30 December 2014

Schizophrenia Illustrated With Sound

Start with John Cage's 4'33", a piece of music featuring rests for the entire duration of the piece.  Add Autotune.  The result, sporadic, faint noise triggered random sounds that almost seem like music when autotune tries to make sense of it.

This is the prevailing view of the mechanism of the hallucinations of schizophrenia, in which the pruning of neural connections during adolescence to a too thin level forced the brain to extrapolate from a too weak signal with insufficient noise processing and amplifies random noise into seemingly coherent messages using means that normally are used to simply fine tune noisy input.

27 December 2014

Westminster NIMBY Fears About New ER Proved To Be Baseless

Fears that a new free standing ER would bring noise, crime, declining property values and traffic to a tony neighborhood in the suburban Denver town of Westminster have proven to be totally baseless.  But, there is every reason to believe that the economic activity and saved lives that the facility brings to the neighborhood are real.

Kudos to the city for ignoring the Chicken Littles in Westminster who wanted to stop the project.

23 December 2014

Smart People Still Godless

An article at Salon.com recaps the main points in support of the argument that smart people tend to be non-religious and that the least religious countries are the nicest ones to live in.

Happy Festivus!

Festivus lives.

Our grievances are many.  Our Festivus pole is bare.  Our feats of strength, pathetic as they may seem, are on display.  Our meal is ordinary.

Nuclear Power v. Coal

One train car full of uranium hold energy equivalent to 3,166,667 train cars of coal (i.e. 100 train cars per day for almost 87 years).

Ilya Somin On Crimes Against and By Police

Often I disagree with Ilya Somin, a libertarian law professor and public intellectual.  But, on the issue of how to think about crimes against and by police, raised by high profile excessive force cases in Ferguson, Missouri and New York City that have spawned protests nationwide, and by the retaliatory assassination of two police in New York City by a man who then committed suicide a few days ago, he is spot on.

Law enforcement is a much less dangerous job than most people perceive it to be, and the existing system does an excellent job of holding people who try to harm law enforcement officers accountable.

The existing system, in contrast, does a poor job of holding bad cops accountable for their actions, which is unjust, which poisons the relationships between the police and the public, and which creates horrible incentives that basically encourage future police misconduct.

What Response Is Appropriate?

It is also notable that this problem is not simply a case of bad apples making a good system look bad.  Small town suburban Missouri and big cities like New York City, Cleveland, and Los Angeles have almost identical problems, for almost identical reasons.  The source of the problem is something common to almost every law enforcement agency in the country (at least to the extent that they deal with economically unequal racially or ethnically mixed populations), and needs to be addressed at the level of governmental institutions and legal frameworks for civil and criminal liability for police misconduct.

Reforming Civil Liability

I have long felt, and won't reiterate in this post at great length, that one key part of the reform process should be an overhaul of civil liability for law enforcement officers and their employers.

The key elements of these reforms should include:

(1) Vicarious liability, not limited by the qualified immunity available to individuals, for the employers of law enforcement officers sued for civil rights violations.

(2) Provide qualified immunity for employers of law enforcement officers from employment law remedies for discipline of civil servants based upon a good faith belief that an employee had used excessive force or otherwise violated someone's civil rights.

These two reforms would give employers of law enforcement officers a much greater incentive to hold their employees accountable, something that they are well positioned to do than the courts.

 (3) Establish a compensatory "takings" remedy that provides compensatory damages to anyone seriously harmed by the criminal justice system in a manner not incident to an ultimate conviction.

For example, a takings remedy might apply, without regard to government fault, if someone was charged with a crime and not convicted for their defense costs, loss of liberty while awaiting trial, bond charges, and other economic losses arising from the charges.  Similarly, anyone incarcerated pursuant to the conviction that was overturned would be entitled to compensation for their loss of liberty without regarding to the wrongfulness of the process that caused that conviction.  And, a takings jurisprudence would provide a compensatory remedy to anyone harmed by the use of force that would not have been justified in hindsight if everyone involved benefited from fully accurate information (e.g. cases where a law enforcement officer shoots and kills someone because the law enforcement officer sincerely believed he had a gun when he didn't actually have a gun).  Damages for loss of liberty from incarceration would be standardized in some way (e.g. $X per day).

This would provide justice in a manner much easier to prove to innocent people harmed by the criminal justice system.

Reforming Criminal Liability

Another useful step may be to create a new crime of excessive use of force causing serious bodily injury or death by a law enforcement officer, that is prosecuted in a manner that procedurally addresses the inherent conflicts of interest in the status quo approach, and that also recognizes that the level of culpability of overzealous or panicked law enforcement officers in these situations if often closer to that of criminally negligent homicide than it is to intentional murder.  In these cases, the standard might be closer to "use of force that a reasonable person under the circumstances would objectively believe to be inappropriate", rather than the usual standard for proof of homicide or assault.  A yet lesser criminal offense, perhaps a misdemeanor, might be established for failure to discipline law enforcement officers under your command for using excessive force as this is really just one more category of corruption.

Procedural reforms might vest enforcement of the crime against local law enforcement officers in a state attorney general's office or the United States Justice Department Civil Rights division, without resort to a grand jury in jurisdictions where that is permissible.  Prosecutors charged with enforcing the crime might also be vested with the authority to insist on lesser civil sanctions such as termination of employment, termination of law enforcement officer employment eligibility, civil fines, suspension without pay pending investigations, and placing local law enforcement agencies that are pervasively troubled in a federal or state receivership.

A criminal remedy for excessive use of force by bad cops that is more consistently applied and moderate in terms of sentence available, would be a better option than a criminal sanction that is theoretically available but almost never imposed.

22 December 2014

Fox News Duped By Parody of North Korean Twitter Feed

The parody is run by the folks at Popehat.

Supreme Court Rule 17 and Nebraska and Oklahoma v. Colorado

The U.S. Supreme Court has exclusive jurisdiction over lawsuits between states, and on the surface, Nebraska and Oklahoma v. Colorado, which seeks an injunction related to Colorado's state legalized marijuana industry, would seem to qualify. But, before a Complaint can be filed, a state must ask the U.S. Supreme Court for permission to file it pursuant to Supreme Court Rule 17.

Since the current lawsuit is a far cry from the usual boundary or water rights disputes between states brought in the U.S. Supreme Court's original jurisdiction, all bets are off concerning how this plays out procedurally.

It seems unlikely that the U.S. Supreme Court would refuse to take up a seemingly non-discretionary duty to take up all cases in its original jurisdiction.

But, is there any reason that permission could be denied?

In this context, the Court could treat Supreme Court Rule 17 as the functional equivalent of federal rule of civil procedure 12(b) which provides the grounds for dismissal of lawsuits prior to the filing of a formal answer to a complaint.

I think that there are several, all of which are variations on the theme of lack of subject matter jurisdiction, perhaps for lack of standing, or the closely related concept of justiciability.

1.  The damages that Nebraska and Oklahoma claim to have suffered are predominantly expenses incurred not by the states themselves, but by local government law enforcement officials (and citizens) in those states.  The U.S. Supreme Court could argue, therefore, that the real parties in interest are not the states, whose claims are within the U.S. Supreme Court's original jurisdiction, but the local governments of (and citizens of) those states, who are not states for purposes of 11th Amendment immunity and must sue another state in its own courts, rather than in the federal courts.  Moreover, the State of Colorado would be allowed to invoke its 11th Amendment immunity for lawsuits for torts in its own courts.

2.  Similarly, the U.S. Supreme Court could hold that a state does not have standing to bring claims arising out of discretionary legislative decisions made by a sister state as quasi-nuisance claims, establishing a broad, new standing rule that affects almost no other past cases and would quash similar cases in the future.

3.  Alternately, and more broadly, perhaps states do not have rights to be free from tortious harm except as property owners, parties to contracts, and as expressly created by federal law.  This may implicate none of these interests.

4.  This standing argument would be a close cousin to the more established "political question" doctrine that holds that some issues are reserved to the political branches and may not be resolved by the federal courts.  Thus, this issue might not be justiciable controversy.

5.  In a similar vein, the jurisdiction of the U.S. Supreme Court consists of cases "in law and equity."  But, this dispute might be deemed to be outside the scope of either the law courts, or the equity courts, at common law, and hence to be outside the subject-matter jurisdiction of the U.S. Supreme Court.  England didn't have constitutional federalism at the time that British law was received in the 18th century, and certainly didn't allow one sovereign governmental entity to sue another in the fashion proposed in either the Courts of Law or the Chancery Courts.  The closest equivalent jurisdiction may have been exercised by standing committees of the House of Lords, or the monarch, acting individually or through her Governor's General.

6.  Finally, the U.S. Supreme Court might refuse to consider the complaint because it failed to join necessary interested parties, such as the United States government, since the supremacy of its laws and its exercise of prosecutorial discretion are at issue, or other states bordering Colorado.

Any of these procedural bars might be preferable to the Court to adjudicating this dispute on the merits for the U.S. Supreme Court as an institution, and would also resolve this urgent question much more quickly.

21 December 2014

Will International Economic Mayhem Hurt The American Economy?

I've predicted a Great Depression class economic downturn in China, as early as 2015, or as late as 2024.  China's seen a bit of an upturn in its economy as its taken some measures to address the mounting international consensus, but it remains a strong possibility.

Weak oil prices and a Crimea related embargo (but honestly, more the former than the later) have sent the Russian economy into the danger zone with interest rates skyrocketing to 17%, the value of the Ruble collapsing by more than half despite massive interest rate intervention, and sanctions slightly notching up.

The Greek economy apparently remains fragile after its meltdown earlier this year.

Surely, there is a domino or two that I've left unturned.

The U.S. economy seems to be on the mend after six years of good stewardship from President Obama, but how long can that last?  Military re-engagement in Iraq, major foreign economies in trouble, none of that can be good.  Will we fall into a double dip recession just after coming out of the last one?  Or, will the U.S. economy pick up the slack as foreign competitors are no longer able to perform?

19 December 2014

Nebraska and Oklahoma v. Colorado

The states of Nebraska and Oklahoma have brought a lawsuit against Colorado in the U.S. Supreme Court, which has original jurisdiction in lawsuits between states, alleging that Colorado has a duty to criminalize recreational marijuana because it is illegal under federal law.  They allege that they are damaged because they have increased law enforcement burdens when trying to enforce their own marijuana laws that arises from legal sales of recreational marijuana to their citizens (who are allowed to buy a quarter ounce at a time).

The notion that Nebraska and Oklahoma have any right to tell Colorado what kind of laws it can pass (something that even the federal government does not claim), is odd indeed.  Their real beef is with the fact that the federal government is not enforcing its own laws, not that Colorado has chosen not to criminalize recreational marijuana.  But, it is perfectly well settled that the President has essentially absolute power to exercise prosecutorial discretion.

Similarly, nobody is compelling Nebraska or Oklahoma to exercise their prosecutorial discretion to aggressively pursue violations of marijuana laws.  They may, but if they do, that is their choice, not Colorado's choice.

The U.S. Supreme Court would be well advised to dismiss this lawsuit in short order with a stern admonition to Nebraska and Oklahoma to quit the political grandstanding and to stop wasting the Court's time with their frivolous whining.  The lawsuit is quite frankly embarrassing to the conservative movement and to the Republican party whose officials are pressing the lawsuit.  It is worth noting, however, that Colorado's Republican attorney general is fighting the lawsuit.

17 December 2014

Non-Religious People Hold Moral High Ground On Torture

Religious people often claim that they are more moral than non-religious people.  Faced with a concrete question:

"Do you feel the torture of suspected terrorists can be justified?"

here is the percentage of people who said that it could be often or sometimes justified by religious affiliation in a recent opinion poll:

White evangelical Protestant: 69%
White Catholic: 68%
White non-evangelical Protestant: 63%
Non-whites (not broken down by religion): 51%
Non-religious: 40%

No statistically significant data was available for whites adherents to non-Christian religions such as Jews and Muslims.

In my view, it is the non-religious people who hold the moral high ground here.

16 December 2014

Juan Cole on the Pakistani Taliban's School Massacre

Juan Cole provides useful background and context in understanding an incident yesterday in which six or seven Pakistani Taliban militants killed about 145 people mostly older school children and injured more than a hundred more, while burning several teachers alive at a school run by the Army in the Tribal Areas of Pakistan.

In a nutshell, he explains that the Pakistani Taliban are mostly part of a single linguistic and ethic group in the tribal areas of uneducated people allied with the "seminary student" movement in Afghanistan.  They were allied with the Pakistani Intelligence Services for years, but after U.S. encouraged pressure from the top, the Pakistani military has declared war on them in the past few months and killed about 2,000.

Cole describes the school massacre as a futile effort to exact revenge for their losses, that look to them like a betrayal, during this campaign which is taking a great toll on their movement.

15 December 2014

The Iron Law of Oligarchy At Work

There were 272 automobile companies in 1909. Through consolidation and failure, three emerged on top, two of which went bankrupt. Spotting a promising trend and a winning investment are two different things.
From here.

I would observe, however, that this is a list of American automobile companies.  There are many "foreign" automobile companies out there selling cars in the U.S. market and maintaining the oligopoly to which markets seem to naturally trend. The Iron Law of Oligarchy is hard at work, however, with more than fifteen different companies selling cars to U.S. customers.  

One of the "Big Three" is now a subsidiary of Italian automaker Fiat, rather than an American automobile company. General Motors went bankrupt and has since reorganized. Ford didn't.  On the other hand, Tesla has come into its own as a new American automobile company.  Also, Harley Davidson is an American company selling motorcycles in the U.S., and General Dynamics manufacturers and sells wheeled military vehicles in the U.S.

Many of them (Hyundai, Honda, Toyota, Nissan, Volkswagen, BMW, Mercedes, Mitsubishi, Mazda, Kia, Subaru and Fiat-Chrysler) have manufacturing operations in the North America and significant numbers of U.S. debt and/or equity investors.

A few more foreign automobile companies sell cars in the U.S. but do not have plants in the U.S. (e.g. Porsche and Rolls-Royce).

14 December 2014

An Early New Year's Resolution

This year, the only Black Friday deal we swooped up with a pair of Denver Recreation Center passes.  One for my wife, a long time regular, and one for me, who has never been a big exerciser and cut back further when a back injury a couple of years ago limited my options.

The theory is that I will swim on a regular basis in the New Year, to get some exercise, since the long walks that used to be my mainstay are a no go for now.

Today was a first trial run, so I can "hit the water swimming" when the New Year comes around.  Heading to swim with the snow falling down around me wasn't exactly auspicious.  And, I did learn that I'd need a lock for a gym locker and a comb, in addition to those things I remembered to bring.  But, with any luck, I will still be at it once than January New Year's resolution rush subsides.

11 December 2014

Is Inflation A Function Of Standard Of Living?

Tyler Cowen argues convincingly that despite inflation, the consumption utility of $100,000 of nominal dollars per year today is greater than it was 50 years ago (in 1964), but that the standard of living conveyed by $20,000 nominal dollars per year then was much greater than $20,000 nominal dollars per year now.

Thus, the upper middle class has seen deflation, while the middle class has seen inflation.

The main reason for the deflation at higher incomes is that there are many valuable goods and services available today that were not available at any price then.

10 December 2014

Two Harsh Unanimous SCOTUS Rulings

The U.S. Supreme Court made two rulings yesterday that were "harsh" in the sense of producing a substantively unfair result on the merits, despite being supported by a solid legal basis in each case that convinced a majority of the court.

* The opinion of Justice Thomas in a wage and hours case, Integrity Staffing Solutions, Inc. v. Busk, involved leased employees at an Amazon.com warehouse who were not paid for time spent while waiting for a exit security check that was a condition of their employment, despite the requirement of the Fair Labor Standards Act that the agreed hourly rate plus any overtime required by the act by paid to workers for time worked.  The Fair Labor Standards Act was amended by the anti-labor Portal-to-Portal Act in the 1940s that defined hours worked narrowly and was interpreted by the Labor Department in regulations issued within a few years of the passage of the new law in an analogous situation to exclude this time from the employer's duty to compensate.

The result is harsh, because the law is allowing an employer not to pay employees for time that they are required to be at work for the convenience of the employer, but the statute, rather than the interpretation of it, is the real problem, therefore a unanimous court rules against the workers.

* The opinion of Justice Sotomayor in Warger v. Shauers involved a federal civil jury trial of a car accident case in which a juror lied in the jury selection process and this lead to a bad result for the person injured in a car accident. The only evidence presented of the lie, however, was a hearsay statement about what she said during jury deliberations, rather than independent evidence that she had lied. A federal rule of civil procedure prohibits this kind of evidence from being considered by a court in the interest of protecting jurors from post-trial investigations by disappointed parties after jury trials, and she found that no exception applied. So, even though there was clear evidence that the juror lied and harmed the person injured in the automobile accident as a result, the injured individual was not allowed a remedy based upon this evidence.

09 December 2014

Men Treat Women Wearing Heels Better

When it comes to securing the interest and help of strange men, a woman has few tools in her arsenal that have been empirically proven to be more effective than high heels.  Also three and a half inch heels are more effective than two inch heels.

The downside: High heels are unhealthy, increasing the wearer's risk of ankle injury, back pain and calf tendon injuries.

Can Syria or Iraq Ever Be Put Back Together Again?

ISIS has had de facto control of most of what our maps say are Western Syria and Northern Iraq for about six months now.

The military efforts of the respective recognized governments of those states to regain control of their territory have been impotent.  The military forces of the Kurdish regional government's milita have held back its advance, but he main Iraqi military has been nearly useless as have the civil war torn Syrian government's efforts to reclaim their territory.

Even if ISIS can be defeated, it is far from obvious that Syria or Iraq can effectively assert legitimate and accepted authority in these areas or the area controlled by the Kurdish regional government.  Recent reports of indiscriminate killing of civilians and ISIS forces alike by Shi'ite militias entering ISIS controlled Sunni majority areas support a skeptical view.

There are examples of countries losing de facto control of their territory and regaining it after long periods of dispossession, like Columbia.  But, they are rare.

Similarly, the Crimean annexation by Russia appears to be a fait accompli.

The CIA Tortured People and It Didn't Produce Useful Information

A slightly longer summary of the U.S. Senate report on the subject is found here and at the New York Times.  Lawfare also covers the report with links to the original documents.

The Law Still Fails To Hold Law Enforcement Officers Responsible For Misconduct

Popehat has a nice link heavy rant explaining what is wrong with our system's failure to hold bad cops accountable, framed by the broken windows theory of law enforcement.

02 December 2014

Leadville In Decline

The Denver Post reports the imminent decline of the only hospital in Lake County that is home to the town of Leadville, which is 135 years old, because local voters refused to support a property tax increase needed to keep St. Vincent hospital's doors open.  The hospital also provide's the county's only nursing home and ambulance service, in addition to its emergency room.

This would appear to leave the town's urgent care facility as the highest level of medical care available in the county.  This facility amounts to Dr. Lisa Zwerdlinger and her two physicians assistants.  The good doctor is no doubt competent and hard working, but will be hard pressed to replace a full fledged hospital emergency room in a hospital complex previous staffed by 107 employees.

Lake County has 7,300 residents of whom 2,600 live in Leadville, the only municipality in the county (and the highest elevation city in the United States at 10,152 feet).  The closest hospital is now in Frisco, 33 miles away along slippery snowy roads in the winter.  About 60% of the county's residents are on Medicaid.

The closing of the hospital will cost the county about 107 jobs and will cost the local economy $8 million.  Sales tax revenues are predicted to decline by $130,000 costing the city of Leadville a job in its fire department and a job in its street department.  The City also turned away a $1,000,000 state grant and a loan from the Department of Agriculture that would have allowed the hospital to stay open when it voted down the property tax increase.
A study published in the medical journal Health Affairs in August found that when emergency rooms close, the chances of death for those steered elsewhere rises by 5 percent. In cases of heart attack, stroke and sepsis, deaths rise by 15 percent. None of the hospitals studied, however, has Leadville's wintertime challenges of nearly 14 feet of snow annually on steep, twisting roads.
The Post notes that the decision would have increased the hospital's property tax from 5.48 mills where it has sat since 1988 to 16.44 mills, an increase on each $100,000 of value in a home from $43.62 a year to $87.26 a year, and for a business from $158.94 per $100,000 in property value to $476.84 in property value.

Needless to say, the voter's decision not to fund their county hospital doesn't seem very wise.  But, perhaps they are merely recognizing the inevitable.  The Post reports that this is not the only decline that Leadville is experiencing.

Leadville has lost about 40% of its restaurants in four years (seven out of seventeen or eighteen), and one of its two grocery stories, Alco, is going out of business, leaving only one Safeway outside the city limits.

"The landmark Tabor Opera House, built in 1889, the same year as the hospital, closed as a private enterprise in August.", although a non-profit coalition is trying to the raise the $5 million needed to restore it.  In the late 1800s when it was built, it was the second biggest city in the state (in 1880 the census reported 14,820 residents in its 1.1 square miles) and was supported by silver mining.

Most of its seven museums have closed, or dramatically reduced their hours.  Sales tax revenues are down too:
Leadville collected about $648,000 in sales taxes in the last fiscal year, compared with just over $754,000 the year before. Sales-tax collections fell from $352,196 in the first quarter of 2013 to $312,662 for the same period in 2014. Neighboring Buena Vista, with almost the same population, had more than twice the sales-tax revenue: $1.55 million last year, up from $1.48 million the year before, according to tax records.
These setbacks will no doubt make it even harder to attract new residents.

The town took its main hit in 1893, when Congress stopped buying silver to prop up the currency, and has been struggling direly since the Climax molybdenum mine closed in the early 1980s, and a series of marathons and ultra-marathons in the summer have become a mainstay of a local economy, already oriented towards tourism.  The reopening of the mine in 2008 with it starting production in 2010 was too little, too late to save the Leadville economy.

It is unclear from the Denver Post reporting why the last few years have seen such a decline.  A delayed impact from the financial crisis and housing bust that hit Colorado's mountain towns hard, could be a factor.  But, it is hard to point to any one thing that has happened since 2010 that had a major negative impact on the town.

The closing of the hospital, the opera house, and area businesses, and municipal layoffs will surely cause tax collections to fall further, the population of Leadville and Lake County to fall, declining property values, and more declines, although it is close enough to major resorts to continue to be a bedroom community for ski resort workers and a secondary tourism destination.

01 December 2014

Ten Mysteries of the Universe

1. Why did Microsoft make Windows 8 such an abomination?  Why didn't they change course once they discovered that their product was a flop?

2. Why do people vote for Republicans?

3. Why do people believe in Creationism?

4. Why is reality TV popular?

5. Why don't they cancel decades old moribund soap operas?

6. Why don't movie theaters compete with each other on popcorn prices?

7. Why don't more places in the United States than Nevada legalize prostitution?

8. Why does Colorado ban selling cars, but nothing else, on Sunday?

9.  Why do people pay extra for faster cars when there is no where that they can actually utilize this feature?

10. Why do people find baseball exciting?

Cop Killings At Record Lows In 2013

The Huffington Post has the story.  Just 27 cops were killed in the line of duty by felonious acts, the lowest in FBI reporting history.  Roughly twice as many were killed in traffic accidents in the line of duty.
A 2013 tally by the National Law Enforcement Memorial Fund showed 100 officers died in the line of duty last year, the fewest since 1944. Traffic-related fatalities were the leading cause of officer deaths in 2013. The report found that "firearms-related fatalities reached a 126-year low ... with 31 officers shot and killed, the lowest since 1887 when 27 officers were shot and killed.
Needless to say, the population of the United States and the number of police officers in the United States were far lower in 1887 than in 2013.  Indeed, in 1887, the idea of a professional police force was only a few decades old anywhere in the world.  On a per police officer basis, 2013 was the safest year to be a police officer ever.

The National Law Enforcement Memorial Fund methodology (which includes several more killings than the FBI data) is slightly more comprehensive than the FBI data which relies strictly on reports from other law enforcement agencies.

The story does not explain the trend, which includes a roughly one-third decline from 2011 to 2012, and a roughly 50% decline from 2012 to 2013, but wide use of bullet proof vests and improved trauma care, in addition to a reduced number of incidents overall, are important factors.

Americans Rarely Riot

Eric Loomis suggests that the impression of blacks rioting understates the extent to which whites also riot.  I'd argue, instead, the Americans, in general, riot and otherwise engage in street politics far less often than comparable industrial economies do over all sorts of matters.