Littering really annoys me, indoors, in the streets, in parks – and particularly in woods and wilderness. My whole family often collects bagfuls of garbage on walks or visits to the lake. I can’t understand the mind of a person who drops an ice cream wrapper on a forest trail, particularly one that they walk themselves all the time. To me, its like crapping on your own couch.

But thinking dispassionately about it, I realise that most litter is an aesthetic problem and not an ecological one. It isn’t toxic. Few pieces of litter hurt wildlife in any mechanical way. Most of it quickly degrades or gets grown over or ends up in lake-bottom sediment. I think the reason I hate littering is that it produces clutter and it mars natural vistas. Both of these aesthetic ideals are typical for the Swedish middle class to which I belong. Also, there’s the fact that the litter is largely eye-catching printed packaging that I feel is particularly “wrong” in a natural setting. I wouldn’t mind as much if the litter consisted of apple cores, potsherds, bones and knapped quartz.

Aesthetics are a matter of taste. I rarely see people do the littering. But judging from the folks that I meet around my housing area, the woods and the lake, my guess is that the litterers around here are mainly working-class and/or recent immigrants. The reason that they litter with such abandon is in all likelihood that they don’t share the aesthetic ideals of the Swedish middle class. Litter doesn’t bother them. They don’t share my taste in interior decoration either. And it’s their woods too.

Swedish Parliament recently passed a new anti-littering law that allows the police to hand out fines on the spot to litterers. Excellent for me and my peeps who are more likely to pick up others’ litter than ever to drop any. But I feel a little uneasy about the law. If the working-class recent-immigrant youth who drop beer cans around my area really had a voice in Parliament, that legislation would never have been passed. Littering laws encourage everybody to become more like the middle class, to which almost every single member of parliament belongs.

So I try not to think about those litterers in terms of ignorant moronic trash.


Does Judicial Punishment Mainly Serve A Revenge Motive?

Here’s a few thoughts stemming from comments on my recent post regarding the Norwegian terror shootings. The discussion got a little confused as people thought I wanted to discuss psychiatry, when I was really only commenting on the judicial concept of criminal responsibility versus insanity.

Why do modern states have systems of judicial punishment? If you look closer at this issue you’ll find that there are several independent motivations that sometimes operate against each other.

1. Violence monopoly and collective revenge. Having been wronged, many people want revenge on the perpetrator. State societies reserve a monopoly on legal violence, so to keep a man from avenging his murdered sister, the state will step in and take care of the revenge. This saves society from the vendetta, the endless cycle of revenge and counter-revenge in pre-state societies that is generally much more harmful to the collective than the original crime. Also, judicial revenge means that people whom nobody would avenge because they are poor or lack family are also avenged.

2. Deterrent. If crime is known to lead to punishment, then hopefully this will lead to less crime.

3. Containment: keeping criminals off the streets. A criminal in jail is much less likely to commit crime against people outside while he is locked up, and it could be argued that crime committed against other convicted criminals a) is a lesser social ill than other crime, b) contributes to the deterrent effect.

4. Reform. Maybe there are methods (short of murder) to force a a criminal to change his ways.

Now, I don’t care about revenge, and I wish that this irrational motive didn’t figure in our judicial systems at all. Once a crime is committed, it can’t be undone by hurting the perpetrator. All society can do constructively is help the victim, preferably at the perpetrator’s expense. But thinking about this I realised that as long as people are irrationally driven to avenge wrongs, we have to deal with this aspect or they will start taking matters into their own hands. This would lead to exactly the sort of violent crime the judicial system is designed to counteract. People have a strong Old Testament feeling that if I cause someone harm, then I should by rights also suffer harm.

Prisons are designed to combine revenge, deterrent, containment and reform. In most parts of the world where prisons are really nasty, they do well at the revenge and containment bits. But they fail resoundingly at deterrent and reform. Inmates come out of prison equally or more likely to commit crime as before. In Western countries, prisons are so humane that there isn’t actually much revenge involved either – prisoners are mainly just very bored and miss their loved ones. Even in humane prisons, having convicted criminals as your entire social circle is not a good way to learn how to lead a peaceful, honest and productive life.

It interested me to read, recently, that most Swedish prisoners prefer jail to an electronic surveillance manacle and a term served at home. The reason is that with the manacle, apparently they feel isolated from their peers – which is of course good both regarding revenge and reform. But a manacle sentence should always be combined with some kind of mandatory productive work.

The judicial system’s intense interest in whether a perp is sane enough to be held responsible for their crime only makes sense from a revenge perspective. Of course it would be unfair to avenge ourselves on someone who doesn’t understand what they did. But if you drop the revenge bit, just as a thought experiment, you’ll find that the determination of free-will responsibility becomes irrelevant. Our need of deterrent, containment and reform is the same regardless of the mental state of the perp. The main issue simply becomes “How do we keep this guy from repeat crime, and guys like him from their first crime?” And this lands us in a social engineering perspective.

If people weren’t so emotionally invested in revenge (and, conversely, in the humane treatment of prisoners), they would demand that public funding for the judicial system be invested only in well-studied, evidence-based, efficacious methods of deterrent, containment and reform. Any current measure that fails to further all these three goals at once would have to be dropped. I don’t know how far criminology has come on these points. But maybe it would turn out that there is no practical, evidence-based reason to keep a lot of current prison inmates locked up. Maybe we pay all that money only for revenge’s sake.

Alopecia: Charm Quark’s Non-Cancer

Here’s a guest entry from Charm Quark, one of the bloggers at Skepchick Sweden. When I read it there I asked her to give me a translation for Aard.

I have alopecia, an autoimmune disease in which hair follicles go into a resting phase, causing hair loss. The form I’ve got, alopecia areata, causes hair to fall out in in patches. The disease continuously regresses and relapses, and I have gone trough several bouts since the age of seven. Luckily, the disease is completely harmless and I have no other symptoms, but you appear to be very ill indeed when you have no hair/eyebrows/eyelashes. People think cancer, death and woe. In their eyes I see sympathy – or dollar signs.

When I was diagnosed my mother felt really bad for me and became a bit desperate when the doctors told her there was nothing they could do. I know she acted in what she thought was my best interest when she started looking into healers. She thought, “If this works then it’s amazing and if it doesn’t then at least I will have done all I could”. Me, I was pretty cool with the whole thing. Nothing we can do, says the doctor lady, then I’ll just make lemonade I suppose. I educated my classmates so they wouldn’t think it was contagious or believe I had cancer. Now I can’t remember why, but nothing came of the healers or the other woo that my mother was contemplating. I remember thinking it sounded scary and wasn’t too jazzed about the whole ting. And damn, was I lucky. Where would I be today otherwise? My hair started growing back spontaneously (as mentioned the disease regresses and relapses) after a few months. Had I gone to a healer before my hair grew back, my seven year old brain would definitely have come to the conclusion that healing works. Had I gone to a healer I might not be blogging at the world’s greatest blog today, Skepchick Sweden, but instead misspelling in eight different fonts at a blog for my healing company.

Looking like you have cancer without actually having to go through the disease, treatment and anxiety is a fairly good deal when it comes to undercover work. I have done it without planning to on a number of occasions. The last time it happened was a few years ago on a summer holiday. Me and two girlfriends sat at a table when a Norwegian woman came up to us. She sat down and after a few minutes’ conversation she mentioned that she was a psychic, a medium and all kinds of magical stuff. She started to give us readings one by one. Super happy girl got a super happy reading (compliment after compliment) and nodded excitedly at everything. Skeptic girl was just told “I don’t get anything on you”. Non-cancer girl received the following reading. As the lady looked deep into my eyes and held my hands she said:

– You carry a great sadness. Your life is not easy. You struggle.

This couldn’t have been more wrong. I was in love, realizing my dream career-wise and enjoying a sun-soaked holiday with two awesome girlfriends. However, I looked down at the table to confirm that she was on the right path.

– You’re very ill. You have cancer.

Bitch, please. But I continued staring at the table.

– You have cancer of the …

Now it got interesting. “My” alopecia is actually caused by another autoimmune disease which affects the parathyroid glands. I quickly decided that even if she was off on the cancer I’d give her a fair chance at guessing where the disease was located. Thus, valid answers would have been the hair follicles or parathyroid glands.

– … ovaries.

I shook my head. She pondered.

– … bowels.

Shake head.

– … breasts.

– … brain.

– … kidneys.

– … liver.

– … uterus.

Do you know how many organs you have to guess before you end up at the parathyroid glands? All of them. Most people don’t even know they have parathyroid glands. She eventually gave up and went back to talking about my great sadness. Me and skeptic girl laughed as we walked away, jeez! But what if someone with ovarian cancer had been sitting there? The outcome could have been dramatically different and someone already suffering could have been further harmed.

This is the danger of wearing a disease on your sleeve. You become fair game for every charlatan and snake oil salesman out there. But to those who prey on suffering and desperate people, I have only one thing to say: don’t ever forget the parathyroid glands. Because I’m out to get every last one of you using my non-cancer.

And On Bagpipes, Please Welcome André Leroi-Gourhan

Charles Higham remembers his first digs in France, at age 16, in 1956.

[My brother] Richard and I began in the Grotte de L’Hyene. This was a tunnel complex that contained the occasional Neanderthal artefact. It was dark and cold, and at lunchtime we crawled out into the welcome summer warmth for food, liberally enhanced with the local red wine. All then retired for a much needed siesta, to be awakened for further digging by the sound of Mongolian bagpipes played by Professor Leroi-Gourhan, ‘Le Patron’.

Current World Archaeology 48 (Aug/Sept 2011), p. 14