Thursday, December 28, 2006

independence, the Constitution, and checks and balances

Another politics post. This new "labels" feature may reveal some insights about this blog's true nature.

David Brin's latest post mentions creating the office of Inspector General of the United States. He provides more details here:
Only now picture this. What if we made a very simple change, by appointing and assigning and paying all of the inspectors through a civil service unit completely separated from each department's political chain of command? Indeed, separate from the legislative, executive and judicial branches?

A uniformed service, with its own elite career path like the Coast Guard and NOAA and the Public Health Service... so that the word "general" has real meaning, encouraging higher-than-normal traditions and standards of conduct.
(Emphasis added.) I don't think it's constitutionally possible to create a governmental entity that doesn't fall into one of the three branches of government[1]--the Coast Guard, NOAA, and the Public Health Service, for instance, are all part of the executive branch--but the underlying idea is intriguing. It also raises some difficult questions that go to the heart of how you create a democracy.

The first is independence: how do you create a governmental entity that can investigate the government itself without being unduly influenced by the very government it's investigating? This is the problem Congress faced when it created the Office of the Independent Counsel, someone who could investigate the President even though he or she was part of the Executive Branch but was appointed by judges[2] upon certain triggering conditions. In Morrison v. Olson, the Supreme Court held the scheme constitutional because the independent counsel reported to the Attorney General, even though the Attorney General could remove him or her "only for good cause, physical disability, mental incapacity, or any other condition that substantially impairs the performance of such independent counsel's duties." (See Justice Rehnquist's opinion for a good explanation of how the statutes fit together.)

The second is checks and balances: how do you appropriately restrain the power of that independent entity? Remember Ken Starr's investigation of the Monica Lewenski affair? The power to investigate usually includes the power to conduct discovery, to force whomever or whatever you're investigating to turn over very large numbers of documents. That document search is an expense the party under investigation must bear regardless of whether or not there is ever a trial, and it's usually a substantial expense. How can you keep that independent investigator from conducting investigation after investigation of insubstantial issues, pursuing its own political agenda or simply to justify its own existence, all the while running up legal costs for whatever part of the government it's investigating? This problem may be a big part of why Congress let the independent counsel law lapse and we don't have independent counsels any more.

The Constitutional Convention solved the checks and balances problem by breaking the government into three pieces, instead of balling it all up in one autocrat, and designing a system in which no one piece could determine the extent of its own power. (Except maybe the Supreme Court, because they have the power to say what the words of the Constitution mean.) Ultimately, theoretically at least, the electorate retains the trump card of voting them out of office.[3]

I don't have a clean answer to this problem. Both the executive branch agencies and Congress have an incentive not to be investigated because they don't want inefficiencies made public. That incentive suggests the power of any body of inspectors general would erode over time unless there's a balancing counter-incentive. One option might be some sort of citizen suit provision, where whistleblowers or other concerned citizens could trigger an investigation and receive a reward for evidence leading to a corruption conviction. That reward may give the citizenry an incentive to keep the office strong.[4] Even that approach, though, doesn't solve the "runaway inspector general" problem or get around the fact that Congress will likely still have the power to cut the budget.

[1] The Constitution creates a government of limited power. That means the federal government has only those powers the Constitution gives it, and no others. Because the Constitution creates only three branches of government, it seems unlikely the Supreme Court would allow the government to give itself a fourth branch without something in the Constitution giving it the power to do so. You can do it if you go outside the government, which is the basic idea behind the Freedom of Information Act, but the government seems to have whittled away at that act's powers over the years.

[2] Who appoints the person is significant because the Constitution (Article II, section 2, clause 2) says this:
[The President] shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint . . . Officers; but the Congress may by Law vest the Appointment of such inferior Officers, as they think proper, in the President alone, in the Courts of Law, or in the Heads of Departments.
(Emphasis added). The Court determined the independent counsel was an inferior officer and therefore could be appointed by Courts of Law.

[3] Give or take gerrymandering. The ultimate trump card, where the government torques off everyone so much that a supermajority votes them out, remains despite gerrymandering.

[4] I've just described a kind of qui tam action. For one example of this approach, see the new IRS Whistleblower laws (text available at

Update: I wonder if it would help to involve the state governments. They're also elected, are independent, and their involvement might sit well with an originalist approach to the Constitution. Hmm. This idea needs further gnawing upon.

jet man

Four small jet engines. A set of folding carbon-fiber wings. No control surfaces whatsoever. A parachute landing at the end of the flight. You really ought to see this video.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

too much reliability?

I've started tuning into David Brin's blog. I've come across his views from time to time. Sometimes I agree with them, often I don't, but they almost always get me thinking. Case in point, in this entry he discusses the failure of the cell network in New Orleans and advocates an emergency packet relay mode built into cell phones:
How about a simple back-up mode for text messaging? One that could use packet-switching to bypass the cell towers when they are down, and pass messages from phone to phone -- or peer-to-peer -- at least among phones that are of the same type?
It got me thinking. Maybe the problem with the cell networks, and the power grid for that matter, is not that they're not reliable enough. Maybe the problem is that they're too reliable. You see, one of the big problems with a back-up system is that, after you get it in place, you still have to test it to make sure it'll work. You might be religious about backing up the files on your computer, for instance, but how many times have you tried to restore them?

It reminds me of the pattern with preventing forest fires. For years, fire suppression was the goal. That caused dead wood to accumulate. Now, when fires do break out, they're a lot nastier because there's all this dead wood. If we'd had small fires more often, the dead wood never would have had the chance to accumulate.

It also reminds me of Y2K planning. Someone was surveying Y2K preparations in a developing country. They asked where person X got his food. Answer: I go next door and slaughter a goat. Question: what would you do if the power went out and your refrigerator stopped working. Answer: I wouldn't slaughter the goat. In areas where service is less reliable, people not only create their own back-up systems, but they also know how to use them because the unreliable service forces them to "test" the back-ups fairly often.

Obviously, even if decreasing reliability makes the system more rugged, there's going to be a trade-off. Electricity and communication are Good Things. They make the economy work. Make them too unreliable and the economy starts to deteriorate. Perhaps there's a nice mathematical model that could estimate how much reliability is optimal. But in any case, I wonder if designing for "five 9's" reliability (99.999% reliable, or five minutes of outage per year) might actually be counterproductive in the long run.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

disturbing segment on vote flipping

There's a disturbing clip from a documentary on Youtube. In it, a programmer alleges (in a sworn affidavit and later in sworn testimony before Congress) that, in October 2000, a congressman paid him to create software that would change the outcomes of specific elections that used electronic voting machines. The segment's from the documentary Eternal Vigilance: The Fight to Save Our Election System. If you don't want to install Flash 9, you can get more info about the clip in this Brad Blog entry. One factor that undercuts the credibility a bit is that the segment appears to have been released as part of a political campaign, but the technical bits are entirely consistent with my own knowledge of software engineering and generally consistent with what electronic security expert Bruce Schneier has been saying.

Monday, December 18, 2006

AccuTerror forecast

From the gold, freedomincense, and murr department, Schneier on Security's picked up a pretty funny Bill Maher bit on Youtube: the AccuTerror Forecast.

impressive results in switch to beta

Impressive. I just switched the blog to Blogger Beta, expecting to have to fix a bunch of things because the template has such a customized look. Instead, beta took it all in stride--the new blog looks just about like the old one did. Those Google folks sure know their stuff!

I'll probably go ahead and switch templates, though, to something that looks similar but uses some of the new layout features, just to avoid having to muck with HTML every time I want to change something, so expect a moderately new look soon.

fun on

I can't imagine what's computers must think of me. You know how they track what you browse so they can make suggestions? Well, I've been using them for Christmas shopping. By now they're probably convinced I'm a 4 year old girl who's an AARP member.

This morning's chuckle came from this list of diet book titles, presented in exactly the order Amazon's search found them:
  • Apple Cider Vinegar for Weight Loss and Good Health
  • World Peace Diet: Eating for Spiritual Health and World Harmony
  • The Peanut Butter Diet
  • The Coconut Diet: The Secret Ingredient that Helps You Lose Weight While You Eat Your Favorite Foods
I had no idea there was such creativity in the diet book market. Now I'm thinking of a recipe for Tangy Coconut Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip cookies for World Harmony.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006


I just turned in my last final for the semester this morning. Now I'm gradually crawling out of the cave to see what the world's done in my absence. I've filed the class notes and caught up on a few blogs. Next step is to respond to those e-mail messages which require more than 5 minutes' thought (I've been putting those off) and briefly brave the mall.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

recent liquid water on mars

Scientific American and NPR are both reporting on evidence of liquid water flowing on Mars' surface within the last decade. Here's the Sciam article:
Scientific American: Martian Gullies Show Traces of Flowing Water within the Past Decade and here's the NPR one: Water May Still Flow on Mars, NASA Photo Suggests. The short summary is that a pair of photos of a crater, spaced about a decade apart, show the sudden appearance of a feature that looks like a water erosion gully. The folks presenting the findings theorize there's still liquid water below the surface behind ice dams. Somehow pressure builds up (they didn't explain exactly how) and eventually the water breaks through the dam and flows across the surface.

I'm with Robert Zubrin on this one. Mars should have priority over going back to the Moon. It has more of the raw materials we'd need to live there. While it's a longer distance away physically, once you've gone to all the trouble of getting out of the Earth's gravity well, the extra distance doesn't make all that much difference. Mostly it means you'll wind up using e-mail instead of real-time communication, and you have to plan any resupply missions more carefully.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

the Wild Eeep

Taking a brief study break: I've found a source for the Wild Eeep and other classic Mac OS 7 sounds. Even better, they're .wav files, so a Windows machine can say "Eeep!"

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

the imbiberator

I'd just taken a job with a new startup. Deb, a good friend from college, was already working there as their Windows admin. She showed me this picture of a drink making machine some Yahoo folks had built and said "we have to do better."

We did.

The hardware hack took a couple weekend days, one for shopping, one for assembly. We mounted a gallon-sized pitcher on top of a brand new 3/4 horsepower Insinkerator and added 1" PVC to let the beverage being processed recirculate through the blades. The result was the Imbiberator, a fearsome device capable of turning anything, including whole limes, into a beverage in a matter of seconds.

And when it's done, you don't pour the drink out of the Imbiberator, you deploy it. The operation requires two people, one to restrain the Imbiberator and open the industrial strength stopcock, the other to hold the receiving container. With a brief burst of power, the beverage launches a couple feet into the container. Be sure to aim well.

We used it at parties for a few years. As far as I know, it still exists, knocking around the Bay Area start-ups. Deb's gone on to play for the B-Cups, and I've gone to school. But I miss the Imbiberator. Maybe one day it'll be time to make Imbiberator II.

noisy creatures

Humans are noisy creatures. It's not our vocal apparatus as such--bird voices are probably louder than human ones--but we make up for it using noisemakers. Where we live, we get the occasional car driving by with the stereo going full blast, sometimes with a subwoofer so loud it literally rattles our windows. There are, of course, the frequent leafblowers, and there's the guy down the street with a motorcycle that sets off car alarms. And just now, for the second time today, someone's horn jammed, blowing for fifteen minutes continuously until the owner did something about it. Part of it is natural from living in a densely populated area, but I can't help wondering how much of it's cultural, too: we seem to like to be loud.

I guess being loud is a luxury. Loud prey gets eaten. Loud predators scare off their prey and come home empty-handed from the hunt. So the only time you get to be loud is if you're a predator with so much food you don't need to hunt.

It sure makes it harder to study, though.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

The Japanese militant empire again? I really hope NOT

I was talking with my mom on the phone. She said the Japanese political atmosphere and major public opinions are rapidly moving towards the right wing. She is the generation who experienced the WWII and remembers how the government controlled the public. She worries that the current social/political atmosphere in Japan is somewhat similar to what she experienced back then.

Here is what she told me:
1) Current prime minister Abe wants to amend the 9th constitution emphasizing Japanese pacifism, and denying having military and military activities. The prime minister wants to amend it to upgrade the Japanese defense force (not an official military) to the official military.

2) The government began to restrict the freedom of speech. My mom has been in a long “battle” against the city government that eliminated funds for her poetry reading group. The city government told her, “We cannot provide the funds to your group because your group selected a poem that indicates the Japanese emperor’s responsibility about WWII and what the Japanese military did to other countries back then.” My mom and her group took this as “restriction on free speech” by the government and took some actions against it. It turned out a very long and exhausting battle against the city bureaucracy.

3) These are not just her experiences. She said that she has often seen and heard similar stories that sound like government restrictions of free speech recently.

There are many grass-roots groups trying to protect the 9th constitution, but she thinks, “Prime Minister Abe and his government will push through the amendment no matter we resist. That’s how the government operated back then and it will do the same”. It is really scary to hear what she said.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

digital magic and reconcilable differences

"I'm going to give you a take-home final," he said, "you pick it up at 10:00 and turn it in at 1:00. If you don't turn in a print-out at 1:00, you can turn in a disk and then you have an hour to turn in a print-out. Which had better match what was on the disk."

Now, I'm just picturing a class of 80 students fighting over the two laser printers in the computer lab, desperately trying to print their exams between the hours of 12:45 and 1:00 so as to sprint to the records office to turn it in at 1:00. And given the way the IT department over there works, I'm picturing the entire network crashing right about that time.

I can't put one of our printers in the trunk because I won't have the car that day. So in a few minutes I'm off to Fry's for a bit of digital magic to reconcile the differences between the old, travel-sized, parallel-port ink-jet printer and the new, USB-only laptop. If this stunt works, that printer's small enough to carry in the backpack. If only every problem were so easy to reconcile.

Friday, December 01, 2006


"To crush the hypo, see it shattered before you, and to hear the lamentation of the grading curve."

Thursday, November 30, 2006

last day of classes

Today's the last day of classes. First final is Monday. It's sobering to go back through my notes and realize I've typed the equivalent of a book for each of them. I haven't done all the work of writing a book, of course--the person teaching did the research, which is the real work--but it's still tempting to send the files to a site like for binding.

Now I just have to somehow absorb all this info.

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Wednesday, November 29, 2006

now that's something you don't see every day

As I was driving home, I saw something odd in the sky. At first, it looked like a motorglider and something else nearby. By the time I got home and pulled out the binoculars, it became clear: a sailplane, or glider, was quite low over the city with a police helicopter hovering above. It looked like the sailplane was hunting for whatever thermals it could get to stay aloft and working its way north. We have an aircraft band scanner--listening in helps to keep your radio skills from getting too rusty--so I turned it on and heard them land at Montgomery field a few minutes later. It should be interesting to check out tonight's news for an explanation of how they wound up so low over the city, though it might have something to do with winds aloft: they were predicted to be out of the northeast at 22-38 knots, so maybe the glider got blown into the city.

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last night's fortune cookie

"All generalities are false, in general."

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Monday, November 27, 2006

this week's candidate for overuse of technology

Here's this week's candidate for overuse of technology. What to do when your pot of pasta threatens to boil over? Why, grab the spritzer-fan, of course!

Free from a booth at the Miramar Air Show, powered by two AA batteries, and no spritzing needed. It has one big advantage over the old "blow on it to make the foam go away" approach: you can sample the pasta at the same time!

Silly as it is, the gizmo works suprisingly well. Well enough that it's now in our kitchen tools drawer. Posted by Picasa

great Thanksgiving, minus the flu

We had a great Thanksgiving long weekend with the extended family. We all converged on Los Angeles and spent a few days at my sister's house, where she and her husband cooked a fantastic feast.

The only drawback was a stomach flu that swept through, knocking out different folks at different times. Coppertop got it friday and is bouncing back pretty quickly. I was flat on my back much of Saturday and all yesterday. Today, I'm recovering but weak and am trying to psych up to work on Administrative law (not one of my favorite classes this semester.)

Oh, and welcome to new blogger, poet, visionary, and computer guy Wataru.

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Sunday, November 26, 2006

a joke web site

It’s been a long time since I posted something last time. With a new job, a few times of moving, settling in a new place, a new life style, and so on, it’s been a bit difficult for me to pull my mental energy together to write a blog in a second language.

Here is the web site that a friend of mine sent to me the other day. It is a joke site making fun of MS Explore and other big-name-software. It is well done and I wonder whether someone may actually take it serious. Check it out.

Sunday, November 19, 2006


Textualism is a popular way to interpret laws today. As I understand it, the approach assumes you can apply standard dictionary meanings and rules of English grammar to determine the meaning of a statute. One difficulty I have with the approach is that, when people write laws, they strive for a level of precision that goes beyond the normal, every-day situations where English usually operates. For example, consider this gem, 11 U.S.C. § 547(c) (2000), which you can get by searching GPOAccess. (I haven't provided a direct link because I'm not confident it would stay stable). It's part of the federal bankruptcy code:

(c) The trustee may not avoid under this section a transfer--
(1) to the extent that such transfer was--
(A) intended by the debtor and the creditor to
or for whose benefit such transfer was made to be
a contemporaneous exchange for new value given to
the debtor; and
(B) in fact a substantially contemporaneous

(2) to the extent that such transfer was--
(A) in payment of a debt incurred by the debtor
in the ordinary course of business or financial
affairs of the debtor and the transferee;
(B) made in the ordinary course of business or
financial affairs of the debtor and the transferee;
(C) made according to ordinary business terms;

(3) that creates a security interest in property
acquired by the debtor--
(A) to the extent such security interest secures
new value that was--
(i) given at or after the signing of a
security agreement that contains a description of
such property as collateral;
(ii) given by or on behalf of the secured
party under such agreement;
(iii) given to enable the debtor to acquire
such property; and
(iv) in fact used by the debtor to acquire
such property; and

(B) that is perfected on or before 20 days after
the debtor receives possession of such property;

(4) to or for the benefit of a creditor, to the
extent that, after such transfer, such creditor gave new
value to or for the benefit of the debtor--
(A) not secured by an otherwise unavoidable
security interest; and
(B) on account of which new value the debtor did
not make an otherwise unavoidable transfer to or for
the benefit of such creditor;

(5) that creates a perfected security interest in
inventory or a receivable or the proceeds of either,
except to the extent that the aggregate of all such
transfers to the transferee caused a reduction, as of the
date of the filing of the petition and to the prejudice
of other creditors holding unsecured claims, of any amount
by which the debt secured by such security interest
exceeded the value of all security interests for such debt
on the later of--
(A)(i) with respect to a transfer to which
subsection (b)(4)(A) of this section applies, 90 days
before the date of the filing of the petition; or
(ii) with respect to a transfer to which
subsection (b)(4)(B) of this section applies, one
year before the date of the filing of the petition;
(B) the date on which new value was first given
under the security agreement creating such security

(6) that is the fixing of a statutory lien that is
not avoidable under section 545 of this title;

(7) to the extent such transfer was a bona fide payment
of a debt to a spouse, former spouse, or child of the
debtor, for alimony to, maintenance for, or support of such
spouse or child, in connection with a separation agreement,
divorce decree or other order of a court of record,
determination made in accordance with State or territorial
law by a governmental unit, or property settlement
agreement, but not to the extent that such debt--
(A) is assigned to another entity, voluntarily, by
operation of law, or otherwise; or
(B) includes a liability designated as alimony,
maintenance, or support, unless such liability is
actually in the nature of alimony, maintenance or
support; or

(8) if, in a case filed by an individual debtor whose
debts are primarily consumer debts, the aggregate value of
all property that constitutes or is affected by such transfer
is less than $600.

Eyes glazed yet? Notice that that entire block of text is all one sentence. which in itself means it's broken a normal rule of good writing and limiting sentence lengths. It seems odd to expect that anything written this way conforms to the normal conventions of English writing. It resembles English, but once you get below the surface, you're in a different world.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

ms word feature: insert ink drawing and writing

I've been on the lookout for better ways to take notes in class. For the last couple years, I've been using OpenOffice for a couple reasons. First, it has a powerful macro generation language: I can easily create new commands, so on my copy ctrl-shift-E is "insert an empty case brief into the document", and ctrl-shift-C is "open a small box where I can type a comment or question to remember later." There are a few others as well, mostly organized around the ability to take notes quickly and efficiently. Second, OpenOffice has the Navigator, a small window that knows all your headings and keeps track of them hierarchically, like an outline. Through the navigator, I can easily move, for example, a heading 2 and all the sub-headings under it to a different spot in the document, or promote a particular heading and all its sub-headings by a level. Even having a little side-window that just shows headings is useful for knowing where I am in the document.

Unfortunately, OpenOffice has some drawbacks, too. The most serious is that the 2.0 series has crashed on me in class at least three times this year, losing some notes in the process.[1] Also, its support for tablet PCs is lacking. Often the prof will draw a diagram on the board that I'd like to capture. I have ctrl-shift-D bound to a macro that pops open a small drawing canvas, but trying to use OpenOffice's clunky drawing editor is much too slow when all I really want at that point is the equivalent of a pencil and paper (but that will also scroll with the surrounding text.)

So I just discovered MS Word 2003 has a very interesting feature: Insert Ink Drawing and Text. Configure your toolbar to add the button, click it, and up pops just the sort of drawing canvas I've been needing. If I can figure out how to do some of the other things I need, like inserting an empty case brief through a keyboard command, I may end up having to switch.

[1] I've already taken Microsoft to task on this blog for losing some of my work through poor design. The only reason I've been more patient with OpenOffice is that it's a volunteer project and free software. However, I'm now in the habit of frequently hitting ctrl-S to save the document, and I'm willing to consider switching.

Monday, November 13, 2006

spam, spam, spam, spam

As I wrote earlier, the spam level is getting to be pretty amazing: I'm getting 3-4 spam messages per real message, and that's counting only the spam that makes it past spamassassin. Unfortunately, legally, there doesn't seem to be much I can do about it even though California has a rather nice anti-spam law on the books, so I'm stuck using technological band-aids. The problem, you see, is that the Federal CAN-SPAM act preempts state spam laws, apparently including the California law's private cause of action. Which means I'd have a hard time taking these people to small claims court over the spam they're sending. (Heck, at this point, they're sending enough I ought to be able to take them regular old state court for some impressive statutory damages .)

So I got to wondering who is responsible for preempting the state law. It turns out, the initial version of the CAN-SPAM act, as introduced in the Senate as bill S. 877, includes the preemption clause. Check out section 7(b)(1):
In general.--This Act supersedes any State or local government statute, regulation, or rule regulating the use of electronic mail to send commercial messages.
There are some exceptions, but I don't have time to really dig in and understand them now. So at least for the time being, the folks who introduced the bill are the prime suspects:
Mr. Burns (for himself, Mr. Wyden, Mr. Stevens, Mr. Breaux, Mr. Thomas, Ms. Landrieu, and Mr. Schumer) introduced the following bill;
Maybe someone out there who understands this law better than I do can offer some insight, because I'm running out of technological band-aids.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

birthday, focus, and the news

Tomorrow's my birthday. Coppertop surprised me this morning with a birthday bouquet, which she made herself. I'm looking at it now as I type: orange marigolds and a crimson flower I don't know the name of but that looks like it's in the same family that includes daisies and black-eyed susans. She also kept a few flowers out so I have one in my buttonhole now and she has one in her hair.

It's gotten late enough in the semester that focusing is getting to be a challenge. I'm procrastinating on an editing assignment right now. Ah well, almost over.

Also, there was a news story this morning that's all over the British press but is so far being covered only lightly by the American papers (the Chron being one exception): British Constitutional Affairs Minister Harriet Harman has said the U.S. military isn't cooperating in British investigations into some friendly fire incidents. I haven't yet been able to figure out whether this is an official policy, but if it is, then it seems likely to be politically motivated from either the top military levels or from the Whitehouse. Given the emphasis the military (usually) puts on candor, my money would be on cabinet level or higher.

Friday, November 10, 2006

leaf blowers

I'm still trying to understand this phenomenon of leaf blowers. The folks next door are running theirs right now, with the usual racket and dust flying around. The usual pattern seems to be to carefully blow the whatever-it-is into a pile and then blow the pile away, scattering it again. Maybe I'm missing something, but it seems like a case of over-application of technology. If you're cleaning the driveway, which they are, why not use either a broom? Not only are they quiet and cheap, but brooms have the added feature of being compatible with a fantastic invention known as a "dust pan" that lets you collect the whatever-it-is you're cleaning up. Even better, the dust pan is fully compatible with a "plastic grocery bag" into which you can place the whatever-it-is and throw it away so it doesn't blow back into your driveway later. Now, if the blower were a sucker, a sort of outdoor vacuum cleaner, that seems like it'd actually be an improvement on the broom, especially if it could deposit stuff into the plastic grocery bag or trash can directly, avoiding the dust pan intermediate. But blowing things around, only to have the wind blow them back, seems more like a waste of time and energy than anything else. Maybe it's that the noise gives a sense of accomplishment? Hmm. Perhaps there's a market for noisemaking driveway brooms with a push-button "power sweep" feature.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

the clicky keyboard rides again!

Finding a good keyboard is more trouble than I really want to go to right now. So picked up the hardware to make the old IBM clicky keyboard work. For those who might want to follow this path, I'm using a Q-Stor USB to PS/2 adapter (model QUPCBL). Because I've heard these old keyboards can draw a lot more power than the modern ones do, and the USB port on my laptop takes nigh forever to charge an iPod mini, I've run the adapter into an Inland USB 2.0 hub that's rated to supply 500ma per port. Finally, an optical wheelie mouse and a gel-filled wrist wrest complete the set-up. Ah, much nicer typing. And by spinning the tablet PC's screen half-way around, I can get it close enough to still be able to see at high resolution. I may still sound like a machine gun, but at least my wrists are thankful.

I'll probably wait till the Das Keyboard folks announce the model with the key legends and then consider whether to buy one of theirs, with it's quieter key action. In the meantime, if I'm making too much of a racket, changing to the maxi-switch is always a possibility.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

civic duty

I've done my civic duty. Has Diebold done its?

The electronic voting machine was clunky but mostly straightforward. I had a bit of trouble with the touch screen when checking through the summary of my votes: it didn't want to scroll. I eventually figured out you had to press long enough for it to register, unlike my laptop's touchpad which it looking for a sharp tap to signal a click. The local machines also use a printed copy of the vote to allow for verification.

Hmm. Interesting thought: California has enough items on the ballot, and few enough voters in a precinct, that you might be able to uniquely associate a vote printout with a particular voter's combination of votes.

In any case, I'm curious to know if other people have lost confidence in the Diebold machines, or if I'm in a small minority here.

the search for the ultimate keyboard

One occupational hazard I've had to deal with is being on the edge of carpal tunnel. My typing technique is pretty good, so I've been able to avoid it so far, but the laptop keyboard I've been using is doing me no favors. So I've started looking for a good external keyboard.

Trouble is, (a) I'm picky about keyboards, and (b) this machine requires a USB keyboard. I learned to type on manual typewriters, so I really like a keyboard with fairly long travel and a solid feel. My absolute favorite keyboard is an old IBM Model M (mine was made by Lexmark for IBM) that uses buckling spring technology. A co-worker described the feel as "crunchy on the outside and chewy on the inside." It weighs a good 5 pounds, is designed to last a lifetime, and sounds like a machine-gun when I'm typing full blast, noisy enough to annoy those around me. It's also a PS/2 interface, so it would need an adapter. My second favorite is an old Gateway model Coppertop bought for me that was made by Maxi-Switch. It feels similar to the Model M but uses a different technology that's quieter. It's also PS/2.

What I really want is a full-sized keyboard that's quieter than the Model M, has a similar key feel, and has a USB interface so I don't have to go through large numbers of adapters and such. I haven't found it yet. comes close, but they don't seem to combine their "enhanced quiet touch" stuff with a USB keyboard for United States use. (They also have one with a built-in mouse/track-point, but it's also buckling-spring only, or quiet touch but PS/2 only, with no indication they've quieted the buckling spring technology down any.) Cherry has a possible contender, but I'd definitely want to try it before buying it. Das Keyboard has an interesting "quiet" mechanical key switch technology, but not printing the letters on the key caps is, well, a little extreme for my tastes.

OK, I know it's weird to spend this much effort on a keyboard, but I expect to keep the thing for at least the next 20 years and use it for a lot of keypresses. It will probably go into the office with me as well (or I'll buy a second one). Anyway, the search continues.

Update: I got e-mail from the Das Keyboard folks saying they plan to sell a version with key labels. Also, Cherry indicated the Das Keyboard is a customized version of Cherry's G80-3000LQCUS-2, though I'm not sure how customized.

Update #2: see this follow-up post: the clickly keyboard rides again!

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Friday, November 03, 2006

my favorite apocolypses

There's nothing like the combination of global warming news, the general drumbeat of world events, and a semester starting to wrap up to put me in an apocolyptic mood.   It's time for some perspective, so I've decided to document a few favorite apocolypse dates, many drawn from Alma Geddon's absolutely amazing collection.

2012.  I've had a soft spot for 2012, when the Mayan calender cycles, for a few years now.  There's something nice and round about it.  "Turning and turning in the widening gyre / The falcon cannot hear the falconer; / Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold'" as Yeats wrote.  2012 ties in nicely with his idea of gyres, cycles in the world.

2038.  As a computer geek, 2038-01-19 03:14:07 GMT has a special place in my heart. You see, Unix systems traditionally express time as the number of seconds since midnight, January 1, 1970, and they typicaly express it as a 32 bit value.  On January 19, 2038, that 32 bit value gets so large that it wraps around from being a positive number to a negative one.  Which means Unix computers may get confused.  (What am I saying.  Anyone who's looked at the source code of most Unix apps will tell you of course they're going to get confused.) Even worse, lots of Internet protocols express time the same way Unix computers do, so the Internet might get confused, too.  Sort of like Y2K but without the millenial hysteria.

Either 24.92 billion years or 100,000 years, depending on the prediction:  At this point, the accumulated weight of the National Geographic magazines people insist on saving will depress the east and west coasts of the North American continent, raising the middle two hundred meters into the air, causing nasty climate problems and turning the Rockies into an island chain.

5 billion years, give or take.  In five billion years or so, the sun goes nova.  As the inimitable Sam Hughes, who's studied such things and should know, so eloquently pointed out, "The Earth is built to last. It is a 4,550,000,000-year-old, 5,973,600,000,000,000,000,000-tonne ball of iron". As apocolypes go, melting every piece of ice on the planet and turning the Rockies into an island chain is peanuts to a stellar nova.

I encourage you to check out Alma Geddon's list and a useful meta-list here.  If I've left out an apocolypse date that's near and dear to your heart, feel free to comment about it.

article on why linux is having trouble with the desktop

ZDNet's carrying an article, "The world just isn’t ready for Linux," which raises some good points about why Linux is having trouble in the desktop world. Slashdot picked it up here. I particularly agree with a couple points. First, Ubuntu is a promising step in the right direction. And second, hardware support on Linux can be a real pain, at least for new hardware:
The one area of Linux ownership and use where it becomes apparent that there's an assumption that everyone who uses Linux is an expert is hardware support. Your average user doesn't have the time, the energy or the inclination to deal with uncertainty. Also, they usually only have the one PC to play with. Hardware just has to work. There's a very good reason why Microsoft spends a lot of time on hardware compatibility - it's what people want.
To clarify a bit, Linux does quite well for older hardware, but new hardware often requires new device drivers, and finding them can be a royal pain. Things like web cams are often not plug-and-play, for instance.

Part of the reason is resources. Device drivers, the part of the operating system that talks to the hardware, are specific to the operating system. That means a company is less likely to throw developers at writing device drivers for operating systems with smaller market share, like Linux or OS X. Also, you can't use a device driver written for Windows on a Linux machine, or vice versa. Why not? Partly technical, but mostly because of ideology. Many of the people who program for Linux feel strongly that the source code for software should be available to the public, but many hardware makers want to keep the source code secret for business and intellectual property reasons. As a result, you don't see attempts at writing, say, adaptor software that would let one operating system use device drivers meant for the other.

If you read the article, skim through the comments at the bottom. They support the author's point nicely.

sleepless night

I'd love to be able to blame it on the neighbors' loud-voices-and-music-till-2-a.m. Thursday night party, but truth be told the real culprit was my own stupidity.  I've been sick, which means I was dragging as it is, and needed to be alert for a three hour class that starts at 6 p.m. So I had a rather large cup of coffee.  Which turned out to be potent stuff, potent enough to keep me up till 4.  Needless to say, I'm extra dragging today.  Lesson learned, I guess.

Still have no idea what the neighbors were thinking cranking the stereo at 2 a.m. on a weeknight, though.

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Wednesday, November 01, 2006

lost in translation

From a box of Japanese green tea:

"The aroma from the foot of Mt. Fuji"

Somehow, the beauty of the image seems to have gotten lost in translation.  Oh well, at least it wasn't the aroma of Mt. Fuji's old gym socks. 

(It's actually pretty good genmaicha--tea with brown rice--though every time I drink it the aroma of the brown rice reminds me of puffed rice breakfast cereal.)

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the recent rise in spam

I thought I'd noticed a recent increase in the amount of stock spam I was getting, stuff that punches right through the spam filters. It turns out, others have noticed it, too. From the article:
Estimates of the magnitude of the increase in junk email vary, but experts agree that an uncommon surge in spam is occurring. On the low side, Symantec, the owner of SecurityFocus, has found that average spam volume has increased almost 30 percent for its 35,000 clients in the last two months. Others have seen much more significant jumps: Spam black list maintainer Total Quality Management Cubed has seen a 450 percent increase in spam in two months, and the amount of spam filtered out every week by security software maker Sunbelt Software has more than tripled compared to six months ago.
The article goes on to say the spam's been coming from botnets, groups of compromised computers, which matches what I've seen in my own much less scientific sampling. It sure would be nice if we had secure operating systems, wouldn't it?

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total information awareness

The award for scariest Halloween story goes to Schneier on Security, which is reporting that the DOD's Total Information Awareness project is back.  Like a character in a bad slasher flick, you just can't keep it down.  T.I.A. II, now a classified program called Tangram, "A Fully Automated, Continuously Operating, Intelligence Analysis Support System," actually returned in a DIA Presolicitation Notice on November 23, 2005.

Since this question often comes up in conversation, it seems fitting to address it here: why is this thing scary to honest citizens?  After all, if you don't plan to do anything illegal, what would you have to worry about?  The danger is that ordinary citizens don't get to define what is legal or illegal.  You can scrupulously avoid doing anything you would consider bad or wrong, but you can still wind up doing something illegal because someone else changes the definition of a crime to include whatever it is you're doing, or simply makes the definition fuzzy enough to plausibly cover you.  That someone else might be a political opponent (remember COINTELPRO?) or someone who just doesn't like you very much, say if you were Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the other person was J. Edgar Hoover.

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Tuesday, October 31, 2006

happy Halloween

 Posted by Picasa

negative productivity

Negative productivity is the idea that you're so out of it that any work you do is likely to make things worse off than they were before.

I'm having a negative productivity morning.  My brain's moving so slowly it's like thinking through molasses.  This morning, for the first time in two and a half years, I left the laptop's power adapter at home.  (Fortunately it has a good battery and there's always pen and paper as a back-up.)  I also preregistered for next semester's classes this morning and made oodles of mistakes on the form, though fortunately nothing that can't be fixed.  And the day's just getting started.

I think the plan for today is to make as few permanent decisions as possible.

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Friday, October 27, 2006

working on the porch

We live in an older, 1920's-vintage house with a front porch.  Right now I'm working on outlines, one of my least favorite school-related things to do, so I've decided to work on the porch.  I've got a wireless link going to a Hawaiian music station and am pretending the traffic noise is the sound of the ocean.

So let's see.  Nick's settled into the new place in PB and says Noelle's now moved here from Ireland.  Maria's mostly moved in and has even been able to switch her blog to beta--I like the new look! 

Life largely continues.  We're keeping an eye on the news and hoping they can bring the Esperanza Fire under control soon.  Personally, I'm especially concerned about family in Palm Desert, but our thoughts are also going out to the families of the firefighters who've died, and our thanks to all the folks on the fire line.

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Monday, October 23, 2006

AOPA article on general aviation no-fly zones

Bruce Schneier's picked up the AOPA's excellent opinion piece on the perceived versus actual risk posed by general aviation.

OK, for all of those ranting about "threats" from GA aircraft, we'll believe that you're really serious about controlling "threats" when you call for:

  • Banning all vans within cities. A small panel van was used in the first World Trade Center attack. The bomb, which weighed 1,500 pounds, killed six and injured 1,042.
  • Banning all box trucks from cities. Timothy McVeigh's rented Ryder truck carried a 5,000-pound bomb that killed 168 in Oklahoma City.
  • Banning all semi-trailer trucks. They can carry bombs weighing more than 50,000 pounds.
  • Banning newspapers on subways. That's how the terrorists hid packages of sarin nerve gas in the Tokyo subway system. They killed 12.
  • Banning backpacks on all buses and subways. That's how the terrorists got the bombs into the London subway system. They killed 52.
  • Banning all cell phones on trains. That's how they detonated the bombs in backpacks placed on commuter trains in Madrid. They killed 191.
  • Banning all small pleasure boats on public waterways. That's how terrorists attacked the USS Cole, killing 17.
  • Banning all heavy or bulky clothing in all public places. That's how suicide bombers hide their murderous charges. Thousands killed.

Number of people killed by a terrorist attack using a GA aircraft? Zero.

Number of people injured by a terrorist attack using a GA aircraft? Zero.

Property damage from a terrorist attack using a GA aircraft? None.

I agree. The empirical data just isn't there to support a ban.

Humans have evolved a risk assessment mechanism in which we weigh more recent events, and more unusual events, more than less recent, less splashy ones. It's not a terrible proxy when you're in a fairly stable natural environment, where your main threats are things that are likely to recur over long periods and have limited impact. For instance, if you're in an area with sabre-tooth tigers, and you see someone eaten by one, the powerful incentive it gives you not to play with sabre-tooth tigers is a good thing and likely to be useful in the future. And one sabre-tooth tiger can't wipe an entire city off the map before someone reacts to it and deals with it.

Nowadays, though, we have technology, which amplifies everything including risks. And many of those risks aren't apparent without statistical analysis. If we take action using the old instincts, we do so at our peril. Animals use those instincts because that's all they've got. Humans have the capability to perform a more accurate assessment. We also have the need, because resources we use to protect ourselves against one potential threat are resources we're not using for a different one. And some of these risks really can wipe out a city or worse, so we need to deal with them before they happen. In light of those issues, banning light airplanes is a just plain silly waste of resources.

new drill bits

I am now the proud owner of ten (10) brand new #41 cobalt-tipped drill bits. I can tell they're aircraft quality because each and every one is individually wrapped.

When you're doing the law school thing, you take your excitement where you can get it.

Actually, there is a difference between normal hardware store drill bits and the ones used in aircraft work. The manufacturer grinds the tip at a different angle to improve the bit's accuracy. Or at least that's what they tell us so we'll pay a dollar a bit, and once we've paid a dollar a bit we're strongly predisposed to believe anything that justifies the price.

In any case, I bought these bits for drilling out rivets. When you put in the smaller rivets, you drill the hole using a #40 bit. A #41 bit is slightly smaller--for whatever reason, higher numbers mean smaller bits--so it reduces the chance of enlarging the hole when removing a rivet. I pretty much wore out my old #41 bit pulling the skin off the rudder. This new set should last quite a while.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

military families lining up for food

Presented without further comment because, frankly, it pretty much speaks for itself: this San Diego Chronicle article on military families in San Diego that need to stand in charitable food lines to make ends meet. The article's been making its way around the blogosphere.
These families are among a growing number of military households in San Diego County that regularly rely on donated food.

As the Iraq war marches toward its fourth anniversary, food lines operated by churches and other nonprofit groups are an increasingly valuable presence on military bases countywide. Leaders of the charitable groups say they're scrambling to fill a need not seen since World War II.

. . .

The base's list of recipients swells by 100 to 150 people a month as the food programs streamline their eligibility process, word spreads among residents and ever-proud Marines adjust to the idea of accepting donated goods.

. . .

“The bases are in the more expensive parts of the county and things like gas, food, insurance and rent are just higher here,” Chavez said.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

which muppet are you

A personality test is a bit out of character for the blog, but I'm too much of a muppets fan to resist. Props to Nicoleallee for the link.
You Are Scooter

Brainy and knowledgable, you are the perfect sidekick.
You're always willing to lend a helping hand.
In any big event or party, you're the one who keeps things going.
"15 seconds to showtime!"

Friday, October 20, 2006

greenland's glaciers melting quickly

A Scientific American article, Scientific American: Gravity Measurements Confirm Greenland's Glaciers Precipitous Meltdown, contains results confirming that Greenland's glaciers are melting quickly. The article mentions two methods of confirming the melt rate. First, gravitational measurements using the distance between two satellites are tracking the glaciers' loss of mass.
By measuring this distance change, scientists can derive a picture of mass concentrations on the planet's surface. "We were able to do that every 10 days for Greenland," Luthcke notes. "What we see is a massive amount of mass shedding that far outweighs an interior growth."

. . .

In perfect agreement with previous results, these new GRACE measurements revealed that the same three glacial systems--including Kangerdlugssuaq, now one of the fastest moving glaciers in the world--are racing to the sea. "The glaciers are accelerating," Zwally says. "We are now losing 20 percent more coming out each year than goes in as snowfall."
Additional data confirming the observation comes from a second techinque: laser altimetry.

This USGS article estimates that, if the complete ice sheet of Greenland melted, global sea levels would rise by about 6.5 meters. (Throw in the entire Antarctic and you get something crazy like 80 meters.) In a fairly quick web search, I wasn't able to find information on the rate at which the study suggests ocean levels will rise, or estimates of the contributions the three glacier systems would make, however.

shaving cream geyser

It's rather impressive, really. The steel cap must have rusted through, allowing a slow leak. Posted by Picasa

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

a taxonomy of case law

Coppertop and I have been hard at work--well, OK, maybe not "hard" at work, maybe more like "occasionally barely" at work--on a comprehensive taxonomy of American legal claims. Surprisingly, it appears that nearly all claims fall into one of three categories:
  1. Mine! No Mine!
  2. I didn't do it!
  3. Make him stop!
We are still trying to determine what these categories say about the development and applicability of the legal system.

when hibernate doesn't

I just discovered an interesting . . . bug? . . . feature? . . . let's call it a "trait" of Windows XP. If you want it to go into hibernate, it'll ask for confirmation. As far as I can tell, while it's waiting for you to say "yes, I really do want you to hibernate," it stops watching the clock for power save mode. So what's the practical upshot? Suppose, hypothetically speaking, you were in a meeting. At the end of the meeting, you hit the key sequence to hibernate (Fn-F4 on my machine, your mileage may vary.) You forget to click on the little box that asks "do you really want me to hibernate".[1] You then close the lid and slip the machine into your briefcase. When you get home, you find a rather warm briefcase and a machine still patiently awaiting confirmation, even though the trip home was long enough that a machine on battery power should have suspended itself.

I wonder how long a machine will stay in this mode. For example, would it run the battery all the way down, losing whatever work's in RAM? I'm afraid to try it with this machine right now because it sees constant use and breaking would be a Bad Thing, but maybe that's an experiment for the future.

[1] You can disable this confirmation box, but I haven't because I wouldn't want the machine to accidentally hibernate in, say, the middle of taking notes. Hypothetically, of course.

softest reminder

Just a reminder to the readers in law school: don't forget to download the new version of Softest and your exam files. You can find directions here.

Monday, October 16, 2006

and now for some good news

I spend a lot of time blogging about problems and potential problems, mostly because they're the things that stand out, but sometimes it's important to remember that good things happen in the world.

Consider, for instance, the One Laptop Per Child project. It's custom-designed laptop hardware and software, made especially for children in rural areas of developing nations. Target price is that it'll sell for $100 or so, to governments that will issue them to school children. People around the world are getting involved in creating it. The laptop has a sunlight-readable screen and some extremely innovative wireless networking capabilities that will bring communications to places that barely have electricity or nighttime illumination.

There's also an article in Scientific American, Scientific American: The Social Welfare State, beyond Ideology, summarizing empirical research that indicates you can have both a successful economy and strong anti-poverty social programs:
On average, the Nordic countries outperform the Anglo-Saxon ones on most measures of economic performance. Poverty rates are much lower there, and national income per working-age population is on average higher. Unemployment rates are roughly the same in both groups, just slightly higher in the Nordic countries. The budget situation is stronger in the Nordic group, with larger surpluses as a share of GDP.
How do these countries do it?
The Nordic countries maintain their dynamism despite high taxation in several ways. Most important, they spend lavishly on research and development and higher education. All of them, but especially Sweden and Finland, have taken to the sweeping revolution in information and communications technology and leveraged it to gain global competitiveness. Sweden now spends nearly 4 percent of GDP on R&D, the highest ratio in the world today. On average, the Nordic nations spend 3 percent of GDP on R&D, compared with around 2 percent in the English-speaking nations.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

pictures from Miramar airshow


A DC-3 owned by Hiller Aviation Museum in San Carlos. Fuel consumption at cruise: 1.5 gallons per minute.

The Blue Angels do their thing. (Photo by Coppertop.)

Look closely at what's hanging from that rope.

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Friday, October 13, 2006

more biking adventures

I got back on the bike today for a ride got told to "get out of the middle of the road!" Some visual aids may help here. We were at an intersection. I, the red oval, was near the double yellow, and the yelling gentleman in the big brown box was on the right, with his right turn signal on. See "Option 1":
Why do I call it "Option 1"? Because I have a choice about where to put the bike at an intersection with a stop sign and, if I'm going straight, I usually use Option 1. After all, if there's cross traffic the car behind me can't get through any faster than I can. And, more importantly, it prevents exactly the situation that the gentleman in question was trying to create, namely Option 2:Let's see--you'd like me to be on the right so you can turn right and cut me off? Um, no thanks.

I saw Critical Mass tying up Hillcrest traffic last month. At this point, about all I can say is more power to 'em and bring on the $5 gas.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

what the Military Commissions Act may mean for citizens

I've been wondering about something odd in the structure of the Military Commissions Act: it defines "unlawful enemy combatant" and "alien" separately in § 948a but then says military commissions have jurisdiction only over alien unlawful military combatants in § 948c.

I'm beginning to think the key might be Hamdi v. Rumsfeld. During the invasion of Afghanistan, the U.S. government detained Yaser Esam Hamdi. After learning he was a U.S. citizen, it transferred him from Guantanamo to a brig in Virginia, where it held him without bringing charges. In Hamdi v. Rumsfeld, the Supreme Court held that "a citizen-detainee seeking to challenge his classification as an enemy combatant must receive notice of the factual basis for his classification, and a fair opportunity to rebut the Government's factual assertions before a neutral decisionmaker." (More or less. It's a fractured decision, and two members of the plurality are no longer on the Court, so you have to count some noses.)

I haven't gone trolling through the Congressional Record for it, but perhaps Congress intends the "Combatant Status Review Tribunal or another competent tribunal established under the authority of the President or the Secretary of Defense" from § 948a(1)(ii) to be the "neutral decsionmaker" the Court requires for U.S. citizens.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

reacting to neutrality and apathy

"Whoever is not with us is against us" came from a speech Lenin delivered in 1920. According to CNN, President Bush actually said, "You're either with us or against us in the fight against terror." In an e-mail exchange with someone on the other end of the political spectrum from Mr. Bush, discussing the attitudes of non-conservative Christians, that person said "personally I believe they are complicit if they don't take a stand."

If you draw a circle and define those outside it as the enemy, you can create a siege mentality and unify your power base. But the price for the tactic is high: it allows no room for neutrality and risks alienating those not yet aware of the conflict who have not even taken a stand.

There is also sort of arrogance in this approach. Note the underlying assumption that the speaker's issue, whatever it might be, is so important that the entire world must know and care about it to the same degree that the speaker does.

What's the alternative? How about "whoever is not against us is for us"? (Mark 9:40) Or at least recognizing that there might be people in the world who are busy enough with with their own problems that they're not ready to adopt a new one.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

thinking like a lawyer vs. thinking like an engineer

Coppertop asked me yesterday what it means to "think like a lawyer" and how it's different from thinking like an engineer. There's a good start on what it means to think like a lawyer here, but it doesn't make clear how the precise thinking a lawyer does is different from the precise thinking an engineer does. It's taken a day of pondering and sleeping on the question, but I think I have the answer. From what I've been able to tell so far, in law, it's more important to keep the peace than it is to reach an ultimately just result, while in engineering it's more important to reach a "good enough" result than it is to get there the "correct" way. Everything else follows from that difference.

Let's start with law. That's a pretty controversial assertion: justice isn't what it's all about? Consider the idea of precedent, that one court will often defer to the decision of an earlier one, even if it disagrees in this particular case.[1] One important reason for doing that is predictability. You can't have the Rule of Law unless people know what the law is, and you can't know what the law is if it changes every time a new court looks at it. So we're willing to accept results that might not be perfectly equitable in a particular case so as to keep the peace in general.

If law is more about keeping the peace than about justice, what does that mean for legal reasoning? It means legal reasoning is not a search for the truth, it's a form of persuasion designed to convince the reader that a particular result is the proper one. Lawyers for both sides look at essentially the same facts and cases and write "tightly reasoned" legal briefs coming to completely opposite conclusions in order to convince the judge their conclusion is the right one. Similarly, judges write opinions designed to convince other judges, and ultimately the public, that their conclusions are correct.

How does legal reasoning work to convince people? Every argument proceeds in steps. Between the steps, there's some play in the joints. The more joints, the more play you have, and by adding just a little bit of adjustment at each joint, or by adding or removing a joint here or there, you can shift where the argument ends up. In general, it's very process oriented. I believe that's also why lawyers are so in love with citations, not because they help to reach a more correct result, but because they lend credibility to the reasoning process if other people have reasoned the same way at the point in the argument.

Thinking like an engineer is different. Engineers care about reaching the ultimate result. Does the spar carry the design load? Does the software run quickly enough? Their goal is to meet the design criteria for a problem--the wing must lift an X pound airplane while weighing no more than Y pounds itself--with an additional safety margin. It's much less important how you get there. Years ago, I was working with an applied physicist in an electronics lab building an amplifier. He'd calculated exactly the resistance value we needed and was going through an entire drawer of resistors, one by one, measuring the slight variations of each to find one that would match the value he'd calculated. My answer was to find a variable resistor, drop it in the circuit, hook up an oscilloscope, and adjust the resistor until it looked about right. It was a cheap kludge, but it got us to a working amplifier that met the spec and let us go home for the weekend. And that's a common engineering approach: use the theory, which is often only approximate, to get you close, then use your instincts to fudge things from there until the universe says you have it about right.

That's not to say that an engineer doesn't have to think precisely. Like a lawyer, a software engineer must decompose a problem into smaller and smaller pieces until the individual pieces are small enough to solve. In a piece of software the size of an operating system, that decomposition can proceed mighty far indeed, and a single misplaced character can bring the whole edifice crashing down. The difference is the focus: the engineer lets the goal drive the decomposition[2], while for the lawyer the decomposition itself must persuade the reader that the end result is the correct one.

[1] Apologies to the lawyerly types for being horribly sloppy here, rolling binding precedent, persuasive precedent, stare decisis, standards of review, and various forms of estoppel into one big ball. Suffice to say it's something that discourages one court from distinguishing, overruling, or reversing the decision of another.

[2] And here's where the software engineers get upset. There are other constrains on the decomposition, the most important being that it must be "maintainable", which is a fancy way of saying legible enough for another engineer to understand, and well enough organized that it's possible to make changes without introducing a whole bunch of bugs.

Monday, October 02, 2006

book links Phillip Morris to global warming disinformation campaign

Here's a fascinating exerpt from a book by a Guardian reporter which uses court documents from tobacco litigation to link Phillip Morris with the disinformation campaign about global warming:
[Phillip Morris's public relations agency] APCO warned that: "No matter how strong the arguments, industry spokespeople are, in and of themselves, not always credible or appropriate messengers."

So the fight against a ban on passive smoking had to be associated with other people and other issues. Philip Morris, APCO said, needed to create the impression of a "grassroots" movement - one that had been formed spontaneously by concerned citizens to fight "overregulation". It should portray the danger of tobacco smoke as just one "unfounded fear" among others, such as concerns about pesticides and cellphones. APCO proposed to set up "a national coalition intended to educate the media, public officials and the public about the dangers of 'junk science'. Coalition will address credibility of government's scientific studies, risk-assessment techniques and misuse of tax dollars ... Upon formation of Coalition, key leaders will begin media outreach, eg editorial board tours, opinion articles, and brief elected officials in selected states."
The excerpt also discusses Exxon's role in the campaign. You may remember I wrote about their hiring Philip Cooney. According to the book, which uses data from, they also fund and a number of organizations.

The book is Heat, by George Monbriot.

Military Commissions Act goes to whitehouse

The Senate and the House have agreed on a version of the bill. House's vote's here.

Relevant passages from the version the Whitehouse is getting:
(1) UNLAWFUL ENEMY COMBATANT- (A) The term `unlawful enemy combatant' means--
(i) a person who has engaged in hostilities or who has purposefully and materially supported hostilities against the United States or its co-belligerents who is not a lawful enemy combatant (including a person who is part of the Taliban, al Qaeda, or associated forces); or
(ii) a person who, before, on, or after the date of the enactment of the Military Commissions Act of 2006, has been determined to be an unlawful enemy combatant by a Combatant Status Review Tribunal or another competent tribunal established under the authority of the President or the Secretary of Defense.
§ 948a(1). So the President has the power to declare people enemy combatants. It looks like § 950g gives the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals jurisdiction to hear appeals, and the Supreme Court after that, so at least there's some judicial oversight. However,
(b) Standard for Review- In a case reviewed by it under this section, the Court of Appeals may act only with respect to matters of law.
(c) Scope of Review- The jurisdiction of the Court of Appeals on an appeal under subsection (a) shall be limited to the consideration of--
(1) whether the final decision was consistent with the standards and procedures specified in this chapter; and
(2) to the extent applicable, the Constitution and the laws of the United States.
§ 950g. Beyond that,
(a) Finality- The appellate review of records of trial provided by this chapter . . . are final and conclusive. Orders publishing the proceedings of military commissions under this chapter are binding upon all departments, courts, agencies, and officers of the United States, except as otherwise provided by the President.
(b) Provisions of Chapter Sole Basis for Review of Military Commission Procedures and Actions- Except as otherwise provided in this chapter and notwithstanding any other provision of law (including . . . any . . . habeas corpus provision), no court, justice, or judge shall have jurisdiction to hear or consider any claim or cause of action whatsoever . . . relating to the prosecution, trial, or judgment of a military commission under this chapter, including challenges to the lawfulness of procedures of military commissions under this chapter.
§ 950j. The bottom line? Avoid being wrongfully accused.

Friday, September 29, 2006

the senate's version of the bill

The Senate's version of the Military Commissions Act of 2006, which it passed yesterday, is S.3930. I don't have time this morning to do a full analysis, but a quick check of the definitions section, § 948a, seems to show it does not allow a Presidentially-appointed commission to declare someone an enemy combatant:
(3) LAWFUL ENEMY COMBATANT- The term `lawful enemy combatant' means an individual who is--

(A) a member of the regular forces of a State party engaged in hostilities against the United States;

(B) a member of a militia, volunteer corps, or organized resistance movement belonging to a State party engaged in such hostilities, which are under responsible command, wear a fixed distinctive sign recognizable at a distance, carry their arms openly, and abide by the law of war; or

(C) a member of a regular armed force who professes allegiance to a government engaged in such hostilities, but not recognized by the United States.

(4) UNLAWFUL ENEMY COMBATANT- The term `unlawful enemy combatant' means an individual engaged in hostilities against the United States who is not a lawful enemy combatant.
That's good. It appears to me that the House's version would let a President use it to target political opponents. (Not necessarily this President. Remember that legislation tends to stick around. Think back over the last 50-70 years of Presidents, and project forward that same time span. Are there none that might succumb to the temptation?) Though I might have missed a jurisdictional provision somewhere in there.

On the other hand, the Senate version still denies the Geneva Conventions to alien unlawful enemy combatants (§ 948b(f)) and includes similar handling of confidential information (§ 948j(b)).

You can find out how your Senator voted on the bill here. (Both California Senators voted against it.) The corresponding roll-call vote for the House version is here.

At this point, we'll see what happens once they reconcile the two bills.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

the terrorist tribunal bill

The House has passed H.R. 6166, the Military Commissions Act of 2006, which they intend to establish tribunals to try unlawful enemy combatants. The bill defines "unlawful enemy combatant" in § 948a:

(A) The term `unlawful enemy combatant' means--

(i) a person who has engaged in hostilities or who has purposefully and materially supported hostilities against the United States or its co-belligerents who is not a lawful enemy combatant (including a person who is part of the Taliban, al Qaeda, or associated forces); or

(ii) a person who, before, on, or after the date of the enactment of the Military Commissions Act of 2006, has been determined to be an unlawful enemy combatant by a Combatant Status Review Tribunal or another competent tribunal established under the authority of the President or the Secretary of Defense.
The bill defines "Lawful Enemy Combatant" this way:
(2) LAWFUL ENEMY COMBATANT- The term `lawful enemy combatant' means a person who is--

(A) a member of the regular forces of a State party engaged in hostilities against the United States;

(B) a member of a militia, volunteer corps, or organized resistance movement belonging to a State party engaged in such hostilities, which are under responsible command, wear a fixed distinctive sign recognizable at a distance, carry their arms openly, and abide by the law of war; or

(C) a member of a regular armed force who professes allegiance to a government engaged in such hostilities, but not recognized by the United States.
As far as I can tell, § 948a(A)(1)(i) would include the Minutemen of the American Revolution. I guess that's some sort of vindication for the British forces that accused the U.S. of not honoring the rules of war in 1776.

Note the odd split in who gets to decide who's an enemy combatant. § 948a(A)(1)(i) gives a statutory definition, so that'd probably fall to the courts to interpret and figure out the dividing line. However, § 948a)(A)(1)(ii) lets an executive-branch commission opt-in anyone else it wants to, even if they're not involved in hostilities and, apparently, even if they're U.S. citizens.

Once you're in the system, you enter court-martial land. Furthermore, non-citizens in the system can't use the Geneva Conventions:
§ 948b(g): Geneva Conventions Not Establishing Source of Rights- No alien unlawful enemy combatant subject to trial by military commission under this chapter may invoke the Geneva Conventions as a source of rights.
I don't have the several hours it'd take to go through the bill in detail, but it contains several other provisions that are worth thinking very seriously about before we subject ourselves to them. For example, you can use hearsay evidence ("I heard John say Jane said this..."):
(E)(i) Except as provided in clause (ii), hearsay evidence not otherwise admissible under the rules of evidence applicable in trial by general courts-martial may be admitted in a trial by military commission if the proponent of the evidence makes known to the adverse party, sufficiently in advance to provide the adverse party with a fair opportunity to meet the evidence, the intention of the proponent to offer the evidence, and the particulars of the evidence (including information on the general circumstances under which the evidence was obtained). The disclosure of evidence under the preceding sentence is subject to the requirements and limitations applicable to the disclosure of classified information in section 949j(c) of this title.

(ii) Hearsay evidence not otherwise admissible under the rules of evidence applicable in trial by general courts-martial shall not be admitted in a trial by military commission if the party opposing the admission of the evidence demonstrates that the evidence is unreliable or lacking in probative value.
Finally, the bill treats classified evidence like this in § 949j:
(c) Protection of Classified Information-

(1) With respect to the discovery obligations of trial counsel under this section, the military judge, upon motion of trial counsel, shall authorize, to the extent practicable--

(A) the deletion of specified items of classified information from documents to be made available to the accused;

(B) the substitution of a portion or summary of the information for such classified documents; or

(C) the substitution of a statement admitting relevant facts that the classified information would tend to prove.

(2) The military judge, upon motion of trial counsel, shall authorize trial counsel, in the course of complying with discovery obligations under this section, to protect from disclosure the sources, methods, or activities by which the United States acquired evidence if the military judge finds that the sources, methods, or activities by which the United States acquired such evidence are classified. The military judge may require trial counsel to provide, to the extent practicable, an unclassified summary of the sources, methods, or activities by which the United States acquired such evidence.

(d) Exculpatory Evidence-

(1) As soon as practicable, trial counsel shall disclose to the defense the existence of any evidence known to trial counsel that reasonably tends to exculpate the accused. Where exculpatory evidence is classified, the accused shall be provided with an adequate substitute in accordance with the procedures under subsection (c).

(2) In this subsection, the term `evidence known to trial counsel', in the case of exculpatory evidence, means exculpatory evidence that the prosecution would be required to disclose in a trial by general court-martial under chapter 47 of this title.
A couple quick questions come to mind with this provision. First, what sort of incentive does it create for trial counsel to learn about exculpatory evidence. Second, what provisions exist to review the decision to disclose, or not to disclose, that evidence.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Gentlemen, this is the EM-50 Urban Assault Vehicle

Car names can tell us about ourselves. They're a sort of fun-house mirror for our culture. Ford's got the Explorer, Excursion, and Escape, so you can pretend you're driving across the savanna on your way to buy milk and oreos. Cadillac appropriately named its entry in the escalating land yacht arms race the Escalade. But Nissan, oh Nissan, their names say much. Remember when they were Datsun, pumping out little econoboxes? Not any more. A couple days ago, I looked over at the behemoth parking next to me and it was a Nissan Titan. Then, just today, a Nissan Armada muscled past. (I guess you need an Armada for those times a lone land yacht just won't do?) Leave it to a company from another culture to cut to the chase: forget the fake "take a trip" names, and just name them after big things.

adventures in swimming

The stress of school can do nasty things to a body. As a result, I've been wanting to get back in shape. Ever since the bicycle incident, the concensus around the family is that I oughtn't to be biking to school. (I've even been informally concensed that I oughtn't to be biking to the grocery store either, but we'll see if that lasts. I'm mighty partial to two wheels.)

Anyway, today I tried Plan B: attend the masters' swim. Near as I can tell, the masters' swim is a mix of people who used to be on swim teams or just plain got bored of swimming classes and get together to swim various combinations of going back and forth across the pool. Cool, I can handle that. Unlike my little sis, I was never a super good swimmer, but I grew up around the water and can usually hold my own against someone who's not on a swim team.

'Twas not an auspicious beginning. Now, I know I'm out of shape, but my body apparently felt that reminding me through the usual out-of-breath and pounding heart just wasn't going to cut it. Part way through I started getting leg cramps. I could massage them out but they kept coming back, which pretty much shut down the rest of today's practice. Guess I need to work up to this stuff.

We'll see how long this attempt lasts. In the past, it hasn't been too long. In fact, the last time I was swimming in a master's class, mid-way through a 1600 free I realized I could be spending that time building an airplane instead, and that's pretty much where the airplane project started and the swimming project ended.

Plan C is to talk Coppertop into salsa dancing.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

changes in arctic ice sheet

The European Space Agency has reported that, for the first time on record, enough arctic ice shifted and melted in August that a ship could sail to the North Pole. You can see a somewhat less technical, but perhaps clearer, version of the article here. The article quotes Mark Drinkwater, director of the ESA's Ocean/Ice unit, as saying

This situation is unlike anything observed in previous record low ice seasons. It is highly imaginable that a ship could have passed from Spitzbergen or Northern Siberia through what is normally pack ice to reach the North Pole without difficulty.

If this anomaly trend continues, the North-East Passage or ‘Northern Sea Route’ between Europe and Asia will be open over longer intervals of time, and it is conceivable we might see attempts at sailing around the world directly across the summer Arctic Ocean within the next 10-20 years.

Not entirely uncoincidentally, the October Scientific American has an article that looks at how mass extinctions in the past might have happened. While it's commonly accepted that an asteroid or comet impact killed the dinosaurs, the details for earlier mass extinctions are fuzzier. The gist of this article is that, once atmospheric carbon dioxide reaches around 1000 ppm or so, anaerobic bacteria in the oceans begin bubbling up large quantities of hydrogen sulfide gas, killing things both in the ocean and on land. The models predict that the situation eventually stabilizes and returns to normal after a few hundred thousand or million years.[1] If current carbon dioxide growth rates continue without change, we should hit the 1000 ppm number some time around the year 2200.

[1] The problem with numbers in the hundreds of thousands of years range is it's very hard to conceive of what they mean in human timescales. If we assume agriculture developed around, say, 12000 BCE, and round off for convenience to 15,000 years, in a 100,000 year time-span you could go from discovering agriculture to learning how to form a civilization to inventing writing to walking on the moon and jamming on iPods a little over six times. In a million years, you could do it 67 times, give or take a dark age.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

working on the airplane rudder

I haven't posted an airplane update in a while, largely because I haven't had time to work on it in a while. Just before the move, the rudder, which I'd hung on the wall to get it out of the way, made a leap for freedom. It crunched the trailing edge pretty well.

I've been working backwards, in a way, drilling out the rivets to salvage the intact parts and replace the damaged ones. Unfortunately, with this rudder design, the intact parts aren't a whole lot. Here's a photo of the skeleton, which is most of what's salvageable.
Here, you can see the damaged part. The damage itself is to the right: that part that's bent towards the camera shouldn't be. Both rudder skins and the wedge that holds them together got bent. There are several stiffeners attached to the skin (you can't see them in this view) that didn't actually get bent, but drilling them out and trying to reuse them would likely damage them, so I expect to simply get new ones when I order new skins.

Anyway, the next step with the rudder will be to order new pieces and begin rebuilding, which is a bit of a discouraging prospect. I'll probably start on the elevator instead and, when I make the inevitable goof and have to get a replacement part, have them ship rudder parts at the same time. Posted by Picasa