This is the story of Q, a black man living in the Bronx, who kindly allowed me to interview him about his recent experience. The audio recording of my interview with him is available below as well.
Q was stopped in the Bronx driving a new car, the fourth time that week, by two rookie officers on foot. The officers told Q to “give me your fucking license,” and Q refused to produce his license, objecting to the tone of the officer’s request. When Q asked him why he was stopped, the officer told him that it was because of his tinted back windows, in spite of there being many other cars on the same block, and even next to him, with similarly tinted windows. Q decided to start recording the interaction on his phone after one of the cops used the n-word.
After a while seven cop cars came to the scene, and eventually a more polite policeman asked Q to produce his license, which he did. They brought him in, claiming they had a warrant for him. Q knew he didn’t actually have a warrant, but when he asked, they said it was a warrant for littering. It sounded like an excuse to arrest him because Q was arguing. He recorded them saying, “We should just lock this black guy up.”
They brought him to the precinct and Q asked him for a phone call. He needed to unlock his phone to get the phone number, and when he did, the policeman took his phone and ran out of the room. Q later found out his recordings had been deleted.
After a while he was assigned a legal aid lawyer, to go before a judge. Q asked the legal aid why he was locked up. She said there was no warrant on his record and that he’d been locked up for disorderly conduct. This was the third charge he’d heard about.
He had given up his car keys, his cell phone, his money, his watch and his house keys, all in different packages. When he went back to pick up his property while his white friend waited in the car, the people inside the office claimed they couldn’t find anything except his cell phone. They told him to come back at 9pm when the arresting officer would come in. Then Q’s white friend came in, and after Q explained the situation to him in front of the people working there, they suddenly found all of his possessions. Q thinks they assumed his friend was a lawyer because he was white and well dressed.
They took the starter plug out of his car as well, and he got his cell phone back with no videos. The ordeal lasted 12 hours altogether.
“The sad thing about it,” Q said, “is that it happens every single day. If you’re wearing a suit and tie it’s different, but when you’re wearing something fitted and some jeans, you’re treated as a criminal. It’s sad that people have to go through this on a daily basis, for what?”
Here’s the raw audio file of my interview with Q:
I’m on record complaining about how journalists dumb down stories in blind pursuit of “naming the victim” or otherwise putting a picture on the story.
But then again, sometimes that’s exactly what you need to do, especially when the story is super complicated. Case in point: the Snowden revelations story.
In the past 2 weeks I’ve seen the Academy Award winning feature length film CitizenFour, I’ve read Bruce Schneier’s recent book, Data and Goliath: The Hidden Battles To Collect Your Data And Control Your World, and finally I watched John Oliver’s recent Snowden episode.
They were all great in their own way. I liked Schneier’s book, it was a quick read, and I’d recommend it to people who want to know more than Oliver’s interview shows us. He’s very very smart, incredibly well informed, and almost completely reasonable (unlike this review).
To be honest, though, when I recommend something to other people, I pick John Oliver’s approach; he cleverly puts the dick pic on the story (you have to reset it to the beginning):
Here’s the thing that I absolutely love about Oliver’s interview. He’s not absolutely smitten by Snowden, but he recognizes Snowden’s goal, and makes it absolutely clear what it means to people using the handy use case of how nude pictures get captured in the NSA dragnets. It is really brilliant.
Compared to Schneier’s book, Oliver is obviously not as informational. Schneier is a world-wide expert on security, and gives us real details on which governmental programs know what and how. But honestly, unless you’re interested in becoming a security expert, that isn’t so important. I’m a tech nerd and even for me the details were sometimes overwhelming.
Here’s what I want to concentrate on. In the last part of the book, Schneier suggests all sorts of ways that people can protect their own privacy, using all sorts of encryption tools and so on. He frames it as a form of protest, but it seems like a LOT of work to me.
Compare that to my favorite part of the Oliver interview, when Oliver asks Snowden (starting at minute 30:28 in the above interview) if we should “just stop taking dick pics.” Snowden’s answer is no: changing what we normally do because of surveillance is a loss of liberty, even if it’s dumb.
I agree, which is why I’m not going to stop blabbing my mouth off everywhere (I don’t actually send naked pictures of myself to people, I think that’s a generational thing).
One last thing I can’t resist saying, and which Schneier discusses at length: almost every piece of data collected about us by our government is more or less for sale anyway. Just think about that. It is more meaningful for people worried about large scale discrimination, like me, than it is for people worried about case-by-case pinpointed governmental acts of power and suppression.
Or, put it this way: when we are up in arms about the government having our dick pics, we forget that so do our phones, and so does Facebook, or Snapchat, not to mention all the backups on the cloud somewhere.
We’ve been hearing a lot lately from New York Mayor de Blasio on his affordable housing plan. He says he will “build or preserve” 200,000 housing units, but the plan would only build 8,000 units a year. Unless it is radically changed, the mayor’s plan will squander public assets, enrich real estate developers, but do very little for the record number of people living in the shelter system or at risk of landing there.
Let’s first talk about how the term “affordable housing” is defined and whether it jives with our concept of the kinds of places New Yorkers can actually afford to live in. The mayor’s plan defines an apartment renting for $41,500 a year as affordable because a family of four with $138,435 in income can afford it ― even though that is more than twice the actual New York City median 4-person household income of $63,000. That is, most New Yorkers cannot afford an “affordable apartment” by the mayor’s standards.
The mayor’s plan tracks the pattern New York City has religiously followed for quite some time of trying to “incentivize” private development. The city effectively pays a fortune to private developers to build this kind of stuff. Here is a frightening statistic from the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development: in 2013, New York City gave private developers a pass on $1.2 billion in taxes in order to stimulate the building of 153,000 units of housing ― just 12,000 of which met the messed-up definition of affordability. Hard to believe we couldn’t have done a lot better by simply collecting those taxes.
Read the rest of the essay here.
This is all I got this morning:
It’s not the first time this issue has come up recently; the NPR investigations into court fees from last May, called Guilty and Charged, led to a bunch of reports on issues similar to this. Probably the closest is the one entitled Unpaid Court Fees Land The Poor In 21st Century Debtors’ Prisons.
A few comments:
- Ferguson is now famous for having a basically white police force patrolling a basically black populace. But it also has this fines-and-fees-and-jails problem: fines and fees associated to mostly traffic violations accounted for 21% of the city’s budget in 2013. And there were more arrest warrants than people in Ferguson last year, mostly for non-violent offenses.
- But the debtors’ prison problem isn’t just a racial issue. The people profiled in the above video were white, which could have been a documentarian’s decision, but in any case is a fact: the poverty-to-prison system is screwing all poor people, not just minorities. This is in spite of the fact that the Supreme Court found it unconstitutional in the landmark 1983 case, Bearden v. Georgia.
- This sense that “everyone is screwed” creates solidarity among poor whites and poor blacks, and especially young people. The Ferguson protests have been multi-racial, for example. And if you’ve read The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, you’ll recognize a historical pattern whereby political change happens when poor whites and poor blacks start working together.
- One interesting and scary question to emerge from the above stories is, how did so many fees and fines get attached to low-level misdemeanors in the first place? It seems like privatized probation and prison companies have a lot to do with it.
- In some cases, they are putting people in jail for days and weeks, which costs the government hundreds of dollars, in order to capture a small fee. That makes no sense.
- In other cases, the fees accumulate so fast that the poor person who committed the misdemeanor ends up being responsible for an outrageous amount of money, far surpassing the scale of the original misdeed, and all because they are poor. That also makes no sense.
- It’s not just for prisons either; all sorts of functions that we consider governmental functions have been privatized, like health and human services: child welfare services, homeless services, half-way houses, and more.
- In the worst cases, the original intent of the agency (“putting people on probation so they don’t have to be in jail”) has been perverted into an entirely different beast (“putting them in jail because they can’t pay their daily $35 probation fees”). The question we’d like to investigate further is, how did that happen and why?
This recent paper written by Gary King, Jennifer Pan, and Margaret Roberts explores the way social media posts are censored in China. It’s interesting, take a look, or read this article on their work.
Here’s their abstract:
Existing research on the extensive Chinese censorship organization uses observational methods with well-known limitations. We conducted the first large-scale experimental study of censorship by creating accounts on numerous social media sites, randomly submitting different texts, and observing from a worldwide network of computers which texts were censored and which were not. We also supplemented interviews with confidential sources by creating our own social media site, contracting with Chinese firms to install the same censoring technologies as existing sites, and—with their software, documentation, and even customer support—reverse-engineering how it all works. Our results offer rigorous support for the recent hypothesis that criticisms of the state, its leaders, and their policies are published, whereas posts about real-world events with collective action potential are censored.
Interesting that they got so much help from the Chinese to censor their posts. Also keep in mind a caveat from the article:
Yu Xie, a sociologist at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, says that although the study is methodologically sound, it overemphasizes the importance of coherent central government policies. Political outcomes in China, he notes, often rest on local officials, who are evaluated on how well they maintain stability. Such officials have a “personal interest in suppressing content that could lead to social movements,” Xie says.
I’m a sucker for reverse-engineering powerful algorithms, even when there are major caveats.
This recent NYTimes article entitled Health Researchers Will Get $10.1 Million to Counter Gender Bias in Studies spelled out a huge problem that kind of blows me away as a statistician (and as a woman!).
Namely, they have recently decided over at the NIH, which funds medical research in this country, that we should probably check to see how women’s health are affected by drugs, and not just men’s. They’ve decided to give “extra money” to study this special group, namely females.
Here’s the bizarre and telling explanation for why most studies have focused on men and excluded women:
Traditionally many investigators have worked only with male lab animals, concerned that the hormonal cycles of female animals would add variability and skew study results.
Let’s break down that explanation, which I’ve confirmed with a medical researcher is consistent with the culture.
If you are afraid that women’s data would “skew study results,” that means you think the “true result” is the result that works for men. Because adding women’s data would add noise to the true signal, that of the men’s data. What?! It’s an outrageous perspective. Let’s take another look at this reasoning, from the article:
Scientists often prefer single-sex studies because “it reduces variability, and makes it easier to detect the effect that you’re studying,” said Abraham A. Palmer, an associate professor of human genetics at the University of Chicago. “The downside is that if there is a difference between male and female, they’re not going to know about it.”
Ummm… yeah. So instead of testing the effect on women, we just go ahead and optimize stuff for men and let women just go ahead and suffer the side effects of the treatment we didn’t bother to study. After all, women only comprise 50.8% of the population, they won’t mind.
This is even true for migraines, where 2/3rds of migraine sufferers are women.
One reason they like to exclude women: they have periods, and they even sometimes get pregnant, which is confusing for people who like to have clean statistics (on men’s health). In fact my research contact says that traditionally, this bias towards men in clinical trials was said to protect women because they “could get pregnant” and then they’d be in a clinical trial while pregnant. OK.
I’d like to hear more about who is and who isn’t in clinical trials, and why.