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The Column of Lasting Insignificance: August 28, 2010

John Wilcock

“The most interesting things in life come looking for you rather than the other way around.”
Stumbling on HappinessMonitor on Psychology

IT’S ABSOLUTELY SHAMEFUL the way that the U.S. keeps more people in prison than almost any other civilized country. “Justice is harsher in America than in any other rich country,” says the Economist, reporting that proportionately this country incarcerates five times more people than Britain, nine times more than Germany, and 12 times more than Japan. One in 400 Americans were in jail in 1970, now the figure is one in 100 with the number of drug offenders in federal and state lock-ups having increased 14-fold since 1980. Overly-strict sentencing has affected everything from the 3,700 victims in California jails under the three-strikes law (even if their crimes were not violent or serious) to doctors who under-prescribe drugs for cancer patients out of fear of drug-trafficking charges. “Some inmates emerge from prison as more accomplished criminals,” says the mag. “Crime is a young man’s game yet American prisons are crammed with old folk. Nearly 200,000 prisoners are over 50. Most would pose little threat if released.”

“Over the last 40 years,” writes libertarian Gene Healy, “an unholy alliance of big-business-hating liberals and tough-on-crime conservatives has made criminalization…a way to demonstrate seriousness about the social problems of the month whether it’s corporate scandals or e-mail spam.”

“Jail is expensive,” the magazine adds. “Spending per prisoner ranges from $18,000 a year in Mississippi to about $50,000 in California, where the cost per pupil is but a seventh of that.”

SEEKING ALTERNATIVES TO the polygraph machine, some police departments are turning to voice-based lie detection, but studies are casting doubt on their efficacy. Developers contend that physiological changes occur when somebody is lying and this triggers consistent readable changes in the voice, reports Science News. A few law enforcement agencies still have faith that voice stress analyzers are at least as accurate as polygraphs (which isn’t saying much seeing as polygraphs are not allowed as evidence) but the University of Texas’ John H.L. Hansen calls them bogus and says it doesn’t make sense to spend money on them. “(They have) no scientific basis whatsoever,” he proclaims.

STERILISING WATER WITH chlorine or iodine tablets takes up to 30 minutes but now a British inventor, Timothy Whitehead, has come up with a dual-chambered bottle containing an ultraviolet bulb which can be wound up and purifies the contents in 30 seconds.

CENSORSHIP AS ‘TOLERANCE’ is how Denmark’s Jacob McHangama describes the growing tendency to impose the definition of “hate speech” on comments that should be free. In National Review he writes that for ten years Islamic states have been pushing for criminalizing so-called defamation of religion and that this interferes with the basic right of an individual to speak his or her mind. It’s a danger to freedom of expression, he emphasizes, and it’s “condescending and oppressive for the government to presume it knows which views its citizens can be trusted to express.” Moreover, says this lecturer on human rights (at the University of Copenhagen) there is no clear evidence that hate-speech laws increase racial or religious tolerance or help eradicate racism.

  “I don’t smoke grass any more. I gave it up. I just wanted to see if I could function without it. But it did save my ass in Vietnam. I could have become a very bitter man.”
Oliver Stone

IDENTIFYING AS REPEAT WINNERS the countries of Argentina, Chile, Namibia, and South Africa for such virtues as addressing climate change, reducing deforestation, and increasing political rights and civil liberties, Earth Island Journal listed them in its Best Ethical Destinations for 2010. Not a single Asian country made the list due to “irresponsible development, human rights abuses and a lack of strong environmental policy” and, surprisingly despite its eco-tourist fame, Costa Rica didn’t make the cut because of “sex tourism problems and child prostitution.”

THE HEALTH OF DOCTORS was researched by Newsmax which concluded that it found them in better shape than most other people “but many have surprisingly unhealthy habits.” Almost half of those surveyed admitted to being overweight, for example, and too many ate fast food too often.
Overworking sometimes to 60 hours a week or more, and working on days when they were sick were also commonplace. “There’s a culture of denial within doctors with regard to their own health,” declares the British Medical Association’s Michael Peters.

DESCRIBING BARACK OBAMA as the Most Powerful Man in the World, the Spectator says that nevertheless he’s become a prisoner of events that he can’t control after booting General Stanley McChrystal from his role of commanding U.S. forces in Afghanistan. “By appointing (General David) Petraeus in his place,” says the mag, “Obama becomes beholden to the most celebrated soldier of his generation. Petraeus wields more clout in Washington than any general in recent memory and knows how to use it…Regardless of how events on the battlefield may unfold, he cannot afford to fire Petraeus without touching off a political firestorm…If Americans had wanted a ‘war president’ they would have chosen McCain.”

THE WILCOCK WEB: What China needs is a new Mao Tse-Tung who will represent a repressed underclass against a government that claims to be communist but is actually fascist  (fascism: “a political philosophy, movement, or regime that exalts nation over the individual and that stands for a centralized, autocratic government…” — Merriam Webster Collegiate Dictionary)…. When lobbyists insist (ridiculously) that their donations don’t influence legislators, maybe they should agree to put all the bribes into a common pool and be shared equally….. If you insist too long that you’re right, you’re wrong quoth some wiseass… According to a real estate column, actress Scarlett Johansson just sold for $4m a house she bought in 2007 for $7m. Just imagine having so much spare cash you can afford to lose more on selling your house than most people make in a lifetime….There’s no valid reason why Disney, or any other company, should have to change its policy for staff uniforms to accommodate the wishes of some religious nut….In Friborg, Switzerland, a man dressed as a winged angel stands roadside to warn motorists of the dangers of careless driving…. Whiten your teeth and remove wrinkles on photographs you have uploaded with the aid of…. The World Gravy Wrestling Championships is a feature of the Pennine Lancashire Festival of Food and Culture in northern England on August 30…… An eruv is the physical manifestation of hypocrisy…. MISFORTUNE COOKIES: Take comfort or fame, but you can’t have both…. The rumor that drinking tea causes people to pee more often was disproved by a British researcher who compared people who drank tea with those who drank water …. “The Internet is the first thing that humanity has built that humanity doesn’t understand,” declares Google’s boss Eric Schmidt, “the largest experiment in anarchy that we have ever had”….The special Christmas edition of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight books will have ‘bloodstained’ edges…. Uncompliment: “He has Van Gogh’s ear for music” — Billy Wilder…. London’s Spectator magazine will sponsor a debate next month on whether to cut out spending on the arts and another one in November about whether to curtail the “special relationship” with the U.S. and “look across the Channel for friendship”… “I do not know how to teach philosophy without becoming a disturber of established religion.” — Baruch Spinoza (1632-77)