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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.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Foucault and Dog Shit

My dog was sniffing, searching for that perfect spot.  After a couple more turns, he lowered his hind legs, placing them in front of his forelegs, and then took a gigantic dump.  It started steaming once it hit the grass, which was still covered by melting patches of snow from earlier today.

Luckily, I had a little flashlight attached to his poo bag.  I flicked that sucker on and shined the light over patches of mud, ice, and decaying leaves.  “There you are, you little bastard.”  Feeling accomplished, I grabbed the steaming pieces of dung and started to tie the bag closed. 

And then it happened.  While trotting triumphantly across a field, my foot squished into something.  For a moment, my stride was broken and I felt a sticky traction from beneath my foot.  “Shit! I hope that’s not shit!”

Maybe it was mud?  Or maybe it was dying leaves?  Or maybe I was just imagining the feeling?  But, as we neared the trash can, I could feel that something caking into the riveted soles of my favorite Nike Air Max’s.  I almost didn’t want to look, but did anyway.  And then, voila!  There it was.  A thick gauze of caramel brown dog shit smeared across the bottom of my sneakers.   

This got me thinking: Why is it that I seem to step in more dog shit during the winter?   Dog owners will feel me on this.  If you pay attention, you might notice that there seems to be more unclaimed dog shit in the winter than in other months. Is it because people become less responsible in colder months?  Does the cold make them more likely to skip out on picking up their furry friend’s droppings?  Or, is there something else at work here?

I think Michel Foucault can help us understand what I think is a seasonal phenomenon.  In Discipline & Punish, Foucault draws from Jeremy Bentham’s conceptualization of the panopticon as a mode of surveillance and social control.  The panopticon was a building designed with a single watchtower in the middle of a ring of individualized cells containing inmates.  By shining a light on each cell, inmates would feel that they were always under surveillance by a guard (real or imagined) sitting in that watchtower. 

Foucault famously borrowed from Bentham’s ideas when writing about modern forms of surveillance and social control.  He wrote, “He who is subjected to a field of visibility, and who knows it, assumes responsibility for the constraints of power” (202).

I think a similar thing shapes practices around dog shit in parks.  In warmer months, people feel comfortable sitting on benches and hanging out in parks.  Some parks have festivals with music and attract crowds of people.  Others have their share of homeless folks seeking refuge in alcoves, youth smoking cigarettes or weed, and any variety of other public characters hanging out in parks.  I’ve been struck by Toronto’s park scene.  There are lots of them and they each have a different character.  But, when the temperature drops and the days grow shorter, these characters disappear.  The parks become mini ghost towns.  And with this, so too does the illusion of surveillance.  

Anyways, this is a little ramble about dog shit and Foucault. I hope you like it.  If not, I hope you're at least somewhat entertained at my misfortune.  And remember: Keep your eyes open and check the soles of your shoes!

Monday, August 25, 2014

Why I'm (Sorta) Against the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge

I read an interesting piece this morning.  The author, Scott Gilmore, argues against the ALS fanaticism.  He writes that we should think of 3 questions when deciding where to donate:

1) Where is the greatest need?
2) Where will my dollars have the greatest influence?
3) What is the most urgent problem?

On first blush, this all sounds super robotic and utilitarian.  Humans don't work this way!  We are moved by culture and emotions.  And these things matter...don't they?

Usually I'd be critical of pieces like the one that Gilmore wrote.  It's the same kind of logic that policymakers use when justifying cutting arts programs so that school districts can continue funding math and science.  How can we quantify the benefit that children receive from learning how to read and play music?  Anyways, I digress.

But, as I thought longer and harder about the piece, I began to see his point. In a resource-scarce world, we ought to be more calculating and utilitarian about our giving--particularly when it comes to saving lives.

If we place ALS in a larger context, we see that it's not among the top-10 leading causes of death in the US.  In 2010, here were the top-10 and their death counts: 1) Heart Disease (596, 577), 2) Cancer (576,691), Chronic lower respiratory diseases (142, 943), 4) stroke (128,932), 5) accidents (126,438), 6) Alzehemier's disease (84,974), 7) Diabetes (73, 831), 8) Influenza and Pneumonia (53,826), Nephritis (45,591), 10) Suicide (39,518).  ALS is so rare, in fact, that it's seen as an "orphan disease" in the US.

Compare this now to some striking figures that Gilmore gives us to chew on: In 2013, ALS killed 6,849 people in the US and attracted $23 million for research (a ratio of $3,382 per death); in the same year, heart disease killed 596,577 people, but only raised $54 million for research (a sad ratio of $90 per death).  These comparisons raise some interesting moral questions about how to allocate funds for the dying.  I won't pretend to know the answers, but at some level, if we want to think responsibly about it, need, influence, and urgency of problem are all important gauges of where we should spend our money.

In many ways, the fanaticism around ALS reminds me of the fanaticism around social movements to ban assault weapons and regulate magazine sizes of rifles.  In charged historical moments, these movements make us feel good.  We get the satisfaction of linking ourselves to something that is politically popular.  For brief moments, we feel connected to one another.  We gain a sense of efficacy and feel that we might be helping to make the world a better place.  But, when we peel ourselves away from online hoopla and media soundbites, we realize that what's popular and what's efficacious are often two different things. Historically, assault weapon bans have done very little to curb gun deaths in the US (for more on this, read the excellent book "Reducing Gun Violence in America").

In the end, I don't think the enthusiasm around the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge is all bad.  This is where I differ from Gilmore and other more critical voices.  If there's a silver lining in all of this (aside from the extra funding to help those suffering with ALS), it's in showing that human beings are capable of rallying together and showing compassion for others in need.  I can't help but wonder, though, if this enthusiasm and our hard earned dollars might be better spent toward issues that are more pressing and devastating on a global scale?

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Our Wounded Deserve Better

How much money do wounded veterans receive from the VA system?  Not much, according to a Washington Post piece.

The Center for Investigative Reporting released a telling infographic today that breaks down how much money veterans are eligible for based on the severity of their injuries.  This chart is eye-opening and is a painful reminder of how much the US neglects wounded veterans.  
Vets deserve better

Here are some highlights: If you lose a hand or become deaf from combat, you are eligible for a whopping $100 extra per month; if you lose both legs, you can get between $1,000 - $1,300 dollars in compensation; and if you are paralyzed, you are eligible for $2,100 in extra funds each month.  These are shameful figures, but the VA system isn't to blame here.  If anything, these figures point to the enormous financial strains that the VA system is under.  Nevertheless, this chart should be a huge stain on our public conscience.

While reading this article, I couldn't help but think of the young men that I followed around for 2 years in Philadelphia.  These men didn't suffer from lost limbs and weren't paralyzed, but faced similar kinds of physical and mental health challenges long after they had been shot.  Contrary to what the average person thinks, these young men also weren't caught up in gangs, drug dealing, or running with the wrong crowd, either.  The public health scholar and physician, John Rich, shows us the folly in this logic in his excellent book "Wrong Place, Wrong Time."  Like Rich, my work also shows that many gunshot victims simply live in dangerous neighborhoods, where everyday activities like walking home from school or going to the market can become fatal or near fatal activities.  

Some of these injuries were the kind that knocked previously able-bodied young men out of work.  Others suffered from less visible, but equally frustrating injuries that disrupted their personal and social lives.  One of the young men that I followed had his testicle blown off in an armed robbery.  Although he was otherwise "fine," he suffered the shame of losing a testicle and feeling emasculated.  And the vast majority of these men didn't have health insurance, which led some--like an informant I called "Paul"--into risky pill hustles to treat crippling pain and injuries.  

To be sure, the Affordable Care Act represents a monumental move toward insuring the most vulnerable. But, early reports are showing that many of the folks who stand to gain the most from the ACA missed the March 31 deadline to enroll in a health care plan.  Many didn't know about the deadline, some thought the deadline had passed, and others are saying that they'll remain uninsured even though they'll get fined in the coming tax year for non-compliance to the mandate.

All of this underscores the need to rethink political priorities in America.  In most industrialized nations, health care is considered a right, much like an education.  Let's hope that the ACA represents the first step in a move toward insuring and caring for all of our wounded.  They all certainly deserve better.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Renzo Gracie and the Sociology of Fighting

Renzo Gracie and some of his friends have been arrested for their role in a street fight.

This isn't the first time that Renzo Gracie (an MMA legend and BJJ black belt) has made the news for street fighting.  Many of you might remember that Gracie recently live tweeted while beating and stalking two guys who tried to mug him in NYC.
Renzo Gracie is the wrong person to mug

Not surprisingly, this event elicited mixed responses from the blogosphere and martial arts community.   Some people praised Renzo, saying that he was like a modern day Batman taking down thugs on the street; others were skeptical and said that Renzo acted like a thug, stalking his prey, and then celebrating it on Twitter.

Someone shot a video of his most recent altercation, but the video leaves much to the imagination.  As viewers we don't get to see who started what, or how the altercation even unfolded.  Instead, we are treated to the poster's comments about how Renzo is an MMA legend and see a crowd of people milling about, after the violence.

In other words, most of us have no grounds to start judging Renzo, his friends, or the bouncers in this fight.  We weren't there and don't know how this fight started or why Renzo and his friends were moved to fight.

Randall Collins shows us that violence unfolds in stages
Sociologists like Randall Collins and Curtis Jackson-Jacobs remind us that fighting is often the end result of a much lengthier social process.  They don't just "happen" and it's quite rare for people to blindly attack strangers.  Even people who go out "looking" for fights create opportunities to get into them.  The person who walks through a crowded bar and accidentally "bumps" into someone is inviting others to start something that can lead into a fight.  From there, mutual combat isn't even a given.  Fights often begin with some kind of small transgression that balloons into more serious kinds of shoving, blustering, and threats of real violence.  And then, as people become increasingly entrained into each other's rhythms, violence becomes more and more of a possibility.  The physical act of getting into a fight, then, is hardly inevitable and rarely a one-sided affair.

This is why I'm so disappointed with major news coverage of this fight.  The New York Post (which can hardly claim to be a legitimate news paper these days) has published a horribly slanted article about the fight.  Instead of talking about the fight as an event that police are investigating, post writers have framed Renzo and his friends as "thugs" who went after a helpless bouncer.

Why have journalists all but written off the bouncer's role in this fight?   Could it be that the bouncer tried to intimidate or bully Gracie, who then swiftly smashed him?  Before rushing to conclusions, it would be wise for the media to think more carefully about how fights happen.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Dr. Dre is now the Richest Person in Hip Hop (So will he finally drop Detox now?)

Dr. Dre just became the richest person in Hip Hop.

That is crazy.  The mastermind behind N.W.A.'s beat-making and the guy responsible for launching the careers of Snoop, Eminem, 50 Cent, and most recently Kendrick Lamar was estimated at a worth of $550 billion dollars. According to Forbes, Dre's net worth was only second to P.Diddy's in Hip Hop, who is reportedly worth $700 billion dollars.

But, scratch that. Earlier this week, Dre sold his "Beats" brand to Apple for a reported 3.2 billion dollars!  After taxes, Dre is estimated to be worth $800 million, making him the wealthiest Hip Hop entrepreneur.

Dre in the lab
This news has coincided with my own Dr. Dre renaissance.  I've been knee deep in writing this week and have been on a Dr. Dre binge.
From well-established hits to leaked singles from his long anticipated "Detox" album, I've been enjoying the simple and hypnotic sounds of Dre's production style.  His style might not work for you, but he has forever changed the ways that we look at producing and has a sound all his own.

For the past couple years, people in the industry have speculated that Dre was going to release Detox.  In 2010, he came out and said that the final album was done and that he was deep into mixing and mastering the album.  Like you, I waited eagerly for the album to drop.  In an era when consumers buy singles off iTunes, I waited on pins and needles, hoping that Detox would mark his triumphant return to Hip Hop.

But, 3 years have passed and Detox still isn't out.  As time goes by, people are becoming increasingly skeptical about Detox ever being released.  I recently saw an interview with Juelz Santana, who said that Dre must be scared to drop it because of the already insanely high bar that he has set for himself.

"And you don't stop..." A young Snoop with Dre
His previous two albums -- The Chronic and Chronic 2001-- are Hip Hop classics.  Mix that with Dre's long known perfectionist tendencies, and you get a picture of a guy who might be stuck in his own head about this album.  Or, so it seemed.  

A recent article in the Guardian has shed additional light on why he might have been reluctant to release Detox. Some of you might remember when he released "Kush," a song with both Snoop Dogg and Akon.   The article mentions the lukewarm reception to this and other singles and suggests that Dre and his team didn't want to drop Detox out of fear that it might hurt the Beats brand.   So, in addition to possible anxiety about Detox and his artistic legacy, Dre may have been concerned that a lukewarm (or worse critical) response to Detox could hurt his pockets.  So long as Dre continued working on building his brand and producing for other artists, he could avoid having Detox flop and having people say that he fell off.

In the end, we may never get the pleasure of hearing a complete Detox LP.  But, I'm holding out.  Even if it doesn't live up to the hype or his past, I feel like Hip Hop needs Dre back in the game.

Monday, May 5, 2014

The Largest Vocabulary in Hip Hop?

Who has the largest vocab in Hip Hop?

Matt Daniels, a New York designer/coder/scientist, has published a cool infographic that appears to answer this age old question.  His chart compares 85 Hip Hop artists and the unique words that appear in their music.  He selected the first 35,000 lyrics in an artist's history and compared them against one another.  I wonder how this list might look if he developed some sort of unique words per song average?  We could think of this figure like a baseball player's batting average of a basketball player's field goal percentage.  These figures might help account for style shifts across an emcee's career and give us a more accurate representation of how many unique words emcees use in their music.

Is this list really about vocab?
And if we did this, speed and cadence might begin to complicate his findings.

For instance, the Top 10 or so are dominated by East Coast artists, who tend to have a faster delivery than Southern and West Coast artists.  Producers and Deejays can attest to this, but the average Wu Tang or Aesop Rock beat is played at a faster BPM (beats per minute) than beats that Lil Wayne, Master P, or even Snoop rhyme over (who are predictably low on this list).

The one exception to this rule might be Bone Thugs N Harmony, who come in near the bottom of the list.  I wonder how this worked?  Daniels admits that Hip Hop is hard to transcribe and that it's full of compound words.  Could this help explain why Bone isn't higher on the list?

Lastly, I wonder what this list would look like if Daniels had also used less mainstream artists?  The list pretty predictably shows that artists whose songs are more club-oriented (e.g. Too Short, Lil Wayne, DMX--who have repetitive hooks and simple verses) appear lower on the list than those whose songs are less for the club and more for the Hip Hop 'head' (e.g. Kool Keith, MF Doom are quite high on the list).

An underground classic!
How might this list look if Daniels had used underground artists, too?  I wonder how Freestyle Fellowship, Busdriver, Nocando, and other Good Life/Project Blowed artists would appear on such a list?  And if we considered the words/song average, certain artists that rank high on this list, might drop down a tad, too.

If you think Aesop and other east coast artists rhyme quickly, you should listen to some of the aforementioned cats.  These guys rhyme faster than anyone I've ever heard.  They are part of a generation of emcees from The Good Life (the historical predecessor to Project Blowed) that created a style called "choppin'" which is a rapid-fire style of rhyming.  I write about this and other sides of aspiring emcees in my book, which is currently under review.  Marcyliena Morgan, a sociolinguist at Harvard, has also written about this in her excellent work.   But, to see an example of this, check out this video of P.E.A.C.E. and Ellay Khule--two Good Life/Project Blowed veterans--going back and forth freestyling with each other.

Anyways, this is just to say that Daniels has done some interesting descriptive stuff on Hip Hop and I am looking forward to seeing more.

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."


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."