Tag Archives: POV

20 Years of LWN

Post Syndicated from corbet original https://lwn.net/Articles/744730/rss

Back in mid-1997, your editor (Jonathan Corbet) and Liz Coolbaugh were
engaged in a long-running discussion on how to trade our nice, stable,
reliably paying jobs for a life of uncertainty, poverty, and
around-the-clock work. Not that we thought of it in those terms,
naturally. We eventually settled on joining Red Hat’s nascent “support
partner” program; while we were waiting for it to get started, we decided
to start a weekly newsletter as a side project — not big and
professional like the real press — to establish ourselves in the community.
Thus began an amazing journey that has just completed its 20th year.

Research into the Root Causes of Terrorism

Post Syndicated from Bruce Schneier original https://www.schneier.com/blog/archives/2017/02/research_into_t_1.html

Interesting article in Science discussing field research on how people are radicalized to become terrorists.

The potential for research that can overcome existing constraints can be seen in recent advances in understanding violent extremism and, partly, in interdiction and prevention. Most notable is waning interest in simplistic root-cause explanations of why individuals become violent extremists (e.g., poverty, lack of education, marginalization, foreign occupation, and religious fervor), which cannot accommodate the richness and diversity of situations that breed terrorism or support meaningful interventions. A more tractable line of inquiry is how people actually become involved in terror networks (e.g., how they radicalize and are recruited, move to action, or come to abandon cause and comrades).

Reports from the The Soufan Group, International Center for the Study of Radicalisation (King’s College London), and the Combating Terrorism Center (U.S. Military Academy) indicate that approximately three-fourths of those who join the Islamic State or al-Qaeda do so in groups. These groups often involve preexisting social networks and typically cluster in particular towns and neighborhoods.. This suggests that much recruitment does not need direct personal appeals by organization agents or individual exposure to social media (which would entail a more dispersed recruitment pattern). Fieldwork is needed to identify the specific conditions under which these processes play out. Natural growth models of terrorist networks then might be based on an epidemiology of radical ideas in host social networks rather than built in the abstract then fitted to data and would allow for a public health, rather than strictly criminal, approach to violent extremism.

Such considerations have implications for countering terrorist recruitment. The present USG focus is on “counternarratives,” intended as alternative to the “ideologies” held to motivate terrorists. This strategy treats ideas as disembodied from the human conditions in which they are embedded and given life as animators of social groups. In their stead, research and policy might better focus on personalized “counterengagement,” addressing and harnessing the fellowship, passion, and purpose of people within specific social contexts, as ISIS and al-Qaeda often do. This focus stands in sharp contrast to reliance on negative mass messaging and sting operations to dissuade young people in doubt through entrapment and punishment (the most common practice used in U.S. law enforcement) rather than through positive persuasion and channeling into productive life paths. At the very least, we need field research in communities that is capable of capturing evidence to reveal which strategies are working, failing, or backfiring.

Scott Atran on Why People Become Terrorists

Post Syndicated from Bruce Schneier original https://www.schneier.com/blog/archives/2016/08/scott_atran_on_.html

Scott Atran has done some really interesting research on why ordinary people become terrorists.

Academics who study warfare and terrorism typically don’t conduct research just kilometers from the front lines of battle. But taking the laboratory to the fight is crucial for figuring out what impels people to make the ultimate sacrifice to, for example, impose Islamic law on others, says Atran, who is affiliated with the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris.

Atran’s war zone research over the last few years, and interviews during the last decade with members of various groups engaged in militant jihad (or holy war in the name of Islamic law), give him a gritty perspective on this issue. He rejects popular assumptions that people frequently join up, fight and die for terrorist groups due to mental problems, poverty, brainwashing or savvy recruitment efforts by jihadist organizations.

Instead, he argues, young people adrift in a globalized world find their own way to ISIS, looking to don a social identity that gives their lives significance. Groups of dissatisfied young adult friends around the world ­ often with little knowledge of Islam but yearning for lives of profound meaning and glory ­ typically choose to become volunteers in the Islamic State army in Syria and Iraq, Atran contends. Many of these individuals connect via the internet and social media to form a global community of alienated youth seeking heroic sacrifice, he proposes.

Preliminary experimental evidence suggests that not only global terrorism, but also festering state and ethnic conflicts, revolutions and even human rights movements — think of the U.S. civil rights movement in the 1960s — depend on what Atran refers to as devoted actors. These individuals, he argues, will sacrifice themselves, their families and anyone or anything else when a volatile mix of conditions are in play. First, devoted actors adopt values they regard as sacred and nonnegotiable, to be defended at all costs. Then, when they join a like-minded group of nonkin that feels like a family ­ a band of brothers ­ a collective sense of invincibility and special destiny overwhelms feelings of individuality. As members of a tightly bound group that perceives its sacred values under attack, devoted actors will kill and die for each other.

Paper.

EDITED TO ADD (8/13): Related paper, also by Atran.

Photocatalysis with a Raspberry Pi

Post Syndicated from Lorna Lynch original https://www.raspberrypi.org/blog/photocatalysis-raspberry-pi/

Access to clean, safe drinking water is a global problem: as water.org notes, 663 million people lack access to water that’s safe to drink. That’s twice the population of the United States, or one person in every ten. Additionally, a recent review of rural water system sustainability in eight countries in Africa, South Asia, and Central America found an average water project failure rate of 20-40 percent. It’s no surprise that the search for a solution to this crisis preoccupies scientists the world over, but what you may not have expected is that, in a lab in Cardiff University, researchers are using Raspberry Pi to help in their efforts to bring safe drinking water to some of the poorest areas of the world.

A tap set into a wall, with sign above reading "SAFE DRINKING WATER"

There are three processes involved in water purification, two of which are reasonably straightforward: filtration can remove particulate matter, while heating water to near 100°C kills bacteria. However, the third process — the removal of highly toxic hydrocarbons, typically from fertiliser and pesticide runoff — is very difficult and, currently, very expensive. The Cardiff group is working on a project to find a cheap, effective method of removing these hydrocarbons from water by means of photocatalysis. Essentially, this means they are finding a way to produce clean water using little more than sunlight, which is really pretty mind-blowing.

Here’s a picture of their experimental setup; you can see the Raspberry Pi in its case on the right-hand side.

A laboratory photocatalysis setup at Cardiff University: on a bench are a beaker of water dosed with methylene blue "pollutant" under UV LED illumination, semi-transparent tubing connecting the contents of the beaker to a flow cell, a Raspberry Pi, and other components.

Raspberry Pi in the lab

A cheap, readily available chemical, titanium dioxide, is spin-coated onto a glass wafer which sits in the bottom of the beaker with a UV LED above it. This wafer coating acts as a semiconductor; when UV photons from the LED strike it, its electrons become mobile, creating locations with positive charge and others with negative charge. As a result, both oxidation reactions and reduction reactions are set off. These reactions break down the hydrocarbons, leaving you with pure water, carbon dioxide, and hydrogen. The solution is pumped through a flow cell (you can see this in the centre of the picture), where an LED light source is shone through the stream and the amount of light passing through is registered by a photodiode. The photodiode turns this output into a voltage, which can be read by the Raspberry Pi with the help of an ADC.

The team are currently using two organic dyes, methyl orange and methylene blue, to simulate pollutants for the purposes of the experiment: it is possible to see the reaction take place with the naked eye, as the colour of the dye becomes progressively less saturated. A colourless solution means the “pollutants” have been entirely broken down. You can see both dyes in situ here:

Laboratory photocatalysis setups at Cardiff University: on a bench are a large LCD display with a desktop showing the Raspberry Pi logo, beakers of water dosed with methyl orange and methylene blue "pollutants", semi-transparent tubing connecting the beakers' contents to flow cells, a Raspberry Pi, and other components.

Experimental setup with methyl orange and methylene blue

In previous versions of the setup, it was necessary to use some very large, expensive pieces of equipment to drive the experiment and assess the rate and efficacy of the reaction (two power sources and a voltmeter, each of which cost several hundred pounds); the Raspberry Pi performs the same function for a fraction of the price, enabling multiple experiments to be run in the lab, and offering the possibility of building a neat, cost-effective unit for use in the real world in the future.

Several of the team have very personal reasons for being involved in the project: Eman Alghamdi is from Saudi Arabia, a country which, despite its wealth, struggles to supply water to its people. Her colleague Jess Mabin was inspired by spending time in Africa working with an anti-poverty charity. They hope to produce a device which will be both cheap to manufacture and rugged enough to be used in rural areas throughout the world.

Jess, a research scientist, smiles as she pipettes methylene blue into a beaker that is part of her group's photocatalysis setup.

Jess demonstrates the experiment: methylene blue going in!

As well as thoroughly testing the reaction rate and the lifespan of the wafer coating, the team are hoping to streamline their equipment by building their own version of a HAT to incorporate the ADC, the photodiode, and other components. Ultimately the Pi and its peripherals could form a small, rugged, cost-effective, essentially self-sustaining device which could be used all over the world to help produce clean, safe drinking water. We are really pleased to see the Raspberry Pi being used in this way, and we wish Jess, Eman, and their colleagues every success!

The post Photocatalysis with a Raspberry Pi appeared first on Raspberry Pi.

Weekly roundup: sleepover

Post Syndicated from Eevee original https://eev.ee/dev/2016/06/19/weekly-roundup-sleepover/

June’s theme is clearing my plate, a concept that becomes increasingly nebulous as time goes by.

I accidentally went nocturnal over the past week, which always leaves me completely fried for a few days due to losing a day. So not the best week, but not the worst either.

  • art: I drew a very quick happy Minccino to try to cheer everyone up last weekend. Their tail fluffs are upside-down. Sorry.

    I drew and colored two old friends on a whim, trying to apply some things Mel had told me about color harmony. I think it came out as possibly one of the nicest things I’ve ever drawn, so, that’s nice, whoa.

    I started drawing daily Pokémon (in a predetermined random order), where the only rule is a time limit of 30 minutes. Here are Wobbuffet and western Shellos; I’ll be dumping them all in a Tumblr tag too.

    While I was out at lunch, I drew on paper for the first time in a while. I should probably do it more, but the results aren’t too bad.

  • Runed Awakening: Aha! I pixelled an NPC or two, possibly marking the first real character design I’ve ever done, as well as an item and an attempt at a room illustration.

    A couple friends played through the current state of the game, which led to a couple days of chasing down extremely obtuse minor bugs. It’s a little frustrating to have spent a lot of time and have so little to show for it, but one of the bugs was something that’s plauged me for over a year, so I guess it at least fits with the theme of getting rid of looming things. From here I should be able to get back to building things.

  • spline: I finally granted Mel the ability to create a new folder by themselves. So far I’ve always done it manually, which has gotten increasingly painful since the folders use the nested set model. There’s still no UI for rearranging them, but this removes a huge source of… requests for manual intervention.

  • veekun: I started reabsorbing the current state of the new YAML schema and thinking about how to get it where I want. Didn’t make any actual progress, though.

    Working on getting the remaining images veekun is missing, too.

Probably more of the same this next week. I want to make huge inroads on Runed Awakening, fix the other category of things I have to do manually for spline, and get some work done on veekun one way or another.

Holopainting with Raspberry Pi

Post Syndicated from Liz Upton original https://www.raspberrypi.org/blog/holopainting/

We’ve covered 2D light-painting here before. This project takes things a step further: meet 3D holopainting.

Holo_Painting-1

This project’s an unholy mixture of stop-motion, light-painting and hyperlapse from FilmSpektakel, a time-lapse and film production company in Vienna. It was made as part of a university graduation project. (With Raspberry Pis and Raspberry Pi camera boards, natch.)

Getting this footage out was a very labour-intensive process – but the results are stupendous. The subject was filmed by a ring of 24 networked Raspberry Pi cameras working like a 3d scanner, taking pictures around the ring with a delay of 83 milliseconds between each one so that movement could be captured.

Holopainting rig

 

They then cut out all of the resulting images – told you it was labour-intensive – and put them on a black background, then fed that data into a commercial light-painting stick. (If you don’t want to fork out a ton of cash for your own light-painting stick, there are instructions on building one with a Raspberry Pi over at Adafruit.)

A man dressed as a budget ninja walked the stick in front of a series of cameras set up where the original Raspberry Pi cameras had been, to create 3D images hanging in the air.

holopainting ninja

Presto: a holopainting – and the results are tremendous. Here’s a making-of video.

The Invention of #HoloPainting

Holopainting is a combination of the Light Painting, Stop Motion and Hyperlapse technique to create three dimensional light paintings. We didn’t want to use computer generated images, so we built a giant 3D scanner out of 24 Raspberry Pis with their webcams. These cameras took photos from 24 different perspectives of the person in the middle with a delay of 83 milliseconds, so the movement of the person also was recorded.

There’s a comment that often pops up when we describe a project like this: why bother? We’ll head that off right now: because you can. Because nobody’s done it before. Because the end results look phenomenal. We love it, and we’d love to see more projects like this!

The post Holopainting with Raspberry Pi appeared first on Raspberry Pi.

Poland vs the United States: work and entitlements

Post Syndicated from Michal Zalewski original http://lcamtuf.blogspot.com/2015/07/poland-vs-united-states-work-and.html

This is the thirteenth article in a short series about Poland, Europe, and the United States. To explore the entire series, start here.

In one of my earlier posts, I alluded to the pervasive faith in the American Dream: the national ethos of opportunity, self-sufficiency, and free enterprise that influences the political discourse in the United States. The egalitarian promise of the American Dream is simple: no matter who you are, hard work and ingenuity will surely allow you to achieve your dreams. From that, it follows that on your journey, you are not entitled to much; the government will be there to protect your freedom, but it will not give you a head start.

Unlike many of my peers, I suspect that there is truth to the cliche; the United States is a remarkably industrious nation and the home to many of the world’s most innovative and fastest-growing businesses. It certainly treads ahead of European economies, still dominated by pre-war industrial conglomerates and former state monopolists, and weighed down by aging populations, highly regulated markets, and inflexible, out-of-control costs. America’s mostly-self-made magnates, the likes of Elon Musk, Bill Gates, and Warren Buffett, are also far more likable and seemingly more human than Europe’s stereotypical caste of aristocratic families and shadowy oligarchs.

On the flip side, the striking upward mobility of rags-to-riches icons such as Steve Jobs or Oprah Winfrey tends to be an exception, not a rule. Many scholars point out that parents’ incomes are highly predictive of the incomes of their children – and that in the US, this effect is more pronounced than in some of the European states. Such studies can be misleading, because in less unequal EU societies, moving to a higher income quantile may confer no substantial change in the quality of life – but ultimately, there is no denying that people who are born into poor families will usually remain poor for the rest of their lives. And with the contemporary trends in outsourcing and industrial automation, the opportunities for unskilled blue collar labor – once a key stepping stone in the story of the American Dream – are shrinking fast.

In contrast with the United States, many in Europe reject Milton Friedman’s views on consensual capitalism and hold that it is a basic human right to be able to live a good life or to have an honest and respectable job. This starts with the labor law: in much of the United States, firing an employee can happen in the blink of an eye, for almost any reason – or without giving a reason at all. In Europe, the employer will need a just cause and will go through a lengthy severance period; depending on the circumstances, the company may be also barred from hiring another person to do the same job. Employment benefits follow the same pattern; in the US, paid leave is largely up to employers to decide, with skilled workers being lured with packages that would make Europeans jealous – but many unskilled laborers, especially in the retail and restaurant business, getting the short end of that stick.

In Europe, enabling the disadvantaged to contribute to the society and to live fulfilling lives is also a matter of government policy, often implemented through sweeping wealth redistribution – or through public-sector employment orchestrated at a scale that rivals that of quasi-communist China and other authoritarian countries (for example, in France and Greece, about one in three jobs is run by the state). Such efforts tend to be more successful in small and wealthy Scandinavian countries, where the society can be engineered with more finesse. In many other parts of the continent, systemic, long-term poverty is still rampant, with the government being able to do little more than providing people with a lifetime of subsidized basic sustenance and squalor living conditions. Ultimately, when it comes to combating multi-generational poverty, financial aid administered by sprawling national bureaucracies is not always a cure-all.

Perhaps interestingly, the benefits that are most frequently described as inadequate in the US are not as strikingly different from what one would be entitled to in the EU. For example, the minimal wage is quite comparable; it is around $2.60 per hour in Poland, about $3.70 in Greece, some $9.30 in Germany, and in the ballpark of $10.00 in the UK. In the US, the national average hovers somewhere around $8.00, with some of the states with higher costs of living on track to raise it to $10.00 within a year or two; in fact, some progressive municipalities are aiming for $15.

Unemployment and retirement benefits, although certainly not lavish, also follow the same pattern. When it comes to unemployment in particular, in the States, workers are entitled to about half of their previous salary for up to six months – although that period has been routinely extended in times of economic calamity. In Europe, the figures are roughly comparable, with payments in the ballpark of 50-70% of your previous salary, typically extending for somewhere between 6 and 12 months. The main difference is that the upper limit for monthly benefits tends to be significantly lower in the US than in Europe, often putting far greater strain on single-income families in places with high cost of living. In France, the ceiling seems to be around $8,000 a month; in the US, you will probably see no more than $2,000.

Another overlooked dimension of this debate is the unique tradition of charitable giving in the United States – a phenomenon that allows private charities to provide extensive assistance to people in need. Such giving happens on a staggering scale, with citizens donating more than $350 billion a year – more than twenty times the amount donated in the UK. The bulk of that money goes to organization that provide food, shelter, and counseling to the poor. It is an interesting model, with its own share of benefits and trade-offs: private charities operate on a more local scale and have a far stronger incentive to spend money wisely and provide meaningful aid. On the flip side, their reach is not as universal – and the benefits are not guaranteed.

Many of the conservatives who preach the virtues of the American Dream vastly underestimate the pervasive and lasting consequences of being born into poverty or falling onto hard times; they also underestimate the role that unearned privilege and luck played in their own lives. The progressives often do no better, seeing European social democracies as a flawless role model, even in the midst of the enduring sovereign debt crisis in the eurozone; breathlessly reciting knock-off Marxist slogans; and portraying the rich as Mr. Burns-esque villains of unfathomable wealth, motivated by just two goals: to exploit the working class and to avoid paying taxes at any cost. In the end, helping the disadvantaged is a moral imperative – but many ideas sound better on a banner than when implemented as a government policy.

For the next and final article in the series, click here.

Poland vs the United States: work and entitlements

Post Syndicated from Michal Zalewski original http://lcamtuf.blogspot.com/2015/07/poland-vs-united-states-work-and.html

This is the thirteenth article in a short series about Poland, Europe, and the United States. To explore the entire series, start here.

In one of my earlier posts, I alluded to the pervasive faith in the American Dream: the national ethos of opportunity, self-sufficiency, and free enterprise that influences the political discourse in the United States. The egalitarian promise of the American Dream is simple: no matter who you are, hard work and ingenuity will surely allow you to achieve your dreams. From that, it follows that on your journey, you are not entitled to much; the government will be there to protect your freedom, but it will not give you a head start.

Unlike many of my peers, I suspect that there is truth to the cliche; the United States is a remarkably industrious nation and the home to many of the world’s most innovative and fastest-growing businesses. It certainly treads ahead of European economies, still dominated by pre-war industrial conglomerates and former state monopolists, and weighed down by aging populations, highly regulated markets, and inflexible, out-of-control costs. America’s mostly-self-made magnates, the likes of Elon Musk, Bill Gates, and Warren Buffett, are also far more likable and seemingly more human than Europe’s stereotypical caste of aristocratic families and shadowy oligarchs.

On the flip side, the striking upward mobility of rags-to-riches icons such as Steve Jobs or Oprah Winfrey tends to be an exception, not a rule. Many scholars point out that parents’ incomes are highly predictive of the incomes of their children – and that in the US, this effect is more pronounced than in some of the European states. Such studies can be misleading, because in less unequal EU societies, moving to a higher income quantile may confer no substantial change in the quality of life – but ultimately, there is no denying that people who are born into poor families will usually remain poor for the rest of their lives. And with the contemporary trends in outsourcing and industrial automation, the opportunities for unskilled blue collar labor – once a key stepping stone in the story of the American Dream – are shrinking fast.

In contrast with the United States, many in Europe reject Milton Friedman’s views on consensual capitalism and hold that it is a basic human right to be able to live a good life or to have an honest and respectable job. This starts with the labor law: in much of the United States, firing an employee can happen in the blink of an eye, for almost any reason – or without giving a reason at all. In Europe, the employer will need a just cause and will go through a lengthy severance period; depending on the circumstances, the company may be also barred from hiring another person to do the same job. Employment benefits follow the same pattern; in the US, paid leave is largely up to employers to decide, with skilled workers being lured with packages that would make Europeans jealous – but many unskilled laborers, especially in the retail and restaurant business, getting the short end of that stick.

In Europe, enabling the disadvantaged to contribute to the society and to live fulfilling lives is also a matter of government policy, often implemented through sweeping wealth redistribution – or through public-sector employment orchestrated at a scale that rivals that of quasi-communist China and other authoritarian countries (for example, in France and Greece, about one in three jobs is run by the state). Such efforts tend to be more successful in small and wealthy Scandinavian countries, where the society can be engineered with more finesse. In many other parts of the continent, systemic, long-term poverty is still rampant, with the government being able to do little more than providing people with a lifetime of subsidized basic sustenance and squalor living conditions. Ultimately, when it comes to combating multi-generational poverty, financial aid administered by sprawling national bureaucracies is not always a cure-all.

Perhaps interestingly, the benefits that are most frequently described as inadequate in the US are not as strikingly different from what one would be entitled to in the EU. For example, the minimal wage is quite comparable; it is around $2.60 per hour in Poland, about $3.70 in Greece, some $9.30 in Germany, and in the ballpark of $10.00 in the UK. In the US, the national average hovers somewhere around $8.00, with some of the states with higher costs of living on track to raise it to $10.00 within a year or two; in fact, some progressive municipalities are aiming for $15.

Unemployment and retirement benefits, although certainly not lavish, also follow the same pattern. When it comes to unemployment in particular, in the States, workers are entitled to about half of their previous salary for up to six months – although that period has been routinely extended in times of economic calamity. In Europe, the figures are roughly comparable, with payments in the ballpark of 50-70% of your previous salary, typically extending for somewhere between 6 and 12 months. The main difference is that the upper limit for monthly benefits tends to be significantly lower in the US than in Europe, often putting far greater strain on single-income families in places with high cost of living. In France, the ceiling seems to be around $8,000 a month; in the US, you will probably see no more than $2,000.

Another overlooked dimension of this debate is the unique tradition of charitable giving in the United States – a phenomenon that allows private charities to provide extensive assistance to people in need. Such giving happens on a staggering scale, with citizens donating more than $350 billion a year – more than twenty times the amount donated in the UK. The bulk of that money goes to organization that provide food, shelter, and counseling to the poor. It is an interesting model, with its own share of benefits and trade-offs: private charities operate on a more local scale and have a far stronger incentive to spend money wisely and provide meaningful aid. On the flip side, their reach is not as universal – and the benefits are not guaranteed.

Many of the conservatives who preach the virtues of the American Dream vastly underestimate the pervasive and lasting consequences of being born into poverty or falling onto hard times; they also underestimate the role that unearned privilege and luck played in their own lives. The progressives often do no better, seeing European social democracies as a flawless role model, even in the midst of the enduring sovereign debt crisis in the eurozone; breathlessly reciting knock-off Marxist slogans; and portraying the rich as Mr. Burns-esque villains of unfathomable wealth, motivated by just two goals: to exploit the working class and to avoid paying taxes at any cost. In the end, helping the disadvantaged is a moral imperative – but many ideas sound better on a banner than when implemented as a government policy.

For the next and final article in the series, click here.

Poland vs the United States: crime and punishment

Post Syndicated from Michal Zalewski original http://lcamtuf.blogspot.com/2015/07/poland-vs-united-states-crime-and.html

This is the tenth article in a short series about Poland, Europe, and the United States. To explore the entire series, start here.

Throughout much of its history, the United States has been a comparatively violent nation. From the famed lawlessness of the western frontier, to the brawling biker gangs, to the iconic Italian Mafia and the fearsome Mexican drug cartels, the thirst for blood has left a mark on the American psyche – and profoundly influenced many of the country’s most cherished works of literary and cinematic art.

But sooner or later, a line gets drawn. And so, when a tidal wave of violent crime swept the nation in the late 80s, the legislators and the executive branch felt obliged to act. Many wanted to send a message to the criminal underworld by going after it with relentless and uncompromising zeal – kicking off the multi-decade War on Drugs and rolling out policies such as the three strikes law in California or stop-and-frisk in New York City. Others saw the root of all evil in the pervasive gun culture of the United States – successfully outlawing the possession or carry of certain classes of firearms and establishing a nation-wide system of background checks.

And then, in the midst of these policy changes, something very interesting started to unfold: the crime rate plunged like a rock, dropping almost 50% over the course of twenty years. But why? Well, the funny thing is, nobody could really tell. The proponents of tough policing and the War on Drugs tooted their own horns; but less vindictive municipalities that adopted programs of community engagement and proactive policing heralded broadly comparable results. Gun control advocates claimed that getting AR-15s and handguns off the streets made a difference; gun rights activists found little or no crime gap between the gun-friendly and the gun-hostile states. Economists pointed out that people were living better, happier, and longer lives. Epidemiologists called out the elimination of lead – an insidious developmental neurotoxin – from paints and gasoline. Some scholars have gone as far as claiming that easy access to contraception and abortion caused fewer children to be born into multi-generational poverty and to choose the life of crime.

Europe certainly provided an interesting contrast; the old continent, having emerged from two unspeakably devastating and self-inflicted wars, celebrated its newly-found pacifist streak. Its modern-day penal systems reflected the philosophy of reconciliation – abolishing the death penalty and placing greater faith in community relationships, alternative sentencing, and the rehabilitation of criminals. A person who served a sentence was seen as having paid the dues: in Poland and many other European countries, his or hers prospective employers would be barred from inquiring about the criminal record, and the right to privacy would keep the indictments and court records from public view.

It’s hard to say if the European model worked better when it comes to combating villainy; in the UK, crime trends followed the US trajectory; in Sweden, they did the opposite. But the utilitarian aspect of the correctional system aside, the US approach certainly carries a heavy humanitarian toll: the country maintains a truly astronomical prison population, disproportionately comprised of ethnic minorities and the poor; recidivism rates are high and overcrowding in some penitentiary systems borders on the inhumane.

Untangling this mess is not easy; most Americans seriously worry about crime and see it as a growing epidemic, even if their beliefs are not substantiated by government-published stats. Perhaps because of this, they favor tough policing; reports of potential prosecutorial oversight – such as the recent case of a tragic homicide in San Francisco – tend to provoke broader outrage than any comparable claims of overreach. Similarly, police brutality or prison rape are widely acknowledged and even joked about – but are seen as something that only ever happens to the bad folks.

For the next article in the series, click here.

Poland vs the United States: crime and punishment

Post Syndicated from Michal Zalewski original http://lcamtuf.blogspot.com/2015/07/poland-vs-united-states-crime-and.html

This is the tenth article in a short series about Poland, Europe, and the United States. To explore the entire series, start here.

Throughout much of its history, the United States has been a comparatively violent nation. From the famed lawlessness of the western frontier, to the brawling biker gangs, to the iconic Italian Mafia and the fearsome Mexican drug cartels, the thirst for blood has left a mark on the American psyche – and profoundly influenced many of the country’s most cherished works of literary and cinematic art.

But sooner or later, a line gets drawn. And so, when a tidal wave of violent crime swept the nation in the late 80s, the legislators and the executive branch felt obliged to act. Many wanted to send a message to the criminal underworld by going after it with relentless and uncompromising zeal – kicking off the multi-decade War on Drugs and rolling out policies such as the three strikes law in California or stop-and-frisk in New York City. Others saw the root of all evil in the pervasive gun culture of the United States – successfully outlawing the possession or carry of certain classes of firearms and establishing a nation-wide system of background checks.

And then, in the midst of these policy changes, something very interesting started to unfold: the crime rate plunged like a rock, dropping almost 50% over the course of twenty years. But why? Well, the funny thing is, nobody could really tell. The proponents of tough policing and the War on Drugs tooted their own horns; but less vindictive municipalities that adopted programs of community engagement and proactive policing heralded broadly comparable results. Gun control advocates claimed that getting AR-15s and handguns off the streets made a difference; gun rights activists found little or no crime gap between the gun-friendly and the gun-hostile states. Economists pointed out that people were living better, happier, and longer lives. Epidemiologists called out the elimination of lead – an insidious developmental neurotoxin – from paints and gasoline. Some scholars have gone as far as claiming that easy access to contraception and abortion caused fewer children to be born into multi-generational poverty and to choose the life of crime.

Europe certainly provided an interesting contrast; the old continent, having emerged from two unspeakably devastating and self-inflicted wars, celebrated its newly-found pacifist streak. Its modern-day penal systems reflected the philosophy of reconciliation – abolishing the death penalty and placing greater faith in community relationships, alternative sentencing, and the rehabilitation of criminals. A person who served a sentence was seen as having paid the dues: in Poland and many other European countries, his or hers prospective employers would be barred from inquiring about the criminal record, and the right to privacy would keep the indictments and court records from public view.

It’s hard to say if the European model worked better when it comes to combating villainy; in the UK, crime trends followed the US trajectory; in Sweden, they did the opposite. But the utilitarian aspect of the correctional system aside, the US approach certainly carries a heavy humanitarian toll: the country maintains a truly astronomical prison population, disproportionately comprised of ethnic minorities and the poor; recidivism rates are high and overcrowding in some penitentiary systems borders on the inhumane.

Untangling this mess is not easy; most Americans seriously worry about crime and see it as a growing epidemic, even if their beliefs are not substantiated by government-published stats. Perhaps because of this, they favor tough policing; reports of potential prosecutorial oversight – such as the recent case of a tragic homicide in San Francisco – tend to provoke broader outrage than any comparable claims of overreach. Similarly, police brutality or prison rape are widely acknowledged and even joked about – but are seen as something that only ever happens to the bad folks.

For the next article in the series, click here.

Poland vs the United States: civil liberties

Post Syndicated from Michal Zalewski original http://lcamtuf.blogspot.com/2015/06/poland-vs-united-states-civil-liberties.html

This is the sixth article in a short series about Poland, Europe, and the United States. To explore the entire series, start here.

I opened my comparison of Poland and the US with the topic of firearm ownership. I decided to take this route in part because of how alien the US gun culture may appear to outsiders – and because of how polarizing and interesting the subject is. But in today’s entry, I wanted to take a step back and have a look at the other, more traditional civil liberties that will be more familiar to folks on the other side of the pond.

Before we dive in, it is probably important to note that the national ethos of the United States is very expressly built on the tradition of radical individualism and free enterprise – as championed by thinkers such as Milton Friedman, Friedrich Hayek, or Adam Smith. Of course, many words can be written about the disconnect between this romanticized vision and complex realities of entrepreneurship or social mobility in the face of multi-generational poverty – but the perception still counts: in much of Europe, the government is seen less as a guarantor of civil liberties, and more as a provider of basic needs. The inverse is more true in the US; the armed forces and small businesses enjoy the two top spots in institutional trustworthiness surveys; federal legislators come dead last. This sentiment shapes many of the ongoing political debates – not just around individual freedoms, but also as related to public healthcare or the regulation of commerce. The virtues of self-sufficiency and laissez-faire capitalism seem far more self-evident to the citizens of the US than they are in the EU.

With that in mind, it’s worthwhile to start the comparison with the freedom of speech. A cherished tradition in the western world, this liberty is nevertheless subordinate to a number of collectivist social engineering goals across the whole old continent; for example, strong prohibitions exist on the promotion of Nazi ideology or symbolism, or on the mere practice of denying the Holocaust. The freedom of speech is also broadly trumped by the right to privacy, including the hotly-debated right to be forgotten on the Internet. Other, more exotic restrictions implemented in several places in Europe include the prohibition against disrespecting the religious beliefs of others or insulting any acting head of state; in Poland, people have been prosecuted for hurling childish insults at the Pope or at the outgoing Polish president. Of course, the enforcement is patently selective: in today’s political climate, no one will be charged for calling Mr. Putin a thug.

The US takes a more absolutist view of the First Amendment, with many hate groups enjoying far-reaching impunity enshrined in the judicial standards put forward not by politicians, but by the unusually powerful US Supreme Court. The notion of “speech” is also interpreted very broadly, extending to many forms of artistic, religious, and political expression; in particular, the European niqab and burka bans would be patently illegal in the United States and aren’t even the subject of serious debate. The concept of homeschooling, banned or heavily regulated in some parts of Europe, is seen by some through the same constitutional prism: it is your right to teach your children about Young Earth creationism, and the right trumps any concerns over the purported social costs. Last but not least, there is the controversial Citizens United decision, holding that some forms of financial support provided to political causes can be equated with constitutionally protected speech; again, the ruling came not from the easily influenced politicians, but from the Supreme Court.

As an aside, despite the use of freedom-of-speech restrictions as a tool for rooting out anti-Semitism and hate speech in Europe, the contemporary US may be providing a less fertile ground for racism and xenophobia than at least some parts of the EU. The country still struggles with its dark past and the murky reality of racial discrimination – but despite the stereotypes, the incidence of at least some types of casual racism in today’s America seems lower than in much of Europe. The pattern is also evident in political discourse; many of the openly xenophobic opinions or legislative proposals put forward by European populist politicians would face broad condemnation in the US. Some authors argue that the old continent is facing a profound new wave of Islamophobia and
hatred toward Jews; in countries such as Greece and Hungary, more than 60% of population seems to be holding such views. In Poland, more than 40% say that Jews hold too much influence in business – a surreal claim, given that that there are just several thousand Jews living in the country of 38 million. My own memories from growing up in that country are that of schoolkids almost universally using “you Jew!” as a mortal insult. The defacement of Jewish graves and monuments, or anti-Semitic graffiti, posters, and sports chants are far more common than they should be. It’s difficult to understand if restrictions on free speech suppress the sentiments or make them worse, but at the very least, the success of the policies is not clear-cut.

Other civil liberties revered in the United States, and perhaps less so in Europe, put limits on the ability of the government to intrude into private lives through unwarranted searches and seizures. Of course, the stereotypical view of the US is that of a dystopian surveillance state, epitomized by the recent focus on warrantless surveillance or secret FISA courts. But having worked for a telecommunications company in Poland, my own sentiment is that in Europe, surveillance tends to be done with more impunity, far less legal oversight, and without clear delination between law enforcement and intelligence work. The intelligence community in particular is often engaged in domestic investigations against businesses, politicians, and journalists – and all across Europe, “pre-crime” policing ideas are taking hold.

In many European countries, citizens are not afforded powerful tools such as FOIA requests, do not benefit from a tradition of protected investigative journalism and whistleblowing, and can’t work with influential organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union; there is also no history of scandals nearly as dramatic and transformative as Watergate. In the States, I feel that all this helped to create an imperfect but precious balance between the needs of the government and the rights of the people – and instill higher ethical standards in the law enforcement and intelligence community; it is telling that the revelations from Snowden, while exposing phenomenal and somewhat frightening surveillance capabilities of the NSA, have not surfaced any evidence of politically-motivated investigations or other blatant impropriety in how the capabilities are being used by the agency. The individualist spirit probably helps here, too: quite a few states and municipalities go as far as banning traffic enforcement cameras because of how they rob suspects of the ability to face the accuser in court.

When it comes to some other civil traditions that are sacrosanct in Europe, the United States needs to face justified criticism. The harsh and overcrowded penal system treats some offenders unfairly; it is a product of populist sentiments influenced by the crime waves of the twentieth century and fueled by the dysfunctional War on Drugs. While Polish prisons may not be much better, some of the ideas implemented elsewhere in Europe seem to make a clear difference. They are difficult to adopt in the States chiefly because they do not fit the folksy “tough on crime” image that many American politicians take pride in.

In the same vein, police brutality, disproportionately faced by the poor and the minorities, is another black mark for individual rights. The death penalty, albeit infrequent and reserved for most heinous crimes, stands on shaky moral grounds – even if it faces steady public support. The indefinite detention and torture of terrorism suspects, with the knowledge and complicity of many other European states, deserves nothing but scorn. Civil forfeiture is a bizarre concept that seems to violate the spirit of the Fourth Amendment by applying unreasonably relaxed standards for certain types of seizures – although in all likelihood, its days are coming to an end.

As usual, the picture is complex and it’s hard to declare the superiority of any single approach to individual liberties. Europe and the United States have much in common, but also differ in very interesting ways.

For the next article in the series, click here.

Poland vs the United States: civil liberties

Post Syndicated from Michal Zalewski original http://lcamtuf.blogspot.com/2015/06/poland-vs-united-states-civil-liberties.html

This is the sixth article in a short series about Poland, Europe, and the United States. To explore the entire series, start here.

I opened my comparison of Poland and the US with the topic of firearm ownership. I decided to take this route in part because of how alien the US gun culture may appear to outsiders – and because of how polarizing and interesting the subject is. But in today’s entry, I wanted to take a step back and have a look at the other, more traditional civil liberties that will be more familiar to folks on the other side of the pond.

Before we dive in, it is probably important to note that the national ethos of the United States is very expressly built on the tradition of radical individualism and free enterprise – as championed by thinkers such as Milton Friedman, Friedrich Hayek, or Adam Smith. Of course, many words can be written about the disconnect between this romanticized vision and complex realities of entrepreneurship or social mobility in the face of multi-generational poverty – but the perception still counts: in much of Europe, the government is seen less as a guarantor of civil liberties, and more as a provider of basic needs. The inverse is more true in the US; the armed forces and small businesses enjoy the two top spots in institutional trustworthiness surveys; federal legislators come dead last. This sentiment shapes many of the ongoing political debates – not just around individual freedoms, but also as related to public healthcare or the regulation of commerce. The virtues of self-sufficiency and laissez-faire capitalism seem far more self-evident to the citizens of the US than they are in the EU.

With that in mind, it’s worthwhile to start the comparison with the freedom of speech. A cherished tradition in the western world, this liberty is nevertheless subordinate to a number of collectivist social engineering goals across the whole old continent; for example, strong prohibitions exist on the promotion of Nazi ideology or symbolism, or on the mere practice of denying the Holocaust. The freedom of speech is also broadly trumped by the right to privacy, including the hotly-debated right to be forgotten on the Internet. Other, more exotic restrictions implemented in several places in Europe include the prohibition against disrespecting the religious beliefs of others or insulting any acting head of state; in Poland, people have been prosecuted for hurling childish insults at the Pope or at the outgoing Polish president. Of course, the enforcement is patently selective: in today’s political climate, no one will be charged for calling Mr. Putin a thug.

The US takes a more absolutist view of the First Amendment, with many hate groups enjoying far-reaching impunity enshrined in the judicial standards put forward not by politicians, but by the unusually powerful US Supreme Court. The notion of “speech” is also interpreted very broadly, extending to many forms of artistic, religious, and political expression; in particular, the European niqab and burka bans would be patently illegal in the United States and aren’t even the subject of serious debate. The concept of homeschooling, banned or heavily regulated in some parts of Europe, is seen by some through the same constitutional prism: it is your right to teach your children about Young Earth creationism, and the right trumps any concerns over the purported social costs. Last but not least, there is the controversial Citizens United decision, holding that some forms of financial support provided to political causes can be equated with constitutionally protected speech; again, the ruling came not from the easily influenced politicians, but from the Supreme Court.

As an aside, despite the use of freedom-of-speech restrictions as a tool for rooting out anti-Semitism and hate speech in Europe, the contemporary US may be providing a less fertile ground for racism and xenophobia than at least some parts of the EU. The country still struggles with its dark past and the murky reality of racial discrimination – but despite the stereotypes, the incidence of at least some types of casual racism in today’s America seems lower than in much of Europe. The pattern is also evident in political discourse; many of the openly xenophobic opinions or legislative proposals put forward by European populist politicians would face broad condemnation in the US. Some authors argue that the old continent is facing a profound new wave of Islamophobia and
hatred toward Jews; in countries such as Greece and Hungary, more than 60% of population seems to be holding such views. In Poland, more than 40% say that Jews hold too much influence in business – a surreal claim, given that that there are just several thousand Jews living in the country of 38 million. My own memories from growing up in that country are that of schoolkids almost universally using “you Jew!” as a mortal insult. The defacement of Jewish graves and monuments, or anti-Semitic graffiti, posters, and sports chants are far more common than they should be. It’s difficult to understand if restrictions on free speech suppress the sentiments or make them worse, but at the very least, the success of the policies is not clear-cut.

Other civil liberties revered in the United States, and perhaps less so in Europe, put limits on the ability of the government to intrude into private lives through unwarranted searches and seizures. Of course, the stereotypical view of the US is that of a dystopian surveillance state, epitomized by the recent focus on warrantless surveillance or secret FISA courts. But having worked for a telecommunications company in Poland, my own sentiment is that in Europe, surveillance tends to be done with more impunity, far less legal oversight, and without clear delination between law enforcement and intelligence work. The intelligence community in particular is often engaged in domestic investigations against businesses, politicians, and journalists – and all across Europe, “pre-crime” policing ideas are taking hold.

In many European countries, citizens are not afforded powerful tools such as FOIA requests, do not benefit from a tradition of protected investigative journalism and whistleblowing, and can’t work with influential organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union; there is also no history of scandals nearly as dramatic and transformative as Watergate. In the States, I feel that all this helped to create an imperfect but precious balance between the needs of the government and the rights of the people – and instill higher ethical standards in the law enforcement and intelligence community; it is telling that the revelations from Snowden, while exposing phenomenal and somewhat frightening surveillance capabilities of the NSA, have not surfaced any evidence of politically-motivated investigations or other blatant impropriety in how the capabilities are being used by the agency. The individualist spirit probably helps here, too: quite a few states and municipalities go as far as banning traffic enforcement cameras because of how they rob suspects of the ability to face the accuser in court.

When it comes to some other civil traditions that are sacrosanct in Europe, the United States needs to face justified criticism. The harsh and overcrowded penal system treats some offenders unfairly; it is a product of populist sentiments influenced by the crime waves of the twentieth century and fueled by the dysfunctional War on Drugs. While Polish prisons may not be much better, some of the ideas implemented elsewhere in Europe seem to make a clear difference. They are difficult to adopt in the States chiefly because they do not fit the folksy “tough on crime” image that many American politicians take pride in.

In the same vein, police brutality, disproportionately faced by the poor and the minorities, is another black mark for individual rights. The death penalty, albeit infrequent and reserved for most heinous crimes, stands on shaky moral grounds – even if it faces steady public support. The indefinite detention and torture of terrorism suspects, with the knowledge and complicity of many other European states, deserves nothing but scorn. Civil forfeiture is a bizarre concept that seems to violate the spirit of the Fourth Amendment by applying unreasonably relaxed standards for certain types of seizures – although in all likelihood, its days are coming to an end.

As usual, the picture is complex and it’s hard to declare the superiority of any single approach to individual liberties. Europe and the United States have much in common, but also differ in very interesting ways.

For the next article in the series, click here.

A bit more on firearms in the US

Post Syndicated from Michal Zalewski original http://lcamtuf.blogspot.com/2015/06/a-bit-more-on-firearms-in-us.html

This is the fifth article in a short series about Poland, Europe, and the United States. To explore the entire series, start here.

Perhaps not surprisingly, my previous blog post sparked several interesting discussions with my Polish friends who took a more decisive view of the social costs of firearm ownership, or who saw the Second Amendment as a barbaric construct with no place in today’s world. Their opinions reminded me of my own attitude some ten years ago; in this brief follow-up, I wanted to share several data points that convinced me to take a more measured stance.

Let’s start with the basics: most estimates place the number of guns in the United States at 300 to 350 million – that’s roughly one firearm per every single resident. In Gallup polls, some 40-50% of all households report having a gun, frequently more than one. The demographics of firearm ownership are more uniform than stereotypes may imply; there is some variance across regions, political affiliations, and genders – but for most part, it tends to fall within fairly narrow bands.

An overwhelming majority of gun owners cite personal safety as the leading motive for purchasing a firearm; hunting and recreation activities come strong second. The defensive aspect of firearm ownership is of special note, because it can potentially provide a very compelling argument for protecting the right to bear arms even if it’s a socially unwelcome practice, or if it comes at an elevated cost to the nation as a whole.

The self-defense argument is sometimes dismissed as pure fantasy, with many eminent pundits citing one questionable statistic to support this view: the fairly low number of justifiable homicides in the country. Despite its strong appeal to ideologues, the metric does not stand up to scrutiny: all available data implies that most encounters where a gun is pulled by a would-be victim will not end with the assailant getting killed; it’s overwhelmingly more likely that the bad guy would hastily retreat, be detained at gunpoint, or suffer non-fatal injuries. In fact, even in the unlikely case that a firearm is actually discharged with the intent to kill or maim, somewhere around 70-80% of victims survive.

In reality, we have no single, elegant, and reliable source of data about the frequency with which firearms are used to deter threats; the results of scientific polls probably offer the most comprehensive view, but are open to interpretation and their results vary significantly depending on sampling methods and questions asked. That said, a recent meta-analysis from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provided some general bounds:

“Defensive use of guns by crime victims is a common occurrence, although the exact number remains disputed (Cook and Ludwig, 1996; Kleck, 2001a). Almost all national survey estimates indicate that defensive gun uses by victims are at least as common as offensive uses by criminals, with estimates of annual uses ranging from about 500,000 to more than 3 million.”

An earlier but probably similarly unbiased estimate from US Dept of Justice puts the number at approximately 1.5 million uses a year.

The CDC study also goes on to say:

“A different issue is whether defensive uses of guns, however numerous or rare they may be, are effective in preventing injury to the gun-wielding crime victim. Studies that directly assessed the effect of actual defensive uses of guns (i.e., incidents in which a gun was “used” by the crime victim in the sense of attacking or threatening an offender) have found consistently lower injury rates among gun-using crime victims compared with victims who used other self-protective strategies.”

An argument can be made that the availability of firearms translates to higher rates of violent crime, thus elevating the likelihood of encounters where a defensive firearm would be useful – feeding into an endless cycle of escalating violence. That said, such an effect does not seem to be particularly evident. For example, the United States comes out reasonably well in statistics related to assault, rape, and robbery; on these fronts, America looks less violent than the UK or a bunch of other OECD countries with low firearm ownership rates.

But there is an exception: one area where the United States clearly falls behind other highly developed nations are homicides. The per-capita figures are almost three times as high as in much of the European Union. And indeed, the bulk of intentional homicides – some 11 thousand deaths a year – trace back to firearms.

We tend to instinctively draw a connection to guns, but the origins of this tragic situation may be more elusive than they appear. For one, non-gun-related homicides happen in the US at a higher rate than in many other countries, too; Americans just seem to be generally more keen on killing each other than people in places such as Europe, Australia, or Canada. In addition, no convincing pattern emerges when comparing overall homicide rates across states with permissive and restrictive gun ownership laws. Some of the lowest per-capita homicide figures can be found in extremely gun-friendly states such as Idaho, Utah, or Vermont; whereas highly-regulated Washington D.C., Maryland, Illinois, and California all rank pretty high. There is, however, fairly strong correlation between gun and non-gun homicide rates across the country – suggesting that common factors such as population density, urban poverty, and drug-related gang activities play a far more significant role in violent crime than the ease of legally acquiring a firearm. It’s tragic but worth noting that a strikingly disproportionate percentage of homicides involves both victims and perpetrators that belong to socially disadvantaged and impoverished minorities. Another striking pattern is that up to about a half of all gun murders are related to or committed under the influence of illicit drugs.

Now, international comparisons show general correlation between gun ownership and some types of crime, but it’s difficult to draw solid conclusions from that: there are countless other ways to explain why crime rates may be low in the wealthy European states, and high in Venezuela, Mexico, Honduras, or South Africa; compensating for these factors is theoretically possible, but requires making far-fetched assumptions that are hopelessly vulnerable to researcher bias. Comparing European countries is easier, but yields inconclusive results: gun ownership in Poland is almost twenty times lower than in neighboring Germany and ten times lower than in Czech Republic – but you certainly wouldn’t able to tell that from national crime stats.

When it comes to gun control, one CDC study on the topic concluded with:

“The Task Force found insufficient evidence to determine the effectiveness of any of the firearms laws or combinations of laws reviewed on violent outcomes.”

This does not imply that such approaches are necessarily ineffective; for example, it seems pretty reasonable to assume that well-designed background checks or modest waiting periods do save lives. Similarly, safe storage requirements would likely prevent dozens of child deaths every year, at the cost of rendering firearms less available for home defense. But for the hundreds of sometimes far-fetched gun control proposals introduced every year on federal and state level, emotions often take place of real data, poisoning the debate around gun laws and ultimately bringing little or no public benefit. The heated assault weapon debate is one such red herring: although modern semi-automatic rifles look sinister, they are far more common in movies than on the streets; in reality, all kinds of rifles account only for somewhere around 4% of firearm homicides, and AR-15s are only a tiny fraction of that – likely claiming about as many lives as hammers, ladders, or swimming pools. The efforts to close the “gun show loophole” seem fairly sensible at the surface, too, but are of similarly uncertain merit; instead of gun shows, criminals depend on friends, family, and on more than 200,000 guns that stolen from their rightful owners every year. When breaking into a random home yields a 40-50% chance of scoring a firearm, it’s not hard to see why.

Another oddball example of simplistic legislative zeal are the attempts to mandate costly gun owner liability insurance, based on drawing an impassioned but flawed parallel between firearms and cars; what undermines this argument is that car accidents are commonplace, while gun handling mishaps – especially ones that injure others – are rare. We also have proposals to institute $100 ammunition purchase permits, to prohibit ammo sales over the Internet, or to impose a hefty per-bullet tax. Many critics feel that such laws seem to be geared not toward addressing any specific dangers, but toward making firearms more expensive and burdensome to own – slowly eroding the constitutional rights of the less wealthy folks. They also see hypocrisy in the common practice of making retired police officers and many high-ranking government officials exempt from said laws.

Regardless of individual merits of the regulations, it’s certainly true that with countless pieces of sometimes obtuse and poorly-written federal, state, and municipal statutes introduced every year, it’s increasingly easy for people to unintentionally run afoul of the rules. In California, the law as written today implies that any legal permanent resident in good standing can own a gun, but that only US citizens can transport it by car. Given that Californians are also generally barred from carrying firearms on foot in many populated areas, non-citizen residents are seemingly expected to teleport between the gun store, their home, and the shooting range. With many laws hastily drafted in the days after mass shootings and other tragedies, such gems are commonplace. The federal Gun-Free School Zones Act imposes special restrictions on gun ownership within 1,000 feet of a school and slaps harsh penalties for as little carrying it in an unlocked container from one’s home to a car parked in the driveway. In many urban areas, a lot of people either live within such a school zone or can’t conceivably avoid it when going about their business; GFSZA violations are almost certainly common and are policed only selectively.

Meanwhile, with sharp declines in crime continuing for the past 20 years, the public opinion is increasingly in favor of broad, reasonably policed gun ownership; for example, more than 70% respondents to one Gallup poll are against the restrictive handgun bans of the sort attempted in Chicago, San Francisco, or Washington D.C.; and in a recent Rasmussen poll, only 22% say that they would feel safer in a neighborhood where people are not allowed to keep guns. In fact, responding to the media’s undue obsession with random of acts of violence against law-abiding citizens, and worried about the historically very anti-gun views of the sitting president, Americans are buying a lot more firearms than ever before. Even the National Rifle Association – a staunchly conservative organization vilified by gun control advocates and mainstream pundits – enjoys a pretty reasonable approval rating across many demographics: 58% overall and 78% in households with a gun.

And here’s the kicker: despite its reputation for being a political arm of firearm manufacturers, the NRA is funded largely through individual memberships, small-scale donations, and purchase round-ups; organizational donations add up to about 5% of their budget – and if you throw in advertising income, the total still stays under 15%. That makes it quite unlike most of the other large-scale lobbying groups that Democrats aren’t as keen on naming-and-shaming on the campaign trail. The NRA’s financial muscle is also frequently overstated; it doesn’t even make it onto the list of top 100 lobbyists in Washington – and gun control advocacy groups, backed by activist billionaires such as Michael Bloomberg, now frequently outspend the pro-gun crowd. Of course, it would be better for the association’s socially conservative and unnecessarily polarizing rhetoric – sometimes veering onto the topics of abortion or video games – to be offset by the voice of other, more liberal groups. But ironically, organizations such as American Civil Liberties Union – well-known for fearlessly defending controversial speech – prefer to avoid the Second Amendment; they do so not because the latter concept has lesser constitutional standing, but because supporting it would not sit well with their own, progressive support base.

America’s attitude toward guns is a choice, not a necessity. It is also true that gun violence is a devastating problem; and that the emotional horror and lasting social impact of incidents such as school shootings can’t be possibly captured in any cold, dry statistic alone. But there is also nuance and reason to the gun control debate that can be hard to see for newcomers from more firearm-averse parts of the world.

For the next article in the series, click here. Alternatively, if you prefer to keep reading about firearms, go here for an overview of the gun control debate in the US.

A bit more on firearms in the US

Post Syndicated from Michal Zalewski original http://lcamtuf.blogspot.com/2015/06/a-bit-more-on-firearms-in-us.html

This is the fifth article in a short series about Poland, Europe, and the United States. To explore the entire series, start here.

Perhaps not surprisingly, my previous blog post sparked several interesting discussions with my Polish friends who took a more decisive view of the social costs of firearm ownership, or who saw the Second Amendment as a barbaric construct with no place in today’s world. Their opinions reminded me of my own attitude some ten years ago; in this brief follow-up, I wanted to share several data points that convinced me to take a more measured stance.

Let’s start with the basics: most estimates place the number of guns in the United States at 300 to 350 million – that’s roughly one firearm per every single resident. In Gallup polls, some 40-50% of all households report having a gun, frequently more than one. The demographics of firearm ownership are more uniform than stereotypes may imply; there is some variance across regions, political affiliations, and genders – but for most part, it tends to fall within fairly narrow bands.

An overwhelming majority of gun owners cite personal safety as the leading motive for purchasing a firearm; hunting and recreation activities come strong second. The defensive aspect of firearm ownership is of special note, because it can potentially provide a very compelling argument for protecting the right to bear arms even if it’s a socially unwelcome practice, or if it comes at an elevated cost to the nation as a whole.

The self-defense argument is sometimes dismissed as pure fantasy, with many eminent pundits citing one questionable statistic to support this view: the fairly low number of justifiable homicides in the country. Despite its strong appeal to ideologues, the metric does not stand up to scrutiny: all available data implies that most encounters where a gun is pulled by a would-be victim will not end with the assailant getting killed; it’s overwhelmingly more likely that the bad guy would hastily retreat, be detained at gunpoint, or suffer non-fatal injuries. In fact, even in the unlikely case that a firearm is actually discharged with the intent to kill or maim, somewhere around 70-80% of victims survive.

In reality, we have no single, elegant, and reliable source of data about the frequency with which firearms are used to deter threats; the results of scientific polls probably offer the most comprehensive view, but are open to interpretation and their results vary significantly depending on sampling methods and questions asked. That said, a recent meta-analysis from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provided some general bounds:


“Defensive use of guns by crime victims is a common occurrence, although the exact number remains disputed (Cook and Ludwig, 1996; Kleck, 2001a). Almost all national survey estimates indicate that defensive gun uses by victims are at least as common as offensive uses by criminals, with estimates of annual uses ranging from about 500,000 to more than 3 million.”

An earlier but probably similarly unbiased estimate from US Dept of Justice puts the number at approximately 1.5 million uses a year.

The CDC study also goes on to say:


“A different issue is whether defensive uses of guns, however numerous or rare they may be, are effective in preventing injury to the gun-wielding crime victim. Studies that directly assessed the effect of actual defensive uses of guns (i.e., incidents in which a gun was “used” by the crime victim in the sense of attacking or threatening an offender) have found consistently lower injury rates among gun-using crime victims compared with victims who used other self-protective strategies.”

An argument can be made that the availability of firearms translates to higher rates of violent crime, thus elevating the likelihood of encounters where a defensive firearm would be useful – feeding into an endless cycle of escalating violence. That said, such an effect does not seem to be particularly evident. For example, the United States comes out reasonably well in statistics related to assault, rape, and robbery; on these fronts, America looks less violent than the UK or a bunch of other OECD countries with low firearm ownership rates.

But there is an exception: one area where the United States clearly falls behind other highly developed nations are homicides. The per-capita figures are almost three times as high as in much of the European Union. And indeed, the bulk of intentional homicides – some 11 thousand deaths a year – trace back to firearms.

We tend to instinctively draw a connection to guns, but the origins of this tragic situation may be more elusive than they appear. For one, non-gun-related homicides happen in the US at a higher rate than in many other countries, too; Americans just seem to be generally more keen on killing each other than people in places such as Europe, Australia, or Canada. In addition, no convincing pattern emerges when comparing overall homicide rates across states with permissive and restrictive gun ownership laws. Some of the lowest per-capita homicide figures can be found in extremely gun-friendly states such as Idaho, Utah, or Vermont; whereas highly-regulated Washington D.C., Maryland, Illinois, and California all rank pretty high. There is, however, fairly strong correlation between gun and non-gun homicide rates across the country – suggesting that common factors such as population density, urban poverty, and drug-related gang activities play a far more significant role in violent crime than the ease of legally acquiring a firearm. It’s tragic but worth noting that a strikingly disproportionate percentage of homicides involves both victims and perpetrators that belong to socially disadvantaged and impoverished minorities. Another striking pattern is that up to about a half of all gun murders are related to or committed under the influence of illicit drugs.

Now, international comparisons show general correlation between gun ownership and some types of crime, but it’s difficult to draw solid conclusions from that: there are countless other ways to explain why crime rates may be low in the wealthy European states, and high in Venezuela, Mexico, Honduras, or South Africa; compensating for these factors is theoretically possible, but requires making far-fetched assumptions that are hopelessly vulnerable to researcher bias. Comparing European countries is easier, but yields inconclusive results: gun ownership in Poland is almost twenty times lower than in neighboring Germany and ten times lower than in Czech Republic – but you certainly wouldn’t able to tell that from national crime stats.

When it comes to gun control, one CDC study on the topic concluded with:


“The Task Force found insufficient evidence to determine the effectiveness of any of the firearms laws or combinations of laws reviewed on violent outcomes.”

This does not imply that such approaches are necessarily ineffective; for example, it seems pretty reasonable to assume that well-designed background checks or modest waiting periods do save lives. Similarly, safe storage requirements would likely prevent dozens of child deaths every year, at the cost of rendering firearms less available for home defense. But for the hundreds of sometimes far-fetched gun control proposals introduced every year on federal and state level, emotions often take place of real data, poisoning the debate around gun laws and ultimately bringing little or no public benefit. The heated assault weapon debate is one such red herring: although modern semi-automatic rifles look sinister, they are far more common in movies than on the streets; in reality, all kinds of rifles account only for somewhere around 4% of firearm homicides, and AR-15s are only a tiny fraction of that – likely claiming about as many lives as hammers, ladders, or swimming pools. The efforts to close the “gun show loophole” seem fairly sensible at the surface, too, but are of similarly uncertain merit; instead of gun shows, criminals depend on friends, family, and on more than 200,000 guns that stolen from their rightful owners every year. When breaking into a random home yields a 40-50% chance of scoring a firearm, it’s not hard to see why.

Another oddball example of simplistic legislative zeal are the attempts to mandate costly gun owner liability insurance, based on drawing an impassioned but flawed parallel between firearms and cars; what undermines this argument is that car accidents are commonplace, while gun handling mishaps – especially ones that injure others – are rare. We also have proposals to institute $100 ammunition purchase permits, to prohibit ammo sales over the Internet, or to impose a hefty per-bullet tax. Many critics feel that such laws seem to be geared not toward addressing any specific dangers, but toward making firearms more expensive and burdensome to own – slowly eroding the constitutional rights of the less wealthy folks. They also see hypocrisy in the common practice of making retired police officers and many high-ranking government officials exempt from said laws.

Regardless of individual merits of the regulations, it’s certainly true that with countless pieces of sometimes obtuse and poorly-written federal, state, and municipal statutes introduced every year, it’s increasingly easy for people to unintentionally run afoul of the rules. In California, the law as written today implies that any legal permanent resident in good standing can own a gun, but that only US citizens can transport it by car. Given that Californians are also generally barred from carrying firearms on foot in many populated areas, non-citizen residents are seemingly expected to teleport between the gun store, their home, and the shooting range. With many laws hastily drafted in the days after mass shootings and other tragedies, such gems are commonplace. The federal Gun-Free School Zones Act imposes special restrictions on gun ownership within 1,000 feet of a school and slaps harsh penalties for as little carrying it in an unlocked container from one’s home to a car parked in the driveway. In many urban areas, a lot of people either live within such a school zone or can’t conceivably avoid it when going about their business; GFSZA violations are almost certainly common and are policed only selectively.

Meanwhile, with sharp declines in crime continuing for the past 20 years, the public opinion is increasingly in favor of broad, reasonably policed gun ownership; for example, more than 70% respondents to one Gallup poll are against the restrictive handgun bans of the sort attempted in Chicago, San Francisco, or Washington D.C.; and in a recent Rasmussen poll, only 22% say that they would feel safer in a neighborhood where people are not allowed to keep guns. In fact, responding to the media’s undue obsession with random of acts of violence against law-abiding citizens, and worried about the historically very anti-gun views of the sitting president, Americans are buying a lot more firearms than ever before. Even the National Rifle Association – a staunchly conservative organization vilified by gun control advocates and mainstream pundits – enjoys a pretty reasonable approval rating across many demographics: 58% overall and 78% in households with a gun.

And here’s the kicker: despite its reputation for being a political arm of firearm manufacturers, the NRA is funded largely through individual memberships, small-scale donations, and purchase round-ups; organizational donations add up to about 5% of their budget – and if you throw in advertising income, the total still stays under 15%. That makes it quite unlike most of the other large-scale lobbying groups that Democrats aren’t as keen on naming-and-shaming on the campaign trail. The NRA’s financial muscle is also frequently overstated; it doesn’t even make it onto the list of top 100 lobbyists in Washington – and gun control advocacy groups, backed by activist billionaires such as Michael Bloomberg, now frequently outspend the pro-gun crowd. Of course, it would be better for the association’s socially conservative and unnecessarily polarizing rhetoric – sometimes veering onto the topics of abortion or video games – to be offset by the voice of other, more liberal groups. But ironically, organizations such as American Civil Liberties Union – well-known for fearlessly defending controversial speech – prefer to avoid the Second Amendment; they do so not because the latter concept has lesser constitutional standing, but because supporting it would not sit well with their own, progressive support base.

America’s attitude toward guns is a choice, not a necessity. It is also true that gun violence is a devastating problem; and that the emotional horror and lasting social impact of incidents such as school shootings can’t be possibly captured in any cold, dry statistic alone. But there is also nuance and reason to the gun control debate that can be hard to see for newcomers from more firearm-averse parts of the world.

For the next article in the series, click here. Alternatively, if you prefer to keep reading about firearms, go here for an overview of the gun control debate in the US.

Oh, the places you won’t go: Polonia in the United States

Post Syndicated from Michal Zalewski original http://lcamtuf.blogspot.com/2015/05/oh-places-you-wont-go-polonia-in-united.html

This is the third article in a short series about Poland, Europe, and the United States. To explore the entire series, start here.

Naming the largest diasporas in the United States may seem like an easy task. For one, we have the deeply-assimilated families of German, Irish, Italian, and British immigrants. There is also a large Mexican community, unique for having a much higher percentage of members who were foreign-born.

Most people would venture a guess that India or China should come next; some may also suggest France, Denmark, or the Netherlands. They would be all wrong: the next spot on the list belongs to the massive Polish diaspora, estimated to be almost ten million strong.

Given its sheer size, the cultural influences of the Polish-American community are uncharacteristically subdued. There are precious few Poland-originating holiday traditions or ethnic foods. Outside a couple rapidly shrinking enclaves such as Avondale in Chicago or Greenpoint in New York City, you are unlikely to bump into posh Polish diners, pricey grocery stores, or flamboyant street parades. Children born to Polish immigrants in the US are seldom taught to read or write in their parents’ language – and will probably know very little about their familial lineage or common ancestry.

Perhaps there just aren’t that many bits of Polish culture to build on against the backdrop of Germanic, British, Italian, and Dutch influences that shaped the American life. Much like its German counterpart, the traditional Polish cuisine is obsessed chiefly with potatoes and meat. Today, we take pride in our pączki, but when pressed, we will sooner or later confess that they are just doughnuts by some other name. We can offer you some pierogi, but they will truly impress you only if you never had any ravioli or tortellini. We can also hook you up with some sausage, sauerkraut, pickles, ribs, or beer. On your way out, take a bite of our cheesecake or apple pie.

The holiday traditions run into the same challenge, perhaps with the exception of the infamous but niche Dyngus Day. Other than that, the most commonly observed practice is that in line with much of Central Europe, Polish children may get their gifts in the evening on Christmas Eve, not in the morning on Christmas Day. Our traditional clothing looks distinctive – but it is ornate and archaic, making it compare unfavorably with the beautiful simplicity of wearing green on St. Patrick’s Day, or getting hammered in suspenders come Oktoberfest.

Humor aside, a more powerful clue to the invisibility of the Polish diaspora may lie in its very history. In the twentieth century, the immigrants from Poland ended up occupying three isolated social strata, with relatively few opportunities for working together and developing any form of a shared cultural identity.

The first and most populous stratum of contemporary immigration were the common folk, displaced by the horrors of the war and the crippling poverty that followed under communist rule. Many of them worked menial jobs, spoke little or no English, and clustered around many of the traditionally Polish enclaves that offered them a degree of familiarity and support. For many years, they and their children faced blatant discrimination, epitomized by the popular “Polish jokes” in the 1960s and 1970s. The demeaning stereotypes that followed them everywhere prompted many Poles to adopt Americanized names, intermarry, and keep their origins a private affair.

The second stratum were the dissidents and the disillusioned intellectuals leaving Poland to escape the dysfunctional regime. Usually better-educated and more confident, they helped build the first proper Polish-American institutions, including local newspapers, community organizations, churches, shipping and travel companies, or banks. The members of this group felt much stronger national identity and perceived themselves as the guarantors of Polish interests abroad. With the fall of communism in Europe, many of them were incredulous that the former dignitaries were allowed to walk free and play a role in business and politics – a sentiment that still shapes their political views.

The big change in immigration trends came with the accession of Poland to the European Union. The unhappy and the disenfranchised would now overwhelmingly favor moving to Germany or to the UK, where they could take up residence without having to deal with restrictive immigration laws. The remaining US-bound migration shifted toward skilled, university-trained engineers and IT workers, many of whom gravitated toward tech hubs such as SF Bay Area, Seattle, or NYC. Having been born in the 1970s and 1980s, most of them remembered Poland as a thriving capitalist democracy; they were driven not by despair, but by the prospects of better pay or more interesting work.

All this nuance is easily lost on the people back home. Many of the left-wing and centrist pundits in Poland demonize the expats in hopes of mobilizing the more moderate domestic electorate. They paint a picture of a frighteningly powerful voting block that will prop up any fringe, conservative candidate, as long as they promise to rid Polish politics of the Soviet sleeper agents and other increasingly fictitious communist legacy.

Of course, for most part, such reputation is bunk; although a good percentage of Polish-Americans are very distrustful of left-leaning politicians in their country of origin, only a tiny percentage of them ever turns up to actually cast a ballot, and their overall influence on the results of Polish elections is slim. Contrary to how they are perceived, they also do not blindly cling on to social conservatism; in American elections, they usually vote for Democrats.

That said, repeated over and over again, the catchy narrative about dimwitted compatriots can take a life of its own. Several weeks ago, Longin Pastusiak, an eminent Polish publicist and polician, penned a piece characterizing Polish-Americans as simpletons who only have a very shallow appreciation for the Polish heritage and who meekly submit to the supposedly powerful influences of the Roman Catholic church. He is not alone in his views; many go even further and call for the diaspora’s voting rights to be taken away.

Having overcome discrimination in the States only to face bureaucratic hurdles and prejudiced, vitriolic nonsense back home, it’s no wonder that most of the Polish immigrants just want to blend in and move on. In the long haul, it’s probably a big loss – not necessarily for them, but for their former home.


Crowds at Polish Days in San Francisco (2010)

For the next article in the series, click here.

Oh, the places you won’t go: Polonia in the United States

Post Syndicated from Michal Zalewski original http://lcamtuf.blogspot.com/2015/05/oh-places-you-wont-go-polonia-in-united.html

This is the third article in a short series about Poland, Europe, and the United States. To explore the entire series, start here.

Naming the largest diasporas in the United States may seem like an easy task. For one, we have the deeply-assimilated families of German, Irish, Italian, and British immigrants. There is also a large Mexican community, unique for having a much higher percentage of members who were foreign-born.

Most people would venture a guess that India or China should come next; some may also suggest France, Denmark, or the Netherlands. They would be all wrong: the next spot on the list belongs to the massive Polish diaspora, estimated to be almost ten million strong.

Given its sheer size, the cultural influences of the Polish-American community are uncharacteristically subdued. There are precious few Poland-originating holiday traditions or ethnic foods. Outside a couple rapidly shrinking enclaves such as Avondale in Chicago or Greenpoint in New York City, you are unlikely to bump into posh Polish diners, pricey grocery stores, or flamboyant street parades. Children born to Polish immigrants in the US are seldom taught to read or write in their parents’ language – and will probably know very little about their familial lineage or common ancestry.

Perhaps there just aren’t that many bits of Polish culture to build on against the backdrop of Germanic, British, Italian, and Dutch influences that shaped the American life. Much like its German counterpart, the traditional Polish cuisine is obsessed chiefly with potatoes and meat. Today, we take pride in our pączki, but when pressed, we will sooner or later confess that they are just doughnuts by some other name. We can offer you some pierogi, but they will truly impress you only if you never had any ravioli or tortellini. We can also hook you up with some sausage, sauerkraut, pickles, ribs, or beer. On your way out, take a bite of our cheesecake or apple pie.

The holiday traditions run into the same challenge, perhaps with the exception of the infamous but niche Dyngus Day. Other than that, the most commonly observed practice is that in line with much of Central Europe, Polish children may get their gifts in the evening on Christmas Eve, not in the morning on Christmas Day. Our traditional clothing looks distinctive – but it is ornate and archaic, making it compare unfavorably with the beautiful simplicity of wearing green on St. Patrick’s Day, or getting hammered in suspenders come Oktoberfest.

Humor aside, a more powerful clue to the invisibility of the Polish diaspora may lie in its very history. In the twentieth century, the immigrants from Poland ended up occupying three isolated social strata, with relatively few opportunities for working together and developing any form of a shared cultural identity.

The first and most populous stratum of contemporary immigration were the common folk, displaced by the horrors of the war and the crippling poverty that followed under communist rule. Many of them worked menial jobs, spoke little or no English, and clustered around many of the traditionally Polish enclaves that offered them a degree of familiarity and support. For many years, they and their children faced blatant discrimination, epitomized by the popular “Polish jokes” in the 1960s and 1970s. The demeaning stereotypes that followed them everywhere prompted many Poles to adopt Americanized names, intermarry, and keep their origins a private affair.

The second stratum were the dissidents and the disillusioned intellectuals leaving Poland to escape the dysfunctional regime. Usually better-educated and more confident, they helped build the first proper Polish-American institutions, including local newspapers, community organizations, churches, shipping and travel companies, or banks. The members of this group felt much stronger national identity and perceived themselves as the guarantors of Polish interests abroad. With the fall of communism in Europe, many of them were incredulous that the former dignitaries were allowed to walk free and play a role in business and politics – a sentiment that still shapes their political views.

The big change in immigration trends came with the accession of Poland to the European Union. The unhappy and the disenfranchised would now overwhelmingly favor moving to Germany or to the UK, where they could take up residence without having to deal with restrictive immigration laws. The remaining US-bound migration shifted toward skilled, university-trained engineers and IT workers, many of whom gravitated toward tech hubs such as SF Bay Area, Seattle, or NYC. Having been born in the 1970s and 1980s, most of them remembered Poland as a thriving capitalist democracy; they were driven not by despair, but by the prospects of better pay or more interesting work.

All this nuance is easily lost on the people back home. Many of the left-wing and centrist pundits in Poland demonize the expats in hopes of mobilizing the more moderate domestic electorate. They paint a picture of a frighteningly powerful voting block that will prop up any fringe, conservative candidate, as long as they promise to rid Polish politics of the Soviet sleeper agents and other increasingly fictitious communist legacy.

Of course, for most part, such reputation is bunk; although a good percentage of Polish-Americans are very distrustful of left-leaning politicians in their country of origin, only a tiny percentage of them ever turns up to actually cast a ballot, and their overall influence on the results of Polish elections is slim. Contrary to how they are perceived, they also do not blindly cling on to social conservatism; in American elections, they usually vote for Democrats.

That said, repeated over and over again, the catchy narrative about dimwitted compatriots can take a life of its own. Several weeks ago, Longin Pastusiak, an eminent Polish publicist and polician, penned a piece characterizing Polish-Americans as simpletons who only have a very shallow appreciation for the Polish heritage and who meekly submit to the supposedly powerful influences of the Roman Catholic church. He is not alone in his views; many go even further and call for the diaspora’s voting rights to be taken away.

Having overcome discrimination in the States only to face bureaucratic hurdles and prejudiced, vitriolic nonsense back home, it’s no wonder that most of the Polish immigrants just want to blend in and move on. In the long haul, it’s probably a big loss – not necessarily for them, but for their former home.


Crowds at Polish Days in San Francisco (2010)

For the next article in the series, click here.

Хубава си моя горо, където и да си вече

Post Syndicated from Боян Юруков original http://feedproxy.google.com/~r/yurukov-blog/~3/J6hfLR70OdU/

Горите са били сечени хилядолетия наред. Секат се и днес, а мащабите далеч не са по-големи. Планините ни са били оголвани няколко пъти през историята и възстановявана бавно с общи усилия. Еколозите твърдят, че отново унищожаваме горите си. Ако слушаме индустриалците, то гората не губи почти нищо и всичко отсечено се компенсира с ново залесяване. Камиони с трупи са постоянна гледка в планините, има протести, корупция, свлачища, наводнения и временен меморандум за износ.
За щастие днес имаме технологии и инструменти, с които може да проверим тези твърдения. В рамките на проучването си разбрах колко сложна наука е лесовъдството и колко начина има да се установи състоянието на една гора. В същото време обаче разбрах, че въпросните проучвания масово не се правят от горските, а данните се копират година за година. Така данните за горите са повече от ненадеждни.
Първата ми карта на промяната в горския фонд на населените местаПървата ми карта на промяната в горския фонд на населените места
Тук виждате картата на населените места загубили най-много от горите на територията си от 2000 г. насам. След като я пуснах във Facebook, беше споделена и коментирана масово. В нея, какво и във всички други графики, има вложени много условности. За да разберем значението ѝ, нека започнем от началото.

Източник на данните
Преди няколко месеца свалих данните за сечта от Агенцията по горите. Реших, че с тях ще мога да открия къде се сече най-много. Оказаха се обаче безполезни, защото покрай разрешеното доста фирми изсичат и много повече. Затова се обърнах към сателитните снимки на NASA и данните на университета в Мериленд. Те са изкарали в удобен формат горското покритие през 2000 г., както и залесените и оголените територии между 2001 и 2013 г. Използвах също така някои от данните на НСИ в EKATTE регистъра за площта на населените места.
Данните за горите по сателитна снимка на NASAДанните за горите по сателитна снимка на NASA
Илюстрация какво се засича като гора от сателититеИлюстрация какво се засича като гора от сателитите
Сателитните снимки обаче имат своите ограничения. Те засичат като гора само растителността с височина над 5 метра. Така младите дървета в новозалесени площи няма да бъдат засечени в първите няколко години. Това има още един важен ефект – данните не може да се използват за разкриване на масова сеч, освен ако тя не оголи гората изцяло оставяйки само ниски дървета и храсти. Сечта, законна или не, която разрежда горите, няма да бъде отбелязана от сателитните снимки. Също така, данните показват склопеността, което приблизително означава гъстотата на короните. По това обаче също не може да съдим за качеството на гората поради наличието на различни видове дървета и други фактори.
Анализ
Когато осъзнаем ограниченията на данните, може да поставим цели на анализа. Това, което аз исках да видя, е каква площ от населените места е заета от гора (по дефиницията посочена горе), колко са загубили и спечелили от нея в дадения период. Анализът на сателитните снимки е с точност 30 метра, затова ми трябваха само границите на землищата на населените места. Именно в тази връзка наскоро отворих административната карта на България. Написах алгоритъм, който да раздели сателитните снимки по населени места и да изкара статистика за тях. На база тази статистика направих първата карта, както и следните две:
Разбивка на горската покривка по землища и процент от площта им.Разбивка на горската покривка по землища и процент от площта им.С по-добро качество.
Средна склопеност във всяко землище. Тези с по-малко гори са с по-бледи цветове. Средна склопеност във всяко землище. Тези с по-малко гориса с по-бледи цветове. С по-добро качество.
От данните става ясно, че за тези 13 години България е загубила 149000 декара гори. Изсечени са 421000, а са залесени 272000. Отново повтарям, че тук говорим само за границата от 5 метра височина – възможно е да има много млада гора, която да е твърде ниска, както и много изсечени дървета в гори, които да не са непременно оголени изцяло.
Кои места се отличават?
Интересно е също да погледнем по населени места. Показал съм статистика за тези с най-голяма активност, независимост дали става дума за добавяне или унищожаване на горски площи. В лявата графика се виждат водещите 4 в увеличение и намаление в абсолютни проценти спрямо съществуващата горска площ. Забелязва се обаче, че повечето от тях имат малко гори и добавянето на декар-два прави голяма разлика. Затова направих втората справка, където сравнявам не какъв процент от гората си са загубили, а ги подреждам по абсолютната промяна на гора в декари. Отново показвам 4-те най-отгоре и най-отдолу на таблицата. Процентно промяната при тях е малка заради голямата им територия. В декари обаче виждаме сериозни поражения. Най-много изглежда са в Ловешко и Разлог.
Различно подреждане на населените места според загубената и спечелена площ в гори по различни показатели - абсолютна площРазлично подреждане на населените места според загубената и спечелена площ в гори по различни показатели – процент и абсолютна площ
Това сравнение ме накара да се върна към картата в началото на статията. Забелязва се, че в южна България има много населени места със сериозна загуба на гори граничещи с други землища, където пък има голямо увеличение. Тезата на лесовъдите и дърводобивните компании е, че каквото се изсече се залесява наново. Поради малката територия на някои землища, се замислих дали не се случва да се изсичат гори на едно населено място и да се залесява в друго.
Затова направих алгоритъм, които открива съседни землища и преразпределя територията с нова гора. С други думи, нормализирах данните като приобщих залесени територии към близки землища загубили такива. Резултатът е близък до първата карта, но показва още по-отчетливо проблемните зони – целия северен склон на Стара Планина, Странджа, Кърджали, Ивайловград, Смолян и Обзор.
Втората версия на карта за промяната в горските масиви с нормализирани данни.Втората версия на карта за промяната в горските масивис нормализирани данни. С по-добро качество.
Полезно ли е всичко това?
Първо трябва да се разбере, че не съм лесовъд и всичко, което знам по темата, го научих в последните седмици след разговори във Facebook докато си пих кафето. Докато това е несъмнено пречка, все по-често виждаме практически решения базирани изцяло на данни идващи от екипи без опит в конкретната сфера. При всички тези случаи обаче анализаторите работят тясно със специалисти. Затова за да имат реален ефект тези данни, те трябва да се съчетаят със знанията и опита на място.
Зоните, които виждаме в червено на картите, са само индикация къде има проблеми. Вече се чуха коментари, че първата версия на картата не показа нищо ново за лесовъдите. Това наистина е така, но показва, че методите ми са коректни – потвърждават изводите на горските. Ползата от тези методи би била откриването на други проблеми, които не са видими за обществото или контролните органи.
Най-важното обаче е да разбираме ограниченията на данните, с които работим. На заседание на Министерски съвет преди седмица е била представена карта подобна на моята, но изготвена от Агенцията по горите. Не видяхме картата на записите, но стана ясно, че се базира на сателитни снимки – най-вероятно същите като моите. Георги Костов посочи същите ограничения, за които говорих по-горе и аз. Не стана дума обаче за сечта, която не заличава изцяло горите – тази, която няма да се хване от сателитите. От това, което разбрах, именно тя е масово явление.
Следващи стъпки
Преди няколко месеца разговарях с хора от Агенцията по горите с предложение за app, с който посетители на гората ще могат да подават сигнали за сеч. Идеята беше app-а да предоставя информация дали в рамките на няколко километра има разрешителни за сеч и на тази база туристите да си правят изводи. Отговориха ми, че това няма как да стане, защото повечето разрешителни са за дълъг период от време и е невъзможно да се определи кое кога е изсечено. Още повече, че неспециалисти не могат да разберат кое е трябвало да се сече и кое не.
Всичко това навярно е така, но все пак си мисля, че подобна crowdsource-ната база данни би била полезна – най-малкото за засичане на активността на сечене с голяма точност на място и време. Това би било полезно, например, за откриване на сеч на места, за които няма въобще разрешителни. Такива би трябвало да са частните гори, където единствено собствениците биха могли да позволят да се разреши сеч. Това масово не се спазва, доколкото разбирам, а подобно приложение би предоставило информация както на горските, така и на собствениците.
Алгоритмите, с които изготвих данните, също би могло доста да се подобрят. В последната карта приписвам новозалесени площи към близки землища загубили такива. Това не взима под внимание отдалечеността. Затова би било по-добре да се нормализират данните още преди да се нарежат на землища. Лесовъдите ще кажат каква отдалеченост би имала смисъл, но ми се струва, че 20-30 км. ще е достатъчно.
Не на последно място, трябва да разберем, че анализът на тази информация не може и не трябва да бъде затваряна в няколко офиса на държавната администрация. Експертите в дадена тясна област често нямат опит в анализа и визуализирането на данни. Например, за да направим публично достъпен app, който да ни съобщава дали камионът с трупи пред нас е в частна гора без разрешително за сеч, трябва да имаме в отворен формат не само регистъра на Агенцията по горите, но и Кадастъра. И двете са в плана на кабинета за отваряне на данни и се надявам да ги видим скоро на бял свят. Има обаче съпротива от отделни чиновници и дори цели институции в лицето на Министерството на финансите. Отварянето на тези масиви ще се случи, за да има обществена полза от тях. В противен случай ще продължим да анализираме състоянието на собствените си гори единствено по сателитни снимки на чужда агенция.
Данни и алгоритми
Сателитни снимки и извадки:
Hansen, M. C., P. V. Potapov, R. Moore, M. Hancher, S. A. Turubanova, A. Tyukavina, D. Thau, S. V. Stehman, S. J. Goetz, T. R. Loveland, A. Kommareddy, A. Egorov, L. Chini, C. O. Justice, and J. R. G. Townshend. 2013. “High-Resolution Global Maps of 21st-Century Forest Cover Change.” Science 342 (15 November): 850–53. Data available on-line from: http://earthenginepartners.appspot.com/science-2013-global-forest
Граници за землищата в България: GitHub/Bulgaria-geocoding
Статистика за залесените площи по землища: Gist.Github
Данни за територията на землищата: ЕКАТТЕ регистър
Все още не съм отворил и документирал алгоритмите, с които съм извадил статистиката, но ще го направя в следващите дни и ще сложа линк тук и в коментарите. За сега съм пуснал само бърз скрипт за изрязване на TIF файловете с данните на EarthEngine към границите на България.


Computer Science Education Benefits from FLOSS

Post Syndicated from Bradley M. Kuhn original http://ebb.org/bkuhn/blog/2010/02/17/education-floss.html

I read with interest today
when Linux Weekly
News linked

to
Greg DeKoenigsberg’s response
to
Mark
Guzdial’s ACM Blog post, The Impact of Open Source on Computing
Education
(which is mostly a summary
of his
primary argument on his personal blog)
. I must sadly admit that I
was not terribly surprised to read such a post from an ACM-affiliated
academic that speaks so negatively of
FLOSS’s
contribution to Computer Science education.

I mostly agree with (and won’t repeat) DeKoenigsberg’s arguments, but I
do have some additional points and anecdotal examples that may add
usefully to the debate. I have been both a student (high school,
graduate and undergraduate) and teacher (high school and TA) of Computer
Science. In both cases, software freedom was fundamental and frankly
downright essential to my education and to that of my students.

Before I outline my copious disagreements, though, I want to make
abundantly clear that I agree with one of Guzdial’s primary three
points: there is too much unfriendly and outright sexist (although
Guzdial does not use that word directly) behavior in the
FLOSS
community. This should not be ignored, and needs active attention.
Guzdial, however, is clearly underinformed about the extensive work that
many of us are doing to raise awareness and address that issue. In
software development terms: it’s a known bug, it’s been triaged, and
development on a fix is in progress. And, in true FLOSS fashion,
patches are welcome, too (i.e., get involved in a FLOSS community and
help address the problem).

However, the place where my disagreement with Guzdial begins is that
this sexism problem is unique to FLOSS. As an undergraduate Computer
Science major, it was quite clear to me that a sexist culture was
prevalent in my Computer Science department and in CS in general. This
had nothing to do with FLOSS culture, since there was no FLOSS in my
undergraduate department until I installed a few GNU/Linux
machines. (See below for details.)

Computer Science as a whole unfortunately remains heavily
male-dominated with problematic sexist overtones. It was common when I
was an undergraduate (in the early 1990s) that some of my fellow male
students would display pornography on the workstation screens without a
care about who felt unwelcome because of it. Many women complained that
they didn’t feel comfortable in the computer lab, and the issue became a
complicated and ongoing debate in our department. (We all frankly could
have used remedial sensitivity training!) In graduate school, a CS
professor said to me (completely straight-faced) that women didn’t major
in Computer Science because most women’s long term goals are to have
babies and keep house. Thus, I simply reject the notion that this
sexism and lack of acceptance of diversity is a problem unique to FLOSS
culture: it’s a CS-wide problem, AFAICT. Indeed,
the CRA’s
Taulbee Survey shows (see PDF page 10)
that only 22% of the tenure
track CS faculty in the USA and Canada are women, and only 12% of the
full professors are. In short, Guzdial’s corner of the computing world
shares this problem with mine.

Guzdial’s second point is the most offensive to the FLOSS community.
He argues that volunteerism in FLOSS sends a message that no good jobs
are available in computing. I admit that I have only anecdotal evidence
to go on (of course, Guzdial quotes no statistical data, either), but in
my experience, I know that I and many others in FLOSS have been
successfully and gainfully employed precisely because of past
volunteer work we’ve done. Ted
T’so
is fond of saying: Thanks to Linux, my hobby became my job
and my job became my hobby. My experience, while neither as
profound nor as important as Ted’s, is somewhat similar.

I downloaded a copy of GNU/Linux for the first time in 1992. I showed
it to my undergraduate faculty, and they were impressed that I had a
Unix-like system running on PC hardware, and they encouraged me to build
a computer lab with old PC’s. I spent the next three and half years as
the department’s volunteer0 sysadmin and
occasional developer, gaining essential skills that later led me to a
lucrative career as a professional sysadmin and software developer. If
the lure of software freedom advocacy’s relative poverty hadn’t
sidetracked me, I’d surely still be on that same career path.

But that wasn’t even the first time I developed software and got
computers working as a volunteer. Indeed, every computer geek I know
was compelled to write code and do interesting things with computers
from the earliest of ages. We didn’t enter Computer Science because we
wanted to make money from it; we make a living in computing because we
love it and are driven to do it, regardless of how much we get paid for
it. I’ve observed that dedicated, smart people who are really serious
about something end up making a full-time living at that something, one
way or the other.

Frankly, there’s an undertone in Guzdial’s comments on this point that
I find disturbing. The idea of luring people to Computer Science
through job availability is insidious. I was an undergraduate student
right before the upward curve in CS majors, and a graduate student
during the plateau
(See PDF
page 4 of the Taulbee Survey for graphs
). As an undergraduate, I
saw the very beginnings of people majoring in Computer Science
“for the money”, and as a graduate student, I was surrounded
by these sorts of undergraduates. Ultimately, I don’t think our field
is better off for having such people in it. Software is best when it’s
designed and written by people who live to make it better
— people who really hate to go to bed with a bug still open. I
must constantly resist the urge to fix any given broken piece of
software in front of me lest I lose focus on my primary task of the
moment. Every good developer I’ve met has the same urge. In my
experience, when you see software developed by someone who doesn’t have
this drive, you see clearly that it’s (at best) substandard, and
(usually) pure junk. That’s what we’re headed for if we encourage
students to major in Computer Science “for the money”. If
students’ passion is making money for its own sake, we should encourage
them to be investment bankers, not software developers, sysadmins, and
Computer Scientists.

Guzdial’s final point is that our community is telling newcomers
that programming is all that matters. The only evidence Guzdial
gives for this assertion is a pithy quote from Linus Torvalds. If
Guzdial actually listened
to interviews
that Torvalds has given
, Guzdial would hear that Torvalds cares
about a lot more than just code, and spends most of his time in
natural language discussions with developers. The Linux community
doesn’t just require code; it requires code plus a well-argued
position of why the code is right for the users.

Guzdial’s primary point here, though, is that FLOSS ignores usability.
Using Torvalds and the Linux community as the example here makes little
sense, since “usability” of a kernel is about APIs for
fellow programmers. Linus’ kernel is the pinnacle of usability measured
against the userbase who interacts with it directly. If a kernel is
something non-technical users are aware of “using”, then
it’s probably not a very usable kernel.

But Guzdial’s comment isn’t really about the kernel; instead, he subtly
insults the GNOME community (and other GUI-oriented FLOSS projects).
Usability work is quite expensive, but nevertheless the GNOME community
(and others) desperately want it done and try constantly to fund it. In
fact, very recently, there has
been great
worry in the GNOME community
that Oracle’s purchase of Sun means
that various usability-related projects are losing funding. I encourage
Guzdial to get in touch with projects like the GNOME accessibility and
usability projects before he assumes that one offhand quote from Linus
defines the entire FLOSS community’s position on end-user usability.

As a final anecdote, I will briefly tell the story of my year teaching
high school. I was actively recruited (again, yet another a job I got
because of my involvement in FLOSS!)
to teach a high
school AP Computer Science class
while I was still in graduate
school in Cincinnati. The
students built
the computer lab themselves from scratch
, which one student still
claims
is one
of his proudest accomplishments
. I had planned to teach only
‘A’ topics, but the students were so excited to learn, we
ended up doing the whole ‘AB’ course. All but two of the
approximately twenty students took the AP exam. All who took it at
least passed, while most excelled. Many of them now have fruitful
careers in computing and other sciences.

I realize this is one class of students in one high school. But that’s
somewhat the point here. The excitement and the “do it
yourself” inspiration of the FLOSS world pushed a random group of
high school students into action to build their own lab and get the
administration to recruit a teacher for them. I got the job as their
teacher precisely because of my involvement in FLOSS. There is no
reason to believe this success story of FLOSS in education is an
aberration. More likely, Guzdial is making oversimplifications about
something he hasn’t bothered to examine fully.

Finally, I should note that Guzdial
used Michael
Terry
‘s work as a jumping off point for his comments. I’ve met,
seen talks by, and exchanged email with Terry and his graduate students.
I admit that I haven’t read Terry’s most recent papers, but I have read
some of the older ones and am familiar generally with his work. I was
thus not surprised to find
that Terry
clarified that his position differs from Guzdial’s
, in particular
noting that we found that open source developers most
certainly do care about the usability of their
software, but that those developers make an error by focusing too
much on a small subset of their userbase (i.e., the loudest). I can
certainly verify that fact from the anecdotal side. Generally speaking,
I know that Terry is very concerned about FLOSS usability, and I think
that our community should work with him to see what we can learn from
his research. I have never known Terry to be dismissive of the
incredible value of FLOSS and its potential for improvement,
particularly in the area of usability. Terry’s goal, it seems to me, is
to convince and assist FLOSS developers to improve the usability of our
software, and that’s certainly a constructive goal I do support.

(BTW, I mostly used last names through out this post because Mark,
Michael, and Greg are relatively common names and I can think of a dozen
FLOSS celebrities who have one of those first names. 🙂

0Technically,
I was “paid” in that I was given my own office in
the department because I was willing to do the sysadmin duties.
It was nice to be the only undergraduate on campus (outside of
student government) with my own office.