Friday, March 28, 2014


I watched part of a popular network tv program last night in which the actor portraying a supervisory-level policeman enters a holding cell and takes a knife to the ear of a prisoner, threatening to fully cut off the man's ear to get a confession.  Other similar shows I have watched show a similar proclivity for portraying acts of violence against people in police custody.  Torture of prisoners is a regular event, for instance, in the popular Hawaii Five-O series.

Why torture has become such a regular feature of popular crime shows is something of a mystery in itself.  While there is no doubt that police brutality is a fact of life, the ways in which it is typically portrayed on tv is totally lacking in credibility.  It is also notable for the fact that the torturers are invariably represented as being morally upstanding defenders of public safety.  It is hard for me to imagine what the writers and producers of these shows are trying to accomplish.  Do their marketing surveys show a big demand for torture scenes?  Is a substantial portion of the prime-time tv audience made up of Dick Cheney Republicans?  It is hard to avoid the conclusion that a large part of the American population is living in a fantasy world in which more guns and more violence makes us all safer.

My suspicion is that the skewing of tv entertainment toward an acceptance of officially propagated torture is closely related to the universal trend toward the militarization of U.S. police departments.  No municipality of whatever size lacks a SWAT team these days, and most seemed to be armed with high-power weapons and equipped with surplus armored vehicles.  This is certainly the case in Albuquerque where the police armored truck shows up frequently at neighborhood events, apparently as some kind of public relations gesture.  There is also clearly a shoot-first cultural tradition in the department which has led to many questionable deaths over a period of years.  A large street demonstration a few days ago against the latest killings showed that public sentiment is swinging toward a demand for the establishment of control over the excess violence by the police, and possibly support for a Department of Justice intervention.

(Deming Headlight photo)
Some details about the militarization of small town police forces are available in a recent article at the AlterNet site.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Getting the News

I have added a couple links over in the right column to blogs about the news.  The most promising from my point of view is Joe Monahan's; he comments extensively and nearly on a daily basis on New Mexico politics.  I was prompted to go looking for new information sources on local news by yet another killing by the Albuquerque police of a person with mental health issues.  The local TV news has devoted quite a lot of time to the event, but the coverage of any topic in the typical half-hour format is superficial at best.  Monahan is well-connected and his wide-ranging articles are well written.  His reporting on the positions of local politicians on the issue of Albuquerque's out-of-control police department is superior to anything else I have found on the topic.

I'm hopeful but less optimistic for the new web site and blog under the direction of number-cruncher, Nate Silver, FiveThirtyEight.  Silver's performance in predicting the outcomes in the last presidential race in every state was flawless.  I thought his book about number crunching was much less impressive.  His new on line undertaking employs a large team of writers with pretty good statistical credentials, but it remains to be seen if they can bring something really new to the table.  Quite a lot of attention is devoted to sports statistics which is of no interest to me.  The political and economic stories so far have mostly seemed uninspired, and the one on climate change by Roger Pielke was something of a disaster.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Photography as speech

New Mexico has taken a leading position in the advancement of the rights of gay couples to marry.  Recently, the state's Supreme Court also ruled that an Albuquerque photo studio, Elane Photography, could not refuse services to a gay couple wanting pictures of their wedding.  Elane Photography's owners had contended that they had a right to refuse services based on their religious beliefs regarding homosexual behavior.  The NM Supreme Court decision affirmed the principle that goods and services cannot be denied based on such discrimination.

A couple lawyers weighed in on the case recently in a letter reproduced in the Wall Street Journal.  Eugene Volokh and Ilya Shapiro asserted that the New Mexico ruling impinges on the company owner's right to freedom of expression or choice not to express some idea as represented by their photographic products.  The U.S. Supreme Court will soon make a decision whether or not to take up the case, and Volokh and Shapiro's point of view would no doubt play a role the proposed proceedings.

The problem I see with the position advanced by Volokh and Shapiro is that it equates the work of a commercial studio portraitist with that of a photojournalist, based primarily it seems on the use of similar image making technology.  That seems to me a pretty tenuous connection.  A photojournalist is clearly using the technology to express ideas in a manner that is constitutionally protected.  A commercial photo studio is doing no such thing; they are not expressing ideas about truth and justice, but rather producing a product designed to make their clients look as good as possible according to conventional social norms.  That is essentially the same objective sought by businesses selling toothpaste and beauty products.

There is a long history in the U.S. of efforts by the religious right to buttress discriminatory practices with appeals to ideas of religious freedom.  Racial segregationists, for instance, asserted it was God's will that the races should live separately, and for a time they were able to get tax exemptions for private segregated schools.  Richard Nixon, a Republican, did away with that exemption.  His party has since shifted further rightward, supporting an endless series of challenges chipping away at the idea of equal rights under law.  There is a good over-view of this history in a recent interview with Columbia Law School professor, Katherine Franke, at the site.

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court declined Monday to decide if a New Mexico wedding photographer was within her rights when she refused to work at a same-sex ceremony.

The denial leaves standing a decision by the state's highest court that went against the photo studio...

   - Richard Wolf, USA TODAY 9:52 a.m. EDT April 7, 2014

Tuesday, March 11, 2014


A Stanford researcher, Manu Prakash, has developed a 50-cent paper microscope capable of 2000x magnification.  His interest was chiefly in making an instrument for diagnosing blood-borne diseases like malaria.  However, the microscope has many other potential applications including basic science education.

An article in Scope, published by Stanford Medicine, describes the origami-like construction and use of the little microscope, and includes this Youtube video:

The web site for the project includes a request for 10,000 volunteers to beta test the Foldscope and to help in developing an open-source manual for the instrument.