Later On

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

Archive for November 29th, 2013

Perhaps the idea of police officers in all schools needs rethinking

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Jodie Gummow reports at AlterNet:

An Austin family is suing the Texas sheriff’s deputy and school district in federal court after their 17-year-old son was tasered last week by a police officer in the school hallway, leaving him in a coma and fighting for his life,  Courthouse News  reported.

Noe Nino de Rivera, had successfully stepped in to break up a fight between two girls at Cedar Creek High School when school officials called in Randy McMillan, a Bastrop County sheriff department deputy. McMillan told the boy to step back and the teen obliged, with his hands in the air.

Yet, in a vicious act of police brutality, McMillan tasered the boy anyway, who fell onto his face and was knocked unconscious. Rather than calling for emergency medical assistance, the cop put the comatose boy in handcuffs.

Eventually, school officials contacted emergency services and the boy was airlifted to hospital where he underwent brain surgery and was placed in a medically induced coma where he remains and is still unable to communicate with his family.

Students who saw the incident say McMillan’s response was a gross overreaction, according to  KXAN.

“There was a crowd watching and the kid was just trying to get the officers to listen to him. When he shot the taser, there was a crowd, and others could have been hit,” said one student.

Acosta says the school was negligent in allowing McMillan to work at the school, despite the fact that he had previously tasered another student a year ago.

The incident is under investigation. The family is now seeking damages for the police brutality.

Written by Leisureguy

29 November 2013 at 4:46 pm

Posted in Education, Guns

TWA Flight 800: the documentary

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I just watched TWA: Flight 800 on Netflix Watch Instantly. It’s a recent documentary (this year, in fact) that makes a strong and cogent case that the official explanation is not only incorrect—that is, it does not come close to agreeing with the evidence—but is in fact a heavy-handed cover-up including witness intimidation from the FBI. For that to be credible, of course, you’d have to believe that the FBI is a highly authoritarian organization with people who take orders and act on them, and who believe it is their job to protect the reputation of the country as much as it is to fight crime. (Of course, the scandal of all the tainted convictions from the FBI’s incredibly sloppy forensic work in the FBI lab shows that they are perhaps not so competent as they claim—as does their totally incorrect fingerprint analysis that put an Oregon man’s at the site of the Madrid bombing, a man who’s never been to Spain.)

At any rate, the film is well worth seeing and seems to show pretty conclusively that Flight 800 was brought down by a high-velocity explosion—military ordnance—and 3 missiles were involved, very like the US Navy training exercise described in this post.

Here’s a review of the film.

And take a look at this Democracy Now! story from June 20, 2013 (blogged some time back). I would guess, based on what we know, that the training exercise went awry when the missiles acquired TWA 800 as a target—the fact that the US Navy vessels fled the scene is pretty conclusive, given the normal requirement to assist in an emergency at sea. Then the FBI gets its marching orders, the media shows again that it has become terribly weak, and the half-ass cover-up works. And I doubt that the NTSB will re-open the investigation. I’m sure they have their orders.

See the film, watch the Democracy Now! video, consider the number of lies we’ve been told to date by the government just over the NSA programs, much less the Iraq War, and ask, “Could our government really make such a horrible error (cf. Iran Air Flight 655) and then try to cover it up?” The answer, based on what we’ve seen of government secrecy and misrepresentation over the past decade or so, is obviously, “Yes.”

Written by Leisureguy

29 November 2013 at 4:41 pm

Posted in Government

E-mails show cozy relationship between Obama trade negotiators and industry groups

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Obama clearly knows which side his bread’s buttered on and is undoubtedly looking forward to big payoffs once he leaves office. Turning over the trade negotiations to the companies involved and ignoring the public interest seems quite typical of recent administrations, which operate in service of corporate rather than public interests. Tim Lee notes in the Washington Post:

On Tuesday, I wrote about the close relationship between the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, which negotiates U.S. trade agreements, and industry groups that favor stronger copyright and patent protections. New e-mails released by the advocacy group Knowledge Ecology International shine further light on the close working relationship between Obama trade negotiators and K Street lobbyists.

The e-mails were released in response to a freedom of information request by IP-Watch this year. They don’t provide much information about the substance of USTR’s conversations with industry groups. But there are dozens of e-mails in which lobbyists from the pharmaceutical, medical device, video game, biotechnology and recording industries arranged meetings with senior USTR officials. The close relationship suggested by the e-mails contrasts with the more arms-length relationship public interest groups say they’ve experienced when they try to influence USTR officials.

One name that comes up frequently in the e-mails is Ralph Ives, a lobbyist for AdvaMed, a trade group representing medical device makers. In Tuesday’s story, I quoted an AdvaMed spokeswoman, who said that “neither AdvaMed nor Ives has ever provided USTR comments on a provision of the TPP IP chapter.”

The e-mails, which cover a period from 2009 to 2013, demonstrate regular contact between Ives and Jared Ragland, whose title in 2011 was director, Office of Intellectual Property and Innovation at USTR. On two occasions, on March 16, 2011, and Feb. 14, 2012, Ragland e-mailed Ives seeking advice. On two other occasions, on Sept. 20, 2011, and March 16, 2012, Ives e-mailed Ragland asking for a meeting.

The e-mails also show that Ives participated in a Feb. 1 conference call between USTR officials and industry lobbyists arranged by Medtronic lobbyist Trevor Gunn. On Jan. 22, in an e-mail with the subject line “TPP IP Issues,” Gunn wrote that USTR official Probir Mehta “has confirmed a meeting for the following individuals, representing ITAC3 on TPP IP issues.” ITAC3 is a USTR advisory committee representing pharmaceutical and medical device companies. Ives was one of six individuals listed as participating in the meeting, and subsequent e-mails suggested he joined the meeting by phone.

On Wednesday, an AdvaMed spokeswoman told me that the intellectual property chapter of the TPP was not discussed at any of these meetings. She noted that “Ragland was the lead negotiator for the transparency issues and procedural fairness provision of the TPP.” She says that those issues, not IP issues, were the focus of Ives’s conversations with Ragland.

As for the “TPP IP issues” e-mail, AdvaMed says that Gunn is simply in the habit of using “TPP IP issues” as a shorthand for all of the issues that he works on, which also includes non-IP issues of interest to medical device companies. The AdvaMed spokeswoman, after consulting with Ives, said that despite the meeting’s title, intellectual property issues did not come up during that Feb. 1 conference call.

The documents suggest that USTR interacts differently with industry insiders seeking to influence its policymaking than it does with public interest groups seeking to do the same. The e-mails contain numerous references to “cleared advisors,” individuals to whom USTR has granted access to confidential documents. Numerous companies and industry groups have had their personnel named as cleared advisers, and many of the meetings described in the e-mails were limited to cleared advisers so that confidential matters could be discussed.

In contrast, few public interest groups have been named as cleared advisers. Indeed, a USTR spokeswoman couldn’t name any examples of non-industry public interest advocates who have been cleared to advise USTR on IP issues. That severely limits the ability of public interest groups to have productive conversations with USTR officials, some of those groups say. “I can walk up to the front of the Department of Commerce building and tell them everything I think,” says Sherwin Siy, an attorney at the advocacy group Public Knowledge. “It doesn’t mean a thing unless we know what’s in the text.”

Another difference: the e-mails show that USTR doesn’t just take meetings with industry advocates, the agency also regularly solicits their advice. As we’ve seen, Ragland asked Ives for advice on two occasions. On another occasion, July 24, 2012, USTR’s Stanford McCoy e-mailed Jay Taylor of the pharmaceutical industry group PhRMA: “Can we possibly have a cleared adviser meeting Thursday or Friday of this week? I’d like to get up to speed on your concerns about medpharm and get a fresh start on the way forward.”

Peter Maybarduk, who works on pharmaceutical issues at the advocacy group Public Citizen, says that he never gets e-mails like that from USTR. “We don’t get any request for our take on this or that. If we ask to meet with Probir [Mehta of the USTR’s Office of Intellectual Property and Innovation] for example, he’ll meet with us. We’ll have a conversation. Those conversations have gotten better over time. But it’s a complex diplomatic exercise, it’s not like a frank exchange of information about what is actually happening.” . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

29 November 2013 at 12:57 pm

Obama’s overhaul of spy programs cloaked in more secrecy

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Obama does love keeping things secret—to a fault, not to put too fine a point on it. Anita Kumar reports for McClatchy:

President Barack Obama has faced withering criticism around the globe for his secret spying programs. How has he responded? With more secrecy.

Obama has been gradually tweaking his vast government surveillance policies. But he is not disclosing those changes to the public. Has he stopped spying on friendly world leaders? He won’t say. Has he stopped eavesdropping on the United Nations, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund? He won’t say.

Even the report by the group Obama created to review and recommend changes to his surveillance programs has been kept secret.

Critics note that this comes after he famously promised the most open administration in history.

“They seem to have reverted to a much more traditional model of secrecy except when it’s politically advantageous,” said Steven Aftergood, who directs the Federation of American Scientists Project on Government Secrecy, and is an expert on – and prominent critic of – government secrecy. “That’s normal but not consistent with their pledge.”

For five months, former government contractor Edward Snowden has steadily released classified information to the media that shows the breadth of the federal government programs that have guided intelligence gathering since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Documents show the National Security Agency had been collecting telephone and email records on tens of millions of Americans and foreigners, eavesdropping on allies such as Germany and Brazil, and spying on a host of global institutions.

As criticism swelled at home and abroad, Obama said the nation should examine how the government can strike a balance between national security and privacy concerns. He said at an August news conference that Americans will resolve any disagreements about the NSA programs through “vigorous public debate.”

But what started out as a national examination largely turned into a private review with few public meetings, little document disclosure and next to no public debate, say some lawmakers, technology organizations and civil liberties groups. And now, as those behind-the-scenes reviews begin to wind down, Obama is not providing details of the results.

“As part of the overall review of our intelligence-gathering practices, decisions are being made by the president and implemented by the president, but beyond that, I have to ask you to wait until the reviews, the various reviews have been completed and we have more to say,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said.

Sherwin Siy, vice president of legal affairs at Public Knowledge, which promotes Internet openness and provided recommendations to the White House on this issue, said administration officials are asking Americans to trust them, but their past actions have provided no reason to do so. “Where are the reserves of trust supposed to come from?” he asked.

On his first day in office, Obama offered a sweeping promise of transparency, issuing a number of executive actions to provide more openness at every level of the federal government and greater disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act.

“My administration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in government,” Obama wrote at the time. “Openness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in government.”

But over the last five years, watchdog groups say, Obama has relied on state secrets and secret laws to make national security decisions with little congressional or public oversight, much as did his predecessor, President George W. Bush.

In recent months, Obama and James Clapper, the director of the Office of National Intelligence, have made statements that diminished the scope of – or outright denied the existence of – surveillance programs.

Carney and other administration officials say they are prohibited by law from revealing more details because the surveillance programs are classified and revelations could threaten national security.

Sascha Meinrath, director of the Open Technology Institute at the New America Foundation, which pushes Internet freedom and provided recommendations to the White House on this issue, suggested it declassify more programs in order to talk about them. “The blowback is only going to get worse,” he said.

In the past several months the government has released some documents, primarily about phone and email record collections. Some are heavily redacted, with thick black lines obscuring numerous dates, names and entire paragraphs.

Clapper says that he has released them at Obama’s request to be more transparent, but many were released as a result of court orders as part of a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a privacy advocacy group. . .

Continue reading.

James Clapper, chronic liar.

Written by Leisureguy

29 November 2013 at 12:40 pm

Pope Francis and the global economy

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Excellent article from Neil Irwin, combining some statements from Pope Francis and some interesting charts. Take a look at this one, since the US healthcare system (“Best in the world!!” ™) is in the news a lot:

oecd2

The X axis is the health spending per capita. The US is very far to the right: we spend more per person than any other nation.

The Y axis is the quality of care received, as measured by outcomes. Look at all those nations with better quality of healthcare—i.e., all those higher than the US in the chart.

We have a bad system, but perhaps with the Affordable Care Act it will get better. Who knows, at some point the US might even have healthcare as good as that offered by other nations.

Written by Leisureguy

29 November 2013 at 12:34 pm

Posted in Healthcare

Obamacare’s Secret Success

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Paul Krugman points out the successes the Affordable Care Act has already achieved. He begins:

The law establishing Obamacare was officially titled the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. And the “affordable” bit wasn’t just about subsidizing premiums. It was also supposed to be about “bending the curve” — slowing the seemingly inexorable rise in health costs.

Much of the Beltway establishment scoffed at the promise of cost savings. The prevalent attitude in Washington is that reform isn’t real unless the little people suffer; serious savings are supposed to come from things like raising the Medicare age (which the Congressional Budget Office recently concluded would, in fact, hardly save any money) and throwing millions of Americans off Medicaid. True, a 2011 letter signed by hundreds of health and labor economists pointed out that “the Affordable Care Act contains essentially every cost-containment provision policy analysts have considered effective in reducing the rate of medical spending.” But such expert views were largely ignored.

So, how’s it going? The health exchanges are off to a famously rocky start, but many, though by no means all, of the cost-control measures have already kicked in. Has the curve been bent?

The answer, amazingly, is yes. In fact, the slowdown in health costs has been dramatic.

O.K., the obligatory caveats. First of all, we don’t know how long the good news will last. Health costs in the United States slowed dramatically in the 1990s (although not this dramatically), probably thanks to the rise of health maintenance organizations, but cost growth picked up again after 2000. Second, we don’t know for sure how much of the good news is because of the Affordable Care Act.

Still, the facts are striking. Since 2010, when the act was passed, real health spending per capita — that is, total spending adjusted for overall inflation and population growth — has risen less than a third as rapidly as its long-term average. Real spending per Medicare recipient hasn’t risen at all; real spending per Medicaid beneficiary has actually fallen slightly.

What could account for this good news? One obvious answer is . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

29 November 2013 at 9:26 am

Posted in Government, Healthcare

Watch a television “journalist” try to avoid confronting the truth

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The BBC TV journalist very much reveals the weakness of his position and argument and gets quite flustered in doing it. Well worth watching the full 3 1/2 minutes:

Written by Leisureguy

29 November 2013 at 9:19 am

Posted in Government, Media, NSA

Turkey-fryer-fire collection

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Fortunately, these are good viral candidates (e.g., me passing them along), and thus more and more people see examples of consequences of bad turkey-fryer decisions—like trying it.

Written by Leisureguy

29 November 2013 at 9:12 am

Posted in Daily life

US Army a MAJOR software pirate

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Brian Fung notes the criminal acts of the Army—and the piracy of just the one application amounts to theft of $180 million worth of software.

Q: Will anyone in the Army suffer any punishment at all for the $180 million theft?

A: Are you kidding? Maybe some enlisted man here or there, but certainly no officers.

The cool thing is: the Army stole $180 million, and they’re offering to pay back $50 million and call it even.

This gives me an idea on how to get rich quickly…. (Assuming the same rules apply to individuals as to organizations.)

Written by Leisureguy

29 November 2013 at 9:10 am

Insight regarding rationality/accuracy

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I recently got into a lengthy verbal kerfuffle, one in which I was maintaining a position that turned out to be unpopular. Normally I will take the hint and drop the matter, but this situation was not about a serious issue (merely grammatical, it seemed to me), so I thought I would play it out to see what happened, particularly as I felt I was on solid ground and could readily explain my position (which, to my mind, was clearly correct even if a bit unpopular).

Eventually the thing died down, and the following day when I revisited the thread I was astonished by how mean spirited and obnoxious my comments seemed to me now. I did post an apology, and figuring out what happened and why was a valuable experience for me because I finally understood something, doubtless obvious to most, that I had not previously grasped so clearly.

First, you’ve doubtless noticed that almost everyone places signifcant importance on things at which they excel. Correlation is not causation, as we are repeatedly told (to the extent that I suggest the acronym CINC (pronounced “sink”) to covey the message. That is, it’s unclear whether they decide that something is important after they notice that they have a gift for it, or they may value something and work hard at it because they consider it important, and thus become good at it.

Whatever the cause, I’ve noticed that those who are good at sports believe firmly that sports are quite important. Those gifted in music find music to be a central touchstone. Those who are good at tools of the mind—rational thought, clear reasoning, and logic—often see those as centrally important. All those talents and skills are good, but considered abstractly, each applies to only a portion of the range of human experience, which is enormously rich. Still, when we encounter a situation or problem, we tend to turn first to our particular strengths. Abraham Maslow famously observed that a man with a hammer sees every problem as a nail: we want to use our best skills in tackling a problem, even if the tail wags the dog and the skill we select shapes the direction of effort even when it’s the wrong direction. We find ourselves like the drunk in the joke, searching for his keys not in the dark alley where he dropped them, but out in the street where light is better.

If you’ve seen the (wonderful) movie Up!, you’re familiar with the intelligent talking dogs, formidable opponents except when one glimpses a squirrel, which causes him involuntarily to shout, “Squirrel!” whereupon the entire pack swivels their heads to spot the squirrel, completely losing track of whatever effort is underway.

That is more or less my reaction when I’m working on a problem: I am overwhelmed by my own squirrel: rational, logical argument and accurate statements. (This may be related to something Steve of Kafeneio calls “scientism”: a caricature of science, which holds that only questions amenable to a scientific approach are valid questions and only answers arrived at by science are valid answers. (I don’t think anyone actually holds this position, BTW. Still, the term is often hurled at those who look for scientific answers in novel situations, by people who feel that science is inappropriately applied to such situations.)

<aside> It’s not just science that people feel doesn’t work in certain areas. Plato has Socrates propound the philosophical reality of the Forms. A thing is a horse or an ashtray (to use  canonical seminar examples from my student years) because it “participates” in the Forms of “horse” and “ashtray” respectively. The Big Five Forms were Same, Other, Motion, Rest, and Being, with much discussion of the relationship of the (two?) Forms Being and Good—sort of the Platonic equivalent of the Continuum Hypothesis. But Socrates states states explicitly that the philosophical tool of Forms was not to be used with things like mud, dirt, and hair, just as some feel that science and its methods should not be used in the context of (say) poetry or religion or the like. </aside>

However, I hold the scientific method as a core idea and approach. I use a looser definition of “scientific method” than some, who restrict the term to apply only to experiments performed in a laboratory. For them, astronomers, for example, do not use the scientific method, nor do naturalists making field observations or anthropologists studying cultures. That seems way too restrictive to me, but I can’t think of another term that captures this particular and specific method of resolving problems and answering questions: to look at what actually happens in reality, and use rational thought and logical processes to draw conclusions, always testing those conclusions by looking to reality rather than (say) to divine texts, or to what the law states, or to what “makes sense” (e.g., that heavy objects (obviously) fall faster than light objects: they heavier).

Some go so far as to not look at reality at all: they construct positions that seem quite logical and internally consistent and hold to those, drawing conclusions from them and refusing to check to see whether they are real. Like the dogs of Up!, they are distracted by the logic (“Squirrel!”) and don’t see that the whole thing is absurd and fails to match reality. A good example: Economists, who for years derived conclusions from the premise that individuals make rational choices to maximize returns. From that starting point, and using rational and logical processes such as mathematics, one could work out what people would do in various situations and deduce the reasons for certain trends. But when Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky actually looked at the reality of what individuals do when making decisions, they found that the processes we follow are not at all rational as the term was used, though the processes do make evolutionary sense. And although we are irrational, we are, as Dan Ariely states in the title of his book, Predictably Irrational. (The Wikipedia article at the link explains some of his findings. I highly recommend the book.)

So for me (and, I think, others of my mindset) the gold standard, the highest standard, is rational argument based on statements that accurately reflect reality, testing conclusions against observed reality. What could go wrong with that? The statements are true, the argument is rational, and everything matches reality.

What I learned in reflecting on that little kerfuffle is that rational/logical argument and accurate/true statements are not the highest standard. On the contrary, they are the lowest standard. They are the ante:  you don’t even get into the game without having at least that. But they are simply the first consideration, not the final measure, as a little reflection will show. For example, relevance is more important than rational/logical and accuracy/truth. While it is true that 335/113 is a very good approximation of pi, you can’t throw that into every argument, despite its truth. It is relevant only rarely (but absolute dynamite in those rare situations).

Stated another way, rationality/logic and accuracy/truth are necessary but not sufficient. Also required are (for example) relevance and appropriateness. Example: At Tad’s 8th birthday party, his crazy uncle takes him aside and spends some time explaining carefully how Tad is going to age, grow old, and die. Death is inevitable, and the joy of this moment cannot hide the fact that some Tad will fall down and breath his last, etc. Horrified parents and crying children confront the crazy uncle, who becomes defensive but remains unbowed: “It’s absolutely true,” he retorts. “You’re just ignoring facts and logic: Tad here is indeed going to die.” Crazy uncle is so distracted by the bright and shiny glitter of rational/logical thought and true/accurate statements—“Squirrel!”, in effect—that he cannot grasp that his position is inappropriate. Everyone grants the logic and truth of his position, but those are beside the point: the point is that this argument is inappropriate. (BTW, when people are challenged, I think they immediately seek refuge in where they are right: thus the crazy uncle wants to restrict the discussion to whether Tad is mortal, since that proposition is true, and resists stepping back to consider other issues—i.e., places where he might be wrong.)

Thinking purely of the rational/accurate aspect means that much is ignored, including social reality, something that is always significant to a social animal. Probably most people always have social reality in mind, but some of us are so taken by the bright and shiny character of rational/accurate argument that we see only how bright/shiny it is and don’t see that it ranks quite low in the hierarchy of argument: it’s the bottom level, corresponding to “physiological needs” in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. It is indeed important. It’s the first thing you take care of. But it’s just the base level, the starting point. There are higher considerations as well, such as relevance, appropriateness, results, and so on.

I know quite a few reading will long since have rolled their eyes and muttered, “Duh!” Still, I suspect that even they know some for whom the low position of rationality/logic and accuracy/truth in the hierarchy of argument will come as news. It certainly took me some effort to realize what was going on and how I had gone wrong.

Written by Leisureguy

29 November 2013 at 8:52 am

Posted in Daily life

Morning shave pretty good

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SOTD 29 Nov 2013

Today a horsehair brush got a chance at Nick’s Red Jacket. The Wilkinson Sticky with a Feather blade did a fine three-pass shave, and a good splash of Floris No. 89 (the favorite of James Bond) finished the shave in fine style.

Written by Leisureguy

29 November 2013 at 8:27 am

Posted in Shaving

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