The Real Boston Bombing Trial Begins

In perhaps the least surprising jury verdict ever, a federal jury in Boston has convicted a man whose defense counsel acknowledge that his client committed the acts charged in the April 15, 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, and did not claim the insanity defense in opening arguments, after a fifteen day trial at which 92 witnesses were presented.

This was just the warm up to the real dispute in this case.  Should Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the younger brother of the mastermind behind the bombing who died before he was apprehended, face the death penalty for his role in the bombing?  Or, should he merely receive life in prison without any possibility of parole, probably to be served in the AdMax highest security prison in the federal system in Colorado?

In the penalty phase of the trial, Tsarnaev’s defense counsel will try to humanize his client who was 19 years old when the crime was committed and admittedly played a secondary, although important role in the heinous act of terrorism, arguing that he should not be executed.

There is no state level death penalty in Boston, and it is a liberal leaning state, so Tsarnaev stands a fighting chance that someone in the jury will decide that he shouldn’t be sentenced to death, even though the jury was “death qualified”, screening out anyone morally opposed to the death penalty in all circumstance.

A verdict on guilt or innocence less than two years after the crime was committed in a capital case in federal court is relatively swift justice in this terrorism case, and leaves no uncertainty at all regarding the legality of the outcome, the certainty of serious punishment, correctness of the government’s allegations factually, the availability of the full range of due process protections for the accused.  No one can doubt after today’s verdict that Tsarnaev really was guilty of the crime with which he was charged.  The same cannot be said for terrorism suspects treated as enemy combatants or subjected to military justice.

These facts make Americans at home and abroad safer.  Tsarnaev will not be an international cause celebre, or rally marginal supporters to his cause of Chechynian independence.  He was treated as a mere murderer, and found unequivocally guilty of that crime.  Justice is done without fanfare.

A jury still needs to make a call on whether there will be an execution.  The high quality of attorney practice in a federal death penalty case in Boston means that this phase of the trial will almost surely be conducted by the book, with little room for complaint after the fact in appeals.

If the jury rules that there should be, this decision will hardly be the most problematic of death penalty cases by almost any measure, and will be carried out more swiftly than the ordinary execution, because there are fewer layers of appeals in the federal criminal justice system.  He doesn’t even have a wife or children who will suffer as a result of his incarceration or execution, and his brother is already dead.

If the jury rules that there should not be an execution, the case will be concluded and soon forgotten.  Tsarnaev will probably not even appeal either the verdict or the sentence.  He will rot away in a high security federal prison from his current age of twenty-one until his death, and remain forgotten unless his intellectual accomplishment in prison are notable and somehow reach the general public, which is really rather unlikely.

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via Denver News

Low Income Housing Policy

The federal government devotes an immense amount of money to housing subsidies.

About $40 billion of it goes to quite ineffectual mean tested programs, about $6 billion of it goes to tax credits for low income housing developers, and about $600 billion comes in the form of tax loopholes and subtle assumed guarantees of federally owned mortgage wholesalers that mostly benefit the middle-middle to upper-middle class.

Despite the programs in place, people still die because that can’t find affordable housing with standard utilities for their families.  This week, a man who worked in a restaurant kitchen and his seven children in Maryland died in their sleep of carbon monoxide poisoning, when they resorted to putting a space heater in a poorly ventilated kitchen of a unit that had no legitimate electricity service when the utility company cut off their electricity service from their pirated electricity meter.

Marginal Revolution notes a new NBER paper on the subject.

Some of the biggest barriers to low income housing are local.  Zoning and building codes limit where small square footage, high density, more affordable housing can be built, while trying to atone for these barriers by mandating that developers build money losing affordable housing in order to gain the right to build large subdivisions with unaffordable housing.  Usually, these codes make the best the enemy of the good, confusing minimum standards of habitability and public safety, with mere cramped conditions and aesthetic concerns.

Tax subsidies to mortgage holders are also not shared by renters.

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Other Places Have Cat Ladies, We Have Prairie Dog Ladies

9News has the story, along with the dubious assertion of law that “prairie dogs are owned by the state of Colorado.”  While wild animals are regulated by state law, they are not, in general, owned by the state, or for that matter, anyone else, until they become property pursuant to the rule of capture.

The woman in question may well have been housing prairie dogs without a permit in a residential building, but in my view, they are still her property under Colorado law, unless there is some statute to the contrary of which I am unaware.

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The Economics Of DNA Informed Medicine

In the past, I’ve generally assumed that customizing medical treatment with DNA testing was a prohibitively expensive exercise for only the most affluent.

Technological advances that have brought down the cost of these kind of testing, and the perspective that comes from having it done yourself, has changed my attitude.

As I’ve noted at the sister blog to this one, I recently had a total genome profile of myself (and the rest of my family) commercially prepared by 23 and me.  The basic price is $99 per test, with a discount for bulk orders.  It is arguably not medical grade in accuracy and completeness, but it is still quite complete and accurate.  And, the technology will only improve over time.

Some key points about DNA testing are worth noting:

1.  Absent retroviral infections, your DNA will generally remain the same from prior to your birth until long after your death.  So, you only need one medical grade DNA test per lifetime.

2.  The data set produced by a DNA test, while voluminous, is amenable to easy and compact electronic storage.  A DNA chip measures something on the order of 600,000 to 1,000,000.  Each SNP location can be coded with redundancy to allow for error checking with less than one byte of binary information.  You can code the entire data set on an uncompressed basis with about 1 MB of data.  But, since a large share of SNPs mostly have the same value for everyone, it is also possible to use a compression algorithm that would report only atypical values at those SNPs where the values are atypical.

Bottom line: a complete genome can be easily transmitted as a modest sized e-mail attachment, and is quite readable in ordinary English so long as you know the correct designation for the SNP you are looking up.

3. Your DNA contains information relevant to many ailments you may suffer during your life and to how you will react to many medicines that you may be prescribed during your life.

4. For any given ailment or medicine, it takes a computer program no more complex than a simple cell phone app to review your genome and produce all information relative to that ailment or medicine in readable terms based on published scientific studies.  SNPedia is an amateur, open access effort that comes very close to containing all of the information needed to locate the relevant articles and prepare outputs that spell out the personal DNA considerations involved.

5. In mass production, apps like this could be bundled as a no cost add on to a prescription, much as existing prescription information and warnings is today, for medicines, and a full catalog of these apps for all ailments a particular type of doctor is likely to encounter in his or her practice, ought to be possible to produce for less than the cost of a common, standard medical treatise.  The cost to buy these apps and annual updates would be tiny relative, for example, to a doctor’s medical malpractice insurance bill each month.  An estimate of a cost of $1 per patient visit would probably be high.

In short, it might cost $200-$300 per patient, per lifetime, to make a review of a patient’s genome, a standard part of a typical doctor’s decision to prescribe a drug or devise a treatment plan.  Somebody has to fund to basic research that goes into published journal articles on genetic associations with diseases and medicines, just as they do today, but the value added secured by that research, if routine DNA checks were part of normal medical practice, would be much greater than we have today where the dissemination of that research is far less systemic.

Today, the gathering of the research that informs how we read a patient’s genome and apply it to medical practice is in its infancy.  But, we have a solid database with respect to some ailments, like breast cancer and Alzheimer’s disease, and some drugs.  Over time, as the value of the research in daily practice becomes clear, the list of ailments and drugs about which we have good DNA specific information will expand dramatically.

The process of diagnosing an ailment from a set of symptoms, for example, when leveraged with the power of DNA, prior medical record, and population-wide data informed Baysean priors, is likely to become much more accurate.  There may still be cases where trial and error, or additional diagnostic tests are required.  But, the odds of landing on the right diagnosis in the smallest average number of trials, will be greatly improved.

The best doctors today intuitively incorporate prior medical records and population-wide data in their estimate of the best diagnosis, but only consider the individual patient’s propensities written in their DNA in exceptional case.  But, in the near future, including this powerful dataset could become routine.

It also isn’t particularly important that the DNA information piece be tightly integrated with the rest of the data.  A medical practitioner could simply include a one page report with DNA information pertinent to the task at hand with the other materials in the patient’s medical record at diagnostic junctures as a matter of course, and could consider it holistically using his or her “wet ware” together with the other information in the file.  Often it would just be a check box task – a medical paraprofessional would ask the treating physician what to pull DNA information on, would run those reports, and would present them to the physician a few minutes before a visit with a patient together with the rest of the patient’s file.

Thus, treating a patient with DNA informed medicine would be less like ordering imaging, like an MRI, CAT Scan, or X-ray on a case by case basis, and more like reviewing the vaccination page or allergy listing or birth certificate already in the patient’s file.  Once the medical quality genome test was done once in a patient’s life, nothing new would have to be ordered and no additional patient time would be required to use this diagnostic tool.

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New Noninvasive Down’s Syndrome Test Highly Accurate

A new blood test for pregnant women, taken around the end of the first trimester of pregnancy, has proven much more effective than existing standard noninvasive screening tests at identifying trisomy 21 which accounts for 90% of Down’s Syndrome cases, according to a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine (one of the most prestigious medical journals in existence).

The 15,803 women were tested using the old standard screening and the new test.

There were 38 pregnancies in the sample with this genetic defect.

The old standard screening missed 8 of 38 pregnancies with this genetic defect and had 854 false positives.  Only 3.4% of positives on the old standard screening test were correct, and 21.1% of true positives were missed.

The new screening test missed no pregnancies with genetic defects and had 9 false positives (a more than 98% improvement in the false positive rate).  Of those 9 false positives, 8 out of 9 were also false positives on the old standard screening test.  80.9% of positives on the new screening test were correct.

Among 11,994 women at low risk, there were 19 true positives and 6 false positives with the new screening test.  For low risk women, 76.0% of positives on the new screening test were correct.

Among 3,809 women at high risk, there were 19 true positives and 3 false positives with the new screening test.  For high risk women, 86.4% of the positives on the new screening test were correct.

Something on the order of 50% to 90% of pregnancies that are confirmed to have trisomy 21 are terminated.

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Demigod Sacrifice Day

Today, high church Christians celebrate their religion’s central act of human sacrifice.  Strictly speaking, however, while Christian doctrine affirms that the victim of the sacrifice is both fully human and fully divine, the sacrifice is more of a demigod with a human mother and God as a father, who has magical powers (including the power to give his followers lesser magical powers) as a result.  According to the Gospel of John, however, this demigod actually existed from the beginning of time and is merely reincarnated into his demigod being recounted in Christian doctrine.

The device used to kill the human sacrifice is the symbol of the religion.

The event is also celebrated at many weekly Christian worship services with ritual symbolic cannibalism (although Roman Catholic doctrine holds that bread and wine are magically transformed into meat and blood in the ritual, making their Mass an event of actual ritual cannibalism).

In the Christian Gospels, what actually happens is that the Jewish demigod founder of their religion is executed for sedition by Roman authorities supported by the local Jewish leaders.

But, this counts as a “sacrifice” for purposes of Christian doctrine, because the man executed was a prophet who knew it was going to happen and could have prevented it, but instead accepted his fate.  This counts for doctrinal purposes as a sacrifice by the victim’s father, because he too knew what was going to happen and could have prevented it.

This human sacrifice in Christianity, like human sacrifices in other religions, provides benefits not to the victim of the human sacrifice, but to other people with only a thin connection to the sacrifice event.

In particular, Christian doctrine provides that the sacrifice of the victim by his father confers benefits on the religious followers of the father and the son by relieving them of metaphysical consequences for their own wrongful acts and the wrongful acts of their ancestors.  (A Christian doctrine called “original sin” holds that all humans must suffer metaphysical consequences for the wrongs of their earliest ancestor.)

Now, there are some plot holes in this account.

First, Christian doctrine does not explain to whom the father of the victim is sacrificing his son in order to relieve his worshipers of the metaphysical consequences of their wrongful act.  Christian doctrine provides that the father of the victim, together with the victim, and a third divine aspect called the Holy Spirit, are collectively the all powerful and all knowing God, so one would think that there is no one for the father of the victim to sacrifice the victim to, other than himself.  And, a sacrifice one makes to please oneself doesn’t sound like much of a sacrifice.  There is no Christian doctrinal tradition in which God the Father, sacrifices God the Son, to God the Holy Spirit, so that theory doesn’t fit the bill either.

Second, the demigod founder of the religion goes to Hell once he is sacrificed, even though he is supposedly without sin and blameless.  Apparently, this was very unpleasant.  This brings us to the third point.

Third, the sacrifice really isn’t much of a sacrifice.  According to Christian doctrine, the demigod founder of the Christian religion returns to life on Earth from Hell in corporal form into the body he was killed in, less than 48 hours after he was sacrificed.  Maybe he was rejected for not being sinful enough and it just took a while for Hell to get around to processing him because it was short staffed on a weekend or something.  But, if the victim and his father both know that this resurrection was going to happen, it makes the sacrifice look rather petty.  Two days of suffering in Hell out of an eternity of life involving the adulation of billions of people and supreme supernatural power that extends to the power to meddle in the everyday lives of everyone in the world.

The resurrection is a bit underwhelming, however.  The founder of the religion makes a handful of small group appearances to small groups of his inner circle of followers for a couple of months, and then undead Jesus levitates to Heaven where he reigns in glory with his father and the third aspect of God, the Holy Spirit.  Undead Jesus doesn’t really do anything of consequence on Earth after his resurrection, except to encourage his closest follows to keep the faith.

Jesus and undead Jesus tell his followers that he will return to the world to reward his worshipers and rule to rule the world justly, but almost two thousand years later, his worshipers are still waiting.

In the meantime, his worshipers, in addition to being required to believe this story, are also encouraged to have a personal relationship with undead Jesus that is shared with the other billion Christians alive today.

The only miracle in all of this is that a billion people do either believe this or claim to believe that this story is the deepest and most absolute and essential truth about our universe.

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via Denver News