Blog Ipsa Loquitur

The New Yorker’s Ben Taub has an amazing story in the New Yorker about a former CIA counterterrorism expert who joined his hometown police force. The spy turned cop’s name is Patrick Skinner, and he provides the story’s first and best pull quote: “We have to stop treating people like we’re in Fallujah. Just look what happened in Fallujah.”

The story bounces back and forth from Skinner’s career in the CIA to his time patrolling the beat in Savannah, Georgia. I appreciate his take on the mismanagement of the War on Terror, but it’s Skinner’s views on the responsibility of police officers that really gets me. Here’s a bit toward the end, immediately after Officer Skinner uses his patrol car to drive a homeless woman to a Waffle House and buys her a hot meal:

Back in the car, Skinner explained that part of his motivation in helping Norma Jeane was to prevent an emergency call, three hours later, of a homeless woman freezing to death. “Think of all the shit that went wrong in this country for Norma Jeane to be sitting in the car with us,” he said. Although schizophrenia affects a little more than one per cent of Americans, it’s a factor in a high percentage of police calls. A few hours earlier, Skinner had checked on a schizophrenic man who calls the police multiple times each night, reporting paranoid hallucinations; the department can never ignore a call, because he is the legal owner of a .357 Magnum revolver, and officers told me that he once tried to execute an intruder in his front yard. At times, Skinner feels as if the role of a police officer were to pick up the pieces of “something that has broken in every single possible way.”

“A huge amount of what police actually do is support and service and problem-solving,” [one of the nation’s leading criminologists] David M. Kennedy told me. “And part of what’s so inside out is that most of that activity is not recognized.” Police officers are increasingly filling the gaps of a broken state. “They do it essentially on their own, usually without adequate training and preparation, often without the skills they need, and overwhelmingly without the resources and institutional connections that it would take to do those things well.”

Twenty-seven hours after we left Norma Jeane at the Waffle House, another cop radioed in an E.M.S. call. A fifty-nine-year-old homeless woman, dressed in a Santa hat and a leopard-print jacket, was freezing to death.

Read the rest of ​The Spy Who Came Home.

Published on under Winning Hearts and Minds, But For Real

Nick Kapur in Deadspin rounds up The Stories Behind China’s Best NBA Nicknames:

At their best, Chinese nicknames always seem to combine both affection and shade, producing monikers that both fans and haters can get behind. Thus Charles Barkley is called a fat pig, but he’s a flying fat pig (飞猪)—high praise, since the character for “flying” normally is reserved for players who take their game above the rim. It’s also a pun, since the character for “flying” sounds similar to the Chinese word for “fat.” Similarly, Joel Embiid is “the Great” (大帝), but there’s a hint of sarcasm that maybe his greatness is self-appointed and not yet earned. Manu Ginobili is “The Demon Blade” (妖刀), which sounds (and is) awesome, but of course in Chinese martial arts fiction, blades possessed by demons, while powerful and devastating to opponents, often have the propensity turn back against their owners at crucial moments.

The whole list is fantastic, but I’m particularly fond of the fondness for the Mamba nicknames. Famous basketball man Kobe Bryant nicknamed himself “Black Mamba” after the snakes that he claims “strike with 99% accuracy at maximum speed, in rapid succession.” These mambas are… not that:

Eric Gordon is called “Round Face Gordon” (圆脸登) because his face is seemingly a perfect circle. A similar nickname is “Pi Mamba” (π曼巴), suggesting his face is such a perfect circle it can be used to accurately calculate the value of pi.

Ryan Anderson is the “Standing Around Mamba” (站曼巴), because people feel he just stands around behind the three-point line, waiting for a catch-and-shoot pass.

I could definitely be a Standing Around Mamba, minus the whole “catch the pass” part, or the “shoot the ball” part.

Published on under They call me king dork mamba

A little administrative housekeeping: I’ve renamed this blog from Barely Legally to Blog Ipsa Loquitur and moved it to a new domain. You don’t need to update your bookmarks or do anything different, because every URL at barelylegally.com should (should!) redirect seamlessly to the equivalent URL here at blog.ipsaloquitur.org.

I come not to praise Barely Legally, but to bury it; the name Barely Legally had a good run. Longtime readers will recall this blog spent its first few years named Almost Legally while I was a law student opining about the law. It only became Barely Legally when I became a newly minted lawyer opining about the law. But I graduated and passed the bar exam in 2010, and that’s long ago enough that I don’t think I’m barely a lawyer any more.

Honestly, I’m not going to miss the Barely Legally name much. It was only ever a sequel to Almost Legally, which amused me because it seemed like a blithe way to describe something illegal. Barely Legally neatly pointed out that I didn’t have a lot of experience, but the “funniest” part was how closely it resembled the name of a genre of adult films; what it lacked in wit, it made up for in screaming “don’t read this blog on your work computer at lunch.”

In addition to a name and domain change, I’ve updated the design of the site: the sidebar’s gone, the scales of justice are no longer 8-bit, and a couple things got cleaned up. No design update would be complete without a gratuitous refresh of the typography. Blog Ipsa Loquitur is set in Freight Text, and everything else is in Ministry.

Watch this space for further updates in 2034.

Published on under A blog by any other name

Lawyers, Guns & Money is one of my favorite blogs because you don’t spend a lot of time wondering what the premises of their posts are. Here’s one that I missed the first time around: The Russian Hacks Were Effective Because of Terrible Reporting Practices. LGM’s Scott Lemieux quotes James Risen’s account of Russian interference in the 2016 election:

There can be little doubt now that Russian intelligence officials were behind an effort to hack the DNC’s computers and steal emails and other information from aides to Hillary Clinton as a means of damaging her presidential campaign. Once they stole the correspondence, Russian intelligence officials used cutouts and fronts to launder the emails and get them into the bloodstream of the U.S. press. Russian intelligence also used fake social media accounts and other tools to create a global echo chamber both for stories about the emails and for anti-Clinton lies dressed up to look like news.

To their disgrace, editors and reporters at American news organizations greatly enhanced the Russian echo chamber, eagerly writing stories about Clinton and the Democratic Party based on the emails, while showing almost no interest during the presidential campaign in exactly how those emails came to be disclosed and distributed. The Intercept itself has faced such accusations. The hack was a much more important story than the content of the emails themselves, but that story was largely ignored because it was so easy for journalists to write about Clinton campaign chair John Podesta.

Do note that The Intercept is the outlet publishing Risen’s story; he’s not randomly calling out one publication. This leads to Lemieux’s broader point:

But hacks alone can’t influence elections. Media coverage of hacks can influence elections, and lessons from the 2016 campaign need to be learned:

Note that the leaks were released in a very careful strategic fashion, designed to to maximum political damage — for example, during the DNC, or the day of the Billy Bush tapes. This should have caused the media to be extremely skeptical about the way the leaks were framed and very careful not to advance the narratives of people obviously trying to ratfuck the elections. It didn’t — quite the opposite.

There’s a fundamental tension of interests here: on the one hand, you have almost a collective action problem. The constant leaking of DNC and Podesta emails went on for months, and every day was a new opportunity to cover an ongoing story for an insatiable public. If the Washington Post (or The Intercept) just decided not to cover any of it, the news is still out there and being covered by everyone else. Really, these email leaks were fundamentally newsworthy—for more reasons than we understood at the time—and it’s the job of the press to report the news. It’s absurd to suggest that the press would just… ignore them. On the other hand, the breathless coverage carried a lot of water for foreign intellligence operators.

What Lemieux ultimately suggests is coverage that spends more time examining the motives of the leakers, and less time pretending the emails revealed some material misconduct by the DNC and Podesta.

The 2018 midterm elections are just about 240 days away. If the federal government doesn’t take affirmative steps to discourage foreign meddling this time around, it’s easy to imagine there will be a lot of strategically leaked emails in the news. Here’s hoping the press handles the do-over better than in 2016.

Published on under We Still Love You, Journalists

By federal law, there is no real database of guns kept by the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. This makes it kind of hard for police to figure out whose gun they just found at a crime scene. Jeanne Marie Laskas in GQ wrote the definitive profile of the unbelievable story of How the Cops Actually Trace a Gun. It’s impossible to summarize, but let’s start at the beginning, with a hypothetical murder scene:

So, take that murder we began with. Blood all over the place, cops looking for clues, the booties. They find the gun! What happens next does not involve the wizardry of some supercomputer somewhere. It hinges on a phone call.

That cop with the gun dangling from his pinkie. He dials the tracing center and describes the gun. This is Step One. Let’s say, for example, he reports that he’s got a 9-mm semi-automatic Beretta 92.

​On the other end of that phone is someone like the ATF’s Scott Hester. The problem is that the police aren’t firearms experts, so when a detective finds a Beretta 92 handgun at a crime scene, it might not actually be a Beretta.

Published on under Roll That Boulder

Charlie Warzel, for Buzzfeed News, asks a pretty simple question: Why Can Everyone Spot Fake News But The Tech Companies? Warzel begins by discussing the misinformation promoted by Google Search, Facebook, and YouTube in the aftermath of the Las Vegas mass shooting in October 2017.

Over the next two days, journalists and misinformation researchers uncovered and tweeted still more examples of fake news and conspiracy theories propagating in the aftermath of the tragedy. The New York Times’ John Herrman found pages of conspiratorial YouTube videos with hundreds of thousands of views, many of them highly ranked in search returns. Cale Weissman at Fast Company noticed that Facebook’s crisis response page was surfacing news stories from alt-right blogs and sites like End Time Headlines rife with false information. I tracked how YouTube’s recommendation engine allows users to stumble down an algorithm-powered conspiracy video rabbit hole. In each instance, the journalists reported their findings to the platforms. And in each instance, the platforms apologized, claimed they were unaware of the content, promised to improve, and removed it.

I think that paragraph could just as easily have been written in the aftermath of the Parkland school shooting, or the Aurora movie theater shooting, or the Sandy Hook shooting, or whatever the next mass shooting will be. Which is kind of Warzel’s point:

All of this raises a mind-bendingly simple question that YouTube, Google, Twitter, and Facebook have not yet answered: How is it that the average untrained human can do something that multi-billion dollar technology companies that pride themselves on innovation cannot? And beyond that, why is it that — after multiple national tragedies politicized by malicious hoaxes and misinformation — such a question even needs to be asked?

Look, of course Google and Facebook and Twitter can’t monitor all of the content on their platforms posted by their billions of users. Nor does anyone really expect them to. But policing what’s taking off and trending as it relates to the news of the day is another matter. Clearly, it can be done because people are already doing it.

Seriously, if a handful of Buzzfeed’s reporters can flag this in near real-time for free, surely Facebook and YouTube can hire a dozen folks to watch stuff trend and flag it. Heck, Facebook used to have exactly that thing. It worked great, except for the part where the conspiracy theorists complained that Facebook unfairly blocked right-wing conspiracy theories from trending.

Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at NYU, has called this phenomenon the “View From Nowhere”. Rosen coined this term in 2003, when there was no Facebook; it originally applied to things like the New York Times’s coverage of the run-up to the Iraq War. But here, when Facebook fired the team of people meant to keep the Trending Stories algorithm from promoting conspiracy theories, I see the View From Nowhere striking again. Facebook fired its team because its team couldn’t suppress as many left-wing conspiracy theories as right-wing conspiracy theories. That means that either Facebook hired a bunch of liberal ideologues who brought their politics to work every day, or conspiracy theories find more traction in conservative media than liberal media.

This isn’t new, either. Toward the end of his first term, President Obama famously predicted the Republican fever would break during his second term. I think a national conversation on this is long overdue. Perhaps we’ll get one after the next set of teen crisis actors stage a school shooting.

Published on under Jobs the Computers Can't Steal Yet