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Computerized Criminal Behavior Predictions Are No More Effective Than Untrained Humans: Report

February 13, 2018 in Blogs

By Rochaun Meadows-Fernandez, AlterNet

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Without effective scrutiny, algorithm-based software could hurt those who are already the most vulnerable.

The effectiveness of the criminal justice system has been debated since its creation. There is great difficulty in developing a uniform system when criminal defendants’ circumstances are variable. Thanks to recent coverage of police shooting, sexual assault cases and self-defense trials over the last few years, the criminal justice system has become interwoven with our daily news of politics, government and pop culture. It doesn’t take long to see the system operates in favor of those with power and influence while being disadvantageous for those with a history of systemic vulnerability. It is inescapable, and it is becoming increasingly apparent that the system is flawed.

We had hoped that in the age of technology, we could eradicate bias by putting computer programs in place of our old systems. With algorithm-based systems, we can make faster, less variable predictions about the likelihood of people ending up in the criminal justice system again, or recidivism. But it’s become increasingly apparent that automating the process made things worse because now we have taken old bias and embedded it by teaching it to computers. We hoped machines could provide the fair treatment humans have failed to give criminal defenders and past offenders—but they haven’t. And it turns out, machines may not be any more effective than humans at predicting recidivism.

“People hear words like ‘big data’ and ‘machine learning’ and often assume that these methods are both accurate and unbiased simply because of the amount of data used to build them,” said Julia Dressel, whose senior undergraduate honors thesis in computer science at Dartmouth College is gaining national attention.

Earlier this year, Dressel released a report in conjunction with computer science professor Hany Farid …read more


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Frederick Douglass’s Emotional Meeting With His Former Slave Master

February 13, 2018 in History

By Erin Blakemore

Illustrations depicting Frederick Douglass's life from slavery to abolitionist. (Credit: Photo12/UIG via Getty Images)

As Frederick Douglass approached the bed of Thomas Auld, tears came to his eyes. He had not seen Auld for years, and now that they were reunited, both men could not stop crying. Douglass and Auld clasped hands and spoke of past and future, confronting death and reminiscing over their years of acquaintance and separation.

Auld wasn’t an old friend of Douglass’s—he was his former owner and master. But now, the two men stood on different terms. For years, Douglass had spoken out against Auld’s cruel treatment of himself and his family members, becoming one of the nation’s most recognizable abolitionists and advocates for equal rights for African-Americans. Now, with the abolition of slavery, Douglass could confront his former master without fearing arrest or re-enslavement.

The 1877 meeting was one of a series of moving encounters Douglass had later in life with those who once held him in bondage. Fraught with strong emotions and bitter memories, the meetings show how determined Douglass—one of the most morally and politically influential African-American public figures of the 19th century—was to confront the legacy of slavery in his own life, in private as well as in public.

Douglass, born into slavery in 1818 on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, wasn’t always owned by the Auld family. After living with an aunt and his grandmother, he was sent to serve at the Wye Plantation in Talbot County, Maryland. There, he saw the brutality of slavery on full display. His owner and overseer, Aaron Anthony, fed slave children from troughs and mercilessly whipped slaves who did not obey his orders quickly enough.

Illustrations depicting Frederick Douglass’s life from slavery to abolitionist. (Credit: Photo12/UIG via Getty Images)

When Frederick was about 10, he was given to Anthony’s daughter, Lucretia Auld. She and her husband Thomas sent Douglass to serve his brother, Hugh, in Baltimore, where he learned to read while working as a house slave. In 1833, after Thomas and Hugh got in a dispute, Thomas took back the slaves. Douglass returned to Thomas’s estate the same year and resumed work as a field hand.

Thomas was a cruel master, starving and beating his slaves and breaking up their attempts to worship, read and write. He leased Douglass out to other masters who attempted to break his independent spirit with physical and emotional abuse. Eventually, Douglass returned to Hugh in Baltimore, fell in love and started …read more


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The Next Big Storm to Rock Puerto Rico: Suicide

February 13, 2018 in Blogs

By Kali Holloway, AlterNet

The island hasn't recovered from Maria—and the next hurricane season starts in three months.

The number of suicides in Puerto Rico has increased by nearly one-third, or 29 percent, in 2017 over just a year prior. The figures were reported by the Commission for the Prevention of Suicide, a part of the Puerto Rico Department of Health. While the exact cause of the rise cannot be definitively pinned down, a Newsweek report from last month noted that many “health specialists and doctors said the spike in suicides can be linked to the aftermath of the storm that struck the island on September 20 and the destruction of basic resources like food, water, electricity and housing.”

The numbers are particularly troubling since the suicide rate “significantly dropped in 2016 by 21 percent from 2015, then increased in 2017.”

Newsweek notes that there were 27 suicides in Puerto Rico in November, or nearly one per day. In December, that figure was 20. A total of 253 people committed suicide on the island last year, up from 196 in 2016.

“If someone is in a position where they do not have any electricity, water or a roof over their head, you’re going to either break and sometimes break to the point of committing suicide,” Alicia Schwartz, a New York City-based home care nurse who is volunteering in Puerto Rico, told the outlet. “You can only live so much without the simple necessities of having a roof over your head.”

Puerto Rican officials and aid organizations sharply criticized the Trump administration for its insufficient response following Hurricane Maria, the strongest storm the island has faced in 85 years. In the days after the disaster, as residents of the U.S. territory suffered without food, water or electricity, the president hardly acknowledged the destruction, choosing instead to tweet complaints about NFL players taking the knee. In response to San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz’s public requests for aid, Trump issued a series of insults aimed at the island and its leadership from the confines of his luxury golf club.

While official tallies put the …read more


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Pentagon Watchdog Calls Out Two Commands for Financial Corruption

February 13, 2018 in Blogs

By Nick Turse, TomDispatch

AFRICOM has a drug war and missing money to the tune of $500 million to explain.

2017 was a year of investigations for U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM).  There was the investigation of the two-star commander of U.S. Army Africa who allegedly sent racy texts to an enlisted man’s wife.  There was the investigation into the alleged killing of a Special Forces soldier by Navy SEALs in Mali. There was the inquiry into reports of torture and killings on a remote base in Cameroon that was also used by American forces.  There was the investigation of an alleged massacre of civilians by American special operators in Somalia.  And don’t forget the inquiry into the killing of four Special Forces soldiers by Islamic State militants in Niger.

And then there was the investigation that hardly anyone heard about, that didn’t spark a single headline.  And still, the question remains: Whatever became of that $500 million?

To be fair, this particular scandal isn’t AFRICOM’s alone, nor did that sizeable sum belong only to that one command.  And unlike the possibly tens of thousands of dollars in cash that reportedly went missing in connection with the strangulation of the Green Beret in Mali, that $500 million didn’t simply vanish.  Still, a report by the Defense Department’s Inspector General (IG), released into the news wasteland of the day after Christmas 2017, does raise questions about a combatant command with a history of scandals, including significant failures in planning, executing, tracking, and documenting projects across the African continent, as well as the effectiveness of U.S. assistance efforts there.

From fiscal years 2014 through 2016, AFRICOM and Central Command (CENTCOM), the umbrella organization for U.S. military activities in the Greater Middle East, received a combined $496 million to conduct counternarcotics (CN) activities.  That substantial sum was used by the respective commands to fund myriad projects from the construction of border outposts in allied nations to training personnel in policing skills like evidence collection.  Or at least, that’s how it was supposed to be used.  According to the IG, neither AFRICOM nor CENTCOM “maintained reliable …read more


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Trump's Budget Doubles Down on the Drug War

February 13, 2018 in Blogs

By Phillip Smith, AlterNet

It's largely a return to the bad old days, with plenty of spending on cops and money to burn on a border wall that will accomplish nothing.

The Trump administration released its proposed Fiscal Year 2019 budget Monday, and it looks like a return to last century's failed law-and-order drug war policies. While paying lip service to the nation's opioid crisis, the administration shows its priorities by asking for more money for Trump's quixotic border wall than to actually address opioids.

In contrast with the Obama administration, which sought to tip the balance between law enforcement and treatment and prevention by tilting funding toward more counselors than cops, the Trump budget tilts back toward law enforcement.

The budget would also gut the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP—the drug czar's office), a move that is alarming mainstream critics of Trump's drug policies, but one that more radical critics of drug prohibition—on both the left and the right—are not that upset about. For such critics, the drug czar's office is just one more prohibitionist federal bureaucracy, and shrinking or eliminating it would be a good thing.

But overall, the Trump budget is doubling down on the drug war.

Here are some of the lowlights from the proposed budget:

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The Dos and Don’ts of 1940s Dating Etiquette

February 13, 2018 in History

By Allison McNearney

History Flashback takes a look at historical “found footage” of all kinds—newsreels, instructional films, even cartoons—to give us a glimpse into how much things have changed, and how much has remained the same.

The world of dating has always been perilous, but teens in the 1940s weren’t left to figure it out on their own. They had a little help in the romantic arts, via educational “mental hygiene films” that parents and teachers hoped would help them find their way in an increasingly complex world.

Following World War II, America was in social upheaval. Men were returning home from the battlefield, women were returning (willing or not) home from the workforce, and everyone was trying to figure out what life after war would look like. Around the globe unrest continued as countries began picking philosophical sides in the brewing Cold War.

With more propagandistic qualities than acting or cinematic merits, these films tried to give teens some certainty about what their roles should be.

Coronet Films was launched by the co-founders of Esquire magazine and became one of the more prolific players in the genre. From the late 1940s to the mid-70s (with a trickle of school movies continuing into the early 90s), three decades of students were indoctrinated in school with the behaviors society expected of them with titles like 1949’s “Dating Dos and Don’ts.”

Director Ted Peshak was responsible for over 300 films, covering a a range of social issues including Are you Popular? (1947), Are You a Good Citizen? (1949), Appreciating Your Parents (1950), Control Your Emotions (1950), Going Steady? (1951), Improve Your Personality (1951), and Choosing Your Marriage Partners (1952).

As these titles show, dating was of particular concern in the 1940s and 50s when the romantic stakes seemed higher than ever. By 1950, the average age of first marriage according to the U.S. Bureau of the Census dropped to 20 for women and 23 for men. The rules governing courtship became stricter as well.

With the single-minded focus on finding a spouse beginning at an even earlier age, dating etiquette dictated not only how teens should act—the man always initiated the engagement and picked his date up, at which time he would generally meet her parents—but also how the relationship would proceed. It was during this time that concepts like going steady and getting pinned took hold as teens began dating only one person at a time, rather than entertaining multiple dates as their parents had.

Videos like Dating Dos …read more


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The Right's Favorite New Intellectual Has Some Truly Pitiable Ideas About Masculinity

February 13, 2018 in Blogs

By Jacob Bacharach, AlterNet

Why does anyone take Jordan Peterson seriously?

More than a decade ago, when he reviewed Harvard curmudgeon Harvey Mansfield’s book, Manliness, Walter Kirn asked: “In just which far-off galaxy has Mansfield set up his telescope to scrutinize the doings of us earthlings?”

Mansfield’s book, whose port-and-pipesmoke fantasy of masculinity was itself at least four decades out of date, was hopelessly wrong for an era defined by Truck Nutz and George W. Bush declaring “Mission Accomplished” to an audience of hooting cable news hosts. Challenged in an interview with the New York Times' Deborah Solomon to name a manly physical pursuit, Mansfield cited opening jars and moving furniture for his wife. How often did he really move furniture, Solomon pressed. “Not every night,” he replied, “but routinely.”

Mansfield was by no means the first fusty old professor to grouse about female troubles—men like him have been grumbling since before women’s studies made a beachhead at San Diego State in the early '70s. But Manliness was written for a popular audience, and it was one of the earliest salvos in a cottage industry dedicated to saving young males from the ravishments of a culture that had either abandoned genders or created too many, depending on whom you ask. The decade or so since has seen the emergence of a self-proclaimed counterrevolution to the conjoined scourges of gay rights, feminism and preferred pronouns. It includes elbow-patched academics, self-proclaimed men’s rights activists, and the vitamin scammers of the so-called alt-right.

It includes Jordan Peterson.

I thought of Kirn’s question when I took a tentative dip into Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. The first rule is “stand up straight with your shoulders back,” which Peterson’s voluminous videography suggests he obeys only intermittently. The chapter on this first rule begins in a J. Alfred Prufrock mood by comparing humans to lobsters—the manifest complexity of our societies and power politics reduced to the scuttling instincts of arthropods.

Devotees of the pseudoscience of evolutionary psychology are fond of this particular maneuver: locate some behavior in the more ancient branches …read more


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Jeff Sessions' Profound Failure to Understand the Overdose Crisis

February 13, 2018 in Economics

By Jeffrey A. Singer

Jeffrey A. Singer

Attorney General Jeff Sessions spoke to a group of U.S.
Attorneys in Tampa, Fla., last week, and demonstrated his ignorance
about the root causes of the opioid overdose crisis.

“I am operating on the assumption that this country prescribes
too many opioids,” Sessions said. “People need to take some aspirin
sometimes.” A day earlier, Sessions told a gathering celebrating
the birthday of President Ronald Reagan, “Sometimes you just need
to take two Bufferin or something and go to bed.”

Bob Twillman, the executive director of the Academy of
Integrative Pain Management, said, “That remark reflects a failure
to recognize the severity of pain in some patients.” Twillman went
on, “It further illustrates how out of touch parts of the
administration are with opioids and pain management.”

I think “out of touch” is an understatement.

Sessions seems unaware that high-dose opioid prescriptions are
down 41% since 2010, and that the majority of overdose deaths are
due to heroin and fentanyl. He probably doesn’t know that the
overdose rate from street fentanyl rose by 88% per year from 2013
to 2016; for heroin it rose by an average of 32% per year from 2010
to 2016. Yet it remained unchanged and stable for prescription
opioids from 2009 to 2016.

As long as policymakers
remain as clueless as Sessions about the causes and remedies of the
rising overdose death rate, look for the rate to continue to

What’s even more disturbing to me as a doctor is the attorney
general’s demonstrated lack of compassion for patients suffering in
pain. Many have been severely impacted by the restrictive policies
that have pressured doctors to curtail or cut off their patients in
pain. Some are so desperate that they turn to the black market in
search of relief, where they sometimes wind up with heroin and
fentanyl. Some even resort to suicide.

I have performed major operations on patients with complex
intra-abdominal diseases who return home in agonizing, debilitating
pain that lasts for weeks. Sometimes they need several days —
sometimes weeks — of strong opioids to help them recover at
home and resume a normal life. Aspirin won’t do the trick. I hope
the attorney general never has to experience such pain.

In what is beginning to sound like a broken record, New York
City recently reported that in 2016 nearly three-quarters of all
overdoses deaths were from heroin or fentanyl, and 97% involved
multiple drugs; 46% of the time, cocaine was involved. By contrast,
last month a Harvard study of one million postoperative patients
given prescription opioids showed a “misuse” rate of just 0.6%.

Yet Sessions, like most policymakers, seems …read more

Source: OP-EDS

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Establishment Republicans Can No Longer Claim to Be Fiscal Conservatives

February 13, 2018 in Economics

By Ryan Bourne

Ryan Bourne

So much for US Republicans starving the government beast.

When the party’s major tax reform package passed in December,
Democrats worried that projections for a $1 trillion debt increase
over a decade would be used by Republicans to justify spending cuts
and reforms to old-age entitlements.

Instead, with a looming government shutdown, Republican and
Democrat leaders last week conspired to pass a budget-cap busting
spending package. This increased outlays by around $300bn over two
years — a rise that no doubt will become the new baseline

People decry a lack of bipartisanship in the US, but Congress
has shown that when you get a cross-party consensus, taxpayers

Under these plans, military spending would be raised by $80bn in
2018, and then $85bn in 2019. At Republicans’ request, the US
will have added around one-and-a-half times the UK defence budget
to its military spending its year.

Not only is the long-term
outlook unsustainable with untouchable entitlement growth, but the
country is now running up huge debts even in a strong and growing

And now we know what “working across the aisle”
really means — chucking money your opponents’ way.
Democrats pushed for matching increases in non-defence spending,
and eventually settled for an extra $63bn in 2018 and $68bn in
2019. This cross-party spending spree will result in a budget
deficit that Jeremy Corbyn would be proud of.

According to the Congressional Budget Office, the US was already
projected to run a deficit of 4.7 per cent in 2019 after the tax
cuts, up from 2.9 per cent in 2017.

Given reasonable economic assumptions, we are looking at the US
federal government now running deficits in excess of 5.6 per cent
of GDP, and then increasing further. All this comes, of course,
after a long period of sustained growth and with unemployment at a
16-year low of just 4.1 per cent.

This makes no economic sense from any school of thought.

In Keynesian terms, now is the time to fix the roof while the
sun is shining. Certainly, the deficit should be restrained to
levels necessary to get the debt-to-GDP ratio back on a downward

With monetary policy tightening, unemployment low, and most
forecasters estimating that the US is already growing above
potential, there is no case for any kind of “fiscal
stimulus” today.

It is utterly irresponsible from a pure public finance
perspective too.

The country’s burgeoning entitlement spending, which is
driven by an ageing population, means debt is forecast to increase
exponentially from here to the future absent reform to those

Even before the recent tax and spending changes, the
Congressional Budget Office thought debt held by the public would
rise from …read more

Source: OP-EDS