28 March 2013

Secular trends in Ireland

Although Catholicism is declining in both the north and the south, the situation is different in each country. The south is 84 percent Catholic, while the north is 48 percent. In both places, however, the number of those practicing their faith is significantly lower than those who just check the census box. According to Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin, in 1984, nearly 90 percent of Irish Catholics went to weekly Mass. In 2011, only 18 percent did. Numbers in the north are harder to come by. Rev. Edward McGee, spokesman for the Diocese of Down and Connor, where Belfast is located, said his jurisdiction has no longitudinal surveys on membership or attendance.
From here.

27 March 2013

Law is not just politics

The big concern about "judicial activism" and the legitimacy of judicial review is that judicial rulings are just politics, unbound by precedents.  This concern is particularly true in the U.S. Supreme Court where the Court frequently divides on liberal v. conservative lines in high profile cases.  But, the facts are not so simple

The U.S. Supreme Court is at the extreme pinnacle of the judicial system which is widely acknowledged to have the most political docket of any U.S. court because it is subject to no higher authority whose precedents it must follow on issues of constitutional law.  And, it does decide many of the highest profile partisan political legal issues in the land on an almost purely partisan basis.  But, these cases make up a surprising modest share of the cases it decides (less than ten percent) and many cases that could conceivably be viewed as having liberal or conservative sides to them are decided on a non-partisan and often on a near consensus basis.  What the U.S. Supreme Court does is more like ordinary judging than it is like legislating, even though it sometimes does effectively make law.

There is still a broad baseline of consensus of the substantive meaning of the law (even on issues that divide the more than five dozen lower state and federal appellate courts from which it receives appeals).  And, when there is disagreement, the dividing lines after often not partisan political ones.

Early Hints On Prop 8 and Section 3 of DOMA

Section 3 of DOMA

The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments today on Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in the case of United States v. Windsor

Procedural History

Section 3 of DOMA, adopted in 1996, prohibits the federal government from recognizing the validity of same sex marriages that are valid under state law for federal law purposes such as immigration, federal income taxation, and Social Security benefits. 

This case and many others in the pipeline challenging its constitutionality, do not attack the constitutionality of the other key provision of DOMA which provides that states do not have to give full faith and credit to gay marriages from other states under federal law.

The federal government initially defended the constitutionality of the law, then withdrew its opposition to it during the course of the case.  Attorneys representing the leadership of the House of Representatives are defending its constitutionality.  The trial court and appeals court both held that Secton 3 of DOMA is unconstitutional.

The government's switch of position on the issue is closely related to its decision to end the ban on gays in military service.  Section 3 of DOMA would deny their partners the spousal benefits of active duty soldiers and veteran's benefits available to other soldiers.

This is not a one-off case.  Federal courts in multiple jurisdictions have made similar holdings that are working their way through the appellate pipeline, aided by the federal government's refusal to defend the law in court.  However, the federal government is enforcing Section 3 of DOMA until a final federal court order tells it otherwise.

Today's Argument

Five justices (Kennedy and the four liberal justices) seemed to indicate in oral arguments that Section 3 of DOMA was probably unconstitutional.
Justice Kennedy told Clement that there was “a real risk” that DOMA would interfere with the traditional authority of states to regulate marriage. Kennedy also seemed troubled about the sweeping breadth of DOMA’s Section 3, noting that its ban on benefits to already married same-sex couples under 1,100 laws and programs would mean that the federal government was “intertwined with citizens’ daily lives.” He questioned Congress’s very authority to pass such a broad law.
Moreover, Kennedy questioned Clement’s most basic argument — that Congress was only reaching for uniformity, so that federal agencies would not have to sort out who was or was not married legally in deciding who could qualify for federal marital benefits, because some states were on the verge of recognizing same-sex marriage.
Along with sharply negative comments about DOMA by the Court’s four more liberal members, Kennedy’s stance could put the law on the edge of constitutional extinction. But, if the Court were to do that based on states’ rights premises, the final ruling might not say much at all about whether same-sex couples were any closer to gaining an equal right to marry under the Constitution.
There did not appear to be a majority of Justices willing to strike down the 1996 law based on the argument that the Obama administration and gay rights advocates have been pressing: that is, the law violates the Fifth Amendment guarantee of legal equality in general.
The merits of Section 3 of DOMA can only be reached nationally, however, if the House of Representatives leadership which brought the appeal has standing to do so, which was also at issue.  If they did not have standing, the U.S. Court of Appeals circuit ruling would stand and would be persausive precedent, even more so in light of oral arguments in the U.S. Supreme Court on the issue today, but would not be binding precedent in other circuits.  The standing issue would also be pertinent to a great many other constitutional issues.  A finding that the House lacked standing would enhance Presidential authority to not defend the constitutionality of laws in a wide variety of areas in the future.
In order to rule on DOMA’s validity, the Court has to be persuaded that it has a genuine controversy before it — that is a real legal dispute between opposing parties, each of whom has a direct interest in the outcome. Whether it has that was the issue, with Professor Jackson arguing that the administration wants the same thing as Ms. Windsor — the nullification of DOMA Section 3 — so the Court has no jurisdiction over the government’s appeal, and arguing that the House GOP leaders have no direct harm they can claim even if DOMA is nullified.
The Justices seemed somewhat at odds over whether they do have the authority to go ahead with this case, so the possibility remained that the Court in the end could choose not to decide the merits of the law’s validity. That portion of the argument focused on just who in Congress, if anyone, could be in court to defend a federal law when the executive branch chose not to do so.
Justice Kennedy seemed to be leaning toward finding that there did exist a live controversy — between the government and Mrs. Windsor, over whether she is entitled to a refund of an estate tax she paid on her late spouse’s estate. But Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., commented that the Court had never ruled on a case in which all of the parties involved agreed — as he suggested would be the case with the government and Ms. Windsor sharing their opposition to DOMA.
It did not appear, however, that Clement had succeeded in contending that the House GOP leaders (BLAG) had a full right to be in court to defend DOMA in the absence of a defense by the government.
Thus, Section 3 of DOMA is almost sure to be ruled unconstitutional, either in the 2nd Circuit in a precedent which federal government officials and other circuits are very likely to follow nationally, or nationally as a result of a ruling in this case. 

It is also possible that the power of Congress to defend a law in Court, at least in the absence of a joint resolution from both houses of Congress as opposed to a decision of the leadership of just one house of Congress, could be narrowed or eliminated in general.

A ruling that Section 3 of DOMA is unconstitutional and that state law on the validity of a marriage should govern would greatly increase the pressure on states to go beyond civil unions legislation like that recently passed by Colorado which does not confer federal law benefits, to full gay marriage which would confer federal law benefits, even without the mandate that the Proposition 8 case decided yesterday could impose depending upon how it is decided.

The next wave of DOMA issues: choice of law.

A ruling that Section 3 of DOMA is unconstitutional also opens up significant choice of law issues regarding whose law determines if a couple is married.  The case before the court presented the easy and most common case where a couple was marriaged in a state that had gay marriage and continued to live in that state.  The case where a couple was married in a state that had gay marriage and lived in a state that gave full recognition to that status (perhaps because it has gay marriage itself, or perhaps as a back door solution to a state constitutional ban on gay marriage), is another easy case.

But, if a couple marries in a state that recognizes gay marriage and then moves to a state that does not recognize gay marriage with the blessing of a different section of DOMA that has not been held unconstitutional, the question is not so easy to resolve. 

Does the law of the state where the marriage was entered into govern for federal law benefit purposes (an easy to apply rule, even though it undermines the ability of states to prevent any sort of gay marriage from having legal effect in its state), or does the state where the couple resides matter? 

I suspect, that when the issue eventually comes up, the answer will be that the law of the place where the marriage was entered into will govern for federal law purposes.

This, in turn, suggests that many couples in civil unions only states may solve their inability to marry under their own state's laws by forming a civil union in their state of residence and then getting married in a state that recognizes gay marriage before returning home.  This way, they would have full state benefits under a civil unions law, and full federal benefits under their marriage in another state.  It would effectively provide a back door way to obtain the full benefits of same sex marriage in civil union only states, thereby circumventing state constitutional prohibitions on gay marriage without legislative action or a court declaring that state constitutional provision to be unconstitutional.

This choice of law analysis would not, however, afford state law benefits to same sex couples married in other states and recognized under federal but not state law.  For example, states would not have to allow same sex couples married in other states to divorce in their state (although Maryland courts, which was on the verge of adopting gay marriage, did just that before its gay marriage laws took effect).

Eventually, this situation in states without gay marriaage would probably become untenable and give rise to equal protection challenges striking the state law gay marriage bans, or to a later ruling holding that the full faith and credit provisions of DOMA are unconstitutional would have essentially the same effect, but in all states.  But, those rulings would happen years from now when public opinion on gay marriage was greatly changed.

California's Proposition 8

Yesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in the cas (Hollingsworth v. Perry) concerning the constitutionality of California's Proposition 8.

Procedural History

Prior to Proposition 8, California courts held that gay marriage was allowed in the state on state constitutional grounds.  A citizen's referrendum overturned that ruling by amending the state constitution. 

California officials refused to defend the measure in a federal court challenge to Proposition 8's constitutionality because they agreed that it was unconstitutional, but the proponents of the measure were allowed to defend its constituionality at trial with the consent of the state officials.  The federal court held that Proposition 8 was unconstitutional under a rational basis standard of review. 

The proponents appealed to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals without the consent of the state officials.  The 9th Circuit sought a certification from the California Supreme Court to determine if the proponents had standing to appeal under California law and the California Supreme Court held that they did.  The 9th Circuit, relying on the certified question answer held that the proponents also had standing to appeal under federal law and proceeding to affirm the federal district court judge's ruling that Proposition 8 was unconstitutional.

Yesterday's Argument

The proponents appealed that ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court which granted certiorari and held oral arguments yesterday. 

The three conservative justices who spoke at oral arguments left the impression that they were ready to reverse the 9th Circuit and hold that Proposition 8 was valid under the federal constitution and it would be fair to assume that Justice Thomas, who did not speak as is his custom, would side with them.  This would have ended federal law based efforts to secure gay marriage.

The four liberal justices appeared inclined to affirm the 9th Circuit, although the grounds upon which they would do so were not entirely clear:
* they could hold that a lack of federal standing which would apply only to this California case and conceivably could allow a later challenge by someone with standing,
* they could hold that gay marriage couldn't be abolished once a state had gay marriage, which would apply only to California,
* they could hold that a repeal of gay marriage once you had civil unions was unconstitutional limiting the ruling to the eight states with civil unions (Colorado as of May 1, 2013 would be the ninth), or
* they could hold broadly that there was a constitutional right to gay marriage which would apply nationally.

Justice Kennedy, the swing justice, who was part of the majority in the Lawrence opinion which held that same sex sodomy between consenting adults could not be criminalized under federal constitutional privacy protections, didn't like any of the coonservative or liberal options and was leaning towards denying certioriari entirely, suggesting that the decision to take up the case was improvident.

The impact of a possible withdrawal of certiorari

Justice Kennedy's option of punting on the issue would leave in place the 9th Circuit opinion holding that California's Proposition 8 was unconstitutional in circumstances where a state that once had gay marriage and still had civil unions breached equal protection guarantees without a rational basis for doing so by denying gay's marriage.  This ruling could probably be extended to other states in the 9th Circuit which have civil unions but not gay marriage.

This would have no impact in Washington State which already had gay marriage, would provide a strong precedent for turning civil unions into gay marriage in Hawaii, Oregon and Nevada which arre in the 9th Circuit and have civil unions, would leave unchanged Alaksa, Idaho, Montana and Arizona that have never had civil unions or gay marriage. 

The 9th Circuit case would be a non-binding persuasive authority in Rhode Island (2nd Circuit), New Jersey (3rd Circuit), Wisconsin (7th Circuit), Illinois (7th Circuit), and Colorado (10th Circuit).  This would in effect, a "1+3 state solution."

All of the states in the 1st Circuit, and all of the state except Rhode Island in the 2nd Circuit (which has civil unions), already have gay marriage.  In the 3rd Circuit, New Jersey has civil unions and Pennsylvania and Delaware have neither civil unions nor gay marriage.  In the 4th Circuit, Maryland has gay marriage and none of the other states have gay marriage or civil unions.  In the 8th Circuit, Iowa has gay marriage and none of the other states have civil unions.  No states in the 5th, 6th, or 11th Circuits have gay marriage or civil unions.

Thus, in the near future, the SCOTUS decision in this case would be irrelevant in the 1st, 4th, 5th, 6th, 8th or 11th Circuits (or the Federal Circuit which lacks jurisdiction over these kinds of cases).  The U.S. Supreme Court would have time to determine if the 9th Circuit precedent was distinguished in later 9th Circuit cases or followed by the 2nd, 7th, or 10th Circuits.

Justice Kennedy worries that U.S. Supreme Court precedent establishing a ratchet effect may discourage states from adopting civil unions or gay marriage, a concern that is particular apt as a new holding on the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act and rapidly shifting political opinion on the gay marriage issue may lead many states that have civil unions now to adopt gay marriage in the near future.  When Section 3 of DOMA is constitutional, there is no difference between a civil union and gay marriage except a name, since federal law may not recognize gay marriage pursuant to it.  If Section 3 of DOMA is unconstitutional, then gay marriage would confer federal marriage rights, while civil unions would not.

Justice Kennedy, rightly, assumes that all other things being equal, it would be healthier for the long term acceptance of gay marriage and for U.S. Supreme Court legitimacy, if any final decision on the constitutional right to gay marriage or the equal protection issues of civil unions v. gay marriage, were resolved nationally only after the issue had an opportunity to play out in the states via legislative, intitiative, and court action in light of new rulings on Section 3 of DOMA, federal recognition of gay couples in many contexts including military benefits, and litigation of the issue in multiple United States Courts of Appeal circuits giving rise to a circuit conflict, before being mandated nationally with the highly fluid issue not yet well developed.  Gains outside the U.S. Supreme Court probably would lead to greater acceptance of gay marriage than gains from this unelected group of nine justices appointed for life from on high.

For example, it is likely that Colorado will adopt a state constitutional amendment mandating gay marriage in the next few years, particularly if Section 3 of DOMA is held unconstitutional.  And, quite a few other states are likely to do so in the near future given trends in public opinion and strong federal recognition of same sex marriages where states allow them in the executive and judicial branches.

It may be that the nation will soon neatly be divided into gay marriage states and states with no gay marriage or civil unions.  Or, it may be that the dam will finally break and gay marriage will spread into states that no constitutionally ban gay marriage or anything like it.  The Supreme Court would make a wiser judgment if it was informed by several years of developments on this front.

26 March 2013

Objective Impulsivity Test Predicts Rearrest Rate

[R]esearchers studied a group of 96 male prisoners in New Mexico just before their release. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), the team scanned the prisoners’ brains while they completed a computer task measuring impulsivity: They had to quickly and accurately respond when the letter X flashed onscreen, but if it was a letter K, they had to restrain themselves from responding.  
Researchers were particularly interested in a region of the brain called the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), which is known to be linked to behavioral regulation and self-control.  
Four years after these prisoners’ release, the researchers checked their arrest records. Over half had been rearrested—and their earlier brain scans were telling. Men who had shown lower ACC activity were significantly more likely to be rearrested, and they were rearrested sooner. A man in the lower half in terms of ACC activity had a 60 percent likelihood of rearrest, while those with above-average ACC activity had only a 46 percent likelihood. And the men with low ACC activity were rearrested seven months earlier on average. These numbers held true even after the researchers accounted for other risk factors such as age, drug and alcohol abuse, and psychopathic traits, they report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
From here.

The study used fMRI as its objective test of impulsivity, but this aspect of the study isn't really all that critical, just flashy. There are many less expensive objective tests of impulsivity out there that would serve essentially the same purpose or might even been more definitive, as fMRI intepretation is as much as art as a science and have had less time to have the kinks worked out of them. The "authors themselves stress that much more work is needed to prove that the technique is reliable and consistent, and that it is likely to flag only the truly high-risk felons and leave the low-risk ones alone. “This isn't ready for prime time,” says Kiehl."

The brief news report also doesn't report how material factors like age, drug and alcohol abuse, and psychopathic traits were as risk factors. Ultimately, what really matters is how predictive the entire risk prediction instrument using all of the factors it studies is relative to not using it or making purely subjective determinations. If nothing else in the instrument is measuring impulsivity, yet impulsivity accounts for a quarter of the entire risk and an even greater proportion of the predictable risk, then an objective measure of this trait belongs in the overall risk prediction instrument.

Of course, saying that objectively determined impulsivity really accounts for a quarter of the risk of rearrest, when the measured difference involved twenty-two or so rearrests in the lower half of impulsivity and twenty-nine or so rearrests in the higher half of impulsivity, overstates the findings.  The findings may have been large enough to be statistically significant, particularly given the confirming data on rearrest timing.  But, the study is too small to quantify the magnitude of the effect observed with any great precision.  The odds are good that a meaningful share of the difference could be attributed to random chance.

The end product one is looking for is a set of psychological tests and a set rule for combining their results that can be used when judges and prosecutors make decisions on eligiblity for or recommendations relating to probation, deferred judgment or community corrections program eligiblity, for judges determining sentence length in data included in a presentencing report, and when probation and parole supervision programs and state correction departments make decisions on how intensely a convicted criminal should be supervised in and outside of prison. Individuals at high risks of reoffending should be more intensely supervised and/or incarcerated longer, while those at low risk of reoffending can be lightly supervised, thereby maximizing protections for the public and other inmates with their department's limited budget.

Instruments like these can also be used to demonstrate in an empirically based way as part of a larger presentation to demonstrate how changes in funding for probation and parole programs are likely to impact reoffense outcomes. An ability to identify higher risk individuals with some degree of accuracy demonstrates that available monies are being well spent and that the programs would allocate them to needs that would have a real impact if they had the funds to do so.

Simple point systems that add or subtract points based on predetermined factors in amounts devised to fit a recidivism model of the kind that an impulsivity test like the one used would be incorporated into, consistently outperform in accuracy expert assessments of likelihood of recidivism performed in a more individualized and less structured manner.

Mostly, this is because experts routinely consider facts that empirical studies have determined are not very important, and because expert opinions are frequently fuzzy on the relative importance of the factors that they do consider. Simple point systems devised based upon regression models derived from empirical data address the mistakes of considering too much irrelevant information and giving the wrong weight to the facts that are important better than highly trained experts who use more subjective methods.

While the findings of these studies are commonly described as ways to identify high risk offenders, the real benefit to budgets and otherwise, is to give senior corrections and court system administrators empirical cover for recommendations that individuals whom the point systems show to be "mostly harmless" be lightly supervised. In the absence of such cover, these officials might need to greatly increase the average level of supervision at great cost, while still inadequately supervising high risk individuals and engaging in overkill for a large share of the supervised population.

The study is Aharoni, Eyal; Kiehl, Kent, et al. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. (2013). Some of the lead author's prior publications in the field include:
* Aharoni, E., Antonenko, O., & Kiehl, K. A., "Disparities in the moral intuitions of criminal offenders: The role of psychopathy." Journal of Research in Personality, 45, 322–327 (2011);
* Aharoni, E., Funk, C., Sinnott-Armstrong, W., & Gazzaniga, M.m "Can neurological evidence help courts assess criminal responsibility? Lessons from law and neuroscience.", Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1124, 145–160 (2008).
* Aharoni, E., Sinnott-Armstrong, W., & Kiehl, K. A., "Can psychopathic offenders discern moral wrongs? A new look at the moral/conventional distinction.", Journal of Abnormal Psychology (2012).

Another of his papers published online before print earlier this year correlated scores on a commonly used psychopathy evaluation instrument, the Hare Psychopathy Checklist–Revised, against confidential reports by offenders in prison of prior unsolved violent crimes committed, and determines that psychopaths are far more likely to have committed previously violent crimes for which they were not caught and that some parts of the checklist were correlated with more undetected prior crimes (antisocial lifestyle and behavioral psychopathic traits) while others (affective psychopathic traits) were associated with fewer undetected prior crimes relative to others with the same psycopathy score.

Indeed, this result, taken together with the rearrest data, suggests that part of the reason that the rearrest rate shows a fairly strong relationship to impulsivity, is that impulsive people not only reoffend, but get caught doing so, while less impulsive but pyschopathic parolees might be reoffending just as often but not getting caught as often.

The frequency of psychopathic traits in the general population is similar to the incidence of bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, for example, but these traits seem to be somewhat more of a matter of degree than those forms of psychosis.

Another Example Of Insane Drug Sentencing Laws

On March 20, 2013, University of Colorado police arrested a twenty-three year old student with selling a single tablet of Vyvanase (an amphetamine based ADHD drug) to a twenty-one year old student who was also arrested at CU-Boulder based upon a campus employee's report.  The student selling the pill was arrested on suspicion of "unlawful sale of a controlled substance, a Class 3 felony."  The student buying the pill was arrested on suspicion of "possession of a controlled substance", a Class 6 felony.

As explained at length below, the sale charge is stunningly serious given the nature of the act.  Other class 3 felonies (subject to somewhat stiffer sentences due to special aggregavating provisions in the case of violent crimes and sex offenses) are:
* armed robbery,
* forcible rape,
* attempted second degree murder,
* aggravated assault causing serious bodily injury,
* kidnapping of an adult for ransom or with a deadly weapon that does not involve rape or robbery,
* arson involving a building or occupied structure,
* residential burglary while armed or involving an assault on a resident,
* theft of more than twenty-thousand dollars,
* incest involving one's own child or an incestuously related relative under the age of ten years,
*child neglect causing death, or
* pimping a child.

In all likelihood, if these young men don't have criminal records, and white male CU-Boulder student of those ages probably don't, they will receive the most or almost most lenient treatment available under Colorado law if they don't grossly bumble the process or get struck with a real hard ass in the prosecutors office or on the bench (neither of which is likely in Boulder County).  Deferred prosecutions, probation, fines, or sentences actually served of less than three years are far more likely in this particular case.

But, the fact that a prosecutor's unfettered decision to press charges rather than accept a plea bargain to a lesser charge or permit a deferred prosecution, and a judge's decision upon receiving a guilty plea or upon a conviction of these charges for up to sixteen years in prison, followed by five years mandatory parole and a fine of up to $750,000 is authorized by Colorado law for this offense shows how deeply broken Colorado law is on this score. 

The Controlled Substances Act in Colorado and under federal law does not accurately link sanctions to culpability.  A better rule would treat selling drugs as a purely economic offense comparable to theft in sanctions for particular dollar amounts involved (at least where no harm arising from tainted drugs or harms to minors from using illegal drugs arises), and would treat any level of personal illegal drug use or possession as a mere misdemeanor.

25 March 2013

Microsoft Continues The Tradition

The tradition of making dreadful software with extremely broad distribution, that is.  I recently purchased a Windows 8 laptop (my current one is periodically providing warning signs that it is on death's door).

Windows 8 may not quite reach the utter low of Windows Vista, but it is decidely an inferior product to Windows 7 or Windows XP (albeit with the admirable goal of standardizing user interfaces across different kinds of devices).

It doesn't help that factory install prominently features the Bing search engine, the most vile piece of malware ever to touted as legitimate software.  Bing is what Google might have been but for the company's "don't be evil" motto.  (And, when Bing isn't actually functioning as malware itself, it seeks out its cousins: "Nearly two-thirds of search results on Bing were found to have links that spread malware or spam, compared to 30 percent for Google[.]") 

My middle school aged son asked me in the car today if there is anyone out there who sincerely thinks Bing is better than Google, a possiblity that seemed as impossible to him as a military without guns.

Everything Microsoft touches seems to instantly turn to shit.  It should quit while it is still ahead and just stop already.

Meditations On St. Matthew's Passion

I saw Bach's St. Matthews Passion performed this past weekend at Bethany Lutheran Church in metropolitan Denver, feature the St. Matthew's Chamber Choir, the Baroque chamber orchestra (forgive me if I have not gotten the name exactly right, I am writing from memory), a guest choir of high school sopranos and tenors, and expended ranks of chorus and orchestra performers, a director and several solists selection especially for this performance.  It was a big production.  And, this bow to the deep reformation heritage of the piece was balanced by the modern touch of a recent manga adaptation of the Stations of the Cross blown up into massive posters around the church. 

(This was not the only big Passion performance in town.  A performance of St. John's Passion, a work of a similar scope and scale was also being performed in Denver this weekend). 

The entire 3 hours and twenty minute performance in the original 18th century German covers Chapters 26 and 27 of the Gospel of Matthew (based on Martin Luther's translation adapted to the phrasing necessary for a vocal work) which run two to eight pages in a Bible depending on font size and page size covering the four day period from the Tuesday before Easter (i.e. after the events that are part of the Palm Sunday narrative)  through "Good Friday", but not the Easter story itself (along with some Lutheran hymns and some devotional poetry).

When it was originally performed in Germany several times from about 1726 to 1846 (my paternal ancestors or their relatives very likely saw it performed before leaving for America), a sermon was delivered in between the first and second part.  It would have taken the better part of a day to perform together with a sermon and a presumably longer (perhaps lunch length) intermission. 

This quintessentially Baroque Lutheran oratorio is very intense, deeply spiritual, and precisely crafted, but passionate, not so much. Bach was also most definitely not a believer in the show don't tell school of storytelling.

(A footnote: One of my distant relatives grew up in the same town a Bach and would have been a classmate or peer of his with some connection to that family.)

A Police Procedural Narrative Core

Taken so slowly, one of the narrative aspects of the story that struck me was how much it is a police procedural.  The narrative Gospels give intense attention of the criminal justice process that went into the crucifixion of Jesus, carefully noting who was to blame and why. 

There are prophetic and theological glosses that are thicker in Matthew and Luke and the incomplete (and earliest) accounts in St. Paul's Epistles than in Mark, and thicker still in the Gospel of John and some of the extra-canonical accounts of the Passion, suggesting that much of the material was interpolated and interpreted by later authors from the bare framework that they received to which they added what they felt followed logicially.

Tabor's perspective, in which the important part of the Passion for the Jerusalem based dynastic movement reaching out to fellow Jews and continued by James the Just was the fact of the death, facilitating a succession from hereditarily ordained Jesus (through both paternal and maternal lines) to his brother James, rather than a resurrection attoning for all of mankind's sins, casts an interesting perspective on the story that the Gospel narrative structure does something to support.  For them, the key points were to establish that Jesus had indeed died, so that James was entitled to succeed him, and to show the injustices on Earth of a process that they sought to replace.

Echos of Tobit

I was also struck by a detail of the St. Matthew's Gospel which I had forgotten and supposedly fulfilled a prophecy of Jerimiah, that the disciple Judas returned the 30 pieces of silver paid to him to betray Jesus to the authorities by kissing him before committing suicide, and that the Temple authorities reached a consensus that the funds should be used to pay for the establishment of a potter's field. 

It was striking to me this time, because one of the few (and non-canonical) religious texts attributed to the Jesus movement shows a striking similarity to the apocryphal Book of Tobit (which I also read recently) and Tobit was distinguished in his piety and charity in particular by securing proper Jewish burials for men who would otherwise not have received them. 

Thus, it suggests that this kind of "memorial gift" may have been quite in tune with that of the Jesus movement, even though disposal of the remains of the dead in accordance with Jewish law is mostly something that Gentile Christians following Paul see as part of the Old Covenant to which they were no longer compelled to adhere.

An anti-democratic parable

Another feature of the story that comes up in Bach's retelling is the very anti-democratic political message of the Passion. Saint Matthew's Passion is at its base a vivid case of a man being executed based upon the nearly unanimous popular will of the people who overcome the misgiving of the non-democratically appointed Governor appointed by a distant Roman Empire over a restive, recently acquired territory. 

It seems through the mists of time that the Jerusalem Jesus movement was something of a constitutional monarchy with a hereditary monarch who took counsel was a very broad based of leaders in the movement at various levels a bit like a House of Lords or College of Cardinals.  But, the leading sects of Christianity, with its insistance on celibate clergy or at least celibate Bishops, took paths of succession that were neither hereditary nor democratic that blended Last Will and Testament models and self-perpetuating board of directors models.  True democratic governance of the church doesn't appear until the Reformation and while it surfaces among Calvinists and Puritans and Anabaptists, is not nearly so well established among Lutheran and Anglican components of the Reformation.

The capacity modern Christian conservatives to see democratic capitalism in a religion that has never been democratic and indeed has at its core an anti-democratic parable, and that repeatedly decried the evils of wealth and property, is nothing short of astounding.

Anti-democratic sentitment filters it was into Saint Matthrew's Passion at three levels - the circumstances of the Gospel's author, the circumstances surrounding Bach's composition of the work, and the circumstances surrounding its restoration as a core piece in the classical repetoire after it had been all but forgotten in the early 1800s.

Emperor Augustus, who figures in the Christian nativity story, reigned from 27 BCE to 14 CE, was the first Emperor of Rome after five centuries in wihch it was in principle and name, at least, a Republic. Military rule, coups and family influence rather than modern democratic elections often determined who would rule Rome, but before then it had not been formally conceived as a monarchical empire either.  Tiberius, whom the Passion story recounts as the Emperor at the time, was the first ruler of Rome to prove that the Empire was more than a mere name by taking office in orderly succession from Augustus.  Caligula and Nero, two of the most despised rulers of Rome in all of classical history (tradition has it that Saint Paul, the most notable early evangelist of Christianity to the Gentiles died in prison in Rome during Nero's reign), cemented the capacity of the Empire system of put rulers in place notwithstanding grave personal flaws that would have prevented them from taking office, or at least from holding it, during the Roman Republic.  Early Gentile Christians made peace with an unbeatable Empire rather than aspiring to overthrow its temporal power, after a wave of martyrs failed in that revolutionary effort.

By the time that the canonical Gospels were written, the Empire was firmly established with a dozen or more successions of Emperors, and the Rome Empire had been in place for three and a half centuries when the Republic faded to no more than legendary history when Emperor Constantine who took office in 324 CE promptly made Christianity the state religion of Rome (it had become a leading and perhaps even dominant religion in Rome much earlier but was so divided by internal quarrels between Christian sects that it struggled to consolidate power until Constantine decisively backed the strongest participant in those struggles).

Bach was an establishment figure in Lutheran Europe who survived on the patronage of secular and sacred princes before any kind of democracy was in place anywhere but Iceland and perhaps parts of Switzerland and a few pirate villages and free cities. 

At the time that Bach composed the Saint Mattew's Passion, the most notable instance of Republican rule was during Oliver Cromwell's Puritan Republic in England from 1649 to 1660 when the monarchy was restored after a decade that displayed purely democratic rule unchecked by the aristocracy and monarchy in a very poor light.  In principle, the supremacy of Parliament and the rule of law in England was established in the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and English Bill of Rights of 1689, a  generation before Bach wrote the Passion, but in practice, the British monarchy and aristocracy had still not completely transitioned into a purely symbolic rule during the reign of Queen Victoria (1837-1901) (from whom reigning Queen Elizabeth is only four generations removed).

While the St. Matthew's Passion was composed before the French Revolution, democratic lynchings for political purposes echoing those of Cromwell's England that were commonplace in revolutionary France and these events would have been fresh in the minds of audiences watching it when St. Matthew's Passion was revived in the early 1800s after it had gone unperformed for almost two generations after the initial two or three productions in the years running up to the generallly failed democratic revolutions of 1848.  At the time of its revival elite anxiety over a new round of democratic uprisings and mob rule was tangible, and the Republican experiment in the New World was still an unproven and unstable enterprise constantly divided by tensions between the Southern cash crop agrarian, international trade based slave economy, and the Northern early industrial economy.

By the time that democracy was no longer predominantly seen as something other than mob rule to be terrified of, Bach's oratorio was firmly esconced in the repetoire of sacred classics that had lost any political messages they may have had at critical moments in their histories, a torch then passed to nationalist anthems like Finlandia.

What part of this headline makes no sense?

Syrian Civil War: CIA assisting in secret program to arm rebels.
- Denver Post, Page 1A, March 25, 2013.

23 March 2013

Gated communities are a mixed blessing

"[G]ated communities do lower the odds of experiencing a residential burglary even when controlling for housing unit factors such as tenure, income, and geographical location as well as individual characteristics such as age [and] race." . . .  [but are] at greater risk of other crimes, such as intimate partner violence, bullying, or violent assault in or near the home, because the victim is "locked in" with the offender. . . [and] at great risk from minor offences, such as vandalism committed by bored and over-controlled adolescents.
From here citing Lynn A. Addington, Callie Marie Rennison. Keeping the Barbarians Outside the Gate? Comparing Burglary Victimization in Gated and Non-Gated Communities. 30 Justice Quarterly (2013 in advance of printed edition) (as an aside, the title of the journal, which is published six times a year, is not entirely accurate).  Co-Author Callie Marie Rennison is an associate professor in the School of Public Affairs at the University of Colorado ––Denver.

Gated communities also shift opportunistic burglaries to neighboring communities and can impair first responder response times.

The study uses an expansive definition of gated communities that includes not only tradition high end suburban enclaves but also middle and low income gated communities such as gated apartment complexes, trailer parks and public housing projects.

Both the risks and benefits of gates communities, however, must be taken in perspective. Residential burglaries are rare and gated community residence is not a leading risk factor for domestic violence.

According to a 1999 study in the New England Journal of Medicine (Demetrios N. Kyriacou, Deirdre Anglin, Ellen Taliaferro, Susan Stone, Toni Tubb, Judith A. Linden, Robert Muelleman, Erik Barton, and Jess F. Kraus, "Risk Factors for Injury to Women from Domestic Violence" 341 New England Journal of Medicine 1892-1898 (December 16, 1999)) (blockquoted material not in the same sequence as in original):
Domestic violence is the most common cause of nonfatal injury to women in the United States. . . . Women at greatest risk for injury from domestic violence include those with male partners who abuse alcohol or use drugs, are unemployed or intermittently employed, have less than a high-school education, and are former husbands, estranged husbands, or former boyfriends of the women. . . The 256 intentionally injured women had a total of 434 contusions and abrasions, 89 lacerations, and 41 fractures and dislocations. In a multivariate analysis, the characteristics of the partners that were most closely associated with an increased risk of inflicting injury as a result of domestic violence were alcohol abuse (adjusted relative risk, 3.6; 95 percent confidence interval, 2.2 to 5.9); drug use (adjusted relative risk, 3.5; 95 percent confidence interval, 2.0 to 6.4); intermittent employment (adjusted relative risk, 3.1; 95 percent confidence interval, 1.1 to 8.8); recent unemployment (adjusted relative risk, 2.7; 95 percent confidence interval, 1.2 to 6.5); having less than a high-school education (adjusted relative risk, 2.5; 95 percent confidence interval, 1.4 to 4.4); and being a former husband, estranged husband, or former boyfriend (adjusted relative risk, 3.5; 95 percent confidence interval, 1.5 to 8.3).

20 March 2013

Twinkies Worth $410 Million

The discontinued Twinkie and related snack cake brands have been sold in a bankruptcy auction for $410 million to a pair of private equity firms, over the objections of Hostess labor unions.  The new buyers plan to get the snacks back on store shelves within about six months.  Some of the sale involves snack making factories and equipment, but most of the value of the transaction is for intellectual property, principally trademark related goodwill for the brands and the trade secret recipes.  The funds will add to the pot of funds used to pay the bankrupt company's creditors.

The Wonderbread and Nature's Pride bread brands together with twenty bakeries were bought by one of the company's competitors for $360 million.  The Beefsteak brand of bread was sold to another competitor for $31.9 million.  The Eddy's, Standish Farms and Grandma Emilie's bread brands were sold to a third competitor for $30.9 million.  A hearing on the sale of the Drake's Coffee Cake, Ring Dings and Devil Dogs were sold to a fourth competitor for $27.5 million is set for early April.

The total debts scheduled in the bankruptcy are about $1.47 million with much of this owed to secured creditors in amounts of hundreds of millions and the union pension fund.  These liquidations of large chunks of the business will net a bit more than $860 million, in addition to any asserts that were associated with any of the brands.  So, secured creditors and priority creditors (like the bankruptcy law firms) are likely be paid in full, general creditors are likely to receive a meaningful number of cents on the dollar, subordinated debt (about $100 million) will probably receive nothing, and the shareholders will almost surely be wiped out. 

To whom is the debt owed?  "Hostess lists the Bakery and Confectionary Union Pension fund as its largest creditor, with a debt of $994 million. Hostess is also behind in payments to a long list of suppliers, such as Cargill."

Given that the union bears considerably more than two-thirds of the brunt of any undervaluation of assets in the bankruptcy, it isn't too surprising that it was especially concerned about an undervalued sale.  Most of the company's bonds had been bought up by hedge funds at a discount who were more risk tolerant regarding the outcome of the banikruptcy than the long term holders of those bonds.  They were fine as long as they purchased the distressed bonds at a low enough price, and the bulk of the long term bondholders with less risk tolerance had already decided to cut their losses by selling out to the hedge funds.

The company's union will have to successfully unionize the operations of the new owners if it wants to continue to exist for any purpose other than linger implementation of the bankruptcy court's order.  It has been busted.  Management claimed that excessive demands from the union forced the bankruptcy, but the great disparity between the auction price and the amount of the company's debts casts serious doubt on that conclusion.  A declining market for junk food, rather than labor-management relations seems to be the most likely cause, even if union demands may have been the straw that broke the camel's back.

19 March 2013

Elite Athletes Are Cognitively Distinct

Elite volleyball players are in general better at multi-tasking, focusing on relevant details in complex situations, and "executive function."  In short, elite volleyball players are the antithesis of people with ADHD.  (I am reluctant to make the conceptual leap to "elite athletes" made in the materials below, because different sports may call for different skill sets.  An ability to manage complex sensory input, for example, while helpful in volleyball may be irrelevant for marathon runners.)
The study of 87 top-ranked Brazilian volleyball players, some of them medalists in the Beijing and London Olympics, and 67 of their nonathletic contemporaries also found that being an athlete minimized the performance differences that normally occur between women and men.
Female athletes were more like their male peers in the speed of their mental calculations and reaction times, while nonathletic females performed the same tasks more slowly than their male counterparts.
Overall, the athletes were faster at memory tests and tasks that required them to switch between tasks. They were quicker to notice things in their peripheral vision and to detect subtle changes in a scene. And in general, they were better able to accomplish tasks while ignoring confusing or irrelevant information.
Female athletes had significant cognitive advantages over their nonathletic counterparts, advantages that minimized the subtle speed differences between them and the men. The female athletes were faster than their nonathletic peers at detecting changes in a scene and could more quickly pick out relevant details from a distracting background. Their performance on these and the other tasks was on par with the male athletes, whereas nonathletic males consistently outperformed their female peers.
"I think we have learned that athletes are different from us in some ways," said University of Illinois psychology professor and Beckman Institute Director Arthur Kramer, who led the study with graduate student Heloisa Alves. "We found that athletes were generally able to inhibit behavior, to stop quickly when they had to, which is very important in sport and in daily life. They were also able to activate, to pick up information from a glance and to switch between tasks more quickly than nonathletes. I would say these were modest differences, but they were interesting differences nonetheless."
Non-athletes excelled at only one of the cognitive tests the researchers administered. In this test, called the stopping task, participants were asked to type a "Z" or "/" key as soon as they saw it on a computer screen – unless they heard a tone shortly after the character appeared, in which case they were told to refrain from responding. Non-athletes tended to be faster in cases where the tone never sounded, while athletes were better at inhibiting their responses after hearing a tone.  The ability to inhibit a response is one marker of what brain researchers call "executive function," the capacity to control, plan and regulate one's behavior[.]

From here.

Why Does Psychosis Manifest When It Does?

Psychosis, a somewhat dated term of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, two of the most serious mental conditions each of which has a well established hereditary pattern and biological basis (and may have partially common genetic origins), generally manifest in late adolescence or early young adulthood.

The best guess of neuroscientists and psychiatrists is that this happens because of a major transformation in our brains at that point in life.
[R]emarkable changes occur in the brain as it prunes away neuronal connections and makes the major transition from childhood to adulthood.  Irwin Feinberg, professor emeritus of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and director of the UC Davis Sleep Laboratory [tells us], "Our outcome confirms that the brain goes through a remarkable amount of reorganization during puberty that is necessary for complex thinking."  Feinberg explained that scientists have generally assumed that a vast number of synapses are needed early in life to recover from injury and adapt to changing environments. These multiple connections, however, impair the efficient problem solving and logical thinking required later in life.
From here.

A study together with two related prior studies of the same children described in the linked story above tracked EEG readings of sleeping children over ten years (for two nights ever si months) has directly documented this transition taking place.
EEG fluctuations during the deepest (delta or slow wave) phase of sleep, when the brain is most recuperative, consistently declined for 9- to 18-year-olds. . . . This led the team to conclude that the streamlining of brain activity — or "neuronal pruning" — required for adult cognition occurs together with the timing of reproductive maturity. . . . [S]ynaptic density in the cerebral cortex reaches its peak at age 8 and then begins a slow decline. The recent findings . . . confirm that the period of greatest and most accelerated decline occurs between the ages of 12 and 16-1/2 years, at which point the drop markedly slows.
"Discovering that such extensive neuronal remodeling occurs within this 4-1/2 year timeframe during late adolescence and the early teen years confirms our view that the sleep EEG indexes a crucial aspect of the timing of brain development," said Feinberg.
Psychosis, the leading theories to explain it hypothesize, happens when defectively thin connections between different parts of the brain lack enough capacity to distinguish between true sensory signals and noise, leading to cognitive hallucinations as the mind tries to make sense of mere random noise, or emotional whiplash as false triggers for mood changes cascade into intense mood swings that have no real environmental basis. 

In childhood, the excess of synapes in place before adolescent pruning of synapses provide enough excess connective capacity to make adequate signal-noise distinctions in the brain.  But, when this excess synaptic capacity is pruned in adolescence, the too thin connections that remain can no longer do their job and the descent into psychosis begins.

The finding also have relevance for educators and parents. 

The synapses that survive the pruning the adolescence are the ones the brain sees being used at the time.

Some kinds of learning, perhaps foreign language learning, mathematics, musical ability and the task of being able to override "what you think you see" to draw what you actually see, all require considerable brain plasticisty that is at its peak from ages eight to twelve, and may be profoundly more difficult to master at age seventeen and beyond.  Our peak learning capacity may be in the late elementary and middle school years, with our ability to learn many kinds of things greatly diminished by the time we are college aged.

Given that developmental reality, it may be foolish to focus immense economic resources and attention of the best higher educational system in the world, while leaving elementary and middle school education to happenstance with far less attention and far fewer resources.

18 March 2013

The Class Divide In Marriage

College-educated women typically have their first child two years after marrying. The high school graduates as a group have their first child two years before they ­marry.  In a statistic that runs counter to the image of unmarried mothers as reckless teenagers, the study said 58 percent of first births to women who have graduated only from high school are out of wedlock.
From here based upon a study entitled Knot Yet.  The study, which attempts to profile the costs and benefits to delaying marriage, opens with this observation:
The age at which men and women marry is now at historic heights—27 for women, and 29 for men—and is still climbing. The age at which women have children is also increasing, but not nearly as quickly as the delay in marriage.  
Median age at first birth has been lower than median age of marriage since about 1989, when I graduated from high school.  According to the study 48% of all births today are to unmarried women.

The biggest factor seems to be the declining capacity of men without college educations to provide a middle class life.
[T]he economic foundations that girded marriage in the mid-twentieth century have collapsed. In 1970, a man could count on finding a blue-collar job that paid an honest wage, where he could continue to work until he retired on a comfortable pension. At that time, a quarter of Americans, almost all of them men, still worked in the manufacturing sector; another significant percentage were in sectors requiring little formal education, like construction, mining, or utilities. The large majority of workers had, at best, a high-school education; college was financially unrealistic and largely irrelevant to their stable, decent-paying job. By their early twenties, or even their late teens, they were ready to support a family. . . .
For years now, men without a high-school diploma have had little hope for a stable job that could support a family. Obtaining a pension is like winning the World Series. Now, especially since the Great Recession, the same hard luck has come to those who have completed high school. In 2010, the national unemployment rate for people sixteen to twenty-four with only a high-school diploma was 24.6 percent, compared to a rate of 8 percent for the college educated.. . .
Under these circumstances, it is no surprise that growing numbers of Middle Americans are postponing marriage to their late twenties or thirties, or foregoing marriage altogether, as they search for jobs that will provide them with a middle-class lifestyle.
Women in the workforce, meanwhile, have seen their economic prospects improve dramatically since the 1970s and are now more likely to be college educated than men.  For example, in 1970, the percentage of law school students who were women was less than 5%, now at least half of law students are women.

UPDATE:  A quick observation as a footnote.  As is often the case a study that makes perceptive observations about the nature of the problem often veers off course when proposing solutions in a somewhat cursory conclusion.  I didn't recap its policy recommendation even though some of them may be sensible,  because they draw so heavily of matters beyond the scope of the study.

One point that is often missed when marriage policy is addressed that bears considering and caution in making any recommendation, however, is that most pro-marriage policy solutions are quite indiscriminate.  They encourage getting married and staying married in a way that is very ambivalent about the quality of the marriage itself.  The same policies that keep couples together in the face of external financial stress or simply getting "bored" of each other or feeling that one can find a more perfect soulmate also keep couples together in situations that most outsiders would consider abusive either physically or emotionally, or otherwise problematic in ways that justify the end of a marriage.

Even policies that were designed to make that distinction, like the fault based divorce regime did a poor job in practice of making those distinctions.

On the other hand, both domestic violence and child abuse are often correlated with financial stresses and marriage instability.  So, reducing financial stress on families could strengthen marriages and in the process undermine the external pressures that predispose people in those difficult situations to resorting to domestic violence and child abuse which may be seen as inferior tools that some people resort to when their families are falling apart anyway. 

For example, one recent study found an extremely strong link between severe domestic violence leading to felony criminal charges and actual or suspected infidelity by a female partner (this was present in almost every single such case in the Washington State county where the study based on discussions in recorded phone calls made by incarcerated men was conducted).  But, if women in financially secure families are less likely to have affairs, and men in financially secure families are less likely to worry about affairs whether or not this is mere paranoia, then greater financial security might greatly reduce serious domestic violence.

Similarly, poverty and the presence of a stepparent or non-biologically related adult in a household with a child are the two greatest risk factors for child abuse and neglect.  Financially secure families that stay in the same marriage that produced the couple's children greatly reduce both of these risk factors.

Zippers Can Be Dangerous

More than five thousand men a year end up in the emergency room with zipper related genital injuries.

15 March 2013

Life As A Night Owl

A post entitled Zombie days and Vampire nights aptly describes what my life as a notorious morning hater is like at its worst phases.
[My] research is waking me up at night at random times (lets say 3 or 4 in the morning) and then I have trouble going to sleep. In a certain sense, this must be how vampires feel: completely alert and awake at night with a clear vision of what needs to be done and and how to do it (this is a typical romanticized version of vampires, which do exist in nature, but look nothing like count Dracula, which is the typical class of vampire that this post refers to).
This wakefulness at night has profound consequences for my days at work. Basically, I’m not getting enough sleep and I walk the corridors with a slight headache and a characteristic lack of brain function during the day. Essentially, the only thing that keeps me separated from being a true zombie is that I’m still technically alive and my body parts are not falling as I shuffle by in the corridors.
Getting a sufficiently high dose of caffeine is not doing the usual trick. So if you see me walking around like zombie: don’t worry. It’ll be fixed during the midnight hours.

Austerity Measures Contract GDP

Austerity measures, like cuts in government spending, in response to recessions, only make things worse and reduce GDP.

14 March 2013

Lower Taxes Still Don't Create Economic Growth

One of the most widely made economic policy claims, usually by Republicans, is that lower taxes lead to economic growth.

In fact, there is no empirical evidence to support that claim despite numerous studies attempting to show that this is the case.  Instead, the average impact, to the extent that there is any relationship between overall taxation burdens and economic growth, is that higher taxes lead to slightly stronger economic growth.

More on secularization

The quadrupling of the market share of adults who are non-religious from 5% in 1972 to 20% in 2012 accompanied by a 50.2% increase in population over that time period, means that the number of people who identify as non-religious in the United States has increased sixfold in absolute numbers over 40 years. 

This is an annualized growth rate in the number of non-religious adults in America of 4.6% per year over 40 years, and it has been fairly steady.  The change in the market share of non-religious people doubled in both the first twenty years and in the second twenty years, so the growth rates for both half samples are almost identical.

About 60% of non-religious people in America today were raised in religious households and personally decided to set religion aside.

Most religious denominations have substantial corps of full time professional missionaries and clergy, in addition to well organized volunteer organizations involving a substantial share of their active membership, substantial institutional resources of money and property, well honed sales pitches that have been decades or centuries in the making, and the advantage of starting out with a favorable status quo.

There is no corps of professional missionaries out there actively trying to convert people to be non-religious.  There are very few institutional resources or organized groups of volunteers devoted to promoting or maintaining a specifically non-religious lifestyle.  There are a few small secular community organizations, but almost none have more than 100,000 members within demographic that includes household with about 63 million Americans.  There are no well established scripts for the narrow task of encouraging people to become non-religious, or the broader task of living a non-religious life.

Stigmas are waning but remain real.  Legal protections of the rights of the non-religious have been on the books since the late 1700s, but have had practical effectiveness until the Warren Court of the 1970s.

Instead, this is a trend driven almost entirely by the force of pervasive ideas that suffuse our culture.

Mostly, secularism in the United States has been a grassroots movement of atomized individuals making personal choices that make sense driven by the force of ideas more than anything else in an increasingly scientific, global, tolerant, feminist, inclusive society in which the message of religious organizations are no longer credible and now seems more immoral than moral on key matters like the role of women and gay rights.  It also is taking place in the context of a society in which all institutions of civil society that require personal involvement have been eroding.  A fair amount of the shift is also a reaction and counterrevolution of ideas in response to increased political activism by conservative Christians.

The percentage of Americans who are non-religious will almost surely grow as young adults aged eighteen to twenty-four, a third of whom are currently non-religious, grow older and as the trend reaches a tipping point.  Another doubling in market share from 20% to 40% in the twenty years between 2012 and 2032 would not be out of the realm of possibility, although that may be a bit high.  Any model of growth in market share of anything needs to assume a logistic curve rather than exponential growth, but S shaped logistic curves tend to be steepest in the mid-range of percentages, so there is no good reason to think that the next twenty years will show substantial slowing of this trend.

About four times as many kids will grow up in non-religious household as did among people who are currently adults, while all of the factors that led 13%-14% of Americans who were raised in religious households in the last four decades to become non-religious will only grow more powerful.  People making that transition now face less of a social stigma, have more role models for living their lives, have more fellow travellers to provide peer support, and live in a world in which there is greater scientific consensus, there is a more global outlook, there is profoundly greater tolerance of gay rights, and gender equality is better established, than the world in which today's adults came of age.  It wouldn't be surprising to see as much as an 8%-10% shift in market share attributable to these factors over the next twenty years in addition to baseline established by today's young adults.

My children see this in the schools within the Denver Public School's district that they've attended in which most parents are non-immigrant, white liberals, who Generation X or younger, a population in which more than 40% of the population national is non-religious.  They have many peers who are either non-religious or who have a religious affiliation but aren't very actively involved in attending church or other religious activities.  Certainly, they know people who attend some kind of Christian church every week and are active in church youth groups and all of their relatives in my parent's generation are actively practicing Christians.  But, they know almost as many people who are actively practicing Jews as they do who are actively practicing Christians and they know or at least know of a few classmates who are actively practicing Muslims or actively practice Eastern religions.

This growth in the non-religious population is coming and will continue to come mostly at the expense of infrequently church attending Christians, particularly non-immigrant Catholics and mainline Christian churches.  The residual Christian population will include a larger share of immigrant populations, more socially conservative, more theologically evangelical and more doctrinally orthodox Christians.  The emerging red state, blue state regional and urban-rural divides in religiosity will grow greater.  Forty percent of liberals are non-religious, while only nine percent of conservatives are non-religious.  Liberals in the next generation will be far more likely to have grown up in non-religious households and will be far more likely to be receptive to the ideas that have driven so many liberals relative to conservatives to deconvert in the first place.

Twenty years from now, a majority (perhaps even a substantial majority) of white and Asian Democrats will probably be non-religious, while only a distinct although growing minority of Republicans will be non-religious.

Establishment Christianity as a baseline default assumption involving affiliation with formerly established national churches is disappearing.  The Christians who remain, in a context more similar to the early Christian church than last thousand years (ironically, with the exception of the pervasively evangelical Christian South where local denominations mostly strive to emulate the early Christian church).  They are once again becoming a minority with a distinctive culture and set of world views united against a world dominated by heathens and heretics, rather than an establishment universal membership institution.  There will be "marketing pressure" for residual Christian communities such as non-denominational churches to downplay the anti-scientific, homophobic, sexist and anti-government stances that helped prompt tens of millions of deconversions.  But, paradoxically, the people who remain and organize residual Christian institutions will be precisely those people who weren't turned off from Christianity as a result of those messages.

Apologists who argue that some of the ugly stereotypes about Evangelical Christian or conservative Islamic or ultra-Orthodox Jews aren't accurate in sourcing their unpopular views in scriptural and authoritative religious doctrinal statements are mostly wrong.  Saint Paul, the Quaran, and the Torah really do say the things that are totally unacceptable from the perspective of modern Western cultural norms.  The "moderates" include mainline Christian churches, to a greater or lesser extent the Roman Catholic church depending on the issue, Reformed and Conservative Jews, the more moderate traditional varieties of Islamic religious practice like the Alawites of Syria, the Sufis of Southern Pakistan, and many of the Muslim communities of Southeast Asia.  Each of these religious communities have tamed the ugly core of the religious tradition from which they evolved.   Each learned to utilized somewhat tortured interpretations of religious scriptures and doctrines that have become traditional, a pattern of ignoring or deemphasizing inconvenient truths about their religion's doctrines, and mediation of religious instruction through formally trained specialist clergy who have learned to navigate these paths of moderation.

For example, Islamic fundamentalism is more a product not of ignorance per se, but of rising literacy, which allowed ordinary people to bypass the interpretive gloss of traditional Islamic religious figures that used to mediate the messages of the Quaran and other authoritative religious statements like Hadith, to reach the hard core, rather than simply being an elite clergy driven trend.  Islamic fundamentalist leaders are people who got out in front of a parade that rising literacy had already brought about whose literalistic and unmediated or interpreted readings of these texts puts them in line with emerging movements driven by the force of ideas in the readings of these core materials without much of a gloss, even when they may take views that are minority ones among formally trained traditional Islamic religious figures (except in a few places like Saudi Arabia which is the hub of the Islamic world as a result of the commandment that Muslims make a haj that have actively coopted the global power associated with fundamentalist movement brought about by global improvements in literacy (but not sophisticated high level interpretive graduate school level moderating concepts) for soft political power reasons).

Indeed, Islamic fundamentalism has a lot in common with the highly unnuanced conservative take on economics that incorporates the overly idealized free market concepts taught in Econ 101 classes in high schools or entry level college surveys, but dispenses with the nuances and qualifications that more advanced classes add to that foundation.

Most non-religious people in the United States are not considered atheists committed to a metaphysically natural worldview philosophically.  But, they are also much more secular in their attitudes and beliefs on a whole host of subjects than religiously affiliated theists.  There is a great deal of room for an innovative religious movement to emerge and draw in both non-religious identifiers and affiliated but weakly committed Christians and Jews.  Although, I doubt that this population is very amenable to inclusion in a formal organization, as opposed to a decentralized movement or trend.  But, it isn't obvious to me what direction that might take and if it does take it may look more like superstition or folk religion than it does like organized Christian or Jewish denominationally organized religious bodies.

13 March 2013

Secularism Faces New Pope On Day One

The Roman Catholic Church selected a new Pope today, a Cardinal from Argentina, the first South American Pope ever.  Another news story defines what may be his greatest challenge, at least in the American and European churches: secularism and declining adult adherence of cradle Catholics to their faith.
Religious affiliation in the United States is at its lowest point since it began to be tracked in the 1930s, according to analysis of newly released survey data by researchers from the University of California, Berkeley, and Duke University. Last year . . . UC Berkeley researchers found that 20 percent of a nationally representative group reported no religious preference. That's a jump from 1990 when all but 8 percent of Americans polled identified with an organized fait
From here.

The percentage of Americans who are not religous has more than doubled since I was in college.  It has increased fourfold since 1972 (not too long after I was born). 

At this point 40% of liberals and a third of people aged 18-24 are not religious.  Only 8% of those surveyed were raised with no religion and just 3% self-identify as atheists. "Educational differences among those claiming "no religion" are small compared to other demographic differences."

"About one-third of Americans identify with a conservative Protestant denomination, one-quarter are Catholics (although 35 percent were raised Catholic) and 1.5 percent are Jewish."

12 March 2013

Civil Unions Bill Headed To Governor In Colorado

The Colorado General Assembly has passed a civil unions bill (Senate Bill 11) which is headed to Governor Hickenlooper who is sure to sign the bill.  It was passed without any amendments in the state house.  The bill affords same sex couples (or opposite sex couples who choose to have a civil union rather than a marriage) virtually all of the legal protections and rights and obligations of marriage.

The bill will become law on May 1, 2013 (assuming that Governor Hickenlooper signs it later this month as expected), with Colorado then becoming the eighteenth state to have same sex marriage or civil unions (except that one provision relating to health insurance coverage takes effect January 1, 2014).

State Constitutionally Rooted Limitations

A state constitutional amendment adopted in a 55-45 vote in 2006 prohibited the Colorado General Assembly from passing a same sex marriage bill without a state constitutional amendment approved by voters, which is likely to be proposed in the near future. The bill also does not authorize civil union members to file joint income tax returns at the state level because the Colorado state constitution provides is derivative of federal tax laws.  The lack of full marriage status could matter for a variety of federal law purposes, such as immigration laws and federal tax laws.

Legislative Supporters

The bill was sponsored by State House Speaker Mark Ferrandino (D-Denver) and State Senator Pat Steadman (D-Denver), both of whom are gay men who have represented me in the Colorado General Assembly in the past (I've since moved and am no longer in either man's district).  I served on the vacancy committee that elected Steadman."  There are currently five gay or lesbian representatives out of sixty-five in the state house and three gay or lesbian senators out of thirty-five in the state senate in Colorado (all of whom are Democrats), a reasonable approximation of the proportion of Coloradoans who are gay or lesbian.

Republicans killed civil unions bills in two previous legislative sessions (as detailed here).  Twenty-six out of the twenty-eight Republicans in the state house voted against this bill this year.  In the state senate this year, fourteen out of fifteen Republicans voted against the bill.  Thus, the bill won the votes of 63% of state house lawmakers and 60% of state senators in addition to the support of Governor Hickenlooper, a Democrat.  All of the Democrats in the Colorado General Assembly and three Republican women (Representatives Cheri Gerou of Evergreen and Carole Murray of Castle Rock, and Senator Jean White of Hayden) voted for the bill.

White cited support for a gay niece and nephew in her part of the floor debate.  My current State Senator Linda Newell (D-Littleton) whose bumber sticker graces my car, said this vote was for her gay brother Bill who didn't come out until he was fifty years old.

The Woman Who Speaks A Mystery Language

Language Log is currently crowdsourcing a difficult question out of an International Organization for Migration office in Nepal.  A destitute woman who is a refugee is in Kathmandu, Nepal speaks and writes in a manner that officials there have been unable to identify with any known language. 

A writing sample and two sound clips, along with some additional information on the woman and her cirumstances have been provided. Click on the link to listen to the sound clip.  A copy of the writing sample is below the break (in this circumstance, reproduction is fair use for copyright purposes).  Many likely candidate languages have been ruled out; no identification has been definitively made by anyone.  The office's goal is to identify her place of origin or family ties in the hope that she may find a home and a support network.  So long as she is stateless, she does not even benefit from counsular assistance from the country of which she may be a national. 

More information about her background and analysis from experts concerning what her linguistic background could be appear below. 

I have taken the highly unusual step (for this blog) of disabling comments on this post, because this crowdsourcing effort is not just an academic exercise.  The point is to facilitate assistance a few minutes of assitance from many people in the blogosphere who have specialized knowledge for a real woman who is destitute, stateless and without family as a refugee in Nepal, so if you have anything useful to contribute in the form of a comment, please do so at the Language Log post linked above so that she may (indirectly) receive the benefit of your insights.    My own comments to that post (not reproduced below, because they aren't very authoritative) are limited to the written materials, as I lack the ear or expertise to discern anything from the sound clips with my own ears other than her mood and possible state of mind when they were produced.

Roman Catholic Church Color Challenged

You don't have to be an expert on the symbols and regalia of the Roman Catholic Church to know that Cardinals, who are a notch below the Pope and a notch above Bishops in the church hierarchy are distinguished because they wear red robes.

Only, they don't!  Watching the Cardinals file into the Conclave this morning on the several televisions displaying different channels in the lobby of my office building, one thing was clear on every channel.  A Cardinal's robes are totally orange.

Go figure.

11 March 2013

A Generation Betrayed?

Two television adaptation of Sara Shepard's teen novel series, Pretty Little Liars and The Lying Game, and two L.J. Smith teen novel series television adaptations, The Vampire Diaries and The Secret Circle (see also by neither of these authors, TV series like Revenge and Caprica with a similar dramatic structure) all have a powerful theme that give them verve and broad appeal, in addition to their focus on secrets and lies. 

Each one plays up at some level in its plot structure the notion of intergenerational betrayal.  The middle aged parents of each ensemble casts of teen heroes and heroines have deeply betrayed or failed them and their generation. 

For teens, this captures of zeitgeist of a generation that feels that its been given a raw deal through no fault of their own.  For people in the generation of those parents, the reaction is more along the lines of reassurance that however badly we have failed our own children, at least we have not wronged our own children quite so severely, therefore we must be at least half decent parents by comparison.  It is a different appeal, but a real one.

The Economics Of An IPO

Goldman Sacks made more money in kickbacks from clients who were given a shot a getting underpriced IPO stocks than they did from their fees to the company itself.  This is a quite troubling business model and was probably pervasive.

Poor Southerners Pay More Taxes

While the federal government has largely stuck by the principle of progressive taxation, the states have gone their own ways: tax policy is particularly regressive in the South and West, and more progressive in the Northeast and Midwest. When it comes to state and local taxation, we are not one nation under God. In 2008, the difference between a working mother in Mississippi and one in Vermont — each with two dependent children, poverty-level wages and identical spending patterns — was $2,300.
These regional disparities go back to Reconstruction, when Southern Republicans increased property taxes on defeated white landowners and former slaveholders to pay for the first public services — education, hospitals, roads — ever provided to black citizens. After Reconstruction ended in 1877, conservative Democrats — popularly labeled “the Redeemers” — rolled taxes back to their prewar levels and inserted supermajority clauses into state constitutions to ensure it could never happen again. Property taxes were frozen; income taxes were held down; corporate taxes were almost nonexistent.
Practically the only tax that could rise was the one that hurt the poor the most: the sales tax. And rise it did, throughout the Deep South in the late 19th century, then spreading into the Carolinas, Georgia, Florida and the rest of the region in the 1960s and 1970s. Even liberal politicians weren’t able to buck the tide — just ask Bill Clinton, who as governor of Arkansas urgently sought new revenue to improve his state’s ailing schools and found the sales tax was the only politically viable option.
From here.

Should anti-democratic supermajority clauses in state constitutions be invalidated on the basis of equal protection or Republican government provisions of the federal constitutions?  Is it pertinent that these state constitutional entrenchments were enacted at a time when the electoral process was demonstrably racially biased in ways that have since been held to be illegal and unconstitutional?  Do we need to fully purge the South of its post-Reconstruction pathologies before the American democratic system can ever work properly?  Is there still a great deal of unfinished Civil War business that need to be justly resolved?

Also, does this help explain the strong anti-tax ideology of blue collar and middle income voters in the South that drives an overall anti-tax ideology of Republicans in general? 

Rank and file blue collar and middle income voters in the Northeast and Midwest aren't as concerned about taxes because they don't pay nearly as much of their income each year for them.

This ideological attitude of lower income Southern voters towards taxes driven by state and local taxation, in turn, may drive stances of federal taxes that don't make sense from a consequentialist point of view for Southern voters in federal elections.

Yet Another Major Benefit Of Asprin

Asprin appears to reduce the risk of getting a common kind of skin cancer in young women. 

This adds to many large benefits in preventing cardio-vascular problems like strokes and heart attacks, and multiple kinds of cancers, which associated with fairly regularly taking low doses of asprin if you are at risk for those conditions.  Some of these benefits are cumulative with, for example, the benefits associated with regular moderate alcohol consumption and blood thinning drugs.  This remedies are attractive since they involve a cheap, over the counter drug whose day to day use on that basis has effects that are fairly well understood.  A common source of these benefits in the anti-inflammatory effects of asprin has been suspected as one possible reason for the benefit.

Variants of it were active ingredients in herbal remedies used in since antiquity based on willow bark and a certain kind of wild flowering shrub. It has been used in its current medicinal form since 1897 CE. 

Asprin seems likely that we are on the verge of starting to see asprin less like an ordinary medicinal drug and more like a vitamin that may also have drug applications when used in higher doses, but has value on a regime basis at some dosages in most health people as a means of preventing serious later life maladies. 

Launching and Retrieving An LCS Based Drone

The Problem
The U.S. military wants to build a medium-sized drone that it can fly off Littoral Combat Ship 2 (LCS2)-class ships. . .
Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) officials have put out a call for defense companies to submit designs for a drone that could carry 600 pounds worth of sensor equipment and fly between 600 to 900 nautical miles from its ship, according to an agency statement.
DARPA listed the requirements that they want to achieve with the new UAV. Below are those requirements:
• Devising a reliable launch and recovery technique that enables large aircraft operations from smaller ships, even in rough seas;
• Designing an aircraft with range, endurance and payload comparable to emerging land-based unmanned aircraft, while still meeting the demands of the maritime environment;
• Ensuring the entire system can operate with minimal, and preferably reversible, ship modifications and minimal personnel requirements for operations and maintenance; and
• Packaging the system to fit into the limited space aboard ships.
DARPA’s program manager, Daniel Patt, compared the new UAV he hopes to develop to a falcon that always returns. Patt said he hopes to have a demonstration prototype in 40 months.
From the Defense Tech blog.

A Solution

How does one manage it?

The key, I think is to launch and retrieve the drone not off the ship itself, but from a helicopter carried by the ship.

The Predator As A Stand-In For What Capabilities Are Possible With Drones

The familiar MQ-1 Predator drone is a suitable stand in for what is possible for a drone of the size class that the Navy is trying to purchase. 

A Predator has has enough range (675 nautical miles) and payload (1,100 pounds) to fit the requirements. It weighs 2,250 pounds and its stall speed of 54 knots.

A modified version with wings would fold up or in for storage inside the LCS when not in use for ease of storage could be managed within the design parameters. 

The LCS-2 has plenty of storage space to hold drones and related equipment for the launch, retrieval, maintenance and crew as well as living space for 35 crew members related to mission modules.
The mission bay is 15,200 square feet (1,410 m2), and takes up most of the deck below the hangar and flight deck. With 11,000 cubic metres (390,000 cu ft) of payload volume, it was designed with enough payload and volume to carry out one mission with a separate mission module in reserve, allowing the ship to do multiple missions without having to be refitted.
One Mobicon Flexible Container Handling System is carried on each ship in order to move mission containers. In addition to cargo or container-sized mission modules, the bay can carry four lanes of multiple Strykers, armored Humvees, and their associated troops. An elevator allows air transport of packages the size of a 20-foot-long (6.1 m) shipping container that can be moved into the mission bay while at sea. A side access ramp allows for vehicle roll-on/roll-off loading to a dock and allows the ship to transport the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle
Helicopter Assisted Drone Launches

The key, I think, it to make use of one or two of the standard two Sikorsky SH-60R/s Seahawk helicopter's that are standard equipment on the LCS-2.

The Seahawk can carry of slung payload of up to 6,000 pounds (well in excess of the loaded drone weight for a drone in this class), can operate at elevations up to 12,000 feet, can climb at a rate of 1,650 feet per minute, has a range of 450 nautical miles at cruise speed, and as a maximum speed of 146 knots (more than two and a half times the stall speed of the Predator drone).

The launch system could be pretty straight forward.  First, get the drone in the air attached to a Seahawk moving at perhaps 120 knots at an altitude of a few hundred to a few thousand feet by clamps.  Then, release the retractable wings on the drone and release the clamps so that the drone would trail the Seahawk on a tow rope and fire up the drone' engines.  Then, release the tow rope holding it to the Seahawk.  The process would be similar to launching a glider, a process that almost every U.S. military pilot has encountered in the training process.  (As a footnote, military gliders were used for one way military transportation in World War II).

If the drone itself weighed 2,250 pounds, the detachable launch and retrieval clamp and tow rope system on the Seahawk could weigh up to 3,500 pounds. This is fairly realistic. Glider tow systems currently in use weight about 1.5 times the weight of the towed aircraft.

This is also similar in concept to a piggy back launch of an aircraft, illustrated below:

Aerial Refueling Style Airborne Retrieval Via Helicopter

It could be retrieved using computer controlled navigation systems similar to those used for aerial refueling operations, but with the helicopter serving the drone plane instead of visa versa, to pluck it out of the air with the Seahawk could be the primary mode of retrieval. 

A mid-air retrieval of a drone with a helicopter is not unprecedented.  Here is an U.S. Air Force image of this being done (caption from source):

CH-3 Mid-Air Retrieval (MARS) version with AQM-34 drone from 432nd Tactical Drone Group.

A videoclip depicting a similar drone retrieval in 1971 can be found here.  The program in question is discussed at page 25 of this book which notes that two variants of these system were used during the Vietnam War from November 1969 to June 1973.

The tow rope could first be used to hook the drone while it moved at not much above stall speed in a manner similar to a refueling hose on a specially designed hook on the drone.  Then the drone could be slowly reeled in (with computer operated flight controls in operation on the drone and synched to the helicopter to keep it on its docking course), could be clamped down and then could retract its wings before the helicopter with the clamped on drone lands.

Alternately, the final clamp down step could be skipped and the drone on the tow rope could simply retract its wings and be dangled by the helicopter onto the helipad on the ship and detached once the drone is on the deck and the line is slack.

This is the most technologically ambitious part of the concept (as explained here), but is neither unprecedented nor revolutionary.  There are patents for similar concepts that have expired and entered the public domain for such techniques.  The main difference between most historical cases of this technique and the one proposed here is that the drone is able to manuever in concert with the helicopter rather than simply falling out of the sky on a parachute.

Backup Retrieval Via Splash Landings With Removal From Sea Via Helicopter

As a backup, or if plucking drones out of the air proved too technologically challenging to make work in practice, the drone could have an ability to make a splash landing, either on pontoons, or with a parachute and huge life raft type inflatable with a locator beacon to splash land (like a space capsule inbound) and then use the SH-60 in lieu of a crane to pluck it out of the water and back to the LCS. 

The recon devices on the drone could be buffered against rough landings more easily than human pilots (and could even eject separately during splash landings with its own parachute-airbag-tracking beacon system allowing for a rougher landing for the rest of the drone).

Widely Adaptable To Most Naval Surface Combatants And Beyond

While simple, the launch and retrieval process would be a technical wonder that would become an iconic thing of beauty in the naval, if this approach were adopted, that would become symbolic of the Navy's surface combatant force's twenty-first century technical competence.  The system could also be relatively easily adapted to any other naval platform that carriers an SH-60 helicopter, which most naval surface combatants do.

The concept could be scaled to other helicopter models and used for Coast Guard cutters with carried helicopters and for civilan uses as well.  Nothing in the concept is inherently military.

The system could also be applied in land based applications with essentially no modification, allowing for drone operations out of forward operating bases without adequate field air strips (e.g. in mountainous or urban environments).