Clay Shirky: How the Internet will (one day) transform government

The open-source world has learned to deal with a flood of new, oftentimes divergent, ideas using hosting services like GitHub -- so why can't governments? In this rousing talk Clay Shirky shows how democracies can take a lesson from the Internet, to be not just transparent but also to draw on the knowledge of all their citizens.

Does the Economy Predict Suicides?

Nearly every paper and popular article about suicide begins with acknowledging how hard it is to generalize -- and many then proceed to make new generalizations. That's true of a piece that just appeared in The New York Times:

The suicide rate increased 3 percent in the 2001 recession and has generally ridden the tide of the economy since the Great Depression, rising in bad times and falling in good ones, according to a comprehensive government analysis released Thursday.

It isn't surprising that unemployment affects suicide rates, but there are a few unexplained complications, especially the rise of suicide in the boom years of the 1920s. (It's too bad the authors of the study didn't at least try to use earlier, admittedly less precise, statistics.)  And some mental health organizations have been uneasy about this kind of publicity. In 2008 the president of  the respected International Association for Suicide Prevention (IASP) wrote a cautionary editorial on journalists' attention to studies linking economic hardship with suicide:

Recently, journalists around the world have become interested in possible increases in suicide due to the current economic depression. They cite the supposedly "dramatic" increases in suicides during the Great Depression. However, it is probably a myth that the catastrophe of the crash of the stock market in late October 1929 caused an epidemic of dramatic suicides by distraught investors after they lost their fortunes. Suicide rates in the United States had been increasing each year steadily since 1925 and only a slightly greater increase in 1930 and 1931 may be attributed to the effects of the Great Depression (Mishara & Balan, 2002). Even for New York City, which may be thought to be particularly affected by the crash, the changes in suicide rates were not dramatic and rates there were also increasing slightly before 1930. There was certainly not an immediate effect of the stock market crash in October 1929. The number of suicides for the months of October and November 1929 in the United States was lower than all the other months that year except January, February and September. The greatest number of suicides in 1929 occurred during the summer months when the stock market was doing quite well. The Manhattan suicide rates for October 15 to November 13, 1929 were lower than the previous year.

Of course this doesn't mean that bad times are necessarily hazardous to your health. As the abstract of a recent paper on economic conditions and mortality in the Publications of the National Academy of Sciencesrecently concluded:

Population health did not decline and indeed generally improved during the 4 years of the Great Depression, 1930-1933, with mortality decreasing for almost all ages, and life expectancy increasing by several years in males, females, whites, and nonwhites. For most age groups, mortality tended to peak during years of strong economic expansion (such as 1923, 1926, 1929, and 1936-1937). In contrast, the recessions of 1921, 1930-1933, and 1938 coincided with declines in mortality and gains in life expectancy. The only exception was suicide mortality which increased during the Great Depression, but accounted for less than 2% of deaths.

This evidence shouldn't belittle the real suffering of the 1930s, The point is not that adversity is good for people, but that we know so little about how the social environment reflects behavior. Consider income inequality. It often contributes to stress, which may be a suicide factor. But in the late 1920s boom, suicides rose, while in the bubble of the late 1990s they declined. The writer George Howe Colt used the right word 20 years ago: enigma.

European banks shut Americans out over U.S. tax rules

Scott Schmith started a photography business in Switzerland after a stint in the U.S. Army that included deployments in Germany and in the Middle East during the first Gulf War.

He's still an American citizen, even though he's lived and worked outside the United States for more than 20 years. But new U.S. financial regulations on bank accounts overseas have him, along with many other Americans working in Europe, mulling whether to renounce his citizenship.

That's because European banks are balking at IRS demands that they disclose the assets of Americans overseas. Complaining that the regulations are too burdensome, European banks are in some cases banning Americans from doing business with them.

"I am still an American – I was born there," said the native of Sioux City, Iowa. "But why should I be thrown to the wolves? Why should I be punished for being an American who chose to live outside the U.S.?"

The U.S. legislation is aimed at preventing tax evasion. But banks in Switzerland and elsewhere that say the requirement is too expensive and in some cases violates their country's privacy laws are instead closing Americans' bank accounts, banning new U.S. customers and even terminating mortgages.

One of the regulations -- The Report of Foreign Bank and Financial Accounts (FBAR) -- has existed since the 1970s but only recently has been enforced against small account holders. The other -- The Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA) -- was passed by Congress in 2010 and requires foreign financial institutions to report to the IRS information about financial accounts held by U.S. taxpayers.

Banks contacted about the issue declined to discuss the matter publicly, but financial experts familiar with the situation say bankers do not want to act as de-facto agents of the IRS.

"Foreign banks that don't comply with FATCA reporting rules could have a 30% tax imposed on all their U.S.-based transactions and those of their U.S. clients," said Robert Bauman, legal counsel for International Living magazine and a former U.S. representative from Maryland, writing on its website. "But if they refuse to comply, the banks face a choice of paying that punitive 30% withholding tax or withdrawing completely from"

99 Problems (Explicit Political Remix)!

The lyrics for this Political Remix Video are available at, as there is insufficient space to include them here. The remix features Barack Obama rapping a modified version of Jay Z's "99 Problems." Mitt Romney has a few lines in the role of "the police officer." This parable I give unto you: Not a few who meant to cast out their devil went thereby into the swine themselves.

WTC Bone Fragments Still Surface a Decade After 9/11

A recent New York Times article revealed that a decade after 9/11, small fragments of human remains from victims of the World Trade Center attack are still being identified. This adds to the documented evidence of the severe destruction of the bodies of WTC victims, a phenomenon that could only have been caused by explosives. 

According to the NYC medical examiner’s office, remains are being identified almost every day.

This excerpt from the article reveals how harrowing the ongoing recovery of human remains has been on the families of 9/11 victims:

When Sean Tallon, a firefighter, was identified, his family never considered the possibility that there might be additional calls.

“We were so relieved to have part of him to put in the coffin that it didn’t matter how much it was at that stage,” Mr. Tallon’s sister, Rosaleen Tallon, said. But for three years, the family received calls from the medical examiner’s office as more of his remains were identified.

“I had a cry” after each call, Mr. Tallon’s mother, Eileen Tallon, said. The family eventually conducted a second funeral, opening the grave and placing the new remains in a small wooden box just above his coffin.”

Firefighter Sean Tallon is just one of many WTC victims whose remains are still being found

This is only one of hundreds of news articles that have reported on the recovery and identification of WTC bone fragments and other human remains from Ground Zero over the last ten years.

For example, a search in 2010 found 76 more fragments of remains on the roof of the 40-story Deutsche Bank building 250 feet from the South Tower. Previously, over 750 human bone fragments, each less than a half-inch long, were collected from this roof. 

Amidst the ongoing efforts to collect and identify these remains, there is one important question that investigators have neglected to ask: How were the victims’ remains pulverized?

• Around 22,000 individual fragments of human remains have been found. 
• 9,000 remains have yet to be connected to a victim.

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