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I'm a Sociology Professor at the University of Toronto. I write about gun violence, health disparities, and Hip Hop culture. When I'm not doing research, I like pop-locking, swimming, and learning Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. This is my first blog. I hope you like it.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Nas' Illmatic Should Be Required Listening

Now that I'm in my 30s, I regularly experience moments that make me feel old.

Today I had one of those realizations: It's been 20 years since Nas dropped "Illmatic."

Wow!

Illmatic
For those who don't know, "Illmatic" is widely considered one of THE most influential Hip Hop albums of all-time.  If you asked around, you'd be hard pressed to find a serious 'head' who doesn't rank it in the top-5 Hip Hop albums.  Some might even put it in the top 3.

There are lots of reasons for why Illmatic is such an important album.  I would argue that it should be required listening for all high school students in the US.  Some of you might smirk at that idea, but it's really an important testament to the kind of creativity that emerges from poverty, racism, and harsh conditions in ghettoes across the world.  In this way, we can think of Illmatic like a primer for the uninitiated.

Anyways, here are three reasons why Illmatic is still dope 20 years later (feel free to add your own, too!):

Reason #1: It is a sonic masterpiece.  Nas worked with Hip Hop heavyweights like Dj Premier and Q-Tip on this album.  The end result is beautiful.  There are few Hip Hop albums that I can listen to from beginning to end.  I have some die hard friends who only listen to albums this way, but I've never been like that.  There are probably only a handful of albums--Hip Hop or otherwise--that can hold my attention from top to bottom.  Illmatic is one of them.  If you're not familiar (or if you haven't heard it in awhile), take a stroll down memory lane.  The album isn't bloated with filler.  It's sleek.  There are 10 songs, which run for a total of about 40 minutes.  You can listen to the entire album in a subway ride.  Some folks would later criticize Nas for releasing albums that have a mix of heaters and filler.  Illmatic is only heat.

Reason #2: Nas' skills are on full display here.  I've talked to so many emcees and heads over the years and there are lots of different ideas about why Nas is so beloved in the Hip Hop community.  I'm paraphrasing, but many talk about how Nas is so respected because he perfectly balances storytelling and wordplay--two of the main pillars in the emcee's craft.  There are other artists who write better songs and surely others who have a more creative and dense wordplay.  But, there aren't many who combine both into a beautiful synergy like Nas.  For good examples, check out "One Love" and "Represent."  In different ways, both are masterful examples of Nas' rare blend of effortless storytelling and wordplay about life in the Queensbridge Projects.  Also, there is a rare kind of maturity in his songs.  Nas doesn't glorify violence, drug dealing, and other local issues, but he doesn't skirt them, either.    

Reason #3: Finally, we all love Illmatic because it's one hell of a debut.  Nas recorded it as a teenager!  Is there a better debut by a Hip Hop artist?   It takes many years for artists to find and cultivate a unique style.  Many go through various growing pains before they find a style that is uniquely their own.  I sometimes cringe when I listen to old albums by my favorite artists, but Illmatic seems to stand the test of time.  Aside from some of the production sounding dated, Nas' verses and rhymes could still hold up under modern day scrutiny.  I'm no emcee, but Nas reminds me of Rakim in this way.

All of this is to say that Illmatic is an important part of Hip Hop's continual evolution and history.  It's been fascinating to see Nas and other artists grow into new roles over the years. Much like other pioneers whose influence extends beyond music, Nas has also become a cultural ambassador.  Many of you might remember how Harvard University announced the launching of the Nasir Jones Fellowship to support Hip Hop studies in the academy last year.  And in addition to a special 20th anniversary album, fillmakers One9 and Erik Parker are releasing a documentary called "Time is Illmatic."  The documentary will cover the album and has already opened in some film festivals to resounding applause.  I can't wait to see it!  Until then, I'll be bumping some more "Illmatic."

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Oscar Pistorius and the Likelihood of Accidental Slayings

Remember Oscar Pistorius?  He's the South African runner who made headlines for competing in the Olympics on prosthetic legs.

Shortly after the games, he made headlines again for shooting and killing his girlfriend, South African model Reeva Steenkamp.  He testified today in his murder trial.

Pistorius and Steemkamp at an all white party
The details of this shooting are very bizarre.

Pistorius and his defense team claim that the fatal shooting was a big mistake.  According to their story, Pistorius thought that intruders were breaking into his house through a tiny bathroom window.  After hearing the sounds, he went for his gun and fired a number of rounds from his 9mm pistol.  They also claim that he was doing all of this on his stumps, without the aid of his prosthetics.

The prosecution is arguing that Pistorius premeditated the shooting and may have shot Steenkamp in a jealous rage.  Different media sources report that Steemkamp may have received a text from an ex-boyfriend, which could have led to a fight.  A lead detective in the case also claimed that Pistorius had a violent past and had arrested Pistorius for assault (he was never charged).  One account even claims that detectives found a casing in the bedroom, which led some to doubt Pistorius' story.  In their version, Pistorius likely fired at Steenkamp in the bedroom.  She fled into the bathroom, which is where she met her end.

I don't have data from South Africa, but accidental slayings with guns are extremely rare.  Let's look at the US for illustration.  In 2010, the CDC reported that there were 31,513 firearm deaths in the US; 19,308 were suicides and 11,015 were homicides.  600 were accidents.  That's about 2% of all shooting deaths.  I looked around for more data, but couldn't find out what percentage of accidental shootings were self inflicted vs. "other" inflicted.  This would be interesting to note, because it could give us a slightly better heuristic for thinking about the statistical probability of Pistorius' story.

I'm certainly interested in seeing how all of this plays out.  I just find it hard to believe that someone can fire a bunch of rounds inside their home and mistakenly kill their partner.

What do you think?  Is this a terrible accident?  Or, is this a crime of passion?


Friday, April 4, 2014

Narco Cultura, Randol Contreras, and Torture

If you have 90 minutes and love documentaries, you might want to check out Narco Cultura.  It's on Netflix and is a powerful, visually stunning, and sobering look at the drug cartel wars in and around Juarez.

This is one of the best documentaries I've seen in awhile.  It's certainly the best one I've seen on the drug wars in Mexico.  The film is directed by Shaul Schwarz, an award-winning Israeli photojournalist.  This is his debut film and it really makes a mark.  The scenes are just stunning.  Schwarz and his crew capture the grinding, dusty poverty along the US-Mexico border. They also show you communities and families who are destroyed by all the chaos and killing.

Ironically, they also show you people whose fortunes are tied to different cartels.  Most of the documentary follows a young guy living in Los Angeles who is an aspiring "narcocorrido" singer.  "Narcocorrido" is a type of Mexican folklore music that tells the stories of drug cartel outlaws.

It sounds quite similar to norteno, a type of folklore music that I grew up hearing a lot as a kid in Cathedral City, CA.  Up until I was 12, I lived in a small apartment complex across the street from this big Mexican church.  I'd stay awake at night and hear the booming sounds of accordions and people singing through my bedroom windows.  Sometimes the music would reverberate against the windows and feel like an earthquake.  And then, I'd hear people blaring it out of their car windows.  The music would quickly come into aural focus and then fade away into broken notes as cars raced down the block.

 I had no idea what people were singing about, but loved the sounds of accordions and the passionate singing.  (I later learned that lots of songs were about 19th century battles between the US and Mexico).  Musically, narcocorrido sounds like traditional norteno, but the content is a lot different.  Narcocorrido music tells the outlaw stories of executions, beheadings, massacres, and other extreme violence committed by the cartels.  The rise of this genre only seems to further glorify the lives of cartel members, who exert enormous power over people living in war zones like Juarez.

A bloody crime scene in Juarez

Although the entire documentary is great, I was particularly struck by one scene where Schwarz and his crew interview a member of the Sinaloa Cartel.  They go into a prison near Juarez and talk to a guy who tells them about torture.  He describes how he and his crew beat a guy with baseball bats and then hammered nails into his hands and limbs.

Much of this interview reminds me of scenes from Randol Contreras' "Stick Up Kids," an incredible urban ethnography about South Bronx drug robbers.  In one chapter Contreras interviews young men from his neighborhood and gets them talking about burning and mutilating drug dealers.  This book isn't for the feint of heart, but it's an important study of young Dominican men whose lives are destroyed by the drug game.

But, unlike Contreras' stories--which highlight the sometimes sadistic pleasure that people get from torturing others--Schwarz's interview leaves you with a different picture.  The interviewee describes the lingering trauma that he felt during and after his torture.  He talks about being scared while torturing his rival.  He also explains how his higher-ups would see any sign of weakness as a sign that he was useless.  So, to hide this (and protect himself), he became super violent and beat this poor guy's head to a pulp.  Afterwards, he couldn't sleep for a week.  He felt regret.  More than anything, this interview helped humanize hitmen and agents of cartels who are also victims in their own right.  We see these men at the mercy of organized cartels that have a stranglehold on places like Juarez.


Anyways, Narco Cultura is an excellent documentary. It helps put some faces on a drug war that sometimes feels surreal.  It also got me thinking a lot about the human toll of drug wars.  Here are some sobering facts. Juarez is a city of approximately 1.3 million residents.  In 2011, there were nearly 2,000 people murdered.  This means that the murder rate was 148 per 100,000 residents.  It had the 2nd highest murder rate in the world that year.  This was 2.5 times higher than the murder rate of New Orleans (58 per 100,00) which was the murder capital of the US.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

An Ode to a Dead Mouse

This is a patch of sod outside the Second Cup on Spadina & Harbord.   I walk my dog by this corner everyday.  Sometimes he'll pee on the tree there.   He likes to do that.  Other times, I'll link his leash to a small fence while I get coffee inside.

One day, back in October, we found a dead mouse near his pee tree.  It wasn't smashed or slit.  It looked to be in perfectly good health.   But, there it was: laid out, eyes wide open, gazing blankly up into the world.

I wondered if the mouse had mistakenly eaten poison thinking that he was getting a nice muffin or tea biscuit?  Or did he die from old age?  Do mice die from old age?

My dog, Phoenix, sniffed out the rotting carcass and tried to fetch it.  I yanked back on his leash, fearing that he might get sick.

This pattern continued for the next 6 months.  Each day, we'd walk by the same corner.  Phoenix would sniff him out and I would yank back on his leash.  Sometimes, he'd pee on the tree, too.

We saw it decompose, get attacked by flies, get buried by snow, get frozen, get thawed, and then get frozen again.  Over time it became less and less recognizable.  The head, the feet, the whiskers--all gone.  It became a matted little piece of fur with a twisted string of a tail.  But, in spite of the elements, this little mouse was resilient.  It wouldn't go away.  I came to respect this little mouse.

I often wondered if someone would come and discard it.  I even contemplated kicking it toward the door and seeing if someone would finally pick it up and throw it away.  It was like I was watching myself on one of those "bystander effect" experiments. You know, the ones where experimenters find that people are less likely to accept responsibility for something if they think others will take charge of it?

Today we walked by the same corner and it was gone.  Phoenix didn't sniff it out.  He didn't try to pee on the tree, either.

I'm glad someone removed it.  It's probably unsanitary or something.  But, I'm also sad to see our little furry friend gone.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Deport Justin Bieber!

Justin Bieber was arrested this morning for DUI and speeding.

I'm really curious to see how this all plays out.  I wonder if his legal team will help him weasel into some posh rehab joint?  Maybe he'll end up in one of those fancy celebrity hang-outs, where other fallen teen stars go to hang out, talk about how difficult it is to be famous, and work on their tans.

Deport him back to Canada!
I'm frankly sick and tired of watching the criminal justice system take it easy on celebrities and other wealthy DUI offenders.  Drunk driving is a horrible crime!  Let's put it in context.  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that 33,687 people were killed in automobile accidents in 2010.  They have other reports suggesting that between 40-50% of these deaths are alcohol related.  This means that about 16,000 people were killed in alcohol related crashes.  In the same year, there were 11,078 firearm homicides.

And car accidents are also costly.  The same studies estimate that the lifetime costs of deaths and injuries among drivers and passengers were $70 billion in 2005.  
It's a real shame that people who have money and resources can skirt the consequences for such dangerous behavior.  I'm sure many of you remember the recent case of a wealthy teen who killed 4 people in a drunken driving accident.  His attorney and psych team argued that he had a bad case of "affluenza" and didn't understand the repercussions of his reckless behavior.  Really?!

Ultimately, I believe in the chance for rehabilitation and think everyone should have the opportunity to atone for their wrongs.  But, I think it's a real joke how our criminal justice system treats celebrities and others who get DUIs.  Maybe I'm old school about this, but I think the penalties should be much harsher for DUI offenders.  They should be akin to those for discharging a firearm in a public place.  If anything, DUI is similar to--if not potentially more dangerous--than firearm related injuries.

How do you all feel about Bieber?  I think he should get deported back to Canada!

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Rambling about a Cop and Richard Sherman

Two videos are going viral this week.  One is about a cop.  The other is about Richard Sherman.  Both raise interesting questions about how we think about media representations.

Richard Sherman giving an impassioned interview
First, there is a video of a Texas cop playing catch with a kid.  I love this video.  It shows a part of police work that we rarely (if ever) get to see.  Mass media representations usually show cops behaving badly, so this is a nice change of pace.

But, although the mass media is framing this as an "unusual" or "surprising" video, we should be critical of this.  Most cops wouldn't blink an eye at this video.  Many that I know feel grossly misrepresented by the news.  Many are equally, if not more upset, when they hear about fellow officers who make the news for corruption, brutality, etc.  Not only does this cast a stain on the police, it also pains individuals who care deeply about keeping communities safe.

Also, from what I know, police departments have long hosted youth athletic leagues and other outreach efforts in distressed areas.  This video is only "unusual" or "surprising" because we're pumped full of fear and cop caricatures on the nightly news.

And then, there's the video of Richard Sherman.  Even if you aren't a football fan, you've probably seen his now infamous post-game interview with Erin Andrews.  This video has sparked online conversation about everything from the role of athletes in society to the persistence of racism in America.

I've found it interesting that many people are countering the backlash against Sherman by saying that he is a different person off the field. They are reporting that Sherman is active in charitable work.  Some point out that he graduated with a 3.9 GPA from Stanford University.  In other words, there is a side to Sherman that we are glossing when we use this video to generalize about him as a person.

Ultimately, these videos help us remember the challenges of creating an informed opinion without lots of data.  Media representations are always partial and we should remember this whenever we use sound-bites to generalize about people or organizations.


Sunday, January 19, 2014

The Micro-Sociology of Swimmer's Etiquette

I went swimming today.  Usually, this is a way to relax.  But, sometimes it also becomes an added source of stress.

Here's why.  Today, I hopped into the "fast lane" and quickly realized that I was swimming faster than other people in my lane.  This is fine and something that I encounter regularly during recreational swimming hours.  It's also something that's easy to manage if people have a shared understanding of "swimmer's etiquette."

Swimming can flow, if everyone understands etiquette
Like any activity, swimming is one where conflicts can be avoided if people have a shared sense for how to act under different circumstances.  The sociologist Howard Becker writes about this in his work on jazz improvisation.  He writes that group jazz improvisation is only possible when people have a loose set of ideas about how they should do this together.  In many ensembles, players loosely agree that the most senior players get to dictate the flow of a group.  They are given this luxury by virtue of their status.  As such, it's considered locally rude or inconsiderate if a more junior player doesn't follow their lead in a jam session.  I've used a lot of his insights in my research on how emcees freestyle with each other, but think that the same ideas apply to swimming as well.

In my experience, most swimming conflicts emerge around how someone should pass another person. Typically, if you want to pass someone, you should lightly tap them on the foot.  This initiates the pass.  It's a signal that you are on a person's tail and that you want to get around them.  After you do the "foot tap," the person being tapped should make room for you to pass safely.  They can do this in a number of ways.  Here are four of the most common (please feel free to comment on others!):

1) They scoot closer to the lane line, giving you room to pass down the middle of the lane.
2) They scoot into the middle of the lane, giving you room to pass closer to the lane line.
3) They keep swimming until they get to the wall and then wait, letting you push off in front of them.
4)  They dive down to the bottom of the pool, allowing you to pass over them.

Unfortunately, today I jumped into a lane where other swimmers didn't seem to understand these unspoken rules.  Part of me wonders if this is another cultural difference between the US and Canada? I've swum competitively and recreationally in various contexts (e.g. club, high school, NCAA) and most people seem to have a basic sense of what a "foot tap" means while swimming.

But, people swimming at the pool today didn't seem to have this background knowledge.  In fact, people were very upset that I was swimming up behind them, tapping their feet, and trying to swim around them.  One of the people I was trying to pass would ignore my foot taps.  He would swim into the wall, do an open turn, and then push off diagonally, nearly colliding with me.  This was really annoying.  He did this about 3-4 times until I finally grabbed his calf and pulled him back, swimming by him.
A young Howard Becker in a jazz club

And then, there was a woman who got upset that I kept tapping her feet.  I would decelerate, tap her feet and wait for her to respond.  But, instead of doing one of the above actions, she started kicking her feet aggressively in my face.  I almost got kicked in the jaw once and opted to swim "heads up water polo freestyle" until I found an opening where I could safely pass her.

She then complained to the staff, who said that I should be waiting for a safe moment to pass.  When I explained what I was doing, the staff would say that I just needed to swim slower.  Really?  Since when is it the responsibility of the faster person to "swim slower?"  Why aren't passing dilemmas the shared responsibility of everyone in the lane?

This is a really frustrating thing about swimming in recreational hours.  Lifeguards will quickly tell a swimmer to move over into the "fast lane" if they are going much faster than people in the "slow" or "medium" lanes.  But, I've never seen lifeguards come and ask slower swimmers to move into the "medium" or "slow" lanes.  Is this because people are worried that they might hurt someone's feelings?  Is it because they don't understand "swimmer's etiquette?"

Anyways, this has been a little rant about swimmer's etiquette.  I would love it if more pools (especially here at the University of Toronto) would create infographics and other reminders that create a shared "swimmer's etiquette."  Not only does this potentially circumvent conflicts in the pool, it is also much safer for everyone.