Later On

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

Archive for September 2017

Trump is very given to projection: He accuses mayor of San Juan of “poor leadership.”

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Poor leadership is definitely on Trump’s mind, probably because at some level he’s aware of what a piss-poor leader he is. And as is typical, he projects his own feelings of inadequacy onto others, as when he said that Hillary Clinton was “incompetent.” Hillary Clinton is many things, but incompetent is not one of them. Trump, however, is massively incompetent as is shown by everything he’s done or touched as president, beginning with his choice of personnel.

Written by LeisureGuy

30 September 2017 at 8:47 pm

I wanted to understand why racists hated me. So I befriended Klansmen.

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Daryl Davis has a very interesting column in the Washington Post:

One night in 1983, I found myself playing in a country band at a truck stop lounge. I was the only black person in the joint. Taking a break after the first set of music, I was headed to sit at a table with my bandmates when a white gentleman approached from behind and put his arm around my shoulders. “I really enjoy y’all’s music,” he said. I shook his hand and thanked him. “This is the first time I ever heard a black man play piano like Jerry Lee Lewis,” he continued.

I told him that Lewis was a friend of mine and that he had learned his style from watching and listening to black blues and boogie-woogie pianists. My new fan didn’t buy it, but he did want to buy me a drink. While we sipped, he clinked my glass and said, “This is the first time I ever sat down and had a drink with a black man.”

Why? “I’m a member of the Ku Klux Klan,” he said. I burst out laughing. Then he handed me his KKK membership card, and I recognized the Klan’s symbols. In that moment, I was overcome by a question: How could anybody hate me when they didn’t even know me?

I was no stranger to racism. Having grown up a black person in the ’60s and ’70s, I knew that prejudice was common. But I had never understood why. Sitting in that lounge with my new friend, I decided to figure it out in the only way that made sense: By getting to know those who felt hostility toward black people without ever having known any.

Several years later, I recruited that man, whose name was Frank James, to put me in contact with the grand dragon of the Maryland Klan. He tried to deter me, warning that the leader would kill me. But eventually, after I promised not to reveal how I’d gotten the grand dragon’s contact information, James gave it to me. (I reveal it now, because James has since died.)

By then, I had decided to travel around the country and interview KKK leaders and members from various chapters and factions to get the answer to my question: How can you hate someone you’ve never met? I was planning to write a book detailing my interviews, experiences and encounters with these Ku Klux Klan members. (The book, “Klan-Destine Relationships,” was published in 1998.)

I had my white secretary, who typically booked my band and assisted me with my music business, set up a meeting with the Maryland grand dragon, Roger Kelly, explaining that her boss was writing a book on the Klan and would like his input. Per my instructions, she did not reveal the color of my skin.

Kelly agreed to participate, and we secured a room at a Frederick, Md., motel, where my secretary filled an ice bucket with cans of soda so I could offer my guest a drink. Regardless of how and what he felt about me, if he entered my room after seeing the color of my skin, I was going to treat him with hospitality.

Punctual to the minute, there was a knock on the door. The grand nighthawk (the grand dragon’s bodyguard) entered first, and then the dragon himself. “Hello,” I began, “I’m Daryl Davis.” I offered my palm, and Kelly shook my hand as he and the nighthawk introduced themselves. He sat in the chair I had set out, and the nighthawk stood at attention beside him.

We were both apprehensive of the other, and the interview started haltingly. We discussed what he had hoped to achieve by joining the Klan; what his thoughts were on blacks, Asians, Jews and Hispanics; and whether he thought it would ever be possible for different races to get along. A little while later, we heard an inexplicable crackling noise and we both tensed. The dragon and I stared each other in the eye, silently asking, “What did you just do?” The nighthawk reached for his gun. Nobody spoke. I barely breathed.

Seated atop the dresser, my secretary realized what had happened: The ice in the bucket had started to melt, causing the soda cans to shift. It happened again, and we all began laughing. From there, the interview went on without a hitch.

It was a perfect illustration that ignorance breeds fear and possibly violence. An unknown noise in an ice bucket could’ve led to gunfire, had we not taken a moment to understand what we were encountering.

Even though Kelly had told me he knew that white people were superior to blacks, our dialogue continued over the years. He would visit me in my home, and I would eventually be a guest in his. We would share many meals together, even though he thought I was inferior. Within a couple of years, he rose to the rank of imperial wizard, the top national leadership position in the Klan.

Over the past 30 years, I have come to know hundreds of white supremacists, from KKK members, neo-Nazis and white nationalists to those who call themselves alt-right. Some were good people with wrong beliefs, and others were bad people hellbent on violence and the destruction of those who were non-Aryan.

There was Bob White, a grand dragon for Maryland who served four years in prison for conspiring to bomb a synagogue in Baltimore, where he had been a police officer. When he got out, he returned to the Klan and later went back to prison for three more years for assaulting two black men with a shotgun, evidently intent on murder. But after I reached out to him with a letter while he was in prison for the second time, Bob became a very good friend, renounced the Klan and attended my wedding.

Frank Ancona, who headed a Missouri Klan chapter, would also become a very close friend. When Ancona was killed this year (his wife and stepson have been charged with his murder), one of his Klan members, knowing how close we had been, called me and told me before notifying the police. I accepted the Klan’s invitation to participate in his funeral service. . .

Continue reading.

The column concludes:

. . . And sometimes, people do change. One day in 1999, after having been in the Ku Klux Klan for about 20 years, Kelly, who had risen from grand dragon to imperial wizard, called me, said he was leaving the Klan and apologized for having been a member. He told me he could no longer hate people. I had not turned out to be what he had always thought of black people. He went on to become one of my best friends, and today I own his robe and hood — one set of many in my collection of garments donated to me by apostate Klansmen and Klanswomen, which is always growing.

 

Written by LeisureGuy

30 September 2017 at 8:18 pm

Posted in Daily life

How the military broke its promise and handles sexual assault cases behind closed doors

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Craig Whitlock reports in the Washington Post:

For the U.S. Air Force, the case of alleged sexual harassment and assault by a senior officer was exactly the type of misconduct Pentagon leaders had promised Congress and the public they would no longer tolerate.

The victim at Maxwell-Gunter Air Force Base in Alabama reported in September 2015 that her married boss, a colonel, had repeatedly said he wanted to have sex with her, tracked her movements and sent her recordings of him masturbating in the shower, documents show. She said that she told him to back off but that he would not stop: Twice, she alleges, he trapped her in the office, grabbed her arms and forcibly tried to kiss her.

Air Force investigators quickly confirmed much of her account, aided by hundreds of messages that the officer had texted the woman and by his admission that he had sent the masturbation recordings, the documents show.

In their report, the investigators compiled extensive evidence that the colonel, Ronald S. Jobo, had committed abusive sexual contact against the woman, a civilian in her 30s. Under military law, the charge would have automatically resulted in a court-martial, a proceeding open to the public. The crime carried a sentence of up to seven years in prison and a requirement to register as a sex offender.

The decision on what to do next rested with a three-star general 600 miles away at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio. In the military-justice system, commanders — not uniformed prosecutors — have the power to dictate how and whether criminal cases should be pursued.

In March 2016, Lt. Gen. John F. Thompson, the senior officer in Jobo’s chain of command, decided against charging Jobo with abusive sexual contact, or any crime at all. Instead, Thompson imposed what the military calls non­judicial punishment, or discipline for minor ­offenses.

obo was forced to retire and demoted one rank, to lieutenant colonel. Because the military keeps most disciplinary actions secret, the case was hidden from public view.

There would be no trial, no publicity and no public record — the same for thousands of other sexual assault investigations each year in the armed forces.

An examination of the Jobo investigation, based in part on an internal 400-page law enforcement case file obtained by The Washington Post, casts doubt on the military’s promises to crack down on sexual misconduct and hold commanders accountable for how they administer justice.

“This kind of case cries out to be court-martialed,” said retired Col. Don Christensen, a former chief prosecutor for the Air Force who is now president of Protect Our Defenders. The group advocates for sexual assault victims in the armed forces and has lobbied for uniformed prosecutors, instead of commanders, to oversee cases. “It just cries out for someone to be held accountable in a public forum.”

Jobo retired from the Air Force last year. He declined requests for an interview. In a statement to The Post, he said he served honorably in the Air Force for more than 25 years but “showed extremely poor judgment by allowing a close work relationship to escalate into an unprofessional personal one.”

“I was misguided and deeply regret the hurt and embarrassment I caused my wife, daughter, extended family, colleagues and friends,” he added.

In an interview with The Post, the woman said she felt betrayed by the general’s decision. “Disappointment is probably an understatement. I felt strongly that Colonel Jobo should be held accountable,” she said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to protect her privacy. (The Post’s policy is not to identify victims of sexual assault or abuse.)

The Pentagon has sought to raise the profile of its campaign against sexual assault and harassment in the ranks since 2013, when a string of scandals raised fundamental questions about whether the military’s justice system was too antiquated to cope with the problem. In testimony before Congress, the members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff acknowledged that they had neglected the issue for years.

Since then, the armed forces have promised to address the problem and have devoted new resources­ to training and law enforcement. Last year, the number of reported sexual assaults — defined as acts ranging from wrongful sexual contact to rape — reached 6,172, a new high.

The Pentagon has called the increase a sign of progress, saying that more victims are coming forward because they are confident that offenders will be held accountable. Still, only about 1 in 3 victims last year reported being assaulted, according to military estimates.

More than 90 percent of reported incidents, however, are investigated and adjudicated behind closed doors, Pentagon statistics show. Last year, only 389 sexual assault cases proceeded to trial and produced public records of what happened.

Ordinarily, details of the case involving the colonel from Maxwell-Gunter Air Force Base would have remained secret, too. The Air Force rejected Freedom of Information Act requests from The Post for records associated with Jobo’s investigation and punishment, citing his privacy rights.

The documents obtained by The Post from other sources show how the victim futilely pleaded with Thompson, the general in charge of deciding the case, to approve criminal charges­ instead of meting out what she feared would be “a slap on the wrist.”

“Sir, very respectfully, this is offensive to me,” she wrote in a memo in February 2016, when she learned Thompson was unlikely to order a court-martial. “I have been afraid that I would not be believed. I was afraid that I would get blamed for what happened. I am afraid that this whole thing would just get swept under the rug because of his rank.”

Thompson, who was given a new leadership post in May with the Air Force Space Command, declined requests from The Post for an interview. In a statement, he said military law and Air Force policy restricted him from commenting on the reasoning behind his decisions.

“In this case, as in all ­cases, a thorough investigation was conducted and commanders throughout the chain of command reviewed all of the evidence at multiple stages,” Thompson said. He said he had based his decisions “on the totality of the circumstances and the maintenance of good order and discipline in the Service.”

A history of trouble

Located in Alabama’s capital, Montgomery, Gunter Annex is several miles across town from the main base. The annex houses the Business and Enterprise Systems Directorate, which is responsible for managing many of the Air Force’s computer systems worldwide.

About 1,500 civilians and uniformed personnel work for the directorate. Roughly 80 percent are men.

Military records indicate that the former civilian chief of the unit — Jobo’s boss — had previously been rebuked for an overly lenient approach to sexual misconduct allegations.

The Air Force inspector general criticized the chief, Robert Carl Shofner, for his actions in 2015, when he pushed to promote an Air Force supervisor who had a record of sexual harassment and played down another subordinate’s affair with a junior employee.

According to the inspector general’s report, obtained by The Post under FOIA, Shofner was “overly friendly” with his two offending subordinates. By failing to take appropriate action, the inspector general found, he contributed to a culture at Gunter that “condoned sexual harassment.”

“Mr. Shofner gave the impression that leadership turned a blind eye to sexual harassment and thus allowed an environment where sexual harassment festers,” the report concluded. . .

Continue reading. The report details the actions and words of Jobo’s sexual harassment and makes Thompson’s decision quite difficult to understand—and Thompson himself refuses to explain his reasoning (since the offense was handled as a private personnel manner rather than in a public court-martial).

The military apparently uses “honor” with a special meaning. It seems to include quite dishonorable actions. And the military goes to extreme lengths to avoid accountability. (Note how Jobo and Thompson both refused to grant interviews: hide, conceal, lie, and ignore: that’s the drill.)

Written by LeisureGuy

30 September 2017 at 7:58 pm

Donald Trump Is Upset At People Who Think Puerto Rico Is a Disaster

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Kevin Drum comments on how President Trump handles crisis situations.

Written by LeisureGuy

30 September 2017 at 2:31 pm

One Day in the Life of Battered Puerto Rico

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Frances Robles, Luis Ferré-Sadurní, Richard Fausset, and Ivelisse Rivera report in the NY Times. The report should be read at the link because much of the substance is in the photos. Maps show the locations mentioned. The article begins:

6 a.m.
Near Corozal

The sun rose Wednesday morning in the low mountains of north-central Puerto Rico, near the town of Corozal, to reveal the world that Hurricane Maria has made: shattered trees, traffic lights dangling precipitously from broken poles, and, here on the face of a weedy hill, a gushing spring, one of the few places where people from miles around could find fresh water.

At 6 a.m., about a dozen trucks and cars had parked nearby. People brought rain barrels, buckets, orange juice bottles.

Some men clambered up the steep face of the hill, placing plastic pipes or old pieces of gutter underneath the running spring, directing the water into massive plastic tanks, then hauling them away. Others crouched at a spot where the water trickled down to the pavement. Jorge Díaz Rivera, 61, was there with 11 Clorox bottles. He lives in a community a few minutes’ drive away where there is no water, no food, and no help. The National Guard helicopters have been passing overhead, and sometimes he and his neighbors yell at them, pleading for water. But so far he has seen no help.

“They have forgotten about us,” he said.

Puerto Rico has not been forgotten, but more than a week after Hurricane Maria hit, it’s a woozy empire of wreckage; of waiting in line for food, water and gas and then finding another line to wait in some more. A team of New York Times reporters and photographers spent 24 hours — from dawn Wednesday to scorching afternoon heat, to a long uneasy night and Thursday morning without power — with people trying to survive the catastrophe that Hurricane Maria left behind.

6:51 a.m.
Santurce, San Juan

Elizabeth Parrilla turned the corner at Calle Loíza and trudged quietly down the dead-end road leading to her home of 50 years on Calle Pablo Andino. Her wedges were beginning to get filthy from the damp foliage left behind by the waters that had inundated her street several days before.

7:44 a.m.
Corozal

Three hundred cars and trucks were lined up on the shoulder of the highway just outside town. Another line of at least 100 cars had formed on the other side of the Ecomaxx gas station. . .

Continue reading.

In the meantime, Trump continues to play golf, criticize the officials on site who are trying to deal with the catastrophe, and complain about how Puerto Rico will pay for the help they’re getting (something he did not mention for Texas or Florida). (Puerto Ricans do pay taxes and thus can reasonably expect help from the government, though Trump seems to begrudge giving any help at all to them (though not to Texas or Florida.) Having not bothered to go there, Trump is also claiming that the people in Puerto Rico are not working to repair the damage. (His attitude may be shaped by the fact that Puerto Ricans speak Spanish.)

Written by LeisureGuy

30 September 2017 at 10:41 am

Amazon’s HQ2 Hunt Is a Transit Reckoning

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Laura Bliss reports at CityLab.com:

If anything good comes out of the current arms race between North American cities to land Amazon’s second headquarters, it might be a disruption of one of the more intractable subjects of public discourse: mass transportation.

Direct access to rail, train, subway and bus routes was chief among Amazon’s requirements in the request-for-proposals it issued to cities nationwide in search of its second headquarters. As readers may by now be sick of hearing, the colossus of e-commerce is promising bidders 50,000 new jobs with average salaries of $100,000, plus $5 billion of investments: a siren’s song to cash-hungry and not-so-cash-hungry metros alike. Cities are now jousting thirstily for Amazon’s attention, a spectacle that has been at turns entertaining, embarrassing, and legitimately provocative.

The emphasis on transit seems to be creating, in particular, something of a come-to-Jesus moment for cities where high-level service has long been an afterthought. Cities with legacy subway systems, such as Boston and Washington, D.C., have risen to the top of more than one ranking; so has Denver, with its relatively forgiving traffic and expanded rail investments. In weeks of speculation and showdowns, a lack of transit connectivity has been one of the the great presumed disqualifiers for other towns.

Look at how folks putting together Raleigh, North Carolina’s proposal are talking about themselves. Raleigh is home to the so-called “Triangle,” a phalanx of research institutions chock-full of human capital. “I felt like the region performed strongly on all of the criteria,” Michael Pittman, vice-president for marketing and communications at the Research Triangle Foundation, told the News & Observer. “And then you get to transit and you think, well that might be our weakness. Because we don’t have a mass transit system in place yet.”

Atlanta is another leading contender. Its massive international air hub and low cost of living make it stand out. But so does its paralyzing traffic and lack of reliable transit. If Amazon is serious about replicating the sort of urban campus model it’s established in Seattle, the Big Peach might be a long shot. “There’s nothing like being left out of the money to force a rethinking of policy,” wrote the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Jim Galloway, reporting on a meeting between Georgia Governor Nathan Deal and regional leaders over concerns that Atlanta would be eliminated over its dysfunctional local transportation systems.

Ditto big hot towns like Miami, Phoenix, and Dallas. The latter “boasts the longest light rail system in the nation,” writes Peter Simek in D MagazineThat might score some points, except, Simek continues:

I can’t imagine Amazon is dumb enough to be fooled by those kind of booster stats that don’t mean anything when it comes down to the messy business of actually moving people around a city. And as anyone who has ever dealt with DART knows, Dallas-area public transit is terrible at moving people around the city efficiently.

Leaders of car-oriented cities around the country might be ogling some of the shiny new mass transit systems in the country and wondering how they might build one of their own. (Or, in the case of Baltimore, whose $3 billion crosstown light-rail project was scuttled in 2015, ruefully regretting recent missed opportunities.) But they should be careful. Building effective mass transport—presumably, the kind Amazon is interested in—is not the same as building trains. Cities might look to Seattle, the city where Amazon already lives, to reverse-engineer their way to HQ2-style mobility.

In order to manage congestion and growth on local streets, the country’s biggest company town has adopted a transit plan that ensures priorities are attuned to local needs, rather than rely solely on its regional transit agency for vision. Notably, Seattle has placed an emphasis on improving the bus network, “systematically rethinking its bus routes one quadrant of the city at a time,” according to StreetsBlog—a bet that’s mostly paid off. Meanwhile, it’s pouring billions into a light-rail expansion. Focused attention on frequent, well-connected service are why, experts say, Seattle is one of vanishingly few U.S. cities where transit ridership is actually increasing.

Somewhat unexpectedly, another one is Houston, which also recently revamped its poorly performing bus network with an emphasis on density and frequency over geographic spread. But the Texas metro has been DQed by many speculators for its lack of highly skilled labor and still-scant transit resources. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

30 September 2017 at 9:10 am

ProPublica Seeks Source Code for New York City’s Disputed DNA Software

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Lauren Kirchner reports in ProPublica:

ProPublica is asking a federal court for access to the source code for New York City’s proprietary DNA software, which some scientists and defense lawyers contend may be inaccurate in matching a defendant to a complex sample of genetic material. Known as a pioneer in analyzing the most difficult evidence from crime scenes, the New York City medical examiner’s office has processed DNA samples supplied not only by local police, but also by about 50 jurisdictions nationwide.

Employees developed the disputed software — known as the Forensic Statistical Tool, or FST — to analyze evidence consisting of multiple people’s DNA and determine the likelihood that a suspect’s DNA was present. According to the medical examiner’s office, FST was used in about 1,350 criminal cases from 2011 until this year, when it was phased out. The office has long kept the source code secret, successfully opposing requests in court by defense attorneys to examine it.

A motion ProPublica filed today in the Southern District of New York asks Judge Valerie Caproni to lift a protective order she had issued in a recent case, U.S. v. Kevin Johnson. While she became the first judge to require the lab to turn over the source code to the defense, her order barred parties in the case from sharing or discussing it.

As reported earlier this month by ProPublica and The New York Times, defense expert Nathaniel Adams, a computer scientist and an engineer at a private forensics consulting firm in Ohio, reviewed the code and found that “the correctness of the behavior of the FST software should be seriously questioned.” However, the versions of Adams’ affidavits available to the public were heavily redacted and the code itself remains shielded by the judge’s order. The medical examiner’s office characterized Adams’ criticisms as stylistic rather than substantive and said FST’s calculations were reliable.

FST played a key role in Johnson’s case. He was arrested after a police search found two guns in his ex-girlfriend’s apartment, where he sometimes stayed. The DNA lab in the medical examiner’s office found two people’s DNA on one gun; by FST’s calculation, it was 156 times more likely than not to contain Johnson’s DNA. The second gun had three people’s DNA and a formidable likelihood of 66 million. Johnson pleaded guilty to illegal gun possession and Caproni sentenced him last month to 28 months in prison, most of which he has already served.

ProPublica filed a public-records request for the FST source code in July. The medical examiner’s office denied the request, citing its “sensitive nature” and writing that “source code consists of information that, ‘if disclosed, would jeopardize the capacity of [OCME] to guarantee the security of its information technology assets.’” The office’s special counsel denied ProPublica’s appeal in August.

ProPublica is seeking to intervene in U.S. v. Johnson with the assistance of the Media Freedom and Information Access Clinic at Yale Law School, which offers pro bono services to news organizations.

Richard Tofel, president of ProPublica, said, “We are seeking disclosure of this code because of the considerable public interest in the accuracy of its predictions, and to further scrutiny of its impact. If we prevail on our motion, we would envision publishing the code alongside an analysis of its likely effectiveness.”

Other nonprofit organizations are also seeking to open proprietary source codes for DNA analysis to wider scrutiny. On Sept. 13, the American Civil Liberties Union and Electronic Frontier Foundation filed briefs in California’s appeals court, supporting efforts by a man convicted of sexual assault and burglary to gain access to the algorithm behind a widely used software program called TrueAllele.  The DNA evidence in his case was so small and mixed that initial analysis was inconclusive, but prosecutors say TrueAllele linked him to three crime scenes in east Bakersfield. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole. The developer of TrueAllele contends that its code is a trade secret.

Kevin Johnson’s attorneys, Sylvie Levine and Christopher Flood of the Federal Defenders of New York, said they also plan to submit a motion to make the FST source code public. Flood told Caproni in Johnson’s sentencing hearing last month that Adams’ critique of FST “affects every result that has ever been produced by that software,” so there is a public interest in allowing him to discuss it freely.

“It’s hard to imagine a justification for a public lab to be so opaque, when science demands transparency,” Flood told ProPublica after the hearing.

A coalition of defense attorneys, including Flood, sent a letter to New York state’s inspector general, Catherine Leahy Scott, on Sept. 1, asking her to investigate the DNA lab and the thousands of past criminal cases that relied on the results of either FST or a second controversial technique called “high-sensitivity testing.”

Because the lab has kept problems with its “unreliable” testing and “unsound statistical evidence” secret from the public and the courts, the attorneys wrote, “innocent people may be wrongly convicted, and people guilty of serious crimes may go free.” . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

30 September 2017 at 8:57 am

Wet Shaving Products Monarch, Phoenix Artisan Solstice, iKon 102, and Alpa 378

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Still haven’t found the camera’s battery charger; unpacking continues, though, and eventually it will surface.

The brushes and soaps are unpacked, though, which offers me more choices. The Monarch is a very nice brush, and the lather from Solstice has a wonderful fragrance as well as an excellent consistency and an excellent effect on my skin.

Three passes with the 102 left my face BBS, and a small splash of Alpa 378 finished the job.

I haven’t found the spice racks that hold my brushes, but that’s okay: I have no idea where I’d put them. I have found the aftershaves, but don’t want to unpack them until I find the right location for the little bookcase that holds them.

Unpacking is not so much fun as it should be.

Update: A message from Zungaron on Wicked Edge points out that the Baili BD176 on Amazon is the Baili BR171 in a case. It’s $10 instead of $6, but with Prime (free shipping), it may be the better buy.

Written by LeisureGuy

30 September 2017 at 8:54 am

Posted in Shaving

Trump Could Save More Than $1 Billion Under His New Tax Plan

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Jesse Drucker and Nadja Popovich report in the NY Times:

President Trump could cut his tax bills by more than $1.1 billion, including saving tens of millions of dollars in a single year, under his proposed tax changes, a New York Times analysis has found. [Corruption consists of using a public office for private gain. Trump (and many around him) are corrupt in this sense. – LG]

On Wednesday, the White House announced a sweeping plan to cut a variety of taxes that would overwhelmingly benefit the wealthy. The estimate of Mr. Trump’s savings is based in part on information from his 2005 federal tax return. The analysis compares what his tax burden would be under current law with what it would be under the proposal.

Mr. Trump’s 2005 return is the most recent available publicly and was released in March by David Cay Johnston on the website DCReport.org. The Times’s figure also relies on an estimate of Mr. Trump’s net worth, calculated by the Bloomberg Billionaire’s Index to be $2.86 billion.

“I don’t benefit. I don’t benefit,” Mr. Trump said on Wednesday. “In fact, very, very strongly, as you see, I think there’s very little benefit for people of wealth.” [This is the standard Trump technique: simply lie. – LG]

In fact, high-income earners like Mr. Trump are likely to benefit disproportionately if the White House proposal becomes law. The estimates, calculated with the help of Robert Willens, an accounting expert, and Stephen Breitstone, a tax lawyer, provide a view into precisely how.

Savings of about $1.1 billion from repealing the estate tax

Though it would not be reflected on his income tax return, Mr. Trump’s proposal to eliminate the estate tax would generate the largest tax savings. If his assets — reportedly valued at $2.86 billion — were transferred after his death under today’s rules, his estate would be taxed at about 40 percent. Repealing the federal estate tax could save his family about $1.1 billion, though it could still be subject to New York estate taxes.

Savings of $31 million from repealing the alternative minimum tax

The decades-old alternative minimum tax is meant to prevent America’s wealthiest from using deductions to pay very low or no federal income tax. In 2005, it accounted for about 80 percent of Mr. Trump’s overall income tax payment. His plan to repeal the tax would save him $31.3 million.

Savings of about $16 million from taxing certain types of business income at 25 percent

Mr. Trump’s proposed changes could allow individuals to qualify for a significantly reduced tax rate of 25 percent on certain types of income they receive through business partnerships and similar entities. . .

Written by LeisureGuy

29 September 2017 at 7:33 pm

In Colorado, a shocking case of prosecutorial abuse

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Radley Balko reports in the Washington Post:

The Colorado Independent lays out the facts in one of the worst examples of prosecutorial misconduct I’ve ever seen in a death penalty case.

The case was prosecuted for six years under former 18th Judicial District Attorney Carol Chambers. Brauchler, her elected successor, has led the office for the last five years as it has continued rallying to preserve [Sir Mario] Owens’ and other death sentences against a long list of appeals claims. Brauchler, a Republican who has made a name for himself as a death penalty prosecutor, is running for governor.

There is no definitive physical evidence, no confession, and no eyewitnesses who identified Owens in a case prosecutors built almost entirely on the testimony of informant witnesses to whom the DA’s office gave plea bargains, funds, or both in return for their cooperation against Owens.

Among the charges upon which the appeal was based is the office’s failure to disclose thousands of dollars in payments it made to informant witnesses. One of those witnesses was promised and later given a district attorney’s office car. Some were given gift cards for local businesses. One received $3,400 in benefits, including cash for Christmas presents in the months prior to testifying on behalf of the prosecution.

The defense cited the prosecution’s failure to disclose other incentives given to witnesses in exchange for their testimony. If he didn’t cooperate, court records show, one of the main witnesses was threatened with being charged for the murders Owens was accused of and with receiving two life sentences. Another witness, according to the records, received a suspension of his jail sentence on the condition that he help prosecutors in Owens’ case. People working for the prosecution would appear at informant witnesses’ court hearings and ask for lesser sentences on the condition that they testify against Owens, the records indicate. Records also show that informants who had been convicted of crimes were allowed to violate probation and commit future crimes without consequences as long as they cooperated.

The appeal argued that by failing to disclose these deals before trial, the prosecution rendered Owens’ defense lawyers unable to cast doubt on those witnesses’ testimonies and put their credibility in dispute. In doing so, the argument goes, Owens was denied a fair trial.

Incredibly, neither Chambers’s successor in the DA’s office (who is defending the conviction) nor the district court judge (who denied the appeal) dispute that informants were paid in cash, lenient sentences and other compensation, and that none of this was disclosed to the defense. And the case gets only more disturbing from there.

  • The withholding of exculpatory evidence continued through the new leadership in the DA’s office. The new DA kept the existing prosecutors on the case. In 2015, two years later, they revealed another file full of secret payments to eyewitnesses in the case.
  • For seven years after Owens filed his appeal, the courts imposed a gag order keeping the appeal secret. According to the Independent, to this day some exhibits are still secret.
  • The judge who oversaw the trial and appeals was apparently growing increasingly skeptical of the state’s case against Owens. That is, until he was abruptly fired by the state supreme court. The firing was apparently over a personnel matter, though the Independent article casts some doubt on that explanation.
  • The new judge ruled on Owens’s appeal “without having seen or heard from a single witness about errors in the capital proceedings.”

Then there is the matter of the original DA, Chambers. She has since left office, but she left quite the record. Among her greatest hits:

  • When the DNA profile for semen taken from a 8-year-old sexual assault victim didn’t match the man local authorities had arrested, Chambers offered a whopper of an explanation: “With the low-cut jeans that girls wear, she could have picked up anyone’s DNA off any surface her panties touched while they may have been riding up above her pants. I hate those low-cut pants,” Chambers said, according to the Denver Post. “Depending on how long she had been wearing those panties and where, they could have rubbed up against the back of her chair at school, a restaurant, the couch at home that someone else had been sitting on, a bus seat, someone’s toilet seat if she did not pull them down far enough — there are many ways to get unknown DNA on clothing. Another kid could have snapped the elastic on her underwear — kids do that sort of thing.”
  • In 2011, the Denver Post reported that Chambers had been offering “conviction bonuses” to prosecutors on her staff who hit her quotas.
  • The same year, Chambers was widely criticized for seeking felony arson charges against two young boys who started a house fire after playing with a lighter.
  • In 2006, she was investigated for allegedly threatening a man who was trying to collect a debt from one of Chambers’s political allies with a grand jury investigation.
  • In 2007, she was again investigated, this time for allegedly threatening a judge she felt ruled against her office one too many times.
  • At one point during her tenure, Chambers was responsible for nearly half the “habitual offender” prosecutions in Colorado, a designation that means a decade or more in prison for crimes that otherwise might earn a year or two at most.
  • Chambers’s office also faced allegations of hiding evidence in the death penalty trial of David Bueno. Those allegations were later upheld by a state appeals court.
  • . . . and in a sexual assault case.
  • After a jury acquitted an Ethiopian woman Chambers’s office had accused of human trafficking, the jury foreman told a local paper, ““In the DA’s office’s agenda to prosecute so overzealously, it seems that the facts of a case aren’t really an objective.” . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

29 September 2017 at 6:45 pm

Posted in Law, Law Enforcement

Zuckerberg’s Preposterous Defense of Facebook

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Zeynep Tufekci writes in the NY Times:

Responding to President Trump’s tweet this week that “Facebook was always anti-Trump,” Mark Zuckerberg, the chief executive of Facebook, defended the company by noting that Mr. Trump’s opponents also criticize it — as having aided Mr. Trump. If everyone is upset with you, Mr. Zuckerberg suggested, you must be doing something right.

“Both sides are upset about ideas and content they don’t like,” he wrote in a Facebook post. “That’s what running a platform for all ideas looks like.”

This doesn’t hold water at all.

Are you bothered by fake news, systematic misinformation campaigns and Facebook “dark posts” — micro-targeted ads not visible to the public — aimed at African-Americans to discourage them from voting? You must be one of those people “upset about ideas” you disagree with.

Are you troubled when agents of a foreign power pose online as American Muslims and post incendiary content that right-wing commentators can cite as evidence that all American Muslims are sympathizers of terrorist groups like the Islamic State? Sounds like you can’t handle a healthy debate.

Does it bother you that Russian actors bought advertisements aimed at swing states to sow political discord during the 2016 presidential campaign, and that it took eight months after the election to uncover any of this? Well, the marketplace of ideas isn’t for everyone.

Mr. Zuckerberg’s preposterous defense of Facebook’s failure in the 2016 presidential campaign is a reminder of a structural asymmetry in American politics. It’s true that mainstream news outlets employ many liberals, and that this creates some systemic distortions in coverage (effects of trade policies on lower-income workers and the plight of rural America tend to be underreported, for example). But bias in the digital sphere is structurally different from that in mass media, and a lot more complicated than what programmers believe.

In a largely automated platform like Facebook, what matters most is not the political beliefs of the employees but the structures, algorithms and incentives they set up, as well as what oversight, if any, they employ to guard against deception, misinformation and illegitimate meddling. And the unfortunate truth is that by design, business model and algorithm, Facebook has made it easy for it to be weaponized to spread misinformation and fraudulent content. Sadly, this business model is also lucrative, especially during elections. Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, called the 2016 election “a big deal in terms of ad spend” for the company, and it was. No wonder there has been increasing scrutiny of the platform.

However, at the slightest sign that Facebook might be pressured to institute at least some sensible oversight (as has happened recently in the German and French elections, when the platform mass-deleted fake accounts), right-wing groups and politicians can swiftly bring Facebook to its heels with charges of bias, because Facebook responds to such pressure as much of the traditional media do: by caving and hiding behind flimsy “there are two sides to everything” arguments.

This right-wing strategy has been used to pressure Facebook since before the presidential election. It was revealed in April 2016, for example, that Facebook was employing a small team of contractors to vet its “trending topics,” providing quality control such as weeding out blatant fake news. A single source from that team claimed it had censored right-wing content, and a conservative uproar ensued, led by organizations like Breitbart. Mr. Zuckerberg promptly convened an apologetic meeting with right-wing media personalities and other prominent conservatives to assure them the site was not biased against them.

Facebook got rid of those contractors, who were already too few for meaningful quality control. So what did it do to stem the obvious rise in the scale and scope of misinformation, fake news and even foreign state meddling on the site in the months leading up to the election? Clearly not enough — for fear, no doubt, that it would again be accused of bias.

Make no mistake: The flood of misinformation and fake news that went viral on the site was visible even to casual observers. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

29 September 2017 at 5:52 pm

Without Fanfare, Equifax Makes Bankruptcy Change That Affects Hundreds of Thousands

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In ProPublica Paul Kiel reports an example of the usual lack of ethics exhibited by large corporations:

For what appears to be decades, the credit rating agency Equifax has quietly layered three more years of tarnish on the credit histories of hundreds of thousands of people who had filed for bankruptcy under Chapter 13.

While its competitors, TransUnion and Experian, placed a flag on such histories for seven years, Equifax left it on the reports of Chapter 13 filers who failed to complete their bankruptcy plans for 10.

After ProPublica asked about the difference in its policy, the company said it now leaves the flag on for seven years, but refused to say when and why the change was made.

The consequences of Equifax’s harsher policy were likely life-changing for some unlucky people. As Experian warns consumers on its website, “having a bankruptcy in your credit history will seriously affect your ability to obtain credit for as long as it remains on your report. It can also affect your ability to qualify for things like an apartment, utilities, and even employment. Even car insurance rates may be affected.” Without knowing why, consumers could have been turned down for apartments because landlords checked their Equifax report rather than those from Experian or TransUnion.

Why Equifax’s policy was different is unclear and the company would not address it. But that such a discrepancy had gone unnoticed and unaddressed for so long underscores how lightly regulated the industry is.

ProPublica contacted all of the major credit agencies earlier this year as part of our ongoing series on consumer bankruptcy. The policies of TransUnion and Experian were similar: People who filed under Chapter 7, which wipes out most debts, would have a flag on their report for 10 years; those who filed under Chapter 13, which usually involves five years of payments before debts are forgiven, would have a flag for seven.

Equifax had the same Chapter 7 policy. But the company had a key difference in its policy for Chapter 13 filers: Those who were unable to complete their five years of payments and had their cases dismissed were saddled with a flag for three additional years.

This difference had the potential for widespread impact. About half of Chapter 13 cases are dismissed, usually because debtors fall behind on payments. From 2008 through 2010, 574,000 Chapter 13 cases were filed and subsequently dismissed, according to our analysis of filings. Under Equifax’s policy of keeping the flag on for 10 years, all those debtors would have a flag on their Equifax report through the end of 2017, but not on their TransUnion and Experian histories.

“It’s a problem, because you have a disparate treatment of debtors depending on which credit rating agency is reporting,” said Tara Twomey, an attorney with the National Consumer Law Center. “We really need consistent credit reporting for this system to work.”

Equifax’s policy also disproportionately affected black consumers, because, as our analysis showed, black debtors are more likely than whites to choose Chapter 13 and have their cases dismissed.

ProPublica wrote the company again in July, prior to its recent disclosure that its records had been hacked, laying out the potential impact of its policy on consumers and asking why it differed from competitors. In an email, Equifax spokeswoman Nancy Bistritz-Balkan wrote that the company had “recently modified the length of time for how long a dismissed Chapter 13 bankruptcy remains on file.” Under the new policy, she wrote, “Equifax removes the flag for a Chapter 13 bankruptcy after seven years, regardless of outcome.”

She would not say what “recently” meant, only saying, “The change we referenced was not implemented after we received your inquiry.” As to why Equifax made the change, she wrote, “At this time, I do not have additional details about how the change was made.”

It might seem puzzling that such a meaningful policy is not governed by law. While some aspects of credit reporting are, others are simply decided among the agencies themselves. Bankruptcy is a mix of the two. Under the Fair Credit Reporting Act, the longest a bankruptcy can stay on someone’s credit report is 10 years. The credit rating agencies have voluntarily decided to treat Chapter 13 cases differently because Chapter 13 typically involves the repayment of some debt, while Chapter 7 does not. Bistritz-Balkan made a point of saying that Equifax’s previous policy had been legal.

Initially, Chapter 7 and Chapter 13 have a similar effect on debtors’ credit scores, one that diminishes over time. . .

Continue reading.

Note Ms. Bistritz-Balkan’s refusal to give the date of the change. I would bet large money that when she said, “The change we referenced was not implemented after we received your inquiry,” she was telling a baldfaced and shameless lie.

The credit companies should be closely regulated and regularly audited.

Written by LeisureGuy

29 September 2017 at 3:48 pm

Posted in Business, Daily life

Stop Beating Up on the Jones Act

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Chris Landers offers some insight into the Jones Act at CityLab.com:

Over the past several days, opponents of President Trump’s response to the humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico zeroed in on his unwillingness to lift the Jones Act, a 1920 maritime law that regulates U.S. shipping. After some hurried Googling of the Wilson Administration, the media joined in this chorus. Called variously ”obscure,” “anachronistic,”and “archaic,” the Jones Act has been blamed for hindering hurricane recovery by preventing foreign vessels from joining in relief efforts, jacking up the cost of desperately needed essentials on the island, and benefiting large American shipping companies at the expense of citizens, an impression Trump did nothing to dispel when he told reporters on Wednesday that there were “a lot of people that work in the shipping industry that don’t want the Jones Act lifted.”

Bowing to a rising ride of Twitter indignation, this morning the president authorized a temporary waiver. Here’s the thing though: The Jones Act does not deserve your outrage.

It’s debatable whether more ships would help the situation in Puerto RicoCNN is reporting that goods are piling up on the dock waiting for trucks—but in any event no one in the shipping industry really objects to lifting these restrictions during an emergency, as Trump did after hurricanes Harvey and Irma. As Brian Schoeneman, legislative director for the Seafarers International Union, recently told Congress, maritime labor has never opposed a temporary Jones Act waiver, but “any long-term waiver of the Jones Act would undermine the entire purpose of the law and could jeopardize the future existence of the Merchant Marine.”

The danger of using the Jones Act as a cudgel against an unpopular president is that the overheated rhetoric loses sight of the real reasons for the law.

The Jones Act is, at heart, a labor act. It protects the rights of sailors in the U.S. Merchant Marine from being exploited the way their counterparts abroad often are. And it’s been in the sights of Republican Senator John McCain for a long time—he most recently tried to kill it in July.

Under the Jones Act, a maritime employer is responsible for providing a safe environment for its workers, as well as paying for any medical care. It requires U.S. Coast Guard-approved safety equipment and lifeboats, trained and licensed crew, and adherence to EPA regulations. That stuff isn’t cheap, but it protects workers in an industry that’s legendary for its exploitation of sailors. “In the past 15 years the Jones Act has been sidelined by some federal courts in favor the enforcement of arbitration agreements,” KCRW found in its 2016 investigation into the safety of Filipino seafarers. ”Some injuries, negligence and wage dispute cases that would have been litigated in a courtroom are now being heard in private arbitration hearings all over the world, where the compensation can be a fraction of what may be granted by a U.S. jury.”
From the linked article:

Ben Buenaventura, a career waiter with Norwegian Cruise Line, suffered catastrophic injuries on July 20, 2016 during a safety drill. A lifeboat davit fell on top of him and his co-worker, who died immediately. Buenaventura spent a month in ICU in Miami before dying on Aug. 27, 2016. Under Philippine arbitration system, his widow—also a cruise ship worker—is entitled to roughly $60,000 USD. She cannot sue for negligence or wrongful death against NCL under the terms set forth by the Philippine government.

Vessels operate by the laws of the state whose flag they fly, which is why so-called “flag of convenience” nations like Liberia are so popular among owners, and why they have such a terrible reputation among sailors. Any added expense to shipping under the Jones Act comes for the same reason Chinese manufactured goods are cheaper than American made—we have labor laws.

McCain’s objections are free-trade-based—part of the act stipulates that goods can’t be shipped between U.S. ports by foreign-flagged vessels. So while foreign companies can and do ship directly to Puerto Rico, any cargo from the U.S. has to come on American ships. It’s possible, though unproven, that this raises the costs of goods to the island, and that argument is gaining traction as the Jones Act faces scrutiny from the left as a sign of Trump’s inaction. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

29 September 2017 at 10:49 am

Tom Price gets 95% discount on the taxpayer-funded travel he’s paying back

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James Hohmann reports in the Washington Post:

THE BIG IDEA: Bowing to pressure from Republicans on Capitol Hill and public criticism from President Trump, Tom Price announced Thursday that he will partially reimburse the government for the costs of his flights on charter planes in recent months.

The Health and Human Services secretary is writing a check for $51,887 to the Treasury Department. He said he will no longer take private charters at taxpayer expense and plans to cooperate with the HHS inspector general, who last week launched an investigation into his travel practices.

The optics here are terrible. Price took a $25,000 charter flight from Dulles to Philadelphia when a round-trip train ticket would have cost $72. The government also paid for a private jet to whisk Price to a resort in Georgia where he owns land and to Nashville, where he lunched with his son.

— It came out last night that Price also used military aircraft for trips to Africa and Europe this spring, and to Asia in the summer, at a cost of more than $500,000 to taxpayers. Politico, which broke that story, notes that the reimbursements do not cover any military planes: “The overseas trips bring the total cost to taxpayers of Price’s travels to more than $1 million since May. … Price’s wife, Betty, accompanied him on the military flights, while other members of the secretary’s delegation flew commercially to Europe. … But one of Price’s recent predecessors, Kathleen Sebelius, who served for five years under President Barack Obama, said she never took a military plane on her many trips overseas; she always flew commercially.” . . .

Continue reading.

See also Bess Levin’s article in Vanity Fair, “Tom Price will reimburse taxpayers for (a fraction of the cost) of those private flights.”

And Kevin Drum blogs:

Here’s the latest:

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke chartered a flight from Las Vegas to near his home in Montana this summer aboard a plane owned by oil-and-gas executives, internal documents show….The flight cost taxpayers $12,375, according to an Interior Department spokeswoman. Commercial airlines run daily flights between the two airports and charge as little as $300.

So that makes four: Mnuchin, Price, Pruitt, and Zinke. The Trumpies have developed a real taste for private jet travel on the taxpayers’ dime, haven’t they?

“Draining the swamp” seems not to actually mean “draining the swamp.”

Written by LeisureGuy

29 September 2017 at 8:51 am

Rooney butterscotch Emilion, Creed Green Irish Tweed, and the RazoRock Old Type

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Little by little we settle in. Still have much unpacking to accomplish, but at least I now have some variety in shaving.

The Emilion made a great lather, thanks in part to the soft water but the contribution of Creed’s Green Irish Tweed soap should not be minimized. Three passes with the Old Type, one of my favorite razors, left a face totally smooth, to which I applied a small splash of Green Irish Tweed EDT.

More unpacking today.

Written by LeisureGuy

29 September 2017 at 8:42 am

Posted in Shaving

James Fallows updates his reading list on presidential campaigns

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In the Atlantic James Fallows has a very interesting column on campaign memoirs, and from it let me quote just this one (but do read the entire column):

Unbelievable, by Katy Tur

I watched the campaign through its ups and downs over the past two years; I often saw Katy Tur on her MSBNC and NBC broadcasts; I thought I’d heard, or could guess, pretty much what she would have to say.

In fact, this is also a quite revealing and powerful book, in addition to being very entertaining. Its details of Tur’s experience with the Trump campaign, from the start when she following what was assumed to be a brief novelty/vanity effort, to the fateful conclusion last November 8, amplify the strangeness of what we have been through—and its darkness.

Two themes are worth noting. One is the genuinely ugly menace of Donald Trump’s in-person dealings, especially with a young, attractive female reporter in whom he displayed an unsettlingly personal and intense interest during the campaign. (“There’s little Katy back there!” he would say randomly at rallies.) I won’t quote her whole description of an early interview with him, but it is disturbing, as are several of her other accounts. (She also talks about it, and the overall tone of menace, both from the candidate and from his supporters, in a Fresh Air interview with Terry Gross.) Sample:

His face is tight. He spits out answers. He glares at me during the questions. He never smiles. Now I see [watching a replay of the interview on-screen] what my producer saw. Trump is angry….

“It’s a wrong statistic” he spits back [after a question]. “Go check your numbers! It’s totally wrong.”

He’s trying to steamroll. Intimidate. Talk down.

“It’s Pew Research,” I say.

Now he’s fuming.

Wow.

His rage didn’t register in the moment. I thought it was all part of his schtick. The reality show star. But watching his face on-screen, it’s clear Trump isn’t playing.

The other theme that impressed me was Tur’s explanation of why she decided that she would be leaving the world of Trump coverage when the campaign was over, no matter how it turned out. If he won, it would have been natural to follow him to the White House press pool, but she decided that she would rather not:

That’s a reality of beat reporting. When the people, places, and businesses you know well do well themselves, you’re in demand. If they’re a big deal, your work is a big deal. If they take off, you career can take off, too. This is especially true if you not only have access but knowledge.

I’ve been thinking a lot about access lately. Access is seductive. Access means good nuggets from the campaign … And somewhere along the way, out here on the trail, wherever it is I am right now, I decided that access journalism isn’t worth it.

Tur doesn’t pretend this is some heroic sacrifice—she’s now a TV anchor—but she is thoughtful about the tradeoffs involved in “access” reporting.

She also makes a point of saying that she doesn’t vote, “because I think it’s fairer that way.” I think that’s crazy, for reasons I laid out in Breaking the News (when Len Downie of the Washington Post announced a similar policy back in the 1990s). But that’s an argument for another time. You’ll enjoy and learn from this book.

Written by LeisureGuy

28 September 2017 at 9:27 pm

Genetic Struggles Within Cells May Create New Species

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Carrie Arnold writes in Quanta magazine:

In the complex cells of humans and other organisms, two different genomes collaborate to sustain life. The larger genome, with DNA encoding thousands of genes, resides in the cell nucleus, while copies of the much smaller one sit in all the energy-producing organelles called mitochondria. Normally, they work in quiet alliance.

Over the past five years, however, scientists have begun focusing on the consequences of mismatches between the two. Emerging evidence shows that this “mitonuclear conflict” can drive a wedge between organisms, possibly turning one species into two. It’s too soon to say how frequently mitonuclear conflict acts as a force in speciation, but researchers agree that better understanding of that tension may help to solve mysteries about what barricade separates some apparently similar populations into distinct species.

More than 1.5 billion years ago, an ancient bacterium snuggled inside a fellow simple cell. Instead of digesting the interloper, the larger cell let it stick around for the valuable energy that it produced. In exchange, the invader got refuge and protection from predators, and over thousands of generations evolved into the mitochondrion, which produces energy in the form of a molecule called ATP. Thus began the complex eukaryotic cell, a primordial partnership that has evolved into one of life’s most successful endeavors.

Proof of the mitochondrion’s origins survives in the remnant genome that mitochondria still carry — a small ring of DNA very much like that in bacteria. Over hundreds of millions of years, some of the mitochondrial genes moved into the long, linear genome in the eukaryotic cell’s nucleus, but the mitochondrion hung on to a handful of genes that remained essential for the organelle’s functioning. (Human mitochondria carry just 37 genes.) The cell assembles the protein complexes that help mitochondria produce ATP with building blocks from both mitochondrial and nuclear genes. This requires the nuclear and mitochondrial genomes to cooperate and adapt in tandem.

More and more studies are pointing to that co-adaptation as an essential but mostly overlooked factor in the health and survival of organisms. “And that has big implications for our concept of species and natural selection,” said Geoffrey Hill, an ornithologist and evolutionary biologist at Auburn University.

Incompatible Cousins

For the past 40 years, the marine evolutionary geneticist Ron Burtonhas stalked tide pools along the Pacific Coast, armed with an aquarium fish net in his search for a tiny crustacean named Tigriopus californicus. Populations of this orange copepod live from the Baja California peninsula to Alaska, and Burton has spent his entire career looking at genetic differences among these groups. Not surprisingly, the copepods Burton found outside his lab at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego were more closely related to the specimens he scooped out of tide pools in Baja California than those more than 2,000 miles north on the coast of Alaska. Burton wondered what the significance of their genetic differences might be.

To find out, he and his colleagues bred copepods from populations sampled all along the coast. They didn’t just breed copepods from the same population; they also put together males and females of different groups. The first generation of these hybrid offspring — the F1 — appeared normal and healthy when the lab began these experiments in the late 1980s. When Burton then bred the F1 generation with itself, however, problems appeared.

That second generation, the F2, had fewer young and didn’t survive some environmental stresses as well as non-hybrids did. Those results meant that although interbreeding between the geographically separated copepod populations was technically possible, the evolutionary cards were stacked against the long-term survival of hybrid offspring in the wild.

The researchers wanted to know why the second generation did so poorly. For Burton, only mitochondrial problems could possibly explain these difficulties. His previous work had shown that not only did the nuclear genomes of T. californicus vary among populations, so did their mitochondrial genomes. Since proper mitochondrial functioning required the interaction of proteins made by both genomes, Burton hypothesized that a mismatch between mitochondrial and nuclear DNA sat at the heart of the F2’s problems.

“The people thinking about mitochondrial function were not evolutionary biologists, and evolutionary biologists weren’t thinking about mitochondria, so no one was really putting these two ideas together,” Burton said. His copepods and his guess revealed how the forces of natural selection could act on one of life’s central processes.

Evolution by natural selection hinges on the mutability of the genome. If DNA is writ in stone, natural selection has no variation on which to act. Not long after the discovery of the mitochondrial genome in the 1960s, scientists hypothesized that the genes encoded by this DNA were so central to cellular function that they had to resist further shaping by natural selection. The forces of nature had no room to experiment. Or so the theory went.

“I always thought this was a bad idea,” Burton admitted. Instead, evidence is emerging that mitochondrial DNA is far more mutable than researchers thought. Because mitochondrial DNA lacks capabilities for checking DNA for errors and repairing it, in animals it mutates on average 10 times as frequently as its nuclear counterpart does. (The difference varies considerably: In copepods, the mitochondrial DNA mutates 50 times as frequently.) That mutability doesn’t mean anything goes. The conservative evolutionary forces acting on mitochondria are so strong that the wrong changes to their DNA sequence can create problems. Witness the severity of mitochondrial disease, caused by defects in mitochondria, which in humans can cause seizure, stroke, developmental delays or even death.

To evolutionary biologists, this high mutation rate posed an interesting question: . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

28 September 2017 at 9:04 pm

Posted in Evolution, Science

Americans Eat 6 Hamburgers a Day, and It’s Making All of Us Sicker

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Maddie Oatman writes in Mother Jones:

Loading up cows, pigs, and chickens with antibiotics to speed growth is a major cause of increasing antibiotic resistance and the emergence of terrifying drug-resistant bacteria that can jump from livestock to humans. If current growth continues, we’ll be using 53 percent more antibiotics on animals by 2030. With all those antibiotics out and about, we can only expect more drug resistance to follow.

new paper published today in Science explores ways to pull back. Conducted by members of the public health research organization the Center for for Disease Dynamics, Economics and Policy, along with researchers from Princeton University, the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), and others, the report outlines pathways to reduce antibiotic use in livestock by up to 80 percent by 2030, by:

  • Regulating antibiotic use: If the world’s heaviest users (like China and the US) can refrain from increasing their use at projected rates and cap usage at the current global average, the researchers estimate we’d consume 64 percent less antibiotics. Many European countries already have regulations mandating they use less than half the global average. But as the researchers point out, wider regulations would need strong enforcement, which could be cost prohibitive.
  • Charging more for antibiotics: The World Bank has endorsed a 50 percent surcharge on antibiotics used on animals. The extra billions in revenue could go into a global research fund targeting antimicrobial resistance and new antibiotics. (Though I wonder what steps could be taken to ensure human drugs weren’t diverted into a black market?)
  • Eating less meat: The study posits that “Limiting meat intake worldwide to 40 g/day—the equivalent of one standard fast-food burger per person—could reduce global consumption of antimicrobials in food animals by 66 percent.” This one caught my eye: do we really on average eat more than a burger a day? Turns out, according to the FAO, the global average of meat available per person per day in 2013 was around 42 grams, or about one fast-food burger patty. In the United States, the average is 260 grams a day—or six burgers. Given developing economies’ growing appetite for meat, it may be a stretch to believe that the globe could hold its meat consumption steady for the next 13 years. On the other hand, does a ration of one McDonald’s hamburger-worth of meat every day really sound so hard?

Written by LeisureGuy

28 September 2017 at 9:00 pm

A school librarian responds to Mrs. Trump’s gift of Dr. Seuss books

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Liz Phipps Soeiro pens a thoughtful letter to Melania Trump:

Dear Mrs. Trump,

Thank you for the ten Dr. Seuss titles that you sent my school library in recognition of this year’s National Read a Book Day. (Sent second-day air, no less! That must have been expensive.) I’m proud that you recognized my school as something special. It truly is. Our beautiful and diverse student body is made up of children from all over the world; from different socioeconomic statuses; with a spectrum of gender expressions and identities; with a range of abilities; and of varied racial, ethnic, and religious backgrounds.

According to the White House website, you selected one school per state by “working with the Department of Education to identify schools with programs that have achieved high standards of excellence, recognized by State and National awards and Blue Ribbon Awards…” Each of those carefully vetted schools received ten books: Seuss-isms!Because a Little Bug Went KaChoo; What Pet Should I Get?The Cat in the HatI Can Read with My Eyes Shut!; One FishTwo Fish, Red Fish, Blue FishThe Foot BookWacky WednesdayGreen Eggs and Ham; and Oh, the Places You’ll Go!.

My students were interested in reading your enclosed letter and impressed with the beautiful bookplates with your name and the indelible White House stamp, however, we will not be keeping the titles for our collection. I’d like to respectfully offer my explanation.

* * * * *

My school and my library are indeed award-winning. I work in a district that has plenty of resources, which contributes directly to “excellence.” Cambridge, Massachusetts, is an amazing city with robust social programming, a responsive city government, free all-day kindergarten, and well-paid teachers (relatively speaking — many of us can’t afford to live in the city in which we teach). My students have access to a school library with over nine thousand volumes and a librarian with a graduate degree in library science. Multiple studies show that schools with professionally staffed libraries improve student performance. The American Association of School Librarians has a great infographic on these findings. Many schools around the state and country can’t compete.

Yearly per-pupil spending in Cambridge is well over $20,000; our city’s values are such that given a HUGE range in the socioeconomic status of our residents, we believe that each and every child deserves the best free education possible and are working hard to make that a reality (most classrooms maintain a 60/40 split between free/reduced lunch and paid lunch). This offers our Title I school and the district a lot of privilege and room for programming and pedagogy to foster “high standards of excellence.” Even so, we still struggle to close the achievement gap, retain teachers of color, and dismantle the systemic white supremacy in our institution. But hell, we test well! And in the end, it appears that data — and not children — are what matters.

Meanwhile, school libraries around the country are being shuttered. Cities like Philadelphia, Chicago, and Detroit are suffering through expansion, privatization, and school “choice” with no interest in outcomes of children, their families, their teachers, and their schools. Are those kids any less deserving of books simply because of circumstances beyond their control? Why not go out of your way to gift books to underfunded and underprivileged communities that continue to be marginalized and maligned by policies put in place by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos? Why not reflect on those “high standards of excellence” beyond only what the numbers suggest? Secretary DeVos would do well to scaffold and lift schools instead of punishing them with closures and slashed budgets.

* * * * *

So, my school doesn’t have a NEED for these books. And then there’s the matter of the books themselves. You may not be aware of this, but Dr. Seuss is a bit of a cliché, a tired and worn ambassador for children’s literature. As First Lady of the United States, you have an incredible platform with world-class resources at your fingertips. Just down the street you have access to a phenomenal children’s librarian: Dr. Carla Hayden, the current Librarian of Congress. I have no doubt Dr. Hayden would have given you some stellar recommendations.

Another fact that many people are unaware of is that Dr. Seuss’s illustrations are steeped in racist propaganda, caricatures, and harmful stereotypes. Open one of his books (If I Ran a Zoo or And to Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street, for example), and you’ll see the racist mockery in his art. Grace Hwang Lynch’s School Library Journal article, “Is the Cat in the Hat Racist? Read Across America Shifts Away from Dr. Seuss and Toward Diverse Books,” reports on Katie Ishizuka’s work analyzing the minstrel characteristics and trope nature of Seuss’s characters. Scholar Philip Nel’s new book, Was the Cat in the Hat Black? The Hidden Racism of Children’s Literature, and the Need for Diverse Books, further explores and shines a spotlight on the systemic racism and oppression in education and literature.

I am honored that you recognized my students and our school. I can think of no better gift for children than books; it was a wonderful gesture, if one that could have been better thought out. Books can be a powerful way to learn about and experience the world around us; they help build empathy and understanding. In return, I’m attaching a list of ten books (it’s the librarian in me) that I hope will offer you a window into the lives of the many children affected by the policies of your husband’s administration. You and your husband have a direct impact on these children’s lives. Please make time to learn about and value them. . .

Continue reading.

And do click the link to see the list of 10 books—extremely interesting selections.

See also Isabel Fattal’s article in the AtlanticReading Racism in Dr. Seuss.” It begins:

Reminiscing about the Dr. Seuss books we loved as children is usually a happy time for adults. We might remember first learning about equality in Horton Hears a Who! or getting starry-eyed about our futures reading Oh, the Places You’ll Go! (of course, for some of us there’s also a bit of residual terror about that green-food-obsessed apparition in Green Eggs and Ham).

But Philip Nel, a scholar and professor of children’s literature whose specialties include Dr. Seuss and Harry Potter, is pushing readers to grapple with the political and social implications of the stories that inspire such warm, fuzzy memories. In his new book, Was the Cat in the Hat Black?: The Hidden Racism of Children’s Literature, and the Need for Diverse Books, Nel argues that, yes, the Cat in the Hat was black—or, more precisely, that Seuss’s depiction of the character was based on racial stereotypes and inspired by traditions of blackface minstrel entertainment—and that dozens more children’s books of decades past are brimming with insidious, racist themes.

I spoke with Nel about how teachers and parents should discuss these books with children, how one’s nostalgia for children’s books can coexist with an understanding of their not-so-innocent makings, and why he’s dedicated his adult life to thinking about children’s literature. Below is a lightly edited version of our conversation.

Fattal: You say that your book is “about how race is present especially when it seems to be absent.” Can you give an example of a character or a scene in a children’s book that seems to be “race-free” but actually isn’t when you take a second look?

Nel: One obvious example would be the Oompa Loompas in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, who are these orange people who are enslaved happily by Mr. Wonka. The book presents slavery as happy and fun, and the kind of thing that others would enjoy, and I’m not sure that everyone thinks of the book in those terms. In the original version, the Oompa Loompas are not white people from Loompaland—they are in fact black pygmies from Africa. And though [Roald] Dahl changed that, he didn’t change the broader themes of racism and colonialism when he did that.

Fattal: In your book you talk about nostalgia and how parents are reluctant to acknowledge racism in the books they loved growing up and want to read to their kids. Can parents share these books with their kids while also acknowledging their troubling elements?

Nel: I think that what we have to do is admit that our relationships with these books can be complicated. It’s okay to think fondly of a beautiful story, but you need to also think about the way in which that beautiful story may also be racist. We can talk about what is masterful about it or what is artistic about it, but we also need to talk about some of the things in the book which are not, and if presented uncritically are simply transmitting these ideas to a new generation. I think adults need to recognize that their fondness for a book or a movie is not a defense of that. I think you would actually have a richer and more profound relationship with a work if you do think about it critically, and if we do acknowledge those mixed feelings.

Fattal: You argue that there is an imperative to keep reading these problematic children’s books. What would you say to those who ask why we wouldn’t just stop reading them? . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

28 September 2017 at 8:32 pm

Heterosexuals Deserve Our Support

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Lisa Pryor writes in the NY Times:

Australians are currently deciding whether our laws should be changed to allow same-sex couples to marry, and the debate is proving to be only one degree more civilized than a cage fight. Surveys have been mailed to voters all over the country by the government, asking them to tick yes or no to this proposal.

Understandably some people are nervous, given that same-sex marriage has been introduced only in Belgium, Canada, Argentina, France, Denmark, Ireland, Malta, New Zealand, South Africa, Spain, Britain and a bunch of other countries. We do not yet have long-term data on whether same-sex marriage will cause these societies to collapse, or the gates of hell to open.

Australia’s same-sex marriage survey is not compulsory and the result is not binding on the government. And yet it is having a profound effect on the national mood and conversation, as the kind of ideas that might usually be voiced only by a racist old uncle after a few too many Scotches have become legitimate topics of public policy debate.

Last week on a national current-affairs program, a business leader put the argument for the “no” case using race as an analogy, saying, “A black man and a white man are equal, but they’re clearly different. A black man will never be a white man, and vice versa.” Airtime has been handed over to plaintive warnings that same-sex marriage will usher in a gender-fluid fascist state, in which boys can wear dresses to school and homophobic bakeries are forced to produce lesbian wedding cakes. Nice work, Australia.

As the conversation ranges — hurtfully for so many same-sex couples — over gender, marriage and parenting, let’s imagine for a moment that there is value in examining such issues unflinchingly, free from the yoke of political correctness, no matter how hurtful it might be to the sensibilities of some. In this spirit I would like to consider frankly an aspect of the debate not adequately covered so far: heterosexuality.

Difficult as it might be to admit, there is some evidence that in an ideal world, and with all things being equal, one particular family arrangement does appear to have a slight advantage when it comes to raising children. Of course I am speaking about lesbian parenting, which multiple studies have shown confers certain advantages on children.

For example, in the United States National Longitudinal Lesbian Family Study, teenagers of lesbian mothers were reported to do better socially and academically than other teenagers, and had fewer problems with rule-breaking and aggression.

Other research suggests such advantages may apply to same-sex parents generally. Results of an Australian Study of Child Health in Same-Sex families, published in 2014, show that children raised by same-sex partners score higher than the general population on measures of general health and family cohesion.

We do not live in a perfect world in which every child has access to this ideal. Regardless of what laws we have in place, the reality of contemporary society is that it includes a wide variety of family types, including families headed by heterosexual couples.

We know that many of these children have not had the good fortune of being the result of the careful planning and commitment that naturally flows from methods of conception used by same-sex couples.

Though you will rarely read about it in literature promoting the heterosexual lifestyle, in many heterosexual families children are conceived as an accident, euphemistically known in the heterosexual community as a “surprise.”

Worse still, heterosexual pregnancies typically come about as a direct result of a particular sex act heterosexual adults engage in for the purpose of their own pleasure. Despite years of warnings, public-education campaigns and public-health expenditure, heterosexual couples continue to indulge in this practice knowing full well the consequences and without apparent regard for the cost to society.

Putting aside the public’s understandable frustration with this behavior, we must acknowledge that many heterosexual parents prove themselves to be very much focused on the job of raising healthy children and put in a tremendous effort to achieve this. A majority of heterosexuals live purposeful and upstanding lives, working hard in a range of professions and paying taxes. Many things about heterosexuality may not be ideal, but these are on the whole good people who deserve our support.

Of course good will alone cannot overcome some of the challenges that the children of these people will face. And just think of how awkward it can become for heterosexual parents, as their children grow, develop ideas of their own, and start to ask difficult questions.

When children of gay couples ask where they came from, an accurate and age-appropriate answer can readily be provided, a story as clean as the tale of the stork, involving love, commitment, medicine and science.

Not so for children with heterosexual parents. In most cases, innocent young children have to be exposed to the concept of sexual intercourse to understand how they came to be, in the primitive manner of animals. Even worse, they are exposed to the concept that this sexual intercourse occurred between their parents. This is something no child wants to hear, and many children find it utterly disgusting.

The presence of heterosexual families in schools also exposes gay families to these unpleasant concepts. Gay families may be forced through exposure to straight families in the schoolyard to explain sexual intercourse at a time before any of them feel ready, especially as some parents flaunt their heterosexuality for all to see.

Despite all the hurdles that heterosexual families face, it is my strong belief that they should be allowed to continue to exist. I am myself married to the father of my children. Some of my best friends are heterosexual, and I can tell you they are great people, raising their children as best they can. They should be allowed to continue to marry and continue to raise children on one strict proviso — that they do not prevent those who are not heterosexual from doing the same. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

28 September 2017 at 7:55 pm

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