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Everything Is Obvious: *Once You Know the Answer [Format Kindle]

Duncan J. Watts
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The Myth of Common Sense

Every day in New York City five million people ride the subways. Starting from their homes throughout the boroughs of Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx, they pour themselves in through hundreds of stations, pack themselves into thousands of cars that barrel though the dark labyrinth of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's tunnel system, and then once again flood the platforms and stairwells-a subterranean river of humanity urgently seeking the nearest exit and the open air beyond. As anyone who has ever participated in this daily ritual can attest, the New York subway system is something between a miracle and nightmare, a Rube Goldberg contraption of machines, concrete, and people that in spite of innumerable breakdowns, inexplicable delays, and indecipherable public announcements, more or less gets everyone where they're going, but not without exacting a certain amount of wear and tear on their psyche. Rush hour in particular verges on a citywide mosh pit-of tired workers, frazzled mothers, and shouting, shoving teenagers, all scrabbling over finite increments of space, time, and oxygen. It's not the kind of place you go in search of the milk of human kindness. It's not the kind of place where you'd expect a perfectly healthy, physically able young man to walk up to you and ask you for your seat.

And yet that's precisely what happened one day in the early 1970s when a group of psychology students went out into the subway system on the suggestion of their teacher, the social psychologist Stanley Milgram. Milgram was already famous for his controversial "obedience" studies, conducted some years earlier at Yale, in which he had shown that ordinary people brought into a lab would apply what they thought were deadly electrical shocks to a human subject (really an actor who was pretending to be shocked) simply because they were told to do so by a white-coated researcher who claimed to be running an experiment on learning. The finding that otherwise respectable citizens could, under relatively unexceptional circumstances, perform what seemed like morally incomprehensible acts was deeply disturbing to many people-and the phrase "obedience to authority" has carried a negative connotation ever since.1

What people appreciated less, however, is that following the instructions of authority figures is, as a general rule, indispensible to the proper functioning of society. Imagine if students argued with their teachers, workers challenged their bosses, and drivers ignored traffic cops anytime they asked them to do something they didn't like. The world would descend into chaos in about five minutes. Clearly there are moments when it's appropriate to resist authority, and most people would agree that the situation Milgram created in the lab would qualify as such a moment. But what the experiment also illustrated was that the social order that we take for granted in everyday life is maintained in part by hidden rules that we don't even realize exist until we try to break them.

Based on this experience, and having subsequently moved to New York, Milgram had begun to wonder if there was a similar "rule" about asking people for seats on the subway. Like the rule about obeying authority figures, this rule is never really articulated, nor would a typical rider be likely to mention it if asked to describe the rules of subway riding. And yet it exists, as Milgram's students quickly discovered when they went about their little field experiment. Although more than half of the riders asked eventually surrendered their seats, many of them reacted angrily or demanded some explanation for the request. Everyone reacted with surprise, even amazement, and onlookers often made disparaging remarks. But more interesting than the response of the riders was that of the experimenters themselves, who found it extremely difficult to perform the experiment in the first place. Their reluctance was so great, in fact, that they had to go out in pairs, with one of them acting as moral support for the other. When the students reported their discomfort to Milgram, he scoffed at them. But when he tried to do the experiment himself, the simple act of walking up to a complete stranger and asking for his or her seat left him feeling physically nauseated. As trivial as it seemed, in other words, this rule was no more easily violated than the obedience-to-authority "rule" that Milgram had exposed years earlier.2

As it turns out, a big city like New York is full of these sorts of rules. On a crowded train, for example, it's no big deal if you're squeezed in against other people. But if someone stands right next to you when the train is empty, it's actually kind of repellant. Whether it's acknowledged or not, there's clearly some rule that encourages us to spread out as much as we can in the available space, and violations of the rule can generate extreme discomfort. In the same way, imagine how uncomfortable you'd feel if someone got on your elevator and stood facing you instead of turning around to face the door. People face each other all the time in enclosed spaces, including on subway trains, and nobody thinks twice about it. But on an elevator it would feel completely weird, just as if the other person had violated some rule-even though it might not have occurred to you until that moment that any such rule existed. Or how about all the rules we follow for passing one another on the sidewalk, holding open doors, getting in line at the deli, acknowledging someone else's right to a cab, making just the right amount of eye contact with drivers as you cross the street at a busy intersection, and generally being considerate of our fellow human beings while still asserting our own right to take up a certain amount of space and time?

No matter where we live, our lives are guided and shaped by unwritten rules-so many of them, in fact, that we couldn't write them all down if we tried. Nevertheless, we expect reasonable people to know them all. Complicating matters, we also expect reasonable people to know which of the many rules that have been written down are OK to ignore. When I graduated from high school, for example, I joined the Navy and spent the next four years completing my officer training at the Australian Defence Force Academy. The academy back then was an intense place, replete with barking drill instructors, predawn push-ups, running around in the pouring rain with rifles, and of course lots and lots of rules. At first this new life seemed bizarrely complicated and confusing. However, we quickly learned that although some of the rules were important, to be ignored at your peril, many were enforced with something like a wink and a nod. Not that the punishments couldn't be severe. You could easily get sentenced to seven days of marching around a parade ground for some minor infraction like being late to a meeting or having a wrinkled bedcover. But what you were supposed to understand (although of course you weren't supposed to admit that you understood it) was that life at the academy was more

like a game than real life. Sometimes you won, and sometimes you lost, and that was when you ended up on the drill square; but whatever happened, you weren't supposed to take it personally. And sure enough, after about six months of acclimation, situations that would have terrified us on our arrival seemed entirely natural-it was now the rest of the world that seemed odd.

We've all had experiences like this. Maybe not quite as extreme as a military academy-which, twenty years later, sometimes strikes me as having happened in another life. But whether it's learning to fit in at a new school, or learning the ropes in a new job, or learning to live in a foreign country, we've all had to learn to negotiate new environments that at first seem strange and intimidating and filled with rules that we don't understand but eventually become familiar. Very often the formal rules-the ones that are written down-are less important than the informal rules, which just like the rule about subway seats may not even be articulated until we break them. Conversely, rules that we do know about may not be enforced, or may be enforced only sometimes depending on some other rule that we don't know about. When you think about how complex these games of life can be, it seems kind of amazing that we're capable of playing them at all. Yet, in the way that young children learn a new language seemingly by osmosis, we learn to navigate even the most novel social environments more or less without even knowing that we're doing it.


The miraculous piece of human intelligence that enables us to solve these problems is what we call common sense. Common sense is so ordinary that we tend to notice it only when it's missing, but it is absolutely essential to functioning in everyday life. Common sense is how we know what to wear when we go to work in the morning, how to behave on the street or the subway, and how to maintain harmonious relationships with our friends and coworkers. It tells us when to obey the rules, when to quietly ignore them, and when to stand up and challenge the rules themselves. It is the essence of social intelligence, and is also deeply embedded in our legal system, in political philosophy, and in professional training.

For something we refer to so often, however, common sense is surprisingly hard to pin down.3 Roughly speaking, it is the loosely organized set of facts, observations, experiences, insights, and pieces of received wisdom that each of us accumulates over a lifetime, in the course of encountering, dealing with, and learning from, everyday situations. Beyond that, however, it tends to resist easy classification. Some commonsense knowledge is very general in nature-what the American anthropologist Clifford Geertz called an "ancient tangle of received practices, accepted beliefs, habitual judgments, and untaught emotions."4 But common sense can also refer to more specialized knowledge, as with the everyday working knowledge of a professional, such as a doctor, a lawyer, or an engineer, that develops over years of training and experience. In his address to the annual meeting of the American Sociological Society in Chicago in 1946, Carl Taylor, then president of the association, put it as well as anyone:

By common sense I mean the knowledge possessed by those who live in the midst and are a part of the social situations and processes which sociologists seek to understand. The term thus used may be synonymous with folk knowledge, or it may be the knowledge possessed by engineers, by the practical politicians, by those who gather and publish news, or by others who handle or work with and must interpret and predict the behavior or persons and groups.5

Taylor's definition highlights two defining features of common sense that seem to differentiate it from other kinds of human knowledge, like science or mathematics. The first of these features is that unlike formal systems of knowledge, which are fundamentally theoretical, common sense is overwhelmingly practical, meaning that it is more concerned with providing answers to questions than in worrying about how it came by the answers. From the perspective of common sense, it is good enough to know that something is true, or that it is the way of things. One does not need to know why in order to benefit from the knowledge, and arguably one is better off not worrying about it too much. In contrast with theoretical knowledge, in other words, common sense does not reflect on the world, but instead attempts to deal with it simply "as it is."6

The second feature that differentiates common sense from formal knowledge is that while the power of formal systems resides in their ability to organize their specific findings into logical categories described by general principles, the power of common sense lies in its ability to deal with every concrete situation on its own terms. For example, it is a matter of common sense that what we wear or do or say in front of our boss will be different from how we behave in front of our friends, our parents, our parents' friends, or our friends' parents. But whereas a formal system of knowledge would try to derive the appropriate behavior in all these situations from a single, more general "law," common sense just "knows" what the appropriate thing to do is in any particular situation, without knowing how it knows it.7 It is largely for this reason, in fact, that commonsense knowledge has proven so hard to replicate in computers-because, in contrast with theoretical knowledge, it requires a relatively large number of rules to deal with even a small number of special cases. Let's say, for example, that you wanted to program a robot to navigate the subway. It seems like a relatively simple task. But as you would quickly discover, even a single component of this task such as the "rule" against asking for another person's subway seat turns out to depend on a complex variety of other rules-about seating arrangements on subways in particular, about polite behavior in public in general, about life in crowded cities, and about general-purpose norms of courteousness, sharing, fairness, and ownership-that at first glance seem to have little to do with the rule in question.

Attempts to formalize commonsense knowledge have all encountered versions of this problem-that in order to teach a robot to imitate even a limited range of human behavior, you would have to, in a sense, teach it everything about the world. Short of that, the endless subtle distinctions between the things that matter, the things that are supposed to matter but don't, and the things that may or may not matter depending on other things, would always eventually trip up even the most sophisticated robot. As soon as it encountered a situation that was slightly different from those you had programmed it to handle, it would have no idea how to behave. It would stick out like a sore thumb. It would always be screwing up.8

People who lack common sense are a bit like the hapless robot in that they never seem to understand what it is that they should be paying attention to, and they never seem to understand what it is that they don't understand. And for exactly the same reason that programming robots is hard, it's surprisingly hard to explain to someone lacking in common sense what it is that they're doing wrong. You can take them back through various examples of when they said or did the wrong thing, and perhaps they'll be able to avoid making exactly those errors again. But as soon as anything is different, they're effectively back to square one. We had a few cadets like that at the academy: otherwise perfectly intelligent, competent people who just couldn't seem to figure out how to play the game.

From the Hardcover edition.

Revue de presse

"Every once in a while, a book comes along that forces us to re-examine what we know and how we know it. This is one of those books. And while it is not always pleasurable to realize the many ways in which we are wrong, it is useful to figure out the cases where our intuitions fail us."
- Dan Ariely, James B. Duke Professor of Behavioral Economics at Duke University, and New York Times bestselling author of Predictably Irrational

"A brilliant account of why, for  every hard question, there’s a common sense answer that’s simple, seductive,  and spectacularly wrong. If you are suspicious of pop sociology, rogue  economics, and didactic history – or, more importantly, if you aren’t! –  Everything is Obvious is  necessary reading. It will literally change the way you think."

- Eric Klinenberg,  Professor of Sociology. New York University

"You have to take notice when common sense, the bedrock thing we’ve always counted on, is challenged brilliantly. Especially when something better than common sense is suggested. As we increasingly experience the world as a maddeningly complex blur, we need a new way of seeing. The fresh ideas in this book, like the invention of spectacles, help bring things into better focus."

- Alan Alda

Everything is Obvious is indicated for managers, scholars, or anyone else tired of oversimplified, faulty explanations about how business, government, society and even sports work. Temporary side effects of reading Duncan Watts' tour de force include: light-headedness, a tendency to question one's colleagues, temporary doubt in one's own strategies.  Long term effects include: Deeper insight into history, current events, corporate politics and any other human activity that involves more than one person at a time.  Everything is Obvious is available without a prescription.”

- Dalton Conley, Dean for the Social Sciences, New York University

"A truly important work that's bound to rattle the cages of pseudo- and self-proclaimed experts in every field. If this book doesn't force you to re-examine what you're doing, something is wrong with you."
- Guy Kawasaki, author of Enchantment: The Art of Changing Hearts, Minds, and Actions, and co-founder of

"Watts brings science to life. A complicated, global, interconnected world, one which often overwhelms, is tamed by wit, skepticism, and the power to challenge conventional wisdom. The book will help you see patterns, where you might have thought chaos ruled."

-Sudhir Venkatesh, William B. Ransford Professor of Sociology at Columbia University

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2 internautes sur 2 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
5.0 étoiles sur 5 Bons sens individuel et bon sens collectif... 16 novembre 2012
Par Manageris TOP 1000 COMMENTATEURS
Format:Broché|Achat vérifié
C’est un fait : notre bon sens est au cœur de la plupart de nos décisions. Or celui-ci n’est fiable que pour des décisions simples de la vie quotidienne, nous alerte cet ouvrage. Lorsque nous l’utilisons pour gérer des situations complexes, il nous conduit à des erreurs de raisonnement dont nous n’avons pas conscience, car nous sommes l’objet de biais cognitifs et d’erreurs de jugement.

L’auteur nous invite à prendre le réflexe de nous interroger ce qui nous apparaît comme des évidences. Ce ne sont souvent que des constructions de notre cerveau qui nous permettent de donner un sens au monde qui nous entoure. Par des expériences de psychologie sociale passionnantes, il démontre que nous pensons faire des choix rationnels, mais que ces choix sont en fait déterminés par des schémas de pensée difficiles à faire évoluer, par des préférences inconscientes ou encore par l’influence de notre entourage.

Faut-il pour autant complètement désespérer de notre bon sens ? Certainement pas, car celui-ci se révèle particulièrement pertinent lorsqu’il est collectif. La sagesse des foules, ou la somme des bons sens individuels, s’avère finalement plus précise que les prévisions d’experts.

Un livre passionnant, qui invite à la remise en question.
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5.0 étoiles sur 5 Excellent 5 octobre 2011
Par Ayoub
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Ce livre est un plaisir à lire. L'auteur nous étonne chaque fois en montrant l'absurdité du bon sens en nous livrant des descriptions et analyses contre-intuitives que ce soit en politique, économie, le monde d'internet ...
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3.0 étoiles sur 5 If Only This Were Always True 7 juin 2011
Par L. King - Publié sur
This is a personal review - if you haven't come across similar material I think it's a very recommendable read.

I'm a big fan of Duncan Watts' work on Small Worlds, but I did not get as much as I would have liked from his latest pop-sci offering. Some of the material I found new, such as Grannovetter's intriguing threshold hypothesis as to why some mobs gel into mass action and others do not, and he had a very good discussion on the use of online networked communities as social science laboratories, with some interesting results generated from twitter, Facebook and email. And, as is necessary for this kind of a book, there are a number of illustrative anecdotes, such as why BetaMax and Discman failed in the market, but iPod succeeded or Amazon's "Mechanical Turk" - which I just tried out after reading the book, or Zara's approach to marketing. If nothing else it makes for good entertainment and fodder for conversation.

However much of the book hinges around the nature of workable explanations, and I'm surprised that in his wanderings Watts did not come across Herbert Simon's well known The Sciences of the Artificial and his key notion of "satisficing" (we tend to stop at explanations that work sufficiently well, not those that are necessarily true); or the idea of "magical thinking" in allegedly primitive societies; or Donald Norman's The Psychology Of Everyday Things, which looks at the relationship between internal models vs the real world, all of which would have added greater depth to the themes Watts was pursuing.

Then there's the catchy title. If you read Watts carefully one finds that knowing the answer has the effect of increasing the one's confidence in a particular explanation, but that doesn't necessarily make things obvious, in particular when the material requires mathematics, statistics and long chains of reasoning. There's some good material on rational choice but Dan Arielly (who gave the book a good review on the back cover) and John Paulos I've found have done better. Nor does he confront conspiracy theorists, where the answer is used to select the "facts".

So yes, it's enjoyable, but I was hoping for more original results from Watts own work. Your mileage, of course, may vary.
102 internautes sur 123 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
5.0 étoiles sur 5 Reasons to get excited about sociology 1 janvier 2011
Par Malvin - Publié sur
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"Everything is Obvious" by Dr. Duncan J. Watts suggests that we are on the brink of a new age of social scientific discovery with profound implications for business, politics and culture. Dr. Watts brings an interesting and rare critical discipline to the soft science of sociology due to his PhD's in the hard sciences of theoretical and applied mechanics. Dr. Watts shares insights gained from his academic and professional experiences including his role as a principal research scientist at Yahoo! Research. Accessibly written for general interest readers, Dr. Watts' enlightening book gives us many good reasons to get excited about sociology.

Although Dr. Watts rarely acknolwedges it, his book represents an implicit refutation of Malcolm Gladwell's pseudo-scientific The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. Dr. Watts charges Mr. Gladwell with employing an obvious kind of circular logic where a particular social, cultural or artistic phenomenon is heralded simply due to the fact of its success (while ignoring how dozens of others that possessed the same attributes failed). In fact, Dr. Watts argues that answers to the riddles of history are usually not well understood in the moment; it is only with the benefit of hindsight that historians can piece together the relevant factors that might have produced noteworthy events. For example, Dr. Watts argues that Paul Revere was probably no less influential than the thousands of others who branched out to spread the news of the impending British approach; to the extent that the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow might have assigned credit to a single person from the chaos of a complex event, one is engaged in the art of storytelling, not science.

Dr. Watts engages us by discussing a number of case studies that frequently challenge the conventional wisdom. For example, Dr. Watts debunks the idea that the presence of key individuals like Kevin Bacon are necessary to bridge six degrees of social separation. Using Twitter to test the Kevin Bacon hypothesis, Dr. Watts found that ordinary people were able to make all of the necessary connections to deliver messages to specific individuals located in various countries around the world. While common sense but erroneous shorthand constructs such as the Kevin Bacon hypothesis might be helpful in bringing comfort and order to individuals living in a complex world, Dr. Watts contends that together we must do better if we wish to engage in meaningful social planning and decision making.

Why should we care about any of this? For one, Dr. Watts' analysis reframes how we might view matters of social equity. As his experiments frequently prove, the libertarian philosophy makes little sense in a world that is highly dependent on shared responsibilities and mutual interactions; with implications in the way we might collectively decide how to reward the labors of corporate CEOs and bankers on the one hand, and ordinary workers on the other. For another, Dr. Watts demonstrates the validity of both top-down and bottom-up perspectives on matters of public policy. As the ability to harvest and analyze data from search engines like Google and Yahoo! as well as social networking sites such as Facebook continues to improve, Dr. Watts believes that social scientists will be better able to tap the wisdom of local communities to find solutions to global problems. In this manner, Dr. Watts hopes that sound science can do more than simply help motion picture studios better predict the potential box office for a film in a specific community; rather, he hopes that the public will attain the knowledge it needs to demand social justice.

I highly recommend this intriguing and important book to everyone.
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3.0 étoiles sur 5 Was René Descartes Correct? - We Know Nothing 26 janvier 2011
Par James East - Publié sur
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Though I am not necessarily a René Descartes fan, reading `In Everything is Obvious' one surely comes away realizing that we really do not know much. That is only after something has become fact do we really know it. Of course this sounds very logical and even `Common Sense', but the author reminds us throughout the book that common sense has a remarkable knack for peppering over complexity. Complexity with respect to emergent conditions, or results, because the behavior of the whole can not be easily related to the behavior of the parts.

In the chapter `History Is Not Such a Good Teacher After All`, the author reminds us that history is actually just a one-off event. There could be many different historical facts but we only know of the one. This is pointed out in the discussion of creeping determinism where we pay less attention than we should to things that did not happen. For example, since we are mostly concerned with success, it seems pointless, or uninteresting, to worry about the absence of success.

To vividly point this creeping determinism, or `abstract blindness' I am reminded of the WWII bombers that returned from German bomb runs. The ones that returned were all shot-up and full of holes. The General asked, `what can we do to protect the bombers'? A smart mathmatican said put extra armor where there are "no" holes. Where There are No Holes! When looked thru the lens of abstract blindness, one realizes that the bombers that did not return were the ones with holes in them that no one could see.

All in a good book that starts out fast but tapers off about halfway thru to the end as it ventures into, though appropriate, government planning that results in unintended consequences of common sense ideas.
11 internautes sur 14 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
5.0 étoiles sur 5 Why is explanation so easy and prediction so hard? 28 février 2011
Par Jessica Weissman - Publié sur
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Hindsight is 20-20. Everyone knows that, but disregards it. Predictions are difficult and likely to be inaccurate (except in trivial areas like weather and traffic). But everyone can explain the event in retrospect. It's obvious.

Common sense furnishes standard explanations of lots of things, and we tell ourselves stories (or the news tells us stories) to explain past events. But what if those obvious explanations are wrong? There's no way to validate most of them, and alternate explanations are easy to come up with once you think about it. No matter who won the Best Actor oscar, it's easy to explain. But if one of the other actors won, that explanation would make just as much sense.

Duncan has written a wonderful book exploring this paradox. He's great on exposing the problem. His examples are fascinating and original - no retreads of the same old behavioral economics insights here.

What to do about it? I don't know, and neither does Duncan. Alas. The condition is much easier to describe than to ameliorate. Don't expect prediction to get more accurate soon, and don't expect any policy solutions either.

But do read this well-written and insightful book. It may help you avoid a few of the more obvious mental traps, and to examine the conventional wisdom and explanations more carefully.
3 internautes sur 3 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
4.0 étoiles sur 5 Only One Quarrel... 26 août 2011
Par J. Slott - Publié sur
"Everything Is Obvious..." is an incredibly worthwhile read. I intend to refer it to as many friends and acquaintances as I can gather.
That being said, I must admit one profound disagreement.
In one of the later chapters, Mr. Watts seem to demonstrate sympathy for former New York police officer Joseph Gray after his five-to-fifteen year sentencing for second-degree manslaughter, which was passed upon him after his drunk driving resulted in the deaths of three people. He claims that the man was more a victim of bad luck and that one should hesitate before applauding the sentence when considering how many other drunk drivers "have gotten away with it."
Mr. Watts, sir, you just don't get it.
The issue isn't one of "getting away with it" or bad luck. Drunk-driving isn't an offense for philosophical or political reasons: when one is intoxicated, his physical and mental capacities are measurably impaired. That's not opinion or prejudice; it's fact. If one could consume a case of beer with no more injury to his faculties than if he were to down a case of 7-Up, there wouldn't be a problem. It's not the drunkenness that's the issue; it's the effects of the drunkenness.
One of the major points of this book is that common sense does not work in complex, multi-faceted and distant situations. Its merits come into play only when assessing simple, closer-to-home episodes.
What can be a better example of the proper use of applying common sense than not allowing intoxicated people from maneuvering multi-ton machines in the midst of dozens of other people operating similar machinery, or just simply walking?
Driving an automobile is not a right; it's a privilege. One has to prove him or herself responsible enough to deserve such a license.
I would even claim that getting intoxicated is not a right; it's also should be regarded as a privilege. And society does not owe anyone the benefit of the doubt when he or she gets loaded.
The laws against drunk-driving are not arcane ones. They have been openly around for decades. Mr. Gray, himself, probably handed out tickets to intoxicated people.
Who knows how many times Mr. Gray had previously "gotten away with it", driven a car while stoned and somehow made it to his destination without any mishap?
It was the last time, unfortunately, that resulted in the deaths of three innocent individuals and the emotional wreckage of a husband and father.
Mr. Gray is not a victim of anything; he deliberately drank himself into a stupor, he deliberately put himself behind the wheel of a car, and then he deliberately drove it out. The fact that other people do likewise yet avoid gross mishaps is irrelevant.
Personally, I would have handed the scoundrel a thirty-year sentence.
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