Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Oh, My Grace



I confess up front: I am a numbers guy. Philip K Dick wrote the novel on which the film Blade Runner was based: it was called Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? I don't know the answer, of course - and I am an extreme sceptic of artificial intelligence. But in any case, I dream at times about systems of linear equations, which is perhaps the next best thing.

I came across a link today in my daily feed from the aggregator upworthy.com. The site purports to provide "uplifting" news and information. In this case, the site asks the rhetorical question:
Don't Believe In The War On Women? Would A Body Count Change Your Mind?
I've long been critical of the talking point about a "war on women," created in the 2012 election cycle by the Democratic party to draw support from female voters, who are a fairly reliable demographic for them.



Previous attempts to frame political debates about wars on women had focused on policy - restrictions on access to contraception, opposition to federal laws regulating pay, Title IX in the schools. One can debate the motivations and implications of these policy differences, but calling murder a "war on women," with a specific reference to body counts, is a measurable quantity. The data can be examined, sifted, and assessed.

In the analysis offered, between 2001 and 2012 (the time of the article), just short of 12,000 American women were killed by their husbands or boyfriends.

That is, of course, a shockingly high number. That more American women have been killed at home by partners than the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined is shameful, to say the least.

But is it a "war on women?" Does violence in America have an exaggerated impact on women? What do the numbers say?

As it were, the FBI collect data on all sorts of crime in the US - homicide among them - and it is possible to look at the makeup of the victims and the offenders.

Based on the 2015 data from the FBI in the Uniform Crime Report for that year, men were the victim in just under 80 per cent of the homicides for which data are available. That is to say, men are four times more likely to be killed than women. At least where "murder" is concerned (justifiable homicides are not included;given that violent crime is overwhelmingly the domain of men - males committed 62% of the murders in 2015, based on the same data source - and thus it's likely that these killings skew more extremely).

The "upworthy" link does not describe how many men are killed by their wives/girlfriends for context, but the FBI data indicate that wives are more likely than husbands to be the victim of the crime by about 5-1. Similar trends are seen comparing boyfriends/girlfriends, where women are about 3.5 times more likely to be the victim of a murder than a man is.

So, the specific charge about domestic violence is correct - women are far more likely to be killed by a partner.

On the other hand, sons are more likely than daughters (50%) to be the victim, brothers 3x more likely than sisters. Not sure what to make of that.

The US is a violent country - far more violent in terms of murder than other western democracies (there were more murders in the city of Chicago in 2016 (762) than in the whole of France (682). By comparison, France is a nation of 65 million people, whereas Chicago is home to just under 2.7.

But a "war on women?" Using a "body count?"

Doesn't add up.




Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Can You Hear Me Now?



Another day, another tweet, another scandal.

To say that President Trump is off to a rocky start is at this point rather like complaining that your white shoes got a bit wet on the deck of the Titanic.

I've made no secret that I am not a big fan of Trump. I didn't vote for him, which given that I feel his prime opponent in 2016 was just about the most awful candidate for president in forever should indicate how unready I thought (and think) he is.

The most recent scandal involves a week-end tweet in which Trump claims that former President Barack Obama tapped his phones in an effort to spy on him. Apparently, to try to get some dirt to put on the new president for purported collusion with shadowy Russian figures who were trying to "hack" (sic) the election.

THAT is an entirely different story, and yes, I agree with Trump that the claim of Russian election hacking is fake news.

Of course, the press have rushed to defend the old administration, once again portraying Trump as a lying, paranoid madman who is dangerously wobbling on an ever more eccentric axis. The accusation that the ex-President would order spying on the new seems, well crazy.

But is it?

Much of the noise stems from accusations leaked in the press about conversations between former security head Michael Flynn and the Russian Ambassador, Sergey Kislyak. According to a series of reports in the Washington Post (new motto: Democracy Dies in Darkness).
The FBI in late December reviewed intercepts of communications between the Russian ambassador to the United States and retired Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn — national security adviser to then-President-elect Trump — but has not found any evidence of wrongdoing or illicit ties to the Russian government, U.S. officials said.
The calls were picked up as part of routine electronic surveillance of Russian officials and agents in the United States, which is one of the FBI’s responsibilities, according to the U.S. officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss counterintelligence operations.
Nonetheless, the fact that communications by a senior member of Trump’s national security team have been under scrutiny points up the challenge facing the intelligence community as it continues its wide-ranging probe of Russian government influence in the U.S. election and whether there was any improper back-channel contacts between Moscow and Trump associates and acquaintances. (emphasis added)

Somehow, the FBI did "intercept communications" involving not Trump himself, but one of his top operatives. How did the FBI come into possession of this "communication?" It's instructive to note that the FBI at the time decided that there was "no evidence of wrondgoing." They just happened to listen in on a conversation involving an American citizen.

There is an interesting treatment of all of this in the Ezra Klein's blog Vox.
Questions about Flynn’s relationship with Russia go all the way back to the campaign, where he served as one of Trump’s top national security staffers. 
Another report, CBS news, quotes an un-named former national security advisor that the Obama administration back in July (and again in October) went to the FISA courts to obtain wiretaps, not for Trump himself but perhaps for key figures in his campaign. The July request was denied, but no comments were made about the October request.

It's instructive to recall that, during the George W Bush administration, the president was widely attacked from the left for abusing wiretaps outside of the jurisdiction of the FISA. Then Attorney General Alberto Gonzales faced a court case against the liberal Electronic Freedom Foundation. President Obama sought to continue the surveillance, which eventually was deemed unconstitutional.

The bottom line is this: IF the FBI try to wiretap a "foreign agent," and a U.S. citizen is on the line, they must have a warrant to continue listening. Did the FBI have a warrant to listen in on the conversations including Flynn? Or Jeff Sessions, for that matter?

It seems very unlikely that President Obama himself ordered the phones to be tapped; it seems equally unlikely that Trump Tower was bugged.

There is a quite provocative piece on the whole mess today at National Review Online. Granted, National Review is a fairly partisan Republican journal, but in the article, Kevin McCarthy raises the right questions about the proper role of the Justice Department, the FISA courts, and surveilling our citizens.

President Obama's defenders reacted to Trump's tweet with the typical sturm und drang, including the defence that the president would never order "surveillance against American citizens," which is rubbish. The president himself ordered the killing of American citizens with drones during his time in the White House without so much as looking at a judge.

If the FBI - or anyone else - have any evidence that the Trump campaign colluded with Russian operatives to steal and distribute damaging emails from the Clinton campaign, then I think it's time we hear it. Specifically. That is what is behind all of this. As they say, it's about time to put up or shut up. And I am not talking about Trump shooting his mouth off sarcastically about how Putin might find Hillary's deleted emails.

Am I concerned that, perhaps, the president is too cozy with the Russian government? Of course, I am. But I am far more concerned that people within the government, for partisan reasons, have spied on American citizens, obtained information that isn't criminal but does support a flimsy narrative of stolen elections, and then illegally leaked that information to a complicit media who, for eight years, basically acted as apologists for the government but have now "discovered" that it's the role of the press to challenge the president, not suck up to him.

So no - the tweets do not concern me. They are not chilling attacks on the First Amendment. Rather, the behaviour of unelected agents within the government seem a direct assault on the Fourth and the Fifth Amendments.

And it really troubles me that people who, until recently, seemed to care about protecting us from the watchful eye of big brother are now waving their pom-pons on the sidelines cheering it on.

Perhaps Trump is paranoid, but maybe the old maxim that even paranoids have real enemies has a whiff of truth?

Monday, 6 March 2017

Take Your Base




Just a couple of weeks ago, pitchers and catchers reported to spring camps; last week, spring baseball began (the Blue Jays are off to an awful start, having lost 7 of 9 games). Those of us who are baseball fans have weathered the always seemingly interminable gap between the last out of the World Series and the first pitch of the season. And for those of us who find American football at best boring, it's an especially long, cold winter.

I yesterday came across this story, a proposed rule change to baseball. It proposes to shorten the length of games by allowing teams to conduct an "intentional walk" merely by intimating that the batter would receive a free pass, and off to first base he would go. Pitchers would no longer be required to throw four wide pitches.


The Major League Baseball commissioner's office has proposed a rule change to have the pitcher forgo actually throwing four balls — instead, the bench would simply signal to the umpire that the batter will be intentionally walked.

I personally hate the intentional base on balls; mainly because teams are turning the rules on their heads and using them as a weapon. The entire reason that a batter is allowed to take first on four pitches outside the strike zone is that it is supposed to force the pitcher to throw the ball over the plate, and give the hitter at least a chance to swing. 

In short, the base on balls is supposed to be a penalty to the defending team, not a weapon for it to deploy. I am not sure who the first manager was to recognise that he could take the bat away from a threatening player on the opposing side, but I reckon that it happened pretty early.


Walks are, in short, boring. And that pitchers would use them as a strategy seems a bizarre consequence. It is a bit like how fouls are used in basketball at the end of a game to try to get the ball away from the offensive team, when your own side are behind but still relatively close. IF the other team can make its free throws, of course, then the foul does not help you. And, if your side commits too many fouls, the opposition gets two rather than one automatic free throw. And players can be excluded for racking up too many of them.'

There is really no such parallel in baseball,

But the main point here is this: WHY do they need to make it easier for teams to abuse the base on balls? At least if the pitcher is forced to make the pitches, he can still make a wild pitch. Or commit a balk. Or perhaps get a pitch a bit too close to the plate, where the batter can hit it.

The argument that the game needs to be "speeded up" is silly - if baseball really wanted to speed the games up, then stop all the dithering around. Force the hitters to stay in the box and not step out, adjust their batting gloves, take swings, etc. And stop with the ridiculous cacaphony of music - the "walk up" music as the players meander to the plate. 

Baseball is a game more than it is a spectacle; the rules of course should be fine-tuned when needed. But it is not a spectacle like football or basketball. 

As an aside - last weekend the local NBA team (the Golden State Warriors) faced off in a contest at Madison Square Garden against the Knicks. Oddly, the Knicks tried a little experiment in the first half - the game would be played without music, or phony clapping noises, or other "in game entertainment." 

Does anyone else find it ironic that at a sporting event, the term "in game entertainment" itself was used? I thought that the game itself was the entertainment. 

Warriors forward Draymond Green was having none of it. 


It was ridiculous. It changed the flow of the game. It changed everything. You get used to playing a certain way. It completely changed it. To me, I think it was completely disrespectful to everyone from [NBA senior VP of entertainment and player marketing] Michael Levine to [Warriors president and COO] Rick Welts and all these people who've done these things to change the game from an entertainment perspective.

I am not a fan - at all - of the NBA; in terms of basketball, I far prefer college games. Perhaps it's because there is no so much effort to make the game interesting "from an entertainment perspective." The focus is on the players, not some artificial noise, inducements to tell the fans when to cheer, or ridiculous music piped in.

Baseball fans - real fans - generally do not need to be told when to cheer. We don't need hyped up noise or "walk up" music to enjoy the game. 

With all due respect to Draymond Green, I would prefer if the adolescent need to be entertained all the time were left to NBA fans.
Let the rest of us enjoy our game more or less the way it's supposed to be played.