Weblog on the Internet and public policy, journalism, virtual community, and more from David Brake, a Canadian academic, consultant and journalist

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16 May 2007

Just for a change neither of them have to do with terrorism. Eszter brought to my attention a feature in Popular Photography (US) about parents whose innocent (to them) pictures of their children were treated as suspicious by photo developers and resulted in their being criminally prosecuted. You can read the self-published story of a grandmother who fell foul of this culture of suspicion here.

The other story I heard on the radio this morning (listen to it here). Because (it seems) of arrest targets UK police have, a 13 year old child who shoplifted a single roll of candy worth around 40p was taken to the police station, cautioned, fingerprinted and had his DNA taken and stored.

I am not too worried about building up a DNA database per se but I am a little concerned that the fact that someone’s DNA turns up in the database could be taken by future employers or others as evidence of criminality itself, if one day it were to become public.

3 April 2007

Epicenter started as a look at those who found themselves contaminated by the radioactivity from early nuclear tests but as this trailer demonstrates his curiosity and journalistic zeal soon encouraged him to broaden his investigation and, from the looks of things, turn up all kinds of interesting stuff about the history of nuclear weapons development. Danny has sent me a DVD so once I get it I’ll tell you more…

29 December 2006
Filed under:Current Affairs (US) at11:06 am

A post I never got around to making from January…
The New Yorker: The Talk of the Town

The good news:

A recent study by Ann Huff Stevens, a labor economist at the University of California at Davis, compares the careers of older men in 1969 to those of older men in 2002, looking at how many years members of each group spent working at the job they held the longest. In 1969, the average was 21.9 years; in 2002, it was 21.4 years. In 1969, slightly more than half of the men had held one job for at least twenty years, and the proportion was almost identical in 2002. In the same vein, the Bureau of Labor Statistics has found that median job tenure among all workers over the age of twenty-five has fallen only slightly since the early eighties. And a 1999 study of fifty-one major corporations found that the percentage of employees with more than ten years of service increased in the nineties.

The bad news

The percentage of companies that offer health benefits to their employees has dropped thirteen per cent in the past five years, and even employees who are covered now generally pay more of their own costs. With pensions, the shift has been fundamental: defined-benefit plans, in which companies guarantee a set payout to employees, have been gradually replaced with defined-contribution plans


Meanwhile, the risk exposure of anyone unfortunate enough to lose a job has soared. People who are unemployed stay unemployed, on average, about fifty per cent longer now than they did in the seventies, and only about half as many receive unemployment insurance as did so in 1947. Furthermore, the explosion in health-care costs means that the consequences of forfeiting company health insurance are graver than ever. So even though incomes have risen over the past three decades, they fluctuate much more than they once did. Economists estimate that income volatility is about twice what it was in the early seventies.

Even after a burst of growth in the late nineties, the average household income is only slightly above where it was in 1973.

18 October 2006

Long time readers of my weblog will know that I am a huge fan of the radio programme This American Life which puts out weekly programmes that mix documentary, fiction and humour. It used to be that they did streaming audio and for MP3 download you had to pay via Audible but this week they announced they are offering a podcast. Sign up now and have a listen – if you only subscribe to one podcast it should be this one…

4 April 2006

According to the New York Times, Iraq has as loose a system of gun control as the US – anyone over 25 “of good character” can own a firearm (including AK-47s!) and gun sales are accellerating. The rules date back to the Saddam regime but the US has not tried to change them. How a state can keep the peace without a monopoly on the use of force is beyond me…

1 March 2006

In a recent New Yorker he looks at phenomena once thought to be normally distributed that are actually distributed according to the “power law” – for example ‘problematic’ homeless people, corrupt cops or polluting cars. In other words it turns out that in these cases a hard core cause most of the trouble, which calls for different public policy solutions – for example, giving a lot of help and support to the most ‘undeserving’ of the homeless (eg drug-addicted and/or mentally ill people). The argument here is that they cost the system so much anyway when they ‘go wrong’ that you can spend quite a lot on them and still come out ahead if their self-harming behaviour can be curbed.

Someone I know who has worked in emergency rooms was less sanguine. They suggested that these ‘lowest of the low’ were so damaged that they simply do not respond to any interventions and that public policy interventions should instead be used to help the large number of homeless people who are (as Gladwell points out) just ‘passing through’ homelessness in order to ensure they don’t return to that state.

P.S. Gladwell now has his own blog and has posted there about the power law article.

17 October 2005

I just came across this political screed by a middle class American white guy imprisoned for having drugs in which I read:

Laws prohibiting ex-felons from associating with other ex-felons and gang members, such as the Illinois Street Gang Terrorism Omnibus Prevention Act, or those preventing ex-offenders from being in areas designated as ‘high crime’� or where ‘controlled substances are illegally sold, used, distributed, or administered’ means that many ex-offenders are in violation of their parole simply by going home.

Sounds like a system that will more or less guarantee the police can choose to prosecute any ex-cons they please in areas with those laws. Scary stuff.

20 July 2005

A few days ago I mentioned in passing that the US was doing itself a disservice and indirectly helping the jihadists by not mentioning Iraq’s civilian casualties. It turns out that the liberal stalwarts at Mother Jones have done a good piece recently on just this issue – Iraqi Casualties: Unnamed and Unnoticed.

9 July 2005

A friend I hadn’t heard from for a while popped up on my blog and posted about her concern at “the way these ‘murders’ are somehow seen as worse than the many other ‘murders’ we know of, from rapes and muggings through hit-and-run driving deaths to deaths from starvation.” Well, I certainly wouldn’t go as far as she does on that point – after all there is, I believe, a moral difference between deliberately killing people and neglecting to save their lives when this is possible. But it’s certainly worth thinking about.

world malnutrition

Above is a UN map of the proportion of the world’s population that is malnourished (more details statistics are available from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization). While the global media’s attention focuses on an attack which likely killed 50 people, it swivels away from the G8’s inadequate response to the ongoing disastrous situation much of the world where 24,000 people die of starvation every day – a situation that global climate change may only make worse.

As for the attack itself, it seems to indicate to me that the so-called ‘war on terror’ continues to be fought in the wrong ways. No amount of surveillance (and London may be the surveillance capital of the world) can keep determined terrorists from striking. The only way to deal with terrorism is at its source – in other words a ‘hearts and minds’ campaign.

Obviously, the West can’t (and shouldn’t) attempt to meet the terrorists’ ‘demands’ (insofar as they are articulated). But we should, where possible, attempt to deal with some of the Arab world’s legitimate grievances over our behaviour. We should, for example, be leaning on Sharon that if he is going to impose a peace settlement it should at least be a just one which leaves Palestine in a form capable of taking care of itself. We should also be talking a little more about how to reduce civilian casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s outrageous that the coalition doesn’t even publish figures on this issue leaving the counting to volunteers like Iraq Body Count – giving the erroneous impression that the coalition authorities there aren’t concerned with the problem and handing terrorists potent propaganda.

19 March 2005

Toshiba (which makes nuclear power plants as well as laptops – who knew?) has offered to give an Alaskan village a ‘mini-nuke’. It seems they’ll take it – after all it will reduce their cost per kilowatt/hr from 28 to 10 cents (they only pay the running costs). At the moment they get all their power from diesel which has to be barged in during the ice-free months…

(see also “my earlier posting”:https://blog.org/archives/cat_positive_uses_of_technology.html#001340 on nuclear power).

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