26 November 2013

Georgia Courts Still Confused About Outcome Of Civil War

DECATUR, Ga. -- A new online juror questionnaire offered by the DeKalb County Court listed "slave" as an occupational option. Court Administrator Cathy McCumber told 11Alive, the questionnaire went online a month ago, but is based off an internal list that's been used for 13 years. She says the list is 62 pages long, so she's not sure if the word slave has always been on it, or if it was added before the questionnaire went online. 11Alive and the court learned about the problem Monday morning, after a potential juror filling out the form hit the letter "s" for sales. He says he got "slave" instead. . . . The company that designed the software says the drop down menus in the survey are inputted by the user. . . . Until a month ago, jurors had to fill out the questionnaire by hand and mail it in to the courthouse.
From here.

The "slave" option was removed within an hour of being discovered and brought to the Court's attention. My suspicion is that it was a bad joke inserted by data entry employees assisting in the transition who felt they were mistreated and were describing themselves.

25 November 2013

Spanking Is Counterproductive In Long Run

No matter where they live in the world, university students who were spanked as children are more likely to engage in criminal behavior, according to new research by Murray Straus, co-director of University of New Hampshire Family Research Lab. Even young adults whose parents were generally loving and helpful as they were growing up showed higher rates of criminal behavior.
From here

The purpose of spanking is to teach children to behave when they get older.  But, it doesn't work.

21 November 2013

The Few, The Dirty

90 companies on the list of top emitters produced 63 percent of the cumulative global emissions of industrial carbon dioxide and methane between 1751 to 2010, amounting to about 914 gigatons of CO2 emissions. Aside from seven cement manufacturers, the rest of the emitters were energy companies producing oil, gas, and coal.
From here reporting on a report of the Colorado based Climate Accountability Institute.

Nuclear Option Finally Invoked

Democrats in the U.S. Senate have invoked the "nuclear option" by changing the rules to require a mere majority, instead of 60 votes, to proceed with debate on executive branch appointees other than U.S. Supreme Court justices, without obtaining the usually required two-thirds majority vote necessary to change Senate rules.  "The vote to change the rule passed 52 to 48. Three Democrats — Sens. Carl Levin (Mich.), Joe Manchin III (W.Va.) and Mark Pryor (Ark.) — joined 45 Republicans in opposing the measure."

Other obscure Senate rules that can be used to block nominations were also swept away.

The U.S. House of Representatives adopts new rules from scratch every two years by majority vote and does not require super-majorities for legislative action.

But, the filibuster has been interpreted since the Civil Rights era to require sixty vote supermajorities to pass almost all kinds of legislation and all nominations in the U.S. Senate with filibusters and related arcane rules. In recent years, Republicans have increasingly used these powers to thwart Democratic Party majorities in the U.S. Senate.

Historically, the U.S. Senate has considered itself a "continuous body" since only one-third of its members face election every two years, and hence there has never been a clean slate point at which new Senate rules can be adopted by majority vote as they are in the U.S. House.

But, the illegitimacy of Republican's routine use of the tactic to block nominees ultimately came to appear worse than hoary old Senate traditions.  The change, which amounts to a virtual amendment of the constitution, has provoked surprisingly little outrage, even among Republicans, who warn that turnabout is fair play, rather than crying bloody murder.

19 November 2013

Denver Post Motto: Inferior Product, Superior Profit

The Denver Post, now under new managerial leadership, has continued its policy of reducing product quality in pursuit of higher profits.

For example, today, it consolidated its ever thinner three sections into two sections.  It has shrunk its comics section several times in the last couple of years.  And, in about two weeks it is putting its website behind a pay wall.

Since it put the Rocky Mountain News, its primary competition, out of business, the Denver Post has also increased subscription rates, fired much of its reporting and op-ed staff, deemphasized national and world news, deemphasized out of metro Denver news, and ended the practice of replacing ruined or undelivered papers.

Apparently, someone thinks this is the secret to success, although I can't imagine why.

15 November 2013

Secular Parenting Is Simple

Crazy Religious People Coddled By Cops In Stockton, CA

Prosecutors say they will not file charges against a father and son arrested on suspicion of kidnapping the father's ex-wife in Northern California to perform an exorcism. 
San Joaquin County Deputy District Attorney Robert Himelblau told The Record of Stockton on Thursday that 42-year-old Jose Magana-Farias and 20-year-old Victor Farias would not be charged. He declined to say why. The father and son were accused of kidnapping 41-year-old Blanca Farias from Stockton on Saturday. They were arrested on suspicion of kidnapping, false imprisonment and conspiracy to commit a crime. 
Blanca Farias told News10 in Sacramento they told her she had devils inside her and took her to a church, where they bathed her in oil and made her drink it.
From here.

What the hell were prosecutors thinking? And, why won't they tell the public?

Two priests were also involved in the exorcism attempt and are not facing charged.  The woman was tricked into entering the car under the guise of a couple's counseling meeting for the one year divorced couple.  The father may have been in the country illegally as he was detained by the U.S. Border Patrol. Additional context here.  Another source states: "Cops were tipped off about the amateur religious activity by the victim's roommate."

14 November 2013

You Think You Have Legal Bills?

Starbucks Corp. (SBUX) said it would pay Mondelez International Inc. (MDLZ) $2.79 billion to settle a dispute over distribution in the coffee-shop chain’s bagged-coffee unit, as grocery-store sales become a growing part of the business. The payment, ordered by an arbitrator [in Chicago, Illinois on November 12, 2013], consists of $2.23 billion in damages and $557 million in interest and attorneys’ fees, Seattle-based Starbucks said today in a filing. The company said it has adequate cash and borrowing capacity to fund the payment and will book it as a charge to its fiscal 2013 operating expenses.  The ruling settles a dispute that began in 2010, when Starbucks offered $750 million to end an agreement through which Mondelez, then known as Kraft Foods Inc., distributed its coffee to food retailers. Kraft rejected the offer. Starbucks sought to wrest control of its packaged coffee business as revenue grew[.] 
. . .Kraft sought compensation for the “fair market value” of the business plus possibly a premium of as much as 35 percent of that value. Since they started working together, Starbucks’s retail-grocery coffee business grew to $500 million in annual revenue from $50 million, Kraft said in November 2010.
From Bloomberg.

If you had any illusions that the cost of litigating an arbitration was cheaper or faster than litigating an ordinary court case, allow this lawsuit to disabuse you of the belief.  The matter took three years to resolve from initial filing of the arbitration proceeding to final ruling (even without the possibility of an appeal), and there is every reason to believe that the legal fees in the case will be immense.

One hopes that most of the $557 million is interest rather than attorneys fees (8% for three years is about 25% which is pretty close to the total), because honestly, for a lawsuit that hinges on a breach of a single two party contract by one of the parties, where it is largely acknowledged that some compensation is must be paid by the breaching party to the non-breaching party and the main issue is how much is owed, I have an incredibly hard time fathoming how you could run up hundreds of millions of dollars in attorneys' fees.

This case is also a striking illustration of the fact that while some personal injury cases produce big dollar awards, that the really huge dollar lawsuits are mostly commercial cases involving medium and large sized businesses.

UPDATE:  It turns out, according to the press release from Kraft's lawyer, that all of the $557 million is interest and that attorneys' fees will be determined at a later date.  The press release also adds this detail: 
Starbucks unilaterally terminated its agreement in November 2010 before its 2014 expiration, cutting off Kraft’s exclusive rights to sell, market and distribute Starbucks roast and ground coffee in grocery and other retail outlets. Kraft immediately initiated arbitration proceedings to challenge the contract’s improper termination.
Background on the counsel involved can be found here.  The award will be subject to approximately 37% of federal and state and local taxes, with the balance used to repurchase common stock.

It is very hard to understand how three and a half-years of lost profits on a business that was grossing $500 million at the time of termination, could have been worth $2.23 billion, even with a 35% premium.  Wholesale grocery markups just aren't that big.  Another report from March of 2013 notes that: 
The two sides are rather far apart, with Kraft calculating the debt at $2.9 billion, plus attorney fees. (Why do we think the attorney fees will trump that debt figure?) Starbucks said the amount is actually $62.9 million.
Thus, the ruling was a near total victory for Kraft, with the arbitrator adopting their damages theory lock, stock and barrel.  Starbucks would almost certainly have appealed this ruling had it been in a state court and would have very likely secured a major reduction in the award in the process, either via a settlement or a court ruling.

13 November 2013

Gun Ownership Increases The Risk Of Suicide

Suicides outnumber homicides in the United States by 3:1. (In 2010 there were 38,364 suicides and 12,996 homicides.) Lots of studies have investigated the relationship between firearms and homicide but the potential for reverse causality makes this a difficult problem. More homicides in a region, for example, might cause an increase in gun ownership so a positive correlation between guns and homicide doesn’t tell you which is cause and which is effect. Reverse causality is less of a problem for understanding the guns to suicide link because it’s less likely that a rash of suicides would encourage gun ownership. 
In my latest paper, Firearms and Suicides in US States, (written with the excellent Justin Briggs) we examine the easier question, what is the relationship between firearms and suicide? Using a variety of techniques and data we estimate that a 1% increase in the household gun ownership rate leads to a .5 to .9% increase in suicides. 
Even if one thinks that suicides don’t cause gun ownership one might imagine that they are correlated due say to a third factor such as social anomie. We have an interesting test of this in the paper. If suicides and gun ownership were being driven by a third factor we would expect gun ownership to be correlated with all suicides not just gun-suicide. What we find, however, is that an increase in gun ownership decrease non-gun suicide. From an economics perspective this makes perfect sense. As gun ownership increases, the cost of gun-suicide falls because guns are easier to access and as the cost of gun-suicide falls there is substitution away from non-gun suicide. 
Put differently, when gun ownership decreases other methods of suicide increase. Substitution among methods is not perfect, however, so when gun ownership decreases we see a big decrease in gun-suicide and a substantial but less than fully compensating increase in non-gun suicide so a net decrease in the number of suicides. 
Our econometric results are consistent with the literature on suicide which finds that suicide is often a rash and impulsive decision–most people who try but fail to commit suicide do not recommit at a later date–as a result, small increases in the cost of suicide can dissuade people long enough so that they never do commit suicide.
From here.

Few people disagree with the proposition that reducing suicide rates would be a good thing.  And, it is also fairly clear that a significant number of the most troubling homicides are simply elaborate versions of suicide.

The relationship between homicide and gun ownership is much more fought politically, and in general, the research there can be summed up as follows: gun control is not very effective at reducing homicide, and neither are high levels of gun ownership.

More Tech Magic

Monday night and Tuesday morning, our computer networks are not happy.  Some computers have LAN access but not Internet access.  Some can't used the shared printer but can use the Internet.  Some have access to e-mail but not Internet browser functionality.  The voice mail system is whacked.  Several critical websites we tried to access from machines with Internet access were down.

Like any other sensible business, we try the usual (rebooting, plugging and unplugging, etc.), and then when that fails, we call our tech guy.  The moment the tech guy walks into our office suite, suddenly, everything works just fine!  Five minutes earlier it was all a mess, as it has been for the previous twelve hours or so.  He hadn't actually done anything yet.  Just opened the front door.  And, magically, it all worked again.

We've long known that technology is indistinguishable from magic if it is sufficiently advanced.  But, quite frankly, nobody had worked out corollaries like the one illustrated above when that proposition was written.

Chinese Students On American Regional Foods

From here.

For what it is worth, I enjoy all of the above except sweet tea and I had grits for breakfast this morning.

06 November 2013

Blockbuster To Close For Good In January 2014

The Colorado based Dish Network bought the 1,100 store Blockbuster video rental chain out of bankruptcy in 2011.  It has closed about 750 of them since then, including all of the retail locations in Denver.  Another 300 will close by January, leaving just 50 franchise owned stores under the brand in ten states that don't include Colorado.

The move virtually eliminates the non-Kiosk based, non-streaming or mail based, video rental business from the United States because prior to going bankrupt Blockbuster engaged in a massive wave of industry consolidation and expansion - at one point there were three of them within a block of 6th Avenue and Grant Street in Denver, leaving Blockbuster with a near monopoly on the storefront video rental business.

Dish will continue to operate a streaming service under the Blockbuster trademark.

I've been caught by surprise at how completely both the DVD (including the never quite caught on Blu-Ray format) and CD music markets have evaporated without much fanfare  A recent trip to Best Buy revealed only two devices I could find that played music CDs (valuable to anyone who wants to listen to CD media from local libraries) - a kitchen radio and an alarm clock.  CD-ROM data storage also seems to have disappeared.

Trauma Is The Main Factor Driving Down U.S. Life Expectencies Relative To Wealthy Peers

From Avik Roy: 
A few years back, Robert Ohsfeldt of Texas A&M and John Schneider of the University of Iowa asked the obvious question: what happens if you remove deaths from fatal injuries from the life expectancy tables? Among the 29 members of the OECD, the U.S. vaults from 19th place to…you guessed it…first. Japan, on the same adjustment, drops from first to ninth.
From Marginal Revolution.

A few observations, however, illustrate that health care quality and underlying economic issues that drive health care quality disparities still have something to do with the disparities.

1.  As used in the above quotation: "fatal injuries" appears to mean what I usually describe as "trauma", i.e. accidental deaths, homicide and suicide combined, not just accidental deaths.

2.  Surely, the U.S. has a much higher homicide rate than many of its peer countries for reasons including its cultural propensity to violence (at least in some geographical regions such as the South and large urban centers) and its lax gun control.  Even after years of declining homicide rates, this remains true.  The U.S. homicide rate has gone from about 9 per 100,000 people to 4.7 per 100,000 people.  Many of our economic peers have homicide rates under 2 per 100,000 people, comparable to the homicide rates of U.S. states with the consistently lowest homicide rates (mostly in the rural North).

3.  The U.S. probably has more accidental deaths as well.  High motor vehicle use due to low population density and weak public transit is one factor - the U.S. has one of the highest rates of traffic deaths among developed countries per population, but is closer to the middle of the pack measured by vehicle miles traveled.  Serious problems with prescription drug abuse is another big problem in the U.S.  There may be other public safety/accident prevention issues as well.  For example, the U.S. has quite high rates relative to many of its peers, by international standards, of mechanized farming, commercial fishing and construction activity, each of which has much higher than average workplace mortality rates associated with it. But, U.S. workplace deaths are dominated by traffic deaths and homicides with deaths from other sources that are particular to work activities making up absolute numbers of accidental deaths that are pretty small relative to the total number of accidental or trauma deaths in any one year (1,198 deaths in the year 2011, which is less than 5% of all accidental injuries and a smaller percentage of all trauma deaths).

4.  U.S. suicide rates aren't particularly exceptional relative to other developed countries (18th out of 34) and some populations with high homicide rates like African-Americans have below average suicide rates.  Japan, for example, has far more suicides than the United States, per capita, despite its overall high life expectancy and very low rate of firearm related deaths.

5.  The United States has universal single payer health care for senior citizens (age sixty-five plus).  Also private insurance rates are highest, and complete lack of health care (including lack of Medicaid enrollment) is lowest, among late middle aged Americans and highest among the young.  Thus, the age associated diseases that account for most non-trauma deaths impact mostly the populations with the best access to health care, while trauma deaths impact, on average, the populations with the least access to health care.  This is true not just on age measures, but on socio-economic measures.  The less well off have the worst access to health care (either inferior Medicaid coverage or not at all) and the most exposure to trauma mortality risk.

6.  The measurable and significant differences in outcomes between Level I trauma centers and less specialized emergency care illustrate and quantify the potential mortality improvements that could be secured by better funding and organization of trauma care.  A transfer of a patient from a Level II trauma center to a Level I trauma center reduces mortality risk by about 10%.  And, many trauma victims receive health care below the standard of the Level II trauma center, or receive no professional health care at all (e.g. due to fear of implication in criminal activity).

7.  The United States also doesn't fare well compared to its peers in infant mortality statistics, again, a category of deaths that occur disproportionately in populations with poor access to health care, or access only to inferior care through Medicaid in the U.S.  The U.S. ranks 34th out of 40 OECD countries by this measure between Lithuania and Chile.

8.  The U.S. just ended a long period of time during which its homicide rates fell dramatically together with almost all other forms of serious crime.  The decline from 1994 to early 2012 was almost 50%.  Given that the study cited is a few years old, these reductions in homicide rates may not be fully reflected in the statistics cited.

9.  Likewise accidental deaths other than prescription drug overdoses are at near record lows and have been falling steadily for several decades.  They have declined (on an age adjusted basis) about 16% over the last 50 years, more or less steadily.  The decline would be considerably greater were it not for an immense surge in prescription drug overdoses since 1999 that masks improvements mortality associated with most other forms of accidental deaths (and a pretty clear failure of the U.S. health care system itself) in that time period.

10. To the extent that the U.S. does get good outcomes in non-trauma health care, it pays far more for that non-trauma health care than its developed country peer nations by any measure.  There is absolutely an overpayment problem with U.S. health care even if the quality problem may not be quite as bad as it seems in most kinds of care.

11.  Both trauma victimization and poor health care availability are very closely linked to economic inequality and racial inequality in the United States in a manner not nearly so pronounced among its developed nation peers.  Economic inequality among the non-elderly is a root cause of low U.S. low expectancy relative to its peers.  Racial and gender gaps in life expectancy in the United States have narrowed significantly in the last twenty years, however.

Who wants out?

Five of the eleven counties that voted on secession from Colorado yesterday voted in favor of leaving the state to form their own (contrary to the 1 reported by National Public Radio this morning and the 5 reported by Colorado Public Radio, seconds later).  They are: Yuma, Cheyenne, Phillips, Kit Carson,  and Washington. [Ed. corrected to reflect a "No" vote in Sedgewick county previously reported as voting yes in multiple sources.]

 Basically, a thin strip of thinly populated counties on the northern part of the Eastern border of Colorado plus adjacent Washington County (home to most of my Colorado relatives).

More analysis here.

Connect For Health Colorado Website Still Down

Try to sign on to the State of Colorado's health insurance exchange and it will tell you that your users ID and password are broken.  But, in fact, the system is actually down and everyone who tries to sign on is told this, the telephone support line will tell you (not that the website warns you of this fact).  The related Colorado Peak website for Medicaid applications is also broken, as is the automated telephone support prompt system that goes with Colorado Peak (and its phones are only answered during state government business hours).

We started our application around October 20, and finished the mandatory application for Medicaid which we know we won't qualify for on October 22.  As of November 6, more than two weeks later and a couple of days after the state said it would restore website service, we're still in limbo.  Eventually, a customer support line human being says applications are processed not instantly, but in 30 to 45 days.  Why it takes so long is a mystery.  It took me all of two minutes to determine that we don't qualify and the hyper for the system said you could get results in less than 30 to 45 minutes.

I've looked at the provisions of the law and information from other people, so I know that I will receive many thousands of dollars of tax subsidies and that the premium on a plan comparable to the one that I have now will be thousands of dollars cheaper.  But, I can't get to that stage of the application process.

The seemingly simple website application is still an unmitigated disaster more than five weeks after it was launched.

I have nothing against the law, and understand how Republican efforts to undermine funding of the website at the federal level undermined that process, but I'm still a bit baffled about why Colorado's website is such a dismal failure.

05 November 2013

2013 Denver and Statewide Colorado Election Results

In early results from the 2013 election in Denver and statewide in Colorado, the slate of four reformers running for school board is sweeping the seats relative to four teacher's union backed candidates and one candidate for school board at large affiliated with neither slate of candidates. Prior to the election, reform and anti-reform slates were evenly balanced on the school board.

Denver voters have backed all city ballot issues 2A (a retail marijuana tax), and 2B, 2C and 2D (housekeeping good government charter amendments).

Statewide, issue AA imposing taxes on retail marijuana is headed towards passage, while issue 66, increasing taxes to pay for schools is currently headed to defeat.

The results on the Denver races and on issues AA and 66 are likely to hold throughout the night.  In Denver, issue 66 is almost exactly 50-50 in support in early returns, and tax issues for education almost always need strong support in liberal urban centers like Denver and Boulder to overcome anti-tax sentiment in more conservative parts of Colorado.

04 November 2013

Republicans Explained

An interesting pundit analysis of why Republicans are so crazy over Obamacare, which makes very little sense to Democrats, is available via Sean Carroll's blog.

The core insight is that Republicans think that Obamacare will create a permanent majority for Democrats by establishing the uninsured as a new government dependent minority added to many existing ones dependent on welfare, unemployment insurance, food stamps, and illegal immigrants; as a final lynch pin in a socialist big government edifice.  As he explains:
A lot of the people described here are poor or at best middle-class, but their cultural identity and self-image is derived in large part from race/nation/religion/lifestyle categories that they see as under attack. The dominant emotions here are fearful ones. (I don’t mean to be condescending by talking about “these people”; this is the environment that I grew up in myself.) This kind of analysis helps understand why Obamacare — which, for all its faults, is primarily aimed at providing health insurance to more people, many of whom are squarely in the Republican base — is such a hot-button issue. It’s not that they don’t want health insurance; it’s not even that they don’t want the government involved (since they love Medicare and Social Security). It’s that they see Obamacare as a craven ploy to get more people (people not like them) dependent on the government, establishing a permanent Democratic majority, and therefore easing the way for more power going to immigrants, gays, and so on.
Carroll's source is conservative pundit Rod Dreher, writing for "The American Conservative," who is in turn evaluating results from a poll conducted by a pair of Democratic pollsters.

Most Prosecuted Crimes Committed By Criminals

From the Bureau of Justice Statistics:
In the nation's 75 largest counties, an estimated 58,100 defendants were charged with a felony offense in 2006.
* More than three-quarters of felony defendants had a prior arrest history, with 69% having multiple prior arrests.
* Fifty-eight percent of felony defendants in the nation's 75 largest counties were released prior to adjudication and about a third of the released defendants committed some form of pretrial misconduct.
* About two-thirds of felony defendants were eventually convicted and more than 95% of these convictions occurred through a guilty plea. . . . Of the defendants who had state felony charges filed against them in the nation's 75 largest counties during May 2006—
An estimated 58% were released by the state court prior to the disposition of their case. Forty-two percent were detained until case disposition, including 5% of felony defendants who were denied bail. . . .
Less than half of defendants with an active criminal justice status, such as parole (14%) or probation (34%), were released, compared to 65% of those with no active status.
About a third of released defendants were either rearrested for a new offense, failed to appear in court as scheduled, or committed some other violation that resulted in the revocation of their pretrial release. . . .
An estimated 18% of all released defendants were rearrested while awaiting disposition of their case. About two-thirds of these new arrests were for a felony.

Norwood, Colorado Rape Scandal Update

A comment on my earlier post on public acceptance of hazing rape in Norwood, Colorado deserved a more prominent posting, that illustrates that this was not an isolated incident and that much of the community was complicit.  The poster doesn't say when it happened, but if the statute of limitations has expired, those involved deserve to be prosecuted.

Anonymous said...
I skipped a grade and was small for my age. When I was 12 years old I spent one week on the Norwood wrestling team. After everyone had left after practice one day I was grabbed by eight senior boys in the locker room. They pinned me down on the ground then stripped me completely naked. After they tied my hands behind my back they took at least a dozen pictures of me and told me they would pin them up in the boy's AND girl's bathrooms if I told on them. The laid me down in a trough-style urinal, plugged the drain with toilet paper, then took turns urinating on me until the urinal was almost full. When they were done they ordered me to perform oral sex on them. Because I refused they kept me naked in the locker room over the weekend and charged children aged 6 to 18 money to look at my penis up close. They charged boys a dollar and girls two dollars. On Sunday they put my underwear back on, took my glasses off, then told boys they could pull down my underwear and look at me for free if they peed in my face first. There were at least forty boys who took them up on the offer. I had to attend that school for the rest of the year, knowing that most of the people who passed me in the halls everyday had seen me naked and humiliated. That school AND town are much more evil than not.

01 November 2013

Self Deprecation, Literary Style

This was B-movie perfection. Uber evil corporation, complete with brainless muscle and evil plot to take over the world. Everyone was in on it except the poor, helpless, beautiful girl. . . . And the cheesy plot thickens.  God.  Somebody kill me now.
- Jus Accardo, "Touch" (2011), in which his heroine sums of the plot of his novel which she has experienced so far as of about a quarter of the way through the book.

Geezer Moment

A few days ago I went to the Cherry Creek Mall in Denver looking for a finishing touch for a Halloween costume, a tie tack. At least one store there, Macy's actually sells them (far too expensive at $25 and up, for Halloween). But, at myriad other retail establishments in the mall, I was met with rare moments of stupefaction and utter wonderment. No one had any idea what I was talking about and couldn't even imagine what sort of creature it was. I felt like I was walking around an 18th century market asking for a carburetor.

Admittedly, not many people wear tie tacks any more.  But, I would think that someone would know what one was.  My wife knows what one is and I'm sure that most of my peers would (I think).  Proof that I'm getting old?