Saturday, December 29

Race, Crime, and DNA

The Inconvenient Science of Racial DNA Profiling (Wired)
A condensed version of this article (Wired)

DNAWitness, a test offered by the Florida genetics company DNAPrint Genomics, claims to be able to identify (with 99% accuracy) the ancestry of a human based on a sample of their DNA. It has been used in over 150 criminal cases to help the police narrow down their suspect lists based on race. In the case described in this article, a serial killer in Baton Rouge was only found after DNAWitness determined that he was Afro-Carribean or African American; until then, the police had been focusing exclusively on Caucasians.

Such a tool would seem to be of great utility to law enforcement, and yet it appears that this test has failed to gain acceptance in the field. Price is cited as a barrier, but a $1500 to $3000 price tag would hardly seem to be prohibitive, especially for assistance is solving a case that has already been worked on substantially. Accuracy is obviously a concern, but blind trials have apparently shown the test to be highly accurate. The real issue here is whether this test represents a type of "racial profiling" that we should use to assist law enforcement. Even using the term "racial profiling" in this context seems questionable: not only because of the highly emotional associations we all have with the term, but also because narrowing the scope of an investigation based solely upon generic assumptions about which races commit which crimes is a far cry from basing that decision upon the genetic markers contained in DNA found at a specific crime scene.

Unfortunately, I think it's unlikely that such a tool will take off in the near future given the very sensitive racial climate we inhabit, in which emotion (sometimes rightfully so) comes first and reason comes second. In the long term, however, I hope that these tests will be proven highly and consistently accurate, and will ultimately become one more tool in the arsenal of effective law enforcement.

Tuesday, December 25

Quintuple your money, for free!

Now That a Penny Isn't Worth Much, It's Time to Make It Worth 5 Cents (New York Times)

How do you deal with the fact that our pennies and nickels are currently worth more as raw materials than as coins? Melting down the coins for their metals is now illegal, for one, but still the problem remains that we are minting money at a loss, and the problem will only get worse with inflation.

Economist Francois R. Velde of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago argues that we should abolish the existence of a one-cent coin, and pennies should be reassigned a value of five cents.

As far as I can tell, the plan he proposes would indeed save hundreds of millions of dollars (and also help the poor), with minimal adverse effects. How clever!

Japanese ingenuity

Fearing Crime, Japanese Wear the Hiding Place (New York Times)

I have always been fascinated by the oddball ideas that originate in Japan. (Perhaps the Japanese would say the same thing about our ideas!) I appreciate that kind of inventiveness, creativity, and out-of-box thinking. The manhole bag seems to have some merit, but the image of a child pretending to be a fire hydrant is simply priceless.

For a much more bizarre look at a slice of Japanese culture, check out this list of "baffling toys from around the world" from; it appears that most of them are from Japan. Warning: you may find some of these toys to be offensive, especially if you have trouble with the idea of a "poop hat."

Sunday, December 23

Elections we can trust

Ohio Elections Official Calls Machines Flawed (New York Times)

It has become increasingly well-known and accepted that the electronic voting machines many states have relied on are just a sad piece of technology. Those who have studied these machines have known for years that many popular models of these machines are both unreliable and insecure, but election officials have long ignored the available evidence, and the public has been left with election results that are literally unverifiable.

This New York Times opinion piece from January 2007 has an excellent history of how the tide has turned in favor of verifiable election results, mostly due to the work of a successful grassroots reform movement.

Saturday, December 22

Ladies' Night

A Las Vegas Gym Faces a "Ladies' Night" Bias Case (New York Times)

Following in the footsteps of those who have sued bars to end the practice of "ladies' nights" (which has had mixed results), a Las Vegas man is suing a gym that offered a cheaper sign-up rate for women as well as a special workout area for women, claiming sex discrimination. He makes the claim that such a policy is just as bad as giving a price break to a certain race, and that if race-based discrimination offends you, so should discounts for women.

I can't help but feel that at least at bars, ladies' nights are not only good business but are in the public interest. My argument is that interaction between the sexes is an inherent purpose of most bars, and if those bars want to use price differentiation to achieve that goal, then it should be allowed.

But on the other hand, I am having a really hard time justifying how that scenario is legally and morally different from a bar hosting a "whites' night", which I would not at all support. Is it simply that we have gotten so used to ladies' nights, senior citizen discounts, and admission discounts for children that they 'seem' okay, even if they are not materially different from race-based discrimination?

I welcome your arguments in the comments section!

Friday, December 21

Hacking climate change

Global Climate Engineering: Who Controls the Thermostat? (Wired)
The Year's 10 Craziest Ways to Hack the Earth (Wired)

A great introductory article about the risks of "geo-engineering" the planet in order to avoid disastrous global climate change, and a companion article about ten of the more radical ideas currently being investigated. (My favorite idea: Feeding garlic to cows.)

Thursday, December 13

Saved by... mirror bees?

The Best Way to Deflect an Asteroid (New York Times Magazine)

A two-year study by a Scottish researcher rated the "mirror bees" method as the best way to protect Earth from an asteroid impact, should one of sufficient size be headed in our direction. This method involves sending mirror-equipped satellites into space to surround the asteroid, reflecting sunlight onto a single spot on the asteroid in order to burn a hole in it and release a stream of gases that will move it off-course.


The Engineer has a much more in-depth article about the study, and Wikipedia's article about asteroid deflection strategies provides some additional background.

The New York Times Magazine article about asteroids is actually part of their quirky cover story this week, "The 7th Annual Year in Ideas." Some of my favorites:

Sunday, December 9


Why don't American kids respect their parents more? (Marginal Revolution)

This is why I love economists and their ability to dissect issues. A bit of a tongue-in-cheek post by Tyler Cowen (an economics professor at George Mason), but thought provoking nonetheless. I like #1 and #2 the best, but Britney leads me to take a closer look at #8.

Hummers for environmentalists

Motorhead Messiah (Fast Company)

"Professional car hacker" Johnathan Goodwin spends his days converting monstrous, power-hungry vehicles into fuel efficient, clean burning, even-more-powerful vehicles. He does what Detroit has always said can't be done: Produce vehicles that are clean enough to please environmentalists, yet large and powerful enough to satisfy the American consumer market.