Historic Preservation in Beverly, Massachusetts

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One of my MIT grad school classmates bought a decrepit beach house in Beverly, Massachusetts, the renovation of which ran afoul of various town committees. The Boston Globe ran a story on October 5, 2014 about how the multi-year approval process will end: “Beverly’s historic Loring House set to fall; Roomba co-creator eyes demolition”.

Most of the argument seems to have concerned stuff that was going to happen inside the house.

[The historic commission guy's use of the term "nouveau riche" was inappropriate in my opinion, though I guess it makes it obvious that he doesn't like Helen (we all liked her back in grad school! So I guess this is evidence that success breeds envy/enemies). The term makes sense in a country such as France or England with a nobility, but not in the U.S. The people who built that house were lawyers, according to the article, not dukes and princesses. Being an inventor in 2014 is not somehow crass compared to being a lawyer in the U.S. in the mid-19th century.]

Why aren’t there a lot more police shootings in the U.S.?

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The other day I was driving out to the drug testing facility to surprise myself with one of the random drug tests that are required of single-pilot charter operations (see this 2011 posting). It was about 11:00 am on a sunny day in a low-crime area. A young woman was stalled in the middle of the road in an old Volkswagen Golf. I would have stopped to help her except that I saw that a local police officer was already in the process of doing so. Then I looked a little closer and saw that he was approaching her car with one hand on his gun (presumably concerned about being one of the 30 American police officers shot and killed annually (Economist), though on average being a police officer is not very dangerous and most of the risk is from transportation accidents (BLS; TIME magazine)).

Given that not every situation is as unambiguously safe as this one (daylight, no rain or mist, no obvious reason why you’d want to stop in the middle of the road before shooting someone) and the fact that the guy was at all times just a second or two away from shooting his gun I wondered why incidents like the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri aren’t more frequent. (I did a quick Google News search for “police shoot unarmed” and discovered this article about Levar Jones being shot in South Carolina on September 4 as well as a few others.)

Newspapers after Ferguson seem to be asking the question “Why are so many citizens shot by police?” Given the 780,000 police officers out there (source: BLS), if most are armed and trained like the one that I saw approaching this disabled motorist, wouldn’t a better question be “Why are there so few shootings of unarmed people by American police?”

New York’s Criminal Justice System

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New Yorker magazine has an interesting article on a seventeen-year-old who was jailed on Rikers Island for three years awaiting a trial that never occurred.

As with most American journalism, the writer does not ask or answer the question “Compared to what?” Do other states do better or worse in terms of compliance with the Speedy Trial Act? The writer implies that New York is performingly poor yet the article does not explain why New York State, which is among the higher-income states (rank), which collects a larger percentage of residents’ income than any other state (Tax Foundation), and which does not have a high crime rate (ranking), cannot deal with accused criminals more expeditiously.

Related: the classic paper “Torture and Plea Bargaining”

Massachusetts’s Deval Patrick graded F on fiscal policy

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The Cato Institute, advocates for a small government, issued its Fiscal Policy Report Card on America’s Governor’s today. Eight out of 50 governments scored an F. One of them was Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick, who scored lower than 47 other governors (California’s Jerry Brown had the lowest score of all).

The report suffers a little because the scores are a little out of context. Andrew Cuomo of New York gets a B for cutting some taxes but there is no mention of the fact that New York started out as the highest tax state in the U.S. (as a percentage of residents’ income; see the Tax Foundation).

White House Security

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Has any of the news coverage about the White House security issues covered the angle of whether the government is managing risks effectively?

During Obama’s presidency, the government has stationed submarines off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard. The taxpayers have funded supersonic jet fighters to chase down 100-knot Cessna float planes (posting). We’ve paid for a $400 million fighter jet to chase down a $30,000 biplane (posting). Special helicopters have been loaded into cargo planes and flown to distant corners of the globe. We have built excellent defenses against Dr. Evil from the Austin Powers movies. But now it transpires that a person intent on harming the president need only walk into the White House with whatever arms he or she happens to be carrying.

New York Times thinks it is a problem when girls are smarter than boys

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In “The Wage Gap Starts With Less Knowledge, and Lower Expectations”, the New York Times reports on a 2011 Schwab study where American teens were surveyed.  Boys expected a starting salary of $79,700 per year and a mid-career salary of $162,300. The Times provides no data on actual wages in the U.S.  A quick Google search reveals that the Bureau of Labor Statistics says that the median hourly wage across all occupations in the U.S. in May 2013 was $16.87 per hour (about $34,000 per year) and the average (mean) wage was $46,440. In other words, absent spectacular economic growth or inflation, the boys are overestimating their likely earnings by a factor of about 4X. Girls, on the other hand, overestimated their likely earnings by a factor of about 3X.

What conclusion does the Times draw from the fact that girls are better at estimating their future earnings than boys? “The girls of America seem to know less about money than boys, …”

The good old days in the Arctic

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I am about halfway through In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette, an account of a trip to the Arctic circa 1880 when nobody had an airplane or a GPS and a lot of folks thought that the North Pole was the center of a open warm sea that would welcome anyone who could push through the ring of ice that surrounded it.

The business of journalism seems to have been about the same back then…

Bennett Sr.’s [owner of the New York Herald]  views were never tepid on any subject. He was, for example, a vigorous opponent of women’s rights—“motherhood is the best cure for the mania,” he said, “and we would recommend it to all who are afflicted.” His outlook on life was unencumbered by even a trace of altruism. “Lofty editorials and public-spirited crusades, in his view, were a lot of nonsense,” observed one biographer. “All men were selfish, greedy, and intrinsically worthless; the human condition could never be bettered, certainly not through the medium of journalism.” Instead, Bennett busied himself solely with “getting out the liveliest sheet in town and watching his acumen reflected in the balance sheets, the circulation tallies, and the advertising revenues.”

Going to the doctor was not pleasant…

[About six months into the voyage] But after a few weeks, [the navigator] Danenhower’s condition worsened. The pain was so excruciating he could scarcely think. When Dr. Ambler examined him again, he saw that something was wrong with his iris. It was inflamed, and it appeared “sluggish.” It had turned a strange hue—more or less the color of mud—and a sticky fluid oozed from his eye. In late December, Ambler decided to review Danenhower’s entire medical history. After a lot of questioning, the navigator admitted that he had once contracted venereal disease, though he believed it had been cured. Now Dr. Ambler told him otherwise: His condition was called syphilitic iritis. It was a fairly common symptom of second-stage syphilis. Syphilis was a strange and pernicious disease that manifested itself in countless maladies of the body and mind. It often masqueraded as some other disease—and did it so well that doctors often called it the Great Imposter. Ambler had seen and treated syphilitic iritis before. The malady could be very serious. Unless Danenhower was extremely careful—or extremely lucky—he would likely go blind in his left eye. There was always a chance it could develop in his right eye, as well. Ambler treated Danenhower with a shot of mercury in his buttocks, a standard, if dubious, treatment for syphilis at the time that had numerous deleterious side effects. (A dictum common among doctors went: “One night with Venus, a lifetime with Mercury.”) To dull the pain, Ambler applied lint doused with tincture of opium. He also dropped small doses of atropine into Danenhower’s eye to dilate the pupil. The goal was to keep the pupil open and to prevent the iris from adhering to the lens. If the drops didn’t work, Ambler would be forced to operate, inserting a probe into the eye’s tissues to release the gummy adhesions before the iris and lens melded together into a permanent scar.

[About 18 months in] DANENEHOWER WAS ANOTHER kind of scrappy survivor. The navigator had spent the entire year of 1880 confined to his darkened room. His advanced syphilis had begun to manifest itself in other symptoms, including lesions on his legs and inside and around his mouth. It appeared that he would indeed lose the sight of his left eye. Even though Dr. Ambler applied atropine religiously, the gummy substance inside the eye kept reappearing, adhering the iris to the lens. In January, when the pain had become too much for the navigator to bear, Dr. Ambler decided to operate. He gave Danenhower a little opium, and three burly men were brought in to hold down the patient’s arms and legs. Then Ambler, wielding a knife and a rubber probe, cut into the cornea and investigated the anterior chamber of the eye. He used an aspirator to “let out a lot of turbid fluid,” as he put it in his report. The pain was excruciating, but Danenhower endured it stoically. Every so often, De Long would stick his head into the room and watch the proceedings. “I hardly know which to admire most,” he wrote, “the skill and celerity of the surgeon or the nerve and endurance of Danenhower.” The procedure was a partial success, but over the next six months, Ambler would have to operate again, and again, to drain the “purulent matter” off the eye. All told, Danenhower underwent more than a dozen operations throughout 1880.

Germans worked hard and did not tend to look on the bright side…

Nindemann did not respond to praise, and he kept his distance. Seemingly emotionless, he had a black mustache and leathery skin and spoke forcefully in a thick German accent—a man of action, not words. He wouldn’t attend De Long’s divine service on Sunday, either. “I believe in nature,” he said. “Nature is my God. I don’t believe in the hereafter. This world is where we get all our punishment.”

“We’re from America and we’re here to help” didn’t work out so great for the locals…

By early 1879, the Yupiks all over St. Lawrence Island had begun to starve. … Alcohol and the severe winter were certainly factors—alcohol, especially. But something far larger had been taking place that made this colossal famine a certainty: Over the previous decade, American whalers in the Arctic, seeking to augment the value of their cargo, had turned to harvesting walruses in astoundingly high numbers. Throughout the 1870s, American whaling vessels had taken as many as 125,000 walruses from the Bering Strait region. The slaughter had proved to be a lucrative sideline to the whaling business. The whalers cooked the animal’s blubber into oil and hacked off the tusks to sell in ivory markets as far away as England and China. In a single season in 1876, more than 35,000 Bering walruses were killed. Compared to the risky rigors of Arctic whaling, “walrusing” could be ridiculously easy. Rather than wielding lances and harpoons from tippy open boats, the whalers had discovered that they could simply clomp onto the ice with rifles and shoot large numbers of walruses point-blank in the head. … In less than a decade, this industrially efficient slaughter had largely destroyed the Yupiks’ primary source of food and the seasonal hunting life upon which it was based. By the 1880s, the walrus was nearly extinct in large swaths of the Bering Sea.

It was the Arctic version of a story already well known to Americans, the story of the buffalo and the Indians of the Great Plains. Here, as there, the wholesale slaughter of a people’s staple prey had led, in a few short years, to ruinous dislocations, terrible dependencies—and a cultural apocalypse.

Alaska had been an American possession for slightly more than a decade. The czar’s influence, weak in the first place, had faded. While it could not be said that contact with Russian trappers and traders had improved the lives of Alaskan natives—far from it—the Russian fur concerns had rarely reached the level of entrepreneurial organization and ruthless efficiency pursued by American whalers, trading agents, and fur companies. The systematic introduction of just a few things—repeating rifles, booze, money, industrial methods of dismantling animal flesh—had caused the native cultures of Alaska to collapse at record speed.

I recommend In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette to anyone interested in the polar regions or even simply anyone interested in life in the 19th Century.

“Science’s Sexual Assault Problem”

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A (female scientist) friend pointed me to “Science’s Sexual Assault Problem,” a New York Times article by a woman who was attacked in Turkey (by a criminal on the street, not by a fellow scientist). The author concludes that “Sexual assault is a pernicious and formidable barrier to women in science”, with the implication that a female scientist is more prone to being sexually assaulted than a woman who chooses some other career or chooses not to work at all.

The vast majority of scientists, male or female, that we know work in office buildings. None that we know has ever been assaulted while in an office building or lab. The scientist who goes out into the jungle or the mountains, Humboldt-style, is a statistically rarity among the modern scientific workforce. Check out the 2013 Nobel Prize winners, for example. The scientist winners were two physicists who scribbled equations at blackboards, three chemists who couldn’t have gotten very far from an air-conditioned supercomputer, and three biologists who were attached to microscopes in a lab looking at cells. The most recent female winner in science was Ada Yonath. In this interview she doesn’t say anything about having to leave the lab to do her crystallography work. Given that being inside an office building or lab is generally safer than being out and about (as is required in many non-science jobs, e.g., journalism, textbook or pharma sales, or appliance repair (imagine the risk of assault when arriving for service visit #8 on a Bosch dishwasher)), wouldn’t it be natural to draw the opposite conclusion? I.e., that science is a great career for anyone, male or female, who is concerned about being a victim of a violent crime.

Breaking Bad Questions

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Friends finally convinced me to watch Breaking Bad. Here are a few questions about the series, in no particular order…

Why do all of the meth customers seem to be in extremely poor health? The Wikipedia article on meth says that the drug was heavily used by the Germany military during World War II yet it is hard to imagine a fearsome or successful army of meth heads from Breaking Bad. The Wikipedia article says that Americans interested in losing weight took the drug all through the 1950s and 1960s. They weren’t called “meth-heads”. What makes meth circa 2010 so much more dangerous than meth circa 1940 or 1960? [This Washington Post article says that many meth users are "functional" so perhaps this is like peanuts, which have gone from "staple" to "poison" during my own lifetime.]

I got on the subject of Breaking Bad with a divorce litigator that I interviewed for a book project. She asked “Why does Jane [Margolis, Jesse's girlfriend, an attractive apparently healthy young woman,] get so excited about $500,000 in cash? If she wanted money without working she could just collect child support.” [Note that Jane lives in New Mexico, a state where unlimited child support is available and a couple of one-night encounters with high-income guys would have her at $500,000 in profits within a few years. (New Mexico courts will also order a father to pay for day care on top of child support, so she wouldn't actually have had to take care of any children.)] Regarding the risk that Jane would lose custody of profitable children due to her heroin use, the attorney said “Only if she came into the courtroom with a needle stuck in her arm.”

Similar question: Lydia Rodarte-Quayle seems devoted to a child and also to making cash via some means other than working. She lives in Texas, a state where child support is capped at about $20,000 per year (only a $10,000 per year profit over the USDA-estimated cost of having a child in the home). But instead of taking the risk of being involved with drug trafficking, why wouldn’t she simply move to Wisconsin, California, or Massachusetts and collect her millions through legal tax-free child support? [See the "Women in Science" article for more details on real-world child support profits.]

I was talking about the show with a friend from Israel and he said “When they’re setting up the meth lab under a commercial laundry on the show why don’t any characters mention the Ayalon Institute’s ammunition factory under a commercial laundry[, built and operated in the 1940s in Israel]?”

With a business executive friend we wondered “How is that Gus can kill his henchman Victor  and then be confident of hiring a replacement? Most legal American businesses struggle to recruit reliable help.” Why is it apparently so easy to find people to work in an illegal enterprise where there is a risk of imprisonment? [see my talent management consultant posting]

What do actual criminals do to launder illicitly earned cash? Walter and his wife have to run a car wash to launder a few million dollars. But don’t major drug operations make more money than that? Could they not just drive a lot of cash across the border and deposit in a bank in a countries where not as many questions are asked? What do real-world drug lords do with U.S.-generated cash? [I did a quick Google search and found this CBS News article about HSBC helped to launder billions (separately, the daughter of the top HSBC exec became a child support profiteer, working her 6-year-old daughter for about $600,000 per year (NY Daily News)). But the article doesn't say how it actually works. Do customers just back up a minivan full of cash to the bank's loading dock?]

And why didn’t Walter move himself and his family across the border after he’d made $20 million or whatever but before he’d been caught? He was able to get $11 million in cash into each 55-gallon oil drum. Couldn’t he have smuggled a couple of those across the border? At that point he and his family become tourists in one or more foreign countries. U.S. law enforcement might look for Americans spending beyond their legally declared incomes here in the U.S. but would the police in Germany investigate an American tourist who was paying for hotel rooms, groceries, and car rental in cash? How about the police in Argentina or Brazil?

Is making pure meth truly challenging? If the drug cartels that make a lot of meth are big and well-organized, as the media and government tell us that they are, why can’t they do as good a job as other Mexican manufacturing enterprises? Aren’t there Mexican pharma firms making drugs at least as complex as meth and to international standards of purity? If so, why couldn’t people who had worked in legal pharma in Mexico set up a factory making meth as good as what Walter and Jesse were making?

Why are these criminals always chatting on their phones, wired and mobile? Wouldn’t they be worried about wiretaps? At least take the trouble to speak in codes?

Finally, could it be that Breaking Bad will discourage young Americans and Mexicans from choosing crime as a career? None of the criminals on the show seem to be able to hold onto their savings or lives in the long run. Aside from missing out on a lot of excitement and a few spending sprees they all would have better off working at Walmart.

[And yes I do recognize that the show is fictional and some of the above is likely just to make it more dramatic. An expat family living in a resort hotel in San Carlos de Bariloche and periodically dipping into their cash barrel to pay for hot chocolate wouldn't make for must-see TV.]

President Obama visits the Upper West Side of Manhattan for a fundraiser

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A friend who lives on the Upper West Side send me this link to a video of President Obama traveling to a mansion for a fundraiser yesterday. The taxpayers bought gasoline and paid drivers for 41 vehicles according to a commenter on the post.

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