Worst book ever?

Probably not, but it is pretty clear to anybody that was actually paying attention at the time of the Duke Lacrosse case that William Cohan’s The Price of Silence is some pretty egregious historical revisionism.  Most prominently, it is a defense of Mike Nifong, the prosecutor whom all evidence indicates repeatedly lied to the public and the defense team.  This whole crazy case would have never gone anywhere if not for Nifong’s breathtaking malfeasance and abuse of his prosecutorial powers.  Anyway, I’ve heard a number of interviews with Cohan and it’s depressing (but not surprising) that such a shoddy work of journalism is getting plenty of national attention.

The N&O’s Joe Neff, who covered the case at the time, has a nice column outlining some of the many failings of the book.  E.g.,

These would be pathetic mistakes for a daily newspaper story. For an author spending months or years on a book, it’s a revealing choice to avoid interviews that contradict the revisionist narrative: that Nifong is the victim.

Cohan declares the charge that Nifong withheld exculpatory evidence a “red herring.” Let’s review that. Nifong repeatedly told judges he had produced all the DNA evidence. He hadn’t: He and a lab director conspired not to report rape kit test results showing that the accuser had DNA from four unknown men. The tests were sensitive enough to register a wisp of DNA from the lab director, and yet the rape kit produced not a single particle of DNA from those accused of a brutal gang rape.

For Cohan to suggest that witholding excuplatory evidence is simply a “red herring” is truly amazing.  As if this is just some minor mistake on Nifong’s part.  Once I heard Cohan say that, it was pretty clear this whole endeavor is utterly lacking in credibility.

Quick hits

1) NYT on the divisions in the NC Republican Party.  We’ll know just how divided it actually is when the Senate primary occurs next month.

2) How zebras got their stripes.   Best evidence suggest that stripes deter biting flies.

3) Charter schools are not the solution to educational inequality.

4) Forget ADHD, now we’ve got Slow Cognitive Tempo.  Seriously.

5) Chait provides a long summary of his much longer piece on Obama, race, and racism.

6) Politico on “is there a wonk bubble?”   Uhhhh, yes!  I love it.  Though sometimes I hate how much high-quality wonk content there is to read every day now.

7) The full story on the Jameis Winston rape “investigation.”  So disturbing and depressing.

8) Former MLB player gives account of being racially profiled shoveling snow in his own driveway.

9) Evan Osnos on politicians literally shooting legislation in their advertisements and what it all means.  It’s not good.

10) Short version of a man convicted of armed robbery and accidentally not sent to jail for 13 years who turned into a totally productive citizen.  Longer version.   This American Life version.  Seriously calls into question a lot about how we think about crime and punishment.

11) Research suggests students retain more when reading from “real” books than e-books.

12) Mark Kleiman on how legalized pot would change America.

13) Best thing I’ve read on the Cliven Bundy travesty.  This guy and anybody out there with a gun “defending” him needs to be in jail.  Seriously.  Timothy Egan:

Imagine a vendor on the National Mall, selling burgers and dogs, who hasn’t paid his rent in 20 years. He refuses to recognize his landlord, the National Park Service, as a legitimate authority. Every court has ruled against him, and fines have piled up. What’s more, the effluents from his food cart are having a detrimental effect on the spring grass in the capital.

Would an armed posse come to his defense, aiming their guns at the park police? Would the lawbreaker get prime airtime on Fox News, breathless updates in the Drudge Report, a sympathetic ear from Tea Party Republicans? No, of course not.

So what’s the difference between the fictional loser and Cliven Bundy, the rancher in Nevada who owes the government about $1 million and has been grazing his cattle on public land for more than 20 years? Near as I can tell, one wears a cowboy hat. Easterners, especially clueless ones in politics and the press, have always had a soft spot for a defiant white dude in a Stetson.

Truly atrocious and deplorable the support he’s been getting from the right.

14) Way too many teachers have been resigning from Wake County, NC during the school year.  Surely because the legislature has made it quite clear just how little the value educators.

Doctors for pot?

Mike Cobb has a nice post today about public opinion on marijuana legalization stemming from a recent NC poll on the issue.  At first glance, it appears that NC is much less favorably disposed towards medical marijuana.  But this appears to be a case where there’s an important question wording effect:

A majority of Tar Heel State voters support legalizing marijuana for medical purposes, according to a recent Time Warner Cable News survey. The poll found that supporters outnumber opponents by a healthy 2:1 ratio – 62 percent to 30 percent. Younger and wealthier respondents were the most supportive, while Republicans were the least…

It also looks to me like North Carolina could be more conservative than most states on this issue, although question wording might explain this. In New York, for example, 88 percent of those surveyed support legalizing marijuana for medical reasons – just 9 percent opposed – and 57 percent support legalizing it for personal recreational use. In Florida, 82 percent support marijuana for medical use when prescribed by a doctor.

Even in Indiana, 52 percent support regulating marijuana like alcohol and tobacco. To our north,84 percent of Virginians support medical marijuana, although support for recreational use of it lags behind opposition, 46 percent to 48 percent.

All of these polls, however, mention a doctor prescribing marijuana, while in North Carolina, it was only the Elon poll that included this information in its question. Since the Elon poll finds higher levels of support, more similar to other states, referencing a doctor prescribing it is likely adding to the levels of support.

Nevertheless, compared to national views, North Carolina is definitely more conservative than trends found in national polls.

Part of me wonders how much this is the pure question-wording effect of “doctors prescribing” (a lot– I think) versus a real differentiation on policy where the lack of a doctor’s prescription might cause a lot of people to react in the manner of “suuuuure you got that for a ‘medical’ problem.”  I suspect it is mostly the former (nothing like bringing doctors into the question to get more support for legal abortion– “between a woman and her doctor”) and there’s surely some of the same going on with marijuana legalization.  And, oh, yeah, policy-wise, while I can accept some debate on “recreational use” (though you know where I stand) legalizing for medical use strikes me as very much a no-brainer on policy analysis grounds.

Quick hits (part 2)

1) I didn’t realize quite what a success story Poland is.  A model for Ukraine to emulate?

2) The art of the TV series finale.

3) Does Barbie affect girls career ambitions?  Yes, says one interesting experiment.

4) A medical case for Dr. House.  Particularly interesting when the mother is a physician.  She had to pretend she’s just another doctor and not a concerned mom to get taken seriously.

5) Dune is one of my favorite books ever.  The movie is kind of crazy, but I’ve always liked it (especially the Toto soundtrack.  seriously).  Here’s a nice essay on it.

6) Connor Friedersdorf says we don’t have a drug problem, but a black market problem.

7) Really enjoyed this Douthat column on individualism.

8) Nice Economist story that summarizes Radley Balko’s work on the over-militarization of our police forces.

9) J Lo subverts music video stereotypes.  This Atlantic piece unpacks it.

10) Water bears are the craziest form of life.  No, seriously.

 Also known as the water bear (because it looks like an adorable little many-legged bear), this exceedingly tiny critter has an incredible resistance to just about everything. Go ahead and boil it, freeze it, irradiate it, and toss it into the vacuum of space — it won’t die. If it were big enough to eat a glass sandwich, it probably could survive that too.

The water bear’s trick is something called cryptobiosis, in which it brings its metabolic processes nearly to a halt.

11) I never knew anything about My Little Pony till I had a daughter.  She loves them.  We certainly shouldn’t be bullying boys for liking them:

Do you know about My Little Pony? It’s great. The show has its own mythology and the central tenet is the six Elements of Harmony. These are six characteristics that, when combined, can change the world for the better. Kindness, generosity, honesty, laughter, loyalty, and magic—these are the tools that the heroines of My Little Pony use to get out of every mess.

We can all agree on that list, right? It’s a good one. What you don’t find is ambition, or aggression, or force of will.

12) I’m a sucker for dystopias so I’ve read more than my fair share of YA dystopias (most are not actually that good).  Nice review of the Divergent movie explains their appeal:

The word dystopia comes from a Greek root that roughly translates as “bad place,” and what place could be worse than high school? Adolescence is not for the faint of heart. The to-do list for the decade between ages 10 and 20 includes separating from your parents, finding your place among your peers at school, beginning to make decisions about your own future, and—oh yes—figuring out how to relate to the world, and yourself, as a suddenly and mystifyingly sexual being.




Quick hits (part 1)

Never posted a quick hits last week.  Friday night (when I usually work on them) at the ACC Tournament and busy weekend of soccer, etc., plus a busy week.  Anyway, I’ve got two weeks worth of hits now.  My goal is part 1 for Saturday morning with part 2 to follow on Sunday.  Enjoy.

1) Totally intrigued by this speed reading app.  It really does work.  Though, I have a hard time imaging myself using this for more than a few minutes at a time.  The Atlantic throws some cold water on things.

2) Really enjoyed this story about the SAT overhaul.  Seems like this will generally be a more meaningful test.  Glad this will take effect in time for my oldest son in a few years.

3) The physics of the new World Cup soccer ball.  Probably better than the last ball.

4) There really is just too much good television these days.  David Carr.

5) Federal judge rules that college faculty don’t have the right to proselytize while teaching.  Damn, there goes next week’s lecture on lobbying.

6) Really amazing first-person account from one of the victims of the Virginia Tech massacre (shared on FB by a VT professor friend who had some friends/colleagues among the victims).

7) Maybe buy local isn’t so great when it comes to meat.

8) It ain’t easy going from being a political reporter to working as a wage slave in a Sporting Goods store.  Nice essay.

9) If the moon were only 1 pixel.

10) Can a rubber hand make you less racist?  Yes.

11) I didn’t actually know about the “thigh gap” till I read this.  Interesting.  And awesome in the “photoshop fail” sense.

12) Robert Reich on America’s “great U turn.”  Good stuff.

13) More evidence that we are just stupid to expect our teenagers to start high school so early in the day.

14) Love this gallery of awkward photos of cats and dogs with furniture.


Sentencing sanity

Amazingly, Democrats and Republicans actually seem to be coming together on an important issue– criminal sentencing.  Imagine, an outbreak of political sanity.  Details in an NYT Editorial:

Two bipartisan bills now under consideration aim to unwind our decades-long mass incarceration binge and to keep it from happening again. This fact is remarkable not only because of Congress’s stubborn standstill, but because crime and punishment has long been one of the most combustible issues in American politics.

And yet the depth of the crisis in the federal system alone has been clear for years. Harsh mandatory minimum sentencing laws have overstuffed prisons with tens of thousands of low-level, nonviolent drug offenders serving excessively long sentences. Federal prisons now hold more than 215,000 inmates, almost half of whom are in for drug crimes. Many come out more likely to reoffend than they were when they went in, because of the lack of any meaningful rehabilitation programs inside prison and the formidable obstacles to employment, housing and drug treatment that they face upon release.

The proposed legislation would address both the front and back ends of this problem…

The Smarter Sentencing Act — introduced in the Senate last year by Richard Durbin, the Illinois Democrat, and Mike Lee, the Utah Republican — would halve mandatory minimum sentences for certain nonviolent drug crimes, which currently stand at five, 10 and 20 years. It would also give judges more discretion to sentence below the mandatory minimum in some cases, and it would provide a chance at early release for thousands of inmates sentenced under an older law that disproportionately punished crack cocaine offenders.

The Recidivism Reduction and Public Safety Act, introduced by Sheldon Whitehouse, Democrat of Rhode Island, and John Cornyn, the Texas Republican, would allow low-risk prisoners to earn credit for early release by participating in education, job training and drug treatment programs.

Reforms like these were unthinkable even a few years ago, when the Republicans’ longtime tough-on-crime dogma — echoed by Democrats who fearfully fell into line — drove irrational sentencing laws. Why have things changed so quickly? In a word, money — or the lack of it. The bloated Bureau of Prisons eats up nearly $7 billion a year, a quarter of the Justice Department’s entire budget. Politicians like Senator Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky, and Mr. Lee have become the public face of the conservative turnabout, and they deserve credit for their efforts, but it’s important to remember that almost none of this would be happening without the need to save money.

Hooray!  Now as for getting to an actual law, I would be feeling better if similar bills were mentioned in the House.  Though, if Rand Paul and Mike Lee can get behind this, hopefully even the Tea Party nuts can get on board and we can actually have successful and really good bipartisan legislation.  Dare to dream.  Not that I’m holding my breath.

Quick hits

1) Enjoyed this book review about The Meat Racket– a harsh critique  of our modern approach to meat production

2) College– perhaps not the great leveler after all.

3) It’s our imagination that truly separates us from other animals.

In all six domains I’ve repeatedly found two major features that set us apart: our open-ended ability to imagine and reflect on different situations, and our deep-seated drive to link our scenario-building minds together. It seems to be primarily these two attributes that carried our ancestors across the gap, turning animal communication into open-ended human language, memory into mental time travel, social cognition into theory of mind, problem solving into abstract reasoning, social traditions into cumulative culture, and empathy into morality.

4) Really enjoyed this teacher’s defense of the Common Core.  It may not be perfect, but so preferable to the status quo.

5) The Supreme Court just heard a really big death penalty case, but nobody is paying attention.

6) Animated gifs (that’s a soft “g” by the way, damnit) showing cities moving from day to night.

7) What happens when a Colorado family tries to opt their kids out of standardized testing.  Damn to the school administrators freak out.

8) Unfortunately, it seems that among corporate executives only women actually care about work-life balance.

Another says:

“The 10 minutes I give my kids at night is one million times greater than spending that 10 minutes at work.”

As the authors point out, most women would not brag about only spending 10 minutes a day with their children.

Personally, I find that shameful.

9) Chait on the GOP’s phony support/ actual opposition to the Earned Income Tax Credit

10) Never did get around to giving this it’s own post.  Nice job putting the current NC Democratic party troubles into the larger historical context of political party organizational power.

11) Pope Francis has changed some attitudes of American Catholics, but not their behavior.

12) Greg Sargent nicely deconstructs Paul Ryan’s intellectual incoherence about the safety net being a “hammock” for the poor.  Another nice take on Ryan and poverty from Yglesias’ Slate replacement (very excited about this) Jordan Weissman (who had been doing great work at the Atlantic).

13) And because I know DJC is reading this, Daylight Savings Time saves lives and prevents crime

Failure to rehabilitate

Sometimes, you really just can’t beat good satire to make a point.  Brilliant piece in the Onion:

15 Years In Environment Of Constant Fear Somehow Fails To Rehabilitate Prisoner

WOODBOURNE, NY—Reportedly left dumbfounded by the news that recent parolee Terry Raney had been reincarcerated on charges of assault and battery, officials at Woodbourne Correctional Facility struggled Tuesday to make sense of how the prisoner had not been rehabilitated by 15 years of constant threats, physical abuse, and periodic isolation. “It just doesn’t seem possible that an inmate could live for a decade and a half in a completely dehumanizing environment in which violent felons were constantly on the verge of attacking or even killing him and not emerge an emotionally stable, productive member of society,” said chief warden Albert Gunderson, who noted that, as hard as it was to believe, Raney’s recidivism proved that his criminal impulses had not in fact been corrected by the sense of grave distrust he felt toward every other person in the facility, including both fellow inmates and prison authorities, every day since 1999. “We surrounded him with a combustible mix of rival gangs and made sure that he was consumed by a round-the-clock sense of terror that the slightest misstep on his part could result in a sharpened piece of scrap metal being shoved into his neck, and yet he still leaves this facility with the same criminal thoughts and violent mindset as before? I’m truly at a loss for how this could have happened.” Gunderson then noted his additional confusion at how the man’s criminal record and the social stigma of his prison sentence had somehow failed to land him a steady job immediately upon his release.

My apologies to Texas

Okay, I’ve been known to give Texas justice a hard time.  In truth, it has often seemed that Texas is particularly uninterested in insuring that defendants receive a fair trial, but I’ve got to admit I’m super-impressed with their new law on bad forensic science (which, sadly, is all too much forensic science).  It should, without a doubt, be something adopted in every state.  Via the Atlantic:

The article starts with the story of Robert Avila, who was convicted of jumping on the torso of a 19-month old boy, leading to his death.  Medical experts testified that only a full-grown man could cause these injuries, not the victim’s 4 year-old brother, Nicholas, who had been rough-housing with him.  Medical experts were wrong.

In May 2013, biomechanical engineer Chris Van Ee conducted an experiment envisioning what could have happened if Dylan had jumped on Nicholas from a height of 18 inches – the same height as the small bed next to which Nicholas was found lying unresponsive. Van Ee, summing up his conclusion in a report that accompanied Avila’s writ, found that a child of Dylan’s size jumping from that height could produce a force as great as 400 to 500 pounds.

In the past, Van Ee’s findings might not have been enough to delay Avila’s execution, or potentially reverse his verdict. But that same month, Texas passed a bill called SB 344, better known as the “junk science” statute. The first of its kind in the nation, it permits a defendant to bring a writ of habeas corpus on the basis of new or changed scientific evidence. In practical terms, this means that courts must grant relief in cases where new scientific evidence has come to light, or where scientific evidence used to convict has been shown to be false, misleading, or inaccurately applied. The statute keeps the court from denying relief even if the defendant had previously confessed or accepted a plea. It also, crucially for Avila, does not require anyone to recant his or her original testimony…

For Texas—the state that leads the nation in executions—the new law may be a major step toward more careful and precise verdicts. “It is a recognition by the legislature that science is constantly evolving and our legal system has to evolve with it,” said Crawford.

This is awesome.  You go, Texas!  Now, please, please let the other 49 states be smart enough to do the same thing.

Justice, Texas style

Big news to those of who think the death penalty as practiced and the use of jailhouse “snitches” to gain convictions are a deplorable scourge of the American justice system.   I’ve mentioned several times before the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was executed in Texas based on junk fire science (an issue that was definitely raised in time to prevent the execution).  (You can still read all of David Grann’s terrific New Yorker piece on this for free, unlike most New Yorker articles).  To me, even worse than junk science (hey, at least they are trying to be scientific.  sort of) is the idea that murderers are routinely “confessing” to their cellmates they’ve never met before and nobody else.  And, oh yeah, those cellmates get a reduced sentence.  Sure, that’s credible.  Why any jury would ever believe this (yet they seem to all the time) is a fundamental flaw in how our jury system works.  Yet, it happens every day.  Now, we have evidence that this was a key part of Willingham’s (almost surely erroneous) conviction as well:

Mr. Willingham was convicted on charges of setting the 1991 fire in Corsicana, Tex., that killed his three children, and was sentenced to death the next year. The conviction rested on two pillars of evidence: analysis by arson investigators, and the testimony of a jailhouse informant, Johnny Webb, who said that Mr. Willingham had confessed the crime to him…

What has changed is that investigators for the Innocence Project have discovered a curt handwritten note in Mr. Webb’s file in the district attorney’s office in Corsicana. The current district attorney, R. Lowell Thompson, made the files available to the Innocence Project lawyers, and in late November one of the lawyers, Bryce Benjet, received a box of photocopies.

As he worked through the stack of papers, he saw a note scrawled on the inside of the district attorney’s file folder stating that Mr. Webb’s charges were to be listed as robbery in the second degree, not the heavier first-degree robbery charge he had originally been convicted on, “based on coop in Willingham.”

Barry Scheck, co-founder of the Innocence Project, called the note a “smoking pistol” in the case.

“We’re reaching out to the principals to see if there is an innocent explanation for this,” he said. “I don’t see one.”

Judge Jackson did not respond to several requests for comment.

It doesn’t have to be this way, and it shouldn’t.  Despite the title of the post, this kind of miscarriage of justice (fortunately, usually not as extreme) happens in every state.  It’s just worse in places like Texas.  As long as we continue to let prosecutors get away with stuff like this in a relentless pursuit of convictions instead of justice– and there’s little sign anything is changing in this regard– innocent people will continue to be wrongly and needlessly convicted.  America can do better.  If only we would show the will to do so.

Losing a fight = license to kill?

Who needs a 00 designation, it today’s NRA world, apparently being on the wrong side of a fist fight is a license to shoot somebody to death.  The details:

A Phoenix, Arizona father shot dead an unarmed stranger in the middle of a suburban Walmart Sunday, but police have not booked him because they say the shooting was in self-defense.

Cyle Wayne Quadlin, 25, opened fire at Kriston Charles Belinte Chee, 36, following a fight at a service counter in the mega-retailer at around 4 p.m., according to Chandler police.

Detectives say the store’s surveillance video shows the two men arguing before the shooting Sunday afternoon. Quadlin told police he pulled his gun when he felt Belinte Chee was winning.

‘Mr. Quadlin was losing the fight and indicated he “was in fear for his life,” so he pulled his gun and shot Mr. Belinte Chee,’ police spokesman Joe Favazzo said.  [emphasis mine]

Belinte Chee was taken to a hospital where he was pronounced dead, police said. According to his Facebook page, the victim has a wife and young son.

On the bright side, both the shooter and victim appear to be white.  And seriously, last thing we need is another white guy getting away with murder because he’s scared of a Black guy.

[Forgot the link in the original posting and cannot find where I got it from.  Here's the AP story.]

Drug dogs

Great Radley Balko piece on the mis-use of drug-sniffing dogs.  Everybody thinks they are always right, but like any tool used by humans, they are hugely prone to human error:

Over the last 20 years or so, the Supreme Court has repeatedly held that the alert from a drug dog is enough to establish probable cause for a search. The problem is that while it’s true that dogs have a finely tuned sense of smell, far better than any technology we humans have been able to develop, we’ve also bred into dogs a trait that can supersede that ability—an eagerness to please us.

Without careful training, drug dogs will end up relying more on the body language of their trainers than on their olfactory prowess. That means that for many drug dogs, an “alert” is little more than a validation of the suspicions of its handler, and the very purpose of the Fourth Amendment is to protect us from invasive searches based merely on the suspicions of an agent of the government. Controlled academic studies of K9 team performances, for example, have shown that tests designed to trick a drug dog’s handlerare far more likely to make the dogs falsely alert than tests designed to trick the dogs themselves.

That’s why the field performance records of drug dogs are often no better—andsometimes worsethan a coin flip. Yet a dog’s alert during a traffic stop can result in a thorough search of your car, allowing police officers to snoop in all of your belongings. It can also give them cause to rip out upholstery and linings, damaging your car. (And in case you’re innocent, good luck getting compensated for it.) Worse, an alert, combined with a few hard-to-prove allegations from a cop about your body language or “suspicious” answers to questions, can result in the seizure and forfeiture of any cash or valuables you happen to be carrying, even if the officer doesn’t actually find a measurable quantity of drugs.

But, hey, don’t worry about it.  So what if a lot of innocent people are wrongfully searched and have their rights violated.  It’s all in the name of stopping illegal drugs.  I’m pretty sure that makes everything okay.


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