Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The murderous Aztec empire

Westerners have a tendency to idolize the pre-history of American civilization, painting the native Americans as a relatively peaceful, if technologically backwards people. An exhibit at the British Museum, however, disputes that interpretation. In an exhibit about the Aztecs just before Cortés' arrival on the continent, the horrors of the Aztec's merciless killing machine are described:

When the recently excavated pyramid whose finds provide the centrepiece of the British Museum show was first inaugurated in 1484, there were prisoners lined up for sacrifice stretching in all directions as far as the eye could see. Some estimate that 20,000 victims were killed over four days.

The author draws an analogy between the Aztecs' reign with that of the Nazis – both expanded quickly on the backs of vast killing machines, but were short lived, as the conquest-by-terror method is not sustainable in the long term. According to a book by Hugh Thompson, many tribes conquered by the Aztecs colluded with the Spanish against the Aztec king Moctezuma.

But the most interesting part is the historiography of the noble Aztecs and horrible Spanish. Apparently the trope began as English propaganda against the then-formidable Spanish empire:

So why is he remembered by history as “a gentle prince”? The English had a hand in this: the conquest of the New World by Spain made it the European superpower and helped to finance the Armada. Hardly surprising that English propaganda should seize every opportunity to play up the leyenda negra, “the black legend” of Spanish cruelty in Mexico, and portray Moctezuma (and later Atahualpa in Peru) as hapless victims.

I'm not sure that this is entirely true – the idea of the "noble savage" is universal in modern Western civilization and not at all specific to what was once New Spain. But it's interesting to think about how centuries old imperial rivalries affect the way we think of history today.

Amtrak's utter incompetence

There's a lot to be said for Amtrak's mismanagement, but a lot of it is technical and inaccessible to the layman. This, however, is unconscionable: Amtrak still does not offer wireless internet – either free or paid – on any of its trains. Megabus and Bolt Bus (whose tickets between DC and NYC are about $20), however, have had wireless for about two years, and I'm pretty sure some Chinatown buses have had it for longer. Amtrak's normal tickets on the Northeast Corridor are about four times the cost of tickets on Bolt Bus and Megabus. Tickets on the Acela are about eight times the cost of bus tickets, and the service is heavily marketed towards business travelers who put a high price on their time. But no internet. It's apparently coming to Acela in about six months and the rest of the Northeast Corridor by the end of 2010. Had intercity buses and airlines not introduced wireless internet, I seriously doubt Amtrak would have ever had the business sense to do it.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Guantánamo terrorists escape art therapy, plot Detroit attacks

This is no good:

Two of the four leaders allegedly behind the al Qaeda plot to blow up a Northwest Airlines passenger jet over Detroit were released by the U.S. from the Guantanamo prison in November, 2007, according to American officials and Department of Defense documents. Al Qaeda claimed responsibility for the Northwest bombing in a Monday statement that vowed more attacks on Americans.

One of those released was sent to Saudi Arabia for an "art therapy rehabilitation program," which is apparently not uncommon:

"The so-called rehabilitation programs are a joke," a U.S. diplomat said in describing the Saudi efforts with released Guantanamo detainees.

Saudi officials concede its program has had its "failures" but insist that, overall, the effort has helped return potential terrorists to a meaningful life.

One program gives the former detainees paints and crayons as part of the rehabilitation regimen.

A similar rehabilitation program in Yemen was stopped because so many of the detainees quickly joined with al Qaeda or its affiliates, the official said.

Monday, December 28, 2009

William of Orange's gay lover

I was reading William of Orange's Wikipedia page when I stumbled on this excellent (and well-cited, if you click through to the original) paragraph, which is about his suspected gay lovers:

Bentinck's closeness to William aroused jealousies, but some modern historians doubt that there was a homosexual element about their relationship. The same could not be said for Keppel, who was 20 years William's junior and strikingly handsome, and had risen from being a royal page to an earldom with suspicious ease. Portland wrote to William in 1697 that 'the kindness which your Majesty has for a young man, and the way in which you seem to authorise his liberties ... make the world say things I am ashamed to hear'. This, he said, was 'tarnishing a reputation which has never before been subject to such accusations'. William replied, saying, 'It seems to me very extraordinary that it should be impossible to have esteem and regard for a young man without it being criminal'.

The first part I like is that he was doing a page, which just goes to show that Mark Foley wasn't doing anything original (even for the US Congress).

The second is that, when confronted with the allegations, he proves that the phrase "so much fun it should be illegal" dates back to at least 1697.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

The surprising prevalence of medical euthanasia

The NYT has a fascinating article on the apparently quite common practice of physicians essentially euthanizing their patients, with a combination of opioids and benzodiazepines (the same combination that kills so many movie stars, and what Ohio now uses on death row inmates when their first lethal injection doesn't work). The article is interesting throughout, but here's the takeaway:

There is little information about how many patients are terminally sedated, and under what circumstances — estimates have ranged from 2 percent of terminal patients to more than 50 percent. (Doctors are often reluctant to discuss particular cases out of fear that their intentions will be misunderstood.)

Reminds me of this episode of House, where Wilson tells the nurse the override code for the morphine dispenser, but loudly enough so that the patient can hear the code. He then delivers to himself a lethal dose of morphine, and Wilson gives a speech (or at least tries to) at a medical conference about how all doctors do it, but few are brave enough to admit it.

Something else that I find interesting – and this is probably mostly for legal liability reasons – is that doctors and patients seem to be restricted in being blunt about what they're doing, instead cloaking it all in codewords:

Although throughout the half-hour meeting the staff had never explicitly asked to continue sedating Mr. Oltzik, his daughter now gave them tacit permission: “We understand that the inevitable is here, but we wish him to go in peace and to find solace in that,” Ms. Ladin said.

This might be nice for some people, who don't want to face the reality of what's happening, but for others – especially those who the article says "were surprised their loved ones died so quickly, and wondered if the drugs had played a role" – it seems like this euphemistic attitude is far from ideal.

Credit card stealing app in Apple's official store

The other day, I downloaded an update to an iPhone app that I own that streams Romanian radio stations called roRadio. They added a page of ads that are displayed each time you open the app, and they struck me as a very candid assessment of what tech-savvy Romanians are into. The first one (in no particular order – they're displayed randomly) is an ad for a DEX app. DEX is the official Romanian dictionary, and, for what's essentially a dictionary with some etymology notes, it comes up surprisingly often in everyday conversation with Romanians. The second is some utility with Romania-specific facts – not exactly sure what they are, but it seems pretty normal.

The third one, though, is the most fascinating: it's an app whose only apparent utility I can see is to credit card thieves! It's 99¢ and I didn't buy it, but according to screenshots, it tells you the card issuer and whether or not a given credit card number is valid – things that you'd only need to know if the card in question wasn't actually yours (who forgets whether their card is a Visa or Mastercard??). Romanians are prolific hackers, but given Apple's notoriously stringent App Store policies, I'm surprised this one made it through.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

...and flying will likely become ever more hellish

Thanks to the Nigerian man whose legs crackled and popped a bit on Christmas Day aboard a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit, your next flight will suck a little more:

Although transportation officials had not announced new security measures yet, Air Canada said the Transportation Security Agency would make significant changes to the way passengers are able to move about on aircraft. During the final hour of flight, customers will have to remain seated, will not be allowed access to carry-on baggage and cannot have personal belongings or other items on their laps, according to a notice on Air Canada’s Web site.

In effect, that means passengers on flights of about 90 minutes or less will not be able to get out of their seats, since they are not allowed to move about while an airplane is climbing to its cruising altitude.

Drug war victories only last so long...

This just goes to show you how shallow drug war victories really are:

More than a dozen hit men carrying AK-47 and AR-15 assault rifles burst into a house in eastern Mexico around midnight Monday, gunning down several relatives of 3rd Petty Officer Melquisedet Angulo, the 30-year-old who was hailed as a national hero last week after being killed in a battle that left drug lord Arturo Beltrán Leyva dead.

The killing was likely ordered by the presumptive heir to the Beltrán-Leyva throne, Édgar Valdéz Villarreal. According to a NYT article from a few years ago, Valdéz Villarreal (nicknamed La Barbie due to his Anglo look) seems to have worked his way up from humble beginnings in the great state of Texas:

He did not have much of a criminal record before he left Texas, according to the Laredo police -- just a reputation as a small-time drug dealer and a drunken driving charge nine years ago. "As far as we're concerned," said Juan Rivera, a spokesman for the Laredo Police Department, "he's nobody here."

Saving the earth by destroying it

The NYT has an article about the horrible environmental damage done by the mining of rare earth elements used in the manufacture of "green tech":

Some of the greenest technologies of the age, from electric cars to efficient light bulbs to very large wind turbines, are made possible by an unusual group of elements called rare earths. The world’s dependence on these substances is rising fast.

Just one problem: These elements come almost entirely from China, from some of the most environmentally damaging mines in the country, in an industry dominated by criminal gangs.

In the past I've discussed ecologically degrading components used in cheap solar panels.

Friday, December 25, 2009

The evolutionary roots of shopping?

Today's spurious hunter-gatherer reference, found in a Christian Science Monitor article about men being disproportionately represented among last-minute shoppers:

A University of Michigan study (.pdf) released earlier this month suggests evolution may be to blame.

Typically, women’s shopping habit are informed by skills once used as gatherers, theorizes Daniel Kruger, research faculty at the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health. Men, he says, shop like hunters.

“The sexually divergent adaptations for gathering and hunting may be evident in reports of shopping experiences, as shopping could be considered a form of foraging in the modern consumer environment...,” the study says. “Men, in turn, will report shopping strategies and experiences that resemble hunting skills.”

That explains why women often spend more time shopping – looking for just the right item – while men are more hurried, Mr. Kruger says.

Al-Qaeda link "aspirational"

The Department of Homeland Security on the recent would-be bombing of a Northwest flight from Amsterdam to Detroit:

Although Mr. Mudallad told officials that he was directed by Al Qaeda, the counterterrorism expressed caution about that claim, saying “it may have been aspirational.”

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Denver beats LA in per capita medical marijuana dispensaries

Despite all the hype about California's medical marijuana dispensaries, it looks like the metropolitan area with the most dispensaries per capita is not even in the state. It's Denver, according to NORML. Denver has about one dispensary for every 3,000 people (200 dispensaries spread amongst 600,000 people), compared with Los Angeles, which has only 1,000 dispensaries serving 10 million people, or one for every 10,000 residents.

According to US News & World Report, Colorado was actually the first state to tax medical marijuana (which ensures that money-habit state legislatures will have an interest in the industry's survival), since California law treats the dispensaries as non-profits, not subject to taxes. The Washington Times, however, claimed that it was "the second state, behind California, to tax and regulate medical-marijuana sales," but I have a feeling they're confusing "and" with "or."

Nevertheless, California may reclaim its title as the most pot friendly state if they outright legalize the drug through a 2010 ballot initiative.

Obama's genius high-speed rail plan

Just in case you were under the impression that Obama's high-speed rail commitment was genuine, the Boston Globe would like to disabuse you of that notion:

The railroad tracks from Boston to Washington - the busiest rail artery in the nation, and one that also carries America’s only high-speed train, the Acela - have been virtually shut out of $8 billion worth of federal stimulus money set aside for high-speed rail projects because of a strict environmental review required by the Obama administration.

Because such a review would take years, states along the Northeast rail corridor are not able to pursue stimulus money for a variety of crucial upgrades.

Instead, the $8 billion is going to be split up to ten ways amongst other regions, such as California, the Gulf Coast, and the "Chicago Hub."

I love the irony of environmental standards stopping the Obama administration from making the one high-speed rail investment that has any chance of getting people out of their cars.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Death by drinking = death on the job, in Communist China

Only in China:

Ran and other netizens were reacting in part to a recent ruling from the People’s High Court in the southwestern metropolis of Chongqing, which said government officials who died drinking—often on behalf of their superiors—while at official networking functions, might be treated as work-related injury cases.

Here's how one snarky tweeter put it:

“Netizens are calling for the remains of this battle-hardened hero who has stood the test of booze to be sent to the Babaoshan Cemetery because he is a warrior of the proletariat who has been baptized in alcohol for a lifetime, who finally fell by the wayside,” yuanrch commented.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Ceaușescu's balls

Radio Free Europe has an interview with a reporter who met Nicolae Ceaușescu not long before he was ousted from power in 1989 and executed. It's a pretty typical profile of a tyrant and his decrepit country, except for this extremely bizarre part:

RFE/RL: During the interview, Ceausescu and Auchincloss were seated on a dais. From where you sat, you had a better view of the "Genius of the Carpathians," as he liked to be referred to in the Romanian media. What struck you most about his appearance?

Meyer: I just began taking notes, and one of the notes said "balls," and this was not editorial commentary, this was a literal observation. Ceausescu was sitting and I was looking at his testicles, resting on his seat, in his overlarge trousers, and they...they looked, like, as I wrote in my notebook, overripe tomatoes, sort of flattened, squatted there on his feet -- malignant -- them so big; him such a small dictator.

...whaaat? This doesn't even make anatomical could his falls be "resting on his seat [...] sort of flattened, squatted there on his feet"? Anyway, not very intellectually stimulating, but it was too good not to share.

Obama's DOT is out of touch with America

Last night on the Daily Show, Jon Stewart and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood were making fun of New York bank executives' recent excuse for missing a meeting in Washington due to "inclement weather" – i.e., fog at a private airport in Westchester. LaHood mentions that they could have taken Amtrak – the US government runs Amtrak, so this is to be expected – but then he says something that illustrates just how out of touch he really is: Greyhound. Who the hell takes a Greyhound bus from New York to DC as opposed to a Chinatown bus, Megabus, or Bolt Bus? I can understand your average DC legislator who's never ridden a bus in his life, but shouldn't the friggin' Secretary of Transportation realize that the cubside buses are far more popular and efficient?

I think this is symptomatic of a broader problem with the Obama administration's transportation policy: it's naive and neglected. Ray LaHood himself is a token Republican cabinet member who, by his own admission, has no particular interest in transportation. Obama's chief transportation initiative is a showy national high-speed rail system that only the rich will be able afford to ride, and yet he refuses to take even the most timid steps to combat suburban sprawl and the automobile's dominance.

Could pot be legal in California next year?

Via Reason, November 2010 might be the first big step towards marijuana legalization in the United States...ever:

Advocates of the Regulate, Control, and Tax Cannabis Act say they have gathered more than enough signatures to qualify the initiative for California's November 2010 ballot. The measure would allow people 21 and older to grow marijuana for personal use and to possess up to an ounce. It would also allow licensed suppliers to grow and sell marijuana (up to an ounce at a time) to adults. Public consumption and consumption in the presence of minors would remain illegal. (The text of the initiative is here.) The measure's chief backer, Richard Lee (operator of Oaksterdam University and Coffeeshop Blue Sky in Oakland) told the San Francisco Chronicle "the petition drive collected more than 680,000 signatures in two months, less than half the time allowed for such a drive." Supporters need 433,971 valid signatures to get the initiative on the ballot. The Chronicle notes that "a recent California Field Poll suggested that a majority of California voters, 56 percent, support the idea of legalizing and taxing cannabis."

Of course, even if it passed there would still be some sort of conflict with the federal government, but something tells me that it won't be long after November 2010 that marijuana will be legally cultivated and sold in California.

The Nation needs a copy editor

This Nation article is riddled with linguistic oddities. Here's my favorite (all emphasis mine):

The mainstream Australian attitude to refugees fleeing Iraq, Afghanistan and other Middle East nations during the earlier part of this century was of exclusion and brutality.

Does that mean that at 6 p.m. on January 1 I'm allowed to say "earlier this year, when I woke up with a hang over"?

And then there's this one:

Though perhaps no more serious than in other Western states, an insular, island mentality sometimes rears its ugly head.

Just in case you didn't get it the first time.

And finally this one. It's like they wanted to try to write naturally and not say xenophobia, but their bad writing innate natural tendency to want to draw out their phrases for as long as they possibly can and to aggrandize their verbiage to such an extent that they can compensate for their lack of substantive argumentation got in the way hindered the adoption of this more comprehensible style:

Paranoia of the foreigner is not unique to Australia...

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Mexican cartels' smuggling menu

I found an article from December 2006 by Stratfor* that had an interesting drug war menu. Most of the article is an arcane chronicle of rapid cartel succession, but it's also got a price list for smuggling goods through the southern border's major crossing points (or plazas, in cartel lingo):

In drug-trade lingo, the “gatekeeper” controls the “plaza,” the transhipment point off of one of the main highways on the Mexican side of the border where drugs and other contraband are channeled. In Spanish, the word “plaza” means a town square, though it also can mean a military stronghold or position. In this case, it means a cartel stronghold. A gatekeeper oversees the plaza, making sure each operation runs smoothly and that the plaza bosses are collecting “taxes” on any contraband that passes through. The going rate on a kilo of cocaine is approximately $500, while the tax on $1 million in cash heading south is about $10,000.

Gatekeepers also ensure that fees are collected on the movement of stolen cargo and illegal immigrants — including any militants who might be seeking to enter the United States through Mexico. Regardless of a person’s country of origin, money buys access into the United States through these plazas, though the fees charged for smuggling Middle Eastern and South Asian males into the United States are higher than for Mexicans or Central Americans. The gatekeepers’ primary concern is ensuring that appropriate fees are collected and sent to cartel coffers — and they operate in whatever manner best suits a given circumstance: intimidation, extortion or violence. Of course, one of their main jobs is to ensure that corrupt Mexican police and military personnel are paid off so plaza operations can proceed undisturbed.

The market for smuggling is remarkably efficient – that amounts to a 1% tax on money, but the cocaine tax is a bit more complicated. A gram of pure cocaine (which would be the ideal way to smuggle it, since it weighs the least) retails for over $100, but the person who's taking it from Mexico to the US might only get a tenth of that (rough estimate), which would make the tax around 5%.

* Stratfor is a private intelligence agency with a subscription-only site, but if you search the title of the article in Google and click the link from the search results page, you can access anything you want. This trick also works with the Wall Street Journal.

Monday, December 14, 2009

"Greece admits it is riddled with corruption"

The title of this article – "Greece admits it is riddled with corruption" – sounds like it's from the Onion, but alas, it's from the Financial Times.

Here are some choice quotes from inside the article:

At an EU summit on Thursday night, The bloc’s 26 other national leaders sat in silence as Mr Papandreou delivered a short, blunt speech on Thursday night that said everything the rest of Europe had long known, or suspected, about Greek bureaucracy. [...]

“He recognised that there was a huge problem of corruption throughout the administration, including in public procurement,” Mr Barroso said. [...]

“Our basic problem is systemic corruption,” Mr Papandreou said in Brussels on Friday. [...]

The underlying problem is, however, one of Greek credibility...

...I'll say!

Why do we regulate most harms, but subsidize lethal sports?

Robin Hanson at Overcoming Bias has just discovered that even a short football career takes years off your life (compared which, say, soccer, which adds years), and asks:

...why do we regulate other health harms so strictly, yet so eagerly watch this decimation?

It's an interesting psycho-/sociological question, but a much more relevant policy question is: why do we subsidize it? High school and college programs (which actually draw larger audiences than the pros) are essentially subsidized vocational schools for the NFL, and even the nominally private NFL teams are massively subsidized in the form of stadiums. In fact, opposition to stadium subsidies is one of the few policy issues that almost unanimously unites economists.

It's an interesting thought experiment: without the enormous from public schools and city governments, what would the sports industry look like? Would football still be the most popular sport?

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Google to sell phone directly to consumers, without contracts

Google is planning on introducing an especially Google-y phone to consumers, according to the WSJ:

Google Inc. has designed a cellphone it plans to sell directly to consumers as soon as next year, according to people familiar with the matter.

The phone is called the Nexus One and is being manufactured for Google by HTC Corp., these people said. It runs Android, the operating system for mobile phones that Google developed, they added.

But unlike the more than half-dozen Android phones made by phone manufacturers today, Google designed virtually the entire software experience behind the phone, from the applications that run on it to the look and feel of each screen.

The Internet giant is taking a new, and potentially risky, approach to selling the device. Rather than selling the phone through a wireless carrier--the way the bulk of phones are sold in the U.S. today--Google plans to sell the Nexus One itself online. Users will have to buy cellular service for the device separately.

This is groundbreaking for two reasons. First of all, while the iPhone is physically stunning, it's the software that makes it. No other phone could compete because no company had the design sense of Apple. Google, however, just might. They definitely have a different aesthetic – nobody would mistake Google's homepage for Apple's – but I think that Google's style is becoming refined enough to compete against Apple in the cell phone market, where good design has apparently eluded every company except Apple (...until now?). (Astute Google watchers will note that Android has been out for a while now, but, as the article hints at, companies always make changes to the OS, and it isn't as unified and beautiful as a pure Google produce could be.)

The second reason why this phone may be revolutionary – in a way that the iPhone won't be – is that it will be carrier-independent, and could serve to break up the dominant American cell phone market paradigm of phones subsidized by subscription fees and mandatory contracts. This could introduce a much-needed element of competition for data services among carriers, who have already started competing more fiercely for regular voice service. Unfortunately, I fear that perhaps the American market favors the subsidized phone/long-term contract for a reason – because of some market-altering policies that I'm not aware of, but that will work against the Nexus One.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed not fooled, knew he was in Poland

It seems that a third Eastern European CIA black site has been found in Lithuania, this in addition to the ones in Romania and Poland. (Non-Russian Eastern Europeans love America, for Cold War reasons. The Albanians and Georgians named streets after George W. Bush.)

But anyway, the Lithuania thing isn't that shocking or interesting. What I liked about the article was this quote from Khalid Sheikh Mohammed:

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed later told a team from the International Red Cross, who questioned him in late 2006, that he thought he had probably been held prisoner in Poland. "I think the country was Poland," he said, according to the Red Cross report. "I think this because on one occasion a water bottle was brought to me without the label removed. It had (an) e-mail address ending in '.pl'. The central-heating system was an old-style one that I would expect only to see in countries of the former communist system."

Friday, December 11, 2009

Blair: Even without WMDs, I would have found a way to invade Iraq

Quoteth the Guardian:

Tony Blair has said he would have invaded Iraq even without evidence of weapons of mass destruction and would have found a way to justify the war to parliament and the public.

The former prime minister made the confession during an interview with Fern Britton, to be broadcast on Sunday on BBC1, in which he said he would still have thought it right to remove Saddam Hussein from power.

"If you had known then that there were no WMDs, would you still have gone on?" Blair was asked. He replied: "I would still have thought it right to remove him [Saddam Hussein]".

Significantly, Blair added: "I mean obviously you would have had to use and deploy different arguments about the nature of the threat." He continued: "I can't really think we'd be better with him and his two sons in charge, but it's incredibly difficult. That's why I sympathise with the people who were against it [the war] for perfectly good reasons and are against it now, but for me, in the end I had to take the decision."

Longtime readers of this blog will recall this post from its very early days, in which I mentioned a Nation article that claimed...well, let's let them do the talking:

Back in March 1988, [Colin] Powell was National Security Adviser to President Reagan. While images of the [Halabja] massacre shocked, albeit briefly, a Western public jaded by reports of slaughter in the eight-year Iran-Iraq war, the Administration moved quickly to protect its ally Saddam Hussein. Within a week of the attack, US diplomats began publicizing the canard that the Halabjans had died from Iranian chemical weapons, thereafter eliciting a Security Council resolution with no specific condemnation of Iraq that urged both sides to refrain from use of chemical weapons. [...]

The following March, when news of Iraq's revival of poison gas as a weapon finally surfaced in the press, the State Department condemned "the prohibited use of chemical weapons wherever it occurs," while Rumsfeld was sent back to Baghdad to pass the word that the condemnation had been essentially pro forma and that the American desire to improve relations "at a pace of Iraq's choosing remain[s] undiminished." Meanwhile, US diplomats worked to quash discussion of the issue at international forums.

Is it the Scandinavian model, or the Scandinavians themselves?

Via Joel Kotkin, this great quote from Milton Friedman, which puts the success of the so-called Scandinavian model into some perspective:

When a local economist told Milton Friedman “In Scandinavia we have no poverty”, he replied: “That’s interesting because in America among Scandinavians, we have no poverty, either.”

The Nobel laureate's land war in Asia

Thoreau, with what has to be the best one-liner about Obama's Nobel:

...the Nobel Peace Prize was just accepted by a man currently escalating a land war in Asia.

DEA: most marijuana is laced, smoked at rock concerts; Rohypnol common, but rarely encountered

This is what the DEA had to say about marijuana consumption in Delaware in 2008:

Adults remain the predominant users of marijuana, especially in large social gatherings, such as rock concerts. Reports indicate that marijuana is typically smoked in combination with crack cocaine, heroin, and PCP.

In my book, "typically" means "most of the time," or close to it. Also – "rock concerts"? Seriously?

Update: I also found another doozy in the DEA's 2008 California summary. In the prescription drugs section, it says "Rohypnol is rarely encountered by law enforcement within in the greater Los Angeles area," but then a couple paragraphs later, in the other drugs section, it says "Vicodin, Ritalin, Rohypnol, Ketamine, and Valium are commonly diverted pharmaceutical narcotics."

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Hasidic Jews, ecstasy, and prostitutes

So this might be almost a decade old and a bit esoteric for some, but I found a fascinating article today on the former Israeli ecstasy kingpin Jacob "Cookie" Orgad, who had Hasidic school boys and strippers ferrying drugs across the Atlantic for him and ended up as a rabbi behind bars. The whole thing is almost too good to excerpt, so before I remember all the other great parts, here are two that stood out:

As much as 90 percent of the world’s ecstasy supply is manufactured in secret, high-tech labs scattered throughout the Netherlands, where the materials to make the hallucinogen [ed.: ecstasy isn't actually a hallucinogen] are not as closely regulated as they are in the rest of Europe and the United States. For years, a cabal of Israelis have used Holland as a base for diamond smuggling through the ports in Antwerp and Rotterdam. In the mid-nineties, some of them noticed that an even more lucrative trade had blossomed around them, one with few players as well positioned to cash in as they were. "Israelis are everywhere, and they get to know each other very fast because of the language and the tradition," says an Israeli intelligence official familiar with his countrymen’s stronghold on the world ecstasy market. "It doesn’t take long for a guy like Cookie to get big."

According to documents seized by the feds, Cookie began making frequent trips to Amsterdam, where he set up a connection with a Dutch chemist who had a lab in an industrial building north of the city. The ecstasy trade was quickly consolidating as well-connected players staked out their markets. The alleged former diamond smuggler Israeli Oded Tuito was already said to control much of Miami. Tuito also had a major piece of the New York market, along with Ilan Zarger (also an Israeli) who was the head of BTS, the notorious Brooklyn Terror Squad infamous for beating and robbing clubgoers and other dealers to insure their dominance of the market.

Something that annoyed me, though – and this happens with most reporting on drugs – is when journalists take the police's value estimations seriously. The police will always take the highest price they've ever seen for a drug – retail! – and then multiply that by the total amount. At one point, the article claims a pill can sell for as high as $40 – an absurdly high price that you couldn't even get a gullible and rich 13-year-old to pay. At another point it claims that the street value of 9 million pills is more than $27 million, implying an average retail price of $30 per pill. In actuality, you can only get away with selling a pill for even $20 if you're taking great risk and vending within some sort of music event (generally on the dance floor itself). The further away you get from the probing eyes of security, the lower the price. So, a pill bought on the dance floor will be more expensive than a pill bought outside the venue, which will in turn be more expensive than you'd get it for at a huge festival (where there are even fewer police), all of which is more expensive than if you buy it from a normal dealer in the outside world. Generally at that point the price will fall to around $10/pill.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Teddy Roosevelt and Pearl Harbor

James Bradley wrote a very intriguing Sunday op-ed for the NYT that's been floating around the libertarian blogosphere. The gist of the article is that had Teddy Roosevelt not supported the Japanese against in the Russians in 1905, the Japanese empire might never have materialized and attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941:

In a secret presidential cable to Tokyo, in July 1905, Roosevelt approved the Japanese annexation of Korea and agreed to an “understanding or alliance” among Japan, the United States and Britain “as if the United States were under treaty obligations.” The “as if” was key: Congress was much less interested in North Asia than Roosevelt was, so he came to his agreement with Japan in secret, an unconstitutional act. [...]

Roosevelt had assumed that the Japanese would stop at Korea and leave the rest of North Asia to the Americans and the British. But such a wish clashed with his notion that the Japanese should base their foreign policy on the American model of expansion across North America and, with the taking of Hawaii and the Philippines, into the Pacific. It did not take long for the Japanese to tire of the territorial restrictions placed upon them by their Anglo-American partners.

Japan’s declaration of war, in December 1941, explained its position quite clearly: “It is a fact of history that the countries of East Asia for the past hundred years or more have been compelled to observe the status quo under the Anglo-American policy of imperialistic exploitation and to sacrifice themselves to the prosperity of the two nations. The Japanese government cannot tolerate the perpetuation of such a situation.”

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Farmville vs. Twitter

Fun fact: Farmville, that annoying farming game that all your friends on Facebook bug you to play, is bigger than Twitter. Farmville has 69 million users active every month, and 26.5 million active daily users. Twitter's apparently at just 18 million – not clear if that's total users or daily (monthly?) active users, but whatever it is, it looks like Farmville wins.

Eastern European inferiority complex

The NYT's website is currently featuring an interesting article about an ethnic German politician in Romania, and it touches on something that I've always found interesting about Eastern Europeans: they have a tremendous inferiority complex vis-à-vis the West. The article is about Klaus Johannis, mayor of the town of Sibiu (Hermannstadt auf Deutsch), who very well might become the country's prime minister.

Mr. Johannis also benefits from the positive stereotypes Romanians associate with the German population, known as Transylvanian Saxons, who have called the region home since the 12th century.

The Saxons, known in German as Siebenbürger Sachsen, are considered hard-working, precise and uncompromising, an attractive mixture in a country tired of mismanagement and corruption, and one of the hardest hit in Europe by the economic crisis. It also does not hurt that the country experienced some of its best moments under German kings more than a century ago, even though the monarchs were unrelated to the local German population.

“I think it’s a real advantage that he’s German,” said Bianca Florea, 18, a student, as she passed through the main town square in Sibiu on Friday. “Well, not exactly German, but Saxon.” Asked why, Ms. Florea responded, “We Romanians are a bit lazy, that’s my opinion.”

Romania's once large German minority mostly moved back to the Fatherland (sold by Ceaușescu to West Germany for a couple thousand bucks each), so Johannis is a bit of a novelty. Despite its power, the Eastern European inferiority complex apparently doesn't override Eastern European pessimism:

But like most of the dozen residents interviewed here, she was skeptical about Mr. Johannis’s prospective move to Bucharest, despite praising his work as mayor.

“He could go there and do a good job for a while or he could be a puppet for others,” Ms. Florea said. Mr. Johannis belongs to none of the major parties, but instead to the small German Democratic Forum, which represents the 60,000 ethnic Germans remaining in the country.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

The "date rape drug" is a myth

I'd been following this story for a while, but it looks like it has come up in the media recently – stories of men surreptitiously dropping some sort of tasteless drug (generally Rohypnol or GHB) in their drinks and then taking advantage of them sexually once they pass out. Every college student knows a few people who claim to know a few people who have been "roofied," but the actual evidence is scant. I personally have been around a lot of illegal drugs in my day but I have never heard of anyone selling or using GHB or Rohypnol (a powerful benzodiazepine, similar to oft-prescribed anti-anxiety medications like Xanax, Klonopin, and Valium). But anyway, a study in Australia showed that exactly zero out of 97 people who claimed they were slipped the date rape drug actually were:

Earlier this year, Australian researchers found that no[t] one of 97 young men and women admitted to hospital over 19 months to two Perth hospital claiming to have had their drinks spiked, had in fact been drugged.

I've seen other studies that put the percentage of people who claim to have been roofied and actually were at under 3%, depending on what one classifies as a "date rape drug." Like I said, Rohypnol (the namesake of "roofie") is related to many other commonly-perscribed medications, and it seems order of magnitude more likely that someone who believes they were roofied actually just took a benzo and didn't how poorly they react with alcohol (something that psychiatrists should be more fastidious in mentioning).

Schneier, a fascinating "security" blogger, summarizes the study's suggestion as to why the myth of the date-rape drug myth is so persistent:

Basically, the hypothesis is that perpetuating the fear of drug-rape allows parents and friends to warn young women off excessive drinking without criticizing their personal choices. The fake bogeyman lets people avoid talking about the real issues.

It's worth mentioning that the idea of a drug leaves you vulnerable to attacks is older than Rohypnol and GHB. Some may recognize the term "Mickey Finn," or the phrase "to slip someone a mickey" – meaning to drug them by putting something in their drink without their knowledge. The story – I don't know whether it's as apocryphal as the modern date rape drug ones – is that a Chicago bartender named Mickey Finn used to drug people (whether by chloral hydrate, antimony, or potassium tartrate) and then rob them. Not rape, but the same idea – watch your drink, or something bad could happen to you. Nevermind that excessive drinking is usually the culprit, and spiking drinks almost never is.

Newfoundland, mumming, cross-dressing, and Shakespeare

Via Reason, a particularly odd article on the old European roots of "mumming and disguising" – something that will sound familiar to Philadelphians, who hold the Mummers Day Parade in early January. It's about some holiday rituals practiced by Newfoundlanders fishermen as late as the 1960s, who were supposedly so isolated that they persisted in these odd practices longer than any Europeans. It's a long article, but here are some excerpts:

A party of mummers would gather in someone house, gear up, and set off for whatever house was closest that they figured would let them in. Once in, the group would entertain their uncomfortable hosts by singing, telling stories and dancing, in other words, each member doing some routine, speaking and singing in a peculiar but traditional manner that disguised their voices. As soon as the hosts recognized one of them, off would come the mask and the gloves and the monster would metamorphose into a relative or neighbor. As soon as everyone’s identity was guessed, on went the disguises again and they were off to the next house. This was through piles of snow, of course, so far north, so they were bundled up against the cold as well. Needless to say, a great deal of alcohol was consumed in the process, along with various homemade holidays treats.

That men generally dressed as women and vice versa probably says something about the emotional satisfactions of the tradition as a factor apart from the need for total disguise. It may also suggest that the gender-bending in Shakespeare’s holiday plays have a broader basis in tradition than modern critics, fond of ascribing it to various psycho-sexual factors, are willing to acknowledge.

Apparently the revelers had an idea that what they were doing was a bit odd:

The anthropologists said that it was very difficult to get the people to talk about their holiday practises. They were shy about talking to strangers about anything, and particularly shy about this tradition. The scientists got the feeling that they weren’t being told everything. This for at least two reasons. First, such holiday practises were dangerous. Shameful things could happen during this period when everything was turned upside down. It was not only a time of making merry, it was potentially a time of reprisal, of setting things straight, of settling old scores. There was a lot of drinking. Things could get rough.

And then here's the sociological money shot:

Several things came clear from this that were not discussed by any of the researchers. First, it is clear to me that these people who lived so close to each other year in, year out, whose families all knew each other intimately, and knew everything there was to know about each other’s family histories, some of it no doubt shameful or embarrassing, needed a break from being themselves. They desperately needed a few hours of being with people without the burden of their ordinary identities.

This is not something that would be immediately understood today. If anything, people today, city-dwellers in particular, tend to suffer from the opposite problem, from being too unknown, too anonymous. Today, if we should feel the need to shuffle off our identities for a time, we can go downtown or to the mall or take a drive to another town or city. If we live in the country, we can go to the city, or we can fly off to some distant beach resort. But for people living in small, isolated, unchanging communities for their entire lives, the ritual may have been a psychological necessity.

There's tons more, including a bunch of links to Shakespeare and other bits of Elizabethan culture.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

North Korean monuments around the world

So apparently North Korea has another cash cow along with drugs, counterfeit money and cigarettes, and nuclear extortion – scary authoritarian-ish monuments. The blog North Korea Economy Watch has the scoop, along with links to pictures of monuments that North Korean workers – apparently skilled in bronze work – have built around the world. (And by "world," I mean a few select hellholes in Africa and the Middle East.)

Astute North Korea watchers will realize that the Hermit Kingdom has been exporting its particularly nasty brand of authoritarianism long before the Dear Leader, Kim Jong-il, took over from the Great Leader, Kim Il-sung. Nicolae Ceaușescu of Romania, the Eastern Bloc leader with the strongest cult of personality, is said to have learned everything he knew about being a creepy cultish dictator from a trip to China, North Korea, and Vietnam in 1971 (.pdf).

Ahmadinejad, the libertarian

The NYT reports:

If it goes awry, the plan to phase out Iran’s system of state subsidies, which has existed for decades, could profoundly destabilize the government of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has aggressively championed change. But it could also help wean Iran from its dependence on foreign gasoline and insulate the economy from new sanctions — which are a strong possibility if Iran continues to defy Western pressure over its nuclear program.

The Times claims that the subsidies are regressive, because the rich have more money and buy more goods. I have to admit that I don't remember ever having heard of subsidies being described as progressive or regressive, but it seems to me that this is actually a flat subsidy, in that it rises and falls at about the same rate as one's income.

But anyway, I digress. Here's the most interesting part of the article:

Oddly, one thing that might make subsidies reform easier is more sanctions, the tool most widely discussed by Western leaders as a final option to put pressure on Iran if current nuclear negotiations fail. Economic sanctions or a gasoline embargo (assuming one could even be organized) would force down consumption and help the Iranian government’s finances, because there would be no more need to pay for gasoline imports, Mr. Parsi said. That could disguise the pain of subsidies reform, allowing the government to blame the West for any ensuing inflation.