Friday, January 25, 2008

Edwards to win, Obama to place

Sorry about the light posting; I've been buried in homework for my Web design classes. The good news: I really like it and have an aptitude for it. The bad news: when I really like something new, I tend to devote unhealthy amounts of time to it. The "every waking moment" kind of unhealthy. And learning a programming language is time-intensive anyway.

But I'll poke my head into the real world long enough to make a prediction on the South Carolina races:

Edwards: 35%
Obama: 34%
Clinton: 31%

I know this goes against every poll there is, but Edwards just has to do better than 16 percent in the state of his birth, while Obama is establishing a trend of showing huge leads in polls that disappear as voting approaches. And I just don't see Clinton having a natural constituency in the state.

Yeah, it's a flier. But if I'm wrong, no big deal. And in the unlikely event I turn out to be right, I'll look like a genius!


Monday, January 21, 2008

Jefferson on the stand

Rep. William Jefferson testified at a pre-trial hearing Thursday, attempting to get evidence from the FBI raid on his house thrown out.

But it didn't go well for him. He claimed the FBI intimidated him when they interviewed him during the raid -- even though he's a member of Congress and a Harvard-educated lawyer, both of which tend to make him unlikely to be intimidated.

He said the FBI agents yelled and swore at him -- even though they apparently weren't loud enough to wake up his sleeping wife and daughter.

The prosecution said the day before that he made a bunch of phone calls during the raid, which would indicate that he was hardly coerced or intimidated. Jefferson denied it. The prosecution responded by brandishing phone records showing various calls from his house that day. It's unclear from the story, however, if the calls were made during or after the interview, which began at around 7 a.m.; the main phone call is from 8:29 a.m.

In any case, what you have here is not a man vigorously defending his innocence, but a man trying to suppress damning evidence against him, notably the $90,000 they found in his freezer. That is an important legal right -- the police are not allowed to use illegally collected evidence -- but it hardly burnishes his claims of no wrongdoing.

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Friday, January 18, 2008

California eyes thermostats

About a week ago, it came out that California's energy regulators were seeking the power to control thermostats in private buildings. They would install a radio-operated controller that would let them raise or lower temperatures by a couple of degrees during severe power shortages, preventing system overloads and blackouts.

That provoked plenty of outrage about the idea from the usual suspects as well as others. So much so, in fact, that California withdrew the plan on Wednesday.

Me, I understood what regulators were trying to do, and they do have a legitimate interest in managing power consumption during an emergency. Further, it's pretty clear that access to electricity is not a right. The power company can, and does, shut off parts of the grid when necessary, and that's just life.

But it is intrusive. So here's what I would have done.

1. Make participation in the thermostat program voluntary, in return for a small reduction in the customer's monthly electric bill. We have a similar program here in Minnesota, and my air-conditioner is hooked up to it.

2. Anyone that didn't participate in the thermostat program would be bumped to the top of the list of people who would have all of their power shut off in an emergency, if necessary.

Voila! No intrusion, but a strong incentive to shoulder a small pain in order to avoid shouldering a much bigger one.

But that's not really my point in making this post. Because I think the situation illustrates an interesting clash of collective interest and individual rights.

Concerns about Big Brother and bureaucracy aside, the regulators had a compelling "greater good" argument. Turning everyone's thermostat down (or up) a couple of degrees would inflict only minor suffering (if it can be called that) on each individual customer, while reducing demand enough to stave off a power shortage.

Leaving it up to individuals, on the other hand, would prevent that minor discomfort -- right up until the entire system overloaded and people lost power completely, with far more severe effects on comfort and the wallet.

Thus you have the intellectually unsatisfying conclusion that everyone would be better off if they went with the remote thermostat control -- yet such a plan is politically undoable.

There's a name for this -- the tragedy of the commons. It affects all sorts of resources, notably fisheries and the like, and there are myriad demonstrated cases of such individual acts destroying the shared resources that a given group depends upon.

At this point you might be tempted to shake your head and say "people are stupid." But they're not. Especially in this case, because this isn't just an economic calculation.

Oh, there's an economic aspect: For example, adopting the thermostat plan requires confidence in both the government's intentions and its competence. If you don't think the program will work well or fairly, why give up control of your thermostat to it? That's an economic calculation -- feeling that the payoff will not be worth the cost.

Then there's the question of who gets to define what the "greater good" is.

But the biggest issue comes down to rights: who has the right to control my thermostat? And the problem there is that individual rights are not economically rational; indeed, by definition, they are roadblocks in the functioning of the larger society. Police need to get warrants; that's inefficient. The government must prove its case to a unanimous jury; that's inefficient. You can cause as much trouble with a printing press as you want; that's inefficient.

Individual rights, fabulous as they are, come at a certain price in economic or social efficiency.

Note I'm talking about rights, not freedoms. Freedoms are a different beast altogether; they are the absence of regulation and control, and they create economic and social efficiency.

But freedoms, too, have their limits, because they often assume limitless resources, no cheating and rarely account for externalized costs. The tragedy of the commons establishes a sort of upper limit on freedom: Too much freedom can end up destroying the shared resources that a given group depends upon.

The key to addressing "tragedy of the commons" situations such as this one is to align individual behavior with the interest of the group.

This can be done through enforcement -- in the case of a fishery, you might limit the number of fishing boat licenses available, thus limiting the catch to sustainable levels.

But it can also be done less coercively. The proposed solution in California, for example, creates a market incentive to accept the greater-good approach. This leaves all the power in the individual's hands -- they can always opt back out of the program if it doesn't work for them.

My purpose here is to get people to recognize two things:

1. The greater good is not an absolute good. It may be too violative of individual rights, or the definition of "greater good" may not be widely accepted.

2. Individual rights are not an absolute good. They introduce inefficiencies and, taken to extremes, can destroy economies and societies.

Any reasonable social policy must balance the two, maximizing individual rights wherever possible while efficiently serving society as much as possible.

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Michelle Bachmann is still clueless

MPR's Mid-morning show interviewed Rep. Michelle Bachmann (and Rep. Tim Walz) yesterday. You can find the audio of the hour-long show here.

They both have interesting things to say about Iraq, though Bachmann continues to come across as a clueless right-winger. But for my money the best part starts at the 40:29 mark, when Kerri Miller asks Bachmann about the utterly, ignorantly crazy statement she made about Iran last year -- a statement she later claimed meant something entirely different.

In the interview, she spends 4 minutes babbling non sequiturs in response to Miller's question. Then she's handed an economic question, in which she says the best way to avoid a recession is to cut corporate taxes -- something that not even Bush or Ben Bernanke agree with.

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Cool or ooky?

This isn't political, per se, but I stumbled across this site and found myself equal parts fascinated and repulsed.

When your loved one dies, you can subject their body to exceedingly high temperature and pressures and turn them into a diamond, which is then placed in a tasteful setting of your choice so you can wear them on your hand all day.

Since my wife and I intend to be cremated, I guess the general idea shouldn't bother me -- although I don't actually expect my kids to keep our ashes around. But for some reason, though the science-geek side of my brain says "cool!", another part of me thinks this is just a little out there.


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Thursday, January 17, 2008

Ex-Congressman charged with supporting Al Qaeda

Didn't see this one coming.

A former congressman and delegate to the United Nations was indicted Wednesday as part of a terrorist fundraising ring that allegedly sent more than $130,000 to an al-Qaida and Taliban supporter who has threatened U.S. and international troops in Afghanistan.

Mark Deli Siljander, a Michigan Republican when he was in the House, was charged with money laundering, conspiracy and obstructing justice for allegedly lying about lobbying senators on behalf of an Islamic charity that authorities said was secretly sending funds to terrorists.

Without trying to assess the strength of the charges -- there's not enough information to do that -- let me just point out a couple of thoughts:

Thank goodness it was a Republican. Can you imagine all the apoplectic aneurysms among right-wing bloggers if it had been a Democrat? With Siljander, they'll of course explain that he's just one guy, doesn't represent all Republicans and was probably a RINO anyway. Had it been a Democrat, on the other hand, he would have been a representative poster child for the Democratic Party, damning evidence of the corruption and disloyalty inherent in the Democratic character, and something that all current Democratic officeholders must answer for. Ain't blind partisanship fun?

The charges aren't all that explosive. He's essentially accused of lobbying on behalf of a charity, a charity that we declared a terrorist supporter because some of its money ended up in the hands of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.

Hekmatyar's a bad guy now -- a declared supporter of Osama bin Laden -- but his is a common story in the region: we were a big supporter of his when he was fighting the Soviets, walked away when the Soviets left, and then found ourselves fighting against him when we invaded Afghanistan. Sending him cash may well constitute "terrorist support", but it's not a simple thing. And Siljander's guilt will rest largely on how much he knew about the charity's activities.

The most damning charges address how his lobbying was funded: it claims he conspired with the charity to illegally use money donated by USAID. He also denied doing any lobbying for the group. If true, that's enough to sink him for corruption, and cast doubt on on his truthfulness, which in turn would suggest greater involvement and culpability for money reaching Hekmatyar.

Meanwhile, the Washington Post notes that the problem might be Siljander's district, inasmuch as his predecessor was also a Republican, and is also in hot water:

It was a shocker when David A. Stockman, the one-time congressman from the Sixth (actually the 4th back then, before redistricting) who went on to become President Reagan's White House budget director in the early 1980s, was indicted last year on charges of conspiracy and securities fraud involving a Michigan auto parts company.

Now we learn that Stockman's successor in Congress, Mark Deli Siljander, was indicted today for his role in an alleged terrorist fundraising ring.

Such an observation requires taking two data points and calling it a trend, while ignoring that the current officeholder, Fred Upton, is also a Republican and has served since 1986. But it's still interesting.

All in all, more evidence that claiming one party is inherently more patriotic, loyal or honest than the other is dumb.

Hall of Shame updated.

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Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Holocaust archive begins opening its files

Maybe now the Holocaust deniers will shut up.

The Bad Arolsen documents — transportation lists, Gestapo orders, camp registers, slave labor booklets, death books — contain references to about 17.5 million people, Jews and non-Jews. It is the largest registry of Holocaust victims ever.

Why is this only coming out now? The transcript (pdf) of a Congressional hearing back in March explains:

The information at Bad Arolsen was originally collected and maintained to help reunite non-German families separated during the war and trace missing family members. Countless files and documentation from across Germany were relocated to Bad Arolsen by allied forces after World War II. Shortly after the end of the war, the Bonn Accord treaty was signed by 11 nations, including the United States, forming an international commission to govern the International Tracing Service (ITS), which was charged with maintaining the massive Nazi archives.

And thus became a captive of international politics, with both East and West having incentive to keep the records shrouded. Both countries employed people who might have been exposed as Nazi collaborators had the archive been open. As well, the archive likely records the involvement of many nationalities, which would be embarassing to the countries involved. And finally, there was always the risk that revelations might expose countries, companies and individuals to demands for restitution.

Cynically understandable as that may be, it's shameful, and yet another example of how excessive secrecy is harmful. By keeping the archive away from public view, the commission robbed survivors of closure and provided space for Holocaust deniers to operate. There may be times when short-term healing takes priority over truth, but I can't think of a good example right now. In general, openness speeds healing by removing doubt.

I hope we remember that principle the next time someone proposes sealing public records to protect the public good.

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ACLU comes to aid of Sen. Craig

The ACLU throws its support behind a sitting Republican senator!

But that's not the best part. This is the best part.

In an effort to help Idaho Sen. Larry Craig, the American Civil Liberties Union is arguing that people who have sex in public bathrooms have an expectation of privacy.

Funny thing is, they apparently have a court precedent:

The ACLU wrote that a Minnesota Supreme Court ruling 38 years ago found that people who have sex in closed stalls in public restrooms "have a reasonable expectation of privacy."

Bless them. They're out in left field on this one -- though I'll see if I can get a look at that precedent they cite. But I love to see them following a legal principle without fear or favor, even if they're following it out a window.

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Tuesday, January 15, 2008

We had to destroy the village in order to save it

That seems to be the logic behind spy chief Mike McConnell's breezy description of his plan to monitor every bit of communication on the Internet. This according to a wide-ranging interview (not yet online) in New Yorker magazine.

The nation's top spy, Michael McConnell, thinks the threat of cyberarmageddon! is so great that the U.S. government should have unfettered and warrantless access to U.S. citizens' Google search histories, private e-mails and file transfers, in order to spot the cyberterrorists in our midst.

It's hard to believe he would actually suggest such a thing. But it's not just an outraged Wired blogger saying it. So is the Wall Street Journal. And myriad other outlets.

Unless McConnell's own description of his plan is completely off the mark, I can't think of a meaningful debate to have over it. Even if he's right -- that massive eavesdropping is the only way to catch cyberterrorists or terrorists using the Internet to organize attacks -- the proposed solution is so violative of common notions of privacy that it is simply beyond consideration.

And what happens when the terrorists switch to snail mail -- will the government suddenly find it necessary to open and read everybody's letters?

McConnell's NSA background really comes through on issues like this. The NSA, after all, is a giant data vacuum, sucking up information a thousand different ways from a thousand classified sources. That's the hammer he's used to, and it's natural that every problem he encounters looks like a nail.

But the NSA listens in on overseas conversations, not domestic ones. What McConnell has essentially proposed is turning that capacity inward, on to our own citizens, in a surveillance society that would put the secret police of even the most tightly controlled dictatorship to shame.

Sure, there would be legal protections: no getting thrown in a dark hole simply for saying something unkind about the government. At least, not yet or not often.

But it shifts the whole balance of power between citizen and government. A limited government is prevented from knowing too much about you, and thus is powerless to misuse information it does not have. A limited citizenry surrenders the information but trusts government-enforced laws to protect it from ... the government.

Fox guarding the henhouse, anyone?

Its like the apocryphal crocodile bird, which walks into the mouths of crocodiles and picks junk off their teeth. Generally, it doesn't get eaten. But it's totally at the mercy of the croc. Is that freedom?

The government has legitimate law-enforcement and national-security needs, and surveillance is part of their toolbox. But it's a limited tool for a reason. If we cannot protect ourselves from terrorists by using warrants, then we either have to come up with a different strategy or just get used to living with a higher level of risk. Freedom isn't free, to put a different twist on an overused saying.

So, to McConnell: Not just no, but hell no.

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A lot less pork

I missed this while on hiatus, so forgive me for noting what may be old news to some of you. But after the federal government's fiscal year 2007 ended on September 30, Citizens Against Government Waste toted up the earmarks.

Their conclusion? After hitting a record high of $29 billion in FY 2006 -- the last year under Republican control -- earmarks fell to $13.2 billion, the lowest amount since 1999.

They credit the House Democratic leadership, as well as Republican senators Tom Coburn, Jim DeMint and Jeff Sessions. In other words, divided government. Division keeps costs down by pitting Congress against the president and giving formerly muzzled fiscal conservatives in the Republican ranks freedom to tie Congress in knots rather than allow excessive pork to pass through.

The victory might be temporary, however, inasmuch as it's largely because Congress failed to pass 9 of 11 appropriations bills. When those bills finally pass, they could end up being larded with pork. So we'll have to wait and see what the 2008 number looks like before crediting Democrats (and a handful of Republicans) with restoring some minor measure of fiscal discipline.

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Innovative teacher contract passes

Woo hoo! In an update to this post, Minneapolis teachers yesterday ratified a contract that, rather unexpectedly, gives principals the right to pick their staffs -- rather than letting teachers pick their own positions based on seniority.

The vote wasn't even close: 68.72% in favor. Teachers also get a 2% raise this year and a 1% raise next year.

It'll be interesting to see what happens next year when principals start assembling their staffs. But this is good news overall, putting the interests of students first.

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Ron Paul is a Jedi!

Or rather, Obi-ron Paul-obi is.

Widely respected for his stubborn belief that the whole universe should be run just like his neighborhood on the backwater planet Tatooine, Obi-ron spends a lot of time wistfully remembering the Old Republic. He practices a peculiar interpretation of The Force, in which reducing government to only local control and returning to the gold standard is the answer. Obi-ron reluctantly returned the contributions of the Tusken Raiders and Jawas, whose politics of ethnic slaughter and droid slave trade he justifies as "states rights". While his anti-Empire foreign policy excites the Rebel Alliance, it's pretty much a Jedi mind trick. He's still a crazy old guy living in the desert.

Yes, it's another "which Star Wars character would each candidate be?" But it's pretty funny. Here's the take on Mike Gravel (Chewbacca):

Mrrrrrawwwwkkk!!!! Gronnnnkkkk!!! Mrran... wua ga ma uma ahuma ooma. "Whobacca?!?!"... GRONK! "Gravelbacca!!!" Hnn-rowr yrroonn nng rarrr!

(h/t: Volvodriver)

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Waiting for version 2.0

Finally fixed the site by reverting to my old template and reposting the html section by section until I found the problem. It appears the Feedburner ad code got messed up during the upgrade, and then stayed messed up after I reverted.

I'll be avoiding the upgrade for a little while, until I'm persuaded the problem won't recur.

By the way, thanks, Dyre, for the suggestion to switch templates and then switch back. That got me started down the right path.


Friday, January 11, 2008

Still in upgrade hell

I have been unable to fix the display problems with the blog, and Google Support has been entirely unresponsive. This weekend I may strip it down to the basics and see if it will display properly, then build it up slowly.

Thanks for everyone's patience as I work through this. Ain't technology grand?


C'mon already

Anyone else getting sick of the endless analysis of Hillary Clinton's crying jag?

Sure, the reaction to it is an interesting sociological study in gender bias and the politics of projection. And there's a side story about how Hillary is perceived as so controlled that anything spontaneous -- including tears -- is a notable break in the facade.

But c'mon: it's embarassing that grown men and women, supposedly deeply knowledgeable political observers, can aver with a straight face that Hillary tearing up is the reason she won in New Hampshire.

Besides seriously dissing the intelligence and judgment of the average New Hampshire voter, let's try to follow the logic.

Polls showed Obama with a pretty good lead. The undecideds generally weren't big enough to be the swing factor.

So we're supposed to believe that there were a large number of voters who intended to vote for Obama (for instance) but then saw footage of Hillary crying and thought, "Wait a minute! That's the one for me."

Does that make sense to anyone?

As I noted before, the results in New Hampshire were surprising mostly because they contradicted the pre-election polls. But if you hadn't been paying attention to the polling and someone came up to you and said Clinton and McCain had won in New Hampshire, you'd say "Well, duh." Because in their respective primaries they're the closest match to that particular electorate.

There certainly is a story into why the polling was wrong. My pet theory: A bunch of Biden, Richardson and (particularly) Edwards supporters threw their vote to either Clinton or Obama at the last minute, knowing that their preferred candidate had little chance and wanting to influence the frontrunners. Or maybe the polls were just, you know, wrong. It happens.

And I certainly understand why embarassed pundits had to scrap around for something to blame for their poor prognostication.

But putting it down to Hillary's tears is contemptuous of both Hillary and the voters.

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Blind fish, sighted offspring

From researchers in New York:

Researchers crossed four populations of blind fish from caves in northeast Mexico. Sightless for at least half a million years, the fish evolved from sighted surface fish.

By creating hybrids of the different cave fish populations, researchers found that nearly 40 per cent of some hybrid crosses could see.

The farther apart the caves of the hybrids' parents were, the more likely it was that their offspring could see.

The reason? Sight arises from a combination of genes. Different populations of cave fish had different sets of genes knocked out. One group might have a functioning Gene Set A but a nonfunctioning Gene Set B; another group might have the reverse. Both were blind, but for different reasons.

So when the populations were crossbred, some of the offspring inherited working versions of the full gene set.

From an evolutionary perspective, this illustrates the huge size of the genetic toolbox -- one of the things that makes evolution work, by providing a large number of variables and mechanisms to effect change in an organism. It also highlights one mechanism whereby a major shift -- from sightless to sighted -- could occur in a single generation. It provides a logical basis for rapid evolution in the face of rapid environmental change.

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