Blog Ipsa Loquitur

Published on under Disrupt Everything

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published on under Legal Theory

Update: The verdict is out.

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

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

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

Published on under Procurement Hell

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

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

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

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

Just kidding!

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

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

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

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

Published on under Not the Onion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published on under The Digital Age

Mike Fabio wrote a great post about Spotify a couple weeks back. It accompanied the relaunch of Tidal, a streaming music service owned in part by Jay-Z. Tidal had an elaborate press event in which a parade of artists took the stage to decry the pittance they’re paid by other streaming music services.

Here’s the gist:

It’s scary for artists to learn how many people have listened to their music, and compare to the fractional royalty statements they’re being sent. Thing is, it’s not Spotify’s fault.

It’s the labels.

See, all those artists on the stage are signed to labels. Their contracts dictate that the music they record is owned by those labels, sometimes in perpetuity. And most of those artists have publishing deals that take a chunk out of their performance and mechanical royalties.

The reason artists don’t get paid from streaming services is that they don’t own the music that they record.

I’d take issue with that “music is owned by the labels in perpetuity” bit, but otherwise, Fabio’s post is great and you should read every word.

As an aside, copyright lasts for 70 years after the artist dies, which probably feels like an eternity, but it’s not. Let’s just agree that record companies own the copyrights to the music for almost forever.

That’s important, because when you own the copyrights, you get the money. And there’s a lot of money here. Take Pandora. They paid record companies over $440 million last year. Subscription music services as a whole paid out $1.57 billion in the year 2014.

That same Guardian story quotes the same music industry trade group, the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry, which says the global music industry as a whole generated just under $15 billion last year. So streaming music is just about one-tenth of the music industry.

Well, for now. Streaming music revenue was up 39% from 2013 to 2014. That’s a pretty insane jump. Artists complaining about streaming music services are looking to the future.

But really, if artists are upset at the size of their royalty checks, they ought to be looking at record companies, not streaming music services.

Published on under Nuke Us From Orbit

Walter Scott was shot in the back three days ago by a police officer in South Carolina. The police officer claimed that Scott ran (on foot) from the police, seized the officer’s Taser stun gun, and attempted to use it against him.

But that’s not what actually happened. The New York Times has video of the shooting, and it’s horrifying. The officer uses his Taser on Scott, and Scott runs from the officer. The officer fires wildly at the unarmed Scott and kills him. And then it gets worse.

The officer walks over to Scott’s body, handcuffs him, walks back to the spot where he dropped the Taser, picks up the Taser, and drops the Taser next to the corpse. This is horrifying. This should really, really upset you. This is shooting an unarmed man in the back, this is tampering with a crime scene, this is lying about whether or not the unarmed guy was armed, and so on.

I’m not an expert on South Carolina laws about self defense, but I don’t have to be. In 1986, the Supreme Court ruled in Tennessee v. Garner that it’s unconstitutional to simply shoot fleeing unarmed suspects. The police cannot use deadly force (firing a pistol is always deadly force) unless it’s necessary to prevent the escape of a fleeing suspect who the officer has probable cause to believe “poses a significant threat of death or serious physical injury to the officer or others.”

The Worst Part(s)

Walter Scott is dead. But here’s the second-worst part.

Who was the highly dangerous Walter Scott? What violent felony were the police attempting to halt his flight from? If he is such a hardened criminal, why did he forget to bring his own flamethrower?

It was a traffic stop. Scott’s Mercedes had a taillight out. It wasn’t a felony. It wasn’t even a misdemeanor.

It actually wasn’t even a violation. South Carolina only requires cars to have a single taillight. Scott wasn’t even breaking the law. The officer was apparently as ignorant about the legality of shooting unarmed fleeing suspects as he was about the niceties of the local traffic law.

If this taillight business sounds familiar, that’s because the ink is barely dry on a Supreme Court opinion about the consequences of confusion around a broken taillight. That case happened in North Carolina, where a police officer was mistaken about the legality of having a broken taillight. During the traffic stop and subsequent search, the police found drugs in the car. That used to be an illegal search, but the Supreme Court ruled that reasonable ignorance of the law is okay.

Of course, reasonable ignorance of the law usually doesn’t lead straight to wild shootouts where only one of the parties has a gun. That’s a special kind of ignorance. I can’t wait to see how the local prosecutor fails to indict this one.