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July 2005

Presumption of Innocence

To be honest, I was gleeful when I saw the news yesterday that Richard Scrushy had been acquitted on all counts.  It's not that I'm convinced that he's innocent.  I don't know what he did, anymore than I know the truth about Michael Jackson or OJ.  Or, for that matter, about the kid accused of burglary on whose jury I sat a couple of years ago, when we found him not guilty.  I do know that in that case I was confident that the prosecution had not proved the charge, and eleven of my fellow citizens agreed. 

What I found so appalling in the Scrushy saga was how quickly the community turned on him.  When I came to Birmingham, a decade ago, Scrushy was the emblem of local country boy done good, and with his vast philanthropy (community colleges and local libraries were his favorite recipients), he appeared to be widely respected and admired.  His country band was proof that he was no straight-laced corporate cutthroat and if he seemed to take excessive enjoyment from his boats and houses and airplanes, well, that is the American Dream, isn't it?  And he earned it after all, didn't he?

Based on the rush to declare him guilty as soon as the charges and countercharges began to mount, one can only assume that much of that admiration was fake, the sycophancy of the envious who were still hopeful that they could flatter him into throwing some of that largesse their way.  Letter after letter appeared in the local newspaper painting him the devil incarnate, who had betrayed and defrauded all those people who had trusted so in him.  And this was before formal charges had even been filed.

The bits of analysis that I've seen so far all still presume guilt, by the way.  The explanations for the acquitals are that it was a mistake to try the case in Birmingham, that Scrushy successfully played the race/religion card, that the prosecution muddied the case by bringing up too many complicated charges and too many witnesses, that the judge was a neophyte in criminal law who appeared unsympathetic to the state, that the lead defense lawyer was "folksy" and that the prosecutors were boring.  I have yet to see anyone suggest that justice has been served.

The trial-by-jury system that we use, which presumes innocence, and places the heaviest burden on the prosecution, is based on a very simple principle -- it is impossible to design a system that can determine, with 100% accuracy, who is innocent and who is guilty.  In any system, some who are guilty will get off, and some who are innocent will be imprisoned (or, in our unbelievably barbaric system, put to death).  A civil society needs to decide in which direction it is willing to err.   We hear, all the time, people gnashing their teeth and railing against the "rights of the guilty".  But all of these complicated processes and rules, which do in fact sometimes result in guilty people getting off, are designed to protect the innocent -- the unjustly accused.

But in this age of screaming media and instapundits everywhere, jumping to judgment is a spectator sport in which everyone is invited to play.  The sooner one makes up one's mind, the sooner one can revel in fuming, frothing indignation over the malfeasance, belligerence, or sheer stupidity of anyone who disagrees.  And when the jury verdict finally comes in, we can trumpet with unshakeable righteousness about whether they got it right, or have made a travesty of the jury system.

The Scrushy verdict signals that the presumption of innocence is not yet quite dead in America, despite how much that horrifies all those people to whom the whole truth is so instantly obvious.

Who was it that said, "Judge not, that ye be not judged?"  Probably some lowlife loser that everybody knew was guilty.


Getting Out of Our Own Heads

A couple of the testers found it odd that we didn't seem to have the word "book" anywhere on our website.   This is from the second round of formal usability testing that we completed this spring.  We did the first round two years ago and made a lot of changes to the site based on that.  We were expecting that fewer major problems would show up this time, and that did turn out to be the case.  But it's always refreshing (illuminating? unsettling?) for librarians to sit down and see how people actually search for information, rather than continually focusing on what we think they ought to do.

The Google effect is apparent.  Librarians have been trained to do a lot of pre-planning -- do we want books or  journals or databases?  Do we care about full-text or are citations enough? What if it's only partial full-text? We approach each of these differently.  Civilians see a search box and throw in a couple of terms.  They're used to browsing a couple of pages of results and seeing what they get.  We still worry about giving them clear instructions about how to get to a book instead of a journal -- for the kind of clientele that we have here, that's not really very relevant. (And what is something like Harrison's Online or InfoPoems anyway?)

The WebEditors got into an interesting conversation about "research tools" -- we maintain a separate listing and don't have very coherent guidelines for what should go there.   Increasingly we're seeing great web resources that some consider "research tools" but that don't fit the profile that others are using.  The definitions that we've used to distinguish different types of materials are breaking down.  It becomes increasingly difficult to be clear about what we're taking about, even when we're just talking to each other.

In some ways, the people who use the resources are far ahead of us in making these conceptual shifts, because they're not bound by the training that we've had.  We're in trouble if we don't spend a lot of time listening very carefully to them.


The Truth Is Invisible

This is why the Downing Street Memos aren't going to cause any real trouble for W's boys, and why they're not the least bit worried:

ABC News:

Downing Street Memo: 0 segments; Natalee Holloway: 42 segments; Michael Jackson: 121 segments.

CBS News:

Downing Street Memo: 0 segments; Natalee Holloway: 70 segments; Michael Jackson: 235 segments.

NBC News:

Downing Street Memo: 6 segments; Natalee Holloway: 62 segments; Michael Jackson: 109 segments.

CNN:

Downing Street Memo: 30 segments; Natalee Holloway: 294 segments; Michael Jackson: 633 segments.

Fox News:

Downing Street Memo: 10 segments; Natalee Holloway: 148 segments; Michael Jackson: 286 segments.

MSNBC:

Downing StreetMemo: 10 segments; Natalee Holloway: 30 segments; Michael Jackson: 106 segments.

(I first saw these figures on PressThink, but they've been posted a number of other places as well).


Who's Listening?

Interesting generational shift that last night at City Stages.  The singer-songwriter stage typically has performers and audience that are older -- mid-thirties on up.  The Miller stage caters to the teens and twenty-somethings.  But Sunday night, it was Government Mule and The Black Crowes at the Miller stage, while relative youngsters Rachael Yamagata and Ryan Adams and the Cardinals dominated the singer-songwriter stage.    My only real complaint with City Stages is the impossibility of being in two places at one time.   I had fantasized that I'd somehow be able to run back and forth a bit and see at least a little of all of them, but by the time evening descended the crowds were too thick.  I'd've spent more time in between stages than I would at either one, so I stuck with the youngsters.

They're writing great songs.  I'd never listened to Whiskeytown when they were still together, but was finally intrigued enough by all the hype around Adams at the time that Gold came out that I picked that one up, and was pretty astonished.   I'd be hard pressed to pick a favorite, but I'll make the claim that "Sylvia Plath" is one of the most amazing songs ever to come out of rock and roll.  So I've followed his stuff more closely since (including going back to some of the Whiskeytown albums) and had been listening to Cold Roses for a few days before Sunday's show.  He didn't disappoint.  Lynn was, I think, a little annoyed by his punk posturing (and I can see why he draws the flack on that score that he does), but musically it was damned fine.  I had not realized what an excellent guitar player he is.  Whoever was running sound for that stage had it cranked up just a little too high, so the vocals were distorted, but it was a minor problem.  I'd go see him again in a heartbeat.

Yamagata was new to me, although Reg has been promoting her pretty heavily in the Birmingham area.   She moved back and forth between guitar and piano accompanied by a great band (including a 'cello -- what is it with 'cellos all of sudden?  We saw at least five, I think, and I know that there were more than that in some of the bands we didn't see) and was very engaging on stage.

All in all, a wonderful way to end the weekend.  I'm inspired to learn some new songs.  I may even write a couple.  I haven't done that in a long time.


Civic Duty

Hub Harrington, the presiding judge, is talking to us about the importance of jury service.  "We're not asking you to go to Iraq; we're just asking you to drive to Columbiana."  I'm sitting in a courtroom with the hundred or so citizens that have been called up for this week's service on the Shelby County Circuit Court.  We'll spend a couple of hours in the morning getting the various panels organized before we're released for the rest of the day.   Mary Harris, the Circuit Clerk, has been doing this job a long time and she's impressive.  She's typical small town smart & folksy, chatting & joking with the assembled group while making sure that we have all the information that we need.  Between she and the judge, I suppose we're thanked and have our pardon begged a dozen times or more in the course of the morning.  They've worked hard to try to get this organized to be as little an inconvenience as possible -- the phone-in system they use is a good example of that.   Before we go, she gives each of us a card with a phone number to call that evening to get our  instructions for the rest of the week.  When I do that, I find I'm released altogether.   No trial for me this time.

The last time I was called I was still in Jefferson County and it was what I think of as a more typical experience -- lots of time spent sitting around waiting and wondering if there wasn't some way to get it all organized better.  I ended up on a jury that time -- a burglary case.  We found the defendant not guilty (although we'd've happily convicted him of stupidity if that had been an option).  The seriousness with which my fellow jurors approached their task was impressive.

It's the memory of that experience that makes me go wild when I hear all of the second-guessing that goes on after the verdict in a high-profile case.  The Michael Jackson trial is the latest example.   "Of course, he's guilty!" scream the bloggers and pundits.  "Just goes to show that a rich and famous person can always get off in this country."  Truly, it baffles me that people find it so easy to impose their own judgment, based on what they witness from a distance, upon the decisions made by the people who've been sitting in the courtroom, who really do carry the heavy responsibility of making a decision that will have a dramatic impact on people's lives.  Pretty easy, I guess, to trumpet your own views when there aren't any real consequences.

Hub reminds us that we're one of the few countries left that still uses this kind of jury system.  "It's far from perfect," he says.  "But after all my years as a lawyer and then a judge, I'm always amazed and impressed at the synergy that results when a group of serious, hard-working people get together in the jury room to try to come to a decision.  I'd hate to turn that over to a bunch of judges and lawyers and experts.  I hope you all feel the same way."

I do.


Batten Down the Hatches

The Tutwiler is the ground zero hotel for City Stages.  It's at the eastern edge of the grounds, right by the "will call" table and the main gate, so it's a highly desireable location for musicians and staff working the festival, as well as for many of those who are in a hard-partying frame of mind.  It requires special preparations on the part of the hotel management & staff to survive somewhat intact through the weekend.  When I arrived yesterday afternoon, they'd set up a desk on the veranda outside the front door to handle check-ins.  I was handed an envelope with my room keys, my wrist bands, without which I will not be let into the hotel under any circumstances (additional wristbands available -- at the hotel's discretion -- for $5 each), and my instruction sheet.  Somebody spent a lot of time on this instruction sheet:

Continue reading "Batten Down the Hatches" »


Prisoners of Belief

The story "lacks traction" as they say.  If facts mattered, the Downing Street memos would, perhaps, be getting more press.   But the memos are  just vague enough, and the opinions that people already hold are entrenched enough, that they merely confirm what people already believe -- or they're simply dismissed as irrelevant.

Kaplan's article in today's Slate does a pretty good job of analysis.  He makes the point, again, that the key people in the administration truly did believe that Saddam was a serious threat.    They came to the White House believing that, and then they interpreted the intelligence in such a way as to reinforce that belief, ignoring or downplaying the doubts, and putting too much faith in the elements that supported what they already believed.  But frankly, that's what most people do with regard to any issue.  We rarely come to our positions based strictly on the evidence.  Why should we expect our elected leaders to be any different?  Because the decisions they've made have resulted in "collateral damage" numbered in the tens of thousands?

The memos make clear that the Bush team believed, more than a year before the invasion, that war was inevitable.   But this is not in conflict with their oft-repeated statements in the year that followed that "war is just a last resort."  It isn't even in conflict with statements that they "hoped that war could be avoided."   Bush, after all, believes in miracles.   The fact that he didn't think one was going to occur in this case doesn't mean he couldn't genuinely hope for one.  And given that, the responsible thing for him to do was prepare for the worst.  The memos also demonstrate that he did that extremely badly -- but this is just his manifest incompetence, not evidence of duplicity.

So the memos don't change anything.  Bush and his team made appalling choices (and continue to), based on a predetermined view of the world.  The memos add another layer of gloss to that, but there's nothing there to rattle anyone's cage of belief.

In an op-ed piece in the Boston Globe a couple of weeks ago, Ralph Nader and Kevin Zeese call for Bush to be impeached.  I think the case is compelling -- but then, I would, wouldn't I.  I can't imagine that it's going to happen.  Bush will continue to limp along, unbending as ever, while his failures pile up around him, and his partisans bicker among themselves over who to blame, while wondering what went wrong.  A year from now, nothing much will have changed.  The partisans will be sharpening their knives for the mid-term elections.  It'll be ugly on all sides.  It'll be normal.


Blogs and the End of Editorials

Writing in Slate yesterday, Timothy Noah suggests that newspapers should do away with the editorial page and expand the space they devote to "the signed column or op-ed."    Although I'm an avid reader of some opinion columns, I've never bothered much with the official editorials, and Noah's helped me to understand why.   He also, without intending to, addresses one of the things that frustrates me about certain elements of the blogosphere:

...editorials typically lack sufficient length to marshal evidence and lay out a satisfactory argument. Instead, they tend toward either timidity, at one extreme, or posturing, at the other. Almost every editorial I've ever read in my life has fallen into one of two categories: boring or irresponsible.

He points out that when the New York Times invented the op-ed page, they moved toward longer pieces -- typically 750 words or so -- and that "you can -- just barely -- fit a satisfactory argument into 750 words."  This mirrors my own experience.

But it is a lot of work (and takes a fair amount of skill) to craft a 750 word argument, and it is not typically something that can be dashed off.  It goes against the grain of the immediacy and spontaneity which is one of the hallmarks of blogs. 

That short, immediate form works very well for those blogs that are primarily intended as pointers -- Boing-Boing is among the best of these.     Wonkette achieved deserved attention during the last presidential election for making excellent use of the short form with a mixture of linking and satiric comment. 

Using blogs as a vehicle for commentary or analysis, however, is more problematic, and I have more trouble coming up with examples where I think it's being done well.  Too often, what passes for commentary is a heat-of-the-moment emotional response passing for opinion.  Most of the chattering in the library blogosphere about Michael Gorman's various utterances (and the terrible damage that they're doing to librarianship!)  falls into that category.  I suppose it's cathartically satisfying for the authors to vent in that way.  And perhaps it is comforting to many of their readers to have their own biases reflected.  But I don't see that it moves the discourse forward at all.

All of these doubts are what I carry with me every time I open the "compose a new post" window here, of course.  Keeping the blog up has been useful for me in that it pushes me to think my own opinions through more carefully and to work harder at expressing them well.   Whether it is useful for anybody else remains a mystery.


When Will The Books Disappear?

FRL asks "How long before publishers stop publishing in paper?" A topic of intense interest among librarians certainly, but phrased this way, the question is so broad as to be meaningless.

As I (and many other writers on diffusion of innovation) have pointed out previously, new technologies rarely replace older, robust technologies.  They create new possibilities and shift the older technologies into different niches.  Print on paper is a superb technology for many purposes, and publishers will continue to use it for centuries. 

The question is only useful when the scope is narrowed.  In my professional world, biomedical research and education, there are now electronic versions of just about everything that is published serially in print.  The majority of the monographic literature is still print only, but I would expect it to catch up to the serial literature within, say, three to five years.  But before publishers can abandon the print versions completely, they need to deal with two primary constraints  -- reader acceptance, and global network infrastructure. 

Several years ago, reader surveys (and again, I'm just speaking about my world of biomedical research and education) showed that most faculty still preferred using print.  By now, that is completely reversed -- the community has become very comfortable with the electronic versions of publications and most people now prefer them.  In my library, we quit getting the print versions of our Elsevier journals last January and have not received a single complaint or even comment.   

Global networking infrastructure will take longer.  While the advances that have been made in the third world in the last few years are truly astonishing,  internet access is still far from ubiquitous or reliable across most of the planet.  Until that substantially changes, publishers will continue to use paper to reach those audiences.   

In general trade publishing (i.e., the books that are piling up around FRL -- and me too!), print on paper is going to be around for a long time, simply because books as objects are such marvelous things.  When we think of them merely as containers for text or images, we are neglecting to account for the tremendous esthetic pleasure that we get from a well-designed, well-made book.  If we didn't respond as we do to those qualities, publishers wouldn't spend so much time and energy coming up with all of the multitude of variations in book design that grace our shelves. 

Cheap paperbacks are likely to disappear (at least in industialized nations) within the next five years or s0 -- electronic versions will move into that niche.  But the well-made book will continue to evolve and will be with us for a very long time.    And thank goodness for that, despite the ever-escalating danger of being crushed under a collapsing pile of them!