31 January 2016

Gene E. Willeke Has Died

My father, Gene E. Willeke, died this morning of natural causes at the age of 81.  A funeral will be held later in the week in Oxford, Ohio.  His first wife, Carol B. Willeke, preceded him in death.  He is survived by his brother, Lowell Willeke, his current wife, Pat Willeke, his two sons, Jon Willeke and I, and three grandchildren.

29 January 2016

Musings On Criminal Sophistication

The lion's share of crimes are extremely simple and unsophisticated.  Theft or burglary or robbery of tangible personal property or currency.  Assault or murder or rape with guns or knives or clubs or their bare hands.  Arson committed was gasoline and matches or a cigarette lighter.

Little or no specialized skill or training is required.  The crime itself is usually committed over the course of less than an hour.  Most of the crimes involve just one, or just a few offenders, and just one or just a few victims.  Sometimes there is some premeditation, but just as often, the crimes are opportunistic or impulsive.

The economic returns from these crimes are often small and are increasingly falling.

A small share of crimes are don't fit this mold.  Perhaps the paradigmatic examples of sophisticated crimes are Ponzi schemes, securities frauds, and cyber crimes that steal credit card and financial account information from large numbers of people associated with a credit card merchant.

These crimes require criminals to have high level information technology, legal and financial operations knowledge, are often committed over periods of time months long or longer, are much more likely to involve some manner of deceit than physical force, and give rise to losses that are many orders of magnitude larger than run of the mill unsophisticated crime.

Another class of sophisticated crimes involve "organized crime" usually involving some form of vice and/or tax evasion.  This don't require quite the same skill levels as truly sophisticated crime, but do required coordinated action from very large numbers of offenders within in the organization, often with collusion from public officials.

Most crimes are unsophisticated crimes committed by unsophisticated criminals because most criminals are capable of committing any other kind of crime.  Sophisticated criminals, in contrast, only commit very lucrative crimes, because they have the skill set necessary to engage in decently playing economic activity.  And, because sophisticated crime is so much more rare, the targets tend to be much softer.

My impression is that while organized crime may make up a quite substantial share of all criminal activity (perhaps more than half by economic value or impact) that really sophisticated crimes don't (perhaps 5% by economic value or impact).  But, this intuition may simply be a function of many of those crimes going unsolved and unpublicized because they are hard to solve and tend to have less of a visceral impact on public sentiment when they are discovered.  Given the much larger losses typical associated with each instance of truly sophisticated crimes relative to unsophisticated ordinary crimes, the percentage of criminals who are sophisticated must be smaller still (perhaps less than 1% of the total).

The fact that the number of sophisticated criminals is small, and their impact is large, suggests that focused investigation, prosecution and incarceration of these offenders might have more impact than similar efforts directed at unsophisticated criminals, because one instant of impulsive or opportunistic action by someone with few skills can replace an unsophisticated criminal who is taken off the streets in an instant.

SCOTUS To Lower Courts: You Must Follow Our Orders

One of the perennial problems in writing legal briefs is finding case law to rule out legal positions that are so obviously wrong that nobody every bothers to appeal the issue and create a reported decision on the subject if the lose on that argument in the trial court.

Moreover, when you can find a case that states the obvious it is often old.  For example, just today I was forced to resort to a Colorado Supreme Court case from 1890 in support of a well established rule of black letter law that every law student learns, but is rarely litigated as a result.

But, every once and a while, such a case is decided providing a more recent precedent, so brief writers everywhere who need a case stating that lower courts are obligated to abide by U.S. Supreme Court rulings, rejoice!
James v. City of Boise, 15-493, challenged the Idaho Supreme Court’s, um, idiosyncratic view that when the Supreme Court construes federal law, it “does not have authority to limit the discretion of state courts where such limitation is not contained in the statute.” In just one-and-a-half pages (more than one-tenth of which consisted of a single quote from the Court’s 1816 decision in Martin v. Hunter’s Lessee) the Court clarified that “[t]he Idaho Supreme Court, like any other state or federal court, is bound by this Court’s interpretation of federal law.” Some have speculated that this case is a shot across the bow of the Alabama Supreme Court. The implications of James will become clearer in the future, once we know what has actually happened.
- John Elwood at SCOTUS Blog (some links in original omitted).

28 January 2016

Nixon Is The One

One of my colleagues wore a "Nixon Is The One" button today in honor of the Republican Presidential debates today.

Honestly, I can't disagree that, corruption and all, Nixon would still be better than anyone in the current GOP field.  And, even in his misconduct, Nixon had the decency to be shamed by it enough to resign, rather than wearing his deplorable tendencies as a badge of honor.

27 January 2016

Political Scientists Blew This Election

As political scientists and data journalists start to admit that we didn't predict Donald Trump (or Bernie Sanders), it's time for some out-there theories!
From Mischiefs of Faction. Mea culpa. My predictions were just as inaccurate on  the GOP side (I assigned only a 6% probability of winning the Presidency combined to the current GOP front runners).

The author of the quoted post, after a moment of humility, ponders why the establishment wing of the parties didn't prevent these outcomes, and suggests that it is more likely that the establishment wing didn't bother or intentionally tried not to influence the outcome than it is that they were incapable of doing so.

Why would they do that?
The different factions in the party can no longer be reconciled, and the priorities of powerful voices within the party can no longer be reconciled with the national mood and its policy imperatives.
Given an over constrained political environment, elites have decided to simply let the process play itself out and resolve the conflict rather than trying to engineer a result when there are no good solutions.

Even if the Republicans lose this election, they may emerge with a more clear sense of identity and a chastened pool of party extremists as the limitations of what is possible are made manifest for them in the electoral results.

All social science theories and conventional wisdom are basically based on the assumption that the present will work like the past did in our society. Usually, their right. But, the really interesting times, because they show that something about the system and society have changed, are when the models fail as they seem to have this year in the 2016 race for President.

Community College Transfers To Four Year Programs In Colorado Have Subpar Success Rates

About one in three community college students nationwide transfers to another college to pursue a four year degree within six years of starting college.  On balance, I'm not convinced that this budget route to a four year degree is a good thing.

Community colleges would serve us better preparing people for abundant "middle skilled" jobs, a task at which K-12 education has dismally failed because we don't want students to settle for realistic aspirations given their abilities.
42 — Percent of students who transferred from community colleges to four-year institutions who earned bachelor’s degrees. 
32 — Percent of students who transferred out of Colorado community colleges into four-year institutions anywhere in the nation who earned bachelor’s degrees. 
28 — Percent of students who transferred from community colleges anywhere in the United States to public, four-year institutions in Colorado who earned bachelor’s degrees. 
23 — Percent of students who transferred from community colleges anywhere in the United States to private, nonprofit four-year institutions in Colorado who earned bachelor’s degrees. 
38.7 — Percent of students, nationwide, who graduate from a higher education institution in four years, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education 
30.3 — Percent of students in Colorado who graduate from a higher education institution in four years, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.
From here.  Hat tip to Colorado Public Radio.

Colorado community college graduates who transfer to four year programs are much less likely to earn bachelor's degrees than their counterparts elsewhere in the nation.  But, transferee's from Colorado community colleges likelihood of graduating somewhere (32%) isn't much different from students who start college at a four year institution in Colorado (30.2%) (and I strongly suspect that almost all Colorado community college transferees go to Colorado four year institutions).

And, transferees from community colleges anywhere and transfer to Colorado's public four year institutions are less likely to graduate than the national average as well.  This suggests that the problem in Colorado may be on the receiving end as well as the community college end.  This is also suggested by the fact four year graduation rates are lower in Colorado than the national average.

Community college students who transfer to private four year institutions in Colorado are even less likely to graduate than those transferring to public colleges (unsurprisingly since the latter are usually more selective academically and hence geared to more academically able students on average).

The graduation rate for Colorado's community college transferees isn't great, but a lot of that is due to lower graduation rates in general at Colorado's four year institutions and the downsides of a much less expensive community college transfer to a public four year institution approach aren't decisive, particularly since these statistics don't adjust for the possibly different academic abilities upon graduating from high school of community college transfers and direct to four year college students respectively.

Also, the percentage of community college students who wash out rather than transferring, or who finish a two year program, but don't transfer, is very high.  Peer pressure not to stay the course is significant in a way it would be for an academically able student going directly to a four year institution.  The six year bachelor's degree graduate rate of people who start community college is unsurprisingly, much lower than among those who start in four year institutions.

About 1.6 million people earn a bachelor's degree in the U.S. in a given year and about 100,000 of those graduates community college transferees.  So, only about 6% of bachelor's degree recipients took the community college transfer route.  About 13% of people who start community college in a given year will ultimately earn a bachelor's degree.

A key question is how much of the economic benefit of higher education is due to sorting (for which college is a very expensive sorting tool) and how much is due to what one learns in one's program (something that is almost surely the case in STEM fields but is far less clear in other fields). For example, the economic prospects of people who earn two year degrees is only marginally different from those who attend some college but don't earn a degree.

The full community college transfer report is here.

26 January 2016

Lot of Nobodies Seek GOP Nomination For U.S. Senate Race In Colorado

A dozen Republicans you've never heard of are the fools who have rushed in where angels fear to tread to challenge Democratic incumbent Michael Bennet in the race for the Republican U.S. Senate nomination in Colorado.

The big names in the Colorado Republican Party have failed to come forward, seeing the race against the moderate Democratic incumbent in a high turnout Presidential election year as a lost cause.

The absence of a strong candidate seems very likely to concede the race to the Democrats this year, despite the fact that in ideal conditions, this seat would be one of the few potential swing seats in the nation.

Oregon Militia Members Arrested After Shootout That Killed One Of Them And Injured Another

Seven Six members of an armed group in Oregon that was occupying a federal nature preserve office since January 2, 2016, including their leader Ammon Bundy, have been arrested.  Another member of the armed group was killed with the joint efforts of the FBI and Oregon law enforcement.  Five of them were arrested and one was killed in a highway traffic stop.  Two more were arrested separately.
Shots were fired during the arrest of members of the armed group. In a joint statement Tuesday, the FBI and Oregon State Police said one individual "who was a subject of a federal probable cause arrest is deceased." No other information about the deceased was immediately released. Another person received non-life threatening injuries and was taken to a local hospital.Those arrested were: 
• Ammon Edward Bundy, age 40, of Emmett, Idaho
• Ryan C. Bundy, age 43, of Bunkerville, Nev.
• Brian Cavalier, age 44, of Bunkerville, Nev.
• Shawna Cox, age 59, Kanab, Utah
• Ryan Waylen Payne, age 32, of Anaconda, Mont.

Also arrested, in Burns, at about 5:50 p.m. PT, was: 
• Joseph Donald O'Shaughnessy, age 45, Cottonwood, Ariz. 
Officials said all six of those arrested face a federal felony charge of conspiracy to impede officers of the United States from discharging their official duties through the use of force, intimidation, or threats, in violation of Title 18, United States Code, Section 372.
This statute states:
If two or more persons in any State, Territory, Possession, or District conspire to prevent, by force, intimidation, or threat, any person from accepting or holding any office, trust, or place of confidence under the United States, or from discharging any duties thereof, or to induce by like means any officer of the United States to leave the place, where his duties as an officer are required to be performed, or to injure him in his person or property on account of his lawful discharge of the duties of his office, or while engaged in the lawful discharge thereof, or to injure his property so as to molest, interrupt, hinder, or impede him in the discharge of his official duties, each of such persons shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than six years, or both.
CNN reports that the man killed was LaVoy Finicum and that Ryan Bundy was the individual who sustained injuries which were minor, and notes that another member was arrested. According to the CNN report with more details of the incident:
Ammon Bundy, leader of the armed protesters who took over a federal wildlife refuge in Oregon, was arrested and one of his followers killed in a highway traffic stop Tuesday. A law enforcement official told CNN that authorities pulled over two vehicles. 
Everyone obeyed orders to surrender except two people: LaVoy Finicum and Bundy's brother, Ryan Bundy, the official said. Shots were fired, but it's not known who fired first, the official said. 
Ryan Bundy was injured, but Finicum died, the official added. Finicum was among the most outspoken of the occupiers who took over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns on January 2 to protest federal land policies. 
Earlier this month, he said he'd rather be killed than arrested. "Absolutely ... I have no intention of spending any of my days in a concrete box," he told NBC News. . . .
All together, police arrested seven people: five in the traffic stop on Highway 395 with Ammon Bundy; and two others in Burns. All seven arrested face a federal felony charge relating to their occupation of the refuge: conspiracy to impede officers of the United States from discharging their official duties through the use of force, intimidation or threats, authorities said. . . . Those arrested are: Ammon Bundy, Ryan Bundy, Brian Cavalier, Shawna Cox and Ryan Waylen Payne. The other two are: Joseph Donald O'Shaughnessy and Peter Santilli.
Finicum got what he asked for and deserved. He also deserves a Darwin Award.

The charges for those arrested sound entirely too lenient to me, but it appears that the standoff is over and that at least the leaders are being charged with serious felonies.  Also, in general, due to the way that federal criminal sentences are calculated, an offender will generally end up serving all or a much larger share of a federal sentence than, for example, a criminal sentence in the Colorado state courts.

Felony convictions of any kind, of course, also deny those arrested the right to be in possession of firearms or ammunition following their conviction, and subject them to stiff mandatory minimum sentences either for firearms possession or for future crimes.

The group's manifesto, claiming that they own federal property and that they have a right to ignore federal law through force of arms and to establish their own court is delusional.  Honestly, it is embarrassing to see grown men act so idiotically.  Their families and their communities should be ashamed to have crazy people like them trying to speak for their interests.

The story is developing and additional arrest, charges and developments are likely to follow.

UPDATE January 27, 2016:

Militant Jon Ritzheimer, who previously made headlines for leading an anti-Islam protest in Arizona, turned himself in to police in Peoria, Arizona and will face the same charges as the other individuals who have been charged. Thus, nine leading members of the armed militia have been killed or arrested. Other militants continue to occupy the site.

24 January 2016


After a long season of close calls, the Broncos nonetheless delivered the goods and will be going to the Superbowl.  My brother's team, the Patriots, were crushed.  The Broncos' Superbowl adversary will be determined later this evening.

23 January 2016

God Hates Chess?

In December, Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdelaziz Al Sheikh, the top Sunni cleric in Saudi Arabia has proclaimed that "the game of chess is "forbidden" in Islam because it wastes time and leads to rivalry and enmity among people."

Apparently he didn't want to be one upped by "Shiite Iran's Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani [who] previously declared that chess is religiously prohibited because it could be used for gambling, which is not permissible in Islam."

This would be nutty and absurd material worthy of the Onion, if it weren't for the fact that these are real pronouncements of the most powerful Sunni and Shiite clerics in the world, respectively.  It is the sort of thing that makes you seriously question the sanity of adherents of a world religion with a billion followers.

In a global clash of civilizations in the 21st century, can anyone serious expect the adherents of a religion in which the most influential figures in its two largest denominations can't tolerate their followers playing chess prevailing?

It feels like the rot of a once intellectually vibrant culture that is on the verge of imploding.

Nota bene: Arab Muslims are the ones who brought chess to Europe, back in the days when the Islamic empire was tolerant and in part as a product of that tolerance, powerful.  Chess has played a storied role in Islamic culture for at least 1400 years.

22 January 2016

Low Oil Prices Weaken Bad Governments And Bad Companies

Low oil prices are causing the Russian ruble to weaken and in turn is leading to massive, non-monetary sourced inflation in Russia, reducing its standard of living, and reducing the ability of its government to spend on endeavors including its military.

It weaken ISIS which funds itself with oil revenues, it weakens tyrannical governments across the Middle East and North Africa like Saudi Arabia, Iran and Egypt.

It strengthens economies that are based upon expertise rather than resources, like the oil importing U.S. and Japan.

It weaken frackers and oil companies.  It helps working people for whom high oil prices are a de facto regressive tax (doubly so in the Northeast where people heat their homes with heating oil), and makes flying on airplanes more affordable.

21 January 2016

Oral Arguments Were Held In Sister Wives Polygamy Decriminalization Case

The United States Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit in Denver heard oral arguments today in the appeal by the State of Utah of a Utah District Court decision holding unconstitutional a Utah law criminalizing cohabitation with people of the opposite sex by married people constitutes felony bigamy, even though there is no effort to claim legal recognition for the additional relationships as a marriage.  The prohibition on having two marriage licenses in force at the same time was not challenged.

The parties are stars of the reality TV show "Sister Wives" and relocated to Nevada when they faced a threatened prosecution in Utah.

While the three judge panel grilled lawyers for both sides, Utah was taken to task for its exceptionally poor briefing of the case which has previously been covered at this blog.

Coinciding with this event, the Justice Department is bringing suit against the twin fundamentalist Mormon dominating cities of Hinsdale and Arizona City on the Utah-Arizona border for discriminating against people who are not members of the polygamous FLDS faith.

Previous coverage here.

Scientific Proof of the Flying Spaghetti Monster's Existence

Pastafarians rejoice! Australian astronomers have validated your faith scientifically.
Invisible structures shaped like noodles, lasagne sheets or hazelnuts could be floating around in our Galaxy radically challenging our understanding of gas conditions in the Milky Way.
From here.

Could you tell the difference between hazelnuts and meatballs in a fuzzy telescope image?

The "hazelnuts" may really be meatballs that are being misdescribed.

The structures are known as "dark noodles", by analogy to dark matter and dark energy, because, obviously, matter, energy and noodles are the three fundamental states of the stuff that makes up the universe.

Republican Senators Denounce Ted Cruz

Ronald Reagan's commandment that no Republican speak ill of another Republican has gone out the window, and the GOP Presidential race has degenerated into bedlam.

Ted Cruz and Donald Trump are the front runners in the race, but neither are embraced by the party establishment. Less than two weeks before the Iowa Caucuses, multiple Republican Senators has publicly denounced GOP Presidential candidate Ted Cruz on the grounds that he will lose the election, hurt Republican candidates down ticket, favors electorally damaging strategies, and doesn't play well with his fellow Republicans.  More here.

Candidates acceptable to the GOP establishment meanwhile are not polling well with likely Republican voters. One time favorite Jeb Bush, struggles to poll above 5th place anywhere.  The Republican establishment has no great love of political neophyte Ben Carson either.

Will the GOP grass roots wrest control from GOP insiders contrary to all of the conventional wisdom of political scientists in the much studied specialty of Presidential elections?  Or, will the establishment regain control and crush several of the leading candidates for the GOP nomination and rally around some other establishment candidate deemed more acceptable such as Rubio (the best polling candidate likely to be acceptable to them)?

Meanwhile, the conservative National Review magazine has denounced Trump as a menace in an entire issue devoted to the question with a who's who of 22 conservative intellectuals condemning him from a variety of different perspectives.  Trump blew off the effort, calling the National Review a dying publication.

20 January 2016

Motorcycles Still Dangerous

One of the early and most widely read posts at this blog examined how safe motorcycles were.  They were and are extremely dangerous.

In Colorado, in 2015, of the 545 traffic fatalities in the state, 104 of the dead (19% of the total and 22% of the total excluding the 78 pedestrians and bicyclists who weren't in motor vehicles) were riding motorcycles.  Motorcycles account for something on the order of 0.5% to 1% of vehicle miles travelled in the state.  The percentage of traffic fatalities in Colorado involving motorcycles is far in excess of the national average (in part because in Colorado it is not mandatory to wear a helmet).

The percentage of motorcycle fatalities involving riders who weren't wearing helmets has consistently hovered above 60% and alcohol is a factor in a substantial share of motorcycle deaths as well.  But, even motorcycle riders who wear helmets and ride sober are at far greater risk of death than anyone driving a car.

As usual, the keys to reducing traffic fatalities are mostly common sense.

Just under half of passengers who died in traffic accidents in 2015 weren't wearing seat belts (just 15% of passengers don't wear seat belts). A third of traffic deaths involved drunk drivers.

Colorado has made great strides, reducing traffic fatalities by about 30% since 2002.  But, there is plenty of room for more progress.

19 January 2016

Diversity Jurisdiction For REITs

The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments this morning on the question of how to determine the citizenship of a Maryland business trust (which is the Delaware of business trusts uses in real estate investment trusts called REITs which are taxed on sort of a simplified S-corporation basis under tax rules particular to REITs and not derived directly from any other entity's tax rules).

The REIT has asked to be citizens of the states where the trustees are citizens even though the trustees don't have the right to sue in a Maryland business trust for which only the entity has the right to sue.

The Defendant in the trial court has asked to be a citizen of the states where the beneficiaries of the REIT reside (effectively barring any REIT from every removing diversity cases to federal court) like an LLC or partnership or limited partnership

Amici have argued that a Maryland business trust should be treated as a corporation for diversity jurisdiction purposes (i.e. as a citizen of the state of formation and the state where it has its principle place of business).  Judge Kagan floated the idea over overturning decades of precedent and adopting this position although not other Justices joined her in taking the approach.

The Court could also deny relief as cert was improvidently granted on the grounds that there was not complete diversity under either the Plaintiffs or the Defendants theory until the diversity defeating trustees resigned after the Plaintiffs filed suit (which was raised in a 10th Circuit appeal but not addressed on the merits in the 10th Circuit opinion).  Cert was not granted on that issue, however.

The argument was not very partisan and did not clearly show the hand of how the court was leaning on this issue, although, in general, the case for treating this kind of trust like a limited partnership seemed to be the most likely stance for the Court to take.

UPDATE: Ronald Mann, writing for SCOTUS Blog, predicts a unanimous decision treating REITs as LLCs and Limited Partnerships for diversity jurisdiction purposes based upon oral arguments in the case.

18 January 2016

Charles Stross On Social Media

2007 is when the human species accidentally invented telepathy (via the fusion of twitter, facebook, and other disclosure-induction social media with always-connected handheld internet devices). Telepathy, unfortunately, turns out to not be all about elevated Apollonian abstract intellectualism: it's an emotion amplifier and taps into the most toxic wellsprings of the subconscious. As implemented, it brings out the worst in us. Twitter and Facebook et al are fine-tuned to turn us all into car-crash rubberneckers and public execution spectators. It can be used for good, but more often it drags us down into the dim-witted, outraged weltanschauung of the mob.
Charles Stross (January 17, 2016).

17 January 2016

Denver Murders In 2015 By Race And Ethnicity

Denver Homicides per the FBI for years 1985-2014 and per the Denver Police Department for 2015, via the Denver Post.  Note that this understates the extent to which homicide rates have declined in Denver in that time period because Denver's population increased by 31% from 1985-2014 and continued to grow from 2014 to 2015.  For example, it would take about 117 murders in 2015 to match the murder rate implied by the 90 murders in Denver in 1986.  The 50 murders experienced by Denver in 2015 correspond to a murder rate that would have produced 38 murders in 1985.

Murders In Denver In 2015

In 2015, there were 50 homicides not committed by police (police killed 7 people) in Denver, 28 black, 12 Latino and 10 white. As of 2014, Denver was 53.4% non-Hispanic white, 10.4% black, and 30.8% Hispanic (the remainder consists of Asians, Pacific Islanders, Alaska Natives, Native Americans and mixed race individuals who are non-Hispanic).

The murder rate per 100,000 people by race in Denver in 2015 was as follows:

* Non-Hispanic White 2.82
* Latino 5.87
* Black 41.35

There were no murders in other racial or ethnic categories in 2015, although some individuals classified as black or Latino in Denver's murder statistics may have been classified as having more than one race in census statistics.

The lack of murders in some of these other racial categories isn't too surprising, because the numbers of people in racial categories like Native American (2.0%) is small enough that one would not necessarily expect to see a murder in those racial categories every year in Denver, particularly if those racial categories have murders rates closer to non-Hispanic whites or Latinos than the blacks.

Small numbers in absolute terms, such as the number of murders in the City and County of Denver in a given year, are inherently subject to greater statistical fluctuations than large numbers, such as the number of homicides in the entire United States in a given year, due to the law of averages.

UPDATE January 18, 2016: Of the seven killed by police six were shot (several by non-Denver police officers) and one died in the jail. Four were Hispanic, two were black and one was Native American. Those deaths are not included in the murder rate, but including them would further broaden the racial disparity.

National data on deaths at the hands of police also indicate a racial disparity with almost exactly half of the victims being white based upon a Guardian newspaper survey of 776 such deaths in the U.S. in part of 2015, a figure which is much smaller than the percentage of Americans who are non-Hispanic white (96% of the victims were male). END UPDATE

The Larger Context

Some Minor Caveats

Of course, central cities like Denver almost always have crimes rates that are high relative to their resident population, in part, because the number of people in a central city is almost always higher than its residential population during the working day and during the evening and weekend hours when people come to central cities for a wide variety of entertainment, sports, dining and shopping opportunities. In contrast, many suburban areas have populations that are below their resident populations during a large share of all waking hours during an average week.

The distinction between resident population and the average number of people in the city during the waking hours is a particularly important factor, for example, in the high homicide rate of Las Vegas, Nevada, whose average population of non-resident tourists is very large relative to its resident population, even before considering any other factors at play in its high homicide rate.

A not insignificant share of the urban-suburban disparity between homicide rates would disappear if this adjustment were made, although this adjustment would still not explain all, or even most of the difference.

Historically, but less so recently, central cities have also been home to an outsized share of the deeply poor who are much more likely to be involved in gangs and commit serious crimes for reasons that are much more complex.

Race Greatly Influences Homicide Rates

In the entire United States from 2010 through 2012, according to polling and statistics site 538:
[T]he annual rate of homicide deaths among non-Hispanic white Americans was 2.5 per 100,000 persons, meaning that about one in every 40,000 white Americans is a homicide victim each year. By comparison, the rate of homicide deaths among non-Hispanic black Americans is 19.4 per 100,000 persons, or about 1 in 5,000 people per year.
Denver was above both of those averages in 2015, by about 12% in the case of non-Hispanic whites, and by about 100% in the case of blacks.  Since the base number of homicides in a single city is so small, the variability of this number is large in percentage terms, but the overall trend of homicide rates that vary dramatically by the race of the victim, is very robust.

The unfortunately reality, if you do linear regression comparisons of murder rates in various geographic areas to all manner of plausible statistics about those geographic areas is that the racial makeup of a geographic areas is the single best first order predictor of it murder rate when compared to comparable geographic areas (e.g. states to states, cities to cities, etc.). Race predicts homicide rates much more accurately, for example, than poverty rates or education level or the percentage of undocumented immigrants in an area.  Other measures like gun ownership rates or gun control laws in force, death penalty laws in force, or even police staffing levels, are similarly second or third order effects in predicting the homicide rate, at most.

Denver's murder rate in 2015 was still below average for the 30 largest cities in the United States, which isn't terribly surprising, given the longer term historical trends and given Denver's racial composition compared to many of the other cities on that list.

The murder rate experienced by blacks in Denver, for example, is roughly the same as the murder rate in Detroit, which is 83% black and 8% non-Hispanic white.  This is a quite unflattering comparison, considering that Denver, unlike Detroit, does not have a massively understaffed police department, does not have huge tracts of abandoned housing in its high crime areas (about 28% of housing units in Detroit are unoccupied), and has not experienced decades of economic decline.

The very low homicide rate in Seattle, Washington, in contrast (about 4.1 per 100,000), in significant part reflects Seattle's racial composition (7.9% black, 66.3% non-Hispanic white and 13.8% Asian).

Of course, that doesn't mean that racial composition is a terribly accurate predictor of murder rates. For example, Baltimore, Maryland has a much higher homicide rate (about 55 per 100,000) than Detroit (about 40 per 100,000), despite having that fact that it is 63% black and 28% non-Hispanic white (a significantly smaller percentage of black residents and larger percentage of non-Hispanic white residents than Detroit).  One factor that might lead to the distinction between Baltimore and Detroit could be that Baltimore is a metropolitan area in which a far larger share of middle class blacks than most metropolitan areas live in the suburbs rather than in the central city and a high cost of living, leaving the central central with an African-American population that has much higher rates of poverty that in turn lead to crime, but almost any explanation is to some extent speculation.

Incidentally, Seattle (pop. 668,342), Detroit (pop. 680,250), Baltimore (pop. 622,793) and Denver (pop. 663,832) are all the central cities of their urban areas with roughly similar populations in 2014 according to the Census Bureau.

Why Does A Victim's Race So Strongly Influence The Homicide Rate?

The Denver Post story on 2015 murders linked above didn't discuss the race of the homicide suspects, appropriately, because the perpetrator is unknown in 44% of those murders. But, nationally, over many years, the percentage of murders that are intraracial is very high, about 91% of blacks who are murdered are murdered by a black perpetrator, and about 84% of whites who are murdered are murdered by a white perpetrator.

This largely reflects segregation both socially and residentially.  Most murders are committed by acquaintances and family members, and most murders of strangers are committed by people who don't live very far from each other. For example:
"Because of the racial homogeneity of most neighborhoods, moreover, it is even true that most stranger killings are intraracial — 67 percent for white victims and 89 percent for blacks" based on data between 2000 and 2009, Fox wrote in his book The Will to Kill: Making Sense of Senseless Murder.
Put another way, the high murder rate for blacks in Denver and nationwide, is largely a function of the fact that murderers are disproportionately black, and that black Americans are much more likely to have acquaintances, family members and neighbors who are also blacks.

The Role of Gang Homicides

Another important factor, which the statistics quoted above don't demonstrate, but which appears to be true from other data is that a disproportionately share of variability in homicide rates from place to place, and from year to year, is attributable to differences in the number of gang related killings by young minority men (mostly black) by other young minority men (mostly black). It is no coincidence, for example, that 90% of murder victims in 2015 in Denver were men, and that the number of murders among people 21-30 was much higher than any other age range.

According to the Denver Post story linked above, just under half of murders in Denver were gang related, and a post at this blog from April of 2015 identified some reasons why gang related violence might be on the upswing in Denver.  In a nutshell, many historically black neighborhoods in Northeast Denver have seen the black middle class depart to the suburbs, and gentrification has pushed gangs that remain in Northeast Denver to compete for control of a dwindling territory of low income black neighborhoods.

Gang related killings are disproportionately likely to go unsolved. According to the Denver Post story linked above:
Of the 50 homicides, arrests have been made in 28 cases, a 56 percent closure rate, said Sonny Jackson, a police department spokesman. The closure rate drops when looking at the gang-related killings with suspects charged in only 40 percent of those cases.
In contrast, more than two-thirds of killings that are not gang related are closed.

In 2007, the head of Colorado's prison system estimated that 40% of its inmates were gang members.

Why Does Race Have Such An Outsized Impact On Homicide Rates?

Of course, that doesn't answer the $64,000 question of why murderers are disproportionately black, and any answer to that question is almost certainly complex and a full answer is certainly beyond the scope of this post.

An important clue, however, can be found in the fact that the rate at which non-Hispanic whites commit and are victims of murder is higher in the American South than it is elsewhere in the United States.  This fact is particularly notable considering that virtually all African-Americans outside the American South are migrants from that region within the last two or three generations, with much of that time period marked by intense de jure or de facto racial segregation.  This relatively recent history of migration, followed by prolonged segregation, has allowed the culture and regional dialect of the South to remain relatively undiluted in these communities compared to culture and dialect of migrants to other regions who are immersed in populations of natives of the region.

In the same vein, children of Korean immigrants from Buffalo, New York are generally much more assimilated into American culture than children of Korean immigrants from Los Angeles, California, where the Korean community has enough critical mass to resist assimilation into the larger American culture.  The more residentially segregated a community is, the less its members need to assimilate into the larger community where they live.

Anthropologists have described the cultural traits of the American South associated with high rates of violence both in the United States and in regions with similarly cultural values around the world as a "culture of honor."

Another clue that suggests that culture, rather than race (and by association, genetics), per se, is a key factor is that the murder rates now seen in African-American communities in the United States, are quite similar to those seen in early modern London and Amsterdam, for example, that have since seen dramatic declines in their murder rates rates to near global lows, despite experiencing only very modest tweaks to their racial composition during the time period when the murder rates declined.

Racism in the criminal justice system may account for a significant share of the disparity, but it is unlikely that a large percentage of the difference arises from disparities in homicide prosecutions per se.  There is no doubt that blacks are disproportionately victims of wrongful criminal convictions. But, the best evidence is that less than 10% convictions following a criminal trial are wrongful and that the percentage of people who plead guilty of a serious crime despite being factually innocent of that crime or another similar but perhaps less serious crime, is even smaller.  This percentage is not large enough to account for the roughly 100 times greater disparity in homicide conviction rates between African Americans and non-Hispanic whites, and likewise can't explain the huge disparity in homicide victimization rates by race.

Instead, if racism in the criminal justice system gives rise to some of the disparity, it is likely due to racial disparities in enforcement rates for lesser offenses (for example, African Americans are much more likely to be prosecuted for using marijuana than non-Hispanic whites), which taint young African-Americans (especially men) with criminal records and time spent in jails and prisons.  This, in turn, reduces their economic prospects in legitimate endeavors and also foster associations with criminal gangs, socializes them with experienced criminals and develops social expectations that this is their future as well.  It is much harder, however, to quantify the impact of this kind of racism as the amount of information needed to evaluate the impact of each individual offender's prior experiences is huge.  Basically, racism in the criminal justice system may facilitating the networking that is critical to the perpetuation of criminal gangs.  The latest catch phase to describe this phenomena has been "the school to prison pipeline."

Put another way, gangs may be more prevalent in African-American communities than they are in white communities, because few whites have enough exposure to the criminal justice system at a young age together with other youths who are their neighbors, to have the critical mass of convicted young criminals to make gang formation viable.

Falling into the habit of committing serious crimes is much more likely to happen if you are part of a criminal gang that socially supports that conduct than if you are not part of a gang.

16 January 2016

Strikes Still Rare

There were thirteen major strikes that took place at least in part in 2015 according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics monthly tables.  This is just two more than in the year 2014, which had fewer major strikes which involved fewer workers than any year from 1947-2013 except 2009, a low point of the financial crisis.  Most of the half century before WWII also had more major strikes (at least proportionate to the size of the population) than there are these days.

In all of the United States in 2014, there were just 11 strikes involve 1,000 or more workers, which involved a total of 34,000 workers and resulted in 200,000 work-days idle, which was less than 0.01% (i.e. less than 1 day in 10,000) of the total working time of the American labor force.  The year 2015 was the next most peaceful year in post-WWII labor history.

The year 2010 also had just 11 major strikes, but those strikes involved more workers and produced more days idle.  There were just 5 major strikes in 2009 in the United States which involved fewer workers than in 2014 and fewer days idle.

This has a lot to do with the decline of private sector unions in the United States.  In 2014, just 6.6% of private sector workers (1 in 15) were union members and just 7.4% of private sector workers were represented by unions; in the public sector 35.7% were union members and 39.2% were represented by unions, with unionization rates in local government considerably higher than in the state or federal government.  Just under half of union members are in the public sector and public sector unions, as a rule in the United States, have limited or non-existent rights to strike (although teachers unions which are a huge part of total number of public sector union members can frequently strike).

In 2014, just 0.001% of the working time of the American labor was idle due to strikes or lockouts. The last year than more than 0.01% of the working time of the American labor force was idle was 2000.  The last year that 0.10% or more of the working tie of the American labor force was idle was 1978.  Only one year from 1948 to 1959 , a time often nostalgically remembered as the "good old days" by conservatives was below the 0.10% threshold.

The labor department stopped keeping track of major layoffs of 1,000 or more people in May of 2013 due to budget cuts, but those are roughly 100 times more common than strikes and lockouts.

Small Armed Drones Ready For Prime Time

An article at Defense Tech reviews a variety of new light military drone designs in connection with a U.S. military RFP called LMAMS (for Lethal Miniature Aerial Munition System).

For example, "the Switchblade weighs less than five pounds and its electric propulsion is near-silent. It is tube-launched, with flick-out wings, and can fly for more than ten minutes, sending back color video and infra-red imagery so the operator can locate and identify a target. Once spotted, it can lock on and dive in at over 90mph with a warhead powerful enough to take out a pickup truck or a group of individuals with pinpoint precision from six miles away. Being able to find and hit targets miles away from behind cover with high accuracy could alter ground combat. A squad with this capability could decimate opponents at long range without ever being seen. Switchblade can also be launched from an aircraft or even a submarine for covert strike."

What does that mean in terms someone can relate to?

This means that a soldier on foot with only a backpack on the University of Denver campus is capable of destroying a single particular vehicle or killing group of people as far away as downtown Denver or the Denver Tech Center.

Half a dozen other models from companies across the world vary the parameters moderately, but are basically comparable in a capabilities.  Poland makes a drone called "Warmate" that is a bit larger and more capable.
The Warmate is larger than the size specified for LMAMS at nine pounds, but it has a 30-minute endurance and a maximum speed of 90 miles per hour. There are two different warheads, an anti-personnel fragmentation charge and a shaped-charge warhead. The first version is claimed to have a lethal radius of ten meters, while the second can penetrate 100mm of steel armor. Unlike other infantry weapons, a drone can easily attack the top, rear or sides of a vehicle.
The Warmate system would be capable of killing everyone waiting in line outside the Denver Pavilions movie theater on the 16th Street mall or cracking open a bank safe in downtown Denver from a launch site on the campus of the University of Colorado at Boulder.

The downside of this powerful new armed drone technology is that this is very affordable off the shelf technology that pretty much any country or insurgent group's military force can acquire. For example, ISIS has adapted hobby model airplanes for recon and armed drone purposes. Drone countermeasures are still in their infancy, however.

For example, even if an incoming armed drone with of range of many miles can be destroyed before it does harm, locating the people who launched it, or even knowing it was coming before it was almost on top of you, would be almost impossible using current technology.  And, this is before anyone attempts to use stealth technology which can give a jet fighter the radar profile of a large bird.

When the radar target is the size of a large bird to start with and moving only moderate faster than a large bird in a good wind (hawks can dive faster than may of these drones reaching speeds of 120 miles per hour and have a peak cruising speed of about 50 miles per hour) distinguishing noise from signal is a daunting challenge.  But, if you apply stealth technology, you get a radar profile the size of a large bug which really is to all intents and purposes invisible, in addition to having a target that isn't terribly hot compared to a bird in the infrared with an electric motor, isn't much louder than a bird, and isn't easy to see visually, especially if it is camouflaged to match a nighttime or daytime sky as the case may be.

15 January 2016

Urban Agriculture

There are plenty of good educational and aesthetic reasons to grow food in a city.  But, locavores who insist on eating food produced within the city limits are fighting a battle that they cannot win. Urban agriculture cannot and should not be expected to produce a meaningful share of a city's food needs.

As the blog post linked below post illustrates, so that I don't have to, the theoretical maximum amount of food that a typical major U.S. city could produce (putting all of it surface area into growing produce) is only about 1% of the total amount of food production that it needs to feed itself. Any more realistic assumptions (e.g. not putting gardens on highly pitched rooftops and making a reasonable allowance for golf courses, sports fields and flower gardens) which significant reduce this theoretically maximal productivity.

The entire notion of a high density population area that we call a city, inherently requires huge tracts of rural farm land to support it.  Not many people need to live on that rural farm land.  We can currently manage to provide all of the food that the nation needs to eat and export a bit of it with 1%-2% of the population.

If we had some compelling reason to produce the nation's food with the minimum percentage of people, we could probably do it with 0.25% to 0.5% of the land using existing technology or modest modifications and development of existing technologies that probably wouldn't be entitled to a patent (based mostly upon the fact that a very large percentage of farmers have tiny farms that produce only a negligible share of the nation's food production and on the fact that automation efforts are currently nowhere close to maximal in the agriculture industry).

For example, it takes roughly 10,600 square miles of arable land with crops growing on them to feed the population of Seattle, while the city itself has less than 84 square miles of land area and not all of that is arable land (i.e. land that it is possible to grow crops upon).  If people would like to eat beef at typical modern levels, however, it takes far more land that that.

How To Thrive With Bad Management

Oxford University in England offers a one week summer class called "Mutiny and Punishment" (not cheap) which basically asks, in the context of British history, how the British managed to have the dominant navy in the world while treating its sailors like shit.

Obviously, the details of how this "miracle" was achieved is a question of great ongoing relevance to people interested in becoming managers in modern multi-national businesses (a large share of the Oxford University student body), despite the fact that modern businesses are forbidden by law from engaging in a wide variety of historical naval punishments.

Musings On Governor Hickenlooper's Remarriage This Saturday

Who Is Governor Hickenlooper?

Colorado's Governor Hickenlooper is arguably the most popular politician in recent history in Colorado.  After one full term and most of a second one as Mayor of Denver, he ran as a Democrat to be the state's Governor, won, and was re-elected.  He gave his sixth State of the State address yesterday to a joint session of the Colorado General Assembly.

What Is The News About Governor Hickenlooper's Marriage?

In every organization, the people below scrutinize the personal lives of the people above them, in part because, they have no authority to stand in judgment over them in their professional lives.  A Governor is above almost everyone but the President, U.S. Senators, royalty, Forbes 100 members, the Pope, the Dalai Lama, and A-list celebrities are below them on our society's status pyramid, so just about everyone is inclined to scrutinize a Governor's personal life.

Governor Hickenlooper is 63.  His son is close in age to my own son, although they attended different schools.  He separated from his wife of ten years the same week that I did.  My wife and I after a couple of year of separation, managed to get back together, calling off divorce proceedings a matter of days before our permanent orders hearing that would have finalized the split would have happened.  Mr. Hickenlooper, and his wife, Helen Thorpe, ultimate divorced after an extended period of separation in one of the most civil and public drama-free splits that can be imagined.

Five years later, after a year of dating, he proposed to his 37 year old girlfriend over Christmas. They will be married tomorrow in a very small, very private ceremony held at an undisclosed location after just three weeks or so of an engagement - with timing dictated by Colorado's legislative calendar, which dictated that they have a small wedding before the legislative session in moving forward in earnest, or have a huge wedding after the legislative session was over.  He received a bipartisan sendoff with legislators showering him and his fiancee with rice walked down the aisle out of the legislative chamber.

The Political Impact

Sooner or later, people are going to start talking about how this impacts Governor Hickenlooper's prospects as a Presidential candidate in either 2020 or 2024 (depending upon whether or not a Democratic wins the Presidential race in 2016).  Helen Thorpe, who married Hickenlooper shortly before he ran for Mayor, is an accomplished author in her own right, but has never had much of an interest in playing the role of a socialite first lady, either when Hickenlooper was Mayor, or when he was Governor, and has made a bare minimum of campaign appearances during her marriage (although I have seen her at a couple of those).

Barring service as the President, Governor Hickenlooper would also be an attractive Vice President, potential cabinet member, commission director or ambassador for a Democratic President.  He could run for the U.S. Senate from Colorado when an opening arises on the Democratic ticket for that post. Alternately, he could return to the world of business, or could enter the non-profit sector (perhaps, for example, as a university system chancellor). Hickenlooper is not a lawyer, so a judicial post is not in his future. Surely, he will not withdraw from the world of politics entirely, no matter what he choses to do, even if it once again becomes a mere avocation for him.

Generally speaking, being in a marriage with someone who may be more willing to play a role in the process of campaigning and playing a part in her spouse's political life is an asset and makes a political career path more attractive than it would be with a spouse who wants nothing to do with that process in the household.

A Personal Take

Personally, Hickenlooper's marriage is an occasion for me to briefly acknowledge how close my wife and I came to pursuing a very different path.  It is not a path that I wish I had taken, but it would have made our lives, and the lives of our children, very different it we had, and as in Hickenlooper's case (at least in the public view), if it had happened differently, it would have been exceptionally civil and low conflict (at least to all appearances, regardless of the emotional turmoil involved).

A Measure Of How We See Divorce And Remarriage Today

In the brief time available to them, the Denver Post and other media outlets have squeezed in everything possible about May-December weddings.  Already, this discussion includes a discussion of whether or not the new couple will end up having children together.  This is interesting, but it is also old news as the long parade of celebrities in such relationships and many otherwise perfectly ordinary people in such relationships that the stories explore, illustrates.

Divorce is a bipartisan reality.  Democratic and Republican public officials both get divorced and serve the public well in their public duties while failing to keep their marriages together.  The well to do divorce much less often than the members of the working class and the poor (both of whom often split up without ever managing to get married in the first place, even when they have children together).  But, no socio-economic class from royalty to vagrancy is immune to relationships that don't last.

Overall, I think we have as a society reached a level of maturity where we can acknowledge that even decent, basically good people can have relationships that grow fragile and break.  I think that Governor Hickenlooper and Helen Thorpe are good examples of such people.  I recognize that it can be particularly hard when careers and avocational activities take a front seat when it comes to priorities in a couple that doesn't share the same passions in those pursuits.

People Can Be Excellent In One Domain While Merely Mediocre Or Even Horrible In Another

Most of society has not reached the level of maturity necessary to understand that people can be paragons of virtue in some respect and seriously flaws in some other respect, and probably never will.

But, I am well aware that this is true in real life.

It is entirely possible that either Governor Hickenlooper, or Helen Thorpe, or both of them, are not just not made for each other, but are actually really not very nice in how they handle personal relationships.  As outsiders, we can never know, and on balance, that is a good thing, as even politicians are entitled to some respect for their privacy, at least if they don't exercise their power to impose hypocritical standards that they can't live up to themselves upon others.

I do not in any way hint that this is actually true, and to all outward appearances it is not.  But, even if it was true, this does not in any way detract from the fact that Governor Hickenlooper is one of the most remarkably good politicians in the nation, or that Helen Thorpe is an accomplished author. People can be genuinely and deservedly excellent in once domain, and simultaneously be abysmally bad in another.  A person's personal life is often a poor gauge of their professional competence.

Similarly, there is nothing irreconcilable about the possibility that Bill Cosby could be a masterful comedian, and perhaps even a good father and not intolerable husband, while simultaneously being a serial philanderer who at a minimum abused the trust and inappropriately manipulated a great many women (many during his marriage) and at worse was a serial rapists whose celebrity helped empower him to continue is pattern of drugging and having sex with women who were little more than strangers without their consent.

I recently finished the book The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons by Sam Kean, which tries to inform its readers about neuroscience in the context of memoirs and anecdotes about the lives of some of the most notable doctors and patients who brought us to our current level of understanding. Many of the most illustrious neurosurgeons engaged in some form or another of questionable conduct, and of the greatest, who pinned down the cause of the Papuan neurological disease call kuru, and was critical in co-discovering the class of diseases caused by infectious agents called prions, such as Mad Cow disease and Alzheimer's disease, was also almost surely a pedophile who preyed on pre-teen and teenaged boys, a practice that was more tolerated in certain tribes in Papua New Guinea than it was in the contemporary United States where he was ultimately prosecuted for this conduct when he was in his 70s.

To take another example, Presidential candidate Ben Carson is, by all accounts, an outstanding neurosurgeon.  But, he is also, simultaneously, in other domains an incredibly credulous, superstitious, naive, and paranoid individual, and unfortunately, his faults are in areas which while irrelevant to neurosurgery, are very relevant to the job of serving as the President of the United States.

For that matter, lots of abominable political leaders who have committed crimes against humanity as Nazis or in other totalitarian regimes, are also excellent family men.

It isn't that genius in one field necessarily requires moral flaws in another domain.  But, genius in one field and deep flaws in some other domain can exist in the same person.


Also, while it is appropriate to be concerned about how the breakup and remarriage has impacted their son, it doesn't hurt to recall that perhaps the second most remarkable individual in all of Colorado politics, Andrew Romanoff, is a son of divorced parents who had a far less civil divorce than Hickenlooper and Thorpe did.  Indeed, it isn't unreasonable to infer that Romanoff owes a fair share of his remarkable ability to build consensus and forge compromises to growing up with divorces parents, one of whom is a very political Democrat, and the other of whom is a very political Republican.  And, while the evidence is pretty clear that for kids, parents who stay together is often better for them, even when the marriage is not a net benefit either of the parents, the next best thing is for unmarried parents to stay civil with each other, to keep focused on the best interests of their children, and to keep their own relationship problems out of the children's lives as much as possible. Their son is likely to get a pretty good approximation of the next best alternative.

14 January 2016

A Glimmer Of Decency From The GOP

In a year where Republican Presidential nomination race front runners Donald Trump and Ted Cruz have made racism, xenophobia and broad brushed attacks on Islam as a religion hallmarks of their campaigns, it was refreshing to see South Carolina's Republican Governor Nikki Haley's response to President Obama's State of the Union address echo the President's central theme of inclusiveness across the boundaries of race, national origin and religion as a defining element of what America is about.

That Haley's reiteration of what should have been mere platitudes recited by the President in his address have been widely interpreted as attacks on Trump and Cruz, is an indication of just how far the Republican party has gone astray.

Her voice has come across as a voice in the wilderness, at a time when the notion of a "moderate" Republican has increasingly become an oxymoron.

The Republican party is fundamentally less interested in policy and more interested in ideology than the Democratic party, and unfortunately, at the level of the Republican base, a lot of that ideology displays the darker side of human nature.

Furthermore, on a bipartisan basis, an important source of the shift from pragmatic results oriented politics to highly partisan "principle" guided politics, can be traced to misguided campaign finance reforms developed from the progressive era good government effort to reduce the power of political party machines that favored contributions to candidates or independent special interest PACs over contributions to political parties which are arguably the cleanest money in politics today.

It would be incredibly reassuring to see the emergence of a wider consensus vision for America within which politicians argue over ways and means of achieving that vision, that Haley's response offered a rare glimpse of.  But, it seems unrealistic, given the revealed inclinations of Republican voters so far in the current election cycle's primary season, to believe that this will be attainable anytime in the near future.

Here's what the State of the Union address had to say about the state of American politics:
That’s why we need to reject any politics that targets people because of race or religion. This isn’t a matter of political correctness. It’s a matter of understanding what makes us strong. The world respects us not just for our arsenal; it respects us for our diversity and our openness and the way we respect every faith. His Holiness, Pope Francis, told this body from the very spot I stand tonight that "to imitate the hatred and violence of tyrants and murderers is the best way to take their place." When politicians insult Muslims, when a mosque is vandalized, or a kid bullied, that doesn’t make us safer. That’s not telling it like it is. It’s just wrong. It diminishes us in the eyes of the world. It makes it harder to achieve our goals. And it betrays who we are as a country.

"We the People."

Our Constitution begins with those three simple words, words we’ve come to recognize mean all the people, not just some; words that insist we rise and fall together. That brings me to the fourth, and maybe the most important thing I want to say tonight.

The future we want—opportunity and security for our families; a rising standard of living and a sustainable, peaceful planet for our kids—all that is within our reach. But it will only happen if we work together. It will only happen if we can have rational, constructive debates.

It will only happen if we fix our politics.

A better politics doesn’t mean we have to agree on everything. This is a big country, with different regions and attitudes and interests. That’s one of our strengths, too. Our Founders distributed power between states and branches of government, and expected us to argue, just as they did, over the size and shape of government, over commerce and foreign relations, over the meaning of liberty and the imperatives of security.

But democracy does require basic bonds of trust between its citizens. It doesn’t work if we think the people who disagree with us are all motivated by malice, or that our political opponents are unpatriotic. Democracy grinds to a halt without a willingness to compromise; or when even basic facts are contested, and we listen only to those who agree with us. Our public life withers when only the most extreme voices get attention. Most of all, democracy breaks down when the average person feels their voice doesn’t matter; that the system is rigged in favor of the rich or the powerful or some narrow interest.
It is very hard these days not to believe that "the people who disagree with us are all motivated by malice, or that our political opponents are unpatriotic."

To some extent, my worry is the opposite of President Obama's here.  I worry far more than we have taken tolerance too far.

I worry that we have not adequately condemned acts like those of the armed militia occupying a federal wildlife refuge in Oregon as not just illegal, but unpatriotic and treasonous, which is defined in the United States Constitution as taking up arms against your own country.

I worry that we have been far too tolerant of Donald Trump's outrageous blanket condemnations of Islam as a religion that betrays our bedrock national principle of freedom of religion, and slanderous characterization of Latin American immigrants as rife with dangerous criminals when all empirical evidence points to the opposite conclusion.

The First Amendment bans the use of government's coercive powers to restrict free speech, but it places no bounds on the bully pulpit or public condemnation of people who espouse abhorrent beliefs.  I worry that the political establishment, especially on the right and among Christians whose teachings have been misrepresented by politicians, has been lax in disowning these extremists, like Donald Trump and Ted Cruz and Judge Moore and the Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood killer and the Oregon militia.  Too often, instead, political and religious leaders have embraced and lauded these figures.

If our nation can rally around condemnations of these kinds of figures, the center cannot hold and our nation's political future is bleak.

There are people who argue that Republicans espousing views like those of Nikki Haley in her response to the State of the Union address this week, and Evangelical Christians who adhere to the social gospel are a silent majority.  I hope their right, but I doubt that it is true baed on survey evidence and the like.

12 January 2016

Lima, Ohio Not Known For Smart Criminals

A wanted man in Ohio was not happy with his mug shot and decided to do something about it. Donald A "Chip" Pugh, 45, of Lima, Ohio has a warrant out for his arrest after failing to appear in court for a DUI, and is also a person of interest in several other cases including an arson and vandalism, according to the Lima Police Department Facebook page. 
Despite the charges, Pugh felt the need to send a selfie of himself to the police department to replace the mug shot posted, saying: "Here is a better photo that one is terrible."
If you don't want to get caught, we do not advise you to try this approach. (Yes, it seems to be real).

Florida's Death Penalty System Is Unconstitutional

The U.S. Supreme Court has held 8-1 that Florida's death penalty system is unconstitutional because a judge rather than a jury decides if the death penalty should be imposed.  Approximately 400 death row inmates in Florida are affected by the case.

The case has been remanded for harmless error analysis in the state court, but given that the recommendation by the jury to the judge that the death penalty be imposed was made by a 7-5 vote when jury verdicts on the death penalty must generally be unanimous, it is likely that the death sentence in this case will be reversed.

Harmless error analysis will likewise be necessary for essentially every single inmate on Florida's death row, although there are some complications related to how the retroactivity of U.S. Supreme Court decisions applies in this case.

The Florida Supreme Court had upheld the death sentence by a 4-3 ruling, with the majority arguing that U.S. Supreme Court cases affirming Florida's death penalty before its ruling in an Arizona case made the system constitutional despite the fact that it was in clear violation of the later U.S. Supreme Court precedent.  The U.S. Supreme Court did not buy this logic.

Two GOP Presidential candidates, Rubio and Jeb Bush, were complicit in doing nothing to change this system while holding state office, despite the fact that a substantially similar statute in Arizona was struck down as unconstitutional.

Short Takes About Organs In Organisms

* As long suspected, there are distinct patterns of methylation in the epigenome for tissues for each of the major kinds of organs in a person.  And, we have reached a point where scientists can now read those methylation patterns.

* It turns out that taste buds are a subclass of a larger category of organs in the body that analyze the chemical content of molecules presented to them, which appear throughout the body.  The results of the taste and smell organs reach our conscious brain, but, for example, something very like taste buds in our kidneys are used to determine if it is correctly filtering our blood so that only stuff that should be removed from the body ends up in urine.

* Scientists suspected that they had discovered a previously undetected human organ in the 1990s. This discovery was put to use in clinical applications that in 2013 were published and shows a new treatment for high blood pressure.
Removing one of the tiniest organs in the body has shown to provide effective treatment for high blood pressure. . . . The carotid body -- a small nodule (no larger than a rice grain) found on the side of each carotid artery -- appears to be a major culprit in the development and regulation of high blood pressure. . . . Normally, the carotid body acts to regulate the amount of oxygen and carbon-dioxide in the blood. They are stimulated when oxygen levels fall in your blood as occurs when you hold your breath. This causes a dramatic increase in breathing and blood pressure until blood oxygen levels are restored. This response comes about through a nervous connection between the carotid body and the brain. . . . "Despite its small size the carotid body has the highest blood flow of any organ in the body. Its influence on blood pressure likely reflects the priority of protecting the brain with enough blood flow."
The journal article reference is: McBryde, et al., "The carotid body as a putative therapeutic target for the treatment of neurogenic hypertension.", Nature Communications (2013); 4 DOI: 10.1038/ncomms3395

* In mammals, the vomeronasal organ is the one popularly associated with receiving chemical communications from other individuals, particularly chemicals known as pheromones.  While there is some dispute regarding the issue, it appears that the weight of the evidence indicates that adult humans generally have at least one vomeronasal organ, in the form a a "pit" partway down at least one side of your nose (there is no disagreement that the organ is found in the same location in embryos).
Numerous reports of a structure identified as the VNO in the nasal septum in adult humans agree that it is a blind ending diverticulum in the septal mucosa opening via a depression (the VNO pit) into the nasal cavity ∼2 cm in from the nostril.
The connection between the VNO pit and chemical communication among humans isn't firmly established empirically, but there is very good circumstantial evidence to suggest that this is the mechanism.
There is fairly clear evidence for chemical communication among humans. The most notable example is a trend towards synchronization of menstrual cycles in women who live together (McClintock, 1971). Stern and McClintock have recently deduced the presence of two substances that can mediate this response when extracts of skin secretions are placed on the upper lip (Stern and McClintock, 1998). Thus, the signals are most likely to be airborne chemicals. The trend towards synchronization arises from either shortening or lengthening of the cycle by secretions produced at different phases of the donor’s cycle [but see the comment by Whitten (Whitten, 1999)]. The substances involved are unknown and although the effect does appear to be chemosensory, there is no evidence that it is due to vomeronasal sensory input.
Another data point which has been attributed to chemical communication through pheromones, but could instead be due to subconscious awareness of subtle visual cues, comes from studies which have found that men at strip clubs consistent prefer performers and tip them better, when performers are not on hormonal contraceptives and at the most fertile stage of their menstrual cycle, over other performers.

There is likewise suggestive evidence that VNO input should be largely a subconscious one.
Whether any of these findings are evidence for human pheromones is a different question. None of them meet the test for pheromone communication proposed below, i.e. evidence that the communication is beneficial (in the evolutionary sense) to both sender and receiver. The subjects in these studies had no conscious perception of odor stimulation, which could be a feature of vomeronasal input although not a sine qua non for pheromonal communication. The suggestion that vomeronasal input might be unconscious (Lloyd-Thomas and Keverne, 1982) comes in part from observations of vomeronasal system connections in the rodent brain. There are close connections with the amygdala and limbic system (Halpern, 1987; Meredith, 1991), the seat of emotional, hormonal and autonomic control, but there are only indirect connections with the cerebral cortex, generally considered to be the site of consciousness. The main olfactory system in general has good connections with cerebral cortex, but also has connections to the amygdala.
It is also worth noting that pheromones (a term that has more strict and less strict definitions, but at a minimum facilitate chemical communication between animals of the same type) need not always involve the VNO, even though they often do.
Whatever the definition of pheromone, there is no evidence that pheromones are necessarily detected by the VNO. Several recent examples in animals with well-developed VNOs make this clear. The response of newborn rabbits to the mother’s nipple (Hudson and Distel, 1986), referred to above, and the standing response of a receptive female pig to the male’s pheromone (Dorries et al., 1997) both depend on the main olfactory system. The recognition of newborn lambs by ewes also appears to depend on the main olfactory system (Levy et al., 1995), although a vomeronasal contribution has also been reported (Booth and Katz, 2000). Thus, even if an authentic pheromone response were to be documented in humans, that would not be evidence for a functional VNO.
The attraction of the VNO is the synthetic (or naturally harvested and purified) pheromones present an attractive and quite straightforward and non-invasive way to unconsciously influence people's behavior, and alternatively, at least a way of better understanding a possibly rich medium of unconscious communication (although the adult human VNO does clearly seem to be less developed than in many other kinds of mammals, like our olfactory system generally).

* There are some organs found in other kinds of animals that are not found in humans.  Some of the most interesting include spinnerets in spiders, and "the ampullae of lorenzini." These are found "in many fish and sharks, it allows them to sense electrical signals in the water emitted (usually) by other living organisms. This gives them a 'sixth sense' which allows them to find prey that is hiding underground or in the dark. It also is what prevents them from constantly running into the transparent glass of an aquarium."

Frogs have a third eyelid and can use their skin to breathe. We are also learning a lot about regeneration in amphibians, although the fact that this ability seems to be an ancestral state that was lost in less basal vertebrate species suggests that we proceed with caution as this ability apparently came with serious evolutionary costs.

* Some of the more interesting questions about the future of biotechnology come under the heading of "transhumanism", basically, redesigning the human body so that it can do something better or differently than ordinary humans.  This could involve adding a new organ not found in ordinary humans, or perhaps simply a new localized area or organ within the brain that confers some new mental capacity.

We increasingly understand how our complex human anatomy works in great detail at every level from gross anatomy to the chemical level, and can increasingly read the DNA and epigenetic codes that cause the human body to form itself in this way.  For example, while we've know the letters of the genetic code and some of its overall structure for decades, we are starting to now understand the "grammar" of the genetic code.  While in some respects, DNA is harder to understand than we might have naively hoped, many aspects of DNA seem to be uniform across all living things, so like most languages and sciences, once mastered, our knowledge may have broad applicability to unanticipated situations.

With new tools for DNA modification like CRISPR, and even less invasive tools the can modify epigenetic signals, it isn't unthinkable that we could start to write the codes that make our bodies in some way that would create a "transhuman" deliberately, although overconfidence of a type demonstrated in centuries of neuromedical missteps and fads, suggests strongly that hubris will produce unexpected consequences on more than one occasion, as well as raising serious professional ethical issues.  But, in the end, professional ethics never seems to be sufficient to prevent scientific breakthroughs in the long run.

11 January 2016

Alice Paul

Women's suffragist Alice Paul is noted for doing something that naive theories of political self-interest would suggest was impossible. She managed to get the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote in federal elections, adopted by an electorate consisting entirely of men.
In 1917, in response to public outcry about the prison abuse of suffragists, President Wilson reversed his position and announced his support for a suffrage amendment, calling it a “war measure.” 
In 1919, both the House and Senate passed the 19th Amendment and the battle for state ratification commenced. Three-fourths of the states were needed to ratify the amendment. 
The battle for ratification came down to the state of Tennessee in the summer of 1920; if a majority of the state legislature voted for the amendment, it would become law. The deciding vote was cast twenty-four year-old Harry Burn, the youngest member of the Tennessee assembly. Originally intending to vote “no,” Burn changed his vote after receiving a telegram from his mother asking him to support women’s suffrage. On August 18, 1920, Tennessee ratified the 19th Amendment. Six days later, Secretary of State Colby certified the ratification, and, with the stroke of his pen, American women gained the right to vote after a seventy-two year battle. August 26th is now celebrated as Women’s Equality Day in the United States.
She was recognized in today's Google doodle.

08 January 2016

SCOTUS To Resolve Nine-Way Split On Retroactivity Of Previous Sentencing Ruling

Taking on a case that potentially may lead to the release of hundreds — and maybe more — prison inmates, the Supreme Court on Friday afternoon agreed to consider extending to earlier, closed cases its ruling last June in Johnson v. United States. A key factor in the Court’s review could be that the Justice Department now takes the position that Johnson should apply retroactively. 
Defense lawyers have said that at least hundreds of inmates have already served the maximum sentence that would now be allowed under the Johnson case, but remain in prison under longer sentences, so a decision applying that precedent to them would lead to their prompt release. The question of the retroactivity of that ruling on enhanced sentencing has resulted in a nine-way split among federal appeals courts. 
The new case is Welch v. United States; it will be argued in March.
From SCOTUS blog.

In Johnson, the U.S. Supreme Court held that part of the Armed Career Criminals Act used to determine if a person convicted of a crime was subject to enhanced mandatory minimum sentences for recidivist offenders based upon their prior criminal record was unconstitutionally vague, after several prior U.S. Supreme Court rulings that had tried to clarify the meaning of the statute merely resulted in more splits of authority over which state court convictions counted for purposes of the Armed Career Criminals Act.

The U.S. Supreme Court didn't say in its Johnson opinion if its decision was retroactive, and the U.S. Courts of Appeals have been remarkably inventive in finding different answers to this question resulting is an almost unprecedented split of authority on the question that has left the U.S. Courts of Appeals on appeal

05 January 2016

Rubik's Cube, Faces and Language

Rubik's Cube

My colleague at work likes to use the Rubik's Cube as a metaphor for the difficulty of solving hihgly interrelated problems.  I'm personally fascinated by a quite different element of the 1980s fad toy.

A Rubik's Cube is virtually impossible to solve at all, let alone solve in a reasonable time, without instruction from a book, video or teacher.  Maybe one in a million people are capable of solving it, and the people who did so the first time were mostly graduate students in mathematics who spent weeks or months figuring out how to do it the first time.

Yet, with instruction, almost anyone with average or above average spatial ability and intelligence can solve it (I'd guess that at least 25% to 35% of the population, and quite possibly twice that percentage, are capable of learning to solve it).

Indeed, not only can someone solve it with instruction, but just about anyone who can learn to solve it can do so in a matter of a few minutes or less.  I learned how to do it when I was tween in small town Ohio with a little time on my hands and an illustrated pamphlet about 40 to 60 pages long.  It took a week or two to learn, and a month or so to get to the point where I was able to do it quickly enough to solve it in competitions where I had a fighting chance of at least placing against others who had mastered it.  I was never that great at it, but with less than 100 hours of instruction, my personal record for the amount of time it took me to solve it was within 30 seconds or so of the world record at the time.

For me, the Rubik's Cube is type case for problems that are virtually impossible to solve without instruction, which are easy for very unexceptional people to solve with only modest amounts of instruction.

Another important aspect of the skill of learning to solve a Rubik's Cube is that one of the keys to doing it is to learn a specialized, highly logical language with a dozen or so symbols with which particular manipulations of a Rubik's Cube are described.  Then, the solution consists of learning a dozen or so "sentences" that can be put together using that language and learning when to use each "sentence."

For what it is worth, it is a skill that requires regular practice.  I couldn't solve one if you handed it to me today, several decades after my Rubik's Cube solving hey day, but I could probably relearn the task now in a few hours on a long weekend.

Other Rubik's Cube Tasks

There are other tasks that are similar to the Rubik's Cube although not quite so impossible to master without instruction, and not quite so easy to master with instruction.

One is riding a bike.  Another is doing an inward dive from a diving board or platform.  Two far less specific tasks which have a linguistic or quasi-linguistic element to them are reading music well enough to sight read, and learning to make realistic free hand drawings.

Maybe 25% of people who play an instrument in high school, and maybe 10% of people who sing in organized choirs, can sight read music, even though again, the number of symbols involved is modest and almost everyone who is regularly involved in playing music know what the symbols mean in principle.  But, it is certainly a skill that can be taught and doesn't take many thousands of hours to master.  Many musicians who haven't already mastered the skill learn to do it in college in a single course for a semester or two.

The vast majority of people are not functionally literate in the written language of music, even though a very large percentage of people are quite capable of singing music that they are learned by ear, even though most people know what all of the common symbols used in musical notation mean in principle.

The counterintuitive thing about realistic free hand drawing, which can be learned in a year or two or less depending on how intensively you work at it and the quality of your instruction, is that it has very little to do with manual dexterity.  If you can type, print clearly, and trace an image using tracing paper, you have sufficient manual dexterity to do realistic free hand drawing.  The skill is almost entirely mental and basically involves nothing more than drawing what you actually see, rather than what you conceptually think that you are seeing after processing the image.  If you can shortcut the image analysis circuits in your brain, you can do realistic free hand drawing with only modest additional instruction in techniques like shading and attention to lighting.

But, being able to do realistic free hand drawing is an uncommon skill, I'd guess that fewer than 5%-10% of the population can do it at the high end, in part, because we erroneously tend to think of realistic free hand drawing as an inherited talent, rather than a skill.

The vast majority of people are not functionally literate, or even barely literate in expressing themselves in writing though realistic drawings.

Literacy is a good frame for thinking about this because it captures the power of the idea.  Once you have a vocabulary for describing something, you can think about it in much more efficient and powerful ways.  One of the biggest examples of this comes from deaf people who were not taught sign language as children.  They simply cannot do things like think about what other people are thinking until they learn a sign language that has words for these concepts.  Then, suddenly, those ideas blossom and their minds are opened to whole new categories of understanding and experience.

I think that expanding literacy and vocabulary into other areas could produce similar revelatory discoveries for average people.

Faces and Language

Almost everyone, easily more than 98% of the population, is very, very good at recognizing faces and interpreting facial expressions.  For example, almost everyone who isn't physically blind, or neurologically face blind can pick their own face and the faces of their friends out of group portrait or a crowd of people waiting to greet people leaving an airport in a matter of moments.  Even with a fairly brief chance to see someone's face clearly, the average person, even if they can't remember that person's name, could pick them out of a lineup of pictures.

We've learned from forensic cases that people are less accurate in identifying strangers and people of different races than they are at identifying casual acquaintances and in general people of the same race.  But, we're still very good at it and many humans are better than any computer system in existence at this task.

What we are not at all good at is communicating faces accurately to others in an efficient manner.  As noted above, the ability to communicate a face in writing by drawing it is uncommon.

Most people can say some rudimentary things about a face that they have seen, many of which are in the form of conclusions reached after analyzing the face rather than in the form of a description of the face that they have seen itself.  They can say that face looked happy or pleased or disgusted or sad. They can identify the race and gender and approximate age of most faces. They might be able to distinguish between someone who is fat or thin, chiseled or baby faced.

But, very few people can actually affirmatively describe a person's face with sufficient specificity, for example, to pick it out of a picture of a bunch of kids of the same race, gender, and age in a group portrait of the kids of a school sport's team or club.

There are people who work for police departments who specialize in helping people to communicate a face that they recognize in their mind's eye by sketching according to the observer's description and adjusting the sketch until they get it approximately right over a period of hours.

But, virtually no one, with the possible exception of experienced police sketch artists, physical anthropologists and medical doctors who work with faces regularly, can verbally communicate a face in even a few sentences in a way that someone else can understand well enough to identify that person in a crowd of demographically similar people without seeing a sketch drawn from those instructions.

While we almost all have the inherent ability to recognize faces with a high degree of accuracy, something like 99.9% of people are incapable of articulating that information verbally in an efficient manner without reference to sketches, and something like 90% of people are incapable of communicating that knowledge in writing without expert assistance.

My intuition is that the fact that people are so inarticulate is low hanging fruit that is a Rubik's Cube problem that could be solved by developing a logical language with which to describe faces precisely that could be taught as easily as sight reading music, free hand drawing, mathematical notation, the International Phonetic Alphabet, or a variety of similar tasks, in tens or hundreds of thousand, rather than thousands or tens of thousands of hours.

This is a mind hack waiting to be invented that would have wide utility, but which no one has really articulated and put their mind to, and it really is a "hack".  The key to developing a vocabulary that would communicate information from the facial recognition centers of our brain to others efficiently is to gain a good understanding of how the facial recognition centers of our brain actually "code" and process that information so that the vocabulary of facial identification would track that approach as closely as feasible.

On one hand, this seems doable.  You don't need a general vocabulary for describing all visual input accurately, just one sufficient to describe one highly specialized kind of visual input.  And, almost all of us already have the intuitive, if inarticulate, ability to understand and process this kind of input accurately and quickly.

On the other hand, I suspect that the vocabulary needed to describe faces accurately may be larger than the vocabulary needed, for example, to describe colors or music.  Teaching computers to do this has been a very challenging task and computers very likely process this information in a much different manner than the facial recognition centers of our brains do.

But, it is a worthwhile task to take on, and one that a small interdisciplinary team of investigators, with a modest budget, and some good insights could probably tackle the challenge of creating a good working vocabulary with which to describe faces precisely in a couple of decades.  And, if they were successful, the practical payoffs could be huge.  This is a project that is worth throwing a few tens of millions of dollars at to see what can be accomplished.

In time, learning the vocabulary of facial recognition, learning to sight read music, learning to make realistic free hand drawings, could all become nearly universal aspects of a basic education for someone who is considered a functional literate normal adult, just as learning to ride a bike, to speak and write and read in one's native language, and driving a car are today.