Bobby Jindal Calls for States to Follow Louisiana’s Example in Toughening Gun Laws

[Note:  This item comes from reader Randall Head.  DLH]

Bobby Jindal Calls for States to Follow Louisiana’s Example in Toughening Gun Laws
Jul 26 2015

Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana called for tougher gun laws in other states on Sunday, breaking his silence on the issue three days after a gunman with a history of mental illness and violence opened fire in a movie theater in the state’s fourth-largest city.

Gun control has become a prominent subject on the presidential campaign trail after the shooting on Thursday in Lafayette became the third mass shooting in six weeks in the United States. Mr. Jindal, who received an A-plus rating from the National Rifle Association, is one of 16 candidates seeking the Republican nomination for 2016.

Law enforcement authorities are investigating how the gunman in last week’s attack, identified as John R. Houser, 59, was able to walk into an Alabama pawnshop and legally buy the Hi-Point .40-caliber handgun he used to kill two women and injure nine other people before killing himself at the Grand 16 Theater. A motive for the shooting has not been determined.

Until Sunday, Mr. Jindal and most of his Republican rivals had deflected questions in recent days over whether the killings reflected a need for tighter gun control laws. On CBS’s “Face the Nation,” Mr. Jindal called for states to adopt laws similar to Louisiana’s that feed information about mental illness into a federal background check system for potential gun buyers.

“I think every state should strengthen their laws,” he said. “Every state should make sure this information is being reported in the background system. We need to make sure that background system is working. Absolutely, in this instance, this man never should have been able to buy a gun.”

Officials have said Mr. Houser, of Phenix City, Ala., legally bought the weapon there in 2014, although he had been denied a state-issued concealed weapons permit in 2006 because he was accused of domestic violence and soliciting arson. His family repeatedly described him as violent and mentally ill, and questions about his mental health had been raised for decades. In 2008, his family had him involuntarily committed to a hospital in Georgia to receive psychiatric care.

Mr. Jindal insisted that Louisiana laws would have prevented Mr. Houser from buying a gun.

“In Louisiana, we toughened our laws a couple of years ago,” Mr. Jindal said. “If he had been involuntarily committed here, if he had tried to buy that gun here, he wouldn’t have been allowed to do that.”

He added: “Look, every time this happens, it seems like the person has a history of mental illness. We need to make sure the systems we have in place actually work.”

Mr. Jindal said investigators had interviewed Mr. Houser’s family and were examining journals found in his hotel room in which he described his intention to carry out a shooting in the theater. The authorities believe Mr. Houser went to multiple theaters in southern Louisiana before picking the one in Lafayette, the governor said.

The investigators also believe that Mr. Houser intended to escape. He parked his car near the theater’s exit, and had a wig and disguises in his car and hotel room, Mr. Jindal said.


The Real Test of the Iran Deal

The Real Test of the Iran Deal
The agreement doesn’t guarantee that Tehran will never produce nuclear weapons—because no agreement could do so.
By James Fallows
Jul 28 2015

A week ago I volunteered my way into an Atlantic debate on the merits of the Iran nuclear agreement. The long version of the post is here; the summary is that the administration has both specific facts and longer-term historic patterns on its side in recommending the deal.

On the factual front, I argued that opponents had not then (and have not now) met President Obama’s challenge to propose a better real-world alternative to the negotiated terms. Better means one that would make it less attractive for Iran to pursue a bomb, over a longer period of time. Real world means not the standard “Obama should have been tougher” carping but a specific demand that the other countries on “our” side, notably including Russia and China, would have joined in insisting on, and that the Iranians would have accepted.

“What’s your better idea?” is a challenge any honest opponent must accept. If this deal fails—which means, if the U.S. Congress rejects an agreement that the U.K., France, Germany, Russia, China, and Iran have accepted—then something else will happen, and all known “somethings” involve faster Iranian progress toward a bomb.

On historical judgment, I said that for two reasons the supporters of the deal should get the benefit of the doubt. The short-term reason is that nearly everyone who in 2015 is alarmist about Iran was in 2002 alarmist about Iraq. You can find exceptions, but only a few. That doesn’t prove that today’s alarmists are wrong, but in any other realm it would count. The longer-term reason is that the history of controversial diplomatic agreements through the past century shows that those recommending “risks for peace” have more often proven right than their opponents. (Don’t believe me? Go back and consider the past examples.)

Three topics for today’s updates, with a connecting historical theme.

* * *

Correlation of Forces

In the two weeks since the deal was announced, the forces pro and con have lined up. The clear opponents include:

—The congressional GOP, which invited Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to speak against the deal long before it was struck, and virtually all of whose members oppose it.

—Candidates for the GOP presidential nomination, including Scott Walker with his promise to revoke the deal on day one in office (which would be difficult, unless he could convince Russia, China, etc. to reinstate sanctions), Mike Huckabee with his odious “oven” line, and the rest who oppose the deal as uniformly as they opposed Obamacare.


In the Age of Trump, Will Democrats Sell Out More, Or Less?

In the Age of Trump, Will Democrats Sell Out More, Or Less?
The collapse of the GOP gives the Democrats an opportunity to abandon “lesser evilism” — but they probably won’t
By Matt Taibbi
Jul 28 2015

Over the weekend, polls showed that that the Trump-fueled collapse of the Republican Party is reaching historic depths. According to CNN, the GOP’s approval rating is now down to 32 percent, the lowest level in over two decades. It probably won’t be trending up anytime soon, either, now that the Trump campaign is turning “you can’t rape your spouse” into this week’s political catchphrase.

News of the Republican approval-rating slide came not long after the release of a Gallup survey showing that 32 percent of Americans now believe animals should have the same rights as people. That number is likely to keep climbing – though one can’t say the same for the GOP’s numbers, given the nation’s demographic situation. Animals are now a better political futures bet than Republicans.

This is leading to a lot of “the witch is dead”-style celebrating among Democrats. Many believe Trump has triggered a long-overdue Credibility Event Horizon that will sink the loony right forever as a mainstream force.

“Donald Trump is Democrats’ greatest gift,” applauded The Globalist, via Salon. “As Donald Trump surges in polls, Democrats cheer,” countered The Washington Post. Even before Trump surged in the polls, Democrats were smacking their lips, a la DNC spokeswoman Holly Schulman, who cheekily applauded Trump for bringing “seriousness” to the Republican debate. 

For sheer entertainment value, the Trump-as-political-anvil phenomenon is pretty hilarious. But history shows that if the Republican Party pushes further in the direction of brainless nativism and economic reaction, the Democrats will probably follow right behind them.

Theoretically, the collapse of the GOP should mean we can ease up on the whole “we must accept the lesser evil” argument. After all, the Greater Evil is now shooting itself in the face on TV every day.

But it turns out that mainstream Democrats believe just the opposite – that with the GOP spiraling, the party should now brook even less dissent within their ranks. They’d like a primary season with no debate at all, apparently.

We saw a preview of how this rotten dynamic will work last week, when former Democratic congressman and current Signature Bank board member Barney Frank wrote a piece for Politico entitled “Why Progressives Shouldn’t Support Bernie.”

Frank’s core point is that progressive voters should terminate all discussion even before the beginning of the primary season, and jump on board with the frontrunner Hillary Clinton, so she can save her money to fight the evil Trumps of the world:

“Of course it is not only possible to accept the legitimacy of Clinton’s liberal-progressive credentials and still prefer that [Vermont Senator Bernie] Sanders be president….But wishful thinking is no way to win the presidency. There is not only no chance — perhaps regrettably — for Sanders to win a national election. A long primary campaign will only erode the benefit Democrats are now poised to reap from the Republicans’ free-for-all.”

This isn’t about Hillary. The lesser evil argument has been a consistent feature of Democratic Party thought dating all the way back to the late Reagan years, long before Hillary Clinton was herself a candidate. The argument always hits the same notes:


Bernie Sanders Livestreams the Future of Grassroots Politics

Bernie Sanders Livestreams the Future of Grassroots Politics
By Issie Lapowsky
Jul 30 2015

It’s about 7:30 pm on a sweaty Wednesday night in Brooklyn, and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, a consummate son of Brooklyn, has just accomplished the seemingly insurmountable task of quieting an 8,000-square-foot beer hall full of New Yorkers. Save for the whir of an industrial-sized fan overhead and intermittent rounds of applause and whoops of “That’s right!” ringing out from the crowd, Sanders’ is the only voice you hear. 

Tonight, the Democratic presidential candidate is talking, as he always does, about building a revolution to fight wealth inequality. He’s talking about how the “millionaires and billionaires” are getting richer, while the United States continues to have the highest rate of children living in poverty of any industrialized nation. “Enough is enough,” the rumpled elder statesman repeats. 

Sanders is on his soapbox, and to use his campaign vernacular, his nearly 200 followers in the bar are most definitely “feeling the Bern.” Then, all at once, a spinning wheel pops up, obscuring Sanders’ face. 

Bernie is buffering. 

A few seconds—and at least one joke from the woman sitting behind me about Hillary Clinton hacking the live-stream—Sanders is back on the massive projector screen at the back of the bar, and he hasn’t missed a beat. Sanders is actually hundreds of miles away in D.C., but his speech is being broadcast to more than 3,000 watch parties across the country. In three more hours, he’ll do it all over again for the West Coast.

Welcome to the age of live-streamed politics. YouTube has factored prominently in politics for years, and candidates have been dabbling with mobile broadcasting products like Periscope. But on Wednesday night, the Sanders campaign amplified the impact of the live-stream by organizing thousands of so-called “online house parties,” to create what Sanders staffers are calling the largest campaign event of 2016 so far. These house parties, run by volunteers, not staffers, took place in coffee shops, bars, and living rooms in every state across the country and received more than 100,000 RSVPs online, though it’s hard to say how many people actually showed up.

“Live-streams are not a new phenomenon, but I think what we’ve done is very unique,” says Kenneth Pennington, Sanders’ digital director. “We’re really excited about being able to maximize the size of room. By adding to those rooms we’ll have 100,000 people gathering together to listen.”

Taking Action

It’s an approach that President Obama used toward the end of his 2008 campaign, but the fact that the Sanders campaign is doing it so early, and at such scale, reflects the maturity of the model. The goal is to get people not just tuning in, but taking action. It combines the best of old-school organizing with the best of new school technology, and in doing so, it turns the often solitary activity of watching a live-stream on your laptop into a national, communal, campaign event. 

“Live-stream house parties are a smart way to get a lot of supporters in one place without having campaign staff on the ground in that area,” says Josh Cook, who served as Pennsylvania Digital Director for the 2012 Obama campaign. “The Sanders campaign can use this livestream to turn passive supporters into active volunteers as soon as the livestream ends.”


Facebook reveals plans for drone-based Internet in the sky

[Note:  This item comes from friend Mike Cheponis.  DLH]

Facebook reveals plans for drone-based Internet in the sky
By Elizabeth Weise
Jul 30 2015

MENLO PARK, Calif. — Facebook on Thursday revealed more details about its plan to find cost-effective ways to provide Internet access to the 10% of the Earth’s population that lives far from cell towers or land lines.

The solution: Drones the size of a Boeing 737 — launched by helium balloons.

Powered by the sun, each 1,000 lb. drone would fly lazy circles more than 11 miles above the Earth, providing broadband-level Internet for people in a 50-mile radius below.

The team’s dream is “a backbone of the Internet using lasers in the sky,” said Yael Maguire, director of Facebook’s Connectivity Lab.

The planes, dubbed Aquila, (Latin for “eagle”) would be unmanned. Each would spend three months aloft before slowly floating down to earth “like a feather” for refit, said Jay Parikh, vice president of engineering at Facebook.

The effort is part of a project launched a year ago by Facebook’s Connectivity Lab to provide Internet access to the 4 billion people around the world who currently lack it.

While many people live in sufficiently connected or urban areas where current methods, such as wires and cellular phones, can provide Internet access, millions of people live where a connection isn’t possible.

“Standard telecommunication infrastructure doesn’t reach them. If they pulled out a phone, it would have nothing to connect to,” said Parikh.

Facebook has set out to find a way to give it to them.

The answer the company’s engineers have come up with involves sending planes that can beam down access far above commercial airspace, where there are no commercial flights to run into and no weather to interfere with flight.

The plane, which is virtually all wing, is about 100 feet wingtip to wingtip.

“If you’re thinking of your little quad copters, this isn’t what we’re building,” said Parikh.

The first test vehicle was built this year by Ascenta, a Somerset, England-based solar drone company that Facebook purchased in 2014.

One of Facebook’s biggest breakthroughs in the project has been increasing data capacity of the lasers that will connect the planes with a land-based fiber line that is the link to the Internet.

Facebook’s team has developed a system whose ground-based laser can transmit information to a dome on the underside of the plane at rates 1,000 times faster than has previously been possible.

It’s something like reading a CD with a laser head just after it’s been thrown into the air like a Frisbee — from 11 miles away.


The Drug War Is Creating Problems Too Big To Fix

[Note:  This item comes from friend David Rosenthal.  DLH]

The Drug War Is Creating Problems Too Big To Fix
from the in-which-warning-signs-are-greeted-with-praise,-enthusiasm-and-blinders dept
By Tim Cushing
Jul 30 2015

David Colarusso, a public defender turned data scientist, has a fascinating post at Law Technology Today describing the many issues arising from the abusive activities of a single chemist at the Massachusetts state drug lab. The starting point of his post — and his problems — trace back a few years.

In 2012, it was discovered that a chemist working at the Massachusetts state drug lab in Jamaica Plain had been falsifying drug tests (e.g., claiming that samples contained narcotics without testing them and even adding cocaine to samples to get a positive result when prior testing came back negative). She had worked at the lab for nearly a decade, and these revelations called into question the outcomes in tens of thousands of cases.

Obviously, this sort of tampering means there are convictions waiting to be overturned. But two years later, little progress has been made. It isn’t that the state is obstructing efforts to make the falsely-convicted whole again (there may be some of that, but Colarusso’s post doesn’t indicate there is), but that nearly a decade’s-worth of bogus lab work potentially infects thousands of convictions. Narrowing down this list to those directly affected is an enormous task, one that Colarusso was tasked with making more manageable. Narrowing down “The List” to a single link in the evidence chain — the drug receipt — still returned far too many potential matches to be of use. Additional restrictions trimmed the possible matches a bit more, but still left far too many potential victims of the chemist’s work.

Staff attorneys take only a small fraction of indigent cases. The majority are handled by private attorneys. So only a subset of defendants on The List would be in our client files. However, given The List contained nearly 40,000 names, this subset was still rather sizable. So we used some nice open source software to look for matches between our clients’ names and those found on the list (this involved some data wrangling in Python and Pandas along with the creation of a nice IPython Notebook or two). This gave us a rough list of clients on The List, and we used these names to create a list of their co-defendants.

The narrowing of the field only did so much. The List remained sizable, thanks to inconsistencies inherent in the system itself.

This gave us a rough list of clients on The List, and we used these names to create a list of their co-defendants. We then checked The List for the co-defendant names. Unfortunately, a lot of these were missing. If we assumed the same rate of missing names across all cases, it seemed The List was missing somewhere between 0 and 9,600 names. Wait, what? That’s right, thousands of potentially missing names. The uncertainty came from the fact that we had to match names. The List did not come with dates of birth, addresses, or Social Security Numbers—just names. So occasionally, we could not find a name we were looking for because the Commonwealth and CPCS disagreed on the spelling of a name or someone made a transcription error.

By this point in the investigation, the master list was still huge and it was obvious the list itself was missing hundreds of names, which meant hundreds of possibly wrongly-convicted citizens. The reality of this situation was this: to track down those missing names and to finally set the wheels of justice in motion, thousands of police reports would need to be read and cross-referenced against those on the master list. But who will do this? And with what funds? That’s still unclear. It all depends on who feels justice should be served and who feels justice should be served, but only up to a certain dollar amount. 

So, the problem — which was one person in one lab falsifying thousands of test results — has become something so unwieldy that it may never result in the exoneration of everyone chemist Annie Dookhan managed to wrongly put behind bars. The problem is too big to solve, and much of that has to do with the efficiency of drug prosecutions versus the much less efficient wheels of bureaucracy. Data wrangling helped determine the size of the problem and point a way towards a solution, but the solution is still hundreds, if not thousands, of hours away. 

But Colarusso points to one aspect that should have been noticed and would have kept this from becoming a 40,000-file catastrophe (and that’s without counting the undetermined number of omissions).


China’s Naked Emperors

China’s Naked Emperors
By Paul Krugman
Jul 31 2015

Politicians who preside over economic booms often develop delusions of competence. You can see this domestically: Jeb Bush imagines that he knows the secrets of economic growth because he happened to be governor when Florida was experiencing a giant housing bubble, and he had the good luck to leave office just before it burst. We’ve seen it in many countries: I still remember the omniscience and omnipotence ascribed to Japanese bureaucrats in the 1980s, before the long stagnation set in.

This is the context in which you need to understand the strange goings-on in China’s stock market. In and of itself, the price of Chinese equities shouldn’t matter all that much. But the authorities have chosen to put their credibility on the line by trying to control that market — and are in the process of demonstrating that, China’s remarkable success over the past 25 years notwithstanding, the nation’s rulers have no idea what they’re doing.

Start with the fundamentals. China is at the end of an era — the era of superfast growth, made possible in large part by a vast migration of underemployed peasants from the countryside to coastal cities. This reserve of surplus labor is now dwindling, which means that growth must slow.

But China’s economic structure is built around the presumption of very rapid growth. Enterprises, many of them state-owned, hoard their earnings rather than return them to the public, which has stunted family incomes; at the same time, individual savings are high, in part because the social safety net is weak, so families accumulate cash just in case. As a result, Chinese spending is lopsided, with very high rates of investment but a very low share of consumer demand in gross domestic product.

This structure was workable as long as torrid economic growth offered sufficient investment opportunities. But now investment is running into rapidly decreasing returns. The result is a nasty transition problem: What happens if investment drops off but consumption doesn’t rise fast enough to fill the gap?

What China needs are reforms that spread the purchasing power — and it has, to be fair, been making efforts in that direction. But by all accounts these efforts have fallen short. For example, it has introduced what is supposed to be a national health care system, but in practice many workers fall through the cracks.

Meanwhile, China’s leaders appear to be terrified — probably for political reasons — by the prospect of even a brief recession. So they’ve been pumping up demand by, in effect, force-feeding the system with credit, including fostering a stock market boom. Such measures can work for a while, and all might have been well if the big reforms were moving fast enough. But they aren’t, and the result is a bubble that wants to burst.

China’s response has been an all-out effort to prop up stock prices. Large shareholders have been blocked from selling; state-run institutions have been told to buy shares; many companies with falling prices have been allowed to suspend trading. These are things you might do for a couple of days to contain an obviously unjustified panic, but they’re being applied on a sustained basis to a market that is still far above its level not long ago.

What do Chinese authorities think they’re doing?