Friday, January 27, 2006

Strange bedfellows

Along with all the Democrats who object to the president's warrantless wiretaps, you will find Grover Norquist, Mr. Rich-Americans-Should-Never-Pay-Any-Tax, the president of Americans for Tax Reform, the "managing director of the hard core right" (as the Nation magazine called him). In fact, Mr. Norquist has teamed up with Larry Diamond, a Democrat from the Hoover Institution (isn't that an oxymoron?), who is also a solid supporter of the war on terror (whatever that is), to object to what they both see as a major violation of American civil liberties.

Mr. Norquist's point is that only the president's supporters have the credibility to challenge him when he goes off the rails on civil liberties (or, presumably, anything else). I'm afraid he's correct; the president and his advisers simply don't listen to anybody outside the charmed circle, which has bothered me about them from day one and it gets worse as the world outside diverges farther and farther from the reality they seem to accept. So on this subject only, I'll wish Mr. Norquist good luck. We need all the help we can get.

This was all written up yesterday by a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer (for all my complaints about that newspaper, an amazing amount of good investigative reporting gets printed there); the full article is very interesting and I recommend it.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Ms. Michael J??

I suppose nothing Michael Jackson does should surprise me any more. I'm certainly not surprised to see an AP report today saying that he's considering moving to the Persian Gulf, as a consultant on theme parks; after that trial he may feel, shall we say, a little uncomfortable here?

But what absolutely floors me is that he was photographed walking around Bahrain in an abaya! Why would he want to go to a Muslim country, where women are second class citizens, and dress like a woman?? But then, this is MJ, and who knows... He had 3 kids with him, and they were all wearing veils too, and I'm almost certain that isn't a cultural norm.

(NB: If Bahrain is one of the 2 or 3 Muslim countries that actually treats their womenfolk like human beings, I apologize for the reference; the fact that "conservative Bahraini women" - emphasis mine, and as opposed to less conservative Bahraini women - wear these robes implies it may be, but I didn't take the time to research it...)

Saturday, January 21, 2006


Let's consider the warrantless wiretaps that the president thinks are so necessary to national security. This week's arguments in favor look like this:
  • This is a necessary part of the war on terror and we can't afford to wait for warrants.
  • It's really legal because Congress authorized POTUS to do anything he [deleted] well pleases in support of the war on terror.
On the subject of warrants, there was an interesting article, published in the San Francisco Chronicle on Christmas Day, on the fact that the FISA court has modified more of the wiretap requests that it received from the Bush administration (179, with 6 rejected outright) than from the four previous administrations combined (2). (OK, earlier presidents were doing this, but not without warrants.) The reason it modified the requests was because the administration couldn't show probable cause. FISA wiretaps require a showing of probable cause. This is 179 changes/rejections out of 5,645 warrant requests issued by the Bush administration: that's three tenths of one percent. (These numbers are through 2004; see the article for full detail.)

Balked in their wish to spy on U.S. citizens for whom they couldn't show probable cause that they were communicating with terrorists (in less than half of 1% of cases), the administration chose to issue executive orders to bypass FISA altogether. This is very likely the reason that U.S. District Judge James Robertson resigned from the FISA panel in protest. This looks to me as if the administration simply can't bear to account to anyone for any of its actions, and friends, that's not a valid position for the country's president, no matter who he thinks we're at war with.

The administration is currently justifying these efforts on the grounds that they either have protected us or are protecting us from attack by al Quaeda. This, frankly, is hogwash. Al Quaeda (using that as shorthand for the Islamic fundamentalist terrorist underworld) has agents who are willing to die themselves in order to attack western targets. There is no defense against a man who is willing to die in order to kill you. They could possibly intercept another carefully coordinated series of attacks a la 9/11. They can't do a thing about a single man with a dirty bomb in a backpack, or a truck.

The Daily Kos blog published a great analysis of how likely you are to die from a terrorist attack versus any other cause. The number I like is that you are 7,881 times more likely just to die (from any cause) than you are to die in a terrorist attack. (For that matter, you're 24 times more likely to die from overdosing on Motrin than from a terror attack; it's a great article if you haven't read it.) At this point, the cost benefit analysis breaks down. On those odds, no, it is not worth allowing this level of erosion of civil liberties in order to "protect" us. If you're really that afraid of dying, you'd never drive a car (85 times more likely than terror), and you'd certainly never smoke (1,290 times...). Since we all drive cars, and too many of us smoke, we're obviously not that scared; we just haven't considered the odds properly.

I'll consider the issue of Congressional permission to do whatever in another rant.

Friday, January 13, 2006

No Term Limits, George

My record with George Will is surprisingly spotty: I'd expect to disagree with everything he says, but once in a while he sounds rational. Today's column, for instance, is mostly pretty good, as he rips into the Republicans for becoming hooked on large government and selling out to lobbyists. I particularly like his suggestion that the symbol of the Republican Party should be the stegosaurus, not the dignified elephant...

I part company with him, though, on his suggested cure for the rent-seeking which he sees as the national pastime: "bending public power for private advantage." He feels the only solution for this is Congressional term limits; which even he agrees will never happen because Congress would have to pass it...

Having now lived through far too many years of term limits in California, I agree with Maximum Bob (in the Fanatical Apathy thread "Jack and me"): (legislators) are forced to leave just as they start to figure out where the rest rooms are. Term limits, if anything, give the lobbyists more power, because only they have been around long enough to know what the rules are. In fact, they make the rules.

The only short term solution to corruption in politics is publicly financed elections; it seems to be working pretty well in Arizona and one or two other states. The long term solution, of course, is to re-educate the population at large in civics, how democracy works, and the general concept of public service; but that will take generations. It might also require repealing No Child Left Behind, since I don't believe any of these subjects is on the required standard tests...

Sam Alito Worries Me

It's beginning to look as if Mr. Alito will be the next Supreme Court justice, even though the Democrats are still waffling about it. On one level, he's an impressive guy; he certainly is more qualified for the post than, say, C. Thomas. He says all the right things about the rule of law, and considering the facts, and reviewing precedent... He even seems to be a Nice Guy.

If only his record of decisions on the Third Circuit didn't show him firmly placed, about three steps to the right of Attila the Hun. When he reviews all the facts and considers all the precedents, he always seems to vote against individuals (yes, women have to notify their husbands before getting an abortion), for corporate privilege (no, Congress can't ban the sale of machine guns nationwide). And he's a known supporter of the Imperial Presidency. At least he finally seems to have accepted the "one man, one vote" principle.

What I really see here is a firm supporter of states' rights. This will take us right back to the 19th century (which, as we know, is where Dubya wants us to go anyhow). With Alito on the Court, a number of things now regulated nationally will depend on the state you happen to live in: a woman's right to an abortion; the ability to buy certain firearms; whether wetlands and wilderness are protected. Dark times ahead, I'm afraid.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Meditations of a Gadget Freak

I've been fascinated by the DARPA Grand Challenge, won in October by a team from Stanford. The January issue of Scientific American has an article, Innovations from a Robot Rally, which is a must for every red-blooded gadget freak, it goes into detail about how the various teams solved their technical issues. (The link above is to the article on the SciAm site, but you could just go buy the magazine. In fact, if you want to see the photos and diagrams, you have to get the magazine; it's only $11 - in the U.S. - and they're worth it.) Between March 2004 and October 2005 these teams went from no vehicle even completing the course (I don't think any entry got farther than 3 miles), to 4 vehicles doing 132 miles in under 8 hours: the winning time was 6 hours 53 minutes. That's an average speed of just over 19 MPH.

Some of the most interesting tweaks weren't even done by the winning team:

One of the obvious problems was, how do you track where the robot is? The obvious answer is, give it a GPS, or maybe several; but how do you track distance and direction if it gets into a canyon where the GPS signal is blocked? The team of high school students from Palos Verdes, CA (yes, they competed) developed something they call a GroundMouse, based on the principle behind optical mice: with a camera, a bright light, and an optical tube, they built a 2 dimensional odometer with 1 millimeter accuracy in any horizontal direction. (The team staffed by professional engineers built something similar, but they used a Doppler radar. Isn't money nice?) I love 2 things about these kids: first, that they tried at all. Second, that their solution used stuff you could buy at Radio Shack. There's hope for the next generation yet!

The Indy Robot Racing Team solved a problem that won't even (really) exist until autonomous vehicles go commercial, if they ever do, but without this solution or something like it, they never will: these guys built a network protocol for swapping "plug and play" sensors and software modules in and out of their vehicle. They built the interface. Them's my kind of engineers! (Disclosure: I used to be a systems programmer.)

These are not the only fascinating technical solutions: you have to see the picture of the one with the bank of 64 lasers on the vehicle roof, on a motorized circular platform, spinning 10 times a second, and backed by a bank of signal processors programmed in Assembler. Obstacle detection: could spot something the size of a person at 500 feet.

I strongly recommend any fellow techno-weenies out there to take a look at this article.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Abramoff Sings, Congress gets the Blues

So Jack Abramoff has decided to plea bargain, and a number of Congressmen (the San Francisco Chronicle has photos of 8, including Dubya, who have gotten various amounts) are wondering what to do with the money he donated to them. (Charitable causes may do well out of all this, as several of them have decided to "cleanse" the money that way.)

This whole mess brings two things to my mind:

One - Everybody involved in this mess is a Congressman. None of the people wishing his picture wasn't being published alongside this story is a woman. Not that this is statistically significant, since Congress is only about 15% female (14% in the Senate, 16% in the House); but doesn't it make you wonder if you shouldn't go and donate something to Emily's List? Maybe it just means that women don't want to play golf at St. Andrew's.

Two - Once again, the late great Arthur Hoppe (also of the San Francisco Chronicle) was right. During the ABSCAM scandal of 1978, Mr. Hoppe wrote a column (which I don't seem to have saved, alas, and the Hoppe columns are no longer available on the web), complaining that with all these furriners coming in (it was the FBI posing as Middle Eastern sheikhs, actually, see the Wikipedia article...) and buying up Congressmen for $25,000 apiece, pretty soon the price of a Congressman would be too high for an ordinary American to be able to afford his own...

Well, here we are, 28 years later, and "Duke" Cunningham goes down to the tune of $2.5 million, and the smallest amount Abramoff seems to have given anyone was $32,000. Inflation in politics, alas, just as predicted. Art Hoppe, where are you, now that we need you?

Monday, January 02, 2006

Stupid Crook Tricks

I saw this a couple of weeks ago in the local newspaper and it blew me away: follow this link for the story about the guy who took a picture of himself in the disposable camera in the car he stole, and then left the camera in the car when he abandoned it...

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Starting out

I got a blog, you got a blog, all God's chillun got blogs...

Everyone else seems to be blogging, why not me? The trouble is, of course, that it's like being asked to tell a joke - every joke you ever knew immediately vanishes from your mind except that terribly vulgar one you learned in eighth grade. Still, let's try. It's the first day of a new year, a good time to start something new.

Never be afraid to try something new. Remember, amateurs built the ark. Professionals built the Titanic. (I have no idea where I originally read that.)

I'll be posting opinions, links to articles I think are weird, links to other sites I think are interesting. All opinions here are mine unless specifically attributed to someone else.