Quick hits (part II)

1) Jordan Weisman on an intriguing theory for why it is so hard for Americans to get a decent raise– monopsonies.

2) Really, really interest take from a physician on how we got this point in the opioid crisis:

On another front, the campaign to assess pain as the fifth vital sign in the hospital took off in the late 1990s, with the Joint Commission, the hospital accreditation body, publicizing this concept in 2001. The idea was to assess the level of pain as frequently as the patient’s blood pressure. If the patient didn’t speak English, she could point to a picture of a person grimacing in pain. It has been reported that the Joint Commission even distributed a pamphlet produced by Purdue that played down the risk of addiction. The Commission hasn’t addressed that specific charge, but they released a statement last year denying that their standards contributed to the opioid epidemic.

The problem is that unlike the other four vital signs—blood pressure, heart rate, temperature, and respiratory rate—pain is not something that the nurse or doctor can measure. It is a subjective judgment, based on the patient’s self-report and so-called “pain behavior.” I don’t feel your pain: I can’t. Patients who want narcotics become excellent actors. During one of my earliest years in practice, an agent from the Drug Enforcement Admin-istration called to warn me that a man who had come to me with a biopsy report of kidney cancer, saying he had to change doctors because he was now on Medicaid (a common problem), had forged the report, was faking his pain, and had already been to several doctors in the area. At the other extreme, a patient with a ruptured appendix and a rigid abdomen assured me that he didn’t need treatment—because, it turned out, he was undocumented and feared hospitalization…

Lembke outlines what steps we can take to cope with addiction in our practices, but she also admits, “There is an unspoken tension underlying the hidden forces driving the epidemic: doctors are increasingly asked to care for people with complex biopsychosocial problems (nature, nurture and neighborhood) without also being given the tools, time or resources to accomplish this task.” Medical students complain that primary care has devolved into social work, but is it social work to search for root causes rather than simply prescribe or cut? Dr. Francis W. Peabody, a prominent physician in the early twentieth century, wrote, “One of the essential qualities of the clinician is interest in humanity, for the secret of the care of the patient is in caring for the patient.”

3a) Just so we’re clear– work requirements for Medicaid are an absolutely horrible idea and abysmally stupid public policy.

The problem with the latest twist in Republicans’ effort to pare the social safety net is that removing the poor’s health insurance may not just make their life more difficult.

It might kill them.

It is well known by now that health insurance saves lives. A review of recent research in the Annals of Internal Medicine concluded that the odds of dying for non-elderly adults are between 3 and 41 percent higher for the uninsured than for the insured.

Work by Katherine Baicker, now at the University of Chicago, with Benjamin Sommers and Arnold Epstein at Harvard found that Medicaid expansions in the past significantly reduced mortality. Their research, they concluded, “suggests that 176 additional adults would need to be covered by Medicaid in order to prevent one death per year.”

It doesn’t take a leap of imagination to figure out what might happen if 100,000 people were to lose their coverage.

3b) And the simple truth is, the more paperwork and bureaucracy you require, the harder you make it for deserving, qualified recipients.  Of course, to those who hate the working poor, that’s a feature, not a bug.  The Upshot:

But a large body of social science suggests that the mere requirement of documenting work hours is likely to cause many eligible people to lose coverage, too.

“Without being tremendously well organized, it can be easy to fail,” said Donald Moynihan, a professor of public affairs at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who is writing a book on the effects of administrative burdens. Researchers have studied the ways complexity can reduce sign-ups for workplace pension plans, participation in food stamps and turnout in elections, he noted. “These sorts of little barriers are ways in which humans get tripped up all the time when they’re trying to do something that might benefit them.”

Anyone who has ever forgotten to pay a bill on time, or struggled to assemble all the necessary forms of identification before heading to the D.M.V., is likely to sympathize with how administrative hurdles can stymie someone. But these may be especially daunting for the poor, who tend to have less stable work schedules and less access to resources that can simplify compliance: reliable transportation, a bank account, internet access. There is also a lot of research about the Medicaid program, specifically, that shows that sign-ups fall when states make their program more complicated.

4) Why 12-step programs work for some people, but not others.  One thing is clear– foreclosing the option of medical treatment with those with narcotic addictions (as so many uninformed people in the system insist upon) is just plain stupid.

5) The bright future of solar power may not be all that close.

6) Great excerpt from Frum’s new Trumpocracy book in The Atlantic:

Election 2016 looked on paper like the most sweeping Republican victory since the Jazz Age. Yet there was a hollowness to the Trump Republicans’ seeming ascendancy over the federal government and in so many of the states. The Republicans of the 1920s had drawn their strength from the country’s most economically and culturally dynamic places. In 1924, Calvin Coolidge won almost 56 percent of the vote in cosmopolitan New York State, 65 percent in mighty industrial Pennsylvania, 75 percent in Michigan, the hub of the new automotive economy.

Not so in 2016. Where technologies were invented and where styles were set, where diseases cured and innovations launched, where songs were composed and patents registered—there the GOP was weakest. Donald Trump won vast swathes of the nation’s landmass. Hillary Clinton won the counties that produced 64 percent of the nation’s wealth. Even in Trump states, Clinton won the knowledge centers, places like the Research Triangle of North Carolina.

The Trump presidency only accelerated the divorce of political power from cultural power. Business leaders quit Trump’s advisory boards lest his racist outbursts sully their brands. Companies like Facebook and Microsoft denounced his immigration policies. Popular singers refused invitations to his White House; great athletes boycotted his events. By the summer of 2017, Trump’s approval among those under thirty had dipped to 20 percent.

And this was before Trump’s corruption and collusion scandals begin to bite.

Whatever Trump’s personal fate, his Republican Party seems headed for electoral trouble—or worse. Yet it will require much more than Republican congressional defeats in 2018 to halt Trumpocracy. Indeed, such defeats may well perversely strengthen President Trump. Congressional defeats will weaken alternative power centers within the Republican Party. If they lose the House or the Senate or many governorships—or some combination of those defeats—then Republicans may feel all the more compelled to defend their president. The party faithful may interpret any internal criticism of Trump as a treasonable surrender to Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer. As the next presidential race nears, it will become ever more imperative to rally around Trump. The more isolated Trump becomes within the American political system as a whole, the more he will dominate whatever remains of the conservative portion of that system. He will devour his party from within.

7) Oh, man, I loved this story on how airport runways are numbered and how the numbers have to change as the magnetic pole of the earth shifts.

8) Chait with a good take on Trump’s fear of sharks:

It is perfectly characteristic of Trump’s mind that he would be manipulated by television this way. Sharks are not, in fact, a significant source of danger. Sharks kill about one American per year.

But sharks do look very scary, and the right combination of dramatic video and ominous music could persuade a gullible television viewer to fear and even hate them. Like, say, the kind of person who spends hours watching Fox News and is manipulated into hating and fearing immigrants or Muslims or the New Black Panther Party.

9) Emily Willingham on the non-binary brain, “Misogynists are fascinated by the idea that human brains are biologically male or female. But they’ve got the science wrong.”  In the end, though, it seems pretty obvious that male and female brains are essentially overlapping curves.

10) Greg Sargent on the intensity gap:

There’s something else vital to understand: Not only does Trump have high disapproval, but the intensity of his disapproval is unusually high, as well. For all the time news organizations spend writing “In Trump Country, Trump Supporters Support Trump” stories, intense dislike of Trump may be the most powerful force in the U.S. electorate right now. Consider these figures (I’ve added in some other recent polls):

  • Pew: 27 percent strongly approve of Trump’s performance, 47 percent strongly disapprove
  • NBC: 26 percent strongly approve, 51 percent strongly disapprove
  • Quinnipiac: 29 percent strongly approve, 49 percent strongly disapprove
  • Marist: 23 percent strongly approve, 39 percent strongly disapprove
  • LA Times: 15 percent strongly approve, 42 percent strongly disapprove…

Now let’s think about how this picture of energized, angry Democratic voters and Republican voters who still support Trump but aren’t so enthusiastic about it could play out in November. Despite the fact that the president is on everyone’s mind, the calculation is different for voters of the two parties. A Democrat can deliver Trump a crushing blow with their vote, because if their party takes back one or both houses of Congress, the effect will be seismic. Not only would the GOP legislative agenda be immediately dead, but with their newfound subpoena power, Democrats could start investigating this administration from tip to tail.

But if you’re a Republican voter who’s only marginally motivated by protecting Trump, what would drive a burning desire to turn out and vote GOP in November? On the party’s big issues, many of the questions have been settled.

11) Pew on the lives of dads:

I’d put myself in the “about right” category.  Of course, after weeks like this one with a holiday and three snow days, it was the “too much” :-).

12) Can the rest of the state Democratic parties learn from the success of the Alaska Democratic party?  Probably.  But Alaska is also pretty unique.  Very interesting story in Politico.

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Quick hits (part II)

1) This is really cool– there’s a a reason that Americans smile so much:

But there’s an interesting line of research that helps explain outliers on the other end of the spectrum, too: Specifically, Americans and their stereotypically mega-watt smiles.

It turns out that countries with lots of immigration have historically relied more on nonverbal communication—and thus, people there might smile more…

After polling people from 32 countries to learn how much they felt various feelings should be expressed openly, the authors found that emotional expressiveness was correlated with diversity. In other words, when there are a lot of immigrants around, you might have to smile more to build trust and cooperation, since you don’t all speak the same language.

2) The prosecutor in the Cameron Todd Willingham case may be sanctioned.

3) When it comes to birds, a little brain packs a big punch.

4) A longer post I’ve been meaning to write.  Increasingly the lesson of the Trump presidency is just, lie, lie, and lie some more.

5) Here’s a thought… more drug treatment, less drug punishment.  Some NCSU research:

A recent study finds that even small, day-to-day stressors can cause an increase in illegal drug use among people on probation or parole who have a history of substance use. The study could inform future treatment efforts and was conducted by researchers at North Carolina State University, the University of Texas, the Schroeder Institute for Tobacco and Policy Studies, the Truth Initiative, Gateway Foundation Corrections and Texas Christian University.

“Our findings suggest that drug and alcohol treatment are valuable tools for those on parole or probation, and that even if people relapse, the treatment helps them limit their substance use over time,” [emphasis mine] says Sarah Desmarais, an associate professor of psychology at NC State and co-lead author of a paper describing the work.

6) I’ve always thought the most amazing thing about elite marathoners is how fast they are running for two hours straight.  I can probably barely run that fast period.  I do like this idea in Wired of seeing how long you can actually maintain the 13.1 mph pace.

7) Great NYT editorial on the phenomenal wrongness of our current cash bail system:

As a result, poor people charged with a misdemeanor end up stuck behind bars, while people with money who are charged with the same offense walk free.

The county’s lawyer defended this policy by arguing that poor defendants — who are disproportionately black and Latino — stay in jail not because they can’t buy their way out but because they “want” to be there, especially “if it’s a cold week.” Judge Rosenthal called this despicable claim “uncomfortably reminiscent of the historical argument that used to be made that people enjoyed slavery.”

The real explanation is straightforward: As cash bail has fueled a politically influential, multibillion-dollar industry, courts are relying on it more, and people who can’t afford it are getting locked up at ever greater rates. Judge Rosenthal noted that only two decades ago, less than one-third of people in Texas jails were awaiting trial; today, it’s three-quarters. Forty percent of all misdemeanor defendants in Texas are locked up until their cases are resolved, at a huge cost to the state, and most because they can’t afford bail.

8) Philip bump points out that the AHCA breaks pretty much every promise Trump made on health care.  Raise your hand if you’re surprised.

9) Richard Skinner with a nice assessment of Trump so far:

Instead Donald Trump increasingly seems to be governing like a conventional Republican president—albeit one who is showing signs of incompetence and contempt for governing norms. He is maintaining the existing cleavages on economic and cultural issues that define our party system, while adding a new one based on immigration and race. Republicans had already been trending in a restrictionist direction on immigration for about a decade—going back to the congressional revolt against George W. Bush’s “amnesty.”  It’s relatively easy for Trump to impose his will on immigration; much can be done through executive action, and few Republican constituencies would be upset by a wave of deportations. Around the world, there are plenty of right-of-center political parties that take a hard line on immigration.

So far, Trump has largely prioritized the most traditionally Republican items on his agenda. His one major accomplishment has been the confirmation of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. His greatest defeat has been the failure of the American Health Care Act—the ignominious outcome of years of GOP war against the Affordable Care Act. Trump’s budget was written by an OMB director taken from the House Freedom Caucus, and with its draconian cuts in domestic spending, reads almost like a caricature of conservative governance. His Cabinet is mostly filled with Republican stalwarts. His economic proposals are heavy on tax cuts and deregulation. His abrupt shifts on Syria, NATO, and China have been mostly in the direction of GOP orthodoxy. By contrast, his populism has been almost entirely limited to rhetoric.

Elite college versus public honors college

Interesting column from Frank Bruni arguing that the wise path for bright and ambitious college students is an honors college within a public university rather than attending an elite university.  Assuming you will be paying less for that public education, Bruni is definitely on point:

More and more public schools are starting, expanding, refining and successfully promoting honors programs, and particularly honors colleges, that give students some of the virtues and perks of private schools without some of the drawbacks, such as exorbitant tuition and an enclave of extreme privilege…

“Because of the broader student body at a public university, there’s a lot more reach in terms of the type of people you’re going to encounter,” John Willingham, the author of the book and the architect of the website, told me.

And it’s likely that at a public university’s honors college, there will be a smaller percentage of students from extremely wealthy families than at one of the most highly selective private schools.

“They’re not all elite,” Willingham said, referring to honors college students, “though most are capable. There’s a more egalitarian quality.”

Generally speaking, honors programs give students who’ve distinguished themselves through their SAT scores, ACT scores or grade-point averages access to, and dibs on, small classes filled with other honors students. Honors colleges are essentially more formal, larger versions of honors programs, and there are often extra resources, even designated buildings and residences, for their students…

Perhaps most important, honors colleges provide a supportive, challenging haven to some gifted young men and women who don’t make the cut at private schools with plunging acceptance rates or who aren’t prepared, for financial and other reasons, to pursue higher education far from their homes.

I would be very happy for any of my kids to attend an honors program at one of our fine UNC-system schools, but let’s be clear– an elite private education, it ain’t.  I’ve mentioned many times that I think an elite undergraduate education– like the one I had at Duke– just cannot be justified for the cost.  It’s not that much better than what you get at a top-notch public university.  That said, it is better and an Honors program just doesn’t make that much difference.

Our NCSU honors program is in the book of 50 honors programs mentioned in the column, but it’s certainly not like attending an elite college.  Yes, you get some great honors classes, but those are a small part of the overall curriculum.  The honors students are great, but they spend most of their time and coursework surrounded by less intelligent, less motivated peers.  I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: being surrounded by a large coterie of similarly bright and ambitious peers is the real value of an elite private university (and the lack of socio-economic diversity of them is certainly a downside).  If price is no object (i.e., you are really rich or have a great scholarship or aid package), you just cannot replicate that with an honors program. Of course, price is an object for most people so those honors programs are a great alternative.  Having been on both sides of the matter, though, I just couldn’t let Bruni’s column go by without clarifying things.

Quick hits (part I)

Didn’t blog much at the beach, but still read lots of good stuff.  Many quick hits coming at you.

1) Really liked this perspective on Galileo— he was not as right as you think nor his critics as wrong.

2) Nice N&O Editorial on the latest example of NC Republicans deciding that local government is best– except when it is electing Democrats.  When Jesse Helm’s chief adviser says you’ve gone too far, you’ve probably gone too far.   And Thomas Mills on the travesty that is the NC Senate:

House Speaker Tim Moore came to power promising to show that the GOP could govern. Unfortunately, it’s not to be. The ideologues in the Senate are too busy micromanaging local governments and sticking square pegs into round, free-market holes to pay attention to what’s working and what’s not. They don’t seem to care whether policies are good for the people or the state. They only care that they fit into their narrow ideological box.

3) On the science behind “Inside Out.”  And seriously, if you haven’t yet, see this movie.

4) Nice piece from Bill Ayers on using the language of religious rights to deny rights:

As one lawmaker put it in North Carolina, “Just because someone takes a job with the government does not mean they give up their First Amendment rights.” A cake baker has apparently also decided to take his case to court, lest he be sanctioned for discriminating against gay couples in the making of wedding cakes.

I find this argument deeply troubling on many fronts. It strikes me as a species of other arguments people make which use the trappings of commonly-held values (in this case, the language about rights and freedom) to advance the opposite

5) Enjoyed this Slate piece on how Carli Lloyd and other US women soccer stars were rejected from youth teams and how that helped lead to their greatness.

6) I hate felony murder charges.  No, you should not rob somebody trying to sell you marijuana.  But when that goes wrong and the marijuana dealer falls off the truck and dies as it pulls away (and you are sitting in the back seat!) in no way are you a murderer at all.  Except, of course, under felony murder laws.  If I were on a jury for this case there would damn well be some juror nullification.  (Interesting that it happened at the park I visit every week with Sarah while Evan has his piano lessons).

7) A urologist argues in NYT that we need to bring back more prostate screenings.  This was a great example of smart commenters that you actually see in the NYT as they were all over the problems in this argument.

8) Apparently Amy Schumer’s jokes really are racist.  I, however, am not persuaded.

9) The best stuff I read on Germany and Greek debt last week.  Thomas Piketty on how the Germans are hypocrites. NYT’s Eduardo Porter makes a similar point.   And Harold Myerson.  Not like Greece doesn’t have plenty of blame to go around, of course.  For example, their crazy pension system.

10) I hate the tendency towards over air-conditioning in the summer.  I’ve been known to run my space heater in my office in the summer.  What a waste of energy.

11) I think I’m going to have to read this book on how over-parenting is ruining our kids.  I’m definitely no helicopter parent, but I fear I am not doing enough to make my kids learn tough life lessons on their own.

When parents have tended to do the stuff of life for kids—the waking up, the transporting, the reminding about deadlines and obligations, the bill-paying, the question-asking, the decision-making, the responsibility-taking, the talking to strangers, and the confronting of authorities, kids may be in for quite a shock when parents turn them loose in the world of college or work. They will experience setbacks, which will feel to them like failure. Lurking beneath the problem of whatever thing needs to be handled is the student’s inability to differentiate the self from the parent.

12) I’m glad I don’t have to rely on public schools in Texas to teach my kids history:

THIS FALL, Texas schools will teach students that Moses played a bigger role in inspiring the Constitution than slavery did in starting the Civil War. The Lone Star State’s new social studies textbooks, deliberately written to play down slavery’s role in Southern history, do not threaten only Texans — they pose a danger to schoolchildren all over the country.

On a related note, here’s some excerpts from a 1970’s Alabama history text.

13) Maybe autism is so more prevalent now because earlier clinicians actively worked to not diagnose it.

14) John Oliver on bail is, of course, excellent.

15) The most common reasons behind unfriending on FB:

In a 2014 study, Christopher Sibona, a researcher at the University of Colorado at Denver, actually pinpointed the four types of content that are most likely to prompt an unfriend:

  1. Frequent/unimportant posts
  2. Polarizing posts (politics and religion; liberals are, for what it’s worth,more likely to unfriend over political views)
  3. Inappropriate posts (sexist, racist remarks)
  4. Everyday life posts (child, spouse, eating habits, etc.)

Also, HS friends are most likely to get unfriended.

16) Iron Giant is going to be re-released on the big screen.  So going to take all the family to that.

17) I’m sure I’ve mentioned it before, but it never hurts to mention how near-useless the BMI is for addressing the health of individuals (there is some value as a population statistic).

18) A nearby public library that is actually inside a local HS is set to close.  Why?  People are worried about security:

The school system and Wake County partnered in the early 1980s so the Athens Drive High School library served students while also doubling as a public library.

But times have changed in terms of security at schools, said Ann Burlingame, assistant library director in Wake. High schools need to monitor who comes on their campuses, she said.

“We need to have a regard for the children and their safety,” Burlingame said…

No major security issues have been reported at the west Raleigh school. But Simmons said some parents have complained that it’s easy for library visitors to access the main part of the building.

Got that?  No actual issues in decades of use, but parents are worried.  So frustrating when the overly-fearful get to make public policy.

19) I had no idea about putative father registries.  Pretty interesting account of the laws and one disturbing case in South Carolina–yes, there are racial overtones (and the author was a friend of mine back at Duke).

 

Jim Carrey vs. science

I did not think it worth wasting my time addressing the fact what Jim Carrey thinks about vaccines– as befits the former s.o. of Jenny McCarthy, he’s pretty skeptical.  Phil Plait of Slate does think it’s worth his time to debunk Carrey, so feel free to check that out.

I got excited today, though, as I learned that one of the kids that Carrey high-lighted as damaged by vaccines actually has a very clear cause of his autism– Tuberous Sclerosis Complex.  That’s right, the rare genetic disease that my son has.  So, some good as come out of this– more attention for TSC.  Nice write-up by science writer Emily Willingham:

Actor Jim Carrey took to Twitter this week to draw attention to a long-time cause of his, campaigning for what he calls “greener” vaccines. He was trying to make some points about his opposition to the newly signed California law requiring vaccines for all children attending schools in the state, allowing only medical exemptions. In his attempt, Carrey unleashed a series of tweets with statements such as “A trillion dollars buys a lot of expert opinions. Will it buy you? TOXIN FREE VACCINES, A REASONABLE REQUEST!” along with images of distressed children.

As it turns out, one of those children was Alex Echols, whose family emphatically did not give Carrey permission to use the image of their son in his tweets about vaccines and weren’t too happy about his having done so.

Carrey appears to be among those who believe that vaccines cause autism…

But Carrey’s efforts did more than draw attention to his belief that vaccines contain “neurotoxins” and cause autism, one of Alex’s diagnoses. Because of Carrey’s use of Alex’s image and the resulting story blowing up around it, he’s also inadvertently drawn attention to a genetic condition that has been confirmed as associated with autism: tuberous sclerosis.

[Disclosure: Because of my involvement in a “mom group” many years ago, I was briefly familiar with Alex and his mother at the time he was diagnosed.]

The condition gets its name from the potato (tuber)-like growths that develop in the brain, as visible on MRI, that eventually harden, or sclerose. It traces to two gene variants that result in the development of these benign growths in many tissues. ‘Benign’ references only the fact that they aren’t cancer—their effects are not benign, particularly in the central nervous system. While the effects can be mild, often the condition is associated with epilepsy, developmental delay, and … autism.

In fact, about a third to half of children who have tuberous sclerosis could also be diagnosed with autism. Each condition is associated with seizures, and there are hints that disrupted connections among brain regions might be responsible for both the seizures and the social communication deficits of autism.

It’s ironic that Jim Carrey, in his effort to argue a debunked link between vaccines and autism, accidentally drew attention to one of the few factors that have been strongly linked to autism. Some celebrities, however, such as Julianne Moore, were way ahead of the curve and have been working a little more deliberately to draw attention to tuberous sclerosis.

This is about as much media coverage as I’ve ever seen for TSC— so, thanks Jim Carrey!

Quick hits (part II)

1) The Republican Senate’s delay on confirming Lorretta Lynch for Attorney General is literally historic in its wrongness.

2) There’s new research that says, no, it’s actually liberals who are happier, not conservatives.  When actually reading about it, I find it entirely unconvincing.

3) Help an NCSU professor do some cool citizen science on heartbeats.

4) Loved this history of the origins of Mad Men (my co-favorite show ever, with The Wire).

5) The good news on Obamacare just keeps coming.

6) The real story of the Irish famine and exodus.  It’s not just the potato blight, but why that was so deadly.

7) Good to know that racism in America is over and the only problem is Democrats spreading “phony racial narratives.”  Or so says old white guy who happens to be a US Senator.

8) Lincoln Peirce, creator of Big Nate comics, came to my son’s elementary school last week.  My son loves Big Nate books and Wimpy Kid books head-and-shoulders above any others.  I really enjoyed reading about the connection between these two authors.

9) So, apparently contestants on the Bachelor(ette) are basically not allowed to have any access to the outside world:

Contestants can’t have cell phones, use the internet, watch movies, or even read books, so they have no choice but to talk to each other, and to stew about their feelings for their Bachelor or Bachelorette, the object of their competitive affection.

That’s like being in solitary confinement, but with other people.  As if there weren’t enough problems with it, I have to wonder what kind of person would subject themselves to such conditions.  No books even??!!

10) Read a lot of good stuff on Robert “Bowling Alone” Putnam’s new book about poverty in America.  It’s important stuff.  Here’s a nice summary.

11) There’s been a lively debate among academics about the group-based nature of the Democratic versus Republican parties. Seth Masket does a nice job summarizing the issues and splitting the baby.

12) How climate change denying scientists are much like scientists of 50 years ago who tried to convince people that cigarettes are harmless.

13) Love my cereal for breakfast.  Thus, loved this Wonkblog post on the most popular cereals.

14) One of my students/advisees with no prior experience with animation software, made this awesome video on redistricting in NC.

15) What happens to a Texas prosecutor who gets a man put to death based on false testimony?  You know– nothing.

16) Speaking of Texas “justice,” Dahlia Lithwick writes

Last week I wrote about thesuspension of David Dow, one of the country’s most prominent capital defense attorneys. He was benched for an entire year by Texas’ Court of Criminal Appeals—the state’s highest criminal appeals court—for allegedly filing a late petition in a death penalty case. The sanction was doubly bonkers, I argued, because other death penalty lawyers never seem to be sanctioned for sleeping, drinking, or otherwise rendering themselves incompetent at trial. In any event, Dow was barred from appearing before the CCA for 12 months. Which means that his death row clients—whom he represents pro bono, and who may not find other lawyers to do so—literally have their lives on the line because a motion may or may not have been filed a few hours late. Or, as one lawyer quipped after the piece was posted: “Apparently Texas finally found one lawyer to be incompetent: the one who is actually good at his job.”

 

Stop snitchin’

I’ve written about Cameron Todd Willingham– the man Texas executed in 2004 despite evidence that emerged before the execution that the arson “science” that formed the basis for his conviction was complete bunk.  When it comes to false convictions, there’s an unholy trinity of junk science, bad eyewitness identification, and jailhouse “snitches” who make incredible claims that the accused made a jailhouse confession to them and nobody else, thereby buying themself a reduced sentence.  Turns out, the Willingham case had not only the bad forensic science, but a jailhouse informant who was quite clearly coerced into providing testimony against Willingham.  From a rather impressive article (i.e., you should really take a look at it) in the Post:

But now new evidence has revived questions about Willingham’s guilt: In taped interviews, Webb, who has previously both recanted and affirmed his testimony, gives his first detailed account of how he lied on the witness stand in return for efforts by the former prosecutor, John H. Jackson, to reduce Webb’s prison sentence for robbery and to arrange thousands of dollars in support from a wealthy Corsicana rancher. Newly uncovered letters and court files show that Jackson worked diligently to intercede for Webb after his testimony and to coordinate with the rancher, Charles S. Pearce Jr., to keep the mercurial informer in line…

Along with Webb’s account, the letters and documents expose a determined, years-long effort by the prosecutor to alter Webb’s conviction, speed his parole, get him clemency and move him from a tough state prison back to his hometown jail. Had such favorable treatment been revealed prior to his execution, Willingham might have had grounds to seek a new trial…

“He says, ‘Your story doesn’t have to match exactly’,” Webb continued. “He says, ‘I want you to just say he put fires in the corners. I need you to be able to say that so we can convict him, otherwise we’re going to have a murderer running our streets.’ ”

Webb told Jackson he hoped to turn his life around and become an underwater welder. That could be arranged, Jackson assured him, according to Webb. In the taped interviews, Webb recalled, “He says, ‘Look, we can get Chuck [Pearce] to help you with anything you need. He’s already there to help you.’ ”

“He [Jackson] had me believing 100 percent this dude was guilty — that’s why I testified,” Webb said. “The perks — they was willing to do anything to help me. No one has ever done that, so why wouldn’t I help them?”

In fact, Webb said, Willingham “never told me nothing.”

Damning, and sadly, not at all surprising.  How many others are languishing in prison (or heck, buried under ground) on the basis of such “justice”?

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.

The students is learning (criminal justice edition)

Finished grading exams last night– hooray!!  Anyway, it was one of those really rewarding grading experiences where I was actually quite impressed at how much the students had really learned the key information– at least when it comes to criminal justice policy.  It’s interesting to see, over time, the various articles I assign that really get through to students and make an impact on their thinking.  When it comes to the failures of our criminal justice system and the way overpopulation of our prisons with non-violent offenders, the great Economist piece, Too many laws, too many prisoners” was definitely one of those pieces.   Here’s a key summary from it:

Justice is harsher in America than in any other rich country. Between 2.3m and 2.4m Americans are behind bars, roughly one in every 100 adults. If those on parole or probation are included, one adult in 31 is under “correctional” supervision. As a proportion of its total population, America incarcerates five times more people than Britain, nine times more than Germany and 12 times more than Japan. Overcrowding is the norm. Federal prisons house 60% more inmates than they were designed for. State lock-ups are only slightly less stuffed.

The system has three big flaws, say criminologists. First, it puts too many people away for too long. Second, it criminalises acts that need not be criminalised. Third, it is unpredictable. Many laws, especially federal ones, are so vaguely written that people cannot easily tell whether they have broken them.

It’s great.  If you have any interest in criminal justice issues you need to read it.

The students who did not answer that question item had the choice to answer about the death penalty.  In that case, an article I know I’ve plugged here before– the great New Yorker piece on the surely wrongful execution of Cameron Todd Willingham by the state of Texas– definitely had an impact.   I put a lot of time and thought into what I assign my students (given the rate at which they ignore them, probably too much) so it is really edifying when the articles I choose really get through and leave a lasting impact.  I’m under no illusion that students will remember much at all of anything they learn in my classes, but I’m pretty sure that the truly distrubing lesson of Cameron Todd Willingham will stick with them for a long time.

Texas Justice

Somewhat surprised the only place I’ve seen this story is Jonathan Cohn’s blog, but there now seems to be pretty clear evidence that Texas has executed yet another innocent man:

From the Texas Observer:

Claude Jones always claimed that he wasn’t the man who walked into an East Texas liquor store in 1989 and shot the owner. He professed his innocence right up until the moment he was strapped to a gurney in the Texas execution chamber and put to death on Dec. 7, 2000. His murder conviction was based on a single piece of forensic evidence recovered from the crime scene—a strand of hair—that prosecutors claimed belonged to Jones.

But DNA tests completed this week at the request of the Observer and the New York-based Innocence Project show the hair didn’t belong to Jones after all. The day before his death in December 2000, Jones asked for a stay of execution so the strand of hair could be submitted for DNA testing. He was denied by then-Gov. George W. Bush.

Cohn, naturally, also links to the fabulous New Yorker story on Cameron Todd Willingham who in all likelihood did not burn down his house with his family inside.  Alas, Texas was not so interested in hearing evidence about the horrid and unscientific arson investigation that convicted him before they put him to death.   I always tell my students if they are going to commit a murder (not that I encourage such things), not to do it in Texas.  Rather, I think I should tell them, if they are closely associated with someone who is murdered, they better hope they are not in Texas.

Theories of learning and how to study

The Times had a really nice article yesterday on how what many people makes for good studying habits and learning is either a) flat-out wrong; or b) entirely unsupported by data.  The basic summary: mix it up.  Study multiple topics in multiple places.  Definitely do not limit yourself to just one place to study and when you do study, mix it up being subjects, types of problems, etc.  This particular part on learning really struck me, as I’ve always been skeptical of this whole “learning styles” business:

Take the notion that children have specific learning styles, that some are “visual learners” and others are auditory; some are “left-brain” students, others “right-brain.” In a recent review of the relevant research, published in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest, a team of psychologists found almost zero support for such ideas. “The contrast between the enormous popularity of the learning-styles approach within education and the lack of credible evidence for its utility is, in our opinion, striking and disturbing,” the researchers concluded.

I’ve always found this stuff a little silly and way overblown among many teachers I encountered in my day.  Nice to see my instincts were right on this.  I’m also a little skeptical, however of the following research conclusion:

Ditto for teaching styles, researchers say. Some excellent instructors caper in front of the blackboard like summer-theater Falstaffs; others are reserved to the point of shyness. “We have yet to identify the common threads between teachers who create a constructive learning atmosphere,” said Daniel T. Willingham, a psychologist at the University of Virginia and author of the book “Why Don’t Students Like School?”

I have trouble believing that, honestly.  What are the measuring?  I think most anybody reading this would have to agree that a teacher who shares a genuine passion for what they are teaching tends to be an effective teacher.  Likewise, a teacher who has the ability to truly relate to their audience tends to be a more effective teacher.  Surely, there’s plenty of other things, too, but I have trouble believing that they truly could not find common traits of effective teaching.

Texas doesn’t even mind killing innocent people

Last month I linked to a Bob Herbert column describing the outrageous case of Cameron Willingham, a Texan quite clearly innocented for a crime he did not commit (in fact, there was not even a crime).  You really ought to read David Gann's brilliant New Yorker article about this grave injustice.  Really.  Anyway, Texas set up a commission to investigate what went wrong and how a presumably innocent man came to be executed.  Apparently, you cannot have that, so Governor Rick Perry has stepped in.  TPM has the details:

Even by the standards of Texas's enthusiasm for state-sanctioned killing, this is pretty shocking…

A Texas scientific panel has been looking into possible missteps in
a criminal investigation of a 1991 arson case which led to the
execution of Cameron Todd Willingham. A recent New Yorker story about the case laid out compelling evidence that Willingham may well have been wrongly put to death.

The panel, the Texas Forensic Science Commission, was scheduled to
hear today from a nationally recognized arson expert it had hired,
Craig Beyler, who had last month released a report which called the
original probe slipshod.

But on Wednesday, Texas governor Rick Perry abruptly removed
three members of the commission. In their place, he appointed a new
chair with a reputation as a hardline conservative prosecutor, who
promptly canceled the hearing at which Beyler was to testify.

Texas Justice– an oxymoron?

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