Relevant and even prescient commentary on news, politics and the economy.

Worldwide Deaths, by Cause & Age, 1990 v. 2016

Here’s a fascinating graph from an article in the Lancet:


Click to embiggen. (The figure should show deaths all the way to >95 years)

The graph is a bit complicated at first, but it will convey some interesting information if you stare at it. What jumps out at me is how many more people were dying under age 25 in 1990 than in 2016. The number of deaths in 2016 v. 1990 increased dramatically for those above 25, particularly among the older cohorts. Simply put, a lot of people are living a lot longer.

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Habit Formation

There’s a fascinating but barely-accessible-to-a-non-neurologist article about habit formation. Here is a pretty good summary, albeit with an un-helpful title:

A single kind of neuron deep within the brain serves as a “master controller” of habits, new research in mice indicates.

Some habits are helpful, such as automatically washing your hands before a meal or driving the same route to work every day. They accomplish an important task while freeing up valuable brain space. But other habits—like eating a cookie every day after work—seem to stick around even when the outcomes aren’t so good.

Researchers found that habit formation boosts the activity of the influential nerve cell, and that shutting it down with a drug is enough to break habits in sugar-seeking mice. Though rare, this cell exerts its control through a web of connections to more populous cells that are known to drive habitual behavior.

From earlier research by the same team, and which set them on the path for that “master controller”:

The team trained otherwise healthy mice to receive a tasty treat every time they pressed a lever. Many mice developed a lever-pressing habit, continuing to press the lever even when it no longer dispensed treats, and despite having had an opportunity to eat all the treats they wanted beforehand.

The team then compared the brain activity of mice who had developed a lever-pressing habit with those who hadn’t. They focused on an area deep within the brain called the striatum, which contains two sets of neural pathways: a “go” pathway, which incites an action, and a “stop” pathway, which inhibits action.

They found that both the go and stop pathways were stronger in habit-driven mice. Habit formation also shifted the relative timing of the two pathways, making the go pathway fire before the stop.

The reason so many behavioral traits are heritable is because they are strongly influenced by our physical nature, and our physical nature, in turn, is heritable.

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Justice Denied

From the Daily Mirror:

None of the 400 citizens returning here after fighting for Islamic State in Syria and Iraq have been charged with war crimes.

Yet the Council of Europe’s legal affairs committee recently ruled membership of the terror group, also known as Daesh, is enough for prosecution at the Hague’s International Criminal Court.

Labour Shadow Minister Liam Byrne, representing Britain, backed the decision.

He said: “We know British citizens were soldiers and commanders in Daesh’s army of evil. Yet not a single soldier captured on their return has been charged with war crimes or genocide.”

MI5 estimates that 850 Brits have slipped into Iraq and Syria to fight for IS – half of whom have returned.

They were outside the jurisdiction of the ICC while there but could have been deported to the Hague upon their return.

Mr Byrne added: “This cannot possibly be justice. The Government must look again at throwing the full weight of international law at those who took part in crimes against humanity.”

Byrne also had an op ed in The Times of London:

Britain has signed the Treaty of Rome. We support the International Criminal Court. Indeed, under the 1948 Genocide Convention, we have an obligation to take prompt and effective action both to prevent and punish acts of genocide. And we can try our own nationals for participating in crimes abroad, not least because there are good grounds for bringing charges against even those, who might claim “they were merely following orders”. UK policy is very clear; we allow the exercise of universal jurisdiction, like the ICC, over offences under international law.

That means we can prosecute those of our citizens caught in this country, who fought with militants abroad but then came home to escape a death on the battlefield.

MI5 believe that over 800 of our fellow country men women went to fight in Iraq and Syria. Over 400 have come home. Perhaps 150 have been deprived of their citizenship. But evidence supplied to a Council of Europe investigation suggests that just “eight returnees have been convicted for terrorist offences”. And answers to me in parliament last week confirm that not a single returning fighter has been prosecuted either for genocide or war-crimes.

Justice denied… is collaboration in both past and future crimes.

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Supply and Demand in California

I came across the following graph:


(Click to embiggen)

Both the supply curve for labor in the state of California and the demand curve for housing in California are made up of the states residents.

In general, if you increase the supply of something, all else being equal you bring down its price. On the other hand, if you increase the demand for something, all else being equal you increase its price. The graph above suggests that in California, two things have happened. One is that the supply of labor has increased more rapidly than its demand. Conversely, the demand for housing has increased more rapidly than its supply.

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Homicides: Victimizers and Victims

Last year in Chicago:

Among the Sun-Times’ findings, based on a review of police and Cook County medical examiner’s reports, court files and interviews:

• The vast majority of those killed in Chicago in the first half of this year — 90 percent —died from a gunshot wound.

• Seventy-two percent were African-American men, their average age 29.

• Four out of five had faced criminal charges in Cook County at some point, mostly for drug offenses — the leading cause of arrest in Chicago.

• Two out of five had drug convictions.

• More than a quarter had been convicted of a violent offense or illegal gun possession.

• Domestic conflicts, many involving mental illness, were involved in at least 24 of the deaths.

• At least four were killed by stray bullets. Others were shot while in the company of people who were targeted.

• The reasons behind other killings remain a mystery to the police.

Chicago Police Department officials say the findings reinforce that most of the city’s gun violence involves a relatively small group of gang members and drug dealers.

Aiming to stem that violence, they’ve been sending teams to meet with gang members flagged as being likeliest to end up a shooting victim or a shooter, based in part on an algorithm that takes into account factors like whether a person has ever been shot, has been convicted of a gun crime, is on parole or has been picked up by the police with anyone who fits such criteria.

“Today’s offender is tomorrow’s victim,” says Christopher Mallette, executive director of Chicago Violence Reduction Strategy, a not-for-profit group that organizes the visits. “They flip jerseys all the time.”

Also a bit out of date, from Wisconsin Public Radio:

As the halfway mark for the year 2014 is nearly here, the tally of gun-related homicides in Wisconsin currently stands at 50. However, there appears to be one constant in these numbers and that’s the criminal records of both the perpetrators and victims.

The two most recent gun deaths involved Kwata Shields, 19, who was shot on Milwaukee’s South Side at a house party last Saturday. The second was Robert Washington, 20, who was allegedly shot by his father on Thursday during an argument in the Milwaukee suburb of Glendale.

Almost two-thirds of the fatal shootings in the state have taken place in Milwaukee. The others are scattered around 15 different cities and towns. In almost all cases, however, both victims and alleged perpetrators have criminal records.

Mallory O’Brien, of the Milwaukee Homicide Review Commission, tracks those numbers for the city of Milwaukee.

“(About) 94 percent of our victims have an arrest history and 93 percent of our suspects have an arrest history,” O’Brien said.

O’Brien said the same percentage is true for non-fatal shooting incidents. There’s been an increase in those numbers as well. By the end of June of last year, there were 204 cases and the count at the six-month mark this year, there have been 248 incidents — a 21-percent increase. She said there’ also been an increase in the number of shooting incidents with multiple victims.

In Baltimore:

But police have also said that some of the city’s residents most vulnerable to violence were also perpetrating violence— including known gang members and others heavily involved in the city’s violent drug trade.

“The driving forces behind the murders have remained the same and we’ve been successful at identifying some of these trigger pullers and getting them off the streets. We’re doing as much as we can with that group of people. It’s a vulnerable group, and I’ve said this a number of times,” Police Commissioner Kevin Davis said in November. “There are both perpetrators on that list and very likely victims on that list.”

The new data on the 2015 victims seems to bolster Davis’ claim that many victims were previously caught up in crime.

According to the analysis, nearly 90 percent of the 344 victims in 2015 had a prior criminal record. Of those, 80.2 percent had a prior drug arrest; 60.8 had been arrested for a violent crime; and half had a prior gun charge.

The average victim had been arrested 13 times before, and 26.2 percent were suspected gang members, the report said.

I stumble on treating alleged shooters as a “vulnerable group.” To me, the real vulnerable group are the other residents in the neighborhoods who are terrorized by the shooters or even get killed in the crossfire. Think of it in terms of people who get lung cancer. The fact that someone smoked 3 packs a day for a few decades doesn’t mean he/she in any way deserved to get lung cancer, but the cases that tend to elicit more sympathy are those of the people who never smoked, and especially the kids.

Now, from what I can tell, there are only two ways to reduce the number of “second-hand smokers.” One is to reduce the number of tobacco users. The other is to keep tobacco users apart from everyone else. With that in mind, what are realistic ways to reduce the carnage in some of our inner cities?

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Let the Punishment Fit the Crime, Identity Theft Edition

With the the recent Equifax data theft fiasco, I thought of a post I wrote 10 years ago:

Based on a conversation I had with reader Debbie, I was thinking about identity theft for the last day or so. I also had a discussion with the Ex-GF (for new readers, that’s my wife) about this; she was the victim of identity theft at one point. Its a big deal in this society, and I think I have a potential solution…
If someone steals someone else’s identity, their intention is to benefit from the reputation and credit rating and so forth that derive from the way their victim has conducted him/herself. Perhaps then they should also be required to, well, suffer the consequences for the way their victim conducted him/herself.

For example… the Ex-GF had a big pile of student loans at the time her identity was stolen. Why not make the thief responsible for paying those loans – not directly, of course… perhaps the thief would have to send the Ex-GF in the amount of the payment due every month. Alternatively, the thief would have to send the government an amount equal to that payment every month to compensate society for the losses of that identity theft; the government could then reduce the tax burden on everyone else by the same amount.

Similarly, if the victim of identity theft was proven to be the perpetrator of some crime, such as homicide, the person committing the identity theft could be required to serve part of the time, or perhaps a concurrent sentence.

Such a structure would would add some serious disincentive to those considering committing identity theft. Such a disincentive is really needed… the Ex-GF was able to quickly determine who had stolen her identity, and provided all the necessary evidence to the police. However, because the amount stolen was small, the police declined to do anything. But the time and effort she went through to fix the problem was pretty substantial.

Ten years later, I would kill the paragraph that begins with “For example…” I would also modify the second to last paragraph to read:

If the victim of identity theft was proven to be the perpetrator of some crime, such as homicide, the person committing the identity theft would be required to serve an identical sentence. Ditto those who steal the data in the first place.

Otherwise, I agree with myself.

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Let the Punishment Fit the Crime, Even if the Crime is Imaginary

This can’t be healthy:

Matthew Halls was removed as artistic director of the Oregon Bach Festival following an incident in which he imitated a southern American accent while talking to his longstanding friend, the African-American classical singer Reginald Mobley.

It is understood a white woman who overheard the joke reported it to officials at the University of Oregon, which runs the festival, claiming it amounted to a racial slur.

Here are the mechanics of the process:

But Mobley maintains that while racism should be challenged and ethnic groups made aware of each other’s sensitivities, his friend has been the victim of misunderstanding and overreaction.

Halls and Mobley had been chatting at a reception held last month during this year’s Oregon Bach Festival, when the subject turned to a concert in London in which Mobley had performed.

The singer, who was born and raised in the southern state of Florida, said the concert had an “antebellum” feel to it, of the sort associated with Gone With the Wind and other rose-tinted representations of the pre-Civil War south.

In response Mobley says that Halls “apologised on behalf of England”, before putting on an exaggerated southern accent and joking: “Do you want some grits?”, in a reference to the ground corn dish popular in the south.

“I’m from the deep south and Matthew often makes fun of the southern accent just as I often make fun of his British accent,” said Mobley. “Race was not an issue. He was imitating a southern accent, not putting on a black accent, and there was nothing racist or malicious about it.”

But the singer suspects that a white woman who overheard their conversation and spoke to him moments later went on to report it to the university, alleging Halls had made a racist joke.

An internal inquiry into the incident is understood to have been held as a result of the complaint.

However, Mobley was not invited to give evidence and he says there is a deep irony in the fact the authorities appear to have assumed on his behalf that he would have objected to the joke.

“I’m the subject of a falsified story, without having the chance to have my say,” he said. “My voice has been taken away in a conversation about race that involved me, and technically that’s racist.”

Fortunately, the process is clear and transparent:

Responding to the claims a spokesman for Oregon Bach Festival, said: “The University considers many factors when deciding whether to continue a contract. Regarding Reggie Mobley, it doesn’t appear he was involved in the University’s decision. Having said that, it would be inappropriate for the University to disclose details about a personnel matter.

“While I anticipate that more information will be available soon, I’m afraid that’s all I can say on the matter right now.”

This is reminiscent of the college student who got suspended for rape, despite the fact that the supposed victim kept insisting no rape had occurred.

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ACT Scores and Achievement Gaps

The Washington Post has a story on ACT scores:

New results from the nation’s most widely used college admission test highlight in detailed fashion the persistent achievement gaps between students who face disadvantages and those who don’t.

Scores from the ACT show that just 9 percent of students in the class of 2017 who came from low-income families, whose parents did not go to college, and who identify as black, Hispanic, American Indian or Pacific Islander are strongly ready for college.

But the readiness rate for students with none of those demographic characteristics was six times as high, 54 percent, according to data released Thursday.

“That kind of shocked us,” ACT chief executive Marten Roorda said. “We knew it was bad, but we didn’t know it was this bad.”

The analysis of “underserved learners” was a first for the ACT, which is one of two major tests students can take to apply to college. The other is the College Board’s SAT.

In recent years, both tests have found major disparities in college readiness among students in the Washington region and around the country. Roorda lamented that these gaps have persisted despite efforts to improve schools under the banners of No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top and other national initiatives.

“You could argue that those investments should have made a clearer difference,” he said, “and that’s not what we’re seeing.”

Actually, there have been a lot more initiatives, local and national, than those Roorda mentioned, and they go back decades. I remember, for example, when busing was expected to reduce gaps.

More detail appears to be available in this report by ACT..

Since the Washington Post only looks at “underserved learners,” for completeness, it helps to know the entire distribution. Table 2.4 of the ACT report indicates that that Asian students get the top scores, on average, followed by white students, followed by those who decline to state their race, followed by those of two or more races.

I also notice a bit of a gap between males and females – males do better on math and science, females on English and reading. So this report is chock full of the same racist stereotypes we have seen for decades. How do we get rid of this persistent gap in outcomes? And I think we can agree we want to do it in a non-harmful way. For instance, we don’t want to reduce the achievement gap by harming the performance of Asian students. Anyone have any realistic suggestions? A realistic answer will, of course, be one that is implementable, and which doesn’t contradict data that has come up in the decades in which society has been trying to deal with the issue.

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From the Onion to the Times of London… And Back Again to be added soon

Jô Soares, a well known Comedian turned political commentator (think Al Franken but not in the Senate) in Brazil, used to do a recurring skit about a former general who woke up from a coma. The rib was, the general had gone into the coma while the country was still ruled by a military junta. Anyway, the general would see stories in the news about former political prisoners turned into leading politicians, or former military personnel on trial, etc., and he’d demand to have his feeding tubes removed. To get the jokes, of course, you not only have to understand Portuguese but also have some understanding of Brazilian politics from about 1970 to the mid-1980s.

I believe this clip showed the first appearance of the character. (Sorry – I can’t find it in English.)

I am not sure whether to provide a trigger warning or not. The title of Soares’ show, at the time, translates as “Hurray for the Fat Guy.”

Anyway, for a moment I felt like Soares’ general. That moment came when I read this article in the Times of London, which of course is widely viewed as having a center-right orientation:

Edinburgh University is investigating a law student over claims that he mocked Islamic State on social media and put “minority students at risk and in a state of panic and fear”.

An official at the university who conducted a preliminary investigation allegedly accused the third-year law student of having committed a “hate crime” even though there has been no criminal investigation by the police.

The law student says that the complaint against him came in retaliation after he highlighted that a former leader of an ethnic minority student group at the university had referred to black men as “trash”.

Robbie Travers, 21, acknowledged that his social media comments were highly opinionated but he denied that they were racist or in any way incited violence.

The article continues:

One of his Facebook postings came after the US air force dropped a “massive ordnance air bomb” on an Isis stronghold in Afghanistan in April.

Mr Travers wrote: “Excellent news that the US administration and Trump ordered an accurate strike on an IS network of tunnels in Afghanistan.

“I’m glad we could bring these barbarians a step closer to collecting their 72 virgins.”

Esme Allman, a second-year history student and the former black and ethnic minority convenor of the university’s students’ association, filed a complaint to the university, saying: “Not only do I believe this behaviour to be in breach of the student code of conduct, but his decision to target the BME Liberation Group at the University of Edinburgh, and how he has chosen to do so, puts minority students at risk and in a state of panic and fear while attending the University of Edinburgh.”

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Accountability for Judges in the Criminal Justice System

Here’s an article entitled I Set a Defendant Free And Got Blamed When He Raped Someone. This is what the article is about:

A judge explains how he decides whether to release a defendant before trial without bail — and how it can go bad.

I found reading any further into the article was a complete waste of time, but the little bit I quoted above does raise an important point. Pretty much every job includes some measure of accountability based on outcomes. Presumably our betters on the bench should also operate under the same principles. If someone actively sought out a position in which they decide whether defendants get released before trial, it isn’t too much to expect them to be pretty good at figuring out who should be released before trial and who shouldn’t.

I don’t know what the guidelines are – I try to keep my involvement with the legal system to a bare minimum. Still, I imagine a simple rule would be something like this: defendants who aren’t a flight risk, who aren’t a danger to others, and who aren’t likely to be found guilty probably don’t need to be behind bars awaiting trial. Those who are a flight risk, are likely to cause harm, or can reasonably be expected to be found guilty of a serious crime should not be walking around.

If someone can’t distinguish between these sorts of situations reasonably well, it is hard to see how they have any business making decisions about such matters. In fact, it seems pretty immoral not to have such an expectation of those who use the power of the state to make decisions that affect the freedom and well being of the rest of us.

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