January 5, 2014

Infamous Edinburgh bodysnatchers’ final five victims?

Filed under: Britain, History — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:36

If you’ve ever visited Edinburgh, you’ll probably have heard about the sinister pairing of Burke and Hare, the bodysnatchers who murdered 16 people and sold the bodies to medical students for dissection. In 2012, five skeletons were uncovered during a townhouse renovation in the Haymarket district, and it’s speculated that the four adults and a child were previously unknown victims:

Archaeologists have only now determined that the five date back to the early 19th century following studies by Historic Scotland and consultants Guard Archaeology.

Altogether around 60 bones were found, including four adult jawbones and others believed to be from a child.

The bodies are thought to be those of criminals or dwellers of the poor houses. Those that were not claimed were frequently used for either dissection, to be anatomical skeletons, or both.

Irish immigrants William Burke and William Hare murdered 16 people in Edinburgh in 1828 and sold the bodies as dissection material, but it is thought unlikely that the pair were responsible for the five found in Grove Street as the notoriety of their crimes means that all their victims are believed to have been accounted for.

John Lawson, from the Edinburgh City Council Archaeology Service, was the first to examine the remains on site.

He said: “At the end of the Enlightenment period there was significant demand for cad­avers and which indeed outstripped supply, and that led to a thriving illegal trade, with Burke and Hare clearly the most infamous of those who supplied bodies to medical schools.

“We can’t rule out that those found on Grove Street were sold by the resurrectionists, as they were called, although it might be a stretch to say it was Burke and Hare themselves, given their crimes are well-documented.”

He said that most would be used for dissection, with the skeletons of others used to teach anatomy to students.

But Lawson said it was still unclear why they would have been buried in the garden.

This is a good example of the division of work in the newsroom: the headline says the bodies are linked to Burke and Hare, while the article itself quotes an expert saying it’s “a stretch” to say that. Headlines are usually written by editors, rather than the journalists who put the stories together.

December 23, 2013

Psychiatry does not seek “to colonise everyday life – rather, everyday life now invites colonisation by psychiatry”

Filed under: Health, Science — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 11:32

In Spiked, Sandy Starr reviews Gary Greenberg’s recently published The Book of Woe:

There is an inevitable contingency about diagnostic categories, particularly when it comes to psychiatry. Greenberg argues that for all the useful work that goes into constructing these categories, psychiatric diagnosis has a ‘self-validating nature…by which once you’ve created a diagnostic category, the fact that people fit into it becomes evidence that the disorder exists’. Greenberg reminds us that ‘while many diagnoses are made on clinical signs and symptoms rather than on lab tests or other external validators, only in psychiatry are all diagnoses made that way’.

It’s worth adding that this may be changing. As psychiatry seeks to predicate itself more and more upon genetics and neuroscience, there are expectations in some circles that biochemical diagnostic tests for psychiatric disorders will follow ineluctably. This prospect does not reassure me. Psychiatry is attempting the difficult feat of relocating its foundations without toppling its façade, and this involves elisions — several of which are discussed by Greenberg — that leave me feeling less persuaded of the profession’s credentials, not more.


That said, one can certainly appreciate the need for psychiatry to appear coherent and confident, given the far-reaching consequences of the DSM’s contents. Greenberg explains, for example, how the use of a single ‘and’ where an ‘or’ might have been used, in the definition of ‘paedophilia’ that made its way into the fourth edition, inadvertently made it far easier for US authorities to detain indefinitely (on psychiatric grounds) people who had been convicted of sexual offences against minors. In other words, a single use of the word ‘and’ in the DSM led to a complex domain of morality and law — the culpability (or otherwise) of people charged with sexual offences in various circumstances, and proportionate sentencing for their crimes — becoming subordinate to the considerations of psychiatry.


‘Once you start to think of your troubles as a disease, your idea of yourself, which is to say who you are, changes’, warns Greenberg. But while psychiatry gives a diagnostic imprimatur to our expectations of ourselves and of one another, psychiatry is not solely capable of bringing about a wholesale alteration of these expectations. To understand what else might account for a psychiatric turn in society, one needs to recognise that we live in a culture in which our adult capacities are constantly denigrated, in which victimhood has become one of the few widely recognised sources of authority, and in which we are constantly encouraged from all directions not only to put our problems on public display (rather than addressing them within the intimate confines of trusted friends, family or — in extremis — psychotherapists or even psychiatrists), but also to assume that our problems will most likely afflict us in perpetuity.

It’s not so much the case that psychiatry now seeks to colonise everyday life — rather, everyday life now invites colonisation by psychiatry. In circumstances such as these, even the most well-meaning and scrupulous psychiatrist might struggle to parse the suffering and idiosyncrasy they encounter, so as to partition it sensibly into the pathological and the normal. Greenberg’s barbs against psychiatry may be well deserved, and are certainly grounded in tantalising insider detail and no small amount of wit. But they represent an incomplete picture of the dynamics he sets out to get to grips with, which lie outside the institution of psychiatry as much as they lie within.

December 17, 2013

Legal precedents and technological change

Filed under: Law, Liberty, Technology, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:04

At Ace of Spades HQ, Ace explains why a court decision from the 1970s set a very bad precedent for today’s legal and technological world:

Fifty years ago the police had a very limited ability to utilize your fingerprints record to harm you. If you became a suspect in a case — and only in that case — they could painstakingly compare your fingerprints to those found at a crime scene using slow, precious human labor resources.

There were serious practical limits on what could be done with citizen data held in government files. Yes, the government could use that data to put people in jail, but analysis and comparison was a labor intensive process that at least served as a naturally-existing limiting principle on government intrusion: Sure, the government could search your personally-identifying data to connect you with a crime, but, as a practical matter, it was so time-consuming to do so that they generally would not do so, not unless they had a strong suspicion you were actually a culprit.

They wouldn’t just compare every fingerprint on file with every fingerprint found at unsolved crime scenes, after all.

Well, today, they can — and do — actually do that. So there is no longer any practical limitation on the government’s ability to use your DNA to connect you with unknown DNA found at a crime. They can run everyone’s DNA through the database with virtually no effort.

I exaggerate; there is some lab work needed to process the DNA and reduce it to a 13 allele “genetic fingerprint.” Nevertheless, this can all be done fairly inexpensively, and running it through the database once reduced to a short code is very nearly cost-free.

But within the next ten years all of this will become entirely cost-free.

This is why I disagreed with the Supreme Court’s reliance on an old precedent in claiming that the police can take a DNA sample from every single person arrested. Merely arrested, not convicted. They relied on a precedent established at the dawn of investigatory police science, that every arrestee’s fingerprints may be collected and catalogued.

But way ‘back then, there were natural limitations on the State’s power to make use of such data which simply no longer exist. What would have been considered a silly hypothetical sci-fi objection back then — “But what stops the state from merely searching these fingerprints against every fingerprint ever lifted at a crime scene?” — is actual reality now.

The same arguments apply to all police/FBI/NSA mass data collection: cell-phone usage, internet activity, license plate scanning, facial recognition software, and so on. It resets the baseline assumptions of civil society, where the authorities only look for suspects in actual criminal cases, rather than tracking everyone all the time and deducing “criminal” actions without needing to detect the crime. If your first reaction is to think “if you’ve done nothing wrong, you’ve got nothing to fear”, remember that you cannot possibly know all the laws of your country and that statistically speaking, you probably violate one or more laws every day without realizing it (one author suggests it’s actually three felonies per day).

Update: Ayn Rand explained this phenomenon fictionally in Atlas Shrugged.

“Did you really think that we want those laws to be observed?” said Dr. Ferris. “We want them broken. You’d better get it straight that it’s not a bunch of boy scouts you’re up against — then you’ll know that this is not the age of beautiful gestures. We’re after power and we mean it. You fellows were pikers, but we know the real trick, and you’d better get wise to it. There’s no way to rule innocent men. The only power any government has is the power to crack down on criminals. Well, when there aren’t enough criminals, one ‘makes’ them. One declares so many things to be a crime that it becomes impossible for men to live without breaking laws. Who wants a nation of law-abiding citizens? What’s there in that for anyone? But just pass the kind of laws that can neither be observed nor enforced nor objectively interpreted — and you create a nation of law-breakers and then you cash in on the guilt. Now that’s the system, Mr. Rearden, that’s the game, and once you understand it, you’ll be much easier to deal with.”

December 10, 2013

Manufacturing crime

Filed under: Government, Law, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 11:56

Charles Cooke on the ATF working hard to create new criminals through elaborate entrapment schemes:

The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) is probably best known these days for the failure of its disastrous Fast and Furious scheme — a botched initiative that aimed to give American guns to Mexican cartels first and to ask questions later. Under pressure, the administration was quick to imply that the mistake was an aberration. But a watchdog report, published last week by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, suggests that the caprice, carelessness, and downright incompetence that marked the disaster was no accident. In fact, that it is endemic in the ATF.

After a bungled sting attracted the suspicion of the Milwaukee press earlier this year, reporters started to examine similar enterprises in the rest of the country. What they found astonished them. Among the tactics they discovered ATF agents employing were using mentally disabled Americans to help run unnecessary sting operations; establishing agency-run “fronts” in “safe zones” such as schools and churches; providing alcohol, drugs, and sexual invitations to minors; destroying property and then expecting the owners to pick up the tab; and hiring felons to sell guns to legal purchasers. Worse, perhaps, in a wide range of cases, undercover agents specifically instructed individuals to behave in a certain manner — and then arrested and imprisoned them for doing so. This is government at its worst. And it appears to be standard operating procedure.

As with Fast and Furious, the primary objective of the ATF’s stings seems not to be to fight a known threat but instead to manufacture crime. Across the country, the agency has set up shops in which it attempts to facilitate or to encourage illegal behavior, and it has drafted citizens into the scheme without telling them that they were involved. It is fishing — nonchalantly, haphazardly, even illegally. And the consequences can go hang.


At best the ATF’s new techniques constitute illegal entrapment. At worst, they are downright tyrannical. Entrapment is legally permitted if a suspect initiates a crime in the presence of an undercover agent or if he can reasonably be deemed to have been predisposed to commit the crime when offered an opportunity to do so. But it is difficult to see how either of these tests is being met in the Bruner case or in others. Indeed, cases using entrapment are often thrown out of court if the government is seen to have put too much pressure on a suspect or to have made breaking the law so easy or attractive as to render restraint impossible. Per the paper’s report, ATF tactics involved offering ridiculous prices for firearms to attract straw purchasers, requesting that suspects buy specific firearms that carry tougher sentences, or, as it did in one case, showing a known felon how to saw off a shotgun so that they could charge him with a more serious violation when he did it. Will anyone claim that these tactics are legal?

That they are immoral, too, needs less spelling out. Because no formal arrangements were made with the individuals whom the agency selected for involuntary cooperation, there were no means by which they could claim protection for their behavior after the fact. In other words: The federal government knowingly ruined their lives without telling them. And for what? Well, apparently to try to pick low-hanging fruit.

November 28, 2013

QotD: The gun-control debate

Filed under: Law, Liberty, Quotations, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 07:44

I begin rather skeptical of most gun-control proposals. The ones that are pitched in the aftermath of mass shootings are particularly cynical, as they often attempt to regulate circumstances unrelated to the shooting. I still grind my teeth at Mayors Against Illegal Guns running ads in my state citing the Virginia Tech shooting, and talking about the need to shut the “gun show loophole” — even though the shooter didn’t obtain his weapons at a gun show. These sorts of arguments strike me as one part craven opportunism, one part feel-good placebo. (I wanted to say “panacea,” but panacea actually means a genuine cure-all.)

If someone wants to propose a new restriction on gun ownership after a tragedy, and cites that tragedy as a reason to pass it, it’s necessary to show how that new restriction would have prevented, mitigated, or impacted that tragedy. For example, almost none of the gun laws proposed after Newtown would have changed much of anything in that awful shooting, as that disturbed young man stole his mother’s legally purchased guns.

I suppose there are two potential changes to the law that would have significantly altered events in Newtown. First, a total ban on private ownership of firearms, which our friends in the gun-control movement keep insisting isn’t their goal.

Second, a restriction on gun ownership by people who live under the same roof as a person who’s deemed mentally incompetent or a threat to himself or others. Of course, then you get into the questions of what constitutes, “mentally incompetent or a threat to himself or others,” what constitutes “under the same roof”, etc.

Then there are the proposals to limit how many rounds each gun can fire before reloading. Almost every spree shooter — we need a better term for this — has had more than one firearm when they’ve launched their attacks. Instituting 10-round limits would mean that future shooters would get off 20 shots before pausing to reload, presuming they only brought two guns. It’s reasonable to conclude future mass killers will just bring three or four guns when they begin their rampage. This strikes me as a quite modest mitigation in the danger of these shooters, too modest to seriously consider.

Jim Geraghty, “Why Post-Shooting Gun-Control Debates Are So Insufferable”, National Review Online, 2013-09-18

November 23, 2013

Houston – sex trafficking capital of the world (says Dallas newspaper)

Filed under: Law, Media — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:17

According to a Dallas newspaper, Houston is the focal point of a vast sex trafficking operation:

Check out this obvious crap — unbelievable to any thinking person — in the November 22 Dallas Morning News.

The Texas Senator and Representative that the paper apparently very credulously and obediently took notes from contend that there are 300,000 sex trafficking cases prosecuted every year — “in Houston alone.”

Here’s the quote from the Dallas Morning News editorial:

    Editorial: Cracking down on sex traffickers

    Two Texas Republicans, Sen. John Cornyn and Rep. Ted Poe of the Houston area, are co-sponsoring a bill that would impose stiff penalties on these adult victimizers of up to life in prison. The Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act, which has bipartisan support in both houses, would supplement an existing law that focuses primarily on punishing sex-trafficking organizations abroad.

    Poe and Cornyn estimate that one-quarter of U.S. sex-trafficking victims have Texas roots. Poe says our state’s proximity to Mexico and high immigrant population give the state a particularly high profile. In Houston alone, about 300,000 sex trafficking cases are prosecuted each year.

Do they work butt-drunk at this paper?

300,000? Do you realize how many people that is?


Of course, Houston’s population is only 2.161 million. So, throw in my fantasy guestimate of at least 200,000 uncaught and unpunished people guilty of sex trafficking on top of the 300,000 supposedly documented. This suggests that a vast segment of Houston’s population — at least 15 percent and maybe 25 percent — is engaged in the business of sex trafficking.

Math is hard.

November 13, 2013

The end of the ASBO … and the start of something worse

Filed under: Britain, Law, Liberty — Tags: , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:09

In sp!ked, Patrick Hayes talks about the new social control mechanism being introduced to replace the notorious ASBO, the Injunction to Prevent Nuisance and Annoyance:

It sounds like a joke, but IPNAs — introduced in Clause 1 of the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill, which received its second reading in the House of Lords last week — really do seem quite easy to enforce. Indeed, they make their predecessors, New Labour’s notorious Anti-Social Behaviour Orders (ASBOs), seem like a level-headed intervention into community life in comparison.

The bill says that in order for an IPNA to be granted, a court needs to be satisfied ‘on the balance of probabilities that the respondent has engaged or threatens to engage in conduct capable of causing nuisance or annoyance to any person’. Once satisfied, the court can issue an IPNA in order ‘to grant the injunction for the purpose of preventing the respondent from engaging in anti-social behaviour’.

It seems that for the Lib-Con coalition government, the problem with ASBOs was not that they circumvented the normal exercise of law by dishing out behaviour-controlling orders to people who hadn’t actually committed any crime, but rather that they only covered behaviour that might cause ‘harassment, alarm or distress’. So it has introduced IPNAs, which cover everyday nuisance and annoying behaviour, too. In fact, you don’t actually have to be annoying to get an IPNA — even the threat of behaving annoyingly can earn you one of these orders that do not require criminal-law standards of proof and can instead be handed out, to anyone over 10, at a court’s convenience. If you flout an IPNA, you face up to three months in prison.

November 12, 2013

Corruption watch: US government edition

Filed under: Government, Law — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 13:10

In his weekly NFL column, Gregg Easterbrook frequently has extended discussions of non-football items like this week’s quick tour of recent US federal, state, and local government agencies’ corruption news:

This column contends that corruption in government is a larger problem than commonly understood — that a reason expenditures at the federal, state and local levels keep smashing records, yet schools and bridges don’t get built, is that a significant fraction of what government spends is not just wasted, it is stolen.

Last week’s news that two senior admirals have been placed on leave on suspicion of corruption, while two Navy commanders and a senior official of the actual NCIS, not the TV show, have been arrested and charged with corruption, might be just the tip of an iceberg, to employ a nautical metaphor. Here’s a quick tour of recent corruption charges:

In federal government, a top EPA official stole nearly $900,000 from the agency, including through his expense account and by not reporting to work for months at a time yet receiving full pay. Absurdly, he was believed at the EPA when he claimed to be on assignment for the CIA. If the CIA needed an environmental specialist, there is a system by which one would be “detailed,” and the EPA would know.

Recently, an Army contractor was sentenced to 20 years in prison for stealing about $30 million using false invoices. Former congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. recently was sentenced to prison for embezzling from campaign funds; his wife was sentenced for income-tax evasion. (The campaign embezzlement did not cost taxpayers anything, the tax evasion did.)

In state government, the Securities Exchange Commission has accused the state of Illinois of pension bond fraud. The S.E.C. has charged the former head of the California state pension fund with fraud. Members of the New York Senate have been arrested on bribery charges. The lieutenant governor of Florida resigned over involvement with a fake charity.

In local government, the former mayor of Detroit just went to prison for corruption. Several members of the Washington, D.C., city council have been jailed or indicted for corruption, including one in jail for stealing from a youth-sports fund. A former California mayor just pleaded no contest to corruption charges. A former Chicago alderman just pleaded guilty in a corruption case. Chicago might be “the most corrupt city in the country,” with kickbacks and embezzlement costing Chicago taxpayers $500 million per year, a rate that works to $185 annually stolen from each resident.


In a big, complicated world, there will always be some who steal. Most public officials are honest and work hard to administer public funds properly. But we tend to think of theft in government as a problem of bygone days of bosses in smoke-filled rooms. With evermore money flowing into government, evermore corruption might be one result.

The cult of the victim

Filed under: Law, Media — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:38

In sp!ked, Barbara Hewson explains why the “believe the victim” mantra is a “recipe for injustice”:

First, it creates an ideal climate in which those who have not been abused can claim that they have been. Second, it ignores the ease with which false memories of abuse can be created, whether by self-persuasion, interaction with victim/survivor groups, or influence by third parties with axes to grind. Those third parties may include therapists, policemen, injury lawyers, campaign groups, and journalists avid for scandal. All these players espouse the ideology of victimisation.

In 1997, the US sociologist Joel Best identified seven widely accepted propositions which, taken together, create this powerful ideology:

1) Victimisation is widespread;
2) Its consequences are fundamentally psychological, and long-lasting;
3) Victims are innocent, victimisers are exploitative, and there is no room for moral ambiguity;
4) Both society and victims themselves fail to appreciate the extent of victimisation;
5) People must be taught to recognise their own, and others’ victimisation;
6) Claims of victimisation must not be challenged, as this is ‘victim-blaming’;
7) The word ‘victim’ connotes powerlessness: the term ‘survivor’ is preferable. (1)

Victims/survivors are praised for their courage, and enjoined to recover. The language of recovery is permeated by the doctrinaire religiosity of the 12-step movement, pioneered by the founders of AA in the US. This may explain why some victim-advocacy groups can sound cult-like, with their own jargon (‘grooming’, ‘trafficking’, ‘mind control’) and their disdain for non-believers.

But, like any religion, the victim/survivor movement needs new recruits and new spheres of influence. Not satisfied with sensitising society to victims’ needs, they then demand integration within institutional structures, and then wholesale institutional change. The contemporary victim industry, according to Best, mass-produces victims.

Even those who deny prior experience of victimisation are seen as candidates for conversion. Best quotes the comedienne Roseanne Barr from the early Nineties: ‘When someone asks you, “Were you sexually abused as a child?”, there’s only two answers. One of them is, “Yes”, and one of them is “I don’t know”. You can’t say no.’

What Barr alludes to is the concept of ‘gradual disclosure’. Hugely influential with therapists and social workers, this posits that people who have been abused will initially deny it, and need help to overcome their denial. This is a deeply flawed approach, because it assumes that there is always something to disclose. It refuses to countenance the possibility that a denial means there is nothing to disclose. According to researchers, there is no clinical evidence to support the theory of gradual disclosure (2).

November 7, 2013

Some guidelines on not getting arrested

Filed under: Law, Liberty, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:51

In The Atlantic, Mike Riggs pulls some potentially useful advice from a book by a former FBI and police officer:

Dale Carson is a defense attorney in Jacksonville, Florida, as well as an alumnus of the Miami-Dade Police Department and the FBI. So he knows a thing or two about how cops determine who to hassle, and what all of us can do to not be one of those people. Carson has distilled his tips into a book titled Arrest-Proof Yourself, now in its second edition. It is a legitimately scary book — 369 pages of insight on the many ways police officers profile and harass the people on their beat in an effort to rack up as many arrests as possible.

“Law enforcement officers now are part of the revenue gathering system,” Carson tells me in a phone interview. “The ranks of cops are young and competitive, they’re in competition with one another and intra-departmentally. It becomes a game. Policing isn’t about keeping streets safe, it’s about statistical success. The question for them is, Who can put the most people in jail?”

Which would make the question for you and me, how can we stay out of jail? Carson’s book does a pretty good job of explaining — in frank language — how to beat a system that’s increasingly predatory.


If police want to hassle you, they’re going to, even if you’re following the above tips as closely as possible. What then? Every interaction with a police officer entails to contests: One for “psychological dominance” and one for “custody of your body.” Carson advises giving in on the first contest in order to win the second. Is that belittling? Of course. “Being questioned by police is insulting,” Carson writes. “It is, however, less insulting than being arrested. What I’m advising you to do when questioned by police is pocket the insult. This is difficult and emotionally painful.”

Winning the psychological battle requires you to be honest with cops, polite, respectful, and resistant to incitement. “If cops lean into your space and blast you with coffee-and-stale-donut breath, ignore it,” Carson writes. Same goes for if they poke you in the chest or use racial slurs. “If you react, you’ll get busted.” Make eye contact, but don’t smile. “Cops don’t like smiles.” Always tell the truth. “Lying is complicated, telling the truth is simple.”

October 24, 2013

Balancing the scales of justice

Filed under: Law, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:45

Do you remember the name Annie Dookhan? She shows up in a post called “If you’re not getting enough convictions on drug charges, tamper with the evidence at the lab“. Her case came to court recently and she was sentenced to a three-year prison term. At Popehat, Clark does a bit of math to determine whether the scales of justice are in balance here:

Before she was caught Dookhan lied about 34,000 samples.

Over 4,000 cases were tainted with her corrupt evidence.

Over 1,100 people were jailed in cases where Dookhan was the primary or secondary chemist finding them “guilty” of drug crimes.

Without knowing the exact durations of their sentences, we can’t know how many person-years of confinement Dookhan was responsible for, but taking two years as a conservative guess per person, she was responsible for 2,200 person years of confinement.

Without knowing the exact torture and abuse these 1,100 men and women underwent, we can’t know exactly how much rape and degredation Dookhan was responsible for, but given that we do know that most rape victims in the US are men, specifically men in the custody and “protection” of the State, and looking at the multiple studies that show that 9-20% of inmates are raped, we can guess that Dookhan was responsible for over 100 men and women being raped. To hand-wave further, we can guess than because “once a punk, always a punk” in the prisoner’s code, she is responsible for thousands of actual rapes.

To recap:

Ariel Castro:

  • crime: 3 prisoners, 30 person years, hundreds of rapes.
  • sentence: life plus 1,000 years.

Annie Dookhan:

  • crime: 1,100+ prisoners, 2,200+ person years, thousands of rapes.
  • sentence: three years,

October 3, 2013

The Bystander Effect in Philadelphia

Filed under: Randomness, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 11:04

Techdirt‘s Tim Cushing talks about an incident in Philadelphia where a transit police officer was losing a fight with a suspect, yet none of the people came to the assistance of the cop or even called 911:

The fact is that a certain number of citizens aren’t going to come to a cop’s defense simply because they’ve seen too much abuse occur at the hands of cops. When law enforcement struggles with an arrestee, they’re not too shy about bringing in several more officers to help out, or just sending an attack dog after them. They’re also in possession of several more weapons than most citizens carry — including pepper spray, batons, tasers and guns.

The odds are stacked in favor of police officers. When one is suddenly unable to avail himself of all the weapons at his disposal, police leadership seems to think the public should jump in and save their “heroes,” or at least call 911.

Over at PINAC’s writeup of the event, the oft-arrested/hassled photographer Carlos Miller points out why that’s a bad idea.

    I admit I would be the one video recording, not necessarily because I wouldn’t want to help the cop, but because pulling out my camera and recording is very instinctive for me, while dialing 911 is anything but.

    In fact, my instinct is to avoid calling 911 at all costs because I don’t trust police enough not to turn me into a suspect when they arrive, which we have seen happen numerous times in the past.

Beyond the chilly relationship between citizens and cops are further factors, legal and otherwise, that Chief Nestle isn’t considering when he expresses his shock at the public’s inaction.

First, there’s the Bystander Effect. Very basically, the more people present in a situation, the less likely that someone will offer aid. Two factors that came into play during this beatdown are empathy and the “diffusion of responsibility.” Many people simply don’t empathize with cops, even when a citizen has gained the upper hand. This disconnect leads directly to less altruistic behavior. The more someone empathizes with the victim, the more likely they are to respond. Judging from the majority of the comments under the news report, it’s very unlikely that any crowd would be filled with empathetic individuals.

October 2, 2013

Bruce Schneier’s TEDx talk “The Battle for Power on the Internet”

Filed under: Media, Technology — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:56

Published on 25 Sep 2013

Bruce Schneier gives us a glimpse of the future of the internet, and shares some of the context we should keep in mind, and the insights we need to understand, as we prepare for it. Learn more about Bruce Schneier at https://www.schneier.com and TEDxCambridge at http://www.tedxcambridge.com.

About TEDx, x = independently organized event
In the spirit of ideas worth spreading, TEDx is a program of local, self-organized events that bring people together to share a TED-like experience. At a TEDx event, TEDTalks video and live speakers combine to spark deep discussion and connection in a small group. These local, self-organized events are branded TEDx, where x = independently organized TED event. The TED Conference provides general guidance for the TEDx program, but individual TEDx events are self-organized.* (*Subject to certain rules and regulations)

September 26, 2013

Crony Capitalism and prison privatization

Filed under: Government, Law, USA — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:59

I’m generally in favour of moving economic activities out of the government sphere and into the competitive marketplace, but the privatization of prisons is a great example not of free enterprise but of crony capitalism run amok:

Private prisons are antithetical to a free people. Of all the functions a civilized society should relegate to the public sector, it’s abundantly clear incarceration should be at the very top of the list. Jailing individuals is a public cost that a society takes on in order to ensure there are consequences to breaking certain rules that have been deemed dangerous to the happiness and quality of life within a given population. However, the end goal of any civilized culture must be to try to keep these cost as low possible. This should be achieved by having as few people as possible incarcerated, which is most optimally achieved by reducing incidents of criminality within the population. Given incarceration is an undesirable (albeit necessary) part of any society, the idea is certainly not to incentivize increased incarceration by making it extremely profitable. This is a perverse incentive, and one that is strongly encouraged by the private prison industry to the detriment of society.


In the Public Interest describes itself as:

    A comprehensive resource center on privatization and responsible contracting. It is committed to equipping citizens, public officials, advocacy groups, and researchers with the information, ideas, and other resources they need to ensure that public contracts with private entities are transparent, fair, well-managed, and effectively monitored, and that those contracts meet the long-term needs of communities.

Their report explains how private prison companies insist that states embed “occupancy guarantees” into their contracts with the public sector. They estimate that at least 65% of all private prison contracts have such guarantees, and in some states, like Arizona, the guarantee is a shockingly high 100%. This leads to overcrowding in many instances, and sometimes violent offenders are placed in prisons set up for nonviolent offenses just to fill the quotas. In the event that the beds can’t be filled, the taxpayer makes up the difference to the private prison company. They win no matter what. It’s just more crony capitalism. Below are some highlights from this excellent report.

Major Findings

  • 65 percent of the private prison contracts ITPI received and analyzed included occupancy guarantees in the form of quotas or required payments for empty prison cells (a “low-crime tax”). These quotas and low-crime taxes put taxpayers on the hook for guaranteeing profits for private prison corporations.
  • Occupancy guarantee clauses in private prison contracts range between 80% and 100%, with 90% as the most frequent occupancy guarantee requirement.
  • Arizona, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Virginia are locked in contracts with the highest occupancy guarantee requirements, with all quotas requiring between 95% and 100% occupancy.

Update: On the topic of prison abuse, there’s an interesting post at Reason talking about the hidden-yet-pervasive practice of locking up children in solitary confinement “for their own protection”:

Solitary confinement was once a punishment reserved for the most-hardened, incorrigible criminals. Today, it is standard practice for tens of thousands of juveniles in prisons and jails across America. Far from being limited to the most violent offenders, solitary confinement is now used against perpetrators of minor crimes and children who are forced to await their trials in total isolation. Often, these stays are prolonged, lasting months or even years at a time.

Widely condemned as cruel and unusual punishment, long-term isolation for juveniles continues because it’s effectively hidden from the public. Research efforts by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition have struggled to uncover even the most basic facts about how the United States punishes its most vulnerable inmates.

How can a practice be both widespread and hidden? State and federal governments have two effective ways to prevent the public from knowing how deep the problem goes.

The first has to do with the way prisons operate. Sealed off from most public scrutiny, and steeped in an insular culture of unaccountability, prisons are, by their very nature, excellent places to keep secrets. Even more concealed are the solitary-confinement cells, described by inmates as “prisons within prisons.” With loose record-keeping and different standards used by different states, it’s almost impossible to gather reliable nation-wide statistics.

The second method is to give the old, horrific punishment a new, unobjectionable name. Make the torture sound friendly, with fewer syllables and pleasant language. This way, even when abuse is discovered, it appears well-intentioned and humane.

So American prisons rarely punish children with prolonged solitary confinement. Instead, they administer seclusion and protective custody. Prison authorities don’t have to admit that “administrative segregation” is used to discipline children. Just the opposite, actually. It’s all being done “for their own protection.”

September 15, 2013

Why “Breaking Bad: Canada” is a ludicrous meme

Filed under: Government, Health, Media, USA — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:57

Megan McArdle is a fan of the TV show Breaking Bad, but she also is fairly well informed about the US healthcare system. This means that the idea that the TV show’s Canadian counterpart would look like this…

Breaking Bad Canada

…depends on the audience for the real TV show not actually knowing much about the US system.

The series starts with Walter White, a high school chemistry teacher in Albuquerque, New Mexico, who is diagnosed with lung cancer. His lousy health maintenance organization won’t cover a decent doctor, or treatment. So Walter is forced to turn to crime just to pay his medical bills and … whoa, wait a minute. You know who has excellent benefits, compared with basically everyone else in the country? Teachers, firefighters and cops. Maybe they’re overworked and underpaid, but the one thing that you cannot say about them is that they’re forced to endure shoestring health-care plans. According to the Internet, Albuquerque school district employees are eligible for

    Medical, Dental, Vision, Basic and Additional Life Insurance, Long Term Disability, Pre-tax Insurance Premium Plan (PIPP), Flexible Spending Accounts, Long Term Care Insurance, 403(b) and the 457(b) Deferred Compensation Plans.

That’s a generous package. Moreover, the Albuquerque school district self-insures, so any complaints about benefit levels should be directed at the city government, not your “lousy HMO.”

Later, after Walt’s actions accidentally result in the shooting of his brother-in-law, a Drug Enforcement Agency agent, Walt’s wife takes a bunch of the meth money to pay for Hank’s treatment. On his government salary, Hank can’t possibly afford the treatment he needs, because, of course, his lousy insurance policy won’t cover more than a few visits to the physical therapist … and whoa, we just went from “unrealistic” to “ludicrous.” You know who has even better benefits than employees enjoying a compensation package collectively bargained with a local government? Federal employees in a low-cost state such as New Mexico. Moreover, extra benefits are available to people injured in the line of duty.

In short, a number of key plot points hinge on the improbable assertion that people who actually enjoy some of the best health insurance in the country actually suffer some of the worst — so bad that we are expected to believe that Walt had no choice but to cook meth to cover the gaps. For an otherwise great show, this is incredibly silly.

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