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March 29, 2009

The "Feel-Good Movie of the Year"

Writing in the New York Times, Frank Rich described Slumdog Millionaire as follows:

Our feel-good movie of the year is “Slumdog Millionaire,” a Dickensian tale in which we root for an impoverished orphan from Mumbai’s slums to hit the jackpot on the Indian edition of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.”
In fact, searching "slumdog millionare 'feel good movie of the year'" on Google turns up over a thousand hits.

I thought Slumdog Millionaire was an excellent film, but the feel-good movie of the year? That would be like getting a sugar-free lollipop on your way out after a root canal and calling it the "feel-good dentist visit of the year".

March 28, 2009

The Inhumanity of Solitary Confinement

One of my favorite non-fiction authors, Atul Gawande (author of Complications: A Surgeon's Notes on an Imperfect Science and Better: A Surgeon's Notes on Performance), has written a typically excellent article for the The New Yorker, "Hellhole", on the effects of long-term solitary confinement:

Consider what we’ve learned from hostages who have been held in solitary confinement [such as journalist Terry Anderson]...

Most hostages survived their ordeal... although relationships, marriages, and careers were often lost. Some found, as John McCain did, that the experience even strengthened them. Yet none saw solitary confinement as anything less than torture. This presents us with an awkward question: If prolonged isolation is -- as research and experience have confirmed for decades -- so objectively horrifying, so intrinsically cruel, how did we end up with a prison system that may subject more of our own citizens to it than any other country in history has?

So hostages held in solitary confinement uniformly view it as a form of torture. What do courts say?

Our first supermax -- our first institution specifically designed for mass solitary confinement -- was not established until 1983, in Marion, Illinois. In 1995, a federal court reviewing California’s first supermax admitted that the conditions "hover on the edge of what is humanly tolerable for those with normal resilience." But it did not rule them to be unconstitutionally cruel or unusual, except in cases of mental illness. The prison's supermax conditions, the court stated, did not pose "a sufficiently high risk to all inmates of incurring a serious mental illness." In other words, there could be no legal objection to its routine use, given that the isolation didn't make everyone crazy.
So that's the legal argument? If something doesn't make everyone crazy, then it's an allowable form of punishment?

What about other Western countries? Do they follow our practices? In a word, no. Gawande describes a British prison program begun in the 1980s that de-emphasized solitary confinement in favor of techniques designed to prevent prison violence, then writes:

The results have been impressive. The use of long-term isolation in England is now negligible. In all of England, there are now fewer prisoners in "extreme custody" than there are in the state of Maine. And the other countries of Europe have, with a similar focus on small units and violence prevention, achieved a similar outcome.
So what about results? At least we can point to results from our efforts, right?
In this country, in June of 2006, a bipartisan national task force, the Commission on Safety and Abuse in America's Prisons, released its recommendations after a yearlong investigation. It called for ending long-term isolation of prisoners. Beyond about ten days, the report noted, practically no benefits can be found and the harm is clear -- not just for inmates but for the public as well. Most prisoners in long-term isolation are returned to society, after all. And evidence from a number of studies has shown that supermax conditions -- in which prisoners have virtually no social interactions and are given no programmatic support -- make it highly likely that they will commit more crimes when they are released. Instead, the report said, we should follow the preventive approaches used in European countries.

The recommendations went nowhere, of course.

So let me see if I have this straight. According to Gawande, we have probably "the vast majority of prisoners who are in long-term solitary confinement", at a cost of over $50,000 per inmate per year. Other Western nations have rejected our approach. Hostages held in solitary confinement come to view it as a form of torture. The legal argument in favor of it is that it doesn't make everyone crazy. And studies show that long-term solitary confinement increases the risk of recidivism among inmates eventually released.

Can someone explain to me why we're doing this?

March 27, 2009

Revisiting Antibiotics Usage in Farming

I've blogged before about the therapeutic use of antibiotics by the cattle, swine, and poultry industries:

[T]he hog industry alone uses three times the amount of all antibiotics used to treat human illnesses... when we count poultry and cattle, nontherapeutic use of antibiotics in livestock rises to eight times total human usage.
Now Bill Niman and Nicolette Hahn Niman have written a short piece for Atlantic on the issue, following up on Nicolette's new book:
Over the past several years, each of us have toured numerous industrial-style animal operations, and they were not pretty. We saw pigs confined in metal buildings living on hard, slatted floors and fed daily rations that include such unsavory ingredients as bone meal, blood meal, and drugs, including antibiotics. Stepping into these buildings, we were immediately enveloped by the stench of rotting eggs. The pigs spend 24 hours of every day in crowded conditions standing over their own liquefied manure, bathing in the odor of decaying feces and continually breathing its fumes...

[F]eeding farm animals daily drugs began in poultry production in the 1950s, both as a means to speed animal growth and as a way to control diseases -- an increasingly daunting problem in the crowded confinement buildings that were coming into vogue at the time. Today, confinement operations commonly feed antibiotics to pigs, as well as chickens and turkeys.

It seems to me that the language "therapeutic use of antibiotics by the cattle, swine, and poultry industries" is too antiseptic, too kind, too easy to favorably misinterpret. Let me reword that:

In the interest of holding down their expenses, many farmers who raise cows, pigs, chickens, and turkeys in disease-encouraging conditions give these animals antibiotics to keep them from becoming sick and to induce them to grow faster. This practice, which totals eight times the total usage of antibiotics by humans, is contributing to the spread of antibiotic-resistant illnesses, including Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), which may now be responsible for more deaths in the US than AIDS.

When are we going to put an end to this?

March 26, 2009

Akoha

Akoha looks to me like a brilliant idea:

Akoha is the world’s first social reality game where you can earn points by playing real-world missions with your friends. Missions might include giving someone your favorite book, inviting a friend for drinks, or buying a friend some chocolate.
The essentials as as follows: You buy an inexpensive deck of cards. Each card describes a mission that can be thought of as a deliberate act of kindness. When you perform a mission, you give the card to the recipient of the kindness. He or she enters a unique code on that card on the Akoha website, at which point you receive karma points. The recipient can then use the same card to perform an act of kindness for someone else -- cards can be reused indefinitely. There is a variety of rewards for accumulating karma points.

This is one of those "why didn't I think of that?" ideas, so good that I instantly bought a set of starter decks -- one for myself and four more to pass out to friends.

I'll report back here on how it goes.

March 24, 2009

Turing and Battlestar Galactica

As noted in my previous entry, the finale of Battlestar Galactica was last Friday night. I've been thinking about what to say about BSG in the wake of its departure.

I don't want to talk about the finale because I don't want to reveal any spoilers here, no matter how carefully I firewall them. I'd hate for someone to come across this site and have the end ruined for them.

Besides, what I'm more interested in is the fundamental premise of the series. Ultimately, when everything else was stripped away, BSG seemed to me to be a four-year exploration of what it means to be human.

During a decades-long armistice, the Cylons evolved from clunky metal robots to perfect facsimiles of humans. 12 models were created, with many copies of each, and some of these human-appearing Cylons infiltrated the Colonies. Of these infiltrators, some knew who they were and what their missions were, while others were sleeper agents, believing themselves to be human but ready to be activated to carry out their missions. Prior to the Cylons' attack on the Colonies, as far as I know, none of their agents -- sleeper or otherwise -- were discovered. They were accepted in their roles as friends, lovers, warriors, and the like.

Once the humans discover that Cylons can now appear to be human, they take the attitude that they are nothing more than simple machines, incapable of emotions, incapable of doing anything not in their programming, and generally show little or no remorse at beating them, torturing them, throwing them out airlocks, and so on. "Toasters," they're called.

So my question is, did the Colonies never have their equivalent of Alan Turing? What his test tells us is that the only useful test of the "human-ness" of an artificial intelligence is whether it can fool a human observer into thinking it's human. In the Turing test as it's commonly conceived, the computer would have the advantage of operating over a text-only connection, so that the human wouldn't be able to rely on visual or aural cues.

But in BSG, the Cylons interact directly with humans. They talk with them, make jokes with them, fight alongside them, make love with them -- and no one is the wiser. Clearly they pass the Turing test not just for intelligence, but for emotion as well.

And yet this fact doesn't seem to enter into the humans' thinking. They realize that the Cylons are essentially perfect copies of humans, distinguishable only via a complex blood test or when they're caught in a compromising position. Despite this, they continue to think of Cylons as machines, devoid of rights -- or souls, for that matter.

In warfare, we dehumanize our enemies to make it easier to kill them. BSG takes this to its logical conclusion: it may be nearly impossible to identify the enemy, even after years of close exposure, but since they're machines, they're completely dehumanized and so can be abused with impunity.

We would never do that.

Would we?

March 20, 2009

The Last of a Great Frakkin' Show

I'm about to watch the final episode of Battlestar Galactica. It seemed only fitting to have a cigar before the show (a Cohiba Esplendido), and I have a bottle of whiskey beside me (Clear Creek Distillery's Oregon Single Malt).

See you shortly.

March 07, 2009

"Children Can Fall into Bucket and Drown"

From a story in this week's Economist providing a perspective on President Obama's health care plans from West Virginia:

Obamaworld is buzzing with ideas to help people keep fit. Taxes on booze, cigarettes and sugary drinks, which are low by rich world standards, could rise. There is talk of making companies install gyms in the same way as they do fire escapes. Some favour giving people a "nudge" (the title of a recent book popular among Obamaites) to live more healthily. For example, people eat less if restaurants serve smaller portions; children eat better if the school cafeteria puts healthy food at eye level.

The cultural obstacles to all this, however, may be greater than Mr Obama's lean, sporty advisers understand. Consider the shoppers at the Save-A-Lot supermarket in Hamlin, West Virginia. At the beginning of the month, when the food stamps arrive, they snap up buckets of lard so big that the label says: "Warning -- Children can fall into bucket and drown." The manager, Key-Ray Adkins, shrugs: "People now say lard isn't good for you. But it's what we grew up with."

Buckets of lard large enough to drown in? For home use?

Words fail me.

March 03, 2009

Everyone Must Listen to This

Last weekend, NPR's This American Life broadcast an episode called "Bad Bank", or, "the collapse of the banking system explained, in just 59 minutes." Actually, the segment that explains the banking collapse, produced by Alex Blumberg and Adam Davidson, lasts the first 39 minutes, and that's what you need to hear.

I can't recommend highly enough that everyone listen to this program. I sat in my car, in a parking lot, putting off my workout to be able to finish it -- it was that good. At the beginning of the show, host Ira Glass predicts that after listening to it, one will know enough to have an opinion. I'd add the word informed, since a lack of knowledge rarely stops anyone from having an opinion.

In my case, I do have an opinion now about what needs to be done with the banks. But listen to it and make up your own mind.

"A 25-Year Keg Party"

On the elliptical trainer this morning, watching CNN, I heard a guest on American Morning -- she was in finance and economics, but I didn't catch her name -- say to host John Roberts:

We're paying for a 25-year keg party.

March 02, 2009

Kristof's Bank Idea

Nicholas Kristof has an interesting idea:

[A] broad range of experts believe that some variation of nationalization is the only way to revive the banks quickly without squandering vast amounts of taxpayer dollars. Even the managing director of the International Monetary Fund suggested that Washington think of the Swedish model.

America’s horror of “nationalization” could be defused by handing out shares to all American households. President Bush used to talk about building an “ownership society.” Well, giving shares in big banks to all American households would be a terrific way to do that.

For many Americans, it would be the first time they directly owned stock -- and, finally, something good could come from the banking Bust Bowl of 2009.

The Republicans should be all over this idea. It seems clearer and clearer that dramatic action -- more dramatic that than taken to date -- is going to be needed to save the banks. Either:

  • 1. We buy up hundreds of billions -- if not trillions -- of dollars of their toxic assets above their market value.
    • 1a. We then hold on to these assets long enough to try to realize a profit, or
    • 1b. We then sell the assets immediately and take staggering losses on them.
  • 2. We inject sufficient capital into the banks to set them right, which will result in their effective nationalization.
If I were a Republican, I'd hate 1a (I wouldn't want the government owning what should be the private sector) and 1b (I wouldn't want the government to spend so much on this bailout). That leaves option 2, which sounds right in line with the "ownership society".

Have any Republicans talked about this?

March 01, 2009

Horses and Books

Via Andrew Sullivan, from a long article by John Siracusa on the history and future of digital books:

Take all of your arguments against the inevitability of e-books and substitute the word "horse" for "book" and the word "car" for "e-book." ...

"Books will never go away." True! Horses have not gone away either.

"Books have advantages over e-books that will never be overcome." True! Horses can travel over rough terrain that no car can navigate. Paved roads don't go everywhere, nor should they.

"Books provide sensory/sentimental/sensual experiences that e-books can't match." True! Cars just can't match the experience of caring for and riding a horse: the smells, the textures, the sensations, the companionship with another living being.

Lather, rinse, repeat. Did you ride a horse to work today? I didn't. I'm sure plenty of people swore they would never ride in or operate a "horseless carriage" -- and they never did! And then they died.

Is Amazon's Kindle 2 good enough for me? No. Will Apple release a device this year that would do it for me? Possibly. But do I believe that I'll be reading most of my books and magazines on a portable electronic device within five years? Absolutely.

"Deranged Penguins"

I find this video on YouTube moving, sad, and ultimately haunting.

Where is that penguin going? And why? Is he sick? Confused? Deranged, as the video suggests? Suicidal?

Or does he know something we don't?