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.

Order the largest

Maybe I need to create a new blog category “pizza.”  Anyway, loved this Planet Money post on the economics of ordering pizza.  Through a systematic examination, they determined what I long ago figured out anecodtally.  The bigger size is almost always a better deal.  In fact, I’ve been known to do more than a few pi r squared calculations in my head when ordering pizza.  Planet Money:


(If you click on the graph, it’s interactive)

The math of why bigger pizzas are such a good deal is simple: A pizza is a circle, and the area of a circle increases with the square of the radius.

So, for example, a 16-inch pizza is actually four times as big as an 8-inch pizza.

And when you look at thousands of pizza prices from around the U.S., you see that you almost always get a much, much better deal when you buy a bigger pizza.

As I told my friend who sent me the link, the best part is that not only do you save money, but more pizza = more pizza.

Photo of the day

From the National Geographic Found tumblr:

A shielded dummy in a basement for atomic bomb testing in Nevada, March 1953.Photograph by Volkmar Wentzel, National Geographic

A shielded dummy in a basement for atomic bomb testing in Nevada, March 1953.PHOTOGRAPH BY VOLKMAR WENTZEL, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

I (don’t) want a new drug

Listened to a really interesting story on NPR yesterday about a new opioid drug that is super potent and just recieved FDA approval despite the FDA’s advisory panel overwhelmingly recommending against approval.  Most prescription opiates (e.g., vicodin, percocet) are actually denatured with acetaminophen (tylenol).  This is not really for more pain relief, but to keep you from taking too much as the tylenol will destroy your liver before you get too high from the opiate.  You might be interested to know, though, that acetaminophen and hydrocodone turn to solution in water at different temperatures, allowing the truly intrepid to get around this.  I don’t recommend it.  The reason Oxycontin is so abused is because it is pure oxycodone without being denatured.  (It is extended release).  On the positive side, since Oxycontin has been so abused, they have changed the delivery mechanism so that you cannot crush it and snort it for a quick high.  Okay, so there’s the background.

Into this, steps the FDA approving Zohydro, which is basically like Oxycontin, except from the synthetic opioid hydrocodone instead of oxycodone.   But here’s the kicker, the manufacturer says it may take up to three years to introduce an abuse-resistant version.  That’s nuts!  I’m not entirely clear why we even need this if we’ve already got Oxy for severe pain, but I do realize that some drugs work better for different patients, so an alternative to Oxy seems reasonable enough.  But why wouldn’t the FDA demand that this come in an abuse-resistant form.  Anyway, from NPR:

NPR’s Laura Sullivan reports.

LAURA SULLIVAN, BYLINE: When Zohydro is released next month, it will be one of the most powerful prescription painkillers on the market. It’s highest dosage will contain five to 10 times as much hydrocodone as the widely used Vicodin. The drug company’s literature says an adult could overdose on two capsules. A child could die from swallowing just one pill.

DR. MICHAEL CAROME: People are going to die from this drug.

SULLIVAN: Dr. Michael Carome is the director of Health Research for Public Citizen.

CAROME: We are in the midst of a public health crisis. There is an epidemic of opioid addiction resulting in thousands of deaths. And the last thing we need now is another high-potent, high-dose, long-acting opioid drug, Zohydro, that will simply feed the epidemic.

SULLIVAN: Overdose deaths and addiction rates from prescription painkillers similar to Zohydro have grown dramatically in recent years. Carome and 41 other healthcare advocates are asking the FDA to remove its approval of the drug. Zohydro is a crushable pill. That means it’s snortable and, some experts say, more prone to abuse than other drugs like the new versions of Oxycontin, which are no longer crushable…

DR. ANDREW KOLODNY: We have many opiate formulations on the market. There’s absolutely no need for a new opioid formulation.

SULLIVAN: FDA’s own advisory panels seem to agree. The panel voted 11-to-2 not to approve the drug. Then in November, top FDA officials overruled that panel. And that’s where things get complicated. Last fall, a series of emails were made public from a Freedom of Information Act request. They were emails between two professors who had, for a decade, organized private meetings between FDA officials and drug companies who make pain medicine. The drug companies pay the professors thousands of dollars to attend.

Corrupt or not, this just seems really hard to justify.

Keith Humphreys last Fall:

Yet 24 hours later, the FDA overruled its own expert panel and approved Zohydro, a pure hydrocodone pain medication that is 5 to 10 times more potent than Vicodin. In the process, FDA also overturned a precedent it had set only six months ago to not approve easily abused-opioids. After refusing in April to approve generic oxycontin because it lacked abuse-resistant properties, the FDA approved a drug whosefull potency can be instantly released merely by crushing it or dropping it into alcohol (Get ready for a rash of Zohydro-cocktail deaths).

What the country needs on prescription opioids is carefully designed, balanced and consistent policy. What we are getting is policy that contradicts itself month-to-month and even day-to-day.

And how can I not conclude with this:

Grade inflation

Grade inflation has been well-documented, but I really liked this piece of research that puts it in a broader context and finds some interesting correlates:

Findings/Results: Contemporary data indicate that, on average across a wide range of schools, A’s represent 43% of all letter grades, an increase of 28 percentage points since 1960 and 12 percentage points since 1988. D’s and F’s total typically less than 10% of all letter grades. Private colleges and universities give, on average, significantly more A’s and B’s combined than public institutions with equal student selectivity. Southern schools grade more harshly than those in other regions, and science and engineering-focused schools grade more stringently than those emphasizing the liberal arts. At schools with modest selectivity, grading is as generous as it was in the mid-1980s at highly selective schools. These prestigious schools have, in turn, continued to ramp up their grades. It is likely that at many selective and highly selective schools, undergraduate GPAs are now so saturated at the high end that they have little use as a motivator of students and as an evaluation tool for graduate and professional schools and employers.

Man, I know it’s gotten bad, but A is the most common grade?!  I’m definitely not guilty of that (then again, I am at a Southern, public, university).

As for me, I’m probably too easy to get a B from, but I definitely do not give away A’s very easy.

Photo of the day

From the Telegraph’s Animal Photos of the week:

Keen nature photographer Geir Jartveit took this photo of a heron catching a frog in Alesund, Norway. Refusing to be gobbled up the frog kept jumping and wriggling free from the grasp of the heron's beak for over 30 minutes until it ran out of steam and couldnt fight any longer.
Keen nature photographer Geir Jartveit took this photo of a heron catching a frog in Alesund, Norway. Refusing to be gobbled up the frog kept jumping and wriggling free from the grasp of the heron’s beak for over 30 minutes until it ran out of steam and couldnt fight any longer.Picture: GEIR JARTVEIT / CATERS NEWS
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