Sunday, December 31, 2006

Tree Rat Feeding Station

I enjoy squirrels and that's why I was so delighted today when the 3 squirrels I had under my squirrel feeding station ran off a fourth one who was interested too. I have been putting up an ear of corn for the squirrels, but I had a nearby birdfeeder that was under an anti-squirrel baffle. The squirrels just jump on the feeder now and dump the contents on the ground and eat it there.

I realize that they are rodents, but I think the plush fur and puffy tail makes squirrels so much more attractive than rats. And, more importantly, squirrels typically do not move into human houses like rats.

Tax Policy & Tax Havens

I thought this was an interesting article about the debate political rhetoric in France over tax policies and how they shape individual choice as well as public policy.

In stark contrast with France, where heavy taxes punish big earners, Switzerland imposes no wealth tax and the state takes only part of the annual income of rich foreigners. In addition, individual cantons can arrange single 'flat tax' arrangements with the very rich.

[Former French rocker] Hallyday will join an estimated 100,000 French citizens, including tennis star Amelie Mauresmo, racing driver Alain Prost and singer Charles Aznavour, now enjoying fondue, the Alps and fine watches (Gstaad [Switzerland] boasts Rolex, Cartier and Patek Philippe shops). According to Francois Micheloud, a Swiss tax expert, Hallyday would be paying up to 60 per cent of his estimated £4m annual earnings to the exchequer [or Treasury Department] in France. His tax bill in Switzerland is certain to be considerably less - it could be as low as £105,000.

Tax is now a major issue in the run-up to next year's presidential elections in France, which explains in part why the decision of Hallyday, a vocal supporter of Nicolas Sarkozy, the Interior Minister and right-wing candidate, is so controversial.

Socialist candidate Segolene Royal sneered that she prefers to have friends who don't leave France to live in tax havens.

Sarkozy snapped back that Hallyday was only forced to leave by left-wing laws that meant France welcomed only those who have 'no papers, no training... and no desire to succeed'.


Roger Seifritz, director of Gstaad's tourist office, insists that, as a high proportion of local people work in traditional agriculture, the atmosphere is more 'authentic'. 'It keeps the valley in touch with real life,' he said. 'That's one reason why rich people come here. It is what life used to be like, and they like that.' |Guardian|
It does seem somehow wrong to me that someone should benefit from a socialist society your entire life and then leave when it no longer makes good economic sense. Although I'm guessing that tax refugees would argue that society contributed little to their development and success.

Friday, December 29, 2006

Christmas is a state of mind

I'm slowly checking back into the world and I checked my email today for the first time in a week. I cannot recall the last time I went a week doing so...

Sarah sent me a link to the bittersweet video, Happy Christmas - War is Over if You Want It. I think it's great and doubly ironic.

My friend James also sent me a couple of Tom Tomorrow cartoons: Year in Review part one and part two.

I saw my father over Christmas and he commented that I posted some "nasty opinions" on my blog. My father and I disagree politically, to put it mildly. But the U.S. is (still )a free country and I will continue to use this space to test exactly how far the bounds of decency, if not constitutional freedom, extend.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

To live and die in San Francisco

Earlier this month the San Franscico Chronicle had a series of stories on the use of force by police officers. San Franscico has the reputation of being the most liberal city in the United States, so I thought it might be interesting to see what their media had to say about police use of force.

Since the articles relate to a conversation I've been having with several people lately about police use of force, I thought I'd post them as a public service.

Phil Bronstein, an editor at the Chronicle, introduces the series with these words:
This week's series in The about SFPD shootings, the processes and practices that help police do the right thing -- not needlessly endangering people's lives, including their own. Law-enforcement experts talk about the rules and regulations and how they should be followed to make deadly force less necessary.

As one of the experts and several officers point out in the series, sometimes the hardest part is the flesh-and-blood piece, the human emotion and reaction. Under dire circumstances, even a trained person's actions can be unpredictable.

I'm reminded by my visit to the police academy that life is complicated and we need to say that, too, probably more often than we do.

That doesn't excuse abuse or bias or bullying, or even not adhering to strict guidelines and training procedures. When you've got big authority and the deadly weapons to enforce it, there needs to be some strong, applicable rules that function before, during and after the use of deadly force. There should be a system and it should work to control the most awesome of the government's powers over all of us: the ability to take a life.

Still, standing in a room with only a virtual threat, I understand the strong and visceral pull of self-preservation, of fear and of emotion. SF Chronicle

December 3rd, 2006

The Use of Force - Four Shootings and Investigations

The Use of Force - When Officers Resort to Gunfire

December 4th, 2006

The Use of Force - A Traffic Stop Leads to a High-Speed Pursuit

The Use of Force - How SFPD Compares with Other Cities

December 5th, 2006

The Use of Force - Police need Greater Understanding of the Mentally Ill, Advocates Say

The Use of Force - SFPD has a 'beanbag gun' officers can use to subdue suspects who may be mentally ill

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Pot is largest cash crop in US

When I was in high school, I wrote several pieces of legislation for student congress that would develop new strategies to regulate illegal drugs. The federal opposition to changing marijuana from a Schedule 1 drug (by definition, a drug with no medicinal value) is puzzling given the large number of state initiatives legislatively recognizing the medicinal property of marijuana for treating many conditions. See for more information.

Marijuana is a huge crop in the United States and the government ought to decriminalize it.
Marijuana is now the biggest cash crop grown in the US, exceeding traditional harvests such as wheat, corn and soy beans, says a new report.

The study shows that 10,000 tonnes of marijuana worth $35.8bn (£18.4bn) is grown each year; the street value would be even higher. This dwarfs the $23bn-worth of corn grown, $17.6bn-worth of soybeans and $12.2bn-worth of hay. |Guardian|

Monday, December 18, 2006

Revealed at last, what makes children gay...


Yes, the mild and otherwise inoffensive soybean crop makes children gay according to the World Net Daily's Jim Rutz.

Batshit crazy, that's how I like my conservatives.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Google Patents

Years ago I tried to get my father or brother to build me a pepper spray dispenser that I could attach to the end of my pistol for home defense purposes. They weren't interested.

But now through the magic of Google Patents, I can now see that quite a few other people have had this same idea.

This one was filed in 1995, this one in 1998, while this one wasn't filed until 2003, though.

Why they keep issuing patents on the same basic idea, I'm not sure. All of them look pretty similar to my eye. But I think this is definitely an idea whose time has come.

Now if I could just find someone manufacturing them...

Christmas Tragedies

Before you buy your niece that new shiny toy for Christmas, check out this article on the ten most deadly toys of all time.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

The Politics of Compromise

While searching for something else, I stumbled across this recent analysis of how traditionally liberal lobbyists for abortion, gay rights, and gun control plan to deal with the new Democratic Congress. The analysis suggests that these liberal campaigners are inclined to stick to the middle ground and seek policies that are less likely to incite social conservatives.
Republican control of the Capitol may have forced abortion-rights and civil-liberties advocates to play perpetual defense, but those wilderness years also gave the groups valuable practice at building coalitions across the aisle and branding themselves as more mainstream than their conservative counterparts.

Now, as Democrats prepare to assume the majority, these veterans of the culture wars are seeking to shape the agenda of the new leadership....

NARAL has aimed its recent efforts less at preserving women’s right to an abortion than at making the procedure, as former President Clinton first put it, “safe, legal and rare.”....

Though the gay community might see its issues move lower on the priority list, Solmonese said, such pragmatism is a small price to pay to end the Republicans’ prolonged attacks on gay marriage. The page he plans to borrow from conservative groups’ playbook: “Be really smart and be really strategic.”

Like abortion-rights groups, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence has used the Republican majority to develop a political strategy with bipartisan appeal that it will continue to pursue. Reinstating the lapsed assault weapons ban, a high priority for many urban Democrats, is outranked on the Brady Campaign agenda by boosting law enforcement funding and strengthening background checks.

“My goal is to get us to a position where both Republicans and Democrats are coming to us and asking for our endorsement,” Brady Campaign President Paul Helmke said. “That hasn’t really been the case.” |The Hill|

I don't know whether to think this heralds a new era in American politics where we look at compromise and the common good...or whether it just means that the Democrats are wimps.

Get thee to a library!

I've been advocating for a while that there should be educational requirements for Congressional representatives. Senators should be required to have a Ph.D. and members of the House of Representatives should be required to have a Master's Degree. That way, there will at least one topic on which they will have some expertise. Law degrees wouldn't count, though. Those are expected.

So when I read this today, it merely reinforced my view.
[Silvestro] Reyes, a Democrat from Texas, was chosen by party speaker Nancy Pelosi to chair the house intelligence committee, charged with the oversight of the CIA and other agencies.

So there was much chagrin when the congressman was unable to answer even the most rudimentary questions about militant Islamist organisations such as "Who is in al-Qaida", and "What is Hizbullah"? |Guardian|

How can the U.S. take a leadership role in the world community when our leadership (and citizenry) are largely ignorant of the rest of the world?

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Predicting Homicide among Probationers

The Kansas City Star has an article about a new statistical program developed by criminologist Richard Berk that highlights those probationers who are most likely to commit murder while under state supervision.

"This will help stratify our caseload and target our resources to the most dangerous people," probation department director of research Ellen Kurtz said. "I don't care as much about (targeting) the shoplifter. I care a lot about the murderer, obviously."...

[B]ecause [homicide] is a relatively rare event, has been very hard to predict. Of all probationers in Philadelphia, only about one in 100 will commit homicide. But for obvious reasons it is crucial to find that needle in the haystack, Berk said...

"In reality the risk doesn't decline in a smooth, straight line" but falls precipitously at certain points for certain reasons, he said.

The tool works by plugging 30 to 40 variables into a computerized checklist, which in turn produces a score associated with future lethality. |KC Star|
This strikes me as a worthwhile task that could have an impact on improving the oversight of violent offenders.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Iraqi Army Selling their Guns

In yet another sign of the futility in Iraq, I read that the Iraqi police and military are selling their US provided weapons on the black market. Of course, we didn't even bother to copy down the serial numbers on the rifles and pistols we gave them. Maybe the fact that I'm a librarian makes me especially aghast at this, but it seems like such an obvious step.
Tracing U.S.-issued weapons back to Iraqi units that sell them is especially difficult because the United States did not register serial numbers for almost all of the 370,000 small arms purchased for Iraqi security forces, according to a report by the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction....

Defections and resignations have also been common in Iraqi police and army units, they said, and often departing soldiers and officers leave with their weapons, which are worth more than several months of pay.

Aaron Karp, a small-arms researcher at Old Dominion University, said Iraq resembled African countries that had had extraordinary difficulties with the police selling off their guns. "The gun becomes the most valuable thing in the household," he said. |Seattle Times|
Earlier in the article it discusses the inflation in arms prices because every household in Iraq now wants an assault rifle so that they can defend themselves from the various death squads roaming the country.

Integrating Muslims at home & abroad

Gary Younge writes of the different experiences of Muslims in the US and Europe and how the different demographics of US and European Muslims create different obstacles to integration.

The different experiences have emerged partly, it seems, because the Muslim communities on either side of the Atlantic are so different. The patterns of migration have differed. A large proportion of Muslims who came to America arrived with qualifications and were looking for professional work. As a result, they are generally well educated and well off. According to a recent study by the Journal of Human Resources, the wages of Arab and Muslim workers in the US fell by 10% in the years following the terror attacks; but they are still better paid and better educated than non-Muslims.

In Britain, the overwhelming majority of Muslims came from former colonies to live in poor areas and do low-paid work, and they remain the most economically impoverished. In 2004 Muslims had the highest male unemployment rate in Britain, at 13% - three times the rate of Christians. Meanwhile, 33% had no qualifications - the highest proportion of any religious group....

Yet it is notable that when Tony Blair lectures Muslims about integration, as he did last week, the issue of economic alienation barely ever arises. How are people supposed to integrate culturally when they cannot move professionally, economically or even geographically? Just over 50 years ago, the US supreme court banished the "separate but equal" policies that segregated state schools here; it seems Britain is embracing a dogmatic version of its antithesis - "united but unequal". |Guardian|

Comparative Tax Law: Pole Dancing is Tax Free in Norway

A Norwegian court of appeals has declared that pole dancing is a form of artistic expression and should be exempted from the Value Added Tax (of VAT).
Lawyers ...argued that striptease dancers were stage artists just like sword-swallowers and comedians and deserved the same status.

"Striptease, in the way it is practised in this case, is a form of dance combined with acting," the judges ruled, according to AFP news agency... "One can suspect there were moral scruples behind the tax authorities' claim since all forms of stage dance are free of value-added tax," Reuters news agency quoted the club owners' lawyer as saying.|BBC|

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

On Police Use of Force

Over the Bellman, I've been discussing police use of force with the blogger known as DR and this post is an open letter to him. But feel free to join the discussion of you are so interested.

DR is specifically interested in police use of lethal force. But I think it's important to zoom out a little bit and discuss police use of force in a broader context before getting to the difficult and controversial topic of police use of lethal force.

In order to educate myself I consulted the collection at the law library where I work and discovered several books under the subject heading police brutality. The one I found most interesting and persuasive is Police Violence: Understanding and Controlling Police Abuse of Force by William A. Geller and Hans Toch, published in 1996 by Yale University Press. |Amazon| |Worldcat| |Powells|

Based upon this book and other readings, I'd like to suggest a few premises for the discussion.

1. The police ostensibily promote order in society and it is a worthy goal to improve the quality of policing.

2. The police are authorized by the government to use force to enforce order.

3. Police officers have a great deal of discretion in the amount of force they use to enforce order.

4. All police within the United States have formal rules, regulations, policies and use of force policies promulgated by their superiors.

5. All police have an informal culture they develop and are subject to peer pressure.

6. All police work takes place within a social context and officers take into account a subject's class, race, sex, and submission to authority in dealing with citizens.

7. Geography places a role in police work, i.e. police officers know where the "bad" part of town is and treat people found in the bad part of town worse than people in the nicer parts of town.

7a. Police officers are subject to criminal and civil prosecution for official malfeasance through a variety of state and local laws.

8. Police officers are rarely subjected to punishment through criminal or civil prosecution.

9. Police officers do not protect individuals, but rather the existing social order.

10. The existing social order is racist, sexist and classist.

11. Abuse of power by police officers (especially when caught on videotape) can lead to scandal, demonstrations, police officers and police chiefs losing their jobs and even riots.

12. Now I would even go so far as to say that the police function is essential to our current society and that without police society would soon descend into anarchy and gangs of thugs would rob, rape and pillage with impunity and the U.S. would come to resemble Baghdad. You may not agree with this strong a statement and I admit that this premise is more controversial.

But now let's get into the philosophy of police use of force. Messrs Geller and Toch suggest this definition of excessive police use of force on page eight:

Excessive [police] force should be defined as the use of more force than a highly skilled police officer would find necessary to use in that particular situation.

The authors contend that this formulation demands police use the best professional practices and holds them to the same standard that all other professionals with a rigorous code of conduct use (such as engineers, doctors, architects or attorneys).

The book contains an extended discussion of the research on use of force by police and outlines the social, psychological and organizational theories of police action that I attempted to summarize in my premises above.

I think most reasonable people agree that there is a great deal of abuse of force by police in the United States today and that there is a great deal of room for reform.

Now, from there let's try to develop a philosophy of police use of deadly force.

Again, some premises.

13. Police should defend themselves against all reasonable threats.

14. Police should use the least amount of force necessary to resolve a situation consistent with preserving order and protecting themselves and citizens.

15. Police should use deadly force to protect themselves or members of the public from imminent danger of significant injury or death.

I hope these are relatively uncontroversial. I think our disagreement may lie in the next few premises.

16. Police must take all threats to themselves and citizens seriously.

17a. An individual with a knife poses a grave risk to an officer armed with a handgun if that individual is allowed to approach within 21 feet of an officer.

17b. An individual armed with a firearm poses a grave risk to an officer armed with a firearm at any distance.

17c. An individual under the effects of drugs can pose a grave threat to police officers and citizens even when unarmed. Specifically, methamphetamine, cocaine, heroin and PCP cause irrationality and delusions while making users less amenable to pain.

17d. Mentally ill individuals may also pose a threat to officers due to delusional behavior and a frequently not deterred by shows of force.

17e. The undead are notoriously difficult to stop.

17f. Aggressive use of vehicles constitute a grave threat of death and dismemberment to police officers and members of the public.

18. The United States is awash in firearms and drugs and criminals frequently have access to firearms.

19. Police officers do not have much time to investigate the level of threat posed by a firearm and must react quickly to the presentation of firearms.

20. Sometimes police mistake a non-lethal object (such as a toy gun, a wallet, or a rolled-up T-shirt) for a gun. How reasonable this mistake is depends upon all of the circumstances of the incident.

21. Police must sometimes use lethal force to subdue individuals who are either on drugs or mentally ill.

22. If a situtation requiring lethal force could be avoided by a highly professional officer, then the use of force was imprudent, but this should not necessarily be criminalized.

23. Efforts to reform police work should not be rooted in a desire to punish police officers.

24. Reform efforts will be more successful if aimed at improving the quality of selection and training of police officers.

Ok, thus far I've been talking primarily philosophy and social science. But I do want to make a couple of public policy arguments.

25. If police oversight becomes too onerous police will effectively stop doing their jobs by responding to calls in a slow fashion or giving warning to criminals that they are coming.

26. If police officers are expected to get shot or stabbed before they can return fire, this would have a demoralizing effect on police officers and could lead to either police doing their job or insufficient candidates for new police officers (similar to what the US military is experiencing with recruiting now).

I think that's enough for now (or even too much), we can get into the execution of search warrants and arrest warrants later. Let me know what you think so far.

The fantasy of self-reliance

So I was reading the Guardian and happened upon an article about the new Swiss Army Knife called the Giant which has every tool they make and weighs in around a kilogram (or 2.2 pounds).

Then this sentence caught my eye.
I'll bet that most Americans who own a gun also own a Swiss Army knife. It offers the same fantasy - ever more attractive in our apocalyptic age - of self-reliance in extremis. |Guardian|
For the record, I don't own a Swiss Army Knife and haven't ever wanted one. I own several multi-tools and I even own a German Commando Knife, which is a knife with folding pliers. But the Swiss Army Knives have always struck as, well, a little prissy.

Of course the UK strictly controls the possession of firearms by its citizens and has recently even moved to ban fox hunting and so I can see how this author's perceptions of Americans (and specifically the much-maligned gun-owning American) are influenced by the media rather than direct experience.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Risk Compensation Revisited

When I was in debate we used to run a disadvantage called Risk Homeostatis which suggested that if you make society seem too safe, then people will act out in more dangerous ways and you end up without any net increase in safety.

It seemed a little kooky, but it was interesting and I've often wondered about the merits of the argument in my own unsophisticated way ever since. But today I saw an article by David Bjerklie in Time about the same concept, only this time called risk compensation.

[R]isk doesn't exist in a vacuum and that there are a host of factors that come into play, including the rewards of risk, whether they are financial, physical or emotional. It is this very human context in which risk exists that is key, says Adams, who titled one of his recent blogs: "What kills you matters — not numbers." Our reactions to risk very much depend on the degree to which it is voluntary (scuba diving), unavoidable (public transit) or imposed (air quality), the degree to which we feel we are in control (driving) or at the mercy of others (plane travel), and the degree to which the source of possible danger is benign (doctor's orders), indifferent (nature) or malign (murder and terrorism). We make dozens of risk calculations daily, but you can book odds that most of them are so automatic—or visceral—that we barely notice them. |Time|
So I typed Risk Compensation in Google Scholar, and there's quite a bit of research on this issue. Who knew?

For instance, this article abstract for Risk Compensation--the Case of Road Lighting indicates that road lighting causes some people to become worse drivers, while it also encourages timid safer drivers on the road at night as well.
[P]revious research showing that road lighting reduces road accidents and that average driving speeds do not increase when road lighting is installed. Our results show that drivers do compensate for road lighting in terms of increased speed and reduced concentration. ... This means that road lighting could have a somewhat larger accident-reducing effect, if compensation could be avoided. The fact that previous research has found no change in average speed when road lighting is introduced, seems to be explained by increased driving speeds by some drivers being counterbalanced by a larger proportion of more slowly driving groups of drivers (elderly people and women), i.e. different subgroups of road users compensate in different ways. |PubMed|

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Far too clever by half

After getting lost in virtual worlds this weekend, I was checking out the news to see what I'd missed and I was reading about former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's leaked White House memo. I love the Guardian's headline: Rumsfeld left secret 'cut and run' memo.

At this time, the rest of the Guardian's article is lost somewhere in hyperspace, but you can see the NY Times' coverage here (sub'n req'd), the memo itself, or the BBC's coverage here.

Professor Juan Cole's take on Rumsfeld's memo is so hilarious that I think I'll go cry myself to sleep.

Rumsfeld spends more time plotting out how to manipulate the American public than how to win the war. Everything is about spin, about giving the image of progress even in the face of a rapid downward spiral into the abyss....

There is nothing in the memo about effectively stopping the daily sectarian massacre in Iraq. Rumsfeld does not even appear to think there is a problem here. He doesn't see the basis on which the fabric of Iraq is coming apart. |Informed Comment|
I don't think anyone in this administration cares one whit about the suffering of Iraqis. I think there's a definite deficiency of compassion in this administration.

While it is important that our leaders be pragmatic, I don't think they should be without compassion. At the very least, they should appear to have compassion, but these jokers aren't fooling anybody.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

X boxing

So my Christmas present this year is an Xbox 360 and I just played the online version of Gears of War today. It's a lot of fun and just a little bit gory.

Clive Thompson reviews Gears of War for Wired here.

My friend, Jackson, has had one for a while and recommended the online system, Xbox Live. I am still exploring the game system, but Xbox Live is an interesting aspect of social software. It lets you know when your friends sign on and has integrated Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP), so you can chat with them in and out of gaming. Your games played and your progress are all visible to the world and you can compare your videogames with those of people you meet online (the default privacy setting are to show everyone anyway). I've only been online for two days, yet I have a record of almost everyone I've played with so far.