Archive for February 28th, 2008
A freeware program, Zorro, which blocks out all the monitor except for the TV image.
Last April, the Supreme Court ruled that the EPA had acted unlawfully in “its refusal to decide whether greenhouse gases cause or contribute to climate change,” and now must regulate carbon dioxide. Yet nearly a year later, the EPA has failed to act, as agency official Robert Meyers reported in a letter to environmental groups yesterday:
As a result, at this time, the agency does not have a specific timeline for responding to the remand. However, let me assure you that developing an overall strategy for addressing the serious challenge of global climate change is a priority for the agency, and we are taking very seriously our responsibility to develop an effective, comprehensive strategy.
Sierra Club attorney David Bookbinder said, “Unless EPA owns up to its obligations immediately, we will be forced to take the administration back to court.”
Under pressure from the chemical industry, the Environmental Protection Agency has dismissed an outspoken scientist who chaired a federal panel responsible for helping the agency determine the dangers of a flame retardant widely used in electronic equipment.
Toxicologist Deborah Rice was appointed chair of an EPA scientific panel reviewing the chemical a year ago. Federal records show she was removed from the panel in August after the American Chemistry Council, the lobbying group for chemical manufacturers, complained to a top-ranking EPA official that she was biased.
The chemical, a brominated compound known as deca, is used in high volumes worldwide, largely in the plastic housings of television sets.
Rice, an award-winning former EPA scientist who now works at the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, has studied low doses of deca and reported neurological effects in lab animals. Last February, around the time the EPA panel was convened, Rice testified before the Maine Legislature in support of a state ban on the compound because scientific evidence shows it is toxic and accumulating in the environment and people.
Chemical industry lobbyists say Rice’s comments to the Legislature, as well as similar comments to the media, show that she is a biased advocate who has compromised the integrity of the EPA’s review of the flame retardant.
The EPA is in the process of deciding how much daily exposure to deca is safe — a controversial decision, expected next month, that could determine whether it can still be used in consumer products. The role of the expert panel was to review and comment on the scientific evidence.
EPA officials removed Rice because of what they called “the perception of a potential conflict of interest.” Under the agency’s handbook for advisory committees, scientific peer reviewers should not “have a conflict of interest” or “appear to lack impartiality.”
EPA officials were not available for comment Thursday.
Environmentalists accuse the EPA of a “dangerous double standard,” because under the Bush administration, many pro-industry experts have served on the agency’s scientific panels.
The US imprisons more people per capita than any nation on earth. I have had commenters who say that this is good. I don’t think it’s all that good. For one thing, it’s terribly expensive (costly government, something many on the right don’t like); for another, the great explosion of prisoners is because of nonviolent offenders of victimless crimes—e.g., possessing a small amount of marijuana. The problem is, many police departments and state police organizations are driven by measures, and the counts of arrests and convictions are much easier to track than, say, quality of life.
The picture becomes even more worrisome when you compare the US to other industrialized nations, which have much lower incarceration rates and much lower crime rates. You would think that the connection (lower incarceration rates and lower crime rates) is natural, but those who like to imprison people claim that you get a lower crime rate only if you have a high incarceration rate.
UPDATE: From the Washington Post:
With more than 2.3 million people behind bars at the start of 2008, the United States leads the world in both the number and the percentage of residents it incarcerates, leaving even far more populous China a distant second, noted the report by the nonpartisan Pew Center on the States.
While studies generally find that imprisoning more offenders reduces crime, the effect is influenced by changes in the unemployment rate, wages, the ratio of police officers to residents, and the share of young people in the population.
In addition, when it comes to preventing repeat offenses by nonviolent criminals — who make up about half of the incarcerated population — alternative punishments such as community supervision and mandatory drug counseling that are far less expensive may prove just as or more effective than jail time.
Florida, which nearly doubled its prison population over the past 15 years, has experienced a smaller drop in crime than New York, which, after a brief increase, reduced its number of inmates to below the 1993 level.
“There is no question that putting violent and chronic offenders behind bars lowers the crime rate and provides punishment that is well deserved,” said Adam Gelb, director of the Pew Center’s Public Safety Performance Project and one of the study’s authors. “On the other hand, there are large numbers of people behind bars who could be supervised in the community safely and effectively at a much lower cost — while also paying taxes, paying restitution to their victims, and paying child support.”
At any rate, the NY Times notes:
For the first time in the nation’s history, more than one in 100 American adults is behind bars, according to a new report (PDF file).
Nationwide, the prison population grew by 25,000 last year, bringing it to almost 1.6 million. Another 723,000 people are in local jails. The number of American adults is about 230 million, meaning that one in every 99.1 adults is behind bars.
Incarceration rates are even higher for some groups. One in 36 Hispanic adults is behind bars, based on Justice Department figures for 2006. One in 15 black adults is, too, as is one in nine black men between the ages of 20 and 34.
The report, from the Pew Center on the States, also found that only one in 355 white women between the ages of 35 and 39 are behind bars but that one in 100 black women are.
The report’s methodology differed from that used by the Justice Department, which calculates the incarceration rate by using the total population rather than the adult population as the denominator. Using the department’s methodology, about one in 130 Americans is behind bars.
From Froomkin’s column today:
Kevin G. Hall writes for McClatchy Newspapers: “When U.S. troops invaded Iraq in March 2003, the Bush administration predicted that the war would be self-financing and that rebuilding the nation would cost less than $2 billion.
“Coming up on the fifth anniversary of the invasion, a Nobel laureate now estimates that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are costing America more than $3 trillion.
“That estimate from Noble Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz also serves as the title of his new book, ‘The Three Trillion Dollar War,’ which hits store shelves Friday.
“The book, co-authored with Harvard University professor Linda Bilmes, builds on previous research that was published in January 2006. The two argued then and now that the cost to America of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is wildly underestimated. . . .
“The White House doesn’t care for the estimates by Stiglitz, a former chief economist of the World Bank who’s now a professor at Columbia University.
“‘People like Joe Stiglitz lack the courage to consider the cost of doing nothing and the cost of failure. One can’t even begin to put a price tag on the cost to this nation of the attacks of 9-11,’ said White House spokesman Tony Fratto, conceding that the costs of the war on terrorism are high while questioning the premise of Stiglitz’s research.
“‘It is also an investment in the future safety and security of Americans and our vital national interests. $3 trillion? What price does Joe Stiglitz put on attacks on the homeland that have already been prevented? Or doesn’t his slide rule work that way?’”
Slide rule? Slide rule??! Slide rules haven’t been made for a generation—they dropped out of sight in the late ’70s with the advent and continuing improvement of the pocket electronic calculator. Where the hell has Tony Fratto been? College students today have never seen an actual slide rule, much less worked with one. Professional economists who are 35 and under have probably never seen nor used a slide rule. Jesus.
On the bright side, at least he didn’t say, “Or isn’t that in his book of logarithms?”
Very good article at Wired on the Netflix $1,000,000 contest to improve the rankings prediction. (“Based on your previous rankings, you’ll like these movies….”). The article begins:
At first, it seemed some geeked-out supercoder was going to make an easy million.
In October 2006, Netflix announced it would give a cool seven figures to whoever created a movie-recommending algorithm 10 percent better than its own. Within two weeks, the DVD rental company had received 169 submissions, including three that were slightly superior to Cinematch, Netflix’s recommendation software. After a month, more than a thousand programs had been entered, and the top scorers were almost halfway to the goal.
But what started out looking simple suddenly got hard. The rate of improvement began to slow. The same three or four teams clogged the top of the leaderboard, inching forward decimal by agonizing decimal. There was BellKor, a research group from AT&T. There was Dinosaur Planet, a team of Princeton alums. And there were others from the usual math powerhouses — like the University of Toronto. After a year, AT&T’s team was in first place, but its engine was only 8.43 percent better than Cinematch. Progress was almost imperceptible, and people began to say a 10 percent improvement might not be possible.
Then, in November 2007, a new entrant suddenly appeared in the top 10: a mystery competitor who went by the name “Just a guy in a garage.” His first entry was 7.15 percent better than Cinematch; BellKor had taken seven months to achieve the same score. On December 20, he passed the team from the University of Toronto. On January 9, with a score 8.00 percent higher than Cinematch, he passed Dinosaur Planet.