for a moment this good time would never end; you and me, you and me

“Free Tibet” flags made in China (BBC)

Police in southern China have discovered a factory manufacturing Free Tibet flags, media reports say.

The factory in Guangdong had been completing overseas orders for the flag of the Tibetan government-in-exile.

Workers said they thought they were just making colourful flags and did not realise their meaning.

But then some of them saw TV images of protesters holding the emblem and they alerted the authorities, according to Hong Kong’s Ming Pao newspaper.

I never limit myself to one meaning when I can encompass two or more, so take away the following from this story:


  1. Globalization commands a lot of power;
  2. You can find irony anywhere if you know where to look, and;
  3. Propaganda permeates the civilized mind in ways outsiders can’t comprehend. The police didn’t uproot this factory in an undercover sting – workers voluntarily turned themselves and their employer in. Tibet never did anything to harm these guys, but they so thoroughly believe the Chinese government’s gospel of Tibet As Guerilla Radical that they went out of their way to make the State’s job easier. Fortunately, in the free and enlightened West we don’t have that problem.

Speaking of, how goes the campaign to nuke Iran, Senator Clinton?

Got it – thanks!

Meanwhile, black males took a bump down to Junior-Level Citizenship in New York on Monday, when three NYPD detectives were acquitted of killing an unarmed black man whom they “feared” might be threatening them. Fifty shots it took, which places the 18- to 35-year-old Black Male somewhere between a charging African Rhino and Wolverine of the X-Men in the Scared White Guy Hierarchy of Indestructability. Remember, black people: you don’t have an inherent right to life as such while in the city of New York. You exist on the sufferance of every paranoid cop.

Kai Wright talks a little more about the Sean Bell shooting here, and also sheds some light on the mystery of New York’s falling crime rate over the last decade. If you believe that Giuliani’s “broken windows” theory of Better Living through Petty Harassment reeks of bullshit – as I always have – then the drop in crime looks like a mystery. But Wright points out the following:

[B]lacks accounted for 66 percent of those killed by New York City police between 2000 and 2007 (New York is a perennial leader in police fatalities, averaging 12 a year over those years). And while the violent crime rate plunged to historically low levels in that time period, the number of people killed by police has not budged—indeed, the number of cop bullets fired has skyrocketed. And it’s happened with impunity. Out of 88 fatal shootings, including at least 12 in which victims were unarmed, in only one instance was an officer convicted of criminal wrongdoing.

So Giuliani didn’t reduce violence so much as outsource it to the NYPD. Juking the numbers, if you will.

In other news, rice continues to get more expensive – and more scarce, which really means the same thing – all around the world. Tyler Cowen of Marginal Revolution offers his take on why in the New York Times:

The damage that trade restrictions cause is probably most evident in the case of rice. Although rice is the major foodstuff for about half of the world, it is highly protected and regulated. Only about 5 to 7 percent of the world’s rice production is traded across borders; that’s unusually low for an agricultural commodity.

So when the price goes up — indeed, many varieties of rice have roughly doubled in price since 2007 — this highly segmented market means that the trade in rice doesn’t flow to the places of highest demand.

Poor rice yields are not the major problem. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that global rice production increased by 1 percent last year and says that it is expected to increase 1.8 percent this year. That’s not impressive, but it shouldn’t cause starvation.

The more telling figure is that over the next year, international trade in rice is expected to decline more than 3 percent, when it should be expanding. The decline is attributable mainly to recent restrictions on rice exports in rice-producing countries like India, Indonesia, Vietnam, China, Cambodia and Egypt.

Tariffs and export restrictions choke off valuable goods and services. You can’t call arguments for free trade a trivial academic debate anymore, like whether a country profits more from cheaper cars or more domestic jobs. Open trade across borders will save the Third World from starvation. Fortunately, in the free and enlightened West we don’t have that problem.

Speaking of, how goes the effort to dismantle NAFTA, Senator Obama?

Got it – thanks!

As continuing proof of the ancient assertion that no one has ever drafted a law so noble that it can’t be misused, local British councils have started using surveillance cameras to nab litterers and dogs shitting in public. And a student who photographed some cops ticketing other civilians earned himself a $628 ticket for “sitting on a park ledge.”

Finally, on a somewhat upbeat note, Clay Shirky (author of Here Comes Everybody) talks about the growing wealth of a globalizing economy, the surplus of free time that results, and how we spend that time:

I started telling her about the Wikipedia article on Pluto. You may remember that Pluto got kicked out of the planet club a couple of years ago, so all of a sudden there was all of this activity on Wikipedia. The talk pages light up, people are editing the article like mad, and the whole community is in an ruckus–“How should we characterize this change in Pluto’s status?” And a little bit at a time they move the article–fighting offstage all the while–from, “Pluto is the ninth planet,” to “Pluto is an odd-shaped rock with an odd-shaped orbit at the edge of the solar system.”

So I tell her all this stuff, and I think, “Okay, we’re going to have a conversation about authority or social construction or whatever.” That wasn’t her question. She heard this story and she shook her head and said, “Where do people find the time?” That was her question. And I just kind of snapped. And I said, “No one who works in TV gets to ask that question. You know where the time comes from. It comes from the cognitive surplus you’ve been masking for 50 years.”

So how big is that surplus? So if you take Wikipedia as a kind of unit, all of Wikipedia, the whole project–every page, every edit, every talk page, every line of code, in every language that Wikipedia exists in–that represents something like the cumulation of 100 million hours of human thought. I worked this out with Martin Wattenberg at IBM; it’s a back-of-the-envelope calculation, but it’s the right order of magnitude, about 100 million hours of thought.

And television watching? Two hundred billion hours, in the U.S. alone, every year. Put another way, now that we have a unit, that’s 2,000 Wikipedia projects a year spent watching television. Or put still another way, in the U.S., we spend 100 million hours every weekend, just watching the ads. This is a pretty big surplus. People asking, “Where do they find the time?” when they’re looking at things like Wikipedia don’t understand how tiny that entire project is, as a carve-out of this asset that’s finally being dragged into what Tim calls an architecture of participation.

Now, the interesting thing about a surplus like that is that society doesn’t know what to do with it at first–hence the gin, hence the sitcoms. Because if people knew what to do with a surplus with reference to the existing social institutions, then it wouldn’t be a surplus, would it? It’s precisely when no one has any idea how to deploy something that people have to start experimenting with it, in order for the surplus to get integrated, and the course of that integration can transform society.

I have always measured wealth in units of Time I Can Spend Doing What Makes Me Happy. It pleases me to see that that calculation works on a social level as well.

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27 Responses

  1. Making a big deal of the number of shots fired doesn’t allow one to make a rational determination of whether or not those shots were fired in legitimate self-defense, but it sure does help make a purely emotional appeal.

    What were you just saying about propaganda?

  2. Self-defense against what? The guy’s wallet? Do you know the case I’m talking about?

  3. The Sean Bell thing deserves comment, but what to say? The only thing I think I can offer is that my experience with the Wire gave me the notion that the officers won’t be punished because of some kind of would-be-hilarious-if-it-weren’t-so-sad Chain of Command Bullshit. It makes me wish there was a Clay Davis/Larry Young figure in NYC to make a big deal people might notice. Bah.

    The British surveillance thing is new and not new. Surveillance seems to be a particularly British way to threaten Civil Liberties. Between Ellis’ accounting of the real, terrifying misery under Thatcher and Alan Moore’s easy imagining of the lockdown world of “V for Vendetta” and the “Who watches the Watchmen” sentiment of … well, “The Watchmen,” I see hints that 1984 was written by a British author in the first place. I saw a notice about the most recent British CCTVs in September (in Reason, natch) and have been waiting for this news story ever since. As it is, I saw a notice about this piece of art about a week ago.

  4. * “…hints of why 1984 might have…”

  5. Yes, I do. I also know that the accused requested a bench trial rather than a jury trial, presumably at least in part because they suspected a judge would be less susceptible to purely emotional appeals like “50 shots! They fired 50 shots!”

    The standard for self-defense is “Was the shooter(s) reasonably in fear of death or serious injury?” , not how many shots were fired. Bell drove his car at a bunch of cops, striking a police minivan. If someone’s steering his car towards me and accelerating, I’m pretty sure I’m allowed to use deadly force. I’m also pretty sure I’m not less allowed to use deadly force just because I happen to be a cop.

    I don’t see “50 shots!” as relevant for determining guilt, although it’s certainly useful in motivating a jury to rule based on emotion. If it’s a case of legitimate self-defense, than the fact that a lot of rounds get fired doesn’t make it any less legitimate; conversely, just firing a single round doesn’t mean you were defending yourself instead of murdering someone.

    I’m surprised you didn’t post anything about Hans Reiser. Only a computer scientist could talk his way from manslaughter into first degree murder with no body, no weapon, and no motive.

  6. JHaas: The flip side of the British fetish for surveillance is that they sure don’t want the hoi polloi taking pictures.

    http://www.boingboing.net/2008/04/26/uk-photographer-chas.html
    http://www.boingboing.net/2008/04/22/middlesbrough-cops-g.html
    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/magazine/7351252.stm

    WordPress could use comment threading.

  7. Phan – Bell drove his car at a bunch of undercover cops. There’s still some question (at least in the accounts I read; I’ve been following this case since December ’06) of whether the cops identified themselves as cops at all. If I exit a strip club to avoid a fight and the ones who were harassing me box my car in and start waving guns, I’ll try and drive through them, too.

    Additionally, as I understand it, NYPD use of force doctrine does not permit an officer to fire into a moving vehicle if the vehicle is the only threat. If the cop has reason to suspect there’s a gun inside, that’s a different subject, but you can’t fire at a car bearing down on you. The rightness or wrongness of that we can debate later, but Bell was unarmed and I never saw a witness back up the cops’ assertions that Bell had claimed to be armed.

    And finally, to get off this “emotional appeal” bit, there is no cold, objective reason for 4 police officers to fire 50 rounds at a car full of people. If one of the four could not discern – perhaps in the inevitable pause while reloading – that no one in the vehicle had fired back, then they were not firing based on a tactical judgment of the level of force required to incapacitate an opponent. They were firing based on adrenaline and fear.

  8. JHaas – Banksy! w00t!

  9. I would note, briefly, that “excessive force in self-defense” is grounds for a conviction for manslaughter. Three people firing 50 gunshots (and one firing 31 all on his lonesome! Did he have one of those pistols from the old Westerns?) is, at the very least, *relevant* to the question of whether the use of force was legitimate.

  10. Bell drove his car at a bunch of undercover cops. There’s still some question (at least in the accounts I read; I’ve been following this case since December ‘06) of whether the cops identified themselves as cops at all.

    That’s the sort of question that the trial’s supposed to determine; if the outcome hinges upon that determination, then again I don’t see how the number of shots they fired is in any way relevant.

    Additionally, as I understand it, NYPD use of force doctrine does not permit an officer to fire into a moving vehicle if the vehicle is the only threat.

    That’s as I understand it as well, but that doesn’t preclude them from doing so in self-defense. Legally, police are held to the same self-defense standard as anyone else. If you reasonably fear for your life, you can shoot. If you’re still reasonably in fear for your life after three shots, you can fire a fourht. It may be they violated department policy in doing so, and certainly appropriate discipline may be imposed for that violation, but it is not *illegal* to violate department policy.

    They were firing based on adrenaline and fear.

    Um..yes, being in fear is part of the legal standard for legitimate self-defense. If you’re not in fear, and you intentionally shoot someone, that’s probably murder.

  11. I would note, briefly, that “excessive force in self-defense” is grounds for a conviction for manslaughter.

    No, it’s not. If the force was used in legitimate self-defense, then it’s not excessive. Imperfect self-defense (what I think you’re referring to here) entails a good-faith belief that the use of deadly force is necessary, but applies only when that good-faith belief isn’t reasonable. If the shooter’s fear is a reasonable one, then it’s by definition not imperfect self-defense.

    And I’m not sure New York even has that doctrine. That’s a state-by-state thing.

  12. Phan – I think we’re talking about two different things here. Were the cops arresting Sean Bell for threatening someone in the club with a firearm he had stowed in his car, or were they defending themselves against someone who charged at them? It’s not like Bell rammed the (unmarked) minivan out of spite.

    Also: if we’re granting that the cops acted out of fear, then what reason do four armed cops have to be afraid of three unarmed black men?

    Finally: yeah, comment threading is probably my one big regret in the move to WordPress. There are supposedly third party add-ins that fix this; I haven’t tried them yet.

  13. It’s absolutely the law in Massachusetts. See, e.g., Commonwealth v. Glacken, 451 Mass. 163, 167 (2008). “If the Commonwealth . . . does prove beyond a reasonable doubt that in his exercise of self-defense the defendant used excessive force — then the jury must return a verdict of not guilty of murder and would be warranted in returning a verdict of guilty of voluntary manslaughter.”

    I don’t have the time to research the New York law right now, but Massachusetts law is clear, and the officers were charged with manslaughter and reckless endangerment, not murder.

  14. Note that that law is mitigatory in nature; it basically means “You didn’t have reasonable fear for your life when you shot that guy. Ordinarily, that’d be murder, but since you had a good-faith fear for your life, even though that fear wasn’t a reasonable one, it’s only manslaughter.”

    If the shooter’s in reasonable fear, then it’s not excessive force, and it’s not even manslaughter.

  15. or were they defending themselves against someone who charged at them?

    I think it’s that one.

    Also: if we’re granting that the cops acted out of fear, then what reason do four armed cops have to be afraid of three unarmed black men?

    If he’s driving his car at them, he’s not unarmed. Not unless cars are made out of fluffy marshmallow and powered by lawnmower engines.

  16. Phan –

    I think it’s that one.

    Then that contradicts the preliminary police report and the testimony of the accused officers, who claim they identified themselves as police and ordered Bell to stop (see here and here).

  17. How does that contradict either? They identified themselves as police, ordered him to stop, and he ignored the order, got in the car, and tried to run over a cop.

  18. I asked above: were they ordering him to stop, as police, or were they defending themselves against someone who charged at them (meaning, as undercovers who had not yet identified themselves)?

  19. But Wright points out the following:

    Blacks accounted for 66 percent of those killed by New York City police between 2000 and 2007 (New York is a perennial leader in police fatalities, averaging 12 a year over those years). And while the violent crime rate plunged to historically low levels in that time period, the number of people killed by police has not budged—indeed, the number of cop bullets fired has skyrocketed. And it’s happened with impunity. Out of 88 fatal shootings, including at least 12 in which victims were unarmed, in only one instance was an officer convicted of criminal wrongdoing.
    So Giuliani didn’t reduce violence so much as outsource it to the NYPD. Juking the numbers, if you will.

    That only follows if the amount of police violence, either in frequency or severity, increased to match the decline in non-police violence, which is highly improbable. Also, by and large those who suffer police violence are criminals; while those who suffer from criminal violence are far less likely to be criminals than those who suffer police violence. So your evidence fails to support your conclusion.

  20. From wikipedia:

    “One of Bell’s friends was heard to say “yo, get my gun and kill that dumb white bitch” as they left the scene. Fearing a shooting may occur, the detective followed the men to their car while alerting his backup team, prompting the team to confront Bell and his companions before they could leave the scene”

    …so if that is true, the cops had some reason to believe someone in the car was armed.

  21. In which case they weren’t defending themselves from a random aggressor – they were discharging their duties as police officers. Which invokes the “reasonable use of force” doctrine.

  22. This is a nonexistent distincion; cops have the same legal right to self-defense that the rest of the general population does; they don’t give it up when they identify themselves as police officers. They weren’t defending themselves from a random agressor, they were defending themselves from their suspect who was attempting to run them over.

  23. Then why did it take one of the four cops 31 shots – two full mags – to “defend” himself? Why did the others stop after seven shots or four, having successfully brought the oncoming car to a halt?

  24. Perhaps because he was in fear for his life and was acting on fear and adrenaline?

    Seriously, you’re trying to trap self-defenders in a Catch-22. For it to be legitimate self-defense, they have to be in *fear* for their *lives*. They have to believe that, if they don’t draw and fire, they’re probably going to *die*. That means their adrenaline’s pumping, their visual field narrows down to a tunnel, heart rate goes through the roof, and they’re acting on what they’ve practiced.

    Then you expect someone in that state to instantly recognize the moment the threat stops, to coolly and rationally and dispassionately take in the whole scene and realize “I can stop shooting now, I’m safe”?

    No, people don’t work like that, either psychologically or physiologically.

  25. You’re right – I do hold badges to higher standards than civilians. I won’t argue otherwise.

  26. That’s fine, and there’s an argument to be made that that’s what the law should do too, but it doesn’t. There isn’t one standard of self-defense for cops, and another for non-cops. That doesn’t mean that the judge in this case arrived at a bad decision, since he’s bound to apply the law as it’s written.

  27. As far as the “Scared White Guy Scale” goes, how exactly does it apply here, where the only cop who even appears ‘white’ is of Lebanese descent? The “overly aggressive NYPD cop” scale might serve better.

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