Beyond fiction

I now know firsthand what it’s like to be arrested by armed police officers, handcuffed, and sharply interrogated, while one’s wife and children look on helplessly.  This is not a prank post.

It happened in Philadelphia International Airport.  As someone who was born in Philadelphia, and who’s since visited ~40 countries on 6 continents and flies every week or two, I’ve long considered PHL possibly the most depressing airport on the planet (and the competition is fierce).

I’d just eaten dinner with my wife Dana and our two kids in a food court—after a day of travel that had already, before this happened, involved a missed flight and a lost suitcase, owing to a chain of mishaps that I’d (probably melodramatically) been describing to Dana as insane beyond the collective imagination of Homer and Shakespeare and Tolstoy and the world’s other literary giants to invent.  Again, that was before my arrest.

Two large uniformed men with holstered pistols saw me as we were exiting the airport, surrounded and handcuffed me, and demanded that I confess.

“I’m … sorry, officers,” I managed.  “I don’t understand what this is about.”

“Stop the games.  You know exactly what you took.  We have it all on video.  Where is it?”

Me, a thief?  I felt terrified to be at the beginning of a Kafka story.  But if I’m going to be brutally honest about it, I also felt … secretly vindicated in my irrational yet unshakeable beliefs that

  1. the laws of probability are broken, capricious horribleness reigning supreme over the universe,
  2. I’m despised by a large fraction of the world just for being who I am, and
  3. it’s only a matter of time until big, scary armed guys come for me, as they came for so many other nerdy misfits.

I almost wanted to say to the police: where have you been?  I’ve been expecting you my whole life.  And I wanted to say to Dana: you see??  see what I’ve been telling you all these years, about the nature of the universe we were born into?

Dana, for her part, was remonstrating with the officers that there must be some misunderstanding, that her husband was often absentminded but it’s completely impossible that he stole anything.  The officers brushed her away, told her to remove the kids from the situation.

“Are you gonna come clean?” one of the cops barked at me.  “We know you took it.”

“I didn’t take anything.”  Then I thought it over more.  “Or if somehow I did … then I’m certain that it would’ve been an accident, and I’d be more than happy to fix the…”

“Wait, if you did?  It sounds like you just confessed!”

“No, I definitely didn’t steal anything.  I’m just saying it’s possible that I might have mistakenly…”

“Your answers are rambling and all over the place.  Stop making up stories.  We know you did it.”

I’m not proud of myself for the next part, but the officers were so serious, and somehow I had to make them realize the sheer comical absurdity of what was happening.  “Look, I’m a computer science professor,” I said.  “I’ve never stolen a penny in my life, and it’s not something I’d ever…”

“Yeah, well I’m a police officer.  I’ve seen a lot in my thirty years in this job.  This is not about who you are, it’s about what you did.”

But what did I do?  After many more attempts to intimidate me, I was finally informed of the charge: “that smoothie place over there says you stole cash from their tip jar.”  Huh? How much?  One of the officers returned from the smoothie bar, and said, a bit sheepishly: “they say it was $4.”

Now a vague recollection came into sharper focus.  Yes, I had bought a berry smoothie for my daughter and a sparkling grapefruit juice for me.  I’d paid with a debit card, for reasons that I don’t remember, even though I normally pay cash.  My mind was elsewhere: on the missed flight, the lost suitcase, the brazen behavior of American Airlines (about which more later).  Then, completely forgetting I hadn’t paid cash this time, I looked down for my change: $4 in an unmarked plastic change cup.  I collected the change, put it in my wallet, then completely forgot about it.

After a minute, an employee angrily pointed down at a tray that the plastic cup was on (though not clearly at the cup itself), and said “hey, the tips go here!”  So I took a dollar from my wallet and put it on the tray.  I thought: this guy has some chutzpah, to demand a tip, and for an over-the-counter smoothie!  But whatever, he probably needs the dollar more than I do.  So if it will make him stop being angry…

But he was still angry.  He repeated: “this here is for tips!”

I said something to the effect of: “yeah, I know–that’s what you just told me, isn’t it?  So that’s why I just left you a tip!”  Sheesh.

At no point did he ever say, “you accidentally took from the tip jar,” or any other statement that would’ve clarified his meaning.

As I turned and walked away, I thought: yes, this is the strange world I was born into.  A world where people yell at me for not tipping at a smoothie bar–is that expected? I didn’t think it was–and then continue yelling even after I do.  But what did I expect?  Did I expect, as a nerdy outsider, to be able to buy normal people’s toleration with mere money?

As soon as I figured out what had happened, of course I offered to pay back the smoothie bar, not merely the $3 I still owed them, but $40 or whatever other amount would express my goodwill and compensate them for their trouble.  But the smoothie bar returned the $40 that I’d asked Dana to give them—I was unable to bring it myself on account of being handcuffed—and refused to press charges.  (In fact, apparently the employees hadn’t wanted to involve the police at all.  It was the manager, who hadn’t seen what happened, who’d insisted on it.)

So with no case, the police finally had no choice but to let me go–though not before giving me a stern lecture about never again putting my hands on stuff that’s not mine.

A week later, I’m still processing the experience.  In the rest of the post, I’d like to reflect on some lessons I think I learned from it.

First, it’s said that “a conservative is a liberal who’s been mugged; a liberal is a conservative who’s been arrested.”  It’s true: there are aspects of being arrested that are hard to understand until you’ve been through it.  While I’m white (well, insofar as Ashkenazim are), and while both officers who interrogated me happened to be African-Americans, what I went through further increased my sympathy for the many minority victims of aggressive policing.  Sitting in your armchair, it’s easy to think: in a liberal democracy, as long you know you did nothing wrong, even if you got arrested, frisked, detained, there’d probably be no real need to panic.  All you’d need to do is calmly clear up the misunderstanding and be back on your merry way.

But at least in my experience, an actual arrest isn’t like that.  The presumption of innocence, Miranda rights, all the things you might learn about in civics class—none of it seems to play any role.  From the very beginning, there’s an overwhelming presumption of guilt.  Everything you say gets interpreted as if you’re a red-handed criminal trying to fabricate a story, no matter how strained and how ludicrous such an interpretation might become.

And something strange happened: the officers seemed so certain I was guilty, that after only a few minutes I started to feel guilty.  I still had only a hazy sense of my “crime,” but I knew I was going to be punished for it, and I only hoped that the punishment wouldn’t tear me away from my family and previous life forever.

I came away from this incident with a visceral feel for just how easy it would be to procure a false confession from someone, which I didn’t have before but which will now stay with me as long as I live.

Second, it occurred to me that the sight of me, stuttering and potbellied complexity blogger, shackled and interrogated by armed policemen demanding that he confess to the theft of $3 from an airport stand, is a decent visual metaphor for much of my life.  If you doubt this, simply imagine Arthur Chu or Amanda Marcotte in place of the police officers.

It’s like: my accusers arrive on the scene committed to a specific, hostile theory of me: that I’m a petty thief of smoothie bars, let’s say, or a sexual-harassment-loving misogynist.  With all due modesty, people who know me might say that it’s not merely that I don’t fit the theory, that I happen to be innocent of the charge.  Rather, it’s that I’m one of the most astronomically, ridiculously unlikely people to fit the theory you could ever meet.  Not because I’m especially saintly, but simply because I already walk around all day feeling like my right to exist is conditional and might be revoked at any minute.  Breaking the normal people’s rules is the last thing on my agenda!  And yes, I still often feel that way, even as a professor with an endowed chair and awards and whatever.  The only times when I really relax, among strangers, is when everyone’s there to discuss ideas.

But my accusers don’t know any of that, or they refuse to believe it.  Everything I say gets interpreted in the light of the hostile theory, and therefore serves only as further confirmation of it.  Ironically—and this is key—the very unusual personality traits that make me so unlikely to be an offender, are also what throw off my accusers’ detection algorithms, and make them double down on their wrong theory.  When I’m trapped, I tend to fall back on the only tools I know: argument, openness, frank confession of my mistakes and failings, sometimes a little self-deprecating humor.  Unfortunately, I find this often backfires, as my accusers see in my vulnerability a golden opportunity to mount another wretched evildoer above their fireplace.

Or, to go even further out on a psychoanalytic limb: I sometimes get the sense that it gradually does dawn on my accusers that I’m not who they thought I was.  And then, far from prompting an apology, that realization seems to make my accusers even angrier, as if my throwing off their model of reality so badly, was an even worse offense than actually being guilty of whatever they thought!  A thief, a misogynist, they know how to handle.  But a living, breathing adversarial example for their worldview?

Dana, who watched the entire arrest, tells me that the central mistake I made was to try to reason with the police officers: “you say I took $3 that wasn’t mine?  If so, then I’m sure it was an accident, so let’s try to figure out what happened so we can fix it…”  In Dana’s view, what I saw as an earnest desire to get to the bottom of things, came across to grizzled cops only as evasiveness and guilt.  She says it would’ve been far better if I’d categorically denied: “no, I did not steal.  That’s completely absurd.  Please release me immediately.”

I’ve asked myself: how do you live in a world where, again and again, you can choose the hard right path over the easy wrong one, and then see your choice gleefully wielded against you?  Where you can spill your guts out to your accusers, in a desperate attempt to talk with them not as hardened warriors, but one confused and vulnerable human to another–and your reward is (to take one example) your picture in Salon above the headline “The Plight of the Bitter Nerd”?

The only way to live in such a world, as far as I can see, is to remind yourself that sometimes openness and vulnerability work.  In the course of my arrest, the two officers gradually differentiated themselves into a “good cop” and a “bad cop.”  While the “bad cop” treated me till the end like an unrepentant kleptomaniac being freed on a technicality, the “good cop,” who talked to me and Dana much more, became almost apologetic: “look man, when we get a call that someone stole money, we have to treat it like that’s the situation, you understand what I’m saying?  And then if it’s not, well then it’s not.”  Likewise, Arthur Chu recently tweeted that he’s “unhappy about [my] continued existence”–i.e., on a straightforward reading, that he wants me to die.  But I try to remind myself every day that the human race doesn’t consist solely of Arthur Chus (or Amanda Marcottes, or Lubos Motls, or SneerClub posters, or Paul Manaforts or Donald Trumps).  The world contains millions of women and men of every background and ideology who want actual dialogue, many of whom I’m lucky to count as friends, many of whom I met through this blog.  Vulnerability is possible because the world is not uniformly evil.

Third, I emerged from my arrest with a self-help technique that’s probably well-known to somebody, but that was new to me, and that I hope others will find as useful as I’m finding it.  Here it is: when something freakishly bad happens to you, draw a directed graph of all the known causes of the event, and the causes of the causes, and so forth as far back as you can trace them.  Also draw all the known measures that could have blocked the causal path leading to the bad event, and what prevented those measures from working or from being tried.

For example: why did I end up in handcuffs?  Firstly because, earlier in the day, Lily threw a temper tantrum that prevented us from packing and leaving for Logan Airport on time.  Because there was also heavy traffic on the way there.  Because we left from Harvard Square, and failed to factor in the extra 10 minutes to reach the airport, compared to if we’d left from MIT.  Because online check-in didn’t work.  Because when we did arrive, (barely) on time, the contemptuous American Airlines counter staff deliberately refused to check us in, chatting as we stewed impotently, so that we’d no longer be on time and they could legally give our seats away to others, and strand us in an airport with two young kids.  Because the only replacement flight was in a different terminal.  Because, in the stress of switching terminals–everything is stressful with two kids in an airport–I lost our suitcase.  Because the only shuttle to get back to the terminal went around the long way, and was slow as molasses, and by the time I returned our suitcase had been taken by the bomb squad.  Because the stress of such events bears down on me like an iron weight, and makes me unable to concentrate on the reality in front of me.  Because the guy at the smoothie counter and I failed to communicate.  Because the police chose to respond (or were trained to respond), not by politely questioning me to try to understand what had happened, but by handcuffing me and presuming guilt.

I actually drew the graph, filled a notebook page with it–and when I searched it for answers, neither I nor the world got off easily.  Looking over the strange chain of events that led to my arrest, I could find much to support my “default narrative,” that the laws of probability are broken and the universe is grotesquely awful.  But also, my belief in the universe’s grotesque awfulness clearly played a role in the events.  Had I been able maintain a calm demeanor, I would not have made so many mistakes.

Again and again, I screwed up.  Again and again, airport personnel responded to my honest mistakes with a maximum of cold bureaucracy rather than commonsense discussion: the booting from the flight, the bomb squad, the handcuffs.

We tend to think of bureaucracy as a mere nuisance, the person behind the counter at the Department of Motor Vehicles who makes you wait all day and then sends you home to get a different form of ID.  In my view, though, the bureaucratic impulse is one of the worst evils of which the human mind is capable.  It is, after all, the impulse that once sent trainloads of Jewish children to their deaths because that was the policy and there were no documents stating that any exception should be made in this case.  Today it’s the impulse that rounds up and deports people who’ve lived in the US for decades, sometimes served in the army, etc., and that separates screaming children from their parents.  To me, the mindset that willingly carries out such orders is almost more terrifying than the mindset that gives the orders in the first place.  I don’t mean to suggest, of course, that my arrest was even a trillionth as bad as those other things; at most I got a tiny, accidental taste of many less fortunate people’s daily reality.  But it’s worth remembering: every time you exercise official power over another person without even trying to talk it over first, clear up any honest misunderstandings, find out if there’s a reasonable explanation, you’re surrendering to one of the most destructive impulses in the history of civilization.

May we each strive to kill the bureaucrat in us and nurture the human being.

Unrelated Announcements:

I’m in Mexico City this week, to participate in a computer science and philosophy conference at UNAM and then give a broad quantum computing talk at CViCom 2018.  Because of this, responses to this post might be delayed.

(Update: But I’m having a wonderful time in Mexico!  Lots of delicious mole and horchata, and no arrests so far.  Today I gave my survey talk on P vs. NP.  I opened with the following icebreaker: “As a computer scientist speaking in a philosophy institute, I apologize that my talk will contain very little philosophy  Also, as an American speaking in Mexico, I apologize for our president.”)

My friend Elette Boyle asked me to announce that the 2018 CRYPTO conference, to be held in Santa Barbara, will be preceded by exciting workshops, including one that I’ll be speaking at myself entitled Beyond Crypto: A Theory Perspective.  Register now if you’re interested.

Huge congratulations to Costis Daskalakis, my former MIT colleague, for winning the Nevanlinna Prize for his work in algorithmic game theory!  While I don’t pretend to understand their work, congratulations to the four new Fields Medalists as well.

I put a new preprint online: Quantum Lower Bound for Approximate Counting Via Laurent Polynomials.

I’ve added a new blog to my blogroll: The Unit of Caring. I’ve been impressed by the author’s moral adeptness: when she addresses contentious debates among nerds, rationalists, feminists, SJWs, etc. etc., she often seems perfectly balanced on an atom-thin tightrope, even as some of us are plummetting left and right.

I forgot to mention this earlier, but I’m now a donor to the campaign of Beto O’Rourke, as he strives to unseat the quisling Ted Cruz in my adopted home state of Texas.  Americans: please consider donating as well!

Further Thoughts (Aug. 9):

  1. I wholeheartedly endorse an observation that many commenters (on this blog and elsewhere) made independently: that what really happened, is that I was forced to live out an episode of Seinfeld or Curb Your Enthusiasm.  To my detractors, I say the following: try for one minute to imagine how pathological, narcissistic, far outside the human norm, etc. etc. you could make Seinfeld or George or Kramer or Elaine seem, if their misadventures from any given episode were described and analyzed with clinical detachment.  (Or you were never a Seinfeld fan, then I guess this argument fails and we have nothing to say to each other.)
  2. I feel like some commenters are imposing their own after-the-fact knowledge (“c’mon, it was obviously a tip jar, he must be lying!”).  Dana, who’s generally more grounded than I am, saw their whole setup and agreed it was profoundly non-obvious that the tiny, unmarked plastic cup was supposed to be for tips, particularly to someone who was extremely stressed and not concentrating.  And when the employee later talked about tips, he didn’t indicate the cup so I didn’t make a connection.
  3. Most importantly: I wish to clarify that I don’t regard the police officers who handcuffed and interrogated me as having been “evil” in any sense.  I even took a liking to the “good cop,” the one who implicitly acknowledged the situation’s surreal absurdity by the end (although maybe that’s the whole point of a “good cop”?).  Having said that, I’m still rattled by the way the “bad cop” treated me as an unrepentant thief even to the end, even after the situation had been cleared up to everyone else’s satisfaction.  And I stand by my view that there was no need to handcuff me in front of my wife and young children, when I’d shown not a single subatomic particle of resistance.
  4. Speaking of which, let me now relate the most interesting and unexpected part of the reaction to my story.  Again and again, I found that fellow Americans, even nominally left-wing ones, sided with the police, said that I was crazy and guilty as charged and should’ve expected much worse, etc.  And again and again, commenters from Australia and New Zealand sided with me 300%, said that handcuffing someone over such a trivial mishap was a ludicrous overreaction, which would be totally unheard of in their countries and which confirms all the bad things they’ve heard about the US.  So maybe the rational conclusion is that I should be learning to enjoy vegemite in preparation for a move down under?

170 Responses to “Beyond fiction”

  1. Marc Says:

    Good grief! Not what I expected when I went to my favourite complexity professor’s blog. That is truly awful. Everything you have described – the aggressiveness of the police, the terrible service, the approach of the airline (American service is about the worst anywhere; how the opposite became believed I don’t know) is why I now live I. Europe, not the USA.

  2. Ash Says:

    Very sorry to hear you had to go through this unpleasant experience. I can’t help but feel that this is the logical culmination of the age of identity politics and monolithic thinking; SJWs see all white people as enemies, white supremacists see all immigrants as enemies and Philadelphia airport see everyone as a criminal. The time when people gave each the merest benefit of doubt is now non-existent. In another age this would have lead to an endearing headline in the local paper – “Absent minded computer science professor accidentally dips into tip jar” – but that age is past for good. I don’t know when again we will start seeing people as individuals.

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  4. dlyongemallo Says:

    > I sometimes get the sense that it gradually does dawn on my accusers that I’m not who they thought I was. But sometimes, far from prompting an apology, that realization seems to make my accusers even angrier, as if my throwing off their model of reality so badly, is an even worse offense than actually being guilty of whatever they thought!

    This is unsurprising. Do you know the genre of story colloquially called “I don’t work here, lady”? (There’s a reddit by that name.) It’s where someone is mistaken for an employee of an establishment, and when the person making the mistake is informed otherwise, instead of being apologetic, reacts in some other manner instead, anger being a typical reaction. It’s happened to me on occasion that I’m one of the few Asian-looking customers in a Chinese restaurant or grocery store, and someone asks me to serve them. When I tell them I don’t work there, sometimes people have gotten angry and insisted otherwise. (I think that admitting they made a mistake would mean admitting that they were making a racist assumption, and since that’s a bad thing, the only alternative available to them is that I must be lying.)

    So yes, when you throw off most people’s model of reality, expect anger. That’s typical.

  5. Kenneth W Regan Says:

    I feel for you. A year ago I forgot to pay for an entire two-person lunch in Prague, then we went walking all around Kampa Island before I remembered and went back. Despite Kampa housing the Franz Kafka Museum, nothing like that happened.

  6. Lawrence D'Anna Says:

    Solzhenitsyn describes something very similar to your self-help technique in the Gulag Archipelago. I don’t think he literally drew a DAG, but he describes how, while rotting away in the Lubyanka or some transit prison or labor camp, he reexamined in his mind every mistake he had ever made, large or trivial, and how they could have contributed, even in some tiny way to his present predicament.

  7. RFon Says:

    I’ve been struggling with the common advice: “Never talk to the police. Always ask to see a lawyer”. This post makes me think I should stick to that absolute.

  8. Sniffnoy Says:

    I’ve been impressed by the author’s moral acrobatics

    That phrase, um, doesn’t normally mean what you’re using it here to mean…

    She says it would’ve been far better if I’d categorically denied: “no, I did not steal. That’s completely absurd. Please release me immediately.”

    Yeah um absolutely do not do that, lying to the police is not a good idea. The standard safest thing to do is, as has already been noted, to refuse to say anything other than asking for a lawyer. Of course, in this case, talking your way out actually worked out relatively quickly, so doing the standard thing would have dragged things out substantially, but in general…

    But yeah, glad that got resolved fairly quickly, eegh…

  9. Sniffnoy Says:

    (Also note that you should definitely never talk to the FBI.)

  10. Alex Says:

    Ouch. I’m glad that your story got a happy ending.

  11. Oliver K Says:

    Scott, I empathize with your experience, but have you considered that everything the cops said to you in this retelling, with the possible exception of “You know exactly what you took” is true?

    The most important line in this story is: “Yeah, well I’m a police officer. I’ve seen a lot in my thirty years in this job. This is not about who you are, it’s about what you did.”
    The police did not have access to your biography or internal state – and in this case, this is a good thing! They don’t hate you for who you are, but are responding to a call stating that someone apparently brazenly took gratuity money intended for relatively low-paid service personnel. The cops were not necessarily impervious to reason, but rather were trying to reconcile your behaviour with the events captured on videotape. And the employee/victim/witness, who also had no access to your recent personal history or internal state at the time of your interaction, was willing to eat the loss and did not even want to call the police. This should be somewhat reassuring. Even the manager’s actions can be charitably viewed as outrage on the part of his employees without doing any violence to the facts of the case.

    A bias toward caution when dealing with the police, and empathy for those who must endure regular police encounters are great takeaways from this story. But I would suggest it might be profitable to revisit the personal implications of this tale with a more charitable stance to the other actors, for your own mental health.

  12. LD Says:

    I’m sorry you had to go through this, Scott.

    But let me offer an alternative interpretation for the events of that day.
    You simply experienced a Curb Your Enthusiasm episode — from the inside.

    As a fellow unwitting occasional manifestation of Larry David (though [un?]fortunately never to such extent), I’ve long-since learned to accept the Curb theme song as my life’s soundtrack.

  13. Noah Stephens-Davidowitz Says:

    I’m sorry that happened to you, Scott. That sucks.

    Was it difficult not to physically “resist”? When I’ve seen arrests, it often seems that the cops and the arrestee get into an inevitable feedback loop. The cops try to physically restrain the arrestee; the arrestee responds to this very uncomfortable and scary situation by squirming around or trying to stop the cops while he explains that this is all a misunderstanding, which effectively amounts to resisting arrest; the cops respond by getting more physical; etc.

    In your case, it seems pretty ridiculous that they thought that it was necessary to handcuff you immediately. You’d been accused of a minor non-violent crime, and you’re definitely not going to get away from them since (1) you’re in an airport past security; and (2) you’re there with young kids.

  14. Boaz Barak Says:

    Wow Scott! So sorry for this! This is just terrible.

    I think the same characteristics that make you vulnerable in certain situations are also the ones that make you such a unique scientist and thinker. Overthinking, trying to get to the bottom of things, attempting a dialogue, are wonderful things in intellectual discussions, but perhaps not in interactions with police officers (or with Internet trolls).

  15. Edan Maor Says:

    Sorry this happened to you Scott! I’ve never had this happen to me (not that it is a reasonable thing to have happen), but I have been similarly absent-minded before.

    It’s amazing that it led to you being in handcuffs.

  16. Pipsterate Says:

    I mean, strictly speaking, the cops were right, weren’t they? A theft was reported, and they dealt with it. If any criminal could get out of trouble instantly just by saying “I didn’t do it” (even if they did) or “it was an accident,” then hardly any actual criminals would get arrested.

    I’m not saying I disagree with the overall point, which is that police often go overboard, I’m just saying I don’t think this is actually a great example of that.

  17. Scott Says:

    Sniffnoy #8:

      That phrase, um, doesn’t normally mean what you’re using it here to mean…

    Thanks!! Fixed.

  18. Scott Says:

    Noah #13: No, I never had the slightest inclination to physically resist—the thought of doing so never even crossed my mind. Even when the officers demanded to see ID, I had the presence of mind to say “it’s in my pocket, but I’m afraid you’ll need to retrieve it for me, on account of my being handcuffed.” After 20 minutes or so of interrogation, the “good cop” was nice enough to remove the handcuffs in recognition of my obvious non-resistance.

  19. James Gallagher Says:

    Did you ask how many times this happens per day/week/month? I mean, if there is a problem with people stealing from the tip jars at the airport it would make the story understandable in a better light (for the police). In fact, in such a situation one might actually praise the very good reaction of the police officers, to detain a potential thief so quickly, and thus deter casual onlookers from attempting the same crime.

    If, on the other hand, it was only nerdy white jews being arrested and manhandled you would have a better case. (Actually it would be interesting to know if those two particular officers would handcuff a middle-age black man with family present so quickly)

    Also, I’m not so sympathetic to your problems with the airline which seem at least due to usual incompetence in travel planning as well as your bad luck (And yes, I’ve had similar problems, which, in hindsight, could have been avoided by say, leaving one hour earlier, like the airlines encourage)

  20. Tim McCormack Says:

    @James Gallagher: Yes, Scott already acknowledged his poor travel planning in the post.

    (Having a kid myself, I would argue that at least 10% of that fault then devolves onto the general situation of “kids make everything slower & more complicated”, but that’s another story.)

  21. Gustavo Says:

    Keep faithful to your principles Scott, they’re beautiful. I try to do the same (and sometimes falter) — I have faith that being genuine, loving, open, vulnerable, is much better in the long run. It’s probably hard to feel compassionate for the cops right now and specially in that situation, but I feel if you tried to work with them and understand their actions you might do even better (maybe they’ve had a bad day, too many annoying cases, etc).

    Sometimes people just won’t bulge, but that’s rare. In the long run you win, and by showing even a small part of the world a good way to act, we all win.

  22. Jalex Stark Says:

    With regards to Scott’s “default narrative”, here are some empirical things to keep in mind when applying probability to the real world:

    1) Different risks are more correlated than one naively guesses.
    2) The distributions of outcomes tend to be heavy-tailed; think power-law rather than Gaussian.

  23. jonathan Says:

    Your description of the causal chain leading to these events reminds me of the concept of the “incident pit” (or “error cascade”). Basically that many disasters occur following a string of errors, individually seemingly improbable and fairly innocuous, but collectively deadly. Critically, each event makes the next one more likely, by making you think less clearly, become more stressed, etc. Thus while the entire chain seems to be unlikely (since each event is independently unlikely), the steps turn out not to be independent at all.

    I think that knowing about this concept can be helpful because one can recognize when one is in the early stages of such a cascade, and try to increase focus or alter one’s strategy.

  24. Tom Says:

    (levity) Ah yes, that classic umeshism: “If you’ve never been arrested, you haven’t been stealing from enough tip jars”

    Sorry to hear about this, sending solidarity your way. The universe is not as bad as you feel like it is, the Philadelphia airport definitely is.

  25. Jair Says:

    I rather like the mental image of Bizarro-evil-Scott. He brazenly steals from tip jars with no shame or pretense, and when confronted, he gives back just a single dollar, presumably out of spite or pity. What insolence! He probably also steals teddy bears from strangers’ children and hurls them out of sight with sheer malevolent joy. And then blogs about it.

  26. Scott Says:

    Tom #24:

      The universe is not as bad as you feel like it is, the Philadelphia airport definitely is.

    LOL! I think you win this comment section so far. 😀

  27. Craig Says:


    So now, it is clear why you have been so successful in academics; you use for academics the part of the brain that most people use to avoid situations that you described.

    You need to reallocate the finite memory of your brain to avoid situations like this in the future. You are fortunate that they did not press charges. Keep safe.

  28. Scott Says:

    James #19: I didn’t fully understand your point, but at risk of stating the obvious—I’d regard as reprehensible any suggestion that “nerdy white jews,” or any similar group, should receive any form of special treatment from police (!!). My point was rather that, if the officers had started out by just asking me politely what happened, with no handcuffs or accusations, we could’ve cleared everything up in less than a minute. And that strikes me as a reasonable approach for police to take with anyone who’s manifestly cooperating with them, making no effort to resist or escape, etc.

    More than anything else, the whole experience gave me a newfound, bone-deep appreciation for how badly it would suck to be a black, Latino, or other frequently-profiled minority who had to experience this presumption of guilt on a routine basis.

  29. Scott Says:

    Boaz #14:

      I think the same characteristics that make you vulnerable in certain situations are also the ones that make you such a unique scientist and thinker. Overthinking, trying to get to the bottom of things, attempting a dialogue, are wonderful things in intellectual discussions, but perhaps not in interactions with police officers (or with Internet trolls).

    Thanks so much—I couldn’t have composed better text for own obituary. 😀

  30. Kevin S Van Horn Says:

    > Again and again, I screwed up.

    I think you’re demanding an unreasonable level of perfection of yourself, Scott. Would you ever demand that much of another person?

    > I came away from this incident with a visceral feel for just how easy it would be to procure a false confession from someone.

    This is an extremely important point. The more I learn about this country’s legal system, the less confident I become that it punishes only the guilty.

  31. Scott Says:

    Oliver K #11:

      Scott, I empathize with your experience, but have you considered that everything the cops said to you in this retelling, with the possible exception of “You know exactly what you took” is true?

    Pipsterate #16:

      I mean, strictly speaking, the cops were right, weren’t they? A theft was reported, and they dealt with it.

    You know, I’ve been just reading the Reddit and Hacker News threads, which have many commenters taking a much harsher line than even the above: that I literally was guilty of theft, I deserved much worse than I got, I must be lying since no one could’ve been so absentminded, etc.

    I didn’t, and don’t, see myself as blameless. But I stand by what I wrote in the post and in comment #27: that the whole thing could’ve been cleared up in one minute of calm Q&A, with no handcuffs or accusations needed. And that’s what I wish for every innocent person who finds themselves in a similar run-in with police and who’s cooperative and polite. More than anything else, the hostile comments just underscore for me what an uphill battle it is to convince everyone to, as I put it, “kill the bureaucrats in ourselves and nurture the human beings.”

  32. maxCohen Says:

    Something that might help your readers:

  33. Dmitri Says:

    Smoothie bars with a tip jar that doesn’t look like a jar are evil. Avoid them.

  34. Paul Says:

    This story tells a lot about police culture in the US. Police see themselves primarily as law enforcers and often adopt that aggressive stance so commonly portrayed in Hollywood movies. In other countries, police culture is more about public service (e.g. the UK and Australia) and their interactions with the public reflects that. It would be inconceivable for police in Australia to handcuff and interrogate a man, travelling with his family, over an alleged petty crime. Such heavy handedness would be front page news. How has US law enforcement culture become so aggressive?

  35. Chris Says:

    My jaw dropped reading this! As an absent minded mathematician/computer scientist this story is a cautionary tale.

    But here’s some free legal advice: never talk to the police. Especially if you have no idea what you’re even accused of. Watch for an extremely convincing argument to that effect.

  36. Anonymous Says:

    I’m sorry this happened to you. I know you’re not a fan of “social justice” discussions, but maybe you’d be interested to know that that in such circles this might fall under the category of ableism. In other words, an absent-minded/socially awkward person (controlling for other factors such as tiredness and other stresses) would be much more likely to make a faux pas as you did that is interpreted as intentional theft rather than an honest mistake.* The police as well as the people reporting expect “neurotypical” behaviors and tend to be suspicious of anything that falls outside of this pattern. Behaving in non-socially expected ways can even be downright dangerous (for example, if an autistic person stims in reaction to the stress of arrest and the police interpret it as a threat). People of color who are also autistic or otherwise non-neurotypical face compounded risks. I know you and some of your followers dislike this way of thinking, but I hope you can take my comment in good faith.

    * While true that what you did is technically illegal, there are many socially accepted and unenforced ways to break the law (jaywalking, drinking underage on campus, etc.). It seems reasonable to consider $3 as being in the same ballpark, and I suspect if it had happened in a more “socially acceptable” way (e.g. the bills were right next to actual change instead of inside a cup when you paid by card) you would have gotten the benefit of doubt from the manager.

    P.S. I suspect your issues in the past with certain feminists might also stem from a kind of flawed feminism that doesn’t take into account neurodivergence, and shouldn’t be taken to represent all feminists (also, someone can be simultaneously a feminist and a nerd).

  37. Scott Says:

    Anonymous #36: Of course I take your comment in good faith! I’m actually a fervent believer in social justice, in the literal sense of trying to reorder society as best we can to help all well-intentioned people who have been disadvantaged by accidents of their birth. I will confess to wishing, from time to time, that the self-styled social-justice vigilantes would adhere more consistently to their own doctrine (regarding the neurodivergent, to take one example)! But while my emotions are surely colored by the gusto with which some prominent SJWs tried to destroy me, I’ll freely admit that if they’re hypocrites then they’re far from unique in that. There are also rationalists who I’ve wished would be more rational, Christians who I’ve wished would be more Christian, and so on.

  38. Ashley Says:

    “… the person behind the counter at the Department of Motor Vehicles who makes you wait all day and then sends you home to get a different form of ID” – I shouldn’t be, but am sort of relieved to hear that this is a universal phenomena. I thought this happened only in my country!

    BTW, Scott, how about a view where the President, Monarch or Prime Minister of one’s country is someone to be respected in a similar sense as one would respect, say, it’s flag or national anthem, irrespective of one’s disagreements? (I am asking this with all due respect and politeness, and I am asking you this because I consider you to be mature enough to be asked such.)

  39. Ashley Says:

    Does not all this look horrible because it happened to a person like Scott? There are people who do petty things but are of high nuisance value (and such nuisance could lead up to escalating situations). That IS a problem to be solved. The officers probably from their experience know that the conditional probability of the person apprehended being someone of this category is greater than it being someone like Scott.

    “We sleep soundly in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm.” Every once in a while, these rough men could be getting rough with the truly innocent ourselves too.

  40. Tommaso Says:

    Scott, I’m sorry to hear you had to go through this. Still, I think you’ve actually been lucky after all. These things can easily escalate to much, much worse situations.

    The golden rule is always: *do not talk to the police*. Period. — it is interesting how the cops reacted EXACTLY as described in the video: “you stole some cash”. “Uh? Wait… maybe I’m absent-minded, but I definitely did not stole cash INTENTIONALLY”. “Ah! That sounds like a confession! Gotcha!”

    Also, your wife’s very pragmatic suggestion of simply denying the crime could have also backfired, and that would have been even worse. Say, a footage from a security camera shows up, where one can clearly see that you took the cash from the jar. Congratulations, now not only you’re a thief but, much more seriously, you lied to an officer on duty.

    All in all, you really have been lucky. Which is itself a very depressing consideration 🙂

  41. Tim Maudlin Says:


    Others have said this, but I’m not sure that you have quite appreciated it. But before that, I also want to agree that your observation about the desire to confess is very, very important. Confessing even though you sincerely believe that you have nothing to confess to, just because of the situation you have been put in, seems hard to understand. We know that there are false confessions that lead to monstrous miscarriages of justice. We know that it is very hard for a jury to just overlook a recorded confession on the theory that it is a false confession, because from the luxury of our distant perspective it is hard to understand how anyone could ever become so distressed and unnerved that they would falsely confess to anything. You have helped people see how that can happen, and that is very valuable.

    It does not, of course, provide a solution to the problem. There is some sort of risk/reward balance here: presumably psychological pressure both increases the chances of a true confession and also a of false confession. Knowing that, there arises the practical question of how much psychological pressure is the right amount? You can’t just set the right amount at zero if that means that a lot of guilty people get away. This is one of those horrible moral dilemmas that has no proper solution.

    There is an old adage (trying to track it down, all I found is that it may originate in Scotland) “Better nine guilty men go free than one innocent man be convicted”. And that adage is usually taken to mean sort of bending over backward with the presumption of innocence. But even then, the claim is not “Better a hundred guilty men” or “Better a thousand guilty men…”. I mean there is the horrible fact—which is a fact however horrible it is—that no system of justice can be perfect and some innocent will be convicted and some guilty set free. We can’t avoid that. It is just the hard question—which no one wants to face directly—of what the right ratio is.

    Anyway, you never came near to being convicted of anything. You could have easily really been arrested, and all of those recommending that you not talk to the cops at all and just demand a lawyer are clamoring for you to have acted so that you would be arrested. I mean, if you just refused to talk to them, what else could they do? They have you on videotape taking money from the tip jar, and when confronted about it not returning all the money. You actually did that, and they have it on tape. If you clam up, they are not going to just let you go. If you clam up, it’s off to the police station. I would say that that is bad advice.

    Now for the point where I want to agree with some of the others. I know you are absent-minded and you were tired and frustrated and all, but face it: you took the money, and the guy actually told you you took the money, and you didn’t return it, and that was all on tape. So one’s first thought—you took it accidentally—doesn’t really fly. If you took it and walked off to go eat, the theory that it was just an oversight is very plausible, certainly the most plausible one. And maybe then the cops just come up and ask you to give it back. But the guy at the counter already did ask you to give it back, and you didn’t. So it was not a garden-variety oversight. It was more than that. They have you on tape not just taking it, but having it pointed out to you that you took it and still your not returning it.

    Suggesting that the police should have enough insight into your soul to recognize this as just a very, very extreme case of being unaware of what you are doing is, I think, asking too much. And sitting to have a nice chat while accepting at face value whatever the person being questioned has to say (“Oh, of course this was all a mistake”) is not going to work out well for policing in general. A balance has to be struck here, between some degree of aggressiveness and creating fear in the guilty and some degree of openness to accept the explanations of the innocent. That’s what good cop/bad/cop is all about, and maybe it’s a pretty good strategy.

    Anyway, my point is that at the end of the day you not only were not convicted of anything you were not even arrested, even though your actions were more than just absent-minded and fall outside the usual range of actions. Police work is hard work, and bad police are monsters and should be treated as such. But reading your story and thinking of it from their perspective, I find it hard to fault them in this case.

  42. Jr Says:

    I am sorry for your experience. American police officers seem more aggressive than European police. It has often struck me that for all their liberty-loving Americans seem totally fine with routine handcuffing of people who probably do not pose a threat.

    I wonder what would have happened if you had said nothing and asked for a lawyer? In the worst case they would have taken you to the station. I am sure asking for a lawyer is sound advice in many cases but with these sort of misunderstandings? And of course, it is not something you immediately think of. There is something rather unnatural about being able to refuse to answer the questions a authority figure poses.

    On a happier note, congratualations to the Fields and Nevalinna medalists. Tyler Cowen linked to the following discussion wich I found interesting As someone who finds the applications of economics in mathematics interesting (not a typo) it was a very interesting set of awards.

  43. Ludwig Fahrbach Says:

    Thanks for this story and your insightful comments.

    Just yesterday I ate at a restaurant. After finishing I left without paying, pursuing a deep line of though I’m sure (I forgot which one). As I slowly walked down the street the waiter ran after me. I went back and paid. The waiter showed no hint of reproach for which I was grateful.

  44. Jr Says:

    I am sorry for your experience. It has often struck me that for al their liberty-loving ways Americans seem fine with the routine handcuffing of people who showed no sign of violence. Another thing that struck me is that “the process is the punishment”, as the saying goes. For minor crimes like theft of 4 dollars the primary consequence is not court-imposed punishment, which is likely not large and it is dubious if a prosecutor would bother pursuing it to conviction anyway, but the trouble and liberty restrictions that follow from the process up to court judgement, starting with arrest and interrogation.

  45. Simon Says:

    I get that impression that American police are more inclined to go overboard than those in some other countries. Why do they need to arrest or handcuff someone over a claim they (non-violently) stole from a store? Can’t they just walk up to the person and say, “Excuse me sir/madam, this store claims you stole from them, would you mind coming with us while we clear this up?” And then, if the person tries to flee, sure arrest them, but if the person says “I don’t know what you are talking about”, they can just say “Come with us back to the store and we’ll try to clarify what happened”, and there is no need to arrest or handcuff the person while they are cooperating. And then, if they did that, then the store staff would have given their version to the police, and I’m sure you would have said “Sorry, that was an innocent mistake, I’m tired and got confused, here is your $3 back.”

    Here in Australia, I see cops interacting with petty criminals reasonably often (I live in a relatively disadvantaged area, and the local shopping centre has lots of problems with shoplifters) and if they aren’t running away, they will generally stand there and talk to them and try to understand what happened, and assuming the person doesn’t try to flee or fight, they don’t formally arrest or restrain them while preliminary inquiries are undertaken. (If the matter needs to be taken further, if the person is willing to voluntarily come to the police station for further questioning/processing, I still don’t see the need to handcuff them even if the police think they are guilty and charges may need to be pressed.)

    I go look at the discussion over at Hacker News, and a bunch of people are coming down hard on you. I think some Americans are just so used to the totally overboard policing culture in the US, they’ve completely lost the ability to see how overboard it really is. (Of course, Australian police aren’t perfect, and I’m sure sometimes they go overboard too, but I really do get the impression that American police are on average far worse.)

  46. John Lawrence Aspden Says:

    Fuck’s sake Scott, I’m about as WASP as an Englishman gets, have a Cambridge degree and the accent to match, and I’ve been strip-searched at customs, manhandled by police, and twice detained and interrogated by shop security people.

    In every case I was innocent (in the same way you were). Although I could totally see why they were suspicious.

    I never felt the urge to call my accusers Nazis, which is what you just did, despite your disclaimer, because I could see exactly where they were coming from in all cases.

    You had a bad day ( a curse on all airlines, goes without saying ), but of all the people you met the police behaved most reasonably. OK the handcuffs are weird from my point of view, but maybe that’s a more normal thing in America?

    Get a grip!

    The holocaust wasn’t a bureaucratic foul-up. It was the will of the German people, executed by a load of bureaucrats who were doing exactly what they were supposed to be doing.

    Bureaucrats are often unhelpful scumbags, but they’re not murderers. And before you call them murderers you should probably come up with a better way of administrating a country.

  47. JimV Says:

    I’m sincerely sorry for the awful day you had. I was a little surprised that you seem to be complaining about the police behavior in this instance. They did know you were guilty. You were guilty. Police don’t like to be lied to which is what you seemed to be doing. You didn’t feel guilty because it wasn’t intentional, but you were denying knowledge of what they had seen you doing on video. Then you played the “I’m an important guy and you aren’t” card (from their point of view). So I have no problem with the police; they were mistaken but it was understandable that they would be. And they might have been having bad days too. (Probably not as bad as yours, I admit.)

    It seems to me the kind of incident that could have happened in any society from the best to the worst, so there are no deep lessons to be drawn from it, except that humans are fallible, which we already knew. Time for my favorite quotation: “All mathematicians make mistakes; good mathematicians find them (Einstein).” You made a mistake and corrected it.

    Thanks for this blog. It puts you well on the plus side of life, for me. I hope today is a much better day for you.

  48. Nestor Says:

    The scariest part of the US police state is how many of you jump to defend and justify it even in blatantly clear cases of excess of force such as this one.

  49. Scott Says:

    Ashley #38:

      BTW, Scott, how about a view where the President, Monarch or Prime Minister of one’s country is someone to be respected in a similar sense as one would respect, say, it’s flag or national anthem, irrespective of one’s disagreements? (I am asking this with all due respect and politeness, and I am asking you this because I consider you to be mature enough to be asked such.)

    I think there’s something to be said for such a view in normal circumstances. We are no longer in normal circumstances in the US. We’re in a cold civil war.

    My view is this: with welcomed assistance from a hostile foreign power, ~40% of the country has taken control over it and is imposing a gleefully destructive, corrupt, xenophobic, white-nationalist strongman agenda on the remaining ~60%, in open contempt not only for the majority and everything it values, but also for the Constitution and for civil and democratic norms that go back in many cases to the founding of the Republic.

    I admire the founding ideals of the US, as those ideals were later brought (closer) to their logical conclusions by the struggles against slavery and other evils. I advise all Americans of goodwill to remain both peaceful and law-abiding (as I try to myself, the “stolen” $3 notwithstanding…! 🙂 ), because I think that purging this cancer from our system by the democratic process is the only real option we have, and not an unrealistic one. And I respect many parts of the US Government that continue to function more-or-less as before—like the various body parts of a chicken striving valiantly for life even after the chicken has been decapitated.

    But I will never, ever consider Trump a president worthy of the slightest deference. He’s a disgrace to everything that makes the country worth defending, and I’d refuse a National Medal of Science or whatever if the alternative were to shake his hand.

  50. Passerby Says:

    I think there’s a big elephant in the room that no one’s talking about. If the smoothie store assistant had clearly communicated the problem and told Scott he had taken money from the tip jar, this whole fiasco would have been avoided. I usually don’t make a big deal about people – both natives and immigrants – speaking English properly, but it seems to me that clear communication of the problem in simple English in this case would have made things much simpler.

  51. Yaacov Says:

    The self-help technique you’re talking about is called Chain Analysis, and it’s an important part of Dialectical Behavior Therapy.

  52. John Sidles Says:

    Rational grounds for sympathy with the police officers is the grim reality that — although high-quality statistics are hard to come by — USA officers are themselves at far greater risk of being killed in the line of duty, than are the officers of any other comparably prosperous nation.

    The reason is simple. It is uniquely and sorrowfully the case, that in the United States, it is far easier for a mentally disturbed person to obtain a gun, than to obtain medical care.

    “Suicide by cop” too is a grim American reality. Statistics are even harder to come by, for the bizarre reason that, in recent decades, US gun advocacy groups have colluded with the Republican Party to stifle gun-related safety research.

  53. Gerald Says:

    Scott, you did the right thing in my opinion but I disagree with this:

    Scott #28:

    > My point was rather that, if the officers had started out by just asking me politely what happened, with no handcuffs or accusations, we could’ve cleared everything up in less than a minute. And that strikes me as a reasonable approach for police to take with anyone who’s manifestly cooperating with them, making no effort to resist or escape, etc.

    The police didn’t know you are a good guy. A guy that takes money out of the tip jar is in most cases one of the typical trick thiefs that hang around airports. These are the type of criminals who know how to smooth talk people, distracting them, then take their cash out of the wallet inside an inner pocket of a closed coat. The absent minded nice guy grabbing the money by accident is the rare exceptional case.

    It’s not true, that the kind of criminal they expected you to be, usually resists or tries to escape. Unlike seen on TV crime shows they often act rather calm and try to act a role. Trick thiefs are incredibly good actors, it’s their job. They will fabricate believable stories, succeed to distract the officer and then maybe escape or even take the officers gun. The police has to first constrain the hands of these kind of folks before they can safely listen to what they have to say. And even then the officer has to stay alert. (Also about handcuffing: The crooks know how to trick officers into handcuffing too loose by twisting their wrists in certain angles.)

    All that considered you did really well. Your calm reasoning worked in the end. It was the right thing to do. And of course it took its time. This was not an academic debate where one can safely assume that everybody acts in good faith to begin with. The police had to assume that you are one of the bad guys trying to fool them. And they would be fools to lightly believe every story they are told all day. Yet in the end reason won. It was almost exactly how it should go: No arrest, no lawyers, no court, no paperwork, the precise opposite of “bureaucracy”. Ok, one might argue, that it should have taken less than 20 minutes and that they should have been more polite. Yes, maybe, but expecting no handcuffing and just one minute calm talk is not at all reasonable. Now suppose you instead had followed the “never talk to the police” or “deny everything” advice. What then? Arrest, paperwork, lawyers, court? Would that have been better?

  54. Ivo Says:

    Both comments like those of Tim Maudlin and those of Passerby are reasons to feel sad and despair. They exemplify the need to be able to call someone the perpetrator and someone the victim. To mark some party as the guilty one, no matter what confabulations are necessary. That attitude is the cause of harm in many situations that could have been resolved peacefully. The more culturally internalized it is, the smaller the chance people will be open to resolving things peacefully.

    How about we assume the simplest version of things? There is no need to accuse Scott of secretly having understood the store assistant’s request to out the money back. There is no need to accuse the shop assistent of not speaking English well, and certainly not for assuming it was somehow a ‘foreigner’. This is what a mistake and subsequent misunderstanding looks like. Why do we need to make more of it?

  55. The problem with gatekeepers Says:

    I think that what happened to Scott happens all too often in the US. We live in an over criminalized society due to a combination of factors, including that laws are vaguely written and stay in the books for longer than the original authors expected. In fact, the claim has been made that the average citizen commits on average 3 felonies a day without noticing: .

    A couple of points I want to make in connection to this story:

    1- Scott: you see why those of us who are Trump supporters have been suspicious of the deep state plot against Trump since day one? What happened to you was unfortunate, but now imagine a team of 13 angry Democrats, a corrupt FBI director (Comey), an abusive prosecutor with a record like Mueller’s , a fake dossier, a FISA warrant issued under false pretenses (Carter Page remains free to this day) and a lead investigator with superman complex (Peter Strzok) who wants to impress his lover by taking down Trump. With all this, the real miracle is that Trump is fighting back the corrupt establishment and, as far as I can tell, winning the war against the deep state.

    2- #46 JLA: I disagree with you on your sympathy to the Nazi bureaucrats or bureaucrats in general. I think government is intrinsically evil and bureaucrats -particularly high level bureaucrats- are the worst of them all. Instances like what happened to Scott (and much worse) happen everyday not only in the US but everywhere in the civilized world to people with a much lower public profile who are unable to fight back. When it comes to the Nazi holocaust (and similar genocidal instances elsewhere) the bureaucrats that committed the crimes share part of the blame for what happened. The excuse “but society went bonkers” doesn’t fly. Sure it did, but there in every case I am familiar with there were heroes like Dietrich Bonhoeffer who refused to go with the flow. Statism is an ideological cancer, one that is killing the European Union as we speak. As to whether there are better ways to run society, I don’t think we can get rid of bureaucrats completely, but what we can do is to limit severely their power, treating them as demons not as angels. I have said numerous times in this forum that for all the talk about the loser neo-Nazis that create trouble like in Charlottesville it’s the ideological Nazis that I fear the most. You don’t hear much about them but if you have frequented the highest echelons of academia or other so called “knowledge” industries you have heard dangerous Nazi-like talk that should scare everyone. To this day it is not uncommon to hear praise to William Shockley’s eugenics ideas in Silicon Valley. I think that CS Lewis’ warning about bureaucrats being the greatest evil in society remains true to this day .

  56. Tim Maudlin Says:

    Ivo #54

    I really have no idea what you are saying. I nowhere questioned Scott’s description. I did not accuse him of “secretly having understood the store assistant’s request to put the money back.” I accept his account of it completely. My point was that not understanding someone who is pointing out that—having just paid with a credit card—you just swiped all of the money out of the tip jar is not a normal state of affairs. You may know Scott, in some sense, but the person at the counter doesn’t know him from Adam, and the behavior is just strange. I can imagine without much trouble that the assistant said to put the money back and even said it rather sharply: I mean Scott just took all his tips. Indeed, a sharp tone might even be in order to snap someone who may not be paying attention back to paying attention. But that Scott could even register the sharp tone, and make clear by his behavior that he heard what was said, and still not return the money, well, that is just out of the ordinary course of things. And having failed to get the money back by asking—or even demanding—it back, recourse to the police is the natural next step.

    Now what about the police? This is something many people here do not seem to understand. From the police point of view, they were not conducting an investigation: they were making an arrest. They had eyewitness testimony and also apparently on videotape, that Scott took the money, was made aware that he took the money by the assistant, and still did not return it. That is just objectively what happened. And there was no doubt that Scott was, indeed, the person who did it. So they were going to arrest Scott and, if possible, get a confession.

    When the police arrest someone, it is, I believe, standard operating procedure to handcuff them. That is just a rule. I believe that if they failed to handcuff Scott, they would have been breaking a regulation. And for sure, if they failed to handcuff Scott and he pulled out a gun, they would at least lose their jobs. So give the cops a break. They were doing what they were supposed to do.

    Now it is at this point that you might complain not that the cops were following standard operating procedure, but that the standard operating procedure itself is bad. And here I completely disagree. I think that the standard operating procedure is the best it could be, even if it resulted in Scott being handcuffed. Why?

    Well, what are the options? There are only three:

    1) Standard operating procedure is never to handcuff anyone when they are arrested. About 2 seconds thought is enough to see what a bad idea that is.

    2) Standard operating procedure is to leave it to the cops’ discretion who to handcuff and who not to. Welcome to the world of white privilege! The more discretion you give the cops, the more their own prejudices and biases can manifest in unequal treatment. It seems like many of the people here think this is how things should be: the cops should just see that Scott is no threat and treat him differently from the (say) black homeless person who is in exactly the same situation, having taken money from the tip jar and refused to give it back. Well, no. I do not want the cops to have that discretion and use it to play favorites. Even if I would be among the favorites.

    3) SOP should be to handcuff everyone you arrest. Bingo! That is the only one left, and the only reasonable choice.

  57. Nick Says:

    > Again and again, I found that fellow Americans, even nominally left-wing ones, sided with the police, said that I was crazy and guilty as charged and should’ve expected much worse, etc.

    These boot-lickers will defend cops and other so-called authority figures no matter what. Remember when that old guy got the shit beat out of him on that United flight? The boot-lickers came out in full force, defending a soulless corporation and saying that he should have done as he was told and given up the seat that he paid for. And it goes without saying that whenever a black person is murdered by police, the cop was acting in self-defense, the black person was a savage beast, law and order, etc.

    Do boots taste good? Is that why they lick them? Maybe they taste like black licorice, yum!

    Scott, pay close attention to whether anyone you personally know is a boot-licker. Because when the hammer really comes down in this country, these people will do absolutely nothing to help you. They will stand by and watch, smugly wagging their fingers and tut-tut-ing and telling you to do as you’re told.

  58. Enric Says:

    I don’t think I’ve ever seen any business that handed people back their change via trays. Is this a thing? If “no,” then it sounds like the cops acted completely reasonably. Trying to turn this into an “I think we’ve all learned a valuable lesson today…” PSA about police excess is honestly a little ridiculous.

  59. jonathan Says:

    Perhaps now that you have young children, it’s time to reverse the original Umeshism:

    Once one has experienced missing a flight with young children, sitting in airports won’t seem so bad!

  60. atreat Says:

    That completely sucks Scott and I’m sorry you had to go through it. Handcuffing someone for supposed theft of 4 bucks is so ludicrously overboard that it boggles the mind. Why must everything be so damn confrontational? We supposedly have something called equal protection in this country, but I have no doubt that certain people are more likely to get cuffed than others. Look what happened to Eric Garner in NY for what happens when petty problems are met with way excessive overreaction.

  61. jonathan Says:

    I imagine that most of the differences in perception of police between the US and other developed countries is due to our much higher rates of violent crime and gun ownership. This alters police training and standard practices, and also alters citizens’ perception of reasonable police behavior.

    The hard reality is that, while their aggressive approach was wholly unwarranted in this particular case, the training and mentality that underlies it is sadly necessary in daily police work in this country.

    And it goes without saying that being on the receiving end of aggressive policing, even if it doesn’t rise to the level of brutality, royally sucks; so my sympathies.

    Though if you want to hear about an academic getting it worse than you did, and in Germany no less, see here.

  62. Kevin Says:

    To those beating up on Scott for making an absent-minded mistake: Yes, that kind of thing can easily happen by accident when your mind is occupied with other things. I was raised to view any sort of dishonesty as very shameful, yet I have twice had similar things happen to me. Once I was in a great hurry, ran into a convenience store to get some ice cream, and forgot to pay before running out. I didn’t realize my mistake until the owner came running out, shouting at me. Another time I just absent-mindedly wandered out of a convenience store without paying, and was a block away before I realized this. Fortunately, I was able to just wander back and get in line to pay. I was horribly embarrassed in both cases.

  63. Kevin Van Horn Says:

    John Sidles (#52) says:

    > Rational grounds for sympathy with the police officers is the grim reality that… USA officers are themselves at far greater risk of being killed in the line of duty, than are the officers of any other comparably prosperous nation.

    And yet, being a policeman does not even make the list of top 10 most dangerous occupations in the U.S. Truck drivers have a riskier job.

  64. chris s Says:

    “Very sorry to hear you had to go through this unpleasant experience. I can’t help but feel that this is the logical culmination of the age of identity politics and monolithic thinking; SJWs see all white people as enemies,”

    It really isn’t. The police acting this way long predates anything tangential to the ‘SJWs’ – they have been able to get away with it because they are generally targeting people without a voice, and act as praetorians for the middle classes.

    You have causation around the wrong way.

  65. atreat Says:

    Scott, I wonder if some of your problem (and the world’s in general) is that you have a problem trying to discern when assumptions of good faith should be granted to adversarial parties and when assumptions of good faith should be denied.

    Let’s take the overreaction by the cops and the context out of the dispute and put that aside for a moment. I think your default mode going into this dispute with the cops was something like:

    – You had a knee jerk fear that this was going to go badly from the outset given your default pessimism about the world and how you think the world sees you
    – You also have a very paradoxical predilection to offer the assumption of good faith to anyone approaching you in an adversarial way
    – You value reason (and maybe have internalized Aumann’s theorem too much?) as a primary tool resolve disputes

    And the cops default mode was something like:

    – They view you with default mode of suspicion and guilt
    – They are wary or not general inclined to offer assumption of good faith
    – Think intimidation and bullying rather than reason are way to resolve the dispute (ie., getting you to admit your obvious guilt)

    Basically, I think the both sides operating with assumptions of good faith is necessary for something like Aumann’s theorem to work and yet so very rarely in this world is it granted. And not without reason.

  66. Vanessa Says:

    I just wanted to add my 5 cents that the behavior of the police seems way overboard to me (I’m Israeli btw). I don’t understand the people who say: “The police was right to assume that, on priors, the person is likely to resist and try escaping (despite the presence of eir wife and children) and therefore handcuffing was the right thing.” I mean, suppose that it was indeed likely from the police’s point of view that Scott will try to resist. So, we should risk forcing innocent people through such ordeals to prevent the oh-so-terrible catastrophe of someone who stole entire *three dollars* having some chance of escaping?

  67. Vanessa Says:

    (posted the comment before but it seems like it didn’t get through?)

    I just wanted to add my 5 cents that the behavior of the police seems completely overboard to me (I’m Israeli btw). I don’t understand the people who say “from the POV of the police, Scott was likely to resist/escape (despite the presence of eir wife and children) and therefore handcuffing was justified.” Even if the premise is true, should we really risk putting innocent people through such an ordeal in order to prevent the oh-so-terrible catastrophe of someone who stole an entire *three dollars* having some chance to escape?

  68. Ash Says:

    Chris S #64, I am not arguing for causation either way, simply saying that identity politics encourages an environment in which you start seeing everyone only as a member of a group who reinforces preexisting beliefs rather than a complex individual whose stories may challenge your beliefs. Bureaucracy does the same thing, reducing individuals to groups and “cases” (to build further on Scott’s argument, a lot of folks in Nazi Germany saw their job as “keeping the trains running”, completely forgetting that there were millions of individuals, each with his or her own unique identity, who were being impacted by that monolithic goal. I agree that even without SJWs the police would have reacted the same way, but the kind of behavior exemplified by both SJWs and the far right doesn’t make it easier to mitigate other behavior of the same kind.

  69. David Says:

    Hi Scott,
    Quite a traumatic experience, and I think putting you in handcuffs in front of your family was completely unnecessary. There is a humorous side to your story but it also made me think of Alan Turing who did nothing wrong but be himself, a crime from which he could never escape. Labelling people is easy but with the label we tend to forget our common humanity.

  70. Michael Says:

    @tpwg#55- Those are the classic Republican talking points and most of them are ridiculous. Mueller was not allowed to disallow Democrats from his team, Comey’s “corruption” was revealing the investigation into Hillary, which HELPED Trump, it’s not clear how much of the dossier was real, Carter Page was, by his own admission, an “informal adviser” to the President, and Mueller’s a Republican and was viewed as honorable by both parties until he was appointed Special Counsel.

  71. Eric Habegger Says:

    Hi Scott,
    Rest assured that you are not the first, and won’t be the last person, that experiences an escalating cascade of negative events when under stress. I’ve experienced it myself. It sometimes seems like a feedback loop from hell. (Which it is) Having said that, I wouldn’t put too much meaning into the negative comments that blame you which come from residents of the USA. It is simply a defensive mechanism. It’s the same thing as having a compulsion to laugh inappropriately when something horrible happens. People will do almost anything to protect their psychological cocoon of personal security, and the more they identify with a victim the more they move to change their opinion of them as the “other” when something bad happens to them. It’s just a very sad failing of human beings.

    I would also argue that people are more the same than different. I imagine its comforting to see this incident from another country and not see it as an immediate threat to happen to them in their country. I wouldn’t be so sure.

  72. Greg Price Says:

    Wow! Sorry to hear this happened. It sounds like a terrible experience.

    Among the comments, what most disturbs me is the people asserting that you were guilty of something. You were not guilty! Taking something by accident is not a crime! Like most crimes, theft requires that you intended to do it — when you believed the property was yours (in this case, was your change), there can be no theft.

    Of course your thoughts aren’t on the video, and it’s perfectly reasonable that the cashier and the police initially believed you were guilty. And it wouldn’t be fun to fight about that part of the facts (or anything else) in court. But I don’t see why anyone reading this would disbelieve you on that, even without knowing you (it makes no sense why you’d walk away with the money if you understood). And these commenters don’t suggest they do.

    So that’s a very scary hyper-legalistic attitude — more legalistic than the law! And then to suggest that it’s *right* that you should have gotten worse… well. :-/

  73. Jo Says:

    Ha! I’m sorry but you made me laugh quite a bit! I understand that you had an horrible day though, obviously it has more funny potential when it happens to others!
    Now what must have been interesting also is what you told your children after, who must have been impressed (at the very least) by the scene…See, Daddy was in handcuffs but he’s not a villain…The police made a mistake but you must obey the police…Stealing is bad but Daddy didn’t steal, he just took money that wasn’t his…It must have been quite the parenting job to explain all this vaudevillesque situation !

  74. Scott Says:

    Jo #72: I’m glad (genuinely) that it made you laugh!

    The whole episode was so outside Lily’s model of the world that fortunately, it seems to have made very little impression on her (at least consciously … who knows what she’ll be telling her therapist in 20 years? 🙂 ) Daniel, meanwhile, is 1 year old and was thankfully oblivious, just eating his foot the whole time or pursuing his other interests.

  75. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    You see why those of us who are Trump supporters have been suspicious of the deep state plot against Trump since day one?

    My answer: No!

    Your comparison is just wrong on so many levels.

  76. Daniel Says:

    You write: “I’ve asked myself: how do you live in a world where, again and again, you can choose the hard right path over the easy wrong one, and then see your choice gleefully wielded against you?”

    Maybe the hard right path is to keep oneself together, even in the face of the awful thing.

  77. Josh P Says:

    I doubt Dana was cool headed enough to take pictures and sell them to People (“world renowned Professor arrested for petit theft”) or just for the family collection. A great item for anniversaries and family meetings.

    I hope that in due time, after the trauma will subside, you will be able to see that the absurdity of the situation makes it almost comic. I know, the joke is on you, but still…

  78. B Says:

    Scott, seems to me nobody mentioned that Kleptomania *is* treatable… Ask the other Scott about it 🙂

  79. fred Says:

    I think pretty much everyone has some sort of story like this.

    When I was 16, full of energy, I decided to start running full speed on an empty sidewalk as I was heading to my destination.
    After about 10 seconds of sprint, I happened to alter my course as to suddenly dodge on the other side of a bus stop… exactly as I was doing this I noticed a cop car was driving by.
    I knew at that very moment they would stop, which they did, … then followed 10 minutes of interrogation about why I start running and hiding from them (they thought I had stolen a purse or something). Eventually they let me go.

    Good thing is that this was Europe back in the 80s, so I didn’t get handcuffed, or shot!

  80. CIP Says:

    Scott – I have considerable sympathy for your experience, but your behavior was truly odd. I have lived 75 years and I’ve never seen change left in a plastic cup – but I have seen a million or so tip jars/cups etc. Moreover you got clear signals from the staff that you had done something wrong and neither attempted to figure out what it was or even stopped to think about it. Unfortunately it is risky to neither pay attention to what you are doing or to be bad at reading social cues.

    I hope you paid attention to Tim Maudlin’s explanation of how bad the advice “never talk to the police” would have been in this case.

  81. Scott Says:

    CIP #79: Unfortunately, I can’t give an account of why I thought that my change would come in a plastic cup, because I literally have zero recollection of taking it. It is (or must have been) a completely automatic action. My mind was elsewhere. That’s why I didn’t even have a guess for what the police were talking about—did I take someone else’s backpack by accident? did someone frame me by putting valuables in my backpack?—and also why I didn’t understand why the employee was asking me for a tip.

  82. Person Says:

    That was an amusing post, though of course traumatic for you. I’m glad it ended well.

    The police obliviously misbehaved here. There is no justification to handcuff anyone for a 4$ “theft”. In fact, there is no such thing as a “4$ theft”. Why would anyone “steal” in broad daylight 4$? There is no rationale for this. It’s obvious that there was a misunderstanding here by the two sides (you and the food court). The police behaved like true bureaucrats here, and this was completely unjustified.

    Please ignore those who justify the police. They do so because of what I may call “the Internet effect”:

    1- It is cruel, and the internet allows them to be cruel without paying the social price for it;

    2- They are frustrated (justifiably) by other people’s online accusations of state officers for supposed wrong-doings that are actually not really wrong doings. So you get the backfire here.

    3- They are bureaucrats: like the police officers they “follow orders” to their absurd limit: if you stole 1 million dollars you should be handcuffed, if you stole 1 million dollars minus 1 dollar you should be handcuffed. By induction, if you stole 4$ you should be handcuffed.
    Bureaucrats are the worst.

  83. Kristoffer Says:

    Philadelphia Airport is also by far the worst one I’ve visited (I somehow managed to miss a flight during a 3 hour layover due to the security line), and your story is further evidence that it should be avoided if at all possible. I am glad that sanity prevailed in the end so you didn’t need to miss even more flights.

  84. Amit Says:

    Why should we be surprised that a privileged white male who never (truly) worked hard for a day in his life would not recognize a tip jar and just naturally assume any money he sees is just inherently his?!

    Scott, I just wanted to say I think you’re an awesome person and extend my deepest support! I recently discovered this blog by stumbling on your critique on Tononi’s integrated information theory which I thought was spot on. Then, I gradually uncovered many of your older posts, including the truly inspiring and touching comment #171 “fiasco”. I just wanted to reassure you that your openness and vulnerability do pay off and can have great positive influence on other people (at least sometimes). I started recognizing in myself many similar mental processes you beautifully described as part of your own mindset. As a very stupid example, I was (obviously) afraid you would just read the first sentence of my comment, wouldn’t get to the “JUST KIDDING” part, delete it and forever think I am a horrible person. Maybe I am over-relating, but that seems to me like a very “Scott Aaronson”y thing to think. Much thanks to you, I took the chance… 🙂

    By the way, (“as a liberal Israeli male”) I must say that my deep moral intuitions are that many of the actions taken by the policemen (prime example, cuffing you) were totally unjustified and unreasonable. Part of it is the disproportionality of the situation but the main thing about it is the “inference to the least charitable explanation”.

  85. Ivo Says:

    Tim #56

    “So one’s first thought—you took it accidentally—doesn’t really fly. If you took it and walked off to go eat, the theory that it was just an oversight is very plausible, certainly the most plausible one. [..] But the guy at the counter already did ask you to give it back, and you didn’t. So it was not a garden-variety oversight. It was more than that.”

    I’m sorry, I now realize you can read this in different ways. In interpreted it as saying that “it was not a garden-variety oversight” as a matter of fact, instead of as how it may reasonably have appeared to the shop assistant. I misread this as saying Scott’s account doesn’t seem reasonable, considering the mistake had been pointed out to him.

    So I fully retract the association between your name and my complaint about the other post.

    That being said, I do miss something important in your account: Scott explains how he tipped the shop assistant a dollar. I find it hard to believe that did not cause the shop assistant to interpret Scott as someone that was very confused and was not understanding him at all.

    Now of course there are good explanations for why what subsequently happened took place, such as that the manager went to the police and didn’t relay the story accurately. But both the shop assistant asking for the tip back and the subsequent tipping are clear exonerating evidence. A thief doesn’t take 5 dollars from a tip jar, then tips 1 dollar. A thief, when caught red handed, will immediately return the 5 dollars and profusely apologize, exactly to prevent what happened. So the brazenness of it is exactly what makes it more believable it was a mistake.

  86. JimV Says:

    One of the issues here is: are USA police jerks? I’ll add another bit of anecdotal evidence.

    I grew up in a small town (no police) then moved to a small city for my first job after college. I was in a car there with a friend from work who grew up in the city. As we passed a police car parked on the side of the road with two police in it, he glanced in the police car and then exclaimed, “Every punk and bully I knew in high school is now in the police force!”

    It does seem to be the sort of job that might attract bullies. Maybe they need to be replaced by intelligent robots. I think we could use AI judges also. Please work on that.

  87. Kevin S Van Horn Says:

    Two points worth emphasizing to the cops-can-do-no-wrong crowd:

    …there was no need to handcuff me… when I’d shown not a single subatomic particle of resistance.

    There’s a cop attitude problem here. American cops used to view themselves as public servants, peacekeepers who put a premium on defusing tensions. Now they view themselves as elite warriors, the general populace as an inferior class, and top priority goes to establishing dominance over the rabble. Cops put handcuffs on nonviolent people solely to intimidate, humiliate, and assert their “alpha” status over those people.

    Again and again, I found that fellow Americans, even nominally left-wing ones, sided with the police, said that I was crazy and guilty as charged and should’ve expected much worse, etc. And again and again, commenters from Australia and New Zealand sided with me 300%

    Americans have become slaves at heart. Our forefathers would be horrified and ashamed at what we have become.

  88. fred Says:

    The actual CCTV footage of the incident

  89. cds Says:

    I’m sorry this happened. There is no question in my mind that two things are mostly* true about this situation:

    1. the police officers acted in accordance with standard procedure for the crime apparently committed and – ultimately – made the right decision,
    2. standard procedure was unnecessarily harsh for the situation and US police often take an authoritarian approach to coercing confessions and enforcing the law.

    I’m surprised other commenters from the US haven’t also had experiences that demonstrate this. I haven’t been pulled over more than a handful of times, and yet each time has re-inforced the idea that the police are trying to find a crime worthy of arrest.

    In rural Texas I was pulled over for speeding once (I was speeding) and the cop felt he had to verify that my blonde wife was “ok” before even speaking with me. Ironically, I was speeding, in part, because I had just spent an hour seeing cops pull over and handcuff a series of hispanic looking groups of people and I have Mediterranean color skin.

    A cop yelled at me with my kids in the car for, actually I don’t know why. I think making a U-Turn at an empty intersection that they had blocked off instead of doing something else. Another cop yelled at me once because someone behind me honked his horn when he was directing traffic. I called the police station once to report a gas station that appeared to be on fire and was told that, if we had made a false report, we could be arrested.

    Why does this happen? Because, I guess, cops are trained to assume the worst in any situation. Because, while you’re probably speeding because you want to get the heck out of rural Texas, maybe you’re speeding because you’re holding a white woman hostage. Or something.

    So upping the ante, as it were, and actually taking a couple dollars from a store almost certainly ends up with handcuffs and an attempt to coerce a confession. Does it matter that you had a family and had obviously just paid a bajillion dollars to fly but only took $4 from the tip jar? Apparently not. It is crazy that this is a country where the right advice is “don’t ever talk to the police.” I want to be able to talk to the police; they’re supposed to be helping me.

    Rant over.

    *mostly because you could make a case that at least one of the cops was rude

  90. Bob Roberts Says:

    So the Jew stole money from working people, and somehow HE’S the fucking victim?

    You got caught, Moshe. It doesn’t matter if it was $6, $6,000, or $6 gorillion.

    Stop acting like a Hebe and be civilized.

  91. Jon K. Says:

    Interestingly, I had a run in with a cop yesterday. I was walking to the PATH train after work, which took me through Bryant Park. There were lots of yoga mats out on the lawn and people hanging out waiting for a session to start. I took out my iPhone to take a panoramic shot of the yoga mats, the people, the trees, the skyscrapers, etc. Just as I was about to start my panoramic, picture-taking rotation, a cop came up and asked me rather harshly if I had a pass? I said,

    -“Are you asking me this because I’m taking a photo?”
    -“Please step off to the side.”
    -“Ok, but-”
    -“Please step off to the side.”
    (I step over 10 feet to the lawn’s cement perimeter)
    -“I’m not looking to argue; I come through here on my way home from work a lot-” (actually, usually I take the subway)
    -“Well if you come through here regularly, you would know that there is Yoga at this time.”
    -“Is this open to the public?”
    -“But you need a pass to do it?”
    -“Yes, you need to sign waivers. There’s someone over there.” (points to the back of the park)

    And that’s how the conversation ended. I wasn’t actually interested in doing yoga in my work clothes, and I didn’t ask whether I needed a pass to be on the lawn if I wasn’t doing yoga, or ask if he was going to go bug other people on the lawn who seemed to be hanging out as well, or… I just figured “whatever”, took my half-panoramic photo, and kept walking.

    Obviously, I would have felt differently had I been handcuffed. But similar to Scott’s cop encountered, I feel like this cop was “just doing his job” in the way he was taught. He was stationed at Bryant Park to look over the Yoga proceedings, and to him that meant actively scooting people along. On another day, I might have had a different reaction, but luckily I didn’t care enough.

    I do not envy the difficult situations cops get put into on a regular basis; I can only imagine what kind of states of mind and personalities that elicits. If I hadn’t been sedated by an uneventful work day, I’m sure the conversation could have been more contentious.

  92. Aaron G Says:

    Hi Scott. As someone who lives in Canada, I find your experience at Philadelphia Airport to be absolutely unbelievable, and can sympathize with your plight.

    Even taking into account the issues we in Canada have in our police force — for example, the issue of “carding” (i.e. pulling over random people and ask about their whereabouts and taking their information, without arrest and without suspicion, often to people who are visibly non-white) — something like what happened to you would never happen in Canada.

  93. Aaron G Says:

    BTW Scott, on another note, at one point in your post, you ask whether Ashkenazim can be thought of as white. I find that point frankly curious, as Ashkenazim are people of European descent, and by definition Europeans are white.

    Even taking into account the fact that Ashkenazi Jews have historical Middle Eastern/Western Asian ancestry (as is confirmed by genetic studies of Jewish populations around the world), in the American context, that still makes them “white” (for census purposes, in the US anyone with predominant ancestry from Europe, the Middle East, the Caucasus, or North Africa are defined as “white”).

  94. Scott Says:

    Bob Roberts #89: I decided to let your comment in so others could see it. Ironically enough, I just had lunch with Moshe Vardi in Mexico City; when I showed him your comment, he wondered why you were talking about him. I had to explain that you were using “Moshe” only as a derogatory term for Jew. Besides that, no response is needed; your own words indict you.

  95. Person Says:

    So the Jew stole money from working people

    Actually, originally I thought it was a joke. Then, after reading your comment, Scott, I read it again, and I still think it’s a joke, obviously.

  96. atreat Says:

    It’s not a “joke” and it’s not funny.

  97. Recall Says:

    “You know, I’ve been just reading the Reddit and Hacker News threads, which have many commenters taking a much harsher line than even the above: that I literally was guilty of theft, I deserved much worse than I got, I must be lying since no one could’ve been so absentminded, etc.”

    Scott, how were you not guilty of theft? You took something that wasn’t yours. That is the literal definition of theft.

  98. Person Says:

    Scott, how were you not guilty of theft? You took something that wasn’t yours. That is the literal definition of theft.

    Nope. That is not the literal definition of theft. The literal definition includes AFAIK criminal intent. Here there was none obviously. (Of course, almost no one has a criminal intent to “steal” 4 dollars these days!)

    It’s not a “joke” and it’s not funny.

    Actually, it is quite funny, when taken as a parody of the usual anti-semite. So I still (choose to) take it as a joke.

  99. Nick Says:

    I read the Hacker News thread about this and noticed a lot of commenters moralizing about what an affront this is to the poor, lowly workers. For instance, the first comment as I write this says:

    > To any reasonable observer it appears that Aaronson has committed a very petty crime that robs minimum wage workers of a tiny bit of extra income.

    The same is true of Nazi Bob #89:

    > stole money from working people

    I would estimate that 100% of people who make comments like this are rank hypocrites who in fact don’t care about low-level workers at all. Are these commenters outraged when those very same smoothie workers are asked to handle small work-related tasks before or after they’re clocked in? Of course not. But that’s a form of wage theft, and I bet those smoothie workers have had hundreds or thousands of dollars collectively stolen from them by management alone.

    But yeah, Scott’s the oppressor here.

  100. Patter_Blind Says:

    You cast wall of text! Critical Hit! Your schitzophrenia has made readers eyes bleed!

    Parasite gets caught being a parasite, spews a 4 hour long schizophrenic diatribe in self defense on why their parasitical nature happens. Hoping to bore and confuse the low IQ Congolese security enforcers. The parasite is always the eternal victim, it’s their nature. Woke up late, lost a bag, holocaust, been kicked out of another country!

    Oy Vey it’s annudder shoah! I had to give back the sweet sweet sheckles! Thank god for being white (well not white but Jewish!) If i was black I might have gone to jail for theft. Was my favorite part of your wall of text that portrays you the parasite thief, as the victim.

    You literally cry out “oppression” as you steal peoples sheckles. I bet you rub your hands together furiously when free sheckles are just sitting around…Please do your best to stop being such a jewish stereo type.

  101. Scott Says:

    Patter_Blind #99: Leaving up, again, so people can see an aspect of reality. Ironically, the very Jewish paranoia that you ridicule is rationally justified, in large part, by the existence of comments like yours. No further response required, and future comments along similar lines will be banned.

  102. James Gallagher Says:

    Scott #28

    yeah, sorry, my comment was a little obtuse, I just meant that the story seemed very one-sided, and obviously pretty terrible for you, but I was wondering if the police officers had previously dealt with similar minor thefts and had faced a very aggressive person when approached in the past. I mean, if they had a gun pulled on them in the previous weeks/months when stopping someone accused of stealing from the tip jars then their behaviour would be quite understandable.

    But I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they actually relished the chance to take down the “nerdy white guy” in handcuffs, as a rare “prize”

    I dunno, maybe I shouldn’t judge US police, they have armed citizens to deal with, here in the UK if such a thing happened you might even be able to sue. In fact, I think you would have a good case for damages if you can prove that there had been no significant “tip jar crime-wave” at the airport in the recent months to justify such aggression in front of your wife and children.

  103. Michael Says:

    @Scott#80- how do you know what happened then? Was there a video? Why are you so sure you thought it was change?

  104. Person Says:

    Okay, I give up. This was not a joke. Scott actually has “succeeded” to attract to his blog quite a few mentally disturbed and challenged neo-Nazis. If these imbeciles are anything common in today’s America, I think the US faces greater problems than police being over aggressive …

  105. Recall Says:

    “The literal definition includes AFAIK criminal intent.”

    Intent is construed much more narrowly than you think.

  106. Tim Maudlin Says:

    Ivo #84

    Thanks very much for your post. It is depressingly rare on the internet for people to interact with common decency, and I do appreciate it.

    As I’m sure you understand, I was just trying—as I hope we all agree we should—to see the entire from the point of view of all the actors: Scott, the cashier, the manager, the cops. What did they know and how did they react. And working over all the links in the chain, I really can’t find anyone to fault. Of course my natural sympathies start with Scott, who I know, and I can perfectly well understand how he never had a speck of malevolent intent. But I can also understand the cashier, who was pissed but even decided to just write it off as not worth the hassle, and the manager, who thinks that the cashier is being to lenient, and calling the cops, and the cops who have described to them and see on video what certainly appears to be a theft (but wasn’t: Scott did not in fact steal anything because he not have the intent to deprive the owner of it permanently.Google is your friend, everyone!) . I can see why the SOP is the way it is, and even commend the cop who said that the issue for him is what Scott did , not what job Scott has.

    I should mention also with regard to arrests,Scott writes: “The presumption of innocence, Miranda rights, all the things you might learn about in civics class—none of it seems to play any role. From the very beginning, there’s an overwhelming presumption of guilt.” The presumption of innocence regards trials, not arrests.

  107. Recall Says:

    “Scott did not in fact steal anything because he not have the intent to deprive the owner of it permanently.”

    He wasn’t planning on returning it prior to his arrest.

  108. mjgeddes Says:

    Sorry to hear about that Scott. The handcuffs definitely seems excessive from a New Zealand perspective (where I live). Sounds like a chain of somewhat unlikely (‘slightly off’) earlier events conspired to produce the rather low-probability ending.

    I was a bit disappointed that it was for something so trivial as a few dollars change taken though. I was hoping to hear a more dramatic tale about how the US govt. was going after you for cracking QM computing, AGI or something!

    Crazy events can happen in any country though, and I have a tale that’s a lot stranger than your one! Here in NZ, I actually won lotto for the 2nd time, and I had a criminal investigation launched on me! I’m not making it up Scott! The cops had me under surveillance in NZ for a couple of months , including two attempted arrests. This was scary, but also quite interesting, since it’s the first time a hard-core transhumanist has actually gone up against state security services. And they came off 2nd best! – they never got to lay a finger on me – I was able to keep cool and deploy rationalist skills to evade arrest on both occasions. Tip: They can’t arrest you if you’re not there when they come for you 😉 In the end no charges were laid (the whole thing was a crazy misunderstanding really).

  109. Scott Says:

    Recall #106: Did the many people in this thread who recounted stories of leaving a restaurant having forgotten to pay also “steal”? It’s hard to think of a clearer illustration of my point about the need to kill the bureaucrat and nurture the human being in each of us, than people hearing about such accidental goofs and obtusely, uncomprehendingly repeating “but it’s STEALING!!” So thanks, I guess… 🙂

    All further comments accusing me of “stealing” will be left in the moderation queue, not because I fear the ridiculous claim but because life is too short.

  110. Scott Says:

    Aaron G #92: I included the parenthetical about “whether Jews are white” only because there was an interminable Internet debate about exactly that question just last year, prompted for some reason by Gal Gadot (the actress from Wonder Woman). White supremacists say hell no and SJWs say hell yes, ironically in both cases to prevent Jews from occupying too high a rung in their respective hierarchies. Personally, I find the question boring and stupid, but if you forced me to decide for some reason, then sure, I guess, the vast majority of Jews (including Ashkenazim and Sephardim) are white.

  111. John Sidles Says:

    Person says (circa #103):  “Scott actually has ‘succeeded’ to attract to his blog quite a few … neo-Nazis.”

    As recently documented on the statistics-heavy website FiveThirtyEight, at least two million (YIKES!) hypercritical blog comments originated not with home-grown American neo-Nazis, but rather originated with the so-called “Internet Research Agency” … which in reality, is a Russian “troll factory”.

    These anti-democracy Russian trolls are happy to masquerade both as far-left and far-right — their sole objective is to disrupt the rational discourse upon which healthy democracies depend.

    Disruptive anti-democracy trolling ame to my personal attention in 2015, on a popular surfing forum, when a torrent of skillfully crafted far-right/racist troll-posts appeared, to the amazement of everyone. It was evident to everyone that the troll-posters were ludicrously ignorant of surfing culture, and so the consensus reaction of the surfing regulars was a healthy “get lost kooks!

    In a nutshell, so long as organized anti-democracy troll-programs are active, it’s best if everyone — conservatives and liberals equally — keeps a thick skin, personally practices respectful & reasoned discourse, so as to send a shared common-sense message to organized anti-democracy troll-factories “GET LOST KOOKS!” 🙂

  112. Tim Maudlin Says:

    cds # 88

    Despite your belief that the cops you mention were ” trying to find a crime worthy of arrest”, you were never arrested. So they apparently were not out just to arrest no matter what. If they were looking for legitimate indications of an arrest-worthy crime, and were not about to invent things just to make an arrest. So what is wrong with what they did?

    Recall # 106

    Failing to have the intention to do X is very, very, very different from having the intention to do not-X.

  113. Tim Maudlin Says:

    John Sidles #110

    This is absolutely correct, and very, very important. In fact, I have proof that on a certain day and on a certain thread, 100% (100%!!!) of the comments on a particular thread at Fox news were Russian trolls/bot. Did I say 100%?

    The aim of these trolls is to provoke as much anger and polarization and division as possible, and you see that exact thing going on here.

    People are being played by Putin and are falling for it. Likely even here. This is a horrible thing, and needs to be prevented/exposed.

  114. Scott Says:

    Incidentally, this doesn’t change any of the moral considerations, but for those going on and on about how “far outside the human norm” my behavior was: I don’t wish to reveal too much about my personal medical situation, but I was on … something. A medication that I took to cope with what would otherwise be the crippling stress of the missed flight. And the medication definitely did help, but I’m pretty sure that it also contributed to my absentmindedness at the smoothie counter.

    Having said that, I am quite absentminded, and it’s an error that I could conceivably have made even with no medication. Like, I’ve never once in my life felt absentminded. It usually feels at the time like I’m devoting the full powers of my attention to whatever requires attention at that moment. I only know abstractly that I am absentminded, because so often it later turns out that I misplaced my shoes or my keys, or didn’t hear someone calling to me, or whatever else. What’s surprising, you might say, is that I’m able to compensate and remain as functional as I am in spite of this… 🙂

  115. Scott Says:

    Here’s something I wrote in an email to Tim Maudlin, which I decided to make into a comment:

    While I have many, many failings, I feel satisfied that my emotions here are consistent with my moral reflections, in the following sense: I don’t want the police to treat a black guy or anyone else the way they treated me (and I said as much in the post). If you like, I’m advocating for the standard operating procedure that seems to prevail in many other countries: the one where, particularly for minor offenses, the police first politely ask you to clarify the situation, and only bring out the handcuffs etc. if you fail to comply.

    Incidentally, I had to stop in the middle of writing this, because I was in line at a Starbucks at Mexico City airport, and decided that I’d better pay attention while ordering. 😀

  116. Mateus Araújo Says:

    Hi Scott,

    Maybe trying to enjoy vegemite is too extreme, sauerkraut is enough.

    Even when the police caught me wilfully braking the law here in Germany (swimming in a lake where it was forbidden), they just politely explained which infraction I had committed and asked me for my data so that they could mail me a fine. They never touched me, asked me if I had any excuse (hard to think of one, since I was just beside a giant “Baden verboten” sign), and told me that even though the infraction was irrelevant, they had to intervene because a neighbour had complained.

    More surprisingly, they didn’t even demand my papers. I didn’t have my identity card with me, so they just believed that I had given my correct name and address (I had).

  117. Arc Bends Says:

    Social situations with status “games” are very unkind to expectations of rational understanding. Romantic aspirations is a classic example, indeed.

  118. Neil Says:

    Quite an interesting discussion, except for the deranged comments.

    As I see it, this will make a great family story for the rest of your life. I expect it will get many retellings. Just remember it as a bizarre (although unpleasant) incident, rather than an indictment of of US law enforcement. It came out right in the end.

  119. jonathan Says:

    My gut reaction is that the anti-semitic comments above must be jokes. But I don’t think this is because they likely are, but because anti-semitism has never made the least bit of sense to me, and so my brain naturally interprets expression of it as a joke.

    I mean, I accept intellectually that there are antisemites, because I can’t think of other explanations for certain historical (and some modern) events. But it doesn’t make the least bit of sense to me, so my brain often forgets to include it in its model of the world.

  120. Max Madera Says:

    It must be a US thing indeed. Handcuffing someone in front of his family for a presumed unforced robbery of $4 in tips? I mean, really, how can one justify such thing unless there is so much violence in the country that the police can reasonably expect a violent reaction from the accused?

  121. Scott Says:

    jonathan #118: Yeah, that’s the thing. I imagine many that European Jews in the 30s also treated it as a joke. Among the ones who are left, there may have been strong Darwinian selection pressure towards taking spittle-laced hatred seriously, even when it seems like it must be a joke. Of course this tendency is often maladaptive. On the other hand, it seems like exactly the sort of thing that might have helped a person correctly foresee the events of 2016.

  122. Michael Says:

    @Scott#120- the difference is that in Europe, some countries banned jews from certain occupations, put limits on the maximum number of Jews allowed to attend universities, etc. That was evidence that it might not be a joke. (Or alternately they didn’t like living in countries where they were discriminated against.)

  123. wolfgang Says:


    did you (try to) explain quantum money to the police and how it could have avoided this incident?

  124. wolfgang Says:


    I suspect you provoked this incident (subconsciously?) just to have an anecdote for your next talk about quantum money …

  125. Edward Measure Says:

    Just a quibble: criminal intent is not necessary to many crimes. If somebody absently mindly runs down a pedestrian, it’s still a crime. In the case of petty theft, absence of criminal intent is more like a mitigating factor than a total excuse.

  126. Max Evil Says:

    Scott, it is unfortunate what you went through, but an exhortation to be “human” i.e discerning, use common sense etc, instead of “bureaucratic” i.e mindlessly applying zero-tolerance rules, is simply not practical.

    The problem as I see it is that sometimes false positives occur, and your aim is to reduce these false positives, but asking officers to apply “common sense” will also inevitably lead to false negatives, and then these officers will be reprimanded for bad judgment. Bureaucracy is scalable, “common sense” is not.

    Any discretionary system eventually devolves to a zero-tolerance system because of the principal-agent problem. Surely you know this?

  127. Ken Miller Says:

    With regard to your first lesson: “there are aspects of being arrested that are hard to understand until you’ve been through it.” Just want to add a similar lesson. I was in jail once overnight long ago, after a sit-in at a Republican convention in which the group planned to get arrested. When you’re in jail, the guards immediately make clear to you that they have absolute power to decide what will or won’t happen and you can just forget about all those silly things you believed about the “rights” you have. A phone call? Not unless they happen to decide to give you one, and they don’t. Screaming that someone is hurt or needs attention? No, they don’t have to respond at all, and likely won’t. And so on. It’s a practical fact that on the inside the guards have absolute power and they make sure you know it and understand it from the very beginning. Nothing at all like the pretty civics lessons.

  128. Scott Says:

    Max Evil #125: Then how is it that Australia and New Zealand and all those other countries, which we heard about in the comments, seem to get by with much more common sense and less bureaucratic rigidity, at least in this area?

    I would say: common sense does scale; you merely need to find lots of people who all have it and are authorized to use it. 🙂

  129. Sniffnoy Says:

    Scott, I really don’t think anything here has to do at all with bureaucracy or rigidity. In both the cases of the US and in other countries people have described standard procedures being consistently employed. The difference is just that in the US the standard procedure is awful. That’s not a difference in how standardized things are, though. Indeed if this example demonstrates about bureaucracy it would appear to demonstrate the US being less rigid, given that you were treated in a somewhat inconsistent fashion.

  130. Tim Maudlin Says:

    Scott #127 and pretty much everyone else who is trying to compare the US to other countries:

    As far as I can tell, none of these comments has taken the facts of this into account.

    First, I think that there is every indication, as I tried to explain, that the cops were in fact making a criminal arrest. “Arrest” because they were actually detaining Scott. They were arresting his free movement. That is why, as I have said a couple times, “Don’t ever talk to the cops” is horrendous advice here. 100%: Scott does not talk to the cops and manage to explain what happened and he is taken in, fingerprinted, photographed, booked, and then allowed to make his phone call to his lawyer. Anyone who regards this as a better outcome than what happened is just not thinking straight.

    OK, so Scott actually was arrested. That is, Scott was not free to go. Scott could not just say: “Gentlemen, I am not required, due to the 5th Amendment, to talk to you, I prefer not to”. And then just walked away. Not least because he was handcuffed. If the police have not yet arrested you, then you can do that. But they had both eyewitness and actual video evidence of a crime, and had every right to arrest Scott and not just allow him to walk away.

    Scott says that he was not read his Miranda rights. That is correct. My guess is that was indeed an instance of not following protocol: they should not only have arrested Scott but also immediately read him his Miranda rights. I think this is probably the only legitimate criticism of them, but I’m sure they would have read him his rights before taking him in to be booked.

    Ok, so Scott is arrested (legally detained) and, of course, it is a criminal arrest. That is, he is arrested on suspicion of committing a specific crime, namely petty theft. This is not a misdemeanor, like jaywalking or most traffic violations, where the worst you can get if a fine. This is definitely a crime that can carry a jail sentence.

    What I have already argued is that 1) it is a good thing, not a bad thing, to have a SOP for a criminal arrest and 2) the SOP “handcuff the person arrested” is indeed a good one. I don’t think Scott has a case against the cops for following procedure or for the procedure itself for being unreasonable.

    Now: key question for every critic, but especially those from other countries: are you really, really sure that your own country does not have a similar or even identical SOP? For example, have you yourself ever been criminally arrested and not handcuffed? Or know someone else who has? Because it strikes me as a completely reasonable thing to do. Not every interaction or run in with the police is a criminal arrest, so please do not mention interactions that fall short of criminal arrest. From your own personal experience, or any other source of reliable evidence, are you really sure that the police in your own country would not have done exactly the same thing? I would be interested to know.

    OK, to finish up. The police criminally arrested Scott. Were they unreasonable to do so? I don’t think so and most people on the thread don’t think so. They had eyewitness and video evidence that a crime had been committed. Not proof, mind you! As we have said, theft does have a component of intention, and when they arrested Scott they could not prove intention. But requiring that they have that kind of evidence for an arrest—evidence that is strong enough to convict in every case—is again asking unreasonably much. To make an arrest they have to have good evidence, or else they can be sued for false arrest. But the arrest is just the start of an investigation. there will be an investigation and collection of more evidence before the prosecutor makes a determination whether to try to indict. Meanwhile, there are procedures in place to ensure that the accused (Scott) does not just skip.

    The initial arrest is one of those procedures: that’s to be sure they can get him to the station and book him, at which point they are sure who he is, whether he has other arrest warrants, a criminal history, etc. Good idea! If Scott clams up, he gets booked and stuck in a cell until his lawyer comes, and then I guess they have to see a judge (I’m not sure about the steps here) at which point Scott gets released on his own recognizance (I doubt bail is set to make sure he does not skip) and awaits trial. And I see no need to carry this further to the trial phase to make the point. Or else (which is probably right), once the lawyer comes Scott sits with the lawyer present and at that point tells the very same tale that he told the cops at the airport, at which point the police decide to drop the charges and Scott goes on his merry way, and has an even much longer tale to tell about the horrors of the US criminal justice system, except that now all the people who are hostile to Scott can chime in about what a jerk he was not to just cooperate with the police.

    The key is this: when they arrested Scott, the police already had in hand perfectly good prima facie evidence that Scott had committed a crime. It was not a false arrest. As far as the cops were concerned, there was no question at all that Scott took the money and it was certainly not obvious that it was all a mix-up. So at this point, the cops are (rightly) starting an investigation into the specific question of whether there is strong enough evidence about Scott’s guilt to put the next steps of the procedure of arresting and trying Scott into effect. That’s why they were playing Good Cop/Bad Cop: in an attempt to get more decisive evidence. One such piece of evidence would have been Scott’s confession, which is very, very powerful evidence. Usually, enough to lead to a conviction which—as I said in my first comment—is to me the single most important point of Scott’s post: insight into how there can be false confessions leading to massive miscarriages of justice. The rest of the story, to me, is a story of perfectly reasonable police behavior, that would be reasonable in any country.

    So the cops start their serious investigation using Good Cop/Bad Cop: Bad cop to ratchet up Scott’s anxiety and fear, Good cop to be the sympathetic ear to which Scott will come clean if he knows he’s guilty. I have no complaint about that either, so long as Bad Cop does not overstep the lines into threats and intimidation and in the worst cases physical abuse. Then Bad Cop becomes the subject of this story, and he should be arrested and put away for a long, long time.

    As the investigation proceeds, it becomes clearer to the cops that Scott is indeed not a criminal but just sort of ditzy in an unusual way. They both realize that they will have no case, and are not going to press charges after all because they could not win in court. (Think: Comey bringing the Hillary email investigation to an end.) Both Good Cop and Bad Cop realize this, and Good Cop takes off the handcuffs. At this point, it is really all over, and Scott might even get away with being a jerk and trying to just walk off, but that would be a very, very bad idea. They wind the whole thing down, not with an apology because they have nothing to apologize for, but with a recognition that life is life and things things will happen and that if Scott could manage to pay more attention in the future to what he is doing he could save the cashier and the manager and the cops and himself and his family a lot of unnecessary grief. Which I think we (even Scott!) can all agree to.

    So unless some part of the above account of what happened and why can be reasonably questioned or criticized, just lay off the cops (some of the comments about them on this thread are objectively unwarranted and horrible) and lay off the people speaking up for the cops (ditto squared). In an obvious sense (which is not a moral one) this whole thing was Scott’s fault and everybody else acted reasonably. Think about the situation carefully before throwing stones.

  131. Ashley Says:

    Scott #127,

    “common sense does scale; you merely need to find lots of people who all have it and are authorized to use it”

    No it DOES NOT!!! Lots of people authorized to apply their ‘common sense’ produces chaos. I think I can understand why you do not appreciate this point. This is likely because you are privileged to be born in a society where a few people make the rules and everyone else just follows them, more or less.

    I would any day prefer to go through your experience (humiliating though it may be), than have people putting their hand into MY tip jar, and the only way for me to handle the issue is to resort to my fists. (One problem with such handling is that the guy may return with more goons and I no longer would be able to deal with it.) Those police men may after all be applying some efficient algorithm.

  132. Scott Says:

    Ashley #130: What are you talking about? If someone takes from a tip jar actually intending to steal, it’s common sense that you throw them in jail—just like it’s common sense that if someone takes a small thing by accident (or leaves a restaurant having forgotten to pay, etc), you fix the problem, apologize, and share a good laugh about it. And how do you distinguish the two cases? More common sense.

  133. Scott Says:

    Sniffnoy #128: I would endorse the following statement. Either empower individuals to use reason and common sense. Or, if you must have a standardized bureaucratic procedure, then for godsakes put more common sense into the design of that procedure than we tend to do in the US.

    I can compromise on many things, but I’ll be the implacable enemy of every rigid ideology and bureaucratic procedure that pretends it can substitute for individual human judgment and reason and compassion until the day I die. That’s my rigid ideology. 🙂

  134. amy Says:

    Oh, boy.

    One, Scott, I’m horribly sorry this happened. And my first and probably most practical thought is that since travel is not likely to get less wretched anytime soon, and since traveling with one young child, let alone two, involves bringing a zoo to the weirdly high-stakes and paranoid zoo, it might be a good idea for *anyone* who falls outside the strictly neurotypical to consider accepting and making accommodation for that when traveling. As in maybe find a nanny to help with the kids, or if you can’t afford that maybe don’t bring the kids, or travel on your own if that means you’re going to be managing the nanny, too. Because the whole experience is designed to be upsetting and distracting, and we already know that TSA is not brilliant with need for accommodation.

    The handcuffs thing is loonytunes but exists because we live in a loonytunes country where the current debate is over whether you should be able to print your own gun, I guess because you’re a weird Linux type that won’t do a normal thing like go to Walmart and get your gun at the stand where you have your keys copied.

    I’m glad the cops were in the end sensible enough to notice that something weird was going on. Scott, it’s worth remembering even in terrible high-pressure situations that you’re even less usual than the upper-middle-class guy who gets his kicks from petty theft, including tip-stealing. I spent a decade or so in retail, and those guys aren’t all that rare. I’m glad you got a cop who was bright enough to recognize that you might not be one of those guys, and that something was off about the whole thing.

  135. Scott Says:

    amy #133: Thanks for the advice, and good to have you back here as always!

    We’re actually looking into hiring nannies right now, although a nanny who also traveled the world with us would be another step beyond that. As a somewhat absentminded and extremely absentminded parent of two very rambunctious kids, Dana and I need all the help we can get. Indeed, some people might argue that if we’re in so far over our heads, then we should never have reproduced at all. Except, if everyone like us followed that advice, then how is the world’s absentminded nerd supply supposed to replenish itself? 🙂 And for their part, Lily and Daniel seem (as far as I can tell) glad they exist.

  136. Tim Maudlin Says:

    Scott #134

    Not to beat this to death, but you are still missing the point.

    “I can compromise on many things, but I’ll be the implacable enemy of every rigid ideology and bureaucratic procedure that pretends it can substitute for individual human judgment and reason and compassion until the day I die. ”

    The sentiment is wonderful, but the implementation is flawed. Every place where a system allows for individual judgment to make room for reason and compassion, it thereby also, of absolute necessity, makes room for human irrationality and prejudice and cruelty.

    And given the statistics, I would take preventing the latter over empowering the former.

    I think that you were subjected to reasonable general rules. You would prefer to have had a flexible system that allowed for some charitable cops to cut you, personally, a break. But what if they were anti-Semitic cops who wanted instead to break you a cut? Then you’d long for the SOP you got.

    How much compassion do you think will flourish among police, who of necessity deal with the worst of humanity on a regular basis? When the cop said to you that it was not about who you are but about what you did he was right on the money. Cops are not mind-readers and not soul-readers and we should not expect them to be or even have rules that allow them to think they are.

  137. The problem with gatekeepers Says:

    Michael #69

    Please, statism has been more often that not a value of the Democrats, not Republicans. Leftism is intrinsically totalitarian. The core belief I have observed in leftists -save honorable exceptions- is that ideas -particularly their ideas- can be imposed top down by controlling a few institutions such as government, academia, cultural institutions, etc. In other words, most leftists I know don’t believe in persuasion, they believe in control.

    One of my real life heroes is Peter Thiel. As of late, he is fond of using the allegory that artificial intelligence is communist while crypto is libertarian. There is a kernel of truth there. Underlying artificial intelligence is the idea that one can get a data set, learn a set of rules from the data set and mindlessly -as in mindlessly bureaucratic- apply those rules to new data, or in the case of society, that the beliefs of a few humans can be imposed on the rest of humanity by control and coercion.

    The deep state is a clear manifestation of this mindset. The members of the Republican establishment are as fond of this as the average Democrat. So Mueller’s credibility among them is irrelevant. That his cronies defended (and some continue to defend) him is not news. One of the most under-reported facts of the team that leads the witch hunt against Trump is that “Weissmann also successfully argued in U.S. District Court that Enron’s major outside auditor, Arthur Andersen, had covered up the losses at Enron and had shredded documents to hide its role. The long respected Chicago-based firm was convicted of obstructing justice and effectively went out of business in 2002.”

    Now, what happened to Scott is very unfortunate but as time goes by, the whole episode will be just a funny story he will tell his kids and grand kids.

    Andrew Weissmann on the other hand single-handedly destroyed Arthur Andersen and with it the livelihoods of a lot of people. He couldn’t care less. Arthur Andersen used to employ 85000 people worldwide (according to Wikipedia although from an unverified source, in any case, I am sure it was tens of thousands of people). So now he, Mueller and the other angry Democrats are in a crusade to take down Trump. They couldn’t care less about the effect the witch hunt is already having in the nation nor they couldn’t care less if they prompt a constitutional crisis by attempting to indict Trump (there is a legal argument that a sitting president cannot be indicted). Alan Dershowitz is an avowed Democrat and a Hillary Clinton supporter. Yet he has been one of the loudest opponents to the witch hunt. And he has been penalized by his ideologue friends for doing so.

    So yes, I think that what happened to Scott should be a teaching moment for a lot of people, both on the right as well as the left, who idolize law enforcement agencies or the people who run them. These are humans and as such they prone to corruption. In the case of the FBI, there is no question that its leadership is corrupt. I am sure that the conversation would be different if the FBI had used false pretenses to get a FISA warrant to spy on any of the numerous academics that advised Hillary Clinton. The whole thing was an attempt to spy on the Trump campaign by the deep state and one has to be very naive to believe otherwise particularly since Carter Page remains free, unindicted. That’s 2 years after he was allegedly signaled as an agent of Russia and that Mueller has had the time to dig dirt into a lot of people for things that were totally unrelated to their work with the Trump campaign such Paul Manafort or Michael Flynn. If Carter Page was such a threat to the nation 2 years ago, it is unbelievable that he hasn’t been brought to justice yet. The real truth is that there zero evidence he wasn’t doing the same thing tons of academics do on a daily bases: sell their professional expertise to a political campaign. In Carter’s case he just picked the campaign the deep state hated the most.

  138. Anonymous Berkeley Professor Says:

    When I’m trapped, I tend to fall back on the only tools I know: argument, openness, frank confession of my mistakes and failings, sometimes a little self-deprecating humor. [Dana] says it would’ve been far better if I’d categorically denied: “no, I did not steal. That’s completely absurd. Please release me immediately.”

    It’s great that your wife sees these things so clearly. You were the object of a dominance contest, and in dominance contests logical reasoning is a huge liability, tantamount to asking to be bullied.

    95% of human communication is not logical; it’s status competition, dominance displays, emotional signalling, hierarchy establishment. I think that your understanding of these levels of communications could be improved a lot. You might never develop a solid feel for them, but these things can be cognitively understood through reading and practice. In particular, I’ve found it very useful to develop a reflex of recognizing these situations and putting a stop to all “argument and openness” when I see them happening. Women tend to be better at recognizing these contexts than men (especially when they’re observing men’s behavior). It can be hard for logical-minded men to break the bad habit of processing human interactions logically, but it can be done. Consider reading a few books on the subject, like “The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense”. (I think this will address the problem better than your graph.)

  139. Scott Says:

    Anonymous Berkeley Professor #floor(1/(fine structure constant)): Does your view imply that 95% of the time, one needs to put a stop to argument and openness? IF so, that seems like too high a price to pay.

  140. Tim Maudlin Says:

    The problem with gatekeepers # 136

    I have no idea if you are sincere or not, and have no intention to engage with this, but you must be joking. The FBI leadership was so far from corrupt—in fact, the Obama administration went a full 8 years without any scandals, and Trump can’t go 8 days. The idea there there is any “deep state” at all is just a paranoid conspiracy theory that makes no sense. A huge conspiracy to attack Trump and stop him from getting elected? Then when was this ever used? It was Putin who hacked the DNC and Podesta, and Wikileaks who know when to release the material to maximum propaganda effect.

    The whole FBI-is-corrupt schtick is pushed by Trump and Fox because they know that Trump has committed multiple crimes (money laundering and other financial crimes and tax fraud). And Don Jr. and Kushner can easily go to jail at the least. If you are taken in by this Deep State nonsense, then you really need to stop and think straight.

  141. The problem with gatekeepers Says:

    Sorry for interjecting myself in the discussion between Anonymous Berkeley Professor #137 and Scott #138 .

    I largely agree with Anonymous Berkeley Professor. I don’t remember exactly when I noticed the same things he describes but it was a breakthrough in my personal interactions with people. It doesn’t mean I have become closed minded (or at least I hope not) or that I am now a power hungry, status seeking, dominant kind of guy, only that I pay a lot attention at these signals. I also agree that women tend to better at recognizing these things.

    Those of us born with a lack of a better word, “rational frame of mind”, and who prefer rational, evidence based interactions to the way most people interact can learn to operate on the other realm and do it effectively. I don’t know if 95% of the time is the right number, but it’s certainly the majority of the time. Compare for example the popularity of sports like the NFL in the US or soccer elsewhere in the world with say the popularity of a good lecture delivered by a world expert on any topic. There is no comparison -the sports being way more popular- even though now both can be found online. In fact before the age of the internet, the only way to listen to the latter lectures was to attend a prestigious university in person or live nearby it because there was no economic incentive to broadcast them on TV or radio.

  142. amy Says:

    Berkeley prof #137: notably absent from your list: anything to do with friendliness and cooperation, unless that’s all packed into “emotional signalling”. I really do not think that a mindset that posits the world as endless dominance competitions is particularly helpful; it’s not generally how we live, not how we get much done.

    That said, all that likely happened was that the cops got a report of an actual incident, confronted the suspect (yes, dominantly, that’s the point of the uniforms and the guns, because actual criminals so often take convincing), and — this is the key point — after a while noticed that the situation they were looking at had moved from “what kind of joker have we got here” to “something is wrong, this doesn’t look right.” In other words, except for the national-illness handcuffs thing, the cops actually applied the common sense Scott was looking for. Which is why Scott got on a plane instead of into a police car.

    Considering that guys much less desperate-looking than Scott do actually steal tips, and do it intentionally, insisting on innocence and getting indignant would probably have had about the same effect as “but I’m a professor, it doesn’t even make any sense that I’d do something like that.” Things change when the cop who’s a 30-year veteran and seen a lot feels pretty strongly that something’s off about the picture and offers some info. Even so, given the genuine weirdness of “I thought the tip cup was where they put my change after I paid with a credit card” as any kind of explanation, it’s a good thing the manager was ready to let it go and get back to work.

    A lot of this really is about internal states, I think, and the fact that all people have to go on is pieces of external evidence — and that in some situations, generous reads turn out not to be a terrific idea. Scott, I’ll email you privately about a thing like that I was through recently, where yes, it was unfair but not unreasonable, and there really wasn’t anything I could do about it except try not to make things worse. I think the advice from HG3 applies.

  143. amy Says:

    H2G2! Ha, blew that. Too much cell bio.

  144. Bunsen Burner Says:

    I hope you made formal complaints regarding this incident to the relevant authorities. This should include the airline and airport, as well as the police. Make sure you persevere and get a formal response. Maybe look up some groups that help out in situations like this, at least give them a donation. As for the fuckwits trying justify the cops behaviour, you really don’t need friends like that. Some right wing idiots really don’t understand how dangerous it is to forget that cops are just public servants paid for by the tax payer. All cops have to investigate the circumstances first, and make sure things happened the way people said they did. In the UK I’ve never seen people arbitrarily handcuffed while the cops try to sort out what happened. Do not treat this as just one fo those things, get angry, and make a noise.

  145. Mateus Araújo Says:

    Maudlin #129: You are raising a question about whether the behaviour of the police in other countries would be similar. My guess is that it obviously would not: in any civilized country police is trained to de-escalate the situation, not make things worse. And there is standard procedure about how much force should be used in a given situation. I hope everybody agrees that the police used excessive force in Scott’s situation.

    But to not stay in guesswork, I researched a bit, and found the precise regulation about using handcuffs in Austria. Freely translating, the police is only allowed to use handcuffs in four cases: 1) If the arrestee is a danger to others of themself, 2) If there is a danger of damage to property of high value, 3) If there is a risk of flight, 4) If the arrestee tries to thwart the work of the police.

    Obviously none of the four cases applies to Scott, so in Austria he would never be handcuffed.

    I also have witnessed a situation that might be relevant: walking at night in the streets of Oxford, I saw two drunken guys beating eachother. Somebody called the police, and quickly a single female police officer came by car. I think she did a brilliant work: with her car she managed to push them away from where they were, and using the interruption she managed to talk to them, stopped the fight, ordered one of the guys to walk home, and ordered the most aggressive one into the back of her car to take him to the police station. She didn’t wait for reinforcements (she was no match for either guy), didn’t beat anyone, didn’t use handcuffs, just quickly defused the situation.

  146. Michael Says:

    This all seems so hyperbolic to me. Scott actually did commit the offense they handcuffed him for, and once they realized the situation they let him go. Look at it from their point of view. Some guy pays for his drink with a debit card, then grabs the cash out of the tip cup on his way out. For a cop that looks like theft. It’s not reasonable, in the lack of other information, to think it’s an absent-minded professor making a mistake. But once they knew, they let him go.

    Of course they are going to ask hard questions at first. That’s their job. Stop this silliness comparing them to Nazis or relating it to broader questions of government power. Sheesh.

  147. Eitan Bachmat Says:

    Hi Scott
    Really sorry to hear about your
    Terrible experience. I have nothing clever or cynical to say about it, just really hope nothing similar ever happens again.

  148. amy Says:

    BB #143 etc.: There’s nobody to complain to in the US — it’s gone beyond being a ballot-box issue to being a cultural one. You guys don’t see this sort of behavior from cops because (a) your societies aren’t awash in guns and swashbuckling and (b) you don’t have a militarized police that’s infused with massive-standing-army vets, or a massive standing army that sees itself, quite dangerously, as apart from and superior to the rest of the society, and is resentful of how little gratitude they get. Oh, and you guys don’t have a foundational slavery story simmering under your police work. The curious thing is how far the myths have outrun the reality: it’s still, I believe, a minority of US households that actually have guns, and most of the guns are concentrated in a few seriously crazy hands. But we accept that why yes, it’s perfectly sensible for a store to sell groceries and guns, and you ought to be able to order them online like anything else, and there’s something slightly shameful in not having a few. There’s a large chunk of the country taught that it’s irresponsible not to have guns for self-protection.

    In a town where I used to live, just recently, a rookie cop shot an unarmed man who was behaving erratically. Killed him, and is being brought up on…I can’t remember whether it’s murder or manslaughter charges. White cop, Latino guy. There was an interfaith prayer service for the man, and at the same time, there was a collection of people rallying near where the shooting happened to support the cop. There was video of both. Interfaith service — the room, as we used to say, “looked like America”: all races, young, old. Rally: exactly what you’d expect, plus dogs. The race story is never far under the surface here, and it’s one of the things that informs police behavior, and as far as I can make out, it always has.

  149. Tim Converse Says:

    Wow, fascinating post, with so many layers to it. No wonder it is sparking a lot of commentary.

    Let me be clear – I believe everything Scott is saying about what happened, and I sympathize, as I am also absent-minded. This is absolutely the kind of thing that could happen to me. (Or let me correct that, in the light of what I’m about to say: that’s absolutely the kind of thing that I could do.)

    It *is* very difficult to separate the privilege from the situation here. I particularly like this juxtaposition:

    1) Scott saying “It’s like: my accusers arrive on the scene committed to a specific, hostile theory of me: that I’m a petty thief of smoothie bars, let’s say, …:”, and

    2) the policeman’s retort: “This is not about who you are, it’s about what you did.”

    And I think the policeman is right. They arrived with a narrow theory: that Scott took $4 that didn’t belong to Scott. Scott initially had an opposing narrow theory: that that was crazy and he hadn’t taken anything. The policeman’s theory was the correct one.

    In response, Scott very naturally would like to broaden the theoretical landscape to include questions of intent. And it’s difficult to separate intent from whether or not Scott needed the money, which in turn is hard to separate from Scott’s socioeconomic position. So then we have to ask: is it so much worse to take $4 that doesn’t belong to you if you need the $4 than if you don’t need the $4?

    Again, though I don’t think Scott should have been handcuffed or taken to jail, I do like the policeman’s response: “This is not about who you are, it’s about what you did.” We could use some more of that (e.g. in enforcing white-collar criminal laws”

  150. Tim Maudlin Says:

    Mateus Araújo #144

    Thanks for doing the legwork to find out the precise conditions. That is helpful, and suggests that a more focussed SOP can be workable. But even so, I still consider this one to lie within the range of acceptable options.

    First, each of the 4 conditions is a judgment call, which means that there will be bad judgements. How, for example, do you tell if an arrestee is a flight risk? You can’t (as many here seem to think) just say: “Well, who would run just because of a petty theft charge?” Because, as I said, you may have someone with outstanding warrants. Scott could have been (for all the cops know) some cannibalistic ax-murderer with a warrant out for his arrest. So there is no doubt that the SOP is playing for a certain sort of safely and prevention, but I can’t think of a reason to say that it is too extreme. And, as people have said, it may well be that the chances of the arrestee having a gun in the US are just objectively much higher than in Austria. Don’t you think so?

    Now there is a claim you make as being self-evident that, as stated, I would say is actually self-evidently false, so we have to go into that. You say “I hope everybody agrees that the police used excessive force in Scott’s situation.” Well, not only do I not agree, I think that the proposition that you want us all to agree to is literally absurd. Because in the normal sense of the term, the police in this instance used exactly zero force. Assuming that Scott just obeyed the order to put his hands behind his back, and did not resist (which I am about 100% sure of), then there was just no force involved at any point.

    Handcuffs are restraints. They prevent you from doing things, including pulling a gun or (usually) running away. When someone is arrested, these restraints are put on to prevent those sorts of things.

    Now you can have a reasonable debate about under what circumstances the use of restraints like this is reasonable. Fine. But you can’t completely prejudge and confuse the discussion by calling something that, in itself, involves zero force by the police “excessive force”. The use of language like that serves to trivialize cases of actual excessive force by the police, which is a very, very, very serious matter. Scott was made uncomfortable. Scott was mortified. Scott was made extremely anxious. But the police used zero force on Scott from beginning to end, if has related everything that happened. So your charge of excessive force is literally absurd.

    I must say that the attitude toward the police from many on this thread (and I do mean you, Bunsen Burner) is manifestly irrational. If Scott brings a “formal complaint” he will quite rightly be laughed out of court. I really do not see why so many of the posters can do nothing but think “But this is Scott! Scott would never hurt a fly!” and not move the single mental step to realize that a) the police have no idea who Scott is or what he is capable of and b) as I have been arguing over and over, every point where discretion can be used is a point where it can be abused. All you think about is that things could have been better for Scott in this situation with a laxer policy, not how in other situations things can go much, much worse for both the cops and even the arrestee with a laxer policy. You can reasonably debate the policy, but, as I said, the existing one, while strict, does not strike me as unreasonable.

    One final point about the police. For some reason, people don’t seem to be able to wrap their minds around a simple fact. Police, in virtue of their position in society, live magnified ethical lives. For example, a really good plumber is a delight to find and a really crummy plumber is a pain in the ass. But a really good cop can be heroic beyond the reach of a plumber (or an academic) and a really bad cop can be a moral monster worthy to be put away for life. There seem to be few here who can hold this pair of plain facts in mind at the same time, even though it is pretty obvious that they both are true.

    What about our cops? Well in this case they were neither heroes nor monsters: they just did their job as they were supposed to and, it seems, with decent professionalism. Many seem to want them to have cut Scott a break because he is Scott. Well, no: that would be unjust. As I say: welcome to the world of white privilege. If those cops go on to treat a poor black person in precisely the same way if he is in precisely the same situation, then they are good, professional cops. Be grateful that there are many like that.

  151. Tim Maudlin Says:

    Mateus #129

    There is one other thing you say that is on the one hand important and on the other completely irrelevant here. You say that in other countries the police are trained to de-escalate and here they are not. I completely agree, and I think this is a real horror in police training here.

    But again, since there was never a point of escalation—Scott never resisted, for example—there was never any call for de-escalation. Whether these cops would have handled a situation of escalation well or poorly is a matter of complete conjecture: we have no evidence one way or the other.

  152. Tim Maudlin Says:

    Amy #147

    I recognize your anguish about the killing in your old town, and that is indeed an illustration of the inexcusably bad training and/or bad behavior of the police here. Those are horrors that are then made worse when the cops get off from being prosecuted and convicted, which happens all too often. That’s what Black Lives Matter is all about, and we march with them when there are marches here.

    But can’t you see what a double-edged sword you are playing with by even mentioning that on this thread? If you can say that Scott being handcuffed while arrested is of the same ilk as a rookie cop killing an unarmed man, then the other side can with equal validity say that the killing of the unarmed man was in principle no more unjustified than putting Scott in handcuffs! Both sides have the same logical footing here, which is to say that both side have no logical footing at all.

    Mateus and I can have a nuanced discussion about whether the positives of implementing the Austrian system here (the Scotts who are less traumatized) outweigh the negatives (the cops, and maybe arrestees who are injured or killed). That would be a hard argument because it turns on empirical data that would be hard to come by. Probably there is no way to know for sure without just trying it, with all the risks and chances that entails. And the politicians know that 1,000 happier Scotts will not outweigh a single injured cop or arrestee: if something goes bad, the politician is gone, and if all goes well then no one even notices. These are just facts that have to be understood and taken into account if you want to understand why there is a ratchet-and-pawl that drives things toward the “law-and-order” side.

    Life is complicated and figuring out the best policies is more complicated still. No matter what side of the political spectrum you are on, that is just a fact. As Feynman used to (almost) say: (human) nature can’t be fooled.

  153. The problem with gatekeepers Says:

    Tim Maudlin #139

    You cannot have it both ways: you engage, or you don’t. I take from your comment that despite your statement that you are not engaging, you are indeed engaging.

    I mean no hyperbole at all. The leadership of the FBI is corrupt. This notion that the Obama administration had no scandals is a talking point from his cheerleaders. Take for example,

    “The Justice Department settled two lawsuits with conservative groups that claimed the Internal Revenue Service had unfairly scrutinized them during applications for tax-exempt status, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced on Thursday.

    The government agreed to a multimillion-dollar settlement to resolve one lawsuit, which was brought on behalf of 428 groups, said Edward Greim, the lead lawyer for the plaintiffs. The government will not pay damages to the 41 groups in the second lawsuit, but the I.R.S. acknowledged its conduct was wrong.”

    The mainstream press was one of Obama’s biggest cheerleaders to the point you’d been forgiven to think that they -CNN, the NY Times, the Washington Post, etc- were part of Obama’s political operation if you came from Mars and had little knowledge about their political bias.

    Then take the Obama’s administration spying on the Trump campaign. Today we learned,

    “Peter Strzok, the F.B.I. senior counterintelligence agent who disparaged President Trump in inflammatory text messages and helped oversee the Hillary Clinton email and Russia investigations, has been fired for violating bureau policies, Mr. Strzok’s lawyer said Monday.”

    That follows the firing of Andrew McCabe, and James Comey.

    Now, if G W Bush had used similar tactics to spy on the Obama campaign by seeking a FISA warrant on John Brennan -an adviser of the Obama campaign in 2008 who at the time had spent several years in the private sector cashing his past government experience- under the excuse that John Brennan’s extensive international network posed a risk to national security particularly since Brennan had admitted very early in his career to have voted for the Communist Party USA you get the idea of the humongous scandal it would have followed with the aforementioned media calling for the execution of G W Bush.

    As far as I am concerned, the Obama administration was one of the most politically corrupt administrations since Watergate. Obama had a great deal of help covering up his corruption and that contributed in part to many people, including yours truly, believing that the only way to get rid of the corrupt establishment was to a healthy dose of chemotherapy in the form of Donald Trump.

    If you ask me whether I am happy I voted for Donald Trump, the answer is a resounding yes. He has had his share of mistakes (like his not understanding that racist neo-Nazis organized the Charlottesville last year, a mistake that he didn’t commit this year by calling out racists right away) but it is hard to argue with his results. On the topic that concerns this thread, he has exposed for everybody to see the level of corruption present at this country’s top federal bureaucracies.

  154. The problem with gatekeepers Says:

    Tim Maudlin #139

    And how could I forget? What about Dinesh D’Souza? Irrespective of what you think of him, the fact remains that he was the victim of selective prosecution. Wtih Trump in power it was possible to prove it,

    “My file—obtained by the House Oversight Committee—shows FBI red-flagged me as an Obama critic & allocated $100 K to investigate a $20 K case”

    Again, now imagine the tables were turned and that Trump were to engage in similar tactics against Michael Moore.

    Sorry, this notion that the Obama administration didn’t have any scandals is a dogma among liberals who spend too much time talking to other liberals and not thinking critically about the abuses it -the Obama administration- committed. That the 2016 election delivered Donald Trump, who has essentially obliterated Obama’s legacy, should tell you the extent of the discontent among the American people with his administration’s actions.

    And I am not even getting into other forms of corruption that were more damaging for the American people as a whole like the Iran deal -which was clearly favorable to Iran’s interests not ours and certainly not Israel’s-, his willingness to extend the economic damage done to the American middle class with initiatives like the TPP, etc.

    The more liberals continue to refuse to critically analyze the Obama years, the more they ensure a 2020 Trump victory.

  155. Boaz Barak Says:

    I can’t believe this thread still exists. Scott, if I were you I would shut it down. You’ve had enough of a bad experience without adding to it these “helpful” comments. You have nothing to apologize for or feel bad about more than the salesperson would have if they accidentally miscalculated the change for someone. I would guess that if the police officers knew from.the beginning that this is only 4$ and that you were actually a paying customer of the store then they would have approached it completely differently. (At least I hope so, btw it’s pretty clear to me that they didn’t know much and definitely did not see the video, if it even exists, before approaching you).

    I don’t know if this incident could have happened outside the US but I definitely think that only in the US there would be so many commenters that don’t see how ridiculous it all is.

  156. Filippo Riccio Says:

    Well, here in Italy I witnessed a couple of arrests, one of a man without a valid ticket on a bus which also resulted an illegal immigrant, and another of someone running half-naked in a steet (this time running away from the cops). Both had the motivation and the ability to resist, and the latter actually did that. In both cases, they were NOT handcuffed. The police simply stopped them and invited them into their car.

    Really a cop in the USA can arrest and handcuff you out of the alleged accusation of stealing 4$ by a store manager in an airport??? This is ridiculous, and it is really scary that so many people find it “normal” and even “right”.

    At the minimum, you should leave a review on tripadvisor, google et al. where you explain what happened, and that the store manager has the tendency to call the cops to arrest bona fide customers. The shop should be severely punished for doing so (instead of the normal and civil course of action, which is to insist with you politely to clear the misunderstanding and nothing else).

  157. Scott Says:

    Boaz #154: Thank you, as always. You’re right, of course. This episode has been just another step, another test or problem set, in the long journey toward not basing my self-worth on the opinions of typically-anonymous online commenters. I think I did OK, like at least a B+. Everyone: get in any final comments tonight; then I’ll shut down this thread.

  158. Jair Says:

    Scott #156: In the off-chance that you do decide to continue basing your self-worth on the opinions of online commenters, I will say that for the past decade or so Shtetl-Optimized has been my favorite blog.

  159. Tim Maudlin Says:

    The problem with gatekeepers #152 & #153

    Believe me, you don’t want me to get engaged with this. Ask around. But since you have thrown up a bunch of the usual baloney, let’s just swat it away. Hard to believe that this is even necessary.

    1) About the IRS. The IRS and Lois Lerner did not do a single thing wrong, as is proven by the fact that after internal investigation no action was taken by the (independent!) IG. The IRS is tasked to figure out which applications for tax-exempt status are legit (i.e. not primarily for political purposes) and which are not. Because the IRS was getting so many applications all at once, they adopted a bunch of BOLO (Be On the LookOut) terms, and flagged all applications whose names contained those terms. The terms included “We the People” and “Border Patrol”, which were Tea Party groups. In fact, 16 groups were flagged by those terms for closer examination. But you know which term caught the most applications? “Progressive”. Yep, 61 groups with “Progressive” in their name were tagged, all (amazingly) on the left. And 14 with the name “Acorn”. You remember Acorn right? The group of community organizers who were trying to register poor people to vote? Well, they no longer even exist because they were targeted by the IRS. I could go on and on, but why bother: here are all the stats.

    So why did the Trump administration (not the Obama administration) settle these lawsuits and give the right-wing groups piles of taxpayer money? Three guesses.

    2) Was the FBI spying on the Trump campaign for political purposes? Only if they were the most incompetent group of numbskulls in the history of mankind. First of all, as everyone knows, the FBI had a FISA warrant on Page, who the Trump team themselves say was not even engaged with the campaign at the time. So what the hell kind of information were they supposed to be collecting? And more importantly, what the hell did they do with it to harm the Trump campaign? Answer: not a damn thing. It was the DNC and Podesta who were—as everyone acknowledges—illegally spied on by Putin, and the ex-KGB boys know exactly what to do with the stolen material: release it through Wikileaks for maximum propaganda effect. (Right after Access Hollywood? What a coinky-dink!). That illegal theft and propaganda attack by a hostile foreign state certainly cost Hillary the election, and thereby thwarted the clear desire of the US electorate that she be President.

    3)Comey? Fired by Trump because he would not shut down the Russian investigation. That sure is a scandal, but not on the Obama Administration.

    4) McCabe and now Strzok? Fired at the behest and due to pressure by the Trump administration. The recommendation of the in-house IG about Strzok was overridden without explanation. Welcome to a banana republic under head banana Trump.

    5) Dinesh D’Souza? Guilty as hell. He doesn’t even deny he is guilty. What in the world does the amount he broke the law by compared to the amount spent on the investigation have to do with anything? How much did the GOP spend on investigation after investigation after investigation after investigation of Hillary that were for naked political purposes and never found so much as a parking ticket to issue her?

    The only sentence of yours that can be twisted into a fact is this:

    “On the topic that concerns this thread, he has exposed for everybody to see the level of corruption present at this country’s top federal bureaucracies.”

    Trump indeed has made it perfectly clear how much corruption and incompetence are at the very top level of the Federal Bureaucracy….starting from January 20, 2017.

    (You remember: the day when the man with the tiny little hands stood in front of a tiny little crowd and put his tiny little hand on a book he wished was The Art of the Deal and completed the most devastating and effective attack on our democracy by a foreign state in US history.)

    I have no more interest in responding to you than to the Flat Earth Society, not because there are not powerful responses to all this nonsense but because rational people would never fall into such nonsense to begin with, and trying to argue rationally with irrational people is a fool’s mission.

    Ciao, Bella.

  160. Bunsen Burner Says:

    amy: Yes, I realise that the US is somewhat of an outlier among civilised nations, but that doesn’t mean that an engaged and vocal citizenry can’t make a difference. Not straight away of course, but the civil rights movement didn’t fix everything overnight either. Scott is ultimately priviliged and safe enough that he make some noise about this, and maybe make people think more clearly about the sort of society they want to live in.

    As for the sickos that think the police acted correctly, what if it was a 5 year old child accused of a crime? Handcuff them? Or a disabled person? This isn’t a fucking computer game. Cops have to be trained to be able to cope with complex and confusing interactions in a way that does not compromise the safety, or dignity of the citizens that they are meant to serve. Don’t blame Trump on the increase of authoritarianism if you are happy to turn a blind eye to cops handcuffing people over a $4 misunderstanding.

  161. Michael Says:

    @Scott#156- I’m just curious- has Scott Alexander explained to you what reassurance seeking is and why it’s unhealthy?

  162. Scott Says:

    Here is a puzzle: by any normal standards, this would’ve been an extremely left-wing post. It is, after all, about the dangers of over-aggressive policing and about empathetic understanding for those accused of petty crime; it even includes digs at Trump and Manafort and Ted Cruz if anyone wasn’t sure. Yet the leftists on SneerClub and other social media, instead of being delighted that I agree with them about something, are out with their usual knives. What gives? To me, this seems like an interesting illustration of the difference between the “original” leftism rooted in Enlightenment ideals, and the “new” kind that’s all about smashing class and gender and race enemies by any means possible—a kind that owes less to Spinoza, Mill, or MLK than it does to Lenin, Stalin, and Mao (figures who a subset of the SneerClubbers explicitly endorse as heroes). One SneerClubber is arguing that, in an ideal world, I would not be allowed to be a CS professor—I’d be fired and replaced by someone with less white male nerd privilege—even (so this person adds) if that meant that the world would make slower progress toward solving P vs NP. Well, I suppose I should be grateful for the implied compliment in that last part, even though it’s probably undeserved! 🙂 But this goes a long way toward resolving the puzzle: if that’s really how these commenters feel about me, then how could they not feel disappointed that I wasn’t imprisoned over a trivial misunderstanding—no matter how hard such a wish might be to square with their supposed radical beliefs?

  163. Tim Maudlin Says:

    Fillipo Riccio #155

    People wonder why this thread has gone on so long, and here is one answer: some people just are not paying attention to the facts of the case. You write:

    “Really a cop in the USA can arrest and handcuff you out of the alleged accusation of stealing 4$ by a store manager in an airport??? This is ridiculous, and it is really scary that so many people find it “normal” and even “right”.

    At the minimum, you should leave a review on tripadvisor, google et al. where you explain what happened, and that the store manager has the tendency to call the cops to arrest bona fide customers. The shop should be severely punished for doing so (instead of the normal and civil course of action, which is to insist with you politely to clear the misunderstanding and nothing else).”

    The alleged accusation? The cashier witnessed the money being taken and identified Scott, and there was in addition a video of Scott taking the money, being informed he took the money, indicating that he was aware that the cashier was talking to him, and not returning the money. That is hardly an “alleged accusation”.

    Look, I get that people on this blog like Scott. I am fond of Scott myself. But that is neither here nor there. Stop trying to make Scott the victim here. He wasn’t. A manager who calls the cops when someone takes money that does not belong to him and, when informed of that, does not give it back is not being unreasonable. And once the cops get involved, as I said, they follow SOP. Bunsen Burner chooses to ask what if it was a 5-year-old child or a disabled person. But what in the world is the point of such a question? The point of handcuffs is restraint: if the disabled person cannot flee or do any harm, then for all any of us knows they would not be handcuffed. Nor a 5-year-old. But that is entirely conjectural: Scott is neither 5-years-old nor disabled. He is perfectly physically capable or fleeing, fighting, pulling a weapon, etc. So what is the point of Bunsen Burner’s question except to play a plainly rhetorical trick? It would be nice if people could take serious questions seriously.

    Complaining about the manager on Trip Advisor is doubly or triply silly. Scott took money out of their tip jar! Scott—quite appropriately—offered the manager $40 for all the trouble he caused and the manager graciously declined. That is called polite and civilized behavior. Would there were more of it.

  164. Mateus Araújo Says:

    Maudlin #149: I don’t see a problem with requiring officers to do judgement calls. On the contrary, I think a critical part of the training of a police officer is being able to identify threats and respond accordingly. Judgement calls are simply unavoidable. We don’t want our police officers to be mindless thugs that simply apply overwhelming force to every situation. Think of a police officer that stopped a car in the street, and the driver leans forward and opens the glove box. Is the driver reaching for his documents, or pulling a gun on the officer? There are people who indeed shoot police officers that stop their cars, but barring some evidence that the driver is in fact a cannibalistic axe-murderer with a warrant out for his arrest, I don’t think the police officer should shoot people who reach for their glove box.

    In the case of Scott, I think any police officer, even in the US, would correctly conclude that a middle-aged man with wife and children carrying a lot of luggage in an airport poses no risk of fight or flight (well, the other kind of flight yes).

    About “force”, I think you are being sidetracked by semantics. Would you agree if I rephrased the sentence as “I hope everybody agrees that the police used excessive restraints in Scott’s situation.”?

    The discussion is then about whether we can generalise from Scott, who we know poses a danger only to shoddily-proven theorems, to more general arrest situations. I think the answer is clearly yes, as the Austrian law shows. Moreover, I would bet that in Germany and the UK the police procedure is similar to the Austrian one, and that even in more dangerous countries like France or Belgium the generic Scott wouldn’t be handcuffed.

    A final point about escalation: I think it is obvious that there is an escalation from talking to someone to handcuffing them. Another story that might be relevant: several years ago, I was driving at night in middle-of-nowhere, Brazil. The police was looking for a thief that had just committed armed robbery and was fleeing in a car of the same model and colour than mine. They stopped my car, and ordered me to face the wall with the hands over my had, as they angrily shouted questions at me. I was so scared and confused that I didn’t really understand what was going on, and followed my instinct of looking at the person who is talking to me. Bad idea. The police officer had the gun in his hand already, but luckily made the correct judgement that I was not about to pull a gun on him, and did not shoot me. I think if this had happened in the US I wouldn’t be writing here tonight.

    Going back to the airport, I don’t doubt that in the shock of being handcuffed I would flail around, which would be interpreted as resisting arrest, and things would go downhill from there.

  165. Sniffnoy Says:

    To me, this seems like an interesting illustration of the difference between the “original” leftism rooted in Enlightenment ideals

    I’d just call that liberalism, Scott. I think it’s much simpler if we all just refer to the Enlightenment thing as “liberalism” and this other thing as “leftism”. That’s how the leftists call it, at least, and on this at least I think their terminology makes sense.

    (Well, kind of. I’m being a bit broad with my use of “leftism” here, I dunno that SJers are necessarily leftists proper, but to my mind there is, as you’ve also noticed, an essential similarity of thought between them, so whether we use that label or another one, it is useful to group them together, in a way that it is not useful to group them with liberals.)

    (Once again, see my triangular model, which has liberalism, leftism, and traditionalism-authoritarianism as its three poles…)

  166. Mateus Araújo Says:

    Scott #161: The solution to your puzzle is rather obvious, and contained within your own comment: SneerClub is not a leftist community, but rather a community founded explicitly to sneer upon Yudkowsky and Pinker and etc. It is the place to go if one wants to badmouth people, not the place to go if you want to discuss left-wing politics.

  167. The problem with gatekeepers Says:

    Tim Maudlin #158

    I hope I submit the comment before the thread closes :).

    I see you speak the bureaucrat language -you know the very thing most people seem to agree on this thread sucks as a defense of anything related to government. Like “those policemen that handcuffed Scott were following standard operating procedures”. In addition I see you use left wing sources to confirm your beliefs. Not the best way to show your analysis is impartial.

    1) The IG is part of the government dear. It’s not like hiring some external party who has access to relevant information. It’s government investigating itself. It’s like you know, some corporation that commits securities fraud telling the SEC: don’t send your investigators here, our internal people will conduct an investigation and will send you their report. I can’t believe anyone, including committed liberals, buys any argument based on government investigating itself. Apparently you don’t understand how large bureaucracies protect themselves. In the case of the targeting of the Tea Party groups by the IRS, the Department of Justice agreed to a settlement. Giving a leftist outlet opinion that supports your own preconceived opinion might work when you talk to other liberals, but it doesn’t work here. So “why did the Trump administration (not the Obama administration) settle these lawsuits and give the right-wing groups piles of taxpayer money” because the Obama administration was corrupt to admit any of its own wrong doing. I am amazed that I have to explain this!

    2) You are mixing apples and oranges here. The hacking of the DNC/Podesta files was done by a third party (who exactly we don’t know because Wikileaks -whom I give more credibility than any state actor including -actually particularly- the United States government- denies that their source is a state actor). Unless you live in a world where nefarious spy government agencies are run by angels (I don’t live in that world), it’s hard to conclude anything other than DNC/Podesta were hacked by the third party and that evil US spying agencies are trying to assign blame to Russia. And in the case of Podesta, his using a weak password had a lot to do with the hacking. I am talking about, on the other hand, the US government spying on a US political campaign. Very different. All information we have available at this point suggests an attempt at spying the Trump campaign through Carter Page. The FBI even went as far as leaking part of the fabricated dossier, generate news about it and use said news to give further ammunition to the FISA court. This is the kind of things the US government spy agencies have done for years (check operation MK Ultra for example or the dirty tricks employed by J. Edgar Hoover).

    3) and 4) they were fired by Trump sure, and he made the nation a big favor for getting rid of such corrupt individuals who had been making a living out of our tax dollars.

    5) Anyone of us commits, on average, 3 felonies a day. Nobody was ever sent to jail for what Dinesh did. If you want a technical explanation as to why what the Obama administration did was political corruption of the first order, here is somebody explaining it better than me . It comes from a Never Trumper, so hardly suspect of being blindly loyal to Trump.


    “I have no more interest in responding to you than to the Flat Earth Society, not because there are not powerful responses to all this nonsense but because rational people would never fall into such nonsense to begin with, and trying to argue rationally with irrational people is a fool’s mission.”

    Treating disagreement with your dogmatic liberal views as membership in the Flat Earth Society just confirms what I have been saying all along: you live in a liberal bubble immune to reasoning when it comes to anyone who tries to challenge your political dogmas. One thing you don’t seem to understand clearly is the difference between personal beliefs, facts , the way prosecution decisions are made and the law. When it comes to actual guilt, most of us could potentially be prosecuted for a long list of dirt because we live in an over criminalized society. Proprietorial discretion is the idea pf the prerogative prosecutors have when it comes to using the resources at their disposal to prosecute those crimes. They can pick and choose as they see fit (this is the legal theory Obama used to justify DACA and other similar programs that benefit illegal immigrants). The notion that the decisions on who to prosecute are made in the vacuum, irrespective of political context and according to some predetermined impartial algorithm is very naive. Thus both the decision to prosecute Dinesh and the decision to give a pass to Hillary Clinton were politically motivated and on both cases there is evidence in the public domain that indeed politics played a role. If your personal beliefs are aligned with Obama’s you see these decisions as fair. If they are not -and mine certainly aren’t- it’s perfectly legitimate to see both decisions as politically motivated and corrupt.

  168. Tim Maudlin Says:


    I am sort of bending over backward here to try to have a rational discussion of what are difficult issues, and I can’t understand why you are refusing. I have said over and over that every point where you invite or require the police to make a judgment is of necessity a place where the police can make a misjudgment and where the police can make a biased judgment. You give a long description of the features of Scott that make him “obviously” not a risk of fight or flight. OK: now how about providing us with a description of an individual who did exactly what Scott did—took the tip money, was informed of that, and did not return it—who is a risk of fight or flight. Describe the contrast case in detail, and then we can put your two descriptions side-by-side and see what sorts of people you think ought to be handcuffed when arrested and what sorts of people should not. And let’s then ask ourself if we want to live in a society where the police treat these two groups differently in what is legally exactly the same situation. I think that put blankly like that we would not be happy to endorse your suggestion.

    I appreciated you taking the trouble to look up the procedures in Austria. I do not appreciate just making stuff up about what you would bet. That is not evidence of anything except your own prejudices. If you want to check the facts, check them and if not then don’t idly speculate.

    Finally, if you really would not be cooperative if you were arrested, I suggest you work on that flaw in your character. Because if you happen to be arrested in circumstances like Scott’s, your best bet is to do what Scott did. Anything else will lead to a worse result, maybe dramatically worse.

  169. The problem with gatekeepers Says:

    Scott #161

    Remember that a conservative is a liberal who has been mugged? Or that other saying something like if you are not a communist at the age of 20 you don’t have a heart but if you continue to be one at 50 you don’t have a brain?

    The reason leftism consistently loses is because it always degenerates. You cannot really decouple the two forms of leftism you describe. Stalin didn’t rule over Western Europe after World War II and yet the social democracy attempted there is bankrupt. Inevitably, the leftists running the European governments have used their powers to benefit powerful lobbies. The human heart is corrupt and if you give anyone power, that power will be misused sooner or later. It’s human nature. The Wall Street Journal had recently an article on this topic (it’s behind the paywall and I think I am still operating under fair use protections by publishing this extended quote) “The European Union has spent nearly $1 trillion to unify the continent by delivering highways and trains into places where there were once gravel paths. In current dollars, that is over eight times the Marshall Plan that rebuilt Europe after World War II. The EU has bought airports and bridges, trams and swimming pools. It has repaired castles and medieval churches. It hasn’t bought love. To the vexation of European leaders, some of the biggest recipients of funding are now hotbeds of discontent, brimming with voters disquieted by the cultural and political pressures that have accompanied European integration, and threatening the bloc’s cohesion.”

    Leftism has always been more interesting in the world of ideas than in the world of having actual humans implementing it.

  170. Mateus Araújo Says:

    Maudlin #167: I’m afraid I will mostly repeat what I wrote before, but I’ll try to more explicitly address your points: I understand you want to reduce the situations where the police is required to do a judgement call, but I’m arguing that they are unavoidable, and it is better to train the police officers to do them, instead of trying to codify everything in a rigid procedure. I’m pretty sure that every procedure would have called for the Brazilian police to shoot me in that encounter a few years ago, and I’m happy they used their judgement instead. I’m offering the Austrian law as an example of how this works in practice, and I think it is the ideal solution.

    I don’t think we should codify into law who is a risk of fight or flight, as this is better addressed in police training. But to answer your question, I would be happy for unaccompanied young men not carrying luggage to be classified as a flight risk. For a fight risk, I would add being strong and/or carrying a weapon or clothes that could conceal a weapon. This obviously still leaves a large grey are between them and the mythical Scott, so again I think a judgement call is unavoidable.

    About looking stuff up, I did also search about the police procedures in Germany, but didn’t get anything as cut and dried as in Austria, but just the general principle of Verhältnismäßigkeit (loosely speaking, that the police is not allowed to infringe on the rights of a suspect more than is necessary to protect the rights of those the suspect is threatening). I’m not willing to research the police procedures of more countries, and specially not of those whose languages I do not speak. Instead of considering my bet an idle speculation that only reveals my own prejudices, maybe you could consider it as an invitation to do research yourself, and an opportunity to get some bottles of single malt scotch? I’d take the bet at three-against-one odds.

    Finally, I find it hard to rework my jumpy character. I’d rather avoid the US until the police there gets less trigger-happy. But please note that I didn’t say that I would be uncooperative, but that I could inadvertently flail around from the shock.