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.

powered by performancing firefox

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.

powered by performancing firefox

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.

Posted by Picasa

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 ExxonSecrets.org, they also fund JunkScience.com 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.