p.). Note Stern's cognitivist, rather than skeptical or relativist, account of perspectivism: our (re-) organization of the multiplicity of existence results in knowledge. And if "describing the complex relations between perspectives" is what perspectivists do, then I need not feel self-conscious in appealing to Davidson and Wittgenstein in pursuing a "perspectivist" project (for which I have taken some guff).

This was much better than my own letter, which basically said:
Jim Holt has Sidney Morgenbesser saying "The trouble with pragmatism is that it's completely useless." I heard it this way: playing off the supposedly pragmatist claim that "truth is what works," he said "Pragmatism is true, but it doesn't work." This is quite different (look again at that first part).
Come to think of it, I may even have heard him utter those very words (recalling his remark for us, that is, not making it for the first time).

Saturday, September 03, 2005

I have arrived

I got my first comment spam today (see below). I'm so proud! Let's see if Blogger's word verification thingy works. (Let me know if it doesn't.)

For all x, x ≠ love, you = Baby, I cannot give you x

Watching [name of movie revealed below] recently, I was reminded of my intemperate comments a while back about Bringing Up Baby, a movie which left me cold, so I went back just now and added a second thought or two, moderating the intemperance a bit (only a bit though).

So what movie was it that brought BuB to mind? Was it The Philadelphia Story, or maybe His Girl Friday? No and no (good guesses though). No, it was the only other movie I know of in which a character sings the song "I Can't Give You Anything but Love, Baby" – not as a musical performance but rather for some extra-musical reason. In BuB Kate and Cary sing it in order to pacify/retrieve Baby the leopard; here nightclub owner Cosmo Vitelli, away from the club on the desperate errand of the film's title, phones to check in on how his somewhat erratic troupe of entertainers is faring in his absence. Unfortunately the bartender to whom he is speaking is little help – he doesn't even know the songs they sing, even after seven years in Cosmo's employ – so Cosmo sings the song in question to remind him which number it is (it doesn't help).

Yes, I refer here to John Cassavetes's The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, with the inimitable Ben Gazzara in a tremendous performance. The Criterion Collection has several Cassavetes releases out, but this is the first one I've seen (I think the only other Cassavetes film I've seen at all is Gloria, which for some reason was remade recently with Sharon Stone, iirc). I will be checking the others out for sure, because KCB was really something. I'm not sure it's a great film, but wow, what a compelling time capsule. The CC release has two discs, one with the original 1976 version, which apparently bombed, and a 1978 reissue which is half an hour shorter. I watched the latter, and it's hard to imagine that the edit didn't improve the film substantially. It's bursting the seams of the narrative as it is – any more scenes with the performers, say, or his girlfriend's family (interesting as they were), would definitely overload it, resulting in the flabby mess the critics undoubtedly said the first one was. On the other hand, now I would like to go back and check the other one out (but it was due back at the library). Kudos to CC for giving us the different versions complete, rather than only the latter plus "deleted scenes."

Anyway, Gazzara is terrific as the reflective would-be big shot in over his head, who still manages, somehow, to hold his own (or so it seems ...). The atmosphere is pure '70's: besides the surreal dialogue (love those gangsters) and perversely ruminative pacing, there's lots of underlit scenes (in the nightclub and out), casual showgirl nudity, and intimate handheld shots. Of course if this is your idea of heaven, you're already way ahead of me. It's not mine, exactly, but I'm certainly looking forward to more. Although KCB is supposedly atypical (the blurb says that JC "engages film noir in his own inimitable style," which makes it sound like a one-off deal), I hear A Woman Under the Influence is pretty good.