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

Archive for March 14th, 2017

Very interesting puzzle, equally interesting plan

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Kevin Drum explains all, with his usual flair. He’s the Fred Astaire of blog posts.

Written by LeisureGuy

14 March 2017 at 4:02 pm

But also: Is Preet Bharara Trying to Tell Us Something?

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Cezary Podkul reports in ProPublica:

Fired by President Donald Trump, Preet Bharara left behind a mysterious, thirteen-word message. “By the way, I know what the Moreland Commission must have felt like,” he tweeted on Sunday.

Americans are getting used to deciphering the tweets of a president who eviscerates his enemies in 140 characters or less. So perhaps it’s inevitable that a public official whom he dismissed would fight back in the same way — and similarly raising questions about the tweeter’s intent and state of mind.

A spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York said he could not elaborate on Bharara’s tweet. And the ex-prosecutor himself has made no further public comment, leaving those familiar with the Moreland Commission’s history to speculate about the presidential parallels.

The cryptic reference to the corruption-fighting commission, which New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo unexpectedly disbanded in March 2014, could simply mean that Bharara knows what it’s like to be let go when there’s still important work to be done. Or it could be read to accuse Trump, like Cuomo, of trying to axe an investigation before it brings down his friends. In the most sinister interpretation, it could even be a threat or a portent — since Cuomo’s allies ultimately faced justice anyway.

“I think Preet is way too smart to simply say something that might have wide-ranging implications without thinking it through,” said Chris Malone, a political science professor at City University of New York’s Lehman College. Malone said he thinks Bharara was “sending a message” that “you’re cutting off an investigation in midstream.”

Following a series of corruption scandals involving state lawmakers, Gov. Cuomo created the Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption, as it was formally known, in July 2013 to root out corruption in politics and state government. It was named for a 1907 law known as the Moreland Act, which gives the governor broad authority to investigate state agencies. The panel’s 25 members included current and former district attorneys from across the state who were empowered to issue subpoenas and compel testimony.

The panel issued a first draft of its findings in December 2013 and vowed to “proceed with ongoing investigations as we continue to follow the money.” Those investigations hadn’t reached their conclusion when, four months later, Cuomo abruptly dismantled the commission.

Cuomo said at the time that a package of modest ethics reforms agreed to by the legislature eliminated the need for the commission. But a subsequent New York Times investigation revealed that Cuomo’s aides undermined the commission as the panel’s subpoenas started getting close to the governor’s office. The timing suggested Cuomo was concerned that the commission might dig up unwelcome facts about his administration.

Enter Bharara. After Cuomo disbanded the panel, the Moreland Commission handed over documents, computer files and other materials from its investigation to the federal prosecutor, who vowed to take over its mantle. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

14 March 2017 at 2:55 pm

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) makes a lot of sense—never thought I’d write that.

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Jennifer Rubin’s post in the Washington Post is a must-read, but I’ll quote just the opening (and it gets better). And I always like to point out that Ms. Rubin is a conservative Republican (but with intelligence and principles):

If you think politicians should make cogent argument for their proposals, not cherry-pick facts; recognize economic and political realities, not lie about what they and their opponents say; and own up to the defects in their own proposals, you are probably very distressed — or cannot bear to watch the day’s events.

We’ve heard all sorts of nonsense from GOP leaders and White House press secretary Sean Spicer on Tuesday:

  • The Congressional Budget Office can predict the budget but not coverage numbers. (Actually, the coverage helps determine the budget numbers.)
  • The president never promised to cover everybody. (He did.)
  • There will be 60 votes for follow-on legislation that the GOP acknowledges is essential. (No Democrat in the Senate shows any interest whatsoever in any part of this.)
  • Then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said you’d have to pass the bill to find out what’s in it. (She in essence said you’d have to get away from the political noise to appreciate it.)
  • The Obamacare process was less transparent than the GOP’s has been. (The reverse is true. By a lot.)
  • The CBO number is ridiculous — except for the parts we like. (Need we say more?)
  • It’s the GOP bill or nothing. (Actually, not even Republicans agree, as we discuss below.)

The reason for the higher level of incoherence than normal is not hard to figure out. The Post reports:

Continue reading.

 

Written by LeisureGuy

14 March 2017 at 2:37 pm

Wow! Paul Manafort’s daughters say he “knowingly” had people killed

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Trump runs with an ugly crowd.Simon Ostrovsky reports on CNN:

A Ukrainian human rights attorney representing the victims of mass police shootings in Kiev in 2014 has asked prosecutors to investigate what are purported to be the hacked text messages of one of Paul Manafort’s daughters, saying the texts point to possible influence Manafort had with Ukraine’s president during that period.

“You know he has killed people in Ukraine? Knowingly,” Andrea Manafort allegedly wrote of her father in March 2015 in an angry series of texts to her sister, Jessica, about her father’s personal and professional life.

“Remember when there were all those deaths taking place. A while back. About a year ago. Revolts and what not,” reads another text in reference to the bloodshed in Kiev.

“Do you know whose strategy that was to cause that, to send those people out and get them slaughtered.”

“He has no moral or legal compass,” Andrea allegedly wrote about her father earlier as part of the same conversation.

The messages were obtained from a hacker website that in February posted four years’ worth of texts, consisting of 300,000 messages, apparently taken from Andrea Manafort’s iPhone.

Paul Manafort: No comment

Paul Manafort currently faces an FBI investigation over millions of dollars’ worth of payments he allegedly received while working as a political strategist for Ukraine’s Russia-backed president, Viktor Yanukovych. Manafort has denied receiving the undeclared cash payments. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

14 March 2017 at 1:41 pm

Most convicted terrorists are U.S. citizens. Why does the White House say otherwise?

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Perhaps because lying is now an in-grained habit? Phil Hirschkorn reports on PBS:

The debate and pending court challenges in Hawaii, Washington and other states over the Trump administration’s revised executive order temporarily banning immigration by citizens of six predominantly Muslim countries in the Middle East and North Africa — and suspending admittance of all refugees to the U.S. — revives the question: Is nationality a good predictor of terrorist intent on the homeland?

The January 27 and March 6 executive orders both seem to be predicated on the answer “yes.” President Donald Trump stated in a February 28 speech to Congress, “According to data provided by the Department of Justice, the vast majority of individuals convicted of terrorism and terrorism-related offenses since 9/11 came here from outside of our country.”

But that statement proves to be misleading and inaccurate, according to government data and researchers who have studied these cases over the past 15 years. On March 2, PolitiFact rated the Trump statement “Mostly False.”

When it comes to the hundreds of convictions related to Islamic extremism achieved in U.S. federal courts since 9/11, the opposite is true. The vast majority of individuals convicted have been U.S. citizens, while some immigrants and refugees from the countries in Trump’s executive order have also been found guilty of terrorism and terrorism-related crimes.

T​he White House has indicated the Feb. 28 Trump statement was based on a list of 580 international terrorism-related investigations through December, 31 2014, ​distributed last year by then-Sen. Jeff Sessions and Sen. Ted Cruz in their capacity as members of a Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration and the National Interest, which Sessions chaired.

The list of 580 cases also formed the basis of a different list compiled by the Center on Immigration Studies, an organization that advocates for restricting immigration, which named 72 individuals from the seven countries blacklisted in the original Trump immigration ban as “terrorists.” But “about a dozen” of those defendants were convicted of non-terrorism crimes, according to the center’s Director of Policy Studies, Jessica Vaughan.

Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach said on the PBS NewsHour on March 6, “Since 9/11, we have had 53 terrorists from those six countries either arrested or convicted of terrorism-related crimes.” His office said he was referring to that Center on Immigration Studies list, not including the 19 Iraqis who appeared on it.

But there are shortcomings in relying on the Department of Justice’s 2014 list of 580 names to assert “a majority” of convicted terrorists in the U.S. are immigrants.

First, the Department of Justice National Security Division does not compile lists of convicted terrorism or terrorism-related perpetrators by country of origin, citizenship, or immigration status, as it explained in the introduction to its January 2016 report to Senators Sessions and Cruz. . .

Continue reading. Video at the link.

Written by LeisureGuy

14 March 2017 at 12:48 pm

Evolution Runs Faster on Short Timescales

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Carrie Arnold has an interesting article in Quanta:

the 1950s, the Finnish biologist Björn Kurtén noticed something unusual in the fossilized horses he was studying. When he compared the shapes of the bones of species separated by only a few generations, he could detect lots of small but significant changes. Horse species separated by millions of years, however, showed far fewer differences in their morphology. Subsequent studies over the next half century found similar effects — organisms appeared to evolve more quickly when biologists tracked them over shorter timescales.

Then, in the mid-2000s, Simon Ho, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Sydney, encountered a similar phenomenon in the genomes he was analyzing. When he calculated how quickly DNA mutations accumulated in birds and primates over just a few thousand years, Ho found the genomes chock-full of small mutations. This indicated a briskly ticking evolutionary clock. But when he zoomed out and compared DNA sequences separated by millions of years, he found something very different. The evolutionary clock had slowed to a crawl.

Baffled by his results, Ho set to work trying to figure out what was going on. He stumbled upon Kurtén’s 1959 work and realized that the differences in rates of physical change Kurtén saw also appeared in genetic sequences.

His instincts as an evolutionary biologist told him that the mutation rates he was seeing in the short term were the correct ones. The genomes varied at only a few locations, and each change was as obvious as a splash of paint on a white wall.

But if more splashes of paint appear on a wall, they will gradually conceal some of the original color beneath new layers. Similarly, evolution and natural selection write over the initial mutations that appear over short timescales. Over millions of years, an A in the DNA may become a T, but in the intervening time it may be a C or a G for a while. Ho believes that this mutational saturation is a major cause of what he calls the time-dependent rate phenomenon.

“Think of it like the stock market,” he said. Look at the hourly or daily fluctuations of Standard & Poor’s 500 index, and it will appear wildly unstable, swinging this way and that. Zoom out, however, and the market appears much more stable as the daily shifts start to average out. In the same way, the forces of natural selection weed out the less advantageous and more deleterious mutations over time.

Ho’s discovery of the time-dependent rate phenomenon in the genome had major implications for biologists. It meant that many of the dates they used as bookmarks when reading life’s saga — everything from the first split between eukaryotes and prokaryotesbillions of years ago to the re-emergence of the Ebola virus in 2014 — could be wrong. “When this work came out, everyone went ‘Oh. Oh, dear,’” said Rob Lanfear, an evolutionary biologist at the Australian National University in Canberra.

The time-dependent rate phenomenon wasn’t fully appreciated at first. For one thing, it is such a large and consequential concept that biologists needed time to wrap their heads around it. But there’s a bigger stumbling block: The concept has been all but impossible to use. Biologists have not been able to quantify exactly how much they should change their estimates of when things happened over the course of evolutionary history. Without a concrete way to calculate the shifts in evolutionary rates over time, scientists couldn’t compare dates.

Recently, Aris Katzourakis, a paleovirologist at the University of Oxford, has taken the time-dependent rate phenomenon and applied it to the evolution of viruses. In doing so, he has not only pushed back the origin of certain classes of retroviruses to around half a billion years ago — long before the first animals moved from the seas to terra firma — he has also developed a mathematical model that can be used to account for the time-dependent rate phenomenon, providing biologists with much more accurate dates for evolutionary events.

Other scientists are excited by the prospect. “It’s like Einstein’s theory of relativity, but for viruses,” said Sebastián Duchêne, a computational evolutionary biologist at the University of Melbourne. The time-dependent rate phenomenon says that the speed of an organism’s evolution will depend on the time frame over which the observer is looking at it. And as with relativity, researchers can now calculate by how much.

Viral Fossil Hunting

Katzourakis has spent his career trying to pin down the origin of HIV and other so-called “retroviruses,” which are made out of single strings of RNA.

When he looked at the mutation rates of HIV, he found that it is among the fastest-evolving viruses ever studied. The speedy mutation rate makes sense: Double-stranded molecules like DNA have molecular proofreaders that can often correct errors made during replication, but HIV and other single-strand RNA viruses don’t. Spelling errors occur on top of spelling errors.

Because of this, virologists can directly study only the recent history of viruses like this. Older samples have reached mutation saturation, with so many accumulated spelling errors that scientists can’t account for them all. Taking the history of retroviruses back thousands or millions of years would require a different way to measure mutation rates.

Katzourakis turned to another technique. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

14 March 2017 at 11:49 am

Posted in Evolution, Science

Things I like about Trader Joe’s Green Dragon Hot Sauce

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First, of course, is that it’s tasty—very tasty. It’s not particularly hot, so you can focus on the taste instead of the pain.

And the ingredients warrant the Leisureguy Seal of Approval™: cane sugar, not high-fructose corn syrup; and olive oil and/or canola oil, not soybean oil (avoid) or (worse) cottonseed oil. (One reason I make my own mayonnaise is that soybean oil is so often what is used in commercial mayonnaise, though you can find canola-oil mayonnaise if you look. Olive oil mayonnaise? Not to be found but extremely easy to make if you have an immersion blender and the beaker that comes with it. Key: Eggs must be at room temperature.) The other ingredients in the sauce are what you’d expect: jalapeños, tomatillos, cilantro, garlic, etc.

Well worth a try, IMO, and not expensive. I think maybe I’ll also now try their Sriracha.

Written by LeisureGuy

14 March 2017 at 11:30 am

Posted in Daily life, Food

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