Later On

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

Archive for August 28th, 2015

Federal Drug Sentencing Laws Bring High Cost, Low Return

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Insanity has been defined as repeatedly doing the same thing but expecting the outcomes to change. US drug policy has fit the definition well, at a terrible waste in lives and money. The Pew Charitable Trust takes a look at what the US has done and at the results:

More than 95,000 federal prisoners are serving time for drug-related offenses—up from fewer than 5,000 in 1980.1 Changes in drug crime patterns and law enforcement practices played a role in this growth, but federal sentencing laws enacted during the 1980s and 1990s also have required more drug offenders to go to prison— and stay there much longer—than three decades ago.2 (See Figure 1.) These policies have contributed to ballooning costs: The federal prison system now consumes more than $6.7 billion a year, or roughly 1 in 4 dollars spent by the U.S. Justice Department.3

Despite substantial expenditures on longer prison terms for drug offenders, taxpayers have not realized a strong public safety return. The self-reported use of illegal drugs has increased over the long term as drug prices have fallen and purity has risen.4 Federal sentencing laws that were designed with serious traffickers in mind have resulted in lengthy imprisonment of offenders who played relatively minor roles.5 These laws also have failed to reduce recidivism. Nearly a third of the drug offenders who leave federal prison and are placed on community supervision commit new crimes or violate the conditions of their release—a rate that has not changed substantially in decades.6

Pew figure 1

More imprisonment, higher costs

Congress increased criminal penalties for drug offenders during the 1980s—and, to a lesser extent, in the 1990s—in response to mounting public concern about drug-related crime.7 In a 1995 report that examined the history of federal drug laws, the U.S. Sentencing Commission found that “drug abuse in general, and crack cocaine in particular, had become in public opinion and in members’ minds a problem of overwhelming dimensions.”8 The nation’s violent crime rate surged 41 percent from 1983 to 1991, when it peaked at 758 violent offenses per 100,000 residents.9

Congress increased drug penalties in several ways. Lawmakers enacted dozens of mandatory minimum sentencing laws that required drug offenders to serve longer periods of confinement. They also established compulsory sentence enhancements for certain drug offenders, including a doubling of penalties for repeat offenders and mandatory life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for those convicted of a third serious offense. These laws have applied broadly: As of 2010, more than 8 in 10 drug offenders in federal prisons were convicted of crimes that carried mandatory minimum sentences.10

Also during the 1980s, Congress created the Sentencing Commission, an appointed panel that established strict sentencing guidelines and generally increased penalties for drug offenses. The same law that established the commission, the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984, also eliminated parole and required all inmates to serve at least 85 percent of their sentences behind bars before becoming eligible for release.

Federal data show the systemwide effects of these policies:

  • Probation has all but disappeared as a sanction for drug offenders. In 1980, federal courts sentenced 26 percent of convicted drug offenders to probation. By 2014, the proportion had fallen to 6 percent, with judges sending nearly all drug offenders to prison.11 (See Figure 2.)
  • The length of drug sentences has increased sharply. As shown in Figure 1 above, from 1980 to 2011 (the latest year for which comparable statistics are available), the average prison sentence imposed on drug offenders increased 36 percent—from 54.6 to 74.2 months—even as it declined 3 percent for all other offenders.12
  • The proportion of federal prisoners who are drug offenders has nearly doubled. The share of federal inmates serving time for drug offenses increased from 25 percent in 1980 to a high of 61 percent in 1994.13 This proportion has declined steadily in recent years—in part because of rising prison admissions for other crimes—but drug offenders still represent 49 percent of all federal inmates.14
  • Time served by drug offenders has surged. The average time that released drug offenders spent behind bars increased 153 percent between 1988 and 2012, from 23.2 to 58.6 months.15 This increase dwarfs the 39 and 44 percent growth in time served by property and violent offenders, respectively, during the same period.16

The increased imprisonment of drug offenders has helped drive the explosive overall growth of the federal prison system, which held nearly 800 percent more inmates in 2013 than it did in 1980.17 One study found that the increase in time served by drug offenders was the “single greatest contributor to growth in the federal prison population between 1998 and 2010.”18

Growth in the prison population has driven a parallel surge in taxpayer spending. From 1980 to 2013, federal prison spending increased 595 percent, from $970 million to more than $6.7 billion in inflation-adjusted dollars.19 . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

28 August 2015 at 2:00 pm

Posted in Drug laws

Impressive article on the Veterans Writing Project: Healing through writing and community

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I found this article, “A Common Language: Ron Capps served in Rwanda, Darfur, Kosovo, Eastern Congo, Afghanistan, and Iraq. When he got back, writing was the only thing that could truly bring him home again.” in Believer, by Kristina Shevory, to be extremely interesting (and very powerful). I was struck by this paragraph:

“Healing happens only in community, and it’s mainly a community of veterans, a circle of people you get to trust and understand your experience,” said Dr. Shay. “You can’t define what it means to be understood, but it sure as hell matters. The heavy lifting is done by and for the veterans. Time itself doesn’t heal.”

I was struck by the thought that one is healed by communication and a community. This struck with extra force because I just watched the (excellent) interview I blogged in this post, which talks about how efforts to go it alone do not work.

Shay is the author of two excellent books that I’ve read: Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character and Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming. Both are well worth reading. (Links are to inexpensive secondhand copies; new copies are, of course, readily available from on-line vendors such as Amazon.) These were early entries in a growing field: book written to deal with the reality of the terrible psychological, moral, and spiritual damage that war does to those involved. Some examples:

Soul Repair: Recovering from Moral Injury after War
Warrior’s Return: Restoring the Soul After War
Killing from the Inside Out: Moral Injury and Just War
Afterwar: Healing the Moral Wounds of Our Soldiers

There are many others. I have not read these, but the Amazon reviews are 5-star or close to it (greater than 4-star).

The growing number of such books is some indication of the toll America’s non-stop wars have had on those who fought it, but course the damage and deaths from such wars goes far beyond the damage to the US: for example, look at Iraq today.

Why has the US constantly waged war in recent decades? Perhaps because those who make the decision to go to war do not fight in it and (of late) have never fought in any war and thus lack any read understanding of the costs of war. Similarly, the pundits and news analysts who comment on US decisions to wage war also lack war experience for the most part. When you think about how the Iraq war inaugurated by the Bush Administration, based on deliberate falsehoods, and about how the cost and consequences of that war continue to reverberate, it should make you question the wisdom of war.

The article is well worth reading.

UPDATE: From another article (also well worth reading) this chart hints at the suffering our wars cause our own troops.


Written by Leisureguy

28 August 2015 at 1:22 pm

John Conway: A life in games

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Very interesting article in Quanta by Siobhan Roberts:

Gnawing on his left index finger with his chipped old British teeth, temporal veins bulging and brow pensively squinched beneath the day-before-yesterday’s hair, the mathematician John Horton Conway unapologetically whiles away his hours tinkering and thinkering — which is to say he’s ruminating, although he will insist he’s doing nothing, being lazy, playing games.

Based at Princeton University, though he found fame at Cambridge (as a student and professor from 1957 to 1987), Conway, 77, claims never to have worked a day in his life. Instead, he purports to have frittered away reams and reams of time playing. Yet he is Princeton’s John von Neumann Professor in Applied and Computational Mathematics (now emeritus). He’s a fellow of the Royal Society. And he is roundly praised as a genius. “The word ‘genius’ gets misused an awful lot,” said Persi Diaconis, a mathematician at Stanford University. “John Conway is a genius. And the thing about John is he’ll think about anything.… He has a real sense of whimsy. You can’t put him in a mathematical box.”

The hoity-toity Princeton bubble seems like an incongruously grand home base for someone so gamesome. The campus buildings are Gothic and festooned with ivy. It’s a milieu where the well-groomed preppy aesthetic never seems passé. By contrast, Conway is rumpled, with an otherworldly mien, somewhere between The Hobbit’s Bilbo Baggins and Gandalf. Conway can usually be found loitering in the mathematics department’s third-floor common room. The department is housed in the 13-story Fine Hall, the tallest tower in Princeton, with Sprint and AT&T cell towers on the rooftop. Inside, the professor-to-undergrad ratio is nearly 1-to-1. With a querying student often at his side, Conway settles either on a cluster of couches in the main room or a window alcove just outside the fray in the hallway, furnished with two armchairs facing a blackboard — a very edifying nook. From there Conway, borrowing some Shakespeare, addresses a familiar visitor with his Liverpudlian lilt:

Welcome! It’s a poor place but mine own!

Conway’s contributions to the mathematical canon include innumerable games. He is perhaps most famous for inventing the Game of Life in the late 1960s. The Scientific American columnist Martin Gardner called it “Conway’s most famous brainchild.” This is not Life the family board game, but Life the cellular automaton. A cellular automaton is a little machine with groups of cells that evolve from iteration to iteration in discrete rather than continuous time — in seconds, say, each tick of the clock advances the next iteration, and over time, behaving a bit like a transformer or a shape-shifter, the cells evolve into something, anything, everything else. Life is played on a grid, like tic-tac-toe, where its proliferating cells resemble skittering microorganisms viewed under a microscope.Conway_LifeRules

The Game of Life is not really a game, strictly speaking. Conway calls it a “no-player never-ending” game. The recording artist and composer Brian Eno once recalled that seeing an electronic Game of Life exhibit on display at the Exploratorium in San Francisco gave him a “shock to the intuition.” “The whole system is so transparent that there should be no surprises at all,” Eno said, “but in fact there are plenty: The complexity and ‘organic-ness’ of the evolution of the dot patterns completely beggars prediction.” And as suggested by the narrator in an episode of the television showStephen Hawking’s Grand Design, “It’s possible to imagine that something like the Game of Life, with only a few basic laws, might produce highly complex features, perhaps even intelligence. It might take a grid with many billions of squares, but that’s not surprising. We have many hundreds of billions of cells in our brains.”

Life was among the first cellular automata and remains perhaps the best known. It was coopted by Google for one of its Easter eggs: Type in “Conway’s Game of Life,” and alongside the search results ghostly light-blue cells will appear and gradually overrun the page. Practically speaking, the game nudged cellular automata and agent-based simulations into use in the complexity sciences, where they model the behavior of everything from ants to traffic to clouds to galaxies. Impractically speaking, it became a cult classic for those keen on wasting time. The spectacle of Life cells morphing on computer screens proved dangerously addictive for graduate students in math, physics and computer science, as well as for many people with jobs that provided access to idling mainframe computers. A U.S. military report estimated that the workplace hours lost clandestinely watching Life evolve on computer screens cost millions of dollars. Or so one Life legend has it. Another purports that when Life went viral in the early-to-mid-1970s, one-quarter of all the world’s computers were playing.

Yet when Conway’s vanity strikes, as it often does, and he opens the index of a new mathematics book, casually checking for his name, he gets peeved that more often than not his name is cited only in reference to the Game of Life. Aside from Life, his myriad contributions to the canon run broad and deep, though with such meandering interests he considers himself quite shallow. There’s his first serious love, geometry, and by extension symmetry. He proved himself by discovering what’s sometimes called Conway’s constellation — three sporadic groups among a family of such groups in the ocean of mathematical symmetry. The biggest of his groups, called the Conway group, is based on the Leech lattice, which represents a dense packing of spheres in 24-dimensional space where each sphere touches 196,560 other spheres. He also shed light on the largest of all the sporadic groups, the Monster group, in the “Monstrous Moonshine” conjectures, reported in a paper composed frenetically with his eccentric Cambridge colleague Simon Norton. And his greatest masterpiece, in his own opinion at least, is the discovery of a new type of numbers, aptly named “surreal” numbers. The surreals are a souped-up continuum of numbers, including all the reals — integers, fractions and irrationals such as Euler’s number (2.718281828459045235360287471352662 … ) — and then going above and beyond and below and within, gathering in all the infinites, all the infinitesimals, and amounting to the largest possible extension of the real-number line. In Gardner’s reliable assessment, the surreals are “infinite classes of weird numbers never before seen by man.” And they may turn out to explain everything from the incomprehensible infinitude of the cosmos to the infinitely tiny minutiae of the quantum.

But the truly amazing thing about the surreal numbers is how Conway found them: by playing and analyzing games. Like an Escher tessellation of birds morphing into fish — focus on the white and you see the birds, focus on the red and you see fish — Conway beheld a game, such as Go, and saw that it embedded or contained something else entirely, the numbers. And when he found these numbers, he walked around in a white-hot daydream for weeks. . .

Continue reading.

There’s a lot more.

Siobhan Roberts also wrote an article on John Conway in the Guardian: “John Horton Conway: the world’s most charismatic mathematician“.

Written by Leisureguy

28 August 2015 at 12:05 pm

Posted in Books, Education, Games, Math

The symbolic value of guns—and the actual costs

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Adam Gopnik writes in the New Yorker:

Away from the world for August, in a house without Internet or television and only spotty, the-satellite-must-be-passing-over phone reception, I was, until Wednesday, thinking more or less benign thoughts about gun owners, if not guns. As I chronicled last year, I have only just learned how to drive, and, license in hand, or in glove compartment, I’ve been driving for the first time on the little winding roads of the beach town where we’ve spent vacations for the past thirty years. Despite having been anti-car and ostentatiously pro-bike for all those years, I have to admit that I love being in the driver’s seat. The overwhelming rush of freedom and possibility, the sense of autonomy—no need to request a lift, no UBER app to press—is overwhelming. You get in, and you go.

This in turn made me realize, a little more empathetically, what I had only intuited before—that guns, for many Americans, are a sort of secondary, symbolic car: another powerful symbol of autonomy and independence. The attachment to them that so many Americans show—unique among the civilized peoples of the world, and at a cost so grave that the rest of that world often turns away, appalled—is nonetheless understandable to anyone who comes late to driving: to have potentially lethal power within your grasp is an immensely empowering drug. Cars are obviously in a different category, because their benign use is so much greater than their lethal one. But they are tools of the same country, of which I am now a citizen.

In the midst of this reflection, word filtered through of one more mini-massacre, this one in Virginia. Two reporters had died, hideously, on camera, and their deaths were followed by a disturbing social-media aftershock. Though we will doubtlessly learn more of the psychological details of this horror, it already seems clear that this is one more case where the gun provided a quick means to settle scores—a way for the emotionally damaged to relieve the feeling of being shamed, achieving instant karma through killing. James Gilligan, the American psychiatrist specializing in violence, credibly argues that most personal violence is a response to such feelings of shame and humiliation, and the violent act is a horrendous way of equalling the score. This case seems to belong to that variety of massacre, with the added fact that the killer seems to have imagined that his violence would be an equalizer to the Charleston killings. A similar illusion of getting even appears to have been at work in the shooting of two New York City cops last winter (a killing that has already receded in memory, though not, surely, for the families of the victims).

One of the last redoubts of the gun lovers—those who, despite the evidence, allow the pleasure of expressing autonomy to overwhelm all other, more reasonable evaluations—was that, even though evidence showed an overwhelming correlation between the availability of guns and the number of gun killings, there was still no evidence that American non-domestic gun massacres were directly tied to wide gun distribution. In fact, as a piece in Fusion (which generously cites this writer) details, that redoubt has now fallen to empirical investigation. A new study by Adam Lankford, of the University of Alabama, which will be presented next week at the annual conference of the American Sociological Association, shows a strong correlation between the availability of guns and the prevalence of gun massacres. With the same certainty that David Hemenway’s work established the link between the number of guns in a society and the number of gun killings, we now know that there is a correlation between the availability of guns and the major public assaults that have been a part of American life since Columbine.

And so, for all that we should still strive for an empathetic grasp of other people’s cultural symbols, the simple, unemotional, inarguable truth remains: . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

28 August 2015 at 10:55 am

Posted in Guns

Maggard razor, Meißner Tremonia, and Dark Rose

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SOTD 28 Aug 2015

A very fine shave indeed. The Plisson synthetic is wonderful for face lathering, and the sample soap from Meißner Tremonia is still going strong. Today is the fourth shave, and I imagine I have 3-4 more to go.

I haven’t used this Maggard razor for a while, and it did a perfectly fine job: BBS in three passes with no problem. The differences between this and an Edwin Jagger or a Parker 24C are not very great at all, and this brings the advantage of standard threading (which the Parker 24C lacks) and a stainless handle that can be used with other heads.

Saint Charles Shave Dark Rose aftershave has a fragrance that appeals greatly to me. A good splash of this is just right for a Friday.

Written by Leisureguy

28 August 2015 at 9:02 am

Posted in Shaving

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