The Scientific Approach to Reducing Police Violence

I don’t know what combination of changes will reduce police violence. But I do know:

  1. It will take some combination of changes. One change will not do it.
  2. There is a way to find that combination of changes.
  3. Changes to policing will make the job of policing itself safer.

I can come up with plausible ideas, like an alternative to jury duty (those who are called in for it would skip their next jury call) where members of the public are tasked with hanging out with cops from their community (in a group of up to six (yeah, I know it won’t work at the moment due to the pandemic)) for an hour or two and engaging in some activity where they talk. Bowling or a shared meal, whatever.

But all the plausible ideas that might build connective tissue and bridge the gaps that have contributed to the problem, along with the other ideas, may sound fine, but will they actually work?

Have the federal government pass a law. The law will condition existing funds or new funds to communities that try some change that is intended to reduce policing problems. Think of it like opportunity zones, but without all the greedheads twisting it to only enrich themselves.

Anyway, if you have 500 municipalities with significant data available across the country, and they all try some changes, some of those will yield what at least smells like progress. And then those changes can be adopted in other localities, and sooner or later we’ll find some things that help.

It’s the scientific method, applied to a problem in the real world!

Now the changes can’t be anything. Having all police wear green shoelaces isn’t (or would it?) going to make the nut. There would need to be some reasonable review process for developing and vetting the ideas. Possibly—depending on the change—an ethics review (like the above idea of conscripting civvies to hang out with cops—is that a kosher use of their time?).

But one plausible prediction is that a good portion of places that do make some change under such a program would see positive results. That is to say, sometimes doing something visible and meaningful is enough to change the attitudes that have long-persisted and wrought harm. Not always, but sometimes. Even if it’s just wearing green shoelaces.

Set that aside, as it could be temporary. But even accounting for a kind of social placebo effect, some places will make changes that have a bigger effect than that. And we can replicate. And we can mutate the changes to see if we can get a stronger effect.

Or we can wait for the next act of violence and throw up our hands again and feel fucking impotent and dread hearing from the right-wingers who want to blame anything but the broken fucking record of the system that is incapable of change.

Other cities haven’t waited. There were diamonds in the rough of these protests, cities that have better records currently. The rest should emulate the ones who get it right.

Given the plague is still around, local governments should be coordinating with protesters more closely to both avoid these horrid incidents of violence by police against peaceful protests and to minimize the opportunity of transmission of a deadly disease.

The election is in 21-ish weeks. You should register to vote! You should plan to vote! You should close your eyes and visualize yourself voting! You should go to the mirror and look yourself in the eyes and say, “I’m gonna vote.”


Giving Scroll a Shot

Scroll is the latest attempt to monetize news sites without advertising. It’s another variation on a theme, as there is demand for a better model and there is some amount of reader money sitting idle, and there are very annoying ads to not be served.

Their model is $5 monthly and they say they give a cut to the sites based on how much you read. So their model is really about like cable television: if they can match enough readers with enough sites, it works. You won’t read every site, and so it’s a numbers game of hitting the right mixtures to attract enough readers.

My preferred model would still include a per-article split, plus some way to influence the split if you really enjoyed a particular article on a particular site. But it’s worth a shot.

There are a few things I hope will eventually happen, regardless of this iteration of pay-news’ success. First, some kind of standards for advertising is obviously needed. Readers should be able to set what kind of ads they find acceptable, whether that’s text-only, no-animation, no-video, no-sound.

Sites should be prohibited from replacing ads after the page has loaded. The Washington Post has been bad about that for some time, and Ars Technica does it, too.

Sites should not shift text while loading ads or while you scroll. It is a mortal sin to pull text out from under the reader’s eyes. Anyone in the business of putting words in front of readers should know better.

The other thing would be a better relationship between readers and news sites. There’s a kind of hostility by the sites (I don’t interact with the readers, so maybe there’s hostility there, too), where using an ad-blocker or trying to read a one-off article is met with a kind of creepy store clerk hovering on you as you browse. “What, you don’t want to see our obnoxious (potentially malicious) ads?” “You know, you can’t come in the store again if you don’t buy something.”

Probably the big problem will be—for now—lack of selection and lack of easily knowing which sites are which. I tend to read articles on sites I’m more familiar with, because I know what to expect ad-wise. Will a random site be a clusterfuck? Happens often enough. So I’ll actually search for an alternative site with a similar article, if I think it’s less trouble than clicking through to a mess of a site.

Which is the other thing I eventually hope to see: standards of content display that go beyond advertising standards. Most dead-tree newspapers had pretty similar formats. They were built for reading, and they did it with minimal nonsense and minimal stylization. But the web, every site has to be overdesigned. That’s one of the reasons I’ve mostly given up on customizing styles on this site—hopefully it makes things a bit more standard, a bit less of a bother to whoever the heck reads this.

Anyway, for now I’m giving it a try. I don’t actually read most of the sites in Scroll’s list, but some of them were excluded because of their paywalls. So maybe now I’ll read them some more and see what’s what.


Where are We in this Thing?

It’s a good question, and one which doesn’t have a good answer. We don’t really have a consistent story of which states are doing what, much less what individuals are doing. The economic force, which is major, seems to be overpowering the protective force. A backfire is the major risk, with some areas of the country already seeing rises while others continue to fall.

The main challenge is, will the various governments be aware enough to catch new outbreaks early, and even if they do, will the stacks of human cordwood, that have their sights set on beaches and beer and all that, heed the call if a small flare-up risks becoming a five-alarm blaze?

The cordwood looks to do the heavy lifting, at least in the South, where the business community has caught the eye of the political class and they will not listen to science. If your area has an outbreak, and your government says all is well, believe the science. Practice the rules of prevention. At the least, you won’t be contributing to someone else’s misery with a deadly virus by not spreading it.

You don’t want to pass it on to your family or your hunting buddy, no matter how good a beer at the bar sounds.

Governments that are unwilling to follow science will be governments that find themselves without support in elections to come, and states that ignore science will be states that find people and businesses leaving. The short-term economy is currently the enemy of the long-term, in that sense.

What’s supposed to have happened is that testing would ramp up and tracing would ramp up and best practices, tailored to the business, would ramp up. Instead, testing is slowly getting better, but is unlikely to get to the levels really needed with asymptomatic transmission. Tracing doesn’t really do much without adequate testing. It has some marginal benefit, some localized protection, but not a ton if you don’t have the testing to feed it.

Best practices rely heavily on strong communication skills and coordination, but without governments leading on that, it’s a very sloppy and mixed effort. Some states aren’t even publishing their numbers honestly. (Same for nations.)

Think back on driver’s ed, and that old two-second rule. That you should be at least two seconds behind the car ahead, which means more distance at higher speeds. That you need that reaction time.

With our current trajectory in the pandemic, our lag time comes in around a couple weeks. That’s for the governments to act. Add at least a couple more days for the most aware citizens to act. Then a few more for the next half. The remainder, God knows.

At each stage of this crisis, there is an opportunity, there is time to be used to effect whatever changes make sense for the next moment. The administration hasn’t used any of them to do that.

  1. Early warning of emergent threat. The administration could have started ramping up PPE at that point, briefed governors on the basic playbook. They did neither. Donald John Trump turned a blind eye.
  2. Early domestic phase. Could have begun shutting down the largest of gatherings, put us on a kind of half-open footing some states are entering on reopening. Donald John Trump lied that it wouldn’t amount to anything.
  3. First wave hitting. Ramping testing up quickly. Work on mitigation plans for reopening. Donald John Trump Still said it would quickly vanish.
  4. First wave began to taper off. Begin demonstrations of how various workplaces should be operating. Have tracing network ready. Donald John Trump and his team chose to push to reopen without any real plan or messaging beyond that.
  5. Reopening begins. Donald John Trump and his daughter and son-in-law are not planning for how to handle new outbreaks, much less a new wave.

And that’s where we are in this thing.


Terraria: Journey’s End (Plus: Some more plague activities)

If you came for the plague activities, please scroll down.

I was a latecomer to Terraria when I first played the game in the spring of 2017. Best I recall, I saw a screenshot of something someone had built in the game, and intrigued by that creative aspect I gave it a try.

That is still probably my biggest plus for the game: building, creating. The worlds are generated, which gives you a good amount of variability to begin with. That variety includes the different zones or biomes like the ocean, desert, and jungle. Each has its own flavor, and you can build in any of them.

A house in a jungle with a roof made of living vines and plants.

The final major update has released today. The official word was that there would be some delay in Linux (and Macintosh) stability or optimizations, but so far it plays fine here.

One of the other neat things about Terraria was digging into their savegame format (with the help of some sites that publish some of the specification) with Python. Prior versions (we’ll see what 1.4 does) use what’s known as run-length encoding (RLE) to store a subset of the actual world tiles. You can think of it similar to a keyframe system in video, except it marks the last tile type and then the number of (vertically and below) tiles of the same type. Given that large parts of the world are filled with the same type of material (dirt, sand, etc.), this saves a lot of space.

Anyway, for awhile I had a lot of fun messing with that, even wrote a simple tool to turn an image file (using PIL as I recall) into background walls (something that, from a search at the time, had been done by several others).

The main thing I’m looking forward to for 1.4 is the improvements for building (including the ability to craft previously-uncraftable walls and some of the new furniture and other enhancements). They also add a feature called block-swap that speaks for itself, but will be useful for quickly changing the look of a building without having to tear everything down.

A single-mast ship with sail down (in port).

But some of the other features will be nice, including the more responsive world, updated artwork, added music, new town NPCs, and even golf.

Plague Activities (to get them out of your hair long enough to catch your breath)

As obvious, age-appropriateness depends on propensity to put things in mouth, dexterity, etc.

  1. Painting the basement walls. Requires a paintbrush and some container with water. Suffice it to say, you let the kid dip the brush in the water, then use the brush to make wet the basement wall, because it looks like they’re painting it. Could work on other surfaces like sidewalks/walkways or exterior walls. Good for a relatively unsupervised 20 minute break.
  2. Sort the things. Requires three containers, items to be sorted. Preparation: dump the things to be sorted into one bucket, then task your child to put the items of each type into the other buckets. More buckets needed if more than two types of things. Elastic task, as the more things to sort the longer it lasts, but boredom may take hold at around 20 minutes depending on complexity/enjoyability of the particular stuff being sorted. Suggested items include coins, pasta of different shapes, nuts and bolts, goats and sheep, etc.
  3. Terraria! The new version has so-called “journey mode” which lets you turn off enemies. You could build in peace, and you could play a video game while your kid(s) help you decide what to build. Something to consider anyway. Probably works better if you’re already familiar with Terraria. Not as unsupervised as some, but you get to videogame while keeping the runts entertained! Could work for some other games including Minecraft, bridge building games, Besiege, etc.
  4. Tape recorder. If you have an app or other way to play with audio recording, kids can amuse themselves quite awhile just recording, then replaying what they recorded. (At least I did when I was wee. I spent a lot of time playing by myself, in case you wondered.)
  5. Draw your own alphabet. (Requires basic alphabet skills.) 26 new drawings for new letters. Even if they take a minute to come up with each one, that’s 26 minutes back to you.

The Oddity of Opening

The polling and reporting tells the following story:

  1. Most people think that the measures aren’t there to reopen.
  2. Republican-connected groups have been pushing protests to reopen.
  3. Based on that, some Republican governors have been getting ahead of themselves and reopening.

It doesn’t make a lot of sense. While some businesses have a majority of Republicans supporting reopening, a lot do not, and even where there’s a majority, it’s still split (though maybe less or more if you factor in margins of error). There is, once again, a minority Republican view being pressed and causing policy here.

More importantly, there’s a huge business case to be made to pay what’s actually needed to reopen (testing and tracing). It could even be done in a VAT or similar vehicle! But instead of doing it correctly, there are businesses pushing for blanket immunity.

The self-described pro-business lobbies always seemed a bit fucked in the head, but they’re really smashing the old Budweiser can on their forehead this time. If the virus gets worse, all those businesses that reopen will just keep losing revenue. Immunity from lawsuits doesn’t pay bills.

It’s been months now, coming up on five if you count from when the administration had a heads-up from the intelligence community. There’s been ample time to stand up supply chains, to ramp up testing. They haven’t been able to do it.

The problem is this: most people in most states aren’t going to be John Rambo, so most will stay home. Business revenue won’t be improving in the way the open-uppers think it will. But there also won’t be a viable way to open up more or get people back in public, because they still aren’t working on test-trace. So the economy stays a bummer, the virus stays a plateau, and we continue to waste time and money spinning our wheels. It’s stupid. It’s ridiculous. It’s Donald John Trump.

In order for an economy to function, you need supply and demand. The supply is shut for health reasons, but also for demand reasons. Even before stay-home orders hit, many businesses were seeing demand plummet. There is demand—aspirational, “wouldn’t it be nice” demand. But there is not “I’m getting in the car, let’s go now” demand, and there won’t be unless and until there’s a good bet you won’t get sick.

From a numbers point of view, if even 50% of regular demand is there, that’s probably not enough, and if new upticks in cases happen even under depressed demand, that 50% will drop even lower and won’t recover the next time a reopen is attempted.

From a numbers point of view, the cost of the shutdown is very high, far higher than what it would cost to implement real testing and tracing, and yet… the governments are still not saying that. They aren’t doing that. They are ignoring the facts that are plain as day.