Not So Simple Explanation

I don’t have time at the moment to capture my thoughts about the response to Aaron Swartz’s suicide, but I’m offended by the popular simple-minded explanation for his death: the government was prosecuting him, he committed suicide, therefore the government killed him. I’m not offended that his family and close friends embrace of this explanation–were he my son, my lover, my mentee I’m sure I would feel the same. I don’t know anything about Aaron Swartz that I’ve not read in the past week, but clearly that does not prevent me from commenting about the case–with a few exceptions (e.g. Larry Lessig) most of those embracing this binary view did not know him either.

Swartz wrote about his depression. Depressed people cannot think clearly and rationally about why they feel low–otherwise they could reason their way out of their depression.  Did the prosecution over-charge Swartz–that is, did it wring every possible criminal claim out of the facts? Assume it did, then ask: how many other criminal defendants currently awaiting trial in Massachusetts have also been over-charged? Two? Two hundred? Two thousand? 80%? The answer is, “a lot”–assuming one could reach agreement on what it means to over-charge. Defense lawyers always think their clients have been over-charged. Prosecutors always think the charges are appropriate. Prosecutors have considerable discretion–which may in fact be a problem, but like most things legal the solution is not to straightjacket discretion.

Over-charging and aggressive prosecution are not unique to this case. How many criminal defendants believe they are being prosecuted unfairly? How many kill themselves because of it?  Suicide is not a rational method for solving problems. Should the government not prosecute defendants who are clinically depressed?

I’ve already gone on longer than I intended. The point is that suicide of a depressed person cannot generally be explained with binary “but-for” analysis–a point that Eileen McNamara expresses more clearly than I have in this piece from WBURToday: Carmen Ortiz’s Case Didn’t “Kill” Aaron Swartz. Swartz’s death is a tragedy–because he was evidently a talented, passionate, and sensitive person whose gifts are now lost to the world due to mental illness. But I won’t blame the U.S. Attorney for his death.

Sidewalk Sam

Few of AFC’s younger readers are likely to know of Sidewalk Sam, although they may have seen his work–colorful, faithful chalk reproductions of iconic and lesser known paintings on sidewalks and plazas around Boston. Sidewalk has been creating his public art for more than 40 years. I came to Boston in 1971 so I cannot remember the city without the delight of stumbling upon his art. He is still working, despite a mid-1990’s accident which paralyzed his legs. Sidewalk is Robert Guillemin, a mid-1960’s graduate of Boston University’s College of Fine Arts, and BU Today has an article and video about his work and career.

Stuck in the Old Country

Hanna Rosin’s new book The End of Men–a shorter version of which I read in The Atlantic two years ago–theorizes why women are out-performing men in various economic and employment categories. A recent NYTimes column by David Brooks provides a brief overview of the facts:

In elementary and high school, male academic performance is lagging. Boys earn three-quarters of the D’s and F’s. By college, men are clearly behind. Only 40 percent of bachelor’s degrees go to men, along with 40 percent of master’s degrees.

Thanks to their lower skills, men are dropping out of the labor force. In 1954, 96 percent of the American men between the ages of 25 and 54 worked. Today, that number is down to 80 percent.

Why? Here is Brooks’ brief summary of Rosin’s thesis:

Women . . . are like immigrants who have moved to a new country. They see a new social context, and they flexibly adapt to new circumstances. Men are like immigrants who have physically moved to a new country but who have kept their minds in the old one. They speak the old language. They follow the old mores. Men are more likely to be rigid; women are more fluid.

This theory has less to do with innate traits and more to do with social position. When there’s big social change, the people who were on the top of the old order are bound to cling to the old ways. The people who were on the bottom are bound to experience a burst of energy. They’re going to explore their new surroundings more enthusiastically.

My unscientific anecdotal experience is that female students constitute about 60-75% of my office visits, send about 60% of the emails I receive with questions about course material, and are more receptive to seeking advice about how to improve their course performance.

“Go, Monkey, Go”

A 25-pound male macaque monkey has been living in and around Tampa, Florida since at least 2009, eluding capture by state wildlife officials.

No pet macaques were reported missing around Tampa Bay — there wasn’t even anyone licensed to own one in the immediate area. Yates, who is called by the state wildlife agency to trap two or three monkeys a year, was struck by how “streetwise” this particular one seemed. Escaped pet monkeys tend to cower and stumble once they’re out in the unfamiliar urban environment, racing into traffic or frying themselves in power lines. But as Yates loaded a tranquilizer dart into his rifle, this animal jolted awake, swung out of the canopy and hit the ground running. It made for the neighboring office park, where it catapulted across a roof and reappeared, sitting smugly in another tree, only to vanish again. Yates was left dumbstruck, balancing at the top of a ladder. “There’s no way to describe how intelligent this thing is,” he told me recently.

He is a folk hero, a colorful visitor to the back patio, a recluse, a symbol of governmental over-reaction, a source of anxiety, an object of controversy. Is he better off living in the wild, or living in captivity with a female macaque? It’s an intriguing and offbeat story, related recently in an offbeat way by The New York Times. I hope the publicity does not hasten his demise.

Man on Wire

We watched the 2009 Oscar-winning documentary film Man on Wire the other night; it tells an incredible story. After years of dreaming and months of planning, 0n August 6, 1974 French tightrope walker Philippe Petit and his accomplices, employing ruses and hiding from guards, sneaked onto the roofs of the north and south towers of the World Trade Center. During the night they rigged a cable between the towers–shooting fishing line attached to an arrow from one tower to the other, then pulling across heavier strings, ropes, and ultimately the heavy cable–and secured it with guy wires attached to the WTC roofs. Then early on August 7, after working all night to prepare the wire, Petit stepped off the roof and onto the cable. For 45 minutes he walked back and forth, played cat-and-mouse with police, lay down on the wire to gaze up at the sky, and captivated Manhattanites and commuters who stared into the sky not quite believing what they were seeing. Petit was arrested when he returned to the roof, but the charges were eventually dismissed. See it.