Later On

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

Archive for December 16th, 2015

Teen Marijuana Use Holds Steady Despite Legalization

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Vikas Bajaj writes in the NY Times:

People who oppose the legalization of marijuana argue that changing the law will encourage more teenagers to try the drug and will lead them to more dangerous substances like heroin, ecstasy and amphetamines. But a new study provides fresh evidence that contradicts both of those assertions.

The latest installment of an annual survey on drug use by teenagers, published on Wednesday, shows that the percentage of young people using marijuana has held steady even as more states have legalized medicinal and recreational use of the drug. And fewer teens are using more dangerous drugs like heroin. Furthermore, the percentage of high school students using cigarettes and alcohol has fallen to the lowest level since 1975, when the study first began. The survey, called Monitoring the Future, is conducted by researchers at the University of Michigan and is sponsored by the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

According to the survey, 44.7 percent of 12th graders in 2015 said they have tried marijuana, up slightly from 44.4 percent last year. The rate of marijuana use fell among 10th graders (to 31.1 percent, from 33.7 percent) and 8th graders (15.5 percent, from 15.6 percent). Marijuana rates for all three groups have been fairly steady in recent years and notably lower than they were in the late 1990s when nearly half of all high school seniors had tried the drug and more than one fifth of 8th graders had.

In recent years four states – Colorado, Washington, Oregon and Alaska – and the District of Columbia have legalized recreational use of the drug. Many others, including California, Massachusetts and, last year, New York, have passed laws legalizing medicinal useof the drug. (Medical marijuana dispensaries are expected to open in New York State next month.)

If the arguments of lawmakers like Chris Christie, the Republican presidential candidate and governor of New Jersey, were correct, the percentage of teenagers using marijuana should be rising and we should be seeing early signs of the gateway-drug effect. That this is not happening strongly suggests that legalization is not the bogeyman it was made out to be. It also suggests that the states that have relaxed their marijuana laws are doing a good job of educating teenagers about the harms of drug use and limiting access to marijuana by regulating businesses that grow and sell it. . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

16 December 2015 at 4:56 pm

A few law-enforcement links from Radley Balko

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You can see all the links in the Washington Post, but these in particular seemed worth pointing out:

  • It’s telling that something like “police officers who lie in court should be prosecuted for perjury” would be offered as a reform — and a controversial one at that.
  • The only police officer to be criminally charged in the botched drug raid that critically wounded a Georgia toddler … has been acquitted.
  • Texas criminalizes apps that match people who need furniture moved with people willing to help them move furniture.

Police seem rarely to be held in any way accountable for criminal behavior and misconduct. That’s a bad sign.

Written by Leisureguy

16 December 2015 at 1:54 pm

Made a very tasty Caldo Verde, a Portuguese soup

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Here’s the recipe I used. (I’ve made it before.)

Written by Leisureguy

16 December 2015 at 1:48 pm

Posted in Food, Recipes & Cooking

Amazing sculptures carved from pencils

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Pencil-103-top-view-1000-sig

You can see more at Cindy Chinn’s Art Blog.

Written by Leisureguy

16 December 2015 at 1:45 pm

Posted in Art

Why Are Drug Monopolies Running Amok? Meet Deborah Feinstein

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David Dayen reports in The Intercept:

One of the biggest policy debates in America today concerns the unparalleled rise in prescription drug costs. Enormous pharmaceutical industry profit margins, tales of companies like Turing, Valeant and Gilead Sciences jacking up the price of life-saving medicines, and a spate of industry mergers (the latest being a $150 billion deal between Pfizer and Allergan, designed mostly to lower their tax rate) have lawmakers and presidential candidatesscrambling for answers.

But one point has been lost among the various proposals: The U.S. has had antitrust laws on the books for over 100 years to reduce the power of monopolies and restrain consumer costs. They could come in handy in situations like these.

Bernie Sanders recognized this when he urged the Obama Administration to block the Pfizer-Allergan merger. Hillary Clinton has promised to “stop corporate concentration” in the pharmaceutical industry.

The problem is that the federal agency responsible for antitrust oversight of drug companies – the Federal Trade Commission – has a terrible track record of supporting the public interest.

And the reason why can be seen in the career trajectory of one woman: Deborah Feinstein, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Competition, the agency’s main enforcement entity. During Feinstein’s tenure, the FTC has largely abandoned its attempts to block mergers, instead favoring consent agreements that have a history of failing to achieve their goals.

Feinstein has gone back and forth through the so-called revolving door. From 1989 to 1991, she worked at the FTC as an assistant director in the Bureau of Competition. In 1995, she moved to high-powered corporate law firm Arnold & Porter, becoming a partner and the head of the firm’s antitrust practice. Feinstein “specialized in representing clients before the FTC and Department of Justice,” including General Electric, NBC Universal, Unilever and Pepsi.

On its website, Arnold & Porter brags about its robust practice in helping pharmaceutical and medical device companies “respond to complex regulatory and compliance changes.”

In 2013, Feinstein returned to the FTC to run the Bureau of Competition, while reportedly speaking fondly about how her private practice experience informed her decisions.

Arnold & Porter’s antitrust group, in fact, has a pipeline into government service. Lawyers from the group have become chair of the FTC, general counsel of the FTC, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Competition, and head of the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division. The current Antitrust Division chief, William Baer, had two stints at the FTC in between his tenure at Arnold & Porter. Robert Pitofsky, former chair of the FTC, also went back and forth between the agency and Arnold & Porter. And it’s an open secret that Feinstein will return to Arnold & Porter again after her stint is up.

“The elite DC antitrust bar is a small, chummy circle whose members spend most, if not all, of their time representing corporations,” said Jeff Hauser, who runs the Revolving Door Project at the Center for Effective Government. “Law firms eagerly market their attorneys’ government experience, signaling to clients that their team possesses relationships with current regulators.” . . .

Continue reading. There’s quite a bit more, and unfortunately it seems not uncommon in the Obama Administration.

Written by Leisureguy

16 December 2015 at 1:31 pm

A Fight for the Soul of Science

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Natalie Wolchover reports in Quanta:

Physicists typically think they “need philosophers and historians of science like birds need ornithologists,” the Nobel laureate David Gross told a roomful of philosophers, historians and physicists last week in Munich, Germany, paraphrasing Richard Feynman.

But desperate times call for desperate measures.

Fundamental physics faces a problem, Gross explained — one dire enough to call for outsiders’ perspectives. “I’m not sure that we don’t need each other at this point in time,” he said.

It was the opening session of a three-day workshop, held in a Romanesque-style lecture hall at Ludwig Maximilian University (LMU Munich) one year after George Ellis and Joe Silk, two white-haired physicists now sitting in the front row, called for such a conference in an incendiary opinion piece in Nature. One hundred attendees had descended on a land with a celebrated tradition in both physics and the philosophy of science to wage what Ellis and Silk declared a “battle for the heart and soul of physics.”

The crisis, as Ellis and Silk tell it, is the wildly speculative nature of modern physics theories, which they say reflects a dangerous departure from the scientific method. Many of today’s theorists — chief among them the proponents of string theory and the multiverse hypothesis — appear convinced of their ideas on the grounds that they are beautiful or logically compelling, despite the impossibility of testing them. Ellis and Silk accused these theorists of “moving the goalposts” of science and blurring the line between physics and pseudoscience. “The imprimatur of science should be awarded only to a theory that is testable,” Ellis and Silk wrote, thereby disqualifying most of theleading theories of the past 40 years. “Only then can we defend science from attack.”

They were reacting, in part, to the controversial ideas of Richard Dawid, an Austrian philosopher whose 2013 book String Theory and the Scientific Method identified three kinds of “non-empirical” evidence that Dawid says can help build trust in scientific theories absent empirical data. Dawid, a researcher at LMU Munich, answered Ellis and Silk’s battle cry and assembled far-flung scholars anchoring all sides of the argument for the high-profile event last week.

Gross, a supporter of string theory who won the 2004 Nobel Prize in physics for his work on the force that glues atoms together, kicked off the workshop by asserting that the problem lies not with physicists but with a “fact of nature” — one that we have been approaching inevitably for four centuries.

The dogged pursuit of a fundamental theory governing all forces of nature requires physicists to inspect the universe more and more closely — to examine, for instance, the atoms within matter, the protons and neutrons within those atoms, and the quarks within those protons and neutrons. But this zooming in demands evermore energy, and the difficulty and cost of building new machines increases exponentially relative to the energy requirement, Gross said. “It hasn’t been a problem so much for the last 400 years, where we’ve gone from centimeters to millionths of a millionth of a millionth of a centimeter” — the current resolving power of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Switzerland, he said. “We’ve gone very far, but this energy-squared is killing us.”

As we approach the practical limits of our ability to probe nature’s underlying principles, the minds of theorists have wandered far beyond the tiniest observable distances and highest possible energies. Strong clues indicate that the truly fundamental constituents of the universe lie at a distance scale 10 million billion times smaller than the resolving power of the LHC. This is the domain of nature that string theory, a candidate “theory of everything,” attempts to describe. But it’s a domain that no one has the faintest idea how to access.

The problem also hampers physicists’ quest to understand the universe on a cosmic scale: No telescope will ever manage to peer past our universe’s cosmic horizon and glimpse the other universes posited by the multiverse hypothesis. Yet modern theories of cosmology lead logically to the possibility that our universe is just one of many.

Whether the fault lies with theorists for getting carried away, or with nature, for burying its best secrets, the conclusion is the same: Theory has detached itself from experiment. The objects of theoretical speculation are now too far away, too small, too energetic or too far in the past to reach or rule out with our earthly instruments. So, what is to be done? As Ellis and Silk wrote, “Physicists, philosophers and other scientists should hammer out a new narrative for the scientific method that can deal with the scope of modern physics.”

“The issue in confronting the next step,” said Gross, “is not one of ideology but strategy: What is the most useful way of doing science?”

Over three mild winter days, scholars grappled with the meaning of theory,confirmation and truth; how science works; and whether, in this day and age, philosophy should guide research in physics or the other way around. Over the course of these pressing yet timeless discussions, a degree of consensus took shape. . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

16 December 2015 at 1:15 pm

Posted in Science

Tagged with

US criminal justice system begins (slowly) to investigate the cruel and inhumane (and constant) use of solitary confinement

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New York state has agreed to overhaul the use of solitary confinement in its prisons, as reported in the NY Times by Michael Schwirtz and Michael Winerip:

New York has agreed to a major overhaul in the way solitary confinement is administered in the state’s prisons, with the goal of significantly reducing the number of inmates held in isolation, cutting the maximum length of stay and improving their living conditions.

The five-year, $62 million agreement, announced on Wednesday, is the result of a lawsuit brought by the New York Civil Liberties Union over the abusive treatment of inmates in solitary in the state’s prisons. For 23 hours a day, 4,000 inmates are currently locked away in concrete 6-by-10-foot cells, sometimes for years, with little if any human contact, no access to rehabilitative programs and a diet that can be restricted to a foul-tasting brick of bread and potatoes known at the prisons as “the loaf.”

The changes are expected to reduce the number of inmates in solitary confinement by at least a quarter and usher in a range of reforms, including limiting the time served to three months in most cases and providing the prisoners with certain privileges, like monthly phone calls and group recreation. . .

Continue reading.

Kelly Davis reports in The Intercept that a lawsuit is challenging the use of solitary confinement in California’s county jails:

Brian Chavez was considered a model inmate, a “trustee” granted special privileges for his good behavior during the first three years he was in jail. Then, last November, Chavez was moved with no explanation to the jail’s maximum security unit and placed in a 6-by-7-foot cell, where he was often locked up for 47 hours straight.

Chavez is one of two plaintiffs — both inmates in Santa Clara County, California — named in a federal class-action lawsuit filed late last month by the Berkeley-based Prison Law Office against the Sheriff’s Office.

(The Intercept covered the Prison Law Office’s investigation of the Santa Clara County jails in October.)

The lawsuit argues that Santa Clara’s sheriff is locking up hundreds of inmates in small filthy jail cells and allowing them out for as few as three hours a week. Inmates held in isolation, the lawsuit argues, are subjected to conditions that “serve no penological purpose.” In addition to having very little out-of-cell time, inmates receive limited visiting time and are completely shackled whenever they leave their cells. They are regularly strip-searched — “sometimes up to six times a day,” the lawsuit alleges — and are denied access to “physical exercise, fresh air, sunlight, normal human contact, meaningful activity, and environmental stimulation.”

Inmates in solitary confinement are barred from using any sort of cleaning tools in their cells — brooms, mops, sponges, rags, or towels — except for the inmate’s personal towel. Meanwhile, these units often house mentally ill inmates, who sometimes throw feces and urine or smear it around their cells.

“Plaintiffs,” the suit charges, “are forced to live in areas covered in dirt, hair, blood, feces, urine, food remnants, and vermin, including large cockroaches.”

Rarely are inmates given a clear reason for why they’ve been isolated, said Prison Law Office staff attorney Kelly Knapp. “They’ve been told various things by various officers,” she said, “including that they’re there for their charges, gang status, or some made-up or minor behavioral problem.”

Jail policy requires that an inmate’s housing status be reviewed every 30 days to ensure it’s appropriate, and any inmate who feels he’s been unfairly housed can file a grievance. Both Chavez and Brandon Bracamonte, the other plaintiff named in the suit, have filed numerous grievances, the lawsuit says, but are repeatedly told they’re “properly housed.” Bracamonte, like Chavez, had also been granted jail “trustee” status for good behavior before he was moved to solitary confinement. . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

16 December 2015 at 12:56 pm

Fact-Checking the Debate on Encryption

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The debate over government access to encrypted communication has provided many excellent examples of the Dunning-Kruger Effect, with FBI Director James Comey practically a Dunning-Kruger poster boy. Jeff Larson and Julia Angwin report in ProPublica:

As politicians and counter-terrorism officials search for lessons from the recent attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California, senior officials have called for limits on technology that sends encrypted messages.

It’s a debate that has repeatedly recurred for more than a decade.In the 1990s, the Clinton Administration directed technology companies to store copies of their encryption keys with the government. That would have given the government a “backdoor” to allow law enforcement and intelligence agencies easy access to encrypted communications. That idea was dropped after sharp criticism from technologists and civil liberties advocates.

More recently, intelligence officials in Europe and the United States have asserted that encryption hampers their ability to detect plots and trace perpetrators. But many have questioned whether it would be practical or wise to allow governments widespread power to read encrypted messages.

To help readers appreciate the arguments on both sides, we’ve pulled together some FAQs on a subject that is sure to be hotly debated in the years to come.

Q: Are terrorists really using encrypted messages to plot attacks?

A: There’s mounting evidence that terrorist groups are using encryption, but so does nearly everyone living in modern society. Encryption protects your bank information, prevents your password from being stolen when you log into a website, and allows all e-commerce transactions to take place securely.

In addition, apps that send encrypted text messaging apps through Wi-Fi, such as WhatsApp, Signal and Telegram, have become increasingly commonplace in places where text messaging is expensive.

One piece of evidence that terror networks are using encrypted messages surfaced in a recent issue of ISIS’s Dabiq magazine,where the group listed a contact number in Telegram. Soon after,Telegram shut down many ISIS-connected groups using its service. And earlier this year, a West Point researcher found copies of an encryption manualdesigned for journalists and activists on an Internet forum linked to ISIS.

Intelligence officials have said that the planner of the Paris terrorist attacks used encryption technology, but police also found that one of the Paris terrorists was using anunencrypted cellphone.

Q: Are Google, Apple, Facebook and Twitter thwarting law enforcement through their use of encryption?

A: In the past few years, Silicon Valley tech companies have added layers of encryption to their cellphones and websites in an effort to assure users that their data is safe from both hackers and spies. That encryption has also made it harder for law enforcement officials to read what is transmitted by those devices.

Last year, Apple made encryption the default setting for iPhones, meaning that all data stored on the device was scrambled. In an open letter announcing the change, Apple CEO Tim Cook wrote, “At Apple, we believe a great customer experience shouldn’t come at the expense of your privacy.”

In congressional testimony this month, FBI Director James Comey said that encryption is now part of “terrorist tradecraft.” He cited an instance in Garland, Texas, in which two terror suspects were arrested before they could execute an attack. “That morning, before one of those terrorists left to try and commit mass murder, he exchanged 109 messages with an overseas terrorist. We have no idea what he said because those messages were encrypted,” Comey said.

Q: But can’t the National Security Agency just crack any code it wants?

A: It’s not clear how much encryption the NSA can break. In 2013, ProPublica and the New York Times reported on a top secret NSA program called Bullrun that was described in internal documents as being able to decrypt “vast amounts of encrypted Internet data.” The program started in 2011 and was the result of “an aggressive, multipronged effort to break widely used Internet encryption technologies.”

Details of the project are not known. But the documents showed that in 2013, the agency planned to spend $250 million dollars to, in part, “insert vulnerabilities into commercial encryption systems.”

Q: I heard that there is a “golden key” that unlocks all encryption. Is there such a thing?

A: Not yet and it’s not clear it will ever exist. The U.S. government has been trying to figure out how to access encrypted data for decades. However, wiretapping a phone call is far easier than creating a backdoor into encryption technology.

Last year, the Washington Post editorial board called for Apple and Google “with all their wizardry,” to “invent a kind of secure golden key” that would allow law enforcement officials to read any encrypted message sent by a suspect.

It would be a tremendous challenge to convince the world’s encryption makers, many of whom live outside the United States, to give American authorities access to such a tool. And it would be an even bigger challenge to keep the master key secret — given that it would immediately become the No. 1 target of every hacker and nation in the world.

To address that issue, a White House working group proposed a split key — where one half of the master key would be kept by the government and the other would be held by the encryption company. But the report noted that this approach would be “complex to implement and maintain.”

Q: Are there less complicated ways to give law enforcement and intelligence officials the access they say they need? . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

16 December 2015 at 11:24 am

Trump in 1998 describes the 2015 Trump campaign

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A canard about Trump. (See comment below and this Snopes entry.)

Written by Leisureguy

16 December 2015 at 10:24 am

Posted in Election, GOP, Media, Politics

How Machines Write Poetry

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Elizabeth Preston reports in Motherboard:

As a teenager in Vermont, Sarah Harmon used Java to create a computer program that wrote poetry. She named it OGDEN. Then she submitted one of its poems in 2008 to her high-school literary magazine under the pen name Dan Goshen, an anagram of Ogden Nash.

“They accepted it,” Harmon laughs, “although they did say all these funny things about how abstract it was.”

OGDEN was nothing fancy, she says. It followed predefined rules of grammar and structure to compose poetical-sounding snippets. For example: He was perfectly strange, / His world was shyly hopeless, / Then he tasted his dreams.

These days, Harmon is a computer science PhD student at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She says it’s easy to write programs that generate poetry humans consider publishable. But she’s interested in the next step: a program that’s actually creative.

Researchers can’t even agree on what creativity is. Yet Harmon and others are forging ahead, trying to write software that composes poetry in a more sophisticated way. In their successes and flops, they’re learning about what it means to be human.

One of the first computer bards was named Racter. The program wrote prose largely at random. Its most serendipitous bits of output became a 1984 book of poetry and surreal dialogues called The Policeman’s Beard Is Half Constructed. But programs like this require cherry-picking by a person to make their work look good, Harmon says. She wanted to build something that could evaluate its own ideas and choose the best ones, like a human author.

Furthermore, she says, a poem written by OGDEN or Racter might be charming once or twice. But if you read enough of the program’s outputs, you’ll glimpse the patterns it’s following. The poems won’t surprise you.

“As system creators, we want to be surprised too,” Harmon says. “For me that’s one of the most important features of creative systems.”

For her thesis, Harmon is working on another challenge in the field of computational creativity, as it’s called. She’s trying to use software to adapt narrative prose into simpler language, such as for readers with limited English. Her work on computer poetry is just “for fun,” she says.

Her latest program is called FIGURE8. Instead of composing entire poems, Harmon wanted to focus on one crucial element of poetry: figurative language. (Hence “figure-ate.”) The program’s output would be single similes. “I wanted beautiful content that was understandable and meaningful and surprising,” Harmon says.

First, Harmon dug through psychology and linguistics research to learn what makes a good simile. She found that clichés are bad, of course. A good simile is something new. A good simile is also understandable—the reader should see how the two things are “like” each other. And it should be apt, but unexpected. Harmon found that the cleverest-seeming similes link things that share some characteristics, but not too many. Comparing a strawberry to a cherry, for example, won’t impress anybody.

FIGURE8 is what’s called a “case-based reasoning” system. When Harmon asks it to describe a certain noun, the program checks its internal library to see how other authors have described the same thing. What words did they use? What properties does the thing have? What actions can it take? Harmon has loaded up the program’s library with all the public-domain stories she could find. The program also has access to the internet. . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

16 December 2015 at 10:17 am

Posted in Art, Books, Software, Writing

G.B. Kent, the #101, and Standard Cement

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SOTD 16 Dec 2015

A perfect shave today. The G.B. Kent BK4 did its usual wonderful job working up a fine lather from Standard Cement shaving soap, whose ingredients are:

Vegetable Stearic Acid, Distilled Water, Organic Coconut Oil, Potassium Hydroxide, Vegetable Glycerin, Argan Oil,  Natural Plant Essential Oils And Extracts, Cocoa Butter, Bentonite Clay, Rhassoul Clay, Activated Charcoal

As noted earlier, the soap was developed in cooperation with LA Shaving Soap Company, so it is a very nice soap indeed. It’s also quite thirsty and I had to add water a few times just in loading the brush, and a little more as I worked up the lather on my beard. I suspect it’s the presence of clay that results in the need for water.

Three easy passes to a perfectly smooth face. The iKon Shavecraft #101 is a superb razor (and for those seeking good gifts for a man who shaves, this razor is an excellent candidate).

And the shave got a nice finish with a good splash of Prospector Co.’s K.C. Atwood aftershave, a witch hazel and aloe vera blend with a fragrance of sandalwood, orange, and grapefruit.

Written by Leisureguy

16 December 2015 at 9:35 am

Posted in Shaving

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