Category: Culture

17

The Pleasure Of Transgression: Foie Gras And Other Crimes

Two things people seem to like: duck liver and lawbreaking. Yesterday, in Chicago, diners and restauranteurs revelled in the transgressive pleasure of eating foie gras. They ate it on Connie’s pizza (and let me confess a profound soft spot for Connie’s, where my dad used to take me before White Sox games); they enjoyed it at Harry Caray’s; and they even chowed down at BJ’s Market & Bakery, a soul food joint on Stony Island (on the South Side, where I grew up.) But Chicago recently adopted an ordinance banning the sale of this fatty food product on the grounds that the ducks and geese that provide the delicacy are abused. The restaurants serving foie gras yesterday were breaking the law.

Both the Trib and the NY Times featured the story of the outlaws who ate the evil liver. (Curiously, these two stories covered remarkably similar ground. I’m thinking that either these reporters are copycats or someone put out a press release directing eager reporters to the same dining establishments.) It’s clear that restaurant owners and customers were downright happy to break the law. But wait a minute. This is the law here! That incredible institution that must be respected, lest the entire society be put at risk. Or not.

Law-breaking is a powerful source of pleasure for many people. We elect representatives to set speed limits, and routinely violate them. Those same legislators create open liquor ordinances which we flout at outdoor concerts, parades, and other festive occassions. They ban gambling, and we ignore them. Even Justice Rehnquist got into law breaking; his chambers sponsored the NCAA pool at the courthouse and he even he hosted an election night pool involving the ’92 Bush-Clinton race.

Crime isn’t the only transgressive pleasure. Take the briefest detour down the path of the Internet Porn Machine – or save yourself the effort, and read your spam folder – and you’ll soon discover a smorgasbord of socially-proscribed delights. Smoking cigarettes has become much cooler now that it’s prohibited everywhere. And let’s face it. Eating super-fatty meat products like foie gras has become a social violation in many quarters. But the truth is, people love actual lawbreaking. Sure, if nothing else is on the tube, we’ll watch the CSI team fight crime. But true TV pleasure comes when we root for Tony Soprano, cheer for the Hendrickson family on Big Love, or laugh with the 420-ready housewife on Showtime’s Weeds.

Many criminal laws are designed to protect society from serious harm. Others are less essential, and reflect the preferences of particular powerful groups. And in many respects, the best way to show opposition to the ruling majority – to take a public stand against the regulators and with our nation’s wild past – is to break a few laws. Or perhaps less dramatically, lawbreaking is one small way to assert one’s individuality against the rigidity of state regulation.

Over the years, I’ve met my share of self-described rule-followers. But scratch the surface and you’ll usually find these people have identified at least one offense that they deem unworthy of respect. Or simply well-suited to producing the pleasure of transgression.

2

AOL’s Treasure Hunt for Spammer’s “Nazi” Gold

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AOL is prospecting for gold. Literally. CNET reports that AOL won a $12.8 million verdict against three men one of whom is Davis Wolfgang Hawke, an alleged neo-Nazi and spammer sending ads pushing penile implants and diet pills. The judge in the case “granted a motion giving AOL the right to any property that Hawke left with his parents or his grandparents.” So AOL is planning on using sonar and radar to search Mr. Hawke’s parents’ property. His parents, Hyman and Peggy Greenbaum, (according the article Mr. Hawke changed his name from Andrew Britt Greenbaum to cover his Jewish heritage) are not pleased and think their son is not a spammer and that “their son would [not] be ‘stupid’ enough to bury gold bars on their property.”

Curiously, CNET reports that Mrs. Greenbaum believes gold bars do exist, just not on her property. She also thinks her son is hiding in Belize.

With all the oddity on the defendant’s side, AOL’s spokesperson may be the winner in the understatement category as he noted “This particular defendant may have a colorful and outrageous history–there are some conditions that might make this case unique” but asserted that AOL always goes after assets and property and cited past examples such as AOL’s taking a Porsche, a Hummer, and gold coins.

So my question is does AOL sell these items on its site or on eBay?

1

Ain’t Them People Funny!

It’s been an awful long time since I booted up and got blogging. A lot has happened in the past month. Lets see: there was that vacation in Seaside, Florida. Then there was my final week in Alabama, during which Isadly packed up my office at UA and made my last, long drive home from Tuscaloosa to Birmingham. Next came the move to Philadelphia and Drexel University College of Law. I took a detour to the fabulous National Association of Sentencing Commissions conference where I visited with favorite crim profs Doug Berman and Ron Wright and gave a talk about the rebirth of rehabilitation in the juvenile justice system. And then back to the mines.

I haven’t had the inspiration to blog – or even to navigate to the “create new entry” page of MovableType – until I stumbled upon Stuart Elliott’s Advertising column in yesterday’s NYTimes. Nothing gets me stoked like hearing about a New Yorker discover culture in the Sticks. Elliott shops at a SuperTarget. (Hello! Is there any greater joy? Can you believe that, now that I’ve moved, my nearest SuperTarget is 193 miles away?) He’s impressed that folks in Alabama and Florida quaff Starbucks and Wal-Mart shoppers buy organic. He’s inrigued that a Super-8 motel would offer free WiFi. He’s also tickled by all the religious billboards.

The article wasn’t explicitly condescending, and perhaps wasn’t condescending at all. But if not, it certainly evidenced the kind of narrow world view that people in the various cities he visits – Birmingham, Tallahassee, Indianapolis, and the like – expect of Northeasterners. Because in the end, most New Yorkers probably read the column and thought “very interesting.” And readers from the 42 (or so) not-so-cosmopolitan states probably thought “only a New Yorker would be surprised to discover that Starbucks has drive-throughs.”

It reminded me of a classic opinion by Federal Judge Samuel Kent, writing in Smith v. Colonial Penn Insurance Co.:

Defendant should be assured that it is not embarking on a three- week-long trip via covered wagons when

it travels to Galveston. Rather, Defendant will be pleased to discover that the highway is paved and

lighted all the way to Galveston, and thanks to the efforts of this Court’s predecessor, Judge Roy Bean,

the trip should be free of rustlers, hooligans, or vicious varmints of unsavory kind….

.

As to Defendant’s argument that Houston might also be a more convenient forum for Plaintiff, the

Court notes that Plaintiff picked Galveston as her forum of choice even though she resides in San

Antonio. Defendant argues that flight travel is available between Houston and San Antonio but is

not available between Galveston and San Antonio, again because of the absence of a commercial

airport. Alas, this Court’s kingdom for a commercialairport! The Court is unpersuaded by this

argument because it is not this Court’s concern how Plaintiff gets here, whether it be by plane, train,

automobile, horseback, foot, or on the back of a huge Texas jackrabbit, as long as Plaintiff is here at

the proper date and time. Thus, the Court declines to disturb the forum chosen by the Plaintiff and

introduce the likelihood of delay inherent in any transfer simply to avoid the insignificant

inconvenience that Defendant may suffer by litigating this matter in Galveston rather than Houston.

Defendant will again be pleased to know that regular limousine service is available from Hobby

Airport, even to the steps of this humble courthouse, which has got lights, indoor plummin’, ‘lectric doors,

and all sorts of new stuff, almost like them big courthouses back East.

1

Evidence Against Moussaui Availabe Online

According to the NY Times, the U.S. District Court that tried Zacarias Moussaoui has posted all trial exhibits online here. (Right now, perhaps due to traffic, I cannot access the site.) Among the exhibits, apparently, are tape recorded 911 calls from victims.

This transparency may be a good thing, but it will also have the effect of producing substantial traffic (and, probably,revenue) for various news and entertainment outlets. As I have written elsewhere, the media is always hungry for salacious, uncopyrighted content. The Starr Report was a boon for publishers and websites. This new release will probably also be very valuable. I wonder whether any publishers will repackage this stuff for sale. I feel confident it will drive traffic to various sites – CNN, the New York Times, and no doubt many blogs – as people look for access to the juiciest pieces of evidence.

2

Amazon’s Text Stats and a Little Orwell

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Watching changes on Amazon.com is a good way to see how much one’s information can be stretched. The continual refinement of suggested books and other items is a little disturbing, but it often yields titles that I find useful. The Gold Box with its game show approach to sales is an example of the information mining. To use the Gold Box one clicks on the box and then one is offered an item that ususally relates to something you purchsed before or at least looked at. When the item is on screen, one must choose between accepting the sale offer or passing on it to see the next offer with no chance to go back to the previous offer. All decisions must be made within one hour of opening the box. I have opened the box a few times and am often surprised by some of the items that show up in there. Given how often Amazon seems to correlate interests, when what seems to be an aberration pops up, I wonder whether it is a random shot to see if it will stick or whether in some deep way Amazon has discerned that I have a hidden desire for vitamins, herbal remedies, or hairdryers. So when I saw that Amazon had added Text Stats I had to poke around. After all who knows what information would come my way by seeing the statistics (whatever they may be) on a book?

I found that not all books have this information but it seems that when publishers play along Amazon will give a book’s statistics including syllables per word; words per sentence; total number of characters, words, and sentences; and my favorites, the “Fun Stats,” words per dollar and words per ounce. Amazon takes this information and gives scores for Readability (explained below). Apparently the Bible, depending on the edition, requires either a twelfth grade reading level or a tenth grade reading level . Yet, one study of government Web sites states that “half of Americans read[] at no higher than the 8th grade level.” You may draw your own conclusions.

Text stats also gives information about where the book is in relation to all other books (and in some cases one can compare within classes of texts). So I started to poke around and it seems that (if we take the numbers seriously and there is reason not to do so when one examines exactly what readability means) perhaps the best writing correlates to simpler writing which reminded me of Orwell’s Politics and the English Language but I’ll get to that later. To have fun and play with that idea I looked at the Modern Library’s list of 100 best novels to see how they compared to all text in the Amazon set and then within literature.

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1

Cruel and Unusual?

A British appellate court has ordered a lower court to watch Jerry Springer so that it can resolve a dispute between the distributors of the “Jerry Springer Show” in Britain and a British television company.

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The television company claimed that “By 2001… the ‘vast majority’ of episodes contained content which was unsuitable for daytime viewing and which did not comply with the Independent Television Commission code” and terminated the deal. The distributors claimed breach of contract.

Assuming the article is correct about the content of the order, Lord Justice David Neuberger was not insensitive to the torturous nature of the order:

It must be necessary for the judge who determines such issues to see at least some of the episodes of the two series (although I would strongly encourage the parties to agree a sensible basis upon which the trial judge can reach a conclusion on the two ultimate issues without having to view anything like the totality of all the episodes of both series).

Apparently being downhill has its perils in Britain too.

4

Video Games as Art?

Half-Life CoverSo I’m listening to one of my favorite soundtracks — from the game, Half-Life. Video games are becoming more and more like cinematic experiences. (In many cases, they are being converted into really bad cinematic experiences, such as the Doom movie or Alone in the Dark, but that’s not my point right now.) In addition to soundtracks, video games like Half-Life have plots, scenes, characters, and dialog. A lot of this is rudimentary — the dialog, for example, is pretty limited, and character development is sparse — but it adds a level of depth and complexity to games that only recently were as simple as Space Invaders.

Still, as Roger Ebert pointed out last year, it’s silly to think they rival movies as story-telling formats:

“[V]ideo games [are] inherently inferior to film and literature. There is a structural reason for that: Video games by their nature require player choices, which is the opposite of the strategy of serious film and literature, which requires authorial control.”

Ebert got a lot of hate-mail from gamers for this comment, but I think he’s essentially correct that games are inferior story-telling devices, at least given today’s technology. The more interesting question is whether the loss of “authorial control” that Ebert correctly ascribes as the fundamental difference between a game and a movie makes games “inherently inferior” as narrative devices.

Half-Life and Half-Life 2 illustrate both my points and Ebert’s.

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29

Shoplifting At Wal-Mart

According to NY Times accounts, Wal-Mart has decided to cut shoplifters a bit of slack. If you’re under 18 or over 65, and try to swipe merchandise under $25 (and it’s your first time being caught by Wal-Mart security), they’ll give you a tough lecture and send you packing. Why the generosity? The article suggests – and this is surely true – that the local infrastructure (i.e., the cops and local prosecutors) don’t like to foot the bill for enforcing shoplifting laws. This raises some interesting questions. First, should shoplifting be a crime? Probably, if only because if allowed to grow, it would (in aggregate) devastate retailing. Second, who should bear the cost of shoplifting enforcement? Perhaps the right answer is the retailer. Offenders are the logical payors, but they are often too poor to bear actual costs. And while society at large could pay the cost (and does, right now), it seems to me that it would be easier to impose the tax on the retailer. Why? Because, in many respects, the retailer is in the best position to reduce theft. Cameras, good layout, ever-present security all help reduce attempted thefts. If stores see that they save more than mere shrinkage by stopping shoplifting, perhaps they’ll introduce those preventive steps.

In my experience, shoplifting cases are a major source of docket junk in criminal courts. DA’s typically don’t care much about them. The victims – and there are real victims – are mostly corporations, and these corporations don’t get exercised like other victims. To the DA, the company’s face is the security guard who shows up to testify – and he or she is usually a low-paid worker bee who doesn’t much care the outcome of the case.

Sounds to me like Wal-Mart is just trying to get along better with the local community. Perhaps they should talk to Target, a leader in the national fight against crime, for tips.

27

Who’s Your Daddy?

The New York Court of Appeals has held that:

[A] man who has mistakenly represented himself as a child’s father may be estopped from denying paternity, and made to pay child support, when the child justifiably relied on the man’s representation of paternity, to the child’s detriment. We reach this conclusion based on the best interests of the child as set forth by the Legislature.

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The case is Matter of Shondel J. v. Mark D.

The opinion indicates that under New York law the doctrine of estoppel in paternity matters focuses on the child and as such is gender neutral. The court demonstrated this neutrality by citing to a case where a wife was not allowed to challenge paternity when she had treated and accepted the husband as the father for two and half years before challenging his paternity and “permitted her husband and child to form strong ties together.”

The court also noted that when a man “acquiesced in the establishment of a strong parent-child bond between the child and another man” he would be precluded from asserting paternity because “the child would be harmed by a determination that someone else is the biological father.”

This case reminded me of Jared Diamond’s, The Third Chimpanzee. In that book he noted that one study indicated that 10% of babies in the study were not biologically related to the legal father. One blog has dug into the mistaken paternity numbers issue and lists several studies before concluding that the rate may be closer to 2-4%.

By the way one study seems to show that when a father is pretty certain about paternity the rate of finding non-paternity is low (median 1.7%) but when the father has questions about paternity the rate is high (median 29.8%). The full paper is How well does paternity confidence match actual paternity? Evidence from worldwide nonpaternity rates by Kermyt G. Anderson.

Which bring us to the dissent in the case. Judge Smith argues forcefully that the evidence shows that the mother lied and committed fraud (she swore she did not have sexual relations with any other man) and that the ostensible father did not commit a fraud of any sort and as such should not be subject to the doctrine. The argument denies the majority’s position that the child is the one upon whom the fraud is committed.

The majority opinion countered the dissent by putting the problem this way:

Given the statute recognizing paternity by estoppel, a man who harbors doubts about his biological paternity of a child has a choice to make. He may either put the doubts aside and initiate a parental relationship with the child, or insist on a scientific test of paternity before initiating a parental relationship. A possible result of the first option is paternity by estoppel; the other course creates the risk of damage to the relationship with the woman. It is not an easy choice, but at times, the law intersects with the province of personal relationships and some strain is inevitable. This should not be allowed to distract the Family Court from its principal purpose in paternity and support proceedings — to serve the best interests of the child.

Thus it seems that if someone is in that high doubt range that Anderson documents, he should ask for a paternity test and risk his relationship with his wife.

I do not claim to have an answer here. I am merely teeing this one up to see what comments if any can enlighten me on the issue of when paternity should be found despite a lack of biological connection between the father and child.