The Weekender: June 3, 2016

1) “Meet the Ungers” (Huffington Post, 29 minutes, May 2016). A caveat here: the design of the page is a bit too pretty, and it screws up the initial reading experience. You have to really wait for the story to load. But once you do, it’s a great one. It’s the story of a prison inmate turned escape artist who stumbled onto a problem with jury instructions — which ended up freeing a bunch of inmates, no daring escape needed.

Today in Maryland, juries are told to decide cases solely by evaluating the facts. But this isn’t what they were told before 1980. As the judge in one 1976 murder trial put it to the jury, “It is your responsibility in this case to determine the facts, as you do in every case, but also it is your responsibility to determine for yourselves what the law is.” The practice was a holdover from the 1700s, when colonists, fearing that tyrannical British judges would run roughshod over their rights, gave juries the power to nullify unjust prosecutions. Over the centuries, though, states moved away from these instructions, because they encouraged juries to second-guess fundamental rights of defendants, like the presumption of innocence and the standard of reasonable doubt. “These are all fragile rights,” says Michael Millemann, a law professor at the University of Maryland. “It’s hard enough to get jurors to enforce when you tell them, ‘That’s the law, you have to do it.’ And when you tell them, ‘You have to decide what the law is,’ it just invites gross injustice.”

For decades, the state’s higher courts blocked attempts by convicts to obtain new trials; reopening all those cases would have thrown the system into chaos. But by the time Unger returned to Maryland to file his petition, the makeup of the state’s Court of Appeals had changed, and in 2012, the court ruled that Unger’s constitutional rights had been violated. He was entitled to a new trial. And by the logic of the decision, so were the 230 other living prisoners [. . . ] convicted before Maryland changed its jury instructions.

2) Here’s a $5 coupon from Amazon to try their app. True story: I went to check out how much a nice set of wooden Pick Up Sticks costs, and Amazon gave me this “refer a friend” coupon instead. (Good deal!) So, click it to claim it. You have to be on a mobile device and you have to a new user of the app, and who knows what other fine print there is. If it doesn’t work, blame Amazon. If it does work, the $5 coupon is a great excuse to buy my book (or my other book). RIght?

3) “How Technology Hijacks People’s Minds — from a Magician and Google’s Design Ethicist” (Medium, 12 minutes, May 2016).  This isn’t really about technology. It’s more than that — it’s a really insightful look at how our goals shift, accidentally, as we try and achieve them.

Imagine you’re out with friends on a Tuesday night and want to keep the conversation going. You open Yelp to find nearby recommendations and see a list of bars. The group turns into a huddle of faces staring down at their phones comparing bars. They scrutinize the photos of each, comparing cocktail drinks. Is this menu still relevant to the original desire of the group?

It’s not that bars aren’t a good choice, it’s that Yelp substituted the group’s original question (“where can we go to keep talking?”) with a different question (“what’s a bar with good photos of cocktails?”) all by shaping the menu.

Moreover, the group falls for the illusion that Yelp’s menu represents a complete set of choices for where to go. While looking down at their phones, they don’t see the park across the street with a band playing live music. They miss the pop-up gallery on the other side of the street serving crepes and coffee. Neither of those show up on Yelp’s menu.

4) “You are Two” (CGP Grey on YouTube, 5 minutes, May 2016). In this video, the fantastic CGP Grey explains what happens when the two lobes of our brains are unable to communicate with each other — it’s weird! — and probes some of the philosophical questions that the results kick up. Like everything else he makes on YouTube, this is just great. Worth the time to watch it twice.


5) “Toilets, Not Tarps: What People Really Need After a Natural Disaster” (Bloomberg, 15 minutes, December 2015). When disaster strikes, we tend to send aid in the form of food or other items which help, but only temporarily. This is a profile of the Dzi Foundation, which goes into disaster zones and builds new infrastructure.

It’s Oct. 23, six months after a magnitude 7.8 earthquake and a 7.3 aftershock killed almost 9,000 Nepalis and left hundreds of thousands homeless. Relief arrived in a surge, with international aid organizations delivering bags of rice, pallets of bottled water, and emergency tarps. Now comes the harder, longer work of reconstruction in the rugged Himalayan foothills. I’ve joined [Dzi Foundation director Ben] Ayers, 38, a former logger from New Hampshire, to visit rebuilding projects in some of the remote villages where Dzi works. For the past eight years the organization has been striving to develop robust agricultural economies in 70 communities that have otherwise relied on subsistence farming, remittance labor in the Middle East, and portering for mountain climbers. It draws on financial backing from companies like Vitol, a Dutch oil services provider, and wealthy individuals such as Pete Ricketts, the governor of Nebraska and former chief operating officer of Ameritrade. Now these villages need relief—the quake destroyed 31 schools, and Dzi’s surveys indicate that about half of the region’s houses are uninhabitable. But here’s just the first of many challenges: All materials for the reconstruction, from cement to rebar, must travel over roads like the one we’re on.

Our ultimate destination is Sotang, a market town in the impoverished Solukhumbu district, with stops in seven other remote villages. The plan for now is to start rebuilding some schools. The plan for the future is to develop the kind of prosperity that can make a community more resilient when it’s confronted by natural disaster. “It’s easy to drop off some tarps and call it good,” Ayers says. “I think this is more effective.”

6) “The Battle Over the Sea-Monkey Fortune” (New York Times Magazine, 18 minutes, April 2016). Let’s just excerpt the subhead on this one, because it’s nuts: “A former 1960s bondage-film actress is waging legal combat with a toy company for ownership of her husband’s mail-order aquatic-pet empire.”

Have a great weekend!