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July 7, 2007

Review, James Surowiecki, "The Wisdom of Crowds"

[Review of The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few And How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies and Nations by James Surowiecki (Doubleday, 297 pp.) Originally appeared in the New York Post, July 11, 2004.]

* * *

Can't recall how the National Security Adviser spells her first name? Try a Google spell-check. "Condoleezza" appears on 308,000 web pages, "Condoleeza" on 76,000, and "Condolleeza" on only 261. Sure enough, the first of the three spellings, by far the winner in page "votes", is the correct one.

Given the right task to solve, aggregate amateur opinion sometimes proves more reliable than the expert kind. In 1906 the scientist Francis Galton observed that when rural English fairgoers were invited to buy a ticket and guess how much flesh an ox would yield when slaughtered, with the best guesses winning prizes, the crowd's average guess was more accurate than that of even the most knowledgeable individual farmer. Similarly, students asked to guess the number of jelly beans in a glass jar often come remarkably close to the correct number when their guesses are averaged. Writes James Surowiecki: "under the right circumstances, groups are remarkably intelligent, and are often smarter than the smartest people in them".

For a moment you might fear Surowiecki is going to take this little insight and start hammering away with it, One Big Theory style, until he winds up convincing himself that voters as a group choose unerringly between candidates, that a poem's popularity is a sure sign of its literary merit, that employees' time is better spent in committee meetings than in mastering their individual jobs, and so forth. Not to worry: this is a much better book than that. In fact, the author almost at once begins to explore the exceptions and limits to his initial generalization -- the many ways in which the world usually falls short of providing the "right circumstances" for crowd rationality. By the end, you see why crowds got their reputation for being messy, unpredictable and easily misled in the first place.

So much the worse for the book's somewhat grand title. But so much the better for the reader, since it gives Surowiecki, whose writings on business are a reason to read The New Yorker, free rein to roam among a wide variety of topics of his choosing. For instance: why "yes-men" are so harmful in committee deliberations (it has to do with their tendency to turn an initial error into a "cascade"); why it's so hard to beat the stock market or the sports betting line; why a key to the success of Linux is precisely that it's much less decentralized and "open" than it looks; why the silly "sweeps" system continues to dominate TV ratings; why juries, political factions or artistic coteries that start out with similar leanings can talk each other into more extreme positions than any of them took originally; why the scientists with the most original contributions to make are also those who collaborate most; what game theory can tell us about Fed interest-rate decisions; and much more. Surowiecki is quite good at explaining these topics, and they're nearly all worth learning about.

The Wisdom of Crowds is selling briskly at the stores. In this case, the crowd knows what it's doing.

July 6, 2007

Review, Brett Fromson, "Hitting the Jackpot"

[Review of Hitting the Jackpot: The Inside Story of the Richest Indian Tribe in History by Brett D. Fromson (Atlantic Monthly Press, 244 pp.). Originally appeared in the New York Post, May 16, 2004]

Betting on the Pequots

Indian gambling will probably arrive in the Catskills soon, waved in by state budgeters eager for revenue. Let's hope we've learned some lessons from Connecticut's decade-plus experience with Pocahontas-as-croupier, a story told in devastating fashion by Brett Fromson in Hitting the Jackpot.

The modern story of the Mashantucket Pequots and their Foxwoods casino is by now familiar. After drifting in life, a restless New Englander realizes his Indian heritage might entitle him to housing and other benefits.

Falling in with shrewd lawyers, he realizes that much more is at stake if he and his relatives can succeed in simulating the existence of a functioning tribe. They first outwit Hartford's half-asleep politicos and then maneuver a bill through Congress to secure federal recognition as a tribe without the usual scrutiny.

They proceed to erect the world's largest casino in the woods and the resulting geyser of cash, sprayed judiciously in various directions, buys them many highly placed friends, with enough left to make tribe members very rich indeed. Some of the money winds up going to classes to teach them how to become Indians, since no Pequot traditions survive as to language, crafts, belief or much of anything else.

Veteran financial reporter Fromson documents the series of sharp dealings and bald impostures that carried the day. "Never underestimate the ignorance of your opponents," proclaims the tribe's chief adviser, attorney Tom Tureen. "People are real stupid sometimes." Ideology also played a key role.

Progressive Nutmeg-state lawmakers promoted assertions of Indian identity. Federal judges leaned over to help the presumed underdogs. Liberal local congressman Rep. Sam Gejdenson avidly backed the tribe.

As for the tribe's lawyers, who'd emerged from the legal services movement, these oh-so-idealistic attorneys found themselves gradually turning into well-paid casino promoters.

And the lucky Pequots? Few stories are sadder than what happens to the typical sweepstakes winner. Unused to riches, tribal members splurged on BMWs and foreign travel, some borrowing heavily against future income to do so. The tribal government, which made Tyco look Trappist, was soon spending $200,000 per member on services, aside from the casino payroll and large direct cash payments to members. Then the flow of incoming money began to slow.

The tribe eventually shoved aside the founding Haywards from the helm of (as Fromson puts it) "the tribe they had invented." Millionaires or no, the reservation suffers from much crime and domestic abuse.

Fast-paced and well-written, this book has been assailed in some quarters as "anti-Indian," which hardly seems fair, since the folks Fromson is writing about are about as authentically Indian as Camilla Parker Bowles.

July 5, 2007

Review, Ken Foskett, "Clarence Thomas"

[Review of Judging Thomas: The Life and Times of Clarence Thomas by Ken Foskett (Morrow, 339 pp.). Originally appeared in the New York Post, Dec. 19, 2004]

Thomas' Trials and Triumph

So much for comity between the different branches of government. Speaking on NBC's "Meet the Press" two weeks ago, new Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid coolly insulted Justice Clarence Thomas, calling the 56-year-old African-American jurist "an embarrassment to the Supreme Court" whose "opinions are poorly written."

Who knew Reid, a hitherto little-known Nevada Democrat whose major backers have been casinos and trial lawyers, took such an interest in judges' writing skills?

For years, Thomas has served as a punching bag for lazy commentators. In the 1991 fight over his nomination, liberal interest groups portrayed him as a lecherous incompetent. When he was confirmed anyway, they began banging away on his supposed overdependence on his colleague Antonin Scalia.

Among those who follow the court's work closely, most of these themes are at best passé. Over 13 years, Thomas has laid out a body of conservative-to-libertarian judicial thinking clearly distinct from Scalia's. And many court-watchers who disagree passionately with the content of Thomas' views acknowledge that there's nothing subpar about his written opinions.

Which still leaves the question of character, explored at length in Ken Foskett's new biography, "Judging Thomas."

By now the outlines of Thomas' remarkable life story are well-known: his poor upbringing in Savannah, raised by a super-strict grandfather who drilled him in hard work and obedience; his radical phase at Holy Cross, where he affected Army fatigues "and a black beret festooned with black power buttons"; his arrival at a Yale Law School then supremely confident of its mission to use the law to remake American society; his rejection of that mission and emergence as a conservative strongly opposed to counting by race as a form of governance, and at length his recruitment (via John Danforth's Missouri attorney general office) by a Bush 41 administration that kept tapping him for jobs very different from those for which he would have volunteered, culminating in a seat on the nation's highest court.

At every stage, there were lacerating snubs: from lighter-skinned blacks and snooty boarding-school students amused by his uneducated accent, from the civil-rights establishment, from People for the American Way mudslingers and New Yorker editors.

Where the criticism struck him as fair, Thomas had the strength to take it to heart: Thus, the toughie Yale Law property expert who gave him his worst grade became his favorite professor. After the confirmation ordeal, on the other hand, Thomas spent a couple of years recovering from embitterment, and even now Foskett describes him as "tightly wound," though warmly regarded by his staff.

An investigative reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Foskett writes in a relaxed and readable style, and though a few expressions suggest that he does not necessarily agree with Thomas' jurisprudence, the resulting portrait is generally a favorable one.

Thomas' own memoirs are supposedly in the works. In the meantime, this book dramatically depicts the power of will over circumstance.

July 4, 2007

Review, Andrew Sullivan, "The Conservative Soul"

[Originally ran in the New York Post Nov. 5, 2006. Review of The Conservative Soul: How We Lost It, How To Get It Back by Andrew Sullivan (HarperCollins, 294 pp.)

IF you went looking for some one to write a systematic or impartial account of the conflicts that are pushing America's conservative movement toward breakup, just about the last author you'd pick for the job would be Andrew Sullivan.

The British-born commentator's new book, like all his work, is engaged, quirky and personal, the view of a gifted outsider who can't go for long without circling back to gay issues. Yet "The Conservative Soul" will still resonate as one of the year's key political books, a free-associating literary polemic that well complements "The Elephant in the Room," the recent book by New York Post contributor Ryan Sager.

The "conservatism I grew up with," notes Sullivan, stood for "lower taxes, less government spending, freer trade, freer markets, individual liberty, personal responsibility and a strong anti-communist foreign policy." Defining figures such as Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher spoke regularly of human freedom as the great aim of political life. "It has long been a fundamental conviction of the Republican Party," declared the 1980 GOP platform, "that government should foster in our society a climate of maximum individual liberty and freedom of choice."

Somehow from there we arrived at the presidency of George W. Bush, whose pronouncement on the state's proper role - "When someone hurts, government has got to move" - owes more to LBJ than to Barry Goldwater.

Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum brusquely waves aside "this whole idea of personal autonomy," this "idea that people should be left alone, be able to do whatever they want to do." Ex-Democrats of the McGovern-Dukakis era once popularized the line "I didn't leave the party, the party left me"; if the Santorums prosper, plenty of old-line Republicans will be ready to sing the same refrain.

Sullivan's prime target is a GOP (to quote George Will) "increasingly defined by the ascendancy of the religious right." Twenty-five years ago, mainstream publications on the Right didn't regularly use the word "secular" to sum up the positions they oppose, as do the National Review and Weekly Standard today.

Back then, conservative editors might have held at arms' length an elected official who described his goal in office as being to implement the divine will. Now they vie to promote the national ambitions of Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback, who - in an astounding Rolling Stone profile cited by Sullivan - boasted of having but a single "constituent," as he pointed his finger skyward.

Much of Sullivan's point-scoring against personages on the Christian Right is forceful and well-taken, but you do wish he'd draw distinctions. He lumps truly radical figures with the merely hidebound as "theoconservatives" and, provocatively, deems "Christianism" an emergent counterpart of today's radical Islamism, if a "much milder" one.

Is it really useful to discard a century of accepted terminology so as to tag traditionalists in his own church, Roman Catholicism, as "fundamentalist"?

No, it's not.

In this respect, Sullivan's popular blog shows an advantage over the book format. When Sullivan says something unfair online, he gets and prints a barrage of reader response, and often revises his views. This book will go unrevised by ongoing customer reaction, but would have profited by it.

That aside, it helps open a crucial and timely debate.

October 26, 2006

"Ending racial gerrymandering"

[Originally appeared in the New York Post, July 2, 1993]

The joke about North Carolina's 12th Congressional District is that if you drove down I-85 with your car doors open, you'd kill everyone in it.

Tarheel lawmakers used a filament of land 160 miles long to string together portions of scattered Piedmont cities. The idea was to gather enough black voters to elect a black representative, and it worked. In the eastern part of the state they produced a second black-majority district whose shape recalls a bug splattered on a windshield. The state's remaining districts variously resemble a pterodactyl, a rag doll, a broken nutcracker and the lymphatic system of a chipmunk.

On Monday, the Supreme Court rubbed its eyes and said: When you do this sort of thing, please be prepared to explain why. By a vote of 5-to-4, it said blatant racial gerrymandering -- already clearly banned when it harms minority interests -- does not become immune from Constitutional scrutiny simply because it purports to help them.

Until this week's ruling in Shaw v. Reno, all the momentum had been toward racially obsessive line-drawing. In recent New York districting battles, for example, the goal of maximizing minority strength, under threat of Voting Rights Act lawsuits, has overridden almost every other value, such as holding neighborhoods together or tracking borough lines and other natural boundaries.

When individuals get treated as mere units in racial marching teams, dehumanizing touches are inevitable. Black New Yorkers who lived too far from designated black districts were said to be "wasted". Planners fretted over the Hispanic "dispersion problem", this being the inconvenient tendency of many Hispanics to live mixed in among other New Yorkers without ghettoizing.

It seemed that before long modern computer-tracking technology would overcome the last such obstacles and allow districting lines to invade apartment houses and perhaps even homes and bedrooms, bisecting the Sealy Posturepedics of interracial couples.

South Africa's parliament has long reserved seats for Asian Indians, voters of mixed race, and so forth. But this country used to recognize segregation-in-voting as an obstacle to racial amity.

No one doubts that if the North Carolina legislature had produced its Jackson Pollock map with the declared aim of shifting power toward whites, as opposed to blacks, the Court would have struck it down. In a 1960 case, the city of Tuskegee, Alabama had altered its boundaries "from a square to an uncouth 28-sided figure" so as to exclude blacks. The Court struck down the remap. Other cases point the same way.

Of the four dissenters, Justice John Paul Stevens is the most explicit: he says there's an OK sort of racial gerrymandering, which helps minorities, and a non-OK sort, which doesn't. Justices Harry Blackmun, David Souter and Byron White offer slightly different arguments, which boil down to much the same thing.

But a court majority decided that equal protection protects both ways, thus sending some diversity buffs into conniption fits. The New York Times, in a remarkably intemperate editorial, claimed to see "a full-scale assault on the Voting Rights Act" intended to "punish" blacks and "sustain all-white politics". And it personalized the issue into an attack on Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who wrote the majority opinion, for her supposed "willful disregard" of history, calling her arguments "disingenuous and ahistorical", "surreal", and so on.

"The civil rights community", it proclaimed, "should bring all its political leverage and legal expertise to bear against" this monstrosity -- a marked departure from the usual talk about the need to respect the law of the land once the Court has spoken on a constitutional issue.

Earth to Planet Times: you got off easy. The Shaw decision is quite narrow on its face, applying only to cases where district lines are so "bizarre" as virtually to advertise on billboards that everything other than race has been ignored. The Court earlier upheld a Brooklyn plan, challenged by Hasidic plaintiffs, where the racial factor was present but less egregious.

If it were up to some of us, the Court would go a lot further to question voting-law doctrine. It might ask, for example: why is the racial mix that's considered mandatory in school districting prohibited in voter districting, and vice versa? Why not provide that any arrangement required for the one is at least okay for the other?

The most important part of the Shaw ruling isn't the immediate practical effect, but O'Connor's calm, yet forceful, language. "Racial gerrymandering, even for remedial purposes, may balkanize us into competing racial factions," she warns. "Racial classifications of any sort...reinforce the belief, held by too many for too much of our history, that individuals should be judged by the color of their skin."

Those words may bring her flak from a few predictable quarters -- but they ought to make her the heroine of the hour for the rest of us.

May 2, 2006

Anti-Discrimination Ad Absurdum

[Originally appeared in the New York Post, August 24, 1997]

A mother in Long Beach, CA, gasps when her 12-year-old son comes back from the barber shop with his head shaved; he'd asked for just a trim, but the man with the clippers didn't speak English well. A Virginia woman finds shopping for a coffee table takes thirty minutes instead of ten "because I couldn't understand anyone and no one understood me." Students at Penn State struggle to keep up with lectures from a graduate instructor new to these shores.

With immigration at a historic high, such frustrations are mounting. Now the federal government and legal system are doing their bit to make things worse. They're hitting employers with lawsuits if they insist on strong communications skills among employees who deal with the public -- a practice that's being branded "accent discrimination."

A major investigation by USA Today in February found language hassles to be widespread, with nearly one in four poll respondents reporting problems in the last year because a clerk, salesman, or other business person spoke English poorly. "Economists say they lack of language proficiency costs businesses billions of dollars," the paper reports. In New York, the Giuliani administration has required remedial courses for cabbies who flunk a spoken-English test.

Yet Washington keeps pushing in the opposite direction. The immigrant-rights unit of the US Department of Justice has run subway and newspaper ads warning that the "ability to speak fluent English" must not "affect your decision about hiring a prospective employee."

Accent cases started making headlines in 1992 when a state court upheld a verdict against Seattle-based People's National Bank, which didn't think Cambodian-born Phanna Xieng had strong enough language skills for a post where he'd interact with irate customers turned down for loans. Xieng's lawyers brought in medical experts, who claimed the shock of not getting promoted was so psychologically traumatic it would prevent their client from working for at least five years. Presto: a $389,000 award.

The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission got into the act the same year, filing charges against a California company that had fired a credit manager with a strong Indian accent. Robert Gaskins, the company's former CEO, said customers had complained that Rambhai Patel's phone calls on overdue accounts were "rude and insensitive" as well as hard to understand. Rather than fight, Gaskins' company agreed to settle without admitting wrongdoing for $12,000 plus undisclosed damages.

Civil-rights enforcers admit there are situations where employers may legitimately consider accents; they just take an ultra-narrow view of what's legitimate. Thus the attorney general of Massachusetts ruled it would be unlawful for the town of Westfield to refuse to assign a teacher with a thick accent to a job where he'd be teaching language skills to first- and second-graders.

Influential law professors push the new line. Stanford's Mari Matsuda has proposed in the Yale Law Journal that employers be made to "accommodate" shortcomings in English, just as they're now made to accommodate deaf or blind employees. She says supervisors might try using written instructions, "sign language" and "pictographs."

Another widely cited piece, in the Harvard Law Review, claims that "difficulty in understanding those with less common accents is socially contingent, and . . . customers will ultimately adjust to the accented speaker if our civil-rights law insists that accented speakers be allowed to hold positions in which they regularly communicate with the public."

Won't it be a blueprint for frustration for customers to have to "adjust" to hundreds of different accents" Tough. It is "necessary to reject customer-preference arguments," argues Matsuda, a leader in the trendy Critical Race Theory movement. Barring accent discrimination in service jobs "will admittedly impose some hardship on businesses that rely heavily on pleasing customer whims" -- thus reducing to a mere "whim" humans' desire to communicate clearly with each other in transacting their affairs. If customers fail to understand an accent, she suggests, it might be their own fault for having "lived a monocultural life."

One great irony here is that many immigrants themselves support the idea of setting high standards of English proficiency. Not only do they realize the fluency is crucial to their children's success, but they keep running into that arch-frustration: dealing between novice English speakers whose original languages are not the same.

When the teacher-assignment controversy hit in Westfield, 400 parents in the heavily ethnic mill town signed a petition asking that instructors in early grades be proficient in "the accepted and standard use of pronunciation."

Mayor George Varelas, himself a Greek immigrant with a marked accent, backed the parents. "Persons like myself -- and I cannot be confused with someone from Boston or Alabama -- should not be" in charge of 5- and 6-year-olds' first language skills. "I would only impart my confusion and give them my defects in terms of language." A Boston Globe columnist called the parents "know nothings" and the state education commissioner charged them with "bigotry," but Varelas got sacks of supportive mail from around the country.

And now safety worries are cropping up. Queasy about the risk of medical flubs due to doctor-patient misunderstandings, the panel that certifies foreign-trained physicians has decided to test applicants on how well they communicate with patients, starting in July of next year.

Want to bet they'll get sued?

January 2, 2006

Crimes of Ego

[Review of Crimes Against Nature: How George W. Bush and His Corporate Pals Are Plundering the Country and Hijacking Our Democracy by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. (HarperCollins). Originally appeared in the New York Post, Oct. 17, 2004]

TWO years ago, celebrity environmentalist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. made himself a laughingstock from one end of Iowa to the other when he flew into that state to proclaim that large-scale hog farms are more of a threat to America than Osama bin Laden and his terrorists.

In one of the milder reactions, a Des Moines Register editorial called his comments "idiotic" and "ridiculous."

But the wayward scion learned nothing from that episode. His volume knob still stuck at 10, Kennedy has now delivered himself of a whole book about the "Crimes Against Nature" (always crimes, never the result of mere differences of opinion) by which today's high officials are leading us "back to the Dark Ages" on environmental policy.

His villains, a long list, include the "sleazy scoundrels" of the Bush regime, business execs with "reptilian hearts," "crooked scientists" whose research fails to confirm his own notions and sinister policy experts who dabble in "the occult art of cost-benefit analysis."

There's a rich market for Bush-bashing books these days, but Kennedy's jackhammer style leaves one yearning for Michael Moore's suavity, Molly Ivins' balance and Paul Krugman's lightness of touch. If you find it novel and illuminating to compare today's highly placed Texans with Hitler and Mussolini, then RFK Jr.'s your man.

For those with even a passing interest in public policy, the book affords the fun of a pratfall on every page, most of them occasioned by Kennedy's epic self-righteousness and astounding disregard for conventional accuracy.

Thus we learn that air pollution is a cause of Down's Syndrome, that "study after study" shows small family farmers to be "far more efficient" than battery raisers of chicken, eggs and pork and that "automakers already have the technology" to make SUVs and minivans get the mileage of passenger cars, but don't do it because, well, because they're mean.

And more: It seems there are "seven media giants that own or control virtually all of the United States' 2,000 TV stations, 11,000 radio stations and 11,000 newspapers and magazines," working hand in glove with the Bush White House (you know how CBS and the Times are always doing that). And did you know that the Bush people are secretly plotting to eliminate all federal environmental regulation within a year? Many of the "rollbacks" Kennedy cites, however, turn out to be refusals to expand the law, a rather different thing.

As for trade-offs at a time of $50/barrel oil ­-- between warm homes and optimal caribou habitat, between underground coal mining (better for the landscape) and surface mining (kills a lot fewer miners) ­-- Kennedy's usual practice is simply to ignore them. This helps in sustaining outrage, but does it really equip his readers to argue well for their cause? In a revealing turn of phrase, Kennedy complains his adversaries are allowed "to pretend that there is a genuine debate."

The man's lack of ironic self-awareness is a marvel. In his media-criticism chapter, he has the nerve to blast the press for its absorption with celebrity culture. Yet this book, like Kennedy's entire career, is nothing if not an artifact of that culture. It would never have been acquired by a major publisher, or sent out in quantity to bookstores, or reviewed in this newspaper today, if its author's name were Robert F. Snicklethwaite, Jr.

Is It Really an In-Justice System?

[Originally appeared in the New York Post, Sept. 30, 1996]

For many, it's an article of faith: The justice system is stacked against African-Americans. Last spring, a holdover Cuomo-era state panel made headlines by charging that black defendants get tougher sentences than similarly situated whites; the Pataki administration repudiated its report.

"Study after study verifies that color makes a difference at every stage of a criminal case", according to law professor and O.J. defense lawyer Gerald Uelmen. "Whites do better at getting charges dropped or reduced to lesser offenses." Do they? On Wednesday, the Center for Equal Opportunity will release figures suggesting that black defendants actually do better than whites at beating criminal charges. Moreover, although the numbers are sketchy, big-city juries may be acquitting blacks at a higher rate than whites.

The Washington-based center, best known for its president Linda Chavez, hired analyst Robert Lerner to assemble numbers from a U.S. Justice Dept. database of 56,000 felony cases filed in state courts in the nation's 75 largest cities in May 1992. The cities account for most of the nation's violent crime and an even bigger share of blacks' encounters with the criminal justice system.

Black defendants, it turns out, were convicted at a higher rate than whites in only two of the fourteen federally designated felony categories. These two categories also happened to be the two smallest: felony traffic offenses and a miscellaneous category of crimes not against persons or property. In the other 12 categories, black defendants escaped conviction at a higher rate than whites.

Many of the differences were modest. Thus, 38 percent of blacks charged with robbery beat the rap compared with 35 percent of whites; burglary, 25 percent vs. 21 percent; assault, 49 percent vs. 43 percent; theft, 27 percent vs. 25 percent. Murder cases showed a mere one-point difference (24 percent of blacks not convicted, 23 percent of whites) with equally tiny disparities for public order offenses and miscellaneous property crimes.

Blacks did significantly better than whites at beating drug and weapons charges. On drug trafficking charges, 24 percent were not convicted versus 14 percent of whites; similar margins were seen for other drug offenses (32 percent vs. 23 percent) and weapons charges (32 percent vs. 22 percent). The other side's obvious rejoinder is that blacks are being overcharged with these offenses in the first place. When DAs find the evidence won't hold up, this side maintains, they have to drop the cases.

Admittedly, the center's numbers can't resolve this challenge, but they do cast doubt on the simple idea that prosecutors and judges are adding their own dose of bias against blacks. (Hispanic defendants, incidentally, fared roughly the same as whites overall.) And this still leaves the study's most explosive finding: Whopping disparities in favor of black defendants accused of rape and other crimes against individuals that fall outside the dominant trio of categories -- murder, robbery and assault.

Other crimes against persons, a catch-all category covering charges from manslaughter to extortion to felony child abuse, showed a wide gap: 48 percent of blacks escaped conviction versus 28 percent of whites. And a startling 51 percent of rape charges against blacks ended in non-conviction compared with 25 percent for whites.

These happened to be the same two categories in which juries showed the most extreme tendency to acquit black defendants. Of cases that made it to trial, juries acquitted 69 percent of black defendants in other-crimes-against-persons cases, as against 29 percent of whites. And they acquitted 83 percent -- yes, I thought it was a misprint too, but Lerner says it's the real number -- of blacks charged with rape, compared with just 24 percent of whites.

Before readers fall off their chairs, they should know there are reasons to view these figures with caution. First, though the overall figures on non-convictions draw from a large set of cases, those on jury acquittals reflect small sample sizes: Most cases end in guilty pleas or dismissals, and only a few percent make it to juries. Second, and consistent with the greater randomness you'd expect given small sample sizes, juries did not show a reliable pattern of racial bias or lenience.

In two big categories, robbery and assault, they actually acquitted blacks at a lower rate than whites (12 vs. 18 and 37 vs. 42 percent respectively). And the low acquittal rates for both races on such charges as burglary and drug trafficking (where fewer than 10 percent of either race won acquittals) don't hint at an indiscriminate turn-'em-loose view.

Moreover, the figures don't necessarily point to a greater willingness to excuse black-on-white crime: in most rape and violent-crime charges accuser and defendant are of the same race. Finally, we can't assume that lower acquittal rates are simply better: Facts can truly be doubtful and defenses or mitigating circumstances real, one reason both races may show high acquittal rates on such charges as assault.

All that having been said, you can bet we'd hear plenty about the figures if they'd come out the other way. And the numbers are sure to fuel the debate about whether some inner-city juries are letting defendants off at the cost of ignoring the law and the evidence. While the nationwide acquittal rate is reported at 17 percent, it's said to exceed 30 percent in some big cities and to be approaching 50 percent for black defendants in The Bronx.

Some actually cheer this trend. In a much-quoted Yale Law Journal article, Paul Butler, a law professor at George Washington University, wrote that "when the criminal justice system discriminates against people who are African-American and poor, black jurors are legally and morally justified in acquitting those persons" -- even though African-Americans are typically the chief victims when freed wrongdoers go on to commit more crimes.

Jury acquittals, even if few, also help drive the entire system because plea bargaining takes place in their shadow. It's suggestive that prosecutors appear to be dropping cases beforehand in much the same general pattern in which those cases run into trouble with juries. The Simpson case may be a year old, but the need for a hard look at the performance of our trial system grows only more urgent.