Illinois Schools Hate Your Children’s Privacy

Illinois recently passed an anti-bullying law that some school districts are interpreting as granting some disturbing powers, according to a story at Motherboard by Jason Koebler:

School districts in Illinois are telling parents that a new law may require school officials to demand the social media passwords of students if they are suspected in cyberbullying cases or are otherwise suspected of breaking school rules.

The law, passed as HB 5707, apparently does not specifically say schools can demand student social media passwords, but school districts appear to be acting under the belief that it interacts with a bill from the previous year.

That law states that elementary and secondary schools must notify parents if they plan to ask for a password, and that it can be asked for if a student violates policy. The cyberbullying law codifies the idea that Facebook harassment is a violation of code policy, which is why you see these letters popping up.

I only glanced at the legalese briefly, but it seems to me that most of the violence to student privacy is done by the earlier law, with the more recent bill only adding the bullying element.

Edwin C. Yohnka, Director of Communications and Public Policy for the Illinois ACLU, tells me the anti-bullying bill (which his organization supported) doesn’t actually give schools this power:

The story about the single downstate school district was, of course, disturbing. That said, that school district badly misread their authority under the new Illinois law. As the sponsor of the measure made clear in several public statements this week, the intent of the law was never to permit school districts to gather social media passwords for students. Those social media accounts would, as one might expect, include lots of personal information that the school district should not be accessing.

That hasn’t stopped Triad Community Schools Unit District #2 from putting on the jackboots:

Leigh Lewis, superintendent of the Triad district, told me that if a student refuses to cooperate, the district could presumably press criminal charges.

“If we’re investigating any discipline having to do with social media, then we have the right to ask for those passwords,” she said.

“I would imagine that turning it over to the police would certainly be one way to go. If they didn’t turn over the password, we would call our district attorneys because they would be in violation of the law,” she added. “That would only be in some cases—we’d certainly look at the facts and see what we’re dealing with before we make the decision.”

This is wrong on so many levels.

If a student is using social media to send bullying messages, investigators can read the messages from the victim’s account. And if they’re private messages that aren’t part of the harassment of the victim, then officious meddlers like Leigh Lewis have no business reading them without a warrant.

I don’t know why they think they can treat social media differently from other communication methods. If students used the U.S. Mail to send letters (as your grandparents did in olden times) schools wouldn’t be allowed to read them. Nor would they be allowed to tap students’ phones without a warrant. But somehow they think social media is different. Somehow they think digital communication is less protected. (And legally speaking, it probably is. Which is something we ought to change.)

I’ve been living life in the digital world for over thirty years, and the idea that someone could be forced to give their password to a total stranger feels like an incredible violation. The gall of these bastards. They say they’re just interested in bullying, but they want to see everything.

To a heavy user of a social media site like Facebook, letting a stranger use your account is like letting a stranger into your home. It’s like letting a stranger rifle through your wallet, dump out the contents of your purse, and paw through your underwear drawer. They’ll be able to read every message your child sent to everyone they know. In addition, they’ll also get to read every private thing that your child’s family and friends shared with them in confidence, thus violating the privacy of innocent bystanders.

With the password, school district officials could gain access to anything any of you might share over the social network — private thoughts your children shared with friends, information about medical or psychological problems of family members, titillating details of your child’s sexual experimentation, what you really think of some of your kid’s teachers, your off-the-cuff comments about your boss, a photo of that time you let them drink a beer with you, passwords to other computer systems that someone sent in a message — the list goes on and on.

And once they have the password, they will be able to assume your child’s virtual identity. (It’s probably not legal, but who would stop them?) They can delete stuff they don’t like, they can interrogate your child’s friends in the guise of your child, they can ask family members for sensitive information. Furthermore, major social media credentials often serve to control access to other web sites (e.g. “Login with your Facebook account”), giving them God-only-knows how much access into your child’s life.

I’m seething with anger over the depth of this violation of privacy. I don’t have kids, but my gut reaction is that you should respond to a school’s password demand as if they were demanding to see nude pictures of your child. If that means you punch them hard in the face again and again until they go down, and then kick them in the ribs until they cough up blood, all while reciting Jules’s “Lay my vengeance upon thee!” speech from Pulp Fiction…that would be wrong. Don’t do that. It’s a very bad idea. (But have I mentioned that this makes me angry?)

My gut also says you should tell your kid to borrow a legal strategy from Saul Goodman and repeat this key phrase: “That’s not my social media account.” Or say they can’t remember the password. Or give up the password and then change it a minute later “for security reasons.” Or give control of the account to someone outside the jurisdiction. Or…

Sadly, those are also bad ideas. Technical hacks of the law don’t work very well in the real world legal system. They may sound clever, but judges don’t have much appreciation for clever. They tend to see it as contempt or obstruction. Don’t do anything clever.

But if you have the resources, and some school authorities try to pull this shit, don’t let them get away with it. If some school employee tries this crap on you, call a lawyer. There are serious Constitutional issues here, so you might be able to get a public interest law firm to take it on for free.

But…if this makes you as angry as it does me, and you’ve just got to do something…I think there’s a pretty good argument that people with no respect for your privacy have no grounds to complain about theirs. If some school official forces your child to give up their privacy, don’t keep it a secret. Call them out on that shit. Name names. Give out contact information. To get you started, the contact page for the Triad school district is here.

(Hat tip: Robby Soave.)

Of Experts and Explainers

The Volokh Conspiracy blog has finally made the move behind the Washington Post paywall, and that led to an interesting comment on Twitter by conspirator Orin Kerr about the change in audience from being an independent blog to being part of a major media outlet:

I think we’ve gained some and lost some. I’m worried we lost the law nerds and gained general interest readers.

As Roger Ford adds,

Skimming down the site now, it sort of reads like “Eugene Volokh explains the legal news for lay readers.”

The original Volokh Conspiracy site had long been a source of intelligent discussions about legal theory, but with its new larger and more varied readership, it has apparently become less focused. Scott Greenfield at Simple Justice explained the change in more detail:

Forgive me for digressing, but my thoughts are best expressed with some context. While VC historically highlighted legal scholarship from a somewhat conservative libertarian perspective, it did so with a touch of realism, in connection to real world events, that made it relevant to what practicing lawyers do, as well as judges who decide such matters. VC was the nexus between theory and practice.

SJ is written from the criminal defense lawyer perspective, which meant that it tended to be too rough and vulgar for academics. From my perspective, the critical audience was fellow CDLs; that others, from lawprofs to civil lawyers to non-lawyers, didn’t really matter.  To the extent I was concerned about other people’s views, it was the views of my colleagues, my brethren.

That VC has abandoned its effort to connect academic theory, even with its libertarian tilt, with real world practice, and instead sees its future as persuading the groundlings to embrace its theories, makes no sense to me at all.

Does that mean the ridiculous drivel dished out by Paul Cassell will be the norm?  Does that mean Eugene will no longer offer First Amendment analysis of any depth?  Does that mean Orin will only use small words and abandon trying to explain the mosaic theory?

That’s a common area of tension that shows up in many fields, including the sciences: There are people who are important in their field, and there are people who are experts at explaining their field. There’s not much overlap.

Some of the explainers achieve a degree of fame, but when you look at their scientific contributions, they haven’t usually made major contributions to their field. Carl Sagan was not one of the world’s greatest astronomers, and Neil deGrasse Tyson is not one of the great astrophysicists. Much the same can be said of Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker in their fields, and Bill Nye The Science Guy is more of an engineer and inventor than a scientist.

I’m not saying these people are idiots or fakes. I’m sure they all did their jobs very well, and they’ve usually contributed something original to their fields, and all of them by definition are good at science education of some kind. Nevertheless, they usually aren’t among the top experts in their fields in the opinions of other experts in their fields.

The real experts are rarely well known to the public. Except for major historic figures like Isaac Newton or Charles Darwin, most of us wouldn’t recognize the names of important research scientists unless they have stuff named after them like Heinrich Hertz and Alessandro Volta or because they have entered popular culture, such as Erwin Schrödinger, known for his cat, and Werner Heisenberg, known for his uncertainty principle (and now for also cooking crystal meth). In their time, however, they weren’t well known to the public.

(Because the major contributors to scientific fields are generally not known to the public, I’m pretty much guaranteed to have characterized someone as an explainer rather than a major contributor because I am unaware of their important contributions to a field other than my own. Sorry.)

By way of example, my background is in computer science, and I think I can come up with a few very important contributors to computer science that you probably never heard of, such as Edsger Dijkstra, Donald Knuth, C.A.R. Hoare, Fred Brooks, Grace Hopper, and Niklaus Wirth. You probably know Noam Chomsky, but for his politics rather than for his influence on computer science, and everyone seems to have heard of the Turing Test for artificial intelligence, but that was not Alan Turing’s most important contribution to computer science.

The division between contributors and explainers often occurs within academia, in the split between teaching and research. Economist Steven Landsburg illustrated the difference between these groups by analogy to a cocktail party involving two groups of people: The researchers are like a group of people in the center who are talking to each other about all the interesting things they do, whereas the educators are are all standing around the edges, talking about what the group in the center has been up to. (I may have mangled this a bit.)

Landsburg asked readers which group they’d rather talk to: The interesting people in the center or the people at the edges who talk about what the folks in the center are doing. To him, the answer obvious answer was that you’ll want to talk to the people in the center, and that’s why students are better off joining academic departments that do research.

I think that misses an important point: Talking to the group in the center is only the best choice if you can understand what the people in the center are talking about. A student new to the field is unlikely to benefit from discussions that assume half a decade of education in the field. More to the point, there’s a difference between understanding complicated subjects, and knowing how to break down complicated subjects into simplified component bits of knowledge that can be taught to students.

One of my introductory calculus classes was taught by a professor who was one of the most important researchers in the math department. It was a terrible class. I have no doubt he understood the subject, but he had no idea of what it was like to not understand calculus, and he was consequently incapable of explaining it to us. Rather than using carefully crafted examples to illustrate how calculus works, he would make up ad hoc problems that required us to spend a lot of time thinking about ancillary issues. The homework problems would be straight out of the lesson plan, which was not always what he had been teaching us. The disconnect was especially bad on the test questions — I’m convinced that some of them required us to know things he didn’t realize he hadn’t taught us yet.

There’s also the question of whether the people in the center will be willing to talk to people who know very little about the subject. After all, they also want to learn the cool new stuff, and that means they have little time for newcomers who can teach them nothing interesting. Serious research professors are known for having crappy office hours.

Switching back to my own field, software development, as an experienced software engineer, I would probably have trouble figuring out how to teach an introductory course in computer programming. For example, when I approach a programming problem, I might think about many aspects of it at once — algorithmic correctness, efficiency, resource consumption, parallel processing, network traffic, database architecture, interface design, scalability, generalizability, separation of concerns, layering, composability, opportunities for refactoring, testability, and so on. I’m not trying to brag. Those are all things that pretty much any experienced software engineer will keep in mind, and they are things that all developers should learn about.

However, it would be a mistake to try to teach someone computer programming from the ground up by teaching them about all those things at the same time. A good teacher would probably start with some foundational skills such as expressions, control structures, and basic class design before moving on to details of the language and the runtime library and then some of the bigger-picture organizational concepts.

Every field needs both kinds of members — those who do it well, and those who explain it well. Those who do it well sometimes look down on those who teach it, especially since the teachers often lack the detailed knowledge of the practitioners, and they often make mistakes. These errors and omissions are a problem, and they should be corrected, but when it comes to teaching a field of knowledge, a skilled teacher who gets some parts wrong can still impart more information to an audience than a skilled practitioner who knows everything but doesn’t know how to explain it.

For example, in discussing the weather, we refer to the relative humidity of the air. The basic idea is that air has a temperature-dependent maximum capacity for moisture — the higher the temperature, the more water the air can hold — and relative humidity expresses how much water is in the air as a percentage of the maximum theoretical capacity.

This concept explains thinks like why items in the refrigerator frost over when you leave the door open — the warm room air cools down, which reduces the water carrying capacity below the amount of water already in the air, forcing the excess water vapor to be deposited as “sweat.” This is also why air conditioners always have to drain off water: The suddenly cooled air can’t hold the water and deposits it on the evaporator coils.

This model also explains why we run humidifiers in winter — your furnace warms the air, which increases it’s water vapor carrying capacity, but your furnace doesn’t actually add water to the air. Since relative humidity is the amount of water vapor in the air divided by the maximum capacity, and only the capacity is increased, your furnace reduces the relative humidity of the air, and it feels too dry. A humidifier adds water vapor to bring the relative humidity back up to comfortable levels.

Further, the human body’s cooling system relies on sweat evaporating from the skin to carry off heat, but if the air is already near its carrying capacity, there’s no “room” for the sweat to evaporate, so your body doesn’t cool enough. This is why dry heat is more comfortable than hot and humid weather. It’s also why we set out thermostats warmer in winter than in summer: The heated air is drier, so evaporative cooling makes us feel chilly unless we bump the temperature up a bit.

This “carrying capacity” model of humidity is widely known, it makes sense of a lot of things we observe about the world, and it is routinely taught by school teachers. And yet it is almost completely wrong. The real explanation of what’s going on is considerably more complex and harder to understand, unless you are used to thinking about systems in equilibrium and know some basic physics of gases.

To be sure, the correct explanation is much better. It can be expressed analytically, and you can use it to solve real-world engineering problems, where it will give accurate answers across a broad range of scenarios. And yet most people can get by with the simple but wrong explanation, because it’s good enough. And in this case, good enough is easier to teach.

Understand, I’m not defending teaching people things that are wrong. That’s always a bad outcome, and in fields like medicine or law, it can be dangerous. What I’m saying is that often someone who’s good at explaining things can be a better educator, even if they make some mistakes, than someone who gets everything right, but can’t get it across to anyone else.

And sometimes it’s not so much that they can’t explain it as that they won’t explain it or they don’t have the time to explain it. We can complain about some of the questionable neuroscience in Carl Sagan’s Dragons of Eden, but most real neuroscientists are busy doing real neuroscience, and they don’t have time to answer your questions or write a popular science book. We can poke fun at law professors who reveal their lack of practical knowledge when they go on talk shows, but most experienced trial lawyers are too busy practicing law to answer questions about the latest trial in the news. In both cases, as long as they don’t actively make people stupider, we’re better off with them than without them.

As for the Volokh Conspiracy, I don’t read enough there to follow what’s going on, but if they are changing their target audience from “law nerds” to general interest readers, that’s going to disappoint the nerds, but maybe it will bring a smarter, more rigorous explanation of the law to lay readers.


At The Honest Courtesan, Maggie McNeill notes a human trafficking propaganda infographic by Haisam Hussein that includes this map, which shows sex trafficking hot spots:


This pattern looked familiar… Watch what happens when I overlay the sex trafficking hotspots with another geographic data source. The overlay’s not perfect, because the maps use different projections, but I think a clear pattern emerges:


The other data source is a map of every McDonald’s location in the United States. Note that every single sex trafficking hotspot corresponds to a cluster of McDonald’s restaurants. The conclusion is obvious: McDonald’s food is turning our women into whores!

The obvious alternative explanation — that McDonald’s restaurants are caused by sex trafficking — can be easily disproved by noting the presence of McDonald’s clusters in places that the sex trafficking map shows as prostitution-free, such as Minneapolis, Portland, and Dallas. Clearly McDonald’s are the causative variable.

(The suggestion that maps of sex trafficking and McDonald’s restaurants are really both just maps of the U.S. population is clearly a deceptive tactic by sex trafficking apologists trying to downplay the magnitude of the crisis. Pay no attention to it.)

So alert the media, write your Congresscritters, and start the #EndMcWhoreDemand hashtag campaign now! Our children’s future is at stake!

Free Speech From a Friend of the Blog

Over at the Friendly Atheist, my sometimes co-blogger Rogier van Bakel (a.k.a. Terry Firma) comes out of the closet with some harsh words about media outlets that congratulate themselves for standing up for free speech but refuse to publish images of the controversial Charlie Hebdo cover even in stories specifically about it.

To Publish or Not To Publish

Rick Horowitz has an interesting post about his decision not to display any Charlie Hebdo cartoons in his post about the Charlie Hebdo massacre. Er, in other words, his post about the Charlie Hebdo massacre consisted of an explanation of why he wasn’t posting Charlie Hebdo cartoons in his post about the Charlie Hebdo massacre. (Did you follow that? It was all very self-referential. Anyway…) I thought about that myself when I wrote my own post about the Charlie Hebdo attack, and I decided to include just a single image.

I had thought about a similar issue a few years ago, when writing about threats against the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten which had published cartoon images of the prophet Mohammed. In that case, I didn’t see a reason to include any of the images under discussion. As my regular readers are no doubt painfully aware, Windypundit is mostly just a lot of words. I don’t normally include images unless I have to. So the way I saw it, there were only two reasons for including the images in a post: (1) News value, and (2) saying “Fuck you” to assholes.

I have no objections to saying “Fuck you” to assholes, but posting offensive images risks saying “Fuck you” to the wrong people. If a racist politician used the N-word in a speech, and some kind of black militant group assassinated him for it, I see no problem with telling them to go fuck themselves, but I wouldn’t use the N-word to do it. I may want to say “Fuck you for being a terrorist,” but the N-word says “Fuck you for being black.” It’s the wrong message in so many ways.

The same is true for the offensive images of Mohammed. Instead of saying “Fuck you for being a terrorist,” I might inadvertently be saying “Fuck you for being a Muslim,” which is not at all the message I want to send. So when writing about the Jyllands-Posten images, I decided not to use the images to say “Fuck you”.

The Charlie Hebdo images were slightly more complicated because I didn’t even know how to tell if they’re offensive. Translating from the French is the least of the problems. Things like racist epithets and stereotypes are culturally defined in a complicated way, and I wouldn’t have a clue what constitutes anti-Arabic or anti-Muslim material in French culture. The cartoons are not drawn realistically, but I can’t tell which oddities are considered racists stereotypes and which are just the Charlie Hebdo style. Some people say the cartoons are racist and others say they’re just over-the-top satire, and I don’t know who to believe. It’s a messy situation.

It is for this reason that I reluctantly did not sign on to Marc Randazza’s “We are Charlie Hebdo” post. I understand what he’s doing — Randazza is a Kung-Fu master of “Fuck you” — but I felt that by signing onto the post I would in effect be signing onto the messages in the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, and I don’t even know what those messages are.

I realize not everyone who publishes the images (or signs on to Randazza’s post) feels they are endorsing the content of the cartoons, but that’s how it felt to me.

The other reason for including the offensive images would be if they have legitimate news value. When writing about the Jyllands-Posten images, I thought the actual images were marginally relevant, but there’s no point in embedding a dozen images in a post when I would normally just link to them. Embedding the images would be gratuitous, and therefore just a “Fuck you,” about which please see the previous few paragraphs.

Pretty much the same line of thinking applied to the Charlie Hebdo images, except that the slant of my post was that the people making the images were pretty bold in the face of censorship and violent opposition. In particular, I thought it took big brass balls to publish this image right after their offices were firebombed:

Love Is Stronger Than Hate

That’s got to be a giant “Fuck you” to the (presumably) homophobic religious nutcases that would firebomb a magazine because they didn’t like the cartoons, and I felt you really have to see the image to understand the magnitude of the message. That’s why I included it in the post. (And of course you need to see the image in this post to understand why I felt that way.)

I have to admit that posting that image also allowed me to issue my own small “Fuck you” to the terrorists in a way that I hope wouldn’t unintentionally offend anyone who doesn’t have it coming. Also, I hope it will be enough to get me past the inevitable gormless trolls who insist that anyone who doesn’t publish the images is a coward.

Je ne suis pas Charlie

I am not Charlie.

Honestly, until this shit happened, I didn’t know a damned thing about Charlie Hebdo. I don’t have a clue what Charlie Hebdo stood for, so I’m not about to identify myself with them or support their editorial agenda, whatever it is.

Besides, in my mind, “I am Charlie” links to the scene in the 1960 film Spartacus where rebellious former Roman slaves refuse to identify their leader Spartacus by all claiming “I am Spartacus!” thus consigning themselves to be crucified alongside him. That’s real dedication to a cause. And as Matt Welch points out, Charlie Hebdo was run by badasses. Their own government went after them for offensive speech and they fought back and won. Muslim extremists firebombed their offices, and six days later they responded with this:

Love Is Stronger Than Hate

(“Love is stronger than hate.”)

By comparison, I’m publishing this blog from the middle of the United States of America which is still — despite all the problems detailed here on a regular basis — a bastion of free speech. The worst that’s ever happened to me for something I wrote is that people left nasty messages in the comments or said mean things about me on their blog. The worst that’s ever likely to happen to me is that I have to find another job because my employer doesn’t like something I wrote. If someone shoots me, it’s more likely to be my wife than terrorists.

Look, whatever Charlie Hebdo stands for — I don’t know or care what it is — I stand by their right to believe it and say it and publish it. It’s insane to kill someone for drawing comics and saying mean things. The gunmen who shot the Charlie Hebdo writers and artists are a bunch of terrorist assholes, and I want them all to die in a fire.

But my saying so doesn’t get me any points for bravery. I’ve got it easy. I realize that many of the people posting “I am Charlie” don’t mean it this way, so this is not a knock on them, but to me “I am Charlie” feels like trying to portray myself as having courage on a level that is simply not required for what I do. My world is not that dangerous. I am not Charlie.

Should It Be a Crime to Hate Police?

One of the implicit assumptions I make here is that the criminal justice system is not exempt from the general principle that social institutions enforce social norms. In a society hostile to minorities, giving authorities another law to enforce is giving them another way to punish minorities. Even a law intended to help minorities can end up hurting them if the intended effect is overwhelmed by oppressive enforcement.

This especially applies to laws against hurting people’s feelings, such as laws that punish “bullying” or offensive (but non-violent) behavior, or even laws that increase the punishment for “hate crimes.” Although these laws are nominally intended to protect the powerless, they are part of a system that tends to protect and support the powerful, often harming the powerless in the process. That latter effect can swamp the intended purpose of the law and do more harm than good.

I think I first really understood this after hearing about Canadian anti-pornography laws premised on the feminist theory that pornography was a form of hate speech which harmed women. Among the first people to be prosecuted under these laws was the owner of a gay and lesbian bookstore — no doubt to protect women from the inherent misogyny of the materials sold there.

I’m  bringing this up because of a recent proposal for extending the federal hate crime law:

Violence against police officers that is motivated by anti-police bias should be prosecuted as a hate crime, the nation’s largest police union is arguing in a letter to President Barack Obama and Congressional leaders this week.

“Right now, it’s a hate crime if you attack someone solely because of the color of their skin, but it ought to be a hate crime if you attack someone solely because of the color of their uniform as well,” said Jim Pasco, the executive director of the National Fraternal Order of Police.

I’ll bet supporters of hate crime legislation didn’t see that coming. It never occurred to me that in the face of increasing complaints about police militarization and rough treatment of citizens, police unions would agitate for greater punishment of people who attack them.

I’m not sure it even makes sense to talk about “anti-police bias.” I know they mean someone who hates cops, but it’s not as if cop is an innate human attribute like race or gender, and it’s not a system of belief or a group you can join like a religion. Cop is a job description. There’s nothing wrong with criticizing either the requirements of a public service job or the way particular employees perform at it.

“Enough is enough! It’s time for Congress to do something to protect the men and women who protect us,” Chuck Canterbury, the president of the union, said in a statement Monday. The group has long lobbied for harsher punishment for those who harm law enforcement officers.

Indeed they have, and very successfully. Anyone who kills a police officer is already subject to the harshest possible punishment, which is often the death penalty, and that’s only if they live long enough to be captured. So what do the union bosses really want?

I assume much of it is just grandstanding for the rank-and-file. That tends to explain a lot of bombast by the heads of any organization. But I think there’s probably more to it.

The FOP newsletter mentions several murdered police officers, and some dodgy news coverage talks about treating “killing cops” as a hate crime, but the language used by the union bosses talks only about “violence” and “attacks.” Furthermore, as near as I can tell, the federal hate crimes laws apply to a pretty broad range of aggressive acts that fall far short of murder, and some hate crime laws apply even to relatively minor property damage (to address things like spray painting swastikas on a synagogue). It sounds like even minor crimes against police could be treated as hate crimes if there was evidence the offenders didn’t like cops.

To me, this seems pretty clearly targeted at protesters. There’s certainly nothing wrong with charging them when they do something violent or destructive, but it’s important to keep a sense of proportion. With the proposed changes, if the laws are interpreted broadly enough — and you know police will interpret the laws broadly — every thrown object, every shove at a riot shield, and maybe even every vandalized patrol car could be charged as a hate crime, subject to the same kinds of harsh punishments we intended for Nazi skinheads and Klansmen who burn crosses on people’s lawns.

2014 in Review

According to WordPress, 2014 was a slow year, with only 114 posts, almost a quarter of which were on a Saturday. And for the first time in years, the #1 post was not my anti-Sprint rant. Instead it was my post about the protests in Ferguson. In addition to the usual social media outlets, I owe Popehat and Gamso for much of my traffic.

My most active commenter was Allison Williams, or rather, the Indian outsourcing firm to which Allison Williams’ internet marketing agency gave her link building subcontract. The second and third most active commenters were Scott Greenfield and Jack Marshall, which probably annoys both of them. Matt Haiduk and nidefatt round out the top five. The rest of you didn’t make WordPress’s list, but I thank you all…or at least all of you who are real people. It would get lonely here without you.

Furthermore, here at Windpundit, 2014 was the year in which:

That was most of it. See you all in 2015!


More On Cops, Protesters, and Racial Bias

In a previous post, I criticized Jack Marshall’s post about the connections between protesters and cop killers. Jack tried to respond, but apparently my comment system is acting up again, so he emailed it to me.  I started to write a response, but I guess Jack decided he had enough material for a full blog post, so I’ll respond to that instead. Or at least as much of it as I can. As it is, it’s taken me a while to put this together, and in the meantime Jack has posted several more pieces about the protest movement. Serves me right for arguing with a guy who thinks about these things for a living.

Two quick notes before I get started: First, I do need to back off on something a bit and apologize. When I was drafting that first post, I started with quotes from several people who had tried to blame the shootings on activists and protesters. When I added Jack’s rather substantive post to the mix, it grew so long that I decided to shorten it by leaving out the other statements. Those other quotes could, I think, have fairly been referred to as smears, but if I’d been more careful, I wouldn’t have left the word “smear” in as a characterization of Jack’s post. Smearing implies lying about someone to make them look bad, and while I disagree with what Jack says, I don’t think he was lying. His post was sincere and substantive, and I was careless not to change that before publishing. (Sorry, Jack.)

Second, to get an idea of where Jack is coming from, I encourage any of my readers with an interest in this topic to read Jack’s original post, then my response and then what Jack has to say about it. (To get even more of an idea where Jack is coming from, you might also want to read a post where he blames Obama for declining race relations, another post where he argues the protests aren’t really non-violent, and just for fun, a post from 2012 where he argues that Presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s 0% approval from black people means blacks are racially biased.)

At the end of Jack’s post he lists several reasons why he thinks mine fails:

It fails because it adopts the straw man that the issue is merely police abuse, rather than police racism that culminates in the murder of blacks, as part of a larger racist culture.

I’m not quite sure what Jack is getting at here. He seems to think that whenever I or some of the protesters refer to “police abuse” we’re really using code words to disguise the fact that we’re accusing the police, and by implication the justice system and American culture in general, of anti-black racial bias.

My post had several paragraphs about racial bias, so I thought my position would be obvious, but I guess I’ll have to be more clear: Yes. I’ll own that. I am accusing the police, the justice system, and American culture in general of anti-black racial bias. As I explained, it’s not all police, it’s not everyone involved with the justice system, and it’s certainly not all Americans, but there’s enough racism in the mix to justify vigilance.

I’m not talking about white supremacist groups like the Klan, which have been pushed out onto the fringe for decades — and which really got their asses kicked when millions of white Americans voted for a black President. I think that kind of powerful organized racist thuggery is gone for good.

Nevertheless, I think there’s a systematic and often callous disregard for black interests, black welfare, and black lives, and this has led to laws, policies, institutions, attitudes, and individual decisions that add up to a powerful, but not necessarily intentional, racial bias.

Getting back to Jack’s summary of my post’s failures:

It fails because it continues to rationalize the “hands up” narrative,

Jack asserted that protestors were wrong to protest because there was no evidence of racial bias after the Michael Brown shooting, but the fact that multiple witnesses were saying he had his hands up is actually pretty good evidence of racial bias. That this evidence eventually didn’t pan out very well doesn’t mean protesters were wrong to make some noise about it when it was the leading account.

(Also, it’s not as if Mike Brown is the only unarmed black man alleged to have been shot with his hands up. Sometimes there’s video, as when Trooper Sean Groubert fires a final shot at Levar Jones while he is backing away with his hands up. Jones lived, and Groubert is facing felony charges.)

because it conveniently ignores the Trayvon Martin references—which have nothing to do with police–in the rhetoric of pundits and activists.

It is because they have nothing to do with the police that I ignore the Trayvon Martin references.

It fails because it can’t explain, if the issue isn’t race, why white victims of excessive police force aren’t part of the discussion.

It’s black people who show up in large numbers at the protests, it’s black civil rights leaders who are leading the major protests, and the slogan is “black lives matter.” Of course the issue is race. I didn’t think anyone was trying to hide that.

The racial issues overlap with the issues of over-criminalization and police militarization, which are of considerable concern to those of us with libertarian leanings. There is some tension between the groups, with each side feeling that the other is addressing a side issue, but a consensus position might be that police have too much power and control over our lives, which they sometimes abuse, and that this is worse for blacks than for whites.

Most all, it fails because the underlying belief that the simple fact of a white individual taking action that results in negative consequences for an African-American is evidence of racism is racism itself.

It’s certainly not enough to prove racism, but it’s one of the requirements. More importantly, it’s not just about individuals taking action, it’s about the last 400 years of black people in America, at least 350 of which were pretty damned awful.

Further, police departments have a long history of racism. I don’t know if it’s worse than in society at large or if the racism in police departments is just scarier because cops hold positions of trust and authority. Studies generally show that black people are stopped by police more often, they’re searched more often, they’re arrested more often, they’re jailed more often, and they’re shot by cops more often. Even skeptics like John Lott admit there is some evidence to suggest that police disproportionately kill black people, and that comports with the reported experiences of black people. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio did not invent the idea of parents instructing their black children to be extra-careful around police officers.

(And lest you think that was all in our disgraceful past, black NYPD officers talk about how they’ve been treated by police when out of uniform.)

Now let me respond to a few other points…

“It’s not like the civil rights advocates, activists, journalists, and pundits are just making stuff up.”

Sure they are! They are made up the narrative that Brown was harmless, and used a photo that made him look like Gary Coleman.

What, any photo where he doesn’t look like a straight-up gangsta is a lie? So Jack, if the cops gun you down, which photo of you should they use? For me, I want this one:

Back to Jack:

They treated the “hands up” story, which came from Brown’s pal, as if it was fact. Then after it was shown to be unreliable, they continued to treat it as fact, and do to this day. I guess it doesn’t count as “making stuff up.”

The sentence Jack quotes about “making stuff up” was in response to his putting “police shooting unarmed black men” in scare quotes. My point was that the protesters were not making up the pattern of police shooting unarmed black men. There was solid factual basis to their accusations, in the form of a bunch of unarmed dead black guys.

That said, I will certainly concede that some of the activists are liars. In fact, maybe it will clear up a bunch of the conflict between Jack and I if I say that as long as we’re talking only about Al Sharpton, I don’t much disagree with his point. I’m old enough to remember Sharpton’s involvement in the Tawana Brawley mess, and while he seems to have mellowed since then (or just gotten more careful), that’s not saying much.

It might not be clear from my original post, but I’ve never been a Mike Brown true believer. From my very first post on the shooting of Mike Brown — before the grand jury report, before we knew the officer’s name, before we knew much more than that a cop had shot an unarmed black kid — I was saying the shooting might be justified, or at least an understandable. I haven’t read the grand jury report, but I gather from other people that it tends to confirm that the shooting was justified.

Personally, I think it’s been a mistake for those accusing police of racism to pin so much of it a single incident. on Darren Wilson’s shooting of Mike Brown, since the facts were far from clear. On the other hand, I don’t think it was unreasonable to question the shooting early on, and I don’t think it was unreasonable to accuse Wilson of some form of murder in the court of public opinion to keep the pressure on.

This brings me to what Jack calls my “second worst argument.” I wrote:

“However, Jack’s assertion that Michael Brown activists should not have made accusations before the investigation was complete is hypocritical nonsense. He is making that assertion in the middle of a post in which he accuses civil rights leaders and activists of creating the atmosphere that motivated cop killer Ismaaiyl Brinsley. In other words, just hours after the shooting — long before the NYPD investigation could possibly be complete — Jack claims to know who the murderer was, why he did it, and the identity of the people whose anti-cop rhetoric supposedly influenced him to do it. Jack is doing exactly the same thing he’s criticizing others for doing. The next time a cop kills an unarmed black man, should we hold Jack accountable for creating the conditions that made the cop fearful?”

Jack responds:

In the case of Wilson, he was publicly accused, with nothing but the testimony of Brown’s accomplice in crime and a proven liar, of executing an unarmed man who was in a position of surrender (that was after Darion Johnson abandoned his earlier claim that Brown was shot in the back, and that Wilson fired a final shot into him, execution style, as he lay on the ground). When I wrote about Ismaaiyl Brinsley, there was no substantial question that he was the killer, and the evidence of his Instagram message announcing his intent and motivation was online for all to see.

None of which contradicts my point that the investigation has not been completed. I was being a bit pedantic, but I stand by my point that Jack is drawing conclusions and assigning blame without knowing everything possible about the shooting, which is the same thing he complains about.

In any case, saying that the protesters in Ferguson should have waited until the investigation was complete is dodging the issue. Getting all the facts is important, but sometimes the people urging you to wait until the facts are in are the same people who are trying to keep you from ever getting the facts. The Ferguson police department went into “Our officer did nothing wrong, nothing to see here, move along before we gas you” mode almost immediately. Without the protests and press attention, I’m not convinced this would have ever gone to a grand jury.

Jack actually provides an example of this in his comment, when he mentions the killing by cops of a white guy named John Geer and wonders why no one is interested in that case. That’s a good question. That’s not the first suspicious police shooting in Fairfax County, Virginia, where authorities have refused to identify the officers involved or explain why the victims were killed. (Since I wrote that post, the officer who killed David Masters was identified and fired.) When a secretive group kills people in other countries, we call it a “death squad.” Although I don’t really think the Fairfax police are engaging in an organized murder campaign. It would be nice to not have to take their word for it.

Perhaps if protesters had taken to the streets after the killing of John Geer — before the investigation was complete and all the facts were in — we’d know more about what happened to him.

Jack is critical of black leadership for not doing exactly that — for not taking up the cause of unarmed white people killed by police under suspicious circumstances — but that just seems like a case of people choosing their own priorities. Black leaders are organized to fight for causes that affect black people, and about 95% of the young men killed by police are black. If we demand they expand the scope of their operation, then why not insist they also address the problems of Palestinians in Israel, or Shiites in Sunni-controlled territory (or vice-versa), or North Koreans in North Korea? (Or if they want to help black people, how about helping black people in Africa? Because really, if you want to help black people, forget marching in the protest line. Spend the same amount of time on a part time job and donate your earnings to fight African Malaria.) Better to let people choose their own priorities.

And he was already dead. I wasn’t contributing to the conviction by rumor of a man who hadn’t been yet shown to be guilty of anything, and would have to live with the results.

No living individual at risk? You don’t think Al Sharpton, Mayor de Blasio, Eric Holder, and Barack Obama aren’t getting a lot more death threats now that so many people are blaming them for two cops being killed? I’m sure there are nutcases out there who are forming feeble-minded plans to kill them. (Although, if history is our guide, if anyone does respond violently, they will more likely kill some random stand-in victim that is easier to get to, just as Brinsley did.)

This brings me to my worst argument, according to Jack. I wrote:

“This is not the first time Jack has criticized activists for claiming there was racial bias in the Michael Brown shooting when ‘there is no evidence of this at all.’ Technically speaking, Jack is plain wrong. As Jack more-or-less admits, the simple fact that a white police officer shot an unarmed black teenager is evidence of racial bias. It’s not very strong evidence, and it’s subject to interpretation and possible refutation by other evidence and testimony. But it’s still evidence.”

Jack responds:

I never “admitted” any such thing.

Crap, he’s right. I was referring to his statement that “There is no evidence that Brown or Garner, or other shooting victims like John Crawford or 12-year old Tamir Rice were shot because they were black, except that they were black,” which doesn’t quite get me where I thought it did. I’ll expand on this in a minute.

The fact that a white man ends up killing a black man is no evidence of racial bias at all, unless you believe, as the activists do, that whites are inherently racist.

There’s a little more to the evidence than that. Let’s restore a couple of details that Jack seems to think are irrelevant: (1) I wrote “white police officer” not just “white man,” and (2) I wrote that the black person was unarmed. So now Jack’s question should not be whether whites are inherently racist, but whether white police officers are inherently racist. Further, “inherently racist” is not how I would describe the police. Perhaps a more accurate phrase would be “historically racist.” I think that’s pretty much undisputed.

Put all that together, and here’s the worst-case description of what happened to Mike Brown: A member of a group with a history of racist violence, equipped with a sidearm, possibly body armor, and several non-lethal weapons, confronts an unarmed and comparatively vulnerable black man on the street, and despite having a car which can be used for either cover or escape, he gets out and chases the black man down the street and shoots him dead. We have a lot more details now, some of them very important, but I believe that is an accurate summary of what we knew when the story broke that weekend in Ferguson. Further, I don’t think anything in that version of the story is contradicted by anything Officer Wilson has said since.

Obviously, that is by no means a fair version of the story, but suspicions never are. If my wife were murdered by an unknown assailant, police would almost immediately suspect that I had killed her. They would begin investigating me, even if they had no particular reason to suspect me, purely because of the long history of husbands killing their wives. Without any other evidence, the mere fact of her death at the hand of another would be enough evidence to raise their suspicions against me, and those suspicions would guide their investigation. By similar reasoning, when a cop kills a black man, that alone is reason to take a careful, suspicious look at the incident.

Every homicide, including by police, is either an accident, self-defense, or murder. If a cop shoots a guy six times, we can rule out an accident, which makes it either self-defense or murder. Cops shoot lots of people in self-defense, so that seems like the most likely explanation. But given that the dead guy didn’t have a weapon (and lacking a definitive narrative), we should at least consider the possibility that it wasn’t self defense, which brings us to the question of motive. Why would a white cop murder a black guy? There’s whole list of possible reasons, but unless there’s some history between them, racism is right near the top.

Does a white judge sentence a black prisoner harshly? Racism. Does a white superior reprimand a black subordinate? Presumptive racism. Does a black candidate for a job fail to get hired by a white interviewer? Must be racism. A white cop gives a black driver a speeding ticket. Well, look at their colors, man! Racism! Is a white blogger convinced that a black President is a catastrophic, epic, tragic failure? Isn’t that racism? I’m told it is, almost every day.

Statistics matter. History matters. Is there a history of white judges sentencing blacks more harshly than whites? Does the white manager have a history of reprimanding black employees more than white ones? Does the interviewer have a history of rejecting qualified black candidates? Do the police have a history of using their discretion to ticket more blacks than whites? Does the blogger have a history of anti-black racism?

If that answer to any of these questions is “Yes,” that still doesn’t prove racism in a specific instance, but it’s a reason to take a closer look.

Merry Christmas!

Just a little local color:

Leaning Tower of Niles

Quicken, WTF?

The other day I was doing some household bills in Quicken, and I ran the update step to download data from all my financial institutions. Reviewing the charges on my main credit card, I spotted one that really stuck out from the rest: A $250 charge to

Uh, oh.

I’m a married man, and although I’ve never actually asked my wife her opinion, I’m pretty sure she’d frown on my dating other women. And I’m pretty sure wouldn’t let a married guy like me join. (That’s what Ashley Madison is for.)

In any case, I know I never setup a account. Apparently, someone had gotten ahold of my credit card number and was charging stuff to it. Oh man, this was going to be a mess. I’d have to cancel that card, and I’d been using it for everything (reward points, don’t you know). I’d have to change it on a couple of dozen web sites at least, and hope I didn’t miss something important, like my phone or internet bill.

As I was logging into the credit card website to get contact numbers and take a look at the account, I started to wonder why they had charged I’m pretty sure professional credit card thieves will buy stuff that’s easy to fence, like consumer electronics, jewelry, or car parts. Amateurs might buy something just to have it, but what could they do with a account? If they actually tried to use it, it would be easy for authorities to catch them — just make a date. It didn’t make sense.

I wanted to have a list of fraudulent transactions before calling, so I pulled up the list of pending transactions on the website to see if there was anything else suspicious. There wasn’t. And as it turns out, there was no charge from either.

Quicken has this feature for importing data from financial institutions where it renames the often somewhat confusing merchant identification to something more user-friendly. So, for example, it will rename “Shell Gas #3486″ to just “Shell Gas.” That’s easier to read, and if I happen to stop at five different Shell gas stations, it conveniently groups them under a single payee. Generally, it’s helpful.

In this case, however, I had recently donated money through my employer’s corporate matching program, and they outsource the administration to a company that runs a website called For some reason, Quicken thought that “EASYMATCH.COM DONATION” should be changed to (Their online service,, does the same thing.)

So, false alarm. Whew. But dammit, Quicken, that wasn’t smart at all.

Of Protesters and Cop Killers

On Saturday in New York City, 28-year-old Ismaaiyl Brinsley reportedly shot and killed police officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu while they were sitting in their patrol car. This tragic shooting has quickly become politically charged because it happened amid nationwide protests against police violence in the wake of several controversial shootings shootings of unarmed black people. Brinsley killed himself, so nobody can ask him why he did it, but there is apparently some evidence that he believed he was avenging those killings. The story is still developing.

I knew there would be people who would take Brinsley’s reputed motive and use it to smear protesters and activists who had spoken out against police abuse. I wanted to write about that, so I looked to one of my better sources of stuff to blog about, Jack Marshall at Ethics Alarms, and he did not disappoint. [Update: An earlier draft of this post included several examples of people smearing activists, but the post was getting so long that I deleted them, and through carelessness I ended up with this paragraph that basically calls Jack’s post a “smear,” which is a bit too far. However much I disagree with Jack, his post was a legitimate opinion piece. Sorry, Jack.] He has posted some observations about the shooting that I’d like to respond to.

1. The dangerous escalation of rhetoric and the persistent misrepresentation of facts by civil rights advocates, activists, journalists and pundits made this kind of episode nearly inevitable. You cannot flood the airwaves with constant references to “police shooting unarmed black men” as if there was an organized racist liquidation of blacks by police in the streets and not risk sparking violence from the hysterical, the deranged, the angry, the lawless and the desperate.

There wouldn’t be constant references to police shooting unarmed black men if police were not, in fact, shooting unarmed black men. Michael Brown, John Crawford, Ezell Ford, Tamir Rice, Rumain Brisbon, Dante Parker, Eric Garner, Akai Gurley. All African Americans, all reportedly unarmed, all killed by police. (Police killed Parker and Garner by means other than shooting, and Rice was too young to be called a man, but neither of those things makes it better.) Some of the killings may have been justified, or at least understandable, but they were killings of unarmed black men nonetheless. It’s not like the civil rights advocates, activists, journalists, and pundits are just making stuff up.

2. The irresponsible “hands up” protests did not cause these deaths, but they probably helped create the conditions that led to them. The shootings of the two NYPD police don’t make the false “hands up” lie—which continues to assert that Michael Brown was executed when the evidence indicates he was not, and that there was racial bias involved, when there is no evidence of this at all—any more unethical, reckless or irresponsible than it already was. It was wrong from the beginning. It was wrong to assert these things before what happened in Ferguson had been investigated, and it was wrong to keep asserting them after it was clear that they were unsubstantiated or false.

Jack might have a point about “hands up” now. Although most witnesses do say his hands were up, there’s a reasonable argument that it was a posture of attack, not surrender. And since the grand jury declined to indict Wilson, suggesting that they found the shooting to be justified, it seems likely that they didn’t believe Brown was surrendering.

However, Jack’s assertion that Michael Brown activists should not have made accusations before the investigation was complete is hypocritical nonsense. He is making that assertion in the middle of a post in which he accuses civil rights leaders and activists of creating the atmosphere that motivated cop killer Ismaaiyl Brinsley. In other words, just hours after the shooting — long before the NYPD investigation could possibly be complete — Jack claims to know who the murderer was, why he did it, and the identity of the people whose anti-cop rhetoric supposedly influenced him to do it. Jack is doing exactly the same thing he’s criticizing others for doing. The next time a cop kills an unarmed black man, should we hold Jack accountable for creating the conditions that made the cop fearful?

I think the answer is obvious: Of course not. Jack is entirely justified in commenting on this incident. Vigorous discussion of matters of public interest is not just allowable in our free society, it is necessary for the proper functioning of a democratic government. By discussing these issues, Jack is being a good citizen, as are the people who are criticizing the police.

3. The response to the shootings by those who have continued to suggest racist murder by police in specific incidents absent any proof, and in Brown’s death, in defiance of the known evidence, continues the theme. Al Sharpton, who is a prime offender, wrote..

“I am outraged at the killing of 2 police officers in Brooklyn. That is why we stress non violence as the only way to fight for justice.”

Despicable. “Justice,” in this context, suggests that the killings are in response to injustice, and that the injustice is the intentional and racist killing of unarmed black men.

How much do you have to hate Al Sharpton to get angry at him for denouncing the use of violence against police? Geez.

Sharpton’s use of “justice” of late is well-publicized: “Justice for Mike Brown, ” “Justice for Eric Garner,” Justice for Trayvon.”  This phrasing, setting off the murders of the police with “fight for justice” continues the lies, misrepresentations and manipulation of public opinion, especially among African Americans. There is no evidence that Brown or Garner, or other shooting victims like John Crawford or 12-year old Tamir Rice were shot because they were black, except that they were black, which for Sharpton and others like Eric Holder, is enough.

This is not the first time Jack has criticized activists for claiming there was racial bias in the Michael Brown shooting when “there is no evidence of this at all.” Technically speaking, Jack is plain wrong. As Jack more-or-less admits, the simple fact that a white police officer shot an unarmed black teenager is evidence of racial bias. It’s not very strong evidence, and it’s subject to interpretation and possible refutation by other evidence and testimony. But it’s still evidence.

In addition, shortly after Brown was shot, several alleged eyewitnesses claimed that Wilson shot at Brown’s back, and that Brown’s hands were raised in surrender. These witness statements are evidence too. They are subject to interpretation, impeachment, and refutation, of course, but remember that these statements were undisputed by any other public witnesses for months. (There were some accounts of witnesses making contradicting claims in private statements, but these were second- or third-hand, not on-the-record statements to the press.)

Granted, even if Wilson had shot Brown in the back as he was fleeing, that wouldn’t prove a racial bias — he could have murdered him for some other reason — but it’s not an unreasonable inference. More generally, just because Wilson wasn’t shouting the N-word while shooting a fleeing Mike Brown in the back and wearing a “White Power” T-shirt doesn’t mean that the incident was entirely free of racial bias.

Jack seems to be laboring under a common misunderstanding of what activists are complaining about when it comes to police treatment of black people. Activists are not accusing police of a coordinated conspiracy to murder helpless black people. And for the most part, they’re not even saying that the individual police officers who killed unarmed black men did so to fulfill their desire to murder a black guy. They realize that even the Ferguson police are not the KKK.

(Of course, some people have said these things — the world is full of people saying stupid things — but that’s not the thrust of the main activist movement. Likewise, there certainly have been cops who probably murdered black people out of racial hatred, but those aren’t the people that most police supporters are defending.)

The main accusation against police is not that they are racially-motivated murderers, but that as former FBI agent William W. Turner wrote in The Police Establishment in 1968, “Since its inception, the police establishment has conducted itself more as the agent of the power structure than the servant of a pluralistic society.” Here in the U.S., that tends to play out along racial lines.

In white neighborhoods, police see their role as protectors of the community, cracking down on criminals who would disrupt the peace and harm the good citizens. But in black neighborhoods, so the argument goes, police see their role as keeping the population under control. Thus black people have stories of being questioned while sitting on the stoop of their own homes, or of being stopped for walking with their hands suspiciously in their pockets, or of being ordered to disburse for daring to gather in small groups on the street corners. In the past few months, police in Ferguson arrested black people for stopping while walking on the sidewalk and tear-gassed black people standing in their own fenced-in yards.

Activists argue that this disregard for black people makes cops less hesitant to escalate the level of force. If Tamir Rice had been a white 12-year-old boy instead of a black one, would Cleveland police officer Timothy Loehmann and his partner have approached the scene in a way that gave them more time to assess the situation instead of driving right up to Rice and jumping out to shoot him? If John Crawford had been a white guy carrying a toy gun through Walmart, would the cop who shot him have given him more of a chance to explain himself and surrender instead of shooting him almost immediately?

If Eric Garner had been an overweight white guy like me instead of an overweight black guy, would New York police have taken his complaints about not being able to breath a little more seriously? If Michael Brown had been a white teenager, would Officer Wilson have made the same decision to chase him down the street, knowing that he would have to kill Brown if he resisted arrest? If Ezell Ford had been a mentally ill white man, would police have struggled to control him long enough for help to arrive instead of shooting him?

You don’t have to be a cop hater to think that in at least a few of these cases, things would have turned out differently if the cops had been dealing with white people. That is the essence of the general complaint about racial bias by the police. That is why protesters say black lives matter.

Each of these is also a separate case in which “justice” is a complicated mess of facts and law, with no societal conclusions to be drawn or clarified by considering them together.

That’s true for criminal cases, which must be considered in isolation. But it’s not true for broader concepts of justice when considered as a matter of public policy. In policy analysis, patterns matter. Medical science does not allow us to determine which particular cigarette gave a smoker lung cancer, but we know damned well that smoking causes cancer. Just because we can’t point to a specific cop who killed a black man and say with certainty that it is a racially-motivated murder doesn’t mean that we can’t observe the pattern of cops killing unarmed black men and say that there’s something damned wrong going on.

Similarly, Ferguson protest leader Deray McKesson tweeted…

“I do not condone the killing of the two NYPD officers today. I do not condone the killing of unarmed black people. I do not condone killing.”

Also despicable. He, like the alleged shooter Brinsley, is drawing a false equivalence between what may be legal shootings by police unrelated to color and the killing of the two officers, who were not black, in response.

Jack’s reaction to this is just unhinged. McKesson and Sharpton are both denouncing the killing of police officers. They are saying that killing cops does not serve their cause. And in Jack’s mind, this is linking the police killings to the cause in some sort of false equivalence.

Granted, the cold blooded murder of officers Ramos and Liu is a terrible crime, without question. But some of the things police officers are being accused of are pretty terrible too, even if they don’t quite rise to the level of first degree murder. As Jack points out, the police killings may in fact be legal, but then again, they may not be. (Officer Peter Liang, for example, looks like he might do time for killing Akai Gurley, although that crime doesn’t seem to have any racial component.)

And even if the killings are legal, that doesn’t mean they’re morally right. Lots of terrible things that people do to other people are perfectly legal and yet terribly wrong. This is an argument not that these things are acceptable, but that the laws should be changed.

Another point is that McKesson and Sharpton are not the ones who linked the cop killings to their cause. That was done by everybody from Governor Pataki to former Mayor Giuliani to the head of the NYPD union. Activists like McKesson, Sharpton, and the rest are responding to that by saying they oppose violence against the police as much as they oppose violence against black people. This does not seem like a bad thing.

5. The deaths of police officers in the wake of the ongoing, high-profile campaign to demonize police and the justice system for political advantage were predictable.

It’s always possible that rhetoric will incite crazy people to do terrible things. But censoring yourself because of how a crazy person might respond is a madness of a different kind. No one would ever be able to change anything if they took responsibility for how everyone in the world might react to what they say. That’s no way to live your life.

And if you want to talk about the consequences of rhetoric, the police union appears to have circulated a memo saying that the NYPD is now a “wartime” police department. Remember that the next time an NYPD cop shoots someone.

More such deaths are also likely, unless the rhetoric from civil rights and political leaders becomes responsible and fairly represents the facts and the law. Public figures, activists and journalists who continue  the “hands up” lie or who link Garner, Crawford, Rice, Brown and Trayvon Martin in a manufactured conspiracy of the justice system to profile and kill unarmed black men are accountable for what happens next.

Jack, the activists are saying there’s systemic racial bias and injustice; you’re the one who’s created the strawman of a racist conspiracy.

Further, as with most social movements, unrest in Ferguson started at the bottom, with people from the neighborhood taking to the streets the evening of Michael Brown’s shooting. Sharpton and other national civil rights leaders didn’t show up until later. (A cynical person might even say that they saw a chance to get in front of something that they could use.) When you portray the protesters as blindly following the rhetoric of political leaders like Sharpton, instead of admitting that they might be reacting to their own lived experience, you are denying the agency of thousands of people. We saw the same thing in the 1960’s, when establishment apologists sought to blame black unrest on agitators and communists (really) rather than admit that millions of black people were angry because there was something sick about the way our society treated them.

Experts and Quackery

Over at Ethics Alarms, Jack Marshall is blogging about a recent British Medical Journal study of TV medical talk shows which found that, basically, Dr. Oz is talking out of his ass. Jack makes a good point, but this throw-away line caught my eye:

For some reason medical experts have waited over a decade to actually check out the snake oil Dr. Oz has been selling to credulous viewers…

That’s an interesting phenomenon that I’ve observed before. Many experts seem to be so thoroughly immersed in the framework of their fields that related quackery doesn’t seem relevant to what they do. I imagine it just seems so obviously wrong that they don’t even think of it as part of their field, which is why astronomers don’t spend much time debunking astrology and lawyers don’t feel the need to address the problems with redemption theory. I guess doctors don’t give much thought to TV medical advice because they don’t see it as relevant to the practice of medicine.

Thinking About Lethal Force – Part 3

This is my third post in a series of ruminations about lethal force. Part 1 discussed the basics of what might or might not be self defense, and in Part 2 I discussed how participants and witnesses report and distort what happens, and in this part, I’ll be exploring how the news gets out, and what we do with it.


In most cases of lethal force, not only do we not know what happened, we don’t even have access to anyone who knows what happened. All we get are accounts passed to us by news reporters, editorial writers, bloggers, and acquaintances. As I’ve tried to show, these incidents can get very complicated once you take into account the ethics of lethal force, subjective perceptions, and the possibility that people are lying. Meanwhile, news stories necessarily have to economize on detail, because there’s limited space and limited time to write. Therefore it’s highly unlikely that any of our sources of information will pass along every detail we need to know.

Furthermore, the people telling the story are also subject to all the same distorting influences as the witnesses: They could make mistakes interpreting witness accounts, they could misremember witness accounts, or they could spin the story (or outright lie) to serve their own agenda. Even if they try to keep everything straight, they’re bound to make mistakes, and they’re bound to distort the account based on their own interpretation.

The same thing will happen all over again when people read these stories and pass them on, comment on them, or write blog posts about them (and don’t even get me started on Twitter). It ends up being like a game of telephone, except that instead of passing the message along in a line, from one person to the next, it’s more like something happens to people in the center and information about it radiates outward along multiple interweaving paths. Each person in the information flow receives different stories from different people at different times.

Further, as they receive each piece, they can either adjust their mental model of what happened to accommodate the new information, or they can reject the new information because it seems unlikely to be true, based on the model they have so far. In this way, everybody comes to believe a different version of the story, and they will interpret new information based on the framework established by that story.


That we all have different ideas of what really happened is a big problem when we start to argue about what it means. It’s hard to have a discussion about right and wrong, crime and punishment, when we don’t agree on the facts. It’s doubly hard when we don’t realize that we’re all working from different mental models of the main incident.

I first noticed this several decades ago, back before the internet was everyone’s source of news, as I watched the story of one such incident dribble out in a series of small revelations. I can’t remember enough details to look it up, so I’m certainly misremembering it, but I’m offering it as an example of a phenomenon, not to discuss the specifics of the incident. The series of revelations, in the order I encountered them, went something like this:

  • A drunk guy visiting a friend late at night accidentally went to the wrong house and was yelling and pounding on the back door when the homeowner shot and killed him. To me, it was hard to see how the homeowner could possibly be in reasonable fear for his life, so this sounded like some kind of murder.
  • The homeowner said he thought the guy was trying to break in. Burglary is not a reason to kill someone, but a guy breaking into the house while you’re there might justify lethal force. However, it was difficult to agree with the homeowner’s perception, since pounding and yelling aren’t really a break-in.
  • Before pounding and yelling on the back door, the guy had rung the front doorbell. Presumably he thought his friend was asleep, so after the doorbell didn’t work, he went around back to try to get his attention. Some people argued that burglars never do that, but I had heard that ringing the doorbell was a great way to find out if a house is unoccupied without doing anything clearly illegal. If the homeowner answers, just say you must have the wrong address and walk away. Or if you’re the violent type, ringing the bell gets the homeowner to open the door for you, so you don’t have to risk attracting attention by breaking in. This information seemed to cut either way in terms of fault.
  • The most damning detail to come out was that the homeowner shot the guy through the back door. This seems indefensible. You’re never supposed to shoot without identifying your target, and you have no idea what’s on the other side of the door — what if a neighbor came over to investigate the noise and was standing behind the guy? What if the guy knocking had a child with him? You just don’t know. Shooting through the door was terribly reckless and made it seem more like a murder of some kind.
  • At least until it came out that the back door was a screen door. The homeowner heard noises from the back of the house and went to investigate. He didn’t just find someone pounding and kicking the door. He found someone punching and kicking through the screen into the house, while he was standing there with the gun in his hand. No wonder he shot.

This was actually a fairly simple story, and yet many of the people discussing this story, including the news media, weren’t used to thinking about the issues involved in lethal force, and they had missed a bunch of important points, including the final detail that changed everything. And as these points came out, arguments kept erupting over the incident, often between people working from different versions of what happened.

Laura hears that Alice shot Bob after he broke into her house in the middle of the night, and based on that, Laura concludes that Alice justifiably shot Bob in self-defense and should not be charged with a crime. Natalie hears that Alice shot Bob after inviting him over, and based on that, Natalie concludes that Alice murdered Bob and deserves to go to jail. They have both reached reasonable yet incompatible conclusions based on what they know.

It seems like a simple misunderstanding that could be cleared up with a little discussion, but it’s simple human nature that once we have staked out our positions, we become resistant to considering alternatives, even if the evidence for them is pretty good. Confirmation bias and other phenomenon make us resistant to changing out minds and accepting new evidence, even if the evidence from which we formed our initial opinion is proving increasingly shaky. Further, the strength of our belief makes it difficult to consider that other people may have reasonably interpreted the situation very differently.

When these people get into arguments with each other over the incident, the difference in conclusions is simple and obvious, but people’s internal mental models of what happened are hidden, so folks on each side have trouble understanding how people on the other side could reach a different conclusion, and they often misattribute those conclusions to ignorance, prejudice, or anti-social values rather than recognizing that different assumptions are in play.

If Laura and Natalie hear each other’s conclusions without hearing the reasons for them, they’ll conclude bad things about each other. Laura will be appalled that Natalie wants Alice to go to jail for shooting a home invader — she may accuse Natalie of coddling criminals or believing men should be able to attack women without consequences. Natalie, on the other hand, will be appalled that Laura believes that murderers like Alice should go free — she may accuse Laura of coddling criminals or believing that women should be able to gun down men without consequences.

We’ve seen this sort of thing happen in Ferguson, with the shooting of Mike Brown by Darren Wilson. Some people see an unarmed black kid gunned down by a white policeman and conclude that anyone who doesn’t think the cop belongs in jail must be a black-hating racist who thinks it’s okay for cops to gun down black people in the streets. They want justice for Mike Brown.

While there are certainly some racists who feel that way, I think it’s safe to say that many of Wilson’s supporters simply don’t believe that narrative about the encounter. They think Mike Brown viciously attacked Darren Wilson and tried to grab his gun, presumably to kill him, and then when Darren Wilson tried to arrest him, Brown attacked again and Wilson shot to defend himself. They think Brown’s supporters are just white-hating racists making excuses for black violence, or attention-seekers trying to drum up trouble out of ulterior motives. And while there are certainly some people doing just that, I think it’s safe to say that many of Brown’s supporters simply don’t think he attacked Officer Wilson.

It’s hard to understand other people’s arguments when you don’t realize you’re not arguing about the same thing.

Interlude: The Police

Shootings by police officers have been in the news a lot lately, and they’ve touched off a lot of controversy, especially when the police shoot unarmed black males. For the most part, I think we should analyze police shootings the same as any other, but there are a few special considerations.

For one thing, police get a lot of training in how to handle potentially violent encounters, and this training affects their perceptions and the conditions under which they fear for their lives. For example, a police officer may have been trained that an assailant with a knife who is within 20 feet can stab him faster than he can draw a gun, so he’s likely to regard someone 15 feet away with a knife as a deadly threat, and he can likely point to his training as the reason he was in fear for his life.

Also, police follow a departmental use-of-force policy, which specifies when and how officers can use different degrees of force, up to and including deadly force. So officers may escalate their level of violence according to training or departmental policy rather than according to what a reasonable non-police-officer would do.

In addition, we expect police to actively fight crime. This means that we expect them to look for trouble, and when they find it, we expect them to stand their ground rather than try to run away. That would be suspicious or troublesome in an ordinary citizen, but for a police officer, that’s the job. We actually expect police to make arrests. This necessarily involves laying hands on people. It’s a violent act that would be called battery and kidnapping if anyone else did it. As a society, we want police to do this violence to protect us from bad people who would harm us, so acts that would cause other people to lose their right of self defense are often acceptable when done by a police officer.

On the other hand, just because police are carrying out a public service mission in accordance with their societal role, training, and departmental policy doesn’t magically eliminate the social costs of what they do. Having people with guns who are looking for trouble, standing their ground, and grabbing people off the street to lock them up in cages is still a form of harm to the people they are doing it to, even if they are criminals.

When police officers hurt people according to departmental guidelines, that doesn’t mean that it’s okay. It just changes the discussion from a question of personal ethics to a question of public policy. Instead of asking if the cops are bad people, we need to ask if the cops are following bad policies.

Just because the cops were doing what they were told doesn’t mean the policy, the mission, and the training aren’t wrongheaded, unethical, or downright evil. Just because police departments theoretically serve the needs of the society they’re embedded in doesn’t mean they aren’t up to no good. Like all institutions, they will serve their own needs, which may conflict with the public good.

For example, police conduct tens of thousands of drug raids every year, and on some of those raids the officers mistakenly kill an innocent person. The mistakes may be honest mistakes — the police thought they saw a gun, or they thought they were taking fire — so we might conclude that the officer did nothing deserving punishment, nothing that we’d call evil. At the same time, we might also conclude that staging a series of drug raids that carry the risk of killing innocent people is a policy that does more harm than good.

I’m almost done with this subject, but I think I have one more post in me.

Not the Norks

In response to threats apparently coming from hackers in North Korea, Sony pictures has withdrawn their movie The Interview from a Christmas release. Several major theater chains had already backed out, and Sony seems to have given in, possibly after being weakened by the earlier release of hacked proprietary data.

I’ve already made it pretty clear in a different context that I’m not impressed with anonymous online threats. However, if Sony has decided to take a hit to their revenue over this movie, my suggestion is that they give the North Koreans a taste of the Streisand effect and release the movie for free online to everyone, thus making it one of the most widely-seen movies of the year. That will teach the North Korean thugs a lesson.


I’m not buying it. I don’t think the Sony hack is a North Korean cyberwar effort, and I don’t think the threats are either. I’m inclined to agree with Marc Rogers that it’s a disgruntled Sony insider.

3. It’s clear from the hard-coded paths and passwords in the malware that whoever wrote it had extensive knowledge of Sony’s internal architecture and access to key passwords. While it’s plausible that an attacker could have built up this knowledge over time and then used it to make the malware, Occam’s razor suggests the simpler explanation of an insider. It also fits with the pure revenge tact that this started out as. […]

6. Whoever is doing this is VERY net and social media savvy. That, and the sophistication of the operation, do not match with the profile of DPRK up until now. […]

7. Finally, blaming North Korea is the easy way out for a number of folks, including the security vendors and Sony management who are under the microscope for this. […]

8. It probably also suits a number of political agendas to have something that justifies sabre-rattling at North Korea, which is why I’m not that surprised to see politicians starting to point their fingers at the DPRK also.

Somewhere, I saw that a North Korean defector was claiming the country has a cyberwar team with 1800 people. Maybe. But the North Korean government has a habit of telling lies that make them look good. This could just be someone trying to look important.

Then again, from what we know about the hack, Sony didn’t exactly have a robust security culture, so I don’t suppose it took a huge team to run the attack.

Anyway, for whatever it’s worth, my prediction is that the attacks and threats will turn out to be from somewhere a lot closer to home.

(By the way, apropos of nothing, but because I looked it up, with $66 billion in annual revenue, Sony corporation contributes about 1.5 times as much to world GDP as all of North Korea.)

Some Tortured Thoughts

Well, the CIA torture report is out. And for the record, it’s pretty depressing that I now live in the kind of country that has a torture report.

I’d heard about some of this stuff before, but some of the details are shocking. The rectal feeding, for example, is not a normal medical procedure, and using that route to get nutrition into the body is inefficient. It seems to have been done solely to humiliate and dominate the victims. So “rectal feeding” is something of a euphemism, something of an excuse. There’s a more accurate word to describe the act of penetrating a person’s anus without their consent: Rape.

It’s dismaying that one of the most hotly contested topics during he whole torture era has been, “Does torture work?” I mean, it’s torture for God’s sake! When Zero Dark Thirty came out, depicting American CIA officers using torture, our reaction should have been outrage at the CIA. Instead, critics argued that filmmakers had been swayed by the CIA into depicting the torture as having been useful in the hunt for Osama bin Laden. It’s a bit like arguing whether American slavery contributed to GDP growth. It kind of misses the point.

But I understand. If torture works, if it really saves lives, then those of us who are morally opposed to using it are arguably saying those lives should be sacrificed to satisfy our moral intuitions. It’s a lot to ask.

Fortunately, there’s not much conflict, because torture mostly doesn’t work. I say “mostly,” because I think that torture can produce useful information when interrogators are trying to extract a specific piece of actionable information that they can check on, such as “Where is your weapons cache in this town?” or “Where are you supposed to meet with the others?”

That sort of specificity is what leads every torture proponent to confront opponents with that staple scenario from TV movie plots, the ticking time bomb: “What if a terrorist had planted a nuclear bomb in New York City? Are you saying you still wouldn’t torture him?” My response to that is that yes, I would be willing to make an exception for nuclear terrorism. In the unlikely event that anything like this ever happens, sure, go ahead and torture him to find out how to disarm it. But first, according to summaries of the report, we’ve tortured 39 people in the war on terror. Now show me 39 bombs or shut the fuck up.

The thing is, that torture scenario isn’t very common, and as soon as the prisoner’s confederates discover he’s been captured, they’ll begin changing the rally points and moving the weapons dump. So there’s only a short period of time where torturing information from someone could do any good. Even then, there’s little historical evidence that torture will produce more information or produce it faster than conventional interrogation techniques.

Historically, torture has really only proven useful for getting people to confess and to name other conspirators. And as the long history of torture demonstrates, torture victims will do both of those things without regard for the truth. Torture someone until they confess to a crime, and they will confess to any crime. Torture people until they name co-conspirators, and they will name anyone a co-conspirator.

Torture apologists say that a lot of useful intelligence has been obtained that way, but they can’t tell us about it because of the need for secrecy. Yet whenever the details come out about some situation where torture supposedly produced useful intelligence, it always seems to turn out that torture didn’t really help. I can’t see why anyone should ever take these people at their word — not without rock solid evidence. Show us the proof or shut the fuck up.

Ideally, what I’d like to see come out of the torture is indictments. Start with the people who actually did the torturing. Normally, unlike conventional thinking on the issue, I feel that “just following orders” is actually a pretty good defense. In all but the most egregious scenarios, it’s unfair to expect every low-level grunt to perform the legal analysis necessary to determine if their orders are legal. It’s their commander’s job to make that determination, and the troops have a right to expect that it will be done correctly.

However, the CIA is a civilian agency, so it’s agents don’t have orders, not the way the military does. CIA operatives just have stuff their boss told them to do. If my boss told me to torture someone, I would tell him to get stuffed, and I don’t see any reason CIA employees couldn’t do the same if they wanted to. So I say indict them, get them to flip on the people who gave the orders, and then follow up the organizational tree as far as it goes.

Given that even the Democrats — especially the Obama administration — have been unwilling to investigate and prosecute the Bush-era torturers, I don’t hold out a lot of hope that anyone will go to jail. (Except for whistle blowers, of course.) I suspect the best we can hope to get out of this is the truth: Name those responsible for torture, and tell us what they did.

We might as well start with James Elmer Mitchell and John Bruce Jessen, the pair of psychologists that somehow managed to make a fortune by running the interrogation program. We need to make an example of these guys. It’s bad enough that we have a military-industrial complex and a prison-industrial complex. If we don’t stop the torture-industrial complex, we’re probably doomed.

My Photography Day Bag

Original photography has been a part of this blog for almost ten years. If you’ve met me in real life, then probably at some point you’ve seem me carrying around my camera bag. I thought some of my readers — especially other amateur photographers interested in the kind of photos I take — might find it interesting to see what I’ve been carrying around all that time.

My camera day kit, all packed into a Tamrac Velocity 8 bag, with filter case and optional extra lens case.
Camera Day Kit

The bag itself is a Tamrac Velocity 8 sling bag. I like it because I can throw it over my shoulder for easy carrying, but when I need to get something out of it, I can swing it around to the front and it hangs with the top up for easy access. I tried a few other solutions, but this was the one that has worked best for me, and I’ve been happy with it for years. It’s out of production now, but Tamrac appears to have replaced it with an updated model.

The bag has side mounting straps for accessories, and you can see a small filter bag mounted on the right. I also sometimes bring a spare lens bag, shown separately on the left here.

Inside the main bag, the one indispensable part of my day kit sits right on top:

My Nikon D200 at the top of my Tamrac Velocity 8 bag.
D200 At the Top

That’s a Nikon D200 DSLR. It has a DX-size imaging sensor, which is about the size of a small postage stamp. It’s about 1/3 smaller than the FX-sized sensor, which is the size of a traditional frame of 35-mm film, but it’s several times larger than the sensor in the compact point-and-shoot camera I upgraded from, and much larger than the sensor in my iPhone. The sensor is 10 megapixels, which isn’t much by today’s standards — compact cameras have 12 to 20 MP, and the new iPhones are 8MP — but it was pretty good at the time, and the larger pixels allow each photosite to collect more light, which makes the sensor more sensitive than a compact camera and better able to take photos in low light. Also, for the kinds of shooting I do, 10 MP is more than enough.

The D200 was what’s sometimes called a “prosumer” camera — filling the gap between the entry-level DSLR cameras and the high-end professional gear. Generally speaking, the more professional cameras don’t produce better pictures, but they allow photographers to get good pictures in a broader range of conditions. Among other things, they operate more quickly allowing photographers to time photos better, and since everything that moves under electric power involves magnets, faster cameras have bigger magnets, mostly in motors, meaning professional cameras are heavier. They’re also more durable, with weather sealing and hard metal cases, adding to the weight. The D200 was not Nikon’s largest camera, but it’s pretty hefty.

My Nikon D200 camera with AF-S 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 G ED DX lens.
Nikon D200 Back View

You might think all those buttons would be intimidating, but they’re just another way to speed up photography. Most of them don’t do anything you can’t do with all but the cheapest cameras, but when I want to change a setting, I just push a button and turn a dial instead of hunting through several layers of menus. Not that the D200 doesn’t have a lot of menus for customization. If a photographer knows he’s going to be shooting one kind of photo for a while, he can set the camera up to make it easier and faster.

My Nikon D200 camera with AF-S 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 G ED DX lens, Op/Tech Pro neck strap and Tamrac wrist strap.
Nikon D200 Front View

Although DSLR cameras allow you to swap lenses, I took almost all of my photos with the lens you see here, Nikon’s AF-S 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 G ED VR lens. It’s not a high-quality pro lens, but it sure has a versatile focal length — it’s a “street zoom,” intended for unplanned photography where you might take wide shots and telephoto shots one after another, and it would be inconvenient to change lenses. It does occasionally creep the focal length in and out from the weight of the elements when I tilt it far off the horizontal. Nevertheless, I’ve really put it to work, and if you want a great all-in-one lens for DX format, I highly recommend it. I’ve heard that the modern version is just as good, and it fixes the lens creep problem.

This photo also shows my Op/Tech Pro neck strap and a separate Tamrac hand strap. I’m paranoid about fumbling the camera. It’s tough, but a 4- or 5-foot drop onto concrete would probably break it.

Nikon EN-EL3e batteries and Calument replacement.
Camera Batteries

All those big motors and fancy electronics use a lot of power, so I keep several recently charged Nikon EN-EL3 batteries in the bag. I see one of these is actually a knock-off battery from the late great ill-fated Calumet Photographic. They were located in Chicago, and I live a few miles from their Cherry Avenue store.

Lexar 2 GB Compact Flash Cards
Memory Cards

I also carry a pack of memory cards, in addition to the one that’s always in the camera. At the time, professional photographers overwhelmingly used the Compact Flash format cards, which are rather large. I didn’t think to put something in there for scale, but to give you an idea, the folded-up case is just a little smaller than an iPhone 4.

These cards are made by Lexar, which at the time was considered one of the few brands reliable enough for professional photographers. Note that each card was a whopping 2 Gigabytes. Shooting high quality JPEGs, I could put about 425 images on each one, and I have on occasion filled all of them (burning through several batteries in the process). Cards that small are dirt cheap these days, but you don’t want to know how much I paid back then.

Nikon SB-800 speedlight with diffuser.
Nikon SB-800 Flash

Next to the camera and lens, the most important item in my kit is the external flash, a Nikon SB-800 speedlight. I almost never use the camera’s built-in flash. It’s comparatively weak, and since it’s located so close to the lens it tends to flatten images and when shooting people it exacerbates red eye. Having the flash head a little higher seems to help. The head also tilts and swivels, allowing me to bounce light off parts of the room to light the subject broadly from an angle that makes the 3D shape stand out more in a 2D image.

Like all of Nikon’s modern flash units, the SB-800 participates in the Creative Lighting System, which means that the units can be controlled remotely by other flash units, including the built-in flash on Nikon cameras. When configured correctly, they participate in Through-The-Lens metering and can be programmed to provide different levels of exposure in the image. I have a few more of these speedlights that I can bring along in a separate bag if I need to.

The flash is pictured here with its built-in bounce card extended. The bounce card is handy when I’m photographing a person and I’m bouncing the light off the ceiling. It catches some of the light right at the flash head and throws it directly at the subject, giving their eyes a bit of a sparkle.

Also in the picture is the diffusion dome, which can be used to scatter light around the room, so the subject picks up natural looking light from all directions.

Firing Nikon SB-800 speedlight with base and extra batteries.
Flash With Base and Batteries

The flash uses a lot of power, so I always carry emergency batteries that will allow me to keep shooting if I use up the batteries inside. Although these are Alkaline batteries, I normally operate the flash on rechargeable batteries to keep costs down. I use Alkaline batteries as spares, however, because the rechargeable battery chemistry of the day did not allow for batteries that could keep their charge for months of sitting in a camera bag.

The bulge on the left is an attachment to hold a fifth battery, which makes the speedlight capacitor charge faster between flashes, at the expense of bulk and weight. I can’t help noticing, however, that the number of batteries I’ve been carry around lately is not a multiple of 5.

I also carry a stand for the flash in case I want to set it up somewhere and trigger it remotely from the camera. I almost never do that with this unit, although I do sometime use additional standing flash units to add more light.

Firing Nikon SB-800 speedlight with base and mini softbox.
Flash With Mini Softbox

I also carry a folding miniature LumiQuest soft box to soften the harsh shadows caused by direct flash. It greatly reduces the distance at which the flash is effective, so I only use it in special cases.

Cable for Off-Camera Flash

I carry around this cable so I can take the flash off the hot shoe on the camera. I mostly use it with the flash bracket (coming next), but I can also use it to hand-hold the flash further away from the camera.

Really Right Stuff flash bracket, orbiting tilt mount and nodal slide rail.
Flash Bracket Assembly

Here are the parts of the flash bracket assembly, consisting of the round flash bracket itself, the orbiting tilt mount used to hold the flash, and the nodal slide rail used to mount the bracket to the camera. Disassembled like this, the bracket ring fits in the side pocket of the bag, and the other two parts fit into one of the internal compartments.

Upside down Nikon D200 to show attached Really Right Stuff L-plate.
L-Plate On D200

That photo shows the L-bracket I keep permanently attached to the bottom of my camera. I can use it to quickly mount the camera in my tripod, but most of the time it serves as a place to attach the flash bracket, as seen in the next shot.

Nikon D200 with Really Right Stuff flash bracket assembly in landscape orientation.
Bracket In Landscape Position

Here’s the complete flash bracket attached to the camera and ready for shooting. At the very least, it raises the flash up a bit more, which reduces red eye and throws the subject’s shadow further down behind them, where it’s less visible. But it also allows me to rotate the camera to portrait orientation while still keeping the flash above the camera:

Nikon D200 with Really Right Stuff flash bracket assembly in portrait orientation.
Bracket In Portrait Position

This bracket is especially helpful when I want to bounce the flash off the ceiling, because it allows me to quickly rotate the camera between landscape and portrait orientation while keeping the flash head aimed in the right direction.

Sigma 10-20 mm D f/4-5.6 DC HSM fisheye lens with hood.
Fisheye Lens

As I said, I rarely switch lenses, but I do sometimes clip on my extra lens bag to carry this trick lens that allows me to take super-wide-angle pictures. Because of that, I wasn’t too concerned with the quality of the image — it’s necessarily distorted by the nature of fisheye lenses — so I saved myself a bunch of money and bought this Sigma 10-20 mm D f/4-5.6 instead of a more expensive Nikon lens. It’s worked out just fine.

Nikon AF 35mm f/2 D and AF 50mm f/1.4 D lenses.
Cheap Fast Primes

If I’m bringing the extra lens bag (the weight hanging off the side throws off the balance of the bag more than you’d think, or I’d carry it all the time) I usually also throw in one of my two cheap fast prime lenses. These only have a single focal length — they don’t zoom — but they have a larger aperture so the can work in much less light without a flash. Usually I take the 35mm f/2 D, which has a very natural look with a DX sensor, but the 50mm f/1.4 D is also nice.

I bought these lenses new, but they’re based on a design that is almost 25 years old, so they might not produce quite the high-quality images a modern lens does. They are both, however, awesome for the price. The pro-glass Nikon 35mm f/1.4 G prime is $1600, which is more than twice what I paid to get both of these lenses.

Hoya 77mm polarizing, graduated, and neutral density filters.
Filters and Case

Inside the external filter pack I have three filters. I don’t carry color adjustment or special effects filters, because in most cases I could do the same thing in Photoshop or Lightroom. I carry filters for things that can’t be done in post.

On the left is a polarizing filter. Light reflecting off of shiny surfaces is polarized, so by rotating this filter to match the polarization of the reflected light, I can reduce glare. That’s nice when shooting water or shiny metal objects, but even things you wouldn’t think of as shiny, such as leaves and flowers, often have a subtle amount of glare. Since glare generally doesn’t pick up the color of the surface it reflects from, it tends to wash out colors in images. A polarizing filter puts it back, at the cost of absorbing some of the light, requiring more exposure. Polarization is not recorded by a camera sensor, so I’d have no way to remove it in post. It has to be done at the time the image is captured.

The standing filter is a neutral graduated filter, shading into darkness on the top end. I got it when I was shooting landscapes so I could keep the sky from washing out. It’s turned out to be a little weak, and if I do more of that kind of shooting, I’ll probably want to get one that darkens the upper half more. I could darken the sky in Photoshop, but if the sky is completely washed out, there’s no color information for Photoshop to recover, so I have to use a filter to keep the sky color.

The bottom filter is a neutral density filter, which simply reduces the amount of light getting in the lens for any given aperture. I got it because…well, to be honest, I don’t remember. I must have had an application. There must have been something I wanted to shoot in bright daylight with the aperture wide open for dramatic effect, and I wanted the exposure to be long enough to get some motion blur. Since this is all about camera operation, Photoshop can’t help, so I’d need this filter.

My main 18-200 lens has a 72mm filter ring, but I have an adapter so I can use 77mm filters, which is a standard size. You can see the adapter attached to the polarizing filter.

Mini Tripod with $1 bill for scale.
Mini Tripod

I also keep this mini-tripod in the case. It’s come in hand a few times when I wanted to take a steady shot (or a selfie) and didn’t have my main tripod.

Nikon ML-3 Remote Transmitter
Useless IR Camera Remote

This was an infrared remote that I got for use with the tripod, so I could easily include myself in group pictures or avoid touching the camera to trigger the shutter. Unfortunately it doesn’t seem to work from more than a few feet from the camera, even indoors. It’s basically useless, and I shouldn’t have been carrying it around so long.

Folding Calibration Panel
Reflective Side of Panel

This is a dual-use item from PhotoVision that I use for shooting in natural light. On one side, it’s an exposure and white balance calibration target I can put into a scene when I want an accurate read of the light temperature. (Although I have my doubts that that’s really 18% grey in the center like it’s supposed to be.) On the other side, it’s a reflective panel that I can use to fill in shadows on sunlit scenes. I haven’t used it much lately.

Sensor Cleaner

This is for cleaning the DSLR sensor in the field. Just squeeze to get a gentle stream of air. It seemed like a good idea, but I never use it. For one thing, since my main lens is so versatile, I hardly ever swap lenses, so there’s little chance for dust to get in. Also, I rarely review images on a computer in the field, and the monitor on the back of the camera is too small for dust specs to show up unless I zoom in to look for them, so I don’t ever notice dust on the sensor until I get it back home. And at that point I can use a proper cleaning kit on the sensor.

USB Cable

The Compact Flash memory card format is so old that nothing else supports it. I use an adapter at home, but if I want to get images off the camera in the field, I have to use a USB cable connecting the camera to a PC.

That’s about it. About 90% of all the photos I’ve taken with this camera required nothing more than the gear in this bag.

If any of you have suggestions, or want to tell me about photographic gear you find useful enough to keep with you all the time, I’d love to hear about it.

Believing Victims

In the Washington Post, Zerlina Maxwell insists that, despite the way the UVA fraternity gang rape story seems to be falling apart, when it comes to accusations of rape:

In important ways, this is wrong. We should believe, as a matter of default, what an accuser says. Ultimately, the costs of wrongly disbelieving a survivor far outweigh the costs of calling someone a rapist.

Scott Greenfield (amoung others, one supposes) has already responded to some of Maxwell’s argument, and he had more about the UVA rape story in an earlier post. (Note that Maxwell’s article was edited to soften it a bit after some of the early responses.) I’d just like to add a few comments.

The accused would have a rough period. He might be suspended from his job; friends might defriend him on Facebook. In the case of Bill Cosby, we might have to stop watching his shows, consuming his books or buying tickets to his traveling stand-up routine. But false accusations are exceedingly rare, and errors can be undone by an investigation that clears the accused, especially if it is done quickly.

The earlier version of Maxwell’s article post seemed to imply that we should abandon the legal presumption of innocence. This more recent version leans more toward a discussion of the moral and procedural issues of campus rape investigations. Nevertheless, as people have been pointing out, we have a presumption of innocence for a reason.

Maxwell seems to be understating the consequences of a rape accusation, at least when the accused isn’t a celebrity or the archetypical rich frat boy of college rape stories. And although some colleges are bastions of progressiveness, I suspect most of them will share the foibles of the society they serve, meaning that a disproportionate number of accusations will be aimed at blacks, Hispanics, and low income students.

And Maxwell’s assumption that if the accusation is ruled false everyone will cheerfully accept the decision of the investigating body seems naive when the news is filled with stories of protests against grand jury decisions not to indict two cops accused of murdering unarmed black men. Grand juries have an even lower standard of proof than college investigations, yet regardless of how you feel about the case, it’s obvious Darren Wilson’s life will not be returning to normal.

In fact (despite various popular myths), the FBI reports that only 2-8 percent of rape allegations turn out to be false, a number that is smaller than the number (10 percent) who lie about car theft.

Yeah, but that’s now. That’s under the system that Zerlina Maxwell wants to change. (And I’m not saying that some change isn’t necessary.)

It comes down to contingent probability. Imagine you’re a woman walking home down a somewhat deserted street when a man you’ve never seen before pulls up next to you and offers to give you a ride. Do you get in? Only a small fraction of men would rape a woman just because she got in their car, so statistically you should be safe, right?

Of course not, because the small percentage of men who are violent rapists are always on the lookout for a chance to get a woman into a position where they can rape her, so they are much more likely than most men to offer to give a woman a ride. Consequently, the group all men has a small percentage of rapists, but because rapists are much more likely to try to get a woman into their car, the group all men who stop to offer a woman a ride has a much higher percentage of rapists. (Or their more common variant, creepers.)

Similarly, only a small percentage of women are likely to make false accusations of rape, and as long as investigators take rape investigation seriously, they won’t be able to make very many of them. But if institutions adopt an always-believe-the-victim methodology, it gives the kind of women who make false accusations a much greater incentive to do so: They will be able to cause a world of hurt for anyone they don’t like. So if we stop protecting the process against false accusations, we can expect to get a lot more of them.

Everything works this way. Most of us have never robbed a bank, but banks still have security to protect against the small percentage who try. Most of us have never tried to enter a stranger’s home at night, but we all lock our doors to protect against the few who do. And most of us would never make a false rape accusation, but it’s still wise to guard against the few who would. Bad actors make things hard for everyone.

Even if Jackie fabricated her account, U-Va. should have taken her word for it during the period while they endeavored to prove or disprove the accusation.

That seems incoherent. If  U-Va is trying to prove or disprove her accusation, how can they take her word for it? Could she mean that U-Va staff should have pretended to take her word for it while investigating behind the scenes?

That actually makes sense, in a way, if you think in terms of different roles people assume in responding to a rape accusation. If a friend tells you she’s been raped, your should help her and support her, which pretty much requires you to believe her. Same thing if you’re a crisis counselor or psychologist: You’re there to help, and accusing the victim of lying or attempting to cross-examine her and check her story is not going to help. If she does turn out to be lying, all that’s happened is that you’ve wasted your time with someone looking for attention.

On the other hand, if your role in responding to the rape accusation is to punish the alleged rapist, the consequences of believing a lie are more severe: You could end up harming an innocent person. Wouldn’t it be best to approach the situation carefully and investigate with an open mind? After all, the falsely accused are victims too. They deserve some belief as well.

Thinking About Lethal Force – Part 2

This is my second post in a series that explores how we can think about news stories about people using lethal force in an act of claimed self defense. Part 1 discussed the basics of what might or might not be self defense, and this part expands the discussion to cover witness reliability.

I want to emphasize again that my discussion is neither legal advice nor self defense instruction, because I’m not qualified to give either, so if you read any of this as a how-to guide, you’re making a serious mistake.


So far in my discussion of the ethics of lethal force, I’ve discussed the basic ethics of self defense and the importance of considering what the participants thought was going on. But unless we are involved in the incident ourselves, we have no direct knowledge of either of those things. We have to rely on what the participants and other witnesses tell us, and that can get tricky.

Human perception is unreliable. We may think we experience the world in continuous high-definition full-motion real-time 3D Technicolor with stereo sound, but decades of research into the physiological and neurological function of our senses tells us that the raw sensory inputs are filled with noise and gaps, and our brains pick bits here and there that seem important, and fill the gaps with plausible guesses (based on our genetics and past experience), presenting the result to our conscious minds so we can react. If we’re under a lot of stress, this process gets streamlined to make it even faster, sacrificing accuracy in favor of quick responses to the most likely threats. We can miss important observations, misidentify objects, confabulate details, and even get confused about the order of events.

This problem appeared in Part 1 as the problem of mistaken beliefs: If Alice is expecting Bob to draw a weapon, and Bob reaches into his pants pocket to withdraw a mobile phone, Alice’s brain may catch the first glimpse of something dark and shiny and her brain may take an urgent shortcut to “Gun!”

If she then shoots Bob, is it fair to say she was careless for shooting before identifying the weapon? Or was it an excusable mistake because she was up against the limits of her sensory system? Does it matter that she could have done more to train her brain to make better decisions? Does it matter if someone trained her incorrectly? Does it matter if she incorrectly believes that people of Bob’s race are more likely to pull a gun?

Whatever we believe about the legitimacy of Alice’s perceptions, the same issues arise again when considering her account of events because what she remembers depends on what she thinks she saw — garbage in, garbage out — so we have to take into consideration the errors in her perception.

Making things worse, not only are people fooled by their perception of reality, but their memory of their perceptions changes over time. Our brains process our memories the same way we process reality, making mistakes and filling in the gaps along the way. We also integrate information from other sources into our memories, believing things we heard from other people, even if they aren’t true: If Dave saw Bob pull out a mobile phone but Alice says she shot him because she saw him draw a gun, Dave may come to believe Alice’s version and remember seeing a gun too.

We try to create a consistent picture of the world, but sometimes that means we replace real memories with invented ones, instead of the other way around. Sometimes the more we think about an event we remember, the more we contaminate our memory with errors and lies.

Interlude: Standing Your Ground, Lying in Wait, and Looking For Trouble

George Zimmerman’s shooting of Trayvon Martin brought a lot of attention to the issue of standing your ground. This enters our analysis in the form of asking whether it’s a moral failure to use lethal force to end a life-threatening situation when the threat could have been averted by some other means. If Alice is sitting in her car, and Bob approaches on foot, wielding a knife and screaming “I’m going to kill you!”, can Alice simply drive away? And if she could, does that mean that shooting him instead is unnecessary and therefore wrong?

What if Alice is walking instead of driving, is she still obligated to try to run? What if she’s trapped in a dead-end alley and can’t run away? What if the alley has a gangway between buildings that she could escape through, but Alice doesn’t see it? How hard should she be required to look for an alternative before shooting?

The details can be confusing. What if Bob is wearing running shoes and Alice is wearing high heels? Is she still obligated to try to escape? If Bob does chase her, how close should she let him get before she stops running and starts shooting? Fifty feet? Ten feet? When he grabs her? Whenever she reasonably believes escape is impossible? Whatever distance her shooting instructor taught her?

What if Alice is in her own home? Is she required to flee her home if she can? If she’s trapped in a room, and the assailant is blocking the exit, is she obligated to try to get out the window? What if she’s on the second floor? What if she’s on the fourth floor? What if she can flee safely, but her child is still in the home somewhere? It’s hard to know where to draw the lines.

Another issue I thought was raised by the Zimmerman case (although it was rarely mentioned) is the problem of someone who’s looking for trouble.

Suppose Alice stops in a rough bar to have a drink, and when she pays, she flashes a large wad of cash in her purse. As she leaves the bar, Bob follows her out into the dark street, pulls a knife, and demands “Your money or your life!” Alice draws her gun and shoots him dead.

That sounds like a pretty clear case of shooting in self defense, but suppose we find out that Alice has been flashing cash in rough bars three times a week for the last six months? Suppose Alice was intentionally trying to draw someone like Bob into attacking her, thus creating a situation in which she would be justified in shooting and killing him?

On the one hand, Bob brought the problem on himself by committing a violent assault. On the other hand, Alice pretty clearly had a premeditated plan to kill someone, which is usually called murder. So while Bob is certainly not innocent, Alice is arguably not innocent either.

Another example might be if Bob breaks into Alice’s place of business after hours, intending to rob the safe, but it turns out Alice is still there, and she confronts Bob and kills him in self defense. If Alice was lying in wait in the store in hope of confronting and killing a burglar, she might not be as innocent as if she had been working late to balance the books.

Standing your ground, lying in wait, looking for trouble — these are murky issue where reasonable people will disagree. I think it ultimately comes down to a conflict of values between Alice’s right to protect herself and society’s preference for reducing violence. We want Alice to be able to shoot to defend her life, but we also want to discourage Alice from entering into situations, deliberately or not, where she is likely to have to do so.


Up until now, I’ve been discussing the natural difficulties that arise when trying to analyze the morality of a lethal force incident. But now it’s time to address an unnatural difficulty: In addition to the honest perceptual problems that can contaminate witness accounts, we also have to allow for the possibility that witnesses are deliberately lying to hide the truth. In our attempt to understand what happened, we may have opponents who want to fool us.

Until now, we were able to confine our analysis to the particulars of the incident — who was where, what they did, and why they did it — but when we have to consider the possibility that some of the witnesses are lying, it means we have to check their story and evaluate their credibility, and so our analysis becomes explosively complex, consuming everything in the world.

For every single witness, whether they were involved or not, we have to consider the possibility that their story is a lie. We need to check it for internal inconsistencies, and we need to check it against our mental model of how the world works.

If Alice says Bob broke in to her house by smashing the second story window into her bedroom, does that seem like something that really could have happened? Is climbing up to smash a second-story window a common way for attackers to enter a house? Is it a sensible way to enter this house? Or would some other point of entry have been simpler? Does it make sense that Bob could have climbed up there? If he’d need a ladder to make the climb, did police find a ladder somewhere nearby? Is there any way to rule out the possibility that Alice placed the ladder there after shooting Bob? Does the spray of smashed glass comport with Alice’s story of what happened?

We should also consider the motivations of the witnesses. People directly involved have the strongest motivation to lie because they could face punishment for crimes. Alice might shoot Bob in cold blood out of pure malice, and then try to keep herself out of jail (and civil court) by saying she had to defend herself against Bob’s attack. Alternatively, Bob might attack Alice and get shot by her in a legitimate act of self defense, only to try to stay out of jail by claiming from his hospital bed that she shot him without provocation.

We also have to consider how each witness’s story is supported or contradicted by the accounts of the other witnesses. If Alice says Bob broke in, but her neighbor Emily claims to have seen Alice let Bob in the front door, how do we decide whether to believe Alice or Emily? We could analyze each of their stories in detail and try to pick it apart. How did Emily happen to be looking at Alice’s house? Could she see it from where she says she was? How does she know it was Bob? How does she know it was Alice who let him in?

If Carl steps forward as a witness and claims Alice shot in self defense, it’s possible that he is lying for reasons of his own. Perhaps he backs Alice’s story out of a sense of loyalty, even though he saw nothing at all, or perhaps he saw her murder Bob, but he backs her story because he fears her retribution. Perhaps he just hated Bob and doesn’t want to see Alice punished for something he wanted to do himself.

Alternatively, maybe Dave steps forward and says he saw Alice murder Bob. It’s possible that Dave hates Alice and wants to make her life miserable. Or maybe he didn’t actually see anything, but he doesn’t believe Bob would have attacked Alice, so he feels justified in lying to ensure that Alice is punished for the unprovoked murder of Bob. Or maybe Bob was Dave’s best friend, and even though he knows Bob attacked Alice first, he’s still angry enough at Alice to want her to suffer. Or perhaps Bob and Dave both attacked Alice, and now that Alice has won the fight, Dave wishes to blame her for murder to deflect attention away from his own crimes and get vengeance for the death of his friend.

It’s not just the specifics of the incident that matter. It’s also quite reasonable to examine witness stories for peripheral details that turn out not to be true. If Fred says he saw the whole thing while driving home from work, but the location of the incident is not on his route home, then maybe he’s lying about seeing the incident as well. Or maybe the incident is on his route home, but we have reason to believe he was somewhere other than his job that day, so he wouldn’t have been on that route. If he’s lying about the little things, maybe it’s because he’s lying about the big things.

Looking even further afield in our attempt to evaluate the credibility of witness stories, it pays to investigate whether the alleged behavior of the participants in this incident is consistent with their past behavior. Has Bob ever attacked someone before? If Gloria reports being attacked by Bob, it tends to support Alice’s story. On the other hand, if Bob has no history of violence, we might ask whether it’s more likely that Bob did something uncharacteristically violent, or that Alice is making it up.

That in turn might lead us to look into Alice’s past, to see if she has a history of shooting people. We might also then investigate whether Alice has a history of telling lies. If Alice has previously made false accusations that Harold attacked her, it casts doubt on her story that Bob attacked her.

Of course, when we hear either of these stories about the past — Bob’s previous attack on Gloria, Alice’s previous lies about Harold — it opens up two more incidents to analyze. Did Bob really attack Gloria, or is Gloria lying? Did Alice really falsely accuse Harold of attacking her, or is Harold lying? If there are additional witnesses to those incidents, the investigation proceeds to analyze their credibility as well.

The pattern repeats as all kinds of things get pulled in. What kind of person is Bob? Was Bob coming home from church at the time of the incident? Or was he coming home from heavy drinking at a rough bar? Did he get in a fight at the bar? Did he start the fight? Is Bob prejudiced against people like Alice? Is Alice prejudiced against people like Bob? What are the prejudices of every single witness? Do Bob and Alice know each other? Were they coworkers? Did either of them hate the other? Was one of them stalking the other? Were they lovers? Former lovers? Who dumped who, and why?

All of the answers to all of these questions require evidence, and that evidence comes in the form of accounts from other witnesses, all of whom must also be evaluated for plausibility and truthfulness, because people may lie to help their friends and hurt their enemies, or for personal reasons. We have to keep asking, how do we know? And who says? And are they telling the truth?

So now it begins to matter that Alice’s story is backed by Ivan, but maybe Ivan is lying because Jeff thinks Ivan has a thing for Alice because he saw Ivan give her flowers, but Kate says she got flowers from Ivan too, so maybe Ivan just likes giving women flowers, and now Larry is telling us that Jeff is lying about Ivan’s attachment to Alice because he hates her, and, and, and…

We’ve gone from the simple case of Alice shooting Bob to the vagaries of whether Jeff is lying about why Ivan is giving flowers to women. It all seems like a distraction, but there’s also a point about the credibility of a key witness to a shooting, so we can’t ignore it, but we shouldn’t make too much of it either, and so maybe we should get a little more information…

Multiply that by ten, or a hundred, and you can see why discussions of these incidents go so far afield. This is why it may be important that Treyvon Martin had Skittles, or that Michael Brown stole some cigars. This is why it may be important that Brown was going to college, or that officer Wilson had worked for a troubled police department before transferring to Ferguson. These facts aren’t part of the shooting incident, but they may matter because they’re part of how we judge the truthfulness of witnesses.

That’s it for now. In the third and (I think) final chapter, I’ll talk about how we hear about all this, and how we respond to it.

Update: Part 3 is up.

Mother Jones’s Weak Math

Steve Marmel posts this infographic he apparently got from Mother Jones magazine that purports to show institutionalized racism in Ferguson, Missouri:

[Image reads: Institutional racism by the numbers. In 2013 in Ferguson: 483 black people were arrested, 36 white people were arrested, 92% of searches and 86% of car stops involved blacks.]

I wonder if either Marmel or MJ realize that these numbers don’t prove a thing about racism. They don’t even hint at racism. Not by themselves. Without knowing the racial makeup of Ferguson, we can’t tell if police stops, searches, and arrests of black people are disproportionately high or disproportionately low. If Ferguson is 93% black, then police are arresting white and black people equally as a proportion of the population.

Now as it turns out, according to 2010 census data, Ferguson is about 70% black and 30% white. (I’m leaving out the 3.3% of the population that identify as some other race, including mixed races.) This means that in 2013 Ferguson police arrested 0.6% of white residents and 3.4% of black residents, which means the relative risk of arrest for black people was about 5.8 times that for white people. The relative risk was about 5 times higher for being searched and about 2.6 times higher for having their car stopped.

Now that doesn’t prove that Ferguson police are racists — you’d have to rule out confounding factors such as age, you’d have to find out what fraction of the arrested are from out-of-town, and you’d have to figure out whether the arrests were justified by differential crime rates — but it does strongly suggest that something is going on that merits further investigation.

And it really wouldn’t have been hard to add that information to the infographic.