Archive for the ‘Crime’ category

For A Good Time On The Intertubes: Deborah Blum, Poison, Murder, Chemical Ignorance Edition

January 15, 2014

Hey, everyone.

It’s that season again — third Wednesday of the month (what, already?) at at 6 p.m. ET, I’ll be talking on that old Intertube Radio Machine with science writer extraordinaire Deborah Blum.  Live and later here, and/or in Second Life at San Francisco’s Exploratorium in-world theater, should you be minded to join our virtually live studio audience.

Deborah is probably known to you as the author of The Poisoner’s Handbook, a really elegant book on the birth of forensic chemistry in the Prohibition-era investigations of New York City’s nascent chemical crime investigative laboratory.  It’s just a fabulous read — noir true crime with a solid steel core of great science running through every misdeed.

Jacques-Louis_David_-_The_Death_of_Socrates_-_Google_Art_Project

The PBS series The American Experience just broadcast an adaptation of the book, by the way, which can be viewed here.

There’s a lot more to Deborah’s career than simply this most recent success.  She won a Pulitzer Prize as a reporter for The Sacramento Bee for reporting on ethical issues in  primate research, work contained and extended in her first book The Monkey Wars.  She’s published five previous books in total, all great — my favorite is Love At Goon Park, but there’s not a dud in the bunch. Far from it.  Her day job now is teaching science and investigative journalism at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Her students are lucky ducks (or badgers).

We’ll be talking about the new stuff:  poison, the emergence of systematic chemistry as a tool, the issues we face of our ignorance of so much of the chemical universe — the West Virginia spill will be our proof text there — and more.  We’ll also continue the extended conversation I’m having with several colleagues about the constraints and worse affecting the work of women in science writing.  Deborah has been a leader in organizing public thinking and discussion on these matters, so that’ll be on tap as well.

I should add what you may have guessed: Deborah is a good friend as well as a professional colleague.  So I’ve got the experience to assure you she’s a great conversationalist.  It will be an interesting hour.  Come on down!

Image:  Jacques-Louis David, The Death of Socrates1787.

Dog Bites Man — Internet Bank Heist Version

May 9, 2013

Least suprising story of the year here:

…in two precision operations that involved people in more than two dozen countries acting in close coordination and with surgical precision, the organization was able to steal $45 million from thousands of A.T.M.’s in a matter of hours.

In New York City alone, the thieves responsible for A.T.M. withdrawals struck 2,904 machines over 10 hours on Feb. 19, withdrawing $2.4 million.

The scam was simple and very smart:  hack credit card processing companies in India and the US; then raise the credit limits on pre-paid debit cards issued by a couple of banks in the Persian Gulf.  Clone the data on said cards so that teams IRL could hit machines in multiple countries, stuffing wads of cash in backpacks that surveillance video shows getting heavier and heavier. Rince, repeat, profit.

Constant_Wauters_Der_ertappte_Hausdiener

All this comes out of an unsealed indictment for a New York City crew of eight involved in the impressively effortful spree noted in the quote above.

Don’t try this at home, kids — not only is it a pretty hefty felony, and not your money and all that — but then there’s this:

The authorities said the leader of the New York cashing crew was Alberto Lajud-Peña, 23, who also went by the name Prime. His body was found in the Dominican Republic on April 27 and prosecutors said they believe he was killed.

I have no doubt that there are folks involved in this that you really, really don’t want to irritate.  None of the putative kingpins have been identified, but in an even less surprising footnote to the tale, the authorities are tracking down some of the loot in predictable forms:

The authorities have already seized hundreds of thousands of dollars from bank accounts, two Rolex watches and a Mercedes S.U.V., and are in the process of seizing a Porsche Panamera.

Part of me says that this is something to note because so much of the financial life of individuals and the economy writ large depends on the secure functioning of — and user trust in — global banking systems at every level from the corner ATM to the massive inter-bank clearing mechanisms.

The cyber security people I talk to have to hold their hands over the mouths to stop themselves from blurting “WAKE UP SHEEPLE!!!!!” — as that trust rests on a rickety tangle of hardware and software.  So while there’s a kind of Great Train Robbery thrill to the idea of capers like these, this could get ugly indeed.

The real question, though, is what role George Clooney will play.

Image: Constant Wauters, The servant as a thief1845.

 

Love that Dirty Water

April 19, 2013

Obligatory sound track here.

A couple of things:  I want to shout amen and amen to a couple of post here earlier today.  DougJ nailed it with his quote from Ron Brownstein — and even more so with his last line: “This is Jackie Robinson’s country, not Pam Geller’s.” Fuck yeah.*

Bernard reminds us that the political reflex simply gets it wrong in the face of the immediate emotional pressure of tragedy.  We’re fighting folks who are fucked up already. If we transform ourselves into the defensive doppelganger to that offensive failure, we don’t get safer; we get fucked up in our turn.  (And yes, though it doesn’t quite track in terms of sense, the sensibility of this poem is in my head as I write that line.)

And mistermix picks up on what I was going to write about in this post in re Lindsay Graham.  I’ll add just one thought. Speaking as a Boston guy, let me say that the last thing I want to do is honor this guy with anything like combatant status.  He’s not a warrior; he’s got no soldier ethos or ethics.  He’s fucking murderer who takes down kids for … I don’t know what.  Soldiers fight folks who can fight back, at the orders of authority constructed in a legitimate chain of command.  And yeah, I know that oversimplifies, and if the Brits had caught Adams and Jefferson and Washington they’d have dangled at the end of a rope as simple vandals and killers, but you get my drift.  This murderous child is no more a soldier than is my cat, and has less moral capacity.  He’s a criminal, and I want him to face the full material and ceremonial weight of the law.  Anything else in some measure validates a claim to some greater significance.

Dr_Deijman’s_Anatomy_Lesson_(fragment),_by_Rembrandt

That was the bedrock of my loathing for the “War on Terror” and its apotheosis in the Iraq War, the first feeling experienced before any consideration of what a dumb idea it was or anything else.  You don’t elevate murderers to your level; they’re criminals, and should be represented, pursued, and, when caught, treated as such.  That Lindsay Graham hasn’t figured this out yet shows nothing more than that he is hopelessly overmatched by the job he holds.

And now to the tone I want to bring to all this.  I’ve been enjoying — no, revelling — in the face my town is putting on right now.  Here’s one example, via Boston.com:

It was clear amidst the chaos Friday which was the hometown coffee chain.
On block after block of the Boston’s Financial District and Downtown Crossing, Starbucks shops went dark as the city locked down, spurred by a manhunt for the second marathon bombing suspect. Dunkin’ Donuts stayed open.

Law enforcement asked the chain to keep some restaurants open in locked-down communities to provide hot coffee and food to police and other emergency workers, including in Watertown, the focus of the search for the bombing suspect. Dunkin’ is providing its products to them for free.

“At the direction of authorities, select Dunkin’ Donuts restaurants in the Boston area are open to take care of needs of law enforcement and first responders,” spokeswoman Lindsay Harrington explained via email.

And here’s another, from a brilliant blog post by Jim Dowd

Oh man, you screwed up, didn’t you?

Yes, your little RadioShack experiment for evil hurt and killed some people and got you the attention you were obviously so desperately seeking. Point for you there, asshole. But I get the sense you really don’t know what you’ve done here, do you? Are you from out of town? I have the strong sense that you are.

If that is the case, allow me tell you a little something about the city you screwed with. This town is not your run-of-the mill medium sized regional capital…

Do you have any idea what I’m talking about? This small city produced both Stephen J Gould and Whitey Bulger.  This place gave us Leonard Nimoy and Mark Wahlberg.  Southie and Cambridge. Brookline and Brockton. This place will kick the screaming piss out of you, come up with a cure for having the screaming piss kicked out of you, give it to you for free, then win a Nobel prize for it and then use the medallion to break your knuckles. See what I’m talking about?

Read the whole thing. Delicious. Righteous.

One more thing.  I’m still thinking about my friends in my old place, trying to comfort their kids in the basement while bombs and guns were going off in earshot.  I’m thinking about them while trying to figure out how to write something, anything even vaguely printable (a low bar in this day and age, I’ll admit) in reaction to the deep thoughts of one Nate Bell, a Republican Arkansas state rep, who tweeted:

I wonder how many Boston liberals spent the night cowering in their homes wishing they had an AR 15 with a hi-capacity magazine.

Yo, Nate, you pathetic waste of carbon! Hey Nate, possessed of all the wit of my old pet rock!

MSKG - De idioot bij de vijver - Frits Van den Berghe (1926)

Hey, Asshole! Call on me. I can answer…

And I do:  None.  No one.  In Boston, we actually have enough sense to realize that all the armed men and women along the marathon route couldn’t — and couldn’t have been expected — to stop a murderer with a pressure cooker in a bag.

We recognize that when thugs take down a cop (armed) sitting in his car, that gun didn’t help.  And we know damn well, and are grateful, that we had some damn well trained and equipped first responders taking great personal risk to keep us safe from those thugs — and the last thing they needed was some idiot(s) with a rifle running around playing cowboy while they were on the job.

Oh — and we know too that the people most at risk from such a gun in the house are the folks who live in the house; that acts of vicious and inexplicable murder of strangers are rare — horrible, but uncommon — but suicides and accidents and domestic violence are much less so, and we’d like to keep the body count down in our neighborhoods thank you very much.  And, by the way, that’s what we do — as you’d know  if you’d check out any gun violence map that correlates to states with even remotely reasonable gun control, you fatuous simulacrum of  sentience.

In other words, you can hang on to your  projected feelings of inadequacy in Arkansas.  In Boston, we’ve got business to take care of.

Hell — I guess I’m rambling again.  Time to stop.  Night all.  Thanks again for a great day on the threads.

*Y’all know that I have this habit of bowdlerizing my profanity.  Take that as the measure of general pissed off-edness.

Images: Rembrandt van Rijn, Dr. Deijmans Anatomy Lesson (fragment), 1656

Frits van den Berghe,The Idiot by the Pond, 1926

But, But, But, He Drank From The Fingerbowl!

August 14, 2012

You know, children, this kind of thing just isn’t done:

In making his solo claims that the bank [Standard Charter] covered up $250 billion in transactions involving Iran, Mr. Lawsky has been likened to Eliot Spitzer, who drew high praise and harsh criticism as New York’s top prosecutor for his aggressive tactics on Wall Street and tendency to muscle federal authorities aside.

Just like Mr. Spitzer, Mr. Lawsky has rankled federal authorities in Washington who say that the state banking regulator is encroaching on their territory and even overstating his case. Mr. Lawsky, a 42-year-old who was born on a naval base in San Diego, has started an international firestorm, with some politicians in London, Standard Chartered’s home, denouncing his actions as those of a upstart regulator bent on damaging British banks.

Some officials investigating the bank view Mr. Lawsky’s action as the product of political ambition, suspecting that he is already considering a run for governor himself one day. As an indication, they and others cite the tone of Mr. Lawsky’s order against the bank where he called it a “rogue,” claimed it had “zeal to make hundreds of millions of dollars at almost any cost” and was engaged in “dealings that indisputably helped sustain a global threat to peace and stability.”

Of course such a tone of disdain and insult should never be applied to institutions that, after all, serve as the carapace for our betters:

Standard Chartered has said it “strongly rejects the position and portrayal of facts” by Mr. Lawsky’s department.

That was last week.

Today:

New York’s top banking regulator reached a settlement on Tuesday with Standard Chartered over charges that the British bank laundered hundreds of billions of dollars in tainted money with Iran and deliberately lied to regulators.

The bank agreed to pay $340 million to the Department of Financial Services, which is led by Benjamin M. Lawsky. “The parties have agreed that the conduct at issue involved transactions of at least $250 billion,” Mr. Lawsky said in a statement.

Oh, and just in case anyone wants to try on the  “this does not reflect the values/behavior of the institution as a whole” line, suck on this:

Beyond the dealings with Iran, the banking regulator said it had discovered evidence that Standard Chartered operated “similar schemes” to do business with other countries under United States sanctions, including Myanmar (formerly Burma), Libya and Sudan.

The “apparent fraudulent and deceptive conduct” by Standard Chartered happened from 2001 to 2010, the order said, and was particularly “egregious,” because some of the transactions were being processed even as the bank was under formal oversight by New York banking regulators from 2004 to 2007.

You know…it’s true.  Being loud and blunt and accurate in one’s description of criminal and/or evil behavior may indeed be bad manners in certain circles.  Which is just about all you need to know about such folks.

Also too:  as Romney/Ryan will tell you, all we need to do to unleash a job creating tsunami led by MOTU is to crush the jackbooted regulators of the hostile state.  Then no bank will provide aid and comfort to the worst people on earth. Not ever.  They promise.

Image:  El Greco, Christ Driving The Money Changers From The Temple, c. 1570-1576.

Moral Compasses. Can I Haz Pleeze? (Paterno/PSU Edition)

July 15, 2012

This item in the Times yesterday caught my attention:

In January 2011, Joe Paterno learned prosecutors were investigating his longtime assistant coach Jerry Sandusky for sexually assaulting young boys….

That same month, Mr. Paterno, the football coach at Penn State, began negotiating with his superiors to amend his contract, with the timing something of a surprise because the contract was not set to expire until the end of 2012, according to university documents and people with knowledge of the discussions. By August, Mr. Paterno and the university’s president, both of whom were by then embroiled in the Sandusky investigation, had reached an agreement.

Mr. Paterno was to be paid $3 million at the end of the 2011 season if he agreed it would be his last. Interest-free loans totaling $350,000 that the university had made to Mr. Paterno over the years would be forgiven as part of the retirement package. He would also have the use of the university’s private plane and a luxury box at Beaver Stadium for him and his family to use over the next 25 years.

The university’s full board of trustees was kept in the dark about the arrangement until November, when Mr. Sandusky was arrested….

Anyone care to defend Paterno on this one?  PSU?  Best keep this in mind then:

The university’s full board of trustees was kept in the dark about the arrangement until November, when Mr. Sandusky was arrested and the contract arrangements, along with so much else at Penn State, were upended. Mr. Paterno was fired, two of the university’s top officials were indicted in connection with the scandal, and the trustees, who held Mr. Paterno’s financial fate in their hands, came under verbal assault from the coach’s angry supporters.

Board members who raised questions about whether the university ought to go forward with the payments were quickly shut down, according to two people with direct knowledge of the negotiations.

In the end, the board of trustees — bombarded with hate mail and threatened with a defamation lawsuit by Mr. Paterno’s family — gave the family virtually everything it wanted, with a package worth roughly $5.5 million. Documents show that the board even tossed in some extras that the family demanded, like the use of specialized hydrotherapy massage equipment for Mr. Paterno’s wife at the university’s Lasch Building, where Mr. Sandusky had molested a number of his victims.

I’m reading Chris Haye’s Twilight of the Elites just now — highly recommended btw, from a just over half way perspective — and one of his key points is that disintegration of a viable polity or society is driven in part by the discovery that those at the top play be utterly different rules than the rest of us.

Yup.

One more thing:  the claim routinely made by academics — and especially by the leaders of the Academy — is that in a complex and here-and-now society, universities teach and embody not just knowledge, but values — or rather, an approach to living that makes it possible to lead an ethical life, one of value. Obviously, everyone reading this can come up with examples in which such claims are honored only in the breach.  But still, that’s the point of the liberal arts, and have been claimed as such since the days of the trivium and quadrivium (and before).

That means to me that there really is a higher obligation here — just as there was and is for, say, the Catholic Church when confronted by the abomination of child rape.  The Church conspicuously failed in its duties to its own claims of virtue, and it continues to do so, which is one of the reasons why someone like me, not a member of the faith, so deeply resents any assertion of moral authority in politics by the princes of the church.

In that context Penn State/Paterno scandal only makes it easier to lump the universities in with every other failed institution in our society — at a time when the importance of knowledge and its interpretation/application to the great problems we face has never been greater.

Hence, it seems to me that Penn State needs demonstrate that it’s not just another Lehman/Boston Archdiocese.  How to do that?  I don’t really know — I haven’t thought hard, nor talked to people who really understand how institutional cultures change.  Suggestions?

Image:  Francisco de Goya, The Great He-Goat or Witches Sabbath, 1821-1823 (worth the click through for seeing it at a readable size.)

Faith vs. Reason: Stand Your Ground/Violent Crime Edition

March 23, 2012

Last night the PBS News Hour program held a roundtable on the Trayvon Martin murder.  Ta-Nehisi Coates was on, as were Reihan Salem and Donna Britt.  So was Dennis Baxley, the Florida state representative who co-authored the Stand Your Ground law under whose cloak George Zimmerman stalked and gunned down the 17 year old Martin.

Baxley said — and appeared to mean — the right things about Martin’s death, that it was a tragedy, and that nothing in the law he helped enact should be interpreted to authorize someone to pursue, confront and shoot another.  But Baxley rejected the notion that the law itself might have contributed to the catastrophe, arguing instead that it is a force for good, a way, in his words, a law intended “to empower law abiding citizens to stop violent things from happening.”

What’s more, said Baxley, the law has done just that:

Since ’05 to 2012 we have seen a reduction in violent crime in Florida.  And what I’ve learned from it is that if you empower to stop bad things from happening they will and they do and they have.

Except, of course, those bad things that happen because people are able to claim that a “feeling” of danger constitutes authorization to use deadly force more or less at will.

But snark aside, what of the claim about crime rates in Florida.

Here, I’ll take a cue from Rachel Maddow, and say that Dennis Baxler is lying.

Check out Florida’s crime statistics.  Two things stand out.

The first is that the number of violent crimes has not dropped from 2005 through 2010 (where the data series ends); rather it has jostled about in the noise.  From 2005-2008, violent crime totals exceeded the 2004 tally of just over 124,000; in 2009 and 2010 the totals dropped below that figure. If there’s a clear case for correlation with the Stand Your Ground law, it must exist at some much finer grained level that the invoked violent crime catch-all

So what about murder?  That is, after all, the crime of crimes, and the one for which I think most of us would be most comfortable in giving deference to claims of self defense.  Those numbers make Baxley’s story worse:  the murder total in Florida dropped from 946 to 881 from 2004-2005, and have exceeded the 2004 total for each year reported since, peaking at 1,202 in 2007 — or about a 26% hike from the 2004 number.

The shorter: violent crime numbers do not support a claim that the SYG law has consistently reduced violent crime incidence since 2005.

The other key fact to leaps out from this chart:

The slope of the rate/100,000 (blue) line has been pretty consistent for twenty years.  It gets a little steeper from 2008-2010, to be sure, though not as much as it did from 1997 to 1999 or 2000.  But this picture is consistent with the story in the rest of the country: violent crime is a much less severe problem now than it was decades ago. Any explanation for this ongoing process cannot have anything to do with a law enacted in 2005.  That longer history alone makes a mockery any sudden 9mm ex machina explanation for Florida’s recent and welcome continued reduction in rates of violent crime.  And, of course, any monocausal explanation  is almost certain to be wrong.

Hell, I’ll go further and say that a priori, such accounts are always wrong.

Consider instead another story.  Sometime in a leisure-filled future, (hah!–ed) I do plan to blog this really smart Adam Gopnik piece in the New Yorker examining research into  what drove crime rates down in New York City over the last several decades.  But for now in this context, take this home:

Crime ends as a result of “cyclical forces operating on situational and contingent things rather than from finding deeply motivated essential linkages.” [Wrote Franklin E. Zimring]…Curbing crime does not depend on reversing social pathologies or alleviating social grievances; it depends on erecting small, annoying barriers to entry.

All of which is to say that when Baxley asserts that Florida is experiencing a respite from violent crime because it now allows citizens to act as amateur law enforcers, empowered to use deadly force as their judgment drives them, he’s not telling the truth.  He’s lying, saying something that is false as a mundane fact and wrong as a causal inference.

Which is why this from Baxley is a type specimen of moral cowardice:

This kind of very unfortunate situation I think is a misapplication of this statute.

If you enact a law that carries with it a predictable budget of unintended, undesired consequences that result from the application of that law in daily life, then you’re not talking about “unfortunate” events, nor “misapplications.”  You’re talking about a murder that was a probabilistically predictable result of enacting a crap law.

I’m sorry Mr. Baxley.

I’m sure you mean well.

I have no doubt that you did not wish the particular child, Trayvon Martin any harm — how could you? You never knew him.

But what you feel in your heart, that regret that someone didn’t behave under your law as you think they should?  Not an excuse. No absolution.  Trayvon Martin is dead because someone empowered in his own mind by the terms of your law stalked down a street, confronted him, and shot that 17 year old kid down.

You own your part of this.

Pretty Boy Floyd Had Nothing On These Guys

October 18, 2011

Towards the end of last week, John pointed out the clueless sociopathy of Jay John Carney’s view of insider trading as a victimless crime.  (Here, the string “Jay John Carney” should be read as “your liberal media at work.”) [Update:  oops.  Apologies to the distinguished White House press sect'y.  How do you spell brain bubbles, anyone?]

I just want to add that John’s reaction — that someone using private information to gain an advantage in a two-party trade has got a victim all lined up — is not merely obvious; it’s been studied.

That is: you can imagine a hand waving argument that because each party has their own reasons to enter a transaction, then even the “outsider” on an insider trade gains what he or she desires from the exchange, otherwise they wouldn’t make the deal.   Since that motivation is untouched by the knowledge that the counterparty possesses and they do not, what’s the problem?  That’s my rough approximation of the glibtard case, at least.*

The problems with this crayon-level argument are pretty plain, I’d say, the most glaring, to me, is that assumes that each choice exists only within the narrowest possible slice of time.  Or, as an economist friend of mine put it in response to Carney’s “reasoning” (sic!):

The argument that trades are voluntary so everyone benefits is clearly only true ex ante – that is to say on the basis of the original biased information.  The guy who gets stiffed clearly wouldn’t have made the trade if he’d had the same information as the insider.  You might as well make this argument to justify dodgy second hand car sales or street trading swindles.  The guy who buys a lemon from the dealer who has hidden its faults expected to make a gain but that doesn’t mean he actually does or that the dealer isn’t a crook.

Beyond any mere ridicule of the rich-people-can-do-no-wrong that defines the Village view, the point I think John was making is that insider trading has both individual victims — those who were cheated out of what they would have gained had there been full knowledge of what was going on for both parties to a trade — and systemic costs that we all bear.

Surprise! That turns out to be something people actually know something about

I’m not going to claim that the clutch of papers I turned up in a swift surf through the literature  is anything remotely like an authoritative review of the current state of research on insider trading.  But what struck me is how easy to come up with a bunch of different angles on the problems insider trading produces for markets as well as individual investors.  Here’s an old analysis — it dates from 1991, which amounts to not much more than a mathematical formalization of a penetrating glimpse of the obvious:

In the absence of insider trading, and as long as managers’ salaries arepositively corelated with their firms results,managers will make such choices efficiently, and consequently such choices have previously received little attention, we show that, in the presence of insider trading, managers may make such choices inefficiently…More generally, the analysis of this paper suggests that the extent to which insiders may trade in their firm’s shares has considerable effects on the agency problem in corporations….

…ya think?  Snark aside, the important point is that an insider’s actions don’t begin and end with the transaction. One set of victims in an insider trade are those who hold some share in whatever enterprise or instrument is being traded.  It’s not just that insiders have more information than a counterparty, but that they have power to affect what their companies do — which means their incentives no longer align with everyone else connected to that enterprise.  In other words:  direct victims of insider trades include not just counterparties, but shareholders (or analogous parties-of-interest) in any given setting.

Then there’s this study from 2003.  Here, Julan Du of the Chinese University of Hong Kong and Columbia’s Shang-Jin Wei report on the impact of insider trading on market volatility — basically how insider trades affect how fast (and how much) prices change on a market.

They conclude:

More insider trading is found to be associated a higher market volatility even after one controls for the volatility of the real output growth, volatility of monetary and fiscal policies, and maturity of the stock market. Moreover, the quantitative effect of insider trading on market volatility is also big when compared with the effect of the volatility of other fundamentals.

But who cares, or who should?

All of us. Wild changes in prices driven by insiders taking advantage of their privileged position undermine the entire purpose of capital markets.  Du and Wei again:

Market volatility affects the incentive to save and to invest. In almost any model with a representative agent maximizing utility under uncertainty, the more volatile the asset market, holding the average return constant, the less the agent will save, and hence the less the investment will be. A certain degree of market volatility is unavoidable, even desirable, as one would like the stock price fluctuation to indicate changing values across economic activities so that resources can be better allocated. However, precisely because stock prices are supposed to serve as signals for resource allocation, excessive volatility that is not related to economic fundamentals would diminish the signaling function and impede resource allocation.

Or, to translate out of econ-geek speech:  markets are supposed to allocate capital, sending investor cash to support productive investment.  Mess with that, and the sorting function of the market, “the invisible hand,” to steal a phrase, starts to fail.  Investment decisions are distorted and we end up with a less productive economy as a whole than we would have without the thumb on the scales applied by greedhead wealthy corporate insiders seeking yet more loot than they already possess.

__

All this is the long way ’round of saying that when our Galtian overlords f**k with market mechanisms in any of the splendid variety of ways they have schemed innovated, there are certainly individual losers involved.  But the more consequential reality is that messing with the financial markets threatens the real economy — and that’s where all of us live.  The foreclosure crisis begins as a financial disaster.  It brings us to ruin because now 15 million actual homes are underwater in cities and towns across the United States…and that guts the whole damn country.

It’s not that eleven years in jail is too much for one misunderstood genius.  Rather: just one financial felon behind bars is orders of magnitude too few.

*Here’s that case from the horse’s ass mouth — which would be Jay John Carney himself, from the piece to which John originally linked:

But are they [insider trader Raj Rajaratnam’s opposite numbers) really harmed? Of course not. No investor was ever induced by Rajaratnam to sell a stock. Stock market transactions take place impersonally, without regard to who is on the other side of a trade.

Saying that investors wouldn’t have sold if they had Rajaratnam’s information doesn’t make the sellers victims of Rajaratnam’s trading. Even if Rajaratnam hadn’t bought the stock, they still would have sold while being in a position of relative ignorance compared to him.

Oy.

Images:  Francisco de Goya, Robbery, c. 1794

Jan Provoost, Death and the Miser, before 1529.

Science and the Law: Why Antonin Scalia is not just wrong, but incapable

August 19, 2009

Update: I’ve corrected the number of dissenters in this case from 3 to two,  Scalia and Thomas, per Jason’s comment; Justice Sotomayor, newly arrived at the court, did not take part in this case.

Upfront:  I’m not a lawyer, nor a regular student of legal matters, Supreme Court jurisprudence or Constitutional scholarship.

But such inconvenient facts should never stop a doughty blogger, so here goes.

Lee Kovarsky, a law professor at NYU, has a very smart guest post up at Obsidian Wings on the meaning of Justice Scalia’s dissent in the Troy Davis decision.  In that decision a 6-23 majority of the Court sent Davis’s murder conviction back to Federal District Court to determine whether new evidence confirms Davis’s actual innocence.  This outcome was genuinely new, the first time in 80 years that the Supremes have granted an original habeas petition, and the decision to pursue this particular line of court authority is itself entangled in Constitutional issues that Kovarsky touches on.

But I’m not here to talk about such legal issues — remember, I don’t know anything about them.  Go read the link as a starting point into the pure law side of the matter if you are interested.

What caught my eye within Kovarsky’s gloss of and response to Scalia’s argument were at least a couple of levels on which science and law intersect in the controversy that Scalia’s claims have evoked.

In brief as Kovarsky tells it, Scalia follows the line of argument laid down by Professor Paul Bator who held that knowing “truth” is in essence impossible, at least within a legal context.  Rather, the best one can ask of a judicial system is that a determination of guilt or innocence emerge from a recognizably consistent procedure.

That is not, as Kovarsky writes, a crazy position.  It even has an echo of sciencey-ness.  (What is blogging for if not to attempt stillborn neologisms?)

Think of the popular plain-language version of  the interpretation of quantum mechanics that holds that what it is possible to know about a quantum system is not the behavior of the system itself.  Rather, you know the what your instruments tell you.  We can state the measurement to the limit of precision of a given experimental apparatus, but not the “real” nature of a wave/particle or whatever.*

But it is, as Kovarsky goes on to argue, an untenable one in light of the impact of modern science on criminal law.  He cites specifically the impact of DNA evidence, though he notes that this is not the only technique that bears on determinations of guilt or innocence, and that it does not in fact apply in the Davis case.

His point, and it’s correct IMHO, is that it is no longer tenable to say that given the imperfection of human knowledge it is impossible for one court to come to a reliable determination of actual innocence, the “he-didn’t-do-it-for-sure” level of knowledge needed for a federal court to overturn a state court determination of fact (as long as there were no fatal defects in procedure).

Turn that convoluted sentence around:  Kovarsky says that Scalia and Bator behind him fail to recognize that we now have ways of really knowing certain kinds of facts.  Scientific advances allow us to state with great (not perfect, but great) authority that, e.g.,  if the relevant  DNA at the scene does not belong to John Doe, then John did not commit that particular crime.

Given the existence of scientific procedures of such relevance to criminal justice, then the old view that human knowledge is so inevitably imperfect as to restrict the concern of appelate courts to procedure rather than matters of fact cannot be accepted.

The tricky part in the argument, at least from where I sit, is the ceding to scientific methods this level of authority.  I don’t disagree — but the claim leads to the second level at which science intertwines with this case.

There is an argument within science — or at least, if not among scientists so much as within the broad area of science studies– about the quality of different kinds of scientific knowledge.

Within science studies there have been the radical views of the contingency of scientific knowledge, of course, which seem to me to be basically a red herring.**  There have been a lot of much more persuasive (to me) work done on the impact of the sociology of scientific life and the economics or political economy of scientific research that do show how the making of scientific understanding is a human activity, prey to all the ills that may attach to our endeavors.  And finally, scientists themselves are deeply aware of the issue of interpreting measurements.  The question of what it is that a given procedure actually tells you is one that comes up in every single experiment.

The point for the court is that for all the sources of uncertainty in science that scientists themselves talk about and guard against in individual experiments and observations, there are, as Kovarsky points out, things you actually know to a satisfactory level of “truth.”  And the use of DNA and other biochemical markers as exculpatory (or incriminating) evidence is one of them.

So, to buy Kovarsky’s argument, as I do, you need to buy the fact that when a scientific procedure returns a result, that result has meaning, one that is determined by a specific context of procedure and, in a sense, community standards of proper scientific process.

And one thing that interests me is that this is not part of the legal culture of knowing.  In an advocacy based system, the quality of your facts is determined by the quality of the argument you can build to defend or destroy claims of “truth.”  That’s a model followed in a lot of pseudo-scientific debates — see the strategies of argument advanced by ID/Creationist types (among whom I don’t think it accidental that one founding inspiration, Paul Johnson, was himself a lawyer), and those offered by climate change deniers.  But its not the core of scientific argument, which has much more of  “did you do it right” quality rather than “you have conceived of this procedure wrongly.”  (Much more, I say, not “exclusively.”)

To wrap up:  one of the trickiest things for a court has to be accomodating itself to real changes in human experience.  Scalia’s position was always, I think, wrong in justice terms.  It hasn’t taken DNA evidence to produce instances of people genuinely wrongly, and as Kovarsky also notes, there is no doubt that on the subsidiary question (perhaps primary to lawyers), state courts are not always reliable repositories of proper procedure.  Deference to the actual flawed courts on the ground is granted on the basis of an image of the ideal courts of law school textbooks — but in practice one of the central premises of the Bator/Scalia position is false as a matter of empirical observation.  In sum:  it is a poor excuse for a judicial system if as a matter of formal principle there is no possible judicial way for a condemned prisoner to establish actual innocence.

But whether or not you agree with that view, it is observably true that human skill at learning facts and patterns of facts about the world has changed enormously over the last four centuries, and at an extraordinarily rapid pace in the last several decades.  That transformation makes Scalia’s position wrong in essential terms as well — we can know things that his view asserts we cannot.  That  is an error that I believe his age, his education and his experience will make it vanishingly difficult for him to correct within himself.

And that leads to the twin editorial points of this story:  scientific advance is not the only but it is a big reason why the premises of Constitutional originalism are shaky to the core.  And Justice Scalia is a man past his time.

*Leave aside here the question of whether any such plain-language descriptions of the “meaning” of quantum mechanics help very much.  I like them, and they help me think about some matters, but I’m sympathetic to a kind of schizophrenic view that we know the quantum world operationally, through experiences that include typing this on a device riddled with quantum physics, and mathematically, in a symbolic language that translates only imperfectly into the kind of statements like the one above.  But here we enter an endless loop of late night dormitory discussions, in which this deponent falls silent.

**I think that studies of, for example, the contingency of class and knowledge do help in historical interpretation — no one, I think, doubts that it is valuable to understand Charles Darwin’s positioning in English and British society in grasping what he did and did not accomplish.  But Darwin’s status as a member of a family clearly lodged within the industrial gentry does not alter the fact that his finches provide a powerful case study of evolution by natural selection in action.  Again, a much longer discussion starts here, and here I get off, at least for now.

Image:  William Hogarth, 1758.

Torture…An Unnecessary Post, Part Two (The prehistory edition)

May 18, 2009

Friday, I ranted.  To channel my inner Bob Dole, I wanted to know where is the outrage over torture, over the use of the name and power of the US to give official, legal sanction to the acts that we hung people for after VE and VJ days.

It was a completely superfluous rant; others are saying the same, better (h/t Eric Martin) and with more eloquent rage.

But it’s still important, I guess, just to add one more jot to the load of outrage. If everyone who can, does, perhaps we will begin to feel what is necessary after eight years of sustained, calculated official nattering intended to numb moral judgment.

So in this half of my superfluous post, I want to inject just a little history into the chorus, some perspective on just how badly wrong the Bush torture cabal got it, and how much moral and practical damage they have done to the legitimate exercise of state power.

The pre-Bush view of torture has a number of modern sources, but it ultimately derives from the English experience of law, pain and vengeance.  I found myself doing some research into this history for my book on Isaac Newton’s little-known career as a crime fighter, in part because one of his earlier biographers, Frank Manuel, in his mostly excellent Portrait of Isaac Newton made the claim that Newton revealed himself as a monster in his pursuit of the currency criminals it was his duty to police as Warden of the Royal Mint.

I found myself disagreeing with Manuel, a little nervously, given his stature as a historian of science.  But I found that while Newton was no pacifist, no advocate of Satyagraha, he was no sadist either. He knew that imprisonment in the notorious Newgate Jail was bitter, dangerous, and put the inmate at risk of real abuse.  He was certainly willing to use the known horrors there to frighten informers into speech.  But there is no evidence in the over four hundred documents I read in his hand or over his signature that he relied on physical violence to elicit the evidence he used to convict the coiners and countefeiters it had become, as Warden, his job to pursue.

In fact, the legal framework in which torture had been a regularized tool of the English justice system had fallen into disuse a half a century before Newton began to act as a cop.  It was supplanted  for the same reasons that we have throughout most of American history understood torture to be illegitimate — then, and until very recently, it was understood to be both ineffective and illegitimate, corrosive of the state’s moral authority.

To see how this transformation occurred, I looked into the history of a document called a royal torture warrant, used to formally authorize the use of torture.  My main source was John H. Langbein’s excellent Torture and the Law of Proof, which conveniently included a table with details on all 81 known torture warrants.

It is not particularly surprising that Elizabeth I was the most prolific user of royal torture warrants in English history, issuing (or having issued) 53 of the surviving warrants.  She had as much as any monarch to fear from her subjects, given the vicious intrigues of succession that followed the death of her father, Henry VIII, religious conflict, wars with Spain, internal court rivalries, fueling resentment at rule by a mere woman, and so on.  That Elizabeth was as tough as required to retain her throne and her head is a matter of historical fact; among the means she used was state violence against those of her subjects deemed to dangerous to leave at large.

Among the techniques used were several that are recognizably the same as those that the moral bankrupts within the Bush administration attempted to define into legality.  They include confinement in a dungeon with rats (Thomas Sherwood, 17  Nov. 1577, during an investigation of one of the plots against Elizabeth); manacles — essentially a stress position, as the manacled prisoner is lifted to the point where his feet do not support his weight, all of which pulls on the suspended wrists of the victim (several times through Elizabeth’s reign); whipping (Humfrey “a boy” for burglary in 1580 –  note that Jesus too would have had some knowledge of Humfrey’s suffering) and “Little Ease” — confinement in a cell so small that the inhabitant could not sit, nor stand, nor move.  This was used on several occasions including the case of George Beesley, a priest in violation of the Anglican acts in 1591.

The most common techniques ordered specified  in the warrants were either the rack, or else simply “torture”  — once “such torture as is usual,”  a chilling  statement to carry the force of law if ever there was one.

It is also important to understand that the English in this period understood –as Bush’s thug’s willed themselves to deny — that torture was not simply about causing physical pain.  During the century or so of torture authorized by royal warrants in England, the administration of the technique came in two steps.  First, the prisoner would be shown the implements of torture, to see if the horror of the thought of the pain his body would suffer on those devices would induce a confession.  If that psychological coercion failed, the next step was to begin the actual process of imposing physical pain on the prisoner.  Both steps were included in the instructions within torture warrants.  Thus, in 1642, when the apprentice glover John Archer was to be put to torture to gain information about a riot outside the Archbishop of Canterbury’s palace at Lambeth, he was first given time to stare at the rack — and only if he remained silent, according to the warrant, the last to be issued in England, was he to be bound onto the machine.

Such mental torture was recognized to be genuinely coercive as well — though in this case it did not persuade the luckless Archer to betray any of his fellow rioters.

That is:  fear of pain and the terror of plausibly imminent death, have been recognized as elements of torture for a very long time. 

There is much more to the history of English legal theories of torute, but the point of this lightning fast gloss is simply to reinforce what should be obvious:   the opinions of the Bush “Justice” (sic) department were nothing more than words in the form of law whose sole purpose was to provide cover for what any competent lawyer would have had to recognize as crimes. Those who wrote them were teaching theselves to unknow what they know; they were wounding themselves, amputating their own capacity to reason. 

That’s the pity of it; the terror lies in whatever success they have in persuading the rest of us to so self-mutilate.

And what is worst of all is that the Bush administration descent into moral deformity came four hundred years after our English legal antecedents recognized that torture was both ineffective and irrelevant.   

The last monarch-issued torture warrant dates from 1642, just before the start of the Civil War.  This was hardly a time when Charles I could have felt any more secure than Elizabeth at her most precarious; the revolt that would cost him his life was almost upon him, and no one on either side of the Court/Parliament divide had any doubt about the potential for violence at every turn.  So why did the King cease to brandish the rack at his subjects?

Several reasons have been advanced for the forgoing of torture as a tool of investigation or the discovery of evidence. Two matter most.  First, even then, it was understood that information received under torture was unreliable.  Second, and much more important in the current context:  the fact that England had adopted the system of using juries at trialspermitted the evolution of new ideas about judicial truth. 

In traditional approaches to justice confessions were seen as certain proof of guilt, and hence, absent some system for finding fact, were almost essential to legitimize verdicts. But with juries, other evidence could take on more and more weight, rendering confessions less significant and finally unnecessary in making a judgment of guilt.

That is:  the English in the early 17th century figured out (a) that you hurt someone enough they’ll confess to murdering Father Christmas and (b) that there were smarter ways both to find out what you need to know to preserve security (in much more precarious states than our own) and to convict those who did in fact commit harm to individuals or the body of the state.

To sum it up in one sentence:  if you trust the rule of law, you don’t need to act in ways that would make Jesus weep.

And that’s why it’s past time to shine a light on what crimes the Bush torture cabal actually committed in our names.

[The accounts of the history of torture in England of this post were originally published by Andrew Sullivan in slightly different versions as messages from an anonymous emailer, written a couple of years ago (before I started this blog).  I felt and feel the argument I was trying to make then needed reformulation now; hence the resurfacing of this material.]

Images:  Jacopo Pontormo, “Torture of St. Quintus,” 1517-1518.  

William-Adolphe Bouguereau “The Flagellation of Our Lord Jesus Christ.” 1880.

I know I’ve been AWOL and this isn’t about science at all, but…

March 17, 2009

I do find it really odd (I’ve just taken my medication for the day, and so can express myself so mildly) that the members of the same mass media organizations that worry whether or not President Barack Hussein Obama (I still love writing that) has taken on too much as he attempts to undo the disasters left for him by the previous criminal conspiracy administration [too many to link -- ed.] actually complain when President Obama’s spokesman pokes a little fun at the previous administration’s consgliore Vice President after said consigliore eminence grise attempts to portray Obama’s efforts to stop torturing people is a bad thing.

So, it’s ok to accuse someone of endangering the country because he won’t destroy the ability to prosecute terrorists by torturing them to the point of insanity, but it’s not OK to compare the worst vice president in history to a drug dependenent, grotesquely obsese, yakmeister most-popular conservative entertainer in the country?*

[I never pass up a chance to post this portrait of the de-facto dear leader of the Republican Party--ed.]

And, by the way, to fret when the new President shows himself able to actually think about two matters in the same day?

There are lots of structural reasons why the main stream media is falling apart.  But the truth of the matter is that every major dead-tree and traditional broadcaster/cable net had, not too long ago, a serious brand, a name that could be seen as a destination.  CBS, the home to the correspondent who was shocked, shocked, to learn that the Obama administration might not take the former grossly over-promoted button man vice president seriously, was once the Tiffany Network, the place that Murrow and Cronkhite called home — the network that proved it was possible to do real news reporting in that gossamer medium with all those moving pictures.

Now?  With honorable exceptions, its a self-parody, in which the only consolation is that it is not yet Fox “News” [sic -- ed.].  (Late breaking:  ABC and MSNBC pile on to defend poor little Dick’s honor, with no sign that they saw anything amiss, or a mite disrespectful,  in Mr. Cheney’s original feral fantasies.

These are all still influential venues, which is of course the problem.  But, speaking as someone who grew up personally and professionally in the traditional medium (stints, early on, at Time magazine and all), this smells to me like the end game.  The institutions that are trumpeting this stuff the loudest are economically and psychologically tied to the idea of being platforms of mass media.  This kind of partisan commentary masquerading (poorly) as commentary is the staple of niche media.  And in that space, there is already plenty of competition, lean, mean and ready to eat the dinosaur’s lunch.

So the next time someone complains about the fate of newspapers or the decline of venues for national conversation, you may (and I do) agree that there is a real loss there.  But recall as well that the supposed moderators of that national agora chose to piss it away in defense of an oilpatch chickenhawk with an eagerness to trade in other’s pain.

*Limbaugh apparently pulls a rating of around or just below 6 — as in 6 percent of radio listeners tuned in to anything at the time of his broadcasts are listening to him.  That’s a serious number. Still, as this report shows, there are some curiousities lurking beneath the gross figures that undergird the fat man’s fat paycheck.

Image:  Cornelis de Vos, “The Triumph of Bacchus,” 17th c.


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