# Judicial Math

Whew, quite a week of news, eh? The Manafort verdict has stuck with me, if only for this detail.

One of the jurors from the recently-concluded trial of Paul Manafort has described herself as a strong supporter of President Trump. She said she drove every day to the Alexandria courthouse where Mr. Trump’s former campaign chairman was being tried with her “Make America Great Again” cap in the back seat, and that she planned to vote again for Mr. Trump if he runs for reelection in 2020. She said she thought prosecutors had targeted Mr. Manafort as a way to get dirt on Mr. Trump, and that she didn’t want Mr. Manafort to be guilty. Nonetheless, she voted to convict him because the evidence of his guilt “was overwhelming.” […]

The jury couldn’t come to unanimous agreement on 10 other counts and a mistrial on those charges was declared. Ms. Duncan revealed that there was just one juror who held out on conviction on those counts, citing reasonable doubt. The other eleven jurors were convinced of Mr. Manafort’s guilt.

I don’t know why that juror held out, so let’s instead consider a hypothetical. Earlier, I argued that Democratic and Republican voters were more polarized than first appeared because roughly 10-20% of the population can be convinced of nearly anything. The first juror in the Manafort trial to out themselves bought pretty heavily into some of Trump’s conspiracy theories, so they must have some grip on the general public.

What if this 10-20% of the populace was so deep into these theories that they’d never find one of Trump’s associates guilty? That would be a huge problem if they were on a jury. What are the odds of such an event occurring?

We can calculate this ourselves, via the Binomial distribution.

Assuming a 12-person jury, if 10% of the population would refuse to convict under any circumstance, then there’s about a 72% chance of at least one such person being a juror; if 20%, then there’s a whopping 93% chance. Since the US Federal courts require unanimity to reach a verdict, those are also the minimum odds of a mistrial on one count!

There’s an obvious workaround, drop unanimity and permit eleven people to reach a verdict. The minimum odds of a mistrial drop to 34%, if 10% of all people would refuse to convict, or 72.5% in the 20% case. Is that acceptable to you, or would you like those values to be lower? We can use math and computers to determine the ideal quorum of jurors needed to satisfy your threshold. Let’s define t as the minimum odds of a mistrial, n as the number of jurors, k as the minimum number of guilty votes needed to achieve a conviction, and q as the proportion of people guaranteed to refuse to convict. For any given combination of those, the minimum odds are

The good news: you can drive t to be as low as you wish. The bad: you accomplish that by inflating the size of the jury pool while keeping the quorum low, which means the weight of the evidence necessary to convict drops. Avoiding partisan bias means more false convictions, and vice-versa, so we have to calculate our preferred trade-off.

This math is par for the course. Every judicial system puts numbers to these questions:

1. How many guilty people should be allowed to walk free?
2. How many people should be convicted of a crime they didn’t commit?
3. How much should we invest into those who have been convicted of a crime, and how should we spend those funds?
4. How much should we spend on crime prevention, and which programs are the most effective?

For instance, its been estimated that at least 4.1% of all convicts given a death sentence in the US were falsely convicted; is that rate of killing innocent civilians acceptable, or should it be lowered? Of the hundred thirty-seven prisoners freed from US jails in 2017, their average time behind bars was 10.7 years; is putting an innocent person behind bars for that length of time something we can tolerate as a society, or should it be lowered? If it should be lowered, are we going to do that by doing more aggressive post-conviction audits, better training for police and prosecutors, both, or are there more effective tactics out there?

Working out this math also changes our judicial philosophy. If we build our system so that it punishes the guilty, then our false conviction rate had better be low. If instead we build our system so that it makes them better citizens, then putting an already-good citizen in there isn’t a big loss and we can instead tune other variables.

The only real choice here is if we consciously put those numbers in place ourselves, receive a nasty shock when we later calculate them, or pretend those questions don’t exist. Currently, we’re doing a lot of the last two in Canada and the US.

# On Jakiw Palij

You may have heard of this story.

The last known Nazi collaborator living in the United States — a 95-year-old former camp guard who played an “indispensable role” in the murders of thousands of Jews — was deported to Germany from his New York City home early Tuesday morning, completing what the U.S. ambassador to Germany called a “difficult task.”

But I have yet to see a single news report that gives you the full account. For instance, they guy was 95 years old, yet there’s been an active hunt for Nazis for decades. Why did it take so long to find him?

Christopher A. Wray, Acting Assistant Attorney General in charge of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division, announced that a federal judge in Brooklyn, N.Y., today revoked the citizenship of a Queens resident on the basis of his service as an armed guard at an SS slave-labor camp in Nazi-occupied Poland and his concealment of that service when he immigrated to the United States. The denaturalization decision issued today by U.S. District Judge Allyne Ross cited admissions and other evidence proving that Jakiw Palij, 79, served during 1943 as an armed guard at the notorious Trawniki Labor Camp, which the court found was created “[t]o further the exploitation of Jewish labor.”“By guarding the prisoners held under inhumane conditions at Trawniki, Jakiw Palij prevented their escape and directly contributed to their eventual slaughter at the hands of the Nazis,” said Roslynn R. Mauskopf, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York.

Some of the reason is due to Palij covering his tracks well, but if you do some mental math on his age you’ll realize he was stripped of US citizenship back in 2003. So why did it take 15 years to deport a Nazi war criminal?

Palij, an ethnic Ukrainian born in a part of Poland that is now Ukraine, said on his 1957 naturalization petition that he had Ukrainian citizenship. When their investigators showed up at his door in 1993, he said: “I would never have received my visa if I told the truth. Everyone lied.” […]

But because Germany, Poland, Ukraine and other countries refused to take him, he continued living in limbo in the two-story, red brick home in Queens he shared with his late wife, Maria. His continued presence there outraged the Jewish community, attracting frequent protests over the years that featured such chants as, “Your neighbor is a Nazi!”

The place he was born is now in a different country, and neither Poland nor Ukraine wanted Palij. There was no place to deport him to! And once they did deport him, why Germany?

The German government has acknowledged its moral responsibility to receive Palij, who could not be prosecuted in the US, and whom other countries such as Poland, where he was born, and Ukraine, where the place of his birth is now located, have refused to take in. […]

Palij has never possessed German citizenship. It has emerged that his current legal residency status in Germany is based on a clause of the residency law under which non-Germans can be transferred to Germany if “international law or urgent humanitarian reasons” requires it, or “to protect the political interests of Germany”.

The basic idea is that Germany was responsible for the rise of Nazis, ergo it should be responsible for cleaning up after them. They accepted Palij for humanitarian reasons, to heal old wounds. Though it’s kind of awkward to hold a trial for a frail 95-year-old person.

While authorities in the southern city of Würzburg had been trying to bring a case against Palij since 2016, Rommel said that investigation had been closed because no evidence was ever found linking Palij to any murders.

“His transfer from the USA doesn’t change anything about the state of evidence,” he added. “In theory, prosecutors in Würzburg could resume their proceedings in case something changed, but for that proof would be necessary in particular, which would bring the person into direct connection with the crimes, and that is what has been missing so far.”

Nobody, not even Palij himself denies he was part of the SS …

Palij admitted to officials that he was trained at an SS training camp in Trawniki, which was next to the labor camp, in the spring of 1943, according to court documents. But the documents didn’t say what he did after his training.

“There’s a big gap in the historical record,” Eli Rosenbaum, former director of the Department of Justice’s Office of Special Investigations, tells NPR. And Palij wasn’t talking: “Mr. Palij took the Fifth Amendment and would not cooperate in the search for truth in his case.”

… but beyond showing he was an employee of the Trawniki concentration camp at around the time a massacre occurred, there’s no evidence to close that gap. Palij claims he was coerced into the SS to save his family, which is a common defense of former Nazis, but there are circumstances where that did happen. It was enough to convince a US judge that he should be stripped of his citizenship and deported, but it’s not enough for German prosecutors to bring a case. Arguably, the move to Germany will be a step up for Palij; he used to live on his own in the US, relying on retirement funds he saved. Now:

“Palij will spend the rest of his life here,” an editorial in the left-leaning Taz read. “The Nazi collaborator will now be cared for, receive financial help, a roof, food, clothing, paid for by the state.”

Look, I’m quite firmly on the “Punch Nazis” side of things. But that doesn’t prevent me from also pointing out that very little justice has resulted from this deportation. It’s not something to crow about.

The president used Mr. Palij’s deportation, which came one day after he saluted an Immigration and Customs Enforcement officer and border agents at the White House, as an opportunity to praise the agency, implicitly challenging those who would denounce it. […]

A few hours later, the Republican National Committee sent out a news release noting that Mr. Palij had lived in the congressional district where Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a rising star among Democrats who has called for the abolition of ICE, is seeking a House seat. […]

At a campaign rally Tuesday night, Mr. Trump invoked Mr. Palij’s deportation during a screed against Democrats, who he said would throw open America’s borders and do away with ICE.

All those headlines about abused children being ripped from their families (almost 500 are still separated, despite a court order to reunite them nearly a month ago) have resulted in widespread calls to dissolve ICE and a movement to reform immigration procedure to make it more humane. Palij’s deportation is a cynical ploy to fight back: since no-one disagrees with deporting Nazis, it follows that his deportation is necessary and therefore both ICE and the current hard-line policy should remain in place.

Jakiw Palij’s deportation is a net plus to the world, but he was a not deported to promote justice; he was instead deported so he could become a political talking point for the Republican party. Like those children, he was not a human being in their eyes but an object to be exploited and abused.

Even when they do good, the Republican party cannot stop themselves from cruelty.

# Frequentists Don’t Get A Free Ticket

I’ve been digging Crash Course’s series on statistics. They managed to pull off two good episodes about Bayesian statistics, plus one about the downsides of p-values, but overall Adriene Hill has stuck close to the frequentist interpretation of statistics. It was inevitable that one of their episodes would get my goat, enough to want to break it down.

And indeed, this episode on t-tests is worth a break.

# What a Day To Be Wrong

I don’t to come across as a predictive genius. Just today, in fact, I guessed that Manafort’s verdict would land today, and he’d be found guilty on most of the eighteen counts.

Former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort has been convicted on 8 of 18 counts by a federal jury in Virginia, and a mistrial was declared on the remaining 10 counts when the jury deadlocked.

See? I was one short of “most.” That note from the jury threw me off, I thought it indicated more consensus than there was. Anyway, the guilty convictions were for multiple years of tax fraud and a touch of bank fraud. It’s a bit disappointing, as he’s likely guilty of a lot more, but those guilty verdicts alone could carry a maximum of 80 years. And “deadlocked” isn’t the same as “not guilty,” the rules allow prosecutors to try again. While they must be feeling a bit sore about the judge they got, between the guilty verdicts they got and Manafort’s second trial in a few weeks those prosecutors are probably more soothed than sore and content to let bygones be bygones. The deadline’s a week from now, so we won’t have to wait long to learn how that prediction turned out.

As for Michael Cohen, I was telling everyone to beware of all the spin in the air and wait for more concrete steps.

Cohen pleaded guilty to eight counts: five of tax evasion, one of making a false statement to a financial institution, two related to illegal campaign contributions.

Looks like the early reports were more accurate than I gave them credit for. I definitely recommend giving the plea agreement charging document a read, it’s a trip.

1. From in or about 2007 through in or about January 2017, MICHAEL COHEN, the defendant, was an attorney and employee of a Manhattan-based real estate company (the “Company”). COHEN held the title of “Executive Vice President” and “Special Counsel” to the owner of the Company (“Individual-1”).
2. In or about January 2017, COHEN left the Company and began holding himself out as the “personal attorney” to Individual-1, who at that point had become the President of the United States. […]

27. In or about August 2015, the Chairman and Chief Executive of Corporation-1 ( “Chairman-1”), in coordination with MICHAEL COHEN, the defendant, and one or more members of the campaign, offered to help deal with negative stories about Individual-l’s relationships with women by, among other things, assisting the campaign in identifying such stories so they could be purchased and their publication avoided. Chairman-1 agreed to keep COHEN apprised of any such negative stories.
28. Consistent with the agreement described above, Corporation-1 advised MICHAEL COHEN, the defendant, of negative stories during the course of the campaign, and COHEN, with the assistance of Corporation-1, was able to arrange for the purchase of two stories so as to suppress them and prevent them from influencing the election. […]

37. In or about January 2017, MICHAEL COHEN, the defendant, in seeking reimbursement for election-related expenses, presented executives of the Company with a copy of a bank statement from the Essential Consultants bank account, which reflected the \$130,000 payment COHEN had made to the bank account of Attorney-1 in order to keep Woman-2 silent in advance of the election, plus a \$35 wire fee, adding, in handwriting, an additional “\$50,000.” The \$50,000 represented a claimed payment for “tech services,” which in fact related to work COHEN had solicited from a technology company during and in connection with the campaign. COHEN added these amounts to a sum of \$180,035. After receiving this document, executives of the Company “grossed up” for tax purposes COHEN’ s requested reimbursement of \$180,000 to \$360,000, and then added a bonus of \$60,000 so that COHEN would be paid \$420,000 in total.

That’s a violation of campaign finance laws aimed at influencing the 2016 election, in consultation with a presidential candidate, his team, and said candidate’s business. As if that wasn’t bad enough, Cohen’s lawyer followed up with a one-two punch.

Today he stood up and testified under oath that Donald Trump directed him to commit a crime by making payments to two women for the principal purpose of influencing an election. If those payments were a crime for Michael Cohen, then why wouldn’t they be a crime for Donald Trump?

“I can tell you that Mr. Cohen has knowledge on certain subjects that should be of interest to the Special Counsel,” [Lanny] Davis told [Rachael] Maddow. “The obvious possibility of a conspiracy to collude and corrupt the American democracy system in the 2016 election,which the Trump Tower meeting was all about. But also knowledge about the computer crime of hacking and whether or not Mr. Trump knew ahead of time about that crime and whether he cheered it on. We know that he publicly cheered it on, but did he also have private information?”

Before the Lanny Davis news, though, I’d predicted that Trump’s West Virginia rally would be off the hook.

Trump has concluded after about an hour and 15 minutes, longer than usual. No mention of Cohen, Manafort, or Mueller, and less time spent on the Russia probe – just a couple sentences – than at most events.

Phooey, and the pre-show was so promising. Both the Manafort and Cohen verdicts were handed out within minutes of each other, and a mere two hours before Trump’s rally, so the silence may simply be because he didn’t have time to absorb what was happening? Maybe instinct kicked in, and Trump realized anger would only make him look more guilty? Or maybe visions of pardons are dancing through his head? It’s still too early to be sure, but nonetheless that’s another flubbed prediction.

Ah well, back to that post on probability theory.

# How Democracies Die

My silence is due to a math-heavy post I’m cooking up on frequentism, in case you were wondering. To tide you over, here’s some reading on a topic I’m starting to pay a lot more attention to.

Those who have lived their entire lives in functioning democracies may find it hard to grasp how easily minds can be won over to the totalitarian dark side. We assume such a passage would require slow, laborious persuasion. It does not. The transition from day to night is bewilderingly swift. Despite what many assume, civilized coexistence in a culture of tolerance is not always the norm, or even universally desired. Democracy is a hard-won, easily rolled back state of affairs from which many secretly yearn to be released.

The author of that piece, Uki Goñi, has some relevant experience.

Although I was born in the United States, where my father was posted to the Argentine Embassy, this does not make me a US citizen, since the Fourteenth Amendment excludes the children of foreign diplomats. Yet I grew up as if I were one, pledging allegiance every morning to the flag on the playground of Annunciation School on Massachusetts Avenue. Later, as a young adult in Argentina, I worked for an English-language newspaper in Buenos Aires and reported on the crimes of the bloody military dictatorship that ruled Argentina from 1976 to 1983. As a journalist, I witnessed first the erosion and then the total collapse of democratic norms, and how a ruthless autocracy can mobilize popular fears and resentments to crush its opponents.

According to that author, the key ingredients to flipping a democracy are A) widespread paranoia, B) a slow and steady normalization of brutality, C) ignorance, motivated reasoning, and misinformation, plus D) a feeling that you’ll turn out A-OK.

For many Argentines, then, the military represented not a subjugation to arbitrary rule, but a release from the frustrations, complexity, and compromises of representative government. A large part of society clasped with joy the extended hand of totalitarian certainty. Life was suddenly simplified by conformity to a single, uncontested power. For those who cherish democracy, it is necessary to comprehend the secret delight with which many greeted its passing. A quick fix to the insurgency seemed infinitely preferable to plodding investigations, piecemeal arrests, and case-by-case lawful trials. Whipped up by the irrational fear of a communist takeover, this impatience won the day. And once Argentina had accepted the necessity for a single, absolute solution, the killing could begin.

That the guerrillas had failed to occupy any territory for any appreciable amount of time was a fact blithely ignored. The delusion prevailed over reality. […]

… the Nazis’ presence in Argentina normalized their ideology and weakened society’s democratic defenses against the totalitarian ideas they represented. Seeing Nazi flags paraded down the streets of Charlottesville last year, seeing them again in Washington, D.C., this year, makes me realize how different today’s America is from the country where I was born and grew up. It makes me realize how far advanced such a normalization already is in the US.

It backs up what I’d read from other sources. Take this old article, for instance.

When [Milton] Mayer returned home, he was afraid for his own country. He felt “that it was not German Man that I had met, but Man,” and that under the right conditions, he could well have turned out as his German friends did. He learned that Nazism took over Germany not “by subversion from within, but with a whoop and a holler.” Many Germans “wanted it; they got it; and they liked it.”

Mayer’s most stunning conclusion is that with one partial exception (the teacher), none of his subjects “saw Nazism as we—you and I—saw it in any respect.” Where most of us understand Nazism as a form of tyranny, Mayer’s subjects “did not know before 1933 that Nazism was evil. They did not know between 1933 and 1945 that it was evil. And they do not know it now.” Seven years after the war, they looked back on the period from 1933 to 1939 as the best time of their lives. […]

Even in retrospect Mayer’s subjects liked and admired Hitler. They saw him as someone who had “a feeling for masses of people” and spoke directly in opposition to the Versailles Treaty, to unemployment—to all aspects of the existing order. They applauded Hitler for his rejection of “the whole pack”—“all the parliamentary politicians and all the parliamentary parties”—and for his “cleanup of moral degenerates.” The bank clerk described Hitler as “a spellbinder, a natural orator. I think he was carried away from truth, even from truth, by his passion. Even so, he always believed what he said.” […]

The killing of six million Jews? Fake news. Four of Mayer’s subjects insisted that the only Jews taken to concentration camps were traitors to Germany, and that the rest were permitted to leave with their property or its fair market value. The bill collector agreed that the killing of the Jews “was wrong, unless they committed treason in wartime. And of course they did.” He added that “some say it happened and some say it didn’t,” and that you “can show me pictures of skulls…but that doesn’t prove it.” In any case, “Hitler had nothing to do with it.” The tailor spoke similarly: “If it happened, it was wrong. But I don’t believe it happened.”

Both pieces go into a lot more detail, so I recommend the detour to read them. Just make sure you’re in a comfortable place; not because there’s a tonne of racism or violence present, but because the echos to the current US climate are so strong.

# Ridiculously Complex

Things have gotten quiet over here, due to SIGGRAPH. Picture a giant box of computer graphics nerds, crossed with a shit-tonne of cash, and you get the basic idea. And the papers! A lot of it is complicated and math-heavy or detailing speculative hardware, sprinkled with the slightly strange. Some of it, though, is fairly accessible.

This panel on colour, in particular, was a treat. I’ve been fascinated by colour and visual perception for years, and was even lucky enough to do two lectures on the subject. It’s a ridiculously complicated subject! For instance, purple isn’t a real colour.

Ok ok, it’s definitely “real” in the sense that you can have the sensation of it, but there is no single wavelength of light associated with it. To make the colour, you have to combine both red-ish and blue-ish light. That might seem strange; isn’t there a purple-ish section at the back of the rainbow labeled “violet?” Since all the colours of the rainbow are “real” in the single-wavelength sense, a red-blue single wavelength must be real too.

It turns out that’s all a trick of the eye. We detect colour through one of three cone-shaped photoreceptors, dubbed “long,” “medium,” and “short.” These vary in what sort of light they’re sensitive to, and overlap a surprising amount.

Your brain determines the colour by weighing the relative response of the cone cells. Light with a wavelength of 650 nanometres tickles the long cone far more than the medium one, and more still than the short cone, and we’ve labeled that colour “red.” With 440nm light, it’s now the short cone that blasts a signal while the medium and long cones are more reserved, so we slap “blue” on that.

Notice that when we get to 400nm light, our long cones start becoming more active, even as the short ones are less so and the medium ones aren’t doing much? Proportionately, the share of “red” is gaining on the “blue,” and our brain interprets that as a mixture of the two colours. Hence, “violet” has that red-blue sensation even though there’s no light arriving from the red end of the spectrum.

To make things even more confusing, your eye doesn’t fire those cone signals directly back to the brain. Instead, ganglions merge the “long” and “medium” signals together, firing faster if there’s more “long” than “medium” and vice-versa. That combined signal is itself combined with the “short” signal, firing faster if there’s more “long”/”medium” than “short.” Finally, all the cone and rod cells are merged, firing more if they’re brighter than nominal. Hence where there’s no such thing as a reddish-green nor a yellow-ish blue, because both would be interpreted as an absence of colour.

I could (and have!) go on for an hour or two, and yet barely scratch the surface of how we try to standardize what goes on in our heads. Thus why it was cool to see some experts in the field give their own introduction to colour representation at SIGGRAPH. I recommend tuning in.

# Obstruction of Justice

Rod Rosenstein has been a fierce defender of the Special Council investigation, refusing to bend to Republican demands to end or curtail it. Ordinarily that wouldn’t matter, as he’s merely the Deputy Attorney General, but Jeff Sessions has recused himself and that makes Rosenstein the boss of Mueller. Eliminating Rosenstein would be the first step in a modern Saturday Night Massacre, shifting control of the Special Council to someone Republicans can control.

Just before their recess, the House Freedom Caucus tried to queue up that first step by introducing articles of impeachment against Rod Rosenstein. Fortunately, nearly everyone thought it was an empty gesture.

It appears that the resolution will have little chance of success on the House floor, in part because Trey Gowdy, the chairman of the House Oversight Committee, has not signed on to to the impeachment effort, and has defended the DOJ’s efforts to cooperate with the committee. “Impeachment is a punishment, it’s not a remedy,” Gowdy said according to The Washington Post. House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin is also among the leadership who have not signed on to the Rosenstein impeachment effort.

But it looks like we were lied to. I’ve added italics for emphasis.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: “But also, on things that came up in the House on Rosenstein impeachment thing. And it appears from an outsider that the Republicans were not supported.”

REP. NUNES (R-CA): “Yeah, well, so it’s a bit complicated, right? And I say that because you have to, so we only have so many months left, right? So if we actually vote to impeach, okay, what that does is that triggers the Senate then has to take it up. Well, and you have to decide what you want right now because the Senate only has so much time. Do you want them to drop everything and not confirm the Supreme Court justice, the new Supreme Court justice? So that’s part of why, I don’t think you have, you’re not getting from, and I’ve said publicly Rosenstein deserves to be impeached. I mean, so, I don’t think you’re gonna get any argument from most of our colleagues. The question is the timing of it right before the election.

REP. MCMORRIS RODGERS (R-WA): “Also, the Senate has to start –”

REP. NUNES (R-CA): “The Senate would have to start, the Senate would have to drop everything they’re doing and start to, and start with impeachment on Rosenstein. And then take the risk of not getting Kavanaugh confirmed. So it’s not a matter that any of us like Rosenstein. It’s a matter of, it’s a matter of timing.

Devin Nunes is the chair of the House Intelligence Committee and enjoys strong support from Paul Ryan, the Speaker of the House and one of the most powerful Republicans in the party. Cathy McMorris Rodgers is the most powerful woman in the Republican party and high up in the leadership hierarchy. If the two of them claim most Republicans are in favour of impeaching Rosenstein, that’s probably the case.

It also snaps the final puzzle piece into place for a Massacre. You need a place a stooge in the line of succession below Rosenstein before you start the Massacre, and Republicans already have that in the form of Brian Benczkowski.

Benczkowski’s nomination was controversial because of his work for Alfa Bank, which has been scrutinized by FBI counterintelligence. Benczkowski, a former lead staffer to Attorney General Jeff Sessions in the Senate and a Trump transition official, has faced criticism from Democrats since he was nominated last year over his past private-practice work on behalf of Alfa Bank, one of Russia’s largest financial institutions.[…]

Sen. Dick Durbin, the Senate’s No. 2 Democrat, said in a tweet Tuesday that “the warning signs are clear” about Benczkowski. And Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, a Rhode Island Democrat, in a floor speech called out his “astoundingly weak qualifications,” positing that Benczkowski’s close ties to Sessions and the administration could be leveraged to stymie the ongoing Mueller probe or create a backchannel for improper information sharing.

Any Massacre would throw the country into a constitutional crisis, and almost certainly invoke the Supreme Court. Enter Brett Kavanaugh, a justice who thinks the President should wield more power and be above the law. Confirming him would solidify Conservative control over the court and give them enough votes to rubber-stamp a Massacre. Democrats are doing what they can to oppose Kavanaugh, but

The reality is Democrats have little power to block Trump’s nominee to the Supreme Court. Republicans need only 50 votes to confirm a nominee, so if every sitting Republican votes for Kavanaugh, he’ll be confirmed. Plus, there are several red-state Democrats who have plenty of incentives to demonstrate that they are working with Republicans in Washington.

Devin Nunes just confirmed the Republican Party is teeing up another Saturday Night Massacre. They’re not only conspiring to defraud the United States, the majority of the party are eager to obstruct justice to cover up their misdeeds. Italics are mine again.

REP. NUNES (R-CA): “So therein lies, so it’s like your classic Catch-22 situation where we were at a – this puts us in such a tough spot. If Sessions won’t unrecuse and Mueller won’t clear the president, we’re the only ones. Which is really the danger. That’s why I keep, and thank you for saying it by the way, I mean we have to keep all these seats. We have to keep the majority. If we do not keep the majority, all of this goes away.

No wonder Republicans are bark more than they bite as they keep refusing to fund election security initiatives in the face of blinking red lights, they’re counting on a mixture of voter suppression and Kremlin interference to keep them in power and safe from prosecution. It brings to mind what Sarah Kendzor said in the latest episode of Gaslit Nation,

Its been over a month since the White House’s forced separation policy hit the news, which should be plenty of time for the polls to show an effect. So, how have US citizens reacted? Here’s FiveThirtyEight’s aggregate numbers, from June 1st up until Helsinki. [Read more…]

# The Cold Calculus of Hiking

For part of the trip, I couldn’t decide which was the tougher scramble: Crowsnest Mountain or Mount Sparrowhawk. That debate was conclusively squashed in the crux of Crowsnest: picture a gully a few metres wide but a good dozen meters tall, filled with loose scree that makes grinding up the channel a slog, and sprinkle in a few upclimbs just to further piss you off. Those two metal chains did indeed make the near-cliff at the top of the gully easier to exit, but there was an awkward section between them with few good footholds. The angle of the rock strata was down-slope, too, which I noted would make that section extremely dangerous when wet.

I didn’t know the half of how treacherous it could get.

===

Weather reports in the mountains are like the Pirate Code. The mountains themselves cause weather and redirect the wind, and tend to be more prone to moisture and wind than the surrounding valleys, making forecasting difficult. I ruled out hiking in Lake Louise or Banff due to 50% chances of rain, but I thought Crowsnest Pass had a 0% chance of rain that day, which didn’t offer much room for a weather surprise. I later learned I’d misread the report and there was a 20% chance in the afternoon, but at worst I’d just have been more slightly more alert to the weather. I would have been on alert anyway, as the high winds of the Crowsnest Pass only make weather surprises more likely. Reading the conditions while on the hike is far more reliable, for obvious reasons, but when scrambling a mountain you spend most of your time with half the sky blocked by said mountain. As unreliable as they can be, weather reports are still vital.

Alas, the forecasts were wrong even before we stepped out of the vehicle. Webcams from the Crowsnest Pass region showed smoke-free skies the previous day, another plus over Lake Louise/Banff, but we arrived to find quite a bit of smoke in the air. To understand why that’s annoying, consider the view when there isn’t much smoke about.

This is a small slice of what you see from the top of Mount Sparrowhawk. That long “lake” on the left is actually the Spray Lakes Reservoir, while the stubby one is Goat Pond. There’s a bit of Mount Lougheed in shadow, and dead behind it are The Rimwall (7km away), the Three Sisters (10km), Mount Rundle (25km), and Cascade Mountain (38km). All of those are beneath you! There may only be two mountains higher than Sparrowhawk visible here, Bonnet Peak and Mount Temple, and the closest of them is 70km away. That’s not my record for mountainspotting, but you get the point: clear air on a mountain top earns you spectacular views of distant scenery.

Smoky air is more like this. The pretty boomerang is the Seven Sisters (2km away), the sun-kissed mountains are Allison Peak and Mount Ward (7km), and that black mass behind the Seven Sisters is part of the High Rock Range (no more than 15km). It doesn’t have the same impact, right?

It was a lot more alarming, though. This shot was taken above those chains, about 200m short of the summit, and the more I looked at it the more worried I got. The biggest tell for rain is dark tendrils coming down from puffy Cumulus clouds, because that’s precisely what you’re looking at. All that smoke in the air led to deep dark cloud shadows and poor visibility, though, blocking my view. I had to rely on more qualitative tells, which fell outside the frame of this shot: really tall Cumulus clouds and “smearing” that blurs normally sharp boundaries. Overall, I figured there was maybe a 30% chance the haze was hiding rain. On the other hand, those clouds had been building for hours and slowly marching towards us from the North. Shortly before taking this shot, I called an audible: we should turn back. The risk side of the equation outbalanced the reward, even though the flag was waving at us from the summit. There was no way I wanted to be caught between those chains in the rain. We were all hungry and tired from the grind, so I recommended a quick break for food and photos before we retreated.

Shortly after taking this shot, I saw a lightning bolt over Allison Peak.

As we raced back down, I first saw the first clear signs of dark tendrils rapidly coming at us from the High Rock Range, as well as an ominous white “fog.” The rest of the group were pressuring me to find shelter immediately; I agreed and had a place in mind, but it was past those chains. Maybe five minutes before reaching the pair, the wave of rain hit. It really brought down the temperature, and made it tough to navigate through wet sunglasses. There wasn’t much lightning, thankfully, but we couldn’t be more exposed. I almost led us into another gully to the West of the chains, but caught sight of a cairn and was able to steer us true. I was shouting directions to the rest of group as they descended down, as by this time the wind had really picked up. The white fog chose that moment to reveal it was actually pea-sized hail. Fortunately, I saw a ray of hope: there was a bright spot behind Allison Peak, where the sun appeared to be shining through the clouds. This nastiness would pass shortly, and if only briefly we’d have a window of better weather.

But that was only the first half of the treachery.

===

I have a reputation for being impervious to cold. But I’ll let you in on a secret: there’s nothing special about my body. I was that kid who had to come indoors after ten minutes in the cold, and eventually it pissed me off enough to try to find workarounds like how to dress in layers. That was so effective, I wound up ditching my winter coat in favor of a thin raincoat I’d layer over one or two sweaters and a shirt. I could easily adjust for the conditions, or swap out layers as they got wet. And it was cheaper than a proper coat! Nowadays, my standard hiking clothing is a thin exercise T for moisture wicking, a beat-up puffy fleece sweater for insulation, and said raincoat for wind protection. For the lower half, I wear convertible pants as shorts for the outer layer, with some thick tights for insulation and a pair of thick wool socks for either feet or hands.

My record for remaining comfortable in a T-shirt and shorts is 0 Celsius. But I managed that while snow-shoeing in a dense forest on a sunny day; there was no wind to accelerate the loss of heat, the sun was warming my skin, and the physical exertion was just able to compensate for what I was losing to the surrounding atmosphere. When you’re a cardio junkie with the resting heart rate of an athlete, “keep moving to stay warm” is easy advice to follow. It’s one reason why I rarely throw an extra layer on when I stop for a snack, because I know that any chill I get will be gone fifteen minutes after we move again. Conversely, if I threw on the layer I’d overheat at roughly the same time and be forced to stop and change.

So when I snapped that photo on Crowsnest Mountain, I was wearing only my wicking layer and shorts. By the time we reached the chains, what little body heat I’d earned from that exercise was canceled out by my wicking layer dutifully using the rain to rip heat from me. I instinctively stuck to the back of the pack, thanks to years of experience, but that also meant I had to sit tight while the rest of the group descended the chains one-by-one. I could feel my core temperature dropping.

Alas, the layer system has flaws. If there’s only a drizzle, throwing on just the rain coat may temporarily keep you dry, but as moisture accumulates the coat will cling to your skin and suck the heat out of you. The sweater usually fares better in the short term, but offers no protection from the wind and will eventually get wet enough to suck heat even faster. Combining both will overheat you and build up sweat, which again sucks the heat out. I’d wanted to try out a new coat aimed at this middle space, and intended to use it as my insulating layer in case things went sideways; instead, I forgot the coat at home. Everyone else had all their layers on, so my only option was the rain coat destined to cool me down.

And there was no place to run. I could try to work up some heat by marching up and down the mountain, but that would increase my exposure to a lightning strike. To my left and right were cliffs, and the descent would be slow, methodical, and destined to generate little heat. Chilling down isn’t just dangerous because it slows your movement or causes shivering, it also saps your brain power. You become less observant and make more mistakes, which could prove fatal when descending slippery rock. The rest of the group was also counting on my experience to lead them back down the mountain, so I had to stay sharp. And the cooler I got, the longer it would take to warm back up.

I was faced with a difficult decision: I could launch down the chains ASAP, or I could pause to throw on my rain coat and tights. The former sacrificed some cognition and increased the risk of an accident, while the latter allowed the rain more time to wet down my footholds and increased the anxiety of the group below. I let the hail bounce off my helmet for a few seconds as I weighed each option, and cursed my rotten luck.

A puny hail storm that I’d have shrugged off below treeline had just put me in one of the most dangerous situations I’d faced.

===

I reached for my coat. It felt wonderful to be protected from the wind. Unfortunately, trying to pull my tights over my pants and hiking sandals cost me a fair bit of time, and I could hear shouted inquiries from below when I finally reached for that first chain. I debated what to do about my gloves. They were intended to protect your hands while belaying, but had proven useful for scrambling. Now, they were waterlogged and cooling off my hands. I decided to leave them on anyway, as the rain was slacking off and they’d help me on the chain.

I wrapped the first chain once around my dominant arm, to maximize friction, and began carefully inch-worming down the line. I shouted back commentary as I descended the chain. Dangling off the end, I probed the very top of the awkward section. I found an unappetizing mixture of mud-like rock dust and slick footholds. By this time the hail had stopped and the rain was dwindling. The distant bright patch wasn’t the Sun breaking through the clouds, but it was still a rain-free oasis of thin cloud rapidly advancing on us. I called down to the group: I was going to wait between the chains for fifteen minutes, to give the rock some time to dry.

The rain faded away. The damp rain coat slowly sucked away my heat. I kept up a conversation with the rest of the group, unseen below. It soothed their nerves. It soothed my nerves. And it helped me assess my cognitive abilities. The others had made it down safely. They weren’t in the place I’d called a shelter, but they had sheltered and could wait. I meditated over the awkward few metres of rock below me. I hadn’t realized how narrow the walls were on the ascent. I could use that.

I grabbed the end of the chain again and probed. There was a teeny bit less moisture, but more importantly I could see my first few steps. My core temperature was cool but OK. I paused for a bit, contemplating, then called down: I was descending the tricky section.

I’ve never been interested in climbing, but I used to boulder a fair bit and had absorbed a few tricks. When faced with a chimney just wide enough for their bodies, climbers wedge themselves sideways and used friction to overcome missing footholds. The vertical rock was much less likely to be wet than the horizontal footholds, though the friction is strong enough that any wetness didn’t matter. I keep typing “footholds” instead of “handholds” because climbing is really about your feet. Your hands are there to help steady you against the wall and help distribute the pressure a bit, but to a first approximation climbing is just standing in places no sane person should.

Carefully, I tried to examine the rock for a potential foothold. I slowly probed with a foot until it touched potentially-friendly rock. I looked where it landed. I scraped around a bit, to clear off any water or mud-dust, and assess what sort of friction I could get out of the rock. I braced against the sides of the little canyon. I eased myself onto the foothold, not fully trusting it. When I was confident, I did the entire process again. And again.

Three metres down, I noticed the little canyon was getting wider. Bracing against the side was increasingly less viable, yet I was still a good two metres from the chain. A small wave of panic passed over me. I looked up and down the length of the mini canyon, debating if I should head back up or continue on. With a deep breath, I had a look down for my next foothold.

Then I blinked and was standing next to the chain. I’m not sure why I don’t remember those next few metres; I had successfully fought back that brief bit of panic, and while I was cold I still felt mentally sharp. Maybe I was so focused on the rhythm of easing myself down that I lost track of time? Whatever the case, I announced I was at the second chain and eagerly grabbed it. Thus began another rhythm: release dominant arm, awkwardly slide it down the chain, grip, release the other hand and slide it to meet, look for a place for one foot, look for a place for the other foot, repeat. Within a few minutes, I could see the rest of the group huddled below. Alas, it felt like forever until I was next to them; had someone moved the footholds I used to get up this section? It wasn’t a big deal given my body temperature, so I ambled down like I was pondering chess moves.

I checked in with the group, this time face-to-face. They were in much the same shape as I was, chilled but unharmed and calm. They had blasted through the awkward section without trouble, as they’d been too busy concentrating to let fear overwhelm them. I gave some pointers on how they should descend the rest of the gully, as scree made it terribly easy to send rocks flying into any person below. I took my time to grab a quick snack and readjust my gear, deliberately letting them get well below me. I could descend scree a lot faster than they could, though I kicked up a lot of rocks in the process. As started down I grumpily noted they weren’t sticking to my plan, but they had enough distance between them to be safe.

We reconnected at the base of the gully. The danger level was rising again: the trail split into multiple similar-looking paths, the bright horizon had again been replaced with dark shadows moving in our direction, yet we had one more down-climb left to do. This wasn’t over yet.

===

Just kidding, it pretty much was. That second rain burst was shorter and less intense than the first, with no hail and barely any lightning. It finished before we hit the second down-climb, and that section of rock was surprisingly dry. The rest of the group did try to pick the wrong trail, but after a bit of shouting and wild gesturing on my part I got us all back on what I remembered as the proper track. And my memories proved true.

As we made the final descent down steep scree to the safety of the trees below, the clouds parted and that smell you get from a freshly watered forest wafted up to us. The Seven Sisters were bathed in a beautiful light, the greenery was lusher than we remembered. I tried to rain on things a bit by pointing out that there was a chance the creek we needed to cross had become bigger, but it was unchanged from earlier.

We spent the hike back to the vehicle debating which mountain to try next week.