Monday, December 26, 2005

Christmas time IS stressful

How many times did I hear a phrase like “Christmas time is a relaxing time with your family” through TV, radio and other mass media? Only non-real people appearing on mass media seemed to enjoy the relaxing time in this season, while the rest of us, real people in the real world, seemed to be almost stressed out with:

Dealing with craziness at shopping mall parking places,
Dealing with drunken/distracted drivers on freeways,
Running around shopping malls to get the last minute Christmas shopping done,
Standing on a check-out line for one hour only to hear “Computers at a check-out counter are down.”
Traveling through and dealing with crowded airports,
Dealing with craziness at a shopping mall again to return gifts,
Catching up homework and getting some work done,
Dealing with family issues that tend to happen whenever family members get together, and
Facing a big credit card bill!

Sorry if reading the list made you feel stressed. Some of the items happen to me almost every year in this season. The repeated experiences made me disillusioned about the “Christmas time is relaxing” phrase. I believe it must be an illusion created by mass media.

Monday, December 19, 2005

more on domestic wiretapping

You can find the original New York Times articles breaking this story here and here.

One interesting aspect of this story is that it may pit the Executive and Legislative branches of government against each other. Under the United States Constitution, Article II, Section 2, Clause 1, the President is Commander in Chief of the military. In World War II, the President didn't need congressional authorization to tell the military to intercept and monitor German communications. On the other hand, Congress has the power to pass laws, and the Executive branch generally has to follow those laws. Finally, the 4th Amendment prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures. (Intercepting a communication is a type of seizure -- you can seize information just like you could seize a physical letter, a weapon, or contraband.) That amendment also requires search warrants in some cases, but not all (for instance, you don't need a search warrant to conduct a fire inspection of a building, even though that's a kind of search.) Now, after 9/11, Congress passed an Authorization of Military Force, which was sort of an open-ended declaration of war: it told the President to go find whoever did 9/11 and make war on them. So, the question is, can the President use his war powers, as authorized by the Authorization of Military Force, to listen to communications between U.S. citizens and foreign citizens without a search warrant? Conversely, does Congress have the power to pass laws, like the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, to limit the President's actions? And finally, if matters come to a head, will the Supreme Court be willing to get involved in the dispute?

I recently heard a commentator say that the Bush presidency could be remembered as exceptionally good or exceptionally bad. Either he'll be the President who defended us from terrorists and led the Middle East to peace, or the one who plunged the country into unnecessary war. I think the stakes in the game just got higher.

at the airport once again

Hangin' at the airport again, waiting for my flight back. I had a good visit -- got a chance to see old friends and catch up. Also, the mail server is working again. (After a semester of classes, it's good to remind yourself that there are still a few things you know how to do and you're good at.) We also got a bunch of Christmas shopping done, and I've now signed up for broadband at home, which should go live by the end of the month.

So, as I tuned back into the world after exams, what to my wondering ears should appear but news that the President is authorizing wiretaps of communications between U.S. citizens and foreign citizens without bothering to get a warrant under FISA? I haven't had time to read up on it yet, but it sounds like he's claiming the power to do it under Article II war powers. This should be a most interesting battle to monitor.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

making a living in a pod safe world

I've mostly recovered from being sick and am now studying for the last final. More accurately, I'm now avoiding studying for the last final.

Here's a question to consider: with peer-to-peer file sharing and podcasting causing issues within the music industry, what sorts of business models could a band use to turn those forces to its advantage instead of fighting them? Some bands are using them to release promo tracks to advertise albums, but there's another approach that bands might want to consider, especially those that do well in live concerts.

The Grateful Dead used to encourage people to record their concerts because concerts were where they made their money, not from the recordings. A lot of newer bands may be in a similar situation, especially if they have exceptionally strong stage presence. So the idea is to use podcasts to promote concert attendance: record the concerts, release the live recordings for free as podcasts, and include in each one a blurb about your upcoming concert schedule. The goal here is to develop a nationwide -- or worldwide -- following that'll come to your concerts whenever you're in town to get the live experience, something you can't send over a peer-to-peer network.

This idea's only half-formed, an inspiration during a study break. Please feel free to leave comments or criticism if you like. But if you're a band that likes to tour and has a lot of charisma on stage, it might be worth keeping in mind.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Diebold CEO resigns

Raw Story is reporting that Diebold's CEO resigned today for personal reasons. The story notes that the company is facing securities fraud litigation. It also cites a disturbing interview with a whistleblower from a few days ago that raises allegations of vote rigging in the 2002 Georgia gubernatorial and 2004 national elections.

The 2002 gubernatorial election in Georgia raised serious red flags, the source said.

“Shortly before the election, ten days to two weeks, we were told that the date in the machine was malfunctioning,” the source recalled. “So we were told 'Apply this patch in a big rush.’” Later, the Diebold insider learned that the patches were never certified by the state of Georgia, as required by law.

“Also, the clock inside the system was not fixed,” said the insider. “It’s legendary how strange the outcome was; they ended up having the first Republican governor in who knows when and also strange outcomes in other races. I can say that the counties I worked in were heavily Democratic and elected a Republican.”

Raw Story is not necessarily an unbiased news source -- there's a definite tone to the news -- but they do tend to carry documents and information that the mainstream U.S. sources won't touch, where you might otherwise have to hit an overseas source to learn more. It'll be very interesting to see how this one develops.

Sunday, December 11, 2005


I woke up this morning feeling not so good. I drove to church, decided the symptoms were rapidly getting worse, and left before the service started. Whatever this stuff was, it came on fast and hard and knocked me flat out for the day.

Fortunately, it was parents to the rescue. Mom parachuted in with ginger ale, Excedrin, and stomach-friendly foods. She even did my laundry while I was crashed on the couch! Thanks, mom!

Anyway, I'm still wiped and still on the couch, though the worst seems to have passed. I can stand now without getting queasy, but I'm still weak and not many flash cards are getting made. The next final is Tuesday morning, so hopefully I'll be in good study shape tomorrow.

Friday, December 09, 2005

neural tapioca

Just came off exam #2 of 5. Three hours of full-throttle typing and a total circus getting started (crashing laptops, someone coming in ten minutes late, an extra person in the exam room). Next one's 9am tomorrow. Right now I'm reading information but it just bounces off -- nothing's sticking. I think the brain must be like a muscle: it burns glucose, it gets stronger with exercise, and it gets tired. We have all this research into making your muscles stronger. Is anyone researching workouts for your brain?

OK, time to sign off before I start sounding like Faulkner's stream-of-consciousness writing in The Sound and the Fury.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Drivin' in the Rain

California is in the rainy season again. You have the chance to see driving skills of Californians in rain. Many of them seem to simply get nervous and not to use to drive in rain. Their rainy-day-driving manners appear to reflect their nervousness. Here are the examples I have seen.

Driving very slowly with the hazard lights on.
I guess the driver is warning other drivers that he/she is a potential road hazard and hoping to prevent others from approaching his/her car. I lived in the Midwest and the Upper Midwest and had never seen this driving style until I moved to California.

Driving 35 miles per hour in the third lane on a freeway in moderate rain.
The driver does not seem to realize that traffic builds up behind him/her. He/She also does not seem to have any intention to move to a right lane. This driving style happens in the Midwest and the Upper Midwest when it is heavy snow, but does not happen in a little or moderate rain, to my knowledge.

Moving windshield wipers at full speed in a little rain.

A few rain drops seem to bother some drivers. This is another driving style that I had never seen in the Midwest and the Upper Midwest.

Driving without the headlights on.
I guess the driver does not realize that other drivers may not see him/her, while he/she can see other cars since most of them have their headlights on.

The rainy season has just started. I expect to see a few more drivers like the ones above by the end of the season. Drive safe, everyone!

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

studying for finals

Studying for finals. I have the flash cards out, and I'm pacing around trying to remember the Six Criteria for Rulemaking, the Twelve Steps for Adjudication, and other "name the seven dwarves" kinds of questions. It's chilly in the apartment, so I'm very tempted to relocate to a coffee shop, but sometimes it's easier to memorize this stuff if you talk out loud.

I wonder if the coffee shop would let me get away with pacing and talking out loud if I stuck a cell phone's hands-free unit in my ear...

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

fun with video phones

Last weekend, Coppertop and I got a couple of web cams so we can video conference. We settled on the Logitech Quickcam Pro for Notebooks. Now, she’s hanging out with a nice, fat DSL connection, static IP, the works. I’m using dial-up. Those of you playing from home can already see where this is going…

Anyway, for pure voice connections, we’ve been using Skype, which works well: generally very good voice quality, multi-platform support, free calling. Skype seems to use a healthy chunk of the dial-up bandwidth, but it still allows some room for web pages, e-mail, and so on. It doesn’t do video, though, so we downloaded video4im, some add-on software that does video over Skype calls. It’s not multi-platform, but we can both call from Windows machines.

Well, it turns out video uses a good bit more bandwidth than the dial up link can support. A few seconds into the call, Skype would just give up and drop it. So I downloaded AOL’s Instant Messenger (I normally use Trillian, which doesn’t seem to support video) to try it, and got crappy audio when the video was (unsuccessfully) trying to run. The audio quality was why we switched to Skype in the first place.

Now, it turns out there is a way you can have both video and audio over a dial-up connection. Sort of. Microsoft has some experimental software called Microsoft Portrait. It’s designed to work over very low bandwidth connections, as low as 9.6kbps. It does it by using efficient compression for voice, which sounds about like what you’d get over a cell phone, and by playing with the video quality. Supposedly it gives you full color video on a fast connection but switches to black and white on slower links. Well, it took one look at my dial-up and dropped into “make everyone a black and white silhouette” mode. A bit of adjustment added noses back to our faces, but it was still pretty low fidelity.

So it looks like I’ll finally break down, enter the 21st century, and spring for DSL. After finals, though, ‘cause there’s no way I’m going to risk messing up network access during finals.

on demand computing

IBM has a new initiative called “on-demand computing”. The idea seems to be that computing is a service: instead of buying a bunch of computers, you buy as much computing power as you need. Microsoft has poo-pooed the idea – they’d really prefer to sell copies of applications and operating systems that run on desktop boxes. For a great bit of social commentary that ties Microsoft’s response into the battle over open source Linux licenses, which seems to really be an ongoing battle between IBM and Microsoft, see today’s User Friendly.

The idea of computing as a service isn’t new. In fact, I think it shows up in 50 year old Isaac Asimov stories, where there’s One Big Mainframe supplying computing power to a whole city. It’s an interesting idea, though. If done right, switching your business model from selling products to services can change the whole incentive structure in some very useful ways.

For example, consider a company that sells air conditioners. Their incentive is to sell you as big an air conditioner as they can, and to reduce their cost of goods sold as much as possible. Now change their business model to one in which they sell the service of providing cool air using whatever means they choose. Now they have an incentive to install insulation in the building, to provide a properly sized air conditioner that that’s going to be very durable (because they continue to own it and can reuse it somewhere else if you cancel your “coolness” contract) and efficient (because they pay the cost of electricity).

The same thing could happen with computers. If – and it’s a big if – IBM can provide computing services, they’ll have an incentive to make their computers efficient, secure, easy to maintain, and recyclable or at least reusable.

On the other hand, it’s a big technical challenge. For instance, imagine the potential headaches when they want to upgrade the word processor everyone’s using, or if a network disruption cuts access to business critical software. It’ll be interesting to see if Big Blue can pull it off.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Japanese military again?

The Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), the ruling party in the past 50 years in Japan, proposed a Constitutional change that could allow Japan to take a more assertive role in international military activities. Does anyone here immediately feel a bit scared and remember the WWII, Kamikaze, the Pearl Harbor, the Japanese Empire and what it did to many Asian countries, and A-bombs? You are not alone.

The proposal would give an official role to Japan's armed forces, allow them to assist military allies, and participate in armed international peacekeeping missions. In fact, a current domestic self-defense force will be promoted to a “military” and called something like “self-defense military” (This is my translation). The proposal mentions that this military would be used for peacekeeping missions, but I am concerned that it might eventually lead the country more aggressive military activities in the future.

Since the WWII, Japan has been proud of its pacifist Constitution, renouncing war and preventing the country from using aggressive military force in any international dispute. It has also helped Japan to rebuild diplomatic relationships with the neighbor Asian countries. In addition, with this Constitution, the nation was able to spend tax money to recover its economy after WWII rather than spending it for arming again.

This Constitutional change, bringing back the Japanese military, could jeopardize Japan’s hard-won relationships with its neighbor countries and risk its economy that has already been pressed under the long-lasting recession. Scary ….


Friday, November 18, 2005

At An Immigration Office

Have you ever been in one of the immigration naturalization service offices? I believe that it is one of the most stressful places. If you are there even once, you probably know how I felt when I was there a few days ago: Being treated like a criminal.

You need to make an appointment on-line ONLY before visiting there.
You get there too early. Then, you have to wait until it is15 minutes before your appointment time. You stand outside of the building and wait.
You go in the building and get checked all over: a cell phone with picture-taking function is not allowed. Metal detector is so sensitive that even your little hair bow sets the alarm off. A palm pilot gets checked. Your key chain gets manually checked.
You pass the security check and go to a corner of a large waiting room. A front desk lady behind bullet-proof-glass asks you “What do you want?”
You show your paperwork to her. She looks at them briefly and gives you a number card.
You sit on a hard plastic chair about 30 minutes to one hour in the waiting room.
You see some signs on the wall, “No foods” and “No drinks”. You also see a sign warning you that someone is watching you through security cameras.
Your number is called up. You go to a specific window. An officer asks you “Why are you here?”
You show your paperwork to the officer.
You get nervous whenever the officer points out a little shortcoming on your documents because you know it is too much trouble and too time consuming to get anything straight with the immigration office. The worst case scenario is that you have to leave the US or are put into jail.
If paperwork goes reasonably well, you sign them and put your finger-prints on them. You can now exit the building.

Your new green card will be mailed to you in the next 6 months to one year. Good Luck.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Sony's XCP escapades

I may have to get rid of the Google Desktop, because it's dangerously more interesting than updating outlines. Here's a developing story in the world of Digital Rights Management.

It appears that Sony created a system to keep people from pirating audio CDs. The system is called XCP. If you want to play an audio CD protected by XCP in your computer's CD drive, you have to install the XCP software, which limits your ability to copy the disk. And apparently does some other things that are a bit nastier.

One of the authors of the Sysinternals blog conducted an analysis of the software. To make a long story short, when you install this stuff, it hides files and directories that have names beginning with the letters "$sys$". It also takes steps derived from hacker tricks to make sure you can't find it or easily remove it and periodically sends information back to Sony. The steps it takes create some security vulnerabilities: anyone else who can hack into your system can hide files simply by giving them names beginning with "$sys$". Apparently at least one virus and one trojan horse already take advantage of this vulnerability.

On November 11th, Sony suspended distribution of the XCP software and offered a way to remove the software to those who had installed it. According to Sysinternals, the removal system is cumbersome at best. Now Microsoft has jumped into the dispute, saying they're going to treat XCP as spyware and add its signature to the weekly update for their spyware blocker because of its effect on the security, reliability, and performance of Windows systems where the software's been installed. Also, on November 1st a San Franscisco attorney filed a class action suit against Sony over XCP.

patent on antigravity machine

In more patent news, the PTO has issued a patent on a spacecraft using an antigravity device. Here is the abstract:
A space vehicle propelled by the pressure of inflationary vacuum state is provided comprising a hollow superconductive shield, an inner shield, a power source, a support structure, upper and lower means for generating an electromagnetic field, and a flux modulation controller. A cooled hollow superconductive shield is energized by an electromagnetic field resulting in the quantized vortices of lattice ions projecting a gravitomagnetic field that forms a spacetime curvature anomaly outside the space vehicle. The spacetime curvature imbalance, the spacetime curvature being the same as gravity, provides for the space vehicle's propulsion. The space vehicle, surrounded by the spacetime anomaly, may move at a speed approaching the light-speed characteristic for the modified locale.
Now, one requirement is that a patent must teach the person of ordinary skill in the art how to practice the invention. I think that means for this patent to be valid an ordinary spacecraft engineer should be able to take this patent and build a functional antigravity system. Anyone up for giving it a try?

The reaction from the physics community appears to be negative. I'm not sure I agree with the reasoning, though:

"The problem, of course, it that this deceives a lot of investors," he said. "You can't go out and find investors for a new invention until you can come up with a patent to show that if you put all this money into a concept, somebody else can't steal the idea.

"[Approving these kind of patents can] make it easier for scam artists to con people if they can get patents for screwball ideas."

It's possible scam artists could use it, but people shouldn't treat a patent as anything more than a grant of property. It's like a deed to a chunk of land: until you actually go look at the land, you won't know how valuable it is. Same deal here.

On the other hand, it seems like the applicant should have had to supply some sort of evidence that the thing actually works. It would be interesting to go back and see what that evidence was.

Props to slashdot for this one.

Friday, November 11, 2005

less than perfect equanimity

K2, our mail server, is now down. It appears to be a memory problem. It could be as simple as a loose SIMM or video card, or as bad as a blown chip. Unfortunately, the server is about 9 hours' drive from here, depending on traffic. Net result: we just spent an hour reconfiguring mail clients to patch together functioning e-mail systems, and a lot of archived mail is sitting on k2's disks where we can't get to it until that machine and I spend a few quality hours one-on-one.

Everest, my backup desktop machine, is also down. The symptoms suggest a blown power supply, but I don't have time to work on it right now. I'm also a little afraid to open it, because when a power supply blows it can take a lot of expensive stuff with it. Net result: if the new laptop croaks, I'm in deep doo-doo.

The old laptop, Mt. Terror, is sitting in the same city as K2, the same 9 hours away, so there's no good way to press it into service as a mail server.

Two dead computers and one seriously wounded in the space of a month. It's probably just lack of time to work on them, since ordinarily I'd be able to focus on getting them up and running, but I'm starting to wonder if I'm losing my touch...

US gov. wades into Blackberry patent fight

Now this is an interesting development. It seems the federal government has stepped into the patent fight over Blackberries and e-mail. They've asked the judge to make sure that any injunction doesn't shut down the 50,000 to 200,000 federal employees who depend on the things.

Can you imagine being the attorney who has to say to the judge, in effect, "your honor, we would like you to please issue an injunction that will turn this communications device, on which most of the House and Senate along with 200,000 other federal employees have become dependent, into an expensive travel alarm"? There's someone who sure better enjoy a challenge...

Here's another interesting question to contemplate: exactly how dependent is the operation of our federal government on this privately operated, business-grade communications service, and what sorts of communications pass through it?

Sunday, November 06, 2005

laptop update -- the final chapter

This is -- hopefully -- the final chapter in the Saga of the Laptop. I shipped the old laptop, Mt. Terror, up to Coppertop so she could use it while traveling. It made it through the shipment process, and worked in the airport, but she had to run to make a connection and the extra bouncing was too much for it. By the time she got to her hotel room, the display had died and stubbornly refused to come back.

So, after the trip, she took it to her local CompUSA. They diagnosed the problem within 15 minutes (compared to the several days at mine): the motherboard had cracked near the power switch. Someone had tried to glue it back together, but the crack was spreading and that's why the video had gone out. So, Mt. Terror will now be relegated to non-portable duties. In fact, it'll probably become a Linux web server eventually.

In the meantime, I'm wondering about a number of things.

First, how did HP manage to design a laptop computer that had a motherboard with poor enough mechanical support that it could crack in ordinary use? I was fairly gentle with that machine.

Second, how did my local CompUSA manage to diddle around for several days, on two different occasions, and miss something as obvious as a cracked motherboard? Or, if they were the ones who glued the motherboard back together, why didn't they tell me that's what they did instead of saying it "just worked" when they turned it on?

And finally, who glued the motherboard? There are only three possibilities: HP when they manufactured it, MicroCenter where I bought it, or CompUSA where I took it when it was failing. And none of those possibilities makes a whole lot of sense.


I came across a blog written by a university instructor in Japan. He presents a story he heard from his friend who also teaches in a Japanese university. I will call the friend of the instructor “Dr. A” below. To be sure, the blog does not include any individuals’ names.

So, here is the story.

Dr. A found one of his students writing an e-mail using a cell phone during his class time. He told the student to stop it. A few days later, Dr. A received a letter from a lawyer hired by the family of the student. The letter stated that they are going to sue him for defamation. I am sure Dr. A was surprised, but he did not seem to get scared. He wrote a letter to the lawyer and said “I’ll also sue the family and student.” Dr. A learned later that they decided not to sue him, after all.

This case tells me that a tedious thing and/or lack of common sense can sometimes trigger people to sue each other. I also wonder how the lawyer felt about this case when he was hired. In addition, it is almost unbelievable that the student seems to have taken the Dr. A’s instruction offensive. How could it be “defamation”?

If you are interested in reading the blog, here is the URL
This blog site is written in Japanese though.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

"words, words, words" -- Hamlet, II:ii

I was wondering tonight how many words you read in law school. So here's a quick estimate.

Upon opening this book to a random page, I count 61 words in the first 5 lines of the page, for an average of 12 words per line. There are 53 lines per page. Standard reading load seems to be about 20 pages per week per credit. There are about 14 credits, and 15 weeks, per semester.

That's 12 * 53 * 20 * 14 * 15 = 2,671,200 words per semester. At two semesters per year for 3 years, you get a total of 16,027,200 words in your law school career. Give or take a few. And quite a surprising number of highlighters to make selected ones yellow.

That's a lot of words.

OK, back to reading. Words, words, words.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

California, Prop 78 and 79: Hopefully, it works ….

I did a little analysis on Prop 78 and Prop 79 in California. Prop 78 is “Discounts on Prescription Drugs” and Prop 79 is “Prescription Drug Discounts: State-Negotiated Rebates.” These propositions allow the state of California to build a state-run-drug discount program. The program sounds good, but I am afraid it may not work.

The successful operation of Prop 78 seems to depend on how many pharmacies and drug companies voluntarily participate into the state-run drug discount program. “Voluntarily” is a key word here. Voluntary participation means that it is perfectly legitimate that the companies decide not to participate. The state of California cannot require them to participate, either. What if many companies decide not to participate? Well, the program would not work. Here comes my concern: how many drug companies are willingly and voluntarily give discount prices to many Californians? I am not so optimistic…

With Prop 79, I believe that the state of California modifies Medi-Cal and builds the new drug discount program as an extension/a part of the current Medi-Cal drug discount system. Medi-Cal is the California version of Medicaid that is funded by both state and federal taxes. “Partially funded by federal tax” is a problem here. This means that the state of California would need to get federal approval to modify Medi-Cal, and you know how long it takes for the federal government to take any action especially in the social services arena. If it takes too long time, the state of California would never be able to implement the program.

There is no easy way for the drug discount program to be implemented, but we have to decide which one we want to vote for. Here is an additional info. about these propositions: with Prop 79, both low- and middle-income people would benefit. With Prop 78, low-income individuals would benefit, but not others.

OK … I hope I did not discourage you to vote in November.
Here is a bit more detailed info.

transparent aluminum

OK, I admit it, I'm behind the power curve again, or at least behind the news. (You know you're behind the news curve when you don't find out about tech developments till they show up in comics.)

In any case, the military is now testing a transparent aluminum compound for use as an armor. You can find a picture here. The compound is actually Aluminum Oxynitride. I've repressed enough of my analytical chemistry that I can't give you the chemical formula, but the summary is that it's a scratch-resistant ceramic that can replace window glass in armored vehicles. You can find details in this Air Force article.

I'd be very interested in knowing more about the mechanical properties of this material. Right now, the canopies for light aircraft are often made of plexiglass or similar plastics. They're light and resist shattering, but they tend to accumulate scratches. A scratch-resistant canopy would be a great feature.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

googlebomb maria

Maria posted that if you type "failure" into Google, you'll get a politically interesting link. The reason it works is that Google's search engine looks for links to pages and associated text. For instance, if there are a whole bunch of web pages that link to Maria's blog with the words hot mama blogger, guess what site will come up when you type in those words.

If you'd like to participate in this experiment, simply link to using the words "hot mama blogger." Or, in a blog comment, you can add the link by pasting this into your comment:

<a href="">hot mama blogger</a>
By the way, this process is known as "googlebombing." You can read all about it on the wikipedia.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

The Naming of Snardblott

This incident took place during the Thanksgiving travel season of 2001. Here is some e-mail I sent at the time:

We had a number of airline misadventures this weekend, probably the most entertaining of which was the Incident of the Fountain Pen. As I went through security on Wednesday, they homed in on, of all things, my fountain pen. A fountain pen, you see, is pointy. Never mind that the tip of the nib is rounded, so it'll glide over the paper instead of tearing it. Never mind that it is made of gold instead of something much stronger like, say, paper. Never mind that there was a sharp, 0.5mm mechanical pencil in the same bag. No, the Pointy Fountain Pen was New and Scary.

Much consternation ensued. The Supervisor of the Checkpoint called over the Oversupervisor of All The Checkpoints. The folks with M-16s sauntered by to inspect the Fountain Pen. Finally, the Oversupervisor of All The Checkpoints called her superiors, whose titles were so lofty that she didn't tell me what they are, she just spoke of them in the abstract. Eventually, some duly appointed designee of Norman Mineta made the executive decision that yours truly wasn't going to hijack a 737 with a fountain pen, and I was allowed to carry it through security.

I've since decided that such a fearsome implement, the mere sight of which terrifies airport security and brings forth armed guards, deserves a name. So, I'm asking for suggestions. What name should I give the Fountain Pen of Doom?

Physical description: I bought it from a pen dealer in Columbus, Ohio (The Vintage Fountain Pen for those who visit the area.) It has no brand name or logo, and the woman at the fountain pen store here in California was unable to decipher the strange markings on the nib. It has a wide barrel and is fairly heavy. The barrel itself is blue, with a gold plaited clip, gold accents, and a gold nib. Ornamentation is minimal.

I humbly await your advice.

Creative friends quickly answered: SNARDBLOTT, Fiendish Fang dispensing Inky Venom of Vengeance. Indeed, Mason wrote the following poem:
Three Pens for the editors up on high
Seven for the writers in their cubes of foam
Nine for accountants that multiply
One for the dark lord in his dark home

In the land of order, where paperwork lies
One Pen to draft the forms,
One Pen to write them
One Pen to date the forms, and in the darkness sign them
In the land of order, where paperwork lies
Fear me, for I wield Snardblott, the One Pen.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

They are supposed to be smart…?

I just read about a biology grad. student in a famous university in Japan. It is tough to pass an entrance exam of the university. People believe that students in the university are smart …but are they really?

An advisor of this biology grad. student asked him to send a biological sample (I don’t know exactly what it was) to a lab in the US. The student asked the advisor, “Which country’s stamp do I have to use?” This question shocked the advisor. The story did not end here. The advisor received a phone call from a post office later. A person at the post office asked him “Dr. ___, could you tell me what is the content of this envelop? It seems things inside are broken and some liquid is coming through.” It turned out that the grand. student simply put the sample in a test-tube, put it in a regular envelope, and brought it to the post office. The test-tube was broken while a post-office person was handling it.

Japan used to maintain high education levels, but the levels might be declining?

laptop update

Here's a laptop update and another case study in the Fedex phenomenon.

The new laptop (tentatively named "Halfdome") left Shanghai, China yesterday. (A Japanese company makes their laptops in China. Go figure.)As of 9:32 a.m. today, it was in Anchorage, Alaska.

The new CD-ROM drive for that laptop left Exton, PA yesterday. As of 11:33 a.m. this morning, it had left Lewisberry, PA, on its way here.

The old laptop (which will be renamed "Mt Terror") went to CompUSA's repair shop on Friday. As of 12:45 p.m. today, it was still there, and the person on the phone didn't know why. He said he'd find out. It's now 6:30 p.m. and I haven't heard anything back.

In this case, it's CompUSA that's getting bitten by the Fedex phenomenon. The shippers that are sending the laptop and drive have web sites that provide extremely detailed information about the location of the shipment along its path. I don't actually need that information -- the boxes won't get here any faster for my watching them -- so its main effect is to make CompUSA look bad by contrast. Especially since I keep having to call them to get information, rather than their voluntarily calling me with updates.

In the meantime, trusty ol' Everest is still chugging along, and I'm taking notes using the height of 19th Century writing technology: the legendary fountain pen Snardblott, the One Pen. By the way, the inventors of fountain pens really knew what they were doing: there is nothing as comfortable as a properly made and fitted fountain pen if you're going to do a lot of writing by hand.

Side note: It's normal for computers to have names, at least among civilized operating systems. As you may have guessed, I name mine after mountains. But how did a fountain pen earn a name? That's a subject for another post...

Sunday, October 16, 2005

technology dependence

It's amazing how dependent we become on technology. The old laptop is in the shop (again). The new laptop (purchased because of the old one's reliability issue) hasn't yet arrived. In fact, it's still officially "being packed" according to the order status web site, which I'm pretty sure is code for "we haven't finished building it yet." So I'm writing this on the safety net: a trusty Linux desktop machine named Everest. Except that Everest has been a bit neglected of late and really needs an upgrade which I don't dare do until I have a working laptop, since theupgrade will probably result in a day or more of down time.

There was a time, not too long ago, when people did school without laptops. A handful still do, and a few professors don't allow them in class, but on the whole pretty much everyone has gone to them because they really speed things up, at least when they're working. For instance, it's very useful to be able to brief a case and theninterleave that brief with your class notes so everything's in one place.

The only problem is that pretty much everyone has gone to laptops. It's sort of like Fedex: at first, overnight delivery was new and useful. Then it became standard, and now people get impatient or worse when they can't get their whatchamacallit overnight. If you don't Fedex, you can find yourself at a severe disadvantage. So here I am, caught by the Fedex phenomenon and calling the repair shop every day to try to wheedle any news I can from the sales drone who screens their calls. And hopingit doesn't rain hard enough to knock out the power.

Does anyone know of a twelve-step program leading to paleolithic nirvana?

Saturday, October 15, 2005

dear mister spammer

Dear Mr. Spammer, thank you for bringing a touch of brightness to my day. It is so kind of you to try to meet my needs for generic viagra, aphrodesiacs, offshore banking opportunities, anatomy enlargement, and the occasional jihad against my own country. I also appreciate your efforts to get closer to me, or at least to my machine, with your friendly daily port scans. In fact, it's flattering to know that you consider my hardware sufficiently powerful to join your army of zombie spamming machines. And the way you harvest my e-mail addresses from public archives and the WHOIS database is just breathtaking in its bold assertiveness.

The time has come, though, for us to part ways. I will miss your offers of "QUALITY ONLINE INSURANCE" and "Re-finance at the lowestt ratess", but the truth is I no longer have the time to continue our relationship. I hope you understand. I have moved on. Your hearty "Fw: [9]" just doesn't bring me the same thrill it once did. Yes, you got my attention when you hijacked that mailing list I run and spammed all the recipients. It was a clever move, but it's no basis for a long termrelationship.

No, the time has come for us to separate. I will remember you fondly when I'm studying computer crime, jurisdiction, and private causes of action. However, I am afraid I shall never be drawn to "URGENT RESPOND?" to your "featured small-cap company".

Fw: [9] to you, too.
False Data

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Search and Seizure

I've been reading about 4th Amendment Search and Seizure, especially stop-and-frisk under Terry v. Ohio. I now feel like I have taken my finely sharpened number 2 pencil and carefully drawn a line delineating the edge of a crumbling cliff.

Friday, October 07, 2005

airport check-in

Hanging out in the airport again, waiting for a flight. It's remarkably hard to concentrate in an airport, even with the iPod swamping the crowd noise into a dull roar, so I'm blogging while I wait for the expensive cheese "pizza" to hit my bloodstream. Hey, it's all carbon chains in the end, right?

Sitting at the gate's got me thinking about Southwest's online check-in system. Starting one minute after midnight the day of the flight, you can check in through the web. Today I hit the web at 1pm for an 8:50 flight and got in the "B" line, which means all the "A" line folks must've hit it this morning. Now I'm curious: how much useful information can they possibly get from having someone check in 12 hours before the flight?

As far as I can tell, the check-in can perform a few useful functions: (1) tell them roughly how many people are planning to get on the plane, (2) tell security that the person walking into the boarding area has a ticket, and (3) tell the people at the gate that the person getting on the plane has a driver's license.

Except it doesn't seem to work like that. The more time between check-in and boarding, the less reliable the passenger count's going to be. Twelve hours is a long time. And it could be longer: there doesn't seem to be much to stop some enterprising soul from setting up an automatic check-in service, where, for a nominal fee, their servers will automatically check you in the day of the flight and e-mail your boarding pass to you.

And what about our friend at security? All he really knows is that the person walking through the gate has a piece of paper, printed on her home printer, that happens to look like a boarding pass. He doesn't check it against a master list of issued passes. All he checks is to see if the thing resembles a pass, has a name that matches the driver's license being waved at him, and that the driver's license picture looks like the harried, shoeless traveler doing the waiving.

And finally, there's the gate attendant. The gate attendant does check the boarding pass against a database but doesn't check ID. So all she knows is that the person bought a ticket and which ticket holders got on the plane, both of which she could tell without the check-in step.

By the way, one other thing this line of reasoning should tell you is that the photo ID can't be all that important. After all, there's really not much to stop someone from using a fake boarding pass to get past security, as long as it looks more-or-less real, and then switching to a real boarding pass with a different name to get on the plane. So why do we check ID? My guess is two reasons: it makes the public feel safer even if they really aren't, and it discourages people from reselling their tickets which makes the airlines happy. The real security comes from the metal detectors, the reinforced cockpit doors, and a generation of cell-phone toting passengers who will never, ever let a bunch of folks with utility knives hijack their plane.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

housing prices

There's an interesting article here about using Internet hedge funds to predict what'll happen to prices. You can find current hedges for various housing markets here. Theoretically, they may be a good predictor of housing prices. If I'm interpreting the numbers right (I don't have more than a few minutes to try to understand them right now), it looks like the market doesn't expect San Diego's median home price to go above $643K by November. Fascinating stuff, and it might be worth keeping an eye on it.

Monday, September 12, 2005

new toy!

I've been wanting a good way to compose blog entries offline and then zap them over to Blogger. Writing them in a text editor didn't quite work: blogger's HTML doesn't quite match the standard web HTML I'm used to, so things came out looking a little . . . odd.

Yesterday, though, I found a new toy: you can configure blogger to let you e-mail your blog entries. And my e-mail client, Thunderbird, lets you write a message but wait to send it till you have a network connection. So now I'm taking this thing out for a spin: How well does it work? Is there stuff I can do with Thunderbird that Blogger won't handle? And how does composing in an e-mail client change the way the way I write?

brilliant rant on bike commuting

Cycledog's posted a nicely written rant on bike commuting here.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

welcome Coppertop

Please welcome our new guest commentator and analyst Coppertop! She'll be posting on the Gazette from time to time.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

747 lands in 2800 feet

3rd week of classes and folks are down, hurricane news is all over the air, nasty fight shaping up for the Supreme Court, etc., etc.

Time for some cool news.

This site gives a blow-by-blow description of an amazing feat: landing a 747 on a runway only 50 feet wide and stopping within 2,800 feet. They were retiring the 747 (with 107,000 flight hours on it!) and delivering it to an air museum. You can really get a feeling for the pilot's skill with that last picture, where the 747 totally dwarfs the runway: every single engine is hanging off the edge. It looks like a sidewalk. And check out the second picture: note how close he put it to the end of the runway to get as much distance as possible.

Friday, September 02, 2005


This came from a friend in Houston, who got it from a local Houston mailing list.
I need your help. We have approximately 200 persons at the Astro Inn (Cavalcade/45) and the Western Inn (610/Airline) who have exhausted their money on their rooms and are now basically going hungry. I was able to get some food from the Farmers Market and Gabby's today and a church was going to feed them tonight. There were families sitting in front of the Astro Inn homeless with no money...If you can get the word out that any help with food (bread, lunch meat, milk, casseroles, water, etc and toiletries (diapers, toothpaste, shampoo, clothes) would be so appreciated. Councilmember Garcia is getting together a meal for Sunday or Monday but the need is immediate.

The food and articles can be taken directly there or I can pick them up. If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to call. I know we all want to help besides writing a check and this is a way to see the true grief these neighbors to the east are enduring. Thank you and please help!!!!!

Officer Beverly Bisso, Heights Police Storefront
Unfortunately, it's tough to deal with immediate problems like this at a distance. If you have contacts in Houston, and you want to help with a situation like this one right away, get your contacts to donate stuff and then mail 'em a check to pay them back. Same deal for other parts of the country where the refugees have landed.

To donate generally, there are the Red Cross, Lutheran World Relief, Catholic Charities, and the Salvation Army, among others.

If you're trying to contact friends or relatives, try Craig's List. Also, the New Orleans Times-Picayune has set up two searchable fora: I'm OK and Who Are You Looking For?.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

lightning guns and laser blinders

Courtesy of Slashdot, here's an interesting article on an entrepreneur in the nonlethal weapons business. It both gives you a flavor of the world of weapons manufacturers in the "war on terrorism" age, and talks about some of the odd non-lethal weapons that are in research or deployment, ranging from microwave systems that make you feel like you're being burned, to lasers designed to temporarily (or permanently) blind people, to guns that shoot bolts of lightning. It's pretty surreal, especially since this is just the unclassified stuff.

art and technology

I've been reading minutes of old meetings for the board that regulates professional engineers. At one point, they were talking about electronic signatures. There's a quote here from President Clinton as he signed the Electronic Signatures in Global and National Commerce Act:
Just imagine if this had existed 224 years ago, the Founding Fathers wouldn't have had to come all the way to Philadelphia on July 4th for the Declaration of Independence. They could have e-mailed their John Hancocks in.
It might be a signature, but it wouldn't be a John Hancock. I think art and technology were closer in the old days when we knew less technology but remembered a lot of art. It seems like there's a disconnect now, at least in a lot of cases. Not all of them -- Apple usually has a good blend, for instance -- but often things are either artistic, with minimal functionality, or functional with bits of art poking through like grass through a sidewalk.

The advantage? Technology that doesn't have to sacrifice functionality on the altar of being pretty. Art that's not tied by practicality. The disadvantage? Clunky black and gray laptop computers running clunky operating systems. Awkward-looking gas stations, electric substations, and train yards.

I guess the question is whether the tradeoff is worth it: the fact that it's so common argues in favor, but the popularity of the iPod argues against.

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

follow-up on weather decoder

In an earlier post, I wrote:
If you want the latest forecast, go here, type in KNBG, select "translated," and click "get TAFs." Be aware, though, that there's a bug in the translation code: +FC means severe funnel clouds, not no significant weather.
I've been informed that the reason the decoder doesn't handle "FC" in a forecast is that forecasters aren't supposed to use that particular code in a forecast, or at least in the "TEMPO" sections of the forecast.

I'm still not sure why the author chose to print "no significant weather" on an unrecognized code, but I let the e-mail exchange drop at that point.

the national oil reserve?

On the news this morning: the President is to open the national oil reserve to ease prices at the gas pump because Hurricane Katrina wiped out refineries in New Orleans.

Something here isn't adding up. If the problem is a lack of refineries, how will increasing the amount of crude oil help? I mean, aside from marginal effects on the price of crude.

From the article, it looks like I'm not the only one puzzling over this question:
The government's oil ``is not going to be of much help unless we get refineries running again,'' said Adam Sieminski, global oil strategist at Deutsche Bank AG in New York, before the announcement. ``Releasing oil from the SPR right now would be actually inappropriate because there would be no place to put it.''

Sunday, August 28, 2005

melting permafrost may release greenhouse gasses

From the Telegraph:
A melting permafrost peat bog stretching across an area the size of France and Germany could unleash billions of tons of greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, Russian scientists have warned.
So, the basic idea is that this thing's got a whole lot of methane in it, stored away for the last 11,000 years. Only now, Siberia's warmed enough for the permafrost to melt. Potentially releasing 70 billion tons of methane, according to the article.

Methane looks like it's around 70x as effective a greenhouse gas as carbon dioxide, according to this article.

According to this D.O.E. article, total CO2 emissions for 2003 were around 6 billion tons. Hmm. 70 billion tons of methane, and each ton is 70 times as effective as CO2... (give or take -- methane breaks down faster than CO2).

It's kind of surprising how little coverage this story got in the U.S. news, at least if you look at the Google News hits.

improvement in solar still

I tried adding a simple reflector to the solar still and got some success. In this case, the reflector is aluminum foil taped over three sides of a box. I started the experiment running at 11:00 and ended at sundown. Every hour I re-aligned the reflector with the sun (something you don't have to do with the basic, reflector-less still.) Here's a shot of the system in operation next to the reflectorless system for comparison.

The reflector showed a dramatic improvement. The version without a reflector produced two teaspoons of water. The version with reflector produced 4-1/2 teaspoons, so about twice the production rate. Weather conditions were clear and sunny.

I need to re-run the test to be sure, but it looks like the reflector gives a dramatic improvement in the still's output. It's not enough to make the still useful, but with a few other 2x improvements we might get there.

forecast for New Orleans

Here's the aviation weather forecast for New Orleans Naval Air Station, a.k.a. KNBG or Alvin Callendar Field. With translations.
NBG 282121 06015G25KT 9000 BR SCT030 BKN050 OVC080 QHN2960INS
TEMPO 2202 VRB30G45KT 1600 SHRA BR SCT005 OVC010CB/
Temporary condition from 2200 GMT to 0200 GMT: winds from variable directions at 30 knots, gusts to 45, with rain showers and overcast skies.
BECMG 0204 06040G55 SCT005 OVC010 QNH2900INS
From 0200 to 0400 GMT, becoming winds from 060 degrees at 40 knots, gusts to 55.
TEMPO 0206 VRB50G70KT 1600 TSRA BR SCT005 OVC010C
Then thundershowers, variable direction winds at 50kt, gusts to 70.
BECMG 0507 VRB115G130KT 0400 +TSRAGR BR SCT005 OVC010CB QNH2860INS
Then all hell breaks loose from 0500 to 0700 GMT: winds variable directions at 115kt, gusts to 130, heavy thunderstorms and hail.
TEMPO 0509 +FC
With severe tornadoes and waterspouts... (FC is funnel cloud. The "+" means more severe than your ordinary, garden variety funnel cloud.)
TEMPO 0915 +FC
More severe tornadoes from 0900 GMT to 1500.
BECMG 1516 120145G175KT 0100 +SHRA BR SCT005 OVC010 QNH2663INS
Leading to winds from 120 degrees at 145kt, with gusts to 175kt and heavy rain showers. 145kt is about 165 mph. 175kt is about 200mph.
FM1630 VRB06KT 9999 SCT300 QNH2668INS
The eye will pass around 16:30 GMT. Winds variable at 6kt. Scattered high-altitude clouds.
FM1830 270140G160KT 0100 +TSRA BR SCT005 OVC010CB
QNH2672INS T24/11Z T34/20Z
Then at 18:30GMT they'll get smacked by the other wall. Winds from 270 degrees at 140kt, gusts to 160kt, with heavy thunderstorms, a broken layer of clouds at 500 feet, and a solid layer of thunderheads starting at 1000 feet.

Let's hope the weather man got this one wrong.

If you want the latest forecast, go here, type in KNBG, select "translated," and click "get TAFs." Be aware, though, that there's a bug in the translation code: +FC means severe funnel clouds, not no significant weather.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

vaguely sinister notice

I just came home to find a bright orange notice on my mailbox.


(Yes, the double quotes are as they appeared on the notice.) Is it just me, or is there something vaguely sinister about "tell us everything we need to know about your neighbors," in a sort of Cold War, East German kind of way? I'm sure it wasn't intended that way, and that the double quotes really are just misued and not saying "It's one of those 'social' events. No, really." It's nothing more than a completely innocent, but unfortunate, choice of phrasing.


Saturday, August 20, 2005

WorldCom from the inside

Lemme tell you a story. A long, long time ago, before the Internet even existed, before there were even personal computers, there was this insurance company. And this insurance company had a problem: they had all these expensive mainframe computers that were really busy during the day, but the computers were idle at night. But the insurance company had a clever idea. "Why don't we sell some of this idle time to subscribers?" they asked. "We could call it a Computer Service, or CompuServ for short."

And thus CompuServe was born. They added the "e" later.

This baby service grew. In time, they added a bulletin board to it, with places that people could post messages and talk to each other. And they added e-mail. And the users were happy.

But CompuServe had a problem: the information service was really popular. It was a good problem, to be sure, but it meant a lot of people had to make long distance phone calls to connect. Remember, the Internet wasn't around yet, so modems were it.

CompuServe had another clever idea. "Let's build our own network! We'll put put modems close to people, so it's a local phone call, and then we'll collect their data and feed it over our network to our servers, which are now so busy with the information service that they're not doing health insurance anyway." So they built their own private network. Think of it as a private Internet. When I joined CompuServe, I joined the group that was responsible for writing the software that ran that network.

But where to put the modems? In those days, if you wanted a local phone call, you had to physically put a real, honest-to-goodness modem somewhere close to the person making the local call. Sometimes they'd put modems, and network nodes, in people's basements. There was even one on someone's front porch, which worked great as long as it didn't rain.

And then an interesting thing happened. H&R Block, the tax people, bought CompuServe. You see, H&R Block has, or had, these little tax offices pretty much everywhere. And pretty much every tax office had a closet or something similar. So CompuServe could put their modems and network nodes in those closets and sternly instruct the people in the office that it was OK to look at the blinkinlights, but don't touch the buttons or CompuServe would know. (And they would, too -- our software made sure of that.) For many years, CompuServe made a lot of money for H&R Block.

But the marriage didn't last. There was this young upstart called America Online. And there was this Internet thing. And a tax company and computer company just don't have much in common. Eventually, H&R Block put CompuServe up for sale. Then, after the board of directors hired a finance guy, the finance guy came back with bad news: the company was losing cash. There were reorganizations, recriminations, the fancy all-company parties stopped, and many other things changed.

Then the president of CompuServe made an announcement. This long distance company that had made its money in Europe was going to buy us. The long distance company was called WorldCom. Their stock was strong and always went up. They bought UUNET. They bought MCI. They bought the network half of CompuServe -- America Online bought the other half and got the CompuServe brand as part of the deal. There were stock options with 3 year vesting in abundance.

There were more reorganizations. There were name changes: CompuServe Network Services, WorldCom Advanced Networks, UUNET, others that I forget. The org charts moved online, and then vanished, making it hard to know who you needed to talk to in order to get things done. The H.R. manual moved online too: rumor was that it let them change it without notice. H.R. itself moved to Jackson, Mississippi. The bureaucracy intensified. And the stock, well, the stock leveled off, but WorldCom encouraged people to put their 401K money there anyway.

Later, of course, the stock went down. Those of us who exercised our options lost some money. Those poor souls who put their 401Ks into WorldCom stock lost a lot more. Fortunately, I wasn't one of those folks, but friends weren't as lucky.

I left WorldCom in January of 2000. It was with great interest that I watched the recent trial of Bernie Ebbers. And next week, I start Corporations, Criminal Procedure, and Cyberlaw. Perhaps that will give me a new understanding of just what happened.

long time no post

Wow. Long time no post. Look at the dust around here...

Writing for me is a function of two things: available time and stress. If there's not enough time, I won't write, but if the stress levels get too high, then I'll make time. So, about mid-way through the summer, law review started up. They don't tell you that if you're in the summer group you lose half your summer. That's about the time the posting stopped. Now classes are about to start in earnest, so stress levels are up. Hence the posting again.

The last few days were orientation for the new incoming students. Aaron's got some pics up here. I had a blast helping out -- leading groups from one place to another, answering questions, being on a student panel or two, consoling them after the debt management seminar. Honestly, it was more fun than being oriented. (And not having to actually sit through debt management? Major bonus. I wasn't one of the clever first-years who blew it off.)

It looks like we have a great incoming crew. Congrats to the 1L's for making it here, and to the O.L.'s for a great orientation session.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

vanishing plankton

The San Francisco Chronicle is reporting that oceanic plankton have largely disappeared off the San Francisco coast, Oregon, and parts of Canada, due to the lack of the usual cold upwelling. The effect is rippling through the food web.

The larger fish and baleen whales eat mostly krill: free-floating, shrimp- like crustaceans ranging from one to two inches, the upper size limit of the zooplankton realm.
. . .
In perhaps the most ominous development, seabird nesting has dropped significantly on the Farallon Islands off San Francisco, the largest Pacific Coast seabird rookery south of Alaska.
. . .
Peterson said a major die-off of double-crested cormorants recently occurred in Oregon, and juvenile salmon numbers have dropped precipitously. Both events, he said, are likely due to the warm water.
Related to global warming? Possibly so:
A recent study indicated the phenomenon may be long term, and linked to global warming.

Last week, Fisheries and Oceans Canada -- the federal agency dealing with Canada's marine and inland waters -- released a report saying 2004's spring and summer ocean surface temperatures in the Gulf of Alaska and off British Columbia were the warmest in 50 years.

The study concluded the record high temperatures were caused by abnormally warm weather in Alaska and western Canada, as well as "general warming of global lands and oceans."
If so, we may owe a big ol' thank-you to Mr. Cooney and his buddies.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

feds fear broadband terror

Smartmobs has picked up a Wired story about federal security agencies worrying about broadband systems on aircraft. Their concern is apparantely that terrorists could use them to communicate with other terrorists on the same or other aircraft, or to remotely detonate a bomb.

I guess I'm missing something, but I don't understand how airborn broadband technology will give terrorists an ability they don't have today.

To communicate with others in the same or different aircraft, can't a terrorist just use a cell phone? If they don't want to talk out loud, it seems like they could still use a cell modem plugged into their laptop and instant messaging software. (Or if they're on the same plane, middle-school tricks like passing notes or Morse code "absent-mindedly" tapped out with a pencil might even work.)

To remotely detonate an explosive, what's to stop a plain old direct radio link? Something along the lines of a garage door opener with beefed-up transmission power?

Again, maybe I'm missing something central here, but it doesn't seem like the agencies involved have carefully considered the threat model. Rather than concentrating security on only one possible communication channel, it seems like it would be more productive to put the effort into detecting the explosives, putting sky marshals on the plane, and/or maybe modifying cargo holds to have blow-out panels.

Sunday, July 10, 2005

we're not afraid

After the London bombing, a friend and I were talking about the fact that CNN spent a ton of time breathlessly reporting about the deployment of bomb-sniffing dogs on New York and DC subways. My take was that they felt compelled to talk about the London bombing but there just wasn't much new info coming out of London, so they had to stretch. She was less charitable: she thought they were so arrogant as to think that people in the U.S. would rather hear about non-news in this country than real news overseas.

In either case, and in sharp contrast to the major networks' news coverage, I offer this link to We're Not Afraid, courtesy of Smart Mobs. Their favorite submissions page is definitely worth a look.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

meditations on a bumper sticker

At their worst, bumper stickers are inane, boring, or mere advertising. At their best, their few words open doors to layers of meaning, a sort of western haiku.

Case in point: the car in front of me this morning had a bumper sticker that read:
God, give me the serenity . . . to accept this damn traffic!
The sticker, as I said, was on a car. Traffic, or at least the kind of traffic this person was talking about, is made of cars. So the sticker was really a prayer for
God, give me serenety . . . to accept a problem of which I'm a part!
Certainly anyone would need serenity to accept a problem like that. But as I pondered the sticker further, I wondered what happened to the rest of the AA serenity prayer that it's playing on. Where's the courage to change the things you can, or the wisdom to know the difference? What this driver had accepted was that creating and living in traffic was the only option. Now, maybe for this person it really was, but maybe not.

Maybe you've seen the commercial on TV. There's a woman talking about how she wants to save the environment. But not at the expense of her car -- she loves her car. The commercial goes on to say that's why the car maker is making efficient cars. But the message here, like the one on the bumper-sticker, is clear: your car is such an integral part of your life that you can't give it up.

There's an interesting theory called "peak oil." It says that oil production will peak, and then decline, some time around 2007, give or take a few years. It's based mostly on oil reserves and how expensive it is to get oil out of the ground. The theory's somewhat controversial, and some sites like this one raise the degree of hype to pre-Y2K levels. On the other hand, demand continues to increase as China and India try to move their populations to first world living standards. Consider, for example, PetroChina's size and Chinese company CNOOC's attempt to buy Unocal. China's population is 1,306,313,812. India's is 1,080,264,388. The US? 295,734,134. It might be worth considering what will happen to oil prices when and if the 2.3 billion people in China and India become like the 0.3 billion in the United States and can't live without their cars, either.

Maybe, instead of just asking for the serenity to accept things as they are, we should all consider asking for the courage to change the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Kelo v. New London

There's much cussin' and discussin' on Slashdot about today's Supreme Court ruling in Kelo v. New London. This blog entry is a slight rewrite of a comment I posted there.

First of all, just for some quick background, the Fifth Amendment does not allow the government to take private property for private use at all. When taking private property for public use, it must sometimes compensate the owner.

Past public use cases Court mention in the opinion:

Berman v. Parker (1954) The Court upheld a Washington DC law that allowed the government to condemn and take private lands in blighted areas, compensate the owners, and then lease or sell the land to potential developers. The Court held that renovating a slum was not a "private purpose" under the Takings Clause.

Hawaii Housing Authority v. Midkiff (1984) In Hawaii, a small number of landowners owned almost all the land. Almost everyone else was renting. The Court upheld a Hawaii law that let long-term tenants ask a state authority to condemn the land they lived on, compensate the owner, and then sell the land to the tenant. Again, the Court held that this process was "public use" under the Takings Clause.

Much of the discussion revolved around the fact that the decision seems to be a liberal/conservative split.

At first blush, it looks like the ruling in Kelo v. New London, that the government can condemn and take houses in a non-blighted area, compensate the owners, and give them to a developer for redevelopment in an attempt to rejuvinate the town, doesn't seem to be much of an extension of the other two cases.

On the other hand, I get the feeling there's some maneuvering going on, here. Notice in Hawaii Housing Authority how a very similar interpretation of public use allowed the government redistributed large concentrations of property to "the little guy." Also, keep in mind that property doesn't just mean land: shares of corporate stock are also property. Property rights include things like how you're allowed to use land, too.

On the third hand (the Vorlon hand?) the Court's willingness to defer to the legislature seems to give governments a lot of power. I haven't decided yet whether that's good or bad. The answer may wind up going pretty deeply into why a society chooses to enforce property rights in the first place, and who would be likely to have that power if the government didn't.

Monday, June 20, 2005

updates on the global warming post

Thanks to Maria for this tip-off: the New York Times is reporting that U.S. pressure has succeeded in rewording the draft of the G-8's joint statement on global warming. The Guardian's story is here. According to the Times article, the changes remove the call for prompt action.
Among the changes reflected in the May 27 draft was the deletion of an introductory statement, "Our world is warming." The annotated American copy of the document also offered comments to negotiators for the other nations like "we should avoid the term 'targets' " and "we should leave the definition of what constitutes 'ambitious' to each leader, given their respective national circumstances."
Given the high fraction of global carbon emissions that the U.S. contributes, allowing countries to decide for themselves what "ambitious" means represents a serious de-toothing of the statement, which may have some nasty repercussions as countries like China and India increase their populations' living standards. As I wrote earlier, you can find the U.N.'s numbers on global carbon emissions per capita here.

Also, remember Philip Cooney, the the chief of staff of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, who resigned after allegations surfaced that he had doctored scientific reports to make it seem like global warming was a lot more controversial than it used to be? It looks like he just landed a job at an oil company. Which one? Well, remember the Herald Sun article that said this?
Also yesterday, a British newspaper claimed to have seen official papers showing pressure from oil and gas giant Exxon Mobil partly prompted President George W. Bush to reject the Kyoto protocol on climate change.
You guessed it. Cooney will hire on with Exxon this fall. Honestly, in the wake of the Valdez disaster, I'm surprised Exxon isn't paying more attention to public relations. Thanks to Polizeros for letting me know about the hiring.

Sunday, June 19, 2005

UK memos in context: a timeline

I've put the various British memos into a timeline of events to better understand their context. The timeline draws from two published on the web, at Infoplease and Mideast Web. The memos come from Raw Story and the Times Online. You can also find copies now at Since putting this timeline together has consumed most of my weekend, I don't have time right now to write much about the analysis, but the general conclusion is that the Bush administration seems to have made up its mind to get rid of Saddam Hussein by one means or another as of March, 2002, based on a number of factors including a belief that he had a WMD program and "unfinished business" from 1991 (as one of the papers discusses.) This may well be an example of a new-ish administration, flush from a previous victory in Afghanistan, making a policy choice and then selecting the facts to match.

  • 11 Sep 2001 : Attack on World Trade Center.

  • 21 Sep 2001 : US officials tell the Washington Times that Saddam Hussein made contact with Osama Bin Laden days before the attacks.

  • 7 Oct 2001 : US invasion of Afghanistan begins with Operation Enduring Freedom

  • 13 Nov 2001 : Afghan capital Kabul falls

  • 7 Dec 2001 : Afghan city Kandahar falls

  • 29 Jan 2002 : President Bush's State of the Union address lists Iraq, Iran, North Korea, and Syria as parts of the "axis of evil"

  • 8 Mar 2002 : British memo: "IRAQ: OPTIONS PAPER" from the Overseas and
    Defence Secretariat Cabinet Office. The paper discusses the policy tradeoffs of continuing a containment policy or moving to a policy of regime change. It indicates that Saddam Hussein was continuing to develop weapons of mass distruction, but that UK intelligence about that was poor. (Para. 4) It indicates there was no greater threat of Hussein using WMDs than there had been in recent years. (Para. 9) It states that the U.S. had lost confidence in the containment policy and that some in the U.S. government wanted Hussein removed. Factors it cites include
    the success of operation Enduring Freedom, distrust of UN sanctions and inspection regimes, and "unfinished business" from the 1991 invasion. (Para. 10) It notes that the U.S. believed the legal basis for an invasion already existed. (Para. 10 and see the legal memo for more.) A full-scale ground campaign would require 4-5 months to assemble, and that the ideal time to start action would be early spring. (Para. 23) Finally, it concludes that the use of force in a ground campaign is the only option that would guarantee Hussein's removal and a return of Iraq to the international community. (Para. 33)

  • 8 Mar 2002 : British Memo: "IRAQ: LEGAL BACKGROUND" (the memo itself is un-dated, but the but the Options Paper, paragraph 28, refers to it as being attached.) The memo discusses the law governing use of force against Iraq. It covers four possibilities. The first is using resolution 678 (1990) directly, the second is 678 (1990) as authorized by 1205 (1998), the third is a theory of self-defence against a threat of WMDs, and the fourth is use of force for humanitarian intervention. The overall conclusion is that, at the present time, the legal climate does not authorize use of force against Iraq. The paper notes that the US has a different view of the law. (Para. 2) There are two governing Security Council resolutions. Resolution 678 (1990) authorized use of force in Iraq. Resolution 687 (1991) established a cease-fire with conditions. If Iraq violated the conditions of the cease-fire, that would revive the authorization for use of force. (Para. 1) The tricky bit is who gets to decide whether Iraq violated the conditions of the cease-fire. (Para. 2) The UK and most of the international community felt that was a decision the Security Council would have to make. The US felt that any member of the Security Council could make that decision by itself, without involving the rest of the Council. (Para. 2)

  • 14 Mar 2002 : British memo: "YOUR TRIP TO THE US" detailing two days of meetings between Condoleezza Rice and UK foreign policy advisor David Manning. The memo mentions a debate in Washington. It indicates that Rice's desire for regime change was "undimmed" but also that there were signs that Washington was developing "greater awareness of the practical difficulties and political risks." It goes on to describe four questions the US had yet to resolve. None of the questions involves whether or not to invade Iraq. Instead, they focus on how to persuade the international community to undertake an invasion, what resources would be available to carry it out, and what would happen afterwards. When discussing Prime Minister Blair's upcoming visit, it expresses the hope that Blair could use the UK's help as leverage both to influence the military planning, because there was a "real risk" that the US underestimated the difficulties, and to get the US to restart the Middle East Peace Process.

  • 18 Mar 2002 : British memo: "IRAQ AND AFGHANISTAN: CONVERSATION WITH WOLFOWITZ" from the British ambassador in Washington to David Manning. The conversation occurred March 17th. It also references the March 14th conversation with Condoleezza Rice. Paragraph 4 indicates that Mr. Wolfowitz differed from other administration officials, because he wanted to emphasize Saddam Hussein's barbarism rather than the weapons of mass destruction. Wolfowitz also emphasized the link between Saddam Hussein and terrorism. (Para. 5) This emphasis is noteworthy given the UK's very different beliefs about the links between Iraq and Al Qaida in the other memos. What is striking about the memo is that, as of this date, the momentum in the Bush administration seemed to be decisively in favor of getting rid of Saddam Hussein. The only alternative the memo discusses is arranging a coup. It does not mention additional weapons inspections or other diplomatic solutions.

  • 22 Mar 2002 : British memo: "IRAQ: ADVICE FOR THE PRIME MINISTER" from Political Director Peter Rickets to the Secretary of State. This memo states that the pace of Saddam Hussein's WMD programs had not changed. Instead, what had changed was "our" tolerance of them after the 9/11 attack. (Para. 4) Paragraph 5 characterizes the US attempt to link Iraq with Al Qaida as "frankly unconvincing." Finally, paragraph 6 discusses the public relations problems with having a goal of "regime change," because it sounds like a grudge between George Bush and Saddam Hussein. Instead, it suggests a goal of ending the threat of Iraqi WMDs would be more convincing, and suggests President Bush would do better by showing he was more serious about UN Inspectors as a first choice. Inspectors would be a "win/win" situation since they would either further hinder WMD programs or a refusal to allow them would provide stronger justification for other approaches.

  • 25 Mar 2002 : British memo from Jack Straw, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, to Prime Minister Tony Blair about an upcoming meeting in Crawford, TX. It advises Mr. Blair that the UK will have a difficult time convincing its "Colleagues." Paragraph 4 states that there is no credible evidence linking Iraq with Al Qaida. Instead, the main thing that has changed is the international community's, and especially the US's, tolerance for the threat Iraq poses. Paragraph 5 points out that the "axis of evil" speech linked the threats from Iraq, Iran, and North Korea, creating the public relations problem of showing that the threat from Iraq is worse enough to justify an invasion. Paragraph 8 mentions that there are others who say an attack on Iraq would be justified regardless of whether or not Iraq allowed weapons inspectors in, suggesting that views within the UK's government were not uniform.

  • 14 May 2002 : UN Security Council replaces 11 year old sanctions on Iraq

  • 23 Jul 2002 : "Downing Street Memo" summarizing a meeting in which "C reported on his recent talks in Washington." already contains considerable analysis of this memo.

  • 2 Jun 2002 : President Bush introduces defence doctrine of preemption in West Point speach.

  • Aug 2002 : Iraq invites chief weapons inspector to Baghdad for talks on resuming inspections

  • 12 Sep 2002 : President Bush addresses special session of the UN, calling for it to enforce its own resolution on Iraq

  • 22 Sep 2002 : Prime Minister Blair releases dossier showing Iraq has WMD capabilities

  • 11 Oct 2002 : Congress authorizes attack on Iraq

  • 8 Nov 2002 : UN Security Council approves resolution 1441

  • 18 Nov 2002 : UN weapons inspectors return to Iraq

  • 7 Dec 2002 : Iraq submits documentation as required by resoultion 1441

  • 16 Jan 2003 : UN inspectors discover 11 undeclared empty chemical warheads in Iraq

  • 27 Jan 2003 : Weapons inspector Hans Blix submits report

  • 14 Feb 2003 : Second report by inspector Hans Blix

  • 22 Feb 2003 : Blix orders Iraq to destroy its Al Samoud 2 missiles by March 1 due to illegal range

  • 14 Feb 2003 : US, Britain and Spain submit proposed resolution to Security Council to authorize military force. France, Germany and Russia submit a counter-resolution calling for more intensified inspections.

  • 1 Mar 2003 : Iraq begins destroying Al Samoud 2 missiles

  • 17 Mar 2003 : President Bush delivers ultimatum to Saddam Hussein to leave the country within 48 hours or face an attack

  • 19 Mar 2003 : President Bush declares war on Iraq.

  • 20 Mar 2003 : US launches Operation Iraqi Freedom with a "decapitation attack."
  • Thursday, June 16, 2005

    Downing Street Memos

    Since the evening's pretty much shot anyway, I figured I'd complete the political triptych and check into the latest on the Downing Street memos.

    Turns out I don't really need to. Technorati's done it for me , at least for the blogosphere.

    Newsweek, via MSNBC, has a fairly lengthy article on newly leaked memos. This passage regarding their authenticity is interesting:
    Smith told NEWSWEEK that nobody in the British government has disputed their authenticity, and he was even threatened last year with criminal investigation for violating Britain’s Official Secrets Act.
    Smith is the news reporter who first obtained the memos.

    At this point, I would very much like to know what American memos exist from Blair's meeting with the Bush administration.

    goings-on with the CPB

    Two news stories about the Corporation for Public Broadcasting today.

    The Chicago Tribune has picked up a Washington Post story that the House Appropriation's Committee's Subcommittee on Labor, Health & Human Services and Education has voted to cut the Corporation for Public Broadcasting's funding by 25% this year, and to eliminate all its funding within two years. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting is the organization that handles PBS and public radio (one of my own sources for fairly in-depth background news). Rep. Ralph Regula (R), the subcommittee's chairman, assures us there is no political message intended. The ranking democrat on the subcommittee sees things rather differently. You can find the subcommittee's web page here. Here's the membership:

    Ralph Regula, OH (R)
    Earnest J Istook, Jr., OK (R)
    Roger F. Wicker, MS (R)
    Anne Northrup, KY (R)
    Randy "Duke" Cunningham, CA (R)
    Kay Granger, TX (R)
    John E. Peterson, PA (R)
    Don Sherwood, PA (R)
    Dave Weldon, FL (R)
    James Walsh, NY (R)
    David R. Obey, WI (D)
    Steny H. Hoyer, MD (D)
    Nita M. Lowey, NY (D)
    Rosa L. DeLauro, CT (D)
    Jesse L. Jackson, Jr., IL (D)
    Patrick J. Kennedy, RI (D)
    Lucille Roybal-Allard, CA (D)

    I was hoping to put the individual members' votes up there as well, but I'm having trouble finding them. It would be interesting to see how much of a party-line vote it really was.

    In the meantime, the New York Times is reporting that Kenneth Y. Tomlinson, the republican chairman of the CPB, signed a $15,000 contract with two lobbyists, and $14K in other contracts -- without disclosing them to the board of directors. This is the same Tomlinson who has caused controversy by trying to further what he believes to be political balance in public broadcasting. One of the lobbyists "briefly served as a top aide to Senator Mel Martinez, Republican of Florida, but resigned after the disclosure that he had written a memorandum describing how to exploit politically the life-support case of Terri Schiavo." Sounds like a great guy.

    flag burning amendment

    Via California Insider (registration required). USA Today is reporting that the Senate is gearing up to vote on a Constitutional amendment to ban flag burning. Five Democrats, including Diane Feinstein of California and Ben Nelson of Nebraska, have co-sponsored the resolution. The House will vote on the amendment next week. If both the House and Senate pass the amendment, then it goes to the individual states for ratification.

    I feel fairly strongly about free speech, because dialog, especially political dialog, is necessary for a democracy to function. One reason we tolerate offensive ideas is that yesterday's "offensive" idea may eventually win out over the currently accepted beliefs and become the new common wisdom. For example, consider once heretical ideas like "women should be able to serve in the military" or "there should be no slavery." Another reason is to provide a safety valve and warning: if someone is angry enough to be offensive, it is often better for the rest of us to let them express that offensive speech or action, both so that we can identify who they are and how angry they are, and so that they don't wait until they're so angry that they take action rather than just express themselves about it.

    There are limits, however. The limits generally come because free speech is in tension with other rights that are also important. Those rights might or might not be listed in the Constitution. For example, free speech rights often come in conflict with a right to privacy: may an employee of a police department tell a newspaper the names of rape victims?

    Currently, burning the flag is protected under the First Amendment as a form of free speech / free expression. While it is a very offensive statement to desecrate the flag, I'd rather that statement stay protected. The reason is that, as I mentioned earlier, if someone is so angry that they're willing to make such an offensive political statement, I'd rather they be able to do it, so that I know who they are and can do something about it.

    It will also be difficult to create an amendment that isn't overly broad: what constitutes desecration, and what is a flag? Those flags people fly out their car windows start looking pretty ratty after they've been flapping in 70mph wind-streams for a few thousand miles. Is that desecration? What about dirty bumper stickers that say "these colors don't run" where the red has completely faded away? Use of the flag in commercials? Political advertising?

    On the other hand, there's a certain irony in the amendment. The flag is the symbol of our country. Restrictions on our civil rights have been increasing lately. Perhaps it's fitting that the symbol represent that fact.

    Wednesday, June 15, 2005

    only sort-of a Michael Jackson post

    I paid very, very little attention to the Michael Jackson trial while it was going on. One more trial, bigger name defendant than most. Once it provided a glimpse into a possible social phenomenon, though, it started to get a little more interesting.

    What social phenonmenon? I couldn't understand why so many people had convicted him even though the jury, which presumably has the best access to solid information and the best opportunity to judge the credibility of the witnesses, found him innocent on all counts. See the exchange in the comments here, for example. A lightbulb turned on when, in a recent conversation, someone said "I was hoping he'd get busted, because celebrities always seem to skate free." I think there might be a perspective shift going on, here. This person wasn't seeing MJ as an individual man who might spend the next 18.5 years of his life in prison, but instead as a member of a privileged class that is less subject to the laws that bind the rest of us.

    On the one hand, MJ, OJ, Martha, etc. are human beings. They're individual people who are potentially innocent or guilty, and the trial is the best mechanism we currently have to determine that innocence or guilt. On the other, they're symbols, tokens in some sort of battle between people with a lot of money and power, and people without. Notice, also, that this is the same perspective shift that occurs in wars: switch from seeing the enemy as individuals to seeing them as tokens. (It may also be one that characterized the 9/11 hijackers. The Al Quaida training manual, as interpreted by Homeland Security, includes a number of passages designed to demonize the enemy.) There's a difference in degree, perhaps, but I don't think the shift is so different in kind. That commonality suggests there's something fairly deep going on here.