Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Police Imitators

This NY Times story about people imitating police officers is truly terrifying. It brings to mind the St. Valentine's Day Massacre and the blue light rapist (note, he was eventually captured and imprisoned). I wonder if modern technology might facilitate better identification of police officers so that it would be more difficult to fool people. As a legal issue, obviously control of police-identifying equipment (uniforms, badges, sirens, lights) could help in theory (they tried it in Arkansas), but in practice it's hard to imagine it working in a country like ours.

Another approach might be to make it legal for a woman who is pulled over to keep driving until she reaches a well-lit, public area (is this already the case?). So she would have to slow down and indicate her willingness to pull over, but she would not be penalized for waiting until she could safely stop. This would be more practical in urban areas than in remote areas, but then, in remote areas hopefully the police can afford to be more patient. And I suppose the policy could be extended to men as well, although I suspect this is the kind of thing in which women are usually the targets.

The trade-off, of course, is that if the driver is drunk or something, you want her to pull over immediately. Still, I think it would be best to make it difficult for police imitators along the lines I've suggested.

[Update: Apparently this is already legal (and there are other good suggestions in the post, such as calling 911 or driving to a police station). This should be better-publicized so that it is more difficult to victimize people.]

[Further update: Apparently the Chicago police department draws a distinction between being pulled over by an unmarked car and being pulled over by a painted police car. I can see why that is a sensible line to draw, but there may be times when it would be difficult to tell the difference, and of course criminals may even be able to get their hands on cars that look official (this is more plausible in rural areas, I would think, where there might be several overlapping jurisdictions - highway patrol, state cops, county sheriff, etc. - so that it's hard to tell if a marked car looks right).

So, long story short, my idea is far from original, and appears to be the policy in a lot of places. But I still think this should be better publicized.]

[Final update I promise: As the article mentions, imitating a police officer is a felony in Florida but a misdemeanor in many other jurisdictions. It seems to me that it should definitely be a felony in some circumstances - basically, if a guy pulls a woman over and then gets caught before he does anything else, that in itself should be treated as a serious crime. On the other hand, a guy who wears a police uniform to feel good about himself, or a guy who wears an NYPD t-shirt to get free drinks at a bar or something (not sure if that actually happens, but I think it commonly happened with FDNY t-shirts after 9-11) should probably be charged with only a misdemeanor, if anything (since anyone can get an NYPD t-shirt, that probably shouldn't be punished at all - although I could see imposing a fine because it creates confusion in the public mind about who is an officer).

Bottom line is that I want prosecutors to have the power to put these guys away for a long time if it appears that they are imitating police for insidious purposes.]

Thursday, May 19, 2011

That Ineffable New Yorker Style

Just want to make a note on the New Yorker style, or maybe a better way to put it is the New Yorker approach to profiles. It is a subtle and maddening approach, often implying far more than it is willing to say outright. It can also be brilliant in its evisceration of a subject, sometimes performed with such surgical skill that many readers don't notice the blood or the missing organs.

That's how I read this ostensibly glowing profile of James Dyson, inventor of the Dyson vacuum cleaner. In fact, the story does contain a lot of positive information about Dyson, and many people took it to be a puff piece (here is an example).

But I think all you really need to know about the piece's portrayal of Dyson is contained in these two passages:

Dyson describes his company: "'We don't have industrial designers. All our engineers are designers and all our designers are engineers. When you separate the two, you get the designers doing things for marketing purposes rather than functional reasons.'"

Marketing purposes rather than functional reasons! Imagine that. Later in the piece, we visit a Dyson testing facility and R&D lab:

"(According to a Dyson representative, American machines are louder than the European and Asian models, because Americans associate noise with power and don't trust a quiet machine.)"

Oh Dyson. Dyson Dyson Dyson. What the hell, man?

Note: It occurs to me, on reading the piece again, that the Dyson representative may have been speaking of competitors' vacuums, or machines generally. Sigh. Well, I think the better reading is that Dyson intentionally makes its American models louder for marketing, not functional, purposes. Of course the idea that marketing should be separate from design is famously contested in Malcolm Gladwell's profile of Ron Popeil.

Stop Reading Novels

This post (linked from Marginal Revolution), which argues that people love long novels in part because of "Stockholm syndrome," brings to mind one of the most liberating moments of my life. A professor had recommended a bunch of books on urbanism, and I told him I was having a hard time with one of them, finding it dull and absorbed with trivia (I'm sure I phrased it more diplomatically). "Put it down," was his advice. "You have to learn not to finish a book."

This was liberating precisely because, while I didn't finish every book I started, I strongly felt that I should. I felt like a failure every time I gave up. It was a kind of literary puritanism.

Now, sometimes you have to finish a book whether you want to or not. And obviously, you are sometimes rewarded for sticking with a book. I read the first several pages of Anna Karenina and put it aside for years, bored by it. When I picked it up again, I devoured it, and now I consider it the best book I have ever read.

But! But! You absolutely have to learn when to set a book aside for good. If you don't like the first 100 pages of Infinite Jest, I don't think you're going to like the next 988 either.

It's a little like folding a hand in poker: you'll never know what would have been revealed. In the case of long novels, that can be tragic - you could be missing out on something amazing. But if you never fold a hand, you aren't playing poker right.