Category: Culture

0

West Point, Swimming, and Developmental Equality

Two separate stories in the news speak volumes about our expectations, assumptions, and knowledge about the lives of children of color.  We know they develop under an expectation of failure rather than success.  Rather than an equal opportunity to succeed, we know, implicitly, that they are funneled to failure.  Thus, when we find children of color unexpectedly successful, we are startled by their transcendence.

We should examine our expectations, our acceptance of the structural discrimination that we passively support or ignore that perpetuates inequality.  Once we do, we have to confront the harshly unequal developmental path for children of color.

The first story is about a photograph of a group of 16 African American women in their dress uniforms as graduating seniors at West Point. West Point still has only a minority of women (the 2014 entering class was 78% male), and remains mostly white (70%).  The women in the photo represented all but one of the Black women graduating, a mere 1.7% of the graduating class.  The women are posed outside the oldest barracks,  a favorite setting for graduation pictures replicating similar groups of graduates for over a 100 years.  Each of the women stands with her arm bent upward ending in a raised fist; some have their arms simply at their side, while a few extend theirs over their heads.

So what did the women in this photograph mean by their pose?

A statement of black female empowerment?  A statement of personal fortitude and accomplishment, and group solidarity?  A statement of protest?  A statement of difference, separating them from other graduates?  A statement of political content, perhaps with #Black Lives Matter or #Say Her Name, movements that have raised consciousness about the inequalities in black lives?

Read as protest, it would violate the norms of universality, of color and gender blindness, and of conduct becoming an officer.  The picture generated enormous controversy for several days.  Each person viewed it from their context, including their view of women, of women of color, and of these women’s place in this setting and institution historically male and white.  Also part of the context was making meaning of their common gesture of a raised clenched fist.   Triggering calls for disciplinary action against the seniors, the controversy finally ended when it was determined that the students had done nothing that required disciplinary action.

For me, in addition to the debate about meaning was the universal unspoken assumption that black women in this place were out of place; not because they did not deserve to be there or to pose like countless other graduates of West Point, but rather, they had transcended the expectation that their place was elsewhere.  Read More

Platform Responsibility

Internet platforms are starting to recognize the moral duties they owe their users. Consider, for example, this story about Baidu, China’s leading search engine:

Wei Zexi’s parents borrowed money and sought an experimental treatment at a military hospital in Beijing they found using Baidu search. The treatment failed, and Wei died less than two months later. As the story spread, scathing attacks on the company multiplied, first across Chinese social networks and then in traditional media.

After an investigation, Chinese officials told Baidu to change the way it displays search results, saying they are not clearly labeled, lack objectivity and heavily favor advertisers. Baidu said it would implement the changes recommended by regulators, and change its algorithm to rank results based on credibility. In addition, the company has set aside 1 billion yuan ($153 million) to compensate victims of fraudulent marketing information.

I wish I could include this story in the Chinese translation of The Black Box Society. On a similar note, Google this week announced it would no longer run ads from payday lenders. Now it’s time for Facebook to step up to the plate, and institute new procedures to ensure more transparency and accountability.

0

Better Bar Design Means Better Revenue and Health for Bartenders

With the resurgence of cocktail culture, one may not think about a bartender’s work area, but it turns out that area is not well-designed so much so that bartenders have health problems and they can make fewer drinks. So in the age of let’s design and fix that, a bartender has come up with an “ergonomic, behind-the-bar workstation—which he calls the ‘race track’.” The new design lets the bartender stay in one place, have everything within forearm reach, and gets rid of the well (across which a bartender must lean and thus hurt his or her knees). The creator is seeking a patent, and the expected cost right now is five figures (they are hand built). The Wired piece covers some history of the bar and how ice changed the way we drink and how today the craft cocktail trend means efficiency is at a premium. As Wired notes

A good bar with a smartly built bartender station, on the other hand, is a blue-ribbon-prize-winning cash cow. Your typical cocktail den, Simó says, will rake in between $6,000 and $8,000 in sales in a night. At a nightclub, you more than triple that. A single bartender can ring in $10,000 in sales, by himself. That’s all contingent on how fast he can sling drinks, and Lafranconi says the race track is optimized for that kind of speed. “We can increase the output by about 10 to 15 drinks per hour.”

Throw in the health issues–“Tending bar in 10-hour shifts, night after night, can lead to injuries like tennis elbow, tendonitis, and plantar fasciitis”–and the future bar will let you be closer to the bartender, get your drink faster, and keep him or her in good enough health to be there the next time you visit. Pretty cool.

0

AALS diversion – Jackson Pollock

The annual AALS meeting is in New York in 2016. A few folks have asked whether I will be there. I am not able to attend, but in the spirit of it’s good to get out and see more than the law (or take a friend and go for a good long chat about legal scholarship), I see that that MOMA is pulling out its Jackson Pollock collection. The write up in the New Yorker is short and captures his evolution and why you should go.

Pollock was always Pollock, though he was long in agonizing doubt, notably about his ability to draw. Dripping brought a rush of relief, as he found a steadying and dispassionate, heaven-sent collaborator: gravity. Drawing in the air above the canvas freed him from, among other things, himself. “Number 31” is the feat of a fantastic talent no longer striving for expression but set to work and monitored. He watched what it did. We join him in watching. Pollock redefined painting to make it accept the gifts that he had been desperate to give. Any time is the right one to be reminded of that.

Sorry to miss AALS and the exhibit, but there will be other chances to enjoy both.

0

A Christmas Movie that Led to a Financial Reg (Sort of)

Trading Places is a Christmas movie in that it is set during the holidays and I suppose making hundreds of millions (or probably billions in today’s dollars) is a 1980s Christmas wish as compared to other Christmas wish movies. It is a heart-warming story of a young Eddie Murphy and Dan Akroyd taking on the entrenched elite by, oh well, by insider trading. The ending and the glory of frozen concentrated orange juice live on. First the full explanation of how the two manage to out maneuver the Dukes is a little tricky. But after the thirtieth anniversary a two years ago, a few places explain it nicely. NPR’s coverage is succinct. Business Insider is good and has better pictures. But the best is from Don’t Worry I am an Economist which has a step-by-step on short selling, and then applies it to the movie including explaining how the pricing worked (142 is in fact A $1.42 and 29 is $0.29 per pound but the contracts are for thousands of pounds thus “Trading begins at 102 cents per pound (at 15,000 pounds of F.C.O.J. per contract – size of a typical contract – the value of a single contract is $15,300).”.). So he shows that

How much have they made? Let’s see. In the movie Winthorpe says they’ve moved around 20,000 contracts. Assuming they’ve sold short at a constant pace from 142 down to 102, and that later they’ve bought them back while the price was falling from 46 down to 29, let’s say that the average sell price was around 122 cents per pound, where the average buy-back price was 37.5 cents per pound. The spread is therefore 122 – 37.5 = 84.5 cents per pound profit. Per single contract this is 15,000 pounds * 84.5 cents per pound = $12,675 per contract. Multiply this by roughly 20,000 contracts and their total profit was: $253,500,000.

Oh and here is the law and regulation part: The movie was explicitly invoked as the Eddie Murphy rule when the government finally made insider trading on the commodities market illegal. Per the WSJ when the rule passed CFTC Chief Gary Gensler explained:

We have recommended banning using misappropriated government information to trade in the commodity markets. In the movie “Trading Places,” starring Eddie Murphy, the Duke brothers intended to profit from trades in frozen concentrated orange juice futures contracts using an illicitly obtained and not yet public Department of Agriculture orange crop report. Characters played by Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd intercept the misappropriated report and trade on it to profit and ruin the Duke brothers. In real life, using such misappropriated government information actually is not illegal under our statute. To protect our markets, we have recommended what we call the “Eddie Murphy” rule to ban insider trading using nonpublic information misappropriated from a government source.

Law and lit and reg I guess. Anyway Merry Christmas and in the words of Nenge Mboko “Merry New Year.”

0

Cyberpunk Because You Forgot to Get Someone a Gift

OK Cyberpunk can be great for a range of reasons, but I saw this repost from i09 on The Essential Cyberpunk reading list and thought, “A great list with some books I have not read. Wait! It’s a list for folks who need to send a just in time Christmas gift (assuming they are available as eBooks, which I know some are). I easily recommend Neuromancer, Snow Crash, and Mirrorshades. I look forward to reading the rest (Accelerando did not work for me but I may try it again). Plus this genre really does a great job of positing worlds and issues that are pressing the tech-law space right now, so that is another reason to jump in.

0

Santa Coke? Goodwill to All and the Corporate Sources of the Man in the Red Suit

Many may know, but in case you don’t, the image of Santa Claus as a round man in a red suit traces its roots to a riff on St. Nick in brown and green. The linked video story via Fortune has Coca-Cola historians sharing why this creation is so great in their view. There were challenges such as increasing sales of Coke in winter and making an image of Santa that was as iconic as the Quaker Oats man. Vision, ingenuity (dare we say innovation? Dare. Dare.), and world-wide advertising spread the new Coca-Cola-red-wearing Santa far and wide. I wonder whether the idea of promoting this history is to remind folks of Coke in general and create an extra felling of warmth towards the company. And I wonder whether today Coke would try to lock down the image or let it be as ubiquitous as it is. Would the spread of polar bears wearing red and white scarves or hats be smiled upon or would the Cease and Desist letters fill lawyers’ heads and stockings as well? I hope that Coke and other corporate creators see that some of the work is cultural and can be let go without fear of losing value and maybe, just maybe, spreading goodwill to all.

4

Philip K. Dick – Most Important SciFi Author of the 20th Century?

Philip K. Dick may be the most important sci-fi author of the 20th Century akin to Verne and Wells in vision and contemporary relevance well after they wrote. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (Blade Runner), We Can Remember It For You Wholesale (Total Recall, twice), Minority Report (Minority Report, film and TV), Paycheck (Paycheck), A Scanner Darkly (A Scanner Darkly), Adjustment Team (The Adjustment Bureau), and now The Man in the High Castle as an Amazon TV show is just a partial list of Philip K Dick’s work that has been adapted. Although Amazon does not usually release its streaming numbers, The Man in the High Castle has become its “most-streamed original show, overtaking shows like the detective-centric Bosch and Jill Soloway’s feted dramedy Transparent.” The popularity is not the point. As a fan of Dick’s work Ubik and even Valis (though that one is much work to read) both of which have not been adapted to the screen, I am saying that Dick’s novels and short stories did what great sci-fi does. They use technology and maybe some fantasy to comment on where society is headed and how things might evolve. I think it was Dan Solove who once said to me that Dick’s work fits his era, and others in, I think Dan said, the New School were working on the same ideas (apologies, Dan, if I am mistaken about what you said). Regardless of who or what school treads the same area as Dick, for me something about his work catches attention and highlights the way we live more than others.

Take Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, the movie is a good adaptation in that it hits themes rather than trying to stay true to the precise way the novel works. The novel has great stuff on machines to dial up a mood. People use it to stimulate anger, happiness, etc. as the situation requires. Did that presage mood drugs and more? Sort of. Did it hit on how we choose to live and ideas of what is authentic life and emotion? Yes. Should we take the messages about the world as reflecting reality today? No.

Although law and literature can, and maybe should, use literature to help understand an idea, saying that the world is now just like Minority Report or some other work is a reach. Using a film or novel to say something is a concern or to illustrate ideas of Orwellian, Kafkan, or other futures and that we wish to ask whether that is real can help. But the key is to rally the facts that show that those fictions are now a reality or that facts are in place that open the door to dystopia. Speaking of dystopia, I wonder how often people use fiction to say that the world or a technology is leading us to a better place. In my experience legal scholars tend to dismiss upbeat outlooks as naive or “just so” stories. I am not sure that Dick is dystopian. But in general if folks have examples where literature or film are examples of a good outcome from technology, please share.

Nonetheless, I offer Philip K. Dick in all his messy glory as my choice for Most Important SciFi Author of the 20th Century.

0

A Little History That May Help Understand Current Politics

The current politics around the race to be the Republican candidate for President, ISIS, online speech, campus speech, technology, labor, and more have stuck me has angrier and a bit more irrational than I am used to, so an old essay, The Paranoid Style in American Politics by Richard Hofstadter, caught my eye. I offer it as a quick historical perspective on some of our current issues and approaches to them. Hofstadter writes quite well, so it is another example of good style. But he shows that the “paranoid style,” as he calls it, rises across the range of political views and has done so for some time. Here is his opening:

American politics has often been an arena for angry minds. In recent years we have seen angry minds at work mainly among extreme right-wingers, who have now demonstrated in the Goldwater movement how much political leverage can be got out of the animosities and passions of a small minority. But behind this I believe there is a style of mind that is far from new and that is not necessarily right-wing. I call it the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind. In using the expression “paranoid style” I am not speaking in a clinical sense, but borrowing a clinical term for other purposes. I have neither the competence nor the desire to classify any figures of the past or present as certifiable lunatics. In fact, the idea of the paranoid style as a force in politics would have little contemporary relevance or historical value if it were applied only to men with profoundly disturbed minds. It is the use of paranoid modes of expression by more or less normal people that makes the phenomenon significant. (emphasis added)

That he calls out that the style can show up for any party and is not about being crazy is excellent. He goes on to admit that the term is “perjorative,” because he wants to ensure we know that although it “has a greater affinity for bad causes than good. [] nothing really prevents a sound program or demand from being advocated in the paranoid style. Style has more to do with the way in which ideas are believed than with the truth or falsity of their content.” Wow. He knows someone may say well what about true or false, and he swipes that issue aside, so that he can get to his point, “I am interested here in getting at our political psychology through our political rhetoric. The paranoid style is an old and recurrent phenomenon in our public life which has been frequently linked with movements of suspicious discontent.”

In two paragraphs, Hofstadter explains the idea, the scope, and why one should read more. Damn fine work. Plus he goes on to show show McCarthyism, early populism, fears of Masons and Illuminati (yes Illuminati), and fear of Jesuits fit his idea. To be clear, Hofstadter thinks that something different–including the felling of “dispossession” as Daniel Bell put it–explains what happened with the right in the 1950s. And he offers that mass media allows for greater, easier demonization. Nonetheless, I think that his summation fits for a range of views today:

Norman Cohn believed he found a persistent psychic complex that corresponds broadly with what I have been considering—a style made up of certain preoccupations and fantasies: “the megalomaniac view of oneself as the Elect, wholly good, abominably persecuted, yet assured of ultimate triumph; the attribution of gigantic and demonic powers to the adversary; the refusal to accept the ineluctable limitations and imperfections of human existence, such as transience, dissention, conflict, fallibility whether intellectual or moral; the obsession with inerrable prophecies . . . systematized misinterpretations, always gross and often grotesque.”

As Hofstadter put it, this view allowed him to “conjecture” that “that a mentality disposed to see the world in this way may be a persistent psychic phenomenon, more or less constantly affecting a modest minority of the population.”

The real punch came as he connected the modest minority to more. He said, “But certain religious traditions, certain social structures and national inheritances, certain historical catastrophes or frustrations may be conducive to the release of such psychic energies, and to situations in which they can more readily be built into mass movements or political parties.” That is the idea that worries me. According to Hofstadter, part of the problem may be “a confrontation of opposed interests which are (or are felt to be) totally irreconcilable, and thus by nature not susceptible to the normal political processes of bargain and compromise.” Furthermore, when groups are shut out of “the political process” even if their demands are “unrealistic” or unrealizable,” “they find their original conception that the world of power is sinister and malicious fully confirmed. They see only the consequences of power—and this through distorting lenses—and have no chance to observe its actual machinery.” The idea is to at least be open to other views and seek compromise. Still I am not sure what the response to being shut-out and unable to observe the machinery should be. I can understand that some will argue the process itself is corrupt, and it may be corrupt. I don’t think that submission to the Paranoid Style is the way to go. Nor is simply saying that the system will work correct. To riff on Hofstadter, if the Paranoid Style is on the rise and going mainstream for any issue, we should note it, and be open to the claims and facts. It may be that we missed a sea change that has not only style but substance, often a dangerous substance, as is the case when in “an arena for angry minds.”

0

Writing as a career and passion

As a young scholar the desire to be read, invited to conferences, and cited is strong; but how to obtain these glories is unclear. Should one write and have faith that good work will be found? Or is there more to do? The New Republic’s recent review by Sam Sacks of two short story collections offers two benefits; it suggests two collections and looks at the ongoing tension between professional versus artistic creation. Exploring this tension should help answer what to do as a scholar.

The first collection, The Unprofessionals, edited by Lorin Stein comes from the Paris Review, and according to Sacks “defines itself against the emergence of a hyper-professionalized breed of fiction writer.” Sacks points to the editor’s preface which criticizes the trend of young authors’ using social media to self-promote and as the editor put it “to think of themselves as professionals: to write long and network hard.” Stein’s work is “a kind of elite artist’s colony whose sole mandate is the refinement of craft.” In contrast, Sacks offers New American Stories. Sacks calls its editor Ben Marcus “an emissary for a wide range of writers on the margins of the mainstream.” Thus according to Sacks, “Stein is an editor charged with elevating the few from the many, Marcus has emerged as an emissary for a wide range of writers on the margins of the mainstream.” As Sacks says, “If The Unprofessionals is like a beautifully unified concept album, New American Stories is, to use Marcus’s analogy, a mixtape.” Sacks hits notes that matter to academics as professionals, when he talks of politics.

As Sacks offers:

Two anthologies, two visions of American fiction: one exclusive, one eclectic; one that seals its ears to the clamor of the industry, one that takes inspiration from the chorus of voices being published. The second vision has the stronger sense of political purpose. Many new writers want to be read and discussed by a large audience, to be noticed by prize committees, to take an active part in the cultural conversation—all activities of the so-called professional—not because, contrary to Stein’s opinion, they’re out for money, but because this kind of recognition is central to the politics of their writing.

Much the same could be said of scholarship. There can be the current in-crowd orthodoxy that has a certain style and approach. It can be exclusive and seem to anoint stars. There can also be the out-crowd with its orthodoxy and anointed but that seek to challenge the status quo just as Sacks says, “The stories in Marcus’s anthology reflect the interest many new writers have in rearranging social hierarchies and redefining terms of normalcy.” Sacks further helps understand the politics when he discusses an essay by Parul Sehgal. Seghal looked at a novel that used a new form and said the project and style was “less a performance of alienation than a passionate effort at reconciliation.” Thus according to Sacks, the goal of writers such as those in the Unprofessionals, “writers traditionally left outside of the conversation” is “to be recognized as professionals.” If professional means one’s ideas have been taken mainstream (and in Portlandia parlance “you are so over”), I think Sacks sums up where scholars hope to be too. Challenging current ideas and scopes of concerns can be lonely. As one finds a community to work with and the work gains traction, the work may go mainstream. At that point, enjoy the ride. The newbies will come to show you what you missed. But there is more to it than being professional. As Sacks goes through the authors in the collection, you get a sense of what might matter depending on what you like to read or how you want to be challenged. At the very least you get a list of names to ponder and pursue. But his key point applies to scholars too.

Sacks saves his highest praise for Denis Johnson, “Johnson could be in Stein’s anthology as well as Marcus’s (he’s appeared in The Paris Review repeatedly over the years).” And here is the key:

But that just means that he’s achieved the aim of all writers: He’s transcended categorization. It no longer makes any difference how you label him—professional or unprofessional—since he’s written fiction good enough to outlive him.

Somethings never change.