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Archive for September, 2009

At this very moment, the front-page story at cnn.com is about using iPhone applications to track sex offenders. With the tap of a touch screen, you can pull up a map of where you live, with highlighted addresses showing where sex offenders live. You can even see photos of them.

I’ve long been uneasy with these types of offender registries. Rape and other sex crimes are horrible, of course, but I’m not sure about the underlying logic of such registries. When we sentence someone to jail, it is to punish them for wrongdoing, so that they can pay their debt to society. The reason we don’t imprison every criminal for life is because we think most crimes don’t deserve life-long punishment. Different states disagree about which crimes merit what length of punishment, but we all agree there is some scale. And once a prisoner’s time is up, they get released. But with these registries, they aren’t really free. Not when your face and address are easily accessible public knowledge. If these people are so dangerous, or their crimes so severe, then why not either lock them up for longer, or do away with the registries?

But so far, all this is assuming that those on the registries are dangerous rapists or sex offenders. While many of them indeed are, the truth is that this is not the case. The Economist recently had an editorial on the unjust and ineffective nature of U.S. sex laws, and this post recently made some rounds through the blogosphere. I’ll reproduce a very telling chart:

The peak on this graph is age 14. I want to make it clear that it is certain that teenagers, even those as young as 14, can indeed be guilty of sex crimes that deserve punishment. But when you see this graph, and examine the unjust nature of many of these laws, it seems clear that we are severely penalizing many teens for being teens. And now they can be whipped up on any iPhone.

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South Korean President Lee Myung-bak accepts an autographed football from Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward.

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak accepts an autographed football from Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward.

I admit I was a little confused by this photo, until I read more about its provenance.

Hines Ward, son of a Korean mother and an African-American father, made a splash when he visited South Korea, a country that closely and fanatically guards its sports heroes (as evidenced by their instant love for even the obscure, like Yang Yong-eun, who beat Tiger Woods in the final rounds of the PGA championship).

Ward has now met two Korean presidents, one more than President Obama.

In any case, with the G-20 in Pittsburgh, President Lee thought it a good idea for another photo-op with a popular Korean, since Lee himself doesn’t quite fit the bill these days.

So, take one country with tons of ethnic mixing, one country with an almost homogeneous ethnic native population, and one popular athlete that spans both cultures, and you’ve got yourself a hero.

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I see them more frequently now than I ever have. “Concern troll” is a term with which I’ve become familiar only recently. Urban dictionary has a pretty good explanation:

“In an argument (usually a political debate), a concern troll is someone who is on one side of the discussion, but pretends to be a supporter of the other side with “concerns”. The idea behind this is that your opponents will take your arguments more seriously if they think you’re an ally.”

So in practice, how does this work? Let’s take an example like Democratic Senator Max Baucus. Baucus does not want a public option in any health care plan. He simply is not on that side. Why doesn’t he want it? It doesn’t really matter for the sake of this argument (but it might have something to do with the $$$ he has gotten from the health care industry.) As a concern troll, he is opposed to the public option from the start. Which is precisely why he voted against it today.

But of course he doesn’t admit his opposition. He still claims to support a public option. To explain his vote, he says that he simply wants so very much to get a health care bill passed, and he just knows that it won’t pass if there were a public option included. That the bill won’t gain GOP support – or even pass – with or without a public option is besides the point. The point is that Baucus wants to be taken seriously as a champion of health care reform, so instead of admitting his personal opposition to the public option, he claims to support it, but with concerns that prevent him from, you know, actually supporting it.

And examples of concern trolls are everywhere. Democratic Senator Ben Nelson threw his chips into the pot, saying that a health care bill wouldn’t be “legitimate” unless it had 65 votes. He supports health care! Promise! He just has concerns that the bill won’t be legitimate, and might not be able to vote for health care unless some bullshit arbitrary number of GOP senators jump aboard.

The whole point of concern trolling is to have your opinions taken more seriously by pretending to be on one side when you are in fact not. But I don’t mean to sound like a shrill, unhinged leftist. Max Baucus and Ben Nelson are reasonable, centrist moderates, who are just looking out for the best interests of health care reform. Right?

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The FDIC sure isn’t looking hale these days. With the failure of 95 banks so far this year, the corporation’s fund is depleted, and Sheila Bair is asking for an advance from banks.

Instead of paying the usual annual rate, the FDIC wants an advance of about $36 billion in order to prepare for the coming bank failures of the next few years.

The comment I’m most curious about comes from the last graf of the FT’s report (reprinted without permission because I couldn’t get the stupid clip tool to work):

US banks have steered clear of public comments on this issue. In private, many executives have complained that the FDIC’s drive to replenish the fund would drain much-needed resources from banks just as they are trying to rebound from the financial crisis.

It’s as if they don’t remember what happened the last time there was a bank crisis without an FDIC. I find it hard to believe that someone would actually want the FDIC to run dry, but then, that would be the unfettered capitalism that libertarians and the like are always looking for. They can’t be serious about this, can they? The reason there was not a run on the banks was because people were sure their money was safe; without the FDIC, the likelihood of a bank run would have been quite high in September 2008.

To put it simply, without government intervention into markets, the markets would have collapsed. So pony up and pay the FDIC already, banks.

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This article caught my eye, since the United Kingdom is one of the first countries to mandate the HPV vaccine and offer it to all girls before they are 18.

I always wonder about the vaccine naysayers, who warn that vaccines contain harmful side effects that will hurt children and whatnot. It has always struck me as a fringe group, with decent fervor and little mainstream attention (except the occasional Joel Klein back page piece in Time).

Yet, it points to a true moral dilemma, which is the train-switch problem. Stated briefly, the dilemma goes something like this:

You are standing at a train switch, with two possible directions for a train — right and left. The train switch is currently set for the train to go right. If the train goes right, it will hit a group of 10 people. If, however, you flip the switch, the train will go left and it will hit a single person.

To recap, if you flip the switch, one person dies, but you “made it happen.” If you don’t flip the switch, 10 people die, but “it was fate.”

Such is the rough outline of the dilemma, which certainly involves a great number of ethical doctrines, but this problem seems particularly relevant to vaccines. After all, this level of cost-benefit analysis seems altogether stale and unemotional. One life is not worth 10 (or in the case of vaccines, many millions), in the grand scheme.

Yet, the fear of vaccines, however effective and safe they may be, is still grounded in the law of large numbers. That is to say, a one-in-a-million chance is still good for 300-some people in the United States. Someone wins the lottery; it just happens not to be you most of the time.

As the number of people affected in these low-odds situations rises, I wonder if societies will move closer to the fatalistic “don’t pull” option when it comes to vaccines. It becomes harder to ignore, especially since the risk of non-compliance with vaccination seems far more distant than the risk of death from vaccination itself, despite the opposite being true.

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Pollster and math genius Nate Silver of http://www.fivethirtyeight.com has declared war on a polling firm called Strategic Vision, LLC. You can read up on his posts on it here, here, here, here, and here. The crux of it is that they refuse to release one iota on their polling methodology (which is standard practice, apparently), and the numbers they release exhibit suspicious non-random distributions.

I’m not qualified to evaluate these claims, but what really caught my attention was the content of that fourth post, which is about a Strategic Vision poll on Oklahoma high school students failing general civics knowledge. The phone poll consisted of 10 basic questions about our government. For example, who was the first President of the US? The shocking part is that only 23% answered George Washington. Actually, what’s more shocking is that the highest number of questions anyone answered was 7 out of 10, and only 0.6% of the 1,000 participants got that many. Check out the results after the jump:

(more…)

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The best thing I saw this month

It’s this video. She tells a heartbreaking story through art – comprised of constantly shifting sand.

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