Friday, April 24, 2015

Nerd Prom Is a Mess

How to fix Washington’s worst week

By PATRICK GAVIN, Politico.com
April 23, 2015

Everyone knows the White House Correspondents Association dinner is broken. What started off decades ago as a stately formal celebration of the best of presidential reporting has morphed into a four-day orgy of everything people outside the Beltway hate about life inside the Beltway—now it's not just one night of clubby backslapping, carousing and drinking between the press and the powerful, it's four full days of signature cocktails and inside jokes that just underscore how out of step the Washington elite is with the rest of the country. It's not us (journalists) versus them (government officials); it's us (Washington) versus them (the rest of America).

Something has to change.

I've watched the whole rise of the weekend over the last decade, as it sprawled increasingly out of control and increasingly out of touch—first as a blogger at FishbowlDC and a reporter at the Washington Examiner, then later as a reporter here at politico. Last year I left my job at politico to work on a documentary about White House Correspondents’ Week in Washington, D.C., the year’s most momentous week in arguably the world’s most powerful city. I thought I knew what I'd find, but even I was surprised—much of what I discovered wasn’t pretty. The week acts as a tacky and vainglorious self-celebration at a time when most Americans don’t think Washingtonians have much to be commended for.

Even those who enjoy it tend to concede that the week is a circus. “It’s kind of a mess,” admitted Sirius-XM radio host Julie Mason.

(More here.)

More British Muslims have joined Islamist militant groups than serve in the country’s armed forces

How to understand the pull of jihad… Her Majesty’s Jihadists

By MARY ANNE WEAVER, NYT, APRIL 14, 2015

He was a dreamer, with Che Guevara looks — a jet-black beard and eyes — who built a new persona online, as a Muslim warrior riding into battle in the back of an open-bed truck, dressed in black, his long hair blowing in the breeze, with an AK-47 hanging from his shoulder, strapped to his back. He had just turned 22 — the product of British private schools, a computer aficionado working in customer service at Sky News — when he decided to turn his dream into reality.

In May 2013, Ifthekar Jaman left his comfortable home in Portsmouth, England, explaining to his parents, who emigrated years earlier from Bangladesh, that he wanted to learn Arabic in the Middle East. Instead, he booked a one-way ticket to Turkey. The next time his parents, Enu and Hena, heard from him, he had crossed the Turkish border into Syria and joined the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham — also known as ISIS or ISIL — the most brutal, and now the most powerful, of a dozen or so militant Sunni Islamist groups arrayed against President Bashar al-Assad of Syria and his equally brutal Alawite government.

Ifthekar was part of the first wave of foreign fighters, whose motives were primarily humanitarian. Everyone — not just Muslims — was outraged by the atrocities of the Assad regime. Both the U.S. and the British governments were calling for Assad to step down. So were France, and Turkey, and a number of nations in the Middle East.

The foreign fighters were arriving by the hundreds to join one of the various rebel groups challenging Assad’s military-backed dictatorship. Many were as naïve and inexperienced as Ifthekar was. Some recruits were fervent believers; others showed scant knowledge of Islam. Ifthekar was pious, though not doctrinaire. He embraced his Bengali traditions, but he appeared well integrated into British life and was popular among his classmates and his non-Muslim friends. As a boy, he spent hours immersed in the tales of “Harry Potter” and “The Lord of the Rings.” As a teenager, he played the guitar and was a member of the Portsmouth Dawah Team, which, on weekends, distributed free copies of the Quran. He had a cat, Bilai, that he adored and that, on occasion, would follow him to dawn prayers at the Portsmouth Jami mosque.

(More here.)

GOP passes massive tax break for millionaires, billionaires

By Steve Benen, Maddowblog
Updated 04/16/15 06:59 PM

In recent months, high-profile Republicans, sounding quite a bit like class warriors, have complained bitterly about the wealthy benefiting most from the recent economic recovery. Even House Ways & Means Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), without a hint of irony, complained that recent trends point to “exacerbated inequality.” The far-right congressman added that only “the wealthy are doing really well.”

It’s genuinely impossible to reconcile Republican rhetoric and Republican priorities in light of votes like these.
The House voted Thursday to repeal the estate tax, a longtime priority of Republicans that also spurred Democratic charges that the GOP is in the pockets of the rich. […] 
The White House has threatened to veto the measure, and the bill does not appear to have the 60 votes necessary to break a Democratic filibuster and get through the Senate.
The final tally was 240 to 179, with nearly every GOP lawmaker voting for it and nearly every Democrat voting against it.

When describing Republican tax proposals, it’s not uncommon to talk about policies that disproportionately benefit the very wealthy. GOP proponents will say a bill benefits all taxpayers, but they’ll brush past the fact that the rich benefit most. This, however, is altogether different – today’s bill, called the “Death Tax Repeal Act,” quite literally benefits multi-millionaires and billionaires exclusively.

(More here.)

Zombies of 2016

Paul Krugman, NYT
APRIL 24, 2015

Last week, a zombie went to New Hampshire and staked its claim to the Republican presidential nomination. Well, O.K., it was actually Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey. But it’s pretty much the same thing.

You see, Mr. Christie gave a speech in which he tried to position himself as a tough-minded fiscal realist. In fact, however, his supposedly tough-minded policy idea was a classic zombie — an idea that should have died long ago in the face of evidence that undermines its basic premise, but somehow just keeps shambling along.

But let us not be too harsh on Mr. Christie. A deep attachment to long-refuted ideas seems to be required of all prominent Republicans. Whoever finally gets the nomination for 2016 will have multiple zombies as his running mates.

Start with Mr. Christie, who thought he was being smart and brave by proposing that we raise the age of eligibility for both Social Security and Medicare to 69. Doesn’t this make sense now that Americans are living longer?

(More here.)

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Secret Koch memo outlines plans for 2016

Documents detail plans to beef up the network’s state-of-the-art data system and pay hundreds of staff embedded in local communities across the country.

By Kenneth P. Vogel
4/22/15 1:09 PM EDT

The Koch brothers’ political machine is expanding into new states and recruiting new donors as it seeks to shape the Republican Party — and its presidential field — headed into 2016, according to interviews with multiple sources, as well as confidential donor briefing documents obtained by POLITICO.

The documents detail plans to beef up the network’s state-of-the-art data system, and pay hundreds of staff embedded in local communities across the country in preparation for get-out-the-vote efforts that are unprecedented from a third-party group.

The plan comes with a $125 million 2015 budget for Americans for Prosperity, the most robust arm in the network of small-government advocacy groups helmed by the billionaire industrialist brothers Charles and David Koch. That’s the most the group has ever spent in a non-election year and the documents call the plan “beyond the biggest, boldest, broadest effort AFP has ever undertaken.” It calls for the creation of new chapters in Alabama, Idaho, North Dakota and Utah — continuing a move by the group to invest in deep red states where it can focus on pushing aggressive reforms to scale back union power and government regulation, rather than winning or protecting GOP majorities.

That mission sets AFP and the Koch network apart from the GOP — a distinction to which the briefing documents allude, noting “foes of economic liberty still sit on both sides of the aisle.” In fact, there’s been rising competition between the two as they have jockeyed for major donors this year, according to sources in conservative finance circles. (The Republican National Committee rejected any suggestion of tension with the Koch network, with RNC chief of staff Katie Walsh saying “Both organizations are receiving tremendous support from the Republican donor base as we all prepare to do everything we can do ensure we take back the White House in 2016.”)

(More here.)

Is Putin's Russia Fascist?

By Alexander J. Motyl, the Atlantic Council

A growing number of Russian analysts, in Russia and abroad, have taken to calling Vladimir Putin's regime "fascist." And they don't use the term casually or as a form of opprobrium. They mean that Putin's Russia genuinely resembles Mussolini's Italy or Hitler's Germany.

One of the most recent examples was Mikhail Iampolski. According to the Russian-born NYU professor, "the appeal of quasi-fascist discourse was predictable" as the Russian economy tanked. Moscow rejects "[a]nything that could be seen as a sign of weakness or femininity," including liberalism and homosexuality, and then projects these qualities onto the enemy. Consequently, "Ukrainians are systematically accused of fascism, while Russian fascism is displaced by a false idealization of one's own image."

In March, Moscow commentator Yevgeni Ikhlov charged Putin with introducing a "left fascism" that, while "anti-market and quasi-collectivist," is "fascism because it is a form of a militant and most primitive philistinism." In January 2015, Andrei Zubov, fired from the Moscow State Institute of International Relations for opposing Putin's Ukraine policies, argued that Russia's President was building "a corporate state of a fascist type packaged in Soviet ideology, the ideology of Stalinism," resulting in a Russia that closely resembles Italian fascism with its "nationalism and union with the church." Moscow-based analyst Aleksei Shiropaiev claimed that Russia was moving toward fascism "at a galloping pace." Russian fascism "has become a FACT," "mass Russian consciousness remains absolutely imperialist and chauvinist," and most Russians have "ACCEPTED fascization and are ready to agree to even massive political repressions."

But are the analysts right? The evidence is compelling. Fascist regimes have charismatic dictators with hyper-masculine personality cults. These regimes generally evince a hyper-nationalist ethos, a cult of violence, mass mobilization of youth, high levels of repression, powerful propaganda machines, and imperialist projects. Fascist regimes are hugely popular—usually because the charismatic leader appeals to broad sectors of the population. Putin and his Russia fit the bill perfectly.

(More here.)

Diverse America … and not necessarily in a good way

A look at how you're doing based on where you vote

by David Brancaccio, MARKETPLACE
Wednesday, April 22, 2015 - 05:30

One useful way to answer the question of how America is doing is to consult a new statistical analysis out Wednesday called "Geographies of Opportunity."

It looks at statistics on health, education, and what we earn and produce what's called a Human Development Index. As the campaign gears up, the report offers a breakdown by congressional district in the U.S., compiled by an outfit called Measure of America.

The report also allows for comparison between congressional districts on everything from median earnings, to level of education, to life expectancy.

Especially interesting among the findings: The higher the proportion of foreign-born residents in a congressional district, the longer people live. For example, data shows foreign-born Latinos live much longer than native-born Latinos.

Measure of America co-director Kristen Lewis says one possible theory points to social cohesion and family support buffering the effects of poverty to create better outcomes.

(Continued here with graphics and audio.)

Pakistan, the Saudis’ Indispensable Nuclear Partner

By PERVEZ HOODBHOY, NYT, APRIL 21, 2015

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — The Pakistani Parliament, even while stating its commitment to protect the territory of Saudi Arabia, recently adopted a resolution not to join the Saudi-led coalition fighting Houthi rebels in Yemen. Many Pakistanis are worn out by the Taliban insurgency at home and oppose intervention abroad, especially to fight an enemy whose name they are hearing for the first time and risk worsening relations with its backer, Iran.

The foreign affairs minister of the United Arab Emirates, Anwar Gargash, blasted the decision as “contradictory and dangerous and unexpected,” accusing Pakistan of advancing Iran’s interests rather than those of its own Persian Gulf allies. Pakistan was choosing neutrality in an “existential confrontation,” he said, and it would pay the price.

Pakistan’s federal interior minister, Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, responded that it was “unacceptable” for a friendly country to be “leveling threats.” But Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, beholden to Saudi Arabia’s rulers for his safety after the 1999 coup that deposed him, is now under great pressure. Millions of Pakistanis work in the Persian Gulf, sending back vast remittances. Many of Pakistan’s politicians and generals have major investments in the region, and some have a deep affinity for Wahhabism. Rich Arabs in Pakistan are treated like royalty, allowed to flout hunting and environmental protection laws.

Small surprise then that some members of the Pakistani government have scurried to Riyadh to offer explanations. Or that some backpedaling has begun. Last week, the Pakistani military agreed to commit naval vessels to help enforce an arms embargo against the Houthis. This, however, will not undo the damage: The recent deterioration of Pakistan’s ties with its Arab benefactors, even if it turns out to be temporary, is unprecedented.

(More here.)

In Atomic Labs Across U.S., a Race to Stop Iran

Photo: The Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, Tenn. A secret replica of Iran’s nuclear facilities there has helped scientists devise estimates of Tehran’s ability to build a nuclear weapon. Credit National Nuclear Security Administration, via Reuters

By DAVID E. SANGER and WILLIAM J. BROAD, NYT, APRIL 21, 2015

WASHINGTON — When diplomats at the Iran talks in Switzerland pummeled Department of Energy scientists with difficult technical questions — like how to keep Iran’s nuclear plants open but ensure that the country was still a year away from building a bomb — the scientists at times turned to a secret replica of Iran’s nuclear facilities built deep in the forests of Tennessee.

There inside a gleaming plant at the Oak Ridge nuclear reservation were giant centrifuges — some surrendered more than a decade ago by Libya, others built since — that helped the scientists come up with what they told President Obama were the “best reasonable” estimates of Iran’s real-life ability to race for a weapon under different scenarios.

“We know a lot more about Iranian centrifuges than we would otherwise,” said a senior nuclear specialist familiar with the forested site and its covert operations.

The classified replica is but one part of an extensive crash program within the nation’s nine atomic laboratories — Oak Ridge, Los Alamos and Livermore among them — to block Iran’s nuclear progress. As the next round of talks begins on Wednesday in Vienna, the secretive effort remains a technological obsession for thousands of lab employees living the Manhattan Project in reverse. Instead of building a bomb, as their predecessors did in a race to end World War II, they are trying to stop one.

Ernest J. Moniz, the nuclear scientist and secretary of energy, who oversees the atomic labs, said in an interview that as the Obama administration sought technical solutions at the talks, diplomats would have been stumbling in the dark “if we didn’t have this capability nurtured over many decades.” Although Mr. Moniz would not discuss the secret plant at Oak Ridge, parts of which date to the American and Israeli program to launch cyberattacks on Iran’s Natanz enrichment plant, he said more generally that the atomic labs give the United States “the capacity to carry through” in one of the most complex arms-control efforts in history.

(More here.)

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

The Pulitzer Prize Scam

For the 99th straight year, they’ve convinced the American people the Pulitzers matter

By JACK SHAFER, Politico.com
April 20, 2015

Abandon everything you’ve ever been told about cynical journalists. If you want to melt the frozen heart of a reporter, just whisper in his ear that he’s a finalist in some journalism prize contest. It won’t matter how insignificant or unknown the prize is, whether it’s local or national, whether he’s won one before or not, or whether it comes with a cash prize or just an acrylic trophy.

Most journalists can refer to themselves as “prize winning” in their biographical notes because prizes seem to outnumber journalists these days. “Everybody has won, and all must have prizes,” as the Dodo says at the conclusion of the caucus race in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. “Prizes, prizes!” Dodo insists, taking the thimble from Alice’s pocket and presenting it to her. “We beg your acceptance of this elegant thimble.”

Investigative journalists hand out awards to themselves, as do online reporters, alt-weeklies, business journalists and games journalists. The Dart Center gives eight prizes for trauma reporting, the Cabot Prizes honor work that advances “Inter-American understanding,” and the Sidney Hillman Foundation gives both American and Canadian prizes for pieces that serve the common good.

There are awards for media writers, young journalists, courageous journalists, black journalists and journalism, innovative journalism, works that right wrongs, human interest stories, superior journalism, public interest journalism, and public interest magazine journalism. Still more prizes are distributed for electronic journalism, features journalism, children and families journalism, disability journalism, science journalism, international journalism, political writing, intrepid journalism, excellence in journalism, journalism done using social science research methods, data journalism, and journalism that unmasks corruption. Works-in-progress have a special prize, as do works that address social justice, or advance ethical reporting (actually there are two of these). And a slew of trophies go to practitioners of investigative journalism (Worth Bingham, Goldsmith, Selden Ring, Daniel Pearl, Clark Mollenhoff, et al.). Even the American Copy Editors Society distributes “best headlines” prizes each year.

(Hot links work in the original here.)

Are Chimps Legal Persons?

Photo: A retired lab chimpanzee at Chimp Haven, a sanctuary in Louisiana. An animal-rights group is currently seeking to have two chimps on Long Island sent to a sanctuary in Florida. Credit Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor, via Getty Images
[VV note: As we've asked our readers before, if chimps are legally persons and corporations are legally persons, does that mean corporations are legally chimps and vice versa?]

Judge Orders Stony Brook University to Defend Its Custody of 2 Chimps

By JESSE McKINLEY, NYT
APRIL 21, 2015

They may not know it, and they most certainly will not be in attendance, but Hercules and Leo will have their day in court.

A judge in Manhattan has ordered a hearing that will touch upon the continuing debate over whether caged chimpanzees can be considered “legal persons,” in the eyes of the law, and thus sue, with human help of course, for their freedom.

At issue in this case — one of several percolating though the courts in New York and elsewhere — is the fate of Hercules and Leo, a pair of chimpanzees that their legal representatives say are “unlawfully detained” at a university on Long Island.

The order, by Justice Barbara Jaffe of New York State Supreme Court, directed officials at Stony Brook University to show cause for holding the two chimps, at a May 6 hearing.

(More here.)

The Violent Legacy of Chicago’s Police

Photo: Jon Burge, a former commander of the Chicago Police Department. Credit Terrence Antonio James/Chicago Tribune, via Associated Press

By THE EDITORIAL BOARD, NYT, APRIL 21, 2015

Rahm Emanuel inherited a Police Department with a history of serious misconduct when he became mayor of Chicago four years ago. Mr. Emanuel tried to break with the past on Wednesday when he co-sponsored a proposal in City Council that would provide reparations to scores of people who were systematically tortured by the police during the 1970s and ’80s under the infamous police commander Jon Burge.

On the same day, in a separate case that is still fresh in the public’s mind, the Council awarded $5 million to the family of Laquan McDonald, a black teenager who was shot 16 times by a police officer in October. The shooting spawned a federal investigation, rattled public trust and raised troubling accusations of a police cover-up. The Council’s decision to pay was made before a lawsuit was filed, but this cannot be the end of the case. The city needs to release a police dash-cam video of the shooting that it has withheld on grounds that releasing it might interfere with the federal investigation.

The shooting of Mr. McDonald, who was 17, brought back bitter memories of the days when Mayor Richard J. Daley and the Police Department ruled Chicago with an iron hand. Between 1972 and 1991, lawyers say, about 120 mainly African-American men were picked up by Mr. Burge’s “midnight crew,” shocked with cattle prods, beaten with telephone books and suffocated with plastic bags until they confessed to crimes. Mr. Burge was ultimately fired in 1993 after he was linked to a torture case. Statutes of limitation protected him from charges of abuse, but, in 2010, he was sentenced to four and a half years in prison for perjury and obstruction of justice.

(More here.)

Fix the Flaws in Forensic Science

By ERIC S. LANDER, NYT, APRIL 21, 2015

THE F.B.I. stunned the legal community on Monday with its acknowledgment that testimony by its forensic scientists about hair identification was scientifically indefensible in nearly every one of more than 250 cases reviewed. But the conclusion should come as no surprise to scientists. It is the culmination of a collision between law and science that began in 1989 in a Bronx courtroom with the murder trial of a janitor.

The case was the first to carefully evaluate the use of DNA fingerprinting. As a geneticist, I served pro bono as an expert witness for the defense. While prosecutors were dazzled by the potential of DNA technology to pinpoint perpetrators, the testing lab’s work proved to be shoddy and its conclusions unreliable. In a rare move, the scientific experts for both the prosecution and defense met and unanimously declared the DNA evidence unacceptable. The trial judge had little choice but to agree.

Shaken by the ruling, the National Academy of Sciences and the F.B.I. moved in the early 1990s to establish rigorous methods for DNA fingerprinting, which soon became the gold standard for forensics. The lawyers in the Bronx case, Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld, went on to start the Innocence Project, which has used DNA as an objective lens to scrutinize past convictions. Such efforts have led to the exoneration or release of more than 300 people, including 20 who served time on death row.

As miscarriages of justice piled up, it became essential to understand precisely how the criminal justice system made such mistakes and how to prevent them. Troublingly, about a quarter of the cases examined by the Innocence Project (on whose board I now serve) involved forensic scientists who had erroneously claimed to identify defendants with near-certainty by matching hair samples, fibers, shoe prints or bite marks.

(More here.)

The Race Gap in America’s Police Departments

By JEREMY ASHKENAS and HAEYOUN PARK UPDATED
April 8, 2015

In hundreds of police departments across the country, the percentage of whites on the force is more than 30 percentage points higher than in the communities they serve, according to an analysis of a government survey of police departments. Minorities make up a quarter of police forces, according to the 2007 survey, the most recent comprehensive data available. Experts say that diversity in the police force increases a department’s credibility with its community. “Even if police officers of whatever race enforce the law in relatively the same way, there is a huge image problem with a department that is so out of sync with the racial composition of the local population,” said Ronald Weitzer, a sociologist at George Washington University. Listed below are local police departments from 17 metropolitan areas, sorted so that departments with the largest percentage-point differences of white officers to white residents are at the top.

African-Americans make up nearly half of residents in North Charleston, but less than 20 percent of its police department. About 80 percent of the department’s officers are white. The racial makeup of the Charleston Police Department more closely resembles the community it serves.

(Graphics here.)

1.5 Million Missing Black Men

By JUSTIN WOLFERS, DAVID LEONHARDT and KEVIN QUEALY
APRIL 20, 2015, NYT

In New York, almost 120,000 black men between the ages of 25 and 54 are missing from everyday life. In Chicago, 45,000 are, and more than 30,000 are missing in Philadelphia. Across the South — from North Charleston, S.C., through Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi and up into Ferguson, Mo. — hundreds of thousands more are missing.

They are missing, largely because of early deaths or because they are behind bars. Remarkably, black women who are 25 to 54 and not in jail outnumber black men in that category by 1.5 million, according to an Upshot analysis. For every 100 black women in this age group living outside of jail, there are only 83 black men. Among whites, the equivalent number is 99, nearly parity.

African-American men have long been more likely to be locked up and more likely to die young, but the scale of the combined toll is nonetheless jarring. It is a measure of the deep disparities that continue to afflict black men — disparities being debated after a recent spate of killings by the police — and the gender gap is itself a further cause of social ills, leaving many communities without enough men to be fathers and husbands.

Perhaps the starkest description of the situation is this: More than one out of every six black men who today should be between 25 and 54 years old have disappeared from daily life.

(More here.)

Monday, April 20, 2015

Muslims and Jews on the Seine

Roger Cohen, NYT
APRIL 20, 2015

PARIS — The five million Muslims of France and the 500,000 Jews of France eye each other with unease. Muslims complain that questioning the Holocaust is forbidden by law but insulting the Prophet Muhammad is not. Two weights, two measures, they say. Sephardic Jews in suburbs of hostile Muslims feel they are back in the North Africa their forebears fled.

Muslims, often encountering daily prejudice, are susceptible to old libels about Jewish wealth, influence and power. Four Jews — Yoav Hattab, Yohan Cohen, Philippe Braham and François-Michel Saada — are shot dead in a kosher supermarket by a jihadi fanatic and Paris, to some Jews, looks like the epicenter of a war between Islam and the West. Mosques are defaced. Synagogues are protected by soldiers. Muslims are ghettoized in drab projects, asked to pray in disused barracks.

Jewish descendants of Holocaust survivors hear cries of “Death to the Jews” in the streets of Paris, chanted by so-called anti-Zionists. Muslims speak of the need for 2,000 more mosques, a demand that is fodder for the far-right National Front. Some Jews vote with their feet. They leave.

This is not the whole story, or even most of the story, of France today, but it is enough of the story to make anyone wonder: What would happen if there were another terrible incident, say the kidnapping and beheading of a prominent Jew?

It could happen.

(More here.)

The most hackable passwords

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Reality to Supreme Court: Voting discrimination still exists

Voting Rights, by the Numbers

By THE EDITORIAL BOARD, NYT
APRIL 18, 2015

When the Supreme Court struck down the heart of the Voting Rights Act in 2013, its main argument was that the law was outdated.

Discrimination against minority voters may have been pervasive in the 1960s when the law was passed, Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. wrote, but “nearly 50 years later, things have changed dramatically.” In this simplistic account, the law was still punishing states and local governments for sins they supposedly stopped committing years ago.

The chief justice’s destructive cure for this was to throw out the formula Congress devised in 1965 that required all or parts of 16 states with long histories of overt racial discrimination in voting, most in the South, to get approval from the federal government for any proposed change to their voting laws. This process, known as preclearance, stopped hundreds of discriminatory new laws from taking effect, and deterred lawmakers from introducing countless more.

But Chief Justice Roberts, writing for a 5-4 majority, invalidated the formula because “today’s statistics tell an entirely different story.”

Well, do they? A comprehensive new study by a historian of the Voting Rights Act provides a fresh trove of empirical evidence to refute that assertion. The study by J. Morgan Kousser, a professor of history and social science at the California Institute of Technology, examines more than 4,100 voting-rights cases, Justice Department inquiries, settlements and changes to laws in response to the threat of lawsuits around the country where the final result favored minority voters.

(More here.)

FBI overstated forensic hair matches in nearly all trials before 2000

By Spencer S. Hsu, WashPost, April 18 at 5:44 PM

The Justice Department and FBI have formally acknowledged that nearly every examiner in an elite FBI forensic unit gave flawed testimony in almost all trials in which they offered evidence against criminal defendants over more than a two-decade period before 2000.

Of 28 examiners with the FBI Laboratory’s microscopic hair comparison unit, 26 overstated forensic matches in ways that favored prosecutors in more than 95 percent of the 268 trials reviewed so far, according to the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) and the Innocence Project, which are assisting the government with the country’s largest post-conviction review of questioned forensic evidence.

The cases include those of 32 defendants sentenced to death. Of those, 14 have been executed or died in prison, the groups said under an agreement with the government to release results after the review of the first 200 convictions.

The FBI errors alone do not mean there was not other evidence of a convict’s guilt. Defendants and federal and state prosecutors in 46 states and the District are being notified to determine whether there are grounds for appeals. Four defendants were previously exonerated.

The admissions mark a watershed in one of the country’s largest forensic scandals, highlighting the failure of the nation’s courts for decades to keep bogus scientific information from juries, legal analysts said. The question now, they said, is how state authorities and the courts will respond to findings that confirm long-suspected problems with subjective, pattern-based forensic techniques — like hair and bite-mark comparisons — that have contributed to wrongful convictions in more than one-quarter of 329 DNA-exoneration cases since 1989.

(More here.)

In a Republican state, an amazing social program

The surprisingly simple way Utah solved chronic homelessness and saved millions

By Terrence McCoy, WashPost
April 17

The story of how Utah solved chronic homelessness begins in 2003, inside a cavernous Las Vegas banquet hall populated by droves of suits. The problem at hand was seemingly intractable. The number of chronic homeless had surged since the early 1970s. And related costs were soaring. A University of Pennsylvania study had just showed New York City was dropping a staggering $40,500 in annual costs on every homeless person with mental problems, who account for many of the chronically homeless. So that day, as officials spit-balled ideas, a social researcher named Sam Tsemberis stood to deliver what he framed as a surprisingly simple, cost-effective method of ending chronic homelessness.

Give homes to the homeless.

Tsemberis’ research, conducted here in the District and in New York City, showed this wouldn’t just dramatically cut the number of chronically homeless on the streets. It would also slash spending in the long run. In the audience sat a Utah businessman named Lloyd Pendleton. He had just taken over the Utah Housing Task Force after a successful run in business. He was intrigued. “He came over to me and he said, ‘I finally just heard something that make sense to me,'” recalled Tsemberis in an interview. “‘Would you be willing to come to Utah and work with us?'”

(More here.)

The Giant Rats That Save Lives

HeroRat
Nicholas Kristof, NYT
APRIL 18, 2015

The Mine-Sniffing Rats of Africa

MALANJE, Angola — I’m walking in a minefield here in rural Angola, tailing a monster rat.

This is a Gambian pouched rat, a breed almost 3 feet from nose to tail, the kind of rat that gives cats nightmares. Yet this rat is a genius as well as a giant, for it has learned how to detect land mines by scent — and it’s doing its best to save humans like me from blowing up.

These rodent mine detectors have been dubbed HeroRats, and when you’re in a minefield with one that seems about right. You’re very respectful, and you just hope this HeroRat doesn’t have a stuffed nose.

I’m here because five years ago, my kids gave me a HeroRat for a Father’s Day present through GlobalGiving.org. I didn’t actually take physical possession (fortunately!) but the gift helped pay to train the rat to sniff out explosives. And now I’ve come to minefields of rural Angola to hunt for my rat.

(More here.)

Geothermal works

From Parade Magazine for Earth Day 2015:

Earth Day Across America

Minnesota

Minnesota’s Blue Earth County Justice Center (jail, plus office and courts) is kept warm by a geothermal heating system that consists of 48 miles of tubes under the facility. In the middle of the Minnesota winter, water in the tubes absorbs ground heat, which can be converted to air that heats the prison.

Land of the free and home of the weapons purveyors to the world

Sale of U.S. Arms Fuels the Wars of Arab States

By MARK MAZZETTI and HELENE COOPER
APRIL 18, 2015

WASHINGTON — To wage war in Yemen, Saudi Arabia is using F-15 fighter jets bought from Boeing. Pilots from the United Arab Emirates are flying Lockheed Martin’s F-16 to bomb both Yemen and Syria. Soon, the Emirates are expected to complete a deal with General Atomics for a fleet of Predator drones to run spying missions in their neighborhood.

As the Middle East descends into proxy wars, sectarian conflicts and battles against terrorist networks, countries in the region that have stockpiled American military hardware are now actually using it and wanting more. The result is a boom for American defense contractors looking for foreign business in an era of shrinking Pentagon budgets — but also the prospect of a dangerous new arms race in a region where the map of alliances has been sharply redrawn.

Last week, defense industry officials told Congress that they were expecting within days a request from Arab allies fighting the Islamic State — Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, Jordan and Egypt — to buy thousands of American-made missiles, bombs and other weapons, replenishing an arsenal that has been depleted over the past year.

(More here.)

Obama set to utter term 'climate change' in Florida on Earth Day trip


@MartinPengelly, The Guardian
Last modified on Saturday 18 April 2015 12.56 EDT

Announcing an Earth Day trip to Florida on Saturday, President Barack Obama used his weekly address to say “climate change can no longer be denied – or ignored”.

Attitudes to climate change among Republicans and in Florida recently made national news, after it was reported that the state’s Department of Environmental Protection had issued an unwritten policy to forbid state workers from using the term.

“We were instructed by our regional administrator that we were no longer allowed to use the terms ‘global warming’ or ‘climate change’ or even ‘sea-level rise’,” a former DEP employee was quoted as saying in a report by the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting. “Sea-level rise was to be referred to as ‘nuisance flooding’.”

The Florida DEP and the office of the Republican governor, Rick Scott, denied that such a policy existed.

(More here.)

Serving All Your Heroin Needs

By SAM QUINONES, NYT, APRIL 17, 2015

FATAL heroin overdoses in America have almost tripled in three years. More than 8,250 people a year now die from heroin. At the same time, roughly double that number are dying from prescription opioid painkillers, which are molecularly similar. Heroin has become the fallback dope when an addict can’t afford, or find, pills. Total overdose deaths, most often from pills and heroin, now surpass traffic fatalities.

If these deaths are the measure, we are arguably in the middle of our worst drug plague ever, apart from cigarettes and alcohol.

And yet this is also our quietest drug plague. Strikingly little public violence accompanies it. This has muted public outrage. Meanwhile, the victims — mostly white, well-off and often young — are mourned in silence, because their parents are loath to talk publicly about how a cheerleader daughter hooked for dope, or their once-star athlete son overdosed in a fast-food restaurant bathroom.

The problem “is worse than it’s ever been, and young people are dying,” an addiction doctor in Columbus, Ohio — one of our many new heroin hot spots — wrote me last month. “This past Friday I saw 23 patients, all heroin addicts recently diagnosed.”

(More here.)

How Israel Hid Its Secret Nuclear Weapons Program

An exclusive look inside newly declassified documents shows how Israel blocked U.S. efforts to uncover its secret nuclear reactor

By AVNER COHEN and WILLIAM BURR
April 15, 2015

For decades, the world has known that the massive Israeli facility near Dimona, in the Negev Desert, was the key to its secret nuclear project. Yet, for decades, the world—and Israel—knew that Israel had once misleadingly referred to it as a “textile factory.” Until now, though, we’ve never known how that myth began—and how quickly the United States saw through it. The answers, as it turns out, are part of a fascinating tale that played out in the closing weeks of the Eisenhower administration—a story that begins with the father of Secretary of State John Kerry and a familiar charge that the U.S. intelligence community failed to “connect the dots.”

In its final months, even as the Kennedy-Nixon presidential race captivated the country, the Eisenhower administration faced a series of crises involving Cuba and Laos. Yet, as the fall of 1960 progressed, President Dwight D. Eisenhower encountered a significant and unexpected problem of a new kind—U.S. diplomats learned and U.S. intelligence soon confirmed that Israel was building, with French aid, a secret nuclear reactor in the Negev Desert. Soon concluding that the Israelis were likely seeking an eventual nuclear weapons capability, the administration saw a threat to strategic stability in the Middle East and a nuclear proliferation threat. Adding fuel to the fire was the perception that Israel was deceitful, or had not “come clean,” as CIA director Allen Dulles put it. Once the Americans started asking questions about Dimona, the site of Israel’s nuclear complex, the Israelis gave evasive and implausible cover stories.

A little anecdote about an occurrence sometime in September 1960 sheds light on the development of U.S. perceptions that Israel was being less than honest about Dimona. That month, Addy Cohen, then the young director of the Foreign Aid Office at the Israeli Finance Ministry, hosted U.S. ambassador to Israel Ogden Reid and some of his senior staff for a tour of the Dead Sea Works—a large Israeli potash plant in Sdom, on the Dead Sea coast of Israel. The Israeli Air Force provided a Sikorsky S-58 helicopter to fly the American group from Tel Aviv to Sdom. As they were returning on the helicopter, near the new town of Dimona, Reid pointed to a huge industrial site under heavy construction and asked what it was.

(More here.)

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Oil Firms, Nations Agree to End Gas Flaring

Group agrees to end practice of routine flaring of natural gas by 2030

By Amy Harder, WSJ
April 17, 2015 11:13 a.m. ET

WASHINGTON—Twenty-five major oil companies, oil-producing nations and development institutions agreed Friday to end the practice of routine flaring of natural gas by 2030 at thousands of oil production sites around the world.

Royal Dutch Shell, Statoil, Kuwait Oil Co., Russia, Norway and the Asian Development Bank are among those making the commitment, which was announced by the World Bank and United Nations at an event in Washington Friday. No U.S.-based companies have signed onto the initiative.

Many producers regularly burn off natural gas as carbon dioxide into the atmosphere when producing oil for a variety of reasons, including lack of infrastructure to move the gas and low economic incentive to use the gas.

Andrei Lushin, World Bank Group Executive Director for Russia, said in remarks at the event that the country flares the most gas associated with oil production in the world. “That is a problem of course, but this is also a potential to achieve large gains in reducing gas flaring,” Mr. Lushin said. “The government sees petroleum gas flaring as a waste of valuable resource and a very harmful practice for global climate.” Russia is one of the world’s largest producers of both oil and natural gas.

(More here.)

Why We Let Prison Rape Go On

By CHANDRA BOZELKO, NYT, APRIL 17, 2015

ORANGE, Conn. — IT’S been called “America’s most ‘open’ secret”: According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, around 80,000 women and men a year are sexually abused in American correctional facilities. That number is almost certainly subject to underreporting, through shame or a victim’s fear of retaliation. Overall, only 35 percent of rapes and sexual assaults were reported to the police in 2010, and the rate of reporting in prisons is undoubtedly lower still.

To tackle the problem, Congress passed the Prison Rape Elimination Act, signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2003. The way to eliminate sexual assault, lawmakers determined, was to make Department of Justice funding for correctional facilities conditional on states’ adoption of zero-tolerance policies toward sexual abuse of inmates.

Inmates would be screened to identify possible predators and victims. Prison procedures would ensure investigation of complaints by outside law enforcement. Correctional officers would be instructed about behavior that constitutes sexual abuse. And abusers, whether inmates or guards, would be punished effectively.

But only two states — New Hampshire and New Jersey — have fully complied with the act. Forty-seven states and territories have promised that they will do so. Using Justice Department data, the American Civil Liberties Union estimated that from 2003 to 2012, when the law’s standards were finalized, nearly two million inmates were sexually assaulted.

(More here.)

The making of Dr. Oz

How an award-winning doctor turned away from science and embraced fame

by Julia Belluz on April 16, 2015, Vox.com

It's a dark and biting March morning on Manhattan's Upper West Side. Lilly is standing outside ABC's brick studio building, waiting to be let in to watch a live taping of Dr. Mehmet Oz's television show.

"I've been here since 7 am," she says.

Though the sun is barely out, her phone is buzzing with text messages from nearly every member of her family — all Oz-lovers excited about her peek behind the curtain.

They're not alone. Dr. Oz is arguably the most influential health professional in America. The Dr. Oz Show, which started in 2009, has an average audience of more than 4 million people each day in 118 countries. He has his own magazine (The Good Life) and syndicated columns that have run in the most widely read periodicals in North America. He has radio segments, about a dozen books, and the show's website — a go-to resource on medical questions for millions. He has millions of followers on his Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and YouTube accounts, and a starring role on the new medical reality show NY Med. Across all these channels, he preaches the same message: you can take control of your health with simple tricks and natural remedies.

(More here.)

Friday, April 17, 2015

Rubio-backed insurance market covers 80 people

Obamacare, which Rubio wants to repeal, covers 1.6 million in Florida alone

By Rachana Pradhan
4/17/15 5:45 AM EDT

In 2008, while Democrats were declaring that the time was right for national health care reform, Marco Rubio, the speaker of the Florida House, had a ready response: Florida should build a market-based system that would help contain the cost of insurance and make it more available.

Rubio pushed his no-mandate health insurance exchange, dubbed Florida Health Choices, through the state Legislature that year. “It’s about competition, it’s about choice, and it’s about the marketplace,” he told The Palm Beach Post at the time.

Florida Health Choices, which finally opened last year, now covers 80 people.

Obamacare, which Rubio wants to repeal, covers 1.6 million in Florida alone. And 93 percent of them are subsidized.

Rubio started pushing his vision well before Barack Obama entered the White House and began work on what would become the Affordable Care Act. But by the time Florida Health Choices launched post-Obamacare, the response by Floridians was tepid. The newly declared GOP presidential candidate didn’t include it in his campaign’s vision for how to repeal and replace the federal law. Nor did he mention it in a recent Fox News op-ed headlined “My three part plan for the post-Obamacare era.”

(More here.)

The GOP's Voter ID Problem

As the 2016 cycle begins, a new study documents Americans' Democratic leanings

By Charlie Cook, National Journal

One of the more interesting changes in U.S. politics in recent years has been the increasingly parliamentary nature of voting behavior. Fewer people are straying beyond their party affiliations, we are seeing more straight-ticket voting, and the characteristics of individual candidates mean less than ever. Entering this 2016 presidential cycle, the phenomenon presents a real challenge to Republicans, who are lagging behind in party affiliation—a fact of no small importance, given that roughly 90 percent of voters cast their ballots for the party that they personally identify with.

Earlier this month, the Pew Research Center drew on its vast storehouse of national polls and released a survey of the state of Americans' party affiliations that is well worth looking at. Pew examined 25,100 interviews conducted in monthly surveys over 2014; that's important, because aggregating massive samples like this allows closer examination of smaller blocs of voters than the usual sample of 1,000 or so.

Some findings are unsurprising, including which groups tilted most heavily Republican in identification (which means they either identified outright as Republican or said they were independent but leaned Republican). The party has a 48-percentage-point edge among Mormons; 46 points among white evangelical Protestants; 21 points among both white Southerners and white men with some college or less; and 9 points among all whites and members of the Silent Generation (ages 69 to 86). No one will be surprised by the top Democratic / Democratic-leaning groups, either: The party has a 69-percentage-point edge among blacks; 36 points among the religiously unaffiliated; 30 points with both Jews and Hispanics; and 16 points among millennials (ages 18 to 33).

(More here.)

150 cops for 300 residents: the Michigan town running 'pay-to-play' policing

A lawsuit is attempting to force transparency from village leaders about the scheme. Photograph: Brad Devereaux/The Saginaw News/AP
Rapper Kid Rock among many prominent people said to have joined Oakley’s army of reserve police officers – often in exchange for large donations

Tom Dart in Houston, The Guardian

Oakley, Michigan, is not a hotbed of crime. But if that should change, it seems well placed to cope, because the village is believed to have a police force numbering almost 150 people, or one officer for every two residents.

One, Robert James Ritchie, does not live in Oakley. A Detroit-area native better known as the rapper Kid Rock, he applied to join the village’s small army of reserve police officers, according to an attorney, along with many prominent Michigan professionals and businesspeople and a football player for the Miami Dolphins.

“A small blip on the map, the little village of Oakley, with less than 300 residents, has got dozens and dozens of no-show secret police officers,” said Philip Ellison, a lawyer who is representing the family who own Oakley’s tavern in lawsuits attempting to force transparency from village leaders about the scheme.

Ellison said the singer was one of the names on a document released to him which he is not allowed to make public in full.

“None of the reservists, with the exception of one, live within an hour and a half of the village of Oakley,” said Ellison. He and others say the police force is in effect running a “pay to play” scheme with parallels to the controversy in Tulsa, Oklahoma that erupted after a wealthy white 73-year-old reserve deputy with close links to the sheriff shot dead a black man during a botched sting operation after apparently mistaking his gun for his Taser.

(More here.)

Thursday, April 16, 2015

President Vladimir Putin’s Dangerous Moves

By THE EDITORIAL BOARD, NYT
APRIL 16, 2015

President Vladimir Putin of Russia has added new, chilling nuclear threats to his aggression in Ukraine, where 6,000 people have been killed in a war with Russian-backed separatists. Mr. Putin wants to expand his country’s influence and standing, but his alarming behavior has estranged Russia from most other major powers, damaged its economy and narrowed its future options.

Even for Mr. Putin, the recent nuclear threats have set a new benchmark for hostility in the conflict he has ignited with the West. Two weeks ago, The Times of London reported on a meeting between Russian generals and American officials in which the Russians threatened a “spectrum of responses from nuclear to non-military” if NATO moved more military forces into the Baltic States.

Last month, the Russian ambassador to Denmark, Mikhail Vanin, warned that Danish warships “will be targets for Russia’s nuclear weapons” if Denmark follows through on its expressed interest in joining NATO’s missile defense system.

And in remarks aired on March 15, Mr. Putin said he was ready to bring nuclear weapons into a state of alert last year when Russia was in the process of invading and annexing Crimea. Some Russian officials have also hinted at the possibility of reintroducing nuclear weapons to Crimea, which has been free of them for two decades.

(More here.)

Mining's big price tag is down the road for the public to absorb

Don’t burden Minnesota taxpayers with PolyMet cleanup costs

By John Gappa | 04/15/15

John Gappa serves as the chief financial officer for a Minnesota-based company and has 30 years of experience as a financial executive. In 2011, Gappa was named CFO of the year by the Minneapolis / St. Paul Business Journal.

Too frequently, the debate about PolyMet’s proposal to build a copper-nickel, or sulfide mine, in northern Minnesota is portrayed as a debate between conservationists and business, between jobs and the environment. On tax day, April 15, I want to bring a different perspective from my 20 years of experience as a chief financial officer. If Minnesotans are not careful, we could end up footing a future tax bill enlarged by publicly funded cleanup costs.

As a CFO, I have reviewed hundreds of millions of dollars of investments creating over 1,000 jobs. My role in these investments was to develop the business case, project costs and revenues over a 20-year period, and evaluate the returns and associated risks.

While most of these investments were successful, some were not. Over the years, I learned the hard way that failed projects all have two problems: overestimated benefits and underestimated costs and risks.

(Continued here.)

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Vladimir Putin’s Secrets and Lies

By Adrian Karatnycky 4/15/15 Newsweek

Over the past several years, President Vladimir Putin has consolidated power in Russia by marshaling an assertive nationalist ideology, creating an alternative reality through total media dominance and prosecuting a hybrid war in Ukraine.

Yet for a leader who speaks boldly, his preferred mode of action is clandestine—a style shaped by his years in the USSR’s state security service, the KGB.

Secrecy, however, is a problematic mode of behavior for his propaganda-driven regime. And clandestinity is not the best way to burnish an image of a strong, pitiless leader—a tough guy, ready to use force to advance Russia’s influence in the world. Hanging with motorcycle gangs, riding horses bare-chested and taking part in judo exhibitions simply won’t cut it.

To deal with this discrepancy, Putin has developed a highly articulated set of signals used in communicating with Russia’s public and its elites, as well as the international community. This Putin code was on display in several notable ways in Moscow in recent weeks.

(More here.)

Al Qaeda Is Beating the Islamic State

Get ready for the clash of caliphates

By DAVEED GARTENSTEIN-ROSS and BRIDGET MORENG, Politico.com
April 14, 2015

The Islamic State’s lightning offensive through Iraq and Syria last year has dominated the headlines, but the jihadist group that has won the most territory in the Arab world over the past six months is Al Qaeda. On balance, the Islamic State has lost territory during this period—though it still controls more overall than Al Qaeda—most prominently, Tikrit and the southern half of the Salah al-Din province.

What we are likely to see now is a titanic war of ideology and tactics between two vicious, radical groups that together probably command more prestige among Arab peoples than the weak, often delegitimized governments they have outsmarted and outfought. Perhaps the ultimate irony is that, in an era when the threat of terrorist violence is arguably worse than it was on the eve of 9/11, it is Al Qaeda—a decade ago, the scourge of Sunni governments—that may come to be seen as the more acceptable of the two by these same governments.

Here is a snapshot of the two groups’ current territorial holdings, though these are changing all the time. In the past year, all of the Islamic State’s geographic gains have been minor, such as the town of Baghdadi in Iraq’s Anbar province and the Yarmouk refugee camp near Damascus, and they have also been contested, with control of these areas fluctuating between the Islamic State (also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL) and its enemies. In contrast, Al Qaeda’s affiliated organizations have made striking gains, in particular in Syria and Yemen.

(More here.)