Troy Davis, A Pause for an Execution

I confess that living in a metro area has made me a little calloused.  When I watch the nightly murder report, I see the weeping victims and the dutiful police.  Beyond my pity and thankfulness for good fortune in my own life,  I feel helpless and if I say a little prayer for all concerned there’s never an indication of prayer’s result.  I’m sorry, it all seems so deja vu.  In the case of Troy Davis in the mix of my pre-occupations and personal interests, I was vaguely aware that there was a controversy going on.  Where this time?  St. Louis, Los Angeles, Newark — where this time?  Someplace in Georgia.

As on every evening, I was seated at the kitchen counter having a beer, playing solitaire and half-listening to Chris Matthews and Lawrence O’Donnell as my wife prepared our dinner.  We were feeling grateful that our elder dog had returned happily from the vet.   All the networks were focused on eleventh-hour countdown.  Would a stay of execution be handed down from the Supreme Court?  I was tempted to watch the re-play of the Royals-Tigers game, but I didn’t.  An inexplicable guilt lay upon me.  Eventually the Media worked its hypnosis and I was drawn into the drama, the vigil outside some prison somewhere in Georgia.

I heard about the case that was twenty-two years old.  The convict had been in jail all those years, half of my working career. We  checked out one of the new sitcom debuts  and pronounced it not worth further consideration.  We had dinner and watched “Two Broke Girls” which made us laugh and seemed promising.  We finished our dinner and I went to another room and clicked on the ball game.

I watched half an inning of the recorded event.  I knew the Royals had lost.  I switched over to MSNBC where the Ed Show was running.  I passed the evening switching back and forth between the Troy Davis vigil and the ball game.  Gradually the time I spent on MSNBC increased.  I was tempted to try FOX to get another view, but, being the fair-minded creature I am, I decided I already knew their slant. Finally, in about the eighth inning I stayed on MSNBC.

Forty-five minutes and counting.  I couldn’t understand why there had to be a long wait for execution after the Court declined to intervene.  It seemed to me that ten minutes max ought to have been sufficient to inject and kill the man — mercifully at least.  As I waited I was pulled into the suspense that only the Media can create. I tried to imagine what it would be  like to be Troy Davis.  Was he in an adjoining room?  Was he in the death chamber strapped already to a gurney?  Had they loosened the straps a little for the interminable wait?  Had he taken last rites?  Had he eaten?  And what if he was truly innocent? What did he think about?  And this was no sitcom or sports event.  This was reality.

There have been certain perpetrators whose guilt could not possibly have been doubted — men who forced their victims into oral sex before the beating and killing.  These guys,  it seemed to me, deserved the injection.  Drawing and quartering doesn’t seem inappropriate either.  But the news commentators in their incessant drone had certainly convinced me of reasonable doubt, but then it was years ago.  Seven witnesses recanted and appeals from all over the world had been made, including from the Holy See.

I know there was nothing Holy about what happened last night. I could not rationalize the process in any way.  I also know that society cannot be blamed forever for the conditions that may or may not cause a man to kill another.  And while I sympathized with the victim’s family, I could not imagine a pure expiation coming from our justice system.  A loved one had been brutally killed and because I have never experienced such an act, I could not judge the family for wanting closure.

Except, except . . . what if the man was innocent?  Or did we once again, feed a monstrous beast last night?

Steadfast and cautious,

D. “Tortoise” Taylor

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Book Review: Harford’s Adapt

Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure, Harford, Tim, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2011.


Can flip flopping possibly be the sign of a sound mind at work in the body politic? As the quadrennial silly season grows more and more inane, Tim Harford in Adapt seems to say yes, absolutely; but I’m sure he would exclude excessive, spineless, wishy-washiness. Assuming the President made a mistake, what would happen if President Obama said, “Okay, I’ve learned something. I should have done jobs before I did health reform. My tack in these past four years was ill-chosen and now I’m going to change, come about and do what I should have done in the first place. I am declaring a national economic emergency. We are going to find short-term work designed to create long-term job growth.”

Was it lily livered of Senator Kerry to say “I voted yes before I voted no.” Or was it the other way around? What if Mitt Romney said, “I lied. I am proud of my Massachusetts health initiative and I take responsibility for it — especially since it is full of Republican ideas. It’s not perfect. It needs tweaking and perhaps even some major repair, but I’m sticking with the plan as a national model. Oh, and by the way, trial and error, tinkering here and tinkering there, is as American as Old Glory. Trial and error lies at the heart of American ingenuity. Oh, and one thing more. While I have been knocking my own brainchild just to appeal to primary voters, I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to do it anymore. You, the American People deserve better of me.”

Americans’ collective partials and dentures would fall from their mouths. Next, another round of nit-picking would ensue — but maybe not. Maybe the public would hail a new reign of candor and realism. The problem, says Harford, isn’t electing the wrong leaders. The problem is our simplistic notions of what a leader can do. Expertise and experts come under heavy scrutiny in Adapt — including research that supports the limits of specialized insight. Honesty about the complexity of modern problems has gone begging in the public debate and policy making. The pathology under study here applies to the private sector and individuals as well.

A recurring illustration throughout the book is the Russian engineer Palchinsky. He was assigned to analyze two massive projects in Stalin’s first five-year plan, the monstrous Lenin Dam and Magnitogorsk. He had the temerity to inform Stalin that his big project would be a disaster. There had been no hydrological studies. He warned that the river would be too slow to generate hydro-electricity and flooding would cause severe damage to farms and farmers. Because of drought the plants would require backup coal fired operations. He was proven dead right after the megalo-maniacal dictator plunged ahead because he wanted an epic scale project. Much smaller scale plants would have served far better. Palchinsky wanted wanted a step-by-step approach. Stalin ordered the relocation of ten thousand farmers.

The steel mills at Magnitogorsk were supposed to outproduce the entire steel output of the UK. Again, Palchinsky recommended more analysis, more caution and a step-by-step approach. Over three thousand died during construction and the iron ore ran out in 1970. Palchinsky was a brilliant thinker who had three principles which Stalin ignored: 1) Seek out new ideas and try new things. 2) When trying new things, do them so that failure is survivable. And finally (3), seek out feedback and learn from your mistakes as you go along. Some three thousand of Russia’s ten thousand engineer were sent to Siberia for similar professional behavior and Palchinsky suffered a secret death.. In short Harford is no hare counting on speed and grandiose imagination. Tortoise-like trial and error still prevails.

Harford works his thesis through Rumsfeld’s disasters and many other examples, finally discussing the adaptive organization and the adaptive individual. Harford concludes that honest mistakes made honestly are far better than chasing losses and denials. Harford seems to be saying that the allure of meteoric success, the brilliant idea flaming overnight into success is only one way. The other requires uncelebrated, painstaking, trial and error, starting, stopping, perhaps turning about, but never quitting. But it also requires a communal tolerance for the late blooming in life like the poetry of Robert Frost. In our slap-dash, everything-on-the-fly culture of celebrity, I think of France which required eleven centuries or so to become a democratic republic. Afghanistan, if we’re lucky, has just begun. No wonder we’ve failed after a mere ten years there. Harford’s vision of adaptive evolutionary success would be revolutionary in America. Such a revolution would do wonders for the self-esteem of millions of Americans slogging it out in the unsung mundane. This is a book to own.

Steadfast and cautious,

D. “Tortoise” Taylor


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