Sunday, April 17, 2016

Rap Reviewed

Scott Alexander writes:

Suppose that rappers start with pre-existing differences from everyone else. Poor, male, non-white minority, lots of experience living in violent places, maybe a certain philosophical outlook towards their condition. Then they get a rallying flag: rap music. They meet one another, like one another. The culture undergoes further development: the lionization of famous rappers, the development of a vocabulary of shared references. They get all of the benefits of being in a tribe like increased trust, social networking, and a sense of pride and identity.

Now suppose some rich white people get into rap. Maybe they get into rap for innocuous reasons: rap is cool, they like the sound of it. Fine. But they don’t share the pre-existing differences, and they can’t be easily assimilated into the tribe. Maybe they develop different conventions, and start saying that instead of being about the struggles of living in severe poverty, rap should be about Founding Fathers. Maybe they start saying the original rappers are bad, and they should stop talking about violence and bitches because that ruins rap’s reputation. Since rich white people tend to be be good at gaining power and influence, maybe their opinions are overrepresented at the Annual Rap Awards, and all of a sudden you can’t win a rap award unless your rap is about the Founding Fathers and doesn’t mention violence (except Founding-Father-related duels).

When someone asked me, circa 1989, what kind of music I liked, my answer would have perhaps jumped around depending on the day, with this exception: I was confident that I hated rap music.

Last weekend, I watched the movie Straight Outta Compton, the N.W.A. biopic. I loved it. The movie's story line was compelling; it was well acted, with great performances by O'Shea Jackson and Jason Mitchell; and its dramatic pacing was almost perfect, even in the director's cut version that I watched on Blu-ray. Even the film's overt #blm political message had, in my view, enough artistic subtlety for someone otherwise hostile to it to come away with his own interpretation of the events it depicts, perhaps in spite of the creator's intent.

But what surprised me was the extent to which I found myself nodding and bouncing my foot to the beat of songs whose lyrics, even now, would never pass my lips.

What happened?

Some possibilities:

  • I hated rap without having listened to it. That's mostly true: I certainly never voluntarily consumed any rap media, nor did I attend venues or events where it was likely to be played, at least at volumes I wouldn't have found off-putting in themselves. But it's not entirely true: I can remember hearing it in passing, and finding it's appeal mostly incomprehensible.

  • The movie's rap music is inauthentic. I have no way of knowing whether the soundtrack's numbers are identical to what was recorded and played in the '80s and '90s, or whether they have been subtlely redone to appeal to a broader audience. But if this were the case, wouldn't we have heard about it?

  • We all have been acculturated to Rap. (Or to "hip-hop"; someone will need to explain if there is a difference.) Steve has pointed out in several posts that Rap is now and has been the domininant pop style for a couple of decades. On the other hand, my personal listening habits, to the extent I listen to pop music, incline me towards the acoustic- and piano-centric covers of Kurt Hugo Schneider and Tiffany Alvord. And I listen to exclusively classical music on my daily commutes. So while it is certainly possible that I became accustomed to the rap style without realizing it, I still think this is unlikely.

  • My perspective has changed. Then: an abstemious Christian NeoCon who read National Review and jogged. Now: an alt-Right neo-tribalist who lifts weights and reads . . . well, you know . . . .

    This isn't about a moral or rational choice. There is a scene in the movie where a couple of guys with pistols come to the band's hotel room looking for a cheating girlfriend; Easy E, Ice Cube, and Dr. Dre respond with AR-15s and a shotgun. So, first of all, not my tribe. Second, extraordinarily illegal and dangerous. But . . . yeah, I kind of get it. And I get it even knowing what the movie at its most enlightened seems to also know: that the kind of life of which N.W.A. purported to give an account, and thereby glorified, was unlikely to lead to positive outcomes for the people actually living it or forced to live next to it. As I discussed with my daughters: The N.W.A. life offered money, sex, and violence. When you're young and male, it's tough to understand how that can be bad." It's weird, but in middle age, I seem to understand that better than I once did.

Saturday, April 02, 2016

The Abortion Stumble

There are a couple of things that I would have expected to come up amongst all the press coverage of Donald Trump's abortion stumble this week:

“I am pro-life,” Trump said. Asked how a ban would actually work, Trump said, “Well, you go back to a position like they had where they would perhaps go to illegal places but we have to ban it,” Trump said.

[Chris]Matthews then pressed Trump on whether he believes there should be punishment for abortion if it were illegal.

“There has to be some form of punishment,” Trump said. “For the woman?” Matthews asked. “Yeah,” Trump said, nodding.

Trump said the punishment would “have to be determined.”

  • When I read this, the first thing I thought of was, "Oh, this is the same mistake George H. W. Bush made in 1988." From the transcript of the second debate against Dukakis:

    [ANN] GROER: [I]f abortions were to become illegal again, do you think that the women who defy the law and have them anyway, as they did before it was okayed by the Supreme Court, and the doctors who perform them should go to jail?

    BUSH: I haven't sorted out the penalties. But I do know, I do know that I oppose abortion.

    I'm not trying to read to much into this response, by the way. As in Trump's case, this was widely and immediately interpreted as favoring punishment for women who obtain elective abortions.* And as in Trump's case, Bush promptly walked it back.

    But here's the thing: I had a pretty strong memory for the details of this episode even before I looked it up, and I fully expected it to be brought up in the context of Trump making the same mistake (or "mistake"; more on this later). Yet despite googling various combinations of "Trump, Bush, 1988, abortion", I discovered not one single article that tied these two events together. That's . . . weird.

  • I have seen several articles that in various ways have tried to hang Trump's retracted statement around the Republican Party. Salon provides an example (Trigger Warning: Amanda Marcotte):

    [T]he official stance that Republicans are supposed to take is that women are victims of abortion and therefore cannot be held responsible for it. Yes, it’s true that women pick up the phone, make the appointment, talk through their decisions with medical professionals, sign paperwork and then either take a pill or let the doctor perform an abortion, but none of this should be taken, in conservative eyes, as evidence that women are the people responsible for the abortion happening. Women are regarded by conservatives as fundamentally incapable of making grown-up decisions. If they choose abortion (and by implication, if they choose sex), it’s because they poor dears were misled.

    Point taken. But . . . this is hardly Exhibit A in the female deprivation of moral agency. For that, we must turn to the war on prostitution, a.k.a. "sex trafficking (H.T.: Trumwill):

    The [Swedish 1999 anti-prostitution] legislation was built on the public consensus that the system of prostitution promotes violence against women by normalizing sexual exploitation. Thus, in a society that aspires to advance women’s equality, it is unacceptable for men to purchase women for sexual exploitation, whether rationalized as a sexual choice or as “sex work.”

    Sweden does not penalize the persons in prostitution but makes resources available to them. Instead it targets and exposes the anonymous perpetrators – the buyers, mostly men, who purchase mainly women and children in prostitution.

    Come to think of it, even statutory rape laws are also premised on one party to the crime claiming "victim" status, so much so that it now apparently customary to drop the "statutory" qualifier altogether when reporting on them. It is somewhat ironic that female teachers have lately had a determined go at defying our stereotypes in this regard, but either way, the law is hardly a stranger to designating certain classes of people as victims without regard to the facts of individual cases.

* I went looking for video of this moment and couldn't find it, but my recollection is that the reason Bush said "I do know" twice in the second sentence of the reply was that the crowd was audibly reacting to the first sentence.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Into the Rut

Have you ever been riding a bicycle and your front wheel falls into a groove or a rut running across your intended path? Do you remember how, assuming you didn't immediately upend, you and your bicycle then became prisoners to the path of the rut, and you couldn't get out of it without stopping your bicycle?

I thought of this as I read the Washington Post's published transcript of the meeting between Donald Trump and its editorial board on Monday. The entire interview is worth reading, but I found this particular exchange humorous (or terrifying, depending on the priors) because its so clear exactly where Trump falls into a rut from which he can't escape until his interlocutor redirects him:

HIATT: I’d like to come back to the campaign. You said a few weeks ago after a family in Chicago gave some money to a PAC opposing you, you said, “They better watch out. They have a lot to hide.” What should they watch out for?

TRUMP: Look, they are spending vicious … I don’t even know these people. Those Ricketts. I actually said they ought to focus on the Chicago Cubs and, you know, stop playing around. They spent millions of dollars fighting me in Florida. And out of 68 counties, I won 66. I won by 20 points, almost 20 points. Against, everybody thought he was a popular sitting senator. I had $38 million dollars spent on me in Florida over a short period of time. $38 million. And, you know, the Ricketts, I don’t even know these people.

HIATT: So, what does it mean, “They better watch out”?

TRUMP: Well, it means that I’ll start spending on them. I’ll start taking ads telling them all what a rotten job they’re doing with the Chicago Cubs. I mean, they are spending on me. I mean, so am I allowed to say that? I’ll start doing ads about their baseball team. That it’s not properly run or that they haven’t done a good job in the brokerage business lately.

RYAN: Would you do that while you are president?

TRUMP: No, not while I am president. No, not while I’m president. That is two phases. Right now, look, you know, I went to a great school, I was a good student and all. I am an intelligent person. My uncle, I would say my uncle was one of the brilliant people. He was at MIT for 35 years. As a great scientist and engineer, actually more than anything else. Dr. John Trump, a great guy. I’m an intelligent person. I understand what is going on. Right now, I had 17 people who started out. They are almost all gone. If I were going to do that in a different fashion I think I probably wouldn’t be sitting here. You would be interviewing somebody else. But it is hard to act presidential when you are being … I mean, actually I think it is presidential because it is winning. And winning is a pretty good thing for this country because we don’t win any more. And I say it all the time. We do not win any more. This country doesn’t win. We don’t win with trade. We don’t win with … We can’t even beat ISIS. And by the way, just to answer the rest of that question, I would knock the hell out of ISIS in some form. I would rather not do it with our troops, you understand that. Very important. Because I think saying that is very important because I was against the war in Iraq, although they found a clip talking to Howard Stern, I said, “Well…” It was very unenthusiastic. Before they want in, I was totally against the war. I was against it for years. I actually had a delegation sent from the White House to talk to me because I guess I get a disproportionate amount of publicity. I was just against the war. I thought it would destabilize the Middle East, and it did. But we have to knock out ISIS. We are living like in medieval times. Who ever heard of the heads chopped off?

HIATT: Just back to the campaign . . .

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Cosby's Ministry of Truth Moment

From Time (via Legal Insurrection):

  • Spelman College. In July, the historically black women’s college discontinued its endowed professorship with Cosby, who donated $20 million in 1988. The school had suspended the program in 2014 before terminating it completely.

  • CAA. The comedian’s talent agency, which had represented him since 2012, dropped him in late 2014.

  • New York University. In September, university officials removed“William H. Cosby” from the title of its Future Filmmakers Workshop.

  • NBC. In late 2014, the network halted development on a new Bill Cosby sitcom. A top NBC executive said it was “safe to say” Cosby would not be returning to the network.

  • TV Land. The cable network removed Cosby Show reruns from its lineup indefinitely in late 2014.

  • Drexel University. The Philadelphia school revoked Cosby’s honorary degree in November.

  • The University of Pittsburgh. “Based on a unanimous recommendation from the University Committee for honorary degree recipients, the University of Pittsburgh has rescinded the honorary doctor of humane letters degree awarded to Bill Cosby in 2002 at the commencement ceremony on Pitt’s Johnstown campus,” the schoolannounced in November.

  • Jerry Seinfeld and David Letterman. In July, both of the comediansasked for their endorsements to be removed from a 2014 Cosby biography titled Cosby: His Life and Times.

  • Drew University. The New Jersey university voted in October to revoke Cosby’s honorary degree.

  • Brown University. The Ivy League institution rescinded Cosby’s honorary degree in September. “It has become clear,” wrote Brown President Christina Paxson, “by his own admission in legal depositions that became public this summer, that Mr. Cosby has engaged in conduct with women that is contrary to the values of Brown.”

  • Disney’s Hollywood Studios. In July, Disney announced that it planned to remove a Bill Cosby statue from its Hollywood Studios theme park.

  • Fordham University. In September, the New York City university’s Board of Trustees unanimously voted to rescind Cosby’s honorary degree. It was the first time Fordham ever revoked the honor.

  • Tufts University. The Massachusetts school announced in October that it was rescinding Cosby’s honorary doctorate of arts.

  • Goucher College. Cosby had received an honorary degree in 2001 when he was the school’s commencement speaker. In October, it was rescinded.

Now, some of these are certainly defensible business decisions. Obviously, the Cosby brand no longer supports new NBC sitcoms and CAA representation. But at the other extreme, I see the same spirit of Stalinism that had Soviet-era librarians pasting in rewritten history and retouched photographs into their encyclopedias, and that continues today in the ongoing effort to expunge Civil War memorials. It is no doubt true that the image America had of Bill Cosby personally will not turn out to be supported by the reality. But the 80s-era "Cosby Show" is either worth watching or it is not; nothing about the "real" Bill Cosby has any bearing on that question.

Similarly, I understand why Letterman and Seinfeld don't want their names associated with a biography suddenly in need of substantial revision. But . . . did Spelman return the $20M? And which of Drexel, Pitt, Drew, Brown, Fordham, Tufts or Goucher had his chastity in mind when they conferred their "honorary" degrees on the erstwhile "Dr." Cosby?* Rather, I think they had other reasons in mind.** Brown's progressive sanctimony is particularly galling.

Then there is Disney. The world is full of men who didn't use drugs to ease women into compliance but who yet don't have statues in their honor. Disney created one for Cosby as a tribute to his craft, not his virtue, and we should all yet observe the distinction. Sadly, too many people fail to.

* Actually, what is the point of an "honorary degree"? Apparently, only "we like you . . . but we'll take it back if we ever stop liking you, or if those who supplant us in our position don't like you."

** I was never a consistent fan of the "Cosby Show". I didn't object to it, but I didn't have a television back then, and it didn't cross a threshold where I would have found one just to watch it. But from what I gather, the success of the show rested at least in part on its presentation of a black family that could meet white upper-middle-class standards of behavior, by education, stability, warmth and manners . . . and at a time that was closer to the Civil Rights movement than it is to 20156. It wasn't representative in any of those respects, but that was kind of the point: the show was aspirational, Cosby's, and America's, vision of possibility. It is telling that there is nothing in entertainment comparable to it today, but it is also arguable that Cosby's current troubles are in way just a reminder of how that vision failed to materialize. At this writing, I am withholding final judgment on the allegations against him, but I will acknowledge that it doesn't help our evaluation of his work when the avatar of black family stability turns out to be just another sex-crazed African. Which is to say, I might be wrong about the inappropriateness of retroactively denying him honor for it.

Sunday, January 03, 2016

Pound Foolish

From the inbox:

Team Big Base:

This New Year’s weekend is an excellent opportunity for us to continue our energy conservation efforts and save money through our “UnPlug It” campaign. Before you leave work for the long weekend, please unplug items that do not receive daily updates from our computer network or that are otherwise required to remain on for security/safety. Items to unplug include, but are not limited to, computer monitors, coffee pots, printers, scanners, radios, desk lamps, task lighting, shredders, fax machines, microwaves, computer speakers, projectors, decorations, clocks, and any other devices that use an AC/DC inverter plug. Please identify select individuals in each of your respective units/sections to serve as compliance personnel in verifying maximum energy effectiveness by ensuring all unused items are unplugged. Please take note: DO NOT turn off laptops or desktop computer CPUs.

Thanks for all you do to make Big Base an outstanding place to live and work. Working together, we can save upwards of $5,000 per “UnPlug It” event, just through the simple actions described above. Please direct any energy related questions to our energy office at

Have a safe and joyful New Year’s!


Big Base, Flyover State

Now, Big Base has a working population of 26K people, approximately half of whom are civilians. To the best of my research, their average wage in excess of $20 per hour.

Let's assume for the moment that the average time necessary for an individual to read the above email, take inventory of the electrical devices, and unplug them would be six minutes. Some, no doubt, send emails from Col Pennychaser straight to their spam folder, and hence spend no time at all. Many in higher paygrades busy themselves "selecting compliance personnel", and spend far more than six minutes. And some cranky minority spend their own and their coworkers time ranting about how worthless the effort is when the biggest power sucks, CPUs, are excluded from consideration.

But let's assume a six minute average.

It follows that the payroll cost of the email alone runs to $52,000 for the base, in return for which investment the base is estimated to save $5000 in utility costs.

Sounds like business as usual.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

"Territorial Conquest"


A former Air Force Academy chaplain calls the end zone praying by members of the school's football team "another 'territorial conquest' of the Christian right."

"This stands in a long line of conservative Christian usurpation of government space via supposed voluntary demonstrations of Christian piety," MeLinda Morton, a former captain, said in an email.

I blogged about Capt Morton four years ago.

Gaming the Law of Self Defense

Apropos of nothing, I see that my recent traffic from Russia is double that from the U.S.  I'm not sure that's a good thing.

Anyway, there was a police shooting in Chicago:

The deceased, 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, is described as high on PCP, non-compliant, and armed with a knife with which he had attempted to slash the tires of police cars that had responded to reports of Laquan attempting to break into nearby trucks.

The case raises an important question: how should the police be required to engage an armed, non-compliant subject when probable cause exists but when the subject is not directly threatening them? My preference would be: wait for the taser. But then I would equivocate: it may depend on other circumstances. Does waiting put someone else in danger? But "it may depend" may be bad instructions to police in need of clear guidance.

But . . . this?

Let me begin my criticism by acknowledging that Andrew Branca has taught me most of what I pretend to know about self defense law, to wit: deadly force is authorized against a person who has put you in reasonable fear of imminent death or serious injury. Plus you must be innocent in the confrontation, plus (in the handful of duty-to-retreat states, you must not have a safe avenue of escape.

I expect every police officer in the country has been taught a defensive doctrine called the Tueller Drill. The Tueller Drill was developed by Salt Lake City Police Officer Dennis Tueller, who among other things was a firearms instructor for his department.

Dennis trained uniformed police officers who were armed with pistols and who regularly encountered violent suspects armed with impact weapons, particularly knives.

. . . .

Dennis knew a pretty good time for an officer to clear his weapon from his holster and strike a target with two center-mass rounds was about 1.5 seconds. Once that time is known, the question of interest becomes how great a distance an attacker armed with an impact weapon can cross in that same 1.5 seconds. Whatever that distance, the aggressor became an imminent threat for self-defense purposes once he crossed that threshold.

After running a great many empirical tests, Dennis found that the distance that an impact-weapon armed attacker could cross from a standing start in 1.5 seconds was not just 5 feet, or 10 feet, or 15 feet. Rather, such an aggressor could consistently cross a distance of 21 feet, a full 7 yards, in the 1.5 seconds it would take the typical officer to draw his holster and engage that aggressor with aimed fire.

That suggested that an aggressor armed with an impact weapon becomes an imminent deadly threat even when he was as far away as 21 feet–a distance that astonished even many experienced law enforcement officers.

I have multiple problems with where this is headed.

First, those 1.5 seconds = 21 feet numbers assume a holstered weapon, yet we see from the video that the police have their weapons already drawn and beaded on the subject. That reduces an officer's minimum response time from 1.5 second to a few tenths of a second at most, and damned near instantaneous in this case, as we shall see.

Second, I don't like rules, or rather an application of the rules, that can be gamed this easily. The officer is approaching the subject, gun drawn, he himself crossing the 21-foot threshold as the subject angles away from him. What, exactly, are the officer's intentions? I'm prepared to take seriously arguments that deadly force is authorized under the conditions I stated above, but if that is off the table, then I want to know what the officer plans to accomplish by getting that close. The subject is obviously not dropping the knife in response to the officer's instructions. Meanwhile, the officer obviously can't engage the subject with non-deadly force with his hands full with his own pistol. I'm open to alternative interpretations here, but I can think of only two choices: the officer doesn't actually have a plan, in which case he's a badly-trained fool; or he's trying to contrive a situation where deadly force is authorized, which ought to violate the innocence condition that Mr. Branca teaches.

But sure enough, gaming the rules is exactly what Mr. Branca allows:

(1) McDonald was brandishing a knife in his right hand as he walked down the middle of the street while facing numerous police officers. It must be assumed that he was being non-compliant with lawful orders to drop the knife, get on the ground, and the usual law enforcement protocols for such circumstances. Note that the police have a legal duty to enforce public safety, and cannot simply allow a knife-wielding PCP addict to wander up and down the public streets. Only one person was making a free choice that evening, and that was McDonald. He chose, as they say, poorly.

So stipulated.

(2) McDonald does not walk directly away from the officers, but rather angles no more than necessary to keep a distance of 10-12 feet (typical width of a car lane) between the officers and himself. This is well within the 21 foot distance that these officers would have been taught as part of their Tueller Drill training. At a distance of 10-12 feet the knife armed McDonald could be on the officers stabbing them with his knife in well under a second. Officer Van Dyke would be well aware of both this fact and the grievous injuries that a knife can cause.

Could be, yes. But a "reasonable threat" requires, or ought to require, some demonstrated intent to cause harm. Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown clearly demonstrated such intent, indeed, by actually causing harm. John Crawford and Tamir Rice just as clearly demonstrated no threat at all. And Laquan McDonald?

(3) The moment before the first shot appears to be fired McDonald is walking down the dashed-white line of the road, thus parallel to the officers, and he suddenly blades his upper body towards the officers. This movement would be consistent with an intent to charge at the officers with his knife. It is quite possibly this threatening movement, knife still in McDonald’s hand, that induced Van Dyke to begin firing.

I'm not sure how seriously to take this. It could be that Mr. Branca is floating the arguments that Van Dyke's lawyer could be expected to try, given the evidence at hand. But if I were on the jury, and "blades his upper body" were all he had to demonstrate an "imminent threat"? Van Dyke would be cooked.

But the gaming doesn't stop there:

(4) Officers are taught to continue firing at a deadly threat until the threat has been neutralized. Even after McDonald fell to the ground he was still in control of his movements and he still possessed the knife, thus he was still an imminent threat of death or grave bodily harm to any officer who got close enough.

I feel just a little dirty having to spell this out, but a person who falls to the ground in a hail of bullets is definitionally not in control of his own movements. And somebody lying face down in a pool of his own blood doesn't meet my definition of an imminent threat of anything to anyone standing over him. "Close enough" in this instance would seem to require someone to be lying under the prostrate Laquan.

But Mr. Branca is a good lawyer and I will readily concede this: the argument he makes, when and only when it is applied to police officers, succeeds often enough to not discount it's possible success. I've seen too many videos of police officers pumping bullets into prone and probably dying subjects on the grounds that, "Hey, they're still moving! They're an imminent threat!" And for this reason I'm actually not that eager to convict Van Dyke of first degree murder for doing what he wsa trained to do. It's the training that needs to change, and prosecuting police officers in politically and racially motivated trials is too blunt an instrument for effecting the change I want. But at the end of the day, the law requires reasonableness, and in this case neither Officer Van Dyke nor Mr. Branca isn't showing much.