Tuesday, February 17, 2015

The American Mafia

When people think "Mafia" they think men in suits firing machine guns, but the real mafia is about making millions by establishing a pseudo-government which collects taxes in the form of bribes, corruption, over-priced rent and protection payments. Italy's mafia, Afghanistan's Taliban, and Pakistan's ISI all operate this way, and by this definition, the US has a mafia of its own, that occupies a portion of Wall Street.

The good news is some portion of US mafia went to prison. The bad news is they got right back out, seemingly due to mistakes made by the government prosecution, maybe due to bribes. More bad news: The case shows clear evidence of the convicts bribing government officials, including former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson for $100,000, in that case in exchange for $1.5million of New Mexico's money.

There are too many schemes employed by those in the trial to cover here - see the article - but generally, someone would hire them to invest money, and they'd take a large chunk of it for themselves. To keep states hiring them, they'd bribe politicians - and by bribe I mean fund their SuperPACs, which the US defines as legal and not a bribe.

The list of things we need to change to stop this secondary government to operate is pretty long. That politicians require campaign funding (bribes) to operate is a major factor. Another is the way US states continue to award contracts worth more than $1 million to a single vendor, in a confused belief it will allow them to bid it out and get the best deal. Inevitably any large contract from a single provider leads to incredible corruption, because even a .1% kickback on that sort of contract is worth 10s of thousands of dollars, enough to get a lot of iffy people paid off.

Maybe the worst part is that everyone involved in all the schemes uncovered continue to operate banks and other parts of Wall Street - they didn't lose their jobs and once they escape prison they're often promoted or given a bonus. The author of this article is clearly frustrated when he proposes we have them all killed. But we should at least ban them from the Finance industry, politics, and lobbying.

Rolling Stone: The Scam Wall Street Learned from the Mafia

Bloomberg: Bankers Win Reversal of Convictions for Bid Rigging

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Adventures in E-Voting Precede State Experiments

Although voting for Congress remains behind the times, the Academy Awards began experimenting with e-voting in 2013. Unfortunately, it didn't go very well. They set the security on it so high that many members couldn't figure out how to prove who they were and login. Then again, the median age of its 5765 members is 62.

Your average Oscars E-Voter doing the deed

Despite some older members predicting most people would give up and not vote, it actually turned out to be their highest voter turnout on record. The 2014 e-voting process went by without complaint, so they appear to have fixed the below issues.

The e-voting process involved a 6 step process:

1) Pay your dues, which ties your credit card and that verification system to you.

2) Receive a Voter ID number in the mail, which adds your address to the level of verification.

3) User your Voter ID to go online and setup a Voter Password, with numerous annoying requirements like caps, special characters, etc  You also enter your cellphone number.

4) When the voting period opens, login with your Member Password, then your Voter Password.

5) Once you enter the second password, you receive a text with a security code. You then type that in, and finally, can vote. This would be the final step, but it seems most members with trouble forgot their second password.

6) The reset password process was very badly designed. To get a reset you had to wait about 24hrs.

On step 3, it's long been shown complexity requirements tend not to make passwords more secure. Only long-length requirements like 12+ chars with no max length have been shown to significantly improve security of a password; complexity requirements usually encourage more patterned passwords, which make them easier to hack, and more passwords forgotten.

In step 3, they also complained that the password box is a standard password box, with asterisks hiding what you're typing. I have to say I agree. The idea that most people are passwording into things in someplace where someone could be looking over their shoulder, stealing their password is a poor assumption. Hiding passwords should be opt-in, not assumed, and if you want a long, complex password - you've gotta make it easy to see that long, complex gobbledygood you're typing in.

Step 2, where the voter is notified by paper mail of an electronic voting system seems to be an unnecessary inconvenience; if they were texted or emailed a link, they could skip this and potentially the second password, at least if you could reasonably believe/verify the person you were texting/emailing was the right person.

But, by involving their physical address, the Oscars' system provides some insight into what would be involved in e-voting in local and federal elections, since legally all that's required to prove you're you in US elections is your address. A ballot is sent to your home, or you provide your address at a polling place, good enough - we believe you. Given the low legal burden, this e-voting system - with some simplifications - could plausibly be used in US elections. Worth watching to see if they cope with any fraud or hacks.





Sunday, November 23, 2014

Why Conservatives often see Liberals and Scientists as Heretics

A little food for thought, on why Conservatives often see Liberals and scientists as heretics.

Two years ago, arsenic was not in the news. Today, almost every day there's a new article about dangerous arsenic levels making something poisonous and unsafe:


You can hear conservatives reading this and going, "Really, liberals/scientists? You're saying rice is bad too? Why not just ban everything?" And why now, and why so suddenly - how was rice fine a year ago but TODAY it's dangerous?

So now let's walk back from the bristling irritation of reading a headline, to what happened.

The FDA and USDA have been avoiding action on arsenic for decades because the agricultural industry has been lobbying to delay it.


It's not that arsenic suddenly became poisonous, or suddenly appeared in people's drinking water and food - it's that it's always been in fertilizer, we've been using way too much of it, and arsenic levels have been steadily rising. Worse, the agricultural lobby has been bribing politicians and suing to delay telling the basic truth: That too much arsenic is poisonous, and it's in a lot of agricultural water because of these excessive uses of fertilizer.

OK, but aren't you, liberals and scientists, once again, anti-business? Aren't you accusing businesses of being evil? This sure sounds like some anti-corporation conspiracy theory. We're tired of that, say conservatives. Well - sort of.

Rice is cheap, so it's made cheaply: with way, way too much fertilizer, and in many cases, with waste water which contains even more arsenic from fertilizer or fracking and drilling. You'd never grow food for yourself that way, but these growers know you aren't checking on them when you buy a bag of rice, and they know you will buy that other bag of rice if they don't have the lowest price. So, they can do this to you, or go out of business.

So it's not that these businesses are evil. It's that they're slaves to our poor market forces. The Invisible Hand of Capitalism works best with a consumer that considers EVERY quality of the product before buying. But most consumers are very poorly informed about what they're purchasing, other than price - and a blind consumer hurts the market. Arsenic in drinking water, foods, and rice, is a classic case of blind buyers shaking all the goodly growers out because their prices are too high, and leaving only the ones who over-fertilize behind to dominate the market.

Of course there is SOME evil here you can't avoid: When agriculture lobbies the government to keep them from saying they're poisoning you and your children, it's hard to paint that in a good light. It's just plain evil.


So, from someone who leans left and prefers science over popular politics, if you happen to lean right, consider the case of arsenic next time you hear liberals upset over the latest thing in the news. Sometimes they really are being idiots. Sometimes they're just forcing society to finally be honest.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Why Trader Joe's Decision to Cut Part-Time Worker's Healthcare is the Right Thing to Do

Trader Joe's is generally considered one of the best national grocers in terms of how they treat their workers. Historically if you worked just 18 hours a week there, you'd get full benefits. Under Obamacare, covering these workers is not required, and Trader Joe's has cut the health benefits of part-time workers. Normally this would be a political football for the right-wing political sphere, saying Obamacare has caused a reduction in care. But there's more to the story.

Trader Joe's is providing these workers a $500 healthcare stipend instead, and asking workers to go and get care on their own. This means not only do workers get healthcare - even if they only work a few hours, nevermind 18 - they also get it decoupled from Trader Joe's, meaning they can leave for another company, start their own business - whatever they elect to do, all with no interruption in healthcare, and more importantly, all without the scary prospect of losing their care altogether for leaving.

Depending on your income the subsidies built-in to Obamacare may get a TJs part-time worker healthcare for as low as $27/month, certainly within the $500 stipend. Obamacare has unquestionably been pivotal in this new policy.

Trader Joe's has taken an unusually generous benefits plan and made it even more generous - by making it easier for their workers to leave for that next stepping-stone.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

When Poverty Kills Children

“I just shot my daughter and shot all my grandkids. And I’ll be sitting on my steps, and when you get here, I’m going to shoot myself.” -Multiple Shooting Deaths in Gilchrist County

A grandfather calls the police, and they arrive to his killing his daughter, his grandchildren, and himself. All with a gun purchased on the black market, after he and his family tumbled for years at financial rock bottom.

So much of what's wrong in the US at play here.

The Community is Enough
The community says they all saw the suffering but no one could have seen this coming; and yet, upon further reading, they're so predictable any reasonable person would feel disgraced. The Miami Herald documented 500 children dying prematurely in the state of Florida alone in a single year under similar, desperate family circumstances.

Pull Yourself Up
There's a belief today that the poor lack work ethic, and if their life is garbage, that's deserved - it's their motivation to pull themselves up. But there's a difference between motivating people, and desperation. Leaving people to struggle desperately and bitterly turns them against the system, others, and themselves - sometimes, as terrible as it plays itself out here. Other times, as petty crimes, theft, and emergency room visits after it's too late. We do need better motivation in the system, but risk is a motivator; despair is not. We need opportunity. And we need to stop dismissing government assistance out of hand, especially when studies show programs' overall monetary cost is cheaper than proceeding without them.

Tough on Crime
Americans favor exactly one intervention for the poor, and that's prison. Multiple members of this family spent time in prison, and it lead to even more hardship, in part due to a lack of job opportunity. More significant interventions were made available by child services, like therapy and counseling, but all of them were optional. The police were called repeatedly, but cops are meant to intervene in situations of imminent harm - they aren't trained counselors. We send the wrong people to domestic violence situations, and they lack any appropriate remedies at their disposal.

Don't Let the Government Have a List of Gun Owners
There's a subculture in America that believes any gun registration will allow the government to track down every gun owner in some hellish coming act of tyranny; this leads to private, undocumented sales, and laws pushing for legalization of those sales, all wrapped in a seriously misled idea of patriotism. Today, because of this broken belief system, every state in the union has at least one way to legally buy a gun without review or documentation. One of the strangest roots of this belief system is, "Criminals will get guns anyway," a strangely self-fulfilling prophecy. It's used to dismiss the obvious harm of acting on this broken belief. This is a cultural problem first, and a legal problem second.

Sneering is No Way to Build a Stronger America
We need to end this American love for desperation and suffering, justified by a hatred for "entitlements." Hatred of the other is a great campaign slogan but there is no public benefit. We need a system that really motivates and provides people with the opportunity to work and share their talents with the world, and that means first identifying those motivators, and mitigating desperation with a helping hand. And we need to reform our punishment-only prison/rehabilitation system, with real interventions.

Multiple articles and reporters collected different portions of the facts of this story - I've linked several above to their most pertinent reports, and below are 2 more which document a bit more.



Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Your Couch Is Giving You Cancer - Our Stupid World

In 1953, a company that makes flame-retardant scored a win when the US passed a law requiring it in children's pajamas. That turned out to be a bad idea when that chemical was associated with inhibited brain development and cancer, so in 1978 it was banned from children's pajamas.

Desperate to keep their business going, the company that made it then bribed their way into a California state law to require it in furniture. Unfortunately, most US furniture manufacturers responded by including it in all furniture, to avoid the fussy complication of making special California-only furniture.

A well-meaning chemist, Arlene Blum, began to fight this chemical manufacturer in the 1970s, and has been fighting for FORTY YEARS to get this stupid chemical out of the seat you're sitting on right now. At every turn the company has lobbied and bribed their way into keeping the law on the books, and the chemical has remained.

Finally, in California, a win for Arlene Blum. The chemical is no longer required. Strangely though, it is still not banned, in a partial-win for the lobbyists.

Fire-Retardants in Furniture: Manufacturers Adjust - KPCC

And they're suing to stop the law from going into effect - thankfully so far, losing:

Judge Tosses Challenge to Flame Retardant Rules - Chicago Tribune

Unfortunately that means all your furniture is probably still cancerous, including what you're sitting on right now:

Cancer-Linked Flame Retardants Eased Out of Furniture in 2014 - Scientific American

TDCPP Flame Retardant - Wiki

In the meantime you can look (hard) for furniture that explicitly contains no flame retardants. Buying such a piece of furniture was actually illegal in California until Jan 2014, but is finally legal here as well.

You can see Arlene Blum here fighting paid lobbyist dirtbags:

California Flame Retardant Law Sparks Debate - PBS

We all owe Arlene Blum a tremendous thank you. Instead of posters of athletes on their walls, kids should have posters of Arlene Blum.

Arlene Blum: Current Work - Wiki

Sunday, August 31, 2014

A Drug Given to Pigs Probably Causes Heart Attacks - Our Stupid World

Credit: farmsanctuary.org
A drug in US pork is probably damaging your heart, but rather than checking on that, US pork producers want to force other countries to accept pork drugged with it.

Ractopamine is a steroid originally designed to treat human asthma, but it's been found to increase the growth rate of some pigs. Unfortunately it also causes heart failure in many of them, though slaughterhouses just chop those pigs into pork early and off it goes to you.

Banned in 160 Nations, Why is Ractopamine in U.S. Pork?

This has become more awkward for the pork industry given that 160 countries have banned pork treated with the drug, and so, banned US pork. The pork industry is trying to force Europe to accept its drugged pork, and Europeans are protesting.

US pork producers' use of drug may derail European trade deal

The pork industry, for its part, says that Europeans aren't listening to the science - except the only human safety test of Ractopamine involved 6 men, one of whom had to drop out because his heart began racing erratically. There's no evidence to show it's safe in any dose for humans, and given how similar pigs are to us and their pattern of heart failure with the drug, it's probably not wise for us to be eating it.