Quantum Meruit

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One Ringo Does Not The Beatles Make

Ever since we learned ten years ago that telephone companies willingly surrendered information about their customers to the Bush administration, people actually affected by such surveillance have been unable to get redress from a court. Why is this? Because the Attorney General has—successfully, so far—maintained that plaintiffs’ only access to proof that they were surveilled is top secret and they don’t have a right to see it. Then, with the other hand, the Attorney General says, “And because you can’t prove that you were surveilled, you can’t prove an injury, so you don’t have standing to be here.” And courts have agreed with this argument.

But not Judge Richard Leon. In his landmark 68-page opinion finding the NSA’s dragnet “metadata” tracking unconstitutional, Judge Leon criticizes the government for wanting it “both ways.” Ironically, the program was so comprehensive that the Attorney General’s go-to argument—”you can’t prove that you were surveilled”—did the government in (p. 38):

Virtually all of the Government’s briefs and arguments to this Court explain how the Government has acted in good faith to create a comprehensive metadata database that serves as a potentially valuable tool in combatting terrorism—in which case, the NSA must have collected metadata from Verizon Wireless, the single largest wireless carrier in the United States, as well as AT&T and Sprint, the second and third-largest carriers. [Citation.] Yet in one footnote, the Government asks me to find that plaintiffs lack standing based on the theoretical possibility that the NSA has collected a universe of metadata so incomplete that the program could not possibly serve its putative function. Candor of this type defies common sense and does not exactly inspire confidence!

Just to stick it to the NSA (which the NSA fully deserves), Judge Leon adds a helpful footnote:

To draw an analogy, if the NSA’s program operates the way the Government suggests it does, then omitting Verizon Wireless, AT&T, and Sprint from the collection would be like omitting John, Paul, and George from a historical analysis of the Beatles. A Ringo-only database doesn’t make much sense, and I cannot believe the Government would create, maintain, and so ardently defend such a system.

Bottom line: I see what you did there, NSA, and it’s not going to work this time. But why did Judge Leon have to stick it to Ringo, too? Poor Ringo.


Microsoft’s Sour Grapes Store

The outright tackiness of Microsoft’s “Scroogled” store is matched only by the hypocrisy of the item descriptions. Regarding the “Scroogled” T-shirt: “A classic that shows the world that you’re tired of having your digital life monetized by Google.” That’s goddamn right! I want my digital life to be monetized by Microsoft!

As Jon Gruber pointed out, “Who would actually buy any of this stuff?” (Though it turns out Google employees are loving it.)

The Good Old Days

The New York Review of Books on former Speaker of the House Tom Foley:

Shortly after he was elected Speaker in 1989, Foley proposed to the minority leader, Bob Michel, that the two of them meet once a week, first in the office of one of them and the following week in the other’s. They did so throughout Foley’s speakership. Such an arrangement now is unimaginable.

Is this romanticizing the past? Or did Republicans and Democrats think differently about their relationships with each other back then? Today, they act as though they’re on separate sides of a war (and indeed they use war language) in which only one side can prevail. Foley seemed to think differently: he and his counterpart across the aisle were not enemies, but part of the same project: governance. By contrast, today’s Republican party leaders view governance as a zero-sum game where one side must win and the other must necessarily lose. Getting anything less than everything you asked for is not the result of compromise, but an indication of failure: if you didn’t get everything, you’ve lost.

Canard Watch: Panhandlers Make a Lot of Money

There’s an old saw out there that panhandlers actually make a lot of money.  It’s a beautiful bit of storytelling that first lures the audience in through a counterintuitive conclusion and allows the audience to feel fine about both not giving panhandlers money but also passing moral judgments on them. After all, they’re making a lot of money! So I don’t have to feel about them or whatever their circumstances are.

Here’s just a taste of “panhandlers make a lot of money” stories:

  • “Affluent Beggars” Draw Scrutiny for Their Lifestyle [Seattle Times]
  • Police: Panhandlers Raking in the Green [KOMO Oregon]
  • Panhandler Shane Warren Speegle Says He Made $60,000 A Year Begging On Street [Huffington Post]

Cecil Adams of The Straight Dope suggests that the legend of the beggar-who-really-makes-lots-of-money begging comes from the Sherlock Holmes story “The Man with the Twisted Lip,” in which Holmes is enlisted by a woman to figure out where her husband goes every day. He’s a journalist, but he’s not journalisting. Holmes discovers that the husband dons a costume (hence the man with the twisted lip) and begs for money. Why? Because he makes more money begging than he does being a journalist.

As they say, “anecdote” is not the singular of “data.” So, putting individual stories aside, how much do panhandlers make?

The Union Square Business Improvement District in San Francisco found out. San Francisco’s Union Square is a mecca for tourists who want to go to Macy’s, Neiman Marcus, and The Cheesecake Factory. For that reason, there are a lot of panhandlers. Here’s what they discovered:

In San Francisco’s Union Square, the typical panhandler is a disabled middle-aged single male who is a racial minority and makes less than $25 per day despite panhandling seven days a week for more than five years. Though Stossel was insistent that panhandlers just use the money for beer and pot, the majority of those surveyed did not. In fact, 94 percent used the meager funds they raised for food.

In addition, some justify doing little to fight homelessness because, in their view, many homeless people don’t want help and prefer living on the streets. However, researchers discovered that, on the contrary, just 3 percent of panhandlers don’t want housing.

Wow! Those guys have great jobs! They don’t need our help at all!

How could it be that all those anecdotes are wrong? Well, they may not be wrong, but they may also not be typical cases. A blogger named Urban Camper, a self-described “homeless guy,” explains:

When you are panhandling you can’t expect to make a certain amount of money. You will get disappointed. You can’t expect people to give you money because once you do you get letdown. When the average person goes to work they pretty much know how much money they are going to make by the end of the day. With panhandling this is impossible to figure.

Just because I make about $15/hr standing in a desirable location in Seattle doesn’t mean you will make $15 in Boise, ID. Location is everything. Ideally, you want to be in a high-traffic location where cars are going to have to stop if you’re flying a sign. Off-ramps are ideal but are patrolled by cops often. Most states have laws banning panhandling within 500 feet of a freeway. If you are willing to risk the citation you can make decent money off a highway. I don’t recommend it unless you are really desperate and you have a lookout.

It seems that figures generated for “panhandlers make a lot of money” stories are extrapolated from a limited data set. For example, Urban Camper can make $15 an hour in a desirable location. Multiply this by 2000 (the number of work hours in a year, taking into account two weeks of unpaid vacation) and you get $30,000. So now you can publish a story about how Urban Camper makes $30,000 a year. Except he doesn’t really make that. He could, theoretically, make that. And that assumes a 40-hour workweek. But Urban Camper is not going to work eight hours a day, five days a week:

You also have to remember, most panhandlers don’t panhandle for 8 hours a day. Most just panhandle to get what they need, whether that’s a drink, a fix, food, or bus fare. Some panhandlers will panhandle until they have $5 or $10 and call it a day. Most won’t panhandle all day. It’s nearly impossible to panhandle for 8 hours straight. You have to deal with the elements, the cops, other panhandlers harassing you, and exhaustion. It’s not as easy as it looks.

So, to create your own “panhandlers make a lot of money” story, you just need some moral outrage and a very limited data set that will allow you to assume mathematically that panhandlers (1) make a lot of money, (2) don’t want to work in a “real” job because they make so much money, and (3) consequently, you don’t have to feel bad for them. As a bonus corollary, that also means you don’t have to care about providing any kind of services for them, like housing or mental health counseling. Because they can afford that, right?

A Year of Surveillance Change-Up

Thanks to Edward Snowden, the NSA has consistently had to walk back statements that turned out later to be outright lies. It makes you wonder why anyone would trust anything the government says about surveillance.

First: there’s tons of oversight, so don’t worry. But it turns out that Congress isn’t even being told what’s going on. And the FISA Court is not equipped to scrutinize the NSA’s claims.

Second: the NSA isn’t conducting bulk surveillance on millions of Americans. Whoops, turns out they are. And when NSA Director James Clapper said it wasn’t, well, that was sort of … not true. But it was the “least untrue” thing to say.

Third: it’s just metadata, kids. We’re not actually getting the content of the communications. Oops, actually we are. Lots of it.

Fourth: don’t worry, this is all authorized by law. Except when it’s not. Oh, and also not when it’s done outside the law through brute-force hacking.

Canard Watch: ‘Neighborhood Housing’

If you watch broadcast television in the Bay Area, you’ve no doubt seen Lieutenant Governor (and former Mayor of the City and County of San Francisco) Gavin Newsom, along with current Mayor Ed Lee touting Proposition B. “C’mon, man, don’t you like green spaces? Don’t you like parks?” they urge.

I mean, what kind of Nazi fascist doesn’t like parks? But more importantly, what the heck is Proposition B?

The City and County of San Francisco has a height limit of 84 feet for waterfront property. A property developer, with the support of Newsom and Lee (who are nothing if not friends of property developers) wants to build a luxury condo high-rise at 8 Washington Street that would rise 136 feet. The issue is being put to voters to grant the building an exemption. Apparently some of the extant tenants on Washington Street don’t want their view obstructed by someone else, which is sort of the point of the height restrictions.

Newsom and Lee’s propaganda in favor of the project insist that they’re just building “neighborhood housing,” but as SF Weekly observed this week, when people think of “neighborhood housing,” $5 million luxury condos isn’t exactly what comes to mind. Even supporters of 8 Washington think the phrase is misleading:

No, you wouldn’t normally use “neighborhood housing” to describe a project like 8 Washington — flummoxing even the development’s ardent backers. “It would apply to something like lowering the height. Cheapening the construction. Fewer amenities,” says Housing Action Coalition Executive Director Tim Colen when asked to define “neighborhood housing.” When told this term was attached to 8 Washington — which he emphatically supports, and which does the opposite of these things — he gasps. “That’s a stretch! It is really high-end.”

In a city where affordable housing is quickly evaporating (and by “affordable,” I don’t even mean “poor people” affordable; I mean “middle class people with decent jobs” affordable), such a project is a big slap in the face. This shouldn’t be surprising; Newsom and Lee (and their silent partner, Willie Brown) are friends of landlords, developers, and big business.

But to specifically address Newsom and Lee, there’s already a park across the street from 8 Washington. And the neighborhood already has plenty of high-rises. And no, there won’t be a “neighborhood” any more than there is one now (which is to say, not much). The area is—and would remain, even with 8 Washington—mostly commercial with residential high-rises. We’re not talking brownstones and kids playing ball in the street.

Creativity as Consensus

In this excellent article called “Ted Talks Are Lying to You,” Thomas Frank describes the ways in which books that talk about how people can be creative as “superstition,” because there’s no formula for creativity. He ultimately concludes that ground-breaking ideas are only ground-breaking once everyone else agrees they are:

A final clue came from “Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention” (1996), in which Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi acknowledges that, far from being an act of individual inspiration, what we call creativity is simply an expression of professional consensus. Using Vincent van Gogh as an example, the author declares that the artist’s “creativity came into being when a sufficient number of art experts felt that his paintings had something important to contribute to the domain of art.” Innovation, that is, exists only when the correctly credentialed hivemind agrees that it does. And “without such a response,” the author continues, “van Gogh would have remained what he was, a disturbed man who painted strange canvases.” What determines “creativity,” in other words, is the very faction it’s supposedly rebelling against: established expertise.

This makes sense. How many times do we say of authors, artists, and other “creative” types that they weren’t appreciated in their time? It seems like we say it a lot. And we probably say it a lot because creative people are not appreciated in their time because their creativity is too weird for the time in which they live. This happens with science all the time (cf. Galileo, Darwin), but because science is explicitly based on consensus and reproduceability, the process of going from crazy, out-there idea to accepted standard is transparent. Not so in art.

Or in industry. One need only look at the original iMac. USB? No floppy drive? Ethernet? “Give me a break!” Contemporary commentators thought Apple had gone to Crazytown. And yet those are all things we take for granted today. “Look how forward-thinking Steve was!” we say, many years later.

Do You Get It This Time?

In the second of (so far) two Republican attempts to hold the economy hostage to extract concessions, they have agreed to a deal that would extend the debt limit through February and fund the government through January.

The prior attempt at brinksmanship resulted in Standard & Poor’s downgrading America’s credit rating—not because (as Fox News has opined) America has too much debt (though that was one factor), but because the uncertainty that attended whether America would default on its obligations, which the result of using the debt ceiling as a bargaining chip, spooked the international economy:

More broadly, the downgrade reflects our view that the effectiveness, stability, and predictability of American policymaking and political institutions have weakened at a time of ongoing fiscal and economic challenges to a degree more than we envisioned when we assigned a negative outlook to the rating on April 18, 2011.

Since then, we have changed our view of the difficulties in bridging the gulf between the political parties over fiscal policy, which makes us pessimistic about the capacity of Congress and the Administration to be able to leverage their agreement this week into a broader fiscal consolidation plan that stabilizes the government’s debt dynamics any time soon.

In fact, just yesterday the credit rating agency Fitch warned that it might also downgrade America’s credit rating. Again, not because there is too much debt, but because America might not be able to pay on its debt due to the debt ceiling not being raised:

When John Boehener and other Republicans began this government shutdown sojourn in September, they likely assumed that the force of public opinion would be with them (due to the Republicans’ knack for messaging) and that the Obama administration would have to cave.

Boy, were they wrong. Despite Fox News’ attempt at parroting the GOP talking point that the government shutdown was somehow the Democrats’ fault, Americans didn’t buy it. They blamed Republicans:

By a 22-point margin (53-31 percent), the public blames the Republican Party more for the shutdown than President Barack Obama, according to a new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll. That’s a wider margin of blame for the GOP than the party received during the last shutdown in 1995-96.

Poll numbers show that approval for Republicans in Congress is at an all-time low, with the Republicans falling to the lowest approval rating in Gallup poll history.

So the question is: do they get it this time? Do they understand that their hostage-taking tactic (which, despite protestations to the contrary, is properly characterized as taking a hostage) didn’t work?

‘Welcome to Night Vale’ Is the Best Podcast You’re Not Listening To

Night Vale is a sleepy desert town like many small American towns. It has a library, finicky parents at PTA meetings, a high school football team, a forbidden, unknowable dog park, black hooded figures, an apocryphal city council with supernatural powers, and the occasional roving unspeakable terror. They also really don’t like the nearby town of Desert Bluffs.

Welcome to Night Vale is a podcast styled as a local community radio program consisting of news, traffic, and weather (though the “weather” is a musical selection from a great band you’ve never heard of, which changes each episode). The show is equal parts weird and humorous. Many others have likened it to Twin Peaks, if the town of Twin Peaks had a community radio station.

A Brief Summary of Indefensible Twitter Reactions to Bob Costas

Tonight during halftime on Sunday Night Football, commentator Bob Costas delivered an essay on the propriety of the Washington Redskins name. TL; DR: He said it should be changed:

Still, the NFL franchise that represents the nation’s capital has maintained its name. But think for a moment about the term “Redskins,” and how it truly differs from all the others. Ask yourself what the equivalent would be, if directed toward African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians, or members of any other ethnic group.

When considered that way, “Redskins” can’t possibly honor a heritage, or noble character trait, nor can it possibly be considered a neutral term. It’s an insult, a slur, no matter how benign the present-day intent. It is fair to say that for a long time now, and certainly in 2013, no offense has been intended. But, if you take a step back, isn’t it clear to see how offense “might” legitimately be taken?

The backlash on Twitter has been resoundingly anti-Costas, from the standard “liberal idiot” comments that we know and love:

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To those who attempt to use data to bolster the contention that “Redskins” is not offensive:

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To the idea that there is an equivalence between using a slur for an historically oppressed ethnic group—where that slur was invented and used by their oppressors—as a team name and using any other monicker (offensive or not) for another group (historically oppressed or not) where that monicker was not invented and used by their oppressors (when there are oppressors):

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To those calling for Costas to be injured or killed because he publicly delivered an opinion people disagree with:

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But what’s most curious is that so many people have suddenly developed an affinity for animals such that they believe animals have the same level of dignity as human beings:

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Of course, it’s difficult for anti-Costas folks to address one of Costas’ arguments; namely, how would you feel if the nickname were a nickname that was resoundingly (instead of somewhat) socially unacceptable?