Uber’s Latest Stunt Is Literally A Crock of Horse Shit, But What Follows?

I am not particularly a fan of the ride-sharing service Uber. Although in general I am not a fan of occupational licensing and monopolistic barriers to entry, I would rather have a well-regulated taxi fleet than a giant corporation with lousy attitudes toward labor and safety. Especially if said corporation acts like a peevish child.

So I am, of course, not amused by this:

Austin City Council members are considering regulations for ridesharing companies Uber and Lyft. If passed, the City would collect fees from these companies, and also impose fingerprint-based background checks on drivers. On Thursday, Uber launched a campaign against the Council member who initiated these regulations.

Not named for the room in your house, but District 5 Council Member Ann Kitchen. The service area spans from five square blocks downtown – from Nueces Street to Congress Avenue, stretching from Cesar Chavez Boulevard to Fifth Street – charges a flat $50 fee, doesn’t operate before 6 p.m., and won’t operate in the rain. There’s another caveat to the service: its drivers only operate a horse and buggy.

“When you open it up no cars are available right now and you see what life was like before Uber in Austin,” says Chris Nakutis, general manager of Uber Texas. He says the ridesharing requirements proposed by Kitchen will push Uber out of Austin, Kitchen begs to differ.

“These rules are not about about getting rid of Uber,” she says, responding to Uber’s campaign today. “The fact that a corporation is attacking the Council because they don’t want to comply with safety rules is disgraceful.”

Uber, of course, has every right to engage in politics, and I have to admire the targeting of their campaign. But let’s not get fooled by faux-populism; any industry that can afford to pay  high-powered consultants like Chris Lehane (of Airbnb and formerly the Clinton White House) and David Plouffe (of Uber and formerly the Obama White House) is one that wields plenty of power.

Per the New York Times, the strong-arming is about to get serious:

Airbnb offered the latest and most vociferous example of this on Wednesday. Fresh off defeating a San Francisco measure that would have severely curtailed the company’s business in its hometown, Airbnb staged a news conference that functioned as a warning shot to other cities thinking about proposing new regulations.

The event was billed as a debriefing to discuss the defeat of Proposition F, which would have toughened existing rules for the service by, among other things, cutting the number of nights people could rent out rooms in their homes.

But the briefing was less about the actual election than an attempt to turn the results into a mandate for the sharing economy.

Chris Lehane, a Washington political operative who now serves as Airbnb’s head of global policy and public affairs, framed Proposition F as a hotel-industry-led attack on the middle class.

In this city of about 840,000 people, roughly $8 million was raised by groups opposed to Proposition F — about eight times the amount raised by the proposition’s backers, according to records filed with the San Francisco Ethics Commission.

Assuming, ad arguendo, that Crazy Don Zimmerman’s lawsuit gets thrown out, Austin will still have fairly tight rules regarding campaign donations. But I would not be surprised if Uber tried to scare candidates (especially those who are not as established as Ann Kitchen) with PACs, issue-ads, astroturfing and other general shenanigans.

Watch for it.


Greg Abbott: Not A Leader, Kinda Useless

It’s upsetting that the Governor has to involve himself in H.E.R.O., repeating the same dishonest “bathroom” canard as the antis on Twitter.

But I think it’s even more upsetting that the only thing that Greg Abbott seems to do these days is to be led around by a bunch of tin-pot Teabagging wingnuts.

Greg Abbott is a guy whose signature achievement since taking office is to boldly explore new ways to engage in “me too”-ism. He’s the worst kind of demagogue — the kind with no original ideas or voice of his own.

Whether it be charging into the “sanctuary cities” debate without doing his homework, mindlessly following the anti-Planned Parenthood lynch mob, senselessly pandering to paranoid cranks over Jade Helm 15, killing mental health legislation to appease Scientologists, or steadfastly refusing to help Texas hospitals by accepting free money, it is clear that Greg Abbott will do literally anything to suck-up to the crazy conspiracy theorists and other wackadoos.

One expects – in a partisan, ideological society – that our elected officials will be partisan and ideological. But one also expects that they will, from time-to-time, break out of that mold and actually lead.

I honestly cannot think of a single time, since his swearing-in as governor, that Greg Abbott has even attempted to do that. His entire tenure seems to be driven by a fear of the far-right; whereas at one point perhaps he hoped to be its master, it seems that he has become its slave.

He might as well just quit and hand the reins over to Ted Nugent, Rafael Cruz, Steve Hotze and Alex Jones. At least that way we taxpayers could save money by not paying him.

“Why Is It Important To Know Your Family’s History?”

German Lopez at Vox reflects on a young African-American’s conundrum when presented with a slightly Eurocentric homework assignment:

The answers, tweeted above by the student’s mother, are revealing. Where did your family immigrate from? Africa. When did they immigrate? Whenever the slave owners took them. Why did they immigrate? Because the white man wanted free labor. Who did they immigrate with? Other slaves. Did they know anybody here before they came? No, because they were stolen. What was life like when they first came here to live? Horrible. Do you still have family where they came from? I don’t know. Why is it important to know your family history? So that you know traditions and family values.

It is perhaps the last question and answer that’s most revealing. The point of these assignments in school is to reflect on your family’s origin and what it means to you today. And for many kids, that means reflecting on European, Latin American, or even US roots that are easily traceable.

“Her hesitation was in the way the assignment was worded. It suggested the students ‘go back as far as you can,’ but continually referred to ‘immigrants,'” the student’s mother said in an email. “That immediately made her think of relatives/ancestors that came to America from another country. And for us that would obviously be west Africa. Of course we know the history of how today’s African American came to be in America and I find it to be one of America’s dirty little secrets and this assignment is proof positive of that.”

She added, “The general assumption is made that everyone has some grand success story of families leaving their home country and coming to America in search of better opportunities. But the simple and plain truth is that not all of us have this story to tell and the ability to trace one’s ancestry is a privilege within itself — one that most if not all black Americans do not have.”

On my other blogs, Archerology and Dallas DossiersI deal with family history, which is one of my favorite hobbies. As I have worked to discover my own roots, I have gained some wisdom relating to why and how people look into this subject.

I think young people, and the naive, are primarily interested in knowing which famous people they are related to. On that account, I am liable to point out that my mother’s side of the family is related by marriage to June Carter and (by extension), Johnny Cash. Redneck Royalty, if you will.

On the other side of the family, though, there are quite a few Old Virginia families, who collectively owned hundreds of other human beings. This is not a particular point of pride, from a moral standpoint; but it’s also not much fun to talk about from an intellectual standpoint, either. The fact is that people with money and power tend to “show up” in the historical record quite a bit; social privilege extends even in death. Books are written about such people, stories are told, songs are sung, and homes and graves venerated. Although some of the finer points may still be up for debate, the fact is that most of what we know about the well-off comes giftwrapped. Accordingly, as a researcher and writer, I tend to think of these people as being rather boring and uninteresting.

The really interesting people in my family tree are the people who I know little about, and who might be easily forgotten. Spending hours digging through online databases, libraries, graveyards, etc. just to get a scrap of knowledge about them… that’s what really gets me going. Some of the most consuming enigmas in my family tree include assumed aliases, secret marriages, adoptions, criminals, children who died as infants, etc.

So altogether, I’d say that studying family history has made me more sympathetic to ordinary people, and more determined to try to tell the stories of the masses rather than the “great men” who disproportionately consume the attentions of historians.

Furthermore, studying family history has, therefore, made me more appreciative of community. Trying to help others find their own history has become important to me, and that is why I am always trying to find more opportunities to share what I find

Returning to the matter at and: Perhaps one of the cruelest injury to African-Americans today is the fact that their family histories were often abruptly cut off by slavery, and even after Emancipation a lack of documentation effectively suppresses truth.

There is of course a non-trivial possibility that somewhere along the line, Native American or African-American heritage might have been covered up. I haven’t found any evidence of that yet (and indeed, there is a strange history regarding “Indian blood” in Southern white culture), but there are certainly some people I just can’t explain very well.

Nevertheless, I must recognize that I can trace most of my family with greater ease and less trauma, than many, many people. In a sense, being able to track one’s family history is important because it is a part of having a personal identity, which is an important part of human dignity.

Heads If You’re Guilty, Tails If You’re Guilty

If we’re going to have a national conversation about criminal justice reform, we need to talk about the uses and abuses of scientific evidence.

As we’re learning in Travis County, Texas — scientific evidence is highly persuasive, technically-inscrutable, and yet, often completely bogus:

Criminal cases in Travis County may be soon be under review. According to the Department of Public Safety, the method used when testing DNA mixtures at the Texas DPS Crime Lab back from 1999 until August of 2015 was basically spitting out the wrong statistics. That means any case that used this testing in the last 16 years could be up for new testing and review.

Chris Perri has been a criminal defense attorney for more than 10 years.

“I have never yet seen anything like this. I think it was kind of huge news when it came out, because in my mind, that’s the hardest thing to combat as a criminal defense attorney is the scientific evidence,” Perri said.

He already has one case approved to be up for review, after the crime laboratory was found to be giving inaccurate probabilities. He said juries rely on scientific evidence.

“When the scientists came on the stand, they’re like ‘oh, this has to be true.’ So if the scientist says, if this defendant cannot be excluded from the DNA mixture we tested and there’s a one in a million chance that somebody else at random could also match that, that’s pretty powerful stuff. So if you later find out the scientific testing was wrong, I think it’s very concerning because juries were hanging their hat on that.”

Meaning 16 years of criminal cases in Travis County that used this testing could be under review.

“I think this DNA revelation is really mind-blowing. I mean you’re going to find hundreds, thousands around this country that are going to have to be retried or we are going to have to let people out if they were wrongly convicted,” Houston State Senator Rodney Ellis, who’s also a chair for the Innocence Project, said, adding we have not been willing to invest enough money into the science of making sure that we get it right. “You want to make absolutely sure that if you’re going to take someone’s liberty, it’s the right person.”

Here, at least, the scandal seems to have been carelessness and lack of scientific rigor. I was practicing law in the Houston metro area though when the Harris County Crime Lab scandal was going on. And so I am not shocked, but saddened, to see that there seems to be a national epidemic of willful wrongdoing by forensic scientists (not just snafus).

Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick makes the case:

Earlier this year, I wrote about a sprawling prosecutorial scandal in Orange County, California, involving a long-standing program of secret jailhouse snitches that had tainted prosecutions in cases almost too numerous to count. This story has only continued to worsen. One of the prosecutors at the heart of the case simply packed up and left California last month, and just this week the news emerged that Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas had been told that his office might have a jailhouse informant problem all the way back in 1999, a full 16 years before the current allegations about the misuse of jailhouse snitches had surfaced.

The problem with a scandal on this order of magnitude isn’t just that it reflects a fundamental flaw in the justice system. The problem is that, as a purely practical matter, there is simply no easy way to correct it. In Orange County, some convictions have been tossed, others have been stalled, and a call for a Justice Department investigation has gone unheeded. Even years after cases like this come to light, undoing or redoing wrongful convictions proves almost impossible to achieve, especially when the state believes someone else should be cleaning up the mess.

Perhaps the most dramatic example of a massive scandal that cannot seem to be reversed involves Annie Dookhan, a chemist who worked at a Massachusetts state lab drug analysis unit. Dookhan was sentenced in 2013 to at least three years in prison, after pleading guilty in 2012 to having falsified thousands of drug tests. Among her extracurricular crime lab activities, Dookhan failed to properly test drug samples before declaring them positive, mixed up samples to create positive tests, forged signatures, and lied about her own credentials. Over her nine-year career, Dookhan tested about 60,000 samples involved in roughly 34,000 criminal cases. Three years later, the state of Massachusetts still can’t figure out how to repair the damage she wrought almost single-handedly.

The growing number of crime-lab scandals seems to me to reflect a serious dysfunction in the character of law enforcement and prosecutors. Forensic evidence isn’t the only front in that battle. We have prosecutors withholding evidence (here, here for two recent high-profile instances in Texas). When Ken Anderson went to jail for that, it was a true man-bites-dog-story.

Furthermore, we have appellate judges who just don’t seem to care what the evidence is. There are good reasons to believe that Texas has executed innocent men – Cameron Todd Willingham’s case being only the most picked-over – and the reaction seems to be — don’t even try to gather potentially-exculpatory evidence.

I went to Planned Parenthood once for an STD test.

They turned me into a newt…

…I got better!

The Austin-American Statesman:

Texas is gearing up for a full-fledged witch hunt.

The target is women’s health provider Planned Parenthood, and it is clear that lawmakers and state officials will not stop until the 94-year-old nonprofit is completely dismantled in Texas.

Last week ended with Planned Parenthood being put on notice that the state intended to strip the nonprofit of its ability to receive Medicaid reimbursement for health services, alleging that Planned Parenthood had “committed and condoned numerous acts of misconduct captured on video.”

Interestingly, the state has not yet produced any evidence to support its allegation that laws or policies were broken aside from the heavily edited videos taped in secret and released by an anti-abortion group called the Center for Medical Progress. The controversial fetal tissue program that has dominated the national headlines doesn’t even exist in Texas.

Even so, three days later, state health officials raided three Planned Parenthood offices and subpoenaed the group for thousands of documents, including detailed patient records.

Let me underscore this important fact.

Planned Parenthood’s Texas affiliates are not even engaged in the fetal donation program that was deemed scandalous by the con-artists at the CMP. And even if they were, that is not illegal or unethical.

Meanwhile, our benevolent federal overlords are not pleased with these recent reactionary shenanigans:

The Obama administration has warned state officials that pushing Planned Parenthood out of the state’s Medicaid program could put Texas at odds with federal law.

Officials with the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services contacted the state Medicaid director on Tuesday to give notice that removing Planned Parenthood from the program “may be in conflict with federal law” because poor women who obtain family planning services through Medicaid would be limited from receiving health care from the qualified provider of their choice.

“Longstanding Medicaid law prohibits states from restricting individuals with Medicaid coverage from receiving their care from any qualified provider,” a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services representative said in a statement. “Every year, millions of women benefit from critical preventive services, such as cancer screenings, that Planned Parenthood provides. State efforts to restrict women from using qualified providers puts these important health care services at risk.”

On a similar note… remember how the U.S. Army totally did not invade Texas and impose Kenyan muslim socialist atheist martial law?

Yeah. About that.

Thanks a lot for nothing, Obama.

SXSW ’16 Melts Down Over #GamerGate

Ever since moving to Austin, I’ve scrupulously avoided SXSW. It was cool once but now it mostly seems kinda douche-y.

I read the news today, oh boy, and nothing in it has convinced me that I am wrong. Leigh Alexander at Wired.com (itself kind of a haven for insufferable digerati) puts it gently:

GamerGate is one of the more more visible harassment campaigns in recent memory, and its fallout has emphasized the need for dialogue about online abuse and ways to support women, people of color, and other marginalized populations in a historically male-dominated digital space. And while we’d all like to know what could possess someone to send death threats over video games, you’d have to be pretty out of touch to say hey, let’s hear what the harassers think about it; it’s only fair!

Except that’s essentially what SXSW did when it allowed a panel of GamerGaters onto its 2016 program lineup. It also cancelled a panel on overcoming harassment in games—in response to threats of harassment, which no doubt came from GamerGaters (the proposed anti-harassment panel included sociologist Katherine Cross and activist Randi Harper, two of their favorite targets). In the end SXSW canceled both panels, a widely criticized decision: Not only did it suggest a false equivalency between “both sides” of a non-debatable issue, but canceling an anti-harassment workgroup because of harassment demonstrates a profoundly shallow understanding of the topic.

A long account of the process—written by Arthur Chu, one of the panel’s participants—highlights how SXSW’s Reddit-style upvote/downvote “panel picker” system was perfectly suited to GamerGate’s preferred modes of attack: comment-thread spamming, slander, and threats. More problematically, even before the controversy erupted, conference organizers barely paid attention to the warning signs, and refused to intervene. With Reddit under prolonged fire for cultivating a toxic community, it’s hard to imagine anyone thought borrowing its toolset would go swimmingly.

Ostensibly, the cancellations were due to security fears; there have been threats made on both sides; and to be sure SXSW has caught flak from the City of Austin over security costs. But Brianna Wu and others have disputed that violent threats justified the response. Cancelling panels was not going to make anyone happy.

Arthur Chu’s conclusion pretty much sums this up:

SXSW’s actions throughout this whole ordeal have been unprofessional, self-serving, and mendacious. They have never really taken seriously the idea of actively working to curb harassment or keep people safe; their one consistent motivation throughout has been the opposite—exploiting people’s abuse for drama and clicks.

And now the backlash over the panel cancellations has begun:

South by Southwest Interactive is facing a growing media backlash over its decision to nix a pair of panels on gaming and online harassment.

A day after organizers for the Austin-based media festival announced that it had canceled the panels after receiving threats of violence, BuzzFeed and Vox Media both said that they plan to withdraw from the annual event.

It looks like the anti-harassment panel “Level Up” may still happen, as of now.

Maybe some day, when Ken Burns makes a documentary about the Great Internet Civil War that is #GamerGate, we’ll look back at this as a moment when corporate America decided it couldn’t abide cowering to trolls.

I wouldn’t bet on it, but it’s nice to dream.

Pros Blow Prose on MoDo’s Beau No-Nos

I wrote earlier this month about Maureen’s Dowd in promoting Bidenmania. On one hand, I’m glad that questions are being asked about the column, but on the other, I’m annoyed because they’re the wrong questions. TPM:

But in an interview with the CBS show “60 Minutes” that aired Sunday night, Biden said that his son’s request wasn’t what it was made out to be.

“Beau all along thought that I should run and I could win,” Biden said. “But there was not what was sort of made out as kind of this Hollywood-esque thing that, at the last minute, Beau grabbed my hand and said, ‘Dad, you’ve got to run, like, win one for the Gipper.’ It wasn’t anything like that.”

Margaret Sullivan, the public editor for The New York Times, wrote on Tuesday that she looked into the matter after hearing from readers who wondered whether Biden’s comment conflicted with Dowd’s column. She asked Dowd to respond.

From Dowd’s email to Sullivan:

The Vice President confirmed on CBS that he often talked to Beau about running for president, and that Beau thought all along that his dad could run and win. Mr. Biden said what never occurred was a “Hollywood-esque thing that at the last minute” there was a deathbed request where Beau “grabbed my hand and said, ‘Dad, you’ve got to run.’ ”I never reported a last-minute deathbed scene where Beau grabbed his father’s hand. In fact, my column recounted a conversation they had seated at a table after Beau knew his prognosis was bad. He was terminally ill for some time.

Ultimately, Sullivan decided that Dowd was in the clear. But Sullivan wrote that the news staff took Dowd’s column “a step further — in fact, a step too far.”

Got that? Maureen Dowd is absolved because, to the extent anyone thought that her column portrayed a maudlin death-bed scene, that was a mischaracterization!

As I noted, the real problem is that, regardless of the exact details of the story, Maureen Dowd did her readers a dis-service by not being candid about the source of her information. Margaret Sullivan deals with that with hand-waving:

Opinion-side columnists have a lot of leeway, and they should. Ms. Dowd took full advantage of that freedom in this column by reporting something newsworthy without describing her source (though, frankly, it wasn’t hard to figure that out, given the paucity of choices)

Well, duh.

But if Dowd had been fully forthcoming about her sourcing, it probably would have spared the body politic quite a bit of Biden drama. The sub-text of Sullivan’s dismissive response is: “look readers, you should expect that our columnists have hidden agendas, and if you were fooled, it’s your own damn fault.

The Times shouldn’t get to dodge the hard questions about journalistic ethics by casting them as nontroversies over literal accuracy.

They’ll get away with it though.

They always do.

Boehner Does America One Last Solid

Sort of like crazy drunk Randy Quaid in Independence Day (played by crazy drunk Randy Quaid), outgoing Speaker of the House John Boehner appears to have saved the day by negotiating a budget-and-debt-ceiling agreement with the White House. Per CNN:

(CNN)Congressional leaders and the White House reached a major deal Monday to avoid a potential fiscal calamity, but not before many Republicans were left fuming that their party leadership had given too much away to their Democratic adversaries.

The agreement, which would raise domestic and defense spending by $80 billion and lift the national borrowing limit until March 2017, could be voted on by the House as soon as Wednesday — the same day the GOP is expected to nominate Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, to replace retiring Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, as House speaker. The deal prompted a tense session among House Republicans Monday night in the basement of the Capitol.

The final details were still being ironed out late into the night Monday. But the deal was the product of weeks of negotiations led by Boehner, who is furiously trying to take the divisive fiscal issues off the plate for Ryan before his successor takes office. If the deal passes, Ryan could have a clear path to do his job without the fiscal brinksmanship that damaged Boehner’s speakership.

Needless to say, the Tortilla Coasters are pissed that Boehner decided to shoot the hostage.

…hat-tip to my friend Lindsay for helping me keep my Quaids straight!