~ Archive for Uncategorized ~

HBO Big Little Lies


The yoga moms in our suburb have been chatting recurrently about the HBO show Big Little Lies so I decided to skim through it.

One big feature of the show is people driving their pavement-melting SUVs on winding undivided two-lane roads, often next to a cliff, and looking at back-seat passengers (children) or at a front-seat passengers. Where is the NTSB to protest against this?

Reese Witherspoon is the main character. She is married to what one of my Deplorable friends would call a “beta male”. When Hollywood needs a character whose career is believably low-paid, low-status, and irrelevant, what’s the go-to job? Work-from-home Web developer! Witherspoon’s character volunteers part-time in a community theater. How does she afford an oceanfront home in Monterey? (Zillow shows this at about $10 million) The answer seems to be that she was previously married to a high-income man and obtained custody of their joint daughter. So the oceanfront lifestyle is funded by child support under California law? If so, why isn’t there a fight over the cash-yielding 16-year-old when she wants to move in with Dad?

The 16-year-old daughter, for her part, hatches a plan to auction her virginity via the Internet and give the resulting cash to a worthy charity. Although a variety of the episodes show adults comfortable with cash-for-sex transactions within the context of family court, the parents are not happy about this. Nobody raises the question of whether or not this would be legal. The age of consent in California is 18 (Wikipedia; compare to 16 in some other states). Was the plan to drive up to Washington State and meet the high bidder there? Exchanging money for sex, outside of a family court, is presumably illegal under anti-prostitution laws. Would it become legal if a third party, such as a charity, were paid? No character in the show raises any of these objections to the 16-year-old’s scheme.

Domestic violence is a big theme for the show. We Believe the Children (see my first post on that book) says that Americans were desperate in the 1980s to convince themselves that poverty and domestic violence were unrelated (links to some stats). Maybe this is still true because the show’s abuser is crazy rich. The wife, who had been an attorney at a top law firm, can’t muster the courage to go down to the courthouse and take the house, kids, and cash. The couple’s therapist eventually coaches her on pre-litigation planning to win a custody lawsuit. How realistic is this? The book A Troubled Marriage that we referenced in our domestic violence chapter said that a common reason why an adult American doesn’t leave an abusive partner is that they don’t want to suffer a loss of household income (child support and/or alimony are typically less than 100 percent of a defendant’s income). But this abuser in the show had such a high income that the wife, even if she didn’t want to return to work as a lawyer, could have lived very comfortably on child support, alimony, property division, etc. Some suspension of disbelief may be required!

[Note that the character with the abusive husband is played by Nicole Kidman, who made roughly $200 million by divorcing Tom Cruise (see Daily Mail, which describes a failed legal argument: “Originally Cruise had been reluctant to agree a deal, arguing that with a £90million personal fortune, Miss Kidman could adequately support herself.”) Reese Witherspoon was herself a divorce and custody plaintiff, and alimony defendant in the California family court, according to Wikipedia.]

A big theme in the show is that one elementary school kid is being physically abused by another elementary school kid in a public school. This is one part that I had the most trouble believing. How could there be any mystery about what happens in an elementary school given the number of adults and other kids milling around? Nobody ever explains how two elementary school kids could be together unobserved.

Fans of The Son Also Rises and The Nurture Assumption will be excited to hear one character suggest that there could be a genetic basis for violent behavior and therefore, presumably, the rest of a child’s behavior. Most movies and TV shows stress the critical role of parenting, right?

The portrayal of the Monterey, California economy seems off. Some of the parents supposedly both live in Monterey full time and have top jobs at big enterprises. Is that credible? Wouldn’t it be a two-hour drive from Monterey to Silicon Valley on a typical weekday morning?

Readers: What is it about this show that has such a hold on suburban moms?

Boston Globe on the Chinese acquisition of Terrafugia, a flying car company


Terrafugia, an MIT spin-off roadable-aircraft company (“flying car” sounds better) is being acquired by the Chinese owners of Volvo. I’m quoted in the Boston Globe story on the subject.

[Readers: Yes, I’m aware that this posting will be primarily of interest to my mom and dad! No need to point that out.]

The journalist did not quote what I thought were the most interesting things that I said. I pointed out that Terrafugia was founded before Uber. The existence of Uber makes an airport-bound airplane more useful and therefore a $50,000 used Cessna or Piper or $150,000 used Cirrus is almost certainly more practical as transportation (though of course plenty of people will buy a flying car just as a fun toy). I also pointed out that the main value of Terrafugia might be the team that understands something about certifying airplanes under the LSA standard. Geely might not want to make flying cars, but perhaps they want to make electric trainer airplanes?




Can blockchain be used to implement anonymous and fraud-proof voting?


A good proportion of the American media and Facebook over the past few months seems to have been devoted to concerns about U.S. election integrity.

Lyndon Johnson was apparently elected to the Senate in 1948 through fraud (see “Were American politics better 50 years ago?“). Maybe it isn’t crazy to worry that today’s politicians are also getting elected either due to money-driven fraud or Russian meddling.

I’m wondering if readers who have thought about the latest blockchain technologies can help me out here…

What if every American citizen had an electronic ID card (see Estonia: Tough campaign stop for Bernie Sanders for a reference to one system)? Then could we trivially develop a blockchain-based voting system where anyone interested could verify the vote tallies? But it wouldn’t be anonymous, right? Or maybe it could be pseudonymous? People would somehow be able to verify that the issued personal ID codes were valid but not tie them to individual identities? But now it isn’t in fact verifiable because how do we know that a Russian isn’t generating IDs and then voting for Trump (one thing that I learned: Russians love Trump!)?

If there is no way to use blockchain and keep voting anonymous, maybe we give up anonymous voting? (see “Get rid of the secret ballot?“) Through the miracle of Facebook, political sentiment isn’t truly anonymous anymore.

Maybe we could use blockchain and Estonian-style electronic IDs to address concerns about voting by dead people, non-citizens, etc. Checking people into a polling station could be done using blockchain and then anyone interested could verify to see who had voted. After that, if the concern is Russian manipulation of voting machines… what about having three voting machines at every polling station? One machine could be Windows-based, another Android-based, and the third one iOS-based. Have each voter vote three times. The machines upload data to three separate server farms, again running a diversity of operating systems. Can Russian hackers compromise, without detection, three entirely separate systems?

Readers: Is there anything we can do to stop these endless rounds of hand-wringing?


Camera and computer vision software instead of switches for activating walk signs?


Here’s my dumb question for today…

We are smart enough to build self-driving cars, right? That’s a camera and computer vision software that needs to see everything happening on the road, including pedestrians.

It doesn’t take specialized training for a human to work as a crossing guard, right? The human sees a pedestrian approaching an intersection, walks out into the crosswalk holding a STOP sign, and stops the traffic.

Why would we wire up the light poles surrounding intersections with switches to activate WALK signs? Why not mount a camera up on the pole to watch for approaching pedestrians? Then, if no cars are coming, turn the light red for cars and activate the WALK sign before the pedestrian has to break stride.

How hard can this be? Maybe this could ease traffic congestion slightly by making it more pleasant to walk. At a minimum, we could save a lot of money installing and maintaining the under-pavement sensors for cars. The same camera can simply watch for a car approaching or stopping at an intersection. That should also save fuel (and the planet!) by changing the light before the car has to hit its brakes.

Camera plus microprocessor plus software should be cheaper than sensors, wires, and maintenance, no?

The Trumpenfuhrer and Mein Kampf


Based on my Facebook friends, whom I believe to be a reasonably representative sample of American Democrats, I’d say that their explanations for the Deplorable Result of the 2016 U.S. Presidential election haven’t moved much. Here’s a recent musing from a wealthy Volvo driver:

I used to think more free speech was the answer to Mein Kampf but I’m not so sure. People choose to buy into the Fox TV narrative and are avoiding more information.

A response from his friend:

I believe that when Trump is gone we will need a New Reconstruction, or a de-nazification. Whatever you want to call it. The poison needs to be drawn out.

Some of my other distraught Hillary-loving friends can’t find enough anti-Trump articles in today’s news media so they are re-posting year-old items, such as this USA Today article about how Trump’s real estate entities didn’t pay some contractors (the article itself is an illustration of the recycling phenomenon: the vast majority of the disputes cited by USA Today in 2016 stem from the Taj Majal casino project that went bankrupt in in the general real estate collapse of 1991, 25 years earlier).

According to Atlantic, Hillary Clinton blames her loss on Russia and misogyny. (The $2 billion tax-free family slush fund (“Clinton Foundation”) did not come up.)

As a libertarian, I don’t have a dog in the Democrat v. Republican fight, but it is interesting to me to see that Democrats are still working the Trump as Hitler, Russia is Responsible, and Americans hate Women angles. I guess one possibility is that these angles are correct. Trump actually is Hitler, but somehow much less effective in getting laws changed. Vladimir Putin persuaded a majority of white women (but not black women or Latinas) to hate their sister Hillary and vote for the Trumpenfuhrer. (Or maybe Russians rigged the voting machines so that white women’s votes were not correctly recorded?) The Americans who handed over crazy amounts of cash to see Wonder Woman don’t want to see a powerful real-world woman.

If Democrats want to win the next two elections, and these angles are not resonating with voters (other than their fellow passionate Democrats, of course!), won’t they need to start coming up with some new talking points soon?


When can a church take down a Black Lives Matter flag?


Happy Bastille Day!

One of the richest whitest towns in the United States, Concord, Massachusetts, is next to our local airport (Hanscom Field). Driving into Concord one passes a tall white church with a “Black Lives Matter” flag out front. (I have never seen a non-white person in the vicinity of this church.)

When the congregation put up the flag, I’m wondering if they had a plan for when the flag can be taken down.

Surely nobody is going to step forward and say “We don’t care about black lives anymore, so let’s have a ‘No human being is illegal’ or rainbow flag instead,” right?

If someone says “African-Americans are doing better than white Americans, so we can take the flag down,” that can always be refuted with at least one statistic on which white Americans are doing better (I don’t think this is true for Asian-Americans!). In any case, the typical member of the congregation would have virtually no contact with black Americans and therefore wouldn’t have any direct personal experience to offer.

Will we therefore find a descendant of that flag 100 years from now?

[Separately, last weekend I flew a helicopter tour for a couple of African-American local college students who’d bought a Groupon from East Coast Aero Club. As we flew over downtown Concord I pointed out the flag in as neutral tone as I could muster. The passengers broke into fits of laughter.]

Concise summary of what privatized American air traffic control would look like: Amtrak, FannieMae


I wrote a longish post about the idea of the government privatizing air traffic control (at least some members of Congress are still pushing this). But the Institute for Liberty has done a better job:

what we do not support are the creation of entities that are some bizarre hybrid of governmental and private, since these generally contain the worst practices of both worlds (few, if any, of the incentives to innovate or compete, no oversight in how the public actually benefits or how the entity is governed, etc). One need only look at examples like Amtrak, the US Postal Service, or FannieMae and FreddieMac to see just how disastrous these hybrids can be over the long term.

(most easily viewed on SCRIBD)

[Separately, I think it is unfortunate that the analogy comes from an “Institute” that promises to deliver to Americans precisely the opposite of what they repeatedly vote for (i.e., a planned economy and Great Father in Washington taking care of most of their needs). But, nonetheless I think that their analogy might be persuasive to people on all parts of the political spectrum (well, at least those who have ridden an Amtrak).]

Inspiration to watch the eclipse on August 21


I read American Eclipse: A Nation’s Epic Race to Catch the Shadow of the Moon and Win the Glory of the World, about the eclipse of 1878.

The book has some helpful advice for those who want to succeed in Academia:

James Craig Watson had journeyed to the Centennial from Michigan, where he served as a professor of astronomy. .. Watson’s vanity was not without foundation, however. He had risen from an impoverished childhood of factory work and apple peddling to enter the University of Michigan as a mathematical prodigy at age fifteen. Six years later, he was on the faculty, where he proved popular with students. Among the reasons, undoubtedly, was his lax grading. One year he reportedly gave passing grades on a final exam to his entire class, including a student who had died toward the beginning of the course.

Also some good history:

Eclipses do not occur randomly; they follow patterns known since ancient times. Lunar eclipses can happen only at full moon, solar eclipses at new moon, and both types can take place only within defined “eclipse seasons” that recur every six months or so, shifting slowly backward year by year. A rhythm reigns in the long run as well. Eclipses of a similar character—lunar versus solar, partial versus total—repeat themselves after the passage of precisely 6,585 and one-third days. … It was not until the eighteenth century that astronomers were able to forecast the path of a total solar eclipse with a modicum of accuracy. The best known of these early eclipse mappers was Edmond Halley, the Englishman who famously predicted the return of a comet that now bears his name.

A mid-level government bureaucrat could afford a townhouse in Northwest D.C.!

Cleveland Abbe had created something historic—the first regular weather forecasting service in the United States—but within a year the chronically cash-strapped Cincinnati Observatory was forced to abandon the venture, and Abbe too was soon dispatched, placed on unpaid leave. General Myer, just then seeking to create a weather service on a national level, called on Abbe for advice and quickly offered him a job as his chief meteorologist. At last finding stable employment, Abbe moved to Washington. Recently married, he soon fathered a son, then two more. From his respectable salary he bought a sizable townhouse on I Street, with a lunette-topped doorway in front, a garden in the rear, and, inside, plaster cornices adorning twelve-foot ceilings. It had once been home to James Monroe and, at the beginning of Monroe’s presidency, had served as the executive mansion while the White House, burned by the British in the War of 1812, underwent final repairs. Abbe’s office was a short walk away, on G Street, where the Army Signal Service (as the Signal Corps had now come to be known) occupied a three-story brick building topped by weather vanes, rain gauges, wind meters, and other “toys which excite the envy of all the neighboring boys,” as one observer put it.

(Something like that would cost 100 years of a civil servant’s salary today?)

What about the experience of the eclipse itself?

Simon Newcomb, meanwhile, was hiding in the camp’s photographic darkroom to sensitize his vision. (Other astronomers, for the same effect, bandaged their eyes.) Newcomb emerged just three minutes before totality. By now, the sun was a mere sliver. As he made his way to his telescope, he noted the “lurid” color of the landscape. “The light seemed no longer to be that of the sun, but rather to partake of the character of an artificial illumination.” With just a minute to go before totality, another bizarre phenomenon became visible to some. As if the sun were being projected through shallow water at the beach, narrow bands of light and shade rippled across the ground, or—from the viewpoint of astronomer Edward Holden, who was stationed atop the Teller House Hotel in Central City, Colorado—across the roof. “They coursed after each other very rapidly,” he wrote, “seeming about 3 feet from center to center, the dark band being, say, 6 inches wide, the interval being bright.” These wavy lines, termed shadow bands, are not always seen but can be dramatic, as at the total eclipse of 1842 in Southern France, where the undulation was reported to be so striking that “children ran after it and tried to catch it with their hands.” The cause of these ripples is the same that makes stars twinkle—currents of warm and cold air that bend light as it passes through the atmosphere. Indeed, shadow bands have been called, poetically, “visible wind.”

The sun’s crescent had now grown exceedingly slender, a mere filament. It continued to shrink, like an ember burning itself out at the ends. Before vanishing, however, this glowing thread produced a final brilliant display. It shattered into a string of shimmering jewels. These dancing points of light, called Baily’s beads (described and explained by British astronomer Francis Baily in 1836), are the last of the sun’s rays filtering through valleys on the edge of the moon. In the closing seconds before the onset of a total solar eclipse, darkness falls with disorienting rapidity. It can feel as if you are losing your eyesight, or perhaps your sanity. The dimming light does not just surround you; it swallows you. The very ground seems to give way.

And so [due to life-threatening altitude sickness that forced Cleveland Abbe down from the 14,000′ summit], the one true astronomer atop Pikes Peak spent most of totality doing what a team of amateurs was doing in Denver, sketching the corona while viewing it with the naked eye. He was not disappointed, however, to perform so little science. Langley had previously confided to Cleveland Abbe a secret wish—“ to see the eclipse (I have ‘observed’ two but not seen any as a spectator)”—and a week after the event he would write of its visceral impact: “I once experienced an earthquake, and I think this and a total eclipse of the sun are two things that it is no use trying to describe; you must feel or see for yourself.”

About one quarter of the book, by a male author, is devoted to female victimhood. Maria Mitchell had a career at the U.S. Naval Observatory and then as a professor at Vassar College. Wikipedia says that she was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1848 and to the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1850. American Eclipse says that she obtained jobs ahead of male applicants, employers apparently recognizing her superior skills. Consistent with “Are women the new children?” the author describes Mitchell being celebrated for being a woman occupied with science, rather than for scientific accomplishments:

ON DENVER’S EASTERN EDGE, the Vassar party did not attempt anything technically complex during totality. The three women at telescopes—Maria Mitchell, Cora Harrison, and Elizabeth Abbot—examined the corona’s shape and color, and searched for unknown planets. The others made naked-eye observations of the landscape and sky. The women saw Mercury, Mars, and Venus. They found no Vulcan. For this group of observers, however, viewing the eclipse was arguably less important than being viewed. The Vassar women, far from the sexless Amazons that Dr. Clarke had warned would result from female higher education, presented irrefutable, concrete evidence that science and femininity could coexist. These astronomers in pleated dresses provided “an attraction to the gaping, yet respectfully distant, multitude of masculines, almost as absorbing as the eclipse,” a reporter wrote. “PROF. MITCHELL HERSELF, as with iron-gray curls fluttering under a broad-brimmed Leghorn, she swept the heavens with a four-inch telescope, or directed with native majesty and grace the operations of her assistant nymphs, was a figure, and perfectly commanding.” The Vassar astronomers also proved inspirational to members of their own sex. “[ W] omen of low and high degree throughout the territory turned during that day their thoughts toward the hill, even as the pilgrims of old prayed with their faces toward Jerusalem,” wrote another correspondent, “for from the mound where the group stood there radiated a light, that sent its rays hopefully into more than one woman’s heart—a heart with longings for study, culture, improvement, that the simple fact of her being a girl had unjustly deprived her of because old prejudices had hedged her path and defined her duties.”

FOR MARIA MITCHELL, the eclipse had produced no great scientific discoveries, but her expedition too had achieved a remarkable goal. “The success of this party is one more and pointed arrow in the quiver of woman suffrage argument and logic,” wrote a correspondent for the New York Sun. The Denver press gauged her accomplishment even more generously. “Recently, here in our midst, a conspicuous example of the power and grasp of the feminine intellect has been exhibited,” effused the Rocky Mountain News. “We allude to Miss Mitchell, and the great interest she is exciting as a scientist. . . . In this she has done a service which all the women’s rights pleaders on the continent could never dream of accomplishing.”

Yet Denver could still claim a celebrity. “Mr. Edison is doubtless the most famous inventor of this or any other age,” the Rocky Mountain News commented, “but we doubt whether he deserves more credit for his marvellous attainments in invention than does Maria Mitchell for demonstrating the capacity of women for the highest and best mental activity and scientific research.”

[Wikipedia notes that “Mitchell never married”. How is that different from modern times? See “Women in Science”: “The women I know who are university professors, by and large, are unmarried and childless. By the time they get tenure, they are on the verge of infertility.”]

This is the weakest part of the book. The author doesn’t show that Professor Mitchell could have achieved greater success if she had identified as a man. In fact, he describes that greatest American male astronomers of the day as having tremendous career difficulties, partly due to a lack of popular interest and partly due to the fact that Congress didn’t want to find science until World War II:

“It must be acknowledged that in few of the civilized nations of our time have the higher sciences made less progress than in the United States,” observed Alexis de Tocqueville, the French political thinker, after his visit to America in 1831. “Many Europeans, struck by this fact, have looked upon it as a natural and inevitable result of equality; and they have thought that, if a democratic state of society and democratic institutions were ever to prevail over the whole earth, the human mind would gradually find its beacon-lights grow dim, and men would relapse into a period of darkness.” Simon Newcomb did not subscribe to this view, but the American astronomer agreed that his own country faced a special challenge. “In other intellectual nations, science has a fostering mother,” he maintained, “in Germany the universities, in France the government, in England the scientific societies. . . . The only one it can look to here is the educated public.” In a democratic and egalitarian America, the citizenry was in charge of the nation’s destiny, and therefore advancing science in the United States required convincing the populace of the value of research—that it was worth promotion and investment.

The book touches on the “science is settled” arguments of our time. Back then astronomers had trouble figuring out why Mercury moved as it did. One hypothesis was the planet Vulcan, orbiting yet closer to the sun. This planet was actually spotted during the eclipse by Professor Watson, America’s greatest “planet hunter” (where “planet” back then included asteroids). Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, about 40 years later, provided a different explanation for Mercury’s movements so close to the heavy sun.

The book also reminds us how little we knew of our world until only recently. Today we have helium in our kids’ balloons, but it was discovered as a spectral line coming out of the sun in 1868 and not isolated on Earth until 1895.

There is also some material on Thomas Edison, who built an instrument to measure heat (infrared light) emitted by the sun’s corona during the eclipse:

“Have you ever been in Chicago before?” one newsman asked. “Yes,” Edison replied, “thirteen years ago. I had a linen duster, $2.50, and a railroad pass. I was not interviewed then.”

Edison’s desire, often, was to perch on the engine’s prow. He lounged on the cowcatcher, on a cushion provided by the engineer, propelled forward by iron and coal and steam as he took in the scenery “without dust or anything else to obstruct the view,” as he put it.

What did the smartest scientists of the day think of Edison?

Scientists, however, were not convinced that the lamp was as magical as Fox portrayed. Would it prove cost-effective and durable enough for everyday use? How did it differ from incandescent lights being developed by competitors? Fueling the skepticism was the fact, now abundantly clear, that Edison had been stringing the public along for more than a year by telling what could generously be described as embellishments, more reasonably termed lies, about his progress on the invention. Some scientists who knew Edison well, who had been with him on the American frontier for the eclipse of 1878, came to disavow his membership in their fraternity. Britain’s Norman Lockyer, who after seeing Edison at work in Rawlins had praised the inventor as “no unwary experimenter,” now denounced his actions as exposing an “absolute incompatibility with a truly scientific spirit,” and added sharply, “Let scientific men once and for all repudiate these false and unwholesome displays of ignorance.” Henry Morton, who had perched with Edison on the Union Pacific cowcatcher and had privately expressed himself “under so many obligations to your kindness,” now became one of Edison’s severest critics. Morton called Edison’s electric light “a conspicuous failure, trumpeted as a wonderful success . . . nothing less than a fraud upon the public.”

If the scientists had no confidence in Edison’s light bulb, he had enough confidence in them to found and fund Science, still America’s leading journal in this area.

More: read American Eclipse: A Nation’s Epic Race to Catch the Shadow of the Moon and Win the Glory of the World.

Audi first at taking consumers beyond the Model T suspension? Short Tesla?


The new 2019 Audi A8 (Car and Driver and also official press release) is on track to be the first production car with an active suspension (explanatory video), which would be the first real innovation in this area since 1906 (history). In addition to a smooth ride over bumps, active suspension will improve the vehicle’s handling (important when you’re going 15 mph in traffic?) and will also lift up the side of the car so that the floor structure absorbs impact from a side collision rather than simply the doors.

The other claimed innovation is that the Audi will drive itself in traffic jams up to roughly 37 mph. (But don’t Teslas already do this? Audi says “The new A8 is the first production automobile to have been developed specially for highly automated driving.” Why aren’t the Teslas the first?)

What characterizes driving in the U.S.?

Isn’t this Audi then the perfect car for us? The active suspension will help us glide unaware over the potholes. The autopilot will let us watch Amazon Prime Video during our 5 mph 2-hour freeway commutes. (I still like my Personal solution to traffic jams: Motorhome and Driver, though of course to match evolving standards of polite discourse that 2006 posting should be revised from “illegal immigrant” to “undocumented immigrant”.)

Is it time to short Tesla? It should be easier for Audi to buy a Chinese battery and Siemens motor and stuff those into their cars than for Tesla to match this kind of suspension technology that can completely change the driving experience. (Though active suspension historically requires a huge amount of power and therefore it might not be compatible with a pure electric vehicle. ClearMotion is a Boston-area company that tries to recover some of this energy when a vehicle hits a bump.) Audi already has three electric models coming out within the next three years (electrek).

With the exception of Tesla, U.S. car companies were never leaders in engineering or innovation, right? Why isn’t the 1995 car market the best estimate of what the car market will look like in 2025? In that case, the engineering/innovation leaders will be German and Japanese while American brands will churn out cars that are cheaper and 5-10 years out of date in terms of engineering. That’s a problem for Tesla, which sells a premium-priced product based on advanced engineering. If the argument is “a modern car is all about software and Americans have been leaders in software,” what stops Audi, Honda, and other engineering leaders from buying American software and/or setting up software development labs in the U.S.? Even if software is critical to a modern car it is still a small portion of the cost, right?

Readers: What do you think? Is this new Audi A8 a techno tour de force? If so, does that spell trouble for Tesla?

[Inspiration to get the extended warranty. A friend’s recent Facebook post:

We’ve got a 2008 Audi A3. Low mileage (33k, give or take), but now with a dead high-beam on one side. Turns out, this isn’t just a replace-the-bulb and you’re good sort of repair. Nope, have to replace the whole damn assembly, $1500 part plus labor, and we’re talking about a car which is maybe worth $8000. … Repair or trade in / upgrade?



College sexual assault tribunals back in the news


Betsy DeVos is taking a break from running what is essentially a massive financial services enterprise (the Department of “Education” spends the vast majority of its money on student loans to subsidize American colleges and universities). She’s contemplating dismantling the Obama Administration regulation that forced schools to set up amateur-run sexual assault tribunals with a 51-percent standard of proof. See “Campus Rape Policies Get a New Look as the Accused Get DeVos’s Ear” (nytimes) for example.

I think the best source of information about this topic is found in Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town (a.k.a. majoring in partying and football), a book by John Krakauer. The book gives the texture of modern campus life (debauched to the extent that the Roman would have been shocked) as well as the texture of the tribunals and regular criminal courts handling sexual assault allegations. You can learn a lot from the book even if you don’t agree with Krakauer that standards for convicting men should be much lower (he does not like either presumption of innocence or “beyond a reasonable doubt” when it comes to litigation following heterosexual sex).

It turns out the government has figured out the same thing that you will after reading Krakauer’s book, i.e., not every American is addicted to OxyContin… college students are usually too drunk to get through the child-proof pill bottle caps:

“Rather, the accusations — 90 percent of them — fall into the category of ‘we were both drunk,’ ‘we broke up, and six months later I found myself under a Title IX investigation because she just decided that our last sleeping together was not quite right,’” [Candice E. Jackson, the top civil rights official at the Department of Education] said.

I’m wondering if the Trump Administration can have any practical influence in this area. There are currently three systems that operate in parallel. A person accused of rape can be prosecuted criminally in a criminal court (penalty if guilty = prison; penalty if found innocent = $1 million spent on legal fees) and simultaneously prosecuted within the university (penalty = being kicked out without a degree and forfeiting $200,000+ in tuition and fees paid) and simultaneously sued in civil court (penalty = paying a guaranteed $1 million in legal fees to defend the lawsuit through trial and then, if a jury finds 51% likelihood of assault, paying additional money to the plaintiff). The civil and criminal courts aren’t going anywhere. But suppose that Secretary DeVos writes a “Dear Colleague” letter saying “You don’t have to run these tribunals anymore. You can tell people who’ve been assaulted to call 911.” Which universities are going to say “we will tear down this administrative process because we don’t care about rape anymore”?

Some comments from the Times article for the Zeitgeist (at least among Hillary Clinton supporters):

[soxared] It says here that Betsy DeVos is far less interested in sexual assaults on college campuses. She’s more interested in aiding and abetting her boss’s determination to chop down every and any Obama administrative rule, regulation, executive order or directive. She isn’t fooling anyone. Why should she care about victims of sexual predation in academic settings? Her job is to Christianize every American school in America and this charade is the merest show.

[gordy] This woman, DeVos, makes me ashamed to call myself Christian. There is nothing Christin about her shameless attitudes.

[pjswfla] There is something profoundly wrong and evil lurking in the alleged mind of Betsy Devos. She seems to be against anything that makes common sense for students, their decent education, their finances and their well being. Makes sense, come to think of it, when you consider the idiot who appointed her who denies truths – who would not know a truthful statement if it hit him in his orange mug like a brick.

[AP] During undergrad at a huge Big Ten school, I watched the ineptitude of faculty/administrators trying to manage basic behavioral issues with suboptimal results let alone rape cases. … As a woman I take offense at those who refuse to acknowledge the poor judgement and party culture of college life helps foster these crimes. While my friends and I hit the books for our honors degrees and grad school, we watched girl after girl weekend after weekend get amazingly drunk and with horror see them laugh over it and the compromising sexual situations that arose from it. …  Drop the idea that young adults are “entitled” to be in college, the notion that college means partying and some voyage of exploration that focuses on gratification and pulverize the thought that a woman is unable to use her cerebral cortex to comprehend that alcohol plus a dark room at 3am with equally drunk men is a potential set up for mayhem.

[Barry] I think maybe more women ought to be armed. That might cause some males to have second thoughts before proceeding. [Now there will be alcohol, sex, and guns at the party!]

[SD]  Campuses don’t generally share their outcome rates, but Stanford did on May 31: 24% of allegations were thrown out as invalid before ever getting to the investigation stage, and 50% of accused students tried in a hearing were found “not responsible”. Under a preponderance standard, that is equivalent to saying the accused was likely to be innocent. In other words, over half of the accusations were false, unfounded, or just too dubious to be investigated or to receive a decision of “responsible.” NCHERM [ National Center for Higher Education Risk Management!] reports rates of 60% (see their 2017 white paper, page 15). And those are under DCL conditions discouraging cross examination and participation by an attorney, and where there are no penalties for false testimony.

[aeg] [college students] may consider NOT proceeding with intimate behavior before a 24 or 48 hour “get acquainted” or cooling off period…or longer? Hum…no more “one night stands?” [Given the 48-hour interval, assuming that Lover N+1 is not contacted until one day after the student is finished with Lover N, this would limit a college student to no more than approximately 487 sex partners over a 4-year period.]

[Elly] My daughter’s first night away at school… Four drunk people in her dorm room have sex most of the night. [Consistent with Krakauer’s book.]

[William Case] The comments reveal that many readers think that Title IX investigations involve sexual assaults that take place on campus, but almost all take place off campus at private residences. Colleges and universities should not be held responsible for investigating crimes their students commit away from campus during non-school events.

[GSA101] Title IX, as written, prohibits Universities from failing to provide equal educational access on the basis of gender. Since extramarital sex is NOT part of the curriculum of any University that I know of, the Universities are simply not responsible for their students’ activities in that regard. Therefore, they are NOT required to investigate or adjudicate such activities.

[AMarie] Is there a reason the women can’t use the court system to get a restraining order? Those already exist, the burden of proof is much more reasonable (it isn’t a conviction, after all) and it would prevent the assailant, I mean, “accused,” from going on the campus. [Certainly this works for alimony and child support plaintiffs!]

[TOM] It is about time that people realize that perjury does occur for many reasons and no reason at all, and due process is the only way we have a hope of having justice, even if it is a slim hope. [See our litigation chapter for an attorney’s point of view on whether judges can discern the truth: “People who are crazy and sociopathic are great witnesses. They can lie without batting an eye and sound completely credible. That’s why con artists thrive. If we were good at assessing credibility none of us would ever get ripped off.”]

[Jon] I think Donald Trump is destroying this country and an oppose everything I have heard associated with him and his administration. I work towards preventing his policies being implemented. He must be stopped. But this could be the only exception among his policies… if this policy gets rescinded, then perhaps one single good thing would come out of Trump’s election. I never thought I would write something like that. [!]

[Michael] Ms. DeVos, like the man who appointed her, is manifestly unqualified for her role in government; that said, it is a huge relief that the Education Department is finally taking action to rein in the excesses of college sexual assault proceedings. In an effort to comply with the Dept’s Title IX guidelines, universities have adopted policies that would provoke alarm and outrage in any other setting: the accused are denied access to evidence in the cases levied against them; most are denied the right to counsel. Administrators who adjudicate these cases are vulnerable to campaigns of influence and intimidation by students or faculty members with a stated political interest in a guilty “verdict.” Even if exonerated, the accused are routinely forced out of their dorms and even their majors.

[Alina Starkov] Disgusting that those accused of rape are getting any sort of lenience from the government with regards to the schools.

[Deb] Somehow this doesn’t surprise. Betsy Devos’ boss publicly stated his fondness for and skill at successfully committing sexual assault, and how easily he got away with it.

It seems that even in a community of readers where nearly all could agree on the superior virtues of Hillary Clinton, they can’t agree on this issue. The commenters are divided and there seem to be almost as many rationales as commenters.

[You might ask what is my personal perspective? I wrote it up for the Times:

Stepping back from this I’m surprised that nobody asks (1) Why do colleges run dorms and sponsor fraternities/sororities and thereby take on responsibility for what happens during these parties? Why not run classrooms and labs and concentrate on education per se? (2) Why do Americans invest so much money in parking young people for four years in an environment so undemanding intellectually that they can be drunk every night?





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