31 August 2005

Scientific Idiots.

Where do these idiots come from?

Overall, about half the public (48%) says that humans and other living things have evolved over time, while 42% say that living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time. Fully 70% of white evangelical Protestants say that life has existed in its present form since the beginning of time; fewer than half as many white mainline Protestants (32%) and white Catholics (31%) agree.

From the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.

Also, to be clear, the numbers above exclude Intelligent Design believers who are not Young Earth Creationists.

Meanwhile, according to the New York Times:

American adults in general do not understand what molecules are (other than that they are really small). Fewer than a third can identify DNA as a key to heredity. Only about 10 percent know what radiation is. One adult American in five thinks the Sun revolves around the Earth, an idea science had abandoned by the 17th century.

It is hard to underestimate just how little the American people know about science. The article doesn't say, but I'm hoping that they could at least get majorities to believe that the Earth is round.

New Orleans Disaster Note.

Much has been made of the fact that New Orleans must be safe because the city is 300 years old. But, this 300 year span must be interpreted in light of an important detail:

As the day wore on, the only dry land was a narrow band from the French Quarter and parts of Uptown, the same small strip that was settled by Bienville amid the swamps.

The part of New Orleans that is 300 years old did survive unflooded. It is the less historic part of the city that is underwater now.

The Twists and Turns of Science.

There are a group of people out there who complain incessantly about how much money has been devoted to a certain "lifestyle drug" for men, often promoted by unsolicited e-mails, which shall remain nameless here so that it doesn't provoke Google hits and other internet yuckiness, on the theory that it shows how biased the drug research community is towards the minor concerns of men, while not dealing with life and death issues for women and children.

An article at the exceedingly respectable Science News, which is basically a weekly abstract service of scientific journal articles, shows the limitations of that view. It turns out that this drug was invented in the 1980s in an effort to treat high blood pressure and angina (i.e. the chest pains that signal a dangerous heart condition), but didn't seem to work for that purpose.

Even more remarkably, further research has now shown that this drug can treat pulmonary hypertension, and may have "a role for the drug in conditions including chronic heart failure and fetal-growth restriction." In the end, this drug is even likely turn out to be a drug for some life threatening conditions that affect only women and children.

Science is an area where aksing the ancient Roman question "Qui Bono?", i.e. judging an action by who is benefits, is not a very useful method of determining the motives of the investigators. Science is cumulative and you can never tell who may benefit down the road from discoveries that at first glance seem to have questionable usefulness.

Weird Immigration Policies.

I favor a massive grant of legal status to almost all people in the United States who are currently illegal immigrants (a point upon which I don't differ dramatically from President George W. Bush, who wants a guest worker program without calling it "amnesty" per se, although I would go slightly further, to emulate the immigration policies of Ronald Reagan who implemented on of the most massive immigration amnesties in our history). I also favor less restrictive immigration laws in the first place. Why I favor those policies is beyond the scope of this post.

But, I can also understand the frustration of officials who are charged with enforcing existing laws. The County Sheriff in conservative El Paso County, Colorado, home to Colorado Springs, is one of those frustrated people.

El Paso County spent $1.2 million in 2004 to jail illegal immigrants . . . This year, the price tag will be higher because the jail is now housing 75 to 100 undocumented workers a day, compared with 50 to 60 last year, he said. . . Sheriff Terry Maketa . . . notified ICE and the Mexican consulate that he wanted to drive some of the undocumented inmates to the Mexican border . . . about 75 percent of the undocumented inmates face charges ranging from misdemeanor traffic offenses to attempted murder. If they're convicted, they enter the state correction system. But the other 25 percent are held only as undocumented immigrants and are rarely deported upon release . . . ICE is notified each time an undocumented inmate is processed. ICE picks up only five or six inmates a week, Goodall said. Those who don't face charges are released after 72 hours . . . .

In other words, El Paso County spends $300,000 a year jailing people whose only offense is lack of a valid visa, for the privilege of letting those several hundred people a year spend a few days in an immigration jail, after which they are not deported by the immigration agency that had them in custody. Fortunately, this is federal immigration law which isn't supposed to make sense.

Given this status quo, the stance of Denver's police department, that pure immigration violations are somebody else's problem, is entirely understandable, whatever your stance on the larger issue of immigration law may be. Doing pointless stuff at great expense is never good policy.

Blogger Liability.

This blog is being sued for comments posted in his blog by critical of an internet company's business. Of course, it takes $100 and typewriter to bring a lawsuit, and much more to win one. But, the case deserves close monitoring by all of us in the blogosphere.

In the meantime, I urge every reader of this blog to boycott Traffic Power.com and to visit the Traffic Power Sucks page. Internet companies that sue people who criticize them on blogs, regardless of the merits of their business, don't deserve your patronage.

Cross posted at The Booman Tribune.

30 August 2005

The Future of the National Guard

States across the nation are litigating Air Force National Guard base cuts mandated by the Base Closure and Realignment Commission (BRAC). New Orleans and much of the Gulf Coast is hurting right now because Guard troops usually deployed to help in times of natural disaster in Iraq. These things are happening because the National Guard is a hybrid institution. It is both the modern incarnation of the state militia and a reserve force of the active duty military, the Army and the Air Force alike. There are 350,000 soldiers in the Army National Guard, and more than 100,000 in the Air National Guard.

President Bush, and men like him, are the reason those troops are in Iraq. In the wake of Vietnam, military planners were determined to continue the status of the national guard as a war dodge. But, as "Homeland Security" (damn I hate that phrase) becomes an issue in a way that it hasn't been for decades or more, it may be time to revisit the ambiguous status of the National Guard. The time has come to rethink the Guard's role.

Under the authority of a state governor, the National Guard mostly responds to natural disasters and to civil disorder that is beyond the ability of local police to handle. They can also be called upon to enforce the law, when local authorities are unwilling, as they did in Little Rock, a duty the active duty military is forbidden from undertaking. This is for good reason. People who live civilian lives 28 days a month, 327 days a year, who tend to be a bit older and more mature than active duty troops right out of high school, are far more likely to exercise good judgment in handling a protest that has become a riot or hungry hurricane victims looting food from abandoned stores. A decade living in foreign military bases can remove you from the context you need to understand those situations.

The armament and training appropriate to these missions is very different from the armament and training appropriate to the other mission of the National Guard, which is to serve as a reserve part of the active duty Army and Air Force, which seems to be the primary objective now, based on the way we use the National Guard in the current foreign wars that the U.S. is fighting, and based on the way that they are armed.

Even the worst domestic riot does not call for tanks or artillery to be deployed in the United States, and they are worthless in national disasters. Yet, most national guard units are armor units (or mechanized infantry, which amounts to the same thing in the modern military). Likewise, while national guard units may find transport and reconnaisance helicopters even more essential for their mission than the regular Army does, it makes little or no sense to train soldiers whose primary mission is homeland defense to operate a helicopter optimized for an anti-tank role like the AH-64 Apache, as we do now. Mexico and Canada are not going to flood our borders with main battle tanks. The Gulf Coast is not going to face a heavy amphibious assault. The Yukon is not going to attack.

In a homeland defense role, there may be some need for transport planes and even a handful of fighters to stop the odd errant private civilian plane, be it a crop duster or a 747, or to drop a bomb on an isolated building, but there is not need for the fleet of 622 military fighter jets (including 100 of our most capable fighter, the F-15, designed for air to air combat with advanced Soviet fighter jets) which are there now for this role. Likewise, there is no plausible homeland defense purpose of long range heavy bombers to be in the Air National Guard, yet it currently has 16 supersonic, long range, heavy capacity B-1 bombers. And, as the Air National Guard is primarily tasked for intrastate missions, there is no need for long range transport craft, yet there are two dozen of them, and a couple hundred tanker planes designed to support long range aircraft missions in the Air National Guard.

The intuition that arose from President Bush's experience as a draft dodger isn't wrong. The National Guard should be the first and not the last to go to war in the event that the nation needs to institute a draft. But, a National Guard with two masters and contrary objectives can't train well and can't serve well.

The threshold for calling up the National Guard for foreign service should be higher than the threshold for calling up other military reserve units. And, the National Guard, rather than being equipped simply to round out active duty military forces, should instead be optimized for their domestic roles and utilized abroad only in similar duties. We don't try to have the Coast Guard conduct its primary search and rescue and anti-smuggling missions with nuclear submarines and destroyers, instead, we have them patrol coasts near where U.S. troops are operating for smugglers with cutters and patrol aircraft. Similarly, we shouldn't equip the National Guard to carry out its homeland defense and disaster relief roles with tanks and long range supersonic bombers.

To use military jargon, the National Guard should be trained and equipped for a light counter-insurgency mission, as well as search and rescue, reconnaisance, military policing, response to weapons of mass destruction and terror incidents, and disaster relief.

The Air National Guard should be stripped of its role as an auxillary regular Air Force (with those resources transferred to the Air Force Reserve) and rolled into the Army National Guard as an organic source of transport resources, supplemented by lightly armed Homeland Defense Interceptor type craft at the tenth of the purchase and operating cost of an F-16 or F-35 for engaging errant civilian aircraft. (Indeed, given how many metropolitan areas are interstate in nature, this function might be better carried out by a subdivision of the regular Air Force similar to the Coast Guard). While the National Guard may have use for surplus military equipment, it should also have its own procurement arm which deigns and purchases equipment specifically suited for its needs. For example, lightly armored vehicles with a non-lethal weapons suite might be particularly suitable for National Guard units. Likewise, an ability to function in the face of flood waters, on rivers, on small lakes and in swamps might be more important to Guard units than for regular Army forces.

Together with new equipment, the organization of the National guard should be rethought. Rather than organizing it into eleven notional divisions (presumably to be replaced by notional brigade combat teams as the Army reorganizes), eight separate brigades and a regiment, as we do now, the basic organizational unit of the National Guard should be smaller, perhaps a hundred and twenty-five or so self-sufficient reinforced battallions with all necessary support functions integrated into its headquarters, so that they can be more flexibly deployed, so that part-time citizen soldiers don't need to travel as far to train with other members of their units, and so that units are fully under the direction of a single state governor.

The new Air National Guard, with many of its resources shifted to the Air Force Reserves, would be greatly diminished in size. The new Army National Guard would probably have a less expensive compliment of equipment and a very different mix of equipment from current units, and these might also be somewhat reduced in size. But, with a refocused mission, the National Guard could serve a meaningful role of its own, instead of simply duplicating imperfectly existing military resources.

Japan as a policy model.

Liberal policy makers look to Europe for insight on issues like the viability of universal health care, the workability of ending the death penalty and reducing the rate at which we imprison people, the benefits and costs of high speed rail networks and high gas taxes, and a great many other issues. But, they far less frequently look to Japan as a model. Why? Because Japan is so dramatically culturally different from the United States that it is hard to assess if a policy that works in Japan would also work in the Untied States.

A recent article in the Denver Post on Japanese saving and borrowing habits shows the extent of those differences in the world of personal finance:

The Bank of Japan says Japanese have $13 trillion in assets - 55 percent of it in cash and savings, and only 9 percent in stocks. Of Americans' $36.5 trillion assets, only 13 percent is in cash and savings, and 34 percent in stocks.

Another notable statistic: America has twice as many people as Japan but 23 times as much credit-card debt - more than $800 billion.

For decades, credit-card companies have tried to woo Japanese with little luck. A recent study by JCB International Co. Ltd. found only about 8 percent of transactions here involved credit cards, with the rest carried out in cash. . . .

A recent survey of credit-card holders by Japan's top business daily, Nihon Keizai Shimbun, showed 46 percent of the respondents were seriously considering getting rid of their cards, reducing the number of cards they have or using cards less frequently . . .

Japanese also almost never use checks. They have their rent, utilities and other monthly bills automatically deducted from their bank accounts, and such transactions require no extra fees.

Many Japanese keep their savings in a combination of postal accounts and currency under the mattress, rather than American style commercial banks.

The article goes on to note that personal and small business loans are hard to get, and often carry high interest rates, despite government debt interest rates of nearly zero percent, that there is a high stigma involved in failing to pay loans as agreed (often even resulting in suicide), and that there are few tax incentives for debt (unlike the United States with its mortgage interest deduction).

In contrast, in the United States any cash transaction over $10,000 automatically triggers a report to the government, and people look at you funny if you use a bill larger than a twenty. Most U.S. $100 bills are used abroad. Almost all members of the American middle class have student loans and mortgages at some point, and virtually everyone owns credit cards, even if they don't always carry balances from month to month. The United States operates on a much higher risk basis with very little cash.

Employment arrangements are also very different. The normative employment arrangement in the United States is employment at will (with most worker's working for multiple companies in a lifetime) with the vast majority of middle and working class income coming in the form of regular wages and salaries rather than bonuses. In contrast, the normative employment arrangement in Japan is lifetime employment (basically tenure without layoffs except for the most dire situations), but with a large portion of annual compensation paid in the form of an annual bonus paid only to the extent that the corporation can afford it. The Japanese largely live within their modest salaries and use their bonuses for major purchases.

Neither economy always follows the norm. Not all Japanese workers have lifetime employment, and not all Americans are employees at will or lack a major bonus component in their compensation. There are people in Japan with personal loans and credit cards. There are people in the United States who live on a strictly cash basis. But, the norms, and the averages, are very different, and this makes it hard to take policies that may work in Japan and apply them to the United States.

29 August 2005

Lawn and Garden

If Denver received an inch or two of rain less than it does each year, it would be classified as a desert. The basic concept behind vegetation here is simple: If you don't water it regularly, it will die. This sounds straight forward enough, but it is a primal rhythm of daily life here. For roughly half the year, ever other day, more often if it is hot, begins with watering your lawn and garden, a task that must be completed for ten o'clock in the morning, when watering is prohibited because it is wasteful, until six o'clock, when evaporation will no longer steal away the precious resource that is water. Some houses have timed sprinklers. The rest of us must set up our sprinkling devices in the early morning hours.

The real divide in almost every urban residential neighborhood, however, is not between the sprinkler have and have nots. It is between the xeriscapers, and the people with conventional lawns (along with a smattering of people who astroturf instead, and a significant minority who ignore their lawns creating a mix of dirt and dead grass). Conventional lawns cover the dirt with bluegrass and fescue, along with Eastern style gardens. These are water hungry, but can survive with heavy irrigation and fertilizer applications. Xeriscaping uses plants better adapted to the arid West, along with healthy doses of mulch and rock gardens, in order to be less water hungry. Both methods can look good. But, the artistic sensibilities that go into each are very different, and the messages a lawn and garden choice can send are complex, particularly since many homes do not exclusively choose one method or the other. Native plants may line a small bluegrass lawn. A conventional English garden may frame a patio and rock garden with a fire pit.

Does Xeriscaping come across as too California? Is a conventional lawn and garden too Eastern? Will a mix send mixed messages, or blend harmoniously?

The questions ae subtle, but no matter what you choose to do, you must make one style choice or another, and people do pay attention to it. Gardening comes not far behind every Denverite's favorite small talk topic, real estate.

We need to care. Half of municipal water use goes towards lawn and garden care, and much of the rest is devoted to golf courses. As the urbanized area of Colorado grows, this is unsustainable, or at least very costly. Water rights don't come cheap. Droughts have forced us to learn to conserve. But, personal taste matters too, and it matters more in the comfort zone we call home, than just about any place else.

Colorado Court Rules For Press Freedom

Colorado's Court of Appeals has ruled in a case with an unusual posture, that the press is privileged to report statements made in the context of local government board proceedings without fear of liability for publishing possibly defamatory statements made in the course of the meetings. The party suing for defamation lost and was forced to pay attorneys' fees incurred as a result of his suit.

Usually, cases like this involve a party interested in the deliberation suing a witness who testifies at the government meeting for defamation. This is called a SLAPP for "strategic lawsuit against public participation". These suits usually lose in court, but the threat of them often chills speech before public officials. And, it is likely that concerns about SLAPPs motivated the appellate panel in how it viewed the case. But, this case was different.

In this case, a public participant sued a special district board of directors for defaming him, when he admitted to evesdropping on an executive session of the board in a letter to the editor of the local paper. They said he misstated what happened in the executive session and was committing a crime by evesdropping. He also sued the local newspaper (which published his own letter to the editor) for publishing a board member's response made during the meeting. Without resorting to Yiddish, the phrase that best describes the participant's decision to bring suit is: "What Nerve." (Several board members were dismissed from the suit because they didn't say or purport to say anything, the one who actually spoke was dismissed based on the Colorado Governmental Immunity Act's protections).

Our Surreal World.

Sometimes reality is stranger than fiction. An African monarch choosing a 13th wife from a crowd of 50,000 nearly naked dancing virgins in 2005 seems to qualify. So does the little footnote that the last time he took a virgin wife, while he had a personally imposed ban on having sex with virgins in place, he fined himself one cow.

Stories about young women tapped from the ranks of commoners to be queens can be delightful. The reality is, alas, just as often simply despicable.

Colorado Democrats "Plan"

The scare quotes are probably overkill, but as loyal as I am to it, the rub about the Democratic Party not being an organized political party still carries a seed of truth. They certainly haven't made inroads into the meme circulation game when a Denver Post story about their meeting starts with this quote from a Montrose Democrat: "Being a Democrat doesn't mean you're anti-Christ[.]"

Montrose, where voters favor Republicans over Democrats by more than 2-1 in top of the ticket races, is not the future of the Democratic party.

Their mysterious quandry over whether the Democratic party is a pro-choice party, and the false hoopla over having closed strategy meetings don't help either. "[M]ultistate drug-purchasing pools, allowing students to graduate in five years with high school and associate degrees, and licensing mortgage brokers," are all fine policies, but they are hardly the stuff that stirs party loyalists to action. And, if the most important thing that a Democratic strategy meeting has to tell the campaigns for referrendums C and D is that:" A few Democrats complained that the Vote Yes campaign had been unresponsive and 'arrogant.' Gordon said he would let the campaign know.", I can just imagine future strategy debates.

Do campaign bumper stickers clutter the visual landscape? Are we being too presumptious when we introduce our Gubinatorial nominee as "the next Governor of the State of Colorado?" Should the Democratic party risk injecting partisanship into the debate over this "bipartisan" measure that almost no prominent Republicans other than Governor Bill Owens seem willing to stand behind (even though they repeatedly voted for even more fiscally loose proposals themselves)? Shouldn't we focus more on the urgent issue of being the first state to have its own state virus? Maybe the whole smoke filled room thing has something to be said for it.

Seriously though, as much as the party process likes to imagine that policy is best made from the grassroots up through the caucus process with wide participation, that isn't how good ideas work. Good ideas do not come from the Democratic Party Central Committee. Extraordinary individuals come up with stirring visions and push them through an initially small group of well placed and powerful individuals that grows as people come to share the vision. The vision doesn't try to be all things to all people. It dares to think big. It keeps its eye on the prize and relegates less flashy ideas to rank and file state legislators who may pursue them so long as they don't derail the big ideas of the season. This group keeps its message disciplined so that it doesn't make unnecessary enemies or squander public focus on their agenda. And, this group knows how to keep its secret meetings secret. We're learning. Maybe someday we'll get there.

In the meantime, I'll spend a few moments in damage control.

* The Democratic party endorses the compassionate, tolerant and anti-materialistic message of Jesus Christ as expressed in the Bible, and also by other wise non-Christian people throughout history. The religious right in this country has perverted that message. Men like Pat "Take Him Out" Robertson, and James "Spongedob" Dobson are personal embodiments of a movment that wants to call itself Christian while opposing everything that Christ stood for in the Gospels. If Pat Robertson or James Dobson epitomize your religious views, you don't belong in the Democratic party. We don't need or want the Focus on the Family or 700 Club vote.

* The Democratic party stands for the principle that abortion should be safe, legal and rare. This stance has done more to reduce abortion rates in this country than the Republican vision based on ignorance, misinformation, and crude efforts to intimidate doctors and impose crude legal prohibitions targeted at people like rape victims that will only lead to back alley abortions. Abortion rates are highest in red states, not blue ones.

* There is nothing rude or arrogant about observing that if Referrendums C and D are not passed in November that higher education in this state will be decimated, that all frills in K-12 education will disappear,and that basic government functions like running the judiciary and fixing potholes will be severely degraded, all in the name of petty refunds on taxes that are already in place -- refunds that won't be big enough in most cases to buy you a new iPod or refrigerator.

* In Colorado, the Democrats are the party of sensible, responsible government, while the Republicans are the party of hate and shabby government services. There is no question that the Democratic Party is the only viable party that puts the interests of average Coloradans above monied interests and people who try to pervert the Christian message for their own enrichment.

New Orleans: Tipping Point or Nadir

New Orleans is at a turning point. It is being pummeled by a category 4 hurricane, Katrina, which made landfall 40 miles from downtown. By itself, this is not the end of the world. There isn't a city in the Southeast that hasn't been hit by a serious hurricane at some point or another in its history.

But, New Orleans was not at a great point before this happened. No major city in the South has declined in population more markedly in the past twenty-five years (unless you count St. Louis as a major Southern city). The City has been bedeviled by corruption and crime. There are also doubts about whether the city's cycle of levee and pump building is a sustainable solution to the fact that much of the city is below sea level. There is a real risk that property owners with the buildings seriously damaged and an insurance check in hand will choose to leave now, rather than rebuild.

Certainly, a large share of the building stock in the city will have to be torn down or rebuilt. But, the options chosen in that process will remake the nearly 300 year old city more dramatically than any other event in its recent history. Obviously, new buildings will be built to a hurricane and flood conscious building code, but can the city be rebuilt in a way that will capitalize on its charm and vitality, as opposed to simply rechristening it as yet another generic city in the mold of places like Columbus, Ohio?

Like so many cities in crisis in the United States, New Orleans truly needs to hit bottom so that it can begin to rise again, rather than seeing a moment of bad fortune send it plummeting further and further down into irrelevance. This takes vision. But, it isn't clear that anyone in the Big Easy has the vision to make this happen.

26 August 2005

Good News: Sex Crimes v. Kids Way Down.

Sex crimes against teens are down 79%.

Cruel and Unusual Sentencing II.

This is a follow up to my post on the fellow who was sentenced to 100 months in prison for selling less than two ounces of pot, mostly due to a prior criminal history. U.S. v. Chauncey (8th Cir. 2005).

Here are a parade of horribles cited by the majority in that case on recidivist sentencing, all of which I think were wrongly decided:

* 25 years to life for the theft of three golf clubs, Ewing v. California, 538 U.S. 11 (2003)
* life without parole for possession of 650 grams of cocaine, Harmelin v. Michigan, 501 U.S. 957 (1991)
* life without possibility of parole for twelve years for obtaining $120.75 by false pretenses, Rummell v. Estelle, 445 U.S. 263 (1980)

But see:

* life without parole for passing a $100 "no account" check in a case involving a non-violent recidivist is unconstitutional, Solem v. Helm, 463 U.S. 277 (1983)

I think that there are some principles of proportionality in these kinds of cases that would lead to more just results:

(1) Less than a majority of a sentence for a new crime should be solely a consequence of prior crimes. If your prior crimes can be more important than your current crime at sentencing, then the current crime doesn't even really matter for purposes of the constitutional link between the sentence and the crime. This would have capped the sentence in the Chauncy case to two years, which would have been far less egregious, and would similarly have dramatically reduced the sentences all of the other cases cited above. Receiving double the maximum sentence that a non-recidivist offender could have received is not unreasonable.

(2) Crimes with reduced intent levels, like involuntary manslaughter, should not be considered for purposes of sentence enhancement. This would have reduced the sentence in the Chauncy case to twelve months. Still stiff for possession of less than two ounces marijuana intended for someone with M.S., but not draconian.

This isn't the whole story. Congress has made a fundamentally mistaken policy judgment in assigning a ten year maximum sentence for pot dealers. But, these two principles could make a material difference in the quality of justice in the United States, and it would restore some meaning to the 8th Amendment.

Russia: The New Third World

The average Russian man now dies at 58.8, the shortest life expectancy in Europe and five years fewer than 15 years ago, the Statistics Service said. Russian women have the fourth-lowest life expectancy in Europe, 72 years, the service said, citing its own data and figures from the World Health Organization and European Union.

The rest of the news in the story isn't encouraging either. Russia is on track to lose nearly five percent of its population every decade.

U.S. Fatalities in Iraq as of August 1, 2005

Cruel and Unusual Sentencing.

The Courts still don't understand the Eighth Amendment. It is not primarily about how painful executions feel. It is about disproportionate punishments. Afraid of exercising good judgment, the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals in a 2-1 decision, held that an 8 year sentence for possession of less than 2 ounces of marijuana (less than about $400 worth and less than about 8 joints, for those of you unfamiliar with the drug culture), is legitimate. This is particularly egregious because there were mitigating factors in this case. The defendant cooperated with police and the undisputed facts were that the pot was intended to ease the suffering of a friend who had M.S., a degenerative nerve disease: That isn't a legal defense, but is an appropriate matter to consider at sentencing, particular now that the Sentencing Guidelines are not binding on trial court judges. By comparison, the average time served for a homicide conviction in the United States is seven years. The offense in question should be the subject of a fine and a short term in a county jail, not eight years in prison.

And, what were the aggravating prior convictions that justified such an incredible sentence in this case: involuntary manslaughter, which arose out of a drunk driving car accident in 1990 (which was classified as a "crime of violence"), and selling one-quarter ounce of marijuana for fifty dollars in 1998 (which was classified as "drug trafficing"). These hardly reflect someone who is a hardened criminal. There were also prior DUI convictions, a failure to appear citation, and a probation violation, which were (and apparently could not be) not considered in the sentencing.

In the absence of the prior convictions, he would have received six to twelve months in jail. Thus, he received eight to tens times as great a sentence because of his criminal history. A co-defendant without the same criminal history was sentenced to two years probation. At the time the sentence was intially handed down, it was mandated by the Sentencing Guidelines and the judge couldn't deviate from them and handed down the lowest possible sentence. But, the appeallate court majority held (not very convincingly) that the judge wouldn't have ruled differently in the absence of the sentencing guidelines.

This isn't the first case where the courts have bungled it on the 8th Amendment by any means. (I am resisting the urge to list all of them in this post, but the majority opinion contains a nice list of the most egregious cases). It does temper the optimism I expressed about the drug war yesterday a little, however.

25 August 2005

More Executives Face Charges.

World Com, Arthur Anderson, Enron, Tyco, Adelphia, Martha Stewart Living: What do these companies have in common? All are well known publicly held companies that have had executives convicted of wrongdoing, and those are just some of the more memorable cases.

The new entrants to the list: K-Mart and KPMG.

The men who were CEO and CFO of K-Mart on the eve of its bankruptcy in 2002 are facing civil securities fraud charges from the SEC.

KPMG, one of the four remaining big accounting firms (there used to be eight), is likely to settle tax shelter promotion charges for as much as half a billion dollars and see eight more of its executives indicted, in addition to at least one that has already been indicted.

For all the talk of government coddling corporations, the past few years have been very bad ones for the elites of corporate America. Whether this will change the behavior of those who dodged the bullet this time has yet to be seen.

The Culture Wars

"The Culture Wars" are a defining elements of political discourse in America today. Cultural conservatives has not had much success in those wars.

Abortion is still legal in the United States and a recent 6-3 ruling of the United States Supreme Court affirmed Roe v. Wade as the law of the land. Even if Roe were struck down, abortion would remain legal in most, indeed, almost all states. Many of the most prominent anti-abortion terrorists are now in prison. The retirement of Justice O'Connor will not change that balance of power. Emergency contraception is available by prescription, and in some states can be obtained from a pharmacist without a prescription. Birth control pill use and condom use is common place. RU-486, an abortion pill, is legally available by prescription. Abstinence only sex education is rare. Most schools offer real sex education that informs students about the risks of STDs and various contraceptive methods. Efforts to ban pornography have generally failed in the face of First Amendment challenges. Efforts to ban books in school and public libraries also usually fail.

Evolution is taught as science in every public school in the nation. Creationism is not taught as science in any public school in the nation and is not even taught as science in more than a handful of private schools. Likewise, the Big Bang theory, radiocarbon dating and plate tectonics, which also contradict the anti-scientific creationism world view are widely taught in schools everywhere.

"No Fault" divorce is the norm in almost every U.S. state. In fact, the areas which are supposedly the heart of the conservative side of the culture wars have the highest divorce rates (and the highest teen pregnancy rates). Women make up a large proportion of medical doctors and lawyers, professions they were almost entirely absent from in 1970. The number of children per woman per lifetime in the United States has plummeted. There are a significant number of women in the military serving in roles including fighter pilots and convoy escorts who frequently engage in firefights with enemy troops. Women have serve as Governors, Senators, Cabinet Secretaries and U.S. Supreme Court Justices, even in a conservative Republican administration.

Even the Jesse Helms of the world who made their political careers on segregation and race baiting now acknowledge that miscegenation laws are wrong and that not discriminating on the basis of race should be the law of the land. Interracial adoption is common. Women have progressed much more rapidly economically since non-discrimination laws have been based than blacks, but that there has been real progress on the front of racial equality in the last fifty years cannot be denied. De jure segregation has ended. A significant black middle class has emerged as a result. Many of the leaders of the white segregationist movement, frail as it was, such as Matthew Hale, are in prison and their organizations have been crippled with civil lawsuits.

The U.S. Supreme Court has declared that sodomy between consenting adults cannot be criminalized in the Lawrence case. Many states and many large corporations have banned discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Military recruiters and Boy Scout troops have suffered considerably as a result of anti-gay policies. The consensus that one is born gay is growing stronger. The Episcopal Church has ordained a gay bishop. Domestic partnerships equivalent to marriage and even gay marriage, is available in a number of states and countries. AIDs has ended up strengthening, rather than harming the gay rights movement politically.

Public schools do not have school led prayers. New Ten Commandments monuments face legal landmines. The number of Americans who claim "no religion" is at an all time high. The religious diversity of the United States is far greater than it was half a century ago. The military has Muslim and Wiccan chaplains. Extreme statements from televangalists like Pat Robertson and James Dobson are routinely the subject of national scorn.

The effort of cultural conservatives to stop the courts from permitting Terri Shiavo, who had spent years in a vegetative state, not only unanimously failed in the courts, they were also overwhelmingly unpopular with the American public at large. Oregon has an assisted suicide law. Federal reluctance to sponsor stem cell research was countered with an initiative in California that has devoted massive resources towards conducting it, and even Nancy Reagan has joined the pro-stem cell research band wagon.

There is no longer any meaningful alcohol prohibitionist movement in the United States outside of Utah, and perhaps Idaho. No state has exercised its constitutional right to go completely dry. The Supreme Court has struck down out of state specific bans on mail order wine purchases. Nevada still has legalized prostitution. Almost every state has greatly expanded legalized gambling with bingo, lotteries, dog and horse racing, and Indian casinos becoming common place throughout the nation. Nevada has legalized sports betting, poker games are making a national revival, and everyone bets on college basketball, whether or not it is legal.

Many states, such as New York, have greatly toned down their draconian sentences for drug offenses. The federal sentencing guidelines have been thrown out. Several states have abolished state level criminalization of medical marijuana, and Canada has decriminalized possession of small quantities of pot.

Yes, the culture wars are ongoing, and yes, liberals need to be vigilant to prevent them from being won by the conservative side. But, any objective look at the last thirty years or so has to conclude that so far the conservatives have lost this war.

24 August 2005

Racial Profiling in Traffic Stops is a Fact.

Rather than repeat the able discussion of Bush administration attempts to bury their own report showing that racial profiling in traffic stops exists, I'll simply refer you to an excellent discussion of the matter at Talk Left, another Colorado based blog.

Third Generation Jeeps

First there was the Jeep. Then came the Humvee. Now, the military is moving in two directions to replace the Humvee. The Humvee was built to operate off road, but behind the front lines, which don't exist any more. The next generation will include a heavier utility vehicle designed for Iraq-like situations where there is no front line, and a lighter utility vehicle, which, unlike the Humvee, can be transported by helicopter or the V-22 Osprey a hybrid helicopter-fixed wing light transport plane that the Marines have been trying for decades to make work.

The heavier vehicle, which the DOD has put on a fast track for deployment by 2008, is a replacement to the armored humvee. The military wants it to provide better protection to those inside it, get better fuel efficiency, have more electrical generation capacity and be built from the ground up for this purpose. Plans on the drawing board at Georgia Tech include an "Ultra Armored Patrol" vehicle which would feature a "blast bucket" to protect the crew even if the vehicle itself was lost in an attack or to a bomb. The military has an armored patrol vehicle (the ASV), but they cost about $800,000 each, compared to about $150,000-$200,000 for an armored Humvee. Presumably, a replacement armored Humvee would be made cheaper and more fuel efficient by providing less protection outside the crew compartment.

The lighter vehicle, I have described at dkospedia:

In anticipation of the V-22, the Marines have also begun a program to design a ground vehicle that the V-22 and its CH-47 helicopters can carry. These aircraft are too small to carry a Humvee (the standard military utility vehicle) or heavier armored vehicles. Currently, tests have been conducted using World War II era jeeps and small commercial pickup trucks. The proposed vehicle, currently called the ITV, would be unarmored but able to carry 3-4 Marines and their supplies and heavy weapons a substantial distance (comparable to a civilian motor vehicle) over fairly rough terrain for a wheeled vehicle. Some prototypes resemble big dune buggies. About 2000-4000 ITVs are expected to be purchased.

Buffalo Commons.

As I mentioned before in a post about the future of North Dakota, the Buffalo Commons is an intriguing idea that should be explored further. The basic concept: replace large tracts of marginal farmland that is already depopulating in the Great Plains and replace it with an open range where Buffalo could graze again.

Thanks to Colorado Luis for putting the issue back on my radar screen.

23 August 2005

The Civil Society Gap.

Robert Putnam, best known for his scholarly article "Bowling Alone", is the leading intellectual to have pointed out a phenomena that he calls declining "social capital" in the United States. We bowl more, but not in leagues. The Free Masons, Elks, and every other organization that requires you to show up in person on a regular basis are seeing declining memberships. Checking writing charities have grown, while volunteer efforts have declined. Mainline churches have seen their memberships dwindle. Few people attend political party caucuses. Fewer people belong to unions than at any time since the 1920s, before there was national labor legislation. Work and family seem to gobble up all of our time.

Richard Florida, author of "The Rise of the Creative Class", doesn't dispute these figures, but observes that economic growth takes place not in places with large social capital resources, but in places where people tend to have many shallow and contingent relationships in their social network. Places with large amounts of "social capital" tend to be places where community norms exert themselves strongly, which can suppress the innovative, apple cart upsetting ideas that are necessary to bring about positive change. More tolerant places, which tend to have less "social capital" don't suppress those kinds of ideas.

It is a phenomena that triggers in me, mixed feelings. I grew up in a small town (and have many relatives in rural America), attended a mainline church every week, spent a year as a Rotary exchange student where I saw first hand what Rotary meetings involved, was an Eagle Scout, and attended a small liberal arts college in a very small town. I know what it is like to live in a high social capital context and encountered it again, as an adult, living in Grand Junction, Colorado. But, I also know what it is like to live in very low social capital contexts -- life in a megastate university, life in the urban central city of Denver, and similar urban lifestyles lived by friends and family members. There are drawbacks that come with living where everybody knows your name, as well as benefits.

Rotary meetings are cheesy as hell. The Pledge of Allegiance, the national anthem, the corny songs, the 50 years stale rituals, and the constant come ons for small contributios of cash call for a level of gregariousness and retro sensibility that few people in my generation (generation X) share. And, Rotary is hardly the only offender in the genre. However, powerful and mysterious the Free Masons used to be, it is hard to get excited about a bunch of old men carrying out stale rituals in drab four square buildings with meeting rooms in them anymore, even if they are secret, and the prospect of moving up to be a Shriner so you can ride on undersized motorcycles holds few attractions for anyone over the age of twelve. My generation has no tolerance for stale parliamentary procedure and rigidly programmed meetings for hours on end. We want to get to the point without pretense.

The rituals of mainline churches are far more dignified, but they are having to resort to the approaches of their evangelical cousins, as hymns written in four part harmony by Reformation activists five hundred years ago no longer stir the soul in the same way. I personally actually rather liked the traditional services, but most church goers do not, as indicated by attendance in churches that offer both the older and the more modern services.

I've attended political causes and spent time with union members in union halls. But, these forums often become tedious. Lots of people have strong opinions which they want to express about issues they have little or no hope of influencing through the process they are taking part in. Most attendees come out of a sense of duty.

There are definite downsides to this demise. Communities without strong organizations are communities without strong leaders below the elected official level. The medical-transactional health care model for dealing with people's emotional issues is in many respects a poor substitute for the pastoral care, community based model. Churches are also patrons of music, the arts, and thought about what is right and wrong. Many provide basic socials services. Unions can address employment concerns that no single employee in a large organization has sufficient clout to deal with effectively. Groups allow people to build networks and find compatable friends quickly. Broadly purposed groups can mitigate a tendency towards single issue politics.

You don't need to be a PhD sociologist to know that voluntary organizations decline because they are failing to serve their members needs. But, alternatives to the organizations that are fading don't just spring up from nowhere. Societal institutions take time to build. My generation is essentially doing just that, trying to rebuild civil society from scratch. It will take time, but the new institutions will likely be defining elements of life a generation from now.

22 August 2005

144 Miles.

There are 144 miles of interstate highway I-70 between Golden, Colorado, and Glenwood Springs, Colorado, which runs through the Rocky Mountains. This highway is the principal point of access to Colorado's ski resorts and it is also one of the five main routes by which cars and trucks make it across the continental divide. I've drove the route both ways on a regular basis when I lived in Grand Junction, Colorado, and still take it to go to resorts in the mountains. (Grand Junction is rarely a destination for someone who lives in Denver).

The road has some of the most extreme grades (i.e. steep hills) of any highway in the interstate highway system, curves a lot to meet the demands of the mountains, and is a parking lot on prime powder weekends. It is also prone to being shut down by avalanches, rock slides and snow storms. If civilization comes to an end, I-70 will be one of the first links in the interstate highway system to be rendered impassable by the forces of nature. Traffic is increasing, although I'm skeptical of the claim that:

"If no major improvements are made along the corridor to accommodate this huge growth, the travel times between Glenwood Springs to C-470 for a distance of 144 miles would be approximately 460 minutes." That's a whopping 7.6 hours, folks. "Without improvements, the duration of a trip from C-470 to Vail will go from 1 hour 38 minutes to 3 hours 52 minutes by 2025[.]"

The draft environmental impact statement for future construction on I-70 consider a number of problems to address the highway's anticipated shortcomings. In a nutshell, they consider two highway improvement options -- a six lane highway designed for a 55 mph speed limit and a six lane highway designed for a 65 mph speed limit, as well as a number of transit options from high tech rail to a dedicated bus lane to a reversible high occupancy vehicle lane (like the one on I-25 from downtown to highway 36 to Boulder). The plan claims that doing anything more than being "public transit ready" is too expensive. I'm skeptical of that conclusion and of the traffic models that assume that people will continue to prefer roads to transit even when it takes 8 hours to drive from Glenwood Springs to Golden. Read the report (the executive summary, despite it's name is more than 50 pages long and has copious illustrations), and decide for yourself.

The Island, Dune and Transplants. SPOILER ALERT.

The movie The Island, The Legends of Dune Prequels, and a host of other fiction and science fiction works have dealt with a great fear which is part reality, part urban legend, and part possibility: The illicit organ transplant market.

The premise of The Island is that scientists trying to find ways to clone human organs discover that the organs die unless connected to a living, intelligent brain. This, of course, creates a moral dilemma, which is ultimately what most science fiction is really about. Are the clones subhuman enough to be sacrificed to provide organs for their originals? It is the same sort of moral issue that illuminates the debates over stem cells and abortion, but in this case it is made sufficient clear to be morally unambiguous by this "living brain" necessity. Biotechnologically, this is unlikely. We already grow all sorts of tissues in the lab and there has never been any indication that, for example, "cloned" skin requires a brain to function. There is no reason to anticipate that a "cloned" liver or heart or kidney or lung would need a living brain, or even of an entire human body, to be grown artificially in a lab either. And, the bottom line for even very morally cautious people, is that if there is no brain, there is no morally important life to preserve and protect.

But, at a deeper level, it also probes the theme recurrent in critiques of our economic system from slavery to Sinclair's "The Jungle". What moral responsibility do the beneficiaries of economic fruits bear for immorality in the way that the fruits they benefit from were made? And, what responsibility do we as a society have to not be willfully blind to how we received what we use in order to avoid moral responsibility? We already turn a blind eye to a great extent to the foreign sweatshops and polluting processes that generate our ordinary goods. This happens at a systemic level because our lawmakers have chosen to enter into free trade pacts that lack labor and environmental standards. The 19th century system developed to deal with the sacrifices of blood which went into our manufacturing processes, the worker's compensation system, continues to quietly exchange very modest amounts of cash for workplace deaths, in exchange for ending litigation over the matter with a strict liability regime. Few people realize how many people die to bring us the coal that makes electricity, or the agricultural goods and fish that we eat every day. As a character in The Island reminds us, people who eat hamburgers don't want to meet the cow.

The Legends of Dune series poses a more plausible scenario. Advanced technology has made it possible to clone or grow individual organs that can save lives in biofactories. But, this technology, while morally sound itself, is also extremely expensive, and the demand from wealthy powers (who are in this case at war) for more organs is intense. Stealing organs from innocent but impoverished people is morally bankrupt, but far cheaper, and the end users of the organs don't know the difference. The providers work hard to keep their methods secret. The recipients have no incentive to pry more than superficially.

Those who have looked into it claim that reports of kidneys stolen by deception or force are pure urban legend (the non-science fiction movie Dirty Pretty Things does a nice job of portraying that legend). But, plasma donations centers that pay people for their blood, surrogate mothers and egg donors who do what they do for money, and I suspect, people who receive financial inducements to voluntarily donate organs in the face of financial pressures (such of those from donors in India, more graphically described here), are more than myth. The process of obtaining morally questionable biological gifts that may even compromise or risk the donors' health is more akin to prostitution than it is to rape, at least right now. As in the case of sex, there has been an effort to limit donations to those rooted in love, but that has proved a difficult standard to maintain as more than blood ties have been permitted. See also here (funeral expenses for deceased organ donors). Science fiction author C.S. Friedman has written a short story called "Downtime", illustrating the harrowing conseqeunces of linking love to biological self-sacrifice. Against that backdrop world of the novel "Hopscotch" by Kevin J. Anderson where people pay others to inhabit their bodies during moments of foreseeable suffering seems almost humane by comparison.

This isn't really surprising. About 200,000 incidents of rape, attempted rape or sexual assault are reported each year in the crime victimize study conducted by the Department of Justice, about 15% of which lead to arrests. There are two and a half times as many arrests each year for prostitution, yet in the case of prostitution both parties try to avoid arrest and in parts of Nevada, prostitution is legal. Few people doubt that there are millions of prostitution transactions each year. The dirty side of the future of organ donation is likely to look more like the stories of Philip K. Dick, where desperate people in a criminal underground medical world do what they feel they must, than it is like "The Island.", where a murderous alternate reality that dozens of employees manage to keep secret without a leak, persists.

Incarceration Less Deadly.

It is easy to get stuck in the funk of thinking that nothing can ever change or get better. That is cynicism, not realism. Recent statistics on deaths in jails and prisons are a case in point. State prison homicides are down 90% from 1980 to 2002. Jail suicides are down 60% from 1983 to 2002.

Death rates from AIDS- related causes in jails also fell sharply, from 20 per 100,000 in 1988 to eight per 100,000 in 2002. In state prisons, AIDS-related death rates fell from 100 per 100,000 inmates in 1995 to 15 per 100,000 in 2000.

Improved medical care, better prisoner segregation and lawsuits to make it all happen (such as those brought by the ACLU), are major factors in bringing about the change.

20 August 2005

Exhibitionist Homeowners

If you spend too much time in the echo chamber of the blogosphere you can be lulled into a sense of bonhomie, convinced that people are basically alike and basically like you. Then, something happens that stirs you out of your reverie and convinces you that there are whole other species of humans out there, whose psychological makeup in fundamentally different than you own, even though they look superficially similar. I had such a revelation tonight as I was on my evening stroll around the neighborhood.

As you walk around my neighborhood, maybe a quarter to a third of the house have their lights on in every living room, dining room, family room and guest room. There are no blinds or curtains in the windows. Everything is spotless. There isn't a stray magazine or newspaper on a coffee table, nor a jacket hanging over a chair. Most are unoccupied. Sometimes, there is even someone inside a lit bedroom or parlor, windows opened for the world to see in, watching television. Most of these homes aren't even for sale.

Who are these people, these exhibitionist homeowners? I can't imagine it. Sometimes I do open my curtains and blinds -- in the middle of the day when I want to let in light, or when I'm having a party and waiting for people to arrive. But, in the evening, when nothing particular is going on? Never. And I get chewed out for leaving the hallway light on half a minute after I've left it, even if I plan on turning around and going through it again in a few minutes. My home is not a museum. It is not lit for spectators. We live here and it is intended for the enjoyment of my family and our guests -- not the general public. We do not waste electricity showing off our living room when we aren't in it.

Apparently, however, there are weird people out there who think otherwise. People who must labor countless hours to keep these spaces spotless and uncluttered. People who so public spirited that they rank the casual person on an evening stroll higher in their priorities than the inconveniences they themselves must endure to maintain such a pristine display. People who have so little a sense of privacy, that they don't care if the whole world sees every piece of furniture in the common areas of their home and what they are watching on television. They exist. The empirical evidence is definitive. But, who they are, and why they act the way that they do remains a mystery too deep for humble souls like myself.

19 August 2005

Vioxx Verdict - Really $26.1M not $253.4M

According to the Associated Press: The damages were $450,00 economic, $24,000,000 non-economic compensatory, and $229,000,000 punitive, but the punitive damages award will be reduced under Texas law to $1,650,000.

Moreover, the award will have to survive a costly appeal and considerable delay.

It is almost always important to look beyond the headlines when big verdicts are reported in the media.

Rocket Attacks on Amphibious Ships.

The good news is that the rocket attacks missed, the bad news is that apparently, none of the vaunted active defense systems designed to protect American ships from this kind of attack, such as the Close In Weapons System, are activated when the ships are in port.

There were about 3,650 American sailors and Marines on the two ships attacked (in addition to large quantities of military equipment). It is only by sheer good luck that a large number of them didn't die and that those assets were not taken out of action.

Would a couple of rockets of the type used sink the ships? Probably not. But, they could certainly have done a lot of damage and killed plenty of people. And, next time, the rockets or cruise missiles deployed when U.S. ships are at port might be more powerful.

There are only two kinds of vessels at sea, submarines and targets. We have been lulled into thinking otherwise only because no one has been doing much target practice lately. (No, that isn't strictly true, but it certainly has a shread of truth to it).

The Iraq War Big Picture

We currently have an unpopular President (Bush's approval ratings are hovering around 42%), fighting an unpopular war (only 38% of Americans think that the war in Iraq is a good idea). The Iraq war will certainly not be anywhere close to over in 2006, and I would be surprised if we had extricated ourself from that increasingly thankless obligation by the time the 2008 Presidential election rolls around.

The biggest problem that the administration faces with the War in Iraq is explaining to the nation what we have to gain from it. The "Pottery Barn Rule" (you broke it, you fix it) may still justify a continued presence in Iraq with the average American, but one after another the justifications for the war are falling short.

There were no weapons of mass destruction, as advertised. There were no connections between Saddam Hussein and the 9-11 terrorists or al-Queda. Most Americans, correctly, believe that the Iraq War has increased their vulnerablity to terrrorist attacks; it has not made us safer. Rather than replacing an Islamists regime with a more moderate one, as we did in Afghanistan, the political process in Iraq is on the way to replacing a secular regime with an avowedly Islamist one. The leading political party in Iraq is the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq. Sound familiar?

It is growing increasingly hard to say that the U.S. invasion has even made life better for ordinary Iraqis. Totalitarianism under Saddam had kept a lid on sectarian violence, but now, sectarian murders are commonplace. Rampant violent crime and the insurgency together make Baghdad one of the most dangerous cities in the world. The power supply isn't reliable. The cell phone networks are routinely shut down, sometimes for security reasons and sometimes for technical difficulties. Road trips are dangerous. Water and sewer systems are still unreliable. Simmering property disputes in Kirkuk as displaced Kurds seek to return to their homes, remain unresolved. The Mayor of Baghdad was removed from office by force and no one seems to care. The credibility wounds of torture at U.S. hands that rivaled or exceeded that under Saddam are still raw. You no longer hear U.S. officials talk about how more Iraqis died under Saddam than under the post-invasion regime. The numbers aren't so clear anymore.

The Iraq War has also coincided with record high oil prices, rather than lower ones, as expected. And, Iraq's oil wealth has not been used to pay for this war as originally planned.

The "Coalition of the Willing" which was always mostly the United States and Britain, has all but collapsed, with most of our allies packing up and bringing their troops home while leaving us holding the bag.

The only things keeping most Americans from urging the immediate withdrawal of all American troops now are a fear of the utter anarchy that might break out if we leave, and the fact that this war has had a relatively modest effect on average Americans. The current administration has avoided a key political mistake at home that made the Vietnam War political poison. It has not instituted a draft, and I think, realizes that it lacks the political capital to do so.

Even the size of the active duty military is only slightly larger than it was at the low point of the peace dividend during the Clinton Administration. There has been a heavy national guard and reserve mobiliziation, but the number of soldiers who can be mobilized going forward without a major change in the law is small, and will be much smaller in the second half of Bush's term without major Congressional action which seems unlikely. Coalition troops levels in Iraq in the second half of Bush's second term will fall significantly, like or or not, because he simply doesn't have enough troops from the U.S. or its allies to maintain the current force levels there.

The Navy and Air Force have played relatively small supporting roles in this conflict and are not overtaxed, but are also not easily shifted to this conflict. Both played major roles in the major combat operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, but that is long over now. The Air Force is now mostly running transport planes and shipping out the wounded and dead, while the Navy's main contribution is to supply a small number of fighters to linger over hot spots and drop an occassion bomb at the suggestion of the grunts. Neither service has suffered many more casulties than in peacetime. The Air Force and Air National Guard together have lost nineteen soldiers and one civilian defense department employee in two and a half years. The Navy, Navy Reserve and Coast Guard combined have lost thirty six sailors. A significant share of those casulties are not from hostile fire. Together, all of these components of the military account for about 3% of U.S. military fatal casulties in this war, despite making up half of the military employees of the United States. They may get new planes, ships and submarines a bit later than they would have otherwise, but that is their main sacrifice in this conflict.

As is usually the case in war, the Army and Marines (and their associated reserve and national guard units) are doing most of the work, and most of the dying, in both the Iraq War and the war in Afghanistan. They are sorely overtaxed with no relief in sight. It is hard to see the job they are doing get easier as they continue to have to take on an insurgency that is not getting weaker with fewer troops. But, while reserve and national guard units are having a recruiting crisis, as those enlistees know that they will immediately end up with active duty while being treated like part-timers, the active duty Army and Marines are only modestly under recruiting targets. A war fought primarily by the usual number of volunteer soldiers doesn't make as many waves on the home front as one that requires major mobilization, even though a far higher than usual share of those soldiers come back in body bags.

In sum, while we may be a nation at war, and while that may cost a lot in dollars (financed with deficits at a time when taxes are low and have been cut, and social spending has not been corospondingly cut), we are not a nation on a war footing. We are letting the Chinese and Carribean Banking Centers finance this war, not the average American. Thus, we are fighting a war with few visible benefits, but also few sacrifices felt by the public at large, however deep the sacrifices are for the soliders deployed and their families. It is a war with little light at the end of the tunnel. Insurgencies last decades, not months. The democratic process we have tried to impose upon Iraq is floundering. It has not yet achieved the thing it needs more than anything else, widely acknowledged legitmacy. The Administration seems to have a hard time even acknowledging that there is a problem.

It is hardly surprising that the Administration lacks an exit strategy. It isn't clear that there is any good way out of the mess that President Bush, admittedly with the acquiessence of Congress, has gotten us into.

18 August 2005

Modern Physics: Preons.

I'm interested in preon theory, which considers the possibility that many or all of the particles in the standard model of particle physics may not be fundamental. Indeed, I am the principal author of the Wikipedia article on the topic and have also discussed it at the physics forums.

Let me first be clear: Preon theory is not the prevailing mainstream view in particle physics. The mainstream view is that the standard model particles are (or at least mostly are) fundamental. Honestly, I'm not sure myself if preon theory will or will not prove to be true. But, as string theory develops more doubters, I think it will be an obvious direction for non-string theory investigators and theorists.

Many critics of preon theory base their criticisms on poor efforts at formulating a preon theory. In the interest of preventing people from offering strawman arguments I'm offering here some of the positive features of what I believe to be the most promising preon theory currently extant with references to the relevant papers on the subject:

Yershov's Preon Theory.

Yershov as of March of 2003 has described a substructure for the standard model that provides charge, spin, and mass numbers, as well as structural formulas for:

a) All varieties of existing quarks and anti-quarks.
b) All generations and types of electrons including antiparticles.
c) All generations and types of neutrinos including antiparticles.
d) W+, W-, Z, polarized photon and all of the gluons, i.e. all spin-1 particles.
e) A map to the mass of higher generation particles.
f) A formula for calculating masses that is quite accurate for both Fermions and in a modified form Bosons.
g) Only a couple of parameters to put in experimentally (one Fermion mass and one W mass) (although the combinations of particles used to create higher order particles is itself a free parameter).
h) It does it all in 4D unlike superstring theory.
i) It does not predict the abundance of non-observed particles suggested by supersymmetry theories.

His theory starts with just three kinds of particles (some of his illustrations depict them as little arrows) which are identical except for chromodynamic color, and their antiparticles. All fermions are combinations of three preon structures Yershov calls Y particles. In more depth, his theory plays out as follows:

Fundamental Particles:

The fundamental particle is the Preon, which has a charge of -1/9th in electron units. A Preon has a mass of 1/9th in electron units. Preon antiparticles also exist. Preons come in three colors (red, green and blue, if you like).

First Order Structure:

Preons can form charged or neutral doublets. Doublets are not stable. They promptly form Y particles composed of three preons, one of each color (in my notation "Y"), or three anti-preons, one of each color (in my notation "y"). A Y particle has a charge and mass of one third of an electron. Y particles have one preon on each color but are polarized (like a water molecule) with one color more prominent than the others.

Higher Order Structure:

First Generation
Electron Neutrino=6Yy (36 preons, 0 charge, 0 mass)
Electron=3y (9 preons, -9 charge, 9 mass)
Y*=Electron Neutrino+Y (39 preons, -3 charge, 39 mass)
U=y*,Electron Neutrino,y* (114 preons (39+36+39), +6 charge, 78 mass (39+39))
D=U,Electron Neutrino,Electron (114+36+9=159 preons, -3 charge, 78+36+9=123 mass)

Second Generation
Mu Neutrino=Y*,Electron Neutrino, y*
Muon=Mu Neutrino+Electron Neutrion,Electron

Third Generation
Tau Neutrino=U,Electron Neutrino, u
Tau=Tau Neutrino+Mu Neutrino+Muon

Note: a Y**=U,Electron Neutrino,U,Electron Neutrino,Electron and
a Heavy Neutrino=6Y*y*, and an Ultra Heavy Neutrino=3(y*,Heavy Neutrino,U),Electron and a Y***=an Ultra Heavy Neutrio,Y

It appears from the notation, although the author doesn't quite come out and say it, that a photon=Yy, but has no mass or charge because the antiparticles has a mass that cancels out. This does, however, appear to explain the polarization of light (see equation 10 at page 9 and the table at page 12).


(1) The model used a formula to determine the mass of composite particles which is not simply a sum of masses, which is along the line of the sum of the component part masses divided by the sum of the reciprocal masses of the particles. Neutrally charged neutrino components do not contribute significantly to mass -- Y's and y's have masses that almost completely cancel out.
(2) The model predicts the left handedness of the neutrino and the asymmetry between the lifetimes of para-positronium and ortho-postronium.
(3) Six kinds of Ys (one for each color and charge combination, all with the same charge and mass magnitude) are used to produce left and right handed versions of eight kinds of particles (three Y*s, three anti-Y*s, electrons, positrons), electron neutrinos, anti-electron neutrinos, and two polarizations of photons for a total of 20 kinds of particles.
(4) This model assumes that the world is made up of equal amounts of matter and anti-matter at the Y particle level.
(5) Gravity appears to be delegated to the curvature of space, a la GR.
(6) While charged preon doublets are considered confined, neutral preon doublets (i.e. a preon and its antipreon) are suggestively labeled suggesting that they are candidates for the gluon. The would, like the photon, be massless and chargeless, and would consist of both a preon and an anti-preon, with three possible colors each.

Mass Prediction Table

Predicted Mass (preon units;mass of proton=1 units) Experiment
electron=9 preon units; 0.0005446175 mp; 0.0005446170232(12) mp
u quark=78 preon units; 0.004720019 mp; 0.0047 mp
d quark=123 preon units; 0.007443106 mp; 0.0074 mp
muon=1860.9118 preon units; 0.11260946 mp; 0.1126095173 (34) mp
c quark=27122.89 preon units; 1.641289 mp; 1.6 mp
s quark=2745.37 preon units; 0.1661307 mp; .16 mp
tau=31297.11 preon units; 1.893884 mp; 1.8939(3) mp
t quark=3122289 preon units; 188.9392 mp; 189 mp
b quark=75813.33 preon units; 4.587696 mp; 5.2 mp

mp/me=1836.1510 vs. 1836.1526675(39) experiment

His theory needs some modest tweaks to take dynamics into account, but it is still remarkably good for a Preon Theory.

The First Paper

Fermions as topological objects
Authors: V. N. Yershov
Comments: Latex2e, 20 pages, 12 figures, 3 tables, (V8: formulae compactified)
Subj-class: General Physics

A preon-based composite model of fermions is discussed. The preon is regarded as a topological object with three degrees of freedom in a dual (3+1)-dimensional manifold. It is shown that dualism of this manifold gives rise to a set of preon structures, which resemble three families of fermions. The number of preons in each structure is readily associated with its mass. Although just a sketch, our model predicts masses of fermions to an accuracy of about $10^{-6}$ without using experimental input parameters.

The Second Paper

Date: Thu, 16 Jan 2003 09:54:57 GMT (18kb)
Date (revised v2): Fri, 7 Mar 2003 18:07:30 GMT (18kb)

Neutrino masses and the structure of the weak gauge boson
Authors: V.N.Yershov
Comments: LaTex2e, 4 pages (V2: minor linguistical corrections)
Subj-class: General Physics

It is supposed that the electron neutrino mass is related to the structures and masses of the $W^\\pm$ and $Z^0$ bosons. Using a composite model of fermions (described elsewhere), it is shown that the massless neutrino is not consistent with the high values of the experimental masses of $W^\\pm$ and $Z^0$. Consistency can be achieved on the assumption that the electron-neutrino has a mass of about 4.5 meV. Masses of the muon- and tau-neutrinos are also estimated.

Quieter Planes and Urban Design.

I saw the link to this BBC story about efforts to build a quieter airplane on the DefenseTech.org site. It does so with a flying wing airframe and engines which are above the plane and which direct their noise upwards. But, while the military potential is obvious (noise stealth), the civilian purposes for which it is being designed are too.

The decision to shut down Stapleton Airport and build Denver International Airport, far from the central city (and to close Lowry Air Force base entirely), was driven in part by noise. Residential neighborhoods and noisy airports make poor neighbors. Even DIA has to pay compensation to neighborhoring jurisdictions because of noise violations.

The result is that someone like me who lives in central Denver has to drive 45 minutes to the airport each way, instead of fifteen minutes. When your dropping friends or family at the airport, that is a one hour difference in the round trip travel time. In contrast, if airplanes can be built quiter, cities can again get closer to the airport reducing that impediment to flying caused by the long drive. From a New Urbanist's perspective, less driving and cities more connected to transportation networks other than personal automobiles is always a good thing.

It is an idea worth keeping an eye on for its implications both military and civilian.

The New Bankruptcy Law: The Means Test.

Tomorrow, I'll be giving a presentation to the Financial Planners Association regarding the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act of 2005, which is the new bankruptcy law, most of the provisions of which will take effect in October. This is the biggest overhaul of the bankruptcy code since 1976, but to a great extent it doesn't do what the public perceives it to do. Today, I'll address the defining feature of that new law, the means test.

Basically, under the new law, people making more than the median state income in their state who can pay some meaningful portion of their debts have to do a five year payment plan under Chapter 13, rather than a liquidation under Chapter 7 which will immediately discharge most of their debts without drawing upon the debtor's income at all. The most important thing to know about the means test is who it doesn't impact. About 80% of debtors in Chapter 7 have less than the median income in their state, and thus won't have to even consider filing under Chapter 13 (and if they do choose to make a payment plan, may choose a more lenient three year plan). Thus, only about one in seven people who file for bankruptcy today would be moved from Chapter 7 to Chapter 13 by this provision.

This said, the impact of the means test is still significant, both in how it affects the financial backdrop for about half of the population, whether or not they do go bankrupt, and for how it affects the 30% or so of debtors who already file under Chapter 13, a larger proportion of whom are higher income debtors.

The means test is flawed in significant ways. The state median income test makes it much easier to file a Chapter 7 bankruptcy in an affluent state than in a less affluent state. In Massachusetts, the median income is $72,451. In West Virginia, it is $42,290.

The formula used to determine if those making more than the median income can pay a meaningful part of their debts also favors people with large quantities of assets secured by substantial secured debts, over people with few assets and smaller debts, and people who lease their homes. If you rent an apartment, you have to use an IRS set standard to determine your living expenses under the means test -- in Denver for a family of four that is $1,552 for rent and utilities combined (which will get you a modest two bedroom apartment in a decent neighborhood, or a three bedroom house in a shabby neighborhood). If you have a $1,500,000 mini-mansion with a $1,375,000 mortgage and the balance sheltered by a state homestead exemption, the house doesn't count as a bankruptcy asset that must be distributed to general creditors and you can use your $8,000-$10,000 monthly mortgage payment to determine your living expenses under the means test. The same issue is present when it comes to car payments. If you own a car with car payments you may take your actual car payments as an expense when calculating the means test regardless of their size.

There is a backstop of a general "abusive filing" objection, but the basic principle which will apply in the vast majority of cases is actual secured debt payments rather than the IRS standards that apply to people who lease. Debtors with large alimony and child support payments also do well under the means test, and debtors whose debts are not "primarily consumer debts" aren't subject to the means test at all. (Incidentally, running up large unsecured debts has only modest benefits for those trying to get out of the means test, because anyone who can afford to pay $166.66 a month after paying secured debts like mortgages must do a payment plan regardless of how little a dent this makes in their total unsecured debt load).

Another major problem with the means test is that it is also used determine how much of a payment must be made in Chapter 13 for the five year plan period that applies to those who are required by the means test to file under Chapter 13.

Under the new means test, the amount that a Chapter 13 debtor gets to keep for himself is the same regardless of whether he makes $60,000 or $600,000 a year. The secured debt rule mitigates this somewhat. A high income debtor probably has a large mortgage payment and car payment backed by an expensive house and expensive car, while a low income debtor probably doesn't. But, the general rule does have considerable force.

Outside of bankruptcy, the maximum wage garnishment allowed by law for a non-domestic creditor is 25% of the extent to which your income exceeds minimum wage. For a debtor just over the means test threshold, a Chapter 13 plan is usually going to involve a smaller payment than this alternative outside of bankruptcy. For a high income debtor, like a partner in a large law or accounting firm, or medical doctor in a specialty practice, or a senior business executive, the Chapter 13 payment will generally be well in excess of what that person would have had to pay outside of bankruptcy, although the bankruptcy payment will end in five years, while a garnishment supported by a judgment outside of bankruptcy can last for decades.

Before the means test was enacted, the basic rule was that your creditors had to come out at least as well as they would have if you had filed under Chapter 7 (except for "superdischarge" creditors who can have their claims wiped out in Chapter 13 but not in Chapter 7). Often, middle class debtors with lots of unsecured debts who were mortgaged to the hilt would need to make only nominal payments for three years to meet that threshold. This in turn allowed them to discharge debts which couldn't be eliminated in Chapter 7 filings, such as many debts for back taxes. The superdischarge in Chapter 13 has also been greatly limited.

Thus, under the new law, middle class debtors have to pay much more to creditors, over a longer period of time, and get far fewer debts discharged in the process, and for high income debtors, the payments will be crushing (conceivably more than half of a debtor's income for five straight years). Given that two-thirds of attempts to complete a Chapter 13 payment plan under the much more lenient current law fail, the prospects of a debtor successfully completing a payment plan under the new more strict law seem even more bleak, and the incentive to stick it out are weaker, because the amount of debt discharged when the plan is complete will be far smaller in many cases, both because a larger part of that debt will have been paid and because less debt will be discharagable in bankruptcy at all.

The means test rules may make irrelevant flaws in the new law in its limitations on other asset shelters for high income debtors, like homestead exemptions, asset protection trusts and retirement and education accounts. Even if those devices can shelter significant assets from creditors in a bankruptcy, why should a high income person go bankrupt if they have to make crushing payments to creditors for five years in any case if they do go bankrupt? Increasingly, high income debtors will find that their most advantgeous route is to negotiate with creditors completely outside the bankruptcy context. This isn't necessarily a horrible thing, but creating a bankruptcy system that artificially encourages people capable of earning high incomes to depress their earnings so that they can qualify for bankruptcy protection (income is generally determined based on a six month window) isn't a good thing either, and defeats the economic argument for the fresh start in bankruptcy, which is to discourage just that kind of lost initiative.

The flip side of this, of course, is that it makes offering credit to someone with more than the median income in a state much less risky, since the ability of that debtor to file for bankruptcy is greatly restrained. Expect to see credit card companies push large credit lines with high default interest rates on middle class customers everywhere, extremely aggressively, starting in October, if not sooner. Also, ironically for an Act primarily pushed by Republicans, it operates as a kind of "anti-tort reform" by making it significantly harder for professionals and business people to completely discharge unsecured debts like tort debts (i.e. debts based on negligence and malpractice), although the restriction of the means test to cases involving "primarily consumer debts" will mitigate this effect somewhat.

Suffice it to say that while requiring people with significant incomes to apply part of that income to their unsecured debts is a good concept, that the implementation of the principle in the 2005 Act was poor. A law that would have imposed the maximum garnishment allowed under federal law for five years in favor of the bankruptcy trustee on anyone over the median state income who filed under Chapter 7, or the equivalent on any self-employed person, would have been both simpler and more fair.

17 August 2005

Important New Civilian Technology

The mobile pizza oven. Yes, they get it to you in 15 minutes, because they cook while they drive. Go SuperFastPizza!

Our high-tech Mobile Kitchens are licensed restaurants. We outfit them with Custom Ovens that can cook your pizza at a speedy 600 degrees. Our Mobile Pizza Kitchens utilize the latest in wireless internet technology, and produce enough electricity to power your home. (And they look pretty sporty too!) Remember, we cook your pizza while we drive to you. “30 seconds from our oven to your door” insures your pizza arrives hot every time.

What will they think of next?

Pet Peeve: "Product Will Be Hot"

I eat lots of frozen dinners. I work in an office park and we have microwave ovens, but few other cooking facilities, and going out to lunch is both expensive and eats up 20 minutes of your lunch time driving. So, frozen dinners for lunch it is. Invariably the packages contain the warning: "Product will be hot" at the end of the directions.

It is a classic example of lawyer disease prevailing over marketing and common sense. Designers are investing considerable effort into designing each particular dinner's box. Several hours of work are involved. Yet, ignorantly, they can call what is inside "product" as if they hadn't even looked at the box. If they wanted to be mealy mouthed they could at least say "Food Will Be Hot" or "Container Will Be Hot", but no, they have to say "product".


Baptists and Catholics.

Baptists and Catholics are at two extremes of addressing a fundamental question in Christianity, what has God been up to for the last 1800 or so years. I grew up in an ELCA Lutheran Church and it had always been one of those questions that lurked at the back of my mind.

The Old Testament tells a story of God's involvement with the Jewish people for thousands of years. There is a gap in the "intertestamentary period", but it picks up again in the New Testament. OK, so there Jesus lives a life, his apostles spread the "Good News" to the Mediterranian for a generation or two, we get to the Revelation of John and everyone is sitting around waiting for the apocylpse, which was supposed to happen soon, and then what?

Well, we know what happened next historically. The Catholic and Orthodox Churches, with some early religious battles during the waning days of the Roman Empire and a number of "heresies" which were largely successfully suppressed, went on to dominant the Christian faith for more than a millenia, until the Protestant Reformation tipped the apple cart. Meanwhile, the Jews are regrouping in the diaspora, and Islam arises about a century after Rome falls and takes the Middle East, North Africa, important outposts in Asia, and some of the Balkans by storm.

In the Catholic view of the world, the period after the New Testament is not empty of God's intervention in the world. The gap is filled with what I call "the tradition". There are the hageographies (Lives of Saints) that tell the stories of the martyrs and mendicants familiar to anyone who has studied art history. There are scholarly works, beginning with the four "Latin Doctors" and culminating in St. Thomas Aquinas. There are tales of miracles, successions of Popes in communication with the Pope, holy orders that arise, are reformed and are supplanted, there are Crusades, that are Cathedrals that are built and relics that are honored. Lots of stuff is going on. God is still present on Earth in an active way.

The state church Lutherans and Episcopalians whose churches emerged after the Reformation didn't entirely abandon this tradition, although it was de-emphasized to the point where many American children raised in those faiths barely know that it exists. But, the successive waves of new denominations that followed, particularly in the United States, made a more radical break. Many of these American Christians, the Baptists among the most prominent among them, simply threw out the entire Catholic Tradition material as corrupt. They strove to return to the "early church" of the New Testament, give the Bible an unreasonably high authoritiative standard as the literal truth, and found themselves staring a new dilemna in the face. Where had God gone during the last dozen plus centuries? Baptists reject historical-literary type criticism, by and large (at least the conservative ones do), but were left with a doctrine that argues both that God is both pervasively involved in the everyday lives of every schmoe in the South and that there is no reliable account of any involvement by God in the affairs of this Earth from about 200 AD to 1800 AD, when its own testimonies began to develop.

Neither approach is a satisfactory one. On one hand the Baptists were right about the Catholic tradition being significantly corrupted as a historical source. The Lives of Saints are closer in genre to superhero comic books than they are to biographies. No serious historicans today believe them to have more than a seed of truth. The embellishments are too similar and crude. Often the stories are anachronistic or otherwise flawed. On the other hand, a huge historical blank slate isn't consistent with a Baptist view of a personal God who is busy intervening in the universe. Why wouldn't someone have written it down? Why would the record be so corrupted? The bile spewed by many Baptist preachers that it was all due to Catholic corruption is unconvincing.

A faithful person would look for a more satisfactory synthesis of these conflicting stances. I'm not a faithful person, so it isn't hard for me to conclude that the Catholic tradition rings false because it is false, and that the Baptists are wrong, not in the absence of evidence of God intervening in the world for a millenium and a half or more, but in their belief that God has intervened in this world in the last couple of centuries. But, the disconnect is notable, and I think it will play a part in the evolving four ring circus of American Christianity, as conservative Protestants, Catholics, moderate to liberal Protestants, and black churches try to work out their respective futures in a world where the rest of the developed world is becoming more secular, and the Christianity in new and different forms is catching fire in much of the developing world.

16 August 2005

The Park Ladies.

I rarely have an occassion to pass Washington Park at ten in the morning, but, today I had a dentist appointment and had to stop home before going to work, so I did.

I shouldn't be surprised. There is nothing really remarkable about it. But, in the 21st century, gender expectations are always suspect.

So, who is in Washington Park at 10 a.m. on a Tuesday? The Park Ladies. Dozens, if not hundreds of them. Oh, there is the odd gray haired man, or college student, or grounds worker, but 90%-95% of the people in the park are adult, non-retired women walking for fitness, walking their dogs, jogging, playing tennis, or whatever. It's Lady's Land.

The sexual revolution may have happened forty years ago, before any of these women were adults, but we are still a society with large numbers of housewives who pick their kids up from school when it gets out at 11:30 or 2:30 in the afternoon, and men who work from 8-5 in the office. The school schedule expects it. No one accuses a woman walking in the park with her friend at ten in the morning on a Tuesday of being a bum. And, like any married man with a wife who is a homemaker, I'm well aware that being a homemaker is no easy job. The chores never end, the kids can be a pain, and there are no real vacations. But, that doesn't mean that there isn't downtime. And, in my neighborhood, lots of homemakers like to spend their down time walking in the park.

I have no idea what suburban homemakers in subdivisions with no sidewalks and pathetic parks do. I guess they watch soaps.