Later On

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

Archive for March 2015

The Radical Humaneness of Norway’s Halden Prison

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Very different penal philosophy in Norway, described in the NY Times Magazine by Jessica Benko:

Like everything else in Norway, the tw­o-­hour drive southeast from Oslo seemed impossibly civilized. The highways were perfectly maintained and painted, the signs clear and informative and the speed-­monitoring cameras primly intolerant. My destination was the town of Halden, which is on the border with Sweden, straddling a narrow fjord guarded by a 17th-­century fortress. I drove down winding roads flanked in midsummer by rich green fields of young barley and dense yellow carpets of rapeseed plants in full flower. Cows clustered in wood-­fenced pastures next to neat farmsteads in shades of rust and ocher. On the outskirts of town, across from a road parting dark pine forest, the turnoff to Norway’s newest prison was marked by a modest sign that read, simply, HALDEN ­FENGSEL. There were no signs warning against picking up hitchhikers, no visible fences. Only the 25-­foot-­tall floodlights rising along the edges hinted that something other than grazing cows lay ahead.

Smooth, featureless concrete rose on the horizon like the wall of a dam as I approached; nearly four times as tall as a man, it snaked along the crests of the hills, its top curled toward me as if under pressure. This was the outer wall of Halden Fengsel, which is often called the world’s most humane maximum-­security prison. I walked up the quiet driveway to the entrance and presented myself to a camera at the main door. There were no coils of razor wire in sight, no lethal electric fences, no towers manned by snipers — nothing violent, threatening or dangerous. And yet no prisoner has ever tried to escape. I rang the intercom, the lock disengaged with a click and I stepped inside.

To anyone familiar with the American correctional system, Halden seems alien. Its modern, cheerful and well-­appointed facilities, the relative freedom of movement it offers, its quiet and peaceful atmosphere — these qualities are so out of sync with the forms of imprisonment found in the United States that you could be forgiven for doubting whether Halden is a prison at all. It is, of course, but it is also something more: the physical expression of an entire national philosophy about the relative merits of punishment and forgiveness.

The treatment of inmates at Halden is wholly focused on helping to prepare them for a life after they get out. Not only is there no death penalty in Norway, there are no life sentences. The maximum term for any crime is 21 years — even for Anders Behring Breivik, who is responsible for probably the deadliest recorded rampage in the world, in which he killed 77 people and injured hundreds more in 2011 by detonating a bomb at a government building in Oslo and then opening fire at a nearby summer camp. “Better out than in” is an unofficial motto of the Norwegian Correctional Service, which makes a reintegration guarantee to all released inmates. It works with other government agencies to secure a home, a job and access to a supportive social network for each inmate before release; Norway’s social safety net also provides health care, education and a pension to all citizens. With one of the highest per capita gross domestic products of any country in the world, thanks to the profits from oil production in the North Sea, Norway is in a good position to provide all of this, and spending on the Halden prison runs to more than $93,000 per inmate per year, compared with just $31,000 for prisoners in the United States, according to the Vera Institute of Justice, a nonprofit research and advocacy organization.

That might sound expensive. But if the United States incarcerated its citizens at the same low rate as the Norwegians do (75 per 100,000 residents, versus roughly 700), it could spend that much per inmate and still save more than $45 billion a year. At a time when the American correctional system is under scrutiny — over the harshness of its sentences, its overreliance on solitary confinement, its racial disparities — citizens might ask themselves what all that money is getting them, besides 2.2 million incarcerated people and the hardships that fall on the families they leave behind. The extravagant brutality of the American approach to prisons is not working, and so it might just be worth looking for lessons at the opposite extreme, here in a sea of blabaerskog, or blueberry forest.

“This punishment, taking away their freedom — the sign of that is the wall, of course,” Gudrun Molden, one of the Halden prison’s architects, said on a drizzly morning a few days after I arrived. As we stood on a ridge, along with Jan Stromnes, the assistant warden, it was silent but for the chirping of birds and insects and a hoarse fluttering of birch leaves disturbed by the breeze. The prison is secluded from the surrounding farmland by the blueberry woods, which are the native forest of southeastern Norway: blue-­black spruce, slender Scotch pine with red-­tinged trunks and silver-­skinned birches over a dense understory of blueberry bushes, ferns and ­mosses in deep shade. It is an ecosystem that evokes deep nostalgia in Norway, where picking wild berries is a near-­universal summer pastime for families, and where the right to do so on uncultivated land is protected by law.

Norway banned capital punishment for civilians in 1902, and life sentences were abolished in 1981. But Norwegian prisons operated much like their American counterparts until 1998. That was the year Norway’s Ministry of Justice reassessed the Correctional Service’s goals and methods, putting the explicit focus on rehabilitating prisoners through education, job training and therapy. A second wave of change in 2007 made a priority of reintegration, with a special emphasis on helping inmates find housing and work with a steady income before they are even released. . .

Continue reading.

The US prison system pretty much ignores rehabilitation altogether. The assumption is that those who serve their sentence and are finally released will soon return, and the way US prisons are run ensures that that’s what happens.

Written by LeisureGuy

28 March 2015 at 2:29 pm

The challenges of marrying outside your class

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Interesting article by Jessi Streib in the Washington Post:

Jessi Streib, an assistant professor of sociology at Duke University, is the author of “The Power of the Past: Understanding Cross-Class Marriages.”

Madison didn’t have an easy childhood. As a kid, her house was always in disrepair. Her parents couldn’t consistently afford electricity or indoor plumbing, never mind fancy appliances and wall hangings. Madison’s classmates made fun of her shabby surroundings. Some refused to play with her.

Even after graduating from college, marrying and settling into a middle-class life, Madison couldn’t shake her insecurity about her home. She read design magazines and blogs obsessively, poring over the latest trends in closet organization and wall colors. She redecorated frequently and was rarely confident in her choices. When she redid her kitchen, she considered more than 200 faucets.

Her husband, Evan, hated how much Madison (their names, like all names in this piece, have been changed as a condition for my interviews) spent on furniture and gadgets they didn’t need. He couldn’t understand her fixation. Why would he? Evan grew up with middle-class parents, in the kind of house Madison was so desperate to re-create.

Studies show that couples argue more about money than about sex, chores or spending time together. For partners who marry across class lines, however, money isn’t just something to fight about. In researching my book about inter-class couples, I found that the financial stability of the spouses’ childhoods shaped their marriages in many ways, contributing to clashes about leisure time, home maintenance and even how to talk through their feelings. These pairs were middle class by the time I met them, but their different backgrounds still caused problems.

For example, Danielle grew up in a working-class family. She dropped out of high school and left her home town, marrying a man she’d later call a lunatic. Over the next six years, she moved 17 times, stood in countless welfare lines and even thought about stealing toilet paper. To cope with this crushing poverty, she “just pretended like [money] didn’t exist,” she told me. “I would just spend what I needed to and never think about it. I was afraid to face the realities of it, which is that it’s limited.”

Then she met her second husband, Jim, whose boss joked that he had grown up with a silver spoon in his mouth. It was true — Jim was raised in a mansion and attended a prestigious university. Though Jim and Danielle have been married for almost 30 years, they still treat money very differently. Danielle, like many of the spouses who grew up working class, didn’t like to budget or develop a long-term savings plan.

Jim, who’d grown up with a financial safety net, wanted the same for his family. He managed his money carefully, always aware of how much was being spent on what. He would pore over coupons and spend hours researching purchases; Danielle would get annoyed with his constant drive to “save 11 cents.” Jim so routinely returned items Danielle bought that she once deliberately spilled soda on their couch so he couldn’t take it back. Another time, she lied and told him stores would not accept returned cologne.

I saw this divide — between planning and going with the flow — flare up in other ways, too. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

28 March 2015 at 2:22 pm

Burning Man has legs: Healing Fire in Londonderry: The Temple Was Built to Burn

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Interesting article, and I do hope it can help heal that fractured city. Katrin Bennhold writes in the NY Times:


Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

28 March 2015 at 1:37 pm

Posted in Art, Daily life, Religion

The Difference Between Quaker Meeting and Other Christian Services

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An interesting video on how and why Quaker meetings are so unlike, say, the Methodist services that I grew up attending. Quakers as a group are the Religious Society of Friends.

More videos on Quaker thought and experience here.

Written by LeisureGuy

28 March 2015 at 1:31 pm

Posted in Religion

One cop, 12 brutality and corruption lawsuits

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And where were the superior officers? Busy protecting the cop and excusing what he did? It’s an ugly story.

Written by LeisureGuy

28 March 2015 at 1:24 pm

Posted in Law Enforcement

Obama’s Plan to Save Antibiotics Has a Big Loophole

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Kaleigh Rodgers has an interesting article at Motherboard:

Antibiotics are one of the greatest medical advancements in human history. But over the last few decades our zeal for antibiotics has contributed to the growth of antibiotic-resistant superbugs. That’s why, on Friday, President Barack Obamareleased a long-awaited National Action​ Plan to respond to antibiotic resistance (AR), setting goals to be met by 2020.

The World Health Organization warned ​us all last year that if we didn’t start to seriously curb our antibiotic use, we would be heading towards “a post-antibiotic era,” in which bacterial infections from E. coli to gonorrhea would no longer be treated as they are now. Already, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimates 2 million illnesses and 23,000 d​eaths in the US each year are caused by drug-resistant bacteria.

The action plan is a fairly thorough document that implements a many of the necessary steps that WHO and others have recommended to slow the growth of antibiotic-resistant bugs. It calls for more judicious use of antibiotics and more rigorous, standardized testing to prevent people from taking antibiotics unnecessarily. It will also require each state to introduce AR prevention program to monitor AR bugs, and prioritize research into both drug-resistant microbes and new kinds of antibiotics.

But while attacking the problem in both the lab and doctor’s office is an important part of the strategy, many argue that the larger issue still lies on the farm. Right now, 80 percent of all of the antibiotics sold in the US are sold to livestock producers,according​ to the Natural Resources Defense Council. Farmers started using antibiotics to prevent disease in their livestock, but soon discovered the antibiotics also promoted growth. Over the past few decades, antibiotic use on farm animals has surged and is now standard practice, creating a dangerous breeding ground for antibiotic-resistant bugs in the process.

While the action plan calls for the “elimination of the use of medically-important antibiotics for growth promotion in food-producing animals,” a loophole would still allow farmers to use antibiotics to prevent disease. But since antibiotics provide both growth and disease-prevention benefits at the same time, it’s pretty hard to distinguish the two uses, leaving the door wide open for livestock producers to continue routinely using the drugs on their animals.

“This stance ignores clear evidence that the use of medically important antibiotics for routine disease prevention creates a public health risk that is identical to those posed by routine use for growth promotion,” said Steve Roach, a lawyer and senior analyst for Keeping Antibiotics Working, a nonprofit that advocates for the prevention of antibiotic resistance.

“The plan also fails to set any targets for reductions in antibiotic use in food animals,” Roach said in a press release. “All the other actions in the National Action Plan—including research, outreach to producers and veterinarians, and improved monitoring—will be wasted as long as the target to be reached falls so short of what needs to be done.”

Many chicken producers, for example, have alrea​dy decided to eliminate the use of medically-important antibiotics (i.e. ones that we use for human drugs) and chain restaurants from Chipotle to McDonald’s have committed to only sourcing chicken from these producers.

The chickens still receive antibiotics, called ionophores, that aren’t used in human medicine, so it’s more or less a win-win. The trouble is that not all chicken producers are on board and even fewer beef and pork producers have curbed their antibiotic use. Without any legal obligations to do so under the new action plan, it will continue to be an uphill battle to convince livestock producers to change common practice.

The action plan has some other, softer commitments, like . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

28 March 2015 at 1:09 pm

Pilots on the Germanwings Murder/Suicide

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James Fallows has an excellent column of professional pilots commenting on the Germanwings incident:

After the Germanwings crash I argued that no single safety device or security protocol could protect the flying public against a pilot determined to do harm. A number of veteran pilots write in to agree, but also to suggest that this episode illustrates some structural problems within the modern cost-cutting air-travel industry.

1) “Low-cost pilots, low-cost lives.” Adam Shaw, who has had a varied and interesting career as a writer and flyer and now leads an aerobatics team in Europe, writes as follows. I’ve added interstitial explanations in brackets [like this]:

No one can disagree with your: “ no new regulation… can offer perfect protection against calculated malice.”

But eliminating P2F is the first step. [JF note: P2F, or “Pay to Fly,” is a scheme in which pilots-in-training, while still paying tuition to a flight school, simultaneously serve as flight-crew members on real airlines carrying real passengers. That is, rather than earning pay for their work, they are the ones paying. Without getting into all the details this is now widely considered a scam.]

A good second step is the FAA’s reinstatement of  the very old  (your piece leads folks to believe it is new…) rule  requiring 1500 hrs of flight time before taking the ATP written. [JF: The change that the FAA ordered two years ago, as explained here, was requiring first-officer or “co-pilot” candidates to have an Airline Transport Pilot certificate, which among other things requires 1500 hours of flying experience. Before that, people could apply for first-officer positions with only a Commercial certificate, with an experience minimum of only 250 hours.]

Asian and European authorities should instantly copy this. Why? Because in the years it takes to get to 1,500 hrs (flight instructing, crop dusting, banner towing, flying jumpers, or whatever) budding pilots get real experience with airplanes with that are often gritty, shitty, and temperamental.

The years they put in to get those 1500 hrs also—and this is just a critical—expose them to their peers, to repeated medical examinations… to repeated scrutiny. [JF: Working with ATP privileges requires a First Class FAA medical certificate, with a full medical exam every six months. Working with Commercial privileges requires a Second Class medical, with an exam once a year. Private pilots like me can fly with a Third Class medical, which lasts either two or five years, depending on your age.]

These days, the 250-hr button twiddling geeks  can go from pounding the sidewalk to the right seat of a passenger jet in less than two years. That’s two medicals, and practically no peer-review, not time for quirks, or worse, to become apparent. I know the trend is for low cost airlines ( low cost training)  low cost clothes, low cost food, low cost… lives.

With most old-fashioned pilots retired or within minutes of retirement, we’re now faced with left-seaters who have come up the ab-initio or worse, the geek P2F, way.

Unless things change, and change fast, we’re going to see a lot more AF# 447, Asiana #214, Transasia #235  events in the coming years.

And when people start looking for whom to blame, the answer is simple: Joe-six-pack who wanted a $99 flight from New York to L.A, or Pierre Baguette who wanted a 65 Euro Paris-Casablanca…and the cynical bean counters who make this possible

You can see a video of Adam Shaw’s formation-flying team here, and one of him flying through the mountains with his dog as first officer here.

On the point he makes about the value of sheer experience: Within the next year I should have reached 2,000 hours of total flying time. That is not much from the perspective of someone who does this as a professional but reflects my trying to stay at it steadily year by year.

The difference from when I had 250 hours of experience, or 500, is not any particular new skill. Indeed, many obligatory pass-the-test skills have certainly atrophied. (Like, an NDB approach or “turns around a point.”)

The difference is simply that I’ve seen more things happen, so there’s an ever-decreasing realm of situations I will encounter for the first time. It’s roughly similar to the difference between parents’ first few nervous weeks with a baby and what they learn as the months (and children) roll on. In the amateur-flying world this includes: what it’s like when the alternator fails; what it’s like when you have an oil problem; what it’s like when you have to tell a controller “unable”; which mountain passes you’re better off avoiding; which level of crosswinds and gusty winds you can handle on landings; which clouds mean trouble and which don’t; what cues let controllers think you know what you’re doing and which signal the reverse; at what temperature range just above and below freezing you need to be most alert to icing; what errors or lapses you’re most likely to make. This is known in the aviation world as “filling up the experience bucket before the luck bucket empties out,” and I agree with Adam Shaw, from his much more experienced perspective, that it’s an important part of developing qualified airline pilots.

2) “An incentive to cheat.” . . .

Continue reading.

Later in the article, one of the pilots comments:

There is a national and international shortage of commercial pilots resulting in the lowering of standards in employment and certification, particularly among foreign carriers. It is also why there is increasing reliance on automation in aircraft design, particularly in the Airbus philosophy of restricting pilots from overriding the autopilot to enhance sales. Watch the video [below – LG] on the Airbus’ own chief test pilot fly a new a-320 into the woods at the Paris Air Show a decade ago as a demonstration of the potential evils of automation.

Here’s that video:

Written by LeisureGuy

28 March 2015 at 1:01 pm

Posted in Business, Government

Col. Conk and Plisson: The movie

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SOTD 28 Mar 2015

This morning I responded to a request from IllegalMonk on Wicked Edge, to show how I make lather from Col. Conk Shaving soap using the Plisson synthetic brush.

My tap water is pretty soft, so it’s really no problem. And though Col. Conk is not a favorite shaving soap, it’s not because its lather is especially bad, it’s just that it’s not a very interesting soap. The brush loaded quickly, and I shaved using the Parker 24C head on a Stealth handle. Unfortunately, the Parker’s threading is nonstandard, and I had difficulty tightening the handle. The result was that the head went from being very comfortable to being uncomfortable—even somewhat harsh. After the shave (two small nicks on upper lip from the XTG pass), I reverted back to the regular handle, which makes the razor again very comfortable. Too bad.

A splash of Penhaligon’s Blenheim Bouquet finished the shave, and here’s the lathering process. I did no timing, but you’ll notice that the loading once again took 10 seconds—maybe 11.

Written by LeisureGuy

28 March 2015 at 12:40 pm

Posted in Shaving

Sample videos of teen car drivers

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Unprecedented video analysis finds that distraction was a factor in nearly 6 out of 10 moderate-to-severe teen crashes, which is four times as many as official estimates based on police reports. Some of that footage is included in this video. (Video courtesy AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety)

Written by LeisureGuy

27 March 2015 at 6:34 pm

Posted in Movies & TV

Differences in economic performance between Blue and Red states

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Paul Krugman in the NY Times today:

Two impossible things happened to the U.S. economy over the course of the past year — or at least they were supposed to be impossible, according to the ideology that dominates half our political spectrum. First, remember how Obamacare was supposed to be a gigantic job killer? Well, in the first year of the Affordable Care Act’s full implementation, the U.S. economy as a whole added 3.3 million jobs — the biggest gain since the 1990s. Second, half a million of those jobs were added in California, which has taken the lead in job creation away from Texas.

Were President Obama’s policies the cause of national job growth? Did Jerry Brown — the tax-raising, Obamacare-embracing governor of California — engineer his state’s boom? No, and few liberals would claim otherwise. What we’ve been seeing at both the national and the state level is mainly a natural process of recovery as the economy finally starts to heal from the housing and debt bubbles of the Bush years.

But recent job growth, nonetheless, has big political implications — implications so disturbing to many on the right that they are in frantic denial, claiming that the recovery is somehow bogus. Why can’t they handle the good news? The answer actually comes on three levels: Obama Derangement Syndrome, or O.D.S.; Reaganolatry; and the confidence con.

Not much need be said about O.D.S. It is, by now, a fixed idea on the right that this president is both evil and incompetent, that everything touched by the atheist Islamic Marxist Kenyan Democrat — mostly that last item — must go terribly wrong. When good news arrives about the budget, or the economy, or Obamacare — which is, by the way, rapidly reducing the number of uninsured while costing much less than expected — it must be denied.

At a deeper level, modern conservative ideology utterly depends on the proposition that conservatives, and only they, possess the secret key to prosperity. As a result, you often have politicians on the right making claims like this one, from Senator Rand Paul: “When is the last time in our country we created millions of jobs? It was under Ronald Reagan.”

Actually, if creating “millions of jobs” means adding two million or more jobs in a given year, we’ve done that 13 times since Reagan left office: eight times under Bill Clinton, twice under George W. Bush, and three times, so far, under Barack Obama. But who’s counting?

Still, don’t liberals have similar delusions? Not really. The economy added 23 million jobs under Clinton, compared with 16 million under Reagan, but there’s nothing on the left comparable to the cult of the Blessed Ronald. That’s because liberals don’t need to claim that their policies will produce spectacular growth. All they need to claim is feasibility: that we can do things like, say, guaranteeing health insurance to everyone without killing the economy. Conservatives, on the other hand, want to block such things and, instead, to cut taxes on the rich and slash aid to the less fortunate. So they must claim both that liberal policies are job killers and that being nice to the rich is a magic elixir.

Which brings us to the last point: the confidence con. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

27 March 2015 at 3:08 pm

The Elastic Brain

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Rebecca Boyle writes in Aeon about some research that has promise for, among other things, treating autism:

Five years ago, in a new city and in search of a new hobby, I decided to try playing a musical instrument for the first time. I had never learned to read music; in my grade school, the optional orchestra class was offered at the same time as the optional robotics class, and I chose the latter. Understanding nothing about chords or music theory, I settled on the relatively simple mountain dulcimer, a three-stringed lap instrument from Appalachia.

I was proud of how quickly I picked it up. I could replicate many of the old-time fiddle tunes, Civil War ballads and Ozark folk songs my instructor played during demonstrations, and I learned to discern notes by ear. I was hardly a virtuoso, however, and after a few months I hit a plateau. I could hear how they were supposed to sound, but challenging, faster-tempo songs remained out of my grasp. Frustrated, I distinctly remember thinking: ‘If only I’d learned music as a kid, I might have been great at this.’

I haven’t played my dulcimer in several months, but the day might be coming when I could actually learn to play as I would had I learned during childhood. I might be able to swallow a pill that restores my brain to a more flexible, receptive state. This new, more childlike brain – rendered literally more ‘plastic’ because of its ability to forge many more connections between neurons – would enable me to learn far more readily each time I practised a tune.

Early childhood is characterised by a series of critical periods – circumscribed times when the brain opens up and changes profoundly in response to input from the environment as new skills are learned. During these times, the rapidly-morphing brain – an organ so malleable that neuroscientists call it ‘plastic’– sculpts itself into the perfect vehicle for navigating the world. During one critical period, for instance, children master specific visual skills. During another critical period, they master emotional control, and during another, language. When the brain opens up and becomes plastic too early or too late, circuits are laid down incorrectly and disorders like autism or schizophrenia may result, forever altering how we process the world. At no other point in our lives are we more primed to receive new information and put it to use than during the critical periods of early childhood. ‘Genius is no more than childhood recaptured at will,’ the French poet Charles Baudelaire wrote in 1863.

As we emerge from toddlerhood, our brains become less plastic and it becomes more difficult – sometimes even impossible – to learn new things, from movement to language to social behaviour. Even accented speech results from loss of plasticity in the brain; after adolescence, most people never lose an accent, no matter where they settle down in years to come.

It makes sense, of course, that the brain would ultimately settle down and put the brakes on its own, rapid-fire flux. If our minds were to keep changing at such frantic pace, we would never be able to perform the day-to-day business of survival: gathering food, sheltering from the elements, procreating and caring for our young.

There is an evolutionary reason for stabilising brain circuits after a period of rapid learning to adapt to the environment, notes Takao Hensch, a neuroscientist at Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard University and an expert in brain plasticity. ‘If circuits are constantly changing in response to experience, then the brain becomes inefficient as a processing device.’ Stability is so important to the mature brain that it goes to great lengths to inhibit plasticity.

Yet learning in adulthood still occurs because the connections between neurons, called synapses, are still constantly adapting to the environment – though at a slower pace than before. With practice, adults can learn to play the dulcimer and speak many languages. And in times of need, the brain can ramp up plasticity: survivors of traumatic brain injury or stroke, for instance, can learn to walk and speak again as their brains fire up new synapses to replace the ones they lost. Rather than disappearing, it turns out, plasticity has merely been suppressed by a network of inhibitory neurons and the molecules that they use to communicate. Depending on circumstance, the brain can open up and become plastic again.

The possibility of reawakening our youthful, receptive brains has piqued a lot of interest among educators, therapists, and those in search of expanded experience or thought. I might be able to immerse myself in music lessons and absorb them more effectively. Others might disable the plasticity brakes before a trip abroad, quickly learning a new language. Still others might wish to tweak an imperfect golf swing. The implications are more profound for people with autism spectrum disorders, mental illness and physical disabilities: re‑opening critical periods could help us rebuild the physical structures of our brains, erasing bad connections and wiring them anew.

Among the first neuroscientists to track critical periods in the brain during the 1960s were David Hubel and Torsten Wiesel of Harvard. They knew that children born with cataracts could not see properly even after their cataracts were removed – but why?

To help answer the question, the researchers surgically altered newborn kittens by sewing one eye shut until the animals were fully grown. Without input from the closed eye, the cells in the visual cortex re-wired themselves to the open eye, endowing it with a property called ocular dominance; it was the eye that could see best. The eye that had been sewn shut, meanwhile, lost its ability to focus; it developed a permanent disability called amblyopia, or lazy eye.

The researchers later repeated a similar experiment with adult cats, getting different results: when sewn eyes were reopened, cells from the visual cortex went back to normal and responded to the eye they had been been dedicated to from birth. In these adult cats, both eyes ended up seeing equally well. They were different than children with cataracts and kittens with amblyopia, whose neural connections had been altered during a critical period of development, their brains forever changed. Since adult cats had their eyes sewn shut long past the point when brains were so plastic, their cells reverted to form.

Hubel and Wiesel, who collaborated for more than 25 years, won the 1981 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their work and enormous insight. They also inspired the young Hensch, who changed his undergraduate major from computer science to neurobiology while a student at Harvard in the 1980s.

‘It was their work in the visual system that made this a biologically tractable question: how does experience shape the brain?’ Hensch says today. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

27 March 2015 at 3:03 pm

Posted in Science

Making a secure passphrase

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I have used the 5-dice method. It works pretty well.

Written by LeisureGuy

27 March 2015 at 2:50 pm

Posted in Technology

Common Parasite Can Manipulate Our Behavior

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Gustavo Arrizabalaga and Bill Sullivan report at Scientific American:

Imagine a world without fear. It might be empowering to go about your daily life uninhibited by everyday distresses. You could cross highways with confidence, take on all kinds of daredevilry and watch horror flicks without flinching. Yet consider the prospect a little more deeply, and the possibilities become darker, even deadly. Our fears, after all, can protect us.

The basic aversion that a mouse has for a cat, for instance, keeps the rodent out of death’s jaws. But unfortunately for mice everywhere, there is a second enemy with which to contend, one that may prevent them from experiencing that fear in the first place. A unicellular organism (a protozoan), Toxoplasma gondii, can override a rodent’s most basic survival instincts. The result is a rodent that does not race away from a cat but is instead strangely attracted to it.

Toxoplasma‘s reach extends far beyond the world of cat and mouse. It may have a special relationship with rodent and feline hosts, but this parasite also infects the brains of billions of animals on land, at sea and in the air. Humans are no exception. Worldwide, scientists estimate that as many as three billion people may be carrying Toxoplasma. In the U.S., there is a one-in-five chance that Toxoplasma parasites are lodged in your neural circuits, and infection rates are as high as 95 percent in other countries.

For most people, this infection appears asymptomatic, but recent evidence shows that Toxoplasma actively remodels the molecular landscape of mammalian brain cells. Now some researchers have begun to speculate that this tiny single-celled organism may be tweaking human health and personalities in stealthy, subtle ways.

What the cat dragged in
Researchers first discovered T. gondii in 1908, and by the end of the 20th century they had a good grasp on how people could pick up this parasite. The story starts with cats: for reasons that scientists have yet to unravel, Toxoplasma can sexually reproduce only in the feline gut. The parasite breeds within its feline host and is released from the feline’s tail end. Cats are such obsessive groomers that it is rarely found in their fur. Instead people can become infected from kitty litter or by ingesting it in contaminated water or food.

Within a new host the parasite begins dividing asexually and spreading throughout the host’s body. During this initial stage of the infection, Toxoplasma can cause the disease toxoplasmosis in immunocompromised or otherwise susceptible hosts, leading to extensive tissue damage. Pregnant women are particularly at risk. If a woman is infected with Toxoplasma for the first time during pregnancy, the parasite may invade the developing fetus, cutting through tissues and organs as it spreads from cell to cell. Infection early in pregnancy can result in miscarriage or birth defects.

In otherwise healthy individuals, however, the only symptoms during this period are brief, flulike discomforts such as chills, fever and body ache. Within days the immune system gets the parasite under control, and Toxoplasma retreats into a dormant state. It conceals itself within a hardened wall in the host’s cells, a structure called a tissue cyst.

This stage of the infection has no other discernible symptoms, but individuals with dormant infections who develop compromised immune systems—because of AIDS, an organ transplant or chemotherapy—may experience severe complications. With the body’s defense systems weakened, Toxoplasma can reactivate and grow uncontrollably.

Once infected, a person will remain a carrier for life. Our immune system is apparently incapable of eliminating the tissue cysts, nor can any known drug. Nevertheless, the infection, detectable with a blood test, has long been viewed as relatively benign. After all, many people carry this parasite with no obvious ill effects. Only recently have scientists begun reexamining this belief.

Eat me, Mr. Kitty
In the 1980s researchers noticed unusual behaviors in Toxoplasma-infected mice. The rodents became hyperactive and groomed less. In 1994 epidemiologist Joanne Webster, then at the University of Oxford, observed that rats harboring tissue cysts behaved differently from their uninfected counterparts. Instead of fleeing from cats, the infected rodents moved toward them—making them easier prey.

Webster suspected that this “fatal feline attraction,” as she called it, was a crafty way for the parasite to get back into a cat’s belly to complete the sexual stage of its life cycle. In the years to follow, this idea gained ground: a large body of work now shows that the parasite can indeed manipulate rodents’ behavior by altering neural activity and gene expression.

Several well-controlled experiments have shown that although uninfected rodents avoid areas that have been infused with cat stench, infected rodents do not seem to mind. Even more bizarre, in 2011 neuroendocrinologist Robert Sapolsky of Stanford University, molecular biologist Ajai Vyas of Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and their colleagues found that—at least in terms of neural activity—infected rats appeared to be sexually attracted to cat scent.

In the mammalian brain, the “defensive” and “reproductive” neuronal pathways run in parallel. These pathways start at the olfactory bulb, involved in odor detection, and ter-minate at the limbic system, an area critical to basic reactions such as fear and arousal. Their proximity may partially explain how the parasite manipulates rodent behavior. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

27 March 2015 at 2:26 pm

Blast from the past: Doing fractals with the IBM 1401

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I spent some years writing programs for the IBM 1401 computer. We wrote in assembly language using pencils and coding forms, which were sent to the keypunch department to be punched into cards. The punched cards were then used as input to the Autocoder program to be translated to machine language; Autocoder then punched out a loadable program deck. When you put that deck into the card reader and pushed start, the first card was read, which included instructions to read the next card, and so on. The cards also had instructions to load the machine code in the cards into memory at the appropriate locations. A complex program might take an entire box of cards (2000 cards), but most were probably around 300-1000 cards.

Those were the days. This article describes the fractal program and also a fair amount of the 1401 hardware. The description of the Binary-Coded Decimal (BCD) are spot-on. God, I knew all that stuff by heart. Takes me back.

There were two versions of the Autocoder program that converted the assembly-language punched cards into a loadable machine-language card deck (a deck much smaller than the assembly-language deck): two-tape Autocoder (which used two tape drives—this was long before disk storage) and four-table Autocoder (requires four tape drives, and naturally this was the official IBM version, since it required the rental of more tape drives—and back then IBM would not sell any equipment: it was all leased (to create a continuing revenue stream).

Some good photos at the link.

Written by LeisureGuy

27 March 2015 at 1:46 pm

Posted in Business, Techie toys

The courts are leading us in the wrong direction: Another “state secrets” misjustice

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Glenn Greenwald reports at The Intercept:

At the center of it is an anti-Iranian group calling itself “United Against Nuclear Iran” (UANI), which is very likely a front for some combination of the Israeli and U.S. intelligence services. When launched, NBC described its mission as waging “economic and psychological warfare” against Iran. The group was founded and is run and guided by a roster of U.S., Israeli and British neocon extremists such as Joe Lieberman, former Bush Homeland Security adviser (and current CNN “analyst”) Fran Townsend, former CIA Director James Woolsey, and former Mossad Director Meir Dagan. One of its key advisers is Olli Heinonen, who just co-authored Washington Post Op-Ed with former Bush CIA/NSA Director Michael Hayden arguing that Washington is being too soft on Tehran.


This group of neocon extremists was literally just immunized by a federal court from the rule of law. That was based on the claim — advocated by the Obama DOJ and accepted by Judge Ramos — that subjecting them to litigation for their actions would risk disclosure of vital “state secrets.” The court’s ruling was based on assertions made through completely secret proceedings between the court and the U.S. government, with everyone else — including the lawyers for the parties — kept in the dark.

In May 2013, UANI launched a “name and shame” campaign designed to publicly identify — and malign — any individuals or entities enabling trade with Iran. One of the accused was the shipping company of Greek billionaire Victor Restis, who vehemently denies the accusation. He hired an American law firm and sued UANI for defamation in a New York federal court, claiming the “name and shame” campaign destroyed his reputation.

Up until that point, there was nothing unusual about any of this: just a garden-variety defamation case brought in court by someone who claims that public statements made about him are damaging and false. That happens every day. But then something quite extraordinary happened: In September of last year, the U.S. government, which was not a party, formally intervened in the lawsuit, and demanded that the court refuse to hear Restis’s claims and instead dismiss the lawsuit against UANI before it could even start, on the ground that allowing the case to proceed would damage national security.

When the DOJ intervened in this case and asserted the “state secrets privilege,” it confounded almost everyone. The New York Times’s Matt Apuzzo noted at the time that “the group is not affiliated with the government, and lists no government contracts on its tax forms. The government has cited no precedent for using the so­-called state­ secrets privilege to quash a private lawsuit that does not focus on government activity.” He quoted the ACLU’s Ben Wizner as saying: “I have never seen anything like this.” Reuters’s Allison Frankel labeled the DOJ’s involvement a “mystery” and said “the government’s brief is maddeningly opaque about its interest in a private libel case.”

Usually, when the U.S. government asserts the “state secrets privilege,” it is because they are a party to the lawsuit, being sued for their own allegedly illegal acts (such as torture or warrantless surveillance), and they claim that national security would be harmed if they are forced to defend themselves. In rare cases, they do intervene and assert the privilege in lawsuits between private parties, but only where the subject of the litigation is a government program and one of the parties is a government contractor involved in that program — such as when torture victims sued a Boeing subsidiary, Jeppesen, for its role in providing airplanes for the rendition program and the Obama DOJ insisted (successfully) that the case not go forward, and the victim of U.S. torture was thus told that he could not even have a day in court.

But in this case, there is no apparent U.S. government conduct at issue in the lawsuit. At least based on what they claim about themselves, UANI is just “a not-for-profit, non-partisan, advocacy group” that seeks to “educate” the public about the dangers of Iran’s nuclear program. Why would such a group like this even possess “state secrets”? . . .

Continue reading.

Remember Obama’s promises about “transparency”? When words go one direction and actions go another, which do you believe?

And something very odd is going on in that case. Read the entire article, because there’s more. Later in the article:

But in some important respects, this latest abuse is a step beyond that. It’s certainly true that legally immunizing brutal violations of human rights on secrecy grounds (as both the Bush and Obama DOJs have done) is worse than preventing a Greek billionaire from prosecuting a lawsuit. But to intervene in a private lawsuit in order to shield an extremist neocon group from the consequences of their actions — through secret meetings with the judge in which unaccountable “secrecy” assertions are made — is even more offensive to basic legal rights than what has preceded it.

Written by LeisureGuy

27 March 2015 at 1:14 pm

This Newsletter Was Paranoid About the NSA in 1996, and It Was Eerily Correct

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Very interesting report on a prescient newsletter from a decade ago. Lorenzo Franceschi-Bicchieri at Motherboard:

Ever since Edward Snowden leaked thousands of top secret documents to journalists laying bare its most guarded secrets, the NSA, a government agency that was once known as the No Such ​Agency for its love for secrecy, has been thrown in the media limelight.

But people have been freaking out, to a certain extent, over the NSA’s powers for a long time.

In a newsle​tter dated May 26, 1996, titled “The [NSA] is Poised to Control the Internet,” the unidentified author talks about how the computer revolution, then in its infancy, would help the NSA spy on everyone online.

“A computer revolution seems to be happening and with it a dramatic increase in people using the Internet, as well as people watching what the people use it for,” read the newsletter, which has been making the​ rounds on the Internet on Thursday, after someone found an old mailing list​ post apparently authored by Julian Assange. (It appears that the WikiLeaks founder was simply distributing the newsletter, but he is probably not the original author of the essay.)

“Ever heard of the NSA? This could very well be the NSA decade for the Internet. Conspiracy, power struggles and surveillance of the citizenry may be what is remembered about the NSA during this period of time,” the author wrote in a newsletter called NorthStar, which billed itself as a “a guiding light to help you focus on the issues which threaten our Internet Freedom.”

The essay goes on to discuss the NSA’s authorities, its budget, and its ability to spy on American communications as long as one end is outside of the country—sometimes even when both ends are inside US borders.

It even criticizes the NSA’s reliance on semantics to justify its actions. “Target” the author noted, doesn’t necessarily mean what you think it means for the NSA. This eerily echoes the NSA’s justification for its bulk data collection programs: it’s just “collection,” not “targeting,” US officials have repeatedly said. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

27 March 2015 at 1:03 pm

Translation of terminology on academic research

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Via The Eldest:

Academic paper translator

Written by LeisureGuy

27 March 2015 at 12:40 pm

Posted in Education, Science

Absurd Fourth Circuit ruling embodies everything that’s wrong with drug raids

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Radley Balko points out in the Washington Post an example of how courts are moving away from decisions based on common sense, the general welfare, and the Constitution and toward decisions to justify a police state. It’s a long column, and it deserves reading and wide dissemination.

Earlier this month, a three-judge panel from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit issued an appalling decision in a lawsuit stemming from a fatal 2005 drug raid in Maryland. In fact, the opinion encapsulates everything that’s wrong with sending militarized police barreling into homes to serve search warrants on people suspected of nonviolent, consensual crimes.

Here’s what happened:

In May 2005, police in Cambridge, Md., received an anonymous tip that there was drug activity going on in the duplex at 408 High St. (Yes, that’s the real name of the street.) They did a trash pull and found what they claimed to be two plastic bags, one from each apartment, that contained marijuana residue. That’s it. That’s the probable cause for what happened next.

At 4:30 a.m. on May 6, SWAT teams from the Cambridge Police Department conducted simultaneous raids on the two apartments. According to the police, during the raid on the upstairs apartment, resident Andrew Cornish emerged from his bedroom carrying a knife, which was still in its sheath. The police say Cornish then confronted them, at which point one of the officers shot Cornish in the face and forehead. Cornish died. According to the court, the police found “a small amount of marijuana” in the apartment. By the officers’ testimony, the raid took less than a minute.

Cornish’s father, Andrew Kane, filed a lawsuit. After a lot of pretrial procedural motions, a federal jury finally ruled in Kane’s favor in December 2012, awarding him $250,000. The police and city appealed. And last month, by a 2-1 vote, the Fourth Circuit panel overturned the jury’s award.

There’s a lot to break down here. But let’s first start by noting one very important issue that is not in dispute — whether the massive amount of force the police brought to bear in this case was reasonable under the Fourth Amendment. As far as the federal courts are concerned, it was. As Judge Pamela Harris points out in her dissent, “The point here, to be clear, is not to take issue with the Officers’ decision to execute a search warrant based on marijuana traces by way of a military-style nighttime raid.”

Harris is correct. The courts long ago decided that dangerous, punishing SWAT-style raids to search for pot — even when there is no evidence of distribution — are reasonable under the Fourth Amendment. A lawsuit arguing otherwise will be promptly tossed.

But it’s worth considering the absurdity of that position. In the 20 or so years leading up to the American Revolution, the British crown began stationing troops in the streets of Boston to enforce England’s tax and import laws. The British troops and enforcement officers were armed with writs of assistance, or general warrants that gave them broad powers to search colonists’ homes. They didn’t need to establish probable cause, or even specificity as to a person or residence. The abuse that came with those warrants made Boston a hub of revolutionary fervor, and memories of that abuse are why the Founders created a Fourth Amendment after the war.

But while today’s search warrants require both specificity and some evidence of wrongdoing, in many ways the colonists had more protections than we do today. For example, the British soldiers could serve warrants only during the day. And they were always required to knock, announce themselves, announce their purpose and give the resident time and opportunity to come to the door to let them in peacefully. This was all in observance of the Castle Doctrine, or the idea that the home should be a place of peace and sanctuary and that it should be violated only in the most extreme circumstances. Even then,

the Castle Doctrine had a rich history in English common law, a tradition that carried over in the United States until the Supreme Court began chipping away at it in drug cases, beginning in about the 1960s.

Today, of course, authorities can break into homes without knocking. They can conduct raids at night. In theory, we’re today protected by the requirement that authorities show probable cause before serving a warrant, but given the deference judges give to police and prosecutors in much of the country and the boilerplate language you’ll often find on warrant affidavits, you could make a good argument that in many jurisdictions the probable cause protection is little more than a formality. In any case, if the Fourth Amendment is due to the Founders’ offense at British soldiers forcibly entering homes in daylight hours after knocking and announcing to search for contraband, it seems safe to say that the Founders would be appalled by the fact that today, dozens of times each day, heavily armed government officials break into homes, often at night, without first knocking and announcing, in order to conduct searches for contraband.

Drug raids weren’t always conducted this way. In fact, as I point out in my book, the no-knock raid wasn’t even something that organically grew out of policing. . .

Continue reading.

The changing view is that your home is no longer your castle, it’s the state’s castle, and the state can enter as it chooses, including battering down the door and with weapons drawn—and, too often, with weapons fired. The state is taking over, whether we like it or not, and takeover is being aided and abetted by our legislators, courts, and Executive branch.

Please read the entire article. It shows how far down the road we have gone. For example, later in the article:

Harris makes another important point in her dissent: There’s a huge double standard at play here in the sort of composure, good judgment and decision-making the courts demand during these raids. That is, they demand all three from the people on the receiving end of the raids, and none of the three from the police.

I commented on the article in the Washington Post:

This is a giant step on the path to a police state, and the push toward becoming a police state is coming not only from the courts but also from legislators and the executive branch (which includes law-enforcement responsibilities). I am saddened to see the US move so strongly in this direction, but the signs are everywhere, and we do not have legislators to oppose the move in that direction. Some do, but they are outnumbered (dare I say outgunned?) and underfunded. The corporate state likes a police state, provided corporations control the police: the corporations can thus keep order and slap down dissenters (cf. union busting in the US from the 19th century onwards: it was the police and the national guard who were called in to attack union members to break up strikes). What we see is the process of the US becoming a fascist state.

Written by LeisureGuy

27 March 2015 at 11:47 am

China clamps down to keep citizens isolated from the world

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No wonder China supports North Korea, the world’s most hermetically sealed nation. From ycombinator:

GitHub hit by DDoS attack

This is an article [0] summarizes what happened. It is however in Chinese. So let me put a simple summary here:

Baidu has Baidu Analytics, a service similar to Google Analytics. In short, a website includes a javascript file from Baidu and Baidu will report some basic analytics to the site manager like how many visitors per day, how much time they spent on average per page etc.

Someone in the middle between a client outside China and Baidu, allegedly it should be the Great Fire Wall, changed the javascript file from Baidu and added some code so that any client executing the javascript file will periodically access and This means any user who is accessing a site using Baidu Analytics will be an attacker to github.

Here is a simple solution: Block any javascript from Baidu if you do not use it. For chrome users, add the pattern [*.] See here[1].

Edit 1: Added a solution.

Edit 2: Format.

Edit 3: Oh, it’s not only Baidu Analytics. Baidu Ads’ javascript is also being hijacked and changed [2]. Imagine that all sites containing Google Ads use their visitors as attackers to attack github. Now it is literally what is happening to Baidu and its customers (and their customers’ visitors.) The javascript is only changed for visitors outside China. This is why people believe that is done by Chinese government — the only entity who has total access to all out-going routers in China. Since many Chinese users use VPN or other types of proxy to access Internet, they are all considered as visitors outside China. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

27 March 2015 at 11:15 am

Posted in Government, Technology

Be careful what you ask for: GOP Rep asks on Facebook for Obamacare horror stories from constituents

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And doubtless the answers she received did indeed fill her with horror. Jen Hayden writes at Daily Kos:

Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers posted an image on her official Facebook page, slamming the Affordable Care Act on the fifth anniversary of President Obama signing it into law. She asked constituents to share their Obamacare nightmare stories and well, the response probably wasn’t what she expected. Below are a small sample of the comments constituents left on her page:

My story is that I once knew 7 people who couldn’t get health insurance. Now they all have it, thanks to the ACA and President Obama, and their plans are as good as the one my employer provides–and they pay less for them. Now, that’s not the kind of story you want to hear. You want to hear made-up horror stories. I don’t know anyone with one of those stories.

I work for cancer care northwest. We actually have more patients with insurance and fewer having to choose treatment over bankruptcy. Cathy, I’m a die hard conservative and I’m asking you to stop just slamming Obamacare. Fix it, change it or come up with a better idea! Thanks

With Obamacare, I saved 300 bucks a month premium.. I have more coverage.. I like ObamaCare and can’t wait til we go to the next step… Medicare for ALL.

And now my daughter, diagnosed with MS at age 22, can have insurance. What do you plan to do with her?

My daughter is fighting for her life with stage 3 breast cancer! We are about to enter a second go round of diagnostic procedures and possibly more treatment after two full years of treatment! So yah! The ACA is more than helping! I resent that our rep thinks the only problems involve her personal story!

My whole family now has coverage. The ACA is the cause for this, I work in health care, I have seen the increase in covered patients first hand. The next step is universal coverage, this will truly lower costs and provide the best care. Cathy, you barely work, spend most of your time catering to special interests so you can be re-elected.. All while receiving a large wage and the best health insurance and care. Stop telling us how it doesn’t work while enjoying your tax payer funded care and life.

Instead of trying to repeal it why don’t you improve it? Our local rural clinics are packed daily with people who have needed healthcare for years!! it is a godsend. It is pitiful this nation does not have healthcare for all and that doesn’t mean the EMERGENCY room!!

Thanks to the ACA, my cousin was able to get affordable insurance despite her preexisting condition. So grateful.

I think we should repeal Obamacare, and replace it … with universal socialized medicine – like the rest of the industrialized nations of the world.

Hello Congresswoman McMorris Rodgers! I work as the facilitator of a task force that is overseeing the implementation of the Affordable Care Act in Washington State. I have learned that the ACA is helping people who did not previously have health insurance get it. It is helping bring down medical costs. It is improving the quality of care. It is improving experiences of both patients and their families.

I work with doctors, nurses, hospital and clinic managers, non-profit service providers, citizens-at-large. Each of them can cite an improvement they would like to make to the Act. But whether they are Republican or Democrat, from urban or rural areas, powerful or not, they all say the ACA is working.

Can’t you and your Republican colleagues stop trying to repeal this Act and work to make it even more effective? Please?

Obama Care saved us when my husband was unemployed and we couldn’t afford coverage. We might have been ruined without it. My husband could not have had the eye surgery needed after an accident. So grateful.

We now have patients that can see a doctor in the clinic on time rather than waiting till they are too ill. ACA is saving lives and you are too stupid to realize that. Get your political view out of the way and see what is happening in our community because you have shown again and again it is not your community. I see that your son has Downs but not everyone in our community has it so get done with this supporting Downs to the neglect of everything else.

My plans are intact, premiums have increased as always, but what seems to be a lesser rate, my plan was not cancelled, I did not lose my doctor, I have not experienced reduced work hours, and it’s actually freed me from the chains of employer based being the ONLY path to coverage. #FEARMONGER

Those are just a small sample of the hundreds or even thousands of comments left on her Facebook page. It is damn clear that her constituents are loving the Affordable Care Act. Will she take their comments to heart and abandon attempts to take insurance coverage away from her constituents?

Edit: Paul Krugman has an excellent blog post on why the GOP hates the law and why the “victims” penalized by the law (and there are some) are unsuitable for its purposes. And he includes an interesting graph:


Written by LeisureGuy

27 March 2015 at 10:38 am

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