Later On

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

Archive for November 15th, 2015

CSI is a lie

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Conor Friedersdorf wrote in the Atlantic from last April:

Forty years ago, Bob Dylan reacted to the conviction of an innocent man bysinging that he couldn’t help but feel ashamed “to live in a land where justice is a game.” Over the ensuing decades, the criminal-justice system has improved in many significant ways. But shame is still an appropriate response to it, as theWashington Post made clear Saturday in an article that begins with a punch to the gut: “Nearly every examiner in an elite FBI forensic unit gave flawed testimony in almost all trials in which they offered evidence against criminal defendants over more than a two-decade period before 2000,” the newspaper reported, adding that “the cases include those of 32 defendants sentenced to death.”The article notes that the admissions from the FBI and Department of Justice “confirm long-suspected problems with subjective, pattern-based forensic techniques—like hair and bite-mark comparisons—that have contributed to wrongful convictions in more than one-quarter of 329 DNA-exoneration cases since 1989.”

That link points back to 2012 coverage of problems with FBI forensic analysis, but the existence of shoddy forensics has been so clear for so long in so many different state and local jurisdictions that the following conclusion is difficult to avoid: Neither police agencies nor prosecutors are willing to call for the sorts of reforms that would prevent many innocents from being wrongfully convicted and imprisoned, and neither the Republican nor the Democratic Party will force their hands.Ignorance of the problem is no longer an acceptable excuse.

Among recent examples:

  • At a Massachusetts drug lab, a chemist was sent to prison after admittingthat she faked the results in perhaps tens of thousands of drug cases, calling into question thousands of drug convictions that ended with people in prison.
  • In St. Paul, Minnesota, an independent review of the crime lab found “major errors in almost every area of the lab’s work, including the fingerprint and crime scene evidence processing that has continued after the lab’s drug testing was stopped in July. The failures include sloppy documentation, dirty equipment, faulty techniques and ignorance of basic scientific procedures ... Lab employees even used Wikipedia as a ‘technical reference’ in at least one drug case … The lab lacked any clean area designated for the review and collection of DNA evidence. The lab stored crime-scene photos on a computer that anyone could access without a password.”
  • In Colorado, the Office of the Attorney General documented inadequate training and alarming lapses at a lab that measured the amount of alcohol in blood.
  • In Detroit, police shut down their crime laboratory “after an audit uncovered serious errors in numerous cases. The audit said sloppy work had probably resulted in wrongful convictions, and officials expect a wave of appeals … auditors re-examined 200 randomly selected shooting cases and found serious errors in 19.”
  • In Philadelphia, “three trace-evidence technicians have flunked a routine test administered to uphold the police crime lab’s accreditation, police brass announced Tuesday. Each technician tests hundreds of pieces of evidence a year for traces of blood and semen, so if investigators determine that the methods are problematic, it could throw countless court cases into question … “
  • In North Carolina, “agents withheld exculpatory evidence or distorted evidence in more than 230 cases over a 16-year period. Three of those cases resulted in execution. There was widespread lying, corruption, and pressure from prosecutors and other law-enforcement officials on crime lab analysts to produce results that would help secure convictions. And the pressure worked.”

That is a highly incomplete sample from just the last decade.

Go back a bit farther to 2004 and you’ll find a New York Times report on major problems in a Texas metropolis: . . .

Continue reading.

The US criminal justice system seems shot through with incompetence and bad faith, including prosecutors that quite deliberately send innocent people to prison (by hiding exculpatory evidence, for example). We are seeing the entire infrastructure of the US—physical, legal, and governmental—rapidly decline.

OTOH, the wealthiest people in the US are rapidly becoming even more wealthy, so that’s progress of a sort.

Written by Leisureguy

15 November 2015 at 8:47 pm

This Unicorn Changed the Way I Poop

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Written by Leisureguy

15 November 2015 at 8:37 pm

Posted in Daily life, Health

Efforts to Rein In Arbitration Come Under Well-Financed Attack

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Corporations very much like arbitration because they pick and pay the arbitrators, whose decisions are thus extremely predictable: arbitrators find against the consumer almost always, since an arbitrator who finds against the corporation tends to be blackballed. Jessica Silver-Greenber and Mike Corkery report in the NY Times:

A television ad during the Republican presidential debate last Tuesday depicted pale bureaucrats rubber-stamping the word “DENIED” on the files of frustrated Americans, beneath a red banner of Senator Elizabeth Warren evoking a Communist apparatchik.

The ad attacks the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, a federal agency created with Ms. Warren’s strong backing after the 2008 mortgage crisis. What the ad did not say: Its sponsor wants to rein in the agency in part because of its efforts to restrict arbitration — the widespread practice in corporate America of requiring customers and employees to resolve disputes not in the courts, but in private proceedings with neither judge nor jury. In fact, arbitration is one of the reasons the ad’s sponsor, American Action Network, wanted to blast the agency with the $500,000 campaign, the group said.

The consumer agency’s stance on arbitration, while difficult to convey in a TV spot, “is a perfect example of how government is taking away the power of individuals and handing it to the trial lawyers,” said Mike Shields, president of the American Action Network and a former top aide at the Republican National Committee.

Last week’s ad is one of multiple efforts across the country in recent weeks by both advocates and opponents of arbitration to revisit the much-debated practice, which, in two powerful decisions beginning in 2011, has been affirmed by the United States Supreme Court. The most significant moves came in Washington, where regulators, lawmakers and the Justice Department pushed for new restrictions on arbitration.

At the same time, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the most powerful business lobby in the country, started a new effort to block the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau by lobbying lawmakers to attach a rider to the federal budget bill that would force the regulator to conduct a new study before issuing any rule, according to people with direct knowledge of the strategy.

“If the Chamber of Commerce thinks they are going to slip a provision into a spending bill that cuts off consumer rights without a fight, they are very much mistaken,” Senator Warren said.

Matt Webb, a senior vice president of the chamber’s Institute for Legal Reform, called the bureau’s work “deeply flawed and incomplete.”

The flurry of activity follows the publication by The New York Times of athree-part series showing how corporations across the spectrum of the American economy — phone companies, credit card providers, nursing homes — use mandatory arbitration to circumvent the court system and derail legal claims alleging predatory lending, wage theft, discrimination and other violations. The reporting detailed how arbitration proceedings tend to favor businesses over individuals. In some instances, arbitrationclauses require disputes to be settled in Christian arbitration, a process governed by the Bible rather than state or federal law.

Proponents of arbitration, who say it provides an efficient alternative to courts, view the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau as among its biggest threats. They say a new rule proposed by the consumer agency, which would prevent financial services companies from including class-action bans in consumer contracts, could in effect kill arbitration altogether.

On Wednesday, the Justice Department issued a proposal to protect military service members from arbitration requirements. Earlier this month, Senator Al Franken, Democrat of Minnesota and a longtime opponent of arbitration, renewed his push for Congress to pass a bill he introduced this year that would prevent companies from requiring employees to go to arbitration.

Several Democrats are expected to introduce bills intended to more widely curtail the use of arbitration clauses, according to the people. But with Congress deeply divided, some Democrats are calling on President Obama to use his executive authority to prevent federal contractors from including arbitration clauses in their contracts with customers and employees.

San Francisco’s city attorney, Dennis Herrera, sued American Express this month over what he claimed were “illegal and anti-competitive rules, policies and practices.” The lawsuit, filed in Superior Court, will probably help small businesses whose contracts with the credit card company prevented them from filing a class-action lawsuit. . .

Continue reading.

Bernie will put a stop to this (if he has a Democratic Congress).

Written by Leisureguy

15 November 2015 at 3:24 pm

A very good interview on the situation at Yale

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Jelani Cobb reports in the New Yorker:

Amid the many conversations these past two weeks about racism and free speech at Yale University, one moment stood out. Last Thursday afternoon, hundreds gathered and expressed their grievances about the treatment of students of color to Jonathan Holloway, the first African-American dean of Yale College. Holloway, a historian of civil rights, is at the center of a campus conflict about liberalism and education as well as the meaning of an inclusive community. We spoke to him on Thursday evening about the origins of the protests and their implications for other institutions. 

Can you describe what the climate is on campus now?

I can’t speak to the graduate professional students because I don’t work with them. The undergraduates are, well, exhausted. What I think they are feeling is that they are part of something larger than their own existence, with all these rallies happening across the country—that they are living a very special moment.

There’s a sense of excitement about that. They’ve got their eyes on the administration because they got our attention, absolutely, and now they know that the president said we are going to announce some concrete changes.

They’re watching us, as they should, and they’re trying to get back to class. They haven’t been going to their classes for the better part of a week, as they’ve been trying to navigate all this. It’s getting quieter. It’s getting clarified, and we’ll see. The next frontier, frankly, is the faculty, because there’s a growing divide in the faculty about issues of free speech. The faculty are getting one version of the story, frankly, as is most of the country, about the free-speech-raising issue on campus.

The students, for them it’s not about free speech. They aren’t questioning the rights of free speech. You’re hearing this incredible pain and frustration related to the issue of being constantly marginalized, feeling that their speech and their existence simply doesn’t matter. They get that message from all kinds of different stimuli in their life, whether it’s the pop-culture world, whether it’s the stuff they’re learning in classes, or peers who don’t value them and their contributions, or peers who simply think they don’t deserve to be at this place, or that they, relatedly, don’t have the intellectual ability to handle problems—long papers, etc. It’s a lot of this stuff coming together that the students are very frustrated by, and now that it’s getting conflated into a free-speech issue, it’s galling to them.

Can you elucidate how people came to see a conflict between the free-speech issues and the issues that students are actually concerned with? . . .

Continue reading.

The whole thing is worth reading. It concludes:

There have been people who look at this situation and say, “These students, who are at one of the most élite institutions in the United States and are reacting in this way, they are coddled and thin-skinned and they should just maybe toughen up. That’s the biggest thing they need to do.”

I understand that. This is not just a black problem or a brown problem or a women’s problem or whatever. We are seeing a generation of students, and I don’t know why, who do seem less resilient than in the past. I think part of it is that things aren’t mediated like they have been in the past. You don’t have the luxury of sitting down and pondering what somebody just said, because you’re too busy putting it into a Tweet and saying, “This is an outrage.” There’s no mediation of ideas. It’s all off the top of my head and it’s pain, in this case.

I think that, because people are not getting enough sleep, and these things just keep on, Tweets keep coming in, that they are not equipped properly to process it all. I think that’s a major part of it. The other part is that students have been struggling at Yale for a long time, and at similar institutions. The administrations were not set up even to care about them. It’s not just that maybe students are less resilient, it’s that the administrations actually are doing more work to identify people who are struggling. In a different era, if you had a drinking problem, there’s a nod and a wink, and that’s just the way Buster behaved. Now we understand women’s side, that this thing is a real problem, and, hey, wait a second, this guy drinks and he sexually assaults somebody.

We’ve got to deal with that. You build up an apparatus to deal with people in crisis, and it actually helps us understand that—you know what?—more people are in crisis than we actually thought. I think these things go hand in hand, and I don’t think anybody’s really figured it out. We can claim we figured it out, but I think no one’s got the patent on that one yet.

I think I’ve said it, but I’ve actually been buoyed in the last couple days, because I’ve seen the Yale that I believe is normal—a really smart school confronting a problem and trying in a creative way to solve it together. That sounds like an advertisement but I actually believe that it operates that way. People are being increasingly willing to presume good faith on someone else’s behalf instead of just being negative. It’s as simple as that. Time will tell where this all shakes out, but I am cautiously optimistic that we are moving to a different place here. Hell, I’ve been wrong three or four times already this week, so who knows?

Written by Leisureguy

15 November 2015 at 1:42 pm

Posted in Daily life, Education, Law

A tasty (albeit high-calorie) recipe for green beans for a holiday dinner

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“For a holiday dinner” because it is somewhat laborious. Still, it tasted great, as well it should—the ingredients:

  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 2 pounds green beans, trimmed and broken in half
  • Salt, to taste
  • 6 slices bacon
  • 2 shallots, finely chopped (about 1/2 cup)
  • 1/2 pound mushrooms, sliced
  • 1 cup crème fraîche
  • 1/3 cup heavy cream
  • 6 ounces Gruyère, shredded (1 1/2 cups) [actually, 2 cups – LG]
  • 2 teaspoons chopped fresh marjoram or 1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves (optional)
  • 1/2 cup bread crumbs (or crumbled Ritz crackers)

Here’s the recipe, and after making it, I can offer some thoughts:

  • Cut the green beans to 1″-2″ length—they are easier to eat if they’re relatively short.
  • Boil the beans in a large amount of water: they will reduce water temperature when added, so I timed from when the water resumed boiling.
  • To dry the green beans after cooking, next time I will use a salad spinner first, and then use the a towel to finish drying the beans. It is indeed important to get rid of the excess water.
  • This recipe takes a lot of pans and bowls, perhaps another reason to reserve it for holiday meals.
  • I roast the bacon rather than pan-frying it. (Roasting it seems to cook it more evenly, and also then I don’t have to watch it, turn it, etc.) Heat oven to 400ºF, line a baking sheet with foil, put a rack on that, and put bacon on the rack. Very thick bacon takes around 22 minutes to crisp; regular bacon around 15 minutes. It’s easy to pour off the rendered bacon fat at the corner of the baking sheet, so I just measured out 2 Tbsp.
  • A common way for corporations to increase profits is to reduce the amount of product per package (while keeping the price the same—and since the package is new, it can carry the label “NEW!!”). The creme fraîche in my store comes in 7 oz containers, 1 oz short of 1 cup. I added 1 oz (2 Tbsp) of sour cream for the missing ounce. (The same sort of thing happened with canned tomatoes: the 1-lb (16 oz) can first became a 15 oz can, and now it’s a 14.5 oz can.)
  • The recipe is way off on volumes. For example, 6 oz of Gruyère cheese is 2 cups, not 1.5 cups, when I grated it. I went with the weight, not volume. And the recipe filled a 3-qt pot and would not have fit in a 2.5-qt pot and certainly not in a 2-qt pot. The 3-qt pot was fine, though.
  • I used fresh marjoram rather than thyme and it added an excellent flavor.

Written by Leisureguy

15 November 2015 at 9:49 am

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