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149 posts from November 2006

November 30, 2006

Watch Out, Pandas!

Watch Out, Pandas!, originally uploaded by Lindsay Beyerstein.

Captured with my camera phone on Smith Street. The tag is stuck to a phone kiosk. I really like my neighborhood.

Which reminds me... Late Monday night I decided to go for a walk. The street was more or less deserted. As I passed the local realtor's office, I heard a really strange sound.

Sort of a "Booo boo booobwaah."

I looked over to see one of New York's finest, in full uniform, transfixed by the huge orange and white cat in the realtor's window. He was leaning over and making baby noises through the glass. Cop and cat locked eyes and gazed adoringly at one another.

Suddenly the police officer realized I was watching and got very embarrassed. I was sorry to interrupt the moment.

People Steal Pandas

People Steal Pandas, originally uploaded by Lindsay Beyerstein.

Captured with my camera phone on the way to the pizzeria.

TONIGHT: Secret Society at the Bowery Poetry Club

Darcy James Argue's Secret Society is playing at the Bowery Poetry Club tonight at 10 o'clock. SecSoc is doing the North American premiere of Darcy's latest chart Habeas Corpus.

Steampunk LEGO

H.M.A.S. Fearless, originally uploaded by Dunechaser.

H.M.A.S. Fearless, today's FlickrFind.

Pastor charged with murder of man he eulogized

Note to persons of the cloth, if you kill someone in a car accident, don't give the eulogy, it looks really suspicious.

Rev. Howard Douglas Porter killed his 85-year-old friend in a watery car crash and presided over his funeral. Authorities speculate that Porter killed the man to get access to a multi-million-dollar trust fund.

Investigators said they believe Porter first tried to kill Craig in 2002 when he veered his truck off a rural road and struck an oak tree. The crash crippled Craig, but did not initially raise suspicions.

In April 2004, Porter plunged his pickup truck into an irrigation canal, Singh said. Craig drowned, while Porter walked away from the crash.

"The first crash we had investigated as an accident," Singh said. "But after the second one, the family came to us and said there was something more going on." [AP]

Porter was arrested on his way back from a missionary trip to Mexico.

November 29, 2006

My cover story in the New York Press!


COVER UP: How New York’s buildings are disappearing beneath a blanket of never-ending scaffolds and backroom deals, by Lindsay Beyerstein

Why you shouldn't eat polonium 210

Revere has an excellent two part series on why polonium-210 is dangerous to former KGB colonels and other living things. Part I: Atoms, isotopes, and radioactivity. Part II: How alpha particles kick your ass from the inside out.

Also at Effect Measure: Find out why your soda is full of benzene.

Crooked cops, Clever Hans, and drug-sniffing dogs

New York City recently introduced a team of sniffing dogs specially trained to patrol the subway. The cops won't say whether these dogs are trained to detect drugs, explosives, or both.

This story made me wonder: How do police departments prevent unethical K-9 cops from secretly teaching their animals to sniff on command? Obviously, they're trained to sniff only when they smell contraband, but it seems like it would be pretty easy to override that default, deliberately or by accident.

I understand that police dogs often live with their handlers. So, cops usually have plenty of time alone to teach their dogs new tricks. Could an officer train a dog to sniff on command using covert signals, such as eye movements or seemingly natural gestures? It would be very convenient for a bullying cop to teach his dog to sniff on command. In the wrong hands, a subverted sniffer could be a furry license to search anyone.

For that matter, how do the K-9 police guard against the "Clever Hans" phenomenon? In the early 20th century, a horse called Clever Hans became world famous for his apparent ability to do arithmetic and other astonishing feats. Upon further investigation, it turned out that the horse was learning to respond to subtle, involuntary changes in posture. People were asking him questions to which they already knew the answers. Hans would tap out the "solutions" to arithmetic problems with his hoof. It turns out people naturally shifted their heads when he got to the right number.

I wonder whether something similar might go on between police officers and their dogs. Officers develop a close bond with their dogs. Even civilian dog owners report that their animals can be almost eerily attuned into their body language. Do the K-9 trainers use safeguards to make sure the officer's feelings don't subtly affect the dog's behavior? For example, suppose that a subway officer strongly suspects that someone on the subway is up to no good. Could subtle cues from the officer make the dog more likely to sniff a person?

I wonder how you would go about closing these security holes. You could probably detect the Clever Hans phenomenon by designing drills where the officer's beliefs are the independent variable. If the dog is more likely to sniff at packages when the officer thinks there's contraband in it, there's a problem. If it's an honest cop, animal behaviorists could probably work with the officer to control whatever ticks are setting the dog off. I have no idea how to make sure that cops aren't deliberately teaching their dogs to respond to illicit commands, though.

I don't know whether a dog sniffing at a person constitutes probable cause for a search. I hope not. It seems to me that a sniffing dog could easily be a crooked cop's best friend.

The Dems and the drug companies

Expansion, originally uploaded by plagueoftruth.

Elana of DMI has a post on how to make sure the Democrats really lower drug prices.

Nancy Pelosi wants the government to negotiate directly with pharmaceutical companies to capitalize on economies of scale.

Can anyone think of a legitimate reason not to negotiate directly? It seems to me there are to options: Take the price the drug company sets, or bargain for a better deal.

It's a scandal that the government hasn't always negotiated with drug companies.

Sister wives and non-union workers

A great post from Amanda about this essay by a sexually-frustrated sister wife from Mississippi:

Jessica tipped me off to this story in the Guardian by a sister-wife in a polygamous marriage in a religious sect in Mississippi. Between the Quiverfulls and the polygamous Mormons, it’s hard not to develop just a whiff of a hint that these oh-so-holy religious sects are about one thing and one thing only: phallic worship. I find it a little bit telling that god never, ever comes into people’s dreams to tell them that women are men’s equals or anything like that. Nope, for some reason god is obsessed with making sure that men have family lives that are structured to make sure his neighbors are thinking about his cock and how much he’s shoving it in this vagina or that, either by parading around a lot of children or parading around a lot of wives.

According to the article, republished from an online forum, sister wife Maggi sleeps in a bunkbed, according to a rather complicated formula:

We all live in the same house. We have a bunk-bed double on the bottom and single on the top. Husband, first wife and the "ON" wife sleep on the bottom and the other two "OFF" wives sleep above. We find this very intimate as we all are sleeping in the same bed though on different levels and we can still feel and hear what is happening when sex happens in our bed.
What's most disconcerting about this article is the permanent hierarchy between the wives. Maggi is quite explicit that the plural marriage aren't married to each other--she's quite preoccupied with the idea that she and her sister wives absolutely, positively, never have sex with each other. They all sleep with their hands on top of the covers to "prevent" it, she says.

Maggi's marriage is like a non-union job.

First wife Hanna is the marital Straw Boss who keeps the other wives in line. So, she gets to sleep with The Boss every night. It's not that great though, because she has to sleep with The Boss and whatever junior wife is "ON" that week.

The sub-wives are never going to get ahead. There's never enough sex to go around, so they're consumed with barely submerged petty resentments. Soon, The Boss is going to outsource more sex by adding two more junior wives.

Maggi's religion is really concerned that all these wives don't get together. They must realize that their patriarchal model of polygamy is precarious. It's all about the phallus-worship until the wives team up against The Boss. If they ever decided to marry each other, the Boss would be vastly outnumbered.