A family struggles to understand why Georgia prisoner Troy Davis is scheduled to be executed, even though the case against him has fallen apart
Flickr/The World Coalition Against the Death Penalty
"How does it work?" my eight-year-old asked last Saturday morning . "Will he just stand there and have to -- let them kill him?"
She was asking me about Troy Davis, a man on Georgia's death row who is slated to be executed on September 21.
There's been much talk about Davis in our house, so the night before, I'd tried to explain: Found guilty of killing a police officer, Davis was sentenced to death in 1991, but in the meantime, the case against him has fallen apart.
Seven out of the nine people who said it was him have "recanted" or changed their testimony, I told my daughter and her older brother, explaining what that meant. "What about the other two?" my son asked.
Death row inmate Troy Davis / Reuters
Well, I don't know about one of them, I said, but the other -- Sylvester "Redd" Coles, the first person to accuse Davis -- might have actually been the shooter. Since Davis's conviction, several people have testified that he lied about Davis to protect himself. And boasted about getting away with it.
To make things worse, I said, they don't have any physical evidence against Davis either, nothing you can see or touch. What little physical evidence the State of Georgia once had it has since withdrawn -- new forensics technologies have revealed grievous error, and the assumptions of the past were shown to be wrong.
I explained a little about the appeals process, but also that once you're found guilty of something, it's very hard to get that changed. Try as I might, I couldn't reasonably explain to my children why the judge who heard new testimony at a 2010 hearing rejected that testimony -- I don't understand, I said, why he felt the witnesses must have been trustworthy in 1991, but that they no longer were 19 years later.
Especially, I said, because most of them said they'd been pressured by the police to blame Davis.
I turned to my 12-year-old boy, and explained that one witness was 16 years old at the time. Darrell "D.D." Collins now says he was alone in a room with five police officers -- no parent, no lawyer, just the police who were anxious and angry and looking for a suspect -- and they just kept yelling at him to say that it was Troy, threatening that he would go to jail if he didn't. So he finally did.
Imagine if that were you, I said to my boy. Imagine how frightened you would be.
There's one chance left, I said: Clemency. The Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles might decide that the case against Davis is simply too weak to support a death penalty, and they will commute his sentence.
We were at dinner at the time, so the conversation continued and meandered. Their dad explained why we oppose the death penalty generally ("me too," said the 8-year-old, "we shouldn't kill anybody"). Both kids said that they wished they could do something to help.
I admit I teared up at this point. I explained that this can't be their job right now, that fighting the death penalty has to be on the grownups. And that no matter how hard we try, we won't be able to get the world fixed by the time they grow up -- they'll be able to continue the work. That in the meantime, the fact of them in my life gives me the kind of joy and rest I need to be able to be available to people who need help.
Dinner ended and bedtime came. We read Harry Potter, snuggles were given and received. The night passed.
The next morning, the first words out of my daughter's mouth, sitting up in her bed, were about Troy Davis.
"You know how we were talking about Troy last night? How does that work?"
"I'm sorry," I had to say, "how does what work?"
"Well, how do they kill him? Will he just stand there and have to -- let them kill him?"
There are moments in parenting when not telling the whole truth is very important. I did not say "They will wheel Troy into a tiled room. They will strap him to a gurney. They will inject him with a series of drugs that will kill him in stages, despite the fact that there is real evidence that these drugs do not always work as smoothly as we are told. Despite the fact that he may suffer as he dies, they will strap him down, and people will watch, and they will inject him, and Troy Davis will die, even though he is almost certainly innocent."
Instead, I swallowed hard and thought about our cat, the one we put to sleep a couple years back, the one whose last living memory was of being in my arms. I said "Oh no, honey, they'll give him drugs like we gave Chauncey. The first one will make him sleep, and the next one will stop his heart. Do you remember how Chauncey died, quietly in my arms?"
I lied. I could not tell my daughter the truth. She's in third grade, and if she didn't have the mother she has, she wouldn't even be thinking about such awful things. I let her believe that it will be peaceful for Davis, that it will be like being held in someone's arms and falling asleep.
"But I still wish I could help," she said.
I thought hard, and suggested she write him a letter. She liked that idea: "If they were about to kill me and an 8-year-old girl wrote to me to tell me she believed me, that would help me feel better."
The day, then the weekend, passed and I thought -- I suppose I hoped -- that she'd forgotten. It's like I don't know my own daughter, though, because she is nothing if not a dog with a bone.
"Oh!" she suddenly said this morning. "I still have to write to Troy! And I better do it soon, because it has to be before the 21st."
And if the clemency bid fails, and Troy Davis is executed next week, I will tell her (and I will pray that it is so) that her message and all the other messages and all the well wishes of all the tens-of-thousands of people who have supported him these many long years were in his heart as authorities gave him those drugs -- that as his life ended, Troy Davis at the very least knew he was being held by tens-of-thousands of loving hands.
“Somewhere at Google there is a database containing 25 million books and nobody is allowed to read them.”
You were going to get one-click access to the full text of nearly every book that’s ever been published. Books still in print you’d have to pay for, but everything else—a collection slated to grow larger than the holdings at the Library of Congress, Harvard, the University of Michigan, at any of the great national libraries of Europe—would have been available for free at terminals that were going to be placed in every local library that wanted one.
At the terminal you were going to be able to search tens of millions of books and read every page of any book you found. You’d be able to highlight passages and make annotations and share them; for the first time, you’d be able to pinpoint an idea somewhere inside the vastness of the printed record, and send somebody straight to it with a link. Books would become as instantly available, searchable, copy-pasteable—as alive in the digital world—as web pages.
An interview with the Associated Press shows President Trump slowly coming to terms with the size of the government he now runs, and the challenges he must tackle.
Every president faces a steep learning curve when he enters the presidency. There is, as John F. Kennedy, wrote, no school for commanders in chief. Yet even by that standard, recent interviews show a Donald Trump who is genuinely surprised by the size of his duties, the interests he must balance, and the methods required to get that done.
On Sunday, the Associated Press released a transcript of an interview with the president last week. It deserves to be read in full: It captures his constant evasiveness on facts, preferring hyperbole, for example, and his detachment from reality—when asked about a “contract with the American voter” on what he’d achieve in 100 days, Trump dismisses it, saying, “Somebody put out the concept of a hundred-day plan.”
Will you pay more for those shoes before 7 p.m.? Would the price tag be different if you lived in the suburbs? Standard prices and simple discounts are giving way to far more exotic strategies, designed to extract every last dollar from the consumer.
As Christmas approached in 2015, the price of pumpkin-pie spice went wild. It didn’t soar, as an economics textbook might suggest. Nor did it crash. It just started vibrating between two quantum states. Amazon’s price for a one-ounce jar was either $4.49 or $8.99, depending on when you looked. Nearly a year later, as Thanksgiving 2016 approached, the price again began whipsawing between two different points, this time $3.36 and $4.69.
We live in the age of the variable airfare, the surge-priced ride, the pay-what-you-want Radiohead album, and other novel price developments. But what was this? Some weird computer glitch? More like a deliberate glitch, it seems. “It’s most likely a strategy to get more data and test the right price,” Guru Hariharan explained, after I had sketched the pattern on a whiteboard.
The early results out of a Boston nonprofit are positive.
You saw the pictures in science class—a profile view of the human brain, sectioned by function. The piece at the very front, right behind where a forehead would be if the brain were actually in someone’s head, is the pre-frontal cortex. It handles problem-solving, goal-setting, and task execution. And it works with the limbic system, which is connected and sits closer to the center of the brain. The limbic system processes emotions and triggers emotional responses, in part because of its storage of long-term memory.
When a person lives in poverty, a growing body of research suggests the limbic system is constantly sending fear and stress messages to the prefrontal cortex, which overloads its ability to solve problems, set goals, and complete tasks in the most efficient ways.
With Benoît Hamon’s defeat, his Socialist Party may be obsolete.
In the first round of a French presidential election, there will, naturally, always be more losers than winners. But until Sunday, the Socialist Party had lost in the initial round only once before: In 2002, when incumbent Prime Minister Lionel Jospin unexpectedly finished a close third, behind a surprise surge from the National Front’s leader (FN), Jean-Marie Le Pen.
This year, independent-centrist Emmanuel Macron and Jean-Marie’s daughter, Marine, now leader of the FN herself, will move on to the final round on May 7. The Socialist candidate, Benoît Hamon, finished an unprecedented fifth. His loss feels very different from Jospin’s of 15 years ago, and not only because his paltry share of the vote was so much lower—just over 6 percent compared to Jospin’s 16.
A machine mapped the most frequently used emotional trajectories in fiction, and compared them with the ones readers like best.
“My prettiest contribution to my culture,” the writer Kurt Vonnegut mused in his 1981 autobiography Palm Sunday, “was a master’s thesis in anthropology which was rejected by the University of Chicago a long time ago.”
By then, he said, the thesis had long since vanished. (“It was rejected because it was so simple and looked like too much fun,” Vonnegut explained.) But he continued to carry the idea with him for many years after that, and spoke publicly about it more than once. It was, essentially, this: “There is no reason why the simple shapes of stories can’t be fed into computers. They are beautiful shapes.”
That explanation comes from a lecture he gave, and which you can still watch on YouTube, that involves Vonnegut mapping the narrative arc of popular storylines along a simple graph. The X-axis represents the chronology of the story, from beginning to end, while the Y-axis represents the experience of the protagonist, on a spectrum of ill fortune to good fortune. “This is an exercise in relativity, really,” Vonnegut explains. “The shape of the curve is what matters.”
An exploration of syndromes that are unique to particular cultures.
You can’t get your genitals stolen in America.
At least, not while they’re attached to your body. But people can in Nigeria, Benin, China, Singapore, and Hong Kong. In all of these places, there have been cases of koro (also called suo yang in some places), “a cultural syndrome where people feel like their genitals are being sucked into their body,” says Frank Bures. “And there’s a fear of death.” It’s often thought to be caused by some kind of curse, or spell, or spirit—something otherworldly.
This is the condition that sparked Bures’s interest and led to his new book The Geography of Madness: Penis Thieves, Voodoo Death, and the Search for the Meaning of the World’s Strangest Syndromes.In it, he investigates mostly penis theft, but also other examples of what are called “cultural syndromes” or “culture-bound syndromes”—conditions that only exist in, and seem to stem from, particular cultures. Other examples include “frigophobia” in China, “a fear of cold which has its roots in traditional Chinese cosmology of balancing between hot and cold”; running “amok” in Malaysia, when people go on a killing spree they can’t remember later; and “hikikomori,” in Japan, when people socially withdraw to the point where they never leave home.
By antagonizing the U.S.’s neighbor to the south, Donald Trump has made the classic bully’s error: He has underestimated his victim.
When Donald Trump first made sport of thumping Mexico—when he accused America’s neighbor of exporting rapists and “bad hombres,” when he deemed the country such a threat that it should be contained by a wall and so clueless that it could be suckered into paying for its own encasement—its president responded with strange equilibrium. Enrique Peña Nieto treated the humiliation like a meteorological disturbance. Relations with the United States would soon return to normal, if only he grinned his way through the painful episode.
In August, Peña Nieto invited Trump to Mexico City, based on the then-contrarian notion that Trump might actually become president. Instead of branding Trump a toxic threat to Mexico’s well-being, he lavished the Republican nominee with legitimacy. Peña Nieto paid a severe, perhaps mortal, reputational cost for his magnanimity. Before the meeting, former President Vicente Fox had warned Peña Nieto that if he went soft on Trump, history would remember him as a “traitor.” In the months following the meeting, his approval rating plummeted, falling as low as 12 percent in one poll—which put his popularity on par with Trump’s own popularity among Mexicans. The political lesson was clear enough: No Mexican leader could abide Trump’s imprecations and hope to thrive. Since then, the Mexican political elite has begun to ponder retaliatory measures that would reassert the country’s dignity, and perhaps even cause the Trump administration to reverse its hostile course. With a presidential election in just over a year—and Peña Nieto prevented by term limits from running again—vehement responses to Trump are considered an electoral necessity. Memos outlining policies that could wound the United States have begun flying around Mexico City. These show that Trump has committed the bully’s error of underestimating the target of his gibes. As it turns out, Mexico could hurt the United States very badly.
Plant proteins called lectins are an emerging source of confusion and fear.
Two weeks ago, a publicist sent me an early copy of a book that claimed it would change everything I thought I knew about food.
That happens a lot. This one caught my eye because it warned of the “hidden dangers lurking in my salad bowl,” and I was eating a salad.
The book, The Plant Paradox, has an image of an artfully smashed tomato on the cover, and it tells readers that eating tomatoes is “inciting a kind of chemical warfare in our bodies, causing inflammatory reactions that can lead to weight gain and serious health conditions.”
Tomatoes and ill-timed references to chemical warfare are, apparently, only a small part of the problem. The Plant Paradox urgently warns against eating wheat, beans, and peanuts, among other plants.
Could waxworms—or something inside them—help degrade the planet’s mountains of plastic waste?
When she’s not working in her lab at Spain’s IBBTEC institute, Federica Bertocchini keeps bees. One day, when she looked at her hives, she found them infested with caterpillars called waxworms. These insects are the bane of beekeepers because they voraciously devour the wax that bees use to build their honeycombs. Bertocchini picked out the pests and put them in a plastic bag, while she cleaned out the hives. And when she returned to the bag, she found it full of holes.
The waxworms had eaten their way out.
Bertocchini doesn’t study insects, waxworms, or plastic—she focuses on the early development of animal embryos. But you can’t keep a good scientist away from an interesting question, and the perforated bags posed an obvious one: Were the waxworms actually digesting the plastic?