Later On

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

Archive for October 2017

Interesting new foods

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I’ve mentioned finding beef heart and now also pig’s heart in the supermarket (one that has a relatively large Chinese customer base), along with pig bung, beef kidney, pig kidney. Today I saw a couple that were new to me: pig uterus and pig blood. I went for the latter: a block of congealed blood, which in the West is used to make blood pudding (mixed with oatmeal, for example). But this was a simple block of blood, which looked like brown tofu and had the consistency of tofu as well (fairly firm tofu).

I had not real idea how to cook it, so I went with a simple approach: some olive oil in a skillet, in which I cooked some chopped onion, minced garlic, salt, and pepper until the onion was pretty well cooked. Then I took a slab of the pig blood, cut it in half to make two thin slabs, and sautéed those on each side until I judged it done.

Not bad at all. Not a strong taste, but I imagine the dish is high in iron. . . Hmm. I can’t find “pig blood” or “blood” in the nutrition database. The closest I get is blood sausage, not particularly high in iron. (Pig spleen, which they also had and I bought recently, is quite high in iron.)

For those who are still fatphobic, I highly recommend The Big Fat Surprise, by Nina Teicholz.

Written by LeisureGuy

20 October 2017 at 5:46 pm

Posted in Food, Low carb, Recipes

The Breakthrough: Curiosity Drove Her to Call 1,000 People

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In ProPublica Jessica Huseman has an interesting interview with Rosalind Adams in a 25-minute podcast about a somewhat frightening development in psychiatric hospitals. Well worth a listen. Huseman writes:

The investigation started modestly enough — with documents anyone could have seen. Buried amid the public financial records of Universal Health Services, the largest psychiatric hospital chain in America, was a disclosure to its investors: It was under federal investigation.

BuzzFeed’s Rosalind Adams was curious. She embarked on her own investigation, to figure out, simply, why.

She built a spreadsheet of every person she could find online who was associated with the chain, from employees on LinkedIn to patients who had written reviews on Yelp. “I’m sure I called thousands of people,” she said. “This whole world opens up when you start making phone calls and asking questions.”

She talked to 18 executives who ran hospitals, cold-calling some and knocking on doors. She gained the trust of sources who slipped her security footage and insider documents.

After months of work, she found that multiple UHS hospitals had been accused of committing patients who didn’t need care in order to get their insurance payments, and for turning away patients who did need care, but could not pay.

Hospital CEOs told her they were instructed to use all insurance days available to them, even if a patient didn’t need to be hospitalized for that long.

Adams found that in one hospital, a 6-year-old boy who misbehaved at school was locked away for three days. In another, hospital employees were caught on video dangerously restraining a 9-year-old boy. “That’s how people die,” a nationally recognized restraint expert told BuzzFeed after seeing the footage.

UHS denied allegations that it held patients for purely financial gain, and said Adams’ work was based on “anecdotal accounts” and “personal perspectives.” The company said she drew “false conclusions” and ignored those who had positive experiences to weave a “false narrative.”

Regardless, her investigation produced results. Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, has demanded answers from UHS. One hospital lost its ability to care for foster kids and has been stripped of Medicaid fundingThe FBIand the Department of Defense — which is scrutinizing billings to the military insurance plan, Tricare — launched investigations into the chain for keeping patients longer than necessary to boost profits.

Her investigation continues. Follow her on Twitter and on BuzzFeed.

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

20 October 2017 at 2:38 pm

Federal Judge Unseals New York Crime Lab’s Software for Analyzing DNA Evidence

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Lauren Kirchner reports for ProPublica:

A federal judge this week unsealed the source code for a software program developed by New York City’s crime lab, exposing to public scrutiny a disputed technique for analyzing complex DNA evidence.

Judge Valerie Caproni of the Southern District of New York lifted a protective order in response to a motion by ProPublica, which argued that there was a public interest in disclosing the code. ProPublica has obtained the source code, known as the Forensic Statistical Tool, or FST, and published it on GitHub; two newly unredacted defense expert affidavits are alsoavailable.

“Everybody who has been the subject of an FST report now gets to find out to what extent that was inaccurate,” said Christopher Flood, a defense lawyer who has sought access to the code for several years. “And I mean everybody — whether they pleaded guilty before trial, or whether it was presented to a jury, or whether their case was dismissed. Everybody has a right to know, and the public has a right to know.”

Caproni’s ruling comes amid increased complaints by scientists and lawyers that flaws in the now-discontinued software program may have sent innocent people to prison. Similar legal fights for access to proprietary DNA analysis software are ongoing elsewhere in the U.S. At the same time, New York City policymakers are pushing for transparency for all of the city’s decision-making algorithms, from pre-trial risk assessments, to predictive policing systems, to methods of assigning students to high schools.

DNA evidence has long been a valuable tool in criminal investigations, and matching a defendant’s genetic material with a sample found on a weapon or at a crime scene has impressed many a judge and jury. But as new types of DNA analysis have emerged in recent years to interpret trace amounts or complex mixtures that used to be dismissed as hopelessly ambiguous, the techniques are coming under fire as overly ambitious and mistake-prone.

An article ProPublica co-published with The New York Times on Sept. 4 detailed the growing doubts about the Forensic Statistical Tool, which New York City created to determine the likelihood that a given defendant’s DNA was present in a mixture of multiple people’s genetic material. According to the crime lab’s estimates, FST was used to analyze crime-scene evidence in about 1,350 cases over about 5 1/2 years. It was phased out at the beginning of this year in favor of a newer tool.

A coalition of New York City defense lawyers has called for a review of all cases that may have been affected by either FST or a second disputed analysis method, called high-sensitivity DNA testing. The state inspector general, which acts as the lab’s ombudsman, has received the lawyers’ request but has not yet announced whether she will launch an investigation.

The crime lab, which is part of the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, did not oppose ProPublica’s motion, but maintains its support of its technology. “I want to be very clear that OCME continues to stand behind the science that the FST source code operationalized, and that we will continue to defend FST,” Florence Hutner, general counsel for the medical examiner’s office, wrote to the judge on Oct. 6.

She added that the lab agreed to full disclosure of the expert affidavits because the redactions had “exacerbated the substantial misunderstanding of fundamental aspects of the FST source code that is reflected in multiple published criticisms of that code.”

ProPublica’s motion came in a federal gun possession case, U.S. v. Kevin Johnson. Johnson was staying with his ex-girlfriend in the Bronx when police were called to her apartment and found two socks wedged between the refrigerator and the wall, one containing a black pistol and the other a silver revolver. By FST’s calculation, the DNA found on one gun was 156 times more likely than not to contain Johnson’s genetic material. DNA from the other gun had an overwhelming likelihood of 66 million.

In that case, Caproni became the first judge to order the lab to hand over the code for examination by the defense, but her protective order barred attorneys and experts from discussing or sharing it. Nathaniel Adams, a computer scientist and an engineer at a private forensics consulting firm in Ohio, reviewed the code for the defense and submitted an affidavit that was partially redacted before being made public. “The correctness of the behavior of the FST software should be seriously questioned,” he wrote in an unredacted section.

ProPublica’s motion, filed on Sept. 25with the help of the Media Freedom and Information Access Clinic at Yale Law School, argued that the judge should vacate that protective order because of “the profound importance of this technology to the integrity of the criminal justice system, and the overriding public interest in transparency.”

“This ruling finally enables ProPublica to gain access to the code in order to report on this matter of vital public concern,” said Hannah Bloch-Wehba, a supervising attorney in the MFIA clinic, following the judge’s order. “As law enforcement agencies increasingly rely on algorithmic tools in the criminal justice system,  . . .

Continue reading. There’s a lot more.

Written by LeisureGuy

20 October 2017 at 2:24 pm

Another week, another crime lab scandal

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Radley Balko reports in the Washington Post:

Massachusetts, which has already seen thousands of convictions overturned due to a crime-lab analyst faking the results of drug tests, looks to be in the midst of another forensics nightmare.

The head of a state crime lab office was fired Monday after investigators found that staff withheld exculpatory evidence from defense lawyers in thousands of drunken-driving cases since 2011, a disclosure that could threaten many convictions.

In a report released Monday, state public safety officials concluded that the Office of Alcohol Testing routinely withheld documents from defense lawyers in a lawsuit challenging the reliability of breathalyzer test results due to an “unwritten policy not to turn these documents over to any requester.”

The documents included evidence that breath testing devices had failed to properly calibrate during the office’s certification process, the report found.

“We conclude that OAT leadership made serious errors of judgment in its responses to court-ordered discovery, errors which were enabled by a longstanding and insular institutional culture that was reflexively guarded . . . and which was inattentive to the legal obligations borne by those whose work facilitates criminal prosecutions,” the report found.

The most important word in the above excerpt is “culture.” The drug tests scandal was blamed on a single analyst, Annie Dookhan. But these sorts of things rarely happen in isolation. Now we have an entire “office” within the crime lab accused of not turning over exculpatory evidence. At some point, we need to start asking pointed questions. Among them: Why would crime-lab analysts feel pressure to fake incriminating test results and to hide exculpatory results? Are they feeling pressure from police or prosecutors? We already know that, incredibly, some crime labs only get funding when their analysts produce results that help win convictions. Is that what’s happening here? There are numerous public and private grants and awards tied to driving-under-the-influence enforcement, both for police departments as a whole and for individual officers. Was that a factor here?

Crime-lab analysts should be neutral. Their job performance should be evaluated based on their accuracy. Clearly, something is making at least some of these analysts think there’s a “right” and a “wrong” answer when conducting these tests. Perhaps it’s right there in the name: the Massachusetts State Police Crime Laboratory. A forensic analyst shouldn’t be considered on the same side or team as the police. Hosting these labs under the auspices of police or district attorney’s offices is a big part of the problem.

If the lab was indeed withholding exculpatory test results, that almost certainly means some people were wrongly convicted of DUI. In Massachusetts, a first-time drunk-driving conviction can bring a one-year suspension of your driver’s license, possible probation and a mandatory 16-week alcohol awareness class (that you’re required to pay for), and thousands of dollars in court costs, attorney’s fees and fines. The conviction remains on your record permanently. If you had a child in the car at the time, you’re looking at 90 days to two years in prison and a one-year license suspension. And none of this accounts for the harm done to your career and reputation. A DUI conviction can be used against you in divorce and child custody cases. It can be devastating if you’re on parole or probation.

Given the stakes, and what we now know about the crime lab, if you find yourself pulled over on suspicion of DUI, you might be tempted to refuse to take a breath test. Generally speaking, unless you were driving really recklessly, or there are other signs of obvious intoxication, it takes a positive breath test to get probable cause to arrest you and subject you to a blood test. But refusing the test won’t help. Massachusetts is also one of the majority of states that mandates an automatic license suspension if you refuse to take a breath test. (Unless, of course, you’re a police officer, and have been extended “professional courtesy” by your fellow officer.) . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

20 October 2017 at 2:21 pm

The Supreme Court Is Allergic To Math

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Oliver Roeder reports at FiveThirtyEight:

The Supreme Court does not compute. Or at least some of its members would rather not. The justices, the most powerful jurists in the land, seem to have a reluctance — even an allergy — to taking math and statistics seriously.

For decades, the court has struggled with quantitative evidence of all kinds in a wide variety of cases. Sometimes justices ignore this evidence. Sometimes they misinterpret it. And sometimes they cast it aside in order to hold on to more traditional legal arguments. (And, yes, sometimes they also listen to the numbers.) Yet the world itself is becoming more computationally driven, and some of those computations will need to be adjudicated before long. Some major artificial intelligence case will likely come across the court’s desk in the next decade, for example. By voicing an unwillingness to engage with data-driven empiricism, justices — and thus the court — are at risk of making decisions without fully grappling with the evidence.

This problem was on full display earlier this month, when the Supreme Court heard arguments in Gill v. Whitford, a case that will determine the future of partisan gerrymandering — and the contours of American democracy along with it. As my colleague Galen Druke has reported, the case hinges on math: Is there a way to measure a map’s partisan bias and to create a standard for when a gerrymandered map infringes on voters’ rights?

The metric at the heart of the Wisconsin case is called the efficiency gap. To calculate it, you take the difference between each party’s “wasted” votes — votes for losing candidates and votes for winning candidates beyond what the candidate needed to win — and divide that by the total number of votes cast. It’s mathematical, yes, but quite simple, and aims to measure the extent of partisan gerrymandering.

Four of the eight justices who regularly speak during oral arguments1 voiced anxiety about using calculations to answer questions about bias and partisanship. Some said the math was unwieldy, complicated, and newfangled. One justice called it “baloney” and argued that the difficulty the public would have in understanding the test would ultimately erode the legitimacy of the court.

Justice Neil Gorsuch balked at the multifaceted empirical approach that the Democratic team bringing the suit is proposing be used to calculate when partisan gerrymandering has gone too far, comparing the metric to a secret recipe: “It reminds me a little bit of my steak rub. I like some turmeric, I like a few other little ingredients, but I’m not going to tell you how much of each. And so what’s this court supposed to do? A pinch of this, a pinch of that?”

Justice Stephen Breyer said, “I think the hard issue in this case is are there standards manageable by a court, not by some group of social science political ex … you know, computer experts? I understand that, and I am quite sympathetic to that.”

And Chief Justice John Roberts, most of all, dismissed the modern attempts to quantify partisan gerrymandering: “It may be simply my educational background, but I can only describe it as sociological gobbledygook.” This was tough talk — justices had only uttered the g-word a few times before in the court’s 230-year history.2 Keep in mind that Roberts is a man with two degrees from Harvard and that this case isn’t really about sociology. (Although he did earn a rebuke from the American Sociological Association for his comments.) Roberts later added, “Predicting on the basis of the statistics that are before us has been a very hazardous enterprise.” FiveThirtyEight will apparently not be arguing any cases before the Supreme Court anytime soon.

This allergy to statistics and quantitative social science — or at least to their legal application — seems to present a perverse incentive to would-be gerrymanderers: The more complicated your process is, and therefore the more complicated the math would need to be to identify the process as unconstitutional, the less likely the court will be to find it unconstitutional.

But this trouble with math isn’t limited to this session’s blockbuster case. Just this term, the justices will again encounter data again when they hear a case about the warrantless seizure of cell phone records. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Data & Society Research Institute, and empirical scholars of the Fourth Amendment, among others, have filed briefs in the case.

“This is a real problem,” Sanford Levinson, a professor of law and government at the University of Texas at Austin, told me. “Because more and more law requires genuine familiarity with the empirical world and, frankly, classical legal analysis isn’t a particularly good way of finding out how the empirical world operates.” But top-level law schools like Harvard — all nine current justices attended Harvard or Yale — emphasize exactly those traditional, classical legal skills, Levinson said.

In 1897, before he had taken his seat on the Supreme Court, Oliver Wendell Holmes delivered a famous speech at Boston University, advocating for empiricism over traditionalism: “For the rational study of the law … the man of the future is the man of statistics and the master of economics. It is revolting to have no better reason for a rule of law than that so it was laid down in the time of Henry IV.” If we hadn’t made much progress in the 500 years between Henry IV and Holmes, neither have we made much progress in the 120 years between Holmes and today. “What Roberts is revealing is a professional pathology of legal education,” Levinson said. “John Roberts is very, very smart. But he has really a strong anti-intellectual streak in him.”

I reached Eric McGhee, a political scientist and research fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California who helped develop the central gerrymandering measure, a couple days after the oral argument. He wasn’t surprised that some justices were hesitant, given the large amount of analysis involved in the case, including his metric. But he did agree that the court’s numbers allergy would crop up again. “There’s a lot of the world that you can only understand through that kind of analysis,” he said. “It’s not like the fact that a complicated analysis is necessary tells you that it’s not actually happening.”

During the Gill v. Whitford oral argument, the math-skeptical justices groped for an out — a simpler legal alternative that could save them from having to fully embrace the statistical standards in their decisionmaking. “When I read all that social science stuff and the computer stuff, I said, ‘Is there a way of reducing it to something that’s manageable?’” said Justice Breyer, who is nevertheless expected to vote with the court’s liberal bloc.

It’s easy to imagine a situation where the answer for this and many other cases is, simply, “No.” The world is a complicated place.

Documentation of the court’s math problem fills pages in academicjournals. “It’s one thing for the court to consider quantitative evidence and dismiss it based on its merits” — which could still happen here, as Republicans involved in the Wisconsin case have criticized the efficiency gap method — “but we see a troubling pattern whereby evidence is dismissed based on sweeping statements, gut reactions and logical fallacies,” Ryan Enos, a political scientist at Harvard, told me.

One stark example:  . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

20 October 2017 at 2:15 pm

Another rose-fragranced shave, with Love (Soap Commander’s)

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I seem to be enjoying la vie en rose these days. This morning I used The Grooming Company’s synthetic, and though initially I did not much care for it—it’s noticeably more resilient and less soft than the Maggard 22mm synthetic—this time I actively enjoyed its slightly stiffer feel. It certainly made a fine lather (and I have learned that one must shake a synthetic brush well to rid it of excess water), for which some credit is due to Soap Commander. He said that he made Love to match the clean rose fragrance of Klar Kabinett, and as I recall Klar Kabinett, I would say he succeeded.

The Maggard V2 open-comb razor on their MR7 stainless handle is an excellent razor, though this morning I found it had more blade feel than I remembered (and thus one might suspect the accuracy of my memory of Klar Kabinett’s fragrance—but certainly Soap Commander Love has a fine fragrance), but no harm done: it shave smoothly and left my fact perfectly BBS, with no nicks or burn.

Thayers witch hazels are certainly bargains as aftershaves, and their Rose Petal Toner (“toner” = no alcohol; “astringent” = 10% alcohol) has a great rose fragrance that, like a rose, is short-lived: you get an initial burst of fragrance, but within half an hour it’s undetectable. The feel of the witch hazel (with aloe vera) is quite nice, and wraps up the week in a fine style.

Written by LeisureGuy

20 October 2017 at 9:57 am

Posted in Shaving

Insects Conquered a Watery Realm With Just Two New Genes

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Viviane Callier writes in Quanta:

Ever since Darwin articulated his theory of natural selection, the question of evolutionary novelties has intrigued biologists. It’s relatively easy to understand how natural selection can reshape an existing trait — to make antlers bigger, legs longer or wings more colorful. But sometimes a fully formed trait appears seemingly out of the blue, without any apparent antecedent. Where did it come from?

Part of the answer can be found in a new study appearing today inScience that shows how the sudden emergence of just one or two new genes can profoundly transform organisms’ appearance, behavior and ecological niche. Using developmental genetics, evolutionary analysis, biomechanics and ecology, the researchers paint a picture of how a vital novelty evolved within one group of aquatic insects. But the significance of the discovery as a model for evolutionary innovation could extend throughout the animal kingdom.

“People have shown with comparative genomics that novel genes can be involved in novel structures. But this is the first time, to my knowledge, that the direct link is established from a novel gene to a novel structure to the invasion of a completely new ecological opportunity,” said Abderrahman Khila, an evolutionary and developmental genomicist at the Institute of Functional Genomics of Lyon, who led the study on the delicate insects called water striders.

Water striders are adept at navigating the surface of still water; they glide across ponds and lakes around the world. Those in the tropical genus Rhagovelia, however, have also figured out how to walk across fast-flowing streams and turbulent whitewater. Their secret asset is a special extendable structure on their middle leg resembling a Japanese fan, which no other water striders have. By deploying the fan, the insects can increase their leg’s contact with the water surface and can push against the water more forcefully. It’s a clever adaptation, but how did Rhagovelia acquire it when it has no precursors in other water striders?

To understand where the leg fan came from, Khila and his postdoctoral fellow Emília Santos, along with a couple of students, first had to figure out how to rear the water striders in the lab — a non-trivial task with what turned out to be a finicky species. It took about three years to figure out how to maintain the insects throughout the entire life cycle, from egg to adult. Once the colony was established, the team was ready for experiments.

Khila and Santos ground up the developing legs of the Rhagoveliawater striders and sequenced the transcriptome — the complete suite of genes active in those tissues. The fan is only present on the second pair of legs, so the researchers compared the gene activity in the second pair to that of the first and third pairs. They discovered about 80-90 genes that were overexpressed only in the second legs.

Next, they used a method called in situ hybridization to pin down where in the leg those 80-90 genes were active. Khila and Santos identified five genes from that group that were expressed specifically in the tip of the second leg, where the fan develops. Three of the five were related to the structure of the cuticle, the protective outer layer of the insect’s exoskeleton. The other two genes appeared to be paralogs — genes that are the result of a duplication event in the DNA. The function of the paralogs was unknown.

In search of clues about the function of the two paralogs, the researchers looked for the genes across many water strider species. By looking at the evolutionary history of genes in the lineage of water striders, the researchers uncovered the ancestral copy of the gene (distinguished from the more recent duplicate) and nailed down the moment in evolutionary time when the duplicate appeared: at the origin of the Rhagovelia genus. Only water striders in the Rhagoveliagenus have the duplicate gene, and they are also the only ones to have a leg fan.

“The evolution of the fan coincides with the duplication of that gene,” Khila said, also noting that the expression of the gene in the tip of the leg is significant. “It’s a big smoking gun.”

Because the leg fan reminded the researchers of a Japanese fan, they decided to call the newer gene geisha and its ancestral version mother of geisha. To learn what the genes were doing, they used a method called RNA interference to “knock down” (or turn off) the expression of those genes. Knockdown of geisha and mother of geisha caused the resulting insects to make only small, rudimentary fans. (Because of the strong sequence similarities between the two genes, the scientists have not yet been able to turn off one without the other, so differences between their functions are still unclear.) . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

19 October 2017 at 7:27 pm

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