Sunday, February 10, 2013

Shooting Women in L.A.

L.A. cops looking for former cop and suspected cop killer Christopher Horner shot 3 bystanders according to this report.

3 bystanders reportedly shot by police during hunt for murder suspect | Fox News

Two of the bystanders were Women!!!! Women delivering newspapers.  Like Horner would driving a paper route on his escape from the cops.

Pictures of Horner show a pretty hefty MAN.  Not women delivering newspapers.

Are the cops just shooting on sight of a pickup matching the one Horner supposedly happens

You could not pay me enough to do the LAPD's PR.  I could not stand up in front of the media and not say "Why did those officers shoot those two WOMEN instead of the MAN we are looking for?  Because they are FRAKING IDIOTS!!"

Thursday, February 07, 2013

University to Offer Commercial Space Flight Degree

Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University plans to offer a Bachelor's Degree is Commercial Spaceflight beginning in the fall of 2013, pending approval by the Board of Trustees.

Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University has announced plans to launch the nation's first ever bachelor's degree in Commercial Space Operations. 
The announcement was made Wednesday at the 16th Annual FAA Commercial Space Transportation Conference in Washington. 
The new degree program would be offered at Embry-Riddle's campus in Volusia County [Daytona Beach]. The school said the program will supply the commercial spaceflight industry with skilled graduates in the areas of space policy, operations, regulation and certification, as well as space flight safety, and space program training, management and planning.

When I was a kid, I wanted to attend Embry-Riddle--but two things stopped me---money (it is expensive) and the fact that Calculus II and I simply did not get along so well.

Still, in a period of time in which commercial spaceflight is growing by leaps and bounds, the offering of a commercial spaceflight degree is probably a good step for the small school.  I suspect that many other leading technical universities will soon follow.

I wonder if and when they will offer a graduate degree in commercial spaceflight?  Hmmmmmmmm.......

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Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Three to Read: Crime and Punishment Edition

A  couple of weeks ago, Prof. Glenn Reynolds (a.k.a. the Instapundit) posted a short paper on SSRN called  Ham Sandwich Nation: Due Process When Everything is a Crime in which he discusses the problem of prosecutorial discretion.  Reynolds notes that our criminal justice system is not really one in which the accused is realistically afforded a trial by a jury of his peers, rather "What we really have is a plea bargain system with a thin froth of showy trials floating on top."  While the plea bargain system is clearly an issue in the judicial system, complaints about the system mask a larger problem--the elimination of the average citizen from yet another governmental function.

Although Reynolds is not the first to note that our criminal justice system is largely one based on plea bargains, his paper and the death of Reddit creator Aaron Swartz by suicide days after he rejected a plea bargain on a series of charges that could have (but most likely would not have) sent him to prison for 35 years, have created something of a dialogue.

As this Boston Globe story by Leon Neyfakh attempts to discuss, increasing the role of the citizen might be one way in which to limit the overcharging that happens with prosecutors.  Noting first that we have a criminal justice system and a political system that rewards tough on crime behavior by our law enforcement branches, Neyfakh also notes that
While the police who investigate and arrest us are bound by strict limits on what they can do, and courts must abide by procedures designed to treat defendants fairly, there are hardly any guidelines in place to protect us during the charging phase. The result—as any “Law & Order” fan knows—is a system where the prosecutor loads up as many charges as possible to force a guilty plea, and moves on to the next case.
Thus, at one key phase of the criminal prosecution phase, there is almost no limit, practical or legal, that can be a check on the power of the government.  Why?   A plea bargain system of justice is the most efficient way to appear "tough on crime" and to address the thousands of laws that create criminals out of all of us.  See, Harvey Silvergate's Three Felonies A Day:  How the Feds Target The Innocent.  Neyfakh discusses a number of ideas to change the jury system, to increase the role of the grand jury or to change the manner in which the grand juries operate.  Today, in those states with a grand jury process, it is said that a good prosecutor can get a ham sandwich indicted if he so wanted.  Changes in the grand jury system, so that average citizens have more of a say in who gets charged and what they get charged with, might be one means to reaffirming the role of the citizen in the judicial system as well as serving as a check on the prosecutor gone wild.

While there is nothing inherently wrong with a plea bargain, particularly for those who are truly guilty, there is an incentive created in a system in which plea bargains are the primary means of obtaining a conviction.  For a prosecutor with political ambitions and/or prejudices, her discretion allows for her to make decisions which can all but guarantee a plea from an alleged criminal without the trouble and expense of a trial for the state.  The prosecutor simply loads up the charges, listing lesser offenses along with some offenses which, if the matter actually went to trial would get tossed pretty easily, all in an effort to say to a defendant, "if I convict you on all these charges you will get 50 years in prison.  But here is a deal where you can plead guilty to this charge and get little or not jail time."  Of course, in such a situation, particularly for those people (most people) who cannot afford a costly legal defense, taking the deal is preferable.  As little more that state-sanctioned blackmail (the term for this should not be plea bargain but rather it should be "prison-mail").

But is the deal being offered truly fair?  We are not always talking about some drug dealer who may have killed a rival, so the prosecutor, in the face of little or no evidence of the murder charge, offers a felony drug conviction.  In that case, everyone knows the dealer is guilty of a least the drug crimes.  But what about the case of Aaron Swartz?*  Could Swartz have committed a crime?  Probably--at least trespassing by breaking into a switching room to which he was not allowed. He was also probably guilty of illegal downloading and/or hacking. But 35 years on 13 charges seems excessive.  Given that Swartz was embarking on a plan to regularly hack networks to publicly reveal data, a mindset that Orin Kerr discusses at length, some sort of punishment was certainly warranted.  Kerr also warns of turning Swartz into a cause celebre or thinking his case is an outlier.  Swartz had set out on a plan to challenge, among other laws, the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.  Swartz was almost certainly guilty of one or more crimes under that act (which Kerr does argue is in need of some serious reworking).
But the broader point is that if we think agressive prosecution tactics such as this are improper, we shouldn’t be focused just on the Aaron Swartz case. Rather, we should be shining a light on the federal criminal system in its entirety. These sorts of tactics have been going on for years, without many people paying attention. If we don’t want a world in which prosecutors have these powers, we shouldn’t just object when the defendant in the crosshairs is a genius who went to Stanford, hangs out with Larry Lessig, and is represented by the extremely expensive lawyers at Keker & Van Nest. We should object just as much — or even more — when the defendant is poor, unknown, and unconnected to the powerful. To do otherwise sends an extremely troubling message to prosecutors that they need to be extra sensitive when considering charges against defendants with connections. We have too much of a two-tiered justice system already, I think. So blame the system and aim to reform the system; don’t think that this was just two or three prosecutors that were doing something unusual. It wasn’t.
Kerr's solution is pretty simple--eliminate duplicative charges.
[m]ultiple overlapping crimes gives prosecutors an unfair advantage at trial that in turn pressures defendants unfairly to take a guilty plea. That’s the case because the jury is easily misled. When the jury sees a multi-count indictment involving many different crimes, the jurors have two natural reactions. First, they think they can “split the difference” and convict on some but not all. This is just wrong, as it turns out; at sentencing, a conviction as to only one crime is treated just as severely as a conviction as to all crimes. But the jury doesn’t know that, giving the prosecution an advantage. And relatedly, the jury likely thinks that the defendant’s conduct is extra serious if it is charged under lots of criminal offenses instead of one. The existence of multiple overlapping crimes therefore gives the prosecutors an unfair advantage; the answer is to narrow that advantage by eliminating entirely duplicative crimes.
Reynold suggested two things that are simple and quite easy to implement:

  • Juries could be informed of plea bargains that were rejected so that they might ask the question of why a prosecutor is seeking 20 years at trail but was willing to accept five in a plea bargain.  
  • Implement a type of loser pays systems so that if a prosecutor is unable to get a guilty verdict at trial, the state would be obligated to pay some or all of the legal fees of the defendant.

But as this post from Grits for Breakfast dealing with Texas criminal justice system points out, the fix probably won't come from the courts, but has to come from the legislature.

Which felons go to prison, which ones get probation and who is even charged are all local decisions.... The Legislature can't control elected DAs and judges, but it does have both direct and indirect means to set the parameters of local decisions. 

Sure, there are budgetary decision, but what is necessary is systemic change.  Thus the legislature needs to be pressured to make these changes.

The Larger Issue
While depending on who you ask, you might get different answers about how to address the problem be it legislative or populist, legal or libertarian, the fact is that the plea bargain system does produce incentives that eliminate the role of the citizen.

However, while these questions of incentives and checks on the power of the prosecutor are important, they point to a deeper problem we have in this country.  The effort by so called experts, elites and/or self-important government "servants" to take the reins of power out of the hands of the citizen and keep if for themselves.

The jury system in the United States is not just about having a "jury of your peers" to prevent overreach by the government.  The jury is the democratic aspect of judicial system.  If you look at our three branches of government, the legislative, the executive and the judicial, there is and must be a role for the citizen in all three, be it by direct election, indirect election or direct participation in the process, the Constitution enshrines in each branch a role for the citizen.  The jury system is how the average citizen can ensure that the law is fairly and justly applied since the jury has a pretty strong tendency (and incentive) to be fair and just, far more than a prosecutor (who has different motives) or even a judge (who may be prone to his/her own biases and just plain human error)

Everywhere you look in our government, we see the distancing of the core government functions away from the citizen.  The expansion of the regulatory state (in addition to the problems highlighted by Reynolds, Silvergate in the justice system and many, many others in all arenas  means that the average citizen has no way of knowing the law as well as removing from the purview of the common man the ability to act as a check on the power of government, in what ever form that the "government" takes--legislator, bureaucrat or prosecutor.  When the legislature delegates lawmaking power to un-elected, faceless bureaucrats, there is no method by which a voter can hold his representatives accountable or easily know the law under which he lives.  Similarly, when there is no check on judicial and prosecutorial discretion  the plea bargain system eliminates the common man from the judicial process.

More and more, we have a government by the elites--the lawmakers, the rule makers, and the law enforcers.  Where is the citizen?  Is the jury system complicated and slow?  Probably, but that is hardly a justification to circumvent democratic institutions.  While complaints about the plea bargain system are well-founded, the real complaint should be more about how the average citizen is being eliminated more and more from the public role he/she was granted by the Constitution.

* There is no hard evidence of Swartz's suicide being the consequence of the charges against him.  Reportedly Swartz had a history of depression.  It is possible that his criminal case may have exacerbated his despressive symptoms or it maybe completely unrelated.

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Monday, February 04, 2013

Boys Being Graded Less for Behavioral Matters?

Do you have boys?  You may want to read this little story and start challenging the basis for their grades. According to an upcoming study highlight by Christina Hoff Sommers:

Boys score as well as or better than girls on most standardized tests, yet they are far less likely to get good grades, take advanced classes or attend college. Why? A study coming out this week in The Journal of Human Resources gives an important answer. Teachers of classes as early as kindergarten factor good behavior into grades — and girls, as a rule, comport themselves far better than boys. 
The study’s authors analyzed data from more than 5,800 students from kindergarten through fifth grade and found that boys across all racial groups and in all major subject areas received lower grades than their test scores would have predicted. 
The scholars attributed this “misalignment” to differences in “noncognitive skills”: attentiveness, persistence, eagerness to learn, the ability to sit still and work independently. As most parents know, girls tend to develop these skills earlier and more naturally than boys. 
No previous study, to my knowledge, has demonstrated that the well-known gender gap in school grades begins so early and is almost entirely attributable to differences in behavior. The researchers found that teachers rated boys as less proficient even when the boys did just as well as the girls on tests of reading, math and science. (The teachers did not know the test scores in advance.) If the teachers had not accounted for classroom behavior, the boys’ grades, like the girls’, would have matched their test scores.

An interesting read to say the least.  If greade differentials begin at such an early age and in no relation to actual academic work, what does it mean.  Well for some nothing.  As Sommers writes further:
There are some who say, well, too bad for the boys. If they are inattentive, obstreperous and distracting to their teachers and peers, that’s their problem. After all, the ability to regulate one’s impulses, delay gratification, sit still and pay close attention are the cornerstones of success in school and in the work force. It’s long past time for women to claim their rightful share of the economic rewards that redound to those who do well in school. 
As one critic told me recently, the classroom is no more rigged against boys than workplaces are rigged against lazy and unfocused workers. But unproductive workers are adults — not 5-year-olds. If boys are restless and unfocused, why not look for ways to help them do better? As a nation, can we afford not to? 
A few decades ago, when we realized that girls languished behind boys in math and science, we mounted a concerted effort to give them more support, with significant success. Shouldn’t we do the same for boys? 
When I made this argument in my book “The War Against Boys,” almost no one was talking about boys’ academic, social and vocational problems. Now, 12 years later, the press, books and academic journals are teeming with such accounts. Witness the crop of books in recent years: Leonard Sax’s “Boys Adrift,” Liza Mundy’s “The Richer Sex,” Hanna Rosin’s “The End of Men.”

In a world in which there are now far more women graduating from college than men (and women valuing that degree both for themselves and their future spouses) can we afford to tolerate an assessment scheme in kindergarten and elementary school that burdens young men because they have not developed the necessary self-control yet?  Or when that development of self-control has nothing to do with an individual boy as it is to simply being a boy?

There have been numerous studies and theories abound about what will happen to society in general if we keep demeaning boys and men, or denying their maleness.
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Prince George's Maryland Wants to Assert A Copyright on Student and Staff work

Yeah, pretty sure this is a dumb idea and I would line up to represent someone on this stupid proposal.
A proposal by the Prince George’s County Board of Education to copyright work created by staff and students for school could mean that a picture drawn by a first-grader, a lesson plan developed by a teacher or an app created by a teen would belong to the school system, not the individual. 
The measure has some worried that by the system claiming ownership to the work of others, creativity could be stifled and there would be little incentive to come up with innovative ways to educate students. Some have questioned the legality of the proposal as it relates to students.
It’s not unusual for a company to hold the rights to an employee’s work, copyright policy experts said. But the Prince George’s policy goes a step further by saying that work created for the school by employees during their own time and using their own materials is the school system’s property. 
Kevin Welner, a professor and director of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado in Boulder, said the proposal appears to be revenue-driven. There is a growing secondary online market for teacher lesson plans, he said. 
“I think it’s just the district saying, ‘If there is some brilliant idea that one of our teachers comes up with, we want be in on that. Not only be in on that, but to have it all,’ ” he said.

So it seems we have the real incentive there, don't we.

Here is the policy:
“Works created by employees and/or students specifically for use by the Prince George’s County Public Schools or a specific school or department within PGCPS, are properties of the Board of Education even if created on the employee’s or student’s time and with the use of their materials,” the policy reads. “Further, works created during school/work hours, with the use of school system materials, and within the scope of an employee’s position or student’s classroom work assignment(s) are the properties of the Board of Education.”
Now, as noted above, often when an employee produced copyright-able material in the course of their employment it is usually the property of the employer (unless it is contracted otherwise).  So as far as staff creations, that is one issue.  But the broad sweep of the policy applies to student work as well.  That is a problem.  First of all, most students don't have a choice but to be in school (it is the law for students under 16 to be in school).  Second, the policy creates a kind of exclusive use for the school even though it is totally of the student's own creation--regardless of the materials provided.  Third, most students are minors thus they are not in a position to effectively bargain on this matter and it does not appear on the surface to be rationally related to the schools' mission of providing education and securing the safety of students.

This one goes too far I believe.  If the Board of Education wants to limit it to teacher/staff creations--I am probably okay with that (with some limitations).  But extending it to student work?  Complete over reach.

What do you think?  I would love to hear from you.

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Friday, February 01, 2013

Spaceflight Is Risky

Today we pay honor to 17 astronauts.

  • On January 27, 1967, Astronauts Gus Grissom, Edward White and Roger Chafee died in the Apollo 1 spacecraft fire. 
  • On January 28, 1986, Astronauts Michael J. Smith, Richard Scobee, Ronald McNair, Christine McAuliffe, Ellison Onizuka, Gregory Jarvis and Judith Resnick died in the Space Shuttle Challenger.
  • On February 1, 2003, Astronauts Rick Husband, William McCool, Michael P. Anderson, Kalpana Chawla,  David Brown, Laurel Clark and Ilan Roman died in the Space Shuttle Columbia.

These men and women were pushing the envelope of human capability.  Space flight, they knew, was and is risky.  NASA and the nation will honor these men and women, the risk takers, with various ceremonies today.  It is only natural to wonder, how do we honor their legacy?

It sounds dumb, it sounds cheesy, but make sure their effort is not the end of manned spaceflight.  We have to continue to push the boundaries.  Pushing the boundaries of any human endeavor is risky, it may involve death.  But human progress does not occur without human pain.

As Rand Simburg points out, NASA's mission is not safety, it is space exploration and scientific discovery in space:

It has been a century since the Panama Canal was completed. It was the greatest transportation project of its time, made possible only by new technologies such as dynamite. After Americans took over its construction, more than 5,000 died building the canal. That's more fatalities than we had in the Iraq War. 
Why was the project deemed worthy of expending so many lives? It is not because we didn't value them. Casualties under American leadership of the project were a fraction of the deaths in previous efforts. It is because monumental achievements are at the edge of our human abilities and our best technologies. Nevertheless, such efforts are worth the cost. 
In Panama, the sacrifice paid off, as travel distance (and time) for freight between the East and West Coasts fell from 14,000 to 6,000 miles. It also slashed the cost of shipping to Europe and Asia, resulting in rising economic growth and helping usher in a new age of globalization. 
It's just one example of the benefits of opening up new frontiers and trade routes; thousands died exploring and settling the New World half a millennium ago. Even at the time of the Panama Canal's completion, crossing the Atlantic from Europe to America wasn't yet "safe." Fifteen hundred people died on the Titanic just the year before the Pacific and Atlantic oceans mingled in Panama in 1913. 
At times, we seem to have forgotten. In the 21st century, do we still see exploring and opening up new territory as worth the expenditure of, or even the risk to, human life?

for me the answer has to be yes.  We have to push the envelope, we have to reach for new discovery.  While not everyone has the knowledge, skill, training and yes courage, to be an astronaut, it does not mean that we should stop reaching for the stars.  I suspect that there will never be a shortage of people willing to take the risks of going to space, of doing new things and we, as a nation, we as a human race, should be embracing that spirit of adventure.
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$20,000 for a Minimal Health Plan Under ObamaCare

Wait, What????  How the frak is that gonna work?

In a final regulation issued Wednesday, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) assumed that under Obamacare the cheapest health insurance plan available in 2016 for a family will cost $20,000 for the year. 
Under Obamacare, Americans will be required to buy health insurance or pay a penalty to the IRS. 
The IRS's assumption that the cheapest plan for a family will cost $20,000 per year is found in examples the IRS gives to help people understand how to calculate the penalty they will need to pay the government if they do not buy a mandated health plan.

Lest anyone thing that the IRS's numbers are totally without merit, take a look at this report by the Commonwealth Fund shows that average health insurance premiums for a family of four rose from $9,249 in 2003 to $15,022 in 2011.  That is an increase of $5,773 or 62% in just 8 years. (Ironically, the Commonwealth Fund believes that Obamacare will "moderate" costs--apparently they are not reading their own research).

Bear in mind that announcements are already rolling in of double digit premium increases for this year alone.  Do you really think that Obamacare is actually going to lower costs with all those extra mandates?  Think about that.

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Three to Read: Space Mining Edition

The past couple of weeks have seen two private companies (Deep Space Industries and Planetary Resources) announce that they will be launching exploratory vehicles to explore mining possibilities on near earth asteroids.  While it may sound like the stuff of science fiction, these two companies are looking to launch in the next three (3) years.

True, the concept sounds far fetched, but it is not when you think about our capabilities.

NASA is testing mining robots (a fact which doesn't seem that unusual-after all it is NASA). But NASA's effort is far more focused on scientific research rather than the commercial applications (and profit derived therefrom) of asteroid mining.

Researchers at NASA recently tested out a worker robot deemed RASSOR, for Regolith Advanced Surface Systems Operations Robot (and pronounced “razor”). 
RASSOR is very different from most other robots NASA has churned out. The agency is calling it a “blue collar robot.” Unlike the lab equipment-laden Curiosity, RASSOR leaves the delicate instruments at home. 
Like WALL-E, its purpose is utilitarian, not scientific. It isn’t meant to explore, it’s meant to dig. 
While RASSOR is far from space ready, the initial tests are promising. Built like a miniature tank, the prototype certainly looks hardworking. 
"We were surprised at what we could do with it," said engineer Rachel Cox of the Kennedy Space Center. 
Of course, NASA's effort is much more focused on the scientific discovery--but that scientific discovery (and the drive for discovery) can be commercialized.  Just as all NASA programs, even from the early days of Mercury, were intended to be in part science based, the resulting technology and knowledge is open to use for commercial purposes.

But these two companies have definitive plans to make the leap from fiction to fact and to make money off their leaps..  The concept is surprisingly simple (although the details clearly not):

DSI’s approach is similar to Planetary Resources, making use of small satellites to prospect NEOs. An initial class of spacecraft, 25-kilogram vehicles called Fireflies, would launch starting as soon as 2015 to fly past asteroids, collecting data on the structure and composition of these bodies. Following these short-duration (two to six months) missions, DSI would fly Dragonfly spacecraft to targeted asteroids. These slightly larger spacecraft, weighing a little over 30 kilograms, would rendezvous with asteroids and collect samples for return to Earth on round-trip missions lasting two to four years. Later Harvester missions would bring back a few hundred tons of asteroid material for commercial utilization.

Both companies appear to be planning to have a cluster launch of their craft.  Each launch vehicle would carry 5-7 of the smaller craft into space, the number being calculated to account for potential failure among the craft.

Of course, there are skeptics, there always are, in an well titled post, Professor Chris Rhodes makes the case for why space mining will not work.

This is very much a case of playing the longer game, and it might be decades before investors get their money back, if they ever do, e.g. platinum now costs around $1,600 an ounce, and in comparison, a planned mission by NASA to bring back 60 g of material from an asteroid to Earth is expected to cost about $1bn Since this represents the price of 18 tonnes of pure platinum, the Energy Returned on Energy Invested (EROEI) is very far into the red, given the likely quantity of asteroid material to be recovered. Hence, the case for a viable industry on this basis is not compelling. 

Energy Returned on Energy Invested--sounds pretty scientific or at least financial. Based on the example Rhodes provides, the effort does sound cost prohibitive.  But one thing Rhodes fails to understand is that both DSI and Planetary Resources are in this for the long haul.  Unlike Earth based investments, which might pay off in a couple of years of R&D, asteroid mining has to be a minimum of a seven or either year investment just to get early mining returns.  To start collecting large hauls, the companies are no doubt looking to a 15-20 year event horizon.

The length of time to realization of space mining requires two things--patience and faith.  But we are not a very patient people and that is what has made efforts like space mining or broader manned exploration of space so difficult--we as a society have limited capacity to understand the long term.  On May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy announced an audacious goal of sending a man to the moon and returning him safely to earth--to be done within eight and one half years (by 1970).  The United States did it in just over 8 years.  True, the full effort of more than 300,000 people were invovled and now Planetary Resources and DSI have far fewer people working toward the goal, but technology and capability have increased 1000 fold since 1961.  There is no reason to believe that technological advances in the next few years won't drastically alter the EROEI that seems so unfavorable now.

We must have patience to see the endeavor through and we have to have faith that the genius of humanity will find a solution to current day obstacles.  After all, in 1940, no one really thought a man would stand on the Moon.  Heck, in 1968 people wondered if a man would stand on the Moon.  By August 1969, we no longer had that question.  All it took was Patience, Faith and a whole lot of work.

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