Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Convicted by a computer program whose source code is kept secret

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Radley Balko in the Washington Post:

Fascinating piece at Slate by Rebecca Wexler about proprietary code and the criminal justice system.

It’s time to address one of the most urgent if overlooked tech transparency issues—secret code in the criminal justice system. Today, closed, proprietary software can put you in prison or even on death row. And in most U.S. jurisdictions you still wouldn’t have the right to inspect it. In short, prosecutors have a Volkswagen problem.

Take California. Defendant Martell Chubbs currently faces murder charges for a 1977 cold case in which the only evidence against him is a DNA match by a proprietary computer program. Chubbs, who ran a small home-repair business at the time of his arrest, asked to inspect the software’s source code in order to challenge the accuracy of its results. Chubbs sought to determine whether the code properly implements established scientific procedures for DNA matching and if it operates the way its manufacturer claims. But the manufacturer argued that the defense attorney might steal or duplicate the code and cause the company to lose money. The court denied Chubbs’ request, leaving him free to examine the state’s expert witness but not the tool that the witness relied on. Courts in Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Florida and elsewhere have made similar rulings.

The courts have also shot down defendants’ attempts to examine the code in breathalyzer machines, although as Wexler points out, a New Jersey court allowed access, and the code held up under scrutiny, and in Minnesota access to code allowed defense attorneys to identify a bug that may have caused false positives. And in addition to the propriety reasons, we’re also seeing courts block access to the code behind new technology for national security reasons, such as with the StingRay cell phone monitors.

The criminal justice system has always had a hard time properly assessing the validity of scientific and complicated evidence, from bite mark evidence to drug dogs to those notoriously bad “field test kits” for illicit drugs. But at least in those situations the defense was given access to the methods and given opportunity to impeach them in court. It’s still a problem when the state is permitted to use bad science to convince juries to convict, because juries tend to be swayed more by the persuasiveness of the witnesses than the validity of the science.

But in the case of secret code, the jury doesn’t even get to hear that much. It pretty much boils down to “just trust us.” If there’s anything we’ve learned from the forensic scandals of the past few years, it’s that the science-ish tools designed to help law enforcement solve crimes often don’t hold up to the scrutiny of actual science. Forget trust. A guilty verdict ought to require verification.

Written by LeisureGuy

8 October 2015 at 12:52 pm

Another Joris razor up for sale

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Joris 1

Another palladium-plated Joris open comb razor, listed here.

Written by LeisureGuy

8 October 2015 at 12:43 pm

Posted in Shaving

What is the psychology of someone whose home uses 11 million gallons of water in a drought-stricken state?

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Very similar, I suspect, to the psychology of Martin Shkreli. (He’s the guy who bought rights to a drug and raised the price from $13.50/tablet to $750.00/tablet in the US; drug sells for $1/tablet in the UK. Two weeks ago, after an outburst of public outrage, Shkreli said he would lower the price. It’s still the same price.) It amounts to an amazing sense of entitlement, greed and selfishness, and a total lack of caring for other people. Lance Williams and Katharine Mieszkowski report in Reveal News:

In the midst of a searing drought, one home in this exclusive West Los Angeles neighborhood used an astonishing 11.8 million gallons of water in one year – enough for 90 households.

A lushly landscaped, mansion-studded enclave of wealth and celebrity, Bel Air has been home to Michael Jackson, Jennifer Aniston and even former President Ronald Reagan.

Now, according to records obtained by Reveal, Bel Air has another distinction: Its 90077 ZIP code is also home to the biggest known residential water customer in California.

The city of Los Angeles won’t identify this 11.8 million-gallon user, whose water bill for the 12 months ending April 1 likely topped $90,000, according to the Department of Water and Power’s rate structure.

Nor has the city taken any steps to stop this customer – or scores of other mega-users – from pumping enormous quantities of water during a statewide crisis now in its fourth year.

It’s the same story throughout urban California.

Despite the drought, well-heeled residential customers in affluent neighborhoods are being allowed to use as much water as they want to buy, according to a review of utility records from the state’s biggest urban water agencies.

In all, 365 California households pumped more than 1 million gallons of water apiece during the year ending in April, the records show.

One million gallons is enough for eight families for a year, according to a 2011 state estimate, and many of California’s mega-users pumped far more than that. Of the total, 73 homes used more than 3 million gallons apiece, and another 14 used more than 6 million.

These mega-users live in San Diego’s posh La Jolla beachfront community, in affluent suburbs of Contra Costa County in the Bay Area and especially in Los Angeles’ wealthy neighborhoods.

In addition to the state’s biggest user, Bel Air had 19 customers pumping more than 2.8 million gallons per year. In nearby Beverly Hills, the famously upscale ZIP code of 90210 had 32 customers using 2.8 million gallons or more.

The names of all these mega-users are secret. Los Angeles and all of the state’s other major water agencies declined to name any of their big guzzlers, saying that identifying a customer – even one using extraordinary amounts of water – would raise privacy concerns.

Reveal’s findings of wanton water use during the drought are “absolutely shocking,” said Tracy Quinn, a water policy analyst for the Natural Resources Defense Council in Santa Monica.

“Looking at the list that you’ve provided … I’m actually shocked by the amount of water that can be used in a single-family residence,” she said in an interview. “It’s appalling.”

While the water flows to the mega-users, the state’s urban water agencies have mounted a furious public relations campaign to persuade the public to cut water use in response to what they call “the drought of the century.”

In a barrage of public service broadcasts, emails and fliers, Californians have been urged to rip out their lawns, stop washing their cars and even limit their toilet flushing to save water. The conservation campaign has been pronounced a success: In August, the state said urban customers had cut their use by 31 percent.

But the agencies have shown little enthusiasm for restricting use by high-end customers who are consuming huge amounts of water. Only recently did two agencies – one in Oakland, the other east of Los Angeles in the Coachella Valley – begin imposing penalties on mega-users. Other agencies haven’t followed suit.

Instead, the agencies have fined hundreds of Californians for offenses such as hosing down their driveways or failing to replace broken sprinkler heads.

David Wilson, a homeowner in Los Angeles’ Mid-Wilshire neighborhood, got slapped with $600 in fines for watering on the wrong day of the week and letting runoff flow into the street. He blamed a sprinkler malfunction.

Wilson thought the fines were excessive, and he said he was shocked to learn that the city was publicizing his name and address because of the violation.

When a reporter showed him a list of mega-users, with names withheld by the city to protect their privacy, Wilson said, “That’s asinine. These are the people that people should be going after.”

Looking at the top user on the list, Wilson asked, “Is this 11 million gallons? How do they even do that?” . . .

Continue reading.

It’s particularly unfortunate that the wealthy have been able to get the state to change the rules so that the offenders’ names are kept secret.

Written by LeisureGuy

8 October 2015 at 10:43 am

DuPont Found Liable in C8 Trial

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The jury has spoken, as reported by Sharon Lerner in The Intercept:

A juy has found DuPont liable for negligence in the case of Carla Bartlett, taking less than a day to award $1.6 million to the Ohio woman who developed kidney cancer after drinking water contaminated with a chemical formerly used to make Teflon. The jury declined to give Bartlett punitive damages in the federal case. Instead, the award included $1.1 million for negligence as well as $500,000 for emotional distress.

“This is brilliant,” one of Bartlett’s attorneys, Mike Papantonio, said of the verdict. “It’s exactly what we wanted.” Papantonio emphasized that Bartlett’s case, the first of more than 3,500 personal injury and wrongful death suits filed on behalf of people in West Virginia and Ohio who were exposed to C8, had been chosen by DuPont as the first to be tried and involved less egregious injuries than many others yet to be heard.

“They picked this case with the idea that it was the most winnable. Strategically they never dreamed we’d win this case,” said Papantonio, who predicts that other C8 suits in the pipeline will result in punitive damages. “Really, it’s just a matter of time.”

In a statement, DuPont said it expected to appeal the verdict and emphasized that “safety and environmental stewardship are core values at DuPont.”

Carla Bartlett lived much of her life in Coolville, Ohio, a tiny town a few miles across the Ohio River from a DuPont plant in Parkersburg, West Virginia. After years of drinking water that had been contaminated with C8, Bartlett, who is now 51, was diagnosed with a tumor on her kidney in 1997 and underwent a painful surgery that involved removing part of one of her ribs along with the tumor.

Bartlett’s attorneys argued that while she and tens of thousands of people living near Parkersburg, West Virginia, were drinking water contaminated with C8, DuPont was actively working to ensure they didn’t “connect the dots” about the chemical. One DuPont PowerPoint presented by Papantonio described the company’s strategy of keeping sensitive information from government agencies, community organizations, and “disgruntled employees.”

DuPont’s lawyers, for their part, denied any responsibility for Bartlett’s illness. “Nobody at DuPont expected that Mrs. Bartlett or anyone else in the community would be hurt,” said Damond Mace, who emphasized that the company couldn’t have predicted that scientists would find a probable link between C8 and kidney cancer, as they did in 2012.

Bartlett’s attorneys responded with voluminous internal communications showing the company did in fact foresee the damage they would later inflict. In one DuPont document, a summary of a 1984 meeting about C8, a DuPont employee concluded that “we are already liable for the past 32 years of operation.”

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

8 October 2015 at 10:17 am

Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders?

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An extremely interesting article by Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic in the Harvard Business Review:

There are three popular explanations for the clear under-representation of women in management, namely: (1) they are not capable; (2) they are not interested; (3) they are both interested and capable but unable to break the glass-ceiling: an invisible career barrier, based on prejudiced stereotypes, that prevents women from accessing the ranks of power. Conservatives and chauvinists tend to endorse the first; liberals and feminists prefer the third; and those somewhere in the middle are usually drawn to the second. But what if they all missed the big picture?

In my view, the main reason for the uneven management sex ratio is our inability to discern between confidence and competence. That is, because we (people in general) commonly misinterpret displays of confidence as a sign of competence, we are fooled into believing that men are better leaders than women. In other words, when it comes to leadership, the only advantage that men have over women (e.g., from Argentina to Norway and the USA to Japan) is the fact that manifestations of hubris — often masked as charisma or charm — are commonly mistaken for leadership potential, and that these occur much more frequently in men than in women.

This is consistent with the finding that leaderless groups have a natural tendency to elect self-centered, overconfident and narcissistic individuals as leaders, and that these personality characteristics are not equally common in men and women. In line, Freud argued that the psychological process of leadership occurs because a group of people — the followers — have replaced their own narcissistic tendencies with those of the leader, such that their love for the leader is a disguised form of self-love, or a substitute for their inability to love themselves. “Another person’s narcissism”, he said, “has a great attraction for those who have renounced part of their own… as if we envied them for maintaining a blissful state of mind.”

The truth of the matter is that pretty much anywhere in the world men tend to think that they that are much smarter than women. Yet arrogance and overconfidence are inversely related to leadership talent — the ability to build and maintain high-performing teams, and to inspire followers to set aside their selfish agendas in order to work for the common interest of the group. Indeed, whether in sports, politics or business, the best leaders are usually humble — and whether through nature or nurture, humility is a much more common feature in women than men. For example, women outperform men on emotional intelligence, which is a strong driver of modest behaviors. Furthermore, a quantitative review of gender differences in personality involving more than 23,000 participants in 26 cultures indicated that women are more sensitive, considerate, and humble than men, which is arguably one of the least counter-intuitive findings in the social sciences. An even clearer picture emerges when one examines the dark side of personality: for instance, our normative data, which includes thousands of managers from across all industry sectors and 40 countries, shows that men are consistently more arrogant, manipulative and risk-prone than women.

The paradoxical implication is that the same psychological characteristics that enable male managers to rise to the top of the corporate or political ladder are actually responsible for their downfall. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

8 October 2015 at 9:20 am

Posted in Daily life, Science

Long-lofted brush, Meißner Tremonia, and the Above the Tie S1 slant

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SOTD 8 Oct 2015

Very fine shave today. The brush shown, with the snakewood handle, I purchased some years back from Strop Shoppe, mainly because of the handle. When I got it and used it the first time, I was somewhat taken aback by how soft it was: it has a 55mm loft and knot (of silvertip badger) felt very yieldy—not much backbone at all.

But since I had it, I thought I’d better learn to use it, and I found learning it quite easy. I wet the knot well, give it a couple of shakes, and then brush the puck—which this morning is Meißner Tremonia’s Moroccan Rhassoul, as you see—quite briskly and with enough firmness that the brush splays open. Since the brush is soft, you can really bear down, but brisk brushing with the pressure described results in the brush being quickly and easily loaded. It takes about 10-12 seconds, but if you’re still learning, give it 15-20 seconds.

Then move the loaded brush to your (wet, washed) beard and brush briskly, working the lather up. If it seems dry, you can add a driblet of water to the brush and work that in. Indeed, as an experiment, you should do that in any case: learning is by trying different things.

Now that I know how to load the brush easily and quickly and how to work up the lather using the brush, it’s a favorite exactly because the long loft is so soft. And the brush has excellent lather capacity as well.

The razor today is the Above the Tie S1 head on a UFO handle, and it did a very fine job, producing effortlessly a BBS result. A good splash of Anthony Gold’s Red Cedar, and the day is underway.

Written by LeisureGuy

8 October 2015 at 9:13 am

Posted in Shaving

A good example of government failing to its job of “ensuring the general welfare”: Why Student Debtors Go Unrescued

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The editorial board of the NY Times:

A vast majority of the more than 10 million Americans who have defaulted on or are behind on repaying their student loans could have benefited from income-driven repayment plans that are intended to ease pressure on distressed borrowers and keep them from defaulting on their federal loans.

These plans can allow borrowers with low income or high debt — or both — to pay less each month, or even nothing, until their finances improve without being penalized or going into default. But many borrowers never even hear about these payment plans, thanks to poor customer service by the companies that are paid more than $600 million a year by the government to manage these accounts, process monthly payments and enroll distressed borrowers in alternative repayment plans.

As a result, borrowers who could easily have been spared slip into default. The government needs to demand more from these companies, which have operated with little oversight and have clearly been failing borrowers for a long time.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which has primary authority over the industry, has now issued a disturbing report on this problem. It can’t delay and should get the ball rolling by suing companies that violate the law and writing consumer-friendly rules that loan servicing companies would be legally required to follow.

The bureau’s report — drawn from 30,000 public comments filed with the agency from May to July — suggests that some servicers are actually pushing struggling borrowers toward default by giving them misinformation, by making it difficult for them to refinance at lower rates and by withholding valuable information about affordable payment plans that are in the struggling borrower’s best interest.

Instead of explaining how income-based payment plans protect the borrower’s credit, loan servicers sometimes tell people that their only options are to pay the full amount due or go into forbearance — a process in which the person can stop paying for a specified time, though the interest generally continues to accrue and the loan balance grows.

In some cases, borrowers reported, servicers chose to . . .

Continue reading. Definitely keep reading.

Think what this accumulated educational debt is doing: wringing money from those barely able to pay, blighting them with constant finacial worry. That has a real 19th Century sound, doesn’t it? (Think Scrooge (financial institutions) and Bob Cratchit—only our Scrooge is unvisited by ghosts.)

But of course that burden is exactly what is being imposed by student loan debt—and the government does nothing to help. Those struggling most with the debt and payments? They’re virtually all of voting age. If they networked, using the things available now: email, hangouts, Skype, private forums, and so on, they would be a very substantial voting bloc—particularly if they actually all vote: since most people do not vote these days, the power of each individual vote—each vote actually cast—is magnified. Thus the voting block of highly-indebted young adults (who, BTW, are pushed by the debt to struggle to be highly compensated, since it’s the only solution in sight), IF it organizations and acts, could exert quite a bit of political pressure—perhaps enough to push the government to do its job and work on behalf of the people and their general welfare, as it’s supposed to do (not helping business clamp down harder—but that seems to be a strong tendency, almost as if the politicians in question were heavily funded by the interests they protect.

UPDATE: It’s perhaps too obvious to state, but this burden falls disproportionately on the poor: the poorer you are, the more financial help you need with college costs (in general) and so the bigger burden you carry after college. It’s like the way the police, prosecutors, and courts in St. Louis County (and elsewhere) focused their policing and arrests on poor neighborhoods, to siphon money from the poor, who lacked the financial and legal resources available to those with higher incomes.

Written by LeisureGuy

7 October 2015 at 7:39 pm


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