CRF Blog

The Afghan War: Is it Vietnam’s playbook?

by Bill Hayes

GZERO Media asks: The Afghan War: Is it Vietnam’s playbook?

People Kill People. But the Bullets Seem to Matter

by Bill Hayes

Margot Sanger-Katz and Quoctrung Bui, writing in The Upshot section of the New York Times, report that People Kill People. But the Bullets Seem to Matter.

In Boston from 2010 to 2015, there were 221 gun homicides.

Research suggests that one change could have lowered that number by 40 percent: smaller bullets.

A study last year, published in JAMA Network Open, examined the type of weapon used in every fatal and nonfatal shooting in the city. It found that — regardless of the time of day, the number of wounds or the circumstances of the crime — the size of the bullet affected which gunshot victims lived and which ones died. [more]

How a Dubious Forensic Science Spread Like a Virus

by Bill Hayes

As part of its ongoing series titled Blood Will Tell: Investigating the Science Behind Forensic Science, ProPublica looks at How a Dubious Forensic Science Spread Like a Virus.

The prosecution’s star witness — a forensics specialist named Herbert MacDonell — set out an array of props before the jury: a medicine dropper, a mirror hastily yanked from the wall of the courthouse bathroom and a vial of his own blood, drawn that day at a nearby hospital.

It was a strange sight in the 1985 Texas courtroom, and the jurors, the judge and even the defense attorneys watched, rapt, as MacDonell laid the mirror flat and then climbed up on a chair, holding the vial and dropper.

MacDonell’s expertise lay in an obscure discipline known as bloodstain-pattern analysis. He claimed he could reconstruct the events of a crime by reading the bloodstains left behind.

Like a professor performing a classroom demonstration, he dipped the dropper’s tip into the blood and, with a practiced hand, released a single drop onto the mirror. It landed with a muted thud, forming a perfect crimson circle.

Blood landing on a flat surface should not spatter, MacDonell told the jurors with satisfaction. He let another drop fall onto the white shirt he was wearing. Blood lands differently on fabric, he showed them.

A defense attorney shot up from his chair in protest. This was a murder trial. There was no mirror at the crime scene. No medicine dropper. The demonstration was not reliable science, he argued. The judge disagreed.

MacDonell’s testimony would be pivotal to proving the Fort Bend County prosecutor’s theory that 21-year-old Reginald Lewis had murdered his family, shooting his mother and two brothers, and setting his father on fire. MacDonell had identified dozens of minuscule blood spots on Lewis’ clothing, and he said they placed Lewis at the scene during the crime

The jurors gave Lewis four 99-year sentences.

“MacDonell kind of took over the courtroom,” Lewis’ attorney, Donald Bankston, recalled, his disbelief still fresh. “It was almost like having Mr. Wizard.”

But MacDonell’s testimony that day did more than mesmerize the jury. It gave bloodstain-pattern analysis its first toehold of legitimacy in Texas courts, spreading it quietly, but surely, further into the justice system.

Two years later, Texas’ 1st Court of Appeals ordered a retrial because of evidentiary flaws (two retrials ended in hung juries), but it expressly rejected Lewis’ argument that bloodstain-pattern analysis was a “novel technique” that should never have been admitted and was not “scientifically recognized” or reliable.

“MacDonell’s studies are based on general principles of physics, chemistry, biology, and mathematics, and his methods use tools as widely recognized as the microscope; his techniques are neither untested nor unreliable,” Judge James F. Warren wrote for the court. To support his decision, Warren cited four other states — Tennessee, California, Illinois and Maine — that had already affirmed bloodstain-pattern analysis’ use at trial. Two of those states had based their decisions on court testimony by MacDonell. [more]

This Is Your Brain on Nationalism

In This Is Your Brain on Nationalism for Foreign Affairs magazine, Robert Sapolsky examines the biology of “us and them.”

The human mind’s propensity for us-versus-them thinking runs deep. Numerous careful studies have shown that the brain makes such distinctions automatically and with mind-boggling speed. Stick a volunteer in a brain scanner and quickly flash pictures of faces. Among typical white subjects in the scanner, the sight of a black man’s face activates the amygdala, a brain region central to emotions of fear and aggression, in under one-tenth of a second. In most cases, the prefrontal cortex, a region crucial for impulse control and emotional regulation, springs into action a second or two later and silences the amygdala: “Don’t think that way, that’s not who I am.” Still, the initial reaction is usually one of fear, even among those who know better.

This finding is no outlier. Looking at the face of someone of the same race activates a specialized part of the primate brain called the fusiform cortex, which recognizes faces, but it is activated less so when the face in question is that of someone of another race. Watching the hand of someone of the same race being poked with a needle activates the anterior cingulate cortex, a region implicated in feelings of empathy; being shown the same with the hand of a person of another race produces less activation. Not everyone’s face or pain counts equally. [more]

This Month’s Harper’s Index

Each issue of Harper’s contains Harper’s Index, a collection of interesting statistics. Excerpts from this month’s Harper’s Index:

Factor by which Facebook users over 65 are more likely to share stories from fake news sites than users between 18 and 29: 7

Percentage of US adult Facebook users who are unaware the company categorizes them according to their interests: 74

Of users who feel their assigned categories do not accurately describe them: 27 [more]

The Man from Red Vienna

by Bill Hayes

In The Man from Red Vienna for the New York Review of Books, Robert Kuttner reviews Karl Polanyi: A Life on the Left by Gareth Dale.

The great prophet of how market forces taken to an extreme destroy both democracy and a functioning economy was not Karl Marx but Karl Polanyi. Marx expected the crisis of capitalism to end in universal worker revolt and communism. Polanyi, with nearly a century more history to draw on, appreciated that the greater likelihood was fascism.

As Polanyi demonstrated in his masterwork The Great Transformation (1944), when markets become “disembedded” from their societies and create severe social dislocations, people eventually revolt. Polanyi saw the catastrophe of World War I, the interwar period, the Great Depression, fascism, and World War II as the logical culmination of market forces overwhelming society — “the utopian endeavor of economic liberalism to set up a self-regulating market system” that began in nineteenth-century England. This was a deliberate choice, he insisted, not a reversion to a natural economic state. Market society, Polanyi persuasively demonstrated, could only exist because of deliberate government action defining property rights, terms of labor, trade, and finance. “Laissez faire,” he impishly wrote, “was planned.”

Polanyi believed that the only way politically to temper the destructive influence of organized capital and its ultra-market ideology was with highly mobilized, shrewd, and sophisticated worker movements. He concluded this not from Marxist economic theory but from close observation of interwar Europe’s most successful experiment in municipal socialism: Red Vienna, where he worked as an economic journalist in the 1920s. And for a time in the post–World War II era, the entire West had an egalitarian form of capitalism built on the strength of the democratic state and underpinned by strong labor movements. But since the era of Thatcher and Reagan that countervailing power has been crushed, with predictable results.

In The Great Transformation, Polanyi emphasized that the core imperatives of nineteenth-century classical liberalism were free trade, the idea that labor had to “find its price on the market,” and enforcement of the gold standard. Today’s equivalents are uncannily similar. We have an ever more intense push for deregulated trade, the better to destroy the remnants of managed capitalism; and the dismantling of what remains of labor market safeguards to increase profits for multinational corporations. In place of the gold standard — whose nineteenth-century function was to force nations to put “sound money” and the interests of bondholders ahead of real economic well-being — we have austerity policies enforced by the European Commission, the International Monetary Fund, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, with the American Federal Reserve tightening credit at the first signs of inflation. [more]

The Digital Republic

by Bill Hayes

In The Digital Republic for the New Yorker, Nathan Heller looks at how Estonia has gone fully digital.

It was during [Taavi] Kotka’s tenure [as the country’s chief information officer] that the e-Estonian goal reached its fruition. Today, citizens can vote from their laptops and challenge parking tickets from home. They do so through the “once only” policy, which dictates that no single piece of information should be entered twice. Instead of having to “prepare” a loan application, applicants have their data — income, debt, savings — pulled from elsewhere in the system. There’s nothing to fill out in doctors’ waiting rooms, because physicians can access their patients’ medical histories. Estonia’s system is keyed to a chip-I.D. card that reduces typically onerous, integrative processes — such as doing taxes — to quick work. “If a couple in love would like to marry, they still have to visit the government location and express their will,” Andrus Kaarelson, a director at the Estonian Information Systems Authority, says. But, apart from transfers of physical property, such as buying a house, all bureaucratic processes can be done online.

Estonia is a Baltic country of 1.3 million people and four million hectares, half of which is forest. Its government presents this digitization as a cost-saving efficiency and an equalizing force. Digitizing processes reportedly saves the state two per cent of its G.D.P. a year in salaries and expenses. Since that’s the same amount it pays to meet the NATO threshold for protection (Estonia — which has a notably vexed relationship with Russia — has a comparatively small military), its former President Toomas Hendrik Ilves liked to joke that the country got its national security for free.

Other benefits have followed. “If everything is digital, and location-independent, you can run a borderless country,” Kotka said. In 2014, the government launched a digital “residency” program, which allows logged-in foreigners to partake of some Estonian services, such as banking, as if they were living in the country. Other measures encourage international startups to put down virtual roots; Estonia has the lowest business-tax rates in the European Union, and has become known for liberal regulations around tech research. It is legal to test Level 3 driverless cars (in which a human driver can take control) on all Estonian roads, and the country is planning ahead for Level 5 (cars that take off on their own). “We believe that innovation happens anyway,” Viljar Lubi, Estonia’s deputy secretary for economic development, says. “If we close ourselves off, the innovation happens somewhere else.”

“It makes it so that, if one country is not performing as well as another country, people are going to the one that is performing better — competitive governance is what I’m calling it,” Tim Draper, a venture capitalist at the Silicon Valley firm Draper Fisher Jurvetson and one of Estonia’s leading tech boosters, says. “We’re about to go into a very interesting time where a lot of governments can become virtual.”

Previously, Estonia’s best-known industry was logging, but Skype was built there using mostly local engineers, and countless other startups have sprung from its soil. “It’s not an offshore paradise, but you can capitalize a lot of money,” Thomas Padovani, a Frenchman who co-founded the digital-ad startup Adcash in Estonia, explains. “And the administration is light, all the way.” A light touch does not mean a restricted one, however, and the guiding influence of government is everywhere.

As an engineer, Kotka said, he found the challenge of helping to construct a digital nation too much to resist. “Imagine that it’s your task to build the Golden Gate Bridge,” he said excitedly. “You have to change the whole way of thinking about society.” So far, Estonia is past halfway there.

One afternoon, I met a woman named Anna Piperal at the e-Estonia Showroom. Piperal is the “e-Estonia ambassador”; the showroom is a permanent exhibit on the glories of digitized Estonia, from Skype to Timbeter, an app designed to count big piles of logs. (Its founder told me that she’d struggled to win over the wary titans of Big Log, who preferred to count the inefficient way.) Piperal has blond hair and an air of brisk, Northern European professionalism. She pulled out her I.D. card; slid it into her laptop, which, like the walls of the room, was faced with blond wood; and typed in her secret code, one of two that went with her I.D. The other code issues her digital signature — a seal that, Estonians point out, is much harder to forge than a scribble.

“This PIN code just starts the whole decryption process,” Piperal explained. “I’ll start with my personal data from the population registry.” She gestured toward a box on the screen. “It has my document numbers, my phone number, my e-mail account. Then there’s real estate, the land registry.” Elsewhere, a box included all of her employment information; another contained her traffic records and her car insurance. She pointed at the tax box. “I have no tax debts; otherwise, that would be there. And I’m finishing a master’s at the Tallinn University of Technology, so here” — she pointed to the education box — “I have my student information. If I buy a ticket, the system can verify, automatically, that I’m a student.” She clicked into the education box, and a detailed view came up, listing her previous degrees.

“My cat is in the pet registry,” Piperal said proudly, pointing again. “We are done with the vaccines.”

Data aren’t centrally held, thus reducing the chance of Equifax-level breaches. Instead, the government’s data platform, X-Road, links individual servers through end-to-end encrypted pathways, letting information live locally. Your dentist’s practice holds its own data; so does your high school and your bank. When a user requests a piece of information, it is delivered like a boat crossing a canal via locks. [more]

Rescuing Adam Smith from myth and misrepresentation

by David De La Torre

In Rescuing Adam Smith from myth and misrepresentation, The Economist reviews Adam Smith: Father of Economics by Jesse Norman.

Some readers will find Mr Norman’s busting of Smith-related myths to be the book’s most satisfying theme. Contrary to what is often assumed, the Scot did not advocate ruthless self-interest. The very first sentence of “The Theory of Moral Sentiments” reads: “How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it.”

Smith’s notion of the “invisible hand” is also misunderstood. [more]

For a free lesson on Adam Smith, see Adam Smith and The Wealth of Nations (23:1:07). It is available from  CRF’s Bill of Rights in Action Archive.

The Surprising Way Drugs Become Useless Against Bacteria

by Bill Hayes

In The Surprising Way Drugs Become Useless Against Bacteria, National Geographic looks at why life-threatening antibiotic resistance is spreading.

The World Health Organization considers antibiotic resistance one of the biggest threats of the 21st century. The World Economic Forum calls it a “potential disaster” for human health and the global economy. Just one such microbial threat, multidrug-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, caused more than 11,000 deaths in the United States in 2011 alone, and that one plus other resistant microbes kill hundreds of thousands of people annually around the world.

How has this happened? By a combination of Darwinian natural selection (hit a population of bacteria with an antibiotic, and the fittest will survive) and an evolutionary mechanism discovered much more recently, a phenomenon so counterintuitive that Charles Darwin didn’t imagine it: horizontal gene transfer. What that means is genes moving sideways across boundaries — between individuals, between species, even between kingdoms of creatures. One researcher in the 1950s dubbed it “infective heredity.” Genome sequencing reveals that such horizontal transfer of DNA has been profoundly important in the history of life, and among bacteria it’s especially common, with particular implications for the spread of antibiotic-resistance genes. [more]

The Underground Railroad of North Korea

by Bill Hayes

Writing in GQ, Doug Bock Clark reports on The Underground Railroad of North Korea.

First, the woman called “Faith” would have to evade the soldiers and surveillance cameras on the border. But even once she’d sneaked into China, the danger would only have just begun. To reach a South Korean embassy, where she could receive asylum, she would still have to clandestinely journey thousands of miles across China and then several Southeast Asian countries. If she was discovered anywhere along that trek, she would likely be repatriated to one of her nation’s infamous gulags, where prisoners slave with so little food they capture rats to eat. But after more than 30 years of never daring to criticize the dictatorship out loud, even after enduring a famine, she was willing to risk anything to free herself.

By late 2017, thanks to the help of a secret network of activists who serve as an underground railroad of sorts for North Koreans seeking asylum, Faith had managed to make it over 2,500 miles from her home. As she approached China’s border with Vietnam, where many refugees have been arrested — she recognized that she was facing one of the most hazardous passages of her odyssey. Faith, her two preschool-age kids, and five other North Koreans hiked on a mud path through farmland and jungle, following a Vietnamese man in silence, for speaking Korean would blow their cover to anyone they passed. At the end of the trail, a soldier appeared, guarding a bridge over a river, and their guide hailed him. Safety lay just beyond the soldier. She waited for him to respond. In this moment, she would discover if her bravery had won a better life for her and her children — or if she had doomed them all.

Faith was born in the People’s Paradise of North Korea in the late 1970s. There her easy life was envied by the rest of the world—or at least that was what she was taught. At home, she and her mother were supposed to polish their household portrait of the smiling Great Leader each day, though they only cleaned it in advance of inspections, since they could be punished if it wasn’t shiny enough. A giant version of that portrait, with its you-will-be-happy smile, greeted her at every school, factory, and railroad station. And after turning 16, like all adults, she pinned a button with the portrait over her heart each morning. Of course, Faith’s actual life was nothing like what the dictatorship’s propaganda depicted. In the mid-1990s, as a teenager, she survived a famine that reduced the population to scavenging pine bark, insects, and frogs, and killed hundreds of thousands of people. But if the ever-present secret police caught anyone complaining, the whiners could end up in the gulags, so Faith sang patriotic songs and echoed the slogan that North Koreans had “nothing to envy” about the lives of foreigners. But because Faith lived just a few miles from the heavily guarded Chinese border, sometimes people from her hometown sneaked across the river snaking through the mountains to search for food, and by the mid-2000s she had become exposed to goods smuggled in from outside—especially DVDs of South Korean soap operas. North Koreans are taught that South Koreans are an impoverished people ground beneath the heels of American “imperialist wolves,” so images of South Korea’s futuristic megalopolises amazed her, especially when she compared them with the dreary Soviet-style farming town where she grew up. But what really kept her binge-watching all night, while keeping an ear out for police, were the love stories. In North Korean cinema, heroines fall for the Great Leader and the Party, so she was amazed by glimpses of a world where personal romance came first.

Such a life, however, was beyond her grasp. She married and had a child. By 2012, she was actually relatively well-off, as she illegally traded mountain herbs. And though North Koreans were no longer starving in the streets, life remained bleak. (A 2018 United Nations report found that 43.4 percent of North Koreans are undernourished.) Still she was sick of “voluntary” communal-labor assignments, such as shoveling gravel to build roads, and the lies that undergirded North Korea’s “rotten” society. She was also having domestic problems with her husband. So when cross-border smugglers told her that they could get her a job in China, from which she could earn money to ultimately buy passage to South Korea, she decided to leave her husband and child behind and risk the gulags trying to sneak out of the country. Once she had saved up enough in China, she told herself, she would pay the smugglers to bring her kid (but not her husband) over the border and then she would usher them to a better life. When Faith arrived in China, however, the smugglers stunned her by revealing that she was to be sold to a Chinese husband. The smugglers, it turned out, were far from the good men she took them to be. Rather they were merchants in North Korean women, exploiting the gender imbalance created by China’s one-child policy—which unintentionally encouraged patriarchal parents to abort female fetuses, creating a surplus of 30 million Chinese men, thousands of whom are so desperate for partners that they buy North Korean wives. “I didn’t know anyone and I couldn’t speak the language,” Faith would later say, “so what could I do?” Several bids were made before she was ultimately auctioned off for about $800 to a poor Chinese farmer. [more]

The Most Endangered Wildlife in Every US State

by David De La Torre

Behance has created posters with short commentary of The Most Endangered Wildlife in Every US State. That’s right, it starts with Alabama and ends with Wyoming.

The 12-gram mouse with enormous eyes is a bit of an architect: it is known to dig complexes up to ten burrows strong in the dunes along the coast of the Cotton State. But it’s a harsh world outside. Oil-spills, hurricanes, and predators all stalk the Alabama coastline, not to mention the human impact as tourism becomes a bigger and bigger deal in the Alabama Gulf. [more]

What Crime Most Changed the Course of History?

by Bill Hayes

The Atlantic’s Big Question asks various experts (and commenters) to weigh in on one question. A recent question was: What Crime Most Changed the Course of History?

Tana French, author, The Trespasser

Gavrilo Princip’s assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, precipitated World War I, which reshaped large parts of the world politically, culturally, and psychologically and laid the groundwork for World War II. [more]

For a free classroom lesson with numerous activities on the beginning of World War I, see A Fire Waiting to Be Lit: The Origins of World War I from our Common Core Archive.

The Ugly Side of Poland’s Booming Economy

by Bill Hayes

Bloomberg Businessweek reports on The Ugly Side of Poland’s Booming Economy.

Curators at the Museum of the History of Polish Jews noticed a change among their visitors earlier this year: More people were pushing back against its version of history. Some asked why there was no mention of Jews selling out their neighbors to various enemies over the centuries. Others questioned whether Poles were really involved in a notorious World War II massacre. Anti-Semitism, it seemed, was acceptable again. Museum guides had to be trained to handle the verbal aggression.

“The dynamic changed overnight,” says Dariusz Stola, the history professor who runs the museum, observing that prejudices apparently had free rein in the wake of a proposed law. “The problem is that young people get used to hate speech. Some people don’t like chips, some people hate Coca-Cola — and some people hate the Jews.”

It’s a jarring piece of recidivism, set amid Poland’s economic boom. [more]

This Week’s New Yorker Cartoons

by Bill Hayes

To see a slide show of this week’s New Yorker cartoons, go here, scroll down to “Cartoons from the Issue,” and click on the arrows.

The Mueller Report

by Bill Hayes

This is the Mueller Report (with redactions by the Department of Justice): Report On The Investigation Into Russian Interference In The 2016 Presidential Election

Guides to the Report

From the Washington Post: The Mueller report, annotated. It has highlights, explanations, and links to the entire redacted report.

In Read the Mueller Report: Searchable Document and Index, the New York Times gives readers an easy way to go through the report. Additionally, it provides “Key Takeaways,” “Who’s Been Charged,” and a “List of Russian Contacts.”

In Explore a detailed view of the Mueller report, Axios has provided a way to search the report. It “categorized each passage of the text to note what events, people, organization and places are mentioned,” “categorizing over 2,500 bits of text,” and it “found over 400 unique entities.”