March 21, 2008

Trillions Here, Trillions There

Depressing: "Projected total US spending on the Iraq war could cover all of the global investments in renewable power generation that are needed between now and 2030 in order to halt current warming trends."
-- Brad Plumer 7:36 PM || ||
Hey Pig Piggy Pig Pig Pig

"Hey, what's with the dearth of great free content 'round these parts?" Well, sorry, I've been waylaid with the flu or worse. "Dire was the tossing, deep the groans, despair / Tended the sick busiest from couch to couch," as Milton put it. But all's well now, so onto business. Michael Gazzaniga's forthcoming book, Human, has this entertaining history of the "animal courts" that were sometimes held in Europe during the Middle Ages:
From 824 to 1845, in Europe, animals did not get off scot-free when they violated the laws of man... Just like common criminals, they too could be arrested and jailed (animal and criminals would incarcerated in the same prison), accused of wrongdoing, and have to stand trial. The court would appoint them a lawyers, who would represent them and defend them at a trial. A few lawyers became famous for their animal defenses.

The accused animal, if found guilty, would then be punished. The punishment would often be retributive in nature, so that whatever the animal had done would be done to it. In the case of a particular pig (during those times pigs ran freely through towns, and were rather aggressive) that had attacked the face and pulled the arms off a small child, the punishment was the pig had its face mangled and its forelegs cut off, and then was hanged. Animals were punished because they were harmful. However, sometimes if the animal was valuable, such as an ox or horse, its sentence would be ameliorated, or perhaps the animal would be given to the church. If the animal had been found guilty of "buggery" (sodomy) both it and the buggerer were put to death. If domestic animals had caused damages and were found guilty, their owners would be fined for not controlling them.

There seems to have been some ambivalence as to whether an animal was fully responsible or whether its owner should be also considered responsible. Because animals were peers in judicial proceedings with humans, it was considered improper to eat the bodies of any animals that were capitally punished (except for the thrifty Flemish, who would enjoy a good steak after a cow was hanged).

Animals could also be tortured for confessions. If they didn't confess—and no one supposed they would—then their sentence could be lessened. You see, it was important to follow the law exactly, for if humans were tortured and didn't confess, then their sentence could also be changed. Many different types of domestic animals had their day in court: horses for throwing riders or causing carts to tip, dogs for biting, bulls for stampeding and injuring or goring someone, and pigs most commonly of all. These trials were held in civil courts.
The source is E.P. Evans, The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals (1906). Now, Gazzaniga recounts this all to argue that "our species has had a hard time drawing the line between" humans and other animals—that we're frequently in the habit of ascribing agency to other species. But this long review of Evans's book offers a very different read of the medieval animal courts: "Goring oxen were not to be executed because they were morally guilty, but because, as lower animals who had killed higher animals, they threatened to turn upside down the divinely-ordained hierarchy of God's creation." That seems more likely, no?
-- Brad Plumer 6:43 PM || ||

March 11, 2008

A Tale of Two Teas

Why is green tea so popular in Asia while black tea is all the rage in the West? Tom Sandage's A History of the World in Six Glasses proffers a theory:
The first tea was green tea, the kind that had always been consumed by the Chinese. Black tea, which is made by allowing the newly picked green leaves to oxidize by leaving them overnight, only appeared during the Ming dynasty; its origins are a mystery. It came to be regarded by the Chinese as suitable only for consumption by foreigners and eventually dominated exports to Europe. Clueless as to the origins of tea, Europeans wrongly assumed green and black tea were two entirely different botanical species. ...

It is not too much exaggeration to say that almost nobody in Britain drank tea at the beginning of the eighteenth century, and nearly everybody did at the end of it. ... [There was a] widespread practice of adulteration, the stretching of tea by mixing it with ash and willow leaves, sawdust, flowers, and more dubious substances--even sheep's dung, according to one account--often colored and disguised using chemical dyes. Tea was adulterated in one way or another at almost every stage along the chain from leaf to cup. ...

Black tea became more popular, partly because it was more durable than green tea on long voyages, but also as a side effect of this adulteration. Many of the chemicals used to make fake green tea were poisonous, whereas black tea was safer, even when adulterated. As black tea started to displace the smoother, less bitter green tea, the addition of sugar and milk helped to make it more palatable.
So there you have it. But why is black tea safer "even when adulterated"? Surely it doesn't have the power to neutralize the "dubious substances" on its own, right?
-- Brad Plumer 11:21 PM || ||
'90s-era David Simon

Pulled up from The New Republic's archives, a great 1997 piece by Wire-creator David Simon that recounts, among other things, an amusing shoot from his first TV project, Homicide:
The day this scene was shot was not without its peculiar charm.

"You all want to be in a TV show?"

"Which one?" asked Boo.

"'Homicide.' The cop show."

"What do we have to do?"

"Sling drugs on a corner and get chased by the police."

They looked at each other for a long moment. Then laughter broke on the Southwest Baltimore crossroads of Gilmor and McHenry. Tae, Dinky, Manny Man, DeAndre, R.C.--all of them were willing to leave their real corner untended for a day, travel across town and play-act for the National Broadcasting Corporation. Only Boo was unsure.

"How much we gonna get paid?" he asked.

"You'll be non-union extras," I told him. "That means about $45 for the day. "

"Sheeeet," drawled Boo.

Forty-five dollars was fifteen minutes' work at McHenry and Gilmor. I knew this because, at that point, I had been around Tae and Dinky and the others for about ten months, and, for most of that time, they had sold drugs. I, in turn, had watched them sell drugs.

"I don't care," Tae said finally. "I wanna be on TV."

Boo stayed on the corner that day, slinging blue-topped vials of coke. The rest followed Tae across town to the Perkins Homes, a squat stretch of public housing that would serve as the pretend drug market. They filled out tax forms, waited out the inevitable delays and were eventually escorted by an assistant director to a battered side street. There, on the set, a props man handed them pretend drugs and pretend weapons, and the director, a very earnest white man, arranged them on the street in the manner most pleasing to the camera.

"You there, can you move to that doorway?"

Dinky stepped into the doorway.

"And you--can you show some of the gun? Right. Tuck in your shirt so we can see the gun."

R.C. arranged his shirt so the butt of the prop gun showed.

They filmed the scene over and over, with the director covering it from a variety of angles and distances. Each time, the pretend lookout shouted his warning. Each time, the corner boys ran from the approaching radio car. Each time, they were penned in the same alley, forced to the ground and given the handcuffs.

After the eighth or ninth take, the boys began to rebel.

"I'm sayin' this is bullshit," muttered Dinky. "They got all of us dirty like this. Dave, man, you know it wouldn't be that way. You know we don't do it like that."

It was true. The props department had stuffed fake drugs and guns and knives into the pockets of all the extras. Every last one of them would be caught holding, every last one would, in the make-believe world, take a charge. At Gilmor and McHenry, it was very different. The boys worked ground stashes, handling only a vial or two at a time. They kept the guns in rowhouse vestibules or atop the tires of parked cars. They didn't run at the first sign of a police car. They didn't have to run.
Well, it's a good show all the same.
-- Brad Plumer 1:37 PM || ||
Amis on Alcohol

Yes, I know. Any discussion of either Kingsley Amis, hangovers, or (especially) Kingsley Amis' thoughts on binge drinking and its consequences must include Lucky Jim's peerless description of a particularly wretched hangover. So without further ado:
Dixon was alive again. Consciousness was upon him before he could get out of the way; not for him the slow, gracious wandering from the halls of sleep, but a summary, forcible ejection. He lay sprawled, too wicked to move, spewed up like a broken spider-crab on the tarry shingle of the morning. The light did him harm, but not as much as looking at things did; he resolved, having done it once, never to move his eyeballs again. A dusty thudding in his head made the scene before him beat like a pulse. His mouth had been used as a latrine by some small creature of the night, and then as its mausoleum. During the night, too, he'd somehow been on a cross-country run and then been expertly beaten up by secret police. He felt bad.
Now that that's out of the way, Alexander Waugh has written a whole essay on Amis' (rather extensive) views on drinking. "Beer drinkers," Waugh observes, "have bellies, gin swiggers sallow jowls, and wine, port, and brandy drinkers a 'Rudolph conk,' formed by a rosaceous labyrinth of tiny, luminous blood vessels assembling itself on the nose." Amis was a whiskey man himself and his telltale, Waugh offers, was the "Scotch gaze," a phrase that may be familiar in Aberdeen, but seems to be beyond the ken of Google. Ah, well. Amis, who was very often hilarious, insisted that hilarity and drink were "connected in a profoundly human, peculiarly intimate way," but I actually found this passage of his extraordinarily sad:
When that ineffable compound of depression, sadness (these two are not the same), anxiety, self-hatred, sense of failure and fear for the future begins to steal over you, start telling yourself that what you have is a hangover. You are not sickening for anything, you have not suffered a minor brain lesion, you are not all that bad at your job, your family and friends are not leagued in a conspiracy of barely maintained silence about what a shit you are, you have not come at last to see life as it really is, and there is no use crying over spilt milk.
Well, I won't belabor it, but read the whole thing if you need a break from Eliot Spitzer, or Democratic delegate counts, or whatever else is going on.
-- Brad Plumer 11:43 AM || ||

March 10, 2008

Bug Off

I can't say I have fail-proof advice for any storekeeper confronted with a pack of noisy (or even dangerous) teenagers congregating outside his door. Calling the police doesn't always work for long. Changing social mores isn't what you'd call a quick fix. Nicely asking them to loiter elsewhere...? Er, no. Still, there's plenty that's disturbing about the "mosquito" solution:
In Britain, adolescents are the new mosquitoes. Many storekeepers and municipalities now employ ultrasonic devices, of the kind hitherto used to scatter insects and rodents, to disperse young people wherever they habitually gather to make a nuisance of themselves.

The so-called "mosquito" devices--there are some 3,500 installed throughout the country--take advantage of the fact that only people younger than 20 can perceive and be discomfited by the high-pitched sounds the devices make, discouraging them from lingering in the vicinity.

Now, the owners of a building in Queens are fitting it with just such a youth repellent. No doubt other buildings will soon follow suit.

It is an easy answer to a difficult problem. Those adults should turn back now--lest they turn New York into a city that is chronically afraid of its young people.
Yeah, no doubt treating youths like cockroaches will encourage them to behave. How could it not? The author also wonders whether teenagers will eventually get used to the sound, as their eardrums are dulled by loud music and the like. It sounds curmudgeonly, but I can attest. My hearing is pretty dismal (mostly I blame Steve Albini) and I could never pick out high-pitched whines of any sort. And why are adolescent eardrums so sensitive, anyway? What changes when you turn 20?
-- Brad Plumer 12:27 PM || ||

March 08, 2008

Jam Session

Why does traffic sometimes jam up on a road for no reason whatsoever? Japanese scientists from the Mathematical Society of Traffic Flow (really) asked a bunch of people to drive around a circle at constant speed. Watch as jams materialize out of nowhere and then "ripple" back through the circle like a shockwave:


Here's the article. One theory: "I suspect the trigger would either be a particular driver who was more nervous than the rest, or a particular location on the circle where the capacity was slightly lower." The first makes sense—a quick tap on the brakes by one motorist can reverberate down the line until everything grinds to a halt. I wonder if it'd be possible to create a computer-guided "conveyor belt" for cars in certain high-jamming areas—on LA freeways during rush hour, say—to maintain a constant distance between cars. Think of the productivity gains! Though presumably most drivers would be loath to give up the feeling of control, even if you don't actually have much control being wedged in bumper-to-bumper traffic.
-- Brad Plumer 2:45 PM || ||
"Food Fight"

Maybe it's just late at night, but I had to watch this video several times before I fully got it: "An abridged history of American-centric warfare, from World War II to the present day, told through the foods of the countries in conflict." Totally mesmerizing, if a little nauseating:

-- Brad Plumer 2:32 AM || ||

March 07, 2008

Singular They

Why, just last week, I was muttering to a co-worker that the use of "they" and "their" with a singular antecedent would someday, decades hence, be totally kosher. (That is, saying something like, "Whoever swiped my stapler better show their face"—rather than "show his or her face.") I guess I'd assumed the construction was relatively new. But it's not! Turns out, both Shakespeare and Jane Austen were quite fond of it. And hey, if it's good enough for those crazy kids...

Both links come via Geoffrey Pullum's vivisection of a recent David Gerlenter essay in The Weekly Standard, which had argued that the singular "they" was foisted upon us by 1970s-vintage feminists intent on castrating the English language. Whatever; here's an image:

-- Brad Plumer 9:43 PM || ||
Is There a Science of Scent?

Evidently not:
Why is it that one molecule smells of spearmint, while its mirror image smells of caraway? No one knows. When scientists create new molecules in the laboratory, they may know every detail of a molecule's structure yet have no clue about what it will smell like.
In theory you could assign a number to every discrete "odorant molecule" out there, though what a dreary wine-tasting guide that would make. Speaking of, I had forgotten all about the hilarious wine-tasting session in Brideshead Revisited: "It is a little, shy wine like a gazelle." "Like a leprechaun." "Dappled, in a tapestry meadow." "Like a flute by still water." You get the idea.
-- Brad Plumer 6:00 PM || ||
Chicken for a Day

The Charlotte Observer offers up a day in the life of Celia Lopez, an immigrant worker at House of Raeford, a poultry-processing plant in North Carolina:
6:45 a.m. -- Lopez walks through the gate of the sprawling plant. She's struck by the pungent smell of ammonia. She punches her timecard and puts on her gear -- rubber boots, apron, hairnet and two pairs of gloves. She rushes to position. Workers must be at their posts before the production line starts. No excuses.

7 a.m. -- The line starts. Lopez begins by grabbing and placing turkey breasts on plates to be weighed. Each plate must weigh between 6 and 6 1/2 pounds. She grabs meat with her right hand and uses her left to hold the plate, then pushes the turkey along the line. She'll repeat this process hundreds of times an hour.

9:30 a.m. -- If Lopez needs a bathroom break, she must wait until a supervisor finds someone to replace her on the line. This can take minutes or hours - if approved at all. "Bathroom breaks are a privilege, not a necessity," she said her bosses told her. If granted, she has 10 minutes to remove her gear, use the facilities and return.

11 a.m. -- Lunch.

11:30 a.m. -- Back on the line. She has processed hundreds of pounds of meat. The line is moving fast; workers struggle to keep pace, she says. Conversation is minimal.

2 p.m. -- Break. She looks for a wall to press her back against and stretch her muscles.

2:30 p.m. -- The next two hours are the hardest -- the piles of meat seem endless, she says. Her back cramps, pain spreading to her shoulders, arms and hands. She is exhausted from standing. Sometimes she feels dizzy.

4 p.m. -- She punches out. She changes out of her work clothes, washes her face and leaves.

4:30 p.m. -- She arrives home and takes a shower. "The meat smell gets stuck in your skin," she says.

About 7 p.m. -- She helps cook dinner for her family. Grasping a spoon is hard, she says. She uses two hands to carry a dinner plate. Basic tasks take longer because of the pain. "It's like ants crawling through my hands, up my arms," she says.

9 p.m. -- She takes two ibuprofen pills before rubbing her hands with alcohol and lotion -- a nightly routine.

9:30 p.m. -- She goes to bed.

Midnight -- 2 a.m. -- Lopez frequently wakes up, hands cramping. She squeezes her fists and rubs her fingers to get blood flowing. She may wake up four times a night; each time the pain is worse. She swallows more ibuprofen.

5 a.m. -- Her alarm sounds. The line starts in two hours. "Sometimes I cry. I just pray to God that he will show me the way."
Well, lots of jobs are unpleasant, some even brutal, but this particular company seems to be more savage than most. The Observer's six-part series reports that House of Raeford has frequently concealed injuries inside its plants from inspectors and routinely ignored the—mostly Latino—workers who grouse about debilitating pain. Several workers were hauled back to the line hours after surgery, so that the company wouldn't have to report time lost to injury. (One OSHA official was scathing: "This is abuse. I don't know what else to call it.") I was wondering why more workers didn't file grievances with their union, the UFCW, but apparently most immigrants are afraid to join, and membership is only around 30 percent.
-- Brad Plumer 4:19 PM || ||
Learning to Kill

Most people simply aren't natural-born killers. That's the thesis of Dave Grossman's On Killing, anyway:
During World War II, Brigadier General S. L. A. Marshall interviewed troops that had seen action and collected data on firing rates. His results... were a shock to the American military establishment. Marshall found that among soldiers who were in combat situations, only 15-20% fired their weapons. The majority of soldiers, when it came right down to it, refused to kill; even to defend their own lives.

The non-firing majority were not cowards. They did not throw down their weapons and flee; they just refused to pull the trigger. Grossman offers data suggesting much of the Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) seen in veterans derives not so much from having been in danger, but from having had to kill.
After Marshall published his study, the military decided to revamp training so that it wasn't just teaching soldiers how to shoot, but how to kill. Human-shaped targets replaced the paper bullseye. "The firing rate among combat troops rose to 50% in Korea, and to 90% in Vietnam." But PTSD cases soared, and, in the last three decades, the military has further transformed its tactics—a greater focus on guided missiles, on bombs dropped from 30,000 feet—so as both to limit casualties and to distance soldiers from the physical act of killing; to make it, in a way, less difficult.

But what about Iraq? Obviously there are plenty of high-altitude strikes in both Iraq and Afghanistan, but there's a great deal of up-close fighting—and killing—too. Spencer Ackerman has a (typically) smart piece in The Washington Independent today about the rise of counterinsurgency advocates inside the U.S. Army, who believe that, for a variety of strategic reasons, many of the trends of the past three decades need to be reversed. I don't know if they're right or wrong on the merits, though I guess I am curious about how Grossman's work fits in here.
-- Brad Plumer 1:26 PM || ||
When Cub Scouts Attack

David Hajdu recreates a few choice scenes from the great comic-book scare in the late 1940s and early '50s. Parents and sweaty councilmen feared that leafing through a comic book would "stimulate sadistic and masochistic attitudes and interfere with the normal development of sexual habits in children." So:
Groups of students continued to burn comic books in school yards around the country, some under the sway of their parents and teachers, some in concord with them, some unsure of their own points of view and doubtful of the propriety of disagreeing with their elders, some emboldened to defiance through the burnings themselves. In one case—a grand public protest organized in Rumson, New Jersey, an affluent town near the seashore—the young people involved were exceptionally young, Cub Scouts, and they were only part of an elaborate plan arranged by a Cubmaster, Louis Cooke, a scout committeeman, Ralph Walter, and the mayor, Edward Wilson.
As it was announced on January 6 at a "fathers' night" meeting of the Rumson High School PTA, the event was to involve a two-day drive to collect comic books "portraying murderers and criminals," a journalist at the meeting reported. A group of forty Cubs would tour the borough in a fire truck, "with siren screaming, and collect objectionable books at homes along the way." Then the mayor would lead the boys in a procession from Borough Hall to Rumson's Victory Park, where Wilson would present awards to the scouts and lead them in burning the comic books. The Cub who had gathered the most comics would have the honor of applying the torch to the books. When the national office of the Cub Scouts of America declined to support the bonfire, and news¬papers as far-flung as Michigan's Ironwood Daily Globe questioned it, the Rumson event was revised to conclude with the scouts donating the comics to the Salvation Army for scrap.

A few weeks later, a Girl Scout leader in the farm-country town of Cape Girardeau, Missouri, Mrs. Thomas Mullen, guided her troop and local students in a comic-book burning, unencumbered. (The event had not been widely publicized in advance.) The scouts, fourteen- to eighteen-year-old members of Senior Troop 29, began gathering crime comics, as well as western and romance titles (because of their shootings and sexual innuendo, respectively), then turned the burning over to students at St. Mary's, a Catholic high school of about 275 housed in an austere redbrick building, a refurbished old hospital.

Following a script by the parish pastor, Rev. Theon Schoen, the students conducted a mock trial of four comic-book characters, portrayed by upperclassmen who pleaded guilty to "leading young people astray and building up false conceptions in the minds of youth." The trial, held on the school grounds after classes, concluded with a "great big bonfire," as one of the students, Bonnie Wulfers, would remember it. As the books burned, Schoen led the assembled group of more than four hundred students from St. Mary's elementary and high schools in a version of the now-standard pledge to "neither read nor purchase objectionable publications and to stay away from retail establishments where such are sold."
The craze culminated in the Senate subcommittee hearings of the early 1950s, in one of which Estes Kefauver held up the cover of Crime Suspenstories #22, featuring the severed head of a woman held aloft by an ax-wielding maniac. EC Comics founder Bill Gaines replied that a certain amount of blood was actually in good taste. ("A cover in bad taste," Gaines explained, "might be defined as holding the head a little higher so that the neck could be seen dripping blood from it.") In any case, a few years later rock 'n' roll became the bogeyman du jour threatening to rot the pristine mores of youth, and everyone mostly forgot about comics.
-- Brad Plumer 12:05 PM || ||

March 06, 2008


Kevin Drum points to a new Esquire profile of Admiral William Fallon, which includes this remarkable anecdote:
When the Admiral took charge of Pacific Command in 2005, he immediately set about a military-to-military outreach to the Chinese armed forces, something that had plenty of people freaking out at the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill. The Chinese, after all, were scheduled to be our next war. What the hell was Fallon doing?

Contrary to some reports, though, Fallon says he initially had no trouble with then-secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld on the subject. "Early on, I talked to him. I said, Here's what I think. And I talked to the president, too."

It was only after the Pentagon and Congress started realizing that their favorite "programs of record" (i.e., weapons systems and major vehicle platforms) were threatened by such talks that the shit hit the fan. "I blew my stack," Fallon says. "I told Rumsfeld, Just look at this shit. I go up to the Hill and I get three or four guys grabbing me and jerking me out of the aisle, all because somebody came up and told them that the sky was going to cave in."
Now, I assume the ideal situation here would be for military commanders from China and the United States to stay in close contact, so that they can defuse tensions and avoid incidents that could escalate into something unpleasant. But then where would the defense contractors be? So not only do we get the Air Force and Navy hyping the China threat to justify a fresh generation of nuclear subs and aircraft carriers, but anything that so much as smells like détente gets castigated. Thankfully, Fallon stood down the shriekers in this case, but those are some screwed-up incentives.

P.S. Plus of course there's this business about Fallon getting pushed out because he might resist a military action against Iran.
-- Brad Plumer 10:16 PM || ||
We Get It for Cheap?

The rough consensus among climatologists these days is that, if we want to stave off the worst effects of global warming, we're going to have to stabilize carbon concentrations in the atmosphere at about 450 parts per million by mid-century (we're at about 383 ppm now). That means whopping emissions cuts, especially in the United States and Europe—but also in China, India, and elsewhere.

It all sounds so drastic, no? Except that a new OECD report calculates that reaching that goal could be done for cheap: The world's GDP in 2050 would be about 2.5 percent below what it otherwise would be if we did nothing. In other words, instead of being three-and-a-half times richer than we are now, we'll be like 3.4 times richer. (Figuring out how to distribute the costs fairly will be tricky, but hardly insurmountable.) So that right there is Al Gore's secret plan to impoverish us all.

Another theme in the report is that climate change isn't the only environmental problem in town. Water scarcity is becoming a bigger and bigger issue around the world, as Georgians and Arizonans no doubt know. So are various threats to biodiversity. Air pollution is choking China and India. The main point of the report, though, is that these things really can be tackled for a low price. And last I checked, the OECD isn't some radical hippie commune.

Meanwhile, this Bloomberg write-up notes that air pollutants cost the U.S. economy some $277 billion each year in health-related expenses. A friend half-jokingly mentioned to me the other day that you could probably do more to reduce health care costs by passing a cap-and-trade bill than by pushing for health care reform (not least in light of this recent study showing that increases in CO2 can worsen the adverse respiratory effects of ozone and other air pollutants). Who knows if that's true or not, although it probably would do wonders for public health if a climate bill provided incentives for, say, people to move to urban areas and walk and take public transit more.
-- Brad Plumer 7:01 PM || ||

Via Maud Newton, the image archives at the new Reanimation Library in Brooklyn (which collects outdated and discarded books from thrift stores, stoop piles, and throwaway centers) has a lot of nifty pictures. A particularly horrifying one from The Handbook of Doll Repair and Restoration:


Another (a poster? a campaign ad?), from a book titled Civil Air Patrol:

-- Brad Plumer 4:34 PM || ||
Why Not Nullify?

"If asked to serve on a jury deliberating a violation of state or federal drug laws, we will vote to acquit, regardless of the evidence presented." So say the writers of The Wire. Radley Balko likes the sentiment, but has a practical concern: "[J]udges and prosecutors often set perjury traps that pick would-be nullifiers off during the voir dire process." He suggests laws that would force courts to inform jurors of their right to acquit no matter what the evidence says, if they think the law is unjust or immoral. (Which most drugs laws certainly are.)

Is that a good idea? Back during Prohibition, juries nullified alcohol-control laws "possibly as often as 60 percent of the time." But the practice has a more depraved history too, as when Southern white jurors could barely stifle a yawn anytime a pale-skinned defendant was accused of killing a black person. Since the late 1960s, though, courts have employed all sorts of strategies to prevent nullification, though they obviously can't ban it outright. Admittedly, the fact that Robert Bork deemeds nullification a "pernicious practice" makes me vastly more receptive to the idea.
-- Brad Plumer 2:34 PM || ||

Very clever. Very clever, indeed:


From Wikipedia: "Chindōgu is the Japanese art of inventing ingenious everyday gadgets that, on the face of it, seem like an ideal solution to a particular problem. However, Chindōgu has a distinctive feature: anyone actually attempting to use one of these inventions, would find that it causes so many new problems, or such significant social embarrassment, that effectively it has no utility whatsoever." There's an entire society and everything.
-- Brad Plumer 12:31 PM || ||

March 05, 2008

Did He Just Say 'Endanger'?

This is a great catch by Lisa Heinzerling. So, last week, EPA head Steven Johnson finally explained why he had rejected California's request to set its own, stricter tailpipe standards last December. His 48-page report argued that global warming endangered the public health of all Americans, and hence, California wasn't facing the sort of "extraordinary and compelling conditions" that would justify it being allowed to do its own thing.

Now, that's probably untrue. The increased risk of water shortages and forest fires due to climate change are likely to hit California harder than most other states. Also, according to one recent study, "global warming currently causes greater respiratory and cardiovascular disease in California per person than in other states through its impact on air pollution."

But set that aside. California's almost surely going to win this legal battle eventually. The fun part is that, under the Supreme Court's ruling in Massachusetts v. EPA last year, the EPA is required to start regulating carbon-dioxide emissions as soon as it makes an "endangerment finding." And what do you know, that's basically what Johnson's report was: It says that global warming is "unequivocal" and threatens to endanger public health. Granted, Johnson's trying to deny that that's what it was, but it sure looks and quacks like one...
-- Brad Plumer 9:22 PM || ||
Math Is Hard

In The New Yorker, Jim Holt channels French neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene, who has a theory that our brains come with a built-in sense for numbers, but not for doing mathematical calculations like multiplication or long division. That stuff is unnatural:
Nowhere in all this elaborate brain circuitry, alas, is there the equivalent of the chip found in a five-dollar calculator. This deficiency can make learning that terrible quartet—"Ambition, Distraction, Uglification, and Derision," as Lewis Carroll burlesqued them—a chore.

It's not so bad at first. Our number sense endows us with a crude feel for addition, so that, even before schooling, children can find simple recipes for adding numbers. If asked to compute 2 + 4, for example, a child might start with the first number and then count upward by the second number: "two, three is one, four is two, five is three, six is four, six."

But multiplication is another matter. It is an "unnatural practice," Dehaene is fond of saying, and the reason is that our brains are wired the wrong way. Neither intuition nor counting is of much use, and multiplication facts must be stored in the brain verbally, as strings of words. The list of arithmetical facts to be memorized may be short, but it is fiendishly tricky: the same numbers occur over and over, in different orders, with partial overlaps and irrelevant rhymes. (Bilinguals, it has been found, revert to the language they used in school when doing multiplication.)

The human memory, unlike that of a computer, has evolved to be associative, which makes it ill-suited to arithmetic, where bits of knowledge must be kept from interfering with one another: if you're trying to retrieve the result of multiplying 7 X 6, the reflex activation of 7 + 6 and 7 X 5 can be disastrous. So multiplication is a double terror: not only is it remote from our intuitive sense of number; it has to be internalized in a form that clashes with the evolved organization of our memory. The result is that when adults multiply single-digit numbers they make mistakes ten to fifteen per cent of the time. For the hardest problems, like 7 X 8, the error rate can exceed twenty-five per cent.
A "double terror." I like that. From this, Dehaene goes on to suggest that maybe first-graders shouldn't be forced to memorize times-tables until they puke, but ought to be given calculators so that they can learn "the meaning of these procedures." This debate always gets heated, but I can't say I feel strongly. I've got my times tables under control, but it only really comes in handy when I'm resizing images for blog posts. By contrast, I have a very smart friend in private equity who still balks at 11 X 12 and 8 X 9 and the rest. But who cares? (I should say, however, that the finger system for multiplying by 9 is great fun regardless.)

Another coffee-table tidbit: In Chinese and Japanese, number systems are base-ten, rather than our slightly screwy system (for instance, we say "eleven" rather than "ten-one," as it is in Japanese). As such, the average Chinese speaker can hold nine digits in her head, rather than seven for English. French is particularly horrible on this front ("four-twenty-ten-five" is the way you say 95), and despite having been drilled repeatedly, I will never be able to do long division in French in my head. That doesn't bother me.
-- Brad Plumer 12:13 PM || ||
Call a Cab Cause a Cab Will Come Quicker

Let's see if I can't resuscitate this here blog with a short little book review. Judging by the blurbs, Peter Moskos's Cop in the Hood—about a sociologist who spends a year as a police officer in Baltimore's Eastern District—is going to be marketed to people who watch HBO's The Wire. And that's apt: There's plenty that's familiar here, from the slang ("hoppers," "real-PO-lice") to the descriptions of how drug corners are run. You can read the book's first chapter online. But the book also hits a lot of new terrain.

The police subplots of The Wire emphasize the futility of current drug-war tactics. Moskos agrees, and suggests that most Baltimore cops share this view, although many seem to believe the answer is more arrests, rather than fewer (morality and "asserting control" are often seen as higher goals than reducing crime). But The Wire's main characters are detectives in Homicide and Major Crimes, people investigating stuff. Moskos focuses on patrol officers, and has a slightly different argument about the ineffectiveness of much of what they do, day-in and day-out. Some background:
The advent of patrol cars, telephones, two-way radios, "scientific" police management, social migration, and social science theories on the "causes" of crime converged in the late 1950s. Before then, police had generally followed a "watchman" approach: each patrol officer was given the responsibility to police a geographic area. In the decades after World War II, motorized car patrol replaced foot patrol as the standard method of policing. Improved technology allowed citizens to call police and have their complaints dispatched to police through two-way radios. ...

Those who viewed police as provocative and hostile to the public applauded reduced police presence and discretion. Controlled by the central dispatch, police could respond to the desires of the community rather then enforce their own "arbitrary" concepts of "acceptable" behavior. Police officers, for their part, enjoyed the comforts of the automobile… Citizens, rather than being encouraged to maintain community standards, were urged to stay behind locked doors and call 911.
So, here we are today, and a patrol officer's top priority is to respond to any and all 911 calls ASAP. Problem is, a hefty number of calls are "bullshit calls"—pranks or people dialing in to harass enemies—or drug calls, wherein an officer pulls up to a corner, the dealers take a walk around the block, and return when the cop is gone. Stops and arrests are made, but less often than you might think. (Officers routinely take longer to handle a drug call just so that they can remain "out of service" and finish paperwork or eat lunch or avoid "bad" calls—a dead body, say.) Obviously there are serious 911 calls, too, but Moskos contends that there's way too much chaff:
Even when there aren't calls coming in, the possibility of receiving a call officers prevents officers from doing foot patrol, in-depth investigations, or any activity that may cause an officer to stray too far from the patrol car. Police isolated in squad cars will not know the community.

Yet dealing with problem people before they commit a crime, though perhaps undesirable, is a police officer's job. This isn't possible in an era of rapid-response.

With fewer cars and a de-emphasis of rapid response, police officers could better mitigate the problems of the drug corner. A better system would require police dispatchers or police officers to exercise professional judgment and separate legitimate from illegitimate calls (and affirm current legal protection for good-faith errors). Free from the tyranny of dispatch, officers could focus on quality rather than quantity of response. Walking the beat, officers would learn their area and gain the trust of more citizens. Freeing police resources would make response more consistent and reliable, even faster, for the very rare serious crime in progress.
That makes sense at a glance, especially if it's true that "motorized patrol... has no effect on crime rates, victimization, or public satisfaction." But wouldn’t people start complaining if the police weren't responding to all 911 calls as quickly as possible? This seems like a political issue. I wonder if there are cities out there that have tried this.

More: Peter Moskos responds in comments with some additional points that are very much worth reading.
-- Brad Plumer 7:13 AM || ||