Recent Readings for Sept. 17, 2015

September 17, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Sept. 17, 2015

Welcome to the first entry in Recent Readings, which I hope will become a more-or-less weekly series of postings here on the blog. The title should be self-explanatory. Let’s get to it, shall we?

History as foreshadowing in the Pacific Northwest. Ann Finkbeiner has some scary news about the seismic tendencies of the Pacific Northwest, a region where earthquakes are relatively infrequent. But when they come, quakes in this area have historically been prolonged — perhaps three minutes in duration! — and extremely violent, thanks in no small part to the tsunamis that follow them. The consequences of the next quake could be catastrophic.

Finkbeiner filters this story through an anthropological lens, examining research on the stories Native Americans told about the devastating quakes of centuries past. About midway through her article, she strikes an oddly comforting note: Although the quakes had devastating short-term consequences, wiping out homes and killing many people and animals, the affected communities re-established themselves with minimal long-term changes.

The story takes a dark turn, as one might expect. In their rush to exploit the continent’s bounteous natural resources, European colonists (advertently or not) exterminated many facets of Native American culture. Few warnings about the area’s geological instability were passed down through generations; even fewer were heard by the white men who planned and built roads, bridges, factories and skyscrapers in ignorance of the immense forces that could one day level them — and kill tens of thousands of people.

• Oklahoma is about to execute a man who may have been railroaded by cops and prosecutors. Robert J. Smith and G. Ben Cohen have the depressing account of Richard Glossip, who was convicted for the 1997 murder of motel owner Barry Van Treese based largely on the testimony of fellow employee Justin Sneed, who actually committed the killing. Glossip, whom cops and prosecutors said pressured Sneed into slaying their boss, could be put to death today unless Oklahoma’s governor grants a stay of execution.

I found two things very striking about Smith and Cohen’s article. One was their recounting of a handful of cases in which men were sentenced to die for murders of which they were later exonerated, a litany that includes North Carolinians Leon Brown and Henry Lee McCollum. The other was a look at three men who were executed in Georgia and Texas over the last 11 years despite strong indications of their innocence.

Smith and Cohen end their essay in powerful fashion:

No physical evidence ties [Glossip] to the crime. There is no motive that withstands scrutiny. The detectives in the case engaged in tactics known to increase the likelihood of witnesses providing false statements. And the state’s chief witness, Justin Sneed, was unreliable at best, with clear motives for lying. Few of us would buy a used car from Justin Sneed. Are we prepared to stake the moral fiber of our justice system on his word? If our answer is no, we must stop the execution of Richard Glossip. His life depends upon it, and so does the soul of our nation’s justice system.

Author’s note: Glossip’s execution was delayed on Wednesday. MEM

When computers discriminate. Lauren Kirchner looks at the legal framework for remedying discrimination that originates in algorithms and aren’t the result of intentional bias. This issue is a product of our society’s newfound focus on “big data” — quantifying and analyzing transactions and interactions of all sorts.

It’s not yet clear whether legislatures and courts will provide plaintiffs with avenues to fight this kind of inadvertent bias. This whole area seems to me like a perfect encapsulation of what many liberals call white privilege: Programmers and business executives, who traditionally have tended to be white and male, take actions that can harm people in communities and ethnicities due to factors that the decision-makers would never consider.

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