More junk forensic “science”

Nice piece by Dahlia Lithwick last week on how the “science” of hair matching is pretty much bunk and the FBI has been systematically representing it in court for decades:

The Washington Post published a story so horrifying this weekend that it would stop your breath: “The Justice Department and FBI have formally acknowledged that nearly every examiner in an elite FBI forensic unit gave flawed testimony in almost all trials in which they offered evidence against criminal defendants over more than a two-decade period before 2000.” …

“Of 28 examiners with the FBI Laboratory’s microscopic hair comparison unit, 26 overstated forensic matches in ways that favored prosecutors in more than 95 percent of the 268 trials reviewed so far.” [emphasis mine] The shameful, horrifying errors were uncovered in a massive, three-year review by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the Innocence Project…

Chillingly, as the Post continues, “the cases include those of 32 defendants sentenced to death.” Of these defendants, 14 have already been executed or died in prison.

The massive review raises questions about the veracity of not just expert hair testimony, but also the bite-mark and other forensic testimony offered as objective, scientific evidence to jurors who, not unreasonably, believed that scientists in white coats knew what they were talking about. As Peter Neufeld, co-founder of the Innocence Project, put it, “The FBI’s three-decade use of microscopic hair analysis to incriminate defendants was a complete disaster.”

I will take issue with that “raises questions” in the previous paragraph.  There’s not questions, we actually are quite sure that bite mark analysis is complete bunk and as much science as astrology.  Lithwick concludes:

Since prison-crowding and justice reform are widely touted as issues that unite the left and the right in this country, going back and retesting the evidence of those who may well have been wrongly imprisoned should be a national priority. So far it isn’t, perhaps because the scope of the enterprise is so daunting. Or perhaps because nobody really cares all that much about people who’ve been sitting in jail for years and years. Says Garrett: “These victims may remain unrecognized and in prison—if they still live—and the same unscientific testimony continues to be delivered without limitation. … But hey, these are just criminal cases right?”

Yep.  Lord knows how many people are rotting away in prison for fake “science” that we’ve known for years isn’t actually science, but prosecutors have been pretending (and judges have been going along) actually is for years.  You’d like to think that now that we know how bad the scope of the problem is, we can make some progress.  Alas, it seems the scope of the problem may be scaring off people from taking it on.  Until then, just more innocent people in jail.

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Handwriting and forensic “science”

So, I really enjoyed watching the Jinx, and I certainly think Robert Durst likely killed all those people, but I was not entirely persuaded by the handwriting analysis that proved to be so crucial to how events ultimately unfolded.  The handwriting expert was given a target item and an item known to come from Durst and looked for similarities and found them.  I get that this is how a lot of forensic “science” works, but the problem is that it’s not actually science.  Oh, I do think it is indicative and telling.  But that’s it; nothing more.  Certainly not “scientific” evidence that would prove something beyond a reasonable doubt (e.g., DNA).

Actual science (and good social science!) seeks to disconfirm hypotheses, not confirm them, as is the case in the handwriting analysis.  A genuinely scientific analysis would try and rule out everybody except Durst, leaving no conclusion but that he must be the writer.  That’s how DNA works, you are essentially ruling out billions of other people until the only reasonable conclusion is that you have the DNA of the actual subject.  And, that’s what science is about– ruling out other possible explanations until you are left with a sole reasonable one.  And, of course, why science is never truly done, because you can always find more explanations to rule out.

Anyway, I’ve written plenty about the lack of science in forensic science, but actually seeing that handwriting analysis seeking confirmation, rather than disproof, really struck me while watching the Jinx.  And this forum in the NYT about the matter and how we judge forensic science gave me a good excuse to write about it.  For me, this is the key contributor:

The National Commission on Forensic Science was formed in response to widespread concerns that forensic evidence that lacked any meaningful scientific basis was being regularly permitted in trials. The concerns were not just about the “expert” witnesses, but about the judges who, according to the National Academy of Sciences report that led to the commission’s creation, have been “utterly ineffective” in assessing the quality of research behind the evidence.

And, it wasn’t that long ago, but can never really link too often to Radley Balko’s terrific series on how much junk forensic science there is and how it gets way to much respect from judges.

Convicted by junk forensic science? Tough luck

We now know that a lot of forensic “science” that has been relied upon for years to send people to prison is no more science than is phrenology or astrology.  Okay, good, we’ve learned and we don’t use it anymore.  What almost defies comprehension though, is that when it comes to people still in prison who were convicted on the basis of this junk science, many people just prefer to pretend their convictions are valid and they don’t deserve a chance for an actual fair trial.  It’s incredibly disturbing.  It is amazing the degree to which some people insist on believing that somebody is guilty of a crime simply because they were convicted for it, despite strong evidence suggesting otherwise.  In some ways, it seems we haven’t really come all that far from throwing a “witch” in the water to see if she floats (if she sank, she wasn’t a witch, just dead).

Why bring this all up?  Just a sad, sad case of all-too-typical American injustice via Radley Balko:

In a short opinion issued last week, a three-judge panel for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit unanimously upheld a federal district judge’s ruling against Louisiana prisoner James Koon, who in 1996 was convicted of killing an infant and sentenced to life in prison.

The medical examiner who testified against Koon was Steven Hayne, a controversial figure about whom I’ve written at length over the last eight or so years. The panel rejected Koon’s petition for a new trial based on what Koon claimed was newly discovered evidence that calls Hayne’s credibility into question.

The rejection itself was nothing new. Despite Hayne’s impossible workload (over about 20 years he performed on average 1,200 to 1,800 autopsies per year, by his own admission), his lack of board certification, and the fact that he has on multiple occasions given testimony that other medical examiners have said ranged from implausible to malpractice, to date no court has rejected Hayne as an expert witness.While some courts have overturned a handful of convictions that were based on his testimony, they’ve only done so in the most egregious instances. Where Hayne has given plausible testimony, or even implausible-but-not-completely-nutty testimony, the courts have generally refused to intervene.

But if Hayne isn’t a credible witness, he isn’t a credible witness. If he has shown that he’s willing to say outrageous things in a few cases, has lied about his certification, and has been shown to be sloppy and unprofessional in his work, the cases in which he gave plausible but debatable testimony (and was opposed by a more competent medical examiner) should be seen just as tainted as those in which his testimony was transparently ridiculous. [emphasis mine]

As Balko explains, the whole system is simply legally unable to properly and fairly cope with situations like this:

And while the criminal justice system can’t seem to keep bad science out of its courtrooms during trial, once someone has been convicted, the same system then puts a premium on the “finality” of a guilty verdict. It’s a point Congress and past presidents have hammered home over the years by revising the federal criminal code to limit habeas appeals in federal court. In order to get relief from a federal court in post-conviction, a convicted person today not only needs overwhelming evidence of innocence, they must also show that this evidence is either new or was undiscoverable at the time of trial, and they must file their petition for within a year of the new evidence becoming available.

The problem with these laws with respect to bad scientific evidence is that science doesn’t operate on deadlines. Science is a process.

Balko’s whole piece is long and completely infuriating. Balko has example of example of heinous injustice and completely discredited forensic science upheld and even worse, actively supported by many in the legal community who are supposed to be seeking “justice.”   The amount of utter irrationality in a supposedly rational system is an affront to any meaningful conception of justice.  And we all idly stand by and let this be how our criminal justice system works.  Really, we’ve not come all that far from carrying hot iron bars or swallowing or putting your arms into boiling war.

Forensic science is neither

Okay, it is actually forensic (just couldn’t resist that title), but DNA aside, it sure isn’t science.  Bite marks, ballistics, hair analysis, fire patterns, blood spatter– you name it– it’s only pretend science.  Real science is based upon the scientific method and trying to rule out alternative hypotheses for explaining a particular set of events or phenomenon.  Forensic science is far too often based on finding evidence for a particular theory that suits prosecutors.  The depressing thing about all this is that we know how much of this is truly junk, but blithely continue to pretend otherwise.  Great article on the matter in Slate this week:

How could forensic evidence, widely seen as factual and unbiased, nearly send an innocent person to his death? The answer is profoundly disturbing—and suggests that for every Earl Washington freed, untold more are sent to their deaths. Far from an infallible science, forensics is a decades-long experiment in which undertrained lab workers jettison the scientific method in favor of speedy results that fit prosecutors’ hunches. No one knows exactly how many people have been wrongly imprisoned—or executed—due to flawed forensics. But the number, most experts agree, is horrifyingly high. The most respected scientific organization in the country has revealed how deeply, fundamentally unscientific forensics is. A complete overhaul of our evidence analysis is desperately needed. Without it, the number of falsely convicted will only keep growing.

There’s been sadly numerous cases where convictions based on junk science where later over-turned due to the real science of DNA.  Sadly, think of all the innocent people rotting in prison due to junk science because there was no DNA evidence available in there cases.  And, the use of bad science continues:

Given the flimsy foundation upon which the field of forensics is based, you might wonder why judges still allow it into the courtroom. The rather depressing answer is a combination of ignorance and laziness. In 1993, the Supreme Court announced a new test, dubbed the “Daubert standard,” to help federal judges determine what scientific evidence is reliable enough to be introduced at trial. The Daubert standard was meant to separate the judicial process from the quest for scientific truths—but it wound up frustrating judges and scientists alike. As one dissenter griped, the new test essentially turned judges into “amateur scientists,” forced to sift through competing theories to determine what is truly scientific and what is not…

Faced with this unenviable chore, most judges have simply trusted prosecutors not to introduce anything that wouldn’t roughly fit the Daubert standard. The conventional wisdom is that, if a prosecutor introduces any truly egregious pseudoscience, the defense can introduce its own expert to refute it or can undermine it through aggressive questioning. It’s a comforting idea: Presented with conflicting scientific findings, jurors will sift out the truth.

Unfortunately, it is also entirely false. American jurors today expect a constant parade of forensic evidence during trials. They also refuse to believe that this evidence might ever be faulty. Lawyers call this the CSI effect, after the popular procedural that portrays forensics as the ultimate truth in crime investigation.

The whole matter is really quite depressing.  There is so much injustice in our criminal justice system that doesn’t have to be there.  I accept human error and that people will make mistakes.  That’s life.  We don’t need to compound this with systematically bad approaches to criminal justice when there are clear ways to doing it better.

Great, great Frontline on the topic which you can watch it its entirely on-line (perfect weekend viewing!)

 

 

Forensic science is neither

Alright, it’s forensic, but I do like that phrase.  Not much real science involved, though.  The only true science in forensics is DNA and that’s because it was actually invented separately by actual scientists instead of by non-scientists trying to catch bad guys.  Anyway, I recently watched a great Frontline on the topic of just how fallible so much forensic “science” is– even the vaunted fingerprints.  And, if that’s not enough, apparently a few hundred dollars and an open-book on-line test is enough go get you “certified” forensic examiner status to help make yourself an expert witness.  Really pretty disturbing all around.  Pro Publica also has a nice companion site looking at just how easy it is to make yourself a certified forensic examiner.

On a related note, one of the not-very-real forensic sciences out there is ballistics.  Does not work nearly as well as people think.  You know what actually would?  Laser micro-stamping on shell casings.

Identifying the firearm used in a crime is one of the biggest challenges for criminal investigators. But what if a shell casing picked up at a murder scene could immediately be tracked to the gun that fired it

A technique that uses laser technology and stamps a numeric code on shell casings can do just that. But the technology, called microstamping, has been swept up in the larger national debate over gun laws and Second Amendment rights, and efforts to require gun makers to use it have stalled across the nation.

“I think it is one of these things in law enforcement that would just take us from the Stone Age to the jet age in an instant,” said Commissioner Frederick Bealefeld III of theBaltimore Police Department. “I just can’t comprehend the opposition to it.”

Well, I can, sadly.  Of course, it’s the NRA.  Naturally this is the first step to just taking everybody’s guns away.  Forget about actually trying to solve more crimes.   In an interesting note, gun crimes are actually more difficult to solve:

Colin Weaver, deputy executive director of New Yorkers Against Gun Violence, said microstamping was needed because the difficulty of tracing firearms made gun crimes more difficult to solve than crimes that did not involve guns. An analysis by his organization found that from 2007 to 2009 in New York State, for example, 48.5 percent of aggravated assaults involving a firearm were solved, compared with 67.6 percent of aggravated assaults that did not involve guns.

Would be great if we could change that and make it least this one aspect of CSI a lot more genuinely effective.

Forensic science is neither: discuss

Okay, it is forensic, but most of it sure doesn’t seem to be science.  Certainly not in the NC State Bureau of Investigations (SBI) Lab.

The N&O has run a fantastic series over the past week about the shameful and endemic problems at the SBI lab.  The blood spatter “expert” was basically making stuff up as he went and convicting some presumably innocent people as he went along.  The ballistics “expert” meanwhile has been drawing seemingly completely false conclusions, but testifying about them with “absolute certainty.”  The evidence is quite clear that the SBI has come to see itself as little more than a tool of the prosecution with far more interest in convictions than actual justice.  There’s plenty of evidence of “experts” changing their results and fudging their testimony to give the prosecution exactly what they want.

And damn, there’s all these naive conservatives out there who somehow manage to believe everybody arrested and in jail most surely be guilty.  I sure wish it were that way, but the more one looks, the more one sees evidence for both incompetence and plain old malfeasance systematically putting innocent people in jail.  Here’s a nice post by Yglesias about how police department routinely ignore best practices for line-ups.

Thanks to this N&O series and aggressive coverage of the false conviction of Greg Taylor by horribly shoddy SBI work and testimony (seriously, some of those SBI guys should be in jail), I’m confident that there’s going to be real changes and improvement at the SBI.  This story thus also shows why good state/local newspapers are so important.  The N&O surely lost a lot of money covering this story compared to assigning the reporters to whatever salacious story of the day that didn’t require any actual reporting.   Nothing keeps the government accountable like solid watchdog journalism.  As fewer people subscribe to papers, fewer papers can afford to undertake this form of essential journalism.  So..  keep innocent people out of jail– subscribe to your local newspaper rather than just reading it on-line.

Forensic Science is often only one of the two

I really wanted to do a nice post about the great 60 Minutes and Washington Post joint investigation that shows how hundred of people have been put in jail based on FBI science that has been completely debunked.  Alas, I haven't.  If you have not read the story, you should really take a look, though.  It's amazing that the FBI can put people in jail for decades based on “science” when they never even did meaningful tests to see if their “science” really deserved the name.  If you are more in the mood to listen than read, you can also download the 60 Minutes podcast of the story.  Either way, it is really worth your time.
This Thanksgiving, you can be thankful that you are not reading this from jail based upon a bogus, scientifically invalid conviction.  

How we can solve our mass shooting problem by focusing on mental illness

We can’t!  It’s a complete and utter canard either completely intellectually dishonest or completely ignorant.  Nice PBS story on this from Nsikan Akpan:

In 2017 and 2018, Americans lived through more than 50 mass attacks in public places, defined by the U.S. Secret Service as incidents in which at least three people were harmed. When the agency examined the circumstances behind the incidents, it found almost the same thing for both years: about two-thirds of the perpetrators had mental health symptoms prior to their attacks.

But here is another fact. Approximately 96 percent of violent crimes — including shootings — would likely still occur even if every suspect with a mental health condition was stopped before they carried out an attack.

Both findings can be true because while perpetrators of gun violence — including mass shooters — do show signs of psychiatric distress, the overwhelming majority of mental health patients will never commit a violent act in their lifetimes.

Four mental health experts who spoke with the PBS NewsHour described President Donald Trump’s conflation on Monday that “mental illness and hatred pull the trigger, not the gun” as “completely false” and “irresponsible.”…

Metzl said we should start by banishing the idea that gun violence can be predicted by a psychological profile. It can’t.

Psychological profiles, by definition, are composed after violent actors have committed their crimes. In the realm of forensic psychology, such profiles are conclusions — not predictions of what might trigger the next one.

That’s because the risk factors connected to mass attacks are too non-specific. Metzl said even the characteristics most suited to building a mass shooter profile — “white male, angry, slightly paranoid, disaffected, isolated” — would match hundreds of thousands of people, the bulk of which will never go on to shoot others. It would be like looking for a sharp knife in a mountain of dull knives…

“If we cured mental illness … tomorrow, which would be wonderful, our violence problem would go down by about 4 percent and the rest of it would still be with us,” Swanson said. These trends have been replicated over and over again since 1990 — in the U.S.DenmarkFinland and Australia.

Despite the body of evidence, politicians and news organizations continue to spread misinformation about the connection between mental health and violence.

But here’s one thing you can count on… Republican politicians will keep on telling us it’s mental health, video games, whatever.  Anything but the guns.

Quick hits (part II)

Sorry– busy weekend with a super-fun soccer tournament with my daughter.  Onward…

1) Isaac Chotiner interviews Linda Greenhouse about the Supreme Court and abortion:

When you look at the history of abortion law in the United States, is there anything about this law in Georgia or the proposal in Alabama that you find interesting, or new, or different?

Well, they’re shockingly aggressive. They purport to take us back to the pre-Roe regime, where abortion was criminal until the mid-sixties in all fifty states—despite the fact that, by the time the Court decided Roe, Gallup and other polls showed that a strong majority of the public believed that abortion should be left as a matter between a woman and her doctor. And the pro-choice majority held throughout all demographics: men, women, Catholics, Republicans. Republicans were the pro-choice party at that time. So what’s happening today is pretty breathtaking, actually.

What specifically in these laws do you see as the biggest challenge to Roe?

I don’t think these laws per se are challenges to Roe because they’re so extreme. I actually think the challenge to Roe will come with ostensibly milder measures that will let the courts find cover in seeming not to be extreme even though these laws can have the extreme effect of destroying the abortion infrastructure and cutting off access for most women. I’m referring to, for instance, the laws that Louisiana passed to require doctors who provide abortions to have admitting privileges at local hospitals. A challenge to that law is right now pending before the Supreme Court, and it is a complete twin to the Texas law that the Court overturned in 2016, before Justice [Neil] Gorsuch and Justice Kavanaugh joined the Court. The vote in that case was 5–3, Justice [Antonin] Scalia having died.

2) Believe it or not, the generic drug industry just might be the most evil industry out there.  Also FDA inspections of foreign drug production facilities are, sadly, a complete joke.

3) And a great Fresh Air interview on all this.

4) Making playgrounds a little more dangerous.  Sounds good to me.

5) Joan Walsh, “Yesterday Was a Dark Day for the Rule of Law: When Lindsey Graham told Donald Trump Jr. to ignore a subpoena from Senate Intelligence, he told him to commit a crime. But that’s not even the worst of it.”

6) Really interesting Op-Ed at the various legal reasonings behind attacking abortion laws and the potential for unintended consequences if the anti-abortion folks get their way:

Natural law-based arguments for fetal personhood were pursued by anti-abortion scholars and jurists for much of the 1960s and 1970s to little avail. These anti-abortion scholars avoided originalism, the prevailing conservative approach to constitutional interpretation, and instead focused on rebuking the Supreme Court for not recognizing the fundamental right to life that would have made all abortions illegal, including in the Roe case.

By the early 1980s, abortion foes generally gave up on this strategy. That’s because neither judges nor many other conservative lawyers, it seems, felt fully comfortable with recognizing rights not detailed in the text or history of the Constitution. After all, conservatives had long invoked the specter of judicial activism in criticizing their liberal colleagues, including those who issued the Roe decision.

And, as abortion opponents grudgingly recognized, natural law could open a Pandora’s box. If the Supreme Court recognized fetal personhood, the justices would probably subsequently confront claims about fetal rights in a variety of contexts, from Social Security benefits to tax law. Very early on, conservative originalist jurists like Justice Antonin Scalia called on the court to “get out of this area.” It was hard to imagine judges wanting to take on the even messier project of developing a fetal personhood jurisprudence.

And so abortion foes turned to originalism-based arguments that stressed that the law did not recognize a right to abortion at the time the 14th Amendment — whose due process clause was the basis of Roe’s privacy right — was ratified. These promised a constrained court, one that was above politics. But these aren’t the arguments that lawmakers in Alabama and Georgia are making.

What’s more, Alabama’s law, rather than claiming to protect both women and fetal life, instead casts abortion as a zero-sum game, chastising “abortion opponents” as those who would “speak to women’s rights,” but “ignore the unborn child.” Many of the other “heartbeat” laws around the country similarly focus almost exclusively on fetal rights.

This approach ignores what many anti-abortion lawyers believed to be the lesson of Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the Supreme Court’s 1992 decision preserving RoeAt the time that Casey was being decided, many expected the justices to reverse RoeIn earlier decisions, the court had upheld abortion restrictions and suggested that Roe was incoherent and potentially unworkable and that the reasoning underlying it was unpersuasive.

7) I used to spend a fair amount of time on the history of abortion in my lectures, but in recent years I have cut back somewhat to allow more time to cover contemporary controversies.  But the history is really important and most people are utterly ignorant of it.  Great Atlantic piece from 1997 on the matter:

Until the last third of the nineteenth century, when it was criminalized state by state across the land, abortion was legal before “quickening” (approximately the fourth month of pregnancy). Colonial home medical guides gave recipes for “bringing on the menses” with herbs that could be grown in one’s garden or easily found in the woods. By the mid eighteenth century commercial preparations were so widely available that they had inspired their own euphemism (“taking the trade”). Unfortunately, these drugs were often fatal. The first statutes regulating abortion, passed in the 1820s and 1830s, were actually poison-control laws: the sale of commercial abortifacients was banned, but abortion per se was not. The laws made little difference. By the 1840s the abortion business—including the sale of illegal drugs, which were widely advertised in the popular press—was booming. The most famous practitioner, Madame Restell, openly provided abortion services for thirty-five years, with offices in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia and traveling salespeople touting her “Female Monthly Pills.”

In one of the many curious twists that mark the history of abortion, the campaign to criminalize it was waged by the same professional group that, a century later, would play an important role in legalization: physicians. The American Medical Association’s crusade against abortion was partly a professional move, to establish the supremacy of “regular” physicians over midwives and homeopaths. More broadly, anti-abortion sentiment was connected to nativism, anti-Catholicism, and, as it is today, anti-feminism. Immigration, especially by Catholics and nonwhites, was increasing, while birth rates among white native-born Protestants were declining. (Unlike the typical abortion patient of today, that of the nineteenth century was a middle- or upper-class white married woman.) Would the West “be filled by our own children or by those of aliens?” the physician and anti-abortion leader Horatio R. Storer asked in 1868. “This is a question our women must answer; upon their loins depends the future destiny of the nation.” (It should be mentioned that the nineteenth-century women’s movement also opposed abortion, having pinned its hopes on “voluntary motherhood”—the right of wives to control the frequency and timing of sex with their husbands.)

8) My 7th grade son recently watched/discussed a Twilight Zone for his English class.  So, we’ve started watching some.  A whole bunch of lists recommended “The Invaders.”  I did not recall it, so we watched.  The lists were wrong– it was tedious and absurdly over-acted.  But I like the approach of this list— the episodes that have aged the best.  Just watched “Nightmare at 20,000 feet” tonight, which I’ve already seen multiple times.  Now that holds up.

9) Is Game of Thrones are last great watercooler show?  I sure hope not.

10) This from Ed Yong is really good and disturbing, “A Waste of 1,000 Research Papers: Decades of early research on the genetics of depression were built on nonexistent foundations. How did that happen?”

11) Jon Cohn on politics of a much needed tax hike to pay for decent roads in Michigan.

As a candidate last year, Whitmer tapped into frustration over those conditions, promising in every speech and media appearance to “fix the damn roads.” It was more than a specific policy pledge. It was a signal about the kind of governor she would be: a savvy, pragmatic leader who would get things done.

Now Whitmer has her chance to make good on her promise, and she has put forward a plan to increase annual road funding by more than $2 billion. But less than a year after literally mocking suggestions that such an initiative would require a big tax hike, she is calling for precisely that ― specifically, a three-stage increase in the gas levy that would raise it by 45 cents a gallon

Pretty much everything Democrats talk about doing nowadays, from simple, relatively uncontroversial increases in school funding to sweeping, polarizing plans for single-payer health insurance, would require raising new revenue. The essential argument on behalf of these ideas is the same as Whitmer’s pitch on the roads: that the benefits people would see are worth the higher taxes they would pay.

There was a time in American history when this case wasn’t so difficult to make, because voters had more faith in government and Republicans were more open to taxes. But that was long ago. The country now seems stuck in a self-destructive cycle ― one in which funding shortfalls make public goods and services inadequate, fueling yet more cynicism about government’s ability to solve problems and making it harder to get the funding that these programs need.

It’s a cycle that has plagued Democrats for decades, especially in states like Michigan that frequently hold the key in national elections. Can Whitmer break it? [emphasis mine]

12) I found this to be a really interesting take in thinking about fiction writing more broadly and how the GOT writing has really suffered since the end of the books:

It all comes down to how stories are crafted, and for that, we need to start with two different types of writers: plotters and pantsers. Plotters create a detailed outline before they commit a word to the page. Pantsers prefer to discover the story as they write it—flying by the seat of their pants, so to speak. Both approaches have their advantages. Since plotters know the story in advance, it’s easier to create tight narratives with satisfying conclusions. But that amount of predestination can sometimes make characters feel like cogs in service of the story. Pantsers have an easier time writing characters that live and breathe. They generate the plot by dropping a person with desires and needs into a dramatic situation and documenting the results. But with the characters in charge, pantsers risk a meandering or poorly paced structure, and they can struggle to tie everything together.

To be clear, the advantages of each are not guarantees. And plotters can write memorable characters, while pantsers can write thrilling sequences. The differences usually smooth themselves out over successive drafts anyway. Where the effect can be pronounced is in an ongoing television or book series, since the beginning of the story gets released and digested by the public while the rest is still being written.

George R.R. Martin describes this distinction in terms of architects and gardeners. He’s firmly among the latter. He plants character seeds and carefully guides their growth, and when the show was directly adapting his A Song of Ice and Fire series, the approach paid off. It’s why every emotional beat and fair-in-hindsight surprise landed with such devastating weight: The terrible things that happened to these characters happened because of earlier choices they’d made. Those ever-blooming stories were a boon to the showrunners, who had their pick, but they’re also the reason the narrative momentum of the books slowed over time.

13) Some really interesting PS research on how much all that campaigning in swing states mobilized voters:

Interest in politics has been repeatedly shown to be a substantively important precursor to political participation. Unfortunately, sources of its variation beyond childhood socialization remain under-explored. This is likely due to a widespread belief that interest is intractable: “You’ve either got it or you don’t.” In response, I enumerate several mechanisms through which political mobilization might be expected to shift interest. This potential is then tested using a well-established most-likely case: the 2012 presidential campaign. A difference-in-differences analysis finds that residents of battleground states exhibit a notable increase in political interest between 2010 and 2014 compared to those in “spectator” states and an alternative specification using field office placement implicates campaign mobilization directly in precipitating this change. The magnitude of the estimated effect is equivalent to over 150,000 entirely disinterested North Carolinians becoming fully engaged who would have remained apathetic had they lived in Georgia. The change is concentrated among those without college degrees, indicating mobilization may compensate for marginalizing conditions. Further evidence shows the effect resulted in increased political knowledge and lingered into 2016. Overall, this analysis demonstrates that political mobilization can shift interest and underscores the importance of understanding how recruitment can reshape the motivations of the electorate. [emphasis mine]

14) John Pfaff with five myths about prisons.  #1 and #2 are especially widely believed:

MYTH NO. 1
U.S. prisons are full of nonviolent drug offenders.

Asked recently about voting rights for felons, Sen. Cory Booker (N.J.), one of the Democratic presidential candidates, claimed that “we locked up more people for marijuana in 2017 than all the violent crimes combined.” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) has echoed that view, suggesting on Twitter that the prison system is defined by nonviolent people “stopped w/ a dime bag.”

But the simple truth is that, at a minimum, 55 percent of those in state prison have been convicted of a violent crime — and more than half of these people, or nearly 30 percent of the total prison population, have been found guilty of murder, manslaughter, rape or sexual assault, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Slightly less than 15 percent are incarcerated for drug crimes, even though most Americans believe the figure to be about 50 percent. (Drugs play a bigger role in the federal prison system, but that holds only about 10 percent of all prisoners; most incarcerated people are in state prison.)…

MYTH NO. 2
Private prisons drive
mass incarceration.

When people try to explain how the United States ended up with nearly 25 percent of the world’s prisoners, they often point to firms that directly profit from incarceration by running prisons or by providing services to public facilities. At a recent presidential campaign event, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) blamed private prisons for mass incarceration (“We need to get rid of for-profit, private prisons”). Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) focused on private prisons in his 2016 presidential bid and is doing so again (“The private prison racket has got to end”).

There are two central flaws in this claim. First, only about 8 percent of all state and federal prisoners are held in private facilities . Most of those in private prisons are held in just five states, and there is no real evidence that prison populations have grown faster in those states than elsewhere.

Second, of the roughly $50 billion we spend on prisons, about two-thirds , or $30 billion, is spent on wages and benefits for public-sector employees. In comparison, private prison firms collectively earn a few billion in revenue and (more important for their incentives to lobby) about $300 million in profits — just 1 percent of the public-sector wage bill. So public-sector correctional officer unions have a reason to lobby against reforms that would reduce inmate populations, especially since prisons often provide some of the only well-paying jobs in the rural communities where they are located.

15) Wonkette on how all the most “pro-life” states don’t seem to care for baby’s lives so much once they are, you know, actually born.

16) Loved this Planet Money episode on Jeopardy phenomenon, James Holhauser.  Planet Money reporter Kenny Malone’s sister is married to Holhauser’s brother, so they share nieces and nephews.  Malone is definitely not the coolest uncle any more.

17) Short-term rental electric scooters briefly took over Raleigh and the NC State campus area this past year.  Seems like the business model, though, is set up for a crash.

18) I really liked Conor Friedersdorf on Harvard’s cowardly actions on Ronald Sullivan:

The vital work of criminal defense has managed to endure in spite of such attacks, thanks to a core of sober-minded citizens in each generation who know better than to pile on. They understand that to defend an accused criminal is not to defend his or her alleged crime—and that conflating the two by imposing social sanctions on attorneys would make criminal trials more like popularity contests.

Educational institutions ought to teach young adults this justice-enhancing logic. Harvard is now teaching its undergraduates how to undermine it.

Its shameful capitulation to popular passions began earlier this year when Ronald Sullivan, an African American law professor and faculty dean with a long history of freeing marginalized innocents from prison, announced that he would be working as a defense attorney for the disgraced Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. “Many students expressed dismay, saying that his decision to represent a person accused of abusing women disqualified Mr. Sullivan from serving in a role of support and mentorship to students,” The New York Timesreported

Either way, Harvard administrators were warned about the unavoidable conflict between upholding an important civic norm––that legal representation for even the most reviled is a service to the community, not a transgression against it—and giving in to the demands of the undergraduates most aggrieved by their faculty dean’s choice of clients. And rather than infer a responsibility of the extremely privileged to uphold civic norms for the benefit of those in society who most need them, this institution, which purports to educate future leaders, chose to prioritize transient discomfort felt by its most aggrieved students. [emphasis mine]

19) I would like to live in a world where policy did not have absurdly over-militarized drug raids and where they were held accountable if they got these raids lethally wrong.  That world does not yet exist.  Radley Balko:

The scandal over a fatal drug raid earlier this year in Houston appears to be growing. We know that the police lied to obtain a search warrant for the January raid that left two people dead. The cops alleged that the couple were selling heroin out of the house. There was no heroin. The officer who led the investigation has since left the Houston Police Department, and prosecutors have dismissed dozens of charges from previous cases in which he was involved.

Now, a crime-scene investigation by specialists hired by the family of the couple killed in the raid has raised even more questions. From the Houston Chronicle:

A four-day independent forensics review at 7815 Harding Street found a cache of evidence left behind by the city’s crime scene teams after a botched drug raid at the home left dead a couple suspected of selling drugs.

Hired by the relatives of Rhogena Nicholas and Dennis Tuttle, the new forensics team found no signs the pair fired shots at police — and plenty of signs that previous investigators overlooked dozens of pieces of potential evidence in what one expert called a “sloppy” investigation. …

Though police said they started shooting when the dog lunged as they came through the door, Maloney’s forensics team found that the dog was shot and killed at the edge of the dining room, 15 feet from the front door. Authorities never picked up the shotgun shell when they collected evidence.

And police said that Tuttle started firing at them, but Maloney’s team did not find clear evidence of that.

“The initial bullet trajectories appear to be somewhat contradictory,” said Louisiana-based attorney Chuck Bourque, who is also representing the Nicholas family. “We see no evidence that anybody inside the house was firing toward the door.”

Some of the bullet holes outside the house appeared at least a foot from the door, a fact that Doyle flagged as troubling.

“You can’t see into the house from there,” he said, “you’re firing into the house through a wall.”

Now we’re entering new territory. This is no longer just about the narcotics officers. We now have to ask if the investigating officers and crime-scene technicians are implicated, too.

Quick hits (part II)

1) Republicans have a new solution to climate change.  Just keep chanting “innovation” like a mantra while ignoring the fact that actual innovation is shaped by policy choices that Republicans are opposed to.

2) Speaking of climate change… also enjoyed this Vox piece on wind power.  Especially because it showed this cool US wind map that shows that, yes, Lubbock, Texas was indeed by far the windiest place I’ve ever lived (also, let’s go Red Raiders!).

3) Nice piece looking back on Nirvana and “Nevermind” (easily one of the best albums ever) on the 25th anniversary of Kurt Cobain’s death.  I remember I was visiting OSU before starting grad school on that day.

4) And growing partisan polarization on the environment.

Line graph. The percentages of U.S. Republicans (19%) and Democrats (65%) who worry a great deal about the quality of the environment.

5) In the queue too long, but so worth reading.  Radley Balko, “The criminal justice system also has an ‘alternative facts’ problem.”

It has been nearly 10 years since the National Academy of Sciences sounded the alarm about the shortcomings of forensics. Since then, there have been countless follow-up studies, state and national commissions, reports, panels and — to underscore the conclusions those entities reached — a consistent wave of crime lab scandals all over the country.

In the past year, Voxthe Nation and NBC News have published lengthy treatises on the basic problem: Many of the forensic disciplines used in courtrooms across the United States are unreliable and entirely subjective, using methods unsupported by scientific research. Forensic malfeasance has even crept into the plots of TV police and legal dramas.

The crisis in expert testimony seems to be resonating just about everywhere except for the one place it’s most crucial: in courtrooms. But the problem is bigger than forensics and junk science. It isn’t that the courts have been duped by phony expertise or quackery; it’s that the criminal justice system has evolved to disregard its own mistakes. Courts rarely correct themselves, even when they get something fundamentally wrong. And because they make their own rules, there’s no one to tell them to get it right.

6) Likewise, too long in the queue.  Really liked this take on Elizabeth Warren’s approach to economic policy:

But the Democratic Party would be smart to embrace Senator Warren’s approach and a broader pre-distribution agenda as its next big idea because it deals with the root causes of inequality in America and therefore the voter frustration that helped make Donald Trump president.

Pre-distribution is less costly than redistribution because it mostly entails regulatory reforms rather than big spending items, like free college or job guarantees. So it would not provoke many Americans’ deep-seated mistrust of big government as much as calls for redistribution would.

Conservatives argue that pretax earnings simply reflect the free operation of the market, but they don’t. There is no pristine free market — just real-world markets thoroughly sullied by imbalances of power and regulations that favor corporations over workers. We should not be shy about revising these regulations to achieve more equitable growth. This would not undermine the capitalist economy; it would enrich it.

We tend to speak of the government and the market as adversaries in economic policy debates. They aren’t. The government makes the market work, with vast implications for public welfare. Getting serious about pre-distribution means delving into all the things that governments do to enable modern markets to function properly, from corporate law to antitrust…

The pre-distribution agenda, while rooted in the minutiae of government regulation, actually has a simple core message. It is not about rigging the system to benefit the poor and the middle class, but about unrigging it from benefiting the wealthy and the powerful. It is about shaping markets to allocate returns from economic activity more fairly in the first place rather than trying to correct inequities after the fact.

In essence, it is about giving consumers more value for their dollar and workers the wages they are due. What could be the problem with that?

7) Greg Sargent, “Trump is floundering disastrously on multiple fronts. Stop pretending he’s in control.”

8) I’ve got a number of colleagues with standing desks.  Sit down already :-).  The latest research via CBC, “There is little evidence that standing desks make you healthier or help you lose weight.”

But is it really better to stand all day, rather than sit? Can standing make you healthier, or help you lose weight?

Dr. Aaron Carroll isn’t so sure.

“In fact, there’s very little evidence at all that switching people from sitting to standing desks makes much of a difference on anyone’s health,” he said.

With the proliferation of reports about the hazards of sitting, Carroll can understand why people think standing is better, but says that the connection between poor health and sitting isn’t always so simple.

“We’re trying to argue somehow that it’s the sitting that makes people unhealthy, instead of saying that perhaps people who are otherwise unhealthy or poor or unemployed or who have other issues are sitting a lot, and that’s what’s making them unhealthy, not necessarily the sitting,” he said.

Standing is not exercise

Standing is not exercise, and jobs that require people to spend most of their day standing often tend to be unhealthier, Carroll said.

“Just standing doesn’t get you the same kinds of benefits or health effects that exercising would,” he said. “Secondly, there’s not a lot of great evidence to show that exercise is the way to lose weight. Most of the way that people lose weight has much more to do with what they’re eating and nutrition than it does with exercise.”

While standing does not bring the health benefits people think, Carroll says it is important to get up and move during the day.

“People need to get up every once in a while, walk around and be active,” he said. “There’s probably a bunch of reasons that might be a good idea, the least of which is weight loss. It might actually clear your head, it might provide you with a better work environment, it might improve your mood. All of those things are great.”

Carroll says his goal isn’t to talk people out of standing desks altogether.

“If you find that using a standing desk helps you in a personal way, it relieves pain, it makes you more comfortable, by all means do it,” he said.

Honestly, I really dislike standing for extending periods.  But I’m quite happy getting up to stretch, move around, etc., on a fairly regular basis.  Totally sticking with that.

9) Cannot wait for the nationwide rollout of the “Impossible” Whopper.  The non-animal future of meat is definitely on it’s way.

10) Pretty interesting column from David Brooks on how Canada may be showing the right way to combat poverty.

11) Some AEI guys who suggest some market-based reforms for Republicans to embrace on health care.  Not necessarily horrible ideas, but this was a clear case where the commenters understood the issue better than the writers. You would think they would notice that all those countries thaty deliver better and more care for less money are not doing this through embracing more free-market principles.  Let me know next time you shop for a cardiologist based on price and outcomes.

12) Went to Frogfest yesterday and my son asked me how it was going with amphibians and the evil fungus.  Not good.  Bonus frogfest photo below:

Bad science ruins live

When it’s bad forensic science, which, of course, is not actually science.  It as absolutely appalling situation that our criminal justice allows totally a-scientific forensic “science” to still regularly put the wrong people behind bars.  This great NYT piece focuses on a women convicted by “blood spatter” evidence.  Of course, there’s not actually a rigorous scientific understanding behind blood spatter patterns.  Just a lot of “experts” who pretend there is.  What’s absolutely nuts is that we somehow still use stuff like this in court cases:

A year before Rea’s exoneration, the National Academy of Sciences had released a report that called into doubt the reliability of bloodstain-pattern analysis. Practitioners’ conclusions were often “more subjective than scientific” and open to “context bias,” the 2009 report said.

“Some experts extrapolate far beyond what can be supported,” it said. And it cautioned, “The uncertainties associated with bloodstain-pattern analysis are enormous.”

The report criticized a wide range of forensic disciplines, including the analysis of hairs, fibers, bite marks and shoe and tire impressions. Its authors found that many of these disciplines were not grounded in hard data and extensive, peer-reviewed research, but instead relied on practitioners’ personal interpretations. “The law’s greatest dilemma in its heavy reliance on forensic evidence,” it stated, “concerns the question of whether — and to what extent — there is science in any given forensic science discipline.”

The report called for sweeping reform. Yet nearly a decade later, little has changed. In the field of bloodstain-pattern analysis, rigorous research that might determine the accuracy of analysts’ findings is scant. Bite-mark analysis — which, in 2016, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology declared had no scientific validity — is still admitted in criminal prosecutions. So, too, is microscopic hair comparison, an outmoded and dangerously flawed technique that has, to date, led to the convictions of 75 people who were later exonerated by DNA testing.

Julie Rea was eventually acquitted and exonerated of the murder of her 10-year old son based on this junk science.  Unsurprisingly, though, life does not just return to normal.

Instead, at the time of her acquittal, Rea was still reeling — not only from her son’s violent death and two criminal prosecutions, but from the trauma of incarceration. She is reluctant to discuss the physical and emotional abuse she endured during the nearly four years she spent behind bars except to say that she was reviled by both inmates and guards. “What I had supposedly done was considered to be the one unforgivable sin,” she said.

Despite her acquittal, she soon discovered that she had to keep living under the weight of suspicion. Prosecutors in the case still spoke of her like a criminal. Edwin Parkinson, the lead prosecutor in her case, told reporters, “The jury found her not guilty; they did not find her innocent.” Parkinson did not respond to a request for comment.

It’s long past time for our society’s lust for vengeance and retribution to demand punishment to the point where we pervert false science in the hopes of conviction.  Of course we should punish guilty people for their crimes, but it, in theory, we let guilty people go free to protect the innocent.  Except we seem to eager to punish the potentially innocent lest a guilty person go free.

Quick hits (part II)

1) So, I know that Wisconsin’s gerrymander is perhaps even better/worse than NC’s, but the latest from this year.  Just wow.  So thoroughly undemocratic:

When we look at the State Assembly, which had every seat up for grabs this past Tuesday, that disparity becomes even more glaring.

While final numbers are still not fully available for all races, Democratic Assembly candidates appear poised to take right around 1.3 million votes to Republican Assembly candidates 1.1 million votes.

And yet Democrats walked away with only 36 seats, while Republicans took a staggering 63!​

That means that Democrats won 54% of the vote and yet took only 36% of the seats.

2) A friend/reader argued the other day that democracy was actually under greater threat under Bush/Cheney (Iraq War, torture, and all that).  He had a good point and Adam McKay agrees (Via MoDo):

After a screening of “Vice” Thursday, I asked McKay which of our two right-wing Dementors was worse, Cheney or Trump.

“Here’s the question,” he said. “Would you rather have a professional assassin after you or a frothing maniac with a meat cleaver? I’d rather have a maniac with a meat cleaver after me, so I think Cheney is way worse. And also, if you look at the body count, more than 600,000 people died in Iraq. It’s not even close, right?”

3) This NYT feature on how the NRA has radicalized and politicized through the lens of American Rifleman covers is just amazing.

4) Brett Stephens on the Whitaker appointment:

Of all the ways in which Donald Trump’s presidency has made America worse, nothing epitomizes it quite so fully as the elevation of Matthew Whitaker as acting attorney general of the United States. Intellectually honest conservatives — the six or seven who remain, at any rate — need to say this, loudly. His appointment represents an unprecedented assault on the integrity and reputation of the Justice Department, the advice and consent function of the Senate, and the rule of law in the United States…

It says something about how atrocious this appointment is that even Trump is now distancing himself from Whitaker, falsely claiming not to know him despite the latter’s repeated Oval Office visits. It’s the Michael Cohen treatment. When a rat smells a rat, it’s a rat. Only a Republican in 2018 could fail to notice.

5) And the Washington Post editorial:

First, there are Mr. Whitaker’s statements criticizing the Russia probe of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III. At the least, they require him to consult Justice Department ethics counsel about whether he can oversee the inquiry with a plausible appearance of evenhandedness. He will do immediate and lasting harm to the Justice Department’s reputation, and to the nation, if he assumes the role of president’s personal henchman and impedes the Mueller probe.

Then there is Mr. Whitaker’s connection to a defunct patent promotion company the Federal Trade Commission called “an invention-promotion scam that has bilked thousands of consumers out of millions of dollars.” Mr. Whitaker served on its board and once threatened a complaining customer, lending the weight of his former position as U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Iowa to the company’s scheme.

Finally, and fundamentally most damning, is Mr. Whitaker’s expressed hostility to Marbury v. Madison, a central case — the central case — in the American constitutional system. It established an indispensable principle: The courts decide what is and is not constitutional. Without Marbury, there would be no effective judicial check on the political branches, no matter how egregious their actions.

If the Senate were consulted, it is impossible to imagine Mr. Whitaker getting close to the attorney general’s office. He should not be there now.

6) Masha Gessen says the press corps should not boycott Trump administration press briefings.  Honestly, I find her argument far from persuasive.

But there is a counterargument. The White House is a lousy source of information about itself, but it is also the best available source. The real story of Trumpism is probably found not in the White House or even in Washington but in Ohio, in Texas, along the Mexican border, in refugee camps the world over, in Afghanistan, in Yemen, and in the Palestinian territories. But the story of how the Administration functions must still be observed up close. Walking away would give this White House exactly what it wants: less contact with the media, less visibility, ever less transparency and accountability. Walking away would feel good, but it would ultimately be a loss. Would the loss in information be greater than the gain in solidarity? That’s a hard question, but my guess is that the answer is yes.

7) Vann Newkirk II, “The Georgia Governor’s Race Has Brought Voter Suppression Into Full View.”

8) NYT with a couple of really cool visual features making the case for both expanding the House of Representatives and moving to multi-member Congressional districts.  I suspect most political scientists– your truly included– would agree strongly on both scores.

We’re nearly two decades into the 21st century, so why is America still operating with a House of Representatives built for the start of the 20th?

The House’s current size — 435 representatives — was set in 1911, when there were fewer than one-third as many people living in the United States as there are now. At the time, each member of Congress represented an average of about 200,000 people. In 2018, that number is almost 750,000.

This would shock the Constitution’s framers, who set a baseline of 30,000 constituents per representative and intended for the House to grow along with the population. The possibility that it might not — that Congress would fail to add new seats and that district populations would expand out of control — led James Madison to propose what would have been the original First Amendment: a formula explicitly tying the size of the House to the total number of Americans.

The amendment failed, but Congress still expanded the House throughout the first half of the nation’s existence. The House of Representatives had 65 members when it was first seated in 1789, and it grew in every decade but one until 1920, when it became frozen in time…

There’s no constitutional basis for a membership of 435; it’s arbitrary, and it could be undone by Congress tomorrow. Congress set it in 1911, but following the 1920 census — which counted nearly 14 million more people living in the United States — lawmakers refused to add seats out of concern that the House was getting too big to function effectively. Rural members were also trying to forestall the shift in national power to the cities (sound familiar?), where populations were exploding with emigrants from farm country and immigrants from abroad.

In 1929, Congress passed a law capping the size of the House and shifting responsibility for future reapportionments onto the Commerce Department. That’s why, more than a century later, we find ourselves with a national legislature far too small to fairly represent both the size and diversity of modern America. This warps our politics, it violates basic constitutional principles of political equality, and it’s only getting worse.

There’s a simple fix: Make the House bigger. Many Americans will groan at the thought of expanding a government they already consider too big and unwieldy. Polls consistently show that the public would rather throw the bums out than hire more of them.

9) Peter Beinart on the midterms:

But it’s important to remember that although the country is deeply and closely divided, it’s not divided between similar things. Because the Democrats ran more African Americans and women candidates this year, and because many Republicans campaigned on immigration and Brett Kavanaugh, it’s tempting to describe both parties as waging a culture war. That’s misleading. The culture war was waged mostly by one side. Democratic candidates embodied racial and gender diversity, but they didn’t generally campaign on it. Their message, overwhelmingly, was that they would protect the middle-class safety net. They realized, early on, that absent Barack Obama, Obamacare was extremely popular. As The New York Times’ Alex Burns noted, the Democrats’ campaign could be summed up as: “a noun, verb and preexisting conditions.”…

In the Trump era, Republicans counter economic security with cultural security. Trump promised to protect Americans from Latino murderers and women who destroy men’s lives by alleging sexual assault. And, to a significant extent, it worked. By mobilizing his white, rural base, Trump matched Democratic enthusiasm in purple states such as Florida and Ohio and overwhelmed Democratic incumbents in red states such as North Dakota, Indiana, and Missouri. It’s an old game: W. E. B. Du Bois famously called it the “psychological wage.” Instead of protecting white people from economic hardship, you protect them from the racial demons you’ve stirred up in their minds. And Trump is this era’s undisputed master of that game. He understood that as frightened as many Americans are of losing their health care, he—with the help of Fox News—could make them even more frightened of Honduran asylum-seekers. Now that the election is over, I suspect the caravan will disappear from Fox’s screens and Trump’s Twitter feed—until something like it is needed again.

The harsh truth is this: Racism often works. Cross-racial coalitions for economic justice are the exception in American history. Mobilizing white people to protect their racial dominance is the norm. [emphasis mine] The lesson of 2018 is that American politics is not reverting to “normal.” In many ways, Trumpism is normal. It’s not Trump who is running uphill against American tradition, it’s the people who are trying—bravely but with mixed success—to stop him.

10) Democrats want to make it easier for Americans to vote.  Republicans, not so much:

Far more Democrats than Republicans favor making it easy for all to vote

11) The shameful mis-use of the US Military sitting at the border waiting for the caravan.  This is a scandal that is not being reported as such.  Great feature in the NYT.

12) Swatting is just evil.  And with too many over-zealous, shoot-first cops out there, it can turn into a deadly tragedy.

13) Of course, Jeff Sessions thinks the police never abuse the citizens they supposed to protect:

In a major last-minute act, Mr. Sessions signed a memorandum on Wednesday before President Trump fired him sharply curtailing the use of so-called consent decrees, court-approved deals between the Justice Department and local governments that create a road map of changes for law enforcement and other institutions.

The move means that the decrees, used aggressively by Obama-era Justice Department officials to fight police abuses, will be more difficult to enact. Mr. Sessions had signaled he would pull back on their use soon after he took office when he ordered a review of the existing agreements, including with police departments in Baltimore, Chicago and Ferguson, Mo., enacted amid a national outcry over the deaths of black men at the hands of officers.

14) And if you doubt just how bad this is in many citizens you are willfully delusional.  And you should read Radley Balko:

Fifteen-year-old Bobby Moore was fatally shot in 2012 by Josh Hastings, a police officer with the Little Rock Police Department. Despite serving on the force for only five years, Hastings’s tenure would prove to be enormously consequential. He had been hired over the objection from a high-ranking black police officer, and that objection was well-founded: Before his hiring, Hastings had once attended a meeting of the Ku Klux Klan, then lied about it on his application. He went on to accumulate an astonishing disciplinary record, usually resulting in lax punishment for misconduct.

Hastings once boasted about body-slamming a homeless black woman to the ground. Video footage showed he had lied about a burglary investigation. He slept on the job, drove recklessly and had problems activating his dashboard-mounted camera. He admitted to using racist language. He sometimes needed help writing reports, and colleagues described him as lazy, incompetent and unfit to be a police officer.

Hastings’s ultimate confrontation with Moore, then, seemed almost inevitable. He confronted Moore and two other boys after reports that they were breaking into cars. When the boys managed to get one of the cars started, Hastings fired into the car, killing Moore. Hastings would later claim Moore was attempting to run him over, but forensic analysis showed the vehicle was either stopped or moving backward, and Moore’s wounds were consistent with a driver backing up, not surging forward. The other boys were not wounded.

But Hastings’s story isn’t one of a rogue, aberrant cop so much as a glimpse into the police culture of Arkansas’s largest city. Disturbing as Hastings’s disciplinary record may be, other officers in the department have even thicker personnel files. In fact, many of the very officers who trained and supervised Hastings have had lengthy histories of misconduct — including domestic violence, lying, and the use of excessive force.

15) These signs up near NC State’s campus last week were hilarious:

Campaign sign by pro-voter ID group, November 2018

16) Nice column from Krugman on real American vs. Senate America:

Obviously not everyone lives — or wants to live — in these growth centers of the new economy. But we are increasingly a nation of urbanites and suburbanites. Almost 60 percent of us live in metropolitan areas with more than a million people, more than 70 percent in areas with more than 500,000 residents. Conservative politicians may extol the virtues of a “real America” of rural areas and small towns, but the real real America in which we live, while it contains small towns, is mostly metropolitan.

But here’s the thing: The Senate, which gives each state the same number of seats regardless of population — which gives fewer than 600,000 people in Wyoming the same representation as almost 40 million in California — drastically overweights those rural areas and underweights the places where most Americans live.

I find it helpful to contrast the real America, the place we actually live, with what I think of as “Senate America,” the hypothetical nation implied by a simple average across states, which is what the Senate in effect represents.

As I said, real America is mainly metropolitan; Senate America is still largely rural.

Real America is racially and culturally diverse; Senate America is still very white.

Real America includes large numbers of highly educated adults; Senate America, which underweights the dynamic metropolitan areas that attract highly educated workers, has a higher proportion of non-college people, and especially non-college whites.

None of this is meant to denigrate rural, non-college, white voters. We’re all Americans, and we all deserve an equal voice in shaping our national destiny. But as it is, some of us are more equal than others. And that poses a big problem in an era of deep partisan division.

17) Ezra Klein’s take on the midterms and the “Trump tax” should be read in full.

With Trump, two contrary ideas need to be held simultaneously: His rise to the presidency was a remarkable political achievement by any measure, and yet he is substantially less popular than a politician in his position should be. He’s a political genius and a political underperformer, all at the same time.

Since winning office, Trump has been buoyed by a strong economy. The trends predate him — job growth during the first two years of his presidency has been slightly slower than in the two years preceding his presidency — but their cumulative effect is undeniable: We’re enjoying the longest economic expansion in American history, we’re at or near full employment, and Americans tell pollsters they’re more optimistic about the economy than at any point in decades.

Nothing predicts presidential popularity like a strong economy. And yet in November 2018, Trump is less popular at 3.7 percent unemployment than Obama was in November 2010, when unemployment was 9.8 percent. That’s a tremendous political failure, and it should be seen as such…

Republicans, increasingly, wield power only because America’s political system insulates them from the public’s judgments. The leader of their party — and of the country — came in second in the popular vote to Hillary Clinton and, despite a roaring economy, hasn’t cracked 50 percent in the polls since taking office. Tonight, Republicans lost the House, and if Democrats hadn’t been defending 26 Senate seats to Republicans’ nine, it’s likely they would’ve seen a rout in the Senate too.

The GOP needs to ask itself: What’s going to happen in 2020, when the Senate map reverses, and Republicans are defending twice as many seats as Democrats? What if unemployment is 5.7 percent rather than 3.7 percent?

That Republicans performed this poorly amid this strong an economy and this much geographic advantage should be a wake-up call to the party. Trump’s political strategy is failing, and they are paying the cost.

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