30 April 2015

Is Gentrification Fueling Gang Crime In North Denver?

Denver has seen a dramatic surge in gang killings and violence in North Denver this year, after a lull in the many years of the Great Recession and the slow recovery from it.

Yet, now, Denver's economy it hitting on all cylinders and North Denver.  These neighborhoods were historically black and except for Park Hill, which was a rare black middle class to mixed race middle class neighborhood (from North to South), poor to working class.  When I first moved to Denver from Grand Junction in 1999 and looked at census data from 1990 while I was investigating neighborhoods to move into in the city, about 50% of the African-American population of the State of Colorado lived within five miles of the intersection of Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard and Colorado Boulevard.

This shifted in two ways in my first decade of living in Denver.  First, Hispanics, who had historically lived on Denver's West side, gradually migrated east into historically black neighborhoods like Five Points and North Capital Hill (now called "Uptown").  Second, young lower middle class white families and gay couples started snapping up inexpensive houses close to downtown and the hospital complexes in these neighborhoods despite historically racial divides in the city.  Since that decade, full fledged gentrification which has reached critical mass has taken hold.

Why should an area that is becoming more affluent also be seeing more crime?  A short but thoughtful 9News story explores this question.
Recent incidents of gang violence in northeast Denver may have many causes, but a noted anti-gang activist says urban renewal may be one of them. Rev. Leon Kelly says as more wealthy people are revitalizing neighborhoods, it is pushing gangs into smaller territories. "When you've got folks sitting on top of each other, gangs sitting on top of each other, it's causing tension," he said. . . .

The city has already seen more gang-related murders this year than it did all of last year. "We've had 17 murders this year. Twelve of them have been gang-related," Denver Police Chief Robert White said in a press conference Wednesday. "That number is relatively high." . . . White blames incidents at a rap concert in November for some of the violence seen so far this year. He says in most cases, shootings are retaliatory and other gang members are the intended target. . . . 
Rev. Leon Kelly says as more wealthy people are revitalizing neighborhoods, it is pushing gangs into smaller territories. . . . Kelly says gang members are more aggressive these days than they were 30 years ago. He says there is still more of a need for alternative programs to get them off the street. But he also says gentrification is playing a role in this. "When the gangs used to coexist over in the hood, over in the east side, Park Hill they had room to expand," he said.
Rev. Leon Kelly's thirty year ministry to North Denver's gangs is a Denver institution that has frequently played a critical role in quelling outbreaks of gang violence like this one, and in helping gang members turn their lives around. He has been a rare figure who is able to bridge the gap between the city's establishment leadership and gang member's in the city's poor minority communities.

Everyone is worried about what will happen this summer, when gang violence usually peaks.  Some fear we will see a summer rivaling the gang warfare fueled carnage of 1992's "Summer of Violence".

Of course, it is one thing to identify a cause, even if Kelly's analysis is correct, and quite another to devise a solution.

Overall, the Denver metropolitan area desegregated more than almost any other metropolitan area in the country between 1990 and 2010 as blacks and Hispanics moved into new, affordable mixed race suburbs fueled by eased underwriting of mortgage loans to people with less strong credit scores, lower incomes, and smaller down payments in places like the Green Valley Ranch neighborhood in Denver near DIA, in Westminster, and in Aurora.  The migration has also been aided by the cash windfalls that minority homeowners in those neighborhoods received when their homes were sold to would be gentrifiers for far more than the purchased their homes for years ago when the area was considered to be an irredeemable ghetto.

But, this invisible mass migration was largely limited to very stable working class and middle class black and Hispanic families.  Minority families that are truly poor, or are unstable working class families where unemployment is a regular occurrence or other family dramas disrupt family stability, who have always rented rather than owned their homes, have largely remained in Denver's older neighborhoods.  Now, however, they struggle with rising rents, and the windfalls of gentrification have gone to their slumlord landlords, rather than to them.  These people remain in the same neighborhoods that now lack the old pillars of their communities who have moved to the suburbs, and can have uneasy relationships with their new gentrifying neighbors for whom the feeling is mutual.

Why Are We Still Waiting For FasTracks?

According to 9News:
We are now a year away from the commuter rail running from Denver Union Station to Denver International Airport. The tracks are done and ready to go, but it is still going to take some time for passengers to be able to the rail out to DIA. The 56 cars that will be running on the commuter rail all need to be tested for 1,000 hours. RTD also has to determine how the bus routes along the East Rail line will be affected and changed. 
When the commuter rail opens the first train will run at 3 a.m. and the last train will leave at 1 a.m. It will run every 15 minutes during peak times and 30 minutes during other times. The proposed cost is a flat rate of $9 to the airport, and the same $9 fee for if you are traveling round trip to the airport in the same day. 
The promised trip time from DIA to Union Station on the East Line is 35 minutes, comparable with cars in light traffic (excluding time to park and get to the terminal from a parking space), and quite a bit faster in rush hour gridlock, particularly when construction is intense or there are accidents on the route.

Meanwhile, the line along I-225 from the existing 9 mile station to I-70 at Peoria, which will open in 2016 is also well underway.
The line is nearly 60 percent complete. . . . design work on the entire project [is] 99 percent complete and all seven light rail bridges are nearing completion. All eight stations are currently under construction and an overhead wire has been strung to just north of the Iliff Bridge.
It sounds like the DIA line will open before the I-225 line does, despite the fact that the I-225 line won't need to test the cars because it will be a light rail line, rather than a commuter rail line like the one to DIA that uses a different kind of cars than those currently in use in Denver's transit system.

The 9News story intimates that the East Line might open in the spring of 2016, rather than near year end, as the cynic/pessimist in you is inclined to assume.

The line from Union Station to Wheat Ridge (the Gold Line) and commuter rail from Union Station to Westminster (the Northwest Rail Line), which will basically be a one stop spur from the Gold Line at first, will also open in 2016 as well, as will bus rapid transit service to Boulder.


A Natural Experiment

The new lines will provide an interesting natural experiment in transportation economics.  The nearest real competition to DIA is about an hour and a half away to the South in Colorado Springs from DIA, and there are no real competitors to DIA in any other direction.

Some people drive to DIA.  There is a premium priced express bus service already offered by RTD to the airport from various stops around the metro area called "Sky Ride.", as well as non-express bus service to some nearby destinations.  Taxis, van services, limos, hotel shuttles, and Uber all serve the airport, and so do friends and family dropping people off, and people taking their own cars to airport parking and shuttle parking.  The total traffic in and out of DIA is unlikely to be seriously impacted by the transit service, so it boils down to market share.

Which means of transportation to the airport will decline when some people choose to take commuter rail to DIA instead?

Will friends and family that previously provided kiss and ride service to the terminal now do the same with a light rail stop?  Will taxi, van and limo service suffer?  Will SkyRide traffic decrease?  Will hotel shuttle traffic fall off?  Or will it free up spaces in shuttle parking?

Surely, all of these modes will take hits.

Sky Ride Impact

"Sky Ride" may be almost completely replaced.  Commuter rail isn't subject to the perennial highway gridlock that slows down buses, the price will be comparable, and rail offers more convenient entry points that the limited number of Sky Ride stations.  All but a handful of light rail stations will offer direct access to Union Station or another DIA commuter rail line.

Shuttle Parking Impact

Impact on shuttle parking may have a lot to do with the availability of cheap, long term parking options at light rail stops.  If one could get long term parking within walking distance of a light rail stop for $2 a day, this would make it an attractive alternative to shuttle parking economically for trips of three days of more, and shuttle parking customers already accept rubbing shoulders with fellow travelers and a certainly amount of delay, and have also proven that they are price conscious.  It is probably faster to drive to a long term parking light near a light rail stop and take it to the airport (often with one transfer between rail lines), than it is to drive from home to a shuttle parking lot, await pickup by a shuttle bus, and then take the shuttle bus to the airport.  But, if long term parking isn't available at light rail stops, this won't happen.

I suspect that premium parking trips right next to the airport will take a smaller hit, and that the impact will be intermediate for terminal economy parking.

Kiss and Ride Dropoff Impact

It is an hour and a half to two hour round trip for a friend or family member in the area served by light rail to drive someone to the airport, drop them off, and return home, while it would often be a ten or fifteen minute trip to take the same person to a local light rail stop.  Will this shift trips?  It depends.

Kiss and ride directly to the airport is probably a little bit faster than taking the train, and many people see the drive to the airport, at least, as quality time to catch up with a friend or family member, rather than a pure chore.  It will be interesting to see how many people spring for an extra $9 round trip DIA ticket to accompany a traveler all of the way to the airport, even though they aren't going themselves.  I suspect that few will, except in the case of unaccompanied minors, even though it makes quite a bit of sense.

Different Kinds of Visitors and Hotel Shuttle Impact

Travelers from the eastern seaboard, Chicago, San Francisco, Europe and Japan headed for a downtown hotel may find it perfectly natural to take a train from the airport to the city, and college students are always eager to be a bit adventurous and to pinch pennies.  On the other hand, visitors from major American cities who aren't used to using transit may be more reluctant to use it in Denver.

But, hotel shuttles, because they are free and provide a fairly direct trip to a destination in a strange city may still be competitive with rail, at least on days when traffic isn't too bad.  It will be interesting to see if hotels start to offer East Line voucher options to replace hotel shuttles until guests reach Union Station.

Taxi, Limo, Van Service and Uber Impact

Taxi, limo and van service and Uber all offer point to point travel that rail cannot, and both taxi and limo service serve the least price conscious customers.  I suspect that these services will see little decline from destinations outside downtown, but may take a hit on the DIA to downtown route is the service makes a good impression in terms of cleanliness and safety, and good shuttle service from Union Station directly to downtown hotels is implemented.

Ski Travel Impact

In its present form, the 2016 expansion of FasTracks is unlikely to have any material impact on what people flying into the DIA for ski trips in the mountains do.  There is no avoiding going from plane to a shuttle bus to ski resorts eventually (assuming that affluent ski travels continue not to choose slow and dirty Greyhound service from downtown Denver, or Amtrak to Glenwood Springs (and then bus on to Aspen and Beaver Creek or perhaps Vail) from Union Station which is slow, unreliable and infrequent.

The norm of taking a shuttle bus directly from the airport to resort on I-70 will probably continue to be the norm for these travelers for the foreseeable future.  And, realistically, even if the state legislature or initiative petitioners got a high speed rail to the mountains proposition in the ballot in 2016 and were swiftly approved for federal funding while Congress was controlled at least in part by Republicans, it would probably take until 2030 or so to complete.  More realistically, it would take until 2018 for the political forces to align for that kind of proposal, and probably longer, if that ever happens.

Economically, high speed rail makes much more sense from Fort Collins to Colorado Springs (where it is cheaper to build and there is greater population density to support the traffic) than it does from Denver to the mountain ski resorts.

Real Estate - At New Light Rail Stops

Meanwhile, real estate near stops, particularly "luxury apartments" are springing up near almost every stop in the system as the system expansion makes these apartments effectively closer to everywhere in the system, particularly to downtown and the airport.

Real Estate - Downtown, The Tech Center and Cherry Creek

Metropolitan Denver has basically three "downtown" areas where people go to work in professional offices.  One is the true downtown, one is the Cherry Creek mall area which is rapidly becoming a financial center that is home to investment firms and small business loan oriented banks as well as high end retail, and one is the Denver Tech Center.

The 2016 expansions in RTD should be to make downtown offices and entertainment options much more attractive to almost everyone in the metro area, while reducing the number of commuters and entertainment customers who drive to downtown and park their cars there, possibly leading to a shift in land use from parking which will have a somewhat diminished demand, to office and entertainment uses which will have greater value.  As a result, every kind of downtown real estate use, from parking to office space to commercial space to residential space will probably increase, probably with spillover property value surges for neighboring areas that have recently gentrified into thriving, high rent apartments for yuppies.

The Cherry Creek mall area is very pedestrian friendly once you get there, but isn't close to light rail or to reliable, frequent bus service that makes it unnecessary to consult bus schedules.  It won't be impacted much at all by the 2016 FasTracks expansion.  The expansion of office space in the Cherry Creek area, due mostly to zoning changes, however, has brought new housing to the Cherry Creek area as well, and the increased population density of urban oriented people may increase demand for transit options to link Cherry Creek by high frequency bus service to light rail stations and downtown.  Previous attempts to do this have repeatedly flopped due to insufficient demand, but the growth in this secondary downtown area may have finally reached a tipping point.

In principle, the 2016 FasTracks expansion could also greatly impact the Denver Tech Center, which has a rail stop at every major arterial street connected directly to the metro area wide rail and bus rapid transit grid (although it is quite inconvenient to reach by bus).

But, DTC is on a spoke, rather than a hub, which means that many commuters will still need to transfer at Union Station to get their by rail, and DTC is, by design in order to keep out the riff raff and to prevent workers from being distracted, very unfriendly for pedestrians and anyone else who is bus service dependent travelers once you get there.  If you've taken the bus to work, which is feasible in DTC, if awkward, so long as you keep a standard 9 to 5 schedule for your work day, your prospects for leaving the office for lunch or an errand during the day is almost nil,  Also, DTC doesn't have a shortage of free parking for shoppers and office workers who go there now, so there is no less economic pressure to switch to rail to avoid parking expenses and inconvenience.

29 April 2015

Arbitrary Executions Of Senior Officials In North Korea's Monarchy

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un took office following the death of his father Kim Jong Il in December of 2011, following the death of his father Kim Il Sung when he died in 1994, who founded the current regime.  Kim Jong Un has ruled like a hereditary monarch as well.

He had 17 senior officials executed in 2012, 10 in 2013, and 41 in 2014. So far in 2015, he has had 15 senior officials executed on his say so with no judicial process. One of the senior officials executed in 2013 was his uncle by marriage.  Thus, he has ordered the executions of 83 senior officials since he took office 40 months ago.

No country in the world has had such a blood-thirsty and arbitrary run of monarch ordered executions of senior officials for a very long time, probably a couple of centuries, at least.  Its neighbor China, does routinely execute senior officials and business executives for corruption offenses other than murder following trials that do not meet international standards for due process, but does not do so merely at the whim of its supreme leader.

Indonesia, executed eight people (seven of them foreigners) for drug trafficking, but after trials typical for criminal proceedings in that country pursuant to legislatively adopted laws and with a ten year delay between arrest and execution to allow for the legal process to play out (although some legal appeals were not concluded at the time the execution was carried out, something that has also happened within the last year in the United States when the U.S. Supreme Court granted certiori in a death penalty case but did not stay execution of the judgment).

North Korean executions of senior officials alone, without regard to other executions, exceeds the total executions carried out in all but a handful of nations in the world, and in every one of the other nations, there was at least some semblance of due process before almost all executions were ordered,. Executions of senior governmental officials is almost unheard of outside North Korean and China.

North Korea has averaged more than 20 executions per year since gaining independence (see also here). But, there are no reliable official figures and that estimate is almost surely understated, and is currently worse than the historical average. For example:
On November 3, 2013, according to a JoongAng Ilbo report, at least 80 people were publicly executed for minor offenses. The executions were said to be carried out simultaneously in Wonsan, Chongjin, Sariwon, Pyongsong and three other North Korean cities for crimes such as watching South Korean movies, distributing pornography or possessing a Bible.
No other country in the world executes people for such minor offenses.

North Korea has a population of about 24.9 million people, just a little under the 26.96 million people who live in Texas.

21 April 2015

Federal Circuit Gutless

While some may think that it is a display of restraint and respect for the rule of law for a federal appellate court to honor a precedent that it then proceeds to explain is a clearly unconstitutional application of the First Amendment as the law of the First Amendment has developed since then, I personally, am inclined to think that deliberating following what is now a clearly unconstitutional precedent, and forcing the party losing on appeal to seek review en banc or from the United States Supreme Court, is merely gutless.

In this case, it involves the Federal Circuit's decision to affirm the Patent and Trademark Office's right to deny registration of a trademark because it is disparaging, supported by a 1981 precedent called In re McGinley that is clearly bad law today as the author of the Court's unanimous opinion explains in a separate opinion on the subject.

Presumably, the party losing the appeal will now take it to the next level, but there is no guaranty that the en banc Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, or the U.S. Supreme Court will take up the issue, or that the party winning the appeal (the United States Government) will not concede the case on its individual facts in order to keep an unconstitutional law in force.

Also, for that matter, why in the world is the Justice Department in a Democratic Presidential administration fighting this case, rather than conceding it and refusing to defend what is now a clearly unconstitutional law?

We don't have to make the business of vindicating federal constitutional rights harder than it needs to be, particularly in such a straightforward case.

Two Way Streets Better Than One Way Streets?

A natural experiment shows huge benefits in traffic safety, crime and property values came from converting two one way streets into two way streets in Louisville, Kentucky.

I voted.

I voted today in Denver's 2015 municipal elections.  NOTWITHSTANDING A TYPO ON MANY BALLOTS, they are due MAY 5 NOT IN JUNE.

There were no ballot issues.  There were citywide elections for Mayor (with a strong incumbent Mayor Hancock and a few weak challengers running), Auditor (an open seat with two strong candidates running), Clerk and Recorder (with a strong incumbent and a weak challenger running), and city council at large (vote for two, with two incumbents running, but a large field including a number of other strong candidates).

The Denver Post article on the City Council at large race was very helpful.

There were also races in each single member city council district, of which there are many, a great number of which are flooded with candidates because term limits have left the seats open.

In all, I cast votes for six different candidates.  This took a fair amount of research (the seats are officially non-partisan, so there are few easy hints about how to vote), which I owe a post for the world on, but may or may not have time to actually write.

In all races except city council at large, if no candidate receives a majority, the top two candidates will face off in a run off election for which ballots are due in June.

Most of the candidates were very underwhelming on the issues.

The Great Filter

Charlies Diary recently took on the issue of the "Great Filter", which is a corollary of Fermi's Paradox.

In a nutshell, Fermi's paradox asks why in such a huge universe as old as ours, we haven't yet encountered interstellar life yet.  One possible answer is the "Great Filter", i.e. some systemic mechanism by which intelligent life usually crashes and burns before it can generate interstellar civilization.

Charlie explores the concept of "Griefers", an early interstellar civilization that systematically stamps out would be interstellar civilizations.  But, his suggested mechanism, involving technological exotica like Von Neumann probes, Matrioshka brains, Dyson spheres and Nicoll-Dyson beams are way over the top.

My own inclination is for narratives that are more prosaic and more inevitable, along the lines of historical examples of the smallpox and Columbus,of  kudzu, and of megafauna extinction upon first contact with modern humans scenarios.

1. Assume that there is some ecological envelope in which planets, or at least parts of planets and moons, are "habitable" by living beings.

2. Assume that some forms of life are more robust than others.  One kind of organism may be able to survive almost anywhere, while another may require ideal Goldilocks conditions.

3. It follows that out of all of the different kinds of life that evolve independently on billions and billions of worlds over billions and billions of years, that there must be some species that is maximally robust, i.e. that is capable of living in a broader range of conditions than anything else.  Interstellar cockroaches, if you will.  This might even be something very much like humans.

4. Suppose further that you select not just for a species that is maximally robust (humans might qualify) but also for maximal efficiency (humans definitely don't qualify).  This species is so efficient over such a broad range of habitable environments that it is very prone to outcompeting all other forms of life in most of that range, like kudzu in the American South.  Species that co-evolve with it might be able to keep it in check (just as African predators that co-evolved with humans did not experience megafauna extinction), but in the absence of very specific adaptations this species becomes ubiquitous on almost all habitable planets.

Also note that ecological dominance in a new habitat need not happen quickly.  This species can be perfectly effective as a Great Filter even if it takes ten million years, on average, for example, to come into its own within an ecosystem from a starter colony beginning.

Let us call this species, without loss of generality, "griefers".  Griefers could be a nano-scale species akin to viruses and bacteria.  Indeed, very small individual griefers are rather favored, because it takes much less energy to send a probe with a colony of nano-griefers to another star, than it does to do the same with a larger organism.

5. Assume that this species selected for its maximal robustness and efficiency has a dormant spore stage that can endure prolonged periods in non-habitable environments such as the exterior of interstellar space craft.

6. Assume that some species on the griefer home world attains the ability to send out interstellar probes that can identify habitable worlds, self-replicate, and send new small probates to newly identified habitable worlds around new stars.  This may very well not be the griefers themselves.

7. Assume that the interstellar griefer delivery species, unaware of the havoc griefers can wreck on species that have not co-evolved with it, do not sanitize their first batch of probes and that self-replication of probes requires a habitable environment.

If the griefer delivery species manages to reach a level where it can send out self-replicating probes on this model contaminated with griefers just once, with a single probe launch from the home world, in the entire history of the universe, then the entire universe will be sterilized by griefers in due course and a Great Filter has come into being.

8.  Note that griefers and their companion species on the griefer homeworld need not be perfect to give rise to a Great Filter sufficient to explain Fermi's paradox.  A Great Filter with 99% or 99.9% efficiency would be hard to distinguish in practice, from a perfect one.

9.  Also, even if a griefer is incapable of destroying a well established advanced technological species, it could perhaps, make all other potentially habitable worlds within a few parsecs of the well established species, uninhabitable going forward, making the bridge that must be crossed to transition from being a mono-stellar species to an interstellar species insurmountable.  Indeed, there is no need for the companion species that inadvertently hurls probes infected with griefers to other habitable worlds to ever manage to get any of their own kind to another planet.

10.  This is also a phenomena that can play out in parallel, with multiple independent source worlds that each wipe out a different part of the range of habitable worlds.  For example, one kind of griefer could destroy life on nearly frozen ice/methane worlds, while another kind of griefer could wipe out Venus-like very hot and toxic worlds.

20 April 2015

Props To Chief Justice John Roberts

Last week, Chief Justice of the United States John Roberts (the title is not, "Chief of the United States Supreme Court," by the way), the highest ranking judge in the land, showed up for jury duty.

Unsurprisingly, the trial court judge and lawyers in the case did not select him to serve from the jury panel.  But, his example is inspiring.  If he shows up to jury duty, what excuse do I have not to show when I my date (in mid-May) comes up.  Sometimes, a leader has to lead by example, and in the case of jury duty, the right thing to do is all about showing up and Justice Roberts was a fine example for us all and doing just that.

This said, however, I would not feel the least bit immoral if I found I way to bypass the roughly two hour wait at my local DMV in Colorado, where I went last week with my eldest to replace a lost driver's permit.

In the case of the DMV, the federal equivalent function of passport applications, and the bureaucratically similar appellate courts, it seems to me that a very modest expenditure of public funds to increase staffing could dramatically improve the speed and quality of service.  Yet, our public servants aren't willing to spend the money.

Why?  I have no idea.  It would seem to be an easy and cheap political coup to have record quality and speed of service in these functions which really make a difference to a lot of people and shape their perceptions of the efficiency of the government, in general.

17 April 2015

Republican Twitter Account Goofs Anniversary Of Lincoln's Death

The post and discussion of it are here.

Honestly, it reads like a Freudian slip, because while Lincoln was the first Republican President, the Republican and Democratic parties have completely reversed their ideological roles in the meantime, and Lincoln wouldn't even make it to the top ten in a Republican straw poll today.

Imitation The Sincerest Form Of Flattery?

No, I was not crazy in thinking that Robert DeLong's new hit, "Long Way Down" would be a dead ringer for a theme song for the upcoming 24th James Bond movie.

Other people thought the same thing.  One ambitious fan even superimposed it on the Skyfall movie opening sequence (without any timing adjustment) to show just how perfect a fit it is to the model.

Clearly, in this case, the imitation is conscious and not merely accidental.  And, unsurprisingly, this well proven formula executed well by Robert DeLong has worked well to produce a hit.  It probably doesn't quite cross the line into being a copyright or trademark violation, but it coasts close to that line.

* * *

Boing Boing meanwhile describes how two sets of video game designers came up with almost identical new games designed for play on an iPhone.  The story is a helpful analysis of why seeming coincidences, even when they flow from uncoordinated events can be less miraculous than they seem due to hidden structure in what one might call "idea space".

* * *

The same notion, that randomness can be an unjustified assumption was key to the solution of the German ENIGMA code in World War II, as portrayed in the movie "The Imitation Game", where the key to breaking the code turned out to be the insight that the encoded messages were much less random than the protocol used to solve them had assumed.

14 April 2015

Yemen and Beyond

A very large share of the Islamic world is in turmoil at the moment.  It is all very Game of Thrones.  There are many contenders for supremacy, each with their own very tribal base of control. It is hard to know who to back.  Everything is in flux, and the end game isn't clear.  Basic assumptions about the ability of secure nation-state regimes to rule their territory, human rights, and the sovereign sanctity of nation-state boundaries, seem to have fallen apart entirely in the last five years.

My intuition is that mass failure of the Western style state model is almost inevitable when superimposed on a broad Islamic culture that comes to questions of political economy with fundamentally different values and assumptions and ways of doing things.  These nations need homegrown institutions that are better suited to their needs and outlook, dramatic cultural change, or both, and the Islamic world will remain unstable until this is accomplished.  Perhaps the only way to really forge cultural change of the magnitude required is with immense bloodshed, although I'd like to think otherwise.

To some extent, in the Middle East, at least, a lot of this conflict is the still ongoing saga of succession to the fallen Ottoman Empire that was carved up by outsiders after World War I in ways that made no sense.  The end of de jure colonialism in the 1960s, which dismally failed to live up to the liberal ideas that fueled this transition also play a part.  For a brief historical moment during the Arab Spring of 2010, it looked that this liberal vision of Islamic nations with Western style institutions might be on the verge of widespread realization.  But, like the anti-monarchist revolutions of 1848 in Europe, this wave of revolutions turned sour and failed to achieve this goal, although they may have, as in 1848, sowed the seeds for more lasting change in another generation or so.

The urge to intervene to prevent atrocity and to help the rare clear good guys in these conflicts is great.  But, the end game of intervention of any kind is increasingly hard to discern.  Good intentions seem to inevitably produce blow back.  On the up side, despite all of this, oil is still cheap.

The civil war in Yemen is pretty ugly.  Some useful background from a lecture on the topic is available in pdf form via Geocurrents.  Shorter version: The merger of North Yemen and South Yemen in 1990 was, in retrospect, a horrible idea which has produced a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran.  It is really hard to know who the good guys are in this fight, and it is not at all obvious that we should be providing logistical assistance to Saudi Arabia in this as opposed to staying out all together.  The Sunni President (since 2012) was utterly ineffectual and unable to secure the loyalty of his military or the large Shi'ite areas of the populous former North Yemen's highlands where Houthi rebels have taken control with popular backing.  But, given that "death to America, death to Israel, kill the Jews" is one of their main slogans, it is hard to feel warm and fuzzy about them either.

Looking more deeply at the background, the fact that 26 million Saudi Arabians are awash in oil money, while 26 million Yemenis live at less than a tenth of the average income of a Saudi living the life that the Saudis would be living, but for their oil wealth, seems profoundly unfair.  Yemenis do get most of Arabia's rain as a consolation prize, but honestly, the best thing that could happen to them would be for them to be conquered by Saudi Arabia, so that they could share in its national wealth.

Vox, meanwhile, has a quality presentation on ISIS.  Highlights: ISIS is tactically wise, the Assad regime in Syria is its frenemy, the U.S. can't win this fight militarily, and ISIS won't collapse of its own accord.  But, the situation is not entirely hopeless.  Neither Syria, nor Iraq are in any position to reclaim their territory from ISIS and nobody has a viable plan for a post-ISIS political arrangement for the Sunni Muslims in the territories that it controls.  A new map from the U.S. Department of Defense shows territorial gains by various anti-ISIS forces.

Also, don't forget that ISIS linked Islamic terrorists went on a rampage against Jews and a magazine that was accused of disrespecting Muhammad, in the Je Suis Charlie affair.  France is one of many European nations with substantial Muslim minorities (mostly Algerians in France, Turks in Germany, and Pakistanis in the U.K., and various populations in Scandinavia), so incidents like these can inject acid into interfaith interactions in daily life and can fuel neo-Nazi anti-immigrant movements.

Meanwhile, Kenya recently experienced a massacre of non-Muslims at a university near the Somalian border orchestrated by al-Sahbab with the son of a major regional governmental leader among the perpetrators.  Somalia itself still hasn't really left a state of anarchy, with al-Sahbab reigning as a first among equals of the many warlords and unrecognized dyfunctional regional states there.

And, let us not forget Boko Haram and its campaign to establish strict Islamic law (which the legitimate state governments of several Northern Nigerian states have done), and to genocidally drive out Christians and animists and all Western influences (and education generally, for that matter, at least for girls).  It is a year now since they kidnapped and realistically then killed and/or sold into slavery, hundreds of girls from a boarding school.  This conflict spans the Sahel from Chad to Mali.

Also, while we haven't been paying attention, the Sudanese military has been up to its usual raping and pillaging in Darfur.  And, while splitting South Sudan from Sudan solved one problem, the South Sudanese don't have their shit together and are in an uneasy state where interfaction violence is still common.

Egypt's latest regime following a sequence of dramatic revolutions rivaling that of the Russian or French Revolutions, is currently in the hands of an authoritarian regime that is consolidating power with mass executions and extreme group imposition of long prison sentences.

Groups in Libya and Tunisia have carried out isolated attacks, slaughtering Coptic Christians and killing large numbers of people at a popular museum that shares space with parliament in Tunisia.  They have sworn themselves to ISIS.

The civil war in Pakistan's tribal areas is ongoing and leads to assassinations and terror attacks in more civilized parts of that nation of more than 100 million people.  This civil war is partially related to the ongoing Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan, where, at least, they are no longer the most miserable white people in the world, because Yemen has stepped up to the plate and given them (and the Palestinians in Gaza) a break from bearing that title.

Things seem to have calmed down for a while in Israel-Palestine.  Israel is not happy about Iran having any legitimate nuclear program, non-military or otherwise, which is understandable, since "death to America, death to Israel" is a pretty popular slogan there as well.  But, an ugly recent military campaign of Israel in Gaza to reassert control there, partially in response to Palestinian rocket attacks on Israel and tunnel systems into Israel that were being built, seems to be mostly over for now.

They are seeking out and assassinating atheists in Bangladesh.

Iran looks positively civilized in all of this mayhem.  They've worked to help Iraq fight ISIS.  They are on the verge on negotiating a treaty with the US and others that would allow it access to nuclear power while limiting its nuclear weapons ambitions.  They recently held moderately meaningful elections.  And, the worst of their most recent human rights violations seems to be incarcerating of foreign journalist for "economic espionage" which basically means business journalism.

Thailand's Muslim areas are also in insurgent mode.

13 April 2015

Best Game Of Thrones Analysis So Far

Vox has a new post on Game of Thrones Season 5 which began on Sunday.

It is the best take yet on George R.R. Martin's epic, incomplete hard fantasy series based loosely on England's thirty-two year long War of the Roses fought in the 1400s between competing claimants to the throne that culminated in the rise of the House of Tudor under Queen Elizabeth; and, on the parallel HBO television series.

12 April 2015

Manufacturing Bubbles In East Asia And Other Musings On China's Future

A Chinese Great Depression Is Inevitable And Coming Soon

Economic growth at average annual rates of 10% or so in China for more than a decade has been one of the dominant sources of a huge decline in world poverty.  China has had a very good run of economic management so good that it has won admirers among right wing politicians in the United States, despite the fact that it has a nominally communist economic system.

This good economic management may have something to do with the fact that 30somethings in their prime are making decisions that in the United States are currently reserved for septegenarians.  Others see China and other booming East Asian economies as the poster child for the benefits of a merchantalist economic policy agenda, or weak intellectual property laws, respectively.  Others have pointed to the ease with which unproductive workers can be punished simply by denying them raises in periods of rapid wage growth, rather than actually having to lay them off or cut their wages.

Consider, for instance, the city of Chongquig in Southwest China as city that was a capital of China once deep in history, where China's economic boom and state sponsored mass migrations of rural Chinese people into urban centers has turned over the course of a generation from a sleepy, rustic and poor provincial capital backwater - a Peoria or Albany of China, into a thriving modern, globalized city roughly the same size as New York City.  Chongquig is no Potemkin village propped up artificially for external consumption. Few people outside China have even heard of it.

The shift of human capital from rural to urban areas that has driven economic growth in China exemplified by Chongquig is critical for China's economy, because its largest urban areas are dramatically more economically prosperous than its smaller cities and rural areas.

The extent to which vast numbers of people can viably live in a very small geographic area is greatly underestimated, so this is not a trend that exponential growth will lead to the inevitable end of any time soon.  By comparison, agriculture's share of the U.S. economy decreases steadily every decade for a couple of centuries before finally pausing and even edging up a bit with the appearance of organic farming.  Fully modernized agriculture doesn't require a very large share of an economy's people, and technology can sustain exponential growth for decades at a time.

China also has homegrown legal system unlike the clones of the British, French, German and Islamic legal systems that prevail almost everywhere else in the world except North Korea and Iran.  Some of this unique legal system is post-revolutionary (i.e. developed since World War II), but some of it has ancient legal roots exemplified by Confucianism.  China's unique legal system's role in the economy makes the applications of lessons learned in other economies only provisionally useful in China, however, and could help explain why it has not collapsed already.

But, China and South Korea are currently both in extreme manufacturing company bubbles.  If I were invested in either, I would get out, or short the stocks, immediately. Because China is such an extreme outlier data point, it presents one of the most predictable drivers of other international economic trends in the medium term.

I went on record two and a half years ago, predicting a Great Depression class economic crash in China sometime between now and December 31, 2023, less than nine years from now, with a manufacturing bubble as one of the proximate causes of the collapse.  The reasoning behind the tail end date was simple.  Every industrialized company in the history of the world has had at least one Great Depression class crash during its period of industrialization but China, and this always happens before it reaches parity with the richest countries in the world.  The year 2023 is a couple of years before a conservative estimate of when China would reach this level of parity if its growth continued unabated.

Recent data tends to suggest that the bubble will pop sooner, rather than later; more likely in this decade than the next.  International economic bodies were starting to sound the alarm by the summer of 2013 (almost a year after my own prediction).  Later that summer, Credit Suisse analysts noted a bubble in Chinese non-financial credit markets.  China has massive amounts of bad business debt that has not been written off yet.  An immense amounts of China's manufacturing capacity was idle last summer, two years after industrial overcapacity in key industries like iron and steel had already been identified as a critical problem with the Chinese economy, a situation which was the immediate impetus for my Chinese Great Depression prediction:
After 34 years of booming economic growth averaging over 9% per year (the longest sustained period of rapid economic growth in human history), China’s credit-fueled, investment-driven growth model is exhausted and increasingly unstable. . . . the Middle Kingdom’s credit boom is well past the point of diminishing marginal returns; and no one can deny that the misallocation is widespread, with capacity utilization now below 60%.
The Consequences Of A Chinese Economic Collapse Could Change The World

The question of what will happen when an economic mega-power like China sees its bubble pop is deeply troubling.

It is possible that at least some of the investments China has made for the long run, like an immense investment in new high speed rail lines and cars (more than $300 billion U.S. dollars equivalent since 2004, about 0.5% of Chinese GDP), will pay off in the long run even after an economic depression, but it is also possible that these investments will wither and spoil in an economic counterpart of military overreach.  (By comparison 0.5% of the U.S. GDP per year would be about $80 billion U.S. dollars per year; the U.S. has spent on average about $2 billion per year since 2009 on high speed rail and also hasn't made major investments in new airports, highways, seaports, spaceports, or other new transportation capacity).

Nothing that big can happen in a globally interconnected economy without having intense impacts on much of the rest of the world.  For example, how will the fact that China has been the dominant financier of American's trade deficit and national debt influence the global impact of an economic downturn in China?  What role will Chinese near monopoly on economically critical rare earth production have on the world economy?

In general, a massive economic collapse usually favors political extremism, massive political change, and often militarism.  Intense suffering for the billions involved is also likely. Will we live to see a day where our current bout of wars in the Islamic world, and occasional spillover terrorism to the rest of the world, will seem like the "good old days"?

I doubt that a Chinese Great Depression will actually spur World War III.  But, there are all sorts of reasons why an economically depressed China might turn to military force deployed in ways less disruptive to the economic order it depends upon as a means of mobilizing patriotic spirit, shutting down dissent, and advancing its economic interests.  As explored below, there are a variety of ways that China could use an increased investment in military capabilities to advance its own national interests without taking any steps likely to incur the wrath of its advanced Western trading partners who are the only countries in the world that could be a military match for it.

In a demographically homogeneous country of more than a billion people, life is cheap.  Abortion is more common in China than any other place in world. This appears to have played an important role in China's massive gender imbalances that could also fuel militarism.  China also carries out more executions than any other country in the world (more than 85% of the world total, while making up less than 20% of the world's population), although this is falling with little publicized legal reforms that seem to be mostly driven by domestic forces rather than international pressure.  China's share of executions outside Muslim countries and of executions for non-murder crimes is even greater.  What happens if the view that life, especially the lives of young men which is has in great excess, is cheap, spills over into the military sphere?

And, of course, history has shown repeatedly, that one way to deal with a demand shortage in the civilian manufacturing sector is by injecting Keynesian stimulus into the economy by converting underutilized civilian industrial capacity to producing military equipment, just as the United States used World War II to help lift it out of the Great Depression.

Taiwan, perhaps impressed that China has not entirely strangled the good laying the golden egg in Hong Kong, and recognizing that Chinese communism is far less communist than it was in Mao's Day, is warming towards China.  But, China's ardor could easily become stifling and scary if a burst economic bubble in China moves China back towards more orthodox Communism (with economic innovators run out of power in the face of charges of corruption and decadence, and the most vulnerable of them executed), and simultaneously causes China to take a more aggressive military stance towards its "wayward child" on the island of Formosa.  Yet, both steps are possible, and indeed, likely ways that the old guard of plutocratic leaders who were successful for so long, until they weren't, could try to maintain public support in the face of the devastating collapse of a manufacturing bubble in China's economy.

Then again, true Communism has been a brief historical blip, shorter even than the "oil age".  Even people terribly confused, angry and afraid as the largest country in the world experiences an economic collapse may not see a return to hard core Maoism as an attractive option; the bad taste may be sufficiently fresh to be avoided by the Chinese people in favor of something different.

Perhaps de facto monarchism (the path that North Korea, an economic failed state surrounded by prosperous neighbors has chosen) of some kind might emerge, for example.  The exact formal political character of a "reformed" post-collapse regime may end up being more or less irrelevant.

A Plausible Scenario For Chinese Militarization And Power Projection

In a more plausible scenario, China might use increased militarization, by emulating Theodore Roosevelt in carrying a big stick, to support its diplomatic and economic objectives.

For example, China might use its limited aircraft carrier power that it is currently in the process of realizing, not to make war with the "great naval powers" but to discourage third world countries, for example in sub-Saharan Africa, from disregarding economic agreements with China, much as the U.S. did in its dealings with small countries that were economic partners in Latin America and the Caribbean from about 1890 to 1933, and sporadically since then.  China has already embarked on a policy of making major investments in mining operations in sub-Saharan Africa and Afghanistan, and of using its navy as part of a coalition of anti-piracy forces in the open seas near Somalia.

If Taiwan is lucky, Chinese militarism will start not there, where China might trigger a total war with the United States, but with China's conquest of its troublesome and unstable North Korean neighbor which it could easily crush like a bug if it was so inclined.  There are plenty of pretenses (e.g. unpaid debts owed to China; refugees who flee to China; a nuclear threat) for China to start a war with North Korea any time its leaders are predisposed to do so.  This conflict might resemble the military campaigns of the Axis Powers before World War II proper began that established military superiority, protocols, nation building techniques, and helped to accustom the domestic and international public to a more aggressive approach to foreign policy.

Why North Korea?

Unlike Taiwan or South Korea, no international power would be likely to come forward to defend North Korea's sovereignty if China made war with North Korea, which has no fast friends in the international community other than China, while it has many sworn enemies.  After all, the world community's response to Russia's annexation of Crimea and incursions into Eastern Ukraine have been half measures at best, and Ukraine was a NATO member with many political and economic allies in the West.  If China were to conquer North Korea, much of the world would welcome the change and even the "liberated" North Koreans might appreciate the change once they learned just how bad they had had it under the regime that rules their nation today, even if it meant living under a superstrate of Chinese "carpet baggers" during the "reconstruction" phase of the operation (providing a means of exporting restless young men from China to form this new foreign ruling class in North Korea, in the process).

China might even "nip" the Western trade partners that feed it, although its leaders probably have the sense not to escalate the situation into an all out total war.  Once it defeated North Korea, Chinese leaders might consider looking for a way to make the point that its submarines have the power to sink American surface combatants, if it could do so without providing a total war.

For example, a Chinese general with political backing in the regime might order a Chinese submarine to sink a U.S. warship or aircraft carrier, and then immediately disavow the attack as an act of insubordination or mistake, by apologizing, offering to pay a handsome restitution, and executing the scapegoat sailors on the sub for their "grave error" to appease the U.S. while at the same time demonstrating its military might against a first rank naval force.  China has already recently made a similar point with one of its submarines without firing a shot.

Limited air strikes in third world countries to protect its economic interests, a Chinese conquest of North Korea, and token skirmishes with some first world country's naval forces, could be first steps for China in building up its military credibility in order to establish a tighter hold over regional communist or formerly communist countries aimed at developing a system of modern Chinese tributary states.

Countries like Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Burma and Mongolia might be the first dominoes to agree to economic arrangement with China that are decidedly one sided in the face of a veiled threat of military intervention.

For example, Laos might agree to put in place immigration laws that encourage its young women to emigrate to China to provide wives for Chinese men who can't find them.  Laos might accept as immigrants from China malcontents and dissidents that China wants to exile but monitor.  Laos might pay Chinese managers high percentage "consulting fees" for purporting to manage their nationalized industries and its major companies.  Laos might accept large Chinese military bases on their soil to provide China with a military buffer against invasion.  And Laos might agree to supply raw materials and foodstuffs to China at below market rates in quantities that leave their own populations with shortages of locally produced resources and foodstuffs.  Laotian negotiators would assent to these unfavorable treaty and contract terms knowing that if they did not, that China might invade their country as it did North Korea, leaving them under the direct rule of a governor appointed by China to rule over them as a territory with no independent political institutions whatsoever.

A country more likely to receive international support, like Mongolia, might receive more favorable terms than a country less likely to receive international backing in the event of a Chinese incursion, like Burma.  China could calibrate the extent to which its relationship with a tributary state amounts to exploitation, to that state's independent military strength and the strength of its foreign alliances.

An actual invasion of any one or more of those states might trigger foreign military intervention of the kind that pushed by an Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in the first Gulf War.  But, it would be very hard to justify the use of military force in support of a would be tributary state, when the threat of military force from China, rather than its actual use, is what pressured a country into agreeing to an unfavorable treaty or economic contract with China or a Chinese company.

In the wake of this kind of pressure applied to other regional tributary states, Taiwan might too decide that discretion is the better part of valor and "voluntarily" follow Hong Kong in becoming an autonomous but subordinate province of China, rather than risking war with a country that has recently demonstrated its military prowess, ideally on terms more favorable than countries that didn't have the United States as their international patron while the negotiations were being conducted.

Once again, of course, if Taiwan's elected political leaders did sign a treaty reunifying Taiwan with China and subordinating itself to the Chinese central government, for all practical purposes, there is nothing that the United States which has devoted so much of its military spending over the last seventy years or so to protecting Taiwan's autonomy, but assent to the will of Taiwan's leaders, even if that assent was secured in part through China's military duress.  U.S. military resources previously justified with the defense of Taiwan would have to find new justifications in the defense of countries like South Korea, Japan, and the Philippines.

10 April 2015

New Shakespeare Play: "Double Falsehood" Authenticated

CNN reports that language researchers have confirmed through textual analysis that Shakespeare was the primary author of a play published in 1728 by Lewis Theobald, who played almost no role in writing it.  It was based on the "Cardenio" section of the Spanish epic, "Don Quixote."

Grammar Fiction

Wherein nationally known grammarians unite to fight the forces of non-existence rules of English grammar.

A fiction feature of the Baltimore Sun.

09 April 2015

A Proposal For A Chess Variant

Since 1850, chess games have had significantly more moves and have gone to a situation where about 10% of games draw to one where about a third of games draw.  (The relative white v. black advantage has stayed constant).

Former World Chess Champion José Raúl Capablanca, concerned that the game of chess would die at the elite level due to "draw death" in which, like tic-tac-toe, any sufficiently good player can force a draw of the game, proposed a variant of chess in the 1920s while he was world champion.

In his variant, played on a 10x8 board, the knight was replaced by two other pieces on each side of the king, a chancellor with the power of a rook and a knight, and an archbishop with the power of a bishop and a knight.  Needless to say, it never caught on.

My proposal aims to propose the most minimalist change to the game that would achieve ends similar to those suggested by Capablanca.  I can imagine and would propose a similar variant that can be played with standard chess pieces on a standard chess board.  I call it "Knight Rider Chess" (excuse the B television series pun).  I have thought of it myself and have not located anyone who has proposed this variant, but have not determined if I am the first to do so.  It is similar to absorption chess, cubic chess, and way of the knight.  But, it is simpler and fits a heuristic more naturally than any of those variants.

The concept is similar to the idea of a pawn being promoted to a queen, and also is inspired by Capablanca chess.  In this chess variant, a knight that captures the other player's piece could choose to make that piece a "rider" and have the powers of both the knight and the captured player.  Basically, the knight is converted into a fairy chess piece, without having any fairy chess pieces in the starting layout.

Thus, a knight that captured a bishop could gain the powers of the archbishop in Capablanca chess (also called a princess), a knight that captured a rook could gain the powers of a chancellor in Capablanca chess (also called an empress), and a knight that captures a queen could gain the powers of a queen and a knight (a "royal rider").  A knight could not capture another knight, as this would add nothing to its powers.  A knight could not capture a king, as that would end the game.

A knight would also be allowed to capture a pawn and gain the powers of a pawn.  The initial option of a pawn to move forward by two spaces rather than one, and the power to be promoted to a queen would not be acquired by a knight.  The power to move forward by one in the direction of the capturing knight's side of the board might be acquired, however, along with the power to capture on either diagonal of one space in that direction.

A knight could acquire only one "rider" at a time, with the captured rider sharing the knight's square on the board.  One could experiment with the question of whether a knight could have the option of changing "riders" with a further capture, would be required to change "riders" with a further capture, or would be converted once and for all after having gained a "rider."  The last of three options would be the "orthodox" variant, mirroring the notion of a promoted pawn that only changes its powers once.

At any rate, it is attractive that this simple "home rule" change that does not alter the pieces on the board any more than the queen promotion rule does, could shake up the game.  Ideally, it would make draws less likely, by adding to the power of the pieces on the board late in the game, and thus, extend the time period when even elite chess play is interesting.

Hat Tip to Marginal Revolution.

08 April 2015

Privilege in America

[T]here are two Americas, and . . . many people who reside firmly in the more privileged version don't even realize it.  
"Don't console yourself that you are the 99 percent," [Anand Giridharadas] says. "If you live near a Whole Foods; if no one in your family serves in the military; if you are paid by the year, not the hour; if most people you know finished college; if no one you know uses meth; if you married once and remain married; if you're not one of 65 million Americans with a criminal record — if any or all of these things describe you, then accept the possibility that actually, you may not know what's going on, and you may be part of the problem."
Via Vox.

Mental Illness and Criminal Justice

Half of people in prison and about two-thirds of people in jail are mentally ill.  But, our criminal justice system barely acknowledges this fact and thus fails in an opportunity to be just, human, and make the public safer.

The Real Boston Bombing Trial Begins

In perhaps the least surprising jury verdict ever, a federal jury in Boston has convicted a man whose defense counsel acknowledge that his client committed the acts charged in the April 15, 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, and did not claim the insanity defense in opening arguments, after a fifteen day trial at which 92 witnesses were presented.

This was just the warm up to the real dispute in this case.  Should Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the younger brother of the mastermind behind the bombing who died before he was apprehended, face the death penalty for his role in the bombing?  Or, should he merely receive life in prison without any possibility of parole, probably to be served in the AdMax highest security prison in the federal system in Colorado?

In the penalty phase of the trial, Tsarnaev's defense counsel will try to humanize his client who was 19 years old when the crime was committed and admittedly played a secondary, although important role in the heinous act of terrorism, arguing that he should not be executed.

There is no state level death penalty in Boston, and it is a liberal leaning state, so Tsarnaev stands a fighting chance that someone in the jury will decide that he shouldn't be sentenced to death, even though the jury was "death qualified", screening out anyone morally opposed to the death penalty in all circumstance.

A verdict on guilt or innocence less than two years after the crime was committed in a capital case in federal court is relatively swift justice in this terrorism case, and leaves no uncertainty at all regarding the legality of the outcome, the certainty of serious punishment, correctness of the government's allegations factually, the availability of the full range of due process protections for the accused.  No one can doubt after today's verdict that Tsarnaev really was guilty of the crime with which he was charged.  The same cannot be said for terrorism suspects treated as enemy combatants or subjected to military justice.

These facts make Americans at home and abroad safer.  Tsarnaev will not be an international cause celebre, or rally marginal supporters to his cause of Chechynian independence.  He was treated as a mere murderer, and found unequivocally guilty of that crime.  Justice is done without fanfare.

A jury still needs to make a call on whether there will be an execution.  The high quality of attorney practice in a federal death penalty case in Boston means that this phase of the trial will almost surely be conducted by the book, with little room for complaint after the fact in appeals.

If the jury rules that there should be, this decision will hardly be the most problematic of death penalty cases by almost any measure, and will be carried out more swiftly than the ordinary execution, because there are fewer layers of appeals in the federal criminal justice system.  He doesn't even have a wife or children who will suffer as a result of his incarceration or execution, and his brother is already dead.

If the jury rules that there should not be an execution, the case will be concluded and soon forgotten.  Tsarnaev will probably not even appeal either the verdict or the sentence.  He will rot away in a high security federal prison from his current age of twenty-one until his death, and remain forgotten unless his intellectual accomplishment in prison are notable and somehow reach the general public, which is really rather unlikely.

Low Income Housing Policy

The federal government devotes an immense amount of money to housing subsidies.

About $40 billion of it goes to quite ineffectual mean tested programs, about $6 billion of it goes to tax credits for low income housing developers, and about $600 billion comes in the form of tax loopholes and subtle assumed guarantees of federally owned mortgage wholesalers that mostly benefit the middle-middle to upper-middle class.

Despite the programs in place, people still die because that can't find affordable housing with standard utilities for their families.  This week, a man who worked in a restaurant kitchen and his seven children in Maryland died in their sleep of carbon monoxide poisoning, when they resorted to putting a space heater in a poorly ventilated kitchen of a unit that had no legitimate electricity service when the utility company cut off their electricity service from their pirated electricity meter.

Marginal Revolution notes a new NBER paper on the subject.

Some of the biggest barriers to low income housing are local.  Zoning and building codes limit where small square footage, high density, more affordable housing can be built, while trying to atone for these barriers by mandating that developers build money losing affordable housing in order to gain the right to build large subdivisions with unaffordable housing.  Usually, these codes make the best the enemy of the good, confusing minimum standards of habitability and public safety, with mere cramped conditions and aesthetic concerns.

Tax subsidies to mortgage holders are also not shared by renters.

07 April 2015

Other Places Have Cat Ladies, We Have Prairie Dog Ladies

9News has the story, along with the dubious assertion of law that "prairie dogs are owned by the state of Colorado."  While wild animals are regulated by state law, they are not, in general, owned by the state, or for that matter, anyone else, until they become property pursuant to the rule of capture.

The woman in question may well have been housing prairie dogs without a permit in a residential building, but in my view, they are still her property under Colorado law, unless there is some statute to the contrary of which I am unaware.

06 April 2015

The Economics Of DNA Informed Medicine

In the past, I've generally assumed that customizing medical treatment with DNA testing was a prohibitively expensive exercise for only the most affluent.

Technological advances that have brought down the cost of these kind of testing, and the perspective that comes from having it done yourself, has changed my attitude.

As I've noted at the sister blog to this one, I recently had a total genome profile of myself (and the rest of my family) commercially prepared by 23 and me.  The basic price is $99 per test, with a discount for bulk orders.  It is arguably not medical grade in accuracy and completeness, but it is still quite complete and accurate.  And, the technology will only improve over time.

Some key points about DNA testing are worth noting:

1.  Absent retroviral infections, your DNA will generally remain the same from prior to your birth until long after your death.  So, you only need one medical grade DNA test per lifetime.

2.  The data set produced by a DNA test, while voluminous, is amenable to easy and compact electronic storage.  A DNA chip measures something on the order of 600,000 to 1,000,000.  Each SNP location can be coded with redundancy to allow for error checking with less than one byte of binary information.  You can code the entire data set on an uncompressed basis with about 1 MB of data.  But, since a large share of SNPs mostly have the same value for everyone, it is also possible to use a compression algorithm that would report only atypical values at those SNPs where the values are atypical.

Bottom line: a complete genome can be easily transmitted as a modest sized e-mail attachment, and is quite readable in ordinary English so long as you know the correct designation for the SNP you are looking up.

3. Your DNA contains information relevant to many ailments you may suffer during your life and to how you will react to many medicines that you may be prescribed during your life.

4. For any given ailment or medicine, it takes a computer program no more complex than a simple cell phone app to review your genome and produce all information relative to that ailment or medicine in readable terms based on published scientific studies.  SNPedia is an amateur, open access effort that comes very close to containing all of the information needed to locate the relevant articles and prepare outputs that spell out the personal DNA considerations involved.

5. In mass production, apps like this could be bundled as a no cost add on to a prescription, much as existing prescription information and warnings is today, for medicines, and a full catalog of these apps for all ailments a particular type of doctor is likely to encounter in his or her practice, ought to be possible to produce for less than the cost of a common, standard medical treatise.  The cost to buy these apps and annual updates would be tiny relative, for example, to a doctor's medical malpractice insurance bill each month.  An estimate of a cost of $1 per patient visit would probably be high.

In short, it might cost $200-$300 per patient, per lifetime, to make a review of a patient's genome, a standard part of a typical doctor's decision to prescribe a drug or devise a treatment plan.  Somebody has to fund to basic research that goes into published journal articles on genetic associations with diseases and medicines, just as they do today, but the value added secured by that research, if routine DNA checks were part of normal medical practice, would be much greater than we have today where the dissemination of that research is far less systemic.

Today, the gathering of the research that informs how we read a patient's genome and apply it to medical practice is in its infancy.  But, we have a solid database with respect to some ailments, like breast cancer and Alzheimer's disease, and some drugs.  Over time, as the value of the research in daily practice becomes clear, the list of ailments and drugs about which we have good DNA specific information will expand dramatically.

The process of diagnosing an ailment from a set of symptoms, for example, when leveraged with the power of DNA, prior medical record, and population-wide data informed Baysean priors, is likely to become much more accurate.  There may still be cases where trial and error, or additional diagnostic tests are required.  But, the odds of landing on the right diagnosis in the smallest average number of trials, will be greatly improved.  The reduced spending on diagnostic tests avoided because of the order in which diagnostic and confirming tests are performed alone would more than pay for the implementation of DNA informed medicine.

For example, suppose someone walks into a psychiatrists office at the college health clinic at age 20 presenting with schizophrenia of an undetermined subtype, and the family history is patchy, for example, because the patient was adopted.  A quick review with the schizophrenia app of that patient's genome could quickly determine which of eight subtypes of schizophrenia that patient was most likely to have, which drugs are usually most effective to treat symptoms with that subtype, and whether anything else in that patient's DNA contraindicated for that patient for this purpose.  Many hours of sessions with the patient and observation, and many months of tinkering with treatment regimes on a trial and error basis, could be avoided.

The best doctors today intuitively incorporate prior medical records and population-wide data in their estimate of the best diagnosis, but only consider the individual patient's propensities written in their DNA in exceptional case.  But, in the near future, including this powerful dataset could become routine.

It also isn't particularly important that the DNA information piece be tightly integrated with the rest of the data.  A medical practitioner could simply include a one page report with DNA information pertinent to the task at hand with the other materials in the patient's medical record at diagnostic junctures as a matter of course, and could consider it holistically using his or her "wet ware" together with the other information in the file.  Often it would just be a check box task - a medical paraprofessional would ask the treating physician what to pull DNA information on, would run those reports, and would present them to the physician a few minutes before a visit with a patient together with the rest of the patient's file.

Thus, treating a patient with DNA informed medicine would be less like ordering imaging, like an MRI, CAT Scan, or X-ray on a case by case basis, and more like reviewing the vaccination page or allergy listing or birth certificate already in the patient's file.  Once the medical quality genome test was done once in a patient's life, nothing new would have to be ordered and no additional patient time would be required to use this diagnostic tool.  It would not lead to any meaningful delay in the diagnostic process; results of a DNA check would be available instantly once the patient's genome was in put in the system when the child was an infant.

Another virtue of this advance is that it doesn't have to be introduced in one fell sweep.  For example, Kaiser Permanente could introduce use of the system and take genomes of its new patients as a matter of course, without cooperation from any other medical providers, and could introduce it for existing patients only on request or as needed.

03 April 2015

New Noninvasive Down's Syndrome Test Highly Accurate

Down's syndrome is a serious condition that causes a multitude of serious intellectual and physical disabilities, but unlike many other forms of trisomy, often does not result in infant mortality (88%-96% of children born with Down's syndrome live to age one, and survival to this point and later in life is largely a function of whether congenital heart defects are present; about 40% of Down's syndrome children are born with these heart defects).  It is the most common chromosome abnormality and birth defect other than a cleft palate and/or lip (possibly, in part, because other trisomy conditions more often result in miscarriages and still births) and is the cause of 8% of all congenital disorders.

A new blood test for pregnant women, taken around the end of the first trimester of pregnancy, has proven much more effective than existing standard noninvasive screening tests at identifying trisomy 21 which accounts for 90% of Down's Syndrome cases, according to a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine (one of the most prestigious medical journals in existence).

The 15,803 women were tested using the old standard screening and the new test.

There were 38 pregnancies in the sample with this genetic defect.

The old standard screening missed 8 of 38 pregnancies with this genetic defect and had 854 false positives.  Only 3.4% of positives on the old standard screening test were correct, and 21.1% of true positives were missed.

The new screening test missed no pregnancies with genetic defects and had 9 false positives (a more than 98% improvement in the false positive rate).  Of those 9 false positives, 1 out of 9 were also false positives on the old standard screening test.  80.9% of positives on the new screening test were correct.

Among 11,994 women at low risk, there were 19 true positives and 6 false positives with the new screening test.  For low risk women, 76.0% of positives on the new screening test were correct.

Among 3,809 women at high risk, there were 19 true positives and 3 false positives with the new screening test.  For high risk women, 86.4% of the positives on the new screening test were correct.

Something on the order of 50% to 90% of pregnancies that are confirmed to have trisomy 21 are terminated.

The low accuracy of the old test led to many unnecessary follow up invasive diagnostic screening tests, and led many women, especially those with low risk, to skip screening tests all together.  The new test makes a diagnostic screening test a very good idea in every case where it is positive and is appropriate for screening all pregnancies, even low risk pregnancies.

The new test also identifies two other kinds of genetic anomalies in the fetuses of pregnant women better than previous non-invasive standard screening tests:
Trisomy 18 
There were 10 cases of trisomy 18 in the primary analysis population. Of these cases, cfDNA testing identified 9 and standard screening identified 8; cfDNA testing had 1 false positive result, for a false positive rate of 0.01% (95% CI, 0 to 0.04) and a positive predictive value of 90.0% (95% CI, 55.5 to 99.7), as compared with 49 false positive results on standard screening, for a false positive rate of 0.31% (95% CI, 0.23 to 0.41) and a positive predictive value of 14.0% (95% CI, 6.3 to 25.8) (P less than 0.001 for both comparisons). 
Trisomy 13 
Among the 11,185 women who underwent both cfDNA testing and standard screening for trisomy 13, there were 2 confirmed cases; of these cases, cfDNA testing identified 2 and standard screening identified 1. There was 1 false positive result on cfDNA testing and 28 false positive results on standard screening, for false positive rates of 0.02% (95% CI, 0 to 0.06) and 0.25% (95% CI, 0.17 to 0.36), respectively (P less than 0.001).
Trisomy 18 causes Edward's Syndrome (which affects girl infants 80% of the time). The prognosis in a case of Edward's Syndrome is as follows (per Wikipedia):
In 2008/2009, 495 diagnoses of Edwards syndrome (trisomy 18) were made in England and Wales, 92% of which were made prenatally, resulting in 339 abortions, 49 stillbirths/miscarriages/fetal deaths, 72 unknown outcomes, and 35 live births. Because about 3% of cases with unknown outcomes are likely to result in a live birth, the total number of live births is estimated to be 37 (2008/09 data are provisional). Major causes of death include apnea and heart abnormalities. It is impossible to predict an exact prognosis during pregnancy or the neonatal period. Half of the infants with this condition do not survive beyond the first week of life. The median lifespan is five to 15 days. About 8% of infants survive longer than 1 year. One percent of children live to age 10, typically in less severe cases of the mosaic Edwards syndrome.
Trisomy 13 causes Patau syndrome. Per Wikipedia, the prognosis is as follows:
In England and Wales during 2008–09 there were 172 diagnoses of Patau's syndrome (trisomy 13), with 91% of diagnoses made prenatally. There were 111 elective abortions, 14 stillbirth/miscarriage/fetal deaths, 30 outcomes unknown, and 17 live births. Approximately 4% of Patau's syndrome with unknown outcomes are likely to result in a live birth, therefore the total number of live births is estimated to be 18. . . . More than 80% of children with Patau syndrome die within the first year of life.

Demigod Sacrifice Day

Today, high church Christians celebrate their religion's central act of human sacrifice.  Strictly speaking, however, while Christian doctrine affirms that the victim of the sacrifice is both fully human and fully divine, the sacrifice is more of a demigod with a human mother and God as a father, who has magical powers (including the power to give his followers lesser magical powers) as a result.  According to the Gospel of John, however, this demigod actually existed from the beginning of time and is merely reincarnated into his demigod being recounted in Christian doctrine.

The device used to kill the human sacrifice is the symbol of the religion.

The event is also celebrated at many weekly Christian worship services with ritual symbolic cannibalism (although Roman Catholic doctrine holds that bread and wine are magically transformed into meat and blood in the ritual, making their Mass an event of actual ritual cannibalism).

In the Christian Gospels, what actually happens is that the Jewish demigod founder of their religion is executed for sedition by Roman authorities supported by the local Jewish leaders.

But, this counts as a "sacrifice" for purposes of Christian doctrine, because the man executed was a prophet who knew it was going to happen and could have prevented it, but instead accepted his fate.  This counts for doctrinal purposes as a sacrifice by the victim's father, because he too knew what was going to happen and could have prevented it.

This human sacrifice in Christianity, like human sacrifices in other religions, provides benefits not to the victim of the human sacrifice, but to other people with only a thin connection to the sacrifice event.

In particular, Christian doctrine provides that the sacrifice of the victim by his father confers benefits on the religious followers of the father and the son by relieving them of metaphysical consequences for their own wrongful acts and the wrongful acts of their ancestors.  (A Christian doctrine called "original sin" holds that all humans must suffer metaphysical consequences for the wrongs of their earliest ancestor.)

Now, there are some plot holes in this account.

First, Christian doctrine does not explain to whom the father of the victim is sacrificing his son in order to relieve his worshipers of the metaphysical consequences of their wrongful act.  Christian doctrine provides that the father of the victim, together with the victim, and a third divine aspect called the Holy Spirit, are collectively the all powerful and all knowing God, so one would think that there is no one for the father of the victim to sacrifice the victim to, other than himself.  And, a sacrifice one makes to please oneself doesn't sound like much of a sacrifice.  There is no Christian doctrinal tradition in which God the Father, sacrifices God the Son, to God the Holy Spirit, so that theory doesn't fit the bill either.

Second, the demigod founder of the religion goes to Hell once he is sacrificed, even though he is supposedly without sin and blameless.  Apparently, this was very unpleasant.  This brings us to the third point.

Third, the sacrifice really isn't much of a sacrifice.  According to Christian doctrine, the demigod founder of the Christian religion returns to life on Earth from Hell in corporal form into the body he was killed in, less than 48 hours after he was sacrificed.  Maybe he was rejected for not being sinful enough and it just took a while for Hell to get around to processing him because it was short staffed on a weekend or something.  But, if the victim and his father both know that this resurrection was going to happen, it makes the sacrifice look rather petty.  Two days of suffering in Hell out of an eternity of life involving the adulation of billions of people and supreme supernatural power that extends to the power to meddle in the everyday lives of everyone in the world.

The resurrection is a bit underwhelming, however.  The founder of the religion makes a handful of appearances to small groups of his inner circle of followers for a couple of months, and then undead Jesus levitates to Heaven where he reigns in glory with his father and the third aspect of God, the Holy Spirit.  Undead Jesus doesn't really do anything of consequence on Earth after his resurrection, except to encourage his closest follows to keep the faith.

Jesus and undead Jesus tell his followers that he will return to the world to reward his worshipers and rule to rule the world justly, but almost two thousand years later, his worshipers are still waiting.

In the meantime, his worshipers, in addition to being required to believe this story, are also encouraged to have a personal relationship with undead Jesus that is shared with the other billion Christians alive today.

The only miracle in all of this is that a billion people do either believe this or claim to believe that this story is the deepest and most absolute and essential truth about our universe.