March 2007

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Wretchard at The Belmont Club points to an article in the Sierra Vista Herald about an address by Qubad J. Talabany, a representative of Iraqi Kurdistan, to a U.S. military Training and Doctrine Command Cultural Awareness Summit:

In 1974, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger led the United States away from supporting a Kurdish homeland.

After the first Gulf War against Iraq in the early 1990s, “we believed (President George) Bush senior,” Talabany said. When the current President George H.W. Bush’s father called for Iraqis to rise up against Saddam Hussein and promised support, the Kurds and Shiites in southern Iraq did, only to see the United States turn its back.

The end result was Hussein killed thousands of Kurds and caused others to flee into the Turkish mountains for protection, where many died of exposure.

“We didn’t trust the United States after that,” Talabany said.

But with the full commitment of American forces finally toppling Hussein in 2003, Kurds once again were willing to take a chance on America.

If the United States decides to pull out before the job is done, “we Kurds want guarantees we will be protected,” he said.

If the Democrats succeed in getting the U.S. to withdraw from Iraq, they need to ensure that we leave behind enough forces to protect the Kurds. All the good things we say we want for Iraq—democracy, freedom, wealth—the Kurds have been building for themselves. When we invaded, they really did welcome us a liberators. We owe them our support.

I would normally save a video like this until Friday, but I have a feeling we’re just counting the minutes until the DMCA take-down notice.

I don’t want to spoil it too much, but it’s Kermit the Frog following in Mr Johnny Cash’s footsteps with his own very special cover of Trent Reznor’s “Hurt.” To quote Radley Balko:

Warning: Contains muppet nudity, muppet sex, muppet vomiting, and muppet drug use.

…and it’s not safe for work.

Sad Kermit

At about a minute and a half in, there’s a disturbing scene involving Kermit’s, er, longing for an absent Miss Piggy, which is followed immediately by a moment of genuine poignancy.

Addendum: You might want to see the video before you read the rest of this.

Really, this was just an amazing production. It may be disturbing, but it was made with loving care. The puppetry is effective, and the videography was done by someone who knows how to use camera angles to accent the puppetry.

What’s weird, and a little embarrassing, is that seeing Kermit so trapped in the depths of despair actually kind of tugs at my heartstrings a bit. It’s a powerful image.

So far, my absolute favorite touch is the big pile of cocaine on a copy of Dawkins’s The God Delusion. Just…perfect.

I’m listening to the audiobook of George Lakoff’s Whose Freedom?: The Battle Over America’s Most Important Idea, in which he contrasts the progressive and conservative ideas of freedom.

Lakoff repeats over and over again that progressive morality is built on empathy, whereas conservative morality is based on discipline. That formulation makes a certain amount of sense, but it doesn’t get him where he wants to go.

For example, Lakoff claims that progressives empathize with the poor and want to help them with social programs, whereas conservatives say that social programs will make the poor dependant on government handouts, which hurts their self-discipline.

Now I’ve heard that argument from conservatives, and like Lakoff, I’m not impressed by it, but Lakoff is leaving out a huge part of the conservative case against social programs. It’s a point that should be immediately obvious to anyone with even a passing grasp of economic reasoning: Somebody has to pay for the social programs.

If a government social program gives a single mom $1000 to take care of her children, that $1000 has to be taken away from someone else. The single mom deserves our empathy, but so does the person who earned that $1000 in the first place. It’s okay to be empathetic, but be empathetic equally.

Lakoff could try to take a number of approaches to counter this argument. He could offer an argument as to why we should pay for social programs, or he could argue that the money would come from people who don’t deserve it, or he could reject the “somebody-has-to-pay-for-it” argument as irrelevant misdirection.

However, it’s disingenuous of him to completely omit a huge part of the conservative argument in a book that purports to explain conservative thought to progressives. It mischaracterizes the conservative view, which is unfair to conservatives and a disservice to his progressive readers.

Apparently, Senator John McCain has a MySpace page. Rather than using the boring default design, whoever built the page for McCain used a customized MySpace template that he got from Mike Davidson.

Only problem is, he forgot to credit Mike, which is all Mike asks for if you want to use his template.

Well, that wasn’t the only problem. The web designer also left in the original image URLs, so that the template images were being served from Mike’s server rather than McCain’s server. Essentially, although probably unintentionally, the McCain campaign was stealing bandwith from Mike.

Mike didn’t like that, so he decided to teach them a playful lesson. You see, when you pull your page content from someone else’s server, you give them control over your page content… Visitors to Senator McCain’s page got a little surprise this morning:

This hack was in no way illegal, of course, because Mike is free to change the content of his own server any time he wants.

You can read Mike Davidson’s complete explanation of what he did.

(Hat tip: Sour)

For reasons not worth explaining, I’ve been listening to the audiobook of George Lakoff’s Whose Freedom?: The Battle Over America’s Most Important Idea, which is about the conflict between progressives and conservatives over the idea of freedom.

The book’s subtitle is a bit misleading, although technically correct. I was expecting a book about different ideas of freedom. Instead, the book is about how progressives and conservatives discuss the idea of freedom. It is literally about the battle of words over the idea of freedom, rather than about the different concepts of freedom.

Lakoff is himself a progressive, which is what liberals are calling themselves these days now that the word liberal has been ruined by a conspiracy of leftist radicals and right-wing talk radio hosts. He believes progressive ideas about freedom are inherently correct, and he discusses how conservatives have used rhetorical methods such as framing metaphors to draw people away from the progressive vision.

Lakoff explains most of the differences between progressive and conservative rhetoric as a contrast between the different metaphors of morality that progressives and conservatives use to frame the concept of freedom. Conservatives, he say, use a “strict father” model of morality, whereas progressives use a “nurturant parent” model.

Right away, he’s lost me. I don’t like either of those models. The reason is that we’re not just talking about morality in the abstract. We’re talking about politics, and therefore we’re talking about the morality that should be enforced by our government.

I don’t want the government to act like any kind of parent. I want it to act more like a loyal employee or servant. Of course, a nanny is a type of servant, and no libertarian wants to live in a nanny state that watches our every little misstep and tries to make us act like perfect people, so maybe servant isn’t quite right.

Perhaps a better role model for government is a lifeguard at a pool. He spends most of his time sitting at the side of the pool. He’s vigilant, but he only intervenes when there’s serious danger. If the kids in the pool are splashing and yelling or calling each other names, he pays them no mind, but if someone’s life is in danger, he acts decisively and comes to the rescue. Otherwise, he lets the kids be kids and enjoy playing in the water.

You’d have to have a few other metaphors as well: The government as referee, resolving disputes according to pre-established rules. The government as trustee, administering the common wealth for the benefit of its owners. There are probably a few other useful metaphors that will come to mind if I think about it.

But the government as parent? I’d rather be an orphan.

I’m holding in my hand one of those “Sorry We Missed You!” cards from the Post Office. It says they’re holding a certified letter for me. From the IRS.

Update: It turns out they just want money, and not a lot of it. I need to do a little research, but I’m pretty sure sure I’m going to send it to them tonight, and worry about whether I really owe them money some other time.

I get my internet service from Speakeasy. They have a good reputation and terrific technical support.

Today I got an email from their CEO, Bruce Chatterley, announcing that they’ve just been bought by Best Buy. He’s real excited about all this, of course,

This agreement is a major step forward for our company. While our business remains strong, our relationship with Best Buy provides us with additional resources and brand recognition, while opening new sales channels which will dramatically accelerate our growth.

I can’t imagine why I should care about any of that.

Best Buy, like Speakeasy, is known for its high level of customer service. Our reputation as a trusted provider of voice and data services with stellar customer service will not change. Our values are similar too — Best Buy shares our customer passion, respect for individuals, and drive to do the right thing while achieving results.

Uh, that’s not the Best Buy I know. Maybe it’s one of those things that varies from store to store.

I wonder if Speakeasy will start trying to sell me magazine subscriptions every time I call support…

The Google ads to the left are chosen by Google, based on its analysis of the content of my blog. Sometimes the choices are a bit odd. Yesterday I blogged my review of the movie 300. So what ads does Google think are appropriate for a story about the amazing Spartan soliders and their fierce last stand at Thermopylae?

As I write this, here are some of the ads Google is showing:

Handguns for Self Defense
Which Handgun should you have during a burglary? Join & find out!
www.handgunclub.com

Pepper Spray Central
Personal and home defense items. Pepper Spray, Stun Guns, Alarms
www.midnitesecurity.com

Fight Training DVDs
Advanced fighting techniques, Defend against guns knives bullies
www.DefenseAndProtection.com

Fear No Man
Discover What The Martial Artists And The Army Don’t Want You To Know
www.TopSecretTraining.com

I saw the movie 300 last night. I knew it had been produced by some of the same people who made Sin City, and the previews showed it clearly applied a similarly gritty, visceral visual style to the violence. That worried me.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind violence in films—heck, I love a good action movie—but there has to be more to the film than blood and gore. If the movie is not otherwise enjoyable, the addition of a few dozen quality kills will not make it any better. Pointlessly brutal cinematic violence just makes a movie more tiring.

Fortunately, 300 was not like that at all. It was exciting and beautiful and awe-inspiring and at times even funny. It was the the best kind of movie experience: I enjoyed it when I watched it, and I kept thinking about it afterwards.

300 is based on a graphic novel by Frank Miller, so it has more than a few fantastic elements. The Persians did not have monsters fighting for their side, for example, and many of the meetings between characters were probably made up. Also, Spartan hoplites probably wore armor instead of fighting bare-chested.

I’ve since read a little about the battle at Thermopylae, however, and I think the movie got most of the important parts right, especially the advantages that accrue to well-trained soldiers fighting on well-chosen ground.

Probably the biggest deviation from history is that the Spartans in the movie are fighting all alone. (Other Greek soldiers are shown, and more are alluded to, but they rarely appear.) Throughout most of the real battle, the Spartans were accompanied by thousands of other soldiers, and the Thebans and Thespians stayed to the end. Nevertheless, the 300 Spartans were the point of the spear.

Some reviewers have felt the need to discuss the political meaning of the film, especially its West-v.s.-East conflict, the depiction of the Persians, and how it all relates to the war in Iraq. That strike me as a waste of time. The events in the film took place long before the founding of Christianity or Islam, between civilizations that have all but vanished, leaving behind only some important ideas and some great stories. Do yourself a favor and don’t worry about it.

The Washington Post has a fascinating anonymous op-ed by someone who received a national security letter (NSL). These letters are demands for information by the FBI (or other agencies, I presume) that have not been approved by any court and which come with a gag order prohibiting their disclosure to anyone.

According to a report by the Justice department’s inspector general, the FBI has issued an insane number of these letters, far more than could possibly be justified by legitimate issues of national security.

The author’s report of life under the gag order is chilling:

Under the threat of criminal prosecution, I must hide all aspects of my involvement in the case — including the mere fact that I received an NSL — from my colleagues, my family and my friends. When I meet with my attorneys I cannot tell my girlfriend where I am going or where I have been. I hide any papers related to the case in a place where she will not look. When clients and friends ask me whether I am the one challenging the constitutionality of the NSL statute, I have no choice but to look them in the eye and lie.

This man has not been convicted of a crime, he’s not even a suspect, and no court has ordered his silence. Some FBI employee just decided to force him to do something and not tell anyone about it. As Jim Henley puts it:

This is tyranny. Not “the threat of” tyranny, not “practically” tyranny – the thing itself.

Want more proof? From the op-ed:

I found it particularly difficult to be silent about my concerns while Congress was debating the reauthorization of the Patriot Act in 2005 and early 2006. If I hadn’t been under a gag order, I would have contacted members of Congress to discuss my experiences and to advocate changes in the law.

In our democracy, this man was prevented from complaining to his elected representatives about a matter of government that he found disturbing.

That’s just not right. I think, also, that it’s clearly unconstitutional. And even if it’s not ruled unconstitutional, it’s still a bad idea to give random FBI employees such unreviewed powers over Americans. That’s not how this country is supposed to work, as the anonymous author points out:

I recognize that there may sometimes be a need for secrecy in certain national security investigations. But I’ve now been under a broad gag order for three years, and other NSL recipients have been silenced for even longer. At some point — a point we passed long ago — the secrecy itself becomes a threat to our democracy.

In the unlikely event that anyone with national security responsibilities is reading this, please understand: If you are investigating a legitimate matter of national security—war, espionage, real terrorism—and you think I have some information which will help you, just ask me about it. I would be proud to help catch a terrorist or a spy. I would be proud to help make our nation strong against its enemies. And if you need me to keep my mouth shut, I will do that too. All I ask is that you treat me like a fellow patriot.

(Hat tip: Balko)

As a blogger, I like it when people link to me. It sends me both visitors and search engine link juice, and I appreciate that. So I make a point of checking out who’s linking to me.

Sometimes I get a surprising reminder that the World-Wide-Web is really world-wide, as with this link.

Thanks for the link, Ms. Maximova, I hope you said something nice. (Actually, according this clunky Google translation, the link to me is just a credit for mentioning the Goa’uld connection.)

Then there’s Charles M. Rowland II, an attorney in Ohio, who posts a complete copy of one of my articles as one of his blog articles. He even copied my department title line.

His blog is obviously a marketing effort for his law firm, and it looks like he’s re-posting content from a lot of sources in order to pad out the blog and attract search engines. I syndicate my content, and he did link to me, so I can’t really complain. Besides, I kind of have to admire the in-your-face attitude of a DUI lawyer who links to Modern Drunkard magazine.

While I was surfing for info on my last post on the TV show Rules of Engagement, I came across someone else’s review of the show. They referred to David Spade as a “comic genius”. Really?? David Spade?

Some might argue that the phrase comic genius is an oxymoron, but it got me to thinking about who I would consider a comic genius or as I prefer to call them – comic giants.

What constitutes a comic giant? Above all, laugh out loud, side-splittingly funny. That along with longevity, intelligence, ingenuity and versatility are some of the criteria. Longevity, however, is not enough in itself. There has to be a body of work that stands the test of time.

Most of my giants/geniuses wrote for a fifties comedy program called “Your Show of Shows”. Included in that bunch are Mel Brooks (Young Frankenstein), Carl Reiner (The Dick Van Dyke Show), Neil Simon (The Odd Couple), Woody Allen (Annie Hall), and Larry Gelbart (M*A*S*H*).

Steve Allen pioneered the late night talk show and was the funniest to ever do it. David Letterman patterned much of his show after Steve Allen’s Tonight Show.

Would I include any comics that got their start more recently than five decades ago? There’s only one modern genius that immediately springs to mind and it is NOT David Spade. Steve Martin has proven time and again that he belongs in this group. From stand-up to movies, books, and columns in The New Yorker he has remained consistently funny through a long career.

I suppose I would also have to include Billy Crystal. Yeah, he disappointed me with City Slickers 2 and Forget Paris, but who hasn’t had their clunkers? Easily the best Oscar host of all time. That and When Harry Met Sally put him firmly in the giant category.

I’m sure you have your own list. Feel free to comment, but don’t waste your time trying to convince me to change mine.

COMING SOON: A guide to some of the works that made me include these people in my list and that I highly recommend to anyone who hasn’t seen them.

Over at Crime & Federalism, Norm Pattis has been explaining why defense attorneys are not much interested in the guilt or innocence of their clients. In a followup, he defends the adversarial process against the accusation that it leads to disrespect for truth in court proceedings.

I have only a layman’s familiarity with the legal system, but I know a little bit about finding truth in the world. That is, I have something of a scientific background. I also know a thing or two about the related disciplines of engineering and statistics.

An old boss of mine was a mechanical engineer who did accident investigations and often gave expert testimony. He explained the relationship between science, truth, and trials this way: The purpose of science is to find the truth, but the purpose of a trial is to make a decision.

Therefore, the truth is neither necessary nor sufficient to the purpose of a trial. It’s not sufficient because even if the truth is found, there’s still a decision to be made, perhaps an award of damages, equitable relief, or a prison sentence.

We’d prefer a court made decisions based on true knowledge of the facts of each case, but if the truth is not forthcoming, the court still has to make a decision. A scientific investigation can simply fail, finding nothing and revealing no truths. A trial, however, must reach a decision. Even a decision by the court to do nothing—award no damages, impose no sentence—is a decision to accept the status quo.

A courtroom is not a very good place to find the truth. Not because the attorneys are scoundrels, but due to a fundamental property of every trial.

Before getting to that, I’d like to talk about how companies try to prevent defective products. The most scientific approach is to measure product quality and set standards. But that can go wrong in ways that are relevant to the discussion of truth in trials.

I recall reading about a company that was getting complaints about the quality of products being manufactured at one of its factories. Management set up a quality assurance program in which a quality control expert tested each product to see if it met the specifications. The program also set a quality goal for the factory, requiring the monthly defect rate to stay below a specified limit.

Initially, the QA program seemed to work. Month after month, the factory met its quality goals. However, a statistical analysis of the quality reports showed that the factory came very close to missing its quality goal quite often, but never actually missed it. That’s a bit like rolling a pair of dice over and over again and getting results of 2 through 10 many times but never getting an 11 or 12. Something is going wrong. In this case, it meant the QA expert was lying to make the factory quality look better.

When confronted, he admitted it. Word had gotten around the factory (rightly or wrongly is not clear) that if the factory missed its quality goal in any month, the company would close the whole facility. The quality expert was lying because he thought he was saving the jobs of hundreds of people. Fear of dire consequences encouraged him to hide the truth.

This problem arises in all business contexts: A policy of punishing employees who make mistakes will give your employees an incentive to make fewer mistakes. But it will also give employees an incentive to hide their mistakes.

There’s a fundamental conflict between getting people to reveal their mistakes and punishing them for their mistakes. It’s a trade-off based on the needs of the situation, such as the effect on the bottom line of undiscovered product defects.

Some companies are so concerned about defective products that they go to great lengths to convince employees they will not be punished for reporting their own mistakes. I’ve heard a story about a car manufacturer (Ford, I think) that had an employee make a mistake which would cause their cars to need thousands of dollars of warranty repairs. Many cars were affected, and the total cost of the error ran to several million dollars. However, the employee reported his mistake to management as soon as he figured it out, and because the company wanted employees to continue reporting mistakes, they not only didn’t fire the guy, they made him employee of the month for his contribution to improving quality. That’s how scared the company was of employees hiding the truth about their mistakes.

A court, by design, makes almost the exact opposite trade-off. If a criminal court discovers you’ve done something wrong, it can and often will send you to prison. Fear of prison is a powerful incentive for a defendant to lie. To a lesser extent, the desire for retribution can encourage the victim, witnesses, and the police to shade their testimony in favor of conviction. In a civil case, it’s not freedom but money that provides the incentive, but almost everyone, including the lawyers, may have a stake in the outcome.

The fundamental property of a trial that makes it difficult to find the truth is this: Trials have consequences. There are always people who will be harmed if the truth is discovered, and they will fight to prevent it from coming out.

The scientific process can sometimes face similar incentives. An astronomer’s work has few practical consequences, so he can just peer at the sky and report what he sees. But when the results of a scientific investigation would have important consequences, an elaborate protocol is put in place to separate the people doing the study from the people who will suffer the consequences. Thus, trials of new drugs and forensic investigations of engineering failures are usually done by government bodies or by independent contractors who get paid regardless of the results they report.

Courts take steps to reduce lying too, most notably the severe punishments for lying under oath, but courts don’t have as many options for dealing with the problem. In particular, scientists who doubt a study’s accuracy can always try to repeat it, or they can run a new study that’s bigger and better.

Except for mistrials and appeals, courts only get one shot at getting it right.

(There are twelve jurors, so it’s tempting to think of a trial as a test that’s repeated twelve times, but that’s inaccurate. Scientific tests are independent of each other, whereas the jurors influence each other through the process of deliberation.)

Update: If you wanted to hold criminal trials like scientific studies, you’d eliminate deliberations. After the trial, each juror would contemplate the evidence and testimony and then cast a single vote for guilty or not guilty. To avoid a lot of hung juries, you’d probably want to drop the unanimity requirement and convict if 10 out of 12 vote guilty but acquit otherwise. Even on a major case, the suspense of the jury being out would only last a few minutes.

Brooksville, Florida is apparently being run by fascists:

According to the proposed ordinance, a vehicle owner must pay a parking fine within 72 hours if a meter maid claims his automobile was improperly parked, incurring tickets worth between $5 and $250. Failure to pay this amount results in the assessment of a fifty-percent “late fee.” After seven days, the city will place a lien on the car owner’s home for the amount of the ticket plus late fees, attorney fees and an extra $15 fine. The fees quickly turn a $5 ticket into a debt worth several hundred dollars, growing at a one-percent per month interest rate. The ordinance does not require the city to provide notice to the homeowner at any point so that after ninety days elapse, the city will foreclose. If the motorist does not own a home, it will seize his vehicle after the failure to pay three parking tickets.

Any motorist who believes a parking ticket may have been improperly issued must first pay a $250 “appeal fee” within seven days to have the case heard by a contract employee of the city. This employee will determine whether the city should keep the appeal fee, plus the cost of the ticket and late fees, or find the motorist not guilty.

Fascism is the idea that the state is all that matters and that the people exist only to serve the states interests. Many cries of “fascism” in the blogosphere are hyperbole, but since the Brookeville city council clearly thinks its citizens are little more than a source of money, I think this technically qualifies as the real thing.

(Hat tip: Balko)