Who’s the customer anyway?

Nice piece in the NYT on the political and environmental travesty that is the coal ash spill here in NC.  When business is the “customer” and the people of the state are just bystanders, this is exactly what you get.  Some good bits:

RALEIGH, N.C. — Last June, state employees in charge of stopping water pollution were given updated marching orders on behalf of North Carolina’s new Republican governor and conservative lawmakers.

“The General Assembly doesn’t like you,” an official in the Department of Environment and Natural Resources told supervisors, who had been called from across the state to a drab meeting room here. “They cut your budget, but you didn’t get the message. And they cut your budget again, and you still didn’t get the message.”

From now on, regulators were told, they must focus on customer service, meaning issuing environmental permits for businesses as quickly as possible. Big changes are coming, the official said, according to three people in the meeting, two of whom took notes. “If you don’t like change, you’ll be gone.” …

Current and former state regulators said the watchdog agency, once among the most aggressive in the Southeast, has been transformed under Gov. Pat McCrory into a weak sentry that plays down science, has abandoned its regulatory role and suffers from politicized decision-making. [emphasis mine]

Make no mistake, this is all very political.  And how is it accomplished?

But current and former agency employees said the treatment of Duke was typical of the pro-industry bias now in place under Governor McCrory, Mr. Skvarla and the General Assembly.

Last year, the environment agency’s budget for water pollution programs was cut by 10.2 percent, a bipartisan commission that approves regulations was reorganized to include only Republican appointees, and the governor vastly expanded the number of agency employees exempt from civil service protections, to 179 from 24.

The effect, said midlevel supervisors who now serve at the pleasure of the governor, is that they are hesitant to crack down on polluters who might complain to Mr. Skvarla or a lawmaker, at the risk of their jobs. Several spoke anonymously out of fear of being fired.

“They want to have a hammer to come down on anybody who hinders developers by enforcing regulations,” said a supervisor whose department is supposed to regulate businesses under laws devised to protect water quality. “We’re scared to death to say no to anyone anymore.”

I don’t hate business.  Business is good.  But I put the health and safety of my fellow citizens first.  And that should damn sure be the job of DENR.  The fact that Republicans don’t see it that way is a damn shame.  I think the words of a former DENR engineer sum it up well:

“Business is important, but there should be a balance between the regulated community and the environment,” Ms. Wilson said. “It’s all out of balance here.”

There has to be a downside to a woman president

This Bill O’Reilly clip just speaks for itself:

When is it okay to shoot my students?

Brilliant Op-Ed from a professor in Idaho– where guns have newly been allowed on campus.  Also fits perfectly with the Lithwick piece from yesterday.  In case you don’t feel like reading it all, here’s most of it:

In light of the bill permitting guns on our state’s college and university campuses, which is likely to be approved by the state House of Representatives in the coming days, I have a matter of practical concern that I hope you can help with: When may I shoot a student?

I am a biology professor, not a lawyer, and I had never considered bringing a gun to work until now. But since many of my students are likely to be armed, I thought it would be a good idea to even the playing field…

I assume that if a student shoots first, I am allowed to empty my clip; but given the velocity of firearms, and my aging reflexes, I’d like to be proactive. For example, if I am working out a long equation on the board and several students try to correct me using their laser sights, am I allowed to fire a warning shot? …

While our city police chief has expressed grave concerns about allowing guns on campus, I would point out that he already has one. I’m glad that you were not intimidated by him, and did not allow him to speak at the public hearing on the bill (though I really enjoyed the 40 minutes you gave to the National Rifle Association spokesman)…

In terms of the campus murder rate — zero at present — I think that we can all agree that guns don’t kill people, people with guns do. Which is why encouraging guns on campus makes so much sense. Bad guys go where there are no guns, so by adding guns to campus more bad guys will spend their year abroad in London. Britain has incredibly restrictive laws — their cops don’t even have guns! — and gun deaths there are a tiny fraction of what they are in America. It’s a perfect place for bad guys.

Some of my colleagues are concerned that you are encouraging firearms within a densely packed concentration of young people who are away from home for the first time, and are coincidentally the age associated with alcohol and drug experimentation, and the commission of felonies.

Once again, this reflects outdated thinking about students…

I want to applaud the Legislature’s courage. On a final note: I hope its members will consider my amendment for bulletproof office windows and faculty body armor in Boise State blue and orange.

Photo of the day

Oh man do I love these photos of a little lego cameraman seemingly taking his own photos.  Awesome collection:


longexposures.co.uk (Andrew Whyte)

The “annoying” Jeopardy champion

It’s kind of amazing all that’s being written by current Jeopardy champion, Arthur Chu, just because he jumps around the board a lot in search of daily doubles, instead of simply going category by category.  It’s not like he’s the first player to do this.  I’ve watched several of Chu’s games.  Here’s why he wins: he knows more answers than his competitors and he’s faster on the buzzer.  He could go category by category like most everybody else and he’d still be kicking butt and probably earning almost as much as money.  Anyway, when the Post assigns somebody to write a story about Jeopardy, just perhaps, they should assign a reporter who actually knows how the game works– or has at least watched an episode.  I suspect there’s many.  Instead we get this idiocy:

Most unforgivably to many, Chu tries to squeeze in the most questions per round by pounding the bejesus out of his buzzer and interrupting Alex Trebek. This is Alex Trebek, North American icon (he’s Canadian), we’re talking about here.

No, no, no!!  How did this get published?!  Nobody interrupts Alex Trebek.  If you hit the buzzer before he’s done reading the question, you are actually frozen out from having the opportunity to answer for a second or so.  Half the battle to winning Jeopardy is timing.  Lots of times all the contestants know the questions and the key is to buzz in first once Trebek is done readking and you are allowed to buzz.  In fact, Chu is really good at this.  It’s a big part of why he’s racking up his big wins.  Anyway, I suppose it is only a style section blog post, ultimately (though it was on the front of Wasthingtonpost.com, which implies some sort of endorsement), but still it is just pathetic to get the story so wrong.

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.

Stand your ground-ification of America

A great essay by Dahlia Lithwick on how the whole concept of Stand your Ground laws have infected our approach to the law and gun violence.  Key parts:

Given all this, it’s not unreasonable to argue that, in America, you can be shot and killed, without consequences for the shooter, for playing loud musicwearing a hoodie, or shopping at a Walmart. The question is whether the wave of “stand your ground” legislation is to blame.

Let’s first define terms: “Stand your ground” laws are different from the Castle Doctrine, which has its roots in centuries-old British common law and allows you to use force to protect yourself in your home. “Stand your ground” essentially provides that you can bring your castle wherever you go. The rule allows you to shoot first, not just in your home, but anyplace you have a right to be and is a much newer, and more controversial, proposition…

I might go further. I might say that whether or not specific jurisdictions define self-defense to include a duty to retreat, and whether or not specific juries are charged to apply it, America is quickly becoming one big “stand your ground” state, as a matter of culture if not the letter of the law.

The fact that “stand your ground” defenses have been staggeringly successful in Florida in recent years (one study shows it’s been invoked more than 200 times since being enacted in 2005 and used successfully in 70 percent of the cases) suggests that it’s been embedded into more than just jury instructions. Perhaps unsurprisingly, aTampa Bay Times study from 2012 shows that “as ‘stand your ground’ claims have increased, so too has the number of Floridians with guns…

And it’s not just cultural expectations that are shifting. We’re also shifting what we ask of our jurors. Under “stand your ground,” we are asking jurors to impose a subjective test about whether the shooter was experiencing a profound moment of existential panic. We are asking them whether—in a country seemingly full of people who are both armed and terrified that everyone else is armed—shooting first makes sense. By redirecting jurors to contemplate whether people who are armed and ready to kill are thinking reasonably about others they believe to be armed and ready to kill, we have created a framework in which one’s subjective fears about the world are all that matters. [emphasis mine]

After Trayvon Martin was killed, for a long time it was fashionable to say, “I am Trayvon Martin,” in solidarity with him and his family. But a far more worrisome possibility has begun to creep into our culture. With each successful “stand your ground” claim, explicit or implicit, we are all in peril of becoming more frightened, more violent, and more apt to shoot first and justify it later. The only thing more terrifying than the prospect of becoming a nation of Trayvon Martins is the possibility that we are unconsciously morphing into a nation of George Zimmermans.

This is the America the NRA wants.  And sadly, it’s getting it.  Call me crazy for suggesting we’d all be better off if there were just a hell of a lot less guns out there.

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