31 July 2008

Is Saudi Arabia Sustainable?

While Saudi Arabia is a monarchy, it is also a theocracy, arguably a more strict theocracy than the semi-democratic Shi'ite theocracy in Iran. The royal family and the extremist Sunni clerics who have carte blanche to impose absurd decrees with royal patronage have a symbiotic relationship. How long can the system last?

Cats and Dogs in Riyadh

The latest news on this front is ban on the sales of dogs and cats as pets, and a related ban on walking them in public, because men use them to attract women.

The prohibition went into effect Wednesday in the capital, Riyadh, and authorities in the city say they will strictly enforce it - unlike previous bans in the cities of Mecca and Jiddah, which have been ignored and failed to stop pet sales.

Violators found outside with their pets will have their beloved poodles and other furry companions confiscated by agents of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, the official name of the religious police, tasked with enforcing Saudi Arabia's strict Islamic code.

The commission's general manager, Othman al-Othman, said the ban was ordered because of what he called "the rising of phenomenon of men using cats and dogs to make passes at women and pester families" as well as "violating proper behavior in public squares and malls."

"If a man is caught with a pet, the pet will be immediately confiscated and the man will be forced to sign a document pledging not to repeat the act," al-Othman told the Al-Hayat newspaper. "If he does, he will be referred to authorities." The ban does not address women.

The Saudi-owned Al-Hayat announced the ban in its Wednesday edition, saying it was ordered by the acting governor of Riyadh province, Prince Sattam, based on an edit from the Council of Senior Islamic Scholars and several religious police reports of pet owners harassing women and families.

Early implementation of the ban has been spotty, but honestly, it is just one more straw in a heap of indignities that have been imposed upon the Saudi people.

The dog and cat ban, like the ban on women driving cars, appears to be a case of Saudi Arabian exceptionalism. There isn't anything inherently Islamic about either, although both are conducted with religious authority. The Islamic world is a big place, and most are far less circumscribed in their regulation of people's daily lives (although most Muslims in predominantly Muslim places also not nearly so libertine as Americans).

The Future Of The House of Saud

The current king is 84 years old. The crown prince is 80 years old. Of course, the House of Saud is in no danger of running out of heirs. Under current Saudi succession rules, there are over 150 people eligible to be the next crown prince, "though consensus and competency would limit this number." But a generational change in leadership is bound to happen before too long. The youngest member of the current King's generation is sixty-eight, and it is possible that some members of the current generation would be passed over in the process of reaching a consensus of the successor to the current crown prince.

Due to the common practice among male members of the Saudi royal family of having many children with multiple wives, the size of the royal family is immense. The late King Abd al-Aziz had 22 wives (no more than four at a time), 45 legitimate sons, and about 50 daughters. His next successor, King Saud King Saud had 53 sons and at least 54 daughters. There are now thousands of descendants of King Abd al-Aziz, with probably at least a thousand wives in addition. Most, if not all, of the widows, wives and descendants of the many potential crown princes and late male descendants of King Abd al-Aziz, have been raised with immense wealth and privilege, elite educations, and close proximity to power. But there are only so many positions of power that a country like Saudi Arabia, which has fewer people than California, has available to allocate to the innumerable princelings. Also, there are elites within the roughly 20% of Saudi residents who are immigrant foreign workers, and within Saudi elites outside the royal family, which have members who are more competent than the lesser princelings whom the royal family would like to reward.

In the traditional European monarchies, most royal descendants were bastards and the youngest legitimate princes and princesses couldn't expect much for their descendants. Both European and Chinese monarchs traditionally insisted on the pre-eminence of the eldest son in the line of succession. Bastards and younger sons were traditionally sent off to be senior soldiers in the innumerable wars of these monarchies; the princesses, legitimate or not, were married off and cast their lots with whatever husbands they were married off to in order to cement alliances. But, in the Saudi system, legitimate close male desendants are abundant, the order of succession is more fluid, deadly wars have been scarce, and the Ottoman practice of killing off rival siblings has been abandoned. Far more people have a claim on the family's power and resources than in historical royal dynasties.

Can It Last?

Is this kind of political system really sustainable? When does it all fall apart? What will be the last straw? Perhaps the regime can survive until the oil runs out, because there is no domestic position movement of consequence known to the outside world, but it can't last forever.

Anecdotal evidence abounds that large swaths of Saudi society, including much of the most practically educated and competent part of its elites, publicly follow the rules, but ignore the rules in private.

Many Muslim women, particularly in France within the West, adhere to an Islamist feminism that embraces the distinct roles of men and women in Islam and welcomes the veil. But this doesn't mean that they support a system where women can't drive, the Internet is profoundly censored, satellite television is sometimes forbidden, cell phones are suspect, dogs and cats are banned, religious police met out summary justice to vulnerable women on the street, and women are punished for being victims of sex crimes.

The kind of middle class that Saudi Arabia needs to transition to a less oil dependent economy is also precisely the kind of middle class that has historically demanded political reforms, economic freedom, the rule of law and cultural liberalization.

The members of the next generation of leaders also know that Saudi Arabia is deeply out of step with most of the rest of the world. Many members of the ruling royal family have traveled, studied and lived abroad extensively, and are comfortable in that entirely different world.

Both the group of people whom their mini-royal welfare state supports, and population that the larger national welfare state must support, are growing much faster than their nation's wealth, with the royals outpacing the general population's growth. If national wealth declines, resentment towards collateral members of the royal family who have economic privileges may heighten.

Reading from the muddy tea leaves of official pronouncements, there seems to be a tendency in Saudi Arabia's official governmental structures towards an oligarchy in which all legitimate male descendants of the first King in the current dynasty form a de facto House of Lords, with equal voices and votes in their non-binding recommendations, and with a first priority for appointment to senior positions in government and business (like church and state, they are also not so distinct in Saudi Arabia). The group of men eligible to be heirs to the throne has been constituted as a sort of college of cardinals to choose the next crown prince.

The Future Of Saudi Arabian Oil and the Timing Of Political Change

Most importantly, many members of Saudi Arabia's next generations of leaders are no doubt acutely aware that their nation's oil supplies, that have made the existing system possible, won't last forever. Saudi Arabia will be hard pressed to maintain current oil production levels for another decade, and could easily see oil production drop 75% in thirty years.

After seven decades of supposedly investing the nation's oil wealth back into the health and welfare of the Saudi Arabian people, their nation still earned 75% of its GNP (this 75% is about $15,000 per capita on a purchasing power basis) and 90% of its export wealth from oil, and still has to import in the form of foreign labor a huge share of its skilled and unskilled labor force.

A 75% reduction in national oil wealth would reduce Saudi Arabia's per capita GNP (on a purchasing power basis) to less than that of Mexico, even in the unlikely event that the foreign workers who sustain the economy stayed on when the oil wealth of the country dried up, even before accounting for anticipated population growth (which tends, perversely, to accellerate in times of economic scarcity).

Without any oil wealth, Saudi Arabia's per capita GNP would fall to that of China, even before population growth and the lose of the economic engine of foreign workers, and to sub-Saharan African levels once those factors were considered. Continued investment in human and physical capital, sovereign wealth funds, and reductions in the massive drain that the royal family imposes on the nation's wealth could buffer this catastrophic economic decline for Saudi Arabia, but only genuine modernization can prevent a collapse or mute it in the long run.

Political consequences of an inevitable long term decline in Saudi Arabian oil production are likely to come much sooner, probably not long after declining oil revenues and rising populations start to make a serious dent in the national standard of living.

Saudi Arabia's political system is a bread and circuses affair. Its no representation system survives because there is no taxation and there is an ample welfare state. But to maintain even a shadow of the current welfare state, taxes on the general public will be necessary in ten or twenty years. History has shown that democracy and expansion of the franchise is closely linked to the need of the ruling class to tax its subjects.

The Peaceful Change Option

Given these pressures and trends, a close parallel of English political history of several hundred years earlier, seems like the most plausible model for gradual political change if Saudi Arabia manages a peaceful and gradual political and social transition.

In this scenario, Saudi Arabia would develop a powerful House of Lords made up of men eligible to be the next King that periodically elects a crown prince to serve as successor to a current king with real political power; a subordinate elected parliament whose power primarily is limited to control over the funds contributed to the public fisc from taxes; and religious authorities of the established Islamic religious authorities, who would monitor and constrain political authorities in a manner similar to, but probably less absolute than, those of Iranian religous leaders. And, if Saudi Arabia takes that path, this might happen in the time frame of ten to twenty years, when the forces that sustain Saudi Arabia's current system seem likely to fall apart.

But, the British style gradual political evolution has very much been the exception, rather than the rule, in world history. Most countries have had messier political histories, and even the English one had to endure to Republican "Glorious Revolution" led by Cromwell, before a monarchy was restored.

The Post-Soviet Model

A Soviet Union-like implosion without warning, once the older generation is cleared out of key positions of power, with traumatic reform initiated from the top before spiraling out of control, seems possible. Russia actually had two such reforms, one in 1917, and the other two generation later. Neither ended particular well or stayed on course precisely as expected. Both spawned more authoritarian counter-revoultions. But there is hope that the current transformation in Russia could produce a happier ending the one that followed Russia's brief flitation with Western style democracy in 1917.

Given the many quite old but competent potential heirs to the Saudi Arabian throne available, who seem to be firmly in charge and quite conservative, an opportunity a Soviet style implosion initiated by liberalism at the top may come too late. Economic circumstances may force fundamental political and social change in Saudi Arabia sooner than anyone in a position to bring that about appears on the scene.

Revolutions and Coups As Political Options

Two other time honored mechanism of political change when existing systems don't work any more are on one hand, popular revolutions instituting revolutionary authorarian rule in the name of the people (not ripe now, but perhaps someday), and on the other, military coups which lead to civilian dictatorship which lead sometimes after several iterations to fragile democracies that may or may not eventually become secure.

Spain, France, Iran, China, Cambodia, and Mexico all offer examples of what can happen in popular revolutions.

Iran's model is notable because it is local and because Islamic fundamentalist clergy are one of the few independent power bases from the ruling royal family in Saudi Arabian society. An Islamic revolution in which the religious authorities would align themselves with the people against the royal family in a bid to have greater power in the face of pressure to modernize, makes much more sense from a Saudi perspective than a revolution driven by communists or Western oriented reformers. Indeed, such a revolution would be almost nationalist given the close identification that the Saudi national identity has with its local brand of Islamic practice. Dissent royals don't appear to have the power base necessary for a more secular revolution.

Spain's revolutionary example is also notable because in that case, the revolutionaries lost and in the end, a military dicatator restored the monarchy, albeit with less real power, to legitimitize his own regime. Any would be military leader in Saudi Arabia attempting to put down an Islamist revolution would be tempted to take a similar approach. Of course, as the example of France shows, restored monarchies don't always last, and military dictators sometimes establish their own royal dynasties.

The complicating factor to political change via the military in Saudi Arabia, however, absent a popular revolution that had to be put down with the force of arms (and might also forever end the alliance between the monarchy and religious leaders, secularizing Saudi Arabia), is that the royal family, which in the open oligarchic succession model of the dynasty spreads power more widely than a traditional royal family, controls most military leadership positions and has a strong stake in the status quo.

International Impact

Like a collapse of the Soviet Union, a collapse of the existing system in Saudi Arabia would have worldwide geopolitical implications.

Worldwide Islamic fundamentalism within the Sunni tradition receives much of its financing and leadership from Saudi Arabia, not necessarily from the ruling group within the ruling family or the official organs of the Saudi Arabian state, but from Saudi Arabian elites. Osama bin Laden, most of the 9-11 attackers, and a plurality, at least, of the suicide bombers in Iraq hail from Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabian sponsorship is what made the Taliban possible and fueled its rise to power. Via the Taliban, the Saudis conquered Afghanistan with ideas, money, training and trade, rather than soldiers.

Saudi Arabia is awash with young men with college degrees in extremist Islamic theology, with high rates of unemployment but no immediate need to find work, and no real future for themselves in the ordinary economy.

An Islamist revolution against the monarchy in Saudi Arabia would enchance the role Saudi Arabia plays as a threat to the West. Other courses for Saudi Arabia could maintain the status quo, or defuse the engine of worldwide Islamic fundamentalism, depending on the fine details of how they evolved.

For now, at least, when the West supports the Saudi Arabian economy and government, it is also keeping alive the beating heart of the larger state nutured Islamic fundamentalist movement, one part of which is Islamic fundamentalist motivated terrorism targeted at the West. Venues like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somolia and Keyna are mere staging points for a movement based in Saudi Arabia.

The weakness of secular society in Saudi Arabia, and in the Middle East generally, makes the prospects for change in this respect more liklely to be a product of reduced economic clout than local political change.

The U.S. Stance

Should the U.S. be selling some of our most sophisticated weapons to a country like this one?

Consider that, per Wikipedia and its cited sources, "As recently as the 1950s, the Saudi Arabia’s slave population was estimated at 450,000 — 20% of the population. Slavery was finally abolished in 1962. . . . The country has been in a state of war with Israel since May 15, 1948, the day after Israel declared its independence."

More recently and more chillingly, a public opinion survey of over 15,000 Saudis in the summer and fall of 2003 indicates that 48.7% of Saudis had a positive opinion of Osama bin Laden's rhetoric. They may not think that Osama bin Laden himself is a good leader, but there is broad public support for his message.

Even if Saudi Arabia grows more democratic, there are no assurances that this nation's foreign face won't grow more ugly. And, made in America military equipment will remain functional and even sophisticated by international standards long past the decade or two that the current regime is likely to be able to sustain.

The bet that the United States is making on Saudi Arabia as an ally, is a high stake and high risk gamble.

30 July 2008

Ancient Greek Steam Punk

Further study of a 2,100 year old gadget found in a ship wreck called an Antikythera (see also here) reveals that the device used mechanical gears to "perform complex astronomical calculations, including the prediction of solar and lunar eclipses and the movement of the planets" and to chart "the four-year cycle of the Olympics and the cycles of other ancient Greek games." The device used "a calendar scheme described by the Greek astronomer Geminos. In this system, months have 30 days with one day omitted every 64th day in order to have the correct average month length over a cycle of 19 years."

According to the researchers "the months correspond to those used in Corinth and suggest that the device may have originated in Syracuse, Sicily, then a Corinthian colony and the residence of Archimedes. Although the Antikythera mechanism was devised several decades after Archimedes’ death, its geographic location suggests a possible link to scientific instruments developed by the Greek scholar."

It was a thousand years ahead of its time.

The Limits Of Education

In theory, public education is the road to social advancement. In practice, student demographics and family life have prevasive impact on educational success at all levels, and students tend to stay at the level of achievement relative to their peers where they begin the process.

In the Denver Public Schools, "In reading, 77 percent of whites were proficient in 2008, while 42 percent of blacks were proficient and 36 percent of Latinos." Notably, "in Denver about 43 percent of the students who took the test in English are still learning the language." The proficiency level of whites in the Denver schools is comparable to that of students in the well regarded Boulder Public Schools and the Cherry Creek Schools.

Consider the tale of Colorado CSAP scores, in the news once again after the release of statistics for last year's round:

"[S]tudents already behind will have a difficult time catching up. Many of those students are poor or ethnic minorities.

Only 30 percent of students behind in reading — those rated partially proficient or unsatisfactory — are growing at rates that will bring them to proficiency over three years. . . . In writing, 26 percent are growing at a catch-up rate, and 13 percent behind in math are growing toward proficiency."

I've previously noted at this blog that almost all of the CSAP achievement gap is already present at the first test taken by children, in the 3rd grade.

A study by one of the authors of controversial book The Bell Curve, James J. Heckman at the University of Chicago (cited by New York Times columnist David Brooks and in turn by NewMexiKen), backs away from his previous hereditary IQ is destiny position, but continues to argue as Brooks summarizes that: "By [age] 5, it is possible to predict, with depressing accuracy, who will complete high school and college and who won’t.”

The study indicates that most of the factors that influence socio-economic success at age eighteen are largely in place by age 5. Heckman now concedes that early childhood could have effects in addition to heredity that are important, but stands by the evidence that elementary and secondary education have surprisingly little statistical impact on achievement.

Empirically and on average, public education does not have a leveling effect. We know that attociously bad childhood situations (e.g. exposure to violence or extreme isolation and neglect) hurt achievement. We have some tantalizing evidence from the KIPP charter school program, in particular, and also from the positive effects that increasing education levels have had on national economies, that effort far above and beyond that usually expected staus quo in public education, either more time per year or more years of it, with a good curriculum can make an impact. But, in the data that I have seen over the years, the extremes that matter appear to be quite small. For the middle 90% or so of students in public and charter schools, it is very hard to see statistically that public education does much to help lower socio-economic status kids advance themselves, although there isn't much evidence that elementary and secondary education is holding kids back either.

The cases where there have been major changes at the level of a large school district, such as Denver's big gains this year in middle school CSAP scores, seem likely to have as much to do with changing student bodies in those schools as they do with what in going on the classrooms.

We know that exposure to toxins in utero and in early childhood, for example, lead, is important to childhood development. We have reasonably good evidence that pre-school can have a positive impact, although it isn't clear that those benefits last until adulthood if not vigorously maintained. But, we also know that academic ability has a strong hereditary component.

Moreover, from the perspective of educators in the K-12 education system and beyond, it really doesn't matter if academic ability solidifies at conception, during pregancy and birthing, during a pre-school period, or some combination of these time periods.

In short, while most people who look at the issue closely agree that what we really want to evaluate schools based upon the knowledge added by the schools to their students, rather than the absolute levels of achievement which are sensitive to student body demographics, the evidence seems to show that the vast majority of schools are about the same in their ability to advance the knowledge of individual students. There seem to be real limits to what an educational model close to what we have now can make much of a difference in helping poor and minority students secure high academic achievement.

This is depressing news. It is contrary to the ideals that drove the creation of public education in the first place. But, we need to acknowledge what the evidence shows us in some way as we craft solutions, rather than simply doing the same thing and expecting different results.

Arrest Made In Angie Zapata Murder Case

"Greeley Police have arrested Allen Ray Andrade, 22, of Thornton. He faces charges of second-degree murder and aggravated murder vehicle theft" in connection with the murder of Angie Zapata (previously blogged).

UPDATE: Police claim to have a confession from Andrade to a beating death that actually took place two days before the body was found, on July 15, 2008, immediately following a sexual encounter gone wrong in connection with Zapata's transgender status.

If this confession was secured in compliance with Miranda, probably all that remains is for defense counsel and prosecutors to negotiate over where the case lies on the spectrum from heat of passion murder (a class 3 felony) to felony murder (a class 1 felony), all of which are crimes of violence and sentenced more seriously as a result, and in turn, what sentence is appropriate for the crime of conviction. Alternately, defense counsel might take the case to trial and hope for jury nullification or a lenient verdict based upon prejudice against Zapata.

The normal sentencing range for heat of passion murder is sentence set by the judge somewhere between eight and twenty-four years in prison, followed by five years of mandatory parole, restitution, court costs, and possibly also a fine of $3000 to $750,000. Typically, no more than 25% of the sentence could be reduced for good time. The sentence for felony murder is life imprisonment without possibility of parole, or if sought by the prosecution and additional proceedings are conducted, the death penalty (unlikely in this case). There would also be a sentence on the lesser felony charge of aggravated vehicle theft, possibly served consecutively rather than concurrently with the murder charge.

Realistically, the lowest plausible sentence would be about seven years of time actually served in prison, and much longer sentences are possible.

While the murder immediately followed sexual activity according to police, it isn't clear from the description given by police that any sex offense (and the associated punishment for those types of offenses) would be involved in this case.

Denver real estate recovering

There is hope for Denver real estate, but less elsewhere.

Home prices in metro Denver fell 4.8 percent for the 12 months ending in May. The decline was the third-smallest among the 20 cities tracked by the Standard & Poor's/Case-Shiller 20-city index, after Charlotte, N.C., and Dallas.

Between March and May, prices actually rose 1 percent in metro Denver, which could point to more stable home prices here in the months ahead. . . . the value of housing in Detroit is now lower than it was in 2000. . . .

Las Vegas recorded the worst drop, with prices plunging 28.4 percent in the month. Miami came in a close second, with prices down 28.3 percent.

Declining domestic auto industry fortunes suggest that Detroit has much more bad news to experience before hitting bottom.

No Thanks

We don't need a manager of an investment fund with a Cayman Islands account in Congress from Colorado. Jared Polis doesn't fit the bill for the 2nd Congressional District. (Not that his support of Amendment 41 is defensible either.)

29 July 2008

DNA Evidence Accuracy

DNA evidence is accurate, but nowhere near as accurate as it as sold as being.

In 2001, Arizona crime-laboratory analyst Kathryn Troyer was running tests on the state's DNA database when she stumbled across two felons with remarkably similar genetic profiles.

The men matched at nine of the 13 locations on chromosomes, or loci, commonly used to distinguish people.

The FBI estimated the chances of unrelated people sharing those genetic markers to be 1 in 113 billion. But the mug shots of the two felons suggested that they were not related: One was black, the other white. . . .

Although a person's genetic makeup is unique, his "genetic profile" — a sliver of the full genome — may not be. Siblings often share genetic markers, and unrelated people can share some by coincidence.

No one knows how rare DNA profiles are. The odds presented in court are best estimates from the FBI. . . . Defense attorneys seized on the Arizona discoveries as evidence that genetic profiles match more often than statistics imply and are not unique.

Now, lawyers around the country are asking for searches of their own state databases. Scientists and legal experts want to test the accuracy of statistics using the nearly 6 million profiles in the Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS, the national network that includes state and local databases. . . . in two states . . . searches found nearly 1,000 more pairs that matched at nine or more loci.

Put another way, the data from the news story quoted above suggests that on the order of 1% of people in CODIS have one other unrelated person in the database who would could come up as a match to a sample of their DNA. The risk would be higher for related persons who are both in the same database. Moreover, this is "fundamental risk" which can't be eliminated by better lab technique, and there is some additional risk of laboratory error.

This is still extremely accurate. About 99% of people have a unique DNA profile within the CODIS database, and narrowing a list of suspects to two people, one of whom will often be ruled out as a suspect by incontrovertable alibi evidence or a lack of any connection to the crime, still has incredible evidentiary power. Even when there are a pair of matching suspects, a pure DNA match has a 50% chance of being correct. So, overall, the accuracy of a pure DNA match to a suspect is about 99.5%. DNA evidence remains the gold standard of physical evidence in criminal investigations. Error rates for eyewitness identifications in murder-rape cases, in contrast, may approach ten percent.

But the accuracy of DNA testing should be measured in errors per thousand cases, not errors per trillion cases as frequently asserted by FBI DNA experts in criminal trials. The discrepency probably arises from a factually incorrect assumption that there is complete statistical independence of genetic markers in real life human beings. Even slight deviations from complete independence greatly increases the likelihood of coincidental matches.

This knowledge counsels against convictions made on bare DNA evidence without corroborating evidence.

This also counsels against including people with no criminal records in DNA databases which would dramatically increase the risk of false positive results. In a DNA database including everyone in the United States, it wouldn't be surprising if 50% or more of the population has someone with a matching DNA profile using the small number of markers involved; the vast majority of whom have never engaged in serious criminal activity in their lives. Many people, no doubt, would have multiple such matches. A bigger database would certainly make the process of narrowing down suspects swift and more reliable, because it would catch first time offenders who weren't in the database (often in violent crimes where there is significant physical evidence) who wouldn't otherwise be suspects who could be given DNA tests. But the more DNA profile matches there are out there, the more likely it is that someone who was in the same physical vicinity of the crime but had no involvement in it, will come up as a match and be convicted on that basis.

There is also significant fundamental risk of false negatives. One source of this risk is people who are chimeras. Simply put, some people, usually due to a failed twin pregnancy or shared tissue during a pregnancy, have different DNA in different parts of their body. If the evidence and the DNA test sample come from different parts of the same person's body, the result could be a false negative. According to New Scientist magazine, there are about 30-40 documented human cases in the literature, several of which of surfaced in court cases. The actual frequency of this condition is impossible to know, however, because natural chimeras are almost never detected. There are very few symptoms of this condition that can be ascertained without DNA testing and those symptoms that are visible in some cases such as male/female or hermaphrodite characteristics or skin discolouring can have multiple causes some of which are more likely explanations for each condition.

Another fundamental cause (as opposed to an experimental one) for a false negative could be a germ line virus. Simply put, some viruses change your DNA when you are infected with them in a way that is permanent and passed on to future generations. About 8% of the human genome has a viral source. At least one such virus, for example, is transmitted by insect bites and found with some frequency in parts of South America. If the virus changed one of the markers used in the DNA test, a pre-infection DNA test from an individual could cease to match their current DNA test results. Since germ line viruses are not easily distinguishable from other viruses and don't carry any obvious long term symptoms, there is no way to estimate the frequency with which people are infected with them. But, even a tiny percentage rate of germ line virus infection could dramatically reduce the a theoretical false negative rate for DNA testing.

There also isn't good data on experimental error in DNA testing. Given the high pressure, high volume, low budget nature of many government run DNA testing labs, and an inherent incentive to bias in favor of the proescution that employs them the vast majority of the time, there are surely mistakes sometimes. The better studied area of medical mistakes shows that even doctors with the best intentions make serious mistakes with surprising frequency, and it is safe to assume the experimental errors in DNA testing are in the cases per thousand and not the cases per billion or trillion order of magnitude as well.

Moreover, the evidence from the area of medical mistakes is the some doctors are dramatically more likely to make serious medical mistakes than other doctors. So, even if a DNA testing lab, overall, is quite accurate, cases that happen to be assigned to the least careful person in the lab may have a far higher chance of being inaccurate than the gross error rate for the lab would suggest. We've seen waves of cases challenged due to the shoddy work of one bad expert before, and such cases are likely to come up from time to time in the future unless adequate safeguards are put into the process to insulate against individual techician incompetence.

Merger Of Wild Oats and Whole Foods In Trouble

An appeals court has reversed a lower court decision allowing the merger of Wild Oats and Whole Foods to go forward. Given the extent to which the merger has already been consumated and is a fait accompli on the ground it is unclear what this means for the two leading natural foods grocerers. Both grocerers had a strong presence in the Colorado market.

28 July 2008

Another Hot and Dry Summer In Denver

So far in 2008, Denver has had 3.28 inches of precipitation. The normal amount of precipitation for the year to date is 9.97 inches. July has been particularly dry with just 0.24 inches to date, compared to a normal of 1.88 inches this far into the month.

The average yearly precipitation in Denver is 15.81 inches (40.2 cm). A desert is often defined as an area receiving less than ten inches of rain per year, and this year's dry first seven months could easily push Denver from merely being semi-arid, into being a true desert. Unless the spring brings above average precipitation, Denver will be a desert this year.

A good snowpack last winter is preventing us from suffering severe water shortages, but this isn't the first time Denver has set heat and drought records in the past few years. Colorado's ski resorts fear that global warming could cut their competitiveness vis-a-vis Canadian ski resorts soon, however, which is why they are some of the most ardent proponents of controlling greenhouse gases in the state.

We are also chasing the record for the longest number of ninety degree plus days in a row, eighteen, last seen in 1901 and tied a quarter decade earlier. With fourteen straight ninety degree days in a row (as of Sunday), we are already in fourth place for heat waves, and the forecast has us breaking the record on Thursday, and the forecast is for the heat to stay at least another several days. Wednesday is also forecast to be just short of a record high for that day; a slight shift in the weather cut set a new one.

The heat wave will surely break in August, at some point. With luck, the Democratic National Convention will have somewhat cooler weather in late August.

Global warming has gone far enough, and is irreversible enough at this point that summers like this one are what we have to look forward to in the decades to come. Moreover, one of the main big picture take away messages from a recently completed national drought atlas is that drought phenomena operate over very large geographical areas. A fair small number of areas capture a very large share of all dought phenomena in the United States.

In English, that means that dry summers in Denver mean bad news for wide swaths of the Front Range. Dare I say Dust Bowl II?

27 July 2008

On The Wrong Track

Eight out of ten Americans think their country is heading in the wrong direction. The hapless George Bush is partly to blame for this: his approval ratings are now sub-Nixonian. But many are concerned not so much about a failed president as about a flailing nation. . . .

American house prices are falling faster than during the Depression, petrol is more expensive than in the 1970s, banks are collapsing, the euro is kicking sand in the dollar's face, credit is scarce, recession and inflation both threaten the economy, consumer confidence is an oxymoron and Belgians have just bought Budweiser, "America's beer." . . .

Between 2002 and 2006 the incomes of 99% rose by an average of 1% a year in real terms, while those of the top 1% rose by 11% a year; three-quarters of the economic gains during Mr. Bush's presidency went to the top 1%. . . . this lot, rather than building trusts, avoid taxes and ship jobs to Mexico. . . . a nation built on immigrants is building a fence to keep them out. . . why, many wonder, should American children do worse at reading than Polish ones and at maths than Lithuanians?

Abroad, America has spent vast amounts of blood and treasure, to little purpose. In Iraq, finding an acceptable exit will look like success; Afghanistan is slipping. American's claim to be a beacon of freedom in a dark world has been dimmed by Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib and the flouting of the Geneva Conventions. . . . American health care . . . manages to the the most expensive on the planet even though it fails properly to care for the tens of millions of people[.]

From The Economist, July 16th-August 1st 2008, page 15.

25 July 2008

Planes and Trains In Colorado


Colorado based Frontier Airlines will join Chrysler as another major financially distressed U.S. company which is going private in a buy out from a private equity firm. Frontier is currently under Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

The straw that broke that camel's back in that case was an unexpected move by FirstData corporation, Frontier's credit card processor, to demand that Frontier keep more collateral in its account in case of refund requests should the airline shut down. But, it Frontier endured a long slide of declining profitability.

Until recent times, the only way to finance large scale ventures was a public offering of securities or government financing. But, increasingly, private equity firms have managed to secure large pools of money from small numbers of high dollar investors. These firms can often avoid tax disadvantages associated with publicly held firms and also tout their greater management accountability to shareholders and longer term outlook as advantages.

The buyout of Frontier will involve a $75 million equity investment in exchange for 80% of the company's shares, which still seems like a steal. By comparison, the 224 unit luxury residential building going up in Denver's Golden Triangle neighborhood near by office at 816 Acoma Street, has a $53.3 million budget.


A preliminary Wyoming state report "estimates it will cost between $1 million and $1.5 million per mile to upgrade the 265 miles of rail between Casper and Fort Collins [for passenger rail]. . . . building a highway can cost millions of dollars per mile." The existing rail line that would have to be upgraded "is owned by BNSF Railway Co." These upgrades might not be sufficient to secure 90 mph service.

Passenger rail has a lot of promise in the I-25 corridor, but the Casper to Fort Collins segment isn't the obvious place to begin. Rail ridership is tied in part to population density along the rail corridor, and there is more density from Fort Collins to Colorado Spring than there is further north and south in that corridor.

Mourning Angie Zapata

Eighteen year old Angie Zapata was murdered in Greeley, Colorado on July 17, 2008 in her apartment.

One possible motive for the crime is that, at one time, she was known as Justin Zapata. It could have been a hate crime targeted at her because she was a transgender women.

She "craved friends, family and teen pursuits such as talking on the telephone and using a camera. . . . and dreamed of being Miss Latina. 'Her appearance meant everything to her other than being on her phone or taking pictures,' according to the obituary."

A public funeral service was held July 23, 2008, at The Healing Place, in Brighton, Colorado (an affiliate of The Foursquare Church). At the bilingual religous service she was remembered by friends and family:

The way she would spoil her niece and nephew, even quitting a job to take care of them, as two friends reminisced during the service. The way she loved roses, the colors red and black, and way she always made sure her makeup was good -- even simply when taking a trip to Wal-Mart.

Perhaps, most of all, however, was the way she never backed down from who she was, instead saving the energy to care for her friends and family.

"She was always happy," said Alicia Portillo, one of Angie's friends. "She loved music. She didn't care what people thought of her. She always just wanted to be who she was and that was female and to be loved."

Portillo even said Zapata's courage helped her with her own identity as a lesbian.

"Angie gave me the power to not care what people thought of me."

The statement released by Angie Zapata's sister Monica Zapata on behalf of her family stated:

We want the whole community involved to find this person who hurt my sister and to let everyone be aware that all she wanted was to be beautiful. We want this violence to end. Transgender people deserve to be treated with respect.

According to the Greeley Tribune:

A search warrant for Zapata's apartment in the 2000 block of 4th Street indicates the victim suffered fatal wounds to the head and face. . . .Her body was found Thursday [July 17, 2008] in the apartment, according to the warrant. After family members were unable to reach her by telephone, her sister went to the house and got a key from the landlord. She found Zapata lying on the living room floor, covered by a blanket. She was already dead.

The identity and motives of her killer are unknown, although one blog states that:

Police indicate that they have information that might lead to an arrest and have not ruled out that this might be a hate crime but they have also indicated that the killer or killers might be acquaintances of the victim.

The police have asked for help from the public:

Police are looking for Zapata's car, a green 2003 Chrysler PT Cruiser with Colorado license plate number 441-ORN. There is a hubcap missing on the front passenger side and paint missing on the front bumper of the driver's side under the headlight. . . . Anyone with information about Zapata's murder should call Greeley police at 970-350- 9600.

According to this blog (repeated at a couple of other places):

Donations in Angie Zapata’s honor maybe made at Academy Bank in Wal-Mart, 60 W. Bromley Lane or checks made payable to Monica Murquia may be mailed to Colorado Anti-Violence Program, P.O. Box 181085, Denver, CO 80218.

This world seems to have too many senseless tragedies. Angie Zapata's murder was one of them. There are too few answers.

24 July 2008

Are Chapter 13 Plans Futile?

Individual debts with predominantly non-business debts have several choices when filing for bankruptcy. They can seek a Chapter 7 liquidation, a Chapter 11 reorganization, or a Chapter 13 wage earner's plan. As a result of the means test imposed by the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act of 2005, individual, non-business bankruptcies, individuals who make more than the state median income are frequently ineligible for a Chapter 7 liquidation, under a test that compares their income to certain allowed living expenses.

During calendar year 2007, a total of 822,590 bankruptcy petitions were filed in cases with predominantly nonbusiness debt. Approximately 61 percent of these cases (500,613) were filed under chapter 7, in which a debtor’s assets are liquidated and the non-exempt proceeds are distributed to creditors. About 39 percent (321,359) were filed under chapter 13, in which individuals with regular income and debts below a statutory threshold make installment payments to creditors pursuant to a court-confirmed plan. Fewer than one percent (617) were filed under chapter 11,1 which allows businesses and individuals to continue operating while they formulate plans to reorganize and repay their creditors.2

1 Consumer cases filed under chapter 11 are relatively infrequent (about 10% of chapter 11 cases filed in calendar year 2007 were nonbusiness cases) and are generally believed to be the result of debtors’ exceeding the debt restrictions of 11 U.S.C. § 109(e) that currently restrict chapter 13 to debtors with less than $336,900 in noncontingent, liquidated, unsecured debts and less than $1,010,650 of noncontingent, liquidated, secured debts.
2 The 822,590 bankruptcy petitions filed in 2007 include 1 case with predominantly nonbusiness debt filed under chapter 15. See Table F-2 in Statistical Tables for the Federal Judiciary: December 31, 2007.

From the 2007 Report of the Administrative Offices of the United States Courts.

Historically, the vast majority of individual Chapter 7 cases have been "no asset cases" in which the debtor has no assets avaiable for distribution to unsecured general creditors. Secured debt and priority debts generally exceed the value of the debtor's assets that are subject to creditors claims. Even cases with some assets available for distribution to creditors usually produce payouts of pennies on the dollar. Bankrtupcy reform's impact on this historical trend is hard to gauge. On one hand, heightened paperwork requirements may discourage many of the most destitute debtors from filing for bankrputcy relief at all. On other other hand, the means test removes many of the most financially well off debtors, whose were most likely to have assets, from the Chapter 7 pool.

Debtors in Chapter 13 plans must make a payment designed to consume all available income, after making allowed secured debt payments and an allowance for living expenses to creditors for the life of the plan, which is generally three years for those not required to file under Chapter 13 and five years for those required to file under Chapter 13, based upon the means test.

In 2007, very few of the Chapter 13 cases concluded involved completed payment plans.

A total of 54,958 chapter 13 consumer cases filed on or after October 17, 2006, were closed by dismissal or plan completion during the 12-month period ending December 31, 2007. BAPCPA Table 6 illustrates that 53,007 of these cases were dismissed, and 1,627 cases were discharged after the debtors completed repayment plans. Of the 1,627 chapter 13 consumer cases in which debtors completed repayment plans, 7 cases had plans that were modified at least once prior to plan completion.

This is mostly an artifact of the way the statistics are collected. Normally a Chapter 13 plan filed on or after October 17, 2006, would be completed no sooner than October 17, 2009. Thus, repayment plans would normally be completed only in cases where creditors were fully paid off before the normal plan completion time has run, perhaps because there were few debts to pay (e.g. because the debtor had a liquidity problem rather than an insurmountable debt problem), or perhaps because the debtor received a windfall during the plan period, such as winning the lottery, receiving a big bonus at work, or receiving an inheritance.

Premature dismissals often represent a failure to follow through on paperwork, or an administrative mistake. But 17,134 cases were dismissed in 2007 for a failure to make payments under the plan. Of the cases dismissed, 7,771 cases were refiled, but the rest were abandoned. About 10% of Chapter 13 cases filed since October 17, 2006 have been dismissed and abandoned.

M. Jonathan Hayes at the BankruptcyProf Blog speculates on what is behind these numbers:

1,627 were plans that were completed and 53,007 were not, just cases that were dismissed. That statistic is a little misleading. In California, something like 50% of the chapter 13s filed lately are by pro pers who never file anything but the emergency petition. They are simply buying themselves a few weeks.

Overall, about two-thirds of Chapter 13s are filed without lawyers, and this is not an easy kind of case to file by oneself.

Still, there is reason for concern. Prior to bankruptcy reform, when Chapter 13 plans were typically three years long, payments did not have to include all disposable income, and Chapter 13 was strictly voluntary (although there were some incentives to choose it because it allowed a debtor to retain a home and discharge debts that could not be discharged in Chapter 7) most Chapter 13 plans were ultimately converted to Chapter 7 plans, or dismissed and abandoned. Now that more strict five year plans under Chapter 13 are the only option for many of the debtors who file under Chapter 13, there is a widespread expectation that an even larger percentage of plans will fail.

It is entirely possible that the percentage of Chapter 13 plans that are ultimately completed could stay quite low. If it does, Chapter 13 might become little more than a futile remedy for hard pressed, but high income debtors.

Also notable is a new academic study which "establishes with empirical data that bankruptcy filings are down because of the amendments, credit card profits are up hugely since the amendments, and credit card companies have not passed the savings from fewer bankruptcy case writeoffs onto the consumer."

The easier availablity of credit, lower interest rates and better loan terms that bankruptcy reform was supposed to produce has not materialized, even though the reduced write offs of bad debt that were predicted did materialize.

Pre-Trial Release Works In Denver

From City Councilman at Large Doug Linkhart's regular e-mail update:

17,000 days in jail. That's how many bed days were saved last year by the enhanced Pretrial Release program funded by the Crime Prevention and Control Commission. At a cost of just over $160,000, the program eliminates the need for over 50 beds per year, saving about $60,000 in construction costs and $22,000 in operating costs per bed.

The Pretrial Release program reviews the status of individual inmates to determine who can be released on bonds while they await trial. Denver County Court refers inmates who are judged to be safe to the Pretrial Release program. If this program determines that an inmate is judged safe enough to be in the community, they will be placed on a "personal recognizance bond" which often requires a monetary deposit, an electronic monitor and other safety precautions. So far the program has a success rate of over 82%.

The pretrial program is one of many programs being funded by the Crime Prevention and Control Commission, which I helped form and Chair. Others include the Drug Court, Mental Health Docket, Reentry Services and Metro Denver Gang Coalition and the implementation of the Comprehensive Gang Model. Together, we are hoping that the jail bed savings will not only reduce the need for new jail space in the future, but also reduce crime and its impacts on our community. Plus, a reduction of something like 17,000 days in jail means that a bunch of people who would otherwise be in jail can be out making a living, raising kids and contributing to our community.

This is an experiment that has been conducted from time to time for decades, usually with similar results, in other municipalities across the nation. So, the result is no surprise.

Simply put, only weak evidence supports the theory that having money which will be forfeited by the court if one fails to appear at court, called a bail bond, makes a typical defendant more likely to appear. The bail bond system is enshrined in the Bill of Rights, but it wouldn't be the only constitutional right (the right to indictment by a grand jury in federal criminal proceedings is another) that doesn't have its intended effect.

The main difference between a typical defendant who posts bond, and a typical defendant who does not and instead stays in jail until trial, is often ability to pay, rather than flight risk. A right to pre-trial release by posting bond is meaningless if you have no assets, and a large percentage of all criminal defendants are indigent.

In part, this is because a large share of bonds are posted by bail bondsmen and guaranteed by someone other than the often judgment proof, low asset defendant, in exchange for a non-refundable fee often paid by friends or relatives. The risk of someone else's money being forfeited is a weak incentive to appear, and bail bondsmen are better at judging the likelihood that a defendant will show up, which other screeners can do just as well, than they are at actually getting them to do so.

Linkhart doesn't cite a figure in his e-mail, but the percentage of defendants who post bond and fail to appear certainly isn't 100%. Also, in addition to jail costs, not releasing defendant's prior to trial also imposes other costs on prosecutor's offices, public defender's offices, the courts, and law enforcement, because these cases have to be put on a fast track.

Long Term Impact

Also, if you are being detained prior to trial, you have a strong incentive to enter into a plea bargain to a minor offense for time served, even if you are innocent. Fighting the charges simply leaves you in jail longer (at least until the trial is complete), and you receive no compensation for your time in jail, lost wages, or criminal defense related expenses, if you are acquitted. But a plea bargain does leave you with a criminal record, and the inability of low income people to post bond is one reason that low income are more likely to have a criminal record.

A criminal record, in turn, tends to increase your sentence in a subsequent criminal conviction, and also tends to reduce your change of prevailing in a criminal prosecution. One of the main reasons that criminal defendants often don't testify in their own defense in criminal trials is that the prosecution can offer their criminal records to impeach their testimony. So, a plea bargain driven by an inability to post bond can make it harder for that person to defend future criminal charges.

Since poverty and race are intertwined, this is an important factor in racial disparities in our criminal justice system. Wider use of personal recognizance bonds reduces the impact of race and class on the criminal justice system.

23 July 2008

Colorado Higher Ed Funding Unconstitutional

A unanimous three judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit has held that Colorado's refusal to provide scholarships to otherwise eligible students who attend accredited Colorado colleges deemed "pervasively sectarian" is unconstitutional. The decision reverses a prior U.S. District Court ruling.

Colorado shifted a significant share of the money that it provides to higher education from direct institutional support to student based scholarships for students who attend colleges in Colorado, in order to circumvent state constitutional limitations that would otherwise treat tuitition money as a form of tax revenue subject to state constitutional revenue limitations designed to control state funding.

The program allowed students to use the scholarship money at private as well as public institutions, but did not allow it to be used at "prevasively sectarian" institutions.

Employing those criteria, the state defendants have decided to
allow students at Regis University, a Roman Catholic institution run by the
Society of Jesus, and the University of Denver, a Methodist institution, to receive state scholarships, but not students at CCU or Naropa University, a Buddhist institution.

Colorado Christian University cried foul and won, and an "appropriate remedy" will be formulated by the District Court on remand.

Colorado could seek review by an en banc panel of all the judges in the 10th Circuit, or could appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. Neither option, however, is likely to happen before the 2008-2009 school year begins.

Earlier this year, a state trial court held that another key piece of Colorado's education funding program, for K-12 education, was invalid as a result of state constitutional violations. That program effectively reduced state funding for school districts which had TABOR waivers to allow them to collect property tax revenue increases as a result of valuation changes, which were not being fully utilized by those districts, and used the reduced state funding for other K-12 funding goals. That decision is being appealed at this time to the Colorado Supreme Court and could be rendered before the start of the new school year.

The combination of the two court defeats of TABOR driven education funding programs leaves Colorado's system of funding public education at all levels in limbo. It is still possible that a special session may need to be called to fix the mess.

Gravity Probe B and Alternatives To General Relativity

Some time ago, Garth at the Physics Forums compared a number of proposed alternatives of General Relativity, and General Relativity itself, to the preliminary result of the Gravity Probe B experiment, which experimentally tested the accuracy of General Relativity.

Only those theories which come very close to predicting the same results as General Relativity have survived the test of experiment, although it is still possible the the experimental results could, if refined, falisfy the predictions of both General Relativity and many of its proposed alternatives.

Final results are not expected until 2010 and are contingent upon additional funding (the project is about $4 million short and has spent about $800 million to date). Current preliminary results has quite a high margin of error due to various experimental issues.

Garth's post from April 20, 2007 stated (with links to papers regarding all but the first two theories):

the first results have verified the GR geodetic prediction to 1% but there is no handle on the frame-dragging prediction, basically because unexpected signals so far swamp it, except for 'glimpses'.

By the end of the year the correct removal of these effects will give a robust reading to both precessions.

The running now stands:

1. Einstein's General Relativity(GR)
2. Brans-Dicke theory (BD)
3. Barber's Self Creation Cosmology (SCC),
4. Moffat's Nonsymmetric Gravitational Theory (NGT),
5. Hai-Long Zhao's Mass Variance SR Theory (MVSR),
6. Stanley Robertson's Newtonian Gravity Theory (NG),
7. Junhao & Xiang's Flat Space-Time Theory (FST).
8. R. L. Collin's Mass-Metric Relativity (MMR) and
9. F. Henry-Couannier's Dark Gravity Theory (DG).
10. Alexander and Yunes' prediction for the Chern-Simons gravity theory (CS).
11. Kris Krogh's Wave Gravity Theory (WG)
12. Hongya Liu & J. M. Overduin prediction of the Kaluza-Klein gravity theory (KK).
13. Kerr's Planck Scale Gravity: now accepted for publication Predictions of Experimental Results from a Gravity Theory (PSG)

The following are still in the running:

GPB Geodetic precession (North-South)
1. GR = 6.6144 arcsec/yr.
2. BD = 6.6144 arcsec/yr. where now >60.
4. NGT = 6.6144 - a small correction arcsec/yr.
6. NG = 6.6144 arcsec/yr.
9. DG = 6.6144 arcsec/yr.
10. CS = 6.6144 arcsec/yr.
11. WG = 6.6144 arcsec/yr.
12. KK = (1 + b/6 - 3b2 + ...) 6.6144 arcsec/yr. where 0 < b < 0.07.

We await the GPB gravitomagnetic frame dragging precession (East-West) result.

1. GR = 0.0409 arcsec/yr.
2. BD = 0.0409 arcsec/yr.
4. NGT = 0.0409 arcsec/yr.
6. NG = 0.0102 arcsec/yr.
9. DG = 0.0000 arcsec/yr.
10. CS = 0.0409 arcsec/yr. + CS correction
11. WG = 0.0000 arcsec/yr.
12. KK = 0.0409 arcsec/yr.

Those that have fallen by the wayside:

3. SCC = 4.4096 arcsec/yr.
5. MVSR = 0.0 arcsec/yr.
7. FST = 4.4096 arcsec/yr.
8. MMR = -6.56124 arcsec/yr.
13. PSG = 0.0000 arcsec/yr/

He was the man behind SCC, and was brutally honest in accepting the falsification provided by GP-B (not be daunted he revised the theory to fit the data in short order).

As he more fully explains the data from GP-B on page 14 of that thread:

Just to make clear what the present situation is:

(mas = milliarcsec)
The geodetic N-S precession is predicted by GR to be - 6606 mas/yr, however there is a solar geodetic precession N-S component of + 7 mas/yr and the proper motion of IM Pegasi +28 mas/yr to take into account, resulting in a net expected N-S precession of -6571 1 mas/yr.

The frame-dragging E-W precession is predicted by GR to be -39 mas/yr, the solar geodetic precession E-W component of -16 mas/yr and the proper motion of IM Pegasi -20 mas/yr to include, resulting in a net expected N-S precession of -75 1 mas/yr.

From pages 20 and 21 of Francis Everitt's April APS talk, we find: A series of error ellipses on the N-S v E-W precession plot with centres respectively at (-6584 60, -83 22 mas/yr) June 2006, (-6597 17, -92 15 mas/yr) December 2006, (-6595 12, -98 7 mas/yr) March 2007 and (-6603 8, -98 7 mas/yr) March 2007.

It was this last reading for the geodetic precession that Francis Everitt reported at his April APS talk. If we also include that 'glimpse' of the E-W precession as well we have net values of:
(-6603 8, -98 7 mas/yr)
whereas GR predicts:
(-6571 1, -75 1 mas/yr).

In other words the actual readings are larger than GR predicts by 32 mas/yr in geodetic precession and 23 mas/yr in frame-dragging precession.

However, they reported an overall error, which is still being reduced, caused by residual gyro-to-gyro inconsistencies due to incomplete modeling of ~ 100 mas/yr.

This renders the present geodetic 'glimpse' as being consistent with GR to within about 1%, whereas the frame-dragging precession is at present swamped by noise.

Page 17 of that thread notes a December 2007 update of the GP-B data:

Einstein expectation: -6571 +- 1*
4-gyro result (1 sigma) for 85 days
(12 Dec 04 -- 4 Mar 05) -6632 +- 43

The December 2007 update puts experimental results 1.4 standard deviations greater than General Relativity predicts, with partial data. This is still reasonably close. Random chance calls for results within 1 standard deviation about 68% of the time and within 2 standard deviations about 95% of the time, so this isn't a horribly quirky result, although it also isn't as confirming as one might hope if one wanted an unequivocal GR confirmation.

Why would anyone even bother rethinking a well established theory like General Relativity? As a paper described in the thread notes:

[T]here are important reasons to question the validity of Einstein’s theory of gravity. Despite the beauty and simplicity of general relativity, our present understanding of the fundamental laws of physics has several shortcomings. The continued inability to merge gravity with quantum mechanics, and recent cosmological observations that lead to the unexpected discovery of the accelerated expansion of the universe (i.e., “dark energy”) indicate that the pure tensor gravity field of general relativity needs modification.

Some theorists believe that modifications to General Relativity could also explain some or all of the phenomena described as "dark matter" which require matter of a type fundamentally different from known "baryonic" matter which has never actually observed to fit the experimental data.

Dark matter and dark energy are both phenomena that are observed only at very long ranges where gravitational fields are very weak. Many theorists think that a quantum formulation of general relativity could produce subtle differences from General Relativity, which is a classical theory, rather than a quantum one, to produce subtle empirical differences from classical General Relativity.

Iraq and the Presidential Election

The Iraqi government wants troops out of Iraq on a timeline similar to that of Presidential candidate Obama, a fact highlighted in Obama's visit to Iraq this week. It is hard to argue that a long term U.S. troop presence is appropriate when the Iraqi civilian government whose invitation we claim provides the legal basis for our presence in the country wants us to withdraw.

Meanwhile, Iraqi provincial elections look likely to be delayed until after the U.S. Presidential elections.

These elections have the potential to shift power from the central government to provincial and/or regional governments. Provincial and regional governments would be less prone to deadlock than the Iraqi parliament. They would not have supermajority requirements to pass legislation, as the national parliament does in an effort to secure multi-ethnic consensus, and they would have more ethnically homogeneous representatives.

Provincial elections are likely to produce ethnically homogeneous groups of elected officials because the Iraqi civil war in the aftermath of of U.S. invasion has segregated the country on ethnic lines. Predominantly Sunni areas are more so now. Predominantly Shi'ite areas are more so now. Kurdish isolation and autonomy have remained. Most mixed neighborhoods have seen the minority in their larger region flee. Provinces that still have ethnically mixed populations, like Baghadad, increasingly have strictly ethnically segregated neighborhoods.

The effect of the last round of national elections was to shut Sunnis out of the political process. They are a minority nationally, so they have no hope of ever out voting a Kurdish-Shi'ite or unilateral Shi'ite parliamentary majority, although supermajority requirements give their representatives a limited veto power of certain kinds of legislation if they can hold together. Existing Sunni representatives in the Iraqi parliament also got there by denying a boycott of the elections which the vast majority of Sunnis in Sunni dominated regions joined, a fact that limits their legitimacy as leaders for Iraqi Sunnis.

New provincial elections could establish a class of legitimate Iraqi Sunni political leaders to replace the current crop of Sunni parliamentarians, and could give Iraqi Sunni's political power in the provinces where they are a majority, provinces that are now home to most Iraqi Sunnis in the country. This would give Iraqi Sunnis a stake in supporting the existing governmental structure, rather than undermining it with continued military insurgency efforts. A massive decentralization of governmental power could make it easier for governments to carry out their functions without being hamstrung by pervasive political infighting that infects even basically non-partisan issues.

New elections and the formation of regional governments through the merger of some of these regions, also form the basis for a possible "hard" (i.e. true independence) or "soft" (i.e. autonomy with a weak central government) partition of Iraq, with a Southeastern Shi'ite autonomous region, a Northern Kurdish autonomous region, a Western Sunni autonomous region or province, and a few central provinces that would not be as homogeneous but would also have fewer ethnic groups with representatives than the national parliament, something that would presumably make multi-ethnic agreements easier to reach.

For McCain, who already embarassed himself this week by calling for increased security on the non-existent "Iraq-Pakistan border" on morning daytime TV, this may deny him an opportunity to show that Iraq is really making progress as a result of the Iraq War which is supports unconditionally. In November of 2008, provincial elections will be only another empty promise that may or may not actually come into being. Unless Americans change their minds on Iraq and come around to McCain's point of view, his prospects at the polls are dim.

Call In The Psychologists and Novelists

A switched at birth baby case produced a lawsuit in 2002, that was dismissed, IMHO rightly, because it was not brought within the applicable two year from discovery statute of limitations. The births took place in 1946. (Under Colorado law, a statute of repose, which runs from the date of the wrongful act whether or not the mistake is discovered, would have made the issue much more clear.) Damages would also have been very difficult to measure.

But the case would be a precious prize for a psychological case study, and would make a great book. The case also could have impliciations that are not dated in legal contexts other than a suit for money damages against the doctors and hospital that screwed it up.

The case also raises questions about whether laws other than suits for money damages against hospitals should be changed now that paternity can easily be determined with certainty, something not possible in most cases before the 1990s, and about what damages, if any, should be awarded in a timely brought switched at birth case.

22 July 2008

Prohibition Ended In Utah

It is ironic that prohibition was ended in proceedings held in December, 1933, in Utah, which is now and probably was then, the dryest state in the union, since Mormons, the predominant religous grouping in the state, aren't supposed to drink alcohol.

It is proof for the cynics, comparable to that of the various expansions of the franchise, that political movements can overcome stereotypes and narrow self-interest.

Easter Bunny Named After Easter Island God

The plutoid formerly known as "Easter Bunny" (and also as 2005 FY9) has been officially renamed Makemake (pronounced MAH-kay MAH-kay), a Polynesian word, "which is the name for the god of fertility and also the name of the creator of humanity in the mythology of the South Pacific Island of Rapa Nui, or Easter Island."

Offical names for Plutoids must have a mythological origin. It joins previously named plutoids Pluto and Eris, and previously named dwarf planet Ceres. Makemake is the largest object in the solar system named for a non-Western mythological figure.

Most known plutoids were discovered by astronomer Mike Brown and his team. His website notes that the smallest round satellite in the solar system has a diameter of about 400 km, and that the smallest round non-satellite in the solar system, Ceres, is about 900 km in diameter, which, he suggested are the empirical cutoffs for icy and rocky bodies, respectively, to form spheres with their own gravity.

Prior to today, Makemake was the largest object in the solar system without an official common name, and without formal recognition as a dwarf planet or satellite.

Some of the other leading contenders in the queue to be recognized as dwarf planets, with their diameters in kilometers, approximate locations and their official or unofficial common names, where available, are:

Santa (Posible Dwarf Planet Kuiper Belt) 1,500
2002 TC302 (Possible Dwarf Planet ca. Kuiper Belt) under 1,200
Sedna (Possible Dwarf Planet ca. Kuiper Belt) 1,180-1,800
Quaoar (Possible Dwarf Planet Kuiper Belt) 989-1346
Orcus (Possible Dwarf Planet Trans-Neptune) 880-1880

Wikipedia has a more complete list.

Ceres, in the asteroid belt, is the only dwarf planet which is not a plutoid, although some modern researchers believe that Ceres may have once been a plutoid before being catapulted by gravity into the inner solar system during the process by which the gas giants took their current positions in the solar system. It is much larger than its three nearest rivals in size in the asteroid belt, which together with Ceres make up about half of the mass of the main asteroid belt.

Other large bodies in the solar system include the Sun, eight full fledged planets, and fifteen dwarf planet sized or larger satellites of planets. Another blogger more completely summarizes (wiht the inaccuracy of counting Ceres as a plutoid) the state of affairs as follow:

For those keeping count, the official tally for our system is now four stony planets, four gas giants, four plutoids, around 180 moons, 1000 Kuiper belt objects, 3500 comets, and 10,000 asteroids with about seven more plutoid candidates under consideration and a few dozen believed to exist.

Objects that are much smaller than Orcus are unlikely to become dwarf planets, as opposed to comets or asteroids, because they tend to lack sufficient gravity to compress themselves into a roughly spherical shape, which is part of the definition of a dwarf planet.

Colorado's Law Prof Blogger Shortage

Not a single law professor in Colorado blogs according to the most comprehensive census of law professor bloggers in existence.

Those of us outside academe will continue to pick up the slack.

Private Tax Collection A Bust

Using private collection firms to collect unpaid taxes isn't working. Contract oversight is poor and the approach isn't increasing tax collections as intended.

Perhaps there is some manner in which the federal government bureacracy is regulated, but the private sector is not, which makes tax collection less effective. For example, perhaps private debt collectors have more compensation package flexibility allowing them to give their employees greater incentives to increase collections. If that is the problem, it is within the power of Congress to change to offending rules while keeping tax collectors within the I.R.S.

On the other hand, if private debt collectors are no more effective at collecting taxes than government employees, which appears to be the case in real life, there is no reason to use private debt collectors or their methods.

21 July 2008

Recidivism and Criminal History

The fewer run-ins with the law you have had before, the less likely you are to reoffend, according to a May 2004 U.S. Sentencing Commission report:

The analysis [of empirical data on re-offending] delineates recidivism risk for offenders with minimal prior criminal history and shows that the risk is lowest for offenders with the least experience in the criminal justice system. Offenders with zero criminal history points have lower recidivism rates than offenders with one or more criminal history points. Even among offenders with zero criminal history points, offenders who have never been arrested have the lowest recidivism risk of all.

Federal courts deal with many criminal defendants with little criminal history:

The annual proportion of federal offenders with zero criminal history points is substantial. In fiscal year 2001, more than four out of every ten federal offenders (42.2%) had zero criminal history points for their Chapter Four computation. This proportion was even higher in fiscal year 1992, when nearly half (49.9%) of citizen offenders had zero criminal history points.

About 29.8% had no prior arrests or convictions, 8.4% had been arrested but not convicted, and 1.5% had only minor prior criminal convictions, in 1992. Defendants with no criminal record are much more like to be women, to be white, to be older than 41 years old, less likely to have used drugs, more likely to be employed, more likely to be married, more likely to be high school graduates or have some college, and are more likely to have dependents. Non-violent drug, fraud and theft offenses are the most common charges, making up about three quarters of cases, with fraud and theft much more common than for those with prior offense records. There is no significant difference in mental illness rates.

The recidivism rate of those with no criminal history points is 11.7%, for those with 1 criminal history point is 22.6% and for those with more criminal history is 36.5%. Within those with no criminal history points:

Among the potential first offender groups, group A [no prior convictions or arrrests] has the lowest primary recidivism rate at 6.8 percent, followed by offender group C [minor convictions, no prior arrests] with a rate of 8.8 percent. Offenders in group B have a recidivism rate of 17.2 percent, [prior arrests but not prior convictions] which is more than twice the rate of group A and nearly twice the rate for group C. Even with the comparatively higher recidivism rate, group B’s rate is still several percentage points lower than offenders in the remaining zeroes group (21.7%) [zero criminal history points but some prior conviction for a non-minor matter].

One must ask, however: Is it appropriate to consider a statistically important difference between offenders who have and have not been arrested before, with no prior convictions, as an arrest not producing a conviction doesn't have any formal legal importance and is subject to manipulation without judicial branch review? This issue is akin to the issue of considering uncharged and acquitted conduct at sentencing.

The answer matters a great deal to many non-violent offenders with little criminal history, who make up a large share of all defendants in federal court. Serious state court criminal cases tend to have fewer first time offenders, fewer white collar cases and fewer drug cases on a percentage basis.

Of course, since these offenders tend to get the lightest sentences anyway, adjustments in this sentencing regime don't have the greatest fiscal impact on the system, although leniency with this group may be the least politically painful. The harder policy question is how to deal with offenders who a chronically recidivist, but commit not very serious crimes -- repeat minor drug dealers and small dollar amount thieves, for example. In those cases the cost of the crimes committed may be small relative to the cost of incarceration.

Fox Legal Analyst Doesn't Know Her Courts

The Fox News network has never had much credibility. A blog statement from a Fox New legal analyst, Lis Wiehl, states that the New York Court of Appeals is the second highest court in New York State. One would expect better from a Harvard Law School educated law professor. Indeed, given that the post is in a blog, over which one assumes that the author has editorial control, rather than an article, where a less informed editor might insert an inaccurate correction, it is even worse.

The New York Court of Appeals is, of course, the highest court in the State of New York equivalent to the Supreme Court in most states, while the "Supreme Court" in New York State is the trial court of general jurisdiction, and the intermediate court of appeal in New York State is the "Supreme Court, Appellate Division" (with certain quirky exceptions).

A lay person usually wouldn't know this, but a legal analysy on TV news should. It is right in the Bluebook, the standard guide to legal citation in law review articles, that every law student involved in a law review, and every law professor, learns cold.

The New Lawyer Pay Divide

Some newly minted lawyers are paid very well. Another cluster are paid rather poorly. There is a dearth of new lawyers in the middle (annual pay from about $65,000 to $125,000 a year):

Half of the graduates make less than the $62,000 per year median--but remarkably, there is no clustering there. Over a quarter (27.5%) make between $40k-$55k per year, and another quarter (27.8%) have an annual salary of $100K plus.

If the chart were a flipbook of the last twenty years, the first mode would be relatively stationary, barely tracking inflation, while the second mode would be moving quickly to the right--i.e., the salary wars. In fact, because of the recent jump to $160K in the major markets, the second mode has already moved even more to the right.

A well done graphic displays the situation.

The law blogger posting this analysis notes that:

There is a lot of commodity corporate legal work on there; why not bow out of the salary wars, ratchet down the hours to 1800, take work on a flat fee arrangement, focus on better/faster service (thus increasing margins on the flat fees), and literally feast on the human capital willing to take a job in the "death valley" range (i.e., ~$80,000 per year), especially if the hours are sane. The client gets quality and cost predictability, and the well-managed firm can make a lot of money. This is a great opportunity for a firm willing to rethink its business model.

I couldn't bear to work in a law factory like that, but I can see how many people would enjoy it.

Republicans Try To Suppress Use of GOP

The Republican National Committee is threatening to use trademark law to prevent Cafe Press from using "GOP" and a patriotically themed elephant in political paraphenalia.

Given the political nature of the speech involved, and the widespread use of these icons to describe their party, I doubt that this threat will go anywhere. But, it does illustrate, once again, the use of business torts for illegitimate purposes of intimidation.

Few, if any, of the products, which are mostly satires and quips, show any sign of a claim that they are affiliated with the RNC or one of its affiliates.

Next Generation Cruisers and Destroyers Scrapped

There are indications that the U.S. Navy has given up on a prompt replacement of its destroyers and cruisers. The Zumalt DDG-1000 was so profoundly over budget and beyond the mission of existing destroyers (it was really more of a battleship) that the program has been stopped after only a couple of prototypes. Enthusiasm for a new class of cruisers (possibly of two designs, one for missile defense and another for more traditional aircraft carrier escort roles) has likewise waned. Instead, existing ships will be refurbished and kept in service:

The refurb policy will cost about $200 million per destroyer (and 20-25 percent more for the cruisers). Normally, these ships get one refurb during their 30 year lives. This not only fixes lots of things that have broken down or worn out (and been patched up), but installs lots of new technology. A second refurb is expected to add another 5-10 years. . . . the navy wants to install the "smart ship" type automation (found in civilian ships for decades) that will enable crew size to be reduced. The "smart ship" gear also includes better networking and power distribution. In effect, the ship would be rewired. This could reduce the crew size by 20-30 percent (current destroyers have a crew of 320, with the cruisers carrying 350). In addition to considerable cost savings (over $100,000 a year per sailor), a smaller crew takes up less space, enabling the smaller crew to have more comfortable living quarters.

This is a good move. The U.S. Navy's blue sea surface fleet has few real rivals, yet is vulnerable to submarine and advanced missile threats. The current fleet is more a product of World War II driven backward thinking in the Reagan era than actual military need. Taking on enemy surface ships is generally something better done by our own submarines, missiles and aircraft. Yes, there is a place for some robust U.S. naval force in the U.S. military. But given the immense cost of building ships of new designs, and the relatively modest benefits associated with doing so, pausing this effort makes sense. The Navy's scarce warship procurement funds are better spent keeping the Littoral Combat Ship program, which fills an important gap in existing capabilities, on track.

Why Is War Still Up Close And Personal?

One of the facts of modern warfare, which has gone into the debate over whether the U.S. military should retain the M4 carbine, and the NATO standard small caliber ammunity it uses, is that a very large share of all shots fired in anger by the military real life are fired at short range, where even pistols have tolerable accuracy. This is also true of most shots fired in anger in civilian life, by criminals, by citizens engaged in self-defense, and by law enforcement. You can count on your fingers the number of criminal snipers in the past decade, and they make national news; SWAT teams fire guns a long range more often, but still not very often.

This is not a technical necessity. Even a standard assault rifle, found the world over in both affluent and non-affluent nations, has remarkable accuracy at a very long range. Even longer range sniper weapons have been around since World War II. Guided artillery ordinance and "smart bombs" also exist and can hit targets with accuracy anywhere in a metropolitan area.

Generally speaking, of course, it is far safer for the person firing a weapon to do so at long range than up close and personal.

Someone looking into their crystal ball forty years ago might have expected war to have become an impersonal, cold blooded, long range affair by now. In air to air combat, this is precisely what has happened in the modern era. But it hasn't happened on the ground.

Two main factors seem to have prevented this from happening. First, combatants know that it is foolish to fight in open territory and seek places where they have cover, like urban areas and ambushes. Second, identifying someone as a friend or foe, and getting into a situation that makes clear that it is necessary to fire, often happens only within close visual or auditory range.

There may also be a third factor. Perhaps soldiers on the ground, by virtue of training and instinct, simply feel wrong about killing in cold blood at long range.

At any rate, the lesson seems to be that sometimes technology doesn't change everything.

ERISA Still Evil

The Employee Retirement Income Security Act's pre-emption provisions were overkill on day one and continue to do grievous harm to employees of American businesses. The linked blog post discussed a bad faith denial of life insurance benefits in which ERISA played a part. This has long needed a legislative fix, but the issue has proved more complex than Congress is willing to handle.

Superbowl Wardrobe Malfunction Fine Vacated

A federal appeals court has held that a momentary and allegedly accidental display of a woman's nipple at a Superbowl game does not justify a $550,000 fine. The Court held that the fine was an unannounced and arbitrary deviation from long standing FCC policy.

101.5 FM Disappoints

Why write a blog post when someone else has already done it for me?

When I saw the giant biillboard on 6th and Speer advertising "DENVER'S NEW INDEPENDENT ALTERNATIVE RADIO," I couldn't reprogram my car radio's preset fast enough. Alternative? Independent? It's about freakin' time!

What a gyp.

I'm not really sure what this station is an alternative TO, since it's basically playing the same music you'd hear on 93.3. I'm also not sure what they mean by "independent." Maybe they're not owned by Big Brother... oops, I mean Clear Channel. I have no clue.

Anyhow, where I was hoping to get some cool Indie-Rock by bands I could l later say that I'd heard of, "way before YOU did," I just got the same old blah. . . .

Not painful, but also nothing I'd really consider "Alternative" or "Independent." Probably worth three stars, but I'm docking them one more for two reasons:

1. They have a morning show. Nothing irks me more than contrived "witty banter" in the morning. Just play some damn music and shutthehellup.
2. Every single commercial break leads off with an ad for Scalp-Meds, so you can regrow your balding spot, ol' chap. Kind of makes me wonder who they think their target market actually is.

Seriously. The morning show is made up of a bunch of dorks who belong on an easy listening channel, the reception is full of static, the mix of songs played is tolerable but neither terribly independent nor alternative, and while it is an improvement upon the failed format of its predecessor, "The Martini," (which, at least, was different, even if it wasn't my thing), 101.5 FM is nothing to write home about. Why listen when 93.3 FM and 105.9 FM are doing essentially the same thing, but better, with less static? Indeed, 101.5 is less alternative and independent in its playlists than 93.3 FM (which has positioned itself as the most modern and alternative rock station in Denver on the FM dial) and is less well executed (but more similar in play list) to 105.9 FM (a glorified top 40 station).

If they'd advertised themselves in a way that better represented what they were doing, maybe something like "a modern music station you won't be ashamed to play in front of your kids," I might not have had such a visceral negative reaction. After all, history has not been kind to bolder experiments in Denver radio like a Reggatone channel (which my wife loved), and a Techno channel (which I was addicted to). Nielson establishes clearly that Denver radio audiences aren't interested in pushing the envelope. But this is pathetic.

Their website is here. Owner Denver Radio Company also owns 107.1 oneFM with another cast of dorky DJs and a half tolerable playlist, apparently designed to compete with 105.9 FM in the way that 101.5 FM is designed to compete with 93.3 FM.

More Toilet Blogging

Shirah at Unbossed is concerned that building toilets with electric flushers is tempting fate.

Coyote Gulch is also sewer blogging with a story about root infestation of a municipal sewer line -- the dull stuff of ordinary life, my own office building's sprinkler system has just been brought down with a similar problem.

Resort Real Estate Sales Collapse

Somehow, I can bring myself to feel much concern for the fact that sales of grossly overpriced real estate in Colorado's resort communities are down by double digit percentages, about 50% in Aspen, the most expensive of them all. Perhaps this is because, while sales are down, prices are holding steady (actually increasing in Aspen).

Outside resort communities, Western Slope real estate prices are surging, as mining activity ramps up in the face of surging oil, gas and metal prices. But, even flush oil miners can't afford to live in Vail or Aspen (something long out of the price range of people who actually work there).

19 July 2008

Flunking Out v. Losing Interest

The conventional wisdom is that college attrition is closely linked to flunking out. This is not the whole truth:

In 1994, 33% of all college freshman dropped out--the highest dropout rate since the early 1980s. Studies showed that these students were not, by and large, flunking out. Academically, they could have stayed in school. But they didn't. The theory was--and remains--that what drove these students out of college was alienation, a sense of not belonging.

Demographics and income play an important part in retention:

According to the National Center for Education Statistics' 2002 "Condition of Education" report, 63% of high school graduates go straight on to college (as compared to 49% in 1972). 66% of white students go straight from high school to college, while only 55% of black students and about 50% of Hispanic students do. The numbers have improved for black students over time--only 38% of black high school grads were going right on to college in 1983. But the numbers have stayed largely the same for Hispanic students, hovering around 50% since 1972. Those numbers are correlated with income--the higher the family income, the more likely students are to go to college. . . . Affirmative action has helped a great deal with the admissions part of the equation. But retaining and graduating students of color continues to elude even schools that are trying their hardest to do so. Whereas 84% of white students enrolling at Berkeley between 1987 and 1990 graduated within six years, only 58% of black students and 67% of Hispanics did. As of the late 90s, the national black dropout rate was 60%; at elite schools, it was 25%--better, but still not great.

But, while those who don't stay may not be literally flunking out, academic preparation is clearly also an important factor in retention:

The numbers are also correlated with the quality of secondary school education--college-qualified low and middle income students who applied are as likely as wealthy students to enroll in college within 2 years of graduation (83 and 82% respectively). Those who took rigorous courseloads in high school have much better chances of making it through college to graduation.

I suspect that while many of these students did not flunk out, that they also were doing far less well in terms of grades, than their peers who stayed, within every economic and demographic group. But it is harder to stay when doing so means racking up big personal debts or putting financial pressures on family or losing scholarships that have higher expectations than the institution itself.

If you know what to expect, you are convinced that you are well prepared, you can count on virtually unconditional parental economic support that doesn't lead to family hardship, and you have peers to whom you feel you can turn, your college experience can be pretty bad before you consider dropping out. And, if you stick it out, you are more likely to get that all important piece of sheepskin and corresponding resume entry.

In interesting footnote to this discussion is the change in retention patterns at Yale. As explained by The Yale Herald:

uring the first half of the 20th century, roughly one out of every four students who matriculated at Yale College did not graduate. . . . All this changed in the '60s and '70s, as Yale's graduation rate surged past 90 percent, never to dip below that threshold again as a result of reforms in admissions. Over the last 25 years, Yale has graduated nearly 95 percent of its students. . . .

What's more, the five percent of any Yale class that does not graduate includes not only students who flunk out but also transfer students and those who withdraw for personal or medical reasons. The upshot: The genuine "flunkee" is an endangered species at Yale, a true Blue statistical outlier. . . . the most self-evident—albeit self-congratulatory—explanation for the paucity of F's is that the Admissions office selects students of such a high academic caliber that failing is rarely an issue. With an acceptance rate of 9.9 percent for the Class of 2008, Yale has never been as selective as it is now. . . .

Yale's retention rate increased dramatically in the '60s "because of changes in admissions policies and the desirability of an education at Yale." More specifically, the transition to a need-blind admissions process ensured that the University would accept the best and the brightest, not just the entitled. "With financial aid policies we're just pulling students here from a much larger pool," he said. "Plus the decision to admit women [in 1969] doubled that pool. And so students come in less likely to fail. I think [the rise in graduation rate] has less to do with a change in professors than with a change on the part of the students."

Having been at Yale both as a student in the '70s and as a teacher since 1996, Eire speaks from first-hand experience in agreeing with this assessment. "Between 1965 and 1970 a big change came—Yale became a true meritocracy whereas before it had been an aristocracy."

There is some anxiety at Yale that professors conditioned to thinking that students are smart are unduely reluctant to flunk failing students, but it doesn't seem to have much substance to it. Comparison of retention rates at comparably selective institutions also elicits an interesting response from administrators at those schools:

In light of substantially lower graduation rates at a number of top-tier academic institutions—most notably Caltech, MIT, the University of Chicago, and Johns Hopkins—one may wonder what Yale is doing differently to identify and avert possible failures. When asked to speculate on the reasons behind Caltech's relatively low six-year graduation rate of 89 percent, Linda King, Caltech's associate registrar, pointed to a fundamental difference between both the structures and curricula of Caltech and Yale. "We're an engineering and science school that only graduates 200 students," she said, contrasting Caltech with institutions like Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, which have both a much larger student body and a more wide-ranging curriculum. Dean Salovey clarified the impact that curricular diversity may have on a university's retention rate, implying that schools like MIT and Caltech are less able to handle students' changing interests. "I would guess that [the difference in graduation rates between Yale and Caltech and MIT] may have less to do with grading or failing," he said. "So many students come to college with a certain idea of what they want to do, and then that idea gets challenged. Harvard, Yale, and Princeton can accommodate students who come in with one thing in mind and then want to pursue something different."

The implication is that elite tech colleges may be losing students to transfers, not necessarily immediate, rather than to ultimately concluded educations.

Another interesting observation is that college dropouts who leave for academic reasons tend to do so early:

Another important finding of research on student success* is that the seeds of leaving college tend to be planted early. “It’s a pretty good rule of thumb that you will lose half of the people you will lose — either physically or psychologically — by the end of the first semester,” said Peter Ewell, an expert on higher education assessment and vice president of the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems (NCHEMS).

“Certainly you don’t find a lot of people flunking out for academic reasons after the second year.”

Administrators at Elon University in North Carolina attribute increased retention to active efforts to prevent student alienation and provide extra support early on, and have some statistics to back up their claims:

University officials credit Elon’s first-year program with a consistent rise in four-year graduation rates from 45 percent in 1989 to 69 percent for the most recent graduating class. The rise has been particularly dramatic among African-American students, whose retention rates nearly doubled — rising from 32 percent to 71 percent — during this period.

This response to poor retention appears to be the preferred approach of college administrators.

Others argue that the real problem is in an admissions process that is too easy to allow people into college without telling them that the odds of success with their current levels of preparation are dismal, and argue against a college for all attitude (even if that only means community college for all):

Recent research shows that fewer than 38 percent of high school students who plan to get a college degree actually do so within 10 years of graduating. Of those with poor high school grades, less than 14 percent achieve their college plans. Many of these college dropouts get no college credits and enter the labor market no better off. Like other young people without college degrees, they face the prospect of dead-end jobs that offer minimum wages, low status and little training—a situation that appears to continue many years after graduation. . . . This particular group of young people is the focus of James E. Rosenbaum’s most recent book, Beyond College for All: Career Paths for the Forgotten Half. . . .

A recent study found that 58.3 percent of high school graduates who landed jobs were only continuing the same dead-end jobs they had held in high school, while a 1993 survey of new high school graduates showed that four months after graduation 26 percent of whites and 50 percent of blacks had not been hired. . . .

Community colleges offering a two-year associate of arts (A.A.) degree aimed to reduce the academic barriers to college by offering open admissions and remedial courses. On one level these policies have succeeded—enrollment in public community colleges increased fivefold from 1960 to 1990.

But those numbers tell only one side of the story. Rosenbaum’s research shows that 92 percent of students with low grades planning to earn an A.A. failed to do so—even higher than the 86 percent of those who abandoned their plans to earn a BA. He discovered that in some city colleges the dropout rate is as high as 80 percent.

"We’re deceiving students by not warning them," Rosenbaum says. . .

Rosenbaum likens today’s situation to a confidence game—students are initially led to believe they can obtain something easily. By the time they realize it’s a false promise, it’s too late to get out of the predicament. School staff members may have good intentions when they withhold information, but it is harmful to students’ careers. "When students fail they blame themselves. They think, ‘It’s all my fault." When they drop out they see no hope in getting a job. They feel terrible going through a job search. The really sad thing is that it’s so easily avoidable."

In short, students with low grades should at least hear from their guidance counselors that they are setting themselves up to fail by trying to go to college, and that college isn't the only option.

He argues that American high schools should follow the model of German and Japanese high schools which play a central role in job placement for non-college bound students, convince employers to care about high school grades that are otherwise irrelevant to students not bound for college, and "provide assessment of so-called 'soft skills'—deportment, attendance, sociability—that employers desire."

He notes that the skilled trades and clerical jobs are preferrable to the service sector dead end jobs where many kids out of high school who are not bound for college end up.

Almost all the professors who taught G.I. Bill students came away with stories about how these older college students were better prepared and more focused than those coming straight out of a high school, something that is directly contrary to the evidence that those who take time out after high school are less likely to graduate.

The two stories don't need to be contradictory, however. Even if college is the right choice for a large percentage of people, many of them are not ready for it in their late teens, and need a number of years to mature and get serious about life before they are ready. The statistics focus on students not starting college immediately who are only briefly out of high school, and many colleges are ill designed for the lives of older students, who, if they go to school full time need a more intensive experience than two sixteen week semesters a year, themselves awash in parties (a theme Regis University in Denver has made a mantra of its marketing). Maybe if we created an easier way for people who have been out of high school for a while to take up college later in life, more people would go to college when they were really ready, rather than when the calendar told them to do so.