June 2005

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Now that the search for the Greatest American is over, I’d like to add one more name to the list. This gentleman didn’t even make the top 100—probably because his greatest contributions occurred outside the United States—but he could well be the greatest American of all.

Norman Borlaug

I’m speaking of Dr. Norman Borlaug, winner of the Medal of Freedom and the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize.

In 1944, Borlaug and his staff began a program to develop high-yield wheat in Mexico. Over the course of 20 years, they managed to breed several varieties of dwarf wheat that were resistant to many kinds of pests and which had several times the yield of older types of wheat. Mexico went from a net importer to a net exporter of wheat.

The new grain was soon made available to farmers in India and Pakistan. Wheat production nearly doubled in the first five years. A similar effort brought high-yield rice to the Asian nations. Hundreds of millions of people on the brink of starvation…didn’t starve. This was the Green Revolution.

I’ve seen several estimates of how many people were saved from starvation by Borlaug’s revolution. Some people put the number as high as a billion. The low end is probably around 500 million.

To put this in perspective, Norman Borlaug’s Green Revolution more than balances the 50 million who died in all nations during World War II. In fact, even using the low estimate of lives saved, the Green Revolution offsets all the war dead of the twentieth century—including all those killed by oppressive regimes and man-made famines—and all the war dead of the nineteenth century, twice over.

The benefits to humanity from the efforts of Dr. Borlaug and his team are unparalled in history. He should have made the list.

Note: You can learn more about Dr. Borlaug at the Norman Borlaug Heritage Foundation.

Here’s a really cool example of Chicago Police and residents working together to catch a criminal. The crime isn’t a huge one, but it’s interesting how this worked:

The North Edgebrook community…police and residents were faced with an unusual problem: someone was vandalizing neighborhood signs and spreading large roofing nails at a busy intersection.

The crimes were apparently in response to a new Target store on Touhy Avenue, which had some residents concerned about increased traffic. 16th District police say someone took his concern too far. “The community kept bringing it up at beat meetings that an individual was throwing nails on Touhy Avenue,” resulting in numerous flat tires and a traffic safety hazard, explains Commander Harry Tannehill.

The district put out extra patrols, and residents set up their own surveillance at the intersection of Touhy and Melvina. “They couldn’t allocate undercover officers around the clock, week in and week out, to try and apprehend this guy,” says resident Myles McDarrah, who shared surveillance duties with John Melaniphy III of the local civic association. By monitoring times when the intersection was clear and when there were nails, the two residents narrowed down the hours when the culprit would most likely strike. That allowed police to allocate their resources more effectively. On the third night of a special mission, tactical officers caught a 47-year-old neighborhood man in the act and arrested him. With the district’s Court Advocacy program now involved, he will have to face his neighbors in court.

The City of Chicago portal seems to embed session information in the URLs, which would make it hard to create a permanent link. Try this:

Police Stop One-Man Crime Wave.

I got some interesting email today. It was titled “Link exchange proposal,” which I assumed was some other blogger who wanted to swap links with me. But as I was clicking on it, I realized that this had to be some kind of link scam. Bloggers don’t make agreements to link to each other. If someone really likes my site, they’d just link to me.

Sure enough:

  Hello  I propose you link exchange between my Casino sites and http://www.windypundit.com. If you agree to be my link partner please add my links to your resource pages and send me your information:  Title, Description, URL and preferred Category.   We would add your link to our sites shortly.   Our information is the next:  URL: http://www.0-casinos.org/ TITLE: Casino DESCRIPTION: 0 Casinos.org - Online Casino.    URL: http://www.0-gambling.us/ TITLE: Gambling DESCRIPTION: Best Gambling Online!  URL: http://www.1-video-poker.us/ TITLE: Video Poker DESCRIPTION: 1 Video Poker.us - Online Video Poker!  URL: http://www.777-keno.com/ TITLE: Keno DESCRIPTION: 777 Keno - Keno Online  URL: http://www.baccaratonline.us/ TITLE: Baccarat Online DESCRIPTION: Baccarat Online. Play Baccarat Online!  URL: http://www.baccarats.us/  TITLE: Baccarat DESCRIPTION: Baccarat.us - Online Baccarat For You!!!  URL: http://www.casino-4-gambling.us/ TITLE: Casino DESCRIPTION: Casino For Gambling Online! 

Oh yeah. Like that’s going to happen.

When you search on Google, it figures out the order to show the results based on a score that Google calculates. Google is secretive about the details of this process, but a big part of that score is something called “page rank.” Basically, sites are rated by the number of links to them from other sites. In general, the more inbound links a site gets, the higher its page rank. The inbound links themselves are weighted by the page rank of web page they’re coming from.

If you make real money off of website traffic (I don’t) your location in the Google search results is real important to you, so it can seem like a good idea to try to manipulate Google. Given the importance of links in determining page rank, it soon occurs to people to set up a few dozen fake websites—or if they have the budget, a few hundred or a few thousand fake websites—that all link to each other to drive up the page rank. Sometimes a company that does this will sell outbound links to other sites that want to raise their page rank, or several companies will get together and build a pool of these fake websites.

This arrangement is called a link farm, and that’s what I was being invited to join. The idea is that we can all raise our page ranks by linking to each other.

For Windypundit, that’s a really bad idea on so many levels.

First of all, if you have a content-oriented site like a blog, it’s just generally a bad idea to change the site in order to try to game the search engines. People visit your site and link to your site because of what you have on it, not because of search scores. Content is king.

(Things are different for commerce sites, because they need to do well in search engines. But things aren’t that different. I bought my Tivo upgrade kit from this guy. He works out of his house, and he’s got the top spot at Google for the phrase “tivo upgrade”. How? Because his site is full of useful information about how Tivo works and how to upgrade it. You can do the entire upgrade yourself based on his detailed instructions, without buying a thing. He won the search engine battle by giving away great content.)

The second reason to avoid link farms is that Google and other big search engines have somehow learned to recognize them. If the Google page ranking algorithms decide to flag your site as part of a link farm they will bury you. This apparently happened to SEOInc, one of the big search engine companies. Try to Google “SEOInc” and see if they show up in the results.

Third, www.windypundit.com has a page rank of 4 (on a scale of 0 to 10) according to Rankwhere.com. (You can also view a site’s page rank on the Google Toolbar if you have it installed.) That’s not a terribly high rank, but it’s not bad for a small-time blog like mine. On the other hand, every page on the list above has a page rank of ZERO. Why would I want to link to them? I’m bigger than they are!

Heck, my friend Gary’s new blog—gary on tv (and stuff)—also has a page rank of zero because he’s just starting out, but at least he’s got real content.

[Note: Comments have been disabled because this posting attracts too many spam comments.]

Well, AOL‘s Greatest American contest is over. After months of voting, the previous list of 25 had been narrowed down to just 5:

  • Benjamin Franklin
  • Martin Luther King, Jr.
  • Abraham Lincoln
  • Ronald Reagan
  • George Washington

And the winner is…Ronald Reagan.

Sigh. As I said earlier, these lists are silly. Actually, I take that back: Picking winners is silly. The lists themselves aren’t all that bad.

Granted, it seems a little funny that Ronald Reagan, Elvis Presley, Oprah Winfrey, and Tom Cruise all made the original list. Although you can argue that none of them deserves to be the Greatest American, there’s no denying that each of them is considered to be great at something by a large number of people. As a celebration of ways to be great in America, these lists are pretty interesting.

The problem comes when you start to pick winners. That’s when you have to decide which forms of greatness are more important. That’s also when you have to decide how to weigh the good against the bad.

For example, Abraham Lincoln was a powerful United States President, so it can seem pretty silly to rank him along with Elvis Presley, a drug-addicted entertainer. On the other hand, the Civil War killed more Americans than all our other wars combined, whereas Elvis killed only himself. On the scale of “How many people died?” Elvis is the greater American.

Ronald Reagan is one of those people who inspires both admiration and hatred. Enough bandwidth has been expended carrying that argument around the internet, so I’m not going to get into it here. People’s opinions differ on what’s important and why. All I’ll say is that I can’t understand how even the most one-sided of Ronald Reagan’s fans could say he’s a greater American than George Washington. Then again, I don’t know much about Washington’s dark side.

Like I said, picking winners is silly.

By the way, AOL‘s description of Ronald Reagan’s major accomplishments is pathetic:

The oldest U.S. president, Ronald Reagan founded “Reaganomics” and was known as “The Great Communicator.”

Shouldn’t they have said something about his leading a military build-up that helped topple Soviet communism and bring the Cold War to a peaceful end? Granted, not everyone feels he should get the credit for that, but don’t you think the web site should list one of the biggest reasons so many people think he’s the Greatest American?

Finally, the strangest and most memorable comparison between very different types of people I’ve ever read was in “Love Thy Neighbour” by Julie Burchill in the British Guardian. It compared Osama bin Laden with…wait for it…Kylie Minogue.

My favorite bit is this:

If you sat down with graph paper, a slide rule and a liberal selection of body parts, you literally could not create two beings belonging to the same species who are less alike than Osama bin Laden and Kylie Minogue.

It sounds insane, I know. But it stuck in my head for a long time, and it gave me a lot more respect for the accomplishments of people who merely provide light entertainment. Heck, when you keep in mind that guys like Osama bin Laden are at the bottom of the scale, all the rest of the people of the world seem pretty great.

Update: One more Great American who should have made the list.

[Update: The authorship, content, and style of this blog has changed dramatically since my review.]

Here on Windypundit, I rant about civil liberties and legal issues and frightening police behavior. Because of these interests, I end up reading a lot of blogs by criminal defense attorneys. However, I’ve noticed that these attorneys themselves don’t rant much about civil liberties, at least not in the same way I do. I guess that’s because the justice system is something I observe, but it’s something they’re a part of. They may not like what they see, but it’s the reality they have to work with everyday, and ranting about reality is for madmen. They have a client in peril, so they usually leave the ranting to outsiders like me.

This brings me to Norm Pattis at Crime & Federalism. Pattis is a criminal defense lawyer, but he’s also a mad ranter like me. Check out his recent post on the Kelo decision, in which he comes within a hair’s breadth of saying it’s time to start shooting people:

Kelo is bad, terrifying law, the sort of law over which a person should think incendiary thoughts. We revolted against Britain over far less.

I guess a guy who’s being hunted by one of his own clients is entitled to a little hyperbole now and then.

Pattis also does civil work, often suing misbehaving cops. He owns a rare book store. He writes fiction, and he’s republishing one story in serial form on the Crime & Federalism site. Oh, and if the name “Norm Pattis” sounds familiar, it might be because he’s been commenting on legal issues for the news media, although he’s in recovery for that now.

The main show, however, is someone named Mike. He founded Crime & Federalism and describes it this way:

According to a report of the American Bar Association, there are over 3,300 federal crimes. These laws are interspersed in 50 titles of the United States Code. Also, the violation of federal regulations is often made criminal: the ABA estimates that the violation of at least 10,000 regulations is a federal crime.

We used to be able to count on one hand when Congress could define or punish crimes. Now no one can know the extent of potential criminal liability under federal law. This blog will explore what happened.

[Citations have been removed from most quoted content for clarity. See the original postings for more information.]

Mike summarizes his views and his concept of federalism like this:

I think there are two main types of federalists: the Heritage-Federalists and the Cato-Federalists. Our different approaches on policy, especially on crime and federalism, can be illustrated by comparing two different discussions on overcriminalization.

In Measuring the Explosive Growth of Federal Crime Legislation, sponsored by the Heritage Foundation, former Attorneys General Edwin Meese and Richard Thornburgh criticize Congress’ willingness to criminalize garden-variety crimes, e.g., car jacking.. Some of the reasons they disagree with the growth of the criminal code include Congress’ stepping on the toes of sovereign states, and the high economic cost to pay the law enforcement officers (including generous salaries and pensions). However, not once did Mssrs. Meese or Thornburgh talk about how unjust it is for a person’s conduct to be covered by overlapping federal and state laws.

Heritage-Federalists are still down with the establishment, the only difference is they prefer smaller units of governments. Powerful states are fine, a powerful federal government is less desirable.

Cato-Federalists are more of the anti-establishment wing. We are as concerned with individual rights as the ACLU. We differ with the ACLU on many issues, though, because unlike the left, we think that less government leads to greater individual liberty.

Heritage-Federalists care about federalism because it strengthens the states. Cato-Federalists support federalism because it will help individual liberty flourish. It’s two different worldviews.

Mike, 23 November 2004

Much of Crime & Federalism, especially the middle stuff, consists of summaries of legal briefs, decisions, and other kinds of things I don’t really understand, such as Ken Lay Week or this discussion of pin and string cites. Mike’s style changes several times, probably in response to changes in the kinds of work he does as he emerges from the legal education process.

Some of Mike’s earliest stuff asks a lot of big questions about the law. Here is one of the most amazing things I’ve read about the Bill of Rights:

…Alexander Hamilton […] thought a bill of rights would be unnecessary and dangerous…

Alexander Hamilton cited the preamble to the constitution, “We the people of the United States [ ] do ordain and establish this Constitution” as proof that we did not need a bill of rights. Since we created a government of limited powers, then why do we need a contract protecting our rights. “Here is a better recognition of popular rights than volumes of those aphorisms which make the principle figure in several of our state bill of rights, and which would sound much better in a treatise of ethics than in a constitution of government.”

Moreover, Hamilton feared “declar[ing] that things shall not be done which there is no power to do? Why for instance, should it be said, when no power is given by which restrictions may be imposed?”

Can anyone today argue that Congress would lack power under the Commerce Clause to regulate the press? What did we learn about the Commerce Clause that Alexander Hamilton missed?

Mike, 12 April 2004

I never thought of it that way. If—as is apparently the case these days—the Commerce Clause really gives Congress the power to regulate carjackings and toilet flushes and what farmers grow for their own consumption, then of course the Commerce Clause gives Congress the power to regulate the press. It’s only the First Amendment’s revocation of that power that keeps them from doing so.

Mike characterizes the modern meaning of the Commerce Clause this way:

The only way to understand the Court’s Commerce Clause jurisprudence is by turning to chaos theory. Chaos theory tells us that if a butterfly flaps its wings in Hong Kong, it may cause a hurricane in Texas.

If I sneeze in California, it may cause an earthquake in Missouri. Hence, Congress has the power to criminalize my intrastate sneezing because it may substantially affect interstate commerce. (After all, an earthquake can cause billions of dollars in damage. Everyone has heard of the million dollar man. But had you heard of the billion dollar sneeze?

Even one dollar spent in Utah will have a substantial affect on interstate commerce since this dollar will travel across the country many times.

Hence, the Commerce Clause confers upon Congress to regulate any activity it likes, so long as it does not offend the Court in so doing.

Mike 1 July 2004

Crime & Federalism covers a lot of topics. In a later post, he characterizes his earlier blog self as “quite the dilettante” for thinking himself qualified to write about some of those subjects. In a comment, Norm Pattis reassures him, “Dilettantes of the world unite! We have nothing to lose save our shame.”

Besides, Mike brings a fresh point of view. Consider this comment about criminal defendants who get acquitted on “technicalities”:

If an eighteen year old male who had sex with a 17 year and 9 month old female, was charged with statutory rape (in a state where the age of consent was 18), would we say he was charged under a mere technicality? If I committed some strict liability offense about which no reasonable person would know, who would say I was charged under a technicality? No one. Everyone would say, “You broke the law. Now go to prison where they serve chunky peanut butter.”

How come only criminal defendants take advantage of technicalities? When prosecutors overcharge an indictment, or send people to prison for 10 years for importing lobster tails in plastic rather than paper bags, it’s somehow consistent with wholesome morals and an effective criminal justice system. Why are constitutional rights technicalities where as criminal laws are the law?

Mike, 28 July 2004

I think that’s pretty neat. I’m going to use that line of reasoning next time I get into that argument.

Mike’s also annoyed by complaints about big-spending criminal defendants, and for exactly the same reason as I am:

Riddle me this: Why does it anger so many people when a criminal defendant spends massive amounts of money? Do they not know how much money the prosecution spends? This story from CNN is illustrative:

Prosecutors in the Kobe Bryant case spent nearly $400,000 trying to get the NBA star convicted of raping a woman at a Vail-area resort last summer, documents show. That includes nearly $75,000 for expert witnesses and travel, more than $78,000 to investigators and more than $35,000 for a broadcast news clipping service.

Once you factor in the salary and benefits for the investigators and prosecutors, the bill would likely reach 1 million dollars. Which is, by most educated guessers, what Kobe Bryant spent defending himself.

Mike, 15 September 2004. [The CNN link was dead.]

Benjamin Franklin once said, “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” Mike’s New Year’s Eve post from 2004 has a twist on that:

Disavowing the rights of criminal defendants on the ground that these rights so important to them will never be relevant to you, is immoral. Those who would allow the government to unconstitutionally abrogate the rights the rights of others but jealously guard their own deserve neither freedom nor safety.

Mike, 31 December 2004

What the heck, here’s one more thing Mike and I agree about. Living in the land of the Nicarico case, this strikes home:

This excellent article entitled “Innocence Lost” discusses numerous cases of innocent people being freed from prison. As you might expect, none of the prosecutors apologized for falsifying evidence, withholding evidence in violation of their ethical and legal duties, and putting lying police officers on the witness stand. At the least, I expected to see a prosecutor ask: “How could this happen? How could I have done a better job? How can I prevent this from happening again?” Instead, what you get is this:

The strangest thing happened to John Stoll this past spring. After 20 years in jail for an infamous crime he did not commit, a judge said it had all been a mistake, and he was set free.

“You win some, you lose some,” the prosecutor shrugged, refusing to offer any admission of error or hint of an apology for all that her office had put Stoll through.

Mike, 16 November 2004

There are other bloggers who make guest appearances. Timothy Sandefur, for example, has this to say about “takings”:

Michael Rappaport writes, in answer to Orin Kerr’s question about private takings, “why did the Framers not write the Clause more explicitly to prohibit private use takings…? [I]t was regarded as unnecessary. No one thought that a taking for private use was legitimate.” Yes, and we know that because they said that “[n]o person shall be…deprived of…property, without due process of law.”

Properly understood, the Due Process Clause is a prohibition on private takings. The Fifth Amendment says, property shall not be taken for private use (the Due Process Clause) and if it’s taken for a public use, we’ll pay just compensation (the Takings Clause).

Timothy Sandefur, 26 February 2005

Crime & Federalism has some fun stuff too.

Congress is limited to enumerated powers. Each power is referred to, in shorthand, as a clause. Thus, “The Congress shall have Power … to regulate Commerce” is the Commerce Clause.

Hidden in the text of the Constitution is also the Baseball Clause. Congress, it seems, has the power to regulate baseball.

Mike, 5 December 2005

You also have to see this professor’s exam for yourself. And then there’s the whole Justice Scalia sodomy issue.

While skimming through old postings from Crime & Federalism I began to make this strange emotional connection to, of all things, the latest Star Wars movie. I had found Revenge of The Sith unexpectedly moving because, like everyone else who had seen the first movie, I knew that it was all going to end in ashes. Crime & Federalism has moments like that:

May 03, 2004

Government Files Cert. Petition in Raich v. Ashcroft

The cert. petition is available here.& Will Raich be the next Lopez or Morrison?

Mike, 3 May 2004

As we all know now, the Court approved of arrests in medical marijuana cases and took us all in the opposite direction from Lopez and Morrison.

Eventually, nearer the other end of the blog as I write, we get to this:

What’s odd – or perhaps not? – about Kelo is that although minorities and the elderly bear the burden of eminent domain, political liberals support a narrow interpretation of “public use” and thus won’t protect them. As usual, liberals are telling the poor that the Nani State Knows Best. Though I must wonder how many six-figure-making liberals would allow their homes to be crushed for the “public good.” It’s funny how we always know best when asking others to sacrifice.

Contrary to ignorant assertions that groups like the Pacific Legal Foundation and Institute for Justice shill for big business, Kelo shows conservative public interest groups acting contrary to big business’ goal. Almost always it’s large companies seeking to use the city’s power to condemn property. After all, little folks don’t wield much influence over city hall — It takes a lot of money to buy a city.

Mike, 4 March 2005

And with that, we’ve come back around to where I started with Pattis’s fiery prose. The Commerce Clause reaches into every corner of the universe, and petty tyrants can take our property at will. Alberto Gonzales stands next to the Emperor on the bridge of the Executor, breathing heavily in his dark suit, as Federalism falls.

Or something like that. It’s getting late and it’s time to post this thing.

The Chicago Sun-Times has an article about the Chicago Police Department’s “new effort to decrease demand for prostitution citywide with the threat of online humiliation.” That means that people who are arrested on prostitution-related charges will have their names, addresses, and mugshots posted on a Chicago Police website.

A few thoughts:

  • The site is called Prostitution Patron Arrests and seems to feature mostly just the alleged johns, not too many prostitutes or pimps.
  • The site is really slow, which I guess means I’m not the only one checking it out.
  • This isn’t really a new effort. The Chicago Police Department has had these arrests online before.
  • There’s a cover-your-ass note that “These individuals are presumed innocent until proven guilty in a court of law.” I guess waiting until they are actually convicted would be too much work.
  • Why would someone from Cicero have to come to Chicago for a hooker?
  • I don’t know anybody on the list. I’d been hoping for some good scandle.

I guess what pisses me off about this website is the idea that it is somehow the Police Department’s job to humiliate people in front of their friends, coworkers, and family. I especially love this part of the justification:

And despite the public humiliation factor, Daley said the city’s effort is built on compassion for victims—starting with the prostitutes themselves—some 25,000 women selling sex in Chicago over the course of a year.

“Most [prostitutes] were victims of sexual abuse and domestic violence from a very young age,” Daley said. “Once they become prostitutes … they spend their lives surrounded by criminals and drugs and vulnerable to sexually transmitted diseases. It’s a terrible life.”

Not only that, but some dickhead wants to throw them in a cage, take some money from them, and publish their names and photographs on a website!

On a related topic, another article in the same issue of the Sun-Times recounts how former Chicago Police Sgt. Larry Hargrove was found guilty of racketeering conspiracy, narcotics, and robbery charges. As embarassing as a prostitution-related arrest would be for an ordinary citizen, I imagine that a conviction on a list of felony charges like that must be ten times as humiliating for a police officer. Imagine having to explain that to your fellow officers, not to mention your family and friends. Strangely, I can find no mention of his conviction anywhere on chicagopolice.org or the city’s web site.

Update: Kerry Howley at Reason picks up the story. Her title alone is worth a click.

[Arg. Every time I fix a typo, MovableType re-pings a bunch of trackbacks. Sorry about the duplicates, folks.]

I’ve been having trouble figuring out how to think about the issue of Microsoft’s censorship in China.

Reporters Without Borders has been able to check that, as reported by several news agencies, when a Chinese blogger attempts to post a message containing terms such as “democracy”, “Dalai Lama”, “Falungong”, “4 June” (the date of the Tiananmen Square massacre), “China + corruption”, or “human rights”, a warning displays saying, “This message contains a banned expression, please delete this expression.”

Reporters Without Borders, 14 June 2005

On the one hand, government censorship is reprehensible. On the other hand, Microsoft is just obeying the laws of the countries in which it operates. Yahoo does the same thing. Every company that wants to operate in China has to do that.

The folks at Reporters Without Borders seem to think that Microsoft has another option, although they never say what it is:

“The lack of ethics on the part of these companies is extremely worrying. Their management frequently justifies collaboration with Chinese censorship by saying that all they are doing is obeying local legislation.

“Does that mean that if the authorities asked Microsoft to provide information about Chinese cyberdissidents using its services that it would agree to do so, on the basis that it is “legal” ? Reporters Without Borders wondered.

“We believe that this argument does not hold water and that these multinationals must respect certain basic ethical principles, in whatever country they are operating.”

That’s a nice belief. But how can these companies do that? Microsoft and Yahoo may be giants of the Internet world, but in the real world, they’re not so tough. Neither one is able to operate a rogue internet in China.

The only other possibility is for them to stay out of China completely. That’s what Reporters Without Borders does.

But how would not operating in China help? If censored blogs are bad, then isn’t no blogs at all even worse? The Chinese government doesn’t want its people to blog about freedom and other issues that make them look bad. That sucks, but it’s only a tiny part of blogging. What else do people blog about?

Right this second, here’s the lead article of all ten of Blogger’s Recently Update list:

Hmm. That was a bit weird. Let’s try Typepad’s “Recently Updated Weblogs“:

So, there’s some politics (although there’s nothing about either Iraq, Social Security, or judicial appointments), but there’s other stuff too. If Microsoft and other Internet companies submit to Chinese censorship, the Chinese people won’t be able to blog about politics. But most blogs are not really about politics. They’re about all this other stuff, much of which would be eliminated if western companies stop doing Internet business in China.

Kerry Howley at Reason explains:

The Chinese, just like the rest of us, want the web for its gossip, games, and, not least, porn. At least four million Chinese maintain blogs, 55,000 of them on MSN spaces. There is more to be passionate about, apparently, than politics.

So the Chinese people may not be able to write about “freedom,” but with only a few constraints, they will be able to do freedom. It’s a step in the right direction.

Just wanted to make that clear.

According to Declan McCullagh at CNET, Alberto Gonzales’s Justice Department is floating around the idea that Internet Service Providers should be required to retain records of their customers’ internet activities.

Under the the Electronic Communication Transactional Records Act of 1996, these companies already have to preserve records of specific customers whenever requested to do so. The new proposal, however, would require them to retain all records of every customer for some as-yet-unspecified period of time.

Can you guess the justification for this? If you’re familiar with how this game is played, you know there are two bogeymen regularly invoked whenever some fascist-wannabe like Alberto Gonzales wants to crush our liberties. This time, it’s not terrorism. It’s the other one:

Justice Department officials endorsed the concept at a private meeting with Internet service providers and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, according to interviews with multiple people who were present.

“It was raised not once but several times in the meeting, very emphatically,” said Dave McClure, president of the U.S. Internet Industry Association, which represents small to midsize companies. “We were told, ‘You’re going to have to start thinking about data retention if you don’t want people to think you’re soft on child porn.'”

That, right, it’s for the children.

The scale of this is truly extraordinary. In George Orwell’s 1984 the government watches and listens to literally everything that everyone does. This proposal would require monitoring and records for many Internet activities, including email, web surfing, and chat rooms. It’s 1984 for the Internet.

Actually, that overstates it a bit. The idea being discussed would just require that the records be created, but not that they be turned over to the government. I’m not sure on what conditions that would happen. A few years ago, I would have assumed it would require a subpoena or warrant of some kind, but these days I’m not so sure. Some of the anti-terrorism legislation in the last decade may have made it possible for the government to get these records just by asking.

What’s that you say? This proposal is about exploited children, not terrorism, right? True, but I don’t believe it will stay that way. Once the records exist, they will be available for terrorism investigations as well. Then it can’t be too much longer before the jackbooted thugs at the DEA get involved, followed by hundreds of anti-drug task forces, then everyone else in law enforcement.

The records will also become available to various other unsavory organizations, such as the IRS or the Department of Homeland Security. If that sounds far-fetched, note that Homeland Security is already cashing in on the child protection business with its Operation Predator.

It won’t just be the government, either. Once the records are known to exist, other people will try to get at them. If you sue someone or get sued, you’re only one successful discovery request away from having your email and your web surfing habits picked over by people who are essentially your enemies.

The cost alone of all this record keeping is reason to oppose this program. Supposedly in order to catch the relative handful of children being exploited on the Internet, the government wants private Internet businesses to keep records on 200 million internet users. Even if compliance only costs $1 per user per year, we’re talking 200 million dollars per year. (Compliance startup costs could be much higher.) That’s more than five times the annual budget of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. Which do you think will do more to help children?

By the way, did you catch that part where the Justice Department is threatening to launch a smear campaign against its opponents? Anyone who doesn’t want to be involved in the wholesale surveilance of internet users must be “soft on child porn.” I chose my article title to maintain the same sense of fairness and accuracy espoused by the Gonzales’s minions.

(Also, I’ve added “Alberto Gonzales Is a Fascist Pig!” to the metadata in the templates for Windypundit so if the Justice Department ever takes a look at me, they’ll find it on every page. It’s geeky and petty, but it makes me feel better.)

Alberto Gonzales was the guy who wrote the “terror memo” saying it wasn’t against the Geneva convention to essentially torture some of the prisoners captured in Afghanistan and Iraq. I’m on record somewhere defending him for it. I thought that as a lawyer being asked a legal question, he was bound by the ethics of his profession to describe what sort of prisoner treatment was legal, without injecting a personal opinion of the morality of it or whether it was good policy. I’m kind of sorry I wrote that now. Given the lack of respect for civil liberties he has as Attorney General, I’m starting to think that maybe he was just soft on torture.

Update: Orin Kerr has doubts about the original story. Maybe I should calm down a bit.

One of defense lawyer Norm Pattis’s ex-clients apparently wants to kill him.

On the one hand, he’s got an internal justification for his actions (revenge), and he doesn’t seem like the type to care about the consequences. So he’s a serious threat in that sense.

On the other hand, I don’t see how the guy can pull this off. I mean, he didn’t have the ability to order a hit when he was a free man. What are the chances he can pull this off in prison? Why wouldn’t any prisoner he approaches just dime him out for a deal? How would he pay for such a thing? Why would anybody he pays bother to go through with it when they already have his money?

Hey, I’ve never had anyone literally want to kill me, so what do I know…but unless there are some frightening details Pattis left out in his post, this doesn’t seem like anything to worry about too much.

Besides, his client sounds like someone with a real chip on his shoulder, so I imagine prison will soon give him other things to worry about.

My prediction: Norm Pattis outlives his client.

The news media have been having fun reporting that Glynn Birch, the new national president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, is a man. That MADD would chose a president who has never been a mother doesn’t surprise me a bit, but I’ll get back to that later.

Meanwhile, lets look at a few excerpts from MADD‘s press release about their new president. The first paragraph introduces Glynn Birch. Here’s the second paragraph:

Today’s announcement is timely, as MADD took the opportunity to urge Congress to reject an Administration proposal that would divert $1.27 billion in restitution funds from the Crime Victim’s Fund of the federal Victims of Crime Act (VOCA). Current MADD National President Wendy Hamilton said the Fiscal Year (FY) 2006 budget proposal would be “a catastrophic blow to programs run by nearly 4,400 community service groups like MADD to assist four million crime victims most in need each year.”

Apparently, MADD‘s number one priority in the fight against the carnage caused by drunk driving is getting the government to give MADD more money. That sort of thing always makes me a bit cautious. It seems that almost all identifiable groups of the poor and downtrodden are surrounded by buzzing clouds of middle-class folks—doctors, lawyers, social workers, advocates, and other potential assistants—clamoring for government money. Of course, even the best charities get paid for their work, so MADD isn’t necessarily a bad organization because of it. But it does mean they don’t deserve a presumption of saintliness.

Let’s look at what MADD does to help crime victims. Consider the case of Glynn Birch’s own 21-month old son Courtney, who was killed by a drunk driver in 1988. Here’s what happened, and how MADD helped:

On May 3, 1988, Birch’s son Courtney was playing with his two cousins at his grandmother’s house when they ran outside to the sounds of an arriving ice cream truck. A car traveling 70 miles an hour struck and killed Courtney, and dragged his body 150 feet before finally stopping. The driver had a .26 blood-alcohol concentration, three prior DUI convictions and was driving on a suspended license as a result of previous DUIs. “This offender who took my son’s life was the epitome of a higher risk driver,” Birch said.

After his son’s death, Glynn contacted MADD to help him deal with his shock and grief. A trained MADD victim advocate, who was partially funded by a VOCA grant, guided him in writing a victim impact statement that helped send the convicted drunk driver to jail for the maximum fifteen years.

In other words, MADD helped the victim’s family by working to get the drunk driver a long sentence. I suppose the family was glad to see the killer get hard time, but I’m not sure this was really helping the victim’s family so much as it was hurting the criminal. There’s nothing inherently wrong with seeking to maximize penalties for serious crimes, but is a VOCA grant to MADD the best way to do it? Surely it would be more efficient to use the VOCA money to increase funding to the prosecutor’s office. Or the legislature could just bump up the sentencing guidelines. (God knows, they never seem to pass up a chance to do that.)

Besides, I think MADD is exaggerating their own importance. I doubt their participation made much of a difference, because I doubt that the victim impact statement made much of a difference. I don’t believe the judge needed a victim impact statement to throw the book at a guy with .26 BAC who drives 70 miles per hour in a residential neighborhood and kills a child.

In a Chicago Tribune article, reporter Sam Singer gives us more information about outgoing MADD president Wendy Hamilton’s remarks. His summary includes these two telling paragraphs:

MADD says its concern is that the deterrent effect of current regulations has been limited to social and recreational drinkers—those least likely to be repeat offenders—while having negligible sway over habitual, or “high-risk” drivers.

Hamilton said the failure of past safety regulations to directly target high-risk drivers is a principal reason for the failure of the past decade’s legal reforms to translate, statistically speaking, into fewer alcohol-related traffic fatalities.

Now who’s fault is that? MADD has been campaigning for years for regulations that target social and recreational drinkers rather than high risk drivers. You only have to take a look at their positions on law enforcement page, where they advocate several issues that seem to go against their stated goal of targeting high-risk drivers.

Sobriety Checkpoints

MADD supports the frequent and regular use of highly publicized sobriety checkpoints and/or other high visibility enforcement programs to detect and apprehend alcohol and other drug impaired drivers, and as a visible deterrent to drinking and driving.

First of all, stopping and questioning thousands of people without a reason to suspect them of a crime is a violation of our civil liberties. Internal checkpoints are one of the surest signs of totalitarianism. (The Supreme Court disagrees with me, which is why we still have sobriety checkpoints.)

Second, this is an incredibly wasteful way to find high-risk drunk drivers. Only a tiny percentage of drivers are actually drunk, so stopping them all wastes a lot of police labor. We’d all be better off if the police were patrolling and keeping an eye out for dangerous drivers. Not only would they catch more drunk drivers, they’d catch a lot of other criminals.

Enforcing drunk driving laws with sobriety checkpoints is like enforcing rape laws by following random men around to see if they rape anybody.

(I could be persuaded on the efficacy of sobriety checkpoints by someone with real data comparing them to traditional patrolling.)

.08 Per Se BAC

MADD supports setting the illegal blood alcohol content (BAC) limit for non-commercial drivers age 21 and older at .08 per se.

This is exactly the sort of low-level enforcement that MADD is now complaining about.

Open Containers in Vehicles

MADD endorses open container restrictions which prevent the consumption of alcohol or the possession of open containers of alcohol in any motor vehicle.

Again, this doesn’t target high-risk drivers. Heck, it doesn’t even target drunk drivers: You could be perfectly sober, and yet your passengers aren’t allowed to have a few beers. Heck, you could get busted for this if one of your passengers happens to have a closed but unsealed bottle of booze.

Some of MADD‘s policy issues have nothing to do with drinking, such as primary enforcement of seat belt laws. They also favor graduated driver’s licenses for young drivers, including nighttime driving restrictions and restrictions on carrying young passengers. I can’t imagine what my teenage years would have amounted to if I couldn’t ride around with my friends at night. Also, night driving is a lot easier because there’s less traffic. Besides, isn’t this really a matter for parents to decide?

On the other hand, many of MADD‘s policy issues have a lot to do with drinking but very little to do with driving. For one thing, they want stricter enforcement of the minimum drinking age law, including “driver’s license sanctions for underage persons convicted of purchase or possession of alcoholic beverages.” They want to turn all youth gatherings into Alcohol-Free Zones, apparently even for adults at the same event. They even want Social Host Liability which will “establish civil liability for adults who provide alcohol to underage persons or who allow underage persons to consume alcohol.” This would essentially prohibit parents from teaching their kids about responsible drinking by holding supervised parties.

MADD also supports the minimum drinking age of 21, alcohol and drug abuse prevention and education, laws against happy hours, warning labels on alcohol, uniform bar closing times, many policy changes for college campuses, and a vast array of restrictions on advertising.

Then there’s this:

Keg Registration

MADD supports the requirement that all kegs and other large containers of alcoholic beverages be registered at point of purchase in order to facilitate identification of those who purchase illegally or to provide to youth under age 21.

Not all of MADD’s policies are as crazy as that last one, and some of them are probably even good ideas. However, I have become sympathetic to the view of many of MADD’s critics that it is more and more about alcohol prohibition than about drunk driving. There’s more to it than that, though, as evidenced by their automotive safety policies and their victim’s rights activity. I think they’ve become an organization that is interested mainly their own continued existence and growth. They’re in favor of anything that will bring in the money.

So, I’m not surprised they have a man as president. They stopped being about drunk driving a long time ago, they might as well forget the “Mothers” part of the name too.

I few weeks ago I accidentally helped break the Google Earth story and got linked from Slashdot, which resulted in an inundation of visits to this site.

People have been asking what that’s like. Take a look:

Chart showing huge activity peak

You can see it all. The left half of the graph is my initial pitifully low traffic. On May 28th, you can see a bit of a bump where Google Blogoscoped linked to me. Then, right at the end of the month, I get a link from Slashdot. Slightly after that, ten thousand visitors drop in.

That arcs down beautifully for the next couple of days, and then starts to pick up again when I get linked from some 3D sites. That was arcing back down until today, when there was a slight uptick. I’m guessing that’s just rebound after the weekend.

Sigh. I’d rather people visited my site for my my witty writing, my beautiful photography, and my erudite opinions. Instead, everyone just wants to see Google Earth. Then again, I’ve made ten bucks in Google AdSense. Woo-hoo!

Over at AOL Television, they’re running a show called Greatest American on which they’re trying to pick…well I’m sure you get it.

I’ve avoided many such lists in the past, like the AFI‘s list of the greatest 100 films, because if I do care about the subject, I have my own opinions, and if I don’t care then I don’t care. However, the best of these lists are always more about stirring up controversy and discussion than presenting a definitive choice, and the concept of the Greatest American seemed like such an over-the-top attempt at controversy that I had to check it out.

They’ve narrowed the field down to 25 nominees. Unfortunately, the show’s official web site is all cool and Flash animated which means that I can’t just link to the top-25 page. I have to link to the main page. Right now it’s displaying the top 25, but it could be anything by the time you read this. I’ve retyped the list here:

  • Muhammad Ali
  • Neil Alden Armstrong
  • Lance Armstrong
  • George W. Bush
  • Bill Clinton
  • Walt Disney
  • Thomas Alva Edison
  • Albert Einstein
  • Henry Ford
  • Benjamin Franklin
  • Bill Gates
  • Billy Graham
  • Bob Hope
  • Thomas Jefferson
  • John F. Kennedy
  • Martin Luther King, Jr.
  • Abraham Lincoln
  • Rosa Parks
  • Elvis Presley
  • Ronald Reagan
  • Eleanor Roosevelt
  • Franklin D. Roosevelt
  • George Washington
  • Oprah Winfrey
  • Orville & Wilbur Wright

Taken purely as a field from which to choose the Greatest American, it’s a pretty silly list. I mean, Oprah Winfrey? And Bob Hope? On a list that also includes Thomas Jefferson, Martin Luther King Jr., and Abraham Lincoln? It gets even sillier when you look at the larger list of the top 100, which includes the likes of Tom Cruise, Mel Gibson, Dr. Phil, Ellen DeGeneres, and of course Madonna. Even more amazing to me, Dr. Jonas Salk was on the top 100, but he didn’t make the cut. I guess inventing a vaccine for polio doesn’t bump you ahead of the top talk-show host.

It may not be much of a list of the greatest Americans, but I still like the list a lot because it’s a pretty good list of ways to be great in America: Scientist, inventor, statesman, media mogul, international diplomat…and that’s just Ben Franklin!

This list also includes George Washington, a successful general in the American Revolution who refused the offer to become a king. Later, when he became President, he stepped down at the end of his second term. These two acts of turning away from power did as much as anything to create our American democracy.

There are six other Presidents of the United States on the list. Love ’em or hate ’em, they had one hell of a job.

There are also men of God: Billy Graham, who has ministered to millions, and Martin Luther King Jr., who lead the civil rights movement.

There are inventors and scientists who’ve brought us amazing things. One guy, Thomas Edison, invented the electric light bulb, electric generators, a method for recording sound, and motion picture projection. Albert Einstein is widely known for the theory of relativity, but his Nobel Prize was actually for his explanation of the photoelectric effect. Orville and Wilbur Wright invented the airplane.

I like it that entertainers like Bob Hope, Walt Disney, Elvis Presley, and Oprah Winfrey made the list. They may not save lives, run the country, or invent great things, but they made life just a little more fun for millions of people, and that’s not bad.

These people have also made lasting contributions to the arts. Disney made a lot of films that have influenced popular culture and the art of film-making, and Elvis certainly made his mark on rock and roll.

Then there’s Bob Hope. Stand-up comedy is a short-lived art form. It depends so much on the context in which it was created that a few decades’ passage can wear down even the greatest performances into little more than a historical note. Yet Bob Hope’s career extends so far back in time that when he started, there was nothing we would recognize as stand-up comedy. The performers were costumed and made up like clowns: It was all minstrels and lovable tramps. Bob Hope was the first successful guy to get up there as himself and tell jokes. He’s as important to stand-up as Monet is to impressionism.

Bill Gates and Henry Ford are towering captains of industry. Controversial and often hated, their products were eagerly purchased by consumers. Lance Armstrong and Muhammad Ali are champions of sport and athletics. Rosa Parks was a fighter for the cause of civil rights. Neil Armstrong was the first human being ever to visit another world.

So who would I vote for? It’s hard to say. But I suppose that if anyone has read this far, I owe them my opinion. A small, peevish part of me wants Bill Gates to win, just because that would piss off so many people. Then again, I’d also like Muhammad Ali to win because it would be so cool if he really did turn out to be The Greatest.

Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt both brought this country successfully through some terrible times. Either of them has got to be pretty great. They’re also pretty controversial. I love Thomas Jefferson’s concept of liberty, but if he were alive today, he’d be doing federal time on peonage charges.

I guess none of these people are perfect. I’ll just have to pick the one I like the most.

I have long been amazed by Ben Franklin. Among all the other things, in his own time he was known throughout the world as the inventor of the lightning rod. It’s an impressive invention, especially when you consider that towns at the time often used their churches as an armory, and the church steeples were the tallest things in the town. Explosions were pretty common.

Consider also the way that Franklin invented the lightning rod. It’s how we do science and technology today, but nobody was doing it this way back then. Franklin first showed that lightning and static electricity were the same thing (his experiment with the kite), then he experimented with the properties of static electricity, and finally he worked out how to use those properties to tame the lightning.

I guess if I had to choose one Greatest American from this list, it would be Benjamin Franklin.

Update: My comments on the final winner, and one more Great American who should have made the list.

Update: Looking for the latest Google Earth beta? Go here.

Google has released a new version of the Google Earth beta. This is version 3.0.0178, replacing bersion 3.0.0149.

I described the first beta here. Also, Stephen DesRoches has a nice review.

No new features, they say, but a few fixes:

  • No more crashing on exit from full-screen mode.
  • Edited placemarks are correctly tied to the Earth.
  • GPS points are represented correctly and GPS devices using USB now are detected.

Oh, and since everybody keeps asking, this time there’s a public link for the download:



Update: I’m pretty sure that while the Google Earth software download is free, you still have to pay for the service that provides the images. I think Google wants to cover their licensing costs.

Google is also planning to use trucks equipped with cameras and lasers to photograph and measure the buildings on U.S. city streets, according to Tom Foremski at Silicon Valley Watcher.

Philipp Lenssen has a killer comment:

I don’t know what Google are up to this time, but they’re living up to their mission statement of screen-scraping the world in order to plaster its virtual copy with universally accessible ads. I’m paraphrasing here…