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Law Professor Skillfully Handles a “Black Lives Matter” Complaint From Her Students

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 25, 2020

Patricia Leary Black Lives Matter

For the curious and open-minded, many explanations of what “Black Lives Matter” means and what it doesn’t (e.g. White lives don’t matter) are readily available online. But in terms of pure clarity, it’s hard to beat what Whittier Law School professor Patricia Leary wrote in response to a letter sent to her by an anonymous group of students in 2016. This group of students was offended by Leary wearing a “Black Lives Matter” t-shirt on campus, writing in part:

We write this letter to you with concern about your inappropriate conduct at XXXXXXX Law School.

Specifically, you have presented yourself on campus, on at least one occasion, wearing a “Black Lives Matter” t-shirt. We believe this is an inappropriate and unnecessary statement that has no legitimate place within our institution of higher learning. The statement you represented and endorsed is also highly offensive and extremely inflammatory. We are here to learn the law. We do not spend three years of our lives and tens of thousands of dollars to be subjected to indoctrination or personal opinions of our professors.

XXXXXXX Law School has prided itself on the diverse demographics represented within the student body. Your actions however, clearly represent your View that some of those demographics matter more than others. That alienates and isolates all non-black groups.

As someone who is charged to teach criminal law, it should be abundantly clear to you and beyond any question that ALL lives matter, as it is expressed unequivocally in the law. Furthermore, the “Black Lives Matter” statement is racist and anti-law enforcement and has been known to incite violence in this country. As someone who is paid to teach the law, you should be ashamed of yourself.

If you’re going to argue with law professors, you should bring your A game, and Leary wastes no time in informing these students that they did not do so.

Premise: You are not paying for my opinion.

Critique: You are not paying me to pretend I don’t have one.

And on the meaning of “Black Lives Matter”:

Premise: There is an invisible “only” in front of the words “Black Lives Matter.”

Critique: There is a difference between focus and exclusion. If something matters, this does not imply that nothing else does. If I say “Law Students Matter” it does not imply that my colleagues, friends, and family do not. Here is something else that matters: context. The Black Lives Matter movement arose in a context of evidence that they don’t. When people are receiving messages from the culture in which they live that their lives are less important than other lives, it is a cruel distortion of reality to scold them for not being inclusive enough.

As applied specifically to the context in which I wore my Black Lives Matter shirt, I did this on a day in Criminal Procedure when we were explicitly discussing violence against the black community by police.

There are some implicit words that precede “Black Lives Matter,” and they go something like this:

“Because of the brutalizing and killing of black people at the hands of the police and the indifference of society in general and the criminal justice system in particular. It is important that we say that…”

This is, of course, far too long to fit on a shirt.

Black Lives Matter is about focus, not exclusion. As a general matter, seeing the world and the people in it in mutually exclusive, either/or terms impedes your own thought processes. If you wish to bear that intellectual consequence of a constricting ideology, that’s your decision. But this does not entitle you to project your either/or ideology onto people who do not share it.

The rest of her response is worth a read, particularly the part about the misconception that “what you think something means is the same as what it actually means”.

And then in part 2 of the letter, she rips the batteries right out of the anonymous students by critiquing how they wrote the letter.

Frame the issue precisely and then focus on it. Don’t overgeneralize. You begin by stating that the issue is my “inappropriate conduct,” which sounds very general. Then you narrow the issue to “specifically” one event that occurred on a particular day last semester. Your use of hyperbolic rhetoric throughout the memo suggests that you really are angry about more than just a T-shirt. If it really is about just the T-shirt, then by overgeneralizing from a specific occurrence, your message is swamped by exaggeration. If it really is about other “conduct” on my part, I can’t tell what that is. By the end of the memo you have lost focus completely, generalizing (in statements that are unexplained and inexplicable) about bar passage and about the faculty and administration of the entire law school.

Well, they did ask her to teach…

Confessions of a Former Bastard Cop

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 10, 2020

Confessions of a Former Bastard Cop is an essay allegedly written by a former police officer with ten years of experience in “a major metropolitan area in California with a predominantly poor, non-white population”. In it, he attempts to explain the system under which cops are trained and operate, “not to excuse their behavior, but to explain it and to indict the structures that perpetuate it.” At the very least, this essay corroborates what activists have been saying about the police for decades.

I could write an entire book of the awful things I’ve done, seen done, and heard others bragging about doing. But, to me, the bigger question is “How did it get this way?”. While I was a police officer in a city 30 miles from where I lived, many of my fellow officers were from the community and treated their neighbors just as badly as I did. While every cop’s individual biases come into play, it’s the profession itself that is toxic, and it starts from day 1 of training.

Every police academy is different but all of them share certain features: taught by old cops, run like a paramilitary bootcamp, strong emphasis on protecting yourself more than anyone else. The majority of my time in the academy was spent doing aggressive physical training and watching video after video after video of police officers being murdered on duty.

I want to highlight this: nearly everyone coming into law enforcement is bombarded with dash cam footage of police officers being ambushed and killed. Over and over and over. Colorless VHS mortality plays, cops screaming for help over their radios, their bodies going limp as a pair of tail lights speed away into a grainy black horizon. In my case, with commentary from an old racist cop who used to brag about assaulting Black Panthers.

And this, uh, training doesn’t prepare officers for what their actual job ends up being:

And consider this: my job as a police officer required me to be a marriage counselor, a mental health crisis professional, a conflict negotiator, a social worker, a child advocate, a traffic safety expert, a sexual assault specialist, and, every once in awhile, a public safety officer authorized to use force, all after only a 1000 hours of training at a police academy. Does the person we send to catch a robber also need to be the person we send to interview a rape victim or document a fender bender? Should one profession be expected to do all that important community care (with very little training) all at the same time?

To put this another way: I made double the salary most social workers made to do a fraction of what they could do to mitigate the causes of crimes and desperation. I can count very few times my monopoly on state violence actually made our citizens safer, and even then, it’s hard to say better-funded social safety nets and dozens of other community care specialists wouldn’t have prevented a problem before it started.

Armed, indoctrinated (and dare I say, traumatized) cops do not make you safer; community mutual aid networks who can unite other people with the resources they need to stay fed, clothed, and housed make you safer. I really want to hammer this home: every cop in your neighborhood is damaged by their training, emboldened by their immunity, and they have a gun and the ability to take your life with near-impunity. This does not make you safer, even if you’re white.

His conclusion: “consider abolishing the police” and “creating a society focused on reconciliation and restorative justice instead of punishment, pain, and suffering — a system that sees people in crisis as humans, not monsters”.

As someone who did it for nearly a decade, I need you to understand that by and large, police protection is marginal, incidental. It’s an illusion created by decades of copaganda designed to fool you into thinking these brave men and women are holding back the barbarians at the gates.

Wile E. Coyote Files a Product Liability Lawsuit Against Acme Company

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 30, 2020

Coyote V Acme

In a classic New Yorker article from 1990, Ian Frazier writes about an imagined lawsuit filed by Wile E. Coyote against the Acme Company in which he “seeks compensation for personal injuries, loss of business income, and mental suffering” due to the company’s defective products.

Mr. Coyote states that on December 13th he received of Defendant via parcel post one Acme Rocket Sled. The intention of Mr. Coyote was to use the Rocket Sled to aid him in pursuit of his prey. Upon receipt of the Rocket Sled Mr. Coyote removed it from its wooden shipping crate and, sighting his prey in the distance, activated the ignition. As Mr. Coyote gripped the handlebars, the Rocket Sled accelerated with such sudden and precipitate force as to stretch Mr. Coyote’s forelimbs to a length of fifty feet. Subsequently, the rest of Mr. Coyote’s body shot forward with a violent jolt, causing severe strain to his back and neck and placing him unexpectedly astride the Rocket Sled. Disappearing over the horizon at such speed as to leave a diminishing jet trail along its path, the Rocket Sled soon brought Mr. Coyote abreast of his prey. At that moment the animal he was pursuing veered sharply to the right. Mr. Coyote vigorously attempted to follow this maneuver but was unable to, due to poorly designed steering on the Rocket Sled and a faulty or nonexistent braking system. Shortly thereafter, the unchecked progress of the Rocket Sled brought it and Mr. Coyote into collision with the side of a mesa.

See also the rules followed by animator Chuck Jones and his team while making the Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner cartoons.

Audio Deepfakes Result in Some Pretty Convincing Mashup Performances

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 30, 2020

Have you ever wanted to hear Jay Z rap the “To Be, Or Not To Be” soliloquy from Hamlet? You are in luck:

What about Bob Dylan singing Britney Spears’ “…Baby One More Time”? Here you go:

Bill Clinton reciting “Baby Got Back” by Sir Mix-A-Lot? Yep:

And I know you’re always wanted to hear six US Presidents rap NWA’s “Fuck Tha Police”. Voila:

This version with the backing track is even better. These audio deepfakes were created using AI:

The voices in this video were entirely computer-generated using a text-to-speech model trained on the speech patterns of Barack Obama, Ronald Reagan, John F. Kennedy, Franklin Roosevelt, Bill Clinton, and Donald Trump.

The program listens to a bunch of speech spoken by someone and then, in theory, you can provide any text you want and the virtual Obama or Jay Z can speak it. Some of these are more convincing than others — with a bit of manual tinkering, I bet you could clean these up enough to make them convincing.

Two of the videos featuring Jay Z’s synthesized voice were forced offline by a copyright claim from his record company but were reinstated. As Andy Baio notes, these deepfakes are legally interesting:

With these takedowns, Roc Nation is making two claims:

1. These videos are an infringing use of Jay-Z’s copyright.
2. The videos “unlawfully uses an AI to impersonate our client’s voice.”

But are either of these true? With a technology this new, we’re in untested legal waters.

The Vocal Synthesis audio clips were created by training a model with a large corpus of audio samples and text transcriptions. In this case, he fed Jay-Z songs and lyrics into Tacotron 2, a neural network architecture developed by Google.

It seems reasonable to assume that a model and audio generated from copyrighted audio recordings would be considered derivative works.

But is it copyright infringement? Like virtually everything in the world of copyright, it depends-on how it was used, and for what purpose.

Celebrity impressions by people are allowed, why not ones by machines? It’ll be interesting to see where this goes as the tech gets better.

Recording All the Melodies

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 14, 2020

In this recent TED Talk, lawyer, musician, and technologist Damien Riehl talks about the rapidly diminishing number of melodies available to songwriters under the current system of copyright. In order to help songwriters avoid these melodic legal landmines (some of which are documented here), Riehl and his pal Noah Rubin designed and wrote a program to record every possible 8-note, 12-beat melody and released the results — all 68+ billion melodies, 2.6 terabytes of data — into the public domain.

It’s interesting that the litigious nature of the music business and the finite number of melodies (and the even smaller number of pleasing melodies) has turned an artistic endeavor into a land-grab — whoever gets to a certain melody first owns it forever (or at least for dozens of years). (via @tedgioia)

White Space: Sketching the Military Court at Guantánamo Bay

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 06, 2020

MacNaughton Gitmo

Illustrator Wendy MacNaughton spent a week at Guantánamo Bay sketching the proceedings at the 9/11 military court for this NY Times piece. In a behind-the-scenes piece, MacNaughton describes how she made the drawings, including the creative challenge posed by the restrictions and censorship enforced by US military officials.

Of the 30-something drawings I presented, Mr. Lavender shook his head at only two. The first contained some classified items in the courtroom. That made sense. The second was a handwritten list of everything that I was not allowed to draw, which I’d made to use as a reminder while working. I wanted to keep it. He refused.

I argued that the information it contained had been disclosed elsewhere. But Mr. Lavender and his supervisor came to the conclusion that my handwritten list was indeed a drawing, technically containing things I couldn’t draw. My “No” list was a no-go.

That’s Guantánamo.

Every drawing she made needed a signed approval sticker from the court’s censor, and in this piece and on Instagram, MacNaughton didn’t photoshop the sticker out, reinforcing that the censorship is a vital part of the story she’s trying to tell. Even the paper towel she used to clean her paint brushes needed a sticker:

MacNaughton Gitmo

Every Sample from Paul’s Boutique by the Beastie Boys

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 23, 2019

This video catalogs every borrowed sample from Paul’s Boutique by the Beastie Boys, from the soundtrack to Car Wash to the Sugarhill Gang to the Eagles to the Ramones to the Beatles. They play the original first and then what they did with it on the album.

Somehow this video only has 31,000 views?! You can also listen to this remix of Paul’s Boutique on Soundcloud, which combines the source tracks with Beastie Boys vocals and some audio commentary.

Tim Carmody made a Spotify playlist of all the sampled songs or you can download zip files of the original songs sampled in Paul’s Boutique and five of their other albums.

They just don’t make ‘em like this anymore, mostly because clearing all of the samples would be prohibitively expensive if not impossible.

Hip-hop sampling began as a live technique, with DJs working turntables at parties and clubs. Whether it was strictly legal or not, nobody was going to try to sue anyone about it. As the genre’s popularity grew, people naturally started recording performances and releasing them as albums. Early sampling tended to come fast and furious. In the ’80s, short clips of existing recordings were the order of the day, often — as in the case of the Beastie Boys — lots of them, layered and shuffled in a clearly creative way. As hip-hop pushed further into the mainstream, however, the stakes got bigger and so did the samples.

1990 saw the release of both M.C. Hammer’s “U Can’t Touch This” and Vanilla Ice’s “Ice, Ice, Baby.” Not only did both songs sample, they each relied heavily on one particular sample — the baselines from Rick James’ “Superfreak” and Queen and David Bowie’s “Under Pressure” — for their main hook. Both hits resulted in legal controversy.

Can You Copyright Work Made by an Artificial Intelligence?

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 26, 2019

In a recent issue of Why is this interesting?, Noah Brier collects a number of perspectives on whether (and by whom) a work created by an artificial intelligence can be copyrighted.

But as I dug in a much bigger question emerged: Can you actually copyright work produced by AI? Traditionally, the law has been that only work created by people can receive copyright. You might remember the monkey selfie copyright claim from a few years back. In that case, a photographer gave his camera to a monkey who then snapped a selfie. The photographer then tried to claim ownership and PETA sued him to try to claim it back for the monkey. In the end, the photograph was judged to be in the public domain, since copyright requires human involvement. Machines, like monkeys, can’t own work, but clearly something made with the help of a human still qualifies for copyright. The question, then, is where do we draw the line?

Nine Things a Woman Couldn’t Do in 1971 in America

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 06, 2019

Twitter user @WPCelebration recently compiled a list of nine activities and rights denied to women in America in 1971, just 48 years ago. The list includes:

Ms magazine published a similar list back in 2013 that also included the difficulty in getting a divorce without cause and obtain a safe & legal abortion in all 50 states. Bustle talked to several women about what discrimination was like before many of these changes took place.

I was denied a job in 1970 because I was newly pregnant. They actually had a question on the application regarding the date of your last menstrual period. Also, with my second child in 1974, they were not required to hold your position while you were on maternity leave, and I was told that my job was no longer open and I had to file for unemployment.

As a reminder, women only gained the right to vote in America fewer than 100 years ago.

The Symbiotic & Toxic Relationship Between Houses and Cars in America

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 29, 2019

Since reading Gregory Shill’s writing about how heavily subsidized cars are in the United States, I’ve been on the lookout for different frameworks for thinking about America’s relationship to cars. I recently ran across a pair of interesting things about cars & housing. First, a refresher on what Shill had to say about how our nation’s laws have made cars all but mandatory:

Let’s begin at the state and local level. A key player in the story of automobile supremacy is single-family-only zoning, a shadow segregation regime that is now justifiably on the defensive for outlawing duplexes and apartments in huge swaths of the country. Through these and other land-use restrictions — laws that separate residential and commercial areas or require needlessly large yards — zoning rules scatter Americans across distances and highway-like roads that are impractical or dangerous to traverse on foot. The resulting densities are also too low to sustain high-frequency public transit.

Aaron Bady shared a few meaty pages from Nathanael Lauster’s The Death and Life of the Single-Family House: Lessons from Vancouver on Building a Livable City about houses being urban parasites and their symbiotic relationship with cars. Here’s an excerpt (italics mine):

Returning to the metaphor provided by the pine beetle and blue stain fungus, one parasite often works with another. In similar form, houses cultivate cars. Integrated through planning, they displace vastly more habitat than either could manage alone. Because houses consume space and tend to surround themselves with other houses, which also consume space, people often cannot walk to where they need to go. Because all that space results in a relatively low population density, it is also not very efficient to run public transit lines to areas with many houses. Low-density areas tend to end up with very few riders for what are often very expensive systems to maintain. In short, public transit loves density. The relationship between urban density and public transit use is exceptionally strong, with some suggestion of a cutoff — perhaps around twelve persons per acre (or about three thousand per square kilometer) — below which ridership drops off and expense per user makes transit impractical. By contrast, cars love the sprawl associated with houses and houses love cars back.

Houses cultivate cars. Cars love the sprawl associated with houses and houses love cars back. Lauster continues with the nature metaphor:

Altogether, house habitat displaces alternatives. The establishment of a Great House Reserve has protected house habitat even as it continues to expand in size. Agricultural and wild lands suffer in an immediate sense, as do the more urban habitats prevented from expanding beyond a constrained Urban Core. The house allies itself with the car at the same time as both contribute to global warming, potentially risking the displacement of everyone and everything. The house habitat excludes the poor. But even for those who can afford to live there, the Great House Reserve is a troublesome place to live. By its nature it leads to disengagement, contributes to inequality, and encourages a sedentary, unhealthy lifestyle.

And so on:

Houses are not just unaffordable for most people; they’re ultimately unaffordable for cities too. The fiscal situation of cities varies from place to place, but overall, houses tend to create a drain on municipal coffers. They are often taxed at lower rates than other properties, reflecting zoning restrictions on what could be built on single-family lots and how they can be used. But houses are more expensive to service on a per-unit basis, both in terms of the basic utilities infrastructure and, as previously noted, in terms of transit and transportation infrastructure. This could mean that my modestly wealthy neighbors and I, living in low-rises and town houses, end up supporting the very wealthy house owner nearby by paying more property tax relative to the amount of urban land and services we receive. The disparity becomes more notable as one crosses municipal boundaries into nearby house-dominated suburbs, where residents frequently enjoy the services (e.g., roads, commerce, employment opportunities) provided by the city without paying into the municipal tax base at all.

Josh Vredevoogd’s No Parking Here is about the poor parking policy in LA and leads with the statement: “Let’s build houses for people, not cars.”

For commercial buildings, it’s common to see a parking space required for every 100-200 sq ft. Meaning that parking is built at an almost 2:1 ratio to actual retail space, marginalizing the place that actually creates value and prioritizing temporary car storage. This inefficiency is carried into rent, groceries, meals, and overall raises the floor for cost of living.

Per City of LA code, a set of storefronts like above are illegal to build, instead they are required to be surrounded with empty pavement at the cost of walkability and comfort.

This forces people into driving. Parking requirements increase the density of cars but reduce the density of people. It also puts pressure on businesses by taking up useful real estate and replacing it with car storage.

Certainly a lot of food for thought here. See also Cars! What’s the Matter with Cars Today? and on a lighter note, What On Earth!, Kal Pindal’s Oscar-nominated short film about Martians visiting Earth and their observations about the dominant form of life here, the automobile.

America’s Cars Are Heavily Subsidized, Dangerous, and Mandatory

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 09, 2019

This is a fascinating & provocative article from law professor Gregory Shill: Americans Shouldn’t Have to Drive, but the Law Insists on It. The first line of the piece sets the stage: “In a country where the laws compel the use of cars, Americans are condemned to lose friends and relatives to traffic violence.”

Let’s begin at the state and local level. A key player in the story of automobile supremacy is single-family-only zoning, a shadow segregation regime that is now justifiably on the defensive for outlawing duplexes and apartments in huge swaths of the country. Through these and other land-use restrictions-laws that separate residential and commercial areas or require needlessly large yards-zoning rules scatter Americans across distances and highway-like roads that are impractical or dangerous to traverse on foot. The resulting densities are also too low to sustain high-frequency public transit.

Further entrenching automobile supremacy are laws that require landowners who build housing and office space to build housing for cars as well. In large part because of parking quotas, parking lots now cover more than a third of the land area of some U.S. cities; Houston is estimated to have 30 parking spaces for every resident. As UCLA urban planning professor Donald Shoup has written, this mismatch flows from legal mandates rather than market demand. Every employee who brings a car to the office essentially doubles the amount of space he takes up at work, and in urban areas his employer may be required by law to build him a $50,000 garage parking space.

Cars and car ownership are massively subsidized on a state, local, and federal level and our laws and regulations have built a nation where cars are mandatory and “driving is the price of first-class citizenship”.

Why are we taxing bus riders to pay rich people to buy McMansions and luxury electric SUVs?

And this speed limit thing is just eye-poppingly fucked up:

The National Transportation Safety Board has determined that speed is a top risk factor in motor vehicle crashes. Yet the most prominent way of setting and adjusting speed limits, known as the operating speed method, actually incentivizes faster driving. It calls for setting speed limits that 85 percent of drivers will obey. This method makes little provision for whether there’s a park or senior center on a street, or for people walking or biking.

As a matter of law, the operating speed method is exceptional. It enables those who violate the law-speeding motorists-to rewrite it: speed limits ratchet higher until no more than 15 percent of motorists violate them. The perverse incentives are obvious. Imagine a rule saying that, once 15 percent of Americans acquired an illegal type of machine gun, that weapon would automatically become legal.

Ok, this is one of those articles where I want to excerpt every paragraph…just go read the whole thing. (via @olgakhazan)

Update: Eric Jaffe shared some interesting bits from Shill’s recent paper, Should Law Subsidize Driving?, in a Twitter thread.

Until the 1910s, “street parking was broadly outlawed: if you owned a car in a city, you were responsible for storing it, just as you would be any other piece of movable property.”

“Tax subsidies for commuting prioritize driving. Those who walk, bike, or carpool to work, and in some cases those who take transit, pay other people to drive to work.”

Never realized (or forgot) that CAFE fuel economy rules — generally a good thing — have a loophole that “light trucks” don’t need to be as fuel efficient as cars. “Light trucks” have come to mean SUVs, which means SUVs are easier to produce. No coincidence that the share of “light trucks” has soared from 20% in 1976 to 69% of market today. The upshot, of course, is that SUVs are much worse for pedestrian safety: you’re 3.4x more likely to be killed if hit by an SUV vs. a car.

What Do We Do Now That Will Be Unthinkable in 50 Years?

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 12, 2019

Vox recently asked a group of writers, advocates, and thinkers about ideas & practices that we accept now that will be unthinkable or barbaric to people living 50 years from now. Kathleen Frydl asserts that “the war on drugs” will be one such practice.

Today, heroin is still classified as a Schedule I, or prohibited, drug. The consequences of this fateful decision continue to haunt us. Gross failures of our criminal justice system, ranging from police corruption to excessive use of force, all achieve a scale, and foster a profound alienation, as a result of drug prohibition and the militant drug war it spawned.

Maybe in times of only modest failure, or devastation that affects only the marginalized, the tactics of deflection traditionally used to defend the drug war would be enough to sustain it. But it is untenable in the midst of the opioid crisis, the worst drug epidemic in our country’s history.

It is my belief that its staggering body count gives us little choice but face hard truths, even in the face of the deep dependence on the drug war that the US government has developed. What falls between now and that awful reckoning is nothing but denial.

Meredith Broussard believes that self-driving cars will be unthinkable 50 years from now:

The simple explanation for why this situation didn’t escalate: the unspoken social contract of the bus driver’s authority in this space. We have invested years in developing social contracts around both private and public transportation. When you get into a bus or a train, or even a car, you acknowledge that the person at the wheel is in charge. This power relationship is what allows shared transportation to flourish, and this social contract is what helps many of us in marginalized groups feel safer while riding transportation. It doesn’t feel safe to imagine riding in a shared driverless vehicle. Not just because the technology doesn’t work — but because it doesn’t feel safe to be alone in a small, enclosed space with strange men.

When They See Us, a Series on the Central Park Five by Ava DuVernay

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 04, 2019

Ava DuVerney has written and directed a four-part TV series called When They See Us that “chronicles the notorious case of five teenagers of color, labeled the Central Park Five, who were convicted of a rape they did not commit”. Here’s a teaser trailer:

The series starts airing on Netflix on May 31.

And if you haven’t seen it, the documentary The Central Park Five (directed by Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, and David McMahon) is excellent.

Leaving Neverland

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 20, 2019

Set to air on HBO starting March 3rd, Leaving Neverland is a two-part documentary film about the experiences of two men who were befriended by and allegedly sexually abused by Michael Jackson as young boys. Here’s the trailer:

Leaving Neverland is a two-part documentary exploring the separate but parallel experiences of two young boys, James Safechuck, at age ten, and Wade Robson, at age seven, both of whom were befriended by Michael Jackson. Through gut-wrenching interviews with Safechuck, now 37, and Robson, now 41, as well as their mothers, wives and siblings, the film crafts a portrait of sustained abuse, exploring the complicated feelings that led both men to confront their experiences after both had a young son of his own.

As this quick timeline of abuse allegations against Jackson notes, both Safechuck and Robson previously denied that Jackson had abused them.

Robson, by this point a choreographer for stars like Britney Spears, testified that he had spent the night at Neverland more than 20 times but that Jackson had never molested him or taken a shower with him.

James Safechuck, who had met Jackson as a young boy in the 1980s when he was cast in a Pepsi commercial, also denied publicly that he had been abused, although he was not called to testify.

David Ehrlich saw the film at Sundance and was completely convinced by the stories of the two men.

It may not be much of a secret that Michael Jackson acted inappropriately with a number of young boys, but there’s no way to prepare yourself for the sickening forensic details presented in Dan Reed’s four-hour exposé. It’s one thing to be vaguely aware of the various allegations that were made against the King of Pop; the asterisks that will always be next to the late mega-star’s name. It’s quite another to hear the horrifyingly lucid testimony that stretches across the entire duration of “Leaving Neverland,” as two of Jackson’s most repeat victims bravely lay bare how a universal icon seduced them away from their realities, splintered their families beyond all recognition, and leveraged their love for him into a disturbing litany of sexual acts.

The eloquent and straightforward “Leaving Neverland” was made for no other reason than to give shape to a nebulous cloud of rumors, many of which were floated in public before they were silenced behind settlements, and none of which a jury was able to prove beyond a reasonable doubt. In the wake of Reed’s film and the shattering interview footage that it exists to share with us, there’s no longer a reasonable doubt. There’s no longer any doubt at all. Not only do the documentary’s two main subjects perfectly corroborate their separate accounts in all of the most tragic of ways, but they do so with a degree of vulnerability that denies any room for skepticism.

Other stars who previously had private or ignored abuse allegations leveled against them — Kevin Spacey, Bill Cosby, R. Kelly, Woody Allen, Louis CK — have been judged more harshly and their accusers have taken more seriously in recent years, and it’ll be interesting to see what happens with Jackson after the documentary airs.

What Is Intersectionality?

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 19, 2019

Maybe you’ve heard the term “intersectionality” used on social media — in the context of feminism or racism — and you know in a hand-wavy sort of way what it means but don’t really know its exact definition or where it came from. Well, Kat Blaque has you covered. In this YouTube video and in this Twitter thread, she explains that intersectionality was first described by Kimberlé Crenshaw, now Professor of Law at UCLA and Columbia Law School, in a 1989 article called Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics.

Blaque’s summary of the paper on Twitter is crisp and concise:

To summarize what she meant when she defined intersectionality: It was about how black women were erased in conversations about discrimination because the feminist movement and the civil rights movement focused largely on its most privileged members.

So feminism, at the time (and arguably still) focused largely on white women’s experiences with sexism and the civil rights movement focused, at the time (and arguably still) focused on how black men experienced racism. So black women’s experiences had to be measured against that.

Meaning that in several legal cases, explained in the document and my video, if a black woman’s experiences with discrimination weren’t paralleled to how black men experience racism and white women experience sexism, their cases were dismissed or thrown out.

So you had cases where black women would sue a company for racial discrimination and then you’d have the judge say that it was impossible for that to be true, because they currently employed black people. The problem was, the black people were all men.

There’s obviously a lot more in Crenshaw’s paper, including this point near the end:

It is somewhat ironic that those concerned with alleviating the ills of racism and sexism should adopt such a top-down approach to discrimination. If their efforts instead began with addressing the needs and problems of those who are most disadvantaged and with restructuring and remaking the world where necessary, then others who are singularly disadvantaged would also benefit. In addition, it seems that placing those who currently are marginalized in the center is the most effective way to resist efforts to compartmentalize experiences and undermine potential collective action.

(via @john_overholt)

Protective Custody in Nazi Germany - Who Was Being Protected?

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 29, 2018

Another thing I learned on my visit to Topographie Des Terrors in Berlin was how the Nazis subtly twisted the meaning of “protective custody”. That term is typically thought of as a measure to safeguard an individual who might be harmed. It’s not always a positive term — “custody” after all is not freedom and in US prisons, protective custody often subjects the person being protected to solitary confinement.

Beginning in 1933, the Nazis began placing people deemed subversive to the Reich under protective custody, presumably so they would not be harmed by German people upset with their disruptive influence in society. But really, protective custody was a euphemism for jailing Jews, homosexuals, the disabled, Communists, the elderly, Roma, “work-shy”, and political opponents outside of the normal judicial system.

With the reinterpretation of “protective custody” (Schutzhaft) in 1933, police power became independent of judicial controls. In Nazi terminology, protective custody meant the arrest — without judicial review — of real and potential opponents of the regime. “Protective custody” prisoners were not confined within the normal prison system but in concentration camps under the exclusive authority of the SS (Schutzstaffel; the elite guard of the Nazi state).

No due process…these people went straight to concentration camps and were then often murdered. The entity being protected in protected custody was the Nazi regime. From a 1939 article in The Atlantic written by someone who had been imprisoned in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp::

In Germany the words ‘protective custody’ have a double meaning. Originally the term meant the incarceration of people who were threatened by others and who were guarded for their own safety so that they might be protected from their enemies. Now, however, men in protective custody are mostly those who are brought, for the ‘protection of the people and the State,’ into a concentration camp without hearing, without court sentence, without the possibility of redress, and for an indefinite time.

Language, as Orwell and others have long noted, is a powerful tool of fascists and authoritarians. In addition to “protective custody”, the Nazis referred to their plans for Jewish genocide as the “Final Solution to the Jewish Question” and murdering people as subjecting them to “special treatment”. It all sounds so civilized and palatable, easily digestible to normal folks.

No Jail Time: The Movie

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 25, 2018

This short film by Lance Oppenheim is uncomfortably fascinating. It’s about sentencing mitigation videos, short films produced by defense attorneys to help sway judges into giving their clients lighter sentences than the guidelines suggest. Oppenheim’s subject is Doug Passon, an attorney who helps “lawyers incorporate powerful and persuasive moving pictures into the litigation process”.

Lance Oppenheim’s short documentary, No Jail Time: The Movie, profiles Passon and his controversial practice in all its variegated shades of gray. In the process, the film offers a meta-analysis of objectivity in the realm of narrative nonfiction. “Passon treats sentencing videos in an artful manner nearly indistinguishable from narrative-driven, fictional films,” Oppenheim recently told The Atlantic. According to Oppenheim, defense attorneys and sentencing video makers are increasingly drawing inspiration from true-crime entertainment, such as The Jinx and The Thin Blue Line, “to bend the rules of reality in the courtroom with visual storytelling.”

There’s even a film festival for sentencing mitigation videos. (!!!) You can view a few examples of Passon’s videos on his site.

P.S. You may remember Oppenheim as the director of this short film, Meet the Happiest Guy in the World, which is about a man who has lived on a cruise ship for the past 20 years.

Law & Order: Martian Victims Unit

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 19, 2018

I loved this imaginative and clever piece by Geoff Manaugh called How Will Police Solve Murders on Mars? about how a future human settlement on Mars would handle matters of law and order. For one things, crimes might be more difficult to investigate.

Consider the basic science of crime-scene analysis. In the dry, freezer-like air and extreme solar exposure of Mars, DNA will age differently than it does on Earth. Blood from blunt-trauma and stab wounds will produce dramatically new spatter patterns in the planet’s low gravity. Electrostatic charge will give a new kind of evidentiary value to dust found clinging to the exteriors of space suits and nearby surfaces. Even radiocarbon dating will be different on Mars, Darwent reminded me, due to the planet’s atmospheric chemistry, making it difficult to date older crime scenes.

The Martian environment itself is also already so lethal that even a violent murder could be disguised as a natural act. Darwent suggested that a would-be murderer on the Red Planet could use the environment’s ambient lethality to her advantage. A fatal poisoning could be staged to seem as if the victim simply died of exposure to abrasive chemicals, known as perchlorates, in the Martian rocks. A weak seal on a space suit, or an oxygen meter that appears to have failed but was actually tampered with, could really be a clever homicide hiding in plain sight.

At a broader level, what sort of political system develops because of the Martian environment might shape how law enforcement happens.

In the precarious Martian environment, where so much depends on the efficient, seamless operation of life-support systems, sabotage becomes an existential threat. A saboteur might tamper with the oxygen generators or fatally disable a settlement’s most crucial airlock. When human life is so thoroughly entwined with its technical environment, we should not consider these sorts of acts mere petty crimes, he explained to me. In a literal sense, they would be crimes against humanity-even, on a large enough scale, attempted genocide.

“I think the fact that tyranny is easier in space is a foregone conclusion,” he explained to me, precisely because there is nowhere to escape without risking instant death from extreme cold or asphyxiation. In other words, the constant presence of nearly instant environmental lethality will encourage systems of strong social control with little tolerance for error. Orders and procedures will need to be followed exactly as designed, because the consequences of a single misstep could be catastrophic.

A few paragraphs after this, the terrifyingly wonderful phrase “politically motivated depressurization” is used. I don’t think we’re super close to the colonization of Mars, but Manaugh says, better to think about it now before we “unwittingly construct an interplanetary dystopia run by cops who shoot first and ask questions later”.

The Harriet Tubman $20 Stamp

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 18, 2018

Frustrated that the US Treasury Department is walking back plans to replace Andrew Jackson on the front of the $20 bill with Harriet Tubman, Dano Wall created a 3D-printed stamp that can be used to transform Jacksons into Tubmans on the twenties in your pocketbook.

Tubman $20 Stamp

Here’s a video of the stamp in action. Wall told The Awesome Foundation a little bit about the genesis of the project:

I was inspired by the news that Harriet Tubman would replace Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill, and subsequently saddened by the news that the Trump administration was walking back that plan. So I created a stamp to convert Jacksons into Tubmans myself. I have been stamping $20 bills and entering them into circulation for the last year, and gifting stamps to friends to do the same.

If you have access to a 3D printer (perhaps at your local library or you can also use a online 3D printing service), you can download the print files at Thingiverse and make your own stamp for use at home.

Wall also posted a link to some neat prior art: suffragettes in Britain modifying coins with a “VOTES FOR WOMEN” slogan in the early 20th century.

Votes For Women Coin

Update: Several men on Twitter are helpfully pointing out that, in their inexpert legal opinion, defacing bills in this way is illegal. Here’s what the law says (emphasis mine):

Defacement of currency is a violation of Title 18, Section 333 of the United States Code. Under this provision, currency defacement is generally defined as follows: Whoever mutilates, cuts, disfigures, perforates, unites or cements together, or does any other thing to any bank bill, draft, note, or other evidence of debt issued by any national banking association, Federal Reserve Bank, or Federal Reserve System, with intent to render such item(s) unfit to be reissued, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than six months, or both.

The “with intent” bit is important, I think. The FAQ for a similar project has a good summary of the issues involved.

But we are putting political messages on the bills, not commercial advertisements. Because we all want these bills to stay in circulation and we’re stamping to send a message about an issue that’s important to us, it’s legal!

I’m not a lawyer, but as long as your intent isn’t to render these bills “unfit to be reissued”, you’re in the clear. Besides, if civil disobedience doesn’t stray into the gray areas of the law, is it really disobedience? (via @patrick_reames)

Update: Adafruit did an extensive investigation into the legality of this project. Their conclusion? “The production of the instructional video and the stamping of currency are both well within the law.”

The Notorious Ruth Bader Ginsburg

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 25, 2018

I watched RBG last night, the documentary film about Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. What a remarkable person she is. Here’s the trailer:

If you’ve seen the movie (or even if you haven’t), Jeffrey Toobin’s 2013 New Yorker profile of Ginsburg goes easier on the memes and deeper into her legal process and views.

At this point, Ginsburg was a leader on the legal side of the women’s movement, especially when she became the first tenured woman at Columbia Law School, in 1972. She co-founded the first law review on women’s issues, Women’s Rights Law Reporter, and co-authored the first casebook on the subject. Also in 1972, she co-founded the women’s-rights project at the American Civil Liberties Union. When Sally Reed took her case to the Supreme Court, Ginsburg volunteered to write her brief.

“In very recent years, a new appreciation of women’s place has been generated in the United States,” the brief states. “Activated by feminists of both sexes, courts and legislatures have begun to recognize the claim of women to full membership in the class ‘persons’ entitled to due process guarantees of life and liberty and the equal protection of the laws.” In an opinion for a unanimous Court in Reed v. Reed, Chief Justice Burger overturned the Idaho law as “the very kind of arbitrary legislative choice forbidden by the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.” Sex discrimination, in other words, was unconstitutional. Susan Deller Ross, a professor at Georgetown University Law Center, who also worked as a lawyer on sex-discrimination cases during this period, said of Ginsburg, “She helped turn the Court a hundred and eighty degrees, from a very hands-off attitude, which had often been expressed very cavalierly, to one where they struck down law after law that treated the sexes differently.”

Building on the Reed precedent, Ginsburg launched a series of cases targeting government rules that treated men and women differently. The process was in keeping with Ginsburg’s character: careful, step by step. Better, Ginsburg thought, to attack these rules and policies one at a time than to risk asking the Court to outlaw all rules that treated men and women differently. Ginsburg’s secretary at Columbia, who typed her briefs, gave her some important advice. “I was doing all these sex-discrimination cases, and my secretary said, ‘I look at these pages and all I see is sex, sex, sex. The judges are men, and when they read that they’re not going to be thinking about what you want them to think about,’” Ginsburg recalled. Henceforth, she changed her claim to “gender discrimination.”

The piece mentions an impromptu serenade of opera fan Ginsburg by Plácido Domingo at Harvard…it’s a cute moment:

For a deeper dive, the best books about Ginsburg are The Legacy of Ruth Bader Ginsburg by Scott Dodson, My Own Words (a collection of her writing), and the more fun Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg by Irin Carmon & Shana Knizhnik.

Remembering the girls of the Leesburg Stockade

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 18, 2018

In Georgia in 1963, 15 African-American girls aged 12 to 15 were arrested for trying to buy movie tickets at the whites-only theater entrance. They were arrested and held without charge for up to 45 days, their parents unaware of their whereabouts.

Instead of forming a line to enter from the back alley as was customary, the marchers attempted to purchase tickets at the front entrance. Law enforcement soon arrived and viciously attacked and arrested the girls. Never formally charged, they were jailed in squalid conditions for forty-five days in the Leesburg Stockade, a Civil War era structure situated in the back woods of Leesburg, Georgia. Only twenty miles away, parents had no knowledge of where authorities were holding their children. Nor were parents aware of their inhumane treatment.

Leesburg Stockade

Sickening. And to top it off, their parents each had to pay a $2 boarding fee when the girls were finally released. The Leesburg Stockade incident is a timely reminder that tyrants in America on the wrong side of justice have often separated children from their parents for political leverage. It wasn’t right then, and it’s not right now.

America’s inhumane child separation policy & our border concentration camps

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 18, 2018

Child Separation

No use sugar-coating it: the federal government of the United States of America now has a policy of taking children away from their families when they attempt to enter the US to request political asylum from violence & hardship in their native countries. These children and their parents are placed into concentration camps. The government is doing this as a deterrent for further immigration and for political leverage.

But Mr. Miller has expressed none of the president’s misgivings. “No nation can have the policy that whole classes of people are immune from immigration law or enforcement,” he said during an interview in his West Wing office this past week. “It was a simple decision by the administration to have a zero tolerance policy for illegal entry, period. The message is that no one is exempt from immigration law.”

Texas Monthly interviewed Anne Chandler, the director of a nonprofit that focuses on helping immigrant women and children. She spoke about what the zero tolerance policy means:

TM: So, just so I make sure I understand: the parents come in and say, “We’re persecuted” or give some reason for asylum. They come in. And then their child or children are taken away and they’re in lockup for at least six weeks away from the kids and often don’t know where the kids are. Is that what’s happening under zero tolerance?

AC: So the idea of zero tolerance under the stated policy is that we don’t care why you’re afraid. We don’t care if it’s religion, political, gangs, anything. For all asylum seekers, you are going to be put in jail, in a detention center, and you’re going to have your children taken away from you. That’s the policy.

Children and their parents are being held in private jails1 built and operated at the US government’s behest.

Colleagues at a government-contracted shelter in Arizona had a specific request for Antar Davidson when three Brazilian migrant children arrived: “Tell them they can’t hug.”

Davidson, 32, is of Brazilian descent and speaks Portuguese. He said the siblings — ages 16, 10 and 6 — were distraught after being separated from their parents at the border. The children were “huddled together, tears streaming down their faces,” he said.

Officials had told them their parents were “lost,” which they interpreted to mean dead. Davidson said he told the children he didn’t know where their parents were, but that they had to be strong.

“The 16-year-old, he looks at me and says, ‘How?’” Davidson said. As he watched the youth cry, he thought, “This is not healthy.”

Yesterday, some reporters were allowed a brief look inside one of these jails in Texas:

Inside an old warehouse in South Texas, hundreds of children wait in a series of cages created by metal fencing. One cage had 20 children inside. Scattered about are bottles of water, bags of chips and large foil sheets intended to serve as blankets.

One teenager told an advocate who visited that she was helping care for a young child she didn’t know because the child’s aunt was somewhere else in the facility. She said she had to show others in her cell how to change the girl’s diaper.

The traumatic effects of being kept away from parents are deep and long lasting. Dell Cameron shares his story of being separated from his parents as a child.

The trauma came from being separated from parents, who I knew were out there, and when I saw them, would tell me they were doing everything to get me home. But it took years. Hope is what I lost as a child. It was destroyed by the state.

When on occasion my dad was allowed to visit, watching him leave utterly destroyed me. I mean, I’d fly into insanity. I would pick up things and smash windows once his truck drove around the corner. Then I’d be punished, very harshly.

When I was 10 or 11 I got out. I was in custody for damn, most of my childhood. It was impossible to acclimate. I didn’t fit anywhere. I had no comprehension of freedom, as my dad’s step kids understood it. I didn’t understand I could walk outside without permission… for months

When this Guatemalan woman and her son tried to enter the United States, they were separated and she was sent back to Guatemala while her 8-year-old son remains in one of the camps in the US. This is going to do unimaginable harm to this child, not to mention to his mother and everyone else in the family.

They’d had a plan: Elsa Johana Ortiz Enriquez packed up what little she had in Guatemala and traveled across Mexico with her 8-year-old son, Anthony. In a group, they rafted across the Rio Grande into Texas. From there they intended to join her boyfriend, Edgar, who had found a construction job in the United States.

Except it all went wrong. The Border Patrol was waiting as they made their way from the border on May 26, and soon mother and son were in a teeming detention center in southern Texas. The next part unfolded so swiftly that, even now, Ms. Ortiz cannot grasp it: Anthony was sent to a shelter for migrant children. And she was put on a plane back to Guatemala.

“I am completely devastated,” Ms. Ortiz, 25, said in one of a series of video interviews last week from her family home in Guatemala. Her eyes swollen from weeping and her voice subdued, she said she had no idea when or how she would see her son again.

As the federal government continues to separate families as part of a stepped-up enforcement program against those who cross the border illegally, the authorities say that parents are not supposed to be deported without their children. But immigration lawyers say that has happened in several cases. And the separations can be traumatic for parents who now have no clear path to recovering their children.

Vermont Congressman Peter Welch recently visited a “processing facility” (the scare quotes are his) and declared it to be “nothing short of a prison”.

I just exited a border patrol “processing facility” known as the “icebox.” It is nothing short of a prison.

I saw chain link cages full of unaccompanied children. They sat on metal benches and stared straight ahead silently

And I met a woman named Reina who was being extorted in Guatemala. She traveled 14 days with her 13 year old daughter and turned herself in at the border for asylum.

She hasn’t seen her daughter in two days and didn’t know where she was. No one had told her that her daughter had been taken to a shelter.

Today, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights called for the US to stop the practice of separating children from parents.

The United Nations’ top human rights official on Monday entered the mounting furor over the Trump administration’s policy of separating undocumented immigrant children from their parents, calling for an immediate halt to a practice he condemned as abuse.

United States immigration authorities have detained almost 2,000 children in the past six weeks, which may cause them irreparable harm with lifelong consequences, said Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights.

He cited anobservation by the president of the American Association of Pediatrics that locking the children up separately from their parents constituted “government-sanctioned child abuse.”

“The thought that any state would seek to deter parents by inflicting such abuse on children is unconscionable,” Mr. al-Hussein said.

If you’re feeling helpless and powerless about this (and I admit that I very much do), Slate and The Cut have listed some ways that you can help the families and children involved and fight for a more humane policy for those seeking a better life here in America.

Photo above by Getty photographer John Moore.

Update: From ProPublica, Listen to Children Who’ve Just Been Separated From Their Parents at the Border.

The desperate sobbing of 10 Central American children, separated from their parents one day last week by immigration authorities at the border, makes for excruciating listening. Many of them sound like they’re crying so hard, they can barely breathe. They scream “Mami” and “Papá” over and over again, as if those are the only words they know.

The baritone voice of a Border Patrol agent booms above the crying. “Well, we have an orchestra here,” he jokes. “What’s missing is a conductor.”

Holy hell.

Update: Drs. Margaret Sheridan and Charles Nelson writing for the NY Times about a study they conducted that shows how adversely family separation affects children.

As members of a team of researchers who have investigated the impact of separating children from their parents during early childhood, we were struck by another aspect of this news: In an effort to increase security, the Trump administration has hit upon a policy that we know is actually likely to increase delinquency and criminality among these children in the future. While trying to protect American citizens, the administration may be placing them in greater jeopardy.

If we have learned nothing else in the past 50 years of research on child development, it is that children do best in families and that violating this norm has terrible effects.

Update: It’s important to note that after this post was written last year, it was learned that the little girl depicted in the photo above was not separated from her mother.

Shortly after the cover was released, reports showed that Yanela was never separated from her mother at all. In February 2019, Moore reconnected with Sandra and Yanela, who were living together in the Washington DC area as they awaited a date for their immigration court date.

It is equally important to note that the girl and her mother were detained in three different camps for 18 days by US immigration authorities and that many children in Yanela’s position were not so lucky (because, perhaps, the spotlight on them was less bright).

  1. Many news organizations are using the words “facility” or “shelter” but that terminology implies that people are free to leave, which they are not, and this definitely isn’t sheltering. These are jails and concentration camps (so says a women who wrote a history of concentration camps) and I will refer to them as such. Language is important.

Country Time will cover illegal lemonade stand fines and fees this summer

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 12, 2018

The makers of Country Time Lemonade are running a unique promotion this summer. If you’re the parent of a child 14 or younger who has incurred a fine for running an unlicensed lemonade stand or who has paid for a permit, Country Time will “cover your fine or permit fees up to $300”. This video explains (ok, I lol’d at “tastes like justice”):

Open to legal residents of the 50 U.S. (including D.C.), who are the parents or legal guardians of a child 14 years of age or younger operating a lemonade stand. Program ends 11:59pm ET on 8/31/18 or when $60,000 worth of offers have been awarded, whichever comes first.

In a related promotion, Domino’s Pizza is working to fix potholes in streets around the US.

I guess it’s nice of these companies to step in here, but it’s sad that America’s crumbling infrastructure and antiquated legal system have become promotional opportunities for massive multinational corporations that spend millions each year trying to avoid paying local, state, and federal taxes that might conceivably go towards fixing problems like this in a non-ad hoc way. But hey, pizza and lemonade, mmmmmm.

Switzerland makes it illegal to boil a live lobster

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 20, 2018

Come March 1, it will be illegal to throw a lobster into a pot of boiling water. Chefs and home cooks alike will need to quickly kill the lobster first and then cook it.

The first such national legislation of its kind in the world calls for a more humane death for lobsters: “rendering them unconscious” before plunging them into scalding water. Two methods are recommended: electrocution or sedating the lobster by dipping it into saltwater and then thrusting a knife into its brain.

The same law also gives domestic pets further protections, such as dogs can no longer be punished for barking.

The measure is part of the broad principle of “animal dignity” enshrined in Switzerland’s Constitution, the only country with such a provision. The Constitution already protects how various species must be treated and specifies that animals need socialization.

That means cats must have a daily visual contact with other felines, and hamsters or guinea pigs must be kept in pairs. And anyone who flushes a pet goldfish down the toilet is breaking the law.

But really, this is just an excuse to revisit a sublime piece of journalism that David Foster Wallace wrote in 2004 for Gourmet magazine called Consider the Lobster (later collected in a book of the same name). In it, Wallace travels to the Maine Lobster Festival and comes away asking similar questions that the Swiss had in formulating their law.

So then here is a question that’s all but unavoidable at the World’s Largest Lobster Cooker, and may arise in kitchens across the U.S.: Is it all right to boil a sentient creature alive just for our gustatory pleasure? A related set of concerns: Is the previous question irksomely PC or sentimental? What does “all right” even mean in this context? Is it all just a matter of individual choice?

Wallace being Wallace, he then dives deep into these questions at a length of several thousand words, a bunch of which are:

Since, however, the assigned subject of this article is what it was like to attend the 2003 MLF, and thus to spend several days in the midst of a great mass of Americans all eating lobster, and thus to be more or less impelled to think hard about lobster and the experience of buying and eating lobster, it turns out that there is no honest way to avoid certain moral questions.

There are several reasons for this. For one thing, it’s not just that lobsters get boiled alive, it’s that you do it yourself — or at least it’s done specifically for you, on-site. As mentioned, the World’s Largest Lobster Cooker, which is highlighted as an attraction in the Festival’s program, is right out there on the MLF’s north grounds for everyone to see. Try to imagine a Nebraska Beef Festival at which part of the festivities is watching trucks pull up and the live cattle get driven down the ramp and slaughtered right there on the World’s Largest Killing Floor or something — there’s no way.

The intimacy of the whole thing is maximized at home, which of course is where most lobster gets prepared and eaten (although note already the semiconscious euphemism “prepared,” which in the case of lobsters really means killing them right there in our kitchens). The basic scenario is that we come in from the store and make our little preparations like getting the kettle filled and boiling, and then we lift the lobsters out of the bag or whatever retail container they came home in …whereupon some uncomfortable things start to happen. However stuporous the lobster is from the trip home, for instance, it tends to come alarmingly to life when placed in boiling water. If you’re tilting it from a container into the steaming kettle, the lobster will sometimes try to cling to the container’s sides or even to hook its claws over the kettle’s rim like a person trying to keep from going over the edge of a roof. And worse is when the lobster’s fully immersed. Even if you cover the kettle and turn away, you can usually hear the cover rattling and clanking as the lobster tries to push it off. Or the creature’s claws scraping the sides of the kettle as it thrashes around. The lobster, in other words, behaves very much as you or I would behave if we were plunged into boiling water (with the obvious exception of screaming). A blunter way to say this is that the lobster acts as if it’s in terrible pain, causing some cooks to leave the kitchen altogether and to take one of those little lightweight plastic oven timers with them into another room and wait until the whole process is over.

Slaughterbots: swarming killer drones powered by AI

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 21, 2017

We’ve seen autonomous swarming killer robots before (in Black Mirror and other places), but this video presents a particularly plausible scenario for their development: a venture-backed company led by a Travis Kalanick-style CEO combining tiny drones invented by a playful technologist, AI-powered facial recognition, and miniature explosives to make tiny killbots that will no doubt disrupt the world while creating a ton of shareholder value.

The video is produced by a group that wants to ban autonomous weapons, and I think these things will probably be banned in some form, possibly by banning drones and some kinds of consumer electronics altogether. What struck me most while watching this is that if guns were a new invention, they would most likely be banned in the US, just like lawn darts or explosive devices. A hand-held machine that can kill a person 1000 feet away and hides easily in a pocket? That sounds like a dangerous, litigious nightmare, just the sort of thing the US routinely regulates against for the safety of its people.

Things that are more heavily regulated in the US than buying a gun

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 04, 2017

For McSweeney’s, Sarah Hutto offers up a list of things that are more heavily regulated in the United States than buying a gun.

Building a fucking shed in your own backyard
Disposing of fucking batteries
Cutting fucking hair for a living
Watching a fucking DVD
Importing foreign fucking cheese
Transporting a bottle of opened fucking wine home from a restaurant

Discussing the Las Vegas massacre yesterday on Fox Business, commentator Kennedy said:

If that psychopath had…driven a truck into that crowd and killed 100 people would we be talking about truck control?

Many quickly found the flaw in this “argument”, including @zeddrebel:

WE HAVE TRUCK CONTROL. Special licenses. Insurance. Regulations. Weigh stations. UNIONS. Bollards. GPS tracking…

(And btw, yes, it’s that Kennedy, the former MTV VJ and host of Alternative Nation.)

Trump is terrorizing America and should be removed from office

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 26, 2017

Poet and English professor Seth Abramson recently published a Twitter thread about his current understanding of Donald Trump: his deliberate terrorization of the American public, lack of policy positions, corruption, and keen understanding of America as “a chaos machine” that “spits out attention, headlines, sometimes money” when you feed it. I think Abramson is right about Trump in many respects and I’ve included a few excerpts below…it was difficult to pick out what to highlight.

We need to never again discuss this man with respect to policy — it’s become more than clear in 9 months that he holds no policy positions.

So if you support Donald Trump because of any view you claim he holds, I don’t ever want to hear from you again. The man holds no views.

There is no position Donald Trump has ever taken that he has not, at some point in the past or present, taken the opposite position to.

But the most important thing is this: this is the first U.S. president to systematically and willfully terrorize his own populace daily.

His changeability is intended to keep us anxious and on guard. In fact, he’s admitted publicly, many times, that this is a tactic of his.

His corruption is equally studied: his business model has always been “get away with what you can,” and that’s exactly how he’s governed.

It’s *more* than that he’ll go down in our history as the worst president we’ll ever have — he’ll go down as one of our greatest villains.

Benedict Arnold tried to betray America for a prior sovereign — Trump is trying to *torture* a nation that was good to him his whole life.

Have you noticed a change in your mood since January? I mean a change you can’t seem to escape? Anxiety, anger, fear, confusion, doubt?

The most ubiquitous man in your nation is trying to poison you daily — because it gives him power — and no one’s stopping him from doing it.

I’m not using hyperbole: you’re under attack. A deliberate, unprovoked, systematic, and — yes — evil attack. And it’s working. We’re losing.

Because the last thing — of the three I mentioned — humans look for in a crisis is hope, and he’s systematically taking *that* away as well.

We don’t have hope future elections will be fair. We don’t have hope our government is working in our interests. We don’t have hope we can trust and love our neighbors and they’ll trust and love us back. And we don’t have hope things will start to make sense again.

Abramson finishes by saying that we need to focus on “legally, peacefully and transparently” removing Trump from power. I’m probably going to get some email about this post,1 so I might as well go all in here with a ludicrous-sounding hunch2 I’ve had about Trump since before the election: not only will he not resign or be impeached (for Russia ties or otherwise), he will refuse to leave office under any circumstances. He will attempt, with a non-zero chance of success, to stay in power even if he’s not re-elected in 2020.

Obviously, this is ridiculous and will not happen. What about laws and precedence and democracy and social mores, you’ll say! And you’d be correct. But Trump’s got more than 3 years to lay the groundwork to make it seem normal for him to do this…and Fox News and the Republicans will let him and aid him if they can. (I mean, if you’re America’s increasingly authoritarian & extremist minority party struggling to stay in power, making the sitting Republican President not subject to an election is far more effective than suppressing the votes of likely Democratic voters through gerrymandering and voter ID laws.) Sure, we’ll be outraged about it, but we’re outraged about him anyway and that hasn’t seemed to matter in a significant way yet.

Ok, that’s nuts, right? Could never happen in America, yes? But watching Trump as President over the past few months, is it really that difficult to imagine him going full OJ here when confronted with losing his powerful position? Instead of Simpson being driven around LA in the white Bronco by Al Cowlings followed by a phalanx of police cruisers, on January 20, 2021, it’ll be Trump locked in the White House with Senator Kid Rock, taunting the military via Twitter to come in and get him.3 That sounds more plausible than Trump genteelly hosting the incoming Democratic President for tea in what USA Today calls “the 220-year-old ritual that has become a hallmark of American democracy: The orderly transition of power that comes at the appointed hour when one president takes the oath of office and his predecessor recedes into history”. Aside from “power”, not a single other word in that sentence even remotely describes anything Trump has ever cared about.

  1. I always get email about my Trump posts. Political posts on kottke.org are pretty unpopular and lose me readers every single time. Stay in your lane, Kottke!

  2. Or perhaps “speculative fiction” is a better descriptor? I’m way too level-headed to actually believe this. Aren’t I?!

  3. Seriously though, what is the enforcement mechanism surrounding the transfer of power here? The 20th Amendment covers the beginnings and ends of terms and what happens when there’s no president-elect. But what about if a sitting President refuses to leave office? A lot of this stuff is ritual, presumably because of course (of course!!!!) the President is supposed to be a decent person who will honor tradition and democracy. Does Congress decide what to do? Does the Secret Service? The Supreme Court? The military? Can you imagine the cries of “coup” from Trump and his supporters if a bunch of Marines storm the White House? OMG, he’d love it.

Photos documenting unusual laws across all 50 US states

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 31, 2017

Olivia Locher Law

Olivia Locher Law

Olivia Locher Law

When a normal person finds out that it’s illegal in Alabama to carry an ice cream cone in your back pocket, they might say, huh, that’s interesting. But photographer Olivia Locher took that strange fact and turned it into a project documenting the weirdest laws across all 50 US states (aided by a 70s children’s book called Crazy Laws). Locher has collected the photos into a book, I Fought the Law, which is out in September. Laws depicted in the photos above:

In Alabama, it is illegal to have an ice-cream cone in your back pocket.

In Ohio, it’s illegal to disrobe in front of a man’s portrait.

In Pennsylvania, it’s illegal to tie a dollar bill to a string and pull it away when someone tries to pick it up.

See also you commit three felonies a day.

Impeachment and its misconceptions explained

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 05, 2017

At the recent Aspen Ideas Festival, legal scholar and former Obama advisor Cass Sunstein shared some views on his understanding of and some misconceptions about impeachment, namely that it doesn’t need to involve an actual crime and “is primarily about gross neglect or abuse of power”. Or as he put it more formally in a 1998 essay in the University of Pennsylvania Law Review:

The simplest is that, with respect to the President, the principal goal of the Impeachment Clause is to allow impeachment for a narrow category of egregious or large-scale abuses of authority that comes from the exercise of distinctly presidential powers. On this view, a criminal violation is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for impeaching the President. What is generally necessary is an egregious abuse of power that the President has by virtue of being President. Outside of this category of cases, impeachment is generally foreign to our traditions and is prohibited by the Constitution.

The “distinctly presidential powers” bit is a high bar to clear. Examining the case for Nixon on that basis, and only some of the reasons for wanting to impeach him hold up.

Richard Nixon nearly faced four counts. One failed count, for tax evasion, was completely inappropriate, Sunstein argued: Though an obvious violation of law, it had no bearing on Nixon’s conduct of the presidency. A second charge, for resisting subpoena, is possibly but not necessarily valid, since a president could have good reasons to resisting a subpoena. A third is more debatable: Nixon was charged with covering up the Watergate break-in. Nixon might have been more fairly prosecuted for overseeing the burglary, Sunstein argued, but nabbing him for trying to use the federal government to commit the cover-up was “probably good enough.” Only the fourth charge, of using the federal government’s muscle to prosecute political enemies, is a clear slam-dunk under the Founders’ principles.

Clinton’s impeachment, argued Sunstein in that same Penn Law Review essay, was less well-supported:

I suggest that the impeachment of President Clinton was unconstitutional, because the two articles of impeachment identified no legitimate ground for impeaching the President.

Sunstein explained the intent of the members of the Constitutional Convention in a Bloomberg article back in February. It’s interesting in the light of the Russian collusion investigation that the debate about impeachment at the convention centered around treason.

James Madison concurred, pointing to cases in which a president “might betray his trust to foreign powers.” Gouverneur Morris added that the president “may be bribed by a greater interest to betray his trust; and no one would say that we ought to expose ourselves to the danger of seeing the first Magistrate in foreign pay without being able to guard against it by displacing him.”

So what about Trump? Sunstein doesn’t offer much (no apparent mention of collusion with Russia):

Sunstein, having scolded legal colleagues for playing pundit, was reluctant to address the question directly. Setting aside the impossibility of impeaching Trump under the present circumstances of GOP control of Congress, Sunstein said he was wary of trying to remove the president simply for being bad at his job. Nonetheless, he said Trump’s prolific dishonesty might form a basis for trying to remove him.

“If a president lies on some occasions or is fairly accused of lying, it’s not impeachable — but if you have a systematic liar who is lying all the time, then we’re in the ballpark of misdemeanor, meaning bad action,” he said.

If I were a betting person, I would wager that Donald Trump has a better chance of getting reelected in 2020 than he does of being impeached (and a much better chance than actually being removed from office through impeachment) if the Republicans retain their majority in Congress. Although their healthcare bill has hit a hiccup due to public outcry (and it’s only a hiccup…it will almost surely pass), Congressional Republicans have shown absolutely no willingness to do anything not in the interest of their agenda…so why would they impeach a Republican President who is ticking all of the far right’s action items thus far?

Gender inequality and the Supreme Court

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 06, 2017

Tonja Jacobi and Dylan Schweers have published the results of a study they’ve done related to the role of gender in the workings of the Supreme Court. They found that female justices are interrupted much more often by male justices and advocates than male justices are.

Our empirical study examines interruptions among justices, and between the justices and the advocates, during Supreme Court oral arguments. It shows that women still do not have an equal opportunity to be heard on the highest court in the land. In fact, as more women join the court, the reaction of the male justices and the male advocates has been to increase their interruptions of the female justices.

Even in the most powerful courtroom in the world, the women are being verbally dominated.

Even without adjusting for the low representation of women, the effect is stark. On average, women constituted 22 percent of the court, yet 52 percent of interruptions were directed at them. Overwhelmingly, it was men doing the interrupting: Women interrupted only 15 percent of the time and men interrupted 85 percent of the time, more than their 78 percent representation on the court.

Their study shows that seniority can’t explain this effect — “gender is approximately 30 times more influential than seniority” — but some of it can be explained in terms of political ideology: conservative justices interrupt more than liberal justices do.

We found that the power dynamic does not only affect women: In a court that has been dominated by Republican appointees for over half a century, conservative justices have also dominated liberal justices by interrupting them. We expected cross-ideological interruptions to occur more often than interruptions within ideological camps, and this is true: 62 percent of interruptions cross ideological lines, compared to 38 percent within an ideological camp. However, the effect does not go in both directions: 70 percent of interruptions were of liberals, and only 30 percent of conservatives. Once again, advocates display the same tendency. Advocates interrupting the liberal justices account for over ten percent of interruptions, yet advocate interruptions of the conservative justices account for less than three percent of interruptions.

I wonder what the results would look like if Clarence Thomas ever talked in court? (via @caitlin__kelly)