Monthly Archives: September 2010

Suspicious Activity Reporting, You Decide

John Farmer Jr., a dean at the Rutgers School of Law and former senior counsel for the 9/11 commission, has a New York Times op-ed promoting the Justice Department’s new Nationwide Suspicious Activity Reporting (SAR) Initiative, which basically encourages Americans to report each other to the government if they see anything suspicious. Farmer offers the following scary scenario in support of SAR:

A young man walks into a Home Depot and buys a large quantity of acetone. Later, a young man walks into a beauty supply store and buys hydrogen peroxide. Still later, a young man is observed parked outside a nondescript federal building in a rented van, taking photographs.

No crime has been committed. But should any of these activities (acetone and hydrogen peroxide can be components for explosives) be reported to and evaluated by law enforcement officials?

Let’s suppose the answer is “Yes.” What do you think happens next? You pick:

Ending A: The tips are logged and encoded into the SAR database. Minutes later, advanced datamining algorithms scan both incidents and discover a link. The items are flagged for human processing. An analyst determines this is actionable intelligence and forwards it to the FBI counterterrorism coordinator. Within hours, a warrant is issued by a special federal court and the FBI’s SWAT team is kicking down doors. A major terror attack is averted, thanks to alert citizens.

Ending B: The tips are logged and encoded into the SAR database. Fourteen weeks later, a police detective temporarily assigned to his city’s Joint Terrorist Task Force’s Investigations unit spends eight minutes interviewing each person who provided a tip, carefully filling out the proper Homeland Security interview forms. Four weeks after that, a clerk types his answers into another database, and seven weeks later another analyst clicks the “Reviewed” box on his computer. Two months later, then again at the end of the year, a line in an SAR summary report has a number that is larger by one. Nothing else is ever done about either of these tips, and there is no resulting terrorism incident.

I’m pretty sure I know which ending is more realistic…

(Hat tip: Scott Greenfield)

Criminal Minds – Review

One of the side effects of my reading so many libertarian and criminal law blogs is that it makes it hard for me to enjoy watching cop dramas on TV. Your typical television tough cop who “breaks all the rules” comes across to me as a bully who I’d like to see fired, if not indicted and imprisoned. And whenever they take somone in for interrogation, I keep thinking “Shut up! Shut up you moron!”

Of course, because this is fiction, they almost always catch the bad guy, usually with a lot of confirming evidence, often with a confession, and sometimes red-handed. They are, after all, the good guys. But when they do the kinds of things that would earn them a spot in one of Radley Balko’s “New Professionalism” posts, it makes it difficult for me to just relax and enjoy the show. I like good police procedural fiction, but it helps when the good guys really act like the good guys.

Which brings me to Criminal Minds. It’s a pretty good show, and it helps a lot that the show is purportedly about the FBI’s Behavior Analysis Unit, the pack of profilers that goes after serial killers and other kinds of genuine bad guys. In spite of that, or perhaps because of it, the protagonists behave themselves quite well, at least by television standards. Also, I think Criminal Minds is probably the most accurate depiction of criminal profiling I’ve ever seen on television.

Granted, that’s not saying much, but if most shows get it 5% right, Criminal Minds gets it 15% right. Too many shows that feature criminal profilers portray them as almost mystical figures who get inside the killer’s head and magically predict the killer’s next move. The real profilers I’ve read about, however, all seem to be just like any other cop with a specialization. A burglary detective can visit the site of a burglary and make educated guesses about the tools used, the intent of the burglary, the age and sophistication of the intruders, and any other crimes they may have committed in the area. Profilers do the same thing for serial killers.

The killers in TV shows all seem to be cold and super-smart psychopaths who get off on taunting the police with puzzles and games. A few of them are like that, but I think most real serial killers are a lot less flashy, and they usually make at least a token attempt to hide from the police. A fair number of them, however, are so crazy and so tied in knots by their own little world that it never seems to cross their minds that the police are after them.

I’ve always believed that it’s hard to do an accurate and interesting television drama about criminal profiling because the reason profiling works at all is because serial killers are all working from a handful of scripts. Spree killer, psychotic, psychopath, and so on. Any television show is going to have either find new and interesting ways to approach these stories, or they’re going to have to deviate from the common serial killer profiles.

(Sometimes the FBI deviates from the common profiles. Back when the FBI was accusing Richard Jewell of being the Olympic Park bomber, they said he fit the “hero bomber” profile, which they sort of just made up.)

Criminal Minds has taken both routes over the years, but it seems to get some things right. The team members do try to get inside the killers’ heads, but it’s portrayed as an intellectual and investigative process, not some kind of pseudo-psychic mumbo-jumbo. I’m sure that real profilers think this show is nonsense, but to my amateur ear the profiles offered in Criminal Minds sound real enough. They have the same uncomfortable mix of empathy and contempt that I’ve read in books by Ressler and Douglas.

And while the BAU team encounter more than their share of sadist, taunting, psychopaths, they also run into various types of spree killers, delusional psychotics, and inadequate losers, some of whom are so crazy and tortured that the team members feel, well, not quite sympathy, but perhaps a sense of loss, a sense that they’re in a tragedy, not a battle between good and evil.

As in real life, the team normally only gets involved in cases when the local cops call them in, and they spend a lot of time going over crime scene and autopsy reports. In some of the early shows, the characters would interview captured serial killers in prison, just as real profilers do. (One episode even re-created Robert Ressler’s famous interview with Edmund Kemper, in which the prison guards didn’t show up when he called to be let out of the room, although Ressler handled the situation differently.)

That said, it’s still a television show, and real profilers don’t work anything like this. For one thing, real profilers do a lot of their work by mail. Police departments send them copies of case files, and the profilers send back their analysis, which becomes just one more report for the local homicide detectives to use. Profilers rarely go out to the scene, and they sure don’t have their own private jet. I’m willing to accept the jet, though, on the theory that it’s just the producers’ trick for staging some scenes outside the BAU office while still allowing the crew to shoot on an inexpensive standing set.

Much the same can be said about one of my favorite characters, Penelope Garcia, an analyst/hacker who helps out the team with her impossibly fast database queries, when she’s not busy hacking into the bad guys’ computers and cell phones. What she does is total nonsense, but it’s a lot more entertaining than a more realistic parade of clerks, bureaucrats, and technicians taking ten times as long to discover the same information. Besides, I just like the character.

Finally, it’s always nice to see a show where the characters act like competent grownups, the bosses have leadership skills beyond fear and threats, and the even the god-like super-geniuses understand the value of teamwork.

So, if you like a good crime story, I recommend you check out Criminal Minds. For those us in the Central Timezone, it’s on Wednesdays at 8pm on CBS. Those of you in other timezones can figure it out for yourselves.

What If McCain and Palin Had Won?

I usually try to avoid outright partisan battles here on Windypundit, but with all the complaining people are doing about the state of the country today, I was struck by a recent tweet by Roger Ebert:

Say, how d’ya think we’d be doing about now with McCain and Palin?

Yes, let’s try to imagine what life in this country would be like if the country had been run by these right-wing zealots for the last year and a half instead of the Obama administration. If McCain and Palin had been in charge…

  • …healthcare reform would still be a distant dream.

[Update: A number of commenters were confused by this first item, but I’m actually serious. I felt it only fair to list Obama’s one major accomplishment before I began snarking at everything else. Unfortunately, as the comments reveal, the change in irony level confused some of my readers. My mistake.]

  • …the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay (Gitmo) would still be holding prisoners without trial or any real proof they had done something wrong.
  • …the unemployment rate would be not have returned to the lows of the Clinton-Bush era.
  • …federal law enforcement agents would still be raiding medical marijuana operations that are legal under state law.
  • …no one would be looking into the reasons why police agencies keep killing innocent Americans and their dogs.
  • …the government would be seeking outrageous new ways to spy on American citizens.
  • …Don’t-Ask-Don’t-Tell would not have been repealed.
  • …moral busybodies would be emboldened to try to force their values on America.
  • …we would be getting hit by wave after wave of bank failures.
  • …no one from the Bush administration would have been prosecuted for torture.
  • …the government would be using claims of national security to protect private people and corporations involved in torture during the past decade.
  • …the government would still be trying to drum up fear and paranoia among the citizens.
  • …government agents would continue to abuse the anti-terrorism excuse to pry into our lives.

Any other suggestions?

Update: How could I forget? If the McCain/Palin warmonger party had won…

  • …we’d still have troops fighting in Iraq.
  • …there’d probably be death squads killing American citizens accused of disloyalty.

I Must Have Missed That Class

In graduate school I had the most trouble staying awake in finance lectures. I always thought finance had to be just about the most boring topic ever.

French MEP Rachida Dati, when discussing finance in France, recently said:
I see some [foreign investment funds] looking for returns of 20 or 25% at a time when fellatio is close to zero.

I guess I was just doing finance wrong.

Why Philosophers Shouldn’t Argue Physics with Stephen Hawking

The Wall Street Journal ran an op-ed by Roger Scruton, an English philosopher, titled “Memo to Hawking: There’s Still Room for God“. (Sorry, it’s behind a paywall.) He attempts to refute Hawking’s premise that no God is needed to create a universe from nothing.

Immanuel Kant, who believed that Newton’s laws of gravity are not merely true but necessarily true, argued that we humans lack the ability to comprehend the universe as a whole, and thus that we can never construct a valid argument for a designer. Our thinking can take us from one point to another along the chain of events. But it cannot take us to a point outside the chain, from which we can pose the question of an original cause.
Scruton’s premise is that nothing has changed and Kant is still right. It’s the old argument that there must be a “first cause”. If you accept the idea that the Big Bang created the universe, you must accept that something or some being initiated the bang.
Hawkings said that the creation of the universe from nothing was an inevitable consequence of how physics works, and therefore first cause is no longer required. Scruton then deftly moves the goalposts.
If Mr. Hawking is right, the answer to the question “What created the universe?” is “The laws of physics.” But what created the laws of physics? How is it that these strange and powerful laws, and these laws alone, apply to the world?

The laws of physics are not physical objects that need to be created. They are a set of explanations for how the universe works. Perhaps Scruton is confused by the word “law”. The common usage for the word is that laws are man-made rules. (I’m sure the lawyers reading this have a much more precise definition…) Physicists use the word as a way of describing limitations they place on how the universe can work. In effect, the physicists are the “creators” of the laws, but only insomuch as they were the ones to write them down after figuring them out.

Perhaps a better phrase is “description of physical properties of the universe”. That’s a bit more cumbersome, though. No being is required to describe how the universe works. Now that we have a good idea about how a universe is inevitably created from nothing, no being is required for first cause either.
If you want a great description of just how universes can be created from nothing, watch ‘A Universe From Nothing’ by Lawrence Krauss (a real physicist). Krauss and Hawking seem to have a better grip on how the universe works than Scruton and Kant have.

Powers of Ten

I first saw the Powers of Ten short on Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. (If you don’t know who Carl Sagan was, please don’t tell me. It will just make me feel terribly old and sad.) Way back in the ancient mists of time the Museum of Science and Industry setup a kiosk looping the video and I stood watching it over and over for as long as I could. That video had a big impact on how I viewed the universe and science.

There’s even an official website for the video and they claim that this year, on 10/10/10, they will be having special events. Nothing has been updated on the site since July, so I’m not sure if the plans are going forward. The opening scene is a couple having a picnic on Chicago’s lake front, west of the Adler Planetarium and east of the Field Museum. As the “camera” zooms away you see an aerial mosaic photo of Chicago. The Adler had a giant copy of that photo on a wall. I spent even more time staring at that picture than I did watching the video over at MSI.
I’ll have to do something this October 10th to commemorate this bit of my daydreaming youth. If there’s anyone out there with similar fond memories of this short film, please feel free to give me some ideas. Maybe I can place a geocache at the site where the video begins.
In the meantime, check out this great interactive feature (using Flash) demonstrating the scale of the universe as we understand it now.

Bite me, Bambi!

Or, How Eating Habanero Peppers Proves I’m Smarter Than Other Mammals.

It’s chili pepper harvesting time again! While most Chicagoans seem enamored with growing tomato plants, I think habanero peppers should be the crop of choice. OK, to be honest, I’m actually too lazy to grow my own, but I have a couple of friends and a neighbor who go through the effort and I reap the rewards. I added the first batch of habaneros to my home-made enchiladas a couple of days ago and am still savoring the thought.

The New York Times science section has a fascinating article about why so many humans love hot peppers. Theories about why we like certain foods often involve evolutionary motivations for good health. In the case of hot peppers it has been suggested that by reducing blood pressure, and even providing some level of pain reduction, we evolved not just a tolerance, but a liking for hot peppers. The problem with this theory is that humans are the only mammals who seek out hot peppers to eat. Birds eat them, but they don’t have the same neurological receptors to feel the heat, so to them hot peppers are just another fruit.

If eating the hot peppers gave us an evolutionary advantage other mammals would also have developed a yen for them, perhaps well before homo sapiens split from our common ancestors. Yet even our closest relatives shun the noble jalapeno or habanero.

My son was quite impressed with an in-law who grew up in Mexico and ate habanero peppers whole, so my wife suggested a father-son gardening project. The first year only one plant survived the woodchucks and deer. But what a plant — it produced a bumper crop of killer orange habaneros. Nothing ate them. In my mind I still see that plant dangling its little orange heat grenades in front of the deer and growling, “Bite me, Bambi.”

Dr. Paul Bloom, a psychologist from Yale, sees our love of hot peppers as a unique outgrowth of our abnormally large human brains. He thinks that, perhaps, it’s a form of dietary thrill seeking.

The fact that capsaicin causes pain to mammals seems to be accidental. There’s no evolutionary percentage in preventing animals from eating the peppers, which fall off the plant when ripe. Birds, which also eat fruits, don’t have the same biochemical pain pathway, so they don’t suffer at all from capsaicin. But in mammals it stimulates the very same pain receptors that respond to actual heat. Chili pungency is not technically a taste; it is the sensation of burning, mediated by the same mechanism that would let you know that someone had set your tongue on fire.

The lizard portion of our brain gets the signals that our mouth is on fire and tells us to stop eating right now! The more evolved, logic and reasoning part of our brain tells us that it’s alright to continue. Logic an reasoning prevail, and we take another bite, thrilled that we survived the first. Being a good scientist, Dr. Bloom has been experimenting to test his theory and so far results have been encouraging.

It’s amazing that a love of hot spicy food is one of the indicators of higher intelligence in a species.

The Republican Pledge To America – A Very Quick Impression

The Republicans’ have now revealed their new Pledge to America, an idea based loosely on their old Contract With America. I haven’t read any of it yet, but it’s 48 pages long. Somehow that strikes me as a bad sign for the future of small government…

Update: Yeah, I looked it over and there’s nothing much here we haven’t heard before, from the impossible, through the vague and the ridiculous, all the way to the things we know they won’t really do if they win… I doubt I’ll write much more about it.