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Archive for November 2nd, 2015

The effects of China’s one-child policy

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Very interesting interview of Mei Fong by Barbara Demick in the New Yorker:

Mei Fong is the youngest of five daughters, conceived in hopes of a son who never materialized. “Be glad we’re not in the old country,’’ her relatives, who had immigrated from southern China to Malaysia, would tell her. “You’d never have been born.” Fong grew up to be a journalist for the Wall Street Journal, which posted her first to Hong Kong, then, in 2003, to Beijing, where she gravitate toward writing about China’s policy of limiting most families to one child. Her first book, “One Child: The Story of China’s Most Radical Experiment,” will be released on November 3rd. The publication date was hastily moved up from February last week, after the Chinese government announced that it was scrapping the thirty-five-year-old policy and would now allow all families to have two children. I conducted the following e-mail exchange with Fong during the weekend. It has been edited for length.

Did you know from the moment you moved to China that you would write about the one-child policy? Was there a particular experience that made you focus on this topic?

Not really. As a bookish child, I’d always been fascinated by the policy, and from a distance China had seemed like something out of Orwell or Huxley.

But the key really came in 2008 when I covered an earthquake in Sichuan, China’s worst disaster in a generation. More than seventy thousand people were killed. I’d followed a group of construction workers who had travelled from Beijing back to their home village, in Sichuan, not knowing what had happened to their families back home. The trip was an arduous one, a distance something like that between New York and Chicago, and we did it all on trains, boats, and even motorcycles, because they were too poor to fly and the quake had severely damaged a lot of roads. It ended badly—many of these folks discovered that their children back home were killed in the quake. Not only that, many of these were only children, due to the fact that the area had actually been a pilot test project for the one-child policy before its nationwide launch, in 1980. Making things worse, many bereaved parents couldn’t have any more children—they’d been sterilized as part of the policy requirements.

While I was covering this, I myself had a miscarriage, and that helped me understand to a greater degree what it means to lose the hope of a child.

This was the painful genesis of the book.

How has the one-child policy shaped the character of today’s China?

When I first moved to China, I thought of the one-child policy mainly through its excesses—the forced abortions and female infanticide—but it actually has a strong effect on the everyday lives of ordinary Chinese. All these questions, like who you marry, what kind of job you have, how do you grow old comfortably, the answers are all shaped to some degree by the one-child policy.

If we imagine such as thing as an “average” person in China, that person would likely be male, since men outnumber women. (Today, some provinces in China have between twenty-six and thirty-eight per cent more males than females.) He’d likely be an only child, especially if he was born in a city. If he’s a young bachelor living in a smaller city—not Beijing and Shanghai, which are outliers—he and his parents would probably be enormously anxious about his marriage prospects, and they might have hocked everything to buy an apartment beyond their means, to increase his eligibility. His parents would be particularly worried not just because he’s their one-and-only, and therefore every decision he makes he makes is imbued with earth-shaking significance, but because the one-child policy has reduced the supply of potential daughters-in-law, who are the traditional caregivers of elderly people in China. If their precious only son suffers an untimely death, they’ll become shidu—the name for parents whose only child has died. There are about a million shidu parents in China, with seventy-six thousand joining their ranks yearly, and they’re really to be pitied, because they not only lose financial security with the death of a child they also have difficulty getting accepted into nursing homes, or buying a burial plot, and they fall far down the societal totem pole.

How about the character of Chinese individuals? You must have had many friends and colleagues who were only children as a result of the policy.

While I don’t believe China’s one-child generation is significantly more spoilt than other generations, I suspect they struggle with a weight of heavy parental expectations. Their horizon for experimentation is so much narrower than that of their Western counterparts.

One of my friends, Jenova Chen, is a famous game designer, named as one of the world’s top young innovators by M.I.T. He told me that in traditional Chinese families, each sibling had a role to play, and being the single child meant “I had to do all of them. I can’t fail because that’s all my family is counting on.” When Chen was fourteen, his father, sensing the coming Internet revolution, bought him a P.C. For mid-nineties China, this was a huge investment, like buying a Stradivarius for a kid just starting violin lessons. Chen’s parents wanted to steer him to a safe, prosperous career working for a prestigious firm like Microsoft, so when he told them that he wanted to design computer games, “it was like saying I want to be a pornographer.” Now Chen’s a superstar in his industry, and has his works displayed in the Smithsonian, but he’s unlikely to have more than one child himself, he says. “I don’t feel like I dare to have more than one child. I feel I can barely take care of my parents,” he said.

Some scholars have said suggested that the one-child policy was as big as catastrophe as the Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward. Do you agree? . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

2 November 2015 at 6:07 pm

Posted in Daily life, Government

Excellent article on how memes evolve, but without mentioning memes

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Matt Ridley has an interesting article in the Wall Street Journal. Though he does not specifically mention memes (see chapter 9 of The Selfish Gene, by Richard Dawkins, who introduced the idea), his entire article is a discussion of memetic evolution in technology:

Innovation is a mysteriously difficult thing to dictate. Technology seems to change by a sort of inexorable, evolutionary progress, which we probably cannot stop—or speed up much either. And it’s not much the product of science. Most technological breakthroughs come from technologists tinkering, not from researchers chasing hypotheses. Heretical as it may sound, “basic science” isn’t nearly as productive of new inventions as we tend to think.

Suppose Thomas Edison had died of an electric shock before thinking up the light bulb. Would history have been radically different? Of course not. No fewer than 23 people deserve the credit for inventing some version of the incandescent bulb before Edison, according to a history of the invention written by Robert Friedel, Paul Israel and Bernard Finn.

The same is true of other inventions. Elisha Gray and Alexander Graham Bell filed for a patent on the telephone on the very same day. By the time Google came along in 1996, there were already scores of search engines. As Kevin Kelly documents in his book “What Technology Wants,” we know of six different inventors of the thermometer, three of the hypodermic needle, four of vaccination, five of the electric telegraph, four of photography, five of the steamboat, six of the electric railroad. The history of inventions, writes the historian Alfred Kroeber, is “one endless chain of parallel instances.”

It is just as true in science as in technology. Boyle’s law in English-speaking countries is the same thing as Mariotte’s Law in French-speaking countries. Isaac Newton vented paroxysms of fury at Gottfried Leibniz for claiming, correctly, to have invented the calculus independently. Charles Darwin was prodded into publishing his theory at last by Alfred Russel Wallace, who had precisely the same idea after reading precisely the same book, Malthus’s “Essay on Population.”

Increasingly, technology is developing the kind of autonomy that hitherto characterized biological entities. The Stanford economist Brian Arthur argues that technology is self-organizing and can, in effect, reproduce and adapt to its environment. It thus qualifies as a living organism, at least in the sense that a coral reef is a living thing. Sure, it could not exist without animals (that is, people) to build and maintain it, but then that is true of a coral reef, too.

And who knows when this will no longer be true of technology, and it will build and maintain itself? To the science writer Kevin Kelly, the “technium”—his name for the evolving organism that our collective machinery comprises—is already “a very complex organism that often follows its own urges.” It “wants what every living system wants: to perpetuate itself.” . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

2 November 2015 at 4:21 pm

Posted in Memes, Technology

How prosecutors try to control verdicts

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First, prosecutors can fight the independence of a grand jury. Radley Balko reports in the Washington Post:

This month I broke a story here at The Watch about St. Louis County removing a grand jury foreman who formerly worked for the Missouri ACLU. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch now has more details, pulled from court fillings in the case.

The St. Louis County grand jury foreman dismissed from the panel last month had drawn attention with his questioning of a county police officer, formerly on the Ferguson force, about what he knew about corrupt cops, according to recently filed court documents.

A prosecutor who could not deter him called Judge Steven Goldman, who admonished the juror to stick to the case at hand. Later, after a complaint by Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch, Goldman removed the juror altogether.

The documents filed this week provide a detailed look at a controversy that has raised questions about a grand jury’s independence and sanctity, and whether the juror can be considered biased for working as an ACLU lawyer on cases challenging McCulloch’s office on matters related to Ferguson and otherwise.

The juror, using the pseudonym John Roe, is suing to regain the post.

The thing is, grand juries are supposed to be independent bodies with the power to investigate whatever they please. If that’s true, I don’t see how Goldman or McCulloch should be able to remove him simply because he wanted to investigate corrupt cops. The converse is also true: If a grand jury foreman can be removed because a judge or prosecutors doesn’t like what the grand jury is looking into, then grand juries aren’t independent. That’s sort of the essence of the word independence.

The article states that the foreman had concerns that prosecutors might be spying on him, either through microphones in the jury room or on social media. The implication is that this guy was so paranoid that he was unfit to lead the grand jury. Perhaps those fears do sound paranoid, although there’s no indication in the article that other grand jurors complained about him. In the end, Goldman and McCulloch only confirmed the guy’s underlying concern — that McCulloch didn’t trust him, wanted to control what he looked into and therefore wanted him booted from the grand jury.

Goldman also apparently wrote that he was concerned about the foreman’s “bias against prosecutors.” If you know even a little bit about grand juries, you’ll know that they’re rather notorious for doing whatever prosecutors tell them. This one time, a grand jury was led by someone who may have been skeptical of law enforcement, and perhaps was even willing to use his position to look into public corruption, or possibly police brutality. And he was swiftly removed. . .

Continue reading.

And the editorial staff of the NY Times notes how some prosecutors deliberately exclude blacks from juries:

One prospective juror did not make enough eye contact. Another appeared nervous and confused. A third had a son who was close in age to the defendant. A fourth was involved with the Head Start program.

These were just a few of the dozens of reasonsGeorgia prosecutors gave for eliminating people from sitting on the jury in the 1987 murder trial of Timothy Tyrone Foster, an 18-year-old black man charged with killing a 79-year-old white woman named Queen Madge White.

The one reason prosecutors did not give was the one thing those four potential jurors had in common: They were black.

A year before Mr. Foster’s trial, the Supreme Court, in the case of Batson v. Kentucky, reaffirmed that it is unconstitutional to exclude jurors because of their race — a practice with a long, odious history. It has survived thanks to the so-called peremptory challenge, which allows a juror to be excluded for no reason at all, as opposed to “for cause” challenges, in which a lawyer must give a reason for an exclusion, which the judge can accept or deny.

In requiring prosecutors to give a “race-neutral” reason for excluding black jurors, the court wrote that racial discrimination in jury selection “harms not only the accused whose life or liberty they are summoned to try,” but undermines “public confidence in the fairness of our system of justice.”

Mr. Foster was convicted by an all-white jury and sentenced to death. For nearly three decades since, state prosecutors have denied that race was a factor in their decision to strike all the black jurors from his trial. They have also steadfastly refused to turn over their jury-selection notes to defense lawyers.

Today, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in the case, Foster v. Chatman, to decide whether the prosecutors are telling the truth.The Georgia courts have all ruled in the state’s favor. But now those jury-selection notes are at the center of the case. Almost 20 years after Mr. Foster’s conviction, his lawyers finally got hold of them through the state’s open-records law.

The notes show that, contrary to prosecutors’ claims, race was indeed central to their decision to exclude certain jurors. Each black potential juror’s name is highlighted in green and marked with a “B”. The first four names on a handwritten list of “Definite NOs” are those of the black jurors who were struck. In a separate list, those jurors are ranked against one another, “in case it comes down to having to pick one of the black jurors.”

Prosecutors now claim, implausibly, that their notes show a concerted effort to keep diligent records in order to rebut expected charges of racial discrimination. . .

Continue reading.

There’s also “How America Tolerates Racism in Jury Selection,” an op-ed in the NY Times by Larry Thompson.

Written by LeisureGuy

2 November 2015 at 10:28 am

Pentagon Evades Questions on $800 Million Afghanistan Program

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“Despite lacking access to key documents and personnel, the inspector general determined that nearly $43 million had been spent on a natural gas station that should have cost closer to $300,000.”

That should sound some warning bells. Megan McCloskey reports in ProPublica:

The watchdog charged with overseeing U.S. spending in Afghanistan says the Pentagon is dodging his inquiries about an $800 million program that was supposed to energize the Afghan economy.

John Sopko, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, said the military is restricting access to some documents in violation of law and has claimed there are no Defense Department personnel who can answer questions about the Task Force for Business Stability Operations, or TFBSO, which operated for five years.

“Frankly, I find it both shocking and incredible that DOD asserts that it no longer has any knowledge about TFBSO, an $800 million program that reported directly to the Office of the Secretary of Defense and only shut down a little over six months ago,” Sopko wrote in a letter to Secretary of Defense Ash Carter released today.

The Pentagon’s claims are particularly surprising since Joseph Catalino, the former acting director of the task force who was with the program for two years, is still employed by the Pentagon as Senior Advisor for Special Operations and Combating Terrorism.

In June, the DOD wrote in an official response to Sopko that it “no longer possess[es] the personnel expertise to address these questions,” a point the Pentagon reiterated in October. However, in response to questions from ProPublica Friday, a Pentagon spokesman said in an email that Catalino will be made available for questions. SIGAR had previously spoken to him before the task force shut down in March.

The Pentagon has also refused to allow SIGAR to freely review all the task force documents. Normally the inspector general is simply given the documents it requests, but the Pentagon is insisting that anything related to the task force be read in a DOD-controlled room on DOD computers, and any documents SIGAR wishes to take must first be reviewed and redacted by the Pentagon.

“We have established a reading room at the task force document storage facility specifically for SIGAR use,” said Army Lt. Col. Joe Sowers, a Department of Defense spokesman, in his email.

These “appropriate security safeguards,” as Principal Deputy Under Secretary Brian McKeon called them in a letter to Sopko, “are necessary due to SIGAR’s actions that revealed Personally Identifiable Information [PII] in an unrelated incident.”

The incident McKeon referenced involved information requested by ProPublica under a Freedom of Information Act request last November. ProPublica sought the Commander’s Emergency Response Program database from Afghanistan, which documents how commanders spent money on local projects. SIGAR provided the database, but did not redact names of military personnel, which the Pentagon said should have been done. ProPublica used the database to create an interactive that allows readers to search and sort how the troops spent $2 billion in petty cash.

ProPublica has been analyzing how the Pentagon spent money in Afghanistan, closely tracking waste, such as this $25-million headquarters that no one needed and was never used.

In SIGAR’s report, Sopko said he didn’t buy the Pentagon’s reasoning for not cooperating. SIGAR has refused to abide by the Pentagon’s terms because it believes the law does not allow for them.

“SIGAR believes this vague accusation is a red herring intended to divert attention from DOD’s continued refusal to answer any questions related to TFBSO activities,” the report says. “For example, in response to SIGAR audits and investigations of other matters, DOD has continued to provide unrestricted information and unfettered access requested by SIGAR auditors and investigators.”

In his email, Sowers, the Pentagon spokesman, did not provide a clear answer as to why the reading room precautions only applied to task force-related documents.

Despite the Pentagon’s restrictions, SIGAR has documented serious problems with at least one chunk of the $800 million tab. The task force spent nearly $43 million to build a compressed natural gas station in Afghanistan with the hopes of helping the country develop its natural resources and become less dependent on foreign fuel imports. The single station was intended as a model that would be replicated in other areas of the country.

The project, SIGAR found, was ill-conceived from start to finish. Were a similar station built in neighboring Pakistan, SIGAR noted, it would cost about $300,000. The task force spent 140 times that. Even factoring in the extra security costs to build in Afghanistan, “this level of expenditure appears gratuitous and extreme,” SIGAR wrote.

Cost aside, military planners also failed to account for Afghanistan’s lack of a viable local infrastructure to move the natural gas and for the hundreds of millions it would take to build one, SIGAR said.

On an even more prosaic level, the task force forgot to account for one more key item: . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

2 November 2015 at 10:02 am

Working with molecules in a Minecraft environment: Molcraft

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A Motherboard article by Emiko Jozuka  explains:

In the world of MolCraft, all is not what it seems. Strange formations populate this Minecraft world: These are actually molecular structures that could allow kids to have fun with Minecraft and learn about biochem at the same time.

Mark Lorch and Joel Mills, researchers from the University of Hull, just released MolCraft (Molecules in Minecraft), a game supported by the Royal Society of Chemistry that aims to teach kids about biochemistry in Minecraft. (The University of Hull site has full instructions for accessing the server, which can be found at molcraft.nitrous.it.)

Lorch told me that the inspiration stemmed from the recent trend in the sciences to use Minecraft as a teaching aid.

“I got tinkering and started to think of ways of incorporating chemical structures into Minecraft,” Lorch said. Lorch and Mills tasked a group of biochemistry students to take some molecular structures from a protein data bank and then import then into Minecraft and create a world that would be engaging for young players of the game.

“They generated this world that was populated with all these structures and then incorporated a scavenger hunt dotted around the world with treasure chests. If they read all the materials, clues, and books, it will help them find those treasure that are around there,” said Lorch. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

2 November 2015 at 9:20 am

Posted in Education, Games, Science

Ben Bernanke Is Still Keeping the Secrets of the Crash of 2007-2009

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Pam Matens and Russ Martens report in Wall Street on Parade:

Last March, Wall Street On Parade reportedthat the appointment calendar of Ben Bernanke during his Chairmanship of the Federal Reserve in the years of the greatest financial crash since the Great Depression, showed 84 redactions of meetings he conducted with unnamed persons between January 1, 2007 through the collapse of Bear Stearns on the weekend of March 15-16, 2008.

According to the “official” record, those months were far from the core months of the financial crash, which are said to have been triggered with the collapse of Lehman Brothers on September 15, 2008 and the quick implosion of other major financial institutions that Fall.

Last month, Bernanke released a 600-page tome on the crash, The Courage to Act: A Memoir of a Crisis and its Aftermath. (It’s not every day that an author credits himself with courage in a book title.) What particularly stands out in Bernanke’s telling of the crash is what he has chosen to leave out that would clearly challenge the “courage” narrative and infuse instead a hubris narrative.

Most Americans believe that the massive bailout of Wall Street began with the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), authorized by Congress after a second attempt and signed into law by President George W. Bush on October 3, 2008.

What few Americans remember is that a full year before TARP, Ben Bernanke’s Federal Reserve encouraged the largest banks in the U.S., and one foreign bank, to borrow from the Fed’s discount window – a source of borrowing traditionally reserved for desperate banks who cannot obtain cheaper sources of borrowing. The Fed provided the loans as 30-day, renewable loans rather than the traditional one-day loans. This action occurred on or about August 22, 2007. Bernanke writes as follows in his book:

“On Wednesday, August 22, Citi [Citigroup] announced it was borrowing $500 million for 30 days; JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America, and Charlotte, North Carolina-based Wachovia also announced that they had each borrowed $500 million. Our weekly report the next day showed discount window borrowing of $2.3 billion on August 22, up from $264 million a week earlier.”

What Bernanke does not mention in his book, as reported at the time by Reuters and the Financial Times of London, is that a foreign bank, Deutsche Bank of Germany, was at the same time borrowing from the U.S. Fed’s discount window.

This is a highly relevant topic today because a Presidential Candidate, Hillary Clinton, along with a raft of reporters and columnists, are arguing against the need to restore the Glass-Steagall Act (which would break up the largest banks and separate them from securities firms) because, they say, these commercial banks didn’t cause the 2008 financial collapse. Clearly, as even Bernanke concedes in his book, the financial crisis did not start with Lehman’s bankruptcy in September 2008 but with a spiraling global credit crisis that gathered steam beginning in August 2007.

Bernanke has also chosen not to include in his book as much as a whisper about the Federal lawsuit filed by Bloomberg News to unclench the details of that discount window borrowing during the crisis from the tight fist of the Fed. Only after the Dodd-Frank financial reform legislation was signed into law, which left the worst aspects of Wall Street’s banking structure in place, were the details of the staggering sums the Fed was secretly loaning to banks made public – as a result of the Bloomberg lawsuit and legislation introduced by Senator Bernie Sanders. Senator Sanders is running against Clinton in the Democratic primary and arguing for the reinstatement of the Glass-Steagall Act.

Bloomberg News noted in this 2011 article the following:

“Bankers didn’t disclose the extent of their borrowing. On Nov. 26, 2008, then-Bank of America Corp. Chief Executive Officer Kenneth D. Lewis wrote to shareholders that he headed ‘one of the strongest and most stable major banks in the world.’ He didn’t say that his Charlotte, North Carolina-based firm owed the central bank $86 billion that day.

“JPMorgan Chase & Co. CEO Jamie Dimon told shareholders in a March 26, 2010, letter that his bank used the Fed’s Term Auction Facility ‘at the request of the Federal Reserve to help motivate others to use the system.’ He didn’t say that the New York-based bank’s total TAF borrowings were almost twice its cash holdings or that its peak borrowing of $48 billion on Feb. 26, 2009, came more than a year after the program’s creation.”

And, of course, there was Citigroup, parent of Citibank, which received the largest total sums of bailout assistance and which, insiders say, did not qualify for the loans because it was insolvent at the time. Newsweek wrote in December of last year that new details are still emerging as to how the New York Fed secretly propped up Citigroup, in part to cover up its own hubris as a regulator. The article notes further: . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

2 November 2015 at 9:15 am

How evolving public attitudes on marijuana could affect the 2016 presidential race

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Evan Helper and Curtis Lee report in the LA Times:

Pot is very much on the minds of voters, with millions poised to decide whether to legalize it. That raises a tantalizing question for presidential candidates: Is there political opportunity in the wind?

Some are beginning to believe there is.

The latest sign was the full-throated call last week by Sen. Bernie Sanders to end federal prohibition. With that one move, the candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination plunged into uncharted territory — and, arguably, so did the presidential race.

Never before has a contender with so much to lose so unequivocally suggested that smoking a joint should be viewed the same as drinking a beer, at least in the eyes of the law.

The move was about more than Sanders’ signature straight talk. It could give the Vermont senator a much-needed boost in some primary states, especially in the West.

Some pollsters and strategists are surprised it has taken this long for a leading candidate to promote legalization this forcefully.

“Politicians are terrible at anything new,” said Celinda Lake, a Washington political strategist who has worked on pot initiatives. “They always miss the trends where voters are ahead of them.”

She says voter opinion is shifting on marijuana as rapidly as it did on same-sex marriage, another issue where lawmakers struggled to keep pace with evolving public attitudes.

A new Gallup poll found that 58% of voters say marijuana should be legalized, suggesting there is not a lot of risk in embracing it. More important, the pot vote draws a demographic highly coveted by campaign operatives: It’s young, diverse and up for grabs.

But there may be danger in doubling down on the dime bag. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

2 November 2015 at 9:08 am

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