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Death in Flyover Country

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I am having one of those weirdly amorphous days when things aren’t so much going wrong as just petering out.

Work went, but that was about all you could say about it.  I tried four times to throw a girl in a white dress in front of a speeding green Chevy without actually killing her off–or killing off the driver–and all I got was a green Chevy mess in a ditch on one try and a tangle of rain-soaked confusion in the other.  This was obviously not what I was looking for, so I’ve put it aside to get back to tomorrow.

With work not going anywhere, I find myself fretting about things that could not be changed or fixed, and that I don’t think it would be a good idea to try.

The unchangeable and unfixable this morning has to do with what I think of as the natural history of start ups.

Somebody gets a great idea to produce a product or service that nobody has thought of before.  He goes to work, founds the business, builds the business, and then gets hugely successful. 

At that point, a large conglomerate comes along, offers to buy him out for a gazillion dollars–and the guy takes the money and runs.

Before we go haring off in the direction of Big Evil Corporations, I want to note here that I find nothing at all wrong with this sequence.  Businesses are hard to start and hard to run, and if you start one as a young person you’re likely to find yourself facing that conglomerate’s offer at about the time other people retire.

There’s nothing magic about “entrepreneurship” that makes it unlikely that you’re going to want to chuck the work when you’re sixty five–or, better yet, fifty. 

And that is particularly true in this particular time and place, where getting bigger and more successful as a business inevitably lands you with increased regulations and mandates. 

There is a problem, however, for your customers.  Almost always, when such a new business emerges as successful, it’s because it’s addressing a demand that nobody else is addressing.

In other words, there’s something out there that at least some people want that nobody else thinks it worthwhile to supply, and you’re supplying it.

Whatever this thing is is almost always a minority taste–it doesn’t tap into the most profitable demographic, say, or it appeals to a relatively small segment of the population.

What happens next, of course, is that this large conglomerate takes a look at this business of yours it’s bought and starts to smooth out the edges, make the thing more palatable to a larger public, make it more like everything else…

…and, in no time at all, the business you founded is no longer supplying the need you identified. 

It is also nowhere near as successful as the conglomerate projected it would be, because it’s now just like everything else, and there’s a lot of competition for the attention of people who want things that are just like everything else.

I want to stress, again, that I don’t see anything wrong with this series of events.  I don’t think the conglomerate is a Big Evil Corporation enforcing conformity on the American public, or harrassing quirky new businesses until they have to run for cover.

Nor do I think the resulting (temporary) homogenization is some kind of public menance that ought to be constrained by government power.

There is often another stage in this series of events, the one in which the entrepreneur, having waited out the three or five or ten year period in which he promised not to start a competing business–starts a competing business.

And the whole cycle starts all over again.

At the moment, the particular example of this cycle that has me annoyed concerns a television cable channel that used to be called CourtTv.

CourtTV had a very simple premise–provide real-time life footage (and later replay the recordings) of real trials in real courtrooms.

Some of these trials were famous and important, but a lot of them were not. 

They were just the day to day stuff of (almost always criminal) courtrooms.  I have no idea who chose the trials to broadcast, but whoever it was had a good sense of what might make a trial interesting to the general public.

It was on CourtTv that I first heard about the woman who had hit a man with her car while she was drunk–and with a suspended license for a previous DUI. 

The man she hit flew up into the air and came down on her windshield, with his head smashing right through it.  He was still alive, and instead of stopping and calling the police, she drove the car and the man home, parked it in her garage, and spent the next several days getting high as a kite on everything imaginable while drifting out to the garage to apologize to the (still living) guy with the head through her windshield.

The man did die eventually, of course.  And the first time I heard about this woman, CourtTv was broadcasting her trial for murder.

The CourtTv case that affected me the most and stayed with me the longest was a lot less bizarre.  In fact, it was entirely too commonplace.

It concerned a young woman in her twenties who had gone out one night, alone, to a two-for-one Tequila Sunrise happy hour at a local bar.  She drank about seven of these things, and then she got into her car and started to drive home.

By then, it was getting dark, and she was in no condition anyway.  She ran a stop sign at a deserted intersection a mile or two away, and ending up t-boning a car coming through from the other direction, instantly killing all four of the teen-agers inside it.

Unlike the the woman on trial for carrying the body around in her windshield for days, it was impossible to make fun of this person.  She was completely and utterly distraught, so much so that she kept pulling her hair over her face as if it were a curtain.

There is a lot of stuff in the law about how a defendant is supposed to be able to assist in her own defense.  This young woman couldn’t assist in her own lunch.  Long before the inevitable verdict had been pronounced, she was just plain gone. 

Of course, I have no way of knowing if she was gone because she was wracked with guilt over what she had done, or because she was devastated to see that her life was over.

Still, I’ll never forget her.  And my instinct says it was the guilt.

There is no longer anything called CourtTv.  It changed its name a few years back, having been taken over by one of the large media companies, and is now TruTv.

When the change happened, there was a lot of fanfare about how the name indicated even more, even better CourtTv–with a slogan that was something like “not reality, actuality.”

What we got instead, of course, was yet another cable channel that seems to be dedicated to nothing but “reality” shows, most of them indescribably boring, and compliation shows like World’s Dumbest Criminals and World’s Smartest Inventions.

I loved watching real trial on CourtTv, but I’m under no illusion that anybody owed me the service.

And sometimes, if a case is making enough noise, we get the old format back–TruTv did broadcast the Casey Anthony trial, for instance.

I’ve been wondering over the last couple of days if this case in Wisconsin will merit a return to broadcasting trials.

For those of you who live on Pluto and haven’t heard any of this: sometime in the past week, police in a small town in Wisconsin arrested two twelve-year-old girls after they lured a mutual friend into the woods and stabbed her 19 times. 

According to the girls, they did this in order to meet a person they’d met online, who wanted them to kill somebody as a kind of introduction.

The somebody turned out to be a fictional character with no real life counterpart, the protagonist in a series of very popular web horror stories.

And nobody was entirely sure where the girls got the idea that you had to kill somebody to meet him, since that isn’t part of his character, or why they thought he lived in a nearby national park.

The stabbed girl was in critical condition but still alive last time I checked the news.

The whole incident reaches well beyond the bizarre into the surreal.

And the prosecutor in Wisconsin has charged to girls as adults.

To restate something I actually managed to say on Twitter yesterday:  I’ve met chihuahuas with stronger holds on reality.

I think the likeliest outcome here is that somebody with a cooler head and more common sense will talk the prosecutor down from the trying-them-as-adults thing. 

There is certainly something very awful going on here, but I don’t think it’s a Bad Seed kind of thing.

On the other hand, I’d be hard pressed to tell you what I think it was.

This is the kind of thing I think we ought to have an answer to, but we don’t.

In the meantime, if CourtTv was still in its original incarnation, I’d know for sure I’d get to see any trial that came out of this case.  Now, I’m not sure.

And yes, that has me annoyed.



Written by janeh

June 5th, 2014 at 8:46 am

Posted in Uncategorized

8 Responses to 'Death in Flyover Country'

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  1. Here was my thought when I read the initial reports about the stabbing “to meet Mr. Creepy But He’ll Love Us.”

    I’m betting these kids come from homes where they’ve been told all their lives about an invisible guy who loves them and watches over them and some day they’ll get to go live with him. Substitute “Jesus” or “God” for Slender Man, and the story isn’t all that different.

    Or maybe it’s a case of two psychopaths finding each other, with insufficient parental oversight. My 12 year old did NOT roam the internet without my knowing exactly where he went. I put a site-tracker software on his computer and I checked it regularly. And where where the parents when the stabbing took place? 19 times? No screaming?

    The adult prosecution seems over the top. Trying to sustain that while two little girls sit and cry in a courtroom doesn’t seem like it’s going to fly, it’s more like a recipe for disaster in the jury room. Better to prosecute appropriately and get them a proper treatment sentence.

    I wish there was some kind of “criminal mental hospital with incarceration after 18, based on evaluation” sentence, because frankly 6 years doesn’t seem like enough, and life seems like too much given that they’re twelve.


    5 Jun 14 at 11:19 am

  2. “Not that different”??? I must have missed the part where the Bible assures me that I can meet Jesus if I kill someone. I’d think that a religous upbringing would help innoculate children against believe in random monsters, if only by assuring them that they either don’t exist, or if they do, God is stronger.

    But religious upbringings don’t guarantee moral probity, unfortunately. The latest Canadian police killer (who has pushed the Wisconsin story off the front page) is said to have come from a religious home, as is that man the Americans just retrieved.

    People seem fascinated by murderous children. Perhaps because they’re so rare, we don’t as a society have a good solution. We do limit the criminal liability of the very young, but that doesn’t help much with the ones just entering adolescence, when there is less time for rehabilitation and sometimes suspicion that they do – or should have – some level of understanding of and therefore responsibility for their actions.

    Some of the best-known child killers came from extremely neglectful and/or outright abusive homes. I think Mary Bell kept out of trouble since her release, but one of James Bulger’s killers has been unable to keep out of further trouble. I don’t know what the usual prognosis for such cases is.


    5 Jun 14 at 11:35 am

  3. When we are children we go through a long process whereby we create a mental model of the world and how it works. We filter experience through this model. Early models may include items which through education we learn are not representative of the real world. We learn to distinguish between what we label as real vs what we know is imaginary. All of this exists in our head.

    TV, Internet, and games can create mental experiences that are more difficult to distinguish as imaginary. The division between reality and imaginary are blurred. It may be that a child has not yet acquired sufficient education and experience to distinguish.

    When I was a child in the 60’s, we would physically act out pretend scenes including everything from fairy tales to wars. We knew that one didn’t actually do these things or someone would suffer. I don’t think children play that way anymore and it may account for them not grasping the nature of reality.

    I think it may not be possible for those of us not raised from childhood in the digital age to comprehend what is happening in the brains of these children. There are kids killing themselves over virtual bullying.

    I think there is some similarity between this case and the Affluence Defence. Although wealth may not have been the condition which caused the child to not have an adequate grasp of reality.


    Susan Nash

    5 Jun 14 at 1:10 pm

  4. There have always been youngsters who came from rich families who bought their way out of trouble or whose families simply didn’t teach them how to behave properly – that goes way back before the Internet.

    What’s new is the suggestion that criminal responsibilty is removed by such actions and not, as previously, by the fact that a child was not mature enough (as demonstrated by physical age)to understand that the actions were wrong.

    Of course, some people were also always recognized as being incapable of being held criminally responsible due to mental illness or incapacity – which, combined with the modern tendency to medicalize a lot of things, although even then I don’t think coming from a wealthy background is considered a mental illness in and of itself.

    Someone – I think it might have been Dorothy Sayer – said, or had a character say that the English people are reluctant to believe that someone’s evil, so they call them sick instead.


    5 Jun 14 at 1:45 pm

  5. “affluenza” — a condition in which growing up wealthy prevents children from understanding the links between their behavior and the consequences because they are rarely held accountable for their actions.”

    I think the cases may be similar but not the same.

    Instead I am saying that the girls might have a condition in which growing up in a partially virtual world may have prevented them from understanding the consequences of their behaviors.

    If these children are believing Slenderman is real, there just might be something wrong with their perceptions of reality. That should not exclude their being punished.

    No one really knows what the effect of plugging kids into the internet from birth does to the process of maturing.

    Susan Nash

    5 Jun 14 at 3:16 pm

  6. Hmmm. You know, pretty much every beloved firm of my youth–book publishers, magazines, makers of board wargames and toy soldiers–were gone by my middle age, and almost every trace is gone now. They weren’t bought up by giants, mostly. Owners died or retired, looted the firm, or sooner or later made some fatal financial mistake. New bosses have different–sometimes catastrophic–visions.

    If you get bigger–well, even if you’re not bought up, a firm of 1,000 isn’t run the same way as a firm of 100. There have to be rules and people to enforce them

    And running a large firm is a LOT of work if you go out and keep an eye on things, while if you sit back and trust reports, people start lying to you. Put a team in charge, and some of the resulting compromises will be insane. Watch PENTAGON WARS some time.

    But possibly the two most fatal both boil down to the unwillingness to leave well alone. In the boss, this takes the form of an impulse to leave his “trademark” or “signature” on the business. In the flunky, this takes the form of the annual (or semi-annual or quarterly) efficiency report. I’ve yet to see one in which someone could get promoted by making minor calls well and not messing with things which were going well. The high scores go to doing something new and exciting. This is why you can’t find anything in a big box department, for instance, and why your company keeps buying bad software. Someone thinks he can get top-blocked by rearranging the stock, and that “implemented new operating system for a Fortune 500 company” will look better on the resume than “made sure the existing software ran properly.” One or the other may have been the demise of Court TV. How could the new owner leave his signature or his flunky put together a decent efficiency report by just not messing with something which worked?

    If anyone has a cure for that, don’t tell me: tell EVERYONE.


    5 Jun 14 at 7:55 pm

  7. Robert, I still have the Pickett slide rule I used in the ’50s as an undergraduate. I’ve often wondered what happened to the company.

    Google tells me there are online manuals for them. Just as well. I can remember how to multiply and divide but not much else.


    5 Jun 14 at 8:47 pm

  8. Can I interest you in a “New Coke”, Robert?

    Just read this morning that the GM ignition switch problem was perpetuated by engineers flagging it as a buyer satisfaction problem not as a public safety problem.


    5 Jun 14 at 9:20 pm

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