29 July 2013

Biological Basis Of Allergies Getting More Clear

A biochemical naturally produced by the human body called "Transforming Growth Factor-Beta" has been fingered by scientists as playing a major role in how allergies develop in people.  Genetic mutations in genes associated with the production of this biochemical are associated with high vulnerability to allergies and kindred diseases such as asthma, food allergies and eczema.  

Since this biochemical is part of the immune system, this discovery fits the emerging model of allergies as principally consisting of auto-immune conditions (i.e. conditions in which the immune system gets out of whack and starts attacking things in the body other than harmful germs).

Of course, it also suggests that drugs that could manipulate levels of this biochemical in body could provide a therapy for people who suffer from allergies and kindred diseases.

Is Deer Trail's Town Council On The Verge Of Committing Treason?

Treason against the United States shall consist only in levying war against them, or in adhering to their enemies; giving them aid and comfort.
- United States Constitution, Article III, Section 3, Clause 1 (1789) (in the pertinent part).
The small town of Deer Trail, Colorado is considering a bold move. The town board will be voting on an ordinance that would create drone hunting licenses and offer bounties for unmanned aerial vehicles.
Deer Trail resident, Phillip Steel, drafted the ordinance.
“We do not want drones in town,” said Steel. “They fly in town, they get shot down.”
Even though it’s against the law to destroy federal property, Steel’s proposed ordinance outlines weapons, ammunition, rules of engagement, techniques, and bounties for drone hunting.
The ordinates states, “The Town of Deer Trail shall issue a reward of $100 to any shooter who presents a valid hunting license and the following identifiable parts of an unmanned aerial vehicle whose markings and configuration are consistent with those used on any similar craft known to be owned or operated by the United States federal government.” . . .
If passed by the town board, Deer Trail would charge $25 for drone hunting licenses, valid for one year. . . . 
Deer Trail resident, David Boyd, is also one of seven votes on the town board.
“Even if a tiny percentage of people get online (for a) drone license, that’s cool. That’s a lot of money to a small town like us,”said Boyd. “Could be known for it as well, which probably might be a mixed blessing, but what the heck?”
The board will consider the drone hunting ordinance on Aug. 6.
If shooting down drones operated by the federal government under color of law and at the behest of a duly constituted government doesn't constitute levying war against the United States, what does?  Indeed, simply voting to pass such an ordinance could constitute a declaration of war on the United States and hence an act of treason.  And, I know of no precedent that affords immunity from prosecution to acts of treason proclaimed in an official capacity.  This was certainly not believed to be the rule during Reconstruction, immediately after the U.S. Civil War.
The fact that anyone would even consider such a clearly illegal ordinance is an example of what I call the sovereignty of the group.  Deliberative bodies with more than about three members tend not to be very reliable at conforming themselves to external constraints on their actions and the larger the deliberative body is, the less reliably it does so.
From a practical perspective, the question is how to undermine the legitimacy of this kind of activity that is meant as much in jest and as a symbolic act, without spurring sympathy from like minded people.  The Federal Aviation Administration, for example, has issued a statement making clear that this law is unconstitutional on its face.  Even if a treason prosecution were authorized by law, for example, it might not make sense to bring one without far more negotiation and opportunity for Deer Run to back down.


Denver has spent this morning immersed in fog, much like many of it denizens on this mid-summer Monday morning.

26 July 2013

America Is Flawed But Not Broken

Sometimes things fall apart.

In the Great Depression, our nation's existing institutions collapsed.  The banking system collapsed.  The stock market crashed.  Soup kitchen lines wound around blocks as no one had jobs.  Most of the lawyers in New York City were earning less than poverty line incomes.  Unemployment rates surged to unprecedented levels.  The Dust Bowl buried whole farm communities in sand.  In Germany, inflation grow so intense that a wheel barrel of cash would barely buy you breakfast.  Angry crowds gathered.  In reaction, the New Deal changed the scope and scale of the federal government so profoundly,. with enactment of programs like Social Security, securities regulation, huge federal public works programs, that political scientists often describe this transformation as a new constitutional system even greater than the one brought about in the aftermath of the U.S. Civil War even though the transformation didn't involve an overhaul of the legal document adopted by the states in 1789.

In contrast, the Financial Crisis shuttered a lot of financial firms, financially ruined a lot of real estate investors, destroyed a lot of middle class home equity wealth, and left a lot of young people in the lurch as they tried to start careers, but our economic system didn't fundamentally collapse, and ever slow slowly, the economy has recovered without a wholesale overhaul of the workings of our economy.  Instead of crowd of unemployed office and factory workers in soup lines and Hoovervilles in every city in the nation, we had a few hippies occupying public parks in a few big cities and college towns.  Many people lost homes but almost no one starved.  There was corruption in the way that a wave of foreclosures were handled, but basically, the ordinary legal process for foreclosures and bankruptcies continued to function on a stressed but normal basis.  A few stimulus bills were passed, but not the massive make work programs of the Great Depression.  New housing construction tanked, but in Denver at least, lots of public works programs planned before the economy collapsed continued as planned and there were even isolated small scale infill developers continuing to grow the city.  The federal bureaucracy was reshuffled a bit and financial regulations were tweaked, but there were no reforms so dramatic that someone who wasn't a policy wonk could tell the difference between the before picture and the after picture.

Many European nations are experiencing double dip recessions, there is one regime toppling sovereign debt crisis after another, and the depth of their economic slumps have been greater than they suffered in the Great Depression.  In contrast, in the United States, the financial crisis may have been the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, but it was just a very, very bad recession, not another Depression that did not lead many people to conclude that a fundamental overhaul of the kind of economic system we used (e.g. a switch from democratic capitalism to communism or fascism) was necessary.

The levels of organized crime, violence directed at law enforcement officers and politicians, gang violence and corruption associated with Mexico's drug war is at levels not seen in the United States, which has near record low homicide rates at the moment, since Prohibition.

Afghanistan has been in a state of civil war with only brief interruptions since 1978 when disco was cool and bell bottoms were chic.  It still hasn't achieved peace.  The U.S. Civil War ended in 1865 and it has been more than a century since the U.S. Army was involved in last of the Indian Wars.

In Iraq this week, Al-Qaeda in Iraq used rocket propelled grenades, mortars, and twelve suicide bombers to simultaneously break hundreds of prisoners each out of two of the country's prisons.  I'm not sure there has ever been a prison break of that magnitude of all of U.S. history.  Indeed, the number of people who escaped by force from within the walls of Iraqi prisons this week is probably larger than the total number of people who have escaped by force from within the walls of prisons in the United States since the Civil War ended.

Despite Congressional brinksmanship in a period of divided government, somehow our elected officials have continued to be able to pass budgets that keep the federal government in operation and have found ways to appoint enough senior civil servants to run the government.  The Courts are still open and functioning, even if their performance sometimes leaves much to be desired.  While progress these days in the United States is often a two steps forward, one step back process, there is a steady drumbeat of steps taken to help address, at least partially, one or another of our nation's many flaws.

In contract law, there is a distinction between cases where there is no substantial performance of a contract, where the contractor receives no compensation for the work done, and cases of flawed but substantial performance, where the contractor is entitled to the contract price for the work done reduced by the cost of completion or the diminution in the value of the work done caused by its flaws.

American society is flawed, but it isn't fundamentally broken.  We are in an era where reform overwhelmingly seems like a better course than revolution.  On balance, this is a pretty good thing to be able to say about our society.

This suggests that reform minded people like myself, and policymakers generally, should be as cautious about avoiding unintended consequences of reforms that make things worse as they should about fixing the flaws in the system that we are perfectly aware exist.

It is much easier to determine why something that is flawed isn't working than it to know precisely why something works.  Most policies that are broken are broken for just a few reasons, and often enough because just one thing isn't done correctly.  In contrast, when complex systems work, it is often because myriad different components of the system that are all necessary but not sufficient for the system to work come together in concert.

It is very common for conventional wisdom, and even very smart people, to misunderstand why a complex system works when it works - overemphasizing the importance of parts that actually aren't critical, while overlooking the importance of features of the system that aren't emphasized or even acknowledged as being part of what makes the system work.

In a situation like the one American society confronts today, it is as important to not try to fix the parts that aren't broken as it is to grease the squeaky wheels.

25 July 2013

Betwixt and Between

Halfway down the stairs
is a stair
where i sit.
there isn't any
other stair
quite like
i'm not at the bottom,
i'm not at the top;
so this is the stair
I always

Halfway up the stairs
Isn't up
And it isn't down.
It isn't in the nursery,
It isn't in town.
And all sorts of funny thoughts
Run round my head.
It isn't really
It's somewhere else
© A.A. Milne.

23 July 2013

Full Term Crack Babies No Worse Off Than Non-Crack Baby Peers

The Philadelphia Inquirer has a long piece which reports on the reality that the ‘crack baby epidemic’ of mentally retarded or unstable individuals turned out to be unfounded. The experimental design is as simple as can be: compare individuals of similar socioeconomic background, and track them over their lives. The past generation since the 1980s crack wave has been an unfortunate, yet illuminating, ‘natural experiment.’ The researchers found that contrary to expectations there are basically no statistically significant differences between ‘crack babies’ and control individuals.* This is not a surprising result, as there were hints of this in the child development literature even in the 1990s. The author of the study focused on a sample of lower class black Americans, and noted that despite the lack of statistical differences in outcomes due to exposure to crack in utero, these individuals have been exposed to a lifetime of an underclass milieu, which is likely not conducive to human flourishing. In other words, the reality is much more banal and unsurprising when viewed in a broader light.
But for general social policy it is critical to point out that even as extreme a shock to the system as crack cocaine does not seem to have strongly inimical long term consequences for individuals. . . .
* This does not mean that crack might not be correlated with particular problems, but the author of this study seems to suggest that once you remove premature infants from the equation the differences disappear. 
From here.

The theory that kids exposed to crack in utero would be seriously physiologically messed up because of the exposure was very plausible.  But, often, in complex situations, experience is more valuable than reason and plausible possible risks turn out not to be not nearly as bad as they seem.  This is such as case.  

Crack babies aren't a particularly successful group, but this is mostly because they have underclass druggie failures for parents and inherit their parents gene and receive a lifetime legacy of bad parenting, not significantly because they were exposed to crack in the womb.

19 July 2013

Greenhead Flies

I grew up with big, dumb, not particularly aggressive horse flies in Ohio.  But, the Greenhead flies (Tabanus nigrovittantus) of the coastal Northeastern U.S. are an quite different and vicious species of the horse fly family.  All horse flies are blood eaters at some stage of their life cycle and they are quite different than mosquitoes in their approach:
Horsefly bites are painful, the bites of large specimens especially so. Most short tongued (short proboscid) species of horse flies use their knife-like mandibles to rip and/or slice flesh apart. Flies with longer proboscides bite more like a mosquito, their stylet-like mouthparts piercing the host's skin like needles.
The horse fly's bite is more immediately painful than that of its mosquito counterparts, although it still aims to escape before its victim responds. Moreover, the pain of a horse fly bite may mean that the victim is more concerned with assessing the wound, and not swatting the interloper. In any case defense is difficult, considering the agile nature of the fly. However, inhabitants of regions where the flies are a pest usually learn to swat immediately at the first hint of the bite. That usually gets the fly, especially if its escape is hampered by its having bitten through clothing. The bites may become itchy, sometimes causing a large swelling afterward if not treated quickly.
As Rutgers University explains about the Greenhead fly in particular:
The Greenhead Problem: The salt marsh greenhead fly, Tabanus nigrovittatus, is an abundant and bothersome summertime pest along our coastal marshes. Because the females bite during daylight, and because they occur in large numbers, have a long flight range, and attack persistently, they interfere with the enjoyment of coastal areas throughout much of the summer.
To anyone who has not visited the New Jersey coastal areas during "fly season," the impact of these flies on daytime activities is hard to imagine. We have collected in traps over 1000 greenhead flies per hour all seeking a blood meal. Greenhead fly populations reach peak numbers during July, but extend from late June into September.
Conventional methods of biting fly control, such as those used for mosquitoes are either environmentally undesirable or economically impractical. Both adults and larvae of greenhead flies are large in comparison to other, non-target organisms. Generally, more insecticide is needed to kill larger insects. The higher concentrations or greater amounts of toxic materials needed to obtain - greenhead control have undesirable effects on other insects and animals. Marsh water management by ditching may actually enhance greenhead production. Although high-level impoundments reduce the numbers of developing greenhead larvae, this is a costly and impractical approach to fly control for much of our coastal wetlands. . . .
Where Greenheads Come From: Greenhead flies are produced from our coastal marshes. We have found as many as 70 larvae in a single square yard of marsh sod. Developing larvae concentrate along the upper vegetational zone reached by daily high tides. Foraging through wet thatch, surface muck, and vegetation, the predaceous larvae attack and devour a variety of invertebrates, including some of their own kind. Larvae overwinter and form a pupa after a brief period of spring foraging. The adult emerges from the pupa in late spring.
Adult flies mate on the open marsh. Within a few days and without seeking a blood meal, the female lays her first egg mass, consisting of 100 to 200 eggs. To produce additional egg masses, the female needs a blood meal. Among biting flies, blood serves as a rich protein source necessary for egg development. In the case of the salt marsh greenhead, protein for the first egg mass is obtained when the predaceous larva eats other insect larvae or small animals, but to lay additional egg masses she must obtain a blood meal.
Adult female greenheads move from the salt marsh to nearby -wooded or open areas along the marsh edge to seek suitable blood sources. There they await and attack wildlife, livestock, and people that venture close enough for them to detect.
Females live for three to four weeks in the uplands before they become too weak to bite. Because of this long life, larger numbers of' blood hungry flies build up in areas near salt marshes. The physical removal of large numbers of flies can reduce this buildup and thus decrease the greenhead fly problem locally.
While these flies can carry infectious agents, no serious diseases are currently associated with them in the Northeastern U.S. and they are apparently not venomous.

Note that while the adult females feed on blood in order to reproduce, that adult files who are not in a reproduction phase, like bees, feed and nectar and pollen and are an important pollination species; not as important as bees, but an important supplement to bee pollination nonetheless.

17 July 2013

The Flip Side Of Employment Equality

One of the dramatic stories of the last several decades has been the steady growth of female labor force partition from a baby boom low point.  Far less widely discussed has been the plunge in adult male labor force participation, which took a particularly deep plunge from which it has not yet recovered at all during the Great Recession. The article that is the source for the infographic below does an excellent job of documenting the dramatic decline in male labor force participation in a single generation.

But, it is silent on how the men who do not participate in the labor force or do so only marginally manage to survive without working or looking for work.

It has long been obvious that technological change would reduce the number of people per capita needed to produce a constant amount of goods and services.  But, how those members of society whose labor is not needed to meet the demands for production of goods and services spend their time and support themselves has been less well examined.

The relevant forces have differed by occupation and social class.  For the upper middle class, extended higher education for the young and early retirement for the economically successful are largely to blame.  For the working class, resort to disability benefits is a common strategy (and one that was no available when disability payments were less easily obtained) and a shrinking military has forced more men into the civilian labor market.  In some demographics, mass incarceration, both directly and by destroying the human capital value of ex-cons, has been an important factor.  Substitution of "house husbands" for "housewives" has played a relatively minor role, however.

This part of the post added in an update on July 18, 2013.

The reality of an economy with twenty million prime working age men who would have been employed at Eisenhower era employment levels, but are not today, is also highly pertinent to the question of why union power has declined.  It is common for progressives to argue that advances in workers rights from employer provided health insurance and benefits to the weekend and forty hour week were victories secured by unions.

An alternative hypothesis is that unions have declined because the weakening labor market has made them less able to deliver anything beneficial to workers.  There is also a fair reading of the history of unionization in the United States to argue that laws strengthening or reducing union power in the labor market have largely lagged after the economic reality has made this the de facto reality, rather than driving shifts in union power.

In this alternative hypothesis, one argues that unions were powerful only because of an exceptionally tight labor market driven by forces such as:
* export demand due to the destruction of non-U.S. manufacturing capacity in World War II,
* a reduction in the supply of able bodied men in the global economy due to WWII related deaths,
* pent up consumer demand in the wake of Great Depression and WWII austerity at home and abroad, and
* baby boom driven unavailability of women to be in the work force when they have small children.

Also, the economic impact of unions on the operation of the labor markets might mostly come from spreading work out among more people who work fewer hours per week with overtime provisions, as workers in a strong position economically chose leisure over greater financial compensation.  In the absence of these work spreading efforts, some (presumably more desirable or more motivated) employees would have worked more hours, while other people in the labor force wouldn't work at all.

Unions had an incentive to spread out work among more workers because creating more jobs shrinks the ranks of the unemployed and thus reduces the pressure on unions to compete with unemployed "hungry" men who need work.  If there is little slack in the labor market because we are near full employment, even if that full employment is created artificially via work spreading rules, employers will be under economic pressure to reach favorable bargains with their unions whether or not they are unionized, because they can't hire anyone else to do the work.

16 July 2013

Commercial Litigators Know How To Find Needles In Haystacks

Statisticians are special because, deep in our bones, we know about uncertainty. Economists know about incentives, physicists know about reality, movers can fit big things in the elevator on the first try, evolutionary psychologists know how to get their names in the newspaper, lawyers know you should never never never talk to the cops, and statisticians know about uncertainty. Of that, I’m sure.
From here and previously blogged at Wash Park Prophet on July 20, 2011.

I am a lawyer and I do indeed know that you should never never never talk to the cops.  But, only because they teach you this in law school, not from personal experience.  I practice law and need to advise clients not currently facing criminal charges of the risks, but the extent of my experience as a criminal lawyer in criminal proceedings for clients is limited to a couple of ordinance violation cases, one traffic violation plea bargain, and occasional quasi-criminal contempt of court cases.

Lawyers with non-criminal law practices in small and medium sized law firms representing mostly middle class to affluent individuals and small and medium sized business in litigation and transactional matters do have our own kinds of special knowledge and skill sets.  

One of the less well known skill sets of lawyers who litigate complex and commercial cases, as I do, acquire is the ability to find what they need from massive amounts of paper.  We know how to find needles in haystacks.

A banker's box holds roughly 3,000 pages of letter sized documents which is also about 1 gigabyte in the fattest file formats, although in compressed or memory efficient file formats, a gigabyte can hold as many as 30,000 black and white letter sized pages of text documents.

For example, there is a universe of about 200,000 to 1,000,000 pages of documents in one of the lawsuits that I am currently litigating, by which I mean all documents that in theory could be obtained from the parties or third party sources that could conceivably be related in some way to the case.  So far in the case, about 3,000 pages of documents have been exchanged by the parties (most of the universe of documents in the case are in the hands of third parties) and the total number of documents exchanged by parties in the case as additional documents are secured by third parties could easily extend to 30,000 to 60,000 pages worth before the case is over.

A typical college English major might read 1,200 pages of novels written with the goal of making people want to read them for fun in a week.  In contrast, a commercial litigator may need to make sense of more than 12,000 pages of business documents that are no one's idea of pleasurable entertainment in a week.

I've been an attorney, in this case, and in many other cases, leading a team of non-lawyers and junior lawyers in the process of making sense of a large share of the total universe of documents, figuring out where else we need to search for documents, and ultimately determining how to boil down that universe of documents that are available or could be made available down to the several tabbed binders of motion exhibits and trial exhibits that are presented to judges and juries in the case.

Often, in these kinds of cases, the outcome can hinge largely on a few sentences each in fewer than a dozen documents out of the total mass of information available so finding those materials is imperative.  

The "more true" set of facts revealed in the process of reviewing these documents and conducting pre-trial interviews or examinations of witnesses, clients and non-parties frequently reveals truths quite different from those set forth in the initial complaints and counterclaims and answers in the case, and quite different from the case as explained to you in an initial phone call with a potential client and first office meeting with a client.  

But, the path to truth is full of rabbit holes.  Often a large group of carefully reviewed documents that seemed at one time to be important, when illuminated by a little extra information and context from someone familiar with the facts, turn out to have been superseded or irrelevant for some reason.

The process of deciding what to look for, instructing people regarding what is or isn't likely to be important, getting a sense of what kind of documents are present at high frequencies in the universe of documents and how to organize them, and of seeing the important of materials that you hadn't expected to see is more art than science.  It is more of a bundle of potential approaches to try than it is something that can be reduced to a science.  Some groups of documents need to be summarized.  Others need to be examined with a fine tooth comb.  Some documents can be clearly separated into distinct groups, while others defy easy categorization.  The question of how to present the information that the documents contain clearly and efficiently is an ever present one.

Criminal cases (other than "white collar" cases) and personal injury cases typically involve the actions of a small number of individuals, in a single place or small series of places, in a very compact time frame - often just minutes.  Apart from the documentation of the medical treatment obtained in connection with these events, there is often little documentation that is relevant to the event itself.

In complex and commercial cases, in contrast, the whole often involves a complex web of many, even hundreds or thousands of distinct transactions or events, each at a different time, involving large numbers of people, often in many physical locations, over periods of years or even decades.  

Even a simple case of a default on a purchase money residential mortgage often involves hundreds of pages of paper, often multiple closings if loans were ever modified, a history of monthly payment transactions spanning many years, a sheaf of formally required and informal debtor-creditor communications, and at least one or two changes of bank ownership and changes in the relevant regulatory and legal requirements in the interim.  The complexity of a case involving a default on a construction loan for an apartment building or commercial building in invariably far more complex.  If it happens mid-project it can give rise to mechanic's lien litigation involving hundreds of parties and scores of lawyers, and this is often complicated by construction defect claims.  Mastering the detail is essential and involves a skill set particular to commercial lawyers and project managers.

15 July 2013

Race, Religion and Political Identity

[In the U.S. House of Representatives] Districts represented by Democrats are, together, only slightly more than half white and nearly one quarter Hispanic. Republican districts are roughly three-quarters white, and only one in nine residents is Hispanic.
From here.

To the extent that Representatives in Congress are responsive mostly to the voters who voted for them, rather than to the entire electorate, the racial disparity between their core constituencies is much greater.  

A substantial majority of the people who voted for the average Democratic member of Congress are non-white, and a disproportionate share of the whites who voted for them are non-Christians or openly not heterosexual.  An overwhelming majority of people who voted for the average Republican member of Congress are heterosexual non-Hispanic white Christians.

This profound ethnic discontinuity between people who vote for Republicans who get elected to office and people who vote for Democrats who get elected to office is a major factor driving the deep partisan divide in Congress today.  The greater ethnicity diversity of the Democratic coalition also drives the fact that the Republicans have a smaller political tent than the Democrats.

11 July 2013

With Recoveries Like This, Who Needs Recessions?

Microeconomics 101 assumes that productivity and working pay will naturally move in lockstep.  The reality is not so wonderful:
Averaged across all occupations, we estimate that real median wages declined by 2.8 percent from 2009 to 2012. This is a striking decline, given that productivity increased by 4.5 percent over this same time period….lower-wage and mid-wage occupations saw significantly bigger declines in their real wages than did higher-wage occupations. Occupations in the top two quintiles saw their median wages decline by less than 2 percent on average (and nearly a third of those occupations actually saw real wage growth). By contrast, occupations in the bottom three quintiles saw their median wages decline by 3 percent or more.
That is from a recent National Employment Law Project study, discussed by Kevin Drum here.
From here.

10 July 2013

ACK Blogging II

The People of Nantucket believe certain truths to be inevitable:

1.  All man made structures should be gray, with the possible exception of red brick chimneys.  Color is reserved for flowers.

2.  All inanimate objects of substance, be they boats, homes, businesses or motor vehicles should have names, preferrably names dripping with irony.  For example, "Le Shack" is an excellent name for your $2,000,000 beach side house.

3.  Anyone who is able to do so should hide his home from the world with vegetation.  Consumption should not be conspicuous.

4.  Signage is for people who already know where things are; people who don't know where things are shouldn't be encouraged.

5.  One should never show more skin than necessary anywhere but on the beach, and only young single women in their twenties should wear skimpy bikinis.  Women should wear skirts or dresses around town.

6.  The town library should be more grand than any church or town hall.  Perhaps because it is a beacon of knowledge, it may be white rather than gray.

7.  Sidewalks should be narrow enough to cause pedestrian traffic jams on a regular basis.

8.  All commercial flights on and off the island should have the same price for the entire season at every hour of the day and night; an off season/on seasons distinction is tolerable.

9.  It is the natural order of things that children and men who act like children should adopt shelter cats and dogs during their summer visits.  Nantucket cats mostly come from the Cape, and Nantucket dogs are mostly mutts abandoned in the State of Mississippi where the usual practice is to shoot abandoned dogs on sight, because residents are responsible and rarely abandon their animals brought by a single valiant expatriot who drives up up load of shelter dogs several times a year.  It is quite fashionable to have a Mississippi Mutt.

10.  The preferred occupation of pre-teens is as docents (jr. rangers, etc.) at local attractions at which they gain historical and scientific knowledge and share it with visitors.

07 July 2013

ACK Blogging

On vacation in Nantucket, one of the few places in the United States where rich, white people routinely use public buses, and everyone leaves their keys in their unlocked cars on the theory that it is hard to steal a car on a small island.  Waves, sand, and seafood.  Ocean beaches surrounded by deciduous trees are a bit jarring if you've never seen that before.

04 July 2013

Windows 8 Still Awful

Three and a half months after buying a Windows 8 laptop, you'd think I'd have the hang of it by now.

I don't.  I am still operating my old Windows 7 machine side by side my Windows 8 machine because I am not comfortable with it despite paying for software fixes and numerous tech support inquiries.  Windows 8 has had a catastrophically negative effect on my law practice and I would urge anyone thinking of buying a Windows 8 machine to immediately destroy the new software and revert to Windows 7 or Linux, or to buy a Mac.  The computer only cost $250, but the Windows 8 conversion had done thousands, if not tens of thousands of dollars of harm to my business.  Trying to make Windows 8 work is a process second only to getting divorced measured by the unhappiness it has brought to my life.  It has been, for example, far worse than having the chicken pox as a child.

I still can't make the damn thing perform basic functions that I used to have down pat.  I have hated the start menu from day one and all it does for me is insert an extra step on the route to the desktop in addition to the password protection step that I never asked for and don't like and never even selected a password for myself (it steals your hotmail password, which really makes me angry).

It seemingly randomly zooms and shrinks the screen magnification and jumps from one screen to the next and you can't be sure what is running or not.  It integrates very poorly with local area networks.  It goes dark quick and for no apparent reason requiring re-entry of a password to make it work again.

I've spent hours looking for a way to strip the horrible Bing search engine from it, without success.

When I first reviewed Windows 8 back in late March, I said it was the worst short of Vista.  I take it back.  Windows 8 is far worse than Vista.  I hate Microsoft with a passion and yet can't easily be rid of it.

Can somebody at Microsoft please make this nightmare end?

03 July 2013

Big Brother Extends To Snail Mail And Almost Everything Else

At the request of law enforcement officials, postal workers record information from the outside of letters and parcels before they are delivered. (Actually opening the mail requires a warrant.) The information is sent to whatever law enforcement agency asked for it. Tens of thousands of pieces of mail each year undergo this scrutiny. . . .
For mail cover requests, law enforcement agencies simply submit a letter to the Postal Service, which can grant or deny a request without judicial review. Law enforcement officials say the Postal Service rarely denies a request. In other government surveillance program, such as wiretaps, a federal judge must sign off on the requests.  The mail cover surveillance requests are granted for about 30 days, and can be extended for up to 120 days. There are two kinds of mail covers: those related to criminal activity and those requested to protect national security. The criminal activity requests average 15,000 to 20,000 per year, said law enforcement officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they are prohibited by law from discussing the requests. The number of requests for antiterrorism mail covers has not been made public. . . .
[The federal government currently operates a program called] the Mail Isolation Control and Tracking program, in which Postal Service computers photograph the exterior of every piece of paper mail that is processed in the United States — about 160 billion pieces last year. It is not known how long the government saves the images.
From Ron Nixon, "U.S. Postal Service Logging All Mail for Law Enforcement", The New York Times (July 3, 2012).

The notion that police could make particularized mail cover requests without a warrant in the course of a criminal investigation has been well established U.S. constitutional law for man decades.  But, very few people are aware that the U.S. Postal system systemically makes copies of the exterior of every single piece of paper mail processed in the United States without any particularized suspicion that a sender or recipient is engaged in criminal activity or is the subject of a particular national security intelligence investigation.

This disclosure must be taken together with the recently disclosed fact that the United States collects metadata (essentially the phone number of the caller, place of a cell phone caller's originating call's location, phone number of the person receiving the call, place of a cell phone call receiver's location, and time and duration of the call) for every single telephone call made in the entire United States.

And, there is also far more pervasive surveillance of e-mail and other Internet activity, including the storage of the full text of every single encrypted e-mail send via the Internet that can be obtained from major e-mail providers, than had been previously understood because the standards under which FISA has been enforced are far more lax that a naïve reading of the statute or disclosures to Congress and the public had suggested.

The Patriot Act gives the federal government the power to access any business records without allowing the provider to tip off the subject of the request (which often appears to include broad blanket requests with no particularized target that the person receiving the request can discern) and has used that on many occasions.  These can include toll road records, airport flight data, interstate bus and train travel reservation and ticketing records, hotel and motel occupancy or reservation records, book purchases and library borrowings, pay TV viewing records, bank account and credit account records, casino records, anti-theft device GPS records, GPS tracking records of cell phone locations when not in use, grocery store loyalty card records, utility billing information, surveillance camera tapes, insurance records, medical billing records, pharmacy records, veterinary records, credit reporting records of individuals and businesses, loan application information, employment applications, and more.  Legal privileges provide only limited protection for much of this information.

I suspect, but don't know, that the federal government can obtain records from private DNA testing companies to get the exact DNA profiles of people who have paid to have these done.

Needless to say, there are also a host of federal, state, local and foreign government records which federal authorities can gain access to, if desired (many of which are also available to the general public) in many cases.  Birth and death certificates, immigration records including records of almost all international travel by everyone, motor vehicle license and state ID records, educational records such as transcripts and disciplinary records, criminal and traffic and parking violation records (including arrests never leading to charges filed), property records and lien filings, terrorist watch lists, civil court records, involuntary mental health commitment records, flagged gun purchase waiting period records, motor vehicle ownership records, federal, state and local tax records, corporate information filings, license application filings, police and regulatory action reports, change of address form filings, voter registrations, pet licenses, traffic camera feeds on public roads and highways, background check data including fingerprints, and so on.

Also, while there hasn't been discussion of it yet, the incredibly detailed photographs available from spy satellites whose photos have been displayed to the public in connection with foreign military operations are also perfectly capable of being pointed at locations in the United States.

There are tiny pockets of privacy left, but they reside in an ocean of public information and the private information can often be inferred from the public information.

Eight Years Of Wash Park Prophet

Today is the eight birthday of this blog.

There have been 5771 published posts at this blog, including this one, in addition to the 511 posts at companion blog Dispatches From Turtle Island, for a total of 6,282 posts in eight years.  This is 6,280 post excluding today, which is 785 posts per year, which is about fifteen posts per week, on average.

As an aside, a post from last month at this blog about Norwood, Colorado was cited as a source by the British newspaper the Daily Mail.

Women are better than god.

God saves - but not now, and not here. His salvation is on layaway. Like all grifters, He asks you to pay now and take it on faith that you will receive later. Whereas women offer a different sort of salvation, more immediate and fulfilling. They don't put off their love for a distant, ill-defined eternity but make a gift of it in the here and now, frequently to those who deserve it least. So it was in my case. So it is for many. The devil and woman have been allies against God from the beginning.  
Joe Hill, Horns    

02 July 2013

Decriminalize Bigamy

Colorado should decriminalize bigamy without giving affirmative legal recognition to polygamous marriage.  This is an idea that is in roughly the same intellectually and political territory that same sex marriage was until April 1, 2001 when the Netherlands became the first to recognize it, or June 1, 2003, when Belgium followed suit.  It may take time for people to recognize that this is an administrative sensible and morally just course of action.  But, it is the right thing to do in Colorado.

Colorado's Bigamy Law

Colorado's Revised Statutes provide at § 18-6-201, entitled "Bigamy" that:
(1) Any married person who, while still married, marries or cohabits in this state with another commits bigamy, unless as an affirmative defense it appears that at the time of the cohabitation or subsequent marriage:
(a)The accused reasonably believed the prior spouse to be dead; or
(b) The prior spouse had been continually absent for a period of five years during which time the accused did not know the prior spouse to be alive; or
(c) The accused reasonably believed that he was legally eligible to remarry.  
(2) Bigamy is a class 6 felony.
[In general, a class 6 felony in Colorado is punishable by presumptive twelve to eighteen months in prison (which can be reduced or enhanced to some extent upon a special finding of extraordinary circumstances), followed by one year of mandatory parole, and/or a fine of $1,000 to $100,000.  C.R.S. § 18-1.3-401.  But, the incarceration period is reduced by "good time" (which can cut a sentence roughly in half for well behaved and cooperative non-violent offenders in the discretion of prison officials, although I am not an expert on the subject), C.R.S. § 17-22.5-301 et seq., and time serviced prior to conviction while awaiting trial.  Sentences of probation and/or community corrections and/or other alternative sentencing options are sometimes available.  In practice, a maximum term of incarceration for a class 6 felony involving a well behaved inmate is similar to that for a class 2 misdemeanor, but a felony conviction has many serious collateral consequence and generally will be considered when determining eligibility for enhanced habitual offender sentences for future felony convictions, while a misdemeanor does not.]

Then, it provides in § 18-6-202 entitled "Marrying a bigamist" that:
Any unmarried person who knowingly marries or cohabits with another in this state under circumstances known to him which would render the other person guilty of bigamy under the laws of this state commits marrying a bigamist, which is a class 2 misdemeanor.
[In general, a class 2 misdemeanor in Colorado is punishable by three to twelve months in jail and/or a fine of $250 to $1,000 and court costs. C.R.S. § 18-1.3-501. But, the incarceration period is reduced by "good time" (of up to five days per month in the discretion of jail officials), C.R.S. § 17-26-109, and time served prior to conviction while awaiting trial. Also probation and/or community service and/or other alternative sentencing options are often imposed in lieu of incarceration and/or a fine in less serious cases such as class 2 misdemeanors. A misdemeanor has some collateral consequences after the sentence is served, but not many compared to a felony, and usually a prior misdemeanor conviction will not provide a basis for enhanced habitual criminal sentencing for future offenses.]

And, finally, it provides in § 18-6-203, entitled "Definitions" that:
As used in sections 18-6-201 and 18-6-202, "cohabitation" means to live together under the representation of being married.
There Is No One Kind Of Polygamy To Recognize Legally

I am not proposing in this post that the government grant recognition of legal rights as a result of polygamous marriages.

This is because government recognition of polygamy is a matter far more difficult from a legislative perspective than legalizing same sex marriage.   Same sex marriage proponents sought a legal status identical in rights and privileges to those of heterosexual marriage (and the right and privileges of spouses in heterosexual marriages have been gender neutral for decades as a result of feminist movement driven reforms, some of which go back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries), so the laws to apply to same sex married couple was clear.

In contrast, there is no single set of consensus legal rules that govern polygamous marriage.  There are several version of polygamy practiced today in which one's status as a polygamous spouse gives rise to different rights and obligations. 

Polygamous marriage is an institution which carries different rights and obligations in different cultures on fundamental private law matters such as the necessity of the consent of a current spouse to a second marriage by a husband, who may terminate a polygamous marriage bond and upon what grounds, the rights of a divorcing polygamous spouse, inheritance rights and creditor's rights under the necessities doctrine. 

Polygamous marriage also pose difficult public law questions like the appropriate way to handle polygamous marriages for purposes of laws relating to income taxation and social welfare benefits that have more than one plausible answer, with the best answer depending to some extent on the nature of the particular form of polygamous marriage practiced by particular taxpayers or welfare benefit applicants.

A Colorado General Assembly and Governor, none of whom are openly polygamous, are in a position to set fair rules that choose one form of polygamy over another.  Some day, it may make sense for Colorado law to allow for contractually delineated polygamous marriage agreements that have legal force and effect subject to certain public policy limitations that cannot be waived (like a ban on a marriage without the consent of the person who is being married or a ban on child marriages), but that is for another day and is less important given what is possible to reach agreement upon under existing law (as we discovered planning for same sex couples before civil unions and same sex marriage laws were adopted).

Decriminalizing Bigamy Is Simple And Acknowledges Reality

Existing law does not prohibit multiple unmarried people (or a married couple and additional unmarried people or married couples) from cohabiting with each other, routinely having non-monogamous sex, and having children with each other without all claiming to be married to each other, while otherwise obeying the law.  These households may, for example, lawfully enter into custody arrangement concerning their children (since child custody laws are almost completely separate from laws related to marriage under existing law), provide for each other in their Wills, and make arrangements to voluntarily share income and expenses of their household.

Even though polygamous marriage in name is not permitted under Colorado law, polygamous families in substance are legal.

Thus, Colorado Revised Statutes, §§ 18-6-201, 18-6-202, and 18-6-203, in their current form, bans not a polygamous style set of relationships, but the speech act of "representing" that the people in that relationship are married. This speech, which is often motivated by conscience and religious conviction, is not something for which we should spend money incarcerating people.  The law may even be unconstitutional as a violation of freedom of speech and religious expression in its current form, even if it would have been lawful for Colorado to ban the substance of the relationship rather than merely banning what it is called.

In light of these realities, I propose repealing all three of these statutory sections of Colorado law, without changing in any way the legal definition of marriage in Colorado (and propose that other states do likewise).

While the Constitution of the State of Colorado states that marriage is between one man and one woman, it does not prescribe a particular penalty that Colorado must impose for claiming that a man and more than one woman are married, or that a woman and more than one man are married, or that more than one man and more than one woman are married, when that relationship is not given any legal effect.

It is well within the discretion of the Colorado General Assembly and the Governor (or the people, proposing a statutory change through the initiative process) to decide that the threat of incarceration through the criminal justice system is not a good way to enforce non-recognition of polygamous marriages.   In reality, criminal prosecutions for bigamy and marrying a bigamist are vanishing rare because District Attorneys in Colorado and elsewhere, when confronted with such cases usually reach the same conclusion.  I am not sure that such a law has the political support it needs to pass right now, but that day may come at some point.

The Right Thing To Do

The law as it is written also has the potential to impose great hardship, for example, on a man lawfully married to more than one wife in his home country before coming to the United States, either a tourist or an immigrant, who lives in the United States with one or more of his spouses.  Unless he divorces the other without any good cause under the laws under which he married to do so, he is subject to arrest and conviction for a felony at any time.  Indeed, numerous Muslim visitors from countries that recognize polygamous marriage such as Saudi Arabia and Morocco to Colorado's internationally renowned ski resorts, or on business trips accompanied by a spouse to visit corporate headquarters that are based in Colorado, are in this situation every year.

This simple change in the law that would slightly reduce government spending in the long run, require no on going government bureaucracy to administer, and have virtually no impact one way or the other on the criminal justice system because prosecutions under these laws are so rare, would help to respect freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and comity in our state's international relations.

An Economic Boon For Colorado

Indeed, the symbolic act of showing tolerance by decriminalizing bigamy, even without any affirmative legal recognition of polygamous marriages, might very well spur economic development in the State of Colorado as polygamous families choose to spend tourist dollars in Colorado, move to Colorado to establish businesses, and bring the skills that allowed them to immigrate to the U.S. to Colorado, where they do not have to fear criminal prosecution, in preference to other states.

This legal change would also probably encourage immigration from the kind of fundamentalist Mormons featured in the television show "Sister Wives", whose religion encourages polygny, but not the child abuse that is a part of the fundamentalist polygamous sect led by Warren Jeffs.  History has shown that religiously motivated migrants tend to bring economic prosperity to their new homes.

01 July 2013

Off Stage

One of the important insights one gets from living in the age of the Internet and niche media is that you because you don't hear about something on major television network news feeds and the front pages of major daily newspapers is that there is a lot of news going on in the world that never reaches us. 

There are Kurdish rebels fighting a low level (and sometimes quite hot) insurgency against the Turkish government in a story that develops in fine detail every day to which we are oblivious.  Soccer matches that catch the world's attention escape our view (Spain lost the latest major competition after a long string of victories).  The long running parallel stories of the evolution of Evangelical Christianity as driving forces for social change in Latin America and Africa pass almost unnoticed.  We are almost oblivious to a long running Sahel war in which Muslims from the arid north are radicalized and pressured to encroach on Christians and animists to the South as the Sahara desert grows and imperils their way of life.  We don't see the daily parade of evening news crimes in places like Sweden and England and France that fuel anti-immigrant rage, just the over the top outbursts of misguided reactions to it.  We aren't immersed in the zeitgeist of a Japan where a huge share of young adult women have chosen careers and consciously decided that husband's and children aren't worth the losing those careers and the wealth and freedom that come with them, or the angst of a generation of college graduates without the good job prospects that their parents had.  We have a hard to even believing that it is possible to live lives as peaceful, tolerant and secure as those of our neighbors in Canada - good news isn't news.

Finding alternative sources of news, and becoming aware of what the core media isn't covering, can allow us to become aware of the full spectrum of what's going on at home and abroad.  These source have the potential to make a pretty average middle class American more aware of coming major trends in the world than the CIA and the President's top advisors.

The Black Gold Behind Weld County's Rodeo Fascade

Weld County, Colorado identifies as a farming and ranching county that celebrates that heritage with the annual Greeley Stampede, a major stop on regional rodeo circuit.  But, property tax rolls there tell a different story.  According to a Colorado Public Radio report that I heard this morning, just 2% of the property values in the county are agricultural.  About 55% of the county's property values are attributable to oil and gas property.  Some of the biggest components of its "real economy", however, at the public schools and CSU, are tax exempt.

Abundant oil and gas drilling (in many cases through the controversial technology called fracking) gives Weld County the fourth highest aggregate property valuation in the state, despite ranking far lower in population and having a generally working class non-oil and gas economy made up of a mix of long distance bedroom community commuters, slaughter house workers, the non-flagship Colorado State University, and a main street that has been updated much since the 1950s.

Not all of this oil and gas wealth is purely a result of being lucky enough to have those natural resources in its boundaries.  Weld County has welcomed oil and gas development where many of its peers have resisted it.

The county's abundant oil and gas revenues relative to its population is also more important than grit and country values in explaining how the governments in the county have managed to maintain little or no public debt.  While Weld County and its school district aren't in a regulatory position to retain its ample oil and gas wealth to stockpile cash for the future as Alaska and most oil rich national governments do in sovereign wealth funds, it can at least mirror that kind of behavior by keeping public debt at levels far lower than its local government peers elsewhere.  The realized preference of governmental leaders almost everyplace that oil and gas exploitation is an important part of the economy in every part of the world to horde those revenues demonstrates the reality that the oil age is temporary and that Peak Oil is a reality that will hit in a matter of decades if it hasn't already.

The doomed movement of Northeast Colorado to secede from the rest of Colorado has been sold by the region's Republican politicians as a way to allow conservative values and morality to prevail in the face of an increasingly blue state overall.  But, the movement has economic foundations that have as much or more to do with these aspirations which flow from a deep understanding among politicians that a separate state of Northeast Colorado wouldn't have to share its oil and gas wealth with the rest of the state.

The trouble with that attitude is that while the oil is in Weld County and can't be offshored, much of the wealth from that activity is realized in skyscrapers in downtown Denver like my own where most of the floors of the thirty-two story building are leased by oil and gas companies.  Denver may have almost no oil and gas properties on its property tax rolls, but it realizes a lot of the state's oil and gas wealth anyway.  Regardless of where the oil and gas are actually located, the exploration, financing and management of that resource in the United States is handled in major cities, not in small town America.