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."