30 June 2014

Hobby Lobby

Silver linings. Maybe a toilet bowl lined with shiny things. But still. Shiny things.

1) It seems, as with Citizens United, to have pissed off the left-wing base that increasingly is the agitating energy for the Democrats. Citizens United, I don't think they are correct on most any sensible legal theory. This one I think was more questionable.

2) It does not appear to have actually denied anyone any access to birth control measures. There's a work around that the government used for non-profit entities that will be applied.

2a) We should really stop pretending in our society that "denying access", eg "banning" things is at all the same as "reducing the accessibility or affordability of" whatever it is. The second is still often bad, and may have bad consequences, or unequal consequences, but it is not (usually) the same as "criminal and civil penalties for". When many abortion restrictions are considered by states, those are effectively doing both. Where this decision was concerned, it did neither. The semantics are important here because people talking about actual denial of access when what we have is an increase in risk to accessibility in actual terms (because of money usually) are confusing the best practices of solutions. If the problem is people (women) cannot afford it, that's very different from people putting up actual roadblocks via regulations, like these: "you need a prescription, so you must go see your doctor first", or "the pharmacist won't fill those prescriptions for religious reasons", or "you must wait 48 hours", or "the clinic needs admitting privileges".

We're talking about accessibility in economic terms and there's ways to resolve that, via public policy if we choose (subsidies that phase out based upon income and need would have been far, far better than insurer mandates). If we're talking about accessibility in legal terms, then we have a very different problem, one that almost entirely depends upon public policy decisions. We should not be conflating the two kinds of problems. Stop it. Just don't. They can sometimes overlap in practical terms, but the fix for either is usually different. (This is probably why debates about freedom of speech in the wake of McCullen also annoy me, in that they fail to distinguish action, which is regulated or restricted, from speech, which should not be).

3) It is a fairly narrow reading of religion or religious beliefs. Which is amusing. I've seen it referred to as all of religion comes down to in the eyes of the conservative wing of the court is "unapproved fucking".

The first amendment protection of free speech restrains the government from doing very much about speech (which is why for Citizens United, I'm not sure what the corporate personhood element had to say or why people started running around complaining about a very long jurisprudence decision that "corporations are people" in legal terms). The first amendment protection of freedom of religion does likewise, but I'm not sure how this was squared with this decision. It did not permit other religious objections under the free exercise clause. Just this one part. It puts the court or the government in the unusual position of deciding which exercises of religion are acceptable within this context of employer/employee and thus regulating those. That was a very bad idea really. Either it means there will be many more cases of the same variety or the government will eventually say, nope only these sorts of objections are okay.

It's probably further evidence that employer provided health care plans are an incredibly stupid way to go. But it's mostly evidence that freedom of religion is poorly understood.

4) Of all the aspects of the ruling that are annoying, probably most annoying is why it was that this narrow religious objection was singled out as acceptable in the first place. The belief turns largely on a metaphysical belief about the nature of personhood as applied to fertilized human eggs (but not yet actually conceived via the scientific definition of conception as there isn't one simply because the term has no unified meaning) and thus what this means about the utility of certain kinds of birth control measures. Considering a vast number of fertilized eggs fail to implant in the uterine wall and thus become "conceived", and a further vast number are implanted but fail to develop for whatever reason and are miscarried, applying such a definition is based upon a flawed understanding of the nature of human reproduction. A definition that should be considered flawed enough as to carry little weight in the decisions to mandate certain kinds of birth control be carried under a company insurance policy because it is too fungible and arbitrary to be fairly used in legal terms. It would be like judging that it is okay that only people who believe the earth is flat can have unemployment insurance at this company. Not only is the belief wrong, it is functionally meaningless to the performance and benefits of the employees.

There were far better practical and legal objections to that mandate that had nothing to do with birth control. The fact that it was singled out suggests a focus by the right upon the aforementioned "unapproved fucking" of its own that may have merited the decision of the court to narrowly tailor the ruling to that one element of religious doctrinal thinking.

5) The other annoying part is the "closely held corporation" exception. While this is not the same as large publicly traded corporations, I'm not sure why this was somehow a right that should only apply narrowly to "smaller" corporate entities, controlled by few people.

6) Some of the decision turns on the question not of the size or scope of ownership, but on the profit motives of the companies involved. Which to me seems to have little or no bearing on what restrictions of these type may be applied, and in any case, which the government seems already to have accorded non-profit companies with special accommodations for religious liberty (however absurd in this case). Why it should not also do so with for-profit corporations is not something that I think is easily established, or why the government could not also perform a similar accommodation.

7) Another aspect of the decision itself has focused on the intentions of Congress and then subsequent interpretations of those intentions by the appropriate regulatory body. With the implication that HHS in promulgating regulations exceeded its authority. While this is debatable in this case, this reading of the case suggests yet another separation of powers battle, one of several over the last year, with the basic impact and import to be to rebuke the (bloated) expansion of the executive that took place especially over the last decade. I'm not sure this was necessary in this instance, but as a general matter, this is a laudable goal. Where it fails specifically is that Congress attempted to deal with this precise question and voted down the objection of religious practices.

8) Ginsburg's dissent is a mishmash of things I find agreeable and things I do not, much as the ruling itself is. The main thrust of the argument that I find of note and interest is the general practices of a law, if everyone must comply with a given law or regulation, religious exemptions are of little importance to them, and likewise if targeting the particular religious expressions are not the interest of the state in forming the law or regulation, as it was not in this case, then the law should stand. Again, I find this interesting in a general sense, but the specific law, requiring a private actor to buy something, as well as dictating the terms under which that something must exist, seems to be the wrong hill on which to fight that battle. It further becomes muddy because of the existence of exemptions for similar, but not same, formats of companies, exemptions which came into form primarily (but not wholly) because of religious exemptions. I do not find the logic that it in some way damages the accessibility of the contentious forms of birth control persuasive, because it is plain that there are already existing methods available to substitute to assure the interest of accessibility was maintained.

9) The main appealing quality (for me) of Ginsburg's dissent is where it remains tightly focused on first amendment free exercise readings, simply because for me this was largely a question of whether a particular belief was being infringed upon, and that in this instance, the particular belief was absurd. The problem there is that there are legal statutes in place that intend the courts not to challenge whether a belief is central and essential, regardless of its absurdity. And there does not appear to be case law in either direction suggesting that corporate entities, in their function as economic devices controlled by people, do or do not have access to those exercise rights of religious beliefs. The conclusion that they should is inferred from example. The conclusion that they should not is largely inferred by absence. This is not as clear and settled a matter as a result as it appears in dissent.

29 June 2014

The appeal of thinking apocalyptically

There seems to be no limitation to the ability of humans to conceive of ways that their own generation will be the last generation of humans to exist and flourish. I can conceive myself of a myriad of destructive forces that could signal the end of modern civilization. I am not certain that most of them pose us a grave risk in our lifetimes. This does not mean that investment in multi generational solutions is not worthwhile; it simply means that our imagination of time is far too limited. Studies of history would rather quickly show us that many things we take easily for granted are very recent, and that (positive or negative) social changes can happen more rapidly than we anticipate. Studies of other cultures would rather quickly show us some people still don't know of their benefits at all and live at a much more marginal subsistence level. We ourselves often as not have already developed such specialised economies surrounding these benefits that most of us could not replicate them outside of that society of specialisation as we lack any of the required training or aptitude.

Of these world ending scenarios I can think of perhaps four that are worthy of our concern.

1) Asteroids or other large deep space objects colliding with the Earth (or the Moon if they were big enough). - There's a lot of stuff out there and the Earth is a fairly large gravitational influence to pull in objects that pass very close to us. The easiest way to start on this project is to set out to assure we can detect random space particles of asteroids or comets that may pass nearby. And then from there figure out what we would need to do to repel, divert, or even destroy those that pose a greater threat of damaging our environment or potentially impacting near a population center.

2) Nuclear warfare, particularly on a large scale. - There's still enough nuclear firepower in even some of the tertiary nuclear armed countries to annihilate most of human civilisation in minutes. This is to say nothing of the American or Russian arsenals that could (still) do so several times over. The easy way here is to reduce the size of those arsenals overall. That is unlikely for political reasons beyond a certain point. One good incentive of doing so though is the materials used to detonate a large city can also be repurposed to power a large city relatively cleanly, with at least much less of a footprint environmentally than a coal power plant. More countries will occasionally consider this an acceptable possibility.

3) Biological pandemic. - I do not think we're about to have a zombie plague breakout at all, but it is very possible for a virus to wipe out large numbers of people and create a social panic far exceeding the absurd levels of panic we generated over a few religious fanatics and their rejection of modern society via terrorism. We have various methods of response already available to research and cure or treat some diseases. Probably the biggest problem is actually identifying when something is a serious risk of becoming an international pandemic capable of killing or incapacitating tens or even hundreds of millions of people. Even something that could kill a million people a year is a serious problem (and there are diseases that do so right now, but they generally don't have a transmission vector that poses a serious risk to developed societies like the US, so nobody really gives a shit). The tricky bit there is then to do so before it ever reaches that point. And then actually being able to show the counterfactual of mass chaos and biological devastation was true instead of a false alarm.

I think this is somewhat less likely than is historically the case to be a serious concern. Humans live in somewhat more removed circumstances from livestock/poultry (not everywhere), which were the pathogenic sources for killer diseases like smallpox in our past. We also live in a more connected society which means that most of us have been exposed to more varied diseases and developed a broader immune spectrum. Smallpox was still potentially lethal to Europeans but vastly more so to aboriginal peoples in North and South America precisely because these peoples had had no exposure to it and no time to develop it (and in not a few cases, because the Europeans accelerated the plague by spreading it deliberately). Something generally ignored is that the introduction of small pox to the western hemisphere is estimated to have killed off millions of people in less than a century and certainly tens of thousands were dead within a few short years. This is far, far more destructive than AIDS, or Ebola, or even the famous influenza outbreak during the WW1 era as a matter of perspective. Whole villages or towns were wiped out or ceased to function. In order to repeat this, we would most likely require a viral or bacterial agent that acts lethally, spreads easily, and for which humans have no current immunities (meaning it would be unlike other infectious agents). That can happen. Viruses and bacterium can mutate and adapt, and our overuse of antibiotics as a society is not helping by potentially forcing such mutations forward faster than we can adapt our medical knowledge.

4) Global warming. - Of the four of these, this is probably the only one that actually requires amendment of human behavior in any way. It's also probable that unless it generates very catastrophic results (possible), that mostly richer countries could adapt to climate changes and circumstances without a major impact on well-being and lifestyle for most of their citizens even as climate is shifting. The problem isn't the billion or 3 people living in the rich or near rich world. It's the other 3-4 billion who are living in societies that are closer to subsistence levels or abject poverty. Their lives can be ended, their countries destroyed or chaotic, and so on. I regard that as a very serious matter that people of Bangladesh would be impacted and it does not seem sensible that we should do nothing as a society or individually in response. But that leads to the actual and more sensible debate, "so, what do we do about it now?"

I've seen or encountered a lot of arguments and they come from both the local, individual level, and the societal, governmental level.

  • Stop burning coal. Easier said than done, but I agree. Coal is the most bad option here to power a modern society used in large amounts. To do so you'd have to change the price of burning coal to be less profitable ALL over the globe, not just here, where coal use is actually going down already, or change the price of alternative fuel sources (natural gas for example) to be cheaper options. 
  • Use and fund alternative energy projects. I suspect a far stronger argument could be to stop funding "dirty" energy projects or fuel use with substantial subsidies first rather than trying to redress this balance by funding yet more energy projects. 
  • Apply some kind of externality (as "net zero" income tax) onto existing fossil fuel consumption and sale. For the most part if we could pass a pretty clean bill to do this, and the tax wasn't used to build new infrastructure (unless it is upgrading existing infrastructure or a distribution system for new or cleaner fuels), this would be my favored approach at the policy level. I have little confidence such a bill would be clean and that there would be all manner of carve outs. The basis for this working would be that most people could avoid the tax by reducing their individual energy footprint, which in turn should make it easier to pay for any consequences of climate shifts as they may be reduced (and thus less tax would need to be raised). 
  • Localvore food consumption. For the most part I think this is a silly idea and that it may even be counterproductive environmentally. Maybe not on climate change but on water pollution from agricultural run-off of nitrates or disease vectors from using manure. Which in turn requires feeding and care of large animals, who themselves are a considerable source of pollution. I think this argument rests on several concerns; that trade from elsewhere is somehow inefficient, which is usually false, I see no problem if I have to buy my grapes from California or Chile and I am greatly improved as an individual to have a large array of possible produce and meat to sample and enjoy in my daily meals. We are all also greatly improved to buy things from other people by selling them things that we are ourselves effectively producing rather than trying to consume them all ourselves. Trade works and is almost always a good in improving our lives to let things be grown or produced in places that can do so far more effectively than we can ourselves. The major flaw of that argument is it dramatically underestimates that the environmental impact of modern agriculture is almost entirely at the production stage (especially for meat), and not at the shipment, storage, and distribution stage. Which is pretty small for most things. Even if it is not zero, it is the act of large scale farming (even local farming) that does most of the work. It is generally more efficient and much less damaging to have a large farm, even a local one, going out and fertilizing and producing food and flora and fauna for sale than to have lots of people gardening. The reason people should garden should not be that they believe they can save the planet. The reason should be that it is something they enjoy doing or enjoy the (literal) fruits of. As related concerns, many people have gone into buying things that are "organic" or "natural", with similar environmental justifications that are usually equally flawed. The reason human beings should consume these things in their diet has little to do with the environment and more to do with the fulfillment they receive from production of the food stuffs and the overall reliability of the food chain if they feel they know where something came from rather than an impersonal package of meat or vegetables. If the environmental impact is, as I think it is, actually somewhat negative, it's fairly negligible at the individual level to have a garden versus trying to buy local produce from farms that can be grown half way around the world for a quarter of the environmental cost. 
  • At an individual level many people may seek to reduce their energy use, or to use alternative sources of energy themselves. Unfortunately there appears to be a large signaling effect at play rather than an effective result. People and companies sometimes install wind turbines that have to be powered to spin because there is inadequate wind to turn them most of the time, and then wastefully power them anyway. Solar panels are more frequently deployed on the side of the house or business facing the street, regardless of whether that is the side which would generate the most electrical power. Recycling rates are far more likely in the US to be reasonably high if the collection of recyclable goods and materials is public. People who own more fuel efficient cars on average drive them more often which leads to larger traffic snarls and jams, which in turn leads to more pollution and higher energy consumption rates, for not only themselves but for other drivers. Governments respond to this last by building more roads, which paradoxically can increase traffic and energy use further by providing more routes, if not also more destinations. 
  • By far the most significant thing at an individual level (here at any rate) that could be done is to do away with the home mortgage interest deductions in the US (actually this is government having to do something, but it would change individual behavior significantly). This would help to encourage urban density instead of suburban life; which nobody seems to actually want so much as they may find the cities unpleasant right now. We would need some governmental actions to reduce rent controls or property constraints such that more people could live vertically, thereby reducing commuting and concentrating our energy demands, densifying populations and destinations to make public transit much more viable, and so on. 
  • Tax congestion on roads by instituting variable tolls on controlled access roads (highways). 
  • We may want to combine that with an effort to allow for more telecommuting work and flexible scheduling. 
  • Another strong individual level constraint would be to have more energy efficient objects, put in insulation, design homes and offices to be heat/cooling efficient, unplug things more often, compost food waste, and so on. Most of this is invisible and inconspicuous consumption. That makes it difficult to signal. Which implies that maybe we need conspicuous signs that we've done it that come along with these projects and maybe more people would investigate these options. 
  • Geo-engineering experiments to alter weather or sunlight absorption patterns. These are uncertain, but in my view are at this rate the most likely options to proceed forward and be carried out, somewhere, by someone. 
The individual arguments arise primarily out of frustration that the societal level few things are being done. I find that there are two basic attitudes to really any large scale societal issue.
1) Most people expect someone else to do all the work of fixing it. This may be a consequence of specialisation. Climate modeling or weather and climate analysis and geological histories are complicated subjects and can involve a great deal of the dreaded "math". It is assumed that because this is a "science" problem, that scientists will solve it for us. In repeated polls I think the average American expects that whether we are faced with a plague or widespread drought and heat waves/cold snaps from climate shifts, we would have smart people somewhere stashed working on solving the problem and they would invent something that wouldn't require us, as individuals, to really fundamentally alter how we live in a "negative" way. Innovation must be a part of our problems and their solutions, but innovation sometimes requires that we will eat some vegetables for a while before it gets into the wild as a tamed beast with applications ready to go. It is not as clean and tidy as is believed, and it often involves an iterative process of fits, starts, failures, and restarts. And then even if it is ready to get something off the ground and working, someone could try to squash it politically anyway. 

2) Everyone else then basically expects that somehow nobody will ever do anything about a major problem at a large enough scale and that preparation for imminent disaster and societal collapse is an immediate priority. Or if not taken on that scale, that we should adopt fairly radical and often ineffectual behaviors to moderate our worst and most destructive impulses, without properly and empirically seeking out a way of identifying what those are. In other words, "we should all do what I say, because I don't like X." Whether or not X is actually a problem or not or whether solution Y is itself any more desirable is not important to discuss. The important thing is to be seen as "doing something" about the problem, and often as a corollary to loudly proclaim that whatever that something is, it's probably what you are doing about it.

The advantages of both of these systems is that it allows the measure of blame to be mostly shifted away. And for complex scenarios for which the individual's merit and demerit is very small, elections, pollution, water or antibiotic overuse, etc, it is in fact the case there isn't much incentive to making significant changes in your own behavior.

The question mark is what happens when the cumulative incentives are bad such that little or no change is made, in an area something must be changed or calamities are at risk of occurring. The best bet is to look for a way to change the game and rig the incentives. But if we think we're about to destroy the world and no longer have the incentive of "future generations" toward which we are abstractly connected through children or grandchildren, nobody has any incentive to change the game. They actually have a strong incentive to hold out for a better deal to do what they want. Apocalyptic thinking is the self-important way to examine the situation, the flexibility of the status quo, and determine (or pre-ordain really) that the world probably won't spin on without me and my kind in it anyway, so why should I care what happens to it now.

This is a reality based outgrowth of my disdain for the common belief in supernatural afterlives. The world is here, now. We have some responsibility to do things with the people in it, and to interact and attempt, if often poorly, to share their concerns and affections. The thinking that the world won't be here tomorrow, or that there's some better world out there instead, destroys these moral obligations to one another in the face of potential catastrophes. It may accelerate their comings and goings rather than give us breaks and stops on that path. 

27 June 2014

A series of mostly good things and some things mixed in.

Abortion protesters

This one can't be blamed on horrid anti-choice conservatives, or decisions of powerful men not understanding the lives of women.

9-0 suggests that the underlying problem was a violation of freedom of speech unequivocally. There are provisions in the ruling that still permit cities and states to craft laws restricting obstructive, destructive, or vicious action. There is little evidence that "calm rational persuasion", of the variety of offering "counseling", literature, alternative services, etc, has much of any influence on decisions for or against abortions being performed. Most women have their minds well made up and the main feature that changes it is their health or changes in fetal health, not some stranger passing out literature. Despite this, I can't actually think of too many occasions where such activities should be restricted and prevented. I can think of occasions where a more generalized message opposing abortion on demand would be so counter-productive to deploy that I question the wisdom of standing around and trying to talk to every woman entering a clinic (for example, rape victims, or women who are in the aforementioned health circumstances and effectively have to abort a potential child they may have otherwise wanted, without any choice in the matter).

I can't likewise think of too many occasions where such activities should be mandated and imposed by force either, as many states have attempted to do by law and fiat imposing the properties required, the processes used, and affecting the timing of a medical procedure being offered and supplied primarily via private funds. And, sadly, such attempts have often succeeded. If an anti-choice protester encounters an individual who denies their "counsel" and presumptions of wisdom, they may not find that more assertive or aggressive tactics of "informational counseling" would have any more impact and indeed, on those grounds there may be a reasonable need for the state to intervene to protect the privacy and autonomy of the individual. By preventing such people from say, publicizing the identities of women they encounter without permission (I should think HIPPA would have to apply there), or preventing threatening activities, menacing, and other disturbances of public order and serenity, or allowing private property rights the ability to remove people who are trespassing and protesting there rather than in a public space, and so on. The court was careful to suggest that these forms of regulations were acceptable in the decision (many people are conflating these forms of action as speech in their outrage over the decision, suggesting they did not read the actual decision, or they would have seen this: "Massachusetts could also enact legislation similar to the federal Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act of 1994, 18 U.S.C. §248(a)(1) , which imposes criminal and civil sanctions for obstructing, intimidating, or interfering with persons obtaining or providing reproductive health services. Obstruction of clinic driveways can readily be addressed through existing local traffic ordinances.....The Commonwealth's interests include ensuring public safety outside abortion clinics, preventing harassment and intimidation of patients and clinic staff, and combating deliberate obstruction of clinic entrances. The Act itself contains a separate provision, subsection (e) -unchallenged by petitioners-that prohibits much of this conduct. ......We have previously noted the First Amendment virtues of targeted injunctions as alternatives to broad, prophylactic measures. Such an injunction "regulates the activities, and perhaps the speech, of a group," but only "because of the group's past actions in the context of a specific dispute between real parties." Madsen512 U.S., at 762. Moreover, given the equitable nature of injunctive relief, courts can tailor a remedy to ensure that it restricts no more speech than necessary. See, e.g., id., at 770 ; Schenck519 U.S., at 380-381 . In short, injunctive relief focuses on the precise individuals and the precise conduct causing a particular problem. The Act, by contrast, categorically excludes non-exempt individuals from the buffer zones, unnecessarily sweeping in innocent individuals and their speech."). The ruling was more limited in that a more general silencing of "counseling"* was not an acceptable government regulation in that it did not impact public safety. Silencing or removing from public spaces people whose speech we have little regard for, and whose speech was unasked for and generally annoying is not really a property that I find the state should be invested in carrying out activities, no matter how offensive or annoying such speech is to us as individuals.

There should be no requirement that a woman seeking an abortion should have to encounter a doctor or protester or friend or any other random person that counsels against such a decision during the entire process. Many states doing so suggests that the public or the minority governing bodies representing the said public do not and have not investigated the process, thinking, agonizing, moralizing, and practical obligations involved. But neither should there be any requirement that no one should be allowed to speak up. The wisdom of many of our life decisions is open to interpretations and criticisms by others. Who we marry or consort with sexually in our private affairs, when to have children, whether to have children, where to live, where to attend universities or what field of learning to embrace while there, how to educate or discipline our own children, and so on. In some of those cases, we are assessed and judged by random strangers, co-workers, and other middling associates with whom we share only a limited need, if any, for those assessments and opinions. We accordingly can assess little weight to those opinions, even where they are vociferously and persistently expressed.

The bigger problem with abortion isn't putting up with people who disagree with abortion expressing their opinions and beliefs. It's getting access to safe and legal methods in the first place.  This ruling does not significantly decrease that access in a way that many existing laws do and it is there that the majority of effort of reform should be placed in pushing back. Not against the right of dissenting views to be heard at a point which for them is of the gravest concern.

*- I do not regard most anti-choice demonstrations and their views as legitimate forms of "counseling", hence the scare quotes. But they are usually  types of speech that should be protected, however repugnant we find the format and location of expression. I find this issue very similar to the Westboro ruling a couple of years ago, or flag burning restrictions being overturned. Free speech for me and not for thee is not what the First Amendment says. If you don't like what someone has to say, that's not up to you to get the government to shut them up. The best the state can and should offer is time, place, and manner restrictions on the actual speech, which may in some effects be applied here still, and then protections against stalking, menacing, threats, eg, "behavior".


This is fairly mixed. I'm tired of cable company regulatory monopolies. Anything that cuts the cord is great. My main concern is how we should be paying for content generation. If Aereo was offering a business model that reimbursed cable channels (but not cable companies) directly for streaming or rebroadcasting their content, great. I'm not as familiar as I should be with their business model clearly. It sounds like there was a bizarre dissent focusing on consumer choices in relation to how content was protected under intellectual property rights laws. Which doesn't make any sense really. It also sounds like a) it was intended to be a narrow ruling, so it doesn't resolve the grey zone that much of the Internet exists within as far as content generation and sharing, and b) it doesn't really tackle or suggest the fundamental need for intellectual property rights reforms which undo much of the very broad protections that current IP law offers.

Hiring and Canning. 

Basically a simple politics and political procedural issue. Boring for outsiders, but great for people who wanted to see executive power curtailed or constrained at all. Which I did, though this was hardly the most pressing concern among executive powers I'd like to have had constrained. I found the whining about the Senate being obstructionist mostly partisan in nature, but also mostly pointless because of reforms in the appointment process (no filibusters, just hearings and straight up or down votes).

Riley. Or, how your iPhone is sort of secure. Or at least needs a warrant to be not as secure.
This was probably my single favorite decision over the last several years in a civil liberties sense. Finally. Does it hint at a broader need for digital rights privacy and protection from search and seizure rules and government surveillance? Not yet. But it's a start. That police now require a warrant to search an arrestee's phone is not a serious obstacle to investigation of ongoing criminal activities, which is partly why the decision was made so easily and so convincingly (rarely can you get 9 people to agree on anything). Warrants can be obtained within minutes, and on site (in part thanks to the same mobile devices at issue in this case). Police would at least need to show cause for the warrant in the first place. This is unlikely to be more than a pro forma objection and rarely have advocates pushing back against such need, but it is still a stumbling block for some jurisdictions or some police procedures (seizing mobile phones with video on them for instance for the purposes of destroying evidence of possible police misconduct, as but one example, an activity for which some courts have begun to insist police be punishable and accountable for as illegal misconduct in its own right). So it rightly deserves to be seen as progress in the push back against civil liberties abridgements that took place in the wake of terrorism fears and the endless drug war.

12 June 2014

Migration patterns of the not so rich and not so famous

Uh... This sentence: "There's a persistent belief in Washington that there's an easy "compromise" on the question of what to do with America's 11 million unauthorized immigrants: give them legal status instead of deporting them, but don't allow them to pursue citizenship." - is directly contradicted by this one: "76 percent of Americans who think unauthorized immigrants should be eligible for citizenship at some point."

Perhaps, and I know this will be shocking, Washington's persistent beliefs are stupid on this point. The "middle ground" is fixing the existing immigration and citizenship laws to provide a path to citizenship, because that's what most people want in some form. Even most conservatives support such measures. There is no need for a plan which somehow rejects citizenship as an option, or a plan which removes many millions of people. Because that's not actually what most people want. The latter does have a constituency, but it doesn't appear to be a very big one.

For the record I don't even think we should be doing much to keep track of the borders. Basically a lethal pandemic disease is about the only reason I can think of to be all that worried about who comes and goes as a systematic measure of border controls. If you're worried about terrorism border control isn't going to help you, better and more focused intelligence functions are to identify and track potential threats for terrorist acts, plus there are plenty of legal citizen status or native born Americans who do things we could otherwise regard as "terrorism".

As a result much of the problem with this debate is a belief about the borders at all being a point of contention when most of the people who immigrated have been here for years because we have an ineffectual immigration system for turning such people into citizens if they want to be. This probably why there's also a large constituency who demands mass deportations despite the futility, expense, and lack of any plausible benefit to doing so, and who is rarely heard from except during Republican primaries it seems. How this expensive and questionably moral project becomes a demand for a futile and wastefully expensive border control measure also I am less clear on.


I've never been a huge fan of the tea party as a political movement. Despite the media's insistence that they are a collective band of libertarian crazy people, being as I actually am a libertarian crazy person (but usually referred to as a strangely sane libertarian crazy person) my views of them suggested otherwise. It's always looked like a rebranding effort by arch conservatives with a side function as a costume party as a means of selling colonial era hats and attire.

Since Americans seem quite fond of pretending that their political movements represent the views of ancient and deceased political philosophers, lawyers, inventors, and wealthy plantation owners (who owned property that included other human beings) who conveniently are longer alive to represent their views to us and be vilified for having the temerity to disagree with our own preferred version of their views, I have decided to embrace this method acting presentation and declare a new political movement:

The Whiskey Rebellion.

Its political view: government's main function is to drive the citizens of a nation to drink and it will do whatever it can to service this function by being frustratingly busy at things it needs not do and frustratingly inactive at things it need occupy itself at effectively and efficiently.

And also the reason for this as a "rebellion": the main function of citizens appears to be to drive other citizens to drink. We need to rebel against that government by the people and for the people by consuming more alcohol

(except apparently consuming more alcohol makes people more conservative in their voting outlooks, so only up to a point required for social lubrication to be achieved and a position which watches over the inanities of our fellow man more serenely is at work.)

07 June 2014

Mental health

And what amounts to our paranoia in response. I found this interview filtering through to my social media feed. And I found the answers given so utterly depressing that I felt I should eviscerate them more deliberately so as to feel better.

What signs should parents look for that differentiate a child who needs help coping from one who presents a danger to others?
"As a general rule, young adults who develop erratic behavior do so in response to either substance abuse or early symptoms of psychosis (schizophrenia or bipolar disorder). The most important thing to look for is a marked change in behavior: previously outgoing with lots of friends, now spends most of his/her time in bedroom alone; or a dramatic drop in school grades." 

Note this doesn't answer the question. This simply re-identifies the sort of people who need help coping socially, but does not identify the supposed danger signs to others. Likely reasons for this are as follows: 
a) there are no easy ways to differentiate who is a supposed danger to others. Even psychosis related mental ailments are not automatically dangerous to other people. 
b) parents certainly aren't going to detect them if someone is going to, but they will likely worry and overblow what signs and symptoms they do detect. 
c) psychiatrists get a built-in business model of seeing every teenager who is marginally sullen because of this. Which is basically every teenager. 
d) substance abuse is a bigger problem than any mental illness in relationship to violence and injury, and in fact can considerably amplify most of the problems that mental patients would otherwise have in dealing with any potentially violent episodes. Alcohol in particular. That subject matter was dropped in favor of others but at least got a nod to its existence.

Do therapists receive adequate training to recognize potentially dangerous patients?

"“Therapist” usually indicates a psychologist or social worker, although it may also include people with other degrees, including those obtained by mail order. The training of therapists, and their ability to evaluate an individual such as Elliot Rodger, thus varies widely depending on their training. California seems to have more than its share of mail order degree therapists." 

This read like : lots of people who are supposedly helpful mental health individuals are giving bad advice, so you should only see people who are "qualified". That may in fact be quite true given the status of our mental health system and its affiliated tendrils (prisons, therapists, etc). But it does not answer what kind of training is available that could recognize potentially dangerous patients. This is likely because there does not appear to be any such training available. Or at least what is available is not worth that much more than what is easily accessible information (eg, this person just shot or attacked multiple people, and the psychiatrist will be able to tell us how that happened, but not why it doesn't happen more often). 

The value of psychiatry is probably not in deducing these factors ahead of time correctly but in guessing more often than is true to be cautious and in particular, in having regular treatment and sessions for people with serious issues. Ideally its value is in helping such people to lead as normal of lives as is possible or otherwise cope with these problems successfully. 

This response tells us that our shooter probably had inadequate mental health care from what he apparently received, but that could be easily deduced by the paranoid and misogynist ramblings he posted. 

What strategies do people use to cover mental illness when confronted by parents, social workers, teachers, and law enforcement? Are there questions authorities should ask to identify a person attempting to conceal mental illness?
"Many individuals who are psychiatrically disturbed are able to “hang it together” for a few minutes when confronted by a police officer, judge, etc. I have had very psychotic patients appear quite rational for 10 minutes in a courtroom by focusing their mind. Patients with Parkinson’s disease can similarly suppress their tremor briefly by focusing their mind on it. Thus, it is unrealistic to expect a police officer to make a clinical evaluation, and such evaluations should include a mental health professional.
In Vancouver, at one time, they routinely had a psychiatric nurse go with the police officer to do such evaluations. A psychiatric nurse would be less threatening, could take [the suspect] aside and ask open-ended questions. (For example: “What is the worst thing that has happened to you in the last month?” or “If you did decide to kill yourself, how would you do it?”) The nurse could also, with his permission, use a cellphone to call his mother (or whoever raised the alarm), and/or his therapist at that time to get more information. Mental health professionals are more likely to pick up subtle clues that something is not right. To expect law enforcement officers to do this is unfair to them; they are not trained to do so and this is not why they became a law enforcement officer." 
I find this response absolutely fails on multiple levels to address the question:
1) law enforcement officers are very often dealing with people with serious mental disorders (including substance abuse problems in particular). These are people who may generate many complaints from the public, who may be homeless, who may be victims of crimes often (much more often than they are aggressive) or witnesses to them, and so on. They are common members of the community and probably more common members in the world that police will inevitably travel as a matter of course. 
2) law enforcement officers should therefore have sufficient training to deal with people suffering from some of the more common disorders and problems to be able to deal with these issues. This is not the same as discerning which people are likely to be violent-prone for a mass shooting for preventive treatment, but it is absolutely ridiculous to state that this is unfair to law enforcement, or that no expectations should be placed upon law enforcement in effect because "we haven't trained them". One expectation should be that they become trained. 
3) some law enforcement personnel should have additional training available and taken for dealing with specialized cases, or should have access to psychiatric assistance if they have such calls where they suspect that's the issue for an appropriate investigation and for the civil rights of the person involved to be protected. 
4) most law enforcement does not do this and their typical response to mental disorders is or has often become violent (in more than a few cases, it has been fatal). All of this is a serious reason why many people DO NOT or WOULD NOT or even SHOULD NOT go to the police when they suspect a problem of this variety. And thus becomes a further reason why a few people would slip through the cracks as they are unlikely to receive any attention and treatment to a potential problem. 
5) None of what was described as a method of response to the problem suggested to me that police, with an appropriate unit tasked to it, couldn't do some of this work already. They just don't have any training usually to do so. Asking open-ended questions and not appearing to be a police officer are not overly complicated methods of investigation. These are also not likely to provide cues that should tell us precisely what the issue is, only that more investigation is needed. That's likely something good police work could do already. 
Under what circumstances can a family member, social worker, or law enforcement officer have a person involuntarily committed because they represent a danger to society? With the recent spate of shootings perpetuated by people with known mental illness, do those laws need updating?
"Commitment laws vary by state. Details about the law in each state can be found on the website of the Treatment Advocacy Center. A rating of state commitment laws was published in February 2014. California’s commitment law is among the strictest, thus making it very difficult to involuntarily commit an individual like Elliot Rodger for evaluation. State laws need to be improved."
- In what way? What precisely as information was available that police lacked to act upon it (social media footprint/web search?) This question demanded a followup of what kinds of improvements are needed or being implied. 
I'm very, very skeptical that broader involuntarily commitment laws are a good approach and I find that effectively, that's already what we are doing. We're just waiting until people are suspected of committing criminal acts first to do it. 

My main skepticism to this approach is that a) police could use this as an over-broad way to "arrest" people, something I would want very strong controls over. Lawsuits that punished the officer and psychiatrist involved who signed off on it for example if they detained someone without a serious problem, and not lawsuits that punished the police department or the hospital. The persons involved should be held directly responsible for any civil rights violations they perpetrated in these instances so as to encourage them to be as careful as possible with this power. We do this only in limited basis right now for most civil rights violations (improper arrests or misconduct, read: lying) by police and prosecutors now. It should be expanded. b) I am very skeptical that psychiatry as a field is liable to identify with precision only those people who are dangerous and separate them from those who are not. Our information where it concerns the brain and psychology in general is sometimes sketchy and unreliable, our mental health professional skills are highly uneven, and I would stress that our approach appears to be an overabundance of caution where these matters are concerned which would lead to far too many people being detained in this way as would be appropriate to allow for, and c) that our current involuntarily treatment methods do not appear to be very successful or productive for many disorders. Many that could otherwise work rely heavily on the cooperation or independence of people who are otherwise irrational. Here there might be room for expanded scope in legal terms and especially better community approaches for mental health involving doctors, family, etc. I do not think this is what was being suggested versus having more involuntary commitments given the leading question that was used (this may have been the fault of the journalist involved more than the psychiatrist). 
Have we allocated the proper resources to help identify, treat, and potentially confine people whose mental illness makes them dangerous? If not, where do resources need to be directed? Are there enough facilities to treat these people?
"The answer is a resounding no. In California, like most states, we have closed 95 percent of public psychiatric beds. Even if a decision had been made to involuntarily commit Mr. Rodger for an evaluation, it would have been extremely difficult to find a bed. The public mental illness treatment system is completely broken. Rep. Tim Murphy in Congress has held hearings on the broken mental illness treatment system for the past year and produced a good bill which could improve it: The Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act. Every member of Congress should be supporting it."
- I would agree we have terribly allocated resources to the treatment and care of mental health. I would agree that often relatives or trusted and concerned friends may be important allies in the proper treatment of problems. I'm not sure I would necessarily support everything in that bill. But it's probably the only good answer given here. I do not think we have a population of dangerously mental ill people that exceeds 40k (in as far as they may be dangerous to other people), unless we include virtually all violent criminal actors and all substance abuse problems. I do think we could use more than 40k in-patient treatment facilities or especially much better out patient treatment as is suggested. 
Note also the bill he agrees with provides substantial funding for the training of police for mental health problems and suggests there are significant problems with these interactions as they now stand. Suggesting that this is in fact something that police should be expected to deal with on some level. If not being the appropriate legal adjudicators of the liberty of all sane and insane people alike, then they should at least know what the variety of insanity could be and be able to react accordingly. 

05 June 2014

Some general rules of things that occur frequently to me

A general series of philosophical observations following weird dust-ups on social media.

1) Humanist/secularist notions while they can often operate on a utilitarian ethic do not absolve us of the prospect of entertaining ourselves before discharging some grand moral duty. Life is itself a (quasi) measurable reward that includes pleasures of more selfish nature. Indeed, I'd suggest that ignoring our selfish nature leads us away too often from moral duties. What our selfish nature does do, taken to its logical conclusion, is recognize that other people have needs and wants and concerns and that if we want to satisfy our wants and needs and have our problems resolved, we must also seek to satisfy some of theirs. Call it friendship if you want. Or it can be more transactional and more obviously set in a reciprocal altruism sense. Or it can be Adam Smith's invisible hand, guiding us to act in the service of the community by recognizing and meeting its needs through operation of business. There are numerous interpretations of this as a social order.

2) Humanist/secularist notions are not distinct from feminist notions. What they (both) often identify is that the particular target of some abusive or oppressive behavior/policy/action is, even in a modern developed country, very often a woman, and that this therefore means that an oppressive agent must not be tolerated or must be stopped on these grounds. Not because it's a woman but because there is oppression. The oppression and abuse exists because it can oppress or abuse a woman more easily than it might have a man. That's not "feminist" to point out; that's realism. The "feminism" part is deciding that the solution is to empower women and to remove the anchoring weights of abuses or oppressive agents of society that all people might flourish.

3) This does not mean that other kinds of oppression or abuses of power and authority do not exist and would be tolerated or ignored. Racism or religious intolerance, say, does not exclude or compete with oppression of women. It competes to some degree with the amount of outrage energy available. But if oppression is a vehicle of political activism, and responding to it is likewise, then there's not a top limit on the amount of capacity to respond to it or to impose it. The limitation is the apathy of the oppressed or those who work on their behalf with the implication that it cannot be changed.

4) There are various reasons that particular kinds of changes may not work or be as successful, and I think we should assess a particular kind of change on these grounds to wonder whether or not it will actually and usefully advance the cause it claims to advance, and not whether or not the intentions behind the proposal say so. Just because there is a problem in any society does not imply that a) the government should do something about it, that b) whatever X we are suggesting we do about is the only and best solution, or that it is in fact a solution at all, or couldn't make it worse. It's very probable we overlook very effective solutions in the haste to satisfy our demand for good intentions. Example, the focus on "equal pay" for women overlooks that a very large portion of the supposed discrimination is not from greedy employers trying to scam a female portion of the work force into working for less money than men, something that basic discrimination legislation would assess and could help deal with, but from a systematic issue with how women have come to interact with the workforce while still often juggling a home life based on traditional norms and our modernizing economy has failed to recognize this and offer ways to juggle successfully. The discrimination is still there, but it is much smaller and more manageable. The bulk of it is still probably discriminatory but the fault is more our own (as a society) so we're trying to pass the buck to make someone else pretend to do something about it.

5) Feminism, like other unpopular labels, has an image problem that causes some people to recoil from the label. Some of this image problem is the fault of more radical feminist notions (see: environmentalists setting fire to vitamin A enriched rice because "it's a GMO!" or atheists with a deliberate intention to stir the shit rather than advance secular ideas). But most of this image problem is a public relations issue caused by media and entertainment coverage and the public's mental framework working as stereotyping.

6) Labels or the rejection of same should not excuse people from practicing ideals and values consistent with those labels overall goals that they otherwise would agree with, say, religious (or non-religious) freedom, or the relative economic and social equality of women and girls. The "no true Scotsman" fallacy applies in both directions. If these are your ideals, fight for them in politics and society, practice them in life as best you are able, and argue over them to examine them from time to time to assure that you are practicing them as best you are able or that they are the best ideals you can put in practice available, and don't worry very much about what other people try to call them as a package of ideas. You can decide that. Atheism can become both the flying spaghetti monster and scientists and scientific literature using neurological behavior, evolutionary predictions and behaviors, anthropology and so on to explain the phenomenon of religious belief. Environmentalism can be both Greenpeace and getting a Prius and pushing for wind or solar power adoption (but probably not getting solar panels on your house since most of us would put them on the wrong side of the house). Feminism can be both the cause for more gender-balanced societies and the associated expansion of opportunity for women, or even for families and children regardless of gender issues, and so on (say, better family leave, paternity and maternity, or more flexible work schedules and telecommuting opportunities to allow whoever to stay at home when possible.)

7) Feminism doesn't remove or exclude the prospect that men and women can or should get along, that they couldn't approach one another, can't flirt, can't have (casual) sex, can't enjoy off-colour remarks and the like in mixed company, or couldn't discuss sexuality at all, and that somehow the only relationships between men and women must be completely sterile and platonic friendships mixed with somehow, someone becoming (mutually) attractive as a physical partner once in a while on top of that. I have no idea why this argument persists (naturally among men) that the issue is somehow that approaching and talking to an attractive woman is in some dystopian future liable to get a sexual harassment lawsuit. Depends on how that talk went, or what behaviors went along with it. There's nothing inherently wrong with recognizing attraction or even making people uncomfortable with potentially offensive remarks. There's something wrong with not recognizing that they are making others uncomfortable, using them out of context, or persisting in that attraction when it is not desired to be pursued or acknowledged.

And in particular, in not acknowledging a variety of wholly legitimate reasons why that lack of interest could be true that are not "I have a boyfriend/husband/significant other". Such as "you might be an asshole, go away". Possibly learning how to listen and talk to women, or just talk in general with other human beings, would be a great improvement for much of humanity. I do not consider myself a master at this, but other people seem capable of listening and responding to me in what we might fashion to call a conversation.

8) Most people do not give a shit. About you, or much of anything, often including themselves. What that means is not "they will run over you in a truck to get their way", or our sometimes more likely interpretation "they will run over you with the truck in order to make their way". What that means is mostly they will ignore you as you would ignore a bug on the sidewalk and they're not actually a problem. They are not plotting your destruction, injury, and harm. The general status quo of other people is apathy and ignorance toward the general status quo of other people. They are not interested enough to come and bother you, deliberately inconvenience you, find you absurd and worth their shame and derision, and so on. This implies both that we should be less wary of other people and that we should pay attention when they are paying attention to us or doing something that we feel is worthy of our attention.