Monday, December 28, 2015

Be thankful for the clean air you breathe




The article begins, “In the space of an afternoon, Beijing vanished. … By evening, all was gone, engulfed in a gauzy-white miasma. Buildings rose into hazy oblivion, and the sun became a dull yellow orb, like a flashlight shining from under a blanket.”

The great danger of the air pollution in Beijing is the small particulate matter known as PM2.5. The WHO advises that fine particles of less than 2.5 micrometres in diameter should not exceed 10 micrograms per cubic meter.

The Friday afternoon when Beijing disappeared, its levels of PM2.5 “reached 429 micrograms per cubic meter, 17 times the World Health Organization’s recommended limit. … 

“By Monday, the Air Quality Index, a widely recognized measure of air pollution, hit 587 on the usual scale of zero to 500, registering as “beyond index” on monitors throughout the city. (The United Nations' recommended maximum level is 25.) … This week’s smog spread across a land mass of 204,634 square miles, according to the Ministry of Environmental Protection — about 25% larger than the state of California.”

What’s scary to know is that as bad as the pollution is in Beijing and other Chinese cities, it is even worse in India and Pakistan. The following cities, according to the World Health Organization, have the worst average air pollution, as measured by mean levels of PM2.5: 

Delhi, India (153); 
Patna, India (149); 
Gwalior, India (144); 
Raipur, India (134); 
Karachi, Pakistan (117); 
Peshawar, Pakistan (111); 
Rawalpindi, Pakistan (107); 
Khorramabad, Iran (102); 
Ahmedabad, India (100); and 
Lucknow, India (96).

Even though Beijing has recorded extremely bad days, its mean annual average of 90 PM2.5 is not quite as bad as the above places.

By contrast, most of America’s metropolitan areas have much cleaner air. Since the Clean Air Act of 1970, the U.S. has improved across the board. Yet these 10 were the worst in the United States from 2011-13, as measured by mean annual particulate matter (PM2.5), all exceeding the WHO standard of 10 micrograms per cubic meter:

Fresno-Madera, CA (47)
Bakersfield, CA (42)
Visalia-Porterville-Hanford, CA (17.3)
Modesto-Merced, CA (15.7)
Los Angeles-Long Beach, CA (15)
El Centro, CA (14.1)
San Jose-San Francisco-Oakland, CA (13.8) 
Cincinnati-Wilmington-Maysville, OH-KY-IN (13.6)
Pittsburgh-New Castle-Weirton, PA-OH-WV (12.7)
Cleveland-Akron-Canton, OH (12.2)

Generally, clean air is an expensive commodity, one which rich countries are willing to buy, by restricting the effluents of cars, factories and (often) coal-fired power plants. Poor countries which are trying to develop and industrialize rarely feel they can afford the price clean air costs.

I don't think there is an easy answer for developing countries. However, if the health consequences of particulate air pollution are bad enough, my suggestion is to make polluters pay the price for what they exhaust into the common air everyone breathes. The more junk that comes out of a car's tailpipe should mean a higher tax for the driver/owner of that car. If that were done, drivers would have an incentive to drive cleaner cars. Same thing for smoke stacks at factories and power plants. If the operators had to pay a stiff fee based on how much effluent they put out, they would have a good incentive to invest in cleaner technologies.

As long as everyone else pays the price for an individual's pollution or the effluence of an industry, there will be more bad air days ahead.






Why is the San Bernardino imam lying?



Although no evidence has emerged to suggest that the planning of the mass murder in San Bernardino by husband-wife terrorists Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik involved others from their mosque — though their neighbor, Enrique Martinez, who purchased the assault rifles that were used to kill 14 innocents and was later arrested on terrorism charges — it now looks like the imam, who served as the mosque’s spokesman, lied to the FBI regarding his connections to the couple and their ties to his mosque, according to the New York Post:

“The cleric acting as spokesman for the San Bernardino mosque where terrorist Syed Rizwan Farook worshipped claims he barely knew Farook and didn’t know his terrorist wife at all. But phone records and other evidence uncovered by federal investigators cast doubt on his story. The FBI has questioned the cleric, Roshan Zamir Abbassi, about his phone communications with Farook — including a flurry of at least 38 messages over a two-week span in June, coinciding with the deadly Muslim terrorist attack on two military sites in Chattanooga, Tenn.

“Abbassi, a Pakistani, insists he had nothing to do with the shooting at a San Bernardino County government building five miles from the mosque. While he confirms the text messages with Farook, he claims they were merely discussing food donations for his Dar-al-Uloom al-Islamiya of America mosque. Abbassi maintained at a press conference that he didn’t know Farook any better than he knew the reporters in the room.” 

The problem with Abbassi’s story is that it is contradicted by others at the Islamic religious center, and it seems likely Abbassi had taught Farook the Arabic language:

“Members of the mosque say Farook was a fixture there. He had been coming to pray and study at least three times a week for two years. In fact, he memorized the Koran there, something you cannot do without learning Arabic, a subject Abbassi teaches.”

But did Abbassi also not know Tashfeen Malik, as Abbassi and his assistant imam claimed?

“No one knows anything about his wife,” assistant imam Mahmood Nadvi agreed. “She never came to prayer.”

The NY Post appears to have found that statement to be untrue, too:

“Longtime mosque member Gasser Shehata, who claimed to have prayed “shoulder to shoulder” with Farook, said Dar-al-Uloom prepared a chicken-and-rice dinner to celebrate the couple’s wedding last year. Reportedly, hundreds of congregants attended the walima reception, including the mosque leadership.”

The real question is not so much one of lies about their religious association, but more whether the terrorists became radicalized at the mosque or adopted their homicidal ideology elsewhere. Abbassi claims his mosque is peaceful. 

“He said the mosque teaches only peace, insisting no one has even an ‘extremist idea. In Islam, we are against innocent killing.’”

The problem is that Mr. Abbassi’s idea of “innocence” is not within the American mainstream. His paranoid ideology appears to be more in alignment with the terror groups attacking the West and blaming the United States for troubles in the Middle East.

“Abbassi recently posted a message on Facebook condemning the United States and other Western nations for their Mideast policies, arguing they are equally guilty of violence to achieve political and religious goals. His mosque’s Web page features a video claiming that the San Bernardino shooting was carried out by the US government in a “false flag conspiracy,” and that Farook and Malik were “patsies” assassinated “by government-sponsored perpetrators.”

Being associated with terrorists is not unique to Roshan Zamir Abbassi in his family. His brother has ties to the al-Qaeda terrorist who apparently played a role in inspiring Mr. Farook’s hatred of the United States.

“Another person of interest is Abbassi’s brother, Mohammad Sabir Abbassi, a Muslim activist who serves as a trustee and English teacher at the San Diego mosque once headed by the late al Qaeda cleric Anwar al-Awlaki. FBI Agent Joel Anderson said in court filings that Farook indicated he was a big fan of Awlaki and listened to a series of sermons about jihad and martyrdom called “The Hereafter.”

“In his filing, Anderson says Farook studied the ultra-orthodox Islamic sect Tablighi Jamaat. US officials say the cult, with 50,000 members, is rife with jihadists, and jihadi groomers are recruiting at mosques in at least 10 states.”

Roshan Abbassi has said, “We have nothing to hide.” As the New York Post concludes, there is good reason to doubt Mr. Abbassi’s word.


Sunday, December 27, 2015

"Most Sacramento-area students miss reading standard on new test"



If this test is any indication of the future prospects of children growing up in the Sacramento region, we are in trouble: Most kids in the third grade cannot read at grade level, according to a thorough article in The Sacramento Bee:

"Local teachers are redoubling their efforts after a new statewide test administered last year showed that 60 percent of third-graders in the Sacramento region performed below the state standard in English. The region includes Sacramento, El Dorado, Placer and Yolo counties."

Studies indicate that falling behind by the third grade portends ill for the future:

"Three decades of research have shown that students who can’t read at grade level by that point are more likely to drop out of high school than their reading-proficient peers. ... Third grade is a predictor of future academic success because it is typically when students begin reading more complex texts, said Susan Neuman, an education professor at the University of Michigan and former assistant secretary of elementary and secondary education at the U.S. Department of Education."

Not surprisingly, bad academic performance tends to be concentrated in poorer neighborhoods. Since the adoption of the higher Common Core standards, children in poorer areas have increasingly failed:

"In impoverished communities, students have an even slimmer chance of catching up. ... Seventy-six percent of the region’s poorest kids could not meet standards on the English test, compared to 42 percent of wealthier kids. ...

"Students, regardless of income level, fared worse than under the previous testing system, but low-income schools suffered the steepest performance declines."

WHAT NEEDS TO BE DONE?

The Bee reports that making kids repeat the third grade is one option:

"Some states require that schools hold back third-graders who can’t read at grade level, according to the Education Commission of the States, a nonpartisan consulting organization. California requires third-graders to take reading tests but allows districts to determine whether to send students to summer school or other programs to catch up."

I am all for holding back a child a year, if that means the core reasons he was falling behind are addressed and fixed. However, it likely won't work if the source of his troubles are not addressed.

Will better teaching methods do the trick?

"Sacramento-area school districts have a variety of programs to improve reading in the lower grades. Some focus on improving instruction by offering teacher training, while others are expanding summer and after-school programs."

With 60 percent failing to make the grade, it seems obvious that the "reading program" approach is at the very least insufficient. That's not to say it does no good. But it is not enough.

Professor Neuman thinks enriching a child's vocabulary early on will make him a better reader:

"Neuman said the answer to improving student reading is easy. 'We’ve got to get kids into good preschool programs to accelerate their vocabulary. If a child has poor vocabulary coming into school, they are likely to lag throughout their schooling. It’s a tragic statement, but it’s true.'”

Having parents read to their kids will help accomplish Neuman's objective:

"Educators at local districts say parents can help improve their children’s literacy by reading to them."

My belief is that this reading problem, and almost all educational problems, are the consequence of bad parenting. How much school programs or classroom teachers can really do when a child is coming from a bad home is limited.

In the bigger picture scope of this issue, we need to incentivize people who are not ready to properly raise children from having them in the first place. When the father is absent and the mother has no ability to earn a decent living, the victim of this circumstance will be the kids. Children whose parents completed their education, worked for a few years and gained some marketable skills, got married and then had kids don't normally grow up poor. Our troubles start from the fact that we encourage poor, young, uneducated women who are not in stable relationships to give birth and then rear kids that they are ill-prepared to raise. If a woman (or girl) like that has a kid, she gets all sorts of freebies (housing, cash, food stamps, medical care, etc.). But if she is responsible and waits until she is ready to raise children, she gets nothing. That is what needs to be reversed.

In the small picture scope of this issue, we need to require all parents who receive any public benefits (including food stamps) to take weekly parenting classes, where they meet in a group situation with a parenting counselor who teaches them how to raise their kids. Among the lessons which needs to be taught is for parents to read to their children and help give those kids an enriched vocabulary before they enter school. The parents also need to be taught to be a part of their kids' education: To regularly monitor their homework assignments; to meet with teachers and find out how well their kids are performing; and when their kids are not performing as well as possible to know what resources are available (such as tutors or after-school programs) which can be used to help those children catch up.

On a side note, I would add that there is likely a yardstick issue which makes this problem appear to be somewhat worse than it likely is: All kids are tested and lumped together. That aggregation of scores can be misleading.

Students, for example, who are English learners, but far from proficient in their second language should be removed from the pool and reported upon separately. If, say, 25 percent of kids in a given area are recent immigrants who do not yet speak English well and virtually all of those kids test at below grade level, keeping their scores in the pool will nearly double the percentage of children who have failed the test. Those kids may have no problems at home which need resolving. They may be getting very good classroom instruction and help from a reading specialist. And still, because of their ESL status, they cannot read at grade level. It simply confuses the problem when these kids' scores are not reported apart from the rest.

Another yardstick issue is the inclusion of the test scores of children with retardation or severe learning disabilities. Again, if these children are not reading at grade level, it's not the fault of their parents, their teachers or academic enrichment programs. And if a school or a district has a higher number of such kids -- poor children are more likely to be retarded -- keeping their test scores in with the others makes it appear that the school itself or the parents need more improvement than they really do.



Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Reports of the death of our economy are greatly exaggerated



The website CBS Money Watch has up an interesting, but in my view ultimately wrong piece by Alain Sherter which suggests the U.S. economy is more likely than not to “slip into recession in 2016.”

The article first references the views of analysts from Citi Bank:

“In a December report, Citi Research analysts put the probability of the U.S. entering a new recession -- two consecutive quarters of shrinking economic growth -- at 65 percent. That prediction is partly rooted in history.”

Citi’s argument is based on the years that have passed since our last recession. In other words, a recession is due:

“Looking at previous recessions in the U.S., U.K., Germany and Japan between 1970 and 2014, the bank found that the odds of a downturn cross 50 percent roughly five years into a recovery. Notably, the U.S. is in year seven of its post-recession rebound.”

The timing argument by itself is not persuasive insofar as it offers no trigger for an economic downturn. In every recession, there is always some imbalance or excess which drives a withdrawal from the economy. Just because several years have passed does not mean our economy is out of whack or in need of a correction.

Mr. Sherter continues that “it's not only the past that augurs another economic slump … a number of headwinds threaten next year … the most powerful of these storms is the ongoing economic turbulence in China, Brazil, Turkey and other emerging markets.”

That is actually a novel suggestion, and Sherter concedes as much:

“For the U.S., a recession triggered by economic deterioration abroad would be a first.” 

Mr. Sherter lays out what he believes has happened in the past to derail our economy:

“Typically, bouts of declining domestic growth are caused by a downdraft in domestic demand, often as a result of high interest rates that stifle borrowing and investment, decreasing wages, weak spending, eroding consumer confidence, rising prices and other factors that combine to short-circuit economic activity.”

Here Mr. Sherter largely misses the point. The U.S. economy normally goes into recession as a consequence of excess inventories. What he describes are aftereffects, failing to note what happened first to overheat the economy and thus why the various important negatives drove it down. 

In short, this is what takes place when our economy recesses: There is full or nearly full employment. Consumers, who are workers, are buying the products and services that companies are making and selling. So more and more product is made. But companies eventually overshoot demand. And now some employers lack the sales to keep all their workers on the job. So they let the marginal people go. And that ultimately depresses demand even further. And at this point you have a vicious cycle: Where workers are being laid off until demand picks up; but demand falls more as workers are laid off.

For products like cars, bicycles, RVs, televisions, refrigerators, computers, smart phones, furniture, tools and so on, excess inventory used to be a much bigger problem in the past than it has been in recent decades. 

There are a few reasons for the change. 

One is that data moves faster. If cars are not selling, GM, Ford, Toyota and so on know that right away. There is no lag. They can reduce production immediately. They don’t want to get caught with a lot of inventory they cannot sell.

A second reason this is less of a problem for the U.S. economy is that a much smaller percentage of U.S. workers are employed manufacturing consumer durables like cars and tools. It’s not that we produce very little of these products here. We still do. It’s that those industries are much less labor intensive than they used to be. So the number of jobs lost when manufacturing slows down is much less than in the past.

The third reason is that for some industries — where the fabrication involves a lot of low-skilled labor, such as garments or shoes — nearly all of the manufacturing jobs have moved overseas. So if inventories of, say, Nike shoes build up too much, the first workers laid off will be in China and Vietnam, not Oregon or Maine.

Does that mean, then, that the inventory argument for recession is dated? No. It’s just that there is a special type of inventory which counts. That special type is real estate, especially housing, but also commercial real estate, including shopping malls and office buildings.

It is real estate which drives our economy on the margins to its heights; and when real estate inventories grow too fast for demand, it is real estate which pushes our economy into recession.

This has been true for all of the recessions in the United States since the early-1970s. Again, the recessions all along have been caused by excess inventories. But for the last 40-50 years, the key inventory has been real estate.

When there are too many houses, for example, that will not sell, builders lay off workers, home prices fall, workers buy less of everything else and the vicious spiral continues downward until the excess inventory is absorbed and demand picks up — often fed by government stimulus, like low interest rates or an infusion of cash into the economy.

Even though housing is far more important to the U.S. economy than commercial real estate, the 1990-91 recession began with an overbuilt office market, which itself was largely due to too much money from the Savings & Loans that had greatly relaxed their lending standards. That recession is often called the S&L recession, but it was triggered by an overbuilt office building market.

Unforntunately, the U.S. inventory equation is missing from Alain Sherter’s article. His focus remains on what is going on abroad. He argues, perhaps correctly, that foreigners have overdone their own inventories:

“After decades of investing in roads, factories, high-speed trains, housing and other hallmarks of a modern economy, these countries have too much industrial firepower and too little demand to sustain the hot-house growth required to justify all that spending.”

Again, the idea that this situation abroad will sink us is a novel argument. But I don’t buy it. That’s not to say that the American economy is not affected by what goes on internationally. Rather, that situation pales compared to what is happening here. Yes, U.S. manufacturers whose profits depend on exporting a lot of product overseas are harmed by the slowdown abroad. But marginal exports don’t play such a big role in our economy as real estate absolutely does. 

The most important numbers to know at this point: U.S. home prices have been rising, significantly, and inventories of housing have fallen. 

Home prices have risen 6.1% over the past year. Total housing inventory has fallen 3.3% to 2.0 million existing homes available for sale. Unsold inventory stands at a 5.1-month supply at the current sales pace.

According to the National Association of Realtors, real estate professionals consider a market where homes sell within six months of listing as “balanced” or “neutral,” meaning that enough homeowners are selling and customers buying that neither has an advantage.

Because homes are selling in less than six months on average, it is likey that demand is ahead of supply, and home builders are likely to increase production for awhile.

What would make me worry is if new home starts were going up much faster than the rate of economic growth in the rest of the economy and at the same time home prices were going up substantially faster than household incomes were growing. That is what we faced in the real estate bubble of 2002-08. It was driven by speculative investment, and it was entirely unsustainable.

The price of housing over the longer run should grow at about the same rate as household income grows. If new home starts are lagging, then prices might go up faster for awhile, until supply catches up. But when housing growth is strong and prices are going up too fast, it is just a matter of time before there is serious excess inventory.

Fortunately, that is not the case today. Housing starts have been modest. Inventory is normal. And price increases, while accelerating a bit faster than income, are not out of control and are likely to level off in 2016 and beyond as more product hits the market.

As such, we are not going to slip into a recession in 2016.



Tuesday, December 22, 2015

The politics of the public toilet




The LA Times is reporting that a transgender public restroom initiative, supported by groups which, especially, don't want people with male genitalia to use women's restrooms, failed to gather enough signatures to make it onto the California ballot.

"Backers of a proposed ballot initiative that sought to require transgender people to use the public restrooms that correspond with their biological sex say they have failed to qualify the measure for the California ballot. Privacy for All's initiative would have prohibited transgender people from using the single-sex facilities that matched their gender identity unless a doctor confirmed they had undergone sex reassignment surgery."

Even though I think this "problem" is so small as to not matter -- I've personally never once in my 51 years seen a human being who I thought was transgender enter a public restroom I have been in or been near -- I think there is a reasonable public policy solution moving forward.

I would favor a state law which requires large new public buildings -- or old ones which are substantially renovated -- to have one out of every three public restrooms designated as unisex. This requirement would not apply to any private buildings or any public buildings with less than three public restrooms.

The men's rooms would still be for people who were born male and live life as males. The women's rooms would still be for people who were born female and live life as females. And the unisex restrooms would be for anyone who wanted to use them.

And while I would not make a law requiring public buildings with two restrooms to accommodate transgenders, I think those businesses which have transgender customers or employees would probably be better off by choosing to have either both of their restrooms designated as unisex or simply have one for women only and the other one unisex.




Sunday, December 20, 2015

And the winner is ...



Chances are Steve Harvey will never again be asked to host a beauty pageant. Here is why:

https://vid.me/7ODn

Trump is recruiting for ISIS?



SFGate.com, in its recap of the Democratic presidential debate held last night, reports that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton suggested that the rhetoric of Republican front-runner Donald Trump is driving Muslims to join the Islamic State:

“The Democratic front-runner, kept much of her focus on the general election, sharply criticizing Donald Trump's plan to ban Muslims from entering the United States. She called the leader of the GOP race the Islamic State's best recruiter. ‘Mr. Trump has a great capacity to use bluster and bigotry to inflame people,’ said Clinton, the former secretary of state.”

The idea that a Muslim, who is otherwise peaceful, believes in moderation, modernity and basic human rights, would join up with a vicious retrograde terrorist group like ISIS because a real estate developer running for his party’s nomination for the presidency of the United States said something he did not like is total and utter nonsense.

While much of what Trump says is likely offensive to Muslims—probably more here than abroad—the problem is not his words. The problem is that those even contemplating joining ISIS or joining any one of the other hundreds of Islamist terror groups operating in the Muslim world is that today's Islamic culture is producing people who are immoderate in their beliefs, intolerant of other religions, full of hatred and envy and who reject liberal democracy and all the freedom and messiness that liberty has to offer.

Secretary Clinton may be right to criticize the bigoted views of Mr. Trump and his throng of supporters. But she is wrong to think Trump can move someone to become a terrorist. Where we all need to look is at the culture of intolerance and victimhood in every Muslim country—there is no exception to this—which has led the most extreme believers and those who see themselves as the biggest failures to want to use terrorist violence to advance their sick cause.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Sentence for Oscar Pistorius to triple in length? Many more years in prison?



I had no idea this was even possible: the conviction of Oscar Pistorius, who had been found guilty of manslaughter by a criminal court in the killing of his girlfriend, was overturned by South Africa’s Supreme Court of Appeal, which instead decided the famous disabled athlete was guilt of murder.

So his five-year sentence, where he had to serve just one in prison and the rest in home confinement, will now been increased substantially and Pistorius will be sent back to prison. 

“The minimum sentence for murder in South Africa is 15 years,” according to the Associated Press, “but exceptional circumstances in the case of the former track star, including time already served, his disability and status as a first-time offender, could mean he'll get a lower sentence.”

The same judge, who according to the appellate court erred in judging his crime manslaughter and not murder, will sentence Mr. Pistorius for what now stands as his conviction for murder. 

“Sentencing is up to the North Gauteng High Court, where Pistorius was tried,” the AP reports. “South African media said Judge Thokozile Masipa, who presided over the original trial, will handle the matter. No sentencing date has been set.”

What is so surprising from an American perspective on this case is that an appeal represented further jeopardy for Pistorius. As far as I know, when someone is convicted of a crime by a trial court in the United States, the appeals court cannot increase the penalty or find that the crime was worse than the lower court found. 

So U.S. appellate courts are left with the choice of upholding the lower court’s decision, throwing out part of the conviction or throwing out the entire conviction. In each of those scenarios, the penalty remains the same or is reduced, possibly down to nothing.

What I have never found credible in the Pistorius case is the idea that he did not know, when he shot through his bathroom door, that the person in the bathroom was his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp. He not only knew she was in there, but he knew for certain she was sitting on the toilet.

Imagine you hear someone in your bathroom, as Pistorius says he did, and you think it might be an intruder. Fair enough, if you have a gun, you get it. You then shout at the bathroom door, “Who’s in there?!!!”

If the person is silent, then it might be an intruder. But in this case, Ms. Steenkamp lived in the house and surely would have responded, “It’s Reva!” Why wouldn't she have answered? She was killed on the pot. 

Also, think about this: What "dangerous" intruder breaks into your home and immediately sits down on the toilet? That notion makes no sense. It's not as if the supposed burglar was hiding, crouched behind a sink or staying quiet the shower stall. Reva, the person in the bathroom, was just sitting on the toilet, and Oscar knew it.

So I believe, without the slightest bit of doubt, that Pistorius was certain who was behind the door when he unloaded his gun. His full intent was to murder Steenkamp, and he invented the ruse about “an intruder” in order to cover up his crime.


More guns means more gun deaths


This one graph tells almost the entire story: the United States has by far and away the most gun-deaths per capita of all rich countries; and not coincidentally Americans own the most firearms of any country. In other words, more guns equals more deaths from guns.

A secondary issue is that a disproportionately high percentage of the homicide gun deaths in the United States are not among first-world Americans who have jobs, intact families, educations, mortgages and so on. They take place among blacks, mostly young and poor males, whose violent culture, broken families, lack of education and disassociation from the legitimate economy is far more reflective of a third-world lifestyle than one in the richest countries on earth. 

According to Pew research, "Men (and boys) make up the vast majority (84% in 2010) of gun homicide victims. ... By age group, 69% of gun homicide victims are ages 18 to 40, a proportion that has changed little since 1993. ... Looked at by race, blacks are over-represented among gun homicide victims; blacks were 55% of shooting homicide victims in 2010, but 13% of the population. By contrast, whites are underrepresented; whites were 25% of the victims of gun homicide in 2010, but 65% of the population. For Hispanics, the 17% share of gun homicide victims was about equal to their 16% proportion of the total population."

But homicide is not the only way Americans die from guns. More Americans commit suicide with a firearm (61% of all gun deaths) than kill someone else. Roughly 51% of all successful suicides are with a gun. According to Pew, "Firearm suicide was the fourth leading cause of violent-injury death in 2010, following motor vehicle accidents, unintentional poison (including drug overdose) and falls."

The characteristics of those who kill themselves with a gun is not the same as those who kill others. According to Pew, they are mostly older white males.
"Males are the vast majority of gun suicides (87% in 2010), and the suicide rate for males (11.2 deaths per 100,000 people) is more than seven times the female rate (1.5 deaths). The highest firearm suicide rate by age is among those ages 65 and older (10.6 per 100,000 people). ... Among the three largest racial and ethnic groups, whites have the highest suicide rate at 8.5 per 100,000, followed by blacks (2.7) and Hispanics (1.9)."



Monday, November 30, 2015

Where does Kobe Bryant rank among the all-time greats?




ESPN reports that Kobe Bryant, who is in his 20th season with the Los Angeles Lakers, has announced his intention to retire at the end of the 2015-16 season:

Kobe Bryant, who has helped the Lakers win five NBA championships over a 20-year career spent entirely in Los Angeles, announced Sunday on The Players' Tribune website that he will retire after this season, writing that "this season is all I have left to give.”

"I've known for a while," Bryant said. "A decision like this, you can't make that decision based on outside circumstances. It has to be an internal decision, and finally I've decided to accept that I can't actually do this anymore, and I'm OK with that. It takes a weight off my shoulders and everybody else's."

This morning, I heard a sports bloviator, Stephen A. Smith, declare that Kobe Bryant is “clearly” one of the top 10 players of all time. I am not sure. I think he is close.

Kobe is presently 19th all-time in games played. The 2-14 Lakers still have 66 games left on their schedule. If Kobe plays in 50 of them — considering his injury history it is likely he won’t play in that many games — he will finish 12th in the games played category.

Although Kobe was a 17-time all-star in his career, he won only one MVP (2007-08). Most impressively, 11 times he was voted on the All-NBA first team; and another 9 times he was picked for the defensive first team All-NBA.

It is good that he is 6th all time in career field goals made. However, Kobe is 1st all time in career field goals missed.

What makes me wonder most as to whether he truly belongs in the top 10 players all-time is his career PER, which places him 21st all-time. He is also somewhat low, 50th best, in career Win Shares per 48 minutes, despite playing on many great teams. Additionally, his Box Plus/Minus (31st best) and his career VORP (16th) place Kobe outside the top 10.

He gets a lot of credit for having won 5 rings. However, it must be said that for the first 3 of those, Shaquille O’Neal was at least as important as Kobe, if not more.

Having gone over all the relevant numbers, here is the list of my top 10 players all-time:

  1. Michael Jordan;
  2. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar;
  3. LeBron James;
  4. Bill Russell;
  5. Magic Johnson;
  6. Tim Duncan;
  7. Wilt Chamberlain;
  8. Shaquille O’Neal;
  9. Kobe Bryant;
  10. Larry Bird.

So Stephen A. Smith is in accord: Kobe is a top-10 all-time player. However, at No. 9, it is not entirely obvious.



Friday, November 27, 2015

Leading Figures in the Art World Support Palestinian Artist Sentenced to Death for Apostasy




In the wake of the Islamist terrorist attacks against civilians in Paris on November 13, various Muslim clerics and scholars have condemned that violence as “un-Islamic.”

Yet more important than condemning acts of terrorism committed by Muslims is they condemn the aspects of Islamic culture which produce terrorists. No single component of that culture is more deserving of condemnation than its unenlightened views on freedom of religion, freedom of conscience and tolerance for so-called heresy.

This Islamic backwardness comes into focus this week because a Saudi court sentenced an artist, Ashraf Fayadh, to death on November 17 “after he allegedly made blasphemous comments.”


“The General Court of Abha, a court in the south of Saudi Arabia, says that Fayadh made comments about God, the Prophet Muhammad, and the Saudi state during a group discussion in a cafĂ©, according to trial documents reviewed by non-governmental organization Human Rights Watch (HRW).

“Global artists have condemned a Saudi court’s decision to sentence Palestinian poet Ashraf Fayadh to death.

“Artists and poets across the the U.K., North America and Africa—including British poet Carol Ann Duffy, Syrian poet Adonis and Saudi artist Ahmed Mater—have denounced the ruling by a court in Saudi Arabia on November 17 to sentence Fayadh to death, after he allegedly renounced the Islamic faith.”

The last sentence is key: The court wants him dead because he allegedly renounced the Islamic faith. Yet no Muslim clerics or scholars have spoken up to denounce this barbarity. Their silence is deafening.

It has been roughly 400 years since Christians gave up this sort of unenlightened practice. As far as I know, no Jew has ever been sentenced to death by a Jewish court for apostasy. Yet in Saudi Arabia and virtually every Muslim society, the idea that an individual has the right to make up his own mind regarding what he believes and what he does not is presently unthinkable.

If Muslim clerics and scholars would stand up and speak out and wholeheartedly endorse the notion that Muslim-born individuals have the absolute human right to choose their faith or to choose to have no faith at all, the culture within the Muslim world would change dramatically. It would create for the first time ever tolerance among the Arabs and other majority Islamic societies. 

That enlightenment would itself put out all the fires which are creating thousands if not millions of Muslim terrorists. Terror groups are all in their own way motivated by intolerance and religious hatred. But if Muslim clerics taught them to love thy neighbor, even if he has a different religion or even if he has renounced Islam, groups like Al-Qaeda and ISIS would disappear overnight.

“Members of Saudi Arabia’s religious police—the Committee on the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice—originally arrested Fayadh on August 6, 2013, following a complaint made by a citizen. The court subsequently sentenced the artist in May last year to four years in prison and submitted him to 800 lashes.

“The court retried Fayadh earlier this month, after his appeal was dismissed by a new panel of judges in May 2014. The poet continues to deny making the remarks and says that another man attending the group, in fact, said it.

“Since the court handed the death sentence to the Palestinian artist, leading individuals from the world’s art scene have spoken out in condemnation against the charges.”

A second interesting aspect of this story is the notion that Ashraf Fayadh, the condemned artist, is a Palestinian. He was not born in Palestine or Israel. He was not raised there. He has not, as far as I can tell, ever lived there. His parents, or perhaps his grandparents, moved to Saudi Arabia before he was born. And so Mr. Fayadh was born in Saudi and raised in Saudi, but is not allowed to be a citizen of Saudi Arabia. 

This same story would be true if Fayadh had been born and raised in Kuwait, Jordan, the UAE, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq or any other Arab country. These are all places which claim their undying affinity for the Palestinian people. Yet none of them ever allows Palestinians—second, third or even fourth generation Palestinians—born in those countries to be citizens. They are permanently banished to second class status. And that makes plain the lie that they love the Palestinians. If they did, they would allow them first-class status as full citizens of their countries. Instead, they hold them down and often force them to live in refugee camps for 40, 50 and 60 years—with no end in sight.