Later On

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Archive for June 29th, 2017

America’s Military: Overcommitted and Underfunded

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Kori Schake writes in the Atlantic:

I confess up front to being a budget hawk. I basically believe that as long as the Pentagon is still buying two manned fighter planes after the unmanned revolution, there is more than enough money going to the Defense Department—because if money were really tight, one or both of those programs would be cancelled, and the military services would be undercutting each other’s budgets to increase the funding available for their priorities. As long as adaptation to obvious next-generation platforms (like unmanned aerial fighters) remains this slow and the services placidly accept their budget shares, the topline is adequate.

But even I am now nervous about the widening gap between America’s military obligations and the resourcing we are committing. What’s worsening the situation is that the Trump administration is both expanding requirements and contracting spending.

Since taking office, President Trump and his defense secretary have approved an increase in both forces and operational tempo in the fight against ISIS in Iraq and Syria; committed to an enduring presence in Iraq after the defeat of ISIS; are considering an imminent increase of at least 4,000 troops to Afghanistan as part of the advise and assist mission to Afghan National Security Forces; are reviewing an Afghan war strategy that could make weightier demands of long duration to that country; have increased the military assets assigned to deter and if necessary engage North Korea; are providing greater intelligence and special-operations support to allied operations in Yemen; and are pushing back assertively on Iranian naval activity. Those are non-trivial expansions of demand to place on an already over-stretched force.

Chief of Staff of the Army, General Mark Milley, assesses current requirements at 540,000 active-duty soldiers, which appears to be the Army’s favorite round number: It was also what the Army believed it needed in the mid-1990s, and what the Army believed it needed mid-term of the Obama administration. So it’s likely an institutionally comfortable number rather than a rigorously derived one.

Still, the 540,000 number cannot reasonably meet the very different demands of those three time frames. Planners at the end of the Cold War envisioned a strategic environment that entailed Russia integrating into the West, did not imagine the emergence of global terrorist threats, and under-emphasized the rise of an aggressive China as America’s peer. The early-2000s assessments were based on a Russia reset, the tide of wars receding, and China as a responsible stakeholder; none of those three planning parameters hold. Even without factoring in the president’s policies, objectively the international environment is increasing demands.

The president’s budget allots only a 3-percent increase in the coming fiscal year DOD spending. When out-year projections are taken into account, the Trump budget will add only $463-billion increase through 2027. Despite political grandstanding about the “historic” size of the increase and a pledge to rebuild America’s armed forces, that is a very modest bump, probably inadequate even to rebuild current readiness shortfalls. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

29 June 2017 at 9:15 pm

Federal court: Despite ‘grossly negligent’ testimony that put two innocent men in prison, forensic experts can’t be sued

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Radley Balko reports in the Washington Post:

Regular readers of The Watch will by now be familiar with the saga of Steven Hayne and Michael West, the two men who dominated Mississippi’s death investigation system for the better part of 20 years.

West testified in dozens of cases, Hayne in thousands. Both often gave testimony well outside the constraints of science. Hayne, for example, once claimed that the bullet wounds in a murder victim were “consistent with” a theory that two people were holding the murder weapon when it was fired. West has claimed to be able to trace bruises on a victim’s abdomen to the specific shoe that inflicted the injuries; claimed to match fingernail scrapes to the specific fingernails that made them; and in one particularly nutty case, claimed that the knife wounds in a murder victim could only have been caused by one specific knife, and then claimed to have found marks on the chief suspect’s hands that could only have been caused by gripping the handle of that knife — and only that knife.

This week, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit ruled that because Hayne and West are protected by qualified immunity for any case in which they testified, they’re only liable to a lawsuit if the plaintiff can show that they acted recklessly. Mere negligence — even gross negligence — is not enough.

The lawsuit in question was brought by Levon Brooks and Kennedy Brewer, two men who were wrongly convicted in the 1990s, largely due to testimony from Hayne and West. In both cases, a little girl was abducted from her home at night, sexually assaulted and murdered, and her body was thrown into a creek. The two crimes occurred just a couple of miles apart. In both cases, the authorities suspected a boyfriend of the mother. In both cases, they took the body to Hayne for autopsy. In both cases, Hayne claimed to have found bite marks that other experts have since said were not human bites at all. In both cases, Hayne then called in West, who was making a name for himself as an expert bite-mark analyst. In both cases, West claimed that the marks were in fact human bites and that the marks “indeed, and without a doubt” were a match to the authorities’ chief suspect.

In reality, the same man — Justin Albert Johnson — committed both crimes. Johnson had a history of attempted sexual assaults. On at least two other occasions he had broken into a home, at night, and attempted to attack a sleeping victim. In fact, he was initially a suspect in the first murder. Had Hayne, West and local authorities not wrongly implicated Levon Brooks in that first crime, the second little girl may never have been attacked and murdered. Instead, West actually exonerated Johnson. He compared a dental mold of Johnson’s teeth with the alleged bite marks and determined that they weren’t a match. (As it would turn out, he was right about that, but only because those marks weren’t bites at all — Johnson never bit either victim.)

Brooks was sentenced to life in prison. Brewer was sentenced to death, and at one point was given a death warrant. In 2000, . . .

Continue reading. And do read the whole thing. There’s a lot more and one feels shame for our criminal justice system.

Written by LeisureGuy

29 June 2017 at 8:07 pm

Posted in Law, Law Enforcement

Donald Trump Has Finally Done Something: He’s Increased the Deficit By a Trillion Dollars

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Kevin Drum points out a significant and even important accomplishment for which Donald Trump can take credit—or, rather, debit.

This is pretty amazing. Donald Trump hasn’t actually done much of anything in the past five months except flap his jaws. But it’s been some pretty expensive flapping. CBO’s last projection of the federal deficit was released in January. Literally nothing has happened since then except for Trump shooting off his piehole every day and congressional Republicans demonstrating that they can’t control their own lunatics. But that’s been enough. CBO’s projection of the federal deficit over the next decade has already increased nearly a trillion dollars: . . . (and charts at the link: worth the click)

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

29 June 2017 at 7:45 pm

Uh-oh: Looks like Trump administration may publicize all voter roll data (name, address, age, etc.)

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I don’t think that data should be made so public, though I’m sure that there are marketing companies salivating at the idea of getting their hands on it. Jessica Huseman reports in ProPublica:

On Wednesday, all 50 states were sent letters from Kris Kobach — vice chair for the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity — requesting information on voter fraud, election security and copies of every state’s voter roll data.

The letter asked state officials to deliver the data within two weeks, and says that all information turned over to the commission will be made public. The letter does not explain what the commission plans to do with voter roll data, which often includes the names, ages and addresses of registered voters. The commission also asked for information beyond what is typically contained in voter registration records, including Social Security numbers and military status, if the state election databases contain it.

President Donald Trump established the commission through an executive order on March 11. Its stated goal is to “promote fair and honest Federal elections” and it is chaired by Vice President Mike Pence. The commission plans to present a report to Trump that identifies vulnerabilities in the voting system that could lead to fraud and makes recommendations for enhancing voters’ confidence in election integrity. No deadline has been set for completion of the work.

A number of experts, as well as at least one state official, reacted with a mix of alarm and bafflement. Some saw political motivations behind the requests, while others said making such information public would create a national voter registration list, a move that could create new election problems.

“You’d think there would want to be a lot of thought behind security and access protocols for a national voter file, before you up and created one,” said Justin Levitt, a professor at Loyola University School of Law and former Department of Justice civil rights official. “This is asking to create a national voter file in two weeks.”

David Becker, the executive director of the Center for Election Innovation & Research, also expressed serious concerns about the request. “It’s probably a good idea not to make publicly available the name, address and military status of the people who are serving our armed forces to anyone who requests it,” he said.

Kobach, the secretary of state in Kansas, has been concerned about voter fraud for years. His signature piece of legislation was a law requiring Kansans to show proof of citizenship when they register to vote, which is currently ensnarled in a fraught court battle with the American Civil Liberties Union. He has written that he believes people vote twice with “alarming regularity,” and also that non-citizens frequently vote. Multiple studies have shown neither happens with any consistency.

Kobach also runs the Interstate Voter Registration Crosscheck Program, a proprietary piece of software started by Kansas Secretary of State Ron Thornburgh in 2005. Under the program, 30 states pool their voter information and attempt to identify people who are registered in more than one state.

Some expect the information Kobach has requested will be used to create a national system that would include data from all 50 states.

It is not uncommon for voters to be registered in more than one state. Many members of Trump’s inner circle — including his son-in-law Jared Kushner and daughter Tiffany Trump — were registered to vote in two states. Given the frequency with which voters move across state lines and re-register, the act of holding two registrations is not in itself fraud. There is no evidence to suggest that voting twice is a widespread problem, though experts say removing duplicate registrations are a good practice if done carefully.

“In theory, I don’t think we have a problem with that as an idea, but the devil is always in the details,” said Dale Ho, the director of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project. While he believes voter registration list maintenance is important, he says Kobach’s Crosscheck program has been repeatedly shown to be ineffective and to produce false matches. A study by a group of political scientists at Stanford published earlier this year found that Crosscheck highlighted 200 false matches for every one true double vote.

“I have every reason to think that given the shoddy work that Mr. Kobach has done in this area in the past that this is going to be yet another boondoggle and a propaganda tool that tries to inflate the problem of double registration beyond what it actually is,” Ho said.

Some experts already see sloppy work in this request. On at least one occasion, the commission directed the letter to the incorrect entity. In North Carolina, it addressed and sent the letter to Secretary of State Elaine Marshall, who has no authority over elections or the voter rolls. In that state, the North Carolina Board of Elections manages both.

Charles Stewart, a professor at MIT and expert in election administration, said it was proof of “sloppy staff work,” and questioned the speed at which the letter was sent. “It seems to me that the data aren’t going anywhere. Doing database matching is hard work, and you need to plan it out carefully,” he said. “It’s a naïve first undertaking by the commission, and reflects that the commission may be getting ahead of itself. . .

Continue reading.

I have zero respect for Kris Kobach, who tends to make many statements based on no evidence. He’s the last person I would put in charge of a project like this.

Written by LeisureGuy

29 June 2017 at 3:46 pm

Medicare Halts Release of Much-Anticipated Data

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Generally when an organization reverses itself on a promise to release data it is because it suddenly discovers or realizes that the data reveals problems with the organization, and it is always easier to hide problems than solve them (which is why we continue to see cover-ups that are worse than the crimes). This sounds a lot like a cover-up. Charles Ornstein reports in ProPublica:

In the past few years, many seniors and disabled people have eschewed traditional Medicare coverage to enroll in privately run health plans paid for by Medicare, which often come with lower out-of-pocket costs and some enhanced benefits.

These so-called Medicare Advantage plans now enroll more than a third of the 58 million beneficiaries in the Medicare program, a share that grows by the month.

But little is known about the care delivered to these people, from how many services they get to which doctors treat them to whether taxpayer money is being well-spent or misused.

The government has collected data on patients’ diagnoses and the services they receive since 2012 and began using it last year to help calculate payments to private insurers, which run the Medicare Advantage plans. But it has never made that data public.

Officials at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services have been validating the accuracy of the data and, in recent months, were preparing to release it to researchers. Medicare already shares data on the 38 million patients in the traditional Medicare program, which the government runs. (ProPublica has created a tool called Treatment Tracker that enables people to compare how doctors and others use services in the traditional Medicare program.)

The grand unveiling of the new data was scheduled to take place at the annual research meeting of AcademyHealth, a festival of health wonkery, which just concluded in New Orleans.

But at the last minute, the session was canceled.

The change caught researchers — and even some former Medicare officials — off guard as the data’s release was a highly anticipated expansion of the government’s effort to share information.

In a statement, CMS said there were enough questions about the data’s accuracy that it should not be released for research use. CMS said it will examine the data for 2015 “to determine if it is robust enough to support research use.”

Niall Brennan, until January the chief data officer of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, worked on the data — known as encounter data — during his time in office. “Hugely disappointing,” he tweeted, with a photo of the sign announcing the session’s cancellation. “Hope CMS not backsliding on #opendata.”

In response to a question about whether the data had problems, he tweeted, “Like any new data source [Medicare Advantage] data had some quirks to be sure but if it was used for payment why can’t it be used for research?” he said in a tweet this week. . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

29 June 2017 at 3:40 pm

Can Microbes Encourage Altruism?

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Interesting idea. Lifeforms are much more intricate and interrelated than we think: the “web of life” really does reflect how you (and I) are attached to other lifeforms, including the microbiome that has such an influence on our health and without which we could not live. Elizabeth Svoboda writes in Quanta:

arasites are among nature’s most skillful manipulators — and one of their specialties is making hosts perform reckless acts of irrational self-harm. There’s Toxoplasma gondii, which drives mice to seek out cats eager to eat them, and the liver fluke Dicrocoelium dendriticum, which motivates ants to climb blades of grass, exposing them to cows and sheep hungry for a snack. There’s Spinochordodes tellinii, the hairworm that compels crickets to drown themselves so the worm can access the water it needs to breed. The hosts’ self-sacrifice gains them nothing but serves the parasites’ hidden agenda, enabling them to complete their own life cycle.

Now researchers are beginning to explore whether parasitic manipulations may spur host behaviors that are selfless rather than suicidal. They are wondering whether microbes might be fundamentally responsible for many of the altruistic behaviors that animals show toward their own kind. Altruism may seem easy to justify ethically or strategically, but explaining how it could have persisted in a survival-of-the-fittest world is surprisingly difficult and has puzzled evolutionary theorists going all the way back to Darwin. If microbes in the gut or other tissues can nudge their hosts toward generosity for selfish reasons of their own, altruism may become less enigmatic.

A recently developed mathematical model and related computer simulations by a trio of researchers at Tel Aviv University appear to validate this theory. The researchers showed that transmissible microbes that promoted altruism in their hosts won the survival battle over microbes that did not — and when this happened, altruism became a stable trait in the host population. The research was published in Nature Communications earlier this year.

“The story is fascinating, because we don’t think of altruism in terms of the host-microbiome relationship,” said John Bienenstock, a biologist at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, and director of the Brain-Body Institute at St. Joseph’s Healthcare Hamilton, who was not involved with the simulation work. “You can’t ignore the possible effect of what your bug population is doing.”

Even when Darwin was developing his theory that the strongest and fittest individuals in each generation were most likely to control resources and leave progeny, he recognized altruism as a befuddling challenge. “It is extremely doubtful whether the offspring of the more sympathetic and benevolent parents … would be reared in greater numbers than the children of selfish and treacherous parents,” he wrote in The Descent of Man.

Darwin hypothesized that altruism might survive if individuals’ cooperative behaviors gave the group to which they belonged a collective advantage. The entire group’s fitness might then trend upward, enabling it to out-compete other groups with more selfish members. That “group selection” model of evolution was developed further by later scientists, and it found powerful advocates such as the leading naturalist Konrad Lorenz.

But in the 1960s, work by influential evolutionary theorists such as John Maynard Smith and George C. Williams dealt a blow to group selection by demonstrating that altruistic traits were hard to maintain in an evolutionary context. Selfish individuals would still appear spontaneously and would tend to have more offspring, edging out more generous members of a species and ensuring the persistence of selfishness.

The biologist William D. Hamilton made an end run around this problem in 1964 by invoking a strategy that Maynard Smith had called kin selection. Hamilton proposed that altruism could persist if helpful individuals’ actions allowed family members to pass on enough of their shared genes to compensate for any reduction in the altruistic individuals’ own progeny. This principle is laid out in a formula called Hamilton’s rule (C < rB), which states that if the cost to a giver (C) is less than the benefit to a recipient (B) multiplied by their genetic relatedness (r), altruism will come to dominate within a population.

Hamilton’s rule explains why altruistic behavior evolved among ants and bees, which are famously social insects. Because of quirks of their haplodiploid genetics, female workers share more genes with their sisters than with their own offspring, so it makes competitive sense for them to sacrifice their own fecundity to help their colony queen mother produce more sisters. The relevance to other animals, however, is murkier. (The geneticist J.B.S. Haldane, who explored early concepts of kin selection in the 1930s, is sometimes alleged to have joked that, as a human being, he would lay down his life for two brothers or eight cousins.)

Kin selection is one example of “inclusive fitness” theories that have been advanced to explain altruism since the 1970s. “Multilevel selection” theories that would include forms of group selection have also had a resurgence, championed by biologists such as David Sloan Wilson of Binghamton University, but they remain contentious.

Still, when it comes to altruism, “there are many explanations, but it still sounds like a mystery,” said Ohad Lewin-Epstein, an evolutionary biologist and programmer at Tel Aviv University. As a student in the biology laboratory of Lilach Hadany, he took part in research on how cooperation among members of a population can affect the evolution of new traits. The team came to feel that the classical explanations for the evolution of cooperation weren’t the whole story. In particular, Hadany and Lewin-Epstein, with Ranit Aharonov, a computer scientist visiting the university from IBM Research, wondered if microbes could manipulate their hosts to encourage them to help others.

The researchers in Tel Aviv wanted to lend context and focus to an idea that had been debated for some time: Can transmissible “piggybacking” factors encourage altruism? In 2013, Sorcha Mc Ginty, a biologist then at the University of Zurich, and her colleagues created a computer model showing that plasmids — genes that move from one bacterium to another — help spur the evolution of cooperation within bacterial communities. In 2015, a group at Paris Descartes University experimentally demonstrated that when bacteria exchange certain plasmids, the plasmids reprogram the recipient bacteria with genetic information that compels them to contribute to the common good. The bacteria secrete proteins that destroy antibiotics in the vicinity — a strategy that protects the entire bacterial community. To Lewin-Epstein and Hadany, results like these raised the question of whether microbes or parasites that move between complex hosts might drive cooperation as well.

To explore this question in depth, the Tel Aviv group created both a mathematical model and a computer simulation that analyzed interactions among members of a population over hundreds (and in some cases, thousands) of generations. The model assumed that altruistic members incurred some fitness cost when they interacted with others, while the recipients of altruistic acts benefited. The definition of altruism the study uses is broad, Lewin-Epstein says, with costs to the giver that can range from minor to a high degree of self-sacrifice.

The researchers then pitted two types of virtual microbes against each other in the simulation. One microbe promoted altruism in its hosts, while the second did not. In each generation, individuals interacted in ways that allowed both types of microbes to pass from one host to the next, and each individual’s microbes were then transmitted to its offspring. Over the generations, microbes that encouraged altruism in their hosts out-competed their rivals when both passed from one host to another and were subsequently passed from parent to child. This was true even when the population of “pro-altruism” microbes was very small at the outset. Pro-altruism microbe recipients were fitter in that they had benefited from another host’s generosity, meaning they were more likely to produce offspring carrying the same microbe.

By the end of the simulation, the host population consisted mostly of individuals carrying the altruism-promoting microbe — in some scenarios, 100 percent of hosts ended up with the microbe. That outcome led to the sustained expression of altruistic behavior within the population. A stable level of altruism persisted even when there were selfish hosts in the mix that refused to reciprocate. The mathematical models and simulations also demonstrated that microbe-transmitted altruism ultimately became more stable within a host population than selflessness that had genetic origins.

“Previous works considered altruism only from the perspective of the host,” Hadany said. “Where classical models would explain the evolution of altruism under some circumstances, this [could explain the] evolution of altruism under wider conditions.” Andrew Moeller, an evolutionary biologist at the University of California, Berkeley, who studies gut microbiomes, said the findings warrant further study. “Microbes can influence the behaviors of animal hosts, so it is not outside the realm of possibility that microbes could promote altruistic behaviors.” . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

29 June 2017 at 3:34 pm

Militarizing the minds of police officers

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Jelani Cobb has a good article in the New Yorker with a 7-minute video that shows why police officers are now so quick to shoot unarmed civilians: they are trained to do it as a conditioned response. The video includes a look at the training classes. Grim, even frightening, look at how our police are being reshaped as a military combat strike force. I expect we’re going to see a lot more civilian deaths in days to come. The article begins:

Three years ago, amid the protests erupting in the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, President Barack Obama ordered a review of a federal program allowing military equipment to be transferred from the armed forces to state and local police departments. For many, the images of local police dressed in camouflage and travelling in armored vehicles became a metaphor for the ways in which the lines had blurred between civilian law enforcement and the military—a phenomenon that the journalist Radley Balko has referred to as the “rise of the warrior cop.” The review resulted in an executive order that curtailed the transfer of some types of military equipment. A new short film by Craig Atkinson, “Conditioned Response,” which includes unreleased footage shot while filming his documentary “Do Not Resist,” from 2016, suggests that the armored vehicles rolling through Ferguson were only the most visible indicators of this militarization. Another, more subtle—and perhaps more intractable—form of it is affecting the psychology of the officers themselves.
For the past two decades, David Grossman, a former Army Ranger and self-described product of a law-enforcement family, has been conducting police-training seminars on the use of deadly force. Policing is a complex job that at times requires split-second decision-making. More often, though, it requires a reservoir of knowledge about social interaction and human behavior, and the ability to read situations that may become violent. Officers are granted a great degree of latitude in their work, partly because interacting with the public requires more nuance than any rigorous set of codes could possibly hope to encompass. Grossman’s “Bulletproof Warrior” philosophy, however, dispenses with these gray areas. Here the war on crime is not metaphorical; police are a kind of domestic militia tasked with subduing a potentially lethal enemy. Danger is ambient, ever present, and unpredictable. (Grossman did not respond to a request for an interview.) Grossman’s seminar exists at the opposite pole of the current drive for criminal-justice reform. While progressives emphasize police training to de-escalate conflict, Grossman’s seminar pushes officers to become more comfortable with the use of deadly force. As Grossman informs one group of attendees, “only a killer can hunt a killer.” Killing is a central theme of Grossman’s seminars but is only a fractional portion of law enforcement’s responsibilities. The vast majority of police in this country never use deadly force in the course of their careers.
Jeronimo Yanez, the police officer who fatally shot Philando Castile, in Minnesota, last year, belongs not only to the small percentage of officers who have killed civilians but also to the much larger group of officers who have attended Grossman’s seminars. He reacted quickly, interpreted an otherwise calm moment as the paramount danger, and fired seven times into a vehicle with a four-year-old girl in the back seat. A jury determined that Yanez had not committed any crime, but, . . .

Continue reading.

Here’s the video:

Written by LeisureGuy

29 June 2017 at 3:06 pm

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