Friday, October 30, 2009

Long Odds

by Richard Crews
Consider the curious statistical significance of the first game of the World Series. In over 100 years (including 20 sweeps), no team has ever swept the World Series after losing the first game.

Some statistical "anomalies" like that are amusing; their errors are obvious. But suppose you test positive for a rare disease, one that affects only one person in every 10,000. And the test the doctor used is highly accurate, that is, it gives the correct answer 99% of the time.

Is it time to panic? No. The odds are still 99% that you DON'T have the disease. If 10,000 people were given the test, 100 of them would test positive, but only one of these would actually have the disease.

Similarly, if vast data banks of DNA now being collected are matched against the DNA from a crime scene--say from blood, saliva, or semen--and a match can be found, should that person be arrested? No, not on the basis of that evidence alone. The DNA sample may match only one person in a million, but if the data bank contains 100 million people, then there can be expected to be 100 people from that data bank who match the crime-scene DNA.

There are law-enforcement programs to sort DNA evidence from hundreds of unsloved crimes against vast DNA data banks. And there are epidemiological studies to test populations of tens of thousands for rare diseases. Such efforts are ripe for false positive findings.

The privacy of personal data is not a trivial matter. In this age of lightening fast computers sifting through vast arrays of data, the emotional and social pain erroneously inflicted may far outweigh the benefits.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Water, Food, Lebensraum, and Pollution

by Richard Crews
The world's major ills or dangers can be grouped under four headings: water, food, Lebensraum, and pollution. I would like to take a stab at summarizing each of those. That is on the "physical" level.

Before I take that on, I would like to discuss briefly a profound and subtle "meta-physical" problem. One that has significant implications for the future of humanity and planet Earth.

Throughout history there has been a tension between, on the one hand, the greed, lust, competitiveness, and self-interest that are probably derived from our animal heritage--evolution, competition among (and within) species, survival of the fittest, ecological-niche selection and domination, etc.--and, on the other hand, "the better angels of our nature" [Abraham Lincoln]. It is reassuring to recognize that the rule of law tempered with mercy, social tolerance, and inter-community cooperation (at every level up to international) have wider purchase today than they did 100 or 500 or 1,000 years ago. There does indeed seem to be "a long arc of history that bends toward justice" [Martin Luther King].

But despite those "better angels" and that "long arc," there persist in the world today widespread ethnic violence including genocides, and the disparate distribution of food and wealth so that some (like us) live in obscene profligacy while billions live in desperate poverty and misery. Moreover, torture and mayhem are endemic in some societies and occasionally seem to raise their ugly heads even in the best of circles.

There is no quick cure for this problem, but there are several factors that can help gradually bend the arc. One is awareness of the problem--to keep the tension between our animal heritage and our better angels always in mind, both philosophically, long-term and also day-by-day (even hour- and minute-by-minute) in orchestrating our words and actions. Another is the willingness to take a stand whenever the opportunity arises against cruelty and bullying, whether it is in the punishing of a child; unnecessary, unfair, and ineffective penal code and practices; predatory business and banking; or simply the ebb and flow of slights in daily life (which people, when they are subjected to them, multiply and pass on).

Water: Each day a billion people don't find safe drinking water. Worldwide underground water tables are sinking--some places where a well once needed to be only 15 or 20 feet deep now cannot reach water hundreds of feet below the surface. And the hydrological cycle (evaporation, cloud formation, rain, river run-off, etc.) that once supplied humanity and the dry earth with bountiful clean, fresh water is being increasingly disrupted and distressed by wasteful irrigation, deforestation, desertification, civil waste, etc.

The "cure" for this problem is to recognize in law and cultural practices that clean, fresh water is not "free." People should be charged for its use and penalized for its misuse (such as in watering lawns, spraying farm fields, dumping contaminants into clean water, etc.). Of course, paying appropriately for water is a general concept change; implementing it would have many specific implications and local variations.

And, yes, agriculture, like many other activities, is a business, that is, a conduit from which the businessperson makes a living by chipping off part of the passing wealth for passing it along effectively. The true cost of water should be passed on to the ultimate consumer, in agriculture and in other activities that use water ("use" in the sense of reducing available clean, fresh water by contamination, dispersion, evaporation, etc.).

Food: More than a billion people in the world are hungry--day after day they fight starvation, malnutrition, and a hundred diseases made worse by lack of nourishment. Buckminster Fuller alerted us decades ago that there was enough food in the world; the problem causing scarcity was poor distribution (in other words, predatory business practices). Designing equitable distribution needs to be part of the solution to the worldwide hunger crisis.

But production needs to be "fixed" too. Norman Borlaug and the "Green Revolution" turned Mexico, India, and elsewhere from net grain consumers to net grain exporters. But the chemically stimulated monoculture he espoused are not ultimately ecologically friendly or sustainable. Now that the killer corporation Monsanto owns (and enforces) patents on the grain seeds of life, and big-tractor economics makes small farms uneconomical, an enormous revolution--in farming practices; seed, fertilizer, and water use; genetic modification and adaptation of food plants; and patterns of meat consumption--needs to find its way around the world.

Lebensraum: This term, meaning "room to live" in German, raises horrible historical associations of Hitler, the Nazis, and the Holocaust. And in using it here, those are exactly the associations I wish to invoke. There are scores of places around the world where huge populations (often numbering in the millions) have been displaced from their homelands. They are refugees, Many live in crowded tent camps at the mercy of NGOs and the international community; many, in urban squalor; many, in more or less awkward integration with other populations.

This is a complicated, many faceted problem in search of solutions--through education, health care, family planning, immigration reform, and so much more. Ethnic violence, genocide, and refugee-ism are not "solutions" we can live with. On the one hand, they are morally reprehensible, and on the other, left under appreciated and untreated they will not heal and go away, they will fester and grow.

Pollution: Of the land, atmosphere, oceans--by a myriad of chemicals that are designed for their potent biological (and chemical and physical) properties, some in vast quantities (millions, even billions of tons), well beyond the capacity of the Earth to decompose, dilute, disperse, or otherwise "handle" them. We have seen the warnings of "Silent Spring," acid rain, the ozone hole, Chernobyl, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, global warming, etc. The Earth's systems were once so much more vast than any puny human activities, that we could not destroy our Mother. Now our human efforts threaten to overwhelm the Earth's bounty and equilibrium mechanisms.

This is also a complicated, many faceted problem in search of solutions. Ultimately, the only answer may be sophisticated and comprehensive regulation by agencies like the FDA and EPA to curtail and correct malevolent (or unwitting) business and cultural practices.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Tort Reform

by Richard Crews

On September 10, 2009 the Heritage Foundation reported, "There are credible estimates that serious tort reform could save the country between $100 and $200 billion annually in wasteful spending, as doctors practice defensive medicine to preempt lawsuits."

I do not understand why tort reform--especially capping damage amounts for medical malpractice--is not part of the health-insurance debate. Hospitals, doctors, health-equipment manufacturers, and other medical providers pay enormous insurance fees to protect themselves from the possibility that a mistreated patient will sue for multimillions. For example, some doctors in particularly susceptible specialties (such as anesthesiology) pay a hundred thousand dollars or more a year for malpractice insurance. This adds to the cost of medical services to cover the insurance premiums and also encourages "defensive medicine" with extra medical tests and unnecessary treatments.

There are criminal laws (threatening fines and incarceration) and professional reviews (threatening censure and loss of medical license) that can protect patients' safety and rights.

Tort reform has been historically favored by Republicans (as encouraging business innovation and development) and opposed by Democrats (as limiting civil rights and protections).

I believe substantial tort reform could constrain unnecessary costs in health care and also provide a political lever for encouraging bipartisan participation in developing universal health-care legislation.

[See for a fuller discussion of this complicated issue.]


I wrote--"I do not understand why tort reform--especially capping damage amounts for medical malpractice--is not part of the health-care debate."

A friend wrote, "The answer to your question is that the tort bar is one of the major contributors to the Democratic Party. The chairman of the Party, (Dr.) Howard Dean, answered a reporter's question, the same as yours, by saying that they could not take on the lawyers if they wanted health reform."

In other words, while doctors and other medical providers may incur expensive burdens (that they pass on to patients) from the current medical tort law, lawyers do not--they get enormous fees. So tort lawyers lobby to prevent laws capping penalties.

President Obama has said, "I am directing my Secretary of Health and Human Services to move forward on this initiative."

Some people are skeptical: "That would be Secretary of Health and Human Services, Kathleen Sebelius, whose resume includes eight years as director of the Kansas Trial Lawyers Association. So Obama has chosen a former industry lobbyist to run tort reform."

Monday, October 12, 2009

Lorenzo (or "Penal Rehab Doesn't Work")

by Richard Crews

After I retired in 2000, I spent three years living alone in a used mobile home in very wild Texas back country. When I first moved there, the property--20 acres--was covered with thickly tangled, thorny shrubs five feet high with tangled vines; a 7-acre section was a thick woods, deeply gullied, also with thick, tangled vines. One could not walk onto the property, much less across it. There was no access to water, sewage, or electricity. The nearest neighbors were a half-mile away down a dirt road; they were a pair of ex-felons who lived with one of their girl friends and a baby, plus various other people who came and went. They all lived (crowded) in another broken-down, used mobile home.

When I first arrived, I rented a cabin several miles away. Each morning I drove over and spent the day with clippers and chain saw--later with a small garden/mowing tractor--clearing my way onto the property. In a few weeks I had enough area cleared so I could have a small, second-hand mobile home hauled in. Then I spent my time clearing more of the land, planting a garden and some fruit trees, building fences and a shed so that I could have chickens and a couple of goats, cutting paths through the woods. I built a shed, put up a windmill and solar pannels, and set up a system of gutters and barels for rain-water catchement. I drove 20 miles into town most every day to get my mail, and to shop at the grocery, hardware, and lumber stores.

After I had been living in the mobile home for a few weeks, a character named Lorenzo showed up at my door one day looking for work. Over the next two-and-a-half years, he came by often to work with me. He became a good friend--my "best friend," I would say--and he is the subject of this morality play--which is entirely true, by the way.

Lorenzo was a short, wiry man of dark complexion. He was in his late 30s when I knew him, very bright and energetic (enhanced by the fact that he was usually high on cocaine or methadrine). He was always smiling, laughing, joking--but he was also quick to take offense and savage with his fists or a knife or any weapon that was handy if he felt he had been cheated or threatened. He had served several terms in the state penitentiary and in county and local penal facilities, mostly for dealing drugs but also for various crimes of robbery and assault. As we got to know one another, we developed a mutual trust and respect; I came to rely on his judgment and help in a work task; he was always honest and completely "up front" with me (as far as I knew).

Two examples to illustrate Lorenzo's personality: One evening I looked out into the dusk and saw a wiry figure carrying something, running from my shed out to a waiting car. I knew it was Lorenzo (Lorenzo ran everywhere he went), and I chastised myself for leaving the shed unlocked. When I saw him a couple of days later, I asked him about the episode. He replied that he had borrowed the angle-grinder, and had since put it back, and--by the way--had cleaned it and greased the bearings while he had it.

Another example: After he had worked with me on some job for a few hours, I would drive him home (he lived in a small, doorless, broken-down camper in the woods on a corner of his father's property). Along the way he would have me stop at one or more places he knew of until he could "score" some cocaine or speed to turn the $20 or $30 he had earned into a day or two high. At one stop, I saw him running back towards the car, along a driveway, over a chain-link fence, and diagonally across a back yard, when suddenly--to my alarm--I saw that he had invaded the territory of a guard dog, a 70 or 80-pound Rottweiler, who was chasing him full-tilt and about to catch him from behind. I shouted to Lorenzo to "look out," and he turned and saw the dog just before it hit him. When Lorenzo turned and saw the dog, he did not run to escape or crouch to defend himself--he attacked the dog, rushing at it, ready to do battle--unarmed except for his tremendous energy and ferocious will. The dog hauled to a stop in surprise--no, in terror--and ran as fast as it could to escape. I feel sure that Lorenzo would have killed it if he had caught it--killed it with his bare hands.

Lorenzo was an expert welder--he had learned that during one of his stints in the State Pen. He also was an excellent auto mechanic--another skill gleaned in prison. And hairdresser. What other talents or skills he had I do not know, though he could always mend or fix anything that was broken around my property--even if he had to go off on his own for a couple of hours to steal the parts he needed.

Lorenzo had no fear of going back to jail. In fact, if the winter storms were particularly harsh, he would go downtown, into a bar, pick a fight, and get arrested--and have few days or weeks of three meals a day and a warm dry place to sleep. When he was ready to get out of jail, he would cut a deal--he would "burn" two or three small drug dealers in our neighborhood, and be released in compensation.

The moral of this story is that Lorenzo, as far as I could tell, was utterly and totally unrehabilitable. He could have gotten a job any time he wanted one (and he did, from time to time) welding, fixing cars, or flexing any of several other significant skills. He had a "social support system"--he had grown up in the area, his father and grown brother lived there--worked in construction and housing development. During the time I knew him, he met and fell in love with and married an enormously fat girl (he liked them the fatter the better), and even had a child with her--a child who was removed from the "home" within a few months after birth by the local Social Service (Child Protective) agency.

I have not seen or heard from Lorenzo since I left Texas to return to California five years ago. I suspect that he is either dead or in jail, or if not, that he is living a life very much like the one I knew--one that he had been living for a couple of decades before we met. I doubt very much that he has "gone straight" or "been rehabilitated" despite the state's best efforts, despite his remarkable abilities and skills, and despite the social network in which he had grown up and that was available to him.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Lost Children

by Richard Crews

Dal is one of the million-or-so homeless and abandoned children in the world. She lives in Manila in the Philippines--but there are thousands in every major city in the world (and thousands more in non-urban areas). She is seven. She also cares for her four-year-old brother since their mother died several months ago. (The young woman they called "mother" was not really their mother, she was their older sister; she cared for them for about two years and died of unknown disease, certainly including malnutrition. She was twelve when she died. Neither of them remembers their real mother.)

The two children sleep under a concrete abutment down by the harbor. Each day they walk several blocks to streets where there are business people and tourists, and they beg for coins. When they have gotten a few, they take them to the back door of a bakery where, uncounted (neither of the children can count) they are exchanged for a piece of bread. In the afternoon they beg in a small park nearby. The coins they get there they take to the back of a restaurant where they are traded for a bowl of soup. If they happen to have gathered several coins that day, the soup may have a small piece of fish or meat in it. They are also allowed to go through the garbage at the back of the restaurant to look for food as long as they do not make a mess.

Their entire world of several city blocks is dirty and crowded. Anything they get to eat, they eat right away or it will be stolen from them--sometimes with a beating. They have no possessions beyond the few thin rags of clothes they wear.

Every few months, particularly during tourist season or when there have been an inordinate number of citizen complaints, the police round up as many homeless and abandoned children as they can catch and stick them into crowded and dirty jail cells for a few days. There they get thin soup and bread to eat; there are a few open toilets, and no sleeping, warmth, or other amenities. After a few days when several of the children have died, creating a nuisance, the police let them go. (In Rio de Janero, for years the police rounded up several hundred children every few months and drove them in trucks out to the garbage dumps at the edge of the city and shot them; civil rights groups report that this has not been done in the past couple of years.)

The world we Americans live in is, at times, hard and complex; for some it is sparse and harsh. We often see pictures on our TVs of dirty, crowded refugee camps in Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq, Liberia, Somalia, Sudan, and elsewhere. But we rarely see or hear about the million-or-so homeless and abandoned children in the world.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

In War and Peace

by Richard Crews

On the battlefield people kill one another legally, they take and hold prisoners without due cause or due process, they confiscate and destroy property without any legal proceedings whatsoever, they interrogate captives with minimal constraints.... Such are the "Laws of War."

But the Laws of War were born and bred in different times from our own--times when uniformed soldiers carried non-concealed weapons into battle--into battles which were easy to distinguish from non-battles.

Now the term "war" has been redefined--not just to include a "war on drugs" and a "war on poverty" but, equally ambiguously, a "war on terror"--there are no battles that come and go, no uniformed troops, and--most significantly--no distinguishable endpoint.

Soldiers captured in "normal" battle could be held for months--even a year or two--until the war was over. People taken prisoner in the war on terror can, apparently--since there is no endpoint--be held for the rest of their lives. Without due cause. Without due process. They cannot be brought to trial, apparently, because the "evidence" against them was not gathered or held in a responsible way (for example, the people who identified them originally are long gone; their "confessions" were obtained under torture and therefore cannot be considered as legal evidence).

One of the worst failings of the Obama administration is that he has not developed--by Executive orders and Congressional actions--any legal code and procedures for handling the unfortunates caught in this terrible limbo between civil rights and uncivil wrongs.

There is* an Afghan goat herder who prior to his capture (he was pointed out by neighboring villagers who got $50 for "turning him in") had never heard of most of what he has been accused of--what, under torture, he has admitted to. He has been incarcerated at Guantanamo Bay for over seven years, mostly in solitary confinement, often shackled, sleep-deprived, left at times to sit in his own urine and feces. He shall, apparently, spend the rest of his life in prison. Without trial; without charges.

Where are our "American values" in this? Where is "the long arc of history that bends towards justice"?


* When I say "there is" I mean "there could be"--we do not know for sure. There are quite a few prisoners who could be in (or close to) this category. Isn't that appalling?