Later On

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

Archive for February 2008

In the days of teaching

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I had a dream about this last night, so thought I’d blog the memory (of the actual events, not the dream).

About 35 years ago, I was teaching at a small private liberal-arts college and was asked to take over a Freshman Math Tutorial at the beginning of their second semester.

A word about class format: the college used the “Great Books Program”, and Freshman math was devoted for about the first two-thirds to the study of Euclid’s Elements (in translation) and then the Almagest of Ptolemy (also in translation). The tutorial consisted of the tutor (in this case, me) and 10-12 Freshmen (co-ed). The tutor’s job was to ask the right questions so that the students, in discussing the answers and thinking about the implications, would develop an understanding of the focus of study.

In studying Euclid’s Elements, there would occasionally be a general discussion, but mostly a student would go to the board and “demonstrate” one of the theorems or constructions: stating the proposition, setting out a diagram and stating what specifically is to be proved or constructed, doing any necessary construction, and then going through the proof. The student demonstrating could be asked questions by the other students (or the tutor): to clarify a step, to explain why something actually followed from what had been said, etc. Questions such as those were common.
Demonstrating the theorems led to a deeper understanding for all, and provided the student doing the demonstration with useful practice in presenting abstract material, answering questions, thinking on his/her feet, etc.

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Written by Leisureguy

29 February 2008 at 4:22 pm

Posted in Daily life, Education

Solar thermal outpacing solar-voltaic

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Interesting article, which begins:

Investors and utilities intent on building solar power plants are increasingly turning to solar thermal power, a comparatively low-tech alternative to photovoltaic panels that convert sunlight directly into electricity. This month, in the latest in a string of recent deals, Spanish solar-plant developer Abengoa Solar and Phoenix-based utility Arizona Public Service announced a 280-megawatt solar thermal project in Arizona. By contrast, the world’s largest installations of photovoltaics generate only 20 megawatts of power.

In a solar thermal plant, mirrors concentrate sunlight onto some type of fluid that is used, in turn, to boil water for a steam turbine. Over the past year, developers of solar thermal technology such as Abengoa, Ausra, and Solel Solar Systems have picked up tens of millions of dollars in financing and power contracts from major utilities such as Pacific Gas and Electric and Florida Power and Light. By 2013, projects in development in just the United States and Spain promise to add just under 6,000 megawatts of solar thermal power generation to the barely 100 megawatts installed worldwide last year, says Cambridge, MA, consultancy Emerging Energy Research.

The appeal of solar thermal power is twofold. It is relatively low cost at a large scale: an economic analysis released last month by Severin Borenstein, director of the University of California’s Energy Institute, notes that solar thermal power will become cost competitive with other forms of power generation decades before photovoltaics will, even if greenhouse-gas emissions are not taxed aggressively.

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Written by Leisureguy

29 February 2008 at 2:09 pm

Good article on transitional forms in evolution

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Excellent article in the current New Scientist on the variety and number of “transitional forms” in the fossil record. From the article:

When Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859, there was relatively little evidence in the fossil record of evolutionary change. Darwin spent two chapters of his book apologising for the paucity of the fossil record, but predicted that it would eventually support his ideas.

What Darwin was bemoaning was the lack of “transitional” fossils – those with anatomical features intermediate between two major groups of organisms. At the time, such fossils were conceived as “missing links” in the “great chain of being” from lowly corals through higher organisms such as birds and mammals to humans (and ultimately to God).

We now know this is a misconception. Life does not progress up a hierarchical ladder from “low” to “high” but is a branching bush with numerous lineages splitting apart and coexisting simultaneously. For example, apes and humans split from a common ancestor 7 million years ago and both lineages are still around. Similarly, corals and sponges did not vanish when more advanced lineages of worms branched out 600 million years ago.

For this reason the concept of “missing link” is a misleading one. A transitional form does not need to be a perfect halfway house directly linking one group of organisms to another. It merely needs to record aspects of evolutionary change that occurred as one lineage split from another. They don’t even have to be fossils: many living lineages have transitional features.

Darwin’s 1859 prediction that transitional forms would be found was quickly confirmed. In 1861 the first specimen of Archaeopteryx – a classic transitional form between dinosaurs and birds – was discovered, and in the 1870s the iconic sequence of fossil horses was documented. By the time of Darwin’s death in 1882 there were numerous fossils and fossil sequences showing evolutionary change, especially among invertebrates.

Evidence of evolution in the fossil record has vastly increased since then. Yet the idea still persists that the fossil record is too patchy to provide good evidence of evolution. One reason for this is the influence of creationism. Foremost among their tactics is to distort or ignore the evidence for evolution; a favourite lie is “there are no transitional fossils”.

This is manifestly untrue. We now have abundant evidence for how all the major groups of animals are related, much of it in the form of excellent transitional fossils.

Recently palaeontologists have begun to strike back, pointing out the wealth of evidence for evolution in the fossil record and publicising their discoveries when they represent important transitional forms, something that perhaps was lacking in the past. Many examples are provided in my new book, Evolution: What the fossils say and why it matters (Columbia University Press). Just a few of these are given on the pages that follow.

He then reviews the evolutionary record for 10 different collections of species.

Written by Leisureguy

29 February 2008 at 2:05 pm

Posted in Religion, Science

GOP governance: stall, stall, stall

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A consistent theme emerges from how the GOP approaches solving problems: stall. And keep stalling. Stall through protracted legal tactics. When the court orders action, don’t do it—keep stalling. Stall long enough, and perhaps the problem will go away, or can be dumped on the Democrats (cf. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan).

Also, while stalling, deny, deny, deny. Do whatever is necessary to keep from having to make those denials under oath with a transcript, and continue denying.

Deny and stall: the party’s basic strategy.

Written by Leisureguy

29 February 2008 at 12:07 pm

EPA tries to explain

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EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson issued a long justification for his Dec. 19 refusal of California’s right to regulate tail-pipe greenhouse gas emissions. The gist of the 47-page explanation is this: because regulating greenhouse gases from vehicles in California won’t substantially affect climate change in California per se, it isn’t covered by the type of waiver that EPA in the past granted California each time it wanted to pass its own environmental regulations. That is, Johnson isn’t saying that greenhouse gases and climate change aren’t a serious problem. And he isn’t saying that California can’t justify its own regulation of other air pollutants—particulates, sulfur dioxide etc—because those California emissions cause harm in California. Whereas whatever harm comes from greenhouse gases harms globally, and thus shouldn’t be regulated locally.

There is some perverse logic to this thinking, but it seems pretty clearly to have been post hoc. The Bush administration has been trying to delay greenhouse gas regulation for seven years. The White House hasn’t cleared EPA’s own regulations, despite being ordered to do so by the Supreme Court last April. Johnson’s aides urged him to grant the waiver or resign, saying it would besmirch his reputation if he refused. But the die was cast long ago. A document released by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Ca) this week is particularly revealing. “I think we should assert the existence of preemption [i.e., the EPA’s right to preempt state regulators] and propose to deny the waiver based on absence of compelling and extraordinary conditions.” That was written by EPA political appointee Bill Wehrum—On March 15, 2006.

Written by Leisureguy

29 February 2008 at 11:57 am

Public opinion on healthcare mandates

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When Medicare was being created in 1964, Ronald Reagan said, “I think we are against forcing all citizens, regardless of need, into a compulsory government program.”

To this day, conservatives continue to resist universal programs. In his 2008 State of the Union address, President Bush once again mentioned private health savings accounts, despite the fact that they may increase the number of uninsured Americans. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) similarly touts private plans, saying he wants people to “go out and choose their insurer anywhere in America.”

A new poll from NPR, the Kaiser Family Foundation, and the Harvard School of Public Health, however, finds that most Americans reject conservatives’ approach to health care. In fact, the majority of the public supports mandates requiring Americans to purchase health insurance. NPR reports:

When asked whether they would support a broad proposal that would require everyone to get coverage, 59 percent said they would support it. Such a proposal would require employers to provide coverage or pay into a pool. The government would help low-income people get coverage, and insurance companies would be required to take anyone who applies. People who don’t get coverage through one of these channels or purchase it themselves would pay a fine.

Healthcare mandates

As Jonathan Cohn of The New Republic notes, “In a system based on private insurance, a lot of people won’t obtain even affordable insurance without some sort of requirement.” This point is backed up by prominent health care experts such as Columbia’s Sherry Glied and former Clinton administration adviser on Medicare Bruce Vladeck, who have criticized the tactic of scaring Americans into thinking mandates will force them to buy unaffordable health coverage.

For a practical approach to guaranteeing an American right to affordable, quality health coverage, the Center for American Progress has more here.

Written by Leisureguy

29 February 2008 at 11:56 am

History of the Evolution vs. Creationism controversy

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The Missing Link – a monthly podcast on the history of science, medicine and technology – has just launched a three-episode series on the fascinating history behind the evolution-intelligent design controversy.

Episode 8, just posted at, begins the series with an investigation into how the nature of scientific method has changed over the centuries. Discover at just what point science invented rules that creationism could not follow.

Future episodes will consider topics like Jewish and Catholic responses to the evolution-ID controversy, why the creationism movement waned in the immediate postwar period in America, and how the very word “evolution” might be inadvertently fueling the controversy.

Find more information at

Written by Leisureguy

29 February 2008 at 11:53 am

Posted in Religion, Science

Spanking kids and their later sexual problems

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Children who are spanked or victims of other corporal punishment are more likely to have sexual problems as a teen or adult, according to new research presented today by Murray Straus, co-director of the Family Research Laboratory at the University of New Hampshire.

Widely considered the foremost researcher in his field, Straus presented his new research findings at the American Psychological Association’s Summit on Violence and Abuse in Relationships: Connecting Agendas and Forging New Directions held Feb. 28 and 29 at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Bethesda, MD.

Straus analyzed the results of four studies and found that spanking and other corporal punishment by parents is associated with an increased probability of three sexual problems as a teen or adult:

  • Verbally and physically coercing a dating partner to have sex.
  • Risky sex such as premarital sex without a condom.
  • Masochistic sex such as being aroused by being spanked when having sex.

“These results, together with the results of more than 100 other studies, suggest that spanking is one of the roots of relationship violence and mental health problems. Because there is 93 percent agreement between studies that investigated harmful side effects of spanking, and because over 90 percent of U.S. parents spank toddlers, the potential benefits for prevention of sexual and relationship violence is large,” Straus says.

“Furthermore, …

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Written by Leisureguy

29 February 2008 at 11:51 am

Posted in Daily life, Mental Health, Science

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An Esperanto-speaking nation

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:sigh: Another path not taken: Neutral Moresnet was moving toward recognizing Esperanto as the national language, when…

When the mine was exhausted in 1885, doubts arose about the continued survival of Neutral Moresnet. Several ideas were put forward to establish the territory as a more independent entity, amongst which were a gambling casino and a postal service with its own stamps, though this last idea was thwarted by the local government. A casino was established in August 1903 after all such resorts in Belgium were forced to close. The Moresnet casino operated under strict limitations, permitting no local resident to gamble, and no more than 20 persons to gather at a time. The venture was abandoned, however, when the Prussian King threatened to partition the territory or cede it to Belgium in order to end the gambling. Around this same time, Moresnet boasted three distilleries for the manufacture of gin.[4]

The most remarkable initiative came from Dr. Wilhelm Molly, who in 1908 proposed making Neutral Moresnet the world’s first Esperanto-speaking state, named Amikejo (“place of friendship”). The proposed national anthem was an Esperanto march of the same name. A number of Kelmis residents learned Esperanto and a rally was held in Kelmis in support of the idea of Amikejo on 13 August 1908.

However, time was running out for the tiny territory. Neither Belgium nor Germany had ever surrendered its original claim to it. Around 1900 Germany in particular was taking a more aggressive stance towards the territory and was accused of sabotage and of obstructing the administrative process in order to force the issue. In 1914, during World War I, Germany invaded Belgium, leaving Moresnet at first “an oasis in a desert of destruction,”[5] but the Germans annexed the area in 1915.

Articles 32-33 of the post-war Treaty of Versailles of 1919 settled the matter of the “temporary neutrality” established a hundred years earlier by awarding the territory of Neutral Moresnet to Belgium, along with the German municipalities of Eupen and Malmedy.[6] The Germans briefly re-annexed the area during World War II, but it was returned to Belgium in 1944. Under Belgian administration the territory became the commune of Kelmis (La Calamine), which in 1977 absorbed the neighboring communes of Neu-Moresnet and Hergenrath.

Today, Dr. Molly’s vision of an Esperanto state inspires interest in the territory’s history among the Esperantists of the world. A small museum in Neu-Moresnet, the Göhltal Museum (Musée de la Vallée de la Gueule), includes exhibits on Neutral Moresnet. Of the 60 border markers for the territory, more than 50 are still standing.

Thanks to The Son for pointing out this little country.

Written by Leisureguy

29 February 2008 at 10:37 am

Spying on Americans

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Glenn Greenwald makes an excellent point that someone the mainstream media can’t get its collective head around, though in some cases those heads (Tim Russert, for example) are simply enormous:

In his Press Conference yesterday, Commander-in-Chief George W. Bush candidly explained why he was so eager to have Congress grant amnesty to telecoms:

Allowing the lawsuits to proceed could aid our enemies, because the litigation process could lead to the disclosure of information about how we conduct surveillance.

The bit about Helping the Enemies is purely false, just standard Bush fear-mongering. Federal courts receive and rule on highly classified information with great regularity without any public “disclosure.” FISA (in 50 USC 1806(f)) specifically provides that secret information can be submitted to the Judge without even the other side having access to it. If — as the President suggested — courts can’t be trusted with national security secrets, then it would mean, just as he intends and just as much of the press has accepted, government officials are free to break the law in secret by claiming that national security concerns prevent courts from ruling on what they did. In a Super Scary World, the need for secrecy outweighs all.But on a more important level, Bush is finally being candid about the real reason the administration is so desperate to have these surveillance lawsuits dismissed. It’s because those lawsuits are the absolute last hope for ever learning what the administration did when they spied on Americans for years in violation of the law. Dismissal via amnesty would ensure that their spying behavior stays permanently concealed, buried forever, and as importantly, that no court ever rules on the legality of what they did. Isn’t it striking how that implication of telecom amnesty is never discussed, and how little interest it generates among journalists — whose role, theoretically, is to uncover secret government actions?

There was an explosion of press interest for a couple of days last May when former Deputy Attorney General James Comey testified about the melodramatic hospital scene where John Ashcroft refused the demands of Alberto Gonzales and Andrew Card to authorize whatever it was the President’s domestic spying program entailed, but the most significant revelation from Comey’s testimony was — and still is — that the administration was engaged in spying activities back then so patently illegal and unconscionable that the entire top level of the DOJ threatened to resign if they continued.

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Written by Leisureguy

29 February 2008 at 10:32 am

Maximize your LinkedIn leverage

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Good advice on making the most of your LinkedIn connections.

Written by Leisureguy

29 February 2008 at 10:03 am

Megs bathing in the sun

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Megs, giving herself a nice morning bath while enjoying the sun. Life is good.

Written by Leisureguy

29 February 2008 at 9:53 am

Posted in Cats, Megs

Clever: DIY vegetable soup concentrate

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This is a very clever idea. Full instructions at the link, along with useful photos and a reminder of (and link to) the homemade miso soup balls.

Instant Mediterranean vegetable soup concentrate

* 1 medium onion
* 1 garlic clove
* 1 large green pepper
* 1 large red pepper
* 1 fennel bulb
* 1 medium carrot
* 2 stalks of celery
* 1 big bunch of parsley
* 2 tsp. dried thyme
* 1 tsp. dried oregano
* 1 bay leaf
* 1 small (1 lb or 400g) can of crushed tomatoes
* 2 Tbs. tomato paste
* 1 1/2 Tbs. olive oil
* 2 tsp. salt and 1 vegetable stock cube, OR 1 Tbs. salt

Chop up all of the vegetables fairly finely but not too finely. You can do this in a food processor, or just chop by hand.

Heat up a heavy bottomed pot with the olive oil. Add all the vegetables, and sauté until limp.

Add the can of tomatoes and tomato paste, plus a little water (rinse out the can and pour that water in). Add the herbs, salt and stock cube. Bring to a boil, then simmer over a low heat until the mixture has reduced to about 1/4th, stirring up from the bottom occasionally to prevent it from burning. The moisture should be just about gone, and it should look like a very thick vegetable-studded sauce. The cooking down process takes about half an hour or more, so you’ll want to do this when you can be around the kitchen to check up on its progress.

Let the mixture cool, and take out the bay leaf. If you taste it at this point it should be quite salty – too salty to eat on its own, since you will be diluting it with hot water.

Wrap up 2 tablespoon portions in plastic wrap, put the packets in a zip bag, and freeze. This amount makes about 10 portions. When you want to bring one along, just pack a frozen packet. By lunchtime, the packet will have defrosted.

Squeeze out the contents of the packet into a mug or bowl.  Add boiling water. Mmm, piping hot veggie soup.

Notes: Adding some precooked pasta and beans will turn this into a minestrone!

The plastic wrap packet does tend to leak a bit once the mixture has defrosted, so be sure not to carry it on its own. Yu may want to put it inside a divider cup in your bento if you don’t want the surrounding food to be tomato-stained.

There’s a lot of salt in this, because it is a concentrate. If you want to regulate the salt more, omit it from the concentrate and add salt to taste when you mix up your cup of soup. Sprinkling in some dried herbs when mixing will help with that too. (It makes you realize how salty instant soup mixes are…)

Written by Leisureguy

29 February 2008 at 9:46 am

Good bean soup

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Last night I put a smoked ham shank in a pot with water to cover, a chopped onion, several minced cloves of garlic, juice of a couple of lemons, a sprinkling of crushed red pepper, and put the covered pot in a 200º oven overnight. This morning, the meat simply fell off the bone, and I have the base stock for the soup. I’m not sure I’ll cook the beans in this broth—I read that you should avoid cooking dry beans with fat else they will be tough. But the meat and broth will certainly be the basis of the soup.

Written by Leisureguy

29 February 2008 at 9:18 am

Posted in Daily life, Food

Violet Friday

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I used the Tryphon Violet Shaving Cream this morning, with the Simpsons Emperor 2 Super. Wonderful fragrance, great lather.

The Edwin Jagger Chatsworth with the Iridium Super blade was still shaving smoothly and easily. For the Oil Pass, I used the Gesseto shaving oil—no fragrance at all, very light, but still protective. Very nice.

Acqua di Parma aftershave, and I’m ready for the day.

Written by Leisureguy

29 February 2008 at 9:16 am

Posted in Shaving

Clever idea if you watch TV on-line

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A freeware program, Zorro, which blocks out all the monitor except for the TV image.

Written by Leisureguy

28 February 2008 at 7:17 pm

Posted in Daily life, Software

EPA continues to be unresponsive

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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.”

Written by Leisureguy

28 February 2008 at 7:16 pm

Small-apartment transforming furniture

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Written by Leisureguy

28 February 2008 at 7:04 pm

Posted in Daily life

EPA continues to obey industry, disregard environment and consumers

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Look at this story:

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.

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Written by Leisureguy

28 February 2008 at 5:06 pm

The US: Imprisonment Nation

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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.

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Written by Leisureguy

28 February 2008 at 2:31 pm

Posted in Daily life, Government

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