Barely Legally

confessions of a moot court bailiff

Using That Word

Damon Young, writing for Very Smart Brothas, about the most educational part of March Madness:

During a post-game press conference after losing to Wisconsin Saturday night, a sensitive mic caught Kentucky guard Andrew Harrison saying “Fuck that nigga” under his breath while at the podium. The comment was a response to a reporter’s question about Wisconsin forward Frank Kaminsky, who is about as far from Black as you’d expect someone from Wisconsin named “Frank Kaminsky” would be.

Young explores this odd situation in a way that even I (and the Wisconsin Kaminskys) can understand, by employing a sort of reverse Socratic dialog.

Why would Harrison use that word in reference to a White guy?

Well, sure. We were all thinking it. Fortunately, Young has the perfect answer:

In the past month, I’ve referred to each of the following things as a “nigga.”

My car. A bottle of hot sauce. A basketball. The weather. My dog. My wife. A grape. Jason Statham. The concept of having an all-red party. The concept of attending a party where the hosts expect you to wear all red. The eight of clubs. The internet.

No wonder white people are so upset they don’t get to use that word. Look at how universally applicable it is!

Wait, really; a grape? Well, was it a purple grape, or…?

Design Theater

Google’s driverless car doesn’t have a steering wheel. Why would it? The car has a computer system which gets the car from A to B better than a human can. Sure, it seems weird to get into a car with a completely barren dashboard, but there’s no point to it. But some car companies are still going to put steering wheels into their cars.

With all apologies to my fellow humanities majors, there’s a word for pointless endeavors: theater. When the TSA requires airline passengers to remove their shoes before getting on a plane, that’s security theater. When your phone’s digital camera makes the noise of an analog camera’s whirring shutter, that’s design theater.

NYU Law’s Karen Levy and Tim Hwang (of Robot, Robot, & Hwang) wrote an excellent introduction to this second kind of theater. Putting a steering wheel in a driverless car is a 21st century design theater. Here’s what the 19th century came up with:

Other design theaters are aimed not at providing direct usability cues, but at smoothing technologies’ entry into social life by increasing their acceptability. An early example is the Horsey Horseless, an 1899 vehicle design intended to coexist with horse-drawn carriages. Horses were spooked by the strange new cars on the road; the Horsey Horseless was, essentially, “a car with a big wooden horse head stuck on the front of it,” which doubled as a fuel tank.

It’s not clear that the Horsey Horseless was ever produced, nor that it would have worked as planned, but its intentions were clear — to present a misleading social cue (to horses!) that would help make this new contraption less scary and easier to live with.

Even more impressive: I’m given to understand that horses in the 19th century were also driverless.

Forty-Nine Bullets

In every state, police officers get a lot more leeway than ordinary members of the public when it comes to the use of deadly force. For an ordinary person, self-defense laws come with (or used to) certain caveats. At times, it can feel like it’s impossible for a police officer to be charged with a crime for shooting people who turn out to be unarmed.

Well, here’s how badly an officer has to screw up to get charged. It comes from Cleveland, where the grand jury’s still out on whether or not shooting a twelve year old boy holding a toy gun gets you charged with a crime. But! This guy; he actually got charged.

We’ll start with a car chase, because in media res is a powerful literary device, and Barely Legally is nothing if not a platform for powerful literature. During the climax of a wildly unprofessional chase involving more than a third of all the police officers in the city of Cleveland, the police engaged in a shootout with two suspects. We’ll get to the shootout in a bit, after we talk about the hardened criminal masterminds who orchestrated this chase.

Dig Hard With a Vengeance

Hey, remember that story from back in December about Seattle’s new tunnel project, and how poorly construction is going? A 500,000 pound machine custom-built to dig this one tunnel broke down after making it about one-tenth of the total distance it’s scheduled to dig. Ominous!

It started out as a boondoggle, and it’s only gotten worse from there. I find this whole thing baffling beyond comprehension, but Karen Weise wrote a wonderful story for Bloomberg Business about how it all went so wrong. Basically, this particular project isn’t special or remarkable at all. Gigantic public works projects are always way more expensive and way more time-consuming than the contractors are willing to say. Seattle is no different.

Bent Flyvbjerg, a professor at Oxford’s Saïd School of Business, has followed [Seattle’s problems] from afar. His research on megaprojects has been cited by both backers and critics of the tunnel. Nine times out of 10, massive infrastructure jobs go over budget, he says. Tunnels on average cost 34 percent more than anticipated. No region is better at predicting costs, and estimates over the past century haven’t become more accurate, his data show.

Wow. Those are some pretty earth-shattering numbers. How can experts get these so wrong almost all the time? Whether that means that big public works contractors are lying or simply inept, it’s hard to tell.

Just kidding!

The [Washington State Department of Transportation] WSDOT awarded a $1.4 billion design-build contract to STP, a joint venture between Tutor Perini, a California-based construction company with $4.5 billion in annual revenue, and Dragados USA, the local division of a Spanish company with an expertise in tunneling. […]

STP beat out another consortium in part by estimating it could finish the project by December 2015, 11 months ahead of the state’s schedule. It was time to stop hyperventilating, the state said. “With this contract, we are confident that the tunnel will be built within budget and delivered on time,” declared Paula Hammond in 2011, then the head of WSDOT. (She left in 2013 for the engineering firm that led the reviews.)

Got that? The company that Seattle paid to double-check whether the project would be a disaster gave it a thumbs-up. And then they gave the official in charge of the contract a paycheck. Oh, and by the way, that whole “eleven months ahead of schedule” bit might have been off a little; the tunnel is roughly two years behind schedule. Nothing shady here, though! This is definitely a very large surprise to the reviewing firm. Yes.

Aside from the conspicuous appearance of corruption, Seattle’s ongoing tunnel problems are impressive. According to Weise’s article, the machine hadn’t even begun digging through the difficult part of the terrain when it broke down. I’m sure this story will keep spiraling out of control into a cautionary tale that another local government will ignore at their own peril. I can’t wait!

Not a Good Look, Texas

Shot: Texas court throws out “upskirt” photo law.

The state’s highest criminal court on Wednesday tossed out part of a Texas law banning “improper photography or visual recording” – surreptitious images acquired in public for sexual gratification, often called “upskirting” or “downblousing” – as a violation of federal free-speech rights and an improper restriction on a person’s right to individual thoughts. […]

In an 8-1 ruling, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals said photos, like paintings, films and books, are “inherently expressive” and, therefore, are protected by the First Amendment.

Chaser: Texas Bill Would Make It Illegal for You to Film a Cop Beating You.

Section 38.15 of the Texas Penal Code makes it an offense to interrupt, disrupt, impede, or otherwise interfere with “public duties,” including those being exercised by a police officer. That’s the law pretty much everywhere, of course, but the question that has arisen in recent years is whether you are “interfering” (etc.) with a police officer just because you are recording what he or she is doing. The Texas statute doesn’t say anything specific about recording, although it does say a person can’t be prosecuted if the interfering acts “consisted of speech only.” […]

Okay, now along comes Rep. Jason Villalba (R-Dallas) with H.B. 2918. This bill would amend section 38.15 to expressly include within the definition of “interference” the conduct of “filming, recording, photographing, or documenting the officer within 25 feet of the officer,” or doing so “within 100 feet of the officer” if you are also carrying a concealed handgun.

Sure, maybe the upskirt law was a little overbroad, and it stepped on the toes of the first amendment. I get it. I don’t know that I would have tossed out the whole statute, but hey. Texas doesn’t mess around with free speech.

But come on. If you have the right to film kids in bathing suits (no, really, that’s what that case was about), then you should at least be allowed to film a cop. Especially one who’s beating you.