Police and systemic storytelling

“Catching criminals.” This is the activity police truly like to identify with, however little of their time it occupies. Occasionally, police stumble on red-handed robbers or thugs fleeing an assault. But the bulk of “catching” people lies in traversing the city as necessary to find someone on the word of someone else. Police act as go-betweens for antagonists who may even be practically within arm’s reach — yelling outside their cars in a fender bender, or giving opposite accounts of a domestic dispute. Real “investigation” — the glorious business of tracing an unidentified malefactor after the fact of a crime, without just finding out who did it from the witnesses closest at hand — is an activity that does exist in police departments, but only among a tiny number of specialized personnel who don’t even have to wear uniforms.
When police identify crimes against the city, state, or law, rather than against an affronted person — the so-called victimless crimes of illicit possession, unlicensed work, or unlicensed sale — they perform the essential police function of distributing crime. The legislature declares certain objects and unlicensed commerce illegal; the police then go and distribute these violations. Street drugs are made illegal (prescription drugs are fine), hidden and unlicensed weapons are illegal (carried by people on unsafe streets, which is to say the poor), flawed cars are illegal (busted taillight, broken muffler, unpaid insurance). Thus police spend a large part of their time distributing crime to the sorts of people who seem likely to be criminals — the poor and marginal — and the prediction is prophetic: these people turn out to be criminals as soon as they are stopped and forced to turn out the contents of their pockets or glove boxes. Leave them alone, and most would never be “criminal” at all. The majority of violations technically listed in the tables of the law are of no interest to uniformed police. People who break laws in business are unlikely to be detected or sought out, and when their violations are disclosed — leading to the awkwardness of having to reach a settlement — they are dealt with by regulatory agencies, guilds, or accrediting bodies, and at the far extreme by civil-court proceedings and court-mandated money exchanges. Very rarely are police or criminal justice brought in.

From this brilliant piece by Mark Greif on police.

Pop culture is worth deep scrutiny because it is how so many people come to understand the role of certain jobs in society, like that of the police, and so the distortions of mediums like film and television become the mental errors of the populace. An analogous misperception exists with lawyers, who are almost always litigators in criminal proceedings in the movies and film, and then we enter the business world and spend most of our time working with lawyers on contracts, playing chicken on indemnification with lawyers representing some other entity in a transaction.

The basic ambition of a policeman is to ceaselessly project force, stolidity, seriousness, intimidation. But that’s impossible. Policing contains daily humiliations at each inevitable failure of the policeman’s front. The uniform itself, the badge in its widest sense, with the luster of all shields meant to dazzle, is meant to maintain this front regardless of the individual inside. But the uniform can never succeed. You would need Robocop. There is something in the cladness of police, their preoccupation with holding the uniform together, that makes us aware of all their armor’s shortcomings, or inspires one to imagine these human beings naked, their uniforms taken away. The traditional English name for the mana with which police are invested is surely awe. Erving Goffman, in his famous conceptualizations of front, face, and performance, recalled Kurt Riezler’s point that the inevitable obverse of awe is shame.
The coupling of awe and shame among police comes out in our awareness of police symmetry and asymmetry. A shield is worn on the peak of the hat, while a second one covers the heart. The gun descends from one side of the utility belt, and, traditionally, the nightstick hangs from the other. Sometimes a flashlight substitutes. Looking at individual police, they almost always seem lopsided. The belt pulls down on one side. The blouse comes undone. They are constantly hiking up their pants. The regulation shoes are the same as those of nurses, waiters, and mail carriers. Heaviness gathers at the waist, in a sedentary, slow, caloric job. There is something in police that droops.

"The inevitable observe of awe is shame." A wonderful line, one that can't help but bring our current President to mind, with his deep-seated need to reinforce his self-regard with public declarations laced with superlatives, staving off the despair that might come from confronting what is more than enough shame to last a lifetime. Shamelessness is exactly what it sounds like, an absence of shame, but it need not be nature. I've met many a person who can nurture their own seamless shell against the onset of their own shame; one can be shamed by the public but it truly wounds when one feels it themselves.

[I steer clear here of bodily shame, though many have directed such attacks at people like Trump and Bannon. I'm almost certainly guilty of this in the past, and I regret it. Body shaming is hitting below the belt no matter who it's directed against, and Trump and Bannon would be no less evil if they looked like George Clooney.]

Most surprising, perhaps, is that to spend time looking at police is to see that the law is not a true resource for them. A rationale, yes, but a thin one. Police lack law. I hadn’t noticed this until I really started watching them, thinking about what I saw, reading research done on them. The original television version of Law & Order split each episode into two parts. First, policing; second, courtroom proceedings. It took me years to notice that the title was backward. Police are order. This explains the police perception of, and anathema toward, any symbol of disorder or mess. In their daily practice, police pledge at every level to clean up dirt. The cliché from Mary Douglas’s Purity and Danger, her cross-cultural study of the constitution of dirt and taboo, holds up here: What we call dirt is only “matter out of place.”
It is always hard to remind or convince police that their stated loyalty is to the Constitution. It’s not their fault, really, so much as it is the fault of a municipal organization of authority that keeps legal and political thinking at a level “above their pay grade.” A bad consequence is that it’s quite difficult to make police feel responsible for civil rights violations or unjust laws, since rights and the law of the polity are not theirs to know or decide.

This is one area where culture has shed some light on this paradox of police work. In film, the protagonist is often a rank and file policeman who tries to enforce the law but is deterred, sometimes by the a puppet of a police commissioner whose strings are being pulled by those with real power, like corrupt politicians, and sometimes by fellow cops who exploit their position to stand outside the law.

Still, it's an easy conflation. I haven't played the Sims since I was a child, but I'm sure if I played that game today, one of the tasks to be checked off in building any city would be the installation of a police headquarters as a proxy for instilling law and order. As Greif notes, that handles the "order" half, but law is something else entirely. I'm not sure if the game would be as appealing if establishing the rule of law were a prerequisite to building a community, but it would be an order of magnitude more instructive.

Liberal and social contract theories of democracy — those that begin from Hobbes and Locke and that form the official philosophical background to the American Republic that was constituted in 1787 — do have a central place for punishment, but not for police. This is perhaps because, on a strong version of contract theory, police ought not to exist. How could democratic agreement fail to be self-enforcing in its daily practice if the agreement is real, sustained by each individual’s consent? Social-contract theory does include the discouragement and rectification of error after definite breaches of the contract, as punishment will address the convicted wrongdoer who either gave in to the temptation of self-interest or was perverted to it by some personal flaw. But the right agency for requital is penal law. Crime and punishment belong to judicial proceedings and courts, where the cause can be unfolded after the fact. There is no location alongside or outside the citizens and their contract for a supplementary force or additional locus of authority and violence, for mediation or interruption. There is no place for any intervening agency with political standing, only as a kind of collector or picker-upper of persons — hence, an agency very much like that of a trash picker or one who carries dirt from the streets, as Smith proposed.

Again, film and television cues us to the separation of police from detective work and law through its choreography of crime scenes. The detective, not in police uniform, arrives and steps under the police tape to be greeted by one of many who are in police garb, handling the administrative work of keeping the crime scene clean. The detective is the one who kneels over the victim's body and asks the question, and the detective is the one that spots something amiss which will lead to the next development in the case, or the plot, as they are synonymous.

SUPPOSE WE SAY THIS: Police are negotiators, but without access to contract, law, or eloquence. Their medium is not law. They do not always use memorable or wholly coherent words. Usually they confront situations of conflict they did not cause, but which they are required to enter as third parties. There, they become deliberately distracting, grandstanding observers, turning the attention of other parties away from each other and toward themselves.
When you look at them this way, focusing on the middle range between space-holding inaction and violent attack, you can see how negotiating is actually what the police do unendingly, habitually — but unfamiliarly, because in some way they refuse to recognize or care about the original goals of the relevant parties. They bring a separate set of criteria to bear, and not always an appealing one. Is this chargeable? Should this person be removed or transported temporarily? How soon can I leave, and how do I scare these citizens a bit so they won’t come into conflict again and police won’t need to come back? Police negotiate without a unitary reference or goal — other than to end the necessity for their being present, unless they’re in a location they want to forbid the use of to others. And they are always asking themselves a separate question, of whether to lift a person out of the horizontal conflict and into the vertical mechanism of criminal justice — a process they will not ultimately be responsible for, and which they won’t have to enter into themselves.

The pleasure of a David Simon work is that he is a systems storyteller in a world where most pop culture is focused on lone hero, the descendants of Odysseus in the Western canon. What made The Wire so astounding, and what makes The Deuce the best show on television right now, is Simon's recognition of the power of structural forces. The way he teaches is through a nested Russian doll plot architecture which still, at its core, begins with an individual, but the story always ends with that individual trapped several layers deep. He's hooking us with the marionette, but then removing all the stage dressing and scaffolding so we see the puppeteer.

Systems storytelling isn't always pleasurable. As Penn and Teller have noted about explaining how magic tricks work, doing so usually removes all the magic.

Matt: “So why don’t you explain all your tricks?”
Teller: “Because the short explanation—the explanation that you’d have to do during a theatrical or TV performance—is dull and no fun. The greatest secret to making a deceptive piece of magic is you do it by the ugliest possible means. It’s complex, it’s unromantic, it’s unclever. Because there are no big secrets. There is no safe full of magic secrets somewhere. Jim Steinmeyer said he thinks most of the public believes there’s a big safe that contains all the magic secrets. The biggest job for a magician, he says, is to conceal the fact that that safe is empty. Because every magic secret is just a minor modification of something that you fully understand in everyday life. Take suspending something with a thread, for example. Everybody’s not been able to see a piece a thread when they were trying to put it through a needle. What makes it difficult to find is lighting and background. If a magician’s using a thread on stage, say, to levitate a ball, he must use lighting and background to conceal the thread. There’s no obscure secret in that. You learned that playing in your grandmother’s sewing box. Every magic ‘secret’ is hiding in plain sight in the everyday world. It’s not news, and eminently drab.”

But it doesn't have to be dull. As Penn and Teller themselves have shown, sometimes revealing the mechanics of magic is still magical. Dorothy was disappointed to find the Wizard of Oz was just a man behind a curtain, pulling knobs and levers, but we probably don't revere systemic understanding nearly enough.

Ricky Jay

Deborah Baron, a screenwriter in Los Angeles, where Jay lives, once invited him to a New Year’s Eve dinner party at her home. About a dozen other people attended. Well past midnight, everyone gathered around a coffee table as Jay, at Baron’s request, did closeup card magic. When he had performed several dazzling illusions and seemed ready to retire, a guest named Mort said, “Come on, Ricky. Why don’t you do something truly amazing?”

Baron recalls that at that moment “the look in Ricky’s eyes was, like, ‘Mort—you have just fucked with the wrong person.’ ”

Jay told Mort to name a card, any card. Mort said, “The three of hearts.” After shuffling, Jay gripped the deck in the palm of his right hand and sprung it, cascading all fifty-two cards so that they travelled the length of the table and pelted an open wine bottle.

“O.K., Mort, what was your card again?”

“The three of hearts.”

“Look inside the bottle.”

Mort discovered, curled inside the neck, the three of hearts. The party broke up immediately.

It's been a while since I've seen one of those lists of articles to peruse from the New Yorker's temporary open archive. This profile of Ricky Jay from 1993 is one of my favorites.

While I was living in LA, I saw him perform live twice. This description of Jay from the profile is perfect: “He has a skeptically friendly, mildly ironic conversational manner and a droll, filigreed prose style.”

Magic is storytelling

And storytelling is magic.  At least a certain type of storytelling.

Chris Jones builds on his great article "The Honor System," published in Esquire about a year ago, about a magician who stole a trick from another magician. The trick that was stolen was called Shadows, and the magician it was stolen from was none other than Teller, the quieter of the duo Penn and Teller. If you've never seen Shadows, it's just a beautifully conceived illusion, almost poetically concise.

As I describe it, I’m not doing justice to this trick. It is an amazing trick. The first time I saw it I was trying to figure it out: How did he do that? The second, and third and fourth time I saw it I just started watching it, just letting myself go into the magic; and the theater goes silent, silent, silent when he’s doing this trick. And in the dark you can hear people crying. It’s amazing. You’re just sitting there and you’ll hear a sob back here, and a sob back there. And all Teller’s doing is this magic trick.

As writers, we never get to see our audiences. I imagine that people are reading my stories, and laughing or crying or whatever I want them to be doing. But Teller can hear it, Teller can see his audience and see what he does, and doing that story made me want to be a magician. It just made me want to do something as special as Shadows. So I studied magic. And Teller told me something that I’ve never really forgotten. It’s my favorite quote that I’ve ever gotten from an interview. He said: “Sometimes magic is just someone spending more time on something than anyone else might reasonably expect.”

My brother James and I really got into magic one summer years ago. James had the patience to practice until he became quite good. I never really stuck with it. But I have a deep appreciation for the art of performing, that desire for a storyteller's control over his audience.

Magic is often described as a form of storytelling, but Jones contemplates the reverse. What can storytellers learn from magicians? 

So these are the seven principles of magic, and I think they’re the seven principles of storytelling: palm, ditch, steal, load, simulation, misdirection, and switch.

Never mind the seven principles for a moment. We can make this even simpler. We can boil great magic, great storytelling, down to one basic principle. Some people think tricks are just designed to fool people. That’s what a trick is. It is to fool somebody. A great trick is more than that. Shadows is more than that. A trick is a lie — that’s totally true — but a great trick is a beautiful lie. The best tricks stoke a battle between your brain and your heart. You’re watching it, you know it’s not magic, you know in your head that no one is a real magician, but you see something so beautiful that moves you in your chest. For the best magic tricks — there’s a real collision between those two things — where what you see is impossible, you know it’s impossible, but it’s so beautiful you want to believe it’s true. And great magic, great storytelling, has that battle between your head and your heart, but you want your heart to win. That’s when you have a really great story. When someone reading it knows something intellectually, but the spiritual component of it, the emotional component of it overpowers whatever they’re thinking.


A supercut of Joe Biden's greatest hits at the Senate swearing-in ceremonies yesterday. There's a fine line between charm and harassment, and damn if Biden doesn't dance it like a pro (hat tip to @kenwuesq)


I finally read the Adam Green article about pickpocket master Apollo Robbins in this week's New Yorker. It is fantastic. This video of one of Robbins' pickpocket routines, one mentioned in the article, is low-res but gives you an idea of his technique of manipulating the audience's attention. Related, if you have time and Hulu Plus, watch Bresson's Pickpocket. Also great.


Did MIchael Jackson's Thriller sell 100 million copies? After Thriller, what is the number two selling album of all time? Can any album hope to match any of these giants again? Surprising answers here.


This is an old article, but until recently I hadn't renewed my NYTimes subscription in months. Humans have long quested after eternal life, but one creature has already solved it: the immortal jellyfish. It ages, then like Benjamin Button, it grows young again, until it is back where it started. And then it reverses course yet again, in an endless cycle.

Turritopsis has now been observed not only in the Mediterranean but also off the coasts of Panama, Spain, Florida and Japan. The jellyfish seems able to survive, and proliferate, in every ocean in the world. It is possible to imagine a distant future in which most other species of life are extinct but the ocean will consist overwhelmingly of immortal jellyfish, a great gelatin consciousness everlasting.

"A great gelatin consciousness everlasting" is a beautiful image, like something from a Miyazaki film.

Less an article about how close we are to harnessing the immortal jellyfish's secrets for human needs than a study of the peculiar Japanese scientist who has made that organism his life's work.


Also from that issue of the NYTimes Magazine was an article about a man who was inspired by his autistic son to start a company employing autistic adults. Of particular interest:

The autistic worker, Cowen wrote, has an unusually wide variation in his or her skills, with higher highs and lower lows. Yet today, he argued, it is increasingly a worker’s greatest skill, not his average skill level, that matters. As capitalism has grown more adept at disaggregating tasks, workers can focus on what they do best, and managers are challenged to make room for brilliant, if difficult, outliers. This march toward greater specialization, combined with the pressing need for expertise in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, so-called STEM workers, suggests that the prospects for autistic workers will be on the rise in the coming decades. If the market can forgive people’s weaknesses, then they will rise to the level of their natural gifts.

Many, including Cowen, have theorized that Sherlock Holmes was a high-functioning autistic, modeled on another man who may have had functional autism, his creator Arthur Conan Doyle. What was TV's House but an updated version of Holmes and arguably also a doctor who, thanks to a group of people who tolerated his eccentricities, was able to leverage his peak skill to great effect?

When tech companies talk about whether to hire brilliant assholes, they're trying to evaluate whether they can leverage that person's peak skill while shielding the rest of the organization from the collateral damage. Often that person must be put in a silo, quarantined from coworkers, like Hannibal Lecter in a glass cage, working in isolation.

Patents and Magic

Chris Jones' article in Esquire about Teller and magic and idea theft is fantastic. I'm skeptical of the value of software patents on innovation, but in the person of Jim Steinmeyer, Jones makes a case that "patent" infringement in magic has had a depressive effect on magic trick innovation or R&D.

Steinmeyer is a magic trick inventor. He comes up with ideas for magic tricks, then sells them to magicians like David Copperfield to perform. He's like a screenwriter, but for magic. Few people realize how many magicians like David Blaine purchase the ideas for the tricks they perform. Steinmeyer even has the equivalent of production designers (like Bill Smith) to build the contraptions for his tricks. I imagine Steinmeyer with a warehouse like the one in The Prestige, just brimming to the ceilings with coffins, tanks, saws, top hats, and cages. The overlap between magic and movies shouldn't be surprising; both are performance arts, and movies are a form of a long con.

According to Steinmeyer, patent theft has taken its toll on the economic viability of his trade.

At least another thousand magicians have bought knockoffs built by a man in Indiana, and a guy in Sicily, and a team of reverse engineers in China.

"Things are just out of control," Smith says. "It's the world, and it's getting worse. There have always been thieves in magic, but thievery has never been so bad as it is now. The biggest shame is, guys like Jim — Jim is retreating. I'm sure he has tons of other good ideas, but he's not making them, because it's not worth it. He's writing books instead."

"Invention is all fuzzy, sloppy stuff," Steinmeyer says. "I have patents, and I have had patents that have expired. Everything has a limited lifetime. But when a person can't make a living by coming up with new material, that's when you have to wonder about the system. I would say that over the last few years, the last ten years, it's a net zero. I'm putting as much money into it as I'm getting out."

The article does say Steinmeyer has never sued someone who has stolen one of his tricks, so maybe his economic argument is just supposition. There are other considerations, though. A cruel irony with magic is that suing someone over one of your patented magic tricks may mean revealing how the trick is done in court, "making the very act of protecting magic one of the easiest ways to destroy it."

But the article has more of note than a dive into the world of patents as it applies to magic. It is canny about magic. For example:

The secret to a great trick isn't really its method; the method behind most tricks is ugly and disappointing, something blunt and mechanical.

That's something my brother James and I learned every time we purchased a magic trick off of Penguin Magic and realized how it was done. As with sausage, it's best not to tour the factory.

And then there's the time the article spends with Teller. Among non-magicians, Teller is a person often cited as an inspiration because he's an obsessive artist. He's perhaps the most well-known high priest of the craft and upholder of the magic's unwritten code.

There's a story in there about a long con Teller constructed around a short story called "Enoch Soames." It could only ever be performed once. And the description of a magic trick called Honor System that's less an illusion than a test of faith.

Oh, just go read it.