Saturday, August 30, 2014

Islamofascists Sell Sex Slaves for Fundraiser?

Not long ago, the so-called Islamic militants Boku Haram kidnapped hundreds of girls then announced they were for sale.

Now the self-styled Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is in the news selling as "spoils of war" captive females they claim converted to Islam in order to marry Islamists.

While it's not clear what established governments are willing to do to protect women from being treated as property (U.S. planes apparently engaged in search activity), it's evident that private individuals are willing to take steps to free captives.

This isn't to say that fascist-government-sponsored sex slavery is new (it isn't), or that established governments do better (if Russia is "established", definitely not), or that it can't thrive where local law is otherwise effective (if we doubt law in the U.S., there's at least a tradition of the rule of law in Canada, no?).  There's room for improvement everywhere, apparently.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

JAMA: Legal Weed Reduces Painkiller ODs?

And now, for something completely different.

New research in JAMA Internal Medicine (formerly Archives of Internal Medicine) finds a 24.8% reduction in annual opiate overdose mortality in states that allow physicians to prescribe cannabis for pain.  The nontrivial improvement in so concrete a metric as mortality represents an interesting fact in the discussion of cannabis regulation.  The association of prescription availability of cannabis with the mortality reduction strengthened over time.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Ready Player One, Reviewed: Yummy '80s Nostalgia Feel-Good

Ernest Cline's Ready Player One is a feel-good rags-to-riches '80s-nostalgia quest set in a dystopic future and the immersive alternate reality in which its residents transact most of their online existence.  The story is a sort of Brewster's Millions meets Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.  Unlike the protagonist of Brewster's Millions, the narrator isn't predestined to get a crack at inheriting – he's in a race against everyone else looking for the dead man's loot.  As in Brewster's Millions, he's beset by cheats looking to sabotage his quest in their own self-interest.  Worse, the route to victory is much less clear than in Brewster's Millions – in that book, it's at least evident how one should behave to accomplish the mission (also, Brewster's Millions has  only one contestant).  Ready Player One presents a multiple-stage quest driven by riddles that depend on knowledge only dyed-in-the-wool geeks steeped in '80s lore could possibly unravel.  The payoff? In the tradition of Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the prize is fantasy-land itself, and the right to run it.  The end echoes Brewster's Millions: the hunt for the "Easter Egg" hidden in the VR universe forces the narrator to immerse himself in a pretend world that ultimately teaches him he must live in the real one.  It's an uplifting story made all the more hopeful by the miserable dystopia in which it's set.  Loved it.

Sympathy for the downtrodden protagonist is built quickly enough that the occasional, hefty block of multi-paragraph infodump worldbuilding is easy to accept in what feels an earned confidence the story is worth the effort.  The sense of infodump was greater on re-read than on first pass; much is also historical trivia that can be fun to experience in the context of the '80s-nostalgiafest that is the in-game contest.  And some is really unavoidable: historical computer game details and how to exploit their bugs turns out to matter, and the reader can't be assumed to know the huge variety of '80s trivia the protagonist has amassed in order to master the in-game quest.  Several scenes clearly show the author intended a specific image appear in a film adaptation, but this break from storytelling to film direction doesn't come often enough distract one too badly from the story.  And maybe they won't distract you enough to push your head from the story as they did me.  Maybe you'll like them.

The book is a fun read.  Loaded with pop cultural references, it's hard not to giggle eventually even at such things as the names of VR planets.  Anyone who grew up with computers from the era of text-based games will adore the competitions laid out before the characters.  I can't say what people will think about the story that haven't lived through the '80s, but the book's nonstop celebration of fandom will appeal broadly to those for whom music, movies, or games ever formed an important facet of life.    A strong female character is revealed early on – and not simply to rescue.  Although some late-appearing pro-gay and pro-minority elements have a bolted-on feel, the gender equality is baked-in and can be tasted throughout.

Part of the story's triumphant feel comes from its Cyberpunk sensibility, depicting individuals awash in a sea of overwhelming social and corporate powers that seek to crush them into industrial lubricant – the perfect place to showcase human triumph at the individual level.  And that's part of the book's charm: it doesn't depict Conan (or even Molly Millions) wiping the floor with corporate goons, it shows individuals working for a common cause – as individuals – to triumph personally over the dehumanizing social machine.  In an interview on urban fantasy, author Jim Butcher pointed out that Mark Twain advocated a formula: for every plausible-feeling fiction the author must mix two parts truth.  Ernest Cline provides, first of all, a plausible environment – who doesn't believe people flee their real-world lives for an online experience even now? – then populates it with plausible villains.  The corporation seeking control of the OASIS online system evidences motives and intentions readers will find extremely plausible in the current age of targeted advertising and e-snooping.  The fact that it also turns out to be a credit card company that collects debts using indentured servitude none are expected to repay simply mines history for mining towns, company stores, debtors' prisons, indenturement, and a host of other real-world evils that aren't hard to imagine returning to vogue as individual rights continue to erode.  Half the setting's feel comes from the fact there's no effective government to keep wrongdoers in line – precisely why the online OASIS is crucial to preserve: it's a place a benevolent omnipotent caretaker is not only possible but has become (at least in the fictional world) necessary.  The dark world is close enough to the one people know – or at least, the one they fear coming – that it's an easy sell as a future setting.  The plausible dark future and its plausible greedy villains are a perfect place to put good-hearted people in jeopardy in order to prove their mettle.

And save the Universe.

If you spent much of your formative years in the '80s, you must read Ernest Cline's Ready Player One.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Security Problems in Paris

In Paris recently, an armed crew hit a Saudi prince's convoy to heist his suitcase of cash.

This isn't the only evidence of security problems in Paris.  Earlier this year, French officials confirmed they'd deploy Chinese police to patrol parts of Paris in which Chinese tourists were likely to desire additional security.

Imagine that in your neighborhood.  Crazy, no?

Friday, August 15, 2014

Healthcare Shopping Lunacy

After my disastrous bait-and-switch experience at, I finally (after more than four months and several hours of on-the-phone troubleshooting) get confirmation the plan that didn't include my kids' pediatrician (despite the pre-enrollment search that listed all the docs I cared about) was cancelled.  Then L's coverage terminates, and we are in the market again.  My existing insurer can't add L to my plan because its employees can't figure out who to transfer me to in order to get a quote, until they finally transfer me to someone whose incompetence (I shudder to think his abuse is intentional, but it certainly could be) prevents him from obtaining from me the information needed to provide me a quote.  He interrupts me over and over; I hang up and try back for someone else in his department, but he answers again and is no more helpful the next time, either.  So, bye-bye Aetna.  This is how you lose healthy insureds.  That's why I'm on a private exchange looking for health coverage.  The private exchange is pleasant in that I could get a human to walk me though it and answer questions and email me documents about the various coverages available.  It looks pretty good.

I enter detailed information about everyone I want covered in order to get plan cost information, and when I click to "apply" for the plan … I'm required to enter it all over again. 

I do. 

Then, I get a page that informs me I haven't applied until I've made a medical application. 

Guess what?  I get to re-enter all the information, yet again.

I click to add a spouse, and the webform demands I answer whether this spouse is married.  I mean, really.

Then I get this:

The Affordable Care Act (ACA) requires us to be reasonably assured that you and each member on this policy have coverage for pediatric dental services that are essential health benefits. The Affordable Care Act requires these benefits even if there is no one on the policy who is eligible for these services.
The government's own web site makes crystal clear that this is a lie: there's no obligation to purchase dental coverage, only an obligation to make it available – and no tax imposed on persons without dental coverage.  After doing some math based on expected dental costs, I conclude I'm better off putting premium dollars in a health savings account.  But the "medical application" requires one to claim to have dental coverage, or purchase it for over $40/month/person.  Just crazy.  The law doesn't require the coverage, but the idiots who coded the site do.

This just goes on and on.

Beam me up, Scotty.  There's little sign of intelligent life in the insurance industry.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Government Killings: What Defines An Epidemic?

Supposedly one is an accident, two a coincidence, and three a pattern. Stories about uniformed government peace officers killing Americans without trial raise concerns not only about the safety of life under its rule but the endurance of the rights with which the government has been entrusted – the rights that are, in fact, the government's purpose for existence.  How iffy must those rights become before something must be done?  When is it an epidemic?

In Oklahoma City, two police officers murdered the man dating their daughter. (The man was black.)

In Cincinnati, a man was shot dead by police in the store where he sought to purchase a BB-gun. (The BB-gun buyer was also black.)

An unarmed teen walking with a friend in the street was killed after a police car approached, and its uniformed officer told the boy to get on the sidewalk.  Despite that the boy had no weapon and raised his hands in surrender, the just-graduated teen was shot dead in Missouri.  (Other versions of this story point out the killed man was black.)

Before then, New York City police killed a man they found standing unarmed at the scene of a reported disturbance (which the shooting victim had broken up before officers arrived).  This incident got more profile because it was filmed by bystanders, and because police reports purporting to describe the scene – made before police knew film existed – shows the police acted deliberately to conceal from the public the truth about the killing.  Although the incident has been described as illustrating a plague of brutality against black men, one wonders how anyone could feel "protected" by armed men who go unprosecuted despite doing this to other humans.  The police response?  Eric Garner wasn't killed by armed men employing a choke hold after their victim begged for air and warned them he couldn't breathe, he was killed for failure to respect the officers of the NYPD.  To make sure the news on the NYPD is appropriately respectful, the NYPD has begun writing its news itself.  Like Cesar trying to sound like a historian by writing about himself in the third person, the NYPD offers feels-like-news stories purporting to celebrate successes like recovering a single .22 handgun. On the bright side, the officer who arrested the .22's owner managed to do it without killing anyone. Yay?

In Houston, police killed a mentally ill double-amputee who was confined to a wheelchair.  According to police, the man attempted to stab an officer with a pen.  Lemme give you a hint, for the next time a schizophrenic bipolar patient who's confined to a wheelchair gives you palpitations over the risk he's unwilling to surrender his felt-tipped pen, consider fleeing for the high ground of the nearby bed, which the wheelchair will not surmount.  Just a thought.  In a metropolitan area exceeding five million souls, there's bound to be someone who's very ill and poorly medicated  – someplace – pretty much incessantly.  From the incident's description, two officers were in the room and neither bothered to attempt any kind of restraint – they just brandished weapons and issued commands to a man whose psychiatric disorder could very well have been causing him to hear things they never spoke.  It wasn't the first time the officer who pulled the trigger decided that the answer to his daily problem was to shoot a civilian.  The prior incident involved a man who'd attacked others with a knife.  The photo doesn't suggest the killed double-amputee belonged to a minority race, but he was mentally ill and had been a ward of Harris County since 2003.  Way to take care of your sick, Harris County.  Bullets are, what? About a buck apiece?

In Dallas, police who were dispatched to the home of a paranoid schizophrenic man based on a report that he had threatened suicide decided to yell at him, predictably escalating his fragile mental state, until after tazing him they chose to shoot him eleven times (including after he was already on the ground).  A home surveillance camera provides video.  Neighbors reported that they never felt threatened by Michael Blair, despite his odd behavior.  The 26-year-old was black.

The Dallas video contains something that appears in an account by a Washington Post reporter [*] regarding his own arrest: loud self-serving statements by police for the benefit of cameras and witnesses, intended to create some basis on which to find the officers' conduct justified.  There's nothing to the statements; they're just there to prejudice onlookers.  The golden example is this:
“My hands are behind my back,” I said. “I’m not resisting. I’m not resisting.” At which point one officer said: “You’re resisting. Stop resisting.”
Turn off the audio on the Dallas shooting and look for indications the officers attempted to subdue the mentally ill man using any means besides appealing to the rational fear we expect people to have when confronted with force (including fore like electric shocks or the threats of gunfire).  Once you know the civilian is mentally ill, and contemplating suicide, why on Earth would you expect a threat to kill him to represent a plausible strategy to de-escalate him so he could get treatment?

I don't know if there's a formal field of study for this kind of government/citizen interaction, but I wonder if some threshold exists for determining that an issue has progressed from a shocking aberration to an epidemic that demands prompt action.

Anyone know?

Anyone care?

[*] The Washingon Post reporter arrested covering a protest over a police shooting of a civilian wasn't the only one.  Another reporter (white) covering the same protest was not only arrested, but suffered having his face bashed into a fixed object by an armed police officer in riot armor, who sarcastically apologized afterward – another incident of abusive police employing language to create cover for inappropriate conduct.  If called on his assault, the response will surely be to claim the whole thing was an accident, as evidenced by his prompt 'apology'.  The result?
Ryan Grim, The Huffington Post's Washington bureau chief, noted in a statement that Reilly "has reported multiple times from Guantanamo Bay." According to Grim, Reilly "said that the police resembled soldiers more than officers, and treated those inside the McDonald's as 'enemy combatants.'"
So at home, we're treated as 'enemy combatants.'  So, it's true: freedom isn't free.  And bogus oversight isn't oversight at all. Public attention must be directed to the problem of reviving the dying rule of law if we are, in fact, to have "rights" as our predecessors understood the term.

In the interest of plotting the data points, I've also noticed ...

... Miami SWAT executing a narcotics warrant, and their behavior toward the 13-year-old boy in the raises house and their treatment of the glass picture frames through out the house; should it matter that conduct like this was committed in a house two blocks from the one specified in the warrant – or is there really anyone who seriously believes such conduct is appropriate even there?

... A multi-jurisdictional SWAT team in Georgia threw a stun grenade into a crib, putting a 19-month-old without health insurance in the hospital in a coma with burns that exposed his ribs. Does it matter the adult sought in their warrant didn't live there and wasn't present?

Giving armed organizations immunity to prosecution seems to invite poor behavior, including extreme reactions to attempted oversight, even abroad.  Yet, proven misconduct doesn't seem to prevent our government from funding known killers.