Archive for September 2015
Jordan Pearson reports at Motherboard:
The results from the first and longest study ever conducted on medicinal cannabis use for chronic pain management are finally in: medical pot is safe to use. Nobody’s brain turned into a fried egg.
The study was conducted by researchers at McGill University in Montreal and followed 215 experienced smokers as they toked up 2.5 grams a day, as well as 216 non-smokers, for four years—between 2004 and 2008, with a follow up after one year. The participants, who all suffered from a wide range of noncancer chronic pains, were tested for lung function, underwent blood tests, and had cognitive abilities like memory examined. All adverse effects, from mild headaches to serious disorders, were reported by subjects.
In a paper describing the results of the study, published Tuesday in The Journal of Pain, the researchers write that the cannabis users reported less pain, better overall moods, and had no increased risk of serious adverse effects compared to the control group. Cognitive functions like memory, the researchers wrote, “improved in both groups.”
“The results suggest that cannabis at average doses of 2.5g/d in current cannabis users may be safe as part of carefully monitored pain management program when conventional treatments have been considered medically inappropriate or inadequate,” the authors wrote.
That’s not to say frequent smoking didn’t have any drawbacks at all. Compared to the control group the experienced smokers reported more non-serious adverse effects, such as dizziness and mild respiratory issues associated with smoking.
“Respiratory illnesses and other minor side effects are real risks, but they’re much more modest (in my opinion), than some of the risks that people believe exist,” Dr. David Casarett, a physician at the University of Pennsylvania and author of the measured Stoned: A Doctor’s Case for Medical Marijuana, wrote me in an email. “So this is a useful reality check.” . . .
The courts find the Bill of Rights just too much trouble. Radley Balko gives examples at the link, and concludes:
. . . So if you’re a cop who wants to search a home without a warrant, simply knock on the door, claim to have heard “rustling around” or to have smelled marijuana. Break in and search the home. If you find something illegal, make your arrests and celebrate your success. Just remember to note what you smelled or heard on your report, and be sure to note that you originally knocked on the door after mistaking it for a different one.
If you don’t find anything illegal, you’re probably going to be fine. It’s expensive and time-consuming for an innocent person to file a civil rights lawsuit over an illegal search. Most won’t find an attorney willing to take the case. Most won’t bother to try. For the few who do, your qualified immunitywill make it difficult for them to even get in front of a jury. Again, remember the courts aren’t likely to second-guess your claims about what you heard or smelled, even if your search comes up empty. On the off-chance that your victim somehow gets over those hurdles and gets to trial, you can take comfort in the fact that juries rarely rule against police officers. Finally, if you somehow lose in front of a jury (what bad luck you have!), unless the search resulted in bodily injury, your victim isn’t likely to collect much in the way of damages. And unless you’ve done something really egregious, the city or state that employs you will likely indemnify you. The taxpayers will foot the bill. That’s usually the case with your legal representation, too.
Point is, there’s plenty of incentive for you to bend or break the rules. Busts, seizures and arrests are good for your career. Depending on what you find, frequent searches based on little more than hunches will help you know which hunches to trust, making you a better cop. On the other side, there’s almost no incentive to play it by the book. Take the time to get a warrant and the perps get time to move the drugs. You’ll probably do dozens of illegal searches before someone complains, and once that happens, there’s plenty of machinery in place to both protect you from liability and to prevent the victim from collecting.
This isn’t to say that all cops want to conduct illegal searches.* Only that the courts have provided a pretty easy-to-follow road map for those who do. But that’s sort of the point. Those are precisely the authorities from whom the Fourth Amendment is supposed to protect us.
(*Though let’s be honest, finding ways around the Fourth Amendment certainly makes the job a bit easier. And if the courts have made illegal searches this easy, and mostly consequence-free, at some point you have to question what illegal really means in the first place.)
Prosecutors who bend or even break the rules to win a conviction almost never face any punishment. But even given lax controls, the blatant and systemic misconduct in the Orange County district attorney’s office in Southern California stands out. In a scheme that may go back as far as 30 years, prosecutors and the county sheriff’s department have elicited illegal jailhouse confessions, failed to turn over evidence that is favorable to defendants and lied repeatedly in court about what they did.
These unconstitutional abuses are all the more troubling because Orange County is not some corrupt backwater with one rogue prosecutor. With more than three million residents, the county itself is more populous than nearly half the states in the country. Its district attorney’s office employs 250 prosecutors. In March, a California judge, Thomas Goethals, removed all of them from the county’s highest-profile murder prosecution in years because misconduct had tainted the entire office’s handling of the case. He reassigned the case to the California attorney general, Kamala Harris, a ruling her office is appealing.
The case involved a 2011 mass shooting in which eight people were killed by a man named Scott Dekraai. Mr. Dekraai pleaded guilty in 2014, and a jury will consider whether to sentence him to death or life in prison. In early 2014, Mr. Dekraai’s public defender filed a 505-page motion detailing illegal and unconstitutional acts by prosecutors and the sheriff’s department, arguing that this record should take the death penalty off the table. Among other things, the defense argued, deputies intentionally placed informants in cells next to defendants facing trial, including Mr. Dekraai, and hid that fact.
The informants, some of whom faced life sentences for their own crimes, were promised reduced sentences or cash payouts in exchange for drawing out confessions or other incriminating evidence from the defendants. This practice is prohibited once someone has been charged with a crime. Even when using an informant is allowed, defendants and judges must be told of the arrangement. That did not happen in Orange County. As Mr. Dekraai’s defense lawyer discovered, the sheriff’s department kept secret a computer file showing where jailhouse informants were placed that went back decades. The prosecutor’s office kept separate files of data on informants and their deals. Some of the informants have helped law enforcement repeatedly in exchange for favors, a fact that is highly relevant in weighing their credibility.
The debacle in Orange County may be notable for its sheer size and impact — already, some murder convictions have been thrown out while other prosecutions have fallen apart — but such misconduct is an all-too familiar scenario when prosecutors value winning above justice. Alex Kozinski, a federal appeals court judge in San Francisco, has written that the withholding of exculpatory evidence has reached “epidemic” levels, and that the only way to stop it is for judges to hold prosecutors accountable.
Judge Goethals has set an important example on that count. The district attorney’s office continues to deny any wrongdoing, and has recentlysought to have the judge removed from dozens of cases. Meanwhile, District Attorney Tony Rackauckas says the office’s failings are no more than the result of overworked prosecutors making isolated mistakes. Given the scope of what has been uncovered, that explanation is implausible.
The Justice Department should . . .
See also, from July 9, 2015: “Oklahoma Prepares to Execute Richard Glossip” on Oklahoma’s strange urgency to execute people.
And, from yesterday, “Why Is Oklahoma So Eager to Kill Richard Glossip?”
If you read those articles, it’s hard to understand why a state, guilty of such misconduct in the trial, is so eager to kill a man who apparently is innocent.
John Pavlus has an extremely interesting article in Quanta on efforts to understand just how difficult it is to compute certain things:
At first glance, the big news coming out of this summer’s conference on the theory of computing appeared to be something of a letdown. For more than 40 years, researchers had been trying to find a better way to compare two arbitrary strings of characters, such as the long strings of chemical letters within DNA molecules. The most widely used algorithm is slow and not all that clever: It proceeds step-by-step down the two lists, comparing values at each step. If a better method to calculate this “edit distance” could be found, researchers would be able to quickly compare full genomes or large data sets, and computer scientists would have a powerful new tool with which they could attempt to solve additional problems in the field.
Yet in a paper presented at the ACM Symposium on Theory of Computing, two researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology put forth a mathematical proof that the current best algorithm was “optimal” — in other words, that finding a more efficient way to compute edit distance was mathematically impossible. The Boston Globe celebrated the hometown researchers’ achievement with a headline that read “For 40 Years, Computer Scientists Looked for a Solution That Doesn’t Exist.”
But researchers aren’t quite ready to record the time of death. One significant loophole remains. The impossibility result is only true if another, famously unproven statement called the strong exponential time hypothesis (SETH) is also true. Most computational complexity researchers assume that this is the case — including Piotr Indyk and Artūrs Bačkurs of MIT, who published the edit-distance finding — but SETH’s validity is still an open question. This makes the article about the edit-distance problem seem like a mathematical version of the legendary report of Mark Twain’s death: greatly exaggerated.
The media’s confusion about edit distance reflects a murkiness in the depths ofcomplexity theory itself, where mathematicians and computer scientists attempt to map out what is and is not feasible to compute as though they were deep-sea explorers charting the bottom of an ocean trench. This algorithmic terrain is just as vast — and poorly understood — as the real seafloor, said Russell Impagliazzo, a complexity theorist who first formulated the exponential-time hypothesis with Ramamohan Paturiin 1999. “The analogy is a good one,” he said. “The oceans are where computational hardness is. What we’re attempting to do is use finer tools to measure the depth of the ocean in different places.”
According to Ryan Williams, a computational complexity theorist at Stanford University, an imprecise understanding of theoretical concepts like SETH may have real-world consequences. “If a funding agency read that [Boston Globe headline] and took it to heart, then I don’t see any reason why they’d ever fund work on edit distance again,” he said. “To me, that’s a little dangerous.” Williams rejects the conclusion that a better edit-distance algorithm is impossible, since he happens to believe that SETH is false. “My stance [on SETH] is a little controversial,” he admits, “but there isn’t a consensus. It is a hypothesis, and I don’t believe it’s true.”
SETH is more than a mere loophole in the edit-distance problem. It embodies a number of deep connections that tie together the hardest problems in computation. The ambiguity over its truth or falsity also reveals the basic practices of theoretical computer science, in which math and logic often marshal “strong evidence,” rather than proof, of how algorithms behave at a fundamental level.
Whether by assuming SETH’s validity or, in Williams’ case, trying to refute it, complexity theorists are using this arcane hypothesis to explore two different versions of our universe: one in which precise answers to tough problems stay forever buried like needles within a vast computational haystack, and one in which it may be possible to speed up the search for knowledge ever so slightly. . .
A very interesting New Yorker article by Jamil Zaki, an assistant professor of psychology at Stanford University:
About four years ago, in a city park in western Washington State, Joe Winters encountered a woman in the throes of a psychotic episode. As he sat down next to her, she told him that she had purchased the bench that they now shared and that it was her home. “I didn’t buy the hallucinations, but I tried to validate the feelings underneath them,” Winters told me. His strategy resembled Rogerian psychotherapy—unconditionally accepting a patient’s experience, even when it is untethered from reality. But Winters is not a roving psychologist; he is a deputy in the King County Sheriff’s Office. He had been called to the scene in response to the woman’s behavior, which nearby residents deemed disruptive. After talking with Winters for several minutes, the woman left of her own volition, without Winters having to arrest her or resort to physical force.
Policing can seem like barren ground for empathy, the experience of understanding, sharing in, and caring about another’s emotions. According to the Web site Fatal Encounters, cops were involved in the deaths of twelve hundred and sixty-one people in the United States last year, an average of about three and a half each day. A recent string of brutal arrests by officers in Missouri, New York, Texas, South Carolina, Ohio, and elsewhere has helped to drive the public’s faith in law enforcement to a twenty-two-year low. National confidence in police officers’ racial impartiality has also fallen. But, for communities of color, incidents like these are nothing new; they often confirm a longstanding perception of police as antagonists.
Many theories, both old and new, hold that empathy is inevitable and automatic. When you witness someone suffer a severe bone fracture, it doesn’t take mental gymnastics to figure out how you feel; a wave of discomfort might wash over you, the emotional equivalent of a knee-jerk reflex. In fact, though, empathy is a fragile reaction, one that often fails when it is most needed. Conflicts between groups (racial, social, or competitive) can reduce its potency. So can stress, which limits the psychological space that people have for others, and power, which can numb those who possess it to the plight of those who don’t.
Each of these factors is common in policing. From their earliest days of training, many recruits are steeped in a so-called warrior mentality, in which routine patrols resemble combat and citizens pose a potentially mortal threat. Last year, the Santa Fe New Mexican obtained a draft of instructional materials from the state law-enforcement academy that offer a striking example of this philosophy. According to the proposed curriculum, cadets would be taught that, during traffic stops, they should “assume that … all the occupants in the vehicle are armed.” Expectations like these encourage a volatile mindset, and they play directly into the tendency to see weapons where there are none, especially in the hands of black men. The warrior mentality also instills chronic anxiety. Seth Stoughton, an assistant professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law and a former police officer, told me that such fear colors the way that cops treat civilians. “If I’m worried about never making it home again, I don’t really give a damn if I offend someone,” he said. “Whatever emotional toll my actions take on them, it will feel less important than my survival.”
If you wanted to decrease recruits’ empathy, you could scarcely do better than to enshrine a warrior mentality. Recently, however, recruits in several cities—among them Cincinnati, Las Vegas, and Memphis—have begun to learn a different approach: command less, listen more. A strong example of such a program comes from Sue Rahr, the executive director of the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission. Rahr’s curriculum, which has produced about seven hundred and fifty graduates in the past two years, is designed to do away with the warrior mentality and encourage recruits to view themselves not as combatants within a community but as guardians of it. (President Obama’s Task Force on Twenty-First-Century Policing, whose final report Rahr helped shape, aims to do the same.)
One strategy that flows from Rahr’s philosophy is known as . . .
Continue reading. Later in the article:
. . . Another way to bolster caring is to emphasize empathy-positive norms, as the British psychologist Mark Tarrant found in a study in 2009. Tarrant and his colleagues told a group of college students about another student whose parents had died in a car accident. Participants felt more empathy when they believed that this victim attended their own university, as opposed to another school. Tarrant then ran his study again, but first told half the group that their own university was an unusually empathic place, high in “compassion, tenderness, and sympathy.” This simple prompt erased the empathy gap; students now expressed equal empathy for victims from their own and other schools. In the world of law enforcement, the city police department in Decatur, Georgia, seems to have adopted a similar empathic norm, as can be seen in the first seconds of its recruitment video—a stark contrast with more warrior-oriented messages offered elsewhere. . .
The difference between the two recruitment videos is astonishing.
Bombing runs do not indicate a war is over. Quite the contrary. Glenn Greenwald discusses this contradiction (“The wars are over” and “We’re doing bombing runs”) in detail.