Thursday, August 31, 2006

presidential election changes

On the news this morning, I heard a one-sentence blurb that California's Assembly had passed a bill allocating the state's electoral college votes to the winner of the popular vote. "Huh?," thought I, "this needs more investigation."

The bill in question is AB 2948 (Umberg, 2006), which you can read at Be sure to look at the most recent version. This analysis is based on the one amended August 10, 2006.

The bill's designed to address the situation we occasionally have, most recently in the 2000 election, where the popular vote goes one way but the electoral college vote goes the other. Essentially, it eliminates the electoral college's effect without eliminating the electoral college, a change which would require amending the constitution and which states with small populations would likely oppose.*

The bill's rather clever in its approach. It does not take effect until enough states to control a majority of the electoral votes pass essentially the same law. Once that happens, the law activates for every state that passed it and requires that state to cast its electoral votes for whoever won of the popular vote. States may withdraw from the agreement, but not right before an election.

* The electoral college gives every state, regardless of population, two extra votes because every state has two Senators. (See Art. II, Sec. 1 of the U.S. Constitution for details of the electoral college's composition.) For states with big populations, which already have a lot of Representatives, those two votes don't add much. But for small states, those extra two votes give them more power than they'd have if their influence were based purely on population.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Responding to LTC Joseph Myers

In his article America's Strategic Fix and Our New Decision Points, LTC Joseph Myers argues for an increased military budget, reduced civil liberties (in the form of warrantless wiretapping), and the institution of the draft. I agree with Mr. Myers premise, that the general population is not behind a war "against jihadists, Islamic fascists, or however you want to describe that enemy, and implicitly any other people or nation that advocates and is pursuing the wherewithal and means to destroy this Country . . . ." I disagree that his proposed solutions are the proper response.

Mr. Myers article takes it as given that the country is, and should be, at war because the leadership says it's at war. That's a perfectly reasonable position for a military officer to take, but the civilian point of view is that this country is a democracy. In a democracy, to some extent the leaders must lead, but to some extent they must also follow because the leadership gets its legitimacy from the voters. In this case, the leadership has not convinced the voters to accept the idea of a long-term, global war against an ill-defined enemy. Convince the voters to commit, and the higher military budget, the enhanced war powers, the curtailed liberties, and, if necessary, the draft will all happen just as they did during World War II. Fail to convince the voters and, even if you implement the other things, you will find that, in Mr. Myers' words, "[d]omestic politics looks like 1972 all over again."

The war in Afghanistan was fairly clear, and fairly easy to sell to the public given the politically focused nature of the Taliban and the emotional impact of the 9-11 attack. However, we have largely pulled out of Afghanistan in favor of Iraq. As a result, news coverage has shifted away from Afghanistan, making it difficult to use to justify long term war to the electorate.

We, the People (that is, the voters) were told that Iraq harbored chemical and biological weapons, that it would collapse quickly, and that victory was near or even achieved. Since that time, the "enemy" has become vague and undefined; to my civilian ears, Mr. Myers' description of "jihadists, Islamic fascists, or however you want to describe that enemy, and implicitly any other people or nation that advocates and is pursuing the wherewithal and means to destroy this Country . . . ." potentially puts us at war with most of the world, especially when you consider what those of us outside the intelligence community have heard about our track record at finding that "wherewithal and means to destroy this Country." The Authorization for the Use of Military Force following the 9/11 attack, which you can read here and which the current administration has used in legal arguments justifying warrantless wiretapping, also provides little guidance: paraphrased, it tells the President to find out whoever attacked us and make war on them.* The leadership has also not called upon this country to sacrifice as it normally would in a war: instead of "buy bonds," we were told "go shopping." And finally, instead of quick victory, we are now being told, essentially, that we are going to continue fighting indefinitely with no clearly articulated goal. Perhaps the country really is in a fight for survival, but the signs visible to the voters don't look like it. If the leadership wants to convince them, the leadership will need to present more evidence.

On the other side of the balance sheet, consider the costs the voters are reading about. There are the impacts on the soldiers that Mr. Myers describes. There is the distraction away from the evolving situation in North Korea. There is also one issue Mr. Myers does not mention: Pakistan. Our involvement in Iraq has made Pakistan strategically important. As a result, we appear to have let slide any potential Pakistani government involvement in A.Q. Kahn's proliferation of nuclear technology and do not appear to have closely investigated any Pakistani role (or a tribal role) in insurgents operating across Pakistan's border.

Now, personally, I don't think we can back out of Iraq without risking a complete collapse, in which case the possibility of an independent Kurdistan on Turkey's border makes me more than a little concerned about what happens with a NATO ally and how we deal with it. But I'm not sold on abridging constitutional rights--which I have not sworn to support and defend against all enemies, foreign and domestic, but which I feel strongly about nonetheless--and cutting programs, increasing taxes, or further increasing the national debt in favor of a long-term war against an ill-defined enemy with an ill-defined goal, at least without better evidence that it's necessary. And, I submit, a critical mass of constituency feels the same.

* The authorization for Iraq is here, but it focuses closely on Iraq and probably would not allow force against the sort of open-ended enemy Mr. Myers describes.

Monday, August 21, 2006

where have all the pilots gone?

Not too long ago, the Washington Post published a story talking about the lack of new student pilots. That sparked some discussion on the aviation forums. The basic problem is the pilot population is aging because few new people are entering. There's also a problem with communities shutting down their airports (see, for instance, what's currently going on at Cable Airport), generally after someone builds a subdivision too close to the airport and homeowners complain. Eventually, that lack of pilots filters up to the airline level, raising the airlines' overhead and increasing congestion as more people crowd onto the big airliners instead of taking their own light planes. It's a difficult problem and not one I know how to solve, though I did post a few suggestions in the forum.

not ready

Classes just started, but I'm not ready to go back. It's going to be tough to get back to the academic rhythm. It's not that the classes aren't useful -- most of them have really good information and they're even interesting. I was just enjoying having my life back. It's odd, but for some reason school doesn't feel grounded, more like trying to find an anchor in a storm, and I miss that grounded feeling.

Ah well, guess I need to try to absorb some of the assigned reading.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Train Travel

I’ve discovered that I like train travel. Coppertop works in Santa Barbara three days a week, telecommuting the other days. I had a week between work and classes starting, so I tagged along. It’s a five hour trip each way, but there’s ample leg room in business class and they supply electric outlets. Unfortunately a practitioner of the fine art of cell yell landed in the seat behind me, but iTunes and a set of folding headphones are taking care of that problem. Unlike the airlines, the tray table is big enough to work on, and there’s plenty of scenery to watch out the window.

The Santa Barbara trip was mostly a quiet one. With Coppertop working, I was mostly left to my own devices during the day. As it turned out, my own devices mostly involved hanging out in parks and at the beach, taking naps (an older Honda Civic makes a pretty good spot for a nap if you lay the driver’s seat all the way back) and getting some work done on the home server. I tried to get up into the mountains today for a drive, but they’d just shut the highway down because of an accident, which I took as a sign to just head back and chill.

Anyway, I recommend Amtrak business class if you get the chance and aren’t in too much of a hurry to get where you’re going.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Microsoft's on my sh*t list again

Editing documents. Going through changes. Windows decides to do an automatic update. Since I'm busy going through (hardcopy) sources, I don't see the "I'm going to reboot your computer in 5 minutes unless you tell me not to" notice. Computer reboots. Office dumps some of my changes -- no recovery notice or anything else.

Microsoft, the only reason I use your crappy products is that I'm locked in to being compatible with other people who dislike your crappy products as much as I do. I have no idea what you were thinking with that misfeature. Automatic reboot with an opt-out? And I have to lose work because you couldn't be (a) bothered to test your security-hole-ridden operating system properly in the first place, (b) couldn't be bothered to make sure Office saves properly on a forced reboot, (c) chose to design a system that's so brain-dead it has to force a reboot just to update itself, and (d) didn't have the foresight to do even a modicum of thinking about the fact that people who are locked into your crappy products have to use them to do real work?

I've now neutered autoupdate on this machine. It'll download automatically, but that's it.

P.S. If you read this, kindly explain to me why Windows Update sets its reboot period to 5 minutes, but Word defaults to saving autorecovery information every 10 minutes.

FM 96.9 goes off the air again (but comes back)

San Diego has a pirate radio station at 96.9. An article a friend wrote put me onto them. Some time ago, they got raided, their equipment was confiscated, and they got knocked off the air. Then they came back. Well, as of about 10:50 this morning, the signal blinked out again. It came back at 11:08, so I guess it must've been a technical problem. What's odd is their web page is also down (they know about it, but they weren't sure what the problem was.)

I noticed the problem around 10:30 when I couldn't get to their web page (normally, it's in Google's cache here ). "OK," thought I, "something's probably wrong with our DSL." I turned on the radio to double-check and picked up their signal just fine. Then I started troubleshooting the network. Then, at 10:51, the signal suddenly cut out. At that point, I figured another raid had confiscated their transmitter, but as I was writing this entry the signal came back. So I called the station (got the phone number off the Google cache of the web page -- for future reference, in case the cache evaporates, their phone is 619-501-9532 and e-mail is freeradiosandiego at gmail dot com). They know the web page is off the air but don't know why.

Further exploration showed that their web hosting service is no longer serving their domain name. The Internet, you see, runs on addresses, those numbers you sometimes see. Humans don't remember those addresses very well. We much prefer names, like "". So there's a translation service, called the Domain Name Service, or DNS, that translates names to addresses. If there's no translation, then when you type in "", your web browser doesn't know what address to go to, so you can't connect.

Righto, so let's figure out what's up with the station's web page. We'll start with the ".org" part and ask the computers that handle ".org" where to find "". On linux systems, the "dig" command will do that:

$ dig soa

; <<>> DiG 9.3.2 <<>> soa
; (1 server found)
;; global options: printcmd
;; Got answer:
;; ->>HEADER<<- opcode: QUERY, status: NOERROR, id: 55133
;; flags: qr rd; QUERY: 1, ANSWER: 0, AUTHORITY: 2, ADDITIONAL: 0



;; Query time: 28 msec
;; WHEN: Sun Aug 13 11:24:32 2006
;; MSG SIZE rcvd: 87

Translation: "Yo, people who handle all the '.org' domain names, who's got ''?" "Dude, and handle that."

$ dig soa

; <<>> DiG 9.3.2 <<>> soa
; (1 server found)
;; global options: printcmd
;; Got answer:
;; ->>HEADER<<- opcode: QUERY, status: SERVFAIL, id: 59423
;; flags: qr rd ra; QUERY: 1, ANSWER: 0, AUTHORITY: 0, ADDITIONAL: 0


;; Query time: 88 msec
;; WHEN: Sun Aug 13 11:27:05 2006
;; MSG SIZE rcvd: 31

Translation: "Yo,, who handles" "Beats me, man, no idea."

So it looks like someone's confused, but at least the station's still on the air. For now. I gave them a heads-up about the DNS problem so maybe the web page will be back too.

Friday, August 11, 2006

what was the 9-11 response after all

Well, summer's over. Today was my last day of work at the summer job. School starts back up in a week, so I guess it's time to get back to blogging. This story from the Washington Post is interesting -- I hadn't realized the military's response on Sep. 11, 2001 was very unlike what got reported at the time:

Some staff members and commissioners of the Sept. 11 panel concluded that the Pentagon's initial story of how it reacted to the 2001 terrorist attacks may have been part of a deliberate effort to mislead the commission and the public rather than a reflection of the fog of events on that day, according to sources involved in the debate.