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Justice, Racism, and Accountability: The Serial Podcast

I listened to “Serial” this weekend, a podcast that tries to “solve” a murder case that happened 15 years ago in 1999, in which a Pakistani immigrant called Adnan Syed was charged for murder.

I strongly recommend you listen to “Serial”. For one thing, it’s real. Adnan is a real person, and he really is serving a life sentence for the alleged murder of his girlfriend. He was convicted in Maryland, the United States, when he was 18, and if you listen to the podcast, you’ll see that the conviction was pretty shady.

The podcast is an amazing insight into the nature of justice, the objectivity of perspective, and racism. Sarah Koenig meticulously goes over every piece of evidence at hand, both incriminating and otherwise. She interviews every person related to Adnan and Hae, the victim. She poses questions that tackle every single angle. She is so thorough it’s impressive.

Yet, even with all Sarah’s thoroughness, my own personal conclusion is that there isn’t enough data to decide whether Adnan is innocent or guilty. The information is inconclusive.

You see, I’ve spent a good portion of time in the past few years consciously training myself to think critically. This has involved learning formal logical fallacies. Ultimately, it is fallacious reasoning that keeps us from knowing the truth. As I listened to the prosecution, all I could do was count the logical fallacies I heard: Fallacy of Presumption, Ad Hominem, Appeal to Authority, Biased Sample, Appeal to Ignorance, False Dilemma, Poisoning the Well, Questionable Cause…

Yes, I’m aware that misusing fallacies is a natural part of the justice system. Tapping into people’s inability to think critically is what law seems to be all about: manipulation by those skilled in the art of rhetoric.

This is where accountability comes in. Our humanity is based around the concept of accountability. What makes us different from animals is not intelligence — animals are intelligent too — but accountability. Thousands of years of laws, tradition, and religion has cemented our need for accountability.

There is not enough evidence in the case to assess Adnan’s innocence or guilt. Regardless of whether Adnan is guilty or not, it seems to me that Adnan was convinced to hold someone accountable for the death of an innocent girl.

And this is why Serial is so amazing. It just shows you what such a screwed up thing justice is.

Yet, the worst part by far is the motive claimed by the prosecution. Racism screwed up a kid’s life. It is atrocious, disgusting, racist, and xenophobic. According to the prosecution, Adnan’s motive was something in between being the “crazy possessive Muslim guy” and the hypocritical bad guy who is pretending to be a “good Muslim” but is instead doing something “evil”. He was after all, they claimed, dating in secret, due to not wanting to his conservative families to know.

It was this “motive” that was used against Adnan by the prosecution, and he was made out to be the psychopath who hid his dating from his family because he is a psychopath. They said Adnan was guilt ridden about lying to his family about having a girlfriend, and so he killed his girlfriend. They presented him as this two-faced bastard with a split personality.

This is where I was like WTF.

In 1999, when Adnan was convicted, I was a teenager too. I keep going back to 1999 and feeling horrified that this poor guy basically got locked up for hiding stuff from his parents, when me, myself, and everyone I knew were hiding stuff too.

They put a kid away simply because they couldn’t relate to his background.

1. Hiding stuff from parents during your teenage is the normal thing as far as Middle Eastern culture is concerned. You operate thinking that your parents don’t want to know these things. I hid stuff from mine all the time, even though I knew they wouldn’t have given a crap. I hid it because everyone else in the community hid it from their own parents.

2. Middle Eastern culture is very strongly connected to religion, so it’s harder to face parents. Their concern over their children’s behavior is deep-rooted in the fear of God. Parents get really worried when they think their kids might go to hell, and so kids just avoid letting their parents know that they’re doing stuff that “god might not be too happy with” for their parents’ peace of mind. This is totally normal. It doesn’t make anyone a bad person. In fact, as far as I’m concerned, it’s really sweet. Let the mothers sleep soundly at night, yeah?

I can’t believe that the prosecution used this against Adnan. It really is atrocious.

So yeah. A lot of thinking about a podcast. Listen to it, it’s really good.

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How to Be Happy, According to Kant

The topic of happiness is one that fascinates me. Maybe because I discovered the secret happiness a few years ago.

Immanuel Kant also said stuff about happiness:

The more a cultivated reason gives itself over to the aim of enjoying life and happiness, the further the human being falls short of true contentment.

It’s true, you know. Stop hoping to be happy and just be happy.


Should You Worry? Here’s a Flowchart That Answers That Question

Worrying sucks. The good news is you can do something about it.

Simply follow this flowchart:

Via LifeHacker

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Sponsored Video: A Leap of Faith / قفزة ثقة

[Sponsored video]

مرض شلل الأطفال معد وخطير، ويمكن أن يصيب الصغار والكبار. يسعى فيلم قفزة ثقة إلى نشر الوعي حول شلل الأطفال وجهود التطعيم في باكستان. احموا أطفالكم من شلل الأطفال والأمراض الأخرى. شجاعتكم ستحافظ على صحتهم

Polio is a preventable disease that affects young children and adults. Leap of Faith seeks to raise awareness of polio and vaccination efforts in Pakistan. Protect your children from polio and other preventable diseases. Your courage will keep them healthy.

مرض شلل الأطفال معد وخطير، ويمكن أن يصيب الصغار والكبار. يسعى فيلم قفزة ثقة إلى نشر الوعي حول شلل الأطفال وجهود التطعيم في باكستان. احموا أطفالكم من شلل الأطفال والأمراض الأخرى. شجاعتكم ستحافظ على صحتهم

Polio is a preventable disease that affects young children and adults. Leap of Faith seeks to raise awareness of polio and vaccination efforts in Pakistan. Protect your children from polio and other preventable diseases. Your courage will keep them healthy.


Are you a rational person? Here’s a checklist to remind you to be

You know, it’s actually really difficult to be rational. I am always conscious of my brain trying to be stupid. I learned that in my first year in art school. It took me a year of yelling at my brain to STOP SEEING THINGS WRONG. Our preconceptions often screw with the way we perceive objects, leading us to distort them when we put pencil to paper. It’s even worse with thoughts, ideas, and concepts.

Your brain is stupid. And this is why this rationality checklist is really useful. In its simplicity, it’s a bit surprising. Go through this list and ask yourself “When did I last use this habit?”

This list is from They provide examples in the link for each item that I did not include in list below for the sake of brevity.

1. When I see something odd – something that doesn’t fit with what I’d ordinarily expect, given my other beliefs – I successfully notice, promote it to conscious attention and think “I notice that I am confused”

2. When somebody says something that isn’t clear, I notice and ask for examples.

3. I notice when my mind is arguing for a side (instead of evaluating which side to choose), and flag this as an error mode.

4. I notice my mind flinching away from a thought; and when I notice, I flag that area as requiring more deliberate exploration.

5. I consciously attempt to welcome bad news, or at least not push it away.

6. I notice when I’m not being curious.

7. I look for the actual, historical causes of my beliefs, emotions, and habits; and when doing so, I can suppress my mind’s search for justifications, or set aside justifications that weren’t the actual, historical causes of my thoughts.

8. I try to think of a concrete example that I can use to follow abstract arguments or proof steps.

9. When I’m trying to distinguish between two (or more) hypotheses using a piece of evidence, I visualize the world where hypothesis #1 holds, and try to consider the prior probability I’d have assigned to the evidence in that world, then visualize the world where hypothesis #2 holds; and see if the evidence seems more likely or more specifically predicted in one world than the other (Historical example: During the Amanda Knox murder case, after many hours of police interrogation, Amanda Knox turned some cartwheels in her cell. The prosecutor argued that she was celebrating the murder. Would you, confronted with this argument, try to come up with a way to make the same evidence fit her innocence? Or would you first try visualizing an innocent detainee, then a guilty detainee, to ask with what frequency you think such people turn cartwheels during detention, to see if the likelihoods were skewed in one direction or the other?)

10. I try to consciously assess prior probabilities and compare them to the apparent strength of evidence.

11. When I encounter evidence that’s insufficient to make me “change my mind” (substantially change beliefs/policies), but is still more likely to occur in world X than world Y, I try to update my probabilities at least a little.

12. Handling inner conflicts; when different parts of you are pulling in different directions, you want different things that seem incompatible; responses to stress.

13. I notice when I and my brain seem to believe different things (a belief-vs-anticipation divergence), and when this happens I pause and ask which of us is right.

14. When facing a difficult decision, I try to reframe it in a way that will reduce, or at least switch around, the biases that might be influencing it.

15. When facing a difficult decision, I check which considerations are consequentialist – which considerations are actually about future consequences.

16. I try to find a concrete prediction that the different beliefs, or different people, definitely disagree about, just to make sure the disagreement is real/empirical.

17. I try to come up with an experimental test, whose possible results would either satisfy me (if it’s an internal argument) or that my friends can agree on (if it’s a group discussion).

18. If I find my thoughts circling around a particular word, I try to taboo the word, i.e., think without using that word or any of its synonyms or equivalent concepts. (E.g. wondering whether you’re “smart enough”, whether your partner is “inconsiderate”, or if you’re “trying to do the right thing”.)

19. I consciously think about information-value when deciding whether to try something new, or investigate something that I’m doubtful about.

20. I quantify consequences—how often, how long, how intense.

21. I notice when something is negatively reinforcing a behavior I want to repeat.

22. I talk to my friends or deliberately use other social commitment mechanisms on myself.

23. To establish a new habit, I reward my inner pigeon for executing the habit.

24. I try not to treat myself as if I have magic free will; I try to set up influences (habits, situations, etc.) on the way I behave, not just rely on my will to make it so.

25. I use the outside view on myself.

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Isaac Asimov on Zionism

Isaac Asimov was born in Russia to an Orthodox Jewish family in 1920.

In his autobiography, he says: “When Israel was founded in 1948 and all my Jewish friends were jubilant, I was the skeleton at the feast. I said, “We are building ourselves a ghetto. We will be surrounded by tens of millions of Muslims who will never forgive, never forget and never go away. I was laughed at, but I was right. I can’t help but feel that the Jews didn’t really have the right to appropriate a territory only because 2000 years ago, people they consider their ancestors, were living there. History moves on and you can’t really turn it back. … But don’t Jews deserve a homeland? Actually, I feel that no human group deserves a “homeland” in the usual sense of the word…. I am not a Zionist, then, because I don’t believe in nations, and Zionism merely sets up one more nation to trouble the world.”

Asimov, Isaac (1994). I, Asimov: A Memoir. New York: Doubleday. p. 380.

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