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    • Ferguson and the brokenness of America’s “Justice” System
      There isn’t much to say that others haven’t, but let’s go through it anyway: There was never any chance that Darren Wilson would be charged; the prosecutor acted as defense attorney, not as prosecutor; A grand jury, for all intents and purposes does what the prosecutor tells it to; Doing the announcement at 8pm at [...]
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Apoptosis and Bodyscanners

Apoptosis is the word for programmed cell death.  There are a variety of reasons why a cell dies.  Sometimes it’s because it’s not meant to hang around for very long.  It outlives its usefulness.  Sometimes it’s because it gets a signal from another cell to self destruct after a physiological event, like a stroke.  Sometimes it’s an immune response.   The cell realizes it doesn’t belong and takes itself out.

And then there are young males with guns.  Maybe the reason we have had so many wars in the history of human beings is because young adult males are apoptotic. Maybe it’s all that testosterone that does weird things to their heads.  It’s either war or some kind of financial apocalypse brought on by uninhibited gambling and a “boys will be boys” attitude.  They self-destruct before they get too old by doing reckless things, like changing cars at 60 mph on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Maybe civilization wouldn’t function too well if the unstable humans among us were too numerous.

There was an “expert” on mass murderers on NPR tonight as I was driving home from Philly whose research must be funded by the NRA.  No, there’s no pattern of psychosis, he said, although Jared Loughner and the Aurora shooter would suggest otherwise. The University of Texas tower sniper knew there was something wrong with his head when he left his home the morning he carried out his massacre.  He even left a note to that effect., Turns out he was right.  He had a brain tumor that was discovered during his autopsy.

But, the expert argued,  some shooters are just depressed, which seemed a bit unfair to the depressed out there, and project the blame for their sad, sorry lives onto others, including little 5 year olds.  There’s no model we can derive that wouldn’t give us “false positives”.  Well, gee, I guess there’s nothing we can do then.  {{sigh}}

That “false positives” term reawakened a dormant pharma part of my past.  Sifting through data, looking for patterns and constructing models, um, that’s what we used to do for a living before the pharma lobby got rid of us and cried crocodile tears to any ambitious politician who would listen that they just couldn’t find good help anymore.

So, the expert says the model we construct to keep the shooters from apoptotic destruction with collateral damage would be useless because we would incorrectly identify some of the people to be shooters when they really aren’t.  These are the “false positives”. Well, that was a stupid thing to say because anyone who looks for models and patterns knows that that’s what you get on your first round of screening- false positives and hopefully, fewer false negatives.  That just narrows your set of possibles.  It’s not the final answer.  In your second round of screening, you might use a different assay to distinguish the hunters and right wing gun nuts from the truly disturbed.  Maybe you could use a questionnaire, ask them if they’ve lost a job lately, gone through a divorce, are in debt, have ever been hospitalized for mental illness.  Then, once you narrow down that set of potential shooters, put them through another round of screening.  Maybe that would be a mandatory interview or two with a psychologist to evaluate whether the gun owner shows possible indications of schizophrenia or personality disorders.

Where to start?  The first round of screening criteria might be males in young adulthood who have bought multiple guns, a larger than expected cache of ammunition and body armor.  The truly discriminating would want to collect what looks like inconsequential data for further study, like socio economic class, level of education, parents living, health insurance coverage, prior issuance of a hunting license, time between purchases, etc.  You never know when you’ll find a correlation to include or rule out someone.

And what’s the end point?  I’m guessing that if you found someone who was a young adult male gun owner with multiple guns, a cache of ammunition and body armor, who has recently undergone a job loss and has a history of mental illness, you would probably want to lure him to a safe location and take away his guns.  That’s just me.  I’m sure the NRA would be fine with a sternly worded letter to the effect that it is ungentlemanly to shoot unarmed 5 year olds.  You must wait until they retrieve their own weapons first.

In the end, it doesn’t matter what the motive is.  We’re not interested in who the future shooter is going to blame, their mother or the global conspiracy working against him.  We’re interested in the collection of descriptors that separate the healthy gun nut from the disturbed gun nut.

Meanwhile, in the wake of 9/11 and the “fear! fear! fear!” histrionics on Fox News and the evening news, the security industry has been having a field day installing cameras and electronic locks on school doors across the country.  But the fact that the office has to buzz you in has always looked like a joke to me.  With so many people coming and going each day, the office is bound to get lax and it doesn’t stop a teacher’s son from claiming that he has to drop off something he has stashed in his backpack to his mother in the kindergarten class.  (I’m just guessing.  It has crossed my mind before that if there was going to be a shooter, this is how he would do it.)  The electronic doors wouldn’t change the possibility that a shooter who is familiar to the victims could get in.  They’re probably only good for keeping a 3 man Al Qaeda cell out.

In Newton, the lockdown drills were well rehearsed but they didn’t save the 20 children who were killed once the shooter got in the building.  You might argue that the death toll would have been higher otherwise but I’m not convinced this is true.  It’s pretty typical for students to do the “duck and cover” thing and for teachers to lock the doors without any training whatsoever.

Walking to the bus stop with your 10 year old couldn’t have stopped this incident.  Preventing your 8 year olds from running around outside and playing with their friends wouldn’t have stopped this incident. Freaking out about parents who help out in school without a background check wouldn’t have stopped this incident.  Putting your kid’s childhood in permanent lockdown for the duration of their formative years won’t have stopped this incident.  We can’t barricade our kids forever.  They need to be learn to navigate the world without our help.

But I’m betting that the security industry will cash in big from the bodyscanners that frantic Fox News watching parents are soon going to demand to be purchased by every school district in every state of the nation.  Well, except for Michigan where it will soon become perfectly fine to walk into a school with a concealed gun. The security industry has been very good at treating children like prisoners under permanent siege.  It’s been a very lucrative business model even if some of the expensive security fixes turn out to be nothing more than emotional placebos for disaster porn soaked parents.

What would have stopped this incident?  I don’t know but I’m willing to start with screening prospective gun and body armor buyers and taking away their tools of self destruction.  I’d rather be left with a bunch of false positives in round 1 than 20 dead children after round 100.

See Lenore Skenazy at FreeRangeKids for a somewhat similar perspective.

David Brooks’ world: Let all the worms that lurk in the mud hatch out

Ashley Moser, age 25

The shooting in Aurora, Colorado and its aftereffects, appear to be a culmination of all of the ways we Americans have let each other down in the past 30 years.  Let’s take a look, shall we?

Ashley Moser: If there was a poster child for everything that has gone wrong in America since Richard Nixon resigned, Ashley would have to be it.

Ashley is 25 years old.  Her father died recently from leukemia.  His illness wiped out the family’s financial resources.  He died penniless.  Ashley is a single mother, it’s unclear if she is divorced or ever married.  But the “little Depression” has been hard on families who struggle to make ends meet and are broken up by distance when one parent has to make a living in another location and can’t take the whole family.  It’s a common situation these days and marriage is no safeguard against it.  She was living with her parents but times got tough and when her father died, she had to move in with her aunt.

She’s a student.  She is also unemployed.  She had applied to and was accepted into a nursing program.  She was living on student loans.  LOANS, not grants.  She had a six year old daughter who she took to the movie with her.  Been there, done that, waiting with the kid for the latest book in the Harry Potter series at the local bookstore at 12am, surrounded by a store full of Hermione Grangers and Draco Malfoys.  Veronica Moser-Sullivan, aged 6, was the youngest victim.  She died at the scene.

Ashley was shot in the neck and the abdomen and is in critical condition.  Her doctors say she will suffer some paralysis but may have the use of her hands.  There’s a bullet in her head that hasn’t been removed yet. She is pregnant.

Because she is unemployed and uninsured, she is on medicaid. If she weren’t horribly injured at the moment and didn’t have the nation’s sympathy, it’s likely that she’d be shamed by these very same people who would be calling her a deadbeat leech on the American taxpayer.  She’d be treated with more dignity and respect in Norway but she had the misfortune to not be Norwegian during these last critical years of her life. That’s where single motherhood is no big deal, children are valued and she wouldn’t be struggling to live on student loans while she got her life together and was able to contribute to society, which should be the *only* definition of success, other than good parenthood, that gets admiration and respect.

It is unclear what her prospects, medical expenses or living arrangements will be once she is released from the hospital, if she is released. But whatever they are, it is likely that her future wages will be garnished to pay back her student loans.  Otherwise, it would be irresponsible to let this kind of moral hazard stand and wouldn’t be teaching Ashley a valuable lesson.

Her relatives had to tell her about her daughter on Saturday night.  She didn’t take it well and screamed that she wanted to die.

In all likelihood, if she *does* look like she is about to die, some Christian group will petition the state for guardianship of her unborn baby, intending to keep her on life support until the delivery.  Or, she may he on the brink of death without an abortion and they may interfere at that point.  Or, because she is on Medicaid, she will have to pay for a lifesaving and possibly much more expensive high risk abortion herself.  If it’s a “partial birth abortion”, there might not be any way to do it in the state of Colorado.  The scenarios that play out here sound like an updated version of Stephen King’s Misery crossed with Never Let Me Go.  Her family should have kept this information out of the media but it’s too late now.  The cat’s out of the bag and the evangelicals are no doubt already winding up for the prayer circle of all prayer circles, sending her messages about how her lifelong paralysis happened for a reason and god wanted Veronica for his newest angel but it’s a miracle that god has blessed her with a precious replacement!  As if children are swappable objects.  If it were up to me, I would leave life and death decisions up to Ashley and her doctors.  Maybe we should ask Michael Schiavo how that kind of thing works out.

The mass murderer, James Holmes, is apparently a very disturbed individual.  He’s not unlike many other disturbed mass murderers.  Friends and family notice that there is a personality change or he starts to behave strangely but there’s not a whole lot of things parents can do.  After all, the kid is an adult now.  The owner of a gun club says that Holmes left messages on his company’s voice mail and that his voice made him very uneasy.  He thanks god he didn’t have to deal with him, probably because guns are big business in America and it would have been hard to turn him away.

Not much is known about whether or not Holmes was treated for any psychological problems. It’s hard to know when science geeks have crossed the line mentally.  Many a time I have heard, “You know, so and so is acting really weird. He gives me the willies.  If anyone here were to go postal, it would be him.”  “Yeah, but he’s great in the lab! Fricking brilliant. His boss would be lost without him.” (True story about a gun “enthusiast” I used to work with many years ago.) His University probably has a counseling office but in America these days, it’s almost unheard of to commit people.  We usually just let them fall to their natural level, as David Brooks might say, and let them live on the streets. Holmes will probably get better mental health care now that he’s in prison or at the facility for the criminally insane.  For sure, he should never be free again, but will he be turned over to an institution run by a for profit company?

Graduate students are used to working conditions that are unusual.  I’ve heard it said that they have a lot of flexibility in their work.  They can work any 80 hours of the week they want.  It’s unclear if his work schedule contributed to his mental state but we should consider that Wall Street traders and analysts Holmes’ age work about 80 hours a week without a break for a couple of years and they nearly blew up the world, so, you know, there’s that.  His stipend, no matter how much the media makes of it, was probably less than minimum wage for the hours he would have been expected to work and was not enough to live on in the Denver area.  I’ve had a kid who worked in Denver as a chef for a couple of years.  They didn’t pay her enough.  She had to move.  She loves Denver.  Denver wages?  Ehhhhh, not so much.

Holmes ended up in Denver at graduate school because after earning a master’s in Neuroscience in 2010, he couldn’t find a job.  That’s not really all that unusual for scientists these days, including yours truly and everyone I’ve ever worked with.  A master’s is plenty sufficient for anything industrial research could throw at him but without experience, even young, cheap labor can’t find work.  Neither can older, experienced labor.  I find that a lot of employers want experienced labor, they just don’t want to pay for it.  So, Holmes had to go back to graduate school.  He probably would have been better off learning plumbing or joining the navy.  At least the military will help you pay your student loans.

This is not to say that I feel any kind of compassion for James Holmes the mass murderer.  But I do feel sorry for colleagues of James Holmes who are in a similar economic situation through the actions of a bunch of financiers on Wall Street who thought mergers and acquisitions of research companies in the last two decades was a sweet way to make loads of money and big bonuses.  Too bad it ruined research.

Holmes was able to order many rounds of ammunition online.  He also ordered an urban assault vest.  Unlike buying birth control, there is no conscience rule that would allow someone who is using common sense to stop a graduate student like James Holmes from buying combat equipment.  No one was allowed to say, “Where are you headed, buddy? Afghanistan?  Iraq?  Because I don’t think you need any of that stuff in Aurora.  Whatever you’re planning, I’m agin’ it.  No sale for you.”

Let’s think about that for a second.  It is harder for Ashley Moser to buy Plan B in the very same places where James Holmes could buy his own arsenal.  Enough weaponry to mow down a theater?  As long as you have a credit card, not a problem. No questions asked.   A couple of pills of early intervention to prevent a mistake?  Everyone you don’t know has an opinion and a hoop you must jump through.  Sure, the conscience rule executive order has been modified but whose going enforce it?  In a couple of years, Sasha and Malia will be able to buy their own Glocks but long after they’ve given up bubble gum, they will still have problems locating a pharmacist who will sell Plan B to them from behind the counter.

And because this is an election year and we must not piss off the young, white males in western states who might vote, Barack Obama sees no reason why he should develop any policies to address the issue of unfettered access to guns.  He also sees no need to promote an assault weapons ban that Bill Clinton put in place during his terms but went out of fashion during the Bush years.

I wonder if Ashley Moser knows this.  I hear Obama has been visiting the victims.  There’s an outpouring of support for Ashley right now, including a fundraiser.  But in a couple of months, America will forget about Ashley and she’ll have to navigate the social welfare system on her own.  For what it’s worth, I think a fundraiser should never be necessary for Ashley or others like her.  She, and all of the other Ashleys and Alexes, deserves a nation’s support, not charity or pity or insensitive moralizing.  She needed her country to be behind her in the last couple of years.  We’d better not fail her in the years to come.

So, there you go.

Worms everywhere.

Update: Katiebird says there is a second family that will be ruined by this shooting through no fault of their own.  Caleb Medley was shot in the eye and is in a medically induced coma.  His medical bills are expected to top $2 million, which is $2 million *less* than what David Brooks paid for his new house.  Caleb’s wife is on a separate floor of the hospital ready to give birth.

Of course, according to David Brooks, if the Medley’s end up broke, disabled and must remain deliberately impoverished in order to qualify for the bare modicum of subsistence medical care that Medicaid provides, at least we can console ourselves that the nation didn’t “commit sociology” to rescue any Americans who were collateral damage of a disturbed guy who just happened to use an easily available gun on their bodies.

If buying a gun in Texas were as easy as getting an abortion

Imagine the legislation…

The buyer would have to go to an approved gun dispensary.  The dimensions of the dispensary would be strictly regulated and the dispensary might end up in a seedy part of town in an unmarked building.  The gun dispensary owner would not be allowed to advertise. Because the regulations would be difficult to meet, there would be less than a handful of dispensaries legally licensed to sell firearms.  A person from Amarillo might have to drive to Galveston to get one.

The free speech rights of anti-gun protestors would be protected.  Prospective gun buyers would not be shielded from protestors petitioning or discouraging the buyer from purchasing a gun as long as the protestors do not approach within a certain number of feet from the buyer and refrain from touching the buyer.

It would be illegal for anyone to refer the buyer to a gun dispensary. However, it would not be illegal for an anti-gun organization to masquerade as a gun dispensary for the purposes of shaming the prospective buyer or talking him or her out of buying a gun.  No exceptions to this advice rule would be made for hunters or other people who may have a specific use for guns that does not include the potential for shooting people.

The gun dispensary owner would need to provide proof of education in the types and uses of firearms.  A degree from an accredited university would be the only proof accepted.  He or she would need to be licensed for each type of firearm.  An assault weapons ban might mean that the buyer would have to travel to one of the few places in the country that sells them to get one.

Prospective buyers would be required to undergo mandatory counseling on the use and effect of firearms.  The buyer would not be able to opt out of this counseling.  If the buyer still wants to buy a gun after the counseling, he or she would need to sign a form certifying that they are aware of the dangers of the use of firearms and that using them may cause lifelong emotional damage and sexual impotence to the user.

During the counseling session, the seller will show the buyer photographs of gun shot victims.  The victims will be shown with their heads blown off and their bellies eviscerated.  The emotional anguish of gunshot victims’ families will also be shown in visual and auditory form.  No compensatory images of poor hunters feeding their families will be permitted.  The audio and video portion of the presentation must be intrusive enough to be unavoidable to the prospective buyer.

After the presentation, the gun seller will read the consent form to the buyer again and ask the buyer to affirm that they are aware of all of the dangers associated with the purchase of a gun.  The seller will also be required to discuss alternatives to firearms, such as compound bows, boomerangs, snares and vegetarianism.  There will be an emphasis on vegetarianism to ensure that the teachings of certain religions are promoted with the acquiescence of the state.  Adherence to Hindu or other plant based religions would not be necessary for the buyer, only recognition and understanding of the deep ethical philosophy behind religious vegetarianism.

No exceptions would be made to save the health or life of the buyer.  Medical reasons for hunting, such as a prescribed Caveman Diet to prevent intestinal inflammation of a debilitating nature due to celiac disease, or the existence of a restraining order from a abusive spouse, would not be acceptable excuses for failing to attend the mandatory counseling session or meeting all of the other requirements before obtaining the gun.

There will be a mandatory 72 hour waiting period to give the buyer an opportunity to change his or her mind.

It would be illegal for the counseling to take place over the phone or the internet.

After the waiting period is complete, the buyer would be required to return to the gun dispensary for the mandatory rectal examination of the prostate with an ultrasound device.  The purpose of this examination is to determine the state of the prostate prior to gun purchase and to assure that the buyer understands the risk to his sexual health.  A similar examination will be made of a woman’s rectum for no good reason but if she is engaged in buying a gun, she has already given her consent to an anal probe.

After this examination, the gun buyer would be allowed to purchase the gun and go on his or her merry way, provided walking is still possible.

The above regulations would not be considered intrusive or burdensome to your 2nd amendment right to bear arms.

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