Later On

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

Archive for December 22nd, 2012

A badly broken system: Forensic “science”

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Apparently many, many innocent people have been sent to prison by dishonest prosecutors and incompetent forensic analysts. See this article for the relative inaccuracy of various methods. That article is one (of several) sidebars to Stephen Hsu’s feature article in the Washington Post:

Thousands of criminal cases at the state and local level may have relied on exaggerated testimony or false forensic evidence to convict defendants of murder, rape and other felonies.

The forensic experts in these cases were trained by the same elite FBI team whose members gave misleading court testimony about hair matches and later taught the local examiners to follow the same suspect practices, according to interviews and documents.

In July, the Justice Department announced a nationwide review of all cases handled by the FBI Laboratory’s hair and fibers unit before 2000 — at least 21,000 cases — to determine whether improper lab reports or testimony might have contributed to wrongful convictions.

But about three dozen FBI agents trained 600 to 1,000 state and local examiners to apply the same standards that have proved problematic.

None of the local cases is included in the federal review. As a result, legal experts say, although the federal inquiry is laudable, the number of flawed cases at the state and local levels could be even higher, and those are going uncorrected.

The FBI review was prompted by a series of articles in The Washington Post about errors at the bureau’s renowned crime lab involving microscopic hair comparisons. The articles highlighted the cases of two District men who each spent more than 20 years in prison based on false hair matches by FBI experts. Since The Post’s articles, the men have been declared innocent by D.C. Superior Court judges.

Two high-profile local-level cases illustrate how far the FBI training problems spread.

In 2004, former Montana crime lab director Arnold Melnikoff was fired and more than 700 cases questioned because of what reviewers called egregious scientific errors involving the accuracy of hair matches dating to the 1970s. His defense was that he was taught by the FBI and that many FBI-trained colleagues testified in similar ways, according to previously undisclosed court records.

In 2001, Oklahoma City police crime lab supervisor Joyce Gilchrist lost her job and more than 1,400 of her cases were questioned after an FBI reviewer found that she made claims about her matches that were “beyond the acceptable limits of science.” Court filings show that Gilchrist received her only in-depth instruction in hair comparison from the FBI in 1981 and that she, like many practitioners, went largely unsupervised.

Federal officials, asked about state and local problems, said the FBI has committed significant resources to speed the federal review but that state and local police and prosecutors would have to decide whether to undertake comparable efforts.

FBI spokeswoman Ann Todd defended the training of local examiners as “continuing education” intended to supplement formal training provided by other labs. The FBI did not qualify examiners, a responsibility shared by individual labs and certification bodies, she said.

Michael Wright, president of the National District Attorneys Association, said local prosecutors cannot simply order labs to audit all or even a sample of cases handled by FBI-trained examiners, because such an undertaking might be time- and cost-prohibitive for smaller agencies. . .

Continue reading. Yes, Mr. Wright is completely correct: better to let hundreds of innocent people rot in prison, their lives ruined, than to ask the agencies that put them there to go to the trouble of correcting their errors. For one thing, those agencies are probably eager to cover up their mistakes, and the best way to do that is to avoid looking for errors. I suggest that Mr. Wright now go to prison for 30 years and see how he likes it. The fact that he’s innocent apparently is not relevant.

Written by Leisureguy

22 December 2012 at 9:01 pm

Posted in Government, Law, Science

Sunglasses for people who wear prescription glasses

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I have prescription glasses (from I ordered the $3.95 clip-on sunglasses with the ($52.75) glasses, but the clip-ons were completely worthless and immediately discarded. I wore a pair of inexpensive sunglasses designed to fit over prescription glasses. They worked reasonably well until I lost them. I went to Amazon and found some truly excellent sunglasses.

But first, a bit of background from the Australian/New Zealand standards:

Sunglasses and fashion spectacles are classified as one of the following:

Lens category 0: Fashion spectacles
These are not sunglasses, as they have a very low ability to reduce sun glare. They provide limited UV protection.

Lens category 1: Fashion spectacles
Like category 0 lenses, these are not sunglasses; however, they do provide limited sun glare reduction and UV protection. Fashion spectacles with category 1 lenses are not suitable for driving at night.

Lens category 2: Sunglasses
These sunglasses provide a medium level of sun glare reduction and good UV protection.

Lens category 3: Sunglasses
Similar to category 2, these sunglasses provide a good level of UV protection. Lens category 3 glasses also provide a high level of sun glare reduction.

Lens category 4: Sunglasses
These are special purpose sunglasses that provide a very high level of sun glare reduction and good UV protection. Lens category 4 sunglasses must not be used when driving at any time.

I always buy Category 3 sunglasses and aim for at least 85% light absorption (i.e., 15% light transmission). Basically, any sunglasses that you can use comfortably indoors (e.g., in a nightclub) are totally worthless as sunglasses. In a nightclub, if you wore Category 3 sunglasses, you would not be able to see well at all. (Category 4 is used for snow-glasses, for example, where exceptionally high glare is encountered.)

In browsing sunglasses on Amazon I stumbled onto Cocoons “OveRx” sunglasses, and I got a pair in Amber. Cocoons offers these 100% polarized lenses:

GRAY: This is a neutral tint that delivers natural color definition and contrast. Ideal for every day use in bright light conditions where enhanced contrast is not required. Gray features 15% light transmission: Category 3.

COPPER: A general purpose tint that heightens depth perception and object definition by effectively filtering scattered blue light to improve contrast. Ideal for skiing, fishing and all flat light conditions. Copper features 16% light transmission: Category 3.

AMBER: Amber is effective at absorbing most blue light waves which sharpens visual acuity, improving depth perception and contrast in variable light conditions. Amber is popular for fishing, driving, and general use. Amber features 14% light transmission: Category 3.

YELLOW: A long time standard in ski and shooting sports, yellow provides excellent depth perception and dramatic contrast in low light. Improves contrast and gives a sensation of heightened visual acuity in low light conditions. Yellow features 27% light transmission: Category 2.

BLUE MIRROR: Polaré® polarized gray is also available with a blue mirror coat designed to improve the glare-cutting properties of the gray lens and increase contrast by absorbing additional levels of blue light. Blue Mirror features 11% light transmission: Category 3.

In my experience, Gray results in a less-than-sharp image, whereas Amber and Copper are much sharper. I sort of want to get a pair in Copper as well. The Wikipedia article on sunglasses notes:

Gray and green lenses are considered neutral because they maintain true colors.

Brown lenses cause some color distortion, but also increase contrast.

Turquoise lenses are good for medium and high light conditions, because they are good at enhancing contrast, but do not cause significant color distortion.

Orange and yellow lenses increase both contrast and depth perception. They also increase color distortion. Yellow lenses are used by pilots, boaters, fishers, shooters, and hunters for their contrast enhancement and width perception properties.

Blue or purple lenses are mainly cosmetic.

Cocoons Medium size fits well over my prescription glasses. Cocoons have “Flex2Fit” temples: you can bend the temples with your hands to get a good, secure fit.

I’m liking them. Can you tell?

Written by Leisureguy

22 December 2012 at 5:35 pm

Posted in Daily life, Health

The misleading conversation about Social Security and Medicare

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In the New Yorker, James Surowiecki writes a good column on the dishonesty of our political discourse on social insurance:

One of the most influential ideas in Washington these days is that Social Security and Medicare are on the verge of going bust. Earlier this month, Senator Lindsey Graham warned of the “imminent bankruptcy” of these insurance programs for the elderly, and Republican leaders are citing the threat of insolvency as a reason that entitlement reform must be part of any fiscal-cliff deal. The argument sounds reasonable enough, but it’s really a bid to turn the great political strength of these programs—the fact that they were designed to be self-supporting—into a weakness.

Unlike most government programs, Social Security and, in part, Medicare are funded by payroll taxes dedicated specifically to them. Some of the tax revenue pays for current benefits; anything that’s left over goes into trust funds for the future. The programs were designed this way for political reasons. When F.D.R. introduced Social Security, he calculated that funding it through a payroll tax rather than out of general tax revenue would make people think of the program not as welfare but as an entitlement—as something that they had paid for and had a right to. Many liberals initially opposed the idea, because payroll tax rates aren’t progressive (everyone pays the same rate) and because they tax only labor income. But the system proved as resilient as F.D.R. had predicted, and when Lyndon Johnson introduced Medicare, in the nineteen-sixties, he adopted it, too. Over the years, Social Security and Medicare taxes have risen sharply, to the point where payroll taxes account for thirty-six per cent of all federal revenue. Today, most American households pay more in payroll taxes than in income tax. Yet there’s little public hostility to these taxes, and the programs they fund remain enormously popular.

But the trust-fund strategy has an Achilles’ heel: funds can run out of money. Projections show that, owing to an aging population and rising health-care costs, the Medicare Trust Fund will become insolvent in 2024 and Social Security in 2033. The image of empty coffers is a powerful one: half of all Americans aged between eighteen and twenty-nine don’t think that Social Security will exist when they retire. That’s a bizarre thing to believe about an important government program. No one ever says, “I don’t think the U.S. Army will be there when I get old” or talks about the Defense Department “going broke.” We assume that there will always be a need for the military, and that we’ll end up paying the taxes that are necessary to fund it. But, because Social Security and Medicare have always been self-supporting, it’s easy to believe that they’ll just vanish if the trust funds dry up. This isn’t the case. Relatively minor tweaks to Social Security will allow it to keep paying full benefits for many decades. And, if we wanted, we could supplement funding for both programs with general government revenue. That’s what most European countries do, and, indeed, parts of Medicare are already paid for out of general revenue. The only way that Social Security and Medicare can go “bankrupt” is if we let them.

So why are politicians obsessed with the question of solvency? . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

22 December 2012 at 4:37 pm

Fascinating article on the idea of theater and its expression in a Turkish village

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The article “Stage Mothers” is unfortunately locked on-line, but it’s so good that I think it’s worth going to the library to read the whole thing, beginning on page 72 in the New Yorker of 24 Dec 2012. The abstract is on-line:

ABSTRACT: LETTER FROM ARSLANKÖY about the Arslanköy Women’s Theatre Group, an all-female theatre group, based in rural Turkey, which is writing and performing plays. Ümmiye Koçak, who is now in her mid-fifties, was a forty-four-year-old farmworker with a primary-school education when she caught the theatre bug from a school play that a local school principal, Hüseyin Arslanköylü, had staged the previous year. Ümmiye had never seen a play before, and it seeped into her thoughts. For a long time, she had been puzzling over the situation of village women and the many roles they had to play. In the fields, they worked like men; in villas, they became housekeepers; at home, they were wives and mothers. In 2000, with other women from her village, Arslanköy, she formed the Arslanköy Women’s Theatre Group. The group met every night at the school, after the women had worked ten- or twelve-hour days on farms. Their first production, a contemporary Turkish play called “Stone Almonds,” sold out a theatre in the provincial capital of Mersin, and was written up in the national press. They were invited to Istanbul, to be on TV; none of the women had ever been on an intercity bus before. In 2003, the women collaborated on a play called “Woman’s Outcry,” based on their own difficult life experiences, which included kidnapping, forced marriage, and domestic abuse. They performed the play in Arslanköy, in front of their husbands and village officials. A documentary about “Woman’s Outcry” became an international success, winning prizes at the Trieste and Tribeca festivals; Ümmiye travelled abroad for the first time, attending galas in Spain. In 2009, she played the title role in her own adaptation of “Hamlet.” This spring, she finished shooting her first screenplay, about a downtrodden mother and daughter who herd goats in the Taurus Mountains. It can be difficult to grasp just how remarkable these achievements are. In the nineteen-twenties and thirties, Atatürk’s secularizing reforms put Turkey at the vanguard of feminism. Turkish women got the vote in 1934, before women in Italy and France. Atatürk’s daughter was a combat pilot. But in rural Turkey the new secular constitution had little effect on the old patriarchal culture, and women’s lives continued much as they always had. Today, some Turkish women are C.E.O.s, best-selling novelists, Olympic gold medalists, and Constitutional Court judges. Other Turkish women—hundreds of thousands of them—are rape victims or child brides. An estimated thirty per cent of rural Turkish women haven’t completed elementary school, and forty-seven per cent have been beaten or raped by their husbands. Writer meets with Ümmiye Koçak and women who act in her new theatre group, and travels with them while they stage productions in rural Turkey. Describes Koçak’s life, and her development as a writer; recounts the history of the theatre group, describing many of the plays they have staged. Describes a women’s outreach program in a remote village, at which Koçak’s group stages a play, and the backstage atmosphere at one of their performances. Describes in detail the arduous process of filming “Wool Doll,” Koçak’s first film, which began in the winter, when Arslanköy is buried under ten feet of snow. Mentions the various positions which Turkey’s conservative Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has taken against abortion rights.

Written by Leisureguy

22 December 2012 at 4:31 pm

Posted in Art, Daily life

On Moral Values, Liberals More Prone to Stereotype Than Conservatives

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Very interesting article by Tom Jacobs in Pacific Standard:

Those conservatives are appalling: They couldn’t care less if people get hurt. And liberals? They think anything goes, and have no concept of the meaning of loyalty.

Caricatures? Absolutely. But such stereotypes are widely held among Americans, newly published research confirms, with liberals particularly clueless about the concerns of conservatives.

Regarding issues of morality, “people overestimate how dramatically liberals and conservatives differ,” psychologists Jesse Graham, Brian Nosek and Jonathan Haidt write in the online journal PLoS One. Specifically, their research suggests those on the left unfairly assume their counterparts on the right are cold-hearted on issues involving harm and fairness.

“There are real moral differences between liberals and conservatives,” the researchers write, “but people across the political spectrum exaggerate the magnitude of these differences, and in so doing create opposing moral stereotypes that are shared by all.”

The research provides the latest insights derived from Haidt’s framework of moral attitudes. He has identified five distinct moral realms: harm/care, fairness, in-group loyalty, deference to authority, and purity/sanctity. The first two promote individual freedom and self-expression, and are beloved by liberals; the final three bind societies together, and are close to the hearts of social conservatives.

This new study featured 2,212 visitors to the website, a research portal that focuses on “the gap between intentions and actions.” About half identified themselves as liberals, while 500 placed themselves in one of three conservative categories, and 538 defined themselves as moderates.

They were first asked a series of questions to determine their own moral attitudes. For instance, to measure how strongly they believe in loyalty to one’s group, they were asked the extent to which they agreed with such statements as “It is more important to be a team player than to express oneself.”

They then completed similar surveys, offering not their own feelings, but those of a “typical liberal” or “typical conservative.” The researchers compared their assumptions to the answers provided by actual liberals and conservatives, as well as to a different, nationally representative sample of Americans. . .

Continue reading. I recall this same scale coming up in another context in an earlier blog post.

I am a liberal—indeed, a progressive—and I completely understand the relatively low value I (and others like me) place on the virtues of loyalty and authority. Loyalty is quite easy to feel so long as the group or person to which you feel loyalty manifests values consistent with your own. The only time it’s tricky is when the group or person demanding loyalty is engaged in things that you consider seriously wrong: for example, an executive for whom you work is hiding data about the dangers of a medication the company is about to release. “Loyalty” requires that you go along with the deception and accept the danger to the public as a good trade-off for being loyal. To expose the fraud is to be “disloyal,” both to the executive and the company, and those in the company will doubtless be quick to label you as disloyal—indeed, you can expect to lose your job and possibly be blackballed. As proof, look at the common reaction to whistleblowers by those whose misdeeds are exposed: “disloyalty” is the first phrase that leaves their lips. So I don’t place much value on loyalty to people or institutions; OTOH, I place a high value on loyalty to truth and to the general welfare. Look at where “loyalty” took Penn State. I rest my case.

The same arguments apply in much the same way to authority: Authority is fine so long as it enforces what is right and just, but it should always be questioned and required to justify its right to the authority it claims. Scientists go seriously awry when they respect authority instead of experiments, for example.

I’ll be interested in the thoughts of readers who see my stance as wrong, provided those thoughts can be expressed without involving personal insults. A civil discussion would be interesting, since I expect many will disagree with my view. I’m interested to hear their arguments.

Written by Leisureguy

22 December 2012 at 2:01 pm

Distortions of science, by Right and by Left

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An interesting review of two books that criticize ignorance and misunderstands of science, one by those on the Right, the other by those on the Left. Wray Herbert in Pacific Standard:

The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science—and Reality
By Chris Mooney; (Wiley)

Science Left Behind: Feel-Good Fantasies and the Rise of the Scientific Left
By Alex Berezow and Hank Campbell; (PublicAffairs)

TIMES OF INTENSE IDEOLOGICAL POLARIZATION are always dreary for reasonable people. Consider the Marquis de Condorcet, a brilliant scientist, mathematician, and political philosopher who was forced into hiding during the French Revolution after running afoul of the radical followers of Robespierre. During his months as a fugitive, Condorcet penned a treatise—now considered a major text of the Enlightenment—that envisioned a society founded on the principles of free inquiry, critical thinking, and science. But the nobleman was caught, and his vision for France died with him in a revolutionary prison cell.

Condorcet’s story opens The Republican Brain, the science writer Chris Mooney’s lament about today’s polarized intellectual climate. Mooney mourns the death of Condorcet’s enlightened vision, and I suspect Alex Berezow and Hank Campbell would as well. Like Mooney’s, their new book,Science Left Behind, describes a 21st-century American society that is the exact opposite of what Condorcet wanted and predicted. Both books condemn the magical thinking and distorted passions that shape our modern intellectual enterprise and diminish our lives.

But this is where the agreement ends. Mooney lays the blame for our misinformed and misguided society squarely at the feet of political conservatives who deny science and its methods. Berezow and Campbell are troubled by distortions of science on the political left.

Mooney examines the phenomenon of right-wing denial of science through the lens of cognitive psychology, a frame that is both well attuned to the bestseller-list zeitgeist and destined to fluster his ideological opponents by putting them on the couch. Mooney takes us on a fascinating tour of the psychological dynamics underlying biased thought. He explains with admirable clarity such concepts as cognitive dissonance, personality theory, and an array of automatic, emotional biases that allow wrongheaded ideas to persist.

To be sure, these are well-documented psychological processes that undermine all human decision making and action—not just that of Republicans. But Mooney is convinced—and convincing—that Republicans and Democrats are fundamentally different in the way they think about the world. Republicans have a different cognitive style than Democrats. They show lower tolerance for ambiguity and uncertainty, which makes them defensive about their beliefs and highly resistant to persuasion. Conservative Republicans score low on a personality trait called “openness to experience,” which encompasses curiosity and intellectual flexibility.

All of these processes contribute to what’s called “motivated reasoning”—which is not reasoning at all, in the classical sense. The theory, derived from modern neuroscience, holds that we often process information automatically and emotionally, without reflection or even awareness. These hidden emotional priorities cause us to misinterpret or dismiss evidence—even technical, scientific evidence.

This is not just a parlor game. . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

22 December 2012 at 1:47 pm

Posted in Books, Science

Rainy-day bean soup

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Here’s what’s cooking:

1 lb small white beans, soaked overnight, drained this morning.

I put those (eventually) in the 7-qt pot when the 4-qt pot turned out to be filled to the brim before I added water.

I had cooked 1 smoked ham shank (from the Quonset) in a covered cast-iron dutch oven overnight in a 200ºF oven with about an inch of water. The water keeps the meat from drying out. I picked off the meat from the bones and added it to the pot with the beans, and used my little fat-skimmer to pour the non-fat part of the liquid in the pot in with the beans as well.

Then I added:

1.5 medium Spanish onions, chopped
1 handful of garlic cloves, minced
1 stubby carrot, rather large, diced
2 large Roman tomatoes, diced
8 oz sliced ham, minced
1 Tbsp dried thyme
1 Tbsp dried Mexican oregano
1 Tbsp Colman’s mustard (the powdered mustard)
4 star anise
several grindings black pepper
water to cover

It’s probably 5 qts. I’ve brought it to a boil and it will simmer for some hours. It will take longer for the beans to get tender because of the fat from the shank (not much, but still…). We’re patient. It’s for dinner, and it’s not yet noon.

UPDATE: I was pessimistic: by 1:30 p.m. the beans were tender and the soup was ready. I’ve fished out 3 of the 4 star anis (the 4th will turn up eventually) and had a bowl of the soup: very tasty. I had expected it to take longer, but I guess that a little fat doesn’t slow down the cooking of the beans as much as does molasses. (Boston baked beans have to cook overnight, more or less.)

Looking at that recipe, the casual reader may think I measured things. I didn’t. The closest I came was to counting things. (All counts are accurate.) The beans came in a 1-lb bag, and the ham in an 8-oz package. The herbs and spices I just estimated.

Written by Leisureguy

22 December 2012 at 11:55 am

Posted in Food, Recipes & Cooking

Meal report

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Last night The Wife was interested in some non-GOPM food, so she got an organic air-chilled chicken at the Quonset in Pacific Grove (its actual name is Grove Community Market, but it’s universally known as the Quonset). She wanted it roasted, so I spatchcocked it as I usually do now for roasted chicken. Rubbed the roasting pan with olive oil, put a few slices of onion as a base, salted and peppered the chicken on both sides, and put it into the pan skin side up—a fairly close fit, but fine. A bunch of fingerling potatoes around the perimeter, into a 400ºF oven for 50 minutes. I checked it, then gave it five minutes more—well, ten minutes, since the oven door was open while I checked.

That, along with broccoli steamed for 12 minutes (too long: 9 minutes next time) was dinner. And we have a ton of leftover chicken: it was a very big chicken.

No cooking now for a few days, it looks like. We do have a rack of lamb in the fridge for Xmas.

Written by Leisureguy

22 December 2012 at 10:52 am

Posted in Food, Recipes & Cooking

La Toja and the Toggle

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SOTD 22 Dec 2012

La Toja again today, in a different format. The white deposit on the cork-bark top is dried lather from the previous shave. This time I rinsed out the container after use so the cork top (also rinsed) would be pristine for next time.

The Wet Shaving Products Monarch High Mountain White has rapidly become a favorite brush. It is soft, and the loft is enough to provide enormous capacity while still having a pleasant resilience. Recommended. I worked up a very fine lather. I’m assuming that the soap formula in the stick and the tub is the same (though it’s clearly not for Wilkinson), but the lather seemed better today. Perhaps I just played with it more, or the different brush provided a different effect. Still: fine lather.

The Toggle is a Fat Boy with gold plating and a different tightening mechanism. With a Swedish Gillette blade, it did a super good job this morning: true BBS once more. (It occurs to me that some years of practice probably also contribute to the spate of good shaves I now enjoy.) Three smooth passes, rinse, dry, and a good splash of La Toja aftershave, which I very much enjoy. I need to work that one into the rotation more often.

Written by Leisureguy

22 December 2012 at 10:43 am

Posted in Shaving

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