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

California's greenhouse gases suit

It's all over the news that California has sued several auto makers over greenhouse gas emissions. Corporate Crime Reporter's article has a link to a PDF of the complaint itself, which you can read here. (Bless 'em for giving the link, especially since the big databases don't seem to have picked it up yet, but I can't help wondering why an organization called Corporate Crime Reporter is covering a civil suit. I guess they define "crime" broadly.) Here's a quick overview:

California v. General Motors Corp., Toyota Motor North America, Inc., Ford Motor Co., Honda North America, Inc., Chrysler Motors Corp., and Nissan North America, Inc. Case # C06-05755. Filed by Bill Lockyer Sep. 20, 2006 in federal district court, Northern District of California.

The complaint alleges claims of both federal common law public nuisance and California state law public nuisance (Cal. Civ. Code §§ 3479 and 3480.) It asks for monetary damages but does not appear to seek injunctive relief. Paragraphs 2 and 61 give the flavor of it:
Defendants have for many years produced millions of automobiles that collectively emit massive quantities of carbon dioxide in the United States and have thus contributed to an elevated level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
. . .
Defendants knew or should have known, and know or should know, that their emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases contribute to global warming and to the resulting injuries and threatened injuries to California, its citizens and residents, environment, and economy.
The complaint alleges specific harm to California. Paragraph 4 alleges the costs of planning, monitoring, and infrastructure changes to deal with "a large spectrum of current and anticipated impacts":
  • reduced snow pack leading to future water shortages and flooding
  • coastal and beach erosion
  • increased ozone pollution
  • sea water intrusion into Sacramento Bay-Delta drinking water supplies
  • impacts to wildlife including endangered species and fish
  • wildfire risks
  • long-term monitoring needs
This case will probably be in the courts quite a while. It'll be interesting to read the parties' briefs.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

hurricanes in Europe?

An article in the Insurance Journal (no, I don't normally read it; Google News turned it up) suggests that Hurricane Gordon might hit Europe on Thursday. It's based on the National Hurricane Center's three-day prediction showing the hurricane heading for Spain.

Monday, September 18, 2006

the Pope's speech

I'm not going to give an opinion on the Pope's speech and the furor that came after it, at least not now, except to say this: you can find a copy of the address itself here:

You can--and should--read it and decide for yourself what you think. Please notice that the preceding sentence recommended two actions: read it first, then decide. Most of the "discussion" I've seen so far could benefit greatly from a better grounding in the facts.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

time warner and routers

A friend asked me to set up a router to work with his Time Warner cable modem. The symptoms were confusing: if you plugged his PC into the cable modem directly, the cable modem would give it an IP address and everything was happy. If you plugged the router into the cable modem, there was a link light but nothing else.

After a couple unhelpful tech support calls, during which T-W's techs repeatedly told me I'd have to call the router manufacturer, despite my patient explanations that the router manufacturer wouldn't know diddly-squat about how T-W set up its network, a Google search got to the bottom of it: Time Warner is filtering by MAC address.

You see, every Ethernet device in the world has a unique serial number, called a MAC address. When the Time Warner tech set up my friend's cable connection, he must've configured the cable modem so it would answer to the Ethernet jack on the back of my friend's laptop--and only to that Ethernet jack. Because of the way T-W set up their cable modem, if my friend had to replace the laptop, or decided to plug in a desktop machine instead, or bought a PC-Card Ethernet card and plugged that in, or plugged in a router, the cable modem wouldn't deign to talk to it because it would have a different MAC address. Of course, none of the techs mentioned anything about this limitation when we talked to them, even after the Google search when my friend was pressing them about whether there was any sort of filter in the modem.

Anyway, the work-around is easy: newer routers, like the Linksys WRT54G, have a feature called "MAC address cloning." The router can change its Ethernet's MAC address to match whatever one your PC uses. Clone the MAC address and suddenly the cable modem is friends with your router.

Of course, it's up to you whether you want to do business with a company that goes to such lengths to make it hard to use the service it's purportedly selling you. Personally, I have DSL with one of T-W's competitors.

Thursday, September 14, 2006


My car's in the shop. As cars get older, more things break down, and I drive a pretty old car. The shop had some wildly obscure parts in stock, like a valve for the bug washers and a plate that goes behind a handle that's used only on pre-1993 convertibles, but they had to overnight, of all things, a power steering hose. Hopefully it'll be done today.

Now, I have a loaner car, so I'm not without wheels, but it's not my car, and it's amazing how disorienting that fact can be. And sad, in a way: a 2000+ pound piece of machinery has become so central to my life that I'm distracted and confused when it's not around, even when a perfectly functional substitute is available.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

aquasaurs (triops launcauditus)

Our niece is getting aquasaurs, scientifically known as triops launcauditus, for her birthday. I did a bit of investigating to find out more about such odd-looking three-eyed creatures. Here are the highlights of digging through the web. You can find more details at the Netfysh Triops FAQ,, the ever-popular Wikipedia, and the FAQ.

Triops are living fossils. As a species, they've been around 250-350 million years. For comparison, dinosaurs began around 230 million years ago.

Triops have a most amazing adaptation to a niche environment: they do well in ponds that dry up. When the rains come, their eggs hatch. They grow rapidly, lay eggs, and live up to about 90 days. The eggs can survive being dry for 10-20 years until the next time the rain fills the pond. That means if you want more triops, siphon most of the water out of your aquarium (without sucking up the eggs at the bottom), let the rest dry and remain dry for two weeks, then add back distilled water to get the eggs to hatch.

Triops are also predators, though apparently when available they'd rather hunt slow moving vegetables than fast-moving animals. They are predators nonetheless, so mixing them with small fish is not recommended.


Tiddlywiki is shiny, in the same sense a blue LED on a cell phone is shiny: it's one of those things that might or might not be especially useful, but it's really neat to play with.

Tiddlywiki is a single, self-contained web page that contains its own built-in editor that you can use to add little bits of information and link them to other little bits of information, all living inside the one web page. There's a fair bit of javascript in it to keep it all working smoothly, so from a technical standpoint it's a nifty trick.

From a practical standpoint, well, I have this shiny new hammer and I'm in search of a nail. Right now, I'm trying it out as a place to put those little bits of information that I might've put in my PDA before, things like birthday/Christmas gift lists and names of good restaurants. I've downloaded a copy of Tiddlywiki to my hard drive and have a bookmark to it in my web browser. We'll see how well this works, but I have great faith that such an interesting tool must have a useful application somewhere.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Virginia court upholds spamming conviction

In Jaynes v. Commonwealth, No. 1054-05-4 (Va. Ct. App. Sep. 5, 2006), available at, a Virginia appeals court upheld a conviction under a state statute that criminalizes spamming. I haven't gone through the case in detail, but the First Amendment discussion may need some closer reading. The defendant said the statute prohibits anonymous e-mail speech. Part of the court's response was the statute prohibits only falsifying the source address, not speaking anonymously. If I correctly understand the standard that governs the format of e-mail on the Internet, RFC 822, section 4.1 requires that a properly-formed message contain the message's sender. See also sections 4.4.1 and 4.4.2.

If it's not possible to send a properly-formed anonymous e-mail message while conforming strictly to the standard, the statute may be open to constitutional challenge. The argument would be that you can't anonymously speak in e-mail without falsifying the sender information. If that's true, one solution would be to change RFC 822 to allow anonymous messages. Of course, every spam filter out there would probably immedately start dropping those messages, but that's probably OK because, as far as I know, there's no constitutional right to force people to listen to your free speech.

Monday, September 04, 2006

ponzi scheme in a game

Ask when you own your property and the question comes boomeranging back: if someone puts together a pyramid scheme (a.k.a. a Ponzi scheme), but that person does it in the context of a massive multiplayer online role-playing game (an MMORPG) using in-game currency, is that person breaking the law? There's an interesting slashdot article that raises just that question. It seems a player in the MMORPG called EVE may have created a Ponzi scheme, gotten 700 billion in-game currency units, and bragged about it afterwards, at least according to this blog entry.

The federal statute that governs wire fraud, 18 U.S.C. section 1343, states:
Whoever, having devised or intending to devise any scheme or artifice to defraud, or for obtaining money or property by means of false or fraudulent pretenses, representations, or promises, transmits or causes to be transmitted by means of wire, radio, or television communication in interstate or foreign commerce, any writings, signs, signals, pictures, or sounds for the purpose of executing such scheme or artifice, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than 20 years, or both. If the violation affects a financial institution, such person shall be fined not more than $1,000,000 or imprisoned not more than 30 years, or both.
(emphasis added).

There are two questions I find intriguing here. The first is whether in-game currency is "money or property." If it is, that could affect the ability of the company that runs Eve to, say, turn off their servers without the players' consent (or without compensating the players for any property they'd lose.) The second is whether the intent the statute requires means the person must intend to get in-game currency, or must intend to get real-world property. In other words, even if in-game currency isn't property, is it still a crime because the person intended to get in-game currency?


Fix the mail server, replace the worn-out DVD player, wash and wax the car . . . where is the dividing line between owning our stuff and our stuff owning us?