Archive for January, 2015


Roundup – Christopher Walken: Hostage Negotiator

Best of the Best:

If Your Robot Buys Illegal Drugs, Have You Committed a Crime? [Annalee Newitz on io9]

A group of Swiss artists recently set a bot free on the darknet, allowing it to purchase whatever it could with Bitcoins. Among other weird things it bought were a few ecstasy pills and a fake Hungarian passport. Now an attorney asks whether the artists could be arrested under the law as it currently stands…In the United States, at least, criminal law is predominantly statutory. We would have to look to the precise wording of the federal or local law and then apply it to the facts at hand. If, for instance, the law says a person may not knowingly purchase pirated merchandise or drugs, there is an argument that the artists did not violate the law. Whereas if the law says the person may not engage in this behavior recklessly, then the artists may well be found guilty, since they released the bot into an environment where they could be substantially certain some unlawful outcome would occur. I presume they even wanted the bot to yield illegal contraband to make the installation more exciting. Wanting a bad outcome doesn’t make it illegal (you cannot wish someone to death), but purposefully leaving the bot in the darknet until it yielded contraband seems hard to distinguish from intent.

California Prisons End Race-Based Punishments [Paige St. John on Los Angeles Times via Governing Magazine] (10/23/14)

When a group of prisoners attacked two guards at California’s High Desert State Prison in 2006, the warden declared a full lockdown that confined African-Americans in one wing of the prison to their cells, and kept them there for 14 months. No outdoor exercise. No rehabilitation programs or prison jobs. This week, California agreed to give up its unique use of race-based punishment as a tool to control violence in its crowded prisons. Corrections chief Jeffrey Beard and lawyers for inmates have settled a six-year-long civil rights lawsuit, filed in 2008, over the High Desert lockdown. The case was eventually widened to cover all prisoners and lockdown practices that had become common statewide. The agreement now goes to a federal judge for expected approval…Prison lawyers cited as many as 160 race-based lockdowns lasting six weeks or longer in a given year in California. A riot between northern and southern Mexican gangs at Pelican Bay State Prison resulted in a three-year lockdown. During that time, inmates were denied family visits, issued housing and work assignments and assigned outdoor exercise times all based on race.

Saudi War With Islamic State Echoes Kingdom’s Own Past [Glen Carey on Bloomberg] (10/23/14)

When Saudi rulers send warplanes on missions against Islamic State, they’re targeting a group whose theocratic ideology and roots in desert warfare overlap at least partly with the kingdom’s own present and past. The world’s largest oil exporter has evolved into a mostly urban society in its eight decades of statehood, yet nomadic fighters erupting from the desert in a blaze of religious zeal are still part of its foundation narrative. Today in Saudi Arabia, as in the territory controlled by Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, women must wear black abayas, shops all close during prayer times, religious police enforce Islamic laws and criminals face violent punishment…Islamic State refers to “the same texts that the Saudi government and official clergy do on religious questions,” and there are “similarities in terms of enforcing public morality,” [Gregory Gause, head of the International Affairs Department at Texas A&M University] said. The group’s biggest threat to the kingdom is “its ability to recruit sympathizers within Saudi Arabia.”

When Detroit Made Potato Chips [Alana Semuels on Tribune News Service via Governing Magazine] (10/16/14)

Detroit might be known for cars and Motown. But its third claim to fame? Potato chip consumption capital of the country. Detroiters consume an average of 7 pounds of chips a year; the rest of the country eats 4 pounds. The loyalty of the Detroit diaspora to one potato chip brand may seem surprising to outsiders, but it makes perfect sense to Sam Cipriano, whose father founded Better Made. Cipriano said people can taste Michigan in the chips: the Michigan-grown potatoes the company uses 10 months out of the year, the Detroit water, the Michigan-made salt.

Karaoke Plays On as Kurds Repel Islamic Extremist Neighbors [Donna Abu-Nasr on Bloomberg] (10/23/14)

It’s Karaoke night at DC Steakhouse in the Iraqi Kurd capital of Erbil, and diners are singing along to love songs as the imported wines and licorice spirits flow in a haze of shisha and cigarette smoke. Rebaz Serbaz and Aram Siddiq, both in the security business, took turns at renditions of a Kurdish song about a man who lost his beloved and fears he won’t see her again before he dies. Fifty miles (80 kilometers) away in Mosul, Islamic State militants punish such a lifestyle with penalties including lashings and death by beheading or stoning. “We want to set an example, to tell the people, ‘go out, relax, don’t be afraid,’” said Serbaz, 29. “If you’re going to die, don’t kneel to anyone,” he said, citing a Kurdish proverb. Almost three months after the streets of Erbil emptied as Islamic State extremists advanced, the subdued city is counting the cost to a once thriving economy. At the same time, it’s trying to show it can remain an oasis of security, prosperity and fun in an Iraq ripped apart by violence.

Arkansas Liquor Stores Join Churches to Save Dry Counties [Esmé E. Deprez and Millie Hogue on Bloomberg] (10/27/14)

Arkansas liquor stores have allied with religious leaders to fight statewide legalization of alcohol sales. The stores in wet counties don’t want to lose customers. The churches don’t want to lose souls. A ballot issue next week asks voters whether to amend their constitution to permit sales of intoxicating liquors in all 75 counties, up from about half. Passage would further erode the shrinking swath of America, mostly in the South, clinging to vestiges of Prohibition even as cultural attitudes and waning religious influence have killed it off elsewhere…Citizens for Local Rights, the opposition group funded by alcohol retailers seeking to preserve their competitive advantage, argues the measure would lead to “beer joints and honky tonks right next to our grade schools and churches,” according to its website. Larry Page, a Southern Baptist pastor and director of the Arkansas Faith and Ethics Council, which traces its roots to the Anti-Saloon League of Arkansas in 1899, said the initiative is about more than just the dangers of alcohol…It’s not the first time political issues have made for strange bedfellows, Page said, recalling when his group joined with feminists to oppose pornography and cooperated with Mississippi casinos to fight gambling in Arkansas.

Catholics Are More Progressive Than The Vatican, And Almost Everyone Else  [Carl Bialik on FiveThirtyEight] (10/17/14)

In all but one of the 14 GSS polls over the last quarter century, more Catholics than Protestants said divorce should be easier to get by law. In every survey since 1973, more Catholics than Protestants said gays should be allowed to speak publicly, teach and have books they wrote available in libraries. (If those questions don’t sound like they go very far by today’s standards, keep in mind that the Vatican isn’t going all that far, either, and that when these questions were asked in 1973, more than a third of Americans didn’t agree — half, in the case of teaching.) Also in each survey, more Catholics than Protestants said gay sex was “not wrong at all.” And all four times the GSS asked whether a couple living together unmarried was acceptable, more Catholics than Protestants said it was. A similar pattern emerges in recent international surveys.

Smart people listen to Radiohead and dumb people listen to Beyoncé, according to study [Alex Young on Consequence of Sound] (10/22/14)

For the last several years, a software application writer by the name of Virgil Griffith has charted musical tastes based on the average SAT scores of various college institutions. For example, students attending the California Institute of Technology have an average SAT score of 1520. By looking at Facebook to determine the most popular (or — “liked”) band of students at Cal Tech, Griffith was able to conclude that Radiohead really truly is music for smart people. A highly scientific study, I know. As Digital Inspiration points out, Griffith’s chart reveals Sufjan Stevens, Bob Dylan, The Shins, and — uh — Counting Crows as other favorite bands of smart people. Meanwhile, Lil Wayne, Beyoncé, The Used, and gospel music comes in at the lower end of the spectrum — or, as Griffith puts it, is music for dumb people. Among other interesting revelations from the Griffith’s chart: Smart people prefer John Mayer over Pink Floyd; rock titans like Tool, System of a Down, and Pearl Jam fall right in the middle — so, music for average people?; and people still listen to Switchfoot.

What Women Want [Pornhub Insights]

Well, apparently they want to watch a bunch of gay sex. Pornhub’s Lesbian category is the leading favorite among the ladies, with Gay (male) following close at second place. The Gay category only falls into 7th place for men in terms of top viewed categories so it’s noteworthy here that overall, this category ranks higher with the sex opposite to that which this type of content is intended for…Here again, ‘lesbian’ emerges as the most searched term by women, in comparison to ‘teen’ for men. The ladies are also much more into multi-partner scenarios with terms ‘threesome’ coming in hot at number 2 and ‘gangbang’ in at 4th place. Chocolate cravings are also strong on the female side with terms ‘ebony,’ ‘big black cock,’ ‘black’ and ‘ebony lesbians’ all ranking in the top 25 most searched. When we look at the terms that women are more likely to search for than men, the results are simply Sapphic. For instance, ‘eating pussy’ is over 900% more likely to be searched by a woman than a man, as are terms like ‘pussy licking,’ ‘tribbing,’ ‘lesbian scissoring’ and ‘ebony lesbians’ which on average are over 600% more searched for by the ladies. We’ve covered what both genders like to look at on Pornhub, so let’s shift it over to who. Reality television appears to be a theme over on the women’s side, with small-screen stars Kim Kardashian (nsfw), Mimi Faust (nsfw) and Farrah Abraham (nsfw) all showing up within the top 5.

Area Man Only One With Problems [The Onion]

According to people familiar with Belson’s personal trials, in just the past week the problems he—and he alone—has faced include having to drag himself out of bed for work even though he hadn’t slept all that well, feeling trapped in a tedious and unchallenging job, and enduring a sense of loneliness while watching television by himself in his apartment—all awful experiences that Belson’s acquaintances said they struggled to even fathom.

The Truth About the Wars [Lt. General Daniel Bolger U.S. Army (Retired) via The New York Times]

We did not understand the enemy, a guerrilla network embedded in a quarrelsome, suspicious civilian population. We didn’t understand our own forces, which are built for rapid, decisive conventional operations, not lingering, ill-defined counterinsurgencies. We’re made for Desert Storm, not Vietnam. As a general, I got it wrong. Like my peers, I argued to stay the course, to persist and persist, to “clear/hold/build” even as the “hold” stage stretched for months, and then years, with decades beckoning. We backed ourselves season by season into a long-term counterinsurgency in Iraq, then compounded it by doing likewise in Afghanistan. The American people had never signed up for that.

Woman Running for President Shows Tunisia’s Arab Spring Progress [Jihen Laghmari and Caroline Alexander on Bloomberg News] (11/12/14)

In a life spanning colonial rule, war, autocracy and revolution, Tunis resident Halima never saw a reason to vote. A chance meeting in a souk earlier this month gave her one. She was introduced to Kalthoum Kannou, who has three children, a long marriage to a doctor, a 25-year career as a judge and an ambition to be the first female president of Tunisia.

Police Use Department Wish List When Deciding Which Assets to Seize [Sheila Dewan on New York Times] (11/9/14)

Much of the nuts-and-bolts how-to of civil forfeiture is passed on in continuing education seminars for local prosecutors and law enforcement officials, some of which have been captured on video. The Institute for Justice, which brought the videos to the attention of The Times, says they show how cynical the practice has become and how profit motives can outweigh public safety. In the sessions, officials share tips on maximizing profits, defeating the objections of so-called “innocent owners” who were not present when the suspected offense occurred, and keeping the proceeds in the hands of law enforcement and out of general fund budgets. The Times reviewed three sessions, one in Santa Fe, N.M., that took place in September, one in New Jersey that was undated, and one in Georgia in September that was not videotaped…Sean D. McMurtry, the chief of the forfeiture unit in the Mercer County, N.J., prosecutor’s office, said forfeiture contributes to only a small percentage of local budgets but it is a good deterrent and works especially well against repeat offenders, such as domestic violence perpetrators who repeatedly violate a restraining order. “We’re very proud of our forfeiture operation,” he said in an interview. But in the video, Mr. McMurtry made it clear that forfeitures were highly contingent on the needs of law enforcement. In New Jersey, the police and prosecutors are allowed to use cars, cash and other seized goods; the rest must be sold at auction. Cellphones and jewelry, Mr. McMurtry said, are not worth the bother. Flat screen televisions, however, “are very popular with the police departments,” he said.

Businesses cash in as women chase bigger butts [Joseph Pisani on The Associated Press] (11/11/14)

As a result of the pop culture moment the butt is having, sales for Booty Pop, which hawks $22 foam padded panties on its website, are up 47 percent in the last six months from the same period a year earlier. The company, which declined to give sales figures, has sold out of certain styles and colors this year, including its Pink Cotton Candy Boy Shorts…To be sure, the desire for big butts isn’t new. Large booties long have been preferable in Latino and black communities, says Dr. Dionne Stephens, an associate psychology professor at Florida International University who has researched sexuality in popular culture. And this is not the first time big butts have been in songs. (Think: “Baby Got Back” by Sir Mix-A-Lot in the 1990s.) But recently, the desire for a bigger bottom became more mainstream, in large part due to pop culture influences. Mainstream celebrities like Lopez and Minaj accepting their ample assets on camera have given the butt cachet.

Few Signs of Construction at Yujiapu, China’s Manhattan Replica [Ian Williams on NBC News] (11/10/14)

China’s $50-billion knock-off of the Big Apple sits on a river bend — much like its namesake — near the port city of Tianjin, some 120 miles from Beijing. Complete with its own Rockefeller Center and Twin Towers, it’s been billed as the world’s largest financial center in the making. But this Manhattan still has a long way to go. A recent visit shows that construction that began in 2008 on the back of a massive credit boom unleashed in China after the global financial crisis appears to have ground to a halt. While the stunted version of “Rockefeller Center” and its Twin Towers appeared to be complete — both were empty and fenced off…Yujiapu was scheduled for completion in 2019, offering 164 million square feet of office space over an area larger than Manhattan’s financial district in a bid to stimulate development of vast residential districts nearby. Mock-ups of the bright and bustling metropolis envisioned by developers that dot roadside billboards stand in stark contrast to the lifeless cranes beyond, which tell the tale of a building frenzy quickly turning into a bust.

Deadly, Dionysian Beirut: The Islamists ‘Would Kill Us for Sure,’ Says Edible-Panties Purveyor [Rodney Jefferson and Donna Abu-Nasr on Bloomberg News] (11/11/14)

Beirut has been no stranger to potent cocktails over the years, and Ayman Zayour is on a mission to put his city on the map for the right reasons. The 22-year-old bartender is perfecting his “Smooth Criminal,” a shaken-up mix of white rum with butter, egg white and various other alcoholic ingredients. The creation made the national final, and Zayour hopes he can progress to the Bacardi Legacy global competition in Sydney next year. The contrast between Zayour’s world and what’s happening on his doorstep couldn’t be greater as Islamist militants trying to impose extremist laws fight the Lebanese army to the north.

Why Classic Rock Isn’t What It Used To Be [Walt Hickey on FiveThirtyEight] (7/7/14)

The 10-year period from 1973 to 1982 accounts for a whopping 57 percent of all song plays in the set. Besides a small trickle of music from 1995 onward — a trickle to which the Green Day song that inspired this article belongs — the last year to make an actual dent in the listings is 1991. That’s largely due to releases by Nirvana, Metallica and U2, the groups that make up the last wave of what is currently considered classic rock. But clearly it’s not just when a song was released that makes it classic rock. Popularity matters, as does as a band’s longevity, its sound and a bunch of other factors.

High School Soccer Stars Dreaming of Europe Show Long Road Ahead for U.S. [Mason Levinson on Bloomberg News] (11/5/14)

The difference in popularity between U.S. soccer and European football is nowhere more evident than at YSC Academy near Philadelphia, the only high school dedicated to developing American players…YSC opened in 2013 and was founded by Rich Graham, a managing principal at private equity firm Striker Partners and a minority owner of Major League Soccer’s Philadelphia Union. The Wayne, Pennsylvania, school, which is affiliated with the team, has 64 students in grades eight through 12. Most play for the Union’s development teams; each one lives and breathes soccer, training twice daily and tailoring his education to help advance in the game.

Genes Explain Why Your Cat Doesn’t Care if You Live or Die [Megan Scudellari on Bloomberg News] (11/11/14)

The first close look at the genetic code of a domestic cat suggests that food rewards from people brought man and feline together, based on genome variations associated with memory and reward behaviors. The study also identified how cats evolved to lead solitary, meat-eating lives, and finds that, perhaps unsurprisingly, cats aren’t quite as domesticated as dogs. The domestic cat genome shows a relatively small number of changed genetic regions compared to domesticated dogs, said Wesley Warren of the Genome Institute at Washington University School of Medicine in Saint Louis, who led the study…Cat domestication began about 9,000 years ago, an estimate based on the remains of a cat laid carefully next to those of a human at an ancient Cyprus burial site, though most of the 30 to 40 cat breeds today originated just 150 years ago, previous research has found…In addition, by comparing cat and dog genomes, the researchers found a unique evolutionary trade-off between the two groups: While dogs evolved an unsurpassed sense of smell, cats traded in those smell receptor genes for genes that enhanced their ability to sense pheromones, odorless substances that enable animals of the same species to communicate, such as to find a mate. That tradeoff makes sense, says Warren, as wild dogs ran in packs and so had less need to sense mates and more need to sniff out food. Solitary cats, on the other hand, needed the enhanced pheromone-sensing ability to find mates and detect competing cats.

Vote all you want. The secret government won’t change. [Jordan Michael Smith on The Boston Globe] (10/19/14)

But six years into his administration, the Obama version of national security looks almost indistinguishable from the one he inherited. Guantanamo Bay remains open. The NSA has, if anything, become more aggressive in monitoring Americans. Drone strikes have escalated. Most recently it was reported that the same president who won a Nobel Prize in part for promoting nuclear disarmament is spending up to $1 trillion modernizing and revitalizing America’s nuclear weapons. Why did the face in the Oval Office change but the policies remain the same? Critics tend to focus on Obama himself, a leader who perhaps has shifted with politics to take a harder line. But Tufts University political scientist Michael J. Glennon has a more pessimistic answer: Obama couldn’t have changed policies much even if he tried…Glennon cites the example of Obama and his team being shocked and angry to discover upon taking office that the military gave them only two options for the war in Afghanistan: The United States could add more troops, or the United States could add a lot more troops. Hemmed in, Obama added 30,000 more troops…Members of Congress are generalists and need to defer to experts within the national security realm, as elsewhere. They are particularly concerned about being caught out on a limb having made a wrong judgment about national security and tend, therefore, to defer to experts, who tend to exaggerate threats. The courts similarly tend to defer to the expertise of the network that defines national security policy. The presidency itself is not a top-down institution, as many people in the public believe, headed by a president who gives orders and causes the bureaucracy to click its heels and salute. National security policy actually bubbles up from within the bureaucracy. Many of the more controversial policies, from the mining of Nicaragua’s harbors to the NSA surveillance program, originated within the bureaucracy. John Kerry was not exaggerating when he said that some of those programs are “on autopilot.”

Churches Wrecked, Men Hide in Trees in Nigeria Caliphate [Michael Olukayode and Mustapha Muhammad on Bloomberg News] (11/17/14)

In areas of Nigeria where the Islamist group Boko Haram is trying to establish its self-styled caliphate, some Christian men hide in woodlands and ditches to avoid militant patrols, witnesses said…After five years of fighting to establish Shariah, or Islamic law, in Africa’s biggest oil producer, Boko Haram has started setting up an administration in parts of the northeastern states of Borno, Adamawa and Yobe. With at least 20 local government areas under its control, the militants tell residents that they, not the government, can protect them…Joshua Wariya, a 60-year-old resident who fled to the Borno state capital, Maiduguri, from the militant-held town of Gwoza, said hundreds of people are still trapped in surrounding hills with no food. Women who used to venture out to search for food no longer dare because they’re now being killed if they can’t recite parts of the Koran, he said on Nov. 7 at a displaced people’s camp in Maiduguri…When Jaafaru Kabiru tried to sneak into the northeastern Nigerian town of Mubi to evacuate his parents, two militants caught him at the edge of town and asked where he was going. When he said he was going to the stay with his parents in Mubi, “they replied it is no longer Mubi but Madinatul-Islam, ‘the City of Islam,’” Kabiru, a 19-year-old trader based in Yola, said in an interview. They let him proceed on his motorized tricycle after he was able to recite Muslim prayers at gunpoint.

How Much State Prison Populations Are Projected to Grow [Michael Maciag on Governing Magazine] (11/18/14)

The Pew Charitable Trusts’ public safety performance project published new state prison population projections Tuesday, providing projections of how numbers of inmates could change over the next four years. A dozen of the 34 states reporting data expect their prison populations to grow more than 5 percent. The number of inmates housed in Iowa state correctional facilities is slated to climb 16 percent by 2018 — the largest increase of any state. Wyoming (14 percent) and Alaska (11 percent) also reported larger projected growth. Overall, the total prison population in states reporting data is expected to swell 3 percent over the next four years. If projections hold true, that means the state imprisonment rate should remain about unchanged when adjusted for population growth. At least six states expect their prison populations to shrink — albeit not by much — in the coming years.

Kurds Find Unity in Fighting Islamic State. And in Beer [Donna Abu-Nasr on Bloomberg News] (11/20/14)

Herdi Kader and Cesur Nujen have roots in rival parts of Kurdistan, yet their futures are united. Sons of Kurdish immigrants to Sweden, the two came together in a bid to persuade the world to associate their people with their beer, Ava Zer, Kurdish for “gold water,” rather than the violent conflict with Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. “I want people to drink our beer and say, ‘Wow, Kurds, they know how to make beer,’” Kader said by telephone from Stockholm. “It’s good for the Kurdish people because what’s happening now is not very good for them.” It may be just a business venture thousands of miles away, but Kader, 31, and Nujen, 33, are a rare collaboration among Kurds not on the battlefield. As the fractious people scattered across Syria, Turkey, Iraq and Iran puts power struggles aside to fight extremist militants, uniting the world’s largest stateless group remains elusive.

Crooks Blow Up ATMs in Crimes Leaving Chileans Stuck in Line [Eduardo Thomson on Bloomberg] (11/18/14)

Chilean thieves have a new way of stealing cash from ATMs: they blow them up. The method is simple. Use a hose to inject propane into the machine while being careful to seal all cracks and vents with duct tape, then light the fuel with a spark. The top of the machine explodes, leaving the cash tray almost intact…The pyrotechnics have contributed to a 62 percent jump in automated teller machine robberies through September, according to an e-mailed statement from Chilean police. A 13 percent drop in the number of ATMs in the first nine months of the year following 375 attacks has caused long lines to form at the 7,877 remaining dispensers, making withdrawals a test of endurance. The number of machines peaked at 9,313 in March 2013.  Chile, the wealthiest nation in Latin America, is the only major economy in the region where the number of cash machines is falling, according to London-based Retail Banking Research. Chile now has fewer of them per customer than South American neighbors such as Brazil and Argentina. To make being cash-needy even more miserable, the time that the machines are empty reached a record 17 percent in September, the highest among the 34 member states of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. On Nov. 3, thieves blew up an ATM in downtown Santiago and escaped with the cash after throwing “miguelitos” — twisted nails — on the street behind their getaway car.

Mali Nurse Endures Neighbors’ Stoning to Battle Ebola [Francois Rihouay on Bloomberg] (11/19/14)

“Rita has Ebola!” her neighbors chanted as they gathered at her front door after they learned that two patients at the clinic where she worked in the Malian capital, Bamako, died of the disease. “The neighbors and some kids came after me and threw stones and handfuls of sand,” Rita, who asked that her last name not be used, said in an interview. While Rita, 38, never was in contact with either patient stricken down by the virus at Bamako’s Pasteur Clinic, she hid in her house for two days before an ambulance came to her rescue, she said.

Murder She Wrote is murder capital of TV detective world [The Telegraph] (8/21/12)

The makers of “Murder, She Wrote” told the New York Times that Cabot Cove has a population of 3,500. The idyllic village in the state of Maine is the home of Jessica Fletcher, played by Angela Lansbury. And the number of suspicious deaths on her patch gives Cabot Cove a staggering murder rate of 1,490 per million. That makes it 50 times more deady than Honduras – the real-life murder capital of the world.

The Bizarre Case of the Woman Who Saw Dragons Everywhere [The Lancet via io9]

Recently, a group of neuroscientists examined a woman who complained of an unusual ailment. The people around her kept turning into dragons. The fifty-something woman said the problem had been plaguing her for most of her life, and eventually prevented her from holding a job. When people turned into dragons, she reported, their faces turned “black, grew long, pointy ears and a protruding snout, and displayed a reptiloid skin and huge eyes in bright yellow, green, blue, or red.”

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