31 December 2005

CU Statistics

A story on C.U.'s admissions policies provides a mixed bag of statistics.

Graduation rates are the good news:

[T]he graduation rate for black students has improved from 32 percent to 59 percent; for Hispanics, from 48 percent to 59 percent; and for Asians, from 48 percent to 62 percent.

The overall graduation rate for minority students is 60 percent - just seven points lower than for white students. That relatively small difference puts CU in the top 10 percent of all four-year colleges in the nation[.]

While the lack of racial disparity is a good thing, however, the fact that a third or more of students are not making it, despite solid academic backgrounds coming in, is not very impressive.

The bad news: "Colorado remains 48th in the nation for participation of minority students in higher education."

It would be nice to know if this is in absolute terms or relative to the demographics of the state, although being 48th in any state ranking is usually a bad thing.

And, in between:

In 2004, 32 percent of Colorado's white high school graduates who applied to a state college had a college-eligibility index of 103 or greater. Graduating in the upper third of the class, having a 3.4 grade-point average and a 985 on the SAT would earn a 103, according to the Colorado Commission on Higher Education's formula.

But only 13 percent of black high school graduates had a score of 103 or higher. Among Hispanic high school graduates, 15 percent reached that score.

Each state-supported college has its own index score for regular admission. Each college also is allowed to admit about 14 percent of students who don't meet that score. At CU, the minimum score is 103. . . .

CU admitted 93 percent of black students who achieved the necessary score, 94 percent of Hispanics, 97 percent of Asians and 88 percent of white students.

The so-called yield - the percentage of students who actually enrolled after being accepted . . . was 49 percent for all accepted students, and the same 49 percent for "students of color." The yield among black students was 37 percent.

Missing from the report are information on the breakdown of admittees in the 14% who don't make the cut off score, which is highly relevant to interpeting the graduation rate data. Are graduation rates high because few students with lower scores and grades are admitted, or because the school is providing a supportive environment?

It is also worth noting that C.U. admissions standards are not terribly stringent. Just about every student who is in the top third of his class and earning a 3.4 GPA ought to be able score 985 on the SATs, which is in the vicinity of the 50th percentile. And, given that only about 40% of high school graduates nationwide attend college and only about 25% graduate (I'm working from memory on the numbers here), asking that applicants be in the top third of their class, unless they can show some special circumstances that call for their admission, is hardly asking a lot for admission into the state's "flagship" institution.

The CU party line on the statistics seems to be don't blame us, racial disparities reflect what is going on in high school or below. Fair enough, and perhaps these statistics mitigate anecdotal evidence. But, there are enough gaps in what we know that it is hard to feel very definitive about that conclusion.

Frank Roberts Ortega Remembered At Year End

The Rocky Mountain News, appropriately, asks why a record ten men have died in Denver metropolitan area jails this year. Eight were classified as suicides. One involved a cocaine packet hidden away in "a body cavity" that caused an accidental death when it ruptured. And then, there is the case of Frank Robert Ortega, age 56, who was murdered in his cell, probably by cellmate "Grijalvaa Encarnacion, 63, who allegedly killed him while the cells were on medicine distribution lockdown.", on October 27, 2005. The deadline for a notice of intent to sue is coming up, and if one is filed, I expect that it will make headlines again.

Little Landmarks

Both of my kids have bikes now, and today, a New Year's Eve with sixty degree weather was the perfect occassion for going up and down the sidewalk on them. While both crashed about two or three times a block, today was a little landmark . . . a first real ride without training wheels, right before my eyes! (My daughter, a fashionista from birth, it seems, insisted on doing her bike riding in an ankle length black skirt, hand knit shawl, and glittery top.)

Today was also a day to enjoy the open swim at the reopened swimming pool at the Washington Park Recreation center, which, inexplicably tends to be less crowded in the winter than in the summer (except for the lap swim rush after New Year's Resolutions kick in). A year ago, the pool brought grimaces and concern. This year was all smiles. Sometimes, you just have to strike while the iron is hot.

Alas, growing up comes with downsides too. My wife and I can no longer count on using the technique of spelling words out letter by letter to converse in secret!

The Stock Market and Politics

A year ago the Dow* was at 10,783.01. It closed the year at 10,717.50, down 65.51 point. The market has still not regained its July 16, 1999 high of 11,209.84. Put another way, the stock market has been flat for the entire duration of the Bush Administration. If the stock market had been performing at its historical 7% rate of return throughout the Bush Presidency, the Dow would be comfortably north of 13,500 right now.

Bush can hardly blame Clinton for market performances in his second term, which are still flat. There are worse reasons to throw the bums out.

* The Dow is the most politically important market indicator, even if it is not necessarily the broadest or most representative indicator.

30 December 2005

Year End Technology Briefs

Wind Power Development

Xcel Energy, the utility company for several states including most of Colorado, is building more wind turbines, putting on track to be the leading provider of wind power in the United States. This isn't simply a matter of corporate goodwill. A voter initiative in Colorado has pretty much compelled the move (Amendment 37 requires 10% of Colorado's electricity to have renewable sources by 2015), and a settlement agreement that allowed it to build a coal fired plant near Pueblo forced it to go beyond the voter imposed mandate. But, the rising prices of oil, natural gas and coal, and increased costs associated with pollution controls, combined with falling prices for wind turbines, has also made the economic costs more modest.

Small Computer Chips

Moore's Law, which predicts ever deceasing sizes for computer chips, is still on track. Molecule and atom sized chip components are in the near future. But, despite the best efforts of the engineering department, we are approaching theoretical size limits for computer chips that had once been so distant that they weren't of practical importance. Quantum computing may push the envelope a little further that a conventional atomic sized chip. But, pretty soon, programmers are going to have to tightening up the bulky and sloppy code that they have been allowed to write for a few years as hardware capabilities have made compact and efficient codes a relatively low priority.

Competition For GPS

The Iron Law of Oligopoly works both ways. It both creates competition where there is a monopoly, and thins it when there are many competitors. We see the law in action as the American built Global Positioning Satellite System gets competition in the form of the European launched Galileo system due to come online in 2010. It will be accurate to within a meter, compared to GPS which is accurate to within five meters, and will make the U.S. military tactic of shutting down GPS to prevent it from being used by its opponents in military conflicts basically useless without European cooperation. Many commercial products offered after the launch will be able to use both systems.

Iranian Uranium Enrichment

Many countries, and especially the United States government, are concerned that Iran's new uranium enrichment program would allow Iran to build nuclear bombs, despite its protests that this is not its plan. Russia has come in to offer a solution. It would enrich nuclear fuel for Iran in its own facilities, keeping enrichment facilities out of Iran and more accessible to monitors. Russia, after all, already has uranium enrichment facilities. This could, at least, temporarily, eliminate any basis for a war with Iran which the Bush Administration has been trying to stir up since the President's Axis of Evil speech. Needless to say, after the Iraq intelligence failures (which even President Bush has now admitted), our allies are skeptical of U.S. claims about nuclear proliferation. We have cried wolf once and it will be a long time before we are trusted again. The Russian offer, combined with a new found skepticism, means that any U.S. war with Iran would be unilateral.

Parkinson's Disease Stem Cell Treatment Possibilities

Rather than actually replacing dead neurons, scientists are now looking at using stem cells implants as direct dopamine producers as a treatment for neurological diseases like Parkinson's Disease and have had some success in laboratory rats and monkeys. The approach is comparable to putting an insulin pump in diabetics, but is biological. Brain diseases have been resistant to injection and intravenous (IV) treatments used for many other diseases as many chemicals can't be transferred from blood to the brain. Hat Tip to Science News.

Super Strong Armor

Israeli commercial scientists have discovered a Buckyball like configuration of tungsten Disulfide (WS2) which would be twice as shock resistant as current materials used as armor protection for military purposes. It is about five times as strong as steel. Bucky balls, named after Buckminster Fuller who was famous for his geodesic dome architectural ideas, are carbon atoms arranged in a geodesic sphere.

Robotic Vision Software

I've previously noted on this blog that the main barrier to unmanned ground vehicles and many other robotic applications has been good software to process non-3D visual data. Stanford University is making process on this front.

Broad Based Theories About Biological Systems

Two important new theories fit key aspects of animal functioning into grand unified equations that explain animal metabolism and locomotion.

The metabolism equations has been called a Master Equation for Life.

Scientists have long known that most biological rates appear to bear a simple mathematical relationship to an animal's size: They are proportional to the animal's mass raised to a power that is a multiple of 1/4. These relationships are known as quarter-power scaling laws. For instance, an animal's metabolic rate appears to be proportional to mass to the 3/4 power, and its heart rate is proportional to mass to the -1/4 power.
In subsequent decades, biologists have found that the 3/4-power law appears to hold sway from microbes to whales, creatures of sizes ranging over a mind-boggling 21 orders of magnitude.

The locomotion equation isn't quite so ambitious in what it claims to explain, but is equally notable.

[F]indings, published in the January 2006 issue of "The Journal of Experimental Biology," challenge the notion that fundamental differences between apparently unrelated forms of locomotion exist. The findings also offer an explanation for remarkable universal similarities in animal design that had long puzzled scientists, the researchers said.

"The similarities among animals that are on the surface very different are no coincidence," said Adrian Bejan, J. A. Jones Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Duke's Pratt School. "In fact, animal locomotion is no different than other flows, animate and inanimate: they all develop in space and in time such that they optimize the flow of material." In the case of animal locomotion, this means that animals move such that they travel the greatest distance while expending the least amount of energy, he said.

"From simple physics, based only on gravity, density and mass, you can explain within an order of magnitude many features of flying, swimming and running," added James Marden, professor of biology at Penn State. "It doesn't matter whether the animal has eight legs, four legs, two, even if it swims with no legs."

First conceived by Bejan and published in 1996, the constructal law arises from the basic principle that flow systems evolve so as to minimize imperfections -- energy wasted to friction or other forms of resistance -- such that the least amount of useful energy is lost.

Both theories basically look at what is optimal in terms of meeting basic life functions from a physics perspective and find that these constraints have indeed shaped what animals have had to do to evolve and survive. A recent post here about the role of oxygen in biological scale falls in the same category. Now that we have started to understand the fundamentals, science is moving on to get a better grasp of the phenomena that emerge from those fundamental laws of nature.

28 December 2005

Islamic Honor Killings

While one can argue over whether honor killings are truly "Islamic", a large subculture within the Islamic world considers them legitimate. The theory is that women who "dishonor" a family should die. In a recent high profile case in Pakistan, a man killed his three daughters and a stepdaughter by slitting their throats as his wife looked on.

While I am an atheist, and recognize that morality and ethics are created by human communities rather than being handed down by God, I also don't have any qualms about saying that in this case, the entire Islamic subculture that has created the honor killing phenomena is grossly screwed up, and have no problem with using government force to destroy that aspect of the subculture. We are all individuals before we are members of a cultural community, and the girls and women who perish in these communities don't deserve the abuse that they are scapegoated to receive. Progress is possible in this world and I do not align myself with those forces who insist on resisting moral responsibility by embracing "traditional values", not in the United States and not half way around the world either.

Transitioning To Corporate America

Today, the extended family travelled to the People's Republic of Boulder. Why? We went on the Celestial Seasonings factory tour. It turns out that, since 2000, Celestial Seasonings has been part of a huge natural foods conglomerate (Hain Celestial) that makes everything from Agave Nectar to Soy Milk, in addition to tea.

Celestial Seasonings was founded in 1970. All of the tea in the world produced under that brand is still made in Boulder (well, actually, it may be a mile or two out of the city limits, although it is hard to tell as city boundaries snake and swerve). Indeed, it turns out that new tea product lines and package design (including the pithy quotes that accompany its products -- my favorite "Bread and water can so easily be toast and tea.") are also from Boulder, although the raw materials (mostly unprocessed tea, herbs, peppermint, etc.) are imported, apparently sometimes from related entities abroad. Still, one feels less concerned about importing raw, unprocessed hibiscus from China (a major component of many herbal teas) than manufactured goods, as it isn't native to temperate North America.

Tea manufacturing is a factory style operation, but it is also relatively neat, orderly, and clean. The machines that turn the raw materials into pallets of product bound for destinations across the nation are noisy, but not so noisy that you can hear them from the parking lot. The factory uses plenty of energy, but the factory itself doesn't appear to have significant emissions as it appears to run on electricity. You can smell the ingredients (the tour guide called it "tea dust") which my environmental scientist father noted might be levels of particulate matter higher than might be ideal for someone facing prolonged exposure. But, like most modern manufacturing operations, the number of people required to keep the factory part operating is surprising small. The assembly line has come a long way since Ford introduced it to build the Model T. Now, factory workers, at least in this kind of plant, primarily engage in the care and feeding of the robotic systems that actually do the work, rather than in doing the repetitive work itself.

Celestial Seasonings is, like Ben and Jerry's, Borders Books, and a few other companies, a classic example of a company that has moved from a small progressive entrapreneurial operation to a major national company in relatively short order. There are many liberals for whom this poses a conflict. Many liberals favor small, independent enterprises. But, the most successful ones end up being big corporations eventually. For some this is a problem. Just as they dump musical acts that finally end up signing with a big label, they dump favored vendors that go corporate. Others, however, follow musical acts and favored companies loyally, taking pride in knowing it since before it was big.

Like most big companies, it gets that way by having its act together. This is a company that clearly has its act together. But, maintaining a unique identity while standardizing corporate practices isn't easily. So far, Celestial Seasonings seems to have made the transition well, but five years into a merger, after thirty years of independence, it may be too early to tell how things work out in the long term. Presumably, the benefits of a merger lie mostly in financing and in marketing at the wholesale level, and those are things that the tour didn't address.

Incidentally, on a scientific note, I was surprised to learn that white, green and black tea all come from the same plant. The white tea is the first growth of the season, the green tea is milled "fresh", and the black tea is "oxidized." Herbal "teas" are actually "infusions" and don't contain any of the tea plant at all.

Britain May Drop F-35

The United States is currently building the F-22, a high performance jet fighter reputed to be the best air to air combat (i.e. dog fighting) plane ever invented by a large margin. The current buy is about 180 planes at about $100-200 million each, which represents a huge decrease from original planes, which is part of the reason that they will end up being so expensive. The complete F-22 buy will be done by 2008 or so. The F-22 basically replaces the F-15.

The next figher jet that the United States will buy is the F-35. This is intended to replace the F-16 used by the Air Force, the F-18 used by the Navy on aircraft carriers, and the AV-8B Harrier, a vertical landing and takeoff plane currently used by the Marines. (It also replaces the just about to be retired F-14 used by the Navy.) The U.S. plans to buy more than 1,800 of them, and many of our allies also plan to buy F-35s, most prominently among them, the United Kingdom, who plans to replace their aircraft carrier aircraft with the F-35B (the vertical takeoff and landing version of the F-35).

The high volume allows the F-35 purchase price projections (and they are just projections at this point, it is still in the late stages of R&D), at about $30-45 million dollars each. In contrast, the going rate for a used F-16 is nearly $60 million dollars.

The Bush Administration's lack of diplomacy, however, extends well beyond high profile issues, however. As a result, the United Kingdom is now thinking about backing out of the F-35 project, and may go with a European built fighter instead now. The result may be increasing costs for the remaining purchases.

800 Posts

This is the 800th post on this blog.

Yesterday was an interesting one at this blog. A link from Crooks and Liars to my recent post on Fox News has sent more people to this blog in one day than I have ever previously had visit in an entire month. Thanks to Em Rosa whose post formed the meat of that post, I understand that she's received a lot of traffic as a result as well.

What kind of blog is this? It is a law blog. It is a Colorado politics blog. It is a progressive political blog. It is a military blog. It is a science and technology blog. It is a neighborhood blog. Overall it is eclectic and doesn't neatly fit into one category. But, hey, its fun and that's what makes it worth it.

UPDATE: Sometime in the next hour or so, I should receive the 10,000th unique visitor to this site going back all the way since I've been keeping track. The current count is 9,999.

What Gay Marriage Amendments Mean

Gay marriage amendments aren't just about gay marriage. It is about being punitive and unequal towards gays.

A case from Oxford, Ohio where I grew up, shows how is this the case. Miami University of Ohio provides domestic partner health benefits. The domestic partners are not called married. And, about three-quarters of leading universities provide them. But, a recent Ohio gay marriage initiative, passed after the benefits were first provided, may prevent Miami from providing those benefits and a lawsuit has been commenced by a state legislator to force it to drop them. The NPR story I link also gives a good example of who really will be impacted by the suit, in this case a three year old child of a lesbian couple with one mom who is staying at home because of the child's medical issues.

Bush Administration Not Really That Pro-Life

The Bush Administration may oppose abortion, but they don't seem to adhere to the philosophy behind the pro-life movement. The most recent example: Despite Congressioal enactments that appear to forbid it, and strong internal agency opposition, the Environmental Protection Agency wants to pass a rule that would allow pesitcide companies to conduct tests in which children and pregant women are given pills laced with pesticides. The pay in such studies before they were passed was a few hundred dollars for the term of the study.

While double blind testing has its virtues, the usual human experiement carries with it the implied promise that someone thinks that the experimental group is receiving something that might be good for you. Admittedly, something that they aren't sure is good for you, but something that might be. In contrast, no one thinks that pesticides are good for you and just about everyone agrees that children and preganant women are extremely vulnerable to environmental contaminants. The purpose of these tests is generally to try to get approvals for levels higher than the levels permitted in animal tests plus a margin of safety. If the pesticide tested turns out to be dangerous, the test may leave a child disabled or impaired for life, in ways that may be subtle enough that the results won't be detected in time for them to make a difference in the distribution of the chemical anyway.

Unfortunately, in the Bush Administration, ethics is all talk, and routinely contradicted by its actions.

27 December 2005

Kings in the New World

Pennsylvania, New Mexico, New York, Oklahoma, Wisconsin, Florida and Virginia all have a King's Bench. The King is gone, but the term, which refers to the extraordinary original jurisdiction of the State's highest court, still has that name in those states. Colorado has the same concept, but it is not called by that name here.

Vitamin D.

Vitamin D may prevent cancer (Scientific journal abstract here.)

A daily dose of vitamin D could cut the risk of cancers of the breast, colon and ovary by up to a half, a 40-year review of research has found. The evidence for the protective effect of the "sunshine vitamin" is so overwhelming that urgent action must be taken by public health authorities to boost blood levels, say cancer specialists. . . .Heart disease, lung disease, cancer, diabetes, high blood pressure, schizophrenia and multiple sclerosis are among the conditions in which it is believed to play a vital role. The vitamin is also essential for bone health and protects against rickets in children and osteoporosis in the elderly.

Reduced exposure to sunlight has depleted natural Vitamin D supplies in many people.

About Wheat

[W]heat is a genetic monster. A typical wheat variety is hexaploid—it has six copies of each gene, where most creatures have two. Its 21 chromosomes contain a massive 16 billion base pairs of DNA, 40 times as much as rice, six times as much as maize and five times as much as people. It is derived from three wild ancestral species in two separate mergers. The first took place in the Levant 10,000 years ago, the second near the Caspian Sea 2,000 years later. The result was a plant with extra-large seeds incapable of dispersal in the wild, dependent entirely on people to sow them. . . . People in what is now Syria had been subsisting happily on a diet of acorns, gazelles and grass seeds. The centuries of drought drove them to depend increasingly on wild grass seeds. Abruptly, soon after 11,000 years ago, they began to cultivate rye and chickpeas, then einkorn and emmer, two ancestors of wheat, and later barley. Soon cultivated grain was their staple food. It happened first in the Karacadag Mountains in south-eastern Turkey—it is only here that wild einkorn grass contains the identical genetic fingerprint of modern domesticated wheat. . . . Agriculture brought drudgery, subjugation and malnutrition, because unlike hunter-gatherers, farmers could eke out a living when times were bad. But at least that meant that they could survive. . . .Agriculture brought drudgery, subjugation and malnutrition, because unlike hunter-gatherers, farmers could eke out a living when times were bad. But at least that meant that they could survive. Population growth was now inevitable. Within a few generations, wheat farmers were on the march, displacing and overwhelming hunter-gatherers as they went, and bringing with them their distinct Indo-European language, of which Sanskrit and Irish are both descendants. By 5,000 years ago wheat had reached Ireland, Spain, Ethiopia and India. A millennium later it reached China: paddy rice was still thousands of years in the future.

Source, with a Hat Tip to Skeptico.

Wheat brought civilization to the world and its discovery was at the heart of the Neolithic revolution, which is, not coincidentally, close in date to the purported date of Creation calculating by Biblical geneologies. Hunter-gatherers didn't leave written histories behind.

Who lives in the "garden of Eden" where agriculture was invented now? The Kurds.

Nuclear Missile Submarine Converted

The United States has three kinds of nuclear missiles. One batch, called ICBMs (Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles) are big missiles based on silos in the United States that fly from the United States to targets anywhere in the world. Some are deployed from aircraft. Some, called SLBMs (Submarine Launched Ballistic Missiles), are deployed on Ohio Class ballistic missile submarines.

The trouble is that the U.S. has more nuclear weapons than it needs. The solution has been to convert four nuclear missile submarines (starting with the first in the class, the Ohio) to SSGN status (conventional guided missile submarines). The Ohio has just been converted to carry 154 Tomahawk land attack cruise missiles (the same kind of missiles carried on U.S. cruisers (up to 127 missiles total, usually in a mix of types) and destroyers (up to 96 missiles total, usually in a mix of types)), as well as 66 Navy SEALs (i.e. commandos).

The idea behind having a submarine, rather than a surface warship, carry these missiles, of course, is that the submarine can get closer to the target, while being less of a target itself, leaving less time for a response to a launched missile. Being nuclear powered, it is also less dependent on other ships for logistics support.

Alternative History Buffs Take Note

Many people write stories in which the Civil War or World War II came out differently. Of course, almost any branch point in history could change the world. One of the less well known ones was noted by Denver Post Columnist Ed Quillen in his Christmas Day column.

In 1803, [James] Wilkinson was the highest-ranking soldier in the U.S. Army, which he commanded from St. Louis. He was also on the payroll of America's most likely enemy, the Spanish empire. And he colluded, off and on, with Aaron Burr, the former vice president who was later tried for treason. They were plotting to raise an army and set up their own country in the West.

The Spanish Empire was on the verge of war with the newly formed United States and Zebulon Montgomery Pike, after whom Pike's Peak is named, and soldiers under his command, were exploring the West (in part to further Wilkinson's plot, although Pike probably didn't know that part of the story).

Imagine what a world we would have if Wilkinson's plot had suceeded.

Ending Bush Wiretap Abuse

My father, my brother and I were discussing the day before yesterday, what it would take to stop Bush's illegal wiretapping operations. My father was thinking about a lawsuit seeking an injunction. My brother (a computer professional and member of the Electronic Frontier Foundation) and I, were concerned about getting standing to bring the suit. Who would the Plaintiff be? Could you bring suit simply for being swept up in the NSA net if none of your conversations actually had keywords that made them come up as search results? What if your conversation did come up as a search result, was scanned by an low level NSA official without being disclosed and was immediately discarded? Did someone have to take action based on the information? If they didn't, how would you know that you had been wiretapped? Could you bring suits based on the chilling effect that you might be searched? Also, suppose you got an injunction, how would you enforce it? How would you know that someone in a multi-billion dollar agency breached it?

I argued that the way to go was through Congress. Put budget limitations on the NSA budget and impeach the lowest level official at the NSA you could find with responsibility over the matter based on President Bush's public comments and the claim that he had followed an unlawful order. (Impeach Bush and politcal loyalties come into play, and it become a referrendum on Bush generally, rather than a particular violation of the law his administration has committed).

Well, lapin at Daily Kos has provided us with a diary, that in turn relies on a report from Wayne Masden in April of 2004, that makes both a court approach and a Congressional approach easier. He reports that:

Intelligence community insiders claim that a number of State Department and other government officials may have been subject to NSA "training" surveillance and that transcripts between them and foreign officials likely ended up in the possession of Bolton and his neoconservative political allies, including such members of Vice President Dick Cheney's staff as David Wurmser (a former assistant to Bolton at State), John Hannah, and Lewis "Scooter" Libby.

Possible affected individuals include: Secretary of State Colin Powell and Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage and their conversations with their counterparts and officials around the world; Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs William Burns and his telephone conversations with International Atomic Energy Agency director general Mohammed el Baradei and Britain's top non-proliferation official William Ehrman (Bolton was frozen out of negotiations between Burns, Britain, and Libya over the stand-down of the Libyan weapons of mass destruction program) (also Burns's conversations with Syrian Foreign Minister Farouq al Shara over charges by Bolton that Syria possessed WMD, and conversations between Burns and former chief UN Iraq weapons inspector Hans Blix); various phone calls made by Chairman of the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board Brent Scowcroft; U.S. Special Envoy on North Korea Charles "Jack" Pritchard and his telephone conversations with U.S. ambassador to South Korea Thomas Hubbard, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian Affairs James Kelly, and Richard Armitage; New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson and his telephone conversations with Secretary of State Powell and North Korea's deputy UN ambassador Han Song Ryol; phone conversations between Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joseph Biden and his Iranian counterpart, Majlis foreign affairs chair Mohsen Mirdamad, and between Biden, his staff, and William Burns and Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Marc Grossman; and President Jimmy Carter's phone conversations with Cuban officials before and during his May 2002 trip to Cuba (Carter said he found no evidence to support Bolton's claims of Cuban biological weapons development).

This is, of course, not O.K.

United States Signals Intelligence Directive (USSID) 18, the NSA's "Bible" for the conducting of surveillance against U.S. persons, allows "U.S. material," i.e., listening to U.S. persons, to be used for training missions. However, USSID 18 also requires that all intercepts conducted for such training missions are to be completely destroyed after completion of the training operation.

This story sounds a lot more plausible now that Bush has admitted that he intentionally went beyond the limits imposed by FISA to use the NSA in ways that impacted domestic targets.

Spying domestically for political purposes and destroying electronic records (tapes) is what got Nixon to resign and Watergate was one important part of the puzzle that got FISA enacted.

Let's start with impeaching Bolton (whose recess appointment expires about a year and a week from now, Congress did not assent to his appointment as ambassador to the U.N.), and zeroing out the NSA budget until we get explanations. The rest will follow in due course.

26 December 2005

Habeas Corpus Restrictions Stalled.

Bob Egelko reminds us that the compromise agreement reached to expend the PATRIOT Act by just one month has also stalled some onerous habeas corpus restrictions attached to the original PATRIOT Act extension bill (as well as a grab bag of other criminal justice measures which were equally bad).

Let's hope that they stay dead. Habeas corpus could use changes. The current law is far to technical and restrictive. But, further limiting our nation's system for reviewing wrongful convictions in the federal courts is not the answer.

States Ban SLAPPs

An increasing number of states are passing laws to discourage "strategic lawsuits against public participation", i.e. civil suits which often would lose on the merits designed to silence a company or organization's critics. California and Arkansas are among them and apparently "two dozen state legislatures have passed laws that restrict the filing of such suits or make it easier for people to fight back." The California Anti-Slap Project has a nice list of the states that have anti-SLAPP statutes.

Colorado does not have such a law, and the latest effort was apparently sponsored by Representative Bill Sinclair (a Republican with a libertarian streak) of Colorado Springs in 2002. But, its courts have usually been protective of speech restrictions veiled as private lawsuits.

Hat Tip to How Appealing.

Justice Is A Goddess

In this image, I wanted to continue the humorous aspects of Dan's writing, so here we have She-Hulk as "Lady Justice". Of course, Justice is supposed to be blind, and she is peeking! For those who don't know, She-Hulk's real job is a lawyer, and she is always using her super-abilities to her advantage in her cases (or else she is getting herself in trouble with the judge!). Anyway, I am signed on to do these covers indefinitely, so there should be a lot more big beautiful greeness in our near future!

See the picture here.

One More Reason Not To Watch Fox

EmRosa at Young Angry Liberal reminds us why you should be careful about watching Fox News.

FOX asserted that there are no written rules against distorting news in the media. They argued that, under the First Amendment, broadcasters have the right to lie or deliberately distort news reports on public airwaves. Fox attorneys did not dispute Akre’s claim that they pressured her to broadcast a false story, they simply maintained that it was their right to do so.

In part, this is a case of a good legal strategy which is a bad PR strategy (they won on this argument in Court). But, every other news organization worth its salt has an express written policy that it will not lie to the general public about anything, of strictly separating the business side of the business from the news side of the business, and of providing reports and editors with some sort of recourse within the organization, at least, if this policy is violated.

Also, while FOX did win, the stronger part of its argument is that there isn't a law preventing what they are alleged to have done, not that the First Amendment prevents laws against news organizations deliberately disorting the news. It is well established that intentionally false (or even recklessly false) statements may be prohibited and punished consistent with the First Amendment. Such statements are routinely held to be illegal with valid laws in defamation suits, deceptive trade practices suits, perjury prosecutions, fraud suits, suits alleging false medical claims, securities fraud suits, and deceptive trademark infringement suits, for example. First Amendment challenges to laws prohibiting false statements almost always fail.


The new news service Topix.net, has rapidly become one of the largest referral sources to this blog. The service is organized like a newspaper, rather than a search engine, with hundreds of thousands of subject area news pages. It basically simply runs a smart search algorhythm on a regular basis for each page, uses the first sentence or so of the story and its title as a blurb, and puts link in place. I suspect that most pages are created by hand, using templates that are in some cases pretty customized, and in others (like geographic locations) very standardized.

I still get more traffic from Google searches and a few other blogs that link here, but it given that it has basically come out of nowhere in the past several weeks, it is notable. The business states that it was founded three years ago, but clearly hadn't hit the big time online until recently. It apparently went live in early 2004. The founders of this news service describe themselves in an About Us page.

The problems associated with cataloging the billions of pages available on the Internet are not new to the Topix.net team. Previously, several Topix.net founders created the Open Directory Project (originally called "NewHoo"), the first open development directory for the Internet, and now the largest human-edited web directory. This project is now a property of America Online and is the source from which many of the current web directories, including Google Directory, derive their information. While an open development solution is helpful, especially when it comes to an overall categorization of the various sites on the web, it does not address the one item that many users turn to the internet for: news. That is where Topix.net steps in.

The firm is closely held primarily as a partnership of three major newspaper companies. A press release in March of 2005 announced that:

Gannett Co., Inc. (NYSE: GCI), Knight-Ridder, Inc. (NYSE: KRI) and Tribune Company (NYSE: TRB) jointly have acquired a 75 percent stake in Topix.net. Ownership is split evenly, with each media company owning 25 percent and the Topix.net founders retaining a 25 percent stake.

It has contracts with many other internet and news organizations. One of the big things that sets it apart from conventional MSM outlets (Is Topix.net MSM itself? It is owned by the MSM.), is its inclusion of many second tier MSM sources (like local papers) and most of the blogosphere in its search net.

I like it, especially for new coverage in niche areas, although really getting comfortable with it will take time as its particular personality quirks emerge.

Warmest Christmas Ever.

Christmas Day 2005, was the warmest Christmas on record in Denver with a high of 69 degrees Farenheit.

25 December 2005

Ebola Airborne

Ebola is one of the most lethal diseases known to man. It turns your insides to mush in days and only a small percentage of those exposed live. Several outbreaks have taken place in Africa, and more than one hard science fiction thriller has featured an outbreak of the disease as a mutation makes it possible to spread with a sneeze, instead of the far more difficult more of transmission (generally through close contact with diseased tissue or blood or spit).

This hasn't taken place, but scientists have discovered that African fruit bats in areas where there have been Ebola outbreaks in the past can act as carriers of the deadly disease, without getting sick themselves. Thus, eating a dead bat, or perhaps even handling one, could cause the initial infection that leads to the infection of an entire village.

The only reason to have some measure of comfort that an Ebola outbreak will not be the next pandemic that kills millions is that it is so lethal. Unlike HIV, which has a dormancy period of years, allowing it to be spread widely before it actually harms its host, Ebola kills quickly, leaving little time for infected people to spread the disease.

Stopping Warships With Planes.

I find it interesting that Taiwan is making a major investment in modifying inexpensive, ground based, training aircraft for use in carrying anti-ship missiles. The goal is to defeat an incoming Chinese war fleet in the event of an invasion.

I've frequently wondered, along the same lines, if the U.S. hasn't invested too much in using surface combatants, which are expensive, slow to marshal to the theater of operations, relatively vulnerable and put many lives at risk if hit, to carry out this mission, and too few land based aircraft (deploying from places like Guam and Okinawa) for this task.

Ground based aircraft can't be deterred by Chinese or North Korean submarines, and like surface warships, can launch their anti-ship missiles against enemy ships from hundreds of miles away, limiting the effectiveness of anti-aircraft weapons against the ground based aircraft themselves. Moreover, even a few days warning can allow U.S. commanders to marshal hundreds of aircraft at locations like Guam or Okinawa from bases anywhere in the world, while it could take considerably longer to get ships deployed to the scene from places like the Atlantic Coast or Middle East. Even so called, "surprise attacks" are rarely total surprises -- usually there is a long stream of bellicose rhetoric that precedes them.

Getting the aircraft in the air and launching the missiles from a little further way does mean a delay. Aircraft would still be reinforcements to surface ships in a truly surprise attack, operating perhaps half an hour to two hours from the time they are ordered to mobilize, but since very few ships travel at even 40 miles an hour, and it is hard to mobilize a huge flotilla of invading ships without satellites noticing it, the downsides of potential delay aren't necessarily as dramatic as they seem, and launching from a hundred or two miles further away costs only seconds of response times as the missiles themselves travel so fast.

A surprise attack on the airbase poses problems similar to a surprise attack on a defense fleet, of course, but invading a distant military base in a foreign country definitely makes the prospectis of an invasion higher risk since it expands to conflict to new and powerful opponents, like Japan.

The Intelligence Our Army Lacks.

The most serious deficit in the United States Army isn't an outdated assault rifle with a smallish bullet or less than optimal body armor supplies, although neither is ideal. The biggest problem is a huge shortage of soft skills, like an ability to speak a foreign language and the ability to understand foreign cultures.

Training for peacekeeping is turning out to be more expensive than getting ready for a war. A prime example of this can be seen in the U.S. Army’s JRTC (Joint Readiness Training Center) at Fort Polk, Louisiana. Not too long ago, putting a brigade through a month of realistic training at JRTC cost $2 million. But it costs $9 million to run the same brigade through a month of peacekeeping training (for Iraq or Afghanistan.) The major additional cost is payroll. Over 800 civilians, including either Afghan or Iraqi-Americans, are brought in and trained how to act as civilians, aid workers, reporters and so on. . . . For the troops, the JRTC experience is more revealing, and educational, than anything else they have done to get ready for action. Perhaps the biggest lesson is the need for some cultural awareness. The U.S. Army Special Forces has long appreciated this, but the rest of the army is playing catch up. Thus, while the troops are given cards or booklets containing useful phrases in the local language, when they confront “actors” on the “set” who are actually Afghans or Iraqis, and won’t speak to them in English (representing the fact that few people in these countries can), the troops either have to remember and use those phrases they were supposed to have memorized, or try and get along without. It’s much easier if you can say a few words in the local language, and this way they learn why at Fort Polk, instead of overseas, where such problems can get them killed.

The troops will later get to talk to the Afghan-American or Iraqi-American actors, and get the lessons repeated in English, with assurances that, “over there,” bad manners can have very serious consequences.

This is one case where actual proficency in a foreign language is far more useful than the minimal phase book abilities we are pushing for which would, themselves, be a major breakthrough.

The U.S. military spends something on the order of half of all the military spending in the entire world, and has used the funds largely to purchase some of the most lethal and expensive weapons systems in the world and to train troops to use them. Yet, every kind of spending has diminishing returns. The ability of the United States military to obliterate enemy battleships, fighter jets, tanks, artillery emplacements and military bases is unquestioned and unmatched by any military in the world. But, good weapons are only useful if you can secure enough cooperation from the locals to know who to shoot. Even a friendly local population can't do much to assist a military unit that lacks the ability to communicate fruitfully with the locals.

Language instruction is expensive, but it isn't that expensive. For the cost of one littoral combat ship or two F-22s a year, $220 million, you could give about five thousand eighteen year old Army recruits foreign language and culture instruction at twice the cost of a Harvard education a year. After four years, the Army would have 20,000 or so trained foreign language specialists (a number that would then grow more slowly as departures from military service had to be replaced). This would allow every company commander, maybe even every platoon commander, in place like Iraq or Afghanistan, to have a trained interpreter available to interface with the local community fruitfully and in the process gather valuable intelligence. These skills would save hundreds of U.S. lives in the field, as our own training process has shown, and would also help us win non-conventional conflicts. And, after those soliders left service, there would be a huge pool of people well equipped to participate in international business, the diplomatic corps, or civilian intelligence activities, all of which would extend U.S. influence abroad.

The term "intelligence" as used in national security circles hides a multitude of activities. Much of the money we spend now is high tech. And, much of the information we gain with both high tech and human sources is so sensitive (as pertains to methods and sources) that it can't be widely disseminated, even to people who might actually find it useful. But, you have to run to establish the pass, and in this case it means that we need to have lots of people who can simply communicate, before more sophisticated intelligence can be used to its full potential. What it takes to do this is no secret and it doesn't have to be a secret. A heavy investment in these basic building blocks of language skills and cultural understanding would make the Army more effective in the kinds of peacekeeping and counterinsurgency missions that have dominated actual use of the Army since World War II, which is what a strong military is all about.

Bill Owens Not A Merciful Man

No Colorado Governor in recent history has been as stingy in granting pardons as Bill Owens. He has granted only seven in his term in office, including two this year in the Christmas season. Democrat Roy Romer, who preceded him, granted four times as many per year, and his recent predecessors were more generous.

Why Doesn't This Ever Happen To Me?

I am an estate planning attorney. I have had lots of interesting experiences in my career. But, one estate planning story that was tagged at the Tax Profs Blog has never happened to me. In fact, nothing even remotely similar to it has ever happened to me in my estate planning capacity (although I once was part of a team of attorneys for some government officials who were accused of having done something similar non-consentually).

Britney Spears is suing US Weekly for $20 million over their allegation that Ms. Spears and her husband, Kevin Federline, "feared the release of a secret sex tape, which they had viewed with their estate planning lawyers."

What am I doing wrong? Does this happen to other estate planning lawyers? Why don't they talk about this in law school or continuing legal education classes?

Boxing Day Past (Tilly Smith)

Almost a year ago on December 26, 2004, a girl by the name of Tilly Smith gave the best Boxing Day gift that anyone could offer, saving the lives of a beach full of people from a tsunami because she saw the warning signs of what was coming and insisted that the people around her did something about it. I blogged it a while ago, and have noticed a number of hits on my site by people searching for the story. My original post explaining what happened is here. Go out, be smart, and do good.

A Unitarian Christmas

Imagine a flat table top, without legs, held in several people's hands, with a circle drawn in the middle of it, and a smooth round ball atop it. Even a slight imbalance will make the ball fall off the table and onto the ground. Yet, the people holding it like the ball to roll everywhere it can within the circle. Occasionally, the ball drifts slightly out of the circle, but quick tilting almost always corrects the lapse and everyone playing this game agrees not to notice when it does. This is what it feels like to attend a Unitarian Christmas Eve service.

The Unitarian Church, whose mission statement seems to be the proclamation of welcome to all with which Reverend Mike Morran (of the First Unitarian Society of Denver) opened the service, despite having Christian roots, treads a delicate path designed not to severely offend anyone's religious beliefs. It is a church service that could weather the First Amendment's establishment clause.

Fair enough. The Unitarian Church has long been a church of compromise. Many couples come to it as a resolution of the fact that they come from different faiths. To some extent it serves that role in my own family. My wife wants to have involvement in a church community, and has some vestigial Christian attachments, although she does not strictly hew to the evangelical leaning Presbyterian faith in which she was raised. I am, as you probably know, a pretty strictly secular humanist (although the American Humanist Association, of which I am a member, in a confused fit of self-pique calls itself a "religious" humanist association) with little place for a church of any kind in my life and little room in my life for the careful nurturing of mystical possibility that I associate with the Unitarian Church. Still, the Unitarian Church is the one church where I can feel somewhat comfortable with the children going irregularly and seeing as "their church." It is less dogmatic than most churches, isn't Christian - even if it has people who consider themselves Christians in it, and promotes a moral code and ethical philosophy with which I generally agree.

The 5 p.m. service on Christmas Eve was true to type.

The sanctuary is devoid of any specifically identifiable Christian, Jewish, Muslim or Buddhist symbols, although wreaths and candles arguably have ambiguous animist/pagan connotations. The five sided room avoids easy comparisons to the usual Christian Nave or a six sided Star of David, yet isn't a regular polygon and has each wall as a broken line rather than a complete one, and hence avoids clear identification with Wiccan Magik as well.

Much of the music was absolute (i.e. instrumental music without lyrics) leaving it open to interpretation and played by a string quartet (which also is not a musical form with strong religious traditions attached to it). Vivaldi's "Winter" and selections from the Nutcracker Suite, both seasonal works which one generally thinks of as secular, and in one case a tune that most people associate with Christmas, Greensleeves, was identified by its pre-Christian appropriation title rather than by the carol it is associated with What Child is This?. Likewise, several of the carols sung had verses more obviously religious in content strategically omitted for length (Unitarians seem to prefer two or three verse hymns to the four plus verse hymns preferred by Lutherans).

Christmas was honored as "a Festival of Giving and Sharing", "a Festival of the Birth of Jesus", "a Festival of Mid-Winter", and "a Festival of Joy" in that order with a candle lit to mark each aspect. The Christmas Story was read, with attribution to Matthew and Luke, but without its designation as a Gospel or citation to Biblical chapter and verse, and in one of the looser translations of that text that I have heard. The minister's mediation could have come from Carl Sagan almost as easily as it could have from an ordained minister. Several of the readings wouldn't have made much sense unless you had some familiarity with Winter Solstice traditions, even as the readings didn't necessarily demand that you embrace those traditions as your own beliefs. Indeed, the Unitarian's dance is to a large extent made possible with its lack of "credo" (i.e. "I believe"). It presents information, rather than demanding assent, the vast majority of the time. It offers a Christmas "Story", rather than "the Good News."

Studied ambiguity and complex compromise extended beyond the service itself. Most congregants, even those who were presenters for the evening to offer readings to the church, wore neither the traditional "Sunday Best" that I grew up with when I attended church -- I'm not sure that I saw more than one or two men in a traditional suit and tie, nor the slovenly Saturday clothes of true casual wear. Instead, the full range of "dressy casual" and "casual Friday" wear was in evidence.

The mix of congregants looked like what one would expect from the graduating class of a selective liberal arts college, neither monoethnic, nor dominated by non-WASPs. Many couples were mixed race couples. And, while the poor and rich alike were welcomed, the feeling I got was that the congregation was decidedly upper middle class, and I saw no one manifestly poor. Given the service, I'm not too surprised. The delicate etiquette of Unitarian sensibilities requires context to be comfortable with, and even among the regulars, fragile truce rather than absolute embrace seems not uncommon.

The overall impression wasn't bad. You enjoy a Unitarian service with a certain sense of superiority that comes from being among educated and thoughtful and caring people who appreciated classical music, the ancient context of our culture and science. As a secular person, I was reassured in not being threatened that my children are part of the community, even though my own appearance is just a once every couple of years thing. The etiquette worked in its mission of leaving neither me, nor anyone else there, offended. It was pretty, indeed even beautiful, carefully poetic, and more sincere that I might have expected. Fervent moderates are a rare thing, yet that is what Unitarian leaders seem to be, at least in this service.

I'm not signing up any time soon, and I don't see how Unitarianism will ever become a mass movement, despite being so inclusive, as it is so demanding, in subtle, non-categorial ways, of its congregants. But, it is something that has its place and Denver's contingent fills that place well.

24 December 2005

You Should Have Doubts.

Judges like Judge Posner, one of the most famous sitting U.S. Court of Appeals judges, feels that the death penalty is a powerful deterrent and that virtually no one innocent is executed. Given the fact that about 10% of death row inmates are ultimately exonerated, and that another 20% or so ultimately have their sentences commuted to less than a death sentence, your confidence should be less sound.

Read the story of Luis Rameriz who was excuted this past October on flimsy evidence, and you should wonder how we can possibly stick to our existing system of capital punishment.

23 December 2005

The End of the Year Rush For Lawyers

Stereotypically, the busiest time of the year for accountants is right before income tax returns are due on April 15. For lawyers, December is often a busy time.

Wealthy people want to make sure that their tax planning gifts are made before year's end. The travel agent is the estate planner's best friend. I don't know how many people have come to me wanting to have their affairs in order before flying off to some distant destination for a holiday. And, emotions run high for divorcing, or already divorced couples, as every imaginable circumstance conspires to ruin the holidays for someone, unless a court intervenes promptly. For lawyers whose continuing legal education requirements are coming due, there is the rush to get the last few classes in. In firms large and small, owners agonize over whether to try to push expenses into the following year, or to prepay as many as possible in the current year, for tax purposes. People rush to get assignments that have lingered for some time done, so that bills can go out before year's end. Of course, lawyers like to take vacations as well, and so there is also the rush to get every matter in the office sufficiently stablized that they can all wait for a few days.

Getting anything done in late December isn't easy. Everyone wants their task finished, but everyone necessary to get those tasks finished always seems to be on vacation or otherwise out of reach.

Many judges deliberately schedule their most contentious cases for the eve of the holidays in an effort to nudge the parties towards compromise. Of course, the real punishment is to have a demanding trial or hearing right after the holidays. If you have to be in court ready to deal with the uncertainties that attend any such appearance on December 27 or 28th, you are going to put off relaxations and celebration until the New Year.

Then, of course, there are for lawyers, like anyone else, some combination of numerous social events which must be attended for etiquette and business development reasons, kids who are out of school, guests visiting you, travel arrangements to visit someone or someplace else, and all the other end of year stresses that everyone faces.

This year, bankruptcy lawyers are still riding the wave of the pre-October rush of filings initiated in advance of a new and more stringent law, but, thankfully, most new laws take effect in July, rather than January, so lawyers don't have to spend December getting up to speed. The exception, of course, is that tax laws generally do follow calendar years.

All this, plus endless Christmas elevator music and intense pressure towards consumerism, contribute to December not being my favorite month of winter. I prefer the cold, bleak, contemplative days of January, when the rush has subsided and a sense of profound ordinariness returns to the rhythms of daily life.

Planck's Principle

A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.

- Max Planck, Physicist

It works in the world of politics as well.

To Know Me Is To Love Me.

The headline doesn't apply to me personally, although I am a reasonably nice guy. It applies to immigration.

As Western Democrat has shown, anti-immigration sentiment is strongest where immigrants are most scarce (and any negative effects of immigration are likewise minimal), while pro-immigration sentiment is strongest where immigrants are common. A Survey USA poll (supplemented by Western Democrat to show the percentage of the population who are immigrants in selected states) shows pro-immigration sentiment outweighing anti-immigration sentiment in the following states (% of the population who are immigrants):

Alaska, Arizona (15%), California (28%), Colorado (10%), Connecticut, Delaware, Florida (18%), Georgia (9%), Hawaii, Idaho (6%), Illinois, Kansas, Maine, Maryland, Massachussetts, Minnesota, Nebraska, Nevada (17%), New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico (9%), New York, Oregon (9%), Rhode Island, South Dakota, Texas (15%), Utah (6%), Vermont, Virginia (10%), Washington and Wyoming (2%).

Anti-immigration sentiment exceeds pro-immigration sentiments in:

Alabama (2%), Arkansas (2%), Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky (3%), Louisiana (3%), Michigan, Mississippi (3%), Missouri, Montana (1%), North Carolina (7%), North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina (3%), Tennessee (5%), West Virginia and Wisconsin.

In short, anti-immigration sentiment is driven, not by problems people are actually experiencing, but by problems that people fear experiencing. This reminds me of another set of statistics. One of the biggest factors involved in attitudes towards gay rights is whether you know someone who is gay or lesbian. Those who do are far more likely to have a positive attitude about gay rights.

France Favors File Sharing

The French parliament has taken a step in the direction of more liberal filing sharing laws that resists the general trend towards more draconian copyright law enforcement, contrary to the proposal of the government minister who brought the matter to them to consider.

The vote by members of France's lower house dealt a setback to Culture Minister Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres, who introduced the draft legislation. . . . Under the original proposals, those caught pirating copy-protected material would have faced $360,000 in fines and up to three years in jail. An 11th-hour government offer to give illegal downloaders two warnings prior to prosecution was not enough to stem the rebellion. Instead, the amendments voted would legalize file-sharing by anyone paying a monthly royalties duty estimated at $8.50. . . .

Days before the parliamentary debate, consumer activists delivered a 110,000-signature petition to the culture ministry criticizing the draft bill. The right of consumers to make copies of their music and videos for private use is enshrined in European law, and media companies have faced legal action in France for selling copy-protected CDs and DVDs. . . .

The final lower-house vote is not expected until after Jan. 17, when deputies return from their winter break. The bill requires only one further vote in the Senate to become law, under the emergency procedure invoked by the government to comply with a 2001 European Union directive on digital piracy.

I can imagine a better bill, but the sentiment is right. At the very least, people should have no less right to share their CDs and DVDs than they have to share their books.

22 December 2005

Small Planes For the Army

Fixed wing aircraft deliver more fuel efficiency, longer range, and greater cargo capacity than helicopters. They are also less prone to crash and have a greater capacity to glide to an emergency landing in the event of a mechanical failure than helicopters. Obviously, fixed wing aircraft can't land vertically, but a small fixed wing aircraft can handle a pretty small, primative field airstrip.

The Marine's V-22 Osprey exists largely to take advantage of the benefits of fixed wing aircraft while still being able to land like a helicopter when needed. But, lots of the time, the immense technological risk, complexity and cost that goes into the vertical take off and landing capability of the V-22 isn't necessary. A smaller than a C-130 and comparable to a heavy lift helicopter sized fixed wing transport aircraft would be very useful to the Army.

In fact, the Army actually has aircraft that fit that description. The C-23 Sherpa is one of the few classes of aircraft that the Army has been allowed to keep in the Air Force-Army split, largely because the Air Force doesn't want them. For comparison purposes, the C-130, the main short range Air Force transport plane, can carry 92 troops for 2356 miles at 374 miles per hour. The Army's C-47 Chinook heavy lift helicopter is designed to carry 33 troops 250 miles at 160 miles per hour. The C-23 Sherpa is designed to carry 30 troops for 770 miles at 218 miles per hour. Thus, the Sherpa has about three times the range and goes about a third faster than a helicopter that can carry a comparable load. The Sherpa also costs less to buy and maintain than either a comparable capacity helicopter or a C-130.

I'm not the only one who thinks it would be wise to let the Army develop a successor to the Sherpa, sooner rather than later, unburdened by Air Force indifference. Such a plane would be far cheaper than the V-22, yet fill many roles now inappropriately filled by helicopters simply because that is all that the Army has that it can rely upon.

Why Were Animals Once So Big?

Increasing evidence shows that the percentage of the air made up of oxygen is a major determinant of animal size.

High oxygen environments produce giant animals from bird sized dragonflies to fifteeen foot high rhinos. Low oxygen environments produce runts. And, high oxygen levels are also crucial for warm blooded animals that require about three times more oxygen to maintain their metabolisms than reptiles, for example. High oxygen levels also allow life to thrive at higher elevations, while low oxygen levels are associated with extinctions and with the concentration of life in low lying areas. At its low point in geologic time, oxygen concentrations in the air at sea level were comparable to what they are now at the top of a fourteener.

One of the facinating aspects of this hypothesis, is that it is quite easy to test rigorously in laboratory environments. If you want to see how big insects or crocodiles get in a high or low oxygen environment, all you have to do is create an air tight habitat and see what happens in a few generations. Shifts in oxygen concentrations that took tens of millions of years to take place historically, can be reproduced relatively inexpensively in minutes. The tests so far, show that the hypothesis works. One key limiting factor in larger animals is the ability to get oxygen everywhere in the body that needs to carry on the animals metabolism. Getting blood (in vetrabrates) or simply pure diffusing oxygen (in insects) to the right place fast enough to maintain the chemical reactions of life gets harder and harder as animals get bigger and bigger. As with armies, the survivial of large animals is largely a matter of logistics and supply lines. The more concentrated oxygen is in the air, the easier it is to get it to where it needs to go.

There are two interesting applications of this knowledge.

First, oxygen concentrations should be a key parameter of any world contemplated in a science fiction context. An intensely oxygen rich environment might be perfect for huge fire breathing dragons. An oxygen poor environment (or oxygen poor micro-environments, like underground cave systems) might foster smaller creatures. And, in an oxygen poor environment, there might be more isolated ecosystems, because even fairly low mountains might be impassible due to the impossibility of breathing at those altitudes.

Second, in controlled environments, for example, space stations or space ships or undersea habitations, one might deliberately choose to have an environment with an oxygen concentration other than the Earth sea level norm. Maybe you'd want it low, to force people to build strong lungs that would make them competitive in sea level oxygen events (just as marathoners sometimes train in the mountains). Maybe you'd want it high -- something that appears to be good for neonatal health and can help people heal wounds, among other things. Similarly, could something as simple as an oxygen bar actually have positive health effects? We already have large populations of older people, especially in high elevation areas like Denver, who rely on extra oxygen to survive. Why shouldn't it benefit healthy people too?

I just think it's cool. Giant insects and monsterous animals have their own appeal.

Denver Foreclosures At Sixteen Year High

Foreclosures in Denver are at a 16 year high. So much for a vibrant regional economy.

Blogger in the News

Google, who owns Blogger, which makes this blog possible, has been sued by Jews For Jesus. Their beef? A Jews For Jesus critic got the http://jewsforjesus.blogspot.com address, not them.

There doesn't appear to be any allegation that the posts are false. Basically, Jews For Jesus is making a trademark claim. But, on the other hand, as this case involves a critic, for which fair use and free speech considerations apply, rather than, for example, a splinter group from Jews For Jesus or a cyber squatter, who is simply trying to extort Jews For Jesus to pay for the address, it is a claim that deserves considerable skepticism. Does use of a Jews For Jesus name for your organization (which may or may not be a registered trademark, their website, http://www.jewsforjesus.org, doesn't claim a trademark of any kind), entitle you to prohibit everyone from using every web address with Jews For Jesus or variations on that in it? Is there are possibility of confusion when one click makes it clear that the user is not Jews For Jesus and doesn't claim to be? I think not. For example, can they prohibit someone from establishing a Wikipedia article about their organization that uses their name in its address? Free speech is chilled if we must all go around talking about "The Organization Who May Not Be Named." We particularly must be wary of court intervention into speech when it is part of a larger Jewish-Christian religious debate. (More background on the Jews For Jesus controversy in general is found here). The gravamen of a trademark violation is fraud and that simply doesn't appear to be present in this case.

Also, given the way Blogger is configured, it isn't clear that Google, as opposed to the person who established the blog, user "Whistle Blower" (who admittedly may not be possible to locate), should have any responsibility in the suit. Google is like a bank left holding a disputed account with no real interest in the outcome except that it be left alone.

At any rate, it is a case to keep an eye on, and this time, the Drudge Report does deserve credit for calling attention to it.

Double Standards

So, today, as it does most days, lunch beckoned. Feeling cheap and not wanting to go far, I headed over to the Wendy's at 6th and Sherman Street. I was stunned to find, as I went in to order, that I would be dining in a construction site. Power tools were humming. Carpenters were hard at work. Wall paper guys occupied ladders on every wall. A grout guy was putting in tile right next to the cash register as we spoke. Door frames were leaning up against the wall in the hallway to the bathroom. Fixtures were displaced. The ceiling tiles were missing. The place smelled of sawdust and wallpaper glue.

They did appear to have permits for the work, one dated from three days ago and signed by a Montoya, presumably from the city. But, what I want to know is why Wendy's gets to stay open in the middle of a construction project, while any ordinary restaurant doesn't get to serve customers until the job is over and they have received a certificate of occupancy. I know of one would be restaurant operator who has finished all construction work a few blocks away who has been waiting more than a month for an inspection and can't open without one.

I'm not an expert on Denver's permitting process (the permit work I've done has been mostly in the suburbs), and know that the devil is in the details. There could be entirely plausible reasons for the anamoly. But, it certainly looks like a double standard to me, and it certainly isn't good business or safety practice to have that kind of construction activity going on where people are dining.

New Medicaid Rules.

Medicaid is the means tested, joint federal-state government health care program that is also the leading provider of nursing home care in this country.

The 51-50 Senate vote that Dick Cheney came back from his trip to cast the deciding vote on would make qualifying for that program harder. The changes:

Bar a person with equity in a home of more than $500,000 from Medicaid coverage. States can raise the limit to $750,000. Currently, in most cases, a person can own a home of any value and still have their nursing-home bills covered.

Require states to look for inappropriate asset transfers during the five years before a Medicaid application, instead of the current three years.

Classify certain annuities as assets that trigger the waiting period; annuities sometimes are used to turn large assets into small, Medicaid-friendly payouts.

Medicaid is an awkward program that is the principal estate planning concern of middle class people today. It provides a de facto estate tax on far more people than the existing federal estate tax and seizes more farms than the federal estate tax does. It needs a major reform that rethinks responsibility for long term care.


Colorado is seeing coming and goings of many of its major economic players.

United Healthcare and Pacificare, two of the state's largest health insurance providers, are merging and the "combined company will control 27 percent of the state's health-insurance market." Proponents claim that the merge will allow for administrative streamlining, but the lack of competition will hurt. Anthem (the local Blue Cross/Blue Shield affliate), Aetna, CIGNA, Great-West Healthcare, Denver Health Medical Plan, HMO Colorado/HMO Health Plans, Rocky Mountain Health and Kaiser are the other licened HMO competitors in the state. Not all of those competitors, moreover, offer generally available health insurance plans in the Denver metro area, the state Division of Insurance guide notes only four companies offering HMO coverage post-merger in the Denver metro area. The lowest 2005 price for bare bones insurance in the state for a family like mine working at a small business, according to the guide is $589 a month, but given the huge rate hikes we are seeing in 2006 (my COBRA payment for health insurance from a publicly traded company with thousands of covered employees is going from about $700 a month to about $1000 a month in 2006 for essentially the same coverage and I have yet to get a firm quote that is a better deal as I work to find my own firm a new health insurance plan), so I'm not optimistic than anything close will be possible in 2006.

Southwest Airlines is joining the Denver International Airport market in January, which will add welcome competition to United and Frontier and in all likelihood, keep Denver airfares low on routes where there is competition, a welcome change from the days when United was the monopoly provider on almost all routes at the airport. Air Canada will also be providing more competition at DIA.

Grocery chain Albertsons is in the process of auctioning itself off. Loss of competition in the grocery market is less of a concern. Albertsons is already behind Kroger (i.e. King Soopers and City Market), Safeway and Wal-Mart in market share in Colorado. And, Target, K-Mart, CostCo, Whole Foods, Wild Oats, Vitamin Cottage and Sunflower are also poised to fill some of the gap an Albertsons departure would leave behind. Cub Foods has already left the market (but has also left at least some of its stores vacant). The loss of Albertsons pharamacies is probably a bigger concern, as there seems to be less competition in that market. But, it is possible that a new drug store chain in Colorado might emerge from an Albertsons demise.

The movie theater industry, which already experienced a massive consolidation when Regal Cinemas were created from numerous bankrupt or near bankrupt movie chains, is consolidating again. "AMC and Loews, the second- and third-largest movie chains, announced in June that they planned to merge their businesses. The transaction will probably be completed in the first quarter." It is hard to tell if this will be good, because it gives Regal stronger competition, or bad, because it will shrink the oligopoly further. I'm inclined to think it is bad news. Incidentally, the consolidation of the mainstream movie theater industry (let alone the movie rental industry which is now dominated by Blockbuster), is not matched in the art and foreign film theaters, where Denver now has several competing chains, as opposed to relying exclusively on the Landmark Theater chain.

The reality of modern living is that big business manuevers affect your daily life whether it involves your health care, taking a trip on a plane, buying drugs and groceries, or watching a movie. The perfect competition model you learned in introductory microeconomics in high school or college isn't the real world. In the real world, the Iron Law of Oligopoly, is the dominant model of the economy.

Black in Fruita

I spent three years in Grand Junction before moving to Denver. We moved to a great extent because we felt that Denver was a better place to raise our mixed race children than Mesa County. The atmosphere of racial intolerance in Mesa County was pretty clear. The painful experiences of a 13 year old biracial middle school girl (in our one drop rule world, most people would consider her black) in Fruita, which is in the Mesa County School District, suggests that we made the right call.

Katrina Weimann, who is white, said she enrolled her 13-year-old daughter, Angelina, in Mesa County Valley School District 51 this year after the family moved back to Colorado from Kansas.

Shortly afterward, Angelina, whose biological father is black, became the target of racial slurs, said Weimann, an Aspen native. Angelina said one boy threw a rock at her after a volleyball practice, then called her a racial slur when she told him to stop. . . .

Two months later, a boy she considered a friend told her he would dress up like a member of the Ku Klux Klan for Halloween. . . .

But weeks later, a girl used the same racial slur. "She thought it was OK; it's a freedom of speech," Angelina said. . . .

The last incident occurred Dec. 5, when a student told her: "I'm going to hang you from a tree," Angelina said. At that, her mother removed her from Fruita Middle School, the town's only middle school. . . .

Fruita, a few miles west of Grand Junction, is 90 percent white, according to the 2000 census. Of the school district's 20,200 students, roughly 80 percent are white, nearly 17 percent are Latino, and a little more than 1 percent are black, according to the school's website. . . .

[T]he district has taken action and is working on providing transportation for the girl to attend Redlands [a school in one of the most affluent neighborhoods in the District aabout 17 miles from Fruita].

Most of Mesa County's black students probably live in either Grand Junction or Clifton.

Admittedly, this family thinks that another school in the district can work better, and maybe it can, but we weren't willing to take that chance. Notably, the District's solution has been to move the child to a different non-neighborhood school, rather than reform the school that the child attends in Fruita, a practical solution perhaps, but a depressing one that rewards racism as well.

Conservation Close To Home

As every home and business owner in Colorado knows, natural gas prices are at record highs this heating season. So, we implemented drastic measure to cut our natural gas consumption. Many of our windows have gotten heavy velvet curtains, the thermostat is set at about 62 degrees Farenheit, blankets are piled thick on beds in the evening, and layers have become the norm in our house during the day.

It is gratifying, however, to see results from these efforts. In the latest Xcel Energy bill, our natural gas useage was down 39% from the same month a year ago, despite the fact that last year was a couple of degrees warmer than this one. We are probably paying the same amount of money per month as we were last year, but that in itself is an accomplishment.

21 December 2005

The Limits Of An Adversary System

SCOTUS Blog offers the following short note:

The New York Times has this article on the fact that, despite a Supreme Court holding prohibiting the execution of the mentally retarded, the Fifth Circuit has held that a Texas death row inmate who may be retarded cannot raise the issue in federal court because his lawyer missed a filing deadline. The cases is also discussed by the Houston Chronicle and Dallas News.

A similiar case before the Colorado Supreme Court (thanks to Colorado Appeals blog), whose question presented appears below, raises similar issues concering ineffective assistance of and lack of counsel:

People v. Weatherall, No. 05SA233:

Petitioner Christopher Weatherall requests that his judgment of conviction and sentence be vacated because the Denver District Court failed to consider and rule on his Crim. P. 35(c) motion in a timely manner. In 2002, the Court of Appeals affirmed in part, reversed in part and remanded for an evidentiary hearing on Weatherall’s Rule 35 (c) motion. The Supreme Court denied certiorari, and the mandate issued from the Court of Appeals in August 2003. The Denver District Court appointed a lawyer for Weatherall in November 2004. When that lawyer withdrew, a new lawyer was appointed in January 2005. Since then, no action has been taken in the case and Weatherall has not received a response to his request for a status report on the case.

On November 4, 2005, the Supreme Court issued a rule to show cause why the requested relief should not be granted. Respondent Judge Rappaport is directed to provide a written answer on or before December 5, 2005 why the relief requested in the petition should not be granted. Petitioner Weatherall has thirty days from receipt of the answer within which to reply.

These cases, and many others like it, particularly death penalty cases where the defendants are raising the claim that their constitutional rights were violated due to ineffective assistance of counsel, point out one of the central problems with our criminal justice system. It is organized on an adversary basis, but it is not morally acceptable for people to be punished because their advocates, whom they usually have no choice in selecting because they are indigent, make mistakes.

The problem is systemic and runs deep. For example, I know of almost no jurisdiction where public defenders are compensated as well as prosecutors are and given comparable case loads. Yet, how can it be morally acceptable for the "but for" cause of a person's execution or extended imprisonment to be an incompetent or overworked lawyer's failure to meet a filing deadline.

The criminal justice system needs to be redesigned in a way that doesn't make life or death decisions based upon rules adopted administrative convenience. Those decisions need to be made on the merits, no matter what, so new remedies for attorney lack of diligence (perhaps a forced appearance of the attorney under threat of contempt and assignment of new counsel when deadlines are missed) need to be devised. Firm deadlines with harsh consequences, for which failures to comply are almost always an attorneys' fault, don't belong in the criminal justice system because the defendants who suffer the consequences can't redress the wrongs that they have suffered by suing their own lawyers and getting compensation that way.

Government Rebuffed In Padilla Case

The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals has denied a government request to transfer Jose Padilla from a military brig to an ordinary jail for a federal criminal prosecution outside of military authority in Miami, Florida, while Padilla's case is pending before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Basically, the 4th Circuit said that it appears that the government has been lying to the courts all along in this case, and if this isn't true, that they haven't come clean with the Court about what has happened. It has not appreciated government high handedness and gamesmanship in the handling of the litigation, and wants to give the U.S. Supreme Court a chance to consider the case which it rightly recognizes as a case of great national importance.

This puts the Miami indictment on ice, and further complicates already complicated speedy trial issues in that case. (The issue is when you start calculating speedy trial deadlines for someone who has been extrajudicially incarcerated for somewhat related reasons for three and a half years.) Padilla himself can't be entirely thrilled about spending more time in a military brig and potentially not even getting out of the military brig ever if the government changes its tune. But, if he ends up exonerated in the U.S. Supreme Court, a few more months may be worth it, since he won't have enemy combatant detention hanging over his head in plea negotiations. Counting noses, I have a hard time seeing the government prevail in the U.S. Supreme Court in the Padilla case, but if the Alito nomination is confirmed in the Senate, that calculus could change.

Overzealous Advocacy

While as an "advocate, a lawyer zealously asserts the client's position", there are limits. Shooting opposing counsel and nearly killing him, allegedly in order to get a continuance in a civil trial, is well over the line. The offending attorney will be spending multiple decades in prison as a result. The victim is on life support and has been unconscious for months.

Got Pardons?

What is the secret to getting pardoned by the President for your prior drug dealing offense? Well, one approach is to then become a lawyer and work for a major Republican donor.

Wendy St. Charles, now 49, was among 11 people who received presidential pardons.

In 1984, she was sentenced to four years in prison in Illinois for conspiracy to conduct a narcotics enterprise and distribution of cocaine, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

She was also put on four years of special parole and four years of probation, which were to run consecutively with her sentence. . . .

Currently, she is a licensed attorney who works for MDC Holdings, Inc., the largest Denver-based home-building firm and one of the top 10 home builders in the U.S.

Larry Mizel, chair of the MDC Holdings Inc., and his wife, Carol, are major supporters of the Republican Party and its candidates, donating thousands of dollars to their campaigns

Snark aside, I don't have any problem at all with this pardon. The main reason for a pardon in a case like this is to eliminate the collateral effects of being an ex-felon (inability to buy a gun, inability to receive certain kinds of employment, etc.). When someone has served their time and gotten their life on the right track, this is entirely appropriate.

My biggest quarrel with Bush on pardons is being too stingy and not too generous. This kind of relief should be available as a matter of course to anyone who serves their time and has reformed and lived a law abiding life for decades. Another quarrel, of course, is with the strong tendency of pardons to end up benefitting political friends of the President (and on this score, Clinton was guilty as well).

The last quarrel I have with this is that the pardon power was not really invented to clean up the records of people who are already out of prison and admit that they were criminals -- legislation really would be a better way to deal with these cases. The real reason for the power is to allow the executive branch to redress injustices that the judicial branch has for some reason or another not been able to right - cases of dubious guilt, or case where someone's other good deeds call for mercy, or cases where someone who is guilty received a sentence that was simply too harsh, often a reflection of the hysteria of an earlier time or even the drama of the sentencing hearing itself. Those kind of pardons have been exceedingly rare in this administration.

Hat tip to the Sentencing Law and Policy Blog.

Footnote: The Rocky has this line in its story: "[Special parole and probation]were to run consecutively with her sentence". This, of course, is nonsensical. Sentences either run concurrently with another sentence (i.e. at the same time as), or consecutively to another sentence (i.e. one after the other). Sentences never run "consecutively with" another sentence.

Defiant Infantile Republicans

Responsible adults respect the rule of law. Defiant infantile Republicans don't. So, what happens when a judge rules that teaching intelligent design as science is unconstitutional? A Republican legislator immediately starts talking about introducing legislation requiring Colorado schools to teach intelligent design as science. This time the infantile Republican is State Senator Greg Brophy of Wray, Colorado. I'm glad he's not my legislator, but maybe he is yours.

Hat tip to Coyote Gulch.

Clinton and Carter Didn't.

In case you have crawled under a rock and read nothing but this website, I'll inform you that Bush has now informed the country that he has ordered the wiretaps of American citizens for four years, without warrants, in violation of federal law, despite the fact that all he had to do to get them lawfully was to go to a secret court (the Foreign Intelligence and Surveilance Act Court) that has denied warrants just five times out of 19,000 requests, despite the fact that the adminstration has lied to it as well. He asserts as justification the inherent powers of the Presidency. Thus, without any specific statutory authority, Bush authorized the wiretapping of purely domestic conversations between American citizens (i.e. he broke the law and he'd admitted it on national TV).

Conservatives have tried to justify his actions by saying that Clinton and Carter did the same thing. Only, they didn't. They made up the part about Clinton and Carter doing the same thing. As explained by georgia 10 at Daily Kos, the orders they signed were expressly authorized by a statute specifically addressing the issue, didn't involve American citizens, and Clinton's order didn't even involve wiretaps:

Here's what Clinton signed:

Section 1. Pursuant to section 302(a)(1) [50 U.S.C. 1822(a)] of the [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance] Act, the Attorney General is authorized to approve physical searches, without a court order, to acquire foreign intelligence information for periods of up to one year, if the Attorney General makes the certifications required by that section.

You don't have to be a lawyer to understand that Clinton allowed warrantless searches if and only if the AG followed section 302(a)(1). What does section 1822(a) require?

* the "physical search is solely directed at premises, information, material, or property used exclusively by, or under the open and exclusive control of, a foreign power or powers." Translation: You can't search American citizens.
* and there is "no substantial likelihood that the physical search will involve the premises, information, material, or property of a United States person." Translation: You can't search American citizens.

Moreover, Clinton's warrant waiver consistent with FISA refers only to physical searches. "Physical searches," as defined by 1821(5), exclude electronic surveillance.

And now, Carter's turn:

1-101. Pursuant to Section 102(a)(1) of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 (50 U.S.C. 1802(a)), the Attorney General is authorized to approve electronic surveillance to acquire foreign intelligence information without a court order, but only if the Attorney General makes the certifications required by that Section.

Here, Carter refers to "electronic surveillance," rather than "physical searches" like Clinton. But again, Carter limits the warrantless surveillance to the requirements of Section 1802(a). That section requires:

* the electronic surveillance is solely directed at communications exclusively between or among foreign powers. Translation: You can't spy on American citizens.
* there is no substantial likelihood that the surveillance will acquire the contents of any communication to which a United States person is a party. Translation: You can't spy on American citizens.

Section 1803(a)(2) requires that the Attorney General report to Congress (specifically, the House and Senate Intelligence Committees) about whether any American citizens were involved, what minimization procedures were undertaken to avoid it and protect their identities, and whether his actions comply with the law.