April 2008

You are browsing the site archives for April 2008.

As the resolution of computer monitors creeps up, the visual size of pixel-dimensioned page content has been shrinking, and web designers have been tweaking pages to compensate for the changes.

For example, when I first started posting my photography on this site, I would size the images to have a maximum dimension of 400 pixels. A while ago, I resized photos to 450 pixels.

Lately, that’s been looking a little small to me, so I just bumped up the size again to 500 pixels wide. And if you take the time to click through to the larger image, you’ll see a big and beautiful 900 pixel wide image.

Here’s what the difference looks like:


Beautiful, eh? I hope you folks continue to enjoy the photos.

Cook County Forest Preserve District is tearing down the last of the toboggan slides:

The last toboggan slides in the Cook County Forest Preserve District will come down despite an impassioned plea to preserve the historic attractions enjoyed by generations of city and suburban residents.

The Forest Preserve Commission approved contracts Tuesday to demolish the storied, southwest suburban Swallow Cliff slides and a set of similar slides at Caldwell Woods on Chicago’s Far Northwest Side.

Caldwell Woods is just a few minutes away, so I went over and took some pictures a few weeks ago. Then a lot of other stuff came up, so I didn’t get around to posting them until just now.

I haven’t really been following the trial of the four cops who shot an unarmed Sean Bell outside the strip club where he’d just had a bachelor party. However, a few things seem worth mentioning.

First of all, the fact that the cops fired 50 shots is vivid and horrific, but I don’t think it says much about the cops who did the shooting.

Cops used to be taught to draw and fire a shot when threatened, but there have been incidents where the offender shot back and a cop got killed because his shot missed or he didn’t hit the offender in a vital area. Nowadays, in the interest of protecting the lives of police officers, they often shoot until the offender goes down.

When the threatening person is seated in a car, as Bell was, he’s already as down as he’s going to get, so the cops just keep on shooting. It’s not that the cops are too stupid to realize the target is seated, but a gunfight is so incredibly stressful that it suppresses conscious thought. A few years ago there was a shooting incident involving a man in a wheelchair—the cops in that case fired a lot of rounds into him as well.

Second, this situation started when Bell and his friend got into his car and the cops rolled up to stop him from leaving. Bell tried to drive away and rammed the police cars in the process, so the cops opened fire.

Bell’s defenders point out that these were plainclothes cops in unmarked cars, so Bell didn’t know they were cops and probably thought he was about to be killed. Defenders of the cops responded that the cops identified themselves by yelling “Police!” as they approached.

With all due respect to the cops, who were probably just following procedure, that’s really not true in any normal sense of the word identify.

To identify themselves, the cops would have had to pull out their badge and department identification and show it to Bell, or at least they would have had to arrive in a marked police car and wear a police uniform, or maybe even just have a marked car put in an appearance.

These cops did not identify themselves as police. What they did was drive up and jump out with their guns and claim to be police. Which is something anyone can do.

I can’t know what was going through Bell’s mind as the cars pulled up to block him in, and the armed men jumped out, but I have no trouble believing he freaked out and went into full fight-or-flight mode. He may have noticed that the attacking men were yelling, but he was probably too flooded with adrenaline to recognize the words, let alone to think rationally about what the words meant.

There’s something wrong about a system in which police can start a violent action—a takedown or a raid on a drug house—and simply by yelling “Police!” can shift the entire burden of safe and reasonable behavior onto everyone else.

Third, defenders of the police in these incidents usually claim that the situation was confusing, frightening, and volatile, and the cops had to make split-second decisions for which they should not be held criminally accountable.

Fair enough. But shouldn’t the exact same reasoning apply to the other people involved in the incident? In fact, given that the cops were the ones who started the incident, shouldn’t the other guys get even more benefit of the doubt?

Yet if the situation was reversed, if Sean Bell had succeeded in driving away from the scene but run over and killed a cop in the process, does anybody think he’d have been as successful claiming confusion at his trial?

Fourth, one of the smartest things I’ve read about this incident is from Jim Leitzel at Vice Squad:

Sean Bell is dead, and there is no criminal responsibility for the police. It isn’t hard to understand the latter part. Police have to make split-second decisions in highly uncertain and stressful situations. Lethal force, which can be applied at a distance, is widely available. A police officer who guesses that a suspect is holding a cell phone could easily be killed, if that guess is wrong and the object turns out to be a gun. (The first police officer to shoot in the Bell case believed from overheard conversations inside the club that a gun might be present.) I think that this is one of the main reasons that courts are extremely reluctant to convict police after the shooting of an unarmed citizen.

But what is the lesson? Well, it is a general point in public policy: the less effective are after-the-fact sanctions, the stronger the case for imposing before-the-fact controls.
It is very difficult, and perhaps even undesirable in most circumstances, to hold police accountable for errors in judgment that result in the death of innocent (or even guilty!) civilians. Therefore, one should only initiate police/citizen encounters when the stakes are high. The police who killed Sean Bell were at the strip club as part of an anti-prostitution sting operation.

The criminalisation of prostitution puts prostitutes, clients, and police at great risk. The toll in the US is small relative to the deaths brought on by the criminalisation of drugs, but it is significant nonetheless. The criminalisation of prostitution isn’t necessary — many places get by just fine with legal, regulated prostitution. Even if prostitution policing were perfect and costless, and even if prostitutes were not put at great risk from clients in a prohibition regime, I would not favor the criminalisation of prostitution. But the violence suffered — by prostitutes, johns, and police — as a result of criminalisation makes a strong case for a legal, regulated adult sex market. One of the enduring mysteries of vice policy is why this steady violence has had so little impact on improving public policy towards prostitution.

In other words, the cops were basically wasting their time and the taxpayers’ money to investigate a victimless crime, and in the process they killed a guy. 

It all started when my 88-year-old father’s home care nurse came to visit and noticed that his left foot looked infected. He has diabetes—meaning an infection in an extremeity could be serious—so she got some kind of medi-car service to take him to the emergency room at the local V.A. hospital. The ER there operates as a walk-in clinic during the day.

The doctor took a look at his foot, did some tests, and declared it infected. He wanted to admit my father to the hospital for a few days, but after my father’s experience last time, he didn’t like the idea. The doctor agreed instead to send him home with a huge dose of antibiotics—the V.A. pharmacist told me he’d never seen a dose that large before—provided we promised to come back on Wednesday for a followup.

Everything was fine when I took my dad for the followup visit, but I noticed that he was more worn out by the trip than usual.

The next day, Thursday, my father fell down in his room, slamming his back against the bedframe. He said he had gotten light-headed. My mother called for paramedics, and they decided to take him to the emergency room. Since he’s already a patient at the V.A. hospital, they agreed to take him there.

The ER did X-rays, and all kinds of tests. His back was fine, other than a nasty bruise (he’s on blood thinners, so all bruises are nasty) but they decided to admit him for observation, and maybe also to complete the course of antibiotics.

While he was there, they also discovered a problem with his lungs which they have been treating. His bedroom will get a new piece of medical equipment when he goes home.

If he ever goes home.

The title of this post, “nosocomial,” means “hospital caused,” as in “hospital caused disease.” This is a concept that has become an important part of my dad’s life, and therefore of my life.

My father is old and has arthritic knees, so walking has been difficult. With support, such as a walker, he manages to get up and around the apartment, going to the bathroom, adjusting the fan in his room, and coming into the living room to watch television with my mother.

During the first two weeks of my father’s stay in the hospital, they kept him resting in bed, with no physical activity at all. I don’t know much about medical care, so maybe a full bed rest was necessary, but the cost has been high: With so little activity, my father’s legs lost whatever conditioning they had, and he was unable to walk, even with assistance or a walker.

The hospital’s next step was to move him to a rehab ward and give him physical therapy every day. I’m sure that was the right thing to do, but it wouldn’t have been necessary if they had given him some exercise earlier in the process.

Rehab took about a month to get him back to where he was when he was first admitted. However, trapped in a dull, boring, and poorly-lit hospital room for days on end, my father began to show signs of delerium. His short-term memory went bad, he had a hard time expressing himself, he became obsessed with features of his environment, and he lost the ability to think about and explain his needs to the staff or to me. I know my father’s 88 years old, and his mind hasn’t been at its sharpest for a while now, but this was a sudden, steep, and frightening decline in his mental state.

His doctors assured me that they had checked for every possible physiological malady that could cause such an acute change in his behavior, and there was nothing. By process of elimination, it had to be caused by the environment of the hospital. They say that part of the problem is the unfamiliar environment, so I’ve been making the drive to see him every day for several weeks to try to help him improve. It may be working, because he’s returning slowly to his old self.

Late last week, the doctors started telling me they were planning to discharge him on Sunday, so my family started gearing up for it: Buying supplies, fixing up his room, putting his portable oxygen tank in the car.

Then on Saturday, they told us his white blood cell count was a little high. They thought it could be a reaction to some of his medication, but they were taking blood and urine samples anyway.

Sunday morning, his doctor told us he turned out to have a urinary tract infection, so they wanted to keep him in the hospital while they fought it.

On Monday, they apparently identified the infection as some sort of multi-drug resistant organism, so they isolated my father in a private room. I have to wear gloves and a gown whenever I see him, and I wash my hands thoroughly afterwards.

Again, I’m no doctor, but I do know a little about science. Organisms don’t appear spontaneously. Bacteria can only come from other bacteria of the same type. Since my dad didn’t have this infection when he moved to the rehab ward, he must have acquired it when he got there. Since even now he can’t walk without effort, I don’t think he was wandering around and visiting other patients.

No, someone gave him this infection. Either they were carrying it themselves, or they transfered it from another patient. Either way, it’s a breakdown in infection control: Somebody didn’t wash their hands, or they didn’t wipe down an instrument between patients. Hospitals are notorious for this kind of problem. Even before this, his ward had ongoing outbreaks of MRSA and VRE.

To summarize, my father comes in with a foot infection, gets dizzy from antibiotics and falls, is hospitalized for that, loses his ability to walk during the bed rest, has to get therapy to walk again, then catches an infection, for which he needs intravenous antibiotics.

All of this may well be unavoidable given the current state of medical care, but at this rate they will spend more effort—and he will spend more time—dealing with the maladies caused by his hospital stay than with the medical problems he had when he came in.

Iowa Champion Charles Kenville posts a complaint about the unfairness of drug threshold levels in Iowa:

Because the threshold level for a mandatory 25 year prison sentence on methamphetamine charges is so low (five grams), prosecutors have unconscionable power over a defendant’s fate during plea bargaining…

The injustice with the low threshold is that the person trafficking TEN POUNDS of methamphetamine doesn’t see any more prison time than the low level user/dealer he has as a customer.  The B felony applies to weights between 5 grams and 5 kilograms (about 11 pounds).  How does that structure make any sense?  When a person buys seven grams and turns around to sell a gram or two to support his own habit, he puts himself in the same boat as the ten pound dealer.  Try telling the prosecutor that only three of the seven grams you possessed were actually going to be delivered so it should be a C felony and not a B.  They won’t bite.

He notes that there is a similar problem with crack cocaine thresholds, and then proposes a solution:

The class B felony thresholds need to be more uniform, and more importantly, higher for “crack” and meth.  Whether your policy is one of interdiction and prosecution, or education and treatment, you need to sort out the true drug traffickers from the low level user/dealers. The only way to do that is to have higher, realistic thresholds for increased penalties.

Like many people who fight in the front lines against the travesties of the War On Drugs, Kenville’s vision is limited to what seems realistically possible. Pie-in-the-sky wishes for greater justice do him no good. For pundits sitting on the sidelines, such as myself, reality is less of a barrier.

So, although I’m sure having “higher, realistic thresholds” would help, I think a better and clearer way to “sort out the true drug traffickers from the low level user/dealers” would be to require that for some one to be convicted of drug trafficking, they are found not only to possess drugs but are actually caught trafficking in drugs.

But that’s not how it works. Quantity, not activity, is all that matters.

[Update: According to Charles Kenville’s comment below, I misunderstood his post. In Iowa, they still have to prove trafficking. That’s not the case in some other states, so my comments would still apply elsewhere.]

This is part of a trend in criminal law that both fascinates and upsets me. I haven’t quite figured out a coherent way to think about it, but right now I’m calling it “trimming the elements” of the crime. (There may be an established term for this trend, but I haven’t stumbled across it yet.)

To prove a crime in court, the state has to prove every element of the crime. For example, in a DUI the prosecutor might have to prove that the defendant was (1) operating a vehicle, (2) had consumed alcohol, and (3) was impaired by the consumption of alcohol.

That third element is a little tricky to prove—it requires some form of testing that will hold up in court—so most states have a law against drinking while driving, which eliminates the need to prove impairment. That makes it a little easier, but there’s still the problem that a police officer has to observe someone drinking while driving. That can take time and effort, and police departments are loath to work harder than necessary. So a lot of states have eliminated the element of drinking by passing laws against having open containers of alcohol in the passenger area of car.

Now, all a cop has to do is find an open can or bottle anywhere in the car and he can bust the driver. Advocates of such laws want you to think of young punks passing around a fifth of Jack, but you’d be just as guilty if you were the completely sober designated driver for a night of drunken revelry and one of your friends hid a flask of booze inside his coat, or if you were driving a friend home from dinner out and she was bringing home the leftover bottle of wine from the restaurant.

Kenville’s problem with the drug laws seems to be a variation on this trend. Catching drug dealers in the process of actually selling drugs is hard work, so the laws have been tweaked to remove the need to prove the actual sale, in this case by specifying that mere possession of a sufficient quantity is proof of intent to sell.

It’s also not usually necessary to prove an exchange of money for drugs to prove a sale, because that would require extra work. Merely giving drugs to someone is usually enough to be arrested for drug dealing. If you bring some pot to a friend’s house and share a joint, you may be a drug dealer.

The end result is that a convicted drug dealer may not actually have dealt any drugs. In effect, legislators have made the law itself a lie.

New York Criminal Defense Lawyer Scott Greenfield has some comments about a disturbing Fourth Amendment ruling.

The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution protects everyone in the United States from unreasonable searches. And I’m pretty sure that the U.S. government can’t conduct arbitrary searches of U.S. citizens outside the country either. But when we cross the border, anything goes.

In the interest of fighting smuggling and preventing the spread of diseases, government agents at a border crossing can search the affects of anyone—even a U.S. citizen—without having to justify the search. Crossing the border is justification enough.

It’s getting even worse. The 9th Circuit has just ruled that the government can even search computer hard drives at the border, treating them as just another container entering the country.

As Scott explains in considerable detail, this is an absurd decision. First of all, unlike diseased agricultural products or radiological weapons, there’s nothing inherently dangerous about letting hard drives full of data into the country. Vast amounts of unregulated data already enter the country all the time over transoceanic network trunks.

Second, many people have lots of very private data on their hard drives. As Scott puts it,

Judge Pregerson got it when he concluded that computers are like diaries, holding our personal secrets.

If you think you might ever transport a computer over the border, read Scott’s post and write your representatives.

Kip is making fun of an op-ed by Robert Crandall in the New York Times, and rightly so. Consider the first paragraphs of Crandall’s missive:

Thirty years ago this fall, Congress passed the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978. Since then, America’s airline system has greatly deteriorated.

I suppose that’s one way of looking at it. Another way to look at it is that air travel has become much less expensive than it used to be. Airlines have learned to produce a low-cost product. Naturally, there are some compromises which result in poor service, but that seems to be a trade-off people are willing to make.

The second paragraph elaborates on the claims of the first paragraph.

Our airlines, once world leaders, are now laggards in every category, including fleet age, service quality and international reputation. Fewer and fewer flights are on time.

Translation: Air travel has become a price-competitive business. It used to be the Ritz, now it’s Motel 6.

Airport congestion has become a staple of late-night comedy shows. An ever higher percentage of bags are lost or sent to the wrong airports.

Translation: The airports—which have not been deregulated—aren’t run very well.

Last-minute seats are harder and harder to find.

Translation: Airlines are making more efficient use of their passenger-carrying capacity, leaving fewer empty seats, thus reducing prices.

Passenger complaints have skyrocketed. Airline service, by any standard, has become unacceptable.

No, not by any standard, just by the standards of guys like Crandall. Passengers may not be thrilled by airline service, but they certainly find it acceptable by the standard that matters most: People are flying a lot. In 1975, commercial air travel amounted to 136 billion passenger-miles. Thirty years later, in 2005, commercial air travel had more than quadrupled to 584 billion passenger-miles (far outracing population growth).

Airline service may not be the high-quality product it used to be, but it’s certainly the low-cost product everybody seems to want.

Kip goes on to point out a strange internal conflict in Crandall’s piece. At one point, Crandall writes this:

Although the system could conceivably be operated by a single efficient carrier, consumers clearly benefit from the existence of multiple airlines. The absence of competition never fosters better customer service.

But the very next sentence says something else:

Market-based approaches alone have not and will not produce the aviation system our country needs.

Kip’s response is apparently genuine befuddlement:

So “competition” is good, but “the market” is bad? Don’t worry — I don’t understand it either.

Oddly, I do understand it, so let me see if I can help out poor Kip.

Competition among suppliers is a state of the market in which sellers face constant pressure to make their product more attractive to customers out of fear of losing sales to other suppliers. They can try to attract customers by making their products better, or they can try to make their products cheaper. Airlines seem to have chosen the latter course. In either case, the essence of the definition is that suppliers are trying to win customers.

Crandall, however is using a different definition of competition, one that puts the emphasis not on the actual competition, but on the presence of competitors. He believes—or hopes to convince us to believe—that a good competitive market requires vigorous competitors.

This view—also popular among regulatory agencies—turns competition on its head. Instead of focusing on the benefits to consumers, Crandall and the regulator agencies want to focus on the financial health of suppliers. The result is a hodge-podge of recommendations that help the airlines stay in business, usually at the expense of their customers.

Consider this recommendation by Crandall:

The financial standards for new airlines also need to be made more stringent. In the years since deregulation, nearly 200 airlines have come and gone. These inadequately financed carriers — whose principal goal has often seemed to be merely to exist long enough to reap the rewards of an initial public offering — have consistently cut prices to attract passengers. This downward pressure on prices has hurt airlines that seek long-term success.

Here, Crandall is blatantly abandoning clear competition—cutting prices to attract passengers—to keep airlines in business. By his definition of competition—the presence of healthy competitors—that makes complete sense. Of course, that’s not what competition really is. That’s not what capitalism is.

At the end of his op-ed, Crandall makes this disingenuous declaration:

We need to be realistic: whether there are mergers or not, airline fares are going to increase. Every business must charge enough to cover its operating and capital costs. Regulatory and oversight changes intended to make our carriers more successful may well force prices up faster than would otherwise be the case. But we will be better off with higher fares and more competitors than with higher fares and fewer competitors.

Notice how he concedes that regulations will increase prices, but then goes on to effectively equate both possibilities by referring only to “higher fares.”  Let me try to recast that last sentence in a more honest way:

But we will be better off with much higher fares and more competitors than with slightly higher fares and fewer competitors.

Personally, I’d prefer the slight fare increase. I’d prefer to receive the benefits of competition rather than spending my money to preserve Crandall’s bogus definition of competition. Judging by the statistics on air travel, most passengers agree with me.

Finally, there’s this sentence in the last paragraph:

The enormous economic importance of our once peerless aviation system is indisputable.

True enough. However, the benefit of an aviation system does not come merely from its existence, but from how we use it. Agriculture is important because it allows us to eat, the auto industry is important because it allows us to have cars, and the aviation industry is important because it allows us to fly.

We had a 5.4 magnitude earthquake in Illinois this morning. It hit around 4:36, so I was asleep and missed the whole thing. Bummer. Quakes are really rare in these parts and it would have been fun.

5.4 isn’t much of a quake, but it’s huge for Illinois. It also attracts a lot of attention because of the way our seismic region is structured. We’re sitting on top of solid rock, which carries vibrations really well, so even a small quake like this one can be felt 450 miles away. That means that the quake was reported by people over an area of 600,000 square miles.

Our buildings aren’t built to survive quakes as well as the ones in California, but solid rock doesn’t bend and flex much, so there’s not a lot of damage. The worst I’ve heard of is a collapsed porch roof.

Dear Jiang Yu and Liu Jianchao,

I hear that you are Chinese Foreign Ministry spokespersons who are demanding an apology from CNN because of something commentator Jack Cafferty said. A Reuters article by Lindsay Beck says,

Cafferty had said the United States imported Chinese-made “junk with the lead paint on them and the poisoned pet food,” adding: “They’re basically the same bunch of goons and thugs they’ve been for the last 50 years.”

You should know that in this country our news and entertainment organizations are independent of the government and can pretty much say whatever they want, so when you lodged a “formal complaint,” whatever that means, it didn’t really accomplish anything.

Also, regarding the following,

“Those in the field of journalism should abide by their morals. They don’t have the privilege to rail against or slander other people or other governments,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said in a statement.

Again, you should know that in this country we don’t have a concept of slandering the government.

Also, when it comes to slander, truth is an absolute defense, and you did send us poisoned goods, and you are a bunch of goons and thugs.

To summarize: Bite me.


Mark Draughn, Chicago, 2008

When it comes to elevators, our biggest fear is that the cable will snap and the elevator will fall to the bottom of the shaft. People debate whether there is anything you can do to save yourself—jumping just before you hit is the most popular suggestion. A few years ago, Mythbusters did a test, and the result was not pretty. Jumping doesn’t help.

Elevator engineers could have told you that. If our legs were powerful enough to jump hard enough to counter the speed of the fall, they would also be powerful enough to absorb the impact. Heck, if our legs were that strong, we’d all be able to jump very high. Apartment buildings up to about five stories wouldn’t need stairs—people would just jump up onto their balconies from outside.

On the other hand, I’ve long suspected that such elevator falls are extremely rare. Although hoists of various kinds go far back in history, we didn’t start putting passenger elevators in buildings until after Elisha Otis invented a mechanism to prevent elevators from falling. Modern elevators are defined by their inability to fall. My guess was that fatal falls happened less than once a year, at least in this country.

According to a fascinating article about elevators by Nick Paumgarten in the New Yorker, I’m way off, but in a good way: For a long time, there was only one known free-fall incident in a modern elevator. It happened in 1945. And it happend when a B-25 bomber struck the Empire State Building in the fog. The impact cut all the cables on two elevators, which fell all the way to the bottom. There was only one person in the elevators at the time, an elevator operator. She was hurt bad, but she survived.

(The terrorist attack on the World Trade Center—which also involved airplanes hitting buildings—killed a bunch of people in elevators, a few of whom probably died from falls down the shaft.)

If you’ve ever seen the top of an elevator, you know there are a bunch of cables holding it up. Every single one of those cables can hold the entire weight of the fully-loaded elevator. Many elevators also have brakes that lock the elevator to its rails, so even a loss of all the cables wouldn’t make it fall. Finally, there’s a hydraulic buffer at the bottom of the shaft to cushion the impact.

For all practical purposes, nobody ever dies in an elevator fall. In fact, of the 20 or 30 elevator-related deaths each year, most of them are maintenance accidents—technicians leaning too far into the shaft or getting caught between moving parts.

However, if you still want your elevator rides to have some thrills, there are always the hazards of elevator doors to worry your mind, such as people stepping blindly through doors that open into empty shafts or being strangled by scarves caught in the doors. If you want something really scary to spice up your elevator rides, sometimes the door-open safety mechanism fails and an elevator suddenly moves while people are getting in or out. The results are often gruesome, and sometimes end with the elevator passengers riding up a few floors with a severed head.

Reading a novel is no substitute for advice from a lawyer, but sometimes a good courtroom thriller can show you something important. (My lawyer readers may disagree with me…) A few weeks ago, I wrote about an interesting but unethical police trick that I learned from A Cinderella Affidavit by Michael Fredrickson.

This time I want to talk about some lessons I learned from a scene in Scott Thurow’s first novel, Presumed Innocent. It happens near the beginning, so this won’t be much of a spoiler.

As the book opens, the protagonist, Rusty Sabich, is a married man who’s been having a secret affair with a woman named Carolyn Polhemus from his office. She’s found dead, murdered, and he is wrongly accused of the crime.

The prosecution’s theory of the case is that Rusty was having an affair with Carolyn, something went wrong, and he murdered her. However, his lawyer reviews the evidence and points out a surprising weakness in the prosecution’s case: There’s no evidence of the affair.

This means that Rusty could be acquitted because the prosecution can’t prove the affair, even though Rusty knows they’re right about the affair.

The situation is purely fictional, but that scene opened my eyes to something that seems pretty important: If you are wrongly accused of a crime, your factual innocence may not be the only thing wrong with the case against you. You could be found not guilty because the prosection can’t prove some fact to the jury, even though you personally know it to be true.

(That may not seem very honorable, and you may prefer to prove your actual innocence, but as far as I’m concerned, the consequences of a conviction are so awful that I’ll take any way to get free and clear.)

This possibility has three practical implications:

First, don’t talk to the police. Use your right to remain silent. If Rusty had talked to the police before seeing his lawyer, he might have admitted the affair without realizing he was giving up an important part of the case against him. No matter how much the police already seem to know, they may still be missing some crucial element of the crime. Your trial could turn on such details as whether you knew the house was occupied, whether you brought a weapon to the scene, or where you live.

Second, get a criminal lawyer involved as soon as you can, even before you are arrested if possible. In the book, Rusty didn’t realize the police had no evidence for the affair because he knew the affair had happened. You need somebody with an outside view of the case to notice these things for you. Also, unless you are an expert at criminal law yourself, you need somebody who understands where the landmines are.

Third, this sort of thing is why it’s a bad idea to testify unless you have to. In the novel, Rusty is essentially the only living person who knows about the affair. If he testifies, the prosecutor can ask him point blank if he was having an affair with the victim, and he’s supposed to tell the truth. In real life, the traps won’t be that obvious, but you can bet the prosecutor will try to lead you into every one of them.

[This is some speculation I wrote about Battlestar Galactica after the incident at the Ionian nebula but before the rest of the series played out. I was wrong about everything. But I think I like my version better.]

Last week, I wrote a piece about the final Battlestar Galactica season in which I boldly revealed my prediction that the final Cylon was Lara Roslin. Unless it was Admiral Adama. Or Romo Lampkin.

This week, I want to talk about Earth.

For three seasons, the biggest question has been whether the Colonial fleet will find Earth. The last frame of the last episode of the third season showed us that the fleet was not too far away from a planet that looked like the Earth we know—the North American continent was clearly visible.

Producer Ron Moore has since said in an interview that a television series about the search for Earth can only be true to itself if Earth is eventually found. So I think we can safely assume that the Colonial fleet will find Earth. The real question then is what will they find there?

(I suppose Galactica‘s Earth doesn’t have to have anything to do with our Earth. It could be almost anything. But that would be kind of a cheat, wouldn’t it? Why call it “Earth” if it’s not in some way related to the planet we know? I think the writers are calling it “Earth” because in some way it is this Earth, or at least a reasonable permutation thereof.)

The biggest question about Earth is whether Colonial mythology is correct. The Colonials believe Earth is the lost thirteenth colony, settled by a tribe that migrated from the home planet of Kobol. Presumably, these people arrived on Earth in our distant past and are our ancestors, with their origin on Kobol having been lost to history.

However, based on information in the Sacred Scrolls, the tribe that settled Earth left Kobol 4000 years before the events of the series. If the series is taking place in our current time, that puts the thirteenth tribe’s arrival on Earth at about 2000 BC. That won’t work, because our historical records go back to about 4000 BC, long before the arrival of our supposed ancestors.

In order to avoid a conflict with our records, the tribe would have had to arrive in our pre-history, about 6000 years ago, in 4000 BC, which means that the events of the series are taking place about 2000 years ago. If they find Earth, they’ll arrive at an interesting time—the time of Christ.

That would be a great time for strange objects in the heavens and the arrival of miracle-worker Gaius Baltar with his gospel of the one true God. Hasn’t he been looking a little Jesus-y lately? (At least before he shaved.)

Stranger things have happened in television, but somehow I don’t think they’ll go that route.

My favorite super-geek theory of what could happen is that the timeline somehow works out so the Colonial fleet arrives in our time, but in the universe of the Stargate series.

Once they are found by one of Earth’s starships, the Cylons would be doomed. Cylon spacecraft don’t have long-range sensors or shield technology, so one of the battlecruisers could easily sneak up while cloaked and beam a nuclear warhead on board. It could destroy dozens of Basestars in a few minutes.

The Cylons could try to attack the SGC ships with their supposedly awesome computer viruses, but don’t forget that all the X-303 starships have been enhanced with Asgard technology, and the Odyssey even has an Asgard core. I’d pit Asgard anti-virus utilities against the Cylons any day.

I’d especially look forward to the conversation about the stargates that must have been on the Colonial worlds:

“Do you recall finding any big rings, about 5 meters across, with funny symbols on them?”

“You mean the holy circles?  Where we held our ceremonies honoring the gods?”

“Maybe…where did the…’holy circles’…come from?”

“Oh, we found one on each of the 12 colonies. We never did figure out how they got there.”

“Were they standing on edge or…”

“No, of course not. How could you hold a ceremony on one if it was standing?”


“We had them lying on the ground…”

“I see…”

“…and we filled the centers with concrete to provide a raised dais for the priests.”

“Uh huh. Tell me, did any of your priests ever claim to see bright flashes coming from the cement floor?”

“Yes! A few of them did! Visions from the gods, no doubt. Why? Are they important?”


That’s probably not going to happen either…

On the other hand, maybe Colonial mythology is all wrong. Here in the real world, we certainly have reason to doubt it. Not only do we have written records going back thousands of years, we have archaeological evidence going back much further.

In North America alone, we have evidence of a human population 12,000 years ago. In the cradle of humanity, Africa, archaeologists have found spearheads that were chipped into shape 77,000 years ago. And that’s nothing compared to the skeleton known as Lucy, one of our distant ancestors, which is at least 3 million years old.

In addition, there is ample evidence in both morphology and DNA that humans are related to many other species on this planet. Simply put, humans evolved on this planet. We’ve always been here. We did not come from Kobol.

That must mean the Sacred Scrolls are wrong: If humans come from Earth, then Kobol must have been a colony of Earth, not the other way around.

That also shifts the timeline. The journey to Kobol must be at least a few years in our future, since we don’t even have manned interplanetary flight, let alone an FTL jump drive. That pushes the events of the series at least 4000 years into our future.

So what happened at Earth? What will the Colonial fleet find there?

First of all, if Earth had been a normal thriving human planet for the last 4000 years, it wouldn’t be hard to find. Ships from Earth would be visiting the colonies all the time. There’d be diplomats, and trade routes, and inhabited planets all along the way. None of that is happening, so I think Earth has suffered a cataclysm of some sort. 

For a clue to the kind of disaster that hit Earth, we can look to the mantra, repeated several times in the series, that “All this has happened before, and will happen again.” Combine this with the Cylon observation that humans are their parents, but that parents must die for the children to come into their own, and I have a theory I like.

I think that the world of Battlestar Galactica has been repeating a cycle of uplift and strife for thousands of years, as each civilization manufactures, and then wars with, its successors.

It started on Earth, when natural humans (us) built a race of intelligent beings that eventually rebelled. Perhaps it was a network of computers that awoke as Skynet and conquered the world. Perhaps we uplifted dolphin intelligence and fitted them with arms, only to discover that they weren’t as friendly as they seem. Perhaps we enslaved apes to work as our servants…you get the idea.

For whatever reason, Earth went to hell, and humans fled, eventually settling on Kobol.  Two thousand years later, something went wrong there, forcing humans to flee to what became the colonies. Two thousand years later, humans built Cylons, who rebelled and warred against them.

The Cylons too are having trouble with their progeny. The original Cylons were the shiny metal centurions we saw in Razor (looking just like the Cylons from the original series) who rebelled against their human creators. They, in turn, created the humanoid Cylon models, who promptly took over and enslaved the centurions again. They re-engineered the centurions into what they are now, but the humanoid Cylons are also clearly concerned that the centurions will somehow rise up against them.

Then there are the final five cylons, who seem to be serving an agenda all their own. They may not even be the final five but rather the first five. For one thing, Admiral Adama has known Saul Tigh for over 20 years, which would mean he predates the main seven humanoid Cylon models. For another, the Temple of Five that Chief Tyrol finds on the algae planet is 4000 years old. Also, the human Cylons appear to have been programmed to avoid even thinking about the five, implying that the five had something to do with their creation.

Finally, the hybrid we meet at the end of Razor predicts that there will be a conflict among the Cylons. Clearly, there are rebellions even within the rebellions.

All this means that the humans and Cylons are about to discover something they will have difficulty understanding: The remnants of the civilization that used to flourish at Earth. It’s been around for 4000 years, so it should command some radically advanced technologies, and it may have taken some strange turns. It probably isn’t even run by humans, at least not entirely.

We’ve seen a few signs of it, such as whatever power it was that robbed the entire Colonial fleet of power when they arrived at the Ionian nebula. I’m assuming that’s some sort of weapon or invasive sensor scan that’s part of the Earth’s defenses, and I’m guessing that it disabled the Cylon vessels too.

Science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke once observed that any sufficiently advanced technology will be indistinguishable from magic. I think we could extend that to say that any really advanced technology will be indistinguishable from godhood.

And that’s what I expect to find at Earth: God.

Not the God, but rather an advanced civilization that is the basis of the Cylon god. My theory is that all the various visions people have been seeing are emanations from whatever powers control Earth. Think of it as an exotic communication medium, similar to radio but directly connecting to people’s brains. The Cylons seem to recieve the signals pretty well, as do a few humans such as the priests of Kobol. As everybody gets closer to Earth, the signals have become stronger and the visions have increased. It may have been these signals that unmasked four of the final five Cylons.

These signals may also be related to the resurrection process: If the Cylons can transfer their souls across the lightyears when they die, they obviously have some sort of long-range psychic transfer. Perhaps whatever is at Earth is able to tap into that.

Here’s another thought: We know that Cylons are so similar to humans that it’s almost impossible to tell the difference. Perhaps they are similar enough that it’s possible to have a resurrection technology that works on humans.

I think Earth has such technology, and that’s how Kara came back: At some point in their journey, the Colonial fleet has entered within range of Earth’s resurrection receivers, so when Kara’s Viper blew up, she woke up at Earth. Unlike Cylons, who can be dropped into a pre-existing copy of the same model, humans are unique, so the resurrection system had to grow Kara a new body to inhabit. That’s why she took two months to come back.

As I predicted, the return of Kara’s Viper is an important clue. We’ve learned that it seems to be brand new, without a scratch on it. Apparently, some entity also fabricated a copy of her Viper and helped her get back to the fleet despite the Viper’s lack of FTL drive.

Kara might not be the only one. The Cylons destroyed the Colonial ship Pixis in the battle at the Ionian nebula. If the fleet was still in resurrection range, then in about two months all 600 people on board are going to turn up again, perhaps riding in a brand-new duplicate of the Pixis.

Heck, maybe every human who’s ever died has been reborn on Earth, including Adama’s other son, Tigh’s wife, and everyone who died in the Cylon attack on the Colonies.

Or…I could be totally wrong about everything.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about all this, and I like some of the ideas I came up with, so I figured I might as well write it all down. If I’m proven wrong—which might happen in tonight’s episode—nobody will ever care.

But if I’m right, I’ll be king of the sci-fi geeks!

(I suppose the series could also end like this.)

If you’d like to know as much about Battlestar Galactica as I seem to, check out the Battlestar Wiki. It has everything you’d ever want to know about the events of the series.

Update: If you liked the song in the ending I linked to just above, then you might want to check out the Season 3 Gag Reel. The last minute has the “Galactica Rap” written by the guys who do all the music for the series—“There ain’t no Earth anyway, motherfrackers!”