The 2 percent

Over the last thirty years I’ve kept in my mind the fact that there are about 3,500 counties in the U.S.  I learned this when we developed a CD-ROM streamflow database and needed to code in the county in which each stream gauge was located.

But, my recollection was off a bit–there are 3,144 counties and “county equivalents” in the U.S.  I learned this a few days ago from the Los Angeles Times, along with a more disturbing fact–two percent of those counties account for more than half the executions in the U.S.

From The 2% Death Penalty

I’ve long opposed the death penalty, but that opposition was hard to maintain in the face of some of the cruel crimes people commit.  Some people just need killing, is how a not-liberal friend put it, crudely.  Even after I’d come to my opposition, I would find myself throwing horrible crimes up in front of my more dogmatic friends to try to shake their certainty, and perhaps mine.   The death penalty, war and abortion are not easy things to be thoughtful about–it’s much easier to be dogmatic.

What initially brought me to opposition to the death penalty was the certainty that it would be, that it had been, applied in error.  By error I mean the clear case where the accused was not even involved in the crime.  Many people have been exonerated from death row, proving that convictions have been made in error.  I’ve heard people argue that there is no proof that the wrong person has ever been executed, but that notion is laughable.  I  am certain that by now someone has established error in execution “beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Later I came to understand the bigger problem with the death penalty: when you did do the crime, your likelihood of receiving the death penalty depended on your race, the race of your victim, your wealth and where you lived.  Some argue that the relatively small chance of erroneously executing someone is the price we pay for safety or deterrence or accountability or whatever.  But, the effect of jurisdiction, at least, is huge and systematic–those two percent of counties contain only about 16% of the U.S. population, but commit 52% of the executions.  At a finer scale, the differences can be even greater:

[T]he probability that a notification to seek death will
be filed in Baltimore County is over 13 times higher than in
Baltimore City, even after taking into account important
case characteristics. The probability of being death
notified if a case is in Baltimore County is over five
times greater than if it occurred in Montgomery
County and three times greater than if it occurred in
Anne Arundel County.

R. Paternoster et al., “An Empirical
Analysis Of Maryland’s Death Sentencing System With Respect To The Influence Of Race And Legal Jurisdiction” (2003) (most easily available in The 2% Death Penalty (pdf))

As long as we allow any discretion in the application of the death penalty these differences will remain.   It’s human nature.   I now believe that having to forgo revenge is a relatively small price to pay to maintain our morality.

With respect to the veracity of eyewitness identification, read Picking Cotton, by Jennifer Thompson, Ronald Cotton and Erin Torneo.  This is a story that demonstrates the cruelty, the failings and the beauty of human beings.


Dropbox: Low disk space. Dropbox cannot sync…


If you get this message and you still have free disk space, perhaps a lot of free disk space, then what follows might be your salvation.

Your problem might be that you have a file on your site that is larger than the space you have available on your hard disk.  This happened to me when a friend and colleague shared a folder containing a compressed archive of several VirtualBox virtual machine files.  The archive file was 28 gb while I only had about 13 gb left on my drive.  I kept deleting files until I had something like 22 gb, and Dropbox would still give me the same error.

Of course, once Dropbox raises the low-disk-space error it throws up its hands and stops syncing altogether.   Other, smaller files that you may really want to get remain in the cloud.  In my case those were a few relatively small photos that the Dropbox app on my iPhone had helpfully moved to camera uploads folder in the cloud.  I was frustrated.  Eventually (over the course of many days) I became very frustrated.  Much Googling revealed many wrong suggestions, most of them from Dropbox themselves.

The solution: Simply use the interface to download the offending big file manually to a different drive, and then delete it from  In my case I downloaded the offending file to a usb drive.  Relief was instantaneous. (I am refraining from making analogies here.)

I should say at this point that Dropbox works quite reliably and painlessly almost all the time.  But…

There are some aggravating things about the driver interface (reached by clicking on the Dropbox icon on the task bar):


First among those is that the recently changed list, which is the main aspect of the interface, is worthless for diagnostics.  The only way I found a clue to my problem was an evanescent image of a truncated file name like VirtualB…tar.gz presented once by Dropbox.  This led me to search my Dropbox folder. No joy (apologies to Jerry Pournelle).  Then a vague recollection of the file sharing popped into my mind and I searched the cloud.  No joy.  Again.  But I eventually found it by brute force and in the process learned that searching for virtual on will not find VirtualBox VMs.tar.gz but searching for virtualb will.

The other acutely aggravating thing (the interface is a chronic aggravation) is that the selective sync file list presented by the driver interface (usually a helpful feature, described here) would stop responding after one selection when the Dropbox workload was high (which it apparently is when it is obsessive about trying to find disk space for a big file.)

The other aggravating thing is that Dropbox themselves are wrong about the behavior of their software.   They claim it syncs the smallest files first (which makes sense) but in my case the software seemed possessed by this 28 gb file and lost sight of the several 2-5 mb photos I wanted to get.  Perhaps the system’s obsession was because the big file had been shared.  Who knows.

The bottom line is that no one in the ether had published the actual solution to my problem.  So, here it is for you.

WordPress: Using a child theme

Before I forget about it, I want to mention that if you do anything that is not “plain vanilla” in your theme, it is a good idea to set up and use a child theme.

By “not plain vanilla” I mean things like separating posts onto multiple pages.  To do this you need to modify a file of computer codes named home.php, and add another file of php code.  These custom files may get overwritten or deleted if you update your style.  But, if you separate them into a child them they will survive an update.  (They may need to be modified if you change styles, but that will be easier than starting over.)

When I have a bit of time, and figure out a way to represent code in this theme, I will provide details about how to do it.  For now, look here for the official description.   Some example child theme files can be found on

WordPress Tech

I’ve been clawing my way up the learning curve of WordPress.   Here are a few things I’ve learned that might help you.

The WordPress forums are populated with people who are often wrong, never in doubt, and ready at a moment’s notice to misinterpret or dismiss a question.   Whew, I feel better.

I’ve never posted a question, but I can’t count the number of times that I’ve found that someone asked about exactly the same problem I was encountering, only to get “You are posting in the wrong forum”, or RTFM.  But, what else do you expect on the net, where people who otherwise live oppressed lives of quiet desperation get to seem important.

OK, I don’t want to paint with too broad a brush.  There are some smart, helpful people out there.   The problem is that you have to go through a lot of dross to find a nugget.

An illuminating exchange is here, where one relative newbie thought that the Worpress Codex (the supposed canons of the codes) was wrong on a small but sometimes important point.   How many angels can dance on the ?>

One technical thing I’ve learned is that despite all indications in the admin interface, and lots of advice to that effect on the forums, your blog post page will not use a custom template, no matter how many times you try to convince it to.  It will always traverse the standard page template hierarchy.   Actually, it probably does use the custome template, but it just doesn’t look like it is using it.  Confused.  Me to, over many hours until I ran across this classic blow-off on a WP forum.  When you follow the bug posting you actually get a useful answer.

I’ll add information later, particularly about how I was able to display posts on two separate pages.   That is, I will once I am sure I understand the subtlety that finally made it work.


In a classic piece of ethnography from the 1940s, William Whyte carefully watched the interactions among Italian immigrants on a street corner in Boston’s North End.  Technology today has made the world like the street corner in the 1940s—it is now possible to make detailed observations on the behavior and interactions of massive numbers of people. These observations come from the increasing  number of digital traces left in the wake of our actions and interpersonal communications.
Mobile Phone Data for Inferring Social Network Structure, N. Eagle, A. Pentland & D. Lazar (pdf)

After several years of futile resistance I was assimilated by Facebook this week.  Ultimately, I decided that I wanted to keep in touch with friends, many of whom I’d lost contact with over the years.   I finally overcame my concern that I would come to know too much about some of them.   I get friend requests as my “circle” expands.  At this writing, I have twenty four friends.   FB also suggests “People you may know.”

Sometimes those suggestions can seem a little too good.  Caitlin Dewey wrote in the Washington Post last spring about how Facebook does it.  In Dewey’s telling, it’s all good math.  But, just how paranoid should I (we) be?

Last night I went to a very small party, where I met Jean for the first time.  This morning FB suggested Jean as a person I may know.    Dewey’s “good math” explanation would have that suggestion be the result of matching information from our profiles and our network.  But, my profile discloses nothing more than where I live (Boulder, Colorado) and where I went to school.  Jean’s profile has not much more.  We have no mutual FB friends.  We have no mutual FB interests (I have disclosed no interests to FB explicitly.)  I have not allowed FB to see my contacts.   It would actually make more sense for FB to suggest Jean’s husband, with whom I worked briefly in an exotic location, though not within the same organization.

So, is the timing just a coincidence, or did FB know or infer that we were at the same location last night?   I have installed the FB app, but I have turned off the location option (at least that’s their story).   Or, does FB know that I searched for the party address on Google Maps shortly before I left my house last night?  Did Jean do the same?

Association by proximity is ho-hum.  FB offers opt-in proximity alerts in its Nearby Friends service, but wondering about PYMK is a small industry on the internet and a few folks have seen evidence that physical proximity prompts PYMK suggestions.  But FB does not have permission to use my location, and in 2014 they denied that they use location data for PYMK (though the wording is such that FB could deny the denial if they are caught actually using location info).  Is FB inferring proximity from other information?  I don’t know.  I don’t know, but I am going to do a little experiment.

From This is really just eye-candy, since it was developed using an active-sensor approach.
From This is really just eye-candy, since it was developed using an active-sensor approach.  It’s a neat visual, though.

Let me offer up an idea I had several years ago that is even creepier–it is completely passive and there is no opt out.  It was such an evil idea that I thought about patenting it, but intelligence agencies are probably already doing this, so going through the expense and brain damage of applying for a patent would probably be a waste of time (and a source of trouble.)

Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) is a technology where a small transponder transmits an identification code upon interrogation by radio.  There are a variety of technologies, but some are small enough and inexpensive enough to be placed in clothing.  I have an RFID transponder on my car that allows automatic tolling on a nearby highway.  The RFID unit is a small windshield sticker that replaced a cell-phone-sized active, battery-powered transponder.   Passports issued since 2007 have an RFID transponder, as do many new credit cards.  There are real concerns about privacy with RFID, so standards have been developed that are intended to protect your identity from nefarious interrogation of a transponder.

But, as RFID tags used for inventory control become smaller and more common, even ubiquitous, the combination of RFID codes in the collection of clothes a person is wearing will provide a practically unique signature.   A particular RFID code is not necessarily unique, but a combination of several codes becomes virtually unique.   Of course, people will wear different clothes from day to day, but it is not difficult to imagine a data mining approach that would categorize different sensed combinations as being the same individual–I have not done the math, but detecting even two codes together would likely be a very  reliable signature.   Of course, once a set of signatures has been associated with Person X, then that individual can be tracked, and can be associated with other people by proximity in space and time.   RFID interrogators placed in airports, train stations, bus stations or even on streets or in shops, could provide a rich data set from which associations could be inferred.  Figuring out who Person X really is will not be too hard.

If you think this is far-fetched, take a look at what Disney is doingJust replace “object” with “person”.

What makes this seem particularly evil is that it is not opt-in, and you cannot opt out.  (Though you may be able to destroy RFID tags in your clothing (using a microwave oven–look it up), you won’t be able to do that with electronic equipment, your passport or your credit card.  Some technologies that vary returned codes according to an algorithm known, in principle, only to the manufacturer could also make social network discovery through RFID more difficult, but only if used in all RFID transponders.)

You are probably not crazy if you are a little paranoid about all of the information you are leaking.  My advice for your peace of mind:  Don’t try using face recognition in Picasa or Google Photos (or now Lightroom).  It’s creepy good and sometimes scarily wrong.


Fourmile Canyon Drive

Residents living along Fourmile Canyon Drive are opposing Boulder County’s plans for reconstruction of the roadway following the floods of September, 2013.   Some residents do not want a wide shoulder along the uphill lane because perceptions of increased safety will encourage “…bike races and amateur and tourist cyclists.”  The horror.

The public side of this debate has been framed largely by Valerie Conway, a resident along the road.   Frankly, it seems like she will throw out any thought in hopes that it might get some traction.   She raises lots of concern about wildlife in what is really a low-density subdivision.  She thinks wider shoulders may encourage her neighbors to speed (she is probably right, there).  Most recently she has raised the Right-Sizing brand in an attempt to mobilize the opposition of the broadly malcontent and the reflexive anti-cyclists.   And, in a guest opinion piece she said that “hundreds of skilled cyclists” prefer the inherent danger of the road.  Improving safety on Fourmile Canyon Drive would be like “grooming the Mary Jane ski area”, in her words.   A few days ago she pleaded to a reporter that the County should get on with the reconstruction because “…we just want to get on with our lives.”   Do drive (better yet, ride) this road before it is reconstructed to see for yourself if you would class that statement as hyperbole.   For extra credit, compare and contrast Fourmile Canyon Drive with James Canyon Drive.

Conway makes her preference clear: she wants the “cyclable shoulders” eliminated from all options.

For what it’s worth, here is the input I offered to the County in support of the rock-cut option.  You have until December 18 to offer input here or by e-mail to Andrew Barth with Boulder County Transportation at  You can also send copies to the County Commissioners at

I support the “rock-cut” option for reconstruction of Fourmile Canyon Drive.  The rock cut option will provide additional resilience against flood-caused transportation disruption, while also providing more safety for uphill motorists and bicycles.

Lessons re-learned from the 2013 flood include the realization that no amount of armoring will prevent Fourmile Creek from taking what it needs from the roadway during the next big flood. The more roadway that is farther from the high-velocity regions of the channel the more roadway that will survive during and immediately after a flood. The wide shoulders on the uphill side of the roadway will be available to contribute to emergency transportation. Further, since the bedrock will remain under a larger part of the road as a foundation that the creek cannot take, reconstruction of lost roadway infrastructure after the next flood will be less expensive and faster than if the roadway were to be built on fill in the channel. The rock cut option is a long-term investment in a more resilient road.

With respect to considerations other than flood resilience, I support the installation of an uphill shoulder that can serve as a bicycle climbing land.  This is a good thing.  The existing roadway is dangerous, particularly on right turns on the uphill side.  Autos drive fast, often exceed the speed limit, and cut the corners, exposing bicycles to danger.   This is one reason why the canyon is not more widely used for cycling.  I realize that some residents are motivated to maintain the status quo to avoid increased bicycle use, but it is good for County residents as a whole to make Fourmile Canyon Drive a safer and more attractive cycling route.  The more recreation we can offer to residents where they do not have to get in a car the more we will reduce local and global impacts.

With respect to natural and social values, it is important to recognize that Fourmile Canyon is not a pristine environment.  It is highly developed, and is really a low-density suburb.  By far the largest impacts to wildlife have been imposed by the presence of the road and the presence and development of residential uses, and these impacts are essentially permanent and cannot be reduced.  The incremental negative impact from the rock cut alternative will be small, and it will be offset by a positive impact on the creek and the wildlife that use it.