Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Drug dogs and the 4th Amendment

July 9, 2012 1 comment

Federal Court: 25% Alert rate good enough for drug dogs.

Drug-sniffing dog Ginger and supercop Joe Friday from Dragnet

Drug-sniffing dog Ginger and supercop Joe Friday from Dragnet. Click picture to watch entire episode for free on HULU

A federal court ruled that a search was valid under the 4th Amendment, even though it was based on the “indication” of a drug dog with a 25% alert rate.

That’s 63 false positives out of 85 “Alerts”. And the judge said “Okie-Dokie!” There are many reasons why this is wrong.

Imagine you were one of those false positives; you are most likely poor, or politically unfavored, or a person of color, or just someone the constable does not like for whatever reason. Any number of bad results might come from you being under the police microscope for a couple of hours. This is why restrictions on searches were written into the constitution: it is dangerous for law enforcement to just go fishing around in the lives of people who cross their path.

Search and seizure have always been used as a political tool, for oppression of minorities, or just for harrassment. It’s no good for our political freedoms, it breeds official corruption, and it destroys lives. Our Founding Fathers knew this and created the Fourth Amendment to protect us. Like the Fifth Amendment, it is a “prophylactic rule”.

Fourth Amendment: Search And Seizure

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

The Exclusionary Rule

In a long string of cases the Supreme Court ruled that evidence found in violation of the Fourth Amendment would be excluded from the prosecution. This is called The Exclusionary Rule. It carries a high social price tag, but it protects against an even higher social risk of a police state. It is a powerful sanction that keeps police honest.

I’ve mentioned this case to quite a few people and almost all of them said; “Well they found drugs, didn’t they?” Many commenters online said the same thing. But for legal and human-rights reasons it simply is not relevant whether any drugs were found; an illegal search is still excluded. It ignores all the illegal searches where drugs were not found, and if finding drugs erased that legal sanction, police would have a powerful incentive to plant evidence.

Animal analysis results

In the current case the judge ruled that because the dog had passed its certification tests, its alerts constituted valid probable cause, even though it had a dismal record in the field. I’m inclined to think that if the police were lying about the dog’s record, they’d lie in its favor. Whatever the reasons for this disparity, it meant that police had at least a 75% chance of searching whoever the hell they wanted to search.

Animals can be trained to reflect the unconscious directions of their handlers. One famous case of this is Clever Hans, the horse that could supposedly do arithmetic. The owner himself was convinced the horse could do number problems, but it was proved conclusively that the horse was actually just picking up on cues. It is called the “Clever Hans Effect” and I have no difficulty imagining a similar dynamic with drug-sniffing dogs.

Man’s best friend

Drug-sniffing dogs enjoy a high degree of (undeserved) confidence among the public, which like the court is willing to overlook their mistakes. Some of this stems from early presentation of dogs as nearly infallible servants in the War Against Drugs.

Watch the Dragnet episode from 1969, as super-cops Joe Friday and Bill Gannon singlehandedly dream up the idea of using dogs, locate a trainer, find a very special dog, and convince a panel of judges that the dog never makes mistakes. It’s really quite entertaining.

In the episode, one judge says; “How do you know whether the dog is excited by marijuana or a box of dog biscuits? If your dog reverts to its natural state and switches to indicating other things, it blows ‘probable cause’ sky-high!” Moments later the dog finds some marijuana one of the judges had hidden as a second confirmation of the test. Then the dog (who was a real LA Police Department drug-sniffing dog named Ginger, guest-starring in the show) helped arrest a pair of insufferably arrogant dope peddlers (one of whom was played by Dick Van Patten).

As I said, entertaining. (You can imagine Joe Friday’s voice saying this next part if you like.) Unless you are one of the people who fall under that microscope. Then it isn’t funny at all.  You might simply have money in your wallet with drug residue on it (which is to say, almost any money at all).

The False Positive paradox

Then there’s the counterintuitive statistical oddity that even with a mostly-accurate test, a positive result can still mean you have a less-than-even chance of whatever condition (be it drug possession or prostate cancer) is being tested for. The unhappy result of ignoring conditional probability means that a positive result does not mean what we are inclined to think it means. It causes a great deal of misery in both medicine and law, and for the same reason: it sets in motion processes that may do more harm than good. The legal solution to this problem is the exclusionary rule, and it’s one we tamper with at great risk as a society.

I’ve “excluded” discussion of whether any drugs should be legalized; it could be literally any kind of contraband that is at stake. The temptation to prosecute on the basis of evidence found in unrelated searches is a constant danger, and it’s one we must not indulge. Even if it is satisfying to give a dog biscuit to man’s best friend.


  • HULU: Dragnet: Narcotics DR21
  • Dragnet, for those of you beneath a certain age, was a super-popular radio and TV show about Joe Friday, a fictional Los Angeles police detective. Created by actor and producer Jack Webb, it was based on real cases and was known for realistic detail about police life.
  • Florida case challenges use of drug dogs
  • Conditional probability traps include the False Positive Paradox and the Prosecutor’s Fallacy, among others.
  • Combine drug-sniffing dogs with unjust drug-forfeiture laws and you have a formula for corruption. Cops are incentivized to confiscate any cash they find; it is up to you to prove you are carrying it legitimately.
Categories: Uncategorized

How you got rich matters

July 2, 2012 1 comment

I noted a letter to the Chicago Tribune that complained “Barack Obama is worth $8m! I thought liberals hated rich people!” But you see, Obama got that money by actually creating something. He wrote books, he got paid for appearances – he added value. So how exactly did Mitt Romney become worth $250m? As Robert Reich explains, not by adding value; more like strip-mining value. But at the end of this video is a little clue to why Romney might be so reluctant to share his tax returns.

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Lessons of the fire

June 29, 2012 6 comments

If there is a Christian Evangelical “New Jerusalem” in this country, it is Colorado Springs. There are megachurches galore, think tanks, institutions, and of course Focus On The Family. Even the Air Force Academy, located there, is known for evangelizing its recruits in violation of various rules and the US Constitution. It’s a home-rule municipality that seems to attract right-wing evangelicals like a magnet collects iron filings. So if any city in America should have God’s favor, it is Colorado Springs.

Today, Colorado Springs faces the advance of a monstrous wildfire that is burning homes and businesses, and even threatens the Air Force Academy. This is, by any humanitarian measure, an awful thing. At the very least it should teach us; “Install a fire-rated roof and make sure your home has a 25-foot vegetation-free zone around it. And under NO circumstances use vinyl siding.”. It Should, except that evangelical Christians, including some Congressmen, have made such a big deal over the years about natural disasters as bearing messages from God.

Every time there’s a hurricane that strikes a coastal city (there’s always sin in coastal cities) it’s God sending a message about gays, or adultery, or (against) affordable health care. Earthquake? Gays again. Or abortion, or labor unions or whatever. For some reason God only sends messages to places that were already set up for natural disasters – like Earthquakes to cities on fault lines or hurricanes to cities on the Gulf coast. And God never seems to get mad at Wall Street, unless maybe it’s gay Wall Street. Also, you would think God would really go after the Netherlands, a gay-tolerant, secular country located below sea level on the coast of sinful Europe. Or Canada, which has had gay marriage for a while now.

Not to say evangelicals aren’t onto something with the idea of trying to find lessons in natural disasters, however. It’s just that they’re picking up the wrong lessons. For some reason evangelical Christianity has latched onto the idea that anthropogenic global warming contradicts the bible. To me this would be a little like contradicting the mathematical lessons of Star Wars, except that saga makes a far more consistent story than the bible. But if Colorado Springs can burn (and last year, godly Texas) then maybe there’s something to the idea that the extreme-weather dice are loaded by global warming.

The lesson I suggest for evangelicals is this: stop getting your climate information from your pastor or his various analogs. I’m not worried that Gays will destroy society, but it has occurred to me that you might – by using your political power to delay action. This is an all-hands-on-deck situation, and you’re not helping. It is possible to practice Christianity in a way that isn’t an embarrassment to the human community; I’ve seen it done. Take off your damn tinfoil hat for once and listen.


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Things we used to say: “There but for the grace of God, go I”

June 18, 2012 7 comments

I read today that Rodney King was found dead in his swimming pool. OK, I thought, time for sad reflection on one of the less-proud chapters in American history. But then I made a big mistake: I read the comments.

I should know better. Crikey, how do you un-see these things? His memory is splattered by a storm of invective and racist cruelty. Where’s that planet-destroying asteroid when we need it?

So you think you’re better than Rodney King…

“Good riddance. More trouble than he was worth.” +28

“The man was a career criminal before his beating, and cashed in on failing to stop when ordered by the police. No loss to society at all.” +37

“If he wasn’t a criminal in the first place, he wouldn’t have been running from the Police so he only had himself to blame.” +15

“Crack for 16 years, ok. Sorry, no offense to any one, but the police weren’t beating a man, they were beating a crack head. Now I see why they were acquitted” +2


“When driving at high speed, high on drugs, and you see blue flashing lights in the rear view mirror, pull over, turn the ignition off, put your interior lights on, put your hands on the steering wheel, and answer the cops with yes/no/sir/. This is called common sense. end of story.” +6

…and lots more about how many people died in the riot, about Reginald Denny, about how Jews didn’t take vengeance when injustice was done to them, and about how he supposedly got rich because he had a swimming pool and various “jokes” comparing him to Whitney Houston.

I was particularly struck by the judgmental take on King. By the recurring theme that if one is obstreperous with the police, then one has no right to complain about a life-threatening beating. By the judgment that drug addiction means you have no civil rights. And by many commenters who indicated the blacks are somehow sub-human. Or that poor people are. In any case, the writers appear to believe that if they were dealt the same cards in life that Rodney King had, they would have made different, better choices.

Admonished by other commenters not to judge what they did not understand, or to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes, or not “lest they be judged”, many responded with even greater anger and hatred against King.  Against poor people. Against drug users and blacks and people who live in cities and even against anyone who does not hate as they do.

Once upon a time Americans used to say:

“There but for the grace of God, go I.”

The saying is a humble recognition that you are not immune to bad luck. That you are not immune from making bad decisions. That you, too, could become addicted to a drug. That you, too, are affected by the culture in which you were raised. That the moral character on which you pride yourself owes something to good fortune.

But the saying has fallen out of fashion. Now, if your life ends up in bad straits, it’s all and exclusively your own fault. Traceable to Ayn Rand, this philosophy was popularized by Ronald Reagan, who closed mental health facilities and referred to homelessness as a “lifestyle choice”. It is, simply, unbridled hatred of the less fortunate.

Case in point

Rodney King was, as so many opined, “no role model”. He was a troubled, damaged and at times (I think) unwittingly dangerous person. But this actually makes his call for calm and against violence all the more profound. Severely beaten by police, he saw the violence erupting and asked what I believe to be one of the most urgent questions of the twentieth century: “Can’t we all just get along?”

We have at our disposal the alleged moral teachings of every philosopher and every religious founder and almost every religious teacher who has ever lived. If we cannot figure out from this body of work how to live in peace, I suspect the fault does not lie with one badly-injured drug addict.


  • The exact wording of his question is in doubt; I have seen it reported in various ways. But the substance is clear enough.
  • No deity is required to understand the saying. If you are an atheist, it works just as well with any number of event-branching descriptors. “There, but for the lucky combination of economic background, good inherited genes, good schools, lack of brain injury, and many other things beyond my personal control, go I.”
  • Points of fact: King wasn’t on PCP, though he was drunk. The beating was so severe he had permanent brain damage. He unequivocally condemned the riots. He certainly did have trouble getting his life together afterward.
  • Although the police were acquitted of criminal wrongdoing under the traditional “Cops Are Almost Never Found Guilty” rule, he was still awarded $3.8m in a civil suit. His lawyers got most of it.
  • Earlier entries in the “Things we used to say” series about cliches that made America strong: ”Don’t be a litterbug“,  ”Stitch in time saves nine“, “You get what you pay for“, and “If you can’t stand the heat


Categories: Uncategorized

The Invention Of Lying

June 12, 2012 Comments off
Movie Poster, Invention Of Lying

I stole this image from Wikipedia

Romantic comedy isn’t a genre in which you’d expect to find any new ground, but The Invention Of Lying does just that; it takes place in a world of totally honest people. A woman asked out on a date tells her suitor, straight off; “I just don’t find you attractive”. A man calling in to work says; “I’m not sick or anything, I just don’t want to come in.” The cashier at a casino says; “You’ll probably lose all your money, and even if you win, we’ll most likely win it back in the long run!” A man on TV implores us: “Please don’t stop buying Coke.” But everyone is accustomed to this level of brutal honesty. They accept statements with a depressed nod that would lead to violence in our world.

There’s a downside, however; it is a world almost completely without imagination. There’s no fiction, so TV shows and movies consist of someone sitting in a chair reading a script about history. Unlucky you, if you are a writer assigned to the 13th century. Your ratings will go down and you will probably be fired. That’s Ricky Gervais’ dilemma, on the same day that Jennifer Garner rejects him “You’re short and pudgy! You have a pug nose!” To top it all off his mother is dying. He sits by her bed as she recounts how terrified she is facing an eternity of nothingness. Just before she dies, something snaps in his brain and he invents lying. “You don’t go to an eternity of nothingness,” he tells her. “You go to an eternal mansion and everyone you’ve ever loved will be there!” A look of peace and joy spreads across her face, and she dies.

The even worse downside of a completely honest society is that once lying is invented, it operates in an utterly credulous environment. Gervais looks up from his deceased mother to find the doctor and nurses staring in wide-eyed amazement. “Tell us more!” they say. This gets out of hand fast, and on a global scale. Gervais finds himself the unwitting founder of the world’s first religion. And on a personal level he explores what his new power means in terms of wealth and career – and finds it by turns exhilarating and terrifying.

The movie is sweet and it appeals to my sense of humor for what that’s worth. It’s rated PG-13, “Parents Strongly Cautioned”. After all, there’s some crude language, and one of the characters casually mentions masturbation. (Be sure your teens never find out about masturbation. This will only happen if they see some reference to it in a movie.) The premise of the film is thought-provoking too, and we certainly don’t want children thinking about lying as a pretense of virtue, or as a social lubricant. In fact, it’s as good an examination of the ethics of lying as I’ve ever seen in a comedy. No lie.

Categories: Uncategorized

Please fly, little fellow. You’ve got to fly!

June 10, 2012 3 comments
fledgeling blue jay on the ground

Fledgling blue jay on the ground - click to embiggen

Three or four crows seemed awfully interested in something outside our window…

To a bluejay, a crow might as well be an armored tank but mama and daddy bluejay mounted a relentless attack, facing down the crows in the air and on the ground, and they finally moved back. Crows are smart and patient. They’ll make a note of it, to see if this little fellow could be an easier snack later in the day.

That was an hour ago. Little bird is still on the ground, parents in the branches above. Coaxing him to fly.

Categories: Uncategorized

“green planet” water – in a petroleum-free bottle!

June 9, 2012 6 comments

There’s science-based environmentalism, and then there’s corporate greenwashing. This is an example of the latter:

Plant-based plastic bottle

green planet, Vapor Distilled water, minerals added for taste, Petroleum FREE bottle Made 100% from plants

Plant-based plastics are nothing new; in 1941 Henry Ford made a whole car out of soybean resins. But where to even start, when the marketing implication is that this is somehow an environmentally-sustainable product because it’s got a plant-based plastic bottle?  The whole idea of water in disposable bottles is horrible. Get a re-usable bottle and fill it from the drinking fountain, already. Especially if you live in Normal, Illinois; our water is excellent.


  • The bottle is probably corn-based, grown with high-energy fertilizers in an industrial farm, trucked to a processing plant to be made into plastic (perhaps as part of a by-product step) and then trucked to a manufacturing plant where the bottles are made, with paper labels affixed that are printed somewhere and trucked to the plant. Then the empty bottles and lids are trucked to the water processing plant, where the  water is “vapor distilled” (lots of energy use) with minerals added, then transported to the restaurant in trucks and kept refrigerated. Is there anything they are not doing wrong?
  • If you live or work in a building with old plumbing, you’re still ahead environmentally and economically to get a water filter and use it to refill reusable bottles
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June 2, 2012 3 comments

Despite their tax breaks, their record profits, and the congressmen they have in their pockets, The Rich have never been more endangered. Any day now, America could turn Communist and let the Bush tax cuts expire. And then where would we be? More importantly, where would they be?

(h/t @RelUnrelated)

Categories: Uncategorized

Not everyone wanted to live in The Space Age

May 28, 2012 1 comment

“RetroFuturist” Matt Novak tells us how baby boomers all think the country was united around the goal of getting to the Moon, and how that’s just faulty memory at work:

The future used to be so much better. At least that’s what everyone under the age of 65 keeps telling me. In the 1950s and ‘60s, people dreamed of—nay, expected—jetpacks and flying cars and colonies on Mars. On Mars!

Legend has it that after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first human-made satellite to ever orbit the Earth, in 1957, Americans rallied behind the idea of a better, more technologically advanced future for all. This nationwide enthusiasm buoyed NASA’s Apollo program and, as much as rocket fuel, propelled us to the moon. During his 2011 State of the Union address, President Obama invoked the popular idea of the “Sputnik moment” as he implored Congress to invest more in scientific research and education.

So what percentage of Americans in the 1960s do you suppose believed that the Apollo program was worth the time and resources devoted to it? Seventy percent? Eighty percent? In reality, it was less than 50 percent…

SLATE: How space-age nostalgia hobbles our future

I’m not sure who all these people under 65 are, who are telling Matt we really expected to have jetpacks by now.

I’m under 65; I was 12 when The Eagle Landed, just the perfect age to be all dewy-eyed about it under the explanations that follow in Matt’s article. I was a fan, baby, and when it comes to faulty memory, I take second fiddle to no one. For all I know, I really grew up in Japan and just made up my whole childhood digging fossils in the Iowa. So let me tell you how I misremember it…

I do remember Walter Cronkite moved to tears on national television, over the prospect of humans walking on the Moon. But I also remember countless editorials where people said the money should be spent “solving poverty”.  I was an oddly political child, and I remember a divided country, too – over Vietnam, over the space program, over civil rights and nuclear weapons and the environment.

Wait – is it really 2012? It feels like nothing’s changed; like it’s 1970. Only our Vietnam is a mountainous hell instead of a jungle hell now. And the context of nuclear weapons debate has changed slightly – not that anyone in 1970 who thought about it for two seconds didn’t see it coming.

Americans are seldom  - perhaps never – completely united. There were people opposed to involvement in WWII, so I suppose you could write a history that says national unanimity over fighting the Nazis was a myth. But it wasn’t a myth – by and large people put their shoulders to the wheel and pushed. It is good to remember those who were opposed, but history, written by the victors, is a matter of focus. And space-enthusiasts were not the victors in the race to the Moon. As usual, the winners were those who took what we learned going to the moon and did something with it in the marketplace.

Yes, there are people who don’t know that unanimity is rare; perhaps we should take a poll. Then someone can write an article on SLATE about how it’s a myth that Americans were ever united. There’s always been a range of opinion. From what I’ve been able to learn, some people were excited by Sputnik; also large numbers were terrified (which is a kind of excitement I suppose) and quite another large number surely didn’t care in the least.

The future is shaping up some nasty surprises just now. If there is to be hope – any hope at all – it lies in the human imagination and the courage to think about what things would be like… if.  It’s a big “if”, and there will never been unanimity about it. At least, there never has been before.


  • Matt looks like he’s in his 30′s.  Maybe when he’s in his 50′s he’ll be writing grumpy articles about how some whippersnapper won’t get off his lawn.
  • “We should spend the money solving poverty instead” ranks as one of the stupidest arguments against exploration that I can think of. I remember Maya Angelou on television in 1989 using this argument against NASA funding. She was exasperated at her co-panelists but I was exasperated at her. She was not exactly a lone voice in the wilderness, either; people hear “billions” and just react. But discovery has always been our best investment. It’s war and financial speculation that have been the biggest waste in our history.
  • I don’t personally know anyone my age who really wants a jetpack or a flying car. All you have to do is watch ordinary people trying to negotiate the extremely simple rules of a 4-way stop intersection to know why that would be a bad idea.
Categories: Uncategorized

How sentimental are you?

May 20, 2012 6 comments

The universe must have elected me to some office I didn’t know about this week. Wednesday evening I got home and there was a smashed animal in the street in front of our driveway. I scooped that up, triple-bagged it, and threw it out. I recognized it as the adorable bunny that’s been nibbling clover blossoms in our back yard.

Dead rat

Dead rat, click to embiggen. If you really want to see a bigger, more detailed picture of a dead rat.

Then Thursday morning as I rode into the courtyard of the building where I work, I noticed a dead rat on the sidewalk. We have some hawks or falcons or some other kind of raptors on campus so it isn’t uncommon to find a dismantled animal there. But this one, while the object of attention for three crows, was mostly intact. The sequence of events was probably raptor, crows, guy on bicycle.

I scooped up the rat, triple-bagged it and threw it out. And my first thought on seeing it was; “Hey, one less rat. And a big one, too.”

Except, on closer examination, I could see this was a mama rat, which had recently been nursing pups. I pictured a litter of tiny ones, eyes barely open, waiting for mama – and she doesn’t come back. Poor little cute baby rats.

Except wait – they’re rats! Shouldn’t I want them dead by whatever means?

Well, no. I can hardly even bear to think about those glue-traps for mice, for example. And the plight of the little baby rats does bring me sadness. But sentimentality is one facet of the 21-sided die that is irrationality. I would never think of killing a squirrel, but they’re basically rats with bushy tails. Well, it’s more than that; instead of skulking around in the shadows and fouling grain elevators, squirrels put on acrobatic shows in the quad outside our building. So behavior matters.

But still… poor little cute baby rats…

Categories: Uncategorized