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Archive for July 11th, 2015

A Recent History of the American War on Passenger Rail Transportation

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A good subtitle might be “How great nations become second-rate, little by little and step by step.” Michael Byrne reports in Motherboard:

Baltimore’s Red Line was not a flashy high-speed rail project or nationally contested infrastructure upgrade a la New York City’s Access to the Region’s Core plan. It was a mild light-rail line bridging the city’s isolated and often impoverished west-side with its relatively opportunity-rich east side, in the process offering a crucial third leg to a transit stool consisting of a single pre-existing light rail (north-south) line and a single pre-existing subway line (northwest-southeast). For Baltimore, a city of 630,000 located less than an hour north of one of the nation’s best subway networks, the Washington DC Metro, it seemed like not too much to ask.

After a decade of careful planning and analysis, millions of dollars in investment, and just weeks before crews were to actually break ground, Maryland’s newly elected governor, a Republican no-name who oozed into one of the nation’s most powerful gubernatorial seats courtesy of low voter turnout, nuked the project. Nothing was offered in the Red Line’s stead and the governor was sure to note that he, on behalf of the state, had formally rejected the $900 million in federal funding the project was set to receive, effectively returning Baltimore to the very back of the line funding-wise and dooming any chances the city might have of a major transportation investment for at least a decade.

What happened in Maryland is hardly exceptional. One might even say that it’s become something of a norm in the United States, as transit projects are greenlit and sometimes even already under-construction before abruptly being axed the moment the political wind shifts. It’s an environment that not only dooms public transportation, but public infrastructure in general. The right’s war on public investment will be won when advocates and planners start asking why bother? and, given the recent history of axed transportation projects below, it’s difficult to argue that we’re not there already. And, no, there is no Uber model for public transportation investment, not really.

Continue reading. You’ll see other instances of governors who wreck projects that would benefit their states.

Written by LeisureGuy

11 July 2015 at 5:45 pm

Posted in Daily life, Government

Psychologists Shielded U.S. Torture Program, Report Finds

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Not just psychologists, of course: the Bush Administration was much involved, and Obama has resisted any effort to investigate and prosecute US torturers. James Risen reports in the NY Times:

The Central Intelligence Agency’s health professionals repeatedly criticized the agency’s post-Sept. 11 interrogation program, but their protests were rebuffed by prominent outside psychologists who lent credibility to the program, according to a new report.

The 542-page report, which examines the involvement of the nation’s psychologists and their largest professional organization, the American Psychological Association, with the harsh interrogation programs of the Bush era, raises repeated questions about the collaboration between psychologists and officials at both the C.I.A. and the Pentagon.

The report, completed this month, concludes that some of the association’s top officials, including its ethics director, sought to curry favor with Pentagon officials by seeking to keep the association’s ethics policies in line with the Defense Department’s interrogation policies, while several prominent outside psychologists took actions that aided the C.I.A.’s interrogation program and helped protect it from growing dissent inside the agency.

The association’s ethics office “prioritized the protection of psychologists — even those who might have engaged in unethical behavior — above the protection of the public,” the report said.

Two former presidents of the psychological association were on a C.I.A. advisory committee, the report found. One of them gave the agency an opinion that sleep deprivation did not constitute torture, and later held a small ownership stake in a consulting company founded by two men who oversaw the agency’s interrogation program, it said.

The association’s ethics director, Stephen Behnke, coordinated the group’s public policy statements on interrogations with a top military psychologist, the report said, and then received a Pentagon contract to help train interrogators while he was working at the association, without the knowledge of the association’s board. Mr. Behnke did not respond to a request for comment.

The report, which was obtained by The New York Times and has not previously been made public, is the result of a seven-month investigation by a team led by David Hoffman, a Chicago lawyer with the firm Sidley Austin at the request of the psychology association’s board.

After the Hoffman report was made public on Friday, the American Psychological Association issued an apology.

“The actions, policies and lack of independence from government influence described in the Hoffman report represented a failure to live up to our core values,” Nadine Kaslow, a former president of the organization, said in a statement. “We profoundly regret and apologize for the behavior and the consequences that ensued.”

The association said it was considering proposals to prohibit psychologists from participating in interrogations and to modify its ethics policies, among other changes.

Continue reading.

At the link is a copy of the 542-page report.

See also the editorial “Psychologists Who Greenlighted Torture.” The editorial concludes:

The Obama administration has so far refused to prosecute the torturers. As more evidence about this program comes to light, that position becomes increasingly indefensible.

The comments to the article are quite interesting.

See also “U.S. Justice Department Must Investigate American Psychological Association’s Role in U.S. Torture Program,” a press release from Physicians for Human Rights:

Physicians for Human Rights today called for a federal criminal probe into the American Psychological Association’s (APA) role in the U.S. torture program following the release of a damning new report that confirms the APA colluded with the Bush administration to enable psychologists to design, implement, and defend a program of torture. In light of the 542-page independent report first reported by The New York Times, PHR again called for a full investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice.

“The corruption of a health professional organization at this level is an extraordinary betrayal of both ethics and the law, and demands an investigation and appropriate prosecutions,” said Donna McKay, PHR’s executive director. “Rather than uphold the principle of ‘do no harm,’ APA leadership subverted its own ethics policies and sabotaged all efforts at enforcement.”

The APA commissioned an independent review by David Hoffman, a former federal prosecutor, in November 2014 after detailed allegations of complicity emerged in New York Times reporter James Risen’s book, “Pay Any Price: Greed, Power, and Endless War.” The book documented secret coordination between APA and U.S. officials to support the spurious legal and ethical justification for the Bush administration’s torture program, which relied on health professional monitoring of abusive interrogations to claim that they were “safe, effective, and legal.” . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

11 July 2015 at 5:04 pm

New Letters Added to the Genetic Alphabet

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Emily Singer reports at Quanta:

A stores our genetic code in an elegant double helix. But some argue that this elegance is overrated. “DNA as a molecule has many things wrong with it,” saidSteven Benner, an organic chemist at the Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution in Florida.

Nearly 30 years ago, Benner sketched out better versions of both DNA and its chemical cousin RNA, adding new letters and other additions that would expand their repertoire of chemical feats. He wondered why these improvements haven’t occurred in living creatures. Nature has written the entire language of life using just four chemical letters: G, C, A and T. Did our genetic code settle on these four nucleotides for a reason? Or was this system one of many possibilities, selected by simple chance? Perhaps expanding the code could make it better.

Benner’s early attempts at synthesizing new chemical letters failed. But with each false start, his team learned more about what makes a good nucleotide and gained a better understanding of the precise molecular details that make DNA and RNA work. The researchers’ efforts progressed slowly, as they had to design new tools to manipulate the extended alphabet they were building. “We have had to re-create, for our artificially designed DNA, all of the molecular biology that evolution took 4 billion years to create for natural DNA,” Benner said.

Now, after decades of work, Benner’s team has synthesized artificially enhanced DNA that functions much like ordinary DNA, if not better. In two papers published in theJournal of the American Chemical Society last month, the researchers have shown that two synthetic nucleotides called P and Z fit seamlessly into DNA’s helical structure, maintaining the natural shape of DNA. Moreover, DNA sequences incorporating these letters can evolve just like traditional DNA, a first for an expanded genetic alphabet.

The new nucleotides even outperform their natural counterparts. When challenged to evolve a segment that selectively binds to cancer cells, DNA sequences using P and Z did better than those without.

“When you compare the four-nucleotide and six-nucleotide alphabet, the six-nucleotide version seems to have won out,” said Andrew Ellington, a biochemist at the University of Texas, Austin, who was not involved in the study.

Benner has lofty goals for his synthetic molecules. He wants to create an alternative genetic system in which proteins — intricately folded molecules that perform essential biological functions — are unnecessary. Perhaps, Benner proposes, instead of our standard three-component system of DNA, RNA and proteins, life on other planets evolved with just two.

Better Blueprints for Life

The primary job of DNA is to store information. Its sequence of letters contains the blueprints for building proteins. Our current four-letter alphabet encodes 20 amino acids, which are strung together to create millions of different proteins. But a six-letter alphabet could encode as many as 216 possible amino acids and many, many more possible proteins.

Why nature stuck with four letters is one of biology’s fundamental questions. Computers, after all, use a binary system with just two “letters” — 0s and 1s. Yet two letters probably aren’t enough to create the array of biological molecules that make up life. “If you have a two-letter code, you limit the number of combinations you get,” said Ramanarayanan Krishnamurthy, a chemist at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, Calif.

On the other hand, additional letters could make the system more error prone. DNA bases come in pairs — G pairs with C and A pairs with T. It’s this pairing that endows DNA with the ability to pass along genetic information. With a larger alphabet, each letter has a greater chance of pairing with the wrong partner, and new copies of DNA might harbor more mistakes. “If you go past four, it becomes too unwieldy,” Krishnamurthy said.

But perhaps the advantages of a larger alphabet can outweigh the potential drawbacks. Six-letter DNA could densely pack in genetic information. And perhaps six-letter RNA could take over some of the jobs now handled by proteins, which perform most of the work in the cell.

Proteins have a much more flexible structure than DNA and RNA and are capable of folding into an array of complex shapes. A properly folded protein can act as a molecular lock, opening a chamber only for the right key. Or it can act as a catalyst, capturing and bringing together different molecules for chemical reactions.

Adding new letters to RNA could give it some of these abilities. “Six letters can potentially fold into more, different structures than four letters,” Ellington said.

Back when Benner was sketching out ideas for alternative DNA and RNA, it was this potential that he had in mind. According to the most widely held theory of life’s origins, . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

11 July 2015 at 4:51 pm

Posted in Evolution, Science

The Legacy of Srebrenica, Twenty Years Later

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John Whitaker reports in the New Yorker:

In order to live, Mevludin Orić pretended to die. When the firing squad began shooting, he dove to the ground. His younger cousin, whose hand he had been holding a few moments earlier, collapsed on top of him, and Orić hid under the body for the next ten hours, listening as truckloads of people were brought to the field, lined up, and executed. It was the afternoon of July 14, 1995, three days into the Srebrenica massacre, during which ultra-nationalist Serb militias, under the command of General Ratko Mladić, killed around eight thousand Bosnian Muslim men and teen-age boys in a United Nations safe zone. By the time that Orić heard the soldiers leave, it was the middle of the night; they had gone on shooting by the lights of their jeeps.

Orić lost his father, his brother, and dozens of his relatives in the massacre. It was the worst instance of violence on European soil since the Second World War, the culmination of a conflict that stretched back to the dissolution of Yugoslavia, a few years earlier, and that had its roots in the fourteenth-century Ottoman invasion that brought Islam to Serbia. (“The time has come to take revenge on the Turks,” Mladić said when his troops rolled into Srebrenica.) During the Bosnian War, about two million citizens were displaced from their homes; some hundred thousand died as a direct result of the fighting, and many succumbed to starvation. The goal of Mladić and his comrades was not merely the acquisition of land but the removal of a part of the populace. The conflict gave rise to the term “ethnic cleansing,” and the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, in the Hague, concluded that the killings in Srebrenica amounted to genocide. Muslim survivors’ accounts read like those of Jews rounded up during the Holocaust—nighttime raids, mysterious disappearances, torture, murder.

In the years after the war, Orić and his wife relocated to the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, newly set up as part of a peace treaty brokered in the United States. Their home in Srebrenica had been destroyed, along with more than six thousand other buildings, and would now have been located in the Bosnian Serb Republic. They found a small flat in Ilijaš, a hilly town on the outskirts of Sarajevo where several hundred displaced Muslims from Srebrenica and other parts of eastern Bosnia were making new homes. Here, life presented new challenges. Orić suffered from debilitating anxiety and often thought that he recognized friends whom he knew had been killed. Doctors gave him injections to calm his nerves, but they didn’t help. Therapy and counselling were unavailable; the government remained unprepared to deal with the fact that, according to experts, nearly half of the population suffered from post-traumatic stress. Orić began to drink heavily. His wife’s mental health frayed, too, and their arguments became violent. She was eventually diagnosed with schizophrenia; in 2002, she moved up north to live with her mother, leaving Orić to raise their four children on his own.

Barmela, his eldest daughter, who was then ten years old, effectively replaced her mother as homemaker, forgoing her education to help raise her younger siblings. Orić struggled to find work, often taking part-time jobs in construction, although a beating when he was in captivity had left him with back pain. He and his children eventually moved in with Orić’s mother and his sister Sabaheta, subsisting largely on his mother’s pension. (War widows are entitled to a monthly allotment.) Life became more manageable, but his drinking continued and, if he’d had too much, he could become overwhelmed with rage. Barmela began having panic attacks whenever she saw him with a beer. At the age of seventeen, she moved out. “I love my father—I understand him,” Barmela, now twenty-three, told me. “He went through all that stuff in the war. But beer doesn’t calm you down. It makes the problem bigger.”

The massacre is never far from Orić’s mind. He still burns with anger at the feckless Dutch U.N. peacekeeping forces who failed to protect his town. He was initially hopeful that the perpetrators of the massacre would be brought to justice, but by the time that Mladić was arrested, in May, 2011, after roaming free for nearly sixteen years, his outlook had soured. “It won’t change anything for the victims, the fact that they brought a half-dead man to the Hague,” he told me that summer. (The trials for Mladić and Radovan Karadžić, the other Serbian war leader deemed most responsible for the massacre, are ongoing.) In Bosnia today, the convoluted political structure, which requires a three-person presidency, with one member from each of the three ethnic constituencies—Bosnian Muslim, Croat, and Serb—is widely seen as an impediment to recovery and good governance. The adult unemployment rate is forty-three per cent; among youths, it is around sixty per cent. “It’s the worst constitutional setup in the whole world, what we have here,” Ćamil Duraković, the mayor of Srebrenica, told me. “I’m optimistic for this country only if it goes through constitutional reforms. Otherwise, everything is a joke.”

The country has been making gradual progress in other ways, though. . .

Continue reading. Photos at the link.

Written by LeisureGuy

11 July 2015 at 4:45 pm

Posted in Government, Law

Businesses will do anything to grow profits: State Farm Insurance division

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Lincoln Caplan reports in the New Yorker:

Indiana’s Good Friday hailstorm, in 2006, caused more than a billion dollars in damage and yielded a rare public example of a confounding new phenomenon in the practice of law. In an innovation known as litigation finance, a company with no connection to a commercial lawsuit provides money to support one of the parties in the case, in exchange for a share of the proceeds if the party wins—effectively investing in the lawsuit. For some, it is the latest evidence that the legal profession has been reduced to the business of lawyering, with money regularly serving as the measure of success.

After the storm in Indiana, State Farm Insurance, which has its headquarters there, received almost fifty thousand claims for property damage and rejected more than seven thousand. Joseph Radcliff, an enterprising roofer who formed a company to repair homes damaged by the tempest, was hired by three hundred or so State Farm policyholders. While working on their homes, he saw that some of his clients whose claims State Farm had rejected lived next door to homeowners whose claims had been approved by other insurance companies. Radcliff reported State Farm to the Indiana Department of Insurance. The company, in turn, adopted “the well-known crisis communication strategy of ‘attacking the accuser,’ ” as the Indiana Court of Appeals recounted in 2013.

The company got Radcliff arrested on fourteen felony counts, including corrupt business influence and attempted theft, based on trumped-up evidence that he had vandalized roofs as a basis for fraudulent insurance claims. All of the charges were eventually dismissed, but not before news coverage of the accusations had destroyed Radcliff’s business, reducing it from four hundred employees to none. When State Farm sued him for fraud and racketeering, he sued back—for defamation, abuse of process, and interference with business relationships. A jury found for Radcliff on the defamation claim and rejected all of the insurance company’s claims. In June of 2011, the jury awarded him $14.5 million in damages, one of the largest defamation verdicts ever delivered in the United States. State Farm responded by saying that it would weigh its options and filed an appeal.

That’s when litigation finance came in.

A new venture called Bentham USA, the American branch of the Australian firm that pioneered commercial litigation finance (and was named after the English utilitarianism evangelist), made a deal with Radcliff: Calling the money an investment rather than a loan that had to be repaid, the firm gave him $2.25 million, so he could pay off his and his wife’s debts and start a new business. In exchange, he committed to repaying that amount if he won on appeal and, in addition, to paying a fee of double that amount. He also agreed to let Bentham pick a top-rated appeals lawyer to defend him against State Farm’s appeal, in exchange for Bentham providing about two hundred and twenty thousand dollars to pay the lawyer’s fee.

The lawyer was successful. Upholding the verdict in 2013, the Indiana Court of Appeals found “sufficient evidence to show that State Farm did not act in good faith.” The court went on, “The jury’s damage award does not punish State Farm; rather, it attempts to compensate Radcliff for the longstanding consequences” caused by the company. State Farm paid the judgment in December of 2013—about seventeen million dollars, according to Bentham, including interest accrued, at eight per cent, on the amount awarded. This April, the Indiana Supreme Court denied a further State Farm appeal and put an end to the litigation.

In two years, Bentham’s Ralph Sutton said, the company made $4.5 million, a two-hundred-per-cent return on its $2.25 million investment. After repaying the $2.25 million investment, the $4.5 million fee, and the two hundred and twenty thousand dollars that Bentham advanced for the appeals lawyer, Radcliff retained about ten million. (I asked Radcliff’s lawyer to confirm these figures or to request that Radcliff confirm them. The lawyer said that he forwarded my request, but I did not hear from Radcliff.)

A two-hundred-per-cent return is on the low side in this line of finance. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

11 July 2015 at 4:30 pm

Posted in Business

Survivors’ Guide to Encounters with Police

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LESSON: Always be polite, avoid confrontation, say nothing, get a lawyer.

FACT: US law enforcement arrests over 12 Million Americans a year. That means over the course of a single year, one in 25 Americans was arrested.
FACT: At least 70 police departments scattered from Connecticut to California arrested black people at a rate 10 times higher than people who are not black, USA TODAY found.
FACT: The U.S. government doesn’t track how many citizens are killed by the police.
FACT: FBI estimates the number is over 400 per year. Watchdog group estimates over 1000 per year
FACT: Even the lowest estimates far exceed other democratic, industrialized nations.

ACTION: Download the ACLU APP: Mobile Justice
ACTION: Support police reform efforts

DISCLAIMER: This is NOT legal advice, “for entertainment purposes only” and meant as inspiration for criminal justice reform. Consult a lawyer for local laws.

THE SURVIVORS GUIDE TO AMERICA are shorts (pro-tips) and a feature documentary series by Matthew Cooke created to engage audiences in social activism in pursuit of human values.

Written by LeisureGuy

11 July 2015 at 3:57 pm

Posted in Law Enforcement

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