My Chief Judge, the brilliant and especially literate Laurie Smith Camp, noted in a comment yesterday that I am “gifted” with Apophenia.  Apophenia is the experience of seeing patterns or connections in random or meaningless data. Although Laurie did not say so, it is frequently an artifact of mental illness according to the German shrink who first thought about it.

Following the maxim “play to your strengths,” here are five random but related (at least for me) questions that pricked my interest this morning:

1.  Why does Joan recycle the see-through sleeves that hold the two daily newspapers we receive each morning?


2.  Would it make a difference if the folks in Congress sat in during 100 sentencings of hapless “kiddie porn” offenders whose offense is looking at the photos and sharing them with others of a similar persuasion but who are otherwise harmless and often productive citizens?

3.  What are the chances of a black girl educated at the University of Nebraska ending up as a New York Times senior editor?

Photo credit: Nebraska Magazine. LaShara Bunting, New York Times Senior Editor

Photo credit: Nebraska Magazine. LaShara Bunting, New York Times Senior Editor

4.  Who figured out that an Amaryllis can defeat winter?


5.   If you really care about writing, why haven’t you read Jim Harrison’s A Prairie Prologue in Nebraska, New York Times (January 2, 2015)?*

Photo credit:    joannaviyukkane.tumblr.com. James "Jim" Harrison is an American author known for his poetry, fiction, reviews, essays about the outdoors, and writings about food. Best of all, he looks like I feel.

Photo credit: joannaviyukkane.tumblr.com. James “Jim” Harrison is an American author known for his poetry, fiction, reviews, essays about the outdoors, and writings about food. Best of all, he looks like I feel.


*H/t Michael K. Ausbrook. For more about Michael, see here.

19 responses

  1. So now you’ve got me doing what humans do, that is, hunting for patterns. It may be a “condition” but it’s also a very human trait. And I can’t find relationships among your five items except for the fact that you consider all of them conundrums. Just thought of one, from your perspective. All make for a better world.

  2. I don’t now about any patterns here, but I really liked Jim Harrison’s story about the Sand Hills. I share his love and perspective on those endless hills. Does that make me crazy? (One might look at his photograph and wonder about him!) 🙂

  3. In the military, Apophenia must have been the scientific equivalent of “getting your poop in a group.” When being less politely ordered to do this process, the Sergeants would insist that we “get our s–t together.

    I cannot even imagine the ever-proper Laurie Smith Camp using this more colorful wording. Nevertheless Apophenia brings back to me a rush of memories of basic training, I distinctly remember thinking that I was being asked/ordered to actually CREATE patterns and connections in random AND meaningless data.

    Thanks for giving it such an outstanding name.


  4. Heh. Apophenia has been the name of Danah Boyd’s blog for approximately forever. Upon reading your first sentence, it was the first thing I thought of, and I was really wondering what you’d be saying about Danah’s blog. ‘-)

    (My first comment here, though I’ve been reading your blog for awhile, thanks to Scott Greenfield.)

  5. Jim Harrison- good writing about the Yoop and elsewhere. Congress- quite possibly some discreet kiddie porn viewers among that fairly large sample. To me, the 1-3 are somewhat linked by empathy or at least “social caring” beyond the self. It could be me or why not you?… The last 2, personal pleasures?

  6. 1. Joan is doing her best to be a good citizen. Pay attention.
    2. Looking at kiddie-porn is yet another victimless crime that clogs the courts and helps make the careers of red-faced politicians and elected prosecutors. (Making kiddie porn is something altogether different. Analogy: watching a murder on TV won’t get you arrested.)
    3. LaShara Bunting is brilliant, I wonder if she’s homesick for the prairie (see #5).
    4. Amaryllis can defeat winter, cats and dogs (it’s poisonous to animals. Pay attention.)
    5. I’ve been a fan of Harrison for many years. He’s a crazy man like Hemingway and Hunter Thompson, but has a stronger affinity for life.
    6. Now you’ve got me hooked on your blog my work is falling behind.

  7. As a RGK contemporary, currently doing day care duty, I save newspaper plastic sleeves because they are perfect for seriously soiled diapers. Often two are needed. Can’t speak to Joan’s actions.

  8. Dear Jim,

    Thanks for the tip. Readers ought to read Ms Boyd’s Data & Civil Rights: What do we know? What don’t we know? (December 9th, 2014). While I don’t agree with her about the value of acturial data for purposes of sentencing and supervised release (and I will have a paper out fairly soon on that topic in the Federal Sentencing Reporter), it is obvious that Ms. Boyd is a very thoughtful person.

    All the best.


  9. Judge:
    I am the same way as you in this regard concerning finding patters in everything. My sense is that I might be on what used to be called the Autism spectrum, but I am not sure. My answers to your questions: 1) your wife is simply being pragmatic and frugal–appreciate her for it; 2) likely no difference as politicians are more likely to play to the cheap seats than not; 3) not surprising as the old saw is true: if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere; 4) the Amaryllis, while beautiful, cannot defeat winter as winter is not to be defeated but ultimately appreciated (my attitude is that deep in my heart on the coldest day of winter is the sun of an endless summer); and 5) I do care about writing and will forthwith make it my business to become familiar with Mr. Harrison’s writings.

  10. “Analogy: watching a murder on TV won’t get you arrested.”

    The sentences may often be overly punitive compared to the harm they cause (many, if not most Federal judges seem to lean this way) and the experience of confinement uniquely miserable, especially the many defendants who often have their own history of sexual abuse. But proper analogy isn’t to watching TV fiction (as “virtual” or depicted child pornography is, to some extent, constitutionally protected). When someone downloads of a video of an 8 year old getting raped, it’s tantamount to watching a snuff or torture film. Those images then become repulsive currency in what’s usually a quid-pro-quo exchange. The government generally only brings the more egregious violations (usually involving prepubescent children, frequently as young as six). No one should be moved by pleas of “I’m just one snowflake in an avalanche.”

  11. Close, apophenia is what happens when old guys in the media play with tackle football statistics and think that’s proof that someone cheated.

  12. I read the NYT piece before the correction. The first version identified our State Capitol as the State Office Building. As if those two buildings could be confused. How such a mistake could have been made the author and editor of the NYT is inexcusable.

    And note well the anti-KXL comments.

    The NYT has less than zero credibility and that story shows why.

  13. As a physician specializing in child abuse, I have to echo workingdogbc’s protest that the crime of viewing (in addition to producing) child pornography is not victimless. Many victims, years after the pornography was produced, report ongoing distress that their illegally produced likeness continues to be traded online and can never be destroyed. (In some cases the now adults continue to be recognized from their pornographic likenesses.)

    I have never attended even one, let alone 100 sentencing, of otherwise law abiding and productive consumers of child pornography. I will not pretend to understand the trauma of sentencing or being sentenced to a life-altering prison term. I am unaware of the penological considerations that would determine the “right” sentence for a given crime. I would only ask that those same congressmen attend 100 therapy sessions or some other balancing experience after having seen the 100 sentencings.

    Given the enduring injury that the production and trafficking of child pornography causes, often outside of the court’s territorial jurisdiction, congress is within its rights to proscribe both production and consumption; in hopes that limiting demand might somehow reduce the supply.

    But as I began, we both have made careers out of seeing opposite ends of this problem. It may be that we are bound to disagree.

    PS: Among the somewhat hardened professionals with whom I work, there seems to be a near consensus that pornography cases are the most trying for us. I still remember the awful details of porn cases I worked years ago.

  14. It may in fact be, on certain occasions, like watching torture on film. Which won’t get you arrested. Both examples are of people watching heinous acts, enacted or real, the perpetration of which (if real) would rightly result in long time. In my experience, the gov’t brings charges when it feels like it. There are many cases, especially in more rural or Southern districts, of even soft porn images of alleged minors getting people detained and their computers confiscated (would that RGK would weigh in). Indeed, there are an increasing number of cases of “sexting” — minors sending revealing photos of themselves to people who send them on. The adults who send them on have, on numerous occasions, been arrested.

    Ref: “US law enforcement agencies handled an estimated 3477 cases of youth-produced sexual images during 2008 and 2009. An arrest occurred in 62% of cases with an adult involved.”

  15. Dear JDM,

    Those images are almost always awful and the children are victimized each time an image is viewed. See here. United States v. Campbell, 738 F.Supp.2d 960 (D. Neb. 2010)(“As I can personally attest, viewing the typical images involved in these cases will flail a judge’s soul. See, e.g., United States v. Grant, 434 F.Supp.2d 735, 744 (D.Neb. 2006) (“For example, the video numbered ‘0004.avi’ was indexed in Grant’s computer with words ending in `mace 6yo fuck ilègal.avi.’… The video begins with the following words flashed on the screen: `Daddy and Me at 6.’ The video shows an adult male having sexual intercourse with a very young girl, perhaps six years of age. Replete with a close up, it shows the adult male’s penis in the child’s vagina. Sadly, the images do not appear to be animations, but rather appear to actually record the rape of a very young girl.”)

    But we should distinguish between viewing and producing for purposes of sentencing. That was really my only point. The viewers are very different from the producers, and we ought not to equate the two.

    Thanks for your insights and engagement. All the best.


  16. Anon.,

    I don’t like the NYT editorial policies most of the time, but I love the old grey lady’s writing. All the best.


  17. Half the reason I still subscribe to the local daily newspaper is to get the plastic bag delivered each day, which is perfect for scooping up dog poop. Unfortunately, we’ve got rose bushes near the end of our driveway, and about once a week, the bag is shredded and unusable for its intended purpose.

    As to your child pornography point, I recommend Amy Adler’s two articles on child pornography law:
    The Perverse Law of Child Pornography, 101 Columbia Law Review 209, and Inverting the First Amendment, 149 Penn. Law. Rev. 921. Prof. Adler explores how the prosecution of child pornography–particularly images of nude or half-clothed children not involved in sexual activity–makes the rest of us sexualize children in our own minds, and also whether virtual child pornography (images created that do not depict the actual rape or abuse of a child) creates the same harm in the viewer as actual child pornography.

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