Barely Legally

confessions of a moot court bailiff

Don’t Believe Your Ears

In the midst of Ben Thompson’s analysis of Tidal and streaming music comes this discourse on the value of music labels, which I usually assume are relics of a bygone era:

Of course labels don’t just find artists who magically become popular: the record labels also help make them so with the aforementioned marketing and promotion costs. This can be everything from getting artists booked on TV, featured in iTunes, or promoted on blogs, but the biggie, even in 2015, is getting artists on the radio.

According to the Nielson 2014 Year End Music Report radio remains the number one source of music discovery: an amazing 91.3% of the U.S. population listens to the radio at least once-a-week, and 51% of those surveyed based their buying decisions off of what they heard on the radio.

This is been a friendly reminder to myself that not everyone lives in the same technological bubble that I do.

Shared Irresponsibility

Cleveland Police Officer Michael Brelo fired forty-nine bullets at a pair of unarmed people in a car at the end of a high-speed car chase. The two eluded more than a hundred police officers during a twenty minute car chase, which is impressive: they were both blackout drunk and under the influence of marijuana and other drugs. I previously wrote about the ridiculous way the Cleveland Police department handled this chase, and how unbelievably poorly-trained and unprofessional the officers involved seem to be.

Officer Brelo is a special kind of awful, though. He fired his gun more than anyone else. He emptied his gun’s magazine three separate times. The last time was after everyone else around him had stopped shooting; he climbed on the hood of his victims’ car and fired 15 shots through the windshield into people the police had already shot at nearly 120 times.

Most police officers who kill unarmed civilians are never charged with a crime. Brelo was charged with Voluntary Manslaughter, which is because Involuntary Manslaughter in Ohio is reserved for what we in New York call Felony Manslaughter: the unintentional or accidental death of someone during the commission of a felony. If you and a buddy swipe some guy’s wallet, and while your victim is chasing you, he has a heart attack or gets hit by a car or dies somehow, you and your buddy are each getting charged with grand larceny and felony murder.

So the fact that Brelo was charged with anything was surprising. What happened next … eh, not so much.

Algorithm and Blues

Facebook’s researchers published a study last week about content diversity on Facebook’s News Feed, which is roughly ‘links to news stories written from a political ideology with which users disagree.’ For example, a diehard Republican’s News Feed with stories from Rachel Maddow, or a Democrat’s News Feed with Fox News links. The horror: reading something on the Internet that could challenge your worldview, or broaden your perspective! You could even be proven wrong.

Ha! Just kidding. When your political worldview is challenged, your original beliefs actually get stronger. Actually, it’s any belief. It’s really, really hard to change your mind.

But still: lots of folks deliberately avoid news from a political worldview with which they disagree. I certainly don’t spend a lot of time reading what those idiots on the other side of the political spectrum think. I’m too busy nodding furiously at the articles gently massaging whatever part of my brain stores all my confirmation bias endorphins.

Facebook’s study, then, was about how people don’t click on News Feed stories from their Other End of the spectrum.

Sidebar: now would be a good time to note that of the many Facebook Friends you have made, and the many Facebook Pages you have Liked, Facebook selects a subset of the updates/links/photos/etc that those Friends and Pages post to show you. You can I could have the exact same 50 Facebook Friends and see wildly different Facebook News Feeds because the News Feed algorithm thinks we’re interested in different things.

For example, if you click on cat photos and I click on dog photos, the algorithm shows you more cat photos and fewer dog photos, and shows me more dog photos and fewer cat photos. Facebook (thinks it) knows what we want, and will (attempt to) give more of it to us.

The Shocking Twist

You see where this is going: Facebook’s News Feed algorithm, carefully engineered to keep your eyeballs glued to Facebook dotcom, filters out those Other End stories and replaces them with more promising links. But only because you don’t want them there! Therefore, it’s not Facebook’s fault that people live in an ideological bubble, you see? They don’t want to see Other End stories and so Facebook doesn’t show them Other End stories. Done.

But don’t you need to have some kind of control group? Don’t you need to have some people who see all the stuff and some people who see less of the stuff, and then measure who clicks what stuff?

This doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me, and neither does it make a lot of sense to Professor Zeynep Tufekci, who writes:

As Christian Sandvig states in this post, and Nathan Jurgenson in this important post here, and David Lazer in the introduction to the piece in Science explore deeply, the Facebook researchers are not studying some neutral phenomenon that exists outside of Facebook’s control. The algorithm is designed by Facebook, and is occasionally re-arranged, sometimes to the devastation of groups who cannot pay-to-play for that all important positioning.

Essentially, Facebook is acting like the only variable in this study is the rate at which people click on stories. But the rate at which News Feed shows you Other End stories also changes per person, per day, per click, etc. in a thousand other ways we’ll never know because the algorithm is super secret.

As noted internet scholar and friend of the blog Professor James Grimmelmann said, “the study’s independent and dependent variables are hopelessly snarled.”

Tufekci again:

I’m glad that Facebook is choosing to publish such findings, but I cannot but shake my head about how the real findings are buried, and irrelevant comparisons take up the conclusion. Overall, from all aspects, this study confirms that for this slice of politically-engaged sub-population, Facebook’s algorithm is a modest suppressor of diversity of content people see on Facebook, and that newsfeed placement is a profoundly powerful gatekeeper for click-through rates. This, not all the roundabout conversation about people’s choices, is the news.

It’s telling that these “findings” were published in an appendix instead of front and center in the paper itself. The researchers might understand that this isn’t a good thing. Ideological bubbles where people are insulated from anything resembling a challenge to their viewpoint create badly polarized institutions. Those are probably Bad For Democracy.

A Cloud Company

Ben Thompson takes a look at how Amazon.com began, but quickly arrives at what Amazon is doing today. Hint: it’s a $25 billion dollar a year business (and growing) at Amazon alone.

Today, public clouds are the future for the vast majority of businesses; the economics of scale achieved by Amazon (and its closest competitors, Google and Microsoft) are so incredible that multi-billion dollar companies like Netflix view it as more efficient to pay Amazon than to build their own data centers. The calculus is even more stark when it comes to any sort of startup: it’s so much easier and cheaper to get started with AWS that the idea of buying your own server infrastructure — an expense that consumed the majority of venture capital in the dot-com bubble era — is preposterous.

This is great from Amazon’s perspective: the company effectively has a stake in nearly every significant startup, and for free; if the company succeeds, Amazon will be paid, handsomely, and if they fail, well, Amazon covered their own costs of providing cloud services along the way.

Hit and Run and Run

Jon Jones is one of the best mixed martial artists in the world. Up until very recently, he competed in the Ultimate Fighting Championship, the biggest MMA league in the world. But last week, he did one of the stupidest things… in the world.

Reports filed by Detective Tommy Benavidez of the Albuquerque Police Department indicate that Jones is a primary suspect in a hit-and-run accident that took place Sunday afternoon. According to witnesses, a silver Buick driven by a man believed to be Jones allegedly ran a red light and caused a three-car accident that left a pregnant woman with a broken arm.

In 2012, Jones pled guilty to drunk driving in my hometown after wrecking his car which cost more than most houses in said hometown. At least the only thing he hit last time was a telephone pole. This time, he’s very lucky he didn’t kill anyone.

But it gets way dumber:

The man allegedly fled the scene on foot, before returning to retrieve cash from his vehicle then fleeing once more.

Well, okay. That’s… dumb. Must have been a lot of money if he was willing to return to the scene of his felony hit and run and then re-run away. But at least he got everyth-

A pipe with marijuana inside of it was found within the rental vehicle by officers, along with paperwork with the name “Jonathan Jones” affixed in relation to MMA and Nevada.

Oh, come on. You took the cash and left the controlled substance and your license to fight? How high were you, man?

Well, okay. Maybe you can lie and say a friend of yours was borrowing your rental car for some reason. Everyone was probably too shocked to get a good description of you for the cops f-

Off-duty police officer J. Sullivan identified the man as Jones, stating on the report, “I watch UFC all the time, I know what Jon Jones looks like.”

Oh, honey.

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 white 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

Update: The verdict is out.

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.