Airports as a Preview of the Future

October 6th, 2016

I’ve been toying with the idea that airports offer a view into what the U.S.  could look like in the future. There are a lot of trends that have emerged in this country that I believe are in full force in airports. This is a list of what I’ve been thinking.

  • A security apparatus, justified by the constant threat of terrorism.
    • Very tight controls on who comes in, and what you can possess.
    • Clearly biased against minorities
    • Constant presence of military (travel in uniform, priority boarding for those in active duty)
    • Constant reminder of the threats the country faces (CNN on every screen)
  • Social stratifications (passengers, first class, business class, fast food restaurant employees, janitors, security)
    • Passengers are divided by class (boarding order, rewards membership, first class, economy class)
    • Visible class and race division between passengers and airport/shops/restaurant employees
  • Lack of options, favors large corporations (food, stores, wifi)
    • Limited space, high barrier of entry for vendors (I think, would like to look into this more)
    • One or two WiFi providers (who also profit off your data)
    • Ok, this one requires more thought, but I think I’m onto something here
  • Constant surveillance
    • By video with cameras, and your data from WiFi providers
    • ID required at different checkpoints
  • Only airport (state) approved behavior
    • Low tolerance of misbehavior, breaking of rules
    • No protests, no space for dissent, no civil disobedience

Much of this is aided by the use of technology. There is an entire chapter devoted to airports as “coded spaces” in “Code/Space” by Rob Kitchin and Martin Dodge. The chapter is meant to illustrate how software transforms and often defines a space, but it also provides a good list of ways in which technology affords more control over people and objects in an airport. Control of the type which any state would love to have.

Consent Without Consent

October 6th, 2016

I recently read an essay by Noam Chomsky titled “Consent Without Consent” where he explains how one of the ways the US has justified its involvement in other countries (to put it mildly) is through the term of the same name as the title. The concept of “consent without consent”, as coined by Franklin Henry Giddings, is that “if in later years [the colonized] see and admit that the disputed relation was for the highest of interest, it may be reasonably held that authority has been imposed with the consent of the governed.” The example Giddings uses is the liberation of the Phillippines. By liberation, he means “‘slaughtering the natives in an English fashion’ so that ‘misguided creatures’ who resist us will at least ‘respect our arms’ and later come to recognize that we wish them ‘liberty’ and ‘happiness,’ at least those who survive the ‘wholesale killing’ they are forcing us to undertake.”

It’s easy to see how this excuse can be applied to many of the actions taken by those in power. Often the elite think they know what is best for the rest, and they act with the best of intentions, thinking that the initial suffering of the few will eventually be for the good of the many. I don’t know under what conditions a thought like this is justified and when it is not. But it’s definitely worth thinking about.

What Is A Chair?

February 27th, 2016

I’m currently reading a book called “Sorting Things Out” about how categorization and standards shape our world. I highly recommend it. One of the early examples in the book made me think about the way we code algorithms to categorize different things, specifically the difficulties in categorizing people and the consequences such categorizations have on them.

Imagine you have to write a program that recognizes whether an object is a chair (ignore the complexities of computer vision and such, just stay with me for a bit). You could code a simple set of binary checks like does the object have four legs? Does it have a flat surface at the end of those four legs? If it meets all your criteria, you could say the object was indeed a chair. But what a bench? It meets the criteria we’ve set up, but it’s technically not a chair, it’s a bench. Is a bench a subset of the chair category?  What about a tree stump in the woods? That is most certainly not a chair, but you can definitely sit on it. The tree stump then calls into question the whole purpose of making the categorization in the first place. Are you trying to sort items in a warehouse or are you just trying to find a place to sit down? The dilemma lies in whether you create a strict set of criteria that could exclude some items or you leave your rules lax and risk polluting your chair population with items such as tables.

Making the distinction between a chair and not a chair is very easy for humans to do, but it’s very difficult for software, especially if the purpose of the chair question is to determine whether you can comfortably sit down or not. Mistaking a table for a chair is benign enough, but algorithms often deal with people where mistakes can have life-altering consequences. Increasingly common are algorithms which decide whether a person gets approved for a loan, or a person’s prison sentence, their legal status as an immigrant, or whether they are a good match for a particular position at a company. Inevitably there will be people stuck in that fuzzy area. What happens then? Any person that deals with data about people needs to ask themselves what happens when their algorithm fails to make a correct determination.

A (Probably) Incomplete Taxonomy of Peñabots (And Their Friends)

November 28th, 2015

In this post I catalog the different ways local, state, and federal governments in Mexico have used social media bots in different ways to their advantage. This is the other side of the excellent efforts made by projects like Botivist to link activists with the use of bots. However, what may be useful to activists may also be useful to state actors. I think a list of this kind is necessary because it is important to be able to recognize the ways in which such state actors (even well-funded private actors) can subvert speech online. In this list I mention cases where large groups of people rather than software are used. Partly because it is hard to discern between the two methods, and mostly because the outcome is essentially the same. The methods for spreading or silencing information can be achieved through either means (manual or automated). I believe this to be especially true since governments usually have plenty of resources at their disposal. At the end I pose some questions yet to be answered.

  • Fake Support
    1. Spread campaign messages by tweeting the same message or similar messages in a coordinated effort
    2. Retweeting supporters or online content (news, posts, photos) that is favorable to the campaign or political agenda.
    3. Coordinating large number of people with real and fake accounts to tweet the same hashtag to get it trending (used in conjunction to bumping off hashtags)
    4. Padding Twitter follower count.
  • Drowning Out Oppositional Voices
    1. Flood hashtags with spam so that discourse is impossible. This can occur when many bots tweet a trending hashtag so often that the feed becomes difficult to read because of Twitter’s auto-refresh feature. Filling the hashtag with spam could also hinder discussion since finding meaningful conversation among in a feed can be difficult. Another consequence of filling a hashtag with spam could be the removal of a hashtag from the TT list.
    2. Knock hashtags off TT list by replacing it with other favorable hashtags.
    3. Spread misinformation?
    4. Trolling
  • Defamation and Intimidation
    1. Intimidation
    2. Defamation
      • Lydia Cacho Ribeiro, Sept 2013, from QR gov.

Subverting Speech vs. PR Campaign
If a presidential campaign hires a PR company which utilizes a large amount of volunteers or paid workers or software bots to tweet in a coordinated effort to propagate your message, is this free speech? Does this subvert other’s speech? If this army of bots floods a discussion forum, does this act as censorship? What about when an activist organization does the same thing? I think there needs to be a discussion about what’s considered ethical when employing the use of bots.

Detecting Bots
It is difficult to know when we are dealing with software bots, with a PR campaign made up of volunteers, or merely just regular citizens tweeting in support of the government. Several people have tried to analyze Twitter data to “prove” the presence of bots, but I’m still left with a lot of questions.  What if there really was a lot of non-political Twitterers who were excited about the long weekend (#EnDiaDePuente)? What if the Twitter algorithm worked against the activist hashtag? I’ve been to tech conferences where the hashtag gets spammed, what if we’re dealing with regular Twitter spam and not state-sponsored spam? Are there any dangers in misclassifying spam and bots? Are there any negative effects in constantly blaming every piece of spam on the Peñabots?

Trending Topic Algorithm
The claims that TT such as #YaMeCanse were bumped by bots are hard to prove (despite the fancy graph videos). Similar claims of censorship occurred during the Occupy Wall Street protests where many activists claimed Twitter was censoring them by not adding #occupywallstreet to the TT list. In response, several bloggers, journalists and Twitter themselves, explained that the TT algorithms look for “trendiness” and “burstiness”, and that while OWS might have had a large volume of Tweets, it did not display the spikes in volume the algorithm is constantly looking for. Although I don’t doubt the presence of bots (even State bots), I am not convinced that anything other than the regular algorithmic forces were at play in knocking #YaMeCanse off the TT list. Furthermore, more research and discussions need to be had around the importance of trending topics to activist causes. Are they crucial? Are they overvalued?

Analyzing Twitter Data
Twitter is VERY noisy. Even very specific words that seem to only talk about one specific event like “balacera” (shootout) are hard to analyze. Especially when the word becomes part of quotidian culture. For example, in Mexico people tend to tweet when there is a shootout in their city, usually to warn others to stay out of the area. In trying to analyze ‘balacera’ tweets, I’ve found that people also talk about past shootouts, potential shootouts, and even tell jokes about shootouts. So one needs to be careful when analyzing tweets. Some of the best insights on Twitter use I’ve seen have come from qualitative research methods like interviews.

Bots Are People Too

November 27th, 2015

I came to love bots because of @TwoHeadlines, @CongressEdits and NYTimes Haiku. Not only did they bring me great entertainment, but as is the case with @CongressEdits, I thought they were providing a great service. However, not all bots are cool. Lurking among us are bots sponsored by governments. Bots whose mission is to give a false impression of support or to drown out opposing views. These types of bots have been used in recent years by the governments of Mexico, Venezuela, Russia and Syria. However the methods by which these governments use bots are not as clear and transparent as they are with political bots like @CongressEdits. In this post, I’ll use the government of Mexico’s use of political bots as an example of how the traditional definition of political bots might not be enough cover what’s happening in Mexico.

I’ll start by using Wikipedia’s definition of bots and is the one widely used to describe bots. Bots are “software application that runs automated tasks over the Internet. Typically, bots perform tasks that are both simple and structurally repetitive, at a much higher rate than would be possible for a human alone.” I like this definition because it leads me to ask the question: What if you had access to enough resources and low-skilled labor such that you could perform the simple and repetitive tasks with real people? This is how our story of the Peñabots begins.

Shortly after the start of the 2012 Mexican presidential election, then candidate Enrique Peña Nieto rose to Twitter dominance. It seemed the candidate was enjoying an unusual amount of support from social media users. To some savvy netizens, this seemed suspicious. Sure enough, Twitterverse eventually discovered that the EPN campaign was making use of large armies of volunteers to show support for the candidate and to drown out any opposition that could appear online. The name Peñabot appeared shortly after this discovery in November 2011. It is unclear whether the word “bot” in “Peñabot” was originally used to fit the traditional definition of a “software that performs a repetitive task” or if it was originally used to refer to actual volunteers who under direction from campaign managers would mindlessly perform repetitive tasks such as tweeting the same text and retweeting other supporters. In case of the latter, the word Peñabot is similar to Limbots and Obamabots and is often used in parallel with Pejezombies, or the followers of competing candidate Lopez Obrador.


Although people seem to be pretty confident that the campaign (and now actual government) used software bots, it has been confirmed that EPN did in fact use armies of volunteers to take over the conversation on Twitter. One former EPN social media manager confessed that at one point the campaign was coordinating 20,000 volunteers to show support for the candidate and to target and drown out any opposing hashtag that could surface during the campaign trail.

The ability to coordinate such a large army of volunteer may be effective in bumping hashtags off the trending topic list since Twitter’s algorithms measure “burstiness” of tweets. One example where volunteers overran a hashtag was with #MarchaAntiEPN (March Against EPN) in the state of Tabasco where volunteers bumped the hashtag off the list with #TodoTabascoConEPN (All of Tabasco With EPN). People discovered the presence of Peñabots because the majority of #TodoTabascoConEPN tweets came from a single location in Mexico City (apparently tweets were geotagged?).

There is no reason why EPN’s government couldn’t carry out their campaign using actual software bots (RT’ing pro-government tweets, tweeting from a list of pre-written messages, crowding hashtags and making your own hashtag trend). However, since they relied so heavily on “manual” tweeting to achieve something that a bot might be able to do, I wonder if it makes sense to expand the definition of bots to include such large-scale tweeting campaigns?  Does it matter to citizens whether a pro-government message comes from a person or a bot if they can’t tell which one produced the message? Does it matter to citizens if they knew it was a bot or a person acting as part of a larger campaign? 

Human or Bot?

A Brief History of Narcocorridos

October 20th, 2015

Unless you live in northern Mexico or you’re a Mexican-American living in any of the border states, chances are you’ve never heard of American singer-songwriter Gerardo Ortiz. And yet, if you were to measure popularity by an artist’s YouTube views and subscribers, then Gerardo Ortiz would be twice as popular as Madonna. His 2013 hit “Dámaso” from the Latin-Grammy nominated album “El Primer Ministro” has over 140 million views on YouTube. Gerardo Ortiz sings narcocorridos, Mexican folk ballads about famous drug lords, their exploits, lifestyle, and the drug trade in general.

Ortiz is just one of hundreds of narcocorrido artists that have become incredibly popular in the past decade. Another such artist is Alfredo Rios, better known as El Komander who is part of a sub-genre of narcocorridos called ‘movimiento alterado’, or ‘altered movement’. Unlike the narcocorridos, these songs go beyond chronicling the lifestyle and adventures of drug dealers and instead go into very explicit detail on beheadings, torture, and kidnappings that are so commonplace among the narcos.

Con cuerno de chivo y bazuka en la nuca
volando cabezas al que se atraviesa

With an AK-47 and a bazooka around my neck
blowing off the heads of whoever gets in our way

Where did this music come from and how did it become so unbelievably popular among millions of people? Narcocorridos have been around for a long time and have gone through several important transformations, and as their popularity increased, it came to draw the attention of authorities. The glorification of the violence and the narco-lifestyle has been major pain in the side of the Mexican authorities who have repeatedly sought to censor such music. This attempt at censorship has drawn a lot of comparisons between narcocorridos and gangster rap from the 1980’s. El Komander has even been called “the Jay Z of Mexican drug balladeers.

Corridos have a long history in Mexico, starting from the Mexican War of Independence in 1810 and throughout the Mexican Revolution (1910-1921). The ballads usually told stories about oppression by the government and usually carried hidden political meanings as was common during the revolution. They were also about the daily lives of peasants and sometimes about a lost or disgraced love. In fact, you’ve probably heard one of these corridos before.

Ballads about smuggling appeared in the late 19th century, when the government of president Porfirio Diaz imposed tariffs on fine textiles upwards of 300% making the smuggling of textiles from the US into Mexico a very lucrative business. One of the most famous textile smugglers was Mariano Resendez, the subject of one of the first ballads about contraband. Resendez, like the subjects of many corridos, was considered a hero among the communities in Northern Mexico because of his resistance to government forces. In fact, drug lore is full of such characters. Most famous of which is Jesus Malverde, angel of the poor, patron saint of the narcos, and subject of many narcocorridos.

Although his existence is not verified, Malverde was most likely not a drug smuggler since marijuana and opiates were not illegal during his time (b. 1870 – d. 1909). It wasn’t until 1920 and 1925 that Mexico prohibited the sale and use of marijuana and opiates, respectively. What’s significant about Malverde is his Robin Hood-esque fame. His story is said to be modeled after Heraclio Bernal (1855-1888) who, quite literally, stole from the rich and gave to the poor. This important trope will remain a significant part of narcocorridos for many decades.


Jesus Malverde soap

Photo by: David Agren

It wasn’t until the 1920’s with the enactment of the 18th Amendment and the subsequent Volstead Act that smuggling really took off. Smugglers known as Tequileros would push rafts full of–you guessed it–Tequila across the Rio Grande and would drive trucks through the desert to smuggle it into the US. In addition to smuggling, corridos at the time also dealt with social issues. As “El Corrido de los Bootleggers” demonstrates, the dire conditions in some parts of Mexico sometimes left people with no other choice but to resort to smuggling.

Me puse a pensar señores
Que trabajo ya no había
Tenía que buscar mi vida
Si el señor me concedía

I started thinking, gentlemen
There is no more work
I have to find my life
If the Lord would grant me

When prohibition ended in 1933, the Tequileros suddenly found themselves out of a job and turned to other controlled substances. Drug smuggling took off shortly afterwards and with that came the first drug ballads. One of the first narcocorrido is said to have been “El Contrabandista” written by Juan Gaytán of the “Gaytán y Cantú” band. It perfectly illustrates the shift in the smuggling business.

Comencé a vender champán, tequila y vino habanero,
Pero este yo no sabía lo que sufre un prisionero.
Muy pronto compré automóvil, propiedad con residencia,
Sin saber que en poco tiempo iba ir a la penitencia.
Por vender la cocaína, la morfina y la mariguana,
Me llevaron de prisionera a las dos de la mañana.

I began selling champagne, tequila, and Havana wine,
But I did not know what a prisoner suffers.
Soon I bought an automobile, property with a house,
Without knowing that in a short time I would be going to jail.
For selling cocaine, morphine, and marijuana,
They took me prisoner at two in the morning.

After the initial appearance of drug ballads, there seems to be a gap between the 1950’s and 1960’s, when nothing major happened in the narcocorrido space. This could have been due to the economic prosperity Mexico enjoyed during these decades. The resurgence of narcocorridos seems to coincide with the social and economic trouble that enveloped the country at the end of the 1960’s. Another major factor for their resurgence could have been the increase in marijuana consumption in the US during the 1960’s or the increase in heroin traffick due to the collapse of its market in Europe and the Middle East. Whatever it was, the definite turning point for narcocorridos came in 1972 when a song about a now very famous Texan hit the airwaves. The song, by norteño band from Northern California, would mean the rebirth of a genre that would grow to reach millions of listeners on both sides of the border.

Ángel González wrote “Contrabando y Traición” in the mid 60’s and Los Tigres del Norte, a band formed earlier in San Jose, CA recorded it in 1972. The story begins with Camelia “La Texana” travelling north from San Isidro to LA with her partner Emilio Varela, their car tires filled with marijuana. Upon arriving to Hollywood and finalizing the drug deal, Emilio Varela tells Camelia he is leaving her for another woman in San Francisco. Camelia does not take this news too lightly and shoots Emilio, taking off with the money and never being heard of again. Up until then, most of the corridos had been about real events, but Ángel had completely made up the story of Camelia (even though he did happen to know a Camelia who isn’t from Texas and an Emilio Varela, his cousin, who had never met Camelia). In writing a fictional song, Ángel set the genre on a new path. Soon after the song’s widespread success, hundreds of writers tried to replicate the formula and it took the popularity of narcocorridos to new heights.  

In an interview by author Elijah Wald, González tells how after 30 years he has not been able to come to terms with the song’s enormous popularity and the countless of corridistas it inspired. “That song, I wrote it without thinking, I had no idea what would happen afterward. After my corrido, along came that whole pile of songs about drug traffickers, but I wrote it without any idea of that. It was a problem I brought to light, but not something I knew much about […] I never, never ever thought that the song would make it big.” While it seems like González had a strong moral stance against drug smuggling, it is not clear that the rest of the corridistas and their fans shared the same ideals.

Researcher, Juan Carlos Ramirez-Pimienta says drug trafficking was seen almost as a patriotic duty since it was bringing large quantities of money into Mexico. The economic benefits of the drug trade are of course exaggerated, he says, but it’s not difficult to see how in the minds of a lot of people, drug trafficking was not all that bad, especially during Mexico’s troubled economy. What’s more, the cartels would often give out “narcolimosnas”, or narco-charity to win over the public’s opinion. It’s almost too obvious that the major drug lords would engage in the same type of generosity as legends like Jesús Malverde. If the lower classes in Mexico had the social, cultural, financial, and even military backing from the government, it would have been harder for the cartels to win over large segments of the Mexican population (decades later, this sort of justification would no longer be necessary with the “Movimiento Alterado”).

With or without moral justification, the genre exploded and corridos underwent several transformations. The songs shifted from portraying the protagonist as someone who just smuggled drugs into someone who reaped and enjoyed the riches it brought. The smuggler was now someone who consumed drugs and not just smuggled them, someone who enjoyed the lifestyle, someone who through their own brawn rather than their brain rose up from poverty to achieve great success in the form of riches and power. Researcher Helena Simonnet says:

“The changing social reality of Mexico’s Northwest also affected popular music, notably the corrido production. Although the image of the brave man that was generated by the Mexican Revolution in the early twentieth century still holds for the protagonists of the contemporary corridos, the meaning of bravery has changed. While the heroes of the folk corridos raised their arms for social justice and equality, the tough guys of the narcocorridos carry their weapons for personal enrichment and empowerment.”

No one embodies the quintessential narcocorrido protagonist of the time better than Rafael Caro Quintero. Born in a poor rural town in Sinaloa, Caro Quintero went on to be a billionaire as the founder of the Guadalajara Cartel. His story alone could fill volumes as it involves the CIA, the DEA, the Contras, and billions of dollars stashed in Swiss bank accounts. In the eyes of the people, Caro Quintero was a hero. For one, he was born into a very poor family where he was one of 12 siblings. In his teenage years he began growing and selling marijuana, amassing a small fortune that would later become billions. He also defied the US government in a way that resonated among people living along the border, people who had suffered at the hands of US authorities. And of course, he was known to be very generous having funded large infrastructure projects such as a highway in his hometown of Badiguarato. Hundreds of songs were written about Caro Quintero.

At the same time as corridos were exalting narco-heroes for their generosity, they were also celebrating the lavish narco lifestyle. Mexican authorities, out of fear that these songs would act as recruitment strategies for the cartels, began cracking down and in some places banned these songs from the airwaves. This never proved fruitful since much of the audience resided in the US where freedom of speech laws protected the corridos from any sort of censorship. What’s more, US radio stations have no regard from borders, so people who lived along the border on the Mexican side could still tune in to American radio stations. Censorship even proved advantageous to bands such as Los Tigres del Norte who capitalized on prohibition by marketing their albums as “forbidden”. Despite relatively low airplay in Mexico, their best-selling album “Corridos Prohibidos” (Forbidden Corridos) was hugely successful even though there was nothing “forbidden” about their songs, especially not in the US. Their strategy proved so successful that many other bands followed suit like Los Tucanes de Tijuana’s “Tucanes de Plata: Catorce Tucanes Censurados”.

As the popularity and demand for narcocorridos raged on, in the early nineties, a new phenomenon began to take hold of Los Angeles nightclubs. Many capos, having heard many commercial narcocorridos about the most famous drug lords such as Caro Quintero, decided they wanted to be protagonists of their own corridos, so they started commissioning their own.

Among the most influential commissioned-corridistas was Rosalino “Chalino” Sánchez. As the story goes, Chalino was born in 1960 in rural Sinaloa. When he was five years old, a local tough guy raped his sister. Ten years later, Chalino ran into him at a party and without saying a word walked up to him and shot him dead. Soon afterward he fled Sinaloa and moved to LA to live with his aunt. In LA he would work several jobs including low-level smuggling which would connect him to the narco-world. In 1984, his brother, Armando, was shot and killed in Tijuana and Chalino would write his first narcocorrido to preserve his memory. Soon afterward he found himself serving jail time where he would write songs about his fellow inmates in exchange for money or favors. Word spread of his writing talents and after his release he found himself in high demand among low-level narcos who would pay him cash to produce cassettes with their ballads performed by a band. While still a relatively local phenomenon in southern California, his big publicity break came in early 1992 when, while singing at a club in Coachella, someone came up to the stage and shot Chalino on his side. Chalino pulled out his gun and shot back. By the end of the shootout, the would-be assassin would end up dead, shot in the mouth with his own pistol. News coverage of the shooting made him a sensation on both sides of the border. Months later, Chalino’s luck ran out when after a concert in Culiacán he was killed after being picked up by a group of armed men. He became the Mexican version of Tupac Shakur. Chalino’s death elevated him to legendary status. Hundreds of songs were written about him, his song “Nieves de Enero” became a radio hit, and soon the narcocorrido genre was flooded with imitators.

The narcocorrido trend continued throughout the nineties. While Mexico was enjoying a period of relative peace, so were the corridos. All that seemed to change when Felipe Calderón took office in 2006. Soon after Operation Michoacán in December of the same year, the country turned violent and so did the corridos, and with that came the birth of the Movimiento Alterado. Although now used as a generic term, Movimiento Alterado (“altered” movement, as in the altered state of your brain, supposedly) was a product of Adolfo and Omar Valenzuela, owners of Twiins Music Group who produced a lot of corridos alterados through their subsidiary La Disco Music. Unlike narcocorridos before them, this new breed of corridos was hyper violent, with lyrics about blowing people’s heads off and killing those who deserved it.

Even though there is a clear difference between older corridos and new corridos “alterados”, artists from this new movement seem to disagree with critics who say their songs promote violence. Singer-songwriter El Komander has said during interviews his songs are about partying and about having a good time, not about promoting violence. But the truth is that the festive corridos El Komander describes have been around since the nineties and it is very difficult to find any songs from that decade that match the level of violence contained in the new corridos.

While it was Calderon’s bloody war that caused the birth of this new genre, it was the increasing adoption of the internet in Mexico that allowed for its spread. The low production costs and essentially free distribution afforded by services such as YouTube allowed hundreds of young people to take risks by exploring new styles and helped them gain new audiences. In the late 1980’s Chalino had to sell cassettes out of the trunk of his car. Nowadays singer-songwriters only need a camera and an internet connection. The internet even serves as a source for inspiration. In the documentary film “Narco Cultura”, BuKnas frontman Edgar Quintero, who lives in LA but seldom travels to Mexico, watches YouTube videos from Mexico to draw inspiration for his own songs.

It is worth noting that at this point in time, not only did artists merely sing about violence, but the violence also came to them in a very real way. Chalino Sanchez popularized the commissioned narcocorrido trend. Unfortunately, he might have also been the first in a long list of ill-fated corridistas. Singing about the narcotrafficking world turned out to be an extremely dangerous profession.

All of these people were killed between 2006 and 2010. During the same period, the Committee To Protect Journalists lists 38 killed journalists. In Mexico, being a narcocorrido singer, is almost as dangerous as being a journalist.

During the past 15 years, narcocorridos have become harder to categorize. They are more complex, dealing with a variety of subjects. Some songs give people an insight into the secret and underground world of narcotrafficking. Others very graphically describe the exploits of the famous capos. Then there are others which are purely about the narco-lifestyle. Narcocorridos are many things: stories, eulogies, praise, and even news sources.

In a country where traditional media is censored via intimidation, through the government, or even self-censorship, millions of people are forced to resort to alternative news sources such as El Blog del Narco. This blog and it’s many re-incarnations and copycats have been extremely popular sources for people who want to get the inside scoop into world of the narcos. Narcocorridos offer people another peek into the secret world of narcotrafficking. Narcocorridos don’t need to act as a source of breaking news to be relevant. They are relevant because they are an important vehicle for distributing information about major events. One recent example is Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzman’s second escape from prison. Within hours, corridistas had written, composed, recorded, and uploaded their songs on the internet about El Chapo’s escape.

El Chapo’s escape was widely covered in the news, but a much less covered news story at the time was the death of Atanacio Torres Acosta, son of Manuel Torres Felix “El M1”, a high-ranking member of the Sinaloa Cartel in 2008. His death, which was the result of a rivalry between M1 and the Beltrán Leyva Cartel, left a trail of torture and murder for many weeks and solidified the rivalry between the cartels that would leave thousands dead for years to come. In April of 2008, gang members of the latter killed Torres Felix’s son, Atanasio and injured his 4-year-old sister (apparently she lost half of her right arm). The killing sent Torres Felix into a killing spree, which earned him the nickname “El Ondeado” (The Crazy One). About a month after the killing, two dead bodies appeared in the same location, one of which was found decapitated inside a plastic barrel. A sign next to the bodies read: “These are the homosexual gunmen of Arturo Beltrán Leyva and the guy in the barrel is non other than the childkiller ‘El Caimán’. So you learn to respect. My respects for the children.” At the time very few sources covered the newsHowever the story is now part of narco-lore partly because of the song “La Venganza del M1”:

Cobro justo liquido las cuentas
de la empresa del m y la z
conocido como el m1

es mi vicio la sangre enemiga
la venganza se me hizo un placer
habra torturas, habra un infierno

el 4 fue valiente mi hijo
fue abatido por unos cobardes
tenian miedo de llegar conmigo

con un pie presionaba su pecho
con una mano le agarro el pelo
en la otra mano trae un cuchillo
lo decapito les corto el cuello
y dejo junto a el un mensaje
que para los niños su respeto

Charged justly, settled accounts
Of the M and Z enterprise
He is known as the M1

My vice is enemy blood
Vengeance is my pleasure
There will be tortures, there will be hell

4 was brave, my son
Was killed by some cowards
They were afraid to meet me

With one foot I pressed against his chest
With one hand I grabbed his hair
In the other hand, a knife
I decapitate him, I cut their necks
And I leave next to him a message
To children, you show respect

When these corridos report a story such as the case of El M1’s son, it is hard to verify at the time the accuracy of the events described. It is usually until later that people find out what really happened and we confirm whether the corrido was fact or fiction. If this seems like a less than ideal news source, it is. But consider that the same thing can be said about information received from the government (or lack thereof). If the government knew about the intricacies in the rivalries among the cartels that people have heard through narcocorridos, they did not communicate it. Because of government mistrust and censorship in the media, these alternate mediums such as corridos and El Blog del Narco became a very important source of information for people seeking information about the narco-world.

Narcocorridos, altered or unaltered, promote a long list of morally impure practices such as violence, criminal lifestyles, misogyny, homophobia, etc. But they can’t be merely dismissed as such, for they tell story and culture of the last 100 years for a significant part of Mexico. They are complicated and straightforward, deplorable and worthwhile, uninteresting and fascinating. They are a major part of a culture comprised of millions of people, and they can’t be dismissed as merely “songs about violence” because like them or not, they are here to stay.



Ramirez-Pimienta, Juan Carlos. “De Torturaciones, Balas Y Explosiones: Narcocultura, Movimiento Alterado E Hiperrealismo En El Sexenio de Felipe Calderón.” A Contra Corriente 10, no. 3 (Sprin 2013): 302–34.
———. “Del Corrido De Narcotráfico Al Narcocorrido: Orígnes Y Desarrollo Del Canto a Los Traficantes.” Studies in Latin American Popular Culture 23 (2004): 21–41.
Schwarz, Saul. Narco Cultura. Ocean Size Pictures, 2013.
Simonett, Helena. “Narcocorridos: An Emerging Micromusic of Nuevo L. A.” Ethnomusicology 45, no. 2 (Spring-Summer 2001): 315–37.
Wald, Elijah. Narcocorrido:  A Journey into the Music of Drugs, Guns, and Guerrillas. 1st ed. Rayo, 2001.

Impure Hip Hop Dissent

September 7th, 2015

I was reading an essay by Tommie Shelby called “Impure Dissent: Hip Hop and the Political Ethics of Marginalized Black Urban Youth”. In it, Shelby argues that political rap, although it’s lyrics are sometimes misogynistic, homophobic, celebrate violence against cops, and valorize gunplay and street crime, still exhibit an important form of political dissent that should not be cast aside because of its “impurity”. He calls this political rap music “impure dissent”, and argues that it has some intrinsic value since it is not meant to elicit some sort of social change, or somehow change the status quo.

Among the many interesting ideas mentioned, Shelby says that beyond condemning an injustice, impure hip hop dissent has two further functions: “to publicly pledge loyalty to the oppressed, and to explicitly withhold loyalty from the state. {…} This dissent is the expression of solidarity with the oppressed against perceived injustice, not so much because those in power may change course as a result, but because the dissenters want to make clear whose side they are on.”

Another thing that struck me was that while the political speech in hip hop may make its way into the public sphere, it does not necessarily ask for a rational communicative exchange. How could it? When you’re singing about glorifying street crime, you’re not inviting other people to take part in a conversation about its merits. This one-sided dissent may strike other people as “morally impure” since dissenters are refusing to listen much less reply to criticism. “These dissenters … may seem to be lacking in [the] appropriate civic spirit of reciprocity.” Shelby offers another possibility. Dissenters may hold the opinion that critics are arguing in bad faith, and that their unsympathetic attitudes towards their plight is an indication that a meaningful dialog is just not possible.

This reminded me of some of the insensitive responses to the Ferguson protests, in particular the hashtag #PantsUpDontLoot. Perhaps the tiny faction of individuals who were actually involved in the looting could be described as practicing “impure protesting”. They might not have been looking for dialog. Especially not from someone who would reduce the entirety of all racial injustices in the country to “pull up your pants.” Maybe they were looting because they were just really fucking angry.

Shelby’s essay comes from the book “From Voice To Influence: Understanding Citizenship in a Digital Age”, which I highly recommend. It was a happy coincidence that I read this today since I was planning on going to the movies to watch “Straight Outta Compton.”

Movie watching inspired by this sign I saw while walking around Brooklyn today.

Movie watching inspired by this sign I saw while walking around Brooklyn today.

Also: When I thought about writing this I was thinking about how impure hip hop dissent might compare to narcocorridos. Several times I have heard narcocorridos compared to hip hop since they promote and glorify violence. And much like hip hop artists, many narcocorrido artists come from very humble backgrounds and have faced years of neglect and injustice from the state. However, the more I thought about it, the harder it was to make the case that narcocorridos can qualify as impure dissent. Mainly because, in my limited knowledge of narcolyrics, much of that music is not political at all. It mostly just celebrates narcoculture. It’s worth looking into, though. I might also have a very biased opinion since I come from a place that was very much affected by narco violence.

On Evidence-Based Sentencing and the Variables of Race, Age, and Social Achievement

July 25th, 2015

I was reading a paper on evidence-based sentencing called “Risk in Sentencing: Constitutionally-Suspect Variables and Evidence-Based Sentencing“. And in it, the authors list (list is generated by another study), fifteen different variables with statistically significant relationships with recidivism. Here are some (on a 0.30 scale):

  • Criminal companions: z=0.21
  • Antisocial personality: z=0.18
  • Adult criminal history: z=0.17
  • Family rearing practices: z=0.14
  • Social achievement (education, marital status, employment): z=0.13
  • Race: z=0.17
  • Age: z=0.11
  • Gender: z=0.06
  • Socio-economic status of origin: z=0.05

Immediate things that pop out: race, criminal companions (who you hang out with), social achievements (education, marital status, employment), age, gender, and socio-economic status of origin. According to this study, these factors indicate some probability of recidivism. Luckily, several of these variables (such as race and age) are constitutionally barred from being taken into account in sentencing decisions. But the point I want to make is that I don’t think most of these should be a factor in determining a person’s sentence. And I think this study is a great example of why we should be careful when drawing conclusions from analyzing data. I sometimes tell this joke: “100% of divorces are caused by marriage”. It’s silly, but I think it’s relevant here. Yes, divorces begin with marriage, but if you blame marriage on divorce, you’re kind of missing some important underlying cause. Sure, young poor uneducated black people who hang out with other criminals might have an increased chance of recidivism, but is that really the underlying cause? Is it really their fault that they are young, poor, uneducated and black living in a neighborhood where everyone else is young, poor, uneducated, and black?

This is a great example of algorithms just pointing out the obvious and yet missing the larger picture. It’s like Google’s flu detector which actually might only be a winter detector. We need to think about how we construct these algorithms and how we are employing them to make decisions that might affect hundreds of thousands of people. We shouldn’t be asking “how does the race variable relate to recidivism?” There’s nothing “variable” about race. Or age. Or socio-economic status. These are the wrong questions. Instead, why don’t we ask ourselves “What can we do, to improve a person’s life, such that the color of their skin doesn’t correlate with a high recidivism rate?” I think that’s a more worthwhile pursuit.


Book: World Dynamics

July 4th, 2015

I like books. I am not a fast reader. I have not read thousands of books. I don’t even read all the books I own. But I like them nonetheless. I especially like collecting early editions of books that have a special meaning to me or that tried to predict the future, or books that were influential especially in design and technology and how those two fields would or could transform society.

Following Rune Madsen’s lead, I decided to write every now and then about the books I’ve collected. The first one is “World Dynamics” from Jay W. Forrester:

Photo Jul 03, 8 09 47 PM

Forrester was the founder of system dynamics. Unlike the dynamic systems class you might’ve taken in college were you draw bond graphs and model a box-sliding-down-a-ramp-on-a-spring-on-a-damper-on-a-pully-on-a-water-pump-on-a-generator-on-a-moving-train using a system of equations, Forrester’s system dynamics was meant to model complex problems like population growth, use and exhaustion of resources, industrial processes, or determining the success and failures of corporations (the original intent). “World Dynamics” is an application of system dynamics to model the world’s population growth and the exhaustion of resources.

Idea for the study supposedly originated when Forrester met with the founder of Club of Rome, a think-tank that deals with a variety of international issues. Back in the 60’s and early 70’s people had begun to think about the environment, the fear of overpopulation and the exhaustion of resources. This book was meant to give a prediction of what the world could look like in the future. Another book that came out of the Club of Rome was “The Limits to Growth” by Donella Meadows (still trying to get my hands on that one).

The model Forrester produced, predicted that the limiting factor in bringing the world into equilibrium would not only be population growth and the availability of food, but also pollution, crowding, and depletion of resources. Industrialization might be a bigger threat than overpopulation because of the limits of the environment.

The goal of producing the model was to search for an equilibrium where we could sustainably live with earth’s renewable resources. In the search for equilibrium Forrester suggests cutting food production to reduce the population. I’m not sure how exactly he envisioned this playing out, but it seems he was depending on a reduction in birth rates.

Photo Jul 03, 4 51 32 PM



Slightly less complicated than the Afghanistan plan.

This book is one of a long list of books and research that relied heavily on the hope that system dynamics could potentially solve the world’s problems. The idea back then was that if we had all the variables, and we understood how all of them behaved, we might be able to model just about anything, including, literally, the entire world.

And yet, here we are. Still unable to solve the world’s problems, having long abandoned the idea that we can model the world simply by coming up with the right equations.


Verizon’s Morse Code Post, Translated

February 26th, 2015

Today the FCC ruled in favor of Net Neutrality. Opponents such as Verizon, thought this was an antiquated decision. So in what is probably the most childish response by a corporation I’ve seen to date, Verizon responded with a blog post stating their disappointment at the FCC’s decision. In Morse Code. They also provided a link to a PDF. With typewriter-style-smudged-ink text. Dated Feb. 26, 1934.

All right Verizon, challenge accepted.

I copy-pasted their blog post and ran it through a short python script I made. This is what comes out (formatting mine).

“Today’s decision by the FCC to encumber broadband internet services with badly antiquated regulations is a radical step that presages a time of uncertainty for consumers, innovators and investors. Over the past two decades a bipartisan, light-touch policy approach unleashed unprecedented investment and enabled the broadband internet age consumers now enjoy. The FCC today chose to change the way the commercial internet has operated since its creation. Changing a platform that has been so successful should be done, if at all, only after careful policy analysis, full transparency, and by the legislature, which is constitutionally charged with determining policy. As a result, it is likely that history will judge today’s actions as misguided. The FCC’s move is especially regrettable because it is wholly unnecessary. The FCC had targeted tools available to preserve an open internet, but instead chose to use this order as an excuse to adopt 300-plus pages of broad and open-ended regulatory arcana that will have unintended negative consequences for consumers and various parts of the internet ecosystem for years to come. What has been and will remain constant before, during and after the existence of any regulations is Verizon’s commitment to an open internet that provides consumers with competitive broadband choices and internet access when, where, and how they want.”

“Verizon’s commitment to an open internet that provides consumers with competitive broadband choices” Really, Verizon? Really?